As usual, we begin our seasonal listings by highlighting 10 promising debut novels. Among the intriguing protagonists: a drug dealer's sibling home from a prison stretch, a Catholic priest questioning his professional path, a young woman—er, zombie—seven years into her afterlife. Siobhan Fallon, whose army major husband served two tours in Iraq, starts us off by describing what happens when the husbands are away.
The Art of Losing
Rebecca Connell, 30
(Europa Editions, Oct.)
Born: Somerset, U.K.; lives in London
Favorite authors: Martin Amis, Maggie O'Farrell, Vladimir Nabokov, Zoë Heller, Herman Hesse, John Fowles
Career arc: English graduate, agent's assistant, TV freelancer, youth trend–spotter, government researcher. "Writing has been pretty much my only constant!"
Plot: Eighteen years after her mother's untimely death, Louise returns to Oxford University to confront Nicholas, a professor she believes is responsible. Pretending to be a student, Louise befriends Nicholas's son, Adam. As she grows increasingly close to the family, the circumstances of her mother's death are revealed to be vastly more complex and bizarre than Louise imagined.
Author's toughest challenge: "My novel contains two narrative voices—a woman in her 20s and a middle-aged man. The challenge was to make each compelling, believable, readable, and yet distinct from the other."
Publisher's pitch: Says editorial assistant Julia Haav, "This literary fiction debut is rich with psychological depth and acuity. Alternating between two perspectives, two very different takes on the same tragedy, Connell deftly probes the contours and shortcomings of memory with what the Independent described as a "finely crafted mood of curdled sensuality and gathering menace."
Opening lines: "Until I was ten, my father told me a bedtime story every night. I suppose that in the early days the stories covered the usual ground, but after my mother died they changed. His new stories were all about her."
Dogfight, A Love Story
Matt Burgess, 28
Born: Jackson Heights, N.Y.; lives in Minneapolis
Favorite authors: Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Fyodor Dostoyevski, Toni Morrison, Michael Chabon, George Pelecanos, Ann Patchett, Graham Greene, Zadie Smith, John Updike
Career arc: "I worked at a textbook company, an activity leader at a nursing home, answered phone calls for my father's fake company, jockeyed a cash register at a beach shop, rented bicycles to rich people, and taught creative writing."
Plot: Set over the course of one ill-fated weekend, Dogfight is the story of Alfredo Batista, a petty drug dealer awaiting the return of his older brother from prison.
Author's toughest challenge: "The hardest thing about writing this novel was starting it. I was living in Queens, hanging out a lot, listening to stories, thinking about my characters, but I wasn't doing any actual writing. So I moved out of New York. And I became so intensely homesick that I started the novel and wrote every day."
Publisher's pitch: In the words of editor-in-chief Bill Thomas, "While the gritty urban setting is completely and vividly realized, Matt's novel is brimming with warmth, vitality, and humor. I read this manuscript and thought: the great Queens novel has arrived."
Opening lines: "In the middle of Alfredo Batista's brain there is a tall gray filing cabinet, frequently opened. The drawers are deep, the folders fattened with a lifetime of regrettable moments."
Joan Frances Turner, 40
Born: Rhode Island; lives in Munster, Ind.
Favorite authors: William Burroughs, Patricia Highsmith, Shirley Jackson
Career arc: From "I'd like to write a book" to "I have an idea for a book" to "Now that I have a book, I should see if anyone else wants to read it. There was also unprintable cursing while actually writing the book, but that's pro forma."
Plot: Dust is the story of Jessica, a teenager who was killed in a car crash and reborn as a zombie. She finds acceptance and a new "life" with a zombie gang, only to have her very existence threatened by a mysterious illness that is destroying both zombies and humans.
Author's toughest challenge: "Narrowing down my ‘favorite authors' list, learning as a lifelong night owl to get up early enough each morning to write before work."
Publisher's pitch: Publisher Leslie Gelbman says, "Dust turns the zombie novel on its head. Its steady gaze, through the eyes of Jessie, a girl yearning for love and acceptance but furious at the world, takes in characters who until now have been a punch line, and forces you to care. It forces you to face your own worst fears about life, death, and what comes next."
Opening lines: "My right arm fell off today. Lucky for me, I'm left-handed. In the accident that killed me I rocketed from the backseat straight through the windshield—no seat belt, yeah, I know."
Tristan Garcia, 29
(Faber & Faber, Nov.)
Born: Toulouse, France; lives in Paris
Favorite authors: Gustave Flaubert, Marcel Proust, Ferdinand Céline, Ivan Gontcharov, Joseph Conrad, James Joyce, Jakob Wassermann, Junichiro Tanizaki, Michel Butor, William Gaddis, Robert Silverberg
Career arc: "So far, I've been a Ph.D. student; taught just about anything you can imagine; written screenplays and devoted myself obsessively to rock music and comic strips."
Plot: Paris in the '80s and '90s: three men (friends and lovers) tear each other apart—as witnessed by their friend Elizabeth. All this unfolds as the AIDS epidemic takes hold, gay activism is born, and the political ideals of the '60s are consigned to history.
