First “Writes” of Spring | Spring 2016 First Novels

This season's first novels range over a multitude of time periods, global settings, and genres, and come from authors with a variety of backgrounds. Hear what the critics have to say!


Our roundup of seasonal first novels, covering January through June releases, encompasses an interesting mix of subject areas, time frames, and author backgrounds. A former soldier relays the life of a returning veteran, a young man pretends to be a Russian scholar, while a group of Soviets work to foil a pogrom. Historically set tales draw upon the 1920s and 1930s, and one writer gets metaphysical with a tale of the wife of Harry Houdini. With lots of hype and glowing reviews, these debuts auger a bright future for the printed word. Read what the critics have to say!

Big Hits from Small Presses


Belcher, W.B. Lay Down Your Weary Tune. Other. Jan. 2016. 352p. ISBN 9781590517468. pap. $17.95; ebk. ISBN 9781590517475.

This appealing debut involving the memoirs of a legendary folk singer is an “examination of art, fame, and authenticity,” said the Boston Globe. “Mingling elements from both literature and the blues, Belcher has crafted a memorable tale about how the masks and myths we create can become prisons that ultimately disconnect us from ourselves.” (LJ 12/15)

Cox, Michelle. A Girl Like You: A Henrietta and Inspector Howard Novel. She Writes. Apr. 2016. 288p. ISBN 9781631520167. pap. $16.95; ebk. ISBN 9781631520174.

Burlesque and murder play out in this 1935 Chicago–set mystery series opener. “Fans of spunky, historical heroines will love Henrietta Von Harmon” (Booklist starred review). In LJ’s starred review, “Flavored with 1930s slang and fashion, this first volume in what one hopes will be a long series is absorbing. Henrietta and Clive are a sexy, endearing, and downright fun pair of sleuths. Readers will not see the final twist coming.” (LJ 3/1/16)

Geni, Abbi. The Lightkeepers. Counterpoint. Jan. 2016. 340p. ISBN 9781619026001. $25; ebk. ISBN 9781619027497.

This tale of a nature photographer who hopes to spend a year in the Farallon Islands, an exotic and dangerous archipelago off the coast of California, has reaped a bumper crop of praise. “Ultimately, what engages us…beyond its energetic plot, is the sense of watching its author discover her ability to construct a suspenseful narrative,” said Francine Prose in the New York Times. It’s been a Discover Great New Writers Spring Pick and a Glimmer Train Fiction Open winner and received a People Magazine Great New Fiction nod.

Greenidge, Kaitlyn. We Love You, Charlie Freeman. Algonquin. Mar. 2016. 336p. ISBN 9781616204679. $25.95; ebk. ISBN 9781616206079.

“Greenidge’s wondrous first novel pits the sins of the past against the desire for the future in a multifaceted narrative that challenges concepts of culture and communication,” said the Booklist starred review. “The end result is a sobering look at how we communicate with one another and what inevitably gets lost in translation,” per PW. “This fantastic debut novel tackles…race and culture, language and communication…frankly and with grace,” said

Haddad, Saleem. Guapa. Other. Mar. 2016. 368p. ISBN 9781590517697. pap. $16.95; ebk. ISBN 9781590517703.

With positive comments from Booklist and Kirkus, this work from London-based Haddad was called “a remarkable debut” by the Huffington Post. Haddad “opens a window onto a man coming to terms with his sexuality in a repressive society during the recent upheavals in the Arab world. Warmly recommended to all readers who are interested in issues of diversity and the Middle East.” (LJ 3/1/16)

Hamer, Kate. The Girl in the Red Coat. Melville House. Feb. 2016. 336p. ISBN 9781612195001. $25.95; ebk. ISBN 9781612195018.

