Winter/Spring Bests | Debut Novels 2020

Away from beach-ready summer and holiday-focused fall, debut novels tend to flourish in the early months of the year, and this year is no exception.

Away from beach-ready summer and holiday-focused fall, debut novels tend to flourish in the early months of the year, and this year is no exception. Altogether 34 titles already reviewed by LJ (“Books To Get”) appear here, publishing primarily from February through April, though a scattering of May and June titles are also included. And why not consider the best of what’s coming? “Books To Anticipate” feature 15 of the most promising up-and-comers, through August.

 


Books To Get

LITERARY 

Beams, Clare. The Illness Lesson. Doubleday. Feb. 2020. 288p. ISBN 9780385544665. pap. $26.95. LITERARY
Bard Prize winner Beams offers a moody yet incisive study of male authority, with students at a girls’ school in 1870s Massachusetts suffering unfortunate ailments—and worse treatment. (LJ 12/19)

Bieker, Chelsea. Godshot. Catapult. Apr. 2020. 336p. ISBN 9781948226486. $26. LITERARY
In this pointedly lyrical narrative, as people flock desperately to a cult pastor promising to restore their drought-strangled community, 14-year-old Lacey’s mother is shunned as ungodly and runs off with a stranger, leaving Lacey to contend with loneliness and the rules of men. (Online Reviews, 2/21/20)

Card, Maisy. These Ghosts Are Family. S. & S. Mar. 2020. 288p.
ISBN 9781982117436. $26. LITERARY
Issues of racism, immigration, and family relationships blend gracefully in this story of a Jamaican man finally facing those he abandoned after faking his death to steal the identity of his best friend. (LJ 2/20)

Lansky, Sam. Broken People. Hanover Square: Harlequin. Jun. 2020. 304p. ISBN 9781335013934. $27.99. LITERARY
In Lansky’s visceral, bracing narrative, a gay man recovering from drug addiction finds an unorthodox way to let go of the past, as the author speaks to and for all the broken people in this world. (LJ 3/20)

Leichter, Hilary. Temporary. Coffee House. Mar. 2020. 208p. ISBN 9781566895668. pap. $16.95. LITERARY
Serious in intent if brashly funny in tone, this tale of an unnamed young woman who temps as a pirate ship’s deckhand, an assassin’s assistant, and a fill-in board chair takes aim at capitalist society. (LJ 3/10)

Nemens, Emily. The Cactus League. Farrar. Feb. 2020. 288p. ISBN 9780374117948. $27. LITERARY
Narrated by a veteran sports writer, this engaging story of spring baseball training in Scottsdale, AZ, expands to embrace the unpredictability of life. (LJ 2/20)

Nguyen, Kevin. New Waves. One World. Mar. 2020. 320p. ISBN 9781984855237. $27. LITERARY
In this sharp-tongued takedown of corporate and techie obsessiveness, Asian guy Lucas learns that he barely knew black friend and colleague Margo when he hacks into her computer after her untimely death. (LJ 2/20)

Rainsford, Sue. Follow Me to Ground. Scribner. Jan. 2020. 208p. ISBN 9781982133634. $25. LITERARY
Both beautiful and scary, this work features an outlier father and daughter who can cure sick or wounded neighbors by burying them in the Ground. Then the daughter’s attraction to one of the locals wreaks havoc. (LJ 1/20)

Washburn, Kawai Strong. Sharks in the Time of Saviors. MCD: Farrar. Mar. 2020. 384p. ISBN 9780374272081. $27. LITERARY
In an affecting story delivered from multiple perspectives, the parents of a Hawaiian child rescued by sharks begin to see all their children as preternaturally gifted, with burdensome consequences. (Online Reviews, 1/10/20)

Wright, Steven. The Coyotes of Carthage. Ecco: HarperCollins. Apr. 2020. 320p. ISBN 9780062951663. $26.99. LITERARY
In a knowing and ultimately chilling political novel, an African American political operative is dispatched to backwoods South Carolina, where he must underhandedly persuade the naïve white locals to place an initiative on the ballot damaging to the environment. (LJ 2/20)

