Migrations – Charlotte McConaghy

In the not-too-distant-future Charlotte McConaghy imagines in her novel Migrations, “The animals are dying. Soon we will be all alone.”

When the novel opens, Franny Stone is in Greenland tagging Arctic terns. Now she needs a way to follow them. Enter Ennis Malone, captain of the fishing vessel Saghani. Franny just needs a way to convince him to let her come along. She tells him that the terns will lead him to the fish; all they have to do is follow them, and they can do that because of her electronic tags. This is a big deal because fish are scarce, but it’s a risk for Ennis because the birds are likely going further south than he normally sails and Franny has zero experience on a boat.

Franny is an enigma. Born in Australia to an Irish mother, Franny spends the first ten years of her life in Galway before her mother disappears and she is sent back to Australia to live with her paternal grandmother. Her father’s whereabouts are unknown. She spends much of her young adulthood trying to figure out what happened to her mother.

Then she meets Niall, a lecturer at the National University of Ireland, where Franny works as a cleaner.

My heart is beating too fast and I will myself to be calm, to breathe more slowly, to really take this in. To savor it and remember every detail because too soon I will be gone from the circle of his perfect words.

Their attraction is immediate and deep, and while Franny is on the Saghani, she writes letters to Niall to tell him of her progress. He is, she knows, as invested in her results as she is.

There is a lot going on in McConaghy’s novel: tracking the terns, Franny’s hunt for her mother, the complicated relationships which develop on the Saghani and, of course, Niall. Some might argue that there is too much going on and that the multiple, shifting timelines are unnecessary. But those shifting timelines unspool Franny’s complete story and keep you turning the pages. Franny is a complicated character. She is the sum total of all her experiences, plus also a victim of her own restless nature and readers must parse the information she provides.

I found Migrations almost unbearably beautiful. Although the Epilogue was a tad contrived, it didn’t spoil my overall reading experience. And sure, you could argue that McConaghy has never actually been to Newfoundland, but niggles like that are a waste of energy. This is a novel that asks some big questions: what are we doing to our climate? what does any of this mean? what will we take when we go?

Highly recommended.

All Her Little Secrets – Wanda M. Morris

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.

Easy to read, but forgettable.

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.