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The Globe’s books preview has top fiction and non-fiction picks to get you through to spring

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Having established itself as the Avatar of book sales, Prince Harry’s Spare has been dominating book headlines of late. But there are plenty of others worthy of your attention this season. In fiction, there’s a new epic novel from Salman Rushdie, a promising new Canadian voice in Kai Thomas and the resurgence of an admired older one in Thomas Wharton, plus intriguing new international voices such as Chetna Maroo, Tom Crewe and Charmaine Craig.

In non-fiction, there are promising titles about black holes, fauna (beavers! owls!), agoraphobia, the history of psychology as well as travelogues and a slew of nonroyal biographies and memoirs – though many consider Agatha Christie a queen of sorts.

The Globe 100: The best books of 2022


Fiction

In the Upper Country
Strange LoopsT
Why Don’t You Love Me
The New Life
My Father’s House
Western Lane
In the Upper Country, Kai Thomas (Viking, January)

There’s a tinge of The Arabian Nights in the Ottawa native’s ambitious first novel set in the composite all-Black town of Dunmore, Ont., one of the final stops on the Underground Railroad. As she awaits trial in jail for killing a slave hunter who came up from the States, an elderly former slave makes a bargain with a local journalist, her would-be interlocutor: a tale for a tale. In so doing, the pair patch together connections encompassing the War of 1812 and Black-Indigenous alliances in 19th-century Canada.

Strange Loops, Liz Harmer (Knopf, January)

In her second novel, Harmer, who can write a fine sentence, moves away from the time machines and tech-gone-wrong that featured in her well-received debut, The Amateurs. The strangeness here is instead of a familial variety: specifically, the deteriorating relationship between twins Francine and Philip, which gets tested after Philip takes a teenage foray into religion, and starts to make moral judgments about her life choices.

Why Don’t You Love Me, Paul B. Rainey (Drawn & Quarterly, January)

Though it’s formatted as a series of comic strips, Rainey’s book has the distinct arc of a graphic novel. It presents initially as the wit-inflected story of how the marriage between a website manager and call-centre worker with two kids gets affected by depression, but eventually becomes something much stranger and more compelling ( “science fiction” doesn’t quite capture it). It’s hard to disagree with Neil Gaiman’s cover blurb calling it “a masterwork.”

The New Life, Tom Crewe (Scribner, January)

In 1894, two married men (on paper, at least) are preparing to publish a book they collaborated on, a defence of “sexual inversion” (a.k.a. homosexuality), when Oscar Wilde is arrested and put on trial for “gross indecency,” thus giving them pause about sticking their necks out. Crewe’s based-on-a-true story debut, called “virtuosic” and “electrifying” in early reviews, abounds with moral predicaments, including about the threshold between public and private.

My Father’s House, Joseph O’Connor (Europa, February)

O’Connor has based the protagonist in this artfully written thriller (the first in a planned trilogy) on a real historical figure: a motorcycle-riding priest who, during the Second World War, offered sanctuary to Jews and POWs in tiny Vatican City, itself then surrounded by Nazi-occupied Rome. When the sadistic Nazi commander Paul Hauptmann threatens to move in, our priest-hero works to secure his charges’ passage out in various creative ways, including by means of a “choir” made up of sympathetic associates.

Western Lane, Chetna Maroo (Knopf, February)

Has Maroo, a young Brit who won the Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize for Fiction, written the first great squash novel? (I’m referring to the racquet sport, not the vegetable.) This slim debut novel centres on 11-year-old Gopi, youngest of three sisters in a closely knit Jain family, who, in the wake of their mother’s recent death, finds solace in the sport.

My Nemesis
Victory City
The Book of Rain
My Nemesis, Charmaine Craig (Grove Press, February)

There are shades of Rachel Cusk and even Elena Ferrante in Craig’s tense, cerebral but elegant second novel about a successful married writer, Tessa, who reaches out by correspondence to an LA-based scholar to bond over Camus. But as the relationship deepens, pulling Tessa’s husband into its orbit, Tessa finds herself in a power struggle with the prof’s seemingly docile half-Asian wife – that “seemingly” takes us to some unexpected places.

