Category Archives: Debuts

The Umbrella Country by Bino A. Realuyo

Synopsis from Amazon.com:

The Umbrella Country by Bino Realuyo“Certain things are better kept than said. . . .
But certain things you have to find out now. . . .”

On the tumultuous streets of Manila, where the earth is as brown as a tamarind leaf and the pungent smells of vinegar and mashed peppers fill the air, where seasons shift between scorching sun and torrential rain, eleven-year-old Gringo strives to make sense of his family and a world that is growing increasingly harsher before his young eyes.

There is Gringo’s older brother, Pipo, wise beyond his years, a flamboyant, defiant youth and the three-time winner of the sequined Miss Unibers contest; Daddy Groovie, whiling away his days with other hang-about men, out of work and wilting like a guava, clinging to the hope of someday joining his sister in Nuyork; Gringo’s mother, Estrella, moving through their ramshackle home, holding her emotions tight as a fist, which she often clenches in anger after curfew covers the neighborhood in a burst of dark; and Ninang Rola, wise godmother of words, who confides in Gringo a shocking secret from the past–and sets the stage for the profound events to come, in which no one will remain untouched by the jagged pieces of a shattered dream.

As Gringo learns; shame is passed down through generations, but so is the life-changing power of blood ties and enduring love.

In this lush, richly poetic novel of grinding hardship and resilient triumph, of selfless sacrifice and searing revelation, Bino A. Realuyo brings the teeming world of 1970s brilliantly to life. While mapping a young boy’s awakening to adulthood in dazzling often unexpected ways, The Umbrella Country subtly works sweet magic.

There is a tendency among expatriates to romanticize their homeland; I certainly understand such an impulse, being of the Filipino diaspora myself. Bino Realuyo does exactly this in and attempts to exorcise his past and his origins. In and of itself, that’s not a bad thing; the expatriate experience is rich, ever-evolving, and certainly deserves to be chronicled. However, it may be that more time needs to pass before the author can deliver his ideas in a more cohesive way.

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Filed under Debuts, Postcolonial Literature, Postmodern Literature

Monkey Bridge by Lan Cao

Synopsis, courtesy of Amazon.com:

Monkey Bridge by Lan CaoHailed by critics and writers as powerful, important fiction, Monkey Bridge charts the unmapped territory of the Vietnamese American experience in the aftermath of war. Like navigating a monkey bridge–a bridge, built of spindly bamboo, used by peasants for centuries–the narrative traverses perilously between worlds past and present, East and West, in telling two interlocking stories: one, the Vietnamese version of the classic immigrant experience in America, told by a young girl; and the second, a dark tale of betrayal, political intrigue, family secrets, and revenge–her mother’s tale. The haunting and beautiful terrain of Monkey Bridge is the “luminous motion,” as it is called in Vietnamese myth and legend, between generations, encompassing Vietnamese lore, history, and dreams of the past as well as of the future. “With incredible lightness, balance and elegance,” writes Isabel Allende, “[Lan Cao crosses] over an abyss of pain, loss, separation and exile, connecting on one level the opposite realities of Vietnam and North America, and on a deeper level the realities of the material world and the world of the spirits.”

Monkey Bridge is the story of Mai and Thanh, recent immigrants to America from Vietnam. Through the kindness of Uncle Michael, an American GI and family friend, Mai was able to leave before the fall of Saigon; her mother, Thanh, followed through the American airlift shortly after. The novel highlights the struggle for Mai and her mother to assimilate in America. For Mai, the struggle is not too difficult. Within a few months, she has learned to appreciate America’s shopping malls, has gotten used to the chill of Virginia, and speaks American English without a Vietnamese accent. For Thanh, the adjustment is more challenging. In Vietnam, Thanh’s French convent school education gave her fluency in French and a love for the French classics. In America, she is just another immigrant who spoke no English.

In their effort to assimilate, Mai and her mother have ignored the riddle that continues to prey on their minds: on the day that her mother was airlifted out of Saigon, Mai’s grandfather, Baba Quan, was left behind. Mai is confused by her mother’s alternating grief for and seeming indifference to Baba Quan. When Thanh suffers a stroke, Mai hears her call out for Baba Quan. This incident sparks Mai’s resolve to find her grandfather, because she believes Baba Quan is the only person who can ease Thanh’s disquiet.

Lan Cao has clearly written an autobiographical novel. In the book’s jacket, the author is described as having left Vietnam in 1975. The photo, naturally, is the requisite black and white. Lan Cao is wearing black, standing against a stark background with her arms folded, unsmiling. Clearly, this is a very serious book about a very serious subject from a very serious writer.

