LJ currently covers top debut novels three times a year, with this iteration focusing on fall and winter titles. To decide what’s best, I’ve relied on personal reading and the input of LJ reviewers and editors when possible. “High Alert” features top picks for winter 2017, just swinging into view and mostly not yet assessed by LJ reviewers. More of the best follow, primarily from the fall. Don’t forget to check out “Also on the Horizon,” big-buzzing titles that we will all be looking at soon.
Arden, Katherine. The Bear and the Nightingale. Del Rey: Ballantine. Jan. 2017. 336p. ISBN 9781101885932. $27; ebk. ISBN 9781101885949.
A darkly magical fairy tale for adults, this radiant debut takes place on the edge of Russia’s immense wilderness. Vasilisa loves hearing her nurse’s old-time stories, but they’ve been banned by her prissy new stepmother, with catastrophic results for both family and village. To save them all, Vasilisa must use her own special gifts, which brings her—and her enchanted readers—in touch with the mystical creatures of her nurse’s stories. Not just for those who like magic.
Batuman, Elif. The Idiot. Pantheon. Mar. 2017. 448p. ISBN 9781594205613. $27; ebk. ISBN 9781101622513.
Batuman is an entirely different kind of literary critic, deft and startlingly artless in her perceptions, and it’s no surprise that her debut novel shares those qualities. It stars Selin, the daughter of Turkish immigrants, who lands at Harvard in 1995 and gradually reimagines herself through first love and an equally important new passion, writing. It’s terrific how Selin (and, by extension, Batuman herself) punctures the world’s mythologies not through sarcasm but through open-eyed wonder.
Dolan-Leach, Caite. Dead Letters. Random. Mar. 2017. 352p. ISBN 9780399588853. $27; ebk. 9780399588853. $27; ebk. ISBN 9780399588860.
This absorbing debut is billed as literary suspense, which is exactly right: the language is smart and polished, and the plot is one big, intriguing chase as Ava Antipova follows volatile twin sister Zelda’s emails to figure out what has happened to her. That’s especially suspenseful because Zelda supposedly burned to death in a barn fire. After a blowup with Zelda, Ava has been living in Paris for two years, and her return home to upstate New York highlights the tensions in her well-characterized if dysfunctional family.
Hunter, Georgia. We Were the Lucky Ones. Viking. Feb. 2017. 416p. ISBN 9780399563089. $27; ebk. ISBN 9780399563102.
Hunter didn’t know until she was 15 that she was from a family of Holocaust survivors, and this work is especially poignant for being based on their story. Written in a creamy, flowing style and carefully researched, with epigraphs periodically locating events in history, the narrative tells the story of the Kurc siblings of Radom, Poland. Astonishingly, they all survive, as did fewer than 300 of Radom’s 30,000 Jews.
Johnson, Lindsey Lee. The Most Dangerous Place on Earth. Random. Jan. 2017. 288p. ISBN 9780812997279. $27; ebk. ISBN 9780812997286.
Initially idealistic, replacement teacher Molly Nicoll becomes increasingly dismayed as she watches her wealthy and too, too privileged Mill Valley students ignore their parents (and parental pressure), cheat wildly on their SATs, scarf up drugs, and engage in unconscionable bullying. “[Giving] today’s daily headlines of teen life a human face…[Johnson’s] bleak, potent picture will scare the pants off her readers.” (forthcoming LJ review)
Kavanagh, Tasha. Things We Have in Common. Mira: Harlequin. Jan. 2017. 304p. ISBN 9780778326854. $26.99; ebk. ISBN 9781460396391.
Short-listed for the Costa First Novel Award, this work features morbidly obese Yasmin, a part-Turkish social outcast longing to be accepted by her school’s inner circle, especially sparkling Alice. Yasmin thinks she’ll win over Alice by befriending the creepy character who seems to be stalking her, but things spin out of control when Alice really does disappear. A disturbing portrait of misguided adolescence and an edgy thriller, too.
Mastai, Elan. All Our Wrong Todays. Dutton. Feb. 2017. 384p. ISBN 9781101985137. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781101985144.
