Top Winter Debuts | 37 Titles To Note

This edition of LJ’s thrice-yearly list of top debut novels focuses on the winter season, including a few late 2021 titles and stretching to March 2022. They are all promising titles, with eight especially intriguing offerings highlighted. 

This edition of LJ’s thrice-yearly list of top debut novels focuses on the winter season, including a few late 2021 titles and stretching to March 2022. They are all promising titles, with eight especially intriguing offerings highlighted. Highlighted works include quotes from the text except for Sequoia Nagamatsu’s How High We Go in the Dark, where the author himself is quoted.


Andreades, Daphne Palasi. Brown Girls. Random. Jan. 2022. 224p. ISBN 9780593243428. $24. LITERARY

Andreades’s protagonists—among them Nadira, Gabby, Naz, Trish, and Angelique—grow up together in what they call the dregs of Queens, NY, wrestling with their immigrant roots, their parents’ rules, their aspirations (regarding both careers and boys), and their desire to fit into American culture. Effectively, the O. Henry Prize–winning author has them speak as a choral “we.”

“If you really want to know, we are the color of 7-Eleven root beer. The color of sand at Rockaway Beach when it blisters the bottoms of our feet. Color of soil. Color of the charcoal pencil our sisters use to rim their eyes.”

Chan, Jessamine. The School for Good Mothers. S. & S. Jan. 2022. 336p. ISBN 9781982156121. $27. LITERARY

After one inattentive moment, devoted mother Frida Liu is branded a risk to her daughter and consigned by authoritarian government officials to a program meant to rehabilitate her maternal instincts. Scarily relevant in a world still restraining women.

Collins, Flora. Nanny Dearest. Mira. Nov. 2021. 336p. ISBN 9780778311614. pap. $16.99. THRILLER

Troubled 25-year-old Sue Keller runs into former nanny Annie in New York City and enters into an escalatingly intense friendship that finally has Sue suspecting Annie of malfeasance—not just now but with Sue’s own family in the past. Well wrought and unnerving.

Cranor, Eli. Don’t Know Tough. Soho Crime. Mar. 2022. 336p. ISBN 9781641293457. $24.95. MYSTERY

Wound knot-tight with dread of his mother’s violent boyfriend, star running back Billy is invited to live with the family of his Arkansas high school football team’s new coach. Then the boyfriend is murdered. Winner of the Peter Lovesey First Crime Novel Contest.

Daas, Fatima. The Last One. Other. Nov. 2021. 208p. tr. from French by Lara Vergnaud. ISBN 9781635421842. pap. $15.99. LITERARY

In this award-winning autofiction, the youngest daughter of Algerian immigrants living in a majority-Muslim suburb near Paris repeatedly proclaims “I am Fatima” as she sorts out her identity as French, Muslim, Algerian, and lesbian in absorbing, rapid-fire prose.


Banwo, Ayanna Lloyd. When We Were Birds. Doubleday. Mar. 2022. 304p. ISBN 9780385547260. $27. LITERARY Set in an alternate Trinidad and Tobago, imagined in lush, lilting language, Banwo’s debut brings together Yejide, left unprepared by her mother for her task in life—ferrying the city’s souls into the afterlife—and Darwin, who must disregard the religious commandments followed by his Rastafarian mother and accept the only job he can find: that of grave digger.

“Grief is a thing that come from love and love simple like breath. But what she feel for her mother was never simple.”

Díaz, Eloísa. Repentance. Agora: Polis. Oct. 2021. 320p. ISBN 9781951709464. $26.99. MYSTERY

During Argentina’s Dirty War, Inspector Joaquín Alzada flouts authority to investigate the disappearance of a wealthy Buenos Aires woman, justifying his move with a look-alike corpse found in a dumpster. Strong characterization, nail-biting suspense, social relevance.

Faulkner, Katherine. Greenwich Park. Gallery: S. & S. Jan. 2022. 384p. ISBN 9781982150310. $27. THRILLER

Blessed with a picture-perfect life and finally pregnant, posh Helen befriends wild, irresponsible single-mother-to-be Rachel in prenatal class, and soon it’s evident that Rachel knows about a crime long buried by Helen’s immediate circle. Over 1,000 Amazon UK raters, averaging four-plus stars.

Fay, Shannon. Innate Magic. 47North: Amazon. Dec. 2021. 384p. ISBN 9781542032032. pap. $14.95. FANTASY

Set in an alternate 1950s London, this “Marrowbone Spells” series launch features lower-echelon cloth mage Paul Gallagher, endowed with a charming personality illegally enhanced by magic, who confides his ambition to become the next Court Magician to the wrong person. A writer to watch.

