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> Read and Recommended

The Books We Love

When you're searching for your next great read, make sure you check our list first / BY Nathalie Atkinson / October 24th, 2020

To take the guesswork out of your next selection, here are the books Zoomer editors and writers have read, loved and given their stamp of approval.

Obsessive Book Buyers: Zoomer editors have carefully curated our book coverage to ensure you find the perfect read. We may earn a commission on books you buy by clicking on the cover image. 

>The Darkest Eveningby Ann Cleeves

Home base: Whitley Bay, England

Author’s Take: “It’s a midwinter country-house murder mystery but I hope it has a contemporary flavour too.”

Favourite Line: “They stood for a moment looking at each other, while Juliet wondered how she could tactfully ask Vera to take off her boots.”

Review: Much as I love the Vera TV series starring Brenda Blethyn, I always come back to the original DCI Vera Stanhope novels (thankfully, by the time each adaptation airs I’ve usually forgotten whodunit). Partly it’s because the palette of landscapes of her Northumberland territory is such a range – from faded seaside towns and post-industrial areas to remote, almost feudal, rural communities. And now we get a classic country house murder. When I spoke with Ann Cleeves last year about her new series, she hinted that the next Vera would be much closer to home.

How close? Vera not only stumbles on the case (a baby in a vehicle abandoned in a blizzard), but the nearest house happens to be Brockburn, the Stanhope family estate. Naturally, when the young mother’s body is eventually found in the snow, the big house becomes key to the investigation. Once stately, the manor and family fortunes have both seen better days, but that doesn’t stop the distant and estranged extended Stanhope clan and their posh housekeeper from recoiling at the large and shabby investigator. They treat her (and her penchant for bacon stottie with brown sauce) like an interloper, and with barely disguised disdain.

Cleeves is always evocative about her home region in her prose, but The Darkest Evening was more gorgeously written than usual, between the weather’s bone-chilling damp, the cross-class observations, and the snow churned by mysterious tire tracks. (Her descriptions of the formidable winter storm and its aftermath had a touch of good friend’s Louise Penny’s near-magical realism, I thought.) And I liked her caustic little digs at the idea of cozy Sunday night programs and prestige TV like Downton Abbey.

All the while Vera’s catching glimpses of her childhood, and we learn more about the loner through her memories: the strained relationship with her late father Hector (black sheep of this well-to-do family); how she was an awkward overweight teenager; and how she felt like a misfit next to her elegant mother. Every Vera novel may be about the DCI, but not every case is (nor should it be), but I welcomed this more overtly personal story as a chance to explore the disheveled DCI’s past. As our favourite frumpy DCI might say: “Stick the kettle on, pet, and settle in.” – Nathalie Atkinson

>We Two Alone by Jack Wang

Home base:  Ithaca, New York

Author’s take: “The stories are set all over the world….and explore the many ways that Chinese have come to and sought belonging in the West.”

Favourite line: “These weren’t the colours he might have wished for, certainly not the maroon and single white V of the Millionaires, but a uniform was a uniform, and this one fit surprisingly well, as if it were meant for him.”

Review: Wang, who is from Vancouver, lives and teaches writing at college in upstate New York, and his debut story collection hopscotches across eras, continents and experiences to reflect facets of the Chinese diaspora and immigrant culture. As the stories slowly move closer to the present day, they gain momentum and link up to form a large and powerful narrative arc. In mid-century there’s a fictionalized take on Feng-Shan Ho, the real-life Chinese consul-general in Vienna during Hitler’s reign who wrote exit visas for Jewish Austrians at the time of Kristallnacht; in South Africa, under Apartheid, a Chinese family attempts to move into a non-segregated neighbourhood.

The striking hockey story “The Valkyries” sets the tone for the collection. It almost reads like a riff or riposte to Roch Carrier’s beloved The Hockey Sweater, one that makes the political tale of children and rival team allegiances seem safe, and almost quaintly charming, and ups the stakes. Just as Carrier wrote about tensions between francophones and anglophones, Wang’s story is nominally about hockey, but at heart it’s about the way immigration practices emasculated Asian men and how pop culture perpetuates effeminate and desexualized portrayals. (Also like The Hockey Sweater, the mother figure is a driving force here – except she’s deceased.)

