A man badly disfigured in a gun accident ponders gaming, heavy metal, family, love and the crazed emotions that tend to surround our obsessions.
As the singer-songwriter of the band the Mountain Goats, Darnielle specializes in impressionistic, highly literate lyrics delivered in a stark, declamatory voice. Much the same is true of Sean Phillips, the narrator of Darnielle’s second novel, who has been largely housebound since his accident at 17 and is prone to imaginative flights of fancy. (Similarly, Darnielle's first novel was a consideration of the Black Sabbath album “Master of Reality” as told by an institutionalized teenage boy.) We know early on that Sean makes a modest income as the inventor of Trace Italian, a role-playing game conducted through the mail about a post-apocalyptic America; and we know that he was implicated in the death of a woman who obsessively played the game with her boyfriend. The novel shifts back and forth in time as Sean recalls a geeky boyhood of Conan the Barbarian novels, metal albums, and other swords-and-sorcery fare; its tension comes from Darnielle’s careful and strategic withholding of the details behind the woman’s death and Sean’s disfigurement. In the meantime, the mazelike paths of Trace Italian serve as a metaphor for the difficulty (if not impossibility) of finding closure, and they also reveal Sean’s ingenuity and wit. The book’s title refers to a diabolical subliminal message on a metal record, a topic Sean is particularly interested in. (The novel seems partly inspired by a teenager’s failed suicide attempt in 1985 that led to reconstructive facial surgeries and a lawsuit against the band Judas Priest.) Sean is a consistently generous and sympathetic hero, and if the novel’s closing pages substitute ambiguity for plainspokenness, they highlight the book's theme of finding things worth living for within physical and psychological despair.
A pop culture–infused novel that thoughtfully and nonjudgmentally considers the dark side of nerddom.
Worlds collide as two teens fight for their lives.
Nolan Santiago isn’t your average teenager. When he closes his eyes, he finds himself in another world, seeing life through the eyes of the mute servant Amara. Amara serves and protects the cursed Alinean princess Cilla, who struggles to stay alive in order to reclaim her family’s rule over the Dunelands. Back in Arizona, Nolan lives his life as a disabled epileptic, trying to shield his parents from the horrors of his dual existence as the costs of expensive pharmaceuticals and medical specialists overwhelm family finances. With each blink of his eyes, Nolan re-emerges into Amara’s harsh but magical reality, where almost every moment is fraught with brutality and betrayal. As Amara’s journey with Cilla leads her toward the capital, she and Nolan must recognize how each controls the other’s fate in ways neither of them thought possible. Duyvis smoothly transitions between the two main characters’ thoughts and emotions while realistically conveying the individual alienation and terror of two very different people. Rich worldbuilding, convincing nonheteronormative relationships, balanced class issues, and nuanced, ethnically diverse characters add to the novel’s depth. The well-paced action builds toward an unexpected, thrilling conclusion that will leave readers eager for more from this promising new author.
Original and compelling; a stunning debut.
(Fantasy. 14 & up)
An emotionally barren waitress hustles her way through life, dulled by sex, drugs and self-inflicted burns.
This brutal, darkly poetic debut novel earned Tierce, a recent Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate, a Rona Jaffe award and inclusion in the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35.” It’s a flawed thing of beauty, as terribly uncomfortable to read as it is often brilliant. The tale jumps around in time and tone, feeling much like a series of short stories that have been stitched together to form a whole. When we first meet Marie in “Put Your Back Into It,” she describes four doctors she met at a catering event, three of whom she sleeps with. From there, we get her story in fits and starts: She gets married far too young to the teenage boy who fathers the little girl she's not ready to take care of. The guy splits when she gives him an STD she caught sleeping around. To survive, she becomes a professional waitress, sleekly navigating the nuances of the restaurant floor while simultaneously taking bumps of coke and suffering the cock-and-bull machismo of the kitchen. As we follow her from Chili’s and The Olive Garden through classier cafes and finally to “The Restaurant,” a high-end Dallas steakhouse, we get stories of corrupt managers, kitchen hustlers, back-stabbing waiters and dim bussers, all sharply portrayed. If there's a significant hurdle to believability, it’s Marie’s reckless, self-destructive sex life. We already know she’s a cutter, but the number of people she submits to is shocking, often letting men double-team her in walk-ins, pickup trucks and back rooms. “It pays to hustle, it pays to bend over,” she advises. “You keep your standards high and your work strong but these are necessary for success; you keep your dignity separate, somewhere else, attached to different things.”
The cold and honest confessions of a damaged young woman who lives to serve.
Struggles with body image, teen pregnancy, drug addiction, rape, coming out, first love and death are all experiences that touch Gabi’s life in some way during her senior year, and she processes her raw and honest feelings in her journal as these events unfold.
