Spring Paperback Picks — April 2016

No, I still don’t know when The Girl on the Train will be released in paperback. That’s the #1 query that leads readers to Books on the Table, and as I mentioned in 10 Spring Paperback Picks last April, publishers often delay a paperback release when the hardcover is still selling well. The Girl on the Train (currently #6 on the New York Times hardcover fiction bestseller list) has been on the list for 62 weeks.

All the Light We Cannot See has been on the hardcover list for 98 weeks; curiously, I haven’t noticed much interest in when the paperback will come out. I wonder if this is because readers view All the Light We Cannot See as the kind of book they’re willing to buy and want to own in hardcover, while they see The Girl on the Train as the type of book they  read on the beach and then pass along? In any case, All the Light still has a long way to go before it catches up with some bestselling novels of the past — The Da Vinci Code, The Bridges of Madison County, The Caine Mutiny, Auntie Mame, and Advise and Consent all stayed on the list for more than 100 weeks.

Some of my favorite books from 2015 are arriving in paperback this April. Some did well in hardcover (Erik Larson’s Dead Wake, Sally Mann’s Hold Still, and Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread come to mind) but some are underappreciated gems; maybe now they’ll find the audience they deserve.

Fiction

9780553392333We Never Asked for Wings by Vanessa Diffenbaugh (April 5)
I liked Diffenbaugh’s second novel even more than her first, The Language of Flowers. It’s the coming-of-age story of two people: 16-year-old Alex, who’s devastated when his beloved grandparents return to their native Mexico, and his mother, Letty, who must finally learn to be a parent. It’s one of the best contemporary novels about immigration I’ve read, up there with The Book of Unknown Americans. You can read my interview with the author here.

9780425278109My Sunshine Away by M.O. Walsh (April 5)
During the summer of 1989, the narrator of M.O. Walsh’s debut novel is fourteen years old and in love with his neighbor on Piney Creek Road in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Lindy Simpson. When Lindy becomes the victim of a rape, everything changes. Although My Sunshine Away is suspenseful — sometimes almost unbearably so — it’s really a coming of age story. It’s about an immature, self-centered boy becoming an adult with integrity. As he recounts the pivotal events of his youth, the narrator’s voice is authentic and compelling. At one point, he reflects on the nature of nature of memory:

And it is not until times like these, when there are years between myself and the events, that I feel even close to understanding my memories and how the people I’ve known have affected me. And I am often impressed and overwhelmed by the beautiful ways the heart and mind work without cease to create this feeling of connection.

Although I’ve never been to Baton Rouge, I felt as if I had after reading Walsh’s lyrical descriptions of this singular place. Walsh, who is the director of the Creative Writing Workshop at the University of New Orleans, clearly heeds every creative writing teacher’s advice: “Show, don’t tell.” He shows us a setting and characters that are as vivid as any I’ve encountered on the page. The novel reminded me in some ways of Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones — but without the murder and the accompanying trip to heaven, and with a great deal more wisdom.

the-childrens-crusade-9781476710464_lgThe Children’s Crusade by Ann Packer (April 5)
I savored every page of this beautiful novel, which explores the complicated relationships among four siblings raised by an attentive, loving father and a neglectful mother. NPR’s Maureen Corrigan (whose reviews are almost always spot-on) loved the book, saying Packer’s “splintered narrative style and the richness of her characters and language illuminate the unexpected depths of the commonplace.” Rebecca, one of the siblings, grows up to be a successful psychiatrist, and like all of us, she wonders if her childhood memories are accurate:

I remembered my memory of the moment, because after so long that’s what memory is: the replaying of a filmstrip that’s slightly warped from having gone through the projector so many times. I’ll never know what actually happened and what distortions I added.

y6483Where They Found Her by Kimberly McCreight (April 19)
If you’re in the mood for smart, character-driven psychological suspense, Where They Found Her is the book for you. It’s the kind of book you read in one day, or at least consumer in big chunks. The book opens with an unnamed narrator disposing of a bag of evidence in a dumpster behind a suburban tanning salon. What has happened, and who is telling the story? Readers won’t find out for almost 300 pages, with plenty of detours along the way. It’s revealed in the first couple of chapters that the body of a newborn baby has been found in the woods near the college campus in an upscale New Jersey suburb. Molly Sanderson, wife of a Ridgedale University professor and new to the staff of the local newspaper, investigates the story — which turns out to be much more complicated than she originally anticipated, leading back to unsavory secrets in Ridgedale’s past. For my complete review, click here.

Nonfiction

9780307742223Natural Born Heroes: Mastering the Lost Secrets of Strength and Endurance by Christopher McDougall (April 5)
MacDougall, author of Born to Run, is a terrific writer and he has a great story to tell in Natural Born Heroes — actually, two stories. He deftly juxtaposes the story of the audacious kidnapping of a Nazi general on the island of Crete with his personal quest to emulate the physical and mental endurance of classical Greek heroes. The subtitle makes the book sound as if it’s a physical fitness manual, which in a way it is. It’s interesting that the subtitle for the hardcover was How a Daring Band of Misfits Mastered the Lost Secrets of Strength and Endurance, emphasizing the historical aspect of the book. The London Independent says:

One of the most daring, madcap episodes of the Second World War was the kidnapping by Patrick Leigh Fermor, dirty trickster supreme, and his band of British eccentrics and Cretan hard men, of the German general Heinrich Kreipe.

