Book List

Best Indie Debut Novels of 2018

A vivid evocation of the conflict between reason and spirituality.

THE RELUCTANT HEALER

A skeptical lawyer wrestles with a crisis of faith—gaining it, not losing it—as he discovers his own possibly supernatural powers in this debut novel of ideas.

Will Alexander is leading a mediocre, hollow life as an attorney for a Manhattan law firm when he meets Erica Wells, a social worker who incorporates New Age mysticism into her practice. He’s smitten by her green eyes; she’s smitten by his green aura, which only she can sense. Will takes Erica’s disparagement of Western evidence-based medicine in favor of “universal healing and energy”—featuring detoxification, herbal supplements, and regression therapy—for so much nonsense. But he puts up with her eccentric enthusiasms for the sake of her passion and vibrancy. But then, during a chance encounter, Will, with no effort or intention, apparently cures a legal client of an anxiety disorder. Others seek him out: He dispels a tech mogul’s fatal neurological ailment with a few minutes of meditation and sends an old man’s cancer into remission during a night of drinking. Will is nonplussed by all this: He doesn’t feel like he’s doing anything to cure people and thinks his successes might be a placebo effect or pure coincidence. Still, word of mouth creates demand for his services, so he sets up shop as the world’s most diffident healer, warning patients that he claims no special powers and makes no promises and telling them not to pay him unless they feel like it. Will’s self-disparagement perversely inspires trust, and his practice thrives—and makes him a target of a cynical investigative journalist intent on proving him a fraud. Himmel’s entertaining novel is on one level a fine comedy of ideological manners. Much of it unfolds in funny, awkward dinner-table conversations as Erica floats her ardent mystical beliefs and dares her dubious companions to mock them while they search for ways to steer the conversation to safer waters. The author’s sharply etched characters and smart, observant prose shrewdly capture the ways people think and talk about religious and philosophical issues. “I was always struck by how he managed to marshal an articulate discourse in defense of shallow insights,” Will muses of one blowhard, and he calls the earnest, didactic New Age tomes Erica presses on him “Soviet propaganda without the charm.” But the tale takes Will’s hangdog spiritual quest seriously while avoiding the clichés of New Age fiction. There are no revealed certitudes, no channeling of omniscient beings from the astral plane. Will remains a flawed, neurotic man torn between his lawyerly devotion to evidence and logic and the haunting, ambiguous glimpses of supernatural forces that intrude on him. He is perpetually in doubt about whether his abilities are real or just luck and hopeful figments of the imagination—especially when they fail. And they work no miraculous healing in his own life. His new calling often feels like a drag and leads him into a serious ethical lapse; what enlightenment he gains comes through painful experience and self-examination rather than clairvoyance. As he grapples with metaphysical mysteries, even dyed-in-the-wool skeptics should find his struggle compelling.

A vivid evocation of the conflict between reason and spirituality.

Pub Date: Oct. 8, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-62634-530-0

Page Count: 312

Publisher: Greenleaf Book Group Press

Review Posted Online: Sept. 7, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2018

An impressive family tale with a strong cast.

THE FLAPPER, THE SCIENTIST, AND THE SABOTEUR

In this debut novel, a Colorado medical researcher must deal with a lab mystery, thorny secrets, and a boatload of personal conflicts.

