First Steps | Debut Novels

Summer fiction titles from first-timers bend the boundaries in this debut preview.

A list of good books is supposed to answer the question: What should I read next? But sometimes, as with this summer’s rich compilation of debut novels, a list can raise as many questions as it answers. Is David Williams’s dystopic LibraryReads pick, When the English Fall, speculative fiction or a spine-tingler? Should Danya Kukafka’s Discover pick, Girl in Snow, be considered literary fiction or pop fiction, coming-of-age tale or thriller? How do books by Rebecca Entel and Robert Madrigan fit with those by Ayobami Adebayo and Juan Carrasco? Why are there so many strong sf titles this season? With an abundance of books about family, why classify some under the subhead “Marriage & Moms”? Books don’t fit into easy categories, at least if they’re any good, and the works here are good enough to keep you reading through summer vacation and into the fall.


Adebayo, Ayobami. Stay with Me. Knopf. Aug. 2017. 272p. ISBN 9780451494603. $25.95; ebk. ISBN 9780451494610.

Short-listed for the Bailey’s Women Prize for Fiction, this affecting novel from a rising Nigerian star features a couple in crisis because the wife cannot conceive. “Adebayo makes a blazing entry onto the list of young, talented writers emanating from Africa.” (LJ 6/15/17)

Carrasco, Jesús. Out in the Open. Riverhead. Jul. 2017. 240p. ISBN 9781594634369. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780698197404.

Published in nearly two dozen countries, this Spanish best seller has won multiple awards abroad and prepublication raves here. The Cormac McCarthy–like narrative features a boy on the run in a lawless, drought-ravaged land and the goatherd who helps him. “A dynamite debut.” (LJ 6/1/17)

Entel, Rebecca. Fingerprints of Previous Owners. Unnamed. Jun. 2017. 212p. ISBN 9781944700232. $16; ebk. ISBN 9781944700430.

This richly imagined work from a Cornell professor of African American and Caribbean literature features a maid at a Caribbean resort built atop a former slave plantation. By night, she digs around, discovering artifacts that unearth the island’s past while speaking loudly to its increasingly tense present. “Beautifully descriptive.” (LJ 6/15/17)

Madrygin, Robert. The Solace of Tress. New Europe. Jul. 2017. 352p. ISBN 9780997316902. pap. $16.95; ebk. ISBN 9780997316919.

A Bosnian of secular Muslim heritage, Amir flees a UN camp and then to America after witnessing the murder of his family. In a publisher’s note, Madrygin says his Balkans-based story is “the story of the Syrian conflict.” “Quietly heartbreaking.” (Xpress Reviews, 6/30/17)

Marais, Bianca. Hum If You Don’t Know the Words. Putnam. Jul. 2017. 432p. ISBN 9780399575068. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780399575075.

Toronto-based Marais draws on her South African heritage to investigate the bleak consequences of apartheid during the 1970s, bringing together an orphaned white child named Robin and the Xhosa woman who cares for Robin while desperately seeking her own vanished daughter. “Captivating.” (LJ 5/1/17)

Williams, Jenny D. The Atlas of Forgotten Places. Thomas Dunne: St. Martin’s. Jul. 2017. 368p. ISBN 9781250122933. $26.99; ebk. ISBN 9781250122940.

In Uganda, beset by sectarian violence, German aid worker Sabine Hardt searches frantically for vanished American niece Lily with the help of Rose Akulu, whose lover is also missing. “A complex and suspenseful tale with dozens of subplots.” (Xpress Reviews, 6/30/17)

Coming of age

Clemmons, Zinzi. What We Lose. Viking. Jul. 2017. 192p. ISBN 9780735221710. $22; ebk. ISBN 9780735221727.

Raised by a South African mother and an American father, Thandi carefully treads the color line, struggling to find a sense of self. Then she learns that her mother has cancer. Called a Book To Read for Summer by nearly a dozen venues and stunning by Glamour, Los Angeles Daily News, and Nylon.

Habash, Gabe. Stephen Florida. Coffee House. Jun. 2017. 304p. ISBN 9781566894647. $25; ebk. ISBN 9781566894739.

