The Waterstone’s 11: The best debut fiction of 2011?

On Monday I explained why I love debut novels and so it will come as no surprise that I was interested in Waterstone’s new initiative to highlight debut literary fiction.

Last week they revealed the first Waterstone’s 11: a selection of 11 debut novels which will be published in 2011.

A panel of Waterstone’s staff read around 100 submissions and chose their favourites for inclusion in this list. The fact the selection process was so similar to that of a book award panel gives me confidence that their plan to

identify the future Man Booker nominees

will have a real chance of coming true.

I was really impressed with the list and immediately drawn to several of the titles. When I spotted that the first chapter of each book was available to download from the Waterstone’s Eleven site I decided to read them all and record my impressions.

Here are my thoughts on the first chapter of each Waterstone 11 book:

The Free World by David Bezmozgis

Five words from the blurb: Rome, refugees, escape, Communism, Canada

Very good writing. I can see myself enjoying this book, but I want to wait for others to read it first to ensure that the plot is satisfying enough for my needs. I wouldn’t be surprised if it made the Booker long list.

The Registrar’s Manual for Detecting Forced Marriages by Sophie Hardach

Five words from the blurb: immigration, wedding, safe, investigation, suspicions

Vivid and gripping from the start, but I worry that I’ve read books covering the same themes many times before. I’m sure it is a fantastic read, but it isn’t jumping out at me. 

City of Bohane by Kevin Barry

Five words from the blurb: future, Ireland, gang, henchman, visionary

Could well be fantastic once you’ve got used to the dialect, but in my brief reading it was too much hard work and so I didn’t feel enough engagement to want to read on. Not for me.

22 Britannia Road by Amanda Hodgkinson

Five words from the blurb: war, survivors, boy, home, accept

I don’t think the blurb would ever have persuaded me to pick up this book, but I loved it from the first sentence. I already want to hug that little boy and I really want to know what happens to him next. Look out for this book on the Orange list!

Chinaman by Shehan Karunatilaka

Five words from the blurb: cricket, Sri Lanka, secret, Tamil Tiger warlord, dying

Cricket? Urgghhh!! It was a struggle for me to make it to the end of this brief extract. 🙁


Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman

Five words from the blurb: Ghana, London, knifed, investigation, innocence

Wow! Like a cross between Room and The Other Hand. I was totally hooked and so disappointed I couldn’t read the rest of the book. If I had a copy I don’t think I’d have put it down until I finished.

The Coincidence Engine by Sam Leith

Five words from the blurb: improbable, chaotic, chase, imaginary, America

The first chapter left me very confused. I’m sure it is all explained later on, but I worry it might be trying to be too scientifically clever at the expense of any emotion.

 The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht

Five words from the blurb: tiger, Germany, The Jungle Book, war, devastated

Reads almost like a fairytale, but the reality of war creeps in to give this book a unique style. I think this could go either way for me, but I’m so intrigued I have to read the rest when it is released. 

The Sentimentalists by Johanna Skibsrud

Five words from the blurb: haunted, Vietnam, father, senility, love

Beautifully descriptive writing, but I suspect the plot will be too slow paced for me to fall in love with it.

The Collaborator by Mirza Waheed

Five words from the blurb: Kashmir, war, poignant, shocking, family

Gritty, dark and raw. I was surprised by how gripped I was after reading such a small section. I will definitely be reading this one on its release.

When God was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman

Five words from the blurb: childhood, innocence, eccentricity, love, loss

There is a lot going on in this book! In the first chapter themes of religion, war and paedophilia were introduced. I’m fascinated to know where this book goes, but I do worry that too much is going on for any of them to be handled thoroughly.

See the full blurbs and download the first chapter of all these books at the Waterstone’s Eleven page.

I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a list of books where I love so many of the selection. I will be ensuring I follow the Waterstone’s 11 each year and I look forward to finding out if the books are as good as their first chapters.

What do you think of the Waterstone’s 11?

59 replies on “The Waterstone’s 11: The best debut fiction of 2011?”

I hadn’t come across this project yet – clever idea, and good idea to make the sample chapters available – sample chapters seem to be one of the main reasons why Kindles are so appealing.

Verity, I am becoming a fan of sample chapters. I haven’t got an ereader yet and found it OK to read the small samples on my computer, but can see that ereaders have a big advantage in this area. I’m sure I’ll get one one day….

Great job – I can tell you from experience that The Free World is fantastic (and this was pre-Penguin-days!), but the plot might well be a little slow for you.

My Canadian self has been looking forward to The Sentimentalists for a while (and because of their printing problems, I didn’t get my Christmas copy!), and based on your extract reviews, I’m getting excited to read Pigeon English as well.

Lija, With that quality of writing I don’t mind the plot being slow – as long as it exists! I look forward to seeing who enjoys it and hope a few of my trusted bloggers can give me a combined insight into it.

I’m sure you’ll love The Sentimentalists – sorry you didn’t get your Christmas copy 🙁

Very good fun to read. I like it how you add some keywords (except for your favorite book). I can see myself read some of them, but I might also wait and see what you think of them when you do read them, as I trust your opinion.

