First-Time Fiction

19th June 2015

There’s a particular joy in discovering a new talent; in being the first to know about a hot band or cotton on to an addictive tv series. The same goes for books – and as it turns out, this summer is a terrific moment for debut novelists, writing about everything from lovers at the North Pole to a sparring couple Down Under.

Jennifer Lipman has checked out the best offerings from first-time writers for you to enjoy. They say travel broadens the mind, but if you’re not heading anywhere exotic in the next few weeks, you might as well let a book take you on a journey.

What to read if you’d like to go on a journey back in time…

There’s a touch of Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus about Church of Marvels, a lively yarn set in the seedy underworld of late 19th century New York. Short-story writer Leslie Parry’s debut novel follows a cast of enigmatic characters over the course of a single night in Manhattan, weaving together four complicated stories to reach one sensational finale. Parry’s troupe of oddballs includes Odile Church, a Coney Island performer who has lost everything and is desperate to find her sister Belle, Sylvan Threadgill, an impoverished privy cleaner and all-round outsider, the well-married Alphie who finds herself in a lunatic asylum with no memory of how she got there, and an unnamed, silent woman she encounters in the ward.

It’s an unexpectedly rollicking tale, full of lowlifes and eccentrics, riddled with loopholes, red herrings and plot twists. Bringing to life the Big Apple’s seedier history, at a time when the city was rising to its future potential but still grimy in parts, Church of Marvels is tremendous fun.

What to read if you want to explore mountainous Canada…

On the west coast of Canada, single father Tom prepares for another season of logging. He’s had the same routine for years, packing up his belongings and heading deep into the mountain with his crew, leaving his son and daughter behind for lengthy stretches. They’ve fared well enough; now on the verge of adulthood, his daughter Erin is bright and self-contained, his son Curtis seems to be carving out a future in nearby ski town Whistler. The tragedy of their childhood, their mother’s depression and eventual suicide, is firmly in the past. Or so Tom thinks. Yet when Curtis’s life veers horrendously off course and he goes missing, Tom realises he can no longer ignore what’s right in front of him.

Tom is a difficult hero; hard to empathise with and yet still someone you champion, and Leipciger skilfully animates his struggle to connect with his firstborn. Throughout this simple, stirring story she writes with great poignancy and invites the reader into a colourfully rendered world of looming trees, ominous mountains and natural hazards.

What to read if you've always wanted to see the Northern Lights…

Rebecca Dinerstein’s debut opens with a description of an excruciatingly awful sexual encounter; an excellent introduction to her frank, conflicted heroine. With her family life disintegrating, recent graduate Frances heads to an artists’ colony a stone’s throw from the North Pole, for what she expects to be a quiet summer of art and discovery. Once there she meets a selection of quirky, matter-of-fact Nordic locals, along with Russian émigré Yasha, a young man on the cusp of adulthood enduring his own family tragedy. Yasha is there to carry out his father’s last wish; somewhat unfortunately he is accompanied by his self-involved mother.

Predictably, the two form a connection as the weeks go on, but this is by no means a simple love story; Yasha and Frances are refreshingly oblivious to their burgeoning connection. Still, it is a joy to follow their bumpy courtship as it plays out in this remote, almost otherworldly setting. Read it for the descriptions of the ‘sunlit night’ as much as anything; it’ll make you want to pack your bags and head north at once.

What to read if you fancy a trip to the other side of the world…

In 1960s Cambridge, intelligent, passionate artist Charlotte grapples with her status as wife and recent mother. Isolated and weary, she begrudgingly accepts her husband Henry’s plans to emigrate to Australia. But their new home is no paradise; Henry, who was born in India and has never quite felt he belonged anywhere, struggles to be accepted even in a land of newcomers, while his quintessentially English wife finds her solitude intensified by the heat and vastness of the southern hemisphere. Into their lives comes Nicholas – understanding, sensitive and unencumbered by domesticity – and gradually the couple’s marriage starts to crumble.

Australian author Stephanie Bishop is excellent at conveying Charlotte’s quiet agony; the scenes when her children’s endless demands overwhelm her are utterly heartrending. But while this is a portrait of domestic drudgery, and a tale of a woman who deserves far more than she has settled for, Henry is no cad; his anguish at his rootlessness is just as affecting. A subtle and moving book.

What to read if you really just want to party the night away…

Mining the type of territory famously navigated by Candice Bushnell in Sex and the City, I Take You is a frothy, frank exploration of modern relationships and the idea of wedded bliss. Lily, a top lawyer living a fast-paced and hard drinking Manhattan lifestyle, has somehow found herself engaged to a dependable archaeologist, apparently both besotted with her and blinded to her true nature. The wedding is in under a week in Lily’s Florida hometown, which means there is still ample time for her fiancé to discover the skeletons crowding her closet – especially when her indiscreet mother, grandmother and two stepmothers are all more than willing to show him.

Lily, whose ambivalence about monogamy emerges in the first chapter, is selfish, inconsiderate and immature – but riotously fun as well, especially when she gets drunk before meeting her future mother-in-law. With some eyebrow-raising bedroom scenes and a plot full of drama and disaster, Kennedy has provided a trashy but not unintelligent story to laugh over by the pool.

What to read if you've ever wondered about an alternative universe…

Eva and Jim meet as young students at Cambridge; a chance encounter that becomes the start of a lifelong rapport. A writer and an artist, they are creative, passionate people; theirs is the perfect romance. At least, it is in one version of how their lives play out. But what if they never met? What if they simply passed each other by, and went back to the lives they were already building?

Taking cues from the film Sliding Doors, Laura Barnett’s impressive debut novel The Versions of Us considers the ‘what if?’ question, tracing how one moment can change the future by following the couple down three different but intersecting paths.

Spanning the 1950s to the modern era, and rich in period detail, with an engaging selection of secondary characters who flit between the ‘versions’, this is a roughly engrossing read, with protagonists you can’t help but care for.

Be warned, though, with three distinct stories to follow, you’ve really got to pay attention!

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