In this burningly, bitterly funny tale of college student Stephen, who throws himself into wrestling to face down his fears, PW fiction reviews editor Habash effectively relates the raw physicality of wrestling and the raw emotions of growing up. “A memorable portrait of obsession to the edge of madness.” (LJ 4/15/17)

Huber, Laurel Davis. The Velveteen Daughter. She Writes. Jul. 2017. 300p. ISBN 9781631521928. pap. $16.95; ebk. ISBN 9781631521935.

Huber creates art from art as she reenvisions the life of painter/illustrator Pamela Bianco, a child prodigy whose mother was Velveteen Rabbit author Margery Williams. An IPPY Silver Award winner for Best First Book/Fiction; “a masterpiece; incandescent, pitch-perfect, and destined for greatness.” (LJ 7/17)

Melamed, Jennie. Gather the Daughters. Little, Brown. Jul. 2017. 352p. ISBN 9780316463652. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780316463676.

On a remote island that serves as home to a religious cult following strict gender roles, four adolescent girls dread their coming-of-age. Then one of them is murdered for wanting to leave. Multiple prepublication stars for this chilling evocation of women’s worst fears; “compulsive and suspenseful.” (LJ 4/15/17)

Reid, Noley. Pretend We Are Lovely. Tin House. Jul. 2107. 312p. ISBN 9781941040669. pap. $15.95; ebk. ISBN 9781941040676.

Controlling, wisp-thin Francie spins further away from her husband, ­doughnut-hoarding philosophy professor Tate, even as their two preteen daughters seek their own food-related ways to cope. Pushing them all is the tragedy of a dead son. “Bright-as-a-penny writing about a family finding its way to hope.” (Xpress Reviews, 6/30/17)

Rose, Augustus. The Readymade Thief. Viking. Aug. 2017. 384p. ISBN 9780735221833. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780735221857.

Turned in by her best friend for a drug deal gone bad, homeless high schooler Lee is targeted by a sinister underground organization when she steals an art object freighted with secrets. “[Rose’s] characters do tend to feel a bit sketched …but what a story it is! Unputdownable literary summer escape.” (LJ 7/17)

Tallent, Gabriel. My Absolute Darling. Riverhead. Aug. 2017. 432p. ISBN 9780735211179. $27; ebk. ISBN 9780735211193.

In this unexpected coming-of-age story, 14-year-old Turtle has lived an isolated life and resists her peers until she meets worshipful Jacob, finally realizing that life with her troubled father is both unhappy and dangerous and cannot continue. A BookExpo Buzz Book; “lucidly written; both heartbreaking and heartfelt.” (Xpress Reviews, 6/30/17)


Hartsuyker, Linnea. The Half-Drowned King. Harper. Aug. 2017. 448p. ISBN 9780062563699. $27.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062563712.

A grand saga drawing on old Norse history, Hartsuyker’s historical features Ragnvald Eysteinsson, betrayed by men in his stepfather’s pay and left for dead, and his forthright sister Svanhild. ­Ragnvald eventually throws in his lot with a powerful young warrior destined to be king. A Discover Great New Writers pick; “absolutely top-notch.” (LJ 4/1/17)

Mathews, Brendan. The World of Tomorrow. Little, Brown. Sept. 2017. 560p. ISBN 9780316382199. $28; ebk. ISBN 9780316382205.

Mathews’s BookExpo Buzz Book features three Irish brothers in 1939 New York, on the run from the IRA while meeting jazz musicians, a mob boss, a gifted heiress, a Jewish artist from Nazi-occupied Prague, and more. “This novel should prove irresistible to anyone wanting a diverting read. It’s quality stuff—and fun.” (LJ 5/15/17)

Patterson, Molly. Rebellion. Harper. Aug. 2017. 560p. ISBN 9780062574046. $26.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062574077.

Pushcart Prize winner Patterson seamlessly links Addie, a missionary trapped in China by the Boxer Rebellion, to sister Louisa back home, Louisa’s daughter Hazel, and a young woman in late 1990s China who escapes her stultifying home life through a risky affair. “Truly a page-turner…. [Patterson] is a natural storyteller.” (LJ 4/15/17)

Schmidt, Sarah. See What I Have Done. Atlantic Monthly. Aug. 2017. 324p. ISBN 9780802126597. $25; ebk. ISBN 9780802189134.

