Top 5 Tuesday: Debut novels

Hello, friends! Happy Tuesday once again!

I don’t know if anyone has noticed, but my blog has been a bit sparse again recently. My mom was in town last week and I continue struggling through “Les Miserables” for a #MiserablesMay group read. It is now June; WHAT AM I DOING?! Ugh. Oh, well.

At least I seem to be keeping up on Top 5 Tuesday posts! This weekly meme is hosted by Shanah at Bionic Book Worm. She just rolled out her June topics the other day and I’m more excited about some of them than others. This week’s topic is debut novels, which I can totally get behind.

“The Woman in the Window” by A.J. Finn

My four-star review (from February 2018):

“I saw what I wanted to see, what I needed to see.”

Dr. Anna Fox hasn’t practiced child psychology in nearly a year, because that’s the last time she left her house. A traumatic event left her with agoraphobia and post-traumatic stress disorder. Now she spends her days trudging around the house she once shared with her estranged husband and daughter, chasing down prescription pills with massive quantities of merlot. Her pastimes include watching classic thriller films with her cat, playing chess online and peering at the neighbors from her always-closed windows.

But then a new family moves into the house across the park, and when Anna sees something horrific through their parlor window, the insulated world she’s constructed starts to fall apart. The worst part is that no one believes that what she saw was what really happened …

I was excited about this book, even though it seems bookstore shelves already had enough tomes about unstable women seeing or “seeing” awful things before “The Woman in the Window” came along. The cover was absolutely tantalizing, and I was fascinated by the concept of a psychologist losing her own grip on reality.

However, until I got about 150 pages in, I wasn’t sure just what the heck I was reading. In setting up Anna’s backstory, author A.J. Finn spends a lot of time meandering between past and present — almost too much time. My attitude toward most of the details about her everyday life, her relationship with her basement apartment tenant, etc., was very much “who cares” until, FINALLY, the aforementioned “something horrific” unfolds. At that point, I was relieved I hadn’t wasted my time but still aggravated at how long it took for the action to kick in. And once it did, I found myself forming a new theory as to what Anna saw with practically every page I turned. By the time I was finished reading, I was very much satisfied that Finn managed to fool me in the end.

I think my favorite aspect of “The Woman in the Window” is the imagery Finn creates. The house itself, the only place Anna feels safe, is a prominent character: “The house towers above me, the black mouth of the front door, the front steps like a tongue unspooled; the cornices form even brows above the windows.” Even the elements of nature, part of the outside world Anna fears, take on human/animal characteristics: “The storm is roaring like an animal. Wind claws the air, shreds it. Rain, sharp as teeth, bites into my skin. Water licks my face, washes my hair back.”

“The Woman in the Window” is a thriller that doesn’t necessarily grab the reader right away. It builds with a slow boil and a lot of underlying tension, and the reward is a nailbiter of a story with a shocking surprise ending.

“Behold the Dreamers” by Imbolo Mbue

My four-star review (from February 2017):

“Everyone wants to come to America, sir. Everyone. To live in this country, sir. To live in this country. Ah! It is the greatest thing in the world, Mr. Edwards.”

And with that pronouncement, Cameroonian immigrant Jenge Jonga lands a job as a chaffeur for a Lehman Brothers executive on the cusp of the Great Recession. His wife Neni is hired to nanny the Edwardses’ children.

Meanwhile, Jende is fighting a battle with the immigration court to get his papers, and Neni is struggling to succeed in school so she can remain in the U.S. Through it all, the Jongas discover the Edwardses and others of their standing are living a flawed version of what they’ve come to understand is the American dream. And disillusionment sets in, for everyone.

I really enjoyed Mbue’s honest, intimate storytelling and the way the characters interacted throughout the book. The devolution of Jende’s optimism and the strengthening of Neni’s resolve, and the way they assimilate to American culture, is fascinating.

The Edwardses felt a bit caricaturized as the stereotype upper-class white American family, but it was important to create a juxtaposition between this family who seemingly has it all and the Jongas, who initially long for what appears to be a charmed life in the U.S.

Although set during the Great Recession nearly a decade ago, the themes of “Behold the Dreamers” – particularly the matter of immigration – remain timely and insightful.

“If the Creek Don’t Rise” by Leah Weiss

My five-star review (from August 2017):

Every book promises to transport the reader to another place. Some deliver more than others.

Reading “If the Creek Don’t Rise” by Leah Weiss was truly a step back, not only to a different time — 1970 — but also to one of the most economically depressed regions of the U.S., the Appalachian Mountains. Everything from the dialogue to the setting descriptions make the story of Baines Creek, N.C., come alive. 

The narrative flows from one vivid character to the next — from pregnant, battered young bride Sadie to fish-out-of-water teacher Kate Shaw. These characters, even the slimy ones like wifebeater Ray Tupkin, all carry heartbreaking secrets that influence their ways of living and the decisions they make. I really enjoyed the way Weiss weaves these characters’ stories into a striking tapestry of despair and hope amid devastating poverty.

