Dazzling, delightful, debut novels

As a writer aspiring to be published, I’ve been reading a lot of debut books that came out in the last four years. I do this for a variety of reasons: to make sure there’s nothing out there that has already done what I’m setting out to write; to check out what’s selling in the marketplace i.e. what caught the eye of agents and acquiring editors; and lastly, to a lesser degree, to scout for comps I can use when I go on the query train.

One reading rule I have is that I want the book to interface with me on its own terms. Before reading a debut book, I don’t google the author. I don’t read reviews from Kirkus, New York Times or Goodreads. I especially don’t want to know if a book got a million dollar advance. It screws up my reading experience. I get nervous that I won’t find that magical thing in the book that made it earn its price tag. I also feel like the novel itself is nervous that I won’t find it worthy of said price tag.

After I’m done reading, that’s the time I go online and gather info. Did it get a lot of five star reviews in Goodreads? Did the folks at Kirkus love it? Did it go through auction? Was the writer an MFA grad or married to a Hollywood insider? Was it plucked from the slush pile? How long did it take the writer to finish the novel? What did the author say in the interviews about the writing process while working on this novel? 

I pay close attention to how I responded to the book. Even if I didn’t love the novel, I try to be subjective in judging it. As a mature woman and a voracious consumer of books, I feel certain I am capable of making an educated guess and objective assessment on what made the book resonate with the gatekeepers, or at least what made them think it would sell. Agents and publishers are art impresarios primarily; merchants necessarily. Idiots they are not. At least that’s what I want to believe.

And then there are the debut books that had me at hello. Books that transported me to places, changed my perception of things, allowed me to inhabit new worlds, made me laugh, cry, ponder. These are the books I study closely, like an amateur magician learning sleight-of-hand. I try to deconstruct the elements that made these books an enchanting read. The operative word here is ‘try’, because the books I loved seemed to me impervious to deconstruction. They read as if they came out fully formed from some literary wellspring.

But there are discrete authorial nuances that reveal themselves to a reader’s naked eye when one is motivated enough to find them. And it’s a rewarding experience when one does find them—the quiet hum of a Celeste Ng scene, or the pleasant shock of meeting a Nathan Hill character. With few exceptions, all the debut books I’ve read have their own specific allure. There were a few that made me scratch my head for sure, and coincidentally or not, most of their authors were MFA darlings or a Human of New York.

Having taken a stab at writing novels myself, the one commonality I have with these authors is that like them, I also know that writing is hard and requires many forms of sacrifice. So, to me, a debut novel that has found its way to my little corner of the world is already a tale of triumph.

I want to celebrate these wonderful debut books in my own little way—a quick and dirty review plus my take on why they appealed to the gatekeepers and, where applicable, the reading public. I will try not to gush too much.

Here’s an incomplete list of debut books that astounded me and which I will feature in future blog posts.

  • The Nix – Nathan Hill
  • The Visitation – Ivy Pochoda
  • Eleanor Olyphant is Completely Fine –  Gail Honeyman
  • Everything I Never Told You – Celeste Ng
  • America Is Not The Heart – Elaine Castillo
  • Idaho – Emily Ruskovich
  • The Animators – Kayla Rae Whitaker
  • The Hate You Give – Angie Thomas
  • The Nest – Cynthia D’ Aprix Sweeney
  • The Dry – Jane Harper
  • Sweetbitter – Stephanie Danler
  • The Misfortune of Marion Palm – Emily Culliton
  • Dodgers – Bill Beverly
  • The Kiss Quotient – Helen Hoang
  • Pretend I’m Dead – Jen Beagin
  • Woman In The Window – A.J. Finn

Stay tuned, folks!


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