The Reading List – Sara Nisha Adams

Sara Nisha Adams’s debut The Reading List will probably appeal to booklovers everywhere, and although I would certainly consider myself one of those, this book didn’t really work for me.

Mukesh is a widower with three adult daughters. Aleisha is seventeen. Her parents are divorced and she lives with her older brother Aiden and her mother, a graphic designer, who spends most of her time curled up in a ball of misery. Aleisha works at a local branch library – a job she hates because she doesn’t really like to read. It is there that Mukesh and Aleisha first meet. It doesn’t exactly go well.

Mukesh is desperate to alleviate the sorrow he feels over his wife’s death. He’s lonely and has basically given up on life. He is hoping to find another book to help him as much as he feels that The Time Traveler’s Wife helped him, but he doesn’t know what to pick. His wife was the reader, not him. He is horrified when he visits the library and Aleisha tells him “I don’t read novels.”

Call it serendipity if you like (I call it contrived), but after Aleisha is reprimanded by her boss for being rude, she discovers a reading list entitled Just in case you need it which another library patron has apparently left behind. The lists consists of eight titles: To Kill a Mockingbird, Rebecca, The Kite Runner, Life of Pi, Pride and Prejudice, Little Women, Beloved, A Suitable Boy. Aleisha doesn’t really have anything better to do, (no friends/boyfriend) so she decides to start to read from the list and then she will have books to recommend to Mukesh when he returns to the library. This is, of course, the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

And all of that would be just fine with me, if it had been handled more deftly. I think Adams had a great idea. Book lovers pretty much universally love books about books and reading. Although I mostly enjoyed the two main characters, the inclusion of other random characters who also come across this reading list just felt convenient. You know from the outset that the library is in jeopardy of closing, and so you can also guess that all these people will band together to save it – and thus save themselves from the loneliness which it seems is part of the 21st century human experience. We have more and more ways to connect, and yet we are also more and more isolated. Yeah, so we get the whole idea that reading is one way to have a meaningful relationship with another person, which could potentially lead to something more.

In addition to the people, the discussion of the books felt cursory. For example, you wouldn’t even have ever had to read To Kill a Mockingbird to know that it’s important to see things from someone else’s point of view. The book discussions felt like Cliff’s notes, and as the novel went along, any talk of the books felt like an afterthought.

So, while many people will likely feel satisfied and heart-warmed by Adam’s book, I felt frustrated that it didn’t live up to its potential.

Fire Keeper’s Daughter – Angeline Boulley

Angeline Boulley’s debut Fire Keeper’s Daughter was my first read in 2022 and it’s a cracker. It’s almost 500 pages long, but it was so good I had a hard time putting it down. It’s nice to start a new reading year with a great book!

Eighteen-year-old Daunis Fontaine lives in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. Her white mother comes from a wealthy, important family – a building at the local college is named after her grandfather. Her Ojibwe father, who died when she was seven, lived on the Sugar Island reservation, the place Daunis calls her “favorite place in the universe.” Daunis has a brother, Levi, who is just three months younger than her. There’s complicated family history, but Levi and Daunis are close; they are both talented hockey players, and they both idolized their father, who himself was a superstar on the ice, destined for great things until he was injured in a car accident. Daunis is meant to be headed to the University of Michigan for pre-med, but when her uncle David dies and her maternal grandmother ends up in a nursing home, Daunis makes the decision to start her post-secondary education closer to home.

Then she meets Jamie. He’s a new recruit to the Supes, the local elite junior A team her brother captains. There’s an immediate spark between the two. Soon they are running together in the morning and Daunis finds herself sharing things with him that she’s never shared before.

There is so much to love about this book I don’t even know where to start. First of all, Daunis is a fabulous character: smart, resilient, capable, loyal. She aligns herself with her Ojibwe heritage even though she is an unenrolled member because her father isn’t listed on her birth certificate. Her best friend Lily is in the same boat and “We still regard the tribe as ours, even though our faces are pressed against the glass, looking in from outside.”

