A Novel Debut

Pity the poor debut novel. First it has to overcome the almost impossible odds of actually getting published. No mean feat with an unknown author. Then it has the daunting task of competing for a reader’s attention with books that are from established writers who have a dedicated fan base and a big publicity machine behind them. All these obstacles have a benefit for the reader though: debut novels are often unconventional. To grab a reading audience, an unknown author will often go out of their way to establish a unique style, theme or ambiance. Sometimes this flops, but other times it produces a unique and mesmerizing reading experience. I’ve never found a foolproof way of discerning the good from the bad, but recently I’ve come across two debut novels that are well worth your reading time.

Why Are You So Sad? by Jason Porter
whyareyousosadRaymond Champs, an illustrator of instructional manuals at a large furnishing company, is not a happy camper. He casts a jaundiced eye at the world around him and sees little to celebrate and much to criticize with biting humor.  Instead of seeing his resulting despair as a personal problem, however, he becomes convinced that his condition is universal. Everybody on the planet is suffering from clinical depression, they just don’t realize it. In order to prove his theory, and save his sanity, he decides to create a questionnaire to probe his coworkers supposed afflictions. To get them to actually fill the form out, he claims it is from Human Resources. Not a smart career move, but it gets the job done. His coworkers begin scratching their heads and trying to figure out how to answer questions such as:

If you were a day of the week, would you be a Monday or Wednesday?
Are you for the chemical elimination of all things painful?
Do you think we need more sports?

Porter’s novel is definitely a modern office satire and any fellow denizen of bureaucratic culture, be it corporate or governmental, will find themselves chuckling throughout the work. The author clearly also has an absurdist bent and likes to play with language, especially dialog, and plot. This turns what could have been a more conventional satirical novel into something more experimental. The ending especially, which is far from conclusive but ultimately satisfying, might be a hard sell for some. Still, if you are willing to leave a few conventions behind, and have no problem laughing out loud while reading, this novel is for you.

The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane
nightguestRuth Field lives in an idyllic Australian seaside home just steps from the beach. She is recently widowed, her husband having died suddenly from a heart attack, but is slowly getting used to living alone. She stays in contact with her two adult sons and also has memories of her early life growing up in Fiji to keep her company. There is one problem though; when she wakes in the evening, she hears what she thinks is a tiger prowling around her house, knocking over furniture and trying to get into her bedroom.  One day a woman named Frida, stating that she is a caregiver sent by the government, shows up and begins to help Ruth out in small ways for an hour or two a day. Ruth is taken aback at first, since she is not used to having a stranger in the house, but slowly comes to rely on Frida for most things. As the relationship develops, however, it soon becomes clear that Frida is not what she claims to be.

The plot of this novel may seem somewhat conventional, but the presentation is anything but. Most of the book is from Ruth’s perspective as she struggles to figure out what is real and whether Frida is a force for good or ill. Slowly her ideas of the past and the present begin to blend as she tries to make sense of events that could be either real or imagined. The author’s use of language is the key here, with it beautifully reflecting the strange state of consciousness that can come as the mind slowly slips away. The effect is quite haunting and produces a gothic ambiance that has no need for paranormal activity to produce a sense of dread and foreboding. What‘s in the mind is more than enough.

So why not try a debut novel or two? There’s nothing wrong with being unconventional from time to time.

Invasion of the Killer B-movie Robot Monster from Mars

It CameB-movies meet P.G. Wodehouse in the 2014 graphic novel It Came!, ‘directed’ by Dan Boultwood. Boultwood previously illustrated a series of graphic novels about The Baker Street Irregulars which were written by Tony Lee, who has also written for IDW’s Doctor Who Comics.

Before the main ‘feature’ there are a number of 1950’s style advertisements. For example, the top of one page sports an illustration of an attractive, stylish woman declaring, “I like my men like I like my bacon: Smokey.” At the bottom of the page: “Smoke & Choke’um Cigarettes: For that discerning odour.”

Just before the ‘feature attraction’ begins there is a ‘trailer’ for another ‘feature’ (and possible future comic, according to interviews with the author): The Lost Valley of the LostLost Valley features the two stars of It Came!, Dick Claymore and Fanny Flaunders, as well as Cecil Herringbone and Sir Rutherford P. Basingstoke as Caveman. The trailer features views of canyons with our heroine, played by the lovely Fanny Flaunders, in perilous situations: being attacked by a snake, a plant and a spanner. The trailer’s climax sees the heroes being confronted by a rather cuddly dinosaur.

