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Best Debut Fiction of 2015

These young women are sympathetic and slyly seductive, sometimes selfish and maddeningly un–self-aware, but they are...

SINGLE, CAREFREE, MELLOW

STORIES

Heiny explores sex, relationships and the internal lives of young women in this charmingly candid collection of short stories.

The women who populate the pages of Heiny’s disarming debut are girlfriends, mistresses and wives. They are best friends, roommates and lovers. They are intelligent but not always ambitious—keenly insightful but sometimes, perhaps willfully, blind to their own deeper desires—with loyalties and libidos that may be at odds and morals that may be in question. Despite the title, not all are single (or carefree or mellow), but they are all singular, and following their stories is like sitting at a dive bar tossing back deceptively pretty, surprisingly strong drinks with a pal who may not always make the best decisions but always comes away with the most colorful tales. In fact, “The Dive Bar” is the title of the first story. In it, we meet Sasha, an attractive 26-year-old writer whose boyfriend has left his wife for her. After a confrontation with the boyfriend’s wife, Sasha reluctantly mulls the morality of her choices, but for her, morality is really (boringly) beside the point, and she instead finds herself sinking sideways into the next chapter of her life, a happy one, from all indications. Heiny’s characters often find themselves propelled through life by circumstances: The death of a beloved dog can lead inexorably to marriage, pregnancy and secret affairs, as it does for Maya, the protagonist of three of these stories, and her kind, kindred-spirit boyfriend/fiance/husband, Rhodes. Not all the women here are as appealing as Sasha and Maya, and the less we like them, the less charmed we may be by their careless misbehavior. By the end of the book—as by the end of a night at the bar with our metaphorical, engagingly louche friend—we might not find ourselves overly reluctant to part company. 

These young women are sympathetic and slyly seductive, sometimes selfish and maddeningly un–self-aware, but they are beguilingly human, and readers will yield to their charms.

Pub Date: Feb. 3, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-385-35363-2

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Nov. 20, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2014

An evocative novel that brings to life an intensely realized portrait of the South Carolina Lowcountry and sends its...

MINNOW

A young boy sets out on an almost mythical quest through a vividly imagined American South in this debut novel.

Minnow’s father is dangerously ill and on the verge of dying, and the boy is sent to the drugstore to fetch a mysterious medicine. The pharmacist doesn't have the medicine, so Minnow must set out on an increasingly strange and dangerous quest through the South Carolina Sea Islands to acquire the price of a cure: grave dust from the resting place of Sorry George, a legendary witch doctor and practitioner of black magic. Minnow’s journey weaves through the lush and wild landscape of the islands, a setting described with such obvious fondness and simple clarity that it fills the novel with a solid presence of its own and adds its weight of reality to the story’s supernatural elements. As one might expect of a fairy-tale quest, Minnow’s travels take him from one striking episode to another. He meets strangers, both good and bad; receives advice, both wise and deceptive; and is beset by dangers that grow ever more epic. Throughout the story he remains a stubbornly noble hero, saved from too much perfection by believable childish innocence and decisiveness. When he comes across the more fantastical elements of the novel—“hoodoo” magic, the hauntings of Sorry George, ghosts and spirits—he accepts them with the same belief and fear that he gives to the more likely horrors of human cruelty and natural disaster, allowing the reader to also experience both the magical and realistic with equal vividness.

An evocative novel that brings to life an intensely realized portrait of the South Carolina Lowcountry and sends its appealing young hero on a journey full of the strangeness of childhood and the difficult choices that come with growing up.

Pub Date: May 1, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-938235-11-5

Page Count: 230

Publisher: Hub City Press

Review Posted Online: March 5, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2015

An attempt to map how the unbearable is borne, elegantly written and bravely imagined.

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DID YOU EVER HAVE A FAMILY

Hours before a wedding, a fire kills the bride, the groom, her father, and her mother's boyfriend.

