Is your bedside to-be-read pile rapidly morphing into an eye-high room divider? Yeah, mine too. And I’ve got bad news for you: there are a few more books you’ll be wanting to add to it soon. Big names like Sheila Heti (Motherhood), Michael Ondaatje (Warlight), David Chariandy (I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You) and Rachel Kushner (The Mars Room) all have excellent new works slated for release in May. (Check out my 2018 preview that ran in January for more on those.) As spring prepares to, er, spring, I have one or seventeen other suggestions for your consideration, too.
For a hustler, a cultish island community, and a narrator with no name:
A tale of young love, young dreams and identity, The Parking Lot Attendant (March, Henry Holt & Co.), a debut novel by Nafkote Tamirat, is the coming of age story of an unnamed teenage girl in Boston’s Ethiopian community. The story begins on a nameless island where the narrator and her father are the two newest inhabitants, before rewinding to the narrator’s life in Boston and her relationship with Ayale, a parking lot attendant and born hustler.
For a devastating story of anguish and love, and of a woman finding her power to speak:
In her debut memoir Heart Berries (March, Doubleday Canada), Terese Marie Mailhot tells a story of family dysfunction and abuse, and of a personal reckoning with mental illness. Tough subject matter, yes, but she approaches it with a disarming and often devastating turn of phrase and the evocation of the fragmentary nature of memory. This is a powerful story about inter-generational trauma and personal shame, but also about love, forgiveness and the power of words to offer hope.
For must-read fiction with its finger on the political pulse:
Meg Wolitzer is beloved by legions of readers around the world for her strong female characters, her sharply observed depiction of family relationships and her prescient ability to keep publishing novels that are heralded as “of the moment,” whatever the moment in which they happen to be published. To her required-reading backlist including The Interestings and The Ten Year Nap, Wolitzer now adds The Female Persuasion (April, Riverhead Books), a #MeToo-moment novel about power, ambition, friendship and the ideals we carry with us into adulthood.
For a Kafka-esque novel based on a true story of madness:
Published in Britain by Galley Beggar Press – an indie house that garnered an avalanche of attention after Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing became a multi-award-winning sensation – Brit Alex Pheby’s second novel, Playthings (April, Biblioasis), has been extremely warmly received both in Britain and in the United States. A Kafka-esque tale that blurs the lines between madness and sanity, it is a fictional telling of one of the most famous psychotherapy cases in history: Daniel Paul Schreber’s psychosis.
For a multicultural, multigenerational story of reconciling traditional family with new:
French-Iranian author Negar Djavadi’s debut novel Disoriental (April, Europa Editions) has already won a whole slew of awards in France, where it was also a bestseller. Available now in an English translation by Tina Kover, it’s the autobiographical-ish story of a young woman who, along with her family, fled Iran at the age of 10 for a new life in France. Now in her twenties and contemplating the prospect of the next generation as she sits in the waiting room of a Paris fertility clinic, the narrator thinks back on her family history and culture in a kaleidoscope story worthy of Scheherazade.
For a writer who’s defining what queer Indigenous writing can be:
Following his 2017 poetry debut, full-metal indigiqueer, Oji-Cree writer Joshua Whitehead is preparing to launch his debut novel Jonny Appleseed (April, Arsenal Pulp Press) this spring. Whitehead is breaking out as a major new voice, and Jonny Appleseed – a story about a two-spirit Indigiqueer young man and “proud NDN glitter princess” – promises to appeal to readers of Raziel Reid’s When Everything Feels Like the Movies or Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves ( both Governor General’s Literary Award-winners).
For poetic prose and a story of personal reinvention:
Kim Thúy’s novels are as compact as her tiny titles might suggest – Ru and Mãn clocked in at 160 pages each – but their poetic contents punch well above their weight in terms of story and emotional heft. With Vi (April, Random House Canada), translated from French by Sheila Fischman, Canada Reads and Governor General’s Literary Award-winner Thúy once again explores the lives, loves and struggles of Vietnamese refugees as they reinvent themselves in new lands after the war.
For a searing personal account of the devastations and new beginnings wrought by fleeing one’s country:
One of the biggest buzz non-fiction books coming down the pipe this season is In Praise of Blood by investigative journalist Judi Rever: a ground-breaking work that significantly changes what we know about the Rwandan genocide. For a more personal account, there’s also The Girl Who Smiled Beads: A Story of War and What Comes After by Clemantine Wamariya and Elizabeth Weil (April, Doubleday Canada). Praised by the likes of Junot Diaz, who calls Wamariya “as fiercely talented as she is courageous,” this memoir – Wamariya’s personal account of fleeing the Rwandan massacre at the age of six with her older sister – promises to be a painful but beautiful book about the life that war takes away and the new life created in its wake.
