Fall/Winter Bests | Debut Novels

LJ regularly collates the best debut novels being published today—books for the fall season that our reviewers have endorsed and for the winter season that look poised to be the most promising.

New voices offer a fresh and promising mix of chillers, historicals, and literary and pop fiction

Once again, LJ collates the best debut novels being published today—books for the fall season that our reviewers have endorsed and for the winter season that advance reading proves to be the most promising. Appropriately, the fall “To Get” titles start off with Chillers from the mystery and thriller communities, then wend their way through Literary Gems, Pop Fiction, and Historicals, which are making a particularly good showing right now. January and February “To Anticipate” works reveal a nice balance of literary and pop fiction traveling from Afghanistan and India to Nigeria and New York City’s basketball courts. For more fall titles, check out the “To Anticipate” list in “Summer/Fall Bests,” LJ 7/18, p. 36–39.


BOOKS TO GET

Chillers

Bernhard, Emilia. Death in Paris. Crooked Lane. (Death in Paris, Bk. 1). Oct. 2018. 327p. ISBN 9781683317685. $26.99; ebk. ISBN 9781683317692. MYSTERY
Sincerely doubting that her former French boyfriend could have drowned accidentally in a bowl of soup, American Rachel Levis uses a bequest to organize his library as a means of scouting about for the killer. Paris-set bubbles; “those who enjoy contemporary cozy mysteries with amateur sleuths will gobble it up.” (LJ 10/1/18)

Dornbush, Jennifer Graeser. The Coroner. Crooked Lane. Aug. 2018. 336p. ISBN 9781683316237. $26.99; ebk. ISBN 9781683316244. MYSTERY
Heading home to Mississippi after her estranged father’s heart attack, third-year medical resident Emily Hartsford helps the sheriff (an old flame) investigate the mysterious death of a state senator’s daughter. “An intense, riveting mystery that combines the coziness of small-town familiarity with the sobering reality of drugs and murder.” (LJ 8/18)

Harper, Bradley. A Knife in the Fog: A Mystery Featuring Margaret Harkness & Arthur Conan Doyle. Seventh Street: Prometheus. Oct. 2018. 288p. ISBN 9781633884861. pap. $15.95; ebk. ISBN 9781633884878. MYSTERY
Having published a single crime story, “A Study in Scarlet,” Dr. Arthur Conan Doyle is invited by former prime minister William Gladstone to help find the serial killer eventually known as Jack the Ripper. An LJ Mystery Debut of the Month; “the intricately plotted story is worthy of Conan Doyle himself.” (LJ 10/1/18)

Munier, Paula. A Borrowing of Bones. Minotaur: St. Martin’s. Sept. 2018. 352p. ISBN 9781250153036. $26.99; ebk. ISBN 9781250153043. MYSTERY
Both traumatized by war, retired soldier Mercy Carr and her bomb-sniffing Belgian Malinois Elvis are running in the Vermont woods when Elvis discovers an abandoned baby, which brings in state game warden Troy Warner and his search-and-rescue Newfoundland. An LJ Mystery Debut of the Month; read for “the believable dogs, the touches of humor, the independent, determined Mercy, and well-crafted characters.” (LJ 9/1/18)

Potenza, Carol. Hearts of the Missing. Minotaur: St. Martin’s. Dec. 2018. 304p. ISBN 9781250178282. $27.99; ebk. ISBN 9781250178299. MYSTERY
Pueblo police sergeant Nicky Matthews investigates the suicide of a young woman linked to missing Fire-Sky tribal members who need intervention or their spirits will be condemned to wander. Winner of the Tony Hillerman Prize; “this action-packed mystery…vividly evokes the beauty of the New Mexico landscape and its indigenous peoples.” (LJ 8/18)

Vernon, P.J. When You Find Me. Crooked Lane. Oct. 2018. 330p. ISBN 9781683317494. $26.99; ebk. ISBN 9781683317500. THRILLER
Overcoming bad memories to visit her family’s estate in Elizabeth, SC, with her husband, Gray Godfrey has too much to drink and awakens with no memory of the night before—and no husband anywhere to be found. “An assured and well-crafted debut with slow-building tension.” (LJ 10/1/18)


