Which debut author from 2015 is destined to be your new favorite author? Let an old favorite lead you to it.
If you liked The Devil Wears Prada by Lauren Weisburger, you'll love Oh You Pretty Things! by Shanna Mahin.
This workplace drama has loads of humor and a touch of romance, all set against a finely drawn LA backdrop that's just as full of crazy as the fashion industry. (read our review)
Set on Staten Island, this family drama follows a close-knit Irish-Italian family whose world changed forever on 9/11. Like Butler's debut, it is especially good at making the relationships between men feel real. (read our review)
Like Messud's Nora Marie Eldridge, the protagonist of Hausfrau is angry (albeit more passive in expressing it) and definitely not a role model (/understatement). Yet somehow, you can't keep from turning the pages to see what she'll do next. And like Messud, Essbaum has some serious literary chops. (read our review)
Like Sebold's modern classic, Walsh's debut traces the effect of a horrible crime on a community. Walsh takes it a step further, though, to provide a thoughtful examination of what these crimes say about society—especially men—adding timely thematic resonance alongside his suspenseful story. (read our review)
Readers who couldn't get enough of the historical detail and chilly Nordic landscapes of Kent's debut will want to pick up Wolf Winter, which also pits outsiders against their community and features a mysterious death. (read our review)
If you liked The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, you'll love The Anchoress by Robyn Cadwallader.
Like Miller's Orange Prize winner, Cadwallader's debut takes readers to a vanished world in poetic and polished prose. Her heroine, though, is no warrior, but a 17-year-old girl who voluntarily retreats from society to become a holy woman, or Anchoress. (read our feature story)
Not all of us can follow an author from the very beginning—sometimes an "overnight success" actually happens with book #2 or #3. These three authors broke out big over the past 12 months, so why not go back to where it all began and check out their debuts?
So you fell in love with All the Light We Cannot See late last year—have you read Doerr's elegant 2004 debut novel, About Grace? We deemed this story of fatherhood and failure "a poignant look at the power of nature and the relative frailty of human connections. Accomplished and sensitive." We think you'll agree.
Yanagihara, a former Penguin employee whose current day job is working for Condé Nast Travel, just made the Booker longlist for her second book, A Little Life. This intimate story of a lifelong friendship among four men "may be the best book you read this year; it certainly will be the most heartbreaking," we said. Well, her debut novel, The People in the Trees, was no slouch, either. An innovatively structured story of one man's moral complexities, this novel is "an exhilarating tour de force that is practically perfect in every way," to quote our review. What are you waiting for?
After a 20-year career, Hannah is hardly a publishing novice. But her latest book, The Nightingale, is also her first to spend more than six months on the New York Times bestseller list. If you loved her story of life on the French homefront during World War II, dip into her backlist with her first foray into women's fiction, 1999's On Mystic Lake. A touching tale of a divorced woman reuniting with her first love, this is a story "that's too good to share," according to our reviewer.
Today's guest post comes from Andy Abramowitz, author of Thank You, Goodnight. Teddy Tremble is a former musician whose band, Tremble, was a 1990s one-hit wonder. Now a lawyer in Philadelphia, Teddy discovers that Tremble is big in Switzerland—or at least, one tiny town in Switzerland. Is this his chance for another shot at coming out on top? Fans of Nick Hornby and Jonathan Tropper will find much to admire in this heartfelt and hilarious story. We asked Abramowitz—who has a musical past himself—to give us a "Top 5" countdown of lessons he learned as a debut novelist.
Guest post by Andy Abramowitz
No. 5 – Your friends don’t want to read your book; they want to have read your book
Those friends of yours who only read presidential biographies or Allure don’t suddenly develop an appetite for fiction just because you wrote a book. They’ll congratulate you; some will mean it. They’ll say they’re going to buy it; a small subset of those will do that too. That should be enough. It’s quite nice of them to lie about how much they enjoyed it. Think you’re special? Test them. Narrow your eyes and ask, “What did you think of what happened to Warren at the end?” You’ll detect a bulky swallow in their throat and they’ll shrug and say, “It worked for me.” Told ya.
