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Don't know what to read next? Here are the books we couldn't put down / BY Zoomer / January 18th, 2021


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. 

1Homeland ElegiesAyad Akhtar

Home Base: New York, NY
Author’s Take: “I wrote an overture that was using some facts of my life but that was also twisting some things to make points.”
Favourite Line: “I was feeling hopeful and defenseless — hopeful with my longing to speak even just a hint of what I was feeling for her that morning; defenseless from a growing sense that, in fact, she’d already picked up on something new in me, something needy and pleading, and was now plotting her escape from it.”

Review: What makes Homeland Elegies such a satisfying read is the unabashed virtuosity of its author, Ayad Akhtar. The fictional narrator of this book bears his name and is, like Akhtar himself, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and the son of Pakistani immigrants.
Akhtar treats us to a series of life stories that consider “home” from the point of view of a Pakistani-American, born on Staten Island and raised in Milwaukee. Brilliantly, he opens with his cardiologist father’s infatuation with Donald Trump, a one-time patient who watches over the doctor’s shoulder as he loses $5,000 in 10 minutes gambling in Atlantic City. That promise, of magical enrichment stirred with inherent risk and disappointment, shapes this excellent novel.
The stories are made more interesting by the beautiful vulnerability put on display. Here’s Ayad, wearing his mother’s mittens to hide symptoms of syphilis as he sits by her sick bed at home. There he is, post-Pulitzer, enjoying the considerable favours of a mega-rich Muslim friend he knows has more than a passing interest in him. Ayad takes us to a hospital line-up in New York on 9/11, through a love affair with a woman who makes no secret she’s maintaining a boyfriend, and then back to the casino where his father is losing and losing and losing.
Our protagonist tells us his success began only after he decided to stop trying to feel American — only he never stops trying. Revealing the heights of his ambition, Akhtar weaves in shout-outs to Saul Bellow, Salman Rushdie and Toni Morrison. What writer, real or fictional, would risk putting himself in the midst of such lauded company? Talk about gambling! Akhtar holds his own and we win. – Sarah Withrow


2One Night Two Souls Went Walking Ellen Cooney

Home Base: Phippsburg Peninsula, Maine
Author’s Take: “Overall I wanted to tell about things that are intangible, invisibly present, more fragile than we realize.”
Favourite Line: “I believe in expecting light, even when it feels like a lie, because the eyes of souls see what plain old eyes do not.”
Review: This elliptical story about the revelatory possibilities of compassion and moments of grace was a balm for me. It follows a hospital chaplain as she makes her rounds and, over the course of one particularly long night shift, experiences an acute crisis of faith. This happens even as she goes about her ministrations and we encounter the sick and dying with her: a trailblazing elderly Black librarian, the hospital therapy dogs (one of whom is a ghost), and a young golf pro. The chaplain, an inquisitive child who read the Arabian Nights stories because she was curious about the spiritual and emotional care of souls, wanted to become a priest. Now 36, the job is taking a toll and she finds herself feeling, “upside down and inside out, with the drag inside me of a profound sort of jet lag that felt it would never leave me.” Her inner monologue is recounted with directness and simplicity, and although One Night is hushed and quiet, the emotional honesty is powerful. Cooney previously taught creative writing at Boston College, Northeastern and Radcliffe, and is the daughter of a nurse. She worked as a teen in the local hospital and, as the mother of a special-needs child, she also spent a lot of time in the medical system. There’s solace in observing the contours of the story of a crucial but often unheralded form of work: caring. – Nathalie Atkinson


3The See-Through HouseShelley Klein

Home Base: London, England
Author’s Take: “The See-Through House was constructed not of bricks, nor of mortar, nor of wood, nor even of glass. It was built entirely out of who my father was.”
Favourite Line: “After my mother died, I recall friends asking what it was like, as if I were a traveller exploring debatable lands.”
Review: As we find ourselves missing loved ones past and present, no two books rendered the complicated and bewildering experience of bereavement more fulsomely than Maggie O’Farrell’s lyrical Hamnet (about the death of William Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway’s young son) and the poignant simplicity of The See-Through House. I loved this book because Klein combines a memoir about the many stages and aspects of letting go with the history of mid-century design and the specific trappings of her Sixties childhood. She does this while exploring the strong personalities of her famous parents, textile designer Bernat Klein, known as Beri, who was born in what was then Yugoslavia and lost his mother at Auschwitz, and knitwear designer Margaret “Peggy” Klein, who supplied fabrics to Dior, Cardin, Chanel and Saint Laurent.
The author grew up at High Sunderland, the family’s modernist home in the Scottish Borders, which was designed as a masterpiece of minimalism by architect Peter Womersley with a stark series of open, interconnected boxes, a Mondrian-style exterior and expansive glass walls. (“I wanted doors I could slam,” Klein remembers of her teenage years). Her memoir is similarly organized like a floor plan, an emotional journey that retraces their complicated relationships room by room and explores bereavement as well as the psychology of design. The dutiful daughter returned to Scotland in her 50s after her mother’s death to look after her father, and when he died in 2014 she spent three years in the house before finally selling it to new owners. The memoir contains many wondrous passages about grief, but it’s tender and funny too, and it’s one of my personal favourites of 2020. – Nathalie Atkinson


4The Mystery of Mrs. ChristieMarie Benedict

Home Base: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Author’s Take: “When I started to research the circumstances and history around her 1926 disappearance, I had the uncanny sense that it played a key role in her journey to becoming the most successful writer in the world, and I felt compelled to explore that idea.”

Favourite Line: “How do you want this story to end?”

