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When there are too many books and not enough time, check our list of novels that captured our attention and imagination / BY Kim Honey / March 11th, 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. 

1The Rose CodeKate Quinn

 

Home Base: San Diego, Calif.

Author’s take: “In addition to a story about code breaking, it’s a story of female friendship.”

Favourite line: “It’s the biggest bloody lunatic asylum in Britain.”

Review: The Alice Network author returns to the Second World War, but hops across the channel from France to Bletchley Park in the English countryside, a stately manor converted into an ultra secret hideout where the British government employed some of the country’s finest minds to decrypt encoded German messages. Although mathematician Alan Turing makes a brief appearance, the story centres on the women of BP, who made up almost three quarters of some 9,000 staff who analyzed, translated, typed and filed the enemy’s messages at the height of the war.

Specifically, it is about three young women from different stations in life who are thrown together at Bletchley: Canadian-born, British debutante Osla Kendall, whose finishing-school German lands her a job as a translator; London shop girl Mab Churt, who is recruited to work the code-breaking machine because she was tall enough to reach the top; and spinster Beth Finch, a fiendishly clever crossword-puzzle solver who was stuck at home looking after her abusive mother until the other two girls get her a job cracking codes at Bletchley.

The novel toggles between 1939 and 1947, as Quinn details two very different worlds: The war-time one, where women find purpose in life-saving work, and the post-war reality, where they are consigned to a life of domestic drudgery at home or clerkdom at work. What’s worse, they’re bound by the Official Secrets Act, so they can’t tell anyone what they did during the war, erasing the most meaningful times of their lives.

Prince Philip is a key character in the book, as Osla is introduced to the dashing naval officer at the start of the war and they begin a romance that continues until one Princess Elizabeth gets her hooks in him. It’s all the more intriguing as Osla is based on a real person, a Montreal-born blueblood named Osla Benning, who really was Lord Louis Mountbatten’s goddaughter and really did date Prince Philip.

This being a Kate Quinn novel, there are spies and subterfuge, not to mention all the horrors of war. Very early in the book, Beth sends a cipher to her friends from a mental institution where she is locked up against her will. How it happened, who committed her and why is the central mystery, and Mab and Osla reunite in a desperate bid to free Beth days before her brilliant mind is scheduled to be butchered in a lobotomy. Before Beth’s name is cleared, she must decipher one more enigmatic message.

 

 


2Our Darkest NightJennifer Robson

Home Base: Toronto

Author’s Take: “There are some dark moments, but I promise this book will not ruin your day.”

Favourite Line: “She recognized the look in his eyes. She had seen it on her father’s face more than a year ago, and she knew it was written across her own features now. The death of hope.”

Review: Jennifer Robson’s sixth historical novel is a departure from her previous books – including 2018’s The Gown – set in England or France. This time she takes us to German-occupied Italy, first to Venice in 1942 and then to a farm about 80 kilometres northwest where the residents of a tiny village are hiding Jews in their homes.

The book is based on a true story: Robson’s husband Claudio’s family comes from a village in the Veneto region called San Zenone degli Ezzelini, where a Catholic parish priest named Father Oddo Stocco relied on parishioners to hide more than 50 Jewish people in danger of being deported and worked to death or murdered in camps. On a visit to the village in 2016, Claudio’s aunt told them her parents harboured at least three families on their farm, a fact Robson could never verify but believes to be true.

In Our Darkest Night, the same story unfolds from the point of view of Antonina Mazin, the daughter of a Venetian doctor who befriends a country parish priest named Father Bernardi. After German troops occupy Italy and arrests and deportations of Jewish citizens are imminent, her father arranges for his daughter to leave the Jewish Ghetto and go to Father Bernardi’s town with a young resident named Nico Gerardi. She is to pretend to be his wife, that way she can hide in plain sight. When she leaves the only home she has ever known, she loses her name – she changes it to a more Gentile-sounding Nina Marzoli – and her identity.

