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15 Highly Anticipated New Book Releases by Black Authors

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Black authors have continuously paved the way for advancements in literature. Storytelling traditions in cultures worldwide have been shaped by Black perspectives, and the writers on this list, compiled by Goodreads, are keeping those traditions alive. These must-read new books will make you think and feel, and they’ll open you up to new stories and perspectives you won’t soon forget.

Yonder by Jabari Asim — January 11, 2022

What lies beyond, and how do we get there? These curiosities lie at the center of Jabari Asim’s new historical fiction novel, Yonder . The book follows a cast of enslaved characters, referred to as The Stolen, who are forced to live at Placid Hall under the cruel Cannonball Greene. When Preacher Ransom sparks conversations about freedom and possibility, they ignite philosophical discussions that light the way to brand new paths as dangerous as they are ripe with potential. 

Admissions: A Memoir of Surviving Boarding School by Kendra James — January 18, 2022

Admissions professional and founding editor of Shondaland.com, Kendra James, shares a story about her experiences as a Black student at an elite school. In James’ autobiographical new offering, Admissions: A Memoir of Surviving Boarding School , she grapples with trying to find a place in a predominately white environment while interrogating her own beliefs about respectability and race.  

author's debut books

Manifesto: On Never Giving Up by Bernardine Evaristo — January 18, 2022

If you’re looking for a new reason to smile, look no further than Bernardine Evaristo’s first non-fiction book, Manifesto: On Never Giving Up . Evaristo’s memoir gives us a glimpse into her upbringing in a large family with a Nigerian father and white mother, along with providing practical advice for creatives. Evaristo’s humor truly shines in this beautifully written and spirited book that The Guardian calls “a rallying cry.”

South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation by Imani Perry — January 25, 2022

Imani Perry’s South to America : A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation takes readers on a journey through the American South, a place she argues “is the nation’s heartland for better and worse.” Her intimate understanding of the South as an Alabama native and her passion for honoring Black cultural impacts shines in this deeply moving and honest portrait of “ the soul of America .” 

Goliath by Tochi Onyebuchi — January 25, 2022

Set in the not-so-distant future, Goliath presents us with an abandoned Earth, deserted by those who destroyed it. Tochi Onyebuchi masterfully weaves together the stories of those who left and the people they left behind in this poetic and engaging sci-fi narrative. 

author's debut books

Black Cake by Charmaine Wilkerson — February 1, 2022

Two siblings with a strained relationship are brought together after their mother’s death in Charmaine Wilkerson’s debut novel,  Black Cake . As they unravel a web of family secrets and mystery, Byron and Benny uncover new truths that change the course of their lives.

The Violin Conspiracy by Brendan Slocumb — February 1, 2022

The Violin Conspiracy , written by musician and educator Brendan Slocumb, follows Ray McMillian as he pursues a career as a classical musician. Ray is a Black violinist who has fought against naysayers and a racist industry and finally started to approach the pinnacle of his career. He’s primed to compete in a prestigious competition when a legal fight over a family heirloom threatens to destroy it all. 

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What the Fireflies Knew by Kai Harris — February 1, 2022  

What the Fireflies Knew   is a story about grief, growth and girlhood told from the perspective of KB, an adolescent trying to put the pieces together after the tragic loss of her father. She and her sister are sent to live with their grandfather, and KB is left to discover herself and reshape her understanding of the world while navigating a new place and even newer feelings.

Don’t Cry for Me by Daniel Black — February 1, 2022

If you knew you only had a little time left, what would you say — and to whom? In Daniel Black’s  Don’t Cry for Me , Jacob, who is gravely ill, internally battles with these questions and decides to write letters to his estranged son, Issac. Jacob desperately longs to share hidden truths with Issac. But is it too late?

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Memphis by Tara M. Stringfellow — Expected March 3, 2022 

Tara M. Stringfellow describes her latest book, Memphis , as “the Black fairy tale she always wanted to read.” Memphis tells the story of visual artist Joan through multiple perspectives over the course of 70 years. This book explores themes of heritage, history and healing and is sure to be a great addition to your reading list. 

Like a Sister by Kellye Garrett — March 8, 2022

Kellye Garrett’s Like a Sister presents an all-too-familiar scenario in which a Black woman, reality star Desiree Pierce, goes missing and no one seems to care. Well, except for her half-sister, who’s determined to uncover the truth and get justice. 

The Last Suspicious Holdout: Stories by Ladee Hubbard — March 8, 2022 

The Last Suspicious Holdout: Stories is the much-anticipated new collection of tales from celebrated author Ladee Hubbard. In The Last Suspicious Holdout , Hubbard tells the story of Black families in a suburban neighborhood over two decades. Each story contributes to a larger mosaic that captures the nuance, humor and at times heartbreaking realities of this fictional community. 

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The Trayvon Generation by Elizabeth Alexander — April 5, 2022

New York Times bestselling author Elizabeth Alexander’s most recent offering is undoubtedly a must-read. “Named one of TIME magazine’s Most Anticipated Titles of 2022” according to Goodreads, The Trayvon Generation began as an essay in The New York Times and expanded into a work of art that centers the reality of young Black Americans navigating the world today. 

Take My Hand by Dolen Perkins-Valdez — April 12, 2022  

Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s Take My Hand is a story inspired by true events that follows Civil Townsend’s long career as a health practitioner. Civil longs to make a difference as a nurse but is forever changed when she discovers the realities of reproductive health for young Black people in Alabama. 

Finding Me: A Memoir by Viola Davis — April 26, 2022 

Known for flawless portrayals of fictional characters, powerhouse actress Viola Davis is switching gears with Finding Me: A Memoir . Davis describes her book as a story about “a little girl named Viola who ran from her past until she made a life-changing decision to stop running forever.”


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Penguin Random House

Debut Novels by Authors You’ll Love

by Maria Couto

Writing a novel is no easy feat. But sometimes you find a debut novel that feels as if the author is a seasoned pro. With elegant prose and unique plot lines, these authors have the ability to transport you to new worlds with characters that stay with you long after you’ve finished the last page. Plus, as an added bonus, when you find an exceptional debut novelist, you feel as if you’ve discovered their immense talents, which connects you to them as they publish more and more books. Enjoy these 10 debut novels by authors we know you’ll love and find out just how good they are at first impressions.

Late Bloomers Book Cover Picture

Late Bloomers

By deepa varadarajan, paperback $18.00, buy from other retailers:.

Sea Change Book Cover Picture

by Gina Chung

Paperback $17.00.

Your Driver Is Waiting Book Cover Picture

Your Driver Is Waiting

By priya guns, hardcover $26.00.

Brother & Sister Enter the Forest Book Cover Picture

Brother & Sister Enter the Forest

By richard mirabella, hardcover $27.00.

Chain Gang All Stars Book Cover Picture

Chain Gang All Stars

By nana kwame adjei-brenyah.

Vagabonds! Book Cover Picture

by Eloghosa Osunde

Sorry, Bro Book Cover Picture

by Taleen Voskuni

A Flaw in the Design Book Cover Picture

A Flaw in the Design

By nathan oates, preorder from:.

The Skin and Its Girl Book Cover Picture

The Skin and Its Girl

By sarah cypher, hardcover $28.00.

The Things We Do to Our Friends Book Cover Picture

The Things We Do to Our Friends

By heather darwent.

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Great Debut Novels

A book’s total score is based on multiple factors, including the number of people who have voted for it and how highly those voters ranked the book.

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author's debut books

The best debut novels - the greatest first books of all time

Fantastic first books, revealed.

The best debut novels - the greatest first books of all time

We all have favourite authors. Writers that release a new book and we immediately go and grab it from the store – or even have it pre-ordered. But although there's something exciting about discovering new books from great writers (or devouring their whole back catalogue if they're no longer around to write anything new), we believe there's nothing more delightful than reaching back through time and reading the first book they ever wrote.

In this list we've selected more than 30 of the best debut novels written by a wide selection of names, including literary greats you know and love to modern authors that absolutely need to be on your TBR pile if they aren't already.

