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Zed’s Top Picks

From a new Sally Rooney to the latest from Pulitzer Prize-winner Richard Powers, here are our recent favourites / BY / August 18th, 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.

1Bewilderment Richard Powers

Home Base: Great Smoky Mountains, Tenn.

Financial Times’ Take: “Powers’ unchained imagination stretches its empathy circle from lichen to nebulae, in finely crafted prose.”

Favourite Line: “But these bits were my son, and, reassembled, they held the record of his face on a late afternoon by the side of a lake telling a perfect stranger, “Everybody’s inside everyone.”

Review: Bewilderment is about a widowed father, Theo Byrne, doing his best to cope with his son’s outbursts following his mother’s death in a car accident. Theo is an astrobiologist, whose job it is to envision how life might exist on other worlds, and Robin, his nine-year-old son, is a budding environmentalist, much like his mother. Together, they take refuge in the wonders of life’s diversity. But they are both bewildered, not just by the loss of Alyssa, but by the loss of life everywhere – by the disastrous and increasing toll of humanity on the environment of the only planet in the universe known to host life.

Desperate to avoid medicating his son, Theo brings him to a colleague for whom he and Alyssa once recorded neural feedback tracks. Robin trains himself to feel better using the brainwaves of positive feelings culled from a number of people. The results are remarkable: Robin doesn’t just cope, he flourishes. But when he starts training on Alyssa’s “Ecstasy” tape, he becomes so contagiously full of feeling that he attracts media attention, and all that comes with it in 21st century America.

Powers, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Overstory, weaves a compelling tale that evokes the wonder and confusion felt by his protagonists. Like Theo and Robin, readers will be left asking how we can survive death on Earth. As Robin asks Theo, “Can you believe where we are?” Bewildering, indeed. (Sept. 21) — Sarah Withrow


2Beautiful World, Where Are You?Sally Rooney

Home Base: Castlebar, County Mayo, Ireland

Author’s take: “I’m growing more interested in the inadequacies of our views of other people – in fiction and in life. A sufficient amount of superficial detail might add up to something more than superficial, or it might not.”

Favourite line: “Or were they in this moment unaware, or something more than unaware—were they somehow invulnerable to, untouched by, vulgarity and ugliness, glancing for a moment into something deeper, something concealed beneath the surface of life, not unreality but a hidden reality: the presence at all times, in all places, of a beautiful world?”

Review: Sally Rooney’s third novel Beautiful World, Where Are You revolves around four characters, caught in the confusing terrain between youth and full-on adulthood, who worry about sex and friendship while bemoaning the state of the world.

Alice and Eileen, best friends since college, both find themselves living lives neither of them saw coming. Alice, a novelist, achieved unimaginable fame and has relocated to a coastal town after suffering a breakdown brought on by the machinations of fame. Eileen is a literary magazine editor earning a wage that has her living in Dublin with roommates she doesn’t communicate with.

Connecting regularly via email, both women wade through the psychological wasteland they find themselves in, asking each other what kind of people they aspire to be. Despite their closeness and shared history, both are coy about revealing the intimate details of their lives and potential love interests: Felix, a factory worker Alice met on Tinder, and Simon, a political advisor five years older than Eileen whom she has known since childhood. While Alice tries to reconcile her private self with her public persona, Eileen ponders whether they were “just born to love and worry about the people we know.”

What follows is Rooney gold, as she masterfully orchestrates a sharp and brutally kind story about character. The author understands no matter how self-possessed or successful her characters may be, they have flaws and insecurities, just like us. The play between author, reader and characters is executed well as Rooney delivers a frank and intelligent story that weaves together the intricacies and intimacies of her characters through their inability to offer that intimacy to each other. Beautiful World, Where Are You is celebration of human behaviour and how – despite everything life may throw at us – we need each other. – Elizabeth Mitchell


3Stand Lean FallJon McGregor

Home Base: Nottingham, England

Author Maggie O’Farrell’s take: “So moving and delicate and terrifying and haunting”

Favourite line: “The weather was thick and he could barely stand straight. He felt dizzy. Unsteady. Almost seasick. Something was wrong.”

Review: This suspenseful novel by British author of Reservoir 13 opens with a nail-biter of an Antarctic storm, which appears out of nowhere and separates two young GPS mapping scientists from their guide, Robert “Doc” Wright, who has been coming to Station K, a fictional university research base, for 30 years. The nearest humans are 300 miles away “and they’re Russian,” Doc tells Thomas and Luke after they arrive by plane.

