Valerie's Picks: Winter/Spring 2020
Valerie is Toronto Public Library's lead selector of adult print books. She and her team evaluate about 400 books every week. (To hear more about how they do this, listen to this podcast).
So if you want to know what books to look forward to this season, we can't think of a better person to ask. Here are the new titles Valerie is most excited about for this winter, with her explanations as to why. Place your holds now to be first in line when the books come in!
The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel
There was big excitement in the literary world when, five months ago, a billboard appeared in Leicester Square emblazoned with a single Tudor rose and the words “so now get up”. Was it a sign that the third and final instalment of Hilary Mantel’s ground-breaking fictional reinvention of the life of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s courtier, advisor, and fixer, was ready? Wolf Hall, the first in the series, charts Cromwell’s improbable rise from blacksmith’s son to right-hand man to the King; the second volume, Bring Up the Bodies, details the intrigues that led to Anne Boleyn’s beheading. The Mirror and the Light spans the final four years of Cromwell’s life, from the execution of Anne Boleyn to his own (spoiler alert!) fatal journey to that same scaffold at Tower Hill. From the first sentence of Wolf Hall it was apparent that Mantel had created something utterly new and extraordinary: a stupendous work of empathy and imagination and an astute and fresh examination of power and politics. It’s been a long wait – eight years – so I am hoping to find some time to re-acquaint myself with Cromwell by re-reading the first two (there are lots of copies in libraries across the city) before the March 10 publication date.
The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel
If you read Canadian author Emily St. John Mandel’s bestselling and award-winning post-apocalyptic novel Station Eleven, you will know that she is a master at creating worlds and characters that are deep, convincing and resonant. With a story that begins in the mid-1990’s and that centres on the relationship between Vincent and her brother Paul, The Glass Hotel is in no way a dystopia, but I am hoping for the same kind of ingenious storytelling and compelling world-building that made Station Eleven so unforgettable.
Weather by Jenny Offill
I loved Jenny Offill’s wonderfully acerbic and inventive previous novel Dept. of Speculation. Told in short, stream-of-consciousness journal entries, the book was a glimpse into the mind and heart of an unnamed woman whose marriage is in crisis. In her new book, we are introduced to Lizzie Benson, a librarian, wife, mother, daughter and sister who becomes increasingly obsessed with doomsday preparations after she begins a part-time job responding to the worried listeners of the climate change podcast Hell and High Water. Allowed access to Lizzie’s inner monologues through her grimly humorous journal entries, we witness a woman trying to hold her life together through both the ordinary weather of everyday life and the extraordinary weather of the looming apocalypse.
A Good Neighborhood by Therese Anne Fowler
Best known for her historical fiction, this first contemporary novel by Therese Anne Fowler is an of-the-moment study of many of the most troubling and charged issues of our time: racism, social class, gentrification, greed, the justice system and environmental destruction. The setting itself – the leafy and prosperous suburb of Oak Knoll, North Carolina – functions as a kind of Greek chorus as it narrates and offers commentary on a seemingly inexorable unfolding tragedy. Long-time resident Valerie Alston-Holt, an African-American professor of ecology, sues her neighbour Brad Whitman, a white newly wealthy entrepreneur, over the damage caused to an oak tree during the construction of his new house. Their teenage children become caught up in the animosity, with heartrending results.
My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell
In this powerful and disturbing debut, the #MeToo movement compels a woman to reckon with her teenage self and to re-examine the defining event of her life. In 2000 15-year-old Vanessa Wye, isolated in her Maine boarding school, ambitious but naïve, is singled out – for her talent, her beauty, her intelligence – by her 42-year-old English teacher. The two embark on a sexual relationship that transforms her life. Now, 17 years later, another student has accused this same teacher of sexual abuse. Forced for the first time to question the dynamics of a relationship she had long convinced herself had been loving and equal, Vanessa struggles to determine what was love and what was victimhood, what was choice and what was manipulation. A profound and complex psychological study of the aftermath of abuse.
American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins
Another hugely important and timely debut, this one set on the Mexico-U.S. border. Lydia Perez and her eight-year-old son Luca must leave their home in Acapulco after their entire extended family are deliberately massacred by the leader of the local drug cartel. Fleeing in the only direction they can – north – they join other migrants in a dangerous and difficult journey towards “American dirt.” Intense, suspenseful and humane, this novel is already being called “a Grapes of Wrath for our times.”
