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Our enthusiasm for outstanding first novels runs high, as evident in our annual Spotlight on First Novels. We were elated when a debut novel, Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!,was chosen as a finalist for the first Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. This award, along with the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction, recognizes the best fiction and nonfiction books for adult readers published in the U.S. each year. (The other fiction finalist was Russell Banks for Lost Memory of Skin, and the winner was Anne Enright for The Forgotten Waltz.)
Curiously, both Lost Memory of Skin and Swamplandia! are set in Florida, which is currently under close scrutiny as a swing state in the presidential election. With debuts in mind, we wondered if any other first novelists, like Karen Russell, have written fresh and provocative fiction about life in this year’s eight swing states. Here are our poll results.
The Dog Stars, by Peter Heller
Heller’s gripping first novel is a harrowing yet charming postapocalyptic tale, featuring Hig, a poet, hunter, and pilot, who is holed up with gruff and courageous Bangley in a small Colorado airport from which Hig makes forays into the wilderness, struck by the beauty of the land and the satisfactions of the old ways of living.
Sight Hound, by Pam Houston
Houston’s first novel is composed of interconnected monologues, some in the voices of animals, telling the tale of Rae, a playwright living in Colorado, with a flinty housekeeper; a good-time dog named Rose; a self-contained cat named Stanley; and a truly enlightened being, Dante the Irish wolfhound. Part fable, part romance, part paean to the glory of nature, Houston’s endearing Rockies screwball comedy is smart, sweet, and teary.
The Gospel of Anarchy, by Justin Taylor
Taylor’s provocative debut novel imagines Gainesville, Florida, swallowed up by its university and an ever-developing string of chain stores and apartment complexes as a small but zealous group of anarchist punks rebel against corporate corruption and government oppression. Writing from various perspectives in a wholly captivating style, Taylor traces the delicate lines between freedom, spirituality, politics, and happiness.
Nothing Happens until It Happens to You, by T. M. Shine
After 18 years spent writing mind-numbing copy for a Florida newspaper, Jeffrey Reiner is shocked to receive a pink slip. At first, he finds solace in his neighbors’ sympathy and his wife’s willingness to pick up extra hours at the medical lab, but soon Jeff finds work performing odd jobs for a mysterious man. Journalist Shine’s unpredictable first novel, spiked with deprecating humor, will appeal to every reader affected by the current economic crisis.
Swamplandia! by Karen Russell
Russell’s lavishly imagined and spectacularly crafted first novel is anchored to a shabby tourist attraction deep in the Everglades, owned by the Bigtree clan of alligator wrestlers. But things come undone as young Ava goes on an otherworldly quest in search of her missing older sister, and their brother finds work at the World of Darkness, an amusement park featuring the “rings of hell.” Ravishing, elegiac, funny, and brilliantly inquisitive, Russell’s mystical tale portrays three innocents who come of age through trials of water, fire, and air.
The House of Tomorrow, by Peter Bognanni
In Bognanni’s heartbreakingly funny and deeply compassionate story of self-discovery and family bonding, 17-year-old, homeschooled Sebastian Prendergast has lived in semi-rural Iowa with his eccentric grandmother in a geodesic dome but is now forced to leave their bubble world. Tightly plotted, fun, and irreverent, Bognanni’s debut novel perfectly captures the spirit of the Midwest and teenage angst in all its raw and riotous discomfort.
The Legacy of Eden, by Nelle Davy
Aurelia, 3,000 acres of fertile Iowa farmland, was always a grand estate owned by the Hathaway family, but Lavinia insisted on turning it into a showplace, and now her schemes and extravagance have put everything in jeopardy. Davy’s strong debut illuminates the tradition of Midwest family farms, and the family and economic pressures that put it in danger.
The Comfort of Our Kind, by Tom Stoner
Stoner deftly limns the Moffat family as Wes, a former TV kiddie-show host who evolved into a collector of local New Hampshire history, and his wife, the former Sister Donica Lenore, who foresees the future and has raised their three children to be warriors against the devil, face their fiftieth anniversary in this oddly endearing and comic first novel of family eccentricity and a mystical quest.
Leave Myself Behind, by Bart Yates
Noah is a closeted gay teenager with a foul mouth and a critical disposition, whose newly widowed mother, a temperamental poet, takes a teaching job in a small New Hampshire town, where their old house contains dark secrets and their neighbors have their own violent troubles. First-time novelist Yates combines tough subjects—rape, incest, and alcoholism—with wit, romance, and the honest, sometimes silly, often tender interactions among his fragile characters.
