Valerie's Picks for Fall 2021

September 20, 2021 | Wendy B.

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A person reads in a bed with fall-coloured sheets and a couple of pumpkins.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 fall, 2021.

If you’ve ever idly wondered what writers would do with their time if they ever found themselves forcibly confined to their homes, I think the answer is pretty clear now: they would write books. As a result of all that lockdown productivity – surely one of the very best unforeseen consequences of this global pandemic – we readers are the beneficiaries of a huge fall 2022 publishing season. Here are just some of the books I’m looking forward to reading.


New international fiction


Bewilderment by Richard Powers

Powers is one of the most brilliant novelists writing today. I’m always stunned by the way he manages to combine his own scientific knowledge with characters and stories that live and breathe. This new novel is already longlisted for the Booker Prize. It's written on a more intimate scale than his Pulitzer Prize-winning eco-epic The Overstory, but it promises the same kind of rich and complex contemplation of human interaction with the natural world. Astrobiologist Theo is raising his son Robin on his own, following the sudden death of his animal rights activist wife Aly. Robin has reacted to this terrible loss with tantrums and threats of violence. Hoping to avoid treating Robin with drugs, Theo decides to try an experimental neuro-feedback therapy. The technique matches Robin’s brain-pattern activity with the pattern of a model brain, in this case, that of his dead mother’s. An intelligent and bittersweet consideration of all fragile life, human and non-human, on our endangered planet.


Cloud Cuckoo Land

Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr

At the center of Anthony Doerr’s new novel is an ancient Greek manuscript that connects the lives of five young people, all coming of age in very different times and places. Anna and Omeir are caught up in the 1493 siege of Constantinople. In 1950s Idaho a troubled young man named Zeno translates the recently recovered manuscript. In 2020 young eco-terrorist Seymour plans an attack on a library where a play called Cloud Cuckoo Land is being performed. In 2146, in the spaceship she calls home, Konstance comes across Zeno’s translation. An early review says, “one of the joys of reading Cloud Cuckoo Land is discovering the threads that link the five characters’ lives, which ultimately cohere in ways that are simply unforgettable, as is this amazing gift of a novel”. In its imaginative scope, interconnecting plot, and intricate construction, it reminds me of another “cloud” novel, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. I can’t wait to read it.



Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen

Is there a more lucid interpreter of the dysfunctional American family than Jonathan Franzen? With Crossroads he launches the first novel in a trilogy called A Key to All Mythologies. (Readers of Middlemarch will recognize this as the title of Edward Casaubon’s stalled and ultimately unfinished “masterwork” of theological synthesis). The trilogy will follow three generations of the Hildebrand family. The book is set in the fictional Chicago suburb of New Prospect, Illinois in 1971. It documents the personal disorientation and societal disruption affecting all six members of the family. At almost 600 pages, this is a commitment. But if you liked The Corrections or Jane Smiley’s wonderful The Last Hundred Years trilogy (Some Luck, Early Warning, and Golden Age) then you will definitely want to give this a try.


Harlem Shuffle

Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead

In a departure from the raw social commentary of his two most recent novels (Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys), this new book by Colson Whitehead is a wryly funny crime caper. Ray Carney, owner of a struggling furniture store in 1960s Harlem, is trying to walk the straight and narrow. But the past – his father’s old ties to the local underworld and his crooked cousin Freddie – keeps tugging at him. When Freddie decides to pull a jewel heist and asks Ray to fence the stolen goods, a seriously dangerous group of criminals enter Ray’s life. He has to decide on which side of that line he belongs. Whitehead’s vivid and loving portrait of Harlem in the 1960s reminds me of James McBride’s captivating portrait of 1960’s Brooklyn in Deacon King Kong, one of my favourite books from 2020.


The Lincoln Highway

The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles

This third novel by the mega-bestselling Towles is another period piece. This time, it's set among a less sophisticated crowd than The Rules of Civility and A Gentleman in Moscow. It's told over ten days and from multiple points of view. The story begins in Nebraska. Emmett is driven home by the warden of the juvenile work farm where he had served 18 months for involuntary manslaughter. Arriving at the now-foreclosed family farm to pick up his young brother Billy, Emmett intends to head west to San Francisco to look for their mother. But when two escapees from the work farm steal Emmett’s car and head to New York, Emmett and Billy board a freight train to chase after them. “An exhilarating ride through Americana.”


