Editors' Spring Picks: 34* Titles To Wave a Flag About

From bone-chilling true crime to poignant family dramas to delightful romantic romps, these 34 picks are top-of-list reads.
When the LJ Reviews editors make their spring picks, each of us starts with her wheelhouse. Bette-Lee waves the flag for romance; Wilda unfurls some fiction picks; Stephanie Klose announces audio­books with much fanfare; Kate blasts SELF-e breakouts and historical fantasies; Amanda expounds the true crime beat; I proudly promenade the art and performance scene; Annalisa stands up for a graphic history title; and Stephanie Sendaula signals sociological and historical books of interest. Then we break out and go hog wild for all the other niches we adore and explore. Mahnaz and Stephanie K. go multiformat mad for Curtis Sittenfeld’s short stories (in print and audio, hence the asterisk on our count). Annalisa inter­views a women’s fiction author about addiction. I swoon over Amy Bloom’s moving love story. Kate samples some funnier fare, while Bette-Lee steps into more serious terrain with two titles about jeopardized youth. Stephanie S. goes deep into memoirs about black feminist superpowers and unusual families. Speaking of unusual and quirky, Wilda finds an Esperanto-savvy canine, and Stephanie K. dips into tree bathing. Our reading parade is all lined up for spring, with pennants for all comers.—Liz French

Something New

I’d like to don my metaphorical hipster glasses for a second to proclaim that I knew about L. Penelope’s Song of Blood & Stone (St. Martin’s, May) before she got the book deal. Her captivating “Earthsinger” series was part of LJ’s SELF-e program, featured among the best fiction the indie world has to offer. In this first installment, magical outcast Jasminda and spy Jack embark on a journey, unexpectedly finding love while trying to save their world from invasion. We’ll certainly miss this one in SELF-e land, but it’ll be exciting to see it reach new audiences—and deservedly so! Speaking of series authors, Laura Andersen (known for the “Boleyn King” trilogy) tries her hand at a stand-alone novel with The Darkling Bride (Ballantine, Mar.; LJ 1/18). The story traces the Gallaghers, a family of Irish nobles, through generations of secrets set against the 700-year-old castle where they are all laid bare. Having a penchant for historical fiction, this one immediately became one for the to-read list—plus, the castle boasts a historic library. Rounding out my novel choices is Shobha Rao’s Girls Burn Brighter (Flatiron: Macmillan, Mar.; LJ 1/18). It first caught my attention with its incredible title and then kept it with the two honest, admirable heroines Rao has created. Poornima and Savitha, young women who can see beyond the constraints of their Indian village, will ignite a spark of hope in readers.

The books I pick up tend to skew more toward serious subjects, so I’m resolving to expand my literary horizons and inject some humor into my reading this year. I plan to start with I’ve Got This Round: More Tales of Debauchery (Plume: NAL, Feb.), the second memoir from YouTube star Mamrie Hart. This time she’s tackling life in her 30s, single for the first time since college and eager to cross off bucket-list goals. I’ve dabbled in her online work before and am interested to see how her big personality will translate to the page—and have some much-needed laughs along the way.—Kate DiGirolomo

