Best Debut Fiction of 2019: The Last List of Miss Judith Kratt, by Andrea Bobotis

Interestingly, my favorite as well as two honorable mentions share a social justice component.

Honorable Mentions:

https://seattlebookmamablog.org/2019/04/13/miracle-creek-by-angie-kim/

Carnegie Hill, by Jonathan Vatner***

My thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for the review copy.  This work of fiction started out like gangbusters and left me feeling confused in the end. What the heck is the author’s purpose here?

The premise is that Pepper, the child of hugely wealthy, influential parents, has left home to live an adult life without her mother’s interference. She meets a man from a working class background and they fall in love; they purchase an apartment at the prestigious Chelmsford Arms, and the ancient chairman invites her to join the building’s board of directors. She likes Pepper’s pedigree, and the board is comprised entirely of elderly people, so it’s good to have some fresh perspective. Or so the old lady thinks.

At the outset, I think this will be a satirical poke at the rich, and as the story unfolds it is on its way to being just that. We see the building through Pepper’s eyes, and we see it through the eyes of the door men that work there. The only people of color here are employees, and Pepper’s effort to create a more diverse community meet a wall of resistance. And Pepper’s fiancé, whom her parents distrust, turns out to be untrustworthy.  There are several places that make me laugh out loud, and I have high hopes.

But as we move on, the message becomes muddy and the pace slows considerably. Pepper’s fiancé has his own concerns, and we see things through his perspective—all points of view are told in the third person omniscient. Part of the time he seems to be exactly the dirt bag that Pepper’s parents say that he is, but part of the time he is just a loving, misunderstood guy. Ultimately, after a plot that goes all over the place with no apparent destination, it is he that proves to be the most dreadful racist of all of them.

When the board meets, Pepper makes the acquaintance of two other couples, both of them elderly, and both apparently in content, long-term marriages, and she believes they will be her role models, since her own parents are divorced. However, neither couple is happy, and we see their relationships deteriorate. Indeed, the healthiest relationship she sees is between two of the doormen, who are closeted at first, but later come out.

None of these characters is developed much, but the one that seems least credible to me is Sergei, who does a complete turnabout in his willingness to come out of the closet and be in a public relationship with Caleb. We don’t see any kind of struggle on his part and the change is abrupt. Given the importance that Vatner attaches to these two men, I would have thought we would see much more of Sergei’s perspective leading up to the transition.

The worst part for me is that in the end, all of the characters seem much more equal to one another, the filthy rich having their share of misery and the working class being content. Give me a damn break.

Despite this rant, it’s clear that Vatner has talent. There are several passages that make me sit up and take notice. The challenge he faces is in creating a bigger picture with better developed characters, and better pacing. Since this is his debut, he has plenty of time to grow, and I look forward to seeing what he publishes in the years to come.

The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, by Stuart Turton*****

I am late to the party, but it’s still going strong. Stuart Turton’s masterful debut generated so much talk that I couldn’t not read this book, and it lives up to the buzz. Big thanks go to Net Galley and Sourcebooks Landmark.

Aiden wakes up stranded in the woods, and he has no idea who he is. Strangers rescue him and he’s taken to an aging English manor house, where a party is taking place. Everyone recognizes him but he doesn’t know any of them, and in time he realizes that he is living inside the body of another person at the scene of a murder. Every time he wakes up, he is in the body of a new host  at the same party in the same house, often someone he has already seen from the outside while he inhabits a different body; he lives through the same day he has just experienced, but through a different perspective. He will never be permitted to leave the manor or be restored to his own body until he is able to solve the mystery; he is in a competition with others in more or less the same position.  At the outset, he is inside Jonathan Derby, and everyone obsequiously attends to his needs. He is injured. He needs rest.

This story has a house-that-Jack-built quality, because each time Aiden wakes up, he can recall everything he learned when he was inside someone else. This advantage is offset by the fact that each host is more difficult to occupy, with the personality of the host warring for control over the body that he shares with them.  Several curves—including more murders—are added to the mix.  The reader has to decide which events are related to the murder, and which are extraneous; on top of that, some of the characters Aiden encounters are liars.