A February LibraryReads Pick that was also a Dagger Award finalist and finalist for the Costa Book Award for First Novel. “Reading this novel is a test of how fast you can turn pages. Hamer, a Rhys Davies Short Story Prize winner…writes with such a sense of drama, compulsion, and sympathy that most readers will devour this work in one or two sittings,” said the LJ starred review. (LJ 2/1/16)

Jones, Andy. The Two of Us. Washington Square: S. & S. Feb. 2016. 324p. ISBN 9781501109515. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9781501109522.

London-based Jones writes in his debut about young Londoners facing parenthood without marriage. Positive spin from the Daily Mail and a solid review from Booklist. LJ’s starred review sums it up: “Jones’s debut novel is a mesmerizing tale of modern love…. Captivating and funny.” (LJ 1/16)

Sanghera, Sathnam. Marriage Material. Europa Editions. Feb. 2016. 336p. ISBN 9781609453077. pap. $18; ebk. ISBN 9781609453176.

After a memoir, The Boy with the Topknot, this award-winning writer for the Times of London has gotten a boatload of praise, including reviews from Booklist (starred), BBC radio, Marie Claire, and the Financial Times. It “offer[s] an acute look at Indian culture in Britain [and] also serves as a cultural commentary on the lives and expectations of families of all backgrounds.” (LJ 2/1/16)

Seay, Martin. The Mirror Thief. Melville House. May 2016. 592p. ISBN 9781612195148. $27.95; ebk. ISBN 9781612195155.

This multilayered debut featuring Venice, Italy; Venice Beach, CA; and the Venice Casino in Las Vegas was called by PW “a big, beautiful cabinet of wonders that is by turns an ominous modern thriller, a supernatural mystery, and an enchanting historical adventure story.”

Literary Look-sees


Baume, Sara. Spill Simmer Falter Wither. Houghton Harcourt. Mar. 2016. 288p. ISBN 9780544716193. $23; ebk. ISBN 9780544716223.

This haunting debut novel by an award-winning Irish short story writer “will appeal to readers who don’t mind a little darkness in their dog stories. The detailed and almost poetic descriptions of the natural world…add an element of enchantment,” read the LJ starred review. A B&N Discover Great New Writers selection, in Britain it won the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature for 2015 and the Sunday Independent Newcomer of the Year Award and was short-listed for the Costa First Novel Award. (LJ 1/16)

Daviau, Mo. Every Anxious Wave. St. Martin’s. Feb. 2016. 288p. ISBN 9781250067494. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9781466875869.

Hopwood Award–­winning author Daviau interweaves time travel, music, and love to good effect in her “mind-bending” debut. According to NPR, she delivers “a bittersweet, century-hopping odyssey of love, laced with weird science, music geekery, and heart-wrenching laughs…a wise, witty, whipcrack sci-fi romp about how our passions can both lift us up and hold us back.” LJ’s reviewer said, “Daviau writes with humor and compassion, creating absorbing, sympathetic characters and enveloping serious questions about love and life-changing events.” (LJ 2/1/16)

Erades, Guillermo. Back to Moscow. Farrar. May 2016. 384p. ISBN 9780865478374. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780374714307.

In 1999, young Martin enrolls at an elite Moscow school as a student of ­Russian language and literature and falls in with a gang of carousing expats. “An appealingly chaotic—if familiar—look at the inner life of a young ‘intellectual,’ ” read the Kirkus review. “With hints of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, notes of Gary Shteyngart, and a shadow of Masha Gessen, Erades’s first novel is part frothy concoction and part deadly hemlock…. [T]he story begs to be read in one sitting.” (LJ 3/1/16)

Gallagher, Matt. Youngblood. Atria. Feb. 2016. 336p. ISBN 9781501105746. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781501105760.

Former U.S. Army captain Gallagher’s (­Kaboom) debut novel “provides a visceral sense of what young American soldiers experienced during their Iraq deployments—the camaraderie, the fear, the exhaustion and boredom, and the sheer discomfort…. An urgent and deeply moving novel,” wrote Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times. The starred Booklist review referred to its “suspenseful story line [that] adds up to one of the best modern war novels since Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam classic, The Things They Carried.” And the Huffington Post dubbed it a “gritty, tragic, realistic look inside the failures of America’s invasion and occupation of Iraq told by someone who lived it.”