The Magician

The Magician by Colm Toibin

I loved Toibin’s previous fictional biography, The Master, a subtle and tender study of Henry James’s inner life. I’m betting that he can work a similar kind of magic on the life of Thomas Mann. The Magician covers all 80 years of Mann’s complex and conflicted life. This should be another compelling exploration of the public and personal story of a literary genius.


Oh William

Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout

Strout revisits Lucy Barton (the main character in My Name is Lucy Barton and a featured character in the short story collection Anything is Possible) as she looks back on her marriage to her first husband William. Barton is experiencing grief and nagging loneliness after the death of her second husband. She reconnects with William at a time of turmoil in his life. His own second marriage is in trouble, and a recently discovered secret from his mother’s past forces him to re-interpret events in his own life. Probing our common struggles with her usual exquisite prose, this is a novel to be savoured.


Beautiful World Where Are You

Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney

As Sally Rooney matures – she turned 30 earlier this year – so do her characters and their concerns. The preoccupations and predicaments that troubled the protagonists in her bestselling novels Conversations with Friends and Normal People – sex, love, friendship, belonging, social class – remain, but new fears and complications now arise. Meaningful work, toxic politics, a suffering planet are added to the mix as her four characters, long-time friends Eileen and Alice and their love interests Simon and Felix, articulate their anxieties and reflections about the world they inherited and the world they are making.



Matrix by Lauren Groff

A sublime novel from the marvelous Lauren Groff about a 12th-century woman discovering and exercising her power. Marie de France, considered the first French woman poet, is 17 and isolated at the French court. Banished by Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine to an impoverished British abbey, she is initially appalled by the conditions there - the neglected farmland and the passive, starving nuns. But as abbess she finds her strengths, becoming a visionary and a leader guiding her small community of women in a changing world.


Our Country Friends

Our Country Friends by Gary Shteyngart

Chekhov meets The Big Chill by way of The Decameron. Essentially, this is a great Russian novel set in upstate New York. It's about a diverse group of friends and friends-of-friends sheltering in place for the first six months of the pandemic. Seems like perfect fictional fodder for Gary Shteyngart’s highly observant and funny storytelling.


A Calling for Charlie Barnes

A Calling for Charlie Barnes by Joshua Ferris

Joshua Ferris’s latest offering is a metafictional biography of a deeply flawed father by his famous author son. Charlie Barnes is in trouble: none of his many schemes have amounted to anything. None of his many marriages have succeeded. None of his dreams have come true. And now he may have pancreatic cancer. His son Jake sets out to tell his father’s story, but how reliable a storyteller is Jake? Nothing is straightforward in this funny and bittersweet novel about a son trying to atone, through fiction, for his father’s failures.


The Women of Troy

The Women of Troy by Pat Barker

If, as I have, you have been enjoying these feminist re-workings of ancient myths and stories – think Madeleine Miller’s The Song of Achilles and Circe, A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes, or Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad - then you will want to read this latest by Pat Barker. A direct sequel to her previous book, The Silence of the Girls, The Women of Troy continues Barker’s retelling of The Iliad. But this is not the well-known epic tale of victorious Greeks and defeated Trojans. It’s the imagined story of the Trojan women, whose sons, husbands, and fathers have been slaughtered and who are themselves now the spoils of war.


April in Spain

April in Spain by John Banville

In 2006 the Booker-prize winning Irish writer John Banville began writing a series of mysteries set in 1950s Dublin that featured a pathologist named Quirke. Not wanting to confuse these mysteries with his more serious writing, he published the series using a pseudonym, Benjamin Black. But last year Banville published Snow, his first mystery written under his own name. The novel featured Detective Inspector St. John Strafford. As a Protestant and member of the Anglo-Irish gentry, Strafford is a singular and not terribly popular member of the County Wexford constabulary. Snow is a wonderful read – rich in authentic detail, sophisticated prose, and a compelling plot. April in Spain is the second in the series. In it, Banville unites Strafford with alter-ego Black’s pathologist Quirke in a mystery set on the Spanish coast. 


