Summer is all about light, but that doesn’t mean your reading needs to be. Why not take advantage of the longer days to dive, not into some brackish lake, but into math or science or musical history? In the third month of Russia’s invasion, mightn’t we glean some insights from Philip Short’s big biography of its perpetrator? And when, really, is there a better time to consider the plight of our planet and the issues facing production of the food we need to sustain us? But if escape is what you’re craving, then there’s plenty to pick from. In fiction, dystopia and fantasy, sometimes in combination, continue to rule the roost. And if contemplating others’ mistakes makes you feel better about your own, then there’s no dearth of memoir and crime to shock, and comfort.
A Suitable Companion for the End of Your Life, Robert McGill (Coach House Books, June) The Once We Had a Country author hops aboard the increasingly popular dystopia train with a tale that encompasses plague, the dark web, a suicidal teen, as well as an original, sinister take on the IKEA-style flatpack. There’s an evil corporation that needs contending with too, naturally.
Horse, Geraldine Brooks (Viking, June) A painting of (real-life) Civil War-era racehorse Lexington, discovered by a Nigerian art student in his neighbour’s trash, is both narrative spark and mystery to be solved in this dual narrative that weaves between present and past, where the story of Lexington’s enslaved fictional groom gradually unfurls.
Joan: A Novel of Joan of Arc, Katherine J Chen (Random House, July) If you like your summer reading ancient, violent, historic and French – and who doesn’t? – then this imagining of the life of a young Joan of Arc may well hit the spot. A strong cover plug by Hilary Mantel, who knows a thing or two about breathing life into historical figures, makes this one of the season’s best bets.
In the City of Pigs, André Forget (Rare Machines, June) Forget’s absurdist, music-infused debut concerns a classical pianist who leaves Montreal, site of his artistic failures, for a shiny new life in condo-strewn Toronto, where he gets drawn into a murky world where capitalism and the avant-garde underground intertwine in uncomfortable ways.
Ordinary Monsters, J. M. Miro (McClelland & Stewart, June) The author of this 1800s-set steampunk fantasy with a cast of characters big enough to pack a Victorian orphanage is Canadian on faith: “J. M. Miro” being the pseudonym of a writer who “lives and writes in the Pacific Northwest.” Think Umbrella Academy meets Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.
Remnants, Céline Huyghebaert (Book*hug, June) In her first novel (originally titled Le drap blanc), which won the 2019 Governor-General’s Award for French-language Fiction, the France-born artist alternates between diaristic and journalistic approaches, incorporating collage, interviews, transcripts, photographs to build a picture of her difficult and largely absent late father.
The Angel of Rome: And Other Stories, Jess Walter (Harper, June) The first story in the Beautiful Ruins author’s latest collection, Mr. Voice, is a gem. The mother of 13-year-old Tanya marries a locally famous radio announcer (who, also chatty in the bedroom, narrates “their sex life the way he did the weekend stock-car races”) then takes off with another man, leaving Tanya and Mr. Voice together with wonderfully unexpected, laugh-cry results.
The Kingdom of Sand, Andrew Holleran (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, June) Dancer from the Dance, Holleran’s 1978 debut, is considered a classic of gay literature. This latest, tempered with dark humour, is about a man who moved to Florida to look after his parents during the AIDS crisis and must now confront his own mortality and solitude, as the death of his only friend looms.
The Twilight World, Werner Herzog (Penguin Press, June) Though plugged as his first novel, the caveat that precedes the Fitzcarraldo director’s book about his 1977 meeting with Hiroo Onoda, the Japanese soldier who continued fighting for his country in the Philippines three decades after the Second World War ended, is characteristically indeterminate: “Most details are factually correct; some are not. What was important to the author was something other than accuracy, some essence he thought he glimpsed when he encountered the protagonist of this story.”
Utopia, Heidi Sopinka (Hamish Hamilton, August) Sopinka’s promising second novel – part psychological thriller, part ghostly love story with bright notes of Rachel Kushner – is set amidst the male-dominated hustle of the late-1970s New York art world. There Paz, an aspiring young artist, moves in on the husband and baby of an artist she’d been besotted with after the latter dies under mysterious circumstances.
