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Critic’s Picks

Zed Book Club contributors review 8 of the best novels they've read so far this year / BY / January 20th, 2023


When you read a good book, you want to share it with the world. Zed contributors devour hundreds of titles every year, and although it’s only January, we’ve got a head start on some great books we know you will love. From Celeste Ng’s dystopian America, where anti-Asian hate has become government law, to a neo-noir crime novel set in Hollywood and a delightful romp coming-of-age story set in Montreal during Expo ’67, these fictional worlds are guaranteed to keep you turning the pages. 

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.

1Everybody Knowsby Jordan Harper

 

Home Base: Los Angeles, Calif.

Authors Take: I had all of this energy to tell a big, epic L.A. crime story that I had built up to do five seasons of LA Confidential,” the Edgar Award-winning television writer said about the James Ellroy novel adaptation. When the pilot didn’t get picked up, “I decided to harness that energy, but to do something very different, which was to set it in right now.”

Favourite Line: “Nobody talks, but everybody whispers.”

Review: It’s only January, but Harper may have delivered the noir of the year. He wastes no time dropping us into the action as Mae, a hard-hearted, 32-year-old PR operative at L.A.’s top crisis management firm (“we don’t get the good news out – we keep the bad news in”), arrives to clean up a starlet’s latest mess at the Chateau Marmont, “the hippest no-tell hotel in the world.” In lean episodic chapters, we follow Mae’s interior monologue as she goes about quashing scandals; they alternate with those of ex-cop Chris, a muscled employee for a private security firm, until their stories converge over a case. But then, no one is ever more than a few degrees of separation from anyone else in Los Angeles: city politics and Hollywood power are bedfellows in a toxic system, and the present commingles with layers of the city’s haunted past.

To encompass the sprawling reach of Hollywood capitalism and power dynamics, the novel has a wide scope, invoking the classic noir tradition of Raymond Chandler’s detective fiction and stylish cinematic updates like Chinatown, while also capturing a timely portrait through specific (and often darkly funny) observations and asides. (“D-level famous” refers to social media influencers, not mysterious dames.) Yet for all its L.A. lore and seedy underbelly, Everybody Knows never feels laboured, self-consciously mannered or like a throwback homage. This is a vital, thrilling, neo-noir page-turner so up-to-the minute it not only speaks of today, but of tomorrow: There’s the #MeToo nature of Hollywood culture, but also encampments of unhoused residents targeted by arsonists and filmmakers – criminals of another stripe – who skimp on safety protocols to save time and money, with fatal consequences. A story involving crime, according to Chandler’s 10 legendary writing commandments, “must be about real people in a real world.” Here, corruption and complicity are just two limbs of the many-tentacled monster that is contemporary Los Angeles – a city that is, as the novel reminds us, above all else a company town. – Nathalie Atkinson


2Last Winterby Carrie Mac

Home Base: Vancouver, B.C.

Authors Take: “Last Winter is dear to my heart,” the author declared on Twitter last year about the novel informed by her lived experience as a former paramedic, a widow and a parent living with bipolar 1 disorder. “Years and years in the making, yet each time I read it, it grips me as if for the first time.”

Favourite Line: “The clothes were a pile of hibernating sneakers, legs and sleeves and underwear tangled and warm and filthy, undulating.”

Review: The publisher plugs Last Winter as CanLit comparable to Fredrik Backman’s Beartown trilogy, and in some ways that’s true given the quirky characters, the immersive natural setting of the B.C. Rockies and the way a local tragedy affects everyone in a tight-knit town. But there’s very little of the warm uplift of those international bestsellers here. At times a harrowing work of social realism, this family drama can admittedly be hard going – it doesn’tt avert its gaze from suicidal ideation, the sexualization of children or childhood neglect, for example.

