Memorable Debut Novels

Last week I talked about excellent late-career novels. This week, the focus will be on some of literature’s best debut novels!

First books are often a mixed bag, with many novelists in that situation still getting the hang of the fiction-writing thing. But a number of them hit the ground running — some helped by having had short stories or other non-novel fiction previously published.

For a sampling of great debut novels I’ve read, let’s go chronologically, shall we?

Jane Austen’s first published book was Sense and Sensibility (1811) — pretty darn good for a fiction debut!

Mary Shelley wrote the 1818-released Frankenstein in her late teens, and that precocious work is still riveting and influential in its bicentennial year.

The Pickwick Papers (1837) remains one of the funniest books ever written, and jump-started an amazing run of novels for Charles Dickens over the remaining 33 years of his life.

Adam Bede — George Eliot’s 1859 debut novel about a young man, a young female preacher, and more — gets a bit overlooked in that author’s canon. It’s a tremendous book that would be the best of many an author’s efforts, but Eliot went on to top it with The Mill on the Floss, Silas Marner, Middlemarch, and Daniel Deronda.

Like Dickens, Colette started her novel-writing career with a hilarious book — 1900’s Claudine at School — before moving on to deeper, more serious fare.

Eight years later came L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, my favorite young-adult novel ever.

Two exceptional debut novels of the 1940s included Carson McCullers’ The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter and James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific. McCullers’ 1940 book, written when she wasn’t much older than Mary Shelley had been when penning Frankenstein, is a compelling chronicle of several characters. Michener’s 1947 book is an example of related short stories coalescing into a novel.

Ray Bradbury’s haunting novel debut The Martian Chronicles (1950) is also a book of loosely connected tales.

Isabel Allende’s first novel was the ambitious, multigenerational, magic-realism-studded The House of the Spirits (1982).

A decade later, the college-set The Secret History (1992) became an impressive career opener for Donna Tartt — though that author’s The Goldfinch would eventually surpass it in quality.

In the action-thriller realm, Lee Child’s Jack Reacher debut novel Killing Floor (1997) is almost unbearably exciting.

Zadie Smith’s White Teeth (2000) juggled all kinds of characters and multicultural situations in a way that was both deadly serious and hysterically funny.

And Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner (2003), set in both Afghanistan and the U.S., was an intense and powerful debut.

Then there are authors who had only published novel, which made that book not only their debut but also their swan song. Memorable examples include Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird,  Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard, and John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, to name a few. (The last two came out after the authors died.) Of course there are gray areas when it comes to whether one-novel authors are really one-novel authors — for instance, Ellison’s Juneteenth was edited into publishable form and released posthumously, while Lee’s Go Set a Watchman was marketed as a distinct novel but was probably an earlier draft of To Kill a Mockingbird.

What are some of the debut novels you admire most — either the ones I mentioned or the many I didn’t?

Speaking of impressive debuts, here’s a live version of the first single from the great Irish band The Cranberries, whose singer Dolores O’Riordan tragically died last month at the too-young age of 46.

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for The latest weekly piece — a Gettysburg Address parody — is here.

Authors Who Save Their Best (Or Their Near Best) for Last

Late-career novels! They can be tired, not that original, or other negative things — even if they’re written by great authors. There are only so many ideas in novelists’ brains, and their energy might flag as they grow older.

Yet, over the centuries, some authors have penned exceptional books decades after their debut novels were published — after spending many years honing their craft and gaining (frequently bitter) life experience. In some cases, those books may have taken longer to write than those authors’ earlier efforts, but they were worth the wait.

I thought about this last week while reading the novella Hadji Murat, which Leo Tolstoy started in 1896 and finished in 1904 (when in his mid-70s) before it was released posthumously in 1912. (Tolstoy’s best-known works — War and Peace and Anna Karenina — were published much earlier, in 1867 and 1877, respectively.) Hadji Murat, about a brave and adept Chechen rebel, is a gripping piece of fiction — with the added bonus of a scathingly satirical look at the loathsome Tsar Nicholas I, who appears in one chapter.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s final work was none other than his amazing The Brothers Karamazov, published in 1880 — the year before Dostoyevsky died at age 59. Many literature lovers debate whether Karamazov or 1866’s Crime and Punishment were better (I prefer the latter), but they’re both masterpieces. Dostoyevsky’s first novel came out in 1846.

