Friday, September 23, 2011

Booklist's Top 10 First Novels: 2010

--titles chosen by Donna Seaman (article first published in Booklist and individual reviews published in earlier Booklist issues by their writers)

The top debut novels of the past year display remarkable imagination and artistry as they take us from Alabama to the Azores Islands, Appalachia, Afghanistan, the Philippines, and Manhattan, as characters journey from childhood to adulthood, rags to riches, confusion to revelation.

Anthill (Edward O. Wilson) - Wilson, world-famous biologist and Pulitzer Prize–winning author of such seminal nonfiction books as Consilience (1998) and The Creation (2006), writes a first novel about an Alabama boy and his love for an old-growth forest. Raphael Semmes Cody of Clayville, Alabama, nicknamed Raff, wants to please his mismatched parents, but he isn’t comfortable with his working-class father’s rules for manliness or the ambitions of his mother’s wealthy family. He instead finds meaning, beauty, and a calling in a tract of old-growth longleaf pine forest surrounding Lake Nokobee, a rare and vulnerable swath of wilderness Wilson describes with bewitching precision and profound appreciation. A foremost authority on ants, an eloquent environmentalist, and the winner of two Pulitzer Prizes for his exceptional nonfiction, Wilson has written a debut novel of astonishing dimension, acuity, and spirit. As Raff evolves from an ardent boy naturalist to a zealous student enthralled by a mound-building ant species to a Harvard-trained lawyer, Wilson dramatizes conflicts of great complexity and consequence within “parallel worlds,” becoming the veritable Homer of “Antdom” as he brings ant colonies in peace and at war to startlingly vivid life. As gentlemanly Raff walks a fine line in his heroic efforts to save the precious, pristine Nokobee Woods, violence, a force Wilson perceives as intrinsic to “this pitiless world,” percolates. With lyrical exactitude, empathy for all life, and a shocking conclusion, Wilson’s wise, provocative novel of the interaction between humankind and the rest of nature expresses a resonant earth ethic. — Donna Seaman

Barnacle Love (Anthony De Sa) - A novel divided into two distinct halves ordinarily suffers from problems due to the interruption in the narrative. Not so here; the two parts of this intelligent yet passionate novel merge seamlessly into a double-layered, twice as effective, doubly meaningful story, which is usually what is intended by such a structure, but which in other authors’ hands, too often fails to materialize. Granted, the theme is not new: the emigrant-immigrant experience from Europe to the New World. But the particular circumstances that De Sa creates in which to let these experiences play out, as well as his presentation of a deeply flawed main character nevertheless performing the heroic act of leaving home for an unforeseen future, give the tale its distinctiveness. As a young man, Manuel Rebelo leaves his hometown on the Azores Islands (a territory of Portugal), embarking on a fishing boat to flee the confinement of his limited prospects. He jumps ship in Nova Scotia, eventually settling down in Toronto with his wife and family to do what immigrants always intend: to seek a better life. Bringing family history full circle, and in the process cementing the novel’s two halves, Manuel impresses his confinement on his son, who, in turn, wants to make his escape, in this instance from the Portuguese neighborhood of Toronto. A beautiful musical piece stating and repeating its profoundly moving melody. — Brad Hooper

Bloodroot (Amy Greene) - This stunning debut novel is a triumph of voice and setting. Following one impoverished family from the Depression up through the present, the story is told in six voices and set in a remote region called Bloodroot Mountain, so named for the rare flower that grows there, which can both poison and heal. The family’s struggles with poverty and human cruelty and their endless search for connection are set against the majestic Appalachian landscape, which is evoked in the simplest and most beautiful language. At the center of this dramatic story is Myra Lamb, raised by her loving grandmother and born with sky-blue eyes and a talent for connecting with animals and people. Allowed to run free on the family’s mountaintop, Myra is a charismatic figure who eventually draws the romantic interest of John Odom, the wealthy son of business owners in town. Their marriage, which starts out with so much promise, gradually turns abusive as Myra is imprisoned in her new home and prevented from seeing her grandmother. The long repercussions of their violent relationship, on both Myra’s children and Myra’s own sanity, are played out through the decades as each family member speaks to the lasting effects of John Odom’s hot temper. With a style as elegant as southern novelist Lee Smith’s and a story as affecting as The Color Purple, this debut offers stirring testimony to the resilience of the human spirit. — Joanne Wilkinson

