A couple of days ago, I was chatting with a friend about authors who wrote “one-hit wonders”. As we all know, Harper Lee has never published anything after To Kill a Mockingbird. Emily Bronte died young after writing her only novel, Wuthering Heights. Margaret Mitchell never wrote a sequel to Gone With the Wind. Whatever happened to Arthur Golden, who published Memoirs of a Geisha in 1997 and hasn’t been heard from since? And David Wroblewski (The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, 2008), I’m hoping you have another novel in you.
Here are 10 debut novels published in 2014 that I’m thrilled to have discovered. Some of them have received a lot of critical acclaim, and some have been overlooked — but they are all worth reading. I hope each one marks the beginning of an author’s long and successful career.
We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas
You are not in this life to count up victories and defeats. You are in it to love and be loved.
Both an epic novel of the 20th century in America and an intimate story of a marriage and family, We Are Not Ourselves amazed me with its sympathy for its complex and flawed characters. It’s hard to pick a favorite of my 10 favorite debut novels . . . but if I had to, this would be it.
What I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
There is nowhere to go but on. Still, part of her longs to go back for one instant—not to change anything, not even to speak to Lydia, not to tell her anything at all. Just to open the door and see her daughter there, asleep, one more time, and know all was well.
An assured, beautifully written novel that begins with the disappearance of a mixed-race family’s “perfect” daughter and goes on to explore the family’s pathology. It’s heart-wrenching, but you’ll want to read it in one sitting. It inspired a great discussion in my book club.
Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson
How trout looked in that water, brown and wavering and glinting all the colors there were and maybe some that didn’t really exist on the color wheel, a color, say, that was moss and brown-spotted like peppercorns and a single terra-cotta-colored stone and a flash of sunlight all at once. That color existed in the water here.
Another favorite of my book club, Fourth of July Creek is the story of two fathers in 1980s Montana: a flawed social worker and a backwoods survivalist. According to the Washington Post, “this richly plotted novel is another sign, if any were needed, that new fiction writers are still telling vibrant, essential stories about the American experience.”
I Shall Be Near to You by Erin Lindsay McCabe
Preacher is still talking but not one bit of it stays in my mind. There is just Jeremiah taking a deep breath. His hands shaking. His eyes meeting mine: my something blue.
A headstrong young woman disguises herself as a man, enlists in the Union Army, and follows her new husband into battle in this beautiful story of love and war. Based on letters written by Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, this is historical fiction at its best.
The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton
When you have truly come to know a person, Nella — when you see beneath the sweeter gestures, the smiles — when you see the rage and the pitiful fear which each of us hide — then forgiveness is everything. We are all in desperate need of it.
In 17th century Amsterdam, a young woman marries a wealthy businessman, who gives her a replica of their canal house — opening the door to many strange happenings. The book was inspired by an actual cabinet house owned by Petronella Oortman — which I was lucky enough to see in the Rijksmuseum.
We Are Called to Rise by Laura McBride
It all matters. That someone turns out the lamp, picks up the windblown wrapper, says hello to the invalid, pays at the unattended lot, listens to the repeated tale, folds the abandoned laundry . . . is the whole thing. What is most beautiful is least acknowledged.
The lives of four very different Las Vegas residents (a young immigrant boy, a social worker, a war veteran turned police officer, and the officer’s mother) in a heartbreaking but ultimately hopeful story.
A Replacement Life by Boris Fishman
Here was a foreign city, if you were coming from Manhattan. The buildings were smaller and the people larger. They drove cars, and for most, Manhattan was a glimmering headache. As the train neared Midwood, the produce improved and the prices shook loose.
An aspiring journalist finds creative satisfaction in filing fake Holocaust restitution claim for fellow Russian immigrants. It’s a thought-provoking examination of the relationship between fact and fiction, with plenty of wit and humor.
The Girls from Corona Del Mar by Rufi Thorpe
In a way, Lorrie Ann made me everything I am, for my personality took shape as an equal and opposite reaction to who she was, just as, I am sure, her personality formed as a result of mine. People do that kind of thing. They divvy up qualities, as though reality, in order to be manageable at all, should be sorted, labeled, pinned down.
