When the first novel is the best

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How often does it happen that an author's first novel turns out to be his or her best? That's the question that bookbuyer Alison Morris asks in a blog posted yesterday on the Publishers Weekly website.

Morris asks the question because she had fallen under the spell of debut young adult novel "Graceling" by Kristin Cashore. She asked a friend if he thought Cashore's second effort would be as good.

His response: Often a writer's first novel is the best. Morris was left wondering: Is that true?

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My kneejerk response: No.

Take the Jane Austen test, for instance. "Northanger Abbey"? Not by a long shot.

Or Tolstoy. (Have you ever even heard of "Childhood"?) Or Flaubert. ("Memoirs of a Madman"?)  Or Henry James. ("Watch and Work"?)

Of course, then again, there certainly are cases of writers whose first novel was either the best or the only. (Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" and Joseph Heller's "Catch-22" would just begin the list.)

And with several talented debuts this year it will be interesting to watch and see what these newly famous writers produce next. (Does David Wroblewski, for instance, have another "The Story of Edgar Sawtelle" to tell?)

Of course this question is complicated by the fact that so many (most?) first novels never get published or even completed. So often what we think of as a writer's first novel is simply the first published attempt.

But anyway, I'd be interested to hear from readers. Please add to my list. Who are the great first-time wonders?

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