35 Standout Summer/Fall 2020 Debut Novels

Since LJ’s last debut novels coverage, COVID-19 has upended business as usual, with publishers scrambling to get books out and review sources scrambling to cover them. Titles here range through January 2021, but there are a few not-to-be-missed early summer titles as well.

Since LJ’s last debut novels coverage, COVID-19 has upended business as usual, with publishers scrambling to get books out and review sources scrambling to cover them. Fortunately, plenty of first efforts made it through the gauntlet, and the best of them appear here in one comprehensive list drawn from news, reviews, and editorial curation. COVID-inspired schedule adjustments pushed this year’s summer/fall debut coverage later, which allowed for the inclusion of titles that would have had to wait for the fall/winter edition of this series. Titles here range through January 2021, but there are a few not-to-be-missed early summer titles as well.

Austin, Lana K.W. Like Light, Like Music. West Virginia Univ. Aug. 2020. 288p. ISBN 9781949199574 pap. $21.99. LITERARY
At home in Red River, KY, to prove her cousin innocent of murdering her husband, journalist Emme McLean is haunted by the region’s old blood-feud ballads and her way of seeing the world through music: “But while she spoke to her editor, a song began to fly powerfully around in her chest, … and … slammed against her ribs like [a] trapped blackbird.” From an award-winning poet.

Blooms, Ashley. Every Bone a Prayer. Sourcebooks Landmark. Aug. 2020. 352p. ISBN 9781728216218. pap. $16.99. SOUTHERN
Ten-year-old Misty, who lives in an Appalachian holler, can talk to crayfish, birds, trees, and even inanimate objects, which proves her salvation when strange sculptures suddenly sprout in their landlord Earl’s barren garden and the boy next door becomes too familiar. “A glimmering, painfully honest coming-of-age tale. (LJ 5/20)

Campbell, Lisbeth. The Vanished Queen. Saga: S. & S. Aug. 2020. 496p. ISBN 9781982141295. $27.99. FANTASY/EPIC
Young Anza discovers the personal journal of a queen conveniently Disappeared by her despotic husband, King Karolje, and joins forces with the Revolution and the king’s disillusioned younger son. “The prose moves smoothly through the alternating points of view,… building well-rounded characters.” (LJ 6/20)

Farmer, Edward. Pale. Blackstone. May 2020. 240p. ISBN 9781982673864. $26.99. LITERARY
In 1966 Mississippi, recently widowed Black woman Bernice starts afresh by taking a job at the cotton plantation of contentious white couple George and Lula Kern, with the many complications rendered in direct, evocation language. “A promising beginning for a writer who…continues a rich and lyrical narrative tradition.” (LJ 4/24/20)

Hajdu, David. Adrianne Geffel: A Fiction. Norton. Sept. 2020. 240p. ISBN 9780393634228. $25.95. LITERARY
The eponymous heroine of this first fiction from the Nation’s music critic is a pianist of abrasive, persuasive originality who hears music playing constantly in her head and becomes downtown New York’s Queen of Bleak Chic. But everyone claims a stake in her. “A reverberant and eye-opening portrait of an artist going her own way and finally saving herself.” (LJ 7/20)

Hession, Rónán. Leonard and Hungry Paul. Melville House. Aug. 2020. 256p. ISBN 9781612198484. $25.99. LITERARY
Leonard ghostwrites children’s encyclopedias, best friend Hungry Paul is a substitute postman, and their bond is tested by unsettling events. “Dublin-based songwriter Hession has written a tender and hilarious debut.” (LJ/20)

Ho, Lauren. Last Tang Standing. Putnam. Jun. 2020. 416p. ISBN 9780593187814. pap. $16. FAMILY LIFE
At 33, high-powered lawyer Andrea Tang is the last unmarried Tang of her generation, and her busybody Chinese Malaysian family is not pleased. She starts seeing billionaire Eric Deng but can’t stop obsessing over a work rival who, unacceptably to her family, is not Chinese. “An appealing lead, a glamorous setting, and relatable, funny portrayals of relationships and workplace politics.” (LJ 6/20)

Igharo, Jane. Ties That Tether. Berkley. Oct. 2020. 336p. ISBN 9780593101940. pap. $16. CONTEMPORARY ROMANCE
Azere promised her dying father that she would marry a Nigerian Edo man even after her family’s move to Toronto, and now she barely tolerates the men her mother arranges for her to date. Then she meets Rafael at a bar, and the question of personal happiness becomes more urgent. “Igharo’s debut beautifully depicts the tension between self-determination and the desire to live up to family expectations.” (LJ 8/20)

