Happy May, y’all! May is a great month because a) the weather is at that sweet spot in which we have stopped complaining about how cold it is, and before we have started complaining about how hot it is; b) because May 2015's best books are plentiful to help you kick off summer reading; and c) because it is the month for Mother’s Day. (Also, did I mention that all you'll be doing in May is reading?)
Happily, this month sees the release of tons good stories, many of which you and your mom will both love — and can even read together. Memoirs like the ultimate cool mom Jillian Lauren’s Everything You Ever Wanted and Maggie Nelson’s brilliant, genre-crossing The Argonauts explore modern motherhood, in which “unconventional” conception and parenting is the new norm. Globe-trotting books like Peter Nichols’ The Rocks and Kate Betts’ My Paris Dream will have you planning a mother-daughter summer trip (to Mallorca or Paris? Tough choice). And impressive debut novels like Sarai Walker’s thrilling satire Dietland and Sara Nović’s powerful Girl at War are ripe for book talks over a bottle of rosé, both enjoyed under May's angst-free blue skies.
So, grab a book, and give mom a recommendation, too. 'Tis the season for reading.
Everything You Ever Wanted by Jillian Lauren (May 5; Plume)
In 2010’s bestselling Some Girls, Jillian Lauren recounted her, um, atypical twenties spent as a member of the Prince of Brunei’s harem. In her 30s, Lauren wiped her slate clean, hot on the heels of a new adventure: that of a wife (to Weezer bassist Scott Shriner), a mother (to son Tariku, whom the couple adopted from Ethiopia), and a woman in control over her own life (which included earning an MFA in creative writing from Antioch University). It’s inspiring to see how Lauren’s youthful brazenness has translated into a fierce, mama-bear-warrior attitude in Everything You Ever Wanted, and it’s refreshing to see that she hasn't sacrificed her frankness for the sake of motherhood.
The Ghost Network by Catie Disabato (May 5; Melville House)
Prepare to be amazed, but also creeped out, by Catie Disabato's ambitious, thoroughly original debut novel. In a satisfyingly meta framing device, Disabato inserts herself into the narrative by providing footnotes for the bulk of the text: an unfinished manuscript by the journalist Cyrus Archer, who was in the midst of investigating the disappearance of pop star Molly Millions before disappearing himself. The Ghost Network is an enthralling participatory experience, at once an erudite mystery and a complex investigation on the dark side of fame and fandom.
Jack of Spades by Joyce Carol Oates (May 5; Mysterious Press)
In a studied homage to Poe — the master of rendering madness in all its lurid glory — Joyce Carol Oates spins a chilling thriller in Jack of Spades; it’s Gothic in its paranoia, but thoroughly modern in its observations on fame’s destructive powers. Speaking of paranoid famous people, unreliable narrator Andrew J. Rush is a highly successful mystery novelist and a household name. But his passion lies in his pseudonymous project: the Jack of Spades series are grotesquely violent potboilers, of which only Rush knows he is the creator. Thing gets spooky once the Jack of Spades' dark thoughts intermingle with Rush’s own, resulting in a series of thrillingly horrible events.
A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson (May 5; Little, Brown)
In last year’s Life After Life, Kate Atkinson took on both historical fiction (World War II) and magical realism (the possibility of alternate lives) with stunning success. And in A God in Ruins, Atkinson continues her graceful examination of wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff (not her words) with Teddy Todd, Life After Life heroine Ursula’s younger brother and one of the lucky few RAF bomber pilot survivors. This is a companion to Life After Life, but A God in Ruins also works as a powerful standalone.
The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson (May 5; Graywolf)
Maggie Nelson has proven her brilliance — a special blend of poeticism and philosophy, of theorizing and prose-weaving — in her eight previous nonfiction releases. But in The Argonauts, the gifted critic and scholar breaks generic ground with her work of “autotheory,” which offers a glimpse into the writer’s mind, body, and home: at the core of this Barthes-and-Baudrillard-dropping memoir is Nelson’s relationship with the gender-fluid artist Harry Dodge. Here Nelsons work her way, both emotionally and academically, across the charged terrain of committing to a person who eschews gendered pronouns; of building a queer-parented family; and of falling deeply in love with someone whose very being sparks debate and incites confusion. The Argonauts is a must-read.
Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry (May 5; Ecco)
If you prefer your thrill rides to be of the literary variety, pick up Leslie Parry’s gripping debut novel Church of Rides, which wends its way through the gritty underworld of turn-of-the-century New York. Parry renders her band of misfit protagonists — including former Coney Island sideshow performers Odile and Isabelle Church; bare-knuckle boxer Sylvan the Dogboy; and Alphie, a patient in the insane asylum on Blackwell’s Island — in mesmerizing, living color. Parry handles the plot’s juggling act with admirable poise, and both the adventure and the heartbreak that results will give you thrills and chills. No brain-bursting ride on the Cyclone required.
Re Jane by Patricia Park (May 5; Viking)
Modern retellings of classic novels are a very special reading experience, but what makes the experience even better is if the update works as a standalone novel, regardless of its source text. Enter Re Jane, which loosely interprets Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre. In this version, Jane Eyre is Jane Re, a young Korean American woman from Queens who's recently graduated university with nary a "real" job on the horizon. Enter the Mazer-Farleys, a Clinton Hill-dwelling couple firmly rooted in neo-intelligentsia culture (they're both women's lit professors), who take Jane on as the au pair to their adopted Chinese daughter. I live in New York, so I'm a sucker for a culturally accurate representation of the city's many cliques and cliches — which Re Jane, written by a Queens native, offers in spades — but everyone can appreciate this colorful and endearing story about a young woman navigating the early 2000s.
The Green Road by Anne Enright (May 11; Norton)
It’s no secret that I pretty much worship at the feet of Anne Enright, and I can safely say that The Green Road, the Laureate for Irish Fiction’s latest novel, will not disappoint my fellow Enrighters. In her sixth novel, Enright casts her poetic but idiosyncratic gaze over Ireland’s wild West coast, wherein the Madigan family grows and separates, shatters and fuses, inside their beloved family home. There is no shortage of grace and anguish here, as there should rightly be in any family saga worth its salt; but Enright’s trademark moxie and sharp wit elevates the genre to challenging and exciting new heights.
Girl at War by Sara Nović (May 12; Random House)
This December marks the 20th anniversary of the peace agreement that ended the Croatian War of Independence: one of several struggles that constituted the Yugoslav Wars, one of the bloodiest conflicts in contemporary European history. But for the survivors — like Girl at War’s memorable heroine Ana Jurić, who was 10 when war broke in her native Yugoslavia — the war never really ends. Sara Nović writes with heartbreaking clarity about the real collateral of war: the children whose lives are inextricably damaged, who grow up to be adults plagued by the terror of loss, by the agony of survivor’s guilt. But I’ll keep it simple for you: this debut novel is remarkable. It is beautiful. It is important. And you must read it.
My Paris Dream by Kate Betts (May 12; Spiegel & Grau)
The romantic Francophiliac memoir, very much like hot sweet crepes slathered in gooey, melty Nutella, will never get old, regardless of how sugary and indulgent they may be. But Kate Betts’ My Paris Dream offers more than just a detailed account of pastries consumed, pounds miraculously not gained, and Gauloises inhaled in the City of Light. Instead, the former Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar editor recounts her brazen move to Paris immediately after graduating from Princeton in 1986, whereupon she climbed the industry ranks to land a job as a fashion journalist at Women’s Wear Daily and W magazine. Betts’ memoir is as much a love story to the famed French city, and its legendary designers, as it is a testament to the power of determination.
Hollywood Notebook by Wendy C. Ortiz (May 13; Writ Large Press)
“My life since I’ve moved back to Los Angeles has felt like traversing a rocky path of milestones that double as landmines,” Wendy C. Ortiz writes in Hollywood Notebook, her second memoir since last year’s acclaimed Excavation. Expect a fusillade of such so-true-you-could-swoon sentiments in this episodic memoir, in which Ortiz recounts the hazy days of her twenties and early thirties in poetic snapshots. This is as much a bound testament to Ortiz’s talent as it is an ode to the craft of writing itself: while Ortiz drifted in and out of love, of varying degrees of sobriety, and of tiny apartments, what remained constant was Ortiz’s hopeless devotion to transforming her experience into the written word.
Mr. and Mrs. Doctor by Julie Iromuanya (May 15; Coffee House Press)
Ifi is wed to Job under the assumption that her soon-to-be-husband is a doctor in Nebraska, where the Nigerian couple will move to begin their lives together. But that assumption turns out to be a big fat lie: Job isn’t a doctor but a nurse’s aid, and, furthermore, a college dropout who was previously engaged in a green card marriage. What unfolds from the lie’s revelation is a classic American Gothic tale reworked to suit a modern immigrants’ story. Julie Iromuanya’s debut novel is both keenly observational and intensely introspective. She’s one to look out for.