Also a Poet: Frank O’Hara My Father and Me, Ada Calhoun (Grove, June) When Calhoun stumbled upon a box of musty cassettes containing interviews her father, New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl, had conducted with the late American poet Frank O’Hara, she sensed a dual opportunity: an O’Hara fan herself, could she complete her father’s aborted biography and, in so doing, bring them closer together? But the O’Hara book soon turns MacGuffin, Calhoun having produced, instead, this sly, eminently readable account of a complex filial relationship.
House Arrest: Pandemic Diaries, Alan Bennett (Faber & Faber, July) The prolific English author and actor is old enough that, when the pandemic hit at the beginning of this slim diary, the only “medical scourge” he could think to compare it to was the tuberculosis that afflicted his Leeds neighbourhood in the 1940s. Age, though, hasn’t weakened Bennett’s funny bone: “As an over-70, I am officially exhorted to remain isolated and indoors which is to say that my usual going-on now has governmental endorsement.”
Immoral, Indecent, and Scurrilous: The Making of an Unrepentant Sex Radical, Gerald Hannon (Cormorant, July) Hannon, the journalist, gay activist, sometime porn actor, sex worker, and educator, who died in early May by assisted suicide, was always comfortable swimming in hot water, including his opinions on sex with underage youth, which led to the loss of his teaching job at Ryerson University. This posthumous memoir lives up to its defiant title – the word “regret” only appears six times, and only twice in reference to Hannon himself.
Rehearsals for Living, Robyn Maynard and Leanne Betasamosake Simpson (Knopf, June) At the beginning of the pandemic, Maynard (Policing Black Lives) and Betasamosake, (Noopiming: The Cure for White Ladies), embarked upon on this chattily intelligent and introspective exchange of letters about the issues – among them police killings, climate catastrophe, and colonialism – preoccupying them as Black and Indigenous women.
The Last Days of Roger Federer, Geoff Dyer (Canongate, August) Dyer’s book, written during the pandemic, is all about last things. But as he circles back to topics ranging from Bob Dylan’s late oeuvre to Philip Larkin to Nietzsche and, yes, tennis, the mood is less elegiac than warmly curious.
A Divine Language: Learning Algebra, Geometry, and Calculus at the Edge of Old Age, Alec Wilkinson (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, July) At the age of 65, the New Yorker writer, who calls himself “by nature of a self-improver,” took it upon himself to learn high-school math, a subject he’d passed only by cheating. The spirit of grievance and revenge with which he takes on his task, though, eventually gives way to a more philosophical (and humble) stance.
A Portrait of the Scientist as a Young Woman: A Memoir, Lindy Elkins-Tanton (HarperCollins/William Morrow, June) The planetary scientist recounts an inspiring personal and professional journey filled with obstacles – cancer, sexism, depression and anxiety – that triumphantly culminated with her becoming the second woman to land a NASA exploration contract. The Psyche mission, which will travel to a unique metal-based asteroid orbiting the sun between Mars and Jupiter, is due to launch later this summer.
Fantastic Numbers and Where to Find Them: A Cosmic Quest from Zero to Infinity, Antonio Padilla (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, July) If a book about gigantic numbers and particle physics isn’t your idea of a beach read, then perhaps consider what a beach is actually made of. Padilla, a theoretical physicist with a popular YouTube channel, writes about these and many other topics with infectious enthusiasm and cheeky humour, employing useful metaphors and illustrations to help ground the numerically challenged, like yours truly.
Until Proven Safe: The History and Future of Quarantine, from the Black Death to the Space Age, Nicola Twilley and Geoff Manaugh (Picador, July) Humans have been quarantining themselves – and complaining about it – since at least the Black Death in 15th-century Europe. Even plants and animals have been subject to the practice. But though many of us will shudder seeing the term “future” in their subtitle, the authors make a convincing case about why quarantine is here to stay in this surprisingly entertaining survey.
Dangerous Rhythms: Jazz and the Underworld, T. J. English (HarperCollins, Aug) English’s book reveals the symbiotic relationship that existed between early-20th-century jazz’s mostly Black practitioners and the white mobsters who ran the clubs where they played; one that, despite some initial advantages, ultimately mirrored the plantation system (in Chicago, Al Capone ran a club called the Plantation Café) from which the musicians’ ancestors had only recently been freed, and out of which jazz itself was born.
