The dead of winter tends to be dead, or at least slow, for publishing as well. But as the following list of fiction and non-fiction titles – all of which come out in January and February – show, there are always a handful of gems to brighten these short, frigid days.
Chasing History: A Kid in the Newsroom, By Carl Bernstein (Henry Holt, Jan. 11)
The gumption, acumen and tenaciousness that would one day result in Bernstein, along with colleague Bob Woodward, breaking the Watergate scandal is everywhere apparent in the legendary journalist’s account of his coming-of-age in the hardscrabble, pre-J-school days of 1960s Washington, a book Jill Abramson has called “a eulogy for print newspapers, is a passionate reminder of exactly what is being lost.”
Cobalt: Cradle of the Demon Metals, Birth of a Mining Superpower, By Charlie Angus (House of Anansi, Feb. 1)
Investors are again flocking to Cobalt, the small Northern Ontario town whose namesake metal is an essential component in the products – rechargeable batteries, electric cars – that we’ve been told will ensure an environmentally sustainable future. In this non-fiction work, the journalist, broadcaster, musician and MP for Timmins-James Bay here offers an impassioned corrective to what he calls Cobalt’s “airbrushed” history, explaining how it became a crucible in Canada’s and Toronto’s respected emergence as mining and financial powerhouses.
Lost & Found, By Kathryn Schulz (Doubleday Canada, Jan. 11)
“For a while after my father died, I could not stop seeing the world as it really is, marked everywhere by the evidence of past losses and the imminence of future ones.” In her searching memoir, the Pulitzer-Prize winner ventures down a number of rabbit holes related to philosophy, literature and art as she reflects on the intense, seemingly opposed experiences of losing her father and meeting her future wife a mere 18 months apart.
It Was Dark There All the Time: Sophia Burthen and the Legacy of Slavery in Canada, By Andrew Hunter (Goose Lane, Jan. 25)
When it comes to slavery, Canada, leveraging tales of the Underground Railroad, has frequently sought to place itself in the hero role. Stories such as that of Sophia Burthen (Pooley), who was bought and sold as a slave in the postabolition mid-1800s in present-day Hamilton, thus present an inconvenient reality – one artist and curator Andrew Hunter, combining extracts from Burthen’s personal testimony with archival and contemporary images and art, here aims to bring to light.
Lost in the Valley of Death: A Story of Obsession and Danger in the Himalayas, By Harley Rustad (Knopf, Jan. 11)
In his follow-up to Big Lonely Doug, Rustad artfully pushes past familiar tropes in a book that offers both a propulsive mystery and portrait of Justin Alexander Shetler, a 35-year-old social media-savvy American survivalist and seeker who, in 2016, vanished without a trace in an area known as India’s backpacker Bermuda Triangle.
Manifesto, By Bernardine Evaristo (Grove, Jan. 18)
In 2019, Evaristo became an “overnight success” when she won – in a tie with Margaret Atwood – the Booker Prize, the first Black woman to do so in the prize’s 50-year history. In truth, Evaristo, a prolific novelist, playwright, essayist and academic less well-known outside the United Kingdom, had been labouring in the trenches for decades. Here she details her circuitous path to that life-changing win, including her London upbringing as one of eight children born to a Nigerian father and white Catholic mother, and her coming out as “the ultimate lesbian” in Thatcher’s socially unprogressive eighties.
Secrets of the Sprakkar: Iceland’s Extraordinary Women and How They Are Changing the World, By Eliza Reid (Simon & Schuster, Feb. 1)
During her childhood growing up on a hobby farm in the Ottawa Valley, long before she moved away to work for a small software startup, Eliza Reid’s knowledge about Iceland mostly came from playing Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? on a Commodore 64. Writing from her unanticipated perch as First Lady of the tiny Nordic country, she uses this memoir to explain how, in her view, Iceland has come closer than any other place in the world to clutching the brass ring of gender equality.
Sybil and Cyril, By Jenny Uglow (Faber, Jan. 11)
Uglow, well-recognized in the United Kingdom for her sublime, era-conjuring biographies of subjects such as George Eliot and Edward Lear, here takes on the fascinating artistic partnership between British architect Cyril Power and artist Sybil Andrews, who, when they met, was half his age. For two decades starting in the 1920s the pair collaborated on a series of striking, Futurist-inspired graphic images created as linocuts – the form was both avant-garde and cheaply accessible – Sybil eventually settling in Canada after their parting of ways.
