Spring/Summer Bests | Debut Novels

Drawing on reviews and media buzz, LJ regularly offers a summation of the top debut novels of the season. But what about forthcoming titles that have not yet been reviewed? This time ’round, as I assayed spring titles, I found so many intriguing May titles that had not yet received critical coverage and so many June and July titles that deserved early notice that I decided to take a closer look. Herewith are my picks for early spring titles you should order now and late spring and summer titles you should have on your radar.

Books To GET

Pop Fiction

Allnutt, Luke. We Own the Sky. Park Row: Harlequin. Apr. 2018. 368p. ISBN 9780778314738. $26.99; ebk. ISBN 9781488078712.

His marriage and his life shattered by son Jack’s cancer, Rob Coates posts stunning scenes of places he and Jack had visited together on a website he calls We Own the Sky. “Vivid and heart-twisting.” (LJ 1/18)

Burke, Sue. Semiosis. Tor. Feb. 2018. 336p. ISBN 9780765391353. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9780765391377.

Colonists escaping an environmentally imploding Earth make an emergency landing on a planet they weren’t aiming for, and generations of humans grow up there, evolving as they adapt to a new ­environment. “Extraordinary.” (LJ 1/18)

Gabel, Aja. The Ensemble. Riverhead. May 2018. 352p. ISBN 9780735214767. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780735214781.

Steely first violinist Jana. Beautiful second violinist Brit. Self-confident violist Henry. And troublesome cellist Daniel. Together, they’re the Van Ness Quartet, whose professional and personal highs and lows are explored “with great warmth, humanity, and wisdom.” (LJ 3/1/18)

Hirshberg, David. My Mother’s Son. Fig Tree. May 2018. 368p. ISBN 9781941493229. $23.95.

Looking back at his youth in post–World War II Boston, Joel realizes that he never really knew his family or friends, whose activities weren’t always legal. “This amazing mosaic of fact and fiction will hold the reader in its grip from the first page to the last.” (LJ 2/15/18)

Johnson, Chelsey. Stray City. Custom House: Morrow. Mar. 2018. 432p. ISBN 9780062666680. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062666703.

A restless young member of the lesbian community in 1990s Portland, OR, ­Andrea is surprised to find solace with a man named Ryan. Then she gets pregnant. “An enjoyable read embracing complex and believable characters.” (LJ 1/18)

Lynch, Christina. The Italian Party. St. Martin’s. Mar. 2018. 336p. ISBN 9781250147837. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9781250147844.

In 1956, newlyweds Michael and ­Scottie Messina arrive in Italy, where Michael will be working for the CIA. His ambitions and their not-government-approved sexuality complicate matters. “Effervescent as spumante; spot-on social commentary.” (LJ 11/1/17)

Pedreira, David. Gunpowder Moon. Harper Voyager. Feb. 2018. 304p. ISBN 9780062676085. pap. $14.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062676092.

In 2072, the moon is being mined because of Earth’s environmental degradation. Then there’s a murder. “Pedreira’s science thriller powerfully highlights human politics and economics from the seemingly desolate expanse of the moon.” (LJ 1/18)

White, Chris. The Life List of Adrian Mandrick. Touchstone. Apr. 2018. 288p. ISBN 9781501174308. $24.99; ebk. ISBN 9781501174322.

Painkiller-addicted anesthesiologist Adrian Mandrick, a dedicated birder, hunts obsessively for the elusive ivory-billed woodpecker but must finally face himself. “Successfully combines the best elements of a psychological portrait, a travel adventure, and a suspenseful mystery.” (LJ 2/1/18)

Literary

Abel, Heather. The Optimistic Decade. Algonquin. May 2018. 368p. ISBN 9781616206307. $26.95; ebk. ISBN 9781616208271.

The daughter of a radical newspaper publisher, Rebecca Silver is working as a camp counselor when she gets re­acquainted with a troubled friend and finds something beyond politics. “A generous, thoughtful view of youthful passion and idealism.” (LJ 3/1/18)

Castillo, Elaine. America Is Not the Heart. Viking. Apr. 2018. 416p. ISBN 9780735222410. $27; ebk. ISBN 9780735222434.

Imprisoned and tortured for her activism, then repudiated by her family, Hero flees the Philippines for California, where she lives undocumented with relatives and has a passionate affair with makeup artist Rosalyn. “Relevant in today’s toxic political climate; a rich, challenging read.” (LJ 2/15/18)

Delury, Jane. The Balcony. Little, Brown. Mar. 2018. 256p. ISBN 9780316554671. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780316554664.

