Valerie's Picks: Fall 2018

August 21, 2018 | Wendy B.

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Valerie has every book-lover's dream job: she coordinates the selection of print books for adults at Toronto Public Library. In other words, she's a nonstop reader who, with her team of selectors, investigates nearly every book that we order. So when we want to know what new books to get excited about, we know who to ask. 

This list contains Valerie’s picks of the most intriguing books coming out this fall, along with her notes about why she's excited about them. Place your holds now to be first in line when they come in! 


Transcription by Kate Atkinson

Transcription, by Kate Atkinson

Revisiting the Britain-at-war setting of her two recent masterpieces – Life After Life and A God in Ruins – Kate Atkinson’s new novel introduces us to 18-year-old orphan Juliet Armstrong. Recruited in 1940 by MI5 to transcribe conversations between an agent and suspected Nazi sympathizers, her experience gathering intelligence on her fellow citizens will prove pivotal in her life.

Since reading her captivating first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, in 1996, I have been a super-fan of Kate Atkinson’s work, so this one leads the pack of fall books I am looking forward to reading. Like her earlier novels, I expect that Transcription will be a chronologically complex character study, written with her signature wit, intelligence, and humanity. 

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Lake Success  by Gary Shteyngart

Lake Success, by Gary Shteyngart

Coming a very close second on my list of most-anxious-to-read books is Gary Shteyngart’s new novel, his first since 2010’s Super Sad True Love Story. (As an aside, several of the novelists in this list have also written wonderful memoirs, and Shteyngart’s ferociously caustic 2014 memoir, Little Failure, is exceptional.)

Lake Success takes place during the 2016 presidential campaign and follows Barry Cohen, a self-made billionaire hedge-fund manager and fully paid-up member of the 1%, as he embarks on a cross-country Greyhound bus trip in search of lost love after his perfect life implodes. As he travels through America in this craziest of years, his encounters with the 99% have the makings of pure Shteyngart gold. A smart and hilariously observant commentary on the times we live in, told through the rollicking adventures of one deluded but endearing everyman.

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Women Talking by Miriam Toews

Women Talking, by Miriam Toews

An important and astonishingly prescient new novel by Miriam Toews about an attempt to silence the women living in a remote Mennonite colony. After it becomes clear that a group of men in the colony have perpetrated a series of terrible sexual crimes, the women have a decision to make: stay in the only world they have known, or try to escape. The novel, written in the form of meeting minutes, records the voices of the eight women who come together in a hayloft to encounter the truth about their lives, to discover their rage and their power, and to debate their future.

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Love is Blind by William Boyd

Love is Blind, by William Boyd

The word “sweeping” is often used to describe William Boyd’s novels. The gifted storyteller’s most recent books – Sweet Caress, Waiting for Sunrise - and his best-known work, Any Human Heart, are epoch-spanning hybrids of authentic detail and pure literary invention, featuring ordinary people caught up in significant historical events. His latest immersive read is set in the cities of Europe as the 19th century turns into the 20th, and features music, art, passion, intrigue, and revenge.

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Gone So Long by Andre Dubus III

Gone So Long, by Andre Dubus III

Best known for his award-winning novel House of Sand and Fog - though he, too, is the author of a powerful and eloquent memoir, Townie, about growing up amid poverty and violence in the shadow of his distant and celebrated writer father – Dubus’ latest novel contains echoes of his own gritty story. Susan is a married English teacher, living in Florida and working on a memoir about her childhood. She has not seen her father since the night he murdered her mother 40 years earlier. Now ailing, her father is journeying to see her one last time. A grim exploration of mistakes made and of our limited capacity to recover from them.

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Clock Dance by Anne Tyler

Clock Dance by Anne Tyler

Another understated but psychologically astute depiction of the emotional complexities of ordinary family life – particularly of the battleground that is marriage – by the inimitable Anne Tyler. This one chronicles the life of Willa Drake: her fraught childhood, her early marriage and young widowhood, motherhood, her second and not entirely satisfying marriage, and a late act of kindness that changes her own and others’ lives forever.

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  Now We Shall Be Entirely Free  by Andrew Miller

Now We Shall be Entirely Free, by Andrew Miller

Andrew Miller’s previous novel, the Costa Award-winning Pure, is a literary gem. Set in a putrid and overflowing Paris cemetery, the main character is a young engineer charged with dealing with the dead and reclaiming the land.