Small Pleasures

Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers

A novel with a very British sensibility, Small Pleasures was a big hit when it was published last year in the UK. It features Jean Swinney, unmarried and on the edge of middle age, living in 1950s suburban London and working as a journalist on the local paper. As the only woman reporter, her work is confined to the housekeeping and gardening columns. But her life changes when she is sent to investigate the claim by Mrs. Gretchen Tilbury that her daughter resulted from a virgin birth. Sensing a career-making story, Jean becomes close – and then too close – to the Tilbury family. With writing that is being compared with that of Kazuo Ishiguro and Ann Patchett, this is one I’m eager to try.


Lean Fall Stand

Lean Fall Stand by Jon McGregor

Robert Wright is a geologist who has spent much of his professional life on research stations in Antarctica. His latest expedition, though, ends in tragedy when he and the other two men at Station K are trapped outside by a sudden storm. One of his colleagues dies and Robert suffers a near-fatal stroke. But that’s just the “Lean” part of the title. “Fall” moves back in time to reveal Robert’s past and his marriage to Anna, who has flown to his bedside at a hospital in Chile. The final part, “Stand”, describes the struggle both will have with the grim and heartbreaking task of recovery.


Three Rooms

Three Rooms by Jo Hamya

I clearly remember my excitement when reading a debut novel called White Teeth by the then-young and extravagantly talented Zadie Smith. I’m hearing echoes of Zadie Smith in this debut by another young British writer, Jo Hamya. Virginia Woolf’s famous lines – “A woman must have money and a room of one’s own” – serves as an epigraph. The book follows one year in the life of our unnamed young narrator as she seeks a secure job and a place of her own. Her observations on the three rooms she inhabits – a rooming house in Oxford, a rented couch in a stranger’s apartment in London, and her old room back at her parents’ home – are wry and incisive. And the circumstances that got her there add an important Millennial voice to the long tradition of women writing about the cost of freedom.


Five Tuesdays in Winter

Five Tuesdays in Winter by Lily King

This is my lead choice for a short story collection this fall. A follow-up to Writers & Lovers – another one of my favourite books from 2020 – this first collection brings together older stories previously published in literary magazines with new, never-seen stories. If you like the writing of Rachel Cusk, Sigrid Nunez, Tessa Hadley, and Lorrie Moore, try some books by Lily King.


Today a Woman Went Mad in the Supermarket

Today a Woman Went Mad in the Supermarket: Stories by Hilma Wolitzer

Wise and timeless stories about love, marriage, and motherhood by the inimitable 91-year old Hilma Wolitzer, mother of Meg. With a foreword by Elizabeth Strout, this volume collects her stories from the 1960s and 1970s for the first time. Seven of them revolve around a New York couple, and there's a wrenching new story in which the couple must cope with the coronavirus pandemic.


My Monticello

My Monticello by Jocelyn Nicole Johnson

A fierce and daring debut story collection that is being championed by the likes of Charles Yu and Roxane Gay, this one is also at the top of my reading list. Set in Virginia – past, present, and future – the stories bear witness to the ugly and lasting legacy of racism.


New Canadian fiction

This fall promises lots of great fiction by Canadian authors, too. Here are just a few of the titles I’m looking forward to.

August into Winter

August into Winter by Guy Vanderhaeghe

As a long-time reader of Guy Vanderhaeghe’s work, I am very excited about this new novel, his first in almost a decade. It’s August 1939, and the world hovers on the brink of war. In tiny Connaught, Saskatchewan, a young man named Ernie Sickert commits a horrific crime. He then flees town with Loretta Pipe, a 12-year-old he believes to be the love of his life. In close pursuit is RCMP Corporal James Cooper. Accompanying him are brothers John and Oliver Dill, both damaged by their terrible experiences on the battlefields of France. They all find shelter from a storm in a one-room schoolhouse, whose newly-arrived teacher has a traumatic story of her own to tell. A gritty tale about love, violence, and redemption as only Guy Vanderhaeghe can tell it.