Beth Armstrong, the story’s main character, has a lot on her plate and a lot slipping off it. Beth is a gifted researcher (currently working on a cure for multiple sclerosis) who discovers that some of her valuable mice have inexplicably died. Then there is the matter of files that disappear then reappear. Clearly someone is sabotaging her project and murdering the mice (although it is hard to convince her colleagues of this). At home, she copes with her aunt, the redoubtable Kathleen McPherson, who came to tend Beth’s mother in her final illness and now is in the busy researcher’s care. And there is Beth’s husband, Harold, a charming doofus who can’t stand his job as a CFO, preferring to start messy home renovation projects. Kathleen, a glamorous entertainer in her day (with a colorful history that includes speak-easies and mobsters in Chicago and Detroit), and Harold hit it off. Their Cuba Libre–fueled antics annoy Beth, who interrogates Harold about this alarming development (“So Kathleen’s bewitched you, has she?”). Soon Kathleen and Harold both become amateur sleuths. Early on, Beth’s beloved childhood home burns to the ground, and it sure looks like the fault of Kathleen, the doddering chain smoker, which further strains things. (To Beth’s amazement, her aunt firmly denies responsibility.) Eventually, the search for the lab saboteur and thief produces some extremely tense moments. The author can be forgiven a few loose ends—but most things are wrapped up nicely. And there is one real stunner at the conclusion. Dietz is a talented writer, delivering nuggets like “Beth dug a pleasant look out from somewhere,” and “She tossed her imagination in the wastebasket along with the card.” Readers will initially settle in for a standard mystery (who killed the mice?). But when the appealing Kathleen and Harold take over things, this story becomes much more complicated than a simple whodunit—it delightfully turns into serious literature. Readers should hope for more captivating novels from this promising author.

An impressive family tale with a strong cast.

Pub Date: June 13, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-945212-50-5

Page Count: 275

Publisher: Quill Mark Press

Review Posted Online: Nov. 10, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2017

A fine drama of two lovers discovering harsh realities.

A PLACE OF TIMELESS HARMONY

Emotional turmoil seethes beneath the surface of a couple’s African safari in this debut novella.

Three years into their affair, Richard Delmore, a 50-something telecom executive, and Sofie Cerruti, a much younger journalist, go on safari in Tanzania, their first extended sojourn together away from his unwitting wife and children. Standing between them is Sofie’s recent abortion, which Richard argued her into despite previously claiming he wanted her to bear his child, and other secrets they haven’t told each other: Sofie’s liaison with an African man in Zanzibar while Richard was out diving; Richard’s diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. They arrive at Serengeti National Park as tourist spectators to the struggle for survival among the wildlife, which increasingly feels like a commentary on their own predicaments. After recovering from near-fatal heat stroke, the normally hardheaded Richard visits a local faith healer rumored to have a potion that might cure his cancer. Meanwhile, Sofie, eager to see a kill, encounters a battle between a lion and a Cape buffalo—narrated with agonizing cinematic detail in a terrific action set piece—that upsets her pat notions of a benign cycle of life while reminding her of her own loss. Slender but rich, Eriksen’s Hemingway-esque tale revolves around a delicate dissection of a fraying relationship, writhing with unspoken regret and artful noncommunication, whose real stakes are illuminated by the juxtaposition with primal scenes of life and death. His sharply observed, realistic prose is set against colorful, poetic evocations of the African setting, from the faith healer’s trash-strewn pilgrimage site to “the occasional Maasai warrior in the deep distance, carrying a long stick and wearing only his bright red shuka, walking like someone out of a Beckett play—as if he were in no hurry, and going nowhere—alongside his straggling herd of gaunt and hump-necked cattle.” It’s anything but harmonious, but Eriksen’s quietly wrenching yarn does resonate with ancient themes.

A fine drama of two lovers discovering harsh realities.

Pub Date: Nov. 24, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-68003-145-4

Page Count: 114

Publisher: Texas Review Press

Review Posted Online: March 21, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2018

A prospective technology-driven future enriched by an endlessly funny protagonist.

HENRY PASH AND THE BOTZEC REVOLUTION

In Goorha’s witty debut novel, the world adjusts to a company’s revolutionary computerization of businesses, an efficient method that leaves some people shortchanged.

