LJ Best Books 2016

A jury of our peers discussed, debated, disagreed, and finally declared LJ’s annual Top Ten Best Books of the year, selected by our editors, as well as Top Five lists for genre fiction, nonfiction, poetry, graphic novels, and SELF-e titles. VISIT THE WEBSITE

Editors’ Spring Picks 2015

Feb15webImages.inddFinding out which books my colleagues are excited about is always an epiphany; each editor is an expert on the areas she covers for LJ but also reads widely in her personal time and is aware of a wide array of fascinating titles. Usually, either because of publishing trends or just coincidence, a theme emerges among the season’s picks. Not this time, and, to me, that makes spring’s titles even more exciting. Perhaps its a harbinger of better economic times, too, that publishers are taking a chance on debut authors and offbeat stand-alone works that we might not have seen a few years ago, when, understandably, tried-and-true was more the way to go.

Among the ideas, events, and people explored here in nonfiction are a “memoir slash manifesto” on not fitting in as a black woman, experiences of mental illness, street vegan food, and—in the can’t-go-wrong category—a book about behind-the-scenes library drama. Next year is an election year (perhaps you’ve heard?), and new books on that subject are ahead, too. We’ll of course see the expected memoirs by the White House hopefuls but more intriguing are upcoming works on new media in politics and the Constitution as it was affected by geography. Most adventurous is a new work that seeks to introduce, posthumously, the work of poet Frank Stanford, including excerpts from his 15,000-line poem.

In fiction, there’s a new Anne Tyler publishing this month that continues the beloved author’s exploration of family life and its attendant heartaches and joys. Patrons who are George R.R. Martin fans will rejoice as coming their way is sf by award-winning author Ken Liu that has been compared with “A Song of Ice and Fire.” Other novels take on scary stories of water shortages, a Holocaust prisoner pitted against Nazis in a chess club, and a mystery surrounding the Shroud of Turin. Who needs trends when such riches abound?—Henrietta Verma

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Family reunions

My titles for this go-round of Editors’ Picks feature families in assorted configurations and in various states of grace, but the reunions refer to my catching up with wonderful writers I’ve enjoyed over the years. The latest title from Lori Lansens, author of that most miraculous novel The Girls (LJ 3/1/06), is The Mountain Story (Gallery, May; LJ 2/1/15). A recent transplant from Michigan to California, Wolf Truly is looking to make his 18th birthday his last, as he takes the tramcar to the top of Angel’s Peak. Somehow, though, Wolf becomes the de facto guide for three women lost on the trail who seem almost as unprepared for their time on the mountain as a person who doesn’t expect to return. We discover the truth behind the trio’s relationships as we learn what led Wolf to think he has nothing left to live for. Thanks, Lori; this one was definitely worth the wait.

My rare contribution to colleague Liz French’s What We’re Reading (WWR) blog was Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread (Knopf, Feb.; starred review, LJ 2/1/15), about three generations of the hard-working Baltimore Whitshanks—from Abby and Red and their grown children back to Red’s parents, Junior and Linnie Mae. The captivating story encouraged me to add my voice to the WWR roundup. As I stated at the time of that writing, I was just halfway through the book and was eager to see what happened next. Well, what happened just about knocked my socks off. Whew. No spoilers here, just a strong endorsement to read this book and re­acquaint yourself with the unfailingly brilliant Tyler.

Lisa Genova’s Inside the O’Briens (Gallery, Apr.) introduces readers to a boisterous Boston clan: police officer dad Joe, mother Rosie, and offspring JJ (a firefighter), Patrick (a bartender), Meghan (a professional ballet dancer), and Katie (a yoga instructor), who are down-to-earth, patriotic, loyal Irish Catholics devoted to family and the Red Sox (not necessarily in that order). Then fortysomething Joe is diagnosed with Huntington’s disease, an inherited progressive brain disorder that causes uncontrolled movements and loss of cognitive ability and for which there is neither treatment nor cure. How the O’Briens deal with a likely death sentence is at the crux of this heartbreaking yet unpredictable tale. The film version of Genova’s Still Alice (LJ 2/15/09), starring Julianne Moore as a professor suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s, was released in January, with Moore garnering an Oscar nomination for Best Actress.

