Remarkable how accomplished some first novels can be. Emily Perkins's debut, Leave Before You Go (Picador, pounds 12.95), demonstrates the same light touch that made her short-story collection a winner. Her characters fall in and out of love and work; occasionally, they wonder what life is all about. They are entirely credible, never reduced to cliche, nor is the reader thumped over the head with significant issues. Daniel's story begins in London, unhappily. An art school drop-out, his poll tax still unpaid, he makes an almost likeable fall guy. Tricked into a trip to Thailand, he finds himself carrying a package of heroin on to New Zealand. The flight, the customs officer, the 40 swallowed condoms and the theft of all his money convince him to stay away from traffickers. He ends up destitute. Enter Lucy whose boyfriend, Josh, gives Daniel a bed. Also Kate, part- time usherette, and keener on the newcomer than she will admit. The two of them travel together and encounter a random cast of oddballs. Daniel gets more attractive and less trustworthy all the way to the farcical, perfectly judged end.

A poet, with a self-help guide already published on alcohol addiction, Anne McManus has written a brainstorm of a book. Set in Sheffield and London, I was a Mate of Ronnie Laing (Canongate, pounds 8.99) describes life on the streets at its most dangerous and degraded. Charlie - in an earlier life Dr Charlotte McCloud, like McManus, an ex-academic - survives with three women friends, just. They beg, steal, starve, get drawn into abusive sex and sometimes dry out for a day or two.

R D Laing's seductive condemnation of the conventional family has provided the narrator with her excuse for self-destruction. Paradoxically, it is a mate of the late Dr Ronnie's, a Jewish psychiatrist, who convinces her that there are compromises to be made. He rescues Charlie; she recovers and works at a drop-in centre for addicts and the mentally ill. Not an easy read because the line between autobiography and fiction is blurred, this novel succeeds through its inventive use of language. It's literary, dirty and full of jokes; typically, it parodies Molly Bloom's soliloquy and ends on a defiant "No". The energy and bite of the prose echoes Alasdair Gray's.

Lucinda Roy's Lady Moses (Virago, pounds 9.99) introduces an ambitious writer whose work has great emotional force. It begins with a daughter at her mother's deathbed; the narrator Jacinta, looks back to her childhood and celebrates her larger-than-life parents, Simon Moses, an African scholar and poet, and pretty blonde Louise Buttercup. The three of them live in a beat-up house on Lavender Rise, Battersea, described in discriminating detail, as are the disgusting Beadycaps, who rent the rooms downstairs and various eccentrics such as ex-actor Alfred. Jacinta's world is secure until her father dies. After a struggle, Louise Buttercup breaks down and the little girl is pitched from children's home to foster mother and back again to Lavender Rise.

Education provides an escape route. The story sees Jacinta flourishing at London University, marrying an American, disastrously, and, at last, travelling back to her father's village in Africa. There are many strong themes in the novel, which is really two or three books log-jammed into one and often flawed - but what richness!