Herman Melville’s first novel, Typee, also appeared in 1846. Forty-two years later — when Melville was in his late 60s and hadn’t authored a book for many years — he began the riveting Billy Budd that ended up being published posthumously.

Many novelists with successful late-career books come out with fewer fictional works in their later years for a variety of reasons — other things to do, the aforementioned fewer ideas and lower energy levels, etc. In Melville’s case, he had fallen into obscurity after poor sales and negative critical reaction to works such as Moby-Dick and Pierre.

I’m not sure why George Eliot wrote fewer novels after a rapid burst at the start of her fiction-writing career, but the last two — Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda in the 1870s — are incredible. Maybe it had to take several years to create such long, rich works.

But Henry James annually churned out three admired, complex novels in 1902 (The Wings of the Dove), 1903 (The Ambassadors), and 1904 (The Golden Bowl) in the latter part of a fiction-writing career that began in the 1860s.

Also at the start of the 20th century, we have a young Colette bursting onto the literary scene with 1900’s Claudine at School. But perhaps her best-known work is 1944’s Gigi — published when the author was in her early 70s.

Agatha Christie, whose first novel was published in 1920, continued to churn out mysteries into the 1960s and 1970s. They might not have been her best work, but were still considered quite good.

John Steinbeck’s debut novel Cup of Gold came out in 1929. His last full-length fiction book — 1961’s The Winter of Our Discontent — was a very solid effort.

Margaret Atwood, whose first novel The Edible Woman arrived in 1969, was still writing with the best of them in her mid-70s when the excellent third-in-a-trilogy MaddAddam appeared in 2013.

Toni Morrison recently wrote two well-reviewed novels — Home and God Help the Child — in her 80s. Her first novel appeared back in 1970.

And going way back, Voltaire was in his mid-60s with a large canon of writing when his masterpiece Candide came out in 1759.

Late-career duds or near-duds? There are many, but I’ll name just three: Willa Cather’s Sapphira and the Slave Girl, Erich Maria Remarque’s Shadows in Paradise, and Jack Finney’s From Time to Time.

Your favorite late-career novels? Any misfires you’d like to mention that were published near the end of authors’ lives? (And for those of you who are rooting against the New England Patriots in tonight’s Super Bowl, the still-great-at-40 quarterback Tom Brady will be late in his career one of these decades…  🙂  )

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for The latest weekly piece — my 700th! — is here.

Many Novels With a Theme Can Be As Good As They Seem

Even as story lines unfold and characters do their thing, some novels also address a specific topic. Can that make those books sort of preachy, didactic, and…boring? It can, but usually not in the hands of a great author. Can that make those books — gasp! — educational? Well, yeah, but there’s nothing wrong with a gaining a little knowledge while being entertained. Plus we’re impressed with the authors’ research skills!

One master of the topical novel was Emile Zola. His 19th-century books addressed subjects such as alcoholism (The Drinking Den), mining (Germinal), trains (The Beast in Man), retail (The Ladies’ Delight), and prostitution (Nana). Amid all that, Zola also offered memorable plots and three-dimensional characters, so readers of his work had and have the best of both worlds.

A more recent master of themed yet entertaining “twofers” is (Ms.) Lionel Shriver. I recently read The Mandibles, a near-future dystopian novel that’s very much about economics and monetary currency, yet the book also takes a compelling look at an extended family — including the precocious/world-weary teen who holds that family together. Earlier, Shriver addressed America’s problematic-for-all-but-the-rich medical system in the riveting So Much for That, and the issue of obesity in Big Brother.

There are also “three-fers” or “more-fers.” For instance, I just finished Susan Moore Jordan’s absorbing novel Man With No Yesterdays — which says a lot about the Vietnam War and Native-American culture while also offering a tale of a man left with amnesia from a helicopter crash in Vietnam.

Then of course there’s Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, which is practically an encyclopedia of whales and whaling (some chapters are only about that) while offering majestic prose, a now-iconic group of characters, and a breathtaking adventure of obsession.