I loved Marisa de los Santos’s Love Walked In (LJ 9/15/05) so much that I reviewed her second book, Belong to Me (LJ 3/1/08). The Precious One (Morrow, Mar.; LJ 2/1/15) alternates viewpoints between Eustacia (Taisy) Cleary, age 35, and her 16-year-old half-sister, Willow. The linchpin of the story, though, is Wilson Cleary, the girls’ father, who abandoned Taisy, her twin brother, Marcus, and their mother 17 years ago in favor of Willow’s pregnant mother, Caro. After suffering a heart attack, Wilson invites professional ghostwriter Taisy to his home. She is intrigued for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is her desire to get to know Willow and to figure out perhaps why this “precious one” supplanted Wilson’s other children. Curiosity wins out over sense, dignity, self-respect, and Marcus’s colorful retorts on the matter. Oooh, de los Santos can grab readers with just the right combination of wit and woefulness.

Finally, don’t miss Lauren Willig’s The Lure of the Moonflower (NAL, Aug.), the final chapter in her much-loved family of “Pink Carnation” historical romances, which first bloomed in 2006. Farewell to Jane, her spy ring, and her habit-forming (in a good way) tales.—Bette-Lee Fox

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Small surprises

When I attended New York Comic Con last year, I learned that S. & S. was launching sf and fantasy imprint SAGA Press. One of its first releases is Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings (Apr.), the debut in a series called “The Dandelion Dynasty.” This tale of rebels-turned-friends-turned-rivals has already earned comparisons to George R. R. Martin’s best-selling “A Song of Ice and Fire” series. In Liu’s story, bandit Kuni Garu and son-of-a-duke Mata Zyndu unite to depose an emperor and subsequently clash as they rule rival factions. Fantasy lovers will relish the diversity of characters, while Liu’s writing (he has already won a Nebula, two Hugos, and a World Fantasy Award) is a bonus.

Fans of hit YouTube comedy series The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl will appreciate creator Issa Rae’s breezy and refreshing manifesto slash memoir, The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl (37INK: Atria, Feb.). Rae channels Roxanne Gay’s Bad Feminist and Baratunde Thurston’s How To Be Black as she delivers wit on Precious (2009) and the “tragic black woman,” the number of black families on television in the 1990s (e.g., The Cosby Show, The French Prince of Bel-Air, Living Single, A Different World) versus today, (not) fitting in with her Senegalese family and private school frenemies, and much more. A self-described unicorn, Rae offers tips on answering strangers’ questions about black hair that make this a must-read for all of us awkward black girls.

I can’t believe it’s been ten years since Hurricane Katrina. In We’re Still Here Ya Bastards: How the People of New Orleans Rebuilt Their City (Public Affairs, Jun.), longtime resident ­Roberta Brandes Gratz (The Battle for Gotham) uses anecdotes and memoir to describe contemporary New Orleans in an era in which tragedies bring national interest for a short period of time before being summarily forgotten. Here, she reveals the current pulse of the city via interviews with dwellers of the Lower Ninth Ward and the French Quarter, among other neighborhoods. These stories might also interest those who attended the American Library Association annual conference in New Orleans in 2006 and 2011.

Recently, my colleague Barbara Hoffert told me about How Music Got Free: The End of an Industry, the Turn of the Century, and the Patient Zero of Piracy (Viking, Jun.) by Steve Witt. We’re intrigued by this narrative, especially as “traditional” music sales have been declining and streaming services have been growing in popularity. (You may have heard that Taylor Swift’s recent album 1989 had the largest opening sales week for any album in the United States since 2002.) Witt’s story is told through the commentary of factory worker Dell Glover, who leaked thousands of compact discs from his manufacturing plant for almost a decade. We learn about the numerous participants in Glover’s scheme, some of whom came from the unlikeliest of places.

Lastly, I was surprised to find myself engrossed by Kevin Kruse’s One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America (Basic, Feb.; LJ 2/15/15; see starred review on p. 112), which describes the relationship between Christianity and capitalism (“In God We Trust”) and later piety and patriotism (“One Nation Under God”). Kruse addresses how corporations used clergymen in their PR war against Roosevelt’s New Deal and how evangelist Billy Graham helped Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon use religion as the “lowest-common denominator” to unite the public. I’ve yet to finish it, but I can already tell this will be an informative, insightful read.—­Stephanie Sendaula