Author's toughest challenge: "Making a monkey talk. My second book is narrated by a chimpanzee."
Publisher's pitch: Says publisher Mitzi Angel, "Hate is about the sex lives of four Parisians—and the end of politics. How often can you say that about a first novel? I love the way Tristan Garcia brings big ideas to nightclubs and bars—or maybe it's the other way around. This is a thrilling morality tale, a superb evocation of the '80s and '90s from a young writer with a huge career ahead of him."
Opening lines: "William Miller, in the photos he showed me, looks like a subdued little kid, well-behaved and dull. He was born in Amiens, in 1970, where he always told me he spent a childhood that seemed happy at the time and terribly sad in retrospect."
The Lost and Forgotten Languages of Shanghai
Ruiyan Xu, 31
(St. Martin's, Oct.)
Born: Shanghai; lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Favorite authors: W.G. Sebald, Alice Munro, Michael Ondaatje, Anne Carson
Career arc: From Web producer to novelist
Plot: Following an explosion in a Shanghai hotel, businessman Li Jing loses the ability to speak Chinese, destroying his connection to his wife, family, and culture. His struggle to rebuild his relationships and his life illuminates the cultural and romantic impact of language, and both eulogizes and celebrates a rapidly modernizing Shanghai.
Author's toughest challenge: "Writing about the beauty and limitations of two separate languages, exploring the difficulty of communicating, and trying to do it all through... sentences, words, letters on the page."
Publisher's pitch: Says executive editor Hope Dellon, "The writing is vivid and exquisite: most of us have never been to modern Shanghai or lived by its precise social rules, yet the novel immediately draws us in. I love the way that Ruiyan—who came to the U.S. at age 10 without knowing English—uses her gorgeous prose to make us care about the characters as she shows us the power of language in both our public and private relationships."
Opening lines: "Later, she would remember the crack in the building: a line splitting the cement, a body of veins crawling everywhere. It happened in slow motion. On a balcony two blocks away she watched the crumple of the Swan Hotel."
Teju Cole, 35
(Random House, Feb.)
Born: Michigan; raised in Lagos, Nigeria; lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Favorite authors: James Baldwin, John Berger, Elizabeth Bishop, Thomas Browne... but that's just the Bs
Career arc: From medical student to historian of Netherlandish art to writer
Plot: Julius, a young Nigerian-German psychiatrist in New York, is a sensitive observer of the city's moods and evasions, but he turns out to have some telling blind spots of his own.
Author's toughest challenge: "Finding the precise voice—vigilant, patient, and seemingly unfooled—for Julius. I wanted to bring the reader as close as possible to his mental processes."
Publisher's pitch: Says editor-at-large David Ebershoff, "I bought this novel for two reasons: one, I've never encountered a character like this in contemporary fiction. He's a mystery, to himself and to the world, and reading the novel is like getting down on your hands and knees with trowel and brush, and digging through the archeology of his soul. And two, this writer arrived on my desk fully formed; this is one of the most mature debuts I've read in my career as an editor. His style is masterful."
Opening lines: "And so when I began to go on evening walks last fall, I found Morningside Heights an easy place from which to set out into the city. The path that drops down from the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and crosses Morningside Park is only fifteen minutes from Central Park."
Bruce DeSilva, 64
(Forge Books, Oct.)
Born: Taunton, Mass.; lives in Howell, N.J.
Favorite authors: Raymond Chandler, Howard Frank Mosher, Elmore Leonard, Daniel Woodrell, James Ellroy
Career arc: From investigative reporter and senior wire service editor to writing coach to novelist
Plot: Liam Mulligan, a hard-nosed newspaper reporter in Providence, R.I., trying hard to survive in the dying newspaper business, relentlessly combs his friends and enemies in both the underbelly and power structure of Rhode Island as he investigates a string of crimes that ring of conspiracy.
Author's toughest challenge: "Providence is an irresistible stew of depravity and decency, braggadocio and self-loathing, clannishness and community, corruption and integrity. I labored to convey the city's personality—to make it not just the setting but something akin to a character in the novel."
Publisher's pitch: Says editor Eric Raab, "Chinatown meets Fletch in contemporary Rhode Island. A stunning new voice that has been compared to Dennis Lehane and Robert Parker." Noted mystery editor Otto Penzler adds, "When it comes to fresh noir-on-wry, readers could not ask for more."
Opening lines: "A plow had buried the hydrant under five feet of snow, and it took the crew of Engine Company No. 6 nearly fifteen minutes to find it and dig it out. The first fireman up the ladder to the second-floor bedroom window laid a hand on the aluminum siding and singed his palm through his glove."
Born: Chicago; lives in Los Angeles Born: Houston
Favorite authors: Andre Dubus, Tim O’Brien, Wallace Stegner, Richard Yates, Eudora Welty, Graham Greene, Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekhov
Career arc: From conveyor belting salesman to graduate student to novelist
Plot: In 1895, Karel Skala’s mother died giving birth to him. Reared beneath the Texas sky, his brothers’ misplaced blame, and his father’s unyielding will, 14-year-old Karel finds his opportunity for redemption atop his father’s fastest horse. The ensuing high-stakes horse race pits neighbor against neighbor, patriarch against patriarch, brother against brother—and leaves in its wake a shattered family, a doomed romance, and a young man’s quest for his identity.
