The best debut story collections to read cover to cover

Who am I?

From childhood on, I’ve been drawn to storytellers, especially those who use their imagination to captivate and question. My favorite stories twist and turn, and throw light on the every day to reveal what is inexplicable, weird, wondrous, and often heartrending. My taste runs wide, and I could list dozens of favorite collections. Having released my own debut book of stories during the pandemic, I learned firsthand how difficult it can be to find readers for story collections, especially when those collections are published by smaller presses. For that reason, I’ve chosen five recent debuts from masterful authors I hope more readers will discover. 


I wrote...

How to Walk on Water and Other Stories

By Rachel Swearingen,

Book cover of How to Walk on Water and Other Stories

What is my book about?

In this spellbinding debut story collection, characters willingly open their doors to trouble. An investment banker falls for a self-made artist who turns the rooms of her apartment into eerie art installations. An au pair imagines her mundane life as film noir, endangering the infant in her care. A son pieces together the brutal attack his mother survived when he was a baby. These stories bristle with menace and charm with intimate revelations. Through nimble prose and considerable powers of observation, Swearingen takes us from Chicago, Minneapolis, and Northern Michigan, to Seattle, Venice, and elsewhere. She explores not only what it means to survive in a world marked by violence and uncertainty, but also how to celebrate what is most alive.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Prince of Mournful Thoughts and Other Stories

Rachel Swearingen Why did I love this book?

Caroline Kim’s The Prince of Mournful Thoughts is packed with stories that juggle humor and heartbreak. The book, set in California, Korea, and France, hosts a cast of rich and complex characters. Kim plumbs the experiences of Koreans and Korean-Americans with sensitivity and a fluidity that makes for a rich reading experience. “Lucia, Russell and Me,” one of my favorite pieces, follows an irreverent adolescent girl, whose family has just moved to America. That story, like the others, is filled with arresting details and characters that shift and change in unexpected ways. Other terrific stories are the genre-bending, historical titular story, and the futuristic piece about a suburban housewife and her therapy robot. Kim is an uncanny observer of everyday life and her way of seeing makes for gratifying reading. 

By Caroline Kim,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Prince of Mournful Thoughts and Other Stories as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Exploring what it means to be human through the Korean diaspora, Caroline Kim's stories feature many voices. From a teenage girl in 1980's America, to a boy growing up in the middle of the Korean War, to an immigrant father struggling to be closer to his adult daughter, or to a suburban housewife whose equilibrium depends upon a therapy robot, each character must face their less-than-ideal circumstances and find a way to overcome them without losing themselves. Language often acts as a barrier as characters try, fail, and momentarily succeed in connecting with each other. With humor, insight, and curiosity,…


Book cover of Outside Is the Ocean

Rachel Swearingen Why did I love this book?

Outside Is the Ocean reads like a novel, with stories interlinked and main characters growing more faceted as you read. The book centers on Heike, who left her native Germany after the war to settle in America, and her son Stewart, who both loves her and yearns for freedom from the drama she creates. Lansburgh presents a fascinating portrait of Heike at various junctures in her life, with a small cast of characters orbiting around her. Be prepared to be drawn into Heike’s chaotic world as you read, and to oscillate back and forth between shock and empathy. This is a book about family and enduring bonds between mother and son. That it is so beautifully crafted only adds to the delight. 

By Matthew Lansburgh,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Outside Is the Ocean as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Three days after her twentieth birthday, a young woman who grew up in Germany during World War II, crosses the Atlantic to start a new life. Outside Is the Ocean traces Heike's struggle to find love and happiness in America. After two marriages and a troubled relationship with her son, Heike adopts a disabled child from Russia, a strong-willed girl named Galina, who Heike hopes will give her the affection and companionship she craves. As Galina grows up, Heike's grasp on reality frays, and she writes a series of letters to the son she thinks has abandoned her forever. It…


Book cover of Mannequin and Wife: Stories

Rachel Swearingen Why did I love this book?

Jen Fawkes’s Mannequin and Wife is a playful, wide-ranging collection of twenty-two stories. Fawkes is a versatile story writer, adept at both realistic and speculative fiction, but she is at her best in the imaginative, genre-blending realm. I love the energy of her prose, and the sudden twists of humor as she explores unusual points of view. One of my favorite stories is “Come Back, Rita,” a retelling of Frankenstein in the form of a detective tale. The book is a smorgasbord of forms and experiments. If you enjoy Shirley Jackson and Edgar Allan Poe, and stories with a darkly comic and off-kilter vibe, you’ll enjoy Mannequin and Wife, as well as her newest collection, Tales the Devil Told Me

By Jen Fawke,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Mannequin and Wife as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In Mannequin and Wife, the debut story collection from Jen Fawkes, sharp and imaginative tales trip seamlessly across borderlands, navigating comedy and tragedy, psychological and magical realism, the mundane and the marvelous.