The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan (May 19; Crown)
Water is more than a life-sustaining source in the world of The Gracekeepers: it is the earth itself. In her gorgeous debut novel, Kirsty Logan imagines a world in which the oceans have virtually swallowed the continents, leaving only a precious collection of archipelagos in its wake. The vast majority of the population who wander the water are known as “damplings,” like the traveling circus performer North; and the aristocracy who populate the earth’s remaining solid ground are “landlockers,” like the gracekeeper Callanish. Logan’s prose is imbued with balletic fluidity, but it swells and breaks dramatically to reveal hidden tensions as the two heroines’ lives intersect. Culling from Scottish fairytales, Logan paints a hauntingly beautiful portrait of a world imbued with both myth and eerie realness.
The Life and Death of Sophie Stark by Anna North (May 19; Blue Rider Press)
Our culture’s obsession with gifted artists who die young tends to become a force of canonization: Kurt Cobain. Amy Winehouse. Francesca Woodman. We have rendered these people into both more than, and less than, human beings: we have rendered them icons. In The Life and Death of Sophie Stark, Anna North brings one such posthumously-martyred artist — her fictional title character, a gifted filmmaker — back down to earth. With confidence, grace, and bite, North invokes the voices of those whom Sophie loved and trusted the most, including her ex-girlfriend, ex-husband, and brother, to reveal both who the artist really was, as well as the pain each endured in loving such untouchable genius.
The Knockoff by Lucy Sykes & Jo Piazza (May 19; Doubleday)
Next time you’re thinking of diving into a Scandal marathon, consider picking up The Knockoff instead: Lucy Sykes and Jo Piazza’s rollicking, fashion-industry-centric novel is just as sleek and satisfying as Olivia Pope’s Gucci-stocked wardrobe. Sykes, who was the fashion director at Marie Claire magazine, and Piazza, a journalist and editor, offer an insider’s look at the rapidly-changing, constantly-buzzing insanity of today’s plugged-in fashion world. Don’t cast this off as fluff: true, it’s glossy and catty and shamelessly satirical, but The Knockoff remains reverent to the fashion industry, paying homage to the brilliant designers and editors and — let’s face it — bloggers and street style stars who are today’s real tastemakers.
The Shore by Sara Taylor (May 26; Hogarth)
Each of Sara Taylor's interlinked stories brings to haunting life the assortment of three tiny islands off the coast of Virginia that constitute “The Shore” — and by the end of Taylor’s debut, the titular shore emerges from the eerie haze as the most vibrant, and the most powerful, of the characters offered here. But in each installment, Taylor weaves hypnotic yarns of abuse and murder, of protection and redemption, inhabiting the clannish mentality of the Shore’s small but bitingly vital people. The Shore is an understated and affecting meditation on lives which are inextricably bound to the land from which they’ve sprung.
The Rocks by Peter Nichols (May 26; Riverhead)
The first thing you’ll fall in love with about screenwriter Peter Nichols’ The Rocks is its cinematic setting: Cala Marsopa, a seaside village on the island of Mallorca, boasts fragrant fruit trees, vibrant bougainvillea, an aphrodisiacal Mediterranean breeze, and the stunning sheer rock faces that will cause the death of former lovers Lulu Davenport and Gerald Rutledge. Nichols relays this layered romance, which ensues in reverse, with honesty and heart; but both his lovably flawed characters’ and his own dry wit keeps The Rocks from ever reaching saccharinity. More than just beach porn (although it is that, too), The Rocks is a literary love story and a captivating family saga.
Dietland by Sarai Walker (May 26; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Sarai Walker’s debut novel does something few contemporary writers — whether green or seasoned — have managed to do well: Dietland is a searing feminist manifesto, a hardcore, politically-charged criticism of the unavoidable ills that plague women today. But, guess what? It’s also fun. This has everything to do with Walker’s irresistibly wry prose, which renders heroine Plum Kettle — a “Dear Abby” for tweens, and who struggles with weight and depression — both plucky and down-to-earth: an admirable feat on Walker’s part, considering the Fight Club-worthy militant feminist group within which Plum becomes embroiled. Dietland is bizarre, but compulsively readable. It’s surreal and unsettling, but that won’t discourage you from gleefully inhaling it in just a couple of sittings.
Image: ramos alejandro/Flickr