Gems from Jasper Fforde, David Sedaris and more.
Fiction The Mere Wife Maria Dahvana Headley (Scribe, $ 35)
If you’ve ever wondered what a fierce, feminist re-tooling of the epic poem Beowulf might look like, wonder no more. Best-selling American author/editor Maria Dahvana Headley spins the ancient story of monsters and dragons around a gated community populated by the beautiful and entitled, including Willa, whose life is wall- to-wall dinner parties and play-dates with son Dylan. Meanwhile Dana, a Ptsd-scarred former soldier, and her son Gren watch them from the cave they call home. But this is more than an old story in new clothes. Headley’s clever retelling pits the two women against each other, both fighting in their own ways to protect the ones they love. Of course, it doesn’t end well for either of them. SHARON STEPHENSON
Early Riser Jasper Fforde ( Hachette, $ 35)
Early Riser’s premise is that humans hibernate to better survive harsh winter months. Hibernating isn’t without its risks, and woe betide anyone who starts with a body mass index that’s too low. Thankfully, a cadre of “consuls” stays awake through winter to protect the sleepers, especially from flesh- eating Nightwalkers. Will novice consul Charlie discover what’s causing an outbreak of hallucinatory dreams? In the mould of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, Jasper Fforde has created a world that is equal parts satire on our own society, a whodunnit (or, more accurately, a “what the hell is going on?”), and a backdrop for japes about “global cooling” and what daft idea self-styled “sleepextreme” guru Gaer Brills (say it aloud) is promoting to fashionable sleepers. Fforde is clearly having fun – and so does the reader. MICHAEL HENRY
The Seventh Cross Anna Seghers ( Hachette, $ 35)
In 1934, seven prisoners escape from Westhofen concentration camp. Within days, six are recaptured; only George Heisler, through sheer luck and cunning, remains on the run in an exceedingly hostile environment. Who can he trust? His wife and family? His friends? In pre-war Nazi Germany, helping an escapee has deadly consequences and, when you’re dressed in rags with no money or food, there is fear, betrayal and suspicion at every turn. Will he make it or will he be executed at the seventh cross – once a row of plane trees – back at Westhofen? Anna Seghers’ riveting novel is an insightful portrait of the psyche of ordinary Germans caught up in a fascist regime. Written in 1939 and published in 1942, it’s newly translated into English by Margot Bettauer Dembo. JUDITH BARAGWANATH
Consent Leo Benedictus (Allen & Unwin, $ 33)
Someone’s out there. Someone whose name we never learn, whose physical description is unclear. He has undertaken a “project” – watching women, following them, gradually insinuating himself into their lives. He speaks to us directly, trying to justify his feelings as he revels in the minutiae of his subjects’ days. He muses on gender politics, the nature of liars, the need for good record-keeping; he even takes a sideways, rather detached, glance at the moral implications of his behaviour. Then he sees Frances – and something changes. As Frances’s story is intercut with his and their lives start to intersect, his “project” creeps out of the shadows and shifts suddenly into visceral, stomach-clenching violence. Consent is fascinating, with an ambiguous ending that lingers in a seriously unnerving way. JULIE COOK
The Mercy Seat Elizabeth H. Winthrop ( Hachette, $ 35)
It’s 1943 in Louisiana, a time when black lives didn’t matter. Winthrop’s profoundly affecting novel takes place over a single day, but what a day it is: 18-year- old Willie Jones is about to be executed after being wrongly convicted for the rape of a white girl ( his only crime is falling in love with a white woman, something not tolerated in the Jim Crow South). In a tale taut with tension, nine characters have their stories woven together, including Willie, his father, the priest who ministers to him, and the prosecutor. Based on true events, and opening with the lyrics of Nick Cave’s 1988 song “Mercy Seat”, this is a story of cruelty and fear, baying mobs and ugly racism. But Elizabeth H.
