First novels often tell coming-of-age tales, but the 10 best debut novels of the year (from Booklist) take unusual and uniquely arresting approaches to that classic theme. Teens and twentysomethings seek solid ground in the wake of catastrophes and upheavals both personal and societal. These vividly portrayed characters also cope with profound questions of identity, purpose, and doing what’s right.
The Death of Bees by Lisa O’Donnell. In this deeply human page-turner, O’Donnell portrays two sisters who have just buried their wretched parents behind their Glasgow housing development and must now steer clear of their nosy neighbor.
Falling to Earth by Kate Southwood. After the Graves family emerges unscathed from a violent tornado that destroys their Illinois town, they must face the psychic cost of survival in Southwood’s poignant and mesmerizing novel based on the horrific 1925 Tri-State tornado.
Fellow Mortals by Dennis Mahoney. Mahoney’s quietly powerful debut tracks the impact of a sudden tragedy on a suburban neighborhood after a mail carrier accidentally starts a fatal fire.
Golden Boy by Abigail Tarttelin. Max, 16, is a golden boy, but his good looks, family wealth, athleticism, smarts, and popularity conceal a complicated secret: he is intersex, literally half male and half female, an identity Tarttelin compellingly explores with drama and warmth.
Good Kings Bad Kings by Susan Nussbaum. Nussbaum’s mighty debut, winner of the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, gives voice to life-embracing young adults with disabilities and the devoted staff who care for them in a Chicago nursing home.
Little Known Facts by Christine Sneed. As Sneed astutely portrays reigning Hollywood sex symbol Renn Ivins and his family in a percussively choreographed plot, she spotlights “little known facts” about the cost of fame and our erotic obsession with movie stars.
The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan. In Fagan’s transcendent debut, tough, abandoned, and heartbreakingly intelligent and sensitive 15-year-old Anais Hendricks, accused of brutally beating a policewoman, ends up in the Panopticon, a halfway house for truant teens, where she becomes convinced that she’s part of a sinister experiment.
Lotería by Mario Alberto Zambrano. Zambrano’s stunning and engaging debut takes the form of the journal of 11-year-old Luz Castillo, who has been taken into the state’s custody and only communicates by writing entries inspired by illustrations on the cards for Lotería, a Mexican bingo-like game.
Snapper by Brian Kimberling. Nathan Lochmueller’s gift for tracking songbirds leads to a research assistant job and intimate knowledge of one square mile of Indiana, so richly evoked in Kimberling’s thoughtful and funny tale of one young man’s search for authenticity and meaning.
The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis. Hattie, 16, flees Jim Crow Georgia and settles in Philadelphia. As Mathias tracks Hattie’s long struggles and those of her many children, she illuminates, with blazing insight, the crushed dreams and complexly tragic legacy of the Great Migration.