Saturday, June 9, 2012

Favorite Fiction: Contemporary Debut Novels

Contemporary authors like Jonathan Franzen, Suzanne Collins, Ann Patchett, and Margaret Atwood are now considered household names, but every writer has to start somewhere.  Some turn into literary "one hit wonders" while others go on to win all sorts of prizes, honors, and awards, but as the phrase gotta start somewhere.  This segment of Favorite Fiction is about literary beginnings of contemporary authors.  Some are still new to the publishing world, and others have produced bestsellers and masterpieces, but they all have one thing in common - notable and impressive debut novels.  So here are Hooked Bookworm's top ten debut novels of contemporary writers:

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey
The Snow Child was published earlier this year, and tells the story of Mabel and Jack, a couple living in rural Alaska in the early 1900s who desperately want a child but are unable to conceive.  One day, the couple decides to build a snowman, which Mabel soon turns into a little snowgirl.  The next day, a young child appears on their property bearing a striking resemblance to the snowgirl they built the day before.  Mabel and Jack soon begin to question whether or not the young girl is the answer to their prayers or if she is simply a figment of their overworked imaginations.  This novel is very fast-paced and unique, and even though it is based on the Russian fairy tale, Snegurochka, it feels fresh and original.  The Snow Child has received strong reviews and was even added to Barnes and Noble's Discover Great New Writers Series.  Check out the full review here.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
By this point, Stieg Larsson is definitely a household name, but you have to admit, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo started a literary phenomenon.  These books have been bestsellers for years and have inspired multiple films.  The Millennium Trilogy is controversial, disturbing, and intense, but with this series, Stieg Larsson created a timeless literary heroine - Lisbeth Salander.  She's not your everyday heroine, but that may be what makes her such a compelling character.  Unfortunately, Larsson passed away in 2004 before seeing any of his books published, but I have a feeling that this series will be around for a very long time. Read Hooked Bookworm's full review of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo here.

A Surrey State of Affairs by Ceri Radford
Ceri Radford's debut novel was just released a couple of months ago, but it has already generated a great deal of discussion among bloggers and reviewers.  A Surrey State of Affairs is about a middle-aged woman, Constance, who starts a diary-like blog where she reveals the innermost secrets of her friends, family, and neighbors.  She has no sense of personal boundaries or privacy, which makes for some pretty hilarious observations.  As I mentioned in my review, she reminds me a lot of Hyacinth Bucket from the TV show, Keeping Up Appearances.  If you're familiar with the show, that should give you a pretty good idea of the caliber of Constance's character.  This debut novel is incredibly entertaining and very would be a great start for anyone's summer reading list!

Bloodroot by Amy Greene
Bloodroot is Amy Greene's first and only novel thus far, but I can confidently say that she is one of my favorite writers.  This unforgettable book tells the story of Myra Lamb, an enigma of a woman living in rural Appalachia.  Her story is told from multiple perspectives and covers several generations.  Amy Greene expertly weaves together the narrative voices to create a unique and haunting portrayal of Myra and her family.  Living in the rural south, the characters encounter poverty, violence, and devastation, and the southern landscape becomes its own unique character.  Bloodroot is heartbreaking and intense, but this book provides an unforgettable reading experience.  Amy Greene is a well-established and respected southern author, but her writing abilities transcend any genre limitations.

Model Home by Eric Puchner
 Eric Puchner's debut novel is set in the 1980s, during an economic slump.  Sound familiar?  Warren Ziller is a real estate developer who specializes in poorly constructed, cookie-cutter subdivision houses that can be sold to the lower middle class for a quick profit.  But with the failing economy and an unexpected family crises, the Zillers are forced to move into one of Warren's cheaply built houses.  Model Home follows Warren, his wife, and their three children as they struggle to make ends meet and still maintain their image of wealth and luxury.  It doesn't exactly go well.  With this novel, Puchner perfectly captures the idea of the American dream and, more specifically, what happens when it is not achieved.  Read Hooked Bookworm's full review of Model Home here.

