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To Be Read

We've got a meta take on the slasher movie trope, a memoir about Stanley Tucci's tastebuds and the Hilary Clinton/Louise Penny blockbuster, 'State of Terror' / BY Kim Honey / November 9th, 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.

1My Heart is a ChainsawStephen Graham Jones

Home Base: Boulder, Colorado

NPR’s Take: “Jones is one of the best writers working today.”

Favourite Line: “Horror’s not a symptom, it’s a love affair.”

Review: When two tourists disappear on Indian Lake near Proofrock, Idaho, Jade Daniels takes it as a sign. At 17, she is an outsider and a troublemaker, alienated from her peers, distanced from her absentee mother and avoiding her father and his hard-drinking friends. The thing that keeps her sane is her love of horror flicks – slasher movies in particular. She has an encyclopedic knowledge of the genre, and sees the world through a B-movie lens. 

When Letha Mondragon arrives at school, she is so pretty and pure that Jade is convinced the new student is the perfect Final Girl – the one who survives the confrontation with the murderer. Where there’s a missing couple and a Final Girl, Jade believes there must be a killer. Has a slasher come to town?

Even as more bodies are found, nobody takes Jade seriously. Is she a disturbed young woman? An attention seeker? The culprit behind too many pranks? It’s up to Jade to figure out what’s going on and identify the killer before the town’s Fourth of July celebration, which would the perfect place for a massacre.

By adoringly embracing the tropes and conventions of the slasher genre, Jones – an ardent horror fan and prolific horror writer – has created something bold, unexpected and utterly new. Jade is a richly created, lifelike protagonist, and her journey, as terrifying as it is, has underlying depths that are even more troubling, even more horrific. My Heart Is a Chainsaw is a thrilling horror novel, by turns wildly funny, brutally violent and thought provoking. Perfect for the spooky season. – Robert Wiersema


2Taste: My Life in FoodStanley Tucci

Home Base: London

 Author’s Take: “I’m not a religious person, but if there is one thing that’s holy, it would be food.”

Favourite Line: “I am of course being a bit harsh when I make it seems as though Christmases were ruined completely by an inanimate drum of pasta-filled pastry, but sometimes it came close.”

Review: Actor Stanley Tucci is not kidding when he says his life has been defined by food. In his new, pun-filled memoir, every memory of family and friends is linked to some unforgettable dish or intoxicating cocktail. Although the movie star has published two previous collections of recipes, this time he digs deep into his personal life to bring us the backstories – and recipes – of his favourite food and drink.

Of course he begins with his childhood in Katonah, N.Y., where he grew up watching Julia Child on TV with his mom. When his grandparents emigrated to the U.S. from Calabria, they brought southern Italian traditions with them, like pasteurizing tomato sauce over an outdoor fire, making wine in the basement and keeping rabbits, chickens and sometimes goats in the backyard.

The book is threaded with recipes that pop up in the middle of chapters as Tucci describes their provenance: his grandfather’s ragu, which the family ate at every Sunday dinner, the spaghetti carbonara he tastes in Rome for his documentary series Searching for Italy, and a six-ingredient frittata he learned to make so he could film it in real time for his award-winning 1996 film, Big Night. And of course he writes about, and provides a recipe for, timpano, the complicated, pastry-filled meat dish that graces the Tucci table every Christmas, and inspired an unforgettable scene in Big Night. 

There is a delightful amount of name-dropping, too. The 2010 Lake Como wedding of actors John Krasinski and Emily Blunt – where Tucci met his wife, Felicity Blunt, the sister of the bride – was hosted by a man “whose name rhymes with George Clooney.” Of course there are more than a few references to Meryl Streep, the star of The Devil Wears Prada and Julie & Julia, including a hilarious lunch in the French countryside where they thought they were ordering Andouille sausage, only to discover it was a local specialty that may have contained pig’s colon. 

The most poignant chapters of the book focus on Tucci’s salivary gland cancer diagnosis in 2017 and the devastating effects of chemotherapy, which killed his taste buds and his appetite, to the point where he had a feeding tube for six months and lost 30 pounds. The good news is the radiation reset his metabolism and his digestive system, so he can eat like a teenager and his food intolerances – to dairy, sugar and gluten – have disappeared. This book is perfect for Italian food aficionados, Tucci fans and readers with Italian roots who will laugh knowingly at his descriptions of family dinners.  – Kim Honey


3The SpectacularZoe Whittall

Home Base: Toronto, Ont.

Ilana Masad’s take: “Witnessing the women in this novel connect, miss each other, and try to figure one another out is a joyful and tender experience.”

Favourite Line: “We can’t control how our children think of us, how they remember the worst most of the time, how they reflect ourselves back to us in ways that force us to reckon with truths we’d rather push aside.”

Review: There are more than a few laugh-out-loud moments in this novel, which makes sense since Whittall is a comedy writer for some of my favourites TV series such as Baroness von Sketch and Schitt’s Creek.

It opens with Melissa Wood, a 22-year-old Montreal cellist, asking a doctor to sterilize her. Her alter ego, Missy Alamo, is the lead singer in a rock band about to go on tour in the U.S., and she wants to party as hard as her male band mates without worrying about getting pregnant and trying to find an abortion in a pro-choice state. “I can adopt if I regret it,” she wheedles. “Biology doesn’t matter.”

