The most anticipated of seasons brings with it, as ever, some almost-as-anticipated tomes. In fiction there are a slew of promising novelistic debuts (two by Indigenous writers from the Maritimes, another by a septuagenarian); two novels about frustrated actors (one in Canada, the other Palestine); and a new Deborah Levy (huzzah!).
In non-fiction, there are books about plagues that aren’t COVID, and multiple titles that look at various dark sides … of Ukraine, of capitalism, of religion, of beautiful things and – admittedly a lot if not most of these titles will fall under this category – human nature itself.
‘You’ve gotta read this’: The books Globe staff are loving right now
The New Earth, Jess Row (HarperCollins, March)
In his previous books, including the brilliant Your Face in Mine, Jess Row forayed into the well-trod territory of race and identity, but in a way that felt thrillingly provocative rather than button-pushing. He continues that bent (even takes it up a notch, with an Israel-Palestine side narrative) in his ambitious latest, dubbed “magisterial” by one prominent outlet, about an unhappy Jewish family from New York’s Upper West Side beset by issues of what and how to be.
White Cat, Black Dog, Kelly Link (Random House, March)
The Pulitzer finalist’s new collection is a series of wonderfully strange and funny retellings of classic fairy tales and lore. Borges meets Succession in the first, in which a young man enlists the help of a green-eyed white cat who runs a rural cannabis operation to fulfill a series of increasingly capricious requests from his billionaire father as the latter grapples with choosing an heir from among his three sons.
Enter Ghost, Isabella Hammad (Grove, April)
The young Palestinian writer’s new novel, after the stellar The Parisian, is centred around a performance of Hamlet, not in the West End, but in the West Bank, after the main character, an actor named Sonia, comes from London to visit her sister in Haifa. The book is about the sometimes uncomfortable intersection between art and life, but the tension is there right on the book’s opening page, with Sonia getting strip-searched upon her arrival in Israel.
Grimmish, Michael Winkler (Coach House, April)
Michael Winkler’s novel was a cult sensation in his native Australia, where it was the first self-published book in history to be shortlisted for the country’s most prestigious prize, the Miles Franklin Award (one publisher rejected it as “repellent”). A fictionalized account of the life of the Rasputin-like Italian-American boxer Joe Grim (b. 1881), who went from Australia’s national boxing circuit to a mental asylum in Perth, the novel has amassed some stellar blurbs, including from Helen Garner “meets a need I didn’t know I had” and J.M. Coetzee: “The strangest book you are likely to read this year.”
Places Like These, Lauren Carter (Book*hug, April)
A first collection of stories by the novelist and poet whose last book, This Has Nothing to Do With You, won the Margaret Laurence Award for Fiction at the Manitoba Book Awards (where she was also declared the province’s most promising writer). Despite some far-flung locales – Argentina, Hawaii, Ecuador, San Francisco – the focus of these tales is on the inside of their characters’ minds, and the seemingly inconclusive moments that make up their lives.
Snow Road Station, Elizabeth Hay (Knopf, April)
The 2008 financial crash provides a background score for the Giller-winner’s quiet new novel about Lulu, a sexagenarian actress who, after flubbing her lines while performing Beckett in Ottawa (“Can’t you make it up? Who would know?” asks an ex-lover on behalf of all of us), beats it to the home of her old friend Nan, who’s been living a decidedly un-Beckettian existence in the Northern Ontario town of the title.
The Berry Pickers, Amanda Peters (HarperCollins, April)
Amanda Peters’s 1962-set debut was inspired by her Mi’kmaq father’s stories about crossing the border from Nova Scotia into Maine each summer to pick berries with other Indigenous labourers. From that setup emerges a tale that moves between past and present to show the reverberations for a Mi’kmaq family whose four-year-old daughter is stolen during berry-picking season and raised by a local white family.
