Bestsellers, blockbusters and just plain good reads!

Some days you get lucky.  It just so happens that 2 articles appeared in my inbox that provide a peek into what differentiates a strong selling book from a phenomenon.  Summer is the perfect time to make this assessment.  Since June some of the biggest names in books have released their latest. There are those who won’t head out on vacation without the latest John Grisham or Daniel Silva in hand.

Publishers Weekly is the arbiter for what is selling and how many are sold. Each week the list has the ranking, number of weeks on the list, copies sold that week and calendar sales year-to-date. Grisham’s Camino Island has been on the list for 7 weeks, always at #1 or #2. Over 400,000 copies have been sold already and almost 25,000 last week alone. Now that’s a blockbuster!

Farther down on the list at #8 is A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. It was published 10 months ago, in September 2016. Towles has a strong following and the book debuted on the list, but not even in the top ten. Since January, over 160,000 copies have been sold but it only takes a bit over 6 thousand to be in the eighth position for the week. Publication of the paperback has been delayed since hardcover sales remain so strong.

So why did I choose A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles for the comparison?   Continue reading Bestsellers, blockbusters and just plain good reads!

Sharing books with Mom

Regardless of where you sit on the family tree, there is likely a mother (daughter, sister,  in-law, or you) in your life that is deserving of recognition. Just as I’ve shared suggestions of books for Dad in the past, mothers should have equal time.

For Mother’s Day, you want to give (or get) just the right thing.  One thing likely has not changed from the days when a handmade macaroni necklace was perfect – it’s the thought you put into it that counts. There are more pluses to giving books than the obvious reasons.

When you select a book you are opening a conversation. Are you giving a book you’ve enjoyed or one that reminds you of a shared experience? Is it by Mom’s favorite author or takes place in a city she loves? Whether it becomes her new favorite or not, talking books is usually interesting, often more so if you disagree about merits of a title.

Before I give some of my picks, I’d suggest you think about those titles that you’d read again, either because they entertained or informed you. They may be a perfect choice for gift giving. Please share your picks in the comments.

Here are some titles and authors my mother may see if she hasn’t already. Titles with links have my reviews:

  • Helen Simonson’s  The Summer Before the War or Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. Two novels of English small town life with endearing characters, the first WWI-era and the second contemporary.
  • The Girls of Atomic City is a fascinating look at the integral secret role women played in the development of the atomic bomb. Oak Ridge was created almost overnight from nothing and was at the forefront of research (and social engineering) during the latter days of WWII. By Denise Kiernan.
  • Geraldine Brooks really does have something for every Mom! My favorites are Year of Wonders, a fictional account of a real community that isolated itself during the plague, and Foreign Correspondence, her memoir of her beginnings as an Australian schoolgirl whose pen pals set the stage for her career as a journalist and author. March and People of the Book are also great choices!
  • Israeli novels in translation are a favorite of mine. Three picks are The English Teacher by Yiftach Reicher Atir, a novel about the high personal price of life in the intelligence service, and The Hilltop by Assaf Gavron, a contemporary story of the complexities and absurdities of life in an Israeli settlement. Lastly, The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem by Sarit Yishai-Levi is a novel about life in Palestine/Israel at the end of WWII and the beginnings of the State told in the rare voices of generations of a Sephardi family. This view has made it a huge bestseller in Israel. My review will appear soon.
  • Three very different historical fiction stories of strong women are The Girl Who Wrote in Silk by Kelli Estes (19th/21st century), The Pearl that Broke Its Shell by Nadia Hashimi (20th/21st century), and The Widow’s War by Sally Gunning (18th century).
  • Start her on Louise Penny’s Three Pines/Inspector Gamache mysteries and she will have books to keep her busy for months. A Great Reckoning was just released in paperback, or start at the beginning with Still Life. Rich characters that deal with life’s big issues in a setting you wish you could visit. There are many reasons her fan base is so loyal.
  • Perla, Carolina deRobertis’s magical novel about seeking identity during Argentina’s “Dirty War” will send her searching for information about the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, the women who demonstrated and sought out information about their children and grandchildren “disappeared” by the government.
  • For something totally unexpected, share one of these stories about the American West immediately after the Civil War. News of the World is a beautiful small book by Paulette Jiles about a newsreader and a young girl rescued from Indian captors. EpitaphMary Doria Russell’s novel about the legendary Earp brothers and Doc Holliday, has just been optioned for a movie. I’d stand in line to see either on the screen.
  • Speaking of the screen, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Smoot and The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman are wonderful nonfiction titles have been adapted recently.
  • I love Venice and I’m a sucker for detective stories. Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti keeps me coming back to explore that wondrous city. There are now 26 titles in the series. While the principals have aged some since the beginning, it is not critical to read them in order.
  • If you, or the mother in your life, enjoys short stories, travel, and mysteries, check out the Akashic Noir series of titles. There are books for cities from Baltimore to Belfast to Beirut and beyond, each with stories written by local authors.
  • Finally, some “drop everything and read” titles that are perfect for getting away. Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney is a new gem, based in part on the life of the top female advertising copywriter in the first half of the 20th century. The Truth According to Us is Annie Barrow’s story of long-held family secrets wrapped up with lots of information about the National Writer’s Project which employed writers to tell the histories of small-town America during the Depression. Before Me Before You, Jojo Moyes penned The Girl You Left Behind, a novel of life in the French countryside during WWI, a painting, and questions of its ownership almost a century later.

