10 Favorite Debut Novels of 2014

imgresA 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-9781476756660_lgWe 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 Henderson9780062286451
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-9781476738963_lgWe 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 Denfeld9780062285508
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?

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A Replacement Life — Book Review

9780062287878

Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.
Albert Camus

Slava Gelman, the protagonist of Boris Fishman’s brilliant debut novel, is a junior staff member at “Century” magazine. He hopes one day to be published in the magazine: “Only a byline in the New Yorker meant as much. Entire book contracts were given out on the basis of a byline in Century.” A Jewish refugee from the Soviet Union, Slava has distanced himself from his family. He rarely ventures to his old neighborhood in Brooklyn, preferring his spartan studio in the Upper East Side. Slava believes that if he is to achieve his dream of becoming a successful American journalist, he must exile himself to Manhattan:

But if Slava wished to become an American, to strip from his writing the pollution that repossessed it every time he returned to the swamp broth of Soviet Brooklyn, if Slava Gelman — immigrant, baby barbarian, the forking road spread-eagled before him — wished to write for Century, he would have to get away. Dialyze himself, like Grandmother’s kidneys.

A journalist is just another kind of storyteller, and, ironically, Slava finds that the stories he tells best are the stories of his fellow immigrants. His grandfather shows Slava a letter to Grandmother from “The Conference on Material Claims Against Germany”, offering restitution to Holocaust victims. Slava’s deceased grandmother was indeed a victim, having survived the Minsk Ghetto. Grandfather, despite having escaped German persecution as defined in the official letter (“ghettos, forced labor, concentration camps”), feels entitled to restitution and cannot understand why his grandson’s moral scruples prevent him from immediately agreeing to submit a false claim.

Grandfather has survived and prospered, in the Soviet Union and in the United States, because of his ability to outwit the system. One of his fellow refugees explains to Slava that Grandfather “‘got what needed to be got”, whether it was round-the-clock home nurses from the City of New York for his wife or house calls from Soviet doctors for his daughter. He was able to get his family out of the Soviet Union and to the United States only by lying: “At every step, everyone had lied about everything so the one truth at the heart of it all — that abused people might flee the place of abuse — could be told.”

A Replacement Life examines the relationship between truth and fiction. As Boris Fishman says in his author’s note, “The line between fact and fiction, invention and theft, is as loose as the line between truth and justice.” As Slava forges more and more “tales of woe and deceit” for Grandfather’s associates, he begins to forget what’s fact and what’s fiction. And, he wonders, does it matter? The power of the stories he’s writing intoxicates him: “He was a middleman, a loan shark, an alchemist — he turned lies into facts, words into money, silence into knowledge at last.” The stories he fabricates help him understand his family, his culture, and himself more deeply. Before he began forging restitution claims, Slava tried desperately to write articles that would appeal to the editors of Century. All are rejected, and Slava doesn’t understand why. He doesn’t really become a writer until he begins writing with passion, seeking justice for Soviet émigrés.

Slava is confronted with many moral dilemmas in the course of the novel, just as his grandparents had to make difficult choices during World War II and afterwards. Informants, falsified documents, government bureaucrats, the black market, the exchange of valuable information . . . all these things existed in the Soviet Union, and they still exist in Slava’s world. The novel asks us to consider the ways that circumstances shape us. In a conversation with his girlfriend, who is a fact-checker at Century, Slava says, “‘I can imagine myself as the person who’s forging. But I can also imagine myself as the person who turns in the forger. How can that be?'” The answer, the reader supposes, is that like Grandfather, most people do what they need to do to survive.

The novel is thought-provoking, full of wit and humor, and provides great material for a book club discussion. I usually take blurbs with a grain of salt, but Walter Kirn’s summarizes the book very well:

Buy this book for the story, but read it for the character of Grandfather, a fearless, exasperating, tormented, and singular creation. I wouldn’t want to meet him in an alley, but I could have read another book about him. A Replacement Life is that rare thing: a novel that asks the big questions, embedded in a page-turner haunted by characters that walk off the page.

To read more reviews of The Replacement Life, check out the stops on TLC Book Tours. Also, the New York Times recently gave the novel an excellent review — but be warned, the review contains spoilers. Visit Boris Fishman’s website to learn more about the author. He has several readings scheduled in New York this summer and fall.

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