Johnson, Micaiah. The Space Between Worlds. Del Rey: Ballantine. Aug. 2020. 320p. ISBN 9780593135051. $27. SF/ACTION & ADVENTURE
In a multiverse where visiting another world is allowed only if one’s doppelganger there is no longer alive, Cara is a veteran multiverse traveler, but the mysterious death of one of her few remaining doppelgangers lands her in a world murky with secrets. “Intelligently built, with clever characters, surprise twists, plenty of action, [and] subtly detailed worlds.” (LJ 6/20)

Jones, Cherie. How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House. Little, Brown. Jan. 2021. 240p. ISBN 9780316536981. $27. LITERARY
Commonwealth Short Story Prize winner Jones sets her story in Baxter Beach, Barbados, where rich, spoiled ex-pats live ... in uneasy proximity to the locals who serve them until a botched robbery reveals underlying tragedy. “So Lala closes her mouth and swallows the scream she caught on Baxter’s Beach the way some people catch a cold and in her mind she begs the baby not to die.”

Kampmann, Anja. High as the Water Rises. Catapult. Sept. 2020. 320p. tr. from German by Anne Posten. ISBN 9781948226523. $26. LITERARY
When best friend Mátyás is swept off an oil platform near the coast of Africa, rig worker Waclaw addresses his grief by launching an odyssey through a Europe he no longer recognizes. “A story of displacement and existential loneliness told with a sense of restraint ... that both deepens the protagonist’s sense of isolation and elevates the action to an almost mythic level.” (LJ 8/20)

Katz, Erica. The Boys’ Club. Harper. Aug. 2020. 416p. ISBN 9780062961488. $26.99. WOMEN’S
Harvard law grad Alex Vogel enthusiastically accepts an offer to join a prestigious Manhattan law firm and falls in line with its competitive, materialist, sexist environment until events make her question everything. Look for the Netflix series.

Landragin, Alex. Crossings. St. Martin’s. Jul. 2020. 384p. ISBN 9781250259042. $26.99. LITERARY/FANTASY
Comprising three different narratives that can be read either sequentially or by following a different pathway, this ambitious first novel blends rumors of a ghost story by Baudelaire, a noir fantasy whose protagonist suggests Walter Benjamin, and the fantasies of a queen whose life spans seven generations. “Outstanding for its sheer inventiveness.” (LJ 5/20)

Leilani, Raven. Luster. Farrar. Aug. 2020. 240p. ISBN 9780374194321. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780374910334. LITERARY
The author of prize-winning poetry and short fiction, Leilani unfolds the story of a young Black woman with a substandard apartment and going-nowhere job in Bushwick who experiments with art and open marriage, though the marriage in question isn’t hers. “Smart, stimulating…a strong debut novel exploring complex issues.” (Online Reviews, 7/24/20)

Lemmie, Asha. Fifty Words for Rain. Dutton. Sept. 2020. 464p. ISBN 9781524746360. $26. HISTORICAL
Daughter of a married Japanese aristocrat and her Black GI lover, Nori is hidden away in the attic of her grandparents’ imperial estate and forced to take chemical baths to lighten her skin. As her mother says before abandoning her, “Only your life is more important than your obedience. Only the air you breathe.”

Lindsey, Odie. Some Go Home. Norton. Jul. 2020. 304p. ISBN 9780393249521. $26.95. LITERARY
While Colleen struggles with memories of serving in Iraq, husband Derby copes with his father’s retrial for a civil rights–era murder that shook and shaped their Southern town. “Smooth and evocative. ... A fine first novel in the lasting tradition of Southern fiction.” (LJ 6/20)

Mackay, Laura Jean. Animals in the Country. Scribe US. Sept. 2020. 288p. ISBN 9781950354375. pap. $16.95. LITERARY
In Australia, where tough-talking grandma Jean works as a guide in a wildlife park, people are being driven mad by a bizarre pandemic allowing them to understand the constant chatter of animals, birds, and insects. Jean seeks her infected son, helped by loyal dingo, Sue. From the author of the multi-short-listed story collection Holiday in Cambodia.
Maizes, R.L. Other People’s Pets. Celadon. Jul. 2020. 304p. ISBN 9781250304131. $26.99. FAMILY LIFE
Abandoned by her icy mother, animal empath La La Fine was raised by a locksmith/thief father, and now she’s helping him by breaking into homes while also rescuing animals in distress. Following Maizes’s story collection, We Love Anderson Cooper; “beguiling.” (LJ 5/20)

Masood, Syed M. The Bad Muslim Discount. Doubleday. Nov. 2020. 368p. ISBN 9780385545259. $27.95.  LITERARY
Anvar’s mother and brother remain rigorously devout after the family flees Pakistan’s surging fundamentalism for California, but Anvar himself is tired of being a good Muslim. Soon, his story intersects with that of Safwa, who’s fled Baghdad with her conservative father. “Expertly written. ... Masood is a born storyteller.” (Online Reviews, 7/24/20)

Meijer, Maryse. The Seventh Mansion. FSG Originals. Sept. 2020. 192p. ISBN 9780374298463. pap. $16. LITERARY
An animal rights activist tossed from school for his activities, 16-year-old Xie develops a deep relationship with the bones of a Catholic saint he finds hidden in the woods and calls on her help when loggers threaten the surrounding birch trees. From the author of Rags, an LJ best short stories collection.

