Sarah Gelman, BEST OF BOOKS (SO FAR)!

Sarah Gelman, BEST OF BOOKS (SO FAR)!

Editorial Director of Amazon Books, Sarah Gelman, returns to share the Amazon Book Review’s top ten books of the year so far. Sarah explains that the team of expert editors doesn’t pick these books based on sales data but rather, they assemble a list of books they all love and want to share with Amazon customers who may not find them anywhere else. Sarah also tells Zibby about her new book club, Sarah Selects, which listeners can check out and sign up for here!


Zibby Owens: Welcome back, Sarah Gelman. So exciting to have you in person here in New York City.

Sarah Gelman: Thank you. I know. I’m so excited to be here. It’s so different to actually do a podcast in person.

Zibby: It is.

Sarah: It feels good. And see someone and look them in the eye.

Zibby: I know. I used to do it like this all the time.

Sarah: The good old days. I remember the first time I met you was at your book party, the Zibby Awards. Was it raining that night?

Zibby: Probably.

Sarah: In Brooklyn. It must have been a rainy night in Brooklyn. I was like, oh, she’s a little shorter than I thought she would be.

Zibby: Oh, okay.

Sarah: People say that they think I’m taller. I don’t know. I just think that people, women seem taller than they are.

Zibby: I like how you turned that into a compliment. Yes, I am 5’2″ and proud.

Sarah: I’m looking at you right now. I would say that you’re 5’6″, even just sitting there.

Zibby: Maybe my legs are really short.

Sarah: Also, I think there’s such a thing as a tall personality and shorter personality. You have a tall personality.

Zibby: I’ll take it. You’re just about the height I thought, which is tall and which is already for an accomplished person, right? There you go.

Sarah: Thank you. I’m the most average height you can be.

Zibby: You are a giant in my family. You are like the men in my family. I’m not even kidding.

Sarah: I’m the least offensive height, the least offensive shoe size.

Zibby: What shoe size do you wear?

Sarah: Eight. I’m an eight.

Zibby: I’m an eight and a half.

Sarah: Sometimes I wear an eight and a half. It depends on the shoe.

Zibby: I was so sad. I just took my daughter to the orthopedist. They said, “From the X-ray, we can tell her foot’s not going to grow.” I was like, no, she’s never going to be able to share shoes. I already bought her shoes that are half a size up, and she’s never going to grow into them. Big socks.

Sarah: Did you worry with your pregnancies that your feet would change sizes?

Zibby: Yes.

Sarah: That happened to my mom.

Zibby: That happened to my mom.

Sarah: Did it happen with you?

Zibby: No.

Sarah: Me neither. I’m so thankful. I guess I don’t love all the shoes that I wore pre-pregnancy, but I thought I would. Now I’m buying all these shoes. Oh, here’s the Katy Tur book. I really want to read that, Rough Draft.

Zibby: Oh, yeah, I had her on my podcast.

Sarah: Sorry, I’m just distracted by your beautiful books.

Zibby: Go ahead. Speaking of books, we are here to talk about —

Sarah: — Shoes and height.

Zibby: Shoes and height. The Amazon Book Review top ten books of the year so far, which we have done in the past. You can go back a year if you want to scroll forever and find our last one. Although, we probably did end of the year too, so maybe you don’t have to go that far.

Sarah: Yeah, we did.

Zibby: We did, right?

Sarah: Yeah.

Zibby: Okay, so just go back six months and then six months from then. Just search “Sarah Gelman,” and you’ll get these great roundups. We have the top ten. We’re going to start with ten, which was a little debate. I said, I think Casey Kasem would start with ten and work his way up to one, so we’re going to do that.

Sarah: We’re going to make bracelets that say “What would Casey Kasem do?”

Zibby: If you don’t know who he is, well, whatever. He was a radio host back in the day. Okay, number ten.

Sarah: Hello, Molly! by Molly Shannon. Molly Shannon is best known as the SNL comedian. I always think of her, the one that she sticks her hands under her armpits when she’s nervous. I’m glad that there’s a visual of this happening. Mary Katherine Gallagher, the schoolgirl.

Zibby: Oh, yes, yes, yes.

Sarah: She’s super funny. I think like a lot of people that are comedians, she has a bit of a tragic past and not the sunshine and sparkles that you expect from someone who is so funny. This is a funny but very honest memoir about her life and her relationship with her parents. It’s not at all what you might think based on even looking at the sunny picture of her on the jacket with her arms spread wide and this beautiful red dress.

Zibby: Wait, I should back up and ask you how you pick the best books of the year.

