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This year, with many of us stuck at home, our best chance of escape might be to crack open a book – whether it’s a comforting classic, the latest instalment in a beloved series or something entirely new. Here are our critics’ picks

The Globe and Mail


By Margaret Cannon

Illustration by The Globe and Mail

The Beautiful Mystery and How The Light Gets In, Louise Penny

One of the best getaways is Penny’s wonderful Three Pines series, set in a bucolic village in Quebec’s Eastern townships. From its charming bistro to its eccentric inhabitants, Penny has created a place everyone wants to visit. While these two are my personal favourites (the series includes 15 books so far), there are honestly no bad ones, so grab the first one you see and read back or forward as fancy takes you.

Ashes of London, Andrew Taylor

Taylor’s latest series is set in 17th-century London and begins with the Great Fire. Ashes Of London – the first book of four – introduces us to a brilliant young woman who dreams of being an architect in a world where women are chattel, and a new city due to rise thanks to a man named Christopher Wren. Books two and three, The Fire Court and The King’s Evil, follow Wren. The fourth and final volume, The Last Protector, came out in May.

Pegasus Descending and Tin Roof Blowdown, James Lee Burke

The death and rebirth of great cities is always a good place to start a story, and Burke is possibly the finest Southern author living. Pegasus Descending, which ends with the arrival of Hurricane Katrina, and Tin Roof Blowdown, which begins with its aftermath, are two of his best novels.

Obsidian, Thomas King

King’s Thumps Dreadfulwater is a marvellous character – stubborn and cranky, he’s a retired California cop who just wants to sink into retirement in the little prairie town of Chinook. He left California after his partner and her child were murdered, but unfortunately, crime follows him. Obsidian, the most recent book in the series, revisits that murder and draws from events in the previous four. You don’t have to start at book one – any of King’s Dreadfulwater novels will take you right out of your reading chair and into the action.

Fever, Deon Meyers

“I want to tell you about my father’s murder” is a great opening line that has stayed with me for years. Fever takes us into the heart of northern South Africa, to a village designed and built to save humanity from a plague. What happened there is told in retrospect, so the actual murder is 400 pages away – and if the suspense doesn’t keep you spellbound, the setting will. Fever is one of Meyers’s best, but I also loved Thirteen Hours, where a teenaged girl outwits and evades a pair of hired killers across a Cape Town mountain. I’d also recommend Meyers’s latest Benny Greissel book, The Last Hunt, which came out this past April.

Historical fiction

By Sarah Laing

Illustration by The Globe and Mail

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, Kim Michele Richardson

If you loved Where The Crawdads Sing, curl up with this haunting tale set in Depression-era Appalachia. Born in an isolated mountain holler, Bluet is the last of the “Kentucky Blues,” a real-life family with a genetic quirk that gives their complexions a purplish tinge. Her superstitious neighbours want nothing to do with her, but Bluet’s life changes when she’s appointed a librarian with the Pack Horse Library, which brings books into the remote, forgotten corners of America. Bittersweet and beautifully told, this one will resonate with anyone who’s ever had a book change their life.

The Lymond Chronicles, Dorothy Dunnett

Written in the 1960s, this classic series was doing sprawling, blood-soaked drama long before Game of Thrones was even a twinkle in George R.R. Martin’s eye. Set over six volumes with chess-themed titles (A Game of Kings, Queen’s Play and so on), it follows the triumphs and travails of Francis Crawford, the charismatic, complicated second son of a 16th-century Scottish noble house. There’s swashbuckling high adventure, yes, but plenty of emotional heft, family secrets and a star-crossed couple to out-tragedy Outlander’s Jamie and Claire.

Belgravia, Julian Fellowes

If you yearn for the comforting rhythms of Downton Abbey, but feel mildly ridiculous rewatching it (again), might we suggest a novel by the series’ creator instead? As the title suggests, this frothy soap is set in London’s ritziest postcode and follows the fortunes of two families that epitomize the seismic social changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution – old-blood aristocrats and nouveau-riche middle-class upstarts, thrown together by the birth of an illegitimate child. There’s plenty of upstairs-downstairs intrigue and the insider knowledge Fellowes is famed for. It’s been adapted into a television series currently airing in Britain, but don’t deprive yourself while we wait for it to cross the pond. This a jolly, uncomplicated romp, perfectly calibrated for maximum escapism.

An Extraordinary Union, Alyssa Cole

If you like your historical fiction to lean romantic, Cole should’ve been on your radar, like, last century. She walks a delicate line between an unflinching retelling of historical realities and the sort of swoon-worthy romance that has Tinder-weary modern folk reaching for their smelling salts. In this volume, set during the American Civil War, two unlikely allies – a former slave returning to the South to spy for the Union and a Pinkerton detective – team up for a story of espionage, intrigue and, naturally, passion.

