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.


May - June 2019


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


Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips
The mysterious disappearance of two young sisters sets in motion this brilliant debut by Julia Phillips. Like ripples from a pebble tossed into still waters, each chapter is a vignette of how this unsettling incident has touched the lives of others. We feel every heartrending emotion as Philips brings each individual story to life while introducing us to this fascinating corner of Russian life.  With its beautiful prose, mounting suspense, and unforgettable characters Disappearing Earth is not a book to miss!  —Luisa

Light from Other Stars by Erika Swyler
It is easy to be captivated by 12 year-old Nedda as she dreams of becoming an astronaut. When the Challenger shuttle explodes her world transforms beyond her wildest imagination, as does her understanding of her family and her own place in the world. Light From Other Stars easily moves between the Nedda of the future on a journey for mankind and Nedda of the past who delights in questioning the world around her. While the story may take you out of this world, the beauty of Erika Swyler’s speculative gem is how tenderly it addresses our intimate struggles here on Earth.  —Luisa

Autumn Light: Season of Fire and Farewells by Pico Iyer
Pico Iyer brings us a memoir and portrait of Japanese society that is profound, funny and illuminating. When Pico’s father-in-law died, Pico and his wife, Hiroko, found themselves coping with this death at the same time that Hiroko’s mother was losing her memory. We are there with Pico as he is moved by his wife’s mourning rituals, including tending graves of relatives and offering tea to her father’s spirit. Thinking of the seasons of life, Pico writes of  the famous spring cherry blossoms but he points out that the Japanese find the beauty of the late fall colors, even more impressive.  Pico takes us to his ping pong club where fit oldsters out play and out think him. He visits his friend, the Dalai Lama, who tells him, “Only body gone. Spirit still there.”  —Elaine

Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane
Imagine the novel you have always wanted to read, exquisitely written and filled with secrets, conflict, love, and forgiveness. This is that novel. Two families live next to each other in suburban New York. While one seems to be living the American Dream, the other is struggling to keep up appearances. When tragedy strikes it does not play favorites, and lives abruptly change course. The only constatnt is the love that has grown between young Peter and Kate. But even that is tested, as they discover that guilt and resentment are not easily ignored. Every character rings true in this beautiful book.  —Luisa

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
In a lyrical debut that is both intimate and expansive, Ocean Vuong connects the emotional peaks and valleys of otherness. As an immigrant, as a gay man, as a sensitive soul raised by women adept at numbing the pain, Little Dog has spent a lifetime navigating the elusive path to acceptance. In a letter to his mother he details their history and the memories that haunt him still. From the heartbreak of abuse to the urgency of first love, Little Dog’s naked remembrance is balanced by the poetic lens through which he sees the world.  —Luisa

Rules for Visiting by Jessica Francis Kane
May Attaway has always felt more comfortable relating to the trees on her street than her neighbors in their houses.  When her work as a gardener gains recognition she is honored by her employers with the gift of time. Reading the memorial page for a deceased young woman, May decides to spend the time reconnecting with old friends. She is adept as an observer of life around her, but now must learn how to be present for those she loves and to be open to the needs of her own heart. With humor and grace, Jessica Francis Kane’s gem of a novel will remind you to embrace life and your friends in whatever state you find them.  —Luisa

Rough Magic by Lara Prior-Palmer
Rough Magic sweeps us away to the Mongolian steppe, where the world’s oldest and most dangerous horse race is conquered by the least likely participant, a delightfully irreverent 19-year-old girl. Lara Prior-Palmer had always dreamed of a grand adventure. Growing up feeling a closer kinship to animals than people, a ten-day horse race traveling the route of the ancient Mongolian horse messenger service sparked her imagination. Even Lara has to admit that this test of endurance borders on insanity, especially since she is woefully unprepared. Her unbridled enthusiasm for a challenge, her ability to be fully present in nature, and her undiminished sense of humor are some of the tools she relies on most to become the youngest and first woman winner. Some stories are better than fiction and this enchanting memoir is one of them!  —Luisa

