best-debuts-sofar-2021

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Nowadays, it’s easy to find out where you came from. Just pluck out some hair follicles or scrape your cheek for some cells, send them to a lab far away, and they’ll determine your genetic makeup. Even when science reveals these secrets about our bodies, however, ancestry and heritage are still complex elements of our personal identities. In her debut novel, The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois, celebrated poet Honorée Fanonne Jeffers weaves an epic ancestral story, showing that where any one person comes from is much more complicated than charts and graphs.

Ailey Pearl Garfield, a young Black girl with a big family, takes center stage, and the history and intricacies of her ancestry drive the novel’s plot. We jump, sometimes dizzyingly, across space and time to trace her family line, and the result is a dazzling tale of love and loss. The story begins with a formerly enslaved man and his acceptance into a Native tribe, the first fateful moment of a vast history. Centuries later, Ailey is visited in her dreams by a “long-haired lady” who helps her to uncover their shared story.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: To write her debut novel, celebrated poet Honorée Fanonne Jeffers learned to claim her rural Southern roots.


From slavery to freedom, discrimination to justice, tradition to unorthodoxy, this story covers large parts of not just of Ailey’s heritage but also America’s. It’s the kind of familial epic that many Americans, particularly African Americans, can relate to, as Jeffers limns this family’s story with the trauma, faults and passions that we all harbor. Her masterful treatment of the characters and their relationships, paired with the thorough and engaging way the narrative is laid out, makes for a book that is easy to invest and get lost in—a feat for such a long, intricate work. Best yet, the novel incorporates the words of W.E.B. Du Bois throughout its 800-plus pages; those words are the story’s spine, its beating heart, its very life force.

Comparisons to Toni Morrison are bound to be made and will be apt in most cases, as this novel feels as important as many of Morrison’s. The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois earns its place among such company, as Jeffers engages with and builds upon the legacy of African American literature as carefully and masterfully as she does the narrative of Ailey’s family.

Honorée Fanonne Jeffers weaves an epic ancestral story, showing that where any one person comes from is much more complicated than genetic makeup.
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In Kaia Alderson’s witty and powerful debut novel, World War II is a conflict not only between nations but also within the hearts of two Black women serving in the U.S. Army. It’s also a chance to prove themselves to their restrictive families and a prejudiced society. Sisters in Arms chronicles their story, which spans the constraints of New York City and the perils of war-torn Europe.

For Grace Steele, pursuing a career in classical music is all she has ever wanted. But when her music idol questions her commitment, she enlists in the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC), which she hopes will provide her with the sense of fulfillment she longs for. She enrolls alongside Eliza Jones, a lively and privileged Black woman who is defying her father to demonstrate her capacity to thrive on her own. Grace and Eliza join the women of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion, pioneers in a field dominated by white men.

Sisters in Arms stands out for its originality in exploring a lesser-known part of World War II and American history. The novel also incorporates the inspiring contributions of real Black historical figures including American educator Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, Major Charity Adams (the first Black woman to be an officer of the WAAC) and Truman Gibson Jr. (a civilian aide), as well as Mary Bankston, Mary Barlow and Delores Browne, Black female soldiers who died while fighting in France.

The novel is not only a historical account of the war but also a beautifully interlacing tale of loss, friendship and romance. Despite Grace’s irritable attitude and Eliza’s sense of self-importance, the two strike up a friendship. During their service, their bond is tested, but they learn to stick together to survive, and their romantic relationships enhance their personal stories.

Both women grow during their time in the Army. From a lost and unsure woman whose future is determined by her mother, Grace develops her own perspective on what she wants to accomplish. Eliza proves that even when she is stripped of her privilege, she is capable of succeeding. They encounter and triumph against racism, chauvinism and the turbulent events of the war.

An outstanding historical novel, Sisters in Arms succeeds at celebrating the accomplishments of the Six Triple Eight Battalion through the lives of two audacious Black women.

In Kaia Alderson’s witty and powerful debut novel, World War II is a conflict not only between nations but also within the hearts of two Black women.

Although Sara Nisha Adams makes her authorial debut with The Reading List, her connection to the world of books is not new. She has worked as a book editor and attributes her passion for reading to her early childhood, when she bonded with her grandfather over their shared love of literature. Not only did this relationship cultivate a lifelong case of bibliophilia, but it also served as the inspiration for The Reading List, a story about two lonely individuals whose initial common ground is, ironically, that neither has any interest in reading.