On to our ‘feature’, It Came!, presented in Eyeball-O-Rama-Vision! A colorful poster-style page depicting a giant robot clutching a beautiful woman proclaims, “Something is coming round for afternoon tea…and it isn’t the vicar!” Then our story begins. In 1950’s England an old farmer drives his tractor under the stars. Suddenly, a robot monster attacks!

Two days pass and Dr. Boy Brett, dashing pipe-smoking British scientist, and his lovely assistant Doris Night are motoring down a country road in what appears to be a Morris Minor. Brett is very English, with rather Wodehousian speech patterns. For example, complimenting Doris, Brett says, “You know, Doris? For a girl, you’re a good egg!”

Doris and Dr. Brett stop at a pub in a quaint country village. The village is deserted. Our heroes are chased by an alien robot. They escape to the next quaint village, which is inhabited by people who appear to be living in the 1940’s. Dr. Brett makes a very British phone call to Colonel Willie Warwick Wilberton of the British army, who sends out some troops in exchange for two pints and a pork pie.

And that’s just the first quarter of the book!

Earth vs Flying Boultwood is inspired by American B-movies of the 1950’s, the type one might see on Mystery Science Theater 3000, such as Earth Vs. the Flying Saucers and Attack of the Crab Monsters. However, It Came! is more of an homage than a send-up. Boultwood has lots of fun with the genre (for example, when the flying saucer is revealed there is a string attached!), but the fun is never cruel.

It Came! has everything: beautiful women, flying saucers, soldiers, politicians with really big pipes, explosions, tea and crumpets, and, of course, science! It’s enjoyable, funny reading and I highly recommend it.

Spot-Lit for September 2014

Spot-Lit

Click the titles below and then the Full Display button to read summaries or reviews or to place titles on hold.

General Fiction / Literary Fiction  

Fiction

The Bone Clocks  by David Mitchell
Paying Guests  by Sarah Waters
The Betrayers  by David Bezmozgis
Florence Gordon  by Brian Morton
The Dog  by Joseph O’Neill

First Novels / Fiction

Debut

How to Build a Girl  by Caitlin Moran
Fives and Twenty-Fives  by Michael Pitre
Gutenberg’s Apprentice  by Alix Christie
Rooms  by Lauren Oliver
A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing  by Eimear McBride

Many more promising debuts are coming out this month – take a look.

Crime Fiction /Suspense

Crime

The Secret Place  by Tana French
Last of the Independents  by Sam Wiebe
Perfidia  by James Ellroy
The Monogram Murders  by Sophie Hannah
Gangsterland  by Tod Goldberg

SF / Fantasy

SF

The Hawley Book of the Dead  by Chrysler Szarlan
The Mirror Empire  by Kameron Hurley
The Broken Eye  by Brent Weeks
The Falcon Throne  by Karen Miller
Maplecroft  by Cheri Priest

Romance / Erotica

Romance

Stay with Me  by J. Lynn
Claudine  by Barbara Palmer
Screwdrivered  by Alice Clayton
Linger  by Lauren Jameson
Virtue Falls  by Christina Dodd

To see all on-order fiction, click here.

Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands

Once in a while (or more often than I care to admit) I’ll zone out and start thinking about stuff that does me no good. Here is an example from when I was staring into space for five minutes in the produce section at Safeway:

They’re going to peel open my skull, take a peek around and be devastated by what they find. Or don’t find. I don’t know if they can tell this from an autopsy, but the way I live doesn’t adhere to anyone’s expectations or standards. In fact, I’ve been a disappointment to a lot of people. When I die, it will be unremarkable but not in a sad way because hey, I’ll be dead. Anyway, the only information they’ll get out of my autopsy will be that I ate 3 pints of Ben and Jerry’s Toffee Coffee Crunch, was still using Clearasil at the age of 80 and I may or may not have 76 cats back in the apartment I died in.

It’s the weird stuff you get obsessed about while picking out carrots or trying to figure out the difference between red cabbage and plain lettuce.

closeyoureyesIn Chris Bohjalian’s Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands Emily Shepard is a teenager who loves the poetry of Emily Dickinson and seems like your run of the mill 17-year-old. There’s mention of mental illness and wildness but I could never tell if that was just Emily being a teenager or if she was in need of hefty medications and therapy three times a week. She’s a door-slamming and yelling teenager, hates her drunk parents most of the time and likes to go out and party. Both of her parents work at a nuclear plant in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. They have loud drunken fights and quiet hung over mornings.