Boulley captures all the hardships of being a biracial teen, the casual racism Daunis experiences, the sexism; it’s all here, but none of it is didactic. The novel also weaves traditional beliefs as well as stories and language throughout the narrative, which as a white person with very little knowledge of these things, I found fascinating.

Something else that is encroaching on her life is the proliferation of meth, which seems to be coming from Sugar Island and which is starting to impact people she cares about. Her childhood friend, Travis, who has become a shadow of his previously charming, handsome and goofy self now has ” hollows under his cheekbones [that] are concave to the point of sickly. Any softness is gone.” Travis’s addiction is just the tip of the iceberg, though and when Daunis witnesses a murder and discovers that Jamie is not quite who he seems, she finds herself helping the FBI investigate the meth and the novel kicks into high gear.

It would be one thing if Fire Keeper’s Daughter was just a story about a girl trying to figure out how she fits into two very different worlds, but this ambitious novel is so much more than that. It’s a mystery, it’s a coming-of-age story; it’s a story about culture and family. It’s so good.

Highly recommended.

2021 in Review

With thanks to The Perpetual Page-Turner

2021 READING STATS

Number Of Books You Read: 77
Number of Re-Reads: 2
Genre You Read The Most From: Fiction

best-YA-books-2014

1. Best Book You Read In 2021?

My favourite book of 2021 was The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller. It ticked ALL my boxes. It is a is a beautifully-written, page-turner about a woman who has to make a decision at a point in her life where she’s actually lived a life and has some real skin in the game. I loved it.

Honourable mention to: Hamnet and Judith by Maggie O’Farrell and We Begin at the End by Chris Whitaker

2. Book You Were Excited About & Thought You Were Going To Love More But Didn’t?

I had a handful of disappointing reads this year, but these were the ones I was especially looking forward to for a variety of reasons, but were then disappointing – also for a variety of reasons:

The Chain – Adrian McKinty

In My Dreams I Hold a Knife – Ashley Winstead,

One True Loves – Taylor Jenkins Reid

Crooked House – Agatha Christie

 3. Most surprising (in a good way or bad way) book you read?  

I was surprised that I didn’t love love Courtney Summers’ The Project because I have loved loved everything else she’s written and this book seemed right up my alley: a prickly heroine, a cult. It wasn’t awful; I still enjoyed it. I just thought I would like it a lot more than I did.

I listened to The Secret Garden – my first audiobook – and it was kinda surprising that I enjoyed the experience. I’ve read the book before, ages ago, and it was nice to revisit the garden this way.

The Lesser Dead surprised me, too. A fresh take on vampires that was creepy, and heartbreaking. I’d never heard of the author before and I will definitely be looking to read more of his work.

 4. Book You “Pushed” The Most People To Read (And They Did)?

I do the most “pushing” in my classroom and this year I was a big fan of Concrete Rose, Odd One Out, and It Sounded Better in My Head. I’ve also encouraged people to read The Paper Palace and given it as gifts.

 5. Favorite new author you discovered in 2021?

Chris Whitaker and Miranda Cowley Heller will be autobuy authors for me.

6. Best book from a genre you don’t typically read/was out of your comfort zone?

Nothing is out of my comfort zone, and I rarely pick books in genres that don’t interest me.

 7. Most action-packed/thrilling/unputdownable book of the year?

Besides the books I mentioned for question one, I had a very hard time putting down Amy Engel’s novel The Familiar Dark. A Rip in Heaven by Jeanine Cummins and The Girls Are All So Nice Here by Laurie Elizabeth Flynn were both page turners, too.

Maybe The Paper Palace, but honestly with a TBR pile as big as mine, I don’t do as much re-reading as I would like.

9. Favorite cover of a book you read in 2021?

Loved the title and the cover, the story didn’t quite hold together for me, though.