Shopgirl by Steve Martin
 Ok so technically this is a novella, but I'm counting it!  Just about everyone is familiar with comedian Steve Martin's volume of work.  He's a writer, an actor, a comedian, a musician, and a magician, but he's also a great novelist.  Published in 2000, Shopgirl tells the story of Mirabelle, a twenty-something Vermont native who moves to Los Angeles and works at a department the glove department.  When was the last time you bought gloves? Exactly.  Anyway, Mirabelle soon meets Ray Porter, a middle-aged man who becomes infatuated with the young sales assistant, and the two embark upon a very strange, awkward, and tender relationship.  With this novella, Steve Martin really shows off his ability to portray the tedious and confusing nature of new relationships.  The writing is skillful, the plot is entertaining, and it still manages to be funny, sad, and completely relatable.

The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides
Since the publication of this 1993 debut novel, Jeffrey Eugenides has published two more (extremely popular) novels, Middlesex, and The Marriage Plot.  Oh and he won the Pulitzer Prize in 2003.  But before he was a prize winning literary powerhouse, he wrote one of the most beautiful, disturbing, and elegantly-written novels I've ever encountered.  Most people have probably seen the movie by now, but The Virgin Suicides is one of those books that reminds you how beautiful language and syntax can be, so please please please read the book...even if you know how it ends.  The writing is completely mesmerizing and the imagery is breathtaking.  Jeffrey Eugenides more than deserves his place on the American bookshelf, and this novel will always have a prime spot on mine.  I really wish I could re-experience reading this book for the first time. Sigh.....

Treasure Island!!! by Sara Levine
Sara Levine's debut novel introduces us to a whiny, pretentious, and completely wretched nameless narrator who has developed an obsession with Robert Louis Stevenson's classic novel of the same name.  In order to live a life of adventure, our narrator quits her job, breaks up with her patient and caring boyfriend, and adopts a parrot named Richard.  Unfortunately, because she has no money, her adventures are limited to moving back in with her parents and meddling in the lives of her family members.  Even though the narrator is unreliable and unlikeable, this book is ridiculously and absurdly entertaining.  Levine has a knack for dry, sarcastic humor that often wanders into the realm of black comedy, so if that sounds like your style then you should definitely give this new author a try!  Check out the full review here.

The Help by Kathryn Stockett
Much like Stieg Larsson did with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Kathryn Stockett started her own literary phenomenon with her debut novel, The Help.  I know a lot of people are sick of hearing about how wonderful this book is, but it really is spectacular.  If you haven't read it, the story takes place in Mississippi during the 1960s.  Skeeter Phelan has just graduated from college and is looking for a job as a writer, but not having much luck.  She eventually pursues the project of writing a book told from the perspective of "the help," meaning the African-American housekeepers hired by the white middle and upper class.  Through this project, Sweeter gets to know several black women in her community and learns of their hardships, joys, and experiences as black women in the south during the civil rights movement.

Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist
 Yes, John Ajvide Lindqvist's debut novel is about a vampire, but Eli is not sparkly, or romantic or anything.  She's actually a child. Well, to be fair, she is over 200 years old, but she inhabits a child's body, which makes for some pretty creepy imagery.  She soon befriends a neighbor kid named Oskar, a 12 year-old boy who is frequently the victim of school bullying.  The two form a strangely intense connection that leads to a sinister and bizarre conclusion.  But more than anything, this novel is about loneliness and our innate desire to connect with other people.  Let the Right One In was originally written in Swedish but Ebba Segerberg expertly translate the text into English.  Even if you're not usually a vampire lit fan, this debut novel is worth your time.  And it's true what they say about Swedish one can quite write mysteries and thrillers quite like the Swedes.

This is by no means a comprehensive list, but these novels certainly stand out as debut releases.  This list really just scratches the surface, so we may have to consider a "debut authors" sequel.  But in the meantime, which books do you consider to be exceptional first novels?