Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Ulitskaya, Phillips, Zentner, Savage, and More

July 9, 2019 | 15 books mentioned 2 8 min read

Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Ludmila UlitskayaHelen PhillipsAlexi ZentnerLila Savage, and more—that are publishing this week.

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Jacob’s Ladder by Ludmila Ulitskaya (translated by Polly Gannon)

coverHere’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Jacob’s Ladder: “Ulitskaya (The Big Green Tent) travels through a century of tangled Russian family history in this lucid saga. Nora Ossietzky, upon the death of her grandmother, discovers a trunk filled with letters and diaries from the 1900s and 1940s that belonged to her grandfather Jacob. As Nora sifts through these writings, readers travel through some of the most turbulent times in Russian and Ukrainian history: the Jewish pogroms, WWI, prerevolutionary times, the horrific Stalin era, and Jacob’s arrests and time in the gulags. Nora unravels these strands of family history while moving through the threads of her own life: her childhood with a remote father, her failed and unconventional marriage, the birth of her son, his later drug addiction, her career and fame in the theatrical world of Moscow, and the birth of her grandchild, Jacob, named after his great-great-grandfather. In the tradition of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, Ulitskaya’s complicated work covers a century of Russian history, politics, economics, culture, and music, which can be overwhelming. But there is something mesmerizing about the narrative’s scale, and patterns emerge: the little control humans have over their lives; the impact of political forces on individuals; the certainty of death, somehow softened by the promise of new birth. This is a challenging yet rewarding epic.”

The Need by Helen Phillips

coverHere’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Need: “Phillips (The Beautiful Bureaucrat) delivers an unforgettable tour de force that melds nonstop suspense, intriguing speculation, and perfectly crafted prose. While excavating a fossil quarry, paleobotanist Molly Nye and her colleagues find plant fossils unconnected to all previously identified species and random objects—a Bible describing God as ‘she,’ a toy soldier with a monkey’s tail, a Coke bottle with a backwards-tilting logo—with odd, seemingly pointless differences from their everyday counterparts. She feels uneasy when news of the Bible draws gawkers to the site, but anxiety is no stranger to Molly; balancing work with her nursing baby and feisty four-year-old, she struggles with ‘apocalyptic exhaustion’ and a constant fear that disaster is about to strike her kids. While her musician husband, David, is performing abroad, real danger arrives in the form of a black-clad intruder, who wears the gold deer mask David gave Molly for her birthday and knows intimate details of Molly’s life. As the stranger’s mask comes literally and figuratively off en route to a startling conclusion to their confrontation, Molly veers between panic, appeasement, and empathy for an ‘other’ whose story is uncannily like her own except in its tragedies. Structured in brief, sharply focused segments that shift back and forth in time, the novel interrogates the nature of the self, the powers and terrors of parenting, and the illusions of chronology. Yet it’s also chock-full of small moments—some scary, some tender, some darkly witty—that ground its cerebral themes in a sharply observed evocation of motherhood. With its crossover appeal to lovers of thriller, science fiction, and literary fiction, this story showcases an extraordinary writer at her electrifying best.”

Stay and Fight by Madeline Ffitch

coverHere’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Stay and Fight: “Ffitch’s remarkable and gripping debut novel (after story collection Valparaiso, Round the Horn) traces the journeys of a makeshift family in contemporary Appalachian Ohio. After Helen leaves Seattle with her boyfriend to live off the land and acquires 20 acres and a camper to sleep in, she is soon left by herself when he finds the life he imagined for them too daunting. She quickly adapts to fend for herself, learning how to forage and cook roadkill and working to help cut trees with Rudy, a lifelong local who spouts antigovernment paranoia and practical advice in equal measure. Soon, Karen and Lily, a neighboring couple, give birth to a son, Perley, and are no longer welcome at the radical Women’s Land Trust, so Helen offers them a new home with her, hoping they’ll all manage the land together. It becomes apparent, however, that it’s hard to mesh their personalities. As the years go by and Perley decides he wants to go to school and be a part of the world the others so despise, the life this family has built threatens to fully unravel. The story is told in the alternating voices of Helen, Karen, Lily, and Perley, and Ffitch navigates their personalities beautifully, creating complex, brilliantly realized characters. As the stakes rise, for both the family and the preservation of the region, the novel skewers stereotypes and offers only a messy, real depiction of people who fully embody the imperative of the novel’s title. This is a stellar novel.”

