As the ninth annual American Booksellers Association's Winter Institute is set to open later this month in Seattle, booksellers are enthusiastic about the author lineup. As Sheryl Cotleur from Copperfield's in Northern California said, the crop of authors on the program this year are "so stellar that they better damn well get noticed when it's prize time in November."
The top book on booksellers' radar going into WI9 is, by far, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (Scribner, May). The novel, which was 10 years in the making, is set during World War II and tells the story of a blind French girl whose father leaves her in Brittany with a shell-shocked uncle and a German orphan whose talent at repairing radio equipment makes him valuable to the Third Reich.
"It's one of those books where what's happening to the characters feels like it is happening to you," Cotleur said. Paul Hansen at Village Books in Bellingham, Wash., said reading Doerr's novel inspired him to work harder at his own writing. Bill Cusumano at Nicola's Books in Ann Arbor, Mich., compared All the Light We Cannot See with Anthony Marra's The Constellation of Vital Phenomena, as a gem of a book that booksellers will gladly place in many eager readers' hands. "It's one of the reasons we all stay in the business," he added.
Speaking of being in the book business, there are several debuts featured at Wi9 penned by industry insiders: Len Vlahos, former chief operating officer of the ABA and now executive director of the Book Industry Study Group, whose YA debut, The Scar Boys, is coming from Egmont in January; Lisa Howorth, co-founder of Square Books in Oxford, Miss., whose debut novel, Flying Shoes, is coming from Bloomsbury in June; and Amanda Maciel, a senior editor at Scholastic, whose YA debut, Tease, is coming from HarperCollins in April. We'll talk about Vlahos's and Maciel's books in our children's buzz books coverage next week; meanwhile, several booksellers who have read Howorth's Flying Shoes were delighted to report it is an accomplished debut.
"Faulkner would be very proud of Lisa," observed Cusumano, because she is taking on the tough topic of race in the deep South. Based on a tragedy in Howorth's family (the still-unsolved murder of her step-brother), the fictitious murder investigation heats back up when police unearth new evidence years later. "It transcends its regional flavor and really does become a universal story," said Cotleur.
Of the many debut authors featured at WI9, perhaps Cynthia Bond and her novel, Ruby (Hogarth, April), is getting the most buzz. Bond, whose literary mentor is Janet Fitch, is edited by Lindsay Sagnette (who edited Marra's Constellation); she's being compared with Toni Morrison, though with a voice all her own. Bond spent 15 years teaching writing to disadvantaged and LGBT youth in Los Angeles. Ruby is about the relationship between a young woman who feels like an outsider in her Texas community and an older resident who watches over her, said Sarah Bagby from Watermark Books and Café in Wichita, Kan. "Bond has this way of phrasing things and this voice that upsets your vision," Bagby noted. "She takes an ordinary phrase and flips it upside down."
Some booksellers speculated that Grove might have another Cold Mountain in the making with the July release of Painted Horses by Malcolm Brooks. It's at the top of Cotleur's WI9 debut list. In it, a young archeologist is hired by a utility company; she has a summer to prove the canyon it wants to dam is of no historical value to the Native population, which is torn between wanting jobs and preserving its land. Horses and a man who handles them are also a big part of a story Cotleur described as "gorgeously written."
Paul Hanson of Eagle Harbor Book Company, Bainbridge Island, Wash., is high on The Man Who Came Out of a Door in the Mountain by Adrianne Harun (Penguin, Feb.), and not just because the debut author is from nearby Port Townsend. The novel, about girls who go missing in British Columbia, beautifully captures the "mythological and magical aspects" of the area, Hanson said. Another debut on Hanson's radar: The Kept by James Scott (HarperCollins, Jan.), about a midwife in upstate New York who comes home to discover that all but one of her children has been murdered. "It's a literary page-turner," he said. Cathy Langer at the Tattered Cover in Denver gave the book and its strong female lead character a rave, but observed: "She has done awful things. She's her own walking darkness."
Michele Filgate from Community Bookstore in Brooklyn, N.Y., said she was looking forward to meeting social media "friend" Edan Lepucki at WI9 to hear about her debut novel, California (Little, Brown, July). "I love what I've read of hers online," she said.
For Robert Sindelar of Third Place Books, with locations in Ravenna and Lake Forest Park, Wash., a hot debut is The Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson (Ecco, June), about a Montana social worker whose daughter goes missing.
Though it's not a debut, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin (Algonquin, April) has been described by many early readers as a "love letter to booksellers and book readers." Michael Link from Joseph-Beth Booksellers said it is already a hit with staff in his stores in Ohio and Kentucky. "The writing is top notch and the story, set in a small bookstore, is wonderful," Link said. "They are going to run out of galleys, I can almost guarantee it."
There's also a bookseller subplot in Martha Woodroof's debut novel, Small Blessings (St. Martin's, Aug.), about a professor at a small women's college in Virginia with a shut-in wife whose life changes suddenly.
Debuts are not the only books being buzzed about as we approach WI9. Emily Adams, who coordinates the book clubs at Third Place, said she tries to find books that lend themselves to handselling, like The Crane Wife by Patrick Ness (Penguin Press, Jan.), which is based on a Japanese folktale. Adams admits she is a "sucker for a fairy tale," and compared the book with The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey. Ness, who is best known for his award-winning children's Chaos Walking trilogy is making the trip from London to talk about his adult novel with booksellers at WI9.
Cathy Langer said she is excited about meeting Lily King, whose Euphoria (Grove, June) is based on the life of Margaret Mead. In it, a British anthropologist is on the verge of suicide in New Guinea before he meets two colleagues--the husband is overshadowed by his wife's success. "I really loved it, but it was disturbing," said Langer; she's looking forward to asking King which details were real and which were imagined for the Mead-like character.
Rick Simonson at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Company has other commitments that will keep him from attending WI9, but he offered an interesting story about one of the authors who will be there: he recalled that Stacey D'Erasmo once worked at the Village Voice, where she regularly called indie booksellers to compile a bestseller list. Now an accomplished novelist, D'Erasmo is generating a lot of buzz for her new novel, Wonderland (Houghton, May), which is about a middle-aged female rocker; it's already gotten a blurb from REM's Michael Stipe. "There are so many badass female musicians, and it's refreshing to see a novel with that perspective," Filgate said. "I'm very curious about how she executes that."
Like Rock Bottom Remainders bandmate Stephen King, Greg Iles returned to both the stage and the page after nearly being killed in a car accident. Iles, who lost part of his leg after the 2011 accident, will be in Seattle to talk about Natchez Burning (Morrow, April), the first in a new trilogy from the thriller master that early readers say is both ambitious and a step up for a writer already at the top of his game. Natchez Burning centers on Penn Cage's efforts to clear the name of his father, a family doctor accused of murdering a nurse who worked for him in early 1960s Mississippi. As Geoffrey Jennings from Rainy Day Books in Kansas City, Kan., observed, "It's just not like anything else he has written before."
Next, in WI9 Buzz Books Part II: highly anticipated nonfiction and indie press picks. --Bridget Kinsella