The Best Debut Novels of Spring and Summer 2021

LJ’s thrice-yearly list of debut novels showcases premise and promise. Herewith 50 titles to watch for and savor.

LJ’s thrice-yearly list of debut novels typically draws on news, reviews, and reading to report on the top titles of the coming seasons. That’s true of this list as well, but slowed-down book distribution and reviewing owing to the pandemic, and the list’s expansion to embrace midsummer titles (the next installment won’t appear until August) sometimes made assessment harder. What ended up mattering as much was premise and promise: a fresh, intriguing, or relevant plot, combined with an intuitive sense that the title was already making a strong impression, helped land it on the list. Herewith 50 titles to watch for and savor.


Austin, Emily. Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead. Atria. Jul. 2021. 256p. ISBN 9781982167356. $26. LITERARY
Atheist lesbian Gilda is inadvertently hired to replace the recently deceased receptionist at a Catholic church. Dark, edgy humor and starting to buzz.

Bazelon, Lara. A Good Mother: A Novel of Suspense. Hanover Square: Harlequin. May 2021. 368p. ISBN 9781335916099. pap. $16.99. SUSPENSE
Timely #MeToo chills suffuse this big-print-run trade paperback, with a female lawyer defending a woman claiming to have killed her war-hero husband in self-defense.

Brodie, Emma. Songs of Ursa Major. Knopf. Jun. 2021. 336p. ISBN 9780593318621. $26.95. LITERARY
What could be juicier than a Sixties-set tale of music and blasted love inspired by the affair between James Taylor and Joni Mitchell? Film rights sold.

Brown, Gregory. The Lowering Days. Harper. Mar. 2021. 288p. ISBN 9780062994134. $26.99. LITERARY
Iowa Writer’s Workshop grad Brown addresses economic fragility, environmental despoilation, and Penobscot rights in Maine, offering still-relevant issues in a 1980s–90s setting.


BURIED HEADS

Buchanan, Greg. Sixteen Horses. Flatiron: Macmillan. Jul. 2021. 368p. ISBN 9781250246660. $27.99. MYSTERY
Sixteen horse heads are found buried on a farm near a coastal English village, and anyone approaching them soon falls dangerously ill owing to pathogens in the surrounding soil. Troublesome local events, from arson to mutilations, also start to surface. What results is an ominous, rapidly escalating literary thriller. A graduate of the University of East Anglia’s prestigious creative writing program, Buchanan was named among the 2019 Forbes 30 Under 30 for his political indie game Paper Brexit.

And the tails—they’re all cut off . . . They’re in a pile . . .

The way the tails clung together, slightly wet within the growing rain. The way the eyes, even now, even after wind, still watched from the ground.


Carter, Mary Dixie. The Photographer. Minotaur: St. Martin’s. May 2021. 304p. ISBN 9781250790330. $27.99. SUSPENSE
Tired of her job photographing children’s parties for New York’s rich and famous, Delta insinuates herself into one of the families she serves. An immediate grabber with a city-sized print run.

Conner, M Shelly. everyman. Blackstone. Jul. 2021. NAp. ISBN 9781094006208. $24.99. LITERARY
Opening with a Black woman arriving in 1971 Ideal, GA, to learn more about the mother who died birthing her, this title expands to a multigenerational story embracing the Great Migration.

Cronin, Marianne. The One Hundred Years of Lenni and Margot. Harper. Jun. 2021. 336p. ISBN 9780063092761. $26.99; pap. ISBN 9780063017504. $17. WOMEN’S
Two cheeky characters—17-year-old Lenni and 83-year-old Margot—create their own therapy on the terminal ward at Glasgow Princess Royal Hospital. Film and multiple foreign rights sales.

Dennis, Amanda. Her Here. Bellevue Literary. Mar. 2021. 352p. ISBN 9781942658764. pap. $16.95. LITERARY
In this elegant and propulsive narrative, Elena crafts a narrative from the journals of long-missing Ella to help explain why she vanished. The story-within-a-story structure is a comment on writing itself.

Feng, Linda Rui. Swimming Back to Trout River. S. & S. May 2021. 272p. ISBN 9781982129392. $26. LITERARY
In a 1980s-set work, ten-year-old Junie resists leaving China for America to join her parents, whose experiences during the Cultural Revolution provide a poignant counterpoint. Getting raves.

Ferrell, Carolyn. Dear Miss Metropolitan. Holt. Jul. 2021. ISBN 9781250793614. $27.99. LITERARY
Fern is abducted as a girl and rescued as a woman, and the eponymous advice columnist completely misses the horror unfolding in her neighborhood. A big push for this multi-award-winning short story writer.

