While it might not be shocking to learn we’re passionate about books around here, we’re also passionate about authors. The Discover Great New Writers program has spent the last 25 years discovering new writers and making sure the signal-to-noise ratio is adjusted in their favor, and we’re proud to keep doing just that with our latest selections—some of the most exciting debuts to hit our shelves, picked because we think they deserve special attention from book lovers. Here are eleven debuts to put on your must-read list this fall.
City on Fire, by Garth Risk Hallberg
Any first novel that inspires comparisons to the work of Don DeLillo and Tom Wolfe is exciting, and Garth Risk Hallberg—who sold film rights to his novel even before it was picked up for publication—doesn’t disappoint. City on Fire, more than likely the novel everyone will be talking about this fall, offers a sprawling and tangled slice of 1970s New York City that delivers complexity, insight, and glimpses into the lives of disparate characters. Scions of a huge New York fortune, kids discovering the downtown punk scene, a shooting in Central Park, and the blackout of 1977 all come together in ways both poignant and unexpected. TL;DR: read this book.
The Admissions, by Meg Mitchell Moore
Anyone who has college-age kids or was once a college-age kid herself knows the incredible pressure behind the words “college applications.” Moore pulls off a tricky trifecta in this great first novel about the seemingly perfect Hawthorne family, giving us a story that’s equal parts hilarious and tense. Centering on eldest daughter Angela, who sets her sights on Harvard just as her grades, focus, and athletic performance all start to slip, the story follows the rest of her family members through their own tribulations: Angela’s mother struggles to sell real estate to the awesomely rich, her father has a dark secret that might destroy everything, and her younger sisters each have their own issues. Moore’s assured writing ought to make even established authors jealous, and this funny and realistic story will delight generations of readers.
After the Parade, by Lori Ostlund
Here is a debut novel that will resonate with anyone who has ever struggled to transition from adolescent angst to true adulthood—which is pretty much everybody. At age 40, Aaron Englund decides it’s finally time to take control of his life, leaving his manipulative partner and moving to San Francisco. There he discovers that to go forward, you almost always have to go back, which in Aaron’s case means back to the tiny Midwestern town where he grew up feeling like an outcast, and where his mother abandoned him decades ago. With a sudden clue as to her whereabouts, Aaron sets out on a journey of self-discovery and closure.
And West is West, by Ron Childress
Modern technology can be confusing and disaffecting even as it helps us find answers and makes our lives exponentially easier. Our fundamental connection to the technologies we use—and our culpability in the dark side of the gadgets and infrastructure we thoughtlessly rely on—can be difficult to understand, and it’s this difficulty that brilliantly informs Childress’s novel. An Air Force drone pilot ordered to kill women and children is connected in a surprising way to the creator of a Wall Street algorithm that allows investors to profit from the horrors of the War on Terror. When both lose their jobs due to the inhumanity and insanity of the system they serve, each has to face their role in that system. This timely, moving novel was awarded the 2014 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction.
Barbara the Slut, by Lauren Holmes
Youthful and vibrant, each one of these 10 short stories crackles with energy and a love of language that never descends into navel-gazing indulgence. Holmes offers up stories about young women struggling with sexuality, slut-shaming, orientations, parents, careers, and age-old questions of identity and purpose with the wit and panache of a much older writer. Her stories cover everything from choosing to work in a sex toy store instead of practicing as a lawyer, to the titular Barbara, a young girl trying to survive the final days of high school with her pride and her sex positivity intact. If someone uses the word “millennial” as a negative when discussing this collection, ignore him: Holmes is a writer you’re going to be hearing about for decades to come.
Home is Burning, by Dan Marshall
Diseases like cancer and ALS take our loved ones from us far too soon, and far too cruelly, and writing about them shouldn’t always be reserved and decorous—sometimes it needs to be profane and angry and above all hilarious. Marshall’s debut is a memoir telling the story of his return home to help care for his mother and father when his mother, battling cancer since his childhood, suffers a relapse and his father is diagnosed with ALS. His older sister is resentful, his gay younger brother is conflicted, his younger sister is flirting with dangerous behaviors, and the baby of the family seems to live in a fantasy world—and through it all, Dan’s voice is angry, rough, funny, and filled with language that will make your hair stand on end (the cover of the book is a clue as to what you should expect). No one who reads this book will come away unchanged, or bored.
The Incarnations, by Susan Baker
With an incredible premise and a depth of cultural and historical knowledge that’s breathtaking in its scope, Baker has crafted an amazing debut novel that’s already taken England by storm. Wang Jun is a taxi driver in Beijing who begins to receive mysterious letters from his “soulmate,” who claims to have known him throughout all of his previous incarnations, stretching back 1,000 years or more. The letters begin to tell Wang Jun about their prior adventures in previous lives, each one a self-contained (and exceptionally well-written) story unto itself. Giving the reader a glimpse of Chinese history, folklore, and lifestyle in the midst of a riveting mystery, Baker never loses sight of the human scale of her story.