Review: What did she know and when did she know it? These questions about her husband’s infidelities hover over this historical novel about Agatha Christie’s mysterious 11-day disappearance (still unexplained to this day), which examines the personal rivalries and societal demands in an era when career ambition and the duties of motherhood were at odds. Christie famously went missing in December 1926 near the end of her first marriage to golf-mad cad Archie. The story spans 15 years, beginning with the couple’s courtship in 1912 before the First World War, and then toggles between various timelines. The early happy years are juxtaposed with a manuscript-in-progress during the later years when it was crumbling and the days surrounding Christie’s disappearance and ensuing manhunt. And it does this while playing with the idea of the unreliable narrator in chapters alternating between Archie and Agatha’s points of view.

We know how it ends: After leaving her seven-year-old daughter behind with her governess, the writer was later located at a hotel, registered under the name of her husband’s mistress. We just don’t know why.

Writing under nom de plume Marie Benedict, author Heather Terrell is a former lawyer who says she has found her calling unearthing the hidden stories of women, which includes her acclaimed historical novel Clementine about Mrs. Winston Churchill. Here the writer takes an entertaining run at a theory informed by contemporary domestic thrillers in a story that (especially for fans of Christie) is chock full of Easter eggs and references to her works. It also underscores the ways in which the golden age novelist was an adventuresome soul: she was one of the first Brits to learn how to surf; in 1922, she went on a nearly year-long tour of Commonwealth countries as part of a trade mission (including a stop in Canada); and she later spent much time abroad on digs with her second husband, archeologist Max Mallowan. It’s both wholly imagined and — given what we know about the Queen of Crime — also entirely plausible. – Nathalie Atkinson


5Jeeves and the Leap of Faith Ben Schott

Home Base: New York and London

Author’s Take: “I didn’t’t want to write parody; I wanted to write in parallel.”

Favourite Line: “No valet should be a hero to his man.”

Review: Sometimes you need pure fun, and for me that time is now. Enter know-it-all Ben Schott, he of the bestselling Schotts Miscellanies and Almanac series, and the unadulterated pleasure of this sequel to Jeeves and the King of Clubs. Authorized by the P.G. Wodehouse estate, the novel follows the further misadventures of guileless Bertie Wooster (whose Machiavellian ambitions far outstrip his ability) as he is inevitably extricated, with great intricacy, from social peril by his genius butler Jeeves. As before, Schott ups the stakes of Wodehouse’s sublime comic-fiction premise and posits that the Junior Ganymede club — the association of England’s finest valets, butlers, and Gentlemen’s Personal Gentlemen — is in fact an elite division of the British secret service.

That the action takes place in the private gambling rooms of the Newmarket races and colleges of Cambridge University makes readers privy to these closed worlds and their often bizarre inner workings, populated by eccentrics. Familiar original characters like Aunt Agatha, the formidable nephew-crusher, newt-loving fool Gussie Fink-Nottle, and Roderick Spode and his ‘Black Short’ goons (based on British fascist Oswald Mosley) make up the caper’s supporting cast alongside new ones, such as Lord MacAuslan and his intrepid niece Iona. The light-hearted fare satirizes the ridiculous antics and general silliness of the witless and self-absorbed upper classes, but being set in the 1930s doesn’t preclude few pointed jabs at contemporary Trumpism and Brexit culture. The somersaulting turns of phrase, Wodehousian vocabulary, and even cryptic crossword clues add up to ingeniously crafted frivolity. It also inspired me to dust off the complete and definitive Jeeves & Wooster television adaptations featuring Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, which are as much an unadulterated pleasure as they were when they debuted 30 years ago. Between the book and the box set I’ve been giggling, chortling, and smiling a lot — it’s the most I’ve laughed in months. – Nathalie Atkinson


6Impurity Larry Tremblay

Home Base: Montreal, Quebec

Author’s Take: “It speaks of the fragility of being, the loss of illusions, manipulation, revenge, and also the power of literature.”

Favourite Line: “Words are never innocent. They mask the secret intentions that guide the reader, call up pictures for her, awaken desires, create needs.”

Review: This literary mystery set in Quebec the late 1990s is a slim book that kept me guessing to the very end. College philosophy professor Antoine is recently widowed. His late wife was the acclaimed novelist Alice Livingston, who died in a winter car accident just after she delivered her latest manuscript. Antoine thinks of himself as literary, so he has always been disdainful of her bestsellers (despite never having read any), because he considers commercial fiction middlebrow. “His wife’s novels exploit the banality of feelings, the well-oiled delicate machinery of minor dramas.” (To give you an idea: he’s also dismissive because she chose both her pseudonym and the name of their son, Jonathan, as a reference to popular Seventies seagull creator Richard Bach.) It’s now the summer of 1999 and Antoine is lethargic, estranged from his son, and obsessed with the news coverage of the John F. Kennedy, Jr. plane crash.

A journalist doing a profile of Alice for the imminent publication of her final novel sets the events in motion. Impurity’s timeline revisits their salad days at university in Chicoutimi circa 1970, reading Sartre and de Beauvoir, conducting existential experiments and writing elaborate love letters, and it suggests where the death of an old school friend fits into their relationship and the present-day story. This slippery novel is of a piece with the challenging and innovative work of award-winning Quebecois novelist and playwright Michel Tremblay. It has the structure of a Russian nesting doll in that it contains a book within a book, not unlike Anthony Horowitz’s The Moonflower Murders or The Readers’ Room by Antoine Laurain, and is an entertainingly disorienting three-dimensional puzzle. – Nathalie Atkinson

 

 


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