Change Lenses

Love is rarely easy, especially if it’s forbidden, even potentially dangerous. Amy Bloom’s White Houses (Random, Mar.; LJ 1/18), a fictionalization of the love affair between newswoman Lorena “Hick” Hickok and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, is a heartbreaking, beautiful novel. Bloom had access to the letters between the women and her research is impressive but does not intrude on the epic “forbidden love” story. Lorena’s voice is so strong and clear, you feel like she’s right there in the room with you, or sitting next to Eleanor in a publicity photo of which she’s destined to be cut out. LJ reviewer Leslie Patterson says, “Bloom brings the ­Roosevelts and their world vividly to life and gives an unforgettable voice to the larger-than-life Lorena,” and calls the work “an original, richly textured, and beautifully written love story.” Reading this book made me want to know more about the women and their contemporaries. I don’t know if either Eleanor or Hick ever crossed paths with photographer Berenice Abbott (1898–1991), who is most widely known for her photos of New York City in the 1930s, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they had. Living with her art critic lover Elizabeth McCausland in Greenwich Village, Abbott was not as scrutinized as was Eleanor, wife and then widow of a beloved president. Author Julia Van Haaften, a founding curator of NYPL’s photography collection, writes about Abbott’s long life and 60-year career as an artist, modernist, inventor, and author in Berenice Abbott: A Life in Photography (Norton, Apr.). And then there’s Weegee, aka Arthur Fellig (1899–1968), the outsize personality and street photographer who prowled the alleys of midcentury Gotham, often scooping the cops at crime scenes and documenting nightlife. New York magazine senior editor Christopher Bonanos tells his story in Flash: The Making of Weegee the Famous (Holt, Mar.). Thirty of his photographs enhance the work. My picks aren’t all historical, though I do favor the 1930s and 1940s with their political and social upheaval. Reading about those times makes one realize things don’t change all that much. Photography still has the ability to shock and awe; Virginia-based Sally Mann has done both with her work. Her 1992 album Immediate Family shocked some with its portraits of Mann’s children in near-feral and near-naked poses; her 2015 “memoir with photographs,” Hold Still, awed with its ruminations on race, place, family, death, and memory. Mann gets a long-deserved career overview with Sally Mann: A Thousand Crossings (Abrams, Mar.), co­inciding with a traveling exhibition. Cocurators and coauthors Sarah Greenough (National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC) and Sarah Kennel (Peabody Essex Museum, MA) and other experts examine Mann’s oeuvre in a lavishly illustrated book. Last, I end with a final chapter—maybe. Music critic Steven Hyden, whose 2016 pop culture title Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me earned a star from LJ reviewer Craig Shufelt, is back to ponder the icons of classic rock with Twilight of the Gods: A Journey to the End of Classic Rock (Dey Street: HarperCollins, May). If this means I’ll never have to hear the Eagles’ “Hotel California” or the Doors’ “Light My Fire,” I welcome the end-times, but I suspect Hyden’s assessment will be less facile than that.—Liz French

Music and Math

My spring/summer picks this year are an entertainingly eclectic mix of debut fiction, a deliciously creepy contemporary thriller about Nazis in the heartland, a dazzling retelling of a Greek myth, and a fascinating memoir of reinventing one’s life at the age of 64.

I am a fan of Mozart in the Jungle, Amazon’s Golden Globe–winning streaming series about the backstage lives of symphony musicians in New York City, so I was delighted when I picked up Aja Gabel’s engrossing first novel, The Ensemble (Riverhead, May). Meet the members of the Van Ness Quartet as they struggle to make it in the competitive classical musical world: on first violin is Jana, the group’s determined whatever-it-takes leader; second violinist is quiet and beautiful Brit, who is romantically involved with cellist Daniel, who in turn is jealous of prodigy Henry on viola. Writing effectively about music is tricky, but former cellist Gabel proves she can wield a baton, and as she conducts her quartet through rehearsals and performances, readers will want to listen to the scores they play.

Mathematical talent is a key element of Nova Jacobs’s debut, The Last Equation of Isaac Severy: A Novel in Clues (Touchstone, Mar.), a satisfying mix of literary mystery and family drama. A few days after famed mathematician Isaac Severy dies in an apparent suicide, his adopted grand­daughter Hazel receives posthumous instructions to track down his final equation and deliver it safely to a trusted colleague. But first she must decipher the baffling clues Isaac hid in the copy of her favorite novel. Meanwhile her brother, an LAPD detective, obsessively stalks their abusive foster father—Isaac’s younger son and the family outcast—who has recently been released from prison.