Osman, Richard. The Thursday Murder Club. Pamela Dorman: Viking. Sept. 2020. 368p. ISBN 97819848863. $26. MYSTERY
Four members of a retirement village in Kent, England, meet as the “Thursday Murder Club” to discuss cold cases, then end up investigating a live case when a local contractor is murdered. “Delightful, spirited characters [and] a witty, sometimes bittersweet story.” (LJ 8/20)

Powner, Katie, The Sowing Season. Bethany House. Oct. 2020. 368p. ISBN 9780764237829. $29.99; pap. ISBN 9780764237591. $15.99. CF
Retired dairy farmer Gerrit Laninga and overachieving teenager Rae Walters would seem to have nothing in common, but friendship—and an understanding of the value of giving to others—comes with their volunteer work for underprivileged youth. “Packed with poignancy and meaning…with life lessons that cross generations. (LJ 7/20)

Róisín, Fariha. Like a Bird. Unnamed. Sept. 2020. 288p. ISBN 9781951213091. $26. LITERARY
Growing up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Taylia Chatterjee endures the racism of American society and tensions within her own family. Then she’s thrown out of the house after suffering a violent sexual assault. “Extraordinary;…an ode to joy and the healing power of self-love.” (Online Reviews, 7/24/20)

Thyvold, Hans-Olav. Good Dogs Don’t Make It to the South Pole. HarperVia. Aug. 2020. 320p. tr. from Norwegian by Marie Otsby. ISBN 9780062981653. $26.99. LITERARY
When Major Thorkildsen dies, his devoted dog, Tassen, is lost to grief until he and Mrs. Thorkildsen start studying Roald Amundsen and the tough huskies that accompanied him to the South Pole.   “Thyvold’s moving, inspirational tale is a real treat.” (LJ 7/20).

van Llewyn. Sophie. Bottled Goods. Harper Perennial. Jul. 2020. 192p. ISBN 9780062979520. pap. $15.95. LITERARY
During Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu’s regime in 1970s Romania, the lives of Alina and husband Liviu come under suspicion after her brother-in-law defects. Told in flash-fiction segments and touched with magic realism; “a wonder.” (Online Reviews, 7/24/20)

Van Loan, Ryan. The Sin in the Steel. Tor. (Fall of the Gods, Bk. 1). Jul. 2020. 432p. ISBN 9781250222589. $27.99. FANTASY
Famous for their sleuthing skills, discharged soldier Eld and teen genius Buc are spared execution by agreeing to discover why trade ships keep disappearing. Along the way, they deal with pirates, zombies, sin eaters, and more trouble. “An intriguing fantasy, mixing plenty of mystery and magic to create a smart, fast-paced ride across the seas.” (LJ 7/20)

Washington, Bryan. Memorial. Riverhead. Oct. 2020. 320p. ISBN 9780593087275. $27. LITERARY
Cracks appear in the relationship between African American daycare worker Benson and Japanese American cook Mike in a narrative probing racial and gay identity and the ties binding lovers and  also parents and children. From National Book Award 5 Under 35 honoree Washington; “an astonishingly rendered novel of love in crisis.” (LJ 7/20)                                             

Weiden, David Heska Wanbli. Winter Counts. Ecco. Aug. 2020. 336p.ISBN 9780062968944. $27.99. CRIME
The local enforcer on South Dakota’s Rosebud Indian Reservation, Virgil Wounded Horse steps up when heroin sweeps the rez and his nephew is implicated. “Sheds much-needed light on the legal and societal barriers facing Native Americans while also delivering a suspenseful thriller.” (LJ 6/20)

Yang, Susie. White Ivy. S. & S. Sept. 2020. 368p. ISBN 9781982100599. $26. LITERARY
Taught by her immigrant grandmother to steal, suburban teen Ivy has plenty of cool stuff and is coralling dazzling Gidieon when her mother discovers her thievery and sends her back to China. But she pursues him as an adult. “Surprising, even shocking twists will leave readers breathless.” (Online 7/24/20)  


Twin Suspense

Carlyle, Rose. The Girl in the Mirror. Morrow. Oct. 2020. 304p. ISBN 9780063030145. $27.99. SUSPENSE
Snarky, embittered, and perpetually jealous of golden-girl twin sister Summer, Iris escapes a failed job and failed marriage by agreeing to help Summer and her movie-star-handsome husband sail their yacht, the Bathsheba, from Thailand to the Seychelles. When Summer mysteriously vanishes mid-ocean, Iris assumes her identity. Sea, sailing, and surprises rendered in page-turning language by New Zealand author Carlyle.

