Ellice Littlejohn works in the legal department of Houghton Transportation Company. Her lover, Michael, is the executive vice president of the same company. When he asks her to meet him at the office early one morning, Ellice doesn’t find the request unusual. When she arrives though, she finds “a bright crimson spray of blood” and a “star-shaped hole in Michael’s right temple”.
This is how Wanda M. Morris’s debut novel All Her Little Secrets begins. And this is also the beginning of the issues that kept me from thoroughly enjoying the novel – although I certainly found it easy to read.
Ellice is a 50-something, Ivy-league educated lawyer, so clearly not an idiot. But what does she do when she discovers Michael’s body? Does she call the cops? Security? An ambulance? No. She “prayed to God for forgiveness, turned off the lights, and quietly closed the office door…”. Say, what?
We come to understand that Ellice has a complicated past and Michael is just one of those complications. First of all, he’s married and has children. Secondly, he’s a WASP and she’s Black and their relationship is a secret, one of many secrets Ellice has had to keep over the course of her life. And it’s these secrets – revealed slowly over the course of the novel – that prevent Ellice from making sensible decisions from the the moment she discovers Michael’s body until the end of the book.
Lots of writers gushed about this book. And I think, for a debut, it has lots to recommend it, but I also think the story itself – the part that was supposed to be ‘thrilling’ – was just sort of pedestrian. There are a lot of things going on in this book; perhaps too many to manage with real finesse. I wanted to really like Ellice because it was awesome to read about a smart, mature woman – except that she makes all sorts of ridiculous decisions. Honey, your life is in danger; you need to call the cops.
And it turns out the danger is a bunch of white supremacist asshats, which, yeah, awful, but it felt like a sort of convenient way to up the ante. I am white; let’s just get that out of the way. It feels uncomfortable for me to criticize a book because it plays the race card, but if there wasn’t rampant racism (and misogyny) in Morris’s novel, the mystery/thriller part of it would be sort of not-that-thrilling in my opinion. It has the requisite duplicitous characters, red herrings, car chases and covert meetings but it also has family drama and trauma (which is used to explain some of Ellice’s questionable decisions) and which felt vastly more authentic. We never get to see Ellice doing any lawyering, really (and Morris is a lawyer herself, so it would have been easy to include). Mostly she’s chasing after answers, but I just felt like the book was 100 pages too long.
When Elise’s best friend from college, Julie, disappears, Elise clings to the belief that she’s not really gone. Molly and Mae, their other besties, are not as optimistic as Elise. Neither is her husband, Tristan. And then “Two years to the day after she went missing, Tristan found her sitting on the porch swing. She was wearing the same clothes she’d had on when she disappeared. She did not seem confused or disoriented, but she had no memory of where she’d been for the past twenty-four months.”
Thus begins Rachel Harris’s debut novel The Return which is a weird hybrid: part horror novel and part novel about female friendships. Elise hasn’t been as successful as her friends post college. She dropped out of her Masters program and followed her married prof to Buffalo where she has a crap job and lives in a crap apartment. Mae is a fashion stylist in NYC; Molly lives on the West Coast and before she went missing, Julie and her husband were converting a farm house in Maine into a B & B.
Now that Julie is back, Mae plans a girls’ weekend in the Catskills at the Red Honey Inn – the kind of swanky spot that is totally out of Elise’s snack bracket, but how can she say no.
When they arrive, though, the Inn seems more sinister than swanky and Julie isn’t quite the girl they remember either.
She’s emaciated. She smiles and her skin pools like melted wax. Her teeth are chipped and discolored. Her eyes are bloodshot, and the green or her irises skews yellow. Her hair is string, simultaneously greasy and dry.
Her breath is awful. So awful I gag. I play it off like a sob but have to turn my head away.
Cue rooms that don’t heat up, labyrinthine halls, strange hotel staff and shadowy figures and a formerly vegetarian bestie who now loves meat. Um. I would not be sticking around. Like, at all. But Elise is nothing if not loyal. And her need to support her friend’s return to normal keeps her and Mae and Molly in the creepy hotel with their creepy friend way, way too long.
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. Aleishadoesn’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.
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.
Number Of Books You Read: 77 Number of Re-Reads: 2 Genre You Read The Most From: Fiction
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.
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)?
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.)
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.
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.
3. Favorite bookish related photo you took in 2021?
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.
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.
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.