All Adults Here by Emma Straub
In her novels Modern Lovers and The Vacationers Emma Straub showed herself to be a compassionate but honest observer of the dramas of domestic life: the inevitable disillusionments and disappointments of age, the complications of shifting relationships within families, the resentments and grievances built up over a lifetime of proximity and familiarity. In this latest novel Astrid Strick, observing her now grown and struggling children, suddenly realizes that she was not the mother she thought she’d been. But how can she redeem herself, repair her mistakes and heal her children now that they are all adults?
Stay Where I Can See You by Katrina Onstad
I am really looking forward to reading this new book by Toronto journalist and novelist Katrina Onstad, a follow-up to her provocative and compelling novel Everybody Has Everything. Following the Kaplan family’s $10 million lottery win, it seems that their already good life can only get better. But be careful what you wish for… there are unanticipated consequences in their changed lives and circumstances as identities shift and past secrets come to light.
Providence by Max Barry
I have admired Max Barry’s high-concept novels – Jennifer Government, Company, and Lexicon – for the clever way that they pose serious questions about the future of humanity in an increasingly corporatized and systematized world. This new one, a mixture of science fiction and cerebral thriller, features four people who are manning Providence Five, a deadly warship built to protect earth from an immanent invasion from space. They are to report on the war’s progress to the people of the world but then, their communications cut and their ship increasingly ineffective, they find themselves drifting alone on the edge of the universe.
A Thousand Moons by Sebastian Barry
The latest from another Barry whose novels I have been reading for years, the gifted Irish writer Sebastian Barry, chronicler of the fictional McNulty family. In a sequel to Days Without End we find John Cole and Thomas McNulty, lovers and veterans of the Indian Wars and the Civil War, living with their adopted Lakota daughter Winona on their friend’s farm in western Tennessee. This unconventional family tries to make a peaceful life far from the brutality that each have witnessed. But after intolerance turns to violence, Winona decides that she must act.
Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara
An exuberant and poignant debut by Indian journalist Deepa Anappara. Jai is 9 years old and lives with his parents and older sister in a slum near the end of Delhi’s Purple Line train tracks. When a school friend disappears, Jai, an avid watcher of police reality shows, decides to investigate and enlists the aid of his friends Faiz and Pari. Then other children disappear and the three friends must dig deep, in the face of official indifference, to discover what or who is responsible.
Apeirogon by Colum McCann
In geometry, an apeirogon is a regular polygon with a countably infinite number of sides. It serves as both metaphor and narrative device in Colum McCann’s fact-based novel. The shared grief and hope for peace of two fathers, one Palestinian and one Israeli, each mourning a young daughter who has died in the Israel-Palestine conflict, becomes the basis for a border-defying friendship. Bassam Aramin and Rami Elhanan are real people and McCann weaves their real voices and stories together with imagined ones in 1,001 numbered passages. Another stylistically complex and deeply nuanced work by this brilliant writer.
Little Gods by Meng Jin
Another debut that is receiving some great early praise. Liya was born in Beijing on June 4, 1989, the night of the government crackdown on Tiananmen Square protestors. Her mother Su Lan, a brilliant theoretical physicist, fled with her to America where they lived a life completely cut-off from Su Lan’s past and from Liya’s father. When Su Lan dies unexpectedly, 17-year-old Liya journeys to China with her ashes, searching for the pieces of her mother’s past life.
Here We Are by Graham Swift
A new novel by Graham Swift, a master of keen observation and exquisite, restrained prose, is a gift. His latest, set in a theatre at the end of Brighton Pier in the summer of 1959, is about three young performers whose off-stage conflicts threaten their theatrical success.
Separation Anxiety by Laura Zigman
It’s been 14 years since Laura Zigman’s previous novel. I remember really liking her first novel Animal Husbandry and so am curious about this new one, which sounds like it will have the same quirky relatability of her earlier books. With a case of writer’s block so severe that her writing career has crashed, a dying best friend, a teenage son whose sole emotion about her is embarrassment, and a husband she cannot afford to divorce, Judy is leading an insecure and anxious life. Desperate for any kind of comfort, she starts wearing her dog around in an old baby sling. A bittersweet portrait of middle-aged limbo.
Two fantastic-sounding debut story collections by Canadian writers:
Good Citizens Need Not Fear: Stories by Maria Reva
Maria Reva’s linked stories centre around a crumbling apartment building in late Soviet-era Ukraine that, due to an apparently unfixable bureaucratic error, does not officially exist. Nor, therefore, do its residents. Darkly funny stories about the various ways people manage to live in the most surreal of circumstances.