Born Under a Million Shadows (Andrea Busfield) - In her indelible first novel, Busfield, a British journalist who has lived in Afghanistan, describes post-Taliban Kabul from the viewpoint of precocious, 11-year-old Fawad, whose impossible losses are commonplace: “My father was killed, my brothers are dead, and my sister is missing. But in Afghanistan, that’s a big ‘so what.’” When his mother secures a job keeping house for three foreigners, Fawad moves from their impoverished relatives’ home into the Westerners’ compound. Over the following year, the foreigners begin to feel like family to Fawad, but Busfield never romanticizes the intractable challenges of cross-cultural understanding: “In many of their ways the foreigners were just like Afghans. . . . But in other ways they were just plain crazy and trying their absolute hardest to burn for all eternity. Worse than that, they all seemed so damned pleased about it.” Fawad has a deep crush on Georgie, a beautiful NGO worker whose passionate affair with a powerful Afghan man prompts Fawad to ask the largest life questions about love, religion, friendship, and identity. Poetic, bawdy, hilarious, and achingly wise, Busfield’s debut is a love story many times over: between a man and a woman, the author and Afghanistan, and an irrepressible boy and the wild world at large. — Gillian Engberg

Crossing (Andrew Xia Fukuda) - It’s freshman year for Kris Xu. But those annual fantasies of remaking himself from the quiet Chinese kid with the voice that is “Jackie Chan cumbersome” are dashed when the usual indignities resume: bullying, racism, and underestimation. Even his best friend and secret crush, Naomi—the only other Chinese student—seems to be pulling away. Then two things happen: he stumbles into an audition for the school musical and finds the glorious voice he thought he left in China, and other students start showing up dead. Although it has the plot outline of a thriller, this semifinalist in Amazon’s Breakthrough Novel Contest has the careful language and fine observations of a book with much more on its mind. Wrapped up ever more tightly in the plot is Kris’ sense of racial and emotional identity, and his battle with self-loathing begins to test his reliability as a narrator. Even his name is a feint; those who know him call him Xing — but who really knows him? There are a handful of suspects to the increasingly grisly crimes, and though the ultimate revelations are a tad rushed, they contain enough heartbreaking truths to deliver a significant punch. Sad, elegant, and creepy, this is a deft debut. — Daniel Kraus

The Girl Who Fell from the Sky (Heidi W. Durrow) - When we are in pain or danger, we hold our breath and move with caution, which is how Durrow’s measured and sorrowful debut novel unfolds. Rachel has yet to get the hang of the American hierarchy of skin color when she arrives in Portland, Oregon, to live with her father’s mother and sister. Although considered black like her father, she is “light-skinned-ed” and has blue eyes, thanks to her Danish mother, whose shock and despair over the racism confronting her children after they moved from Europe to Chicago contributed to a mysterious tragedy only Rachel survived. Smart, disciplined, and self-possessed, Rachel endures her confounding new life, coming into her own as she comes of age. Meanwhile Jamie, the neglected son of a prostitute and the only witness to the Chicago catastrophe, has an even rougher time. Durrow fits a striking cast of characters and an almost overwhelming sequence of traumas into this compact and insightful family saga of the toxicity of racism and the forging of the self. As the child of an African American father and a Danish mother, Durrow brings piercing authenticity to this provocative tale, winner of the Bellwether Prize for Fiction. — Donna Seaman

Ilustrado (Miguel Syjuco) - In this dazzling debut novel, Syjuco portrays the history, politics, and arts of his native Philippines in the semiautobiographical story of two Filipino authors — both members of the ilustrado, or intelligentsia — living in New York. Once the literary lion of his home country, Crispin Salvador is teaching and working on his breakthrough exposé novel, The Bridges Ablaze, when his body washes up in the Hudson River. Wanting to know whether his mentor committed suicide or was murdered, his student and friend (who, like the author, is named Syjuco) sets out on a quest that takes him back to the Philippines for both the truth and the missing manuscript. In this literary collage — of Salvador’s work (fiction, memoir, and poetry), interviews, the biography of him in progress by his acolyte Syjuco, e-mails, blogs, old school jokes, and a bizarre hostage situation that captures the Filipino imagination and is threaded through the novel—the lives of the two writers become intertwined. As an unpublished manuscript, Ilustrado won both the Palanca Grand Prize, the Philippines’ highest literary award, and the Man Asian Literary Award in 2008. It is a virtuoso display of imagination and wisdom, particularly remarkable from a 31-year-old author; a literary landmark for the Philippines and beyond. — Michele Leber

