Debut Novels That Didn’t Get Their Due

You know the old cliche, “If a book drops during a pandemic, does it make a sound?”  Well the answer is yes, unfortunately the sound is more of a thud, rather than the bang an author would have hoped for. 

There’s been a lot of behavioral adjustments since COVID, and the ability to discover new authors in the old ways is certainly one of them.  Authors haven’t been making in-person appearances, library stacks have been closed to perusal, and word-of-mouth has been filtered through the glitchiness of Zoom.  Plus folks had that other thing on their minds.

It must be particularly disheartening for debut authors, who managed to achieve the near-impossible task of writing and publishing a first novel, to have so few people around to notice.  So let’s hop in the wayback machine to March and April, when we were all reasonably distracted, and take a look at some newly launched would-be literary stars.  Below are a dozen fairly-fresh authors that critics were very excited about not-too-terribly long ago.  

The Coyotes of Carthage by Stephen Wright

“This dark comedy about dark money confirms one's worst suspicions about the political process while constantly confounding one's presumptions about human behavior… That this debut novel is written by an attorney whose specialties include criminal justice and election law adds doleful, acerbic authenticity to his scenario.” Kirkus

“This is an archly comic and ultimately chilling political novel on the effects of the dark money unleashed by the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision on the American political soul as well as on the souls of individuals. Thoughtful, sharp-edged fare for the upcoming election year.” Library Journal

Days of Distraction by Alexandra Chang

“Chang's incisive debut follows a 25-year-old Chinese-American woman as she balances an interracial relationship, her career as a technology reporter, and a drive toward self-discovery… This introduces a formidably talented writer.” Publishers Weekly

“A coming-of-age tale for the 21st century… Beautifully crafted and deeply thoughtful.” Kirkus

Valentine by Elizabeth Wetmore

“Set in Odessa, Texas, in 1976, Wetmore's debut is the haunting story of Gloria Ramirez, a 14-year-old girl who is attacked, raped, and left for dead in an oil patch. Miraculously, Gloria survives, setting off a whirlwind of events that leads to a trial… Achingly powerful, this story will resonate with readers long after having finished it.” Booklist

“Wetmore's stirring debut follows a group of women as they find the strength to survive a series of hardships in 1970s Odessa, Tex… This moving portrait of West Texas oil country evokes the work of Larry McMurtry and John Sayles with strong, memorable female voices.” Publishers Weekly

The Return by Rachel Harrison

“The reunion of a missing, presumed dead woman and her three best friends leads to hair-raising horror and pure entertainment in Harrison's compulsively readable debut.” Publishers Weekly

“This girls' trip has teeth. A stylish and well-crafted horror debut.” Kirkus

Then the Fish Swallowed Him by Amir Ahmadi Arian

“Arian's hard-hitting English-language debut follows bus driver Yunus Turabi and his breakdown subsequent to a union strike--resulting in a devastating stint in prison… This is an essential work of contemporary Iran.”  Publishers Weekly

“In this stunning work, Arian accomplishes a rare feat by telling a captivating story of an unforgettable character and by bearing witness to the hard truths endured by political prisoners everywhere.”  Booklist

When I Hit You by Meena Kandasamy

“Kandasamy's stateside debut, a finalist for the Women's Prize for Fiction when it was published in the U.K. in 2017, offers a brutal, essential narrative of marital abuse and survival… This visceral and sophisticated account is both terrifying and triumphant.” Publishers Weekly

“A novel about contemporary Indian intellectuals highlights an age-old problem… So long as society does not listen to women, this novel shows, no woman will truly be safe.” Kirkus

Godshot by Chelsea Bieker

“Abandoned by her mother to the care of her religious zealot grandmother, 14-year-old Lacey May is partly a God-stunned naive believer in cult leader Pastor Vern and partly a sharp skeptic… Lacey May's is an irresistible voice, part gullible believer, part whip-smart independent spirit who surprises at every turn.” Library Journal

“A dark, deft first novel about the trauma and resilience of both people and the land they inhabit.” Kirkus

The Big Finish by Brooke Fossey

“Brooke Fossey's cleverly conceived, charming first novel, The Big Finish, centers on gruff and feisty 88-year-old Duffy Sinclair--a never-married Vietnam vet and recovering alcoholic… Fossey delivers a funny, adventurous novel about second chances, redemption and how, just when it might seem as though life is winding down, it's actually just getting started.” Shelf Awareness

“Fans of Kathleen Rooney's Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk and Rachel Joyce's The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry will appreciate this delightful romp. Fossey's debut is destined to become a book club favorite.” Library Journal

Swimming in the Dark by Tomasz Jedrowski

“Jedrowski's dazzling debut charts an evocative sexual awakening and coming of age amid political unease in early 1980s Poland.” Publishers Weekly

“A broody tale of gay love and life behind the Iron Curtain.” Kirkus

If I Had your Face by Frances Cha

“Cha's timely debut deftly explores the impact of impossible beauty standards and male-dominated family money on South Korean women.” Kirkus

“Cha shines a light on the lives of four young women living in the same Seoul, South Korea, apartment building in her winning debut… This is an insightful, powerful story from a promising new voice.” Publishers Weekly

You Let Me in by Camilla Bruce

“Camilla Bruce twists fae magic with a domestic thriller in her slick debut… Readers will devour every crumb of this story, luscious as fae cake, about a woman empowered to choose what life she lived.”  Shelf Awareness

“Little Cassandra Tipp is in thrall to Pepper-Man, a fairy who's decidedly no Tinkerbell… The characterizations are masterful but don't take a back seat to an enthralling story, a genre-blender that perplexes us with its whodunit elements and the ongoing mystery as to what is in Cass' mind and what's real.” Booklist

Vagabonds by Hao Jingfang

“Hao's novel takes place at the beginning of the 23rd century, on a colonized Mars that broke away from Earth many years earlier, after a destructive war… In Vagabonds, the conflict between Earth and Mars is no more important than the conflict between the novel's characters as they struggle to chart a course for their future.” Shelf Awareness

“Hugo Award-winner Jingfang's cerebral, futuristic debut explores the interplay between societal values and individual dreams in crisp, gorgeous prose… Fans of literary science fiction will relish this challenging tale.” Publishers Weekly

—Ransom Jabara is a Collection Development Librarian at Lawrence Public Library.