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The Zed A-List

From an unlucky grifter to Linwood Barclay's latest thriller, here are the books Zed contributors couldn't put down / BY Kim Honey / May 26th, 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. 

1Lucky Marissa Stapley

Home Base: Toronto

Author’s Take: “A grifter with a heart of gold and a winning lottery ticket.”

Favourite Line: “Someone had left a baby outside the nunnery.”

Review: This rollicking road-trip novel begins with the titular heroine landing in Las Vegas with her boyfriend Cary, both fraudsters of the highest order, who are on the run after bilking seniors and stashing the money offshore.

When Carey disappears along with their ill-gained fortune, Lucky’s numbers come up in a lottery, but she can’t claim the prize and risk being identified as the police are on her trail. With Lucky’s traumatic childhood revealed in flashbacks, it’s no wonder the TV rights were sold to Disney with Stapley tapped to write the pilot.

 


2New Girl in Little Cove Damhnait Monaghan

Home Base: England

Author Kate Hilton’s Take: “If you loved Come From Away, don’t miss this charming debut novel.”

Favourite Line: “I’m so hungry I could gnaw the leg off the lamb of god.”

Review: If you’ve ever dreamed of visiting Newfoundland, this book allows the reader to move there with Rachel O’Brien, a 23-year-old teacher who’s taken a one-year contract in the fictional outport town of Little Cove, population 389. The first person she meets is Phonse, the school janitor, who stops his bike to ask her if she’s broken down at the side of the road when she stops to take in the breathtaking view of the bay. “It’s right mauzy today,” he comments, and we’re off on a mad caper full of Newfoundlandisms such as “gentle Jaysus in the garden” and cultural crossed wires, like the time Rachel’s landlady tells her she’s a hooker – a rug hooker, she quickly clarifies when Rachel looks askance.

Did I mention that Rachel teaches French, one of Canada’s official languages, in a place that still refers to the rest of the country as the mainland? It’s an uphill battle at school, where the students are disinterested in the subject and most kids drop it in Grade 9, and outside the classroom, her liberal attitudes clash with the town’s deep-rooted Catholicism, resulting in a denouement that gives the book some gravitas.

Like Rachel, Monaghan is a mainlander from Toronto who moved to Newfoundland and, after getting a B.A. in English and French and her B.Ed., taught in outport schools, so her lived experience imbues Rachel’s story with authenticity.

 


3Sparks Like StarsNadia Hashimi

This Washington, D.C., pediatrician, whose family emigrated from Afghanistan in the 1970s before the Soviet invasion, draws on her childhood memories and her physician’s training to weave an incredible story about a 10-year-old girl whose family is slain before her eyes during a military coup at the presidential palace in Kabul in 1978. A soldier saves Sitara by dropping her at the door of a female American diplomat, who helps her make a harrowing escape to the U.S. Sitara renames herself Aryana, buries her tragic past and becomes a successful surgeon until the day, 30 years later, she must confront it. I could not put Sparks Like Stars down, and stayed up till 2 a.m. one night reading this novel, which is a real education in the way the Soviets and Americans have used the country as a pawn in their geopolitical chess game. There are so many more twists and turns to the story, which is as much an ode to Afghanistan as it is a study of resiliency.


4Her Dark Lies J.T. Ellison

Home Base: Nashville

Author’s Take: “You’re invited to a wedding none will forget – and some won’t survive.”

Favourite Line: “With Jackson pulling the strings, Claire Hunter became the marionette of his dreams.”

Review: The master of thrillers is back with Her Dark Lies, a twisty tale inspired by a vacation to Lake Como, Italy, where the Good Girls Lie author saw a yacht ferrying wedding guests to a small island in the lake, heard a huge party and saw fireworks going off. Her mind immediately turned to nuptials, and so her 15th book opens with an invitation to the marriage of Jackson Compton, the handsome, wealthy son of a computer magnate, to Claire Hunter, an unknown, pierced and tattooed artist. It’s set on a fictional island off the west coast of Italy not unlike Capri. Of course the Compton’s Villa la Scogliera is perched on a cliff, accessible only by boat or helicopter, and it’s haunted. To add to the creepiness, there is a crypt in the basement, a labyrinth in the garden and a huge storm brewing.

Set over three days, the mystery starts the day before Jack and Claire fly to Naples when they surprise a masked intruder in Claire’s Nashville home. After a struggle with Jack, Claire grabs the burglar’s gun and shoots him. The die is cast, along with the first lie, when Jack’s wealthy parents insist she tell police one of their security men fired the fatal shot.

We see both Jack and Claire’s lies of omission from their viewpoints as we learn that Jack is a widower, while Claire has had a chequered past. Then there’s the mysterious, anonymous narrator who claims to have been there the night Jack and Claire met at in Nashville and has been following them ever since.

Ellison’s millions of fans – she’s been published in 27 countries and 15 languages – won’t be disappointed with this suspenseful tale as the plot thickens with blood and the body count rises.

 


5One Hundred Years of Lenni and Margot Marianne Cronin

Home Base: West Midlands, England

Author’s Take: “The more I stopped worrying about whether my book was ‘normal’, the more fun I had with it.”

Favourite Line: “I wondered why God would need his windows frosted. What’s he up to in there?”