In The Saint of Wolves and Butchers (Putnam, Apr.), Alex Grecian exchanges the Victorian London of his best-selling “Scotland Yard’s Murder Squad” series for the bleak plains of rural Kansas, where the enigmatic Travis Roan and his companion, a massive Tibetan mastiff named Bear, are on the trail of an elderly ex-Nazi still plying his sinister trade. Caught up in their chilling game of cat and mouse is African American state trooper and single mom Skottie Foster. Enthusiastic advance blurbs from Nora Roberts and Gregg Hurwitz don’t exaggerate; Grecian has written a gripping suspense novel and populated it with compellingly drawn characters. I guarantee readers will be unable to resist the magnificent Bear, who answers only to commands in Esperanto.

Five years after Madeline Miller’s Orange Prize–­winning debut, The Song of Achilles, was named an LJ Top Ten title, the author’s second novel, Circe (Little, Brown, Apr.), focuses on another figure drawn from classical mythology. Daughter of the sun god Helios and Perse, an Oceanid nymph, Circe lacks her parents’ power and allure but soon discovers her special gift of witchcraft. Banished to a deserted island, she encounters such familiar figures as the Minotaur, Medea, and Odysseus. As a former member of the National Junior Classical League, I am in seventh heaven! Fellow classics geeks will agree.

Nell Painter could have rested on her laurels as a distinguished Princeton University professor and the author of several acclaimed books on race and racism, but instead, at age 64, she went back to school, intent on staking out a new life as a respected professional artist. Old in Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over (Counterpoint, Jun.) recalls her journey through the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design and how she drew inspiration from her mother’s own self-reinvention as an author in her 60s. Along the way, appropriately named Painter questions how age is perceived today and who can be an artist.—Wilda Williams

All Things Audio

Short-form writing, either fiction or non-, is particularly well suited to the audio format, especially for listeners used to podcasts. Samantha Irby’s 2013 essay collection, Meaty, will be available as an audiobook (Books on Tape, Apr.; read by the author) for the first time; Curtis Sittenfeld will release a collection of ten short stories, You Think It, I’ll Say It (Books on Tape, Apr.; reader TBA); and Lorrie Moore’s See What Can Be Done: Essays, Criticism, and Commentary (Blackstone, Apr.; reader TBA) collects 50 pieces written over 30 years. In longer form, some of my favorite authors have new audiobooks coming out in the spring: Ruth Ware returns with The Death of Mrs. Westaway (S. & S. Audio, May; reader TBA), Rumaan Alam releases That Kind of Mother (Harper Audio, May; reader TBA), and Pamela Druckerman considers middle age in There Are No Grown-ups: And Other Things It Took Me Forty Years To Learn (Books on Tape, May; reader TBA). Qing Li’s Forest Bathing: The Power of Trees To Relieve Stress, Boost Your Mood, and Improve Your Health (Books on Tape, Apr.; reader TBA) is a somewhat quirky selection: a guide to the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku, the book promises to help listeners immerse themselves in nature in mindful, intentional ways that promote physical and mental health.—Stephanie Klose


