April 19, 2022

Best of the bestsellers

Hundreds of books have hit the bestseller lists so far this year, but which ones deserve the hype? We think these 13 titles earned their places on the list.

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As she has consistently proven in historical novels such as The Alice Network and The Rose Code, Kate Quinn is a master at crafting an intoxicating, well-balanced blend of immersive period details and deft character work. With The Diamond Eye, she returns to the fertile storytelling terrain of World War II for a tale inspired by the extraordinary life of Russian sniper Lyudmila “Mila” Pavlichenko, known as “Lady Death.”

Mila becomes a mother at 15; six years later, amid an impending divorce, she promises her son that she’ll teach him to shoot. In between working on her dissertation at Kiev University and raising Alexei, she finds that she’s brilliant with a rifle. When the Nazis invade the Soviet Union, her elite skill becomes a key asset in the Red Army’s fight to defend the motherland. Mila sets off for war and marches into her own legend.

In each of her novels, Quinn displays an innate awareness of how history can be warped by time and power. In The Diamond Eye, we don’t just follow Mila’s journey into war; we see her actions in sharp contrast to what the Soviet government will later say she’s done. Mila’s perceptions of events are shown in relief to those of the men around her, and even to the perceptions of the American public, thanks to a 1942 press tour hosted by first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. That press tour forms the novel’s narrative spine, unfolding in sections that alternate with Mila’s larger wartime odyssey. This structure steadily ratchets up the suspense as it becomes clear that Mila is not as welcome in the U.S. as she was led to believe.

The Diamond Eye is a remarkable combination of immersive wartime storytelling, rich detailing and wonderful pacing. What really makes The Diamond Eye land, though, goes beyond Quinn’s mastery of her chosen genre. This is, first and foremost, an exceptional character piece, a study of a woman who is a killer, a mother, a lover and, above all else, a survivor.

Kate Quinn’s track record for delivering captivating historical fiction continues with the remarkable story of the notorious Russian sniper known as Lady Death.

Serena Drew is returning to Baltimore after a daytrip to meet her boyfriend’s family. As she and her boyfriend wait for their train home, she thinks she spots her cousin Nicholas Garrett. Her boyfriend is incredulous; how can she be unsure whether or not the man is her cousin? But Serena doesn’t come from the sort of family in which first cousins recognize each other in the wild.

Anne Tyler is a master of interpersonal drama and intricate depictions of characters’ lives. Her astute observations have earned her a Pulitzer Prize (Breathing Lessons) and two turns as a Pulitzer finalist (Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant and The Accidental Tourist), among other accolades. In French Braid, her skilled storytelling once again takes center stage as she reveals the minor family dramas that have resulted in Serena’s inability to positively identify her cousin. Chapter by chapter, Tyler follows a different member of the Garrett family, beginning with a family vacation in 1959 and ending in spring 2020.

As Tyler turns her attention to each Garrett, she reveals finely honed character portraits. Daughters Lily and Alice are opposites, and their little brother, David, often goes his own way. Mother Mercy searches for her identity as the kids grow up and leave the house, but father Robin is left confused; he has always been content with his home and family exactly as they were.

Each chapter is as well-crafted as a short story and reveals the heart of its central character. Tyler weaves these individual tales together to build something even greater, and like the braid of the novel’s title, this interpersonal family drama becomes more substantial as its pieces combine.

“That’s how families work, too,” says David, reflecting on the lasting effect of a French braid. “You think you’re free of them, but you’re never really free; the ripples are crimped in forever.” (His wife laughs and asks, “You are finding this out just now?”)

French Braid is a case study of the circumstances and interactions that shape the lives of one family.

Anne Tyler is a master of interpersonal drama, and her skilled storytelling takes center stage in French Braid.
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Reeling from loss, a woman takes the trip of a lifetime in One Italian Summer by bestselling author Rebecca Serle (In Five Years).

Thirty-year-old Katy Silver used to have it all: an adoring husband, a comfortable home near her family in Los Angeles and a rock-solid friendship with her mother, Carol. But her mother’s death turned everything upside down. Suddenly nothing makes sense or feels right for Katy, not even her marriage. After the funeral, she wonders, “If your mother is the love of your life, what does that make your husband?” Katy doesn’t have an answer, but she knows she needs change.

