Actor/playwright/filmmaker Akhtar makes a compelling debut with a family drama centered on questions of religious and ethnic identity.
In 1980s Milwaukee, 10-year-old Hayat Shah lives in a troubled Pakistani-American household. Father, a determinedly secular neurologist, has no use for the ostentatiously devout local Muslim community; his best friend is a Jewish colleague, Nathan, and he cheats on his wife with white women, a fact Hayat’s angry mother is all too willing to share with her son. The arrival of Mina, Mother’s best friend from home who has been divorced by her husband for having “a fast mouth,” brings added tension. Mina, a committed but nondogmatic Muslim, introduces Hayat to the beauties of the Quran and encourages him to become a hafiz, someone who knows the holy book by heart. But Hayat’s feelings for his “auntie” have sexual undercurrents that disturb them both, and his jealousy when Mina and Nathan fall in love leads him to a terrible act of betrayal that continues to haunt him as a college student in 1990. Akhtar, himself a first-generation Pakistani-American from Milwaukee, perfectly balances a moving exploration of the understanding and serenity Islam imparts to an unhappy preteen with an unsparing portrait of fundamentalist bigotry and cruelty, especially toward intelligent women like Mina. His well-written, strongly plotted narrative is essentially a conventional tale of family conflict and adolescent angst, strikingly individualized by its Muslim fabric. Hayat’s father is in many ways the most complex and intriguing character, but Mina and Nathan achieve a tragic nobility that goes beyond their plot function as instruments of the boy’s moral awakening. Though the story occasionally dips into overdetermined melodrama, its warm tone and traditional but heartfelt coming-of-age lesson will appeal to a broad readership.
Engaging and accessible, thoughtful without being daunting: This may be the novel that brings Muslim-American fiction into the commercial mainstream.
The architecture of a family, constructed over decades, through relationships, wars and secrets, is assembled with fine detail and insight in an exceptional 20th-century saga.
Long, intricate but never dull, English novelist Baker’s U.S. debut is a four-generational span of extraordinary history and ordinary lives, eloquent about the unshared interior worlds of individuals even when connected by the closest of bonds. Starting in London in 1914, it introduces young sweethearts William and Amelia Hastings, married just as World War I begins. Amelia, pregnant with Billy, will always stay faithful to William’s memory, tending the album of postcards he sent her, and when shipmate George Sully—a malevolent, recurrent, family-curse character—threatens, Amelia and Billy see him off together. Billy has a talent for cycling, but his prospects, as his own son’s will be, are clouded by issues of money and class, and then World War II intervenes. Billy survives to marry Ruby, a stylish Jew who also encounters George Sully but never tells her husband. The couple’s first child is Will, partly disabled by Perthes disease, whom Billy struggles to love. Clever Will achieves academic success at Oxford but marries unhappily. It’s with his artistic daughter Billie that the book reaches its understated yet moving conclusion.
Immediate, poignant and rarely predictable, this searchingly observant work captures a huge terrain of personal aspiration against a shifting historical and social background. Impressive.
Up beyond Asheville, near where Gunter Mountain falls into Tennessee, evil has come to preach in a house of worship where venomous snakes and other poisons are sacraments.
Cash’s debut novel explores Faulkner/O’Connor country, a place where folks endure a hard life by clinging to God’s truths echoing from hardscrabble churches. With Southern idiom as clear as crystal mountain air, Cash weaves the narrative from multiple threads. Jess Hall is the 9-year-old son of Ben and Julie and beloved younger brother of gentle Stump, his mute, autistic sibling. Clem Barefield is county sheriff, a man with a moral code as tough, weathered and flexible as his gun belt. Adelaide Lyle, once a midwife, is now community matriarch of simple faith and solid conscience. Carson Chambliss is pastor of River Road Church of Christ. He has caught Stump spying, peering into the bedroom of his mother Julie, while she happened to be entertaining the amoral pastor. Julie may have lapsed into carnal sin, but she is also a holy fool. Chambliss convinces Julie to bring Stump to the church to be cured by the laying on of hands. There, Stump suffers a terrible fate. Cash’s characters are brilliant: Chambliss, scarred by burns, is as remorseless as one of his rattlesnakes; Addie, loyal to the old ways, is still strong enough to pry the church’s children away from snake-handling services; Barefield is gentle, empathetic and burdened by tragedy. Stump’s brother Jess is appealingly rendered—immature, confused and feeling responsible for and terrified by the evil he senses and sees around him. As lean and spare as a mountain ballad, Cash’s novel resonates perfectly, so much so that it could easily have been expanded to epic proportions.