Gabi’s family life is unbalanced. Her father is a drug addict who comes in and out of her life sporadically. Her mother tries desperately to keep her tethered to the values of her traditional Mexican heritage. Gabi’s weight, her desire to go away to college and her blossoming sexuality are all at odds with what she feels are expected from her as a young Mexican-American woman. The teen is deeply bonded with her two best friends, Cindy and Sebastian, who each struggle themselves with the tension between sexuality and culture. Through poetry, Gabi finds her voice and develops the confidence to be true to herself. With this first novel, Quintero excels at presenting a life that is simultaneously messy and hopeful. Readers won’t soon forget Gabi, a young woman coming into her own in the face of intense pressure from her family, culture and society to fit someone else’s idea of what it means to be a “good” girl.
A fresh, authentic and honest exploration of contemporary Latina identity.
(Fiction. 14 & up)
A man separated from his family for years reckons with his isolation in Manko’s debut, a superb study of statelessness.
In 1920, Austin (born Ustin) Voronkov was a Russian immigrant working as an engineer in Connecticut, married to an American woman and preparing to raise a family. But the Russian Revolution prompted a wave of red-menace paranoia in the United States, and Austin is deported after he’s bullied into saying he’s an anarchist. By 1948, when much of this novel is set, he’s living alone in Mexico City and scraping out a living doing odd-job repairs for the locals. His wife and three children, whom he hasn’t seen in 14 years, are back in the States, while Austin is all but drowning in the paperwork he believes will secure him passage out of Mexico: letters to ambassadors and legislators and patent applications for inventions he’s only dimly aware are outdated. A story framed around so much waiting and bureaucratic listlessness ought to feel drab and slow, but Manko brings plenty of energy to this tale. That’s partly due to the fact that she cannily shifts back and forth in time, recalling the fleeting moments of joy and togetherness Austin had, particularly a brief stint in Mazatlan running a lighthouse. (A bit metaphorically unsubtle, perhaps, but Manko uses light and glass metaphors in rich and complicated ways throughout the book.) Just as important, Manko is a tremendous stylist, using clipped, simple sentences to capture Austin’s mindset as his confidence in escape erodes but never entirely fades; Manko’s shift in perspective toward the end of the book reveals just how much the years of exile have weathered him. She deeply explores two complicated questions: What is the impact of years of lacking a country? And how much does this lack reside in our imaginations?
A top-notch debut, at once sober and lively and provocative.
The absorbing story of the first girl to join a fictional military high school.
Sam comes from a thoroughly military family, her father a legendary colonel who has raised all his kids as though they were in boot camp. Sam faces worse than that when she enters the Denmark Military Academy on a dare. Her fellow “recruits” don’t want her there and remain determined to make her quit, and her squad leader, Cpl. Matthews, has apparently taken it upon himself to force her out. Even her own brother, the cadet colonel of the school, tells her to leave. Sam keeps up with most of the boys in their obstacle courses, marches and calisthenics, but when Matthews becomes increasingly abusive, as tough as she is, Sam struggles to hang on. Sam finds allies, especially in her drill sergeant, to whom she feels an enormous attraction. When she learns that a secret society lies behind the attacks against her, she fears for her life. Hensley keeps the tension high as she leads readers to anticipate the next attack on Sam. The narrative flows along terrifically as Sam courageously battles to make it even while the forces against her increase. The characters stand out as individual and real; readers will cheer Sam on throughout.
In Malerman's chilling debut, an apocalyptic reality befalls a Michigan river community—and who knows how much of the rest of civilization—in the form of creatures that cause people who merely look at them to go mad and kill themselves.
Having lost her sister to this horrific fate, a young woman, Malorie, finds sanctuary with a group of strangers in a small house with covered windows. Like her co-inhabitants, she learns to perform essential outdoor tasks and even travel distances blindfolded. After discovering she's pregnant, she'll do anything to find a safer place to live. The novel (named after a collection of caged birds that coo whenever anything approaches) cuts back and forth between Malorie's life in the strangers' house, where only an analog phone promises contact with the outside world, and her escape four years later with her unnamed Boy and Girl. In both parts, she lives in fear. At any moment, one or both of the kids could remove their blindfolds and perish. And who's to say whether one of the men, upon returning from an expedition for food or supplies, was exposed to a creature or will usher one into the house? Malerman, leader of the appropriately named rock band The High Strung, keeps us tinglingly on edge with his cool, merciless storytelling. Just when you think he's going to disappoint with a Twilight Zone–like twist, he douses his tale in poetic gloom. One especially unsettling scene involves blasts of lightning, a dog barking wildly at the night, footsteps on creaky attic stairs and two women giving birth, unattended.
An unsettling thriller, this earns comparisons to Hitchcock's The Birds, as well as the finer efforts of Stephen King and cult sci-fi fantasist Jonathan Carroll.
A harrowing and emotionally cleareyed vision of one woman’s ordeal during and after her kidnapping in Haiti.