The novel covers before, during and after an avalanche that has left five children dead. One of two survivors is eight-year-old Ruby, whose father, Gus, is a wilderness guide who ran the local outdoor gear store. Gus was leading a field trip for middle-schoolers on survival course, and is also presumed dead. Ruby’s mother Fiona lives with mental illness, and the prose does a remarkable job getting inside her head – conveying her internal logic and struggles – and describing how she is on the receiving end of both the empathy and judgment that comes with being part of a small community. The family was dysfunctional before the calamity, and shifts in timeline and points of view explore how Ruby and her mother are now spiralling in their own way. It’s an evocative and visceral work of cold comfort. – Nathalie Atkinson


3Killers of a Certain Ageby Deanna Raybourn 

Home Base: Virginia

Author’s Take: “I’m not sure I’ve ever had as much fun with any group of characters as I have with the cast of Killers of a Certain Age. They are the brashest, ballsiest, most badass assassins, and their special skill is hiding in plain sight – because you can’t guard against what you don’t see.”

Favourite Line: “We looked like a girl gang that would have the Queen as our leader, all low heels and no-nonsense curls.”

Review: The social phenomenon known as “invisible woman syndrome” refers to studies showing older women aren’t well represented in media, and many feel less relevant and overlooked as they age.

Raybourn plays with those cultural expectations, turning that invisibility into an advantage. Best known for her historical mysteries (the Veronica Speedwell and Lady Julia Grey series), the author sets her latest book in the contemporary world, delivering a novel that’s part international spy thriller, part heist and all fun.

Billie Webster, Helen Randolph, Mary Alice Tuttle and Natalie Schuyler are assassins who are about to retire from their clandestine organization, the Museum. Recruited fresh out of college in the 1970s, they’ve travelled the world taking out arms dealers, sex traffickers and even hunting down a Nazi war criminal. “Forty years on one of the most elite assassin squads on earth and it finished like this, with a free cruise and a bouncy letter from a girl who signed her letters with hash tags,” bemoans Billie.

Not long into an all-expenses paid retirement vacation, the foursome realizes the Museum has targeted them for termination – it’s kill or be killed. Using their old-school talents and the fact that everyone underestimates women of a certain age, they work together to figure out why their agency has turned against them. 

As the narrative bounces back and forth between their earlier assignments  and their current predicament, readers are treated to a compelling tale about older women kicking ass and taking names. – Athena McKenzie


4Hell Bentby Leigh Bardugo

Home Base: Los Angeles, Calif.

Author’s Take:  “Alex engages with the world with a kind of gallows humour that is very close to my heart, and I think I felt a little freer to let some of chaos in, in Hell Bent. ”

Favourite Line: “It turned out taking dictation letter by letter from a reanimated corpse took a long time, and it was 2 a.m. when they finally finished the ritual.”

Review: Reading a sequel to a book you loved is always fraught: you hope for the best, but you’ve been disappointed before, so you approach the new book with a heady mix of excitement and trepidation. At least, that’s how I approached Hell Bent, the sequel to Bardugo’s delightfully original, utterly enthralling 2019 novel, Ninth House.

I won’t keep you in suspense: Hell Bent is just as good as Ninth House, a natural continuation of the first book that builds on its strengths and the reader’s previous experience with the dark world Bardugo has created.

Ninth House introduced readers to Galaxy “Alex” Stern, 20, a freshman at Yale University, and a high school dropout with a violent, drug-riddled past. She also has the ability to see ghosts. 

That gift – or curse – leads to her recruitment (in the aftermath of a brutal crime) by Lethe House, a secret organization created to “monitor” Yale’s secret societies, the eight Houses of the Veil. These societies – including Skull & Bones, Aurelian, and Bone & Key – actually exist, and boast significant alumni (John Kerry and both George Bushes were Bonesmen, for example); Bardugo herself was a member of Wolf’s Head. In the novel, these societies all practice different sorts of magic, from divination to transfiguration, and it’s up to Lethe House to make sure they play by the rules.

Lethe House gives Alex a “full ride to Yale, the new start that had scrubbed her past clean like a chemical burn.” As she struggles with her classes, and trying to fit into a completely different world, she also spends her nights supervising rituals, reporting infractions and witnessing things she can barely comprehend.

When a young New Haven woman is murdered on campus, Alex is drawn into the investigation, despite the fact the victim is from “town” and, according to her superiors, of little consequence to Lethe. After all, none of the Houses could possibly be involved, could they?

