Summer Fall Bests | Debut Novels

Fresh names deliver strong, insightful titles that measure up to the buzz.

This compendium of best debuts from summer and early fall is actually two lists in one: books that LJ reviewers have found strong, insightful, and sure to start everyone talking (“Books To Get”) and forthcoming titles that I’ve determined measure up to the buzz they’ve been receiving (“Books To Anticipate”). Either way, these fresh voices offer great debut novels that will carry eager readers into the autumn.

Books to get

Pop Fiction

Borman, Tracy. The King’s Witch. Atlantic Monthly. Jul. 2018. 448p. ISBN 9780802127884. $27; ebk. ISBN 9780802146243.

The UK’s joint chief curator of Historic Royal Palaces launches a historical fiction trilogy starring  Frances Gorges, forced into the court of King James by an ambitious uncle and surrounded by the scheming that will culminate in the Gunpowder Plot. “Flawless prose and an absorbing plot.” (LJ 5/1/18)

Dalcher, Christina. Vox. Berkley. Aug. 2018. 336p. ISBN 9780440000785. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780440000822.

In this politically acute tale, the Pure Woman movement sweeps the nation, and women can’t speak more than 100 words a day, with a counter on the wrist administering electric shocks for overage. “Perfect for readers who enjoy speculative fiction or women’s studies.” (forthcoming LJ review)

Green, Hank. An Absolutely Remarkable Thing. Dutton. Sept. 2018. 352p. ISBN 9781524743444. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781524743451.

In this debut from YouTube Crash Course sensation Green, April May makes a video of the looming sculpture she encounters late one night and, as the first to document a worldwide phenomenon, finds herself uncomfortably the center of international attention. “Timely and sorely needed.” (LJ 7/18)

Hurley, Blair. The Devoted. Norton. Aug. 2018. 320p. ISBN 9780393651591. $25.95; ebk. ISBN 9780393651607.

Raised Catholic, Nicole had her flings with drugs and sex but became increasingly committed to Zen Buddhism. Eventually, though, she must wrest free of her obdurate mentor. “All lovers of great fiction with complex characters as well as anyone fascinated by narratives about religious cults will want.” (LJ 6/15/18)

Lewis, Marjorie Herrera. When the Men Were Gone. Morrow. Oct. 2018. 384p. ISBN 9780062869319. $26.99; pap. ISBN 9780062836052. $16.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062836045.

It’s 1944, and with no men in town to coach, it looks as if Brownwood, TX, must forgo its high school football games. Then assistant principal Tylene Wilson, a whiz with the pigskin, talks herself into the job. Want stories about good people or a good cry? “[You] won’t do much better than this heartrending read.” (LJ 7/18)

Lovering, Carola. Tell Me Lies. Atria. Jun. 2018. 384p. ISBN 9781501169649. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781501169663.

Betrayed by love-of-her-life Stephen DeMarco in college and on the outs with her mother as well, Lucy Albright has abandoned her professional aspirations and settled for a no-account job. Now Stephen is back, but is he worth the risk? “A new adult debut that is full of toxic love, secrets, and intense romance.” (LJ 5/1/18)

Meyerson, Amy. The Bookshop of Yesterdays. Park Row: Harlequin. Jun. 2018. 368p. ISBN 9780778319849. $22.99; ebk. ISBN 9781488078736.

When Miranda Brooks inherits Prospero Books from her uncle Billy, whom she hasn’t seen in years, she returns to Los Angeles and follows clues to understanding his past—and her own. As Shakespeare says in The Tempest, “What’s past is prologue.” “A sweet read.” (LJ 5/1/18)

Owens, Delia. Where the Crawdads Sing. Putnam. Aug. 2018. 384p. ISBN 9780735219090. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780735219113.

Coauthor of best sellers about working as a wildlife scientist in Africa, Owens returns home to limn “Marsh Girl” Kya Clark, on her own in the North Carolina wetlands and suspected of a crime. “Carefully observed details about marshland wildlife and the surrounding area’s social class distinctions create a dramatic and immersive setting.” (forthcoming LJ ­review)

Pearce, AJ. Dear Mrs. Bird. Scribner. Jul. 2018. 288p. ISBN 9781501170065. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781501170089.