They shouldn’t have split up, but Thomas wanted a picture of the landscape surrounding the frigid, grey waters of Lopez Sound, so Doc offered to go to a ridge to provide some scale. Now Doc has been felled – but what, or whom, it is not clear –­ and he’s not thinking straight. Thomas is lost, and Luke is torn between leaving the disoriented guide alone and tracking his friend.

Just when you think the novel is about an Antarctica expedition gone wrong, the story shifts – post-rescue – to Doc. The reader already knows he feels more at home in this desolate landscape where death stalks the unprepared. “There’s a purity about being here, you see? Or, not a purity; simplicity. It’s difficult to explain,” Doc tells Thomas.

That foreshadows the heart of the story, since Doc is the only one who can explain what happened that day, but he is unable to communicate it. What he couldn’t put into words before is now impossible. As his wife, Anna, bristles against her new role as caregiver, they have to learn a new way of being with each other, and navigating the world. It is a poignant examination of how the stories we tell ourselves – and others – define our lives. (Sept. 21) – Kim Honey

 

 

 


4The Devil May DanceJake Tapper

Home Base: Washington, D.C.

Author’s Take: “[It’s] about the complexities of Sinatra, the moods, the good and the bad.

Favourite Line: “He told Margaret he thought Robert the sharpest of the Kennedys, and she’d pointedly asked how he could be so sure without having met any of the Kennedy sisters.”

Review: In this follow-up to his well-received The Hellfire Clubthe CNN anchor and chief Washington correspondent brings back his sleuthing couple, last seen poking around D.C. during senator Joseph McCarthy’s Communist witch hunt the decade before. This time it’s late 1961. To discreetly investigate the extent of Frank Sinatra’s connections to the mafia on behalf of Attorney General Robert Kennedy, congressman Charlie Marder and his zoologist wife Margaret are hired as consultants on John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate.

It’s historical fiction at the intersection of pop culture and politics (like the Lillian Frost books by Renee Patrick we love at Zoomer books), a heady mix of factual touchstones, gossip, celebrity, nightlife and Hollywood history. Because the Marders must orbit around the cranky, charismatic and mercurial habits of Ol’ Blue Eyes, the story hopscotches with Dino and the boys from Beverly Hills to Palm Springs, where Sinatra is building out his Rancho Mirage compound with a press room and helipad in anticipation of a visit from President Kennedy.

The novel alternates between having little use for contemporary sexual politics and mores to making the more progressive characters tsk-tsk at the Rat Pack’s ways, particularly in Margaret’s keen observations, which liken their alpha-dog environment to the primates she studies. But as much of the sneering racism levelled at Sammy Davis, Jr. and his white wife May Britt comes from the Kennedy clan as it did his own buddies, so Tapper also depicts the arrogant younger Kennedy to be “as ruthless as he was effective” and suggests how correct the Civil Rights community was to be wary of the dynastic family.

One of the most enjoyable passages is the fly-on-the-wall tour of the labyrinthine rooms at the Daisy, Los Angeles’s first private members’ bar and dance club on Rodeo Drive. Live jazz is playing, Rock Hudson is drinking with four, pretty, young men, and Paul Newman is lining up a shot in the billiards room. Tapper relies less on plot than on filling the pages with these kinds of atmospheric period details. Although it doesn’t matter that Sinatra calls his old-school makeup guy Brownie or that Frankenheimer smokes Pall Malls to Sinatra’s Chesterfields, they add up and create an escapade soaked in bourbon that echoes with the ring-a-ding-ding of the Rat Pack’s rat-a-tat-tat lingo – as if the trappings of 10 Mad Men episodes were compressed into one. – Nathalie Atkinson


5The FeastMargaret Kennedy

Home Base: London

Author’s Take: “The Feast turns allegory into social comedy,” Kennedy’s novelist granddaughter Serena Mackesy says.

Favourite Line: “The three girls were tall and pallid, like plants which have been grown in the dark.”