One morning with every boring thing in its proper place, Emily goes to school, her parents go to work, and things go to hell. At Emily’s school there’s an announcement. All of the students are filed onto buses they’ve never seen. As the buses leave the town and the army comes in, rumors and pieces of the story start to come together. One of the reactors had a meltdown, Chernobyl style. There’s whispering that Emily’s father was working while loaded and caused the tragedy.

Emily tries to think back to the morning before leaving for school. Did her dad seem drunk or hung over? Was it his fault? Everybody thinks so. Since he’s dead they all look to her. She’s his daughter. It’s her fault. Her hometown becomes a ghost town with the national guard surrounding it. The area won’t be inhabitable for hundreds of years. Emily realizes both her parents are dead from the nuclear meltdown and she’s on a bus to God knows where. She decides to slip away.

It is the beginning of her new life.

She becomes a homeless teen with a made up name. She falls in with a bunch of other kids who crash at a filthy crack house. She services truckers for money and drugs. She tries not to think of her parents or the town she grew up in. As strange as it sounds, she worries most about her dog Maggie who may have been locked in the house during the meltdown. She obsesses on this. She decides that while yes, her life sucks big time, she’s still alive. It’s the dead of a New England winter and at least she gets a warm place to stay.

But this isn’t what she wants. She disappears and builds an igloo out of frozen leaves and garbage bags. She meets Cameron, an eight year old boy with a black eye. He’d been through a series of foster homes and was used as a punching bag. She feels a terrifying and unexpected tenderness for the kid and takes care of him; making sure she gets healthy food for him to eat and getting him to read the books she steals. But one day Cameron gets a cold he doesn’t seem to get over. It’s a bitter winter and they’ve been sharing a cold back and forth but this is something different. Cameron’s fever won’t leave and he can’t breathe. Emily takes him to the ER and then splits because she feels guilty that she didn’t take him in sooner and that she didn’t take good enough care of him.

She decides there’s only one place to go: back to the uninhabited town she left almost a year ago. She has no doubts that the radioactivity will eventually kill her. She just wants to go home. Sleep in her own bed, look at her journals and books. She wants to find the body of her dog Maggie and give her a proper burial.

A friend of mine recommended this book as we were driving around town and listing the past couple of books we had just read. I stored it away in my brain because I’ve read some of Chris Bohjalian’s other work and really liked them. Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands is a book to read when you’re in a particular mood where all you can think about is where you’ll end up in life. A mood where all the people you interact with become satellites orbiting your world. It’s a good book to read when you believe you’re the most selfish person in the world and you have no redeeming qualities..

In the end, you can go home. You might die from cancer or radiation sickness. You might have to eat refried beans from cans two years out of date. You might not even realize you’re lonely because you’re sleeping in your own bed.

But you will still be you and you will still find your way home.

Heartwood 4:5 – Hotel Andromeda by Gabriel Josipovici

Hotel Andromeda in the Everett Public Library catalogIn Hotel Andromeda, Gabriel Josipovici has written a beautiful and thoughtful tribute to eccentric 20th-century American artist Joseph Cornell, while also telling an engaging story of his own. This is one of those rare books in which, at least from my perspective, not a single false note is struck and every word belongs.

Helena is an independent scholar who lives in London and writes books about artists such as Monet and Bonnard. She is currently working on one about Cornell, and it is giving her some difficulty. In rotating fashion, the short chapters focus on Helena’s notes for her book-in-progress, her visits with fellow tenants Ruth (on the top floor) and Tom (in the basement), and her interactions with the surprise visitor, Ed, a photojournalist who has been driven out of Chechnya where Helena’s uncommunicative sister Alice lives and works at an orphanage. Helena learns that Ed has been sent by her sister who told him Helena would put him up temporarily as he looks for work. She is stunned by the appearance of this inconvenient messenger from her long-silent sister but she reluctantly agrees to let him stay.

Not a lot happens in the book – just perfectly executed conversations about art and life and contemporary Chechen/Russian politics, along with conflicted yearnings for connection, communication and solitude. The way Cornell’s life and art are woven through the story is fascinating and skillfully done, and these sections suffuse the book with an aura of dream, reminiscence, imagination, and childhood.

