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The Zed A-List

From a thriller on a plane by a former flight attendant to Irish talk-show host Graham Norton’s latest novel, here are the books we couldn't put down. / BY Kim Honey / May 26th, 2021


To take the guesswork out of your next selection, here are the books Zoomer editors and writers have read, loved and heartily endorse.

 

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. 

1Falling T.J. Newman

Home Base: Phoenix, Ariz

Author’s Take: “I have this thought, that all of our lives are in the hands of the pilots flying the plane. With that much power and responsibility, how vulnerable does that make the pilots?”

Favourite Line: “When the shoe dropped into her lap, the foot was still in it.”

Review: This debut thriller written by a former flight attendant has been described as “Jaws at 35,000 feet,” and even if you’re not afraid of flying, you’ll want to buckle up for this ride. Newman wrote most of it on red-eye flights while her passengers were asleep, sometimes jotting notes on cocktail napkins.

Minutes after long-time commercial pilot Bill Hoffman leaves his house in a Los Angeles suburb, an internet technician named Sam pulls a gun on Bill’s wife, Carrie. Oblivious to the drama unfolding at home, Bill passes through security and takes his seat in the cockpit with his first officer, Ben, for a flight to New York. The minute they’ve levelled off and the autopilot is on, Bill receives a text from Carrie with a picture attachment. He sees his wife and son at home in the living room, wearing black hoods, and Carrie has a vest filled with explosives strapped to her body. When he answers a FaceTime call, he sees Sam, wearing a similar vest with a detonator in his hand, and hears his baby, Elise, wailing in the background. Bill is given an ultimatum: crash the plane or his family will die. If he tells anyone, the family is dead. Sam has a backup on the plane, so if the unidentified co-conspirator sees anything amiss, Sam will immediately kill Elise, Scott and Carrie. Oh, and Bill’s supposed to murder his co-pilot and throw a canister of poison gas into the cabin before he crashes.

This is not a spoiler, since this all takes place in the first 29 pages. You would think all this high drama at the beginning would require a plodding backstory, but Newman hits higher and higher notes as the plot soars. She has to weave in the cabin crew – co-pilot Ben, experienced flight attendants Jo and Big Daddy, the trainee, Kellie – as well as the 144 “souls on board,” one of whom is in cahoots with the terrorist on the ground.

The first-time author explains who Sam is and why he wants Bill to crash the plane in increments as she dials up the tension by layering on twists as tight as corkscrews.

There’s some high-minded passages where Newman explains a flight attendant’s main duty is the safety of passengers and not the operation of the bar cart, but then again there’s some intriguing information about planes, like the bulletproof, Kevlar doors installed on cockpits after 9/11 that can only be opened from the outside with a secret, six-numeral code, only to be used in the event that both pilots are unconscious or incapacitated. I had never thought about a pilot-less plane before, but now that I know there is a contingency plan for this scenario, I can’t get it out of my head. Just like Falling.

 


2Home StretchGraham Norton

Home Base: London

Author’s Take: “Irish books are so often about leaving, or about going back, or about staying.”

Favourite Line: “He didn’t like being called a paddy, but far more than that he didn’t want to stop looking at this beautiful man.”

Review: You may know the author as a judge on RuPaul’s Drag Race UK, host of the Eurovision Song Contest, or more likely than not you’ve seen one of the myriad YouTube videos of famous people having a ball on the BBC TV’s The Graham Norton Show.

The talk show host is also an accomplished author, and Home Stretch – his riveting third novel – is set in 1987 in the small, fictional, Irish town of Mullinmore. It opens with a horrific car crash that kills a 23-year-old groom, the bride to be and her bridesmaid the day before the wedding. Only three of six friends, who spent the day at the seaside, survive: The bridesmaid’s sister, who is in hospital in a coma, and the two boys who walk away from the accident: Connor Hayes, the driver, and Martin Coulter, the doctor’s son, who leaves for university soon after. “From the tangled wreck only Connor was still in Mullinmore,” Norton writes.

Like Connor, the 58-year-old author grew up in a small Irish town, and left as a young man to seek his fortune. Connor reluctantly leaves Mullimore after he and his family are shunned when gets a two-year suspended sentence and no jail time for his role in the accident, and the town is riven by blame and shame.

