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Two Views on Debuts…

Bookends is a New York Times Book Review column in which two writers write about one topic from two perspectives. This week’s column is: Why Do Debut Novels Command So Much Attention? Leslie Jamison compares the appeal of debut novelists to the NBA draft and suggests that reading debuts gives readers, “the chance to read an author before she has become a legacy.” Ayana Mathis looks at the weight of the debut, and delves into the extent to which, “a debut novel is a piece of the writer’s soul in a way that subsequent books can’t ever quite be.”

Both pieces offer lucid insights into the power of the debut and acknowledge that for every debut that gets a big advance there are many worthy books that never sell, nor make it into bookstores. The two views provide insightful looks into why the debut novel is such a marketable book—as either the next hip book to read and talk about at a party, or the book that the author needed to write to feel fulfilled.

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A Front Page Affair, by Radha Vatsal


A Front Page Affair

By Radha Vatsal

Sourcebooks, 2016

336 pages

When I was a kid, my maternal grandmother always had a mystery in hand. She loved Agatha Christie but would read any book that had a missing character or a mysterious plot. I remember reading Agatha Christie as a child because I wanted to read books I knew she liked. I wanted to be like her.

A Front Page Affair is a classic who dunnit? Set in New York City in 1915, the story features a smart and becoming narrator–Kitty Weeks. Just 19, Kitty lives with her father in New York after attending boarding school in Europe. She dreams to be a journalist and works for the Ladies’ Page (yes, one page!) of a paper called the New York Sentinel. Her first assignment is to cover a Fourth of July party at a country club and this seemingly banal social story leads her into a mystery that is the heart of the book.

I don’t want to give away too much of the mystery, but the story focuses on a murder and is full of a range of New York characters, including her editors at the paper, a society friend who wants to be a nurse and head off to Europe, the humble secretary of a wealthy society woman and Kitty’s father, a businessman who doesn’t share much about his work with her. There is a lot of historical detail in the book. I enjoyed the time period and setting, and found Kitty, nickname for “Capability,” to be an insightful and enjoyable narrator. The book twists and turns and comes to a satisfying end. If you enjoy a good mystery, this is a fun one to get swept up in. My granny would have enjoyed it.

Vatsal lives in New York City. And like all good mystery writers, is planning a Kitty Weeks series.




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All Strangers Are Kin, by Zora O’Neill


All Strangers Are Kin: Adventures in Arabic and the Arab World

By Zora O’Neill

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016

336 pages


All Strangers Are Kin is a linguistic romp through the Arab-speaking world in which O’Neill struggles to learn various Arabic dialects and sheds light on how difficult it is to become fluent in another language, especially one so different than her own. O’Neill, who studied Arabic in college and later did graduate work in Arabic Literature, is in her late 30s when she spends a year living in Egypt, The Gulf, Lebanon and Morocco.

She begins in Cairo, where she admits that she no longer wants to study the formal written form of the language, Fusha, and instead sets out to learn the local dialect. She reconnects with old friends and tries to find her way in a city that has changed since the January Revolution. In the UAE, she searches out local Arabic speakers in a community where most people are transplants, and ends up the only student in her Arabic class. In Lebanon and Morocco she has more success studying Arabic and regularly strikes up conversations with locals, but encounters two more dialects she is never fully able to master.

Before reading this book, I knew Arabic was a language with many distinct local dialects, but did not know how much they varied. O’Neill is open about her struggles using Arabic and dubs her travels, “my Year of Speaking Arabic Badly,” which nicely sums up her reflective and self-effacing character. But she loves Arabic language play and relishes in their idioms. And she is most at home with the dialect in Egypt, where they have a sense of humor she enjoys. As I read the book, I felt like I was traveling along with O’Neill — driving a car with her in the UAE desert, hiking in Lebanon and visiting a Berber village in  Morocco. If you enjoy different languages and want to learn more about Arabic, and the Arabic-speaking world, I think you will enjoy this book.

O’Neill is an accomplished travel and food writer. She has written travel guides for Rough Guides, the Lonely Planet and Moon and also published a cookbook, Forking Fantastic, about an underground supper club she hosted for many years with a friend in Queens. My path has crossed with hers in New York and she is as delightful on the page as she is in person.

