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 . 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

8 . 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

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 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

11 . 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

12 . 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

13 . 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

14 . 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

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 . 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

17 . 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

18 . 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

19 . 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

20 . 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

21 . 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

22 . 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

23 . 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

24 . 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

25 . 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

26 . 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

27 . 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

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 . 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

31 . 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

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.

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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.

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author's debut books

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30 World-famous Authors’ Debut Novels

  • on Nov 08, 2017
  • in Writing Tips
  • Last update: May 31st, 2023

Authors often gain fame for just one or two works written well into their careers – even if they already have an extensive collection under their belts. It’s a lucky author, indeed, who achieves fame and fortune from their first published work.

famous author's first books

Below is a list of debut works by now world-famous authors – some of which gained their authors instant fame.

1)  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

author's debut books

“ A Study in Scarlet ” (1887) – Conan Doyle apparently hated his Sherlock Holmes series, even though it earned him lasting fame. And this story, focusing on a bloodstained room in south London, features the debut of the famous sleuth.

2) Vladimir Nabokov

author's debut books

“ Poems ” (1916) – Nabokov originally started his writing in his native Russian. This collection of his poetry (in Russian) was his first published work, and which started his literary career. He achieved greater fame with his English work, especially “Lolita”.

3) Ernest Hemingway

author's debut books

“ The Torrents of Spring ” (1926) – Hemingway’s first published book was, in fact, a parody of a Chicago school of literature. In contrast to later works, which focused on war or colonial life, this work pokes fun at writers.

4) George Orwell

author's debut books

“ Burmese Days ” (1934) – Set in the country of its titular name (Burma), the novel focuses on bigotry and corruption. In line with his later, politically charged, works, Orwell’s story line features a battle of cultures and values between whites and their native “charges”.

5) Ayn Rand

author's debut books

“ We the Living ” (1936) – Based on her own life experiences, Rand’s debut novel outlines the effects of the Russian Revolution on the lives of three protagonists. Rather than focusing specifically on politics, the book looks at the effects of politics on humans.

6) JRR Tolkien

author's debut books

“ The Hobbit ” (1937) – Although it’s now achieved fame among adult readers (and viewers of the recent films), “The Hobbit” was originally a children’s book. Building on magical realism and ancient mythology, the book takes readers on a journey through middle earth.

7) Roald Dahl

author's debut books

“ The Gremlins ” (1943) – Dahl’s first children’s book (a genre he later gained fame in), his debut book was inspired by his experiences as a fighter pilot. During World War II, his fellow pilots frequently blamed airplane problems on “gremlins” – which Dahl built on for his first book.

8) Alan Paton

author's debut books

“ Cry, the Beloved Country ” (1948) – A hard read, Paton’s debut novel tackled the racism of his native South Africa and its effects on the native population. It’s a novel that deals with the persecution meted out, by the white “overlords”, on native inhabitants of countries under colonial rule.

9) J.D. Salinger

author's debut books

“ The Catcher in the Rye ” (1951) – What would now be termed a “coming of age” novel, Salinger’s debut novel is more parody than serious. Recounting a teenager’s bid for freedom from his parents, “The Catcher in the Rye” has caught readers’ imaginations since its publication.

10) Kurt Vonnegut

author's debut books

“ Player Piano ” (1952) – As with several other books of the period, Vonnegut’s debut novel features a “utopian” world ruled by technology. It also features out-of-place humans trying to break out of the world they have been forced to live in. It’s a subject found in several novels even today.

11) John Updike

author's debut books

“ The Carpentered Hen ” (1958) – Written when he was still an art student, and actually a collection of poems. Updike’s first published material take a nuanced look at every day life. As Updike said of this work, it’s “a way of dealing with the universe”.

12) Phillip Roth

author's debut books

“ Goodbye, Columbus ” (1959) – A collection of five short stories, this debut published work is a picture of every day lives of American Jews as they assimilate with their surroundings. The eponymous novella tackles issues such as classism, relationships and human interactions.

13) Margaret Atwood

author's debut books

“ The Edible Woman ” (1969) – Atwood’s first prose piece established her name as a writer to be reckoned with. Despite involvement in the feminist movement, she claims this book isn’t feminist. It’s a bizarre look into a woman’s relationship with her body and world.

14) Toni Morrison

author's debut books

“ The Bluest Eye ” (1970) – Written whilst also working as a university lecturer. Morrison’s first book centres on a young African-American girl growing up in Depression-era America. It’s deep plot tackles the racism of the period, and the protagonist’s reaction to her life experiences.

15) Stephen King

author's debut books

“ Carrie ” (1974) – Who doesn’t have time for the King of Horror? Set in the then future year of 1979, King’s first book features a protagonist with superpowers. Carrie is also bullied by her peers, causing her to use her superpowers for revenge – and with it, causes a set of disasters.

16) Ian McEwan

author's debut books

“ The Cement Garden ” (1978) – McEwan’s more famous for his later works, particularly “Atonement” and the like. But his first book, later made into a film, is a dark tale of four orphans who encase their mother’s corpse in their cellar’s cement wall. And all to avoid foster care.

17) Isabel Allende

author's debut books

“ House of Spirits ” (1982) – Allende’s highly acclaimed first novel, which also established her name in writing, is a deeply lyrical novel. It started life as a letter to her dying grandfather, becoming a historical novel. It retells the life of the Trueba family over four generations.

18) Paulo Coelho

author's debut books

“Hell Archives” (1982) – Like many authors, Coelho’s fame grew with his later books. His first published work, however, was decidely not a success.  The debut was not well received and the book failed to make any kind of impact.

19) Hilary Mantel

author's debut books

“ Every Day is Mother’s Day ” (1985) – Although Mantell’s better famed for her historical fiction (think “Wolf Hall” and “Bring up the Bodies”), her first book tackles something radically different – a psychic single-mother living a life of chaos with her mentally handicapped daughter.

20) Lionel Shriver

author's debut books

“ The Female of the Species ” (1987) – Shriver seems to love tackling dark, and sometimes socially distasteful storylines, in her books. Her first novel revolves around an anthropologist who has previously lived only for her work, before falling into an affair with her much younger assistant.

21) Haruki Murakami

author's debut books

“ Hear the Wind Sing ” (1979 – Released in English in 1987) – Murakami’s first book appeared in the famous Japanese literary magazine, Gunzo. It appeared a month later in book form, as the first installment in the “Trilogy of the Rat” series. The book is told in a first-person narrative, retelling the tale of the narrator’s friendship with a mysterious girl.

22) Nicholas Sparks

author's debut books

“ The Notebook ” (1996) – Set along the lines of a classic love-story, Sparks’ book revolves around Noah Calhoun and his search for a former flame. Bringing together themes of money, class and the chance to marry whom one chooses, “The Notebook” is a sweet account of true love.

23) Chuck Palahniuk

author's debut books

“ Fight Club ” (1996) – Palahniuk’s debut has become a cult classic, yet is probably more famous in its film version. Tackling the human beast’s grosser side and need for masculine superiority, this novel  is all about bare-knuckle fighting. It isn’t a read for the faint-hearted.

24) JK Rowling

author's debut books

“ Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone ” (1997) – By now, we all know the story of Rowling’s huge success with the Potter series. Needless to say, the wizarding world came back into full force in novel context with her first book. Join Harry and friends for his school adventures.

25) David Mitchell

David Mitchell first novel Ghostwritten

“ Ghostwritten ” (1999) – Mitchell’s first book is a clever weaving together of wildly different characters in one book. On the surface, it looks to be a potentially quite disparate storyline. What it does do, however, is show just how interconnected the world is.

