This week’s selection of books we’ve read and enjoyed features friends and lovers, creepies and crawlies, and some men on the run for killing King Charles (no, not that one!)
Act of Oblivion by Robert Harris
“From what is it they run?”
He took a while to reply. By the time he spoke the men had gone inside. He said quietly, “They killed the King.”
1660. General Edward Whalley and his son-in-law Colonel William Goffe board a ship in London bound for the New World and an uncertain future in exile. They are wanted for the 1649 murder of King Charles I – a brazen execution that marked the culmination of the English Civil War, in which parliamentarians successfully battled royalists for control. But ten years after Charles’ beheading, the royalists returned to power. Under the provisions of the Act of Oblivion, the ﬁfty-nine men who signed the king’s death warrant have been found guilty in absentia of high treason. Some parliamentarians, including Oliver Cromwell, are dead; others have been captured, hung, drawn, and quartered. A few are imprisoned for life. But Whalley and Goffe escaped to New England.
In London, Richard Nayler, secretary of the regicide committee of the Privy Council, is charged with bringing the traitors back home to justice and will stop at nothing to ﬁnd them. A substantial bounty hangs over their heads for their capture – dead or alive. Encompassing a period of tremendous upheaval in English history the novel brings alive pivotal moments including the Black Death and the Great Fire of London as Nayler closes in on the exiles. Act of Oblivion is an epic story of religion, vengeance, and of power – and the costs to those who wield it.
Citizens of Light by Sam Shelstad
Colleen Weagle works in a call centre and lives in a bungalow with her mother in a quiet Toronto suburb. In her spare time she writes spec scripts for a CBC riding-school drama (her mother’s favourite) and plays an online game set in a resort populated by reindeer. It’s a typical life. Except three months ago Colleen’s husband Leonard—who led a similarly monotonous life—was found in a bog in the middle of the night, a two hours’ drive from home. Dead.
With a flatly optimistic belief in the power of routine, Colleen has been soldiering on, trying not to think too hard about all the unknowns surrounding the death. But when a local news photo twigs Colleen’s memory of a mystery attendee at Leonard’s funeral she snaps into action.
In the maddening company of her ornery co-worker Patti, she heads to Niagara Falls on a quest to find the truth behind the death. Amid the slot machines and grubby hotels, the pair stumble into the darker underworld of a faded tourist trap. What they find will lead straight to an episode from Colleen’s adolescence she thought she’d put firmly behind her.
Bleakly madcap, with deadpan dialogue, Shelstad’s debut novel is a noir anti-thriller reminiscent of Twin Peaks and the work of Ottessa Moshfegh and early Kate Atkinson. He captures call-centre life, ramshackle tourist attractions, and suburbia with wit and sharp realism, and reveals the undercurrents of melancholy and the truly bizarre that can run beneath even the most seemingly mild-mannered lives.
Indigenous Continent by Pekka Hämäläinen
There is an old, deeply rooted story about America that goes like this: Columbus “discovers” a strange continent and brings back tales of untold riches. The European empires rush over, eager to stake out as much of this astonishing “New World” as possible. Though Indigenous peoples fight back, they cannot stop the onslaught. White imperialists are destined to rule the continent, and history is an irreversible march toward Indigenous destruction.
Yet as with other long-accepted origin stories, this one, too, turns out to be based in myth and distortion. In Indigenous Continent, acclaimed historian Pekka Hämäläinen presents a sweeping counternarrative that shatters the most basic assumptions about American history. Shifting our perspective away from Jamestown, Plymouth Rock, the Revolution, and other well-trodden episodes on the conventional timeline, he depicts a sovereign world of Native nations whose members, far from helpless victims of colonial violence, dominated the continent for centuries after the first European arrivals. From the Iroquois in the Northeast to the Comanches on the Plains, and from the Pueblos in the Southwest to the Cherokees in the Southeast, Native nations frequently decimated white newcomers in battle. Even as the white population exploded and colonists’ land greed grew more extravagant, Indigenous peoples flourished due to sophisticated diplomacy and leadership structures.
By 1776, various colonial powers claimed nearly all of the continent, but Indigenous peoples still controlled it—as Hämäläinen points out, the maps in modern textbooks that paint much of North America in neat, color-coded blocks confuse outlandish imperial boasts for actual holdings. In fact, Native power peaked in the late nineteenth century, with the Lakota victory in 1876 at Little Big Horn, which was not an American blunder, but an all-too-expected outcome.
Hämäläinen ultimately contends that the very notion of “colonial America” is misleading, and that we should speak instead of an “Indigenous America” that was only slowly and unevenly becoming colonial. The evidence of Indigenous defiance is apparent today in the hundreds of Native nations that still dot the United States and Canada. Necessary reading for anyone who cares about America’s past, present, and future, Indigenous Continent restores Native peoples to their rightful place at the very fulcrum of American history.
Three Assassins by Kotaro Isaka
Three Assassins is the high-stakes, high-style, and utterly propulsive follow-up to Kotaro Isaka’s international bestseller, Bullet Train, a Crime Reads “Most Anticipated Book of 2021.”
Suzuki is an ordinary man until his wife is murdered. To get answers and his revenge, Suzuki abandons his law-abiding lifestyle and takes a low-level job with a front company operated by the crime gang Maiden, who are responsible for his wife’s death. Before long, Suzuki finds himself caught up in a network of quirky and highly effective assassins:
The Cicada is a knife expert.
The Pusher nudges people into oncoming traffic.