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Turmoil & technology

In the 1980s, Barbara Taylor “broke down entirely.” She spent years in the psychiatric system, including in England’s Friern Mental Hospital. The surprising perspective she shares as part of the detailed and at times harrowing The Last Asylum: A Memoir of Madness in Our Times (Univ. of Chicago, Apr.) is that the closure of such institutions is a great loss to people who are mentally ill, as no better alternative has been made available. Though Taylor notes that “if you can really remember it, you’re still mad,” her memories and piercing observations open a window onto a chaotic but fascinating mindscape. Broader in focus but on a similar topic is Andrew Scull’s Madness in Civilization: A Cultural History of Insanity, from the Bible to Freud, from the Madhouse to Modern Medicine (Princeton Univ., Jun.). It covers perceptions and the treatment of mentally ill people, moving from early accusations of demonic possession and balancing of the body’s humors to today’s psychiatric evaluations and pharmaceutical remedies.

Kate Atkinson’s 2013 Life After Life recounted the various possible fates of Ursula Todd’s family as it navigated the turmoil and aftermath of the Great War. In A God in Ruins (Hachette, May), Atkinson revisits the family, this time following the travails of Teddy, Ursula’s younger brother, who becomes an RAF pilot and must face the ongoing horrors of the 20th century. The earlier book’s structure—it returns to the same event multiple times, tweaking the characters’ fates slightly each time—made for fascinating reading, and Atkinson’s writing is never to be missed, making the new title one to watch for.

I’m fascinated by social facets of science and technology, and some of this spring’s books explore those topics in intriguing and varied ways. Eva Hemmungs Wirtén’s Making Marie Curie: Intellectual Property & Celebrity Culture in an Age of Information (Univ. of Chicago, Apr.) looks at the ownership of ideas in science and research (complicated in the case of the Curies since one of them, being a woman, “was not a legal person”), the creation of celebrity scientists, and the organization of scientific knowledge—a topic that the author explains concerned Madame Curie for her entire last decade. When Pierre and Marie Curie announced their discovery of Radium on December 26, 1898, their announcement lacked a modern element: Marie Curie is quoted in the book as explaining, “We took no copyright.” Outside of the open access movement, such a decision is uncommon today. Even public knowledge is increasingly privatized and sold now, a situation explored in Free Knowledge: Confronting the Commodification of Human Discovery (Univ. of Regina, May), a series of essays edited by Patricia W. Elliott and Daryl H. Hepting. (I’m particularly interested in the essay on the expropriation of indigenous knowledge.) It’s perhaps not surprising that a press that produces its own reality show (ow.ly/H4yAF) does things a little differently: as well as being released as a paperback, the book will simultaneously be made available for free at the publisher’s website, uofrpress.ca.—­Henrietta Verma

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DIY extravaganza

Of the many cookbooks coming out this spring, three stand out to me. Peruvian rotisserie chicken restaurants were widespread and popular in a neighborhood in Queens where I used to live, but I never had any idea how varied and sophisticated the food from Peru could be. Gastón Acurio’s Peru: The Cookbook (Phaidon, May) features 500 traditional home-cooking recipes, guiding cooks through the country’s vibrant cuisine from popular classics such as ceviche and lomo saltado—a beef and vegetable stir-fry—to lesser-known dishes such as amaranth and aji amarillo. This beautiful volume is a useful resource on a cuisine that’s rapidly gaining in popularity north of the equator.

The Cinnamon Snail food truck is regularly featured on best-of lists around the country—ranking above other vegan purveyors as well as above vendors offering omnivorous fare. In Street Vegan: Recipes and Dispatches from the Cinnamon Snail Food Truck (Clarkson Potter, May), Adam Sobel shares the recipes that make hungry fans happily line up—sometimes for an hour or more!—to get their hands on Maker’s Mark–infused crème brulee doughnuts and maple mustard tempeh sandwiches. Personally, I’m counting down the days until I have the recipe for its Korean BBQ seitan in my hot little hands; the truck is parked a few blocks from LJ’s offices on Tuesdays, but I can’t often justify taking the time to stand in line for it. Making it myself: the best of both worlds.

As for what I’ll be eating between my Peruvian dinners and vegan lunches, I’ll be turning to Christina Tosi’s Milk Bar Life: Recipes and Stories (Clarkson Potter, Apr.) for snacks and sweets made from supermarket ingredients. Anyone addicted to Tosi’s signature Momofuku Milk Bar sweets—Crack Pie®, Compost Cookies®, and cake truffles—will relish her similarly inventive and delicious savory treats: Kimcheezits with blue cheese dip or burnt honey-butter kale with sesame seeds, for example.

