Editors’ Spring Picks: Titles That Have Gotten Us Talking

Here at LJ , we receive about a thousand galleys per week. You might imagine that with that volume, it’s all a blur, and sometimes it feels that way. Still there are books that stand out, whether they’re from a beloved author, they’ve had a lot of buzz, they’re in a genre we’re newly addicted to, or—yes, it happens—the cover reeled us in. Below, then, are some of the titles that have gotten us talking lately, with thoughts from us and comments from their authors. A fun part of this for us is exploring materials in an area that’s not “ours”—in my case, that means stepping outside of reference to reveal my devotion to mystery novels. Perhaps it’s time to try some genre-jumping of your own.—Henrietta Thornton-Verma

A Dickens-style approach to sf With publishing at an e-crossroads and everyone involved madly casting about for the Next Big Thing, could an experimental release from science fiction author John Scalzi reshape the industry…and the world? Quite possibly.

For his latest release, The Human Division (Tor, May), the author conceived of what he calls an “episodic narrative” in which he would write 13 connected pieces (average length: about 10,000 words) that would initially be released weekly as individual ebooks, with their own cover art, then collected in a single hardcover. If a standard novel has a lot in common, structurally, with a feature-length movie, this new release would be more like a season of a television show.

“The stories all have their own narrative arc, but when you stack them together, they create a greater narrative arc,” Scalzi explains.

The author is no stranger to approaching storytelling in this manner, having served as a creative consultant on 39 episodes of ­Stargate Universe. The experience greatly informed his writing of The Human Division, he says, describing his stint on television as “time in the trenches looking closely at how each season was ­constructed.”

What’s even more exciting for readers, though, is that this marks Scalzi’s return to his “Old Man’s War” universe, something fans have frequently requested but which the author had resisted until, he states, he “had something new to say.”

The first four books set in that world (Old Man’s WarThe Ghost BrigadesThe Last Colony, and Zoe’s Tale) feature Colonial Defense Forces captain John Perry and his family, but Scalzi felt that their arc had come to a satisfactory conclusion. “There was no way to get back into the universe with those characters without feeling like I was grinding it out,” he explains.

Still, the goings-on in that universe that were separate from those particular characters remained a vital and viable source for storytelling. “What I’d done [plotwise] would have an impact on the future,” the author says, referring to the use by the Colonial Union government of Earth as a source for soldiers and workers and that, at the end of the arc, the humans have learned as much.

As the new work opens, Earth and the Colonial Union are in what Scalzi calls a “trial separation,” in which “the humans have to stop fighting for the sake of fighting” and explore the art of diplomacy. “I wouldn’t say it’s entirely new for the humans,” he says, “but it does take on a greater urgency.” The Human Divisionchronicles the adventures of several lower-rung diplomats as they explore the unmapped territory of playing well with others.

The author has high hopes that his fans will enthusiastically take to the serialized format. “Sci fi readers are not closed off from what’s happening in the industry,” he explains. “They know the land is moving under their feet. They’re hoping it works because if it does, it means more stories.” He calls the whole process, including intensive collaboration with the editorial and marketing teams at Tor, “one of the most exciting things” he’s done, particularly since, he says, a successful serialized release “could have further implications for publishing moving forward.”

For now, libraries will have to wait for the hardcover release in May, given Tor-parent Macmillan’s stance on licensing to libraries. In a year-end letter, CEO John Sargent promised a library lending program coming in “early 2013,” which follows Tor dropping DRM on consumer sales earlier in 2012. “I don’t know if any of my books are part of the [proposed] pilot program,” Scalzi says, “but as a fan of libraries, I wouldn’t mind in the least if they were.”