It’s 2016, and the world imagined in the 1950s really does exist, with flying cars the least of it. Not quite at home in this shiny utopia, Tom Barren makes a rash decision that changes the very nature of the world around him and lands in our 2016. But maybe he likes it better. “A potent mixture of sincere introspection and a riveting examination of time travel and alternate realities.” (LJ 10/1/16)
Morris, Kevin. All Joe Knight. Grove. Dec. 2016. 368p. ISBN 9780802125781. $25.
Having triumphed with the 2014 story collection White Man’s Problems, Morris returns with a full-length work featuring Joe Knight, raised by an aunt in 1960s Philadelphia. Joe finds a sense of belonging with his high school basketball team, but years later those ties push him into a bad decision. Knight’s muscular prose deftly captures his protagonist’s rough-and-tough beginnings and the scramble to achieve the American Dream.
Messineo, Teresa. The Fire by Night. Morrow. Jan. 2017. 320p. ISBN 9780062459107. $26.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062459121.
Messineo offers a forthright and intimate portrait of two American military nurses during World War II. In France, Brooklyn-born Jo McMahon tends to six badly wounded soldiers, while small-town best friend Kay endures horrific imprisonment in a Japanese POW camp. They’re tough, they’re compassionate, and the well-researched story is a luminous testament to their courage.
Saunders, George . Lincoln in the Bardo. Random. Feb. 2017. 368p. ISBN 9780812995343. $28; ebk. ISBN 9780812995350.
In 1962, as the Civil War rages, President Abraham Lincoln’s son Willie dies and is trapped in the bardo—in the Tibetan tradition, a transitory state between death and whatever comes next filled with bickering, regretful ghosts. As Saunders is a short story master, it’s hardly surprising that this gorgeous blend of Western history and Eastern belief is often delivered in sharp, epigrammatic bursts of prose. “A stunningly powerful work, both in its imagery and its intense focus on death…. Remarkable historical fiction.” (LJ 10/1/15)
Bitto, Emily. The Strays. Twelve: Hachette. Jan. 2017. 256p. ISBN 9781455537723. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781455537709; lib. ebk. ISBN 9781478970972. CD/downloadable: Hachette Audio.
Winner of Australia’s 2015 Stella Prize, this 1930s-set work limns young Lily’s attraction to her new friend’s bohemian household, which embraces not just three sisters and their free-spirited parents but a whole clutch of artists in rebellion against conformist society. You’ll come for the Bloomsbury-like atmosphere and stay for the bright description and strong emotional bonds.
Correa, Armando Lucas. The German Girl. Atria. Oct. 2016. 368p. ISBN 9781501121142. $26.99; ebk. ISBN 9781501121241.
In 1939, 12-year-old Hannah Rosenthal travels aboard the infamous voyage-of-the-damned St. Louis as it tries to deliver Jewish refugees to safety in Cuba. She’s one of the few allowed to debark, and decades later her grandniece learns what really happened. “An engrossing and heartbreaking Holocaust story.” (forthcoming LJ review)
Domet, Sarah. The Guineveres. Flatiron: Macmillan. Oct. 2016. 352p. ISBN 9781250086617. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9781250086600.
All coincidentally named Guinevere, four young women bond tightly when they are abandoned by their various parents to be raised by nuns at the Sisters of the Supreme Adoration. But will those bonds hold when four comatose soldiers are brought to the convent? “An unsettling, melancholy first novel whose tone echoes that of Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides. “This phenomenal, character-driven story is mesmerizing.” (LJ 8/16)
Fridlund, Emily. History of Wolves. Atlantic Monthly. Jan. 2017. 288p. ISBN 9780802125873. $25; ebk. ISBN 9780802189776.
Living in Minnesota’s northern woods with her post-commune parents, 14-year-old social outcast Linda is intrigued by an art teacher who may have gotten a student pregnant and by the couple for whom she babysits, whose personal beliefs threaten the well-being of their child. This study of children victimized is less urgent suspense than a quiet punch in the gut. A BEA Buzz Book.
Kauffman, Rebecca. Another Place You’ve Never Been. Soft Skull. Oct. 2016. 300p. ISBN 9781593766566. $25; ebk. ISBN 9781619028517.
