Publishers are always on the lookout for the next big thing, which means plenty of choice for fans of new voices. After highlighting four outstanding August debuts in our print issue, it's time to take a look back at the year as a whole. Here are our 12 most notable first novels of the year (so far!).
About the book: A young widow who's always lived in the shadow of her famous husband must take a new tack on life after his unexpected and sudden death. This story of self-discovery is fun, relatable and poignant.
About the author: Radziwill is a star on "The Real Housewives of New York," who honed her writing chops with a best-selling memoir, What Remains, which explores her own widowhood.
Read more: Check out the review from our February issue.
About the book: A family of four leaves their home in Alabama to reach the California coast by the time the Rapture arrives. Teenaged Jess and her older sister, Elise, have plenty of earthly problems to deal with along the way—and they're not as sure as their parents that the end is near.
About the author: Miller, who grew up in Mississippi, is currently the John and Renée Grisham Writer-in-Residence at Ole Miss. She published a short story collection, Big World, in 2009.
About the book: Told in the voices of five very different childhood friends, Butler's debut is a paean to small-town Midwestern life and an exploration of how friendships can change over time. Bonus: One of the characters just might be kinda-sorta based on a famous Wisconsin musician who went to high school with Butler.
About the author: A Wisconsin native, Butler attended the Iowa Writers' Workshop and lived in the Twin Cities before moving back home to Fall Creek with his wife, an attorney, and their two children.
Read more: Check out the interview from our March issue.
About the book: Set in a small town in the Ozarks, McHugh's debut follows a young girl whose friend's disappearance stirs up questions—and secrets—relating to her own missing mother.
About the author: McHugh drew inspiration from her own experience of moving with her family to the Ozarks as a teen—where she first discovered that small-town life didn't necessarily mean an idyllic life—as well as from the real-life disappearance of a Missouri teen.
About the book: The story begins four years after then-11-year-old Justin Campbell was kidnapped—on the day that his father, Eric, receives a phone call saying Justin is coming home. Though they're overjoyed, the Campbells soon discover that putting their family back together might be just as painful as having it ripped apart.
About the author: Johnston is the current Director of Creative Writing at Harvard, and he was one of the National Book Foundation's "5 Under 35" in 2005.
Read more: Check out the review from our May issue.
About the book: Maud is worried about her best friend, Elizabeth, whom she hasn't seen in what feels like ages. But her daughter, and Elizabeth's son, blame Maud's worry on her increasing dementia. It soon becomes clear to the reader that Elizabeth's disappearance is bringing long-buried memories to the surface of Maud's now-cloudy mind, and the reader is completely involved in this double mystery.
About the author: Healey not only writes books—she knows how to bind them, having completed a book-binding degree in London before getting her MA in creative writing at the University of East Anglia.
Read more: Check out the review from our June issue.
About the book: A forgotten American life takes center stage in this compelling debut, which tells the story of Laura Bridgman, a deaf, blind and mute woman who was born in the early 1800s. She was the first person to learn to communicate by finger-spell, a language that was later taught to Helen Keller.
About the author: Elkins is a screenwriter, playwright and essayist who has lived in cities around the globe. She has degrees from Duke, Boston University and Florida State.
About the book: This homage to all things Gothic is the rare book that both feels completely grounded in its period setting and completely relevant to our modern times—and puts a creative twist on the somewhat tired vampire trend.
About the author: British author Owen is currently completing her doctorate in English Literature at Durham University.
About the book: After the apocalypse, a young couple finds all the society they need in each other—until Frida realizes she's pregnant. Their search for civilization leads them to a mysterious settlement that may or may not provide the sanctuary they seek.
About the author: A graduate of Oberlin and the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, Lepucki has worked as a staff writer for The Millions.
Read more: Check out the review from our July issue.
About the book: Decades of colorful Caribbean history come to life in this engaging first novel, which follows the fortunes of one family after their arrival in the Virgin Islands and includes a touch of magic.
About the author: Yanique is a native of the Virgin Islands and now lives with her family in Brooklyn. She has received a Fulbright scholarship for her writing.
About the book: Research scientist David Leveraux starts to wonder whether the artificial sweetener he's created in his lab—and unleashed on the world—has a dark side.
About the author: Born in Germany to a Norwegian mother and Texan father, Clark has lived in five states and five countries. He is the author of a short story collection, Vladimir's Mustache, and currently teaches writing at Augsburg College in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Read more: Check out the review from our August issue.
About the book: Alma thinks she has left her small-town past behind her, but when her troubled younger sister is found dead on the side of the road, she is pulled back to Montana to discover the truth—and care for her orphaned young niece.
About the author: Like her main character, La Seur is a lawyer who left her home state of Montana to practice in the big city.
Agree? Disagree? let us know in the comments!
Related in BookPage: Check out our 2013 list of noteworthy debuts.