The author has a long, happy relationship with his local library, Bradford Public Library in Ohio, where, in appreciation of donations the author has arranged through auctions of his books, they have honored him with what he calls the “John Scalzi Science Fiction Wing—with a plaque and everything.” Of course, now he feels the need to hold himself to a higher standard, saying, “I can’t do anything bad ever—they’ll take the plaque down. I don’t want to disappoint the librarians.” —Stephanie Klose

THREE OF STEPHANIE’S FAVORITE BOOKS M.F.K. Fisher’s The Art of Eating, Val McDermid’s A Place of Execution, and Phillip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy

From commas to content While editing LJ reviews, I curb the insatiable longing/contempt for word rearrangement with reading random lines from most of the books that come across my desk, improving my chances of discovering more impressive titles. My spring picks for 2013 were culled, to some degree, by chance, with less time spent browsing the Internet and publisher catalogs and more time talking to people who read and write. There is no one way to write, but not all books are created equal.

In La Boutique Obscure: 124 Dreams (Melville House, Feb.), French novelist, filmmaker, essayist, and Oulipo member in death Georges Perec (Life: A User’s Man ual; A Void) “began having dreams in order to write them.” Between 1968 and 1972, he composed stories of his subconscious and conscious in near perfect repose—language writes language—and if you let it, the bundled text of dreams provides insight into his most influential work (no surprise there). Daniel Levin Becker (Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature) rises and meets the challenge of honoring Perec’s intuition by writing the first English translation. One pleasure of reading Perec is experiencing the potential before the words.

Meanwhile, I fell fast and easy for epic new novel The Albino Album (Seven Stories, Feb.) by Chavisa Woods (Love Does Not Make Me Gentle or Kind), a Brooklyn-based writer and artist and recipient of the 2009 Jerome Foundation Award for emerging writers. Devoid of pretense or fear, Woods tells a not so “normal” coming-of-age story set in the stretched-out underbelly of rural America. The lead character, whose name is unpronounceable—later she’s called Mya—accidently feeds her mother to an albino tiger. Her childhood is spent in “white rooms” and the forest, where she’s known as the witch of the woods. In search of home, Mya circles race, sexuality, and class issues.

Smart but unworldly, Woods creates a new world for the contemporary misfit where circus performers, Catholic workers, fire jugglers, and power wives sit at the same table. A “gooble gobble” successor, Woods’s edgy sensuality doesn’t second-guess. Her language is clear, her home somewhere and nowhere.

Dalkey Archive’s American Odysseys: Writings by New Americans (Mar.) contains selections from the work of 22 novelists, short story writers, and poets, all non–native born and under the age of 38. Introducing the work, Serbian-born, Pulitzer Prize winner for Poetry Charles Simic (The World Doesn’t End) notes that the immigrant story is about a stranger in his homeland, though the experience of knowing one place rather than another isn’t unique to the immigrant—his differences, rather, derive from combinations of displacement and change. If a poet writes because he knows his life is meaningless otherwise, finding the language to use when writing a poem is a matter of great choice, one that possibly determines a life. Represented inOdysseys are original of accomplished writers, including Dinaw Mengestu, Yiyun Li, Téa Obreht, Illya Kaminsky, and Simon Van Booy, whose work was solicited by the Vilcek Foundation in 2011 for the Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise. If dreams and language are all we have, we have enough.—Annalisa Pesek

THREE OF ANNALISA’S FAVORITE BOOKS The Plumed Serpent by D.H. Lawrence (1926), Creamsicle Blue by Mike DeCapite (2011), and The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams (1991)

Fresh from small presses Despite lamentations from critics about the death of publishing, books, and reading, I always find sorting through the deluge of galleys we receive every week at LJ’s offices a reassuring reminder that good storytelling in whatever format will never go out of fashion. But how do you find those fresh original voices that may be drowned out by the “usual suspects” that so often dominate editors’ favorites lists, those bigger names from the Big Six publishers with the larger marketing and publicity budgets? Inspired by Barbara Hoffert’s excellent blog post “Goodbye 2012: Terrific Story Collections and Small-Press Bests” (ow.ly/gJSZ5), I decided to go the indie-press route for my spring picks.

