Writers & Lovers – Lily King

From my vantage point, a 31-year-old college grad should have it all together. Of course, that’s a ridiculous assumption to make especially given that the last thing I was when I was that age was together.

Casey, the first-person-narrator of Lily King’s novel Writers & Lovers, lives in what is essentially a potting shed, hiding from the creditors who are after her for defaulted student loans, desperately trying to finish the novel she’s been working on for the past six years, and trying to come to terms with the sudden and devastating loss of her mother.

Casey is aware that she is “not the youngest kind of adult anymore.” She has a crap job at Iris, a restaurant located on the third floor of a building owned by Harvard. She doesn’t get the best shifts and is shafted by her co-workers who are always “making sure everything is to their advantage.” Anyone who has ever worked in the service industry will recognize the hierarchy and kitchen shenanigans as King has written them here.

I look beat up. like someone who has gotten ill and aged a decade in a few months. I look into my eyes, but they aren’t really mine, not the eyes I used to have. They’re the eyes of someone very tired and very sad, and once I see them I feel even sadder and then I see that sadness, that compassion, for the sadness in my eyes, and I see the water rising in them. I’m both the sad person and the person wanting to comfort the sad person.

Working at Iris isn’t the only thing sucking the life out of Casey though. Shortly after her mother died unexpectedly, she went to a writer’s retreat and met Luke. It ended badly. Casey has been struggling with the double loss ever since.

King’s novel is a coming-of-age story, really. It is a story of the difficulties of navigating life when you are stuck, as Casey most decidedly is. Enter Silas and Oscar, two different men who offer two different opportunities. I very much enjoyed her journey, even though she seemed very young. I suppose I was once, too.

The Bed I Made – Lucie Whitehouse

The Bed I Made is my third outing with British writer Lucie Whitehouse (The House at Midnight, Before We Met). Like Before We Met, this novel concerns a love affair gone wrong.

Kate works as a translator in London. One night, out with her friend Helen, she meets Richard.

He was watching me intently but didn’t speak. It was strange: it should have unnerved me but instead I found myself responding to the intensity, It was like suddenly finding myself in a spotlight.

Kate is generally practical and reserved, but her attraction to Richard is immediate and intense and soon they are in a full-fledged relationship. Richard is handsome, charming and successful – quite unlike anyone Kate has ever dated before. And if you’re thinking he sounds too good to be true, you’d be correct. Eighteen months after they first kiss, Kate sublets her apartment and flees to the Isle of Wight, a place that has personal significance to her, but where she is a stranger in the community.

The problem is that Richard isn’t about to let her go so easily. He might not know where she is, but he can still text her (until she changes her number) and email her (she can’t seem to stop herself from reading his messages and when she finally tells him that they are never, ever, ever getting back together, he starts making unpleasant threats.)

I guess you could say that The Bed I Made is a relatively straightforward domestic thriller. The Isle of Wight is supposed to offer Kate sanctuary, but soon after she arrives, a local woman goes missing and she becomes fascinated with her disappearance. Then she meets the woman’s husband, Pete, and things start to get even more complicated.

I found this book kind of slow, actually. Not slow in that I didn’t want to read it or find out what was going to happen – even though I had a pretty good idea. Whitehouse captures Kate’s sense of loneliness and isolation and claustrophobia really well, and she was a likeable – if often times naïve – character. By the time we get to the novel’s dénouement, I sort of felt as though I was reading a completely different book. There was a lot of time when nothing much was happening – Kate was wandering around the town, or she and Pete were sailing – and then bam. Thriller mode.

Still, Whitehouse has been a dependable author for me and I will definitely continue to read her.

Cascade – Craig Davidson

The first Craig Davidson book I ever read was actually a book by his alter ego Nick Cutter. The Troop is the gruesome story (and there are parts of this book that are so gross, I had to read the pages through slitted eyes) of a troop of Boy Scouts who, on their annual overnight camping expedition, come face-to-face with bioengineered evil. It was only after I got my hands on The Saturday Night Ghost Club that I realized Craig Davidson and Nick Cutter were one and the same. Since then I have also read Davidson’s Giller-nominated novel Cataract City and I just finished reading his collection of short stories, Cascade. I guess at this point I am going to have to say that I am a fan.

Short story collections aren’t something I read a lot of, and I am not sure why that is because I do love short stories. They’re like these perfect little miniature worlds. There are six stories in this collection and I enjoyed every single one of them.

Davidson writes about family – both biological and found – and about the places that root us (for him it is Cataract City aka Niagara Falls.) None of these stories is tidy – or even necessarily linear – and even better, none of them have tied-up-with-a-bow endings. Ambiguity is a friend of mine. And apparently Mr. Davidson’s.