Literary Gems

Dhaliwal, Aminder. Woman World. Drawn & Quarterly. Sept. 2018. 256p. ISBN 9781770463356. pap. $24.95. GRAPHIC NOVELS
Originally serialized through Disney animation director Dhaliwal’s Instagram account, this graciously illustrated graphic novel imagines a world where men have died out owing to a genetic defect and women are rebuilding society. Mostly black-and-white artwork (so the color bits really mean something); “it’ll be hard to find a funnier, more moving or original debut this year.” (LJ 9/1/18)

Hobson, Melanie. Summer Cannibals. Black Cat: Grove Atlantic. Sept. 2018. 288p. ISBN 9780802128522. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9780802146526. LITERARY
When three adult daughters gather with their parents at the family mansion near Hamilton, Ont., what could go wrong? Alas, icy egotist David is enabled by his meek wife, and the daughters are still aiming to please. “A riveting picture of twisted family dynamics…compulsively readable.” ( LJ 9/1/18)

Moschovakis, Anna. Eleanor; or, The Rejection of the Progress of Love. Coffee House. Aug. 2018. 224p. ISBN 9781566895088. pap. $16.95; ebk. ISBN 9781566895248. LITERARY
In this engaging and inventive first fiction from poet Moschovakis, aspects of protagonist Eleanor’s life blend with those of the protagonist in the novel Eleanor herself is writing. “Funny, intelligent, and sensual, although also unsettled, Eleanor is engaging from the onset and a welcoming new female voice.” (LJ 8/18)

Reed, Elliot. A Key to Treehouse Living. Tin House. Sept. 2018. 170p. ISBN 9781947793040. $19.95; ebk. ISBN 9781947793101. LITERARY
With his mother dead and his father vanished, young William Tyce lives with his uncle, a simple summary that doesn’t begin to encompass the grace and inventiveness of this coming-of-age story, which unfolds in wholly natural fashion via alphabetized headings ranging from “Black Ash” to “Lilies and Snapping Turtles.” “Intriguing, revelatory, and unexpected.” (Xpress Reviews 9/14/18)

Riker, Martin. Samuel Johnson’s Eternal Return. Coffee House. Oct. 2018. 256p. ISBN 9781566895286. pap. $16.95; ebk. ISBN 9781566895361. LITERARY
Born and raised in a religious community in rural Pennsylvania, widowed Samuel Johnson is devoted to his young son, finally sacrificing his life to save him from an intruder on their property. But it doesn’t end there, as his soul leapfrogs from body to body in an effort to return to Samuel Jr. “Smartly conceived and fluidly written…[a] wise and entertaining debut.” (Xpress Reviews 9/14/18)

Teo, Sharlene. Ponti. S. & S. Sept. 2018. 288p. ISBN 9781501173110. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781501173134. LITERARY
Winner of the inaugural Deborah ­Rogers Writers’ Award, this Singapore-set novel investigates the intense, finally imploding friendship between teenage girls Szu and Circe and Szu’s relationship with a cruel, beautiful mother who once acted in a string of cult movies. “This energized, lusciously written work is train-wreck absorbing.” (Xpress Reviews 9/14/18)

 


Pop Fiction

Anthony, Gretchen. Evergreen Tidings from the Baumgartners. Park Row: Harlequin. Oct. 2018. 384p. ISBN 9780778307860. pap. $16.99; ebk. ISBN 9781488096587. FAMILY LIFE
Violet might be blithely penning her annual holiday letter and planning her husband’s retirement party, but she is in for a big surprise from daughter Cerise and Cerise’s partner Barb. “Successfully mixes realistic emotional responses to big life events with a sense of humor.” (LJ 9/15/18)

Braithwaite, Oyinkan. My Sister, the Serial Killer. Doubleday. Nov. 2018. 240p. ISBN 9780385544238. $22.95; ebk. ISBN 9780385544245. WOMEN’S
Korede is dreamy-eyed about a doctor at the hospital where she works, so when he falls for her sister, Ayoola, she intervenes—because Ayoola has the unfortunate habit of knocking off her boyfriends. From Nigerian award winner Braithwaite; “a portrait of a dysfunctional family at its finest.” ( LJ 9/15/18)

Huang, S.L. Zero Sum Game. Tor. Oct. 2018. 336p. ISBN 9781250180254. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9781250180261. SF
Cas Russell has special powers that allow her to locate a young woman held by a Colombian cartel. But the people now pursuing them both have even more impressive powers; they can get inside people’s heads and shape-shift their thoughts. An LJ SF Debut of the Month; “this hard-to-put-down, action-packed sf debut is intelligent and entertaining.” (LJ 8/18)