Bangkok-based River Books (riverbooksbk.com) is one of Southeast Asia’s foremost arts and culture publishers (its titles are distributed in the United States by Antique Collectors Club), but this April it will publish its first novel. A Woman of Angkor, by former Washington Post foreign correspondent John Burgess, is the engrossing and moving story of Sray, a 12th-century Khmer woman whose family becomes involved with the building of Angkor Wat, the greatest of Cambodia’s Hindu temples and the world’s largest religious structure. Since his first visit as a teenager in 1969, Burgess has been fascinated by Angkor and its mysterious history.

“I’ve always wondered what it would be like to meet some of the people who built the place, and writing a book like this was sort of the answer to that craving,” the debut novelist replied in an email. And how did he get into the mind of a woman from a long-vanished civilization? Burgess, who lived in Southeast Asia for eight years, says historians believe Angkor’s daily culture was similar to what you find today. “The book’s scenes of flirtation at rice-planting time, noisy evening festivals, prayers before Hindu images, and street-side blessings by a holy elephant are all things you can encounter today in Cambodia and Thailand.” Indeed, as I got drawn into Sray’s tale, her depiction of her culture and people put me in mind of Vedday Ratner’s acclaimed In the Shadow of the Banyan as a perfect pairing for reading groups wanting to explore Cambodia’s ancient and modern history.

Moving from Southeast Asia to South Carolina, we come to Hub City Press (hubcity.org/press), a nonprofit publisher founded in 1995 and based in Spartanburg, and its lead spring title, Susan Tekulve’s In the Garden of Stone (May). Chosen by novelist Josephine Humphreys as the winner of the biennial South Carolina First Novel Prize, this beautifully written and absorbing novel follows several generations of a Sicilian immigrant family in Virginia’s coal-mining country as they struggle to overcome hardship, tragedy, and estrangement. It is also very much a story about place and how it shapes the human character. Tekulve, an associate professor of English at Converse College, had been working on her “great Italian novel” when a summer spent in her husband’s hometown of Bluefield, VA, inspired the setting of her book.

“The more I traveled around this part of Southwest Virginia and West Virginia, listening to the stories of my husband’s family, the more this place and its people resonated with me emotionally,” explained Tekulve in an email. “It is a place of tremendous natural beauty, and a place of tremendous economic and cultural strife. The fact that southern Italians and Sicilians had settled here was [also] a revelation to me.” For the author, it began to make better narrative sense to place the stories of her Sicilian ancestors in this setting. “The novel is really the distillation of my family’s stories and [her husband’s] family stories, all set in one place, and it is this place that unifies the novel and provides much of the conflict that forces it to move forward.”—Wilda Williams

WILDA’S PAST EDITORS’ PICKS The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman (2007), The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters by Rose George (2008), The Passage by Justin Cronin (2010), and Minding Ben by Victoria Brown (2011)

WILDA’S BOOKISH PINTEREST BOARDS Books I’d Buy Just for the Cover (ow.ly/gRYeS); Favorite Authors (ow.ly/gRYmW); Book Arts (ow.ly/gRYuy); Library Fashion (ow.ly/gRZlc)

A way with words I don’t know about you, but one of my favorite bits from the New Testament has always been digital. It’s John 8:6, in response to a testing question from annoyed Pharisees and scribes,

          Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, 
as though he heard them not

Jesus wrote something down and we’ll never know what it was!

The securing of information for others to obtain has come a long way. In Masters of the Word: How Media Shaped History (Grove, Apr.), financial theorist and historian William J. Bernstein (A Splendid Exchange) retraces the journey we have forged over the last 4,000 years in enabling our words to circulate and ­endure.

Actually, it didn’t start with words. As Bernstein explains, it started with the impulse to record our counting. When we got around to words, we didn’t at first bother with spaces between them. Youwouldhavehadtoreadlikethiswhichisprettydarnedhard—until Irish monks introduced word spacing for Latin scripts. And by the way, those vowels? They were an afterthought as well, for which we must thank the Greeks. Much later, it was the development of moveable type in the West that greatly escalated the fight over control of information.

