Spring Best Debuts: First Novels

There are so many first novels to choose from, especially in spring, when publishers are busy promoting their up-and-coming writers. Here are the books that are getting the most play among people in the know.


There are so many first novels to choose from, especially in spring, when publishers are busy promoting their up-and-coming writers. Here are the books that are getting the most play among people in the know.

War & Consequences


Ackerman, Eliot. Green on Blue. Scribner. Feb. 2015. 256p. ISBN 9781476778556. $25.

Ackerman relies on experience stored up from five tours of duty in the Middle East to chronicle Afghanistan’s relentless fighting and ever-spiraling vengeance, taking the perspective of an orphan compelled to join a U.S.-backed militia. “Harrowing,” said the New York Times. (LJ Xpress Reviews, 3/6/15)

Barry, Quan. She Weeps Each Time You’re Born. Pantheon. Feb. 2015. 288p. ISBN 9780307911773. $24.95; ebk. ISBN 9780307911780.

Award-winning poet Barry delivers a first novel on Vietnam, gritty and fantastical, featuring a girl named Rabbit who hears the voices of the dead and thus tells her country’s shattering recent history. Hailed by sources ranging from the Millions to Elle’s blog; “fierce, stunning, and devastating,” said the starred LJ review. (LJ 11/1/14)

Bhutto, Fatima. The Shadow of the Crescent Moon. Penguin Pr. Mar. 2015. 240p. ISBN 9781594205606. $25.95.

The granddaughter and niece of former prime ministers of Pakistan, Bhutto here visits a small Pakistani town, where the troubled wife of one brother and the crusading former girlfriend of another stand up to militants. Long-listed for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction and a New Statesman (UK) Book of the Year; “compelling and richly drawn” (PW). (LJ Xpress Reviews, 3/13/15)

Doten, Mark. The Infernal. Graywolf. Feb. 2015. 416p. ISBN 9781555977016. pap. $18; ebk. ISBN 9781555973353.

Early in the Iraq war, a badly burned boy is taken prisoner by U.S. soldiers and made to talk; the voices that spill forth range from Osama bin Laden to various U.S. officials. “The most audaciously imaginative political novel I’ve ever read,” said the New York Times. (LJ 3/1/14)

Nguyen, Viet Thanh. The Sympathizer. Grove. Apr. 2015. 384p. ISBN 9780802123459. $26.

A Communist sympathizer working as a double agent in South Vietnam is directed to join the refugees fleeing to America when Saigon falls. So far, three starred prepublication reviews, Indie Next honors, an NPR Weekend All Things Considered interview, and a New York Times review. (LJ 2/15/15)

Novic, Sara. Girl at War. Random. May 2015. 336p. ISBN 9780812996340. $26; ebk ISBN 9780812996357.

Ten-year-old Ana Juric’s family is sundered when war strikes Zagreb, but only as a college student in New York can she begin to speak about it. Look for the Vanity Fair “Hot Type” feature and a BookPage interview. “All the more effective for its…personal rather than sensational detail” (LJ 3/15/15).

Palaia, Marian. The Given World. S. & S. Apr. 2015. 224p. ISBN 9781476777931. $25.

After her brother vanishes in Vietnam, Riley leads an unmoored life that takes her from her Montana home to the West Coast and finally to the Cu Chi tunnels outside of Ho Chi Minh City. Occasionally discursive, but “there is no denying Palaia’s immense writing talent” (Kirkus). (LJ 2/15/15)

Renehan, John. The Valley. Dutton. Mar. 2015. 160p. ISBN 9780525954866. $26.95.

From a former U.S. Army Third Infantry Division captain, the story of a lieutenant in Afghanistan asked to investigate military misconduct. Good early reviews (“Renehan’s slow-simmering sense of alienation has best captured in literature the mood of the little outposts of Iraq and Afghanistan,” ­foreignpolicy.com”), an LJ star, and an Indies Introduce Debut Authors pick. (LJ 2/1/15)

Robinson, Christopher & Gavin Kovite. War of the Encyclopaedists. Scribner. May 2015. 448p. ISBN 9781476775425. $26.

When one of them is sent to Iraq, post­college partiers Mickey Montauk and Halifax Corderoy keep in touch by updating a Wikipedia entry they’ve created about themselves. An “epic” (Kirkus) that “unfolds rapidly, humorously, and convincingly from page one” (LJ 2/15/15); look for Wall Street Journal and Esquire coverage.

Historical Basis

Barnett, LaShonda Katrice. Jam on the Vine. Grove. Feb. 2015. 336p. ISBN 9780802123343. $24.