Plus Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred, about slavery but also about a specific 20th-century woman yanked back into the Antebellum South.

And there are novels with topics that are more about the mind, emotions, philosophy, and so on — in addition to their focus on specific compelling characters. For instance, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera focuses on all kinds of romantic love; Buchi Emecheta’s Second-Class Citizen is about single-minded ambition (in the face of sexism); Evan S. Connell’s Mrs. Bridge zeroes in on conformity; and novels such as Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time, and Joanne Greenberg’s I Never Promised You a Rose Garden are about mental illness and/or the mental-health system.

What are some of your favorite novels that contain a theme while remaining satisfying to read on a fictional level?

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for The latest weekly piece — which contains “fake news” about my town 🙂 — is here.

Donald Trump Meets Jack Reacher

Yesterday marked the one-year anniversary of Donald Trump’s disastrous time in the White House. Also, I finished reading Lee Child’s latest Jack Reacher novel last week. The Trump-Reacher connection? There is no connection. But I’m going to make a connection. “Fake news” and all that.

First my brief review of 2017’s The Midnight Line, Child’s 22nd Reacher novel. (I’ve read 20 of them, and will eventually get to the two I missed! As Jack says, “Good to go.”)

The Midnight Line has some of the visceral action Reacher fans love — various villains get battered by Jack in innovatively choreographed ways. But this book also features a more mature, reflective Reacher — the big guy is now 57, after all — and there are poignant passages amid the page-turning excitement. Plus plenty of social commentary about America’s drug scourge and grievously wounded veterans — with the roaming Reacher getting a firsthand look at both problems while trying to locate a woman whose West Point ring he finds in a Wisconsin pawn shop. Last but not least, Child’s writing is as lean and impressive as ever, and includes the usual touches of humor.

My “fake news” connection between Jack (a good-hearted man of integrity) and Trump (a heartless man of no integrity)? I’m going to seriocomically discuss America’s Predator-in-Chief using the titles of all 22 Reacher novels. As I do that, I’ll keep in mind that Trump has boasted about sexually assaulting women, called majority-black countries “shitholes,” made life hell for immigrants, pushed awful tax “reform” that benefits only the ultra-rich, tried to yank away health care from millions, removed environmental protections, and more.

Killing Floor: Trump’s words and actions are so low there’s no floor to them. He killed the floor.

Die Trying: What happened to the woman in Charlottesville, Virginia, who bravely tried to counter Neo-Nazis the white-supremacist Trump would then praise.

Tripwire: What might keep Trump’s hair in place when he exits Air Force One after flying on a windy day.

Running Blind: If the didn’t-protect-his-eyes Trump had looked longer at last year’s major eclipse, this book title would have described his reelection effort in 2020.

Echo Burning: Sort of like Eco Burning — Trump has hurt the U.S. ecology in many ways.

Without Fail: The almost-always-wrong Trump never admits he’s almost always wrong.

Persuader: Trump has expertly persuaded everyone he’s a jerk.

The Enemy: Today’s GOP — including Trump, Paul Ryan, and other cruel far-right Republicans.

One Shot: All the out-of-shape Trump would manage to heave up on a basketball court.

The Hard Way: Democrats trying to win elections despite Republican voter suppression, gerrymandering, big corporate money, and biased right-wing media.

Bad Luck and Trouble: Nicknames for Trump’s two adult sons.

Nothing to Lose: Trump figured that was the case when claiming bone spurs to avoid the Vietnam War draft, even though he was healthy enough back then to play intense sports. His scam worked.

Gone Tomorrow: We wish. But then there would be Mike Pence. 😦

61 Hours: How long it takes Trump to read a paragraph.

Worth Dying For: No war that Trump might start with his reckless words.

The Affair: Not just one adulterous relationship for Trump while he has been married.

A Wanted Man: How law enforcement should label the corrupt Trump.

Never Go Back: The current White House occupant cowardly avoids visiting his posh Trump Tower home in New York City, where he’s loathed.

Personal: Trump takes criticism very personally.

Make Me: What Trump told his father, who bankrolled his not-self-made son’s real-estate career.

Night School: The incurious/ignorant Trump could use some schooling any time of the day.

The Midnight Line: Any repugnant sentence Trump spews out on Twitter when most of us are asleep.