Zapata, Michael. The Lost Book of Adana Moreau. Hanover Square: Harlequin. Feb. 2020. 272p. ISBN 9781335010124. $26.99. LITERARY
Sf fan Saul Drower’s efforts to return what appears to be the sequel to Dominican immigrant Adana Moreau’s cult-hit sf novel Lost City, written decades earlier, lead to a complex, riveting whirlpool of a plot. ( LJ 2/20)

Zhang, C Pam. How Much of These Hills Is Gold. Riverhead. Apr. 2020. 288p. ISBN 9780525537205. $26. LITERARY
Orphaned with the death of Ba, their father, Lucy and Sam must leave the hostile mining town where they live and traverse a reimagined American West imbued with Chinese symbolism in a narrative that’s fresh, frank, and twisty. (LJ 2/20)

THE WIDE WORLD

Araghi, Ali. The Immortals of Tehran. Melville House. Apr. 2020. 400p. ISBN 9781612198187. $27.99. LITERARY
In this literary lover’s page-turner, a mute poet whose verses can break chains and set paper on fire survives the chaos of Tehran in the decades following World War II. (LJ 2/20)

Jedrowski, Tomasz. Swimming in the Dark. Morrow. Apr. 2020. 208p. ISBN 9780062890009. $25.99. LITERARY
This lyrically wrought story is set in 1980s Poland, where Ludwik and Janusz cannot pursue their love owing to the repressive attitudes of both communism and Catholicism, and soon they are painfully divided by politics as well. (LJ 3/20)

Kemp, Marina. Marguerite. Viking. Mar. 2020. 368p. ISBN 9781984877833. $26. LITERARY
Nurse Marguerite Demers leaves Paris for the insular village of Saint Sulpice, where she tends a cantankerous old man and befriends a charming farmer and a strong-willed Iranian woman, with secrets unfolded by Kemp’s sure, gentle hand. (Online Reviews, 2/21/20)

Salzmann, Sasha Marianna. Beside Myself. Other Pr. Feb. 2020. 336p. tr. from German by Imogen Taylor. ISBN 9781892746443. pap. $15.95. LITERARY
Short-listed for the 2017 German Book Prize, this imaginative, multithreaded work by playwright Salzmann reimagines Twelfth Night within a contemporary LGBTQ context, sending Ali after twin Anton in sociopolitically unsettled Istanbul. (LJ 1/20)

POP FICTION

Dillon, Alena. Mercy House. Morrow. Feb. 2020. 384p. ISBN 9780062914804. pap. $16.99. WOMEN’S
Head of Mercy House, a Church-run shelter for desperate women in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, the durable Sister Evelyn is about to lock horns with the bishop, which makes for heartfelt, absorbing reading. ( LJ 1/20)

Hadlow, Janice. The Other Bennet Sister. Holt. Mar. 2020. 448p.
ISBN 9781250129413. $28. HISTORICAL
That other Bennet sister? It’s mousy Mary, who here emerges freshly reconceived as a shy young woman with a mind and finally a life of her own. (LJ 3/20)

Montimore, Margarita. Oona Out of Order. Flatiron: Macmillan. Feb. 2020. 352p. ISBN 9781250236609. $26.99. WOMEN’S
After fainting on New Year’s Eve 1982, 19-year-old Oona Lockhart wakes up decades later as her 51-year-old self, then hopscotches through time in exhilarating fashion. (LJ 2/20)

Pooley, Clare. The Authenticity Project. Pamela Dorman: Viking. Feb. 2020. 368p. ISBN 9781984878618. $26. WOMEN’S
A notebook labeled "The Authenticity Project," left behind in a café by an elderly, eccentric artist, leads a group of Londoners on a quest to tell the truth in a story that’s both delightful and philosophical. ( LJ 1/20)

Waters. Martha. To Have and To Hoax. Atria. Apr. 2020. 352p. ISBN 9781982136116. pap. $17. HISTORICAL ROMANCE
In Regency England, at-odds spouses Lady Violet Grey and Lord James Audley get caught up in an escalating game of deception aiming to reconciliation in a story that will delight readers of both romance and historicals. (LJ 1/20)

West, Catherine Adel. Saving Ruby King. Park Row: Harlequin. Jun. 2020. 352p. ISBN 9780778305095. $27.99. AFRICAN AMERICAN/URBAN
In this heartbreaker, set on Chicago’s South Side, Ruby mourns her murdered mother and fears her violent father, prompting friend Layla to defy her pastor father to intervene. (LJ 3/20)