Readers of these adventurous fictions will encounter a flock of stenographers, the strongest woman alive, a taxidermist with anger issues, an Elephant Girl, a fairy on her lunch break, and a married couple who live with a department store mannequin. Elsewhere, an American actor impersonates a code-breaking Britisher during World War II. A mother awaiting her son's return discovers his personal ad soliciting the services of a cannibal…


Book cover of What Isn't Remembered: Stories

Rachel Swearingen Why did I love this book?

Kristina Gocheva-Newberry is a natural storyteller. Her narrators tend toward disarming authenticity. They tell it like it is, rather than censoring themselves out of politeness—a habit several of her characters see as problematic and uniquely American. What Isn’t Remembered features a plethora of characters of Russian and Armenian descent, both in the US and in Russia, and depicts their lives as citizens, immigrants, and the children of immigrants. Cultural tensions wind through the book and are tempered by startling moments of tenderness. At heart, the book is about messy relationships and the invisible histories that press and bind. What Isn’t Remembered is the perfect book to sink into on a quiet, rainy day. 

By Kristina Gorcheva-Newberry,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked What Isn't Remembered as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Winner of the Raz/Shumaker Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction, the stories in What Isn't Remembered explore the burden, the power, and the nature of love between people who often feel misplaced and estranged from their deepest selves and the world, where they cannot find a home. The characters yearn not only to redefine themselves and rebuild their relationships but also to recover lost loves-a parent, a child, a friend, a spouse, a partner.

A young man longs for his mother's love while grieving the loss of his older brother. A mother's affair sabotages her relationship with her daughter, causing…


Book cover of Further News of Defeat: Stories

Rachel Swearingen Why did I love this book?

I cannot think of a more perfect title for Michael Wang’s Further News of Defeat. Imminent loss haunts the edges of each story, ready to pounce on Wang’s indelible characters. In America, we’re often uncomfortable with this kind of storytelling. We prefer our characters to be redeemed, to either prevail over calamity or to fail due to their own weaknesses. Wang’s characters are both at the mercy of outside events and circumstances and participants in their own fates. Most of the stories are set in fictional cities and rural villages in China. War, regime and societal changes, poverty, immigration, and identity are running themes. Several of these stories are so gripping I could imagine them as longer works. Further News of Defeat is a beautifully rendered and well-researched book. 

By Michael X. Wang,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Further News of Defeat as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Steeped in a long history of violence and suffering, Michael X. Wang's debut collection of short stories interrogates personal and political events set against the backdrop of China that are both real and perceived, imagined and speculative. Wang plunges us into the fictional Chinese village of Xinchun and beyond to explore themes of tradition, family, modernity, and immigration in a country grappling with its modern identity. Violence enters the pastoral when Chinese villagers are flung down a well by Japanese soldiers and forced to abandon their crops and families to work in the coal mines, a tugboat driver dredges up…


You might also like...

Brother. Do. You. Love. Me.

By Manni Coe, Reuben Coe (illustrator),

Book cover of Brother. Do. You. Love. Me.

Manni Coe Author Of Brother. Do. You. Love. Me.

New book alert!

Who am I?

As a gay man born into an evangelical Christian family, my coming out story was wrought with pain, trauma, and separation from family and loved ones. In the same year I lost my best friend in an accident. My world tumbled and I had to crawl back to a place of reckoning. Walking became my path to healing. So when my brother Reuben, who has Down's syndrome sent me a message from the isolation of a care home in the pandemic, I knew he was in trouble. Those five words - ´brother. do. you. love. me.´changed our lives. I thought I might know a way to save him.

Manni's book list on memoirs that capture the struggle of everyday life

What is my book about?

Brother. Do. You. Love. Me. is a true story of brotherly love overcoming all. Reuben, who has Down's syndrome, was trapped in a care home during the pandemic, spiralling deeper into a non-verbal depression. From isolation and in desperation, he sent his older brother Manni a text, "brother. do. you. love. me."

This cry for help, this SOS in the sand unleashed a brotherly love that had Manni travelling back to the UK mid-pandemic to rescue his brother from the care home, and together they sheltered from the world in a cottage in deepest, darkest Dorset. There began a journey of recovery and rediscovery. Little by little, the brothers had to piece back together Reuben's world, help him to find his voice and find ways for him to trust the world again. This is a book about care, about Down's syndrome, about love. It is a story of resilience and patience in a world that Reuben thought had abandoned him.

Brother. Do. You. Love. Me.

By Manni Coe, Reuben Coe (illustrator),

What is this book about?


The story of two brothers, one with Down syndrome, and their extraordinary journey of resilience and repair.

"Profoundly moving and hugely uplifting."—Mark Haddon, author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Reuben, aged 38, was living in a home for adults with learning disabilities. He hadn’t established an independent life in the care system and was still struggling to accept that he had Down syndrome. Depressed and in a fog of antidepressants, he hadn’t spoken for over a year. The only way he expressed himself was by writing poems or drawing felt-tip scenes from his favorite musicals…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in China, isolation, and the Korean War?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about China, isolation, and the Korean War.

China Explore 570 books about China
Isolation Explore 20 books about isolation
The Korean War Explore 50 books about the Korean War