A talented new writer of historical fiction evokes 17th-century Amsterdam, the opulent but dangerous Dutch capital, where an innocent young wife must navigate the intrigues of her new household.
“Every woman is the architect of her own fortune,” reads 18-year-old Nella Oortman in a message that will gather meaning like a rolling stone as this novel progresses. It comes from the peculiarly knowledgeable artisan who is creating miniature objects for a dollhouse-sized version of her new home, which Nella received as a wedding gift. Hastily married to a wealthy older merchant, Johannes Brandt, after her father’s death left her provincial family struggling, Nella arrives alone in Amsterdam, readying herself for her unknown husband’s demands. Instead, she finds herself sleeping by herself, ignored by Johannes and dismissed by his brusque sister, Marin, who rules the house and influences the business, too. Distracted by the wedding present, Nella commissions a miniaturist to supply tiny items of furniture; but these exquisite objects and their accompanying messages soon begin to bear a chilly, even prophetic relationship to people and things—suggesting their maker knows more about the family and its business than is possible or safe. In a debut that evokes Old Master interiors and landscapes, British actress Burton depicts a flourishing society built on water and trade, where women struggle to be part of the world. Her empathetic heroine, Nella, endures loneliness and confusion until a sequence of domestic shocks forces her to grow up very quickly. Finally obliged to become that architect of her own fortune, Nella acts to break the miniaturist’s spell and save everything she holds dear.
With its oblique storytelling, crescendo of female empowerment and wrenching ending, this novel establishes Burton as a fresh and impressive voice; book groups in particular will relish it.
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.
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.
Robots may search for love, but there’s nothing wilder than human nature in this genre-bending short story collection from debut writer Elliott.
Elliott (English and Women and Gender Studies/Univ. of South Carolina) takes the definition of "wild" and runs with it in stories which leap from Southern gothic to dystopian science fiction and sometimes blend both together. A robot with silicone lips explores permutations of love; an Alzheimer’s patient regains her memory in a futuristic nursing home; and a woman goes on a Neanderthal retreat to lose weight. Sharp and funny, the stories are dark satires on the fad diets and self-absorption of modern life. Elliott shines when it comes to worldbuilding; her details are so dense and vivid the sticky heat of the deep South rises off the page, blending with the hipster neurosis of one of her Zen-crazed protagonists. She cartwheels from the sublime—“the sky in pink turmoil”—to the grotesque—“hormones spiked his blood...and fed the zits that festered on his sullen face"—but prefers to spend most of her time on the grotesque. At times it's hard to follow the lush twisting vines of Elliott’s plots because they're so entangled in the worlds she creates. But no matter: Even if the stories end abruptly, without enough of a road map to let you know where you are and why you're there, there's always a delicate image or an emotional jolt that leaves you wanting more.
This book will take you to places you never dreamed of going and aren't quite sure you want to stay, but you won't regret the journey.
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.
Language becomes a virus in this terrifying vision of the print-empty, Web-reliant culture of the 22nd century.
Students of linguistics may run screaming from this dystopian nightmare by Brooklyn-based debut novelist Graedon, but diligent fans of Neal Stephenson or Max Barry will be richly rewarded by a complex thriller. In fact, the novel is as much about lexicography, communication and philosophy as it is about secret societies, conspiracies and dangerous technologies. Our heroine is Anana Johnson, who works closely with her father, Doug, at the antiquated North American Dictionary of the English Language. The dictionary is an artifact in a near future where most of the populace uses “Memes”—implantable devices that feed massive amounts of data to users in real time but also monitor their environments to suggest behaviors, purchases and ideas. The devices, marketed by technology behemoth Synchronic, have become so pervasive that the company has enough clout to create and sell language itself to linguistically bereft users in their online Word Exchange. If that sounds creepy, it is, and it gets worse. One evening, Doug gives Ana two bottles of pills and a code word, “Alice,” to use if danger should enter their loquacious lives. When Doug disappears, Ana and her comrade Bart must navigate the increasingly treacherous world behind the clean lines of Synchronic's marketing schemes, complete with chases through underground mazes and encounters with the subversive "Diachronic Society," which leads the resistance against the Meme vogue. The danger explodes when the world is engulfed by “word flu,” causing widespread, virulent aphasia. “As more and more of our interactions are mediated by machines—as all consciousness and communications are streamed through Crowns, Ear Beads, screens and whatever Synchronic has planned next, for its newest Meme—there’s no telling what will happen, not only to language but in some sense to civilization,” warns the resistance. “The end of words would mean the end of memory and thought. In other words, our past and future.”
