There’s nothing like the feeling of reading a great debut novel. When a standout debut hits, it can be like falling in love all over again with a new form of storytelling or even a new way of seeing the world. If the languid days of summer heat waves have got you down, inject a little excitement in your reading routine by picking up one (or two or three . . .) of these explosive debuts. This list features old genre favorites like slow-burn thrillers and poignant coming-of-age tales. Each one comes with its own twist, whether that’s exploring an underrepresented community or revisiting an old trope to find new resonance. Whichever book you pick, get ready for something new and unexpected.
Séraphin, a Rwandan living in Namibia, is ready to take his next step: a move away from his family to Cape Town, South Africa, where he will pursue a degree from a respected university. But the year that unfolds isn’t quite what Séraphin expected. From raucous parties to racial controversies, cosmopolitan futures to ever-present pasts, Séraphin must navigate a series of intersecting desires and agendas to complete his immigrant grand plan. A riotously funny, high-energy debut, THE ETERNAL AUDIENCE OF ONE is a one-of-a-kind coming-of-age tale.
“The Eternal Audience of One is laugh-out-loud funny with writing that is sometimes so beautiful that it dances off the page—to a millennial beat—in perfect tempo with its tales of migration, love, loss, and friendship.” —Sarah Ladipo Manyika, author of In Dependence
Reminiscent of Zadie Smith and Michael Chabon, this “gorgeous, wildly funny and, above all, profoundly moving and humane” (Peter Orner, author of Am I Alone Here) coming-of-age tale follows a young man who is forced to flee his homeland of Rwanda during the Civil War and make sense of his reality.
Nobody ever makes it to the start of a story, not even the people in it. The most one can do is make some sort of start and then work toward some kind of ending.
One might as well start with Séraphin: playlist-maker, nerd-jock hybrid, self-appointed merchant of cool, Rwandan, stifled and living in Windhoek, Namibia. Soon he will leave the confines of his family life for the cosmopolitan city of Cape Town, in South Africa, where loyal friends, hormone-saturated parties, adventurous conquests, and race controversies await. More than that, his long-awaited final year in law school promises to deliver a crucial puzzle piece of the Great Plan immigrant: a degree from a prestigious university.
But a year is more than the sum of its parts, and en route to the future, the present must be lived through and even the past must be survived.
From one of Africa’s emerging literary voices comes a lyrical and piquant tale of family, migration, friendship, war, identity, and race following the intersecting lives of Séraphin and a host of eclectic characters from pre- and post-1994 Rwanda, colonial and post-independence Windhoek, Paris and Brussels in the 70s, Nairobi public schools, and the racially charged streets of Cape Town.
A heartrendingly funny and moving novel perfect for fans of John Green, THE ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF LENNI AND MARGOT follows seventeen-year-old Lenni and eighty-three-year-old Margot, two residents of a terminal ward, who bond in the hospital’s arts and crafts class. Eccentric and passionate, Margot inspires Lenni to use her remaining time to leave one last mark on the world. Together, they plan to create one hundred paintings that capture personal stories from the cumulative century they have spent on the planet and, in doing so, they uncover the unexpected pleasures of life.
In this glittering retelling of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s THE GREAT GATSBY, Nghi Vo revisits the overlooked character of Jordan Baker, a monied, educated, beautiful professional golfer who’s scored all the best invites in 1920s American society. But Jordan is also a queer Vietnamese adoptee, shown off as a spectacle at parties without being given any of the influence she craves. A dazzling exploration of one unexpected woman’s coming-of-age, THE CHOSEN AND THE BEAUTIFUL interrogates the illusions we both fall for and conjure.
Rich Gundersen has lived his entire life near Damnation Grove, where he and his family make a living off the Pacific Northwest’s redwood forests. While Rich was raised a logger, he wants better for his son, particularly after his wife Colleen suffers a series of miscarriages. Without consulting his family, Rich spends their savings on 24-7 Ridge, a grove ripe for logging. But when Colleen starts digging into a neighborhood-wide rash of miscarriages and uncovers that the logging company’s herbicide may be to blame, the Gundersen family and their entire community may crumble.
An epic, immersive debut, Damnation Spring is the deeply human story of a Pacific Northwest logging town wrenched in two by a mystery that threatens to derail its way of life.
For generations, Rich Gundersen’s family has chopped a livelihood out of the redwood forest along California’s rugged coast. Now Rich and his wife, Colleen, are raising their own young son near Damnation Grove, a swath of ancient redwoods on which Rich’s employer, Sanderson Timber Co., plans to make a killing. In 1977, with most of the forest cleared or protected, a grove like Damnation—and beyond it 24-7 Ridge—is a logger’s dream.
