Some of my favorite books are debut novels—that is, the first novel published by a novelist. Discovery is such a fun part of the reading life, and with a debut there is so much to discover!
That’s why we included “read a debut novel” in our 2020 Reading Challenge. When you read a debut, you have to try something you haven’t tried before. There’s a chance of meeting a new favorite author, getting to know their voice and hoping for many more books to come.
Of course, if now doesn’t feel like the right time you branch out, you can always go back and read the debut of one of your favorite and familiar authors to see how their work has evolved. There’s no “right way” to go about this reading challenge because it’s designed to help you get more out of your reading life, whatever that looks like for you.
There’s always a little risk involved in reading a debut from an author you’ve never read before. That’s why we’ve put together a list of fabulous debuts from the last few years to help you decide which books may be right for you right now.
I hope you find an absorbing read in this list, and perhaps even a new favorite author to follow.
In the idyllic small town of Three Pines, Quebec, where people don’t even lock their doors, a beloved local woman is found in the woods with an arrow shot through her heart. The locals believe it must be a hunting accident, but the police inspector senses something is off. The story is constructed as a classic whodunit but it feels like anything but, with its deliberate pacing, dry wit, and lyrical writing. A stunningly good first novel. Still Life is the first in a series that keeps getting better. Great on audio.
I never, and I mean never, would have picked this up on my own, and was surprised to love it. It’s a sci fi novel whose premise is pretty out there: it begins with a little girl falling through the earth and landing in the palm of a gigantic metal hand. Flash forward a few decades, and scientists begin to discover more body parts all over the globe. That's wild, right? But with its interesting structure and strong narrative drive, it works. I hear the full cast audio recording is terrific. More info →
By exploring the stories of two sisters, who met different fates in Ghana more than 200 years ago, Gyasi traces subtle lines of cause and effect through the centuries, illuminating how the deeds of ages past still haunt all of us today. Her debut follows the generations of one family over a period of 250 years, showing the devastating effects of racism from multiple perspectives, in multiple settings. For the first hundred pages I didn't quite grasp what the author was up to, but when it hit me it was powerful. A brilliant concept, beautifully executed, and I CAN’T WAIT for her new novel set for a 2020 release. More info →
Bennet's debut coming-of-age story shows us how grief predictably consumes a 17-year old girl growing up in a tight-knit African-American community in Southern California, and how two friends get pulled into the tangled aftermath. Bennett tells the story through the eyes of the community's mothers—the community pillars who show up with casseroles when somebody's sick—but in this story, the mothers' vicious gossip causes nothing but trouble. More info →
"You lied. Luke lied. Be at the funeral." Federal Agent Aaron Falk is summoned home with these words after his best friend Luke dies in a heartbreaking murder-suicide, turning the gun on himself after killing his wife and 6-year-old son. Falk obeys—but he can't believe his best friend could have done such a thing, and so he starts digging, dragging long-buried secrets back to the surface. The setting is the drought-ravaged Australian Outback, and the brittleness and heat are almost palpable. I've recommended this Summer Reading Guide greatest hit to pieces since it appeared in the 2017 guide. Of all Jane Harper's books, this debut continues to be my favorite. More info →
This YA novel has topped the charts since its debut. At age 16, Starr Carter has lost two close friends to gun violence: one in a drive-by; one shot by a cop. The latter is the focus of this novel: Starr is in the passenger seat when her friend Khalil is fatally shot by a police officer. She is the sole witness. Thomas seamlessly blends current events with lower-stakes themes common to teens everywhere, with great success. More info →
Adebayo's debut is a powerful, emotional story about love, family, and fidelity set against the backdrop of the turbulent political climate of 1985-2008 Nigeria. The story begins with Yejide's mother-in-law arrives at her door with a guest in tow: her husband's second wife, that she didn't know he'd married. More info →