The Colony of Good Hope, Kim Leine (Pan MacMillan, April)
First published in Danish in 2019, now in an English translation that impressively captures its polyphonic narrative, Kim Leine’s historical novel takes us to early 18th-century Greenland, where Denmark’s King Frederik IV has dispatched an expedition to discover the fate of a colony he established there some years previously. It’s not a pretty picture. The colonizers are plagued by the usual stuff – scurvy, smallpox, consumption – but also by Aappaluttoq, a local shaman who claims, through his time-travelling powers, to have seen Jesus nailed to the cross, and who unnerves the interlopers by predicting the death of their monarch.
The Covenant of Water, Abraham Verghese (Grove, May)
The Addis Ababa-born American doctor’s second novel is even heftier than his substantial, bestselling first, Cutting for Stone (2009). As in the latter, surgery features prominently in this multigenerational story that begins in 1900, on India’s Malabar Coast, where a 12-year-old girl has been promised in marriage to a 40-year-old widower with a young son whose family has been disproportionately afflicted by drownings. Counterintuitively, she’s being sent there by boat.
This Is Not Miami, Fernanda Melchor (New Directions, April)
Many of the stories in this collection by an author hailed as the next big thing in Latin American literature are written in a genre known as cronica, a blend of reportage and interpretation that has no obvious equivalent in English. Set in and around Veracruz, Fernanda Melchor’s hometown, each is spare and grippingly devastating in its own way, as with the tale of a glitzy carnival queen who, in 1989, murdered her two young boys and buried their remains in planter pots on her balcony.
A Grandmother Begins the Story, Michelle Porter (Viking, May)
A kind of novel-in-the-round told from the viewpoints of five Métis women from different generations (at least one of whom isn’t alive). Salty, irreverent humour abounds, even in ostensibly serious situations; to wit: a woman’s estranged grandmother calls and asks for help killing herself, then acts put out when she refuses: “Like I said, I never met her before she dropped this on me. And she didn’t have the guts to ask in person.”
Landscapes, Christine Lai (Doubleday, May)
After her English country estate is brought to the edge ruin by a series of ecological disasters, a woman sets about creating an archive of its books and art before its scheduled demolition and the arrival of her partner’s brother, at whose hands she suffered violence two decades previously. Written in the form of a diary, this first novel by the Vancouver-based, British-educated Christine Lai was shortlisted for the inaugural Novel Prize, offered by New Directions Publishing, Fitzcarraldo Editions and Giramondo Publishing.
The Adult, Bronwyn Fischer (Random House, May)
In this coming-of-age-and-out first novel, Natalie, an 18-year-old freshman, arrives at U of T from Northern Ontario and almost immediately gets drawn into a relationship with Nora, a divorced grant writer who lives off-campus, prompting a grappling with innocence and identity: “When Nora spoke,” muses Natalie, “it felt like a trick.”
The Postcard, Anne Berest (Europa, May)
Anne Berest’s sweeping autofictional family saga, which traces threads of antisemitism in France from the Holocaust to the present day, has been a sensation in that country, scooping up a basketful of prizes, and being made a finalist for the prestigious Goncourt. Berest herself has an intriguing pedigree: On top of being a Chanel ambassador and actress, she’s the great-granddaughter of avant-garde artist Francis Picabia and French Resistance fighter Gabriele Buffet-Picabia, Marcel Duchamp’s one-time lover and muse.
August Blue, Deborah Levy (Hamish Hamilton, June)
A new novel by Deborah Levy is always cause for celebration. This one, the first on the heels of her critically lauded “living autobiography,” is about a classical pianist who tries to buy – as one does – some mechanical dancing horses at an Athens flea market, only to be scooped by a woman who may (or may not) be her doppelganger. A chase, real and existential, across Europe ensues.
‘You’ve gotta read this’: The books Globe staff are loving right now
Dreaming Home, Lucian Childs (Biblioasis, June)
This queer coming-of-age, told as a series of interlinked stories from six points of view over a 40-year period, is based in part on the author’s experiences in AIDS-era San Francisco. American-born, Toronto-based Lucian Childs, as you’ll glean from that last detail, came of age some time ago, but is still embracing new rites of passage: Though his stories have appeared in literary journals since the early aughts, he’s making his book-publishing debut at the tender age of 74.