Review: My shelf of Persephone books and New York Review Books Classics attest to my love of obscure novels being rediscovered and reappraised by later generations, and this one’s a stunner. Kennedy, an Oxford-educated novelist, playwright and Jane Austen biographer, may be best known for her worldwide bestseller The Constant Nymph (adapted both into a West End play starring Noël Coward and a movie by Edmund Goulding), but there’s a strong argument that the newly reissued The Feast is her best, period. It’s certainly her most ingenious.

Like hit HBO series The White Lotus, the story about a disparate group on a seaside holiday in Cornwall begins with the climax. The prologue, with a minister writing the funeral sermon for a local disaster, tells us that a cliff has collapsed and buried the picturesque Cornish resort hotel, instantly killing everyone inside. Which hosts, servants, and guests perish and which survive? We won’t find out until the end, because the novel proceeds to rewinds to guest arrivals and recount the week leading up to the fatal landslide.

First published in 1950, The Feast’s setting in the summer of 1947 brings the post-war context of shortages and English class struggle to life. Our financially diminished, once-grand hosts rent out the rooms in the manor house, the poisonous housekeeper is embittered and the kindly local housemaid feels adrift. The guests include estranged husbands and wives, ambitious strivers, unhappy lovers, bombastic clergymen, mischievous children and a lord and lady who begrudge contributing their share. Most of the adult characters are loathsome – it has that in common with The White Lotus, too. In contrast, the way the late author vividly renders the hopes, simple delights and dramatic plights of the various children on holiday (especially as they plan the elaborate Edward Lear-themed picnic of the title) are enchanting.

Volatile dynamics — and romances and allegiances — inevitably develop among members of the household as they squabble about ration points and argue about the socialist government. Although their daily activities and concerns seem mundane, as the timeline moves inexorably towards doom the small but significant details add up to a suspenseful page-turner. It’s also a puzzle of sorts: if you pay close attention, each villain is an embodiment of one of the seven deadly sins. At its heart, The Feast is a character study that explores breaking down class barriers at a time of great change. As Booker winner Anita Brookner once said, appreciatively: “Kennedy is not only a romantic but an anarchist.” – N.A.


6Bullet Train Kotaro Isaka; trans. by Sam Malissa

Home Base: Sendai, Japan

Author’s Take: “I wanted to create something exciting. I wanted to write a novel more exciting than not just other books, but also movies and manga.”

Favourite Line: “Life is full of bad luck, just lying in wait.”

Review: A ruthless crime boss’s heir, a suitcase full of money, a vengeful father and a handful of assassins are all aboard an express train from Tokyo to Morioka in this Japanese bestseller, now translated into English. Unbeknownst to them, their individual assignments are interconnected. Further complicating matters is that one child aboard is being held for ransom and another, off site, is imperiled — and shall we say a cunningly precocious schoolboy known as the Prince is also involved. The plot is fast-moving but never confusing: each chapter heading, for example, has a diagram showing which car(s) the action takes place in that’s helpful for visualizing the train. With just six potentially deadly stops to its terminus, the trick is to figure out how. The possibility of danger lurks with as passengers warily interact with one another.

The oddball assassins and hit men have evocative nicknames like the Hornet, the Wolf, and guileless Ladybug – the unluckiest assassin in the world – that hint at their eclectic skills. While I wouldn’t exactly say I sympathize with these ruthless killers, I had the most affection for the amusingly adversarial duo Lemon and Tangerine (one of whom is highbrow literary pundit, the other a Thomas the Tank Engine enthusiast who extracts his philosophy of life from the anthropomorphic children’s series), especially because we’re privy to each train of thought — pun intended — as they react and strategize to outwit one another and survive.

It’s a droll action comedy meets comedy of errors about farcical but deadly gangsters that has accurately been described as an unusual blend of Murder on the Orient Express and John Wick. Speaking of which – it’s soon to be a movie starring Brad Pitt, Sandra Bullock, Lady Gaga and Michael Shannon, directed by David Leitch (the John Wick producer who directed Deadpool 2 and Atomic Blonde). But there’s no need to wait for the movie when the prose and plot already offer tautly atmospheric action. I could picture the elaborately violent and often graceful fight scenes in my mind as clearly as if Steven Soderbergh himself were behind the camera. – N.A.


7HenchNatalie Zina Walschots

Home Base: Toronto

Author’s Take: “I wanted to write somebody who was driven by that anger and was, in a lot of ways, on a quest for revenge. But they weren’t consumed and destroyed by that. They actually found strength and purpose and forward momentum in that.”

