Fall is time to get serious. School is back in session. The presidential election is just weeks away. Baseball's pennant race is on. Hollywood turns from popcorn features to Oscar-worthy drama.
The same holds true in bookstores, where some of the biggest names in publishing are back on the shelves. With a slew of titles debuting in the weeks ahead, here are four hot reads for serious readers.
Michael Chabon, "Telegraph Avenue" In stores now
In "Telegraph Avenue," Michael Chabon does for used record stores what he did for comic books in "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay." It's a sprawling multiracial story set in the Pulitzer-winning novelist's adopted home of Berkeley, California, along with its gritty neighbor to the south, Oakland.
Like "Kavalier & Clay," the story follows a pair of friends, Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe. The two are struggling to hold on to their version of the American dream, an appropriately named used vinyl store, Brokeland Records, located of course on Telegraph Avenue. Complicating their entrepreneurial efforts, an ex-NFL quarterback who happens to be the fifth-richest black man in America announces plans to build an entertainment megastore just down the street.
The supporting cast includes a pair of independent-minded midwives, a former blaxploitation star who can't let his movie career go, a Black Panther-turned-politician and a funky mix of aging jazz musicians. Chabon throws it all together in a funny and imaginative mix.
The author is at the top of his game as his playful language pulses with a beat like the classic jazz and soul music he writes about, riffing on the counterculture and complex racial politics of the East Bay Area.
Kevin Powers, "The Yellow Birds" In stores now
Kevin Powers is winning rave reviews for his first novel, "The Yellow Birds," a personal and moving story of two young soldiers caught in the crossfire of the war in Iraq. Powers knows his subject firsthand. Before becoming a writer, he served as a U.S. Army machine gunner in some of Iraq's bloodiest battles in 2004 and 2005.
In the book, two grunt soldiers, Bartle and Murphy, are bound together in basic training after their tough-as-nails sergeant commands Bartle to watch over the younger Murphy.
We follow their platoon into battle and see the dangers the soldiers face up close: armed insurgents, excruciating heat and constant stress. In between the haphazard gunbattles and indiscriminate explosions, there are bouts of boredom, all of it taking a mental toll on the men. As reality begins to blur into a hazy nightmare, both soldiers do everything they can to protect each other from a war neither is truly prepared for.
"The Yellow Birds" is written in a poetic style with a near-stream of consciousness feel as the story jumps back and forth in time and from Iraq to the home front. Powers goes beyond the battlefield to show the effects of the war not just on the soldiers but on their families as well.
Powers is winning high praise from some well-known authors, and his book drawing lofty comparisons to other battlefield classics from Tim O'Brien and Ernest Hemingway. If you're looking for one of the first great novels of the Iraq war, this may be it.
Michael Ennis, "The Malice of Fortune" In stores now
Before Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, Michael Ennis goes 500 years into the past to imagine the unlikely crime-solving duo of Niccolo Machiavelli and Leonardo da Vinci in "The Malice of Fortune." Although the story concerns a hunt for a Renaissance serial killer, the book is based on actual historical events.
Ennis, a former art history professor, spent 12 years researching and writing the story, bringing multiple layers of authenticity to his epic w novel. It's a heady mix of "The Da Vinci Code," Borgia politics and "The Silence of the Lambs." Think of it as CSI: Italy circa 1502, with Machiavelli as a detective and psychological profiler and da Vinci as history's first forensic pathologist.
Ennis also wins points for perseverance with the book. His first draft was rejected by nearly two dozen publishers. The author then printed his own galleys, showed them to independent booksellers across the U.S. to build support and after three tries found a willing publisher in Doubleday. Now "Malice" is winning widespread praise from critics, fellow authors and booksellers.
More than just history reimagined, Ennis claims to have discovered a secret buried in the pages of "The Prince." So if you're among the millions who read Machiavelli's political treatise in school, "Malice" may hold added appeal.
Read an excerpt from "The Malice of Fortune"
J.K. Rowling, "The Casual Vacancy" In stores September 27
Perhaps the most anticipated title of not just the fall but the entire year is J.K. Rowling's "The Casual Vacancy." Publisher Little, Brown is betting big on Rowling's first novel since the Harry Potter finale.
More than 2 million copies are due to hit store shelves across Australia, Germany, North America and the UK on September 27. Booksellers are hoping the billionaire author has kept her magic touch, but readers should not expect a return to Hogwarts in the new book.
Set in an idyllic English town where everything is not what it first seems, the plot deals with the unexpected death of a member of the Pagford parish council and the machinations that follow to fill his empty council seat. "The Casual Vacancy" is described as a thought-provoking black comedy, but only a select few have read it.
Little, Brown is offering no advance copies to reviewers, while Rowling herself is granting a few handpicked interviews to media outlets once the book is released. The secrecy only seems to be feeding the sky-high anticipation, with advance sales looking strong. We'll have to wait and see whether Rowling can repeat the phenomenal success of the Harry Potter series in her first novel for adults.