10 Summer Paperback Picks

In the spring, I posted a list of 10 of my favorite recent books just published (or about to be published) in paperback. It’s now official summer reading season, and dozens of new paperbacks are piled high on bookstore tables. Some of these (Station Eleven) were critically and commercially successful in hardcover; some (The Blessings) didn’t get as much attention as they deserved in hardcover; and some (The Red Notebook) are brand new books, never published in hardcover.

More and more books are being published as paperback originals. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal (“The Stigma of Paperback Originals”), American publishers view the “straight to paperback” format as “an increasingly attractive option—perhaps the only option—for young authors with no track record, midcareer authors with a challenging track record and international authors being published for the first time in the U.S.” The Journal points out the paperback original is “the industry standard ‘ In Europe, the U.K., Australia and New Zealand.”

Frances Coady, formerly publisher of Picador, the paperback imprint of Macmillan, is quoted in the article as saying: “You have to ask yourself questions like, ‘Is it better to sell 5,000 or 8,000 copies in hardcover and try to reinvent the book in paperback?’—which, unless there’s some extraordinary piece of luck, is really hard to do—or ‘Is it better to sell 50,000 in a paperback original?'”

As a reader, I vote for the paperback option — especially now that paperbacks are so high-quality. Some even have fancy French flaps. Gone are the days when you cracked open a paperback only to have loose pages flutter out. And booksellers have a much easier time convincing customers to take a chance on a new author with a paperback than with a hardcover. Here are 10 books to take a chance on this summer:

9780804172448Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (hardcover 9/14; paperback 6/15)
WHAT WAS LOST IN THE COLLAPSE: almost everything, almost everyone, but there is still such beauty. Twilight in the altered world, a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a parking lot in the mysteriously named town of St. Deborah by the Water, Lake Michigan shining a half mile away.

I’m surprised this book was released in paperback only nine months after it came out in hardcover. One of five finalists for the National Book Award in fiction, the post-apocalyptic novel has been a bestseller for months. Despite the acclaim, I would never have picked up this book if it hadn’t been a selection for my book group. I couldn’t imagine getting through, much less enjoying, a dystopian novel. But I truly loved every page and recommend it without reservations to anyone who reads literary fiction. I was captivated by the first chapter, which takes place during a performance of King Lear. In a New York Times interview, the author said,

I wanted to write a love letter to the modern world, and a way to write about all these things we take for granted was to write about their absence. People would want what was best about the world, and it’s subjective, but to me, that would include the plays of Shakespeare.

women-kings-260x388-1Where Women Are Kings by Christie Watson (paperback original 4/15)
They said that the wizard was something Mama had dreamed, and because she was sick in the head. But how could Mama’s dream get inside Elijah’s head? And now they told him that Mama hurt him badly. Every time he closed his eyes, he remembered and he wanted to scratch out the memory but he couldn’t. It waited there for him like a wolf under a tree.

Seven-year-old Elijah, the son of an abusive and mentally unstable Nigerian immigrant, finds refuge with Nikki and Obi in a stable home. But Elijah comes to believe he is possessed by a wizard. This heartbreaking, beautifully written story explores  foster care, childhood trauma, interracial adoption, mental illness, religious ideology, and the complex nature of parental love.

9780345807335Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher (hardcover 8/14; paperback 6/23/15)
. . . Remembering Ms. Newcombe now  — though my file drawer contains thousands of lives for which I often find myself feeling accountable — I realize I am well disposed in her favor; in fact, I thoroughly urge you to offer her a job. Why? Because as a student of literature and creative writing, Ms. Newcombe honed crucial traits that will be of use to you: imagination, patience, resourcefulness, and empathy. The reading and writing of fiction both requires and instills empathy– the insertion of oneself into the life of another.

Professor Jason Fitger’s personal life and writing career are falling apart, and he tells the story through a series of very funny letters of recommendation. “Clever” doesn’t begin to describe this novel, which is much more than a satire of academia. If you enjoyed Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, you’ll love Dear Committee Members.

9781594633881The Vacationers by Emma Straub (hardcover 5/14; paperback 6/15)
A good swimming pool could do that—make the rest of the world seem impossibly insignificant, as far away as the surface of the moon.

