Books

The 20 books you need to read this winter

An eclectic selection of just-published new fiction and non-fiction to get us through the nights of winter ahead


SPECULATIVE FICTION


The 2084 ReportThe 2084 Report by James Lawrence Powell

Most academics can write, but James Lawrence Powell can plot. The eminent 84-year-old geologist, who has an asteroid named after him, is the author of the 2019 scholarly article, “Scientists Reach 100 Per Cent Consensus on Anthropogenic Global Warming,” and a very worried man. He’s also a fan of the American oral historian Studs Terkel. So when Powell wanted to look back, so to speak, from the viewpoint of an iconic year—exactly a century after the date George Orwell had once predicted for a dystopia—to see what global warming had done between now and then, he followed in Terkel’s steps. Powell’s unnamed historian listens, via satellite phone, to people around the world describe, often bitterly, seemingly disparate situations that eventually tie together.

An Indigenous Brazilian, 90 years old and the last of his tribe, speaks of watching 95 per cent of the Amazon rainforest burn during his lifetime, affecting, as the historian notes, rainfall as far north as the American plains. A French journalist talks about her travels through Spain and Italy, recording kilometre after kilometre of dead olive groves and abandoned vacation homes as southern Europe turns to desert. Even so, she tells the historian, millions of climate refugees continue to surge in from lands battered harder still. Refugees, or rather strict measures to keep them out, also highlight a conversation with an Australian historian.

Deadly as fire and drought can be, water is literally life and death. Peru collapsed into violent anarchy after the Andean glacier that was Lima’s sole source of water was no more. A massive storm, born over an ocean 0.6 m higher than it was in 2000, destroyed New York in 2042, killing thousands and toppling the Statue of Liberty. Ten years later, a third of Rotterdam’s 800,000 people perished when the same deadly combination sent a 30-m surge upon it. By 2084, half of the Netherlands had been reclaimed by the North Sea. And a nuclear war between India and Pakistan, brought on by an existential clash over water rights after shrinking Himalayan glaciers caused rivers to dry up, killed 150 million.

And there’s something special for Canadian readers: the 2046 Canadian-American war, in which Powell works out his version of Thucydides’ savage maxim, “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” The story is told by the last premier of the province of Manitoba, who came out of the war the first governor of the state of Manitoba. For years, well-armed American climate refugees from the dried-out southern plains states had been illegally crossing into Canada. After one group seized a Manitoba town, Ottawa countered with a corps of Mounties, and Washington—just as its already prepared war plan dictated—with an armoured brigade from North Dakota. Canada, thinking resistance might bring better terms than abject surrender, declares war.

The struggle was more spirited than might be expected—the bloody battle for Ottawa lasted 11 days—but might prevailed in the end, and Canada was annexed. Forty years later, older Canadians are still embittered, but the younger generation is proud of their American citizenship. As the governor tells the historian, some Canadians might have hailed the early effects of climate change when it lengthened the growing season, but they soon learned that no one was a climate change winner: “The lesson from Canada, or from tiny Iceland, now a Chinese province, is that any country that appears to be winning just becomes a target for takeover by a larger and more powerful loser.”

As for the aim of this compulsively readable—and all too believable—tale of catastrophe, it’s clearly more cathartic than polemical on Powell’s part. His historian asks archly whether having The 2084 Report somehow sent back to the 2020s by time machine might make a difference. All in all, he thinks not: “Something is wrong with us. We have the intellectual ability to invent the means of our destruction, but not the reasoning ability to stop ourselves from using it.” —Brian Bethune


Blaze Island

Blaze Island by Catherine Bush

In a very near future, after a monster hurricane swings by an island off Newfoundland, a woman named Miranda, the daughter of “philosopher magus” Milan—actually a climate scientist on the run—confronts a changed reality. Bush’s deeply resonant ecological retelling of The Tempest showcases a “brave new world” as ironic as Shakespeare’s: brave because it is startling, dangerous and inescapable for those left alive; new because it really isn’t, merely the whirlwind humanity has sowed for its children to reap. “Storms,” Blaze Island repeats, “stir up the past,” not only that of Miranda and her father, but of all of us. —B.B.