While little can compare with falling under the spell of a lengthy narrative, lately I’ve been attracted to short fiction: concise pieces that pull me in rapidly before just as quickly releasing me. I’ve avidly followed Curtis Sittenfeld since reading her shrewdly honest debut novel, Prep, a four-year chronicle of an awkward teen singing the boarding school blues, and her short story collection, You Think It, I’ll Say It (Random, Apr.; LJ 1/18), has reeled me in. The volume takes its title from a cheerfully nasty game played by two acquaintances in one of the tales, “The World Has Many Butterflies.” “I’ll think it, you say it,” says Graham to Julie at a party, prompting Julie’s unvarnished opinions on the flaws and foibles of their fellow guests. The other characters in the anthology follow suit, thinking and voicing uncomfortably candid observations. My two favorite entries left me slightly uneasy, reading with a mixture of disgust and reluctant empathy for the characters—and wonder at the author’s unpretentious yet carefully honed prose. With “Do-Over,” Sittenfeld takes even sharper aim at the prep school set as two middle-aged former classmates reconnect over dinner. Affably chauvinistic Clay silently muses on his teenage impressions of Sylvia (“quiet and almost definitely a virgin”; “looked hot from behind”); angry yet clear-eyed Sylvia pierces Clay’s bubble of smug male privilege. In the unnerving “Volunteers Are Shining Stars,” the author slowly peels back the layers of a socially inept twentysomething, revealing a dangerously disturbed streak. Likewise, Lionel Shriver is a fearless writer who hooked me years ago with the gripping We Need To Talk About Kevin, a dark meditation on motherhood in which a woman reflects on her son’s role in a Columbine-esque massacre. In her latest, Property: Stories Between Two Novellas (Harper, Apr.; LJ 1/18), characters negotiate possessions. Acerbic as ever, the author revels in exposing people’s ugly sides: the woman who, amid the ruins of a friendship, tries to take back a wedding gift (and the married couple who just as tightly hold on); the mother driven to the brink by her attempts to evict her thirtysomething son. But Shriver is funny, too—darkly, mordantly so. Her latest evokes Roald Dahl’s adult short fiction: wry, sardonic, and, at times, pleasurably mean-spirited.—Mahnaz Dar

Family Matters

After first hearing about Educated: A Memoir (Random, Feb.; LJ 2/1/18), I was drawn to the story and later to Tara Westover’s writing. What does it mean to come from a “good” family? How can a family maintain appearances to hide its phantoms and phobias? For the author’s Mormon parents that meant becoming survivalists and keeping their children out of school to have them help with homesteading. Westover writes about her decision to learn to read and then go to college and earn a PhD, much to the dismay of her family. I’m often attracted to memoirs that have elements of family history, and this raw and unflinching story has stayed with me.

Another fascinating book in the same vein is Bryan ­Mealer’s The Kings of Big Spring: God, Oil, and One Family’s Search for the American Dream (Flatiron: Macmillan, Feb.; LJ 2/1/18). After telling myself that I would only read a few pages, I read the entire book in one sitting, engrossed by the fortunes and misfortunes of patriarch John Lewis Mealer and his children and grandchildren, from Georgia to Texas, California to Arizona. Bryan, his grandson, interviews numerous relatives to create a history–turned–collective biography about what it costs personally, professionally, and spiritually to pursue the American Dream.

SLJ colleague Ashleigh Williams recommended to me Brittney Cooper’s Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower (St. Martin’s, Feb.; LJ 12/17), and I related to Cooper’s ambivalence toward Jessi from “The Baby-Sitters Club”: “I already knew what it felt like to be the only one in a friend group of white girls.” From that point forward, it often felt like Cooper was expressing thoughts I didn’t always know how to articulate. Sections on black women learning early on to manage their emotions resonated with me, as did her views on growing up within the black church. I appreciated how the book spans memoir, commentary, and call to action.

My last narrative nonfiction pick is Elaine Weiss’s The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight To Win the Vote (Viking, Mar.; LJ 2/1/18), about suffrage leaders such as ­Carrie Chapman Catt and Alice Paul and antisuffrage activist Charlotte Rowe in the months before Tennessee ratified the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote. I’m glad Weiss doesn’t shy away from racial and political tensions, mentioning how some suffragists were opposed to voting rights for African Americans. This is a timely complement to Ari Berman’s Give Us the Ballot and Michael Waldman’s The Fight To Vote in telling how controversial voting rights are—and have always been.—Stephanie Sendaula

Serial Crimes

Across all media, from books to articles to Netflix documentaries, true crime is one of my favorite genres. There is so much great investigative work happening right now, and two books, both of which began life online, have caught my interest for spring.