Let’s Do It: The Birth of Pop, Bob Stanley (Faber & Faber, July) Madonna fans take heed: Stanley’s focus is on Anglo-American popular music in the first half of the 20th century – from Scott Joplin to Rudy Vallée to the Beatles – artists whose success was inextricably tied to the advent of technology, like the 78-rpm disc and the radio, that enabled mass listening.
Sound Within Sound: A Radical History of Composers in the 20th Century, Kate Molleson (M&S, July) As a kid growing up in rural Scotland in a family full of folkies, Molleson latched rebelliously to the classical music she heard on BBC radio, on which she is now a presenter (she later lived in Whitehorse and studied clarinet at McGill). In this corrective to mainstream musical history, she takes us chapter by chapter from Ethiopia to Denmark to New Zealand and points beyond to meet lesser-known, but no less bright musical lights.
The Islander, Chris Blackwell (Gallery, June) Blackwell, born in 1955 in England and raised in Jamaica amidst genteel, polo-playing privilege, met his first Rastafarian when he was 18, after his motorboat ran out of gas and he picked his way over crab-strewn ground for help. This was not the bogeyman he’d been led to imagine. In this memoir, he details other early awakenings, as well as his co-founding of Island Records and collaboration with various iconic musicians, including the most famous non-bogeyman of all, Bob Marley.
Commanding Hope: The Power We Have to Renew a World in Peril, Thomas Homer-Dixon (Knopf, June) As books about environmental and civilizational calamity proliferate, so too, more recently, have those with “hope” in the title. Homer-Dixon is no arriviste when it comes to catastrophe-predicting – he was once dubbed the Doom Meister – but in his third book, the University of Waterloo researcher and lecturer changes tack, marshalling lessons from history, psychology, physics, philosophy, economics, politics, art and his late embrace of Tolkien, in a surge toward optimism.
Regenesis: Feeding the World Without Devouring the Planet, George Monbiot (Penguin/Allen Lane, Aug) As in Suzanne Simard’s Finding the Mother Tree, the activist and Guardian columnist’s latest begins with his observations about the web of fungi in his backyard’s soil – a crucial ecosystem being destroyed by mass farming practices. A critic, too, of organic farming, whose small yields and greater land needs have their own environmental impact, Monbiot here attempts to navigate to a food-production model that’s “cheap, healthy and available to everyone.”
Salmon Wars: The Dark Underbelly of Our Favorite Fish, Catherine Collins and Douglas Frantz (Henry Holt, July) This disturbing exposé, prompted by a meeting of concerned citizens in the authors’ home of Mahone Bay, N.S., delves into what they call the “new Wild West” of salmon-farming; one in which multinationals exploit a lack of regulation (salmon is regularly promoted as “organic” or “sustainable,” for example, even though there’s no agreed-upon definition of the terms) to market a product of dubious, and even deleterious health benefit.
Tree Thieves: Crime and Survival in North America’s Woods, Lyndsie Bourgon (Greystone, June) Conservation butts up against class in this eye-opening look at the billion-dollar business of timber poaching in Canadian and American parks and forests. There are bad guys here, but as Bourgon shows, it’s complicated: for some of those affected by the collapse of the logging industry in the Pacific Northwest, poaching is the only way to feed a meth habit tied to economic disenfranchisement.
Wastelands: The True Story of Farm Country on Trial, Corban Addison (Knopf/Doubleday, June) Addison’s big, gripping book is set in rural North Carolina, but in its thrillerish rendering of how (mainly) Black, small-scale farmers took on the almost comically evil “Big Pork” – polluting mega-farms contracted to the world’s largest pork producer, Chinese-owned Smithfield Foods – it’s a David versus Goliath story for the ages.
Butler to the World: The Book the Oligarchs Don’t Want You to Read: How Britain Helps the World’s Worst People Launder Money, Commit Crimes, and Get Away with Anything, Oliver Bullough (St Martins Press, June) Ah, when subtitles write your summaries for you. This exposé by the Welsh author is particularly timely given the recent spotlight Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has shone on the superyacht- and football-club-owning oligarchs of “Londongrad.”
Inside the Montreal Mafia: The Confessions of Andrew Scoppa, Félix Séguin and Eric Thibault (ECW, June) When Scoppa, confidant of the late mob boss Vito Rizzuto, first met with Séguin and Thibault in 2014, it was the first time in Canadian history a high-ranking mafioso had broken the code of omerta to talk to journalists. Over five years, Scoppa simultaneously spilled the beans and fished for counterintelligence in a series of high-risk clandestine meetings. He also (creepy or heartwarming, take your pick) started calling Séguin on his birthday every year.
