Spring Awakenings: Editors' Spring Picks | Books & Publishing

Activism, escapism, intersectionality, romance are key to these 43 titles our editors want librarians to know and buy.

The LJ Reviews editors here present our top picks for spring and summer books. Pinpointing key topics of 2018—politics, #MeToo, increasing diversity—as Neal Wyatt notes in her article Takeaways & Trends, we selected titles about activism and awareness, identity matters, and building a better world. Our nonfiction (19) and fiction (24) picks echo many of these themes, spotlighting titles by and about gay activists, people of color, survivors of war and oppression, environmentalists, and neuroatypical protagonists.

Our choices also include plenty of diversions, including immersive novels such as Marlon James’s first foray into fantasy and romances by Alyssa Cole. There are cookbooks, thrillers, film critique, poetry from Jericho Brown, and musings from John Waters. We celebrate the continuing power of graphic novels, the influence of podcasts, authors extending genre tropes brilliantly, YA for adults, and the unstoppability of Congressman John Lewis. Read on and be prepared to make your own list and share your picks on social media via #bookpower.—Liz French

Typographical illustration by István Szugyiczky


Rallying Cry

As a child and teen, I escaped into books when times got tough. Now, as our political climate grows more chilling, books are a call to action.  “Is it bad to be brown?” “Are white people afraid of brown people?” Questions that would have many parents squirming are the framework for Indian American writer Mira Jacob’s graphic novel, Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations (One World: Random, Mar.).

Jacob attempts to help her young biracial son understand a world that’s increasingly hostile toward people of color while doing some soul-searching of her own. Jacob isn’t the only one blending the personal and the political. Congressman John Lewis follows up his celebrated “March” trilogy with another graphic memoir chronicling his civil rights days. Cowritten by Andrew Aydin and illustrated by Afua Richardson and Nate Powell, Run, Bk. 1 (ComicArts: Abrams, Jun.) reveals that behind the resounding speeches and triumphant marches are real people: flawed, sometimes terrified, yet resolute. Likewise, rapper Talib Kweli puts a human face on activism with his memoir, Vibrate Higher: A Rap Story (MCD: Farrar, May). Kweli, who has protested the New York Police Department’s stop-and-frisk policy and the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, demonstrates how hip-hop has the power to effect social and political change. Books that push us to rethink our history and our present are especially important to me now. Several of my colleagues and I lead cultural competency workshops that teach librarians to identify racist or sexist attitudes in literature. Reconsidering beloved books such as Little House on the Prairie or To Kill a Mockingbird often provokes defensiveness. But I urge librarians who are feeling anxious about adopting a critical lens to pick up Ibram X. Kendi’s How To Be an Antiracist (One World: Random, Aug.), a stirring title about combating oppression. His National Book Award–winning Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Thought in America argued that the United States is so steeped in racism that even the most enlightened individuals can’t escape its pull. Now Kendi demands that we examine our biases—it’s the only way to create a just world.

I Like To Watch: Arguing My Way Through the TV Revolution (Random, May) might seem out of place among my other picks, but is watching television a radical act? Yes, if you’re Emily Nussbaum. The Pulitzer Prize–winning New Yorker critic masterfully explores a variety of topics, including the blurred lines between entertainment and politics—consider her 2017 piece on how Donald Trump the reality TV show host gave way to Trump the president. No socially conscious pop culture fan should miss her essays.

Illustrated by Renée Nault, The Handmaid’s Tale: The Graphic Novel (Nan A. Talese: Doubleday, Mar.) is a stunning adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 story about a society that measures a woman’s worth by her ability to bear children. Like its source material, this is a bleak work but one that ends with a whisper of hope—something sorely needed, as we watch the Trump administration erode basic freedoms. Nolite te bastardes carborundorum indeed.—Mahnaz Dar


