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To Be Read

Mysteries, heists, a witchy thriller and a book about how to calm your mind: 8 books that Zed contributors read and loved. / BY Zoomer / March 3rd, 2023

While the March weather flips and flops, there are still lots of blustery days ahead and time to curl up with a good book. Zed contributors have been burrowing into the pages of some of the best books out there, from Governor General’s Award-winner Cherie Dimaline’s new adult novel, VenCo, to a mystery about a Black classical musician whose $10-million Stradivarius is stolen, the North American debut of a bestselling Swedish crime writer and a  Nova Scotia writer who borrows a page or two from Gynweth Paltrow’s life and her Goop business to explore the murky world of wellness gurus.


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.

1The Violin Conspiracy by Brendan Slocumb

Author’s Home Base: Washington, D.C.

Author’s Take: “Music is for everyone. It’s not – or at least shouldn’t be – an elitist, aristocratic club that you need a membership card to appreciate: it’s a language, it’s a means of connecting us that is beyond color, beyond race, beyond the shape of your face or the size of your stock portfolio. Musicians of colour, however, are severely underrepresented in the classical music world – and that’s one of the reasons I wanted to write this book.”

Favourite Lines: “He entered his left arm, hand firmly grasping the violin’s neck, held out the instrument as if he were showcasing his fellow performer: giving it full credit, extending it like a sword in the spotlight. He kept it there a moment. Not just his triumph, but the triumph of his grandmother, and her grandfather before her, here in front of this white audience where few Black people ever played. They had done it together, and together they bowed.”

Review:  What The Queen’s Gambit did for the world of chess, this novel does for classical music: It takes you into a very specific, if inscrutable, frontier, and gives you an underdog protagonist as your guide. It was the kind of novel that wrought such a symphony of emotions (pun very much intended), I found myself talking to the narrator at times. No! Yes! Go! 

It all gets going with a premise, straightforward enough: a family heirloom belonging to Ray, a black classical musician, is stolen right from under his nose on the eve of the most prestigious classical music competition in the world. It just happens to be a $10-million Stradivarius violin, and has a provenance intertwined with the history of slavery in America. So, it’s a heist story that quickly morphs into much more: a genre-splicing story that is at once a whodunit, a flashbacking family saga, a take on both race and class, and an examination of following your passions (even when there are prices to pay). Written in an easy, conversational style – it reminded me of a Nick Hornby novel in that way – and with musical descriptions that hit you in the marrow, it is all about the hard truths, the little wins and life as a “model minority.” – Shinan Govani


2Goddess by Deborah Hemming

Author’s Home Base: Wolfville, N.S.

Author’s Take: “A bestselling author with a bad case of imposter syndrome finds herself at a wellness retreat led by a celebrity guru with a larger-than-life secret.”

Favourite Lines: “I know it looks like it’s all fun and games here, and I can imagine it’s quite … seductive. But it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.”

Review: This story about Gaia – a famous 45-year-old actress-turned-wellness guru who’s making a mint off her Goddess line of beauty and health products – and her handsome filmmaker ex-husband, Jack, immediately conjured images of actress and Goop CEO Gwyneth Paltrow and her ex, Coldplay frontman Chris Martin. (There’s even a scene reminiscent of their famed “conscious uncoupling” announcement.)

This exploration of the multimillion-dollar health and wellness industry, which targets women who want to improve body, mind and spirit, is told from the point of view of Agnes Oliver, an up-and-coming author who has just published a blockbuster debut novel called “Violets in Her Lap.” She meets Jack on a plane to New York, where she is to give readings for her new legion of adoring fans. They hit it off, and she is smitten. As their fledging romance gets off the ground, he invites her to Gaia’s mansion in the Hamptons, where Agnes is introduced to Gaia, their two children and the family pet, a massive snake called Kathari. Gaia asks Agnes to come to her 10-day retreat on the fictional Greek island of Mastika and write about it for Vogue magazine. Of course she says yes, and of course Mastika is weird. Like Gaia, who was born there, the residents look ageless; cellphones are dead; the local drink induces memory loss but no hangover; and Gaia has brought her creepy snake, which slithers around the grounds.