Gappah, Petina. The Book of Memory. Farrar. Feb. 2016. 288p. ISBN 9780865479074. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780374714888.

Gappah returns to her native Zimbabwe after her successful story collection An Elegy for Easterly, featuring albino Memory as her narrator. “A fiercely vivid novel…[a] beautiful, gliding dance of language,” said the Los Angeles Times. “[A]n exploration into the unpredictable grip of memory and perception,” said Booklist. LJ’s reviewer said Gappah “delivers her themes successfully, while stimulating all the senses with Memory’s vivid descriptions of food, music, heat, colors, and scents.” (LJ 1/16)

Goldberg, Paul. The Yid. Picador. Feb. 2016. 320p. ISBN 9781250079039. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781250079046.

Jane Ciabattari of refers to this title as one of the “10 Books to Read in 2016” and “a tragicomic tour de force.” “In this fantastical (and fantastic) debut novel by reporter and writer Goldberg,” set in early 1953 in Stalin’s Russia, a group of Soviets plot to prevent a final pogrom against Jews. “[A] rollicking romp of a novel,” said the Chicago Tribune; “Wily, rambunctiously entertaining [with] irresistible characters,” said Booklist’s starred review. LJ’s starred review “highly recommended” it “for readers with a grasp of history who enjoy imaginative deviations from what we think we know as historical truth.” (LJ 9/1/15)

Gyasi, Yaa. Homegoing. Knopf. Jun. 2016. 320p. ISBN 9781101947135. $26.95; ebk. ISBN 9781101947142.

This Discover Great New Writers pick introduces half-sisters from different villages in 18th-century Ghana, living very different lives. LJ’s Prepub Alert acknowledged the tremendous excitement about this ambitious debut from Ghana-raised, Alabama-born Gyasi, which was bid on by ten publishers. Phil Klay called it “a novel at once epic and intimate, capturing the moral weight of history,” while Ta-Nehisi Coates said it is no less than “an inspiration.”

Ile, Jowhor. And After Many Days. Tim Duggan: Crown. Feb. 2016. 256p. ISBN 9781101903148. $25; ebk. ISBN 9781101903155.

Paul, the eldest and favored son in the Utu family, is 17 when he disappears amid civil unrest in Nigeria in 1995, leading his family to question religion, grapple with doubt, and swell with guilt. This debut from Nigerian writer Ile is “equal parts family mystery, government critique, and meditation on love and loss.” (LJ 2/1/16)

Johnson, Julia Claiborne. Be Frank with Me. Morrow. Feb. 2016. 304p. ISBN 9780062413710. $25.99; pap. ISBN 9780062459060. $18.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062413734.

A reclusive one-mega-hit novelist now in her 50s and living in Bel Air, CA, with her nine-year-old-son, Frank, is clobbered by a Madoff-like investment scam. This February LibraryReads selection got a nod as an Indie Next pick, reviews from just about everyone, and a starred review from LJ: “Johnson’s magnificently poignant, funny, and wholly original debut goes beyond page-turner status. Readers will race to the next sentence. And the next.” (LJ 12/15)

Lowell, Catherine. The Madwoman Upstairs. Touchstone. Mar. 2016. 352p. ISBN 9781501124211. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9781501124228.

This March LibraryReads pick, featuring Samantha Whipple, the last of the Brontës, “is as enthralling as it is heartbreaking. Brontë aficionados and fans of Sloane ­Crosley’s The Clasp will love this title,” said the LJ starred review. (LJ 1/16)

Novey, Idra. Ways To Disappear. Little, Brown. Feb. 2016. 272p. ISBN 9780316298490. $25; ebk. ISBN 9780316298506.

