Even though summer 2018 is almost over, there’s still time to enjoy a few more novels before the heat of August dissipates and fall officially begins. If you’re in search of a beach read, looking for a birthday gift for a special Virgo, craving something to devour during your Labor Day weekend, or finally ready to start the book club of your dreams (it’s never too late!), consider this list of stunning debuts an answer to your proverbial prayers.
Talley English’s debut is an enthrallingly earnest account of a young woman’s coming of age experience. The novel’s protagonist, Teagan, navigates adolescence while her parents’ marriage splinters. As she searches for a new sense of normalcy, Tegan finds an unlikely source of solace, a horse named Obsidian she nicknames Ian. While she attempts to train Ian, who is as stubborn as he is strong, their bond grows and Teagan is forced to confront her fears about the future and her frustrations with the present. Ian becomes an anchor in Teagan’s life and gradually she discovers the power of friendship and the heart’s capacity to heal, even when faced with the uncertainty of the future. Through arresting prose and memorable precision, English’s narrative casts a spell on its audience, reminding each reader of the power of friendship, even in the wake of loss. Horse is more than just a bildungsroman; it’s a testament to the transformative potential of love.
Set in Cleveland, Ohio, Nico Walker’s Cherry centers around an unnamed protagonist as he battles addiction, reckons with PTSD, and grapples with a host of inner demons awakened by a quarter-life crisis. As the novel progresses and the narrator’s downward spiral begins, the rawness of Walker’s adept characterization fosters an unexpected sense of empathy in readers despite the protagonist’s crass and, at times, grim behavior. Although Cherry‘s narrator isn’t necessarily likeable, his honesty makes his journey palatable even at its darkest intersections.
A River of Stars by Vanessa Hua is a refreshing, heartfelt story about friendship and new beginnings. Hua’s novel begins when Scarlett Chen, a Chinese factory clerk and a mother-to-be, is sent to a secret maternity center per the wishes of her married lover so that their child will be born with the advantage of US citizenship. When Scarlett is jilted by the father of her unborn son, she leaves the maternity center in a stolen van. During her impromptu escape, Scarlett discovers a pregnant teenager hiding in the van. Together they head to San Francisco. Just as their new city starts to feel like home, the father of Scarlett’s child travels from his village in China to California to find her, disrupting Scarlett’s aspirations for the future. A memorable tale of resilience and motherhood, A River of Stars is a compelling read from beginning to end.
R. O. Kwon
R.O. Kwon’s debut follows Phoebe Lin and Will Kendall, students at a prominent university, as their budding romance is eclipsed by Phoebe’s grief over the loss of her mother and the religious cult that ultimately tears them apart. When Phoebe’s fanaticism leads to her disappearance after a group that she’s involved with commits a brutal terrorist act, Will dedicates himself to finding her. As he searches for Phoebe, the line between devotion and obsession blurs. A riveting examination of desire, devotion, and loss, The Incendiaries is a viscerally lush illustration of what can happen when love and faith are exploited. Each chapter is a reckoning and reclamation at once. Its pages ring true like a hymn.
Set in a future where women’s use of language is limited to 100 words a day (and where anyone who breeches that limit receives a painful electric shock via a government mandated wristband), Vox follows a cognitive linguist named Jean McClellan as she attempts to circumnavigate the suppressive laws passed by a conservative friendly chauvinist’s presidency. When the president’s brother falls ill and his ability to communicate is weakened, McClellan’s skills give her the opportunity to find a way to dismantle the grip of the administration’s misogyny and its detrimental impact on American citizens. In the spirit of Margaret Atwood’s classic The Handmaid’s Tale and recent must-reads like The Power and An Unkindness of Ghosts, Dalcher’s Vox is a suspenseful cautionary tale filled with Black Mirror-esque moments of terror and insight.
An untold story of Pride and Prejudice
Katherine J. Chen
In her delightfully Austenian debut, Katherine J. Chen shines the spotlight on the often forgotten Mary Bennett. No longer merely the middle sister and often forgotten secondary character of Pride and Prejudice, Mary at last takes center stage in Chen’s reinvisoning of Austen’s beloved classic. Throughout the novel, readers follow Mary as she unabashedly embraces her identity despite the pressure of social conventions. Through Chen’s luminous characterization and enveloping prose, readers are finally given the opportunity to delve deep into the psyche of one of Austen’s most underrated heroines. Mary B is an homage to the freedom that can be found by being true to yourself, of living without “gentleman’s approval” or “fear of reprobation.” A satiating novel whether you’re a fan of Austen or not, Mary B is an inventive extension of a timeless story.
Where the Crawdads Sing is a mesmerizing debut reminiscent of Helen Oyeyemi, Karen Russell, and Ramona Ausubel. Delia Owens’ stunning narrative opens in the fall of 1969 in the small North Carolina town of Barkley Cove. When two boys spot a denim jacket while biking near the swamp and the lifeless body of Chase Andrews is discovered shortly after, the tight-knit community is turned upside down when a reclusive young woman who lives in the marshes becomes the main suspect in his murder. A spellbinding story with an unexpected ending, Where the Crawdads Sing is a seamlessly immersive and lyrical read.
Sight opens during an unnamed protagonist’s second pregnancy. While she inches closer to her due date, she reflects on how her relationship with her first child changes as she grows older. “Now she stands apart and I must reach for her… I know her less and less the more she becomes herself. This is how things ought to be,” she confesses before delving deep into the past, excavating the impact of her mother’s death, the damage caused by her overbearing and renowned psychoanalyst grandmother, and how becoming a mother altered her perspective on the matriarchs who raised her. When Sight’s narrator proclaims “I know my shape, my place, and where my edges are,” the clarity of her epiphany will urge readers to shift through their own past and uncover how they became who they are. Riveting and intimate, Sight is an exhilarating exploration of inter-generational trauma, healing, and hope.
A modern retelling of Shakespeare’s King Lear, Preti Taneja’s We that Are Young opens in 2012 as Jivan Singh returns home to New Delhi after spending nearly two decades abroad. His homecoming coincides with his father (and prominent tycoon) Devraj Bapuji’s decision to choose a successor to take over his financial empire. In addition to Jivan, Devraj has three daughters and his mentee Jeet—whose father is Devraj’s closest business partner—who he considers to be his second son. Although Jeet is a suitable heir to the financial throne, he has a secret that could destroy his career due to the conservative landscape of the business world. Told from the perspective of Jivan, Taneja’s novel paints an intimate portrait of each of Devraj’s children as they hurtle toward an uncertain future and confront the gradual decline of the family’s patriarch. A searing reinvention of a one of literature’s most memorable tragedies, We That Are Young is a gripping portrait of a family and a nation on the brink of change.
Crystal Hana Kim
A heart wrenching saga of sacrifice and war, Crystal Hana Kim’s debut novel follows Haemi and Kyunghwan as their childhood friendship blossoms into romance. Despite their feelings for each other, the young couple’s bond is tested by the shadow of political conflict and the hardships of poverty. Things are complicated further by Kyunghwan’s cousin whose infatuation with Haemi leads to a proposal that alters the course of everyone’s lives in an unforeseen and irrevocable way. Cinematic and gripping, If You Leave Me is inarguably memorable.