If there is anything 2020 taught us, it’s to find comfort where ever you can find it. Debut books were a big comfort this past year. There is something so exhilarating discovering a new voice. The books produced were sometimes ten years in the making and whether it’s a quiet story about sexuality or a magic realism saga, debut books are a writer’s unfiltered thoughts. They are the most honest a writer will ever be.
This year’s best debuts range from realistic queer stories to outrageous gothic ones. This list features novels, story collections, true crime, essay collections, and everything in between.
Note: books marked with † are first novels and follow an author’s debut story collection. Also, please visit each link to listen to a podcast or read an interview with each author.
The Debutiful Dozen
Real Life by Brandon Taylor
Brandon Taylor won 2020. His debut book came out in February and it is still always on the tip of my tongue when someone asks for a recommendation. He crafted such a quiet moody book that is somehow more explosive than an action-packed thriller. At the center of the novel is Wallace, a black, queer grad student in a very white and very straight program. His internal monologues propel the book forward as an average weekend turns into anything other than what it was supposed to be. Purchase from Bookshop.org.
Godshot by Chelsea Bieker
The beauty in Chelsea Bieker’s leaps off of every page. She poetically weaves the story of a teen and her mother as they come together to join a cult and fall apart when the mother abandons the daughter. Familial dramas have been written since the dawn of time, but Bieker breathes new life into the mother-daughter genre with a unique point of view that shook me to my core. Purchase from Bookshop.org.
Pizza Girl by Jean Kyoung Frazier
This slim, unassuming slacker dramady is the perfect millennial novel. Jean Kyoung Frazier produces a powerful slice of life story as she follows a pregnant pizza delivery girl. It feels like a Linklater movie: you’ll instantly fall in love with the characters but don’t need anything longer than what is provided. Frazier perfectly balances dark humor throughout the quick read and knows when to land a joke right after she punches you in the stomach with a deeply emotional scene. Purchase from Bookshop.org.
F*ckface by Leah Hampton
Appalachian. That’s the perfect word to describe Leah Hampton’s story collection and that’s because Appalachians are misunderstood, complex, and diverse. Forget what you think you know about the region. Hampton’s collection will introduce you to an array of quirky and wacky characters in absurd situations. She isn’t afraid to lean into the shocking but does it with precise execution. Each story will leave you on the edge of your seat as you’re never quite sure where Hampton will lead you. Purchase from Bookshop.org.
Tomboyland by Melissa Faliveno
The essays in Melissa Faliveno’s collection are wide ranging. Both in content and style. Tomboyland is about gender, class, nature, parenting, and everything in between. The content is unparalleled, but what really makes this collection so powerful is the writing. This is a collection that every writer should read whether you want to write about sex, rock music, or the climate. Exploring how Faliveno crafts an essay is half the journey of this collection. Purchase from Bookshop.org.
Nights When Nothing Happened by Simon Han
Simon Han’s book is unlike anything else I’ve read. It is a domestic drama filled with thrills. However, it’s the quiet moments that are thrilling though. There’s no over the top scenes of screaming matches or houses burning down. It’s about… well, night’s when nothing happened. The family at the center of the novel is a “perfect” immigrant family. They work hard, keep to themselves, and try to stay out of the way. When the daughter starts sleepwalking though, their lives are upended and their bonds are stretched thin. Purchase from Bookshop.org.
These Ghosts Are Family by Maisy Card
This book is the definition of a family saga. Maisy Card’s story begins in colonial Jamaica and follows generations as secrets are revealed until they end up in modern-day Harlem. As the pages pass, revelations unfold in such an exquisite manner. Purchase from Bookshop.org.
Sleepovers by Ashleigh Bryant Phillips
This story collection is mostly about the forgotten. Forgotten lives in forgotten Southern towns. The stories are earnest and Ashleigh Bryant Phillips quietly explores a wide range of themes from hope to pain with perfection. Purchase from Bookshop.org.
You Exist Too Much by Zaina Arafat
Told in vignettes, Zaina Arafat’s debut is about a Palestinian-American’s sexual awakening. As the story progresses, more and more is revealed about the unnamed main character, who is often reminded she exists too much for her own good. It’s that reminder that propels her actions. Purchase from Bookshop.org.
The Third Rainbow Girl by Emma Copley Eisenberg
This is a true crime book that solves the crime on the first page. Emma Copley Eisenberg was more interested in how violence and crime impact a town for years. Part memoir, part cultural study, this is a book that breaks the mold and the world is better off for it. Purchase from Bookshop.org.
Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas
In her debut gothic novel, Elisabeth Thomas something completely unexpected and extremely atmospheric. At the center of the novel is an off-kilter college riddled with secrets. The deeper into the book you get, the more unsettled you’ll become. Purchase from Bookshop.org.
Bestiary by K-Ming Chang
Part family saga, part folklore, part love story. K-Ming Chang’s book is one of those books where experiencing the poetic writing is half of the fun. Chang’s poetic beauty leaps off every page as she blends genres and pushes boundaries for what a book can do. Purchase from Bookshop.org.
The Rest of the Best
A Burning by Megha Majumdar
Luster by Raven Leilani
Memorial by Bryan Washington †
Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart
The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw
Yellow Bird by Sierra Crane Murdoch