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An Invisible Sign of My Own by Aimee Bender

Synopsis from book flap, courtesy of Amazon.com:

an-invisible-sign-of-my-own.jpgWith her stunning debut collection of stories, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, Aimee Bender showed herself to be “a writer who makes you glad for the very existence of language” San Francisco Chronicle. The book was a sensation; it spent seven weeks on The Los Angeles Times bestseller list, received ecstatic reviews nationwide, and established Aimee Bender as one of the freshest and most original voices in American fiction.

In An Invisible Sign of My Own, Aimee Bender exceeds her early promise. She gives us the story of Mona Gray, a second-grade math teacher who has just turned twenty–a number which, like all numbers in her life, seems to have a profound significance. Mona lives her life under the shadow of her father’s long, weird, unnamed illness and her own bizarre compulsions. She excels at music, running, and sex, but ceases each activity just at the moment enjoyment becomes intense: Mona is “in love with quitting.” Only numbers provide the order and beauty she craves. “Mix up some numbers and you get an equation for the way the wind shifts or an axiom for the movement of water, or the height of someone, or for how skin feels. You can account for softness. You can explain everything.” With construction paper and Magic Markers, Mona arranges her classroom into “a beautiful museum of numbers,” but that could also describe her life: a collection of oddities, a static place, a hushed and insular world where disruption is unwelcome. Then the science teacher arrives, with burn marks on his fingers and a genius for teaching children the joys of coughing, and Mona’s strange and tidy universe is threatened by love, the supreme disorder. In her luminous, pitch-perfect prose, Bender conjures a dream world much like our own, a fairy tale grounded in a penetrating sense of what moves the human heart.

Like in her collection of short stories, The Girl In The Flammable Skirt, Aimee Bender once again gives us a surreal tale of suburban malaise and magical realism. As expected, the protagonist, Mona Gray, is both endearing and eccentric, having had a nearly lifelong love affair with quitting. Mona always seems to be on the verge of mentally imploding (and physically as well, after buying an ax on her 20th birthday) but she keeps her demons at bay by soothing herself with math and numbers, which are solid and dependable and not subject to the random catastrophes that make up a life.

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The Dive from Clausen’s Pier by Ann Packer

Synopsis, courtesy of Amazon.com:

The Dive From Clausen’s Pier by Ann PackerA riveting novel about loyalty and self-knowledge, and the conflict between who we want to be to others and who we must be for ourselves.

Carrie Bell has lived in all her life. She’s had the same best friend, the same good relationship with her mother, the same boyfriend, Mike, now her fiancé, for as long as anyone can remember. It’s with real surprise she finds that, at age twenty-three, her life has begun to feel suffocating. She longs for a change, an upheaval, for a chance to begin again.

That chance is granted to her, terribly, when Mike is injured in an accident. Now Carrie has to question everything she thought she knew about herself and the meaning of home. She must ask: How much do we owe the people we love? Is it a sign of strength or of weakness to walk away from someone in need?

The Dive from Clausen’s Pier reminds us how precarious our lives are and how quickly they can be divided into before and after, whether by random accident or by the force of our own desires. It begins with a disaster that could happen, out of the blue, in anybody’s life, and it forces us to ask how we would bear up in the face of tragedy and what we know, or think we know, about our deepest allegiances. Elegantly written and ferociously paced, emotionally nuanced and morally complex, The Dive from Clausen’s Pie marks the emergence of a prodigiously gifted new novelist.

The Dive from Clausen’s Pier tells the story of small-town girl Carrie’s struggle to break free from expectations, both hers and other people’s. She doesn’t have the courage to leave her boyfriend/fiance, Mike Mayer, so she instead acts cold and distant. Poor Mike also struggles but for a different reason: he wants to regain what he and Carrie have lost before they are forced to actually acknowledge its presence. This is what leads him to jump off Clausen’s Pier and break his neck, rendering him a quadriplegic. Carrie, naturally, is filled with guilt (but not necessarily tears as the novel uses countless pages to describe Carrie’s lack of tears) as she knows very well that it’s her emotional distance that caused Mike to jump off the pier. Tensions arise between Carrie & her friends and Carrie & Mike’s family, who are aware that she is pulling away from Mike, and had in fact been pulling away from him before the accident occurred. Unable to bear the pressure from her loved-ones and herself, Carrie decides to take off for New York without telling anyone. A spur-of-the-moment trip lasts months, and why shouldn’t it? Carrie is away from her family and from poor Mike for the first time in her young life. She embarks on an emotionally conflicting but sexually satisfying affair with Kilroy, who gives her excitement and the thrill of newness, but not much else. The freedom exhilarates her, but as the reader knows before Carrie does, it’s only a matter of time before regrets, guilt, and loyalty will her to come back to Madison.

