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telex from cuba

First books that don't suck

1950s Cuba, flash fiction and more: here are the top literary debuts of the past years

In sex and book writing, your first time should be special, though that’s often easier said than done. While debuts can be bad in the obvious ways, they also benefit from a certain kind of sparkle, comprised of one part leeway (“It’s great – for a first novel, I mean.”) and one part possibility of literary genius to come. They’re unencumbered by precedent, unhardened by years of having to live up to, surpass, expect better.

Offering prize money (slightly more than the 200 guineas it was at the prize’s inception in 1965) and potential, the Guardian announces the winner of its First Book Award this week, reminding us that while practice makes fully fleshed out characters and devastatingly complicated insights into how we live, the new and exciting is also pretty new and exciting. Here are ten of our picks for first books that stand on their own.

Telex from Cuba by Rachel Kushner

The insidiousness of America’s influence seeps into Kushner’s 2008 debut about expatriates in the Technicolor hotbox that was Cuba in the early 1950s. Dynamic characters with dirty secrets fill out Kushner’s solid research and thrilling story lines.

Death Is Not an Option by Suzanne Rivecca 

Has anyone ever escaped a religious upbringing without deeply ingrained issues that end up taking years to understand? Rivecca's 2011 debut story collection integrates several similar protagonists into a unified work that asks questions about victimhood, desire and the individual's relationship to society, all while never taking itself too seriously. 

AM/PM by Amelia Gray

This collection of flash fiction makes a lot of sense as the precursor to Gray’s super successful Threats, but it’s fun to read in its own right. Connecting threads of dark whimsy and weird characters – captured in 50-100-word chunks – are unexpected but never pointlessly so.

Ever by Blake Butler

When will novellas have their day in the sun? Though they often seem like the training wheels of literature, a great 100-pager can be more artful – and more satisfying – than a novel that takes a month to read. Butler’s talent for sentence-level beauty – plus an inventive use of layout and psychology – make for an unsettling read.

Legs Get Led Astray by Chloe Caldwell

The whole topic of twentysomethingness has been pretty much beaten into the ground, but Caldwell manages to take sex and shitty job nonfiction past the level of the navel gaze to universally relatable.

O Fallen Angel by Kate Zambreno 

Zambreno turns the Midwest into a bizarro fairytale featuring a psychotic housewife, high-brow literary allusions and a potent voice that refuses to relent as it links grand themes with whimsical nods to seemingly random aspects of pop culture. 

girlchild by Tupelo Hassman

Short, fragmented sections coupled with melodic – yet forceful – prose make Hassman’s 2012 debut novel feel, at times, like prose-poetry; the power of suggestion can be both shocking and heartbreaking. Insights into a lifestyle not usually depicted in literary fiction, a form often overwhelmed by the upper middle class, make this debut not only interesting, but important.

How They Were Found by Matt Bell

Everyone dies!

Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls by Alissa Nutting

This year, Nutting’s debut novel Tampa got a lot of attention for its deviant female protagonist, a relentlessly pedophilic middle school teacher who refuses to spare the reader any details. Her short story collection from 2010 is just as dark.

The Lichtenberg Figures by Ben Lerner

 We loved, in an I-must-reread-that kind of way, Lerner’s 2011 fiction debut for its smart but accessible humour and unself-conscious self-consciousness, but his first book was poetry and it came out in 2004 to similar, if less mainstream, acclaim. A mix of low and high (both marijuana and post-structuralism-related) content is woven into a sequence of 52 sonnets to create a complex but complete understanding of the relationship between life and form.