Novey, whose Exit, Civilian was selected for the 2011 National Poetry Series, offers a first novel with a writer at the core. Celebrated Brazilian ­Beatriz Yagoda has vanished, having last been seen climbing into an almond tree with a suitcase. Noted as a “seductive mystery” by Jane Ciabattari,, and “seared to perfection,” by NPR’s Heller McAlpin, this Discover Great New Writers pick has “humor, poignancy, passion, and a bit of magic….,” per LJ’s starred review. “Novey’s tightly drawn, superbly funny tale offers not only glimpses into modern Brazilian life and culture but also insights into the creative process of authors and translators. A quick read, largely because it is hard to put down.” (LJ Xpress Reviews, 2/19/16)

Penkov, Miroslav. Stork Mountain. Farrar. Mar. 2016. 448p. ISBN 9780374222796. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780374712822.

“[A] searing, heartfelt novel” (PW starred review), this mashup of myth, folk tales, and a modern love story introduces a Bulgarian American college student recently arrived in the Strandja mountain village of Klisura, hoping to reconnect with his estranged grandfather. “Penkov’s story collection, East of the West, a finalist for the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing, concerns itself with borders, both physical and metaphorical, as does this debut novel. The author uses gentle humor…while writing a love song to his native land.” (LJ 1/16)

Sweeney, Cynthia D’Aprix. The Nest. Ecco: HarperCollins. Mar. 2016. 368p. ISBN 9780062414212. $26.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062414236.

This anticipated debut novel from Sweeney plumbs the concerns of the Plumb siblings and their upcoming inheritance. A March Library­Reads pick and a B&N Discover Great New Writers choice, with a cover blurb from Amy Poehler. “Sweeney spins a fast-moving, often-humorous narrative,” said the PW review. “Anyone with siblings will appreciate the character dynamics at play here.” (LJ 2/15/16)

Vestal, Shawn. Daredevils. Penguin Pr. Apr. 2016. 308p. ISBN 9781101979891. $26.95; ebk. ISBN 9781101979914.

Two Mormon teens channel their inner Evel Knievel when they try to break out of their rigidly structured lives in this “riveting, rollicking thrill ride” (PW). “Vestal’s seductive Daredevils is part American Dream and part American Gothic,” said ALA Carnegie Medalist Viet Thanh Nguyen (The Sympathizer). Award-winning short-story writer Vestal’s (Godforsaken Idaho) “narrative is punctuated with imagined monologs from Knievel [that] enrich the scope of this heartfelt and finely observed novel.” (LJ 3/15/16)

Yun, Jung. Shelter. Picador. Mar. 2016. 336p. ISBN 9781250075611. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781250075642.

An extended Korean Irish American family attempt to reclaim their fractured lives in this Discover Great New Writers Spring Pick. “Skilled [and] deeply disconcerting” (Booklist); a “fearless and thrilling debut” (Town & Country). “So wowed was Picador with Yun’s debut that hundreds of extra galleys were printed,” said LJ’s starred review. “[T]his work should find itself on best-of lists [and] among major award nominations.” (LJ 1/16)

Chills, Thrills, Murders, More


Baker, Mishell. Borderline. Saga: S. & S. (Arcadia Project, Bk. 1). Mar. 2016. 400p. ISBN 9781481453066. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9781481429795.

Millie Roper joins an elite group that watches over the fae that travel between their own reality and Hollywood. “[A] beautifully written story that is one part mystery, one part fantasy, and wholly engrossing” (PW starred review). In LJ’s starred sf/fantasy Debut of the Month, “Baker…takes gritty urban fantasy in a new direction with flawed characters, painful life lessons, and not a small amount of humor.” (LJ 2/15/16)

Barton, Fiona. The Widow. NAL. Mar. 2016. 336p. ISBN 9781101990261. $25.95; ebk. ISBN 9781101990469.