Judith, Thanks for spotting my omission! I think I was so excited about the book that I wanted to write about it straight away and forgot to go back and fill in the keywords – I’ll add them in a minute. 🙂

Jackie, As you know you were my first introduction to the world of blogging! Since then I have checked out many other blogs but cut them all back to two. I keep coming back to yours!! You are so full of fresh ideas!! How can a person get so excited by receiving a new entry from a blogger! My new problem now though is that I find myself spending more time researching all these fantastic books you suggest than actually reading!! Help.
Never heard of the Waterstone’s Eleven !! (What is wrong with me!? Is not living in the UK a valid excuse?) Very exciting. Pigeon English and The Collaborator are already on my pre-order list. I can´keep up…

Ifi, *blushes* thanks you so much for the kind words. It is lovely to know that the work I do is appreciated – it makes it all worth while 🙂

Not having enough time to read all the wonderful books out there is a fantastic problem to have. I hope you enjoy all my recommendations.

Des, I really hope that this project is successful for them and that the public are encouraged to give debut novels a chance. I’ve got my fingers crossed!

Agree with Des above, very good initiative by Waterstones. Like all the multi-cultural authors (just based on their names) they’ve chosen.

Was intrigued by 22 Britannia Road and Pigeon English.

Alex, I’m impressed by the range too. There should be somthing for everyone on that list and it is a lot more diverse than most similar initiatives. I love it!

This is an impressive list and I like the way you have featured the titles using five words from the blurb. And you’ve done us all a great service by reading those first chapters and letting us know what you tihnk. Kind of like “read or reject …”, no?

Laura, Thanks. I found choosing five words very useful. I think publishers should abandon blurbs and just put a few descriptive words like that on the cover!

I also found the whole process very helpful. I think this is the way I will handle all prize lists in future. I am not going to battle through all the titles on a specific longlist again.

Good work. I’ve read a couple and really enjoyed them (esp. Tiger’s Wife). Must say The Collaborator and Pigeon English look really good so far! Exciting times for new fiction…

I’d like to read quite a few of them including the Shehan Karunatilleke’s one. I am from Sri Lanka and would like to see what a fellow patriot is writing about. We are a cricket crazy nation so this should be interesting for me.

Mystica, If you like cricket then I’m sure you’ll love this book. I enjoy books set in Sri Lanka, but I don’t think I could cope with all that cricket getting in the way.

I wonder if doing that will turn out to be a good indication of the rest of the book – it’ll be interesting finding out.

On another note – yay for Waterstones for doing this

Jessica, I’d be interested to find out how close my final ratings are to my first impressions – it is almost tempting to read them all just to experiment! I will resist though….

I haven’t heard of any of these – I suspect they probably aren’t available over here in the U.S. – but they all look really interesting. I think it’s great that Waterstone’s is doing this – it’s easy for big chains to focus on best sellers alone, so it’s always nice when they give some attention to books they simply think are great!

Steph, I checked all the titles I really enjoyed and with the exception of The Collaborator they are all published in the US later this year. The release of most is several months away so perhaps that is why you haven’t heard of them yet?

Thanks for bringing the list to everyone’s attention. I find I can be so busy that things like this just pass me by. I have put about half of these on my TBR list – but probably more of the ones you weren’t keen on! I am really looking forward to the Chinaman for example!

Falaise, I can see the quality in all these books so I’m sure that you’ll love The Chinaman if the subject matter appeals to you. I’m pleased I was able to bring this wonderful initiative to your attention. 🙂

Another set of books to get stuck into I think.

Sample chapters are a good idea. I was struck with Mr Chartwell that way, through the Radio 2 Book Club.

And having just got a kindle, I have had a number of sample chapters on that to see if I really want to carry on and get the book, whether it be on kindle or more likely in a tangible form.

Off to look at these new authors, and there was me trying to avoid Waterstones!

I only recognize the only Canadians on the list and have only read David Bezmozgis (and not this one, but his debut collection, Natsha), but I agree that many of them sound very good indeed.

Though in theory I appreciate the idea of sample first chapters, in reality I often find them frustrating because I simply want to keep reading. I think I’m more of a Sample Three Chapters gal. But maybe if I had three chapters to peruse, I would find myself itching for five. So okay, they’re a great idea, and the real problem is that I don’t yet have an e-reader that would allow me to keep reading immediately, following first-infatuation.

Hope you find some new favourites amongst this group!

BuriedInPrint, I don’t have an ereader yet either, but I think having the delay is a good thing. I’m sure I’d spend too much money if I had an ereader, but the fact I have to wait to get a physical copy makes me have that extra time to ensure I really want a copy.

I love your posts on debut authors – it’s actually quite timely because I came across a debut author’s book from a trade show that I attended, and her book is coming out next week. I loved her work and was lucky to get an interview with her that I’ll be posting this week. I think if I just skipped her book because it was her first one, I would have missed out on the absolute enjoyment I had with the unique story, characters, and writing. I loved it! If you get a chance, check out Liz Michalski’s book Evenfall. I loved the story and it’s coming out next week!

Blimey!! I was one of the very first “beta” readers of 22 Britannia Road back in the mists of 2008 – I had no idea it was (utterly deservedly) out. How fabulously wonderful – it’s a brilliant brilliant book. Can’t possibly recommend it enough to everyone.

Pigeon English looks like a good one! I liked the excerpt Waterstones posted, and I definitely love the idea of featuring debut novelists. Waterstones. I wish we had them here — they’re maybe my favorite chain bookstore.

That’s wonderful that they provide an excerpt to wet your reading appetite. I’m off to check out the link!

Some of these look very interesting, Jackie! I’ll be watching for them (although my guess is we will see them here in the US after you get a shot at them!!) Thanks for the links 🙂

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