Foreword Reviews

8 New Novelists Push Boundaries

8 New Novelists

In these stories of transformation and self-discovery, a group of debut novelists deliver riveting works with themes ranging from family to fate. From historical fiction to modern journeys and coming-of-age tales, the works listed below all offer thoughtful looks at pressing human issues. Some explore the pull of the past and the hold that it has over our spirits, while other books explore the fragile psyche and the interplay between memory and imagination. All of these books deliver tales that push the boundaries of fiction, from talented voices just emerging onto the literary scene.

The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt

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Tracy Farr
Aardvark Bureau
Softcover $14.95 (304pp)
Buy: Local Bookstore (Bookshop), Amazon

Lena Gaunt, former professional musician, octogenarian, and heroin addict, lives in the suburbs of Perth. Once a renowned theremin player, she is given the chance to play at an electronic music festival, ending her retirement and recapturing a forgotten part of herself. Filmmaker Mo Patterson listens to her captivating performance and soon asks to make a documentary film about her eclectic life and career, leading to a journey of discovery for both that culminates in fresh insights, the unearthing of bittersweet memories, and a final peace.

The setup of the novel is clever, allowing for a slow discovery of the life of Lena seen in retrospect. At the same time, Lena’s emotional life is not all in the past—the figure of Mo Patterson allows her a fresh chance at vulnerability. Lena is a captivating narrator who provides a window into a world where some of life’s deepest questions can only be answered through art. The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt is filled with deep reflection and symbolism, and even the instrument Lena herself plays is packed with meaning: the theremin was the first electronic musical instrument invented, and requires players’ hands to hover over—but never touch—the instrument. From reflections on technology and art, to questions of addiction and control, the novel moves expertly from a portrait of Lena’s life to an analysis of its broader, deeper themes.

The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt is a reflective, quiet, but beautifully written tale perfect for those interested in the intersection of music, literature, and film.


A Man of Genius

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Lynn Rosen
Una Publications
Softcover $14.95 (246pp)
Buy: Amazon

In this haunting, gothic-esque novel of suspense, Samuel Grafton-Hall is a brilliant, revered architect—and a murderer. Successful and accomplished, he nonetheless views his genius as a gift that puts him above petty nuisances like moral codes, and A Man of Genius unfolds by watching how he navigates this journey of ego, pride, and hubris, unraveling the world around him in the process.

The story opens as Mr. Dolinger, Grafton-Hall’s lawyer and executor, tries to piece together a mystery based on a strange clue in the architect’s will. The novel touches not only on questions of morality, but on questions of perception, memory, and reliability. Prose moves lightly: just as in any great gothic classic, secrets are revealed slowly, through expressions, dialogue, and hints that build to a final crescendo over the course of the novel. Rosen’s writing is sharp, descriptive, and effortless, further adding to the atmosphere of dread and fascination with her compelling main character.

A Man of Genius is a haunting portrait of a narcissistic man and the ripple effects that his actions have on the world and relationships around him. Rosen does not present Samuel Grafton-Hall as a caricature—he is a fully rounded, complex, and even mysterious being whose choices and actions remain compelling, even as Rosen delves deep into the darkness possible within the human heart.


The Bowl with Gold Seams

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Ellen Prentiss Campbell
Apprentice House Press
Buy: Local Bookstore (Bookshop), Amazon

In the summer of 1945, the Pennsylvania Bedford Springs Hotel served as the detainment center for the Japanese ambassador to Berlin, along with his staff and all of their families. From this unusual real-life piece of history springs the historical fiction of The Bowl with Gold Seams, which follows young Hazel Shaw as she works at the hotel among the Japanese. Her experiences that summer shape her, and Hazel finds herself haunted by the memories for years to come. When she returns to the hotel many years after the end of the war, Hazel is suddenly and powerfully confronted with the past she thought she had left behind.

A story about loyalty and loss, The Bowl with Gold Seams is a moving account of a formative experience in one young woman’s life. While Hazel is simultaneously dealing with a husband missing in action, she works among the families and staff being used as bargaining chips by the State Department to secure the release of American prisoners. The complicated relationships, emotions, and friendships that develop as a result of this tense situation affect Hazel’s life in unexpected ways, and Campbell deals gently but powerfully with the emotional consequences of that fateful summer.

The distance of many years offers a powerful perspective that Campbell expertly capitalizes on. The Bowl with Gold Seams does not shy away from difficult topics, instead presenting a poignant and touching story of how what once was broken can be made beautiful.


Diana, Herself

An Allegory of Awakening

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Martha Beck
Cynosure Publishing
Hardcover $24.95 (312pp)
Buy: Local Bookstore (Bookshop), Amazon

In an artful book that questions reality and perception, Martha Beck offers a portrait of a woman at the brink of both despair and discovery. Diana Archer is a single, struggling mother who embarks to the Sierras Oscuras National Forest in California under the influence of famous, charismatic reality TV star and life coach Roy Richards. But when Diana is left abandoned in the forest, her story takes a sharp turn, and she finds herself questioning both her own perceptions and the strange journey “home” that she must undertake.

Most unusually, Diana is confronted with a talking wild boar that promises to lead her out of her dire situation, but Diana’s journey is far from a straightforward trek back to Los Angeles. Is the animal real, or a psychological projection? Where is home? And most importantly, how will Diana have changed when she gets there?

Diana, Herself is a creative and unique novel of self-discovery written by an author not afraid to push the boundaries of her narrative. Offbeat and enjoyable, it is a captivating work in an irreverent voice that is perfect for those interested in their own psychological awakenings. Ideal for fans who are curious about the connections of literature with mental and spiritual themes and discoveries.


