Valerie's Picks for Spring/Summer 2021

April 23, 2021 | Wendy B.

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An open book


Valerie and her team of selectors evaluate about 400 adult print books per week for Toronto Public Library. So when she says she's excited about a new book, we listen. Here are her picks for spring and summer, 2021.



There are so many wonderful books coming out this spring-summer season that selecting just a few has been challenging. Let’s start with some outstanding Canadian titles.


Canadian fiction

The Spectacular

The Spectacular by Zoe Whittall

I admire Zoe Whittall’s novels for their insights into the complexities of family relationships. In this new book three generations of women, each burdened by the weight of society’s expectations, struggle to negotiate the authentic and spectacular life they each dream of with a world that wants to deny them that freedom.


What Strange Paradise

What Strange Paradise by Omar El Akkad

There are books that stay with you long after you have finished reading them. Omar El Akkad’s debut novel, American War, is one of those books for me. It's a powerfully imagined dystopian vision of a divided United States in 2074 in the midst of a second Civil War. In this new novel, an exploration of the global refugee crisis, El Akkad has no need to venture into the near future for his subject. Amir, a nine-year-old Syrian boy and the sole survivor of a sinking boat of refugees, lands on a small island and is rescued by a homeless teenaged girl. Though they are from different cultures and do not speak a common language, their struggle to survive in a hostile world binds them together. A moving story about the power of compassion in an indifferent world.



Sufferance by Thomas King

One of my favourite reads in 2020 was Thomas King’s Indians on Vacation. King has a rare ability to capture the lightness and darkness of human existence in his stories and novels. Sufferance sounds like it might be on the darker side, but with plenty of room for King’s sly observations on modern life. Jeremiah Camp is gifted with the ability to predict future money-making opportunities for the rich and powerful. He sees something terrible and hopeless in a vision of the future. So he goes into hiding – no internet, no smartphone, no television – at an abandoned residential school. But the outside world will not leave him be. King's publisher calls this “a bold and provocative novel about the social and political consequences of the inequality created by privilege and power – and what we might do about it”.


Second Place

Second Place by Rachel Cusk

More brilliant fiction by the British-Canadian Cusk, this one inspired by D.H. Lawrence’s extended visit to Mabel Dodge Luhan’s artist colony in Taos. M. was unsettled by the work of famous painter L. when she encountered his work as a young woman. Now, years later and living with a new husband in an unnamed country, she begins a correspondence with L. Before long, she invites him to stay in their “second place”, a small house they’ve constructed as a refuge for visiting artists and writers. Increasingly fraught interactions between members of the complex household form the backdrop for Cusk’s characteristically insightful musings about the purpose and meaning of art and the artistic life.


Her Turn

Her Turn by Katherine Ashenburg

Ashenburg is best known for her non-fiction and her recent historical novel Sofie and Cecelia. But this second novel is quite different: wittier, sharper and written with a thoroughly modern sensibility. Liz edits a column of essays contributed by readers for a Washington, D.C. newspaper. She receives a submission from the woman her ex-husband left her for, now his wife. Rather than delete it, she decides for the usual all-too-human reasons — grief, rage, curiosity — to engage with the author without divulging her identity. A flawed heroine, Liz only begins to understand forgiveness after digging herself into a hot mess and then out again.


The Almost Wife

The Almost Wife by Gail Anderson-Dargatz

A thriller from award-winning B.C. author Gail Anderson-Dargatz. This one sounds like it will have all of the usual elements of a psychological thriller — untrustworthy spouses, unreliable narrators, long-hidden secrets. But it will also have elements of her previous work — strong women, rural settings. The only thing standing between Kira and the life of her dreams is her fiancé’s not-quite-ex wife. Or is it?


Miles to Go

And Miles to Go Before I Sleep by Jocelyne Saucier

Saucier returns to the northern Ontario setting of her gorgeous previous novel, And the Birds Rained Down. She also returns to the themes of aging and freedom that she explored in that book. Gladys, elderly but determined to finish life on her own terms, escapes her hometown of Swastika (yes, there is a place called Swastika in Ontario) on a northbound train. Why did she leave and what happened to those left behind?


