1. In One Person, John Irving, $35
Fans of John Irving will be thrilled to discover that he explores many familiar themes in his new novel, In One Person: quirky townsfolk, New England, wrestling and sexuality. Within the first paragraph, Irving’s bisexual protagonist, Billy Abbott, a writer in his 60s, recounts how his imagination and desire to write came alive with his longing to sleep with his elementary school teacher. And with the proclamation “We are formed by what we desire,” Irving sets up a decades-long portrait of a man who, truly knowing himself, sets off to explore the rest of the world.
Billy grows up in the 1950s. With a small-minded mother who refuses to understand him and an absent father who may be gay, the likeable lad spends his youth in an all-boys school in Vermont. His spare time is taken up with theatrical productions of Shakespeare and Ibsen in which female roles are often portrayed by male actors, notably Billy’s amusing, kind grandfather, whose proclivities continue offstage. In an early scene that demonstrates Irving’s effortless ability to create exhilarating dialogue, he thoughtfully and playfully establishes that Billy’s story is not one of self-loathing. His stepfather, Richard, and Miss Frost, the mysterious librarian of Billy’s earliest desires, banter about inappropriate crushes in literature, finally counselling Billy that there are no “wrong” people upon whom to have crushes. “We’re free to have crushes on anyone we want,” says Richard. And so Billy does: Early obsessions include his closest friend, Elaine, and golden boy wrestler Jacques Kittredge. As Billy grows and moves onto the world stage of life in New York and abroad in Europe, later passions are as varied and heartfelt.
Irving considers this novel his most political. From an author who coined the term “sexual suspect” over 30 years ago in The World According to Garp, one might have expected an exploration of a character like Billy earlier, but this novel brings to mainstream fiction what LGBT literature has explored for years. It also stands as a heart-wrenching testament to the early days of the American AIDS epidemic. Irving’s touching humour and thoughtful characterization are in top form, and by using first-person narration rather than the more detached third-person voice he usually favours, he lends intimacy and warmth to Billy and his story. The moral of the novel — that labels do not define a person — is a timeless one engagingly brought to life by a master storyteller. — Julie Wilson
2. Home, Toni Morrison, $26
When Frank Money receives a letter that reads, “She be dead,” he journeys to Georgia to bring his sister home, but memories of their difficult childhood and his traumatic experiences during the Korean War resurface. This short but deeply moving novel from Nobel Prize–winning author Toni Morrison explores poverty, fear and racism. At its heart, two characters struggle to find their place in a chaotic world and the courage to overcome fear and rediscover their sense of self. — Janet Ho
3. The Uninvited Guests, Sadie Jones, $22
At the turn of the 20th century, a family opens its country house to a group of stranded train-crash survivors amid preparations for daughter Emerald Torrington’s 20th birthday. As the day progresses, the Torringtons and their three party guests end up learning hidden truths about themselves through their encounter with the mysterious, uninvited accident victims. An intriguing tale reminiscent of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. — Kari Pritchard