Maybe you'll find your new favourite book, or maybe you'll find it fascinating to chart the journey authors embarked upon from their debut to the present day.

Best debut novels

Best debut novels

1 . The Hobbit - J.R.R Tolkien (1937)

"In a hole in the ground, there lived a Hobbit." The words that kickstarted one of the biggest fantasy book and, in turn, movie franchises of all time. Despite the book's popularity, paper rationing brought on by wartime conditions and not ending until 1949 meant that the book was often unavailable during this period. Subsequent editions in English were published in 1951, 1966, 1978 and 1995, however, and it's been translated into over forty languages. Tolkein even designed the original book's dust cover (pictured). Props.

Best debut novels

2 . To Kill A Mockingbird - Harper Lee (1960)

Imagine having just one book published, it winning the Pulitzer-Prize before being voted "Best Novel of the Century" in 1991 a poll by the Library Journal. You might be tempted to call it a day there. With the exception of a few short essays, Harper did just that. And fair play to her.

Best debut novels

3 . One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest - Ken Kesey (1962)

Kesey's devastating debut novel was born of his experiences working on CIA-funded drug trials. While a student at Stanford, he volunteered as a medical guinea pig in the secret service's study into the effects of psychoactive drugs. This experience altered Kesey, personally and professionally and, while working as an orderly at the psychiatric ward of the local veterans hospital, he began to have hallucinations about an Indian sweeping the floors. When chatting with them Kesey did not believe that the patients at the hospital were insane, rather that society had pushed them out because they did not fit the conventional ideas of how people were supposed to behave. All this prompted him to write the spectacular One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest which was an instant hit and spawned the Oscar-winning film.

Best debut novels

4 . Frankenstein - Mary Shelley (1818)

In 1816, Shelley spent a summer with Lord Byron. Sitting around a log fire Byron proposed that they "each write a ghost story". Unable to sleep, Shelley got to it: “I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together," she recalled. "I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world." She began writing what she assumed would be a short story, but became her first novel, Frankenstein regarded as one of the first genuine science fiction novels it still speaks to – and spooks - readers nearly 200 years on.

Best debut novels

5 . Catch-22 - Joseph Heller (1961)

In 1953 Heller thought of the first line, "It was love at first sight." and within a week, he had finished the first chapter, and sent it to his agent. He did no more writing for the next year, as he planned the rest of the story. When it was one-third finished his agent sent it to publishers who purchased it and gave him $750, promising him another $750 when the full manuscript was delivered. Heller missed his deadline by almost five years but, after eight years of thought, delivered the most significant work of postwar protest literature in the history of mankind and changed the English lexicon forever. Worth the wait.

Best debut novels

6 . The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo - Stieg Larsson (2005)

When published posthumously Brooding Scandi-noir genius Larsson’s psychological thriller caused a global sensation. Shortly before his death in 2004, he submitted the third volume in his "Millennium trilogy" to his publisher, but not a single book had been printed. Today more than 63 million copies of the trilogy have been sold with Dragon Tattoo being our pick of the bunch.

Best debut novels

7 . Invisible Man - Ralph Ellison (1952)

Immediately hailed as a masterpiece, Ellison's audacious and brutal Invisible Man changed the shape of American literature by tackling bigotry, head on. Bottom line? If you're human, and chances are you are, you need to read this at some stage in your life.

Best debut novels

8 . The Wasp Factory - Iain Banks (1984)

A 1997 poll of over 25,000 readers listed The Wasp Factory as one of the top 100 books of the 20th century, while The Times called Banks "The most imaginative novelist of his generation" and the FT described the novel as "A gothic horror story of quite exceptional quality... Quite impossible to put down." This book will live with you long after you're done, but it's wide berth territory for animal lovers.

Best debut novels

9 . A Study In Scarlet - Arthur Conan Doyle (1887)

Conan Doyle introduced us to Holmes and Watson in November 1887, but the story, and its main characters, attracted little public interest when it first appeared in Beeton's Christmas Annual. Only 11 complete copies are known to exist, in fact. Despite the slow uptake it was a classic mystery tale which went on to spawn 56 short stories featuring Holmes, and three more full-length novels in the original canon.

Best debut novels

10 . The Catcher In The Rye - J. D. Salinger (1951)

J. D. Salinger's coming-of-age tale captured the very essence of disenchanted youth. Around 250,000 copies are sold each year with total sales of more than 65 million books. It was included on Time 's 2005 list of the 100 best English-language novels written since 1923, and it was named by Modern Library and its readers as one of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. Need we say more?

Best debut novels

11 . The Time Machine - H.G. Wells (1895)

You've got to doff your cap to a man who is generally credited with the popularisation of the concept of time travel. The Time Machine was an instant success and Wells went on to produce a series of science fiction novels which pioneered our ideas of the future. None would top his debut success, however.

Best debut novels

12 . Carrie - Stephen King (1974)

Stephen King's books have sold more than 350 million copies. He has published fifty-five novels and has written nearly two hundred short stories and it all started - at least in getting published terms - with Carrie. It was written in two weeks on a portable typewriter (the same one on which he wrote Misery) that belonged to his wife. It began as a short story, but King tossed the first three pages of his work in the garbage. His wife fished the pages out and encouraged him to finish it. King eventually quit his teaching job after receiving the publishing payment for Carrie but the hardback sold a mere 13,000 copies. The paperback, released a year later? Sold over 1 million in its first year.

Best debut novels

13 . The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz - L. Frank Baum (1900)

L Frank Baum failed as an actor, failed as a salesman, failed as a chicken breeder then started writing The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Smart move. Full distribution of Oz occurred in September 1900 and by October, the first edition of 10,000 had already sold out and the second edition of 15,000 copies was nearly depleted. By 1938, over one million copies of the book had been printed. Less than two decades later, in 1956, the sales of his novel grew to 3 million copies in print. Nice work if you can write it.

Best debut novels

14 . Trainspotting - Irvine Welsh (1993)

Rumour has it Welsh wrote Trainspotting in the breaks while writing his thesis at Heriot-Watt University's Library. The book prompted The Sunday Times to call Welsh "the best thing that has happened to British writing for decades" and he continues to be just that.

Best debut novels

15 . The Picture Of Dorian Gray - Oscar Wilde

In the preface to his debut and only novel Wilde writes: "To reveal art and conceal the artist is art's aim." Odd then that the book boasts very obvious echoes of Wilde's own life. Perhaps that's why there was no second novel. Still, the one he did write remains enduringly popular and William Butler described it as "a wonderful book."

Best debut novels

16 . The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini (2003)

Hosseini almost never finished the novel. He started by writing a short story in 1999 then, in his words: "The short story sat around for two years. Then I went back to it in March 2001. My wife had dug it up. I found her reading it, and she was kind of crying, and she said, "This is really a nice short story. She gave it to my father-in-law, and he loved it. He said, "I wish it had been longer." So then I said maybe there's something in the story that's really touching people. Maybe I should think about going back to it and see if there's a book in it."

There was. The novel sold more than 4 million copies in three years.

Best debut novels

17 . A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man - James Joyce (1916)

In 1998, the Modern Library named A Portrait third on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century (Joyce topped the very same list with Ulysses while The Great Gatsby came second). In 1917 H. G. Wells wrote that "one believes in [Joyce's fictional alter ego] Stephen Dedalus as one believes in few characters in fiction." With W. B. Yeats and Ezra Pound also championing the work, it clearly carries serious literary clout.

Best debut novels

18 . Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone - J.K.Rowling (1997)

In 1990 Rowling wanted to move with her boyfriend to a flat in Manchester and in her words, "One weekend after flat hunting, I took the train back to London on my own and the idea for Harry Potter fell into my head... A scrawny, little, black-haired, bespectacled boy became more and more of a wizard to me... I began to write Philosopher's Stone that very evening. Although, the first couple of pages look nothing like the finished product." Then Rowling's mother died and, to cope with her pain, Rowling transferred her own anguish to the orphan Harry. Rowling spent six years working on the novel after which critics compared her to Jane Austen, Roald Dahl and even to the Ancient Greek story-teller Homer.