Investigative reporters T. Christian Miller of ProPublica and Ken Armstrong of the Marshall Project won the Pulitzer Prize for their 2015 feature, “An Unbelievable Story of Rape in America,” copublished by their respective outlets. While they initially worked independently on different facets of this story, when they realized how their probes converged, they chose to join together rather than rush to beat the other to print. The result is an extraordinary piece that’s been expanded upon in book form as A False Report: A True Story of Rape in America (Crown, Feb.). The premise is compelling—how an 18-year-old Washington State girl went from reporting being raped to being charged with making a false report and the way her case coincides with a serial rape case in Colorado nearly three years later. There are stark differences between the procedures, raising larger issues of how police investigate this type of crime. The Washington detectives, inexperienced in sex crimes, at one point threaten the victim with jail and losing her subsidized housing if she fails a polygraph she requested, while the dynamic, largely female detectives in Colorado pool resources across jurisdictions and understand there’s no “right” way for someone to act after being sexually assaulted. The book likewise delves into the history of sex crimes probes, from the use of loaded phrases such as “legitimate rape” to the creation of rape kits.

I’ve also been unable to put down the late Michelle ­McNamara’s gripping book I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer (Harper, Mar.). It grew out of her True Crime Diary blog and focuses on the man who committed at least 50 sexual assaults and ten murders across California from the late 1970s to the mid-1980s and was never caught. He was known by various names, including the East Area Rapist and the Original Night Stalker, but McNamara coined the term Golden State Killer, which reflects his span of crimes from Sacramento down to Orange County. He existed almost as a phantom, eluding the police at every turn, jumping fences and climbing on rooftops, breaking into some victims’ houses multiple times, and stalking numerous families, all without anyone ever getting a good description of him. The first part of the book focuses on the crimes, while the latter features more about McNamara’s experiences with fellow sleuths, amateur and otherwise, as they employ modern technology in an attempt to find the perpetrator. While his last known attack was in 1986, he has resurfaced since. As ­McNamara writes, in 2001, 24 years after she was assaulted, a woman answered the phone to a voice she immediately recognized: “Remember when we played?” he asked.—Amanda Mastrull

Close to Home

Kelly Rimmer’s shimmering and poignant new novel, Before I Let You Go (Graydon House: Harlequin, Apr.), broadens our current national conversation about seeking to combat the deadly yet curable disease of addiction while being ultimately a story of relationships. Set in small-town Alabama, where chemical endangerment laws are so strict that a pregnant addict can be arrested, the novel centers on the tender yet fraught relationship between sisters Alexis and Annie Vidler—the former, a successful doctor; the latter, an aspiring writer who battles a heroin addiction and along the way becomes pregnant, ultimately seeking refuge with her older sister. The story was inspired by the author’s memory of her late uncle, whose unexpected death from a drug overdose left an indelible impression on her life. Rimmer set out to write about the subject years ago, explaining in a recent email interview with LJ from her home in rural Australia, “Since planning this book, the opioid crisis has improved significantly, but we still have a long way to go.” Eliciting much debate about the factors contributing to addiction and serving as barriers to recovery, Annie’s story reveals the pain of a childhood trauma she’s kept secret for decades as a key component of her substance abuse. Which is fitting, according to Rimmer, who argues that “the research is clear: there are strong links between trauma, mental illness (particularly social anxiety), and addiction.” And while acknowledging that the opioid epidemic can seem overwhelming, Rimmer believes “it’s not an impossible problem,” advocating for “a refocusing of the discussion as a medical crisis, with medical solutions.” The situation is even more complex for Lexie, who holds a hard line with Annie throughout, believing it is the best way or, indeed, the only way to help her sister, Rimmer says. “Family is one of life’s greatest blessings—but it can be so complicated. The experience of Lexie, Annie, and Deborah (their mother) is an example of when family sometimes need outside support…. When left in isolation, a family can really struggle in times of crisis, as is the case [here].” In keeping with the themes of her earlier novels, such as Me Without You and The Secret Daughter, Rimmer’s latest work, while on many levels a cautionary tale, maintains the author’s focus on strong, imperfect women navigating real-life situations. In these themes, says Rimmer, “there is endless variety and endless potential for complexity to explore.” Be sure to look for the author’s next book, due out in 2019, at ­KellyRimmer.com. Close family relationships and strong women are also at the heart of The Bridge: How the Roeblings Connected Brooklyn to New York (Comic Arts: Abrams, Apr.; LJ 2/1/18), a fascinating graphic history from celebrated comics writer Peter J. Tomasi and debut artist Sara Duvall, which documents the journey of Washington and Emily Roebling and the construction of the iconic Brooklyn Bridge. Still standing strong more than 134 years after its completion in 1883, the structure that would connect the then-separate cities of Brooklyn and New York was originally conceived by Washington’s father, civil engineer John Augustus Roebling, who suddenly died just as the project was getting under way. Determined to complete his father’s work, Washington, himself a highly skilled engineer, pressed on, but as Tomasi and ­Duvall reveal, success would not have been possible without ­Emily ­Roebling, whose unwavering support and quick thinking were ultimately what held her husband’s well-laid plans together.—Annalisa Pešek