This lengthy listing barely touches on the possibilities. I specifically avoided WWII/Holocaust historical fiction. There are many, many wonderful and well-promoted books in this genre. Cookbooks and food memoirs with rich stories would be great for foodies but they are specific to individual tastes (excuse the pun!) Short story collections are making a big comeback, as are narrative nonfiction titles. While a few biographies or memoirs have been included, an entire list could be made of this genre. Still looking for something else? There are many recommendations on the website.

Once a Spy, Always a Spy – The English Teacher

  • Unknown-2The English Teacher by Yiftach Reicher Atir, Philip Simpson (Translator) (Penguin Books, August 2016) Charlotte Albanna (narrator, Penguin Audio)
  • In 40 words or less: A retired Mossad officer, Atir uses his experience to bare the personal conflicts of an intelligence operative and her handler through a retrospective of their mutual history.  An unconventional thriller, the day-to-day costs of spy craft are as compelling as the missions.
  • Genre: Thriller
  • Locale: London, Israel, unidentified Arab nation
  • Time: Contemporary
  • Read this for an insider’s perspective on the personal price of intelligence work, wrapped in a well-crafted story.

Rachel leads three lives: 1) Rachel Goldshmitt, London-raised and educated daughter who has moved to Israel; 2) Rachel Ravid, Mossad operative; and 3) Rachel Brooks, Canadian Christian English teacher, nature enthusiast and tourist.    Upon the death of her father, Rachel decides to take back her life. Using the skills taught in training, she disappears raising alerts in the agency. Operatives are not permitted to leave the life – it’s too dangerous for all concerned.

From her initial training, Rachel has worked with Ehud, one of the agency’s most senior and skilled handlers. Rachel was his prized student, and his concern and infatuation for her created schisms within in his own family, though Rachel carefully kept dealings only professional. Now, having left the agency, Ehud is called back to recall every detail of their twenty-plus year association in the hope of finding clues to her location. Atir goes back and forth, having Rachel and Ehud voice the details of their operations and communications over the years.

Articles about Atir and his writing indicate that the Mossad demanded changes to plot and techniques to protect its operations. Presumably, there is also some measure of literary license to bring the story together. What Atir accomplishes is bringing the reader face-to-face with the extraordinary stresses and sacrifices demanded of embedded operatives, often for extended periods of time. Operatives may be required to develop relationships, only to leave in the dark of night with no future contact. The English Teacher achingly describes the loneliness of a woman living a dual-life, but really having no life at all.

Note: I listened to the audiobook, thanks to an early copy from Penguin Audio. This is a great book, regardless of format.



‘The Woman in Cabin 10’ is another summer thriller

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  • Unknown-4The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware (Scout Press 2016)
  • In 40 words or less: A journalist lands the assignment to report on an ultra-luxury cruise ship. A break-in at her home before departure makes her wary and vulnerable. When she sees evidence of a crime on the ship her veracity is questioned and her safety endangered.
  • Genre: Thriller
  • Locale: London, North Sea, Norway
  • Time: Now
  • Read this if you are a fan of The Girl on the Train or Gone Girl.

There’s something about summertime. It seems wherever you turn there is another psychological thriller vying for your attention. Granted, they are often the perfect length for a long flight or some time at the pool, preferably with a dip or a nap or two thrown in.

British women writers have taken the US by storm with female protagonists who may not be completely believable.  The latest entry, The Woman in Cabin 10, starts with a heart-stopping scene. Lo Blacklock, the narrator, awakens in the middle of the night to find a masked intruder in her apartment. In confronting him she is wounded and to save herself ends up locked in a room without any way to exit and with no way to communicate. After smashing her way out, she is physically and emotionally battered. Even while trying to work with the police, secure her apartment and replace her stolen phone and credit cards, she and her boyfriend have an argument. And then there’s a magazine assignment on an ultra-luxury cruise just one day away.