CHILLERS

Chung, Maxine Mei-Fung. The Eighth Girl. Morrow. Mar. 2020. 480p. ISBN 9780062931122. $28.99. SUSPENSE
Alexa, who suffers from dissociative identity disorder, is dogged by her several personalities as she tracks down a friend lost to London’s underworld in a twisty-turny tale of psychological suspense. (LJ 3/20)

McInnis, S.L. Framed. Grand Central. Feb. 2020. 336p. ISBN 9781538732090. $28. THRILLER
It’s bad news (but gripping reading) when reserved Beth Montgomery opens her door to former college roommate Cassie, who’s running from the scene of a multiple murder with a bag of cash. (LJ 2/20)

Mullen, Caitlin. Please See Us. Gallery: S. & S. Mar. 2020. 352p.
ISBN 9781982127480. $26.99. THRILLER
When teenage boardwalk psychic Clara is startled by visions of young women who have vanished in Atlantic City, she joins forces with aspiring art dealer Lily to investigate, with results that are nails-on-chalkboard unsettling. (LJ 1/20)

Schneider, Joseph. One Day You’ll Burn. Poisoned Pen: Sourcebooks. (Det. Tully Jarsdel, Bk. 1). Feb. 2020. 336p. ISBN 9781492684442. pap. $15.99. MYSTERY
Part Iranian and a PhD dropout, LAPD detective Tully Jarsdel proves to be an appealing, distinctive new gumshoe as he tries to find the identity of a burned-beyond-recognition corpse. (LJ 2/20)

Sligar, Sara. Take Me Apart. MCD: Farrar. Apr. 2020. 368p. ISBN 9780374272616. $27. THRILLER/PSYCHOLOGICAL
In an edgy, intimate work, Kate Aitken struggles with personal issues while being dangerously drawn to a mystery surrounding the woman photographer whose work she is archiving—and to the photographer’s son as well. (Online Reviews, 2/21/20)

Wrobel, Stephanie. Darling Rose Gold. Berkley. Mar. 2020. 320p.
ISBN 9780593100066. $26. THRILLER
What’s more chilling, a mother who raises her daughter as an invalid in classic Munchausen syndrome by proxy fashion or a daughter who exacts clever revenge? (LJ 3/20)

SF/FANTASY

Boyden, Alina. Stealing Thunder. Ace: Berkley. May 2020. 368p.
ISBN 9781984805461. pap. $16. FANTASY
Trans activist Boyden builds a richly South Asian–inflected world where Razia Khan dances by day and steals by night, hiding her past as the Crown Prince of Nizam yet drawn into a tough political situation. (LJ 2/20)

Larkwood, A.K. The Unspoken Name. Tor. (Serpent Gates, Bk. 1). Feb. 2020. 464p. ISBN 9781250238900. $25.99. FANTASY
In this brightly written, edge-of-seat work, young orc Csorwe always assumed she would die at age 14 as a sacrifice to her god, but a wizard persuades her that she can choose her own fate. (LJ 12/19)

Murray, Andrew Hunter. The Last Day. Dutton. Feb. 2020. 384p.
ISBN 9781524745813. $27. SF
With Earth’s rotation halted, leaving half the world in perpetual darkness and comfortably midpoint England fiercely guarding its borders, apolitical scientist Ellen Hopper is dragged into a dark secret. Original. ( LJ 1/20)

Szpara, K.M. Docile. Tor.com. Mar. 2020. 480p. ISBN 9781250216151. $27.99. FANTASY
In a sharply observed dystopia rooted in contemporary concerns, debts are passed to the next generation, and paying them off can mean becoming a Docile, an indentured servant subject to a master’s whims and the quelling drug Dociline—something the protagonist refuses to take. (LJ 1/20)

Villoso, K.S. The Wolf of Oren-Yaro. Orbit: Hachette. (Chronicles of the Bitch Queen, Bk. 1). Feb. 2020. 496p. ISBN 9780316532662. pap. $15.99. FANTASY
Five years after the collapse of an arranged marriage meant to reunite a war-ravaged nation, Queen Talyien hopes to reconcile with her husband but instead faces an assassination attempt, with riveting reading the result. (LJ 11/19)