The tale of a young American who works as an au pair on a French country estate in 1992 is followed by portraits of people who have inhabited or visited the house over a century. “A beautifully written novel that can be enjoyed both for its literary merits and for the intriguing stories of its characters.” (LJ 2/15/18)

Djavadi, Négar. Disoriental. Knopf. Apr. 2018. 320p. tr. from French by Tina Kover. ISBN 9781609454517. pap. $18; ebk. ISBN 9781609454524.

Sitting in a Parisian fertility clinic, Kimia Sadr reflects on her family’s deep roots in Persia, her dissident parents’ flight from Iran post-Revolution, and her own sexual disorientation. “This enchanting novel…perfectly blends historical fact with contemporary themes.” (LJ 2/1/18)

Goenawan, Clarissa. Rainbirds. Soho. Mar. 2018. 336p. ISBN 9781616958558. $25; ebk. ISBN 9781616958565.

In this 1990s Japan–set novel by an ­Indonesian-born Singaporean writer, a young man investigates his sister’s murder. “Shift[ing] from a murder mystery to magical realism, Goenawan infuses her postmodern literary tale with enough complexity, mystery, and emotional connection to make this a memorable and haunting read.” (LJ 2/15/18)

Halliday, Lisa. Asymmetry. S. & S. Feb. 2018. 288p. ISBN 9781501166761. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781501166778.

Raw young editor Alice is roped in romantically by a distinguished older author, Iraqi American Amar is detained at Heathrow, and the book’s third section gracefully links these tales. “Evocative of the world we live in today; highly recommended.” (LJ 2/1/18)

Lyon, Rachel. Self-Portrait with Boy. Scribner. Feb. 2018. 384p. ISBN 9781501169588. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781501169601.

A photographer specializing in self-­portraits inadvertently captures the moment the neighbors’ son falls to his death, then brazenly exhibits Self-Portrait with Boy to acclaim—though not from the parents. “A powerful, brilliantly imagined story not easily forgotten.” (LJ 2/1/18)

Mangan, Christine. Tangerine. Ecco: HarperCollins. Mar. 2018. 320p. ISBN 9780062686664. $26.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062686688.

Living in sultry 1956 Tangier with her husband, Alice is dismayed when a trouble­some former college roommate comes calling. “Readers captivated by the flavor of international romance and intrigue…will enjoy the distorted psychological twists and turns in this fascinating off-centered tale.” (LJ 12/17)

Rao, Shobha. Girls Burn Brighter. Flatiron: Macmillan. Mar. 2018. 320p. ISBN 9781250074256. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9781250074263.

Allied as outsiders, two girls in India become fast friends but are separated by tragedy, with Poornima finally traveling all the way to Seattle to renew her bond with Savitha. “This tale of sacrifice, exploitation, and reclamation is not to be missed.” (LJ 1/18)

Steavenson, Wendell . Paris Metro. Norton. Mar. 2018. 384p. ISBN 9780393609783. $25.95; ebk. ISBN 9780393609790.

Having had an affair with worldly Ahmed while based in Iraq, journalist Kit now lives in Paris with their 13-year-old son and faces terrorism close to home. From an award-winning journalist; “an engrossing insider’s view of complicated geopolitics and conflicted identity.” (LJ 1/18)

Vermette, Katherena. The Break. House of Anasi. Mar. 2018. 288p. ISBN 9781487001117. pap. $16.95.

Métis author Vermette won multiple awards in Canada for this first novel, which opens with a woman spotting an assault, then expands to tell the story of an entire family and a mixed indigenous and settler community. “Sharp-edged and relentless.” (Xpress Reviews 4/13/18)

Mystery/Suspense

Copenhaver, John. Dodging and Burning. Pegasus Crime. Mar. 2018. 384p. ISBN 9781681776590. $25.95; ebk. ISBN 9781681777153.

A fading crime-scene photo returns a mystery author to 1945 Virginia, when friend Ceola was shown the photo of a dead woman. “A coming-of-age tale [mixed] with a puzzling mystery and a haunting portrait of the experiences of the LGBTQ community in the 1940s.” (LJ 2/1/18)

Molloy, Aimee. The Perfect Mother. Harper. May 2018. 336p. ISBN 9780062696793. $27.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062696816.