"When something like what happened at June Reid's that morning happens, you feel right away like the smallest, weakest person in the world. That nothing you do could possibly matter. That nothing matters. Which is why, when you stumble upon something you can do, you do it. So that's what I did." This is the florist speaking: she will put the daisies she picked for the wedding into more than a hundred funeral arrangements. Other characters, particularly the parents of the dead, will have a harder time figuring out what comes next. June—who has lost not just everyone she loves, but her house, her clothes, and her passport as well—gets in a car and drives to the West Coast. Lydia Morey, whose handsome son, Luke, was June's much-younger boyfriend, is stuck in town dealing with small-minded gossip and speculation. Silas, a teenage pothead who was working at the house the day before the accident, slowly unpacks what he knows about the cause of the fatal blast. Literary agent and memoirist Clegg's (Ninety Days, 2013, etc.) debut novel moves restlessly among many different characters and locations, from the small town in Connecticut where the fire occurred to the motel in the Pacific Northwest where June lands, darting into the past then returning to the tragedy in its utter implacability. Yet the true subject of the book is consolation, the scraps of comfort people manage to find and share with one another, from a thermos of pea soup to a missing piece of information to the sound of the waves outside the Moonstone Motel. 

An attempt to map how the unbearable is borne, elegantly written and bravely imagined.

Pub Date: Sept. 8, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-4767-9817-2

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Scout Press/Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: May 6, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2015

A talent to watch.

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  • National Book Award Finalist

THE TURNER HOUSE

A complicated portrait of the modern American family emerges in Flournoy's debut novel.

For the 13 Turner siblings, the house on Detroit’s East Side isn’t just their childhood home. It’s also the crux of memories of their dead father and a link among 13 very different adults. But the house has built up debt, their ill mother, Viola, lives elsewhere, and a question hangs—what to do with the Yarrow Street house? As the children debate, the narrative divides into the perspectives of Lelah, Troy and Charlie “Cha Cha” Turner, interspersed with their father’s flashbacks of surviving in gritty Detroit 60 years earlier. Cha-Cha, the oldest at 64, drives trucks for Chrysler and is recovering from an accident after a vision of a luminous ghost, which he’d last seen 40 years earlier at Yarrow, caused him to veer off the road. Meanwhile, Lelah has been evicted from her apartment due to a gambling addiction and takes up residence in the now-abandoned house. And Troy, a disillusioned policeman, wants to illegally short sell the house to his sometime girlfriend. As the story progresses, the siblings’ dilemmas become increasingly knotty. Lelah’s roulette addiction, evocatively described—“the chips looked like candy. Pastel, melt-away things that didn’t make sense to save”—worsens; Cha-Cha is visited by the ghost, dredging up ugly childhood memories; and Troy tries to con Viola into selling the house. Flournoy ramps up the suspense until, one night, the three are all drawn to Yarrow Street, leading to a fight with intractable results. Flournoy’s strength lies in her meticulous examination of each character’s inner life. Lelah, who uses gambling as a balm for her fractured relationship with her daughter, is an especially sympathetic character—she seeks “proof that she could be cherished by someone, if only for a while.” Flournoy’s writing is precise and sharp, and despite several loose ends—Troy doesn’t experience significant emotional change by the book’s end, and the house’s fate remains unclear—the novel draws readers to the Turner family almost magnetically.

A talent to watch.

Pub Date: April 21, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-544-30316-4

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Review Posted Online: Feb. 2, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2015

Part Fight Club, part feminist manifesto, an offbeat and genre-bending novel that aims high—and delivers.

DIETLAND

Hilarious, surreal, and bracingly original, Walker’s ambitious debut avoids moralistic traps to achieve something rarer: a genuinely subversive novel that’s also serious fun.

