Critic Bethanne Patrick recommends 10 promising titles, fiction and nonfiction, to consider for your April list.
April is the kindest month, the season when novels spring forth from the richest literary soil. Beloved novelists return to push their particular talents in bold new directions (and one, Ocean Vuong, returns to poetry). These recommendations include amazing books on some dark and difficult subjects, but there is always joy in great writing.
Sea of Tranquility
By Emily St. John Mandel
Knopf: 272 pages, $25
Mandel is perhaps justly best known for “Station Eleven,” her bestselling dystopian pandemic tale of mourning and recovery in which art may be the only thing worth saving. After a beloved HBO Max adaptation and a realist follow-up novel, “The Glass Hotel,” the author comes roaring back into sci-fi with a saga about a time-travel wormhole and a group of lost souls who might hold the key to humanity’s survival.
The Candy House
By Jennifer Egan
Scribner: 352 pages, $28
Egan already stretched the possibilities of fiction with “A Visit From the Goon Squad,” her time- and genre-jumping 2010 novel-in-stories — and won the Pulitzer for it. But she was n’t done with her eclectic, eccentric characters. “The Candy House” takes them up to the ever-receding future, a time of AI-melded consciousness that still leaves room for hope, change and rock ‘n’ roll.
By Douglas Stuart
Grove: 400 pages, $27
Stuart’s debut novel, “Shuggie Bain,” won the 2020 Booker Prize. Any writer would find that a tough act to follow. “Young Mungo,” a gay “Romeo and Juliet” set in Glasgow, has the same dynamic writing as “Shuggie,” but a word of warning: It goes to much darker places in exploring the entanglements of love and violence. Then again, Shuggie Bain is a child, Mungo Hamilton a teenager. Growing up can be brutal.
A Tiny Upward Shove
By Melissa Chadburn
FSG: 352 pages, $27
Born to a Filipina mother and a Black father, Marina Salles experiences sexual violence, the horrors of foster care, a struggle with drug abuse and an all-too-brief period of happiness with a girlfriend before a serial killer ends her life. But that is n’t the end: A Filipino spirit known as an aswang inhabits Marina’s consciousness and opens up perspectives on her life de ella she never had while living it. The novel shocks, but always for a purpose.
City on Fire
By Don Winslow
William Morrow: 384 pages, $29
The first volume in a planned trilogy, “City on Fire” takes on two crime families in 1980s Providence, RI, and follows their ongoing war with an eye to the greatest epic ever written: “The Iliad” by Homer. Is this also a new version of “The Godfather”? Trading in the Southwest of his “Border” trilogy for the more corrupt corners of the Northeast, Winslow shows that criminal dynasties know no borders.
Easy Beauty: A Memoir
By Chloé Cooper Jones
Avid Reader: 288 pages, $28
Taking her title from a philosopher who describes “easy beauty” as “apparent and unchallenging,” Cooper Jones, herself a philosopher and journalist, examines aesthetics from her perspective as a person born with sacral agenesis and its attendant challenges. For all its heady ideas of her, the book has bite, especially when the author connects those ideas to her of her real-life conversations and practical concessions of her.
Time Is a Mother
By Ocean Vuong
Penguin Press: 128 pages, $24
Vuong, acclaimed for his 2019 novel “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous,” returns to poetry (after 2016’s “Night Sky With Exit Wounds”) in a collection focused on his mother’s death that incorporates fragments of her life (one poem is based on on her Amazon orders). The immediacy of the verse and the universality of family loss will surely bring new readers to Vuong—and to poetry.
Constructing a Nervous System: A Memoir
By Margo Jefferson
Pantheon: 208 pages, $27
In her 2015 memoir, “Negroland,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning critic wrote about how she upbringing in a privileged Black community shaped her. Her new memoir of her takes the story forward to her formation of her as a critic and thinker, analyzing her of her heroes, influences and foils of her, from her parents of her to Bing Crosby and Ike Turner. These examinations of self double as reconsiderations of culture and society, including those artists she now sees in a far more complicated light.
Why We Fight: The Roots of War and the Paths to Peace
By Christopher Blattman
Viking: 400 pages, $32
The University of Chicago professor writes about how violence, crime and poverty are intertwined and how they can feed into larger-scale conflict. Blattman takes on fighting at every level, from local beatings to world war, offering eye-opening examples of escalation. But perhaps his most salient point about him is this: “There is seldom one reason for a war.” It’s a relevant, urgent new study.
Finding Me: A Memoir
By Viola Davis
HarperOne: 288 pages, $29
Let’s hope Davis wins a Grammy for her Audible recording of this memoir, thereby becoming the first Black woman to claim a coveted EGOT. The Oscar, Tony and Emmy winner’s memoir untangles the story she constructed along the path to fame from the real one, a more difficult but ultimately more fulfilling narrative of struggle and success. Her gorgeous storytelling by Ella will inspire anyone wishing to shed old labels.