Valerie's Picks for Winter/Spring 2021
Valerie has every reader's dream job: she's 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 we 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 season, with her explanations as to why.
Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri
In 2016, Jhumpa Lahiri was the author of two novels and two short story collections remarkable for the restrained elegance and sensitivity of their writing. Then, she decided to leave the comfort of her first language behind and move to Rome in order to immerse herself in the Italian language. Her 2016 book, In Other Words, tells about the journey of a writer discovering a new voice in the process of learning a new language. Whereabouts, her first novel since 2013’s The Lowland, is also her first written entirely in Italian and translated by her into English. The novel covers a year in the life of a woman, safe in her solitude but eager for connection, as she restlessly walks the streets of her city.
Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro
From Nobel laureate Kazuo Ishiguro comes a new novel set, like Never Let Me Go, in a futuristic world where technology interacts with humanity in profound ways. Klara is an Artificial Friend, a human-like solar-powered robot designed to be a child’s companion who worships the Sun as the source of her being. Klara is also a curious and observant student of human nature, especially once she is “adopted” by Josie and her family. This promises to be another of Ishiguro’s brilliant studies in what it means to be human – to find love, belief and meaning – this time told by a perceptive non-human narrator.
The Committed by Viet Thanh Nguyen
Here's a follow-up to Nguyen’s 2016 sophisticated, darkly funny, Pulitzer Prize-winning spy novel, The Sympathizer. We are once again in the company of the Captain, the undercover Communist agent who escaped Vietnam for America. In this new novel he is again in flight – this time from Hollywood to Paris and from communism to capitalism. Finding new work as a drug dealer, the Captain also gets involved with a bunch of left-wing French philosophers. The Sympathizer was a deeply unconventional spy story. The Committed sounds like it will be an equally unconventional crime story, delivered with a side order of existential despair.
My Year Abroad by Chang-Rae Lee
I've always found Chang-Rae Lee's novels to be quiet and contemplative. I’m curious about this one because it sounds like anything but. In fact, it sounds positively raucous. The story of a gap year gone disastrously bad, the novel begins when indifferent college student/golf caddy Tiller Bardmon meets Chinese-American entrepreneur Pong Lou, and is quickly invited along on a business trip through Asia. But the trip goes from bizarre adventure to menacing nightmare and Tiller finds himself abandoned in Shenzhen. Woven through the strangeness of his time with Pong is the narrative of his current life with Val and her young son, both in witness protection because of her gangster husband. An imaginative, rollicking coming-of-age story that I’m hoping will also be written with Lee’s characteristic tenderness and insight.
Trio by William Boyd
The prospect of a new novel by William Boyd always makes me happy. Trio is about the hidden lives of three characters on a film set in 1960s Brighton. There's Talbot Kydd, secretly gay, the film’s producer; Amy Viklund, an American actress and the star of the film, who is being threatened by her ex-husband; and Elfrida Wing, a novelist stymied by her drinking problem, whose unfaithful husband is the movie’s director. The film-set hijinks and Swinging Sixties setting are a great backdrop for this deft, funny exploration of the private lives of very public people.
Three great new novels by Canadian authors
The Relatives by Camilla Gibb
Bringing together many of the components of her previous work, this new novel by Camilla Gibb is one I’m really looking forward to. Like her recent memoir, This is Happy, the book explores how families are formed. Like her first novel, Sweetness in the Belly, this one is partly set in east Africa. Told through the interconnecting stories of three people who are strangers to each other – two pregnant women in very different circumstances and their anonymous sperm donor – the novel examines how this web of unexpected relationships changes the definition of family.
A Town called Solace by Mary Lawson
Like her previous three novels (Crow Lake, The Other Side of the Bridge and Road Ends), Mary Lawson's latest is set in small-town northern Ontario. The story begins in 1972. It's told from three points of view: 7-year-old Clara; her elderly neighbour Mrs. Orchard; and Liam, a middle-aged man who has inexplicably taken up residence in Mrs. Orchard’s house. As the novel unspools forwards and backwards in time and each character struggles with their own personal crises and tragedies, the links between them become clear. Lawson is a graceful writer whose un-showy style always hides surprising depths.
Gutter Child by Jael Richardson
An impressive-sounding debut novel from Brampton’s Jael Richardson. (Richardson also wrote The Stone Thrower: A Daughter’s Lesson, A Father’s Life, a memoir about her relationship with her father, CFL quarterback Chuck Ealey.) The story is set in an oppressively fractured dystopian world where the privileged inhabitants of the Mainland control the lives of those who live in the Gutter. It follows Elimina - a child of the Gutter raised in the Mainland – as she confronts a system meant to impoverish, exploit and tyrannize her. Lots of meaty issues to explore in this novel built around a society with more than a few parallels to our own.
A few debuts that sound fantastic
We Begin at the End by Chris Whitaker
A debut literary crime thriller with a big print run and some great endorsements from the likes of Louise Penny, Jane Harper and AJ Finn. Vincent King is being released from prison, 30 years after he was convicted of killing 7-year-old Sissy Radley. He's going back to the town where he was raised. The town where his childhood friend Walker, whose testimony helped convict him all those years ago, is now the chief of police. Living there still is Sissy’s sister Star, with her young son and daughter, 13-year-old Duchess. Feisty, defiant and fiercely protective of her family, Duchess sets into motion a chain of events that threatens everyone she’s ever cared about. The Guardian has called We Begin at the End “an accomplished and moving story of crime, punishment, love and redemption”.