Hell Bent begins where Ninth House left off: one of Alex’s closest associates is missing, and when two faculty members are murdered, Lethe House turns against her.

If I’m being coy about details, you’re right. Bardugo’s two novels are a dizzying blend of mystery, fantasy, coming-of-age story, history and campus novel, and much of the joy of the books comes from their unique unpredictability: they’re like nothing else you’ve  likely read, and they’re best approached as free from pre-knowledge as possible. Bardugo writes with a casual but immersive style, interweaving rituals and lore with Alex’s acerbic, sarcastic voice, creating a magical reading experience.  Hell Bent and its predecessor are both page-turners of the highest order, and even readers who usually avoid fantasy will find themselves drawn in. – Robert Wiersema


5Nosy Parkerby Lesley Crewe

Home Base: Homeville, N.S.

Author’s Take: “There is a character based on my dad, but isn’t exactly my father. I felt him with me as I was writing this one.”

Favourite Line: “I need to find out more about my mother, and quickly. If I’m making friends left, right and centre, I require a more interesting story to tell the Mrs. Andrewses of the world. Just saying I have a dead mom is not going to cut it.”

Review: The Cape Breton-based author is beloved in Atlantic Canada, where fans of her tender writing and down-east humour eagerly await each new novel (12 and counting). With Nosy Parker, Crewe heads west to Montreal, where she was raised, and all the way back to the summer of 1967, when hordes of Canadians made the pilgrimage to Expo. 

Nosy is the nickname bestowed on 12-year-old Audrey Rosemary Parker by her 55-year-old father, a writer and publisher who is raising her in a Notre-Dame-de-Grâce (NDG) duplex. Like Harriet the Spy, Nosy eavesdrops on, and watches, her neighbours, writing her observations down in a stack of notebooks. 

The story is as much about finding community as the mystery of what happened to Nosy’s mother, who died when she was three. The pre-teen is surrounded by strong, independent women, from her father’s disapproving sister, Aunt Moo, to the friendly chain-smoking Jewish neighbour, Mrs. Weiner, to Sofia, the mother of a Greek classmate who treats her like a daughter.

At its sweet centre, it is a coming-of-age story, full of wit and whimsy, about Nosy finding her place in the world. Boomers will appreciate cultural references to Cap’n Crunch and Swanson’s TV dinners, schoolyard games with marbles and rubber balls and the Beatles singing “Paperback Writer” on the radio. Montrealers will revel in memories of shopping trips to Ogilvy’s, sightings of author Mordecai Richler and a trip to Orange Julep near Décarie Boulevard.   

As Nosy matures, she begins to see her father in a more human light and, after deploying all her detective skills, tracks down the truth about her mother’s short life. The novel conveys all the sorrowful truths of mortal existence, but is suffused with an irrepressible exuberance that will leave readers crying tears of laughter. – Kim Honey


6Our Missing Heartsby Celeste Ng

Home Base: Cambridge, Mass.

Author’s Take: “It was a way of exploring the world we were in, and the issues I was struggling with in my own life. Such as: How are you supposed to raise a child in a world that feels like it is totally falling apart?”

Favourite Line: “When he sees his name, his old name, on the envelope, a door inside him creaks open and a draft snakes in.”

Review: This story from the author of Little Fires Everywhere beautifully captures the expanding awareness of 12-year-old Noah, who starts to question why he had to abandon his nickname, Bird, when his mother disappeared, why she left and how she could live without her husband and son.

When he receives a letter addressed to Bird and opens it to find a single sheet of paper covered in tiny doodles of cats, it awakens long-buried memories of his mom, who was born in the United States to Hong Kong immigrants. The letter is a message, he is sure, and he promptly begins a clandestine quest to find her. As Bird searches, he starts to grasp the magnitude of the anti-Asian racism that has gripped America, culminating in the federal government’s Preserving American Culture and Traditions (PACT) Act. It not only bans books by Asian authors, it removes children from parents who “espouse harmful views” and rehomes them with families who will raise them “to protect American values.”