You’re right: Bernstein’s subject is not new. He bases his work on crucial studies such as Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin’s The Coming of the Book: The Impact of Printing, 1450–1800 (L’apparition du livre, 1958). In bringing the journey up to the Arab Spring, though, he enables us to see what remains the same, even as much has changed: Henry VIII had William Tyndale burned at the stake for making the Bible available in English; today, dictators and their henchmen beat up and murder protestors by the hundreds, likewise (simply put) to maintain control of information.

In Macroanalysis: Digital Methods & Literary History (Univ. of Illinois, Jun.), Mathew L. Jockers (English, Univ. of Nebraska) dares us to consider what the future can hold now that so much of the literary canon is accessible digitally, making levels of “literary computing” newly possible. He shows us what this deep data mining can reveal. Yes, his phrases such as topic modeling, tandem fluctuation, and computational authorship attribution may leave many readers thinking, “I studied the humanities precisely to avoid this stuff!”

Jockers graphs the results of such analysis (e.g., “the distribution of like and little in David Copperfield”). The information derived is fascinating, but does it mean that the emotional response to a novel is to be superseded? Will this word counting and comparing kindle—if you will—the same shocks of discovery we feel from actually reading? Is Jockers the Bill James of lit crit? I’ll leave you to decide.

Jesus may have traced his words on the ground with his finger, but now the pope has a Twitter account. From digital to digital. Benedict can spread his words far and wide, but I’m guessing many of us may feel more power from those words we’ll never know.—Margaret Heilbrun

MARGARET’S PAST EDITORS’ PICKS The Tiger in the Attic: Memories of the Kindertransport and Growing Up English by Edith Milton (2005), War Is Beautiful: An American Ambulance Driver in the Spanish Civil War by James Neugass, ed. by Peter N. Carroll & Peter Glazer (2008), Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service by James McCommons (2009), and The Inner Life of Empires: An Eighteenth-Century History (2011)

Life after life after life Not to be confused with Jill McCorkle’s March novel (Algonquin) of the same title, though I have done just that, is Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life (Reagan Arthur Bks: Little, Brown, Apr.; Prepub Alert, 10/28/12), a saga that’s so surprising a departure from her previous works, it’s almost like a debut. The author’s Jackson Brody novels, e.g. Started Early, Took My Dog and the gripping Case Histories are mainly set in the present day; her hard-toiling characters are described in chapters that seem short-story-like until near the end of the book when interrelationships among subplots, victims, and other players are revealed. But not in this book.

Life’s main character, Ursula Todd, is prone to intense feelings of déjà vu and is described as feeling as though her future is behind her. It’s not surprising; the opening pages, for example, depict a February 11, 1910, that, lived over three times, sees Ursula dying at birth, then having a narrow escape but living, with the third scenario depicting events later in the day. As the book goes on and the century ages, readers are treated to an extended what-if regarding the consequences of tiny decisions and changes in the character’s life, right up to world-altering actions, as Ursula lives and relives various days and other ­periods.

It’s often satisfying to enjoy, through Ursula and her large family and cast of friends, the idea that you don’t have to wish you had delivered that zinger or saved yourself one heartache or another; a do-over is possible. On a more serious note, Atkinson succeeds brilliantly at bringing home the everyday grimness of war and the unfairness and casual bigotry that were part of life in an earlier England.

Patrons in need of serious data on the United States, including nitty-gritty on the lives of its inhabitants, need look no further than Statistical Abstract (ProQuest and Bernan, Jan.), but the book is also a browser’s dream, offering a mature alternative for those who’ve outgrown Guinness Book of World Records and your library’s various almanacs. It’ll be a welcome addition, too, for patrons tired of the bloviated Internet rhetoric that can’t stand up to table after table on such topics as school crime and safety, campaign finances, corporate profits, and immigration.