Best debut novels

19 . The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time - Mark Haddon (2003)

It won a raft of awards including, rather delightfully, the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize after it was published simultaneously in separate editions for adults and children. However, it was perhaps what it didn't win that caused the biggest stir. The Curious Incident was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, and "many observers were surprised that it did not advance to the shortlist." said John Carey, chairman of the Booker panel of judges. "We have several clashes of opinion among the judges but I found Haddon's book about a boy with Asperger's syndrome breathtaking."

Best debut novels

20 . Fight Club - Chuck Palahniuk (1996)

We the love story behind the conception of Palahniuk's ground-breaking debut novel. When he attempted to publish Invisible Monsters, publishers rejected it for its disturbing content. So he wrote Fight Club in an attempt to disturb the publisher even more for rejecting him. Publisher loved it, career exploded.

Best debut novels

21 . Robinson Crusoe - Daniel Defoe (1719)

The book was published on 25 April 1719. Before the end of the year, this first volume had run through four editions.

By the end of the 19th century, no book in the history of Western literature had more editions, spin-offs and translations (even into languages such as Inuktitut, Coptic and Maltese) than Robinson Crusoe, with more than 700 alternative versions. Well played, Daniel. Well played.

Best debut novels

22 . The Pickwick Papers - Charles Dickens (1836)

Dickens announced his outrageous talent with this genuinely funny, not just laughing because we're supposed to, set of comic episodes that befall ‘gentleman of leisure’ Samuel Pickwick, Esq. The book became the first real publishing phenomenon, with bootleg copies, theatrical performances, joke books, and other merchandise surrounding it.

Best debut novels

23 . Jane Eyre - Charlotte Brontë (1847)

Charlotte's first manuscript, The Professor, did not secure a publisher, although she was heartened by an encouraging response from Smith, Elder & Co., who expressed an interest in any longer works she might wish to send. Charlotte responded by finishing and sending a second manuscript in August 1847. Six weeks later Jane Eyre: An Autobiography was published and it revolutionised the art of fiction. Since then Brontë has been called the 'first historian of the private consciousness'. Exploring themes of classism, sexuality, religion, and proto-feminism, there's a lot going on in Jane Eyre, but never at the expense of enjoyment.

Best debut novels

24 . Sense And Sensibility - Jane Austen (1811)

In 1811, the Military Library publishing house in London accepted the manuscript for publication, in three volumes. Austen paid for the book to be published and paid the publisher a commission on sales. The cost of publication was more than a third of Austen's annual household income! She made a profit of £140 (almost £8,000 in 2014 money) on the first edition, which sold all 750 printed copies by July 1813.

Best debut novels

25 . The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath (1963)

It's hard to judge the brilliance of Sylvia Plath's shocking, realistic, and deeply emotional novel about a woman falling into the grip of insanity without factoring in her tragic suicide just one month after it was published, in the UK. Perhaps we shouldn't have to. A truly haunting classic.

Best debut novels

26 . Other Voices, Other Rooms - Truman Capote (1948)

Both Capote's first published novel and semi-autobiographical it's a powerhouse of a piece due to its erotically charged photograph of the author, risque content, and the fact that it debuted at number 9 on the New York Times Best Seller list, where it remained for nine weeks. Brilliant.

Best debut novels

27 . Less Than Zero - Brett Easton Ellis (1985)

In the words of the author himself Less Than Zero "[isn't a] perfect book by any means... [But] it was pretty good writing for someone who was 19." Nineteen! We can't argue with that. Plus the novel was almost universally praised by critics and sold well, shifting 50,000 copies in its first year.

Best debut novels

28 . The Bluest Eye - Toni Morrison (1970)

Written while Toni Morrison was teaching at Howard University and raising her two sons on her own, it's about a year in the life of a young black girl who develops an inferiority complex due to her eye color and skin appearance. "I imagine if our greatest American novelist William Faulkner were alive today," reviewed The Washington Post "He would herald Toni Morrison's emergence as a kindred spirit... Discovering a writer like Toni Morrison is the rarest of pleasures."

Best debut novels

29 . Doctor Zhivago - Boris Pasternak (1957)

Due to its independent minded stance on the October Revolution, Doctor Zhivago was refused publication in the Soviet Union so Pasternak sent several copies of the manuscript in Russian to friends in the West. In 1957, Italian publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli arranged for the novel to be smuggled out of the Soviet Union and published an Italian translation. So great was the demand for Doctor Zhivago that Feltrinelli was able to license translation rights into 18 different languages. Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature the following year, an event which humiliated the Communist Party.

Best debut novels

30 . Last Night in Montreal - Emily St. John Mandel (2009)

Emily St. John Mandel has become known for her most recent books, including Station Eleven and Sea of Tranquility, but her first book is well worth a read as well. Last Night in Montreal is a tense and thought-provoking book about Lilia, who can't remember her childhood and is haunted by a mysterious shadow. The less said about the plot the better, but even though this was St John Mandel's first book, it's beautifully written with wonderful character development. Like her later books, it's almost impossible to put this one down.

Best debut novels

31 . The Secret History - Donna Tartt (1992)

Published in September 1992, The Secret History is the epitome of the "dark academia" book trend. It's set in New England and follows the story of a very closely knit group of students who are enrolled at a small and elite liberal arts college in Vermont called Hampden College (although it's based on Bennington College, which Tartt attended). It's an inverted detective story that explores how the death of a student has rippling consequences even years later.

Best debut novels

32 . Adam Bede - George Eliot (1859)

Immediately recognised as a significant literary work Charles Dickens, no less, lavished it with praise: "The whole country life that the story is set in, is so real, and so droll and genuine, and yet so selected and polished by art, that I cannot praise it enough." No point in us trying, then.

  • Interested in military history? Take a look at our guide to the best war novels : 30 greatest war novels of all time
  • Want a conversation starter? The coolest books of all time will help


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The 10 Best Debut Novels of the Decade

That's right, it's happening . . ..

Friends, it’s true: the end of the decade approaches. It’s been a difficult, anxiety-provoking, morally compromised decade, but at least it’s been populated by some fine literature. We’ll take our silver linings where we can.

So, as is our hallowed duty as a literary and culture website—though with full awareness of the potentially fruitless and endlessly contestable nature of the task—in the coming weeks, we’ll be taking a look at the best and most important (these being not always the same) books of the decade that was. We will do this, of course, by means of a variety of lists, and it’s only appropriate to begin our journey with the best debut novels published in English between 2010 and 2019.

The following books were chosen after much debate (and several rounds of voting) by the Literary Hub staff. Tears were spilled, feelings were hurt, books were re-read. And as you’ll shortly see, we had a hard time choosing just ten—so we’ve also included a list of dissenting opinions, and an even longer list of also-rans. Feel free to add any favorites we’ve missed in the comments below.

The Top Ten

Téa obreht, the tiger’s wife (2011).

It’s easy to forget, reading The Tiger’s Wife , that Obreht was only 25 when it was published in 2011 (that year, she became the youngest-ever winner of the UK’s Orange Prize—and did you know it was the first book ever sold by her agent , and the second book ever acquired by her editor? Yes, I feel bad too.). I say “easy to forget,” but it might be more accurate to say “hard to believe,” because this debut is so ambitious, so assured, and so richly textured that it feels like something that could only come from decades of toil.

It is an astonishing book for a writer of any age, half fable, half gritty portrait of an unnamed Balkan country recovering from civil war. It is a novel about story, and about family, two things that inform and describe one another. “Everything necessary to understand my grandfather lies between two stories,” our narrator Natalia tells us, “the story of the tiger’s wife, and the story of the deathless man. These stories run like secret rivers through all the other stories of his life.” Part of the magic of Obreht’s writing (it’s also true in her latest novel, Inland ) is how secure you feel in the worlds she creates—the feeling is akin to stepping into a photograph, or a documentary: you look around and clock every detail; you never doubt. You can feel reality hovering underneath the sentences, even when they’re describing something patently impossible. And yet in this novel, she’s always reminding you how these worlds can change, and how we can change them in the telling.

