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Tis the season for cold drinks and hot reads. Even if you can’t spend the next two months lolling on a beach (or going anywhere, really), we’ve got picks that’ll take you from ancient Troy to Renaissance Florence to Antarctica with a starving bunch of 19th-century explorers to the greed-is-good world of finance in the 1980s. Plus we have haunting thrillers, poetry, family dramas, graphic novels, nature memoirs and up-to-the-minute ruminations on gender identity, racism and the impact of the pandemic.
The Other Black Girl, Zakiya Dalila Harris (Atria, June)
If you like your summer buzzy and cicadas aren’t your thing, then consider this monster debut by an ex-Knopf Doubleday employee – a sharp social satire about a Black editorial assistant who finds her otherwise cozy position at a lilywhite Manhattan publishing house upended by the arrival of another Black girl with unnervingly unassailable bona fides.
The Great Mistake, Jonathan Lee (Knopf, June)
Despite having played a key role in the restructuring of New York into five boroughs (the response to which lent this novel its title) and the creation of Central Park, Andrew Haswell Green is a largely forgotten figure today. Lee aims to rectify this through a novel that is part Gilded-Age whodunnit – Green was murdered in front of his Park Avenue home in 1903, at 83 years old – part fictional biography, all rendered in the author’s quietly elegant prose.
Lucia, Alex Pheby (Biblioasis, June)
An air of mystery has always clung to Lucia Joyce – daughter of writer James, dancer and lover of, among others, Samuel Beckett and Alexander Calder – partly because much of her life was spent in mental institutions, though it didn’t help that the Joyce estate decided to burn major chunks of her correspondence. In an original, bravura turn, British novelist Alex Pheby tells Lucia’s story from the perspective of the various men around her (spoiler alert: none come off well).
And Miles to go Before I Sleep, Jocelyne Saucier (Coach House, June)
Saucier’s well-received previous novel, And the Birds Rained Down, was the first Canadian title to win France’s international Prix des Cinq Continents de la Francophonie. It was also turned into a 2019 feature film. This novel, like its predecessor (also translated by Rhonda Mullins), is concerned with the lives of elderly Northern Ontarians, in this case one Gladys Comeau, who vanishes shortly after she boards a train in the (real) town of Swastika.
What Strange Paradise, Omar El Akkad ( McClelland & Stewart, July)
This follow-up to the Canadian-Egyptian journalist’s well-received 2017 debut, American War, weaves back and forth through time in telling the story of nine-year-old Amir Utu, a Syrian refugee who unwittingly undertakes a perilous, multiday voyage by fishing boat to Alexandria.
A Passage North, Anuk Arudpragasam (Hogarth, July)
This ruminative, elegant sophomore effort by the Sri Lankan-American writer uses a simple premise – a young man travelling by train from Colombo to attend the village funeral of his grandmother’s caregiver – as the scaffold for a portrait of a country still reeling in the aftermath of its decades-long civil war.
Her Turn, Katherine Ashenburg (Knopf, July)
Set in Washington during Hillary Clinton’s run for the 2015 U.S. presidential primary, Ashenburg’s second novel (her first was published when she was 72) is a Nora Ephron-esque comedy of social manners revolving around Liz, a middle-aged newspaper columnist whose life starts to unravel after she receives a whinging personal essay by her ex-husband’s lover, now his wife.
We Want What We Want, Alix Ohlin (Anansi/Astoria, July)
Families, and more particularly their dysfunction, are a frequent focus in the 13 stories collected the two-time Giller finalist’s new collection. In one, a young woman returns home from a gap year volunteering in Ghana and learns that her childhood BFF is engaged to her father. Yikes.
Tuscan Daughter, Lisa Rochon (HarperAvenue, July)
The sights and sounds of Renaissance Florence are vividly rendered in this debut novel by architecture critic and ex-Globe columnist Lisa Rochon about a peasant girl who roams the city’s labyrinthine, and at times dangerous streets, in search of her missing mother.