The very existence of the book is a relief: after having been published by the government since 1878, “Stat Ab” was discontinued last year—despite librarian petitions and protests, as described in the book’s preface—owing to a lack of funding for the Census Bureau’s Statistical Compendia branch, which gathered the data. ProQuest and Bernan stepped in to take over print publication, with material culled mostly from the same sources used for the government production. The careful presentation of this work is a joy to behold. Each section of statistics is preceded by an overview describing the sources of the numbers and offering further-reading leads where appropriate; appendixes provide more such detail as well as the happily retro, self-effacing (if statistically standard) “Limitations of the Data.”

Taking on “the best known statistical reference in the country, by its most prestigious statistical organization,” is how Daniel Coyle (pictured), product manager for Statistical Abstract, described ProQuest’s challenge in producing this beloved annual. Luckily, his staff of 25 content analysts and editors brought plentiful experience to the task—the group is the former Congressional Information Service, the producer of American Statistics Index, which was acquired by ProQuest in 2010.

Producing the latest incarnation of the book wasn’t easy. The creators felt the pressure, Coyle says, of users’ expectations that this edition be “consistent with what they know and love.” Every hand-crafted table, he explains, had a “complex genealogy,” meaning that data had to be synthesized from different sources. The result is a rich print work and a related database that’s teeming with even more material: ProQuest’s Statistical Abstract database includes, for example, up to 30 years’ worth of tables in a given time series, whereas the book might be restricted to five or six years’ worth. And, of course, the database can be updated far more frequently and easily than the print work: updating is monthly, says the product manager.

Coyle is often asked, he says, why ProQuest took on this project. Apart from its “deep regard for this book and what it represents,” his team had another motivation: its rejection of the government’s reason for discontinuation. In addition to balking at the $2.9 million annual cost, he explains, Uncle Sam was of the perception that the data is available elsewhere. “True enough,” says Coyle, “but just because all the data is out there doesn’t mean that people are finding it,” a truth that librarians need no statistics to verify.—Henrietta Thornton-Verma

THREE of HENRIETTA’S FAVORITE BOOKS Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, and A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace

Four spring poets ablaze Poetry is a winged red monster child grown up, a mud painting of ethnic violence, a honeycomb of black bees on a drooped stalk, an elegy on the futility of elegies. It’s Anne Carson’s Red Doc>(Knopf, Mar.), a modern-dress reconfiguring of Greek myth; Juan Felipe Herrera’s Senegal Taxi (Univ. of Arizona. Mar.), which scathingly indicts genocide; Carl Phillips’s nature-inflected Silverchest (Farrar, Apr.), melancholy yet serene; and wild Bob ­Hicok’s weirdly wonderful Elegy Owed (Copper Canyon, Apr.). These four spring releases do what poetry does best: they let us dwell intensely in the moment. If, as Carson says, “Prose/ is a house poetry a man in flames running/ quite fast through it,” then they are all fiercely, flagrantly on fire.

In her celebrated Autobiography of Red, Carson reimagined Geryon—Medusa’s grandson, killed by Herakles—as a moony youth who instead falls for the indifferent hero. In Red Doc>, Geryon, the rebellious kind of guy who wears “lizard pants and/ pearls to graduation,” has achieved a restless, 21st-century adulthood and seeks belongingness even as he travels far with friend and lover Sad But Great and cheeky artist Ida. The story is delivered mostly in dense, narrow-gauge prose poems, almost like newspaper columns, but it’s more propulsive, and certainly more fantastically inventive, than any news report.

Activist poet Herrera has always challenged oppression, creating not polemics but a heartfelt aesthetics of social injustice. Though he typically addresses the Latino community, in Senegal Taxi he turns to Africa, crafting television broadcasts and brief, you-are-there ­poems he calls mud paintings that capture the of three children victimized by the Janjaweed (“They whipped their horses down the mountain as if they had erupted from the heart of Africa”). The consequences? “No village./ No mother. No father….No food. No water”—though one child does escape to taxi-packed Brooklyn, where he says he’s from Senegal because who’s heard of Darfur? Herrera’s angry; you will be, too.