In 1940s London, Emmy is stuck at Women’s Friend magazine, answering letters sent to Mrs. Bird’s Problem Page. The real problem: Mrs. Bird insists on bland answers to only the blandest letters. Emmy’s solution: respond herself to the women who really need help. A Discover Great New Writers pick; a July LibraryReads pick; “a fresh portrait.” (LJ 4/15/18)

Literary: At Home

Dion, Katharine. The Dependents. Little, Brown. Jun. 2018. 256p. ISBN 9780316473873. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780316473880.

After his wife’s death, Gene worries that his marriage wasn’t as grand as he thought, and his strained relationship with his doubt-casting daughter doesn’t help. At least he’s got a decades-old friendship for support. “Sympathetic, believable…insightful.” (LJ 5/1/18)

Johnson, Caleb. Treeborne. Picador. Jun. 2018. 320p. ISBN 9781250169082. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781250169099.

Interviewed about three generations of family in fading Elberta, AL, Janie Treeborne starts by recalling her grandfather’s work on a now-crumbling dam expected to burst and flood their 700-acre homestead. “So vivid and real that readers won’t want [the] stories to end.” (LJ 5/1/18)

Kiesling, Lydia. The Golden State. Farrar. Sept. 2018. 304p. ISBN 9780374164836. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780374718060.

Young wife and mother Daphne, whose Turkish husband is being barred from the country, flees San Francisco with toddler Honey. But living in high-desert Altavista only intensifies her dismay. “There’s so much to love about this novel.” (LJ 7/18)

Ma, Ling. Severance. Farrar. Aug. 2018. 304p. ISBN 9780374261597. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780374717117.

Completed after having won the Graywolf SLS Prize for the best novel excerpt from an emerging writer, this title lampoons workaholism and apocalyptic sagas equally as Candace Chen, on contract, still obsessively posts pictures of a New York City emptied by Then Shen Fever. “A smart, searing exposé.” (LJ 4/15/18)

Markley, Stephen. Ohio. S. & S. Aug. 2018. 496p. ISBN 9781501174476. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781501174490.

In 2013, four former classmates return to small-town New Canaan, OH, now defined by recession, opioid addiction, racial tension, ongoing Middle East war, and the country’s locked-horns politics. A Discover Great New Writers pick and BookExpo buzz book; “highly recommended.” (LJ 5/1/18)

Mattson, Joshua. A Short Film About Disappointment. Penguin. Aug. 2018. 278p. ISBN 9780525522843. $25; ebk. ISBN 9780525522850.

This futuristic dystopia is formatted as a series of film reviews by Noah Body, who covers outlandish movies in prose he’s sure no one reads while sneaking in his own hilarious if cynical observations on the world. “Wildly experimental [and] times laugh-out-loud funny.” (LJ 6/15/18)

Saunders, Paula. The Distance Home. Random. Aug. 2018. 304p. ISBN 9780525508748. $27.

In 1960s South Dakota, cattle broker Al appreciates daughter Rene’s gift of dance, something he scorns in his equally talented but wistfully shy son. Estrangement and tragedy result. “A true and honest story…captur[ing] the underlying turmoil of a dysfunctional family at war.” (LJ 7/18)

Literary: Abroad

Freiman, Lexi. Inappropriation. Ecco: HarperCollins. Jul. 2018. 368p. ISBN 9780062699732. $26.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062699756.

Teenage Ziggy Klein is equally unsettled by her parents’ sexual excesses and the radical feminism of her new friends at her swanky private Australian girls’ school. “A bold and heady coming-of-age tale with a biting sense of humor and a heavy dose of contemporary cultural critique.” (LJ 5/15/18)

Greengrass, Jessie. Sight. Hogarth: Crown. Aug. 2018. 208p. ISBN 9780525574606. $21; ebk. ISBN 9780525574620.

Winner of a Somerset Maugham Award for her debut story collection, Greengrass goes long-form with an unnamed narrator chronicling her movement toward motherhood, even as she recalls the death of her own mother. “[An] assured first novel.” (LJ 6/15/18)

Hughes, Caoilinn. Orchid and the Wasp. Hogarth: Crown. Jul. 2018. 368p. ISBN 9781524761103. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781524761127.

In this first novel from an award-winning Irish poet, edgy and intrepid young Gael Foess endures her self-absorbed parents until her father walks out, then travels from Dublin to London to New York to find a way to heal the family.” “Wry, crackling prose…about what constitutes a meaningful life.” (LJ 6/15/18)

Kim, Crystal Hana. If You Leave Me. Morrow. Aug. 2018. 432p. ISBN 9780062645173. $26.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062645203.