26) Zadie Smith

author's debut books

“ White Teeth ” (2000) – Smith burst onto the literary scene in this debut novel. With a storyline revolving around the interactions of London’s varied communities, Smith’s novel is a wonderfully illustrated microcosm of interactions between wildly different people.

27) Marjane Satrapi

author's debut books

“ Persepolis ” (2000) – Satrapi’s graphic novel was a huge hit when it was first published. The Iranian novelist and illustrator’s first literary production gives a radical view of life under a religious government – and how people deal with what life deals them. Using a mixture of more pictures with less words, this is a beautifully different take on politics.

28) Helen DeWitt

author's debut books

“ The Last Samurai ” (2000) – Not to be confused with the Tom Cruise film of the same name. DeWitt’s lyrical books centres on the relationship between an intelligent single mother and her equally intelligent son. The storyline also focuses on the dysfunctional nature of using male film characters as father figures.

29) Khaled Hosseini

author's debut books

“ The Kite Runner ” (2003) – Hosseini’s debut novel is set in war-torn Afghanistan of the 1980s. It provides an alternative reading to the interaction of the country’s communities and how friendship can overcome all hardships.

30) Gene Luen Yang

author's debut books

“ American Born Chinese ” (2006) – Yang’s first literary offering, a graphic novel, deals with racism in North America head on through three short tales.  It brings together traditional stories and immigrants finding a bond between their home cultures and newly adopted countries.

author's debut books

Did you enjoy the list? Did we miss any? Let us know down below!

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Kevon Brown

Amazing! Thanks for sharing such type of amazing article. Keep sharing!

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Hello Kevon, We’re glad you liked the article. Happy reading!

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Thats the wrong David Mitchell.

Gracias Bob por tus comentarios. Nos alegramos de que te haya resultado útil.

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10 best debut novelists of 2021

Introducing our 10 best debut novelists of 2021

It’s not an easy time to break through, but this year brings a formidable crop of new talent. Meet our pick of those hoping to follow in the footsteps of Douglas Stuart and Sally Rooney

I t’s a tough time to be a debut novelist, with so many of the usual channels for promoting new writing suspended or curtailed. The Observer ’s pick of this year’s first novels will be published in a country whose bookshops are closed, and whose literary festivals have been postponed or made virtual. It therefore feels particularly important to celebrate these books, to make sure that they receive the profile and plaudits they deserve.

This is the eighth year in which the New Review team has read through dozens of first novels, looking for books that leap out from the crowd, writers who speak with powerful, fresh voices. Our record is pretty good. Last year we were the first to champion Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain , which went on to win a host of prizes, including the Booker. Stuart says now: “Publishing your debut novel fills you with excitement and a fair amount of anxiety. We live in a noisy world, and it can be challenging for new writers to make themselves heard above the din. To be recognised as one of the Observer’s best debuts changed everything.” Previous luminaries selected also include Sally Rooney , Jessie Burton, Gail Honeyman , Oyinkan Braithwaite and Sara Collins .

This year’s selection of debuts (from writers in the UK and Ireland) is a particularly rich and interesting mix. We have novels that engage with contemporary British life, with questions of race and identity prominent. There are books that seek to explore occluded histories and contested narratives. It’s a list featuring several poets who have turned to the novel as a way of exploring ideas in a more capacious form. Several of the authors reflect either specifically or obliquely on the coronavirus pandemic, while others explore issues of systemic prejudice and social justice. There are a number of short, intense books that can be read in a single sitting, while others attempt to reshape the form of the novel itself. As always, we’re astonished and delighted by the range and ambition of the writers in this list. We look forward to following their careers in the years and decades ahead.

‘So much of writing the book was reckoning with myself’

Caleb azumah nelson.

Open Water (Viking, 4 February)

Caleb Azumah Nelson

Caleb Azumah Nelson’s debut is a tender and touching love story, beautifully told. Open Water explores the security and safety that love offers, but also its limitations when set alongside vulnerability triggered by violence, fear and loss. Its nameless young couple are both black artists – he a photographer, she a dancer – and the book conspicuously celebrates black achievement ( Yaa Gyasi has called it “a love song to black art and thought”). Musicians such as Kendrick Lamar, Frank Ocean and Solange feature alongside James Baldwin, Zadie Smith, Teju Cole and many others – painters, film-makers, photographers. The book is also something of a celebration of south-east London, where Azumah Nelson grew up and where he still lives with his parents, who came to London from Ghana as teenagers.

Azumah Nelson is also a photographer; he inherited a 35mm camera from an uncle, taught himself to use it, and has been working on a series of portraits of “black people in their everyday moments” for a while. But his writing will keep him busy. Last year his story, Pray, was shortlisted for the BBC national short story award and Open Water was the subject of a nine-way bidding auction prior to publication.

How did the book come about? I was working part-time, at the Apple Store. It was retail, so long hours, and I’d either write before or after work (which could be 5am or 11pm, depending on what shift I was working). I quit my job in July 2019 to focus on writing the novel for a few months. It felt like the right time to gamble on myself!

To what degree is it autobiographical? It isn’t, but it is very personal… the majority of the events have happened to me and the feelings that those events have triggered [in the book] are feelings that I know well.

A question the book asks is what it means to only be identified by the world as a black person. There’s a lot of grief in this book, and in large part that is down to loss of self. You’re not being seen as you want to be, and that’s a loss. You leave your house, enter a space and understand that your whole identity won’t be observed.

Has the police harassment you write about been a feature of your own life? This past year has been the year that I have been stopped and searched the least [because of lockdown]. But in previous years it was usually a couple of times a month.

How do you cope? So much of writing Open Water was reckoning with myself – understanding on a base level that that kind of harassment is unwarranted; it’s not my fault. I think that it can really weigh down on you, and the protagonist, like me, isn’t always willing to offer up a sense of vulnerability for fear of not being treated very well. I think this book is asking what it would mean for someone to be wholly vulnerable with someone else, and where there would be safety and freedom in that action.

The book has many references to songs and songwriters… I’m always listening to music. It is so influential to my writing. I played the violin for a long time and had family around me that were always listening to music and passing each other CDs and mixtapes. Hip-hop and jazz, R&B. I remember listening to Kendrick Lamar for the first time at 16 and it being really transformative. Someone taking the nuances of everyday life, of quotidian experiences and putting them down to music in a way that I immediately understood.

You are also a big fan of Zadie Smith… Yes, I quote her in the book, and NW was a massive influence on me.

Name a favourite debut… I recently enjoyed Bryan Washington’s novel, Memorial , about the quieter moments of love. Interview by Ursula Kenny

‘Most important is anyone who can tell you that it doesn’t belong in the bin’

Megan nolan.

Acts of Desperation (Jonathan Cape, 4 March)

Megan Nolan in Burgess Park, London.

Megan Nolan’s debut novel started life as narrative nonfiction, exploring the destructive, desperate relationships she’d had in her teens and 20s. “I was trying to understand myself and why I had done those things, when I knew it was so degrading to behave that way,” she says. “I had given up an enormous amount in order to be the sort of person these men might like to be with.”

The Irish writer grew up in Waterford, and moved to Dublin and then London in 2015, where she started to work as a freelance journalist; now, the 30-year-old has a New Statesman column and contributes to the New York Times . But it was at a reading at Goldsmiths that her writing attracted the attention of an agent, Harriet Moore, who encouraged her to start developing ideas for a book.

When Nolan started working on it in earnest in 2016, it quickly became apparent to her that essays weren’t going to cut it. She threw away around 15,000 words, and started again, embracing fiction as a way to tell a “really dark and interesting” account of a toxic relationship from beginning to end. Acts of Desperation charts the obsession of an unnamed narrator with a cold, beautiful man named Ciaran with forensic focus and biting honesty. It netted her a two-book deal at Jonathan Cape.