Gonzalez, Xochitl. Olga Dies Dreaming. Flatiron: Macmillan. Jan. 2022. 384p. ISBN 9781250786173. $27.99. LITERARY

Olga Acevedo is a wedding planner to New York’s rich and powerful, brother Pedro (“Prieto”) serves their gentrifying Latinx neighborhood as congressman, and all’s well until the activist mother who deserted them crashes back into their lives. Ambitious and heartfelt.

Gorcheva-Newberry, Kristina. The Orchard. Ballantine. Mar. 2022. 384p. ISBN 9780593356012. $28. CONTEMPORARY

Years after the Soviet Union’s collapse, Anya returns home from America and learns that her old friend Lopatin has become a preening businessman set on buying her family’s dacha. Echoes of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard from an award-winning Russian Armenian émigré.


Clark, Andrea Yaryura. On a Night of a Thousand Stars. Grand Central. Mar. 2022. 352p. ISBN 9781538720295. $28. LITERARY The U.S.–born daughter of wealthy Argentine businessman–turned–diplomat Santiago Larrea, Paloma is visiting Argentina with her family when she begins learning about the children of the estimated 30,000 individuals who were disappeared, tortured, and killed during Argentina’s Dirty War in the 1970s. Now she must look more closely at her own history, with results both heartbreaking and suspenseful as secrets will out.

“What must it have been like to live under such circumstances, on the periphery of society, and having to grow up before one’s time? A sharp contrast to the seemingly innocent lives of my friends back home.”

Harris, Kai. What the Fireflies Knew. Tiny Reparations: Random. Feb. 2022. 288p. ISBN 9780593185346. $26. LITERARY

With her father dead of an overdose and her family now in financial extremis, Black preteen Kenyatta Bernice (KB) is sent with teenage sister Nia from Detroit to her estranged grandfather’s home in Lansing, MI. A big debut from a fast-out-the-gate new imprint.

Huisman, Violaine. The Book of Mother. Scribner. Oct. 2021. 240p. tr. from French by Leslie Camhi. ISBN 9781982108786. $27. LITERARY

When Violaine’s fabulously larger-than-life Maman returns home after being hospitalized following a third divorce, she reveals her own traumatized upbringing to Violaine and her sister. A ferocious look at the mother-daughter bond and a big award winner in France.

James, Chantal. None but the Righteous. Counterpoint. Jan. 2022. 240p. ISBN 9781640094598. $26. LITERARY

Journeying from Atlanta to his hometown, New Orleans, after Hurricane Katrina, 19-year-old Ham clutches a pendant given to him by his foster mother and remains ignorant of his possession by a centuries-old spirit. A lyrical conception made astonishingly real.

Jurczyk, Eva. The Department of Rare Books and Special Collections. Poisoned Pen: Sourcebooks. Jan. 2022. 352p. ISBN 9781728246598. $26.99; pap. ISBN 9781728238593. 336p. $16.99. MYSTERY

A librarian like her creator, Liesl Weiss is shocked to discover that a valuable manuscript has gone missing from the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections but is told not to raise a ruckus. Then a colleague goes missing, and she starts investigating anyway. Rare fun.


Faladé, David Wright. Black Cloud Rising. Grove. Feb. 2022. 304p. ISBN 9780802159199. $27. HISTORICAL

In fall 1863, thousands of formerly enslaved men joined the Union Army, and the African Brigade thus formed was tasked with seeking out Confederate irregulars in North Carolina. Sgt. Richard Etheridge must confront complex feelings about his past as son of the man who once enslaved him and an enslaved woman. A triumphant work from a Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Award winner.

“John B. said, ‘The Yankees run the Island now. I suppose you will do as you wish from here on, Dick.’ ‘Yes, sir,’ said I, wondering was the ‘sir’ still mandatory or even appropriate. I did not drop my eyes, though, … and our gazes locked.”

Kapelke-Dale, Rachel. The Ballerinas. St. Martin’s. Dec. 2021. 304p. ISBN 9781250274236. $27.99. CONTEMPORARY

Fourteen years after leaving her soloist spot at the Paris Opera Ballet to become a choreographer in St. Petersburg, Delphine is back creating a work in Paris, where her relationship with old friends Lindsay and Margaux remains thorny. Deliciously observed emotional tangles.

