1. The Turner House by Angela Flournoy
Angela Flournoy's National Book Award-nominated debut novel, The Turner House, is a vivid portrait of a family and their longtime home on Detroit's East Side. Powerful and moving, The Turner House is an examination of the ways in which we are haunted by loss, addiction, and our past.
2. You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman
Alexandra Kleeman's strange, haunting debut novel, You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, is easily the weirdest book I read this year, and also easily one of the most brilliant. Revolving around three characters named A, B, and C — each consumed by the culture of consumption that surrounds them (and us) — You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine dissects our preconceived notions of what it means to have a body and what it means to be a woman in modern society, spinning everything familiar about identity and desire on its head. Throughout, Kleeman's voice is wonderfully eerie, reflecting the absurdity of our cultural obsessions with food and health and TV and, ultimately, the female body.
3. Girl at War by Sara Nović
Sara Nović's debut novel, Girl at War, follows a young girl named Ana Jurić whose childhood is upended by civil war across Yugoslavia. A gripping coming-of-age story, Girl at War is a meditation on the devastating legacy of war on one's sense of self and belonging.
4. The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
At turns dark and satirical, Viet Thanh Nguyen's powerful debut novel, The Sympathizer, is told through the eyes of a conflicted double agent — a communist sympathizer — in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. The Sympathizer is a thought-provoking war novel, a spy novel, a love story, and ultimately a rumination on how civil war divides a person.
5. In the Country by Mia Alvar
Mia Alvar's beautifully wrought short story collection In the Country follows men and women whose lives have been uprooted by the Filipino diaspora. Spanning multiple countries and generations, In the Country is a moving, heartfelt testament to the impact of displacement, loss, and being exiled from one's home.
6. Find Me by Laura van den Berg
Set in an America devastated by an Alzheimer's-like pandemic, Laura van den Berg's debut novel, Find Me, centers on a young woman, Joy, whose immunity to the disease lands her in a hospital in rural Kansas. There, she is studied alongside other survivors and subjected to strange treatments until she escapes to search for her birth mother, who abandoned her as a child. Richly layered and haunting, Find Me is an exploration of healing, memory, loss, loneliness, and the reasons we choose to live.
7. Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta
Inspired by traditional Nigerian folklore, Chinelo Okparanta's deeply affecting debut novel, Under the Udala Trees, details an 11-year-old girl's experience during Nigeria's civil war. Sent away for her safety as violence begins to tear the country apart, Ijeoma falls in love with someone taboo — a girl from a different community — and is forced to hide what she feels. A heartbreaking coming-of-age story, Under the Udala Trees is a powerful commentary on prejudice, faith, forbidden love, and identity.
8. After the Parade by Lori Ostlund
In Lori Ostlund's profoundly moving debut novel, After the Parade, a 40-year-old man decides to leave his partner of 20 years in New Mexico in pursuit of a new, freer life in San Francisco. However, he quickly realizes he must first get closure in his Midwestern hometown, where his father died in a parade and his mother ran off with another man. A wise, tender story of reconciling with the past and finding one's place in the world, After the Parade will resonate with anyone who has ever felt like an outsider.
9. Boy With Thorn by Rickey Laurentiis
Rickey Laurentiis's debut poetry collection, Boy With Thorn, is a stunning achievement. Fearless in its intimacy, Boy With Thorn looks at America's history of violence against the black body, at desire and sexuality, and at the racial tensions in art all through a painfully personal lens.
10. Making Nice by Matt Sumell
At the center of Matt Sumell's sharp, hilarious debut, Making Nice, is Alby, who can process his grief over his mother's death only by angrily lashing out against the world around him. Written with compassion and heart, Making Nice is an insightful examination of loss, grief, family, and the pain of fighting to survive it all.
11. Ghettoside by Jill Leovy
Jill Leovy's Ghettoside is a masterpiece of literary journalism: the gritty story of one murder amidst a larger pattern of black-on-black homicide in America where victims are ignored or forgotten and never receive justice, and the detectives who are striving to change that. Gripping and immensely powerful, Ghettoside offers important insight into a culture of urban violence and the lawlessness that surrounds it.
12. Bright Lines by Tanwi Nandini Islam
Set in Bangladesh and Brooklyn, Tanwi Nandini Islam's rich, colorful debut novel, Bright Lines, revolves around three young women, their family, and the secrets they each keep. At its heart a vibrant coming-of-age story, Bright Lines speaks to the pain of reckoning with the past, growing up, and finding home.