I was touched by the compassion of Preacher Eli Perkins and especially Kate, who encourages Sadie to find her “special life.” Sadie doesn’t see anything special about herself, yet I could see it plain as day. I found myself rooting for her, wanting her to succeed in spite of her circumstances. That’s how I know I’ve found a story worth reading and sharing with others.

Certain books require a soundtrack, especially when I’m reading at the gym! Most of my reading of this book was set to the old-timey strains of Shovels n Rope and the Roots Rising playlist on Spotify.

Some of the best books I’ve read this year have been debut novels. “If the Creek Don’t Rise” was no exception.

I received an ARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

“I Liked My Life” by Abby Fabiaschi

My five-star review (from January 2017):

… imagine the damage from believing you’ve caused something so horrible from such a young age; imagine the burden of thinking you ruined your mother’s life … So now my mom carried the same guilt I now carry. Playing it out, I can see how her mind turned on her, how reflecting pulled her into weeds that weren’t really there. I need to break the cycle. The end depends upon the beginning … “

Madeline seems to have everything … a loving husband, Brady, who works hard to provide a good life for her and their teen daughter, Eve. She’s witty, insightful, and fiercely loyal to her family. She’s thoughtful, perceptive and loves hosting parties.

And then she’s gone, apparently having taken her own life with no warning, not even a suicide note.

But her spirit lingers as she watches Brady and Eve struggle to pick up the pieces of their life without her, accosted everywhere they go by rude comments and questions and hollow expressions of pity from a community who’s just as baffled as to why Maddy would have killed herself.

Working to “communicate” with Eve and Brady, with her sister Meg, with her friend Paige, and with Eve’s lovely calculus tutor Rory, Maddy just can’t rest peacefully until her loved ones understand why she left them.

I devoured this book. It is absolutely beautiful … the writing, the character developments, the way each chapter weaves together the perspectives of Maddy, Eve and Brady through a journey of loss and discovery. With Maddy gone, Eve and Brady find themselves unsure how to carry on as a family. Their interactions are heartbreaking, humorous and so true to life.

As I read “I Liked My Life,” I kept thinking, “Is this really a debut? This author has got to be a seasoned storyteller.” A myriad of emotions and human experiences come to life so exquisitely that it is hard to believe this is Abby Fabiaschi’s first rodeo.

There were moments in this book that felt just enough like a Hallmark movie to make me smile and tear up a little bit, but there’s enough irreverent humor and heavy drama woven in to make the story feel relatable and uncontrived. I love the way Eve and Brady interact. In their grief over losing Maddy, they realize just how much she held the family together and how little they really know about one another.

I know it’s early in the year, but “I Liked My Life” is a strong contender in my list of top reads of 2017. I can’t wait to see what else Fabiaschi has up her sleeve.

I received an ARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

“The Barrowfields” by Phillip Lewis

My five-star review (from March 2017):

“And it came to me again how little time we all had, and how much time I’d let pass since I’d seen her. I thought of our respective times on this earth and how she and I were tied together by so many things, and that she should’ve been there with me. That something inside me was torn apart, and that this act of tearing was my continued separation from her.”

Growing up in a spooky mansion in a small Appalachian town, Henry Aster is no stranger to loss. His deeply troubled father, who spends much of his time drinking and writing a book no one thinks he’ll finish, is sent over the edge when tragedy strikes the family. And just like that, he’s gone.

Henry fades away from his mother and sister when he leaves for college. There, he falls in love with a girl who’s determined to find her biological father. And as he stands beside her through the struggles she faces, he has a revelation about his own family that lures him back home.

First off, I cannot believe this is a debut novel. The writing, the storyline, the characters … everything about “The Barrowfields” feels authentic and exquisite and familiar. It is written in such a natural style. As Henry becomes a man and reflects on his father’s abandonment, he has these little flashbacks of the days and months before his father left.

It hit me so hard when I realized the irony of his relationship with his girlfriend, Story. She longs to know who her real father is. Meanwhile, Henry’s loss of his father shapes the decisions he makes. Rather than looking out for his mom and sister after his dad leaves, he abandons them, too. And as I read, I kept waiting for him to make the connection.

These are characters that I couldn’t help but care about, and the desolate, backwoods setting really settled into my bones, much the same way it does for Henry. He loathes the place where he grew up, yet he can’t stay away.

“The Barrowfields” is a heartbreaker of a book, a story of the tenuous threads that hold a family together and how they can be threatened by grief, depression and abandonment. It’s a tale of broken promises and redemption, shot through with unexpected moments of levity. It’s a must-read that has all the makings of an enduring classic.

I received an ARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Have you read any of the books on this list? What are some great debut novels you’ve read?

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8 thoughts on “Top 5 Tuesday: Debut novels

  1. Pingback: Top 5 Debut Novels! – Bionic Book Worm

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