Under the Mercy Trees, by Heather Newton
A melancholy mood suffuses Newton’s nimble debut about a middle-aged man who returns, reluctantly, to his rural North Carolina hometown, where, sure enough, he finds himself in the company of the same damaged souls he fled decades before. In this eloquent, sorrowful novel, Newton gradually reveals dark (and occasionally scandalous) secrets in a piquant portrayal of Southern small-town life that will please fans of both Pat Conroy and Carson McCullers.
When the Finch Rises, by Jack Riggs
Riggs puts a wondrous and compelling spin on the theme of children left to fend for themselves in a perilous world as he portrays two 12-year-olds, best friends Raybert and Palmer, who live in a blue-collar mill town in North Carolina, and try to escape family sorrows by emulating the crazy stunts of Evel Knievel, all the while planning their getaway in the Catalina that belonged to Palmer’s deceased dad. Riggs commandingly incorporates stunning moments of magical realism, turning his harsh story into something quite beautiful.
The Broom of the System, by David Foster Wallace
In his first novel, published in 1987, the late, celebrated Wallace imagined a near-future and altered Cleveland, and the Great Ohio Desert (G.O.D.), where a bewildered telephone operator faces all sorts of perils: a switchboard that is on an electronic rampage; an overattentive but sexually underpowered lover; a set of family problems that begins with a missing great-grandmother; and a whole slew of other rollicking predicaments in a highly imaginative, zany, perceptive, and funny tale.
The Full Cleveland, by Terry Reed
Residents of haughty Shaker Heights, Ohio, the five Parkman children look forward to an annual pilgrimage conducted by their stubbornly Protestant father into the heart of the city to learn firsthand how the less fortunate live. Meanwhile, back at home, Mom is busy inculcating the kids with both Catholic prayers and materialistic aspirations. Hilarious and poignant by turns, Reed’s debut novel resonates with warmth, charm, and honesty.
The Weird Sisters, by Eleanor Brown
Three sisters, a scholarly father who breaks into iambic pentameter, and an absentminded but loving mother who brought the girls up in rural Ohio may sound like an idyllic family; however, when Rosalind, Bianca, and Cordelia return to their hometown of Barnwell, readers begin to see a whole different family during the heavy Ohio summer as Brown unspools a funny, lyrical, and realistic first novel of family complications and life in the Midwest.
The Bird Sisters, by Rebecca Rasmussen
Born to two star-crossed lovers turned emotionally estranged parents in rural Wisconsin, Twiss and Milly grow up in poverty, continually trying to forge a bridge between their mother and father. As Twiss and Milly reach late adolescence, they must decipher the world of relationships on their own, causing Twiss’ wild-woman tendencies to grow stronger and pushing Milly toward Asa, the doctor’s son who mows their lawn. In this charming yet sober first novel, Rasmussen has the sisters tell their tale as girls and older women still living in the same house.
I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone, by Stephanie Kuehnert
Punk rocker Emily Black’s single-parent daddy is a guitar player, and she grows up reasonably together and rebellious in a small Wisconsin farming town notable for its outlaw music venue, River’s Edge, graduating from sleeping with potential “rock gods” to starting a band of her own. Debut novelist Kuehnert makes the union of rock and roll and coming of age new by marshaling tonic energy and 100-proof candor in this high-speed, switchback tale.
If Jack’s in Love, by Stephen Wetta
The odds against 12-year-old bookworm Jack Witcher are stacked: his house is the ugliest in town, his homely mother is an atheist, and his older brother, Stan, picks fights with anything that moves—a skill he learned from the boys’ hard-living, scrappy, unemployed father. Set in 1960s El Dorado Hills, Virginia, and populated with richly realistic characters, Wetta’s charming first novel is propulsive and pearled with what might be the author’s own experiences growing up in a similar town.
The Lost Saints of Tennessee, by Amy Franklin-Willis
Ezekiel Cooper won a full scholarship to the University of Virginia but was forced to drop out to care for his mentally challenged twin brother, Carter. Now in his forties, Zeke ends up at his cousin’s lush Virginia farm, where an attractive riding instructor, rewarding farmwork, and his cousin’s warm hospitality soothe his soul. In her uplifting first novel of one man’s attempt to make a better life for himself and his family, Franklin-Willis has endless compassion for her working-class southern characters.
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