Australian author Schmidt gives us a Lizzie Borden makeover that reimagines an abusive household including a violent father, a mean-spirited stepmother, and two spinster sisters bound in a love-hate relationship. BookExpo excitement and universal prepublication praise for this raw, absorbing work. “A fresh treatment; highly recommended.” (LJ 5/1/17)

Marriage & Moms

Culliton, Emily. The Misfortune of Marion Palm. Knopf. Aug. 2017. 304p. ISBN 9781524731908. $24.95; ebk. ISBN 9781524731915.

Dubbed top summer reading by People and Entertainment Weekly, Culliton’s tale of a luxury-hungry Brooklyn Heights mother who embezzles $180,000 from her children’s school addresses some serious class and parenting issues. But it’s also seriously good fun. “Mordant wit, deft plotting, and clever storytelling; Culliton is a young novelist to watch.” (LJ 7/17)

Gelman, Laurie. Class Mom. Holt. Aug. 2017. 302p. ISBN 9781250124692. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781250124708.

Alice B. Toklas brownies for curriculum night and a chronicle of parents’ response time to her emails? Gelman’s heroine certainly takes a novel approach to her new assignment as class mom. “Gelman pens an uproariously funny debut with a relatable protagonist. Moms will clamor for this novel.” (LJ 5/1/17)

Nugent, Liz. Unraveling Oliver. Scout: Gallery. Aug. 2018. 272p. ISBN 9781501167751. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781501167768.

Double whammy: this debut from an award-winning Irish writer of drama and short fiction was chosen as a BookExpo Buzz Book and a Discover Great New Writers pick. Nugent portrays a community’s shock when an award-winning children’s writer suddenly becomes a battering husband, and the voice is pitch-perfect. A No. 1 best seller in Ireland.

Pearl, Nancy. George and Lizzie. Touchstone. Sept. 2017. 288p. ISBN 9781501162893. $25; ebk. ISBN 9781501162916.

Readers’ advisory queen Pearl takes to the other side of the desk with the story of a husband and wife whose very different upbringings color their marriage. And that finally gets Lizzie in a tizzy. “An Anne Tyler–esque debut novel…with eccentric characters, relationship drama, and a vivid sense of place.” (LJ 7/17)

Tambakis, Anthony. Swimming with Bridgeport Girls. S. & S. Jul. 2017. 320p. ISBN 9781451684919. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781451684926.

A former ESPN fixture who’s ruined his life through gambling, Ray Parisi owes bushels to his bookie and is on the run after pummeling a jockey. So of course he heads to Las Vegas, determined to win big—and thus win back the ex-wife he still loves. “[An] outstanding debut.” (LJ 6/1/17)

Popular Reading

Camerota, Alisyn. Amanda Wakes Up. Viking. Jul. 2017. 336p. ISBN 9780399563997. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780399564017.

For Amanda Gallo, a dream job as co­anchor of a big news show brings insane ratings pressures, a condescending colleague, a seesawing love life, and, finally, important questions about ethics in journalism. From CNN coanchor Camerota. “Sure to be a huge hit.” (LJ 6/15/17)

Kukafka, Danya. Girl in Snow. S. & S. Aug. 2017. 368p. ISBN 9781501144370. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781501144394.

A Discover Great New Writers pick that received best-summer-reads approval from Elle, Yahoo!, and more, this suspenseful debut unwinds the stories of three people painfully connected to sparkling high schooler Lucinda Hayes, now dead. “This smart, fast-paced novel…breathes new life into a common mystery trope.” (LJ 6/1/17)

Linden, Rachel. Ascension of Larks. Thomas Nelson. Jun. 2017. 336p. ISBN 9780718095734. pap. $15.99; ebk. ISBN 9780718095741.

When Maggie Henry learns that the man she’s always loved has drowned trying to rescue a friend, she rushes home to comfort his widow and children, eventually forging bonds with them that matter more to her than her own feelings. Multiple prepublication stars; “a bittersweet tale…that will engage readers of thoughtful women’s fiction.”(LJ 6/1/17)

Shelby, Ashley. South Pole Station. Picador. Jul. 2017. 368p. ISBN 9781250112828. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781250112859.

Winning a grant to work at South Pole Station Antarctica, flailing young artist Cooper Gosling encounters injury, climate-change scandal, and an ingratiating cast of characters. Both funny and thoughtful, “Shelby’s first novel, based on a short story that won the Third Coast Fiction Prize, skillfully weaves science, climate change, politics, sociology, and art.” (LJ 4/15/17)

Weiss, Leah. If the Creek Don’t Rise. Sourcebooks. Aug. 2017. 320p. ISBN 9781492647454. pap. $15.99; ebk. ISBN 9781492647461.