Favourite Line: “I wondered what it must be like to be so mediocre and so confident that the same time.”

Review: Toronto-based writer and poet Walschots really knows her way around the conventions and tropes of comic books, gaming and fantasy – and can skillfully dismantle them. So does her debut novel’s protagonist Anna Tromedlov, who works as a freelance assistant to shadowy evildoers. Anna prefers being behind a desk, but after she’s hired by low-level villain Electric Eel to do minor clerical work, she reluctantly finds herself on assignment in the field, working as the henchperson for the villain and getting in the way of the superhero who saves the day.

It goes awry, she’s badly injured and, even worse, she’s fired. Investigative journalists follow the money, as they say, but a smart hench follows the data. That’s what happens as Anna convalesces and simmers with rage. With an obsessive grudge, an aptitude for number crunching and a lot of time on her hands, the grand calculus of the rescuers’ collateral damage begins to outweigh their so-called heroics. The worst villain of all soon comes calling to weaponize her predictive data analysis.

At this point the wry, revenge tale goes from an entertainingly dark, satirical exercise in world building to burning it all down. I particularly loved the inventive creations Supercollider, a human exercise in matter and anti-matter, and Leviathan, a wildly charismatic baddie in a beguiling and otherworldly suit of armour. (It’s enthralling and poignant about friendship, too.) Imagine a revisionist feminist take in the vein of Venture Bros. that both celebrates and deconstructs superpowers (as well as the power dynamics of systemic sexism and toxic masculinity that go with them) but makes you question if villains should be considered heroes — and vice versa. Epic battles ensue as the powerful are held to account by their anonymous and too often dispensable underlings.  – N.A.

 

 

 


8Her TurnKatherine Ashenburg

Home Base: Toronto

Publisher’s Weekly Take: “Ashenburg’s latest should appeal to fans of Nora Ephron.”

Favourite Line: “Surely one of the advantages of an adulterous affair was that it left your weekends free.”

Review: Ten years after her husband, Sidney, left her for Nicole ­ – an assistant they met at their son, Peter’s, daycare – Liz is still a mess. Sure, she goes to yoga every Tuesday, keeps up with her Italian classes and reads Middlemarch every four years, but she also has a weekly assignation with the publisher at the Washington, D.C., newspaper where she works as an editor, even though she has long ceased to think of him in a romantic light. She spends hours on websites that detail how scorned women get their revenge and constantly buys self-help books on forgiveness, but fails to read them.

When Nicole writes a submission to the newspaper column Liz edits called My Turn about the disparity between her husband and herself when it comes to Christmas planning, Liz can’t resist composing a snarky reply with her advice on how to make it better: “Sorry to sound like a high school English teacher. But I’m still using the ideas I got from mine.” To her surprise, Nicole writes back, and they strike up a correspondence; Nicole has no idea who she is writing to, only that the replies come from [email protected]

Liz digs herself deeper and deeper into a hole as she draws Nicole out on the details of her marriage to Sidney, until she’s actually doling out advice on how to deal with her pessimistic ex. Meanwhile, Liz goes even more off the rails, publishing controversial essays about euthanizing pets and pedophilia that she would have normally spiked, and invoking the ire of her bosses, including the one she’s sleeping with.

The denouement, when it comes, is cataclysmic, and forces a reckoning on Liz’s part. Ashenburg, the former arts editor at The Globe and Mail, paints a hilariously accurate picture of the inner workings of a big-city daily, right down to the mechanics of writing a good headline, the beige baffles that define the cubicles and the characters that inhabit the office, like the doom-and-gloom business columnist who is also, to everyone’s mystification, the newsroom Lothario.

Her hilarious take on infidelity, mid-life dating, second acts and absolution will appeal to everyone who knows someone who has had an affair, been cheated on or gone through a messy divorce. In other words, all of us. – Kim Honey.


9The Other PassengerLouise Candlish

Home Base: London

Author’s Take: “The characters are fantastically cynical and double-crossing (my favourite kind!) It’s commuter noir, set on the Thames riverbuses  and tackling a Gen X/Millennial conflict.”

Favourite Line: “Even if he’s been up late, he always smells great, like an artisan loaf baked with walnuts and figs (Kit always smells so millennial,” Clare said once, which was almost certainly a criticism of me and my Gen X smell of, I don’t know, stale dog biscuits).