Personal Effects

I’m looking forward to a lot of books this season, both personally and professionally. I usually have at least one book by a podcaster to whom I’m currently listening. Doing Justice: A Prosecutor’s Thoughts on Crime, Punishment, and the Rule of Law (Knopf, Mar.) is a debut from Preet Bharara, who served as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York from 2009 to 2017. His podcast, Stay Tuned with Preet, has helped to keep me up-to-date on criminal justice and the legal system, and his book offers the same casual, approachable style. I’m a longtime fan of The Great British Bake Off TV series, and I was excited to see former contestant Chetna Makan release her third cookbook after Chai, Chaat & Chutney and The Cardamom Trail. Chetna’s Healthy Indian: Everyday Family Meals. Effortlessly Good for You (Mitchell Beazley, Mar.) features Makan’s signature creative spice blends to accompany simple, unfussy dishes. My other cooking highlight is Mark Bittman’s Dinner for Everyone: 100 Iconic Dishes Made 3 Ways—Easy, Vegan, or Perfect for Company (Clarkson Potter: Crown, Feb.). In a change of pace from his best-selling “How To Cook Everything” titles, Bittman offers several classic and festive dinners in three ways: an easy method, a vegan alternative, and a scaled-up portion for guests. Though there are plenty of options, I’m especially interested in trying the soups and salads.

Another TV favorite is the Netflix reboot of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. While I enjoy all members of the Fab Five, I’m eagerly awaiting Naturally Tan: A Memoir (St. Martin’s, May), the debut from fashion expert Tan France. Besides reflecting on his upbringing in a traditional Muslim family, France touches on his evolving sense of style and the value of acceptance. On a similar note of acceptance is More than Enough: Claiming Space for Who You Are (No Matter What They Say) (Viking, Jun.), the debut memoir from former Teen Vogue editor in chief Elaine Welteroth. After Welteroth’s success helping her publication focus on politics and social justice, I want to learn more about her experience as the second black editor in chief in Conde Nast history as well as her current role as a judge on Project Runway.

Hearing more about the life stories of authors such as Kiese Laymon, Alexander Chee, and Carmen Maria Machado drew me to the essay collection What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About: Fifteen Writers Break the Silence (S. & S., Apr.), which includes a variety of writers frankly discussing topics that are often difficult to talk about, such as mental health and sexual assault. Pick up the book for your favorite authors and stay for the heartfelt pieces.—Stephanie Sendaula


Feel-Good Reads

I was thrilled to see that three of my favorite romance authors have new books coming out this spring and summer. Alyssa Cole continues her “Reluctant Royals” series with A Prince on Paper (Avon, Apr.), in which Nya Jerami and Johan von Braustein, the step-prince of Liechtienbourg, fake an engagement to take press attention off his brother, the heir to the crown. Jasmine Guillory’s The Wedding Party (Berkley, Jul.) is set during the lead-up to the wedding of Alexa and Drew, the couple at the heart of her debut, The Wedding Date. Alexa’s best friends Maddie and Theo generally can’t stand each other. When they impulsively act on a simmering attraction, they agree that their fling will last only until the ceremony. But as time grows shorter, they start to regret having an end in sight. After last year’s smash hit The Kiss Quotient, Helen Hoang returns with The Bride Test (Berkley, May), another romance with a neuroatypical protagonist. Since Khai’s autism makes forming new relationships difficult, his mother decides to find him a wife. Esme falls for Khai pretty quickly, but he’s convinced he’ll never be able to return her feelings.

Linda Holmes, who cohosts NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast, makes her fiction debut with Evvie Drake Starts Over (­Ballantine, Jun.). Set in a small town in Maine, the novel follows the developing friendship between young widow Evvie and major league pitcher Dean, who rents the apartment behind her house when his career takes an un­explained downturn. A fictional podcast drives the action in Denise Mina’s Conviction (Mulholland: Little, Brown, Jun.) when wealthy Edinburgh housewife Anna finds her dark past revealed on one of the true-crime shows she usually loves. The same day, her husband leaves her for her best friend, and Anna goes on the run with her friend’s husband.