Cue the New Age-y workshops on “holotropic breathwork,” self-pleasure (including a tour of the vulva), astrology and energy healing. As Agnes gets to know the group of largely middle-aged women, she starts to question Gaia’s credentials, investigate her motives and warn retreat goers that all is not what it seems.

In an interview with Ontario’s Open Book website, Hemming says she drew on research into the wellness world and its acolytes to imagine what motivates the gurus, beyond money. “Something about that relationship reminds me of high school. The It girl or queen bee who sells a particular brand of cool to everyone else. The masses worship her and seek to be like her, but the flipside is that she, out of necessity, relies on others to feel powerful.”

The co-dependent relationship between Gaia and summit guests plays out in a terrifying way in this debut novel by an up-and-coming author who explores the fault lines inherent in a world obsessed with celebrity, beauty and youth. – Kim Honey

3VenCo by Cherie Dimaline

Author’s Home Base: Midland, Ont.

Author’s Take: “I’ve always wanted to write a book that’s kind of like a grown-ass Narnia. I love this idea of there being something else. That’s something that I was raised with, something that is in most stories that are really meaningful to me: this idea of there is a way to get yourself somewhere else.”

Favourite Lines: “There would come a day when the right bloodlines and teachings would come together in seven descendants, bringing the exact right seven witches into the world. These witches would form a coven to bring down that which sought to destroy them again and again.”

Review: Lucky St. James, a wannabe writer in her twenties who has a crush on a guy who won’t reciprocate her feelings, is stuck doing dead-end temp jobs in Toronto and struggling to look after her forgetful grandmother, Stella. Just when Lucky is despairing over an eviction notice, she finds a tarnished souvenir spoon from Salem, Mass., in a basement tunnel next to the basement laundry room. That discovery inexplicably changes her mood for the better; meanwhile, Lucky’s spoon alerts three elderly oracles at VenCo in Los Angeles its coven of witches in Salem. The spoon is part of a set of seven, and there is only one more to retrieve to complete an ancient spell. After Lucky meets the Salem witches, she is dispatched to find the missing spoon, while a shape-shifting witch hunter bent on thwarting her mission follows her trail.

Dimaline, author of the Governor-General Award-winning Young Adult novel The Marrow Thieves, spins her unique brand of storytelling – informed by her Métis culture – into a spellbinding new novel that weaves sorcery, Indigenous values and feminism into a supernatural thriller that is funny, poignant and a pointed social commentary on colonialism, organized religion, the patriarchy and capitalism.

I’m not a big fan of witch books, but Dimaline – a master storyteller with a gift for simile and beautiful sentences – gives historical depth to the persecution of women and fleshes out heartrending backstories for Lucky, Stella and the BIPOC coven. VenCo made me think twice about the true meaning of magic and the power of community. – KH

4The Many Daughters of Afong Moy by Jamie Ford

Author’s Home Base: Great Falls, Mont.

Author’s Take: “Writing Chinese American characters brings me closer to my Chinese American family. My father spoke Cantonese fluently and has since passed away, and it’s a way of honouring them and honouring their struggles.”

Favourite Lines: “For most of her childhood Afong thought she must have been a horrible man in her previous life to have been reborn a woman. She must have been cruel, to be reborn powerless. She must have been greedy to come back as property. She must have been shiftless to have her feet bound in this life. She must have been vehement to have been forced to marry an old man whom she had never met, never seen, unable to forget the young man she cared for, dreamed about.”

Review: Before we meet Afong Moy, the first Chinese woman to set a bound foot on American soil in 1836, and narrator Dorothy Moy, the former Washington poet laureate who lives in Seattle in 2045, we are transported to China as Faye Moy – an unmarried 50-something nurse who works for the Volunteer American Group during the 1942 Japanese invasion – ruminates on her lack of a love life. She rescues an American pilot from a plane crash, only to have him die in her arms. When she clears out his meagre belongings, she finds a weathered photo of herself as a teenager that she’s never seen before, with a note on the back in her handwriting that says, “Find me.”