Review: This thriller set on a Thames riverbus will reel you in, hook, line and sinker, so be prepared for a marathon reading session when you devour the first pages of Candlish’s commuter horror story about two couples whose lives become intertwined in more ways than one.

Clare and Jamie are two complacent Gen Xers in their late 40s who live in a grand, four-story London house owned by Claire’s parents, a home they could never afford on their salaries, as Clare well knows since she is a real estate agent. Jamie, who freaked out on the subway one morning when his claustrophobia spiralled out of control, quit his corporate job and took a position at a café called the Comfort Zone. It irks Clare to no end that he has no loftier ambitions, so much so that she buys Jamie eight sessions with a career coach for Christmas.

Clare gets to know Melia, a new agent at work, and invites her and her husband, Kit, to dinner, and the Millennial couple – a caricature for the whole entitled generation ­ – swoon over the house, talk non-stop about money and generally feel hard done by in work and life. When Kit finds out Jamie is thinking of buying a commuter pass on the Thames riverbus, he decides to buy one, too, and now Clare and Melia, Kit and Jamie see each other every day.

At least they did, until a year later, when the police meet Jamie as he disembarks at the Waterloo stop. He was the last person to see Kit before Christmas, the night their commuter group of so-called “river rats” ­had holiday drinks, and now he is missing.

This is a story about pride, envy, gluttony, greed and lust, and to say any more would give away the twisted heart of the tale. Candlish, whose previous novel Our House is being adapted into a British TV series, is the queen of what some call “property noir,” but although this novel contains a shred of that, it is much, much more. I know it’s a massive cliché, but no one is whom he or she says – or even thinks – they are, and in Candlish’s expert hands, it makes for killer psychological suspense. Keep an eye out for her next book, The Heights, which was just published in the U.K. in June – K.H.


10The Startup WifeTahmina Anam

Home Base: London

Author’s Take: “It encompasses some of the urgent moral questions that have been on my mind – work/life balance, the divisions of labour within a family, and whether our tired old patriarchal tropes will ever be fully dismantled.”

Favourite Line: “I was ready to start a life with Cyrus, who was everything he had been all those years ago when I first met him: mostly human, a little bit cartoon, a tiny bit ghost.”

Review: Asha Ray is a genius coder who drops out of her PhD program after she comes up with the idea for what she calls the Empathy Module for robots. “It’s not just a way to make them more human,” she explains to her mentor, a taciturn woman and a pioneer in building artificial brains that mimic those of humans. “We should focus on making them better than us, not like us.”

The catalyst for this smart novel about modern love, startup culture and the limitations of technology is Cyrus Jones, her high-school crush. Two months after Asha meets Cyrus at a funeral, they secretly marry, and she moves in with Cyrus and his best friend, Jules. Cyrus makes his living as a guru of non-religious ceremonies, and conducts customized baptisms, marriages and cremations by drawing on texts that have meaning to the participants, from The Iliad to Harry Potter.

Soon Asha realizes that Cyrus’s rituals are the key to commercializing the Empathy Module, which she envisions as a platform that allows atheists and agnostics to practice a form of faith. He reluctantly agrees to help her with an app, worried that people will think he’s a priest or, worse, a messiah.

Enter Utopia, a secretive, startup incubator in New York that buys into the idea, pitched by Jules and Asha without Cyrus’s knowledge; they convince Cyrus, who thinks technology is “grotesque,” to move to New York and help with the algorithm for We Are Infinite (WAI), although he insists on being a researcher. “Don’t drag me into the startup thing,” he says.

These are fateful words, of course, as Jules and Asha start working pretty much 24-7 on the WAI platform and encounter all the usual startup hurdles – networking, pitching venture capitalists, hiring staff, deciding who owns what and coding, beta-testing and then coding some more. If it sounds detailed and super realistic, that’s because that’s because Anam has been working at her husband’s startup for the past 10 years and no doubt has been taking copious notes.

It’s a wry, satirical and super-smart commentary on the madness of the startup life, not to mention a feminist treatise on marriage. As the app takes off and Cryus’s star rises, Asha grapples with being a woman of colour in a field dominated by white men. She is also eclipsed by Cryus, which, of course, changes the power dynamic in their relationship. I won’t spoil the ending, but you’ll have a lot of fun getting there as you follow Asha, Jules and Cyrus into the world of WAI. – K.H.


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