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An interview with Yaa Gayasi

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi is being written up as the season’s, even the year’s, debut to read. It is a sweeping historical story, about the contrasting lives of two half sisters from Ghana and multiple generations of their families. The book starts in the late 18th century when one sister marries a British man and lives in Cape Coast Castle while the other is sold into slavery and ends up in the United States. The book tells a sweeping history of slavery while also recounting their unique life stories.

In this interview with Aaron Zimmerman, Executive Director of the NY Writers Coalition, Gayasi talks about her motivations for writing this book, books and teachers who influenced her and what it feels like to write a book that’s getting buzz.

I have a copy of the book waiting for me next to my bed and I can’t wait to read it. Have any of you picked it up?

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We Love You, Charlie Freeman, by Kaitlyn Greenidge


We Love You, Charlie Freeman

By Kaitlyn Greenidge

Algonquin, 2016

326 pages

We Love You, Charlie Freeman tells two stories. In the present day, the 1990s, the Freeman family moves to New England so Laurel, the mother, can work on a sign language research project at the Toneybee Institute. A monkey, Charlie, will live with the family. Laurel, a sign language instructor, sees this job as a professional opportunity, but the experience takes a toll on the family. The Freemans are African-Americans living in a small, white rural New England town, and Laurel’s two daughters negotiate their race at school while they also learn to accept their mother’s devotion to Charlie at home. The second story is set in 1929, and explores the history of the Toneybee Institute and the Institute’s reputation for studying African Americans.

There are so many layers to this story. It is a book about sisters. There is a coming of age theme. It is a story of a family redefining itself and what it means to be a minority in a rural white New England community. The book also explores race and science. Greenidge gracefully delves into all of these themes while also being funny! I heard her read the opening at an event this spring and it was laugh out loud funny and made me immediately want to buy the book. I was quickly drawn in to her story and transported into both of the worlds she exquisitely creates.

Greenidge lives in New York and also writes essays. She wrote a very poignant essay about a garden her mother tried to plant that was published the New York Times earlier this year.





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Never too old to debut, part 2

Did you know that Harriet Doerr and Annie Proulx published their debuts after the age of 50? And that Doerr was in her 70s when her first book came out? I didn’t until I read this short piece published by the Center for Fiction, and written by Elizabeth Marro, an author who recently published her own debut in her 50s. I have written about other authors who got their debuts published later in life, but this is the first I have read about the age of these particular authors. I have been working on my own novel for many years and am not sure when it will be published. It is comforting to know that if I debut later in life  I will be in good company.

And then there is Arlene Heyman whose debut collection of short stories, Scary Old Sex came out this spring. She is 74. And not only has she been working on the book for many decades, with some of the stories being published in journals, the title is literal–many of the stories are about older people and their sex lives. I love that she not only published a book at her age, but that she also writes about what it means to be sexually active in one’s 60s and 70s. It is nice to see someone who is able to write openly about what happens to us when we age. I have not read the collection yet, but it is getting good reviews and she has been interviewed widely. One person she spoke to was Terry Gross. The interview includes Heyman reading a couple short excerpts from the book . Thanks to my friend LC for telling me about Heyman.

Let me know if you have read Heyman’s book!




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The Forgetting Time, by Sharon Guskin

Forgetting Time

The Forgetting Time

By Sharon Guskin

Flatiron Books, 2016

357 pages

I love a literary page turner. A  story with just enough mystery to keep me wondering, while also enjoying the rich language and more fully developed characters than is found in commercial fiction. One of my favorite debuts in this category is Celeste Ng’s, Everything I Never Told You. The Forgetting Time is a new favorite.

Janie Zimmerman is a single mom with a unique four-year-old. She got pregnant during a one-night stand while on vacation in Trinidad. She now balances her work as an architect with the energy needed to raise her son Noah. She loves Noah, feels connected to him, but there is a side to him she doesn’t understand. Noah has terrible nightmares and talks about things Janie knows he has never experienced, like reading Harry Potter books and another “mommy.”  After the director of his preschool tells Janie that Noah is no longer welcome in the school, and also suggests he needs therapy, Janie sets off on a journey to discover what is different about her son. She connects with Jerome Anderson, an aging psychiatry professor, who is also an expert on past lives.

I don’t want to give away what happens, as Guskin weaves a beautiful story, but with Jerome, Janie begins to see her son, and the world, in a new way. This book has an intriguing otherworldly set up and a twisting plot that kept surprising me as the story unfolded.