In addition to winning the Orange Prize, the novel was a National Book Award finalist and a New York Times bestseller; it also secured Obreht’s (obviously well-deserved) spot on the New Yorker ’s 20 under 40 list .  –Emily Temple, Senior Editor

Justin Torres, We the Animals (2011)

Every time I write about Torres’s exquisite, intense debut, I find I have to quote the opening, which goes like this:

We wanted more. We knocked the butt ends of our forks against the table, tapped our spoons against our empty bowls; we were hungry. We wanted more volume, more riots. We turned up the knob on the TV until our ears ached with the shouts of angry men. We wanted more music on the radio; we wanted beats; we wanted rock. We wanted muscles on our skinny arms. We had bird bones, hollow and light, and we wanted more density, more weight. We were six snatching hands, six stomping feet; we were brothers, boys, three little kings locked in a feud for more.

It goes on like that. This is a slim novel—my copy has only 125 pages—which makes its intensity all the more impressive; not a word or moment wasted. When I say that it is poetic, I mean it in the most literal of ways: it relies on meter, on sound, on anaphora. You feel  it as much as you understand it, like a chant. The story moves slowly from the plurality of childhood—the “we” of the opening—to the individuality of young adulthood, in this case, one boy realizing his in unlike his brothers in a fundamental way.

Improbably, the novel was made into a gorgeous film last year , which you should all find a way to see.  –Emily Temple, Senior Editor

NoViolet Bulawayo, We Need New Names (2013)

The kids in NoViolet Bulawayo’s debut are the vibrant hearts of a book that at times reads like a fable. This is partly because of the names the title alludes to, those missing and misaligned and poorly understood. A young girl called Darling and her friends—with nicknames like Bastard and Godknows—wander through the surroundings of a Zimbabwean shantytown that the children call Paradise (“a place we will soon be leaving”). Bulawayo creates one of the indelible contemporary portraits of a child’s friend group, characterized by distillations of playfulness, contempt, solidarity—unadulterated emotions in the young, and yet, for Darling and company, unable to be identified or named in the adult world. This is a world that, Bulawayo suggests, misleads with false assurances: an abortion is best performed with a clothes hanger, only grandfathers can be president, the pastor at church is healing that demon-possessed woman by placing his hands on her and nothing more . The world beyond child’s play produces patronizing NGO workers, stupid tourists, and bulldozers that raze towns. Darling eventually leaves home to live with her aunt in “Destroyed, Michigan” (one of the granular delights of the novel is Bulawayo’s dexterous, often funny wordplay and onomatopoeic flair). Detroit, like Paradise, is a place of myth (“With the cold and dreariness, this place doesn’t look like my America, doesn’t even look real”), and Bulawayo is interested in how we get to places like these and why we leave. Throughout Darling’s acclimation period to life in America, memories of her childhood resurface and relationships with her old friends turn cold. Ultimately we understand that Paradise won’t be regained. We Need New Names brought us Bulawayo’s remarkably assured voice (the same year that another great sub-Saharan Africa-to-America immigrant epic, Americanah , was published). Bulawayo took the temperature, so to speak, on the eve of the Mediterranean migrant crisis, with an intimate story of a young woman always looking for home.  –Aaron Robertson, Assistant Editor

Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer (2015)

“I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.” From the very first line of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s brilliant debut, I could tell this book was going to make literary history. When The Sympathizer won both the Pulitzer Prize and the Edgar Award, I was glad to see the world agreed. The Sympathizer ’s premise sets up its many complicated acts—a child born to a young Vietnamese mother and a dissolute French Catholic priest must flee to South Vietnam for the sins of his parentage; there, he is recruited as a secret agent to spy on his countrymen, and soon enough, turns double agent by the North to spy on his powerful patrons in the South, his position complicated by his refugee flight to California, where he falls in love with the rebellious daughter of a former general who once employed him.

Oh, sympathizer, how shall I count the ways in which I love thee? The Sympathizer ‘s brilliance is manyfold: the perspective of a double agent makes us privy to secrets and allows us entrance to rationalizations on all sides of the Vietnam conflict; the nameless spy’s peregrinations follow an Odyssean route to exile and then home, culminating in a Lord of the Rings -esque return to the shire only to find it controlled by petty dictators; a parody of Apocalypse Now encapsulates everything that is wrong with both Hollywood and the American interpretation of authenticity. There are many reasons to sing the praise of this singular text. While frequently earning comparison to Graham Green and John le Carre, The Sympathizer is also a meditation on identity, exile, culture, history, and so much more. I can’t recommend this book enough.  –Molly Odintz, CrimeReads Associate Editor

Garth Greenwell, What Belongs to You (2016)

The first section of Garth Greenwell’s debut is almost a love story: a young man teaching English in Sofia, Bulgaria meets a hustler named Mitko while cruising in a public bathroom. But as their relationship unfolds, it becomes not quite a romance, though not not a romance: something stickier and stranger and more real than you typically encounter in novels.

The first section is wonderful: beautifully written (Greenwell is a poet) and intriguing. But it’s the second section that made me lose my breath a little: it’s mostly a single, unbroken paragraph, which is the kind of stylistic choice that would normally make me roll my eyes, or at least skip ahead in the book, one finger on the page at hand, to see where I could expect the next visual and mental break. But in this novel, I did not want a visual or mental break—I only wanted more of this. “A Grave” is a series of memories about the narrator’s childhood in rural Kentucky, and about his relationship with his father—it is the heart of the book, a stylistic and emotional lynchpin, but it’s also simply so astute, so expertly drawn, so mesmerizing.

I know it’s a book blurbing cliché to use this term but I really can’t help it here: this novel is frankly luminous. I actually mean that my experience reading it was like holding something glowing in my hands. I may be mocked in the Literary Hub office for this flowery description. Sorry—not sorry. Writing in The Guardian , Andrew Solomon called it “the best first novel I’ve read in a generation” I have to say I agree.  –Emily Temple, Senior Editor

Nicole Dennis-Benn, Here Comes the Sun (2016)

There’s no shortage of brilliant, hilarious, incisive Jamaican novels—to say nothing of the Caribbean as a whole. Caribbean literature is sometimes reduced by American critics and book blurbs to Jamaica—and this reflects, too, the way that many Americans tell me they’ve never heard of my island, Dominica, and if they know anywhere at all, it is probably Jamaica. (Ironically, it’s not Puerto Rico, which actually is an American territory.) Still, our literature would be very different without Jamaican fiction and poetry, and the Jamaican novel, in particular, like the Trinidadian novel, is critical to understanding our region’s artistic, social, and political conditions. Writing a memorable, meaningful novel is one thing; writing a memorable, meaningful debut is another, and Nicole Dennis-Benn managed to do both with her debut, Here Comes the Sun . Her novel is wide-ranging, telling a tale that examines colorism, homophobia, social mobility, women’s bodies, and the debilitating overreach of tourism, all while delivering a gripping story in softly luminous prose. I was excited to read it when I heard that it was coming out, particularly as Dennis-Benn has written movingly about many of these themes before in her essays, and her novel has stuck with me since then as a beautiful addition to the Jamaican canon of literature. In some ways, it’s conventional, particularly when set against the stylistic and representational subversiveness of Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings , published two years earlier, but Dennis-Benn’s novel is subversive in its own ways, joining a long history of talking about queerness in the Caribbean and its diaspora that includes Bernadine Evaristo’s Mr. Loverman , novels by Shani Mootoo, and more, and I especially appreciated that we have queer women here experiencing love and loss. And the setting of a Jamaica being overtaken by tourism is important; it echoes the warnings and plaints of Derek Walcott, Kamau Brathwaite, and the many writers who have reflected on the danger of the commercialization of the islands at the expense of their inhabitants. Here Comes the Sun is a debut that stuck with me, and will be with me, I suspect, for a long time.   –Gabrielle Bellot, Staff Writer

George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo (2017)

It is strange to think of George Saunders as a debut novelist, but after four story collections—including contemporary classics like Pastoralia and Tenth of December —2017’s Lincoln in the Bardo represented a true departure. Saunders has always been one of our funniest writers, which engenders in some critics a suspicion that he is unserious, that he is but the master of a simple trick, repeated again and again with great skill (we should all be so talented). These critics, of course, are wrong. Saunders is a morally serious writer who wields humor like a razor blade, bleeding the cut as needed, getting the reader from one round to the next, story after relentless story. Death, love, loneliness, joy, grief—these are the concerns of great art, and they are the concerns of George Saunders.