Kapitoil (Teddy Wayne) - It’s October 1, 1999, and young, brilliant, self-taught programmer Karim Issar is transferred from the Doha, Qatar, office of Schrub Equities to Manhattan for three months to help the high-flying firm get past Y2K without calamity. He finds the work worthwhile but routine, and his always-active mind studies cultural differences and the idiomatic English of his podmates. Within three weeks of his arrival, he has developed a program that predicts oil futures. Schrub’s profits rise dramatically, and Karim gets a plush new office, a 300 percent salary increase, and the personal attention of CEO Derek Schrub. As his stock soars, he embarks on a relationship with Rebecca, his former podmate; with her help, Karim begins to see that making money for the sake of making money isn’t a fully rewarding way of life. Told through Karim’s journal entries, this wonderfully assured debut novel, at once poignant, insightful, and funny, details Karim’s passage through a new world of corporate sharks, Manhattan clubs, museums, Bob Dylan lyrics, and personal growth. Karim’s English, always grammatically correct but stilted with terms from science, mathematics, computing, and business, is a delight. Best of all, however, is simply being inside Karim’s head as he ponders Jackson Pollock’s paintings, baseball, programming, and the mysteries of love and life in the U.S. — Thomas Gaughan

Rich Boy (Sharon Pomerantz) - Pomerantz’s compelling, finely crafted debut novel chronicles one man’s journey from the blue-collar suburbs of 1950s Philadelphia to the high-society of 1980s New York. Robert Vishniak grows up in a working-class Jewish neighborhood, often at odds with his frugal, distant mother. Blessed with good looks and possessing an uncompromising ambition, Robert learns at an early age to use his physical appearance to his advantage. Eager to leave behind his humble upbringing, Robert is accepted to Tufts University, where he quickly falls in with a group of privileged students led by the enigmatic Tracey, Robert’s roommate and subsequent lifelong friend. Moving forward in time, Pomerantz chronicles Robert’s varied adventures as he copes with the panoramic complexities and rewards of rebellion, self-renewal, and heartache. Over the course of four decades, Robert becomes entrenched in the upper echelon of Manhattan’s elite, ultimately succeeding as a real-estate lawyer and marrying into a family of old money. He is finally enjoying the success he so desired as a young man, until a random encounter with a woman from his hometown begins to erode Robert’s carefully crafted persona. Pomerantz’s sweeping tale captures the intimate truths and hypocrisies of class, identity, and one man’s quintessential American experience. — Leah Strauss

Ruby’s Spoon (Anna Lawrence Pietroni) - Motherless 13-year-old Ruby Tailor wants nothing more than to live by the sea; instead, she lives in the English town of Cradle Cross, which is still reeling from the Great War, dominated by the fortunes of a button factory, and surrounded by canals polluted by industrial runoff. Raised by her emotionally distant grandmother, Ruby has her young life upended with the arrival of an exotic stranger. With her bold white hair, a skirt covered with tiny, glinting mirrors, and a hometown situated by the sea, Isa Fly immediately entrances Ruby with her story: she is looking for her lost sister at the behest of her dying father. Others in the close-knit town are not so enamored of the charismatic stranger. And when the town’s fortunes start to dim with the impending collapse of the button factory, they feel as if their bad luck coincided with Isa’s arrival and begin to think she may be a witch. This enthralling, suspenseful debut novel, which has the feel of a grim fairy tale, is written in the poetic dialect of the Black Country and is thick with the vocabulary of the fishing and button trades. Of the many riches it offers, it is the winning lead character, a lonely teen brave enough to have a dream despite her impoverished circumstances, who will capture readers’ hearts. — Joanne Wilkinson