Sarah: This is a full team effort. I lead a team of editors. Like you, we read hundreds of books every year, except there’s more of us than there is of you.

Zibby: How many people do you have? How big is the team?

Sarah: There are — I should know exactly — eight of us, eight, nine, ten of us. Everyone is really an expert in a different genre. We all have different backgrounds, most of us, publishing or bookselling. One person came from IMBD. They’re a huge sci-fi/fantasy — they always say speculative fiction — fan. We all read. We come together. Basically, we curate this list midyear — it’s top twenty; we’re going to talk about the top ten today — twenty of our favorite books of the year so far. This is not based on sales data. It is our judgement and opinion. It’s not scientific. These are just books that we love and we want customers to hopefully discover if they haven’t yet or see it on a list and be like, I have been meaning to read that. It’s fun because it comes out midyear, so it’s great for summer reading. There are some good Father’s Day gifts on here. This is a fun list. Our end-of-the-year list is top one hundred, which gets a little stressful. We’ll be like, this isn’t a twenty to thirty. It’s a fifty to sixty. This way, we’re able to talk about top twenty. We started with what we thought was a tight list of about forty-five.

It’s like, okay, twenty-five of these, you kill them. It’s hard. It inspires a lot of healthy debate. The team, we’re like a dysfunctional family. We love each other. We fight. After you have that fight about, I didn’t like this book, or blah, blah, blah, then we love each other again. It’s the best dysfunctional family of all time. Every meal is like Thanksgiving dinner. Every meeting, I should say, is like Thanksgiving dinner. It’s a cool team. To me, it’s really cool that a place like Amazon, which relies on data a lot and I think people think of as really tech-heavy, that we’re this really high-touch team of people that sit around and read. We also do things on our computer. I don’t get to sit and read all day. We are reading books and basically writing about them and talking about them. It’s just such a cool thing to be able to do that as a job but also as a job that then has an audience of Amazon customers.

Zibby: It’s amazing.

Sarah: It’s pretty cool.

Zibby: When did the Amazon Book Review start?

Sarah: The team of Amazon editors has actually existed since Amazon was a bookseller, which is the whole time that there’s been Amazon, which I think is about twenty-five years now. We’ve always had these curators that were curating and writing reviews in the store because it was an important deciding factor for someone to buy a book. Even before customer reviews, this is what you got. The Amazon Book Review is probably at least as — it was named something else before. It was called Omnivoracious. I still love that word, but I think it’s not quite as descriptive as Amazon Book Review.

Zibby: Agreed.

Sarah: To say I read omnivoraciously is so cool, right?

Zibby: True.

Sarah: I’ve been at Amazon for thirteen years, and Omnivoracious was around before that. I would say at least fifteen, if not longer. Some people on the team have been there for over ten years. It’s not a job that a lot of people leave. It’s pretty rad.

Zibby: I bet. Okay, number nine.

Sarah: Number nine is — this is one of my personal favorites.

Zibby: Really?

Sarah: Yes. Half-Blown Rose by Leesa Cross-Smith. This is actually the first pick for my book club on Amazon, which is called Sarah Selects. That is all my taste, which is weird and kind of scary. Also, these are books that I love. I was just talking about this book this morning to a colleague who’s going to Europe next week. I told her she has to bring this. I interviewed the author. She said that this is a coming-of-age story, which I love because it’s about a woman in her early forties, so not what you think of coming-of-age. She’s forty-three. She discovers this huge betrayal by her husband who lives back in America. She lives in Kentucky with him. Her response is that she moves to Paris, or she goes to Paris and stays at her parents’ flat in Paris, which is a beautiful apartment. Her parents are successful artists. She’s a successful woman. She’s a privileged Black woman, basically. When she’s in Paris, she lives her best life. She’s eating pain au chocolat. She’s drinking red wine. She’s smoking some cigarettes. She ends up falling for this man who’s twenty years her junior and is actually the same age as her son, who’s twenty-three. They have this steamy affair. They end up traveling around Europe together. It comes down to, really, will she go back to her life as this wife of this person in America, or is she going to continue to live out this fantasy of being with this man in Europe? Her children are grown. They’re in their twenties. She has the freedom to have this life. She sort of gave up her early twenties to be a wife and a mother. It’s escapist. I call it smart-girl beach read. I love this book.

Zibby: You sold me.

Sarah: You need to read it.

Zibby: I don’t even know about this book.

Sarah: It’s so good. Check it out, for sure.

Zibby: I’m going to add to cart. Number eight.

