A modern-day satire about a clown who runs for president—and might just win.
Bergheim’s utterly delightful debutnovel centers its gentle satire on the frustration that many Americans feel for “those clowns in Washington.” Russell Greenbeaux, a successful software company entrepreneur, understands that frustration better than most, because he’s a member of the most misunderstood minority of all: he’s an actual clown, with a bright suit, green hair, the works. With the encouragement of his strong-willed mother, Ruth, Greenbeaux makes the unorthodox decision to run for president of the United States. At first, he keeps his goals very minimal: he’ll just “get in, get recognition for the clown cause, and get out without selling his soul.” It’s somewhat against his nature to seek the spotlight; he’d like to combat coulrophobia (the fear of clowns), but he acknowledges that although “[c]lowns were performers by their nature...most did not like to be the stars themselves.” His campaign quickly gets popular support and media attention; the networks even dub him “The Most Interesting Clown in the World.” He takes on a wise campaign manager in the person of Virgil Munsell, who faces double prejudices as an African-American clown, and gathers support from the Clown Underground. Soon, he’s facing an amusing array of primary opponents, including a Labour Party candidate calling for a parliamentary government in Washington and a Libertarian candidate who’s very territorial about his own property. Overall, this is well-done and surprisingly effective satire, with some memorably droll moments; for example, Bergheim informs readers that Greenbeaux refuses to stoop to negative stereotypes—no balloon animals, no juggling, no cramming into cars with lots of other clowns. The real strength of the story, however, is in its low-key human dimension. Greenbeaux’s mother is the most memorably touching character, but all the players here are people that readers will like and remember.
A winsome political tale about a candidate from a very particular minority.
A London obituary writer is called to the home of a reclusive artist with a mysterious agenda in Cacoyannis’ debut novel.
James Linthwaite works for the Herald, a London tabloid that’s gaining popularity because of his innovative, witty obituaries. He’s become semifamous around town, but his notoriety is nothing compared with his wife June’s. She’s the author of “posh porn” books, including a bestseller called Susan’s Phallacy that’s flying off the shelves. Although James and June consider her writing to be a radical feminist take on erotic fiction, everyone else simply considers it fairly well-written smut. The Linthwaites have a teenage son named Josh who’s just beginning to have some sexual adventures of his own. Amid success at work and at home, James nonetheless finds his life to be inwardly and outwardly in turmoil, as suggestions of affairs, fears about his marriage’s longevity, and a few alcohol-poisoned nights lead him down some seriously confused paths. Then James’ editor asks him to go on a particularly odd assignment to meet an artist in the south of England. A recluse named Max has invited three writers to his home, each instructed to spend time with him and then write his 900-word obituary. The purpose of the exercise will be revealed later, during an art event, and its consequences will affect James and his career in numerous ways. Cacoyannis writes in a breezy yet erudite way, with eloquent language and insight sharing space with truly funny running jokes. James’ life is at once complicated and complete, imperfect and scary, but somehow just as it should be. The depiction of James and June’s marriage is particularly impressive; the author writes with such passion about insecurities, lust, violence, and love that the characters’ faults and flaws only make them more vivid. The Linthwaites are intellectual but not always politically correct, and they love Pedro Almodóvar films and good wine with venison steaks. They live in a London that’s suitably fast-paced and cutting-edge, and Cacoyannis has a firm yet humorous grasp of the vernacular and culture of personal and professional worlds ranging from Fleet Street to Soho and beyond. James has a kind of fame that’s fairly risky: one daring obituary that goes too far could make the industry and the public turn their backs on him. Indeed, all of the characters take risks, and it’s to the author’s credit that this madcap, smart story has an introspective protagonist whose dedication to his rebellious family is so well-imagined.
A sophisticated, comic novel that brilliantly captures the triumph and folly of art, media, and publishing.
A classic time-travel plot gets a modern spin in this debut novel.
Sam should have been set to marry the love of his life, Justin. Instead, he’s standing in his apartment wondering where Justin has disappeared. Justin’s mother, Peg, is only marginally helpful, as she loathes Sam almost as much as Sam loathes her. She points out that Justin would always talk about his travels in Japan as some of the best times of his life, so Sam goes to Japan to search for him. In a separate plotline, Sam finds himself in his childhood bedroom in his childhood body—but with the mind and experiences of his 38-year-old physician self. With his knowledge of the future, and specifically of his brother Hal’s murder, he sets out to change that most painful moment of his life. With the help of his school counselor, Betty, who believes young Sam when he spouts very adult language, he endeavors to save his brother from his fate. But can one person change the course of the future? And what if changing one thing renders the rest of Sam’s life impossible? As the narratives start to intertwine, Sam will discover how destiny and self-determination balance out to create the story of one’s life. Debut author Chambers effectively weaves together the two stories, creating tension between a man searching for love and a boy who may lack the power to alter his situation. The novel sets a consistent tone as cynical Sam starts to allow the mysteries of life and love to color his understanding of himself and others. Although the prose falls squarely into the thriller genre, there’s a thread of sentiment that rescues it from being pure pulp: “He looked like his heart had been broken so thoroughly that there wasn’t even a chance it could be repaired. Not even with all the king’s horses and all the king’s men.” Fans of both speculative fiction and contemporary thrillers will enjoy this addition to both genres.