Kim, Juhea. Beasts of a Little Land. Ecco. Dec. 2021. 416p. ISBN 9780063093577. $27.99. LITERARY/SAGA

Sold by her downtrodden family to Miss Silver’s courtesan school, Jade eventually becomes a famous actress and befriends an orphan who joins the fight for Korean independence, even as Japanese soldiers swarm the country and a tiger marauds. A rich historical spread for fiction readers of all stripes.

Mabkhout, Shukri. The Italian. Europa. Oct. 2021. 368p. ISBN 9781609457013. pap. $18. LITERARY

Relating the lives of two university activists who becomes lovers and eventually troubled spouses, Tunisian university professor Mabkhout tells the story of the political upheaval in his country that preceded the Arab Spring. Winner of the 2015 International Prize for Arabic Literature.

Marske, Freya. A Marvellous Light. Nov. 2021. 384p. ISBN 9781250788870. $27.99. FANTASY

In Edwardian England, Baronet Robin Blyth is named the civil service liaison to a magical society he never knew existed and must join forces with Edwin, his crusty counterpart in the realm of magic, to battle a deadly plot. A neat mix of fantasy, history, and romance between Edwin and Robin.


Henkel, Calla. Other People’s Clothes. Doubleday. Feb. 2022. 320p. ISBN 9780385547352. $28. THRILLER

Studying in Berlin to escape painful memories of her best friend’s murder, art student Zoe Beech rooms with another U.S. exchange student, starry-eyed Hailey Mader. After subletting a prewar apartment from famed thriller writer Beatrice Becks, they suspect her of spying on them. Edgy in the freshest way.

“I never imagined spending a year in a foreign country with Hailey Mader. I knew she wore Chanel Mademoiselle. … I knew she possessed the frightening fortitude to break her own nose … but I had no idea what Hailey’s artwork was like.”  

Morris, Amelia. Wildcat. Flatiron: Macmillan. Feb. 2020. 304p.ISBN 9781250809216. $26.99. LITERARY

New mother and aspiring writer Leanne is increasingly uncertain of her direction in life and her putative best friend, but she’s thrilled to get to know distinguished author Maxine Hunter. An intimate and timely study of motherhood and women’s friendships.

Navarro Aquino, Xavier. Velorio. HarperVia. Jan. 2022. 272p. ISBN 9780063071377. $26.99. LITERARY

Puerto Rican–born and –raised Navarro Aquino portrays characters in crisis after Hurricane Maria sweeps the island, with the utopian community Memoria seeming to provide comfort for those who have lost homes, loved ones, and direction. Yet Memoria leader Urayoán is becoming increasingly authoritarian. In-house buzz for this work by an ACLS Emerging Voices Fellow at Dartmouth.

Oshetsky, Claire. Chouette. Ecco. Nov. 2022. 256p. ISBN 9780063066670. $24. LITERARY

Tiny gives birth to a broken-winged owl-baby and must figure out how to raise her to be her true self. A distinctive tale drawing on Oshetsky’s experience of motherhood; chouette means “owl” in French and is also slang for “cool,” as in terrific.

Park, Sang Young. Love in the Big City. Grove. Nov. 2021. 240p. tr. from Korean by Anton Hur. ISBN 9780802158789. $25. LITERARY

An explosive best seller in South Korea now buzzing here, Park’s debut features fun-at-all-costs Young, whose roommate and female best friend eventually moves on for a more settled life, leaving him to tend his mother and pursue a string of men—including perhaps the love of his life.

Future Death

Nagamatsu, Sequoia. How High We Go in the Dark. Morrow. Jan. 2022. 304p. ISBN 9780063072640. $27.99. LITERARY/SPECULATIVE

In 2030, archaeologists troweling through the Arctic Circle’s melting permafrost discover the remains of a girl who evidently died of an ancient virus. The plague thus unleashed harries generations, as people find new ways to mourn. Blending literary language and visionary verve.

“I can trace the origins of this novel back to 2008, when I ran away to Japan to transform myself after failing to be with my dying grandfather who raised me. ... How do you grieve when you’re not able to say goodbye or when tradition is supplanted by dysfunction or technology or the wishes of the dead?”

Pellegrino, Amanda. Smile and Look Pretty. Park Row: Harlequin. Dec. 2021. 352p. ISBN 9780778311126. pap. $16.99. CONTEMPORARY

Four overworked, underpaid young women in the media and entertainment industries start an anonymous blog, calling themselves the Aggressive One, the Bossy One, the Bitchy One, and the Emotional One. The blog goes viral; the book promises to get attention.

