10 Spring Paperback Picks

bd0040693e50f5ed2b7aecbdbb56addc“When is it coming out in paperback?” — one of the most frequently asked questions in any bookstore.

“There’s no hard-and-fast rule about when the paperback should ride in for that second release. A year to paperback used to be standard, but now a paperback can release earlier — to capitalize on a moderately successful book before it’s forgotten — or later, if a hardcover is still turning a strong profit,” according to an article in The Millions.

This spring, bookstore tables will be stacked high with terrific new paperbacks. Some of these (The Goldfinch, The Invention of Wings) are books that were hugely successful in hardcover. Many of them are books that are still trying to find their audience. Almost always, the covers are redesigned for paperback versions, with new artwork and review quotes. Authors “know it’s their greatest chance of coming out of the gate a second time — same race, fresh horse,” says author Nichole Bernier.

What makes some books sell like crazy in hardcover while others — just as appealing — languish on the shelves? For example, The Girl on the Train is supposedly the fastest-selling adult novel in publishing history. I liked the book a lot; I read it in a day, and recommended it to anyone who wanted a fast-paced, twisty and turny psychological thriller. Over the years, though, I’ve read plenty of other books that I thought were just as good, or better, that didn’t have a fraction of Girl on the Train‘s success.

Jynne Martin, publicity director for Riverhead Books, says in an interview with the Daily Beast that the phenomenon of The Girl on the Train can be attributed to “a constellation of a lot of different things”, ranging from “rave reviews from critics, spillover excitement from the Gone Girl movie, and a concerted push by the whole Penguin Random House operation.” The Daily Beast asked Paula Hawkins why she thought her book “has resonated” so much with readers:

It’s a difficult thing to say. There are certain things about the story that I think are universally recognizable. The sort of enjoyment that we all get from that voyeuristic impulse of looking into other people’s house as we pass them and the idea that there might be something sinister or strange going on in the houses we pass every day or in our neighborhood, is a very compelling idea. So I think that’s one thing people have latched on to. There are also some strong voices in there that readers have responded to. I also have to say that the publishers, both in the U.S. and U.K., did a fantastic job of getting people talking about it on social media and getting lots of reviewers interested.

I don’t think we’ll see The Girl on the Train in paperback until well after a year of its publication date (which was January 2015).

Here are some of my favorite new paperbacks — most of them didn’t get the love they deserved when they came out in hardcover, and now they get a second chance.

9780307456113And the Dark Sacred Night (Julia Glass) — Julia Glass has been a heroine of mine ever since she arrived on the literary scene in 2002, with the publication of her debut novel, Three Junes. I hate to use the term “late in life”, but recognition of her talent has come later in life than it does for most published writers. Glass was 46 years old when she won the National Book Award for Three Junes — seven years older than Flannery O’Connor (one of my favorite literary heroines) was when she died. And the Dark Sacred Night isn’t a sequel to Three Junes, but some of the same characters reappear. It’s a beautifully written, emotionally powerful novel with fully textured characters trying to make sense of the mysterious past and how it connects to the sometimes confusing present. For my review from April 2014, click here.

The Arsonist (Sue Miller) — Set in a small New Hampshire town, the novel centers on Frankie, a burned-out relief worker who’s returned home from Africa to spend time with her aging parents while she figures out what to do with the rest of her life. Almost as 9780062286468soon as Frankie arrives, an arsonist begins destroying the homes of summer residents. The most compelling part of the book for me was the portrayal of Frankie’s mother trying to cope with her husband, a retired professor slipping into dementia.

Fourth of July Creek (Smith Henderson) — A favorite of my book club, debut novel Fourth of July Creek is the story of two fathers in 1980s Montana: a flawed social worker and a backwoods survivalist. According to the Washington Post, “this richly plotted novel is another sign, if any were needed, that new fiction writers are still telling vibrant, essential stories about the American experience.”

we-are-called-to-rise-9781476738970_lgWe Are Called to Rise (Laura McBride) –I couldn’t love this book more, and was disappointed that it didn’t really take off in hardcover. Another debut novel, We Are Called to Rise chronicles the lives of four very different Las Vegas residents (a young immigrant boy, a social worker, a war veteran turned police officer, and the officer’s mother) in a heartbreaking but ultimately hopeful story. For a very insightful review, visit one of my favorite book blogs, Read Her Like an Open Book.

Signed, Sealed, Delivered: Celebrating the Joys of Letter Writing (Nina Sankovitch) –You’ll be inspired to get some lovely stationery and a beautiful pen after you read this love letter to the art of written correspondence. Sankovitch (author of Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, which I also adored), found a cache of letters in a house she and her family were renovating. The letters were written from a college freshman to his mother in the early 20th century. The book, which Sankovitch calls her “quest to understand what it is about letters that makes them so special”, is a joy to read.