Sarah: Sea of Tranquility is Emily St. John Mandel. Emily St. John Mandel has the new Hulu adaptation series of Station Eleven, which was, I believe, her debut novel. I actually loved her last novel, The Glass Hotel. It’s one of my favorite books. This is a new one, also speculative fiction. There’s someone on my team that I mentioned that loves this genre. He read it. Then this is how things come on the list. He was like, “This isn’t just for sci-fi fans. I think this has broad appeal.” Then other people read it, and they just totally fell in love with it. This is, on the team, some people’s favorite book of the year. You can see, it doesn’t make it number one because it’s a democracy, but it’s definitely a top ten.

Zibby: Amazing. Next one. What did I say? Eight? Seven.

Sarah: Yes. Memphis by Tara — I’m sorry, it’s Tara (tah-ruh) Stringfellow.

Zibby: This was a Reese’s pick, wasn’t it?

Sarah: It was. Oh, no, it was a Jenna pick, actually.

Zibby: Oh, okay. Sorry.

Sarah: I talked about this during an interview. The author reached out to me and said, “It’s actually Tah-ruh.” I said Tara (tare-uh), so I want to make sure. It’s Tara (tar-ruh). I hate mispronouncing names, so I apologize. This is such a good book. It’s three generations of women in Memphis. It’s a little bit about intergenerational trauma and how you carry secrets and trauma from the past into the future. It also is very hopeful. It’s lush. There’s such a sense of place. I also love when music plays a big role in books. It does that in Half-Blown Rose too. There’s also this great sense of music in Memphis. It’s a great novel. It’s her debut. I think she was a poet before, but this is her debut novel. It’s just totally beautiful.

Zibby: I have lyrics to one song in my book, Bookends.

Sarah: No, way. I haven’t gotten there yet.

Zibby: You have to read the song and then tell me if you like hearing it.

Sarah: Okay.

Zibby: Two, three, four, five.

Sarah: Six.

Zibby: This is my short-term memory.

Sarah: We need to number these. Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus.

Zibby: I had Bonnie on my podcast. She is amazing.

Sarah: I love this book so much. This is a novel about a woman in the 1960s. She’s a female chemist. She’s brilliant, but she suffers in her career because of sexism. She becomes this unlikely host of a cable network cooking show that becomes really popular. She’s teaching all of these housewives about more than just how to make meatloaf. To her, cooking is science. It’s chemistry. She takes it very seriously. She wears a lab coat. It’s all about chemical reactions. It’s just such a great story about female empowerment. To me, this was a cross between John Irving and also Maria Semple from Where’d You Go, Bernadette.

Zibby: John Irving has a new book coming out.

Sarah: Oh, my god. He does?

Zibby: Yes.

Sarah: I’m very excited for that. I love him.

Zibby: I just got the digital arc.

Sarah: No way!

Zibby: I did. I know. I know. It’s amazing.

Sarah: John Irving’s publisher, send me a copy too.

Zibby: I’ll tell you who it is. You can get your own copy.

Sarah: Thanks. There’s a dog in this book that is a major character that doesn’t speak out loud but understands English. To me, that’s very John Irving, the animals that are human sort of thing. It sounds weird, but it works. I just love this book. Actually, someone on the team, Lindsay Powers, who you have worked with, said this is her new all-time favorite book.

Zibby: Really?

Sarah: Yep. That is a glowing endorsement from someone that reads so much to say this is a new favorite book. She loved it.

Zibby: That’s great. So did my mom, if that counts for anything.

Sarah: I loved it too. It’s a great book.

Zibby: It was great. I think we’re on number five.

Sarah: River of Gods — the subtitle is Genius, Courage, and Betrayal in the Search for the Source of the Nile — by Candice Millard. This is nonfiction. I’m going to say of the top ten, I like this as a Father’s Day pick. I hate to say that because it’s nonfiction, but it is a good Father’s Day pick. This is a book about the search for the Nile in the nineteenth century. To me, what’s different about it is that Millard really confronts colonialism in a way that a lot of historians do not and acknowledges it and deals with it. She’s telling a story about these two European men who are — it’s this hapless race for them to one-up each other. They have this relentless search for geographic discoveries. They’re getting fevers. They’re falling. They’re attacked by insects. They’re single-mindedly focused on this. She also tells the story of an enslaved man named Sidi Bombay. Basically, they wouldn’t have made their discoveries without him. He really is the unsung hero of this piece of history. In the book, he emerges that way. This book definitely inspired healthy debate on my team. It didn’t sit well with everyone, but we all agreed that it’s beautifully written. It reads like a thriller. It’s so visceral. You’re reading it, and you feel sweaty from the humidity of being in a jungle. It’s great that way. It’s history told the way we want history to be told, which is the truth.

