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Spring 2020′s best books: Hilary Mantel ends her trilogy, Elena Ferrante begins again

Can’t wait to start turning pages.

Hilary Mantel's "The Mirror & the Light."
Hilary Mantel's "The Mirror & the Light."Read moreHenry Holt & Co.

What stories will we tell, true and imaginary, during this momentous year? Yes, there are tales of immigration, social division, and political upheaval — stories that, in essence, ask, “Who are we, and who do we want to become?” But there are also quests, real and imagined; love stories; shoot-em-ups and chases; Ponzi schemes and the Gold Rush. Meantime, the rainbow supernova of literary achievement keeps expanding across genders, orientations, ethnic backgrounds, time, and place.


Spring overflows with exciting new books from established masters such as Zora Neale Hurston, Elena Ferrante, Hilary Mantel, Walter Mosley, Lee Goldberg, and James McBride. Note, too, the Philly- and Pennsy-linked writers, with sparkling entries by Liz Moore, McBride, and Tom Bouman. Can’t wait to start turning pages.

Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick by Zora Neale Hurston (Amistad, January). The Harlem Renaissance standout (Their Eyes Were Watching God) wrote these short stories while she was the only African American student at Barnard College. We get a taste of her early genius, and a snapshot of 1920s America.

Lost Hills by Lee Goldberg (Thomas & Mercer, January). A police procedural page-turner, but a cut above the rest. The first of a promised series about police rookie homicide detective Eve Ronin as she wheels her car through the gritty, glamorous Los Angeles streets.

Long Bright River by Liz Moore (Riverhead, January). The Temple University prof and accomplished novelist takes to the streets of Philadelphia for this tale of the opioid crisis. One sister, an addict, goes missing; another, a cop, goes looking for her. Tough, but brimming with compassion.

Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu (Pantheon, January). An actor’s fight against racial typecasting opens out into a witty, surprising tale of racial tension and bigotry. One of our fine younger authors.

Trouble Is What I Do by Walter Mosley (Mulholland, February). Wily, much-traveled detective Leonid McGill delves into the upper-crust New York social world to solve a murder, protect a family, and keep some old, dark promises. Good to have you back, Leonid.

Real Life by Brandon Taylor (Riverhead, February). A man from Alabama comes to live in a lakeside town and becomes involved with its people and life in intimate and troubling ways. On a lot of Most Anticipated lists. Taylor appears at 2 p.m., Feb. 29, at People’s Books & Culture, in conversation with Fajr Muhammad. (

The Lucky Star by William Vollmann (Viking, February). The National Book Award winner returns to the Tenderloin District of San Francisco for this novel, which tracks Neva, by turns a witch, a diva, a goddess (in some eyes and hearts), a member of an extended family of friends and acquaintances at the Y Bar, and one of many down-and-outers looking for love.

The Mirror & the Light by Hilary Mantel (Holt, March). The final installment of Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy, following Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. Historically, we know how this whole thing ends; it’s the journey from power to the Tower that has Mantel’s fans mad with anticipation. The author visits Philly March 17 for a Free Library author talk at Penn’s Zellerbach Theatre.

The Bramble and the Rose: A Henry Farrell Novel by Tom Bouman (Norton, March). Pennsylvanian Bouman, a master of rural noir, begins his tale with a headless body found in the woods near Wild Thyme, Pa. Folks think it must be the work of a bear — but officer Farrell (this is the third in a series starring him) has his doubts.

Deacon King Kong by James McBride (Riverhead, March). The National Book Award winner and Philly-area musician, composer, and novelist is back. This is a novel but also a piece of comic/dramatic historical fiction, as a shooting in 1960s Brooklyn involves a diverse group of onlookers whose lives turn out to overlap. McBride is at the Free Library at 7:30 on March 11. (215-567-4341,

The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel (Knopf, March). A lot of people have been waiting for this sprawling, powerful novel. A gigantic Ponzi scheme collapses, rocketing us from the shipping trade to poor camps to the oddities of love. One of this season’s towering titles. Mandel is at the Free Library at 7:30 on March 26. (215-567-4341,

How Much of These Hills Is Gold by C Pam Zhang (Riverhead, April). Two Asian American orphans struggle to stay alive in Gold Rush California. They survive not only a rough time and place, but also a family riven by dark secrets.