This fictionalized life of crusading African American journalist and newspaper editor Ida B. Wells has earned starred LJ and PW reviews; NBC’s “14 Books To Read This Black History Month” and Guardian.com’s “Best Books This February” nods; plus coverage in O, the Oprah Magazine, Elle, RT Book Reviews, the Wall Street Journal, and more. (LJ 12/14)

Carter, M.J. The Strangler Vine. Putnam. Mar. 2015. 384p. ISBN 9780399171673. $26.95.

In 1837 India, soldier William Avery and secret agent Jeremiah Blake hunt for a missing writer and find the dangerous Thuggee cult. Long-listed for the Baileys Women’s Prize and a finalist for the CWA John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger Award, this “clever historical thriller” has received multiple prepublication stars, plus coverage in Woman’s Day and BookPage. (LJ 11/15/14)

Ekbäck, Cecilia. Wolf Winter. Weinstein: Perseus. Jan. 2015. 400p. ISBN 9781602862524. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781602862531.

In the early 1700s, a Finnish family moves to Lapland and discovers how cold and scary winter can be. An LJ Editors’ Fall Pick, with Indie Next and Indies Introduce Debut Authors plaudits, this “hypnotic” (LJ 11/1/14) title “chills as it impresses” (Sydney Morning Herald).

Flournoy, Angela. The Turner House. Houghton Harcourt. Apr. 2015. 320p. ISBN 9780544303164. $23; ebk. ISBN 9780544303201.

An African American family gathers in Detroit. Cascading interest: there will be a Paris Review excerpt; O Magazine, Redbook, and Essence reviews; an Elle Readers Prize Program feature; an original piece by Flournoy in Glamour this fall; and more. Multiple prepub stars. (LJ Xpress reviews, 3/13/13)

Freeman, Anna. The Fair Fight. Riverhead. Apr. 2015. 480p. ISBN 9781594633294. $27.95; ebk. ISBN 9780698167971.

In late 18th-century England, brothel-born Ruth enters the ring as a female pugilist and encourages thwarted, upper-crust Charlotte to follow suit. One of BookRiot’s Best New Books and a starred LJ review. “A ripping fine yarn…thoroughly entertaining and highly recommended” (LJ 1/15).

Jackman, Clifford. The Winter Family. Doubleday. Apr. 2015. 352p. ISBN 9780385539487. $25.95; ebk. ISBN 9780385539494.

Set in the post–Civil War era, this hard-edged neo-Western tracks a bunch of nasty outlaws who follow the particularly vicious and amoral Augustus Winter. “Great atmosphere” (Booklist) for “fans of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and James Carlos Blake’s In the Rogue Blood” (LJ 1/15).

Klaber, William. The Rebellion of Miss Lucy Ann Lobdell. St. Martin’s. Feb. 2015. 288p. ISBN 9781250061874. $26.99; ebk. ISBN 9781466867956.

Klaber draws on the real-life story of Lucy Lobdell, who in 1855 left her family to go out into the world and live as a man. This reimagining won him starred LJ and Booklist reviews, plus coverage in Elle and New York Times Book Review. (LJ 2/15/15)

Torday, Daniel. The Last Flight of Poxl West. St. Martin’s. Mar. 2015. 304p. ISBN 9781250051684. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9781466871816.

Elijah Goldstein learns that his Czech-born uncle was an RAF pilot during World War II. Torday, who won a 2012 National Jewish Book Award for his novella The Sensualist, gets full-scale notice for his first full-scale novel: Esquire and New York Times Book Review reviews, an NPR Fresh Air interview, and Amazon Best Books of the Month honors. “Page-turning” (LJ 2/1/15).

Tough Coming of Age


Busman, Debra. like a woman. Dzanc. Mar. 2015. 204p. ISBN 9781936873210. pap. $14.95.

Fourteen-year-old Taylor leaves home the night her mother hits her and makes her way on L.A.’s streets according to her rules. An affecting book that’s receiving consistent prepublication praise: it’s a “laudable debut” (PW) that’s “beautifully written” (Kirkus), with a “toughly lyric…narrative finally brushed with grace” (LJ 3/1/15).

Fuller, Claire. Our Endless Numbered Days. Tin House. Mar. 2015. 388p. ISBN 9781941040010. pap. $15.95.

Anticipating the end of the world, eight-year-old Peggy Hillcoat’s father yanks her out of London and hides with her in a remote cabin. An Indie Next pick with a Goodreads newsletter feature and monthly debut spotlight, this book made the “most anticipated” lists of the Huffington Post and the Chicago Tribune. “A standout debut” (LJ 2/15/15).