A well-conceived, exciting story that will satisfy those looking for some emotion in their time-travel tales.
A pastiche novel dramatizing the life of the harried clerk from Charles Dickens’ beloved 1843 novella.
Distler’s debut is a lean, surprisingly muscular reimagining of Dickens’ work from the narrative focal point of Bob Cratchit, the clerk in the firm of Scrooge & Marley who defended Ebenezer Scrooge’s outrageous behavior. The author fills in a brief back story, showing Cratchit as hailing from Bristol, England, and seeking his fortune in London. He eventually clerks for Scrooge and Jacob Marley for 15 shillings a week as he begins a family and watches it grow larger and happier. That joy is starkly countered by the atmosphere in the office, where he must deal with his miserly, inhuman masters, both of whom Distler subtly and intelligently brings to life—Scrooge as the colder and more implacably intellectual of the two (only warming for an instant when remembering his late sister) and Marley as the louder, more volatile one. The latter is prone to rages that are intriguingly prompted, in part, by his awareness of his wandering attention and focus. During one of these tirades, he actually strikes Cratchit—and later shortly but earnestly apologizes; Scrooge offers momentary sympathy but then orders him back to work. (Cratchit’s reflexive “Your servant, Mr. Scrooge” is met throughout the book with growled variations on “Yes, yes, you are, and best you don’t forget it!”) Distler indulges in a less-than-successful supernatural plotline that parallels the goings-on in A Christmas Carol. However, her evocation of Victorian London is superb, and her portrayals of Scrooge and Marley simultaneously humanize them and underscore their bitter savagery. Likewise, the story’s most pleasing innovation is in how it adds nuance to Dickens’ fairly one-dimensional version of Cratchit. Distler wonderfully details the clerk’s work tedium, his home life, and even the mundane details of a filthy, bustling London in this intriguing companion to an immortal classic.
A well-drawn exploration of the untold stories of A Christmas Carol.
Fluck follows the adventures of a romance writer for hire in his debut novel.
Jon Fixx once had a successful career writing vanity novellas for newlyweds. In them, he interviewed couples, their families, and their friends to construct whitewashed accounts of their love against a romantic Hollywood backdrop. In his personal life, he was about to propose to his girlfriend and finally finish a novel of his own, many years in the making. However, his would-be-fiancee left him for a Frenchman,Michel,which sent Fixx into a downward spiral of depression and irrational behavior—including stalking his ex. The change in his personal life adversely affects his work, and the misanthropic tone of his latest newlywed novella results in the cancellation of the couple’s wedding. It also makes the bride’s father, the current attorney general of California, Fixx’s enemy. On another front, Michel hires his FBI agent cousin to strong-arm Fixx into ceasing his harassment of his ex-girlfriend. To top it all off, Fixx has agreed to write a novella for the daughter of the head of the New York Mafia. The pay is good, and Fixx hopes that shady friends in high places may help him out of his other difficulties. However, it turns out that digging into the lives of a Mafioso’s daughter and her gangster fiance may cause Fixx even more troubles than he already has. Fluck’s prose is funny, frenetic, and full of life, propelling readers through each new plot development like a great popcorn flick. Nearly every sentence holds satisfying surprises and often unexpected humor: “So began my nocturnal jaunts in ever widening geographical circles from my apartment, looking for new pay phones from which to harass my still loved ex-lover.” The author also expertly withholds information until the perfect moment of reveal; for example, it turns out that Fixx has just as many secrets as the couples he investigates. The pacing is quick, the characters well-drawn, and the twists don’t let up. Overall, this is a great read for anyone looking for escape.
An exciting, comical page-turner about the gritty underbelly of love.
Goodwin’s potent debut drama is a series of stories about the U.S. rehabilitation system and how criminal acts affect the lives of inmates and victims alike.
