As I’ve mentioned in previous years, the health of the debut fiction field is often an excellent gauge of the health of the whole book-scene (the vigor and inventiveness of reprints being another). Hardcover books are, after all, obscenely expensive, and a first-time author is a chance, a speculation – not something an increasingly timid readerate is willing to countenance, and hence something that runs any publisher a much greater risk than, say, David McCullough writing about the Wright Brothers. That publishers are still willing to take that chance – and that they’re still finding authors who warrant it – is surely a good sign. 2014 had a healthy number of debut novels, and although a whopping 70 percent of them were garbage, the rest had some genuine merit. Here are the best of the bunch:

on earth as it is in heaven cover

  1. On Earth As It Is In Heaven by Davide Enia (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) – Enia’s powerful 2012 novel about a boy’s rise through the ranks of the sport of boxing in late-20th Century Palermo is finally available in a lean English-language translation by Antony Shugaar. This story of Davidu’s becoming a man is punctuated by some of the most riveting boxing sequences since Dennis Lehane’s The Given Day, and Enia gives his characters sweet moments of vulnerability as well.

black lake cover

  1. Black Lake by Johanna Lane (Little, Brown) – Lane’s story of the Campbell family’s awkward, partially doomed efforts to hold onto Dulough, its picturesque house on the Irish coast is elegantly understated in a way that debut fiction usually can’t even comprehend, let alone effect. Characters and landscapes are evoked in single lines of memorable beauty, and the book’s conclusions are convincingly bittersweet.

fourth of july creek cover

  1. Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson (Ecco) – “Bittersweet” is certainly the key tonal register in Henderson’s brilliant debut novel about extremely battered, extremely hopeful rural Montana social worker Peter Snow and his straining, imperfect attempts to help the people around him, especially one particular boy who’s been so coarsened by his barbaric family that he’s almost beyond reclamation. The almost painful purity of Henderson’s prose is incredibly memorable, and I’m hoping it presages a long, long career.

ballad of barnabas perkiel cover

  1. The Ballad of Barnabas Pierkiel by Magdalena Zyzak (Henry Holt) – Zyzak sets her droll, often very funny shaggy-dog story in the fictional country of Scalvusia in 1939 as she follows a swineherd named Barnabas on his Don Quixote-style quest for the hand of a local beauty who seems beyond his reach. The story grows more and more absurd as it rambles along, but Zyzak has such an assured comic sense that it all works wonderfully.

us conductors cover

  1. Us Conductors by Sean Michaels (Tin House) – Michaels’ amazingly confident debut historical novel tells the story of Lev Termen, the inventor of an electric musical instrument called the theremin, and Michaels follows Termen throughout the course of his career, from his years in Jazz era Manhattan to his troubled eventual return to his native Russia. On paper it seems less than promising, but Michaels fills his narrative with such energy and mordant insight that it all reads as grippingly as a gladiator novel.

waiting for the electricity cover

  1. Waiting for the Electricity by Christina Nichol (Overlook) – The main character of Nichol’s utterly winning comic novel, Slims Achmed Makashvili, is an unapologetic optimist unbowed by the rampant crime and poverty and zany venality of his home in economically-collapsed post-Communist Georgia; Slims has a dream of making his way to America (including by importuning Senator Hillary Clinton in a series of hilarious letters), and although every single plot development in the novel is predictable, Nichol’s storytelling power carries it all off wonderfully.

the sixteenth of june cover

  1. The Sixteenth of June by Maya Lang (Scribner) – The centrality of “Bloomsday” – or indeed of James Joyce in any capacity – really ought to torpedo my enjoyment of any book, but the x-factor will always be talent, and in this graceful, funny novel about one particular day in the life of a Philadelphia family, Lang deploys more than enough talent to win me over.

in light of what we know cover

  1. In the Light of What We Know by Zia Halder Rahmen (Picador) – In Rahmen’s strong, grim debut, a London-based investment banker whose life is unravelling encounters – after an absence of many years – an old acquaintance of his, a troubled and problematic genius who now seems to have come unhinged completely. The meeting sparks a surprisingly big web of interconnected stories in which virtually the whole of the 20th century is served up in fractured, compelling scenes. It’s a complicated, amazing performance.

high as horses' bridles cover

  1. High as Horse’s Bridles by Scott Cheshire (Henry Holt) – Cheshire opens his riveting debut with the figure of prodigy boy-preacher Josiah Laudermilk, and that set off warning bells for me, since contemporary fiction making hay out of cartoon-evangelism has grown inexpressibly tiresome. But this novel has higher sights and takes the reader to much more rewarding imaginative territory, especially when it comes to Josiah’s relationship with his father. It’s prickly, extremely thoughtful storytelling.

reckoning cover

  1. Reckoning by Rusty Barnes (sunnyoutside) – Ordinarily, the single sub-genre of contemporary fiction I hate the most is hick-lit, in which iPad-loving Prius-driving central-AC-enjoying authors fetishize the poverty and allegedly concommitant realness of the Ozarks or west Texas or the Arkansas foothills. And since the locus classicus of this sub-genre is the dirt-poor communities that dot the hollers of Appalachia, you’d think no book set there would stand a chance of making any Stevereads list (at least, any of the good ones). And yet, the single best debut novel I read in 2014 is just such a book: in Reckoning, Rusty Barnes tells the story of what unfolds from the moment when 14-year-old Richard and his friends find a beaten and disoriented woman named Misty in a swimming-hole, but Reckoning does much more than that. With a sharp asperity, an utter lack of condescension, and best of all a downright poetic prose line, it captures not just a strange place but what it’s like both love it and hate it. It’s a genuinely haunting accomplishment; you should all go to the Sunnyoutside Press website and order a copy.









  • Chuck Darwin

    Hey Steve,

    Thanks for the terrific recommendations. Now that you are on to serious fiction, I was wondering what your thoughts were on the Ruth Graham/Slate/YA kefuffle this past summer. I was truly stunned at the almost universal condemnation of Graham and her article. She was attacked viciously for what I thought was a critically important if provocative piece. I can’t count the number of college-educated colleagues and acquaintances I have who read pretty nothing but YA, and it continues to dismay and surprise me.

© 2007-2018, Steve Donoghue