And why not make some new clothes with all the time I’ll save from not standing in lunch lines? Natalie Chanin’s Alabama Studio Sewing Patterns: A Guide to Customizing a Hand-Stitched Alabama Chanin Wardrobe (STC Craft, Apr.) offers all the patterns from Chanin’s first three books on a CD, along with patterns for 12 new skirts, dresses, tops, and jackets. The book contains information about raising and lowering necklines, taking in and letting out waistlines, and other forms of customization; she also provides guidelines for adapting patterns from other sewing companies to the Alabama Chanin style—stitched by hand in organic cotton jersey (or repurposed old T-shirts) and often embellished with stencils, embroidery, and beading.—­Stephanie Klose

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Aspirational reading

Sometimes, as a nonlibrarian editor in the world of librarians, I feel a pang of outsiderness. One way to move closer to the inner circle is to read about librarians and libraries this spring. First on my list is Scott Sherman’s Patience and Fortitude: Power, Real Estate, and the Fight To Save a Public Library (Melville House, Jun.). Sherman is a reporter for The Nation, which ran his original cover stories about how the New York Public Library (NYPL) “got into the real estate business and lost its way in the digital age,” as Sherman put it in a video address to librarians last season. Sherman’s reporting on the NYPL Central Library Plan to move books from the flagship Stephen A. Schwarzman building to storage in New Jersey and sell off library buildings languished for several months before Prairie Home Companion host Garrison Keillor and many other “celebrities, activists, bookworms, and architectural preservationists” took up the cause and defeated it. Sounds like a rollicking good story to me—and it’s true!

Simon Watson, the young librarian hero of Erika Swyler’s debut novel, The Book of Speculation (St. Martin’s, Jun.), is also about fighting evil forces, both on the home front and at work. Tenuously employed at the perennially cash-strapped Napawset, NY, library, he receives a mysterious antique journal from a bookseller. The tattered volume recounts the adventures of a traveling carnival in the 1700s, including the drowning of a circus mermaid. The drowned woman is linked to Simon’s mother’s family, most of whose female members went to watery deaths on a specific date, July 24. As the day approaches, Simon worries about his unstable vagabond sister, Flavia, and whether his family is cursed. The book is blurbed by Geek Love author Katherine Dunn, and I’m sure the publisher would welcome any comparisons, but I’m more interested in how a resourceful reference librarian (Is there any other kind?) staves off family curses, home maintenance woes, and layoffs at his local branch.

Another thing I’ve always wanted to be is a redhead—a real one, not courtesy of henna or L’Oreal. Now there’s a whole book about the red-maned: Red: A History of the Redhead by Jacky Colliss Harvey (Black Dog & Leventhal, Jun.), herself a redhead. The book’s cover is a stunner: ginger-haired model Alexa Wilding as “La Ghirlandata” in Pre-Raphaelite master Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s painting of the same name. The author made a minipresentation for librarians at a BookBuzz last fall, and the audience was transfixed! I can’t wait to read “the first book to explore the history of red hair and red-headedness throughout the world” through the multiple lenses of history, art, fashion, feminism, genetics, and sexuality. Whew!

Two more aspirations: to visit the past, specifically the first half of the 20th century, and spy on some gangsters; to bask in the tutelage of Tim Gunn. Crime novelist Dennis Lehane’s third Joe Coughlin story (after 2008’s The Given Day and 2012’s Live by Night) is World Gone By (Morrow, Mar.). I’m eager to see what Joe, who went from Boston cop’s son in 1918 to thief to underworld kingpin in the 1920s and 1930s, will do after the murder of his wife and the repeal of Prohibition, with World War II ­looming.

Then there’s Gunn, my favorite part of Project Runway, with his exhortations to designer-contestants to “make it work!” and numerous field trips to Mood Fabrics. Several best sellers and spin-off cable channel shows later, longtime ­Parsons design-school prof Gunn is ready to school readers with Tim Gunn: The Natty Professor—a Masterclass on Mentoring, Motivating, and Making It Work (Gallery, Mar.). That’s an assignment I will relish!—Liz French

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The personal & political

Many of the books I’m looking forward to in 2015 focus on different ramifications of political policies and the interplay between politics and the lives of citizens. I’ve seen a couple of upcoming titles about Israel and Palestine, but the one I can’t put down is Sandy Tolan’s Children of the Stone: The Power of Music in a Hard Land (Bloomsbury USA, Apr.). It follows the life of Ramzi Hussein Aburedwan, a boy growing up with his siblings and extended family in a Palestinian refugee camp (Tolan makes clear in the beginning that the book is about one side, rather than offering a parallel narrative). Ramzi is one of the “children of the stones” who took part in the First Intifada in the late 1980s to early 1990s. When he’s in his teens, he receives lessons on the viola, which also serve as a form of music therapy (“And when I play viola, especially when I’m sad, the viola heals me.”), and a scholarship to study in Europe. He eventually returns to Palestine to start his own music school.

