For many, 2019 was just another year. It came and went as resolutions made in late 2018 fell by the wayside. Our president continued to attack anyone who stood up to him. For Debutiful, it was my debut year celebrating debut authors. The site featured over 40 interviews in the first year and recommended over 70 books.
As I began to wrap up reading books published in 2019 (I’m currently reading books published in April 2020 at the time of writing this), I thought I would recommend 12 of my favorite books. The Debutiful Dozen, if you will.
However, narrowing that down was impossible. I spent a year reading and obsessing over debut authors. I wanted to ensure these authors, some who were buzzed about by numerous publications while others flew more under the radar, got the recognition they deserved.
I expanded the list to two dozen. These are those 24 books that I hope everyone will read at some point in their life. Hopefully sooner rather than later.
The Affairs of the Falcons by Melissa Rivero
In this stunning story about immigration, Rivero explore the pressures of living undocumented in America. Pulling from memories of her Peruvian family living in New York City, this novel is an eye-opening and urgent book. Read my interview with the author.
American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson
Set in the Cold War, this spy thriller is not about a white man. It follows a young, black woman as she navigates being an intelligence officer. She is sent to Burkina Faso to observe the “African Che Guevara.” The novel showcases Wilkinson’s ability to avoid spy tropes while creating something wholly original. Read my interview with the author at Electric Literature.
Bangkok Wakes to Rain by Pitchaya Sudbanthad
Interconnected stories tell the history of Thailand’s capital. Ranging in history and setting, the stories follow a wide variety of characters that highlight how unique the city is. Sudbanthad creates terrific atmosphere and give Bangkok live and its own personality in his novel. Read my interview with the author.
Black Light by Kimberly King Parsons
The stories in this collection are dark and more so explore motivation than providing plot. Set in the sprawling landscape of Texas, Parsons finds the underbelly and graciously invites readers into it. Narrators range from children to adult and stories range from flash fiction that fit on a page to longer, gripping ones.
Bloomland by John Englehardt
Written in second person, Englehardt’s novel explores the ramifications that a mass shooting on a college campus has on the community. It makes readers question a lot about guns, and toxic masculinity. It was the winner of the Dzanc Books Prize for Fiction. Read my interview with the author.
Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips
This National Book Award finalist is about missing girls on a remote Russian peninsula, but it breaks the genre’s mold. It is intricately constructed as it follows linked stories of the women in the community in the months to follow. Come for the hook, stay for the subtlety hidden in the sentences. Read my interview with the author.
Hard Mouth by Amanda Goldblatt
A dark exploration of trauma and survival. The main character escapes to the woods after her father decides not to treat his terminal cancer. There she revives her friendship with an imaginary friend while battling her own demons. Read my interview with the author.
How We Fight For Our Lives by Saeed Jones
A memoir about being black and queer, but also so much more. The beauty in Jones’s writing is his poetic handle on words. In the book, Jones struggles with how to present his sexuality to his family and the internal monologues should be read by anyone who has ever felt different, regardless of why.
In West Mills by De’Shawn Charles Winslow
Winslow has created one of the most memorable characters in recent literature. The story follows Azalea “Knot” Centre from the 1940s throughout the rest of her life. Characters and readers spend the majority of the book alternating between sympathizing with her and questioning her actions. Read my interview with the author.
The Light Years by Chris Rush
Rush, an accomplished artists, invites readers to his Catholic childhood and teen years as a drug smuggler. Sent to live with his sister by his parents for numerous reasons, including being queer, he finds her a hippie and in line with a wannabe prophet who moves dope across state and national lines. Rush’s honesty and willingness to spill it all gives readers a wild ride. Read my interview with the author at The Millions and learn more about his art in this mini-interview.
Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls by T Kira Madden
Madden’s ability to tell a story has been known for years thanks to heartbreaking and hilarious essays. Her longford effort, which can be viewed as a nonlinear memoir or a series of connected essays, doubled down on her skills. While it is about her relationship with her troubled parents, it’s also about trying to fit in when you were born to stand out. Read my interview with the author.