The Good GermanThe Good German by Dennis Bock

When this darkly absorbing alternate history opens in a fictional Ontario town, Nazi Germany has just won the Second World War. By 1960, teenaged William Teufel—his surname means “devil”—a second-generation German-Canadian, has suffered a lifetime of abuse and contempt directed at his ancestry. When ethnic hatred in a wounded and still angry Canada boils over into lynching and house burning, the young devil feels driven to a decision that will bring him to many strange places and one extraordinary character. The Good German marks the return of Bock, the 56-year-old son of postwar German immigrants to Canada, to the fictional terrain—and questions about the value of personal agency and individual choice in the face of inexorable historical tides—that he explored in his 2001 debut novel, The Ash Garden.

This time, however, the ground has violently shifted. In 1939, Bock’s Georg Elser, unlike the real-life Elser, succeeds in his be-careful-what-you-wish-for plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, and Nazi power passes into far more competent hands. Hermann Göring does not invade Russia, but he does negotiate a non-aggression pact with Nazi-friendly U.S. president Joseph Kennedy. (The latter—in a wonderfully prescient plot point—won the 1940 American presidential election after incumbent Franklin Roosevelt fell ill in the waning days of the campaign.) Eventually, Göring leverages German physicists’ nuclear headstart into the atomic bomb he uses to destroy London and win the war.

After William makes his choice he meets Elser, a man devastated by, but stoically enduring in the face of what his “success” 20 years before has wrought. And it becomes impossible to tell who—if anyone at all—is the title character, as all of Bock’s themes come to vibrant and disturbing life. —B.B.


CrosshairsCrosshairs by Catherine Hernandez

In this near-future Canada, as in most contemporary dystopias, the cause lies in ecological collapse, but the new state that arises in the wake of floods and food shortages is arrestingly distinct. White supremacist and virulently hetero-normative as well as oligarchic, the regime is repressive for almost everyone but actively murderous toward the “Others”—the people of colour, the LGBTQ community and the disabled it forces into labour camps. Hernandez, author of Scarborough, an acclaimed 2017 novel set in Toronto’s most maligned inner suburb, writes with the angry urgency of someone who doesn’t believe the world she’s outlined is all that far-fetched.

Or just for other people to worry about: Hernandez describes herself as “a queer woman of colour,” just as her main protagonist, Kay, calls himself “a queer femme Jamaican Filipino man.” The more “other” any character is, the more danger they face. White gay people can “pass,” but people like Kay are at risk every moment of their lives. For all the novel’s driving, intense plot line, it is the tension that boils up in the resistance over degrees of “otherness”—and hence of risk—that gives Crosshairs its power. —B.B.


THRILLING READS


The Children of Red PeakThe Children of Red Peak by Craig DiLouie

Prolific and genre-bending, Calgary-based DiLouie has a well-earned reputation for so adeptly exploring psychological horror that the eventual emergence of the supernatural seems both shocking and inevitable. Familiarly human, in fact. In this remarkable story, the now-grown childhood survivors of the night their religious cult committed mass suicide 15 years before are understandably traumatized. When one of them kills herself, the others return to Red Peak to confront their memories, and come face to face with the shattering and thought-provoking truth. —B.B.


PiranesiPiranesi by Susanna Clarke

This is Clarke’s first novel since her extraordinary 2004 debut, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, a fantasy set in a Regency-era Britain ruled by magic. That novel channelled Jane Austen. Her newest, about an amnesiac protagonist trapped—happily—in a vast labyrinth of statue-lined marble halls, is suffused with C.S. Lewis and the Narnia books, from one particular statue (a startled faun) to the underlying theme that this is where we belong, humanity’s true home. Piranesi is beautiful, beguiling and wholly unique. —B.B.