Four years before the death of Jean’s husband, Glen was accused of kidnapping Bella, the young daughter of a single mother. This international best-selling thriller “will keep you in suspense late into the night” (Good Housekeeping); “A twisted psychological thriller you’ll have trouble putting down” (People); “Both a taut reconstruction of a crime and a ruthless examination of marriage” (Entertainment Weekly). “Barton’s first novel is one of suspense and intrigue that keeps the pages turning.” (LJ 2/1/16)

Beverly, Bill. Dodgers. Crown. Apr. 2016. 304p. ISBN 9781101903735. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781101903742.

This thriller, based on research on criminal fugitives that led to the book On the Lam: Narratives of Flight in J. Edgar Hoover’s America, is a coming-of-age tale involving L.A. gang members and crises of conscience. A Discover Great New Writers Spring Pick: “a noir novel that reminded us of Richard Price and George Pelecanos.”

Bonesteel, Elizabeth. The Cold Between. Harper Voyager. (Central Corps, Bk. 1). Mar. 2016. 528p. ISBN 9780062413659. pap. $16.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062413666.

Elena and Treiko have a great night together, but as Elena prepares to return to her ship, she learns that her ex-lover has been killed and Treiko arrested. “Bonesteel’s space opera debut…expertly revitalizes familiar plot elements,” said PW. According to LJ’s starred review, “Fans of sf romance will cheer to have a new author entering the genre.” (LJ 2/15/16)

Hurley, Andrew Michael. The Loney. Houghton Harcourt. May 2016. 304p. ISBN 9780544746527. $25; ebk. ISBN 9780544746817.

When a landslide during a winter storm reveals the body of an infant, the desolate Lancashire coastline known as the Loney is in the news, as is our narrator. Winner of the Costa First Novel Award, noted as a Sunday Times (UK) Exceptional Novel of 2015 and a Best Book of 2015 by the London Times and the Daily Mail, and cited as a “modern classic” by Britain’s Sunday Telegraph. “First-time novelist Hurley weaves an intricate story of dark mystery and unwavering brotherly love that lends itself to many rereads…. This eerily atmospheric and engrossing novel will captivate readers who like their fiction with a touch of the gothic.”
(LJ 2/1/16)

MacDonald, Siobhán. Twisted River. Penguin. Mar. 2016. 268p. ISBN 9780143108436. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9781101991947.

“A skillfully wrought thriller that exposes the dangers of secrecy” (Booklist); author Chris Pavone called it “a superb thriller—gripping, surprising, and terrifically rewarding.” According to LJ’s starred review, “This thrilling tale about secrets that lie beneath a seemingly tranquil marriage will be a strong choice for readers who enjoyed Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train.” (LJ 2/1/16)

Redondo, Dolores. The Invisible Guardian. Atria. Mar. 2016. 384p. tr. from Spanish by Isabelle Kaufeler. ISBN 9781501102134. $24.99; ebk. ISBN 9781501102158.

“The Basque backdrop gives this thriller an especially intriguing layer of depth; the superstitions and mythologies passed down from the days of the Spanish Inquisition penetrate the mystery to such an extent that the reader is easily transported,” said LJ’s starred review of this No. 1 international best seller. It’s been short-listed for the CWA International Dagger 2015, named Best Spanish Crime Novel of the Year 2013 by major Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia, and one of the Top 10 Crime Novels of the Summer by Le Figaro Magazine, France. (LJ 3/1/16)

Sanders, J. Aaron. Speakers of the Dead: A Walt Whitman Mystery. Plume: NAL. Mar. 2016. 320p. ISBN 9780143128717. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9780143128748.

It’s 1843 in New York City, and Walt Whitman is knee-deep in intrigue. “This elegant literary mystery from Sanders (English, Columbus State Univ.) makes a fine debut, bringing to vivid life one of America’s greatest poets and presenting a fresh perspective on a less-familiar period of U.S. history,” said LJ’s starred review. “[A] gripping first novel” (PW), “boldly plotted and compulsively readable” (author Matthew Pearl). (LJ 2/1/16)

Vatsal, Radha. A Front Page Affair. Sourcebooks Landmark. (Kitty Weeks, Bk. 1). May 2016. 336p. ISBN 9781492632665. pap. $14.99; ebk. ISBN 9781492632672.