At just over 300 pounds, Plum Kettle is waiting for her real life to start: she’ll be a writer. She’ll be loved. She’ll be thin. In the meantime, she spends her days ghostwriting advice to distraught teenage girls on behalf of a popular teen magazine (“Dear Kitty, I have stretch marks on my boobs, please help”), meticulously counting calories (“turkey lasagna (230)”), and fantasizing about life after weight-loss surgery. But when a mysterious young woman in Technicolor tights starts following her, Plum finds herself drawn into an underground feminist community of radical women who refuse to bow to oppressive societal standards. Under the tutelage of Verena Baptist, anti-diet crusader and heiress to the Baptist diet fortune (a diet with which Plum is intimately familiar), Plum undertakes a far more daring—and more dangerous—five-step plan: to live as her true self now. Meanwhile, a violent guerrilla group, known only as “Jennifer,” has emerged, committing acts of vigilante justice against misogynists. As her surgery date nears and Jennifer’s acts grow increasingly drastic, Plum finds she’s at the center of what can only be described as a literal feminist conspiracy—and she’s transforming into a version of herself she never knew existed. But while it would be easy for the book to devolve into a tired parable about the virtues of loving yourself just the way you are, Walker’s sharp eye and dry humor push it away from empty platitudes and toward deeper and more challenging turf. Ultimately, for all the unsettling pleasure of Walker’s splashier scenarios—and there are many—it’s Plum’s achingly real inner life that gives the novel its arresting emotional weight.

Part Fight Club, part feminist manifesto, an offbeat and genre-bending novel that aims high—and delivers.

Pub Date: May 26, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-544-37343-3

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Review Posted Online: March 5, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2015

A wholly original, engrossing, disturbing, and beautiful book. You’ve never read anything quite like this, and you won’t...

THE LIBRARY AT MOUNT CHAR

A spellbinding story of world-altering power and revenge from debut novelist Hawkins.

Carolyn’s life changed forever when she was 8. That was the year her ordinary suburban subdivision was destroyed and the man she now calls Father took her and 11 other children to study in his very unusual Library. Carolyn studied languages—and not only human ones. The other children studied the ways of beasts, learned healing and resurrection, and wandered in the lands of the dead or in possible futures. Now they’re all in their 30s, and Father is missing. Carolyn and the others are trying to find him—but Carolyn has her own agenda and her own feelings about the most dangerous of her adopted siblings, David, who has spent years perfecting the arts of murder and war. Carolyn is an engaging heroine with a wry sense of humor, and Steve, the ordinary American ally she recruits, helps keep the book grounded in reality despite the ever growing strangeness that swirls around them. Like the Library itself, the book is bigger, darker, and more dangerous than it seems. The plot never flags, and it’s never predictable. Hawkins has created a fascinating, unusual world in which ordinary people can learn to wield breathtaking power—and he’s also written a compelling story about love and revenge that never loses sight of the human emotions at its heart.

A wholly original, engrossing, disturbing, and beautiful book. You’ve never read anything quite like this, and you won’t soon forget it.

Pub Date: June 16, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-553-41860-6

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: April 1, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2015

A triumphant, singular collection deserving of every accolade it will likely receive.

IN THE COUNTRY

STORIES

In this debut collection, Filipino students, teachers, activists, maids, and chauffeurs negotiate their lives under martial law at home and seek fortune abroad in the Middle East and New York.

Each of these nine revelatory stories delivers characters who are equal parts endearing and disturbing. In the stunning “Esmeralda,” a cleaning woman ponders her station in life as she dusts offices in the twin towers in the months preceding 9/11. “You lay there—Esmeralda, daughter of the dirt, born to toil in God’s name till your hands or heart gave out—reclining like an infant or a queen, a hundred levels aboveground.” In “A Contract Overseas,” a budding fiction writer in the Philippines reveres her older brother despite his immoral, often dangerous behavior in Saudi Arabia. “I could picture him, reading my words somewhere, chuckling at my attempts to save some version of his life. Who could say, then, that I had an altogether lousy or inadequate imagination?” In the chilling “The Miracle Worker,” a special education teacher befriends her student’s family’s maid—who, it turns out, has a dark side. “I had underestimated her: what looked like a lifetime of toil and taking orders had contained subversions that no one, until now, had seen.” Alvar deftly flips the master-servant dynamic on its head. Her electric prose probes the tension between social classes, particularly in “Shadow Families,” in which wealthy Filipina housewives in Bahrain throw parties for working-class Filipinos. “These katulong—‘helpers,’ as we called them—were often younger but always aging faster than we were, over brooms and basins, their lungs fried with bleach and petroleum vapors….Helping these helpers, who’d traveled even farther, felt like home.”

