best-debuts-sofar-2021

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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