Sixteen-year-old Nelson is an orphaned hockey hopeful who works in a Chinese laundry in Vancouver in the early 1920s. It’s the early days of the Pacific Coast Hockey Association, and when he’s rejected from the local junior league tryouts, the coach plainly explains why: his race is likely to provoke violence from his white teammates off the ice, which would disrupt locker-room culture. By disguising himself, Nelson finds a way to join another credible team — it just happens to be in the fledging women’s league. The challenge of yearning for acceptance without assimilating or sacrificing cultural heritage carries through. The final story, in which Leonard, a world-weary actor, struggles to find meaningful work in an industry that stills casts Asian-Americans in demeaning stereotypical and racist roles, resonates as much as the one set a century ago. Maybe more. – Nathalie Atkinson

>Shadowplayby Joseph O’Connor

Home base: Dublin, Ireland

Author’s Take: “A complicated love affair featuring Dracula creator Bram Stoker.”

Favourite Line: “Some nights, she is a wall of dust moving slowly across Piccadilly, causing passers-by to marvel and to rub at their clothes; others, she is a tolling from St. Mary le Strand that exhumes a long-buried memory of broken love.”

Review: Shadowplay grew out of a BBC radio play about the friendship between writer Bram Stoker and his employer, the actor and theatre owner Henry Irving. The novel expands the story to include Ellen Terry, at the time the highest-paid actress in England (and legendary beauty). Her presence helps form a sort of bizarre love triangle – or square, if you count Stoker’s long-suffering wife Florence.

The story spans decades, from his marriage and transition from amateur Dublin theatre critic to general manger of Irving’s Lyceum in the West End, through his struggle as a failed writer to his impoverished twilight years in a nursing home. (Dracula was a flop in Stoker’s day and only became a cultural phenomenon and financial success a decade after the author’s 1912 death, thanks to a silent film called Nosferatu and the copyright diligence of his widow.)

It takes a few chapters to fall in with the novel’s particular rhythm. The prose is gleaming and lyrical, but O’Connor mischievously layers a send-up of Gothic tropes within his earnest exploration of love – and the nature of creativity, ambition and failure. Once you settle in, however, the smell of greasepaint and tallow candles mingle seamlessly with the extant letters, diary entries, and musings of theatre ghost Mina and the slippery notion of a second self.

The latter comes through in the detailed portrait of the acting craft and milieu: in some descriptive passages I felt as dazzled as the audience must have been with Irving’s state-of-the-art illusions. (He experimented with the latest technologies to create legendary special effects.) Likewise, in the Jack the Ripper period, the gripping atmosphere of fear and morbid fascination during Stoker’s episodes of sleeplessness as he wandered the city permeate the pages like sulphurous London smog. There are playful Easter eggs that acknowledge Stoker’s greatest creation (a stagehand named Harker, for example), but the suggestion of how much of Irving’s personality was borrowed to create Count Dracula and what homoerotic elements came from the writer’s own repressed sexuality are more subtle, and poetic.

O’Connor’s novel was published in North America over the summer, but knowing it was a spooky literary gothic, I saved it for the dark autumn days. Once started, I was torn between greedily devouring and slowly savouring it to make the many virtuoso passages last. – Nathalie Atkinson

>All the Devils are Here by Louise Penny

Home Base: Knowlton, Quebec

Author’s Take: “It’s about the relationships between fathers and sons, it’s about trust and what happens when that trust is betrayed, and all of the fractures that happen in intimate relationships.”

Favourite Line: “Life can be cruel, as you know. But it can also be kind. Filled with wonders. You need to remember that.”


For his 16th case, Sûreté du Québec homicide detective Armand Gamache temporarily leaves the village of Three Pines behind for an even more picturesque locale: Paris in the fall. He and Reine-Marie are at their modest pied-à-terre in the City of Light to visit their two adult children and await the arrival of a new grandchild. Gamache is outside his jurisdiction investigating the attempted murder of his godfather Stephen (a billionaire, natch). While gingerly working around his suspicious Parisian counterpart, leads about venture capitalists, corporate malfeasance and a shadowy cabal mean he landmark-hops from the Rodin Museum gardens and posh George V hotel to the bunker-like National Archives. It’s the sort of global intrigue more typical of Dan Brown’s Professor Robert Langdon than Chief Inspector Gamache, but even if the plot sometimes strains credulity, Penny keeps it grounded with her signature rich characterization of the principals. As ties to his godfather are tested, for example, Gamache is working to restore a strained relationship with his son Daniel, and there’s self-doubt behind the quiet moral authority of his usual instincts.