This is the crux of this novel, which explores the question many women ask themselves as they near their 30s: “Should I or shouldn’t I have a baby?” As The Spectacular unfolds, the reader is drawn into Missy’s life and the modern concept of chosen family, where genetics is not the common denominator, particularly in cases where parents are abusive or absent.

Take Missy, for example. Her mom, Carola, left Missy and her father on a commune to join a yoga retreat, and hasn’t been seen since. Missy considers her father’s mother, Ruth, now 83, more of a mother figure than his new wife, Rachel; she’s the one Missy calls from the road and the one she crashes with when she’s in trouble.

As Whittall has said in a previous interview about The Spectacular, she spent 10 years of her life wondering if she should have a baby, so she uses her three characters, Missy, Carol and Ruth, to explore three answers: “Firmly no, firmly yes and firmly uncertain at various points in their lives.”

Unabashed feminism is shown in all its imperfect glory, even as society and state continue to impose strictures on women’s minds and bodies. The lives of Ruth, Carola and Missy remind us that traditional families don’t always lead to spectacular lives; to find freedom and happiness, sometimes you need to slip the bonds of blood ties.  – KH


4Cloud Cuckoo LandAnthony Doerr

Home Base: Boise, Idaho

Author’s Take: “Maybe this novel is my middle-aged book: a story of trying to rein in my own restlessness, accept the beauty of what I already have, and welcome my own insignificance in the face of the vastness of the cosmos.”

Favourite Line: “The owl gazes down at Seymour; the wind ruffles the feathers of his face; in the whirlpool of his attention spins an understanding as old as time.”

Review: There’s a reason it took Doerr seven years to write Cloud Cuckoo Land, which is also the name of the story within his story. The U.S. author, who won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for his last book, All The Light We Cannot See, invents a 2,400-year-old novel by Antonius Diogenes, a real Greek author of speculative fiction, and then spins that story across time and space, from Constantinople (now Istanbul) in the 1400s to a spaceship 65 years in the future.

In the first pages of the book, it is 2020 and octogenarian Zeno is directing a children’s play in the fictional town of Lakeport, Idaho, based on his translation of the ancient Cloud Cuckoo Land story. Then 17-year-old Seymour enters the building, where Zeno and the children are rehearsing, with a homemade bomb in his backpack and a gun in his pocket. Before we find out why Seymour is bent on destruction, Doerr goes back 600 centuries to Anna, a seven-year-old orphan in Constantinople who sells old books she steals from an abandoned library to make money, and then jumps to Omeir, a baby born around the same time with a cleft palate in Bulgaria, where the villagers believe the boy is cursed. The other character, Konstance, 10, is aboard The Argos spaceship bound for BetaOph2, which the passengers will colonize because Earth is too polluted. 

If it sounds complicated, it is. But in Doerr’s masterful hands, the story about a foolish shepherd named Aethon, who is searching for a utopia in the sky, is just one part of this masterpiece. The novel speaks to the power of stories to transport us from the present to imaginary realms where we are so immersed that we enter the author’s alternate reality. It distracts poor, unfortunate children like Anna and Omeir from their miserable lives and takes them to a magical place where witches extract sunbeams from melons, roads are paved with jewels and tortoises carry stacks of honey cakes on their backs.  For Konstance on the spaceship, it is a riddle to be solved that helps gain her freedom. For Zeno, it is about self-actualization and the power to embrace his authentic self.

The book is also an ode to libraries and books, to owls and the environment, and how the modern world is eradicating both in different ways. Doerr has said there isn’t a moral to the story, because he’d rather ask questions and let readers come to their own conclusions. For me, the revelatory moment happened when Konstance and the children on The Argos learn they are the “bridge generation,” and grow up knowing they will die before they reach their destination. They are content because they have been indoctrinated to believe their children will live to colonize a futuristic utopia in the sky and save the human race from extinction. 

The idea that each generation stands on the shoulders of the other struck me, since most of us think of our grannies and grandpas as distant relatives who lived in a time of great deprivation, with no airplanes or Wi-fi or smartphones. The fact that we feel so divorced from our most recent ancestors – our great-great-grandparents and the great-great-greats – is almost as sad as the way each generation views its modern time-saving inventions as an improvement on the previous versions, as consumerism gallops on, unabated.  

We are all interconnected, Doerr says in this book, and the same goes for humans, owls and ancient myths. It would be wise to honour those relationships. – K.H.


5Small PleasuresClaire Chambers

Home Base: London

Author’s Take: It is about the nobility of sacrifice, and the conflict between personal fulfilment and duty in the last gasps of the postwar period when the huge social and sexual changes of the Sixties were all still to come.”

Favourite Line: “The yearning for love and approval doesn’t change. The ancient body is just cladding.”