At a refugee camp with her widowed mother and brother in 1950s Korea, Haemi Lee must choose between two cousins for her family’s sake. Inspired by Kim’s grandmother; “this sensitive and hauntingly written novel will easily leave readers wanting more.” (LJ 7/18)

Wise, Spencer. The Emperor of Shoes. Hanover Square: Harlequin. Jun. 2018. 336p. ISBN 9781335145901. $26.99; ebk. ISBN 9781488080562.

In this heartfelt work, a young Jewish American expat takes charge of his family’s shoe factory in China, coming to empathize with the workers and falling in love with one of them even as he challenges his father. “An impressive debut.” (LJ 5/15/18)

Youngson, Anne. Meet Me at the Museum. Flatiron: Macmillan. Aug. 2018. 288p. ISBN 9781250295163. $23.99; ebk. ISBN 9781250295156.

Initially brought together by an artifact called the Tollund Man, disaffected English farmwife Tina Hopgood and museum curator and widower Anders Larsen grow ever closer through a series of increasingly engaged and engaging emails. “Luminous, affecting, and delightful.” (Xpress Reviews 6/15/18)


Barnard, J.E. When the Flood Falls. Dundurn. (Falls Mysteries, Bk. 1). Jul. 2018. 424p. ISBN 9781459741218. pap. $19.99; ebk. ISBN 9781459741232.

Once a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Lacey McCrae is divorced from her abusive husband and working security when she and her roommate are troubled by escalatingly dangerous incidents. Winner of the Unhanged Arthur Ellis Award as Canada’s best unpublished mystery; “a complex, unconventional debut.” (LJ 7/18)

Brandreth, Benet. The Spy of Venice; A William Shakespeare Mystery. Pegasus Crime. Aug. 2018. 448p. ISBN 9781681777986. $25.95; ebk. ISBN 9781681778457.

In this historical thriller by the Royal Shakespeare Company’s rhetoric coach, Will joins a group of traveling players journeying to Italy, where he gets involved with all manner of adventures. There’s a villain, with the trap laid for him “as intricate and impressive as some of the greatest Shakespearean plots.” (LJ 5/1/18)

Clark, Tracy. Broken Places. Kensington. (Chicago Mystery, Bk. 1). Jun. 2018. 352p. ISBN 9781496714879. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781496714893.

Furious when a bumbling former colleague is slated to investigate the murder of her beloved Father Ray Heaton, stubborn-as-hell Cass Raines, an African American private investigator, launches her own probe. “Compelling, suspenseful, and action-packed.” (LJ 6/1/18)

Cobb, May. Big Woods. Midnight Ink. Jul. 2018. 312p. ISBN 9780738757810. pap. $15.99; ebk. ISBN 9780738759234.

When sister Lucy disappears, teenage Leah is persuaded that Lucy won’t end up dead in the Big Woods like other recent kidnapping victims. A reclusive widow the police can’t be bothered with thinks she knows what’s happening. An LJ Mystery Debut of the Month; “heart-wrenching.” (LJ 7/18)

Frear, Caz. Sweet Little Lies. Harper. Aug. 2018. 352p. ISBN 9780062823199. $26.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062823281.

DC Cat Kinsella anxiously investigates an Islington housewife’s strangling, as her estranged father’s pub is nearby, and she realizes that he might be implicated. “Secrets and lies come back with a vengeance in this intense page-turner.” (LJ 7/18)

Jones, Sandie. The Other Woman. Minotaur: St. Martin’s. Aug. 2018. 304p. ISBN 9781250191984. $26.99; ebk. ISBN 9781250192011.

Lovers Emily and Adam face a woman who won’t let Adam go—his mother, Pammie. What starts as standard sniping gets a whole lot scarier. “Readers’ pulses will race uncontrollably as they anticipate how Pammie might strike next.” (LJ 7/18)

Logan, T.M. Lies. St. Martin’s. Sept. 2018. 432p. ISBN 9781250182265. $27.99; ebk. ISBN 9781250182289.

Joe Lynch has a terrible quarrel with neighbor Ben, even shoving him to the ground. Now that Ben has vanished, Joe is suspected of his murder, never mind the absence of a body. “A tensely woven eight-day cat and mouse chase.” (LJ 7/18)

McTiernan, Dervla. The Ruin. Penguin. Jul. 2018. 400p. ISBN 9780143133124. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9780525504894.