Nolan acknowledges that the “How autobiographical is the book?” question is fair enough in her case: “The narrator has a lot of me in her. The events are fictional – you’re not going to find a boyfriend that’s like Ciaran – but the feelings are all real: the impulses, the reflective insights, that’s all pretty much me.”

Looking back was painful, and Nolan admits she spent a lot of time crying while writing it. And her working conditions sound pretty intense, too: she writes in the dark, with white noise playing, very loudly. “Complete sensory overload, or deprivation. I find it really difficult to write – so I just need to have complete concentration.”

What made you want to be a writer? My dad [Jim Nolan] is a writer for theatre. I think that was the start: I saw storytelling happening quite regularly.

Best debut you have read? The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides is my favourite debut novel, and quite influential on my own in terms of drawing all that devotion and obsession.

Where do you write, and what is your work schedule? I’m a terribly unproductive person, I don’t have a schedule. When I was writing Acts of Desperation I was renting short-term sublet situations, lots of cat sitting, and I went to Greece four years in a row and did a lot of work there. But nowadays – it’s just my kitchen table! When Covid started I had to resign my nomadic lifestyle.

What are the best and worst things about being a writer? I really like that I don’t have to go to an office. I’m quite outgoing in my personal life, but I found it crippling [in terms of social anxiety] to be in an office setting. I don’t like the necessity of having to be a public-facing figure – which is going to sound unconvincing because I use social media a lot. But it feels quite a stressful thing to have to maintain.

What single piece of advice would you offer to aspiring writers? If you’re lucky enough to have someone in your life who will read your work, take advantage of that as soon as you can. Really, what hampered my writing for years was the thought that everything I was writing was beyond redemption. Anyone who can give you the minimum assurance that it doesn’t belong in the bin, that’s the most important thing. Interview by Holly Williams

‘I just found writing fiction so intensely pleasurable’

Melody razak.

Moth (Orion, 24 June)

The author Melody Razak photographed in Tbilisi, Georgia for the Observer New Review by Anka Gujabidze, January 2021

Melody Razak was born and brought up in west London. Her powerful and heartbreaking debut, Moth , tells the story of a liberal Brahmin family living in Delhi in the 1940s, during India’s independence and then partition. The book’s primary and unflinching focus is the female members of the household: Ma, her daughters Alma and Roop, among others, all drawn with such skill and love that they remain with you long after the final sentence.

Razak started writing the book after taking an MA in creative writing at Birkbeck and has had several short stories published. Until recently she worked as a pastry chef at the restaurant Honey and Co and before that she ran a cafe in Brighton. Cooking has played a major part in her life, and in Moth the detailed descriptions of the preparation and serving of food are a constant and healing thread.

Why did you write about partition? I had a lot of themes but I didn’t know how to structure them into a narrative. One day I was listening to a Radio 4 programme called Partition Voices and they had people in their 80s who had been through partition in India as children, and they talked about their experiences and I found the programme very moving. It stayed with me. Then I remember reading Half of a Yellow Sun [by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie] and seeing the way the political and the intimate can play together, and I thought I would like to write that way – make people politically aware, but in a way that you react with your emotions. I also wanted to write about India – I have a very strong emotional connection with the country, and spent a lot of time travelling there.

Were the women in the family always going to be the focus? Once I started researching for the book, everything I read dismayed me so much – the horrifying things that had happened, especially to women. I read so much about women that defied my imagination, but nothing was written from their point of view.

Are your parents anything like Ma and [father] Bappu in the book? Yes, my mum is like Ma but with a touch of Daddee Ma (the grandmother) too in the sense that she was raised in Iran, so she had very firm religious beliefs. She came to England when she was 18 and had two daughters in England – me and my sister – and so had to adapt to a whole [new] way of thinking to accommodate us. My father is from Pakistan and I don’t really know him very well because we have lost touch. My parents split up. I know that they were very religious and I know that had an impact on me when I was younger. They were strictly Muslim. My mother isn’t strict any more, she’s more spiritual and evolved.

Did you always want to be a writer? I tried [to write a novel] in my early 20s and didn’t know about form or structure. I was just splurging on the page and gave up halfway through to concentrate on my cooking. When I started the MA I originally wanted to write a cookbook. But after the first term, when we had to do short stories, I just found writing fiction so intensely pleasurable. I felt charged and very alive, and I couldn’t stop thinking about what I was going to write next.

What have you been reading recently? I’m in Tbilisi, Georgia at the moment, writing my second novel. I had a break over Christmas and read the Neapolitan quartet by Elena Ferrante and that was absolute joy. I literally could not read quickly enough. I couldn’t sleep because I was thinking about the characters. I was so immersed – a wonderful feeling. A couple of essays by Sinéad Gleeson from her book Constellations which blew my mind. So beautifully written, so poignant, very much the sort of writing I aspire to.

What’s the most important thing you have learned about being a writer? You have to have thick skin and accept any criticism that comes your way, and think about it and perhaps even use it to make the thing you’re doing better. Interview by Ursula Kenny

‘Rather than fixate on abuse, I wanted it to be about the aftermath’

Abigail dean.

Girl A (HarperCollins, out now)

Abigail Dean, London, 22 January

It was the prospect of her 30th birthday that spurred Abigail Dean to write her debut novel, Girl A . As a young girl, she was “constantly” writing stories and dreamed of becoming a novelist. “I grew up in a small village in the Peak District as an only child, so I had a lot of time by myself,” she says. Ironically, it was gaining a place at one of the UK’s most prestigious universities that discouraged her from pursuing her ambition. “I found the creative writing scheme at Cambridge quite intimidating and didn’t think I was up to it. So, my ideas about being a writer just fell away from me,” she says.

A decade later she found herself married, living in Dulwich and working at a big London law firm. “But a life spent in meeting rooms, offices and airport terminals was no longer making me happy,” she says. A three-month sabbatical provided the chance to give herself “another shot” at becoming a writer.

The resulting novel is narrated by Lex, the “Girl A” of the title, who is a successful lawyer based in New York. As a child she lived in northern England, kept prisoner with six siblings in a home the press would later describe as the “House of Horrors”. Lex’s escape led to her father’s suicide and her mother’s imprisonment for the horrific crimes the couple committed against their children. Now her mother has died and the siblings must reconnect and somehow address their shared past. It’s a gripping, disturbing read that looks likely to be a huge bestseller. Dean is already working on her second novel, about a school shooting.

Where did the idea for the novel come from? I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of sibling relationships and the dynamics and chemistry of big families, probably because of the absence of them in my own life. And one of my other big interests has always been true crime. I consume podcasts and Netflix shows about it. I based the novel on cases like Fred and Rosemary West and the case of the Turpins , who imprisoned and tortured their 13 children in California until one of them escaped in 2018.

Did you have any trepidation about your subject matter? I was careful not to include explicit scenes of the trauma and abuse, because rather than having the novel fixate on those kind of details, I wanted it very much to be about the aftermath. And I think that enables Girl A to be a novel about hope rather than horror.

If you had to sell your book in a sentence, what would you say? I’d say it is a book about strength and resilience in the face of despair.

Where do you write, and what is your work schedule? I don’t have a very orderly schedule. To be honest, I write very much as and when I can. I write a lot in the evenings and at weekends, fitting it in around my job [as a lawyer at Google]. I’ve just been to the dentist today and I was writing on the Notes section of my phone on the bus.

What books are on your bedside table? I’ve just finished Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane, which I really loved. It’s the story of two families in upstate New York and an act of violence that ricochets through their lives and haunts the characters. I love a US family saga. I also just started reading Buki Papillon’s An Ordinary Wonder , coming from Dialogue Books in the spring, which I know I am going to love.

