So many fabulous debut novels have come out in 2021. I highlight my favorites below including an Irish family saga, a new mystery series set in Texas, a novel by the Sleepless in Seattle screenwriter, a blistering satire, a non-Covid pandemic story, and more. I was able to chat with a number of the authors on this list - I put an asterisk by each person that I interviewed for the podcast.
And as always, please shop local or use my affiliate Bookshop.org links below which support independent bookstores and the production of my podcast.
Attachments by Jeff Arch
Attachments, a debut novel by Jeff Arch, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of Sleepless in Seattle, tells the story of three former boarding school students and the deathbed request by the school’s dean that brings them back together years later. While suffering a stroke, the dean utters the students’ names forcing a reunion of that brings together the former best friends who have not spoken since a falling out years before. While at the dean’s bedside, the friends slowly reveal buried feelings and long-held secrets that impact more than just their own lives. Told in alternating points of view and flashbacks, Attachments is a beautiful reflection on how the choices we make reverberate for years to come and how hard it is to let go.
Black Buck by Mateo Askaripour
22-year-old Darren was the valedictorian at Bronx Science and has been content to live with his mother and work as a barista at a Starbucks ever since. One day he impresses the CEO of Sumwum, a start-up officing in the same building as his Starbucks, and suddenly finds himself thrown into the crazy, frenetic world of Sumwum as its only black employee. Reinventing himself as “Buck” after a brutal week of training and indoctrination, Darren becomes a cold-hearted salesman willing to make sales for the company at any cost including putting up with the blatant racism he experiences at work. When his home life takes a tragic turn, Darren realizes that he must jettison Buck and find his way back to the Darren he once was. Askaripour targets startup culture, workplace hazing, systemic racism, and more in this unique, quick-witted, often hilarious debut novel that is unlike anything that I have read before.
Dovetails in Tall Grass brings to life the events that led up to the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 in Minnesota through the eyes of two young women, one a settler and the other a Dakota-Sioux. Houstonian Samantha Speck’s meticulously researched and vividly depicted historical fiction tale follows one brutal instance of the disintegration in U.S./Native American relations that played out all across North America as whites displaced the indigenous people, moving the native populations to reservations and continually breaking the promises made to them. The story slowly builds to a sad and inevitable conclusion that pays homage to those who needlessly lost their lives. The book kept me on the edge of my seat until I turned the last page.
With Down Range, Moore, a 6th generation Texan (he grew up outside of Houston) and former CIA intelligence officer, launches a new mystery series starring DEA agent Garrett Kohl that is set in the Texas High Plains and is filled with adventure, thrills, and a clever plot. Following a mission in Afghanistan that takes an unexpected turn, Garrett finds himself back in his hometown Canadian with a young boy named Asadi Saleem in his protective custody. Garrett’s strained relationship with his father, one of the most memorable characters in the book, and his brother and brother’s family is a focus of the story, and his brother’s missteps drag Garrett into a dark and dangerous illegal ring that threatens to destroy the entire Kohl family. Moore brings Texas to life as only a native can, and his ability to transport the reader to the High Plains of Texas is a high point of this fast-paced and high-octane mystery.
The End of Men by Christina Sweeney-Baird
Sweeney-Baird’s debut speculative fiction novel, written prior to COVID’s arrival, tackles the premise of what the world would be like if 90% of the men disappeared from the planet. Set in 2025, The End of Men opens just as the first case of the virus has appeared and follows various characters (mostly women) as they deal with this mysterious virus and come to terms with a changed world. The story is told in first person narratives including the doctor who treats the first victim of the virus, an intelligence analyst who assists the government as it reshapes its workforce, one of the doctors rushing to create a vaccine, and more. Through their eyes, Sweeney-Baird chronicles how the world would be impacted by such a large gender imbalance -from the loss of husbands and sons to the changed workforce and what it now would mean to give birth to a son. The End of Men is a truly thought-provoking read that will stay with me for a long time.
In My Dreams I Hold a Knife by Ashley Winstead
This dual timeline psychological thriller toggles between present day and ten years prior when a woman was murdered in her dorm room, a crime that remains unsolved. The murder broke apart a close group of friends, and in the present day the individuals are returning to the Duqette University campus for the first time since graduation. But while some people are happy to leave the past behind, someone wants to catch the killer and make them pay. This page turner by Houstonian Ashley Winstead kept me up late into the night madly reading to get to the end!
The Reading List by Sara Nisha Adams
In this beautiful tribute to books and libraries, The Reading List tells the story of Aleisha, a teenager with a troubled home situation, who decides to work in the library for the summer to escape her home life. While working at the library, she stumbles across a list of 8 books with the words “In case you need it” at the top. Curious, she begins to work her way through the list becoming engrossed in each book and its characters and finds that each book helps transport her to another place and away from her own personal issues. Along the way, she recommends each book to a librarian patron she meets named Mukesh, a lonely widower trying to fill his days. As the two read and discuss the books, they develop a sweet friendship that helps them both through trying times. While parts of the book are incredibly sad, I absolutely love The Reading List and its focus on the incredible power of books and community.
Sisters in Arms by Kaia Alderson
Debut author Kaia Alderson’s book is inspired by the true story of the women of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion (the Six Triple Eight), the only all-Black battalion of the Women’s Army Corp during World War 2. Tasked with crossing the Atlantic to ensure U.S. servicemen received word from their families during the war, these brave women not only dealt with the regular dangers of war, but they also had to contend with racial injustice and those who wanted them to fail. Sisters in Arms is a wonderful book about courageous women whose stories deserve to be told.
This beautifully-written debut tells a fictionalized, loosely-based version of the relationship between James Taylor and Joni Mitchell in the late 1960s. This coming-of-age tale follows Jane Quinn, a talented singer, as she rockets to stardom, encounters extreme sexism in the music industry, battles with wanting to stay true to herself and her music, whether to choose love or a career, the stigma of mental illness and more. Brodie brings the music of the era to life and had me wishing I could actually listen to Jane’s music. Songs in Ursa Major is truly stunning and is my favorite book of the year so far.
Waiting for the Night Song by Julie Carrick Dalton
Dalton’s poignant and beautiful debut captivated me from the start. Alternating between the past and the present, Waiting for the Night Song follows Cadie Kessler, an entomologist and forestry researcher focused on studying the pine bark beetle in New Hampshire. Her goal is to prove that the beetle is present in the state and destroying pines similar to the devastation it wrought in California and Colorado. As the book opens, Cadie is drawn home to help a childhood friend confront the long-held secret that the duo covered up several decades ago. Dalton creates a magnificent sense of place bringing the New Hampshire forest to life while tackling tough and highly relevant issues such as the pine bark beetle, climate change and racism. Waiting for the Night Song is a fabulous addition to the growing genre of climate-focused fiction.
This terrific contemporary drama follows the Brennans, an Irish Catholic family whose bonds and livelihood are tested when estranged daughter Sunday Brennan is involved in a drunk driving incident and returns home to New York to recover. Five years prior, Sunday fled to California with no explanation to her family and long-time boyfriend Kale. While she is happily and immediately welcomed back into the family fold, her arrival slowly triggers a release of long-held secrets which spark a chain of events that require the Brennans to put aside their differences to keep their family intact. We Are the Brennans is a beautifully rendered story that highlights the importance of family and that reminds us there are consequences no matter the choices made.
If you have read any of these, I would love to hear what you think. Feel free to comment below with your thoughts or your favorite debuts of 2021.