10. Most memorable character of 2021?

100% Duchess from We Begin at the End. So much love for that girl.

Honourable mention to Maverick from Concrete Rose. I loved him when I first met him in The Hate U Give and I loved him even more in his origin story, and Zelda MacLeish from When We Were Vikings

 11. Most beautifully written book read in 2021?

Hamnet and Judith was gorgeous to read. It’s really a book you want to savour.

12. Most Thought-Provoking/ Life-Changing Book of 2021?

How Reading Changed My Life by Anna Quindlen provided lots of food for thought.

 13. Book you can’t believe you waited UNTIL 2021 to finally read? 

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith has been on my TBR shelf forever. Finally read it and I loved it.

14. Shortest & Longest Book You Read In 2021?

The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne clocked in at 582 pages but was a sheer delight to read from beginning to end. How Reading Changed My Life was just 96 pages long. I read a total of 25,243 pages this year.

 15. Book That Shocked You The Most

(Because of a plot twist, character death, left you hanging with your mouth wide open, etc.)

Corrupt…and not in a good way.

16. OTP OF THE YEAR (you will go down with this ship!)

(OTP = one true pairing if you aren’t familiar)

Elle/Jonas – The Paper Palace

Maverick/Lisa – Concrete Rose

17. Favorite Non-Romantic Relationship Of The Year

Siblings Zelda and Gert in When We Were Vikings. I also loved all the relationships in We Begin at the End.

18. Favorite Book You Read in 2021 From An Author You’ve Read Previously

Later by Stephen King was lots of fun and I really liked The Familiar Dark by Amy Engel, who wrote one of my fave 2020 reads, The Roanoke Girls

Lisa Jewell never disappoints and this year I read (and enjoyed) The Night She Disappeared.

19. Best Book You Read In 2021 That You Read Based SOLELY On A Recommendation From Somebody Else/Peer Pressure/Bookstagram, Etc.:

#BlameItOnLitsy The Heart’s Invisible Furies was a book that lots of people were talking about on Litsy I gave in to the pressure and have zero regrets. I discovered We Begin At the End on Twitter. Lots of well-deserved chat about that one.

20. Newest fictional crush from a book you read in 2021?

No one, really.

21. Best 2021 debut you read?

The Paper Palace, obviously, but also Shuggie Bain which not only won the Booker but which was just an incredible book. I also really enjoyed Mirrorland.

22. Best Worldbuilding/Most Vivid Setting You Read This Year?

The Paper Palace had such a sense of time and place. Honourable mention to The Lesser Dead: NYC in the 70s and Crooked River a book about a father and his daughters living off the grid in Oregon.

23. Book That Put A Smile On Your Face/Was The Most FUN To Read?

I Capture the Castle is a delight and made me very happy.

24. Book That Made You Cry Or Nearly Cry in 2021?

Tin Man by Sarah Winman got me close, but Hamnet and Judith got me all the way there.

25. Hidden Gem Of The Year?

I don’t know how hidden it is, but I choose When We Were Vikings. That book was just such a gem. Honourable mention: Crooked River by Valerie Geary. Everyone should give these books a go.

26. Book That Crushed Your Soul?

I had a few soul crushing reads this year…as if 2021 wasn’t tough enough.

Forbidden – Tabitha Suzuma, We Begin at the End, The Paper Palace, Hamnet and Judith all hit me in the feels.

27. Most Unique Book You Read In 2021?

Fight Night by Miriam Toews had an unusual narrator in nine-year-old Swiv.

28. Book That Made You The Most Mad (doesn’t necessarily mean you didn’t like it)?

100% Corrupt by Penelope Douglas and by “most mad” I do mean I HATED it. Gawd-awful garbage.

book-blogging

1. New favorite book blog/Bookstagram/Youtube channel you discovered in 2021?

I love Jordy’s Book Club on Instagram. I haven’t really figured out how to get the most from Instagram yet, but I do really enjoy his content. I also like BooksbytheBay – also new to me and local.