One work of nonfiction to note: When economist Emily Oster published Expecting Better: Why the Conventional Pregnancy Wisdom Is Wrong—and What You Really Need To Know in 2014, it was a lifesaver for women who found it almost impossible to find straightforward, scientifically based information to help them make decisions about getting and being pregnant. Her follow-up, Crib Sheet: A Data-Driven Guide to Better, More Relaxed Parenting, from Birth to Preschool (Penguin, Apr.), takes the same approach to decision-making after the baby is born.—Stephanie Klose


Rewarding Returns

Topping my spring/summer picks are standout sophomore efforts from authors whose breakout debuts introduced imaginative, expansive storytelling and whose new works prove those talents have been stretched even further. In 2015, Erika Swyler captivated bibliophiles with The Book of Speculation, starring young librarian Simon Watson. The author’s equally inventive follow-up, Light from Other Stars (Bloomsbury, May), sees brilliant and tenacious NASA astronaut Nedda Papas on a deep space–colony mission aboard the shuttle Chawla, suddenly tasked with fixing the dangerous energy spikes in the thermoelectric generator connected to the vessel’s life support system. Her beloved scientist father, Theo, had performed the same work decades earlier but with devastating results, literally altering the fabric of time. Concerned though we may be, readers are with Nedda ­every step of the way.

Also searching for answers amid complex family dynamics is San Francisco socialite Charlotte Smith, the intrepid heroine at the center of poet/novelist Greer Macallister’s latest historical thriller, Woman 99 (Sourcebooks Landmark, Mar.; LJ 2/19). Departing the world of illusion she so exquisitely crafted in 2015’s The Magician’s Lie, ­Macallister here investigates the severe treatment of women committed to mental institutions in the late 19th century. Charlotte, the namesake of author Charlotte Perkins Gilman, who famously wrote about treatments she endured for postpartum depression, fakes a suicide attempt in order to enter Goldengrove Asylum and retrieve her sister Phoebe, an inmate. Her poignant journey, inspired by journalist Nellie Bly’s undercover reporting in 1887, will resonate with genre fans and seekers of courageous female leads.

Strong women populate every corner of Martha Hall Kelly’s luminous Lost Roses (Ballantine, Apr.), the sweeping prequel to her immensely successful Lilac Girls (a 2016 LJ Best Historical Fiction title), which traced the lives of three very different women over the course of World War II. Among them was Caroline Ferriday, whose mother, Eliza, is spotlighted in this timely new story that expands on the legacy of the real-life New York Ferridays. Here, Eliza aids a group of Russian aristocrats who immigrate to America after enduring unconscionable horrors at the hands of the Bolsheviks in the years leading up to the 1917 Russian Revolution.

Turning to more recent history, two forthcoming graphic novels document the brutal impact of war on the lives of both civilians and frontline soldiers. Jérôme ­Tubiana and Alexandre Franc’s Guantánamo Kid: The True Story of Mohammed El-Gharani (SelfMadeHero: Abrams, Mar.) delivers the tragic but ultimately hopeful account of the titular youth who leaves his native Saudi Arabia in 2001 at age 14 to study English in Pakistan. There he is arrested and wrongly accused of being a member of al-Qaida. He spends eight years in U.S. custody at Guántanamo Bay before his innocence is declared in 2010. Finally, I’ve yet to see in full U.S. Marine and Iraq veteran Maximilian Uriarte’s Battle Born: Lapis Lazuli (Little, Brown, Jun.). But a publisher preview of this highly anticipated follow-up to 2016’s well-received The White Donkey caught my attention with its stunning artwork and the beginnings of an immersive story line. —Annalisa Pešek


Lives Reinvented

English author Jojo Moyes came upon me like a lightning bolt ( The Girl You Left Behind), then continued to electrify with book after book released here. The Peacock Emporium (Penguin, Apr.), published by Hodder & Stoughton in 2004, opens in a hospital in Argentina as a first-time midwife delivers a baby. What does this have to do with Suzanna Peacock, an Englishwoman who wants to open a shop offering coffee and odd things she finds of interest? Jessie, a frequent patron, soon becomes indispensable and worms her way into Suzanna’s closed-off heart and the lives of everyone in town. An early work for Moyes, this book feels new, distinctive, and special.

