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!

So many choices for a summer read

Stone fruit, long days, baseball and endless reading choices are some of my summer favorites. Come summer I have less pressure to read books for upcoming discussions and tend to range farther afield in my choices.

Since we do spend time on the road each summer, e-books and audiobooks have a greater presence than when I stick closer to home. The public library is my go-to source for audiobooks that Dan and listen to long trips.  Once you get the hang of it, it’s not hard to download titles that are available for up to 3 weeks. An inexpensive Bluetooth speaker makes it much easier to hear if your car is not so equipped.

We’re hoping to listen to The Last Days of Night by Graham Moore, a fact-based novel of Westinghouse, Edison, and Tesla in 1888. Joshua Hammer’s telling of the rescue of Mali’s treasured Islamic and secular manuscripts from impending destruction by Al Qaeda is the narrative of The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu. Mysteries or thrillers can also be a good traveling pick. I’m looking at The Beekeeper’s Apprentice by Laurie King, the first in a series of Mary Russell-Sherlock Holmes stories. We have also enjoyed John Grisham’s Sycamore Row, David McCullough’s The Wright Brothers, and Bill Bryson’s One Summer: America, 1927. Any of their books would be fine picks – good readers with easy on the ear accents, engaging narratives that sustain your attention without distracting from the road ahead. Try out a new genre, if you dare.  We loved Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. A mix of dystopic and classical storytelling, it was a great listen.

Above is a photo of some of the books I hope to read as the summer progresses. A bit of everything, fiction based on fact, memoir, literary fiction and mystery. I’ve listed them all at the end of the post. The plan is to review as many as possible. Some are certain to appear on my book groups lists. If the library waitlist treats me kindly, I’ll also read Daniel Silva’s latest, House of Spies, and  Louise Penny’s Glass Houses.

Right now I’m finishing up Miriam Toews’ All My Puny Sorrows. Toews is an award-winning Canadian novelist. This is a family story of two sisters, Elfrieda, a concert pianist, and her sister, who has a more well-rounded life despite some poor decisions. I’ve been listening to Behold the Dreamers since before it became one of Oprah’s Book Club picks. It is Imbolo Mbue’s story of two families, one in the 1% but with many problems money cannot solve, the other an immigrant family desperate to stay in the U.S. with the father working as the driver for the wealthy family. Set in New York where spectacular wealth and barely-scraping-by live barely a few miles apart.

Before I forget, plan to stop at local bookstores while you are visiting new places. Yesterday I picked up Hag-Seed, Margaret Atwood’s modern retelling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest in narrative form while at Four Seasons Books in Shepherdstown, WV. There are knowledgeable booksellers in independent bookstores just about everywhere. Invest in the future of the book. Patronize these shops wherever you find them. IndieBound is one good source to scout them out.

Finally, what have I finished already? Anita Shreve’s The Stars Are Fire, Joanna Trollope’s City of Friends, Charles Todd’s A Casualty of War, Bianca Marais’s Hum If You Don’t Know the Words, The Forgotten Seamstress by Liz Trenow and Enchanted Islands by Allison Amend. All would be fine choices to pack in your carry-on and those I have reviewed are linked.

Titles Pictured Above

  • Daring to Drive by Manal al-Sharif
  • Celine by Peter Heller
  • The Leavers by Lisa Ko
  • The Golden Light of Northern Fires by Daren Wang
  • The World Tomorrow by Brendan Mathews
  • The Lost History of Stars by Dave Boling

 

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Hum If You Don’t Know the Words

  • Hum If You Don’t Know the Words by Bianca Marais (Putnam), July 11, 2017
  • In 40 words or less: Beginning with the Soweto uprising, a young white girl and a Xhosa woman are thrown together as a family. Their complementary narratives enrich insights into life under apartheid. Great book!
  • Genre: Literary Fiction
  • Locale: Johannesburg, South Africa
  • Time: 1970s
  • Forty years after the uprising that began the end of Apartheid, this novel opens a door to the challenges of life for the Blacks and others in South Africa fighting for change. A wonderful novel of people in very difficult times.

