There’s something extra thrilling about a debut novel, which allows us to access the contents of a brand-new author’s brain, and all the magic therein, for the very first time. The 15 brave, strange, magical, funny, heartrending, lifesaving, eye-opening books below are all from new authors who’ve instantly made it onto my must-buy list.
Look for more debut magic and loads more great reads in all our upcoming (first half of) 2016 previews!
The Mystery of Hollow Places, by Rebecca Podos (January 26)
Imogene, a mystery writer’s mystery novel–obsessed daughter, finds herself embroiled in a case of her own when her father goes missing, vanishing as completely as her mother did more than a decade ago. Burying her hurt beneath a hardboiled pose, Imogene draws on everything she has read to find the parents who’ve abandoned her. More than just a mystery, Hollow Places explores what it is to have and to miss a mother, in a wry, self-aware voice I couldn’t resist.
Shallow Graves, by Kali Wallace (January 26)
On her way home from a party, Breezy was murdered. One year later, she wakes up and starts to take her revenge. Trapped in a dark limbo, a being that needs neither food nor sleep, she can see in someone’s aura whether they’ve killed someone—and can punish them by stealing their life away. Estranged from humanity and haunted by the dark memories of the people she kills, she’s also unable, despite numerous attempts, to die. When she nearly falls prey to a man more monstrous than she is, Breezy finds a purpose. She aligns herself with strange bedfellows to bring him down, as the secrets behind her death and afterlife slowly come unburied.
Symptoms of Being Human, by Jeff Garvin (February 2)
Riley Cavanaugh is a gender fluid teen who finds purpose and connection after their blog—filled with funny rants on gender (it’s not a switch, it’s a dial), rude questions (no, you can’t ask how a gender fluid person has sex), and life in all its anxiety-inducing glory—goes viral. Suddenly Riley has not just online friends but an audience, ready to be mobilized. But nothing is that simple; Riley still faces IRL bullying, a confusing crush object, and pressure from a politician father and supportive but image-conscious mother. And with great power comes great responsibility: Riley’s advice to the desperate can have dark consequences. When someone at school discovers who’s behind the blog, Riley must decide whether to pull the plug or brave the fallout. Garvin expresses the deep, disorienting itch of gender dysphoria with visceral clarity, through the story of a sharp, conscientious teen whose birth certificate gender is never revealed. (Because it’s none of your business!)
Where Futures End, by Parker Peevyhouse (February 9)
In five linked novellas hopscotching forward through time, Peevyhouse imagines the effect on humanity of the discovery of a parallel world lying just beyond our own. As earth’s atmosphere sickens, and social media sharing advances to the point that privacy is a relic and transient online stardom the best way to make a buck, her characters dream of the Other Place, intersect with its people, and grapple with the mystery of its existence. Facing the challenge of making readers care afresh for each new narrator and their increasingly desperate plights, Peevyhouse grips you every time.
Hardcover $16.19 | $17.99
The Girl from Everywhere, by Heidi Heilig (February 16)
Heilig’s intricately plotted, lushly sensory debut filled the “time traveling pirate ship” hole in my heart and bookshelf that I didn’t even know was there. With her gifted, addicted captain father at the helm of the Temptation, and a motley crew of fellow shiphands onboard, teenaged Nix travels through time and space, between fantasy and reality, by way of hand-drawn maps. So long as the map is original, signed by its creator, and has never been used before, the ship can navigate to whatever realm it has frozen in time, whether it be real or purely mythical. Then the Temptation docks in Hawaii in the waning years of the Hawaiian monarchy, with a mission in mind that threaten’s Nix’s very existence. Lush writing, a plot that effortlessly weaves together past and present, a high-stakes heist, and a completely earned love triangle round out a fantastic fantasy I wish was a series. (Take heart—it is a duology!)
Kill the Boy Band, by Goldy Moldavsky (February 23)
God help the boy bander who underestimates his fans. Moldavsky’s debut is equal parts twisted love letter to fandom—the incendiary heat of their devotion, their insatiable thirst for knowledge, images, and access—and cautionary tale. Four girls, each as distinct as the members of their beloved boy band the Ruperts, take a room at the hip NYC hotel where the boys are staying. And then fate delivers unto them a boy bander: Rupert P., widely agreed to be the worst Rupert, who’s soon trussed up in their hotel room while they figure out what to do next. Betrayal, bad decisions, and general mayhem follow, in a hilarious, dangerous story that makes me want more in the strange new microgenre I’m calling fandom noir.
The Smell of Other People’s Houses, by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock (February 23)
In a vividly evoked 1970s Alaska, Hitchcock sets hardscrabble poverty and domestic violence against transcendent natural beauty and the secret riches to be found in an unforgiving landscape. Her characters are fighting to build good lives amid harsh circumstances—Ruth is an almost-orphan grappling with a terrible secret, Dora is terrified she’ll be forced back under her violent father’s roof, Hank and his brothers have no choice but to escape, and Alyce doesn’t know how to claim her future without losing her past. All take a circuitous path toward finally making the connections they need to survive.