Norton, who always knew he was gay, landed in San Francisco; the reader has no hint about Connor’s sexuality (he has a Madonna poster on his bedroom wall) until he moves to Liverpool to work in construction and is besotted by a handsome Brit named Matt.

Though the story is about emigration and return, as Connor makes his way to London and eventually settles in New York, it is also a commentary on Irish society in the late 80s. An Irish co-worker physically throws Connor out of their Liverpool boarding house after Connor dares mention he saw him at a gay bar; Connor’s parents are so homophobic that every time he thinks about writing them, or going home, he shuts the idea down. “Would his parents be able to love this Connor? He decides that they wouldn’t or couldn’t. He knew what they thought of men like him.”

After a chance encounter in a New York bar with a man from Mullinmore, Connor decides to go home even though he hasn’t spoken to his parents or sister since he left for Liverpool. Back in Mullinmore, the author reveals an evil, twisty backstory about the seaside trip and the accident, elevating the book to a sinister level. Norton’s deft portrayal of the depths of despair, family ties and the meaning of home will rivet the reader.

 

 


3The Siren Katherine St. John

Home Base: Los Angeles, Calif.

Author’s Take: “An incredible amount of teamwork goes into creating a film and, depending on the people involved, a set can be a dream or a nightmare.”

Favourite Line: “I was a girl like her not that long ago: hot without caveat.”

Review: A washed-up, pill-popping, alcoholic actress named Stella, her nubile young assistant, Tiffany, and Taylor, a producer who has been drummed out of Hollywood, all jump at the chance to make a film with movie star Cole Power, who has been named Hollywood’s Sexiest Man – twice.

No one understands why Cole has hired Stella, his estranged ex-wife, to star opposite him in The Siren, why he’s spending $3 million of his own money to make the low-budget thriller, or why he hired his son, recent film graduate Jackson Power, to write and direct it.

All the reader knows at the outset is that Cole has insisted on shooting the movie on the fictional Caribbean island of Saint Genesius, at the exclusive resort he bought years ago after shooting one of his famous Gentlemen Gangster movies there.

Now a storm is brewing, in more ways than one. St. John has said the story is about three female characters that make erroneous assumptions about each other, but the plot has as many undertows as the ocean outside the luxe suites. Suffice to say, appearances may be everything, but they are most definitely deceiving here. The denouement crescendos as a hurricane bears down on the island, and not everyone makes it out of this Cole Power production alive.


4Lucky Marissa Stapley

Home Base: Toronto

Author’s Take: “A grifter with a heart of gold and a winning lottery ticket.”

Favourite Line: “Someone had left a baby outside the nunnery.”

Review: This rollicking road-trip novel begins with the titular heroine landing in Las Vegas with her boyfriend Cary, both fraudsters of the highest order, who are on the run after bilking seniors and stashing the money offshore.

When Carey disappears along with their ill-gained fortune, Lucky’s numbers come up in a lottery, but she can’t claim the prize and risk being identified as the police are on her trail. With Lucky’s traumatic childhood revealed in flashbacks, it’s no wonder the TV rights were sold to Disney with Stapley tapped to write the pilot.

 


5New Girl in Little Cove Damhnait Monaghan

Home Base: England

Author Kate Hilton’s Take: “If you loved Come From Away, don’t miss this charming debut novel.”

Favourite Line: “I’m so hungry I could gnaw the leg off the lamb of god.”

Review: If you’ve ever dreamed of visiting Newfoundland, this book allows the reader to move there with Rachel O’Brien, a 23-year-old teacher who’s taken a one-year contract in the fictional outport town of Little Cove, population 389. The first person she meets is Phonse, the school janitor, who stops his bike to ask her if she’s broken down at the side of the road when she stops to take in the breathtaking view of the bay. “It’s right mauzy today,” he comments, and we’re off on a mad caper full of Newfoundlandisms such as “gentle Jaysus in the garden” and cultural crossed wires, like the time Rachel’s landlady tells her she’s a hooker – a rug hooker, she quickly clarifies when Rachel looks askance.

Did I mention that Rachel teaches French, one of Canada’s official languages, in a place that still refers to the rest of the country as the mainland? It’s an uphill battle at school, where the students are disinterested in the subject and most kids drop it in Grade 9, and outside the classroom, her liberal attitudes clash with the town’s deep-rooted Catholicism, resulting in a denouement that gives the book some gravitas.