When I began reading I tried to keep track of the information, but soon it became obvious that I would need a flow chart to stand even a small chance of solving this thing, so I gave up and rode along, enjoying the progress of the story, but clueless as to how it would work out. Even so, it is a complex enough tale that I learned quickly not to read it after I took my sleeping pill.

Not only is it cleverly conceived and well paced, but there is character development, made possible with Anna’s back story and the humanizing of the Plague Doctor. I can only tip my hat in awe.

So Turton has a monstrously successful debut novel, but the pressure is on in terms of what he writes next. Can his second effort live up to the reputation he has created for himself? Whatever he writes, I want to read it.

Highly recommended.

In West Mills, by De’Shawn Charles Winslow***

I received a review copy of this book courtesy of Net Galley and Bloomsbury. It’s for sale now.

Winslow’s debut is set in 1941 in North Carolina. Our protagonists are Azalea Knot, an alcoholic school teacher in an African-American community, a woman shunned by her neighbors and kinfolk for her unconventional behavior and obnoxious personality. Otis Lee has family troubles of his own, but seeks redemption by helping Knot, who has two babies out of wedlock at a time when you really could not do that without terrible social repercussions. Otis is a helpful sort, and ultimately, the story becomes one about the family we choose.

I abandoned and restarted this book three times, and in the end, I never did engage with it much. I read the first thirty percent, the last twenty-five percent, and skimmed the middle. The writing style didn’t speak to me, and I couldn’t understand why Otis would care about Knot. But to be fair, Southern fiction has been a competitive genre for several years, and I was reading books by Attica Locke and Jesmyn Ward at the same time I read this.

I have a hunch Winslow is just warming up. He’ll be one to watch in the future.

That’s What Frenemies Are For, by Sophie Littlefield and Lauren Gershell***-****

I have been a Sophie Littlefield fan since A Bad Day for Sorry came out ten years ago; That’s What Frenemies Are For is co-written by Littlefield and new author Lauren Gershell.  Is Littlefield Gershell’s mentor? If so, she has created a literary monster.

My thanks go to Ballantine and Net Galley for the review copy. I rate this book 3.5 stars, rounded up.

Socialite Julia Summers is a stay-home mom with a nanny; her real avocation is in keeping up appearances. What would look better–build Julia’s brand, if you will–than for her to take the Nobody that teaches her spin class and turn her into a Somebody?  Just think how impressed the other moms will be!  But fitness instructor Tatum turns out to be more than Julia has reckoned for. This is wickedly funny satire, full of sass and snark that made me guffaw out loud in places.

The fun at the outset is in watching to see where Julia’s dominoes will begin to fall. There are at least a dozen teasers planted as it moves along, places where I see her do something so risky that it almost has to backfire. The greatest surprise for me is in seeing how my own attitude toward this entitled protagonist changes. At the start I cannot wait to see someone knock her off of her high horse, but I also can’t help but engage with this character, and as she confides in the reader through an intimate first person narrative, I find myself rooting for her in spite of everything. It’s fascinating.

The resolution isn’t as satisfying as it could be. It’s a bit like getting to the highest spot on the rollercoaster and having the ride stop so you can get off and take the elevator down to safety. Watch your step, folks. Stay behind the guardrail as you exit the cars.

Nevertheless, I found myself thoroughly engrossed for the first eighty percent , and the rest isn’t bad. Gershell is a writer to watch.  

If you have a vacation coming up, toss this in your bag. It’s for sale now.

Her Daughter’s Mother, by Daniela Petrova***

I requested and received a galley for this debut novel based on a review I read on another blog. Thanks go to Net Galley and Putnam for the DRC. This book is for sale now.