Figueroa, Jamie. Brother, Sister, Mother, Explorer. Catapult. Mar. 2021. 240p. ISBN 9781948226882. $25. LITERARY
Gorgeously rendered, with familial and ancestral history braided into contemporary events, this study of memory and grief features a young woman trying to pull her brother back from the edge after their mother’s death.

Harris, Nathan. The Sweetness of Water. Little, Brown. Jul. 2021. 368p. ISBN 9780316461276. $28. LITERARY
In Reconstruction Georgia, a white farming couple mourning their only son hires recently emancipated brothers Prentiss and Landry, with a forbidden romance between two Confederate soldiers. In-house love; grave beauty is evident immediately.

Harris, Zakiya Dalila. The Other Black Girl. Atria. Jun. 2021. 368p. ISBN 9781982160135. $27. LITERARY
Publishing insider Harris has the skill and insight to deliver a first work about an editorial assistant who is relieved when a second Black woman is hired—until the trouble starts. Buzzing.


POET TO NOVELIST

Jeffers, Honorée Fanonne. The Love Songs of W. E. B. Du Bois. Harper. Jul. 2021. 816p. ISBN 9780062942937. $28.99. WOMEN’S
A portrait in verse of distinguished Black poet Phillis Wheatley, Jeffers’s National Book Award long-listed The Age of Phillis revealed not just a superb voice but a strong narrative arc. That bodes well for Jeffers’s chronicle of a Black family from U.S. colonial times to the present. Narrator Ailey Pearl Garfield carries the name of two august Black Americans—choreographer Alvin Ailey and her own great-grandmother—and the responsibility of living up to W. E. B. Du Bois’s ideals.

We are the earth, the land. The tongue that speaks and trips on the names of the dead as it dares to tell these stories of a woman’s line. Her people and her dirt, her trees, her water.

We knew this woman before she became a woman. We knew her before she was born.


Jerkins, Morgan. Caul Baby. Harper. Apr. 2021. 352p. ISBN 9780062873088. $27.99. WOMEN’S
In this first fiction foray from the best-selling Jerkins (Wandering in Strange Lands), a young woman desperate for a child turns to a Harlem family whose considerable power comes from a caul in its possession.

Lee Lai. Stone Fruit. Fantagraphics. May 2021. 236p. ISBN 9781683964261. $24.99. GN/LITERARY
In this graphic novel from Lai (e.g., the New Yorker, Everyday Feminism), queer couple Bron and Ray bond over Ray’s niece, then each learns from a sister when breakup threatens.


CHINESE AMERICAN WEST

Lin, Tom. The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu. Little, Brown. Jun. 2021. 288p. ISBN 9780316542159. $28. WESTERN/ASIAN AMERICAN
The orphaned son of Chinese immigrants, Ming Tsu is trained as an enforcer for a California crime ring, which comes in handy when he must rescue his new wife from the bad guys and exact revenge. Considering the American West and the classic Western from a Chinese American perspective, Lin briskly and beautifully delivers a story that’s at once thriller, romance, redemptive tale, historical, and deadly serious romp.

For a long time it had ceased to trouble him to kill. The town of Corinne was behind him, together with its gambling dens and saloons and bars full of angry men. Not two hours ago Ming had killed a man and already in his mind the memory of it had begun to give way to the fire of imagination.


McDowell, Christina. The Cave Dwellers. Scout: Gallery. May 2021. 352p. ISBN 9781982132781. $28. POP
Following the acclaimed After Perfect: A Daughter’s Memoir, this study of old money, new money, and class status in Washington, DC, confirms McDowell’s strength as a writer.

McFarlane, Ailsa. Highway Blue. Hogarth: Crown. May 2021. 192p. ISBN 9780593229118. $25. LITERARY
Anne Marie and Cal are married briefly, separated longer, and on the run because Cal owes money. Provocative, artlessly stylish, and swift in its rise from slush pile to U.S. and UK preempt.

Manansala, Mia P. Arsenic and Adobo. Berkley. May 2021. 336p. ISBN 9780593201671. pap. $16. MYSTERY
For fun-loving foodies, this scintillating mystery features Filipina Lila Macapagal, who works at Tia Rosie’s restaurant and is the main suspect in her ex-boyfriend’s murder. From a multi-award winner.

Mbougar Sarr, Mohamed. Brotherhood. Europa. Jul. 2021. 208p. tr. from French by Alexia Trigo. ISBN 9781609456726. pap. $17. LITERARY/DYSTOPIAN
In an unnamed African country controlled by the fanatical Brotherhood, two mothers correspond secretly after their children are publicly executed for improperly being in love. A multi-award winner in France.

Mendez, Paul. Rainbow Milk. Doubleday. Jun. 2021. 336p. ISBN 9780385547062. $26.95. LITERARY
A young British Jamaican man flees economic depression and Jehovah’s Witness teachings for the further complexities of London. An Observer best debut and Gordon Burn Prize winner.