Beheld, TaraShea Nesbit

New Plymouth, 1630: A man is murdered – the first to die by violence in the new colony. It’s been a decade since the Mayflower landed and the colonists’ dream of freedom is similarly dead, killed by long, harsh winters and the oppressive rule of the hard-line Puritans. While the story revolves around a murder trial, it’s much more about the people who narrate it – notably, the women whose voices have so long been absent from history. Masterfully plotted, this book grips you from the spine-crawling first sentence, holding you in its thrall through to its visceral, nightmare-inducing ending.

Middle grade

By Jeffrey Canton

Illustration by The Globe and Mail

The Silverwing trilogy, Kenneth Oppel (9–12)

The trilogy and its fantastic prequel, Darkwing, plunges readers into the world of Shade, a young Silverwing bat. The runt of his colony, Shade gets lost during a storm at sea en route to Hibernaculum, where his colony migrates annually. Alone, thousands of miles from friends and family, Shade is befriended by Marina, an Eastern red bat. What happens next is only the beginning of their adventures. Filled with fascinating bat facts, this series will keep readers on the edge of their seats. Bonus: You can hear Oppel reading from Silverwing on YouTube.

Sabriel, Garth Nix (14+)

This is the first book in Nix’s Old Kingdom series, which seamlessly mixes together a dazzling concoction of magic, adventure and the living dead. Sabriel receives an urgent message from her father, the Abhorsen, whose job is to use magic to put the dead to rest. Suddenly she finds herself having to battle the spirit of a powerful and evil necromancer who’s trying to come back to life. It’s up to Sabriel to stop him – but is she strong enough? This roller-coaster of a novel is the start of a great series.

The Blackthorn Key series, Kevin Sands (9-12)

If you like your magic a little more realistic, try Sands’s compelling series, which makes history come alive. Christopher Rowe, apprentice to Master Apothecary Benedict Blackthorn, is learning how to make potions, medicines and weapons from the simplest of ingredients. But someone is murdering London’s apothecaries in order to unleash a power that could destroy the whole world, and it’s up to Christopher to crack the cryptic code left to him by his master and stop whoever’s behind the vicious attacks.

The Nameless City trilogy, Faith Hicks (9-12)

This gripping graphic novel series focuses on a dangerously sinister puzzle. Rat is street-smart, acrobatic and angry, one of the people whose city has been conquered so many times that it’s now nameless. When she meets Kai, son of one of the city’s conquerors, she sees him as an enemy. But when the city is threatened, Rat and Kai must put aside their differences and use their strengths to save the day. The series is action-packed, but it’s also a fantastic way to explore questions of identity, difference and history.

The Swallow, Charis Cotter (9-12)

It’s 1963, and Rose and Polly meet in Toronto’s Necropolis cemetery. They quickly become friends but, as readers soon discover, one of the girls is a ghost. Is it Rose, whose family is so busy and boisterous that she feels invisible, or Polly, an only child who hardly ever sees her parents? Cotter is a master of the surprise ending and if you enjoy The Swallow, try the Newfoundlander’s other equally chilling books, The Painting and The Ghost Road.

Young adult

By Alec Scott

Illustration by The Globe and Mail

The Outsiders, S.E. Hinton

Every school has them – the kids from the wrong neighbourhood or the wrong family. In The Outsiders (which has never been out of print since its 1967 release), there’s a chasm between the Greasers, latch-key kids without a lot of home support, and the Socs, the rich and popular kids who get away with everything. Told from Greaser Pony Boy’s perspective, the book culminates in an all-out war between the in-crowd and his.

The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas

Violence is something 16-year-old Starr Carter, the African-American heroine of Thomas’s extraordinary 2017 book, knows all too well. At the book’s outset, one of her best friends, the driver of the car she’s in, gets shot and killed by a policeman.

The Crossover, Kwame Alexander

Young basketball fans missing the game might get a welcome fix from Alexander’s novel-in-verse about two brothers with hoop dreams. When it came out in 2014, it won the Newbery Medal and almost every other prize available. It goes deep inside the pursuit of excellence involved in sport, its agonies and ecstasies, while painting a solid picture of a family rising to face a big, off-court crisis.

A Wrinkle in Time, Madeline L’Engle

This groundbreaking fantasy novel, which won the Newbery after its release in 1962, focuses on two siblings – fierce, troubled Meg and her brilliant baby brother, Charles Wallace – who seek to liberate their scientist father from the grasp of an evil, cosmic empire. For earnest, imaginative kids, this could be the book, a touchstone for life, that speaks of the values that inspired great people to persist through tough times.

Ready Player One, Ernest Cline

Wade Watts is an orphan in a degraded world who escapes into a multiplanet virtual-reality universe put together by a fan of 1980s pop culture. This world has a puzzle at its centre, set out in its creator’s will, solvable only by those who’ve learned everything there is to know about that era, from its movies to its primitive video games. Cline’s book owes a big debt to Ellen Raskin’s 1978 YA novel The Westing Game, which also has a plot driven by a series of tough puzzles set out in a tycoon’s will.