An evocative work about love, fate and redemption.
Set in early-20th-century Washington state, Coplin’s majestic debut follows a makeshift family through two tragic decades.
“You belong to the earth, and the earth is hard,” 9-year-old Talmadge heard from his mother, who brought him and his sister Elsbeth to Washington in 1857 to cultivate an apple orchard after their father was killed. Their mother died three years later, and Elsbeth vanished five years after that, leaving Talmadge with a load of guilt that grew alongside his orchards. So when two starving, heavily pregnant teenage girls, Jane and Della, turn up on his land in 1900, he feels protective toward them even before he learns their history. They have run away from Michaelson, a monstrous opium addict who stocks his brothel with very young girls whom he sexually and physically abuses. When he turns up shortly after the girls have given birth, a shocking scene leaves only Della and Jane’s baby, Angelene, alive to be nurtured by Talmadge and his close friend Caroline Middey, an herbalist who warns him that Della is likely to disappear as his sister did. Sure enough, Della soon heads off for a peripatetic life of hard drinking and aimless wandering, driven by the hatred and fear instilled by her youth with Michaelson. Angelene grows up devoted to Talmadge and the orchard, worried by the knowledge that he still pines for Della and Elsbeth. Della sees her erstwhile tormentor being led off in handcuffs when Angelene is 13, setting in motion a disastrous chain of events that engulfs Talmadge and everyone he cares for. “Why are we born?” wonders Della, a question that haunts all the characters. Coplin offers no answers, only the hard certainties of labor and of love that are seldom enough to ease a beloved’s pain. Yet the novel is so beautifully written, so alive to the magnificence of the land and the intricate mysteries of human nature, that it inspires awe rather than depression.
Superb work from an abundantly gifted young writer.
In Dau’s debut fiction, Younis, a perceptive, observant boy in a nameless Central Asian land, is caught up in the war on terror. His village has been destroyed, his family killed, and now he must remake himself as Jonas Iskander, refugee.
A charity sends Jonas to live with the Martins, an evangelical family in Pennsylvania. There he attends high school, an outcast, haunting the library to seal himself “inside a bastion of knowledge.” There he is also bullied, until he finally responds to an ugly attack by beating the bully senseless. The school mandates counseling, and the psychologist pressures Jonas to explore the trauma that destroyed family and home. Emotionally trapped between past and future, Jonas only remembers “half dreams that flicker.” Later admitted to the city’s university, Jonas meets a beautiful pre-med student from India and befriends other refugee students. He also begins to drink to the point of blackout. As the psychologist pushes Jonas to uncover suppressed truths about an American soldier who saved his life, the young refugee’s fractured recollections lead the counselor to connect Jonas' story with that of Rose Henderson, whose son, Christopher, went missing while in combat in Jonas’ home country. To Rose, trapped in a limbo of loss, Jonas reluctantly tells his story—of the attack on his village and of his mountain cave sanctuary where he was found by the soldier, “adding and subtracting, substituting what should have been said for what he fails to remember accurately.” While leaving one minor narrative thread dangling, Dau sketches Jonas brilliantly, empathetically, writing with spare, clear language in the third person, a point of view encompassing the distance necessary for emotional clarity. Rich with symbolism, marvelously descriptive in language—“the expression of a young boy playing poker with grown men”—Dau’s novel offers deeply resonating truths about war and culture, about family and loss that only art can reveal.
Elegant and multifaceted, Engelmann’s debut explores love and connection in late-18th-century Sweden and delivers an unusual, richly imagined read.