Supper Club by Lara Williams

coverHere’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Supper Club: “Williams’s first novel (after the collection A Selfie As Big As the Ritz) is the engrossing, rollicking tale of Roberta, an overweight British woman in her late 20s with low self-esteem and a penchant for cooking. Roberta’s reticence among her peers makes her university time lonely and depressing. She later finds a mundane job at a fashion website where she meets Stevie, a young artist. The women become inseparable and dream up the idea of an underground supper club in which women indulge in appetites they had previously repressed or extinguished. Each dinner has a different theme (literary heroines, princesses) and different food that Roberta prepares; there are also drugs and the night usually ends with the women eating and drinking so much they throw up. The club becomes increasingly rebellious and locates new spaces for the meals, breaking into a department store and Roberta’s alma mater. As Roberta bonds with her clubmembers, she becomes involved with a former school acquaintance and her commitment to the club changes. Williams’s humorous and candid exploration of a woman on the verge of finding herself makes for an enthralling novel.

Copperhead by Alexi Zentner

coverHere’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Copperhead: “Zentner (Touch) wades into thorny racial and class thickets in this steely and often gripping novel. The action unfolds over several days in the rural university town of Cortaca, N.Y., a thinly veiled Ithaca. Jessup is a high school senior who ‘will always have been born into the wrong family,’ blue-collar congregants of the Blessed Church of White America. He stopped attending the white nationalist church after his half-brother and stepfather were convicted in the beating death of two black college students four years earlier. Jessup excels at athletics and academics, and is dating the daughter of his black football coach, when his stepfather’s release stirs up old memories in Cortaca, where ‘history is everything.’ A racially-tinged accident involving a boy from a neighboring town forces Jessup, aware of how bad it will look given his family history, to return to the Church, and its 20-year-old media-savvy spokesman, for help. The short chapters, most no longer than three pages, lend the narrative a propulsive, if occasionally choppy, feel. There’s a tendency to hammer home themes such as the indelible markings of family and class, and in the book’s last third, the taut drama morphs briefly into a conspiratorial thriller that strains credulity. Nonetheless, Zentner’s portrait of a young man’s conflicting desires for disavowal and belonging is rich and nuanced.”

A Prayer for Travelers by Ruchika Tomar

coverHere’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about A Prayer for Travelers: “The missing-person mystery at the heart of this riveting coming-of-age novel, Tomar’s debut, gives it a suspenseful edginess. When the reader is first introduced to 19-year-old diner waitress Cale Lambert, she’s nursing a newly acquired shiner and searching for her friend Penny, who uncharacteristically didn’t show up for work that day. That’s in chapter 31—the first chapter in the book. Employing authorial sleight-of-hand, Tomar intentionally scrambles the chronology of the chapters, the better to immerse the reader in the disorder and dysfunction that shape her characters’ lives. Gradually, the thread of Cale’s hardscrabble life teases out: her motherless childhood growing up in her grandfather’s house; her hiring at the diner where Penny works; her efforts to stay outside of Penny’s occasional drug deals with the local ‘tweakers, potheads, and pipe-fiends’; and, finally, the incident that precipitated Penny’s disappearance and Cale’s entanglement with the sheriff who is searching for her. As excellently drawn by Tomar, Cale and Penny are fierce survivors whose determination to escape their dead-end town and its stultifying way of life pulls the reader relentlessly along. Their story makes for a dramatic and vivid tale about people chafing against the desperation of their circumstances.”

Famous People by Justin Kuritzkes

coverHere’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Famous People: “Kuritzkes’s clever debut is a hilarious probing social commentary written as an unnamed 20-something pop star’s memoir. The protagonist had a regular childhood in Minnesota, where he sang “traditional black music” in church although he’s white. A video of his take on the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ garners millions of views, and he becomes a chart-topping sensation at 12. After becoming famous, his family moves to L.A. where he meets Mandy, another teen pop sensation. The duo are cast as a couple because they have similar small-town backgrounds, and everyone wants to see them together. His manager-father tries to dictate his son’s sound and goes on a show called Content Bucket to talk about him, but after their first album together, the singer changes his sound, which pushes his father away. Aside from Mandy and other musicians, the narrator befriends Bob Winstock, a writer with controversial stances on minorities and gay rights who later marries his mother. Mandy is the centering person in the narrator’s life as they hook up and drift apart multiple times. In an attempt at introspection, the narrator works on a video game of his life, a secret project that seems destined for failure but that the narrator thinks will make players get to know his life and understand him. Kuritzkes flawlessly strikes the right balance between searing and comedic as his narrator searches for the true meaning of being a normal person while being famous. This is an incisive and fresh debut.”