Lincoln in the Bardo was published three weeks after the inauguration of Donald Trump; it was a particularly grim February for a large swathe of Americans, as November’s shock settled into numbness, each day’s news somehow darker, more absurd, than the last. It was in this context I encountered the sly grace of Saunders novel, a prismatic tale of a father’s near-debilitating grief—the father in question, of course, is Abraham Lincoln, who lost his son Willie in the middle of the Civil War, and was seen to visit the boy’s grave at Georgetown’s Oak Hill Cemetery. It is there we enter the Bardo, that grayed-out middle space of Tibetan Buddhism in which the dead await rebirth, biding time till the next life beckons; if they’re lucky, they’ll find themselves in a George Saunders novel, mustered into a loose chorus of voices, coarse and tender, bawdy and elegiac, puzzling over the curious fixations of the living as they figure out what it means to be dead.  –Jonny Diamond, Editor in Chief

Sally Rooney, Conversations With Friends (2017)

There is very little that can be said about Sally Rooney that hasn’t been written already. Her second novel, Normal People , was published this past April to a deluge of reviews, think pieces, and pontifications on the role of Rooney as *the* millennial novelist. And her debut novel, Conversation with Friends , which came out in 2017, has been tallied by the Lit Hub staff as one of the best debuts of the decade. The novel follows twenty-one-year-old Trinity College student Frances and her best friend Bobbi, who she dated in high school and now remains her other, more charismatic and outgoing half. They do spoken-word poetry together, which Francis writes and Bobbi performs. At one such performance they meet Melissa, a writer in her thirties who invites the girls back to her home, ostensibly for a magazine profile. At dinners, parties, and book launches, the girls try to impress and decode Melissa. They also meet her husband Nick, a handsome actor, who eventually has an affair with Frances. The conversations between the four of them make up the backbone of the novel—they occur in Frances’s kitchen over endless cups of coffee, but also in text messages, emails, and instant messages. They are hyper-articulate, self-possessed, and intellectually curious, but emotionally confused, exploring what it means to be an independent person with ideas and ideals. As Frances navigates her splintering with Bobbi and her connection with Nick, we follow her development into the adult she will become. It is a novel with an exceptional amount of heart, and at its core a story about friendship and love couched in psycho-political “conversations” about contemporary life.  –Emily Firetog, Deputy Editor

Tommy Orange, There There (2018)

Tommy Orange’s kaleidoscopic novel about 12 different Native Americans living in and around Oakland won pretty much all the most coveted prizes for debut novels in the year it came out: the National Book Critic Circle’s John Leonard Prize, the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award, the Center for Fiction’s first novel prize. It was also a bestseller, a feat for such a complex literary novel; it was, for a while there, the book everyone was telling everyone to read.

It was so hyped that the editors of The New York Times felt they had to title Colm Tóibín’s (glowing) review “ Yes, Tommy Orange’s New Novel Really Is That Good .” And, well, it is—gripping, tense, and weighty, and stylistically light on its feet if unrelentingly bleak in its conclusions. It looks directly at something most (white) Americans would like to ignore: our systematic subjugation of Indigenous people and, more pointedly, the continuing repercussions of that subjugation.

Or as Tóibín described it: “an ambitious meditation on identity and its broken alternatives, on myth filtered through the lens of time and poverty and urban life, on tradition all the more pressing because of its fragility, it is as if he seeks to reconfigure Oakland as a locus of desire and dreams, to remake the city in the likeness of his large and fascinating set of characters … the novel, then, is their picaresque journey, allowing for moments of pure soaring beauty to hit against the most mundane, for a sense of timelessness to be placed right beside a cleareyed version of the here and now, for a sense of vast dispossession to live beside day-to-day misery and poverty. Nothing in Orange’s world is simple, least of all his characters and his sense of the relationship between history and the present. Instead, a great deal is subtle and uncertain in this original and complex novel.”  –Emily Temple, Senior Editor

Ling Ma, Severance (2018)

Do you remember being nine and staying up all night, reading with a flashlight under the covers because you simply could not wait until morning to know what happens next? Reading Ling Ma’s Severance gave me that need-to-know feeling. The bare-bones premise alone is fascinating: something calls Shen Fever strikes New York City. It spreads like wild fire, turning the afflicted into a kind of zombie–not so much dangerous as they are really banal. The “fevered” are stuck mindlessly in their everyday routines (one particularly haunting scene includes watching a fevered family set the table, go through the motions of eating, clear the dishes, rinse, and repeat), which they perform until their bodies rot.

Our heroine Candace Chen is a twenty-something-year-old working in Bible production. She’s a hard worker, a creature of habit, and pretty much the only one who stays in Manhattan through the horrors of Shen Fever. Severance jumps back and forth between her normal days to her suffocating stint with a band of survivors after leaving the city. Ling Ma is a master at cutting through time, and leaving us in moments where, much like everyone else in the story, we’re wondering how did we even get here?

While other families flee, Candace moves into her office, continues to work, and starts an anonymous photography blog of the decimated city. (In a lot of ways, this is a story about being disillusioned by New York.) (And also a pretty funny and creepy critique of capitalism and the workplace.) Honestly, Candace’s matter-of-fact, unsentimental tone makes her the perfect person to be with during what feels like the end of the world.

We also learn that Candace has no family in America. Both of her parents are dead. About halfway through, we get to what I think is kind of the heart of the thing: Ling Ma pulls us even further back into the past, showing us a bit of Candace’s childhood and her family’s immigration to America. Severance is a brilliantly-told story that uses the zombie apocalypse trope to reveal the sometimes-hollowness of things like nostalgia, religion, and the things we do to assimilate to a new culture.  –Katie Yee, Book Marks Assistant Editor

Dissenting Opinions

The following books were just barely nudged out of the top ten, but we (or at least one of us) couldn’t let them pass without comment.

N. K. Jemisin, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (2010)

There is not one debut American novelist in the past decade who has had such a thrilling, historic, and consistent rise to critical and commercial success as N. K. Jemisin, the speculative fiction writer who always seems to be opening new doors and running through them. “It doesn’t make any sense to write a monochromatic or monocultural story, unless you’re doing something extremely small,” Jemisin told The Guardian in 2015. In such historically conservative genres like fantasy and science fiction, Jemisin has managed to win the Hugo Award for Best Novel three years in a row (2016-18), a Nebula, and a couple of Locus Awards to boot. Since her 2010 novel debut, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms , Jemisin has amassed a dizzying number of Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy Award nominations. She has done for American speculative fiction what Morrison did for the American postmodern novel. In The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms , Yeine Darr, a barbarian outcast (and daughter of an illicit mixed-race marriage) from the large ruling family of the city of Sky, is unexpectedly named as one of three heirs to the throne, which sends her unwillingly into a bloody civil war with two powerful cousins. We learn that Sky is essentially a city inhabited by one big, messed-up, hierarchical family, the Arameri. “Full Bloods” like Yeine intersect with a mysterious band of enslaved gods—many of whom have their own plans for Yeine—and the result is a sprawling book of political intrigue. If The Hunger Games and Game of Thrones met up and discussed the complicated dynamics of a racial caste system, they probably still wouldn’t come up with something as refreshingly inventive as the world that would become the foundation of Jemisin’s much-lauded Inheritance Trilogy .  –Aaron Robertson, Assistant Editor