Kells, Claire. Girl Underwater. Dutton. Mar. 2015. 320p. ISBN 9780525954934. $26.95. CD: Penguin Audio.

College student Avery is one of a few survivors when her plane crash-lands in a Colorado mountain lake. This intense survival story has widely ranging coverage, e.g., Women’s Adventure Magazine and RT Book Reviews, plus strong prepublication reviews: it’s “memorable” (PW), “a winner” (Kirkus), and, says the starred LJ review, “absorbing.” (LJ 11/15/14)

Obioma, Chigozie. The Fishermen. Little, Brown. Apr. 2015. 304p. ISBN 9780316338370. $26.

When four Nigerian brothers sneak out to fish, they meet a madman who predicts that one brother will kill another. Both a “convincing modern narrative and…a majestic reimagining of timeless folklore” (starred PW review), this “elegantly near-mythic… story of family tragedy gathers strength as its cycle of violence spins faster and faster” (starred review, LJ 3/1/15).

Reardon, Bryan. Finding Jake. Morrow. Feb. 2015. 272p. ISBN 9780062339485. $26.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062339539.

After a local high school shooting, stay-at-home dad Simon Connolly rushes to the scene to find that son Jake is the only student missing. Was he responsible? This ­LibraryReads pick offers “a prose style [that’s] compelling and makes this school shooting plot fresh” (LJ Xpress Reviews, 1/16/15).

The Adult Life


Dibbell, Carola. The Only Ones. Two Dollar Radio. Mar. 2015. 344p. ISBN 9781937512279. pap. $16.99.

After a terrible pandemic, fetuses must be generated in labs, and I (for Inez) is a good candidate for providing eggs—which leads her to motherhood of an unexpected sort with all the expected hassles. One of BuzzFeed’s “Most Exciting New Books of 2015”; “trenchant” (PW). (LJ 3/1/15)

Essbaum, Jill Alexander. Hausfrau. Random. Mar. 2015. 336p. ISBN 9780812997538. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780812997545. CD/downloadable: Random Audio.

“Anna was a good wife, mostly”—but she escapes her boringly picture-perfect life in Zurich with her children and Swiss banker husband through a series of dangerously escalating affairs. An Amazon Best Book of the Month; “masterly,” said the starred PW review. (LJ Xpress Reviews, 3/13/15)

Gerard, Sarah. Binary Star. Two Dollar Radio. Jan. 2015. 172p. ISBN 9781937512255. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9781937512262.

The anorexic narrator and her alcoholic lover circle each other, as in a binary star system, trying and failing to help one another. Yet “the particular genius of Binary Star is that out of such grim material it constructs beauty” (New York Times Book Review). (LJ 3/1/15)

Joy, David. Where All Light Tends To Go. Putnam. Mar. 2015. 272p. ISBN 9780399172779. $26.95.

Called Appalachian noir by its author, this book stars a young hero choosing between his drug-dealing father and the girl he loves. Great prepublication reviews, including an LJ star; LibraryReads, Early Word Galley Chatter, and Ingram Premier Pick Program honors; and coverage from Cosmopolitan to Garden & Gun to the New York Times Book Review. (LJ 2/15/15)

Kornegay, Jamie. Soil. S. & S. Mar. 2015. 368p. ISBN 9781476750811. $26.

Flooding of the Mississippi River bottomland on which environmental scientist Jay Mize hoped to establish a sustainable farm is only the beginning of his troubles. An Indies Introduce Debut Authors pick with coverage in Garden & Gun, Poet’s & Writers magazine, the Rumpus, and more. “Kornegay imbues his characters with depth and his story with suspense” (LJ 3/1/15).

Léger, Dmitry Elias. God Loves Haiti. Amistad: HarperCollins. Mar. 2015. 272p. ISBN 9780062348135. $24.99. ebk. ISBN 9780062348142.

Even as the terrible 2010 earthquake devastates Haiti, seismic shifts occur in the relationships among the president; his beautiful artist wife; and the lover she abandoned for her glittery new life. “Can an unimaginable catastrophe bring forth a triumph of the imagination? It…has with this bright, brilliant novel” (Kirkus). A Discover Great New Writers pick. (LJ Xpress Reviews, 3/6/15)

Rapp, Adam. Know Your Beholder. Little, Brown. Feb. 2015. 320p. ISBN 9780316368919. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780316368902; lib. ebk. ISBN 9780316294799. Downloadable: Hachette Audio.

A Pulitzer Prize finalist for Drama, PEN award winner, and noted screenwriter/director, Rapp isn’t a newbie. But this is a first novel, featuring a middle-aged rock musician trying to get out of his bathrobe and back into life, and it’s a spikily funny example of what his publicist calls loser lit. “Humble and hilarious” (O, the Oprah ­Magazine).