Glass Shatters

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Michelle Meyers
She Writes Press
Softcover $16.95 (228pp)
Buy: Local Bookstore (Bookshop), Amazon

Can you trust your own memories? When Charles Lang wakes up in a house he doesn’t recognize, with no idea who he is or where he came from, he must rely on the clues around him to piece together his life. What he discovers is shocking: his wife and daughter disappeared under mysterious circumstances years ago, and if he wishes to get them back, he must follow the clues of the mystery to their riveting end.

A brilliant scientist, Charles Lang is a tortured and sharp man on a focused mission to not just rediscover his family, but himself. The secrets that Charles uncovers range from the mundane to the alarming, and as he presses forward, the self that is revealed is wholly different than he could have imagined. And yet, this new Charles Lang is one constructed solely of pieced-together memories and knowledge given to him by neighbors and others—and is that version more trustworthy than his own thoughts?

Michelle Meyers is a unique talent, weaving together older memories and present impressions into a reality that is sometimes fleeting but always complicated. Glass Shatters asks the question, how much of Charles Lang can we trust? With gothic undertones and lyrical prose, Glass Shatters is a must read for anyone interested in the unreliability of narrative, the construction of the self, and the way that memories can sometimes haunt.


A Man of Genius

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Janet Todd
Bitter Lemon Press
Hardcover $24.95 (352pp)
Buy: Local Bookstore (Bookshop), Amazon

Writing can be an act of creation—or destruction. In Janet Todd’s A Man of Genius, Ann St. Clair is a successful nineteenth century novelist of cheap gothic novels whose life is transformed when she meets the bold, enigmatic Robert James. What starts as a love affair turns into a tumultuous relationship of madness and obsession, and as Ann leaves London to follow Robert to Venice, she discovers more shocking secrets that transform her life into one of the scandalous stories she used to only write about.

A Man of Genius jumps into Ann’s meeting with Robert, the transformation coming swiftly and irrevocably. At times, the novel seems almost dream-like, as Ann’s reality shifts and reconfigures itself after her encounter with the strange but captivating gentleman. “He changed everything,” the novel writes, and a series of short scenes help introduce the monumental change that led to the undoing of Ann’s former life. Interestingly, though Ann remains the center of the novel, she orients herself almost entirely around Robert James, so that it is impossible to imagine her without this connection to the brooding, violent genius. The implication Todd seems to be making is that in the reality of this novel, the writer Ann cannot create herself independent of Robert James—at least at the beginning.

As the novel goes on, however, Ann begins to discover more about not only Robert, but herself. It is this self-discovery, this uncovering of her own narrative, that finally pushes her into an independent role that is both thrilling and heartbreaking to witness. For Robert James is not the only one with secrets, and Ann’s final narrative is dependent on her understanding of her own. This book is recommended for readers who enjoy the twists and turns of a gothic novel with emotional heart and depth.


American Fallout

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Brandon Wicks
Santa Fe Writers Project
Softcover $15.95 (345pp)
Buy: Local Bookstore (IndieBound), Amazon

Avery Cullins lives an unconventional life. His current “family” includes a live-in boyfriend and pet turtle, very different from the traditional Southern upbringing and family that he left so many years ago. But when Avery’s father commits suicide, his worlds collide in surprising and meaningful ways. Now, Avery must travel cross-country with both his mother and his boyfriend, and somehow reconcile the past with the present without losing his grip on either.

The novel begins with four powerful words: “I need to explain.” From there, Avery details a journey of both self-discovery and growth. Wicks does not provide easy answers for Avery. His pilgrimage involves confronting and coming to terms with a family that had trouble accepting him, though the novel also focuses on shifting relationships and the difficulties that come along with navigating the self in a world where the meaning of “identity” constantly changes.

American Fallout is a powerful novel about family and change. Avery Cullins is a smart, sharp, and casual narrator with the self-awareness to understand the impact of the little changes that pile up over the course of his journey. What results is a strong work that refrains from generalized questions and neat answers, and that ends with a powerful image of the lessons Avery has drawn from his father’s suicide and the resulting fallout.


Over the Plain Houses

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Julia Franks
Hub City Press
Hardcover $26.00 (280pp)
Buy: Local Bookstore (IndieBound)

In this captivating historical novel, full of superstition, suspense, and secrets, a woman comes to a North Carolina town and rocks the precarious equilibrium of the relationships there. From the start, Over the Plain Houses is filled with a sense of dangerous foreboding: the arrival of USDA agent Virginia Furman is described in stark, plain terms, with Franks hinting at the violence to come. From there, the novel moves toward its powerful climax, with a sense of inevitability that reverberates throughout the novel.

Irenie Lambey is a housewife and mother who is drawn to the warmth and promises of the new agent in town, Virginia, who initially captures her attention by praising her son’s intelligence and suggesting the possibility of a better school for him. But the relationship between Irenie and Virginia becomes complicated—Irenie’s husband, a recently minted fundamentalist preacher, is increasingly suspicious of both women, and Irenie herself has a few secrets of her own. Feeling trapped within her marriage, she wanders the woods at night to satisfy her desire to be outside, only fueling her husband’s suspicions that something dark and sinister—and possibly supernatural—is going on.

Over the Plain Houses is a personal drama that zeroes in on a few characters in order to show the cascading impact of change on a family and town. The conflict between Irenie and her husband is present from the start, but the divisions between them stretch over the course of the novel as Irenie seeks her freedom and her husband becomes increasingly jealous and suspicious of her. Franks presents a marriage where love is not just about compassion and closeness, but sacrifice, devastation, and possession. What results is a powerful, at times difficult, novel about the coming apart of a family. This book is recommended for historical fiction fans who are looking for powerful, emotional reads with the ability to illustrate all the different shades of the human heart.


Stephanie Bucklin

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