The concept is terrific, and it is what caught my attention. A Manhattan couple is unable to get pregnant, and they sign up with an agency to use a surrogate. All the details are supposed to be confidential, but the infertile mother has requested a bio-mom of an ethnicity that is pretty rare, even in New York City; using this fact and some skillful research, she finds out who the woman is…and she starts following her around. An unforeseeable event forces them to meet; a friendship develops. Soon we learn that the pregnant surrogate knows perfectly well who this woman is.

The execution didn’t work as well for me. There’s a lot of information about infertility, surrogacy choices and blah blah blah that slows the pace significantly. The book is billed as a thriller, and if I were locked into the genre, I’d have called this a two star novel, because in places, it just drags. The issues between the expectant couple create more drag. I’d like to see tighter writing with more urgency. I guessed the ending when I was ten percent of the way into it.

At the same time, the writer clearly has potential, and since my own children are grown, I am most likely outside of the target demographic for this novel.

Unless the reader is also dealing with infertility and surrogacy issues, I recommend obtaining this book free or on the cheap if you go there. At the same time, I wish this author well; she has promise and is a writer to watch.

Northern Lights, by Raymond Strom***

I was invited to read and review this title by Simon and Schuster and Net Galley. It’s the story of Shane, an orphaned teen whose uncle kicks him goodbye [with my apologies to Shrek] directly following high school graduation. Shane sets off for the small town in Minnesota whence came his only letter from his mother, who abandoned the family a long time ago. Since he finds himself suddenly homeless, he figures he doesn’t have much to lose. Maybe she’s still there.

His new home, however, is little more than a wide space in the road, and its residents haven’t received the memo about gender crossed individuals. His long hair and androgynous appearance are the trigger for some nasty behaviors on the part of the locals, and when you’re homeless, this is exponentially scarier because you don’t have a safe place into which you can rush and close the door.

On the one hand, the theme here is a timely one, combining the present-day increased problem of homelessness with other issues of the day. We see teen kids instantly unhomed by the government once they reach majority age; bullying and hate crimes against those with nontraditional sexual identification and orientation; and then, as the novel proceeds, substance abuse as a means of escape and a signal of dark, dark despair.

The despair. The despair the despairthedespairthedespair.  The challenge in reading this is that we begin in a bleak place, we stay in a bleak place for the most part, and then we end in a bleak place. The whole thing is punctuated not only with alienation, of which there is understandably plenty, but also that flat line ennui that accompanies depression, and who in her right mind would read this thing cover to cover?  Hopefully it’s someone with rock solid mental health whose moods are not terribly variable. As for me, I read the first half, and then I perused the remainder in a skipping-and-scooting way I reserve for very few galleys. It was that or commence building myself a noose, and self preservation won the day.

If the key issues in this novel are a particular passion of yours, you may feel vindicated when you read it.  I recommend reading it free or cheaply if you will read it all, and keep a second, more uplifting novel ready to do duty as a mood elevator when you sense your own frame of mind descending hell’s elevator.

Miracle Creek, by Angie Kim*****

The buzz around this mystery started early, and it started loud. If it hadn’t I am not sure I’d have asked to read it. When I saw the premise—the use of a hyperbaric oxygen tank to murder an autistic child—I thought wow, this author is reaching. But a quick web crawl taught me that though controversial, hyperbaric oxygen therapy is actually used to treat autism. The treatment is controversial but the basis of the story is a sound one, so I have learned something already, and now that I’ve read it, I am glad I didn’t let it pass me by. Big thanks go to Net Galley and Sarah Crichton Books for the review copy. Miracle Creek will be available to the public April 16, 2019.

The HBOT therapy device is owned by Pak and Young Yoo.  A lot of hard work and financial struggle went into procuring this device; there were years when they had to live apart, with Young and their daughter Mary in Baltimore, Young working round the clock for room, board, and her daughter’s private school tuition while Pak worked two jobs in Korea, squirreling away resources. Now the unthinkable has occurred—the chamber has gone up in flames with patients inside it. Two people are dead and others are horribly injured, and there’s an intensive investigation that leads to an arrest. Elizabeth, a single mother, is charged with starting the fire in order to murder her little boy and free herself from the difficult caregiver role. On the surface, the facts are damning indeed, but what the cops don’t know, at least in the beginning, is that every single person that was there that day is lying about it.