Readers might miss the extended cast of the village and the familiar comforts of home, but all the racing around the Marais, grand Haussmann apartments, and stops at the Lutetia, the renowned art deco hotel on the Left Bank, is welcome escapism. (The hotel’s history, both as a location commandeered by Occupation forces to house Nazi officers during the Second World War and later as meeting place for displaced survivors, is also brought to bear in the story.) And just like in Three Pines, everyone’s constantly eating: cutting into the layers of raspberry cream and rose macaron of Pierre Hermé’s signature pink Ispahan cake; tearing into homemade pain au citron just out of the oven; or picking up fresh croissants from Gamache’s favourite patisserie. Taste (and in another clever detail, scent) help make this installment an armchair travel thriller that engages the senses as well as the soul. — Nathalie Atkinson

>The Weekend by Charlotte Wood

Home Base: Sydney, Australia

Author’s Take: “I wanted to write about long friendships and how they are sustained, or not … to write a book about aging that wasn’t about the past.”

Favourite Line: “Artistic poverty was romantic when you were thirty. It was after fifty that people began despising you for it.”


I am having one of those runs where every book I read is good. Particularly the ones about close relations gathering at an idyllic but claustrophobic setting – Lake Life, Lion’s Den, The House on Fripp Island – where the inescapable togetherness forces them to confront years of festering resentments. At the risk of jinxing my winning streak: The Weekend is the best of them. Jude, Adele, and Wendy, three women in their 70s, reunite over Christmas to dispose of the contents of their recently deceased fourth friend’s beach house.

I felt the pent-up frustration gurgling up from the first page, and immediately you’re inside this intimate friendship circle in all its brutal, irritable and flawed glory. It’s familiar, this way that long-time friends, like family, settle almost against their will into a dynamic of proscribed roles. As they inevitably hash out their differences – because there’s nothing quite like an old friend to tell it like it is – it’s refreshingly unsentimental. The creak and ache of aging bodies and their fragility, for example, is just a reality to be borne. Or the way one of them lives with the constant stress and indignity of precarious finances on a limited pension could have been mawkish, but it’s handled with pragmatism instead of melodrama. Each woman gets a wonderful scene that offers a glimpse of the essential woman she is, a reminder that for all the years and vulnerabilities, she’s still there. The only treacle is the elderly deaf dog Finn and, by the end, even he seems resolved to carry on.—N.A.


>The Ghost in the Houseby Sara O’Leary

Home Base: Montreal

Author’s Take: “I think I may have been inspired by the liberties [Kate Atkinson] takes with reality in Life After Life and also its companion book, A God in Ruins.”

Favourite Line: “I have never been able to shed the memory of my mother surrounded by the bouquets that were delivered to the house after Dad died. Crying and saying, ‘If only we could eat lilies.’”

Review: Fans of the wonderful Alan Rickman and Juliet Stevenson outing Truly, Madly, Deeply will immediately have an idea where this novella is headed: Fay suddenly wakes up one day and finds herself tethered to her Vancouver home, unable to pick up a piece of toast or even smell flowers, perpetually wearing a string of black pearls and her husband’s rumpled white Oxford shirt. O’Leary, also a children’s book author (Maud and Grand-Maud) and screenwriter, gives us a spare, enchanting story about gradually letting go.


The structure is elliptical, as she moves through rooms or notices objects that trigger memories. I was completely absorbed, especially during Fay’s awakening to the fact that things aren’t quite the same. We’re privy to her rueful interior monologue as she’s processing her petty (and spot-on) judgments about her altered surroundings. Her beloved red velvet sofa has been replaced by something beige – in fact everything is the colour of a tasteful and bland smudge.