When a New York family spends a summer vacation in a rented house in Mallorca, things are a little too close for comfort. From the New York Times: “For those unable to jet off to a Spanish island this summer, reading The Vacationers may be the next-best thing. Straub’s gorgeously written novel follows the Post family — a food writer named Franny; her patrician husband, Jim; and their children, 28-year old Bobby and 18-year-old Sylvia — to Mallorca . . . When I turned the last page, I felt as I often do when a vacation is over: grateful for the trip and mourning its end.” I felt the same way! I’ve heard that The Rocks by Peter Nichols, just published a couple of weeks ago, is another wonderful book set in Mallorca — I can’t wait to read it.

44e1505bebb7632d9a662b978df7fc9aThe Blessings by Elise Juska (hardcover 5/14; paperback 5/15)
She thought about how it was something they would all remember forever. How this was family: to own such moments together. To experience them in all their raw shock and sadness, then get the food from the refrigerator, unwrap the crackers and fill the glasses, keep the gears turning, the grand existing beside the routine, the ordinary.

This lovely novel follows several generations of a close Irish-American family from Philadelphia, in a “deceptively simple tale that examines the foibles, disappointments and passions that tie family members together” (Publishers Weekly). The book reminded me a bit of Olive Kitteridge, since it’s a collection of linked stories. Like the PW reviewer, I felt lucky to have spent some time in the Blessings’ presence.

UnknownWe Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas (hardcover 8/14; paperback 6/15)
You are not in this life to count up victories and defeats. You are in it to love and be loved.

Both an epic novel of the 20th century in America and an intimate story of a marriage and family, We Are Not Ourselves amazed me with its sympathy for its complex and flawed characters. As I was reading it, I was reminded of Alice McDermott. The New York Times reviewer remarked on the connection between the two authors: “Mr. Thomas’s narrow scope (despite a highly eventful story) and bull’s-eye instincts into his Irish characters’ fear, courage and bluster bring to mind the much more compressed style of Alice McDermott. (According to this book’s acknowledgments, she has been one of his teachers. If he wasn’t an A student then, he is now.)” Daniel Goldin, owner of Boswell Book Company put it more succinctly; he notes that McDermott’s novels are “on the slim side” and calls Matthew Thomas “Alice McDermott on steroids”.

9781908313867The Red Notebook by Antoine Laurain (paperback original 3/15)
He drank some more wine, feeling he was about to commit a forbidden act. A transgression. For a man should never go through a woman’s handbag — even the most remote tribe would adhere to that ancestral rule. Husbands in loincloths definitely did not have the right to go and look for a poisoned arrow or a root to eat in their wives’ rawhide bags.

I hate to use the word “charming”, but this little jewel of a novel really is charming — and it’s not sappy. Parisian bookseller Laurent Letellier finds a woman’s handbag on the street, containing plenty of personal items — including a red notebook — but no clues to the owner’s identity. This has been one of our store’s staff and customer favorites for months — it’s the kind of book people buy in multiples to give as gifts.

9780062365590Us by David Nicholls (hardcover 10/14; paperback due 6/30/15)
. . .  And, like many men of my generation, I enjoy military history, my “Fascism-on-the-march books”, as Connie calls them. I’m not sure why we should be drawn to this material. Perhaps it’s because we like to imagine ourselves in the cataclysmic situations that our fathers and grandfathers faced, to imagine how we’d behave when tested, whether we would show our true colours and what they would be. Follow or lead, resist or collaborate?

Has Douglas and Connie’s long marriage, as she claims, run its course? A summer “grand tour” of Europe with their sullen teenage son, Albie, brings matters to a head. If a book could be described as a romantic comedy, that would be the appropriate term for this smart and delightful novel. The characters, especially Albie, will drive you crazy — just like real people.

A1Ugvdz5AnL._SL1500_The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald, with introduction by David Nicholls (paperback original published in the U.S. 6/15)
A good book is the precious life-blood of a master-spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life, and as such it must surely be a necessary commodity.

