In book publishing, as in life, timing is everything. Thanks to the recent death of Kim Jong-il, a couple of novels set in North Korea are getting lots of buzz going into the American Booksellers Association's seventh annual Winter Institute, to be held next week in New Orleans. (Nearly 70 authors will be guests and more than 200 galleys will be available for the 500 booksellers who attend.)
The most buzzed book hands-down is Adam Johnson's The Orphan Master's Son. Published by Random House this week, the novel is about an orphaned boy who descends into an underworld of kidnapping and navigates the propaganda-filled and treacherous world of Dear Leader. The book is getting a lot of praise, which makes the booksellers we spoke with even more delighted that Johnson will be at the Winter Institute so that they can meet him.
"It just feels so original," said Robert Sindelar of Third Place Books, Lake Forest Park, Wash. "With every scene I think, 'I haven't read anything like this.' It's almost as if Kafka wrote a thriller." He emphasized, however, that the resulting book is not a typical thriller.
The other WI7 buzz book set in North Korea is All Woman and Springtime, a debut by Brandon Jones (Algonquin, May). While The Orphan Master's Son gives us a boy's story, All Woman and Springtime is in some ways a female equivalent--about orphaned girls who wind up as sex slaves.
"I love to get a debut and push it," said Lanora Haradon, owner of Next Chapter Books in Mequon, Wis., who predicted The Orphan Master's Son will be shortlisted for several awards and will make many end-of-year lists, and is also excited about All Woman and Springtime.
The Winter Institute has become an increasingly important way of establishing books, particularly by new or unknown authors. Veteran book buyer Paul Yamazaki at City Lights in San Francisco said that one-on-one time with authors helps him translate his enthusiasm for their books both to his customers and to staffers who do not go to the Winter Institute. "For a bookseller, it makes the connection deeper," said Yamazaki.
Geoffrey Jennings from Rainy Day Books in Fairway, Kan., wished there were a bookseller competition to sell the most copies of a title discovered at the Winter Institute. Jennings's track record is impressive and shows the power of the annual conference: last year he sold 500 copies of Wingshooters by Nina Revoyr (Akashic) and the year before did the same for Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes (Grove).
Other debut novels are attracting great interest. Cathy Langer, buyer at the Tattered Cover, Denver, Colo., has kind words for A Land More Kind than Home by Wiley Cash (Morrow, May). Cash, who hails from the North Carolina mountains in which he set his novel, left his home state to study at the University of Louisiana with Ernest Gaines, whom he describes as "the South's greatest living writer." Compared with Tom Franklin, John Hart and Peter Dexter, Cash's story involves a mother and two sons (one who is mentally disabled), and a creepy charismatic preacher in a church with questionable practices. "It's beautifully written," said Langer.
Mitchell Kaplan, owner of Books & Books with stores in southern Florida, the Cayman Islands and Westhampton Beach, N.Y., was so taken with the debut novel by Kris D'Agostino, The Sleepy Hollow Family Almanac (Algonquin, March), that he acquired the film rights. "Everything Algonquin publishes is terrific," observed Books & Books events coordinator Cristina Nosti.
Haradon echoed the sentiment about Algonquin's publishing track record, calling it her "own little weakness" to read anything the company publishes. Of course, it was Algonquin's success with Sara Gruen's debut, Water for Elephants, that set the Winter Institute as the bestseller-in-the-making event in its first year.
According to Langer, one of the debuts that got passed around among the Tattered Cover staff this fall was The Book of Jonas by Stephen Dau (Blue Rider/Penguin, March). It's about an Muslim war orphan and his relationship to the American soldier who saved him and his awkward adjustment to life in Pennsylvania. "It's spare, clean prose," said Langer.
Bookseller-turned-author debut is a particular favorite indie handsell opportunity, so many eagerly anticipate The Snow Child (Reagan Arthur/Hachette, Feb.) by Eowyn Ivey, who works at Fireside Books in Palmer, Alaska. In the book, set in 1920 Alaska, a childless homesteading couple build a snow child during the first snowfall, only to discover the next morning that the snow child is gone and a strange towheaded girl is wandering in the woods near their home. "I love the premise," said Jennings.
Valerie Koehler, owner of Blue Willow Bookshop in Houston, hails A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar (Bloomsbury, May), the debut novel by Suzanne Joinson, as this year's read for lovers of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and Major Pettigrew's Last Stand. The book is about two missionary sisters who travel the Silk Road toward Kashgar in 1923.
Maryelizabeth Hart, events coordinator of Mysterious Galaxy in San Diego and Redondo Beach, Calif., said she is excited about children's author Robin LaFevers's debut in young adult fiction, Grave Mercy (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, April), the first of a trilogy. Set in Brittany in the Middle Ages, the story is about a young girl born with the mark of death who is rescued and brought to a convent of assassin nuns. "Anytime you get to use the phrase 'assassin nuns,' you've pretty much got a winner," said Hart.
Another YA title, John Green's The Fault in Our Stars, just published by Dutton, will make him one of the most sought after authors at WI7. "If they don't give that guy the National Book Award, then it's rigged," said Jennings. "He writes such authentic characters and really gets into the minds of these kids."
Among the authors in attendance are some indie bookseller favorites who have new adult titles, including Richard Ford, Chris Cleave, Lauren Groff and Katherine Howe. Canada (Ecco, May) is Ford's first novel in five years. Groff follows up her bestselling The Monsters of Templeton with Arcadia (Voice/Hyperion, March). "There's an energetic sensitivity to her writing," said Hart.
Chris Cleave of Little Bee fame fictionalizes the London Olympics in Gold, which will be published by Simon & Schuster just as the Summer Games get underway in July. For those who want a more epic period piece, Katherine Howe's The House of Velvet and Glass (Voice/Hyperion, April) focuses on a young woman dealing with the recent loss of her mother and sister on the Titanic, her brother and his actress lady friend's mysterious reappearance in Boston, and shocking secrets from her family's past.
Emily St. John Mandel, whom Michele Filgate, events coordinator at McNally Jackson in New York City, called an "indie bookseller darling," returns with The Lola Quartet (Unbridled, May). "I love the Big Six, but I also love the risks small publishers are taking on their books," said Filgate.
Good observation, Michele. In tomorrow's WI7 buzz books part two, we look at indie presses, memoirs and more. --Bridget Kinsella