Karen Russell, Swamplandia! (2011)

I will drop everything/pass through fire/walk 5,000 miles to read a Karen Russell short story. From her peerless imagination spring sinister little wonders with disquieting, emotionally resonant cores—eerie, unmoored worlds, tinted by the supernatural and shot through with menace, humor, and grace. Whether following a down-on-his-luck tornado farmer, a pair of lonely vampires though the centuries, or a dreamy gondolier in a flooded Florida, the way her tales unfold is always surprising, always artful, always sneakily devastating. The same can, has, and by god should be said of Russell’s sole novel, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize back in 2012 (the year the board infamously failed to select a winner despite the fact that both Swamplandia! and Denis Johnson’s magnificent Train Dreams were in the running). Set on an island off the southwest coast of Russell’s native Florida, it’s the story of the Bigtrees, an eccentric family of alligator wrestlers who live on the titular Swamplandia!, a ramshackle alligator-wrestling theme park. Narrated by young Ava Bigtree as she processes the death of her mother and gamely tries to make sense of her bizarre, unstable, often fantastical world—which includes a sister who is in love with a ghost; a jaded brother who has absconded to a competing, hell-themed theme park; and a mysterious, feather-coated vagabond known as the Bird Man—the novel is a gorgeously lush swirl of humor, horror, and heartbreak with some of the most haunted and enchanting writing you are ever likely to read.  –Dan Sheehan, Book Marks Editor

Ben Lerner, Leaving the Atocha Station (2011)

“Poetic,” as a description, is rarely intended to connote humor. This is a shame, because in my experience, poets write some of the most subtly hilarious novels around. Take Leaving the Atocha Station , a novel by and about a poet. The narrator and protagonist, Adam, is on a fellowship year in Madrid, trying and mostly failing to write a long poem about the Spanish Civil War. Instead, he reads and goes to parties and gets into romantic entanglements (some tanglier than others).

When I read this book, I was in the midst of my own period of trying and failing to write poetry around a lot of people who could speak of nothing but John Ashbery, and was perhaps particularly receptive to its charms. I can understand why a novel by and about a privileged, anxious, aimless, (at times comically) dishonest white dude might feel slightly less urgent now than when it came out, but I maintain that this is one hell of a debut.

In Leaving the Atocha Station , Lerner invites the reader to laugh with his protagonist as well as with him. The novel feels propulsive rather than meandering, as if the reader is the one whose fellowship is quickly running short. I suspect the political world of the novel (Adam is in Madrid during the train bombings of 2004, and feels at a distance from his Spanish friends’ high emotion around the terror) may feel dated now, but I still recommend reading Lerner’s debut for the joy of pitch-perfect poet comedy if nothing else.  –Jessie Gaynor, Social Media Editor

Kevin Barry, City of Bohane (2012)

Irish author Kevin Barry is a dark wizard of language and City of Bohane is an unholy conjuring of the highest and most hypnotic order. A dystopian gangland tale set in 2053 in an anarchic west of Ireland town, it’s a story of tribal feuds and ancient grudges, power struggles and doomed loves, prodigal sons and lions in winter, all woven together with such unhinged linguistic flair that reading it you feel as if the book itself might burst its banks and flood the room with its salty, growling dialect. No one in the novel utilizes anything even resembling modern technology, all memory of which seems to have disappeared into the etheric time before an unspecified fall. In lieu of hi-tech world-building, though, Barry gleefully expounds on the steampunk street fashion, the wheezing locomotives, the weaponry and opiates and living quarters of his rogue’s gallery of ne’er-do-wells who hiss their hybrid colloquialisms though the alleys of Bohane’s Smoketown quarter. There’s Logan Hartnett, the lanky, ice-veined gang leader whose faction controls the city; Gant Broderick, the gargantuan, melancholic former Smoketown boss, returned to Bohane after twenty-five years in exile and still pining for the woman he lost to Logan; Jenni Ching, the fiercely intelligent young bodyguard with designs on the top job whose Chinese immigrant mother drowned herself in the Bohane river; and a dozen other incorrigible grotesques, each with their own particular arsenal of axes to grind. If you like a tidy, quiet, emotionally nuanced, domesticable debut, this feral creature will horrify and repel you; but if you’re on the hunt for a gloriously untamed beast of a novel, one which revels in its slobbering excesses and dazzles with its thousand phosphorescent tendrils, Barry’s sentient fallen kingdom will blow your mind.  –Dan Sheehan, Book Marks Editor

Merritt Tierce, Love Me Back (2014)

By the time Merritt Tierce’s debut novel came out in the fall of 2014, the book had already earned her a nod as one of the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35” 2013 class (thanks to early readers) and she had a Rona Jaffe award to boot. It was an auspicious start, one that came with great promise but a good amount of pressure, too. Love Me Back more than delivered on both counts. One of the decade’s most visceral reads, it charts the life of a young waitress working in a Dallas steakhouse, the kind of place where diners pay top-dollar, abuse their privileges, and the staff works toward a nightly oblivion through a mixture of drugs, drink, sex, and hard labor. The pain that comes along with that labor—a life of service and excess—is chronicled in startling detail. A strange kind of beauty is found there, too. Tierce charts every long night, every sordid encounter, and the harsh mornings after. Self-destructive behavior abounds, especially for her protagonist, who is reckoning with the decision to abandon a young daughter after a surprise pregnancy. Drugs and strangers become her tools. “It wasn’t about pleasure,” Tierce writes, “it was about how some kinds of pain make fine antidotes to others.” Work is this author’s big theme—the labor, the pride, the indignity, the tolls physical, spiritual, and otherwise. We all interact with the service industry on a daily basis; many of us have worked in it, at some point. Few writers have ever taken it on so directly or with such profound results.  –Dwyer Murphy, CrimeReads Managing Editor

Han Kang, tr. Deborah Smith, The Vegetarian (2016)

The Vegetarian should, based on its length, be a simple tale. Narrated by the husband of the titular vegetarian, Han Kang’s tale begins with a description of a dutiful wife, unusual only in her refusal to wear a bra, whose sudden decision to stop eating meat sends her partner and family into a spiral of confusion, where forcible consumption of meat quickly becomes a metaphor for violation. The vegetarian begins a slow transformation into vegetable itself—first, she stops eating meat; gradually, she stops eating everything. Her withdrawal from culinary delights is mirrored by her withdrawal from the world. She basks in sunlight, is painted all over with flowers by her sister’s husband (a not-so-successful artist), and for all intents and purposes, attempts to become a plant. Is she onto something, or is she out of her mind? Is she denying the world, or is she fully embracing it? Han Kang leaves the answers to these questions deliberately vague, and the sign of a great work is its ability to be read by many people and interpreted differently by each one.

While many of my coworkers at the bookstore I used to work at appreciated this one from the get-go, it took me several years to prepare myself to read Han Kang’s The Vegetarian —I knew it was a book that should be as transformative to the reader as vegetarianism is to its main character. When I did finally read it, upon the recommendation of a friend (hi, Miriam!), I was surprised by its complexity, and by how much I sympathized with the vegetarian’s sister, tasked with keeping the family going, and in her own way, as addicted to aesthetic abasement as her sister. However you interpret this book, it’s haunting ending will linger longer after you read the last page.  –Molly Odintz, CrimeReads Associate Editor

Samanta Schweblin, tr. Megan McDowell, Fever Dream (2017)

In Spanish, the title of the book is “Distancia de rescate” (“rescue distance”)—a phrase whose weight one only grasps after reading the book. It refers to the bond‚ the “rope” that tethers mother and daughter. Meanwhile the meaning of the English title, Fever Dream , becomes obvious to anyone even skimming the book, who will quickly realize that the entire novel is told in a feverish dialogue between two voices equally desperate for answers about the poison that has plagued their village. One belongs to a boy named David, who speaks steadily if aggressively, while the other belongs to Amanda, who has a daughter named Nina, who seems disoriented and frightened. In Fever Dream tension is not folded gently into the plot—it kicks off the story and rides all the way to the end. Samanta Schweblin experiments masterfully with genre, infusing horror with the impressionist and the surreal, writing a slim novel best consumed in one sitting, which reads more like a play and therefore is an all-consuming experience.