Next comes her dismay at the realization that her husband Alec has moved on and she’s now an unwelcome guest in her own home. A slew of tiny mischievous poltergeist disruptions aimed at the new lady of the house ensue. (I mean, wouldn’t you?) And she’s trying to suffuse a 13-year-old girl with the will to live even as she’s sitting vigil and grieving for her life. You feel her loneliness acutely and the way it’s resolved is (forgive the pun) haunting. Disquieting and apt for these housebound times. —Nathalie Atkinson

>The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams

Home Base: Adelaide, Australia

Thomas Keneally’s take: “There will not be this year a more original novel published. I just know it,” says the author of Schindler’s List.

Favourite Line: “I used to think it was the other way around, that the misshapen words of the past were clumsy drafts of what they would become; that the words formed on our tongues, in our time were true and complete. But everything that comes after that first utterance is a corruption.”

Review: This historical novel is nominally about how the word ‘bondmaid’ (denoting an enslaved woman) was stolen from the Oxford English Dictionary, but really it’s about how words are precious repositories of meaning, and they can fall short.

In the late 1880s Esme is being raised by her father at the Scriptorium, where he works alongside lexicographer James Murray assembling the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. By paying attention to the word ‘slips’ they find unimportant and discard, she soon notices that the team of scholars and compositors—all men—are compiling a record that reflects their world.

Even as a child, she sees how any words that define women (and that have no male counterpart) tend to be “used to judge or contain.” And she’s aware of their gender and class bias. Words without other textual sources, for example, are omitted and ignore the oral traditions of the illiterate. The uneducated Mabel, a hawker of sticks at the local market, is effectively rendered invisible and is lost to history.

Against a background of suffrage campaigns and through the Great War, Esme begins a parallel repository by collecting and preserving words from the women who gut fish or cut cloth or clean the public toilets. (Of these ‘the morbs’ – a sadness that comes and goes and is a particular burden of women – is especially lovely and poignant.) Hopefully a sequel will further Williams’ excavation of gender and class and extend into race as well. In the meantime, by going into words and turning them inside out to reveal the worlds they contain, I’ll probably think more carefully about the ones I choose myself. —Nathalie Atkinson

>Rabbit Foot Billby Helen Humphreys

Home base: Kingston, Ontario

Authors take: “I liked this idea of trying to save yourself from trauma — which is kind of what the book is about.”

Favourite line: “I can’t explain this feeling of running after Bill under the long, blue prairie sky. It is like he is leading me out of darkness, out of a loneliness I don’t even know I have.”

Review: Based on a true story of a murder that happened in the Saskatchewan town of Canwood in 1947, Humphreys grabs you from the first page with the tender story of a friendship between two misfits: 12-year-old Leonard Flint and Rabbit Foot Bill, a taciturn hermit who lives in a bunker-like cave dug out of a hill on the outskirts of town and does odd jobs in addition to selling the lucky feet from rabbits he snares in the surrounding fields.

Leonard is a social outcast who gets beat up by the other boys because, as one of the girls in his class explains, he’s new and small for his age. In the first pages, Leonard witnesses Bill’s violent crime. His only friend in the world is swiftly tried and jailed; the only tangible mementos of their relationship are the six rabbit feet given to him by Bill.

In the aftermath and for many years later, even after he becomes a psychiatrist because he wants to help people like Bill, Leonard struggles to understand why the man meant so much to him and why he committed such a terrible crime.

Humphreys reveals the answer slowly, as Leonard seeks the key to the friendship through therapy sessions with an understanding colleague. The author paints a heart-rending picture of the notorious Weyburn Mental Hospital in Saskatchewan, where Leonard gets a job right out of university after a professor convinces him it would be good for his career to be part of its cutting-edge experimental approaches to mental health. Meanwhile Leonard wonders what he is doing there after he is roped into research, taking LSD with other doctors to gain insight into schizophrenia, and witnessing experiments on some of the 1,800 patients.

After he is reunited with Bill, the story builds to a stunning climax that includes a couple of surprising twists and a happy, but bittersweet, ending. — Kim Honey

>Beach Read by Emily Henry

Home base: Cincinnati, Ohio

Authors take: “It’s about a disillusioned romance author and a literary fiction writer who make a deal to swap genres for the summer.”

