Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

35 Amazing Debut Novels

Not a week goes by without a publisher promising a “stunning” or “sparkling” debut novel, or a “singular new voice” – but a debut is a tricky thing to get right. Authors-to-be often slave over their first book for years, before it ever makes it into the hands of an editor or a reader, and yet it’s still near impossible to sound like a practiced and masterful writer your first time out. That said, there are many debut novels that have shown us hints of the greatness to come from the pens of authors who have gone on to have illustrious and lauded careers (or are expected to imminently). Here are 35 amazing debut novels that actually stand up to the press-release hype.

35 Amazing Debut Novels - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney

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Blurb: “Written with gemlike precision and marked by a sly sense of humor, Conversations with Friends is wonderfully alive to the pleasures and dangers of youth, and the messy edges of female friendship.”

Review: “In this searing, insightful debut, Rooney offers an unapologetic perspective on the vagaries of relationships… a treatise on married life, the impact of infidelity, the ramifications of one’s actions, and how the person one chooses to be with can impact one’s individuality. Throughout, Rooney’s descriptive eye lends beauty and veracity to this complex and vivid story.” – Publishers Weekly

Read my full review of Conversations With Friends here.

The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter - Carson McCullers - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Blurb: “Wonderfully attuned to the spiritual isolation that underlies the human condition, and with a deft sense for racial tensions in the South, McCullers spins a haunting, unforgettable story that gives voice to the rejected, the forgotten, and the mistreated—and, through Mick, gives voice to the quiet, intensely personal search for beauty.”

Review:The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is a miracle of compassion, pity, and irony. Form and matter are perfectly blended in the novel.” – Virginia Quarterly Review

Read my full review of The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter here.

Such A Fun Age by Kiley Reid

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Blurb: “A striking and surprising debut novel from an exhilarating new voice, Such a Fun Age is a page-turning and big-hearted story about race and privilege, set around a young black babysitter, her well-intentioned employer, and a surprising connection that threatens to undo them both.”

Review: “All great novelists are great listeners, and Such a Fun Age marks the debut of an extraordinarily gifted one.” – Slate

Read my full review of Such A Fun Age here.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

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Blurb:Frankenstein presents an unworldly outcast who turns to violence only when he is rejected and deprived of affection. Yet his creator, Dr. Victor Frankenstein, must pay the price for his scientific arrogance, his desire to play God, usurp the female role and ‘give birth’ to another living being. In scenes of nightmarish power, monster and maker meet in the shadow of Mont Blanc and chase across frozen Arctic wastes.”

Review: “In a story that’s reflected so much of the last two hundred years, and centers so much on choices, storytelling, and the potential for change, it only makes sense that Frankenstein reflects changes within its own creator.” – NPR

Read my full review of Frankenstein here.

Luster by Raven Leilani

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Blurb: “Irresistibly unruly and strikingly beautiful, razor-sharp and slyly comic, sexually charged and utterly absorbing, Raven Leilani’s Luster is a portrait of a young woman trying to make sense of her life—her hunger, her anger—in a tumultuous era.”

Review: “A darkly funny, hilariously moving debut from a stunning new voice.” – Brit Bennett

Read my full review of Luster here.

Green Dot by Madeleine Gray

Green Dot - Madeleine Gray - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Blurb: “With its daringly specific and intimate voice, Green Dot is a darkly hilarious and deeply felt examination of the joys and indignities of coming into adulthood against the pitfalls of the twenty-first century and the winding, tortuous, and often very funny journey we take in deciding who we are and who we want to be.”

Review: “A heartfelt debut about the joys and disasters of young adulthood.” – People

Read my full review of Green Dot here.

When We Were Vikings by Andrew David MacDonald

When We Were Vikings - Andrew David MacDonald - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Blurb:When We Were Vikings is an uplifting debut about an unlikely heroine whose journey will leave you wanting to embark on a quest of your own, because after all…we are all legends of our own making.”

Review: “In this engaging debut novel, MacDonald skillfully balances drama and violence with humor, highlighting how an unorthodox family unit is still a family.” – Kirkus Reviews

Read my full review of When We Were Vikings here.

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

Everything I Never Told You - Celeste Ng - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Blurb: “A profoundly moving story of family, secrets, and longing, Everything I Never Told You is both a gripping page-turner and a sensitive family portrait, uncovering the ways in which mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, and husbands and wives struggle, all their lives, to understand one another.”

Review: “A powerhouse of a debut novel, a literary mystery crafted out of shimmering prose and precise, painful observation about racial barriers, the burden of familial expectations, and the basic human thirst for belonging.” – Huffington Post

Read my full review of Everything I Never Told You here.

Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

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Blurb: “Susanna Clarke’s brilliant first novel is an utterly compelling epic tale of nineteenth-century England and the two magicians who, first as teacher and pupil and then as rivals, emerge to change its history.”

Review: “What kind of magic can make an 800-page novel seem too short? Whatever it is, debut author Susanna Clarke is possessed by it.” – USA Today

Read my full review of Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell here.

Fleishman Is In Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

Fleishman Is In Trouble - Taffy Brodesser-Akner - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Blurb: “A searing, utterly unvarnished debut, Fleishman Is in Trouble is an insightful, unsettling, often hilarious exploration of a culture trying to navigate the fault lines of an institution that has proven to be worthy of our great wariness and our great hope.”

Review: “In her witty and well-observed debut, Taffy Brodesser-Akner updates the miserable-matrimony novel, dropping it squarely in our times.” – The New York Times Book Review

Read my full review of Fleishman Is In Trouble here.

The Martian by Andy Weir

The Martian - Andy Weir - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Blurb: “Six days ago, astronaut Mark Watney became one of the first people to walk on Mars. Now, he’s sure he’ll be the first person to die there… But Mark isn’t ready to give up yet. Drawing on his ingenuity, his engineering skills—and a relentless, dogged refusal to quit—he steadfastly confronts one seemingly insurmountable obstacle after the next. Will his resourcefulness be enough to overcome the impossible odds against him?”

Review:Weir combines the heart-stopping with the humorous in this brilliant debut novel.” – Library Journal

Read my full review of The Martian here.

Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston

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Blurb: “Can love save the world after all? Where do we find the courage, and the power, to be the people we are meant to be? And how can we learn to let our true colors shine through? Casey McQuiston’s Red, White & Royal Blue proves: true love isn’t always diplomatic.”

Review: “With a diverse cast of characters, quick-witted dialog, and a complicated relationship between to young people with the eyes of the world watching their every move, McQuiston’s debut is an irresistible, hopeful, and sexy romantic comedy that considers real questions about personal and public responsibility.” – Library Journal

Read my full review of Red, White & Royal Blue here.

My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

My Sister The Serial Killer - Oyinkan Braithwaite - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Blurb: “Korede has long been in love with a kind, handsome doctor at the hospital where she works. She dreams of the day when he will realize that she’s exactly what he needs. But when he asks Korede for Ayoola’s phone number, she must reckon with what her sister has become and how far she’s willing to go to protect her.”

Review: “This riveting, brutally hilarious, ultra-dark novel is an explosive debut by Oyinkan Braithwaite, and heralds an exciting new literary voice.” – NYLON

Read my full review of My Sister, The Serial Killer here.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

The Secret History - Donna Tartt - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Blurb: “Under the influence of a charismatic classics professor, a group of clever, eccentric misfits at a New England college discover a way of thought and life a world away from their banal contemporaries. But their search for the transcendent leads them down a dangerous path, beyond human constructs of morality.”

Review:Tartt’s voice is unlike that of any of her contemporaries. Her beautiful language, intricate plotting, fascinating characters, and intellectual energy make her debut by far the most interesting work yet from her generation.” – The Boston Globe

Read my full review of The Secret History here.

The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

The Virgin Suicides - Jeffrey Eugenides - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Blurb:The Virgin Suicides is a modern classic, a lyrical and timeless tale of sex and suicide that transforms and mythologizes suburban middle-American life.”

Review: “A piercing first novel… lyrical and portentous.” – The New York Times

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine - Gail Honeyman - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Blurb:Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine is the smart, warm, and uplifting story of an out-of-the-ordinary heroine whose deadpan weirdness and unconscious wit make for an irresistible journey as she realizes the only way to survive is to open your heart. “

Review: “Debut author Honeyman expertly captures a woman whose inner pain is excruciating and whose face and heart are scarred, but who still holds the capacity to love and be loved.” – Publishers Weekly

Read my full review of Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine here.

Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

Sharp Objects - Gillian Flynn - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Blurb: “Fresh from a brief stay at a psych hospital, reporter Camille Preaker faces a troubling assignment: she must return to her tiny hometown to cover the murders of two preteen girls. For years, Camille has hardly spoken to her neurotic, hypochondriac mother or to the half-sister she barely knows: a beautiful thirteen-year-old with an eerie grip on the town. Now, installed in her old bedroom in her family’s Victorian mansion, Camille finds herself identifying with the young victims—a bit too strongly.”

Review: “[A] breathtaking debut…Written with multiple twists and turns, Sharp Objects is a work of psychological prowess and page-turning thrills.” – Richmond Times

Read my full review of Sharp Objects here.

