Category Archives: 100 Must-Read Debuts

Self-Portrait with Boy by Rachel Lyon

Self-Portrait with Boy Title: Self-Portrait with Boy
Author: Rachel Lyon
Publisher: Scribner
ISBN: 978-1501169588
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 384
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

2018 is already turning out to be an exciting year for books. I say this because all the books I’ve read so far, the ones published this year, have been superb reads. And “Self-Portrait with Boy” is the latest addition to that list.

Lu Rile is a young photographer struggling to make ends meet. She has an aging father. She has no permanent house. And then one fine day, in the background of a self-portrait, Lu accidentally captures on film a boy (Max) falling past her window to his death. This picture turns out to be perfect – the best that she has done. This picture could change her life for the better. At the same time, the boy was her neighbor’s son and soon enough Lu forms a bond with Kate like no other. The question then is: Will Lu use the picture to advance her career or not? For that, you would just have to read the book.

I loved the premise of “Self-Portrait with Boy”. It is intense, profound and heartbreaking. While it is one of those conundrum plots, it is also about empathy, loneliness in the city and the relationship we share with death and redemption. You know at one point, the plot may also not seem original to most, but what does stand out for sure is Lyon’s writing.

Lyon is no-holds-barred with this novel. She is all guns blazing. I love the setting of the book – the ​early 90s in Brooklyn. The world is on the ​ significant brink of change and amidst all of that, anything can happen and it does. Lu and Kate aren’t easy characters to deal with. The other residents of the building are beautifully etched.

There are so many questions that need to be answered while reading the book and there comes a point when you are strangely okay as a reader at those not being answered. It has a lot to do with Lyon not finding the need to those being addressed and making you comfortable as a reader, while turning the pages. Part-mystery, most parts literary, “Self-Portrait with Boy” is a book with so much empathy and loneliness of the human heart, that you will find yourself weeping and stunned by the prose.

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The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

The Immortalists Title: The Immortalists
Author: Chloe Benjamin
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, Penguin Random House
ISBN: 978-0735213180
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 352
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

What would you do if you knew the day of your death? How would you live your life differently, or would you? What do you think it would be like for you? Also, what would it be if each of your siblings also knew the day of their death? Would your relationships be any different? How would life then play out? These questions and more haunted me as I was reading, “The Immortalists” by Chloe Benjamin.

“The Immortalists” might seem like that one book which you read a while ago but it isn’t. There is so much and more to the book that you cannot compare it with anything you’ve read before, so I suggest you don’t even try and read it with an open-mind at the very best.

The story starts off in New York in 1969, when we meet the Gold children – Varya 13, Daniel 11, Klara 9 and Simon who is 7 years old. They belong to a religious Jewish family and are close to their parents. A psychic is heard of by one of the children – someone who has set camp nearby and four of them head out to meet her, who is known to predict the date of someone’s death. She individually tells them each the day they will die. This is where the story begins.

The novel is divided into four sections, each for one child, and we traverse through their lives, trying to understand what happens to each of them as they live and whether or not the prediction comes true.

I am not going to give away any spoilers here but all I can say is that this book has the power to leave you stunned and asking for more answers. Who was the psychic? What happens? What does not happen and why? All of this makes you turn the pages anyway but Benjamin’s writing does not seem new. She doesn’t write like a debut novelist. The craft is so precise – every scene comes alive; every emotion wrenches you and you can’t help but mull over it.

The dynamics of the siblings with each other and their mother is another thing that will make you relate to the book to a very large extent. Also, what they choose to share with each other and don’t forms such a major part of the book. What I also loved was the role time plays this book – with it hanging so severely on their heads and yet it is in a way so subtle – moving at its own pace and making the siblings realize the value or life or not.

“The Immortalists” is the kind of book which will have you thinking about life, more and everything in between. This book is hard to put down once you start it. Benjamin will literally make you cry (be prepared for it) and smile almost in the same page. It is a book which truly deserves all accolades and more this year. Read it. You will not be disappointed.

The Resurrection of Joan Ashby by Cherise Wolas

The Resurrection of Joan Ashby Title: The Resurrection of Joan Ashby
Author: Cherise Wolas
Publisher: Flatiron Books
ISBN: 9781250166586
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 544
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

All Joan Ashby has ever wanted, since she was thirteen in fact, was to focus on her writing, write books and live independently without the care or concern of a husband or children. At the height of her fame and just when she is working on her full-length novel (up until now she has only written short stories), she meets Martin and falls in love with him. They seem to believe in the same things – kids are off the table and that their careers will always be placed above everything else. But of course, things aren’t what they seem. They get married and Joan accidentally becomes pregnant.