Aloha Rodeo by David Wolman & Julian Smith
Aloha Rodeo will open your eyes and introduce you to three remarkable cowboys from the Hawaiian islands who conquered the rodeo and changed minds in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Cheyenne was booming in 1908 and proud to host it’s Frontier Day rodeo, the “Daddy of ‘em All”. When Ikura Purdy, Jack Low, and Archie Ka’ua’a arrived with flowers adorning their cowboy hats, no one thought these challengers would hold up against their All-American visions of what a cowboy should be. But these Hawaiians were there to not only show their exceptional skills in the rodeo, they were also standing up for their people and islands who had been annexed by the United States only a decade earlier. Here is a story that our history books forgot about the spirit of the Islands and the heart of America.  —Luisa

Stay and Fight by Madeline Ffitch
Set in the wilds of Appalachia, Stay and Fight is the story of an unconventional family determined to live life on their own terms. When Helen discovers living off the grid requires her to enlist the help of her mercurial redneck boss and a local lesbian couple, she never imagines the hard work and devotion that will bring them closer than blood ever could. Told from multiple points of view, most endearingly by the elf-like child that forms the lynchpin of their little crew, we see their lives unfold until confrontation with the outside world is inevitable. Madeline Ffitch’s powerful debut beautifully illustrates how the bonds forged during hardship can become the rope that saves you.  —Luisa

The Flight Portfolio by Julie Orringer
In 1940, Varian Fry, an American classicist and journalist, arrived in Marseille, France under the auspices of the Emergency Rescue Committee. His portfolio: get 200 Jewish artists, writers and intellectuals out of Europe. A former Harvard classmate soon warned Fry that he was making both the Vichy Government and the US State Department nervous. Undaunted, Fry used stealth, forgery, an underground railroad, and some seemingly impossible schemes to save many “clients” including Marc Chagall, Hannah Arendt, Andre Breton, Max Ernst, and Marcel Duchamp. In a compelling novel filled with fascinating characters, Orringer brings us a complex love story and hair-raising adventures.  —Elaine

The Buried: An Archaeology of the Egyptian Revolution by Peter Hessler
In 2001, acclaimed author and journalist Peter Hessler moved to Egypt to become The New Yorker’s Cairo correspondent. Hessler was on the scene as the Arab Spring erupted.  He takes us with him as he covers protests in Tahrir Square, the resignation of President Mubarak, the parliamentary elections that brought Muhamed Morsi to power and the military overthrow that led to the presidency of General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.  He takes us up and down the Nile as he interviews people on the ground, including an illiterate entrepreneurial garbage collector, a Chinese businessman, and Hessler’s Arabic tutor. Hessler’s meetings with Egyptologists at archaeological sites provide perspective on how history, recent and ancient, has been shaped by those in power.  —Elaine

White Devil’s Daughters: The Women Who Fought Slavery in San Francisco’s China Town by Julia Flynn Siler
From the late 1800’s to the 1940’s, San Francisco was the center of a nasty enterprise. Criminal syndicates bought girls from poor Chinese families and brought them to California to be prostitutes and unpaid servants. A determined group of women missionaries opened The Occidental Mission Home on the edge of China Town. There, they provided housing, education, and job training. The slavers used lawsuits and violence to retrieve their “property”.  The abolitionist women sometimes broke the law by “snatching” children from the brothels and taking others right off ships. They went to court and stood up to the criminals.  Siler brings us the important, overlooked stories of heroic white and Chinese women.  —Elaine

The Red Daughter by John Burnham Schwartz
When Svetlana Allyueva, the daughter of Joseph Stalin, defected to the US in 1967, the CIA sent a young lawyer to escort her. She was determined to shed her father’s terrible legacy, yet she was plagued with guilt about the adult children she left behind in the Soviet Union. She turned to the lawyer who had helped her defect and, as their relationship grew closer, the CIA became nervous. Svetlana’s lawyer was John Burnham Schwartz’ father. Although he has written Svetlana’s story as fiction, he has used his own research as well as his father’s recollections to bring us a nuanced and gripping novel of a strong willed but vulnerable woman who felt she was neither American nor Russian.  —Elaine