The Whale whispers bleak aphorisms to his victims until they take their own lives.
Intense and electrifying, Three Assassins delivers a wild ride through the criminal underworld of Tokyo, populated by contract killers who are almost superhumanly good at their jobs.
Best of Friends by Kamila Shamsie
Zahra and Maryam have been best friends since childhood in Karachi, even though—or maybe because—they are unlike in nearly every way. Yet they never speak of the differences in their backgrounds or their values, not even after the fateful night when a moment of adolescent impulse upends their plans for the future.
Three decades later, Zahra and Maryam have grown into powerful women who have each cut a distinctive path through London. But when two troubling figures from their past resurface, they must finally confront their bedrock differences—and find out whether their friendship can survive.
Thought-provoking, compassionate, and full of unexpected turns, Best of Friends offers a riveting take on an age-old question: Does principle or loyalty make for the better friend?
Kick the Latch by Kathryn Scanlan
Kathryn Scanlan’s Kick the Latch vividly captures the arc of one woman’s life at the racetrack—the flat land and ramshackle backstretch; the bad feelings and friction; the winner’s circle and the racetrack bar; the fancy suits and fancy boots; and the “particular language” of “grooms, jockeys, trainers, racing secretaries, stewards, pony people, hotwalkers, everybody”—with economy and integrity.
Based on transcribed interviews with Sonia, a horse trainer, the novel investigates form and authenticity in a feat of synthesis reminiscent of Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony. As Scanlan puts it, “I wanted to preserve—amplify, exaggerate—Sonia’s idiosyncratic speech, her bluntness, her flair as a storyteller. I arrived at what you could call a composite portrait of a self.” Whittled down with a fiercely singular artistry, Kick the Latch bangs out of the starting gate and carries the reader on a careening joyride around the inside track.
The Book of Phobias & Manias by Kate Summerscale
The Book of Phobias and Manias is a thrilling compendium of 99 obsessions that have shaped us all, the rare and the familiar, from ablutophobia (a horror of washing) to syllogomania (a compulsion to hoard) to zoophobia (a fear of animals).
Phobias and manias are deeply personal experiences, and among the most common anxiety disorders of our time, but they are also clues to our shared past. The award-winning author Kate Summerscale uses rich and riveting case studies to trace the origins of our obsessions, unearthing a history of human strangeness, from the middle ages to the present day, and a wealth of explanations for some of our most powerful aversions and desires.
No Country for Eight-Spot Butterflies by Julian Aguon
Part memoir, part manifesto, Chamorro climate activist Julian Aguon’s No Country for Eight-Spot Butterflies is a collection of essays on resistance, resilience, and collective power in the age of climate disaster; and a call for justice—for everyone, but in particular, for Indigenous peoples.
In bracing poetry and compelling prose, Aguon weaves together stories from his childhood in the villages of Guam with searing political commentary about matters ranging from nuclear weapons to global warming. Undertaking the work of bearing witness, wrestling with the most pressing questions of the modern day, and reckoning with the challenge of truth-telling in an era of rampant obfuscation, he culls from his own life experiences—from losing his father to pancreatic cancer to working for Mother Teresa to an edifying chance encounter with Sherman Alexie—to illuminate a collective path out of the darkness.
A powerful, bold, new voice writing at the intersection of Indigenous rights and environmental justice, Julian Aguon is entrenched in the struggles of the people of the Pacific to liberate themselves from colonial rule, defend their sacred sites, and obtain justice for generations of harm. In No Country for Eight-Spot Butterflies, Aguon shares his wisdom and reflections on love, grief, joy, and triumph and extends an offer to join him in a hard-earned hope for a better world.
Shrines of Gaiety by Kate Atkinson
1926, and in a country still recovering from the Great War, London has become the focus for a delirious new nightlife. In the clubs of Soho, peers of the realm rub shoulders with starlets, foreign dignitaries with gangsters and girls sell dances for a shilling a time.
The notorious queen of this glittering world is Nellie Coker, ruthless but also ambitious to advance her six children, including the enigmatic eldest, Niven, whose character has been forged in the crucible of the Somme. But success breeds enemies, and Nellie’s empire faces threats from without and within. For beneath the dazzle of Soho’s gaiety, there is a dark underbelly, a world in which it is all too easy to become lost.
With her unique Dickensian flair, Kate Atkinson gives us a window in a vanished world. Slyly funny, brilliantly observant and ingeniously plotted, Shrines of Gaiety showcases the myriad talents that have made Atkinson one of the most lauded writers of our time.
Touch by Olaf Olafsson
When the pandemic hits, Kristofer is forced to shutter his successful restaurant in Reykjavik, sending him into a spiral of uncertainty, even as his memory seems to be failing. But an uncanny bolt from the blue—a message from Miko Nakamura, a woman whom he’d known in the sixties when they were students in London—both inspires and rattles him, as he is drawn inexorably back into a love story that has marked him for life. Even as the pandemic upends his world, Kristofer finds himself pulled toward an answer to the mystery of Miko’s sudden departure decades before, compelling him to travel to London and Japan as the virus threatens to shut everything down.
A heart-wrenching love story and an absorbing mystery, Touch delves into the secrets of the past to explore the hidden lives that we all possess, the pain and beauty of our past loves and friendships that continue to leave their mark on us. Searching and lyrically rendered by acclaimed author Olaf Olafsson, Touch is a stunning tribute to the weight of history and the complexities of the human heart.