Seventy years later, youngsters in inner-city London and the suburbs of Paris were becoming experts in parkour, using the urban landscape as an obstacle course to be negotiated with joyful freedom and intense physical discipline.

Christopher McDougall connects these two points, and many in between, in a heady confection that encompasses, among other subjects, military history, archaeology, Greek mythology, neat ways to kill a man and ideas on health and fitness that might just change your life.

My idea of exercise is a leisurely bike ride or a brisk walk (and preferably on a warm, sunny day), but I found this book absolutely riveting.

9780393352146_300-1Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris (April 4)
I have recommended this book to quite a few people, and I stuck a shelf talker under the hardcover version, which remained in the unsold book for a long time. I’m not sure anyone took my advice, and I want you to know you’re missing out on a really good book. I wrote a mini-review about it last fall, and a reader commented: “I quite enjoyed Between You and Me. I think it didn’t get a ton of love because you have to be a very specific sort of person to want to read about words.” That’s true, but the book is about much more than words. The author, Mary Norris, has been the New Yorker‘s copy editor since 1978, upholding the magazine’s notoriously high standards. Her wicked and witty memoir is sprinkled with grammar advice, as well as plenty of gossipy tidbits. I enjoyed every page, and learned a few things besides.The New Republic review says: “Norris’s very funny, lucid, and lively new book” is “part memoir, part language guide, and part personal account of life at the New Yorker.”

y6482Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County: A Family, A Virginia Town, A Civil Rights Battle by Kristen Green (April 26)
I really can’t champion this book enough, and I hope it finds a big audience in paperback. Veteran journalist Green chronicles the years when Prince Edward County, Virginia closed its public schools rather than obey the federal mandate to desegregate — and tells the story of her family’s part in this shameful chapter of history. The New York Times review commented that “It is this personal story that makes her mix of memoir and history . . . so absorbing as she returns home to interview family and friends about a past that many would rather leave there.”

Happy spring and happy reading!

 

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10 Books to Read This Winter

A few months ago, I shared a list of 10 books to read in the fall. I’ve read most of them — and Jane Smiley and Colm Tóibín, I apologize! I’ll get to Some Luck and Nora Webster very soon, I promise. I know they’re both going to be wonderful. (I really need to read Some Luck because the second book in Smiley’s trilogy, Early Warning, is coming out in April. )

Even though I still have many, many books from 2014 (and before) in my to-read stack, the publishing industry is not going to wait for me, or anyone, to catch up. So here’s a list of 10 exciting new books with winter 2015 publication dates. Is it a coincidence that three of them have “girl” in the title? Did the success of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl convince publishers and authors that “girl” is the magic word? I’ve already found several intriguing “girl” books coming out this spring — Hyacinth Girls, Girl Underwater, Girl at War . . .

962ab117cc4ac2dd9054af8b597fde98First of all, happy publication day to Christopher Scotton, whose debut novel, The Secret Wisdom of the Earth, is undoubtedly going to be one of my favorite books of 2015. It’s a  coming-of-age story set in Appalachia 30 years ago. Following a family tragedy, 14-year-old Kevin is sent to spend the summer with his veterinarian grandfather (“Pops”) in Medgar, Kentucky. Pops, whose life has brought him wisdom and an unwavering moral compass, will remind readers of Atticus Finch. Medgar is a depressed coal town facing a massive mountaintop removal operation that is blowing up the hills, backfilling the hollows — and deeply dividing the townspeople. The violent events of that summer will begin Kevin’s transformation from a wounded boy into an adult.9781594633669M

If you’re in the mood for a very smart, well-plotted psychological thriller, I recommend The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins (due next Tuesday, January 13). I read the entire book on one cold, rainy Sunday, thanks to a suggestion from my friend Sue at the Cottage Book Shop. The New York Times says: “The Girl on the Train has more fun with unreliable narration than any chiller since Gone Girl, the book still entrenched on best-seller lists two and a half years after publication because nothing better has come along. The Girl on the Train has Gone Girl-type fun with unreliable spouses, too.” I’m not sure I’d agree that “nothing better has come along” — what about The Headmaster’s Wife?

Tim Johnston has written a YA novel and a collection of short stories, but Descent (published today) is his first novel for adults. I haven’t read it yet, but it’s been receiving great reviews. Here’s what NPR has to say, including the inevitable Gone Girl comparison:

The premise of Descent may sound pretty straightforward: One summer morning while vacationing with her family in the foothills of the Rockies, a young girl, a high-school athlete in her senior year, goes out for a run in the higher altitudes — and disappears.

And Moby-Dick‘s about the whaling industry.