What is your favourite debut novel? I love Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects . It is a fantastic novel. The family at the centre is so fabulously drawn.

What single piece of advice would you give to aspiring writers? I would say bluntly just to write, and carve out the time for writing. I used to have much grander ideas about writing. I imagined I’d need a long swathe of time to sit down and wait for the muse to arrive. But it is only once you have the words on the page that you can start working with them and making them your own. Interview by Lisa O’Kelly

‘Dig into whatever feels raw and slightly rough, but true to you’

Ailsa mcfarlane.

Highway Blue (Harvill Secker, 18 May)

Ailsa Mcfarlane in Llyn Padarn, Llanberis, Snowdonia, 23 January

Ailsa McFarlane was born in Seattle and grew up in Snowdonia. She studied to be a vet before dropping out to travel across America. Highway Blue was written while she was in her early 20s – she’s now 23 – and is a beautiful, sun-drenched road story about a young woman called Anne Marie and her relationship with her charismatic ex-husband, Cal. Anne Marie ekes out a precarious existence in the fictional town of San Padua, drinking too much and contemplating the missteps of her young life. Then Cal steps back into the picture after two years’ unexplained absence. After a horrifying encounter with a figure from Cal’s past, the couple take flight. It’s a novel that’s in love with the idea of America, both contemporary in its concerns and deeply nostalgic, full of Edward Hopper diners and faded blue jeans.

Can you sell the book in a single sentence? This is a novel about outsiders, love and loneliness, and the desire for a sense of belonging.

To what extent were you aware of writing in a tradition – the road trip novel – and is that helpful or not? For me, it was important to write something that was in conversation with those pre-existing influences; but we’re at a time when people are finding their own voices, so it was about threading between those two. Something that really interests me is to take things that have informed my roots and subvert them and use genre – here the format of the road novel – to play around within it, to put my own spin on it. I also like a slightly raw, ragged and offbeat feel.

San Padua is a fictional town – why did you decide against using a specific location? Actually, I think that it was really important to write about a place that doesn’t exist. There’s the feeling for both of these characters that they’re looking for a version of home that doesn’t exist, and they move through a version of America. I wanted to put an almost mythological spin on the landscape and have Anne Marie, my narrator, almost invent the world herself.

This is a book built around a complex central relationship between Anne Marie and Cal… In terms of their dynamic, I wanted to write about people who are clinging more to ideas they have constructed around each other than to the reality of each other – ideas of home and a sense of belonging somewhere. I do think that my own jumping from place to place a lot over the past few years has helped inform that, and I was able to draw on that experience.

What is your favourite debut novel? Carson McCullers’s The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter , which came out in 1940. I find in the cleanness, the richness, the humanity of her style something that I really love. And I love the earthiness that she has.

What books are on your bedside table? I’m reading A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood . I began the other day and I just think it’s incredible. The biting cynicism of his style, but coupled with such soul. Again, he has this cleanness that I really enjoy.

What advice would you give a writer just setting out? Having come from a place where I just wrote on my own – secretly, I guess – I think, dig in to whatever feels raw and slightly rough, but nonetheless feels true to you. See how you can take the place that you come from and challenge it, subvert it, play with ideas about your origins. Interview by Alex Preston

‘Novels can deal with complex issues in a way that can reject easy arguments’

The Paper Lantern (Orion, 1 July)

Will Burns photographed at Wendover Woods in Buckinghamshire

Will Burns is a poet whose first collection, Country Music , was published by Offord Road Books in 2019. He also recorded the album Chalk Hill Blue with the musician Hannah Peel, in which his poems were set to her music. Burns lives in rural Buckinghamshire, a few houses away from where his parents run the village pub.

The Paper Lantern takes its name from the (fictional) pub in which the book’s nameless narrator lives with his parents, and from which he sets out on walks across the Buckinghamshire countryside during the first lockdown of 2020. This is a novel that balances on the line between memoir and fiction, playing with elements of the author’s own life and seeking to take the measure of the country at a time of crisis. The narrator’s walks take him through space and time, from the nearby Chequers estate to illicit raves, all the while accompanied by references to a host of literary fellow travellers.

It’s a book that speaks powerfully about what it is to be English and about the impact of coronavirus on our national psyche.

What was it like to find out your book was going to be published? It was hugely, hugely exciting. The writing came quickly, and so did the rest of the process, which made for a really quite dizzying experience.

Did you always want to be a writer? No, I have had periods of wanting to be all sorts of other things – a musician, most lengthily, and ludicrously, I suppose. But writing was there when I was a child, and has probably always been lurking.

What sort of reader were you as a child? I did read a lot, but probably not precociously or extravagantly. I’ve always loved stories though, and my brother and I shared a bedroom growing up and listened to audiobooks and radio adaptations on tape in bed, right up until we had our own rooms at 16 or 17.

How would you sell the book in a single sentence? I don’t know that I could sell it in a sentence. I could describe it, but it probably wouldn’t sell it that well. I’d hope it comes off like a funny, angry, melancholy, wistful bar-room conversation, though admittedly perhaps a fairly one-sided one...

Why did you decide to write a novel about this present moment, rather than, say, a collection of poems or songs? Different art forms have their strengths and weaknesses in the way they can present the complexities, or lack thereof, of those ideas. Novels deal with complex issues over long time spans in a way that can reject easy arguments. The nature of human thought is to argue both sides until you come to your natural position. The novel can do that in a way you don’t see elsewhere.

What’s the best debut you’ve read? Recently, I absolutely loved Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett. It had such incredible control of an extraordinary voice.

What’s the best writing advice you’ve received? I think this Dolly Parton quote is a good way of thinking about lots of things: “I’d never stoop so low as to be fashionable.” Interview by Alex Preston

‘My advice? Develop a philosophy that helps you deal with rejection’

Learwife (Canongate, 4 November)

The author JR Thorp photographed in Cork, Ireland for the Observer New Review by Tristan Hutchinson, January 2021

JR – Jennifer – Thorp was born in Australia and now lives in Cork. She won the London short story award in 2011 and wrote the libretto for Dear Marie Stopes , an acclaimed modern opera.

Learwife tells the story of the wife of Shakespeare’s king after the death of her husband. Long exiled to a nunnery, where she is forced to live an isolated and circumscribed existence, the unnamed queen mulls over the reversals of her life, the betrayals and broken promises, plotting her revenge. Then a mysterious sickness begins to infect the nuns.

It’s a novel that joins the likes of Pat Barker , Natalie Haynes and Margaret Atwood in seeking to unearth hidden female stories left unexplored by literary history. Its tale of pestilence and seclusion also has a powerful contemporary relevance. Written in luminous, lyrical prose, it’s a book that defies easy description, being neither historical novel nor fantasy, but mining the best bits from each genre.

How did the book come about? Actually, the really big catalyst for it was reading Alison Weir’s biography of Eleanor of Aquitaine. I thought: Ah! There is a blueprint here for something really interesting. Exiled to an abbey, married to two very different kings, where can I take this? It seems like an interesting model for what might have happened to this woman.

We’re living through a moment in which there’s real interest in suppressed female narratives. Were you aware of being part of a movement? I think it was something I was aware of because, growing up, I was obsessed with Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad and Wide Sargasso Sea , which I guess are the forerunners of this movement. That idea of the madwoman in the attic, asking why isn’t she there. This book took me since 2015 to write, and a lot of the books you’re talking about have come out in the interim – The Silence of the Girls and A Thousand Ships – but I looked at them and thought: Oh good. I’m not striking out on my own. I’m part of a community that thinks the same way about these things.