A triumphant, singular collection deserving of every accolade it will likely receive.

Pub Date: June 16, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-385-35281-9

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: April 1, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2015

A suspenseful, emotional story that asks plenty of big questions about identity and freedom, this is a debut not to be...

LIGHTLESS

A tense psychodrama set on a malfunctioning spaceship.

There should only be three people on the Ananke: Domitian, the captain; Gagnon, the senior scientist; and Althea, the mechanic who monitors every inch of the ship and every line of code to make sure it's in good repair. So when two strangers show up out of the blackness of space, it’s bad news. But Althea, at least, is not as worried about these intruders’ possible terrorist connections as she is about how they tricked the Ananke into letting them board or what one of them might have done to damage her beautiful ship’s code. Even as one of the intruders slips out of the crew’s grasp and a coldhearted intelligence officer named Ida Stays arrives to interrogate the remaining prisoner, a handsome, manipulative charmer named Ivanov who may or may not know the identity of the wanted terrorist known as the Mallt-y-Nos, all Althea can think about is Ananke and what kind of virus might be worming its way toward the ship's heart. Meanwhile, always, everywhere, the all-powerful surveillance state that rules our solar system, and brooks no disobedience, is watching. The stakes in this story are high—life and death, rebellion and betrayal—and debut novelist Higgins continually ratchets up the tension as the handful of people on board the Ananke struggle to uncover one another’s secrets.

A suspenseful, emotional story that asks plenty of big questions about identity and freedom, this is a debut not to be missed.

Pub Date: Sept. 22, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-553-39442-9

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Del Rey/Ballantine

Review Posted Online: July 1, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2015

Who knew reading about communists could be so much fun?

MRS. ENGELS

Irish-born McCrea’s stellar debut imagines the lives of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, not men usually associated with romance, through the eyes of Engels' illiterate common-law wife, Lizzie Burns.

Lizzie’s voice—earthy, affectionate, and street-smart but also sly, unabashedly mercenary, and sometimes-scheming—grabs the reader from the first sentence and doesn’t let go. As the novel opens in 1870, Lizzie is moving with Frederick to London as his live-in lover. He wants to be closer to Marx, whom he has long supported financially. Lizzie is excited to move into a grand house but has mixed feelings about Karl’s wife, Jenny, herself a fascinating combination of bourgeois sensibilities, love of family, and survival instincts. In the past, Jenny was not kind to Lizzie’s older sister, Mary, the first Burns sister with whom Frederick was involved. Growing up in Manchester, the Burns girls worked at Ermen & Engels, the mill that German-born Frederick came to manage for his family in 1842. Mary quickly fell into a serious love affair with Frederick. Although he left Manchester for eight years, “writing his books and chasing the great revolutions around Europe,” Mary eventually quit the mill and lived openly with him. When Lizzie’s own romantic involvement with Moss, an alcoholic Fenian, soured, she moved in with Mary to keep house. She witnessed Mary’s relationship with Frederick turn turbulent after he apparently fathered an illegitimate baby with the Marxes’ maid, Nim. Shortly after Mary’s death, Lizzie’s own sexual liaison with Frederick began. By 1870 their relationship has endured—even thrived—for years, providing for Lizzie attraction, affection, and practical financial security. Forget Marx and Engels as authors of The Communist Manifesto. For Lizzie (and McCrea), social mores trump politics, while individual loyalties and needs are what ultimately matter.

Who knew reading about communists could be so much fun?

Pub Date: Oct. 13, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-936787-29-6

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Catapult

Review Posted Online: July 14, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2015

A delightful debut, tender and funny. The mystery takes on the worldwide problem of abused women while revealing both the...

RECIPES FOR LOVE AND MURDER

A South African woman cooks out of love while hoping for the real thing.

