Book List

11 Debut Novels We Love

Bruni writes dark passages and playful moments with equal aplomb. The world is her oyster.

THE NIGHT GWEN STACY DIED

Spider-Man lore is one layer of this superbly suspenseful first novel about two loners, improbable lawbreakers, on a mission to Chicago. 

How do you get out of Iowa? Sheila Gower would love to know. Bored silly by her family and hometown, the high school senior fantasizes about immigrating to Paris before her French teacher discourages her. The solution is one of the regulars at the gas station where she works the swing shift. Peter Parker (Spider-Man’s “real” name) is a cabdriver in his mid-20s and is clearly attracted to her. Sheila learns from her research that Spider-Man was unable to save his first girlfriend, Gwen Stacy, from the villainous Green Goblin. But when Peter shows her a gun at the station, suggesting they fake a kidnapping, empty the cash register and drive to Chicago, daredevil Sheila is up for it. Peter’s story reveals him as more victim than creep. He was only 6 when his much older brother committed suicide, an overdose. Seeking escape, Peter immersed himself in the Spider-Man books; his mother, sensing his trauma, let him assume Spider-Man’s name. Peter’s not crazy; he knows he lacks superhuman powers, but he does have premonitions in his dreams, and when a recurrent dream features the gas-station girl, a gun (found in his mother’s underwear drawer) and Chicago, he swings into action. Bruni does a masterful job evoking their world, equal parts fantasy and reality and further skewed by a downtown Chicago that’s been invaded by coyotes. Their chemistry changes as they become mutually dependent lovers and Sheila, no dummy, realizes that Peter’s plan—to rescue a man haunting his dreams—is no plan at all. When push comes to shove, and the fugitives are in danger of exposure, it is Sheila/Gwen’s quick thinking that saves them. Is Bruni steering us toward Gwen’s rendezvous with destiny or something more reality-based? She keeps readers guessing as the plot twists and turns. 

Bruni writes dark passages and playful moments with equal aplomb. The world is her oyster.

Pub Date: July 2, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-547-89816-2

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Mariner/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Review Posted Online: April 16, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2013

A sardonically appealing debut for a detective who assures his long-suffering grandson, “I care about people. I just don’t...

DON'T EVER GET OLD

A geezer cowboy who’s been retired from Memphis Homicide longer than he served there is thrust into the middle of a murderous hunt for Nazi plunder.

What a shame that when Jim Wallace was on his deathbed, he asked his old comrade-in-arms Buck Schatz to come see him. The two had never been friends, and they don’t bond now over Jim’s revelation that he’d accepted a bar of gold in return for letting the supposedly dead Heinrich Ziegler, the SS commandant of the POW camp where both GIs languished in 1944, pass through a military crossing and out of history. As if Jim’s confession weren’t bad enough, Buck soon realizes that Jim blabbed to everyone he could reach from his hospital bed. Now Jim’s daughter Emily and her repellant husband Norris, Baptist preacher Lawrence Kind, Israeli agent Yitzchak Steinblatt and casino debt collector T. Addleford Pratt are all convinced that Buck is on the trail of Ziegler and his gold, and they’re all determined to cut themselves in for a piece of the action. Worse still, someone doesn’t trust natural causes to eliminate his competitors. Since he’s 88 years old, Buck’s clear mandate is to go back to watching daytime TV. Instead, he pokes Det. Randall Jennings with a stick and, when that fails, enlists his grandson William, aka Tequila, to spend his summer off from NYU Law School helping him track down Ziegler. The real prize here, however, isn’t Nazi treasure but Buck’s what-the-hell attitude toward observing social pieties, smoking in forbidden venues and making life easier for other folks. As he battles memory loss and a host of physical maladies, it’s great to see that he can still make whippersnapper readers laugh out loud.

A sardonically appealing debut for a detective who assures his long-suffering grandson, “I care about people. I just don’t like them.”

Pub Date: May 22, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-312-60693-0

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Minotaur

Review Posted Online: March 19, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2012

A gripping thrill ride that’s also a thoughtful coming-of-age story.

THE YEAR OF THE GADFLY

Journalist Miller (Inheriting the Holy Land, 2005) makes her fiction debut with a smoldering mystery set in a New England prep school.