Phillips, who has always wrestled gracefully with human longing, finds solitude in Silverchest, offering elegant, exquisite, determinedly unshakable meditations of near-mournful beauty that limn our deepest emotions. The natural world figures largely here, but don’t expect Wordsworth’s daffodils. Phillips is more likely to observe, as he’s walking with the dogs, “To my left, a blackness/ like the past, but without the past’s precision;/ to my right, the ocean.” But he’s not gloomy; imagine, instead, a man walking along the water’s edge, tumbling through his thoughts and coming to a tentative understanding.

What can you say about a poet who writes “My heart is cold,/ it should wear a mitten” and “Trying to decide what’s as beautiful/ as a bucket of nails on a deck, …I pick the moment/ I didn’t kill a milk snake.” Hicok is famed for mind-tilting images, but he’s not absurd for absurd’s sake. The poems in Elegy Owed vivify a world we usually glide by, illuminating odd moments; the mittened heart embodies our relentless questing, the rescued snake our learning to distinguish. Which is not to say that Hicok starts out witty and ends up didactic; throughout, he maintains his darkly delighted tone. Readers of his work, and of the other works here, will find themselves running along with the poet, their minds fiercely, flagrantly on fire.—Barbara Hoffert

BARBARA’S PAST EDITORS’ PICKS Giraffe by J.M. Ledgard (2006), The Wasted Vigil by Nadeem Aslam (2008), World Enough: Poems by Maureen N. McLane (2010), and The Play’s the Thing: The Tragedy of Arthur (2011)

From the fabulous to the all-too real I loved both of my picks for this spring so much that I reviewed them. One, a fabulist novel, the other, a fast-paced exposé, are in and of themselves good stories. Isn’t that what we’re all looking for, in the end?

Matt Bell is a longtime champion of indie publishing and his dreamy debut novel, In the House upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods (Soho, dist. by Random, Jun.; see p. 90) is a triumphant assertion of his very particular style. In a manner that’s consciously reminiscent of fairy tale universality, this book tells the story of a nameless family who try, and ultimately fail, to make a home in an unpopulated and fantastic wilderness.

When I spoke with Bell about his novel (Q&A, p. 96), I asked him about the monstrousness of families: the novel’s wife bursts into flame, her husband transforms into a squid, and their children are neither quite fully grown nor fully human. He says, “It’s not that I think parenting or families or children are inherently monstrous—although certainly I think we can admit they can sometimes be, in both minor and major ways.” His project, instead, is to make families themselves alien. “When we estrange the elements of our everyday lives, we rob them of their familiarity, which makes them easier to approach in new ways and to then experience again.”

Bell hopes that the foreignness of his story will prompt readers to “start looking for the real family obscured beneath that surface” and the “hopefully recognizable parents and children [who] reside within the center of the book’s horrors.” This is a haunting and beautiful story for fantasy readers who are interested in the experimental and for literary fiction readers open to the fantastic.

It’s rare for me to find a title that delivers an equal measure of storytelling gusto and urgent political information—I’m either introduced to obscure or unknown (to me) subject matter by an especially charming writer, or I’m struggling through leaden books about causes I really believe in. Chasing Gideon: The Elusive Quest for Poor People’s Justice (New Pr., dist. by Perseus, Mar.; see p. 112) by Washington Post Magazinecontributing editor Karen Houppert, is both important and a great read.

Touching on privatized prisons, public support for the death penalty, and institutionalized racism, Chasing Gideon is more than just a look back at five decades of Gideon v. Wainwright, the Supreme Court decision that guaranteed free legal counsel in criminal cases to those who cannot afford it. (Its 50th anniversary falls in March 2013). A monumental victory for the nation’s poor, who have historically made up the majority of defendants in criminal cases, Gideon promised far more than it actually delivered. Today, more than 80 percent of defendants are represented by a public defender, and—with a fraction of the funding, resources, and respect that prosecutors receive—these lawyers cannot adequately serve their clients, most of whom have no other resources. The results, as described in devastating detail by Houppert, are disastrous: unwise plea bargains are accepted, the innocent are found guilty, and even those who haven’t been charged with a crime languish in prison for months. A necessary book but also a thoroughly good one: this is a title to be devoured.—Molly McArdle