4. Helen Keller In Love, Rosie Sultan, $28.
Rosie Sultan sheds new light on the iconic Helen Keller in this novel that imagines the vulnerable inner world of a woman in love. In 1916, Helen’s teacher, Annie Sullivan, is diagnosed with tuberculosis, and unemployed journalist Peter Fagan is called in as Helen’s personal secretary. A love affair between Peter and Helen quickly develops, making Helen believe that she might be able to have it all. But fate — as well as her family — conspires against her. — Elaine Zlotkowski
5. The Sultan’s Wife, Jane Johnson, $23
Set in 17th-century Morocco, The Sultan’s Wife tells the story of two people imprisoned in the court of the maniacal Sultan Moulay Ismail. Nus-Nus, the son of an African chief, is a slave and scribe to the sultan; Alys Swann is an Englishwoman captured at sea and imprisoned in the harem. Though Alys’ unique beauty and Nus-Nus’ worldly experience intrigue the sultan and make them his favourites, they live in fear of his lethal temper and his vicious wife’s manipulations. A captivating read that has something for everyone: mystery, adventure, sex, history and romance. — Astrid Henninger
6. Faith Bass Darling’s Last Garage Sale, Lynda Rutledge, $28
A Y2K bug must have bitten pillar of society Faith Bass Darling, because she has a revelation just after midnight on the last day of the millennium. She’ll host a garage sale and sell everything — her Louis XV clock, Tiffany lamps and 19th-century mansion — so she can let go of life. After all, what use could years of memories stored in scattered memorabilia hold for an old woman with Alzheimer’s? But family, friends and Faith’s estranged daughter might have something to say about her decision. A curious, touching debut that sheds light on the human desire to hold on to possessions. — Alanna Glassman
7. What I did, Christopher Wakling, $22
Wildly imaginative and surprisingly insightful six-year old narrator Billy Wright buzzes with energy and enthusiasm. When he runs out into a busy street and receives a public spanking from his irate father, a concerned bystander calls social services — and a split-second decision escalates into disaster. A tragic yet comedic look at what is truly understood between a parent and a child. — Madelaine Cravit
8. Let’s Pretend This Never Happened (A Mostly True Memoir), Jenny Lawson, $28
Jenny Lawson is a blogger and also has a daughter, but she’s not a mommy blogger. Irreverent, wildly funny, often inappropriate, she’s one of a new breed of online diarists—like Heather B. Armstrong or Kelly Oxford—who are as likely to drop the F-bomb as boast about their offspring. In this memoir, her first book, Lawson covers topics like dead animals (not her fault—dad was a professional taxidermist), teenage misadventures, irritating things her husband does (emphatically conveyed to him through a series of Post-It notes)—and did we mention the dead animals?
Almost everything Lawson writes about is laugh-out-loud funny. That’s partly because of the sheer improbability of her experiences. A very short sampling: Her father made a puppet out of a dead squirrel to entertain his two young daughters, Lawson played doctor during a high school animal husbandry class, and she once told a room full of her husband’s co-workers she’d been stabbed in the face by a serial killer (she hadn’t). But it’s Lawson’s voice that makes this a risky choice for subway reading. She writes like a grown-up denizen of Dawson’s Creek, if it had been on HBO—a generous helping of curse words, along with copious italics and charmingly rambling sentences.
It’s that voice that carries the reader through the book’s more serious moments. Lawson candidly talks about her first pregnancy, which resulted in a stillbirth, and the two subsequent miscarriages she had before she gave birth to her daughter, Hailey. She also details her struggles with depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder and an anxiety disorder; she was also diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and talks about dealing with the chronic condition. There’s no sense of careful curating in Lawson’s chapters; they’re the very definition of lumps, warts and all. But that’s kind of her style. Whether it’s the hilarious, the mortifying or the deeply tragic, Lawson firmly believes that people are defined by how they handle the less than perfect, and that there’s “joy in embracing the utter absurdity of life.” Joy is definitely what you’ll find in these pages. — Stacy Lee Kong
9. The Headmaster’s Wager, Vincent Lam, $30
In a departure from his first book, Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures, Vincent Lam mines his family background for his second novel. Percival Chen is the highly successful headmaster of an English school founded by his father, a Chinese immigrant to Vietnam. He is also an avid gambler. When his son runs afoul of Vietnamese authorities, Percival comes to realize that his carefully constructed world is as tenuous as a house of cards and that risk has been a mere game until this point in his life. — Lora Grady
10. Magnified World, Grace O’Connell, $23
Shortly after her mother commits suicide, a young woman named Maggie finds herself suddenly suffering from blackouts. Can a mysterious stranger who begins showing up help her understand what is happening to her? Or is his presence a further sign that something is desperately wrong? A haunting tale of loss and remembrance and a love letter to the streets and landscape of Toronto. — Lora Grady
11. Everybody Has Everything, Katrina Onstad, $23
When a car crash leaves a couple as guardians of their best friends’ toddler, they realize only one of them wants to be a parent — despite years of attempts to have a family of their own. Everyone will recognize the all too common yearnings and failings of two people trying to figure out what will make them happy and what’s really important, against a shifting landscape of job loss, work pressure and family changes. — Vanessa Milne