Set in the North Carolina mountains, Weiss’s heartbreaker weaves stories of the community around hapless Sadie Blue, who’s unhappily stuck in a 15-day-old marriage to hard-drinking Roy Tupkin but whose fate might change. “A strong, formidable novel; Weiss vividly portrays real people and sorrows.” (LJ 5/1/17)

Williams, David. When the English Fall. Algonquin. Jul. 2017. 256p. ISBN 9781616205225. $24.95; ebk. ISBN 9781616207083.

In Williams’s LibraryReads Pick, the Amish have no problem surviving when a solar storm knocks out the electronic grid they don’t use, which brings in the desperate English (that is, outsiders) with a vengeance. “A quiet, ideas-focused dystopian novel that will stay with readers long after they have turned the final page.” (LJ 7/17)


Backlund, J.R. Among the Dead. Crooked Lane. (Rachel Carver Mystery, Bk. 1). Aug. 2017. 304p. ISBN 9781683312734. $26.99; ebk. ISBN 9781683312741.

Having resigned from the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation after she was forced to kill a woman, Rachel Carver is free to help an old partner investigate a killing with no sign of forced entry and finds an unsettling connection to her past. “A riveting…character-driven story…building to a surprising twist.” (LJ 7/17)

Garrett, Kellye. Hollywood Homicide: A Detective by Day Mystery. Midnight Ink. Aug. 2017. 312p. ISBN 9780738752617. pap. $14.99; ebk. ISBN 9780738753003.

Floundering actress Dayna Anderson needs money fast, but trying to claim the $15,000 reward by finding the culprit in a deadly hit-and-run accident she witnessed nearly gets her killed. An LJ Mystery Debut of the Month; “sure to be a hit with readers looking for a fresh new sleuth.” (LJ 7/17)

Goldman, Matt. Gone to Dust. Forge. Aug. 2017. 304p. ISBN 9780765391285. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9780765391292.

Emmy Award–winning Seinfeld writer Goldman dreams up a mystery starring Minneapolis PI Nils Shapiro, who’s having a hard time figuring out who murdered Maggie Somerville. All evidence is obscured by the vacuum cleaner dust dumped over the body. This LJ Mystery Debut of the Month “will engage and intrigue.” (LJ 6/1/17)

Norton, Graham. Holding. Atria. Aug. 2017. 272p. ISBN 9781501173264. $25; ebk. ISBN 9781501173288.

When human remains are found in tiny Duneen, presumably belonging to two-timing Tommy Burke, Sgt. PJ Collins investigates his first real case and digs up lots of animosity. From a BAFTA-winning Irish television host; “a thoroughly enjoyable cozy mystery…you can almost hear the Irish lilt.” (LJ 7/17)


Constantine, Liv. The Last Mrs. Parrish. Harper. Oct. 2017. 400p. ISBN 9780062667571. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062667595.

Envious Amber Patterson schemes to get the glamorous life she thinks she deserves by wending her way into a golden couple’s good graces, but a secret could upend her plan. “As twisty, spellbinding, and addictive as Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl or Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train.” (LJ 6/15/17)

Kamal, Sheena. The Lost Ones. Morrow. Jul. 2017. 352p. ISBN 9780062565907. $26.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062565761.

Fifteen years after Nora Watts gave up her newborn for adoption, the adoptive parents ask for her help in finding their vanished daughter. Tough and rough as sandpaper, with a durable heroine. “Offering an intriguing twist on the standard missing-person thriller, ­Kamal’s debut is raw, violent, and thought provoking. An author to watch!” (LJ 6/15/17)

Read, Warren. Ash Falls. Ig. Jul. 2017. 306p. ISBN 9781632460479. pap. $16.95; ebk. ISBN 9781632460486.

Folks in the Pacific Northwest mountain town of Ash Falls are understandably on edge; escaped convict Ernie Luntz should be headed their way, and he has reason to be upset with both friends and family. A tense psychological portrait; “though set in a bleak place at a bleak time, Read’s novel ultimately is one of hope.” (LJ 7/17)

Sullivan, Matthew. Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore. Scribner. Jun. 2017. 352p. ISBN 9781501116841. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781501116865.