Killers Amidst Killers: Hunting Serial Killers Operating Under the Cloak of the Opioid Epidemic, Billy Jensen (HarperCollins, July) One of a growing number of self-taught online cold-case sleuths (but a more successful one than most, having actually solved crimes), Jensen turns his attention to the disturbingly common phenomenon, of serial killers who target marginalized, opioid-dependent women, many of them sex workers, whose stories are all too often ignored.
Rogues: True Stories of Grifters, Killers, Rebels and Crooks, Patrick Radden Keefe (Bond Street, June) This collection of the Empire of Pain author’s essays from the New Yorker includes memorable pieces on wine fraud, Anthony Bourdain and El Chapo – the latter piece having elicited a call from the Mexican drug lord’s lawyer, who had an inquiry to make: Might Radden Keefe be interested in ghostwriting his client’s memoirs? Very respectfully, he wasn’t.
The Castleton Massacre: Survivors’ Stories of the Killins Femicide, Sharon Anne Cook and Margaret Carson (Dundurn, July) When an ex-United Church minister with the unfortunate name of Robert Killins massacred four female members of his family – two of them pregnant, and one merely a child – in a tiny Ontario town in 1963, a hungry press speculated whether out-of-control diabetes might be to blame while simultaneously looking askance at his estranged wife, who’d relegated him to living in a shack on their property. Almost 60 years later, Killins’s daughter, one of two survivors, paired up with her historian cousin to probe the roots of their relative’s murderous, misogynist rampage.
Agent Josephine: American Beauty, French Hero, British Spy, Damien Lewis (Public Affairs, July) The little-known rags-to-reconnaissance story of how Josephine Baker – the Black entertainer who, in the 1920s, famously fled her segregated American homeland for Paris, where her semi-clad song-and-dance routines earned her a global following – carried out a series of bold espionage-adjacent exploits during the Second World War (including ferrying intelligence written in invisible ink on, what else?, musical scores) that would earn her France’s highest decoration for military service.
May We Be Spared to Meet on Earth: Letters of the Lost Franklin Arctic Expedition, Russell A Potter, Regina Koellner, Peter Carney, Mary Williamson eds. (MQUP, July) The largest collection of personal letters assembled from the crew of the Franklin expedition (but still a fraction of what’s still out there, apparently), which covers the period from planning to the first few months at sea, lends an almost unbearably human cast to the ill-fated journey, as well as the occasional who-got-the-best-cabin-at-summer-camp vibe (in one, Sir John Franklin, is described “the kindest and most delightful person they ever sailed with,” while the Terror’s Francis Crozier “most unsociable.”)
Sisters in Resistance: How a German Spy, a Banker’s Wife, and Mussolini’s Daughter Outwitted the Nazis, Tilar J Mazzeo (Grand Central, June) During the Second World War, Galeazzo Ciano, Mussolini’s second-in-command, member of Hitler’s inner circle and proto-Bridget Jones, kept a diary so gushy and tell-all that it seems everybody wanted a glimpse of it. Mazzeo here presents the entertainingly convoluted tale of how an unlikely trio of women risked their lives to get the diaries into Allied hands, where they were eventually used as evidence against the Nazis in the Nuremberg trials.
Putin: His Life and Times, Philip Short (Henry Holt, July) Short has worked tirelessly to make an irony of his surname: he’s written biographies of Mao, Mitterand and Pol Pot, with the latter, at 560 pages, being the shortest. At 900, this one – for which he interviewed Putin, as well as untold others – is by far the most ambitious and complete English account to date of the St Petersburg-born cipher’s rise from “colourless functionary, noted for discretion but little else” to would-be Tsar with Big Table Energy.
The Empress and the English Doctor: How Catherine the Great Defied a Deadly Virus, Lucy Ward (One World, June) With Russia, vaccines and monkeypox all clambering over each other for headlines these days, it’s hard to imagine a better-timed book than this one about Catherine the Great, who, in 1768, invited English doctor Thomas Dimsdale to Russia to administer a still-experimental inoculation against smallpox to her and her son, then cleverly leveraged her self-sacrifice for political gain.
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