A few great-sounding debuts by Canadian authors

Swimming Back

Swimming Back to Trout River by Linda Rui Feng

A novel about the lingering effects of the Cultural Revolution on a young Chinese family by a Toronto author. Junie is five years old when her parents leave for America. She spends the next five years living happily with her grandparents in the small village of Trout River. And she is determined to stay there, even after her father writes promising to bring her to America by her twelfth birthday. But the family reunion he longs for will not be possible unless he and his wife find a way to reconcile. A novel about luck, fate and the traumas we cannot share.


Tuscan Daughter

Tuscan Daughter by Lisa Rochon

For fans of atmospheric historical fiction, this first novel by architecture critic and Globe & Mail columnist Lisa Rochon should be a welcome read. Set in Renaissance Florence, Beatrice is a peasant girl who dreams of becoming an artist. While in the city looking for her mother and selling the family’s olive oil, she befriends a young Michelangelo and an aging Leonardo da Vinci. 


Everyone in this Room

Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead by Emily Austin

A quirky, darkly funny novel for fans of Matt Haig’s The Midnight Library. Seeking free therapy for her severe anxiety, Gilda walks into a local Catholic Church. But Father Jeff mistakes her for an applicant for the job as receptionist. Even though she is an atheist lesbian, she takes the job. She then ends up impersonating her predecessor, while trying to uncover the truth about her mysterious death.


More great fiction

Good Company

Good Company by Cynthia d’Aprix Sweeney

A follow-up to The Nest. I’m hoping that this second novel will be written with the same perceptiveness and warmth. Flora’s marriage starts to unravel when she discovers her husband’s supposedly long-lost wedding ring.


Double Blind

Double Blind by Edward St. Aubyn

A new novel by Edward St. Aubyn is great news in my world. Double Blind follows old friends Olivia and Lucy and their expanding circle of friends through a year of transformation. St. Aubyn always packs so much into his fiction, and this one seems to be absolutely crammed with ideas. It touches on venture capitalism, science, ecology, inherited conditions of the mind and body, and whether/how the world can be saved. Hopefully it will be written with his characteristic deep intelligence and bitter wit.


Great Circle

Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead

Here’s one I’m especially looking forward to. I read Maggie Shipstead’s previous two novels, and particularly admired her first book Seating Arrangements. But this one sounds like it will be several orders of magnitude better than those first two. It's epic literary fiction that is both edifying and entertaining. The book tells the intertwined stories of Marian, an aviatrix born in 1914, and Hadley, an actress cast to portray her in a film a century later. Through 100 years of storytelling we get to know the two heroines. They're both seeking freedom and purpose and both grappling, in different historical periods, with what it means to be a woman.


A Theatre for Dreamers

A Theatre for Dreamers by Polly Samson

I've read and enjoyed some of her previous books (an impressive story collection called Perfect Lives and her 2015 novel The Kindness). But even if I hadn't, Polly Samson would have had me at Hydra and Leonard Cohen. It’s 1960 and 18-year old Erica has come to the Greek island of Hydra with her painter-poet boyfriend Jimmy. They join a thriving bohemian colony of writers and artists that surround the Australian authors Charmian Clift and George Johnston. In this artistic circle are a young Norwegian couple, Axel Jensen and Marianne Ihlen. There's also a 26-year-old poet from Montreal named Leonard Cohen. But the novel isn’t so much about the great men and their quests for artistic expression and fame. It's more about the women whose service to these men – as muses, housekeepers and sexual playthings – obliterates their own artistic ambitions. (Watch Polly Samson in Charmian Clift and George Johnston’s house on Hydra.)


The Startup Wife

The Startup Wife by Tahmima Anam

To show how little things have changed for women in the 60 years between Polly Samson’s Hydra-dwelling muses and 2020’s startup culture, Tahmima Anam brings us Asha Ray. A brilliant coder, Asha is working on her PhD when she is reunited with her high school crush, Cyrus. He inspires her to write an algorithm that forms the basis for a new and fantastically popular platform. Asha and Cyrus, now married and working together at tech startup Utopia, begin to fracture over Cyrus’s growing fame. Kamila Shamsie has said of this book: "Fresh, funny, brave, savage, smart. Tahmima Anam hits every note perfectly in this novel about our new reality and the age-old problems of men and women that no app can fix." 


