The establishment of a Crimean War charity unites a gentlewoman and a dashing veteran in Humphreys’ debut Victorian romance novel.
Viscountess Charlotte Haliday suffered exile in the country following her husband’s suspicious murder. After she returns to London, her work for the Royal Patriotic Fund introduces her to David Scott, a Crimean War hero who’s more than capable of stirring her broken heart, despite his disabling injury: a Victoria Cross medal recipient and cavalry soldier, David’s legs were crushed under his fallen horse, leaving him wheelchair-bound. His work at the Royal Patriotic Fund assisting war widows gives him purpose, but navigating fashionable society as a disabled person remains challenging. Charlotte’s own search for meaning lands her a position assisting David, and their charitable natures draw them together: “David’s compass was clearly his heart,” Charlotte thinks.They begin as friends but quickly become lovers. They agree to an affaire de coeur without marriage, but their businesslike arrangement quickly deteriorates, both in the office and the bedroom, as their passion further ignites. When questions surrounding the murder of Charlotte’s husband resurface, threatening her reputation and spawning an attempt on her life, she and David must confront the true depth of their feelings. Humphreys’ exceptional debut utterly stuns with its professional style, natural dialogue, and extensive research. It’s dotted with minute details concerning the Crimean War throughout, elucidating David’s war service. It also skillfully incorporates facts about Queen Victoria’s reign and the founding of the charity into the plot. The depiction of David’s disability is overwhelmingly positive, focusing on his adaptability while still addressing his daily challenges; Charlotte, meanwhile, is appropriately solicitous but never condescending. The portrayal of such an unexpectedly unique couple in a scintillating, romantic, and highly erotic relationship is as refreshing as it is realistic.
An enthralling, nontraditional romance accented with a little mystery.
In this debut novel, a woman learns a truth as old as literature: she can’t escape the past just by moving away and up.
This hardscrabble story opens in 1947. Maggie Coyle and her little sister, Janie, huddle outside their shabby house while their mother labors to give birth. Welcome to hell, or its suburb, Mahanoy, Pennsylvania, a coal town where their father can be found either gasping in a mine or drinking in a bar. The baby daughter is stillborn; worse, their mother then becomes catatonic. The girls are bereft. A determined Maggie vows to flee all this—the boys working in the mines and half the girls getting pregnant in high school—and seemingly does. She earns a scholarship that leads to a nursing degree and freedom. Janie, meanwhile, finds mindless work in the parish rectory. There she meets Father Timothy, a young priest with a past as troubled as the Coyle girls’. Janie bears a daughter, who’s given up for adoption (the priest never even knows that he’s the baby’s father). Meanwhile, Maggie meets a brilliant, young surgeon (with a tumultuous past, of course). They marry, have six beautiful children, and Janie comes to live with them in a big house in Philadelphia. After many years of being the greatest aunt God created, Janie contracts cancer. From here on, the story, a tale of guilt, anger, and anxious expiation, focuses on Maggie. She has a wonderful husband and children who love her. (But do they adore Aunt Janie even more?) Maggie cannot forgive herself every sin she imagines, until finally the reader wants to shake her. In lesser hands, Maggie would be almost a parody of the morally tortured martyr, but with strong writing, a wonderfully modulated pace, and tenacious introspection, the novel delivers a complex portrait. Crawford paints with a really dark palette, reflecting life’s myriad tragedies. At one point, Maggie, in a tearful conversation with her father, angrily recalls her mother: “I remember her hair. I remember brushing her hair. She’d let me and Janie do it, always telling us how good it felt...I remember you making her cry. I remember that, too.” The author knows the human heart to a scary extent. This is a remarkable debut, and readers should look forward to Crawford’s next work.
An intense, perceptive tale of two sisters grappling with a turbulent family history.
A debut novel follows a young woman as she struggles to come to grips with the realization that in a parallel universe everyone has an opposite.