All’s Well, Mona Awad (Hamish Hamilton, August)
After the stage accident that ended her acting career and left her addicted to painkillers, theatre professor Miranda Fitch is a woman on the edge. Until, that is, she acquires, through miraculous intervention, the ability to transfer her pain to others, which she gleefully does, especially on those who doubted her pain in the first place.
The Women of Troy, Pat Barker (Doubleday, August)
In the second instalment of the Booker Prize-winning author’s bold feminist retelling of Homer’s Iliad, Troy has fallen, but the celebrations are on hold: the victorious Greeks have managed to offend the gods, who are now, as is their wont, preventing their return home. The captive Trojan queen Briseis, meanwhile, plots her path to revenge.
Last Summer in the City, Gianfranco Calligarich (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, August)
This brief, semi-autobiographical tale about a young man rambling aimlessly around Rome in the late 1960s suffered multiple publisher rejections in the author’s home country until it was finally seized upon and championed by the writer Natalia Ginzburg. First published in 1973, this “forgotten classic of Italian literature” has now been translated into English for the first time.
The Winter Wives, Linden MacIntyre (Random House, August)
An unholy trinity of golf, death and dementia lies at the centre of the Giller Prizewinner’s latest, a psychological drama about two old friends who married sisters, but are in love with the same one.
The Snow Line, Tessa McWatt (Random House, August)
McWatt’s novel, self-dubbed “a King Lear story for brown girls,” begins in a small train station in Punjab in 2009, where four strangers disembark from a train en route to a traditional Indian wedding. Despite their different ages and backgrounds, the four forge a friendship and together end up travelling to the Himalayas to help one of their group, a recent widower, scatter his wife’s ashes.
The Listeners, Jordan Tannahill (HarperAvenue, August)
Conspiracies and paranoia abound in the playwright’s second novel, also the basis of a forthcoming opera co-commissioned by the Norwegian National Opera. A woman, plagued by a hum that her own family can’t hear, ends up connecting with a group of people who share her torment, and in so doing unleashes a sinister series of events.
Undersong, Kathleen Winter (Knopf, August)
Using rich prose and alternating narratives – one by a family servant speaking to a colony of bees, the other by a local sycamore tree – Winter’s new novel takes an unconventional approach in its portrayal of the unconventional Dorothy Wordsworth, a talented nature writer here posited as the stalwart genius behind her brother William’s poetry.
Madhouse at the End of the Earth, Julian Sancton (Crown, May)
A riveting true tale of late-19th-century exploration gone awry with all the elements of a gothic horror: a Belgian ship stuck in the ice for months during Antarctica’s endless night, too much booze and too little food (unless you count raw penguin), a mutinous crew slowly losing its marbles, a captain prone to fits of weeping, and a desperate, last-ditch plan for escape. The ship’s first mate was a boyish Roald Amundsen who, sucker for punishment that he was, later went back for more.
Coming to Our Senses, Susan R. Barry (Basic, June)
While researching the fascinating and inspiring story of a boy and a girl – born blind and deaf, respectively – who learned to see and hear after receiving surgical intervention, Barry, a neurobiologist who herself gained sight in both eyes in midlife, arrived at a new theory about the nature of perception.
Care of: Letters, Connections, and Cures, Ivan Coyote (M&S, June)
Like most artists, Coyote was initially hit hard by last year’s lockdown – but the peripatetic spoken-word performer managed to turn lemons to lemonade by delving into their stockpile of unanswered letters, many from fans who, like Coyote, were trans/non-binary. The resulting correspondence is as crystalline and heartbreaking as anything Coyote has done in a career already full of highlights.
October Child, Linda Bostrom Knausgard, (World Editions, June)
While her ex-husband detailed the minutiae of his bowel movements and premature ejaculations to a rapt global readership over thousands of pages in his My Struggle books, Linda Bostrom was often just a background figure, or source of annoyance, even as her life-altering depression deepened. Artfully combining fiction and autobiography, the Swedish novelist here gives voice to her own, decidedly grim struggles, which included four years getting electroconvulsive therapy in psychiatric institutions.