The book explores the mother – son relationship and the idea of when do our lives begin –at birth or are we connected to a longer lifeline? It also explores the extent to which we are influenced by nature or nurture and what it means to have a child and to also lose one. The book read to me like a movie and I got so gripped that I finished it in two sittings. If you enjoy a family mystery and are open to the idea that life does not begin at birth, I think you will enjoy Guskin’s tale.

Guskin lives in Brooklyn was briefly was a member of my writers group. I feel lucky to have met her in person. Check out this lovely conversation she had with a fellow writer about getting her debut into the world.




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The Turner House, by Angela Flournoy

Turner House

The Turner House

Angela Flournoy

Houghton Mifflin, 2015

352 pages

This is a delightful read that I didn’t want to end! There are 13 adult children in the Turner family and in 2008 a decision needs to be made about the fate of the family home in Detroit. The family has lived in East Detroit for over 50 years and Viola, the matriarch is not well, and is living with the eldest child, Cha Cha. Cha Cha thinks it is time to sell the house, but the value of the house is now less than what is left on the mortgage, and not all of the siblings agree with his idea. The family needs to come together to make a decision and support their aging mother.

There are so many aspects that I loved about this book: the crisp writing; the distinct and alive characters; and the artful balance between plot and character development, but I also loved the central theme—how grown adults siblings, ranging from their 40s to their 60s, interact with each other and cope with their family legacy. Most of the story revolves around the lives of Cha Cha, and the youngest Turner, Lelah, who also lives in Detroit. But the other siblings are part of the story, and their parents’ back-story, and journey to Detroit from the south, is also recounted. This is a powerful look at a 21st century African-American family dealing with each other and the current economic situation in Detroit.

Flournoy has been nominated for and won awards for this book – for good reason! The book is now out in paperback and perfect for an early summer read.





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Debuts in the News

I came across some articles and a podcast about debuts this week that I would like to share. The first one, from Bustle, talks about three debut novelists who have made it to the shortlist of the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, which celebrates women writers around the world. It is always nice to see debuts get attention in contests, as it gives them more visibility than they would get otherwise.

In the US, The Nest, a debut novel by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney, about a wealthy dysfunctional New York family, made it on to the NY Times hardcover bestseller list this week. This is extremely unusual, as only a few debuts ever make it to this list. But Sweeney has gotten a lot of press, both for the book and her advance, which was in the seven figures. She is also an older author, making her debut in her 50s. The book is described as a dark comedy

And the Minorities in Publishing podcast features a conversation with three debut novelists and their experiences getting their books out in the world. The conversation includes, Sophia Chester, Leland Cheuk and Mira Jacobs. It’s a frank look at what it means to get a book published when you are a minority.

Happy spring reading, all!



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You Should Pity Us Instead, by Amy Gustine


You Should Pity Us Instead

Amy Gustine

Sarabande Books, 2016

222 pages

Some authors are able to write about multiple worlds, time periods and characters—Amy Gustine is one of them. This debut short story collection has a staggering array of breadth as she sets stories in the U.S. and abroad, in the present and the past, and creates characters of all ages and backgrounds. The only visible connection between the stories is that many focus on motherhood and family and she explore moral choices made by the characters who are everyday people juggling work, family, illness and love.

Each story unfolds slowly, as if Gustine were whispering the reader a secret. And she writes in rich language that creates a series of unique worlds. The book opens with one of my favorite stories, “All the Sons of Cain,” in which an Israeli mother goes to Gaza in search of her son who was captured by Hamas six months prior. She flies to Cairo and gets a driver to take her east where she finds a guide to take her through a tunnel to Gaza. Once there she shows people the photo of her lost son and becomes embroiled with a family. The story is an intimate portrayal of the mother’s quest.

Another one that stood out to me was, “When We’re Innocent.” It tells the story of a father, Obi, who travels from Ohio to Arizona to clean out the apartment of his adult daughter who killed herself. Jocelyn, or Jolly, was a successful TV anchor who didn’t leave a note behind. Obi, and one of Jolly’s neighbors, who is going through a trauma of his own, comb her apartment for clues as to why she took her life. This story is a touching portrait of father – daughter love and the way random people, like neighbors, get to know one and other. Other stories explore a man married to a homebound woman, a 20-something babysitter with a secret from her past and a doctor on Ellis Island.

I was blown away by this collection. If you enjoy contemporary short stories you are in for a treat.

Gustine lives in Ohio and has had many of her stories published in literary journals.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher.



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