We first meet Mukesh, a widower who is grieving the passing of his beloved wife (who was a voracious reader) and finds himself increasingly alienated from the rest of his family. Desperate to form a connection with his bookish granddaughter, Mukesh heads to the local library to try to better understand her. There he meets Aleisha, a teenager who dreams of becoming a lawyer and views her summer position at the library with disdain. Following a disastrous first meeting with Mukesh, Aleisha stumbles upon a mysterious list of book titles, which she decides she will recommend to Mukesh and read alongside him as a means of making amends.

What begins as a whim soon transforms into a deeply enriching and gratifying experience. The books act as a lifeline for Mukesh and Aleisha as the two new friends navigate their personal tribulations. Reading is so often viewed as a solitary pursuit, but The Reading List turns that idea on its head, illustrating the ways one book can touch many lives and act as a shared point of empathy, uniting disparate individuals into a community.

In Adams’ gentle novel, there is no sorrow or trouble so great that a good book—and a supportive friend—cannot help, and it is never too late to become a reader. As an uplifting and tenderhearted celebration of libraries and the transformative power of books, The Reading List is particularly perfect for book clubs and sure to brighten any reader’s day.

Sara Nisha Adams' touching debut novel,The Reading List, illustrates the ways one book can act as a shared point of empathy, uniting individuals into a community.
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At the center of Ash Davidson’s exceptional debut novel, Damnation Spring, is Rich Gundersen and his family. At 51, Rich is an aging logger in Northern California’s redwood forest. As the novel opens, he seizes the opportunity to buy a stand of redwoods that includes the mythic 24-7 tree, the numbers signifying its monstrous width of 24 feet, 7 inches. Without telling his wife, Colleen, Rich uses all their savings for the down payment.

Colleen is 34, a midwife mourning the death of her newborn, disturbed by the number of infant deaths in their rural community and upset that Rich is unwilling to try for another baby. The couple’s only child, Chub, is about to enter kindergarten. Taught by his father, Chub is already knowledgeable about the creeks and roads in the forest that lead him home.

These are the first filaments of the magical web of story that Davidson weaves. The novel follows the family throughout 1977, a year of significant change. The National Park Service is slowly enlarging its holdings in the forest. The Gundersens’ house becomes part of the government takings for Redwood National Park, but the family will retain possession until Rich dies. Anti-logging activists have begun to harass loggers, and the local timber company is faltering, putting local livelihoods at risk.

There is so much that is right and particular about this novel. Rarely will a reader have such a tactile experience of life in a forest logging community as one receives here. Davidson also sensitively portrays the fraught relationship between the Indigenous tribe of Yuroks and the white members of the logging community. Here, all politics are local: It slowly dawns on Colleen that herbicides, sprayed to help the logging industry, hurt babies; and the unethical owner of the timber company is a flawed and greedy local guy, not a corporate mover on Wall Street.

Davidson was born in Arcata, California, just south of the redwood forest she writes about in Damnation Spring. She's studied the lay of the land, and she expresses the heart and soul of this place and time.

In her exceptional debut novel, Ash Davidson expresses the heart and soul of Northern California’s redwood forest community.
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Nathan Harris’ Civil War-set debut novel, The Sweetness of Water, paints a timeless portrait of warring factions seeking peace.

As the novel opens, white landowner George Walker encounters brothers Landry and Prentiss, recently freed by the Emancipation Proclamation, on the outreaches of his property. George invites the brothers to join him as paid laborers on his Georgia peanut farm, which incites the ire of his rural neighbors. George’s wife, Isabelle, expects his interest in the brothers to wane, like it has toward all his other ventures. But George proves her wrong. 

Work on the farm is well underway when the Walkers’ son, Caleb, unexpectedly returns from war. As a deserter, Caleb gives the town one more reason to dislike the Walkers. A fiery standoff ensues, after which Isabelle emerges as a quiet heroine pursuing ideals of friendship, liberty and justice.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: For the audiobook edition, William DeMeritt performs with such skill that the listener will be able to envision Nathan Harris’ character’s faces just by the way their voices sound.


There is a shared longing at the heart of Harris’ novel. Caleb and Prentiss both love people they can’t have. Landry is continually drawn to and inspired by a stone fountain on the plantation from which he escaped. To him the fountain conveys majesty and magic, comfort and joy, “something mysterious and fine . . . operat[ing] endlessly. On and on, just like life.” George, too, is driven by something he can’t capture; he searches for the elusive source of his restlessness, represented by a mythical beast he’s sure abides in the forest.