China Room

China Room by Sunjeev Sahota

From the author of the Booker Prize-shortlisted The Year of the Runaways. China Room is a shorter novel with two storylines, each reflecting the experiences of different generations of the same family. Mehar, a character based on the author’s great-grandmother, is one of three wives married to three brothers without knowing which one. Seventy years later, her great-grandson returns to the family farm in the Punjab from his home in the U.K. to recover from heroin addiction. An intriguing literary family saga.


The Plot

The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz

I don’t read a lot of psychological thrillers, but I really enjoyed Jean Hanff Korelitz’s novel You Should Have Known. (It was recently made into an HBO series called The Undoing.) So I will definitely try this new twisty page-turner by her, especially given its bookish premise. Jacob Finch Bonner is a failed novelist now teaching in a minor MFA program. When one of his students says he has formulated the perfect plot, Jake has to agree. When that student dies soon after he leaves the program, what is a frustrated and washed-up novelist supposed to do? Steal it, of course. And write a phenomenally successful bestseller. Except that someone knows what Jake has done.



More debut picks

The Other Black Girl

The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris

And speaking of books about the publishing industry, here is a cracking debut about the tensions that develop between two young editorial assistants. Nella and Hazel are the only Black women among the starkly white employees at Wagner Publishing. At first Nella is happy to have a comrade at work, someone with whom she can share her observations and frustrations, but soon Hazel seems to be undermining, even actively threatening, her. Sharp social satire mixed with a thriller edge, this sounds like it will be great for those who liked The Vanishing Half.


Damnation Spring

Damnation Spring by Ash Davidson

A thought-provoking, gripping and compassionate first novel set in a logging community in the Pacific northwest in the late 1970s. The community faces terrible trade-offs – between jobs, profits, health and environmental damage. It's all told through the alternating voices of three members of the Gundersen family. Great early endorsements for this beautifully written debut.



Afterparties: Stories by Anthony Veasna So

A debut story collection by a writer whose work had been published by the New Yorker and who tragically died in late 2020 at the age of 28. These are vibrant stories that grapple with Cambodian-American life, the refugee experience, the weight of living in the aftermath of genocide and the complexities of race and sexuality.


An Unlikely Spy

An Unlikely Spy by Rebecca Starford

A sophisticated World War II novel for those who loved Kate Atkinson’s Transcription. Evelyn Varley, newly graduated from Oxford in 1939, is recruited by MI5 to infiltrate a Nazi ring in London. But something terrible happened to her during her years as a spy, something that tested her loyalties and has destroyed her post-war life.



Pandemic books

In books as in life, there is no avoiding the pandemic. I have begun to see novels with a COVID backdrop coming out this summer (lockdown romance, anyone?). But here are two non-fiction pandemic must-reads from writers whose pre-pandemic work has made this subject a natural for them.


The Premonition

The Premonition by Michael Lewis

Lewis’s previous book, The Fifth Risk, looked at the Trump administration’s transition into office. In that book he revealed the frightening effects that toxic politics could have on federal agencies and bureaucrats alike and warned that “It's what you fail to imagine that kills you”. That ominous prediction became very real with the arrival of COVID-19. The Premonition highlights the heroic work of doctors, scientists and local public health officials who persisted despite the administration's mishandling of the greatest health catastrophe in a century.


The Plague Year

The Plague Year: America in the Time of COVID by Lawrence Wright

Last August Pulitzer-winning journalist Lawrence Wright published an amazingly prescient – given that he had begun working on it in 2017 – novel called The End of October. It concerned the global outbreak of a deadly pathogen. Wright had done his research, interviewing virologists, epidemiologists and vaccine creators who are now household names. Building on those contacts and that research, Wright has now written an account of the plague year 2020 in America.