LJ’s March Mystery Debut of the Month got a starred review. It deals with Capability “Kitty” Weeks, “a well-traveled, Swiss-­educated young woman, living with her father and housekeeper in 1915 New York.” Mumbai, India–born and New York–based Vastal’s “lively and well-researched debut introduces a charming historical series and an appealing fish-out-of-water sleuth who seeks independence and a career in an age when most women are bent on getting married…. Devotees of Rhys Bowen’s mysteries will enjoy making the acquaintance of Miss Weeks.(LJ 3/1/16)

Pop Fiction & Charm


Adelman, Michelle. Piece of Mind. Norton. Feb. 2016. 304p. ISBN 9780393245707. $25.95; ebk. ISBN 9780393245714.

This tale of living with traumatic brain injury was awarded starred reviews in LJ and PW (“A moving story of grief, resilience, and self-actualization”) and featured in People (“With simplicity and humor, her story testifies to the fierce, universal human need for expression”). “Lucy’s narrative is sensitive, witty, and illuminating…. Her journey and the evolution of her relationships offer a rare glance at the unknowable.” (LJ 11/15/15)

Brock, Amber. A Fine Imitation. Crown. May 2016. 304p. ISBN 9781101905111. $25; ebk. ISBN 9781101905128.

It’s the 1920s, and events are roaring. “Brock gives us a portrait of a woman and her times that shines with authenticity and charm…here we are, ladies, each and every one of us,” said author Anne Rivers Siddons. According to LJ’s starred review, “There’s never a dull moment in this debut novel…. Vera’s struggles are highly relatable, and the anguish she feels will resonate with countless readers.” (LJ 2/15/16)

Danler, Stephanie. Sweetbitter. Knopf. May 2016. 368p. ISBN 9781101875940. $25; ebk. ISBN 9781101875957.

Tess finds herself in New York and ensconced in the world of a fashionable restaurant. “A quintessential coming-of-age story” (starred PW review). “Incandescent, with visceral and gorgeous descriptions of flavors, pitch-perfect overheard dialogue, deep knowledge of food, wine, and the restaurant business” (starred Kirkus review). “A book that’ll stay glued to your hands as you race through the pages in one sitting” (Elle).

Donovan, Kemper. The Decent Proposal. Harper. Apr. 2016. 320p. ISBN 9780062391629. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062391605.

Richard and Elizabeth have never met, yet a mysterious benefactor offers them each $500,000 to spend two hours a week together for a year. “Peopled by appealing characters and filled with lush descriptions of the diverse L.A.,” read the Booklist starred review. “Donovan takes what might have been a derivative tale and colors it with poignancy and self-discovery.” (LJ 2/1/16)

Kelly, Victoria. Mrs. Houdini. Atria. Mar. 2016. 320p. ISBN 9781501110900. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781501110924.

“Poet Kelly’s splendid debut novel…explores the human longing ‘to know what is beyond’ (to quote Harry) as well as the bittersweet gifts of love,” said the starred PW review. An Editor’s Pick from the Historical Novel Society: “[A] dazzling blend of adventure, love, betrayal, and redemption.” LJ’s reviewer said, “The author has a deft hand in setting a scene.” (LJ Xpress Review, 2/12/16)

Patrick, Phaedra. The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper. Mira: Harlequin. May 2016. 304p. ISBN 9780778319337. $26.99; ebk. ISBN 9781459293908.

Sixty-nine-year-old Arthur Pepper never should have looked inside the boot he found inside his wife’s closet after her death. A gold charm bracelet wasn’t Miriam’s style, yet it was important enough to keep hidden. “Tender, insightful, and surprising, this wonderful debut novel is a stunning addition to the popular genre of transformative stories of otherwise uneventful lives,” read LJ’s starred review. “A lovely story about grief and healing,” said author Marisa de los Santos. (LJ 2/1/16)

Barbara Hoffert is Prepub Alert Editor, LJ

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