As the new season begins, Shelf Awareness has reached out to booksellers around the country to hear their picks for exciting books coming this winter and spring. Today's list, fiction, features 11 titles chosen by booksellers and reveals an extraordinarily packed start to the year for book lovers. Lists of nonfiction, young adult and middle grade, and children's and early readers will follow over the next few days.
Kicking off today's list is Universal Harvester, the second novel from author and musician John Darnielle (Wolf in White Van). Out February 7 from Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Universal Harvester is about a man named Jeremy who works at a video rental store in a rural Iowa town in the late 1990s. Customers begin to complain that the videos they rent have bizarre things taped over them, and when Jeremy takes a look at these tapes, he finds brief, dark and sometimes violent bits of home video recorded over the original film. He also notices that the bizarre recordings were apparently shot just outside of town. As Jeremy tries to trace these recordings back to their source, the town he thought he knew becomes an increasingly unfamiliar and sinister place. Lauren Peugh, the events manager at Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe and Phoenix, Ariz., said Universal Harvester was "classic Darnielle. It's unsettling, strange, and absorbing--sure to have a cult following!"
Ancient myths, Norse and otherwise, have long inspired some of Neil Gaiman's greatest work, and on February 7 he returns to the wellspring with Norse Mythology (Norton), a novelistic retelling of the foundational Norse myths and the struggles of Odin, Thor and Loki. Written in clear, compelling prose, Norse Mythology begins at the mythic creation of the world and concludes with Ragnarok, the apocalyptic war between the gods. Booksellers from WORD Bookstores in Jersey City, N.J., and Brooklyn, N.Y., and Stephanie Coleman, associate frontlist buyer at the Tattered Cover in Denver, Colo., recommended Norse Mythology.
Set in a fantastical version of the Roaring Twenties, Amberlough is the debut novel from Lara Elena Donnelly. It is the story of Cyril DePaul, a covert double agent, and Aristide Makricosta, a smuggler and DePaul's lover. After one of DePaul's secret operations goes terribly wrong, the couple's lives are more at risk than ever. As they turn to Cordelia Lehane, a cabaret dancer and herself involved in espionage, the government of Amberlough City is upended by a fascist coup. Emily Bergslien, bookseller at Magers & Quinn in Minneapolis, Minn., likened Amberlough to a cross between John le Carre's classic Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Ellen Kushner's fantasy novel Swordspoint, calling it a "fantasy thriller full of queer characters, elegant prose, moral ambiguity and spycraft." Look for it from Tor Books on February 7.
Over the past 20 years, George Saunders has won a laundry list of awards for his short stories, including the Story Prize, the PEN/Malamud Award and the Folio Prize, and has received a MacArthur Fellowship. On February 14, Random House will publish Lincoln in the Bardo, the first novel in Saunders's long career. The book begins in February of 1862, less than a year into the Civil War, as Abraham Lincoln's 11-year-old son Willie dies of a sudden illness. While President Lincoln visits the boy's tomb several times to cradle his body and grieve, Willie finds himself stuck in the bardo, the Tibetan name for a transitional, purgatory-like state that exists between lives. There Willie meets a host of other lost souls, and soon a struggle begins that threatens to claim his soul. Recommended by Sarah Brown, buyer and used book manager at Changing Hands.
Arriving in stores on February 21 is A Piece of the World, the sixth novel from Christina Baker Kline. Inspired by Andrew Wyeth's 1948 painting Christina's World, which depicts Wyeth's neighbor Christina Olson lying in a field on her family's farm in Maine, A Piece of the World blends fact with fiction in telling the story of Christina and her decades-long bond with Wyeth. Crippled by illness, Christina is hardly able to leave the farm on which she was born. Instead of succumbing to despair and isolation, she befriends Wyeth and becomes the subject of an enigmatic masterwork. "A beautifully written story based in early-to-mid 20th-century Maine," said Louise Sansom, bookseller and master of merchandising at the Learned Owl Book Shop in Hudson, Ohio. "It seamlessly blends fiction and nonfiction. A true pleasure to read." A Piece of the World will be published by Morrow, and Christina Baker Kline will be at Winter Institute.