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Once Were Warriors by Alan Duff

Synopsis from book flap, courtesy of Amazon.com:

Once Were Warriors by Alan DuffOnce Were Warriors is Alan Duff’s harrowing vision of his country’s indigenous people two hundred years after the English conquest. In prose that is both raw and compelling, it tells the story of Beth Heke, a Maori woman struggling to keep her family from falling apart, despite the squalor and violence of the housing projects in which they live. Conveying both the rich textures of Maori tradition and the wounds left by its absence, Once Were Warriors is a masterpiece of unblinking realism, irresistible energy, and great sorrow.

Reading this book was such a colossal chore, which is why I didn’t finish it. Don’t quote me but I believe F. Scott Fitzgerald once dismissed Jack Kerouac’s novels as an example of “typing, not writing.” I believe the same sentiment applies here.

Once Were Warriors focuses on the Hekes, a Maori family living (if it can be called that) in the slum of Pine Block; the Hekes’ home is directly adjacent to the palatial mansion of the pakeha (meaning white, and therefore much loathed, apparently) Tramberts. Way to kick a brother when he’s down, right? Beth and Jake are both too drunk and disillusioned to care much for their kids: Nig, who has joined the local gang; Boogie, who was sentenced to a juvenile correctional facility (his parents were unable to attend the sentencing as they were both too hungover and Jake had beaten beth to a pulp the night before); and Grace, who is the fragile, sensitive girl and, in keeping with Alan Duff’s cliched characterizations, is doomed by her situation.

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The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Synopsis from book flap, courtesy of Amazon.com:

Storytelling in the grand manner, The Secret History is a debut remarkable for its hypnotic erudition and acute psychological suspense, and for the richness of its emotions, ideas, and language.

There are the confessions, years afterward, of a young man who found at a small college the life of privilege and intellect he’d long coveted – and rarely has the glorious experience of youth infatuated with knowledge and with itself been so achingly realized. Then, amazed, Richard Papen is drawn into the ultimate inner circle: five students, worldly and self-assured, selected by a charismatic classics professor to participate in the search for truth and beauty. Together they study the mysteries of ancient Greek culture and spend long weekends at an old country house, reading, boating, basking in an Indian summer that stretches late into autumn.

Mesmerized by his new comrades, Richard is unaware of the crime which they have committed in his dreamy, unwitting presence. But once taken into their confidence, he and the others slowly and inevitably begin to believe in the necessity of murdering the one classmate and friend who might betray their secret and their future.

Hugely ambitious and compulsively readable, this is a chronicle of deception and complicity, of Dionysian abandon, of innocence corrupted by self-love and moral arrogance; and, finally, it is a story of guilt and responsibility. An astonishing achievement by any standard, The Secret History immediately establishes Donna Tartt as a supremely gifted novelist.

Nothing will make a book more unpalatable or pretentious (and, in some cases, intimidating) than calling it a thinking person’s book. But this, essentially, is what The Secret History is, although it is also many other things as well: a comedy of manners, a tragedy, a psychological thriller, a romance (although not in the bodice-ripping sense); that’s not to say that it’s not pretentious because it is.

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House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

Synopsis from book flap, courtesy of Amazon.com:

Years ago, when House of Leaves was first being passed around, it was nothing more than a badly bundled heap of paper, parts of which would occasionally surface on the Internet. No one could have anticipated the small but devoted following this terrifying story would soon command. Starting with an odd assortment of marginalized youth — musicians, tattoo artists, programmers, strippers, environmentalists, and adrenaline junkies — the book eventually made its way into the hands of older generations, who not only found themselves in those strangely arranged pages but also discovered a way back into the lives of their estranged children.

Now, for the first time, this astonishing novel is made available in book form, complete with the original colored words, vertical footnotes, and newly added second and third appendices.

The story remains unchanged, focusing on a young family that moves into a small home on Ash Tree Lane where they discover something is terribly wrong: their house is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside.

Of course, neither Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Will Navidson nor his companion Karen Green was prepared to face the consequences of that impossibility, until the day their two little children wandered off and their voices eerily began to return another story — of creature darkness, of an ever-growing abyss behind a closet door, and of that unholy growl which soon enough would tear through their walls and consume all their dreams.

The verdict:

House of Leaves was alternately impressive, infuriating, and rewarding.
In short, it was fucking phenomenal.

I was initially reticent to pick up the book; the comparisons to Chuck Palahniuk turned me off, as i find Palahniuk to be the Dan Brown of would-be edgy, post-modern literature. (Sorry if that offends.) I figured that if this was just going to be Palahniuk, part deux, it would not be worth my time.

Having read House of Leaves, I can understand the basis of the comparisons between the two writers. While Chuck Palahniuk treats his characters with contempt and reeks of judgmental grandstanding, Mark Danielewski’s writing has none of the moral superiority and shock value stylings that makes me grit my teeth (and that made Chuck Palahniuk famous).

But I digress.

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Filed under Debuts, Postmodern Literature, Speculative Fiction