It’s dangerous work. Rich has already lived decades longer than his father, killed on the job. Rich wants better for his son, Chub, so when the opportunity arises to buy 24-7 Ridge—costing them all the savings they’ve squirreled away for their growing family—he grabs it, unbeknownst to Colleen. Because the reality is their family isn’t growing; Colleen has lost several pregnancies. And she isn’t alone. As a midwife, Colleen has seen it with her own eyes.
For decades, the herbicides the logging company uses were considered harmless. But Colleen is no longer so sure. What if these miscarriages aren’t isolated strokes of bad luck? As mudslides take out clear-cut hillsides and salmon vanish from creeks, her search for answers threatens to unravel not just Rich’s plans for the 24-7, but their marriage too, dividing a town that lives and dies on timber along the way.
Told from the perspectives of Rich, Colleen, and Chub, in prose as clear as a spring-fed creek, this intimate, compassionate portrait of a community clinging to a vanishing way of life amid the perils of environmental degradation makes Damnation Spring an essential novel for our time.
Joan is not a stranger to the violence of men. But when one man commits a brutal act in front of her, she is thrown back into remembering the events she’s witnessed and experienced in her past, and one, in particular, which has haunted her every day since. Fleeing New York in search of the one woman who can help her make sense of what she’s seen, Joan embarks on a visceral journey of self-discovery and unencumbered female rage in this first novel by the critically acclaimed author of the nonfiction bestseller THREE WOMEN.
Lisa Taddeo illustrates one woman's exhilarating transformation from prey into predator in Animal, the “ferociously beautiful” (Library Journal) debut novel from the author of the #1 New York Times bestseller and international phenomenon Three Women, named to more than thirty best-of-the-year lists and hailed as “a dazzling achievement” (Los Angeles Times) and “a heartbreaking, gripping, astonishing masterpiece” (Esquire).
I am depraved. I hope you like me.
Joan has spent a lifetime enduring the cruelties of men. But when one of them commits a shocking act of violence in front of her, she flees New York City in search of Alice, the only person alive who can help her make sense of her past. In the sweltering hills above Los Angeles, Joan unravels the horrific event she witnessed as a child—that has haunted her every waking moment—while forging the power to finally strike back.
Animal is a depiction of female rage at its rawest, and a visceral exploration of the fallout from a male-dominated society.
During the summer of 1994, ten-year-old Fish decides he’s done watching his best friend Bread get beaten by his father. After acquiring a gun, taking aim, and shooting, Fish and Bread escape to the woods and the gorge beyond. As they battle to stay alive in the Wisconsin wilderness, four adults embark on their own journeys of self-discovery to find the boys: Fish’s mother, whose faith in finding her son is unwavering; Fish’s grandfather, who considers himself an expert his surroundings; an outcast gas station attendant looking for where she belongs; and the local sheriff, filled with doubt.
It’s 1986 and ten-year-old Junie loves her bucolic life in rural China with her grandparents. Which is why she determined to stay put, despite her father Momo’s promise that he and her mother will come to bring her to America where they immigrated years ago by her twelfth birthday. While Momo reflects on his own abandoned musical ambitions and makes plans for Junie’s future, his wife, Cassia, struggles to come to terms with a brutal act of violence from years ago. Now, Momo must reunite his estranged family, even if it means their revealing painful secrets.
A lyrical novel set against the backdrop of China’s Cultural Revolution that follows a father’s quest to reunite his family before his precocious daughter’s momentous birthday, which Garth Greenwell calls “one of the most beautiful debuts I’ve read in years.”
How many times in life can we start over without losing ourselves?
In the summer of 1986 in a small Chinese village, ten-year-old Junie receives a momentous letter from her parents, who had left for America years ago: her father promises to return home and collect her by her twelfth birthday. But Junie’s growing determination to stay put in the idyllic countryside with her beloved grandparents threatens to derail her family’s shared future.
What Junie doesn’t know is that her parents, Momo and Cassia, are newly estranged from one another in their adopted country, each holding close private tragedies and histories from the tumultuous years of their youth during China’s Cultural Revolution. While Momo grapples anew with his deferred musical ambitions and dreams for Junie’s future in America, Cassia finally begins to wrestle with a shocking act of brutality from years ago. In order for Momo to fulfill his promise, he must make one last desperate attempt to reunite all three members of the family before Junie’s birthday—even if it means bringing painful family secrets to light.
“A beautifully written, poignant exploration of family, art, culture, immigration, and most of all, love,” (Jean Kwok, New York Times bestselling author of Searching for Sylvie Lee) Swimming Back to Trout River weaves together the stories of Junie, Momo, Cassia, and Dawn—a talented violinist from Momo’s past—while depicting their heartbreak and resilience, tenderly revealing the hope, compromises, and abiding ingenuity that make up the lives of immigrants.