Ruth Ware sets up a classic locked room mystery on the North Sea.  The 10 cabin, ultra-luxury ship is on its maiden cruise to drum up publicity and major investors. The ship is a project of a British businessman and his ailing heiress wife and, aside from Lo, the other passengers are major photographers, writers or venture capital advisors. On the first night out, Lo returns to her cabin having had little sleep since her attack and too much to drink. She wakes up to some commotion in the adjacent cabin and thinks she sees a body go overboard and blood on a glass panel. The cabin was allegedly empty and no one seems to be missing from the passengers or crew.

Lo is desperate to uncover the truth. Ruth Ware has done a masterful job of balancing Lo’s occasional self-doubt with her resolve. The novel has numerous twists and turns, all in the very confined quarters of a small ship at sea. Lo is uncertain of the trustworthiness of her fellow passengers, including a photographer, Ben, she had a relationship with several years earlier.

Interspersed in the on-ship narrative are occasional web articles, forum strings, and emails questioning Lo’s possible disappearance since her family, boyfriend, and co-workers have heard nothing from her despite the ship’s high-tech capabilities. These serve to emphasize how alone Lo is on this cruise.

The Woman in Cabin 10 is a fast-paced grabber of a book. Despite the early attack,  Lo fights off a victim mentality and pushes back at every attempt to minimize her contentions. Earlier in her life, Lo suffered panic attacks. When Ben suggests to others that an interaction of her medications and alcohol may have caused her to imagine the body, Lo loses trust in the one person she thought was on her side. The challenge of dealing with anxiety is part of Lo’s story. In its telling, it enhances the acceleration of the plot.

If you enjoyed The Girl on the Train, Gone Girl or Widow, Ruth Ware’s latest might be just the book to take away with you.

‘Before the Fall’ is a Summer Thriller

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  • imagesBefore the Fall by Noah Hawley (Grand Central Publishing, 2016)
  • In 40 words or less: Hawley, an award-winning TV screenwriter, producer and showrunner’s fifth novel  about a small plane crash touches on the risks of privilege, news/entertainment hyperbole, and privacy issues while exploring the lives of the victims and discovering the cause of the crash.
  • Genre: Thriller
  • Locale: Primarily New York/Martha’s Vineyard
  • Time: Contemporary
  • Read this for a fast-paced story and perfect vacation read.

The Batemans seem to have it all, but every family has its problems.  Dad, David, is the key man at a news/entertainment network whose top property is an outrageous loudmouth with a propensity for getting scoops via secret (and illegal) wiretaps. His wife Maggie and two children, Rachel and JJ, spend the summer at their home on Martha’s Vineyard, at the farmer’s market and local cafe, befriending some of the locals. Their daughter’s kidnapping years earlier has top-notch round-the-clock security with the family at all times.

At the summer’s end, they prepare to return to New York on their private jet.  Maggie offers a ride to a couple returning at the same time and to a local artist, hoping to revive his career with a series of new paintings he’s shopping to galleries. As the plane is ready to leave, David learns that the husband is to be indicted for serious financial wrongdoing. The artist barely makes it on the plane as the doors close. And there seems to be something unsettled among the crew. Eighteen minutes after takeoff, the plane crashes in the water.



Scott, the artist, awakens in the water and discovers JJ is still alive. Swimming has been in Scott’s blood for years.  Although rusty, Scott’s obsession with strength through swimming  and Jack LaLanne kicked in to help he and JJ survive an arduous and unlikely swim to shore. Hawley grabs the reader in his description of the swim and positions Scott as JJ’s protector and the flawed but righteous hero of the story.  Of the eleven on board, they are the only two survivors.

Chapter by chapter, Hawley unrolls the backstory of each character, raising and answering questions about whether this was an accident or targeted attack. As the investigation continues, family, the media and Scott all have their interest in JJ, now a very wealthy four-year-old, questioned.  There is ample reason and opportunity to root for the good guys and jeer at the villains, and while there are  suspicions, the specifics of whodunit and why are not revealed until the very end.

There is place on my bookshelf for page-turners. Going in knowing a novel is unlikely to be a book group read gives me the freedom to just escape in the story. Whether he is doing this with his TV shows (Fargo, Bones and more) or his latest novel, Noah Hawley has me hooked.