It’s the end of August, and we still have quite a few reviews of summer books to share with you. So don’t let this somewhat clumsy grouping at all diminish your regard for the following three debut novels.
I start with 2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas because, well, great title! And it really does suit for this time of year. Everyone’s busy, about to jump into fall. Enter this slim, delightful novel that feels a bit like a heartfelt sitcom. Also, I can’t remember the last time we had anything set in a jazz club, or starring a 9-year-old aspiring singer. The entire novel is set within a 24-hour period and takes place in Philadelphia, author Marie-Helene Bertino‘s hometown. It is a current Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers pick, and the B&N site features a nice interview with the author. It will also make a great addition to your holiday book displays come December.
Next up is Dollbaby by Laura Lane McNeal, a Library Reads top pick. I can see recommending this novel to teens who loved The Help or The Secret Life of Bees. It also reminds me of Saving CeeCee Honeycutt. The author was inspired by her love of New Orleans. As she worked to rebuild her home after Hurricane Katrina, she was determined to tell a story of the city and what makes it unique, including its culture and the mix of people who live in close proximity to one another. Read more on the author’s website. This is also a great choice for teens who love books featuring food, for Dollbaby is full of traditional New Orleans dishes.
And finally, for a complete change of pace, let Lauren Quick usher you and your teens into the Halloween season with The Quick, an engrossing, multi-layered, unpredictable Victorian vampire novel. Frankly, this is a spoiler, because it takes quite a while for the novel to reveal its monsters. But its twists and turns will be just the thing for horror readers, especially those willing to tackle a long novel like The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova, which made a big splash with a few dedicated readers in my library when it came out.
BERTINO, Marie-Helene. 2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas. 272p. Crown. Aug. 2014. Tr. $25. ISBN 9780804140232. LC 2013048943.
It’s 2 A.M. on December 30, New Year’s Eve Eve. Within the next 24 hours, Lorca must find enough money to pay off several fines levied on his jazz club, The Cat’s Pajamas (among other problems: serving underage patrons, people living in the club, and illegal fireworks). Adding to the pressure is his son, who just wants to play with the house band. Later that day, Madeleine (who loves to sing, as did her deceased mother) is expelled from school because a bully ruined her caramel apple, and she—foul of mouth and fast of fist—retaliated; now all she wants to do is find The Cat’s Pajamas and sing, just as her mother did. The young woman’s teacher, Sabrina, feels somewhat responsible for not defending Madeleine, but is even more nervous about seeing Ben, who years ago was the worst prom date ever, and other high school friends at dinner. The three narratives intertwine as the day unfolds, and backstories for each are told in flashbacks and memories. By 2 A.M. on December 31, the protagonists’ paths converge at the club. As so often happens in life, the rhythm and pacing of these lives changes—sometimes things are resolved, sometimes left hanging. A great read for those who like realistic, slice-of-life fiction that doesn’t move at a fast pace but still manages to pack a lot in.—Laura Pearle, Miss Porter’s School, Farmington, CT
MCNEAL, Laura Lane. Dollbaby. 337p. Viking/Pamela Dorman Bks. Jul. 2014. Tr $26.95. ISBN 9780670014736. LC 2013048523.
This debut novel opens in 1964 when Liberty Bell (Ibby), just shy of her 12th birthday, is dumped by her mother at her unknown paternal grandmother’s somewhat rundown mansion in New Orleans. Ibby’s beloved father has just died and her mother, needing to “figure this whole thing out,” takes off without so much as a backward glance. Ibby is welcomed to her grandmother Fannie’s house by Dollbaby, who along with her mother Queenie, work for Fannie. So begins a remarkable eight-year period for Ibby. Fannie is eccentric, loving, and loyal, but unfortunately needs to make an occasional visit to the local asylum when her grief over past tragedies gets the better of her. She is a notorious sports better who makes quite a good living from her predictions, and hence is known all over New Orleans. Dollbaby and her family have tragedies of their own, but are a loving and solid force in Ibby’s life. They help her see and feel the racial unrest of New Orleans in the ‘60s, but also help redefine for her the concept of family. Teens will be drawn in by this well-crafted coming-of-age story with its plot twists and turns, flashbacks, secrets exposed, and exquisitely drawn characters. An engaging novel that is hard to put down.—Jane Ritter, Mill Valley School District, CA
OWEN, Lauren. The Quick. 523p. Random. Jun. 2014. Tr $27. ISBN 9780812993271. LC 2013018600.
James and Charlotte are abandoned by their father at an early age, and James welcomes the chance to travel to the city to become a writer. But London has a dark side, especially in the men who are members of a secretive club, the Aegolius. While Charlotte is stuck nursing their aging great-aunt, James and his partner encounter vampires. James ends up in the middle of a vampire turf war in Victorian London, and Charlotte must try her best to save her brother. Luckily there are others who are studying and fighting the “undid,” so Charlotte is not alone.
The Quick is not a quick read. The debut novel consists of excerpts from books about vampires, diary entries, and narratives about James and Charlotte, and the characters they meet. Some parts are stronger than others, but invested readers will want to know what happens to the siblings. Teens who love gothic novels will eat this up. These vampires brood and kill—no sweet love story here! Give this to those who enjoyed Cassandra Clare’s Clockwork Angel (S. & S., 2010) and who are ready for a darker, more intellectual read.—Sarah B. Hill, Lake Land College, Mattoon, IL