Elizabeth, Kitt, and Teresa are mothers of autistic children, digging deep and running up their credit cards hoping for miraculous transformations. The seventh patient is Matt, whose wife has pressured him into trying this treatment to raise his sperm count. The other characters in this story are the Yoo family that own and operate the chamber, and the legal teams assembled for the trial.

Most legal thrillers and courtroom mysteries hinge heavily upon what happens in the courtroom. In contrast, although what plays out in court is not unimportant, the real meat of this story has to do with the actions, thoughts, and memories of the townspeople that are involved, primarily when court is not in session. Although our point of view is the third person omniscient, specific critical details are revealed to us in stages, and what we learn at the end differs greatly from the conclusions most of us will have drawn at the outset, when we had less information.

Why do people lie, and in particular, why would anyone lie to the authorities investigating a deadly disaster like this one? Make a list of the possibilities, and as you read, you’ll see them all, a veritable potpourri of bald-faced lies and critical omissions of facts. At the end of it, we find just one (lying) person that has integrity and pure motives, and everyone else has crossed a line, not only legally but ethically. And although there’s just one character here that I’d describe as dynamic, the others are developed to an extent as their layers of rationalization, anger, fear, resentment, and greed are revealed to us.

This is an explosive debut, and Angie Kim is a force to be reckoned with. You want to read this book, and happily, you won’t have to wait long. Highly recommended.

The Winter Sister, by Megan Collins****

Sylvie doesn’t want to go home. Sixteen years ago her sister Persephone was murdered, and her mother, a single parent, was undone by it. Sylvie’s built a new life for herself and would prefer not to revisit the old one, but her aunt calls and summons her. Sylvie’s mother is gravely ill and Aunt Jill says it is Sylvie’s turn to take care of her. Reluctantly, Sylvie packs and heads home to face her demons.

I was invited to read and review this compelling debut novel courtesy of Net Galley and Simon and Schuster. It will be available to the public tomorrow, February 5, 2019.

Persephone went on a date the night she was killed; she wasn’t permitted to date and so she had to sneak out. And right away my antennae twitch, because who doesn’t let their seventeen-year-old daughter date? The heck? She was a senior in high school, yet was reduced to climbing in and out of the bedroom window to avoid her mother’s anger. At fourteen, Sylvie was her confederate, leaving the window just a finger’s width ajar so that Persephone could return home undetected. But Sylvie had become increasingly ambivalent; Persephone came home with bruises with increasing frequency, asking her little sis to paint temporary tattoos to cover them up for her. Should Persephone be seeing Ben, the boy responsible for the bruises?  One night she decides not to leave the window open. That way it will be out in the open. Persephone will have to come in through the front door. She’ll be busted, but then the problem of the abusive boyfriend will be where it belongs, right on their mother’s plate.  Let the adult do the adult job, she figured. But that night, unable to sneak back in, Persephone instead returned to her boyfriend’s car, hopped in, and never came home.

Her body wasn’t found for three days.

The guilt of the thing followed Sylvie everywhere she went. She told no one. Their mother took to drink and locked herself away, refusing to respond to her daughter’s pleas on the other side of the door. Aunt Jill took Sylvie home with her when it became obvious that her mother had ceased to mother.

But now, Sylvie has to go back. And she carries so much anger with her; how is it even possible that Ben, the boyfriend, was never arrested or charged? How is it possible that he is working—of all places—in the clinic where her mother goes to receive her chemo?

Collins’s narrative is deeply absorbing, with a component of the psychological thriller in that at times, I wonder whether she is reliable. Things are certainly not what they seem. The resolution is surprising, yet fair to the reader. It’s a clever plot with layered characters, and I look forward to seeing what Collins writes in the future.

Recommended to those that love the genre.

Best Debut Fiction 2018

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                                                                                           Honorable Mention: