Best Debuts: 37 Key Summer and Fall 2021 Titles

LJ’s thrice-yearly list of debut novels showcases 37 titles to watch for and savor. Featured here are the full-length debuts of highly regarded short story writers Uwem Akpan, Violet Kupersmith, and Shruti Swamy, plus a strong contingent of award-winning African authors and several romances embracing diverse characters.

This edition of LJ’s thrice-yearly list of top debut novels looks back at key summer reads and forward to promising new works coming out through November. Featured here are the full-length debuts of highly regarded short story writers Uwem Akpan, Violet Kupersmith, and Shruti Swamy, plus a strong contingent of award-winning African authors and several romances embracing diverse characters.


RECONNECT

Ahmed, Nawaaz. Radiant Fugitives. Counterpoint. Aug. 2021. 384p. ISBN 9781640094048. $27. LITERARY
San Francisco–based political activist Seema was disowned by her Muslim Indian father when she came out as a lesbian. Now she’s nine months pregnant; separated from husband Bill, the Black father of her unborn child; and seeking to reconcile with her ailing mother and devout sister. The beautifully bristly narrative, radiant with deeply felt emotion, is related by the child at birth. Multiple stars.

What cosmic irony that I, who am birthed at my mother’s darkest hour, am to be named for the day’s rosiest light.


Åkerström, Lola Akinmade. In Every Mirror She’s Black. Sourcebooks Landmark. Sept. 2021. 416p. ISBN 9781728240381. $26.99. CONTEMPORARY
Nigerian American Åkerström gracefully blends the stories of three Black women—an executive, a flight attendant, and a refugee—who seek a better life in Sweden, their stories all linked to a powerful, socially challenged business executive.

Akpan, Uwem. New York, My Village. Norton. Nov. 2021. 400p. ISBN 9780393881424. $27.95. LITERARY
A Nigerian editor wins a publishing fellowship to New York City, where he experiences culture shock both professional and political. Following the multi-award-winning story collection Say You’re One of Them.

Alderson, Kaia. Sisters in Arms. Morrow Paperbacks. Aug. 2021. 400p. ISBN 9780062964588. pap. $16.99. HISTORICAL
Alderson celebrates the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion, the only all-Black battalion of the Women’s Army Corps during World War II, by portraying two sisters-in-arms confronting a segregated army and big responsibilities overseas.

Bastašic, Lana. Catch the Rabbit. Restless. Jun. 2021. 256p. tr. from Serbo-Croatian by Lana Bastašic. ISBN 9781632062895. pap. $18. LITERARY
In a deeply layered study of language, identity, and the costs of war, translator/writer Sara returns from Dublin to Bosnia to help childhood friend Lejla find her missing brother. A European Union Prize winner.

Chakrabarti, Jai. A Play for the End of the World. Knopf. Sept. 2021. 304p. ISBN 9780525658924. $27. LITERARY/HISTORICAL
In the 1970s, Holocaust survivor Jaryk Smith, who is in India to collect a friend’s ashes, becomes embroiled in local politics and helps stage a play he first saw performed in Warsaw as an act of resistance to the Nazis. A startling conception.


DANCE

Swamy, Shruti. The Archer. Algonquin. Sept. 2021. 304p. ISBN 9781616209902. $25.95. LITERARY
Shouldering her lost mother’s responsibilities in 1960s Bombay (now Mumbai), young Vidya is sustained by the dance form Kathak and remains forever torn between art and expectation in a world that values male over female, rich over poor, and light-skinned over dark-skinned. A saga as rich and gorgeous as Kathak itself; after the celebrated A House Is a Body.

Could marriage be a dance? I thought: no. You never really dance with someone else. You only dance with yourself.


 

SECRETS

Morris, Wanda M. All Her Little Secrets. Morrow Paperbacks. Nov. 2021. 384p. ISBN 9780063082465. pap. $16.99. MYSTERY
When Ivy-educated Black lawyer Ellice Littlejohn stumbles upon the dead body of her wealthy white boss, with whom she had been having an affair, she doesn’t call the police. She’s got secrets, including a younger brother with criminal associations. Then she uncovers company malfeasance. Attorney Morris’s writing is exceptionally sharp, smart, and absorbing. [See LJ's Q&A with Morris]

Six forty-five in the morning was far too early for keeping secrets. But Michael and I are lawyers and that’s what lawyers do.


Clements, Mikaella & Onjuli Datta. The View Was Exhausting. Grand Central. Jul. 2021. 336p. ISBN 9781538734902. $27. ROMANCE
Berlin-based wives Clements and Datta deftly combine film-world frolic and serious issues of racism and misogyny as leading Black actress Whitman (“Win”) Tagore manages her image by staging a romance with a playboy. Where does that lead?

Cochrun, Alison. The Charm Offensive. Atria. Sept. 2021. 368p. ISBN 9781982170714. pap. $17. ROMANCE
Tech superstar Charlie Winshaw hopes to polish his tarnished image by appearing on a reality dating show, but while he flounders with his women costars, romance with male producer Dev Deshpande looks to be a real possibility.

Dorey-Stein, Beck. Rock the Boat. Dial. Jun. 2021. 368p. ISBN 9780525509158. $27. COMING OF AGE
Crushed-in-love Kate returns home to Sea Point, NJ, as does Miles, eager to commandeer the family business, and they reconnect with stay-at-home friend Ziggy in a heartfelt manner. Following the memoir From the Corner of the Oval.


PERSPECTIVE

Itami, Emily. Fault Lines. Custom House: Morrow. Sept. 2021. 224p. ISBN 9780063099807. $27.99. LITERARY
Mizuki is disillusioned with her work-stressed husband and the pressure she feels to be the perfect Japanese mother when charming restauranteur Kiyoshi appears on the scene. What results is not so much romance as a deep dive into what Mizuki really considers important, at times entertainingly sardonic but always heartfelt.

 My children. My life’s work, my greatest loves, orchestrators of total psychological trauma and everyday destruction.


Feito, Virginia. Mrs. March. Liveright: Norton. Aug. 2021. 256p. ISBN 9781631498619. $26. THRILLER
Upper-crust Mrs. March is proud of her husband’s latest novel until a shopkeeper insinuates that the sketchy protagonist is based on Mrs. March herself, setting off a psychological breakdown that spins toward horror. Optioned for film.

Fung, Pik-Shuen. Ghost Forest. One World. Jul. 2021. 272p. ISBN 9780593230961. $26. LITERARY
Having emigrated from Hong Kong as a child, a young Chinese Canadian woman grows up barely knowing her father, who remained behind to support the family from afar. Now he is seriously ill. Multiple stars.

Hall, Tamron. As the Wicked Watch: The First Jordan Manning Novel. Morrow. Oct. 2021. 384p. ISBN 9780063037038. MYSTERY
Chicago crime reporter Jordan Manning frequently covers the murders of Black women, which sadly don’t always get the attention they should. Here she focuses on a 15-year-old found dead in a vacant lot. From Emmy Award–winning journalist Hall.


MURDER

Morrissey, Hannah. Hello, Transcriber. Minotaur: St. Martin’s. Nov. 2021. 304p. ISBN 9781250795953. $27.99. THRILLER
Dismayed with her life in economically depressed Black Harbor, WI, where people frequently jump off the local bridge, Hazel Greenlee takes a job as a police transcriber. Soon she’s caught up in a putative murder case being investigated by Det. Nikolai Kole, with nefarious drug dealer Candy Man as suspect. After all, she’s a would-be writer collecting material, an intriguing setup in a suspenseful new work.

“What was I, huh? An experiment? A behind-the-scenes pass for your novel?”


Hazelwood, Ali. The Love Hypothesis. Berkley. Sept. 2021. 384p. ISBN 9780593336823. pap. $16. ROMANCE
To prove she’s over a breakup, third-year doctoral student Olive Smith impulsively kisses cranky professor Adam Carlsen, and their subsequent fake-dating creates unexpected complexities. With Stanford’s STEM program as key background.

Heller, Miranda Cowley. The Paper Palace. Riverhead. Jul. 2021. 400p. ISBN 9780593329825. $27. CONTEMPORARY
In the first fiction from Heller, a former senior vice president and head of drama at HBO, Elle makes a momentous and long-overdue decision one bright summer’s morning in Cape Cod. A Reese Witherspoon Book Club pick.

Hjörleifsdóttir, Thora. Magma. Black Cat: Grove Atlantic. Jul. 2021. 508p. tr. from Icelandic by Meg Matich. ISBN 9780802157393. pap. $16. LITERARY
University student Lilja works hard to be the perfect girlfriend to her Derrida-spouting beloved, even as his controlling, dismissive tendencies escalate toward real abuse. A painfully perceptive portrait of a woman under siege.

Khoury, Angel. Between Tides. Dzanc. Aug. 2021. 308p. ISBN 9781950539321. $24.95. LITERARY/HISTORICAL
Moving between 1890s Cape Cod and 1940s Cape Hatteras, this meditative novel captures a quiet reckoning: Blythe Lodge must reveal to young Gillian, who arrives unannounced on her doorstep, a startling truth that connects them.

Kuhn, M.J. Among Thieves. Saga: S. & S. Sept. 2021. 352p. ISBN 9781982142148. $26.99. FANTASY
The deadly Butcher of Carrowwick is secretly Ryia Cautella, who’s trying to elude the Guildmaster ruling the five kingdoms of Thamorr. A magical artifact that’s the focus of the book’s energized, kaleidoscopic, perspective-shifting hunt might help.


QUESTIONS

Brown, Natasha. Assembly. Little, Brown. Sept. 2021. 112p. ISBN 9780316268264. $23. LITERARY
In what is essentially an interior monologue, a successful young Black British woman attending a fancy event at the estate of her white boyfriend’s parents considers race, class, responsibility, ambition, and the relentless role-playing forced on her by colleagues and strangers, liberals and conservatives alike. Like no novel you have ever read.

I’d traded in my life for a sliver of middle-class comfort. For a future. My parents and grandparents had no such opportunities; I felt I could hardly waste mine.


Kupersmith, Violet. Build Your House Around My Body. Random. Jul. 2021. 400p. ISBN 9780812993325. $27. LITERARY
Opening with a Vietnamese American woman’s disappearance in Saigon, Kupersmith’s follow-up to the celebrated story collection The Frangipani Hotel ranges bracingly across a half-century of Vietnamese history. Multiple stars.


UNSEEMLY

Blakemore, A.K. The Manningtree Witches. Catapult. Aug. 2021. 320p. ISBN 9781646220649. $26. LITERARY/HISTORICAL
In 1643 Manningtree, England, emptied of men by war, women like young Rebecca West feel increasingly forthright even as the foreboding Matthew Hopkins arrives and condemns what he believes to be unseemly female behavior. Blakemore writes with a sure sense of story and the heightened language of the poet she is.

Can hate or desire or hunger heave islands from the sea, or speckle an empty sky full of stars? No. And yet they are as real as you or I.


Levy, Ashley Nelson. Immediate Family. Farrar. Aug. 2021. 192p. ISBN 9780374601416. $26. LITERARY
In a wedding toast she’s preparing for her brother, who was adopted from Thailand, a white woman packs in issues of transracial adoption, sibling closeness, and what she comes to recognize as the tough adjustment he had to his new life.

Meltzer, Jean. The Matzah Ball. Mira: Harlequin. Sept. 2021. 336p. ISBN 9780778312130. $28.99; pap. ISBN 9780778311584. $16.99. ROMANCE
When covert Christian fiction author Rachel Rubenstein-Goldblatt is asked to write a Hanukkah romance, she attends the Matzah Ball for inspiration and encounters summer-camp archenemy Jacob Greenberg, with sparkling results for Rachel and readers alike.

Moore, Taylor. Down Range. Morrow. Aug. 2021. 352p. ISBN 9780063066502. $27.99. THRILLER
DEA special agent Garrett Kohl returns home on a special mission to learn that criminal elements hold his Texas High Plains ranching community in thrall, and uses his Green Beret background to battle them. A page-turner.

Nwoka, Okezie. God of Mercy. Astra House. Nov. 2021. 304p. ISBN 9781662600838. $27. LITERARY
In an Igbo village that has managed to remain uncolonized in an alternative Nigeria, a flying girl presages war between the gods and is accused of witchcraft by those outside the village. A lead title from a strong start-up publisher.

Onyemelukwe-Onuobia, Cheluchi. The Son of the House. Dundurn. Jun. 2021. 304p. ISBN 9781459747081. pap. $18.99. LITERARY
Kidnapped and held for ransom, wealthy widow Julie and her dressmaker, Nwabulu, exchange life stories that reveal the abuse, gender inequality, and repressive class structure of Nigerian society. An International Fiction Award winner.


