The 22 Most Exciting Literary Debuts Of 2014

These are the voices in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry that kept our eyes glued to the page. *Ranked in no particular order*

1. The Empathy Exams, by Leslie Jamison

Graywolf Press

 

Leslie Jamison’s piercing and deeply considered essay collection begins with her stint as a medical actor for students learning to diagnose, but it widens in scope to touch on everything from an ultramarathon in Tennessee, to poverty in Los Angeles, to her own injuries in Nicaragua and Bolivia. All of it is a meditation on the same universal theme: pain, as we experience it and as we feel it in others.

2. The Queen of the Tearling, by Erika Johansen

Harper

Victoria Webb

 

The first novel in a planned YA fantasy trilogy, The Queen of the Tearling tells the mesmerizing and enveloping story of an exiled princess who has to reclaim her throne while fighting back against the neighboring kingdom’s menacing Red Queen. The book is such a hit that it’s already on its way to becoming a movie, with Emma Watson set to play the heroine.

3. A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall, by Will Chancellor

Harper

Atisha Paulson

 

A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall is the triumphant tale of a young would-be Olympics athlete whose life sets off on an unexpected path (through Berlin, Athens, and Iceland) after an injury leaves him blind in one eye. It’s a spellbinding, epic novel about ambition, family, and the roles we play in our own destinies.

4. Prelude to Bruise, by Saeed Jones

Coffee House Press

From Hello Mr. photographed by Michael George

 

Saeed Jones (BuzzFeed’s own LGBT editor) writes a collection of searing poems following the mythical Boy as he frees himself into the world. Heartrending, lyrical, and raw, the chapbook explores themes of identity, sexuality, violence, loss, and will — and, often, the intersections within them.

5. 2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas, by Marie-Helene Bertino

Crown Publishing

Marie-Helene Bertino

 

Marie-Helene Bertino connects three unlikely characters — a precocious 9-year-old aspiring jazz singer, her recently divorced fifth-grade teacher, and a man trying to save his jazz club from financial ruin — to create one big story full of life and hope.

6. The Great Glass Sea, by Josh Weil

Grove Press

Jilan Carroll Glorfield

 

Josh Weil’s debut novel delivers all of the greatness expected after his critically acclaimed novellas. In it, Weil presents an alternate version of modern-day Russia, steeped in both the magical realism of folklore and the gritty futurism of dystopian fiction, following twin brothers who grow apart as their work pulls them toward clashing ideologies.

7. A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, by Eimear McBride

Coffee House Press

Teri Pengilley

 

Eimear McBride gives a brutal and intimate look at her titular Girl, a young woman who copes with her brother’s brain cancer (and the general chaos of the world) through violence and sex. It’s an existentialist (if not nihilistic) story, told in a captivating stream of consciousness, painting a portrait of one woman’s strength and vulnerability.

8. Land of Love and Drowning, by Tiphanie Yanique

Riverhead Press

Debbie Grossman

 

Tiphanie Yanique’s sweeping epic spans three generations of one Saint Thomas family, beginning in the early 1900s with two sisters and their half brother — each of whom possesses just a little bit of magic — who are orphaned by a shipwreck in the Caribbean. The surreal, vibrant novel echoes the richness of Gabriel García Márquez and Toni Morrison, weaving in family histories, love affairs, curses, and triumphs.

9. Thrown, by Kerry Howley

Sarabande Books

Kerry Howley / kerryhowley.com

 

Essayist Kerry Howley deep-dives into the violent world of mixed martial arts, following two cage fighters for three years as they sacrifice physical and emotional well-being in an effort to make it big. It’s an intelligent, funny, and utterly captivating look at a surprising subculture.

10. McGlue, by Ottessa Moshfegh

 

McGlue opens in a whirlwind with dreamy, heavy-hitting sentences that come at you quick and leave you slightly disoriented. The rest of the novel unfolds in the gradual awakening of McGlue, a 19th century deckhand being held in solitude out at sea, who’s trying to put together the pieces of his story — the alliances, the hardships, and, ultimately, a murder.

11. The Dunning Man, by Kevin Fortuna

Lavender Ink

 

The Dunning Man comprises six stories, each pitting one of Fortuna’s colorful antiheroes — the middle-aged drunk emptying out his deep pockets, the single-mom blackjack dealer, the rap superstar, the housewife dealing with her empty nest — against the world in which he lives. It’s gritty, vice-filled, and sometimes violent, but also incredibly honest and redemptive.