The Serpent King, by Jeff Zentner (March 8)
This soul-tugging southern-set debut is about the things that imprison you and the things that help you escape. Dill Early is the son of a zealous Pentecostal preacher and snake handler, unrepentant despite his imprisonment for a sickening crime. His best friend and secret crush, Lydia, is a proud outsider in their small town, a fashion blogger who plans to ride her self-created fame the hell out of Dodge after graduation. The third member of their tiny tribe is Travis, a gentle giant with an abusive father, who escapes into an internet relationship and the world of his beloved fantasy series every chance he gets. Over the course of their senior year, the three grapple with impending separation, and the struggle to define and declare themselves in the face of other people’s expectations.
Save Me, Kurt Cobain, by Jenny Manzer (March 8)
When a string of clues unveils a tantalizing connection between her long-vanished mother and dead icon Kurt Cobain, Nico, a lonely, Nirvana-obsessed Canadian teen, starts to question her own past. And when, on a ferry between Canada and Seattle, she meets a lean, blue-eyed blond man, she believes the impossible: that he’s Kurt Cobain, and her estranged father. Impulsively, she follows him into the woods, embarking on a dangerous, downbeat journey toward the truth about herself. A melancholy paean to music’s role in self-discovery, to its connective power, and to an idol who died too soon.
The First Time She Drowned, by Kerry Kletter (March 15)
Cassie’s rage at and longing for the mother who first emotionally abandoned her, then responded to her rebellion by institutionalizing her, are braided together like a rope. Fresh out of an institution and embarking on the college career her mother, confusingly, has paid for, Cassie struggles with the cruel tenets she was raised to believe: that she’s unloved. That she’s unwanted. That anyone who sees her true self will hate her. And when her mother starts pushing her way back into Cassie’s life, nobody—not a new friend, a school therapist, or the boy who just might like the real her—can decide for Cassie that it’s time to push away the woman who both made and destroyed her.
A Fierce and Subtle Poison, by Samantha Mabry (April 12)
A girl out of myth. A boy with a bruised heart. A series of mysterious, impossible letters. I haven’t gotten my hands on this one yet, but it’s topping my 2016 TBR. Lucas is the son of a rich developer father, spending his summers on Puerto Rico’s mainland. Isabel is a girl about whom strange stories are spun: it’s said she lives in the overgrown garden of a tumbledown island house, with veins full of poison and the ability to grant wishes. After Lucas’s new girlfriend goes missing, he starts receiving letters from Isabel, coaxing him into her mystical world. This sounds like a fantastic addition to YA’s recent canon of stellar magical realism.
The Star-Touched Queen, by Roshani Chokshi (April 26)
Reviled because of the dark stars she was born under, Maya lives like a leper among the vicious-tongued women of her raja father’s harem. She’s saved from politically motivated self-sacrifice by a mysterious stranger, who takes her away to his lonely palace. But who, exactly, is her new husband, and what darkness lies behind the chilly beauty of her new home? As Maya harnesses the power that lies within her and learns the truth about her past, she must decide what’s real and what’s illusion. Chokshi weaves a mystical fantasy that drips with lush enchantments, pushing past the tropes and older tales it nods toward to walk a fresher, more perilous path.
The Square Root of Summer, by Harriet Reuter Hapgood (May 3)
After her grandfather’s death Gottie is struck with a grief so vertiginous it takes the form of black holes. Nearly a year after the funeral, she’s finding it hard to move on when staticky portals to the past keep sucking her into moments from the last summer her grandpa was alive: the summer she had a secret boyfriend, the summer she fell in love. Her world starts to splinter into different timelines, as grief and heartbreak tangle with the fabric of space-time. But reliving the past in pieces, as well as the sudden return of her childhood soul mate, opens Gottie’s eyes to new theories about physics, family history, and love. Square Root has the lush heart of a Francesca Lia Block novel, with a cool, analytical head.
If I Was Your Girl, by Meredith Russo (May 3)
Amanda is a new girl in a small town, testing a tentative reconciliation with her estranged father and trying to fit in with new friends and an intriguing crush. But Amanda used to be Andrew, before recognizing, after a hate-fueled attack and suicide attempt, that transitioning was the only way to make her life worth living. Flashbacks to her disorienting years living as Andrew punctuate the book, but primarily the story belongs to Amanda, a gentle beauty whose sense of self-preservation in a normative small town might be outweighed by her desire to share all of herself with the boy she’s falling in love with. An arresting, compassionate reminder of how far some have to go to claim the lives they need to live, written by a transgender author who kicks off with a generous and enlightening foreword.
American Girls, by Alison Umminger (June 7)
Fleeing a childish mother, a stalled life, and a guilty conscience, 15-year-old Anna runs away to Los Angeles to live with her D-list actress sister. She spends her days chasing down donuts, trailing her sister around town, and hanging out on the set of the universally despised kids’ show where her sister’s boyfriend is a writer. Her outsider’s view of Hollywood’s has-beens and never-weres winds together with her background research on the Manson girls, at the behest of her sister’s creepy director ex. Like Manson’s followers, Anna is hungry, lost, and stuck on the fringes, watching her sister’s life crash while she avoids the wreckage of her own. And her voice is perfect: forthright and earthy, equal parts wistful beauty and teenage truculence.