No. 4 – The editing process doesn’t end, it stops
Like the rush of critical information that suddenly occurs to your five year old at the precise moment of her bedtime, the editing process is never over. Every sentence stares up at you, asking for a tweak. I’m not telling you to walk away because it’s good enough. I’m telling you to walk away or your editor and publisher will. You’re not Steinbeck. Speaking of which . . .
No. 3 – John Steinbeck wrote East of Eden
Hardly revelatory, I know. But consider how much effort you put into making each of your sentences feel right and look right, informational and tonally true, not choking on gratuitous adverbs or clunky prepositions. Then humble yourself under the notion that so many others have done it with a lot more literary loop-de-loop than you could ever muster. So, Faulkner, wipe that scowl off your face over the fact that your masterpiece isn’t front and center at the airport newsstand.
No. 2 – You’ll never feel like more of a fraud than when signing a book
People you see every single day and whom you suspect are smirking because they know that the publication of your book is a minor miracle—they’ll all ask you to write your name on the inside cover. It will feel silly and pretentious, unearned, like an act performed only by the Michael Chabons of the world or people with fiction-writer hair. (See Michael Chabon.) Really—why would your sister ever need your autograph? I don’t have an answer for this one other than to nudge them toward the ebook version.
No. 1 – It’s okay to like your book
Society dictates that artists view their work with a measure of contempt, as but an imperfect realization of their vast vision. Applesauce! In a free moment, pick it up, read a few a pages, and notice that you’re smiling. That doesn’t make you a jerk. At least I don’t think it does.
On the eve of her wedding, a young woman wonders if she's ready to commit to her picture-perfect fiancé.
A lonely, overweight 20-something is working a dead-end job as an advice columnist when someone unexpected enters her life and shakes things up.
These may sound like stories you've read before. But this summer, two fearless debut novelists are pushing the boundaries, releasing female-centered stories that blend dark twists and searing social commentary.
Lily Wilder, the narrator of Eliza Kennedy's I Take You (Crown, May), is doubting her decision to marry—but not for the reasons you'd expect. Lily, a successful lawyer, isn't afraid that the ceremony won't be perfect, that she's not good enough for Will or that he'll run out on her: She's worried that marriage will cramp her not-exactly-monogamous lifestyle.
And Plum Kettle, the overweight protagonist of Sarai Walker's Dietland (HMH, June)? The person she meets who changes her life isn't a man, but a mysterious young woman who initiates the virtually housebound Plum (who is planning on having bariatric surgery) into a secret society of guerrilla fighters who are committing terrorist acts against the patriarchy. (No surprise, The Sun's page 3 is among the targets.)
Both Lily and Plum are heroines who lie outside the social norms. Lily loves her fiancé, Will, but she also loves sex—lots of it. She isn't sure if she can change that about herself, or if she even wants to, even though by accepting his proposal she's signed on to try.
Likewise, Plum is not conventionally beautiful–and maybe not even unconventionally beautiful, although it's hard to tell since Plum is only ever described through her own very critical eyes. All her life, Plum has defined herself by her weight, spending years on thankless diets waiting for her skinny self—whom she calls Alicia—to emerge so she can finally start living.
Still, it's not entirely unusual for stories to start out with women who don't conform to the norms. After all, that's why their lives aren't perfect, right? As the pages turn, you're waiting for the moment when Lily and Plum transform, become what society expects—which makes you realize just how well-trodden the tropes of women's fiction can be. But as Dietland and I Take You approach their very different but equally satisfying conclusions, it becomes clear that this isn't the point. Plum and Lily aren't the ones who need to change—the world is.
These two daring debuts introduce authors who have something to say.
A young woman tries to reconcile her childhood in wartorn Croatia with her comfortable American college life in Sara Nović's smart and insightful debut, which will please fans of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena or the essays of Aleksander Hemon. Ana is just 10 years old when Croatia declares independence from Yugoslavia, and at first war feels like a game. But when her baby sister becomes ill, her parents are forced into a risky decision that changes everything. The novel cuts between Zagreb in 1991 and New York City in 2001, as Ana tries to reconcile her past with her present.
