By Julie Buntin
Henry Holt & Company, 2017
I was completely captivated by Marlena, a story of two teenage girls. 15-year old Cat and 17-year old Marlena meet when Cat’s parents split up and Cat’s mom moves Cat and her brother from the Detroit suburbs to a desolate town in the Upper Peninsula. Marlena lives in the house next door with her father and younger brother.
The book alternates between the year the two girls were friends that tragically ends in Marlena’s death, and Cat’s adult life in New York looking back. Buntin artfully captures the way teenage girls become entranced by each other. Cat has just finished a successful first year of high school, but is lost in her new town. Marlena is a beautiful young woman with many self-destructive habits. With Marlena, Cat’s life is transformed.
Told in the first person, Cat’s perspective, I appreciated how honest the narrator was and the depth with which she explores how teenage rebellion can be self destructive and empowering at the same time. The girls escape their small town with drugs, for Marlena, and drink, for Cat, and their habits have consequences. It’s not easy to watch them anesthetize themselves but powerful nonetheless. If you are interested in female coming-of-age stories, this book is a unique look into a community I have not read about much in fiction.
Buntin grew up in Michigan and teaches writing now in New York City.
By Katie Crawford
Deeds Publishing, 2016
Mine is a story of two sisters, Maggie and Janie, bonded despite deep differences. They grew up in a small Eastern Pennsylvania coal town in the 1940s and 50s. The story begins when Maggie is 8 and Janie is 6, and as I read the first few chapters, I thought it was going to be a coming-of-age story. But this book is about much more. It tells the story of the sisters’ lives, from the small town they grew up in to Philadelphia, where they spent their adult years.
I don’t want to give away too much as I enjoyed how this book twisted and turned as the women grew up. This is a story of loss and resilience and what I liked was how well Crawford expressed the weight and power of female experiences, about what it means to be a: daughter, mother, sister, mother-in-law or an aunt. And about all the loss that women face. It is a quiet book and yet much drama unfolds during Janie and Maggie’s lives.
I heard of this book from a friend, DM, who knows the author. Crawford is a Philadelphia native who now lives in Swarthmore, PA. The book was published by a small press, Deeds Publishing. I am much appreciative of the small presses that publish exciting work that get overlooked by the Big Five publishers.
Where the Line Bleeds
By Jesmyn Ward
Agate Publishing, 2008
Jesmyn Ward is one of this year’s MacArthur Fellows. I have read some of her books, but not her debut novel, Where the Line Bleeds, so I decided to pick it up. This book is painstakingly beautiful. Each word, each moment, of the story is vital on the page. I read the book slowly, savoring the vivid world Ward created.
Christophe and Joshua, twins, have just graduated from high school in Bois Sauvage, a small Mississippi town near the Gulf. They were raised by their grandmother after their mother decamped to Atlanta, and their father, a heroin addict, disappeared. Their post high school plan is to find local jobs, at the Walmart, Burger King or, if they can, at the docks or local shipyard where the jobs pay more and are more stable.
The story unspools over the summer after they graduate. The twins’ lives take different paths but they remain steadfastly loyal to each other. I loved the writing in this book. Ward gracefully brought to life two boys who are trying to become men, finding their way in a world with limited financial opportunities. This is a family story, a coming-of-age story and a deeply Southern novel.
I reviewed Ward’s memoir, Men We Reaped, a few years back. And she just published her third novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing. If you have not yet read her work, you can’t go wrong with any of her books. She is a masterful writer.
By Diksha Basu
The Windfall is a story about a family in New Delhi that comes into money later in life when the father, Mr Jha, starts a website that that gets bought out for millions. After receiving this windfall, Mr. Jha and his wife to decide to move from an apartment in the modest east Delhi community that they have lived in for over thirty years, to a house in Gurgaon, a wealthy new enclave where there is no noise, little street traffic and everyone drives fancy cars. While they make this move, their son Rupak, who is getting an MBA in upstate New York, grapples with life in the United States, and a relationship he is in with an American woman.
This is a family story that explores what it means to have wealth. The Jha’s have more than enough money to buy their house in Gurgaon, but flounder in the new culture, where Mrs. Jha’s cotton saris make her look like a maid and where Mr. Jha feels they must buy matching luggage before they fly business class to visit Rupak in New York. Mr. Jha knows the luggage will be checked and barely visible during their journey, but he wants to make the right impression while standing in line at the airport. It’s also a look at contemporary India and what it means to be a young Indian who goes to the US to study and the pressures that choice brings. Most of the drama revolves around the move in to the house and the issues that come up as Mr. and Mrs. Jha settle in to their new world.