A wildly ambitious, darkly intellectual and inventive thriller about the intersection of language, technology and meaning.
Jacob’s darkly comic debut—about a photographer’s visit to her parents’ New Mexico home during a family crisis—is grounded in the specifics of the middle-class Indian immigrant experience while uncovering the universality of family dysfunction and endurance.
Amina Eapen was born in New Mexico, but her older brother, Akhil, was born in India before the family moved to America. Amina and Akhil chafed against their parents’ evident unhappiness—their mother, Kamala, clung to impossible dreams of returning to India; their father, Thomas, disappeared into his medical practice—while also enjoying the extended Christian Indian community to which the Eapens have always belonged. Now in her mid-30s and unmarried, Amina is working as a wedding photographer in Seattle, having dropped her career in photojournalism after a picture she took of a suicide went viral. Then Kamala, who has become a Baptist, manipulates Amina into a visit by claiming Thomas is acting strangely. Amina arrives in New Mexico reluctant but soon realizes that something may actually be wrong with her father; not only is he talking to dead relatives on the front porch, but he's exhibiting odd behavior at work. By the time Thomas is diagnosed with a physical disease, Amina is feeling a bit haunted by the past herself—she can't escape from memories of growing up with the gifted but troubled Akhil, whose death as a high school senior was a blow from which no one in the family has recovered. Amina also finds a lover she avoids introducing to her parents for good reason: He's the brother of Akhil’s high school sweetheart, and he isn't Indian. Amina’s romance, as well as mouthwatering descriptions of Kamala’s cooking, leavens but does not diminish the Eapens’ family tragedy.
Comparisons of Jacob to Jhumpa Lahiri are inevitable; Lahiri may be more overtly profound, Jacob more willing to go for comedy, but both write with naked honesty about the uneasy generational divide among Indians in America and about family in all its permutations.
A sharp set of stories, the author's debut, about U.S. soldiers in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and their aftermaths, with violence and gallows humor dealt out in equal measure.
Klay is a Marine veteran who served in Iraq, and the 12 stories reveal a deep understanding of the tedium, chaos and bloodshed of war, as well as the emotional disorientation that comes with returning home from it. But in the spirit of the best nonfiction writing about recent U.S. war vets (David Finkel’s Thank You For Your Service, for example), Klay eschews simple redemptive or tragic narrative arcs. The discomfiting “Bodies” is narrated by a Mortuary Affairs officer whose treatment of women back home is almost as equally coldhearted as he had to be when collecting remains, while “Prayer in the Furnace” is told from the perspective of a chaplain forced to confront a battalion that’s been bullied into a hyperviolent posture. Klay favors a clipped, dialogue-heavy style, and he’s skilled enough to use it for comic as well as dramatic effect. “OIF,” for instance, is a vignette that riffs on the military’s alphabet soup of acronyms and how they emotionally paper over war’s toll. (“And even though J-15 left his legs behind, at least he got CASEVAC’d to the SSTP and died on the table.”) The finest story in the collection, “Money as a Weapons System,” follows a Foreign Service Officer tasked with helping with reconstruction efforts in Iraq. His grand ambition to reopen a water treatment plant is slowly undone by incompetence, internecine squabbling and a congressman’s buddy who thinks there’s no problem in Iraq that teaching kids baseball won’t fix; Klay’s grasp of bureaucracy and bitter irony here rivals Joseph Heller and George Orwell. The narrators sound oddly similar throughout the book, as if the military snapped everybody into one world-wise voice. But it does make the bookfeel unusually cohesive for a debut collection.
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 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.
A fresh, emotionally raw debut from Irish-born, U.K.–based author McBride.