Degrees of Separation

Those unappreciative of the romance genre who disparage its authors and generously qualify a few books as worthy should get their heads out of their asterisks and meet two of today’s stars of the historical subgenre. Grace Burrowes winds up her “Windham Brides” quartet with A Rogue of Her Own (Forever: Grand Central, Mar.). The most irascible and likely most unmarriageable of the Duke of Moreland’s nieces, Miss Charlotte Windham finds herself wedded to Lucas Sherbourne, the villain of the previous book (No Other Duke Will Do, LJ 10/15/17). “A Welsh nobody” who knows how to manage money, Lucas can’t quite figure out how to manage his new wife. Burrowes’s trademark familial interactions are here in all their glory, with cousins and in-laws making their presence known in prose that continues to delight.

The second title in Eloisa James’s “Wildes of Lindow Castle” series, Too Wilde To Wed (Avon, Jun.) reunites the couple whose aborted engagement was at the crux of the first installment (Wilde in Love, LJ 10/15/17). Now returned from service in the Americas fighting the Colonials, Lord Roland Northbridge Wilde is surprised to find his former betrothed, Miss Diana Belgrave, ensconced in the family home with young Master Godfrey, whom everyone assumes is North’s child. He knows otherwise, of course, but the unlayering of this beautiful Georgian romance will not easily release readers from its spell.

Focusing on more recent history, debut author ­Rhiannon Navin’s Only Child (Knopf, Feb.; LJ 1/18) delves into a mass shooting at an elementary school, reminiscent of the events in Sandy Hook, CT, five years ago. Six-year-old Zach Taylor leads us from gunshots to aftermath to resignation as parents and siblings deal with the incident that takes the life of Zach’s ten-year-old brother, Andy, among others. Zach brings the tragedy to full consciousness by acknowledging Andy’s flaws and his own lack of compassion and understanding when Andy was still alive. Zach creates feelings pages that he keeps taped to the wall in his secret hideout inside Andy’s closet. Representing each emotion through color might be childlike, but it is also so clearly fitting for anyone in the throes of loss and pain. Tissues should be kept at the ready.

A five-year-old in need of a kidney transplant in 2016 sets the scene for Kathryn Hughes’s sophomore effort, The Secret (Headline, dist. by Hachette, Mar.). Taking place mostly in 1976 Manchester, England, the story introduces an array of characters out for a brief day at the seaside and how their lives tangle and overlay as they veer toward a horrific accident. Hughes hides her secrets in plain sight as the connections and realities of the group are revealed. A very British tale, and all the more picturesque for it.—Bette-Lee Fox

Kate DiGirolomo is SELF-e Community Coordinator, Bette-Lee Fox is Managing Editor, and Stephanie Klose is Media Editor, LJ. Mahnaz Dar is Reference and Professional Reading Editor, Liz French is Senior Editor, Amanda Mastrull is Assistant Editor, Annalisa Pešek is Assistant Managing Editor, Stephanie Sendaula is Associate Editor, and Wilda Williams is Fiction Editor, LJ Reviews

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