Winthrop tempers it with gestures of kindness and even hope. This is the kind of novel you read in a couple of sittings, with a clenched jaw and ( for me) tears. Let the screen adaptation begin. SHARON STEPHENSON
Prague Spring Simon Mawer (Hachette $ 38)
It’s the summer of 1968 and James and Ellie, naive young students from Oxford, are hitchhiking across Europe. With the vaguest of plans, in spite of ostensibly heading for sunny Greece, the pair find themselves in Czechoslovakia, behind the Iron Curtain. As a nation, Czechoslovakia is only just emerging from the oppression inflicted by post-war socialism – and under new leader Alexander Dubček, a more liberal regime appears to be evolving. Arriving in Prague during this period of optimism, the young pair cross paths with another couple, Sam, a junior diplomat with the British embassy and Lenka, a Czech student whose father was purged by the state. But when the Russians invade, the couple’s plans for a carefree adventure are shattered. A fascinating, if occasionally sentimental, glimpse into a period of intense political turmoil. ELISABETH EASTHER
Non-fiction The Feather Thief Kirk Wallace Johnson ( Penguin Random House, $ 38)
What would possess Edwin Rist, a 20-year-old American flautist, to perform at the Royal Academy of Music – then break into the British Museum of Natural History and disappear into the night with a suitcase of rare and priceless feathers? Good question, and one pondered by Kirk Wallace Johnson when he heard about this bizarre 2009 heist. In his mission to find out why anyone would “steal a bunch of dead birds”, Johnson yanks back the curtain on loss, greed, obsession, feather fanatics – and salmon fly- tying. Hello? Even if you’ve never pulled on a pair of waders, The Feather Thief will transport you into an “other” world where extinct birds’ plumage is worth crazy money. Prepare to be hooked. JUDITH BARAGWANATH
Biography Robin David Itzkoff (Macmillan, $ 38)
Robin Williams was a rare comedian who ascended from small clubs and theatres to worldwide television and film stardom, even being honoured with an Academy Award. On the big screen, he could take on roles in which he was larger than life ( Mrs Doubtfire), sensitive and emotional ( Good Will Hunting), or both ( Good Morning, Vietnam). Publicly, he spoke with candour about his battles with drugs, alcohol and clouds of depression. What few people knew about were his final years succumbing to Lewy body dementia. This is the “definitive” biography, according to the publisher. Over time, that may prove to be correct. David Itzkoff’s exhaustive research has certainly resulted in a mighty tribute to a comedy genius, reminding us why Williams was so loved, and that comedy and tragedy are very much two sides of the same coin.
Ma’am Darling: 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret Craig Brown ( Harper Collins, $25)
Haughty? Entitled? Grand? And why not? Princess Margaret was born to it, yet unlike her sister Queen Elizabeth, Margaret suffered from a permanent identity crisis, never quite finding her place in the world. She loved the royal life but was also partial to the often dubious company of “theatrical types”, and when they didn’t behave obsequiously she, effortlessly and petulantly, pulled rank. “She didn’t know,” commented a friend in UK author Craig Brown’s hysterical biography, “who she was. She never knew whether she was meant to be posh or to be matey, and so she swung between the two, and it was a disaster.” Even in “posh” society, the “pocket battleship” left a trail of spectacular rudeness, which has all been gleefully recorded in Ma’am Darling – easily one of the funniest books I’ve read in years. JUDITH BARAGWANATH
Calypso David Sedaris ( Hachette, $ 35)
It’s been five years since David Sedaris’s last essay collection; he’s now 61 and his writing has taken a more pensive turn. Many of these stories are set at a summer home on the North Carolina coast, which he introduces wryly: “I told myself when I was young that one day I would buy a beach house and it would be everyone’s, as long as they followed my draconian rules and never stopped thanking me for it.” Much of Calypso is, in fact, a funny, tender, sometimes sardonic tribute to Sedaris’s family: his siblings, elderly father and longtime partner Hugh. For the first time, too, he addresses his youngest sister’s suicide in 2013. But there’s plenty of laugh- outloud material, among musings on fad diets, snapping turtles and shopping in Tokyo. VIRGINIA LARSON