So starts a novel of speculative fiction so fresh it incorporates a relatively new field of science called epigenetics, which examines how behaviour and environment can influence gene expression. Ford, who plays with the idea of inherited trauma, has said he wanted to explore what else can be passed down from generation to generation, like emotional IQ, empathy and even our capacity to love and be loved.

Dorothy, the narrator, is struggling with mental illness and undergoing a novel treatment that connects her to Afong and generations of her female descendants as they navigate the worlds they live in, from China to England to America, encountering racism, sexism and homophobia. As a stranger searches for Dorothy across centuries, she realizes her disassociation is rooted in trauma, the seeds of which were sowed in the early 1800s when Afong, at 14, was cast off by her husband’s wives when he died before their wedding and sold to an American entertainer as a sideshow curiosity. What a tour de force. – KH



5Blaze Me a Sun by Christoffer Carlsson

Author’s Home Base: Sweden

Author’s Take: “All I try to do is tell the stories that, for better or worse and for one reason or another, come to me, and then do what I consider every writer’s task: To search for the very depths of an event, how deep they can penetrate a character and how far-reaching they may be out there, in the world. To explore that story in all of its complexity and depth, even when it’s ugly (especially when it’s ugly), to tell it like it’s the last thing I’ll do, and walk my characters all the way home.”

Favourite Lines: “The idea that I should write about Sven and Vidar now, so many years later, is almost unreal. At time our orbits have come quite close to one another’s, even very close now and then – I picture lifelines that cross for an instant and are about to twine together, but for one reason or another they veer away at the last second.”

Review: Blaze Me a Sun, the American debut of prize-winning Swedish crime writer Christoffer Carlsson, begins on the evening of Feb. 28, 1986. In Stockholm, Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme is assassinated, a murder which is never solved. That pivotal real-life event, however, is the backdrop to a small story: the same night, police in the small town of Halland receive a phone call from a man who says he has attacked a woman, promising that he will do it again. Sven Jorgensson, a seasoned police veteran, discovers the victim as she is about to die from her injuries. That murder, and two that follow, will haunt Sven for decades, fomenting an obsession which will spread to his son, Vidar.

Carlsson, who has a PhD in criminology and is the youngest winner of the prestigious Best Swedish Crime Novel of the Year (previously won by Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankel) has delivered a powerful crime novel, but, more significantly, Blaze Me a Sun is, as a line on the jacket describes it, “a novel about a crime.” That’s a crucial distinction. It is about detective work and leads, yes, but it is also a powerful literary novel about obsession and loss, of generational trauma and familial dissolution, and a breath-taking account of what happens when long-held secrets are brought into the light. Its twists and turns may not be what a seasoned crime reader is expecting, but Blaze Me a Sun will likely be one of the finest crime novels you read this year. – Robert Wiersema

6The Resemblance by Lauren Nossett

Home Base: Atlanta, Georgia

Author’s Take: “I borrowed a guiding principle from Margaret Atwood, who said that her rule for crafting The Handmaid’s Tale was that “nothing went into it that had not happened in real life somewhere at some time.” For me, that meant all fraternity-related episodes must be inspired by real-life occurrences: articles written by former fraternity members, things I myself witnessed, or reports heard first-hand.”

Favourite Line: “I spent my whole life on this campus, straining against my mother’s grasp to watch tall cranes and men in hard hats build the Ramsay Center, later getting drunk outside her building and glaring as another group expanded the student learning center, bulldozed a parking lot, built a garage; the landscape ever changing, the skyline interrupted by new buildings, but always people shuffling to and from classes, a kaleidoscope of sounds and colors, the streets full of energy and life.”

