The Fallback Plan , Leigh Stein (January 3)
Leigh Stein’s hilarious debut opens thusly: “In June, the monsoons hit Bangladesh. Chinese police discovered slaves in a brickwork factory…in other news, I moved in with my parents.” That’s right, another story about the existential anxiety of being a 20-something! But this novel manages to infuse the Lena Dunham-style self-obsessed snark with an endearing earnestness as protagonist Esther tries to navigate being forced into indentured babysitter-hood, working for a family with serious troubles of their own. She might even grow up a little in the process.
Running the Rift , Naomi Benaron (January 3)
In this debut novel, set during the Hutu-Tutsi tensions and eventual violence in Rwanda, Jean Patrick Nkuba has known all of his life that he wanted to be a runner — the first Rwandan Olympic medal contender in track, to be exact. He is faced with the question of how much he can pursue a personal dream in the face of the peril of his country, and whether, once forced to flee, he can find all he loves again, but the real triumph is the beauty and delicacy of Benaron’s prose. In case you’re unconvinced, this novel won the Bellwether Prize, an award given by biennially by Barbara Kingsolver to a work of fiction concerned with issues of social justice.
Smut , Alan Bennett (January 3)
This pair of wonderful tragicomic novellas by celebrated author, screenwriter, playwright, and actor Alan Bennett aren’t as smutty as he’d like you to believe, though if you’re looking for something to raise the eyebrows of the subway ladies, you’ve found the right book. That’s not to say that it isn’t full of sexual vagaries and duplicity, because rather satisfyingly, it is. In “The Greening of Mrs. Donaldson,” a middle-aged widow finds she quite enjoys the role-playing in her job as a “simulated patient” in a medical school, and arranges a strange rent agreement with her new tenants; meanwhile “The Shielding of Mrs. Forbes” hones in on a narcissistic closeted homosexual who is keeping almost as many secrets as his mother. It’s all in good fun, however, and we promise you’ll have some. Fun, that is.
The Map and the Territory , Michel Houellebecq (January 3)
Award-winning, controversial and forgetful Michel Houellebecq’s magnum opus, for which he won the Prix Goncourt, France’s most prestigious literary award. has finally appeared in the States. Like much of Houellebecq’s work, it centers on an alienated middle-aged men as it follows the life of artist Jed Martin: his work, his family, his friends, his relationship to the world at large. Houellebecq’s trademark wit and wonderful prose are hard at work here, making this book funny, strange, poignant and a joy to read.
Distrust That Particular Flavor , William Gibson (January 3)
Celebrated science fiction writer William Gibson is not particularly known for his nonfiction. Novels and short stories? Yes. Coining the word “cyberspace”? Definitely. But this new book collects 30 years worth of his other writings, including essays, reportage, and lectures, which, while they don’t exactly live up to Gibson’s other prose, are fascinating, and despite his post-scripted prostests, well-written. More important, no matter what the ostensible topic, they say something worth hearing about the man, the myth, the legend.
American Dervish , Ayad Akhtar (January 9)
When Mina comes to live with Hyat and his mother and father, Muslims living in a pre-9/11 America, the boy is immediately in love. After all, this woman has changed his chilly family into a happy one, melting even his father’s tough exterior. But when Mina begins dating someone, Hyat is thrust into emotions outside of his control, and threatens to bring his new world — and hers — crashing down around their shoulders.
The Orphan Master’s Son , Adam Johnson (January 10)
This epic adventure, set in the dangerous and nearly fantastical climes of North Korea, is an incredibly vivid page-turner of a novel, following Jun Do as he transforms from childish pawn of the system to professional kidnapper to rival of Kim Jong Il, whom he opposes in order to save the love of his life. Romance, coming-of-age tale, adventure and thriller all in one, this book is singular and not to be missed.
A Bad Idea I’m About to Do: True Tales of Seriously Poor Judgment and Stunningly Awkward Adventure , Chris Gethard (January 10)
In this collection of tales from a nerdy, stumbling adolescence, up-and-coming comedian Chris Gethard will make you laugh, cry, and glad that you aren’t him. He’s even won accolades from comedy superwoman Amy Poehler, who wrote, “If you like underdog stories told by a secret comedy superhero, Chris Gethard is your man. Each story is the perfect combination of hilarious and heartbreaking.” Perfect, indeed.
The Fat Years , Koonchung Chan (January 10)
In Beijing’s near-future, an entire month has disappeared from the official record. And it’s not as if it’s a mere technicality — it’s more like a sort of collective amnesia and sense of artificial cheer has engulfed the country, leaving no one but a scarce few wondering about what that blank month means. Eventually Old Chen, living in Happiness Village Number Two, joins up with ex-flame Little Xi to kidnap a senior official, whom they force to explain the meaning of these the “fat years.” And well, we won’t give it away, but we think it’s worth a read.
The Flame Alphabet , Ben Marcus (January 17)
The wild, delicious prose of Ben Marcus is at its best in The Flame Alphabet, which imagines the crumbling world when children’s speech becomes toxic to all who hear it. Sam and Claire, bodies failing, must run from their beloved daughter, whose laughter at their strange illnesses cuts ever deeper into their skin and psyches. Strange and moving and endlessly fascinating, this novel is yet another of Marcus’s wicked triumphs.