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Impressive Debut Novels

Great novels by first-time authors you don’t want to miss!

Black Cake

Charmaine Wilkerson

We can't choose what we inherit. But can we choose who we become? In present-day California, Eleanor Bennett's death leaves behind a puzzling inheritance for her two children, Byron and Benny: a black cake, made from a family recipe with a long history, and a voice recording. In her message, Eleanor shares a tumultuous story about a headstrong young swimmer who escapes her island home under suspicion of murder. The heartbreaking tale Eleanor unfolds, the secrets she still holds back, and the mystery of a long-lost child challenge everything the siblings thought they knew about their lineage and themselves. Can Byron and Benny reclaim their once-close relationship, piece together Eleanor's true history, and fulfill her final request to "share the black cake when the time is right"? Will their mother's revelations bring them back together or leave them feeling more lost than ever?

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The Tobacco Wives

Adele Myers

When teenage Maddie’s recently widowed mother suffers a mental breakdown, she is abruptly sent to live with her Aunt Etta, a renowned seamstress working for the wealthy wives of postwar Bright Leaf, North Carolina, where tobacco is king. With the annual gala rapidly approaching, Etta is happy to have Maddie’s significant sewing skills for the numerous gowns, hats, and accessories required for this see-and-be-seen event. But when Etta is hospitalized, the burden falls on Maddie’s slender shoulders to design and develop couture worthy of the finest Parisian salons. Added to the stress is her discovery of a whistle-blowing scientific dossier that exposes tobacco’s lethal health effects, some of which are already affecting people she is coming to love. In a town where she is the unknown stranger, Maddie must decide whom she can enlist to help unmask the cover-up that is keeping the townspeople and the world at large addicted to a deadly substance. Debut novelist Myers sets her activist novel in 1946, but the causes of workers’ and women’s rights are timeless.

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Portrait of a Thief

Grace D. Li

A Chinese American art history major at Harvard, Will Chen passionately believes that art belongs with its creators. So when a Chinese corporation asks him to surreptitiously reclaim five valuable sculptures stolen from China centuries previously, he organizes an all Chinese American crew to execute the heist. They include Will's can-con-anyone sister Irene, at Duke; premed student Daniel, whose FBI agent father specializes in art crimes; engineering student Lily, who races cars in her spare time (handy for getaways); and Alex, Will's former beloved, who found her way to Silicon Valley after dropping out of MIT. A debut from Stanford medical student Li; soon to be a Netflix series.

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Remarkably Bright Creatures

Shelby Van Pelt

In the sleepy town of Sowell Bay, Washington, Tova Sullivan stands on the precipice of a new life. There’s nothing left for her in her childhood home. Her husband is dead, and her son Erik drowned many years ago. With her grief threatening to consume her, Tova considers how she’s going to move on while finding comfort in her job at the local aquarium. She’s made friends with an intelligent octopus, Marcellus, who also provides his perspective on the matter. Especially adept at crawling out of his tank, Marcellus is searching for meaning as he comes to terms with the end of his own short life. Additionally, readers meet Cameron Cassmore, a Californian in Sowell Bay looking for his lost father, and Ethan Mack, a grocery-store owner who fancies Tova. As her involvement with both men deepens, Tova questions her intention to leave. Tova’s gentle relationship with Marcellus is the heart of Van Pelt’s debut. The octopus’ point of view, though unusual, brings a magical haze to the novel, even as Tova and Marcellus realize their story is coming to an end.

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Tripping Arcadia

Kit Mayquist

Med school dropout Lena is desperate for a job, any job, to help her parents, who are approaching bankruptcy after her father was injured and laid off nearly simultaneously. So, when she is offered a position, against all odds, working for one of Boston's most elite families, she knows she must accept it--no matter how bizarre the interview or how vague the job description. By day, she is assistant to the family doctor and his charge, Jonathan, the sickly, poetic, drunken heir to the family empire, who is as difficult as his illness is mysterious. By night, Lena discovers the more sinister side of the family, as she works overtime at their lavish parties, helping to hide their self-destructive tendencies... and trying not to fall for Jonathan's alluring sister, Audrey. But when she stumbles upon the knowledge that the family patriarch is the one responsible for the ruin of her own family, Lena vows to get revenge, a poison-filled quest that leads her further into this hedonistic world than she ever bargained for, forcing her to decide how much, and who she's willing to sacrifice for payback.