Victory City, Salman Rushdie (Knopf, February)

Rushdie’s first book since the attack on his life styles itself as the translation, from Sanskrit, of an epic poem from the 14th century. The prophetess Pampa Kampana’s “immortal masterpiece” tells the 250-year-long tale of the rise and fall of the city of Bisnaga, a fabled place of enchanted forests, talking animals and gender equality where – somehow! – everything is not quite perfect.

The Book of Rain, Thomas Wharton (Random House Canada, March)

The Times Literary Supplement called Wharton a “writer to watch,” when his first novel, Icefields, was published almost 30 years ago, but those who did watch, or at least adults, may have found their eyes glazing over. Despite a well-received follow-up, the Borgesian Salamander, and a high-concept book-about-books, The Logogryph, Wharton spent the next decade and a half focused on YA fiction. He returns at last with this new work of “environmental literary suspense” about a disaster in a mining town that renders it a no go zone.


Non-Fiction

Beaverland
Warrior Queens & Quiet Revolutionaries
The Hard Road Out
On Agoraphobia
A Guest at the Feast
The Half Known Life
Beaverland: How One Weird Rodent Made America, Leila Philip (Grand Central, December, 2022)

Despite the “America” of the title, Canada naturally figures prominently in this book about the beaver. Philip extols the creatures’ virtues and weirdnesses, and introduces us to those involved in their preservation. She also traces their evolution from the megafauna versions celebrated in Algonquian Great Beaver sagas to the industrious platypus-like creatures we know, and sometimes unironically curse today for “destroying” various landscapes, even as we pave through their territory and immortalize them on our nickels.

Warrior Queens & Quiet Revolutionaries: How Women (Also) Built the World, Kate Mosse (Mantle, January)

In this “dictionary of women,” the novelist and founder of the Women’s Prize for Fiction aims to “paint a global and broad-brush picture of what history could look like if women’s achievements had been documented as thoroughly as men’s accomplishments.” Interspersed among fascinating stories of dancers, poets, anthropologists, activists and inventors are a series of vignettes reconstructing the life of the author’s own great-grandmother, Lily Watson, who, Mosse was pleased to learn, was a well-known novelist in her day.

The Hard Road Out: One Woman’s Escape from North Korea, Jihyun Park (HarperCollins, January)

Memoirs by defectors from the Hermit Kingdom continue to have an irresistible appeal; but the title of this one is slightly misleading in that its subject escaped not once, but twice. It is, as one would expect, harrowing. In 2021, Park, who’s now living in the U.K., became the first person of North Korean descent to run for elected office in that country when she became a candidate – some might say counterintuitively – for Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party (she lost).

On Agoraphobia, Graham Caveney (Pan MacMillan, January)

Tell people you’re claustrophobic and they nod sympathetically. Tell them you’re agoraphobic and they balk at what they see as a “vulnerability too far.” So the British journalist and academic has learned over 30 years of living with the condition, which he explains is less about fear of going out than fearing what will happen if one goes out. In spare, poetic chapters, he probes the roots of agoraphobia in his own life, and its many manifestations in literature.

A Guest at the Feast, Colm Toibin (M&S, January)

The opener in this essay collection, Cancer: My Part in Its Downfall, about the Irish author’s experience with testicular cancer, would seem at first to stand apart from its other pieces, many of which focus on his native Ireland or are profiles of authors such as Marilynne Robinson and John McGahern. But here too, is Toibin’s familiar humour and grace. After he’s told he needs to see an oncologist, “I comforted myself by pretending that, because of my abiding interest in the mysteries and niceties of Being, I had to see an ontologist.”