2. Favorite post you wrote in 2021?

I had a lot of fun writing my review for Corrupt. Way more fun than I had reading the book.

Yeah, not my thing. Maybe this one.

4. Best bookish event that you participated in (author signings, festivals, virtual events,  etc.)?

I was very excited to participate in Shelf Absorption‘s “everything you wanted to know about other people’s bookshelves project” which you can read about here.

5. Best moment of bookish/blogging life in 2021?

I hit 10,000 #Litfluence points on Litsy, which was kind of exciting.

6. Most challenging thing about blogging or your reading life this year?

Being distracted by Covid and my iPad.

7. Most Popular Post This Year On Your Blog (whether it be by comments or views)?

Strangely, my review of Corrupt got over 12,000 views.

8. Post You Wished Got A Little More Love?

I am happy to interact with anyone who wants to chat. 🙂

9.  Did you complete any reading challenges or goals that you had set for yourself at the beginning of this year?

I always do the Good Reads Reading challenge. I set my goal for 75 books and I read 77. You can see a summary of my stats here.

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1. One Book You Didn’t Get To In 2021 But Will Be Your Number 1 Priority in 2022?

Where do I even start?

2. Book You Are Most Anticipating For 2022 (non-debut)?

Take your pick.

My TBR shelf…and that’s not all of them.

3. One Thing You Hope To Accomplish Or Do In Your Reading/Blogging Life In 2022?

Maybe start a podcast. Maybe make better use of Instagram. Maybe neither of those things.

The Black Flamingo – Dean Atta

Although I do not know this for sure, Dean Atta’s novel-in-verse The Black Flamingo feels like a very personal story. Atta tells the story of Michael, born in London to a Greek Cypriot mom and a Jamaican dad who exits the family shortly after Michael is born.

“…six days before the millennium,/ she burned their Christmas dinner/ and he shouted, “You’re useless!”/ before throwing his plate down, turkey/ stuck to the kitchen floor. and I cried,/ startled by early indoor fireworks./ That was the end for them. The beginning/ for Mummy and me.”

Atta unspools Michael’s story, which is the story of someone who isn’t quite Greek enough or Jamaican enough, and definitely not straight enough, a fact he seems to realize relatively early on. When he is just six he tells his mother “If you only get me one present/ this year, please can it be/ a Barbie?”

I can relate to that. My son was totally enamoured with Bratz dolls when he was a kid. And long hair; he desperately wanted long hair, so eventually we got him a hat with all these long braids sewn along the edges. He wore that thing constantly.

The next year Michael tells his mother he wants to change his last name to hers, a request that earns him “the longest hug I’ve ever had.” (Nineteen seconds!)

The novel traces Michael’s adolescence, his friendship with Daisy, and finally his journey to attend university in Brighton. It is here that he finds his people at Drag Society, and ultimately himself.

“I’m just a man and I want/ to wear a dress and makeup on stage./ I want to know how it feels to publicly/ express a side of me I’ve only felt privately/ when playing with my Barbie as a boy.”

The Black Flamingo is a coming-of-age story, a story about identity and family, and it is lovely and lyrical and hopeful, too.

The Closest I’ve Come – Fred Aceves

This year in my grade ten English class we’ve decided to try something new: podcasts. I have never made one and have only recently started to listen to them, but one of my colleagues and I thought it might be a great, non-traditional way for students to show their learning. We hooked up with a local organization called Brilliant Labs for the tech-y stuff and paired students up to read books that dealt with the topic of coming of age, which is this term’s big idea. Then, my colleague and I decided that we should give it a go, too.

We read Fred Aceves debut novel The Closest I’ve Come which tells the story of fifteen-year-old Marcos Rivas who lives in Tampa, but not in the part of Tampa tourists see. His mother seems sort of checked out and her boyfriend, Brian, is a bully. Marcos notes “With every step home my bones are getting shakier.”

