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.

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


November - December 2019

Elizabeth Chiles Shelburne
With prose both tender and raw, Elizabeth Chiles Shelburne has captured the swift path found between love and misery for people living on the edge. Lucy is ready to leave town for a new beginning when one last fling throws all her careful plans out the window. Jeptha is a charming ne’er-do-well, burdened with a disreputable family legacy and doubts of his own self-worth. When their paths intertwine, the townspeople are happy to share their opinions,  but Lucy and Jeptha discover some lessons can only be learned on your own. This is a powerful story of modern-day Appalachia and a tribute to the lasting impact of love discovered and love lost. —Luisa

Elizabeth Strout
It’s been years since Elizabeth Strout’s novel Olive Kitteridge swept us into the life of an irascible, complex,school teacher in a small New England town. That book won a much-deserved Pulitzer Prize and although I assumed I wouldn’t meet Olive again, I often thought about her and the people of Crosby, Maine. But now, Olive is back. She’s in her seventies now. She may have mellowed a tiny bit but she will still tell you what she thinks, even if you don’t care to hear it. Her husband Henry died two years ago, and, against all odds, she’s going to marry again. Warning, Olive is going to move into your mind and make you wonder about things you thought you already knew. —Elaine

Christy Lefteri
This powerful story illustrates the heartbreak of fleeing your home country and the strength it takes to imagine a new future. Nuri, a beekeeper, and his wife Afra, an artist, have suffered immeasurable loss and realize that there is no hope left for them in Aleppo, Syria. Now refugees, they must confront their fears, discard their pride, and trust in their love to survive. As they make the perilous journey, the memory of what they have lost haunts their every step. But even in desperate times, life blooms and friendships restore faith. Christy Lefteri’s beautiful and tender prose paints an unforgettable picture of people searching for hope in an inhospitable world. —Luisa

Michael Connelly
A homeless man dies in a fire and the LAPD brass has little interest in pursuing the case. Detective Renee Ballard wants to know why. Harry Bosch has retired from the LAPD but Detective Ballard’s questions make him wonder. Apparently, when Harry’s late mentor, John Jack Thomson retired, he took home the “Murder Book” of what seemed to be about a case of a pretty ordinary drug deal gone wrong. When Thomas’ widow hands the book to Harry, he uncovers a connection between this 20-year-old cold case and the one that Renee is working on. The thriller is riveting but I especially enjoyed the contrast between old school Harry who enjoys his home and Renee, a loner who prefers to sleep on the beach with her dog. In spite of their differences, they agree on Harry’s credo, “Everybody matters or nobody matters.” —Elaine

Natalie Eve Garrett
Finding comfort in food is universal, and the meals that nourish us in challenging times are forever stored in our minds. These experiences are the foundation to this delightful collection of essays by some of our favorite writers today, detailing meals and the stories that inspired them. The authors have vastly different tales to tell, varying from humorous to heartbreaking, but each powerfully illustrates the emotions that bind the food we eat with the struggles we face. The book is beautifully illustrated and includes recipes of both the inspired and nostalgic variety. This collection is the perfect comfort food for the soul. —Luisa

Dave Eggers
Get out the life boats! Dave Eggers is about to take you on a cruise on the great ship Glory. The beloved Captain must leave and he’s replaced by a man with absolutely no experience, no ethics, and no knowledge of nautical navigation or maritime law. He has often said that he doesn’t like boats and that he’ll shake things up. One day a famous pirate who is revered by the Captain comes on board. The Captain especially loves the way the pirate looked riding a horse without a shirt. Although The Captain and the Glory is hilarious and absurd, it scarily reflects today’s America. —Elaine

Thomas Travisano
Elizabeth Bishop published only one hundred poems, and yet she is perhaps one of the most admired poets of the 20th century. She won a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Pulitzer Prize, and the National Book Award. Now, we finally have a biography worthy of her incredible talent. Thomas Travisano’s meticulously researched book reveals the woman behind the poems. Bishop’s early life was not easy and even close friends could not fill the hole of loneliness formed by an unstable childhood. Delving into her personal papers and correspondence, Travisano connects the lines of her poetry to the threads of her own life amid a fascinating cast of characters from the mid-century art scene. This allows us to appreciate the deeply personal nature of her work and the inner strength she must have had to bring it into the world. —Luisa