The Half Known Life: In Search of Paradise, Pico Iyer (Riverhead, January)

“After years of travel, I’d begun to wonder what kind of paradise can ever be found in a world of unceasing conflict,” writes Iyer in this latest account of his travels around the globe. Among other locales, we go to the mountains of Kashmir, to a film studio in North Korea and to the holy cities and gardens of Iran, a place that has beguiled him since boyhood. Contradictions and ambiguities have always been the fuel for Iyer’s best writing, and in the world’s largest theocracy, birthplace of the word “paradise,” he finds them in spades.

Agatha Christie: A Very Elusive Woman
Bloodbath Nation
Tunnel 29
A Brief History of Black Holes
Still Pictures
Wanda's War
Agatha Christie: A Very Elusive Woman, Lucy Worsley (Hodder & Stoughton, January)

This new biography aims to turn the focus from Christie’s Guinness Book-level achievements, like the two billion in sales that placed her the third on a bestseller list after Shakespeare and the Bible (eat your heart out, Prince Harry), to debunking various myths. These include her own carefully cultivated image as a dull, middle-aged crone; to wit, she liked fast cars and hanging ten in Hawaii. Contrary to rumours she was a lush, she was a teetotaller whose favourite quaff was a “glass of neat cream.” Worsley also claims to have solved the mystery around Christie’s 11-day disappearance in 1926 that prompted a nationwide hunt for her body.

Bloodbath Nation, Paul Auster (Grove, January)

In this slim but powerful book, the novelist approaches the apparently intractable issue of gun control in the U.S. through a combination of cultural history, statistics, personal experience (we learn that his grandmother intentionally shot and killed his paternal grandfather when Auster’s father was 6, but got off on grounds of temporary insanity) and visuals. The latter are a series of eerie black-and-white photos of mundane mass-shooting sites – supermarkets, high schools, department stores – by the photographer Spencer Ostrander.

Tunnel 29: The True Story of an Extraordinary Escape Beneath the Berlin Wall, Helena Merriman (Public Affairs, January)

The first few chapters of Merriman’s book suggest it may well be as riveting as her excellent 10-part BBC podcast on the same topic; namely, a group who in 1962 embarked upon an insanely risky plan to dig, essentially by hand, through wet sand and dripping clay and under murderous Stasi, a claustrophobically narrow escape tunnel between an apartment building in Cold War East Berlin and a factory in the western part of the city (the tunnel is named for the number of escapees).

A Brief History of Black Holes: And Why Nearly Everything You Know About Them Is Wrong, Becky Smethurst (Pan Macmillan, January)

Are you sitting down? Good, because it turns out there’s a supermassive black hole at the centre of our galaxy, the Milky Way, that’s causing us to spin around it at great speed. Maybe the chocolate bars need a rethink. Smethurst, an Oxford astrophysicist with a popular YouTube channel, here gives an entertaining and easily digestible guide to black holes – which only went from theory to accepted fact in the 1920s, thanks to the advent of (better) photography. Two chapter titles – ”Why black holes are black” and “Why black holes are not black” – give a sense of the book’s playful approach.

Still Pictures: On Photography and Memory, Janet Malcolm (FSG, January)

Though best known for her long-form non-fiction and New Yorker essays, Malcolm, who died in 2021, was also a talented photographer and collage artist. She brings that visual sensibility to bear here in her final book, a quasi-autobiography (she distrusted the form in its conventional sense) presented in the form of typically insightful commentary on a series of photographs of her Czech immigrant family.

Wanda’s War: An Untold Story of Nazi Europe, Forced Labour, and a Canadian Immigration Scandal, Marsha Faubert (Goose Lane, February)

Faubert, a lawyer, has pieced together the life of her late mother-in-law, Wanda Gizmunt, to revisit a scandalous episode in Canadian history. After suffering in a forced-labour camp in Nazi Germany, Wanda was among 100 young Polish girls brought to Canada by Quebec businessman and MP Ludger Dionne to work at his textile mill under humanitarian auspices, but where she and the others were again exploited.