Traveling back to an earlier England, Delilah, Lady ­Derring, has not much left following the death of her husband outside of his debts and a derelict building on the London docks…and the company of Lord Derring’s mistress Mrs. Angelique Breedlove. In Julie Anne Long’s newest ­series debut, Lady Derring Takes a Lover (Avon, Mar.; LJ 2/19), with little love lost for the late earl, the women contrive to give the edifice new life as the Grand Palace on the Thames, a hotel where travelers can share their experiences. On the trail of smugglers, Capt. Tristan Hardy finds his way to the establishment and Lady Derring, but his loyalties might leave the two of them on opposite sides. Readers who love Long’s “Pennyroyal Green” books will be thrilled with this new setting and these fresh and mostly funny characters.

Across the pond, Linda Lael Miller seems to have changed course from her contemporary Western romances with The Yankee Widow (Mira: Harlequin, May). Caroline Hammond lives on her husband’s family farm outside of Gettysburg, PA, with her young daughter and freedman Enoch Flynn, while her husband, Jacob, is off fighting for the North. She learns that Jacob is seriously wounded and goes to the nation’s capital, Washington City, to find him. The background of this most divisive chapter in our country’s history is marvelously depicted, and every view is represented as Union and Confederate troops converge. Don’t think Miller has given up on romance, with several possibilities explored as love takes root in blood-soaked ground. A wonderful companion to Alyssa Cole’s next “Loyal League” title, An Unconditional Freedom (Kensington, Mar.; LJ 2/19), about African American spies during the Civil War.

Returning to the British Isles, Eithne Shortall’s debut novel, Grace After Henry (Putnam, Mar.; LJ 2/19), is set in Dublin, Ireland, where short-order cook Grace and longtime beau Henry are about to purchase a home together. Grace is waiting for him at a viewing, but always-late Henry is riding his bike, it’s pouring out, and tragedy strikes. Finally dragging herself out of the new house, Grace goes often to the cemetery, making friends with three men visiting their loved ones. But there, outside the gate, isn’t that Henry? A sweet and heartwarming story of loss and searching for the best in those we love, even when they leave us. One hopes this isn’t the last we’ve heard from this new author.—Bette-Lee Fox


Marching On

The New York Public Library’s (NYPL) Manuscripts and Archives Division has one of the largest collections of LGBTQ and AIDS activist history. The iconic photographs by lesbian photojournalists and activists Kay Tobin Lahusen and Diana Davies in Love and Resistance: Out of the Closet and into the Stonewall Era (Norton, Mar.) chronicle the burgeoning LGBTQ rights movement from the mid-1960s to mid-1970s. Edited and captioned by Jason Baumann, who coordinates NYPL’s LGBT Initiative, the photos movingly present the various colorful personalities and groups, the marches, the protests, the parties, and the pride and passion of these pioneers of the LGBTQ rights community. Featuring an introduction by Roxane Gay, the book coincides with the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots and an upcoming exhibition of Lahusen’s and Davies’s photos at the library.

At almost exactly the same time as the Stonewall actions, a young, filthy Baltimore native gathered his misfit friends and started making movies. Cinema would never be the same after John Waters’s groundbreaking trash classics Pink Flamingos and Eat Your Makeup. A cult figure for years, Waters segued into the mainstream—or maybe we came to him—making successful Hollywood films, one of which was adapted for Broadway (Hairspray); creating art; penning best-selling books; and much more. The self-proclaimed Pope of Bad Taste hasn’t gone toothless, though. Mr. Know-It-All: The Tarnished Wisdom of a Filth Elder (Farrar, Jun.) is sure to be a primer on living loud and long and entirely by your own rules.