Tannie Maria’s mother was Afrikaans, her father English, and her late husband an abuser whose passing she does not mourn. She lives with her five chickens on a small property in the Klein Karoo and writes a recipe column for the Klein Karoo Gazette until her friend and editor, Hattie Christie, tells her that the head office wants an advice column and there’s no room for both the new feature and her recipes. The good news is that Tannie Maria can write the new column. Since the only thing she knows about love concerns cooking, she combines the two in “Tannie Maria’s Love Advice and Recipe Column” and achieves a smashing success. One of the first letters she receives is from Martine van Schalkwyk, whose equally abusive husband has recently shot the ducks she received as a gift from a female friend. The columnist sends advice and a recipe, but neither prevents Martine’s death. Tannie Maria and Jessie Mostert, the ambitious young investigative journalist for the Gazette, decide to investigate, to the consternation of Detective Lt. Henk Kannemeyer, a widower who takes a shine to Tannie Maria but wishes she would stick to cooking. Although Tannie Maria, Jessie, and Anna Pretorius, Martine’s grieving friend, all think Dirk van Schalkwyk killed his wife, the police arrest Anna, whose fingerprints are on the murder weapon. Anna and Dirk, each convinced the other is the murderer, nearly kill each other, but Tannie Maria and Jessie think otherwise.

A delightful debut, tender and funny. The mystery takes on the worldwide problem of abused women while revealing both the beauties and problems of South Africa. And the recipes will make you want to drop everything and start cooking.

Pub Date: Nov. 3, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-06-239766-9

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Aug. 17, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2015

Both chilling and funny, and a worthy addition to the library of first-rate novels about the Vietnam War.

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  • Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature Winner

  • Pulitzer Prize Winner

THE SYMPATHIZER

A closely written novel of after-the-war Vietnam, when all that was solid melted into air.

As Graham Greene and Robert Stone have taught us, on the streets of Saigon, nothing is as it seems. The racist suppositions of the empires of old helped shape a culture of subterfuge; not for nothing does the hero of Nguyen’s (English and American Studies/Univ. of Southern Calif.) debut give a small disquisition on the meaning of being Eurasian or Amerasian (“a small nation could be founded from the tropical offspring of the American GI”), and not for nothing does a book meaningfully called Asian Communism and the Oriental Mode of Destruction play a part in the proceedings. Nguyen’s protagonist tells us from the very first, in a call-me-Ishmael moment, that he’s a mole: “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.” Two faces, two races, neither wholly trusted. Our hero is attached to the command of a no-nonsense South Vietnamese general who’s airlifted out at the fall of Saigon in 1975, protected by dewy Americans “with not a hint of a needle track in the crooks of their arms or a whiff of marijuana in their pressed, jungle-free fatigues”; whisked stateside, where the protagonist once spent time absorbing Americanness, the general is at the center of a potent community of exiles whom the protagonist is charged with spying on—though it turns out he’s as much observed as observer. Think Alan Furst meets Elmore Leonard, and you’ll capture Nguyen at his most surreal, our hero attempting to impress upon a Hollywood hopeful that American and Vietnamese screams sound different: “I was on my first assignment as a lieutenant,” he recalls, “and could not figure out a way to save the man from my captain wrapping a strand of rusted barbed wire around his throat, the necklace tight enough so that each time he swallowed, the wire tickled his Adam’s apple.”

Both chilling and funny, and a worthy addition to the library of first-rate novels about the Vietnam War.

Pub Date: April 7, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-8021-2345-9

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Grove

Review Posted Online: Jan. 18, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2015

An immensely rewarding read and a remarkable debut.

THE GIVEN WORLD

One woman’s war.