Like Rachel, Monaghan is a mainlander from Toronto who moved to Newfoundland and, after getting a B.A. in English and French and her B.Ed., taught in outport schools, so her lived experience imbues Rachel’s story with authenticity.

 


6Sparks Like StarsNadia Hashimi

This Washington, D.C., pediatrician, whose parents emigrated from Afghanistan in the 1970s before the Soviet invasion, draws on history, memory and her physician’s training to weave an incredible story about a 10-year-old girl whose family is slain before her eyes during a military coup at the presidential palace in Kabul in 1978. A soldier saves Sitara by dropping her at the door of a female American diplomat, who helps her make a harrowing escape to the U.S. Sitara renames herself Aryana, buries her tragic past and becomes a successful surgeon until the day, 30 years later, she must confront it. I could not put Sparks Like Stars down, and stayed up till 2 a.m. one night reading this novel, which is a real education in the way the Soviets and Americans have used the country as a pawn in their geopolitical chess game. There are so many more twists and turns to the story, which is as much an ode to Afghanistan as it is a study of resiliency.


7Her Dark Lies J.T. Ellison

Home Base: Nashville

Author’s Take: “You’re invited to a wedding none will forget – and some won’t survive.”

Favourite Line: “With Jackson pulling the strings, Claire Hunter became the marionette of his dreams.”

Review: The master of thrillers is back with Her Dark Lies, a twisty tale inspired by a vacation to Lake Como, Italy, where the Good Girls Lie author saw a yacht ferrying wedding guests to a small island in the lake, heard a huge party and saw fireworks going off. Her mind immediately turned to nuptials, and so her 15th book opens with an invitation to the marriage of Jackson Compton, the handsome, wealthy son of a computer magnate, to Claire Hunter, an unknown, pierced and tattooed artist. It’s set on a fictional island off the west coast of Italy not unlike Capri. Of course the Compton’s Villa la Scogliera is perched on a cliff, accessible only by boat or helicopter, and it’s haunted. To add to the creepiness, there is a crypt in the basement, a labyrinth in the garden and a huge storm brewing.

Set over three days, the mystery starts the day before Jack and Claire fly to Naples when they surprise a masked intruder in Claire’s Nashville home. After a struggle with Jack, Claire grabs the burglar’s gun and shoots him. The die is cast, along with the first lie, when Jack’s wealthy parents insist she tell police one of their security men fired the fatal shot.

We see both Jack and Claire’s lies of omission from their viewpoints as we learn that Jack is a widower, while Claire has had a chequered past. Then there’s the mysterious, anonymous narrator who claims to have been there the night Jack and Claire met at in Nashville and has been following them ever since.

Ellison’s millions of fans – she’s been published in 27 countries and 15 languages – won’t be disappointed with this suspenseful tale as the plot thickens with blood and the body count rises.

 


8One Hundred Years of Lenni and Margot Marianne Cronin

Home Base: West Midlands, England

Author’s Take: “The more I stopped worrying about whether my book was ‘normal’, the more fun I had with it.”

Favourite Line: “I wondered why God would need his windows frosted. What’s he up to in there?”

Review: This debut novel from a young British writer is a delight, and not just for its non-linear structure and unconventional chapter lengths, some as short as five sentences. Lenni Pettersson, the 17-year-old protagonist, may be in hospital dying from an undisclosed illness, but her sass and wicked sense of humour – particularly when she devises a scheme to fill the empty pews in the hospital chapel – will have the reader laughing out loud. She is always devising new ways to get sprung from her hospital room, which is how she ends up meeting, befriending and exasperating the chaplain, Father Arthur. She also manages to enrol in an art therapy program for seniors, over the objections of a kind staffer she calls New Nurse. When she meets Margot Macrae, 83, and realizes their ages add up to 100, Lenni dreams up an art project that launches a deep friendship and offers a framework for the book, which unfolds as the unlikely pair reveal themselves to each other.

The beauty of the book lies in its depiction of Margot as a fully drawn character, not a doddering old woman, who is a bit of a rebel herself and has lived a life full of joys and sorrow. Then there is Lenni, who may be dying, but is trying her damndest to live to the max, in spite of feeding tubes and IVs and emergency surgeries, not to mention the strictures imposed by the Glasgow Princess Royal Hospital.