To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

To Kill A Mockingbird - Harper Lee - Book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Blurb: “A gripping, heart-wrenching, and wholly remarkable tale of coming-of-age in a South poisoned by virulent prejudice, To Kill A Mockingbird views a world of great beauty and savage inequities through the eyes of a young girl, as her father—a crusading local lawyer—risks everything to defend a black man unjustly accused of a terrible crime.”

Review: “A first novel of such rare excellence that it will no doubt make a great many readers slow down to relish more fully its simple distinction.” – Chicago Tribune

Read my full review of To Kill A Mockingbird here.

Her Body And Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

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Blurb: “In Her Body and Other Parties, Carmen Maria Machado blithely demolishes the arbitrary borders between psychological realism and science fiction, comedy and horror, fantasy and fabulism.”

Review: “The best surrealist fiction resides somewhere between the eerie and the actual, and that’s exactly where Carmen Maria Machado feels most at home… A stunning debut.” – Los Angeles Magazine

Read my full review of Her Body And Other Parties here.

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

A Man Called Ove - Fredrik Backman - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Blurb:Fredrik Backman’s beloved first novel about the angry old man next door is a thoughtful exploration of the profound impact one life has on countless others.”

Review: “A charming debut…You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll feel new sympathy for the curmudgeons in your life. You’ll also want to move to Scandinavia, where everything’s cuter.” – People

Read my full review of A Man Called Ove here.

The Girls by Emma Cline

The Girls - Emma Cline - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Blurb: “At the start of summer, a lonely and thoughtful teenager, Evie Boyd, sees a group of girls in the park, and is immediately caught by their freedom, their careless dress, their dangerous aura of abandon. Soon, Evie is in thrall to Suzanne, a mesmerizing older girl, and is drawn into the circle of a soon-to-be infamous cult and the man who is its charismatic leader.”

Review: “For a story that traffics in the lurid notoriety of the Manson murders, The Girls is an extraordinary act of restraint. With the maturity of a writer twice her age, Cline has written a wise novel that’s never showy: a quiet, seething confession of yearning and terror.” – The Washington Post

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte - book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Blurb: “A novel of intense power and intrigue, Jane Eyre has dazzled generations of readers with its depiction of a woman’s quest for freedom. Having grown up an orphan in the home of her cruel aunt and at a harsh charity school, Jane Eyre becomes an independent and spirited survivor-qualities that serve her well as governess at Thornfield Hall. But when she finds love with her sardonic employer, Rochester, the discovery of his terrible secret forces her to make a choice.”

Review: “At the end we are steeped through and through with the genius, the vehemence, the indignation of Charlotte Brontë.” – Virginia Woolf

Read my full review of Jane Eyre here.

The Reading List by Sara Nisha Adams

The Reading List - Sara Nisha Adams - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Blurb: “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.”

Review: “This moving debut demonstrates the power of novels to provide comfort in the face of devastating loss and loneliness, with relatable characters and a heartwarming tone throughout.” – Booklist

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Blurb:The Bell Jar chronicles the crack-up of Esther Greenwood: young, brilliant, beautiful, and enormously talented, but slowly going under—maybe for the last time. Sylvia Plath masterfully draws the reader into Esther’s breakdown with such intensity that Esther’s neurosis becomes completely understandable and even rational, as probable and accessible an experience as going to the movies.”

Review: “As clear and readable as it is witty and disturbing.” – The New York Times

Read my full review of The Bell Jar here.

See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

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Blurb: “In this riveting debut novel, See What I Have Done, Sarah Schmidt recasts one of the most fascinating murder cases of all time into an intimate story of a volatile household and a family devoid of love.”

Review: “An outstanding debut novel about love, death, and the lifelong repercussions of unresolved grief.” – Observer

Pizza Girl by Jean Kyoung Frazier

Pizza Girl - Jean Kyoung Frazier - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Blurb: “As one woman looks toward motherhood and the other toward middle age, the relationship between the two begins to blur in strange, complicated, and ultimately heartbreaking ways.”

Review: “Sharp and surprising, Pizza Girl shows us how obsession can fill the empty spaces in a young woman’s life. Jean Kyoung Frazier will make you laugh with one sentence and break your heart with the next. A delicious debut.” – Julia Phillips

Read my full review of Pizza Girl here.

Elizabeth Is Missing by Emma Healey

Elizabeth Is Missing - Emma Healey - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Blurb: “In this darkly riveting debut novel—a sophisticated psychological mystery that is also an heartbreakingly honest meditation on memory, identity, and aging—an elderly woman descending into dementia embarks on a desperate quest to find the best friend she believes has disappeared, and her search for the truth will go back decades and have shattering consequences.”