Psych: The Story of the Human Mind
The Wise Hours: A Journey into the Wild and Secret World of Owls
Against the Seas: Saving Civilizations from Rising Waters
Strange Bewildering Time: Istanbul to Kathmandu in the Last Year of the Hippie Trail
War Diary
Once Upon a Tome: The Misadventures of a Rare Bookseller
Psych: The Story of the Human Mind, Paul Bloom (Ecco, February)

This overview of the current state of the field of psychology – which can be read linearly, or by dipping in randomly as is your wont – is based on Bloom’s extremely popular Intro to Psych course at Yale University, whose YouTube version has views in the millions. Bloom’s warm, conversational style translates nicely to print as he covers topics such as What did Freud [or Skinner] get right about human nature?, Where does knowledge come from?, and How do we think of other people?

The Wise Hours: A Journey into the Wild and Secret World of Owls, Miriam Darlington (Tin House, February)

In Indonesia, where birds are often kept as pets, the owl was avoided and feared until the Harry Potter films came along. Now they are coveted under the name “Burung Harry Potter.” Aiming to put owls, many species of which are now threatened, back into ecological context, the British nature writer spent a year in various countries studying them. She interweaves that story with one she didn’t expect to tell: about her simultaneous quest to find a cure for a mysterious neurological illness that suddenly afflicted her 19-year-old son.

Against the Seas: Saving Civilizations from Rising Waters, Mary Soderstrom (Dundurn, February)

In her many works of non-fiction, Soderstrom has covered a wide variety of topics, from the history of botanical gardens to the global influence of the Portuguese. A through line, though, has been the issue of sustainability, which she explored in her previous book, about concrete, and this one, a (mostly) positive look at what humans have done in the past, and are doing now, to adapt to inevitably rising sea levels.

Strange Bewildering Time: Istanbul to Kathmandu in the Last Year of the Hippie Trail, Mark Abley (Anansi, February)

Abley’s book details the three months he spent travelling through Asia in the late 1970s along the so-called Hippie Trail. (At the time a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, he managed to fund the trip, improbably, by entering and winning a nationwide writing contest in Punch magazine whose theme was “life in 2001.”) But it is as much the reflections of an older man looking back on his idealistic, ignorant younger self as he sought to fill “a God-shaped emptiness growing inside him.”

War Diary, Yevgenia Belorusets (New Directions, March)

The Ukrainian artist and writer began keeping an online diary the day Russia began shelling her hometown of Kyiv, but it quickly took on a global life after its translation by an anonymous collective and a live reading by Margaret Atwood on International Women’s Day. In book form, these collected entries bring home the mix of fear, banality, helplessness and incredulity Beloruset experienced in the war’s first 41 days.

Once Upon a Tome: The Misadventures of a Rare Bookseller, Oliver Darkshire (Norton, March)

For fans of Marius Kociejowski’s recent A Factotum in the Booktrade, Darkshire’s charming book relates his coming-of-age working amidst the beloved kooks who patronize Sotheran’s, an antiquarian bookshop in London founded in 1761, and still haunted by the ghost of its founder, Henry Sotheran, who was killed by – what else? – a tram. The title page sets the tone: “THE MISADVENTURES of a RARE BOOKSELLER, wherein the theory of the profession is partially explained, with a variety of insufficient examples.”

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The Real Work: On the Mystery of Mastery, Adam Gopnik (Liveright, March)

Gopnik borrows a magicians’ term – ”the real work,” referring to the true, deep mastery over craft – to set the stage for this “self-help book that won’t help,” in which he offers himself up as apprentice to masters in seven fields (no Yoda quotes, here, mercifully), including illustration, magic, baking, driving and boxing. His “hardest mastery of all,” though, is with a cognitive behaviour therapist who conquered his own severe case of paruresis – the inability to urinate in public facilities – a condition from which Gopnik has been a lifelong sufferer.


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