Attack SurfaceAttack Surface by Cory Doctorow

The title refers to the points in a software system where a hacker can intrude or extract data, the implications of which have animated Doctorow’s fiction for years. Masha Maximow is a cybersecurity operative who makes a handsome living helping governments control dissidents by turning their own devices against them. But Masha also has a conscience, and when she decides to aid some old friends, the tension and sobering revelations of how vulnerable we all are make this novel one of the Canadian-born author’s finest. —B.B.


MEMOIR/ BIOGRAPHY


Leonard Cohen: untold stories: the early yearsLeonard Cohen, Untold Stories: The Early Years by Michael Posner

Early on in his oral history of Leonard Cohen, veteran Canadian journalist Michael Posner writes about Jewish scholars who were said to know the Talmud so well they could stick a pin in it and, without looking, tell you what word it had hit. Posner’s book, the first of a planned trilogy, emerges from similarly obsessive study: covering the time between Cohen’s childhood and his first European tour in 1970, it draws on more than 500 interviews with people who were close to him—whether for decades or just a few hours.

While there’s no shortage of Cohen biographies and documentaries, Posner’s book offers an impressively thorough excavation of stories, including some gems and, well, dirt. Together, his sources’ various positions and perspectives create a cubist portrait of the Montreal-born icon as a young man—and simultaneously an artist, intellectual, prankster, bon vivant, workaholic and dabbler in everything from macrobiotics to Scientology to the Buddhism he would later practise. The wife of one friend recalls “gazing in awe at his profound eyes. I felt I was in the company of one of our universe’s most incredible beings . . . My mind flew into the beauty of his poet’s voice.” The less enthralled wife of another friend says, “I was dealing with a seducer, of men and women . . . I lost track of him after he became a star, and I’m glad I did.”

Cohen’s unslakable thirst for experience—aided by charm and family money—made of his early life a pampered picaresque, and the candid tales Posner elicits and deftly assembles range from the fascinating to the exhaustively predictable. The men in Cohen’s earlier life tended to be competitors, drinking buddies, hangers-on, or all three. The women were objects of lust, muses or simply unfathomable—like the refreshingly blunt Carol Zemel (who was married to yet another friend). She describes being left alone with Cohen at his apartment: “He sat there and hid from me, under a blanket, for 20 minutes, a half-hour.” We also glimpse the unsavoury, the sordid and the sad—as the friends of his on-again, off-again love, Marianne Ihlen, speak about the abortions she had at his behest.

In later life, Cohen would become reflective and gracious. Here, in his long formative period, he remains elusive. His own quotes are drawn from other (mostly unattributed) sources, and his work is explored in terms of its connections with people he knew. Nonetheless, if Cohen’s your man and you’re his fan, you’ll want this book. —Mike Doherty


Through the GardenThrough the Garden: A Love Story (with Cats) by Lorna Crozier

The celebrated B.C.-based poet follows her late husband and fellow poet Patrick Lane’s brilliant garden-themed memoir with one of her own, equally attuned to seasonal rhythms and just as moving. There are moments of joy and lyrical description, and stretches of unflinching honesty. Some arise from Lane’s—and hence, Crozier’s—struggle with his alcoholism. More turn on her fear, exhaustion and loneliness as a mysterious illness devoured Lane’s final years. They add up, as the subtitle promises and one of Crozier’s poems unveils, to a 40-year love story: This morning I said, Poem me. / And we made of our lives a poem. —B.B.


Black WaterBlack Water by David A. Robertson

A Governor General Award-winning YA author and as loving a son as can be imagined, Robertson is the child of a Cree father and a settler mother. Raised outside the Cree world and its language, he has spent years striving to bring himself into accord with his Indigenous heritage by understanding how his father’s experiences, especially the legacy of residential schools, played out in his own life. There is plenty of scope for anger here, but virtually none emerges in this generous and graceful family memoir, framed around a father-son journey to the remote trapline where his father’s early childhood unfolded. —B.B.