How to Pronounce Knife: Stories by Souvankham Thammavongsa
And from respected poet Souvankham Thammavongsa a sensitive and affecting collection of stories about a group of characters, all immigrants or refugees, struggling to find their bearings in an unfamiliar place and in an unfamiliar language.
The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson
From the author of The Devil in the White City and In the Garden of Beasts comes a new historical investigation, this one an intimate portrait of Winston Churchill and his immediate circle during his first year as Prime Minister. Drawing on newly declassified files and personal diaries, Larson presents a compelling portrait of Churchill’s courage and resolve during the dark days of the Blitz.
Man in the Red Coat by Julian Barnes
A sophisticated historical investigation by Booker Prize-winning novelist and avowed Francophile Julian Barnes. Intrigued by a John Singer Sargent portrait of Samuel Jean de Pozzi – pioneering 19th century French surgeon and gynaecologist, notorious womaniser and belle époque celebrity – Barnes uses the details of Pozzi’s life, and in particular his trip to London in the summer of 1885, as a guide to an era in history with interesting parallels to our own.
From the finance editor of the New York Times, a damning exposé of Deutsche Bank, whose financial recklessness and scandalous history of criminality extends from its role as a major financial backer of Hitler’s Nazi regime to its ties to Donald Trump’s business empire.
A History of My Brief Body by Billy-Ray Belcourt
Young writer, scholar, Griffin Prize-winning poet and LGBTQ and Indigenous activist from the Driftpile Cree Nation, Billy-Ray Belcourt writes his personal story.
Cover image coming soon
Nothing but the Truth by Marie Henein
A candid memoir by one of Canada’s top, and certainly most controversial, defense attorneys. Along with sharing details of her personal and professional life, Henein will clarify and defend the essential role played by defense lawyers in the criminal justice system.
Recollections of My Nonexistence by Rebecca Solnit
Feminist, author, and activist Rebecca Solnit recalls her early years in 1980s San Francisco and tracks her progression from a young, insecure, invisible and silent woman to a confident, authoritative and unafraid writer in this non-linear and instructive memoir.
Art of Resistance: My Four Years in the French Underground by Justus Rosenberg
I encountered Justus Rosenberg earlier this year in Julie Orringer’s novel The Flight Portfolio, a fictionalized account of Varian Fry’s and The Emergency Rescue Committee’s efforts to rescue Jews from Nazi-occupied France. In the novel Justus was an intrepid seventeen-year-old boy trapped in Paris whose appearance and linguistic skills made him invaluable to the group. He worked as a courier and interpreter for Fry and then, after Fry was forced to leave France, as an agent with the Resistance and later with the American Army. Since 1962, he has been a literature professor at Bard College. Now 98 years old, he is finally telling the story of his remarkable life and times.
Books about where we are and where we’re going:
Decadent Society by Ross Douthat
New York Times columnist Douthat writes about the civilizational malaise that he believes has afflicted much of the Western world.
Canadian economist Rubin offers an explanation for global inequality and the decline of the middle class and predicts how far-reaching the consequences of these changes will be to the developed world.
Cover image coming soon
Next: Where to Live, What to Buy, and Who Will Lead Canada’s Future by Darrell Bricker
The CEO of Ipsos Public Affairs uses demographic data to forecast what Canadians will want and need in the coming decades.
Ways to feel better:
Relax, Dammit!: A User’s Guide to the Age of Anxiety by Timothy Caulfield
Caulfield, a Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy, believes that credible science and not misinformation should be the basis for decisions about our health and wellbeing (see his previous book Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?: When Celebrity Culture and Science Clash). In this new book he takes us through a regular day and shows us the underlying science behind many of the small decisions we make.
From kinesiologist, exercise medicine researcher at the Hospital for Sick Children, and author of The Ripple Effect: Sleep Better, Eat Better, Move Better, Think Better comes a new book that advocates the use – for exhausted regular folk – of the same deliberate recovery practices used by elite athletes. Practical strategies for resting our minds and bodies, recharging our spent batteries and regenerating fresh energy so that we can feel stronger and live better.
Previous Valerie's Picks
What books are you looking forward to this winter? Let us know in the comments!
- Cover image for A History of My Brief Body added Jan. 6