He moved in last summer, just before the worst heatwave in a decade, but the strangling humidity didn’t faze him none. The douche sat in the armchair (my armchair when my mom’s between boyfriends) with the fan pointed at himself. Even with me and my mom also watching TV, even though the fan has an oscillating setting, it forever pointed his way.

Things are pretty grim for Marcos. They’re poor, he struggles in school, some of his friends are borderline criminals and although he dreams of getting out of the hood, he doesn’t really know how he’s going to accomplish this. Then an opportunity lands in his lap.

Congratulations! You’ve been selected to take part in a new, exciting program.

The exciting program is an after-school group which is meant to provide enrichment to students with potential. One of those students is a take-no-prisoners girl named Amy who Marcos has admired from afar for many months. Marcos muses: “Me and Amy got something in common, even if it’s only this. Us together ain’t crazy. It might be fate.”

Marcos’s experiences in the class and interacting with students he might not normally interact with helps Marcos realize his potential. He learns that while it might be nice to figure out how to fit in, it’s also important to remain true to one’s self. Watching him struggle to play the crappy hand he’s been dealt is inspiring, especially because nothing comes easy for him.

I really enjoyed The Closest I’ve Come. I will post a link to our podcast here when it’s finished.

Finding Felicity – Stacey Kade

Although I was much older than the show’s target audience, I fell madly in love with the J.J. Abrams/Matt Reeves coming-of-age drama Felicity (1998-2002). In the show, Felicity Porter gets the boy she’s loved from afar, Ben Covington, to sign her yearbook on graduation day, and what he writes causes her to abandon her post-secondary plans and enroll at NYU, which is where Ben is going to university. The series’ four years follow Felicity through her friendships and relationships and decisions, both good and bad, and it is all must-watch television. I still love the show and rewatch it start to finish every couple of years.

In Stacey Kade’s YA novel Finding Felicity, eighteen-year-old Caroline Sands has just graduated from high school, meaning she’s leaving the mess of the last few years behind and hoping for a fresh start when she starts Ashmore, a small liberal arts college in Iowa, in the fall.

After her parents’ divorce, Caroline and her mom moved to Arizona, and she just never really found her people. Instead, she found Felicity, so when her mom asked her about school and her friends, she just told them about the characters from the show. What could go wrong with that?

Ashmore is supposed to be Caroline’s new beginning, a chance to reinvent herself and make new friends. She neglects to tell her mother that part of the reason she wants, no needs, to go to this school is because Liam Fanshaw – her Ben-equivalent – is going there, too. What could go wrong with that?

Finding Felicity will speak to anyone who has ever felt uncomfortable in their own skin and desperately just wants to fit in. Caroline is awkward, for sure, but mostly she lacks confidence. That’s relatable, I think. Common wisdom would suggest that a new place doesn’t equal a new you and sometimes figuring it out is hard, but not impossible. Caroline makes a few missteps, but ultimately starts to craft the life she has wished for, and many teens will enjoy the journey.

The Woman in the Dark – Vanessa Savage

Sarah and Patrick are “happily” married and have two teenage children, Mia and Joe. Sarah is just starting to emerge from a long depression, brought on by her mother’s death. She’s still fragile. Patrick thinks what they need is a fresh start and he announces that the house where he grew up is available for sale and they should buy it and move. Just one tiny problem: fifteen years ago, the family who was living in that house – all but one survivor – was stabbed to death by a crazy person. What could go wrong?

Turns out, quite a lot does go wrong in Vanessa Savage’s debut The Woman in the Dark. And, unfortunately, that’s part of the problem with the book. It’s too bad because the book had a lot of promise. If you were playing a drinking game and had to take a drink for every trope, you’d be sloshed by the novel’s halfway mark.

