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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Where They Found Her — Book Review

Where-They-Found-Her-198x300

In order that two imperfect souls might touch perfection.
E.M. Forster
(note from Justin Sanderson to his wife, Molly)

Is it just me, or do other readers find the adjectives used on book jackets to describe the book’s contents pretty silly? Where They Found Her, Kimberly McCreight’s second novel, is called a “blistering novel of psychological suspense.” At least it wasn’t labeled “luminous” — I guess that worn-out term is reserved for literary novels.

Blistering or not, Where They Found Her is fast-paced, multi-layered, meticulously constructed, and peopled with interesting and believable characters. If you pick it up in the evening, prepare to stay up late, because you won’t want to stop reading. Readers sometimes say they read a book in a “single sitting”, and you can’t take that too literally (don’t they have to get off the couch and get a snack?), but I did read this book in one day. It’s that kind of book. To quote McCreight herself, who was actually describing Gillian Flynn’s novels, it’s “character-driven, miss-your-subway-stop suspense.”

Like so many successful suspense novels, Where They Found Her is narrated by multiple characters — another reason to consume this book in big chunks. If you read a chapter or two every day, you’ll undoubtedly get confused. McCreight skillfully adds to the varied perspectives with journal entries, records of psychiatric sessions, transcripts of online chats, and online newspaper articles (with reader comments).

The book opens with an unnamed narrator disposing of a bag of evidence in a dumpster behind a suburban tanning salon:

I have to shove hard to get the blood-soaked towels in, even harder to push the canvas bag through the thin crack. I’m afraid for a second it’ll get stuck. But when I push my whole weight against it, it flies through so fast that I almost smash my face against the edge of the dumpster. When I pull my hands out,they’re covered in blood. For a second I think it’s mine. But it’s not mine. It’s the baby’s blood. All over me again, just like it was an hour ago.

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 the upscale suburb of Ridgedale, New Jersey.

Molly Sanderson, wife of a Ridgedale University professor and new to the staff of the Ridgedale Reader,  investigates the story — which turns out to be much more complicated than she originally anticipated, leading back to unsavory secrets in Ridgedale’s past. Molly’s own past, which includes a painful childhood and the recent loss of her baby, influences her reporting of the crime — or is it a crime?

“A crime scene? That seems to presuppose a murder. Do we know that?” I asked, pleased that I’d picked up on his jumping of the gun.

“Good point, I suppose we don’t,” Erik said. “Our source in the department was vague . . . Despite what they seem to think, the local police aren’t entitled to any sort of special treatment from us, but they’ll already be on the defensive with the university to contend with.”

Barbara, wife of the local police chief, Sandy, a high school girl with a difficult home life, and Jenna, Sandy’s troubled mother, also lend their points of view to the disturbing events in Ridgedale. These events include not only the mystery of the body found near the campus, but other, perhaps even more compelling, subplots involving the seamy underbelly of a seemingly peaceful college town. The less said about these subplots, the better — if you’d like to read a review that does include spoilers (and participate in a discussion), please visit Sarah’s Book Shelves. Sarah includes her “wrong guesses” and “lingering questions”.

In an interview on BookPage, McCreight was asked, “What’s it like writing in multiple voices?”

Extremely liberating and occasionally very tricky. My favorite part of writing is being able to live in someone else’s skin. Multiple points of view mean becoming several different “selves,” which is all the better. It also gives me the freedom to explore the narrative from several perspectives, making the process of discovery that is so integral to my writing process that much more exciting.

That said, it does take effort to keep the voices distinct while ensuring that each character’s story has a well-formed arc, internally consistent and effectively knit into the broader whole.

McCreight is adept at shifting perspectives, gradually adding clues that may lead readers to solve the puzzle of the dead newborn. Not this reader, however; I was completely surprised when I learned the identity of the parents. On rereading sections of the book, I realized I had overlooked certain subtle hints. McCreight does include some red herrings — and again, those became more obvious on a second reading. (The New York Times quipped that McCreight’s first novel, Reconstructing Amelia, is “a mystery with enough red herring to stock Lake Michigan.”)

Molly’s English professor husband, Justin, leaves little notes for Molly to find. Readers will find that these notes — all quotes from famous writers — work, as McCreight mentions in her BookPage interview, “on multiple levels”. And They Found Her works on multiple levels as well — for example, who is the “her”? Who are the “they”? The answers are not as simple as they first appear.

This novel, like Reconstructing Amelia, is a perfect crossover book for teenagers. YA readers will enjoy the fast pace, the 17-year-old narrator, and the campus setting. McCreight is currently working on YA speculative fiction (The Outliers), focusing on this question: “What if women’s greater emotionality—so often deemed a sign of weakness—was, in fact, our greatest strength?” The question is interesting in light of Where They Found Her. Molly’s emotional response to the news story she’s asked to cover actually does provide her with strength and purpose.

For more reviews of Where They Found Her, please check out TLC Book Tours.