This first installment of a trilogy focuses on the morally principled Riley Dale. Just days after graduating from college in Boulder, Colorado, Riley finds her world upended when she grasps that recent disturbing events—her grandmother dies of a heart attack, she stumbles across the body of a serial killer’s latest victim, and she apprehends that her bizarre visions seem much more than bad dreams—are all tied together. When she uncovers clues in her grandmother’s attic that point to not only the existence of a parallel world, but also her relative’s intimate knowledge of it, Riley unwillingly embarks on a dangerous journey of self-discovery. This quest brings her to the parallel world, where she meets her opposite self, a drug-addicted young woman whose entire life has been filled with hardship. A man trying to help Riley navigate this frightening new world tells her that she remains forever linked to this woman (“Basically, you are still connected…even though you live in two different worlds. If something really bad were to happen to this Riley, the same thing would happen to you”). Targeted by the police and assassins, the two women, unlikely partners, must stay alive long enough to figure out an operation to save the world. Dabney offers an utterly readable fusion of speculative fiction, mystery, biblical myth, and mainstream thriller. While parallel universes and alternate realities have been fertile concepts explored by fantasy and sci-fi writers for decades, the author brings a freshness to the well-trod subjects by giving the topics a deeply spiritual, biblical twist. Additionally, her savvy use of tension and pacing delivers a thrilling read, making the volume virtually impossible to put down. The only criticisms are largely unavoidable in a series opener—many questions regarding Riley’s abilities and ultimate goal to “heal the world” are left unanswered, and the conclusion is less than satisfying, being a respite more than any kind of ending.
Judging by the engrossing first volume, this trilogy about two heroines’ perilous mission has the potential to be not only highly entertaining, but profoundly edifying as well.
In the city of Hagen, there stands a church, a prison, a city hall, and a bustling market. But there is—and always has been—only one bakery and one baking family. As Emmi’s debut novel opens, Hans Heckler II prepares a cake for the annual Easter contest, held beneath a spoon-wielding statue of his “grandmother’s grandfather’s grandmother” Margarete. Every year, Hans wins the contest with one of the 10 cakes he serves at his shop. But although each generation since Margarete’s has added a new recipe, Hans feels no compulsion to invent. He likens the family collection to the Holy Bible: perfect and therefore complete. In truth, Hans’ heart lies elsewhere—he longs to be a tailor and is in love with Anika Everhart, the flame-haired beekeeper. To cope with the mundane duties of the bakery, and the “beasts” of the town who shower him with “tongue-flapping adulation,” Hans hires 9-year-old Jonathan Von Brandt. The child loves to bake, but when it becomes clear, after many years,that Hans will never tell him the family recipes, Jonathan quits. Meanwhile, Anika has been quietly baking for herself since she was a child. With Jonathan’s help and her bees’ honey, Anika perfects the Honigkuchen cake,which is so good it brings Prince Goebel to his knees. Twice betrayed, Hans enlists the Rev. Abbing to plot wicked revenge. Like Hagen’s society, Emmi’s debut novel is grounded in tradition. He writes convincingly in the style of a European folk tale, with a timeless setting, a firm Christian underpinning, and just a hint of magic. But like the novel’s main characters, Emmi pushes beyond formula, adding themes that are relevant to contemporary tastes, such as resilience through diversity and the perils of dogma. As in the best modern fiction, characters, not morals, drive the story—and Emmi excels at creating rich, complex people. Hans is vengeful, but his thwarted yen for fashion makes him sympathetic, and even the minor players have depth, presence, and at least one dark secret to thicken the plot.
A debut historical novel charts the buildup to and aftermath of the worst mining disaster in American history.