The Liar’s Dictionary by Eley Williams
On a much lighter note: this debut novel is a delightful love letter to language, by prize-winning British short story writer Eley Williams. At the end of the 19th century, Peter Winceworth, an affected and unappreciated lexicographer working on Swansby’s New Encyclopaedic Dictionary, is suffering from unrequited love. He takes revenge on his employer, his rival and all humanity by inserting made-up words – mountweazels – into the first edition of the dictionary he is editing. At the beginning of the 21st century, lexicographer Mallory is contending with a rocky love life of her own. What's more, she's charged with updating the dictionary for its second edition and ferreting out all the mountweazels. With eccentric characters and lots of amusing wordplay, this novel – due out in early January - might be sweet relief for our pandemic-battered spirits.
Gold Diggers by Sanjena Sathian
A clever and satirical coming-of-age novel - with a touch of magic realism - by a recent graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Neil Narayan, second-generation Indian-American teenager, is feeling the pressure of his ambitious parents’ expectations for him. But he’s not sure that he shares those dreams, or that he possesses the drive necessary to make it in their competitive world. Until, that is, his neighbour Anita introduces him to an alchemical potion, brewed from stolen gold, that harnesses the ambition of the jewelry’s original owner. It’s going to get her into Harvard and it might just help Neil, too.
Value(s): Building a Better World for All by Mark Carney
A daring and important book by Mark Carney, the former Governor of both the Bank of Canada and the Bank of England and the current U.N. Special Envoy for Climate Action and Finance. Carney argues that the market economy is responsible for many of the fundamental problems facing the world. A more equitable, more secure, more diverse, cleaner and healthier world are possible, he maintains. And he sets out both the vision – a society based on human rather than market values – and the practical means to get there.
Another illuminating biography by Isaacson, this time about Nobel Prize-winning biochemist Jennifer Doudna. With her team of collaborators, Doudna developed a revolutionary gene-editing tool known as CRISPR. The book addresses issues around women in science, as well as cooperation and competition in scientific research. And it explores the world of amazing medical possibilities opened up by her discoveries, as well as the significant moral issues they present.
Broken (In the Best Possible Way) by Jenny Lawson
Lawson has written brilliantly, candidly and hilariously about her struggles with mental illness in her two previous memoirs, Furiously Happy and Let’s Pretend This Never Happened. In this new memoir she writes about her struggles with events both momentous (a new experimental treatment) and ordinary (vacuum cleaners and trips to the post office).
The Bright Side: Twelve Months, Three Heartbreaks, and One (Maybe) Miracle by Cathrin Bradbury
A witty and moving memoir by Canadian journalist Cathrin Bradbury about a single shattering year of her life and how she managed to find hope in the wreckage.
I started researching Erin French before ordering this memoir and from that moment I just wanted to spend time with her. And to eat in her beautiful restaurant (although really, at this point, any restaurant would do…). Go ahead, Google her. Hers is a story of multiple public and private failures, of grit to build back all that she had lost, of triumph for her acclaimed 40-seat restaurant in Maine, The Lost Kitchen, and of love and support for the “family” she created among her all-female staff.
The Hard Crowd by Rachel Kushner
Nineteen powerful essays written by Kushner over the course of the past twenty years about a variety of important artistic, political and cultural themes.
Let Me Tell You What I Mean by Joan Didion
A selection of early uncollected writing by Didion, showcasing her astute observations of late 20th century life and culture.
Two vital books for the times we live in
Tangled Up in Blue: Policing the American City by Rosa Brooks
As we struggle to understand and mitigate systemic racism in police services, I think this nuanced and objective work of immersive journalism will be important reading. Rosa Brooks, a professor at Georgetown University Law School, took a sabbatical in 2016 and entered the police academy in Washington, D.C. After graduation, she worked as a patrol officer in a poor and crime-ridden area of that city. Her goal was to blend her insider experience of life as a cop on the street with her academic understanding of the role of policing in a democratic society. She found deep flaws in a justice system dominated by mass incarceration and racial discrimination. A timely and important work.
The Devil You Know: A Black Power Manifesto by Charles M. Blow
Another urgent and important book, this one by Charles M. Blow, journalist and op-ed columnist for the New York Times. The Devil You Know is a call to action for Black Americans to amass enough political power to overturn the oppressive system of racial hierarchy and to finally achieve equality on their own terms. For readers of Isabel Wilkerson, Desmond Cole, Ibram X. Kendi and Ijeoma Oluo. As a regular reader of Blow’s columns, this is one I’m especially eager to read.
And finally, a book about writing and reading for anyone who values both of those things. Billed as “a master class with George Saunders”, the book is based on a course he has been teaching to MFA students at Syracuse University for two decades. It discusses the relevance and universality of fiction by looking at stories written by the Russians he admires most: Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy and Gogol.
Which books are you looking forward to the most? Place your holds now and tell us in the comments!