There are a lot of heavy hitters this year at BEA, and plenty of books generating excitement. But four titles consistently came up in conversations with book buyers: Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad, The Nix by Nathan Hill, Commonwealth by Ann Patchett, and The Girls by Emma Cline.
Top of that list is Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, coming from Doubleday in September. It’s the story of a young woman trying to escape bondage and make it to the North from the Antebellum South. Bill Carl, assistant manager of Wellesley books in Wellesley, Mass., says he’s “so excited, I’m jumping up and down.” Jake Cumsky-Whitlock, head buyer at Kramerbooks & Afterwords in Washington, D.C., calls The Underground Railroad “an unflinching, arresting, and unforgettable book.” He says he has “high hopes that this will be the title to vault Whitehead to the next plateau of recognition.” Matt Keliher, manager at Subtext Books in St. Paul, Minn., calls Whitehead’s book “an absolute bombshell.”
Next is a debut novel, The Nix by Nathan Hill (Knopf, Aug.) which Cathy Langer, head buyer at Tattered Cover Books in Denver, Colo., says “has some of the funniest writing I’ve read in years. And the 1968 Chicago Convention [where the book is set] is so timely.” Valerie Koehler of Blue Willow Bookshop in Houston, Tex., is another fan: “The staff is going to do a bookclub this summer with this one.” Jamie Fiocco of Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, N.C., says The Nix is “very entertaining. I think folks are really going to like his style. It’s a big book but reads very quickly.” Jamie Thomas, the store manager of Women & Children first in Chicago said it’s “the newest in a long line of fat, bold debut novels. But it’s the most assured I’ve read in a long time.”
Then there’s Commonwealth (Harper, Sept.), Ann Patchett’s new novel that Langer says has “fans chomping at the bit.” Matt Norcross, co-owner of McLean & Eakin Booksellers in Petoskey, Mich., calls Patchett’s latest “quick and snappy. A thoroughly enjoyable take on the modern family—heartwarming but with complications and tragedy.”
The Girls, the debut novel that won a headline-grabbing advance for author Emma Cline from Random House, is exciting booksellers. “It’s easy to see it as simply the gripping story of a young woman caught up in a violent hippie cult, yet it’s Cline’s unsparing examination of young women’s relationships that will stay with me long after the chills have gone away,” says David Enyeart of Common Good Books in St. Paul, Minn. Sarah Hollenbeck, co-owner of Chicago's Women & Children First, says that The Girls “captures so viscerally what it is to be young and female—the serrated desire to be desired, the vulnerability, and the loneliness that feels like forever.”
Plenty of other books are on booksellers’ radars. Paul Yamazaki, the head buyer of City Lights Booksellers in San Francisco, weighs in on several of his favorites, from Jonathan Safran Foer’s Here I Am (FSG, Sept.), which he predicts will be very big, to Mauro Javier Cardenas’s The Revolutionaries Try Again (Coffee House, Sept.). “He’s a tremendously skilled storyteller and monologuist; his writing is so exuberant.” Yamazaki is also bullish on Tim Murphy’s Cristadora (Grove, Aug.). “It’s the best novel I’ve ever read about the cost of activism.” Another of his picks is Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America (Norton, Sept.) by Patrick Phillips, in which Phillips looks at the Atlanta suburb where he grew up and questions why the community is so white. Yamazaki is “particularly impressed that Phillips writes with a poet’s view.”
Vivien Jennings, the owner of Rainy Day Books in Fairway, Kan., says she’s looking forward to Candice Millard’s new book, Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, A Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill from Doubleday. “This is her best book yet,” Jennings says. “She always makes history come alive through the individuals, and our customers have been anxiously awaiting this new book.” Maria Semple’s new novel, Today Will Be Different (Little Brown, Oct.) is another one that Jennings expects to be big. “Everybody wants to know where is Maria Semple going to go next after Where’d You Go Bernadette?” Jennings says.
Langer has some big non-fiction on her list, starting with the Eleanor Roosevelt biography by Blanche Wiesen Cook, Eleanor Roosevelt, Volume 3, The War Years and After 1939-1962 (Viking, Oct). “We know it will do incredibly well,” Langer says. “Blanche Cook’s biographies are tried and true.”
Then there’s Marrow: A Love Story by Elizabeth Lesser (Harper Wave, Sept.). “It’s offbeat. It’s about the author’s struggles with her sister’s cancer. It’s about deep sibling love,” Langer says. “I think it’s going to touch a lot of hearts, as we say, and the writing is incredible.”
Another is Truevine: Two Brothers, A Kidnapping, and a Mother’s Quest: A True Story of the Jim Crow South by Beth Macy (Little Brown, Oct.) about two African-American brothers in the 1890s who are kidnapped and sold to the circus. Their mother, a maid, spends years looking for them. “It’s well-written investigative journalism going back over 100 years. It’s an interesting premise as well.” And, Langer adds, Tattered Cover did well with the author’s previous book, Factory Man.
She loved Amor Towles' latest novel, A Gentleman in Moscow (Viking, Sept): “fabulous and the perspective on the early decades of the Soviet Union from the viewpoint of an aristocrat under house arrest in the Metropole Hotel is really provocative.” And a debut on her must-read list is Mischling by Affinity Konar (Lee Boudreaux, Sept.).
Angela Schwesnedl, the co-owner of Moon Palace Books in Minneapolis, Minn., and a first-time BEA attendee, made a serious effort to grab The Mothers by Brit Bennet (Riverhead, Oct) and is looking forward to Marcy Dermansky's The Red Car (Liveright, Oct.)
From revered small presses, there’s Martin Seay’s The Mirror Thief (Melville House, May) which is exciting Matt Keliher, the manager at Subtext Books in St. Paul, Minn. Gina Frangello’s novel Every Kind of Wanting (Counterpoint, Sept.) is a favorite of Sarah Hollenbeck, who calls it “gorgeous.” The Ghosts of Birds (New Directions, Oct.) by Eliot Weinberger will be a big title for Jeff Deutsch, director of the Seminary Coop in Chicago. “Weinberger is a literary giant and any new collection of his should be cause for celebration,” Deutsch says.
And we are always on the lookout for a quirk, as is David Enyeart, who calls the memoir GoatMan: How I Took a Holiday from Being Human by Thomas Thwaites (Princeton Architectural Press, May) in which Thwaites aims to escape the pressures of modern life by becoming a goat. “Thwaites is pleasant company on his oddball exploration, and by the time he’s scampering across an alpine meadow with a herd of real goats, readers of this unusual little book will have a new appreciation of what it means to be an artist and a human being.”
Update: Affinity Konar's surname was incorrect in an earlier version of this story and has been corrected.