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9 Small-Press Debut Novels You May Have Missed

Small presses publish the best books.

Here at the Chicago Review of Books we already knew that independent presses publish the best books. But what surprised us this year was the number of novels we loved on indies that were also by debut novelists! Some of our favorites got significant coverage in the media, and others less so. But all of them are excellent. Our list is below. Pick up these novels for yourself or as gifts for the holidays. You’ll be supporting debut authors and independent presses while also enjoying some of the best books published this year.

Sugar Run
By Mesha Maren
Algonquin Books

“Set within the charged insularity of rural West Virginia, Mesha Maren’s Sugar Run is a searing and gritty debut about making a break for another life, the use and treachery of makeshift families, and how, no matter the distance we think we’ve traveled from the mistakes we’ve made, too often we find ourselves standing in precisely the place we began.”

To Keep the Sun Alive
Rabeah Ghaffari
Catapult

“Told through a host of unforgettable characters, ranging from servants and young children to intimate friends, To Keep the Sun Alive reveals the personal behind the political, reminding us of the human lives that animate historical events.”

The Far Field
Madhuri Vijay
Grove Press

“With rare acumen and evocative prose, in The Far Field Madhuri Vijay masterfully examines Indian politics, class prejudice, and sexuality through the lens of an outsider, offering a profound meditation on grief, guilt, and the limits of compassion.”

House of Stone
Novuyo Rosa Tshuma
W. W. Norton & Company

“Pulsing with wit, seduction, and dark humor, House of Stone is a sweeping epic that spans the fall of Rhodesia through Zimbabwe’s turbulent beginnings, exploring the persistence of the oppressed in a young nation seeking an identity, but built on forgetting.”

The Atlas of Reds and Blues: A Novel
By Devi S. Laskar
Counterpoint

The Atlas of Reds and Blues grapples with the complexities of the second-generation American experience, what it means to be a woman of color in the workplace, and a sister, a wife, and a mother to daughters in today’s America. Drawing inspiration from the author’s own terrifying experience of a raid on her home, Devi S. Laskar’s debut novel explores, in exquisite, lyrical prose, an alternate reality that might have been.”

Mostly Dead Things
Kristen Arnett
Tin House Books

“One morning, Jessa-Lynn Morton walks into the family taxidermy shop to find that her father has committed suicide, right there on one of the metal tables. Shocked and grieving, Jessa steps up to manage the failing business, while the rest of the Morton family crumbles.”

The Paper Wasp
Lauren Acampora
Grove Press

“In small-town Michigan, Abby Graven leads a solitary life. Once a bright student on the cusp of a promising art career, she now languishes in her childhood home, trudging to and from her job as a supermarket cashier. Each day she is taunted from the magazine racks by the success of her former best friend Elise, a rising Hollywood starlet whose life in pictures Abby obsessively scrapbooks. At night Abby escapes through the films of her favorite director, Auguste Perren, a cult figure known for his creative institute the Rhizome. Inspired by Perren, Abby draws fantastical storyboards based on her often premonitory dreams, a visionary gift she keeps hidden.”

Hard Mouth
Amanda Goldblatt
Counterpoint

“Morbidly funny, subversive, and startling, Hard Mouth, the debut novel from 2018 NEA Creative Writing Fellow Amanda Goldblatt, unpacks what it means to live while others are dying.”

The Revisionaries
A. R. Moxon
Melville House

“A street preacher decked out in denim robes and running shoes, Julius is a source of inspiration for a community that knows nothing of his scandalous origins. But when a nearby mental hospital releases its patients to run amok in his neighborhood, his trusted if bedraggled flock turns expectantly to Julius to find out what’s going on. Amid the descending chaos, Julius encounters a hospital escapee who babbles prophecies of doom, and the growing palpable sense of impending danger intensifies…as does the feeling that everyone may be relying on a street preacher just a little too much.”

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