One of the biggest challenges in an increasingly crowd-sourced world is discovery. Though I strongly believe in “the big tent” philosophy when it comes to publishing—there’s room to publish something for pretty much every taste these days—when I look at the bestseller lists, crowd-sourcing doesn’t usually uncover the kinds of books I want to read.
It gets even trickier with debut authors. There are lots of them. And lots of them are good. And some of them are amazing. And a handful are going to write books that will be remembered a generation from now. So how to find what’s worth reading?
Well, I like gatekeepers. First, there are reviewers I count on—Ron Charles of The Washington Post comes immediately to mind. Then there are the ever shrinking numbers of periodicals that do serious book reviewing. And some bloggers. And finally, booksellers.
You’ve heard me wax poetic about these guys. They read for a living; they don’t get paid a lot to do it; the best ones cultivate a kind of discernment that would make Ron Charles happy to be part of their club.
Recently the American Booksellers Association developed a program to highlight the very best debut writing in a given period. The process isn’t crowd-sourced. Instead, it draws on some of the best booksellers in the country, asks them to read even more than they usually do, then get together and hash out what are the best books by new authors. These are books I’m interested in.
Right now ABA is rolling out a series of Q&A’s with authors of the Fall selections here. And the Spring 2014 selections have just been announced. You can read about the program and see the choices here.
I mention this all because Indie booksellers selected two of my very favorite books on Harper’s Winter 2014 list for the next round in Indies Introduce picks—on adult and one young adult. Each book is fresh, thought-provoking and beautifully imagined. Really great choices.
Warning: this is one of those reads that can you make you miss your vacation. I took the manuscript with me to Durango last summer and kept excusing myself to sneak off and read a few more chapters. I picked it up again last week and it’s every bit as delicious as I remember.
The storytelling, the language, the structure and pacing of the plot are all impressive. I think this works well for fans of The Orchardist, The Outlander, and An Unreliable Wife. Those books all have a kind of vivid, energetic, animate language that invites you into the time period and the landscape. In The Kept, there’s a kind old timey, horse opera feel to the characters and language that reminded of the TV show Deadwood. And for those of you who watched that, the main villain here has the suave, psychopathic scariness of Deadwood’s Al Swearingen.
I don’t want to give too much away because a lot of the drama is in the suspense of coming to understand the story of this family. But to set the scene, the story opens with a mass murder that’s as brutal and heart-rending as anything from The Son, and you are thrown into the harshness and brutality of homesteading life. Plot-wise, after that it’s a seemingly straight forward story of a mother and son seeking vengeance. But what you learn along the way is anything but simple—it’s rich and complex, beautiful and horrifying.
I found myself taking notes as I read. Themes and images turn up over and over, reminding me of what author David Wroblewski once said of the structure of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle—that he saw it as ‘braids’ of themes woven through the story. In The Kept the plot involves a mother and son—but to me the thematic braid is about fathers and sons—what makes a father, fathers letting down sons, fathers protecting sons, abandoning sons…how a son determines who he is and who he belongs to.
This is a terrific read. I’m not surprised Indie booksellers have embraced it. I can hardly wait to see what reviewers say. Just recently the first advance review came in—a starred and boxed review from PW that concludes: “Scott has produced a work of historical fiction that is both atmospheric and memorable, suffused with dread and suspense right up to the last page.”
The Kept (9780062236739) by James Scott. 25.99 hardcover. 1/7/14 on sale.
Since this book publishes so far out, I’ll make briefer comments here and pick it up again closer to on sale.
It’s no secret to the booksellers I work with that I am not frequently a fan of YA novels. Perhaps it’s necessary to writing for younger readers, but too often I find YA novels subordinate texture in service of moving the plot along. But hey, a really good book rises above and demands your attention. Salvage had me from the get go.
I think this book traces its lineage less to recent dystopias like The Hunger Games and our own Divergent than to Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale. (But perhaps at the end of the day all these books owe a nod to Ms. Atwood…) It’s the story of fundamentalist tribes in deep space and a girl who is longs to do “men’s work” fixing things in a culture where women are not allowed to learn to read and are relegated to cleaning and caretaking. The deep space world of the tribes is thought-provoking in its parallels to real world fundamentalism (both Western and Eastern). And the story only becomes more interesting when Ava, the young heroine, is forced to flee to Earth and confront attenuated versions of the class and income disparity we already live with. Never preachy, this is a story with a compelling plot and fast action that manages to keep strong women at the center and makes point after point that might be eye-opening to teens only starting to learn about the lives of women in our own world.
Salvage (9780062220141) by Alexandra Duncan. 17.99 hardcover. 4/1/14 on sale.