Zibby: Love it. Before we go onto the next one, tell me more about your book club.

Sarah: Oh, my gosh, okay. It’s called Sarah Selects, which is so weird to have something named after me. It is a monthly book club on Amazon. You can go to and join the club. I will be picking a new book every month. It’s books that I love. The idea is really books that — I read so much. You read so much. When you read a book and you are like, I need to talk about this with someone right away, it should be those books. There’s no other parameter besides that; men, women, all genders, nonfiction, fiction. It just needs to have that feeling of, I’m reading something, and I don’t want to be alone right now. I need to call someone and talk about this.

Zibby: Interesting. I just finished Nora Reads Off Script. I think I would pick that if I were doing .

Sarah: I’m so sorry I haven’t read that yet because my colleague, Vanessa, loved it. She said to me, “Sarah, I really think you need to read this book.” You know what it’s like when you’re reading for work. Sometimes the things that you just want to read that you don’t get to for work —

Zibby: — I meant to read this so much earlier than I did. I meant to do it earlier. I did right before my podcast. I was like, oh, my gosh, I wish I had done this earlier.

Sarah: The book that is my white whale that I want to read and I always am like, I’m going to read this on vacation, is Pachinko.

Zibby: I read that. I did read that.

Sarah: I’m dying to read that book. For some reason, I can’t get to it. I need to go on vacation and read it.

Zibby: I did. I read that a couple years ago. I had Min Jin Lee on my podcast. I’m just going to keep telling you about the guests. People listening can go back. You can get your appetite whet for all these things.

Sarah: Number four is The Maid by Nita Prose. This is a book that came out earlier this year, so I think people are kind of familiar. It’s a red jacket with a keyhole. It is about a neurodiverse maid at a hotel in — to me, it’s an unnamed city. I think it’s either New York or Toronto. She is cleaning a hotel room. She stumbles upon the dead body of a man that lives at the hotel. She is thrust in as the key suspect in his murder. The story unfolds through her eyes. You’re seeing the world the way that she does, which is in a neurodiverse way. It’s never named, any sort of diagnosis, but you understand that she sees the world a little bit differently. As a reader, you’re seeing it through her eyes in limited view but also bringing the knowledge of, you can tell when people aren’t good guys that she doesn’t necessarily know. It’s a mystery. It’s not a violent mystery. There’s no knifing or anything. She’s loveable. You see the good and the bad in people through her eyes. It’s really unique too. It’s a little bit like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. I know that you love Sally Hepworth too. Sally Hepworth, The Good Sister.

Zibby: Yes, I do. That was great. Another question before we go on to the top three, do you give the authors anything, like a certificate or a gift?

Sarah: For Sarah Selects? Oh, for this.

Zibby: For this, but okay, for Sarah Selects too.

Sarah: No.

Zibby: Just the list?

Sarah: Just the list.

Zibby: Which is huge.

Sarah: For the top three, actually, I interviewed the top three authors on Amazon Live yesterday, which is always a really fun interview because it’s four ways.

Zibby: Oh, at the same time?

Sarah: At the same time. I do all the authors at once and then, I call them break-out rooms. It’s just one on one with all of them. It’s a lot to wrangle. The technology piece is always a little stressful.

Zibby: That’s awesome. Okay, number three.

Sarah: Number three is — this one, I’m like, I love this book. All My Rage by Sabaa Tahir. It’s a young adult book, but I read it without knowing that it was a young adult book. I’m sort of thinking, I wonder if teenagers would like this. Then I realized it was actually intended as a young adult book. It reads like an adult novel. It is about two star-crossed Pakistani teenagers in a small desert town in California and a story about their parents and where they came from. It jumps back in history. I cried. Did you cry when you were reading this?

Zibby: I have to admit, I did not finish this book, so I did not cry. I did have Sabaa on my podcast to talk about the parts that I did read.

Sarah: She’s wonderful.

Zibby: She’s been on twice. I love her. What I read was amazing.

Sarah: I loved talking to her yesterday. You can tell she’s so smart.

Zibby: So smart.

Sarah: Also, great music in this book if you’re a fan of music in books. This is her first contemporary novel. She is the author of a really popular fantasy series, An Ember in the Ashes. She said that she’s been writing this book for a long time. This is a book that she would go to when she was feeling angry. It’s called All My Rage. There is this undercurrent of anger and rage in it. It’s hopeful too.

Zibby: Awesome. She’s amazing. Number two.