The book is very much a family saga… Actually, the first time I really thought that was when I read an Agatha Christie story called The Moving Finger . A lot of that story is about inherited trauma and people being neglected by their parents. But one of the women in that, who has a very strange relationship with her parents, says as a kind of off-hand thing: “I’ve always wondered why Regan and Goneril were like that. How did their father behave to make them that way?” Now, I must have read that when I was about 12, but it stuck in my head; and so every time I came back to the story I thought: This is the through-line. Why is this family unit the way it is?

What advice would you give to someone just starting out as a writer? Develop a philosophy that helps you deal with rejection. A lot of people go into writing and they think: I’ll be the exception, I’ll be the one who gets the six-figure deal straight out of my creative writing course. It’s not how it happens. Or only very rarely. Even the people who get the big shiny prizes have been rejected all the way along their path to success. You will be rejected and you need to find a way to be comfortable with that, one that doesn’t impact your sense of self-worth and your ability to make art.

What are you currently reading? Tara June Winch’s The Yield , which just won the Miles Franklin award. The problem with it is that it so brilliantly evokes the Australian landscape that it makes me really homesick, so I can only read it a little bit at a time. I think, like a lot of people, lockdown has really changed the way I read, so I’ve been reading things like Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights . Just something joyful on every page. Interview by Alex Preston

‘I started writing as a teenager, mainly tedious poetry’

Rebecca watson.

Little Scratch (Faber, out now)

Rebecca Watson in Victoria Park, London, for New Review, 21 January

Rebecca Watson’s debut, Little Scratch , was inspired by an embarrassing incident at the offices of the Financial Times , where she works as an assistant arts editor. “An older male colleague walked past and asked me what book I’d been reading recently and my mind went blank. I could hear the air conditioning whirring, I could see the crumbs on the table, but I couldn’t think of a single book,” she says. “When he’d raised his eyebrows and left I sat down and thought, what just happened there? How would you write that exact life experience, with all its conflicting thoughts and feelings, in real time, in the present tense?”

The result is a daringly experimental stream-of-consciousness novel that takes place in a single day, from the moment the narrator wakes up, hungover, late for work, through her commute into central London, her day at the office, followed by a drink with her boyfriend, until the moment she goes to bed at night. Nothing momentous happens, apart from a fictional version of that awkward book-related encounter. Yet 25-year-old Watson’s fragmented, staccato account of what goes on in the mind of the narrator, who is trying not to think about a shocking recent event, is unputdownable and also, at times, extremely funny.

If you had to sell the book in a sentence, what would you say? Inhabit the mind of a young woman whose navigation of a recent trauma makes getting through one day both a comic performance and an almost impossibility.

What made you want to be a writer? It’s something I was drawn to at a young age. I grew up in the South Downs in a large, very enthusiastic family with three brothers. My way of politely disengaging and having moments to myself was reading. Books became my thing, a way of asserting my own independence and space. I started writing as a teenager, mainly tedious poetry. Then after I graduated, I wrote something longer, which is still in a drawer somewhere. After that came Little Scratch .

Where do you write, and what is your work schedule? When I was writing Little Scratch I was full-time at the FT , so it was written at any moment I could find, crammed into lunch breaks and on the train to work. Now I am part-time, I have a far neater and easier way of writing, which is all day Thursdays and Fridays. I give myself a fake working day where I work the exact same hours that I work at the FT , 10am to 6pm, writing my second book.

What is the best debut book you have read? Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is a Half Formed Thing is surely up there. It’s so charged and so aware of itself, and has a real authority. Debuts often have a real energy, but there is such a clarity of vision in that book, which I think is amazing.

What books are on your bedside table? Lost Cat by Mary Gaitskill. It’s only about 70 pages, but it looks at different forms of love, finding meaning in life and the narratives that we make about our relationships with people and animals. It’s brilliant. Also, The Muslim Problem by Tawseef Khan, which is coming out in March. It’s brilliantly argued, very open and empathetic. Giving Up the Ghost by Hilary Mantel is there too, because I read it recently and it is lucid and brilliant.

What single piece of advice would you offer to aspiring writers? To not romanticise the process. I think an easy way of getting caught up in self-doubt is seeing writing as this great mysterious thing that only certain people are born to do. Not everyone is a writer, but I think allowing yourself permission to write is really key. It was really important for me early on, because I am definitely an insecure person. Interview by Lisa O’Kelly

‘It’s about how the things black women face can have an impact on life expectancy’

Natasha brown.

Assembly (Hamish Hamilton, 3 June)

Natasha Brown photographed in Mile End, East London.

For Natasha Brown, 2020 was quite a year. The 31-year-old, who lives in London, had a place on the London Writers Awards , an annual development programme. Her resulting manuscript was finished by July, and picked up by an agent and bought by a publisher for a six-figure sum by October. “It felt like a whirlwind,” Brown smiles.

Assembly is short – her first draft was only 15,000 words, and confused some agents she sent it to – but diamond-sharp. And it couldn’t have felt more timely and urgent. It follows an unnamed black British woman, who’s been promoted in her finance job, as she prepares for a party thrown by her white, wealthy boyfriend’s family. The prejudice and assumptions she faces as she tries to navigate these worlds make her question the value of the success she’s been chasing. Written in a distilled, minimalist prose, Assembly is illuminating on everything from micro aggressions in the workplace, to the reality of living in the “hostile environment”, to the legacy of British colonialism.

“I knew it couldn’t be too long,” Brown says, “because a character like that is fun for a while… but I don’t think anybody wants to spend too long with her. I see it as almost one half of a conversation; people are going to read it and bring the other half.”

Brown herself works in financial services, and I wondered what that has been like, as a black woman. “In general, moving through the world as a black woman can be quite difficult – I’m not sure the particular industry makes that much difference. The book is a lot about that, and how the things black women face can have an impact on your life expectancy.”

We discuss the Black Lives Matter movement, and she’s warily hopeful. “I think we’ll know in five or 10 years what the impact of the summer really was. But I hope we’re moving towards progress. My narrator takes a dimmer view than I do.”

Brown is optimistic, too, about changes in the publishing industry, but points out that what we need now is more diversity within the diversity. “It’s not just a box tick: within that box, there’s actually a broad spectrum of folks.”

If you had to sell the book in a sentence, what would you say? It’s set in the late 2010s, it spans just a couple of days, and it’s about a black British woman who, on the cusp of success in her life, stops and re-evaluates everything.

What made you want to be a writer? It’s not a good sign that that question stumps me! Perhaps it’s less that I wanted to be a writer and more that I really felt compelled to tell this story.

What is your work schedule? I aim to write 200 words a day, which sounds like a low bar but is a struggle sometimes. My writing hour is 6-7am [before work], and then editing is a weekend affair.

What single piece of advice would you offer to aspiring writers? For me, the most useful thing was just to actually write. I can get in my own way, so I can’t even write a whole sentence. By getting into a routine, it made it a lot easier to say: I just have to get the words out; making them good is a problem for further down the line…

What is the best debut book you have read? Lorrie Moore’s Self-Help . I picked a copy up somewhere when I was about 16, and it’s been with me since – reread many times!

What books are on your bedside table? The Divide by Jason Hickel , nonfiction about how global inequalities developed. I think it’s important to understand how foreign policy works, and it’s super-accessible. Interview by Holly Williams

‘You hope that you’ve made something with the capacity to absorb and amuse’

Sam riviere.

Dead Souls (W&N, 13 May)

Sam Riviere photographed beside St Margarets Loch in Edinburgh

Sam Riviere is the author of several books of poetry, including Kim Kardashian’s Marriage . He started off as a visual artist, then moved into poetry. He also runs If a Leaf Falls Press, which he describes as a “micropublisher” of avant-garde writing.