Harris draws readers into this sense of longing by exploring silences: George’s meditative hunts, Landry’s muteness, Caleb’s hidden trysts, Prentiss’ pent-up anger and Isabelle’s secluded mourning. Insinuating dialogue, delivered with eloquent Southern reserve, and hostile eruptions between the Walker household and the Confederates explore the flip side of silence.

Celebrating all manner of relationships that combat hate, this novel is a hopeful glimpse into the long legacy of American racial and civil tensions.  

Nathan Harris’ Civil War-set debut novel celebrates all manner of relationships that combat hate.

In

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In his breakout graphic novel, New Yorker cartoonist Will McPhail charts a millennial’s ungainly journey toward emotional connection.

With generous wit and mostly black-and-white drawings, In follows Nick, an artist trapped in a cycle of hollow conversations and extra-milky lattes. As the book opens, Nick goes to a bar alone because if he were sad—which he isn’t—that is what a sad man would do. His feelings are just out of reach, as if on the tip of his tongue. Real human interactions likewise feel imminent but elusive, unlockable only with the right words.

When Nick does succeed in making a connection, these moments of emotional disorientation erupt with color. Splashes of crumbling landscapes, towering edifices and bizarrely cute flesh-eating monsters illuminate the pages like fever dreams. Here, the narrative power of images speaks for itself.

In has echoes of the 2012 black-and-white film A Coffee in Berlin and Ben Lerner’s many disaffected “lost boys of privilege.” That In is semiautobiographical lends both tenderness and a self-implicating edge to McPhail’s lampooning of the “woke millennial hipster.” The watering holes Nick frequents (albeit with scorn) have whimsical names like Gentrificchiato and Your Friends Have Kids Bar, and are “managed/haunted by a collection of Timothees Chalamet.” McPhail suggests a playful dichotomy in which you are either a person who posts up in coffee shops or are emotionally well. If you’re feeling attacked, or if you’re Timothée Chalamet, please read on.

The characters in In are absolutely delightful. The moment Nick stops berating himself for his inadequacies, the baton for that task is snatched up by his mother, sister, neighbors, 4-year-old nephew and romantic interest, Wren, who is an especially well-developed character. She is an oncologist and, like Nick, a normcore clothing devotee who enjoys drawing unmentionables in Nick’s Moleskine notebook. 

When Wren becomes unexpectedly entangled in Nick’s family life, he is confronted once again with an opportunity to be in—that is, to be vulnerable. And when small talk becomes real talk, the world suddenly seems all that much brighter.

Small talk becomes real talk in Will McPhail's graphic novel, and the world suddenly seems all that much brighter.
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Effective satire is steeped in truth. Zakiya Dalila Harris spent three years working in the blindingly white world of New York City book publishing, and in her debut novel, she leverages that experience to get the details right about the precarious and awkward life of an African American editorial assistant whose dream job turns into her greatest nightmare. Brilliantly positioned at the intersection of satire and social horror, The Other Black Girl incorporates subversively sharp and sly cultural commentary into an addictive and surprisingly dark tale of suspense. 

Raised in suburban Connecticut and a graduate of the University of Virginia, Nella Rogers has spent a lifetime being the only Black girl in predominantly white spaces. But she’s grown tired of the cautious calculations and compromises she must constantly make at Wagner Books, as well as the microaggressions she’s expected to overlook, just to tread water in her theoretically high-status yet low-paying entry-level post. Nella carefully chose Wagner for its racially progressive track record, having published a literary masterpiece that was written and edited by Black women decades before. But by the time Nella arrives, those women are long gone.

After two lonely and frustrating years as the only Black girl on the editorial staff, Nella is harboring high hopes that her first Black female colleague might offer relief from this sense of isolation. Nella’s optimism turns to trepidation, however, when it appears that her eager new co-worker, Hazel-May McCall, may be undermining rather than bolstering Nella’s position in the department, papering over offenses to get along and get ahead. Even worse, anonymous notes start to appear, warning Nella to get out while she can. 