Fantasy fans, rejoice: There's a new series in town. Bay Area writer Erika Johansen has made an amibtious debut with Queen of the Tearling, the first in a planned series starring a young princess, Kelsea Glynn, who is attempting to regain her rightful throne from a pretender who wants her dead. Our reviewer writes:
In addition to the host of immediate threats, Johansen sets up a few mysteries that will be resolved over the course of her planned series. Most are common fantasy tropes—who is Kelsea’s father? What exactly is the story of the evil queen?—but Johansen’s world also contains a bigger mystery of setting: When and where, exactly, is the present action taking place? While it feels relatively medieval, there are numerous references to a Crossing, and everything Pre-Crossing sounds like the real world (our world). This suggests the kingdoms of Tear and Mortmesne may have more of a science fiction/post-apocalyptic tinge than is immediately apparent.
Today’s Debut of the Day pick is An Evening of Long Goodbyes, the inventive and hilarious first novel from Irish writer Paul Murray (whose follow up, Skippy Dies, was also marvelous and memorable). The story stars Charles Hythloday, a Dublin would-be gentleman of leisure who doesn't quite have the means to pursue his chosen lifestyle. So, as you do in a comic novel, Charles fakes his own death to collect the insurance money. Of course, things don't quite go according to plan . . .
Murray's simultaneous skewering of both the upper and lower classes is brilliant, but the novel is much more than a farce. It hinges on the complex relationship between Charles and his sister, Bel, a troubled would-be actress. . . . It's one thing to write an outrageously funny book; it's another to infuse that book with tenderness and real emotional depth. Luckily for us, Murray has done both.
Read the full review from our August 2004 issue here.
Today’s Debut of the Day pick is The Icarus Girl, by Helen Oyeyemi. Written when Oyeyemi was still studying for her A-levels, this literary debut blends Nigerian folklore and the British ghost story to create a chilling, compelling story. Oyeyemi, now 29, has gone on to write three more acclaimed novels, most recently Mr. Fox. She was named one of Granta's Best Young British Novelists earlier this year.
Oyeyemi fluently incorporates Nigerian iconography and mythology into the plot and explains Jess' bizarre behavior (which includes cutting out pictures of twins from schoolbooks) as a meeting of the real and the surreal. While the doppelganger theme runs the risk of being played out given its prevalence in so many timeless works of literature, Oyeyemi adds a new spin by relating this doubling to Nigerian custom and culture. Her imagination is gripping and fearsome and even more estimable given the fact that she is only in her second year of college.
Read the full review from our August 2005 issue here.
Today’s Debut of the Day pick is The Intuitionist, by Colson Whitehead. Set in New York City, before the Civil Rights movement, it's the story of a black female elevator operator who stumbles onto some big-city corruption. Like his novel's protagonist, Whitehead was going up in the world—his four subsequent books have hit bestseller lists and been praised by critics.
A stunning contemplation on race, The Intuitionist brings to mind the strength of Ralph Ellison and the quirky brilliance of Thomas Pynchon. Whitehead crafts an entire culture around elevators, complete with specifications, internecine philosophical battles, founding fathers, and corporate shenanigans. But what makes The Intuitionist so darn good is the way Whitehead balances his concerns. By turns literate, thrilling, comic, and poignant, Whitehead lifts readers into this strange world and never allows identity politics to turn the book into an ideological jag. His prose pulses across the page, seamlessly jumping characters, time, style, and events.
Read the full review from our January 1999 issue.
So, you've managed to snap up all the debut novels that float your boat so far this year. Don't worry, there are more excellent choices on the way! Check out our previews of our favorites below:
The Residue Years by Mitchell Jackson (Bloomsbury). Based in part on Jackson's own youth, this coming-of-age story set on the streets of Portland, Oregon—and not the streets portrayed in "Portlandia"—is a gritty, literary slice of real life that introduces a compelling new voice.
The Returned by Jason Mott (MIRA Books). What if the people you had loved and lost were returned to you? Sounds like a dream come true, but in his anticipated first novel, poet Mott takes on the realities that such a miracle would entail: for one, where do you put everyone? The book is on sale today, but for an expanded preview, check out our BEA interview with Mott.
How to Be a Good Wife by Emma Chapman (St. Martin's). A mind-bending first novel, this is the story of Marta, whose husband Hector has always taken care of her. In fact, she can't remember a time before Hector. That is, until she stops taking her medicine. Are the visions she's experiencing memories? Or a sign that she's as unstable as Hector tells her she is?
The Lion Seeker by Kenneth Bonert (HMH). An epic 600-odd pages, this anticipated debut charts the Jewish experience in South Africa through a touching mother-son story that recalls writers like Leon Uris and Philip Roth. Bonert was born in South Africa to Lithuanian immigrants, and he has created a very vivid portrait of a little-known community and culture.
The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane (Faber & Faber). Set in New Zealand, this debut has more than a touch of magic. Widowed Ruth is trying to put off her grown sons' worries about her living alone. When a carer shows up on her doorstep one sunny day, she seems heaven-sent. But is it just the opposite?
And one peek ahead to January 2014
Radiance of Tomorrow by Ishmael Beah (FSG). The first novel from the author of A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, this new story is a simple, fable-like tale set in a postwar Sierra Leone.
What debut novels are you looking forward to this fall?
