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January 1&15, 2017 BOOKLIST
Find more Top 10 First Novels
Here are the 10 best first novels reviewed in Booklist from November 15, 2002, through November 1, 2003. In addition to new authors who have hit the ground running with their outstanding debut novels, our list features two old hands-prizewinning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks and memoirist Tobias Wolff-applying their considerable skills to a new format.
Chorão, Ian. Bruiser. 2003. Atria, $24 (0-7434-3775-6).
Two unhappy, intrepid, and smart children embark on a mythic journey of discovery of their own nascent strengths and of the great, mysterious world beyond the brick canyons of New York City. An exquisite evocation of youthful pain and wonder.
Ford, Robert. The Student Conductor. 2003. Putnam, $24.95 (0-399-15037-4).
Eight years after walking off the podium during a concert, Cooper Barrow, once a promising orchestral conductor, is attempting to revive his career by studying with a German master. Ford writes about the emotional essence of music with remarkable eloquence in this stirring meditation on the power of the past to enslave us and of the future to free us. See “Story behind the Story” [BKL O 15 03] for background information about the author, who is on the staff at the Fayetteville (AK) Public Library.
Gamble, Terry. The Water Dancers. 2003. Morrow, $24.95 (0-06-054266-7).
In this luminous first novel, Gamble traces the arc of a tragic love affair between a 16-year-old Native American girl and a badly wounded war veteran, the scion of a wealthy WASP family. A searing indictment of prejudice conveyed in understated, lyrical prose.
Haigh, Jennifer. Mrs. Kimble. 2003. Morrow, $24.95 (0-06-050939-2).
The elusive Ken Kimble has left three wives in his wake: alcoholic Birdie; breast-cancer survivor Joan; and his children’s former baby-sitter, Dinah. These vibrant, memorable female characters make for a thoroughly engrossing novel about the deceptions and illusions of marriage.
Halpern, Sue. The Book of Hard Things. 2003. Farrar, $22 (0-374-11559-1).
Never in his wildest dreams could homeless, unemployed 18-year-old Cuzzy have imagined his involvement with Porsche-driving 43-year-old Tracy. This is a wryly funny and wholly entrancing novel about life in a small, poor, inbred logging town.
McGregor, Jon. If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things. 2003. Houghton/Mariner, paper, $13 (0-618-34458-6).
McGregor creates characters that brim with life through exquisitely detailed descriptions of their lives and memories. But, remarkably, almost no one has a name; instead, characters are known by traits (“the man with the burnt hands”). A wonderful evocation of the beauty and horror of the literally everyday.
Parkhurst, Carolyn. The Dogs of Babel. 2003. Little, Brown. $21.95 (0-316-16868-8).
Linguistics professor Paul obsessively researches animal communication because he wants his dog, the only witness to his wife’s death, to tell him what happened. Subtly building emotion, Parkhurst beautifully expresses the universal quest for meaning in this unforgettable debut.
Parks, Suzan-Lori. Getting Mother’s Body. 2003. Random, $23.95 (1-4000-6022-2).
The 2002 Pulitzer Prize winner for her play Topdog/Underdog, Parks offers a thoroughly riveting first novel of love, family, and redemption. The Beedes are a hard-luck family, and 16-year-old Billie has just discovered that she is pregnant. She determines to discover whether her wild mother, Willie Mae, is buried with jewelry expensive enough to get her out of trouble. Here are exuberantly loony characters longing for better lives.
Riggs, Jack. When the Finch Rises. 2003. Ballantine, $23.95 (0-345-46794-9).
Twelve-year-old Raybert and Palmer are best friends who live in a blue-collar milltown, and their friendship provides a refuge from their bleak and violent home lives. Riggs puts such a wondrous and compelling spin on his material that readers will remain in the grip of this first novel long after they have read the final page.
Wolff, Tobias. Old School. 2003. Knopf, $22 (0-375-40146-6).
Despite some question about this book’s bona fides as a first novel (Wolff published a stand-alone novella in 1984), it is a marvelous piece of work with resonance for young and old alike. A scholarship student at a prestigious private school is desperate to fit in. His dissembling leads him toward an unexpected decision with far-reaching consequences. Wolff’s storytelling is economical, his prose is elegant, and his meditations are utterly timeless.
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