Other fascinating non-fiction

The Bomber Mafia

Bomber Mafia by Malcolm Gladwell

If you listen to Gladwell’s podcast Revisionist History, you will know that season five featured a series of episodes that examined the bombing of Japan. It focused especially on the dreams and the character of the general who ordered those bombings, Curtis LeMay. Gladwell said in the podcast that his revisionist look at technology and war was intended to be a single episode. But his research revealed even bigger and more interesting issues than he had expected. Those podcast episodes are now the basis for this book, which asks some burning questions. What were the elements that went into the decision to carpet bomb? How should we evaluate that decision now?


How the Word is Passed

How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America by Clint Smith

How does the past continue to inform the present? Poet and Atlantic staff writer Clint Smith has written a deeply researched and thoughtful reflection on those landmarks in contemporary America that acknowledge, or fail to acknowledge, the legacy of slavery. 



Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment by Daniel Kahneman, Olivier Sibony and Cass R. Sunstein

We are all fascinated and confounded by our own and others’ flawed decision-making processes. Now three important scholars of human behaviour (the authors respectively of Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nudge, and You're About to Make a Terrible Mistake) have written a book that should shed some light on why people make bad judgements. They take examples from the worlds of medicine, law, forecasting and many others. And they examine how noise — variability in judgments that should be identical — and cognitive bias — creating our own subjective reality — operate in the decision-making process, and how they can be overcome.


Empire of Pain

Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty by Patrick Radden Keefe

From the author of the multi award-winning Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland. This is another riveting investigative account, this time of the Sackler family, owners of Purdue Pharma. They made their fortune making and marketing OxyContin, the painkiller that sparked the opioid crisis.


An Ugly Truth

An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination by Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang

More important and provocative investigative journalism, this time from two prize-winning technology reporters for the New York Times. Frenkel and Kang expose Facebook’s relentless pursuit of growth, even as its executives deny the devastating consequences of their algorithms to privacy, to truth, to civility, to public safety, to social cohesion and to democracy itself.


A couple of interesting self-help books


Dedicated: The Case for Commitment in an Age of Infinite Browsing by Pete Davis

Davis considerably expands his Harvard Law School convocation address in his first book. Dedicated contends that we live in a culture of restlessness and indecision, wanting to keep our options open and always on the look-out for the next big thing. Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman called this “liquid modernity”. It's a condition of constant mobility and change in relationships, identities and social experiences. Davis argues that we might fulfill our longing for deeper purpose and community by actually committing ourselves to something.


Four Thousand Weeks

Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman

More contrarian self-help from Burkeman, Guardian columnist and author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking. In his columns and his previous book, he offers witty and wise counsel for all of us just trying to make our imperfect way through life. This new book offers fresh ways of thinking about time – those precious four thousand weeks we are granted – but minus the useless efficiency tips. This is time management in its profoundest sense: how to use the time we are given to build a meaningful life.



Beautiful Things

Beautiful Things by Hunter Biden

Not a typical addiction/redemption memoir. Biden's book adds terrible loss and a life lived in the public eye to a heartbreaking, bravely told story of frailty and strength.


Better Not Bitter

Better, Not Bitter: Living on Purpose in the Pursuit of Racial Justice by Yusef Salaam

An inspirational memoir from one of the exonerated Central Park Five. It’s also a passionate appeal for sweeping and lasting changes to the criminal justice system. That system, with its deep racial biases, committed the terrible miscarriage of justice that saw him incarcerated for seven years.


Real Estate

Real Estate by Deborah Levy

This is the third in a series of memoirs from Levy – after Things I Don’t Want to Know and The Cost of Living. Levy calls them “living autobiographies” because they are written not “with hindsight, but in the storm of life”. I am a huge fan of these books and am very much looking forward to this one. It's a meditation on the relationship between women and their homes, both literal and metaphorical.


Things I Learned from Falling

Things I Learned from Falling by Claire Nelson

New Zealand-born, Toronto-based journalist Claire Nelson was hiking alone in Joshua Tree National Park in 2018 when she fell 25 feet into a secluded gully and shattered her pelvis. Unable to move and without a phone signal, she waited and hoped for rescue in the scorching hot days and bitter cold nights of the California desert. She occasionally recorded videos of her predicament for people to find after her death. But miraculously she was rescued. Here she recounts her experiences and the lessons she learned from them.


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What books coming out in spring and summer 2021 are you looking forward to reading? Share below in the comments.