Soon, Nella’s living out a racial allegory reminiscent of Jordan Peele’s powerhouse social horror blockbuster Get Out or Alyssa Cole’s gentrification thriller, When No One Is Watching. There are also shades of Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age in keenly observed scenes of awkward interracial interaction. But Harris displays a distinctive style all her own. With a flair for metaphor and a carefully calibrated surrealist perspective, she stops just short of over-the-top, as in this claustrophobic internal narrative: “What concerned me more were the things I couldn’t name: the things that were causing me to buzz and burn. That made me want to flee not just my home, but the tightening constraints of my skin itself.”

Thoughtful, provocative and viscerally entertaining, The Other Black Girl is a genre-bending creative triumph.

Brilliantly positioned at the intersection of satire and social horror, Zakiya Dalila Harris’ debut novel is a genre-bending creative triumph.
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When we ask questions about life, it’s often the why that most unsettles us: why bad things happen, why we didn’t get that job or marry that person—and when the time comes, why we die. Even though that last question kicks off The One Hundred Years of Lenni and Margot, Marianne Cronin’s first novel brims with so much life.

Lenni Pettersson is terminally ill and perceptive in the way of 17-year-olds who've experienced more trauma than most people their age. She meets 83-year-old Margot Macrae in a memorable first encounter that turns comically conspiratorial: Lenni covers for Margot while Margot’s engaged in pulling something out of a large hospital rubbish bin. They’re both alone in the hospital, and each woman soon realizes that she’s found a kindred spirit.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Summer reading 2021: 9 books to soak in this season


Captivated by Margot’s long and storied life, Lenni concocts a creative scheme. They will make paintings of pivotal moments from their lives, one for each of their combined 100 years, as a way to chronicle their stories and transport themselves away from the reality of hospital beds and surgeries. As they paint, their creative body of work begins to surprise them, as well as their fellow artist patients and excited art teacher, Pippa. With the encouragement of hospital chaplain Father Arthur and a favorite nurse, Lenni and Margot press on through memories both painful and breathtaking.

With love and tenderness on every page, this imaginative novel is a joy to read. British novelist Cronin captures all the emotions and desires of these two tenacious women as they relive their pasts in order to make something permanent and leave their mark. Her easy prose sings with real warmth, candor and humor.

Small in scope but large in humanity, The One Hundred Years of Lenni and Margot illuminates the steadying force of a heartfelt connection. Even in the face of death’s inevitability, friendship can be found, forgiveness can flourish and fun can ease fear.

Even in the face of death’s inevitability, friendship can be found, forgiveness can flourish and fun can ease fear.
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Adapting classic works of literature is always challenging, not least because the adapting author must decide how much novelty is appropriate. Too much and fans will shun it out of pique; too little and they’ll shun it out of disinterest. This dilemma is only heightened when the book in question is as widely read as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. And yet, in The Chosen and the Beautiful, Nghi Vo perfectly strikes that balance of the new and the familiar.

Retold from the perspective of Daisy Buchanan’s best friend, amateur golfer Jordan Baker—here recharacterized as a wealthy Louisville missionary family’s adopted Vietnamese daughter—the familiar contours of Fitzgerald’s tragedy are warped with a hazy dash of demonic and earthly magic. The result is an utterly captivating series of speakeasies, back-seat trysts, parties both grand and intimate and romances both magical and mundane, all spiraling through a miasma of Prohibition-era jingoism and entitlement toward its inevitably tragic conclusion.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Summer reading 2021: 9 books to soak in this season


Vo is a remarkable writer whose talent for reviving Fitzgerald’s style of prose is reminiscent of Susanna Clarke channeling Jane Austen in Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. But it is Vo’s additions to Gatsby’s original plot that truly shine. By foregrounding Jordan’s and Daisy’s perspectives rather than Nick’s, she recasts a story about the consequences of male overreach as one about the limitations of female and non-white agency. This is further complicated by Jordan’s inability to remember anything of her childhood in Vietnam before she was brought to Kentucky. She sees herself as American, the daughter of the Louisville Bakers, but neither her white peers nor the Vietnamese immigrants she meets agree with her. 

For both Jordan and Daisy, magic can offer some surcease, but only to a point. In the first scene of the book, for instance, when the two women go flying through Daisy’s house with a magic charm, they must return demurely to the couch when Daisy’s husband comes home. Throughout the book, the women’s choices are constrained by those of the men surrounding them. Even magic, whether a charm, an enchantment or a potion (which are always consumed as cocktails), can only win them a brief reprieve from the decisions others make for and about them.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Nghi Vo on the dangers of Hemingway.