Henry Pash laments his failure to patent his idea (not immediately revealed to readers). According to the Chief Patent Officer, his idea isn’t ideal since it’s not likely to result in something tangible. Henry later encounters the more successful George Wells, CEO of Wellspring, the company behind Botzec technology. A Botzec is a computer designed to take over the role of business executives, often replacing multiple execs and reducing costs so substantially that employment actually increases. Not surprisingly, the chiefs rebel and respond by launching the Save the Executives Movement. But Henry also witnesses the unexpected fallout of Wellspring, which moves into the education sector and leads to teachers losing their jobs. The company continues to grow into what’s practically a global takeover: purchasing banks, automating traffic, and creating a new legal tender of Well-credits, or W-creds. Moreover, aiding governments in establishing a new regulatory system prevents individuals or groups from identifying Wellspring as a monopoly. Henry fortunately has a bit of good news. His pal Kevin inadvertently discovers that Henry’s algorithm (his idea that the patent office dismissed) generates quality music, including rather poignant lyrics. Though its original purpose was entirely different, it turns out the algorithm might be better at maximizing business productivity than Wellspring. This could precipitate serious competition for Wells’ company, regardless of Henry’s reluctance to monetize his algorithm. Despite much of it resembling a cautionary tale of a technology takeover, Goorha’s story is persistently amusing. This, in large part, is courtesy of Henry’s first-person account. He has a tendency to interrupt people, sometimes with a mere thought or, as in one scene, by munching loudly on a piece of toast. But while he may be an annoyance to other characters, he’s a veritable comic gem as a narrator. In one scene, Henry finds friend Stephanie’s presentation on Botzecs so tedious he counts the bricks in a wall and ducks out for a coffee. He still manages to drop snippets of insight, even when he’s verbose: “You cannot look kindly on a friend who asks you about the make and design of the dagger stuck in your back, when you are telling him how profusely it makes you bleed.” The story, meanwhile, steadily progresses, complemented by a refusal to either laud or rebuke technological advancement. Wellspring, for example, does occasionally provide humans with paid positions, while a few sympathetic characters may be more avaricious than they initially appear. Lighter narrative touches are further improvements: Henry’s older brother, Guy, makes not a single appearance but displays a bold personality via reports of his insults (simply seeing Henry evidently turns his stomach). The ending befits the story’s overall subdued tone; it’s quiet but indelible, a denouement steeped in irony and a weighty notion or two for readers to ponder.

A prospective technology-driven future enriched by an endlessly funny protagonist.

Pub Date: Oct. 26, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-84897-966-6

Page Count: 152

Publisher: Olympia Publishers

Review Posted Online: Dec. 14, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

An entertaining, sweetly atmospheric baseball story.

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    Best Books Of 2018

THE FAT LADY'S LOW, SAD SONG

An over-the-hill first baseman and a female pitcher lead a misfit team to minor league glory in this hangdog sports romance. 

After 10 years in the minors, first baseman Parker Westfall has nothing to show for it except two suitcases containing all his worldly belongings, a fat gut, and impressive home run stats that somehow never impressed a major league team. He reaches the lowest rung of pro ball when he signs with the indie league cellar-dwelling Fort Collins Miners in Colorado. There, he joins a crew of leftovers, including a gigantic outfielder with a hair-trigger temper, an aching catcher, and a second baseman with a yen for Shakespeare. Presiding over them is Grady O’Connor, an irascible manager with an inane “Grady Ball” system that consists mainly of chewing players out, even when they hit homers. Rounding out the roster is newbie Courtney Morgan, a 20-year-old female knuckleballer who bowls Parker over with her looks. Parker gets off to a fine start, batting .400 and blasting balls out of the stadium, but Courtney, despite her world-class knuckler, gets shelled off the mound in her outings. When Parker tries to give her advice, he runs up against her prickly defensiveness and Grady’s idiotic managerial decrees. Debut author Kaufman’s knockabout yarn paints a grubby but beguiling portrait of minor league purgatory with its cruddy locker rooms, lewd dugout banter, and belligerent fans, all lit in the twilight glow of misbegotten major league dreams. His prose captures both the thrill of the game—“the ball strikes the top of his glove’s webbing, and when Montgomery falls back to earth like Icarus, having touched the sun, the ball stays in his glove”—and the crass commercialism behind the heroics. (“If I keep the same guys on, year after year, we become a lower-tier product, indistinguishable from roller derby,” the team owner says, explaining that the need to draw fans with the illusion that they are watching future major leaguers means Parker’s contract won’t be renewed despite his great season.) Parker and his teammates can’t win, but readers will still root for them. 

An entertaining, sweetly atmospheric baseball story.

Pub Date: June 28, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-68433-072-0

Page Count: 190

Publisher: Black Rose Writing

Review Posted Online: June 13, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2018

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