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Not to Be Missed

Zoomer contributors review their latest faves, including "The Thursday Murder Club," Sarah Polley's new memoir and Toni Morrison's "Recitatif" / BY Zed Staff / April 14th, 2022


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.

1Devil House by John Darnielle

Home Base: Durham, North Carolina

Author’s Take: “I don’t think it’s possible to write something without telling the world something about yourself. I used to really resist this idea, but I think it’s true. I think you can write only stories about wizards and dragons, and you’re still telling people something about yourself.”

Favourite Line: “I call this the proximity effect: the closer you get to the past, the less believable its particulars seem.”

Review: Based on its title and a quick glance at the cover, readers of John Darnielle’s new novel, Devil House, might rightly expect a horror novel. (It reminds me of the original cover of Jay Anson’s The Amityville Horror, which scared the holy bejesus out of me as a young reader.) A quick description of the book might seem to affirm its horrific nature: Writer Gage Chandler, researching his new book, moves into the former adult video store where, decades earlier, two grisly murders were committed. The crime – which occurred at the height of the “Satanic Panic” of the early 1980s – was thought to have been the work of a group of disaffected teenage boys who had built a refuge among the lurid video-tape boxes and sex toys. After buying the property – long since renovated and reclaimed – Chandler seems to descend into obsession, tearing his new home apart to attempt to recreate the crime scene, losing himself in his imaginings of what happened.

Obsession, yes, but Devil House is far from a typical horror novel. Instead, Darnielle – the leader of the indie band Mountain Goats – uses the crime, and Chandler’s attempted reconstruction of it, to explore the morality and limitations of storytelling (true crime in particular), the responsibility of writers, and to question the possibility of something so nebulous as “truth.”

To his considerable credit, Darnielle wraps these questions in a novel that blends a coming-of-age story with mystery, obsession, true crime and, yes, horror, to create an intoxicating and absorbing reading experience. Devil House keeps the reader constantly on their toes, unsure of what could possibly come next. — Robert Wiersema


2Recitatif by Toni Morrison

Zadie Smith’s Take: “Most writers work, at least partially, in the dark: subconsciously, stumblingly, progressing chaotically, sometimes taking shortcuts, often reaching dead ends. Morrison was never like that.”

Favourite Line: “My mother danced all night and Roberta’s was sick. That’s why we were taken to St. Bonny’s.”

Review: Over a writing career that spanned decades, and included a Nobel Prize for Literature, Toni Morrison (1931-2019) wrote 11 novels, seven books for children, dozens of essays, speeches and occasional pieces, several plays and a collection of poetry.

She only ever wrote a single short story.

Recitatif, written in 1980, was first published in an anthology in 1983, and has been reprinted multiple times. This spring, the story was released as a small, elegant hardcover, paired with a lengthy introduction by British novelist Zadie Smith.

Does a single short story really merit a stand-alone hardcover? Recitatif does.

It tells the story of Twyla and Roberta, who first meet as children when they share a room for a few months at the St. Bonaventure shelter. Their lives intersect as they grow older, and while they consistently find themselves at odds, there is still a bond between them, owing to their shared circumstances and history.

What elevates this story, however, is Morrison’s decision not to identify the characters’ race. We know one of them is white and one of them is Black, but it is never clear which is which. As Morrison wrote, Recitatif is “an experiment in the removal of all racial codes from a narrative about two characters of different races for whom racial identity is crucial.”

The result is extraordinary. Recitatif forces the reader to suspend biases they might not even be aware they have, and attempt to understand the significance of race in a culture where it’s vitally significant. It’s a powerful and unique reading experience. – R.W.


3Run Towards the Danger by Sarah Polley

Home Base: Toronto

The Author’s Take: “They were things I didn’t talk about, because I didn’t know what the stories even were. Part of this is figuring out, what the hell happened?”

Favourite Line: “These stories don’t add up to a portrait of a life, or even a snapshot of one. They are about the transformative power of an ever-evolving relationship to memory. Telling them is a form of running towards the danger.”

Review: Canadian audiences watched Sarah Polley grow up on screen, from Road to Avonlea and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen to The Sweet Hereafter. She also developed a career behind the screen, creating the documentary The Stories We Tell and the films Away from Her and Take This Waltz, as well as the miniseries version of Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace. She’s been an activist, and now, with Run Towards the Danger, she’s a published writer.