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How High We Go in the Dark

Sequoia Nagamatsu

Nagamatsu examines the way a pandemic changes the world in the decades and even centuries that follow in chapters told from the perspectives of various linked characters. The story opens when Dr. Cliff Miyashiro journeys to Siberia to finish the work that claimed the life of his daughter, a passionate environmentalist. When Cliff and his colleagues accidentally release an ancient virus contained in the remains of a prehistoric girl frozen in ice, the world christens it the Arctic Plague. As the pandemic spreads across the earth, society finds ways to grieve and honor the dying and dead, including erecting an amusement park specifically for terminally ill children, creating robotic dogs that capture the voices and personalities of lost loved ones, and hotels where families can stay to celebrate the lives of those they've lost. The tragedy causes humanity to look to the stars for salvation, as Cliff's wife, Miki, sets off with their granddaughter and a contingent of pioneers hoping to establish a colony on a habitable planet. Both epic and deeply intimate, Nagamatsu's debut novel is science fiction at its finest, rendered in gorgeous, evocative prose and offering hope in the face of tragedy through human connection.

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Daughter of the Moon Goddess

Sue Lynn Tan

Growing up on the moon, Xingyin is accustomed to solitude, unaware that she is being hidden from the feared Celestial Emperor who exiled her mother for stealing his elixir of immortality. But when Xingyin’s magic flares and her existence is discovered, she is forced to flee her home, leaving her mother behind. Alone, powerless, and afraid, she makes her way to the Celestial Kingdom, a land of wonder and secrets. Disguising her identity, she seizes an opportunity to learn alongside the emperor's son, mastering archery and magic, even as passion flames between her and the prince. To save her mother, Xingyin embarks on a perilous quest, confronting legendary creatures and vicious enemies across the earth and skies. But when treachery looms and forbidden magic threatens the kingdom, she must challenge the ruthless Celestial Emperor for her dream—striking a dangerous bargain in which she is torn between losing all she loves or plunging the realm into chaos.

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Lessons in Chemistry

Bonnie Garmus

Set in 1960s California, this blockbuster debut is the hilarious, idiosyncratic and uplifting story of a female scientist whose career is constantly derailed by the idea that a woman's place is in the home, only to find herself starring as the host of America's most beloved TV cooking show. Elizabeth Zott is not your average woman. But it's the 1960s and despite the fact that she is a scientist, her peers are very unscientific when it comes to equality. The only good thing to happen to her on the road to professional fulfillment is a run-in with her super-star colleague Calvin Evans. The only man who ever treated her--and her ideas as equal, Calvin is already a legend and Nobel nominee. He's also awkward, kind and tenacious. Theirs is true chemistry. But as events are never as predictable as chemical reactions, three years later Elizabeth Zott is an unwed, single mother (did we mention it's the early 60s??) and the star of America's most beloved cooking show Supper at Six. Elizabeth's singular approach to cooking and independent example are proving revolutionary. Because Elizabeth isn't just teaching women how to cook, she's teaching them how to change the status quo.

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Sisters in Arms

Kaia Alderson

Grace Steele and Eliza Jones may be from completely different backgrounds, but when it comes to the army, specifically the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC), they are both starting from the same level. Not only will they be among the first class of female officers the army has even seen, they are also the first Black women allowed to serve. As these courageous women help to form the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion, they are dealing with more than just army bureaucracy-everyone is determined to see this experiment fail. For two northern women, learning to navigate their way through the segregated army may be tougher than boot camp. Grace and Eliza know that there is no room for error; they must be more perfect than everyone else. When they finally make it overseas, to England and then France, Grace and Eliza will at last be able to do their parts for the country they love, whatever the risk to themselves. Based on the true story of the 6888th Postal Battalion (the Six Triple Eight).

