Book of the Week – Fiction: The Country of Ice Cream Star – Sandra Newman

One of the happiest tasks a sales rep has is discovering good books and turning booksellers on to them. Some seasons you only fall in “like”–other seasons, it’s “you had me at hello.” The Country of Ice Cream Star had me at hello. I’m happy to say that many booksellers agree.

At first blush, this book isn’t an obvious, easy handsell. It’s a 600-page dystopic novel about America in a near future decimated by a pandemic virus–written in an invented dialect. But it’s the language that ultimately beguiles and raises this book up. Newman has achieved the remarkable feat in marrying a pretty standard dystopic plot to language that’s so electric, so inventive, so gorgeously filled with life that you’re happy to live in this dark future for as long a Newman wants you there. Here’s a sample from page one:

We Sengles be a wandering sort. We never grown nothing from anything, never had no tato patch nor cornfield. Be thieves, and brave to hunt. A Sengle hungry even when he eat, even when he rich, he still want to grab and rob, he hungry for something he ain’t never seen nor thought of. We was so proud, we was ridiculous as wild animals, but we was bell and strong.”

It’s a daring book that brings to mind risky imaginative exercises by writers like Kate Atkinson and David Mitchell. In fact Atkinson calls this book “[a]n astonishing achievement… I can’t remember when I last read something so original or sophisticated or emotionally engaging or so breathtakingly ambitious.”

The book has two starred advance reviews and is an Indie Next Pick for February. Major media coverage kicks off with the NYT and Washington Post. The Huffington Post will run an original piece by Newman at publication and Salon.com will run an article about literary post-apocalyptic fiction including the book in February. (And I sure wish I was going to be in NYC for an “in conversation” event with Emily St. John Mandel and Sandra Newman at Greenlight Bookstore.)

“Written entirely in the broken English of these short-lived children, now generations removed from the plague’s onset, Newman’s novel is ambitious, taking on race, sex, class, religion, politics, and war all at once. What sets the work apart is its unapologetic narrator, whose fantastically unbridled, wholly teenage point of view renders each page a pleasure to read.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

In a future America, the population has been decimated by a mysterious disease, leaving only a few tribes governed by youths who dread the fatal sickness known as “posies,” which afflicts everyone by their late teens….Ice Cream struggles to secure the cure without sacrificing her humanity or the lives that depend on her. Ice Cream’s story, related in patois, is a richly detailed dystopian epic that blends elements of American history, popular culture, and political allegory with romance and thriller pacing. This suspenseful, provocative tale is The Hunger Games meets Lord of the Flies and The Walking Dead, only much, much better.
Booklist (starred review)

“This literary dystopia inhabits a fully imagined, remarkably inventive universe with its own bizarre rituals and language….[T]he patient reader will be intrigued by the poetic prose and captivated by the exploits of Ice Cream Star.”
   — Library Journal

“Epic in scope and epic in achievement….[t]he world Newman creates is original, richly detailed, and compellingly realized, down to the Pidgen English patois that the story is told in. This strange and deceptively simple language Newman created makes the book a challenge to get immediately immersed in, but has tremendous payoff. The story grabs you from the start and the plot moves swiftly, carrying you along until you get adjusted. Once accustomed to the language, I found its use to be a slyly effective way to incisively and, at times, humorously take a sideways angle to cut through absurdities of human relations, American institutions and societal norms. Just as you get a handle on the book’s human and social landscape, its world opens up in surprising, delightful ways. At turns violent, romantic, funny and touching, The Country of Ice Cream Star wraps an exploration of power, American institutions, race and human nature into a ripping, twisting, turning epic.”
— Matt Nixon, The Booksellers at Laurelwood, Memphis, TN

Newman’s story is immersive.  Small, deft descriptions of dew on the meadow grass, of everyday events, of Ice Cream’s emotions and of her intense feelings for her tribe quietly but vividly bring the world of this novel to life.  Their world is complete and whole and understandable.  And frightening….Ice Cream Star is unique, her life harrowing, her story engrossing.  To borrow from Newman’s language,  Ice Cream Star be bellesse.  Be bone.  Plenty bone.”
— Allen Murphey, Joseph-Beth Booksellers, Cincinnati, OH

“What starts off as off-kilter dialect will transform the reader into the watcher of the last revolution in the United States. Ice Cream Star tells the world how she sees it with the complications of teenage love, trust, and survival thrown in to remind you that she is just a kid. As the reader learns her language, the world opens below you: deep, unapologetic, and with so many layers of story…[L]ike Moses she leads her people away from their safe woods south to New York and onto Washington, D.C….This isn’t your average dystopian; this is a tome to carry and recommend right alongside The Dog Stars.”
— April Dawn Gosling, Boulder Book Store, Boulder, CO

The Country of Ice Cream Star (9780062227096) by Sandra Newman. $26.99 hardcover. 2/10/15 on sale.

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