Heartwood normally focuses on older books, but I enjoyed Hotel Andromeda so much, with its short chapters and narrow columns of dialogue, that I wanted to give it some immediate attention. Josipovici’s book also fits here in a couple other ways: in several places it refers to Heartwood-featured author Camille Flammarion, and, as chance would have it, a photo of the Cornell box Hotel Eden appears on the cover of Felisberto Hernández’s Lands of Memory which was featured in Heartwood earlier this year.

The library owns several attractive books about Cornell, or you can read about him and sample his work online here and here and here.

Heartwood | About Heartwood

It’s Time to Get Romantic

Romance. Erotica. What comes to mind when you read these words? Do you think of the “pinkies” in the Large Type collection? Harlequin romances your mom used to read? Fifty Shades of Grey? Romance is all of that and so much more.

I unabashedly admit proclaim being a romance reader and enjoy sharing with you the best of the best every year when I cover the RITAs. The RITAs are selected by the Romance Writers of America every year at their annual conference. The category descriptions have one thing in common: the romance titles they list are emotionally satisfying and optimistic. This is also known as the main reason Carol reads romance in the first place.

This year’s winners were announced at the end of July but I was still trying to snap out of the lovely trance The Boys in the Boat had woven around me. Now I’m a bit back to normal and happy to link you to this year’s winners:

No Good Duke - MacLeanBest First Book Winner
The Sweet Spot by Laura Drake

Contemporary Romance Winner
Crazy Thing Called Love by Molly O’Keefe

Erotic Romance Winner
Claim Me by J. Kenner

Historical Romance Winner
No Good Duke Goes Unpunished by Sarah MacLean

Inspirational Romance Winner
Five Days in Skye by Carla Laureano

Claim Me - KennerParanormal Romance Winner
The Firebird by Susanna Kearsley

Romance Novella Winner
Take Me, Cowboy by Jane Porter

Romantic Suspense Winner
Off the Edge by Carolyn Crane

Short Contemporary Romance Winner
Why Resist a Rebel? by Leah Ashton

You’ll notice I didn’t include a link for every title. That’s because the library is working on purchasing them, but they’re not yet in the catalog. If you’re interested, feel free to talk to a librarian. Let them know it’s now an award winner and that Carol sent ya.

RWA also awards a Librarian of the Year to someone who demonstrates outstanding support of romance authors and the romance genre. This year’s librarian of the year is Sean Gilmartin from The Anythink Library in Thornton, Colorado. Sean did a wonderful write-up of his experience in USA Today that you should totally go read. Like, right now. He’s also a writer, so keep your eyes open for his name on the shelves of the Romance section in the future.

Obsidian - ArmentroutI learned from Carol Ritter, Deputy Executive Director of RWA, that this year there weren’t enough entries in the YA category, so as a result there was no winner. I classify this as a major bummer and hope that next year will be different. Carol also said there aren’t any plans at this time to add an NA category to the RITAs, but I speculate that may change in the future as its popularity continues to rise. What is NA? While many people recognize YA standing for young adult, not everyone has caught on to NA, or new adult. NA is similar to YA in that the characters are of a certain age. But in NA’s case the age group is closer to college-aged. Characters aren’t in high school anymore, but they’re also not exactly established in their careers yet. They’re just starting out on their own, and as they explore their worlds these books get to the core of what it’s like to really fall hard for someone for the first time. The romantic elements tend to be more explicit in NA than in YA, but both usually contain a fair amount of emotional turmoil and fresh-faced discovery.

Frigid - J LynnCan’t decide which to explore first? I will ease you into it by suggesting you read anything and everything written by Jennifer L. Armentrout (YA) aka J. Lynn (NA). Jennifer is one of the most prolific writers of our time, and more importantly, her books are good. I mean, really, really good. You will care and cry and laugh and swoon for her characters. You will identify and connect with someone in your life who has read her and find yourself talking about the little quirks the characters have, and what you hope does or does not happen in the series conclusion. And when you’ve devoured her stories and are waiting for the next to be published, she tweets behind-the-scenes descriptions of what life is really like for a writer. She champions self-published authors, since she started out as one, and will express her joy at a book she’s read and enjoyed during those rare moments of free time. She interacts directly with fans and one of her best collections of photos is with fans at book signings & conferences.

