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.

The books I picked & why

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The Prince of Mournful Thoughts and Other Stories

By Caroline Kim,

Book cover of The Prince of Mournful Thoughts and Other Stories

Why 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. 

Outside Is the Ocean

By Matthew Lansburgh,

Book cover of Outside Is the Ocean

Why 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. 

Mannequin and Wife: Stories

By Jen Fawke,

Book cover of Mannequin and Wife: Stories

Why 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

What Isn't Remembered: Stories

By Kristina Gorcheva-Newberry,

Book cover of What Isn't Remembered: Stories

Why 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. 

Further News of Defeat: Stories

By Michael X. Wang,

Book cover of Further News of Defeat: Stories

Why 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. 

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