Favourite line: “Mom’s first diagnosis taught me that love was an escape rope, but it was her second diagnosis that taught me love could be a life vest when you were drowning.”

Review: I’m a sucker for any summer book with a pool or beach on the cover and Beach Read explains why. It’s meta, in that it plays out satisfying romantic tropes even as the characters discuss and dissect them. Their meet-cute and subsequent misunderstandings, for example, are straight out of Pride and Prejudice — only it’s between an esteemed Franzen-esque literary fiction writer named Gus and January, a bestselling writer of so-called chick lit. (Naturally, they embody the tension between high-brow and genre novels.)

Revelations about her parents’ idyllic marriage after her father’s unexpected death undermine everything January held true — including the unwavering belief in happily-ever-after that has fuelled her career. So, newly single and cash-strapped, she retreats to the Michigan holiday town where her father secretly kept a cottage (and secret life) to work through writer’s block while the clock ticks on her next novel deadline. Her self-deprecating inner monologue may be peppered with glib pop-culture references, but that’s balanced by a poignant second plot about how much you can ever know your parents.

Gus and January’s banter — about everything from the best venue for a good first-date montage to sexism in the literary canon — gets all the beats right, and the way Henry teases out the chemistry between the pair is seriously sexy, even when they’re arguing about how female writers are considered lesser-than and get relegated to ‘the second shelf’ for writing about relationships and the interior lives of women. (Paging Alice Munro!) Smart, funny, and moving — as irresistible as watching your favourite 1990s rom-com for the nth time. — Nathalie Atkinson

>The Girl From Widow Hillsby Megan Miranda

Home base: North Carolina

Author’s Take: “One of the themes I’m very interested in is whether you can ever become somebody new or if the past ultimately catches up with you.”

Favourite Line: “The case made all of us, and then it unmade us.”

Review: Arden Maynor has been running from her past ever since she made national headlines as a living miracle. When she was six, Arden was sleepwalking in a torrential downpour when she was swept into a system of underground pipes in the small town of Widow Hills, Ky. As the search continued into its third day, a passerby named Sean Coleman found her clinging to a grate, and the whole town rejoiced. Her mother wrote a book, and they eventually moved from the town to escape the media attention that was renewed as each anniversary passed.

The book opens as Arden — who has changed her name to Olivia Meyer and works at a hospital as a health-care manager — receives a box of her estranged mother’s meagre belongings in the mail after discovering she had died seven months earlier of a drug overdose, and the body has just been identified. A dark chapter of her life is closed for good — or so Arden thinks until she starts sleepwalking again and stumbles over a body in the yard of her rural home in the middle of the night. It is none other than Coleman, the man who rescued her 20 years before.

Miranda’s masterful psychological thriller is full of twists and turns, and what seem like red herrings all swim in one direction to a chilling climax. That’s the reason The Girl from Widow Hills is on the bestseller lists and why the author’s previous book, The Last House Guest, was an instant bestseller, too. Creepy, menacing and fast-paced, Miranda keeps the reader guessing “Whodunit?” — Kim Honey

>Blue Ticket by Sophie Mackintosh

Home base: London

Author’s take: “It’s kind of a road trip novel. It’s kind of a pregnancy novel. It’s full of old hotels, strange doctors, uncanny landscapes and longing.”

Favourite line: “The white-ticket women would never accept me. It was lonely to feel like that, a true loneliness. I wanted someone to be happy for me. There was not one person who would be.”

Review: What if women can’t have it all? In this strange unnamed state, the minute girls get their periods, they are dressed in their finest and driven to a government lottery station, where they draw either a white ticket — which consigns them to life as a mother — or a blue ticket, like Calla, which means they get a career. “Blue ticket: I was not motherly,” Calla thinks. “It had been judged that it wasn’t for me by someone who knew better than I did.”

As with any blue-or-white decision, there is a grey area. And therein lies the twisted tale about a sinister patriarchal society and its subjugation of a woman’s free will and self-determination.

Calla gets an IUD, a bottle of water, a sandwich and a compass; in a bizarre initiation ritual, she is told to set out alone, on foot, for “anywhere but here.”