Iris Dupont’s parents have relocated to western Massachusetts, ostensibly so she can attend the prestigious Mariana Academy, but really because they’re worried about Iris. Her best friend Dalia recently committed suicide, and Iris has been observed talking to a wall—actually, she confides, she’s talking to her idol, Edward R. Murrow, and, yes, she knows he’s dead; but their imaginary conversations help smart, ambitious Iris sort out her feelings and remain focused on her goal of becoming a great journalist. She gets plenty to investigate, beginning with a science book containing a mysterious inscription that she finds in the bedroom of Lily Morgan, daughter of Mariana’s former headmaster. The Duponts are temporarily staying in the absent Morgans’ house, a rare contrived premise in an otherwise well-plotted tale that mingles first-person narrations by Iris and biology teacher Jonah Kaplan, who was once a student at Mariana, with the grim story of Lily’s ordeal and departure from Mariana in 2000. The novel occasionally recalls Donna Tartt’s The Secret History (1992), with its tale of a covert student group (Prisom’s Party in this case) up to no good, but it’s far less pretentious, and Miller’s portrait of the way basically decent kids get sucked into destructive behavior is more credible. Prisom’s Party does engage in some very ugly antics, however, and as Mariana’s scandal-racked history unfolds through Iris’ detective work, we see that Jonah was implicated in past wrongdoing as well. The author skillfully ratchets up the tension as Iris (and the reader) finds it harder and harder to tell who the good guys are, particularly after Prisom’s Party sends an appealing boy to recruit her. It’s scarily possible that she will come to share Jonah’s guilt and grief, as she is manipulated into the sort of betrayal that shattered Lily’s life.

A gripping thrill ride that’s also a thoughtful coming-of-age story. 

Pub Date: May 8, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-547-54859-3

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Review Posted Online: April 9, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2012

A crisply written, grisly mashup tailor-made for black comedy junkies.

FIEND

Tweakers versus zombies. That’s about it, really.

Stenson’s narrator is Chase Daniels, a white-bread methamphetamine addict with a habit of describing his physical symptoms in excruciating detail. Our guy has been holed up for weeks with his best friend, Typewriter, getting “spun” on those glorious little shards of glass. When Chase rubs his eyes, looks out the window and sees a little girl devouring the carcass of a dog, he thinks it’s just a vivid hallucination. It turns out that he and Typewriter managed to bypass a zombie apocalypse that plays out just like the ones you’ve seen on TV, with the creepy exception that the virus makes all its victims giggle. The apocalypse is enough to make Chase think that his ex-girlfriend, KK, was right when she skipped off to rehab. When Chase finally reunites with his lady love, though, he’s saddled with her new boyfriend, and they’re both high as Wu-Tang. The gang eventually figures out that smoking or shooting is the only way to avoid becoming a giggler, theoretically giving them free range to keep getting high. But scoring scante and avoiding their brethren addicts isn’t easy even in a world without cops. Stenson's percussive style and grotesque imagery lend themselves well to the story. 

A crisply written, grisly mashup tailor-made for black comedy junkies.

Pub Date: July 9, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-7704-3631-5

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: May 5, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2013

Preppy murder mystery meets coming-of-age story—with lots of sailing.

THE STARBOARD SEA

Troubled teenage boy hopes for a fresh start after transferring to a third-rate New England prep school.

Blessed with a stunning oceanfront view and populated by an assortment of screw-ups from America’s wealthiest families, Bellingham is Jason Prosper’s last chance. At least it is if—like the other men in his very rich family—he wants to attend Princeton. Still mourning the loss of his best friend, Cal, who hung himself at their previous boarding school, Jason struggles with considerable guilt. The boys were sailing partners and secret lovers, and Cal died after a falling out between the two. Ambivalent about even getting on the water without Cal, Jason quits the Bellingham sailing team after almost drowning a fellow student, Race, during a training exercise. He instead fixates on Aidan, a fragile redhead from California who the other boys have taken to calling “Hester” in reference to The Scarlet Letter. Aidan, who has reason to believe she might be the illegitimate daughter of movie star Robert Mitchum, has plenty of issues of her own, but she responds well to Jason’s kindness and the two begin a fledgling romance. But after a hurricane, she goes missing, and is found dead of an assumed suicide. Sensing that she would not have taken her own life, Jason attempts to retrace her last night—leading to several harsh discoveries and considerable soul-searching of his own dark heart (and ambiguous sexuality). Meanwhile, Jason’s estranged parents and shady financier older brother provide minimal emotional support. Set against the backdrop of the 1987 stock-market collapse, Dermont’s confident debut novel almost works as a swan song for a lost gilded age. But her insular, sociopathic characters and emotionally removed 18-year-old narrator do little to engender sympathy—or interest.

Preppy murder mystery meets coming-of-age story—with lots of sailing.

Pub Date: March 1, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-312-64280-8

Page Count: 320

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Dec. 25, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2012

As the male character's path to redemption leaves his body increasingly ravaged, Bell’s book becomes an unflinching portrait...

IN THE HOUSE UPON THE DIRT BETWEEN THE LAKE AND THE WOODS

A folkloric, allegorical tale of modern marriage, complete with shape-shifting, secret passageways and trials by fire.