Review: Marlitt Kaplan, a professor’s daughter, grew up on the University of Georgia campus. Now a detective, Kaplan is one of the first police officers on the scene of a hit-and-run: a fraternity brother has stepped into a busy crosswalk, been hit by a car and the driver has fled the scene. While many believe the death is a tragic accident, Kaplan’s investigation leads her deep into Greek life, its secrets and corruptions, the power it holds in the university and the Athens, Ga., community and the role it has played in her own life. Very quickly, her job, her sanity and her life are at risk.

Kaplan is a well-crafted, relatably flawed and haunted protagonist to occupy the centre of a powerful thriller. Grounded in Nossett’s experiences as both a student and a professor, the plot rings true, even as it wends through the fraternity system, its history and the tendrils of its power. The novel has a lot to say about social issues – including class, privilege, abuse and toxic masculinity – while never becoming bogged-down or pedantic. It’s a page-turning read, one which is sure to please most mystery readers as well as those with a fondness for campus novels and dark academia. The best news is that Nossett is already working on a follow-up featuring Kaplan. – RW

7The Cloisters by Katy Hays

Home Base: Truckee, Calif.

Author’s Take: “I’m particularly drawn to the question: what are we capable of believing? It’s easy to draw up a list of things rational people have been talked into: astrology, Heaven’s Gate, manifesting, transubstantiation, ghosts, Mormonism. And I don’t say this to be derogatory to religion, new age or otherwise. I was raised Episcopalian and have an abiding respect for faith, whatever its form. Nevertheless, I’m fascinated by what people can talk themselves into given the right (often extreme) circumstances.”

Favourite Lines: “Death always visited me in August. A slow and delicious month we turned into something swift and brutal. The change, quick as a card trick.”

Review: There is much to be written about dark academia, one of the latest trends for readers that is being fuelled largely by the #booktok community on TikTok. Briefly, it is a loose category of books exploring darkness in post-secondary (or secondary) institutions, with roots in classics such as Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and E.M. Forester’s Maurice. Donna Tartt’s 1992 novel The Secret History is probably the key modern text, though one shouldn’t overlook the influence of the Harry Potter series. Dark academia bloomed during the last few years, especially during the pandemic, with novels like Leigh Bardugo’s Ninth House, R.F. Kuang’s Babel and Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi.

Which brings us to The Cloisters, a debut novel from Katy Hays. Set within the reconstructed Medieval corridors of New York’s The Cloisters (a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art focused on the Romanesque and Gothic periods), the novel follows Ann, who moves from her small Washington state town to take a job at the Met after graduation. Unfortunately, the job falls through and she is shifted, at the last moment, to work uptown at the Cloisters. Once there, she becomes involved in a quest for the original version of the tarot deck, a pack of cards which may, in fact, be able to see the future. There’s also a love triangle, a coming-of-age story, elements of a-fish-out-of-water comedy and just enough twists to keep readers hooked until late into the night. – RW


8 How to Calm Your Mind by Chris Bailey

Author’s Hometown: Ottawa

Author’s Take: “Driven initially by self-preservation, which quickly turned into a curiosity I could not extinguish, I discovered how misunderstood the state of mind we call calm is, to the extent that it is understood at all.”

Favourite Lines: “Many, if not most, of our largest sources of distraction are also sources of chronic stress. This is particularly true during anxious times, when a higher proportion of the distracting content we consume is threatening.”

Review: At first glance, How to Calm Your Mind might seem like something of a departure for Chris Bailey. After all, he has spent the past decade building a reputation in the productivity sphere, with two bestselling books (The Productivity Project and Hyperfocus) and a popular biweekly podcast (Time & Attention) to his credit.

Contrary to that initial reaction, though, How to Calm Your Mind fits very comfortably with Bailey’s productivity mindset, while also calling into question traditional measures of success and productivity in favour of a more holistic approach. The book came about as a response to Bailey’s experience with burnout and anxiety, including an on-stage anxiety attack which left him rattled and realizing, “I’m really not in a good place right now.” In keeping with his usual approach, he “dove headfirst into the science surrounding the topic of calm.” What he found was surprising (the opposite of calm, for example, is anxiety) and, ultimately, affirming (“we can invest in our calm and productivity at the same time”).