Review: The premise of this novel reminded me of Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder, where an English nurse is hired to investigate a miraculous claim that a young Irish girl is alive and well without eating food or drinking water. In Chambers’ book, it is a newspaper reporter named Jean Swinney who, in 1957, is assigned to check out a story about a woman who says her daughter was the result of a virgin birth. Deemed a “women’s interest” story, Jean is dispatched to interview Gretchen Tilbury, who lives in southeast London with her 10-year-old daughter, Margaret, and her jeweller husband, Howard. 

Jean fits the assignment in between her usual duties writing about weddings household hints and gardening, and squeezes interviews in between that and her secondary job as primary caregiver to her invalid mother. When Jean meets Gretchen, she insists she became pregnant at 19 without ever having so much as kissed a man.

As Jean investigates Gretchen’s claim, she breaks one of the cardinal rules of journalism and becomes friend with her subjects. 

The book has many twists and turns, but I loved it for its sensitive portrayal of women and the limited choices available to them at the time. Gretchen marries Howard because she was an unmarried mother-to-be; Jean feels a pang when she sees Margaret, because, now in her thirties, it in unlikely she will ever be a mother. Ultimately, it is a deft portrayal of love between mothers and children, men and women, and women and women. – K.H.


6State of TerrorHillary Clinton and Louise Penny

Home Base: Washington, D.C. (Clinton) and Knowlton, Que. (Penny)

Clinton’s Take: “Part of how we ended up with the plot was Louise asking me, “What kept you up at night as Secretary of State?”

Favourite Line: “She might look like a hobo and smell like fertilizer, but she was the American Secretary of State. She loved her country and would do anything to protect it.”

Review: A terrorist threat involving nuclear bombs takes fictional secretary of state Ellen Adams – who bears more than a passing resemblance to former Secretary Clinton – from Washington to Frankfurt to Oman to Tehran, as she races against time to find the mastermind behind a plot to blow up the White House.

It’s fun to spot the Canadian references, from the president’s chief of staff saying she always wanted to live in Penny’s home province of Quebec, to the Canadian foreign minister who shows up on a late-night video conference call wearing a flannel dressing gown with a moose and bear print  (an inside joke between Clinton and Penny, and a nod to the Quebec clothing company, Hatley, and its Canadiana prints) to the appearance of Chief Inspector Gamache, the protagonist in Penny’s bestselling mystery series, and her fictional Quebec town of Three Pines.

But my favourite part was the female-centric take on the male-dominated political arena, with Adams, whose “good dress sense and Spanx concealed her love of eclairs,” coming off a 22-hour day and a long flight only to have her male chief of staff tell her she looked like hobo, and her good friend and sidekick, Betsy, cracking jokes about how the president is always “pissed,” as well as angry. As Penny said in a recent interview with Zed: The Zoomer Book Club: “Just like in real life, we wanted our characters to be well rounded and recognizable, not caricatures. Even in the middle of something horrific, someone can say something funny to break the tension. Or they blurt it out. That’s just life. We want people to read this and relate.”  

There’s even an oblique reference to the time Donald Trump called Clinton, who was running against him in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, a “nasty woman” in a debate, although in the book, it’s a Senator who says, “dirty woman” to Adams, a which became a meme that, like Trump’s, went viral.

It’s a fast-paced, humorous and engaging story that draws you in from the first page and never lets you down, even as subplots are expertly layered on. Welcome to a new feminist genre of the political thriller, where powerful women outwit and outplay the men. – K.H.


7SilverviewJohn le Carré

Home Base: St. Buryan, Cornwall

Ian Rankin’s Take: “An extraordinary writer who brought literary lustre and lived insight to every page.”

Favourite Lines: “I have forsaken the glitter of gold for the scent of old paper.”

Review: The last book John le Carré wrote before he died in 2020 at 89, Silverview is further proof the British spy-turned-novelist was a masterful writer, and worthy of his place in the annals of literature.

When Julian, a bookstore owner in a small seaside town, thinks about his old life as a big-city trader, le Carré writes: “No more air-conditioned treadmills, sunlamps and saunas for him, thank you; no more alcoholic revels to celebrate another dicey, socially useless financial coup, and the one-night stands that inevitably follow. London man is dead.” 

Then a mysterious man named Edward Avon walks into his shop one evening, a self-professed “former academic of no merit and one of life’s odd-job men,” who claims to have been a schoolmate of Julian’s father and seems to know a lot about the family. Avon, who lives with his dying wife at the edge of town in an impressive estate called Silverview, becomes a fixture at the shop as he gives Julian an education in literature and helps him set up a new section – “a shrine to the most challenging minds of our time” – which they call The Republic of Literature. A second thread to the story introduces Stewart Proctor and his wife, Ellen, who are clearly in the employ of the British secret service.

It’s a sheer delight to try to guess who Edward really is and what he wants with Julian’s shop, at the same time trying to work out what Stewart wants with Edward and his wife.

There are nuclear fallout shelters, secret tunnels and odd sales of priceless china. And, since Silverview is set in a seaside town in Suffolk, W.G. Sebald and his 1995 novel The Rings of Saturn figure prominently. Edward tells Julian his shop is not a bookstore if it doesn’t stock the University of East Anglia professor’s fictional account of a walk along the Suffolk coast, famous for its examination of the “frailty of human existence.” – K.H.



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