Gay’s remarkable debut novel is mostly narrated by Mireille, who, as the story opens, is visiting her native Haiti from Miami with her husband and infant son when she’s forcibly abducted by a gang and held for 13 days. She was a target because her father heads a highly profitable construction firm, and his resistance to paying ransom baffles Mireille’s U.S.-born husband, Michael; meanwhile, she’s repeatedly beaten and sexually assaulted by her captors. Gay’s characters are engineered to open up conflicts over gender, class (Mireille’s family is wealthy in a poor country) and race (Mireille is black and Michael is white). But Gay’s dialogue complicates rather than simplifies these issues. As a prolific essayist and critic, Gay (Writing/Eastern Illinois Univ.) has developed a plainspoken, almost affectless style, which serves her heroine's story well: The more bluntly Gay describes Mireille's degradations, the stronger the impact. Gay’s depiction of Mireille’s emotional trauma after her release is particularly intense, precisely capturing her alienation from her own identity that followed the kidnapping and the self-destruction that spilled out of her sense of disconnection. The novel alternates between past and present, and flashbacks to Mireille's childhood and marriage underscore the intelligence and emotional ferocity she accessed to survive her ordeal. (She persistently supported in-laws who were initially inclined to dismiss her.) The closing chapters suggest that Mireille is on the path to recovery, but it’s also clear that a true recovery is impossible; many of Gay’s scenes deliberately undermine traditional novelistic methods of resolution (baking bread, acts of vengeance, acting out sexually). Among the strongest achievements of this novel is that Mireille’s story feels complete and whole while emphasizing its essential brokenness.
Everybody knows Jesse, aka “Sway.” For the right price or a later favor, Jesse will get you want you want, but he’ll also acquire power over you.
He sells drugs and fake IDs, acquires kegs for parties and might even be able to persuade a girl to date a guy. Since his mother’s suicide over a year ago, Jesse hasn’t bothered with his own emotions. But when he meets the beautiful and almost saintly Bridget, he begins to realize that he might actually have some feelings after all. He gets to know her in order to advise bully Ken on how to get a date with her, making Jesse something of a “fucked-up Cyrano de Bergerac,” as he himself notes. Along the way, he teams up with Bridget’s little brother, Pete, who has cerebral palsy, introducing the boy to his world of schemes. Even as he grows fonder of Bridget, he still doesn’t believe he could have a real romance with her, or with anyone. Spears develops Jesse’s character so thoroughly readers will believe they know him. Despite his illegality and immorality, he remains sympathetic, revealing his hidden emotions as he forms real friendships with Pete and with an elderly man he meets while spying on Bridget.
A compelling debut told with swagger and real depth.
A father searches for his vanished son in this edgily comic first novel, which has fun with the worlds of art and academia.
California athlete Owen Burr loses an eye in a college water polo match and his berth in the Athens Olympics. He impulsively goes to Berlin to become an artist and gets embroiled in the drug-fueled machinations of an art-world star. Back in the U.S., Owen’s widowed father, classics professor Joseph Burr, has heard nothing from or about Owen until he receives a disturbing hospital report. His efforts to rescue his son start with a lecture he gives near the site of the games that is meant to signal Owen. But when a provocateur runs onstage and hands Joseph a Molotov cocktail, the stunned academic's effort to throw it safely away from the audience ends in a fiery explosion, and a riot ensues. More violence at Art Basel, a hungry polar bear in Iceland, the theories of Laminalism and Liminalism, and a helpful Siren named Stevie are part of the Continental odyssey during which Burr père et fils manage to constantly stay out of touch with each other. Yet sometimes, unknowingly, they’re in sync: Each finds himself challenged by camping equipment in separate, humorous scenes. Chancellor, in a rare misstep, has Owen kick down a 60-pound German door the same day he leaves a hospital barely able to walk. That aside, the author maintains an almost thrillerlike pace while taking well-aimed shots at academic and art-market fads and helping two lost souls through essential transformations. It’s a bracingly rich mélange of a novel in which scholarship spotlights Al Pacino’s Scarface and plain exposition suddenly turns into prose that might be noirish or downright strange: “Everything of value stretched and shrapneled, lapping the circular walls in lethal vorticity.”
Some readers may stumble over the Latin, argot and allusions, but these are minor challenges in Chancellor’s polymorphous entertainment.
Cardi delves into issues of love, acceptance, loss and identity in her engaging debut novel.
High school junior Alex Winchester is a pretty typical teenager. She fights with her mom, is annoyed by her baby brother and expects her younger sister to keep her secrets. Alex does have some problems, such as a paralyzing fear of driving. And she has been noticing an alarming change in her mom’s behavior, which manifests as a delusional disorder. Mrs. Winchester begins to believe that she is the long-missing, presumed-dead aviatrix Amelia Earhart. After a brief hospitalization, Mrs. Winchester returns home with her delusion intact and treats Alex as one of her fellow female aviators. Alex attempts to adapt to her new role as Amelia’s friend as she tries to keep her new reality a secret from her friends and classmates, as well as her new boyfriend, senior Jim Wiley. The author creates nuanced characters and presents them with their flaws and strengths intact, including a character with a mental disorder who never loses her humanity or becomes a caricature. Readers seeking yet another teen problem novel with an unrealistically positive ending should look elsewhere. This novel delivers something far more rare: a well-written, first-person narrative about negotiating life’s curve balls that has a realistic ending.
An honest, uncompromising story
. (Fiction. 14 & up)