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 2018


Click here for an archive of Elaine and Luisa's previous picks!


The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai
This is a captivating, sweeping novel of those who lost loved ones during the AIDS epidemic and were forever changed by that tragedy. Yale and Fiona both lost many friends. But the loss of Nico, Yale’s best friend and Fiona’s brother, was the one that seared their souls. Moving from 1985 to present day, Makkai shows us the full scope of this devastation. The fear and shame that too often accompanied the disease in the 80s can still cling to the survivors today. But there is also love and healing that are mined like diamonds throughout this impressive novel. --Luisa

The Distance Home by Paula Saunders
Saunders’s debut novel is a searing portrait of a mid-twentieth-century family in South Dakota, trying to cope with whatever life throws at them. Al, a cattle broker, spends most of his nights on the road. But when he’s home, tension and arguments with his wife, Eve, rule the house. Their two oldest children, Leon and Rene, find solace in a local dance class. But while Al basks in his daughter’s success, he berates Leon for his stutter and love of dance. Eve tries to smooth everything over, desperate to hang on to a volatile marriage to a man she both loves and despises. This beautifully written novel takes readers to a place where painful memories live alongside hopes and dreams. --Elaine

The Secrets Between Us by Thrity Umrigar
12 years ago readers fell in love with Thrity Umrigar’s The Space Between Us. Her new novel reminds us why we cared so deeply for her characters and were swept up in the beauty and depth of her prose. Bhima is a woman of strength who has been dealt some cruel challenges at a late stage of life. She forms a bond with a woman even more destitute than herself, and they find true friendship. And while searching for the strength to survive the challenges ahead, Bhima finds the strength she needs within herself. In the darkest of settings, Umrigar’s writing glows, with complex characters who somehow find the ability to move forward. --Luisa

The Verdun Affair by Nick Dybek
Dybek’s latest is a cleverly constructed  page-turner that travels back and forth in time between a European continent devastated by World War I and 1950s Hollywood. An American ambulance driver stays on after the war to help a priest collect the bones of dead soldiers from the
battlefields. The story takes a complicated turn when he falls in love with a woman who has come to France looking for news of her “missing, believed dead” husband. Years later, while working in Hollywood, he comes across a fellow journalist from those heady post-war days who helps him unravel the complex truth. Dybek is a master at creating an atmosphere of war, of decadence amid the rubble, and of dipping in and out of history. --Elaine

The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon
This is a beautiful and shocking tale of two college students, Will and Phoebe, who are grappling with loss and seeking redemption. As they attempt to control the narrative of their unforgiving pasts, their differing visions of a better future tempt them to relinquish the best parts of themselves. There is an intimacy to R.O. Kwon’s prose that balances the unquenchable longing that consume these characters. Thoughtfully addressing the big questions while never losing sight of the small details, The Incendiaries is a captivating debut. --Luisa

The Last Cruise by Kate Christenen
Kate Christensen, author of How to Cook a Moose, brings passions to a boil in a ship-of-fools tale that begins happily enough, but soon turns catastrophic. The setting is the final voyage of a 1950s ocean liner, replete with vintage decor, dressing for dinner, and retro cocktails. What could go wrong? Actually, everything. The pleasures of the cruise give way to heartache and conflict, as the luxurious trip turns into something akin to a floating prison. Left adrift with little food, lots of illness, and other worries on the horizon, the tension among the passengers is matched by their valor and ingenuity. Christensen’s gripping and insightful novel dramatizes the dangerous contrariness of human nature. --Elaine

Fly Girls: How Five Daring Women Defied All Odds and Made Aviation History by Keith O’Brien
Keith O’Brien gives a brisk, spirited history of early aviation by focusing on five irrepressible women. Amelia Earhart was the most famous, but the others were no less passionate and courageous: Louise McPhetridge Thaden, Ruth Nichols, Ruth Elder, and Florence Klingensmith all climbed into rickety planes, sat in open cockpits, worked with unreliable instruments, and braved life-threatening changes. This is a vivid, suspenseful story of women determined to defy gravity— and men—to fulfill their lofty dreams. --Elaine

Jar of Hearts by Jennifer Hillier
This is an exquisitely dark and satisfying thriller. The discovery that their old high school friend, Angela, did not actually disappear in their junior year, but was murdered, sends Georgina and Kaiser’s lives reeling. But even after all of the secrets are revealed, there remains a dark shadow lurking in the corners of this story. Just when you think you understand what happened, another surprise is waiting for you. Jennifer Hillier ratchets up the suspense, while exposing the dark side of society along with the flaws we may find in our own hearts. --Luisa

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
The curious marshes of North Carolina provide fertile ground for Delia Owens’s remarkable debut novel. Kya is a girl untethered from society and abandoned by her family. Left on her own, she learns only judgment awaits her in town. As she turns to the marsh for refuge, Kya discovers many lessons of life hidden in its depths. She even discovers love glimpsed between its trees. However, a shocking event leads the town to her door and threatens to disturb her carefully constructed life. Enthralling as a mystery and as beautiful as birdsong, Where the Crawdads Sing is a testament to the power of nature and resiliency of the human heart. --Luisa

The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels by Jon Meacham
This isn’t the first time in U.S. history, Meacham reminds us, when hope and hatred have been locked in such a bitter battle. Our current divisions are not new. By exploring past dark moments in American history, Meacham shows us how our “better angels” have again and again won the day. There are revealing portraits of Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War, the backlash against immigrants and the resurgence of the KKK in the 1920’s, and more recently the reign of Joe McCarthy. There’s a path there, and Meacham shows how to take it. --Elaine

Clock Dance by Anne Tyler
This is a delightful novel of one woman’s transformative journey. Willa Drakes’s life has been touched with sorrow. In 1967,she is a schoolgirl coping with her mother’s sudden disappearance. In 1997, she is a young widow trying to piece her life back together. And by 2017, she yearns for the family life she’s not sure she will ever find. Then she receives a startling phone call from a stranger. Without fully understanding why, she flies across the country to to look after a young woman she’s never met and her nine-year-old daughter. This impulsive decision leads her into a world that offers a chance for solace and fulfillment. Anne Tyler is a Pulitzer Prizewinning writer who draws her characters with heartwarming skill. --Elaine

Brother by David Chariandy
There is a clarity with which David Chariandy writes of the fires that forge our character. Brother probes the challenges faced by two Trinidadian brothers raised in the projects of Toronto, facing the ramifications of police violence on their community. Older brother Francis discovers the release of music, while younger brother Michael discovers the agony of love. As violence upends their story, Chariandy shows the many ways that wounds never fully heal. This story brilliantly captures the cadence of the modern immigrant life. --Luisa