A ten-year-old dutifully visiting her disabled father. A 13-year-old flaunting her bad girl status. An adult trying out love and work. This is the Tracy we meet in Kauffman’s immediately involving novel-in-stories, delivered in crisp language and with a strong sense of the characters surrounding her. Long-listed for the 2016 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize.
Palacio, Derek. The Mortifications. Tim Duggan: Crown. Oct. 2016. 320p. ISBN 9781101905692. $27; ebk. ISBN 9781101905708.
The beautifully told saga of a Cuban family torn apart by exile when the father refuses to leave for America, this work circles back to the homeland as Soledad Encarnación and her twin children continue their earthly and spiritual quests. “One of those especially rare novels that will resonate with readers on an achingly deep level.” (LJ Xpress Review, 9/9/16)
Schweblin, Samanta. Fever Dream. Riverhead. Jan. 2017. 208p. tr. from Spanish by Megan McDowell. ISBN 9780399184598. $25.
Buenos Aires–born, Berlin-based, and an international star (Granta chose her as one of its best writers in Spanish under 35), Schweblin relates the story of a community doubly poisoned by toxic waste and invidious relationships, as told by a dying woman to a boy. All the more shocking for its spare, elliptical language.
Scranton, Roy. War Porn. Soho. Aug. 2016. 352p. ISBN 9781616957155. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781616957162.
Connecting three lives shattered by America’s invasion of Iraq, Iraq war vet Scranton offers a hard-to-abandon work that’s both viscerally tough and linguistically inventive. “Unlike most contemporary war literature, this work makes no attempt to excuse, venerate, or empathize with combat veterans. The result is an uncompromising look at the trauma of war.” (LJ 8/16)
Valente, Anne. Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down. Morrow. Oct. 2016. 304p. ISBN 9780062429117. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062429131.
It’s hard enough to comprehend a classmate’s walking into school and unleashing a deadly volley of bullets. But things get even harder for the entire community when the family homes of the dead students start burning down one by one. The four teenagers at the heart of this direct, poignant novel really can’t grasp the deadly absurdity of this world. From a winner of the Dzanc Books Short Story Prize.
Wilson, Kea. We Eat Our Own. Scribner. Sept. 2016. 320p. ISBN 9781501128318. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781501128332.
That Italian art film New York City actor Adrian White flew to Colombia to star in on six hours’ notice? It turns out to be more like horror—and that’s exactly the word for his off-the-wall movie set and guerrilla-drenched jungle surrounds. “An exciting debut that reads like a perfectly paced horror novel but offers an unusually close and multilayered examination of violence and art that should interest a diverse audience.” (LJ 8/16)
Ellis, Janet. The Butcher’s Hook. Pegasus. Jan. 2017. 368p. ISBN 9781681773117. $24.95; ebk. ISBN 9781681773742.
In 1760s London, 19-year-old Anne Jaccob lives miserably with her wealthy, dismissive parents, who have a suitable husband in mind. But Anne is enchanted when she meets Fub, the butcher’s apprentice, and decides that she will do anything to have him. Do her actions involve that titular hook? Pungent and sharply observed, with Anne one fine character; long-listed for the UK’s Desmond Elliot Prize.
Gordon, Alexia. Murder in G Major: A Gethsemane Brown Mystery. Henery. Sept. 2016. 280p. pap. ISBN 9781635110579. $15.95; ebk. ISBN 9781635110586.
When stranded musician Gethsemane Brown takes a job at St. Brennan’s School in Ireland, she encounters a ghost at her residence who wants the long-ago murder of himself and his wife solved. “An appealing protagonist…the captivating southwestern Irish countryside adds a delightful element to this paranormal series launch.” (LJ 9/1/16)
Ide, Joe. IQ. Mulholland: Little, Brown. Oct. 2016. 336p. ISBN 9780316267724. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780316267717.
Isaiah Quintabe, a Holmesian genius loner nicknamed IQ, solves crimes in his rough Los Angeles neighborhood, mostly for free (as an act of penance) but here for some much-needed cash as he investigates threats against a mega-wealthy rap star. Wonderfully rawly written, but the moral dimension really makes it. “An intriguing new detective with staying power who will be a certain hit with fans of urban-set crime fiction.” (LJ 9/1/16)
Keyse-Walker, John. Sun, Sand, Murder. Minotaur: St. Martin’s. Aug. 2016. 288p. ISBN 9781250088291. $24.99; ebk. ISBN 9781250088307.