It is engrossing. Detail is dramatized through dialogue, and Schweblin knows just what to pick and what to leave out so that characters and readers alike are obsessed with the story about the poison. Everyone is at the mercy of someone: David is at the mercy of Amanda, Amanda at the mercy of David, and the reader at the mercy of both of them. The only way to find out the truth in Fever Dream is by trusting someone else’s narrative. Even in being swept away in the horrific progression of the novel, and simultaneously, the disease, the reader identifies with Amanda, a mother who realizes she cannot protect her child. In just under 200 pages, Schweblin has delivered a poignant, tragic tale of a fear come true.  –Eleni Theodoropoulos, Editorial Fellow

Ocean Vuong, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (2019)

Last fall, Ocean Vuong answered a fan on Instagram who asked if he had any advice for teenage poets by recommending, among other things, to “try and read everything. … ask, what is it doing? To me? Why is it doing this? A work of literature is not a code to be solved or a world to be pillage to ‘get the take away,’ it is weather. let yourself be in it fully, then decide if it’s a storm you can thrive in.”

Those words stayed with me while reading On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous , Vuong’s fiction debut, which followed his critically acclaimed 2016 poetry collection Night Sky With Exit Wounds . Told in the form of a letter from the protagonist, Little Dog, to his mother, who cannot read, the book is an act of witness to the experience of life as a queer Vietnamese refugee growing up in the U.S. and was hailed from all corners of the literary world this year. Describing it that way, though, does not do justice to the way this book shimmers. Its timeline flows between intergenerational history, memory, and the present, including a summer when Little Dog, working on a farm outside Hartford, begins a relationship with another boy, which forms one center of gravity for the novel’s exploration of masculinity and violence in America. Vuong has said in interviews that the book uses the technique of kishōtenketsu, a narrative structure that relies on proximity, not conflict, to build tension and advance the story. Within that structure, this book asks for a kind of quiet, lasting attention that feels like a deep breath; it’s a necessary counter-current to the increasingly relentless pace of life over the last decade. In the context of a brutal colonial history, the story’s tenderness and clear-eyed compassion assert complexity in a country that asks us, more and more, to categorize everything with binary-driven superlatives: good or bad, masculine or feminine, patriotic or unpatriotic. This story is one of the most important of the last decade, and we need to carry its lessons into the next.  –Corinne Segal, Senior Editor

Taffy Brodesser-Akner, Fleishman is in Trouble (2019)

Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner tells the story of a beleaguered, recently-divorced doctor whose dating-app-enabled deliverance is halted when his ex-wife drops off their kids with him and disappears to a meditative retreat. Rather obvious, early on, is that he (Toby Fleishman) embodies concerns, neuroses, and entitlements we have read about plenty of times before and don’t need to read about again. Keeping us going is the fact that Fleishman’s third-person-seeming story is tinged with playfulness, inflected with just enough wryness and sympathy that we understand him not to be written as a caricature but to be existing as one. The narrator cares about him, but doesn’t let his story veer from the comic into the tragicomic. Actually, the narrator is the best part about Fleishman . At just the right moment, the narrator is fully revealed not to be a third-person entity, but a first-person commentator. She is a woman. She is a writer. Her name is Libby. And she begins to take control of the story, after wondering why she (a former feature writer for a men’s magazine) has to keep making boring men sound interesting. She begins, then, to tell the story of Toby’s whole marriage, including a true account of his wife Rachel, one which incorporates a meaningful understanding of women’s experiences and therefore changes the chemistry of the book. It’s a jubilant turn of events. With its explicit takedown of the long-standing genre which celebrates boring or gross men, Fleishman is in Trouble might seem perfect to some, and a little too on-the-nose, for others. But it reworks a longstanding patriarchal framework that desperately needs to be taken apart so deftly. The novel is nothing if not a straight-shooter, and is so satisfying when it hits its target.  –Olivia Rutigliano, CrimeReads Editorial Fellow

Honorable Mentions

A selection of other books that we seriously considered for both lists—just to be extra about it (and because decisions are hard).

Teju Cole, Open City (2011) · Amelia Gray, Threats (2012) · Robin Sloan, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (2012) · Eimear McBride, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing (2014) · Catherine Lacey, Nobody is Ever Missing (2014) · Celeste Ng, Everything I Never Told You (2014) · Angela Flournoy, The Turner House (2015) · Ottessa Moshfegh, Eileen (2015) · Alexandra Kleeman, You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine (2015) · Claire-Louise Bennett, Pond (2016) · Yaa Gyasi, Homegoing (2016); Martin Seay, The Mirror Thief (2016) · Brit Bennett, The Mothers (2016) · Daniel Galera, tr. Alison Entrekin, Blood-Drenched Beard (2016) · Omar El Akkad, American War (2017) · Josephine Rowe, A Loving, Faithful Animal (2017) ·  Julie Buntin, Marlena (2017) · R. O. Kwon, The Incendiaries (2018) · Daisy Johnson, Everything Under (2018) · Akwaeke Emezi, Freshwater (2018) · Weike Wang, Chemistry (2018) · Andrew Martin, Early Work (2018) · Adam Ehrich Sachs, The Organs of Sense (2019) · Sophie Mackintosh, The Water Cure (2019) · Lauren Wilkinson, American Spy (2019) · Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Water Dancer (2019) · Chia-Chia Lin, The Unpassing (2019)

Emily Temple

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100 Must-Read Debut Novels

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Liberty Hardy

Liberty Hardy is an unrepentant velocireader, writer, bitey mad lady, and tattoo canvas. Turn-ons include books, books and books. Her favorite exclamation is “Holy cats!” Liberty reads more than should be legal, sleeps very little, frequently writes on her belly with Sharpie markers, and when she dies, she’s leaving her body to library science. Until then, she lives with her three cats, Millay, Farrokh, and Zevon, in Maine. She is also right behind you. Just kidding! She’s too busy reading. Twitter: @MissLiberty

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This post about debut novels is sponsored by The Cruelty by Scott Bergstrom

author's debut books

If you’ve written a novel, you have a debut novel. Every novelist has one. There are more debut novels than any other types of novel – second, third, etc. (Although it is tied with last novels.) In fact, there are so many debut novels, we here at Book Riot had assumed that one of us had already done this list because it’s such an easy one.

We hadn’t.

So here it is! I’m so glad I got to do this. Making one of these lists is an epic nerdpurr. There’s a TON of great books here, and would be handy to use for #2 on the Read Harder challenge .  A few of the books listed are not the author’s debut book, simply their debut in that format. To make the list, I went with the first debuts that popped into my head (except Catcher in the Rye – sorry but I hate that book, don’t @ me.) Also, I excluded the science fiction and fantasy debuts I already included on this list .

Tell us about your favorite debut novels in the comments below!

things fall apart

What are your favorite debut novels? Check out all of our must-read lists here . 

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Beginner's Luck: Famous Debut Novels

The Hobbit

The best debut novels of all time

Twelve of the best debut books you need to add to your reading list..

author's debut books

Have you ever challenged yourself to go back to where it all began and read the very first book by your favourite author? It makes for a pleasant surprise to discover that our beloved literary greats have been just that from the very beginning. Here's our list of twelve must-read debut novels by esteemed literary and classic authors. Once you've read these, you can really call yourself a fan. . .

The Orchard Keeper

By cormac mccarthy.