The trip to the fictional town of Mezzo Ciel by mule is exhausting, work on the family farm is arduous for a city girl, and Nico’s sister Rosa is far from welcoming. Nico leaves for long stretches and it becomes evident he is helping Father Bernardi rescue more people from the Holocaust; many Jews arrested in Italy were sent to the gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland.

Not only does Nina have to sleep in the same bed as Nico, she must attend Mass and, when a local Nazi official questions her, pretend her parents are dead and she was raised in an orphanage. That Nazi officer comes back to haunt both Nina and Nico, and the dramatic events that unfold include murder, a riot and hectares of heartbreak, but ultimately the war ends and love triumphs. As Robson said in an interview, the novel reveals “the points of light in the darkness.”

 


3The Devil and the Dark WaterStuart Turton

Home Base: London

Author’s Take: “A bit of spooky Sherlock on a boat.”

Favourite line: “Somebody’s trying to sink this ship and I swim like a bag of rocks.”

Review: From the minute a leper curses the Sardaam before dying in a blaze of self-immolation on the wharf, you know this eight-month-long voyage from Batavia – in present-day Indonesia – to Amsterdam is doomed. It is the 1600s, and, as the author notes in the foreword, if pirates don’t overtake the merchant vessel, the sea is more than ready to swallow it whole. Add a demon into the mix and all hell breaks loose. What is this mysterious cargo called the Folly that the governor insists on shipping back to Holland and who is Old Tom, the apparition that terrorizes the pride of the United East India Company fleet?

Seems like a classic whodunit, but in a Stuart Turton book, there is always a puzzle within a puzzle within a puzzle. To add to the disorder, the man who can solve it, “alchemical detective” Sammy Pipps, has been accused of an unnamed crime and locked in a dank holding cell far from the action. His henchman, Arent Hayes, steps up with the help of the governor’s wife, Sara Wessel, who was forced to marry a man she abhors. Sara and her daughter, an engineering savant, are key to figuring out the Folly, and are among a cast of suspects who have motive and opportunity to commit some gruesome crimes.

 


4AgathaAnne Cathrine Bomann

Home Base: Copenhagen

Author’s Take: “It is a story about a lonely man who is saved from his own meaningless existence when he realises that he needs to relate to other people.”

Favourite Line: “Many years’ training helped me murmur in the right places without actually listening, and if I was lucky I wouldn’t have registered a single word before she left the room.”

Review: This slim debut novel by a Danish psychologist is an utter delight for anyone who has ever been a therapist or patient. Set in 1948 Paris, we meet a 71-year-old psychiatrist who is counting down the days – and sessions ­– until his retirement in five months. “Six hundred and eighty-eight conversations left,” he says at the end of the fourth chapter. “Just then it felt like six hundred and eighty-eight too many.”

The unnamed protagonist is living a life of existential ennui and has no friends or family. He can’t wait until retirement, but wonders if “life outside these walls is just a pointless as it was inside,” and if his post-career existence will be as mundane as that of the patients he can’t stand.

Enter Agatha, a German woman who barges her way into his schedule despite his insistence he can’t take on a new patient so close to the end of his working life. She smells of apples and cinnamon, a scent that reminds him of his childhood, and as she awakens in him a joy for life – and love – he begins a transformation.

The book is by turns poignant, funny and sad, as the doctor contemplates the twilight of his life and realizes he’s spent innumerable hours helping patients with their dark thoughts, but has never considered his own unhappiness.

First published in Denmark in 2017, Agatha went on to be a bestseller in Europe after it was translated into English. The French edition was published in Canada in 2019, while the English translation came out last year. It’s a contemplative tome that answers the age-old question: Is that all there is?

 


5Confessions on the 7:45Lisa Unger

Home Base: Clearwater, Fla.

Author’s Take: “People have a deep and abiding desire, a need even, to understand themselves and those around them. This includes having some insight into the darkest aspects of human nature.”

Favourite Line: “Marriage. Was there ever anything more set up to fail, to disappoint, to erode?”