Bird heads to the library, where he looks for a book of Japanese folklore that contains a story his mother read to him as a child, about a boy who loved cats. Along the way, he realizes the empty shelves represent a whole history that has been erased – part of his story – and that his father’s over-protectiveness is designed to shield him from PACT’s nefarious policies and omnipresent informants. As he gets closer to finding his mother, Bird’s political awakening is stirred when he realizes anti-PACT resisters are everywhere, and their slogan – “our missing hearts” – is a line from a poem written by his mother.

At a time when government policies have separated children from their parents – from enslaved African Americans to Indigenous people to Mexican migrants – and anti-Asian hate crimes and racism spiked when the world blamed China for unleashing the coronavirus, it’s easy to see how Ng’s dystopian world is on our doorstep and poised for a home invasion. – Kim Honey


7We Spreadby Iain Reid

Home Base: Kingston, Ont.

Author’s Take: “When you reach your 90s … that’s a place in time or an age that we should – I think – value a lot more than we do. It seems to me that we just kind of diminish it or are scared of it.” 

Favourite Line: “Frames of mind aren’t built to last. They aren’t dependable. Even the sturdiest eventually dissolve and disappear.”

Review: In this psychological thriller by the author of I’m Thinking of Ending Things and Foe, Reid takes a premise most of us are familiar with – the failing memories of the aged – and makes it more frightening than a dementia diagnosis. Penny lives alone in the same apartment she’s lived in for 50 years, where she spends most of her time in a chair in front of the TV until she falls while changing a light bulb. She claims she is compos mentis, but hears voices coming from the empty apartment next door and discovers notes she has written to herself in the pockets of her cardigan: “There’s more bread in the freezer,” and “You always loved to dance.”

When she comes to, her landlord, Mike, is standing over her. He packs up her belongings, bundles her into his car and takes her to Six Cedars Residence, which he says she chose and her late husband paid for in advance.

The home is lovely, but Penny thinks it’s strange that there are just four residents. The manager, Shelley, gives off a sinister vibe, especially when she tells Penny she is not allowed to leave the building unaccompanied.

Six Cedars has good food, a comfy bed and Penny even starts painting again. She makes friends with Hilbert, a retired mathematician, and tolerates the loud and loquacious Ruth, but even as she admits her memory is failing her, little things start to niggle: The attendant, Jack, saying Shelley is obsessed, and Ruth saying Shelley will be livid if she catches them talking the hallway alcove. 

Is she losing her mind, or is Six Cedars driving her mad by making her think she is losing it? The reader is never sure as the story unspools in a taut plot that explores the invisibility of the elderly in society, and how that cloak makes them vulnerable to neglect, exploitation and abuse. Penny’s blossoming friendship with Hilbert makes her realize society may lump all old people together as if they were an amorphous mass, but each is a unique individual with their own experiences and memories, even if they can’t recall them. – Kim Honey


8The Animalsby Cary Fagan

Home Base: Toronto

Author’s Take: “I was thinking about both the human and natural environments, our hubris, and the ways in which we like to think about animals – as creatures like ourselves, only cuter and not as smart, there to serve our emotional needs.”

Favourite Line: “I thought of getting something bigger, but a mink seemed like an animal the ladies might like.”

Review: In this strange and mystical tale, we meet Dorn, 38, a lovelorn, architecture-school dropout who makes miniature-scale models for shop windows in a little tourist village (the location is never disclosed, but it has a Scandinavian feel). Just as he gets a strange commission from an anonymous benefactor to build a model of a building on fire, the village starts the Wild Home Project, and residents start adopting wild animals as pets. His neighbour, Leev, takes in a female wolf, and has to get stitched up after the animal attacks him. His brother, Vin, the village Lothario and a property developer with questionable ethics, chooses a mink. As Dorn pines for Ravenna, a teacher, and reveres the reclusive celebrity author, Horla, he stumbles upon a body in the park. 

All these disparate threads are woven together in a delightful mystery with dark undertones and a philosophical bent, as Dorn questions the human proclivity to subjugate nature to satisfy our rapacious wants and needs. Fagan, a nominee for both the Governor General’s Award and the Giller Prize, has written many books for children, and this novel has been described as having a fairy-tale feel. I don’t disagree, but I warn you it’s more Little Match Girl than Sleeping Beauty. – Kim Honey


THE SCROLL

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