This is a powerful book, although it’s difficult to categorize. It’s a collection of essays, each revolving around a significant event or issue, but it’s very personal, rooted in her life and in her body, which gives it a sense of memoir. However you describe it, it’s amazing.

The approach was instigated, in some ways, by advice from a therapist helping her recuperate from a debilitating concussion. He advised that, rather than avoiding activities that scared her, Polley’s recovery depended on running toward them. In six essays, some of which she has been working on for years, or even decades, Polley chooses to confront – rather than turn away from, or bury – things like her experiences as a child actress, her suffering with scoliosis, and what she calls her “worst date ever” with former CBC host Jian Ghomeshi – who was acquitted of sexual assault involving three female complainants in 2016 – when she was 16 and he was “around twenty-eight.”

Run Towards the Danger is an active document: readers can actually experience Polley trying to understand, to contextualize, the events of her life, almost in real time. It’s a profound reading experience. Painful, yes. Troubling, yes. But inspiring, and unforgettable. – R.W.


4The Christie Affair by Nina de Gramont

Home Base: North Carolina

Author’s Take: “I think it was easier that Agatha Christie wasn’t super precious to me. I was able to make her a character without sticking too closely to whatever my idealized version of her was.”

Favourite Line: “Perhaps a woman has a different kind of measuring stick. For when it might be acceptable, or even necessary, to commit a murder.”

Review: The world knows Agatha Christie as the “Queen of Crime.” Before her death in 1976, the prolific author wrote more than 80 books, which have sold more than two billion copies. However, fans know the greatest Christie mystery isn’t found in the pages of a Poirot novel, but in the author’s life.

The Christie Affair is a fictional imagining of 11 days in 1926 when Christie disappeared – her car abandoned on the edge of a quarry near her house – which made international headlines and sparked a massive manhunt, with 15,000 people searching the English countryside. Speculation was wild: Christie was drumming up publicity for her next novel; she’d met with a terrible accident; she’d obviously been murdered by her husband Archie, a First World War veteran.
When she was eventually found at a Yorkshire spa – it was later revealed she registered under the name of her husband’s mistress, Nancy Neale – the family claimed she had amnesia, and it was the last time they spoke publicly on the matter.

De Gramont grounds her novel in the known elements of the case, but the U.S. author spins her own intricate mystery. This undertaking is aided by the appealing voice of the narrator, the fictionalized mistress, renamed Nan O’Dea. The flawed heroine introduces herself with the novel’s great opening line: “A long time ago in another country, I nearly killed a woman.” What follows is an engrossing piece of historical fiction that explores some of the social injustices endured by women in the early 20th century, and an entertaining homage to the queen of mystery herself.

As de Gramont writes, in O’Dea’s voice “I found myself smiling, as I often did when I saw little bits of our time out of time in [Christie’s] books. She scattered little pieces of it, little remembrances, I never knew where or when they’d show up.” Christie fans will have the same reaction when they experience the reverse, recognizing nods to Christie’s works that de Gramont has so skillfully woven into this compelling read. ­– Athena McKenzie

 


5The School of Mirrors by Eva Stachniak

Home Base: Toronto

Author’s Take: “The School of Mirrors is a historical novel, but it is also a novel about women destined to live their lives during great historical upheavals.”

Favourite Line: “The ‘little birds’ Louis wants in his bed now must be unspoilt, which, on royal lips, means willing to please, but not yet knowing what pleasing a man entails.”

Review: This astonishing novel is riveting from the first page, when we meet 13-year-old Véronique, who lives with her impoverished mother and two younger brothers in Paris, where gossip and scandal – particularly about King Louis VX, the royal family and their servants – is at a fever pitch as the French Revolution is brewing.

The Canadian author of The Winter Palace (2012) relies on the pre-Revolution era’s political and social unrest to drive the plot. Although real people figure prominently, the book is focused on two fictional characters, Véronique – who is pimped to the King to feed his predilection for virgins until he casts them off when he tires of them – and her daughter, Marie-Louise, who manages to rise above her station and become a midwife.