Nović ably conveys Ana's plight, torn between two cultures and unable to feel at home in either one. Ana struggles to explain her history to well-meaning Americans who inquire about it. Eventually, she stops trying.
Their musings about how and why people stayed in a country under such terrible conditions were what I hated most. I knew it was ignorance, not insight, that prompted these questions. They asked because they hadn’t smelled the air raid smoke or the scent of singed flesh on their own balconies; they couldn’t fathom that such a dangerous place could still harbor all the feelings of home.
What are you reading this week?
Today's guest post comes from writer Shelly King, whose first novel, The Moment of Everything, goes on sale next week. It's set in a used bookstore, where former Silicone Valley employee Maggie has found part-time work after the failure of the tech startup she was working for. When Maggie finds a lovers' conversation written in the margins of a used copy of Lady Chatterley's Lover, she embarks on a quest to discover who they were—and what happened to their romance.
In a guest post, King—who moved to California from the South and once worked for a Silicon Valley startup herself—explains the mystery of found objects and shares some of her favorite found objects in literature.
I was 15 the first time I found a letter in a used book. I was in Montana visiting family and had wandered into a used bookstore. There I found Ernest Hemingway: Selected Letters. I hadn’t read Hemingway yet, but I knew he was an important writer and that he’d spent a lot of time in Africa. I opened the front flap and saw it was covered in writing. It was the letter from a father to a young boy.
The details are fuzzy, but I remember the father was traveling in Africa. I thought it was nice that he was sending his son a book about another man who had been to Africa. He missed his son. He signed the letter “Papa.” I fell in love with this letter. But I didn’t buy the book. I didn’t have much money, so I left it behind. But that letter stayed with me. I thought of it for days, wishing that I’d bought that book, not for the letters of Hemingway, but for that letter written in the book. I finally told my mother about it, and she took me back to the bookstore. But the book was gone.
About 15 years after I first found that letter from the father in Africa, I was in Seattle at another used bookstore where I saw a copy of Ernest Hemingway: Selected Letters. I smiled thinking of that other copy I found years ago in Montana. I opened up the front flap, and there it was—the handwritten letter from a father traveling in Africa to his son. Only this time I was more familiar with Hemingway, whom I now knew was also known as Papa. And this time, I noticed the letter was dated decades before this book was published. When I looked closer, I realized the letter wasn’t written in the book. It was a reproduction of a Hemingway letter that decorated the inside flap.
Even though the letter was not what I thought it was, I’m grateful for my misunderstanding. It started a lifelong search for treasures of the past in old books. Over the years, I’ve found drawings, letters, postcards, ticket stubs, restaurant receipts, photographs, recipes, and inscriptions. The people who owned these books before left a bit of their lives in them. I love not just the story the author intended but also the story of the book itself.
My favorite novels (and one play!) that have someone discovering something in a book:
The fast-paced world of romance publishing is always offering up great new authors to discover. As part of our #FirstFictionMonth coverage, we're spotlighting three new voices who are each debuting in their own way this year.
Jennifer Ryan will be making her print debut with At Wolf Ranch (on sale February 24, 2015), the first in her thrilling romantic suspense series, Montana Men. The novel focuses on Ella Wolf as she flees to her family’s ranch, certain that the man who murdered her sister is now after her. Luckily for Ella, a ruggedly handsome cowboy is bent on protecting her from the killer.
Despite finding eBook success with her best-selling The Hunted and The McBrides series, Ryan is excited to finally have a novel in bookstores, admitting during our discussion at RWA that she's “really more of a print person.” And her path to print publication is the stuff of writers' dreams. While attending a panel discussion during a previous RWA convention, Avon editor Lucia Macro mentioned that she would love to see more romantic suspense novels. Taking the cue, Ryan sent Macro her manuscript, and a short three weeks later, Avon bought her series. It's no surprise, really; Ryan is adept at writing those gripping scenes that leave you flipping pages till the end.
