collage of book covers

There's something uniquely enticing about a debut novel, so when we asked Penguin readers on social media to tell us about their favourites, we were quickly inundated with recommendations.

From iconic murder mysteries to literary takes on modern Britain, weepy love stories to spine-chilling horror, we’ve rounded up the most popular picks below.

And if you fancy a debut voice from 2021, we have just the selection to suit all tastes – check out our essential edit here.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt (1992)

We said: Donna Tartt’s murder mystery novel about a group of charismatic misfits at an elite New England college is such a cult favourite, it even inspired an entire subculture of social media – the ‘Dark Academia’ aesthetic currently sweeping TikTok. Think muted cardigans, autumnal tweed, with a dash of existential dread.

You said: Strange, compelling, beautiful. Written by someone who knows their craft so well you'd have thought this was their tenth rather than their first publication.

@hooky84 on Instagram

Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson (2021)

We said: Named one of the Guardian’s ‘10 best debut novelists of 2021’, Caleb Azumah Nelson’s Open Water is the short but powerful story of two young Black British artists who fall in love.

You said: A beautifully written novel by a wonderful writer, it truly takes you into the minds and hearts of its characters. The novel also introduced me to a culture I didn't know enough about. Combined with Steve McQueen's Small Axe, a 2021 cultural highlight.

@NathanFrancis_ on Twitter

Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh (1993)

We said: You’ll have seen Danny Boyle’s famous film, but have you read the book that inspired it? Irvine Welsh lays bare the grim inevitabilities of addiction in his raw and witty debut that stands as perhaps the most iconic British book of the 1990s.

You said: At first the dialect can be difficult to read but stick with it. Great story and characters. Depicts a class and culture not often written about at the time.

Robin H on Facebook

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke (2004)

We said: In her genre-bending, award-winning debut, Susanna Clarke weaves a wonderfully convincing alternate history of Georgian England, imbued with magic.

You said: It’s hard to believe it was her debut. Complex, fantastical historical fiction that reads like a cross between Charlotte Brontë and Harry Potter.

Erin B on Facebook

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison (1970)

We said: A powerful examination of our obsession with beauty and conformity, Toni Morrison’s first novel changed the American literary landscape – immersing us in the lives of a poor Black family in post-Depression 1940s Ohio.

You said: One of the most important books of the 20th century.

@_.chasingliberty._ on Instagram

The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams (2021)

We said: Ever wondered how the Oxford English Dictionary was created? Pip Williams fictionalises the true origin story of the OED in The Dictionary of Lost Words, an international-bestseller and love letter to words and language.

You said: A wonderful read!

@moodymooderson on Twitter

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles (2011)

We said: Author of lockdown favourite A Gentleman in Moscow, Amor Towles’ first novel is a slick, coming-of-age story set in the upper echelons of New York society, 1937.

You said: Every word is perfect. You'll be dying to know what happens and, as soon as you've finished it, you'll go back to the start to revel in the language.

Sarah M on Facebook

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818)

We said: Mary Shelley was just 18 years old when she wrote the book that launched the modern horror genre, about Doctor Victor Frankenstein and his monstrous creation.

You said: It's such an important piece of literature in more ways than one. A young woman writing what is considered to be the first sci-fi novel. The psychology of it makes you question your personal beliefs and those of society. Plus, the story behind the story and why it was written is great too!

@whirlwind_of_reveries on Instagram

The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie (1920)

We said: Can you solve the murder of wealthy, old woman, Emily Inglethorp? Written during the First World War, The Mysterious Affair... introduced readers both to the ‘Queen of Crime’ and brilliant retired detective, Hercule Poirot.

You said: She created complex characters in a short story format that blew my mind. Every time I read a book of hers I am lost in the story and feel as though I am solving the case alongside M Poirot himself.

@justkatereading on Instagram

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy (1997)

We said: A lyrical meditation on growing up amid political turbulence in Kerala, The God of Small Things won the 1997 Booker Prize and transformed Arundhati Roy into a literary sensation.  

You said: A brilliant debut novel. She pretty much created her own language in that book.

@the_perksofbeingareader on Instagram

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (2011)

We said: Part coming-of-age love story, part time-hopping magical fantasy, there are so many different things to love about Erin Morgenstern’s epic debut.

You said: Loved her second book as much, if not more. Can't wait to see what she comes up with next!

Heidi C on Twitter

Assembly by Natasha Brown (2021)

We said: Natasha Brown’s short but powerful debut follows an unnamed Black British woman as she navigates the world of investment banking – casual racism, lean-in feminism and all – before being faced with a life-or-death decision.

You said: This is incredible. Moves the English novel on. Slim book, massive importance.

@maxjohnporter on Twitter

Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson (1995)

We said: Kate Atkinson’s outrageously funny family saga caused something of a media frenzy when it beat Salman Rushdie (and other established writers) to win the Costa Book of the Year Award in 1995.

You said: We're spoilt for choice, but I'd say my favourite debut novel of all time is Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson.

@nicmira1 on Instagram

Carrie by Stephen King (1974)

We said: Known to many as ‘the father of modern horror writing’, King’s macabre novel about a teenage outcast with paranormal powers is as legendary and chilling as the cult slasher film it inspired. 

You said: Narrative brilliance right out of the gate, with so much more to come.

@randall_perry on Instagram

White Teeth by Zadie Smith (2000)

We said: Zadie Smith paints an unforgettable portrait of multicultural Britain in her international bestseller and modern classic, White Teeth

You said: Blew me away, especially as she was so young when she wrote it!

@paperbacksandplaylists on Instagram

The Chalk Man by C. J. Tudor (2018)

We said: Soon to be adapted into a six-part BBC drama series, C. J. Tudor’s debut is a deliciously dark thriller with a truly creepy finale. Who needs sleep, anyway?

You said: Such a cleverly crafted thriller. The answer is staring you in the face, but you won’t realise until the very end!

@monsieurmarple on Instagram

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