9781101872871The Children Act (Ian McEwan) — I don’t think you can ever go wrong with Ian McEwan, and although this book isn’t my favorite of his, it’s still very, very good. It’s the morally complex and emotionally resonant story of a judge who becomes personally involved in a court case concerning a teenage Jehovah’s Witness who is refusing a lifesaving blood transfusion. It’s a great choice for book clubs — my own book club had a fascinating discussion.

The Mockingbird Next Door due 5/5 (Marja Mills) — This book has spurred quite a bit of controversy. Mills, a Chicago Tribune reporter, became friendly with Harper Lee and her sister and eventually moved in next door. Her memoir of their friendship is “authorized, sympathetic, and respectful” (Washington Post), and fun to read. However, Lee has since denied that she cooperated with Mills. It’s particularly interesting in light of the upcoming publication of Go Set a Watchman.

9780143127550Everything I Never Told You due May 12 (Celeste Ng) — First-time novelist Ng impressed me with her assured, precise writing style and her careful, well-paced narrative structure. The novel begins with the disappearance of a mixed-race family’s “perfect” daughter and goes on to explore the family’s pathology. It’s heartbreaking . . . but you’ll want to read it in one sitting.

My Salinger Year due May 12 (Joanna Rakoff) — I loved this memoir of Rakoff’s stint in the 1990s as an assistant to J.D. Salinger’s literary agent! From the Chicago Tribune: “Her memoir is a beautifully written tribute to the way things were at the edge of the digital revolution, and also to the evergreen power of literature to guide us through all of life’s transitions.” If I were making a list of my top 10 memoirs (and maybe I should), this would be on it. Perfect for fans of Marjorie Hart’s Summer at Tiffany.

9780812982022Delicious! due May 12 (Ruth Reichl) — Reichl, former editor of Gourmet magazine and author of several wonderful memoirs (Tender at the Bone, Garlic and Sapphires, Comfort Me With Apples — all must-reads for foodies), tries her hand at fiction with Delicious! — with great success. It’s a roman á clef about a cooking magazine that folds, including a clever mystery and a coming-of-age story.

What will you be picking up in paperback this spring? I’ve just started Justin Go’s The Steady Running of the Hour, which is wonderful so far — yet another book that didn’t get its due in hardcover.

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Monday Match-Up: And the Dark Sacred Night & Three Junes

www.randomhouseI see skies of blue,
And clouds of white.
The bright blessed day,
The dark sacred night.
And I think to myself,
What a wonderful world.
“What a Wonderful World”, written by Bob Thiele and George David Weiss; originally recorded by Louis Armstrong

Julia Glass has been a heroine of mine ever since she arrived on the literary scene in 2002, with the publication of her debut novel, Three Junes. I hate to use the term “late in life”, but recognition of her talent has come later in life than it does for most published writers. Glass was 46 years old when she won the National Book Award for Three Junes — seven years older than Flannery O’Connor (one of my favorite literary heroines) was when she died. An article in New York magazine (“Cinderella Story”, January 2003) explores Glass’s unexpected success:

So it was a stunning upset in the literary world in late November when Glass won the writer’s equivalent of the Best Actor Oscar — the National Book Award for fiction — which she jubilantly dedicated in her acceptance speech to “late bloomers.”  . . . As novelist and awards judge Bob Shacochis puts it, “Three Junes is an anti-hip book, an anti-cool book. It was like choosing a 25-year-old single-malt whiskey.”

“Julia is incredibly brave,” says Deb Garrison, the Pantheon editor who bought the book and shepherded it through publication. “To be a first novelist in your forties, writing without a book contract and no steady income, to just say, ‘This is what I have to be doing.’ ”

“Julia Glass is an update on those wonderful writers from the nineteenth century that we admire so much, like Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters,” says Shacochis, who pored through almost 300 submissions for the book awards. “I couldn’t put it down because it had such emotional power.”