More Than a WomanMore Than a Woman by Caitlin Moran

Caitlin Moran grew up the eldest of seven kids in a crammed council house in England, and received no formal education from age 11 onward. That experience continues, presumably, to influence her irreverently DIY, freewheeling take on the world and on the subject that has preoccupied her the most, feminism, which she expresses in her long-running London Times column, on Twitter and in her bestselling 2011 memoir, How to Be a Woman. A follow-up to that book, More Than a Woman treads some of the same ground, but from the ostensibly sager perch of middle age. It opens, memorably, with a 34-year-old Moran receiving a visit from her 44-year-old future self, who, after chastising the younger Caitlin for the hubris of thinking she’s got everything figured out, gives her a glimpse of the shocking self-betrayal to come a decade hence: “Botox! You have Botox! But you can’t! It’s not feminist! I’ve just written a whole chapter on why it’s a betrayal of every value I have!”

Chapters are titled for each hour of the day, beginning with “The Hour of the List,” the list being “all the things that stand between me and a perfect life,” but which, like a rigged midway game, can never be conquered owing to its exasperating mix of the easily achievable and the laughably ambitious (Moran’s list includes “blinds for bedroom,” “Read Das Kapital,” and “fleas”). “The Hour of Married Sex,” meanwhile, offers tips for keeping things fresh in a 20-year union (on sex toys: “Pros: a rapidly vibrating item is never a bad idea”; cons: “just more bloody possessions that need dusting, and batteries”).

As those examples suggest, the default here is upbeat hilarity and self-acceptance—Moran genuinely likes her aging body, and is a willing embracer of what she calls the “Hag Years”—but there’s also a touching seriousness, especially when Moran discusses her teenage daughter’s five-year struggle with an eating disorder. These and other crises have left her with deep appreciation for the joys of normalcy and the mundane; something we could all do with a little of right now. —Emily Donaldson


Reaching MithymnaReaching Mithymna by Steven Heighton

In 2015, Steven Heighton went to the Greek island of Lesbos to put his halting Greek, his mother’s native tongue, to work as a volunteer among the surge of Syrian refugees arriving in Europe. The Canadian author wasn’t starry-eyed to begin with, and there was little in his experiences alongside dedicated aid workers—under-resourced or, like him, unqualified—and traumatized refugees, to change that. Even more than pandemic fatigue, the refugee tragedy illustrates our ability to normalize what should never be normalized. What once dominated headlines began fading from global attention long before COVID-19. Heighton’s harrowing and moving book about his time in Greece, with its rich array of characters and finely expressed understanding of the pain of exile, wrenches our gaze back to the refugees and refuses to let go. —B.B.


FAMILY MATTERS


The Cold MillionsThe Cold Millions by Jess Walter

Set during the 1909 free speech fight in his native Spokane, Wash.—when workers rose up to denounce unscrupulous employers and corrupt police—Walter’s first novel since the remarkable Beautiful Ruins (2012) is a sweeping, genre-busting (North) Western. There are hobos and hired guns, unionists and anarchists, fist fights and bombs, and a pregnant teenage firebrand activist drawn from real life. Sure the social protest is on the nose, but The Cold Millions is also a tremendously fun read. —M.D.


MonogamyMonogamy by Sue Miller

Sue Miller has been writing about families and relationships for decades in her trademark domestic, high-realist style, one she consistently elevates through patient, unshowy craftsmanship. Her latest concerns Annie, a middle-aged photographer from Massachusetts whose grief following the sudden death of her beloved, bookstore-owning husband, Graham, is compounded when she discovers that he’d been unfaithful. Miller’s portrayal of this muddied grief resonates; still, the lifeblood of this novel lies in the interactions between its exceptionally vivid cast of secondary characters. —E.D.