Orange's multigenerational, multi-voiced novel offers a nuanced glimpse into contemporary Native American life in Oakland, California through the experiences and perspectives of twelve wide-ranging characters. As they prepare for the city's first Big Oakland Powwow at the Oakland Coliseum, the lives of Orange's diverse characters become intertwined: an aspiring filmmaker, a man who's taught himself traditional Native dance with YouTube videos, a woman traveling to meet her grandchildren for the first time—on the condition that she remains sober. I'm amazed at how each distinct voice rings true, and how he weaves the disparate storylines together. It was also a TOUGH read for me, with triggers galore, so sensitive readers be aware. More info →
I adored Mirza’s slow-burning debut about an Indian-American Muslim family, which skillfully probes themes of identity, culture, family, and generational change. The story opens with the oldest daughter’s wedding: the bride scans the crowd for her beloved yet rebellious brother, hoping he'll appear despite being estranged from the family for years. Through a series of flashbacks, and in rotating points of view, Mirza examines the series of small betrayals that splintered the family, skillfully imbuing quotidian events—a chance meeting at a party, a dinner conversation about a spelling test—with deep significance, showing how despite their smallness, they irrevocably alter the course of the family’s life. The last section is a stunner, but grab the tissues first. More info →
I read this entire debut novel in one sitting on a Sunday afternoon; it's a romantic comedy that manages to tackle serious issues while maintaining a light and breezy feel. Don't miss the backstory on how the author's personal life inspired the premise, and how she managed to write nearly every word of the 320-page novel on her own commute in and out of London. There are a few spicy scenes but this romance is mostly closed-door. More info →
A much-anticipated debut from former cellist Gabel. It's the 1990s, and four promising musicians decide to forego the usual soloist path and bind their professional (and personal) lives to form a string quartet. Jana is driven, Henry a prodigy, Daniel a success through dogged determination, and Brit a bit of a wild card. With the feel of a dysfunctional family novel, the characters aren't always likable but always ring true, and Gabel nails a wide range of human emotions—joy and pain, envy and fear, frustration and near-despair—as she portrays the group's turbulent eighteen years together. An utterly believable and emotionally compelling submersion into the competitive world of classical music. More info →
The story behind this historical thriller could launch its own novel, which is just one reason this book earned a dedicated bonus episode of One Great Book. Lara Prescott has always loved the book Dr Zhivago, and was stunned—along with the rest of the world—when the CIA declassified documents revealing that it had played a role in the book's covert publication and distribution in Russia during the Cold War. This is Prescott's imagining of what that might have looked like. The story moves between East, where the focus is on Pasternak and his muse/mistress, and West, where readers get to know the female spies of the OSS. More info →
This novel combines so many elements I love: it's a literary mystery, a book about books, a coming-of-age story, a tale of adventure and suspense and revenge. I recommended this on an episode of WSIRN: episode 196 with Anudeep Reddy as a gateway fantasy, a fantasy novel for people who don't like fantasy. Creative and inventive and lots of fun. This was also our February 2020 pick for Modern Mrs. Darcy Book Club. The narration by January LaVoy (yes, you read that right!) is mesmerizing. More info →
This debut is a coming-of-age story for right now, and addresses hard and heavy topics and yet remains a DELIGHT thanks to Reid's sparkling voice. On page one, we meet Emira, a twenty-five year old black babysitter to a white Philadelphia family. Before the night is over, Emira's been racially profiled for a crime she didn't commit, in the grocery store late at night, with her young charge in tow. This is the first domino in a chain of events that changes the lives of everyone involved forever. Confident and complex and a total page-turner. More info →
A delightful read-in-a-day debut that reminds me of Kathleen Kelly and Joe Fox. In this modern YA rom-com, Pepper is a perfectionist who runs the Twitter account for her family's business, Big League Burger, in between swim team and homework. Jack is a class clown and works at his family's deli, but when Big League Burger steals his grandma's grilled cheese recipe, he's serious about getting revenge—from behind the keyboard. While the Twitter-war rages, Jack and Pepper unexpectedly start to fall for each other, and hilarity ensues. Pick this one up when you need a fun, sweet read. More info →
Is there a debut novel you’re looking forward to in 2020? Or a debut novel you recommend to all your friends? Please drop the titles in the comments below and add to our TBR lists.