A twentysomething lesbian and atheist, Gilda is anxiously obsessed with death. Hoping for relief, she responds to an ad for free therapy at a Catholic church where the priest mistakes her for the church’s recently deceased receptionist’s replacement. Without the heart to correct him, Gilda finds herself stepping into Grace’s shoes and continuing an email correspondence Grace was having with an old friend. That is, until the mysterious circumstances surrounding Grace’s death force her to come clean about her well-meaning impersonations in this hysterical debut.
This hilarious and profound debut for fans of Mostly Dead Things and Goodbye, Vitamin, follows a morbidly anxious young woman—“the kindhearted heroine we all need right now” (Courtney Maum, New York Times bestselling author)—who stumbles into a job as a receptionist at a Catholic church and becomes obsessed with her predecessor’s mysterious death.
Gilda, a twenty-something, atheist, animal-loving lesbian, cannot stop ruminating about death. Desperate for relief from her panicky mind and alienated from her repressive family, she responds to a flyer for free therapy at a local Catholic church, and finds herself being greeted by Father Jeff, who assumes she’s there for a job interview. Too embarrassed to correct him, Gilda is abruptly hired to replace the recently deceased receptionist Grace.
In between trying to memorize the lines to Catholic mass, hiding the fact that she has a new girlfriend, and erecting a dirty dish tower in her crumbling apartment, Gilda strikes up an email correspondence with Grace’s old friend. She can’t bear to ignore the kindly old woman, who has been trying to reach her friend through the church inbox, but she also can’t bring herself to break the bad news. Desperate, she begins impersonating Grace via email. But when the police discover suspicious circumstances surrounding Grace’s death, Gilda may have to finally reveal the truth of her mortifying existence.
A delightful blend of warmth, deadpan humor, and pitch-perfect observations about the human condition, Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead is a crackling exploration of what it takes to stay afloat in a world where your expiration—and the expiration of those you love—is the only certainty.
When longtime pilot Bill Hoffman guides his commercial plane full of one hundred and forty-three passengers into the air from LAX headed toward JFK one morning, he has a dark secret. Just thirty minutes before the flight, his entire family was kidnapped. Now, he is under orders from the kidnappers to crash his plane and kill everyone on board, or else his own family dies. FALLING is a nightmarish, pulse-racing thriller that will have readers wondering what they would do if they were in this claustrophobic worst-case-scenario.
“Stunning and relentless. This is Jaws at 35,000 feet.” —Don Winslow
“Falling is the best kind of thriller…Nonstop, totally authentic suspense.” —James Patterson
“Amazing...Intense suspense, shocks and scares...Chilling.” —Lee Child
“The perfect summer thriller. Relentlessly paced and unforgettable.” —Janet Evanovich
You just boarded a flight to New York.
There are one hundred and forty-three other passengers onboard.
What you don’t know is that thirty minutes before the flight your pilot’s family was kidnapped.
For his family to live, everyone on your plane must die.
The only way the family will survive is if the pilot follows his orders and crashes the plane.
Enjoy the flight.
In this atmospheric thriller, seventeen-year-old Emma is determined to learn the truth of what happened to her missing best friend, Abi. Emma finds there are no shortages of secrets in Abi’s family: from Abi’s older brother’s attraction to a working-class immigrant to her young brother’s attempts to tell the police a mysterious piece of information, their household has long been simmering. But now, with a volatile preacher influencing the community and an ambitious businessman beginning to take control, their small town is ready to explode as Emma learns more about Abi than she ever wanted to know.
When a teenaged girl disappears from an insular small town, all of the community’s most devastating secrets come to light in this stunningly atmospheric and slow-burning suspense novel—perfect for fans of Megan Miranda and Celeste Ng.
The town of Whistling Ridge guards its secrets.
When seventeen-year-old Abigail goes missing, her best friend Emma, compelled by the guilt of leaving her alone at a party in the woods, sets out to discover the truth about what happened. The police initially believe Abi ran away, but Emma doesn't believe that her friend would leave without her, and when officers find disturbing evidence in the nearby woods, the festering secrets and longstanding resentment of both Abigail’s family and the people of Whistling Ridge, Colorado begin to surface with devastating consequences.
Among those secrets: Abi's older brother Noah’s passionate, dangerous love for the handsome Rat, a recently arrived Romanian immigrant who has recently made his home in the trailer park in town; her younger brother Jude's feeling that he knows information he should tell the police, if only he could put it into words; Abi's father's mercurial, unpredictable rages and her mother's silence. Then there is the rest of Whistling Ridge, where a charismatic preacher advocates for God's love in language that mirrors violence, under the sway of the powerful businessman who rules the town, insular and wary of outsiders.
But Abi had secrets, too, and the closer Emma grows to unraveling the past, the farther she feels from her friend. And in a tinder box of small-town rage, and all it will take is just one spark—the truth of what really happened that night—to change their community forever.
Photo credit: iStock / Maryna Andriichenko