In the book’s opening story, “Blank Slate,” neo-Nazi prisoner Ray Hazen seems beyond redemption. A violent man full of animosity, he’s pacified by the trauma he experiences after fellow inmates beat him severely. But even if Ray can’t remember his past atrocities, other prisoners and correctional officers can, and their mistreatment may cause him to rediscover his unsavory former self. Such is the theme among these stories: whether a convicted criminal can truly be vindicated. “Hater,” for example, follows racist Walker Calloway, who tries to start a life with a woman outside the prison walls, while Sarah in “One to One” faces inmate John Sloat, who raped her, and debates whether she should use the opportunity to kill him. Goodwin bolsters his collection by tying stories together not just thematically, but with characters and plotlines as well. Herbert Valentine, a psychiatrist at maximum security prison Orrington, crops up in several stories, sometimes merely as a supporting character. Other tales have even stronger links: the titular short story, which involves social worker Duane Case’s sessions with the four men on Orrington’s death row, is trailed by “The Victim’s Father,” about a man obsessed with retribution against his daughter’s killer—one of those death row inmates. The final two stories, “Unaccompanied Minor” and “Soul Mate,” take first-person perspectives of two criminals. The former’s protagonist is Jeff Zwerling, whose time in a hospital wing may lead to forgiving his neglectful father, while the latter, the longest of the collection, deals with the rather unsettling Keith Mueller, who sees nothing wrong in stalking a woman he doesn’t know. Despite the subject matter, Goodwin’s book isn’t nearly as bleak as readers may anticipate. Certainly there are instances of brutality, like inmates assaulting one another and prisoners’ unmitigated bigotry. But most stories leave room for hope; some even encourage it. The title story, in particular, has a final, eloquent image of a “pristine snowfall” “in the muffled silence of a winter day.”
A collection of prisoncentric stories that astonishes with its vibrancy and strong characters.
In Hoang’s assured debut, a young artist makes peace with a crushing diagnosis and takes a stab at reinvention.
What would you do if your very identity were about to be erased? That’s the fundamental question Aubrey Johnson must answer—quickly. At the novel’s outset, the young, talented painter is handed a damning diagnosis: retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic disorder that will blind her in six to eight weeks. As Aubrey tries to wrap her head around her condition, she runs into an old friend, Jeff Anderson. Jeff and Aubs had been best friends in high school before life took them on separate paths. Now Jeff is back, suggesting Aubrey accompany him on a trip around the world. Aubrey grabs at the chance to pack as many life-altering experiences as she can in a few weeks, while Jeff in turn is seeking some clarity in his own personal life. The novel’s central premise—a gifted painter losing her vision—might seem too neat a hook on which to hang a story, yet Hoang successfully prevents the narrative from spiraling into cliché. Insights that Aubrey slowly gathers—“Maybe the question you should be asking yourself is why you feel like what you have isn’t enough”—sometimes come across as trite life lessons, but they are more than made up for with flashes of inspired writing. Aubrey narrates the story, which has touches of romance, in the first person, and Hoang’s characterization is so impressive that the novel reads like a memoir. Readers see the world (China, India, Jordan, Israel, Brazil, Peru) through Aubrey’s artistic point of view, the result of which is often refreshing. She describes the Dead Sea, for example, as a place with “a lack of visual noise.” Despite having been dealt a cruel hand, Aubrey still has a lot going for her, including caring friends and a career that blossomed early. Her imagination first flourished after a visit to the Rothko Chapel in Houston, known for its dark, somber modern art. In contrast—and reassuringly—Aubrey’s artistic vision continues to shine plenty of light even as the natural world around her slowly fades to black.
A touching exploration of identity and reinvention painted with gentle yet precise brush strokes.
Margetson, in his debut novel, explores the fates of two interwoven families against the backdrop of Brazil’s 1964 coup d’état.