SAVIOR

Bajaber, Khadija Abdalla. The House of Rust. Graywolf. Oct. 2021. 272p. ISBN 9781644450680. pap. $16. LITERARY
Inaugural winner of the Graywolf Press Africa Prize, this luminous story features Aisha, a Hadrami girl from Mombasa, Kenya, who is helped by a talking cat as she sets out on a mystical boat to rescue her father, lost at sea. Home again, she counters her grandmother’s wish to marry her off with her desire for adventure. An exceptional blend of lyricism and propulsion.

The boat was a skeleton of some sort of…fish. Stepping into it was like stepping into the bottom of the entire world.


Sampson, Freya. The Last Chance Library. Berkley. Aug. 2021. 336p. ISBN 9780593201381. pap. $16. CONTEMPORARY
Reserved June Jones has always lived in her English village, working at the library. When closure threatens, she teams with patrons to fight back, which opens up her life. Decidedly a heart-warmer.


POISONED

Davidson, Ash. Damnation Spring. Scribner. Aug. 2021. 448p. ISBN 9781982144401. $28. LITERARY
In the 1970s Pacific Northwest, fourth-generation logger Rich Gundersen hopes to secure a less precarious life for his family by secretly spending their savings on a redwood-loaded mountain ridge. Meanwhile, local women are suffering more miscarriages, and salmon aren’t leaping from the creek, which makes Rich’s wife, Colleen, suspect the herbicides used by the timber company. Her suspicions end up tearing their town apart. Numerous raves.

These herbicides they’re spraying—not just Sanderson, the Forest Service, the county too—it’s the same ingredients as Agent Orange, and they’re contaminated with TCDD, dioxin.


Sharma, Annika. Love, Chai, and Other Four-Letter Words. Sourcebooks Casablanca. Oct. 2021. 384p. ISBN 9781492665403. pap. $14.99. ROMANCE
A biomedical engineer living in New York, Kiran knows her parents in India want her to marry an Indian man. But she’s falling for non-Indian Nash, a psychologist fearful of abandonment, who has moved into her New York apartment building. A sweet series starter.

Webb, Brandon & John David Mann. Steel Fear. Bantam. Jul. 2021. 464p. ISBN 9780593356289. $28. THRILLER
Grabbing a ride home from the Persian Gulf on the USS Abraham Lincoln, Navy SEAL Finn encounters something not usually found on an aircraft carrier: a serial killer. Authentic backdrop; from the authors of Mastering Fear: A Navy SEAL’s Guide.

Winstead, Ashley. In My Dreams I Hold a Knife. Sourcebooks Landmark. Aug. 2021. 368p. ISBN 9781728229881. $26.99. THRILLER/PSYCHOLOGICAL
At Jessica Miller’s 10th college reunion, a trap has been laid to discover who murdered a member of her once-close group of friends, with Winstead doing a fine job of maintaining suspense by showing how each friend in turn could be the culprit. 


IDENTITY

Ngamije, Rémy. The Eternal Audience of One. Gallery: Scout: S. & S. Aug. 2021. 384p. ISBN 9781982164423. $28. LITERARY
Having settled with his family in Windhoek, Namibia, Rwandan-born Séraphin Turihamwe ambitiously moves on to Cape Town, South Africa, to study. He excels socially and
academically but faces identity struggles, daily little insults, and lingering apartheid. Short-listed for the AKO Caine Prize for African Writing, Ngamije uses swift, bright, perceptive language to present both arresting character study and important cultural analysis.

“All the world’s a stage…” upon which we perform for the eternal audience of one.

Author Image
Barbara Hoffert

Barbara Hoffert (bhoffert@mediasourceinc.com, @BarbaraHoffert on Twitter) is Editor, LJ Book Review; past chair of the Materials Selection Committee of the RUSA (Reference and User Services Assn.) division of the American Library Association; and past president of the National Book Critics Circle, to which she has just been reelected.

Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.


RELATED 

ALREADY A SUBSCRIBER?

We are currently offering this content for free. Sign up now to activate your personal profile, where you can save articles for future viewing

ALREADY A SUBSCRIBER?