His first novel, Dead Souls , borrows its title from Gogol, and explores plagiarism, literary celebrity and disgrace. The book tells the story of a night at the bar of a Travelodge hotel in Charing Cross. In sinuous, ornate prose rendered in a single paragraph that stretches over the whole of the novel’s 300-plus pages, the unnamed narrator recounts his meeting with Solomon Wiese, an author whose work has been discredited by a sophisticated piece of plagiarism-detection software. The book is full of clever postmodern flourishes, self-referential winks and riotous set pieces. It’s funny, smart and beautifully written.

How did this novel come together? The gestation period was long, I think, and in a way not deliberate, but once it became clear to me how to do it, the book was enjoyable to write. I liked going back to it every day – it’s reassuring to have a task that extends over weeks and months, like digging a tunnel that you hope leads somewhere eventually. The aspect of scale is sometimes challenging to manage – details affect other details – and something that was new to me, having only written poetry books before this. I had to make three separate but connected timelines. Ideally, I’d have made some kind of animated 3D timeline.

How did you feel when you found out it was going to be published? Elated – you hope that you’ve made something with the capacity to absorb and amuse another person, but you can’t know if that’s the case while you’re making it.

Did your publishers push back when you presented them with a novel that was a single paragraph? Perhaps to my surprise, no, because it does feel like a strange decision. The unparagraphed prose block seems to do something for velocity. It becomes more relentless, somehow.

What do you love most about being a writer? The relationship you have with a reader who “gets” the work seems extremely intimate and at the same time extremely remote. These encounters, from the reader’s side, have been very meaningful to me, and seem unlike encounters with other kinds of artworks, or with people. The chance to make that kind of private and deep though also strangely formal connection with someone, over time or distance or even across languages, is maybe the main reason for writing at all. But on the other hand, if it happens I will probably never know about it.

Could you sell the book in a single sentence? It’s about poets and technology, love and revenge.

What’s your favourite debut novel? It’s not a novel, but I loved Deborah Eisenberg’s first collection of short stories, Transactions in a Foreign Currency . Am I allowed that? She should be much better known. She’s just so funny. Like Lorrie Moore but better.

What books are on your bedside table? I’ve been reading Milan Kundera , whom I’d never got to before. I’m also working my way through Deborah Eisenberg’s back catalogue. Dag Solstad is a Norwegian writer I’ve only recently discovered. In poetry, I’m reading Wong May , a Chinese-American poet based in Ireland.

Is writing a lonely existence? The conditions of solitude have changed. You can be physically alone, but in touch with a lot of people on and off throughout a day. And from an exterior vantage, writing is no different from countless other contemporary occupations – you’re sitting in front of a laptop. So no, a writer’s life is no more inherently lonely than most people’s lives – but this is a romantic idea that writers like to perpetuate because it makes them feel important. Interview by Alex Preston

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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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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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The Best New Book Releases Out September 26, 2023

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Erica Ezeifedi

Erica Ezeifedi, Associate Editor, is a transplant from Nashville, TN that has settled in the North East. In addition to being a writer, she has worked as a victim advocate and in public libraries, where she has focused on creating safe spaces for queer teens, mentorship, and providing test prep instruction free to students. Outside of work, much of her free time is spent looking for her next great read and planning her next snack. Find her on Twitter at @Erica_Eze_ .

View All posts by Erica Ezeifedi

With this new week comes many more books to be excited over. I only discuss six each week in-depth, but there are more, of course. For one, there’s Emily Wilson’s translation of The Iliad , which gives us the epic poem tailored to our modern day. There’s also an adorable picture book by presidential inaugural poet Amanda Gorman titled Something, Someday , and Blackward  by Lawrence Lindell, a graphic novel about a group of bookish Black, queer, and awkward people creating community.

As for the books below, Kerry Washington tells her life story, a chef contends with a dystopian reality, a talking fox leads an expedition to the gates of hell, and more.

cover of Thicker Than Water by Kerry Washington

Thicker Than Water  by Kerry Washington

In her first memoir, Washington details her life as an actor, director, mother, daughter, and activist, showing how she’s overcome setbacks and even kept traumas from the public’s view. She shares more of her private world and everything — including the mentors and journey to self-discovery — that has led to all her success.

cover of Land of Milk and Honey

Land of Milk and Honey  by C Pam Zhang

The smog that covers the city where an unnamed chef is still trying to eke out a living means that the fresh ingredients the land once produced have turned into canned products. That is, until the chef takes a job at a mountaintop colony where the privileged have been able to escape many of the negative effects of the climate disaster. Finally, she’s experiencing a clear sky, and she’s able to make recipes with some of the world’s last fresh ingredients. She’s also isolated from her clientele and learns that the purpose the unseen investors have for her goes beyond just cooking.

cover of The Unsettled by Ayana Mathis

The Unsettled by Ayana Mathis

From the author of The Twelve Tribes of Hattie comes a 1980s-based family saga. After accusing her of having an affair with former Black Panther Cass Wright, Abemi kicks his wife Ava out. With nowhere to go, Ava moves into a shelter in Philadelphia with her 10-year-old son. The shelter’s conditions are so dire that she considers moving back to Bonaparte, Alabama, to live with her estranged mother, Dutchess. The perspective shifts between Ava’s and Dutchess’s, showing how both women deal with uncertain futures and a familial reckoning.

cover of People Collide by Isle McElroy

People Collide by Isle McElroy

“What better way to explore gender and its role in marriage than to have a cis couple switch bodies?” — McElroy, probably. Here, Eli and Elizabeth — whose names have some interesting implications — are sharing an apartment in Bulgaria when Eli wakes one day to realize he’s swapped bodies with his wife. On top of that, she’s missing. He goes on a search across Europe and America to find Elizabeth, who is now living as him. He also questions how this new transformation will impact their marriage.

cover of The Navigating Fox by Christopher Rowe

The Navigating Fox by Christopher Rowe

For this novella, imagine the TikTok Rome trend plus Redwall , but for adults. The Roman Empire is still kicking, and not only that, but they’ve colonized all of the West, and now some animals can magically speak. Enter the eponymous fox navigator, Quintus Shu’al, a rare creature who’s living in disgrace after a failed expedition. He can redeem himself, but only if he leads a new expedition to the gates of hell.

cover of Been Outside: Adventures of Black Women, Nonbinary, and Gender Nonconforming People in Nature, edited by Amber Wendler and Shaz Zamore

Been Outside: Adventures of Black Women, Nonbinary, and Gender Nonconforming People in Nature , edited by Amber Wendler and Shaz Zamore

This collection of essays and poems by Black women and nonbinary scientists shows the connection between the self, nature, stewardship, and heritage. Camille Mosley shows how her eventual career in freshwater ecology began with the Black American tradition of fishing, and Tanisha Williams writes an emotional story on studying plants in South Africa. Each of these 22 writers writes of the joy of connecting with nature and how the outdoor community is for everyone.

Other Book Riot New Releases Resources:

  • All the Books , our weekly new book releases podcast, where Liberty and a cast of co-hosts talk about eight books out that week that we’ve read and loved.
  • The New Books Newsletter , where we send you an email of the books out this week that are getting buzz.
  • Finally, if you want the real inside scoop on new releases, you have to check out Book Riot’s New Release Index! That’s where I find 90% of new releases, and you can filter by trending books, Rioters’ picks, and even LGBTQ new releases!

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Land of Milk and Honey

By C Pam Zhang Riverhead: 240 pages, $28 If you buy books linked on our site, The Times may earn a commission from , whose fees support independent bookstores.

In a 2020 essay , C Pam Zhang wrote about the way McDonald’s keeps her connected to her father, who would indulge with her in “a conspiratorial Happy Meal” on fishing trips away from her fast-food-disapproving mother. He died when she was 22.