The Last Days of Rabbit Hayes, by Anna McPartlin
Death remains the great equalizer. No matter how rich you are, how powerful, how smart, attractive, or unique, in the end we are all bound together by this single fact of life. Anna McPartlin has achieved something remarkable in this novel, which opens with Mia “Rabbit” Hayes entering hospice care after a four-year battle with breast cancer. The novel unfolds over the last week of her life, and is at turns tragic, inspiring, and hilarious. Rabbit’s family members bring their own crazy energy to each section of the book, and Rabbit herself will stay with you for the rest of your own life. You will be glad to have known her, if only briefly.
The Last Pilot, by Benjamin Johncock
Novels show us places, times, and people we might never otherwise experience—or at least some of the best ones do. The Last Pilot begins in 1947, when hotshot test pilot Jim Harrison seems destined to break records and make it to space. His wife’s surprise pregnancy takes Jim off the astronaut track, but tragedy leaves him unmoored. Diving back into his work, he joins the nascent NASA program as the space race gets underway. Anyone who loved TaraShea Nesbit’s The Wives of Los Alamos will find this book equally satisfying: a look at one of the most important moments in the history of America, humanity, and technology, told from a human perspective that never loses sight of the reasons we, as a species, are always reaching for the stars and beyond.
Mãn, by Kim Thuy
Some stories are so beautiful and delicate, you read them carefully, afraid that if you rush they will shatter, or suddenly fly off, lost forever. Thuy’s graceful and surprising Mãn is such a story. The titular character was born in Vietnam, orphaned, saved by a nun, and raised by her “third mother,” Maman. Maman seeks to secure Mãn’s future by arranging her marriage to a dutiful restaurant owner in Montreal, and despite her culture shock, Mãn flourishes there, discovering an almost-otherworldly talent for cooking: her dishes bring patrons to tears. But it’s when Mãn discovers love while on a trip to Paris that her story truly begins. Thuy tells the tale in remarkably beautiful, sparse language carefully translated from the original French, resulting in a poetic, lyrical novel that seems short and simple—only revealing its powerful impact after you’ve been caught up in it.
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Walking with Abel, by Anna Badkhen
The world can sometimes seem fully settled—civilized and modern and somehow dull. But every now and then a book arrives to remind us how huge it is, and how filled with traditions and cultures beyond our ken. Anna Badkhen traveled to Africa to accompany a group of Fulani cowboys, an ancient nomadic tribe who’ve been enacting an annual migration since the Stone Age. With an unbroken link to the past, the Fulani still manage to embrace modernity and accept their struggle for survival—against Islamic extremists, against attrition as their young flee to the cities, and against the slow constriction of their lives. Badkhen, welcomed and embedded with the tribe as it moves, gives us a look into a world that has existed quietly for centuries, and we are better for it. In the tradition of Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Waking with Abel will expand your view of the world in a wonderful way.
The Art of Grace, by Sarah L. Kaufman
What does it mean to move with grace? To live with grace? Kaufman, who won a Pulitzer for her work as dance critic for the Washington Post, sees a paucity of grace in our fast-paced modern world, which always seems to celebrate results instead of technique. She explores what grace means, celebrates the moments of grace that still occur every day in sports, in the arts, and even in daily life, and seeks to inspire all of us to learn how to live gracefully—which has a lot more to do with feeling at ease in our lives and in our world than any specific way of moving. This debut book will inspire you to be more comfortable, and happier, in your own skin.
Black Man in a White Coat, by Damon Tweedy
We’re living through a remarkable moment in American history, when many racial issues that have been bubbling under the surface for decades are finally coming up to the surface, challenging assumptions and forcing all of us to examine our own actions and reactions. Tweedy’s memoir is about being a black man on scholarship at the prestigious (and very white) Duke University Medical School and practicing medicine in an America that is definitely not post-racial. It’s an eye-opening and essential read.
The Three-Year Swim Club, by Julia Checkoway
Inspirational stories that demonstrate the power of the human spirit never go out of style. In The Three-Year Swim Club, Checkoway tells a true story: that of a group of poor Japanese American kids in the late 1930s who were inspired by a teacher to train as swimmers for the Olympics. Fighting racism as World War II loomed on the horizon, these kids had no advantages or hope to speak of, and nothing but a bleak future of hard work in the sugarcane fields of Maui ahead of them—and their teacher couldn’t even swim. Despite these odds, they quickly became the most celebrated swimmers in the world, destined for greatness—until the war postponed their Olympic dreams until 1948. This is a must-read for anyone who wants to dig deeper into history, and to be reassured that humanity can overcome impossible odds.