Véronique’s mother essentially sells her to the king’s emissary, duped into thinking the girl will be schooled in the arts in order to entertain the Queen’s cousin, a Polish count, when he visits. After the 13-year-old is ensconced in Deer Park, a real residence in the town of Versailles where underage girls were once groomed for the king, the reader gets a bird’s-eye view of the outrageous and ostentatious lifestyles that contribute to the growing sense of inequity outside the palace gates. The circumscribed lives of girls and women – rich and poor, educated and ignorant ­– are laid bare in this sweeping story about liberty, equality and fraternity. — Kim Honey


6Mouth to Mouth by Antoine Wilson

Home Base: Los Angeles

Author’s Take: “This novel examines the stories we tell others – and, to some degree, ourselves – about how we came to be who we are today.”

Favourite Line: “He hadn’t yet faced a moment like this in his life, one in which he knew, with certainty, that the crisis at hand was his alone to handle.”

Review: This story within a story takes off at New York’s JFK airport, where the unnamed narrator runs into Jeff Cook, an acquaintance from university days, and their flight to Frankfurt is delayed. Cook invites the struggling novelist to the first-class lounge, where, over drinks, he starts unspooling a shockingly strange tale that began 20 years before, when he saved a man from drowning in the Pacific Ocean. Cook claims it’s the first time he’s mentioned the incident to anyone.

His too-weird-to-be-true, first-person story is told in the third person by the unnamed narrator, who inserts questions he poses to Cook during their conversation – and his incredulity at what he is being told – into the storyline. In this way, Antoine Wilson plants many seeds of doubt about the reliability of both the narrator and his college acquaintance. What is Cook’s motivation for revealing how he became obsessed with the man he saved, tracked him down, discovered he was a high-powered LA art dealer named Francis Arsenault, and ­­– wittingly or unwittingly, it is not clear – insinuated himself in Arsenault’s life? Does he want the narrator to write a book about him? Or does the down-on-his-luck writer need Cook’s shocking tale to pull his career out of the dumpster? Either way, Wilson’s masterful ruminations on the nature of truth, and the way we deceive ourselves – and others – are engrossing from the opening page to the scandalous denouement on the last. ­— K.H.

 


7The Thursday Murder Clubby Richard Osman

Home Base: London

Author’s Take: “I’ve got people for whom consequences don’t really matter that much. And I’ve got people who are consistently overlooked. And I’ve got people who are forming unlikely friendships. And if you’ve got all of those things, then you know you can put any crime story you want underneath it, and people are going to enjoy the ride

Favourite Line: “You can’t move here until you’re over sixty-five, and the Waitrose delivery vans clink with wine and repeat prescriptions every time they pass over the cattle grid.”

Review: I’m late to the Richard Osman fan club, but I finally got around to reading the British television host’s 2020 bestseller, The Thursday Murder Club, and was immediately taken by his fresh, new take on a murder mystery, starring elderly amateur sleuths who live at the bucolic Coopers Chase Retirement Village in Kent, England. As I write this, Steven Spielberg has bought the movie rights, Osman has published The Man Who Died Twice in 2021, and the third book in the series, The Bullet That Missed, is due out in September.

For those who want to play catch up, let me take you to Coopers Chase, where a quartet of seniors meet in the Jigsaw Room every Thursday to try to solve cold cases. There’s Joyce, a former nurse; Ibrahim, a retired psychiatrist; Ron, an ex-union activist and Elizabeth, a secret service agent who used to work for MI5 and still has a valid licence to drive a tank. When a local developer is murdered and another dies right in front of them, the Thursday Murder Club kicks into high gear. The plot is twisty, and there are a healthy amount of red herrings and suspects.

The heart and soul of the novel is admiration for the wisdom and accumulated knowledge of senior citizens who still climb gates, navigate spreadsheets and drink wine at lunch, but also endure ageism, including the barbed condescension of adult children. It’s all handled with humour, not to mention pathos, as Osman does not shy away from what old age subtracts from life, including the fog of dementia and a stroke’s living tomb. By the time the Thursday Murder Club solve the crime, they have earned the grudging respect of the local police investigators, and won our hearts. — K.H.

 

 

 

 


THE SCROLL

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Barack Obama and Bruce Springsteen to Release Book Based On Their “Renegades” PodcastThe new book will feature a collection of candid, intimate and entertaining conversations


Prince Harry Will Publish a Memoir in Late 2022Harry says he's writing the book "not as the prince I was born but as the man I have become."


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