Diary of a Young Naturalist, Dara McAnulty (Greystone, June)
This memoir, winner of a major U.K. nature-writing prize, is remarkable for almost too many reasons to name – the fact that its Irish author wrote it when he was only 15 and that that he, along with four other members of his immediate family, is autistic, being in some ways least among them. The best reason to read this book – suitable for young and old alike – is the original, heartfelt voice of its author, who, along with Greta Thunberg, is on his way to becoming one of the most visible environmental campaigners of his generation.
Rememberings: Scenes from My Complicated Life, Sinead O’Connor (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, June)
When the doe-eyed, shaven-headed singer blazed to prominence in the late 1980s, her alternately fierce and vulnerable persona was as much a part of her appeal as her music. The title of this warts-and-all autobiography is relative: O’Connor confesses she can’t remember most of the previous two decades, but what she does recall is surprising, wrenching and even funny.
Pure Flame: A Memoir, Michelle Orange (HarperCollins, June)
In the mid-1980s, Michelle Orange’s mother became part of a famous study on female careerism when she left her husband and three children in London, Ont., to pursue her corporate ambitions in another city. Orange embarked on this fiercely intelligent memoir – which doubles as a critique of feminism and maternal failure – to try to come to terms with her mother’s decision and their decades-long estrangement.
Geniuses at War: Bletchley Park, Colossus, and the Dawn of the Digital Age, David A Price (Knopf, June)
Accounts of Second World War code breaking have invariably focused, and with reason, on Alan Turing’s cracking of the Enigma cipher. Drawing on recently declassified sources, this highly readable account explains how two Turing protégés managed to foil Tunny, a lesser-known but far more complex encryption machine, using the world’s first digital electronic computer, on which its creators bestowed the Marvel-worthy name Colossus.
The Plague Year: America in the Time of Covid, Lawrence Wright (Knopf, June)
Many people are ready, understandably, to put the past year-plus’ events – or lack thereof – behind them. Those craving a bit of perspective, on the other hand, would be hard pressed to find better a guide than the Pulitzer Prize-winner in this expanded version of his New Yorker essay of the same title. (Wright’s prescient last novel, The End of October, published in April, 2020, was set amidst a global pandemic.)
An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination, Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang (HarperCollins, July)
Was Facebook’s descent into a cesspool of conspiracy theories and dangerous echo chambers over the past five years a feature or a bug? The authors of this book, two award-winning New York Times reporters, suggest some surprising answers in a no-holds-barred exposé that aims to reveal “fatal cracks in the architecture of the tech behemoth.”
This Is Your Mind on Plants, Michael Pollan (Penguin Press, July)
Pollan offered himself up as a willing guinea pig in this continent-spanning deep dive into three plant-based drugs: opium, mescaline and caffeine, that doubles, in part, as an exposé of America’s hypocritical War on Drugs.
Where Beauty Survived: An Africadian Memoir, George Elliott Clarke (Knopf, August)
One of Canada’s most decorated poets offers a candid view of his African-Nova Scotian (Africadian) upbringing and the forces that shaped him, including a fraught relationship with his father, an autodidact whose own creativity was thwarted by an unfulfilling job on the railway.
The Arbornaut: A Life Discovering the Eighth Continent in the Trees Above Us, Meg Lowman (FSG, August)
The pioneering Australian biologist and climate activist – dubbed “the real-life Lorax” – has penned an immersive, high-energy account of her decades spent exploring, often solo, the world’s tree canopies from hundreds of feet high in the air.
White Malice: The CIA and the Covert Recolonization of Africa, Susan Williams (Public Affairs, August)
Another season, another book about nefarious CIA machinations. This latest probes how the U.S. used its foreign intelligence service to systematically, and sometimes violently, undermine postcolonial African independence movements in Ghana and the Congo to satisfy its own imperial ambitions.