Zhang’s debut novel, “ How Much of These Hills Is Gold ,” explored the lives of Chinese settlers who joined the thousands who panned for gold in California. Released in 2020 during the COVID shutdowns, it earned instant acclaim, even as its author struggled with social isolation, depression and the anxiety of being Chinese American as anti-Asian hate crimes soared. Her solace, once again: McDonald’s.

“ Land of Milk and Honey ,” Zhang’s newest novel, is set farther afield — on a remote Italian mountaintop in a dystopian future — but it returns to the concept of food in times of crisis. Climate catastrophe has brought widespread famine, and a billionaire has gathered scientists to his Noah’s Ark (along with some very rich friends) to research, preserve and warehouse what crops and animals remain.

A photo collage with Jesmyn Ward, C Pam Zhang, and book covers for: Family Meal, The Fraud, and Foreign Bodies

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Entering this world is Zhang’s unnamed narrator, a child of immigrants — her mother from China, father from Korea — hired to be the community’s chef. Zhang evokes the sensuous delight of working with fresh ingredients in a time when certain flavors are essentially extinct.

But cooking is not the protagonist’s only job, we quickly learn: She is meant to role-play as the billionaire’s Korean wife, who has disappeared, in order to placate the investors. His daughter becomes her lover, and both of them must deal with the fallout of his constant quantification of what — and who — is worth saving.

Zhang spoke with The Times last month via Zoom about pleasure, scarcity and how the pandemic inspired her to ask the big questions that fueled her novel. The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

"Land of Milk and Honey," by C Pam Zhang

Was COVID on your mind as you wrote this book?

I started it in early 2021, and so I suppose I had been blocked on a new project for at least a year. Up until that point, I did feel a lot of despair — a lot of fear that I had lost touch with writing, the thing that most gave me joy.

And some of that was certainly wrapped up in the pandemic. Some of that was wrapped up in the fact of having a first novel come out and then feeling like it wasn’t real in the world , because I didn’t get to see a copy of my book in a bookstore for over a year. It felt like putting a book out to a room full of ghosts.

This is strange for me to say, because all my life I’ve considered myself a bit of a misanthrope, but [it] made me realize how important the human embodied community aspect of it is. A review, no matter how wonderful it is, doesn’t feel as deep as meeting a bookseller in person and hearing why they loved your book. That stays with you, and part of it is physicality.

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Physicality plays such a role in this novel, where physical pleasure is a luxury commodity, outside the reach of a world sunk into deprivation.

Pleasure is something that we need to take seriously in order to survive, right? Everyone deserves pleasure, and it shouldn’t only be reserved for the wealthy. I’ll say that I spent a lot of the pandemic deeply disconnected from my body and its desire for pleasure.

There were so many issues that felt bigger and more important than myself, and I became impatient with my body. I had my health, I had a roof overhead, I had food. What else could I ask for? And I beat myself up every time these desires — get on a plane, have a lovely meal in a restaurant — cropped up. But the first meal I had at a restaurant, in Seattle with a doctor friend who had seen much worse during the pandemic, it made me realize how important it was seeing his face, seeing food brought to someone who deserved it. I think, especially for women, it’s easier for us to see when somebody else needs something than to see it in ourselves.

A woman with chin length hair poses in a thin black sweater.

Race is also a clever factor in the story: The narrator is mistaken for another Asian woman. This happens all the time in real life, of course — people joke on Twitter about it.

It’s funny because I think that may come across as some sort of surreal or speculative elements. I think it’s the most realistic part. I love that you referred to it as a joke on Twitter, because I think that was kind of where it was coming from. It’s horrible to realize that people are not seeing you at all. They’re just interacting with a cutout, a stereotype , a silhouette in which they fill in whatever they want. But whenever I interact with my Asian women friends, that anger transmutes into laughter at the people who are so stupid they cannot distinguish between us. But what if that interchangeability becomes an asset on the job market at a time when jobs are incredibly hard to come by?

In a previous interview, you were asked a question about how your books are collaged together, and you started talking about how as a child of immigrants your sense of that nationality, that culture, is filtered through your parents . There is a brilliant scene in the book, involving the narrator’s mother serving food, where she realizes she just experiences pleasure differently. Have you had that experience?

I think pleasure, especially bodily pleasure, is one of the most deeply personal things. No one feels exactly the same as anyone else. I think there’s sort of this desire often, in Western therapy culture, to think that you’re supposed to come to a place of complete understanding and catharsis with your parents as an adult. In writing this book I came up against the limits of that idea.

I think there’s a kind of quiet beauty in leaving some things untranslatable, and just sitting beside someone with very different value systems and understanding, “This is what gives you joy.”

Anthony Veasna So, writer of the forthcoming story collection "Afterparties," died last week in San Francisco. He was 28.

Anthony Veasna So, promising young Bay Area author, is remembered for his wit and talent

Anthony Veasna So, a Cambodian American fiction writer, died Dec. 8 at age 28. His highly anticipated first book, ‘Afterparties,’ will be out in August.

Dec. 15, 2020

I don’t want a world where the über-rich are sitting on top of the heap and everyone is scrambling for scratch at the bottom. But I also don’t want a world in which I deny anybody the right to pleasure and joy. I do want everyone to have bread and roses, and I think that generosity toward other people often does start with this generosity for your family members.

How does this translate to the world of your book?

I think that ungenerosity, especially for the über-wealthy, comes from a fundamental fear of scarcity . It’s really hard to combat that narrative because we live in a world in which many things are getting worse. The environment is quickly heating up. There’s just a crisis on the horizon every day. I do think it breeds a pessimism that turns into cynicism.

lf you read the news, it’s really easy to feel that way, which is why we have sources that allow for imagination. Climate fiction, speculative fiction, whatever you want to call those emerging genres, they increasingly feel necessary. Fundamentally, it’s about this ability to look at our world and say “yes” and “what if?” I’m not saying that we should sit back and ignore it, but there’s just so much we don’t understand. I think that unknowability can be really, really beautiful and hopeful.

Berry writes for a number of publications and tweets @BerryFLW .

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Meet Justin C. Key: One of Science Fiction's Most Buzzed-About New Authors

The Los Angeles-based psychiatrist's debut offering 'The World Wasn't Ready For You' is raking up good reviews with its 'Black Mirror'-style short stories

Janine Rubenstein is Editor-at-Large at PEOPLE and host of PEOPLE Every Day podcast, a daily dose of breaking news, pop culture and heartwarming human interest stories. Formerly Senior Editor of music content, she's also covered crime, human interest and television news throughout her many years with the brand. Prior to PEOPLE she's written for Essence, The Cape Times newspaper and Los Angeles Magazine among others. On-screen Rubenstein can be found featured on shows like Good Morning America and Entertainment Tonight and she routinely hosts PEOPLE and Entertainment Weekly's star-studded Red Carpet Live specials. Follow the San Francisco native, Black Barbie collector and proud mom of two on Instagram and Twitter @janinerube

author's debut books


There's a new out-of-the box thinker on the block — and on bookshelves.

Los Angeles-based psychiatrist Justin C. Key , 36, just released his debut offering, The World Wasn't Ready For You . The book, published Sept. 19 from Harper, is full of mind-bending, thought-provoking short stories and it's generating significant buzz in the fantasy world.

"It's really a love letter, both to speculative fiction, which I grew up reading and loving, and also a love letter to the Black community," Key tells PEOPLE of the book, which is enjoying positive reviews in its first week. According to the book's starred Kirkus review , Key "shows throughout these eight stories the range and ingenuity of such grandmasters as Ray Bradbury, Robert Sheckley, and Theodore Sturgeon, with whom he also shares acute empathy for human vulnerability—even when, as in the poignant title story, an extraterrestrial race is involved."