Stockholm, “Venice of the North,” in an era of enlightenment and revolution is the setting for a refreshing historical novel grounded in a young man’s search for a wife but which takes excursions into politics, geometry (Divine and other), numerology, the language of fans and, above all, cartomancy—fortunetelling using cards. Emil Larsson, who “came from nothing” and now works for the customs office, is under pressure to marry. Offered advice by the keeper of a select gaming room, Mrs. Sparrow, he is introduced to the Octavo, a set of eight cards from a mysterious deck representing eight characters he will meet who will help him find the fiancee and advancement he seeks. As they appear, these characters each have their own story to tell, like Fredrik Lind, the gregarious calligrapher, and the Nordéns, refugees from France who fashion exquisite fans. But Emil’s Octavo overlaps with Mrs. Sparrow’s own, and his ambitions become enmeshed in a larger scenario involving a plot against King Gustav himself. Another of Emil’s characters, an apothecary fleeing a violent fiancee, who is taken on and groomed by a powerful but cruel widow, holds the key.
The setup is wonderfully engrossing; the denouement doesn’t deliver quite enough. But this is stylish work by an author of real promise.
In Flanery’s debut literary fiction, Sam Leroux has a publisher’s assignment to write the biography of a famous South African author, Clare Wald, imperious, reticent, evasive about her writing and disinclined to discuss her catastrophic personal life.
A native South African, Sam is a writer and scholar residing in the United States. Sam flies to meet the reluctant Clare, who resides in his native Cape Town, a fractious city where have-nots confront razor-wire–topped walls behind which the rich have imprisoned themselves. Told from alternating points of view, the novel shifts from unsettled present to bloody past, from today’s fractured economic and social environment to the historic struggle to end apartheid. That ugly fight for democracy consumed the lives of Clare’s sister and daughter and Sam’s parents. Guilt, fear and regret keep Sam and Clare from confronting their mutual history of loss and love, deceit and despair. Unbeknownst to Sam, Clare has already written Absolution, a “fictionalized memoir,” which will be published only because the circumspect Clare agreed to an official biography. Ghosts hover each time Sam and Clare meet, and Clare’s cathartic expulsion of her truths comes in flashes. Flanery has constructed a haunting labyrinth of mirrors, fact reflecting remembrance, lie reflecting evasion.
Complex in theme, complex in narrative, this is a masterful literary exploration of the specter of conscience and the formidable cost of reconciliation.
In his debut about 1943 Berlin, Gillham uses elements common to the many previous movies and books about World War II—from vicious Nazis to black marketeers to Jewish children hiding in attics to beautiful blond German women hiding their sexuality inside drab coats—yet manages to make the story fresh.
The blond beauty is Sigrid, a stenographer living alone with her unpleasant mother-in-law while her husband, Kaspar, serves on the eastern front. Sigrid’s Berlin is a grim city full of suspicious, fearful citizens barely coping with shortages and almost nightly air raids, people not above turning each other over to the Gestapo for unpatriotic behavior. But Sigrid is mostly consumed in pining not for Kaspar but for Egon, the Jewish black markeeter with whom she carried on a passionate affair before he went into hiding. At first, Sigrid resists when Ericha, a rebellious teenager living in her building, involves her in an underground network hiding Jews, but iconoclast Sigrid soon finds that her experience as Egon’s occasional “bagman” serves her well as she delivers supplies and humans to a safe house. At the same time, she befriends new neighbors, two sisters and their wounded-officer brother, Wolfram, whose impeccable German credentials are not what they seem. Sigrid finds herself wondering if a particular Jewish woman with two daughters in hiding might be Egon’s wife. But when Egon reappears in her life, she doesn’t bring up her suspicions. Instead she hides him in her neighbors’ apartment, an awkward situation given that she has recently begun what she considers a purely sexual affair with Wolfram. The wounded and embittered Kaspar’s return only complicates the situation. With her underground activities as intricate as her love life, Sigrid can trust no one, yet must trust a dangerously wider circle of acquaintances until the hold-your-breath suspense ending.
