If you’ve heard the phrase “beginner’s luck” before, you know it’s not just for poker; there’s something to be said for maturity, but sometimes an artist’s first work is a wonder to behold. After all, they’ve spent their whole lives until publishing preparing for it. That being said, none of the debut authors in this week’s book club are complete neophytes: one has a long list of renowned short fiction, one’s a richly awarded journalist and one’s a historian helping us discover buried literary treasure. So read on for a collection of stories, a compelling coming-of-age tale and an argument for casting the spotlight on some nearly forgotten women. You’ll have some beginner’s luck yourself if you pick up one of these three new books.
1. We Show What We Have Learned and Other Stories by Clare Beams ($12): Columbia MFA grad Beams has published her short stories in many places, such as Willow Springs, Best American Nonrequired Reading and One Story; a finalist for Best American Short Stories and The Pushcart Prize, she’s just published her first complete collection of stories, and what a powerhouse it is. Beams’ stories promise to deal with the extraordinary and transformative, at once whimsical and human. Detailed, inventive and emotionally rich, the stories find the strange in the ordinary (and vice versa) and range from the historical to the modern.
In her varied tales, a young woman in London becomes fascinated with her sister’s husband during the Great Plague; an elementary school teacher comes apart at the seams before her terrified class: “We would wonder, ever after, what caused it: the force of the bottled-up, forbidden words we were calling forth or the hammering blows of the humiliation we were delivering.“ Another woman returns to the family vacation spot with her grandmother to prove her worth after a breakup and finds her irrevocably changed by the experience. An architect is altered by an all-encompassing, difficult project; a class of women is altered by their boarding school’s standards of beauty.
Beams has been lauded by authors such as Chang-Rae Lee and Joyce Carol Oates, who likens her style to a wickedly feminist collaboration between Alice Munro and Shirley Jackson. Other hallowed names invoked include Margaret Atwood and Stephen King, but Beams is no copycat; with this debut collection, she proves she has a style all her own.
2. Teethmarks on My Tongue by Eileen Battersby ($13): Eileen Battersby, the literary correspondent for the Irish Times, was Ireland’s National Critic of the Year in 2012, and has been National Arts Journalist of the Year an impressive four times. She’s released two books of criticism and non-fiction, and now her debut novel is poised to take on the world. Other critics are particularly impressed with her singular narrator, Helen Stockton Defoe, who comes of age with deadpan perception and a darkly comic viewpoint.
In Teethmarks on My Tongue, Helen feels separated from most of life’s connections; her mother is brutally, shockingly murdered on the street by a gunman, and her father distances himself; she sports a distinctive physical feature that emphasizes her internal differences. Helen exploits her otherwise privileged world and lives a rich interior life, studying arts and sciences and observing the people around her. She hopes to connect with her father, but when he rejects everything she stands for, she rejects his world, in turn, escaping to Europe, where the potential dangers she encounters are ameliorated by a renewed ability to feel.
Now Battersby finds herself in the critical spotlight, and it seems the critic has finely honed her own writing abilities. Kirkus calls Teethmarks, “A perceptive, keenly intelligent bildungsroman, well marbled with dark humor, about inhabiting one’s own life, body, and emotions despite upbringing and uncertainty.” As her character comes of age, Battersby comes into her own.
3. Not Just Jane: Rediscovering Seven Amazing Women Writers Who Transformed British Literature by Shelley DeWees ($16): “Wild and extraordinary stories often have completely ordinary beginnings, and this one, the story of how I became obsessed with seven British women, is no different.” In historian DeWees’ debut book, she takes us beyond everyone’s favorite 18th-century female British novelist, Jane Austen, to show us how a group of her contemporaries is equally sharp, witty and worthy of our attention. They may not have dozens of movie adaptations, DeWees argues, but it might make sense (and sensibility) if they did. Pulling together historical, biographical and literary information, she expands the encyclopedia of subversive female writers of the era much farther than A to B (Austen to Brontë).
Britain’s changing landscape in the Victorian era included the burgeoning publishing industry, which encouraged many women to try their luck at writing. The writers DeWees profiles were not just debut novelists, they began entire fields of literature; among them were the progenitors of modern fantasy and detective novels, and all were successful in their own time. However, like many women’s achievements, most of them have been overlooked in modern society. DeWees’ portrayal of Charlotte Turner Smith, Helen Maria Williams, Mary Robinson, Catherine Crowe, Sara Coleridge, Dinah Mulock Craik and Mary Elizabeth Braddon is unsparing and unsentimental, but seeks to be as entertaining as the novels it describes.
Laurel Anne Nattress, the editor of Jane Austen Made Me Do It, calls DeWees “the Indiana Jones of literary archeology,” and Lyndsey Faye, (author of another book club selection, Jane Steele), says “It’s a moving and heartfelt tribute to seven forgotten literary foremothers whose works were widely admired and just as widely consigned to moldering oblivion.” You might want to make room on your bookshelf for the works of these seven trailblazers after you’re done reading this hot debut, which questions and expands the notion of canon and memory, reducing the old assumptions to just a lot of pride and prejudice.
What first books are your favorites? Tag us in your next fresh read @BritandCo.
(Featured photo via Getty)