Montgomery, Erika. A Summer To Remember. St. Martin’s. May 2021. 320p. ISBN 9781250274083. $27.99. WOMEN’S
The owner of a movie memorabilia shop on Hollywood Boulevard, Frankie heads to Cape Cod after spotting a photo of her late mother at a long-ago film festival there. The perfect beach read.

Mustian, Kelly. The Girls in the Stilt House. Sourcebooks Landmark. Apr. 2021. 384p. ISBN 9781728217710. pap. $16.99. SOUTHERN
White Ada and Black sharecropper’s daughter Matilda form a friendship amid 1920s violence. Classic Southern reading.


BLACK ARTISTS IN LOVE

Nelson, Caleb Azumah. Open Water. Black Cat: Grove Atlantic. May 2021. ISBN 9780802157942. pap. $16. LITERARY
Two struggling young Black British artists—he’s a photographer, she’s a dancer—feel deep resonance when they meet at a crowded pub, and they fall in love. But ugly forces beyond their control might tear them apart. A BBC National Short Story Prize 2020 short-listee, British Ghanaian writer/photographer Nelson offers an intimate, emotionally involving work that’s hotly anticipated.

‘You gazed at each other then with the same open-eyed wonder that keeps startling you at various intervals since you met. The two of you, like headphone wires tangling, caught up in this something.’ . . .
A happy accident. A messy miracle.


Newman, T. J. Falling. Avid Reader: S. & S. Jul. 2021. 304p. ISBN 9781982177881. $28. THRILLER
Just announced and unmissable: a pilot learns that his family has been kidnapped but won’t be hurt—if he crashes the plane he’s about to fly, killing everyone aboard.

Nguyen, Eric. Things We Lost to the Water. Knopf. May 2021. 304p. ISBN 9780593317952. $26.65. LITERARY
After multiple fellowships, Nguyen arrives with a much-anticipated first novel about a Vietnamese immigrant family adjusting to culture shock in New Orleans.

Nolan, Megan. Acts of Desperation. Little, Brown. Mar. 2021. 288p. ISBN 9780316429856. $27. COMING OF AGE
About a woman who can’t let go after a flamed-out affair, this work from Irish-born, London-based Nolan’s work arrives with raves on America’s shores.

Parker-Chan, Shelley. She Who Became the Sun. Tor. Jul. 2021. 416p. ISBN 9781250621801. $27.99. FANTASY
Set in 1345 China, Tiptree Fellow Parker-Chan’s big-buzzing, big-print-run work follows a peasant girl who adopts her dead brother’s identity to enter a monastery.

Polzin, Jackie. Brood. Doubleday. Mar. 2021. 240p. ISBN 9780385546751. $24. WOMEN’S
Like nothing you’ve read, Polzin’s work takes an intimate look at a woman sheltering her four chickens from Minnesota cold and heat, tornadoes, and predators.


LOVE AND WAR

Posey, Rafe. The Stars We Share. Pamela Dorman: Viking. May 2021. 400p. ISBN 9781984879622. $26. HISTORICAL
Daydreamy Alec, his parents dead of cholera in India, and math prodigy June first encounter each other as children in 1927 England and eventually become a couple. World War II pulls them apart, with Alec becoming an RAF pilot and June working as a codebreaker at Bletchley Park, but the real test of their relationship is trying to reunite at war’s end. A silkily written story, deeply personal despite the sweep.

It’s impossible to keep up with her, but he wants to try. When June looks at him, he can feel his edges. He hasn’t felt this real in months. Since before his parents died.


Ray, Eleanor. The Missing Treasures of Amy Ashton. Gallery: S. & S. Jun. 2021. 320p. ISBN 9781982163525. $28. WOMEN’S
After tragedy, once-aspiring artist Amy collects beautiful objects instead of making them, but the little boy next door might change her ways. Big in-house excitement.

Reid, Ava. The Wolf and the Woodsman. Harper Voyager. Jun. 2021. 432p. ISBN 9780062973122. $27.99. FANTASY
Lacking the magic of other girls in her pagan village, Évike is sent off as a sacrifice to the king but meets a different fate. Inspired by Hungarian history and Jewish mythology; a big book for the publisher.

Rodriques, Elias. All the Water I’ve Seen Is Running. Norton. Jun. 2021. 288p. ISBN 9780393540796. $26.95. LITERARY
Having cemented his identity as a gay man in New York, Jamaican American Henriquez returns home to the South and faces still-simmering issues of race, class, and sexuality.

Rosenbaum, Benjamin. The Unraveling. Erewhon: Workman. May 2021. 416p. ISBN 9781645660019. $25.95. SF
Boasting Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy nominations for his short fiction, Rosenblum should attract readers for this novel, set in a far-future world with multiple biotech-reengineered genders.