A Swedish debut novel that will keep readers chuckling.
Allan Karlsson has just turned 100, and the Old Folks’ Home is about to give him a birthday party that he absolutely doesn’t want. So he leaves out his window and high-tails it to a bus station, with no particular destination in mind. On a whim, he steals a suitcase and boards a bus. The suitcase’s owner, a criminal, will do anything to get it back. This is the basis for a story that is loaded with absurdities from beginning to end—the old coot has plenty of energy for his age and an abiding love of vodka. The story goes back and forth between the current chase and his long, storied life. From childhood, he has shown talent with explosives. This knack catches the attention of many world leaders of the 20th century: Franco, Truman, Stalin, Mao and Kim Il Sung, to name a few of the people he meets. Want to blow up bridges? Allan’s your man. Want much bigger explosions? Just pour him a drink. He’s neither immoral nor amoral, but he is certainly detached, and he is absolutely apolitical. In the past, he insults Stalin (luckily, the translator faints), learns Russian in a gulag and walks back to Sweden from China, barely surviving execution in Iran along the way. In the present, he meets a strange and delightful collection of friends and enemies. Coincidence and absurdity are at the core of this silly and wonderful novel. Looking back, it seems there are no hilarious, roll-on-the-floor-laughing scenes. They will just keep readers amused almost nonstop, and that’s a feat few writers achieve.
A great cure for the blues, especially for anyone who might feel bad about growing older.
In Kiefer’s debut literary novel, astronaut Keith Corcoran returns from the International Space Station to a house populated by a bare mattress, random canned goods and a gray leather sofa.
The astronaut’s beloved and gifted daughter is dead after a car accident, and his wife has left him, all while he spent months aboard the ISS. In a house in an economy-stalled suburb, Corcoran contemplates his world, and he is haunted by his near-metaphysical, unquantifiable experience in space. Corcoran’s life has always been measured by the fluidity of equations (he’s a math genius), which he believes can explain nearly everything. Now the numbers no longer add up. Empathetically drawn by Kiefer, Corcoran is a splendid protagonist, isolated from his lifelong ambition to be an astronaut by grief and migraines. “Everything in his life had telescoped into guilt and bereavement and a kind of emptiness he still did not entirely understand.” Kiefer also develops an imaginative and intriguing cast of characters: Barb, Corcoran’s wife, who initially supported the ambitious and driven man she married; Quinn, Corcoran’s daughter, the first in his world who also saw numbers as colors, as having emotions and characters; and Jennifer, the neighbor with whom he has a brief and unsatisfying affair. Most compelling are Peter and Luda, Ukrainian immigrants lost in America’s consumer culture. Peter grieves for his former profession as an astronomy technician, and Luda, quiet and beautiful, displays a moral intelligence that may right Corcoran’s world. Kiefer’s work is deeply symbolic, with Corcoran’s appreciation for the order and perfection to be found in equations and algorithms being contrasted against the chaos and entropy of his personal life. The narrative is straightforward and masterfully accomplished.
A wonderfully executed debut novel, so rich as to inspire rereading, right down to its inevitable resolution, both ironic and existentialist.
A fast-moving debut thriller with enough twists to fill a pretzel bag.
They aren’t bad people. It’s just that times are tough in Michigan, and none of these young friends can find a decent job. So Pender, Sawyer, Mouse and Marie decide that kidnapping a few rich people for quick, modest ransoms would solve their financial woes and let them live out their lives on a beach in the Maldives. No one gets hurt, no one gets greedy and they all stay professional. They just need to grab some rich businessmen, make a few quiet deals and walk away with a $60,000 payoff each time. One victim even complains he’s worth way more, but $60K is enough for them. The plan works beautifully until they mess with the wrong guy and their great retirement plan goes insanely haywire. Meanwhile, state cop Kirk Stevens and FBI agent Carla Windermere team up to investigate the crimes. The characters are as much fun as the plot. Stevens is happily married and faithful, and Windermere has a beau, yet when they work together the sexual tension between them is obvious. They are the real pros in this case as they try to nail the criminals and stop the mayhem that spirals out of control. And for all the danger, Stevens and Windermere tell each other they’re having so much fun they wish the case would go on forever. The kidnappers, however, enjoy themselves somewhat less while they learn that some things may be more important than money—like staying alive, for example.
