Tag Archives: Emma Hooper

Is my favorite debut really a debut?

As I read the “Best of” book lists, and reflect back on my year of reading, I concur with Michelle Obama that the best book I read, and reviewed, this year was Elizabeth Alexander’s The Light of the World. Her poetic use of language, emotional openness and roving intellect made this memoir stay with me weeks and months after I put it down. And as I wrote in my review, my husband got so engrossed with the story that he actually missed his subway stop on his commute home, ending up in a completely different part of Brooklyn than he was headed, when he finally looked up from this book.

She tells the story of the untimely death of her husband at age 50, then goes back in time to share their love story and moves forward to explore her, and her children’s, grief. The book is a wonderful meditation on love and on loss. But although this book is her first memoir, Alexander is such an accomplished poet and academic, with eleven books of poetry and four books of essays published, that I wonder if she counts in the debut category? Since it was her first memoir, I took liberties to include her on my “debut” reading list, and after I loved the book so much, I wanted to share that with all of you.

As for the more traditional debuts, meaning an author without much of a publishing record when their debut novel came out, of the novels I read and wrote about this year, The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen won the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize and is being picked up on best book lists, including the Times 100. And while I enjoyed this book and admired its ambition, the three books that stayed with me the most are:

Etta and Otto and Russell and James, by Emma Hooper, for its magical tale and quirky story.

The Unfortunates, by Sophie McManus, for its breathtakingly precise and beautiful language that made me feel like I was reading a book written 100 years ago.

And Disgruntled, by Asali Solomon, for her ability to capture the teenage years of a unique girl growing up in Philadelphia.

Although The Unfortunates was written up quite widely when it came out and was nominated for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, all of these books deserve more attention than they got. And the authors all capture unique female stories which deepen our collective understanding of the world.

How about you? What debuts did you read this year that you really loved?

In the new year, I will write about books that I didn’t get to yet in 2015, including The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma and Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House.

Happy holidays, dear readers….to a festive end of the year. Until 2016!


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Etta and Otto and Russell and James, by Emma Hooper


Etta and Otto and Russell and James

By Emma Hooper

Simon & Schuster, 2015

320 pages

Eighty-three year old Etta Kinnick embarks on a journey from Saskatchewan to Halifax – on foot – leaving behind her husband Otto, who she has been married to for decades, and his best friend, Russell, who has been in love with Etta for as long as Otto has. Although her memory is failing, her heart and spirit are strong, and as she slowly makes her way across Canada she befriends a coyote, James, and become a minor celebrity after stories of her journey appear in local papers. Otto copes with his loss by making large papier-mache figures out of newspapers. And Russell goes out in search of Etta. Interspersed into the story of Etta’s journey is the story of how Etta and Otto met, during the 1940s when Etta, just out of teachers college, got her first teaching job in the small town where Otto and Russell grew up.

This book is quirky and imaginative. Some reviewers have taken issue with the veracity of an 83-year old woman walking across modern-day Canada on her own, but I enjoyed her journey and the unusual people and animals she met along the way. And there is a magical element to this book, which reminded me of The Snow Child, which created a touching quality to the journey. This is a book about love, independence, commitment and aging. Some Canadian reviewers feel that it captures Canadian culture in a unique way.

My only issue with the book is that I found the final pages to be a bit rushed. The storytelling becomes more compact, with short fragments of chapters, as the story comes to an end, and I wanted Hooper to draw out her story a little more than she did. But overall, I found this to be an engaging and magical book.

Hooper is an author, musician and academic. From Canada she now lives in Bath, United Kingdom.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher via Net Galley.

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Debut Novels in the News

The Guardian recently profiled a collection of authors who are publishing UK debuts in 2015. The list includes Jessica Cornwell, the granddaughter of John le Carre, whose The Serpent Papers is a literary thriller about a rare book expert; and Laura Barnett, who wrote a book that captures the lives of two people in three parallel narratives called The Versions of Us. It also features a book I just started reading, Etta and Otto and Russell and James, by Emma Hooper, about an 80-year woman from rural Canada who walks 2,000 miles to see the ocean for the first time in her life.

The article provides background on eight authors, and their works, and then blurbs a handful more. It is nice way to read about some new and interesting authors, though the books might not publish in the US as soon as they do in the UK.

Also in the UK, the Costa Awards were announced and Emma Healey won the Costa First Novel Award for her book Elizabeth is Missing. It is a story about an older woman with dementia who decides to search for her missing best friend. The book has been described as an engaging psychological mystery.

In the US, Mitchell S. Jackson won the Ernest J. Gaines Award for his debut novel, The Residue Years. I have a copy of this book on my shelf and am looking forward to reading it. It has been noted for its unique narrative style (non-linear and with unconventional grammar and punctuation). Set in the 90s in Portland, OR, it tells the story of a young African-American man and his mother and how they struggle to make lives for themselves in a world where crack cocaine dominates their neighborhood.

So many intriguing books to read and never enough time to read them all! Unless those of us on the east coast get snowed in later tonight 😉

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