Prose, Nita. The Maid. Ballantine. Jan. 2022. 304p. ISBN 9780593356159. $27. MYSTERY

A maid at the Regency Grand, Molly Gray has always had trouble reading social signals. With her protective gran dead, she’s on her own when rich, nasty guest Charles Black is murdered in his bed. An engaging mystery that doubles as an affecting tale of human relationships, with film rights sold.

Sanchez, David. All Day Is a Long Time. Mariner: HarperCollins. Jan. 2022. 256p. ISBN 9780358572015. $25. LITERARY

When 14-year-old David runs away from his Florida Gulf Coast home in pursuit of a girl, he ends up addicted to crack cocaine and doesn’t steady himself again until he encounters great literature at a community college. Smart, swift, commanding.

Schorr, Dan. Final Table. Spark Pr. Oct. 2021. 334p. ISBN 9781684631070. pap. $16.95. MYSTERY

When a U.S. journalist is murdered in fictional Kingdom, where a major poker tournament is about to occur, a player desperate to evade the U.S. president’s subsequent travel ban seeks help from newbie political consultant Maggie Raster. A politically charged thriller.


Newman, Jay. Undermoney. Scribner. Jan. 2022. 496p. ISBN 9781982156022. $28. THRILLER

Drawing on four decades’ worth of experience in international finance, Newman introduces a group of former military men intent on getting their favorite candidate elected president so they can step in and restructure foreign policy and U.S. society itself. That means forming alliances with the people who know where the illicit money is.

“Five hours out from al-Tanf, Syria, a military base controlled for the moment by the U.S. Army, Staff Sergeant Chappie James walked into the cockpit and handed the copilot a printout. New orders, new coordinates: a change of plans.”

Tan, Sue Lynn. Daughter of the Moon Goddess. Harper Voyager. Jan. 2022. 512p. ISBN 9780063031302. $27.99. FANTASY

Having grown up on the moon with her mother, the moon goddess, who was exiled for offending the Celestial Emperor, Xingyin goes on the run when the emperor learns of her existence, and she must eventually chose between honor and her heart. A gorgeous tale inspired by Chinese mythology.

Wilkerson, Charmaine. Black Cake. Ballantine. Feb. 2022. 400p. ISBN 9780593358337. $27. CONTEMPORARY

Estranged siblings Byron and Benny come together over their mother’s death and their confusion regarding her final legacy: a traditional Caribbean black cake, made from a venerable family recipe, and a voice recording of her life story. Immediately affecting.


Slocumb, Brendan. The Violin Conspiracy. Anchor. Feb. 2022. 320p. ISBN 9780593315415. $28. MYSTERY

Black classical violinist Ray McMillian is devastated when his Stradivarius, once his great-grandfather’s, is stolen before the all-important Tchaikovsky Competition. The likely culprits: descendants of the family that had enslaved his forebears. Like his protagonist, violinist Slocumb has excelled in the classical music profession, not always welcoming to Black performers. On the first hardcover list from Anchor, the oldest U.S. trade paperback publisher.

“The violin’s absence was like nothing he’d ever felt before. He could tell you the exact pressure that he should feel—that he should be feeling—of it against his jaw, knew the flare of its ribs the way he knew the flare of his own.”

Willingham, Stacy. A Flicker in the Dark. Minotaur: St. Martin’s. Jan. 2022. 368p. ISBN 9781250803825. $27.99. THRILLER

Baton Rouge psychologist Chloe Davis is anticipating her wedding when local teenage girls start vanishing, bringing back a childhood horror: Her father was convicted of killing six girls in their Louisiana town. A race-through-it read.

Wu, Kyle Lucia. Win Me Something. Tin House. Nov. 2021. 272p. ISBN 9781951142735. pap. $16.95. CONTEMPORARY

Willa Chen’s new job as live-in nanny highlights the stress of her own upbringing, when she traveled between her white mother’s New Jersey home and her Chinese American father’s home in Upstate New York. A quietly affecting tale of family dynamics.

Author Image
Barbara Hoffert

Barbara Hoffert (, @BarbaraHoffert on Twitter) is Editor, LJ Prepub Alert; winner of ALA's Louis Shores Award for reviewing; and past president, awards chair, and treasurer of the National Book Critics Circle, which awarded her its inaugural Service Award in 2023.

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