Monthly Archives: March 2013

Fresh Voices..from the U.S. and beyond

You might have seen the New York Times book review’s look at “Fresh Voices” this weekend. The entire review was dedicated to novels, memoirs and story collections written by first- or second-time authors. The accompanying editorial noted that, “‘new’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘young’ – youth (or age, for that matter) being no indicator of talent. But all the voices were fresh, and all made us sit up a bit straighter before settling in for the journey.” This reflects a trend I have seen elsewhere where debut authors are being appreciated for their age, not judged for it.

Of the eight fiction reviews, three were for short story collections. That also stood out to me, as often people say that it is harder to publish short story collections and to get them read than novels. Rare is the collection that ends up on the bestseller list. But it could be that the Times has short stories on their radar right now, as last month they published an article (that was debated by other others) about how short stories “are experiencing a resurgence.” The “Fresh Voices” round-up provides a nice collection of new authors to choose from.

The Toronto Globe & Mail also published an article recently by Zoe Whittal, “For a new generation of writers, it’s go big AND go home,” which looks three debut authors not mentioned by the Times: Ayelet Tsabari, Taiye Selasi and Kenneth Bonert. All three write about exiles and cross-continental identity in our contemporary world.

In the article, Whittal is nostalgic for the 90s, a period during which she posits it was easier to publish a debut novel than now. She cites two stand-out Canadian authors from that period – Yann Martell and Anne Marie McDonald. This is something that has been said in the U.S. press as well and an idea that I am mulling as I read debut works. The central point to her piece, which resonated with me,  is “new authors are having to be more ambitious than ever before in their scope and range. Perhaps, these days, one has to go big to get noticed.”

Of the three authors she reviews, Taiye Salesi’s Ghana Must Go, has been released, and is getting press in the U.S. It tells the story of a Ghanaian family that return to Accra from all over the world after a patriarch dies.

The last book I want to mention this week, Poison, is a YA fantasy novel written by an American author, Bridget Zinn. I am not a big fantasy reader, but I was deeply moved by Bridget’s life story – she was a young woman (early 30s) who died of colon cancer after this, her first novel, was bought and did not live to see it in print. Her book debuted this month, and friends and family have been promoting it. Her moving story, and the family’s campaign to market her book is getting written about in blogs and papers. Publishers Weekly did a nice story on her earlier this month.

I have Poison on my Kindle and am about three chapters in. It is the story of Kyra, a 16-year old potions master who is on the run in her kingdom. The plot moves easily and Kyra is a sympathetic protagonist. For those of you who like fantasy, or who have YA family members who do, I encourage you to give Poison a look. And thanks to Proto Libro reader EB for telling me about Bridget’s story. I find it very moving. What an accomplishment for her to have sold this book, but deeply sad that she did not live to see it in print.

 

 

 

 

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While the Sun is Above Us, by Melanie Schnell

While_the_Sun

While the Sun is Above Us

Melanie Schnell

Freehand Books, 2012

239 pages

Adut is a South Sudanese woman from the Dinka tribe who in the late 90s, during her country’s civil war, is enslaved and brought to the north. Sandra is a Canadian woman who decides, in 2004, to move to South Sudan to volunteer with an aid society after two traumatic moments in her life. The novel alternates between both woman’s stories and voices. Adut recounts her life from the late 90s to 2004. Sandra tells her story in the Sudan in 2004. From the opening pages of this book, it is implied that the two women meet and this built a suspense that kept me turning the pages, wondering how and when that would happen.

This is a captivating and moving book. Schnell does a lovely job capturing Adut’s voice. Although I had read about the civil war in the Sudan in newspapers, this book humanized the plight of the women there for me. I felt deeply for Adut, her family and what they went through during the war, some of which was violent and hard to read. I also learned a lot about a period of history that I do not feel has been captured much in Western literature. The only other novel I have read about modern Sudan is Dave Eggers’, The What is the What. And while Eggers did a good job rendering his male character’s experience, Schnell does an equally good job rendering the female experience. Sandra’s story is also intriguing, but I felt Adut’s story really carried the book.

Schnell is a Canadian who has spent time in the Sudan and other parts of East Africa. I did not find a lot of reviews of the book in the U.S. press, but she has been written about in Canada. She lives in Saskatchewan.

I read about this book online and then had a little trouble tracking it down in the U.S. (even in Brooklyn!). My local Barnes and Noble said I would have to pre-pay for it, as it was only available print-on-demand. My local independent bookstore said that it had not been published in the U.S. yet. But Amazon had both new and used copies. I am not sure what the issues were at the other locations. This book is well worth tracking down.

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Notable New Debuts

Since the last two books I reviewed were debut, but not new novels, I wanted to mention three new debuts that I have seen getting some positive press. I read about the first two in a recent copy of Oprah magazine. It nice to see how she consistently supports new writers.

Y, Marjorie Celona

A coming-of-age story of a young woman, Shannon, whose mother abandons her at birth. The novel recounts two stories: Shannon’s life until the age of 17 and the days leading up to her birth, when her mother decides to give her up. Sounds like a powerful story.

Truth in Advertising, John Kenney

In a totally different vein, this book is a comedy about a Madison Avenue copywriter who, while challenged by a diaper ad campaign, begins to reassess the choices he has made in life. A story about work, love and family.

Good Kids, Benjamin Nugent

Two teenagers witness their parents kissing in a natural food store and make a pact to never cheat on anyone in their lives only to meet again in their late 20s and have to reevaluate their pact. A romance that probes Generation Y and Boomer cultures.

Next week, I review Melanie Schnell’s, While the Sun is Above Us. A moving book about the Sudan by an emerging Canadian author.

 

 

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Snowdrops, by A.D. Miller

Snow_Drops

Snowdrops

By A.D. Miller

Anchor, 2012

272 pages

During the mid-nauts, Nick Platt moves from London to Moscow with his law firm and spends four and a half years working in Moscow, and enjoying life during Russia’s oil boom. At the beginning of his third year abroad Nick meets two Russian women, Masha and Katya, on the metro, who change his relationship with the country. Told in the second person, Nick recounts this final year in Moscow to his fiancée.

Snowdrops is a slow-burning thriller that gradually unfolds on the page; I will be careful not to give away too much. It is a very voice-driven story and I found Nick to be an open and accessible narrator who builds suspense with very little drama. Most of the story recounts Nick’s day-to-day life: dates with Masha and Katya, visits with their aunt Tatiana Vladimirovna, business deals with his law colleagues, and lunches with Nick’s journalist friend Steve Walsh, but it is quickly apparent that something deeper and more ominous than nights at bars and lunches with vodka shots happened to Nick that last year in Moscow. You just need to read until the end to find out what happened….

This book was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2011. A.D. Miller is an English journalist who lived in Moscow and worked as a correspondent for The Economist. After reading this book, I was interested to see that it got mixed reviews on GoodReads with many people not liking the narrator and feeling the story was flat. I enjoyed the narrative voice and felt that the telling to an off-page fiancée harked back to mid-20th Century novels, like The Good Soldier by Ford Maddox Ford. My only complaint with the book is that it focuses on the negative aspects of Russian culture – bribery, fraud, men with a cell phone for each of their lovers, strip clubs and crime – in a way that confirms Western biases about corrupt Russian culture. But I thoroughly enjoyed this book and kept turning the pages to find out what happened to Nick.

 

 

 

 

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