Saint, Jennifer. Ariadne. Flatiron: Macmillan. May 2021. 304p. ISBN 9781250773586. $26.99. HISTORICAL
One of this year’s bumper crop of feminist retellings of classic Greek myth, Saint’s debut focuses on the princess who helped Theseus slay the Minotaur.

Sathian, Sanjena. Gold Diggers. Penguin Pr. May 2021. 352p. ISBN 9781984882035. $27. LITERARY
Teenager Neil Narayan helps his crush Anita Dayal make a transformative alchemical potion in this investigation of what it means to be Indian American.

Shin, Ann. The Last Exiles. Park Row: Harlequin. Apr. 2021. 336p. ISBN 9780778389415. $27.99. LITERARY
An award-winning poet and Academy Award–shortlisted documentary filmmaker, Korean Canadian Shin draws on real-life events to limn a young North Korean couple forced apart by politics.

Sullivan, Connor. Sleeping Bear: A Thriller. Emily Bestler: Atria. Jul. 2021. 400p. ISBN 9781982166397. $27. THRILLER
Her father knows that army veteran Cassie is in trouble when he finds her Alaska campsite trashed, and Cassie knows when she awakens in a Russian prison. Great premise, big print run.

Swann, Stacey. Olympus, Texas. Doubleday. May 2021. 336p. ISBN 9780385545211. $26.95. POP
From former Stegner Fellow Swann, this portrait of an extended East Texas family upended by marital betrayal glitters with multiple prepublication review stars.


A WOMAN’S STRUGGLE

Taddeo, Lisa. Animal. Avid Reader: S. & S. Jun. 2021. 336p. ISBN 9781982122126. $27.99. LITERARY
After witnessing a terrible act of violence committed by a man with whom she is involved, Joan flees New York for Los Angeles in search of a woman who she believes can help her. She has much to learn about the abuse she has suffered, and the end isn’t tame. A ferociously beautiful book that will be getting major attention and will surely stir controversy.

—You’re a mysterious woman, Joan.
—You’re a nosy old man.
—I may be. But I’m a rich nosy old man. Why don’t you be nice to me, and you never know who remembers who in their will.
—You never know, I said, gripping the counter. I wanted money so badly. When I had money, I could drive away from myself.


Tucker, Karen. Bewilderness. Catapult. Jun. 2021. 288p. ISBN 9781646220243. $26. POP/SOUTHERN
Young waitress Irene is drawn into a friendship with daring coworker Luce that soon crashes. Punchy and heartfelt.

Vo, Nghi. The Chosen and the Beautiful. Tor.com. Jun. 2021. 272p. ISBN 9781250784780. $26.99. FANTASY
Beloved for her “Singing Hills Cycle” novellas, Vo goes ambitiously full-length with her tale of queer Vietnamese adoptee Jordan Baker, who uses magic to get what she wants in a 1920s Gatsby-like framework.

Walsh, S. Kirk. The Elephant of Belfast. Counterpoint. Apr. 2021. 336p. ISBN 9781640094000. $27. HISTORICAL
As Belfast is mercilessly bombed, young zookeeper Hettie Quin struggles to protect her beloved elephant, Violet. Offering a distinctive slant among this year’s strong World War II novels.

Walter, Heather. Malice. Del Rey: Ballantine. Apr. 2021. 480p. ISBN 9781984818652. $27. FANTASY
In librarian Walter’s sparkling rendition of the Sleeping Beauty story, Princess Aurora forges a relationship with Alyce, her kingdom’s Dark Grace—that is, the Bad Fairy. Getting good attention.

Walton, Dawnie. The Final Revival of Opal & Nev. S. & S. Mar. 2021. ISBN 9781982140168. $27. POP/CULTURAL HERITAGE
Portraying a Black rock duo in 1970s New York through fictional oral history, a structure recalling David Hajdu’s Adrianne Geffel, this book vibrantly highlights the importance of the era’s Black musicians.

Whitfield, Clare. People of Abandoned Character. Head of Zeus: IPG. Jun. 2021. 432p. ISBN 9781838932749. $29.95. THRILLER
A small-press title that attracted numerous readers in the UK, this edgy imagining of a woman who suspects that her doctor husband is Jack the Ripper bears watching.

Wynne, Phoebe. Madam. St. Martin’s. May 2021. 352p. ISBN 9781250272041. $27.99. WOMEN’S
In a tinglingly uncomfortable read, a new teacher at an exclusive girls school in remote Scotland is quickly undermined by the school’s culture, which darkly remakes students for the benefit of men.

Yoder, Rachel. Nightbitch. Doubleday. Jul. 2021. 256p. ISBN 9780385546812. $25.96. WOMEN’S
What do you do when you are a stay-at-home mom who thinks you’re turning into a dog? Absurd, over-the-top premise; optioned for film. 

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?