The Age of CreativityThe Age of Creativity by Emily Urquhart

It wasn’t simply that Urquhart, daughter of artist Tony Urquhart, could see her father working into his 80s, but that he was also exploring new modes of expression, which led her to take a fresh look at the last years of other artists. Society’s default assumption that the elderly, if they are productive at all, produce no truly new art, is refuted by the works—from Francisco Goya’s lithography to Claude Monet’s water lilies—explored in this innovative blend of memoir and art history. —B.B.


The Lying Life of AdultsThe Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante

Elena Ferrante’s latest novel resembles its predecessors, the blockbuster Neapolitan quartet, in several obvious ways. It’s set in Naples, for one, and has, as its focus, the relationship and shifting power dynamic between two females, one studious and sensible—at least at the outset—the other possessed of a dark yet irresistible charisma. The difference is that the two aren’t peers, but members of the same family.

The Lying Life of Adults begins when 13-year-old Giovanna, after overhearing her father compare her to his despised, estranged sister, Vittoria, asks to meet her mysterious doppelgänger. Though reluctant at first, her parents eventually agree, assuming she’ll see for herself. Instead, Giovanna finds herself besotted. Vittoria, who continues to hold a candle for the long-dead married lover whom Giovanna’s genteel Marxist intellectual father drove away, is, unlike the latter, vulgar, fiery and deeply devout. Embittered and vengeful, she uses her newfound relationship with Giovanna to unleash renewed chaos on the family, setting her niece on a downward path, figuratively and literally, into Naples’ lower regions. There, Giovanna discovers sex, religion, passion, but also an unexpected raw truth that seems to expose her parents’ hypocrisy with regard to their own marriage and high-flown ideals. Ambiguity prevails. Everyone seems to be lying, so Giovanna starts lying, too, and discovers she loves it.

Like an Italian Proust, Ferrante’s words often feel less written than unleashed; they pour forth in a torrent, as if scrambling to keep up with her thoughts. Interwoven elements of myth, fairy tale and fantasy—there’s a family heirloom, a gold bracelet, that acts, Tolkien-esquely, as a corrupting force—deepen this relentlessly compelling, at times emotionally violent, coming-of-age story. —E.D.


Homeland ElegiesHomeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar

Any novel featuring a character carrying the same name as the author, let alone an identical moment of controversy—a Muslim-American character admits to a flicker of pride when the planes smashed into the towers on 9/11—probably does require Homeland Elegies’ disclaimer: “This is not an autobiography. This is a novel.” But whether creator and work can be separated, like the uncertainty of which homeland Akhtar—the Staten Island-born son of Pakistani immigrants—means at any given moment, are only two of the questions raised by this exquisitely smart book.

It explores life in America since the Reagan years through faith, family and money. There is the protagonist’s mother, pining for home—when she comments on 9/11 it’s to say how “they” (meaning the U.S.) had it coming, while her son finds “we” an ambiguous word. His cardiologist father briefly treated Donald Trump and remains an ardent supporter. Ayad is taught capitalism’s unpleasant secrets by a Muslim hedge fund manager. They all illuminate America’s new gilded age, as Akhtar—like many an immigrant before him—holds a mirror to his country that few native-borns can manage.—B.B.


MORE GREAT READS


Sex Robotos & Vegan Meat

Sex Robots and Vegan Meat by Jenny Kleeman

For Homer Simpson, alcohol is “the cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems.” Others might argue it’s technology. While advances in areas such as medical science, communication and industrialized agriculture have made so many aspects of our lives more efficient and convenient, they have also thrown up unforeseen challenges, from climate change to alienation to new moral dilemmas. It’s a good thing there are start-ups ready to bail us out.

Or is it? Kleeman, a London-based journalist and filmmaker, delves into emerging tech that promises to create partners for the lonely, as well as lab-grown meat to curb the mass farming and slaughter of animals, artificial “biobag” wombs to help women with corporate careers maintain their unforgiving schedules, and coffins for DIY euthanasia in places where assisted dying is illegal—i.e., mostly everywhere.