‘Let’s not spoil the moment by talking about our stepmother,‘ says Summer….Oh, Twinnie! I wish I could clone my life! I wish you had an Adam and a Bathsheba and a baby too! But you will one day, I know it! You’ll have everything I’ve got! I’m first, that’s all! Anyway, we need to make a plan. There’s lots to sort out.’



Jones, Robert, Jr. The Prophets. Putnam. Jan. 2021. 400p. ISBN 9780593085684. $27. LITERARY/HISTORICAL
Before the Civil War, at a Southern plantation so grim the enslaved have dubbed it Empty, Isaiah and Samuel tend the animals and love each other deeply. Their relationship is quietly accepted by their community until the desire to curry favor with white folks in the Big House sets one old man to preaching the gospel. Debut novelist Jones is featured in T Magazine’s cover story, “Black Male Writers of Our Time,” and in LJ’s cover story this month.

July had tried to kill them. First it tried to burn them. Then it tried to suffocate them. And finally, when neither of those things was successful, it made the air thick like water, hoping they would drown…. And, too, there was no good reason to be around other people when it was hot like this, but longing for company made it in some ways bearable. Samuel and Isaiah used to like being around other people until the other people changed.


Dirty Money

Selfon, Brian. The Nightworkers. MCD: Farrar. Oct. 2020. 304p. ISBN 9780374222017. $27. THRILLER
In this Publishers Lunch buzz book, from a former chief investigative analyst for the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office, shady Shecky Keenan is panicked because his crime family’s new runner, a mysterious artist named Emil Scott picked up by Shecky’s wide-eyed nephew Henry, has vanished with a bagful of dirty money. Propulsive reading.

If Emil is maybe 90 percent artist and 10 percent criminal, Henry is the same, only with the proportions reversed. And this completes the detail Henry picked up before: Emil’s work is up everywhere because he hustles—and he hustles because he needs the money.


Fleeing Hell

Loedel, Daniel. Hades, Argentina. Riverhead. Jan. 2021. 304p. ISBN 9780593188644. $27. LITERARY
In 1976, medical student Tomás Orilla moves to Buenos Aires in impulsive pursuit of childhood sweetheart Isabel. He’ll do anything for love, and Isabel’s deep involvement with the insurgency challenging governmental oppression leads him to act in a capacity he ultimately finds heinous, finally forcing him to flee. Decades later he returns from New York to revisit what happened—and what might have been. Cut-glass language and moral conundrum from book editor Loedel.

But I must have had at least a hunch that the borders I’d cross on this journey weren’t the standard ones. Since, on a semiconscious whim I told myself was purely nostalgic, I wound up packing—stuffed into the bottom of my suitcase as if I were hiding it—the fake passport the Colonel had given me when I fled from Argentina, now almost exactly a decade before.


Travel Fantasy

On Fragile Waves. Erewhon: Workman. Dec. 2020. 288p. ISBN 9781645660095. $25.95. MAGIC REALISM
When Firuzeh and her brother Nour flee war-shattered Afghanistan for Australia, their parents ease the way as they travel through Pakistan, Indonesia, and finally Nauru by inventing fairy tales about their new homeland. But Australia proves less than hospitable, and Firuzeh escapes into a fantasy world from which she must eventually extricate herself if she is to move forward. In 2012, Lily was nominated for the Hugo, World Fantasy, Locus, and Nebula awards for her story “The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees” and won the Astounding Award for Best New Writer (formerly the John W. Campbell Award).

Did you want to tell this story, husband?
Please, go on.
Khastehkhomar smelled the smoke from afar and knew what had happened. He came to his wife and said, so you’ve done it. Now I must leave you. She wept and said, Is there no other way? And Khastehkhomar said, Only if you walk until you wear out seven pairs of iron shoes to reach Mount Qaf, where my relatives the peris live, and where I am going. So Bibinegar—Enough. They’re asleep.



Watts, Madeleine. The Inland Sea. Catapult. Jan. 2021. 272p. ISBN 9781646220175. pap. $16.95. LITERARY
In this bead-steady and viscerally absorbing work from Australian-born, New York–based Watts, a young writer works part-time as an emergency dispatch operator in Sydney. She’s just redirecting calls, but she is deeply affected by the tragedies she encounters daily and walks home ready to punch out rampaging men even as wildfires ravage the continent.

Hey, you’ve got to answer in three seconds, you know, she gestured to the screen, where the incoming call icon was displayed. If you don’t answer within three seconds, you’re gone. It occurred to me only later that perhaps I was not suited to this type of work, not having much in the way of appropriate boundaries between myself and the rest of the world.


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