Set against the rural backdrop of Appalachia, this story opens in the midst of unthinkable chaos: an underground explosion in a coal mine. With an official death toll of 362, the 1907 Monongah, West Virginia, cataclysm left countless wives widowed and children without fathers. Here the blast is witnessed from ground level. Orie Morris is working in the mine when the accident occurs, while Hershel, his friend since boyhood, is on the surface. Hershel waits desperately with Orie’s wife, Bessie, as rescuers carry the bodies out, including Orie’s. The story skips back to 1896 and the 8-year-old Hershel preparing for his first day of work as a trapper boy, operating a trap door that allows fresh air into the mine shaft. By age 12, he progresses to becoming a mule wrangler and cementing a firm friendship with Orie. The novel chronicles the coming-of-age of the young friends and how a community copes with loss when torn apart by tragedy. Bessie’s character is particularly well-developed, and her plight as a widow exposes prejudices against women of the era. When approaching the relief committee for money after Orie’s death, she finds the funds withheld on “moral” grounds. The fact that she has male boarders in her home proves tantamount to living in sin, and it is her duty to demonstrate otherwise. Similarly, her new boss, Mr. Humphrey, makes sexual advances toward her and then promises to ruin her reputation when she rebukes him. All the while, Hershel remains her rock, although Orie’s memory makes their relationship a complicated one. The writing here is graceful, emotionally intuitive, and thoroughly researched. Hoover expertly captures the essence of family life in the space of a sentence, here describing Orie and Bessie: “She, a tiny woman compared with her large and boisterous husband, loved to sing and loved to laugh, and he joined in the fun, never complaining if dinner was late because she was in the yard throwing a ball with the children.” Such warm tableaux are layered to create a living, breathing community whose pain is palpable and resilience, stirring. This results in fine and powerful work from a skilled historical interpreter that should appeal to American history buffs and romantics alike.
A clever, engaging, and heart-rending tale about a 1907 catastrophe in Appalachia.
A bored office worker moves to Los Angeles and tries to make it big with a bizarre crowdfunding campaign in Adam’s debut novel.
River Conway is a 29-year-old aspiring singer and actor whose dreams have been sidelined. After he and his girlfriend, Alana, graduated from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, they moved to Arizona to care for her ailing father. Seven long years later, they’re still there; River is working a dead-end job and worries that it’s too late for him to break into the entertainment industry. Alana donates $10,000 to her celebrity crush’s crowdfunding campaign, and she and River are invited to his party in LA. There, River is inspired to launch a campaign of his own. Although his mother always told him that he was born for greatness (“Why else would an honest, salt of the earth, lower middle class couple from Who Cares, Ohio, name their son River?”), he decides to start “Save an A$$hole,” asking donors to help him leave behind a lifestyle that they wouldn’t want to live themselves. Soon, River has second thoughts and deletes the campaign, but then Alana surprisingly offers to move to LA with him. In Hollywood, her rapid-fire networking lands her a role on a sitcom, and River resorts to relaunching his crowdfund concept. He’s soon contacted by a TV comedy channel that wants to film the last days of the campaign as a telethon. River agrees, and the resulting media sensation and scathing headlines (“Douchebag Becomes Millionaire For No Reason, Nation Weeps”) lead to an exploitative reality show that takes him down an uncertain path. Adam has written a wickedly funny, timely satire, full of piercing jabs at Hollywood and crystal-clear characterizations of brain-dead, disingenuous LA denizens. The fact that River is Tisch-trained but still becomes the chief flake of the moment is amusing, and it shows the push-and-pull relationship that members of River’s generation have with industries that simultaneously seduce and repulse them. The scenarios are wild, but the novel does well to wonder if people obsessed with popular culture can survive in LA without descending into tragicomedy. The ending is a bit neat, but Adam’s tight prose and perfect timing make the story as a whole both playful and gratifying.
A sharp contemporary satire that lovingly confronts the raucous realities of Hollywood, the internet, and the media.
It’s tempting to class this historical novel about the Battle of Gettysburg as YA fiction because its heroine is 15, but, with all due respect to that genre, it’s much, much more.