The couple in this debut novel by Bell (How They Were Found: Stories, 2010) isn’t named, but the author drops strong hints that we should think of them as Adam and Eve. That's not just because we know the man’s name is two syllables and that the woman’s is three letters and palindromic, but because they are so clearly archetypes of babes in the wilderness. The two left the city for the woods after marrying, but miscarriage after miscarriage has undone their hopes for a family. All the man is left with is a “fingerling”—a fetuslike being that occupies his body and intones the occasional bit of devilish guidance. After the woman arrives with a “foundling”—actually a bear cub morphed to look like a child—the couple becomes increasingly stressed and divided by their unnatural state of being. That’s one way to look at it, anyhow: Bell cultivates a loose sense of unreality that allows the reader to make all sorts of metaphorical projections. But the novel is also meticulously designed, with a particular focus on the musicality of its sentences, and the narrative’s general arc of adventure and discovery is relatively conventional. In time, the man will lose his wife, tussle aboveground with a bear and underwater with a squid, and discover an underworld that’s a replica of the woodsy world he’s left. Some of Bell’s heavily symbolic adventuring grows too repetitive to sustain a full-length novel—there’s a reason Jorge Borges stuck with short stories—but there’s an undeniably heartfelt tone to this tale that transcends its unusual cast.

As the male character's path to redemption leaves his body increasingly ravaged, Bell’s book becomes an unflinching portrait of the struggle to keep a family intact.

Pub Date: June 18, 2013

ISBN: 978-1-61695-253-2

Page Count: 312

Publisher: Soho

Review Posted Online: April 16, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2013

Teenaged years served up without sugar: a class act.

PREP

A witty, involving boarding-school drama from Seventeen magazine award-winner Sittenfeld.

Seduced by media depictions of glamorous boarding-school life, South Bend teenager Lee Fiora uses her straight-A average as a ticket out of her LCM (lower middle class, in prep-school speak) home, winning a scholarship to tony Ault. But once there, she’s immediately the dorkey outcast, relegated to the company of the ethnics and the weirdoes. The rest could have been a standard nerd narrative, as Lee pursues the unattainably cool and gorgeous Cross Sugerman and finds an unexpected niche cutting hair for the popular kids. But Sittenfeld is too serious to let the story lapse into cliché. Instead of triumphing, her underdog is gradually corrupted by her frustrated social climbing. Lee’s grades flag while she obsesses about being liked; Cross does finally come to her bed, but keeps it a shameful secret, using her only as an easy sexual outlet. While resenting the popular kids, Lee is too vain to court them, preferring to lurk resentfully in her room. When her loving but lowbrow family comes to visit, she tries only to hide them, sacrificing her parents for an elusive popularity. By the end, Lee’s father has turned his back on her, remarking, “Sorry I couldn’t buy you a big house with a palm tree, Lee. Sorry you got such a raw deal for a family.” Her one close friend and roommate, Martha, serves as a foil. Beginning as an outsider like Lee, Martha finally becomes the senior prefect, generally liked for her straightforward kindness. As for Lee, we never lose sympathy for her, even when it becomes clear that it’s not her classmates’ snobbery but her own that isolates her. The boarding-school formula allows newcomer Sittenfeld the comforting slippers-and-ice-cream haven of chick-lit while allowing much more in the way of psychological insight.

Teenaged years served up without sugar: a class act.

Pub Date: Jan. 18, 2005

ISBN: 1-4000-6231-4

Page Count: 416

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2004

Dark and disturbing but also exciting and moving thanks to a memorable heroine and vividly atmospheric prose.

THE PANOPTICON

Critically acclaimed in Britain, Scottish writer Fagan’s U.S. debut limns life in a last-resort residence for teen outcasts.

Like everyone else in the Panopticon, 15-year-old Anais Hendricks has been in and out of foster care practically since birth. “[B]orn in a nuthouse to nobody that was ever seen again,” she had her only successful foster placement with a prostitute later stabbed to death (Anais found the body). She’s been sent to this facility, where the inmates are under constant surveillance, because she had a bad history with a policewoman who has been bludgeoned into a coma, and Anais—almost permanently whacked on whatever drug she can lay her hands on—can’t explain why she has blood on her skirt. If the police can prove she did it, she’ll be locked up full-time until she’s 18; meanwhile, she enjoys the relative freedom of the Panopticon and forms intense bonds with other residents. Isla, whose self-cutting has worsened since she learned that she passed HIV to her twins, has a history grimly typical of the kids dumped here by an indifferent society. Anais, as her sympathetic support worker Angus notices, is stronger, smarter and more resilient than her hapless peers. Readers discern Anais’ difference from her first-person narration, a tart rendering in savory Scottish dialect of her bitter perceptions of the world that has no use for her, embodied in what she calls “the experiment,” a mysterious group to which she ascribes vaguely supernatural powers. It’s probably a delusion (remember all those drugs), but we’re never quite sure; an almost unrelievedly grim parade of events reinforces Anais’s perception that some sinister force is arrayed against her and her friends. The tentative happy ending snatched from near-certain disaster might seem like wish fulfillment if Fagan had not painted her battered characters’ fierce loyalty to each other with such conviction and surprising tenderness.