Rubin, Jacob. The Poser. Viking. Mar. 2015. 256p. ISBN 9780670016761. $26.95.

Famous mimic Giovanni Bernini can embody almost anyone, but he loses himself along the way—and he can’t master the secrets of Lucy Starlight. “Inventive” (PW); a Discover Great New Writers pick. (LJ Xpress Reviews, 3/13/26)

Beyond Realism

Eyre, Hermione. Viper Wine. Hogarth: Crown. Apr. 2015. 448p. ISBN 9780553419351. $25; ebk. ISBN 9780553419368.

Lady Venetia Digby would love to restore her looks by using viper wine, a sensation among the ladies at the court of Charles I, but her inventor husband demurs. Who knew that microscopes and Barbra Streisand were all the rage in the early 1600s? Multiple UK raves: “fact-filled fiction that entertains and enlightens.” (LJ 2/15/15)

Ferguson, Mark. The Lost Boys Symphony. Little, Brown. Mar. 2015. 352p. ISBN 9780316323994. $25.

Determined to win back his beloved, college student Henry marches across the George Washington Bridge and gets waylaid by two strangers—an older and a middle-aged version of himself. “A must-read for fans of the offbeat” (Booklist) that’s a Discover Great New Writers pick. (LJ Xpress Reviews, 3/13/15)

Swanson, Cynthia. The Bookseller. Harper. Mar. 2015. 352p. ISBN 9780062333001. $25.95.

Kitty Miller, who’s enjoying a carefree single life in 1962 Denver, starts waking up as a different version of herself, married and with children. An Indie Next pick that’s getting coverage in People, USA Today, Redbook, and more. “Astonishingly tight and fast paced,” said the starred LJ review. (LJ 2/15/15)

Genre Thrills


Anolik, Lili. Dark Rooms. Morrow. Mar. 2015. 256p. ISBN 9780062345868. $25.99; ebk ISBN 9780062345882.

When free-spirited 16-year-old Nica Baker is murdered, her older sister puts her college plans on hold to hunt for the killer, immersing herself in the life of Nica’s exclusive New England prep school. Starred LJ and PW reviews signal a great beginning for Anolik; “tough to put down” (LJ 2/15/15).

Flanders, Judith. A Murder of Magpies. Minotaur: St. Martin’s. Mar. 2015. 288p. ISBN 9781250056450. $24.99; ebk. ISBN 9781466860285.

Social historian Flanders turns in a charmer featuring a London book editor handling a possibly libelous manuscript that someone would kill to squelch. “Wickedly clever” (Cleveland Plain Dealer), “sophisticated and smart” (RT Book Reviews), and a ­LibraryReads pick.

Haig, Francesca. The Fire Sermon. Gallery. Mar. 2015. 384p. ISBN 9781476767185. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781476767246.

Relying on her skill as a poet, British author Haig turns out the first in a trilogy about a postapocalyptic world where every birth yields twins, one perfect and the other deformed and therefore ostracized. Starred LJ, Booklist, and Kirkus reviews; “Haig beautifully details a ruined world and primitive society divided by class” (LJ 2/15/15).

Haldane, Seán. The Devil’s Making: A Mystery. Minotaur: St. Martin’s. May 2015. 368p. ISBN 9781250069405. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9781466878129.

In mid-1800s British Columbia, police investigate the murder of an American doctor obsessed with phrenology and mesmerism. Winner of Canada’s Arthur Ellis Award, with lots of Canadian raves (“extraordinary,” Ottawa Review of Books). Look for an LJ endorsement soon.

Knight, Renée. Disclaimer. Harper. May 2015. 352p. ISBN 9780062362254. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062362278.

Catherine Ravenscroft should be unsettled; the book she’s reading replicates a dark secret that’s trapped her for years—and was known by only one other person, who’s dead. Having sold to over 20 territories, with Twentieth Century Fox picking up the film rights, this book is by definition already a success.

Liu, Ken. The Grace of Kings. Saga: S. & S. (Dandelion Dynasty, Bk. 1). Apr. 2015. 640p. ISBN 9781481424271. $27.99; ebk. ISBN 9781481424295.

Winner of a Nebula, two Hugos, a World Fantasy Award, and a Science Fiction & Fantasy Translation Award for his stories and translations, Liu thrills fans with full-length fiction of his own. “The first volume of what looks to be a chewy, big epic fantasy series” (SF Debut of the Month, LJ 3/15/15).

