With more and more new writers getting published each month, it’s sometimes daunting to decide which newly minted authors to add to your reading list. From historical novels to literary fiction to mysteries that will keep you up all night, here’s a look at the best debut fiction of the season.
SUSPENSEFUL FAMILY DRAMA
The basic plot of The Swimming Pool sounds like a soap opera: A devoted wife and mother of two is murdered. Shortly after, her husband—a suspect—dies in a car accident. Seven years later, the son of the dead couple has a steamy affair. His lover? The woman who was his late father’s mistress.
Under Holly LeCraw’s spell, what could have been pure pulp is instead a passionate and suspenseful family drama and murder mystery, set during the sultry summertime of Cape Cod. LeCraw skillfully alternates between past and present, allowing the reader to observe Marcella Atkinson’s affair with Cecil McClatchey; the consequences it has on both her family and his; and her later relationship with Jed, Cecil’s son.
The aftermath of betrayal and the cost of passion loom large in the story’s background. Did Marcella and Cecil’s affair cause the death of Cecil’s wife, Betsy? Was Marcella’s temporary happiness with Cecil worth disrupting the lives of her family? Is it possible to find happiness after horrific events?
Although LeCraw’s descriptive prose is sensual and worth savoring, readers will whip through The Swimming Pool, eager to find out what really happened on the night of Betsy’s murder. At the novel’s conclusion, they’ll relish the fact that LeCraw is a debut author—how thrilling it is to anticipate what she’ll come up with next.
BEHIND THE FREAK SHOW
To the modern thrill-seeker, the main event of P.T. Barnum’s Circus may be the strangely trained animals or death-defying stunts. The original circus, however, began with a much humbler lineup, as “A Museum of Curiosities” in New York City in the mid-1800s.
In The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno, readers get an inside peek at the lives behind the freak show, home to skeleton men, oversized beasts and bearded women. But the performers in Barnum’s sideshow are real people, complete with genuine struggles, emotions, ambitions and love lives. The story’s protagonist, Fortuno, or “Barthy,” is one such multifaceted character.
After meeting a new addition to the cast, Mrs. Iell Adams, Barthy’s tiny world is widened by his own curiosity. Intrigued by her alluring look, he begins to question his own “talent,” asking himself for the first time if he has chosen his life or if it has chosen him.
Trudging through his doubt, he follows the impulses of his newfound feelings, sometimes to his own detriment, and often leaving others in the wake of his decisions. Beginning as a troubled soul who rarely stopped to dwell on the past or realize the implications of the present, Barthy emerges transformed by the twists and turns of his true self-discovery.
Bryson’s writing invites readers directly onto the showroom floor with her apt descriptions of the culture surrounding the Museum life. She’s done her digging—and it’s clear in her detailed portrait of the complexities and conflicts of a life behind glass. This is an apropos end-of-summer pick for the historian and/or the endlessly curious. Whether or not they’re familiar with Barnum and his enterprise, readers will find much to appreciate in this story about the life-transforming power of love.
THE DEPTHS OF LIFE AND DEATH
One of the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease is the tangling of the fibers used for sending and receiving neural messages, particularly in the regions of the brain associated with memory. As one of the leading researchers into the biological prevention of Alzheimer’s, Victor Aaron can identify all the signs of the disease with textbook precision, but it is only upon losing his wife in a car accident that he truly begins to understand the fickle and fleeting nature of memory.
In Rosecrans Baldwin’s You Lost Me There, Victor has memorialized his marriage as picture-perfect, but when he stumbles upon his wife’s private reflections on their relationship, recorded for their therapist, he begins to realize just how incompatible his own perceptions of the relationship are relative to his wife’s. As he delves deeper into Sarah’s recollections, Victor finds himself increasingly overcome with grief as he struggles to reconcile his memories of their grand romance. With the dawning understanding that “you never know what lurks beneath people, even when they’re perfect on paper,” Victor finds he must mourn Sarah all over again.
Unrestrained yet elegant, You Lost Me There is a powerful meditation on the all-consuming nature of grief and the power of memory as both redeemer and destroyer. A novel of contradictions, it plumbs the depths of life and death, sense and sentimentality, youth and maturity—all while tackling the big quandary of how we can hold on to the past while moving forward. This is a novel for which all the romantic intellectuals of the world will rejoice, as Baldwin proves there can be such a thing as a cerebral author who writes with his heart.
SECRETS OF A SCOTTISH TOWN
The post-WWII town featured in A.D. Scott’s enjoyable novel is not a happy place. The weather in this Scottish Highlands village is often dismal and the people are hidebound, which leads too often to downtrodden women, mistreated children and a reflexive distrust of strangers. Then a little boy dies. At first it’s assumed that his death was accidental, but the town is gripped by horror as it’s revealed that the child was murdered. Who could have done such a thing?