Elsewhere, Rajan Menon and Eugene Rumer’s Conflict in Ukraine: The Unwinding of the Post-Cold War Order (MIT, Apr.) examines the recent uprising in Ukraine. It’s short and accessible, and as well as discussing the immediate events that led to the Euromaidan protests, the authors provide background on the history of the country pre– and post–Cold War. They likewise look at what Russia’s actions, particularly in the annexing of the Crimea, could mean—not just for Ukraine but for global international relations, calling the resulting conflict “the gravest crisis that has occurred between Russia and the West since the Cold War.”

As for U.S. politics, Akhil Reed Amar’s The Law of the Land: A Grand Tour of Our Constitutional Republic (Basic, Apr.; LJ 2/15/15, p. 115) looks at American legal issues in the context of geography. The connections Amar makes are intriguing (What can the 19th Amendment reinforce about the Second, and where does Wyoming fit in?). Each of the 12 chapters is titled with the name of a state, and while some focus on events there (e.g., Bush v. Gore in the “Florida” chapter), “California,” for example, looks at Justice Anthony Kennedy, who grew up and went to college there, and some of his key swing decisions. Sections on how the Supreme Court has evolved in modern times are particularly interesting, as are the potential ramifications of what Amar calls the “judicialization of the judiciary.”

As we gear up for next year’s presidential election, while we’ll hear a lot about the candidates, sometimes it’s the campaigns that are the most fascinating. In Controlling the Message: New Media in American Political Campaigns (New York Univ., Apr.), edited by Victoria A. Farrar-Myers and Justin S. Vaughn, chapter authors look at the impact of YouTube and the flow of information across social media during the 2012 election—both from candidates/parties and independent sources. Much has been made of President Barack Obama’s strategy on social media, and while the book is dense, it’s an interesting examination at a time when pundits are already discussing that the last time potential GOP candidate Jeb Bush ran for office (2002’s Florida gubernatorial election), neither Twitter nor Facebook existed.—­Amanda Mastrull

Feb15webImages.inddAmerican legend

In his introduction to Frank Stanford’s What About This: Collected Poems of Frank Stanford (Copper Canyon, Apr.), Pulitzer Prize finalist Dean Young called the legendary Stanford’s work “lightning that comes up from the ground.” Steve Stern, recently reviewing Stanford’s magisterial 15,000-line The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You for NPR, insisted that “it’s like no other book in our literature.” The man himself was so charismatic that in a 2000 New Yorker piece clarifying Stanford’s influence on sometime lover Lucinda Williams, poet/novelist Ellen Gilchrist proclaimed, “To know Frank then…was to see how Jesus got his followers.”

Me? I’d call Stanford’s writing truly revelatory, flooding forth like the Mississippi but crafted clean to the bone; down-home, from-the-soil storytelling that pulls on the rough and tumble of Delta life even as it slants fantastically into surprising and sometimes dreamlike landscapes (Stanford has been called an American surrealist, though labels shouldn’t count); thrumming and incantatory verse that unself-consciously does its work not with showy description but forceful imagery and unexpected comparison, exhibiting a dark and moody idiomatic lyricism full of blood and knives and the moon, fish and animals and human urges, all absolutely immediate and breathtaking to read. It’s brilliant stuff.

With his adoptive father, who directed the building of levees, Mississippi-born Stanford spent much of his childhood along Ol’ Man River’s tributaries, where he absorbed the black laboring man’s lore and language that later imbued his poems; The Battlefield is driven by visions of the Jim Crow South and Civil Rights–era Freedom Riders. As an undergraduate at the University of Arkansas, Stanford was presciently placed in a graduate writing workshop. Eventually, he settled in Arkansas as a land surveyor and founded Lost Roads Press with the distinguished poet C.D. Wright, prominent among Stanford’s many lovers and with whom he had occasion to live while married to painter Ginny Crouch Stanford.

