High-Profile Debut Novels: Four Distinctive and Newsworthy Works

redstarBrassingthwaighte, Ian. Live from Cairo. Scribner. Jul. 2017. 336p. ISBN 9781501146879. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781501146893. F

When Iraqi American Hana lands in 2011 Cairo, Egypt, to work for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, she is pointedly told that the desperate Arabs and Africans flooding its offices mostly don’t get approved and remain trapped in the teeming city. That looks to be true for Dalia, whose husband disappeared in Baghdad after being attacked for his work with the U.S. Army; though he managed to make it to America, her visa is not forthcoming. Hana is clearly unsettled, as are readers, as ­Brassingthwaighte draws on his own legal aid work in Cairo to give us an intimate look at the refugee experience in language that’s urgent, informed, and richly detailed. Dalia had put her hope in her big-hearted, sometimes foolish attorney Charlie, who works for the Refugee Relief Project and is humored by friend and translator Aos, a quiet revolutionary. Until now, Charlie has never fallen in love with a client, and when Dalia’s application is rejected, he cooks up a questionable scheme to help her. The suspenseful, bittersweet narrative that follows earns its ending. VERDICT Absorbing and important ­reading. [See Prepub Alert, 2/13/17.]

Fuller, Alexandra. Quiet Until the Thaw. Penguin Pr. Jun. 2017. 288p. ISBN 9780735223349. $25; ebk. ISBN 9780735223356. F

In her debut novel, celebrated memoirist Fuller (Leaving Before the Rain Comes) aims to honor the history and culture of the Lakota Oglala Sioux Nation of South Dakota, focusing on two cousins who represent divergent responses to ongoing injustice. Rick Overlooking Horse returns terribly wounded from Vietnam, craftily avoided by You Choose Watson (later What Son), then goes to live outside the village, raising horses, refusing to deal with the White Man’s money, and earning a wise man’s reputation. You Choose sprints far from the Rez and tries out different Indian identities but always puts his interests first. Fuller unwinds a story of ongoing poverty and suffering, from grandmother Mina’s forced separation from family at boarding school, the need to “play possum” when the Bureau of Indian Affairs come ’round (its motto: “Kill the Indian, Save the Man”), the irony of Indians serving in Vietnam and Iraq, and the standoff at Wounded Knee, right down to You Choose’s stint as corrupt tribal leader and head-on conflict with his cousin. ­VERDICT Indignant on behalf of American Indians and imbued with Indian spirituality, Fuller tells a complex and satisfying story, eschewing the dark, weighty tone one might expect for light, mocking language. It’s an intelligent choice, but some readers will chafe. [See Prepub Alert, 12/12/17.]

redstarHamilton, Omar Robert. The City Always Wins. MCD: Farrar. Jun. 2017. 336p. ISBN 9780374123970. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780374716332. F

In fluid, you-are-there prose, punchy with anger and aspiration, Hamilton takes the events surrounding the 2011 uprising in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and turns them into persuasive and valuable fiction. Khalil, born in America, where in his judgment his father is hiding out from his native Palestine, has gone to Egypt to study music but becomes a news fixer and translator. Then he’s drawn into the revolution, falling in love with the valiant ­Mariam as they join other protesters facing gas canisters and bullets to bring about a better world. The story unfolds in rat-a-tat dialog spliced with texts, news reports, chants, and more, divided into quick, sharp sections by time and date. Yet this is also fine, lyrical writing that moves beyond reportage. We’re led relentlessly along as the violence escalates, police pour into the square, the revolution is betrayed, and Mariam is unable to escape the smell of the morgue. Khalil leaves for America but returns to Egypt, where he belongs. VERDICT Cofounder of the Palestine Festival of Literature, ­Hamilton turns in a relentlessly readable work that both informs and humbles. [See Prepub Alert, 12/19/16.]

redstarStansel, Ian. The Last Cowboys of San Geronimo. Houghton Harcourt. Jul. 2017. 208p. ISBN 9780544963399. $23; ebk. ISBN 9780544963412. F

In his forthright, beautifully rendered first novel, following the PEN/Bingham Prize–winning story collection Everyone’s Irish, Stansel limns the murderous tension between two brothers, showing how families can fracture for mysterious reasons. Frank and Silas Van Loy grow up on their father’s Northern California ranch, but while Silas is the true horseman, arrogant Frank has the head for business and takes over as their father slowly succumbs to cancer, successfully turning the ranch to English riding. The novel opens with Silas shooting Frank to death, then leaping on a horse and escaping into the wilderness, furiously pursued by Frank’s wife, Lena. As the novel unfolds, we learn how the brothers have sought to undermine each other, often coming violently to blows. Yet they remain tightly bound, and though we gain some sympathy for sour Silas as the taut relationship is revealed in flashback, his reason for shooting Frank comes as an affecting and effective surprise. VERDICT The occasional scene seems extended, and readers will anxiously wonder whether these horse-loving fools would hurt their charges for revenge, yet Stansel has written a captivating novel, elegantly spare in language but big in purpose. [See Prepub Alert, 2/13/17.]

Barbara Hoffert is Editor, Prepub Alert, LJ

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Barbara Hoffert About Barbara Hoffert

Barbara Hoffert (bhoffert@mediasourceinc.com, @BarbaraHoffert on Twitter) is Editor, LJ Prepub Alert; past chair of the Materials Selection Committee of the RUSA (Reference and User Services Assn.) division of the American Library Association; and past president, treasurer, and awards chair of the National Book Critics Circle.

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