Vo, Nghi. The Empress of Salt and Fortune. Tor.com. Mar. 2020. 128p. ISBN 9781250750303. pap. $11.99. FANTASY
In a tale sparkling with imagination, a royal woman meant to be empress of Ahn arrives from the north but is kept prisoner after birthing an heir and only slowly finds her way out of entrapment by men. (LJ 3/20) 

 


Books To Anticipate

Adams, Alina. The Nesting Dolls. Harper. Jul. 2020. 384p. ISBN 9780062910943. $27.99. HISTORICAL
Odessa-born Adams chronicles the Soviet Union and its aftermath through the stories of Daria, who finds a husband but not safety in 1930s Odessa; Natasha, forbidden to study mathematics at Odessa University in the 1970s because she is Jewish; and Zoya, eager to escape small-minded 2019 Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. But it’s no dry history lesson, instead offering a vibrant, engaging story ("Signing the marriage license brisked by so quickly, Daria missed the exact moment when she moved from seventeen-year-old girl to married woman").

Allott, Susan. The Silence. Morrow. May 2020. 304p. ISBN 9780062983558. $27.99. THRILLER
With her father suddenly accused of killing next door–neighbor Mandy, who disappeared decades ago, Isla returns from 1997 England to Australia and faces her family’s difficult past ("Anything was possible, but only for him," says her mother bitterly of her father). Woven into the tense, meditative plot is a frank look at Australia’s abuse of Aboriginal people.

Bruno, Anna. Ordinary Hazards. Atria. Aug. 2020. 288p. ISBN 9781982126957. $27. LITERARY
This singular tale of coping with life’s hard hits opens with Emma sitting in a grubby bar in her small university town, turning over the leaves of her life as she consorts with locals. She met her husband here, but now tragedy has torn them apart ("I’m not married. The woman I used to be, she was"), and another tragedy will surface as the story unfolds. But in the end, hearteningly, Emma recognzies what she still has to learn.

Campisi, Megan. Sin Eater. Scribner. Apr. 2020. 304p. ISBN 9781982124106. $27. HISTORICAL
After stealing bread in a dark, evocatively reimagined Elizabethan England, orphaned 14-year-old May is sentenced to become a Sin Eater—a woman who hears the confessions of the dying and is thus thought to bear the black marks of each departed soul, assuring its entrance into heaven. May herself is marked with a terrible S on her tongue: "The girl next to me scoots away as if my flesh has begun to blacken and blister, like I’m plagued."

DeWitt, Jasper. The Patient. Houghton Harcourt. Jul. 2020. 224p. ISBN 9780358181767. $23. THRILLER
Cocky young psychiatrist Parker H. believes he can help the undiagnosed patient consigned for decades to the hospital where Parker has begun working—never mind that everyone who has spent time with the patient has literally gone mad or committed suicide. As he reasons to a nurse, "You know I’m too smart for my own good. I don’t like puzzles I can’t solve," but he has no idea what horrors await. A bone chiller.

Ford, Kelli Jo. Crooked Hallelujah. Grove. Jul. 2020. 304p. ISBN 9780802149121. $26. LITERARY
Anchored by mixed-blood Cherokee Justine, the four generations of women portrayed in Ford’s forthright, refreshingly unpredictable work have had bad breaks and made bad choices but are bound together by both strength and contentiousness. Leaving behind her beloved Granny and devout, difficult mother, Justine heads from Oklahoma Indian Country to Texas, only to see her daughter stubbornly make her own way forward. "When I cross the state line, …the voices…carry me home," says Justine, but where’s home?

Fram, John. The Bright Lands. Hanover Square: Harlequin. Jul. 2020. 352p. ISBN 9781335836625. $27.99. SUPERNATURAL THRILLER
Sensing that his star-quarterback younger brother urgently needs him, outsider Joel returns reluctantly to his small Texas hometown ("driving over these cracked streets, [he] realized you didn’t have to be gay to feel trapped in this town"). But his brother vanishes after Joel’s arrival, and the hunt is on for a malevolent force in the wide-open space beyond town that’s hungry for more victims.

