BookExpo Book Buzz 2017

What buzzed big at BookExpo this year? Big-name books, of course, like Pulitzer Prize winner Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach (Scribner), New York Times Best Book author Claire Messud’s The Burning Girl (Norton), and new works from National Book Award winners Jesmyn Ward (Sing, Unburied, Sing, Scribner) and Alice McDermott (The Ninth Hour, Farrar). On the commercial fiction side, buzz greeted thriller master Michael Connelly’s The Late Show (Little, Brown), super-hot Martian author Andy Weir’s Artemis (Crown), veteran blockbuster author Nelson DeMille’s The Cuban Affair (S. & S.), and the perennially best-selling Alice Hoffman’s The Rules of Magic (S. & S.).

Khizr Khan was among the nonfiction standouts, following his challenge to Donald Trump at the Democratic National Convention with An American Family: A Memoir of Hope and Sacrifice (Random). Also popular: Pulitzer Prize winner Stephen Greenblatt’s The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve; works from New York Times best sellers Caitlin Doughty (From Here to Eternity, Norton) and Mark Bowden (Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam, Atlantic Monthly), plus memoirs from beloved novelists Amy Tan (Where the Past Begins, Ecco), Ann Hood (Morningstar: Growing Up with Books, Norton), and Armistead Maupin (Logical Family, Harper).

Strikingly, though, many of the most sought-after fiction titles came from debut or rising-star authors—perhaps not surprising, with folks familiar with the old and needing to test the new. The start-out crowd got its biggest boost with A.J. Finn’s The Woman in the Window (Morrow), an already-much-discussed thriller set to publish in 35 languages in January 2018. Other chilling debuts: Jenny Rogneby’s Leona: The Die Is Cast (Other), the Ethiopian-born, Swedish-raised author’s story of a Stockholm detective unnervingly involved with a bizarre series of bank heists; Liv Constantine’s The Last Mrs. Parrish (Harper), whose antiheroine insinuates herself into the life of a golden couple she envies; and Liz Nugent’s Unraveling Oliver (Scout: Galley), about an award-winning children’s book author who inexplicably beats his wife unconscious.

More big-hit debuts included Brendan Mathews’s The World of Tomorrow (Little, Brown), a BookExpo Buzz Book about three Irish brothers in 1939 New York; Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner’s  Heather, the Totality (Little, Brown), the story of an upscale couple competing for their daughter’s affection; and Hendrik Groen’s The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen (Grand Central), a laugh-inducing international best seller fictionalizing the octogenarian author’s life at an Amsterdam nursing home.

In addition, debut hunters went after Brianna Wolfson’s Rosie Colored Glasses (Mira: Harlequin), autobiographical fiction about a daughter caught between divorced parents. A.F. Brady’s The Blind (Park Row: Harlequin), with a troubled psychiatrist treating a disturbingly normal patient; and Leah Weiss’s Appalachia-set If the Creek Don’t Rise (Sourcebooks Landmark), with newly and badly married Sadie Blue turning around her life. Carmen Maria Machado’s debut collection, Her Body and Other Parties (Graywolf), features work that got her nominated for honors as divergent as the Nebula Award and the Calvino Prize.

Some of the newly minted fiction was historical, and attendees seemed to liked theirs a touch dark, as evidenced by the popularity of Sarah Schmidt’s Lizzie Borden makeover, See What I Have Done (Atlantic Monthly). More historical debuts included Linnea Hartsuyker’s The Half-Drowned King (Harper), the kickoff to a trilogy featuring Norway’s first king, and S.A. Chakraborty’s The City of Brass (Harper Voyager), 1700s Cairo–set fantasy about a street hustler who conjures up a dark and wily djinn warrior.

Popular titles from novelists becoming household names include LJ Best Book authors Gabrielle Zevin (Young Jane Young, Algonquin) and Tayari Jones (An American Marriage, Algonquin), investigating the topical themes of slut shaming and marriage compromised by false imprisonment, respectively. Best-selling Library Picks author Jamie Ford’s Love and Other Consolation Prizes (Ballantine) tells the shocking fact-based story of a half-Chinese orphan raffled off at the 1909 Seattle World’s Fair, while the multi-best-booked Wiley Cash’s The Last Ballad (Morrow) was inspired by Ella May Wiggins, a workers-rights activist murdered in 1929 Gastonia, NC.

Family issues defined a number of in-demand works from up-and-comers. New York Times best-selling, multi-best-booked honoree Celeste Ng got attention for Little Fires Everywhere (Penguin Pr.), a deep probing of what it means to be parent, while prize-winning Book Buzz author Chloe Benjamin uses The Immortalists (Putnam) to investigate the fates of four siblings. Canadian award winner Christopher Meades’s Hanna Who Fell from the Sky (Park Row: Harlequin) features a young woman starting to question the cult to which her family belongs.

In Ivy Pochoda’s Wonder Valley (Ecco), a desert commune is home to a more largely defined, quietly threatened family. Like Pochoda, Joshua Max Feldman received high praise for earlier work and returns to establish himself with Start Without Me (Morrow), about two strangers resisting family visits at Thanksgiving.

Moving into thriller territory, LibraryReads author Rene Denfeld offers the page-turning The Child Finder (Harper), the publisher’s Lead Read for the fall. More hot thrillers: Adrian Walker’s dystopian The End of the World Running Club (Sourcebooks Landmark); David Ignatius’s The Quantum Spy (Norton), battling to built the first quantum computer; J.T. Ellison hotly demanded Lie to Me (Mira: Harlequin), about a not-so-happy golden couple; Kaira Rouda’s Best Day Ever (Graydon: Harlequin), another martial thriller about a not-so-romantic getaway; and Neil Olson’s The Black Painting (Hanover Square), about the theft of a reputedly cursed painting. Louisa Morgan’s A Secret History of Witches (Orbit) stars five generations of those shady ladies, and Agatha and Macavity Award mystery writer Sujata Massey’s The Widows of Malabar Hill (Soho) launches a new series set in 1920s Bombay.