Already optioned for a film, One Hundred Years confronts mortality and gives it the one-finger salute. (June 1)


9I Am a Girl From Africa Elizabeth Nyamayaro

Home Base: New York

Author’s Take: “I wrote my memoir to inspire others to join the good fight in creating a better world for all of us – grounded in the African philosophy of ubuntu.”

Favourite Line: “We wanted for nothing because the food belonged to everyone.”

Review: Elizabeth Nyamayaro is eight years old and has had nothing to eat or drink for three days. Splayed out under a tree in scorched maize field near the Zimbabwean village of Goromonzi, she is drifting in and out of consciousness when a woman in a blue uniform feeds her porridge from a bowl and water from a bottle. Instantly revived, she survives the drought that has devastated her village and carries on working the fields and keeping house with Gogo, her maternal grandmother, a subsistence farmer who has raised her since she was a baby.

Nyamayaro’s fascinating memoir reads like fiction, and is written like a novel, too, with mysterious hints about her absent parents and other hardships, with the gaps filled in as the author flashes back and forth from her childhood growing up with Gogo to life in Harare after she is reunited with her mother and father, and on to her emigration to London at 21 and a life dedicated to ubuntu. The word means, as Gogo explains to Elizabeth, “I am because you are, and because we are, you are.”

When she learns her saviour worked for the United Nations, Nyamayaro vows to follow in her footsteps and relies on shinga – or inner strength – to persevere, against great odds, to find a job in London, save enough to get a master’s degree in political science from the London School of Economics, and go on to work in global development for the World Bank, the World Health Organization and, yes, even the United Nations.

It is a story about survival, hope, and a deep and abiding love for Africa, but it is illuminating for Westerners who, as Nyamayaro notes, often view the continent as a homogenous place awash in disease and poverty. She shows how it is home to inestimable beauty and people who value community above all else. As Gogo says, “to be African is to be blessed.” The word humanitarian does not even begin to describe what Nyamayaro has done for her homeland and its people.

 


10Find You First Linwood Barclay

Home Base: Toronto

Stephen King’s Take: “It’s the best book of his career… If you enjoy thrillers, this is the real deal. It never lets up.”

Favourite Line: “If Jeremy Pritkin wanted a Winnebago on the top floor of his residence, that was exactly what Jeremy Pritkin was going to get.”

Review: Barclay, a former journalist, is a news junkie and current events are the fuel that sparks his imagination, with Elevator Pitch inspired by a report about a shortage of technicians to service Toronto high-rises and, in one of my favourites, Google street view spies are the basis for Trust Your Eyes. Find You First features an arrogant tech millionaire, Miles Cookson, who, diagnosed with a fatal illness, decides to track down all nine of his progeny from a sperm donation made to a fertility clinic when he was in his 20s. When they start disappearing, Miles and one of his children, Chloe Swanson, get drawn into a web of intrigue that will have you changing your mind about whodunit with every chapter.


11Bonnie Jack Ian Hamilton

Home Base: Burlington, Ont.

Author’s Take: “Transforming my bricklayer father into an insurance executive was my way of providing him with a voice for the feelings he could never express.”

Favourite Line: “I want to know how a mother could abandon one child and save another.”

Review: After 14 Ava Lee mystery novels and two Uncle Chow Tung books, detective writer Ian Hamilton leaves Chinese culture in the rear-view mirror as he pulls up stakes and moves his first standalone book to Glasgow, of all places.

It makes more sense when you learn that the book is based on the true story of his father, whose mother abandoned him in a movie theatre when he was a boy, never to return. Fifty years later, he informed his stunned family that he had a sister and flew to England to see her.

In the book, Jack Anderson drops a similar bombshell on his family, then flies off with his wife, Anne, to track down his half-sister in Glasgow, discovering more family members – and confronting his past – at every turn. Now a high-profile American insurance executive living in Connecticut, all Jack wants to know is why his mother left him behind and took his sister with her. It may sound desperately sad, but there are scenes of great hilarity and, as a bonus, the reader gets a bird’s-eye view of Glasgow and Edinburgh. As Jack and his family try to piece together the mystery of why his mother left him, new bonds are formed – and tested. This being an Ian Hamilton novel, there’s a plot thread involving financial malfeasance, extortion and gang members.

 


THE SCROLL

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