Robin is a young Anglophone girl growing up in South Africa. Bullied by her Afrikaans schoolmates, she is very concerned about living up to her parents’ expectations. Her father is a manager in a mining operation, overseeing Black workers. When her parents receive a last minute invitation to a business function Robin’s life is changed forever. En route to the event, Robin’s parents are ambushed and murdered. So starts Hum If You Don’t Know the Words. Robin and her housekeeper are dragged to a notorious police station where the housekeeper is brutalized. Robin is turned over to her only relative, her Aunt Enid who lives in Johannesburg. After gathering up a small suitcase, Robin’s past life is left behind.

Beauty Mbali is a well-educated teacher living with her sons in the Transkei. Looking to improve her daughter’s life, she sends her to Johannesburg to live with relatives and attend a superior school. After receiving a message that her daughter may be in trouble, she travels for more than a day to Soweto to see her. Beauty arrives in the midst of the first day of the student marches, discovering that her daughter is in the leadership and is now missing. Beauty will do whatever it takes to find her daughter.

Robin isn’t the only one adjusting to her family’s trauma. Enid is a stewardess and modern single woman with no one to account to but herself. Though she tries, upending her life to provide the care Robin requires herself is neither practical nor within her skill set. She reaches out to her network of friends, many of whom are anti-Apartheid supporters, for help. Through these channels, Beauty becomes Robin’s caregiver, confidant, and lifeline. This allows Beauty to remain in Johannesburg, though illegally, so she can continue to search for her daughter.

Bianca Marais has created two rich communities to tell her story. Bit by bit, Robin’s world expands. Her one friend is a Jewish boy, homeschooled because of the anti-Semitic bullying he receives at school. His apartment becomes a safe space and his family’s customs a source of curiosity. Enid has several gay male friends who are at times endangered by the authorities. At times it is difficult for Robin to distinguish friend from foe.

During the continuing search for her daughter, Beauty reveals elements of her family and its past. Protecting all her children leaves her torn – caring for a white child while her sons are back home and her daughter missing. Her search takes her through Soweto, balancing secrecy with her goal. Vivid descriptions of afterhours gathering places and the leaders and hoodlums that are all part of the growing uprising enrich both the story and the reader’s understanding of the times.

Both Beauty and Robin are leading their lives as survivors rather than as victims.  Not always optimistic, each demonstrates inner strength consistent with her position in life. Neither is perfect and these flaws are key to the story.

As a blogger and book group leader, I have the chance to read some books before they are published or reviewed. It can be a crapshoot – some good, some meh and some not worth finishing. And then there are the special books.  I love Hum If You Don’t Know the Words. There are twists, even in the beginning. As I read I could see the story unfold, almost as if a movie was taking place in my mind. This is Bianca Marais’s debut novel. It has been selected as an Indie Next selection for this month and has gotten well-deserved advance accolades. It is a great pick for book groups and to share with friends.

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Not All ‘Enchanted Islands’ Are Paradise

  • Enchanted Islands by Allison Amend (Doubleday), 2016
  • In 40 words or less: Loosely based on a woman who lived with her husband on the Galapagos Islands prior to WWII,  a novel of a woman striving to overcome the poverty of an immigrant home, using her skills and life-long secretiveness to become a US spy.
  • Genre: Historical Fiction
  • Locale: Duluth, Chicago, San Francisco, Galapagos Islands
  • Time: 1890-1964
  • Readers who enjoy exotic settings will find the descriptions of life on the islands fascinating. The lives of the fictional Frances and Ainslie Conway are far more complicated than just their intelligence mission and likely than their real lives.

Allison Amend had taken a lovely nugget, two memoirs of Frances Conway’s experience in the Galapagos Islands, and used it as a springboard for this novel of hardship, transformation, and love. Amend imagined Frances as one of seven children born to Polish-Jewish immigrants to Duluth in the 1880s. The early portions of the novel contrast her family life with that of her friend Rosalie, the only child of educated German immigrants. Despite the relative comforts of Rosalie’s home, dark secrets propel the two to leave for Chicago at fifteen.Woven into the plot are historical details about the roles young women on their own could take at the turn of the 20th century. Franny and Rosalie sought out the Jewish community to provide a lifeline as they first arrived in Chicago but had no interest in assimilating into that life. In the course of her secretarial work, Franny also becomes involved in the surreptitious publication of early Zionist newsletters, not out of interest but rather through happenstance.