I don’t want to step inside that house, but Patrick doesn’t see what I see when I look at the picture. He sees the beautiful Victorian house he grew up in, with its pitched roof and gabled ends – a fairy-tale house before it became a country House of Horrors. He sees happy memories of a childhood lived by the sea. He doesn’t imagine blood on the walls or whispering ghosts. He doesn’t see the Murder House, but I do.

Unfortunately for Sarah, that early intuitive insight doesn’t sustain her. She’s an unreliable narrator surrounded by people who keep secrets. And instead of a classic haunted house story, which might have been a more successful route, Savage chucks everything she could think of at the story, hoping that some of it would stick. It’s too much and not all of it lands successfully.

There’s Sarah’s mental health issues, gaslighting, isolation, creepy gifts left on the doorstep of their new home, people who are not who they seem, people who are who they seem, and you should have known it, secrets galore – some of them which inform the story’s narrative, but should have been spilled long ago, teen angst, writing on the walls (literally), domestic violence, a creepy basement…the list goes on. I kind of felt like the book didn’t really know what it wanted to be, which was too bad because I think the writing was pretty decent, and I was certainly hopeful when I started reading, especially because the book garnered copious praise.

It was a miss for me, but I would certainly be opening to reading more from this author.

Every Exquisite Thing – Matthew Quick

Nanette O’Hare is trying to figure stuff out in Matthew Quick’s (Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock) YA novel Every Exquisite Thing. She’s a straight-A senior, and a super-star soccer player from an affluent family, so on the surface one might assume that Nanette has got it all going on. But it’s not true. Since mid-way through her junior year she’s been eating lunch with her English teacher, Mr. Graves, and avoiding her bestie, Shannon, whose questionable sexual escapades had started bothering Nanette back in middle school.

One day Mr. Graves hands her a tattered copy of Nigel Booker’s novel The Bubblegum Reaper, a book that Mr. Graves claims changed his life.

It’s maybe not the most literary work in the world. Probably a bit dated. But it’s a cult classic and I have a feeling that it might be the perfect read for you. Maybe even a rite of passage for people like us.

The Bubblegum Reaper does, in fact, have a tremendous impact on Nanette’s life. The book’s author lives in her home town, and Mr. Graves arranges for the two to meet.

Spending time with Booker was becoming an addiction, mostly because it was the only part of my day when I felt like I could be myself – or maybe like there was one person in the world who didn’t want me to be something I didn’t want to be or to act a certain way or to go along with everything that others pushed into my life.

Through Mr. Booker she meets Alex, a boy her age who writes poetry. The bond between the two teens is cemented as they talk about the book and share their own feelings of isolation and disenfranchisement.

It is through these relationships that Nanette is able to shake off some of the personas she’s adopted over the years. She starts to say no when she might have just said yes and, ultimately, though certainly not without some heartache, Nanette is able to forge her own path and become the person she really wants to be.

Every Exquisite Thing is a philosophical, quirky and thoughtful coming-of-age story.

Odd One Out – Nic Stone

One of the topics the students in my Young Adult Literature class discussed this semester was the importance of diversity in fiction. Nic Stone wrote a wonderful opinion piece called “Don’t Just Read About Racism—Read Stories About Black People Living” where she expressed her own experiences with books featuring Black characters and the problem of having every single ‘diverse’ text tackle issues of police brutality and racism or simply featuring characters she didn’t recognize. Tokens or sidekicks.

“I met three African-American characters in books between 8th and 12th grade,” she writes. “The first was a Black man falsely accused of a horrific crime—literally because of #WhiteWomanTears—who despite his innocence suffers a horrific fate (Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird). The second was a Black man with a role so minor, most people don’t remember he was Black or don’t remember him at all (Crooks from Of Mice and Men). And the third was an escaped Black slave written (by a white man) in vernacular so dense that half the time, I had zero idea what homie was trying to tell me (Jim from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn).

I hated all of it.”

Why was it, Stone posits, that growing up she never read about Black kids going on adventures, solving mysteries, falling in love? “What if we’d seen Black people in books just being human?” she writes.