A good genre writer might have turned this into a conventional suspense novel, making us worry about the missing girl with every page that goes by — but Tim Johnston has written a book that makes Gone Girl seem gimmicky and forced. I worried about the missing girl with every page, yes. But I also suffered every torment felt by her family, father, mother, brother, and those linked to the family. So this is a thriller plus!

I’m currently reading and enjoying West of Sunset, by Stewart O’Nan (due January 13) about the last few years of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s life, when he tried to rejuvenate his career by working as a Hollywood screenwriter. I think O’Nan, author of 15 novels, is a brilliant and unappreciated writer. He writes beautifully about everything from the quiet days of an elderly widow (Emily, Alone) to a diphtheria outbreak in mid-19th century Wisconsin (A Prayer for the Dying) to a bankrupt couple trying to save their marriage (The Odds).

1402298684.01.LZZZZZZZThe Magician’s Lie (due January 13), by Greer Macallister, has been described as a cross between Water for Elephants and The Night Circus — sounds intriguing! Publishers Weekly gives it a starred review, calling it “top-notch”:

This well-paced, evocative, and adventurous historical novel from Macallister, a poet and short story writer, chronicles the career of America’s preeminent female stage illusionist at the turn of the 20th century, who, as the Amazing Arden, created the lurid, controversial stage act known as the Halved Man. When Arden’s husband is found murdered following her performance in Waterloo, Iowa, she falls under suspicion, particularly after she goes on the lam.

As I’ve mentioned before, I can never resist a boarding school novel. Some are excellent (Old School) and some are not (The Starboard Sea), but I read them all. The Half Brother, by Holly LeCraw, (due February 17) has an unusual perspective: it’s about a young teacher coming of age, not a student. The plot twists are truly amazing. The website The Millions just published its “Great Book Preview” for 2015, listing The Half Brother as one of its most anticipated releases:

The novel begins with an epigraph from gifted teacher-writer Andre Dubus, who says he “learned to walk into a classroom wondering what I would say” rather than planning. The Half Brother captures his spirit, and the result is one of the finest school-set novels in recent memory.

My friend and coworker Kathy, who has impeccable taste in books, recommends Funny Girl, by Nick Hornby, (due February 3). Funny Girl, about a young TV starlet in 1960s London, is “both a heartfelt defence and a wholly convincing example of what popular entertainment can achieve”, according to the London Telegraph. I love Nick Hornby for the comments 9781594205415Hhe made recently when speaking about his new novel at the Cheltenham Literary Festival:

My real campaign is to get everybody – adult, kids, everybody – to read something that they’re loving. And if they’re not loving it, stop reading it . . . Every time we pick up a book for a sense of duty and we find that we’re struggling to get through it, we’re reinforcing the notion that reading is something you should do but telly is something you want to do. It shouldn’t be like that. Novels should be like TV. It shouldn’t be hard work and we should do ourselves a favour. It doesn’t mean you have to read easy books, because you can have very complicated connections to very difficult books, but as long as you’re racing through it, that’s the thing.

Girl Runner, by Carrie Snyder, (due February 3) was recommended to me by another trusted source (also named Cathy), our HarperCollins sales rep. Inspired by the 1928 Canadian Olympic women’s track team, Girl Runner is the story of female athletes in the 1920s, an era when women’s sports became popular. According to the Canadian publication Quill and Quire:

Girl Runner is a plot-driven narrative of one of those forgotten women, fictional 104-year-old Aganetha “Aggie” Smart. Now wheelchair-bound, alone and abandoned in a nursing home, Aggie asks, “Who will write my obituary?” now that everyone who knew her is gone. The ambitious and uncompromising Aggie reflects on her rich and storied life: her childhood in rural Ontario, her work at the Rosebud Confectionery factory, the friendships she forged, her brief fame as a 1920s Olympic track star and Canadian darling, and her failures and triumphs along the way.

9781250043962Doesn’t everyone sometimes dream of running off to an idyllic tropical island? (Especially if you live in Chicago and the temperature is hovering near zero . . .) The Last Good Paradise, by Tatjana Soli (due February 10) Is about a group of people who have done just that. Soli has one of the best author websites I’ve ever seen, and she introduces her latest novel with a beautiful letter:

Dear Reader:

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” 
Mark Twain

A successful attorney at a big Los Angeles law firm is about to open a restaurant with her chef husband. Suddenly they take off, and you find they have gone to the South Pacific with one-way tickets. How does that happen? I find it fascinating when someone starts one life to start another entirely different one, one of the most famous examples being Gauguin . . .

I know March seems far away, but I have to mention Erik Larson’s upcoming book, Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania (due March 10). I’ve loved every one of Larson’s books (In the Garden of Beasts is his most recent, published four years ago) and I have high hopes for Dead Wake. Here’s what Kirkus Reviews has to say:

Larson once again demonstrates his expert researching skills and writing abilities, this time shedding light on nagging questions about the sinking of the Lusitania on May 7, 1915 . . . An intriguing, entirely engrossing investigation into a legendary disaster. Compared to Greg King and Penny Wilson’s Lusitania (2014), also publishing to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the sinking, Larson’s is the superior account.

What’s on your winter reading list?