From the story of Esme reclaiming the words of women to a story of young love on the run in a classic American road-trip with a twist. From a modern heroine trying to find belonging in 21st-century Britain to an anti-heroine who will work her magic on you. And finally, a dark and funny look at a toxic relationship and the secrets of female desire. We asked five Vintage colleagues to pick the debut novels they have been most excited about this year – and here is what they said…

Acts of Desperation by Megan Nolan (March 2021), chosen by Sophie Painter

Reading Acts of Desperation feels like making a brilliant, funny, brutally honest new friend. Megan Nolan perfectly depicts the experience of intense, unhealthy, co-dependent love and how dangerous it can be to have your self-worth tied up within that. It’s the sort of book you find yourself thinking about for weeks and months afterwards, suddenly remembering a sharp observation or being stung by something painfully relatable all over again. I want to hand a copy to every woman that I knew in my twenties so it can stand as proof of how common our unhappy and painful experiences of relationships were, but also as a reminder of how far we’ve come. 

The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams (April 2021), chosen by Clara Farmer

This gorgeous novel tells the story of the making of the Oxford English Dictionary (that great Victorian enterprise) from the perspective of a daughter of one of the lexicographers. Based on a true fact, that the word ‘bondmaid’ got left out of the first volume of the dictionary, Pip Williams has imagined a fictional heroine, Esme, who steals the word and uses it to start to compile her own version of the dictionary, often relating to women’s experiences which at that time went unrecorded. Set against the burgeoning suffrage moment and the Great War to come, Esme’s social and political awakening combines with a heart-tugging love story. Pip Williams’ inspiring book about the agency of early 20th-century women, the importance of words and who gets to speak them, also speaks powerfully to our present moment. 

Highway Blue by Ailsa McFarlane (May 2021), chosen by Kate Harvey

Highway Blue is the story of a young couple, Anne Marie and Cal, who after two years of estrangement find themselves together on the run. Their journey, driving south in a beat-up car and back into their short married life, sees Anne Marie at last beginning to find her singular place in the world. The book explores how vulnerable we are when we love someone, and the vertigo that comes with being an observer rather than a participant in your own life. That it does so with cinematic intensity is only one part of its appeal; another is that echoes of the American greats are there in its rhythms and its vast landscapes – I’m thinking of Yates, Carver, Denis Johnson, Joan Didion, and more recently also Ottessa Moshfegh and Emma Cline. I love this book! Ailsa McFarlane has an absolutely exceptional voice.

Three Rooms by Jo Hamya (July 2021), chosen by Ana Fletcher

In Three Rooms, Jo Hamya has written one of the most astute and moving novels I’ve ever read about the aspirations and challenges faced by her generation as it finds a footing in the world. Set over the course of a year, from autumn 2018 to summer 2019, it tracks a young woman trying to survive on a series of temporary contracts that deny her the security and stability she’s been promised will be hers – if only she works hard enough. Fuelled by despair and optimism in equal measure, the novel poignantly explores politics, race and belonging, as Jo asks us to consider the true cost of living as a young person in 21st-century England.


Never Saw Me Coming by Vera Kurian (Sept 2021), chosen by Liz Foley

During lockdown I initially found it really hard to read and this book – along with Such a Fun Age – cured me. It’s smart and gripping and features the greatest murderous heroine since Villanelle. Chloe looks like an ordinary university student, but she’s actually a psychopath with an IQ of 135. She’s enrolled in a secret Psychology Department study which requires her to log her emotional responses as she goes about a normal college life of parties and lectures. But when two students are murdered, she discovers there are more like her on campus and things get complicated. Vera Kurian is a social psychologist, and her approach to her characters is fascinatingly nuanced. Never Saw Me Coming is a book you rip through and find yourself thinking about long after you’ve finished.

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