Debut novelist Moody found an account written by Matilda “Tillie” Pierce—a teenager who lived in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, when the famous Civil War battle changed the good citizens’ lives forever—and ran with it. In this novel, Tillie comes from a good, God-fearing, staunchly abolitionist family, and she, her parents, her sister, Maggie, and a butcher’s apprentice named Sam live together; her two brothers, James and William, have gone off to war. First ragtag Confederates, bent on terror and pillage, come to town; then the Union cavalry rides to the rescue, followed by the infantry, who are met by a full complement of Confederates. Then comes the full panoply of the three awful days of the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1-3, 1863), the bloodiest clash of the war. When Gettysburg first seems threatened, Tillie goes with a neighbor and her daughters to Jacob Weikert’s farm outside town,which is thought to be safer. But then Yankees commandeer the place, turning it into a field hospital. Here Tillie distinguishes herself, as she’s pressed into service as a nurse, even assisting with amputations. However, Weikert’s farm has been effectively destroyed by Union soldiers, and he doesn’t take it kindly. There’s as much turmoil within Tillie as without; specifically, she wonders how the God she’s been taught to worship could allow this carnage. Moody knows the value of detail and pacing and knows how to set a scene and build drama, as when Weikert is challenged to give up a pump handle that he hid out of spite or when his daughter returns home to find her furniture out in the street as part of a barricade. Details such as military maneuvers, weapons, and medical treatments appear to be historically accurate, as do the language, attitudes, and mores of townspeople in 19th-century America. Although this novel will appeal to adults as well, it’s sure to grab teenagers’ imaginations and teach them not just facts, but greater truths.
A remarkable first effort, recommended without reservation.
Ordinary human soldiers face supernatural foes in this first installment of a fantasy series.
Ray’s fiction debut stars a young man named Tammen Gilmot, a private first class in the Dragon Company of the 37th regiment in service to the Verin Empire, sent to the far-flung province of Rakhasin. Tammen is new to the service, having only recently taken the Queen’s Coin and shipped out to the frontier. He joins the unit of a legendary commander, Capt. Hoskaaner, known as the Statue Man, who initially seems like an ageless holdover from the old days when Elves still intermingled with human empires. As one seasoned soldier complacently informs Tammen: “You can’t expect things to be orderly where there’s wyrding involved.” The disappearance of the Elves has left a power imbalance that’s allowed the kingdom of Gedlund, led by an immortal witch king named Thyesten, to flourish and threaten the Verin Empire with supernatural forces such as weaponized sorcery and goblin shock troops. Early on, Tammen faces the fierce goblins (“Though he’d read of them, seen sketches in books, and even caricatures in the paper, none of that left him quite prepared for his first sight of the goblin warriors. They were much shorter than men, but their hunched run gave him little sense of size as they darted through the waving grass. Their broad olive faces were streaked in white paint”). This promising first volume mainly tells the story of Tammen’s coming-of-age as both a young man and a soldier. Ray shifts easily among scenes of campfire camaraderie and well-executed action sequences in which the Verin rifles, artillery, and bayonets go up against the swords and sorcery of their Rakhasin enemies and others. Tammen, ostracized for much of his youth because of his intellect and formal education, finds in Dragon Company unexpected friendships under fire, and his newcomer status on the frontier gives Ray a ready-made vehicle for introducing readers to the refreshingly intricate back stories of Gedlund, Verin, and the magic wars that have grown in ferocity since the departure of the Elves from the world. The book’s dialogue crackles with authenticity, its characters are unfailingly well-drawn, and although its pacing can be uneven at times, its complicated systems—political and magical—are satisfyingly multilayered.
This bracing, complex tale pits a fantasy-world version of the Victorian British Empire against a sorcerer-dictator out of The Lord of the Rings.
The Prince and the Pauper gets turned on its head in this rags-to-riches thriller.
