Saturday, August 17, 2013

Debut Novels - Double Feature and The Secret History: A Novel of Empress Theodora

I read two debut novels last week. I'm always looking for great new authors and the next big thing in books. Some of the best novels I've ever read have been debut novels. I spent a year on YALSA's Morris Committee, the committee that selects the winner and up to four honor books for the annual Morris Award for best first young adult novel. The year I was on, there were several terrific books. It was hard to winnow them down to what became our top picks. Some of the books I read that year have remained some of my favorites, including some that did not make the final cut. The award is fairly new, awarded first in 2009. The debuts from the Morris awards that I find myself recommending to adult readers as well as to and that have become favorites include The Freak Observer by Blythe Woolston, Graceling by Kristen Cashore, Hold Me Closer, Necromancer by Lish McBride, Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys, and The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson.

I try to read debut novels because I always want to find the new authors the readers I advise will like. The debut novels I read last week were Double Feature by Owen King and The Secret History: A Novel of Empress Theodora by Stephanie Thornton. They are both books I can recommend even though I didn't experience the deep connection I felt for the debuts talked about in the previous paragraph, however, since no two people ever read the same book I know they will both be loved by readers who like their types.

Double Feature is written by the son of Stephen King and the brother of Joe Hill but it is not horror. It is more or less a coming of age story even though it takes place over three decades. Sam Dolan, the son of a larger than life B movie actor comes of age as a filmmaker over the course of three decades. The narrative flashes back and forth in time as Sam and his saintly mother are abandoned by his father, to Sam making what he thinks is a masterpiece of a film but that meets with disaster, to being responsible for a pornographic movie turned cult classic that was made with clips from his film interwoven with the sad story of an over-endowed satyr. There are lots of interesting and well told bits in here but it was slow going in the middle. All in all an entertaining read for people who like general fiction with a strong voice and some humor. There is a lot of attention paid to fake noses and penises including a funeral arrangement designed as a giant penis and testicles. This is not really “my” genre so I’m stretching for read-a-likes but there were a few, very few, instances that brought Carl Hiaasen or Dave Barry to mind as well as some that made me think of Nick Hornby.

The Secret History: A Novel of Empress Theodora  by Stephanie Thornton is a promising debut with believable historical details. 
 I’ve long been fascinated with the Byzantine Empress Theodora who started out as a whore. As an undergraduate art major I saw a slide of a detail of a mosaic in Ravenna, Italy that had a picture of her that has ever after haunted me. Theodora’s young years were fascinating but in the last half  I did get somewhat bogged down. Throughout, though, I felt like I was getting a well studied and authentic view of life in 6th century Byzantium with social structures, politics, and life styles. Thornton made me care  about Theodora and the details of her world were fascinating. I liked that an author’s note and list of references as well as discussion questions were included. I would suggest this to readers who liked Robert Graves’ I Claudius.

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