The Saturday Night Ghost Club by Craig Davidson

coverHere’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Saturday Night Ghost Club: “Davidson’s well-crafted, whimsical coming-of-age tale (after Cataract City) follows a fateful summer in the ’80s. Twelve-year-old Jake Baker navigates between being bullied and exploring mysticism in his Niagara Falls hometown. The sleepy town is stagnant aside from tourists, and impressionable Jake doesn’t have many prospects for the summer aside from visiting the occult shop owned by his Uncle Calvin, who believes in the spirit world. Calvin encourages friendship between his nephew and new residents Billy Yellowbird and his sister, Dove, and invites them to a ghost hunting club. Jake is smitten by Dove, who, at 14, flits in and out of the club, while Jake and Billy raptly follow Calvin and his friend, Lexington, a devotee to Betamax, on weekend exploits. The meetings kick off with Calvin telling the tragic story behind each of the ghostly places they visit before they investigate the areas. Their group visits ‘The Screaming Tunnel,’ a car accident site, the charred remains of a house, and a graveyard. Over the course of the summer, the hidden connection behind the locations reveals itself to Jake. Davidson creates a quirky landscape and colorful characters, resulting in a novel that will entertain readers while providing a nice dose of nostalgia.”

Say Say Say by Lila Savage

coverHere’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Say Say Say: “Savage’s startling, tender debut follows Ella, a young caregiver hired to help a woman of rapidly diminishing mental capability, and the relationship Ella develops with her and her husband. At the novel’s start, Ella is on the cusp of 30 and living in Minneapolis with her girlfriend, Alix, whom she loves deeply and uncomplicatedly. After dropping out of graduate school, Ella makes a modest living as a caregiver, though she harbors vague artistic inclinations. Her newest client is Jill, who, at 60, is younger than her usual clientele; her mental state has deteriorated ever since she was in a car accident over a decade ago. Unable to hold coherent conversations or wash herself, Jill has been taken care of by her husband, Bryn, a retired carpenter. Initially hired to provide Bryn with a reprieve, Ella finds herself gradually immersed in Bryn and Jill’s lives, and soon her role as Jill’s companion evolves into something more intimate and complex. Over the next year, Jill’s condition worsens and Bryn becomes more visibly strained even as the force of his love for Jill stays steady, and what Ella witnesses between the two of them challenges her ideas of love, spirituality, and empathy. Quietly forceful, Savage’s luminous debut is beautifully written, and will stay with readers long after the final page.”

Bethlehem by Karen Kelly

coverHere’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Bethlehem: “This propulsive novel from Kelly (Prospice) pulls the reader in with a gripping multigenerational tale of two families led by strong women. In 1962, Joanna Collier and her family move to Bethlehem, Pa., to stay with her mother-in-law, Susannah, as Joanna’s husband takes his place at the helm of the Collier family’s steel business. On her first day in town, Joanna meets Doe Janssen, caretaker for the local graveyard, who warns her about the spirits and secrets living around them, and specifically the mystery surrounding a grave marked “Baby Hayes.” In the small, gossip-filled town, Joanna soon learns there is more to the Collier family and her mother-in-law than she ever realized, including a past no one speaks about, which she discovers after finding the grave of Susannah’s infant sister who died 40 years before. In sections set in 1918, Kelly explores the adolescent relationship between Susannah Parrish and Wyatt Collier, whose father began working for Susannah’s father’s steel mill. As Joanna investigates the history of the Collier family, she begins to connect the mystery of Baby Hayes to long-buried family secrets. Prying into the power and family dynamics of the dynastic American industrialist family, Kelly’s evocative, startling story will appeal to readers who enjoy family sagas.”

is a staff writer for The Millions and an MFA candidate at Johns Hopkins. Prior to coming to Baltimore, he studied literature and worked in IT while living in Dublin, Ireland. You can find him on Twitter at @tdbeckwith.

2 comments:

  1. Loved The Green Tent! Jacob’s Ladder just arrived Friday. Ulitskaya never lets me down. I have to say that so far this year two debut novelists blew my socks off: The Old Drift by Namwali Serpel and Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Broddesser-Akner. Like CB, I too am eagerly awaiting the second half of the year preview. If debut novelists continue to surprise and delight, 2019 will be a stellar year for new novelists.

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