Let’s hope Laukkanen writes more thrillers like this one.
Journalist Miller (Inheriting the Holy Land, 2005) makes her fiction debut with a smoldering mystery set in a New England prep school.
Iris Dupont’s parents have relocated to western Massachusetts, ostensibly so she can attend the prestigious Mariana Academy, but really because they’re worried about Iris. Her best friend Dalia recently committed suicide, and Iris has been observed talking to a wall—actually, she confides, she’s talking to her idol, Edward R. Murrow, and, yes, she knows he’s dead; but their imaginary conversations help smart, ambitious Iris sort out her feelings and remain focused on her goal of becoming a great journalist. She gets plenty to investigate, beginning with a science book containing a mysterious inscription that she finds in the bedroom of Lily Morgan, daughter of Mariana’s former headmaster. The Duponts are temporarily staying in the absent Morgans’ house, a rare contrived premise in an otherwise well-plotted tale that mingles first-person narrations by Iris and biology teacher Jonah Kaplan, who was once a student at Mariana, with the grim story of Lily’s ordeal and departure from Mariana in 2000. The novel occasionally recalls Donna Tartt’s The Secret History (1992), with its tale of a covert student group (Prisom’s Party in this case) up to no good, but it’s far less pretentious, and Miller’s portrait of the way basically decent kids get sucked into destructive behavior is more credible. Prisom’s Party does engage in some very ugly antics, however, and as Mariana’s scandal-racked history unfolds through Iris’ detective work, we see that Jonah was implicated in past wrongdoing as well. The author skillfully ratchets up the tension as Iris (and the reader) finds it harder and harder to tell who the good guys are, particularly after Prisom’s Party sends an appealing boy to recruit her. It’s scarily possible that she will come to share Jonah’s guilt and grief, as she is manipulated into the sort of betrayal that shattered Lily’s life.
A gripping thrill ride that’s also a thoughtful coming-of-age story.
The title comes from an Army marching chant that expresses a violence that is as surprising as it is casual. Pvt. John Bartle’s life becomes linked to that of Pvt. Daniel Murphy when they’re both assigned to Fort Dix before a deployment to Iraq. Murph has just turned 18, but at 21, Bartle is infinitely more aged. In a rash statement, one that foreshadows ominous things to come, Bartle promises Murph’s mother that he’ll look out for him and "bring him home to you." The irascible Sgt. Sterling overhears this promise and cautions Bartle he shouldn’t have said anything so impulsive and ill-advised. In Iraq nine months later, the two friends go on missions that seem pointless in theory but that are dangerous in fact. They quickly develop an apparent indifference and callousness to the death and destruction around them, but this indifference exemplifies an emotional distance necessary for their psychological survival. As the war intensifies in Nineveh province, they witness and participate in the usual horrors that many soldiers in war are exposed to. As a result of his experiences, Murph starts to act strangely, becoming more isolated and withdrawn until he finally snaps. Eventually he, too, becomes a victim of the war, and Bartle goes home to face the consequences of a coverup in which he’d participated.
Powers writes with a rawness that brings the sights and smells as well as the trauma and decay of war home to the reader.
Ratner’s avowedly autobiographical first novel describes her family’s travails during the genocide carried out by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in the late 1970s.