Twenty years after Maude and Jack Blake’s mother succumbed to a heroin overdose, Jack commits suicide, compelling partner Aisling Conroy, a medical resident, to reinvestigate. “Reminiscent of Tana French’s ‘Dublin Murder Squad’ series and…the close-to-home, quieter suspense of Ruth Ware’s The Lying Game.” (LJ 6/1/18)

Stage, Zoje. Baby Teeth. St. Martin’s. Jul. 2018. 320p. ISBN 9781250170750. $25; ebk. ISBN 9781250170774.

What’s a devoted mother to do when her young daughter wants to kill her so that she can snuggle up to her father? “The author keeps the suspense taut by alternating chapters between Hanna and Suzette, offering a terrifying glimpse into the inner thoughts of a budding sociopath.” A July LibraryReads pick. (LJ 4/1/18)

Turton, Stuart. The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle. Sourcebooks Landmark. Sept. 2018. 432p. ISBN 9781492657965. $25.99.

After Aiden Bishop thinks he sees a woman murdered in the woods, each day at 11 p.m., he must inhabit the bodies of different guests at a party he’s interrupted so that he can identify the killer. “[­Turton] expertly manages the many moving parts…while taking the reader ever deeper into the story.” (LJ 7/18)


Edwards, K.D. The Last Sun. Pyr: Prometheus. (Tarot Sequence, Bk. 1). Jun. 2018. 384p. ISBN 9781633884236. pap. $17; ebk. ISBN 9781633884243.

Last of the fallen Sun Court, Rune Saint John is hired to find Lady Judgment’s missing son, Addam, on New Atlantis, built on Nantucket when ordinary humans destroyed the original city. “­Edwards’s gorgeous debut presents an alternate modern world that is at once unusual and familiar.” (LJ 5/15/18)

French, Jonathan. The Grey Bastards. Crown. (Lot Lands, Bk. 1). Jun. 2018. 432p. ISBN 9780525572442. $27; ebk. ISBN 9780525572466.

Separating humans and nasty orcs, the Lot Lands are ­patrolled by bands of half-orcs that include the Grey Bastards, with whom Jackal rides. Of course his loyalty will be tested. “Winner of the 2016 Self-Publishing Fantasy Blog-Off (SPFBO), this gritty debut takes the swords and sorcery trope to new heights.” (LJ 6/15/18)

Hawke, Sam. City of Lies. Tor. (Poison War, Bk. 1). Jul. 2018. 360p. ISBN 9780765396891. pap. $14.99; ebk. ISBN 9780765396914.

Best friend to Tain, the Chancellor’s Heir, and nephew to the Chancellor’s poison master, Jovan is drawn into the political chaos that results when both his uncle and the chancellor are slain by an unidentified poison. “Epic fantasy.” (LJ 6/15/18)

Heng, Rachel. Suicide Club. Holt. Jul. 2018. 352p. ISBN 9781250185341. $27; ebk. ISBN 9781250185358.

In a near-future where the genetically blessed can live for 300 years—or maybe forever—lucky “Lifer” Lea Kirino is drawn by her renegade father into the Suicide Club, whose members resist the quest for immortality. “Fans of modern speculative fiction and readers who love stories that warn us to be careful what we wish for will be enthralled.” (LJ 5/15/18)

Ruocchio, Christopher. Empire of Silence. DAW. (Sun Eater, Bk. 1). Jul. 2018. 624p. ISBN 9780756413002. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780756413026.

Eldest of a powerful pa latine Lord, Hadrian Marlowe is stunned when his father sends him to the Chantry, which battles technological heresy, and his efforts to escape his fate end up altering the universe. “A wow of a book.” (LJ 7/18)

Schiffman, Jay. Game of the Gods. Tor. Jul. 2018. 336p. ISBN 9780765389541. $27.99; ebk. ISBN 9780765389558.

Even as tensions presage a coming global war, judge for the Federacy Max Cone wishes he could drop politics. But the kidnapping of his wife and children put him in a different frame of mind. An LJ SF Debut of the Month; “absorbing sf adventure.” (LJ 7/18)

Books To Anticipate

Coleman, Claire. Terra Nullius. Small Beer. Sept. 2018. 320p. ISBN 9781618731517. pap. $17.

