“AND HERE IS the serpent again, dragging himself out from his nest of darkness…” So begins the Mary Oliver poem “Spring,” a poem that forgoes the standard spring imagery — flowers, bonnets, hay fever — in favor of cold evenings on the precipice of change, of creatures of the night who also await the winter’s end. As much as spring is to be celebrated for its beauty and renewal, for any signs that the Earth isn’t quite done with us yet, embedded in the celebration is an acknowledgment that not five minutes ago, the world was frozen and dreary. Not five minutes ago, we were frozen and dreary. And so it is with the best of this season’s books. They are not merely fast-paced or moving, charming or funny (though they are often those things), but they sneak up on a reader with their keen observations of the human condition, with the respect they pay to a recent past that wasn’t always all ribbons and daffodils.
It’s rare that the dedication to a novel is integral to the reading experience, but when debut novelist Leila Mottley writes “For Oakland and its girls,” it’s clear that a powerful story is about to begin. “Nightcrawling” (Knopf) tracks the thoughtful and caring 18-year-old Kiara (the same age as her creator), who has the weight of a desperate and corrupt world on her shoulders. She’s trying to find her way on the streets of East Oakland and within an apartment complex where the landlord has unceremoniously jacked up the rent. Kiara’s brother has her fingerprint tattooed on his neck, aspirations for stardom, and an aversion to the dire situation in which he and his sister find themselves. Meanwhile, our heroine only wants to keep them from drowning as she passes through horrendous hotel rooms filled wall-to-wall with exploitative cops. “Letting the streets have you,” thinks Kiara, “is like planning your funeral.” At once brutal and beautiful, “Nightcrawling” is one of those debut novels that feels like surely it must have two or three behind it.
“Brick Lane” author Monica Ali has never wasted time or pages before grabbing a reader’s attention, and her latest, “Love Marriage” (Scribner), finds her streak unbroken: “In the Ghorami household sex was never mentioned.” Equal parts comedic warmth, Whartonesque observation, and shrewd turn of phrase, Ali is at the height of her powers, telling the story of two London families united by marriage but with a wide gulf of cultural practices, political beliefs, and class clashes between them. Although a romance, “Love Marriage” is really a family drama about a 26-year-old woman training to be a doctor and hoping for the same circumstances that allegedly brought her parents together in a “love marriage.” In her case, her fiancé is a charming man with a “controversial, sex-obsessed, famous feminist of a certain age” for a mother. Suspenseful and salacious with a healthy overlay of soap opera, this is a story of Western liberalism vs. Bengali Muslim tradition and the often-comic contemporary cultural mores that trip up so many of us. It’s about sensibility. It’s also a tribute to family.
Leave it to legendary Scottish author Ali Smith to magnify what was so painful about quarantine and celebrate its inverse: companionship. Her new novel, “Companion Piece” (Pantheon), the first after her “Seasonal Quartet,” is a celebration and study of being together, an inventive and soul-searching pandemic novel to help us begin again.
Akwaeke Emezi’s “You Made a Fool of Death With Your Beauty” (Atria) may be the platonic ideal of a spring book, with its heroine working to recover from the deep darkness of grief and carve out a new life for herself full of art, romance, and tropical paradises, none of which can quite do the trick of saving her from herself.
Peerless nature writer Barry Lopez died in December of 2020, in the middle of the pandemic, with his affection and concern for the planet at a logical high. Featuring an introduction by Rebecca Solnit, “Embrace Fearlessly the Burning World” (Random House) covers new ground for Lopez, with a mix of personal pieces written shortly before his death, and classic meditations on the natural world.
In his satirical but heartfelt new novel, “Let’s Not Do That Again” (Holt), Grant Ginder tells the witty-on-every-page story of an aspiring senator and her two children who threaten to derail her prospects with public embarrassments, wild antics, and highly questionable art. It’s like they don’t say but probably should: Champagne for my real friends, campaigns for my sham friends.
Poet, novelist, essayist, and artist Renee Gladman’s “Plans for Sentences” (Wave) is a multidisciplinary tribute to two forms, text and images, and a graceful examination of the visual impact of both. “[Sentences] will emerge from grain,” she writes (and draws), “they will out and open.”
Pulitzer Prize–winning fiction writer and longtime environmentalist Annie Proulx turns her careful and concerned attention to the wetlands (fens, bogs, swamps, and marine estuaries), focusing on both their vitality and vulnerability in the urgent “Fen, Bog and Swamp” (Scribner).
Beloved author Emma Straub goes back in time to the ’90s (complete with pitch-perfect pop culture touches) in “This Time Tomorrow” (Riverhead), a moving and unique love story. Following in the footsteps of the world’s most famous Alice, this one falls down a rabbit hole of the past to be with her dying father back when he was her current age.
Jennifer Egan, also a Pulitzer Prize winner and master of the interlocking narrative, is back with a more futuristic squad in “The Candy House” (Scribner), a deeply human and imaginative work that reads like a literary “Black Mirror” episode about the perils of too much personal information.
In the spirit of spring’s bounty, there is no shortage of inspiring new titles cropping up on bookstore shelves, including but not limited to: Elif Batuman’s very funny follow-up to “The Idiot,” “Either/Or” (Penguin); Booker Prize–winner Douglas Stuart’s “Young Mungo” (Grove Press), a powerful story of queer love in a working-class world; “The Trouble With Happiness” (FSG), stories from beloved Danish writer Tove Ditlevsen; a drool-inducing blue-and-white tour of “Greek Islands” (Assouline) from the purveyors of cult coffee-table books; “Time Is a Mother” (Penguin), which features more breathtaking fragments from acclaimed poet Ocean Vuong; “Sea of Tranquility” (Knopf), the hotly anticipated time-travel-pandemic-moon-colony epic you’ve always wanted from “Station Eleven” author Emily St. John Mandel; and, last but not least, from one of the sharpest thinkers and cultural critics of the last century comes “The Uncollected Essays of Elizabeth Hardwick” (NYRB). As Hardwick said, “the greatest gift is a passion for reading.”
Sloane Crosley Writer
Sloane Crosley is the author of several essay collections, including "I Was Told There'd Be Cake" and "Look Alive Out There," and the novel "The Clasp." Her new novel, "Cult Classic," is out now.
Lisa Lok Illustrator
Lisa Lok is an art director at Departures. A Brooklyn-based creative, she enjoys collaborating with illustrators and photographers from around the world. Her work can be found in the pages of Airbnb Magazine, NYLON, and Asia Society Magazine, among others.