Cue her 2018 YA novel Odd One Out, the story of seventeen-year-old besties Courtney “Coop” Cooper and Jupiter “Jupe” Charity-Sanchez. Coop has been in love with Jupe for as long as he can remember, but Jupe likes girls. At least she’s pretty sure she likes girls. She hasn’t really had any experience with them. Then Rae Chin moves to town. Suddenly Jupe and Coop find themselves part of a very complicated triangle.

This is exactly the sort of book Stone was talking about when she described the sort of stories that were unavailable to her when she was growing up. The characters in Odd One Out are just trying to navigate family stuff (Jupe has two dads; Coop’s father was killed in a car accident; Rae’s mom took off, but all the parents in this book are professional, loving, sane parents – not a gang banger among them), school and what turns out to be very complicated feelings for each other.

All three main characters get a turn to tell their story (Coop was my favourite; I found him funny, loyal, and charming) and I loved every second I spent with them. The drama is all self-made, but these smart and sensitive teens are trying to figure it out and that sometimes makes for hurt feelings, which Stone doesn’t shy away from. Odd One Out is a coming-of-age story which will appeal to any teen who has ever been in love or questioned their sexuality. The fact that I adored this book proves Stone’s point that “the more we see Black people living—loving and doing and being and feeling and going on adventures and solving mysteries and being the heroes—the more we come to recognize our shared humanity.”

Amen.

Highly recommended.

Fight Night – Miriam Toews

I have mixed feelings about Canadian writer Miriam Toews’ eighth novel Fight Night, which was a 2021 Giller prize finalist. On the one hand, it irked me and on the other hand, I could appreciate its charms.

Nine-year-old Swiv (although she certainly doesn’t seem like any nine-year-old that I’ve ever encountered), lives with her pregnant mother (the fetus has already been named Gord) and her grandmother, Elvira. Precocious doesn’t begin to describe Swiv. She’s been expelled from school and demonstrates no interest in going back. Instead her grandmother homeschools her; her lessons include things like suduko, Boggle, “How to dig a winter grave”, and letter writing. (The novel is actually Swiv’s letter to her absent father.)

Swiv’s mother is an actress who seems to always be in trouble with a stage manager or director. Elvira is the stabilizing influence and even she seems half crazy.

Grandma says fragments are the only truth. Fragments of what? I asked her. Exactly! she said. She asked me what my dream was last night. I told her I dreamt that I had to write a goodbye letter using the words one and blue. Na oba! Grandma said. That’ll be your assignment for today, Swivchen. She has a secret language.

Swiv recounts her families’ idiosyncrasies with a matter-of-factness that seems beyond her years. She is responsible for bathing her grandmother, and putting on her compression socks, for picking up the pills and conchigliette her grandmother drops on the floor yelling “Bombs away!” and, when the two of them travel to Fresno to see Elvira’s nephews, being her travel companion.

Elvira’s open-heartedness is contagious. She sees the dual nature of life, that it is both hilarious and devastating. “Do you know the story of Romeo and Juliet?” she asks Swiv. “Well, I mean in a nutshell. It was a tragedy. Do you know Shakespeare’s tragedies? People like to separate his plays into tragedies and comedies. Well, jeepers creepers! Aren’t they all one and the same.”

Toews mines her personal history here – as she has on past occasions – and it makes for fascinating reading, for sure, but maybe this is just a case of the right book/wrong time or maybe I was distracted while reading it. Fight Night worked for me in some ways. Swiv’s voice is singular. The way she relays the things she hears, her mimicry, charming. But the novel is written without quotation marks, and the paragraphs are often long with multiple speakers and I found it hard-slogging sometimes. Some things that happened at the end just seemed sort of over-the-top ridiculous and undermined that novel’s potential emotional impact. Or maybe tragicomedy is what Toews was after all along.

Life certainly can be ridiculous.