The Book of Malcolm: My Son’s Life with Schizophrenia, By Fraser Sutherland (Rare Machines, Feb. 15)
In a book that poet Carmine Starnino, in his introduction, calls “part elegy, part existential howl,” Sutherland writes about his only child, Malcolm, who developed schizophrenia in his teens and died suddenly and tragically at the age of 26. The sadness of this fact is compounded by the reader’s knowledge this is also the final book by the poet, editor and critic: Sutherland died last year, three years after his wife took her own life.
The Eye Test: A Case for Human Creativity in the Age of Analytics, By Chris Jones (Twelve, Jan. 11)
Numbers may not lie, but they don’t necessarily tell the truth. And crunching them doesn’t always result in good movies, or sports teams. Citing some notable algorithm- and numbers-based failures, Jones, a Canadian former Esquire writer-at-large, makes a compelling case for reasserting the human in realms ranging from entertainment to crime to medicine.
The Lost Prime Ministers, By Michael Hill (Dundurn, Feb. 22)
The names and accomplishments of Canada’s four prime ministers – Charles Tupper, John Abbott, John Thompson and Mackenzie Bowell – who led our fledgling country in the five-year interregnum between John A Macdonald and Wilfried Laurier have largely been relegated to historical footnotes (the parodic twang of “Mackenzie Bowell” likely hasn’t helped his cause). Contending that each man was, in fact, remarkable in his own way, Hill aims to flesh out the record in this easy-reading volume.
The Next Civil War: Dispatches from the American Future, By Stephen Marche (Simon & Schuster, Jan. 4)
In a reversal of standard media flow, Canadians have recently been making headlines south of the border for their alarm-bell-ringing about the precipitous state of the American union. Among them is journalist and novelist Stephen Marche, who in this work of “speculative non-fiction” outlines five scenarios that, in his estimation, could lead to some version of civil war, before ending on the requisite note of hope.
The Treeline: The Last Forest and the Future of Life on Earth, By Ben Rawlence (St. Martin’s, Feb. 15)
Though the term suggests something fixed, the northern treeline has always been moving and dynamic. But where it used to budge mere inches a century, it now moves hundreds of feet a year, hastening the melting of permafrost in the process. Bearing witness to these changes, the Welshman trekked the Arctic treeline in five countries, speaking to ecologists and Indigenous peoples. “How easy to imagine that it is limitless, how easy to pretend that it is invincible,” he writes of Canada.
Toufah: The Woman Who Inspired an African #MeToo Movement, By Toufah Jallow with Kim Pittaway (Random House, Feb. 1)
In 2014, when Toufah Jallow entered a presidential competition aimed at identifying the brightest young women in her native Gambia, more unexpected than her win was the ensuing proposal of marriage from the president himself, Yahya Jammeh. When she turned the murderous dictator down, he drugged and raped her, an incident she recounts in this memoir along with what followed: a perilous journey to Canada, and going public about her rape, a decision that helped launch a West African MeToo movement.
Unthinkable: Trauma, Truth, and the Trials of American Democracy, By Jamie Raskin (HarperCollins, Jan. 4)
On Jan. 6, 2021, the personal and political clashed agonizingly for constitutional lawyer and Democratic congressman Jamie Raskin: Just a day after burying his beloved 25-year-old son following his death by suicide, Raskin went to the U.S. Capitol, where the election was being ratified, and ended up trapped, along with his daughter, by a violent mob. In this memoir, he considers how his country got to such a fraught place and describes how he came to lead the second impeachment attempt against Donald Trump.
Worn: A People’s History of Clothing, By Sofi Thanhauser (Pantheon, Jan. 25)
The fast, toxic fashion produced by today’s global multinationals is primarily created from two sources: cotton and petroleum. If we were able to journey back 500 years though, we’d apparently be “dazzled by the beauty and diversity of the clothing that people made and wore.” In this delightful and fascinating book, Thanhauser takes us from France to Texas to China to weaves a social history of clothing out of the individual stories of linen, cotton, silk, synthetics and wool.
