The Ides of March—the date on which Julius Caesar was assassinated—seems particularly relevant to this month’s best fiction. With two historical novels set in Italy, the first depicting the scandal-ridden Borgias and the second revealing an unexpectedly softer side to Emporer Nero, murderous dynasties are brought to life in vivid detail. Rounding out the rest of our list are modern-day coming of age tales, two kidnappings, a twisted twin sister who fakes her own death, and a humorous take (really!) on infidelity.
Dead Letters, by Caite Dolan-Leach
“Death by fire was the right death for visionaries and madwomen, and Zelda was both. My dark double.” When Ava’s careless, troubled twin sister Zelda apparently perishes in a fire, Ava discovers the dramatic exit is a ruse—a puzzle, a game—and that Ava has been cast as lead detective. Ava recently escaped from her dysfunctional family (alcoholics every one, with her pill-popping, dementia-ridden mother being the worse of the bunch), but now she’s forced to return to their upstate New York vineyard to uncover the truth about Zelda’s disappearance. A witty mystery with darker than dark humor.
The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, by Lisa See
The bestselling, critically acclaimed author of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Shanghai Girls, and China Dolls, See is beloved by readers for her depictions of female friendships and family relationships as seen through a Chinese American lens. Her latest novel is about an Akha ethnic minority girl, Li-yan, who lives in a small mountain village where tea is grown and harvested. She has a daughter out of wedlock whom she is pressured to abandon. The child is adopted by a Southern California family, but the bond between mother and daughter is never completely severed. Fans of historical fiction will appreciate the richly rendered characters, who must navigate different cultures and customs—not just east and west, but urban and rural.
In the Name of the Family, by Sarah Dunant
A follow-up to her bestselling Blood and Beauty, Dunant continues her epic saga of the real-life Borgias in 1500s Italy. Game of Thrones readers and viewers will gladly succumb to the political intrigue, double-crosses, and treachery that occur during the last gasps of the House of Borgia. Is Lucrezia, forced to endure a string of marriages for the benefit of her father Rodrigo (Pope Alexander VI), becoming a proto–Mother of Dragons? And then there’s Cesare, whose relationship with Florentine diplomat Machiavelli will inform both their lives, and affect world history far beyond the scope of the Italian Renaissance.
The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, by Hannah Tinti
The author of The Good Thief is back with her sophomore novel, a daring, original story that combines the myth of Heracles with a loving and complex father-daughter relationship. Tough as nails, 40-something Samuel (whose 12 bullet hole scars each tell a story, and whose “face was rough and broken in a way that came out handsome”) and his almost-teen daughter Louise (Loo) have spent their lives on the run from Samuel’s violent, criminal past, and when they settle in a Massachusetts fishing town that was once home to Loo’s late mother, their bond is tested to the breaking point. Devotees of fast-paced thrillers as well as quieter, literary character studies will find much to love in this unique mashup.
The Confessions of Young Nero, by Margaret George
Pair this with In the Name of the Family, above, for a double feature of treacherous family scandal, murder, and obsession. A teenager when he assumed the title Emperor of Rome from his adopted father Claudius, young Nero is typically depicted as a Joffrey-esque psychopath—his uncle is Caligula, after all—but in Confessions, readers are treated to a refreshingly well-rounded version of the lad, who admires artistry and athleticism, and whose narration is strikingly relatable. Still, when your mother’s willing to poison anyone who stands in her way, survival becomes second nature, and Nero will have to learn to play dirty if he’s to remain on the throne. George’s sixth historical novel proves once again why she’s a master of the genre.
Edgar and Lucy, by Victor Lodato
Edgar is a friendless 8-year-old albino boy, the son of an alcoholic mother, who grows up in his grandparents’ house after his father commits suicide. This coming of age tale, set in suburban New Jersey, promises to be a dark, unsettling, and emotional read, particularly when a ghostly POV and kidnapping ratchet up the danger and the drama. Expect to fall in love with Edgar, his sense of humor, and his remarkable hopefulness amid difficulties and danger.
The Devil and Webster, by Jean Hanff Korelitz
In her latest novel, bestseller Korelitz revisits the university setting of Admission. This time she’s not concerned with getting into college, but what happens once you’re there, specifically at a once-conservative campus that has turned increasingly progressive. As Webster College’s first female president, and a former demonstrator herself, Naomi Roth is initially in favor of all manner of inclusion and diversity, but when student protests erupt over a popular (and controversial) professor’s tenure rejection, she finds herself in an impossible situation. The public fight becomes personal when her own daughter joins the protest and falls in line behind a soft-spoken but extremely effective leader who is prepared to fan the flames of dissent at any cost.
The Arrangement, by Sarah Dunn
Fans of Maria Semple, Delia Ephron, and Candace Bushnell (all of whom blurbed the book) will delight in this smart, hilarious, sympathetic portrayal of a marriage temporarily “opened” to others. Having left NYC for the Hudson Valley, where they’re raising their autistic son, Owen and Lucy fear stagnation and irrelevance. Encouraged by friends to try out sex with other people, they agree to a six-month trial period, with pricelessly funny results. Dunn has extensive experience writing and producing TV shows, and her talent for pacing, comedic timing, and realistic relationships shines through.
Almost Missed You, by Jessica Strawser
An astounding debut from the editorial director of Writer’s Digest, Almost Missed You is the story of a marriage blown apart when the husband, Finn, takes off with his toddler son during a family vacation. Stunned, horror-struck, and desperate to get her child back, mother Violet seeks help from her friend, Caitlin, who’s being blackmailed by Finn—with whom she has a close-knit history. Her loyalties in tatters, Caitlin’s decision about whom to assist will have you breathlessly turning pages.
The Song Rising (Bones Season Series #3), by Samantha Shannon
Welcome back to the spirit realm! The third in a planned seven-book series, this exciting dystopian fantasy about Paige Mahoney, aka Pale Dreamer, a persistent and rebellious 19-year-old “dreamwalker” who leads the hated, hunted Unnaturals in London, remains relevant to modern political landscapes here and abroad. The totalitarian Scion seek to destroy their enemies through use of a Senshield, which alerts them to the presence and location of clairvoyants. Paige’s only chance of saving the Unnaturals who rely on her is to annihilate the Senshield and bring the fight directly to Scion. To do that she’ll need help from her ally and protector, Warden, a Netherworld humanoid who happens to be immortal.