Dark and disturbing but also exciting and moving thanks to a memorable heroine and vividly atmospheric prose.

Pub Date: July 23, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-385-34786-0

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Hogarth/Crown

Review Posted Online: May 5, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2013

Accomplished debut fiction.

THE REST OF US

A May-December romance is at the center of this layered, engaging debut fiction.

The narrator is the articulate, observant photographer Teresa—friends call her Terry, while she is Tatie to her older lover Rhinehart. Terry was Rhinehart’s lover in college; he a visiting professor, she a student. When she reads his obit in the New York Times, she realizes how fresh the wound is, despite the 15 years since their on-again, off-again affair dissolved in tears. But Rhinehart is not dead, but married to Laura, a woman they both knew. Rhinehart is a poet alienated from his muse, remote but benign and obsessed with his complicated family. As love often does for lovers, their feelings for each other cascade through their own lives. Terry resumes her own work and gets help negotiating the predatory New York art scene from an unlikely source. Rhinehart woos his muse and wrestles his demons. Terry tells of her early life, of her best friend Hallie, a conflicted, nervy woman. A housewife in suburban New Jersey, she has too much time on her hands. A dinner party at Hallie’s arid suburban mansion, where recrimination is canapé, is a fraught black comedy. The book features several parties and gives us glimpses of hard partying: This delicate matter—how private lives become public, how our public selves have their own continuity and duration—is handled sensitively. If the arc of the narrative is too parabolic, if the action rises too steadily, Lott’s characterization, dialogue and affection for her characters is winning.

Accomplished debut fiction.

Pub Date: July 2, 2013

ISBN: 978-1-4516-4587-3

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: May 5, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2013

McKenzie’s maiden thriller is a hit, even if it becomes a bit crowded in the process.

CLOSE MY EYES

British children’s author McKenzie’s first adult novel is a psychological thriller centered around a woman whose life has been on hold ever since her baby died eight year earlier.

Gen and her husband, Art, are still deeply in love, but they are struggling after years of trying to deal with the stillbirth of their only child, Beth. The baby was delivered early after an obstetrician detected that there was no heartbeat. After the child’s stillbirth, it was determined she was deformed and would not have survived anyway, a revelation that threw Gen into emotional turmoil. Although she and Art have been trying to conceive again, they’ve been unsuccessful and have resorted to fertility treatments. None have taken. Gen is almost ready to give up on having a child when a woman comes to her door and tells her some unsettling news: Not only was Gen’s baby born alive, but others knew about it, including someone close to Gen. Although Gen doesn’t believe the woman, she starts to investigate on her own, setting off a chain of events that lead her deeper and deeper into a dark place. Along the way, she acquires an unlikely ally, a man who once worked with her husband but who is now one of his deadliest foes. She is left to wonder who is playing her for a fool—one of the people she loves or her new friend. McKenzie is a skillful writer and understands how to build interest and tension with well-drawn characters and fascinating back story. But readers might want to keep a notepad handy to keep track of the people she introduces—some necessary, others simply there to fill out the plot. After a while, readers may have trouble keeping track of who’s who.

McKenzie’s maiden thriller is a hit, even if it becomes a bit crowded in the process.

Pub Date: July 9, 2013

ISBN: 978-1-250-03389-5

Page Count: 400

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: May 6, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2013

A moving novel about life and death.

FOREVER, INTERRUPTED

A debut love story from Los Angeles–based Reid.

Elsie's new husband, Ben, is hit by a truck while riding his bicycle. He dies on impact. Ben’s mother, Susan, never knew her son had a wife (the courtship was brief). When she and Susan meet after Ben's death, there's friction. The book flashes back to Elsie and Ben’s brief, fun-filled romance and Vegas elopement, and it tracks the post-funeral friendship that develops between Elsie and Susan. Ben was reluctant to tell his recently widowed mother about his upcoming marriage since he was afraid Susan would feel that he was pushing her out of his life. And Elsie was afraid Susan wouldn’t like her since her own parents had always made her feel like an unloved failure. Over time, the two women work through their suspicion and anxieties and confide in one another, support one another, talk about Ben together and eventually talk to Ben together. There is a subplot involving an old man, a frequent visitor to the library where Elsie works, who's preparing for the death of his wife.

A moving novel about life and death.

Pub Date: July 9, 2013

ISBN: 978-1-4767-1282-6

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Washington Square/Pocket

Review Posted Online: May 5, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2013

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