His new one is also a literary historical novel, this time with a bit of a thriller edge. Captain John Lacroix, a veteran of England’s Spanish campaign against Napoleon, is on the run across England from both the British and the Spanish armies. He is also running from his own memories. An intense and lyrical examination of the atrocities of war.

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Starlight by Richard Wagamese

Starlight, by Richard Wagamese

When Richard Wagamese died in 2017, Canada lost one of its greatest literary voices. The author of novels, poetry, personal reflections, and three important memoirs, Wagamese’s role as the one of the most vital tellers of Indigenous and Canadian stories cannot be overstated. So it can only be good news that he left behind this final novel, unfinished at the time of his death, and a companion of sorts to Medicine Walk. Set in the remote backcountry of the B.C. Interior, the novel features a woman on the run from terrible violence and a man, a now-old Frank Starlight, who offers her sanctuary.

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Paris Echo by Sebastian Faulks

Paris Echo by Sebastian Faulks

The title says it all: this new novel by the renowned British author takes place in a Paris haunted by its Nazi-occupied past and unable to confront its culturally and racially divided present. Faulks examines powerful and universal themes of complicity and collaboration, of injustice, and of how the echoes from the past continue to reverberate into the present and the future.

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Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

This new novel by the author of the Giller Prize-winning Half-Blood Blues sounds amazing. The story opens on a Barbados sugar plantation, where we are introduced to eleven-year old slave George Washington Black, called Wash. When he is chosen by his master’s brother to be his manservant, Wash is suddenly brought into an entirely new world - of literacy, scientific discovery, and racial attitudes - by his new “master”, a naturalist, inventor, and abolitionist. Together they flee the plantation, eventually arriving in the Arctic. I’m expecting this will be a subtle and gorgeously written novel about some big subjects: oppression, freedom, friendship, belonging, and the power and limits of human curiosity. 

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Unsheltered  by Barbara Kingsolver

Unsheltered, by Barbara Kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver writes deeply humane novels that grapple with the issues of the moment. In this new one she writes about two families, living two centuries apart, who occupy the same house. Both families live in unsettled times: fallen on hard times, the Knox family find themselves living on the wrong side of the current technological and economic divide, while in the 1880s the Greenwood family are profoundly shaken by the new discoveries of Charles Darwin. An exploration of resilience and compassion in times of great upheaval.

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The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Gowar

The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock, by Imogen Hermes Gower

If you enjoyed Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent, then you might want to give this big literary debut a try. Already published in the U.K. to rave reviews and shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, the novel is set in Georgian London and features Jonah Hancock, a merchant who trades one of his ships for a mermaid. A smartly written and richly detailed novel of curiosity and obsession.

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Family Trust by Kathy Wang

Family Trust, by Kathy Wang

Another smartly written debut, this one set emphatically in the 21st Century, Family Trust sounds like it will appeal to readers who love books, like The Nest, that deal with the family complications created by great wealth (or by the expectation of great wealth). Stanley Huang, the dying patriarch of a Taiwanese-American family, is apparently worth millions. Or is he? Can his wives and children trust what he says about his money? Can he trust their declarations of love and loyalty? And what, at the end, is the value of a life?

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The Winters by Lisa Gabriele

The Winters, by Lisa Gabriele

Canadian author Lisa Gabriele has updated one of the great domestic thrillers, Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, for the modern age. Setting her story on the Asherley Estate in the Hamptons, the unnamed young heroine is swept into an unimaginably luxurious life by the wealthy and charismatic Max Winter. But her new home is haunted by Max’s accomplished and beautiful first wife, Rebekah, and her teenaged step-daughter, Dani, is not pleased to welcome her young stepmother into the family.

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Theory by Dionne Brand

Theory, by Dionne Brand

The unnamed, ungendered, and unreliable narrator of this long-awaited new novel by Toronto author Dionne Brand is an ambitious graduate student setting out to write a world-changing thesis. But the work is influenced, in ways that the narrator could not have predicted and cannot control, by encounters with three very different lovers. This is a complex novel of ideas about, among many things, the conflict between love and intellect and about the limits of categories like race, class, and gender to define us.

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The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh

The Water Cure, by Sophie Mackintosh

For readers of Naomi Alderman’s The Power comes this debut feminist dystopia by a young British writer, already longlisted for the Booker Prize. Set on an isolated island where three sisters have been raised to believe that masculinity is toxic, the three must sort fact from fiction when two men and a small boy wash up on their shore. The Booker judges have said: “This chilling, beautifully written novel explores the ways in which extreme parental protection can fail, and unpicks patriarchy at its core, forcing us to ask what it means to survive, indeed whether it is possible to survive, in a man’s world. Allegorical and plausible, the tautness and tension of the writing are staggering.”