Waters still commands attention and respect into his 70s;author, anti-ageism activist, and TED talker Ashton Applewhite demands that and more in This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism (Celadon: Macmillan, Mar.), whose starred review (LJ 2/19) praises the many ways Applewhite “pushes back against ageism through activism” and exposes the ways popular culture “perpetuates myths and stereotypes about ‘olders’ that are used to legitimize inequalities.” National Geographic released a video of an octopus struggling with a plastic bag as part of a campaign to raise awareness of the global plastic waste crisis. Zero-waste blogger Kathryn Kellogg—whom you may have heard of as the person who can fit all her trash from the past two years into a 16-ounce mason jar—chimes in with 101 Ways To Go Zero Waste (Countryman, Apr.), a guide to living a more environmentally conscious life.

The spring/summer fiction options are manifold, but here are three promising titles. Historical novelist Jeanne Mackin’s The Last Collection: A Novel of Elsa Schiaparelli and Coco Chanel (Berkley, Jun.) looks to be the perfect mix of fiction, fact, and fashion; novelist and memoirist Susan Jane Gilman’s Donna Has Left the Building (Grand Central, Jun.) features ex–punk rocker Donna on the road in search of her pre–suburban mom self; and De’Shawn Charles ­Winslow’s debut, In West Mills (Bloomsbury, Jun.), is set in an African American community in rural North Carolina from 1941 to 1987.—Liz French


Thrill Rider

As a longtime thriller fan, I’ve found the past few years to be a blessing and a curse: in the wake of the Gone Girl phenomenon, dozens of publishers continue to churn out dark tales of domestic suspense. But after a while, many of these titles tend to run together in one’s mind, a mishmash of horrendous people doing horrendous deeds. Rising out of the stacks of psychological thrillers coming this spring is Samantha Downing’s My Lovely Wife (Berkley, Mar.), a deeply disturbing tale about a bored suburban couple who decide to spice up their marriage by engaging in a little extra­curricular homicide. Bizarre and at times over-the-top, this almost-campy work of realistic horror will push the limits of even the most hardened murder aficionados and leave readers with whiplash from the fast and furious twists.

For a more cerebral thrill ride, there’s Blake Crouch’s Recursion (Crown, Jun.). Readers eagerly embraced his 2016 Dark Matter, a pulse-pounding thriller that explored quantum physics and alternate realities. Here, he again combines fast-paced action with cutting-edge scientific theory, this time taking a deep dive into memory, identity, and their intersections within the human mind. Reminiscent of the best and most fantastic works by Philip K. Dick, this is set to be a best seller. Crouch is a rising star to watch closely.

Are you reading YA? According to recent stats, more than 55 percent of young adult novels are read by adult readers—and those numbers are set to grow as YA literature continues to expand in depth and nuance across a wide range of genres. Patrons looking for engaging, emotionally resonant, and timely fiction would be wise to pick up Angie Thomas’s 2017 blockbuster debut, The Hate U Give (also made into a feature film), about a 16-year-old African American girl straddling two very different communities and reckoning with the effects of police violence. Thomas’s highly anticipated sophomore effort, On the Come Up (Balzer + Bray, Feb.; SLJ 2/19), stars another 16-year-old, this time a young woman who dreams of becoming a rap superstar. Expect long holds on this one.

Lastly, I’m excited about a new work of nonfiction that exposes the ways in which systemic gender bias negatively affects the collection and analysis of data. In Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men (Abrams, Mar.), Caroline Criado-Perez, delving into hundreds of studies, investigates the shortcomings and problematic practices that underlie many of the fundamental ways we think about, design, and collect information. Covering a range of topics, from economics to health care to education, this work will be relevant to readers interested in the inter­sections of gender, social justice, and public policy.—Kiera Parrott