From Anna, Jean Little

Little’s deceptively simple 1972 book tracks the flight of a family from Hitler’s Germany to Toronto, and the challenges the girl her siblings call Awkward Anna has within her family and without, trying to master a new language and a new society’s rules.

Science fiction

By Peter Nowak

Illustration by The Globe and Mail

Dune, Frank Herbert

Paul Atreides is the young heir to an aristocratic family charged by a mysterious galactic emperor with overseeing a hostile desert planet. Before long, House Atreides finds itself in conflict with the evil Harkonnen family, and Paul is sent to live in the desert with the native Fremen. There, he learns how to access mysterious powers and tap into his larger destiny. If it sounds a little like the original Star Wars, that’s no coincidence – George Lucas is widely believed to have taken inspiration from Dune, published in 1965.

Neuromancer, William Gibson

Gibson effectively launched the cyberpunk sub-genre in 1984 with this wildly imaginative story set in a near-futuristic world populated by console cowboys and street samurai. Unable to connect to the global computer network known as “cyberspace," disgraced hacker Henry Case goes up against a malevolent artificial intelligence named Wintermute. Neuromancer is a fast-paced mash-up of everything that was great about the 1980s – fantastical imaginings of what the internet and cybernetically enhanced humans were going to look like, geopolitical intrigue involving the Soviets and, of course, Japanese ninja fighting.

Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson

Stephenson super-charged cyberpunk in 1992 in this high-speed, darkly funny tale of skateboarding, samurai swords and Sumerian legends. Like Neuromancer, Snow Crash features a hacker – cheekily named Hiro Protagonist – who, along with a courier named YT (Yours Truly), becomes embroiled in a villainous plot to take over the world. Their America is easily recognizable – it’s ruled by corporations that have franchised everything, including police forces and churches. The villain’s main tool, a computer virus that can spread to humans, also touches on current reality.

The Three-Body Problem, Liu Cixin

Originally published in China in 2008, this was the first Asian novel to win the Hugo Award, in 2015. The title refers to the three-body problem in orbital mechanics – an equation that calculates the movement of a trio of particles or planets. Cixin ties mathematics, China’s Cultural Revolution and a potential alien invasion into a story that’s part murder mystery, part apocalyptic cautionary tale. Fans of the novel include George R.R. Martin and Barack Obama. Liu expanded the book into a trilogy, so there’s lots to read.

Robopocalypse, Daniel H. Wilson

Wilson’s modern-day take on The Terminator is a page-turner in which a handful of characters come together to battle Archos R-14, an artificial intelligence gone awry. The war between humans and machines gets a little out there at points, but Wilson roots enough of the story in current technology to make it seem plausible. It’s a breezy read, and you can almost see the movie in your head (Steven Spielberg was developing a film version before veering off into other projects), but there’s also enough to make you think about what limits should be placed on AI.

Graphic novels

By Sean Rogers

Illustration by The Globe and Mail

Epileptic, David B., translated by Kim Thompson

In the midst of physical distancing, reading an autobiography can put us in close contact with another person’s life. The connection French artist David B. offers is fraught, as we watch grand mal seizures afflict his brother and agonize his family. But David’s turn to art – layering byzantine patterns of visual metaphor throughout the book – models one way of bearing up under life-changing circumstance.

The Greatest of Marlys, Lynda Barry

There are no better companions, during a long stay inside, than young Marlys Mullen, Barry’s freckle-faced force of nature and her mixed-up, fractious, blue-collar family. In their down-at-heel but wondrous world, there’s always unassuming beauty in the tawdriness of everyday life, so long as you pay attention: a pop song playing on big sister’s radio or the sound of a basketball bouncing at dusk.

Here, Richard McGuire

Tired of staring at the same four walls? McGuire’s Here will enliven them for you. Beginning by looking intently at the corner of an ordinary room and without ever changing perspective, Here explores the entire existence of that speck of space, from prehistoric times, through the 20th century and on into the distant future. Here opens up the circumscribed onto the infinite.

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Hayao Miyazaki

In comics, the best kind of complex, richly detailed narratives come from Japan – and now there’s time to immerse yourself in them. This sci-fi eco-parable stands out thanks to Miyazaki’s status as beloved filmmaker, but this book’s massive scope makes his movies look modest. Nausicaä’s determined heroine and its guarded optimism about rebuilding after catastrophe continue to resonate today.

The Complete Peanuts 1963-1966, by Charles Schulz

Happiness may be a warm blanket, as Linus has famously said, but to me, happiness is curling up with a collection of classic comic strips. For pure, warm comfort – much needed these days – nothing beats Peanuts, especially in its mid-60s stride. Charlie Brown is at his loneliest, Lucy’s at her bossiest, Snoopy’s at his most absurd, and all the jokes hide profound insights.

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