Sarah: What My Bones Know: A Memoir of Healing from Complex Trauma by Stephanie Foo. I love the jacket on this book too. It’s worth checking out. It’s crossed bones with beautiful flowers and vegetables growing out of them. When I interviewed Stephanie Foo yesterday, we talked about the jacket. She said that she and a friend designed it because they wanted this idea of, even though your bones can hold trauma, beautiful things can come from that, which I loved. This book is about her life. It’s a memoir about her being diagnosed with complex PTSD. It was about four years ago. Complex PTSD is a condition that happens when someone experiences trauma over a long period of time. PTSD is like, I was in a plane crash. Complex PTSD is, I was a victim of child abuse. In her case, she writes about the child abuse that she suffered and how it’s affected her her entire life. She gets this diagnosis because she realizes something’s not quite right, but it has no name. Once it’s named, she researches it.

She was a producer on This American Life, and so she attacks it like a researcher. She’s like, okay, here are some things that I can do. She goes after all of these different ways and looks at it scientifically. It sounds like a sad book, but she is very funny. There’s lots of humor. She’s not afraid to make fun of herself. It has a happy ending too. I’m not giving anything away. It ends during the pandemic. We all know what that is like. It turns out that people that suffer from complex PTSD thrive in conditions of high stress, so wartime or pandemic time. She was high-functioning during this time that everyone else — she was like, all my friends were calling. They were like, I can’t get out of bed. I’m so scared. I don’t want to go to the grocery store. She was like, I’m doing great. It was really interesting that something that a lot of people would take as something that’s wrong with them, and it’s really a superpower.

Zibby: Wow, I’m going to investigate that more, complex PTSD and the book. The book sounds great too. Number one.

Sarah: Drumroll. It’s Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt. This is a debut novel. It is about an unlikely friendship between a widow named Tova and an octopus. I feel like I start to lose people. They’re like, what is this? It’s a book about aging. It’s about rediscovering family. It’s about finding love and resetting yourself, getting out of a place where — she described it as, it’s a book about getting unstuck. It also has a mystery at its core. The octopus is key to solving the mystery. It’s one of those books that, to me, felt incredibly original. Even though I read a lot, it’s hard to find something that is really original. To me, this struck me as very original. I still think about the characters.

Zibby: I did not realize that was an octopus. I never really looked. I just thought it was this beautiful cover.

Sarah: The woman on the front — I learned this yesterday, actually. This is original artwork that was done by the art director at Ecco, which is the publisher. She painted the scene. I don’t know if it’s watercolor. It’s an octopus in a tank with an older woman, gray hair, standing in front of it looking at him. I read a lot of my books on Kindle. It’s just easy for me to carry around. I did have a hardcover of this book that I received after I read the book. I have to say, the artwork within the book is beautiful because there’s this shadow of a creeping octopus that comes across the book as it gets further along. It’s really cool. It’s one of those books that it’s like, it’s beautiful to own this in person. The texture of the jacket is really nice. You can read it on Kindle too. The whole team loved this book. What I think is cool about that is, it’s men and women. It’s people that are different ages. In the diversity of the team, everyone felt like this was, so far, our favorite book.

Zibby: Wow, and it’s a Read with Jenna pick.

Sarah: And it’s a Read with Jenna pick.

Zibby: She must have liked it.

Sarah: Jenna has good taste. I love her taste.

Zibby: Amazing. Now you start reading for the next second half of the year.

Sarah: That’s it. Yep, turn over to the next part of the year.

Zibby: Excellent picks. Listeners, go out and get all these. You can also find them on Amazon Book Review, of other things, but start there. You will find it. Check out Sarah Selects.

Sarah: Thank you.

Zibby: Is there an actual meeting? Do you meet with the people who —

Sarah: — It’s all virtual. I post. I am actually in there responding to people and posting. I go in every day, except on the weekends when I do take a break. Every day, I go in. I respond to comments and like things and post prompts. I just posted yesterday about this idea of, would — the main character’s name is Vincent. I’m like, how would Vincent’s life be different if she had younger kids? I’m going to be forty-three in a month. She’s very much my age. What would her life look like if her kids were three and six, the same age as my kids? This would be impossible to escape to Paris. She missed that period of her early twenties where, hopefully, you get to be irresponsible and date the men that ride motorcycles and not the men you want to marry. She never had that. I think her life is very different because she never had that period. Now she’s able to have it as a forty-year-old woman.

Zibby: I’m totally going to read that book.

Sarah: Yeah, you need to read it.

Zibby: I need to read it, okay. Thanks so much for coming on.

Sarah: Thanks for having me. It’s so fun.

Best Books of the Year (So Far!) by Sarah Gelman

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