The 20 Best Debuts of the First Half of 2019
Adam Vitcavage, founder of Debutiful, recommends literary gems by new writers
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There is certain joy in discovering the brilliance of a new writer. With favorite, seasoned writers like Jesmyn Ward or Michael Chabon, I know to expect exceptional work. The gamble of picking up a name I am not familiar with could end with reading a jumbled mess. Yet, there is no greater rush than when I find a gem that I fall in love with. That rush has inspired me to create Debutiful, a literary website dedicated to celebrating debut authors and their books through book reviews and author interviews.
Narrowing down this list of debuts was difficult. There have already been a lot of stellar new works published and it would be impossible to read every single one that publishes in a single year. These are the newly published memoirs, novels, and short story collections that I have not stopped thinking about or titles that booksellers and writers have been enthusiastically recommending.
Here are the 20 best debut novels of the first half of 2019.
Sugar Run by Mesha Maren
Mesha Maren’s atmospheric Southern noir was the first book I fell in love with this year. Her book explores queer sexuality and how where we live informs our life decisions. When Jodi McCarty is released after nearly two decades in prison, she is not exactly sure who she is or what she wants. Until she meets the enigmatic Miranda.
99 Nights in Logar by Jamil Jan Kochai
99 Nights in Logar follow a young boy in war-torn Afghanistan tracking down his family guard dog who bit his finger off. A coming-of-age tale, this novel offers a worldview into the ties of familial history.
To Keep the Sun Alive by Rabeah Ghaffari
Rabeah Ghaffari’s story set during the 1979 Iranian Revolution is more than a history lesson. The saga is a character study about how our place in the world is viewed by others, but more importantly, what our place in the world means to us.
American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson
Lauren Wilkinson’s debut is a Cold War spy thriller starring a black, female intelligence officer. But it’s so much more. It’s a meditation on double consciousness and bounces from 1980s Burkina Faso to present day America through complex threads and clever prose. It is sincerely one of the best books I have read so far this year. Read my interview with Wilkinson here.
Bangkok Wakes in the Rain by Pitchaya Sudbanthad
Pitchaya Sudbanthad explores the past, present, and near future of his native Bangkok through tangentially connected stories that reveal the essence of the city. Ranging from tales about a missionary doctor to a post-World War II relationship to present-day political uneasiness, he showcases the complexities of the city’s history and culture.
The Study of Animal Languages by Lindsay Stern
In her novel, Lindsay Stern provides an insightful look into the difficulties of communication within a marriage. Two married college professors have a wedge driven between them when an attractive new colleague comes to town. It is a fresh take on the unraveling of a relationship and the fragility of our egos.
Aerialists by Mark Mayer
Connected through life in the circus, these stories delve into the lonely worlds of misfits and outcasts. While it would be easy to put the freak label on some of these characters, Mayer finds the nuances in their lives that give them humanity. The collection of short stories is dizzyingly fantastical on every single page.
Lot by Bryan Washington
Bryan Washington’s portrait of his hometown Houston reveals the modern-day struggles of race, socioeconomic status, and sexuality. Woven throughout the stories is an unnamed teen who struggles from adolescence to adulthood. His upbringing by a hyper-masculine father is a reoccurring clash that unfolds as he navigates his own identity and status in the world.
Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls by T Kira Madden
In this fiercely honest memoir, T Kira Madden offers a look into her unstable childhood through to her sexual awakening in her teenage years. She writes about her father’s alcoholism, being a misfit at her private school, and exploring her queerness that she never knew was there. Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls is written with a raw emotional explosiveness that is so often hidden in our social media era.
Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams
I stayed away from this book at first because it was billed as being reminiscent of Bridget Jones’ Diary, which isn’t exactly my cup of tea. Then, on a whim, I read half of it through a single night. Reader, don’t make the mistake I did. It was a pleasure to watch the titular Queenie go through messy breakups, figuring out how to balance her two cultures and stand out as an independent black woman among her white peers.
A Woman is No Man by Etaf Rum
A Woman is No Man is a multi-generational saga of Palestinian American women that Etaf Rum says was “violating our code of silence.” Rum questions why there aren’t many books by and about Arab American women. Her novel follows Deya in modern-day Brooklyn who is approaching her high school graduation (and an arranged marriage.) The book also explores the traumatic pasts of her mother Isra and her grandmother Fareeda.
Naamah by Sarah Blake
Sarah Blake has published two poetry books as well as an e-chapbook, but this is her first official novel. So, I’m counting it. It’s epic, biblically so. Blake reimagines the Great Flood and puts Noah’s wife at the center of saving civilization with the Ark. It allows Hollywood another original Bible story to adapt, which is good because I’m kind of getting tired of Russell Crowe prancing around with a bad accent.
The Affairs of the Falcóns by Melissa Rivero
The Affairs of the Falcóns is a familial saga of undocumented Peruvians in the 1990s. Matriarch Ana struggles to keep her family afloat as the world lobs up every curve ball it can offer. Born in Peru, Melissa Rivero spent most of her childhood in America undocumented and became a U.S. citizen in her 20s. It is eye-opening to see exactly how much and how little immigration policy has changed.
Miracle Creek by Angie Kim
Written by a former trial lawyer, Miracle Creek is a taut courtroom thriller. It moves from the courtroom to explore what it means to be a parent; more specifically, what it means to be a parent who is also an immigrant.
The Light Years by Chris Rush
The Light Years is a memoir about hippies, psychedelic drugs, and life in the desert. Chris Rush is an artist by trade. He wrote this book to explore how LSD and acid shaped how he saw the world. This is an ideal narrative for anyone who is a fan of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.
The Unpassing by Chia-Chia Lin
Beautiful. Bleak. Those are the two words I would ultimately use to describe Lin’s debut. It seems understated, mostly because a lot of people use beautiful to describe nearly everything. Everything from Lin’s prose to her characters to the unjust actions that happen to this Taiwanese family struggling to survive in Alaska is beautiful.
The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna by Juliet Grames
Stella is an Italian immigrant should have died a lot over the course of her century-long, but somehow survived. That is the general synopsis given for this book. Her name itself means “lucky star” in Italian. The book is twisty and complicated, but wholly original.
Rough Magic by Lara Prior-Palmer
Subtitled “Riding the World’s Loneliest Horse Race,” this memoir lured me in with the story of a 1,000-kilometer horse race across the Mongolian grassland. Lara Prior-Palmer became the first woman champion of the Mongol Derby Champion at the age of 19.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
Again, technically Ocean Vuong is a published writer (Night Sky Exit Wounds is a breathtaking collection of poems) and I am bending the rules a bit. With On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, he raises the bar with a novel that will surely be on numerous Top Ten lists by the end of the year. The book is written in the form of a letter from a son to his illterate mother, the book gracefully explores sexuality and masculinity as well as race and class. The novel has such a softness to the prose that it stayed with me weeks after I finally finished it.
Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner
Toby and Rachel Fleishman are separating after 15 years of marriage. It happens. But what he doesn’t expect is that Rachel would just disappear after leaving the kids at his. Fleishman is in Trouble sounds like a downer, but every advanced praise refers to how blisteringly funny the novel is.