Courtesy Harper Collins

The title story posits a father of a mixed-species child who struggles with the need to prepare him for a society that will be prejudiced at best, and deadly at worst. "It was one of the hardest stories for me to write," says Key who shares two sons and a daughter with wife Johanna. "I reflected on being a father of Black children in America, raising them while processing fears of them growing older and being demonized or thought of as a threat."

It's one of many real-life scenarios Key reimagines in futuristic fashion. A lifelong sci-fi fan, the Stanford grad remembers not always seeing himself reflected in the books and shows he loved.

"I loved Stephen King , Harry Potter , Michael Crichton, even Goosebumps ," he says. But even as a kid he noticed, "the default [protagonist] was always blonde haired and blue-eyed. Even when I started writing early on, that's who my characters were as well. But I grew up in all-Black communities. It wasn't until I reflected and was like, 'well, wait. Why am I writing this way?'"


Another part of his experience he pulls upon is the knowledge he's gained as a psychiatrist. "I consider myself a therapist who can prescribe medication," says Key, who earned his M.D. from Mount Sinai Medical School and studied psychiatry at UCLA’s Semel Neuropsychiatric Institute.

"I see people who suffer from depression, bipolar, schizophrenia, ADHD, addiction, the whole gamut," he adds of his work at Regeneration Psychiatry , the private practice he runs with two former classmates. "It's really hard, rewarding work."

That said, he's extremely careful about the way his work informs his writing. "I knew early on that I had to be mindful about not having it intersect too purposefully," he says. "When I'm with my patients, I'm with them for them, thinking about their best interests. I'm careful about not letting it inform me too much when I go home and write."

Still, he adds, "the experiences I've had as a doctor in medicine, seeing the latest technological advancements, where we fall short, I'm able to take all that knowledge and put it on the page."

Random House 

The World Wasn't Ready For You is the first of two books from Key under HarperCollins, with the next being a novel currently in progress. Soon, his writing will also be featured in Jordan Peele 's upcoming book Out There Screaming: An Anthology of New Black Horror , publishing Oct. 3 from Random House, just in time for Halloween.

"It's really cool to be a part of that," says Key, who thought up a new concept — what if people could be used as a form of living art for others to enjoy? — for Peele's creepy compilation. "I haven't met [Peele] yet, but the fact that he even knows my name is really exciting," he says.

In all, "This is a really awesome moment for me," says Key. "Something I've dreamed of when I was a kid, perusing the aisles in bookstores. Now to be on bookshelves, seeing the reception of my book and the reviews, it's feeling like the start of a long, prolific writing career."

The World Wasn't Ready For You is now available from Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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Entertainment | Santa Cruz author Nina Simon makes bestseller…

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Entertainment | santa cruz author nina simon makes bestseller list with debut novel.

author's debut books

SANTA CRUZ — When Nina Simon’s mother was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer in 2019, she began taking care of her. The process, as well as their shared love of murder mysteries, became the basis for Simon’s debut novel, “Mother-Daughter Murder Night.”

The story of a real estate mogul who is diagnosed with cancer and works with her daughter and teenage granddaughter to solve a murder in Elkhorn Slough was released Sept. 5, the same night Simon attended a book launch at Bookshop Santa Cruz. As it turned out, the book was also on the cusp of making waves nationally. It made the New York Times Best Seller list, was singled out by Reese Witherspoon as her book club pick for the month of September and has even been optioned for a potential adaptation.

Simon, who had previously served as executive director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History and published two nonfiction books, was thrilled to see the book doing so well so quickly.

“It’s incredibly exciting,” she said. “I would say it is overwhelming in all ways.”

The success was not something Simon anticipated throughout the process of writing “Mother-Daughter Murder Night.” In fact, she was told it was a long shot that it would make the New York Times Best Seller list, but in its second week, it ended up debuting at No. 14 on the hardcover fiction list.

“My book came out in a week where Stephen King had a new book out,” she said. “There were a lot of heavy hitters with big books coming out. I feel like this whole story has been such a long shot, the fact that I wrote this book when my mom got sick, the fact that we got to the finish line and my mom is doing well. To me, it’s both unbelievable and extraordinary, but it’s in keeping with the extraordinary path that this story has been on since the beginning.”

Simon said she is grateful for the support she has gotten from her local community and the word of mouth that sparked curiosity among readers.

“There were more sales in Week 2 than in Week 1, which is pretty unusual,” she said. “It means that people not only heard about the book, they came out to support it, they told their friends about it, they got copies for others. It’s very exciting and very humbling.”

One likely sales driver was its inclusion in Reese’s Book Club, a project started by Oscar-winning actress Reese Witherspoon in 2017 that highlights a different book by a female author each month. The club has a track record of turning its selections into bestsellers, and its parent company, Hello Sunshine, has produced adaptations of many of its picks, including a film version of Delia Owens’ “Where the Crawdads Sing” and a TV adaptation of Taylor Jenkins Reid’s “Daisy Jones and the Six” for Amazon Prime.

“Mother-Daughter Murder Night” was named as Reese’s Book Club’s pick for September.

“This fun and gripping whodunit follows a grandmother-mother-daughter trio as they try to solve a murder in their coastal town,” wrote Witherspoon. “I can’t wait to hear what you think about this cozy mystery.”

Simon said she first learned of the book’s inclusion over the summer and was excited about what it would mean for “Mother-Daughter Murder Night.”

“We knew that that meant a lot more readers were going to be able to learn about it and connect with it,” she said.

“Mother-Daughter Murder Night” has also been optioned by Kapital Entertainment for a possible adaptation. Simon said it had been optioned a few months ago, but the writers’ strike put it on the back burner. With the Writers Guild of America reaching a tentative agreement with Hollywood studios, it means the process is now moving again.

“I’m excited that they’re interested in adapting it,” she said. “It really matters to me that the producers have read the book and really connected with the story.”

Simon even said producer Aaron Kaplan attended a book promotion she did in Los Angeles. Although she said that approximately 1% of books that are optioned ever reach the production stage, she is hopeful because of Kaplan and Kapital Entertainment’s track record of productions, which has included “The Neighborhood” for CBS, “A Million Little Things” for ABC and “Santa Clarita Diet” for Netflix. Should it ever be adapted, Simon said she would support whatever creative decisions are made.

“They are professionals, writing and constructing projects for movies and TV,” she said. “I want to be supportive of that project, I want to cheer for them, I want to be helpful however I can be, but it’s not my dream to write the adaptation or to become a Hollywood writer. It’s my dream to write novels, and I would be extremely lucky and grateful if this ever became something.”

“It felt like a really warm community hug for the book and just an amazing way to start this wild journey that this month has been,” she said.

Simon will be doing another event 7-8 p.m. Oct. 3 in the Ow Family Community Room of the Capitola Branch Library, 2005 Wharf Road. To register, visit .

As for why she feels the book has resonated with readers, Simon believes the murder mystery aspect is a big part of it, but she also has gotten messages from readers with family members battling cancer who found the book very touching.

“One reader said that they felt the book was a lifeboat for them and their family as they’re dealing with a cancer journey,” she said. “That’s just such an honor for me to hear because I wrote this book to be a source of comfort and joy and escape for me and my mom, and hearing from readers that it’s doing that for them is so powerful.”

Simon also likes that the book shines a light on the Monterey Bay.

“I’m just so thrilled that a local book is getting this kind of national attention,” she said. “I hope it brings a lot of people interest and curiosity about Elkhorn Slough and about Monterey Bay. It’s just another reason I feel proud to live in this beautiful place.”

For information on the book, visit .

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