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Reading 1881_Kramskoi_Frauenportraet_anagoria

I’ve been putting together a reading list of recently published debut novels that have been making a splash in the publishing world. Perhaps not surprising, given I’m looking for a publisher for my own debut novel.

What is surprising is how many there are, and how intriguing they all sound. So much so I’ve had a hard time winnowing the list down to a readable top five. What helped was being able to download free sample chapters from Amazon onto my Kindle.

Here’s what I came up with.

 There, There – by Tommy Orange

This one is first on my list because I’m already 2/3 through it. And I have to say, it’s living up to the hype, and a lot of it there is: “Orange writes the way the best rappers rap, the way the finest taggers tag. His is a bold aesthetic of exhilaration and, yes, rage.” (Claire Vaye Watkins, Poets & writers, July/August, 218)

“Let’s get this out of the way: Tommy Orange’s debut novel, There There, should probably be on reading lists for every creative writing program in this country. It is a master class in style, form and narrative voice. Orange, who is from the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, utilizes first, second and third-person narration to incredible effect, creating a multi-voiced novel that effectively reflects an entire community. . . .” (Alicia Elliott, The Globe and Mail)

There, There is about urban Indians living in Oakland, California, who know “the sound of the freeway better than [they] do rivers … the smell of gas and freshly wet concrete and burned rubber better than [they] do the smell of cedar or sage…”

Each of its many characters are heading to an annual powow, which promises to be explosive, according to another reviewer: “[T]he plot accelerates until the novel explodes in a terrifying mess of violence. Technically, it’s a dazzling, cinematic climax played out in quick-cut, rotating points of view. But its greater impact is emotional: a final, sorrowful demonstration of the pathological effects of centuries of abuse and degradation.” (Ron Charles, Washington Post)

Despite this, “even amid confusion and violence, there is the possibility for decency to assert itself,” and novel ends on a note of hope. Or so I’m promised (The Guardian).  I’ll let you know.

  Song of a Captive Bird by Jazmin Darznic

I was drawn to this book because it’s about the life of the Iranian poet Forugh Farrokhzad who “endures the scorn of her family and society to become one of Iran’s most prominent poets and a film director.” According to the Kirkus Review ” this novel is a “thrilling and provocative portrait of a powerful woman set against a sweeping panorama of Iranian history.”

“Song of a Captive Bird is a complex and beautiful rendering of that vanished country and its scattered people; a reminder of the power and purpose of art; and an ode to female creativity under a patriarchy that repeatedly tries to snuff it out.” (Dina Nayeri, New York Times)

The Incendiaries  The Incendiaries by K. O. Kwon

Laura Groff calls this novel “God-haunted.” It is a love story set on a contemporary college campus that “explores faith, religion, and the dangers of fundamentalism” (Poets $ Writers, July/August 2018) An escapee from North Korea who becomes a cult leader is another major character, with disastrous consequences, it seems.

Despite the fact this novel promises another explosive ending like There, There, which may have put me off, it was the prose from that sample chapter that drew me in and made me add it to my list. These intriguing bits added to its allure:

“Kwon’s novel is urgent in its timeliness, dizzyingly beautiful in its prose, and poignant in its discovery of three characters fractured by trauma, frantically trying to piece back together their lives. (USAToday)

“It is full of absences and silence. Its eerie, sombre power is more a product of what it doesn’t explain than of what it does. It’s the rare depiction of belief that doesn’t kill the thing it aspires to by trying too hard. It makes a space, and then steps away to let the mystery in.” (The New Yorker)

                            BEARSKIN by James A. McLaughlin  Bearskin by James A. McLaughlin

“A fugitive from a Mexican cartel takes refuge in a forest preserve in the wilds of Virginia. . . .  An intense, visceral debut equal to the best that country noir has to offer.” So begins and ends a Kirkus Review of this debut novel.

I chose this as my fourth debut novel to read in order to get out of the city and into the wild. And also, I suspect, as a serious Justified fan, to get back into the hills of Appalachia with a soft-hearted and hard-fisted alpha male like Raylan Givens. I don’t know if the protaganist of Bearskin, Rice Moore, will live up to Raylan, but the sample chapter I read gives me hope.

Then there’s this: “Bearskin is visceral, raw, and compelling—filled with sights, smells, and sounds truly observed.  It’s a powerful debut and an absolute showcase of exceptional prose.  There are very few first novels when I feel compelled to circle brilliant passages, but James McLaughlin’s writing had me doing just that.”

                            SPECIAL TOPICS IN CALAMITY PHYSICS by Marisha Pessl  Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marsha Pessl

“Sharp, snappy fun for the literary-minded,” so deems the Kirkus Review, and that’s exactly why I chose this to be the last novel on my “top five” list, even though it doesn’t quite fit my criteria for “recent’ debut novels. This came out in 2006.

“Marisha Pessl’s dazzling debut sparked raves from critics and heralded the arrival of a vibrant new voice in American fiction. At the center of Special Topics in Calamity Physics is clever, deadpan Blue van Meer, who has a head full of literary, philosophical, scientific, and cinematic knowledge. But she could use some friends. Upon entering the elite St. Gallway School, she finds some—a clique of eccentrics known as the Bluebloods. One drowning and one hanging later, Blue finds herself puzzling out a byzantine murder mystery. Nabokov meets Donna Tartt (then invites the rest of the Western Canon to the party) in this novel—with visual aids drawn by the author—that has won over readers of all ages.” (Amazon)

I tried a sample chapter and decided this quirky, fun novel is just what I needed to top off this list, which is decidedly heavy in “not fun” topics.

Some strong runners-up on the lighter, fun side are:

The Ensemble

The Kiss Quotient

The Pisces

Let me if you’ve read any of these yet, and if so, what you thought. Also, if you know of any other debut novels I should add to my list.