12. Man V. Nature, by Diane Cook

Harper

Katherine Rondina

 

Diane Cook creates a series of slightly off-kilter realities and a cast of otherwise unremarkable characters who inhabit them — the miserly neighbor in a post-flood dystopia, the 11-year-old boys who have been declared “not-needed,” the young women whose house is swarmed after a span of good luck — in a collection of short stories that are about all of the ways we define survival. It’s grim, violent, and darkly funny, but never so far removed from our most human urges to seem totally implausible.

13. The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing, by Mira Jacob

Random House

In Kim / mirajacob.com

 

Mira Jacob’s novel moves back and forth in space and time, spanning three decades and two continents while unraveling the mysteries within the Eapen family. Through seamlessly interwoven stories, the reader witnesses a father’s hallucinations, a son’s narcolepsy, a matriarch’s unwitting violence, and, throughout these, themes of family dynamics, immigration, identity, and loss.

14. Redeployment, by Phil Klay

Penguin Press

 

Phil Klay, who served in the U.S. Marine Corps, creates a new classic in war literature with his collection of short stories that take the reader to the frontline in Iraq and Afghanistan. Klay’s stories don’t just illuminate the brutality (and monotony, and bureaucracy) of war, though; his characters continue their struggle to survive when they return, having to navigate domestic life after living through chaos.

15. Never Have I Ever by Katie Heaney

Grand Central Publishing

Louisa Podlich

 

Katie Heaney (also repping for BuzzFeed) recounts a love life full of false starts and mishaps in a touching and uplifting memoir that will make you laugh out loud in public. It’s an essential reminder that the single life isn’t a bad one.

16. Panic in a Suitcase, by Yelena Akhtiorskaya

Riverhead

Sarah Shatz

 

Yelena Akhtiorskaya stakes a claim in a new generation of immigrant fiction, exploring two decades in the life of a Russian family who flees Odessa for Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach in the early 1990s only to find remnants of their past all around them. It’s an updated take on the American dream, told in enthralling and imaginative prose.

17. The White Van, by Patrick Hoffman

Grove Atlantic Press

Patrick Hoffman / patrickhoffmanbooks.com

 

Hoffman’s edgy and suspenseful debut is set in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, where one desperate drug hustler finds herself on the bad side of a bank robbery gone awry. Following the corrupt cop who’s chasing her down, the reader finds a grimy, morally convoluted, and thrilling look at underbelly of the city.

18. Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng

Penguin Press

Kevin Day Photography

 

In Everything I Never Told You, Celeste Ng spins the classic “missing girl” trope into a literary thriller whose tension comes not from the missing girl (we find out at the get-go that she is, in fact, dead) but within her 1970s Chinese-American family. In what the Huffington Post called “shimmering prose,” Ng explores their well-guarded secrets and the complicated intersection of race, gender, and surviving in America.

19. Everyone I Love Is a Stranger to Someone by Annelyse Gelman

Write Bloody

Evan Greenwald

 

Annelyse Gelman’s poems — meditations on love and fidelity, dissections (and reconstructions) of our perceived realities, odes to the universe and all of its mysteries — will spring from the page and hang around in your brain for days. Hers is a fresh, funny, and razor-sharp new voice.

20. Fourth of July Creek, Smith Henderson

Ecco

Rebecca Calavan

 

Smith Henderson’s haunting and expertly crafted novel follows a 31-year-old social worker in the 1980s who tries to help a nearly feral young boy living in the Montana wild, only to be confronted by the boy’s paranoid and reclusive father. The real clash, though, is between the public sphere and the private — societal ideas of a greater good vs. an individual’s — as each of the characters become entangled in circumstances broader and more dangerous than anyone involved had intended.

21. Cutting Teeth, by Julia Fierro

St. Martin's Press

Natalie Brasington

 

Julia Fierro takes the reader to a tension-filled weekend on Long Island, where a group of couples in their thirties have joined for a quick getaway. It’s a hilarious, compassionate, and insightful debut inhabited by honest characters who will end up feeling like close friends.

22. An Untamed State, Roxane Gay

Grove Press

 

2014 was basically the year of Roxane Gay, who released both an essay collection, Bad Feminist, and a debut novel, An Untamed State, within months of each other. An Untamed State — which follows a woman who is abducted and held 13 days in captivity while her kidnappers wait for ransom — is brutal, emotionally charged, and sometimes uncomfortable, but enlightening on themes of poverty, privilege, and redemption.

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