Despite the lingering effects of childhood polio, 7-year-old Raami is living a charmed existence. Her father is a minor royal prince and a sensitive, even saintly, poet, a member of the wealthy intelligentsia. Raami and her baby sister, Radana, are cared for by their beautiful young mother and a household of kindly, devoted servants in an atmosphere of privilege and also spiritual grace. Then comes the government overthrow. At first Raami’s father is hopeful that the new leaders will solve the injustice, but soon the new government’s true nature reveals itself. Like most of the city’s residents, Raami’s extended family, including aunts, uncle, cousins and grandmother, are soon ordered out of Phnom Penh. They seek refuge at their weekend house but are driven from there as well. Part of the mass exodus, they try not to draw attention to their royal background, but Raami’s father is recognized and taken away, never to be seen again. Raami, her mother and Radana end up in a rural community staying in the primitive shack of a kindly, childless couple. There is little food and the work is backbreaking. During monsoon season, Radana perishes from malaria, and Raami blames herself because she did not protect her adequately from the mosquitoes. Raami and her mother are ordered to another community. For four years, one terrible event follows another, with small moments of hope followed by cruelty and despair. But her mother never stops protecting Raami, and although both grieve deeply for their lost loved ones, both find untapped stores of resilience. While names are changed (though not Ratner’s father’s name, which she keeps to honor his memory) and events are conflated, an author’s note clarifies how little Ratner’s novel has strayed from her actual memory of events.
Often lyrical, sometimes a bit ponderous: a painful, personal record of Cambodia’s holocaust.
First-time author Thorne wears her heart on her sleeve in this semiautobiographical tale about a 14-year-old who juggles equal amounts of hope and despair in her chaotic daily life.
Liz and younger sister Jaime have learned they can only count on one another after their mom, Linda, marries a convicted sex offender. Terrance, who parades around the small apartment half-dressed and leers at Liz, makes it clear that if she complains he’ll take it out on her sister. But when Terrance’s parole officer receives a tip that the ex-con is in violation of parole by living with the two girls, their mom’s solution is to farm the girls out to other family members. Jaime moves in with their dad, a lying drunk who mercilessly beat Linda during their marriage, while Liz is farmed out to Terrance’s brother, Gary, and his wife. Liz worries she’s missing too much school and is haunted by the fear that their father will repeat history and drive drunk with Jaime in tow. Liz continues to narrate her journey with prose that vibrates with intelligence and passion. Although she is just beginning her freshman year of high school, Liz manages to carry around with her a heavy burden of responsibility for her sister. Thorne writes Liz as world-weary and mature in ways children should not have to be. From the mother who willingly throws over her children for the promise of marriage to a man who uses her, to the well-meaning Aunt Deborah, who offers Liz a home she cannot accept, Thorne populates her pages with characters who are fascinating and sharply drawn.
Failed by the adults in her life and forced to be the grown-up when she should be experiencing first dates and football games, Liz is a wise, wry, wonderful heroine.
In Walker’s stunning debut, a young California girl coming-of-age in a dystopian near future confronts the inevitability of change on the most personal level as life on earth withers.
Sixth-grader Julia, whose mother is a slightly neurotic former actress and whose father is an obstetrician, is living an unremarkable American middle-class childhood. She rides the school bus and takes piano lessons; she has a mild crush on a boy named Seth whose mother has cancer; she enjoys sleepovers with her best friend Hanna, who happens to be a Mormon. Then one October morning there’s a news report that scientists have discovered a slowing of the earth’s rotation, adding minutes to each day and night. After initial panic, the human tendency to adapt sets in even as the extra minutes increase into hours. Most citizens go along when the government stays on a 24-hour clock, although an underground movement of those living by “real time” sprouts up. Gravity is affected; birds begin to die, and astronauts are stranded on their space station. By November, the “real time” of days has grown to 40 hours, and the actual periods of light and dark only get longer from that point. The world faces crises in communication, health, transportation and food supply. The changes in the planet are profound, but the daily changes in Julia’s life, which she might be facing even in a normal day, are equally profound. Hanna’s family moves to Utah, leaving Julia without a best friend to help defend against the bullies at the bus stop. She goes through the trials and joys of first love. She begins to see cracks in her parents’ marriage and must navigate the currents of loyalty and moral uncertainty. She faces sickness and death of loved ones. But she also witnesses constancy and perseverance. Julia’s life is shaped by what happens in the larger world, but it is the only life she knows, and Walker captures each moment, intimate and universal, with magical precision.