Review: Selena Murphy is a harried, working mom of two whose commuter train is stalled on the tracks when a beautiful stranger pulls airplane-sized bottles of vodka from her purse and confesses she’s having an affair with her boss. Selena, who has just watched baby-cam footage of her unemployed husband having sex with the nanny in the kids’ playroom, discloses his infidelity. They part, and Selena, embarrassed by her indiscretion and unsettled by Martha’s tirade about how men are all flawed and broken, hopes never to see her again.

Then the nanny goes missing, Selena’s husband is a suspect in her disappearance and, of course, Martha reappears. The intertwined stories of Selena and Martha unfurl in parallel, interspersed with chapters told from the point of view of the nanny, a retired detective who is haunted by an unsolved murder and even one of Selena’s children.

This is a psychological thriller par excellence and Unger knows how to write a curve ball, with many plot turns to keep the reader guessing. It is also a meditation on marriage, family and motherhood, and the concessions women make to live their lives according to society’s often-unrealistic expectations.


6The Butterfly House Katrine Engberg

Home Base: Copenhagen

Author’s Take: “Living is a tough business, and it doesn’t take much of a push to tip the scale and plummet to the bottom.”

Favourite Line: “Dealing with a dead woman in a fountain wasn’t exactly how he imagined spending his day.”

Review: My notes on this book range from “so many possible killers” to “he’s the killer, 100 per cent” to “is this the murderer?” That pretty much sums up Engberg’s second novel featuring Copenhagen homicide investigators Jepper Korner and Anette Werner, even though, at the beginning of the book, Werner is at home on mat leave with a two-month-old baby and postpartum depression.

Engberg has said the medieval Danish city is a character in her books, and true to form, The Butterfly House opens with a naked female corpse floating face down in the capital’s oldest fountain, smack dab in the middle of Old Market Square. Korner and his crime scene technician notice a series of parallel cuts on both wrists, but there’s no blood in the water.

This Nordic noir thriller sets a brisk pace, introducing a web of characters and possible suspects, including a nurse with borderline personality disorder, a teenager with Asperger’s and schizophrenia, a young homeless woman who orphaned at 11 when her mother was committed to a mental institution and a renowned psychiatrist who knew the dead woman.

In three days there are three bodies, all women, all drained of blood and all with strange cuts on both wrists.  To say much more would give too much away, but I will say Engberg explores the shortcomings of the much-lauded Danish health-care system as well as her characters mental-health struggles with a deft touch. There’s menace and mystery galore as the police search for a cargo bike and an unusual murder weapon.

 

 


7The Girls Are All So Nice HereLaurie Elizabeth Flynn

Home Base: London, Ont.

Author’s Take: “A darker, more disturbing Mean Girls meets I Know What You Did Last Summer, set on a college campus.”

Favourite Line: “She talked about boys like they were toys. But her favourite playthings were the girls.”

Review: The first contemporary adult novel by this YA author is a psychological thriller set on the Connecticut campus of Wesleyan University, a private, liberal arts school where the girls are way more hip and worldly than Ambrosia Wellington, who wants to bury her New Jersey roots, and pronto. When Ambrosia locks eyes on Sloane Sullivan – known as Sully – she is captivated, and nothing, not even her perfect, blonde roommate Flora, can break their toxic, co-dependent bond. Sully brings out the worst in Amb and their drug- and alcohol-fuelled campus sexploits are legendary.

When Amb opens what she thinks is an invitation to her 10-year Wesleyan reunion, she gets a hand-written entreaty in neat calligraphy instead: “You need to come. We need to talk about that night.” The reader has no idea who sent it or what it refers to, but it leaves Amb an anxious mess.

Her freshman year and the reunion unspool in alternating “then” and “now” chapters that reveal, little by little, Sully and Amb’s twisted mind games and the events leading up to the catastrophic night that results in their women’s residence being nicknamed Dorm Doom.

Someone is seeking revenge, and the guilt Amb has been carrying around for a decade ensnares her in their web of destruction. What really went down that night isn’t revealed until the very end, and by then it’s far too late for confessions let alone redemption.


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