When Stanford committed suicide in 1978, having not quite brushed 30, he left behind ten volumes of poetry, one prose collection, and literally hundreds of pages of unpublished work, only some of it organized into manuscripts. His prodigious output has thus been desultorily found in out-of-print volumes, archives, a few available Lost Roads books, and one small selected volume. Yet for decades Stanford has managed to sustain a cultlike following, with devotees clamoring for a resurrection of his work.

Copper Canyon Press has admirably heeded the call, with executive editor Michael Wiegers, who’s been pondering this idea since 1997, spending five labor-of-love years distilling the best from Stanford’s multitudinous and sometimes overlapping poems; clearly, collecting everything would have been impossible and also missed the point of introducing Stanford to a broad new readership. Still huge at nearly 800 pages, the final volume is organized chronologically, with excerpts from The Battlefield appearing throughout. Significantly, Third Man Books, a division of Third Man Records, will be creating a deluxe edition. “Right now we are envisioning a packaging deal wherein our book will be gathered together with a collection of ‘outtakes’ I’m editing for them. Additionally, there may be some facsimile ephemera,” says Wiegers.

So if you want an unforgettable journey to a place where “the moon/ Was a dead man floating down the river” and the speaker dreams up “a knife like a song you can’t whistle” (to quote from an early poem), take up this monumental book. For those in the know, it will call back to life a significant American poet. For new readers, it delivers invaluable lessons in how to write out of one’s experience, with one’s own language, and manages to illuminate the entire world.—Barbara Hoffert

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Tests of faith, with love

This year I’m expanding my horizons: I’m reading thrillers, memoir, and romantic suspense. While I’m less familiar with these genres than others, I feel deeply connected to the lives of the characters I’ve encountered thus far. In these ­stories—each one vastly different from the others in both setting and scope—relationships are tested, lives are changed, and rare transformative moments emerge to remind us that all is possible with love.

Ian Caldwell’s second novel (after The Rule of Four, coauthored with Dustin Thomason), The Fifth Gospel (S. & S., Mar.; starred review, LJ 11/1/14) takes place in Vatican country in 2004, when Pope John Paul II’s dying wish was to reunite Orthodox and Roman Catholics. Brothers Alex and Simon Andreou, both Catholic priests, one Eastern and one Western, befriend and become mentors to one Ugolino Nogara, an eccentric art curator whose upcoming exhibit features a “fifth gospel,” which threatens to shed a disastrous light on the church’s holiest relic, the Shroud of Turin, believed to be the burial cloth of Jesus Christ. When Simon is charged with Ugo’s murder, Alex risks everything to prove his brother’s innocence. Part murder mystery, part family drama, part religious history, this keep-you-on-edge literary thriller doesn’t miss a beat. Caldwell’s elegant language combines with a truly provocative plot to create a stunning and addictive read.

As obsessively readable as Caldwell’s novel, minus the drama, is Alex Shearer’s This Is the Life (Washington Square: Atria, Feb.; LJ 11/1/14), which tells of estranged brothers Louis and our nameless narrator. We meet the two men after Louis has just had brain surgery and his brother assumes the role of caretaker. From there the reader gleans insight into these men’s lives through scenes that alternate between the past and present. We learn that Oxford University–bound Louis, while able to parse brilliant ideas, struggles to master the basics of life. A recipient of numerous college degrees, he floats from one job to the next and gives little thought to establishing himself in the world. On the opposite end is his “tag-along” brother, who, although not equipped with Ivy League–­credentials, does alright, content with a regular job and a family of his own. As the brothers travel together toward an unknown destination, Shearer explores the meaning of life and death, family relationships, failure and success, and beyond. Sure, you’ll be thinking about all that stuff, but not too hard.

My final pick features elements of life and death and is pretty intense. Taking Fire (HQN: Harlequin, Feb.) by Lindsay ­McKenna (“Shadow Warrior” series) is fast-paced romantic suspense that renders a beautiful love story, start to finish. American-born Khat Shinwari, a Marine Corps sniper, is the daughter of an Afghani tribesman who instilled in her the belief of “loyalty to one’s village above all.” Undercover and alone on a deep black op in the Hindu Kush mountains, Khat intercedes in an ambush by the Taliban on four U.S. Navy SEALs, saving the life of SEAL Michael Tariq. Under Khat’s care, Mike recovers, and upon his departure the two share a passionate kiss. Determined to uncover Khat’s identity and ultimately bring her to him, Mike taps connections far up the chain of command. The results of his investigation change everything. Khat must now decide whether to stay in the mountains or trust a man who seems to be in control—of her heart, mostly. McKenna’s writing is flawless, and her story line fully absorbing. More, please.—­Annalisa Pesek