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The Dreamers by Karen Thomson Walker

The Dreamers, by Karen Thompson Walker

When selecting books to read I am often guided by the endorsements of writers I admire. I did not read Walker’s much-praised debut The Age of Miracles, but when I saw that her second novel had received a rave review from Karen Russell, I knew that I had to try it. Like that first novel, this one also hangs on a clever and scary premise: a rapidly widening group of students in a small college town fall asleep and cannot be awakened. Yet they are displaying higher levels of brain activity than have ever been recorded. What is going on here and how should individuals and the community react? Sounds like this will be an emotional and provocative read.

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The Flame by Leonard Cohen

The Flame, by Leonard Cohen

When I first heard Songs from a Room at 15, a crack opened up in my small world - which is, as we all now know, how the light gets in. Throughout my life, Leonard Cohen has supplied the soundtrack to so many milestones  - so it’s no surprise that this last collection of poems, lyrics, prose pieces, and illustrations, selected and arranged by Cohen in the final months of his life, should be at the top of my non-fiction reading list. His final so long to the world.

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21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari

21 Lessons for the 21st Century, by Yuval Noah Harari

Having incisively explored our human past (Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind) and future (Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow) in his previous two books, Harari now offers help in understanding our world today. Effortlessly writing from a multitude of perspectives – scientific and historical, philosophical and political – he explores 21 of the greatest challenges confronting individuals and societies in this second decade of the 21st Century. Essential reading.

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Fed Up by Gemma Hartley      Good and Mad by Rebecca Traister

Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women, and the Way Forward, by Gemma Hartley

Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women's Anger, by Rebecca Traister

There are a lot of books by and about angry women being published this fall, and the two that most interest me are Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger by Rebecca Traister and Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women, and the Way Forward by Gemma Hartley. Both deal with the sense of cumulative rage that women feel. Traister emphasizes the public and political spheres as she analyzes attitudes to women’s anger and surveys historical and modern manifestations of that anger in support of political and social change. Hartley takes on the private sphere and reveals the long-simmering rage that women feel at having to supply the vast majority of the emotional labor that keeps everyone in their lives happy, productive, and comfortable.

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The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis

The Fifth Risk: Undoing Democracy, by Michael Lewis

If, like me, you read Michael Lewis’ terrifying article in Vanity Fair in September of 2017 about the chaos of the post-election transition at the U.S. Department of Energy (which oversees, among other things, that country’s nuclear weapons) then his new exposé is definitely required reading. In it Lewis expands on that article to look at the chaos, willful ignorance, and dangerous mishandling that characterized the transition across the entire U.S. government.

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House of Trump  House of Putin by Craig Unger

House of Trump, House of Putin: The Untold Story of Donald Trump and the Russian Mafia, by Craig Unger

For those of us still trying to understand the truth about the relationship between Trump and Putin, who have maybe read Russian Roulette by Michael Isikoff and Collusion by Luke Harding but are convinced that there are still more facts to be uncovered, House of Trump, House of Putin by bestselling investigative journalist Craig Unger promises to provide the answers. Claiming to be the first book that presents a comprehensive investigation into the decades-long relationship between Trump, Putin, and the Russian Mafia, Unger uncovers chilling proof of Russia’s malevolent intentions to undermine Western democracy and of Trump’s sordid financial relationships with his Russian benefactors.

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There are so many interesting memoirs being published this fall and I have selected three that caught my attention:


Becoming by Michelle Obama

Becoming, by Michelle Obama

Like almost everyone, I am eagerly awaiting the publication of Michele Obama’s memoir. This intelligent, accomplished, inspiring, committed, and compassionate woman’s story is definitely worth reading.

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Small Fry by Lisa Brennan-Jobs

Small Fry: A Memoir, by Lisa Brennan-Jobs

This memoir by the daughter of Steve Jobs is getting fantastic early praise both for the quality of its writing and for its insights into the emotional wounds that parents, famous or not, inflict on their children.

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Split Tooth by Tanya Tagaq

Split Tooth, by Tanya Tagaq

A fierce and haunting memoir by the Polaris Prize-winning Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq detailing her Nunavut childhood and her relationships with the people who live there and with the magical landscape that inspires her music.

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More recent posts by Valerie:

Valerie's Picks: Spring and Summer, 2018

Valerie's Picks: Winter, 2018