Written in halting sentences, half-sentences and dangling clauses that tumble through the text like fleeting, undigested thoughts, the story follows the female narrator as she navigates an abusive upbringing—physical, sexual and psychological—and the lingering effects of her brother’s early childhood brain trauma. McBride opens with the young narrator in the hospital with her mother and brother, who is undergoing surgery (“You white-faced feel the needle go in. Feel fat juicy poison poison young boy skin. In your arteries. Eyeballs. Spine hands legs. Puke it cells up all day long. No Mammy don’t let them”). From there, the author follows her protagonist through her confused, angry adolescence, which is exacerbated by her mother’s piercing Irish-Catholic piety, and examines her struggle between appeasing her family and developing her own identity. Though the structure and events are roughly chronological and conventional—childhood; adolescence and experimentation with sex, drugs and alcohol; further confusing and liberating experiences in college; the deaths of loved ones—the style is anything but. McBride calls to mind both Joyce and Stein in her syntax and mechanics, but she brings her own emotional range to the table, as well. As readers, we burrow deep within the narrator’s brain as she battles to mature into a well-balanced adult amid her chaotic surroundings. In an uncomfortable but always eye-opening tale, McBride investigates the tensions among family, love, sex and religion. Lovers of straightforward storytelling will shirk, but open-minded readers (specifically those not put off by the unusual language structure) will be surprised, moved and awed by this original novel.
McBride’s debut garnered the inaugural Goldsmiths Prize in 2013 and the Baileys Women’s Prize for fiction in 2014—and deservedly so. This is exhilarating fiction from a voice to watch.
A wise, funny debut novel that finds endless entertainment in cultural differences and clashing personality types.
Part Candide, part Zorba, Slims Achmed Makashvili is a maritime lawyer in the mountainous nation of Georgia, where, as Nichol’s picaresque yarn opens, it is the last day of summer, when “everyone was trying to blacken their bodies before the weather changed.” Makashvili, though, has other things than beachgoing and the impending winter on his mind. Tired of living in a country where electrical power can’t be taken for granted, but still proud of living in a town that “looks like chipped paint,” he’s gotten wind of a U.S. State Department grant program designed to teach third-world types about the virtues of capitalism. He sends off a carefully written letter to Hillary Clinton, exulting, “As You can see, Batumi offers You and Your country great business opportunity!” In return, he wins a slot in an internship program in San Francisco, where he puts his avid mind to work concocting wild schemes to enliven his country’s livestock industry; writing to excuse himself from work one day, for instance, he avers that he’s never sick at home because “we always drink the milk of the sheep,” though, in an aside to readers, he allows that it was really the milk of the goat: “But, as I learned, it is okay to lie in a commercial.” Makashvili is well-meaning and honest, but he can’t help but get into Borat-like mischief, and his stay in the golden land of America—which, he has discerned, isn’t quite so golden after all—doesn’t end well. Nichol writes with sharp, knowing exactitude of both Georgia (where she once taught English) and her native Bay Area, and though Makashvili is a figure of jape and jest, he’s by no means a caricature.
Indeed, he’s one of the most fully realized characters in recent memory, and readers will take much pleasure in going along on his adventures—and misadventures.
War can divide friends. But then again, so can peace and all that falls between, the spaces inhabited by this ambitious, elegiac debut novel by Bangladeshi-British writer Rahman.
The unnamed protagonist is a brilliant 40-something math whiz–turned-financier who comes from privilege; his father, a Pakistani physicist, is fond of whiskey, his mother scornful of religious pieties (“[n]ot for her such opiates”). The story, though, turns on his mysterious friend Zafar; raised more modestly, he made a fortune as a derivatives trader yet has apparently acquired enough martial skills along the way to thrash a gang of ill-meaning neo-Nazis in a London mews. Now, as the book opens, he is back in London from a harrowing journey both geographical and metaphysical, his talisman being Kurt Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem (“the world was foolish to ignore it in an age of dogma”), his life a scatter burst of fragments. Rahman’s narrative quickly takes flight, literally, moving from London and New York to Islamabad and Kabul and points beyond as the narrator comes to flourish, oddly, in a post-9/11 world where he and his South Asian compatriots are no longer merely local-color background. Rahman capably mixes a story that threatens to erupt into le Carré–like intrigue with intellectual disquisitions of uncommon breadth, whether touching on the geometry of map projections or the finer points of Dante; the reader will learn about Poggendorf illusions, scads of math and the reason flags fly at half-mast along the way. A betrayal complicates matters, but in the end, Rahman’s is a quiet, philosophical novel of ideas, a meditation on memory, friendship and trust: “Such regrets as I have are few,” says his narrator; “I am not an old man, but even if there had been time enough to accumulate regrets, I do not think my constitution works that way.”
