Five Debuts to Watch

In a way, 2011 was the year of the debut: Chad Harbach, Karen Russell, Teju Cole, and Téa Obreht enchanted with first-time efforts. Though 2012 hasn’t offered any debuts on the literary level of Open City, or any with the blistering industry-wide hype to match The Art of Fielding, the second-half of this year will feature many notable debuts that you’ll be hearing a lot about—some of which we’re lucky enough to review.

Here are five to watch.

Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles (Random House, June 26)
The year’s representative from the Earth-Shattering Hype category might be this debut from Walker, a former editor at Simon & Schuster. The Age of Miracles has a bold premise: the earth has, inexplicably, started to slow. And all the while the eleven-year-old Julia must find a way to cope while being a person with those other problems—you know, the ones that don’t have an effect on the earth’s rotation, like losing friends or watching her family disintegrate. Early reviews have been stunningly positive, with Publisher’s Weekly calling it a “triumph of vision, language, and terrifying momentum.”

Jay Caspian Kang’s The Dead Do Not Improve (Hogarth, August 7)
While Kang’s first novel might be lacking in the hype department—at least relative to Miracles—what’s leaked about the novel is, well, interesting enough. Recent MFA graduate Philip Kim gets caught up in a murder investigation and becomes the target of a violent scheme, fleeing his pursuers all over San Francisco. Along the way (and every bit Hogarth has released is sure to highlight these points), Kim encounters parts of San Francisco familiar to most young people who live in so-called hipster areas: wannabe European cafes, techies, young writing students, etc. While the conceit itself is rich—young man on the lam—early criticism has focused on just how voice-driven Kang’s debut is—the narrative structure seeming like little more than a cover for a book that’s really about those overpriced crepe places and insufferably ambitious MFA students. But Kang’s other work (at Grantland and New York Times Magazine) gives me enough reason to be optimistic—or at least enough to assume The Dead Do Not Improve has more depth than the self-loathing we all feel at juice bars.

Hanna Pylväinen’s We Sinners (Henry Holt and Co., August 21)
We Sinners is the one 2012 book I’ll run through fire to review (I may even eat fire, or set myself on fire, or build a fire—which seems as daunting, honestly). We Sinners tells the story of Rovaniemi family, two parents and nine children, all part of a deeply traditional church in modern-day Michigan. (I’ll just quote the press copy, here.) “But when two of the children venture from the faith, the family fragments and a haunting question emerges: Do we believe for ourselves, or for each other?” With each chapter told from the perspective of a different Rovaniemi, We Sinners promises, at the very least, ambitious scope and a haunting subject.

Kevin Powers’s The Yellow Birds (Little, Brown, September 11)
Is this the year of the Iraq War novel? Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk was well received around these parts; but Billy Lynn was a satire, whereas The Yellow Birds sounds, well, grueling. Powers, an Iraq War vet who served as a machine gunner in Mosul and Tal Afar, will soon earn his MFA from the University of Texas at Austin—an honor, of course, but one that pales in comparison to a debut full-length published by Little, Brown. The Yellow Birds is about two young men—Private Bartle and Private Murphy–stuck in a war zone, trying to maintain sanity, or at least survive. Not much else has gotten out about The Yellow Birds (though my review copy is firmly in hand, and will be broken in soon), and the Goodreads page features your standard-fare THIS BOOK IS NOT A GODO BOOK/ITS GOT TO MANY WORDS IN A SENTENCE/I’VE READ OTERH WAR BOKS critiques you tend to find over there.

Chad Simpson’s Tell Everyone I Said Hi (University of Iowa Press, October 1)
We’re excited about this one. As we’ve probably mentioned once or twice, Chad taught at the college all of us DBCers (editors and contributors) attended—Knox College, for the uninformed. I’ll spare you the rant about HOW GREAT MY COLLEGE WAS that literally every college graduate ever can give you about every college on earth and just give you, instead, a brief scene that might serve as some sort of description of what it was like going there, and being around Chad. The English Department (which deserves the capitalization) would occasionally have readings—usually at each year’s end, perhaps the midnight before commencement—that featured our stable of wonderful/accomplished writing instructors (here’s the full department stable). These were great fun. But the room buzzed when Chad read. For a certain subset of us, Chad felt like our small college’s Midwestern secret: sure, he had been published in McSweeney’s Quarterly and Esquire, but he was by no means a national writer. We knew he would be, however. So consider the debut collection Tell Everyone I Said Hi (winner of the 2012 John Simmons Short Fiction Award) his arrival. And a satisfying moment for those of us who watched the trip.

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