Glass’s new novel, And the Dark Sacred Night, is certainly a work of emotional power. The story centers on Kit Noonan, a middle-aged man my grandmother would have described as a “sad sack”. He’s an unemployed art historian with a specialty in Inuit art. Kit suffers from a lack of energy and purpose; he lost his academic job for failing to turn his manuscript in on time. His wife, Sandra, is convinced that his inertia is caused by an identity crisis. Kit was raised by a single mother, Daphne, who has steadfastly refused to give him any information about his birth father. Sandra sends Kit from his suburban New Jersey home to Vermont, where Kit’s ex-stepfather, Jasper, lives. Sandra believes that Jasper, who was married to Daphne during most of Kit’s childhood, knows the truth about Kit’s father.

coverIt doesn’t take the reader long to figure out who Kit’s father is, so I’m not giving anything away by revealing the fact that Kit’s father was Malachy Burns, who died of AIDS in Three Junes. Readers of Three Junes will recognize Malachy in the very first chapter, which takes place at the Vermont arts camp where Daphne and Malachy met as teenagers. Readers will also recall Malachy’s mother, Lucinda Burns. In an interview, Julia Glass says the character of Lucinda was the inspiration for And the Dark Sacred Night:

It grew initially out of my sudden yearning to revisit a character from Three Junes: Lucinda Burns, the mother of the music critic Malachy Burns. She’s a character I had a tough time getting right, but once I did (well, I hope I did!), I fell in love with her and was sad to leave her behind. Lucinda led me back to a teeny-tiny subplot of Three Junes involving a baby born to a 17-year-old single mother in the late 1960s. And the Dark Sacred Night is, in the smallest of nutshells, the story of that grown-up-baby’s search for his father. In a roundabout way, this new character gave me the way to delve deeper into Lucinda’s life. Inevitably, she led me back to Fenno McLeod, the character who seems to come back to me again and again, always just when I think I’ve sent him packing for good.

It’s easy to see why Glass is attached to her characters and revisits their lives. More than any other contemporary novelist I’ve read, she creates complex characters that seem real: imperfect, sometimes likable, sometimes annoying, but always interesting and fully textured. Even the minor characters in the novel — Jasper’s on-again, off-again girlfriend and employee, Loraina, and Lucinda’s overscheduled daughter, Christina, for example — are well-developed and have important roles to play. Glass also excels at capturing poignant moments in ordinary life. The scene in which Lucinda brings her husband, Zeke, home from the hospital after he’s suffered a stroke, is heartbreakingly and vividly rendered:

Christina helps her father out of the car while Lucinda wrestles with the walker, unfolding and locking its cheap metal wings. Each of the women holds onto one side while Zeke fumbles for a grip.

Even though she knows he’s stooping to keep his balance, to meet the demands of this crablike contraption, Zeke seems disturbingly smaller to Lucinda. He dozed on the half-hour drive from the rehab center, and now, still, he says nothing.

Once inside the front door he glances around. He spots the hospital bed. “Christ, it’s come to this,” he says. Though it sounds like, “Frise, come to fuss.”

Music is a thread that runs through the novel. Kit says he “cannot imagine a childhood without music”. Daphne is a classically trained cellist who once dreamed of a  career as a performer, now supporting herself as a music teacher, and Malachy was a flutist who came to be a well-known music critic. Both the opening and closing chapters of the book take place at the music camp where they met.  Music is a bridge to the past; at the concert at the end of the book, Daphne recalls, “‘There was a concert like this one when I was here.'” The novel takes its title from the Louis Armstrong song, “What a Wonderful World”. Fenno McLeod, an old friend of Malachy’s, recalls a discussion about the meaning of the song:

Do you know that song, “What a Wonderful World”? We hear it so often that it’s become about as moving as a beer jingle. But it’s beautiful . . . What I mean is that the past is like the night: dark yet sacred. It’s the time when most of us sleep, so we think of the day as the time we really live, the only time that matters, because the stuff we do by day somehow makes us who we are. But there is no day without night, no wakefulness without sleep, no present without past.

The characters in And the Dark Sacred Night are trying to make sense of the mysterious past and how it connects to the sometimes confusing present. Glass suggests that Kit’s lack of knowledge about his origins has almost paralyzed him. I wonder, though, if Kit’s inability to take charge of his life is really rooted in his fatherlessness, or if it’s simply his genetic makeup. The plot depends, to a certain extent, on the reader believing — as Sandra does — that Kit’s life will be transformed once he learns about his father. As much as I love the characters and the writing in the novel, I have trouble with this premise. I think Kit is a just a passive person by nature. Recalling his attempts to do first-hand research with Inuit artists, he says:

He did like driving though the wilderness, through the brief, bright flowering of the tundra . . . but when it came to striking up a conversation with the artists he met, asking them to talk about their work, he turned shy and formal. He learned little beyond what he needed to know. Kit had no clue how to ask the startling question that would yield the unexpected revelation.

And the Dark and Sacred Night isn’t really a sequel to Three Junes, but once you’ve read one, you will want to read the other, because the characters are so compelling. Fenno McLeod’s family — particularly his mother, a collie breeder in Scotland — will win your heart. (It’s interesting that Jasper Noonan is a dog breeder as well.)  I wonder if Julia Glass has sent her characters “packing for good”, or if we will see more of them in future novels?