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?

spreadthelove

 

Advertisements

All the Light We Cannot See — Book Review

One day earlier this month, I was frantically getting ready for an author brunch (with the amazing Carol Cassella — more on that in another post!), trying to fit all my warm weather clothes in a carry-on suitcase, and negotiating slushy sidewalks in boots and a down coat as I ran last-minute errands. The next day, I was lounging by the Caribbean with a book in hand,  deciding whether to order a cocktail or Diet Coke with lunch. (The choice was easy: cocktail.) What could be better than a few days of sun and relaxation after a brutal Chicago winter? During the winter of 2013-14, Chicago had 26 days when the low temperature was zero or below, setting a record. On March 3, the low was -2 degrees.

The resort offered yoga and spinning classes, tennis, and a workout facility. I intended to take advantage of all of these and brought the required clothing and equipment, but the lounge chairs were just too comfortable . . . and the books I brought were too tempting. I don’t usually like to recommend books that aren’t published yet, but All the Light We Cannot See is an exception — it’s extraordinary! If you’re in a book club, this would be a wonderful choice for a discussion this summer or fall.

cvr9781476746586_9781476746586_lgAll the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (releases 5/6/14)
I know it’s trite to say “I didn’t want the book to end”, but it’s true — I really didn’t want this book to end. I read the last 50 pages very slowly. Anthony Doerr spent 10 years writing All the Light We Cannot See, the story of two young people struggling to survive during World War II.  Marie-Laure LeBlanc, blind since early childhood, flees Paris with her father and takes refuge with her eccentric great-uncle Etienne in Saint-Malo. With Marie-Laure and her father is what may or may not be an enormously valuable diamond from the Museum of Natural History, where Monsieur LeBlanc is the locksmith. The Germans are searching throughout France for the diamond, becoming increasingly desperate after the Allies invade Normandy.

While Marie-Laure is growing up in Paris, learning Braille and how to navigate the city with her cane, Werner Pfennig is growing up in a German orphanage. A precocious child with a gift for electronics, Werner is saved from a life in the coal mines when a Nazi official identifies his talent and sends him to a paramilitary academy for Hitler Youth. The lives of Werner and Marie-Laure converge in August 1944, when the city of Saint-Malo was almost completely destroyed by fire.

In a Youtube video, Doerr says that he was inspired to write the book to illustrate the power of radio — for good and for evil. In the book’s epigraph, he quotes Joseph Goebbels: “It would not have been possible for us take power or to use it in the ways we have without the radio”. The sound waves of radio are “the light we cannot see”:

Radio: it ties a million ears to a single mouth. Out of loudspeakers all around Zollverein, the staccato voice of the Reich grows like some imperturbable tree; its subjects lean toward its branches as if towards the lips of God. And when God stops whispering, they become desperate for someone who can put things right.

But radio is also the voice of the French resistance:

He waits until dark. Marie-Laure sits in the mouth of the wardrobe, the false back open, and listens to her uncle switch on the microphone and the transmitter in the attic. His mild voice speaks numbers into the garret. Then music plays, soft and low, full of cellos tonight . . .

“The light we cannot see” refers to many other things besides sound waves. “Light we cannot see” is different from darkness, or absence of light; it’s there, we just can’t see it. Having gone blind as a child, Marie-Laure vaguely remembers being able to see light. Werner is trapped in darkness after the bombing of Saint-Malo, but he knows there is light above him.

Sometimes, in the darkness, Werner thinks the cellar may have its own faint light, perhaps emanating from the rubble, the space going a bit redder as the August day above them progresses toward dusk. After a while, he is learning, even total darkness is not quite darkness; more than once he thinks he can see his spread fingers when he passes them in front of his eyes.

The English major in me wants to go on and on about the metaphors of light and darkness in the novel, but I’ll spare you. The writing in All the Light We Cannot See is magnificent. Each beautifully crafted chapter is short — no more than a few pages, and some chapters are only one page — and perfectly titled: “Time of the Ostriches”; “The Arrest of the Locksmith”; “The Blade and the Whelk”. The parallel strands within the book — Marie-Laure’s story and Werner’s story — appear in alternating chapters, coming together towards the end. The surprise isn’t that they meet, but what happens during the next 60 years. Are people, as Anne Frank famously said, “really good at heart”? All the Light We Cannot See makes us consider that question again.