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Black Buck

Mateo Askaripour

An unambitious twenty-two-year-old, Darren lives in a Bed-Stuy brownstone with his mother, who wants nothing more than to see him live up to his potential as the valedictorian of Bronx Science. But Darren is content working at Starbucks in the lobby of a Midtown office building, hanging out with his girlfriend, Soraya, and eating his mother's home-cooked meals. All that changes when a chance encounter with Rhett Daniels, the silver-tongued CEO of Sumwun, NYC's hottest tech startup, results in an exclusive invitation for Darren to join an elite sales team on the thirty-sixth floor. After enduring a "hell week" of training, Darren, the only Black person in the company, reimagines himself as "Buck," a ruthless salesman unrecognizable to his friends and family. But when things turn tragic at home and Buck feels he's hit rock bottom, he begins to hatch a plan to help young people of color infiltrate America's sales force, setting off a chain of events that forever changes the game. Black Buck is a hilarious, razor-sharp skewering of America's workforce; it is a propulsive, crackling debut that explores ambition and race, and makes way for a necessary new vision of the American dream.

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Firekeeper’s Daughter

Angeline Boulley

Reeling after the death of her uncle, Daunis is trying to adjust to her new normal, a challenge at the best of times in her gossip-prone town, especially when her scandalous origins leave her caught between two worlds: Ojibwe on her father’s side, and French, dating back to fur traders, on the side of her mother. When she witnesses a murder at the hands of someone who is addicted to meth and from a prominent family of her tribe, she has a choice: let the cycle of pain continue or protect her community. This debut novel is gripping from the start, letting the reader know that they’re in for wild ride. Boulley, herself an enrolled member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, writes from a place of love for her community. An incredible thriller, not to be missed.

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The Prophets

Robert Jones, Jr.

"A singular and stunning debut novel about the forbidden union between two enslaved young men on a Deep South plantation, the refuge they find in each other, and a betrayal that threatens their existence."

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Gold Diggers

Sanjena Sathian

Flouting expectations, second-generation Indian American teenager Neil Narayan prefers hanging out to striving mightily for success. Soon he's hanging out with Anita Dayal, helping her use stolen jewelry to create an alchemical potion drawing on the ambitions of the jewelry's original owner. Author Sathian "lays waste to American stereotypes in a magic realist-touched debut."

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Beasts of a Little Land

Juhea Kim

An epic story of love, war, and redemption set against the backdrop of the Korean independence movement, following the intertwined fates of a young girl sold to a courtesan school and the penniless son of a hunter.

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The Reading List

Sara Nisha Adams

A BEST OF SUMMER READ ACCORDING TO NEWSWEEK, PARADE MAGAZINE, NBC NEWS, LITHUB, AND POPSUGAR! "The most heartfelt read of the summer...a surprising delight of a novel."--Shondaland An unforgettable and heartwarming debut about how a chance encounter with a list of library books helps forge an unlikely friendship between two very different people in a London suburb. Widower Mukesh lives a quiet life in Wembley, in West London after losing his beloved wife. He shops every Wednesday, goes to Temple, and worries about his granddaughter, Priya, who hides in her room reading while he spends his evenings watching nature documentaries. Aleisha is a bright but anxious teenager working at the local library for the summer when she discovers a crumpled-up piece of paper in the back of To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s a list of novels that she’s never heard of before. Intrigued, and a little bored with her slow job at the checkout desk, she impulsively decides to read every book on the list, one after the other. As each story gives up its magic, the books transport Aleisha from the painful realities she’s facing at home. When Mukesh arrives at the library, desperate to forge a connection with his bookworm granddaughter, Aleisha passes along the reading list…hoping that it will be a lifeline for him too. Slowly, the shared books create a connection between two lonely souls, as fiction helps them escape their grief and everyday troubles and find joy again.

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