Franny and Rosalie take differing paths to securing their futures. After a blow-up with Rosalie, Frances heads west, initially to live on a farm, later to California as a secretary in military intelligence.  These experiences become the qualifications she needs to enter into an arranged marriage with an intelligence officer who is to be posted to the Galapagos Islands to keep an eye on the German residents suspected of providing information to the growing Reich. Before leaving San Francisco, Franny and Rosalie reunite. Rosalie is now a wealthy society matron, involved in the civic and Jewish community, living a life she’d like to share with Franny, her oldest and only true friend.

Franny’s marriage to Ainslie Conway is a creation of spycraft. Neither had been married or expected to. The cover story for “going native” was to remove Ainslie from the temptations of alcohol, apparently one of the facts this story hangs on. As the narrator, Franny’s vulnerability and desire for all levels of intimacy are revealed. Reading with 21st-century sensibilities, the challenges to their marriage are clear.

Amend does a wonderful job of describing the daily challenges that the rough terrain, limited supplies, and communications cause during their time in the Galapagos. On an island with less than a dozen residents, most of whom were German,  privacy was highly valued and there was little cushion between basic survival and potential disaster.  Medical care and any other services from more populated areas were days, if not weeks, away. Given the intelligence operations, using the hidden military radio was limited to specific purposes. As the war approached, US naval vessels periodically approached the island for reconnaissance purposes.

As is clear from the start, Franny and Rosalie are destined to reconnect again and the story comes full circle. Amend has an ambitious agenda with Enchanted Islands. She takes on the Jewish immigrant experience, the exploitation of young women, early feminism, spycraft and life in an exotic locale. Throughout it all, loyalty and friendship are key. While there is a lot to learn about life just before the war in the Galapagos, don’t expect to meet the real Frances, Ainslie or Rosalie.  Knowing this up front is good enough for me.

 

 

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Anita Shreve’s fiery novel of coastal Maine

  • The Stars Are Fire by Anita Shreve (Knopf), April 2017
  • In 40 words or less: A young mother’s life is upended when a catastrophic wildfire destroys her home and community. Naive and untested, she finds strength and resilience as she builds a new life for her family. Inspired by an October 1947 fire.
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Locale: Maine
  • Time: 1947-50
  • Anita Shreve lulls the reader with the rich details of small town domestic life. Deftly altering the pace as events overtake the commonplace, Shreve recalibrates the storytelling for the transformations to come. A perfect summer read for anyone with an affinity for Maine and the self-reliance of its residents.

In The Stars Are Fire Anita Shreve paints a picture of village life in coastal Maine shortly after the end of World War II. Young families are being created by those who’ve returned from the war, there is some spare money for the first time since the Depression and there are good jobs, at least for the men.

Grace Holland is the mother of two toddlers. She and her husband Gene are not really in synch. Gene has an excellent job with good prospects. Grace tries to make the best of her life despite being unfulfilled in many ways. Her neighbor and best friend, Rosie, has a joyful and spontaneous life that amazes Grace. Where Grace’s life is structured, orderly and unstimulating, Rosie’s is disorganized and vibrant. Rosie and her family bring joy to Grace’s days.

As always, the rhythms of Maine life are dictated by the weather. Storms can be widow-makers for those dependent on fishing for their livelihoods, including Grace’s father. Unending rain or snow can make travel impossible and bring new meaning to cabin fever. But it is drought that can turn clear blue skies perilous.

The endless spring rains give way to a sparkling clear summer. By fall, fire danger warnings are constant. When a large fire approaches both Grace’s and Rosie’s husbands are off to help keep it at bay. As the fire overtakes them, Grace’s quick thinking saves both women and their children. When they are found by rescuers their homes are gone and Grace is seriously injured. Rosie is reunited with her husband but Gene is missing. With all this uncertainty, Grace must make a life for herself and her family.

Grace comes into her own in this new role. With no alternative, she, her mother and children move into her late mother-in-law’s home. This decision changes everything.

Anita Shreve creates in Grace a woman who will not let tragedy define her. Rather than retreating, she chooses to embrace the uncertainties she faces and determine her own future.  Shreve beautifully crafts her settings and describes the details that add depth to the story. These are some of the reasons Anita Shreve is a perennial favorite.

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