In this alternate America, the fear of demons is consistently paralleled with the fear of immigrants. Magic is unavoidable in Vo’s West and East Egg, but although it may be consumed by those at the center of American society, it emanates from those at its periphery. To its consumers and connoisseurs, it is valuable precisely because it is foreign, while those who create and practice it are ostracized and hated for precisely the same reason. The fetishization of earthbound magics is reminiscent of the real-world fascination with traditions like folk medicine, and even demoniac, the psychotropic beverage derived from demon’s blood that several characters drink, could represent any number of exoticized vices prized by the American wealthy. There are lessons here for those of us living in the mundane reality of the 21st century, just as there are in Jordan’s commentary on the ways her agency is constrained as a Vietnamese American woman.

The Chosen and the Beautiful, like the novel it retells, is as much a tragedy as it is a social commentary. The reader will likely know how Daisy’s story ends, but Jordan is in the spotlight here, and her story is just as captivating, if not more so. By putting her in the foreground, and highlighting the voice among Fitzgerald’s core characters that was the least heard, Vo has transformed The Great Gatsby utterly.

Nghi Vo perfectly balances the new and the familiar in her magical adaptation of The Great Gatsby.

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“Grown women knew better than to attach themselves to time bombs. Teenage girls couldn’t wait to be ruined.” So writes Tia Williams, author of the smart and steamy Seven Days in June. The “grown woman” is Eva Mercy, a 32-year-old romance novelist and single mom in Brooklyn. The “time bomb” is Shane Hall, a literary novelist and former paramour who unexpectedly reappears in Eva’s life at a book festival. The Black literary world doesn’t know that Eva and Shane were teenage lovers—or that they’ve been communicating to each other through their books for years. 


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Summer reading 2021: 9 books to soak in this season


Seven Days in June is a slow burn as Shane and Eva attempt to heal old wounds, their love affair made all the more delicate by Eva’s history of abandonment. Chosen family is a strong central theme in the novel, and characters like Eva’s spunky daughter, Audre, and book editor, CeCe, bring warmth to the pages. But this isn’t a light romance by any means, especially during flashbacks. Shane entered foster care as a child and is now in Alcoholics Anonymous. Eva has a history of self-harm, and an early scene depicts an attempted sexual assault. 

In addition to addressing mental health concerns, Seven Days in June portrays the daily difficulties of having an invisible disability. Eva has experienced migraines since she was young, and she still struggles to manage them without revealing her pain to the world. But Williams never uses Eva’s illness to inspire pity or to cast her as somehow weak. It’s refreshing to see a character whose disability is fully developed and integrated into the narrative from start to finish. 

Through this gripping love story, Williams reckons with family histories and shows the power in rewriting our origin stories. She lays bare what happens when we are “fearless enough to hold each other close no matter how catastrophic the world” becomes. Readers will feel as attached to these characters as Eva and Shane are to each other. 

In this poignant romance, readers will feel as attached to Tia Williams’ characters as Eva and Shane are to each other.
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The events of Monica West’s debut novel, Revival Season, are a far cry from my own world in terms of cultural and religious experiences. But this propulsive story, narrated by a strong, young voice, is one of the most memorable and moving novels I have read in recent months. It’s the tale of a 15-year-old girl, Miriam Horton, whose preacher father travels to evangelical Christian communities around the South, and the summer that Miriam discovers her own gift of healing.

On their annual summertime tour of the South, Miriam and her family map a road trip from one revival to the next, where her father heals the ill and infirm. Miriam’s faith in her father has been shaken after an incident she witnessed the summer before, and she privately wants to believe in him and his abilities again.

Through Miriam’s narration, we see the ways that religion, belief and a deep connection to family guide her, as well as the ways that doubt disturbs her. She is highly observant, noticing details about the language of prayer, her father’s behavior and where holy oil comes from. In her attempts to help family and friends, Miriam asks questions and is surprised and intrigued by the answers she discovers. As she learns that she, too, might be able to heal those who suffer, she finds herself butting against the gendered limitations of the church.

Readers will root for Miriam as she finds her sense of self. She’s a fascinating character, and her transformation over the course of the story is impressive, especially as violence upends and reverberates throughout her world.

The plot and characters of Revival Season are remarkably well rendered, but West’s language is especially compelling, pulling readers into Miriam’s most defining moments. The sentences are downright musical, and each chapter paints a picture, leaving the reader eager for all that awaits.

Monica West’s language is downright musical, pulling readers into this novel of religion, belief and transformation.

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