Our Critic's Tip Sheet on Current Reading: Five Debut Novels

Plucked from the tragic stack that teeters on a distant corner of my desk—vain hopes piled on top of crushed ambition and dreams deferred—here are five first novels published in the last month. Five brave souls who have shouted out into the deafening roar. Five voices that should be heard.

 

LAUREN GROFF’S THE Monsters of Templeton (Voice, $24.95) sports blurbs from both Stephen King and Lorrie Moore (bet that’s a first). A riotously playful novel about going home again (to upstate N.Y.), it’s told in many voices over several hundred years, and it’s tarted up with charts and snapshots and other clever pomo tricks, but it takes only a few pages to see that Ms. Groff can write—really write—and if she wants bells and whistles, so be it.

 

TOD WODICKA’S ALL Shall Be Well; and All Shall Be Well; and All Manner of Things Shall Be Well (Pantheon, $21.95) was published last year in England (though Mr. Wodicka is American), and the Brit crits loved it. A zany premise (big-nosed medieval reenactor seeks estranged son in Prague) and a dark, satiric bent (think George Saunders) may scare off reviewers on this side of the ocean—but that would be a shame. Mr. Wodicka is smart and funny, and cruel enough to make his wacky world interesting.

 

“MINE’S A DAMN good story,” declares the narrator of Steve Toltz’s A Fraction of the Whole (Spiegel & Grau, $24.95), “and it’s true. I don’t know why, but that seems to be important to people. Personally, if someone said to me, ‘I’ve got this great story to tell you, and every word is an absolute lie!’ I’d be on the edge of my seat.” Here the story is a long-winded Australian father-and-son epic, madcap, exhausting and true in the way the best lies always are.

 

DAN VYLETA’S PAVEL & I (Bloomsbury, $24.95) has plenty of plot (including a dead midget in a suitcase), a crowd of desperate characters (including a whore with a heart of tarnished gold) and an unusual narrative scheme—but most of all, it has atmosphere, a vividly rendered time and place: Berlin in the frigid winter of 1946-47, rubble, starvation and no brakes on anyone’s instinct for self-preservation.

AND JUST IN case you have time left over for high-end chick lit, Julie Buxbaum’s The Opposite of Love (Dial Press, $25) is a well-made, strictly conventional item about the vicissitudes of yuppie romance in Manhattan today (with a case of Alzheimer’s thrown in for ballast).

Our Critic's Tip Sheet on Current Reading: Five Debut Novels