After the suicide of a regular at the Bright Ideas Bookstore, clerk Lydia Smith finds books he left to her defaced in unsettling ways that suggest both a troubled soul and a secret message to follow. A Library Reads, Discover Great New Writers, Indie Next, and Goodreads Debut Author of the Month pick, which says something. “Clever connections.” (LJ 5/1/17)


Abraham, Brad. Magicians Impossible. Thomas Dunne: St. Martin’s. Sept. 2017. 400p. ISBN 9781250083524. $27.99; ebk. ISBN 9781250083531.

Poor Jason. He’s just learned that his dead father belonged to the Invisible Hand, a clandestine group of magic-possessed spies that battles another group of magicians called the Golden Dawn. And they both want Jason. “From its action-packed opening sequence, this is a cinematic, fast-paced debut.” (LJ 7/17)

Bates, Callie. The Waking Land. Del Rey: Ballantine. Jun. 2017. 400p. ISBN 9780425284025. $27; ebk. ISBN 9780399177392.

Elanna serves as hostage to assure the ­fealty of her family, who opposed the rulers of Eren, but when the king is murdered she must go on the run—which brings her to Lord Jahan, the emperor’s appealing envoy. Both are possessed of magical powers they’re learning to manage. A Library Reads pick; “ideal for fans of romantic fantasy.” (LJ 5/15/17)

Klein, Tal M. The Punch Escrow. Geek & Sundry: Inkshares. Jul. 2017. 300p. ISBN 9781942645580. pap. $14.99.

When her husband, Joel, doesn’t show up for a second honeymoon, grief-stricken Sylvia wrongly assumes that he has been killed in a terrorist attack and uses a technique secretly developed by her company to call forth a stored duplicate of Joel. Bad news. An LJ SF Debut of the month, with movie rights sold. “Compelling.” (LJ 7/17)

Newitz, Annalee. Autonomous. Tor. Sept. 2017. 304p. ISBN 9780765392077. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9780765392091.

The founder of the website io9 introduces us to anti–patent medicine scientist Jack, who travels the world in her submarine to bring affordable drugs to the poor. A slip-up puts her in the sights of an icy-tempered military agent and his romantically inclined robot partner. “Lovers of original, thought-provoking sf should not miss.” (LJ 7/17)

Snipes, Wesley & Ray Norman. Talon of God. Harper Voyager. Jul. 2017. 368p. ISBN 9780062668165. $27.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062668189.

In this debut from famed actor Snipes and ghostwriter/scriptwriter Norman, the rich and powerful are intent on forcing everyone else into a state of demonic possession and really ruling the world. Cue Talon Hunter, a legendary man of God. “An exciting, fast-paced, religious thriller that will draw in even the most cynical reader.” (LJ 6/15/17)

On the Horizon

Babst, C. Morgan. The Floating World. Algonquin. Oct. 2017. ISBN 9781616205287. $26.95; ebk. ISBN 9781616207632.

A harrowing, richly written account of Hurricane Katrina’s impact on one ­family.

Chakraborty, S.A . The City of Brass. Harper Voyager. Nov. 2017. 544p. ISBN 780062678102. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062678126.

BookExpo buzzing fantasy about a 1700s Cairo hustler who summons a djinn.

Hornak, Francesca. Seven Days of Us. Berkley. Oct. 2017. 368p. ISBN 9780451488756. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780451488770.

A darkly funny novel about a family in quarantine for the holidays.

Murphy, Devin. The Boat Runner. Harper. Sept. 2017. 384p. ISBN 9780062658012. pap. $15.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062658029.

A bracing account of a teenage Dutch boy growing to manhood during World War II.

Patric, A.S. Black Rock White City. Melville. Sept. 2017. 256p. ISBN 9781612196831. $25.99.

The Miles Franklin Literary Award winner about Sarajevo refugees encountering trouble in Australia.

Rowe, Josephine. A Loving, Faithful Animal. Catapult. Sept. 2017. 176p. ISBN 9781936787579. pap. $16.95.

An Elizabeth Jolley Prize winner’s story of a fracturing family.

Barbara Hoffert is Editor, Prepub Alert, LJ

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Kids are using VR to explore worlds and create new ones


Kids are using VR to explore worlds and create new ones


Kids are using VR to explore worlds and create new ones

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