In this insightful novel about female friendship, the “perfect” friend turns out to have a life that’s far from perfect. The Guardian says it’s “a brilliantly written, probing, uneasy look at a damaged friendship between two women – and how such intense relationships are as much about how we define ourselves as they are about our love for, and struggle to understand, another human being.”
The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld
I know that when I read books about love, they are telling the truth. The truth of it winds around my heart and it tightens in pain. I try and see it through my eyes, raised to my stone ceiling, and I wonder, what is it like to feel love? What is it like to be known?
The best word I can use to describe this book is “mesmerizing”. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever read — part fairy tale, part realistic prison story. The author, a journalist and author of three nonfiction books, is a death penalty investigator for the state of Oregon.
Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler
When he talked politics, it was with me, or my sister, pointing a steady and patient finger at us, saying, “I don’t care about left or right. It’s all nonsense. All I ask of you is this: Be kind. Be decent. And don’t be greedy.
A group of friends grows up together in a small Wisconsin farming town; one goes on to become a famous musician. The New York Times describes Shotgun Lovesongs as “a good old-fashioned novel, a sure-footed and unabashedly sentimental first effort that deserves to be among the standouts in this year’s field of fiction debuts.”
The Center for Fiction presents the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize each year. The awards were announced last night (December 9), and the winner was Land of Love and Drowning by Tiphanie Yanique. I’m adding that one to my TBR list! Several of my favorites were contenders for the prize — The Enchanted, Fourth of July Creek, and We Are Not Ourselves were shortlisted, and The Girls from Corona del Mar and Shotgun Lovesongs were longlisted.
Did you discover a wonderful new author in 2014?
17 thoughts on “10 Favorite Debut Novels of 2014”
I really enjoyed We Are Not Ourselves, The Miniaturist, and A Replacement Life, and many of the others are on my TBR list!
There were so many good debut novels this year!
So happy to see Shotgun Lovesongs. I am really enjoying reading it! I
All of these are on my TBR! My favourite debut author this year is Emma Healey- I LOVED Elizabeth Is Missing!
Great post by the way!
Beth @ Fuelled by Fiction
Thanks for the suggestion — I just downloaded Elizabeth is Missing. It sounds like a great page-turner!
I plan to read The Miniaturist. I shared my discoveries here: http://wordsandpeace.com/2014/12/09/a-month-of-favorites-10-fave-new-to-me-author-discoveries/
Thanks for sharing! I have a copy of Madame Picasso and am hoping to get to it soon.
I love how you included a quote from each book in your list – the quality of the writing is everything to me, and attracts me to books where the subject matter might not usually grab me. There are lots here I’ll be adding to my TBR. One thing I hate about a great debut novel is that there’s no backlist to enjoy. My favourite debut this year is an Australian one called The Strays by Emily Bitto. I also enjoyed Edan Lepucki’s California and will be interested to see what she does next.
I agree with you about debut authors — no backlist, so you realize you’ll have to wait YEARS for the next book! I have a copy of California sitting around — I’ve heard good things about it. I will check out The Strays — thanks!
Great list. Everything I Never Told You is one of my favorites of the year. I have We Are Not Ourselves on my shelf, my sister loved this one, and highly recommended it.
Thanks! I can’t recommend We Are Not Ourselves highly enough.
I second Annabel’s comment that when I find a new debut author and love their book, I’m sad there is nothing else of theirs for me to read! I loved Everything I Never Told You, Fourth Of July Creek and The Enchanted. I just put The Miniaturist on hold. Looking forward to it.
I hope you enjoy it. Our book club is discussing it next week and I’m anxious to hear what everyone thinks.
The Miniaturist looks intriguing to me. I love that it is based on an actual object.
It’s fascinating! Our book club is discussing it next week. I can’t wait to hear what everyone thinks.
I loved Shotgun Lovesongs (it made my Best Debuts of 2014 and also my overall Best of list) and am so glad to see it on your list! I feel like it didn’t get a ton of love from the blogging world.
It’s coming out in paperback soon so maybe it will have a resurgence? I thought it was wonderful!
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