Basu has a lovely writing style and has created an engaging cast of characters. By the end, I felt like I was right there with the Jha’s in their living room, drinking imported alcohol, sitting on their Swarovski couch (also imported, from Japan), and talking about joining the local country club. If you enjoy a family drama, or books about South Asia, this is an entertaining tale that looks at a side of Delhi that I’ve barely seen depicted in fiction.
I read about this book in the Poets and Writers “First Fiction” issue that came out this summer. I started this blog after reading about so many interesting debut novelists in that issue five years ago. I continue to find their list to be a good way to learn about new authors and books.
Basu lives in New York, but is originally from Delhi.
Earlier this summer, I got a copy of Golden Hill by Francis Spufford from an English friend. The book published in the UK last year and she said it was a fun read, historical fiction set in New York. I don’t read much historical fiction, but I love it when a friend suggests a book that I have never heard of, so I gave it a read. It was only when I enjoyed the book enough to read up on the author that I discovered this was a debut novel.
The book is set in 1746 and revolves around Mr. Smith a young man who has just arrived in New York from London. He has a bill for 1000 pounds and when Mr. Smith goes to cash it with a local merchant, he is told that he has to wait until another ship arrives from London to verify that this bill is real. Mr. Smith, who never reveals why he is in New York or what he plans to do with his money when he gets it, spends his time in wait with multiple wealthy New Yorkers, including Mr. Lovell, the man who wouldn’t cash the bill, and who has an attractive daughter who Mr. Smith flirts with.
I don’t want to give away too much of the story as it starts out slow, but picks up drama as Mr. Smith runs into trouble in his new home. But this is an entertaining read and also a look at 18th century New York City when the city only had 7000 residents and was provincial when compared with London.
Spufford lives in the UK and has published five non-fiction books. If you want to learn more about the book’s plot, The New Yorker also wrote about it.
Happy summer reading!
Yvvette Edwards’ A Cupboard Full of Coats is a favorite debut. I reviewed it back in 2013. It’s a novel about family and loss, and I blew through the book, while treasuring her writing and insights. It was a book that should have gotten more attention than it did.
Last year, Edwards published her second novel, The Mother. It is as moving as the first. Writing again about family and loss, The Mother focuses on Marcia Williams, a mother whose son was murdered and how she comes to terms with his death. I was riveted.
Set in London, Ryan Williams was a successful and responsible 16-year old boy who was stabbed to death by another teen, Tyson Manley, after school. The book recounts Tyson’s trial. Told in a close first-person point of view, the book recounts Marcia’s grief as she sits through the trial and learns the details of her son’s relationship with Tyson; they were connected though a girl, Sweetie.
As the trial progresses, Marcia becomes increasingly alienated from her husband, Lloydie, who is in such denial about his son’s death that he can’t attend the trial nor talk to Marcia about it. This novel is a powerful look at how a mother who tried to provide all he could for her son realizes that she ultimately couldn’t keep him safe, and how she begins to rebuild her life in the wake of this terrible loss.
I was so moved by this story and the way Edwards grapples with themes of race, crime and loss. This is a sad book, but deeply engrossing.
Edwards lives in London and is working on her next book. Waterstones published an interview with her about the book and her process of writing it.
I’ve been thinking of you for months. I’ve read books that I wanted to tell you about. I’ve even drafted blogs posts that I didn’t make live. A day doesn’t go by when I don’t think about you, dear readers. Sorry for my absence.
I have not stopped reading debuts, but at the end of 2016 I found myself reading books by authors at all stages of their careers and I have continued to read widely this year. I thought Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad was a masterpiece. I tore through Vivian Gornick’s latest memoir, The Odd Woman and the City. Then I read Mohsin Hamid’s debut, Moth Smoke, which was published 17 years ago, and is an intriguing look at wealth and power in Pakistan. I can’t wait to read his latest, Exit West.
As my reading list rambles, I’m considering a new twist on the blog where I continue to write about debuts, but also write about reading and writing more generally. My ideas are in the whisper stage right now.
More to come and in the meantime, I’d love to hear about any books that have captured your attention lately.
Thanks for your patience!