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.


January - February 2018

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
This is a novel of such searing brilliance that it will leave marks on your soul. Lyrical prose, gut-wrenching circumstances, authentically alive characters, and a story that demands to be heard. An innocent man is convicted and the new marriage he leaves behind struggles to thrive, like a young flower shut in the darkness. This is more than a tale of personal tragedy, loyalty, and love. It is a piercing account of the devastation of mass incarceration and a system that simply doesn’t work for so many. Unforgettable.

The Monk of Mokha by Dave Eggers
In 2015, when civil war erupted in Yemen, the US Embassy closed. Mokhtar Alkhanshali, an American citizen, was trapped. He’d come to Yemen planning to help farmers grow and once again market their outstanding coffee. He’d expected to bring their crops to Blue Bottle. This 24 year-old former doorman barely avoided losing his liberty and his life in his desire to know the country of his parents and his determination to bring samples of those precious coffee beans to America. Eggers brilliantly involves us in an important true story that reads like a thriller.

I AM, I AM, I AM by Maggie O'Farrell
Seventeen essays that weave together a beautiful tapestry about the fragility of life, these true stories of brushes with death illustrate how easily our future can be changed by chance encounters and rash decisions. Maggie O’Farrell’s writer’s eye illuminates the dark corners where the dangers lurk, while her graceful prose plucks at the emotional strings attached to each perfectly rendered moment. When a friend hearing one of these stories comments on how unlucky O’Farrell has been, O’Farrell is surprised. She thinks of herself as lucky to have survived so much. This feeling is beautifully captured in this book. While it may be a recounting of her brushes with death, it will fill your heart as a celebration of life

How to Stop Time by Matt Haig
Both poignant and unceasingly charming, How to Stop Time is about a man who has an abundance of time and a scarcity of love. Tom Hazard ages very slowly—so slowly, that memories from the past crowd every moment of his present. He also discovers that time without the people we love loses all meaning. Matt Haig takes us from Shakespeare’s London to roaring 20s Paris, and from sailing with Captain Cook to present day Los Angeles. Scenes both familiar and exotic thrum with life, but the real magic is in how he makes us believe in this 439 year old man who is only now learning how to live.

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin
This is a novel filled with fear and faith, hope and sadness. The central question is how do we love those around us when we are burdened with the knowledge of when our lives will end. The Gold siblings have the unfortunate luck of discovering a mysterious woman who is said to be able to predict the dates of their death. We follow the paths their lives take as they grapple with their prophecies. Chloe Benjamin weaves a magic of her own, as her characters breathe with life. The alchemy of these pages transforms the story from the fear of knowing the end, into the faith in the journey itself.

Only Killers and Thieves by Paul Howard
Only Killers and Thieves is a powerful story of vengeance and atonement. Struggles between power and weakness, empathy and callousness define this dark coming of age story. In the late 19th century, Billy and Tommy seek out a dark path of revenge after discovering their family slaughtered in the Australian Outback. Paul Howard paints a landscape where forces of nature trample hope, remaking the men into a ruthless force of their own. The powerful prose is the balm to the blistering account of injustice in this extraordinary debut.

The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn
Absolutely gripping! I have never had so much fun being submerged in a world of fear and suspense. A.J. Finn’s writing is perfectly paced throughout, allowing a host of unforgettable characters the space to draw us even deeper into this unrelenting mystery. Our protagonist is Anna, a psychologist who loves Hitchcock movies and drinking merlot; she also hasn’t left her house for a year. But we know from Hitchcock himself how unwitting neighbors can reveal their darkest secrets to an overly curious shut in. Anna’s voyeuristic little hobby entangles her in a mystery that leaves her wondering if she should be fearful of losing her sanity or her life!

The Undertaker's Daughter by Sara Blaedel
Warning: Sara Blaedel is bound to keep you up all night. Ilka, a school photographer who leads a quiet life in Copenhagen, learns that her father has died and bequeathed her a funeral home in Racine, Wisconsin. Intrigued, since her father abandoned his family decades ago, she flies to Racine where she finds a strong Danish community. As she investigates her father’s past she can’t turn away from an old unsolved murder and a killer still on the loose. When you read The Undertaker’s Daughter, you’ll see why Blaedel has received Denmark’s prestigious Golden Laurel literary award and has been voted Denmark’s most popular novelist.

Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday
Halliday’s brilliant first novel contains three sections that at first seem unrelated. We begin in New York in the early years of the Iraq War when Alice, a young editor, falls in love with Ezra Blazer, a much older, esteemed author. Next we meet Amar, an Iraqi-American on his way to visit his brother in Kurdistan. Amar is being held by immigration officers in Heathrow. Why we wonder, are these two mesmerizing but disparate tales in the same novel? The final section weaves it all together in unexpected ways. I can’t stop thinking about Lisa Halliday’s exquisite novel of love, age, power, money, fame, geography, luck and justice.

Grist Mill Road by Christopher Yates
There are many intriguing paths in Christoper Yates’ propulsive new novel, and with skill and grit he masterfully draws us along each one. A horrific event of their youth haunts Patrick, Hannah, and Matthew, casting its shadow over their lives, ever more urgently demanding a final reckoning. Weaving the story between each characters’ differing accounts, we can appreciate how easily small misunderstandings can metastasize into unforgiving actions. From the beauty of the upper New York countryside, to the brutality of New York City life, Yates adeptly ratchets up the suspense as he reveals each layer of this mystery, and the satisfying complexity of the characters within.

Tell Me More by Kelly Corrigan
Kelly Corrigan brings us twelve chapters that contemplate the importance of what we say and how we listen. She shows how her friend Liz taught her that by listening to her teenage daughter instead of talking, she would find out so much more. You won’t be able to avoid laughing when you read my favorite chapter, “I Was Wrong”. Who but Kelly Corrigan could combine her own resistance to admitting a mistake with an unflushed toilet and a dog?

Song of a Captive Bird by Jasmin Darznik
Poetry lovers often refer to Forugh Farrokzhap as the Persian Sylvia Plath. Both lived at the same time, challenged power, and died young.  Jasmin Darznik’s gorgeous novel is written as a memoir, so you feel Farrokzhap is speaking to you. The inclusion of Forugh Farrokzhap’s poetry makes the story even more personal. Forugh wasn’t allowed to go to school, and her parents were unhappy that she kept reading books and writing poems. The family was furious when teenage Forugh was seen in public with a man. But Forugh refused to be silenced and wrote poems that say that a “woman is a human being…that we too have the right to breathe, to cry out, and to sing.” This is a novel to read again and again.

Down the River Unto the Sea by Walter Mosley
Joe King Oliver was a top investigator for the NYPD when he was framed by crooked cops and sent to Rikers. After all charges against him were suddenly dropped, he became a private investigator. Now a woman tells him why she was forced to falsely implicate Oliver for assault and murder. With help from his teenage daughter and a friend (who is a career criminal), King exposes shady cops, double-dealing lawyers, and Wall Street hypocrites.