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New Year, New Books

We've searched through the January stacks for 11 of the most intriguing fiction titles to start your reading year off right / BY Nathalie Atkinson / January 11th, 2021

With apologies to April, January is the cruellest month. To escape the emotional hangover of the holidays, bury your nose in a book. This month’s best fiction features motherhood, murder and Montreal — not necessarily in that order — in our pick of titles we look forward to reading.

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1The Push Ashley Audrain

This buzzy fiction debut by a former Penguin Canada publicity director who began writing it on mat leave prompted a nine-way bidding war for the TV rights. Audrain writes about a new mother who’s unable to bond with her daughter and second-guesses her maternal instincts. Like The Hours Before Dawn, Celia Fremlin’s pioneering 1958 novel of domestic suspense about a new mother driven to her wit’s end by isolation and insomnia, the psychological drama is riveting. There’s provocative commentary on the unrealistic societal expectations – and cultural fetishization – of motherhood and creeping paranoia in equal measure. Both protagonist Blythe Connor and the reader are kept off-balance about what is real and how much of the new mom’s doubts are coloured by her own childhood full of abuse and neglect. (Jan. 5)

2NickMichael Farris Smith

This prequel to The Great Gatsby comes out mere days after the copyright of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel expires. Picking up the thread of generational trauma in that great American novel, Mississippi native Farris Smith retraces the steps of its perennial outsider, narrator Nick Carraway, from his Midwestern upbringing and time at Yale to the trenches of the Great War and disreputable saloons of New Orleans. We are borne ceaselessly into his past to learn, for example, how his backstory of PTSD will inform his time on Long Island, but even in his own story he hovers on the edges. (Jan. 5)

3The ShadowMelanie Raabe, trans. by Imogen Taylor

Do you believe in destiny? The many what-ifs of fate play off each other well in this pacey thriller. Imagine getting a random prophecy from a stranger. Imagine that it’s about a certain important date that already means something to you. Imagine you will kill a stranger. It sounds implausible, but Raabe, the journalist-turned-author of international hits The Trap and The Stranger Upstairs puts justice and revenge at the devious heart of this bestselling German psychological thriller, now translated into English. (Jan. 5)

4What Could be SavedLiese O’Halloran Schwarz

Readers get a nuanced exploration of a broken family in this tense literary novel. Siblings Laura and Beatrice are taken aback when, in their mid-50s, they’re contacted by a man claiming to be their long-lost brother. Their mother never gave up hope she would find her son, but despite being in the cheerful and polite “forgetful Girl Scout” early stage of dementia, she still has secrets to tell. The timeline alternates between present-day Washington, D.C., and the well-evoked 1972 Bangkok of their privileged ex-pat childhood, when eight-year-old Philip simply vanished on his way home from school. (Jan. 12)

5Without BloodMartin Michaud, trans. by Arthur Holden

The streets of Montreal come alive in Ellis Award-winning author and former lawyer Martin Michaud’s ongoing procedurals featuring Victor Lessard, a senior Major Crimes Unit investigator. The latest is a gritty, grisly whodunit that hopscotches around the city to link up several seemingly unrelated homicides. It’s also a prequel of sorts: It rewinds to 2005 to give Lessard’s backstory before he pairs up with his eccentric partner Jacinthe Taillon. The atmospheric series is to Montreal what the late Swedish writer Henning Mankell’s crime novels are to Stockholm and has the popular prestige-TV series adaptation Victor Lessard (well into its third year on Quebec streamer Club Illico), to prove it. (Jan. 19)

6The Mitford TrialJessica Fellowes

Between India Knight’s new novel Darling (a modern retelling of Love in a Cold Climate) and the BBC’s forthcoming adaptation of The Pursuit of Love with Lily James and Andrew Scott, the late novelist Nancy Mitford is, as they say, having a moment. The premise of this murder series is that the five Mitford sisters’ former maid Louisa is an amateur sleuth who pitches in on the investigations of her husband, who happens to work for London’s Metropolitan Police Service. As usual, it’s set against the escapades of the eccentric and entitled clan while offering a breezy refresher on British social and political history between the two world wars (in this one, Louisa is asked to spy on sister Diana, who is having an affair with the notorious fascist Oswald Mosley). The author is the niece of Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes and has penned many Downton-related books, and her familiarity with the material makes this the ideal murder-mystery for fans who miss all those upstairs-downstairs trappings. (Jan. 19)

7The Revolution According to Raymundo MataGina Apostol

This inventive novel swept the Philippine National Book Award when it was published a decade ago with its reimagining of the life and eventual execution of 19th-century, anti-Spanish revolutionary Jose Rizal, widely revered as the father of Philippine independence. The Filipina writer revises it for the first English edition, excavating the history of the oppressive Spanish colonial era in a meta narrative laden with diary entries, wordplay and puzzles — complete with footnotes from an imaginary editor. (Jan. 12)

8Sleep Well, My LadyKwei Quartey

The murder of Ghanaian fashion icon Lady Araba at her mansion in an affluent gated mansion is the subject of this modern whodunit set in the capital of Accra. The chauffeur may have been convicted, but nobody believes he did it, least of all Araba’s auntie. That’s where private investigator Emma Djan comes in. She goes undercover to probe the crime, while the novel offers insight into the circles of influence – the big personalities of fashion designers and social media influencers – of contemporary Ghanaian culture. (Jan. 12)

9The HareMelanie Finn

A fundamental shift happens, Finn says, in a woman’s life after menopause. With this novel, the author of critically acclaimed fiction, including the New York Times notable book The Gloaming, wanted to explore the life of a younger woman as seen from the point of view of her older, hopefully wiser self. Rosie is a naive young woman whose path takes a dark turn after she meets a sophisticated older man at the MoMA. The Hare themes are timeless, but its particulars are so topical it feels like it was written yesterday: it’s informed by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanagh’s confirmation hearings into allegations of sexual assault and the casual, insidious misogyny that gave rise to the #MeToo movement, as well as the power dynamics of gender and class. (Jan. 26)

10Bride of the Sea Eman Quotah

Parents make choices that slowly ripple and tear apart several communities in this character-driven saga. Covering the long and fraught aftermath of a marriage between a Saudi Arabian couple who move to Ohio that ends in divorce, the novel tackles the conflict of conservative and progressive values, cultural taboos and identity crisis after mother Sadie abducts their young daughter Hannah and stays on the run with her for years. (Jan. 26)

11Burnt Sugar Avni Doshi

Shortlisted for the Booker Prize, this debut novel is finally being published in North America. The family drama set in Puna, India, is about Tara, a family matriarch who is now slipping into dementia. Bitter daughter Antara finds herself revisiting stories of her parents’ marriage, her then-bohemian mother’s escapades, and reminiscing about the cupboards piled high with saris of shimmering thread. It’s an astringent, multi-generational saga that’s just the thing to refresh the palate after all those cozy family Zoom chats. (Jan. 26)


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