Kay, Elizabeth. Seven Lies. Pamela Dorman: Viking. Jun. 2020. 352p. ISBN 9781984879714. $26. SUSPENSE
Jane can’t stand best friend Marnie’s loud, stuck-up husband but keeps quiet, which leads to lies, more lies, and a dead body, which Jane announces with little regret on page one: "In truth, it never occurred to me that he would ever be anything other than painfully, permanently present." The lies keep unwinding after that death, and readers will grow increasingly unsettled by Jane herself.

Kaufman, Charlie. Antkind. Random. May 2020. 720p. ISBN 9780399589683. $28.99. LITERARY
As Kaufman is the Academy Award–winning screenwriter of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, we’re ready for this outrageously inventive, vividly detailed whirligig of a novel. It stars a scraping-by film critic who stumbles upon what he considers a cinematic masterpiece: a three-month-long stop-motion extravaganza that its eccentric auteur has taken 90 years to wrap. Then it’s destroyed, and the critic is left with memory, "the only tool we have to maintain contact with the world through time."

McConaghy, Charlotte. Migrations. Flatiron: Macmillan. Aug. 2020. 272p. ISBN 9781250204028. $26.99. LITERARY
"Once, it was birds who gave birth to a fiercer me," says Franny Stone on the opening page of this significant work of environmentally informed literature, both lushly written and heartbreaking in its observation that "The animals are dying. Soon we will be alone here." Franny travels to Greenland so she can follow the world’s last flock of Arctic terns on their final migration, hitching a ride on a fishing vessel. Meanwhile, she’s enduring her own internal migration.

Majumdar, Megha. A Burning. Knopf. Jun. 2020. 304p. ISBN 9780525658696. $25.95. LITERARY
After witnessing a train torching that leaves over 100 dead, Jivan, a Muslim girl from India’s slums, gets pushback when she takes indignantly to social media. Then, she says, "I wrote a dangerous thing, a thing nobody like me should ever think, let alone write," and is accused of being a terrorist responsible for the attack. Offering fresh, striking language, Majumdar remains acute and relentless in her depiction of Jivan’s fate.

Milliken, Kate. Kept Animals. Scribner. Apr. 2020. 368p. ISBN 9781501188589. $27. COMING OF AGE
Working at the California stable managed by her stepfather, Rory Ramos attracts the attention of out and wealthy June but is more intrigued by a movie star’s daughter, Vivian, herself attracted to June’s brother. The good life and the chance to compete at horse shows "were all things Rory wanted, but that she knew weren’t rightfully hers," yet she remains in uneasy balance with her fellow teens until a car crash and a forest fire upend everything. Edgy and intimate, with swift, cross-cutting prose.

Moloney, David. Barker House. Bloomsbury USA. Apr. 2020. 272p. ISBN 9781635574166. $26. LITERARY
Moloney draws on four years he spent working at New Hampshire’s Hillsborough County Department of Corrections to weave together narratives about a group of corrections officers at an imagined correctional facility. Mostly seasoned veterans (and including one woman), they have well-honed survival and observational skills ("He’s…not crazy crazy, but it’s hard to tell," says one of an inmate he’s overseeing), with results that aren’t movie-sensational but taut, gritty literature.

Wetmore, Elizabeth. Valentine. Harper. Apr. 2020. 320p. ISBN 9780062913265. $26.99. LITERARY
In sun-stomped 1976 Odessa, TX, young Gloria Ramírez is brutally attacked in an oil field, and though she "walked barefoot across the desert and saved her own life," an ugly, knotted mess of class, gender, and ethnic biases means that some cast blame her way. But the townswomen rally ("That girl is fourteen years old, you sons of bitches. You gentlemen have a thing for children?") as West Texas–born Wetmore delivers a powerful tale of justice served.

Young, Kristen Millares. Subduction. Red Hen. Apr. 2020. 272p. ISBN 9781982126957. pap. $16.95. LITERARY
This tough and gorgeously written work features an insightful clash of cultures, as Latinx anthropologist Claudia Rankine escapes a crashed marriage and heads for a Native American whaling village on the Pacific coast where she once worked. ("As an outsider, she could ask questions that hurt, and didn’t care if they did.") There she reacquaints herself with spirited but fading Maggie and meets Maggie’s recently returned son, Peter, himself an outsider, with emotionally explosive results. 


This article was originally published in Library Journal's March 2020 issue

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