Review:Elizabeth is Missing will stir and shake you: an investigation into a seventy-year-old crime, through the eyes of the most likeably unreliable of narrators. But the real mystery at its compassionate core is the fragmentation of the human mind.” – Emma Donoghue

The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson

The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared - Jonas Jonasson - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Blurb: “It would be the adventure of a lifetime for anyone else, but Allan has a larger-than-life backstory: Not only has he witnessed some of the most important events of the twentieth century, but he has actually played a key role in them. Starting out in munitions as a boy, he somehow finds himself involved in many of the key explosions of the twentieth century and travels the world, sharing meals and more with everyone from Stalin, Churchill, and Truman to Mao, Franco, and de Gaulle. Quirky and utterly unique, The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared has charmed readers across the world.”

Review: “A mordantly funny and loopily freewheeling debut novel about ageing disgracefully.” – The Sunday Times

Read my full review of The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared here.

Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters

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Blurb: “This provocative debut is about what happens at the emotional, messy, vulnerable corners of womanhood that platitudes and good intentions can’t reach. Torrey Peters brilliantly and fearlessly navigates the most dangerous taboos around gender, sex, and relationships, gifting us a thrillingly original, witty, and deeply moving novel.”

Review: “If I had the ability to momentarily wipe my memory, I’d use it to reread Detransition, Baby for the first time.” – Vogue

Sense And Sensibility by Jane Austen

Sense And Sensibility - Jane Austen - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Blurb: “Marianne Dashwood wears her heart on her sleeve, and when she falls in love with the dashing but unsuitable John Willoughby she ignores her sister Elinor’s warning that her impulsive behaviour leaves her open to gossip and innuendo. Meanwhile Elinor, always sensitive to social convention, is struggling to conceal her own romantic disappointment, even from those closest to her. Through their parallel experience of love – and its threatened loss – the sisters learn that sense must mix with sensibility if they are to find personal happiness in a society where status and money govern the rules of love.”

Review: “As nearly flawless as any fiction could be.” – Eudora Welty

Read my full review of Sense And Sensibility here.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos

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Blurb:Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is a landmark satirical novel by Anita Loos. In it we follow the diary entries of Lorelei Lee a blond flapper from Little Rock complete with spelling and grammar errors. What follows is a delightful romp as we discover that Lorelei is anything but a dumb blonde. Her observations on life are witty, humorous, cutting, and outrageous.”

Review: “The great American novel.” – Edith Wharton

Read my full review of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes here.

Horrorstor by Grady Hendrix

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Blurb: “Something strange is happening at the Orsk furniture superstore in Cleveland, Ohio. Every morning, employees arrive to find broken Kjerring bookshelves, shattered Glans water goblets, and smashed Liripip wardrobes. Sales are down, security cameras reveal nothing, and store managers are panicking. To unravel the mystery, three employees volunteer to work a nine-hour dusk-till-dawn shift. In the dead of the night, they’ll patrol the empty showroom floor, investigate strange sights and sounds, and encounter horrors that defy the imagination.”

Review:Horrorstör delivers a crisp terror-tale…[and] Hendrix strikes a nice balance between comedy and horror.” – The Washington Post

Read my full review of Horrorstor here.

Well Met by Jen DeLuca

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Blurb: “The faire is Simon’s family legacy and from the start he makes clear he doesn’t have time for Emily’s lighthearted approach to life, her oddball Shakespeare conspiracy theories, or her endless suggestions for new acts to shake things up. Yet on the faire grounds he becomes a different person, flirting freely with Emily when she’s in her revealing wench’s costume. But is this attraction real, or just part of the characters they’re portraying?”

Review:Well Met will especially appeal to readers who like bookstores, Renaissance fair shenanigans and nerdy English teachers wearing vests. DeLuca will have readers laughing all the way to the turkey leg vendor.” – Shelf Awareness

Read my full review of Well Met here.

The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang

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Blurb: “A heartwarming and refreshing debut novel that proves one thing: there’s not enough data in the world to predict what will make your heart tick.”

Review: “Helen Hoang’s The Kiss Quotient is an absolute delight—charming, sexy, and centered on a protagonist you love rooting for.” – Buzzfeed

Read my full review of The Kiss Quotient here.

The Animals In That Country by Laura Jean McKay

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Blurb: “Bold, exhilarating, and wholly original, The Animals in That Country asks what would happen, for better or worse, if we finally understood what animals were saying.”

Review: “We’ve all wished we could talk to animals, but McKay teaches us that we really should be careful what we wish for. By turns bizarre and profound, this is a striking debut.” – Hill Of Content

Read my full review of The Animals In That Country here.

2 Comments

  1. I have 9 of these sitting on my shelves (well, not The Secret History anymore—wasn’t a fan 🙈) and have actually read 6 of them so I’m coming along on these roundups! I feel like a lot of times when you post lists like this I’m always like, “Oh yes, I have about 10 of these but haven’t read a single one.” 😂

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