Finally, fiction lovers turned to a few classy if not so easily classified titles. With Unforgivable Love (Morrow Paperbacks), Sophfronia Scott, previously nominated for best new author at the African American Literary Award, sets Les Liaisons Dangereuses during Jackie Robinson’s barrier-breaking summer. Rooney Prize–winning Irish writer Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones (Soho) offers a ghost’s All-Souls’ Day meditation. Betsy Carter’s We Were Strangers Once (Grand Central) reveals love, friendship, and personal struggle in the immigrant community of 1930s New York. And Sabahattin Ali’s Madonna in a Fur Coat (Other), a Turkish classic published here for the first time, limns love between a naïve Turkish lad and an unconventional woman artist in Weimar-era Berlin.

Nonfiction favorites followed Khizr Khan’s lead, embracing family or personal stories that told larger stories. In Alone: Britain, Churchill, and Dunkirk; Defeat into Victory (Liveright: Norton), Michael Korda blends family memoir with a history of the crucial year 1940. In Hitler My Neighbor: Memories of a Jewish Childhood, 1929–1939 (Other), notable historian Edgar Feuchtwanger recalls growing up across the street from Hitler in 1930s Munich. In What You Did Not Tell Me: A Russian Past and the Journey Home (Other), Columbia professor Mark Mazower describes the fate of family members caught up in the Russian Revolution, the Terror, and more.

Ben Blum’s Ranger Games: A Story of Soldiers, Family and an Inexplicable Crime (Doubleday) considers a straight-and-narrow cousin’s participation in armed robbery directly before he was to be deployed. Dan McCall’s Boy on a Unicycle: Confessions of a Young Man Trained To Be a Winner reflects on a Fifties upbringing embodying values that he ultimately challenged. Sarah Thebarge’s Well: Healing Our Beautiful, Broken World from a Hospital in West Africa (Hachette Nashville) blends faith and medicine during the author’s medical mission to Togo. Zoe Quinn’s Crash Override: How Gamergate (Nearly) Destroyed My Life, and How We Can Win the Fight Against Online Hate (Public Affairs) is part memoir and part manifesto, echoing Sue Scheff and Melissa Schorr’s Shame Nation: The Global Epidemic of Online Hate (Sourcebooks Landmark).

Other serious-minded nonfiction favorites included Kate Moore’s Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women (Sourcebooks Landmark), Liza Mundy’s Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II (Hachette), and Joanna Scutts’s The Extra Woman: How Marjorie Hillis Led a Generation of Women To Live Alone and Like It (Liveright: Norton). Nature lovers appreciated Dave Freeman and Amy Freeman’s Boundary Waters: A Year in the Wilderness: Four Seasons in the Boundary Waters (Milkweed) and Marta McDowell’s The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Frontier Landscapes that Inspired the Little House Books (Timber), a hit with literati as well.

Also on the artistic side: art historian Karin Sagner’s Women Walking: Freedom, Adventure, Independence (Abbeville), Doctor Who creator Sydney Newman’s Head of Drama: The Memoir of Sydney Newman (ECW), plus Ehrlich White’s Renoir: An Intimate Biography (100 galleys), Judith Mackrell’s The Unfinished Palazzo: Life, Love and Art in Venice, Alex Prud’homme & Katie Pratt’s France Is a Feast: The Photographic Journey of Paul and Julia Child, and Jeffrey Millstein’s LA NY: Aerial Photographs of Los Angeles and New York (all Thames  & Hudson).

Two important books with a conscience included Danielle Allen’s Cuz: The Life and Times of Michael A. (Norton), a Harvard professor’s portrait of a high-aspiring young cousin sentenced to 13 years in jail for carjacking, and Alexis Okeowo’s A Moonless, Starless Sky: Ordinary Women and Men Fighting Extremism in Africa (Hachette), four blended narratives about principled resistance to modern slavery, Boko Haram, and more.

Some attendees went for nonfiction that was lighter at heart. Big hits included Grady Hendrix’s Paperbacks from Hell: A History of Horror Fiction From the ’70s and ’80s (Quirk), Lydia Kang & Nate Pedersen’s Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways To Cure Everything (Workman), and, for ghost busters, Jane Simon Ammeson’s Hauntings of the Underground Railroad (Quarry) and Haunted Hospitals: Eerie Tales About Hospitals, Sanatoriums, and Other Institutions (Dundum).

Of course, it wouldn’t be BookExpo without star power from beyond the book world. Actor Chad Michael Murray stirred hearts and minds when he showed up to sign American Drifter (Forge) with coauthor Heather Graham. Lynn Nottage attracted a crowd when she signed her Pulitzer Prize–winning and Tony Award–nominated Sweat (Theatre Communications Group). Long lines also formed for Kevin Young (Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News, Graywolf), not just a multi-awarding winning poet/critic but director of the NYPL’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. One more good reason for librarians to show up at the fair.

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Barbara Hoffert About Barbara Hoffert

Barbara Hoffert (bhoffert@mediasourceinc.com, @BarbaraHoffert on Twitter) is Editor, LJ Prepub Alert; past chair of the Materials Selection Committee of the RUSA (Reference and User Services Assn.) division of the American Library Association; and past president, treasurer, and awards chair of the National Book Critics Circle.

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