The Strangers

The Strangers by Katherena Vermette

Like Vermette's award-winning novel The Break, this powerful follow-up is set in the Métis community in Winnipeg’s north end. Like The Break, it is also told through a complex tapestry of voices. Vermette interweaves the narratives of three generations of women in the Stranger family. She probes the variety of ways that this family has become strangers – to themselves, to each other, and their culture.


Fight Night

Fight Night by Miriam Toews

Once again Toews wrestles with issues of family, faith, and trauma. In a long letter written to her absent father, nine-year-old Swiv puzzles out her difficult family history. She documents her relationships with her angry and anxious mother and her generous and joyous grandmother.


The Most Precious Substance on Earth

The Most Precious Substance on Earth by Shashi Bhat

This snarky, snappy feminist coming-of-age novel follows Nina from her high school days in Halifax to her mid-30s, when she is back in high school as an English teacher. Fun 90s pop culture references don’t obscure the novel’s serious message: the grinding toll that everyday sexism exacts from girls and women.


A Hero of Our Time

A Hero of Our Time by Naben Ruthnum

He has written two thrillers as Nathan Ripley. Now, in his first work of literary fiction, Naben Ruthnum tackles corporate diversity initiatives. Working at an edu-tech startup, Osman encounters Olivia, a white co-worker whose self-interest and ambition are carefully camouflaged by her virtuous talk of diversity, equity, and inclusion. As he exposes Olivia’s insincerity, Osman discovers that not much has really changed in the centers of corporate power.


The Maid

The Maid by Nita Prose

This big debut combines the charm of the endearingly quirky misfit genre (think Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine or The Rosie Project) with a locked room mystery (think Agatha Christie or more recently Ruth Ware). Told in the first person, it’s the story of Molly Gray, who has always struggled to understand social conventions. She loves her job as a maid at the exclusive Regency Grand Hotel. Making things orderly and clean is satisfying. Until, one day, she discovers a wealthy guest dead in his penthouse suite. Molly becomes an unlikely detective as she defends her own innocence.


The Singing Forest by Judith McCormack

The Singing Forest by Judith McCormack

A mass grave is discovered in Belarus. A young lawyer in Toronto is assigned the task of deporting a now elderly man, Stefan Drozd. Drozd had fled his crimes and assumed a new life and identity in Canada. In her endorsement of the novel, Shaena Lambert writes: “Dark, disturbing, dazzling – this is an unflinching look at evil – and yet, and here is McCormack’s genius, we emerge more whole.”


The Book of Form and Emptiness

The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki

A “Book” is the primary narrator in this novel, much of which is set in a library. The main character is Benny Oh, a 14-year old boy who starts hearing voices after his father dies. His mother copes with her loss by hoarding, desperately holding on to every object in her world. Benny seeks refuge in a large public library, where he finds order and quiet. Using elements of fable and magic realism, Ozeki has written a book about the power of stories to nurture and heal.


New Non-fiction

The Dawn of Everything

The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by David Graeber and David Wengrow

Graeber is a noted critic of economic and social inequality and the author most recently of Bullshit Jobs. He and Wengrow have undertaken the monumental task of re-writing the accepted history of humanity. Their book emphasizes new research on the development of civilization and the origins of social inequality. They present a vision that is both critical of the existing social, economic, and political order, and also hopeful that a new and fairer world may be created in its place.


The 1619 Project

The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story by Nikole Hannah-Jones

An expansion of the original New York Times Magazine’s award-winning reframing of American history, the 1619 Project places slavery – and the resistance to slavery – at the center of the American narrative.



Unreconciled: Family, Truth, and Indigenous Resistance by Jesse Wente

For 20 years, Jesse Wente was our guide to film and pop culture on CBC’s Metro Morning. Now, he's the Chair of the Canadian Council for the Arts. And he has written an important book, part memoir but mostly manifesto, urging Canadians to prioritize truth over reconciliation.


