Usually I choose one, or at most, two debut novels as the best of the year but the debut fiction category for 2014 is exceptionally strong and it deserves a list of its own. I love debut fiction as it almost always shows the heart and soul of an author. Sometimes in first novels the author’s ebullience comes at the expense of polished prose but not this year. Redeployment by Phil Klay won the National Book Award and Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng was Amazon’s Best Book of the Year Choice. Both are also on my short list along with five other terrific tales.
· Byrd by Kim Church
· Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
· Fives and Twenty-Fives by Michael Pitre
· Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson
· A Man Called Ove by Fredrick Backman
· Redeployment by Phil Klay
· Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler
· We Are Called to Rise by Laura McBride
I love them all as well as several other strong debut titles that you’ll find on my annual list so selecting a best of the best seems like trying to decide which of my kidneys I like better than the other. So with that not-so-appetizing picture in mind, the winners are:
Best Debut Novels of 2014 – A Three-Way Tie
Redeployment by Philip Klay is a smorgasbord of hurt delivered with a one-two punch. Klay’s vivid debut delivers interconnected short stories that punctuate the Iraqi landscape with the lives of those attempting to serve. Chaplains, soldiers, Foreign Service flunkies, and more deliver searing tales Klay’s pen is a scalpel that cuts through the horror to deliver an eloquent portrait of a unique war. Every member of Congress and those in the Cabinet need to read this year’s National Book Award winner.
Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler delivers the reader into the lives of four men in their thirties that grew up together in Little Wing, a small Wisconsin town. Hank stayed to farm his family’s land and rear his children with his wife Beth. The others left: one to Chicago to trade commodities and make money, one to take risks riding in rodeos, and one to become a famous rock star. Shotgun not only captures their lives and the truth and beauty of life in the Midwest (yet it’s NOT a regional novel), it’s also funny, passionate and real. Some of the people I care most about in this world are in their thirties and from the Midwest and this novel is them. Still Shotgun is more; it’s a novel with minor characters and their own powerful stories. The tale of Harvey Bunyan, an old farmer that Kip, the broker, met at a gas station, reads like a fine Cheever short story and it miraculously appears just when we need to know more about who Kip is. The writing chops that make something like Harvey’s story work with Kip’s are why Butler is a writer to watch and Shotgun Lovesongs is a book you must read.
We Are Called to Rise by Laura McBride tells the hope-filled story of Bashkim, an 8-year-old Albanian boy; Luis, a soldier injured in Iraq; and two women who try to help in the face of tragic mistakes. This wonder of a novel is set in a Las Vegas no one knows. Only a gifted writer could make poverty, war, and prejudice this engaging and positive.
McBride says, “I wanted to tell a story that might make a reader have a big feeling, the sense that no matter how cruel life could be in a given moment, no matter how terrible the consequences of a tiny mistake, it was ultimately beautiful to live. I didn’t set out to write a book about war or poverty or racism, I just wanted the reader to love a child enough to feel devastated when that child’s heart was broken and euphoric when that child got a chance at hope.” Debut author McBride accomplished her goal.
This year my heart has bled because of what’s happened in Ferguson, MO and other towns across America and every time I try to think what we could do to make things better, my mind goes back to We Are Called to Rise and people who work to improve lives. If ever there were a year when we simply need to read about a child getting a chance at hope this year is it. Read the full review.
Byrd by Kim Church, As Addie writes letters to the baby she gave up for adoption she slowly reveals herself and her story. Byrd is her name for the boy who she’s let soar into a good life without her. This superb debut novel quietly builds toward Addie’s becoming herself. It’s a wonder! Read the full review.
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng opens with: “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.” When teenaged Lydia can’t be found, the lack of communication in her Chinese-American family shows that things left unsaid can damage. By exploring what it means to be an outsider, this tense, page-turning debut novel makes you read slowly to get every morsel. This is the book I’d give to intelligent teens who feel that they don’t fit.
Fives and Twenty-Fives by Michael Pitre embeds the reader into a group of Marines in Iraq charged with identifying, disabling, and filling mined potholes. They also must recognize and cope with the danger and despair of a war that has made cavities inside each of them and what that means when they get home. This tough read is insanely beautiful. I wanted to personally rescue the young Iraqi interpreter who reads Huck Finn to calm himself.
Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson is as gourmet as a book can be. The writing is so smooth it reads like lobster dipped in melted butter. It’s a brutally shattering tale of families that go off track without knowing they’re slipping. Pete Snow is a rural Montana social worker whose own family is a mess. When he meets mountain man Jeremiah Pearl through Pearl’s son Benjamin who has scurvy and giardia, he hopes to gain Pearl’s trust but trust is a rare commodity in this strange country. A brilliant debut! Read the full review.
A Man Called Ove by Fredrick Backman, Ove, a grumpy Swedish curmudgeon, annoyingly tells everyone the right way to do things, won’t allow what he considers unseemly behavior in his terrace, and wants to be left alone. Ove’s backstory reveals itself as he’s forced to interact with his neighbors, the mail carrier, and a cat. I’m madly in love with Ove. If you loved Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, you’re in for a treat.