Power of Poetry

In 2009, Jericho Brown won an American Book Award for his first work, Please. Its follow-up, the anguished, erotic, and spiritually reverberant The New Testament, was one of my LJ Best Poetry Books of 2014 and won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 2015, the first time this decades-old celebration of diverse books included poetry as a category.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Brown at the awards ceremony and later at the 2016 National Book Awards, when he served as poetry judge and responded to my offhand comment about his plans to teach a workshop at Poets House in New York by cheerfully offering, “You should come!” I walked away stunned, having abandoned writing poetry a decade previously, and luckily decided to take the challenge; that workshop remains the best class I have ever taken anywhere, anytime, in anything. So you can imagine how thrilled I am that Brown will soon gift us with a new collection, The Tradition (Copper Canyon, Apr.). Even a quick read shows that it exemplifies a key truth I learned in that class: you must locate your poem, discover it in the very act of writing, nixing from the start the idea that you know where you’re going to end. That, of course, applies to reading poems, too (at least the best ones), and in Brown’s new collection, poem after poem moves urgently to a conclusion that could not have been predicted yet feels exactly right. Reconsidering the myth of Ganymede, for instance, Brown first purveys a softer version in which everyone’s happy as a boy’s father trades him to the gods for horses, then reminds us “When we look at myth/ this way, nobody bothers saying/ rape” and finishes with the gut-punch observation about cultural assumptions that “The people of my country believe/ We can’t get hurt if we can be bought.”

Elsewhere, “The Microscopes” moves from science class to recognizing “what little difference/ God saw if God saw me” (our cells look alike under the lens) to the young speaker secretly, anxiously loving a bullying “bigger boy” and finally needing to wrestle down fear as he enters an uncomfortable age-old dimension in which differences do matter: “A region I imagine you imagine when you see/ a white woman walking with a speck like me.” In the end, strong feeling and particularly fear as forced by social context ground these poems, which are nonetheless never muddied by emotive excess or lacquered-on language but remain elegant, transparent, and so piercingly accurate you’ll be rattled as you read. Don’t miss this collection—and follow @jerichobrown to find a workshop he’s teaching near you. —Barbara Hoffert

Photo by Brian Cornelius


New Fantastic Terrain

This spring I’m keenly looking forward to a trio of titles that root their epic fantasy in underrepresented history, religion, and mythology. Award-winning literary novelist Marlon James makes his first foray into the genre with Black Leopard, Red Wolf (Penguin, Feb.). The first of the “Dark Star Trilogy,” set in an imagined Africa, garners a rave review from LJ’s Barbara Hoffert (LJ 2/19), as well as everyone from Neil Gaiman to Vogue. There are shape-shifters, fairies, trolls, devils, witches, giants, haunted woods, magic portals—and cities and politics, some of my favorite things not usually found together. My plan is to dive into this on the plane to Midwinter and not come up for air until the wheels hit the tarmac in Seattle.

Next up is G. Willow Wilson’s The Bird King (Grove Atlantic, Mar.). I am most familiar with Wilson from her groundbreaking work cocreating Ms. Marvel, the comic power­house’s first Muslim character to headline her own series, before stepping down in December and passing the torch to Saladin Ahmed (Throne of the Crescent Moon), so I’m looking forward to seeing Wilson work magic in long form—literally. The Bird King follows Fatima, a concubine in the royal court of Granada, the last emirate of Muslim Spain, and her best friend Hussan, who can create new realities through cartography, on their quest for freedom and safety.

Finally, Ashok K. Banker’s Upon a Burning Throne (Houghton Harcourt, Apr.) is a veritable doorstop and still represents only the first volume of “The Burnt Empire,” a new fantasy series inspired by The Mahabharata. Heirs to the throne princes Adri and Shvate pass the Test of Fire and are declared fit to rule. But when a rival claimant is slighted by the interim leaders, her demonlord father declares war, and the young men inherit the resulting mess. Banker has written a jaw-dropping 60 books and counting in both sf/fantasy and mainstream—YA and adult categories—so readers impatiently waiting for the next volume will have plenty of backlist to explore.—Meredith Schwartz


Bette-Lee Fox is Managing Editor, Barbara Hoffert is Prepub Alert Editor, Stephanie Klose is Media Editor, Kiera Parrott is Reviews Director, and Meredith Schwartz is Executive Editor, LJ . Mahnaz Dar is Reference and Professional Reading Editor, Liz French is Senior Editor, Annalisa Pešek is Assistant Managing Editor, and Stephanie Sendaula is Associate Editor, LJ Reviews

This article was originally pubilshed in Library Journal's February 2019 issue.

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