Nixon, Rosie. The Stylist. Morrow. Sept. 2018. 400p. ISBN 9780062856449. pap. $15.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062856456. women’s
Lucky Amber Green gets to leave her London boutique job to become assistant to celebrity stylist Mona Armstrong, which means jetting about, carrying suitcases full of designer clothes, falling in love, and finding whether this is what she really wants. “On par with Lauren ­Weisberger’s The Devil Wears Prada and Sophie Kinsella’s ‘Shopaholic’ series.” (LJ 8/18)

Rorke, Robert. Car Trouble. Harper Perennial. Sept. 2018. 416p. ISBN 9780062848499. pap. $15.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062848505. FAMILY LIFE
In late 1960s Brooklyn, Nicky Flynn attends an all-boys Catholic high school, struggles to shield his mother and younger sisters from his explosive father, yet enjoys learning to drive in the various beat-up cars his father retrieves from the NYPD auction block. “[A] captivating debut by New York Post editor Rorke.” (LJ 8/18)

Silver, Josie. One Day in December. Crown. Oct. 2018. 400p. ISBN 9780525574682. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9780525574705. WOMEN'S
The air shimmers when Jack and Laurie first see each other, but she’s on a bus and he’s not, and the next time they meet he’s her best friend’s boyfriend. Will they eventually connect? A LibraryReads pick, “this sweetly romantic novel…[works via] laughter-through-tears experiences and toward a happily-ever-after worth fighting for.” (LJ 9/15/18)

Wang, Kathy. Family Trust. Morrow. Oct. 2018. 400p. ISBN 9780062855251. $26.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062855275. FAMILY LIFE
In this juicy read, family members anticipate what the death of reputed Silicon Valley multimillionaire Stanley Huang might mean for them. A Discover Great New Writers pick; “readers who enjoy complicated novels about family issues will find this engrossing work impossible to put down.” (LJ 9/15/18)

 


Historicals

Ganeshram, Ramin. The General’s Cook. Arcade: Skyhorse. Nov. 2018. 400p. ISBN 9781628729771. $24.99; ebk. ISBN 9781628729818. HISTORICAL
The author herself was angered by illustrations in the children’s book she published while researching this novel about George Washington’s enslaved chef Hercules, but thankfully she got this second chance. “Recommended for anyone, from high school up, looking for an understanding of American culture in our early republic and the juxtaposition of talent with slavery.” (Editors’ Fall Picks, LJ 8/18, p. 28; LJ 9/15/18)

Gowar, Imogen Hermes. The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock. Harper. Sept. 2018. 496p. ISBN 9780062859952. $28.99;
ebk. ISBN 9780062859976. HISTORICAL
In this 1780s London–set story, a merchant gains fame after acquiring a vicious-looking little mermaid (alas, dead) and meets a glamorous courtesan. A Discover Great New Writers pick; “brilliantly written and redolent with evocative historical detail…as much a portrait of Georgian London as it is of the characters inhabiting it.” (LJ 8/18)

Montgomery, Jess. The Widows. Minotaur: St. Martin’s. Jan. 2019. 336p. ISBN 9781250184528. $26.99; ebk. ISBN 9781250184535. HISTORICAL
After Sheriff Daniel Ross is killed, coal miner’s widow Marvena Whitcomb shows up with her own troubles at his widow’s door. Richly observed writing with a touch of mystery; “a simultaneous examination of women’s rights, coal mining, Prohibition, and Appalachian life make this is a fantastic choice for historical fiction fans.” (LJ 10/1/18)

Morris, Heather. The Tattooist of Auschwitz. Harper. Sept. 2018. 272p. ISBN 9780062870674. $26.99; pap. ISBN 9780062797155. $16.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062797162. historical
Morris here reimagines the experiences of Holocaust survivor Ludwig (Lale) Sokolov, a Slovakian Jew forced to tattoo his fellow prisoners at Auschwitz-Birkenau and intent on helping a young woman named Gita survive the camps. A Discover Great New Writers pick; “[an] unforgettable Holocaust story.” (LJ 8/18)

Pike, Signe. The Lost Queen. Touchstone. Sept. 2018. 544p. ISBN 9781501191411. $27.99; ebk. ISBN 9781501191435. HISTORICAL
It’s the Old Way vs. Christianity, Celtic Britons vs. Anglo Saxons in this first in a mists-of-time debut trilogy featuring Languoreth, a little-known queen of sixth-century Scotland, whose twin brother inspired the legend of Merlin. Deeply researched as well as entertaining; a Discover Great New Writers pick.