Mothers who gather in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park for support throw themselves into an investigation when one mother’s son is abducted from his crib. “For lovers of cunning narrative suspense; …[it] will keep readers turning the pages.” (LJ 2/1/18)

Nay, Roz. Our Little Secret. St. Martin’s. Apr. 2018. 272p. ISBN 9781250160812. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9781250160829.

Grilled by police about the missing wife of her former boyfriend, Angela reveals the fateful story of their love triangle. “Nay has expertly crafted a narrative that has the potential to veer in several directions, keeping readers enthralled and guessing until the end.” (LJ 2/1/18)

Parks, Alan. Bloody January. Europa. (World Noir). Mar. 2018. 304p. ISBN 9781786891341. pap. $17; ebk. ISBN 9781609454494.

In this 1973 Glasgow–set exemplar of tartan noir, Det. Harry McCoy follows a tip, witnesses a murder-suicide, then learns that his tipster was has been brutally killed, too. “Spare, tough prose; [characters] who might have been safely relegated to sidekick status are ones that readers will welcome back in the likely sequels.” (LJ 2/1/18)

Sacks, Michelle. You Were Made for This. Little, Brown. Jun. 2018. 352p. ISBN 9780316475402. $27; ebk. ISBN 9780316475433.

Merry seems merry about marriage and motherhood, but her visiting best friend knows better. “Fans of dark and twisted psychological thrillers will be swept up in the appearance of domestic bliss and maternal perfection, only to be left off-kilter and breathless.” (LJ 3/1/18)

Into the Wild

Bradbury, Jamey. The Wild Inside. Morrow. Mar. 2018. 304p. ISBN 9780062741998. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062742018.

Young trapper/hunter Tracy Petrikoff knows her way around the Alaskan wilderness but won’t tell her father than a stranger has moved into the shed on their property. “A lovely and intense novel about the precarious balance of life and death.” (LJ 1/18)

Davies, Carys. West. Scribner. Apr. 2018. 160p. ISBN 9781501179341. $22; ebk. ISBN 9781501179365.

A recently widowed mule breeder hears about the discovery of mammoth animal bones and heads into the wilderness, leaving behind his young daughter. “Graceful prose and sharp observations make this absorbing debut novel a standout.” (LJ 2/1/18)

Kitson, Mick. Sal. Canongate. May 2018. 240p. ISBN 9781786891877. $20; ebk. ISBN 9781786891891.

Repeatedly abused by her mother’s boyfriend, 13-year-old Scottish lass Sal kills him and takes younger sister Peppa into the wilderness. “Readers will be captivated by Sal’s resolution, ingenuity, singular voice, and infinite capacity for wonder in the face of appalling circumstances.” (LJ 2/1/18)

McLaughlin, James A . Bearskin. Ecco: HarperCollins. Jun. 2018. 352p. ISBN 9780062742797. $26.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062742810.

Hiding from the drug cartel that killed his girlfriend, a biologist serving as caretaker at a forest preserve finds his peace shattered by evidence of bear poaching. “This versatile debut…successfully straddl[es] the line between the evocative erudition of ­Gabriel Tallent’s My Absolute Darling or Tom Franklin’s Poachers and the page-turning suspense of C.J. Box.” (LJ 2/15/18)

Books to Anticipate

Burton, Tara Isabella. Social Creature. Doubleday. Jun. 2018. 288p. ISBN 9780385543521. $26.95; ebk. ISBN 9780385543538.

“Stick with me long enough…and I promise—things will just happen to you.” So declares ­Lavinia, the wildly off-kilter, upper-crust New Yorker who takes on church mouse–poor Louise as her fellow carouser and confidante. They drink, they dream, they attend costume parties, and Lavinia steers toward doom. ­Pulsing energy, polished language, perfectly drawn characters.

Cohen, Elisabeth. The Glitch. Doubleday. May 2018. 368p. ISBN 9780385542784. $26.95; ebk. ISBN 9780385542791.

Overreaching Silicon CEO Shelly Stone, who schedules sex with her husband and 3 a.m. downtime for herself, barely flinches when temporarily losing her daughter on vacation in France. (“ ‘We’re lucky,’ I said. But I didn’t mean it. We’re smart.”) Then she encounters a laid-back version of herself and rethinks her life. Compelling, thrillerish prose and a deft skewering of corporatism and social attitudes today.