Afterlife by Julia Alvarez (Algonquin, April). This one’s on a lot of people’s Most Anticipated lists. Alvarez (In the Time of Butterflies) writes her first adult novel in 14 years, telling of Antonia, a retired woman whose family is rocked by loss — and who discovers an undocumented woman on her doorstep, pregnant. A tart, lovely book about rising to the challenge of understanding and accepting others.

The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante (Europa, June). The mysterious Italian master of the “Neapolitan Quartet” is back with a brand-new story and characters. This time, the focus falls on a teenager, Giovanna, growing up in the Naples Ferrante has made famous.


From that rarest of all things, a real American coup, to a pop star’s life story, from true crime to immigration and tales of great American lives, the books below tell the truth vividly, sometimes painfully, sometimes with joy, always with the human touch.

The Third Rainbow Girl: The Long Life of a Double Murder in Appalachia by Emma Copley Eisenberg (Hachette, January). In 1980, two hitchhikers were murdered in West Virginia en route to a music festival. On a lot of people’s Best Of lists already, this is true crime writing brought to the level of art. Eisenberg lives in Philly, where she helps direct the Blue Stoop.

Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy by David Zucchino (Atlantic Monthly, January). A Pulitzer winner and a former Inquirer reporter, Zucchino tells of the violent overthrow of the elected government of Wilmington, N.C., by white men unhappy with the town’s prosperous multiracial progress. It’s one of the few such events in peacetime American history. True, all true.

The Adventurer’s Son by Roman Dial (HarperCollins, February). Dial is an explorer, a scientist, and an essayist. In 2014, his son enters a faraway jungle and disappears. The father goes back to that very jungle, with a world, a lifetime, and a fatherhood of questions.

American Sherlock: Murder, Forensics, and the Birth of American CSI by Kate Winkler Dawson (Putnam, February). His name was Edward Oscar Heinrich, and if not a household name, maybe he will be after this book comes out. He’s the scientist who, during the Prohibition era, helped develop blood-spatter tests, lie detectors, and ballistics evidence.

Race Man: Selected Works, 1960-2015 by Julian Bond (City Lights, February). This civil rights pioneer, activist, organizer (who helped create the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and the Southern Poverty Law Center), writer, politician, and educator was present at many of the turning points of the late 20th and early 21st century.

More Myself: A Journey by Alicia Keys (Flatiron, March). One of the most engaging personalities in contemporary music tells of her Harlem childhood and her frequently bumpy road to stardom.

Recollections of My Non-Existence by Rebecca Solnit (Viking, March). A lot of people will want to read this memoir by the feminist pioneer, political activist, and cultural critic. She tells a zigzag tale of urban poverty, personal awakening, and the thrill of working for a better society. Solnit is at the Free Library at 7:30 p.m. on March 12. Tickets: 32-$47; book included. (215-567-4341,

Front Row at the Trump Show by Jonathan Karl (Dutton, March). This ABC White House correspondent has covered real estate magnate and pop culture figure Trump for 25 years, all the way to the White House. One of a ton of books on this subject this year, Karl’s promises to be among the best.

Later: My Life at the Edge of the World by Paul Lisicky (Graywolf, March). A young man comes to an idyllic place — Provincetown, Mass., in the early 1980s — about to be harrowed by the AIDS crisis. Lisicky appears with Andrea Lawlor at Rutgers-Camden at 7 p.m. on March 25. (856-668-4980,

Conditional Citizens: On Belonging in America by Laila Lalami (Pantheon, May). This immigrant from Morocco narrates her quest to become an American citizen, uncovering the inequities and prejudices baked into the system.

This Is What America Looks Like by Ilhan Omar (Dey Street, May). Born in Somalia, she came to Virginia and from there she began a life of political activism, culminating in her election to the U.S. House of Representatives, one of the first Muslim women to be so honored.

The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again by Robert D. Putnam with Shaylyn Romney Garrett (Simon and Schuster, June). Putnam, famous for Bowling Alone and other studies of American life, says that over the past century we’ve gone from individualism to community-mindedness and back to individualism. But he thinks we can regain the community spirit of a century ago.


The Minor Virtues by Lynn Levin (Ragged Sky, March). She’s a translator, essayist, a teacher at Drexel, and a poet whose often quirky poems may start small — like shopping for food from the discount counter — but they always invite you to a journey worth taking.