Riley is a child when her brother leaves Montana for Vietnam. She’s still a child when her parents receive a letter explaining that Mick is missing and presumed dead. That Riley never recovers from this loss goes without saying, but her grief becomes a kind of loss of self. This is ironic in that Riley is a powerful narrator—funny, self-deprecating, fully aware of the feelings she refuses to be aware of. Her story is often heartbreaking, but she never asks for pity, and she most certainly never pities herself. Palaia covers a 25-year period spanning the 1970s, '80s, and early '90s, following Riley from the farm to San Francisco to Saigon and back home again. Alternating chapters present the viewpoints of other characters—Riley’s mother, her lover, strangers who help and befriend her—each of whom gives readers a fuller perspective on the protagonist while also being engaging in his or her own right. All of these disparate voices come together beautifully, as does the narrative as a whole. Palaia demonstrates a magnificent command of craft for a first-time novelist, but it’s her emotional honesty that makes this story so rich and affecting. The novel ends on a more hopeful note than the reader might expect, but it rings true nevertheless—largely because Riley doesn’t expect it, either. She knows that the chance she’s given is a gift. Like grace, it can’t be earned, only accepted with gratitude and awe.

An immensely rewarding read and a remarkable debut.

Pub Date: April 14, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-4767-7793-1

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Feb. 17, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2015

An intense, riveting saga of the multiplying casualties of one family’s secrets and a girl’s determination to take control...

THE SCAMP

A chance meeting at a bar draws a young woman into an investigation that unexpectedly brings her answers about her long-lost cousin.

This engrossing debut novel is driven by the powerful voices of the two cousins, who narrate alternating chapters. At 23, Rayelle lives in her mother’s trailer, “unwed, already the mother of a dead baby.” Growing up, she was inseparable from her cousin Khaki, three years older and the source of Rayelle’s wisdom about boys and bodies. But Khaki’s feelings for Rayelle are not innocent or simple: “I hated her. And loved her more than anything.” More than a decade ago, Khaki left town with a boyfriend and was never heard from again. Yet in the best and worst moments of Rayelle’s life, it’s still Khaki she wishes were by her side. Drinking away her nights, Rayelle meets Couper Gale, a man old enough to be her father, who tells her he pays attention for a living. The two fall into an unlikely pairing, traveling across multiple states in Gale’s Gran Torino by day and sleeping in his camper by night. An investigative reporter, he's chasing a pattern of missing girls. “Sometimes, a girl dissipates like smoke rising up into the air. So thin, you can’t see her anymore. She becomes a cloud. You breathe her in,” says Khaki, whom we quickly learn is a serial killer—surely one of fiction’s most complicated. Her penchant to destroy what she loves is an obsession she inflicts on women who were abused by those who should have kept them safe.

An intense, riveting saga of the multiplying casualties of one family’s secrets and a girl’s determination to take control after a childhood “that rips you apart so your insides are one big scar.”

Pub Date: Aug. 10, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-941040-11-9

Page Count: 416

Publisher: Tin House

Review Posted Online: May 21, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2015

Clever and engaging, this impressive first novel will reward both casual readers looking for a fun period adventure and...

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THE WATCHMAKER OF FILIGREE STREET

Set mostly in 1880s London, Pulley’s debut novel twists typical steampunk elements—telegraphs, gaslight, clockwork automata—into a fresh and surprising philosophical adventure.

Nathaniel Steepleton is a telegraph clerk at the Home Office in London. Grace Carrow is studying physics at one of Oxford’s new women’s colleges. Her friend Akira Matsumoto is the emperor of Japan’s second cousin. What connects them, although they don’t yet know it, is the eponymous watchmaker, one Baron Mori, a brilliant and mysterious figure who appears able to predict the future. Mori made Grace’s watch, whose filigree rearranges itself into a swallow when the lid is lifted: “Clever tracks of clockwork let it fly and swoop along the inside of the lid, silver wings clinking.” He also made the pocket watch whose ear-piercing alarm startles Thaniel out of the path of a terrorist time bomb. But did Mori make the bomb’s clockwork control as well? As the characters’ stories mesh and spin, they rearrange themselves like that filigree into intricate and surprising patterns. But this is more than just a well-paced, atmospheric mystery with elements of fantasy. Pulley is concerned with deeper questions of fate, chance, and trust. How dangerous is a man who knows in advance the likelihood of every possible event? When does probability crystallize into inevitability, and how could the future affect the present? The story thwarts expectations; whenever an outcome looks as predetermined as clockwork, it might well go another way.