I’m thrilled that this brilliant novel is being introduced to a new generation of American readers.  It’s about a widow who decides to open a bookshop in an isolated English village, encountering resistance from her neighbors. David Nicholls, who worked as a bookseller at Waterstones in London for several years, writes in introduction to the new edition of The Bookshop:

With typical self-deprecation, Fitzgerald called The Bookshop a “short novel with a sad ending”, which is true I suppose, but takes no account of Fitzgerald’s wit and playfulness . . . Fitzgerald’s great gift, often remarked upon, was the precision and economy of her prose . . .

It’s worth noting that Fitzgerald was a late bloomer. The New Yorker points out that The Bookshop, “published when Fitzgerald was sixty-one, announced her arrival on the literary scene.”

9780143127444The Hundred-Year House by Rebecca Makkai (hardcover 7/14; paperback 5/15)
But here at Laurelfield, there was something more in the mornings, a buzzing sensation about the whole house, as if it weren’t the servants keeping it running but some other energy. As if the house had roots and leaves and was busy photosynthesizing and sending sap up and down, and the people running through were as insignificant as burrowing beetles.

Once an artists’ colony, now a luxurious private home, the “hundred-year house” has a profound effect on its residents and visitors. Using an innovative narrative structure — the book begins at the dawn of the 21st century and travels back in time to 1900 — Rebecca Makkai draws us in to a world filled with artists, poets, academics, heirs and heiresses . . . and perhaps a ghost. I was enthralled from the first page. Makkai has a new book coming out this summer — a short story collection called Music for Wartime.

It just occurred to me that all the books on this list are fiction. There are plenty of great nonfiction books coming out this summer as well, and I’ll be highlighting those soon. Which paperbacks are you planning on picking up this summer?

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.

10 Questions for Thomas Christopher Greene, Author of The Headmaster’s Wife (Plus a Giveaway!)

Headmaster's Wife-2

Paperback cover

Booksellers often fall in love with a terrific new book, only to find that the hardcover version is a tough sell. We console ourselves by saying that the book will really “take off” in paperback, and very often that’s true. Certain books, through a combination of serendipity and quality, sell enormously well in hardcover for years without being released in paperback. (Think of Gone Girl, The Goldfinch, Unbroken . . .) But most paperback releases are scheduled for 9 to 12 months after hardcover publication, depending on sales. Some of those paperbacks do sell much, much better than their hardcover versions, especially those that appeal to book clubs.

Author Nichole Bernier interviewed publishers, editors, authors, and literary agents for an article in The Millions about relaunching books in paperback, learning that “A paperback isn’t just a cheaper version of the book anymore. It’s a makeover. A facelift. And for some, a second shot.” Melanie Benjamin, whose paperbacks have been very popular with book club audiences, observed that “‘ . . .  almost every book these days gets a new cover for the paperback. It’s almost as if they’re doing two different books for two different audiences, with the paperback becoming the ‘book club book.'” M.J. Rose, of the book marketing firm Authorbuzz, said, “‘I think that as opposed to a re-release being less important, it’s more than ever important because it gives a book a second chance with a new cover and lower cost, plus you can use all the great reviews the hardcover got.'”

9781250038944

Hardcover jacket

The Headmaster’s Wife, by Thomas Christopher Greene — one of my 10 Favorite Books of 2014 — was just released in paperback. The publisher must think that ivy-covered brick buildings appeal to book clubs, because only one minor change appears on the cover: Richard Russo’s blurb has been replaced with a quote from a People magazine review. Too bad, because what Russo says is spot-on: “I read the second half of The Headmaster’s Wife with my mouth open, my jaw having dropped at the end of the first half. Thomas Christopher Greene knows how to hook a reader and land him.”

The Headmaster’s Wife opens when Arthur Winthrop, headmaster of a New England boarding school, is found wandering naked in Central Park. As he begins to tell his story to the police, it becomes clear to the reader that Arthur is an unreliable narrator. Just how unreliable he is only becomes obvious about halfway through the book. At this point Arthur’s wife lends her perspective to the story, and the reader must determine whose version of the truth to believe. Continue reading