How to Calm Your Mind is a powerful, thought-provoking read, devoid of woo-woo self-help clichés, steeped instead in pragmatism, practicality and scientific foundations. From meditation to dopamine overstimulation, from anxiety to intentionality, “the path to greater productivity runs straight through calm,” Bailey writes. But even for those who have less interest in productivity and associated life hacks, How to Calm Your Mind is essential reading. It’s a guide to finding solid ground in uncertain times, an opportunity to find the calm within, and, crucially, hang onto it. – RW






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Canadian Author Details Anne Frank Cold-Case Investigation That Named Surprise Suspect in Her Family’s Betrayal in New BookAhead of the 75th anniversary of the publication of Frank's 'The Diary of a Young Girl' in June, a team that included a retired FBI agent and around 20 historians, criminologists and data specialists identified a relatively unknown figure as a leading suspect in revealing her family's hideout.

Man Who Tricked Authors Into Handing Over Unpublished Manuscripts Arrested by FBI in New YorkFilippo Bernardini, an employee of a well known publication house, has been arrested for stealing hundreds of unpublished manuscripts.

Hollywood Legend Betty White Has a Last Laugh in New Biographic Comic BookThe creators of the biographical comic book have released similar books about Hollywood legends like Carrie Fisher, Lucille Ball, David Bowie and Elizabeth Taylor.

Barack Obama Reveals His List of Books That Left “A Lasting Impression” in 2021Obama's favourite 2021 reads include two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author Colson Whitehead's 'Harlem Shuffle' and 'Klara and the Sun,' by Nobel Prize-winning author Kazuo Ishiguro

“Interview With the Vampire” Author Anne Rice Dies at 80 — Tributes Pour in From Stuart Townsend and OthersThe author, who was best known for her work in gothic fiction, died on Saturday evening as a result of complications from a stroke.

Norma Dunning wins $25,000 Governor General’s English fiction prize for ‘Tainna’The Edmonton-based Inuk writer explores themes of displacement, loneliness and spirituality in six short stories

Omar El Akkad wins $100,000 Giller prize for “What Strange Paradise”The former Globe and Mail reporter, who published "American War" to acclaim in 2017, tackles the global migrant refugee crisis in his second novel

South African Author Damon Galgut Wins the Booker Prize For ‘The Promise’Galgut received nominations for his 2003 and 2010 works before finally taking home the prize this year. 

Hollywood Legend Paul Newman Discusses Life, Acting and Aging Gracefully in Newly Discovered MemoirPublishers of the newly discovered memoir say the Hollywood legend wrote the book in the 1980s in response to the relentless media attention he received during that time.

Here’s What You Need to Know About the Toronto International Festival of AuthorsDirector Roland Gulliver lands in Toronto to open his second, much-expanded virtual festival with more than 200 events

Tanzanian Novelist Gurnah Wins 2021 Nobel Prize in Literature for Depicting the Impact of Colonialism and Refugee StoriesGurnah, 72, is only the second writer from sub-Saharan Africa to win one of the world's most prestigious literary awards

Miriam Toews Garners Third Giller Prize Nomination for “Fight Night” after Shortlist AnnouncedSophomore efforts from novelists Omar El Akkad and Jordan Tannahill join debut books from Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia and Angélique Lalonde

Tina Brown’s New Book, ‘The Palace Papers’, Covers the Royal Family’s Reinvention After Diana’s Tragic DeathTina Brown's sequel to her 2007 release 'The Diana Chronicles' is set to hit shelves April 12, 2022. 

Audible.ca Releases Andrew Pyper’s Exclusive Audiobook “Oracle” For New Plus Catalogue LaunchThe thriller about a psychic FBI detective is one of 12,000 titles now available for free to members

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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