Armed with skepticism and investigative shrewdness, Kleeman tracks down the owners of companies that want to revolutionize sex, food, birth and death. She attends glitzy reveals of prototypes that are meant to whip up media frenzy and attract investment, and then pokes around behind the scenes to find out just how close they are to hitting the market. Often, the answer is “not very”: the lab-grown chicken is disgustingly mushy and its provenance suspect; the “underwhelming” coffin isn’t actually functional; the “robots” are at best AI heads on dolls’ bodies. All along the way, she is given evasive answers about the progress of the technology and the monetary and planetary resources required to develop it.

Kleeman also speaks with critics of these technologies, and potential customers—from a woman with multiple sclerosis who wants to die with dignity to incels on message boards for radicalized men who want sex robots and artificial wombs to make women obsolete. And while her reporting on this technology couldn’t hope to be up-to-the-minute, its scope offers admirable engagement and insight. Kleeman observes that the solutions these companies promise “are too alluring for them not ever to exist”—even if these particular ventures fail. There are important questions, then, we should address while it’s not too late.

For one, how will access to this technology be controlled or granted, and will it increase inequality—along lines of income or gender? As Kleeman notes, it’s mostly men devising these products, but “women will be disproportionately affected” by them. What’s more, why don’t we humans attempt more collaborative solutions? Kleeman insists that “progress” isn’t simply the unstoppable march of technology; it’s “the courage to choose a different mindset.” What if we provided therapy for those who feel they’re unable to forge relationships? What if we cut down on eating meat? What if we provided more societal support for pregnant women? What if the determination to die, among those with chronic illnesses, were treated with compassion? What if we simply changed our behaviour, rather than asking technology to change the world around us? —M.D.

Details are UnprintableDetails Are Unprintable by Allan Levine

If true crime is popular for the same reasons as much fictional crime—social history with a puzzle aspect—the so-called New York Café Society Murder is somewhat lacking in the latter. There’s little doubt about the guilty verdict, according to the author’s meticulous research. Canadian Wayne Lonergan, 25, did indeed kill his estranged American wife, 22-year-old beer heiress Patricia Burton Lonergan, in her Manhattan apartment in October 1943. The social history factor, though, is huge. Two aspects of the case made it a sensation in its day—Raymond Chandler slotted it into ninth spot on his “10 Greatest Crimes of the Century” list in 1948—and a favourite of crime bloggers even now. The first was the couple’s glamorous life, which included frequent nights out at the famous Stork Club, the Studio 54 of its time.

More important was Wayne’s bisexuality and his willingness to use it in his defence—a supposed late-night pick-up of an American soldier became part of his alibi—in an era when being gay could mean prison. It wasn’t the gore of Patricia’s death but Wayne’s sex life that provided, in the words of a contemporaneous newspaper, the “whispered vices whose details are unprintable” referenced in Levine’s title. Details Are Unprintable is a subtle and compelling account of one crime that mirrors, like decades of media coverage before it, our evolving attitudes toward homosexuality.—B.B.


Can't EvenCan’t Even by Anne Helen Petersen

Despite the dismissive blowback they receive from their elders, millennial activists are right—objectively, statistically, actually—that the structures of economic life are stacked against them. Petersen and her much buzzed-about book can attest to both. She does get called a whiny child who won’t face up to her (wrong) decisions, but—fully armed with wide-ranging research, interviews with her peers and her own experiences—she also makes a searing case about the bad hand dealt her generation. The burnout Petersen decries is societal, not personal, partly the result of intense boomer parenting—“raising resumés,” she calls it—but mostly because of the gig economy and the age of precarity. Raised with the mantra of university-or-bust, the first wave of student debt-burdened millennials had barely entered the workforce before the Great Recession mowed them down. Today millennials still have net worths 20 per cent lower than their parents at the same age. “We have little savings,” Petersen writes, “and less stability.” And the way out isn’t personal either, she persuasively argues, but through massive change in public policy, especially worker protections. —B.B.

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