Winner of the 2015 Minotaur Books/Mystery Writers of America First Crime Novel Award, this debut features Special Constable Teddy Creque, Royal Virgin Islands Police Force, who keeps the peace on his tiny island home of Anegada. The murder of Boston University herpetologist Paul Kelliher turns the entire island upside down. “A beautiful Caribbean setting, vibrant characters, lively plotting and pacing, and a memorable villain who will surprise you.” (LJ 8/16)
Littlejohn, Emily. Inherit the Bones. Minotaur: St. Martin’s. Nov. 2016. 336p. ISBN 9781250089397. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9781250089403.
Puzzled as she views the fresh corpse of Nicky Bellington, who was supposedly swept to his death over Bridal Veil Falls several years previously, lead detective and expectant mother Gemma Monroe soon discovers why Nicky made himself disappear. An LJ Mystery Debut of the Month: “Littlejohn writes with assurance and skill. The story’s plotting is sure-footed, and the characters are well developed and believable.” (LJ 10/1/16)
Overholt, Cuyler. A Deadly Affection: A Dr. Genevieve Summerford Mystery. Sourcebooks Landmark. Sept. 2016. 448p. ISBN 9781492637363. pap. $15.99; ebk. ISBN 9781492637370.
Dr. Genevieve Summerford is a freshly minted psychiatrist, unusual for a woman in 1907 New York, and her first job offers a particular challenge: she must prove one of her patients innocent of murder. The doctor’s backstory adds depth. “This superb debut reflects the author’s impeccable research…[and] discussion questions at the end focusing on women’s rights make this a solid book club choice.” (LJ 8/16)
Snoekstra, Anna. Only Daughter. Mira: Harlequin. Sept. 2106. 288p. ISBN 9780778319443. pap. $15.99.
Arrested for shoplifting, Snoekstra’s unnamed protagonist thinks it’s a good idea to pretend to be the long-lost Rebecca Winter, who disappeared when she was 16 years old. But in fact she’s putting herself in danger. “Snoekstra’s excellent debut stands out in the crowded psychological suspense field with smart, subtle red herrings and plenty of dark and violent secrets.” (LJ 8/16)
Thomson, E.S. Beloved Poison. Pegasus Crime. Sept. 2016. 400p. ISBN 9781681772141. $25.95; ebk. ISBN 9781681772684.
In 1850s London, apothecary Jem Flockhart and junior architect Will Quartermain are tasked with moving bodies from the graveyard of St. Saviour’s Infirmary, due to be torn down. Alas, they discover six little coffins in the old chapel that can’t easily be explained. Short-listed for the Saltire First Book Award and the Scottish Arts Council First Book Award, “This outstanding debut historical enthralls with its meticulously researched details.… Showtime’s Penny Dreadful, brought to life!” (LJ 9/1/16)
Wild, Elle. Strange Things Done. Dundurn. Oct. 2016. 304p. ISBN 9781459733800. pap. $18.99; ebk. ISBN 9781459733824.
In Canada’s Yukon Territory, the murder of local activist Marla McAdam poses a problem for newbie reporter Josephine (“Jo”) Silver. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police want to know where she was, but she was too drunk at the time to remember. Winner of the Arthur Ellis Award for Best Unpublished First Crime Novel. “The perfect setting for [an] atmospheric crime novel.” (LJ 9/1/16)
Wurster, Erich. The Coaster. Poisoned Pen. Aug. 2016. 275p. ISBN 9781464205651. $26.95; ebk. ISBN 9781464205682.
Bob has been coasting along as head of a division of his father-in-law’s company, letting his wife do the heavy lifting as company president and generally enjoying the good life. But his father-in-law’s death leaves him as trustee of a vast personal fortune, which brings threats of blackmail and murder. A wry and dry LJ Mystery Debut of the Month: “Aficionados of comic mysteries such as those by Tim Dorsey will delight in Wurster’s laconic, humorous prose.” (LJ 8/16)
Also on the horizon
Atogun, Odafe. Taduno’s Song. Pantheon. Mar. 2017. 240p. ISBN 9781101871454. $24.95; ebk. ISBN 9781101871461.