For a father’s desperate search for his ISIS-indoctrinated daughters:
Norwegian journalist Åsne Seierstad first came to international notice in the early 2000s with her wonderful and internationally bestselling The Bookseller of Kabul. A dense and harrowing account of Anders Breivik’s massacre of 69 young people at an island camp in Norway, One of Us, followed in 2015. Now, she turns her focus to the Islamic State and Syrian civil war with Two Sisters: A Father, His Daughters, and their Journey into the Syrian Jihad (April, Farrar, Straus and Giroux), which follows the story of two sisters – Norwegian-raised Somali women – who leave their family to join ISIS, and their father who attempts to find them.
For an epic historical novel informed by an author’s experiences of war:
Iraq war veteran Kevin Powers published his debut novel, The Yellow Birds, in 2012 and it was heart-stopping. I wept my way through its emotionally fraught 160 pages on a trans-Atlantic flight, drawing concerned sideways glances from my seat-neighbour. Powers’ sophomore novel, A Shout in the Ruins (May, Little, Brown & Co.), once again marries the author’s intimate personal experiences of the violence of war with his flair for a damn fine sentence, this time in a century-spanning historical novel that begins in antebellum Virginia and traces the American Civil War’s lasting effects until the 1980s.
For an unreliable narrator to keep you guessing as you fly through the pages:
In her award-winning debut, Elizabeth Is Missing, Emma Healey delighted readers with a page-turner in the Memento vein starring Maud, an elderly woman with dementia. Similarly thriller-like in its execution, Whistle in the Dark (May, Knopf Canada) serves up a psychologically complex story, though this time with a young heroine who appears to be lying when she says she can’t remember.
For a bibliophilic accompaniment to Paul Simon’s farewell tour:
Reading books about hugely famous people functions, for me, as a kind of amuse-bouche to whatever else is going on in the world: real life, but on a parallel, famous-person planet where normal rules and consequences don’t apply. Cue Paul Simon: The Life (May, Simon & Schuster) for my spring reading pile. Published to coincide with the beginning of Paul Simon’s farewell tour, this tome from acclaimed biographer and music critic Robert Hilburn is billed as an intimate portrait of the deeply private Simon and his work. Prepare to hum a Paul Simon soundtrack as you read.
For essential food for thought on what it means to be male today:
Readers of Rachel Giese’s journalism may already be familiar with some of her research into masculinity today. In Boys: What it Means to Become a Man (May, Patrick Crean Editions), Giese questions our narrow definitions of masculinity and explores how traditional notions such as “boys don’t cry” and “man up” could soon make way for a revolution in how we raise young men. Are young men and boys subjected to damaging messages about manliness? This one is set to become required reading, especially for people (like me) raising little boys.
For a big-buzz debut novel and a powerful story of the Native American experience:
Along with fellow 2018 buzz author Terese Marie Mailhot (above), Tommy Orange is a recent grad of the MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts in New Mexico, and his debut novel has been gathering advance praise aplenty. Blurbed by Canadian novelists from Margaret Atwood to Omar El Akkad (author of one of my absolute favourite novels of 2017), There There (June, McClelland & Stewart) tells the intersecting stories of attendees of the Big Oakland Powwow in a multigenerational tale about the contemporary urban Native American experience.
For canonical perspectives on truth in an age of fake news:
More than 70 years after it was first published, George Orwell’s 1984 remains a fairly robust seller. But in early 2017 a White House aide’s casual reference to the use of “alternative facts” saw it instantly catapulted to the top of the bestseller lists. So, as discussions of truth and fake news play out on our nightly newscasts, it’s good timing for Orwell on Truth (June, Harvill Secker), a collection of Orwell’s writing taken both from his novels and his non-fiction, gathering his thoughts – good and two legs bad – on the subject of truth.
For a beautiful pillow book and modern-day “A Room of One’s Own”:
And finally, speaking of Orwell – Things I Don’t Want to Know by Deborah Levy (July, Hamish Hamilton) is a fabulous little memoir (part one of a trilogy, actually) that was written as a response to Orwell’s Why I Write. I read this when it was first released in Britain as a gorgeous little hardcover by indie publisher Notting Hill Editions. This July, it finally makes its way to Canada. Lucky you! Levy is a respected playwright, and two of her novels – the brilliant Swimming Home and Hot Milk – have been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. In this “living autobiography,” Levy offers reflections on the writing life and womanhood. It is a small and beautiful book, worth every bit of its real estate in your to-be-read room divider.
Becky Toyne is the “Should I Read It?” columnist for Day 6 on CBC Radio One.