From the Ploughshares Shelves: July Debuts

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Are you in the market for some top-notch summer reading, ideally from an exciting new author? Does your optimized, fast-lane lifestyle leave you no time to read full-length book reviews? If so, dear reader, rejoice: you are the target audience of the following bite-sized reviews, all of debut novels released this past month.

California by Edan Lepucki

jpegAs a recipient of the widely-coveted Colbert Bump (as well as the lesser known but no less meaningful Sherman Alexie Bump), there’s a good chance that Edan Lepucki’s debut novel has already crossed your radar. The book has become a rallying point in the very public and very portentous war between Amazon and Hachette: Colbert and Alexie asked their audience to purchase the novel from a non-Amazon retailer (Powell’s), in protest of Amazon’s hardline approach to e-book pricing, and the books’ sales have shot through the roof as a result.

All celebrity endorsements and corporate power plays aside, Lepucki has penned a novel more than capable of standing on its own merits.  California follows married couple Cal and Frida, as they attempt to navigate the book’s brilliantly realized (and all too plausible) post-apocalyptic world. Tension and darkness build throughout—and this creeping intensity, when combined with Lepucki’s crisp, unembellished prose, makes the novel a genuine page-turner. Regardless of your opinions on the Amazon/Hachette conflict, California is worthy of your attention.

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The Awakening of Miss Prim by Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera

jpegPrudencia Prim, the earnest, clever, and eminently likeable protagonist of Natalia Sanmartin’s new novel, is the type of character for whom seemingly mundane events can burst with life. As a reader long-since numb to any story that doesn’t involve at least 3 shocking twists and a dark secret, I was initially unsure if the book’s premise (a young woman goes to a small town to work as a librarian) would hold my internet-addled attention. I’m happy to say that it did: Fenollera’s prose is thoroughly charming, and the attention she lavishes on the quirky, parochial community of San Ireneo imbues the book with a powerful originality and sense of place.

The plot, though a bit slow-moving at first, builds to a compelling and relatable conflict between Miss Prim and the community that seeks to change her.  The village of San Ireneo is not a place that welcomes rebellious ideas, and Miss Prim finds her opinions on feminism, education, and more assailed by her strange and straight-laced new home. The novel is a pleasant, relaxing read, with more than enough intellectual substance and vibrant details to keep the reader engaged.  Fenollera has succeeded in penning a novel that’s lucid and approachable to readers of all ages, and yet doesn’t sacrifice an ounce of subtlety, wit, or depth.

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A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall by Will Chancellor

jpegTwo arcs of personal transformation shape Will Chancellor’s expansive and thought-provoking debut novel. One belongs to Owen Burr, six-foot-eight Olympian and star of Stanford’s water polo team, who is blinded in one eye during the book’s gripping opening scene, and the other to Owen’s father—a classics professor with a roaming intellect and a penchant for provocation. Throughout the novel, Chancellor elegantly intertwines the spiritual and geographical journeys that father and son take in pursuit of fulfillment.  This fusion succeeds in enriching both characters, as their trials and aspirations often run parallel.

Chancellor has a wonderful ear for dialogue, and a keen understanding of how insecurity and ambition intersect. In one insightful moment near the beginning of his Bildungsroman, Owen asks “Which half of my life am I about to waste?”—a simple yet devastating question that captures the nagging uncertainty of young adulthood. Also worth mentioning is Chancellor’s playful, vigorous writing, which infuses both his physical and psychological descriptions with color. Take, for example, his depiction of Athens: “Chalk-white buildings, like the cirrus clouds wisping the bright sky, drifted together or drifted apart . . . Some buildings leaned in as if bowed by prayer.” Chancellor displays much technical ability in his sentences, and much philosophical depth in the evolution of his characters—making A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall a rewarding and substantive read.

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The Angel of Losses by Stephanie Feldman

jpegIn her spellbinding debut novel, Stephanie Feldman tells an epic tale of mystery, discovery, and familial love. Present in every facet of the story is the influence of Jewish history and mythology, which Feldman’s heroine Marjorie is studying at Columbia. Feldman draws from a vibrant, sprawling collection of theological tales, both real and imagined by the author, which drive the plot and bring it color. As a reader with relatively little knowledge of Jewish mythology, I found myself transfixed: Marjorie’s cultural heritage is masterfully portrayed, and the book as a whole hums with the mixture of whimsy and gravitas that only mythology can provide.

The Angel of Losses follows Marjorie on a journey into her family’s past, prompted by her discovery of a mysterious notebook left behind by her grandfather. So as not to spoil any of the revelations that occur on said journey, I won’t get into the nitty-gritty of the plot—instead, I’ll simply recommend that you read the book yourself, and promise that the emotional and intellectual payoff is worthy of your summer reading time. Feldman’s debut novel is moving, mature, and deeply original.

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