Miller, Michelle. Underwriting. Putnam. May 2015. 384p. ISBN 9780399174858. $26.95.

In this corporate thriller, initially a 12-episode e-series, the IPO of a booming new dating app is jeopardized by a young woman’s death at Stanford. The e-series went viral, getting major coverage from Forbes, Venture Beat, Elle, and the like; rights for the book have been sold to 12 territories.

Sykes, S.D. Plague Land. Pegasus Crime. Feb. 2015. 352p. ISBN 9781605986739. $24.95; ebk. ISBN 9781605987385.

In 1350 England, young Oswald de Lacy leaves the monastery to become the Lord of Somerhill Manor after the plague takes his father and brothers and is promptly embroiled in the investigation of a young woman’s death. Raves from venues ranging from For Winter Nights to the New York Times Book Review; “thrilling plot twists and layered characters abound in this rich tale” (Mystery Debut of the Month, LJ 1/15).

Womack, Gwendolyn. The Memory Painter. Picador. Apr. 2015. 336p. ISBN 9781250053039. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781250053046.

An artist paints dreams from remembered lives, a woman sees herself in his work, and the plot reaches across six continents and 10,000 years. “It’s best not to try to analyze the ambitious plot of this thriller, which combines romance, fantasy, and adventure; just hang on for a wild and entertaining ride”; see Q&A on p. 95. (LJ 2/1/15)

Women’s Perspective


Clanchy, Kate. Meeting the English. Thomas Dunne: St. Martin’s. Mar. 2015. 320p. ISBN 9781250059772. $24.99.

In this Costa First Novel short-listed title, 17-year-old Struan Robertson leaves Scotland for London, where he caretakes for a formerly famous playwright while contending with the playwright’s family. Shining UK reviews (“wincingly accurate,” Daily Mail), followed by more here: “a brilliant, multicolored fireworks display” (LJ 12/14).

Hepworth, Sally. The Secrets of Midwives. St. Martin’s. Feb. 2015. 320p. ISBN 9781250051899. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9781466852631. CD: Macmillan Audio.

This story of three generations of midwives in Providence is popping up everywhere, e.g., People StyleWatch gave it a nod, and US Weekly proclaimed it a favorite February book. Great prepublication reviews, too: “This thoughtful intergenerational story will delight readers” (LJ 1/15).

Kennedy, Eliza. I Take You . Crown. May 2015. 320p. ISBN 9780553417821. $24. ebk. ISBN 9780553417838.

Is New York lawyer Lily Wilder ready for marriage? Sure, she’s about to get hitched to one handsome hunk, but she still can’t resist other men. Lots of love at the Frankfurt Book Fair, where 12 countries rushed to buy this debut.

Knoll, Jessica. Luckiest Girl Alive. S. & S. May 2015. 304p. ISBN 9781476789637. $25.

Successful, happily affianced Ani FaNelli must face up to a traumatic incident that occurred long ago at her fancy prep school. There’s already a five-star review on Amazon Vine (“lots of unexpected turns and twists”), with more reviews promised from People StyleWatch, Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan, and Good Housekeeping; also a Publishers Lunch Spring 2015 Buzz Pick.

Richardson, Sara. No Better Man. Forever: Grand Central. May 2015. 368p. ISBN 9781455530847. pap. $6.

Heartbroken, Avery King flees Chicago for Aspen, determined to acquire the land of a rundown mountain ranch. Too bad (or maybe not) that its handsome owner doesn’t want to sell. Richardson has just signed a three-book contract with Forever.

Shupe, Joanna. The Courtesan Duchess. Zebra: Kensington. Mar. 2015. 352p. ISBN 9781420135527. pap. $7.99.

Winner of the 2013 Romance Writers of America Golden Heart® Award for Best Historical, this Regency opens the “Wicked Deceptions” trilogy. Julia, the Duchess of Colton, disguises herself as a famed London courtesan to seduce the husband who abandoned her after their wedding eight years earlier. “Original and alluring” (PW).

Stibbe, Nina. Man at the Helm. Little, Brown. Mar. 2015. 320p. ISBN 9780316286671. $25; ebk. ISBN 9780316286749; lib. ebk. ISBN 9780316286725. Downloadable: Hachette Audio.

Stibbe, who won lots of fans for her memoir, Love, Nina, follows up with a first novel that got UK raves (“joyous,” the Observer). Ten-year-old Lizzie Vogel’s upper-crust upbringing crashes down when her parents divorce. Think Maria Semple wacky charm and smarts, says the publicist.

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Kids are using VR to explore worlds and create new ones


Kids are using VR to explore worlds and create new ones


Kids are using VR to explore worlds and create new ones

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