Once she gets to a city, she decides on a career as a chemist in a lab. Like all blue tickets, she is monitored at weekly appointments by Dr. A, who probes every inch of her body and every crevice of her mind.

There’s lots of hard partying and sexual liaisons, some with a violent bent, but the men Calla meets eventually pair off with white tickets and settle down to raise children. And when those men venture out with the baby in prams, strangers bow and scrape like they gave birth themselves and proffer money and gifts.

When Calla ditches the IUD and gets pregnant, Dr. A gives her two choices: have an abortion or run. She decides to head for the border, where the neighbouring country doesn’t care if you have children and a career. A wild road trip ensues that has much to say about motherhood and the deep divide between haves and have-nots. It is both heart-warming and heart-rending, with a surprise twist at the end that will haunt you for days. — Kim Honey

>Midnight Atlantaby Thomas Mullen

Home base: Atlanta

Stephen King’s take: “A brilliant blending of crime, mystery and American history.”

Favourite line: “They criminalized your body first and expected your mind to follow.”

Review: Unabashedly racist cops, media bias, racial inequities, police brutality — Midnight Atlanta is a historical mystery novel. (Really.) The third instalment in Mullen’s acclaimed Darktown series follows Atlanta’s segregated police force through changing times. It’s now 1956, and a young Black man is on trial, accused of the rape of a white woman. The Black daily newspaper’s editor-in-chief runs a controversial editorial exposing the truth and is shot dead. Now Smith, a Black combat veteran and ex-cop-turned-reporter, is investigating how it’s all tangled up in the segregationist politics of a new housing development that will raze the city’s historically Black neighbourhood.

Although Mullen’s fictional newspaper milieu and characters are invented, the urgency of real events throbs in the background and becomes integral to the story. Tensions are rising in the community due to the ongoing bus boycott in nearby Montgomery, where young Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. is agitating for change. Look magazine has just published the now-infamous confession of the white men acquitted of the brutal murder of innocent Black teenager Emmett Till. In the midst of this tumult, the murderers’ brazen admission shocks some and emboldens others. What became a defining moment of post-war American history gives Mullen the opportunity to explore white news bias, the relationship between police and media and the role of the Black press during the Civil Rights movement up close and personally. Smith’s frenemy Joe McInnis, for example, is the lone white sergeant in the Black precinct. And as he navigates the tricky racial politics of the Jim Crow South, he’s a character study in the evolution and shortcomings of white ally-ship. It’s a historical mystery novel, but Midnight Atlanta is also about what’s happening this very minute. — Nathalie Atkinson

>Blacktop Wastelandby S.A. Cosby

Home base: Southeastern Virginia
Lee Child’s take: “Sensationally good—new, fresh, real, authentic, twisty, with characters and dilemmas that will break your heart.”
Favourite line: “The bass from the sound system in a nearby Chevelle was hitting him in his chest so hard, it felt like someone was performing CPR on him.”
Review: The buzz book of the season opens with a breathless drag race between classic muscle cars. Mechanic Beauregard (Bug) Montage, a former getaway-car driver, is hustling for some cash using the unassuming but souped-up Duster inherited from his criminal father, who’s long gone. That’s not all his daddy left him. Bug likewise lives to be behind the wheel. He also loves his family. And while he’s worked hard to move on from a life of crime, he also loves the adrenaline rush. While struggling to keep his precarious but legit garage business, let alone pay for one kid’s dental work and another’s college tuition, he’s barely treading water until an old associate comes along with an easy pay day on a foolproof job. (Famous last words.)
Although the car chase sequences had me reaching for my seat belt, the diamond heist is almost the least of it. That’s not where the novel’s interest lies – at the complicated crossroads of crime and survival. This Southern noir is set in 2012, under a Black president but in a rural Black America where Confederate flags still proudly wave. Cosby calls the area a blacktop wasteland haunted by the phantoms of the past, and the ghosts he explores are many: love, abandonment, racism and the legacy of intergenerational poverty. It’s an intense, thrilling and often violent read and almost unrelentingly grim. But it throbs with hard truths about the impossible choices made for a better life. — Nathalie Atkinson


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