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Natasha Stagg’s Surveys and More Great Debut Novels

Reading with Matt Cherry fans will know that the subject of his latest video book review is Surveys by Natasha Stagg. Colleen, Stagg’s main character, rises from obscurity to Internet fame through the power of online (over)sharing and social media hype—so it’s no great surprise that her story resonated with Mr. Cherry. Here’s an excerpt:

One day, I was not famous, the next day, I was almost famous and the temptation to go wide with that and reject my past was too great. When I was legit famous, it was hard to tell when the change had occurred... If I had been born famous, the moment I would have started engaging in social media, I would have seen this fame, not the rise of it. But first I saw the low numbers, and later, the high ones.

But let’s give Mr. Cherry the benefit of the doubt and say that he was drawn to Surveys simply because it’s such a promising debut from Stagg. As a champion of the undiscovered, Mr. Cherry must find a particular joy in the arrival of a new author on the literary scene. A great debut novel brings with it the opportunity for book lovers to share the thrill of discovery. Great debut novels also (like each instalment of Reading with Matt Cherry) create a buzz of anticipation around around the author’s next effort, whenever it may come.

So, in honor of Mr. Cherry’s latest pick, here’s a list of amazing debut novels, beginning with Surveys, that have come out in the past couple years. For all of the variety on this list, a few themes do weave their way through it: the real-life complications of connecting with people online, the implications of hiding your true identity, the emotional costs of immigration, and the wide-ranging, long-lasting effects of war and conflict.


Natasha Stagg's debut traces a few months in the life of Colleen, a twenty-three-year-old woman with almost no attachments or aspirations for her life. Working at an unsatisfying mall job in Tucson, Colleen sleepwalks through depressing office politics and tiresome one-night stands in a desultory way, becoming fully alive only at night when she's online. Colleen attains ambiguous Internet stardom when she's discovered by Jim, a semi-famous Internet icon himself. When Colleen quits her job and moves to Los Angeles to meet Jim, she immediately falls in love and begins a new life of whirlwind parties and sponsored events. The pair's relationship, launched online, makes them the Scott and Zelda of their generation, and they tour the country, cashing in on the buzz surrounding their romance. But as their fame expands, Colleen's jealousy grows obsessive.

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Wendell Wilson, a taxidermist, and Frank Clifton, a WWII veteran, meet just after the war. But, living in a declining textile town in the American South, their love holds real danger. Severing nearly all ties with the rest of the world, they carve out a home for themselves on the outskirts of town. For decades, their routine of self-reliant domesticity—Wendell's cooking, Frank's care for a yard no one sees, and the vicarious drama of courtroom TV—seems to protect them. But when Wendell finds Frank lying motionless outside at the age of eighty three, their carefully crafted life together begins to unravel. As Frank's memory and physical strength deteriorate, Wendell struggles in vain to hold on to the man he once knew. Faced with giving care beyond his capacity, he must come to terms with the consequences of half a century in seclusion: the different lives they might have lived, and the impending, inexorable loss of the one they had.


Furo Wariboko, born and bred in Lagos, wakes up on the morning of his job interview to discover he has turned into a white man with green eyes and red hair. As he hits the city streets running, still reeling from his new-found condition, Furo finds the previous dead ends of his life open out before him. As a white man in Nigeria, the world is seemingly his oyster—except for one thing: despite his radical transformation, Furo's ass remains robustly black. Blackass is a very modern satire, with a sting in the tail.

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Effia and Esi are two sisters with two very different destinies: one sold into slavery, one a slave trader's wife. The consequences of their fate reverberate through the generations that follow. Homegoing takes us from the Gold Coast of Africa to the cotton-picking plantations of Mississippi; from the missionary schools of Ghana to the dive bars of Harlem. Spanning three continents and seven generations, Yaa Gyasi has written a gripping novel that tells the very story of America itself.

Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Best First Book

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The Idiot

Selin, a tall, highly strung Turkish-American from New Jersey turns up at Harvard and finds herself dangerously overwhelmed by the challenges and possibilities of adulthood. Along the way she befriends Svetlana, a cosmopolitan Serb, and obsesses over Ivan, a mathematician from Hungary. Selin and Ivan’s relationship culminates with her spending the summer teaching English in a Hungarian village and enduring a series of surprising excursions. Throughout her journeys, Selin ponders questions about how culture and language shape who we are, how difficult it is to be a failed writer, and how baffling love is. At once clever and clueless, Batuman's heroine shows us just how messy it can be to forge a self.

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American War

Sarat Chestnut, born in Louisiana, is only six when the Second American Civil War breaks out in 2074. But even she knows that oil is outlawed, that Louisiana is half underwater, that unmanned drones fill the sky. And when her father is killed and her family is forced into Camp Patience for displaced persons, she is turned into a deadly instrument of war through the influence of a mysterious functionary. Telling her story is her nephew, Benjamin Chestnut, born during the war—part of the Miraculous Generation—now an old man confronting the dark secret of his past, his family's role in the conflict and, in particular, that of his aunt, a woman who saved his life while destroying untold others.

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Olivia Sudjic’s debut novel is one of blood ties, online identities, and our tormented efforts to connect in the digital age. At twenty-three, Alice Hare leaves England for New York. She falls in love with Manhattan, and becomes fixated on Mizuko Himura, an intriguing Japanese writer whose life has strange parallels to her own. As Alice closes in on Mizuko, her “internet twin,” realities multiply and fact and fiction begin to blur. The relationship between the two women exposes a tangle of lies and sexual encounters. Three families collide as Alice learns that the swiftest answer to an ancient question—where do we come from?—can now be found online.

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The Leavers

One morning, Deming Guo's mother, an undocumented Chinese immigrant, goes to her job at the nail salon and never comes home. With his mother gone, eleven-year-old Deming is left with no one to care for him. He is eventually adopted by two white college professors who move him from the Bronx to a small town upstate and attempt to make him over into their version of an "all-American boy." But far away from all he's ever known, Deming—now “Daniel”—struggles to reconcile his new life with his mother's disappearance and the memories of the family and community he left behind.

Winner of the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize for fiction

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Behold the Dreamers

After two long years apart, Jende Jonga has brought his wife Neni from Cameroon to join him in the land of opportunity. When Jende lands a dream job as chauffeur to a Lehman Brothers executive, Neni finds herself taken into the confidence of his glamorous wife Cindy. The Edwards are powerful and privileged: dazzling examples of what America can offer to those who are prepared to strive for it. But when the financial world is rocked by the collapse of Lehman Brothers, all four lives are upended. As fault lines appear in both marriages and secrets bubble to the surface, they must all decide how far they will go in pursuit of their dreams. 

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Live from Cairo

At the center of Live from Cairo is Dalia, an Iraqi refugee trapped in the turbulent aftermath of the 2011 Egyptian revolution. Charlie, her attorney, has forged a not-entirely-legal plan to get her out. Aos, Charlie’s translator and only friend, spends his days trying to help people through the system and his nights in Tahrir Square protesting against it. And Hana, a young and disenchanted Iraqi-American resettlement officer, must decide whether to treat Dalia’s case as merely one more piece of paperwork, or as a full-blooded human crisis. 

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P.S. If you haven't seen it yet, here's Matt Cherry's review of Surveys. Have a look and let us know what you think, in the comments below. Don't hold back—he just loves the attention.

Image courtesy CCAC North Library.


Katie is a reader, editor and note taker who works as a Content Writer at Bookwitty. Originally from Wisconsin, she's at home in Dublin.


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