Clever and engaging, this impressive first novel will reward both casual readers looking for a fun period adventure and those fascinated by the tension between free will and fate.

Pub Date: July 14, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-62040-833-9

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Review Posted Online: April 26, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2015

A nimble debut that demonstrates not a singular narrative voice but a realistic chorus of them.

BAREFOOT DOGS

STORIES

When the patriarch of a large, wealthy clan in Mexico City is kidnapped, it leads the family to an unintentional diaspora.

Mexican-born, Texas-based journalist Ruiz-Camacho shows a wealth of talent in this fiction debut, a collection of interconnected stories about the blowback from the disappearance of José Victoriano Arteaga, a wealthy Mexican citizen. In the opener, “It Will Be Awesome Before Spring,” the don’s 19-year-old granddaughter, Fernanda, offers a flashback about what happened when the patriarch disappeared after leaving his office for lunch one day in 2004: “It is the year all the members of my family will end up fleeing Mexico, following Grandpa’s disappearance, but at that point I don’t know for sure what’s happened to him.” Ruiz-Camacho captures a younger child’s take on grief and misunderstanding in “Okie,” written from the point of view of 8-year-old Bernardo. An outstanding offshoot from the main plot comes in “Origami Prunes,” in which a young consulate officer named Plutarco Mills meets the don’s daughter Laura in a laundromat and starts an affair with her only to meet her daughter Nicolasa years later under sad, strange circumstances. There’s a funny, almost theatrical exchange in “I Clench My Hands Into Fists and They Look Like Someone Else’s,” in which two siblings, Homero and Ximena, have holed up in a Manhattan flea trap to pop pills, snipe at each other and dream of better days ahead. Another offshoot, “Better Latitude,” examines the unique heartache carried by Silvia Guevara, mistress to Don Victoriano and the mother of his 6-year-old son, Laureano, to whom she must explain where Daddy went. Finally, Ruiz-Camacho sticks the landing in the title story, transposing son Martin's trip to the vet in Madrid with his memories of the don’s body parts' arriving in the mail, ending with a conversation with his father’s ghost.

A nimble debut that demonstrates not a singular narrative voice but a realistic chorus of them.

Pub Date: March 10, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-4767-8496-0

Page Count: 160

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2015

Despite plot pieces that fit together a little too snugly, Sandlin blends pathos, humor, and poetic prose in a strong debut.

THE DO-RIGHT

A former oilman and a determined parolee form a detective team in Texas’ bayou country.

Delpha Wade is conscientiously following her parole officer’s rules for finding a place to live and a job: act as polite as possible and ask for what she needs. This double-A advice lands her a room in the New Rosemont Hotel in exchange for looking after the owner’s ancient aunt and a day job as secretary for Tom Phelan’s brand-new detective agency. She does more than ask for the job: she greets the first customer, who's been drawn in by an ad in the Beaumont Enterprise, and starts acting like Tom’s secretary before he’s even agreed to hire her. Tom, who recently lost part of a finger on an oil rig, wants to keep the remaining nine digits and has put all his workers’ comp into this new business. But Delpha’s 14 years for voluntary manslaughter at the Gatesville Women’s Prison, known locally as the Do-Right, taught her more than bookkeeping and typing. She learned more about what got her there in the first place for killing one of two men who were raping her—the will to survive. Now she’s just what Tom needs to nudge him into taking the case of a missing boy and help with the stakeout of a cheating husband, the recovery of a missing artificial leg, and the mystery of a possibly poisoned dog. In her off hours, Delpha helps her landlady seek a mysterious Tiffany item and starts a love affair with a Princeton dropout. While the Watergate hearings blare in the background and Beaumont’s colorful citizenry discusses them and every other topic large and small, Tom’s admiration for Delpha grows, along with his unease about the adulterous husband and the only temporarily missing boy. But in his blossoming detective zeal to dig more deeply into the cases, he doesn’t realize how much he’s endangering his able sidekick.