So Katy leaves all her commitments behind and travels to Positano, Italy—a place her mother spent the summer 30 years ago, and where Carol and Katy had dreamed of visiting together. There, Katy stays at the gorgeous (and very real) Hotel Poseidon, and she immerses herself in the Amalfi Coast.

That may sound capricious, but to Katy these choices are necessary, even if she can’t quite explain why. What Katy doesn’t count on is running into a woman who looks and sounds exactly like Carol would have at 30—and even shares both her mother’s name and profession. Without understanding how it’s possible, Katy gets to know a different side of her mother as a young woman, and One Italian Summer becomes a sumptuous and sensuous feast of a book.

On a deeper level, Serle’s novel is a savvy meditation on the necessity of change and how roles shape what we see of each other. Carol was always stylish, beautiful and strong-willed, but marriage and motherhood made her cautious. The woman whom Katy befriends on the Amalfi Coast is free and adventurous, and this spirit rubs off on Katy.

One Italian Summer isn’t just about wild oats and adventure either—it’s about knowing yourself. Carol made some mistakes along the way: She was almost an idol to her daughter instead of a teacher, and now Katy doesn’t know how to function without her. In Italy, Katy is sunnier and more willing to experiment, even getting to know an older real estate investor who could be a potential love interest, while her marriage hangs in limbo.

For readers open to moral complexities, One Italian Summer is a thoughtful, fun escape, blending contemplations of love and loss with a touch of adventure. It’s also a beautiful tribute to the pleasures of Italian culture.

Read more: Actor Lauren Graham narrates the ‘One Italian Summer’ audiobook.

For readers open to moral complexities, One Italian Summer is a thoughtful, fun escape, blending contemplations of love and loss with a touch of adventure.
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Every 10 years, the secretive Alexandrian Society, inheritors of the lost knowledge from its namesake library, recruits six of the most powerful young magic users, or medeians, to join their ranks. The half-dozen potential initiates are brought to the Society’s headquarters, where they study and learn from the greatest compendium of magical knowledge that has ever existed. This year, Caretaker Atlas Blakely has selected a sextet of particularly ambitious young medeians: three physical mediums, who specialize in manipulating external forces and energies for purposes as varied as deflecting bullets and obtaining midnight snacks; and three nascent masters of the mental, emotional and perceptual magics of reading minds and concealing acne. But these newest residents are confronted with even darker secrets than the arcane knowledge they all covet, for they are the linchpins in a conspiracy that could either save the world or utterly destroy it.

For a book with such a melodramatic premise (think “Big Brother,” but half the cast can read their companions’ minds and the other half can conjure actual black holes), Olivie Blake’s The Atlas Six is curiously matter-of-fact, dispensing with on-page relationship drama and coasting through tense fight scenes with brevity. Likewise, instead of providing flowing backstory, Blake communicates personalities through lighthearted conversations and depicts the world outside the Library’s magically warded walls entirely through the scars it left on her protagonists. The Atlas Six is stingy with its exposition, with the lengthiest passages being debates between characters on topics such as the nature of time and the conservation of magical energy. But in Blake’s hands, these tracts are engaging and often very, very funny. This duality—an extremely pulpy plot married with smart and nimble writing—is the core of The Atlas Six’s appeal.

This macabre romp of a magical reality show nevertheless revolves around one weighty question: Is there knowledge that should not be shared? Blake draws heavily on the structures and practices of academia, which in our world is in the midst of a push for greater transparency and democratization of knowledge. Analyzing the costs and benefits of advanced technology or abilities has been central to speculative fiction since its inception. That Blake is using academia as a vehicle for it, adding her agile and cutting voice to the likes of Neal Stephenson and Cixin Liu, feels particularly relevant to the present moment. And if she happens to suggest some legitimately wholesome uses for small wormholes along the way, all the better.