Veletzos, Roxanne. The Girl They Left Behind. Atria. Nov. 2018. 368p. ISBN 9781501187681. $26.99; ebk. ISBN 9781501187704. historical
A little Jewish girl abandoned by her desperate parents in 1941 Bucharest is adopted by a loving family, then raised under the oppressive Soviet Union, and longs for escape. The Romanian-born author’s “powerful, heartbreaking story and fluid writing style will transport readers.” (LJ 10/1/18)

 


 

BOOKS TO ANTICIPATE

Adkins, Mary. When You Read This. Harper. Feb. 2019. 384p. ISBN 9780062834676. $26.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062834706. WOMEN’S
The epistolary novel has successfully morphed into the email/text/blog novel, and in this burgeoning field Adkins’s work stands out for its sheer brio and energy. Assistant to PR bigwig Smith Simonyi, Iris Massey is felled by cancer at age 33, and an officious new intern discovers that in her final months Iris created a snarky, meditative blog about dying (“Things you don’t think about dying, until it’s happening: I will break my lease”) and wants Smith to publish the manuscript.

Czapnik, Dana. The Falconer. Atria. Jan. 2019. 288p. ISBN 9781501193224. $25. LITERARY
Told she’s the real thing, brash, streetwise 17-year-old Lucy observes, “There’s only one place in the whole universe where a pizza bagel—a Jewish and Italian mutt-girl—might get that exact compliment from a middle-aged black guy.” It’s on a New York public basketball court, where she is often the only girl playing. Even as she crushes on wealthy best friend and pickup teammate Percy, Lucy has to consider what she wants in life. Both tough and tender, and Lucy has a fantastic voice.

Johnson, Daisy. Everything Under. Graywolf. Jan. 2019. 272p. ISBN 9781555978266. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9781555978754. LITERARY
Gretel was raised on a houseboat on the Oxford, England, canals by a mother who abandoned her when she reached her teens, and finally Gretel has found her. Never mind that the Oedipus myth frames the story, readers will first notice the fresh, lyrical voice and the way ­Gretel’s narration deftly reveals the impact of her unorthodox upbringing and her efforts at reunion. Always, there’s the water, says Gretel, imagining her mother: “The river was connected to your left shoulder and widened out behind you.”

Kochai, Jamil Jan. 99 Nights in Logar. Viking. Jan. 2019. 288p. ISBN 9780525559191. $25; ebk. ISBN 9780525559207. LITERARY
When 12-year-old Marwand returns to Afghanistan after six years in America, he realizes that as a little boy he was cruel to Budabash, the dog who guards the family compound, and declares, “All I could think about was how I was going to get the dog to forgive me.” Instead, Budabash bites off his fingertip and escapes, and the 99-day hunt for this beloved family member (though now seen by Marwand as “a mutant or a demon”) illuminates a society shaped by sometimes harsh conditions.

Lalli, Sonya. The Matchmaker’s List. Berkley. Jan. 2019. 352p. ISBN 9780451490940. pap. $15; ebk. ISBN 9780451490957. ROMANCE
Educated, inclined to jeans and T-shirts, and owner of her own condo, Raina Anand is a contemporary Indian Canadian woman, but she’s also 29, and her beloved grandmother is panicking about her future. So out comes a list of eligible bachelors, and as Raina keeps quiet about an old flame back in town, she submits to a series of wildly off-target blind dates (“The only thing I was after was for him to leave.”). See the Q&A with Lalli in the romance preview, LJ 10/15/18.

Maren, Mesha. Sugar Run. Algonquin. Jan. 2019. 320p. ISBN 9781616206215. $26.95; ebk. ISBN 9781616208882. LITERARY
When Jodi leaves prison at age 35 after serving 18 years for manslaughter, she heads to Georgia to keep a promise. Along the way, she meets pill-popping, alcohol-swilling Miranda, wife of has-been musician Lee, and they get emotionally involved. Before Miranda there was sharp-edged Paula, and the heartbreaking, interlocked stories of Jodi and Paula and Miranda and Lee and Paula’s simple, badly used brother unfold in grittily gorgeous language. It’s about violence and passion and squashed hope—as Jodi says, “she’d laid the old pattern over her new life like the fragile tissue-paper outlines Effie had used to cut dresses”—and readers feel every word.