Today’s Debut of the Day pick is The Submission, Amy Waldman's thought-provoking novel about the controversy that involves when a Muslim is chosen to design a (fictional) monument to the 9/11 World Trade Center victims. This noteworthy debut raises crucial questions about faith and humanity that are increasingly relevant in today's culture wars.
What is most rewarding about Waldman’s novel is her deftness in shunning stereotypes, offering an array of characters both appealing and frustrating in all their human complexity. She skillfully manages multiple points of view to tell the story, among them Claire Burwell, jury member and widow of a wealthy investment banker killed on 9/11; Sean Gallagher, the brother of a firefighter victim, who becomes an angry spokesman for survivor families; and Asma Anwar, a Bangladeshi immigrant, widowed herself on that terrible day, whose dignified appearance at a climactic public hearing provides the story’s moral anchor. These characters and others are buffeted by the emotions, some genuine and others stoked by the media and special interest groups pursuing their own agendas, that swirl around the memorial.
Read the full review from our September 2011 issue here.
Today’s Debut of the Day pick is Dear American Airlines, a comic novel from Jonathan Miles that blends humor with heart. Stranded at a New York airport, Bennie Ford pens an increasingly desperate letter to the airline whose change in schedule just might deny him the opportunity to change his life. Miles, a journalist who has studied fiction with Larry Brown, has a second novel, Want Not, coming in November.
This gritty, hilarious, heartbreaking novel illustrates a life gone awry, the regret of years lived without notice and the hope of finally being able to make a change. Readers will root for Bennie to get on his plane and start making up for the lost years when he gets off. A perfect read for summer airport delays, Dear American Airlines just might get readers thinking differently about that idle time.
Read the full review from our June 2008 issue here.
You are likely already aware that it's First Fiction Month here at BookPage—a month-long celebration of debut novels . . . and their authors, of course! One such author is Jennifer McQuiston, whose debut—What Happens in Scotland, a historical romance—was published earlier this year.
In this fabulous guest post, Jennifer discusses her fascinating path to becoming a romance writer and her experience of being a first-time author—although, with her second book (Summer Is for Lovers) coming out next month and her third (Moonlight on My Mind) in April, she's actually well on her way to becoming a veteran!
I didn’t always want to be an author.
There. I said it. And the lights just flickered above my head, suggesting I have upset some delicate balance of literary fate. After all, don’t authors emerge from the womb knowing not only who they are, but also what they want to write?
Nope. Not me. A veterinarian and a scientist by training, I work for the federal government tracking infectious disease outbreaks around the globe. Reading has always been a way for me to escape the pressures of work, or a treat to savor on those rare vacations. I have always enjoyed reading historical romance, but about five years ago I realized I was beginning to search for stories that were a bit different. Grittier. Less dukes and dancing, more cholera and syphilis. At some point, I began to realize those stories were in my head, and began toying with the idea to write a novel.
My earliest attempts to craft said “gritty romance novel” failed on several levels. My scientific training ensured I understood everything there was to know about cholera, but I knew nothing about craft. I tried again, feeling my way blindly to a voice that was uniquely mine but did not require translation for a lay audience. Writing became less of a pastime and more of an obsession. I set my clock for 4 a.m. every morning for a slog in front of the laptop before the real day job started. Each time I woke up to that insistent alarm, I learned a little better how to tune out my internal scientist, and how to become . . . gasp . . . an author.
What Happens in Scotland is my first published novel, but it was my fifth completed manuscript, a testament to just how long I slogged. Be forewarned: there is no cholera in this story. It isn’t even that gritty, although it features a chamber pot and a few raw edges to the plot. But it is still, irrevocably, me. My voice, my vision, my eccentricity. I knew it was special from the moment I started writing it, but I don’t think I realized how truly different it was until the reviews started rolling in. It is a book that has engendered some strong opinions among readers and reviewers, namely because it breaks a few of what are considered “standard rules of romance.” Not everyone loves the fact that I keep the hero and heroine apart for half the book searching for each other, but others have praised that difference. Some dislike the fact it takes place over a 24-hour period, while others welcome the change in pace. It contains a little too much physical humor for readers looking for lilting prose, but others claim the humor is their favorite part of the writing.
The truth is, there is no one way to write—or read—a book. I feel remarkably privileged that my publisher, Avon/Harper Collins, believed in me enough to not only take a risk on a different sort of book, but to make me a multi-published author.
Today’s Debut of the Day pick is Mrs. Kimble, by Jennifer Haigh, a novel that was one of the most buzzed-about releases of 2003—it sold within a month. Tackling the difficult subject of why women think they have to marry with elegant writing and plenty of insight, Haigh's ambitious debut is well worth looking back on (and her later work has fulfilled its promise and then some).
"Ken Kimble is what I call a serial marrier," Haigh says by phone from Boston, where she moved after graduating from the Iowa Writers Workshop last year. "He has these serious character flaws, but he has no problem finding women to marry." Haigh has firm opinions about why such a man can always find a bride. "We're raised as women to value marriage and family," she says, "and to believe that unless we've achieved those things, the rest of our accomplishments don't really count for very much."
Read the full interview from our February 2003 issue here.