Friday, December 05, 2014

How Do You Do, Newbie?: What's new in debuts!

Having just reached my goal of reading 100 books this year I can safely say that I've read a whole lot of books this year. When one (one being me) is maintaining an endlessly growing list of things, it makes sense to break that long list down into meaningful categories--categories such as "WOW!!!", "Really Great!", "Meh", "books by women", or "Debut Novels". I'm SO not sharing my Best of 2014 list yet, sorry. You're going to have to wait for the RPL Blog Best of the Best of 2014 post (TBA). Until then you can whet your appetite with the big best of lists over at Slate, the New York Times, the Washington Post, The Millions Year in Reading, NPR, etc. (I will slip in how happy I am to see Dept. of Speculation on so many "best" lists). Feel free to ask for book recommendations in the comments! Go ahead and try to stump us. We will blind you with library science.

I will, however, share with you the highlights of my list of debuts. If you happen to be a compulsive fiction junkie like me you know that a first book by a young new author is super thrilling uncharted reading territory, and you feel a little like Lewis and Clark, but without having to pack a bag. Jacket reviews use phrases like "searing debut" or "shattering debut" or "darkly riveting debut novel", always somehow working "debut" into the first line of the description, evidently as a selling point, but perhaps also as a subtle disclaimer. So, hopefully without repeating past or future reviews on this blog, the following are the Really Good!, the Pretty OK!, and the Better Luck Next Time! of 2014 debuts in fiction (that I read).

First, the Really Good! news:

The Transcriptionist
Amy Rowland

OK, I know I'm already repeating myself here since I briefly declared this book a totally awesome debut somewhere else on this blog. Goodreads proclaims it a "powerful debut", and it IS powerful! Rowland brings up a lot in a compact space: ethics in journalism and the decline of newspapers, language and technology, existential stuff, alienation, and a gruesome death under bizarre circumstances. The protagonist, Lena, is a loyal lone transcriptionist, a woman in a nearly extinct occupation within a struggling industry. She is shocked to find out that a blind woman she talked to on the bus just a few days earlier has met a terrible end after climbing into a lion's cage at the zoo. As Lena begins a search for the truth she uncovers much more, threatening the reputation of the paper and her own future. I am anxiously awaiting Amy Rowland's next book.

Cutting Teeth
Julia Fierro

I liked this so much more than the other folks on Goodreads. What can I say? I like a good mean girl and this book is full of 'em. A cast of privileged young parents and their children embark on a weekend playdate at the shore that starts messy and gets messier. If you like Meg Wolitzer, Tom Perotta, Megan Abbott, and Susan Coll you'll be on the lookout for what's next from Julia Fierro.

In brief but also firmly in the Really Good! sub-category are Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing by Mira Jacob, Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson, and Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey (more on these coming soon). For now I will just say "total swoon". Also The Bees (Laline Paull), The Girl in the Road (Monica Byrne), Wolf in White Van (John Darnielle), were already mentioned at their respective links, and are all outstanding debuts worth your while.

Now for the Pretty OK!:

Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky
David Connerly Nahm

Told in non-linear, stream of consciousness prose, this exhausting petite debut clocks in at around 225 pages and I gotta say it took me a while to finish it. The author really gets Central Kentucky (he's from there), and crafts a compelling, though somewhat obfuscating, narrative using small town Kentucky as an effective backdrop for a story about a troubled woman operating a non-profit while dealing with resurfacing memories of her brother's disappearance when they were children. The giant Sense of Place sledgehammer employed so often in Appalachian and Appalachian-adjacent literature can get a little tiresome (see Silas House) and Nahm does his best not to abuse it. It really is quite haunting, and you might find yourself re-reading some of the particularly stunning passages to mull them over and let them really sink in. So, no, it's not a page-turner. I think that in another book or two he will have worked out his need to prose the reader to fatigue and create some pretty powerful fiction. I'll be keeping an eye out for his next book.

I am Having So Much Fun Here Without You
Courtney Maum

I liked this book. I did! But I did not LOVE it like I thought I would--like I wanted to. It was funny and entertaining and light and cute and France meets England by way of New York. In Paris there is a whiny English artist, Richard Haddon, married to a French woman and he's having an affair with an American woman who ends up leaving him for a cutlery designer (forgot his nationality). Richard's grief over losing his lover drives his wife away...and you know what? I really hated that Hugh Grant Christmas movie, Love Actually (2003) and typing this plot synopsis is starting to remind me of that. "Whiny philanderer loses everything due to own selfishness, wants to be forgiven, is sad." Maybe that's why I couldn't love it love it? All the same, it had me laughing out loud and I'll happily consider Maum's next book.

And finally, the Better Luck Next Time!, in which I disagree with the critics:

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
David Shafer

WTF. W. T. F. (Get it?) This book's heart is in the right place but it needed an editor. You were too darn long, book! Too much time is spent being ambiguous about phony, ambivalent, hipstery non-people in this "ooh look at me I'm so cool I can drop in all these winks to David Foster Wallace and Thomas Pynchon and William Gibson and Chuck Palahniuk but not be all geeky fanboy about it " way. Trimmed down to its good parts it would be a solid paranoid techno-thriller-comedy and the reviewers would probably have hated it. As it is the reviewers LOVED it and it is on all kinds of the aforementioned "best of 2014" lists--but not mine. Better luck next time, Shafer!

An Untamed State
Roxanne Gay

A beautiful, young, upper-class woman is kidnapped and held hostage in Haiti. The story jumps back and forth between a childish, cringe-worthy description of her fairy tale romance and privileged life (perfect, perfect, perfect), and the brutal, almost prurient description of her torture and degradation at the hands of her captors over 13 days. The narrator's voice is completely baffling. Based on the reviews I was expecting something literary but the whole narrative is very melodramatic Lifetime TV movie of the week. Remember those? I couldn't even handle it but I still kinda want to read Gay's book of essays also out this year: Bad Feminist.

Hey! Wait! One more to look for!
Miranda July's debut novel, The First Bad Man, will be out sometime in January and I can't wait. I mean, I really can't wait. Yes, she has books out, but this is her first novel and I'm so excited I just can't even. January is so far away! So, if you love her films or her stories you'll surely be in for a treat now that the inimitable and odd Miranda July has finally made her way into novels. Me and You and Everyone We Know is one of my all-time favorite movies so I have high hopes for the literary version of that experience.


Ellen@Main said...

I love this list! I am close to my 100 books, but could not possibly put together such good synopses. Do you keep detailed notes on every book you read??


Natalie D Librarian said...

Not *every* book...I use an app! Helpless/hopeless without my phone, I'm what you might call a "heavy user" of Goodreads.

Tonya@Belmont said...

Yeah this was insane Natalie, you nail it *applause*

Tonya@Belmont said...

I loved "The Devil in the Marshalsea" by Antonia Hodgson. I am a sucker for across-the-pond 18th century debauchery - having greatly to do with my massive crush on my history teacher in boarding school - Mr. Wham! (yes with exclamation point, yes as in energetic and hairy lead singer of 80's pop group.)Anyway I like mostly anything dealing with that time frame so I ate this one up in one sitting. If you like London -style Debtor's prison, murder, and campy gumshoeing in opaque white stockings, "The Devil in the Marshalsea" is for you.