Medearis, Wil. Restoration Heights. Hanover Square: Harlequin. Jan. 2019. 336p. ISBN 9781335218728. $26.99; ebk. ISBN 9781488098659. LITERARY THRILLER
An aspiring young artist who supports himself by packing, moving, and hanging artwork for the wealthy learns about a missing woman he may have seen at his apartment building before she was mysteriously pulled through a side door. ­Medearis built this intriguing blend of suspense and social commentary on an event in his life; as he explained at LJ’s Day of Dialog, “I can trace the dis­appearance of a young woman through the neighborhood and bring in those feelings about gentrification and racial tensions and use the mystery to pull the reader into that world.”

Tshuma, Novuyo Rosa. House of Stone. Norton. Jan. 2019. 400p. ISBN 9780393635423. $26.95; ebk. ISBN 9780393635430. LITERARY
In Robert Mugabe’s tumultuous ­Zimbabwe, Zamani is so desperate to claim the couple he lodges with as his parents, having never known his own, that he conceals the whereabouts of their missing son and plies recovering alcoholic Abednego with whiskey to get him to tell stories of the past. (“To hear him call me ‘son’…was the sweet fruit of long labour.”) The result is both a revealing chronicle of revolutionary and post­colonial Zimbabwe and a finely engraved portrait of obsession, told in fluid, absorbing language.

Tyce, Harriet. Blood Orange. Grand Central. Feb. 2019. 352p. ISBN 9781538762738. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781538713754. THRILLER
Defense in her first murder case, with the accused a mild-mannered housewife proclaiming, “I did it. I killed him. I should be locked up,” married lawyer Alison has other troubles: she can’t break free from her affair with the senior legal partner who got her the case. Tyce persuades us to root for a not entirely sympathetic protagonist (“I can’t even keep to one drink, I can’t make it home to my family as I ought to”) and ends with a wallop.

Vijay, Madhuri. The Far Field. Grove. Jan. 2019. 448p. ISBN 9780802128409. $27. LITERARY
Sensing that the recent death of her famously difficult mother is linked to the decade-long absence of a charming Kashmiri salesman who once visited frequently, Shalini leaves Bangalore for a Himalayan village in Kashmir, where village tensions and the region’s political turmoil force her to make momentous choices. Full of beautifully rendered detail and portraiture, it’s a journey that allows Shalini to find herself while also disclosing contemporary India: “this country, already ancient when I was born in 1982, has changed every instant I’ve been alive.”

White, Christian. The Nowhere Child. Minotaur: St. Martin’s. Jan. 2019. 320p. ISBN 9781250293718. $26.99; ebk. ISBN 9781250293701. THRILLER
“I don’t think you kidnapped Sammy Went. I think you are Sammy Went,” says the American accountant to Melbourne art teacher Kimberly Leamy after telling her the story of a two-year-old abducted years ago from her family in Manson, KY. Kimberly thinks it’s preposterous, but a little investigating sends her across the ocean to untangle her surprising history. The smartly conceived story cuts back and forth in time to reveal tautly troubled relationships in the past and Kim’s present struggle to adjust to a whole new identity.

Wilkinson, Lauren. American Spy. Random. Feb. 2019. 288p. ISBN 9780812998955. $27; ebk. ISBN 9780812998962. LITERARY THRILLER
In Cold War–blasted 1986, African American intelligence office Marie Mitchell battles the FBI’s white, male establishment, then her own misgivings when asked to join a task force aimed at toppling real-life Thomas Sankara, the shining-star president of Burkina Faso she quietly admires. Wilkinson offers a propulsive, nuanced exploration of why Mitchell wants to succeed in this organization—“ ‘You mean, as a black woman?’ I said, wanting to be clear about how precisely he was dictating what my experience should be”—while exploring her relationship with her family and particularly the sister whose life and death shaped her.

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Barbara Hoffert

Barbara Hoffert (bhoffert@mediasourceinc.com, @BarbaraHoffert on Twitter) is Editor, LJ Book Review; past chair of the Materials Selection Committee of the RUSA (Reference and User Services Assn.) division of the American Library Association; and past president of the National Book Critics Circle, to which she has just been reelected.

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