Spring Break Reads
512 pages; Penguin Books
Who knew a real-life story could read like a juicy (well-written) thriller? Enter The Secret Rooms, the blow-by-blow account of what historian Catherine Bailey discovers in 2008 while researching the archives of the long-deceased Ninth Duke of Rutland. Expect: clandestine affairs, secret missives, World War II drama and at least one unexplained death, all set in the musty, damp grandeur of the 356-room Belvoir Castle.
— Leigh Newman
416 pages; Viking Adult
A Pygmalion story with a mystery twist, Zimmerman's second novel (after The Orphanmaster) takes us on an over-the-top romp through 1870s America, courtesy of its titular heroine. Our deeply unreliable narrator, 22-year-old medical student Hugo Delegate, and his robber-baron family rescue a ravishing, raven-haired feral girl, Bronwyn, from a freak show in the Wild West town of Virginia City, Nevada, and set out to turn her into New York society's most envied debutante. It's not long, however, before Hugo notices that his adopted sister's male admirers often end up dead, mutilated in ways that remind him of the razor-sharp metal claws that Bronwyn used as her sideshow stage props. Is she a brutal murderer? Or could Hugo himself be responsible—a man who suffers from the occasional "involuntary excursion into a violent mental twilight" and, oh, has a thing for knives? The pace sometimes falters, as Zimmerman dips in and out of a cast of thousands, ranging from real-life figures to some admirably imagined eccentrics, and shows off her considerable historical research. But stick with this haute penny dreadful and be rewarded with a rip-roaring conclusion that it's hard to see coming. Consider this the compulsively readable love child of Edith Wharton and Edgar Allan Poe.
— Susan Welsh
The Widow's Guide to Sex and DatingBy Carole Radziwill
320 pages; Henry Holt and Co.
From the author of the best-selling memoir What Remains comes a cheeky, affecting debut novel about a woman grieving for her husband and gradually learning to get back in the game.
— Abbe Wright
336 pages; Doubleday
Restaurant life is famously grueling, with its long hours, financial ups and downs, and rigid pecking order reminiscent of the military, not to mention the necessity of doing a lot of thinking (and standing) on one's feet. Bread & Butter (Doubleday), Michelle Wildgen's wildly entertaining third novel, offers a behind-the-scenes view of this culinary cosmos, where a misfired plate might prompt a public tongue-lashing, and competition between restaurants can all but unravel a family. In a struggling Pennsylvania town, brothers Britt and Leo have established Winesap, their just-upscale-enough eatery, as a profitable presence on the local food scene. Which makes the nearby restaurant venture undertaken by their younger brother, Harry, something of a slap in the face: "People are going to compare us, whether it makes any sense or not," sighs Thea, Winesap's executive chef, upon hearing the news. As Harry's pan-crisped socca with baccalà and arugula squares off against Britt and Leo's venison with salty pistachio brittle, comparisons do arise—and tempers flare. Against this backdrop of brothers-on-brother combat, Wildgen serves up romantic intrigue (Leo unwisely falls for Thea, and Britt for a regular named Camille, whom Harry also has his eye on), along with a generous dollop of satire as sharp as a prep knife. The result is a novel that's as much about the complex dance of family dynamics as it is about the mysterious world behind the kitchen door—and a divinely delicious read, to boot.
— Katie Arnold-Ratliff
After I'm GoneBy Laura Lippman
352 pages; William Morrow
In 1976, things look bad for Felix Brewer, the crooked businessman with big ambitions—"[Life] can better. It can always be better. Don't think small."—who pulls up the stakes of his cushy suburban Baltimore life and disappears. But he doesn't evaporate into a vacuum: Brewer leaves behind a wife, Bambi; three small daughters; and, a mistress, Julie. Ten years later, Julie vanishes. Then, in 2012, newly retired homicide detective Roberto "Sandy" Sanchez begins investigating cold cases for extra income, including the murder of Julie, whose body turns up in a local park. Everyone—as is so often the case in a Laura Lippman novel—knows more than he or she is telling, and everything comes back to romantic, shady Felix. This isn't a murder mystery, not really. And yet it is. This isn't a family saga, not really. And yet it is. Lippman doesn't deal in absolutes and it's her exploration of the nuance of loss—and its permeating presence, like carbon monoxide slowly poisoning the characters and their air—that makes this a must-read.
— Jordan Foster
464 pages; Riverhead
Set during the 1898 Omaha World's Fair, this novel recreates the few months that Nebraska served as an international capital, complete with lavish temporary palaces and a cast of cynical hucksters, pickpockets and performers who earn their living on the midway. Though the historical details about the fair's construction delight (imagine: "buildings shaped like foreign shrines," "cupolas with candy-striped shingles" and "a greenhouse full of humming birds that buzzed so close you could almost feel their wings flutter your lashes"), it's the love story of a certain ventriloquist named Ferret Skerritt and an actress named Cecily that captivates, most especially when a wealthy rival to Ferret threatens to separate the two. Be prepared for a romantic finish—and some unexpected twists in the plot that prove magic is possible, even for magicians.
— Leigh Newman
352 pages; Knopf
If you are a Jane Austen fan with a pronounced predilection for Pride and Prejudice—if rereading it is like wearing your softest, warmest cashmere sweater; if your cure of choice for heartache is immersion in the BBC adaptation starring Colin Firth—you will devour Jo Baker's ingenious Longbourn as the ambrosia from the Austen gods it is.
It turns out that the goings-on in the servants' quarters at the Bennets' Longbourn estate are every bit as interesting as the repartee among Elizabeth, Jane, Darcy, and Bingley, at least as imagined by this British writer. It's an idea that could have felt derivative or sycophantic in its execution—the notion of Sarah, Polly, James, and Mr. and Mrs. Hill as the downstairs counterparts to their upstairs employers—and yet the novel is rich, engrossing, and filled with fascinating observations about the less glamorous side of the period, such as how the servants got to be servants in the first place, and why Mr. Bingley's black footman also has the last name Bingley. Dive in and you might even forget to watch Downton Abbey. — Leigh Haber
My Life in MiddlemarchBy Rebecca Mead
304 pages; Crown
In My Life in Middlemarch, New Yorker writer Rebecca Mead's stirring paean to what many consider the greatest English novel, life and art, fact and fiction intermingle, influence, and illuminate each other. The nature of infatuation and enduring love, the tension between familial ties and professional ambition, the value of "small, beneficent actions," the thwarting of youthful idealism and the consolations of maturity: George Eliot's Middlemarch explores them all in ways that have guided Mead throughout her life. In her idiosyncratic blend of biography, literary criticism, and memoir, Mead reads Middlemarch as a novel that teaches us how to be sympathetic and offers touchingly humane insights into its brilliant yet vulnerable author. Mead is similarly compassionate toward her own younger selves as she presents them in her self-portrait: an ambitious and rebellious teenager in rural England who identified with Middlemarch's ardent and aspiring Dorothea; a young journalist in New York embroiled in misguided love affairs and yearning, like the novel's characters, for a "substantial, rewarding, meaningful life"; and a happily married 40-something mother and stepmother who takes inspiration from Eliot's satisfying later-in-life love affair and stepmotherhood. Even as Mead's book celebrates Middlemarch's "range, its wit, its seriousness, its erudition, its deep feeling," it exemplifies such virtues itself. Like her beloved Eliot, Mead speaks "with an authority and a generosity that [is] wise and essential and profound." Anyone who believes that books have the power to shape lives and that "our own lives can teach us how to read a book" will respond with fascination and delight to Mead's evolving appreciation of the richness and relevance of Eliot's masterwork.
— Priscilla Gilman