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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WWW Wednesday — Mother-Daughter Version 2.0

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Too cold to sit outside . . .

It’s WWW Wednesday, where I answer three questions:

What are you currently reading? What did you recently finish reading? What do you plan to read next?

I’m visiting my mother in Hilton Head, South Carolina, so I’ll answer those questions for both of us. And no, we are not reading outside on lounge chairs. The temperature is 44 degrees — not outdoor reading weather, although it’s balmy compared to Chicago’s current 19 degrees.

Here’s what we are currently reading:

9781594205712MI’m in the middle of Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. My book group is discussing it tomorrow night, so you might say I’m cutting it a little close, but I like to read my book group books as close to the meetings as possible so they’re fresh in my mind.  I’m impressed with Ng’s assured, precise writing style and her careful, well-paced narrative structure. It’s the kind of book you want to read in one sitting. All the reviews I’ve read, including this one from the New York Times, have been excellent:

Celeste Ng’s debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, is a literary thriller that begins with some stock elements: a missing girl, a lake, a local bad boy who was one of the last to see her and won’t say what he knows. The year is 1977, the setting, a quiet all-American town in Ohio, where everyone knows one another and nothing like this has ever happened before.

This is familiar territory, but Ng returns to it to spin an unfamiliar tale, with a very different kind of girl from the ones we’ve been asked to follow before. If we know this story, we haven’t seen it yet in American fiction, not until now.

One of our members emailed today to say she wouldn’t be able to make it to the meeting (it’s her daughter’s birthday — I guess that’s a decent excuse): “I loved the book even though I thought it was heart-wrenching. Can’t wait to hear about the discussion. Two great books in a row. We are on a roll.” (Last month we discussed All the Light We Cannot See.)

My mother is reading What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty, for her next book club meeting. It’s about a 39-year-old woman who loses her memory and thinks she is 29, pregnant with her first child. She thinks it might be a little lightweight for a book club discussion. I am embarrassed to admit that I keep confusing this book with Still Alice by Lisa Genova, which is a moving novel about a woman suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s disease.  Genova is a Harvard-trained neuroscientist who has written several novels about families dealing with brain disorders. (Still Alice, by the way, has just been made into a movie starring Julianne Moore and Alec Baldwin, with a wide release scheduled for 9780062325143January 2015.)

Here’s what we just finished reading:

The last book I finished was The Wild Truth by Carine McCandless. McCandless is the sister of Chris McCandless, the young man whose journey of self-discovery and eventual starvation in the Alaskan wilderness was told by Jon Krakauer in Into the Wild. I don’t really know what to think about this book. Into the Wild raised more questions than it answered, and The Wild Truth answers some of those questions. But it was disconcerting to learn that Krakauer (and also Sean Penn, who directed the movie version) were in possession of key missing information and agreed with the McCandless family not to reveal it. The conclusion I reached as a reader about McCandless’s reasons for severing ties with his family and disappearing “into the wild” turned out to be faulty. I feel a bit cheated knowing that Krakauer didn’t present the whole story in his book, although I understand why he couldn’t reveal family secrets.

coverMy mother recently read The Children Act by Ian McEwan, about a London family court judge who must make a decision about whether to order a lifesaving blood transfusion for a 17-year-old Jehovah’s Witness. My mother highly recommends The Children Act, although her favorite McEwan novel remains Atonement. The London Independent echoes her thoughts, saying, “In short: this novel is not as good as Atonement, but what modern novel is?”

What’s next?

I’m going to return to Us by David Nicholls, which I was finding absolutely delightful, but had to set aside to read my book club book. I got a text from a friend last week who asked me if I’d read Us yet, saying, “Loved Us, read it next if you can . . . it’s a perfect book.” So of course I had to pick it up right away! It was longlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize. I also just picked up a copy of Maureen Corrigan’s And So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures, which I can’t wait to read. (See Ann Patchett’s thoughts on the book here.)

I see that my mother has a big stack of books to be read. Right on top is A Star for Mrs. Blake by April Smith, the story of a group of Gold Star mothers (women whose sons were killed in World War I) who make a government-sponsored pilgrimage to Europe to visit their sons’ graves.

I’d love to know what you’re reading and what you’re thinking of reading next. I’m especially interested in book club selections, since I’m planning a book club roundup of great discussion books.

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