Let It Destroy You, Harriet Alida Lye (M&S, June)
Agent Orange, leaded gas, the internet – to the long list of well-intended inventions gone wrong you can add the cobalt bomb, which the Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard developed in the 1950s with the aim of curing his daughter’s cancer, but which (counterproductively) turned out to be capable of destroying the entire world. Inspired by the letters Szilard wrote to his wife, Trude Weiss, over two decades, Harriet Alida Lye’s novel begins with a Szilard-based character awaiting trial at the International War Crimes Court in The Hague before taking readers back to the origins of his infernal creation.
The Whispers, Ashley Audrain (Penguin, June)
In her first novel, a buzzy psychological thriller titled The Push, the former publicity director of Penguin Canada took some well-aimed swings at the temple white middle-class motherhood. She continues that desecration in her second, which opens with picture-perfect suburban barbecue, where a mom publicly loses her cool and subjects her child to a potty-mouthed tirade. Bad enough, but later that night he falls from his bedroom window and ends up hospitalized.
Crack-Up Capitalism, Quinn Slobodian (Metropolitan Books, April)
A sobering look at how unfettered capitalism is undermining democracies worldwide through the creation of tax- and regulation-free zones, gated communities and micronations by those who profit most from such arrangements (a.k.a. billionaires and governments). “A hundred years ago, the robber barons built libraries. Today, they build spaceships,” writes the Massachusetts-based Canadian historian. If they do go back to building libraries, this book probably won’t be in them.
After the Miracle: The Political Crusades of Helen Keller, Max Wallace (Grand Central, April)
Thanks to films such as The Miracle Worker, the enduring image of Helen Keller is of a helpless, deaf and blind child saved from her sensory prison by the heroic interventions of her companion, Annie Sullivan. Max Wallace here aims to correct the record by portraying Keller as the “radical socialist firebrand” she was in later life; one who leveraged her celebrity to crusade for women’s and minority rights and, earlier out of the gate than most, to fight against South African apartheid. (Uncomfortably for many Americans who shared her views, she remained sympathetic to the USSR and communist ideology.)
Courting India: Seventeenth-Century England, Mughal India, and the Origins of Empire, Nandini Das (Pegasus, April)
When Thomas Roe became its first ambassador to India on behalf of King James and fledgling East India Company, in 1615, England hadn’t yet developed imperial ambitions. What it did have was a taste for fine goods such as silks, cottons and spices, all of which India had in spades. The author, a professor at Oxford, did some formidable sleuthing to bring to life – at times hour by hour – the four years this erstwhile minor figure spent in the sumptuous, cultured court of Emperor Jahangir.
Into the Amazon: The Life of Candido Rondon, Trailblazing Explorer, Scientist, Statesman, and Conservationist, Larry Rohter (Norton, April)
Though little known here, the charismatic Candido Rondon was a household name in his native Brazil (which named a state for him). An army colonel of Indigenous descent, he guided a floundering Theodore Roosevelt on a scientific expedition through the Amazon in 1914 and later took on the monumental task of connecting remote jungle communities by telegraph line. In an echo of current issues affecting the region, however, his passionate work protecting Native tribes and the environment was largely undone by groups seeking to exploit the Amazon for economic gain.
Ordinary Notes, Christina Sharpe (Knopf, April)
In this hefty book – in both the literal and metaphoric senses – Christina Sharpe, an American academic who, among several titles, holds the Canada Research Chair in Black Studies in the Humanities at York University, builds a vision of modern Blackness out of 248 brief notes, which Sharpe has interspersed with private photographs, quotes and art. The mood is introspective, elegiac: Note 198: “Some things I remember but they no longer live on the surface of my days.”
Outsider, Brett Popplewell (HarperCollins, April)
Brett Popplewell dubs his enigmatic subject, Dag Aabye – who overcame an ignominious start after his unwed mother left him at an orphanage in Nazi-occupied Norway to forge a career as a Hollywood stunt double and extreme skier – “the last of the Ubermensch.” Aabye would later give it all up to live as a virtual recluse in a school bus on the side of a mountain in B.C.’s Okanagan Valley, where today, at 81, he runs ridiculous distances day and night, and is one of the oldest known ultramarathoners.
