Gems from Jasper Fforde, David Sedaris and more.

North & South - - Contents - edited by VIR­GINIA LAR­SON

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.

MATT EL­LIOTT

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

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