Letters in a Bruised Cosmos, Liz Howard (M&S, June)
Howard’s debut collection, Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent, won the 2016 Griffin Poetry Prize and was shortlisted for the 2015 Governor-General’s Award for poetry. Her latest, which invokes the knowledge histories of Western and Indigenous astrophysical science, describes itself as “part autobiography, part philosophical puzzlement, part love song.”
The 2021 Griffin Poetry Prize Anthology, Ed. Souvankham Thammavongsa (Anansi, July)
The Griffin’s annual anthology, edited this year by poet and Giller prizewinner Souvankham Thammavongsa, is the perfect, least intimidating way to get acquainted with the Canadian and international poets shortlisted for the one of the world’s richest, most prestigious poetry prizes.
Goldenrod, Maggie Smith (Simon & Schuster, July)
In more innocent times, when 2016 was still considered the worst year ever, the American poet’s Good Bones was declared by some on social media the Official Poem of 2016 for its mood of barely contained desperation – summed up in the opening line: “Life is short, though I keep this from my children.” Smith’s new collection uses everyday objects to explore themes of parenthood, solitude, love and memory.
Purgatorio, Dante Alighieri, Trans. Mary Jo Bang (Graywolf, July)
Alternately called brilliant and sacrilegious, you could say Bang’s translation of Dante’s Inferno, which eschewed the Italian poet’s traditional rhyming scheme and incorporated pop-culture elements, wound up in a kind of critical purgatory, even as the controversy served to breathe new life into old work. The publication of Bang’s second instalment in her translation of The Divine Comedy has been timed to coincide with the 700th anniversary of the poet’s death.
Make the World New: The Poetry of Lillian Allen Ed. Ronald Cummings (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, August)
In the 1980s, the Jamaican-born activist and professor became a major voice of Black feminism in Canada and a key figure in the dub-poetry movement that swept cities around the globe. This, Allen’s first book of her poems to be published in more than 20 years, combines greatest hits from previous collections with new, never-before-published verse.
Fictional Father, Joe Ollmann (Drawn & Quarterly, May)
Intergenerational angst and imposter syndrome feature in this tragicomic “memoir” by Caleb, a middle-aged recovering alcoholic and painter who inherits his late cartoonist father’s syrupy but hugely popular newspaper strip based on a father-son relationship nothing like their own. Features cameos by Canadian comic luminaries Seth and Chester Brown.
Euripides The Trojan Women: A Comic, Anne Carson, Ill. Rosanna Bruno (New Directions, June)
Canadian poet and classicist Greek Anne Carson teamed up with artist Rosanna Bruno for this irreverent rendering of Euripides’s tragedy following the fates of the titular women – here represented as animals – in the wake of the sack of Troy. Don’t let the children’s-picture-book formatting fool you though: Hekabe, “an ancient emaciated sled dog of filth,” for example, is referred to as “top bitch.”
Factory Summers, Guy Delisle, (D&Q, June)
In this black-and-white coming-of-age graphic memoir, Delisle – labelled “one of the greatest modern cartoonists” by the Guardian – recalls with poignancy and humour the class tensions that permeated the summers he spent working, starting at age 16, on the floor of the Quebec City pulp mill where his father was manager for 30 years.
Resistance, Val McDermid, Ill. Kathryn Briggs (Atlantic, June)
At an outdoor music festival, a rapidly spreading case of food poisoning is soon revealed to be something much more sinister – with obvious parallels to COVID-19 – in this debut graphic outing by the bestselling Scottish crime writer.
Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness, Kristen Radtke (Knopf, July)
The Brooklyn-based writer and illustrator started working on this beautiful, introspective book about loneliness long before the pandemic made it our global, de facto reality. In moody, monochromatic panels, Radtke reflects on a series of loneliness-adjacent subjects, from sitcom laugh tracks to the bespoke isolation of the urban dweller.
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