So far, I have devoured all but the ending to The Lux series, which is classified as YA. I’ve been waiting until I have a bit more uninterrupted free time to read the conclusion. It has romance, action and adventure, and a Sci-Fi twist: aliens! Last week The Lux series cracked the NY Times YA Series list at number 4. As a thank you, Jennifer posted a bonus passage for Lux fans who have completed the series that catches up with the characters a few years later. I can’t read it just yet but am excited know it’s there, waiting for me.

My first taste of NA was Frigid, followed immediately by Wait for You. The plot of Frigid is a variation on my favorite theme, friends who become more than just friends. Wait for You centers on a woman who faces her internal demons while working toward a brighter future. At the time I wasn’t aware that either book would be part of a series, so now I can look forward to falling further into obsession love with the characters and settings!

For me, the best part of reading romance is knowing there is a happy ending waiting at the conclusion of the book. It’s something I can count on, something I can look forward to experiencing. We can all use a little bit of happy in our lives, and that’s why I will never tire of reading romance. And, dear reader, I will never tire of telling you why you need to read it as well.

My Name is Helen and I’m a Minotaur

I am not a fantasy literature enthusiast. (Don’t even get me started on science fiction and fantasy being lumped together). Oh, there was a time when I would occasionally read a questing book, but seldom was my interest piqued. Then came a day when I could no longer tolerate the Hermit of Xymanocles and his winged steed Zqlkmoyx climbing the Teeth of Mekjalinm in search of Belxogggm’s Sherbet. It didn’t matter if the story was compelling or well-written, I just couldn’t take one more unpronounceable name.

Helen and TroyBut recently while walking the hallowed aisles of EPL, a book cover caught my attention, Helen and Troy’s Epic Road Quest. It had “quest” in the title, definitely a bad sign, but between the enticing blurb, the bitchin’ artwork and my enjoyment of the author’s Emperor Mollusk versus The Sinister Brain, I decided to give it a go.

One of my favorite devices in literature, as well as in other artistic endeavors, is for an author/artist to take an established form and to mess with it. For example, Picasso, although employing an abstract style, painted classical subjects such as still lifes and portraits. Many of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels take well-known fables and twist them. And literary remixes like Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters surround actual classic books with additional text, thus making something new from something old. So I had high hopes that this quest would be the fractured fairy tale of all quests.

In the world that A. Lee Martinez created for this epic road quest, Helen is a Minotaur. This is unusual. Although there are people with Minotaur characteristics here and there, very few of them are full-blown 100% Minotaur. And, life can be difficult for a 7 foot teenage girl with horns and fur. Troy by contrast is human, Asian (which helps him relate to Helen in how people can be stereotyped) and perfect in every way: handsome, fit, smart, funny, patient, unflappable. The two work together at a burger joint until the day when their leprechaun boss tries to sacrifice Helen (assuming that she is a virgin) to his god.

In Helen and Troy’s world, most people are … well, just that, people. But mythical beings such as orcs and the occasional Cyclops are also a common part of the mix of creatures inhabiting the earth. And these beings do not live apart from the humans; orcs, nearly indestructible and somewhat nasty, are accountants, salespeople, and so on. This mixture of races isn’t regarded as remarkable, it’s just how things are.

And as many types of creatures as there be, even more gods are toying with people’s lives. Helen and Troy are given the choice by a sort of paranormal FBI to go on a quest or die. They choose to quest, even though chances are they’ll die in the process. So the two are assigned to find certain unidentified items but aren’t told what items to look for, nor for that matter where to look. This might seem to be an insurmountable undertaking, but adventures/fables/quests follow a certain format and the two teens end up on the right track despite their lack of preparation.

To tell too much more would give away the fun bits of the story, but what I can say is that this quest was palatable and enjoyable because it turned expectations upside down and didn’t use funny names. Here is a world where mythical monsters are just everyday joes doing their jobs (practically clocking in for the day) and everyone is a pawn of the gods, working unwillingly to help the immortals overcome the boredom of eternity.

The tale is filled with large doses of humor, teen angst, and romantic tension between the two main characters. An orc motorcycle gang, following the command of their own god, creates further interest and comic relief. Finally, here’s a quest I can get behind.

Helen and Troy’s Epic Road Quest is a Quick Pick, so you won’t find it in the EPL catalog. But try browsing the Quick Pick collection until you find this fantasy gem. If late summer finds you looking for adventure, romance and tips on how to keep boys from noticing your shedding fur, you could certainly do worse.