Conclusion: Reacher would know what to do with someone like Trump.

I’m sure you could come up with other ways to discuss Trump via those Lee Child titles! Try if you’d like!  🙂

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for The latest weekly piece — about the complicity of my town’s Republicans re the vile Trump — is here.

When Hot Is Part of the Plot

Last week, “inspired” by the frigid weather in much of the U.S., I wrote about literature that’s filled with cold and snow. Well, it’s summer in Australia and various other parts of the world, and some locales rarely get chilly, so I’ll follow up with a post about fiction featuring the hot and humid.

Heat can be a key factor in literature, whether the works are set before or after our planet’s scary scourge of climate change. High temperatures invigorate some characters and sap the energy of others, make for lush landscapes or a barren desert, and so on.

Speaking of desert, the first novel I’ll mention has to be…Desert. That J.M.G. Le Clezio book takes place mostly in Morocco, and the temperature is important and palpable — especially in comparison with the France-set scenes in later chapters.

Among many other excellent novels with milieus in the warmer countries of Africa are Wole Soyinka’s The Interpreters, Buchi Emecheta’s Second-Class Citizen, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, and Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky.

Novels that unfold in Southern Europe? They include Miguel de Cervantes’ Spain-set Don Quixote, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s Sicily-set The Leopard, Elsa Morante’s Rome-set History, and Jeffrey Eugenides’ partly Greece-set Middlesex. And it’s rather scorching when a certain volcanic eruption buries Pompeii in Anthony Burgess’ The Kingdom of the Wicked.

The Caribbean or other warm islands? Jean Rhys’ Jane Eyre prequel Wide Sargasso Sea and Alexandre Dumas’ Georges, to name two.

It’s interesting when a novel takes characters (and readers) from colder to warmer climes — as in (Ms.) Lionel Shriver’s So Much for That (U.S. to a tropical island), David Lodge’s Paradise News (England to Hawaii), and Paul Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast (U.S. to Central America). In the first two books, those toastier places are a big relief — even life-changing — for the characters. In the third book, disaster results.

Things are more mixed when the Price family move from the U.S. to Africa in Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible. (The Prices were not exactly cold in their home state of Georgia.) The obnoxious missionary dad makes things miserable in Africa, but the wife and four daughters he drags along eventually find some positives in their lives.

Speaking of the U.S., there are plenty of novels set in the Southeast, New Orleans, the Southwest, Southern California, etc. They include Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ The Yearling, Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road, William Faulkner’s Light in August, Anne Rice’s The Witching Hour, John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, Amanda Moores’ Grail Nights (whose author is the wife of frequent commenter here jhNY), Cormac McCarthy’s The Border Trilogy (in which there’s also much of Mexico), James Michener’s Texas, Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop, Terry McMillan’s Waiting to Exhale, Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress, and Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, among many others.

And there’s of course the warm climes in lots of Latin America literature — the subject of its own blog post this past September.

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for The latest weekly piece — which includes a Russian literature sub-theme! — is here.

Frigid Fiction

Much of the U.S. last week experienced record cold temperatures — including a painful 8 degrees Fahrenheit in my town as I wrote this blog post. At least that single-digit number had the silver lining of being 443 degrees short of the burn threshold of books, according to Ray Bradbury.

Of course, the bitter weather made me think of novels in which characters face low temperatures rather than the heat that consumed books in Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. And I’m aware of having penned a somewhat similar piece about wintry literature five years ago for The Huffington Post (which treated its bloggers and commenters…coldly), but this piece has lots of new material and was written from scratch.

Among other literary attributes, cold weather and its often-accompanying dose of snow help create drama — with sheer survival sometimes at stake. Wintry fiction also makes us lament that the non-affluent are affected more by the elements than the rich. And for those reading cold-filled novels in warm homes or warm climes, it’s all vicarious — we’re not the ones freezing.

Russian novels are obviously among the first books that come to mind when thinking of fictional works with bone-chilling scenes in some or all their pages. These novels include, among many others, Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace (just ask Napoleon), Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The House of the Dead, Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich — with the second and fourth of those books set in Siberian prison camps.