Lot by Bryan Washington
Stories about being black and queer set in Houston. Houston itself is its own character in Washington’s work. He writes with such ease and a friendly voice that reading this collection is like kicking back with a friend and eating a delicious dinner. Read my interview with the author at The Millions and learn more about food and Houston in this mini-interview.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
Written as a letter to an illiterate mother, the book explores a young man’s life as he tries to make sense of it. Vuong draws on his transcendent poetry skills to write a gut wrenching and memorable novel.
On Swift Horses by Shannon Pufahl
In Pufahl’s book, which is set in the American West during the 1950s, explores, and redefines, gender and sexuality. There’s Muriel, who grows tired of her status as a housewife. Then there’s Julius, her bother-in-law, who falls in love with a man that goes missing. It’s viscerally written and expertly paced. Read my interview with the author.
A Particular Kind of Black Man by Tope Folarin
A coming-of-age story set in Utah about the son of Nigerian immigrants. After his mentally ill and abusive mother leaves the family, his father returns to Nigeria to bring home the family’s “new mom.” The novel follows the young man’s adolescence as he begins to piece together the truth of the past.
A Prayer for Travelers by Ruchika Tomar
Tomar’s book is seemingly about trying to find a missing girl. If you explore deeper, you’ll discover it is about friendship, what it means to be a woman in modern America, and the harshness of our surroundings. The book is structured with out-of-order chapters and filled with poignant passages that reflect on trauma. Read my interview with the author.
Sabrina and Corina by Kali Farjado-Astine
Stories about the lives and experiences of Latinx and indigenous women in the American Southwest. These stories are an eye-opening insight to characters not often represented in literature. Farjado-Astine writes with a ranging variety of voices that are all wholly realized and developed. The book is a finalist for the National Book Award.
The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott
This historical novel is inspired by the true events of how Doctor Zhivago was published. Told from multiple perspectives, it reveals how the Soviet government tried to ban publication of the book and the CIA smuggled it out to reveal the truth of life in the Communist country. A major part of the novel is how a group of women were at the center of the thrilling story.
Sugar Run by Mesha Maren
After two decades in jail, a woman must navigate how the world has changed while grappling with her own metamorphosis. Maren’s Southern Noir is very atmospheric and engulfing while she explores queer sexuality, how our decisions our influenced by our surroundings, and how society views women. Read my interview with the author.
Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid
Saying a book is timely is always peculiar because books are started and finished so far in advance of publication. If a book is timely, it means the issues it is dealing with have been timely for a long time. Reid’s book is about a young, black woman who is the nanny of white children. When out with them, a small incident is filmed and goes viral. The story reflects on privilege and race.
There You Are by Mathea Morais
An ode to the music of the late-1980s and early-1990s. Two audiophiles fall in love over their shared bond of music in a record store only to drift apart in the years after. Decades later, when their favorite record store is shuttering for good, the two reconvene and wax nostalgic about a simpler time. Read my interview with the author.
The Unpassing by Chia-Chia Lin
A is a beautiful, bleak, and breathtaking story family drama set in the dead of an Alaskan winter. As tragedy strikes the nation in the 1980s, their own home is struck by an unexpected death. The middle-child Gavin narrates the turmoil they navigate as Lin expertly crafts emotional passages and through-provoking moment. Read the author’s A Life of Books questionnaire.
The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom
Equally a memoir and an anthropological history lesson. Broom’s mother bought a yellow house in East New Orleans in the 1960s, when a prosperous life was promised to all in the community. Through the years, that promise has faded as quickly as the yellow paint on the house. Broom traces her family history through the house’s destruction in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Read my interview with the author.
A Woman is No Man by Etaf Rum
The story of an Arab-American family and how woman in the community are treated. Using two timelines to tell the story of a family that allows readers into a world rarely revealed on page. Rum herself is divorced and used her own experiences with breaking the “code of silence” to reveal these women’s pain and suffering. Read my interview with the author.