So I was lucky enough to win a copy of Weidenfeld & Nicolson’s ‘New Voices’ sampler, containing extracts from the beginnings of six of their forthcoming debut novels. As I’m always keen to discover interesting debuts, I have decided to read and rate each extract; as with my round-up of the Waterstone’s 11 earlier in the year, the ratings are based on how strongly the extract makes me want to read the book.

Shelley Harris – Jubilee (Dec 2011)

In this extract, we meet Satish Patel, a Ugandan-born doctor who came to the UK as a child. At the time of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, the young Satish was the central figure in a photograph which has become iconic – great for Andrew Ford, the photographer; but Satish’s relationship with the image has been more ambivalent. Now, thirty years on, Ford wants to stage a reconstruction of the photo.

Of all the extracts, this is the one that for me has the best individual turns of phrase, and I find the set-up very intriguing indeed. The excerpt presented here is probably too short for one to get a firm impression of the novel, but I’d certainly keep an eye out for Jubilee in the shops.

Anticipation rating: ***½

(EDIT, 8th Jan: I’ve now reviewed Jubilee here.)

Ayad Akhtar – American Dervish (Jan 2012)

Akhtar’s introductory note says that he wanted his novel to give ‘a felt sense of what it was like to grow up Muslim in America’. His narrator is Hayat Shah, whose mother’s friend Mina comes – at Hayat’s mother’s instigation – to the US in 1981 from Pakistan, where Mina’s husband has divorced her and left her (for the time being) with their baby son. The extract goes up to a few weeks after Mina’s arrival, and suggests that she is an extraordinary individual who will change the lives of Hayat and his family.

These first couple of chapters aren’t bad, but neither is there anything in them which makes me feel particularly inclined to read on. Of course there’s every chance that American Dervish takes off further in, but I’ll be checking the reviews first.

Anticipation rating: ***

Harriet Lane – Alys, Always (Feb 2012)

Frances Thorpe, sub-editor on a newspaper’s books desk, is out driving one Sunday evening when she comes across a crashed car and an injured woman; she helps as best she can, but later learns that the woman has died. Though Frances thinks that is the end of that, she discovers that the dead woman – Alys –  was married to Laurence Kyte, a celebrated novelist – so she accepts the opportunity of meeting the victim’s family. The extract ends as Frances is embellishing her account of what happened at the scene of the accident, and formulating plans to attend Alys’s memorial service.

Now, this has caught my attention. It’s not so much particular turns of phrase, but there’s a real energy and momentum to Lane’s prose, which I find compelling. There’s a sense at the close of the extract that Frances’s story could go anywhere; and I want to find out where, so I will definitely be reading this book.

Anticipation rating: ****

J.W. Ironmonger –The Notable Brain of Maximilian Ponder (Mar 2012)

Adam Last ‘s friend Maximilian Ponder has died. As he lifts the body on to the dining room table, Last describes the scene in careful detail, just as Ponder would have wanted. Before he calls out the police, Last begins to go through the volumes of Ponder’s attempt to catalogue the entire contents of his own brain.

This extract has perhaps the most distinctive style of the six; based on what I’ve read, it’s a slightly mannered, slightly long-winded style which has the potential to be either gloriously eccentric or just annoying. I must reserve judgement for now, but err on the side of optimism, and am certainly intrigued.

Anticipation rating: ***½

Kenneth Macleod – The Incident (Apr 2012)

Macleod’s narrator is a British lifeguard in Germany; we establish from the short prologue that he feels responsible for the deaths of two children, but learn no specifics. The narrator then turns to recalling the story of his grandfather, Gordon McInness, in the Second World War: Gordon is a merchant seaman whose ship is pressed into service as a tanker; the extract ends as the ship is hit and sunk by a torpedo from a U-boat (though the crew survive).

There’s some good imagery at the start of this extract, but the rest of it didn’t hold my interest so much. The novel as a whole promises to show how its different narrative threads – including a third one, set in the Cold War – link together. That overall picture may well be interesting, but The Incident won’t be going on my to-read list as yet.

Anticipation rating: ***

Maria Semple – Where’d You Go, Bernadette (Jun 2012)

Bee Branch’s mother, Bernadette, has vanished (presumably she has walked out on her family; it’s not clear just from this extract). The text of the novel (insofar as the excerpt goes, anyway) is presented as a compendium of documents from the weeks running up to the disappearance, compiled by Bee in an effort to piece together what might have happened and why.

As with the Ironmonger, I suspect that Semple’s narrative technique has the potential to enthrall or frustrate; for now, I like it – the extract is drily amusing, revealing a burgeoning dispute between neighbours over rampant blackberry vines; a ridiculously laid-back school; and more. I reckon Where’d You Go, Bernadette could be well worth a look.

Anticipation rating: ***½


Out of six extracts, then, I definitely want to read one of the novels (Alys, Always), and am intrigued by another three (those by Harris, Ironmonger, and Semple). I think that’s pretty good going.