Pathogenesis: A History of the World in Eight Plagues, Jonathan Kennedy (M&S/Signal, April)
We may be done with plagues, but plagues aren’t done with us, if history is anything to go by – and it generally is. The author, a British sociologist, looks at the form plagues have taken from paleolithic through industrial times, and at how various “great men” – Charlemagne, Martin Luther, George Washington among them – have taken advantage of the political opportunities epidemics sometimes create. During COVID, people used the term “unprecedented” a lot; they won’t after reading this book.
The Ugly History of Beautiful Things: Essays on Desire and Consumption, Katy Kelleher (Simon & Schuster, April)
A lifelong interest in the attraction-repulsion dynamic, which she relates to her struggles with depression and suicidal thoughts, led Katy Kelleher to write this elegantly written compendium of aesthetically pleasing things and the unpleasing reality that lurks beneath them. A case in point are perfumes, some of which rely on the chemical compounds found in feces and decaying corpses as well the anal-gland secretions of purposefully terrified civets for their heavenly scents.
Unearthing: A Story of Tangled Love and Family Secrets, Kyo Maclear (Knopf, April)
When Kyo Maclear decided to do a DNA test following the 2018 death of her father, it wasn’t out of any sense of “fetishistic wonder” about her mixed-race origins (her Japanese mother, Mariko, was an art student when she met the Canadian journalist Michael Maclear while the latter was on assignment in Tokyo in the late 1960s). Maclear’s subsequent discovery that Michael wasn’t her biological father – and that her mother knew this – was the spark for this book, which relates the award-winning children’s author’s ensuing journey in contemplative fragments.
White Riot: The 1907 Anti-Asian Riots in Vancouver, Henry Tsang (Arsenal Pulp, April)
Henry Tsang’s book is based on a walking tour the Vancouver artist and professor has been leading for years around the route taken by a mob that attacked the city’s Japanese and Chinese communities at the beginning of the past century. Historical photos, many of them beautifully colourized, anchor essays by a series of contributors who put the riots into contemporary context, including the recent rise of anti-Asian racism.
Agent of Change: My Life Fighting Terrorists, Spies, and Institutional Racism, Huda Mukbil (McGill-Queens UP, May)
Huda Mukbil made a name for herself fighting terrorism as a CSIS intelligence officer in the post-9/11 early aughts (a Black Muslim, she was, for a time, the only officer at the agency who spoke Arabic), getting recruited by Britain’s MI5 even as her Canadian colleagues suspected she might pose an inside threat. In her memoir, she details that period and how she ended up blowing the whistle on workplace harassment and filing a civil lawsuit against CSIS for discrimination.
Fortune’s Bazaar: The Making of Hong Kong, Vaudine England (Scribner, May)
Vaudine England (a confusing name, in context) builds a social history of Hong Kong not through the competing Chinese and British mythologies that have sought to define and control it, but through the stories of ambitious newcomers – Malay, Jewish, Portuguese, Zoroastrian, Parsi, Chindian – and eccentric personalities that, over the course of centuries, have made the sui generis, ever-evolving port city what it is. At least for now.
I Felt the End Before it Came: Memoirs of a Queer Ex-Jehovah’s Witness, Daniel Allen Cox (Viking, May)
For Daniel Allen Cox, the road from his Jehovah’s Witness baptism, at age 13, in an inflatable Canadian Tire pool in an Ottawa minor hockey league arena to peddling The Watchtower after school to doing sex work in Giuliani-era New York to writing novels has been a long one. In this memoir, he confronts his continuing disentanglement from the church that for 18 years “taught me to hate myself.”