Ryan’s romance-writing career took off with a bit of a happy shock: the discovery that she was pregnant with third child. “I was reading all the time—I read 10 books a week while my kids were growing up!” she says of her time as a stay-at-home mom with her first two children. But when they grew older, she decided it was time to go back to work as a computer programmer. That plan quickly changed when she discovered that she was pregnant again with her daughter. With another baby on the way, she decided that writing romance novels from home just made sense.
So what inspired her to base her series on the cowboys of Big Sky country? “When I was younger, I had a friend in California with a small ranch and horses. I would spend my weekends riding horses with her, and I just thought it was the most wonderful thing in the world," she explains. "I grew up daydreaming about cowboys, because who wouldn’t? I remember thinking, there’s got to be a cowboy our there for me—And I ended up marrying a military man!" Ryan lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and three children, and can usually be found immersed in a world of books.
We chatted with debut author Lillian Marek over email about her first novel, the Victorian romance Lady Elinor’s Wicked Adventures (on sale November 4). This novel answers the call for romance in exotic locales, since its heroine Lady Elinor and a distractingly handsome family friend find love while exploring Italy and the ruins of the ancient Etruscan civilization. Marek writes with humor, historical knowledge and just enough spice to keep things interesting.
Writing historical romance was an easy choice for Marek. “I’ve never wanted to do anything else—you could call it a compulsion. For a number of years, I got my writing fix, so to speak, as a journalist, but it’s much more fun writing fiction,” she says. Her focus on romance was inspired by a friend’s suggestion to pick up Loretta Chase’s romance novel Mr. Impossible. “I absolutely adored it,” she says. “I started devouring romance novels, especially historical ones, and had a glorious time. Then I thought it would be fun to write them, so I did.” As simple as that!
Getting published was a bit more complex than her decision to write, but after winning a few romance-writing contests, Marek felt confident enough to pitch her book to Sourcebooks. Not only did Sourcebooks buy Lady Elinor’s Wicked Adventures, they bought the rest of the proposed series as well. "I was, as you can imagine, ecstatic," she says. Marek lives near Long Island Sound with her husband, where she enjoys taking long walks along the coast. We're excited to see where the next intrepid installment in Marek's Victorian Adventurers series takes us!
Rhonda Helms is venturing into the world of New Adult print with her love- and music-inspired novel, Scratch (on sale September 30). Scratch is a departure from her usual romantic young adult novels, which are “frothy and fun,” she says during our conversation at the hotel Starbucks. New Adult is an up-and-coming genre, marketed towards young women in their early 20s—a grown-up YA reader, if you will. New Adult focuses on characters finding themselves and struggling with choices and consequences, from first jobs to first loves, as they explore life after high school. “It’s got that young adult voice [first person], but with more adult situations. I like the fact that you can write these characters that are a little bit older, and there’s lots of high emotion,” Helms explains. Helms has a knack for writing convincing dialogue between her young characters, perhaps inspired by conversations with her 18-year-old daughter!
In Scratch, college senior Casey attempts to keep memories of an unpleasant past at bay by losing herself in her gigs as a DJ. She tends to keep others at a distance, but when a fellow student takes an interest in her, she wonders if letting him in might be worth the risk. Helms knew music would be a big part of the book, and explains, "Music is really important to me. I was a DJ too for a while—It was awesome!" Scratch even includes a track list which “reflects stuff that would be on Casey’s personal playlist or music that she would play in the club,” Helms says. Here's a sample track from the list.
Along with her interest in music, Helms has always loved romance novels. “I started reading romance when I was a kid,” Helms says. “I would hide in my mom’s bathroom and read her Harlequins!” Growing up with those Harlequins, she knew she wanted to write. However, she says, “The first book I wrote, I had no idea what I was doing. I just sort of vomited out five chapters, and then didn’t know what to do next. . . It took me a year, but after that first book, I learned my process. But that first book was rough!” Seven books later, it looks like she’s gotten the hang of it.
Helms lives in Cleveland with her family, where you may find her enjoying time with her pets, reading or perhaps sampling her favorite cheeses. “A good aged Gouda is divine, and Asiago cheese is exquisite,” she says. Romance with a side of cheese: what more could you want?