Olivie Blake marries an extremely pulpy plot with smart and nimble writing in her debut fantasy, The Atlas Six.
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Several years ago, in Ford’s Theatre Museum in Washington, D.C., I found myself staring at the Deringer pistol that John Wilkes Booth used to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln. I stood there, transfixed, amazed that this small, surprisingly delicate and decorative weapon could change the course of American history. I felt similarly mesmerized as I devoured the 480 pages of Karen Joy Fowler’s triumph of a historical novel, Booth. I was torn by conflicting urges: to race ahead to see what happens next, or to read slowly and savor Fowler’s exquisite language and fascinating rendering of the various members of this legendary American family.

Many readers will begin Booth with the basic knowledge that John Wilkes Booth came from a famous theatrical family, but it’s unlikely that they’ll know just how celebrated and fascinating the Booths were, or that their lives were full of drama well before John Wilkes picked up that pistol. Think of Louisa May Alcott and her storied New England upbringing, and then pivot to something darker.

Fowler has previously written several short stories about the Booths and explains in an author’s note that she decided to write about them in novel form “during one of our American spates of horrific mass shootings.” She wondered about “their own culpability, all the if-onlys” and “what happens to love when the person you love is a monster.”

The Booths’ lives play out on their 150 acres of farmland in Bel Air, Maryland, in a mixture of 19th-century horror and family drama. John Wilkes was born in 1838, the ninth of 10 children, four of whom would die before reaching adulthood. They faced poverty, hunger and disease while patriarch Junius Booth, a famous Shakespearian actor, was on tour much of the year. He was an alcoholic with deep, dark secrets, which Fowler hints at with one simple sentence early on: “A secret family moves into the secret cabin.”

The story is told primarily by three of John Wilkes’ siblings—Rosalie, Edwin and Asia—all of whom are equally fascinating and well voiced. Early scenes narrated by Rosalie are particularly powerful and memorable. Fowler includes short passages about Lincoln and his family, ratcheting up the tension of what’s to come. With a master’s touch, she also incorporates vital depictions of racism through the lives of an enslaved family that works on the Booth farm, and shows how the issue of enslavement divides the Booth family through the years.

Like the very best historical novels, Booth is a literary feast, offering much more than a riveting story and richly drawn characters. It offers a wealth of commentary about not only our past but also where we are today, and where we may be headed.

Karen Joy Fowler discusses the literary and political inspiration behind ‘Booth,’ her wholly original American history novel.

Karen Joy Fowler’s Booth is a triumph in its fascinating rendering of a legendary American family.
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Amy Bloom is known for examining the dynamics of intimate relationships in her fiction (White Houses, Lucky Us), yet never has she gotten closer to the flame than in this memoir of her marriage. In Love begins, as Blooms puts it, with a “not quite normal” trip to Zurich. She traveled there with her husband, Brian, in January 2020, but the plan was for her to return without him. This is because her husband was pursuing a medically assisted suicide following his diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.

In the compressed, gripping pages that follow, scenes alternate between the couple’s grim journey and the strenuous months that led up to it. “I’d rather die on my feet than live on my knees,” Brian commented within days of his diagnosis. Because he was already experiencing mild dementia, it fell to Bloom, who had always been strong and resourceful, to figure out the logistics of what came next. The window of opportunity was small: A key criterion of an accompanied suicide is that the patient should be capable of making an independent and firm decision. With pressure mounting, Bloom explored options on the dark web, wept with friends and therapists, and received deep, unshakable support from the people she loves, including her sister, who gave her $30,000 to cover the next few months’ costs. (Medically assisted suicide is not inexpensive.)

Bloom, in turn, was steadfastly present to Brian, though the couple’s emotional connection, she makes clear, flickered unevenly. The mundane was still inescapable. Words spoken hastily were regretted for months afterward. Suffering simply hurts, but Bloom shares the details without flinching. “Please write about this,” Brian exhorted her.

Just as Bloom found comfort in watching videos made by families navigating this impossible situation, In Love now offers comfort to those who follow in her footsteps. People who are disturbed by the way death in the United States seems increasingly impersonal, or passionate about giving the people they love agency to do what they want to do, will strongly connect to this book—but so will anyone interested in deep stories of human connection.

Amy Bloom is known for examining the dynamics of intimacy in her fiction, but she has never gotten closer to the flame than in this memoir of her marriage.

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