Two families, one rich and one poor, anchor this fictional look at the ways that society fractures along lines of class, race, fortune, and ambition in Río de Janeiro. There, life is as colorful as it is fleeting, and the heat is as oppressive as the police force. Nothing highlights the disparity quite like the column of army tanks that appears in the streets one morning in 1964, during the season of carnival. The lowly bartender Afonso, who serves as the reader’s guide, is a quixotic figure in the most literal sense, driven by some childhood malady (or defense mechanism) to see the world in his own poetic terms. He diminishes the threat of the tanks, for example, by determining them to be a pack of elephants. His young nephew has inherited the practice; the boy calls himself “the Wolfman” and wears a carnival mask that he believes renders him invisible. Such poetic actions transmogrify the violent life of the favelas (urban slums) into something manageable, even beautiful. Meanwhile, the Wolfman's grandmother Zoilma works for a wealthy family that includes teenage photographer Agnes, her blind mother, and her absent, politically active father. Most of the characters are emotionally scarred, and the sins of the previous generation may determine the fate of the current one. Margetson effectively imagines the sweat and samba of Río de Janeiro from half a century ago and, perhaps more impressively, sheds American notions of novelistic structure, pacing, and expectation. The book lingers and leaps with a Latin American rhythm and a heightened tolerance for horror that feels significantly more immersive than the majority of American fiction set in the Third World. The author’s prose keeps readers’ attention locked in the minutiae of his characters, even as events of greater objective importance unfold at the story’s margins: “She kept time, struck the match. Still keeping time with her foot she blew out the match and quickly put it in her mouth, removed it, then exhaled a single smoke ring.” The book is full of these rhythmic moments, which are somehow more vibrant and enduring than the background political events. The author captures not just the facts of a moment in history, but also the humanity at its center.
A wondrous novel of trauma, individuality, and poetry.
A haunting debut novel about two young women in Mumbai that brings the brutal realities of modern India into focus.
Trasi cleverly divides her tale into two narratives: in one that begins in 1986, readers follow young Mukta, the child of a prostitute, who seems doomed to eventually work in the sex trade herself. Thanks to her mother’s efforts, however, she instead becomes a foster child in an upper-class household. There, she meets Tara, a spirited young woman who’s never known poverty. The second narrative flashes forward to Tara as an adult in 2004, living in Los Angeles. She returns to India in order to find Mukta, who had been kidnapped 11 years earlier. Although the tandem timelines and alternating points of view could have potentially caused confusion, Trasi capably steers readers through each scene, developing both plotlines until they finally converge. For readers unfamiliar with the most populous city in India, the prose vividly re-creates everyday life there, but the most powerful aspect of Trasi’s book is its prince-and-the-pauper motif: the disparity between rich and poor is evident from the first chapters, and Mukta often seems resigned to a terrible fate, even after five years of comfort and safety in Tara’s family’s home. The descriptions and dialogue are rich and believable, particularly when Trasi writes from a child’s perspective (“my thoughts would race along with the wind, crossing our village, whistling through mountains, between boulders and rocks, ruffling the leaves on trees, flying with the birds”). The story also takes on difficult subject matter, such as child abuse, HIV, and early mortality, with unflinching seriousness. Even Tara’s interactions with the police demonstrate how chronic disorganization plagues Indian society, allowing countless youths to vanish into bordellos. The two main characters serve as symbols of the entire caste system, and Mukta’s memory of her dreary village consistently reminds readers how rigid and prosaic many ancient traditions can be. Although both main characters must contend with destiny—a recurring concept—the story makes clear that there may still be hope for their children. The story’s major twist is fairly predictable, and the finale somewhat melodramatic, but for readers familiar with the spiritual significance of the Ganges River, the final pages may still provoke tears.
A sad, soulful, and revelatory story about a deeply troubled nation in transition.
Zobal’s debut collection of well-crafted short stories leaves a lasting impression.
Although grounded in the real world, Zobal’s stories read like fairy tales and urban legends. In the opening story, “Camp of Low Angels,” a group of boys flip their counselors’ controlled world upside down—hilarity and heartbreak ensue. A woman dies during a snowed-in vacation in “The Bellwether,” and her companions must dig an icy channel to the barn to make a place for her corpse. In “Outlaw,” an attempted Old West–style robbery of a gas station goes absurdly wrong. And in “And We Saw Light,” a bare-foot woman walks singing down a road, carrying a dripping gunnysack, its contents unrevealed. These images evoke weighty themes: savagery, loss, memory, and death. Death lurks in every story: “The water spoke of what it was to be dead. It was flat, still, and empty; yet on its cold surface wore our lifeless image.” The stories meditate on how people confront the inevitability of death, how they talk about it or avoid talking about it, how they remember the dead and, in remembering, keep them alive. One character says, “Let me admit that I have never believed that the dead are entirely gone.” Zobal draws attention to language, sometimes via his characters, who ponder the meanings and shapes of words. In the title story, a ghost writes words for the living in spilled salt on the table: “Woodshed, read the words in salt, birdcall, bone.” Zobal also experiments with structure. The tales spiral in on themselves or proceed in unconnected bursts, like the memories they evoke. Each story links to the one that came before it, sometimes by only a word or image, sometimes by a larger theme or emotion. The final story, “The Hospital,” completes the chain, delivering an emotional change-up of both grief and hope for a new life.
Haunting images and poetic prose flood this noteworthy collection.