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Water, water, everywhere

In the wake of last summer’s prolonged drought in the West, I was intrigued by two timely spring titles that examine how the lack of our most precious resource affects our social and political relations. Set in a parched Southwest where Nevada, Arizona, and California battle over access to the dwindling Colorado River, Paolo Bacigalupi’s riveting The Water Knife (Knopf, May; LJ 2/15/15; see starred review on p. 72) could almost be ripped from today’s headlines. In this brutal world, water is power, and no one is more powerful than Catherine Case, a Las Vegas developer of luxurious biosphere-type condos, who ruthlessly uses “water knives” like Angel Velasquez to protect her projects, even if that means cutting off other towns’ water supplies. When rumors of a new water source arise, Catherine sends Angel to a drought-ridden Phoenix to investigate. Even readers who claim not to like sf will find this cautionary near-future ecothriller compelling because its scenarios are all too conceivable. In contrast to The Water Knife’s epic sweep, Catherine Chanter’s The Well (Atria, May; LJ 2/15/15; see starred review on p. 85) takes a more intimate approach. Londoners Ruth and Mark, hoping for a fresh start after a scandal destroyed Mark’s career, move to a farm called The Well, named after a mysterious water source that never has run dry. Life is idyllic until a decade-long drought turns their neighbors’ land to dust, while The Well continues to thrive. Ruth and Mark’s good fortune stirs envy and hostility, attracts a fanatical religious cult, and results in a devastating crime. This powerful mix of environmental and psychological storytelling deservedly won Cambridge University’s 2013 Lucy Cavendish Prize, a literary award that honors first novels “that successfully combine literary merit with ‘unputdownability.’ ”

“They found him inside one of seventeen cauldrons in the courtyard, steeping in an indigo dye two shades darker than the summer sky.” This unforgettable opening immediately sucked me into Orhan’s Inheritance (Algonquin, Apr.), a moving debut novel by Aline Ohanesian. After 93-year-old Kemal Türkog?lu, founder of a Turkish kilim dynasty, kills himself in a vat of dye, his will leaves the family home in Anatolia to Seda, an elderly Armenian woman living in a Los Angeles retirement home. Orhan, Kemal’s grandson, visits Seda to get her to sign her rights back to him, but what he learns about Seda and Kemal threatens to undo his family legacy. Drawing on the stories her Armenian great-grandmother told her, Ohanesian brings to life a painful, tragic history unfamiliar to most Americans: the 1915 mass deportations and killings of over a million Armenians by the Ottoman government.

First novelist John Donoghue also deals with the dark subject of genocide in his remarkable The Death’s Head Chess Club (Farrar, May). Newly arrived at Auschwitz after being wounded on the Russian front, SS Obersturmführer Paul Meissner is tasked with improving camp morale by establishing a chess club for the officers and enlisted men. Hearing of an unbeatable competitor among the Jewish prisoners, Meissner pits this man, Emil Clément, against his best Nazi players. What develops is a curious friendship, and when the men meet again 20 years later in Amsterdam, Meissner, now a bishop, strives to reconnect with an embittered Emil. But is it possible to forgive the unforgivable?

For pure escapist reading, I was thoroughly taken with Antonio Manzini’s entertaining Black Run (Harper, Apr.). With his Clark’s desert boots and his sophisticated Roman ways, Deputy Prefect of Police Rocco Schiavone may be a fish out of water in his new turf in the Italian Alps, but that doesn’t stop him from solving a murder on the local slopes. Last but not least on my list is Sy Montgomery’s The Soul of an Octopus (Atria, May). Her joyful passion for these intelligent and fascinating creatures will have you rethinking that order of calamari.—Wilda Williams


Bette-Lee Fox is Managing Editor, Barbara Hoffert is Prepub Alert Editor, & Stephanie Klose is Media Editor, LJ. Liz French is Senior Editor, Amanda Mastrull is Assistant Editor, Annalisa Pesek is Assistant Managing Editor, Stephanie Sendaula is Associate Editor, Henrietta Verma is Editor, & Wilda Williams is Fiction Editor, LJ Reviews

This article was published in Library Journal's February 15, 2015 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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