THREE OF MOLLY’S FAVORITE BOOKS Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison, Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko, and One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez

The mystery of love Lauren Willig’s The Ashford Affair (St. Martins, Apr.; starred review, LJ 2/1/13; Prepub Alert, 10/8/12) is a departure from her delightful historical romantic intrigues about the fictional operative the Pink Carnation. When asked about the genesis of this new work, Willig replied via email, “After seven years of writing about Napoleonic spies, I knew it was time for me to write something that didn’t involve knee breeches and black cloaks…. In fall 2010…two things converged: my 90-year-old grandmother became very ill and a friend gave me a copy of The Bolter [Frances Osbourne’s 2009 biography of her great-grandmother, the notorious Idina Sackville]…. Osborne hadn’t realized that Idina was her great-grandmother until a chance television [program] prompted her mother reluctantly to share the information…. That brought home to me how little we really know about our own families…how much goes unsaid…. What if a modern heroine were to stumble on a major family secret? How would that affect her and her perceptions of herself?”

In The Ashford Affair, six-year-old Addie Gillecote in 1906 is sent to live with her aunt and uncle at their British estate, Ashford, upon the sudden death of her parents. The only one who seems happy at her arrival is her seven-year-old cousin Bea. Bea is the spoiled daughter, Addie the resented and ignored poor relation, and their self-worth over the years is amplified by those differences. In 1999, we meet 99-year-old Addie at her birthday party in Manhattan, suddenly less than cognizant and acknowledging her adoring thirtysomething granddaughter Clementine as “Bea.” A random comment from Clemmie’s Aunt Anna has Clemmie wondering how much she really knows about Granny Addie, about her life in Britain and later in Kenya. And who is this mysterious Bea?

“There’s nothing like a love affair to get deep at the heart of what makes a person tick, to uncover their…most raw emotions and in­securities,” Willig says. “[T]he mystery is the petri dish in which I conduct my experiments in character.” The experiment has paid off big-time with this nuanced story teeming with ambiance and detail that unfolds like African cloth, with its dips and furls and textures, woven by a master storyteller.

Jennie Shortridge’s Love Water Memory (Gallery: S. & S., Apr.; LJ 1/13) opens with a trauma-induced amnesia victim found standing offshore in San Francisco Bay. Upon seeing Lucie Walker on TV, her fiancé, Grady Goodall, comes down from Seattle to identify her and bring her home. After a cautious reunion, Lucie must now discover how to function in a life she can’t recall. Yet Grady is having trouble remembering as well, as this new Lucie 2.0 is a warmer and more open version of his lover, about whose past Grady knew next to nothing. Reminiscent of the 1991 Harrison Ford film Regarding Henry, Shortridge’s latest title (after When She Flew) is an emotional heart-­tugger that doesn’t go where readers might expect; a fascinating turnabout for those who enjoy novels focusing on complex life dramas.

After 18 “Virgin River” novels and two novellas, Robyn Carr begins anew with the “Thunder Point” series. The Wanderer (Mira: Harlequin, Apr.) is former army helicopter pilot Hank Cooper, who comes to Thunder Point, OR, when he learns of the death of his friend and former army mechanic Ben Bailey. Cooper is mostly looking for answers, but he keeps uncovering more questions, for instance, why did Ben leave his combination bar and bait shop and considerable beachfront property to Coop? A man accused of being unable to set down roots is confronted with a life-altering decision. Curiously, this romance is told almost exclusively from the male’s perspective, be it our unwitting hero, Cooper, or Roger “Mac” ­McCain, “Deputy Yummy Pants.” Cooper and his eventual love interest, Coast Guard helicopter rescue pilot (small world) Sarah Dupre, don’t even meet until page 172! A sweet romance that involves multiple generations of strong, civic-minded men and women. Two more installments are scheduled for 2013.—Bette-Lee Fox

AN UNEXPECTED PLEASURE for BETTE-LEE The Kashmir Shawl by Rosie Thomas