The crime is of special interest to the staff of the Highland Gazette: Joanne, the typist, married to a brute who beats both her and their children; Rob, the charming cub reporter; McAllister, the editor-in-chief; and McLeod, “the subeditor and all-around fusspot know-it-all.” As the mystery of the boy’s death grows more tangled and frustrating, it’s McAllister who finds a possible clue to solving the crime in a secret trauma he’s been nursing for years.
Scott shows us that many in the town have secrets. Some are trivial, like the secrets children keep to stay out of trouble. But some are monstrous. Scott not only captures the townsfolk’s insularity and way of speaking, but writes beautifully about the natural world that surrounds them.
Written with humor, compassion and a fine sense of tragedy, A Small Death in the Great Glen is the first in a series by this promising new author.
THE MULTICULTURAL EXPERIENCE
Shoko was eight years old when American bombs fell on Nagasaki; she and her family experienced the repercussions from that day throughout their lives. Her younger brother Taro grew up hating all Americans, so when Shoko decides to try to “better” herself by marrying an American GI, Taro vows he will never speak to her again.
After relocating to the States with her new husband, Shoko struggles to become an American. She is aided by a book given to her by her mother when she left Japan, How to Be an American Housewife, but still finds it difficult to fit in. Margaret Dilloway, whose own mother was Japanese, writes perceptively about the neighbors who never visit, the classmates of Shoko’s daughter, Sue, who laugh about her mother’s accent, and PTA meetings where Shoko is painfully out of place.
Years later, in San Diego, Shoko has a weak heart, and knows she may die before she has the necessary operation to repair it. She longs to visit Japan once again and reconcile with Taro—“the only one who knew me, the real Shoko.” She asks Sue (now a divorced mother of precocious 12-year-old Helena) to go to Japan in her place—to try and find her uncle Taro. Sue agrees to go, Helena in tow; their journey becomes a revelation, in a myriad of ways. Sue learns things about her mother’s culture she had never heard of, finds cousins she never knew she had and comes to realize how much her Japanese roots really mean to her—and to Helena.
In this emotionally rich debut, Dilloway delves into all familial relationships: mother-daughter, father-son, husband-wife and sister-brother—each one both complicated and enriched by the added ingredient of the multicultural experience. Readers will easily relate to her touching, often humorous story of the way unbreakable family ties can stretch over decades, and from one generation to another.
A ROAD TRIP WORTH THE RIDE
Bill Warrington, a cantankerous old man with Alzheimer’s disease, believes he has one last shot at something. But as the story unfolds, we see that every character has one last chance to drop the baggage from their angry past. All that is a bit iffy, however, since the key to bringing about a happy ending depends on a crusty grandfather on the brink of forgetting what he was trying to achieve in the first place.
Enter Bill’s granddaughter, April, a typical teenager looking for any chance to escape her tightly wound mother. And escape she does after yet another argument at home followed by a bit of luck. As it happens, Bill is ready to hit the road for one last hurrah in his ancient Impala.
In April’s eyes, this road trip’s purpose is to fulfill her dream of making it to California to become a rock star. But Bill has a secret or two. His plans for this trip are to reunite his feuding sons and his domineering daughter, April’s mother. But as the odometer miles add up, it becomes clear to April that Bill may not be able to pull off this shenanigan with his mental stamina fading faster every day. And how is a 15-year-old, alone and far from home, supposed to handle this deteriorating geezer while helping him achieve a highly unlikely reconciliation?
Bill Warrington’s Last Chance turns out to be quite a ride for all the characters involved—and it proves that taking a chance may not turn out exactly as you had planned, but it’s darn worth a try.
—Dee Ann Grand
A BUOYANT BEACH READ WITH HEART
Susanna Daniel’s Stiltsville is rooted in a community of stilt houses towering above Biscayne Bay, Florida, where the author spent much of her childhood. Daniel masterfully evokes the sticky Miami heat and refreshing ocean breezes, but there is so much more to these pages than fetching seaside images. Daniel’s characters are emotionally complex and so believable that Stiltsville almost reads as a memoir rather than a work of fiction.
The book’s beating heart is Frances Ellerby, whom readers follow on a moving journey that hits all the milestones: marriage, parenthood, trying illness, burial of loved ones and the highs and lows in between. Frances shares the spotlight with her attorney husband Dennis, only daughter Margo and son-in-law—with whom she chaffs—Stuart. On the periphery are Dennis’ parents and sister, characters that aid in relaying a story of unwavering familial support and friendship.
Daniel strikes a perfect balance of wit, weakness and tenderness in Stiltsville. As Frances raises a daughter, contemplates infidelity and cares for an ailing husband, her values are challenged and ultimately defined. It is not as light as other beach reads on the market, but Stiltsville emerges wonderfully buoyant.
—Lizza Connor Bowen