Big international buzz for a Nigerian-set debut echoing political violence, the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, and the life of Nigerian music phenomenon Fela Kuti.
Bell, Darcey. A Simple Favor. Harper. Mar. 2017. 304p. ISBN 9780062497772. $25.95; ebk. ISBN 9780062497796.
A domestic thriller swiftly preempted by Fox 2000 and sold in 24 countries, featuring a young, widowed mother whose best friend disappears.
Cole, Daniel. Ragdoll. Ecco: HarperCollins. Apr. 2017. 256p. ISBN 9780062653956. $27.95; ebk. ISBN 9780062653970.
A London Book Fair standout sold to 25 countries, with black humor highlighting a gruesome crime and the controversial detective trying to solve it.
Hogan, Ruth. The Keeper of Lost Things. Morrow. Feb. 2017. 288p. ISBN 9780062473530. $26.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062473578.
Another big-buzz book at the London Book Fair whose heroine inherits a house and multitudinous lost items to return to their owners.
Mehta, Rahul. No Other World. Harper. Feb. 2017. 304p. ISBN 9780062020468. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062199119.
An Indian American’s saga from the winner of Lambda and Asian American literary honors and a shout-out from ALA’s Over the Rainbow Committee for his debut collection.
Peelle, Lydia. The Midnight Cool. Harper. Jan. 2017. 368p. ISBN 9780062475466. $26.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062475497.
A National Book Foundation “5 under 35” author and Whiting Award winner for her short fiction launches a debut novel set in 1916 Tennessee.
Watts, Stephanie Powell. No One Is Coming To Save Us. Ecco: HarperCollins. Apr. 2017. 368p. ISBN 9780062472984. $26.95; ebk. ISBN 9780062473004.
From an author with Whiting and Pushcart honors, a reframing of The Great Gatsby as a contemporary Southern tale starring an extended African American family.
Gigl, Colin. The Ferryman Institute. Gallery: S. & S. Oct. 2016. 432p. ISBN 9781501125324. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9781501125331.
Charlie Dawson is good at his job as ferryman for the Institute, helping souls on their journey to the afterlife. But after 250 years he’s getting tired. Then he gets a simple message: “BE A FERRYMAN OR SAVE THE GIRL. YOUR CHOICE.” And he breaks all the rules. An LJ Fantasy Debut of the Month: “While grim reaper stories are not exactly rare in fantasy, this debut brims with wit and thrills.” (LJ 9/15/16)
Jordan, JD. Calamity. Heliosphere. Sept. 2016. 304p. ISBN 9781937868475. pap. $16.99.
Who knew that Calamity Jane had such an interesting backstory? As 15-year-old Martha Jane Canary, she witnesses the murder of her friends and is nearly raped. But then she’s saved by an alien longrider called the Green Man, who’s looking for another spaceship to take him home. “This gritty story blends the right amount of hard trials and humor.” (LJ 8/16)
Shawl, Nisi. Everfair. Tor. Sept. 2016. 384p. ISBN 9780765338051. $26.99; ebk. ISBN 9781466837843.
Steampunk set in the late 19th-century Congo, this debut novel from celebrated short story author Shawl, a James A. Tiptree Award winner, imagines a group of Fabian Society reformers who build a wondrous refuge in the jungle maintained by steam-powered tools and airships. But the world won’t let them be. “An important addition to the alternate history canon.” (LJ 8/16)
Wagers, K.B. Behind the Throne. Orbit: Hachette. (Indranan War, Bk. 1). Aug. 2016. 432p. ISBN 9780316308601. pap. $14.99; ebk. ISBN 9780316308571.
Hail Bristol would rather be a smuggler, but her sisters have been murdered, and her mother, the empress, is fading fast. Now Hail is princess at a resistant court. An LJ SF Debut of the Month: “This fast-paced, twisty new space opera…ranks among some of the best political sf novels in years.” (LJ 8/16)