Despite plot pieces that fit together a little too snugly, Sandlin blends pathos, humor, and poetic prose in a strong debut.

Pub Date: Oct. 13, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-941026-19-9

Page Count: 306

Publisher: Cinco Puntos

Review Posted Online: July 15, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2015

The very-damn-good American novel.

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CITY ON FIRE

Rough-edged mid-1970s New York provides the backdrop for an epic panorama of musicians, writers, and power brokers and the surprising ways they connect.

New Year’s Eve 1976: Sam, a fanzine author and hanger-on in the Manhattan punk scene, abandons her plan to attend a concert and instead heads to Central Park, where she’s later discovered shot and clinging to life. Why’d she head uptown? Who shot her? Thereby hangs a remarkably assured, multivalent tale that strives to explore multiple strata of Manhattan life with photographic realism. Most prominent in this busy milieu are William, the scion of a banking family who’s abandoned money for the sake of music, art, and drugs; Nicky, the coke-fueled head of an East Village squat who delivers motor-mouthed pronunciamentos on post-humanism and is curiously in the know about arson in the Bronx; Richard, a magazine journalist whose profile of Sam’s father, the head of a fireworks firm, leads to suspicion that there’s a bigger story to be told. With more than 900 pages at his disposal, Hallberg (A Field Guide to the North American Family, 2007) gives his characters plenty of breathing room, but the story never feels overwritten, and the plotlines interlace without feeling pat. One theme of the novel is the power that stories, true or false, have over our lives, so it’s hard to miss other writers’ influences here. At times the novel feels like a metafictional tribute to America’s finest doorstop manufacturers, circa 1970 to the present: Price (street-wise cops), Wolfe (top-tier wealth), Franzen (busted families), Wallace (the seductions of drugs and pop culture), and DeLillo (the unseen forces behind everything). That's not to say he's written a pastiche, but as his various plotlines braid tighter during the July 1977 blackout, his novel becomes an ambitious showpiece for just how much the novel can contain without busting apart.

The very-damn-good American novel.

Pub Date: Oct. 13, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-385-35377-9

Page Count: 928

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 6, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2015

Celebrate, fiction lovers: The gods of Southern gothic storytelling have inducted a junior member.

MY SUNSHINE AWAY

The 1989 rape of a 15-year-old golden girl profoundly alters her suburban Baton Rouge neighborhood and all those who love her.

"I imagine that many children in South Louisiana have stories similar to this one, and when they grow up, they move out into the world and tell them," says the narrator of Walsh's debut novel, looking back on the floods, fires, mosquitoes, heat waves and psychopaths of his childhood. Probably so—but only a few can do it with the beauty, terror and wisdom found in these addictive pages. When Lindy Simpson's childhood is abruptly ended one evening as she bikes home from track practice, so much goes with it, including the innocence of the 14-year-old boy who loves her to the point of obsession—and eventually becomes a suspect in the crime himself. He fills in the events of the next few years in a style that recalls the best of Pat Conroy: the rich Southern atmosphere, the interplay of darkness and light in adolescence, the combination of brisk narrative suspense with philosophical musings on memory, manhood and truth. All the supporting characters, from the neighborhood kids and parents to walk-ons like the narrator's cool uncle Barry and a guy we meet in the penultimate chapter at the LSU/Florida Gators game in 2007, are both particular and real. So is the ambience of late '80s and early '90s America, from the explosion of the Challenger to the Jeffrey Dahmer nightmare. In fact, one of the very few missteps is a weirdly dropped-in disquisition on Hurricane Katrina. That's easy to forgive, though, as you suck down the story like a cold beer on a hot Louisiana afternoon. 

Celebrate, fiction lovers: The gods of Southern gothic storytelling have inducted a junior member.

Pub Date: Feb. 10, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-399-16952-6

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Putnam

Review Posted Online: Nov. 6, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2014

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