Faye, Gaël. Small Country. Hogarth: Crown. Jun. 2018. 224p. tr. from French by Sarah Ardizzone. ISBN 9781524759872. $25; ebk. ISBN 9781524759896.

Burundi-born and French-based like Faye himself, Faye’s protagonist is told as a child that Tutsis and Hutus are fighting “because they don’t have the same nose.” Not surprisingly, he later proclaims, “I had already made up my mind never to define myself again.” Faye’s taut, affecting story reveals family tension, then shows a childhood and a country ­shattered as violence floods in from Rwanda. That Faye is a songwriter/­rapper is ­evident in the fine-tuned ­language. A multiaward winner.

Fine, Julia. What Should Be Wild. Harper. May 2018. 352p. ISBN 9780062684134. $26.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062684158.

In this dark literary fantasy, Maisie is hidden away at the family manor because she can kill or resurrect with a touch (barefoot, she left “a comet tail of crackling, yellowed grasses”). According to legend, some of her female ancestors walked into the nearby forest, never to return, and village men who enter come back mad. But Maisie has her own forest mission. ­Atmospheric and lushly written.

Franqui, Leah. America for Beginners. Morrow. Jul. 2018. 320p. ISBN 9780062668752. $26.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062668776.

After her husband’s death, Pival ­Sengupta boldly risks traveling alone from India to America to learn what she can of her son, who died not long after announcing that he was gay. She’s accompanied by a Bangladeshi tour guide and a female escort (for propriety’s sake), as all the characters reexamine cultural expectations (“When Pival returned to ­Kolkata the first thing she did was fire all the servants”). Not surprisingly, ­playwright Franqui has a sharp take on character and dialog.

Hansen, Malcolm. They Come in All Colors. Atria. May 2018. 320p. ISBN 9781501172328. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781501172342.

In early 1970s New York, biracial 13-year-old Huey Fairchild, the only nonwhite student at elite Claremont Prep, struggles dangerously with sneaking racism and recalls the traumatizing incidents in 1960s Georgia that sent him and his mother north. Hansen captures both the times and indelible, smart-mouthed Huey and his core issue: “I’m a wannabe less because I want to be something that I’m not than because the reality of what I am just doesn’t make any sense to them.”

Joukhadar, Jennifer Zeynab. The Map of Salt and Stars. Touchstone. May 2018. 368p. ISBN 9781501169038. $27; ebk. ISBN 9781501169106.

Salt tears and our fateful stars: Syrian American author Joukhadar expansively portrays Nour, who arrives home in Syria from Manhattan with her cartographer mother just before civil war explodes, and Rawiya, a widow’s daughter in the medieval Middle East “who dreamed of seeing the world, but she and her mother could barely afford couscous.” Sharply contemporary Nour copies her storytelling father by relating Rawiya’s folkloric-dreamy tale until the two voices deftly blend.

Knecht, Rosalie. Who Is Vera Kelly? Tin House. Jun. 2018. 272p. ISBN 9781947793019. pap. $15.95; ebk. ISBN 9781947793026.

When we first meet Vera Kelly, she’s a troubled 1950s teenager who’s overdosed on Equanil. Next she’s in explosive 1960s Buenos Aires after being recruited by the CIA (“I could be charming if I wanted to. There were basic tricks”). Her past and present are told in alternating chapters, with all the edgy fun of classic noir but in an original voice that’s fresh, brisk, and snappy. Hugely buzzing.

Kuang, R.F. The Poppy War. Harper Voyager. May 2017. 544p. ISBN 9780062662569. $26.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062662590.

War orphan Rin scores big on an empirewide test and lands at the most prestigious military school in Nikan. She’s sassy and pugnacious when accused of cheating (“If you decide my score is void, that means this simple shopgirl was clever enough to bypass your famous anticheating protocols”), and though she gets taunted as a dark-skinned peasant girl from the south, her shamanic powers soon emerge. ­Military fantasy based on Chinese history.

Kwon, R.O. The Incendiaries. Riverhead. Jul. 2018. 224p. ISBN 9780735213890. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780735213913.

Will, who transferred from a Bible school to a prestigious university, hopelessly pursues Phoebe, glamorous and ambitious (as a young piano student, she says she “had the blood taste of public triumph on my lips”). But Phoebe is drawn into a dangerous cult by charismatic leader John Leal, who’s connected to her Korean American family. Seamless, propulsive writing.

