In galley or book form, hundreds of titles were there for the taking on the floor of the American Library Association’s Midwinter conference, and tracking what went fastest says a lot about what people are interested in reading today. The escapist pleasures of a good thriller still attract, and the hottest hotcakes of the genre proved to be Corban Addison’s African-set political thriller, The Garden of Burning Sand (Quercus); David Downing’s early 1900s Jack of Spies (Soho); Mo Hayder’s Wolf, Grove Atlantic’s big mover; Greg Iles’s Natchez Burning (Morrow), first in trilogy exploring Southern racial violence; Swedish star Camilla Läckberg’s The Hidden Child (Pegasus); James Rollins & Grant Blackwood’s series starter, The Killer Switch (Morrow); and Chris Pavone’s The Accident (Crown), follow-up to his smashing debut, The Expats.
Aside from big-name authors, these books mostly share an edgy political/historical awareness often seen in good thriller writing today. Other snapped-up commercial fiction by big-name authors included Paula Brackston’s The Midnight Witch (Thomas Dunne: St. Martin’s), Larry McMurtry’s The Last Kind Words Saloon (Norton), and M.D. Waters’s Prototype (Dutton), following Waters’s breakout sf debut, Archetype. Some newbie mysteries were standouts, too. Most of the galleys for Tom Bouman’s rural Pennsylvania–set Dry Bones in the Valley (Norton) vanished at a Saturday signing, with the rest gone by Sunday, while Peggy Blair’s The Poisoned Pawn: An Inspector Ramirez Novel (Pintail), a second book after the successful The Beggar’s Opera, did nicely at the Penguin booth.
The popularity of these titles hardly surprises, but elsewhere in fiction, the galley giveaway game took some surprising and insightful turns. Upscale, intelligently layered historical work drew attention, starting with Simon & Schuster’s most in-demand titles, Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See (Scribner) and Jennifer Vanderbes’s The Secret of Raven’s Point (Scribner), both set during World War II, and Alice Hoffman’s early 1900s New York fantasia, The Museum of Extraordinary Things (Scribner). At the Harper booth, Brian Payton’s LibraryReads pick, The Wind Is Not a River (Ecco), limns love and survival while depicting the only World War II battle to take place on what is now American soil, in the shivery Aleutian Islands.
Among the top titles at Penguin’s booth were Granta Best Young British Novelist Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird (Riverhead), a modern retelling of the Snow White tale examining racial issues in a 1950s upstate New York setting; Carnegie Medal winner Patrick Ness’s The Crane Wife (Penguin Pr.), a London-set retelling for adults of a Japanese folktale; and Elizabeth Blackwell’s While Beauty Slept (Amy Einhorn: Putnam), an entirely new look at the Sleeping Beauty story. Add to that the big interest at the Harper booth in Laline Paull’s The Bees (Ecco), about one worker bee’s rebellion against the strictures of her rigidly hierarchical hive, and one senses that telling or retelling fable, fairy tale, and fantasy to clarify significant social issues has particular appeal.
Fiction taking a fresh look at the impact of today’s technology also appeals. Among the two top giveaways at the Hachette booth, National Book Award finalist Joshua Ferris’s To Rise Again at a Decent Hour (Little, Brown) depicts a man whose online impersonator is turning out to be better than the original. Over at the Random House booth, Alena Graedon’s The Word Exchange (Doubleday) offers an uncomfortably if easily envisioned world where print is dead, handheld devices rule, and language is a marketplace commodity. Cyberespionage serves as the premise of David Ignatius’s The Director, a sought-out thriller from Norton.
Norton had special success with two books looking closely at community. Alexi Zentner’s The Lobster Kings, a grandly conceived tale about a Maine lobstering family, and Mave Fellowes’s Chaplin and Company, whose setting is a canal neighborhood in London, each started out with 100 galleys that were gone by Sunday. (Fellowes’s book is said to be quirkily charming, like Gabrielle Zevin’s The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, a big hit for Algonquin.) Random House could also have used more than its 50 copies of Chris Bohjalian’s Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands (Doubleday), which features an entire region shattered by nuclear-plant meltdown and one teenager’s efforts to reconnect. Sadie Jones’s Fallout (Harper), one of a half-dozen hot HarperCollins titles, is not about nuclear meltdown but instead the efforts of several young people to connect in contemporary London.
Relationships meet suspense in several galleys that created a stir at the conference. Tom Rob Smith, who’s been delivering topnotch thrillers, departs somewhat with The Farm (Grand Central), whose protagonist cannot sort out which parent is lying to him—and these lies are dangerous. Debut novelist Laura McHugh’s The Weight of Blood (Spiegel & Grau) depicts an ingrown Ozarks community undone by two disappearances decades apart. In Patry Francis’s The Orphans at Race Point (Harper Perennial), a paperback original that follows Francis’s acclaimed The Liar’s Diary and has a good foreign rights–sales record, Hallie and Gus are bound together as children by tragedy, pulled apart by another tragedy as teenagers, then face the consequences a decade later.
The top nonfiction galley pick-ups I learned about were strikingly serious, with Shane Bauer & others’ A Sliver of Light: Three Americans Imprisoned in Iran (Houghton Harcourt) and Steven Pressman’s 50 Children: One Ordinary American Couple’s Extraordinary Rescue Mission into the Heart of Nazi Germany (Harper) taking the lead. Two memoirs that got special attention were serious, too: Walter Kirn’s Blood Will Out: The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery, and a Masquerade (Norton) considers issues of trust and identity as Kirn details his relationship with infamous imposter Clark Rockefeller, while Sean Madigan Hoen’s Songs Only You Know (Soho) weaves together family crisis with his depiction of the Detroit hardcore punk scene. But Sandra Tsing Loh’s The Madwoman in the Volvo: My Year of Raging Hormones (Norton), which also moved fast, is a scathingly funny look at menopause. Probably a good place to end a very demanding conference haul.