Edmund Morris
The esteemed Pulitzer Prize biographer begins the story of Thomas Alva Edison’s life at the end, when Edison was old, imperious, and lionized. Then he moves backwards, decade by decade. In the wrong hands this could be a disaster, but Morris’ reverse order makes the “Wizard of Menlo Park” come alive. The phonograph, the first long-lasting light bulb, the fluoroscope, motion pictures, rechargeable batteries, and a practical mimeograph machine were a few of Edison’s inventions. He devoured scientific writing, worked 18 hour-days, and preferred to sleep on the floor in his lab. This did not make for a warm family life. In fact, two of his sons turned to fraud. The book is meticulously researched, yet the pages fly by as Morris informs, amuses and astounds us. —Elaine

Steph Cha
Inspired by the real-life tragedies of the L.A. Riots of the ’90s and the targeting of people of color, Steph Cha shows the cost of violence on families and communities. Shawn Matthews has never forgotten his love for his big sister Ava or his hate for the Korean shop owner who shot and killed her almost 30 years ago. Grace Park is happy in her life, except for the unexplained rift between her sister and her mother. Both Shawn and Grace are devoted to their families but otherwise seem to have little in common—that is, until another shooting reveals secrets and long-hidden scores never settled. Cha shows how quickly misunderstandings can fester and how easily anger is used to express pain. The stories of Shawn and Grace remind us that listening is the first step toward justice. —Luisa

Monique Truong
Four women tell us about Lafacdio Hearn, a man who was far ahead of “his time.” First his mother, Rosa, speaks of losing her son to his father’s Irish American family. Hearn met his first wife, Althea, a former slave, when she was cooking in the Cincinnati boarding house where Hearn was staying. Althea tells us of her love and of the difficulties of an interracial marriage in 19th-century America. Hearn became an important travel journalist whose work appeared in prestigious magazines. He arrived in Japan just as the Emperor was allowing the country to be somewhat open to the outside world. There he married Setsu, the daughter of a Samurai. Setsu tells us of her life with her western spouse and their four children . Finally, Hearn’s biographer speaks to us. In Truong’s moving novel we see Hearn through 4 very different lenses, but more than that, we see the lives of these fascinating women. —Elaine

Elaine Sciolino
Many of us have fallen in love with the Seine at some point in our lives, as it winds its way through movies, paintings, and our romantic fantasies. If you’ve been lucky enough to spend time along its banks, you’ve seen the life and romance that flourishes all around it. But most people don’t know its humble source, its rich history, or how it shapes everyday life. Elaine Sciolino brings these stories to life in a book that is part travelogue and part love letter to this glorious waterway. From the spring in Burgundy to the port of Le Havre, we hear of Roman gods and members of the River Brigade. We learn how it inspired artists and frustrated armies. Sciolino tells a story for every mile of river and reveals the history hidden in its currents. —Luisa

Martin Cruz Smith
In every novel Martin Cruz Smith has written, there are counterparts to real people, but none as much as in his most recent novel, The Siberian Dilemma. Smith’s darkly humorous and skeptical investigator, Arkady Renko, is concerned about his journalist girlfriend, Tatiana, and the dangerous situation she walked into when she decided to profile an eccentric oligarch. An investigation takes Renko to Siberia, where Tatiana was last seen, and he soon finds himself in the middle of a firefight to get to her. Arkady must rely on an unforgettably motley crew to uncover the truth and save those he loves. In this thrilling suspense story and brilliant portrait of Putin’s Russia, Smith once again pulls back the icy curtain on Russian politics, revealing the dangers hidden within. —Elaine

Rene Denfeld
Naomi, the brilliant investigator from The Child Finder, plows into the dark underbelly of Portland, as she attempts to save Celia, a street kid. Celia has found the streets to be preferable to the abuse she received at home, especially given the time she can spend in the sanctuary of the library with her beloved butterfly books. Naomi escaped her own abusive situation as a child but left behind her sister in the process. Now she has promised herself that she would finally find her lost sister. When an unsettling encounter with a stranger leaves her shaken, she knows that simply saving her own sister is not enough. As the authorities continue to ignore a series of murders, Naomi realizes time might be running out to save those she cares about from the evil that stalks them. Once again Rene Denfeld elevates the dark stories she tells with her beautiful prose and keen insights into the lives of those lost on the fringes of society. Some signed first editions available. —Luisa