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.

WWW Wednesday — Mother-Daughter Version 2.0

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Too cold to sit outside . . .

It’s WWW Wednesday, where I answer three questions:

What are you currently reading? What did you recently finish reading? What do you plan to read next?

I’m visiting my mother in Hilton Head, South Carolina, so I’ll answer those questions for both of us. And no, we are not reading outside on lounge chairs. The temperature is 44 degrees — not outdoor reading weather, although it’s balmy compared to Chicago’s current 19 degrees.

Here’s what we are currently reading:

9781594205712MI’m in the middle of Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. My book group is discussing it tomorrow night, so you might say I’m cutting it a little close, but I like to read my book group books as close to the meetings as possible so they’re fresh in my mind.  I’m impressed with Ng’s assured, precise writing style and her careful, well-paced narrative structure. It’s the kind of book you want to read in one sitting. All the reviews I’ve read, including this one from the New York Times, have been excellent:

Celeste Ng’s debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, is a literary thriller that begins with some stock elements: a missing girl, a lake, a local bad boy who was one of the last to see her and won’t say what he knows. The year is 1977, the setting, a quiet all-American town in Ohio, where everyone knows one another and nothing like this has ever happened before.

This is familiar territory, but Ng returns to it to spin an unfamiliar tale, with a very different kind of girl from the ones we’ve been asked to follow before. If we know this story, we haven’t seen it yet in American fiction, not until now.

One of our members emailed today to say she wouldn’t be able to make it to the meeting (it’s her daughter’s birthday — I guess that’s a decent excuse): “I loved the book even though I thought it was heart-wrenching. Can’t wait to hear about the discussion. Two great books in a row. We are on a roll.” (Last month we discussed All the Light We Cannot See.)

My mother is reading What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty, for her next book club meeting. It’s about a 39-year-old woman who loses her memory and thinks she is 29, pregnant with her first child. She thinks it might be a little lightweight for a book club discussion. I am embarrassed to admit that I keep confusing this book with Still Alice by Lisa Genova, which is a moving novel about a woman suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s disease.  Genova is a Harvard-trained neuroscientist who has written several novels about families dealing with brain disorders. (Still Alice, by the way, has just been made into a movie starring Julianne Moore and Alec Baldwin, with a wide release scheduled for 9780062325143January 2015.)

Here’s what we just finished reading:

The last book I finished was The Wild Truth by Carine McCandless. McCandless is the sister of Chris McCandless, the young man whose journey of self-discovery and eventual starvation in the Alaskan wilderness was told by Jon Krakauer in Into the Wild. I don’t really know what to think about this book. Into the Wild raised more questions than it answered, and The Wild Truth answers some of those questions. But it was disconcerting to learn that Krakauer (and also Sean Penn, who directed the movie version) were in possession of key missing information and agreed with the McCandless family not to reveal it. The conclusion I reached as a reader about McCandless’s reasons for severing ties with his family and disappearing “into the wild” turned out to be faulty. I feel a bit cheated knowing that Krakauer didn’t present the whole story in his book, although I understand why he couldn’t reveal family secrets.

coverMy mother recently read The Children Act by Ian McEwan, about a London family court judge who must make a decision about whether to order a lifesaving blood transfusion for a 17-year-old Jehovah’s Witness. My mother highly recommends The Children Act, although her favorite McEwan novel remains Atonement. The London Independent echoes her thoughts, saying, “In short: this novel is not as good as Atonement, but what modern novel is?”

What’s next?

I’m going to return to Us by David Nicholls, which I was finding absolutely delightful, but had to set aside to read my book club book. I got a text from a friend last week who asked me if I’d read Us yet, saying, “Loved Us, read it next if you can . . . it’s a perfect book.” So of course I had to pick it up right away! It was longlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize. I also just picked up a copy of Maureen Corrigan’s And So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures, which I can’t wait to read. (See Ann Patchett’s thoughts on the book here.)

I see that my mother has a big stack of books to be read. Right on top is A Star for Mrs. Blake by April Smith, the story of a group of Gold Star mothers (women whose sons were killed in World War I) who make a government-sponsored pilgrimage to Europe to visit their sons’ graves.

I’d love to know what you’re reading and what you’re thinking of reading next. I’m especially interested in book club selections, since I’m planning a book club roundup of great discussion books.

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