13. Hall of Small Mammals by Thomas Pierce
Thomas Pierce's highly imaginative debut short story collection, Hall of Small Mammals, is filled with people struggling to comprehend the absurdity of modern existence — fossil-hunters, comedians, hot-air-balloon pilots, parents and children, believers and non-believers. Complex, mysterious, and delightfully weird, every story in Hall of Small Mammals is a wild adventure.
14. Voyage of the Sable Venus by Robin Coste Lewis
Robin Coste Lewis's National Book Award-winning debut poetry collection, Voyage of the Sable Venus, is a poignant, lyrical contemplation of racial constructs and the representation of black women in Western art and history. Voyage of the Sable Venus forces the reader to reconsider everything they think they know about race and desire and womanhood — this book is a masterpiece.
15. Young Skins by Colin Barrett
Colin Barrett's debut short story collection, Young Skins, is a striking portrait of post-boom Irish society and the damaged, hardened youths who roam it. Gritty, brutal, yet often darkly funny, Young Skins certainly lives up to its (numerous) awards.
16. Among the Ten Thousand Things by Julia Pierpont
In Julia Pierpont's debut novel, Among the Ten Thousand Things, an anonymous cardboard box intended for Deb, a wife and mother of two, accidentally falls into the hands of her children — and irrevocably changes their New York family life as they know it. Fresh, gripping, and impressively perceptive, Among the Ten Thousand Things follows the illicit affair that causes an already strained marriage to fall apart, and it explores both the brittleness and resilience of family bonds.
17. Multiply/Divide by Wendy S. Walters
Wendy S. Walters' insightful debut prose collection, Multiply/Divide, seeks to capture the cultural essence of places in the U.S. and the people who live there — cities like Manhattan, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. — while smartly reflecting on the influence of race and class on both. The essays in Multiply/Divide bend the lines between memoir and essay, fiction and nonfiction, but each one will make readers re-examine the places and communities and other aspects of American life we try to belong to.
18. The Star Side of Bird Hill by Naomi Jackson
Set in 1989 Barbados, Naomi Jackson's tender, lyrical debut novel, The Star Side of Bird Hill, follows two sisters who are suddenly sent away from Brooklyn to live with their grandmother. A coming-of-age story about going home and the choices we must make in the name of love and family, The Star Side of Bird Hill is one of the most poignant, vibrant books of the year.
19. Night at the Fiestas by Kirstin Valdez Quade
Kirstin Valdez Quade's debut short story collection Night at the Fiestas is a remarkably vivid, perceptive portrait of northern New Mexico and the people who find their lives entangled there. Quade's prose shines off the page in stories that contemplate family, race and class, love and loss, violence, and the dreams that can shape a culture.
20. The Infernal by Mark Doten
Set during the Iraq War, Mark Doten's marvelously original debut novel, The Infernal, explores what it means to live in a post-9/11 society. A provocative literary take on the "war on terror," The Infernal revolves around a boy found in the Akkad valley with severe burns who is interrogated and tortured over the course of four days.
21. Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari and Eric Klinenberg
Modern Romance is a hilarious yet profoundly thoughtful examination of the ways in which technology has changed how we find love in contemporary culture. The voice of comedian Aziz Ansari and the expertise of sociologist Eric Klinenberg intersect and shine in Modern Romance, which uses an impressively extensive amount of research to offer insight into the sometimes frustrating world of dating in the 21st century.
22. Wild Hundreds by Nate Marshall
Nate Marshall's searing debut poetry collection Wild Hundreds is a celebration of Chicago, a love song written to black survival on the South Side. Raw and beautifully rhythmic, Wild Hundreds speaks to the struggles of young black Chicagoans through powerful scenes and imagery.
23. Upright Beasts by Lincoln Michel
Absurdity is king in Lincoln Michel's debut short story collection Upright Beasts, where peculiar deaths, zombie attacks, and apocalyptic events abound. Written with plentiful humor and imagination, Michel’s dark, surreal collection is a wry exploration of the strangeness of ordinary and extraordinary human experience, and the ways in which we are all truly upright beasts.
24. Shipbreaking by Robin Beth Schaer
Robin Beth Schaer's poetry collection Shipbreaking is a stunning, intimate debut that will sweep you away with its lyrical current. Everything feels connected — sea, land, beauty, loss — in this passionate ocean of a book; easily one of the most alive collections of the year.