Rodda’s debut novel opens in the midst of a furious battle during the Cambodian incursion of 1973. Mason Dillon awakes in “a mass of death,” his right leg shattered, his entire unit killed except for two men: himself and his best friend, Adrian Wylde, who saves his life. War over, the two men move deeper into Cambodia, and Mason decides he wants to stay there for good. He’s found a young wife and feels anxious to avoid his old life’s entanglements. But Adrian longs for home, and so Mason proposes a deal. Since he and Adrian “looked alike, they even acted alike, and nearly everyone, even their closest friends, could rarely tell them apart,” Mason suggests they swap identities. This means that Adrian, leaving his shabby Chicago past behind, will take possession of Mason’s substantial inheritance. At first, it’s a dream come true. Adrian meets Mason’s long-lost father, owner of a multimillion-dollar transport company, and is swept into a moneyed life in the Hamptons of the sort he’d never dreamed possible. He becomes “a man-about-town who knew his way around, a blooming sophisticate, carefully groomed for that role.” But there are worms in the apple. His stepmother seduces him aggressively, then threatens him. His new father seems to be in business with some shady characters, including smugglers; medical travails destroy Adrian’s mental health; and just when it seems things can’t get any worse, he finds himself framed for a body of crimes he didn’t commit. “I’m telling you,” rants an FBI agent about Adrian, aka Mason Dillon, “he’s a drug smuggler, an embezzler, and he’s a goddamned murderer!” Rodda’s thriller is just that—thrilling, a fast and fun read that almost casually grapples with some of the most profound metaphysical questions: are we the people we pretend to be? What sits at the center of the self? What obligation do we owe to our own prior lives? And what duty do we owe to our friends? The author injects opulence (Adrian “had his own apartment, a chauffeured limo whenever he wanted it, an unlimited expense account, and lots of personal money to spend on his every whim”), a desire for revenge, a sympathetic woman, the CIA, and a mysterious psychologist into the narrative. With echoes of both Patricia Highsmith and Randy Wayne White, Rodda has distinguished himself with a sterling debut. With luck, readers can expect more books to come.
A thoughtful tale of mistaken identity, fraud, sex, murder, and transcendent friendship.
A debut novel about a religious family that will pack a real wallop for Catholics (or ex-Catholics) of a certain age.
Taforo-Murphy takes readers back to post–World War II San Francisco and the struggling Kenny family. The story is about Ann Mary Kenny, a devout Catholic, and narrated in retrospect by her middle child, Theresa. This is a family that’s slowly being torn apart by the issue of contraception—or rather the prohibition against it, as dictated by the holy mother church. It’s an age-old bind for married women: to celebrate the connubial act (as the church—and one’s husband—encourages) but then to be terrified that it may result in yet another mouth to feed. One funny and sad chapter has a bewildered Ann Mary trying to follow along while a doctor explains in detail the “rhythm method,” the only birth-control option that the church approves. Henry, the non-Catholic father, becomes more frustrated, angry, and distant, and Ann Mary goes slowly, literally, insane as Theresa watches. The book is an unapologetic polemic, and conservative Catholics may be enraged, but Taforo-Murphy gives no quarter. There are good people in this story, such as Father Capwell, the pastor of St. Cyril’s parish, who “really was a kind man, a man with the unselfconscious sweet innocence of an angel, a rather dim angel, one settled into an only minimally reflective goodness.” But there’s the rub: this old, feckless priest is the best of the bunch. As Taforo-Murphy portrays it, the church as an institution is rule-ridden, absolute, and smugly, unshakably certain, even if it costs a woman’s sanity. Parochial school also gets its lumps here, as it’s apparently designed to instill a lively guilt. Young Theresa herself, aiming in her own twisted way to save her mother from hell, becomes a moral fanatic, a confessional junkie. The Mission Band, a tag team of visiting priests, preaches sermons that would make any Puritan look wishy-washy. Thus are people ground down with the best of intentions in this novel. An afterword reveals that young Theresa’s story was based on Taforo-Murphy’s own, so readers will know why she pulled no punches.
Taforo-Murphy is a born storyteller with a poet’s ear and eye, making every line of her hilarious, biting, and vengeful book a pleasure to read.