A Noongar woman from Western Australia, Coleman uses stark, pounding language to imagine an Australia on the verge of recolonization, echoing the past and tearing apart Native families in particular. Perhaps that’s why “Jacky was running.... All he had was a sense of what was behind, what he was running from.” Short-listed for Stella and ­Aurealis honors.

Donkor, Michael. Housegirl. Picador. Aug. 2018. 320p. ISBN 9781250305176. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9781250305190.

An Observer “New Face of Fiction” for this lyrical, heartfelt story, Donkor takes housegirl Belinda from Ghana (and from the young hire she’s training) to serve a posh Ghanaian couple in London as a model for their wayward daughter. Pitch-perfect dialog contrasts lilting African politesse and teenage London cool (“­Belinda, totally. Yeah. Thank you”) while showing how young women talk.

English, Talley. Horse. Knopf. Aug. 2018. 336p. ISBN 9781101874332. $26.95; ebk. ISBN 9781101874349.

In limpid, affecting language, award-­winning poet English depicts teenage Teagan, blindsided with her family when her father departs, who manages by working with Obsidian, her father’s head-tossingly independent-minded horse (“if she let him trot he tried to canter”). An original portrait of family disruption, the relationship of horse and rider, and on­going grief.

Fox, Hester. The Witch of Willow Hall. Graydon House: Harlequin. Oct. 2018. 368p. ISBN 9781525833014. pap. $15.99; ebk. ISBN 9781488096747.

When her family is forced by scandal to flee early 1800s Boston for their country estate, Willow Hall, Lydia senses the hall’s dark secrets and discovers her own special powers, which she uses in the name of love. “My blood runs in time with the river. My ears roar. It’s all clear now.” Absorbing, dark-edged ­entertainment.

Hua, Vanessa. A River of Stars. Ballantine. Aug. 2018. 304p. ISBN 9780399178788. $27; ebk. ISBN 9780399178801.

San Francisco Chronicle columnist Hua, who totes around awards for her short fiction, offers a smooth, page-turning novel about Chinese factory clerk Scarlett Chen, pregnant by her boss/lover, who is sent to America to give birth and ends up on the run from the maternity center (“Always restless, she was now skidding out of control, a scooter on gravel”). A culturally adept work starring the irresistible Scarlett.

Moore, Wayétu. She Would Be King. Graywolf. Sept. 2018. 312p. ISBN 9781555978174. $26.

Blending the stories of sun-bright Gbessa, exiled from her village; June Dey, who fled his Virginia plantation; and Norman Aragon, son of a British colonizer and a Jamaican slave, Moore imaginatively re-creates Liberia’s early years in resonant, near-folkloric language (“The elders say that where you find a suffering village, you will hear the wind give warning”). A BookExpo buzz book.

Perry, S.K. Let Me Be Like Water. Melville House. Aug. 2018. 224p. ISBN 9781612197265. pap. $16.99; ebk. ISBN 9781612197272.

In this meditative, beautifully wistful study of mourning from British poet Perry, Holly doesn’t want to leave London (“I didn’t want to lose the feeling the river gives me in the morning”). But she’s moving to Brighton to try to fill the terrible gash left in her life by her boyfriend’s death. Meeting a retired musician with his own burdens helps redirect her life.

Taneja, Preti. We That Are Young. Knopf. Sept. 2018. 496p. ISBN 9780525521525. $27.95; ebk. ISBN 9780525521532.

Taneja’s account of the chaos that ensues when the Devraj family patriarch decides to step down as head of the flourishing industry and entertainment conglomerate he founded echoes King Lear while exploring contemporary India (“For a freak moment, he wonders if he’s landed in the right city. The crowd is only one-deep”) and human behavior in extremis. It’s a rich, absorbing, magisterial work.

Walker, Nico. Cherry. Knopf. Aug. 2018. 336p. ISBN 9780525520139. $26.95; ebk. ISBN 9780525520146.

Walker has some story; he served as a medic on more than 250 missions in Iraq and currently has two more years left of an 11-year sentence for bank robbery. Featuring a former army medic with PTSD who supports his heroin addiction and his wife through bank heists, this can’t-put-down autobiographical novel is told in raw, graphic language. “Act like you love the police. Act like you never did drugs. Act like you love America so much it’s retarded.”

Barbara Hoffert is Editor, Prepub Alert, LJ

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