Jessie Burton pairs lavish descriptions of life in 17th-century Amsterdam with a clever touch of intrigue in her debut historical novel, The Miniaturist.
Eighteen-year-old Petronella "Nella" Oortman is the shy new bride of an enigmatic and wealthy merchant, Johannes Brandt, but too often she finds herself alone in her new, unfriendly household.
Johannes tries to comfort Nella with the gift of a tiny cabinet house, which is an exact replica of their own. But when Nella employs a miniaturist to furnish it, his cryptic clues lead her to uncover long-hidden secrets about the Brandt family.
Get the in-depth scoop from Burton herself in the video below:
The Miniaturist is out today! Will you be picking up a copy?
Magic and reality combine in award-winning short-story writer Josh Weil's first novel, The Great Glass Sea. Set in an alternate present-day Russia where a city is kept under the titular glass greenhouse in a world of perpetual daylight in order to maximize crop production, it follows twin brothers Yarik and Dima. Once inseparable, the brothers are now on opposite sides of a controversy: Yarik is working to support the government that placed the citizens of Petroplavilsk under the sea, while Dima dreams of a return to their childhood farm and the freedom of a day where the sun rises and sets. When circumstances force the brothers even further apart, they must decide just how much family means.
Click here to read our full review.
Boston writer and visual artist Annie Weatherwax's perceptive debut, All We Had (Scribner) is the story of an unusual mother-daughter duo attempting to find a place to belong. At just 13 years old, Ruthie convinces her mother, Rita, to leave her no-good boyfriend and start a new life. The pair hits the road, cruising through small-town America—a vista of diners, local businesses and memorable characters that Weatherwax describes with flair.
In a guest blog post, Weatherwax explores the appeal of the road novel, explaining what the pressure-cooker of car travel brings out in her characters.
At the beginning of my debut novel, All We Had, my protagonist, Ruthie, and her mother, Rita, spend a lot of time in their used Ford Escort. The car is central to their lives. It’s the only thing they own, and when they have no other choice, it doubles as their home.
The car is a built-in pressure cooker. With nothing to distract them their highs and lows become heightened and intensify.
At first they feel invincible. Speeding along the freeway, with the windows down and the music blaring, they are full of almost exalted hope as they escape their California and head east towards Boston to what they are certain is the promise land.
But car rides can become endlessly boring and boredom can quickly lead to irritability. “[A]ll the things my mother usually did—tapping the steering wheel with her thumbs when she liked a song, biting her bottom lip when she wasn’t smoking—suddenly annoyed me,” Ruthie says.
If you leave characters in a car long enough there is bound to be drama. When emotions escalate there is no way to avoid them. Characters are restricted in their seats. When arguments are over they must sit with their feelings and negotiate the psychic space between them and, in a speeding car, there is a limit to the actions they can take.
At one point after a particularly bad fight, Ruthie rummages through the glove compartment and when she finds gum shoves the whole pack into her mouth. One piece after another, she crumples up the empty wrappers, throws them on the floor then abruptly hawks the entire wad of gum out. Her mother retaliates by blatantly ignoring her.
The lack of distraction in the confines of a car lends itself to the exploration of daydreams. Could there be a better vehicle (pardon the pun) for a writer?
The vantage point from inside a car is unique. The whoosh and rhythm of sounds has a particular quality. The skyline looks different and the fragmented glimpses from rearview and side mirrors can be astonishingly beautiful. In fiction a car can do many things. Most obviously it can reveal status and move characters from point A to point B.
For this writer, it’s the confinement of a car that exhilarates me. Limitation takes away choice but it also relieves the paralysis of choice. Creativity is often fostered by such constraints. Restrictions and obstacles can spark connections between things that are not necessarily obvious. The true nature of a human being can reveal itself when characters make decisions under pressure and a car can provide that pressure.
A car ride implies that the desired time and place resides at some point in the future. But the destination is often not what’s important; it’s what happens on the journey that can truly move a story forward.
For more on Annie Weatherwax and All We Had, visit her website.
Author photo by Lou Goodman