Exit West is Mohsin Hamid's first novel since 2013's How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia. It tells the story of Nadia and Saeed, who fall in love as their unnamed country careens toward civil war. When violence finally erupts in their city and the situation becomes increasingly desperate, Saeed and Nadia decide that they have no other choice than to leave everything they know behind and seek refuge in a new country. Exit West was the most-recommended title on this list. "You can't read this and then watch the news on TV without wishing for the 'magical doors' that might open for all human beings under siege," said Gayle Shanks, co-owner of Changing Hands Bookstore. "Brilliant writing and a very timely and important book." Suzanna Hermans, co-owner of Oblong Books & Music in Rhinebeck and Millerton, N.Y., said Exit West "could be the literary event of the spring." The book will be out from Riverhead Books on March 7.
Andrea Bern, the protagonist of Jami Attenberg's new novel, All Grown Up, is single and child-free at 39 years old. She seems to watch from the sidelines as the people around her, including her best friend, her brother and her sister-in-law, reach life's milestones while she has no idea what she's doing. After her brother and sister-in-law's baby is born with a congenital illness, Andrea's perception of life starts to radically change. "Jami Attenberg's work has long been a favorite of mine," said Suzanna Hermans, "and her newest hits me right in the heart. Her narrator's voice is incredibly authentic, at times painfully so, and the structure of connected stories serves to further the theme of a life in pieces. I loved this book!" All Grown Up is coming March 7 from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
One of the Boys, a slim, tightly written novel set in the suburbs of New Mexico, marks the fiction debut of Daniel Magariel. It is the story of two brothers, one 12 years old and the other slightly older, who move with their father to Albuquerque after he wins a bitter custody battle. While the boys eagerly start their new lives, their father's behavior becomes increasingly suspicious and ultimately dangerous, until their life at home becomes a fight for survival. Sherri Gallentine, head book buyer at Vroman's Bookstore in Pasadena, Calif., said that One of the Boys "kind of hit me in the gut, this one. It really blew me away." And Joel Magruder, bookseller at Changing Hands, said that the novel reads fast and "packs a mean, mean punch." Scribner publishes the book March 14.
Elif Batuman's The Idiot opens in 1995 when Selin, the daughter of Turkish immigrants, starts her freshman year at Harvard. She makes friends with a worldly, charismatic classmate from Serbia named Svetlana and begins a correspondence with Ivan, an older Hungarian student. Though their relationship exists almost exclusively through e-mail, Selin and Ivan form a connection, and after the academic year ends, Selin travels to Hungary to teach English in a rural community. While in Europe, Selin spends two weeks in Paris with Svetlana, and throughout her journey she confronts the uncertainty of adulthood and the growing realization that she is meant to be a writer. Likened to James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, The Idiot was recommended by Sherri Gallentine of Vroman's Bookstore and Hannah Oliver Depp of WORD. Look for it March 14 from Penguin Press.
In her second novel, The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley (Dial Press), Hannah Tinti tells the story of Samuel and his daughter, Loo. For the first 12 years of her life, Loo has lived an itinerant existence, traveling from motel to motel while her father tries to outrun his criminal past. Samuel eventually decides that Loo needs a normal life, and the pair settle in Olympus, Mass., where Loo's deceased mother grew up. Samuel finds work as a fisherman and Loo attempts to live the life of a normal high schooler, but Loo wonders more and more about what happened to her mother and the mystery behind the scars--a dozen bullet holes--that cover Samuel's body. Soon she starts to unravel a family history that is deeper and darker than she ever could have guessed. Mark Laframboise, buyer at Politics & Prose in Washington, D.C., called Loo "one of the most memorable characters in recent fiction. For me, she steals the novel." Available March 28.
Rounding out today's list is Marlena, Julie Buntin's debut novel. At the age of 15, Cat moves to a rural town in Michigan. She feels lonely and isolated until she meets Marlena, whose manic energy and beauty immediately draw her in. Cat's next year is a whirlwind as they tear through their small town. But Marlena's nascent drug use becomes a dangerous addiction and she is found dead. As an adult, Cat can still vividly recall her friendship with Marlena, and she must struggle to come to terms with her friend's death and her role in it. Lauren Peugh of Changing Hands said that Marlena was an "exquisite, assured debut," and the quick-reading novel reminded her of the work of Megan Abbott. It'll be in stores on April 4 from Holt. --Alex Mutter