Book cover for The Orchard Keeper

Cormac McCarthy was one of America’s finest and most celebrated authors, with over ten books to his name across a career spanning nearly sixty years. If you’re a fan, you’ll know McCarthy wrestles with the dark aspects of America’s past and present - but have you travelled all the way back to his earliest classic? McCarthy’s first book, The Orchard Keeper , is a standalone novel, set in a small, remote community in rural Tennessee in the 1920’s. Winner of the Faulkner Foundation Award for the best first novel, this book has earned a place among literary giants. 

by Emma Donoghue

Book cover for Stir Fry

Can you honestly say you love literary fiction if you haven’t read a book by Emma Donoghue ? You’ve probably read Room , a beloved novel-turned blockbusting film, but her first novel, Stir Fry, is equally poignant, and will stay with you long after the final page. This insightful coming-of-age story explores love between women and probes feminist ideas of sisterhood. There’s nothing like reading an author's entire body of work, especially one that is so sparklingly diverse and has been adapted for the screen not once, but twice , with The Wonder out on Netflix on 16 November.

The People in the Trees

By hanya yanagihara.

Book cover for The People in the Trees

You’ve probably read or at least heard about the award-winning A Little Life , by Hanya Yanahigara. But you can’t be a true admirer if you haven’t read her first, debut novel, The People in the Trees , which marked her as a remarkable new voice in American fiction. It is 1950, when Norton Perina, a young doctor, embarks on an expedition to a remote Micronesian island where he encounters a strange tribe of forest dwellers who appear to have attained a form of immortality. We know that Hanya Yanaghiara has a way with words that can puncture you emotionally, and this all began with the haunting, but bewitching, The People in the Trees .

The Pickwick Papers

By charles dickens.

Book cover for The Pickwick Papers

Charles Dickens ’ era-defining novels undoubtedly belong in a list of the best books of all time. But we’re here to talk about The Pickwick Papers , his debut novel and a comic masterpiece which first brought this iconic writer to fame. Originally published in a series of magazine instalments, in novel form it is a hefty 1,080 pages, but you’ll be acquainted with some of fiction’s most endearing and memorable characters. It’s a classic, so you’ve got to give this work of literary invention your utmost attention if you haven’t already.

Before the Coffee Gets Cold

By toshikazu kawaguchi.

Book cover for Before the Coffee Gets Cold

What would you change if you could go back in time? You’d read this novel when it was a bestseller in Japan in 2015 of course. . . Before the Coffee Gets Cold is the first book in this eponymous series about a coffee shop which offers its customers the chance to travel back in time. You’ll become captivated by four heartwarming characters as you follow their wistful attempts to change their respective pasts, whether that be seeing a loved one for one last time or confronting someone who did them wrong. An incredibly moving series that you have until September 2023 to become emotionally invested in, before the fourth adventure blesses our bookshelves.

The Miniaturist

By jessie burton.

Book cover for The Miniaturist

Set in the golden city of Amsterdam, The Miniaturist is a historical novel with a strange secret at its heart. It’s 1686, eighteen-year-old Nella Oortman arrives in Amsterdam to begin a new life as the wife of illustrious merchant trader Joannes Brant, who gifts her a cabinet-sized replica of their home. As she engages the services of a miniaturist, an elusive and enigmatic artist, his tiny creations start to mirror their real-life counterparts in eerie and unexpected ways.

At the Bottom of the River

By jamaica kincaid.

Book cover for At the Bottom of the River

Jamaica Kincaid’s books are beloved for their honest exploration of colonial legacy, full of unapologetic passion and defiance. Her first work, At the Bottom of the River , is a selection of inter-connected prose poems told from the perspective of a young Afro-Caribbean girl. You’ll not forget the way Kincaid explores the nature of mother-daughter relationships, and the short prose style will leave you wanting more. We think you should get to know this unique and necessary literary voice, starting with At the Bottom of the River .

Less Than Zero

By bret easton ellis.

Book cover for Less Than Zero

Years before  American Psycho , Bret Easton Ellis shocked, stunned and disturbed with his debut, a fierce coming-of-age novel about the casual nihilism that comes with youth and money. Less Than Zero  is narrated by Clay, an eighteen-year-old student, whose story is filled with relentless drinking, wild, drug-fuelled parties and dispassionate sexual encounters. This unflinching depiction of hedonistic youth and the consequences of such moral depravity, is neither condoned or chastised by the author. Published when he was just twenty-one, this extraordinary and instantly infamous work has become a cult classic and a timeless embodiment of the zeitgeist.

Sense and Sensibility

By jane austen.

Book cover for Sense and Sensibility

No one can write quite like Jane Austen. Her six novels are famous for their witty social commentary of British society in the early 19th century. Sense and Sensibility , her first novel, features two sisters of opposing temperament and their respective approaches to love. This comedy of manners is the humorous history lesson everyone needs.

Last Night in Montreal

By emily st. john mandel.

Book cover for Last Night in Montreal

If you’ve not heard of Emily St. John Mandel before, the New York Times bestselling author of Station Eleven , you have an incredible list of books to look forward to, starting with her extraordinary debut, Last Night in Montreal . Lilia has been leaving people behind her entire life, moving from city to city, abandoning lovers and friends along the way. Gorgeously written, charged with tension and foreboding, Last Night in Montreal is a novel about identity, love and amnesia, the depths and limits of family bonds and — ultimately — about the nature of obsession. 

by Kate Mosse

Book cover for Labyrinth

Three secrets. Two women. One Grail. . . Kate Mosse’s debut, Labyrinth , an archaeological mystery set in both the Middle Ages and present-day France, is the first book in the bestselling Languedoc trilogy. When Alice Tanner discovers two skeletons in a forgotten cave, she unearths a link to a horrific past. Brought vividly to life by actress Louise Brealey’s narration, this unabridged audiobook also includes extra content read by the author herself. Discover more brilliant books by Kate Mosse in our guide to her books in order . 

Burial Rites

By hannah kent.

Book cover for Burial Rites

Inspired by actual events, Burial Rites is an astonishing and moving first novel that will transport you to Northern Iceland in 1829, where Agnes Magnúsdóttir is a woman condemned to death for her part in the murder of her lover. But all is not as it seems, and time is running out to uncover the truth – winter is coming, and with it is Agnes’ execution date. Hannah Kent announced her arrival into the literary space with this speculative biography and it's rare to find a debut novel as sophisticated and gripping as this one.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

By douglas adams.

Book cover for The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

An oldie but a goldie, you may have seen at least one incarnation of this pop-culture classic, whether it be on the radio, on film, or on the stage, but have you actually attempted the novel? Douglas Adams’ international bestseller follows the intergalactic (mis)adventures of ordinary Arthur Dent after he is whisked into space by his alien friend Ford. The pair go on an unforgettable adventure to learn the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything. Funny and totally unpredictable, this nonsensical universe is explored through five science fiction novels that you just have to experience, and DON’T PANIC, we have the whole box set .

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Must-read debut novels, as chosen by our readers

From historical fiction to horror, iconic classics to contemporary bestsellers, these are the first novels you need to add to your reading list.

collage of book covers

There's something uniquely enticing about a debut novel, so when we asked Penguin readers on social media to tell us about their favourites, we were quickly inundated with recommendations.

From iconic murder mysteries to literary takes on modern Britain, weepy love stories to spine-chilling horror, we’ve rounded up the most popular picks below.

And if you fancy a debut voice from 2021, we have just the selection to suit all tastes – check out our essential edit here .

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles (2011)

We said: Author of lockdown favourite A Gentleman in Moscow , Amor Towles’ first novel is a slick, coming-of-age story set in the upper echelons of New York society, 1937.

You said: Every word is perfect. You'll be dying to know what happens and, as soon as you've finished it, you'll go back to the start to revel in the language.

Sarah M on Facebook

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy (1997)

We said: A lyrical meditation on growing up amid political turbulence in Kerala, The God of Small Things won the 1997 Booker Prize and transformed Arundhati Roy into a literary sensation.  

You said : A brilliant debut novel. She pretty much created her own language in that book.

@the_perksofbeingareader on Instagram

Carrie by Stephen King (1974)

We said: Known to many as ‘the father of modern horror writing’, King’s macabre novel about a teenage outcast with paranormal powers is as legendary and chilling as the cult slasher film it inspired. 

You said: Narrative brilliance right out of the gate, with so much more to come.

@randall_perry on Instagram

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