Picture this. You're a writer. You've been working on your book for a long time: doing research, writing, editing. You've put in all the often-frustrating hours (weeks? months? years?) of submitting the book, getting rejections, finally hooking an agent and/or a publisher, and then the day arrives: you're putting out your very first book! And... (sigh) it's 2020.
But even as bookstores closed and in-store launch events evaporated, the books endured. One of the things that has sustained me in this very different year has been discovering new voices telling their stories. In honor of that, I've put together a list of some of my, and my fellow booksellers', favorite debuts of 2020. We hope you'll discover someone new that you, too, will love.
On a once prosperous Southern plantation in the days just following the Civil War, newly emancipated Rue is a healer and midwife, having reluctantly taken up the calling passed down from her mother, May Belle. When she delivers a mysteriously pale baby and other children begin to fall ill, and some to die, suspicion and superstition spread throughout the town. Heavily researched using diaries, autobiographies, and other first-person accounts, including those collected by the Works Progress Administration during the 1930s, and moving back and forth between, as the author terms them "slaverytime" and "freedomtime," Conjure Women is not only an epic tale of three strong women, but also a painstakingly detailed portrait of a troubled era.
When an eccentric evangelist arrives in the parched city of Peaches, California, with promises of rain and salvation, the locals are quick to form a flock. But soon one of the devout goes missing; the secret “assignments” Pastor Vern demands of his parishioners come into focus; and 14-year-old Lacey May discovers there are things more worrisome than drought. Godshot is a cancel-your-plans/forget-to-eat/fail-to-notice-it’s-nighttime-till-you-glance-out-the-window-and-the-sun’s-gone-down kind of book. A fervent, layered debut that made me thirsty for whatever else Chelsea Bieker has in store. — Tove H.
The world lost an incredibly promising new novelist when, not long after this book came out, Ramiza Shamoun Koya lost her battle with breast cancer. A few months earlier, Koya's name was one of the last three names that sat, in a row, on the Powell's downtown marquee, awaiting a book launch event that was soon cancelled, along with the rest, because of the novel coronavirus. Neither of these sad events is why you should read The Royal Abduls, a beautiful debut about 11-year-old Omar — Indian American and fascinated with his heritage to the point of making up a royal lineage and putting on an Indian accent in school — and his aunt Amina, an evolutionary biologist who has just moved to DC from the West Coast during the time of magnified anti-Muslim sentiments following 9/11. Koya's storytelling is deep and true, with beautifully drawn portraits of very real and complex characters. The touching relationship between Amina and Omar is especially lovely in this book about the value of heritage, the corrosiveness of racism, and the need to find identity in the world.
As far as alien invasions go, The Seep isn't that bad. In fact, it's downright gentle. In fact, it ushers in a utopian era of oneness in which individualism and its inequities break down and where, among other benefits, humans have immortality and the ability to change their outward manifestations at will. Sounds pretty great, right? But (and there's always a but) when Trina FastHorse Goldberg-Oneka’s wife Deeba elects to start her life over as a baby, Trina refuses to go from being Deeba's wife to essentially her mother, and their relationship, and Trina's life, falls apart. With a wonderfully complex protagonist who carries the experiences of being Native American, Jewish, and trans as she struggles with the de-individualizing nature of The Seep, Chana Porter's highly imaginative debut is a nuanced meditation on connection and loss.
It was only when I started describing Little Gods to people that I realized how seamlessly debut novelist Meng Jin integrates the huge, complicated themes of revolution, rebirth, time, and language into an intimate story, without sacrificing their grandeur or significance. At its heart, Little Gods is the story of a scientist, Su Lan, whose brilliance both attracts and alienates the people who love her. While her husband, child, and friends circle around her like planets to a sun, she struggles to use her fire to light the way forward and incinerate the past. Set against the backdrop of the 1989 student uprisings in China, and later in the anonymity and dislocation of the American immigrant experience, Little Gods is a beautiful exploration of how the political is the personal, and of the invisible cords that tie us to our histories — both private and collective — despite our best efforts to only look forward. — Rhianna W.
Lee Conell's The Party Upstairs takes place in one day, in one location, a highline Manhattan apartment that becomes the proverbial crucible after 24-year-old Ruby, unemployed and in debt, moves back in with her parents — not in one of the flats but in the basement where Ruby's father Martin has been living as the building's super for the whole of Ruby's life. In her unique living situation, Ruby has always walked the blurred line between need and privilege, but that line becomes ever more stark and tensions begin to rise and rise higher throughout this single, fateful day. Beautiful writing and dark humor make The Party Upstairs an engaging study of the many facets of classism.
C Pam Zhang breathes life into an often-untold story of the American West with this fiercely stunning debut novel. I didn't realize how much I needed How Much of These Hills Is Gold until it was in my hands and I was unable to put it down. As Chinese as it is American, Zhang's reimagining of 19th-century history still feels relevant today as it chews through the complexities of being an immigrant in this country. — Rachel M.
He Came in With It is the profoundly moving memoir of Miriam Feldman, artist, wife, mother of four, including her son, Nick, who has schizophrenia. The details of Nick's journey deeper and deeper into mental illness are harrowing. Feldman pulls no punches, but there is also lots of humor and heart in these pages as she navigates caregiving, family, the extreme failings of the country's health system, and her own conflicting feelings surrounding appearances, shame, and love. It's a beautifully written portrait of resilience and persistence. Miriam Feldman has said she wrote this book so the world may know what an extraordinary human her son is, and that wish and that truth shine in this book.
Pass With Care is a remarkable and creative journey of trans strength, queer joy, and finding your own self and your own people. Essays, poetry, narrative nonfiction: this book is an album of beauty and humanity. Cooper Lee Bombardier allows his life entry into the heart of the reader. — Doug C.
Phuc Tran and his family fled their home country for America in the fall of Saigon, ending up in a town called Carlisle in South Central Pennsylvania. As he grew from toddler to teenager, enduring racism of all degrees, feeling less-than and left out, Tran began to find solace, and to find himself, in a love of two very different art forms: classical literature and punk rock. With a pleasantly meandering voice and a quirky sense of humor, spinning droll descriptions of his personal immigrant experience (for instance entering middle school with the less-than-fortunate, at least in America, name of Phuc) but not shying away from some really dark moments, Tran pays tribute to the interests that shaped his identity in this sweet and irreverent coming-of-age story.
An accused terrorist, an aspiring actress, and a P.E. teacher... Three narratives so incongruous they could serve as the setup for a joke instead intertwine to form this compelling literary debut. With powerful (and timely) social commentary, empathetic character development, and a propulsive plot, A Burning does not disappoint. I held out hope for every hopeless character, and marveled at Majumdar’s skill — I can’t wait to see what else she has in store. — Tove H.
I wanted to end this list with something a little different: a zine. In April, writer/publisher Laura Stanfill had her first big loss of the coronavirus crisis, the death of her childhood best friend. As her family sheltered in place in their home, her two daughters digested Stanfill's profound grief in their own ways, and their distress compounded her own. Sad House came out of those layers of grief, the daily stresses of life during COVIDtime, and Stanfill's efforts to use creativity and compassion in caring for herself and her family. The publisher calls this zine a guide, and it is that, but there's so much more packed into its small pages. Written in sumptuous prose, Sad House is a portrait of loss and resilience, going to the sore places without self-indulgence, and finding the joy places even in times as dark as these.