Martin then is ecstatic and Joan can sense the betrayal. The shift that takes place because of her pregnancy and how she is just there to raise a family and has to wait for years to work on her novel and what happens when she finally manages to finish the book is the plot of this book, “The Resurrection of Joan Ashby” by Cherise Wolas. It is about the small and the big betrayals of life, of hope, dreams, despair and how the choices you make end up impacting you for the rest of your life.

Let me just go on record and say this: I loved this book. I absolutely loved it. I loved the idea of a book within a book but more than anything else I loved Joan. Cherise Wolas has created a character that will be etched in people’s minds (if they read this book) for a long time. She is almost the new classic heroine who just wants to reclaim her life, one way or the other. The plot may seem pedestrian but it isn’t. Trust me, there is more to it than meets the eye.

The writing is super taut and yet with over 500 pages, it doesn’t seem too long at all. There is so much going on in the book that all I wanted to do was literally gulp all of it and could not stop wanting more. The heroine is just that – a heroine who wants to change her life – Joan wants that resurrection and goes after it at any cost, even if secrets start tumbling out of the closet. Is it a feminist novel? Sure, is and I am glad that it is to a very large extent. Wolas’s prowess is just showing and I hope her next one is out soon enough.

My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent

My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent Title: My Absolute Darling
Author: Gabriel Tallent
Publisher: Fourth Estate, HarperCollins
ISBN: 978-0008185220
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 432
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

Once in a while, you read a book that makes you angry. Very angry. And you cannot help but cheer so madly and wildly for the underdog. The book takes over your life till you are done reading it and while it is hopeful (in small doses and so not enough), it also leaves you exhausted, frustrated and contemplative about the world you inhabit. “My Absolute Darling” by Gabriel Tallent is one such book and it is very hard to believe that it is only his debut.

“My Absolute Darling” is the kind of book that will in the most brutal manner stay with you long after you’ve finished it. It is one of those books that you wouldn’t even want to stay with you and yet it will. It is the dark “Lolita”. Nabokov’s “Lolita” looks like a bird in front of this one. The book is of the coming-of-age genre in the most raw, terrible manner. The one that no child must go through and perhaps the ones that do, mostly emerge to be the stronger ones. But as the blurb says, “Sometimes strength is not the same as courage” or “Sometimes leaving is not the only way to escape” – this book lives up to it in so many ways.

Julia (Turtle) Alveston is a survivor. She is all of fourteen and has grown-up isolated since the death of her mother. Her father, Martin, is tortured and believes that Julia is the best thing that has happened to him. So much so that he doesn’t want to let go of her. She is after all his, “absolute darling”. Turtle is physically, mentally and emotionally abused by her father. Turtle’s social existence is confined to her school, and sometimes meeting her grandfather, who she is most fond of. She doesn’t have friends. She is angry, miserable, and all she knows is how to survive and that her daddy loves her very much (she also deep down just wants to get away from all of this).

In all of this, Turtle meets Jacob, a high-school boy who reads, is funny and lives in a big clean house with his parents and sister. For once, Turtle feels some kind of normalcy in her life and starts forging friendships. But she now has to find a way to escape her old life and start anew. She wants to leave her “devoted” father. And thus begins the story of Turtle (almost more than halfway through the book). She becomes her own hero and I as a reader often found myself just hooting for her, cheering, interacting with her, wanting to hug her and tell her that it will all be okay, to reach out between the pages and scream at Martin, to perhaps even kill him.

The emotional complexities of this book are of another level. The setting of the book is the outdoors (woods along the Northern California Coast) – where Turtle lives with her father. This adds another layer of fierceness and subtext to the novel. Of how sometimes even though circumstances aren’t just about right, you can still seize what is yours if you want to. But this book thankfully, isn’t preachy. It is real. Sometimes too real.

The story is gripping. You cannot help but turn the pages and yet you don’t want to. Tallent takes you to the heart of darkness (multiple times) and leaves you hanging with what will happen next. He takes you through the maze in Turtle’s head – her confusion, her loss of expression, her self-doubt (always thinking she isn’t pretty and not worthy of anything good), self-loathing and finally being resilient to it all. There are times when words that need Turtle’s expression aren’t there and yet you know it all. The writing is that surreal and empathetic. The prose is measure, even though laborious at times, but it is worth it. Tallent has also referenced so many authors and books in this book, which to me was nothing short of brilliant and each reference made so much sense in the larger sense of the plot (I will list those down soon). There were technicalities with weapons which I didn’t get at all, but I let it go. The characters that Tallent creates are frighteningly real. Such an incident or series of incidents could be happening in your backyard and you wouldn’t know of it.

This one sentence stood out for me as an explanation for the entire book, however the entire book is peppered with so many of them: “Her moments of happiness occur right at the margin of the unbearable”.

Read this book only if you can stomach it. But read it. Make yourself stronger and read it. The prose demands to be read. The emotions most certainly do. Tallent is one author to watch out for. I loved reading this one.