The Autumn Ghost: How the Battle Against a Polio Epidemic Revolutionized Modern Medical Care, Hannah Wunsch (Greystone, May)
Hannah Wunsch, a critical-care physician in Toronto, spins mid-last-century’s polio epidemic – as it played out in Copenhagen in the fall of 1952 leading up to the creation of a breakthrough vaccine – into a medical suspense story. Driving it forward are two doctors with distinct insider/outsider personalities, Henry Cai Alexander Lassen and Bjorn Aage Ibsen, and a cast of more than 1,000 medical and dental students who – in the pre-ICU and ventilator era – heroically kept individual patients alive by sitting at their bedsides and helping them to breathe over gruelling eight-hour shifts.
Tracking Giants: Big Trees, Tiny Triumphs, and Misadventures in the Forest, Amanda Lewis (Greystone, May)
Amanda Lewis’s original aim writing this book – to personally track down all of B.C.’s biggest trees – was so comically grandiose that only an inexperienced newbie and devoted “indoorswoman” such as herself could have come up with it. Reality, and a pandemic, soon forced the book editor to reframe her quest into something more open and inquisitive.
Ukrainian Scorpions: A Tale of Larceny and Greed, Grand Chief Ronald M. Derrickson (ECW, May)
In light of its brutal invasion by Russia, it’s become verboten to speak ill of Ukraine. Grand Chief Ronald M. Derrickson, an Indigenous leader and wildly successful businessman from B.C., bears no ill will toward the Ukrainian people as a whole, but has little good to say about the “gangster class” that has ruled that country (and that continues to have a cozy relationship with Canadian officials). In this memoir-exposé, he describes how a decades-long involvement with Ukraine led to him being bilked out of his $28-million investment in an agricultural company there.
Unsettled: Lord Selkirk’s Scottish Colonists and the Battle for Canada’s West, 1813-1816, Robert Lower (ECW, June)
Robert Lower, a filmmaker, sifted through 20,000 pages of archival material to extract the story of 250 Scottish refugees – one of whom was his great-great-grandfather, a millwright named Samuel Lamont – who came to the Red River Settlement, site of present-day Winnipeg, following their brutal displacement during the Highland Clearances. On arrival, you’ll have guessed, the group found not a blank slate, but a land already occupied by several others hostile to their intentions, among them fur traders, plains peoples and a nascent Métis Nation.
The Earth Transformed: An Untold History, Peter Frankopan (Knopf, April)
The author of 2015′s bestselling The Silk Roads offers a big-picture view of our current climactic predicament by showing how extreme and long-term weather patterns and events, including the civilization-obliterating floods that appear in many ancient texts, have influenced the course of human history going back millennia.
The Human Scale: Murder, Mischief and Other Selected Mayhems, Michael Lista (Véhicule, May)
This collection of Michael Lista’s true-crime writing from Toronto Life and The Walrus – much of it a rogue’s gallery of murderers, con artists and grifters – is enlivened by detailed postscripts describing what happened with each piece after publication. Lista, a poet, believes his vocation has given him certain advantages in the true-crime world. Extracting human stories from legal procedure and bureaucracy is a goal, he writes: “worthier … than the structure of a sonnet but one that poetry had equipped me to crack like a safe.”
The World at My Back, Thomas Melle (Biblioasis, May)
Originally published in 2016 in Germany, where it was critically lauded, shortlisted for a handful of prizes and mounted as a play, Thomas Melle’s book takes readers on an at times shockingly articulate tour his “nuclear” version of bipolar disorder (so-called because of its excessively prolonged manias and depressions). During manic episodes, Melle suffered paranoid psychoses that caused him to sell off his beloved book collection – twice – and to believe he’d had sex with Madonna and Bjork. Depressive phases, conversely, left him in “total despair” or “numb emptiness and amorphic gloom.”
Battle of Ink and Ice: A Sensational Story of News Barons, North Pole Explorers, and the Making of Modern Media, Darrell Hartman (Viking, June)
Fin de siècle adventurers and newspapers often enjoyed mutual beneficial relationships, with the latter funding the former’s exploits so they could have exclusive rights to their reader-pleasing tales of derring-do. Darrell Hartman recounts how that arrangement went awry with two New York papers, the Herald and the Times, who, in backing the competing Arctic explorers Cook and Peary, inadvertently ended up battling about the nature of truth and laid the sorry foundation for today’s corporate media landscape.