Author’s toughest challenge: "Self-doubt, divorce, debt, parenting, questions of faith, guilt, etc. The ‘writing life’ isn’t easy, but it’s not the writing itself that makes it difficult."
Publisher’s pitch: Says editor Adrienne Brodeur, "Read five pages of Bruce’s novel and I defy you to put it down. With the one-two punch of staggeringly beautiful prose and a story as rich and resonant as myth, it is the most graceful, ambitious, and exhilarating debut I’ve ever come across."
Opening lines: "The blood had come hard from her, so much of it that, when Vaclav Skala awoke in wet bed linens to find her curled up against him on her side, moaning and glazed with sweat, rosary beads twisted around her clenched fingers, he smiled at the thought that she’d finally broken her water."
Favorite authors: Arthur Conan Doyle (obviously!), Agatha Christie, Ian
McEwan, William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, John Cheever, Walter Mosley
Career arc: Bike messenger, news radio producer, sound engineer, Internet minion, indie-rock producer, typist
Plot: In December 1893, Arthur Conan Doyle killed off Sherlock Holmes, only to find himself investigating a real crime with his friend Bram Stoker—an undertaking he records in his journal. In 2010, the world's top Holmes scholar announces he has discovered the journal, but is soon found murdered in his hotel room at a gathering of the Baker Street Regulars—and the journal is nowhere to be seen.
Author's toughest challenge: "I started out with this plan to write a novel, and then realized I was actually writing two, in two different time periods. Writing two novels was fun, though next go-round I might want to stick to one at a time."
Publisher's pitch: Says acquiring editor Jonathan Karp, "If you like brainy suspense, or Sherlock Holmes, or unlikely heroes, you're going to love The Sherlockian, a novel infused with passion for the period Graham is describing, and a deep respect for the literary genre he's subverting and transcending."
Opening lines: "Arthur Conan Doyle curled his brow tightly and thought only of murder. ‘I'm going to kill him,' Conan Doyle said as he folded his arms across his broad frame. High in the Swiss Alps, the air tickled Arthur's inch-thick mustache and seemed to blow straight through his ears."
John Reimringer, 49
(Milkweed Editions, Sept.)
Born: Fargo, N.D.; lives in St. Paul, Minn. ("My great-great grandfather became a U.S. citizen in St. Paul in 1856, two years after it became a city, and ran a saloon downtown. I'm the fifth generation of my family to live here.")
Favorite authors: Hemingway, Cheever, Flannery O'Connor, John McGahern, Andre Dubus
Career arc: From newspaper editor to writer
Plot: A wayward but devout young priest finds himself torn by competing loves for the Church and a woman.
Author's toughest challenge: "Andrew Greeley once said he hated the way priests are portrayed in art: either as monsters or otherworldly do-gooders. I wanted to write a priest who was a man in all respects, who was a good priest and loved the Church, and who still had difficulty with its strictures."
Publisher's pitch: Says publisher Daniel Slager, "Unpretentious and yet profoundly eloquent, Vestments is the kind of novel that doesn't come around very often. The characters are wonderfully lively and memorable, the central question eminently topical, and the prose subtly lyrical. I couldn't be more happy for John; he is one of the hardest-working novelists I've encountered."
Opening lines: "Saturday morning in St. Paul, church bells ringing the hour. I was in the dining room of my mother's house, celebrating Mass, when we heard my father arrive—the rattle of a rusted exhaust, the backfire of a badly tuned engine. He'd come to drop off his alimony."
The Wake of Forgiveness
Bruce Machart, 40
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Oct.)
Favorite authors: Andre Dubus, Tim O'Brien, Wallace Stegner, Richard Yates, Eudora Welty, Graham Greene, Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekhov
Career arc: From conveyor belting salesman to graduate student to novelist
Plot: In 1895, Karel Skala's mother died giving birth to him. Reared beneath the Texas sky, his brothers' misplaced blame, and his father's unyielding will, 14-year-old Karel finds his opportunity for redemption atop his father's fastest horse. The ensuing high-stakes horse race pits neighbor against neighbor, patriarch against patriarch, brother against brother—and leaves in its wake a shattered family, a doomed romance, and a young man's quest for his identity.
Author's toughest challenge: "Self-doubt, divorce, debt, parenting, questions of faith, guilt, etc. The ‘writing life' isn't easy, but it's not the writing itself that makes it difficult."
Publisher's pitch: Says editor Adrienne Brodeur, "Read five pages of Bruce's novel and I defy you to put it down. With the one-two punch of staggeringly beautiful prose and a story as rich and resonant as myth, it is the most graceful, ambitious, and exhilarating debut I've ever come across."
Opening lines: "The blood had come hard from her, so much of it that, when Vaclav Skala awoke in wet bed linens to find her curled up against him on her side, moaning and glazed with sweat, rosary beads twisted around her clenched fingers, he smiled at the thought that she'd finally broken her water."
Also, click here for a related "Why I Write..." essay by Siobhan Fallon.