Lye, Harriet Alida. The Honey Farm. Liveright: Norton. May 2018. 384p. ISBN 9781631494345. $25.95; ebk. ISBN 9781631494352.

Countering a drought so bad it has “discontented the bees,” Cynthia turns her farm into an artist’s colony whose attendees provide free labor. But secrets darker than the dried-out soil haunt this setting. Comparisons range from Patricia Highsmith to Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go to Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan. Toronto-based Lye is writer in residence at Shakespeare & Company in Paris.

Mirza, Fatima Farheen. A Place for Us. SJP: Hogarth. Jun. 2018. 448p. ISBN 9781524763558. $27; ebk. ISBN 9781524763572.

A California-based Indian Muslim family celebrates the wedding of daughter Hadia, marrying for love. Present is her estranged brother Amar, who hasn’t easily managed the rough road between youth and adulthood, Old World tradition and America, and the novel effectively unfolds family tensions and ­Amar’s swirling personal anguish. (“He could convince them…he could even convince himself, that he belonged here.”) First out from Sarah Jessica Parker’s new ­imprint.

Neale, Jen. Land Mammals and Sea Creatures. ECW. May 2018. 300p. ISBN 9781770414143. pap. $16.95; ebk. ISBN 9781773051826.

In her Canadian port hometown, Julie Bird is fishing with father Marty—a Gulf War vet with a prosthesis and post-traumatic stress disorder—when a blue whale unaccountably beaches itself and several birds hit the rocks “in a streak of gore and feathers.” The animal kingdom’s self-destruction reflects Marty’s own, and throughout we watch tough-talking, empathetic Julie trying to reel him in. Stringently lyrical; Neale won the Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers.

Orange, Tommy. There There. Knopf. Jun. 2018. 304p. ISBN 9780525520375. $25.95; ebk. ISBN 9780525520382.

“For Native people in this country…there is no there there,” says one character in this blistering novel. But “there are so many stories” in MacDowell Fellow ­Orange’s narrative, interwoven portraits of individuals such as drummer Thomas Frank, self-trained dancer Orvil Red Feather, and angry Tony Loneman, afflicted with fetal alcohol syndrome, all heading to the Big Oakland Powwow. Tersely summed up in the ­prolog, ­America’s violence toward Natives ­reverberates throughout.

Rojas Contreras, Ingrid. Fruit of the Drunken Tree. Doubleday. Jul. 2018. 320p. ISBN 9780385542722. $26.95; ebk. ISBN 9780385542739.

In 1990s Colombia, where bombs explode and kidnapping is common, seven-year-old Chula befriends the family’s new teenage maid Petrona. But the house is ominously shaded by a poisonous Drunken Tree, and though Máma calls Petrona “a little dead fly, someone whose life-strategy was playing dead,” she brings the family to grief. Rich and fluid storytelling from the Bogotá-born author.

Shepherd, Peng. The Book of M. Morrow. Jun. 2018. 480p. ISBN 9780062669605. $26.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062669629.

In Shepherd’s scary new world, people who lose their shadow lose their memory; “there was a strange weightlessness to it. As if they weren’t actually there.” Ory and wife Max are hiding out from this terrible Forgetting, but Max runs away when her shadow evaporates, determined to spare Ory. Both eerie and suspenseful: Will Ory find Max? And what happens to everyone else?

Weir, Meghan MacLean. The Book of Essie. Knopf. Jun. 2018. 336p. ISBN 9780525520313. $25.95; ebk. ISBN 9780525520320.

A preacher’s daughter and star of her family’s reality TV show, teenage ­Essie is pregnant, and she’s not even part of the meeting to decide what’s expedient—“which is just as well, since my being there might imply that I have some choice.” Thus are readers introduced to one family’s ­manipulative and hypocritical small-mindedness. Will Essie prevail? Weir delivers her smartly crafted answer without a trace of melodrama.

This article was published in Library Journal's March 1, 2018 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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Barbara Hoffert About Barbara Hoffert

Barbara Hoffert (bhoffert@mediasourceinc.com, @BarbaraHoffert on Twitter) is Editor, LJ Prepub Alert; past chair of the Materials Selection Committee of the RUSA (Reference and User Services Assn.) division of the American Library Association; and past president, treasurer, and awards chair of the National Book Critics Circle.

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