Review: This debut novel from a young British writer is a delight, and not just for its non-linear structure and unconventional chapter lengths, some as short as five sentences. Lenni Pettersson, the 17-year-old protagonist, may be in hospital dying from an undisclosed illness, but her sass and wicked sense of humour – particularly when she devises a scheme to fill the empty pews in the hospital chapel – will have the reader laughing out loud. She is always devising new ways to get sprung from her hospital room, which is how she ends up meeting, befriending and exasperating the chaplain, Father Arthur. She also manages to enrol in an art therapy program for seniors, over the objections of a kind staffer she calls New Nurse. When she meets Margot Macrae, 83, and realizes their ages add up to 100, Lenni dreams up an art project that launches a deep friendship and offers a framework for the book, which unfolds as the unlikely pair reveal themselves to each other.

The beauty of the book lies in its depiction of Margot as a fully drawn character, not a doddering old woman, who is a bit of a rebel herself and has lived a life full of joys and sorrow. Then there is Lenni, who may be dying, but is trying her damndest to live to the max, in spite of feeding tubes and IVs and emergency surgeries, not to mention the strictures imposed by the Glasgow Princess Royal Hospital.

Already optioned for a film, One Hundred Years confronts mortality and gives it the one-finger salute. (June 1)


6I Am a Girl From Africa Elizabeth Nyamayaro

Home Base: New York

Author’s Take: “I wrote my memoir to inspire others to join the good fight in creating a better world for all of us – grounded in the African philosophy of ubuntu.”

Favourite Line: “We wanted for nothing because the food belonged to everyone.”

Review: Elizabeth Nyamayaro is eight years old and has had nothing to eat or drink for three days. Splayed out under a tree in scorched maize field near the Zimbabwean village of Goromonzi, she is drifting in and out of consciousness when a woman in a blue uniform feeds her porridge from a bowl and water from a bottle. Instantly revived, she survives the drought that has devastated her village and carries on working the fields and keeping house with Gogo, her maternal grandmother, a subsistence farmer who has raised her since she was a baby.

Nyamayaro’s fascinating memoir reads like fiction, and is written like a novel, too, with mysterious hints about her absent parents and other hardships, with the gaps filled in as the author flashes back and forth from her childhood growing up with Gogo to life in Harare after she is reunited with her mother and father, and on to her emigration to London at 21 and a life dedicated to ubuntu. The word means, as Gogo explains to Elizabeth, “I am because you are, and because we are, you are.”

When she learns her saviour worked for the United Nations, Nyamayaro vows to follow in her footsteps and relies on shinga – or inner strength – to persevere, against great odds, to find a job in London, save enough to get a master’s degree in political science from the London School of Economics, and go on to work in global development for the World Bank, the World Health Organization and, yes, even the United Nations.

It is a story about survival, hope, and a deep and abiding love for Africa, but it is illuminating for Westerners who, as Nyamayaro notes, often view the continent as a homogenous place awash in disease and poverty. She shows how it is home to inestimable beauty and people who value community above all else. As Gogo says, “to be African is to be blessed.” The word humanitarian does not even begin to describe what Nyamayaro has done for her homeland and its people.

 


7Find You First Linwood Barclay

Home Base: Brampton, Ont.

Stephen King’s Take: “It’s the best book of his career… If you enjoy thrillers, this is the real deal. It never lets up.”

Favourite Line: “If Jeremy Pritkin wanted a Winnebago on the top floor of his residence, that was exactly what Jeremy Pritkin was going to get.”

Review: Barclay, a former journalist, is a news junkie and current events are the fuel that sparks his imagination, with Elevator Pitch inspired by a report about a shortage of technicians to service Toronto high-rises and, in one of my favourites, Google street view spies are the basis for Trust Your Eyes. Find You First features an arrogant tech millionaire, Miles Cookson, who, diagnosed with a fatal illness, decides to track down all nine of his progeny from a sperm donation made to a fertility clinic when he was in his 20s. When they start disappearing, Miles and one of his children, Chloe Swanson, get drawn into a web of intrigue that will have you changing your mind about whodunit with every chapter.


8Bonnie Jack Ian Hamilton

Home Base: Burlington, Ont.

Author’s Take: “Transforming my bricklayer father into an insurance executive was my way of providing him with a voice for the feelings he could never express.”

Favourite Line: “I want to know how a mother could abandon one child and save another.”

Review: After 14 Ava Lee mystery novels and two Uncle Chow Tung books, detective writer Ian Hamilton leaves Chinese culture in the rear-view mirror as he pulls up stakes and moves his first standalone book to Glasgow, of all places.

It makes more sense when you learn that the book is based on the true story of his father, whose mother abandoned him in a movie theatre when he was a boy, never to return. Fifty years later, he informed his stunned family that he had a sister and flew to England to see her.

In the book, Jack Anderson drops a similar bombshell on his family, then flies off with his wife, Anne, to track down his half-sister in Glasgow, discovering more family members – and confronting his past – at every turn. Now a high-profile American insurance executive living in Connecticut, all Jack wants to know is why his mother left him behind and took his sister with her. It may sound desperately sad, but there are scenes of great hilarity and, as a bonus, the reader gets a bird’s-eye view of Glasgow and Edinburgh. As Jack and his family try to piece together the mystery of why his mother left him, new bonds are formed – and tested. This being an Ian Hamilton novel, there’s a plot thread involving financial malfeasance, extortion and gang members.

 


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