Beautifully written evidence that some of the most interesting writing in English is coming from the edges of old empires.
A droll, all-too-plausible contemporary thriller pulls a mismatched trio of stressed-out 30-somethings into underground guerilla warfare against a sinister conspiracy to own the information superhighway.
On one side of the world, you have Leila Majnoun, an increasingly jaded operative for a global nonprofit agency struggling to do good deeds despite the brutal, stonewalling autocrats who run Myanmar (Burma). On another side is Mark Deveraux, a self-loathing self-improvement guru living a glamorous and debt-ridden lifestyle in the promised land of Brooklyn. Somewhere in the middle (Portland, Oregon, to be precise) is Mark’s old school chum Leo Crane, a misanthropic poor-little-rich-kid grown into a trouble-prone, substance-abusing and seedily paranoid adult. The destinies of these three lost souls are somehow yoked together by an international cabal of one-percenters who want to create something called “New Alexandria,” where all the information available (or even unavailable) online will be in their money-grubbing control, thereby making the recent real-life National Security Agency abuses of power seem like benign neglect. Shafer’s arch prose, comedic timing and deft feel for shadowy motives in high places are reminiscent of the late Richard Condon (The Manchurian Candidate), only with sweeter, deeper characterizations. At times, you wish he’d move things along a wee bit faster and make his menace more tangibly scary than it is here. But it’s also possible that Shafer is remaking the international thriller into something more humane and thus more credible than what fans of the genre are accustomed to.
An edgy, darkly comedic debut novel whose characters and premise are as up-to-the-minute as an online news feed but as classic as the counterculture rebellions once evoked by Edward Abbey and Ken Kesey.
When a freak dust storm brings a manned mission to Mars to an unexpected close, an astronaut who is left behind fights to stay alive. This is the first novel from software engineer Weir.
One minute, astronaut Mark Watney was with his crew, struggling to make it out of a deadly Martian dust storm and back to the ship, currently in orbit over Mars. The next minute, he was gone, blown away, with an antenna sticking out of his side. The crew knew he'd lost pressure in his suit, and they'd seen his biosigns go flat. In grave danger themselves, they made an agonizing but logical decision: Figuring Mark was dead, they took off and headed back to Earth. As it happens, though, due to a bizarre chain of events, Mark is very much alive. He wakes up some time later to find himself stranded on Mars with a limited supply of food and no way to communicate with Earth or his fellow astronauts. Luckily, Mark is a botanist as well as an astronaut. So, armed with a few potatoes, he becomes Mars' first ever farmer. From there, Mark must overcome a series of increasingly tricky mental, physical and technical challenges just to stay alive, until finally, he realizes there is just a glimmer of hope that he may actually be rescued. Weir displays a virtuosic ability to write about highly technical situations without leaving readers far behind. The result is a story that is as plausible as it is compelling. The author imbues Mark with a sharp sense of humor, which cuts the tension, sometimes a little too much—some readers may be laughing when they should be on the edges of their seats. As for Mark’s verbal style, the modern dialogue at times undermines the futuristic setting. In fact, people in the book seem not only to talk the way we do now, they also use the same technology (cellphones, computers with keyboards). This makes the story feel like it's set in an alternate present, where the only difference is that humans are sending manned flights to Mars. Still, the author’s ingenuity in finding new scrapes to put Mark in, not to mention the ingenuity in finding ways out of said scrapes, is impressive.
Sharp, funny and thrilling, with just the right amount of geekery.