All We Want

All We Want: Building the Life We Cannot Buy by Michael Harris

From the author of The End of Absence comes a new book that asks us to re-imagine the good life. Can we design a life where objects and possessions don’t define us? For readers of The Day the World Stops Shopping.


Essay Collections

These Precious Days

These Precious Days by Ann Patchett

In the introduction to this collection of essays, prize-winning writer Ann Patchett relates that she is haunted by death, more precisely the possibility of her own death, every time she writes a novel. What frightens her is that were she to die before she finishes writing, the entire world of the novel would die with her. For this reason, she says, starting a novel during the pandemic was impossible for her. But she could write essays: “death has no interest in essays”. So here we are with a collection of moving, frequently funny, and deeply personal essays – a follow-up to her first collection, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage.


Things Are Against Us

Things Are Against Us by Lucy Ellmann

 As you might expect, a collection of essays by the author of the prize-winning stream of consciousness novel Ducks, Newburyport will not be boring or stuffy. “Let’s complain”, she says in the preface and then proceeds to do just that. A collection of satirical essays written with biting wit, irreverence, and clever wordplay.


On Freedom

On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint by Maggie Nelson

From cultural critic Nelson, a book of ideas that traces the complexities of the concept of freedom in four distinct realms – art, sex, drugs, and climate.



Permanent Astonishment

Permanent Astonishment by Tomson Highway

If you’ve watched a Tomson Highway play or seen him interviewed, you know that this book will be magical. An astonishing storyteller, Highway tells of his idyllic early childhood living on the land with his large and loving family. He tells of his time in Residential School with his brother René. He tells of the joys that music, languages, writing, and the beauty of the natural world have given him. A not-to-be-missed book.



Smile: The Story of a Face by Sarah Ruhl 

Award-winning playwright Sarah Ruhl had just given birth to twins. Then, she was stricken with Bell’s palsy, a neurological condition that paralyzed the left side of her face. Now she has written an insightful and intimate memoir about illness and self-acceptance.


Beautiful Country

Beautiful Country by Qian Julie Wang

Civil rights lawyer Wang has written an eloquent and courageous account of growing up undocumented in America.



Unbound: My Story of Liberation and the Birth of the Me Too Movement by Tarana Burke

A painful and powerful memoir by the founder and activist behind the Me Too movement.


Both And

Both/And: A Life in Many Worlds by Huma Abedin

Abedin is the daughter of Indian and Pakistani scholars. She was a top aide to Hillary Clinton. And she was the former wife of disgraced former congressman Anthony Weiner. When she announced this memoir, Abedin said that what she wanted most was the chance to define herself. “For most of my life, I was viewed through the lens of others, refraction of someone else’s pronoun. ‘They’ as in the parents who raised me; ‘she’ as in the woman I worked for; and ‘he’ as in the man I married.” Now she gets a chance do to just that – to reflect candidly on a life of privilege, proximity to power, and personal pain.


Lost & Found

Lost and Found by Kathryn Schulz

In this meditation on grief and joy, Pulitzer Prize-winner New Yorker writer Schulz explores the bittersweet reality of meeting the woman she would marry just 18 months before losing her father.


And finally, on a lighter note, a couple of cookbooks

Cooking at Home

Cooking at Home by David Chang

For those of us who feel like we’ve spent the past 18 months in the kitchen searching for that sweet spot where effort, novelty, and taste converge into something we can bear comes a new cookbook by the globally famous chef at Momofuku and author of Eat a Peach. Only now he’s cooking for a family - at home, without kitchen staff or complicated ingredients. He says that this is a book of delicious recipes that maximize flavour while minimizing effort. Sounds about right.


Conveniently Delicious

Conveniently Delicious: How to Cook and Eat with Spontaneity and Joy by Devin Connell

As does this new book is by the Toronto cookbook author and founder of the Crumb website. Emphasizing straightforward, tasty, quick recipes that don’t require a lot of planning, this one is for the Alison Roman and Melissa Clark crowd.

Are you looking forward to any books for fall? Let us know in the comments!

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