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!

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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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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A mystery within a mystery to watch for!

  • Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz (Harper, US release June 2017)
  • In 40 words or less: A London editor receives a mystery manuscript just as the author falls to his death. Despite her antipathy towards the author, Susan Ryeland is committed to finding the missing chapters and the real cause of Alan Conway’s death. Horowitz’s literary allusions and adroit wordplay make this a true joy.
  • Genre: Mystery
  • Locale: London and environs
  • Time: Contemporary
  • I’m a sucker for British whodunits. Horowitz is known to PBS viewers for his teleplays, Midsomer Murders and Foyle’s War. Magpie Murders pays homage to the great mystery writers and detectives with more than a little tongue-in-cheek. Horowitz’s literary allusions and adroit wordplay make this a true joy and a great choice to take anywhere this summer.

For some reason, British murder mysteries seemed so much more civilized than their American counterparts. Even when one victim’s head is removed by the sword from the suit of armor in the manor hall – rather hard to believe. It’s the air of gentility, found more often in those who have suffered reverses than those on the rise, and generations of community connections despite differing social strata. Villages are traversed by walking or biking, and city dwellers live in lovely row houses or quaint flats. All of these elements, plus the necessary school ties, are present in Magpie Murders. Rather than feeling trite, it is entertaining to see how Horowitz manages to bring all these elements together, stringing out the clues bit by bit.

It’s not a great surprise that Alan Conway, author and murder victim, is disliked by many who know him. He is the ticket to his small publishing house’s success as both his publisher and editor realize. Just as his latest manuscript in about to be delivered, Conway comes to London for a dinner with the publisher at a private club. Unfortunately, all does not go smoothly. So after the incomplete manuscript appears and Conway dies, his editor is highly motivated to find the missing conclusion and the answers. She soon learns that Conway’s final mystery has far too many parallels with the leads she is following.

Dan, my very supportive husband, often wonders how there can still be people in Britain given the number of poisonings, falls, stabbings and hunting accidents that occur under suspicious circumstances. Somehow the bucolic settings make crime seem oh, so different, from the flashing lights and screaming sirens of American crime stories. Crime is intensely personal and localized, motives deep-seated and clear.

For fans of classic British mysteries, there is so much to like. Horowitz is reveling in each allusion he scores and inside publishing barb he plants. If you are intrigued, this is your June read.  It is coming out next week, just in time to take along wherever you go this summer.

Wandering NYC and life with Lillian Boxfish

  •  Lillian Boxfish Takes A Walk by Kathleen Rooney (St. Martin’s Press, 2017)
  • In 40 words or less: Lillian was a woman before her time. On New Year’s Eve, at 85 years old, she sets out to walk the important landmarks of her life in New York and revisit decisions, good and bad.
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Locale: Primarily NYC
  • Time: New Year’s Eve 1984 and flashbacks
  • This book was pure pleasure. Lillian is based on a woman copywriter for Macy’s beginning in the 1930s. Kathleen Rooney captures both the bon vivant and the troubles that make a story worth reading. As a dedicated walker and child of New York, I was with Lillian every step of the way.

New York City has long been the destination for writers, actors and other aspirants with dreams beyond Main Street at home. Kathleen Rooney creates in Lillian Boxfish a woman pushing the envelope of the 20th century. Conveniently, Lillian is born in 1900 and comes of age with the new freedoms of the 1920s. This affords her the opportunity to seek a career in New York after graduating Goucher College, of course, living in a women’s residence, suitable for unaccompanied young ladies of the era. She eventually secures a position as an assistant copywriter for R.H. Macy, writing copy for the clever ads popular until widespread television advertising changed the field.

Lillian loves New York as much as she loves her independence. As a career woman of that era, her evenings and weekends were devoted to enjoying all the city had to offer and her growing expertise as a poet. Her colleagues were her core friends and occasional frenemy. While always very social, Lillian was disinclined to marry, move to the suburbs or give up her career.

All these stories are recounted in the course of New Year’s Eve, 1984, as Lillian walks across Manhattan, visiting many of the places that have defined her life. Although setting out alone, she isn’t particularly lonely, confidently stopping in fashionable restaurants for a cocktail and continuing on. At 85, she is still fit and interested in engaging with the city and all it offers, including bodega owners and young photographers she happens to befriend.

Lillian’s life has its share of missteps along with the successes. She marries and has a child late in life for someone of that era while continuing to work. Changing societal attitudes run throughout, and her beloved career at Macy’s eventually comes to an end.  As a trailblazing woman in advertising, she is held as an icon and then abandoned as the feminist movement begins to take hold.

Rooney’s novel is a welcome change of pace. Adding to the attraction of Lillian’s character is the knowledge that she is inspired by the real life of Margaret Fishback, who did hold an assistant copywriter’s position with Macy’s and had her poetry published. While the story is pure fiction, I’d certainly like to be Lillian when I grow up!