A Hero of Our Time, By Naben Ruthnum (McClelland & Stewart, Jan. 11)
In his first work of literary fiction, Ruthnum – the author, previously, of Curry and of mysteries under the nom de plume Nathan Ripley – posits a satiric battle royale at an edu-tech startup between 38-year-old Osman Shah and Olivia Robinson, a white colleague who, in Osman’s eyes, is brazenly using the company’s diversity initiatives to further her corporate ambitions.
Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century, By Kim Fu (Coach House, Feb. 1)
As much as the 12 tales in this collection by the Vancouver-born Seattle transplant (and author of the well-received For Today I Am a Boy) are filled with discomfiting elements and goings-on – a woman rents a house that slowly fills with beetles, an insomniac is visited by an actual sandman who pours sand down her throat – each is still anchored in recognizable emotional reality. Amidst the trauma, violence and technology gone awry there’s sly humour, too.
Life without Children, By Roddy Doyle (Knopf Random Vintage, Feb. 22)
Remember when we all wondered what kind of fiction the pandemic would generate? Doyle gives us one answer in this collection of stories about the working-class Dubliners – families and couples – who have always been his mainstay. There’s quiet devastation, of course, but it’s not all bad: On the eve of lockdown, one woman takes the opportunity to walk out on her boyfriend and both end up feeling great about it.
Devil House, By John Darnielle (MCD, Jan. 25)
The novelist and Mountain Goats frontman simultaneously rides and takes aim at the current true crime wave in this clever novel about a moderately successful writer of the genre who moves into a decrepit house in suburban California where an unsolved murder involving Satanic rites took place, only to find himself questioning his entire enterprise.
Moon Witch, Spider King, By Marlon James (Bond St, Feb. 15)
The second volume in James’s planned Dark Star trilogy, dubbed the “African Game of Thrones,” is the stuff of multisided-dice games: there’s the titular 177-year-old witch, but also levitating cities, children who can transform into lions and, naturally, dragons. There’s darkness aplenty, but poetry, too.
Our American Friend, By Anna Pitoniak (Simon & Schuster, Feb. 15)
Love, loyalty and betrayal star in this political thriller inspired by recent events. Sofie Morse, wearied by the U.S. President’s outrageous behaviour, is getting ready to throw in the towel on her job as White House correspondent when she gets a call from First Lady Melan – [*cough cough*] Lara Caine, a Russian-born ex-model who wants her to write her official biography. Sofie accepts, and in so doing finds herself drawn into Lara’s confidence, and a related web of intrigue.
Pure Colour, By Sheila Heti (Knopf, Feb. 15)
In her latest novel, Heti moves the questions of art and existence that characterized novels such as How Should a Person Be? and Motherhood away from the cafés and apartments of Toronto to a more liminal space where God is still assessing his “first draft,” where time is elastic and where people can turn into leaves and then back into humans. She is, needless to say, one of the few writers who can pull it all off.
The Bear Woman, By Karolina Ramqvist (Coach House, Feb. 8)
In a tale of connection across centuries by one of Sweden’s most acclaimed contemporary novelists, a writer in Stockholm becomes obsessed with Marguerite de la Rocque, a young French noblewoman who, in the early 16th century, was abandoned by her royally appointed guardian, Sieur Jean-François de la Rocque de Roberval (and namesake of present-day Roberval, Que.) on an island in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where, legend has it, she sheltered in a cave and killed bears to survive.
The Music Game, By Stéfanie Clermont (Biblioasis, Feb. 8)
Clermont, a Franco-Ontarian hailing from Ottawa, bagged a couple of prizes for the original French edition of this debut novel – a series of about 30 interlinked stories – about the failures, humiliations and minor victories of a group of mostly female twentysomethings, all of whom are connected to a young man who kills himself in a Montreal parking lot.
When We Lost Our Heads, By Heather O’Neill (HarperCollins, Feb. 1)
This novel, like most of O’Neill’s previous ones, is set in her native Montreal; unlike them, begins in the 19th century, where two girls from affluent, Golden Mile families, Marie and Sadie, connect, then ignite. Tragedy compels their separation until history and fate eventually bring them back into each other’s orbit, albeit in vastly changed circumstances.
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