Then there are Scandinavian novels (a number of them mysteries) with teeth-chattering locales — for instance, Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Peter Hoeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow, and John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Harbor.

And Canadian literature has plenty of shivering scenarios in novels ranging from Louise Penny’s How the Light Gets In to Mordecai Richler’s Solomon Gursky Is Dead (Jewish guy among the Eskimos!), to cite just two examples.

But authors from many other countries have obviously also tackled the cold — including Jack London in The Call of the Wild and White Fang, Charlotte Bronte in Jane Eyre, Herman Melville in Pierre, Edith Wharton in Ethan Frome, Willa Cather in My Antonia, Erich Maria Remarque in Spark of Life, L.M. Montgomery in The Blue Castle, Rita Mae Brown in Rubyfruit Jungle, Donna Tartt in The Secret History, Fannie Flagg in A Redbird Christmas, Jhumpa Lahiri in The Namesake, Audrey Niffenegger in The Time Traveler’s Wife, Maria Semple in Where’d You Go, Bernadette (which actually takes its characters to Antarctica), Joyce Carol Oates in Solstice, Alistair MacLean in Where Eagles Dare, Stephen King in The Shining, Lee Child in the Jack Reacher novel 61 Hours, and Andy Weir in The Martian.

Short stories with cold and snow? Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Match Girl” (freezing was never so tragically poignant), James Joyce’s “The Dead,” Tolstoy’s “Master and Man,” London’s “To Build a Fire,” etc.!

What are your favorite fictional works with wintry elements?

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for The latest weekly piece — guest-written by my cat 🙂 — is here.

Past Novels That Were Kind of Prescient About Our Present

When it comes to years-ago literature with a lot to say about our current times, sci-fi, speculative fiction, and dystopian novels are certainly at the top of the list — and I’ll mention some titles from those genres later in this post.

But the main focus of this piece will be “general” novels of decades or centuries ago that are relevant to events in the 2000s, proving that some authors — whether their predictive powers were conscious, subconscious, or accidental — were pretty prescient.

For instance, I just read James Michener’s riveting Caravans — a 1963 novel set in 1946 Afghanistan — and it has tons of things to say about Islam, racism, gender relations, conformity vs. non-conformity, and other matters very germane to the 21st century.

Being married to an abusive/alcoholic husband in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) causes Helen to leave Arthur — an unusual decision for the time that made Anne Bronte’s novel a proto-feminist book that positively anticipated the increased independence of many women today.

George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda was published in 1876, but it was already talking about Zionism. That’s very much an issue in 2017, as are related matters such as Israeli-Palestinian relations and Trump’s disturbing decision to call Jerusalem the capital of Israel (and move the U.S. embassy there) despite that city being sacred to three religions.

By being sexually frank (to varying degrees for their times), novels such as Herman Melville’s Pierre (1852), Emile Zola’s Nana (1880), and D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers (1913) presaged the 1960s sexual revolution that continues to this day. Also, Colette’s Claudine at School (1900) was among the long-ago novels to address same-gender love with some candor.

Edward Bellamy’s utopian time-travel novel Looking Backward (1888) predicted the debit card — the use of which says plenty about our 21st-century society today. In fact, Bellamy’s book was set in the year 2000.

Then there are sci-fi, speculative fiction, and dystopian novels that ended up commenting about our present time — including the repulsive words, beliefs, and actions of Donald Trump and his Republican ilk. Here are just a few of those books (most of them obvious), listed in reverse chronological order: Octavia E. Butler’s 1993 Parable of the Sower (climate change/privatization), Margaret Atwood’s 1985 The Handmaid’s Tale (onerous male domination/sexual predation), George Orwell’s 1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four (authoritarianism/lie-filled propaganda), Robert Penn Warren’s 1946 All the King’s Men (corrupt politicians), Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 It Can’t Happen Here (fascism in America), Aldous Huxley’s 1931 Brave New World (citizens kept in line more by diversion than by brute force), H.G. Wells’ 1901 The First Men in the Moon (space exploration), and Jules Verne’s 1873 Around the World in Eighty Days (rapid travel between countries).

Your favorite novels that seemed to know something about the future that’s now our present?

Happy New Year!

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for The latest weekly piece, which has a New Year’s Day theme, is here.