Book Picks from Elaine & Luisa

Book Passage President Elaine Petrocelli and Book Passage buying director Luisa Smith select their favorite new books and provide reviews about their selections in each issue of the Book Passage News & Reviews.

These books are also displayed in each branch of the Bank of Marin, as part of the program Partnership for Literacy sponsored by Book Passage and Bank of Marin. Visit any branch of the bank to find out more about this program.


July - August 2017

The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne
This is the novel John Boyne was born to write. A brilliant book of identity and redemption, both heartbreaking and humorous, intimate and expansive. Cyril Avery has been constantly reminded he doesn’t belong, first by his adopted parents, then the church and his country. As we follow on his journey to acceptance we see the cruelty of fate and surprising kindness of ordinary people. Boyne perfectly constructs every story told and unveils the humor and hypocrisy of humanity in each character, illuminating how the arc of Cyril’s story is also the arc of modern times. An amazing feat from the first page to the last. 

Happiness: A Memoir by Heather Harpham
Heather Harpham’s beautiful memoir is a deeply moving testament to love and commitment. Although it is difficult to parent a sick child alone, it is the honesty about her struggles and fears that lets us connect to her story and see the beauty and happiness that she finds. She digs deep to do the difficult work, allowing herself to be vulnerable as she seeks support, and she practices patience in the face of anger. She tells the complicated story of her love for her partner and the uncomplicated story of her love for her children. She has found the happiness in moments and her skillful prose will make your heart burst as you feel them with her.

See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt
Sarah Schmidt has made the haunting tale of Lizzie Borden even more fascinating and disturbing. Her beautiful, detailed prose brings the dysfunctional Borden family to life. We cringe at their petty insults and wrinkle our noses at the various smells assaulting us from their household. The time frame is limited to the day of the murders and the day proceeding it. However, these characters are too alive to contain within two days. Their memories and hopes allow us to travel back and forth through time, watching love transform to hate and acceptance to resentment. This may be the most memorable crime from American history, and Sarah Schmidt’s fantastic debut will have you enjoying a front row seat to the entire gruesome affair. 

Young Radicals by Jeremy McCarter 
Today’s young radicals might be surprised that before World War I, Jack Reed, Walter Lippman, Max Eastman, Randolph Bourne, and Alice Paul came together in New York with plans to change the world.  They started magazines, wrote shocking articles, produced plays and even staged pageants and parades to bring attention to women’s suffrage, peace, and taking care of the poor. Those who have read Hamilton: The Revolution. which Jeremy McCarter wrote with Lin-Manuel Miranda, will not be surprised at the historically grounded yet engaging way that McCarter brings these complex yet fascinating, early 20th-Century radicals to life.

Deepa’s Secrets by Deepa Thomas
Deepa brings us the story of her family and upbringing in India, as well as her new life in America as a young bride in an arranged marriage.  Not only did she need to adapt to a new country, but she had to get used to being the wife of a man she barely knew.  She and her husband, Thampy, a Stanford graduate student from her hometown in India, had their struggles, but they managed to succeed beyond their wildest dreams. There are 74 low carb delicious recipes in this gorgeous book, but even if you don’t cook, Deepa’s story will enchant you.

Girl in Snow by Danya Kukafka
This is an outstanding novel of obsession, heartbreak, love, and loss. Danya Kukafka’s lyrical prose exposes the hidden corners of suburbia as she tells the tale of a beautiful young girl’s death through the eyes of three unforgettable characters. Each has a unique connection to the investigation and each now realizes dark secrets may be exposed. While a tragic death is at the center of this riveting debut, its most powerful moments are the honestly rendered struggles of these characters to find meaningful connections in their lives. The obsession is contagious. I could not put this book down until the end, and I immediately wanted to pick it up again. 

The Graybar Hotel by Curtis Dawkins
Curtis Dawkins shines a brilliant light into the corners of prison life and reveals the humanity of the inmates. Loneliness and tedium are two of the greatest challenges to overcome. Dawkins shows us prisoners in search of connection, driven to collect-call random numbers in the hope of an answer. We see the ingenious ways prisoners construct a world of their own, making tattoo ink from soot mixed with water or creating a business of writing romantic letters for other prisoners to send home. The poignancy of these stories comes in part because the author himself is currently serving a life sentence for homicide. It is a testament to his immense talent that you wish you could spend more time reading about each of the prisoners. 

A House Among the Trees by Julia Glass 
When the brilliant and famous children’s author, Mort Lear, dies, his live-in personal assistant finds that she is his heir and his literary executor. This doesn’t sit well with the curator of the Contemporary Book Museum, who insists that Lear promised his literary estate to the museum. To complicate things further, a movie based on Lear’s most famous book is in production and secrets are coming to the surface. Glass brings us a radiant and highly readable novel that explores complex relationships.

Less by Andrew Sean Greer
Life is not going well for Arthur Less. His publisher has just turned down his latest novel. He’s not happy  that he’s about to turn 50 and, to make matters worse, his longtime much younger boyfriend is about to marry someone else. To avoid being in San Francisco for the wedding, Arthur accepts every literary invitation and obscure prize that will enable him to travel. We go with him to Paris, Morocco, Berlin, Southern India and Japan. Of course, everything that can possibly go wrong does. Anyone who has ever dealt with a publisher or agent will love the way Greer makes fun of the publishing world.

Swimming with Bridgeport Girls by Anthony Tambakis
The gritty, humorous truth about the American Dream is palpable in the story of Ray Parisi, a man who appears to be winning at life but unaware of how easy it would be to lose everything—until he does. Tambakis creates hilarious situations and outsized characters, along with heartbreaking, small gestures. This is a story of how unbridled hope and hubris can coexist uneasily with despair and addiction and genuine hope. You may fall in love with this story for its humor, but you’ll remember how every single moment of this debut novel rings true. 

The Last Laugh by Lynn Freed
What could be better? Three women who are in their late 60’s rent a house on a Greek Island for a year. The idyllic time for contemplation, writing, long walks and new adventures goes awry when friends, hangers on, children and grandchildren start showing up. One of the women has passionate meetings with a local poet, until his wife appears. The psychiatrist in the group is contacted by a blackmailing former patient. The detective novelist in the group is writing a column, “Granny Au Go Go”, in which she reveals far more than her friends intended. Freed weaves serious issues into a delicious tale of a trip gone wrong.

Quiet Until the Thaw by Alexandra Fuller
We know Alexandra Fuller for her memoirs, including Let’s Not Go to the Dogs Tonight, but now she brings us a magnificent novel of the Lakota Oglala Sioux Nation of South Dakota. Rick Overlooking Horse has come back from the Vietnam War with terrible wounds while his crafty cousin, You Choose Watson has avoided the war. As we follow these two men, we meet their grandmother who tells of hiding from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and their motto “Kill the Indian, Save the Man”. Fuller weaves her tale with light moments as well as dark ones to make it both profound and fascinating.

Mrs. Fletcher by Tom Perrotta
Tom Perrotta digs into our current social upsets in a novel that’s fun, sexy, and serious. Eve who is 46 and divorced has just left her only child at college. On her first evening alone she receives an anonymous text, “U R my MILF!”. Searching the web to find out what that means, she comes across porn and pretty soon she’s thinking a lot about sex. Meanwhile, her privileged, jock, sexist son meets a girl who opens his eyes to what is going on in the world. Mrs. Fletcher may be too hot for some, but I loved every page.