In “The Ghost Lights”, a car crash leaves a mother and her infant son stranded in s snow storm. The mother has grappled with the whole idea of subverting her own identity after her son’s birth, but now she is “filled with a mindless need to protect.”

“One Pure Thing” returns an basketball player to the court after a stint in jail. In “The Vanishing Twin”, fraternal twins Charlie and Hen looks out for each other in a Juvenile Custody Facility. A social worker looks after a little boy, while waiting for the birth of her own child in “Friday Night Goon Squad.” Each of these stories scratches at the surface of the choices we make, the sacrifices and compromises. Davidson’s writing is assured and nostalgic and I found myself sinking into each of the worlds created by these stories after only a line or two.

Highly recommended.

Saint X – Alexis Schaitkin

When the Thomas family, eighteen-year-old Alison and her seven-year-old sister, Claire, visit Saint X with their parents, they have no idea how this Caribbean holiday will irrevocably alter their lives. On the last night of their vacation, Alison disappears, and then turns up dead on a nearby cay.

This event sets Alexis Schaitkin’s debut novel Saint X in motion.

Looking back, the things I remember most clearly from the days after Alison went missing and before she was found are strangely inconsequential. For example, I remember the hunger I experienced on that first day when my parents forgot about breakfast and lunch, and how I felt sorry for myself in that banal way any child feels sorry for herself when she finds herself overlooked in a flurry of attention devoted to her older sibling.

Although Clive and Edwin, two men who work on the resort, are questioned about Alison’s disappearance, they are never charged and the circumstances of Alison’s death remain a mystery. Many years later, Alison is working at a publishing house in NYC when she gets into a cab driven by Clive and that chance encounter sends her spiraling into the past, desperate to connect to the sister she didn’t really know.

While not a thriller, Saint X does read like one in many ways. Alison contrives a way to meet up with Clive again and then essentially starts stalking him until she orchestrates yet another chance encounter. She is convinced Clive can answer all her questions about Alison. Her obsession with her sister’s death and with Clive himself takes over her life. She cuts herself off from her friends, loses focus at work and spends her time listening to the audio diaries her sister kept as a teenager.

Schaitkin layers Claire’s journey with Clive’s story – one of abandonment and longing. We learn of his early life on Saint X, and his childhood friendship with Edwin, who grows into a gregarious man who knows how to flatter the tourists at the resort and make double the amount in tips. We see Alison through Clive’s eyes, a skewed portrait of a teenager on the cusp of understanding her tremendous power.

While the novel is certainly about Claire’s quest for understanding, this is also a book about privilege, fate, grief and family. When Clive finally reveals what he knows (or doesn’t know) about Alison, Claire realizes that the details “had very little to do with me.” That’s one of the brilliant observations in Schaitkin’s novel. You can’t possibly know everyone’s story – not even the people closest to you.

This is a beautifully written book, one to savor, and I highly recommend it.

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.

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.

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.

Nothing – Janne Teller

Translated from the Danish, Janne Teller’s award-winning YA novel Nothing is pretty dang bleak. When fourteen-year-old Pierre Anthon announces on the first day of school that “Nothing matters”, he sets off a chain reaction of events that runs the gamut from the childish to the horrific to the ridiculous.

Pierre Anthon and his hippie father live in a commune, so his classmates figure it makes sense for him to take the position that “It’s all a waste of time. […] Everything begins only to end. The moment you were born you begin to die. That’s how it is with everything.”

Pierre Anthon takes his belongings, leaves school and proceeds to climb the plum tree in front of his house. As his classmates pass by he slings hard plums and his dismal world view at them. His friends decide that they have no choice but to coax him out of the tree and the only way to do that is to prove that life is worth something.

The kids come up with a plan. They’ll create a sort of installation at the old saw mill. The will collect things that matter. At first, they ask their neighbours to make a contribution and the items start to accumulate: old crockery, a rose from a bridal bouquet, photographs. Then, feeling that they didn’t have enough skin in the game and that Pierre Anthon would see straight through them, they decided they needed to pony up and make a personal contribution to the cause. That’s when things start getting tricky.

Pierre Anthon’s view is decidedly nihilistic: religious and moral principles don’t matter, and life is meaningless. As the teens push each other to contribute things that are deeply personal, they cross more than one line. They soon lose sight of what they set out to do and their whole experiment becomes less about trying to help their friend see the value in life and more an exercise in horror.

Translation aside (and you know how I generally feel about them), Nothing is a surprisingly complex book. At first I thought it was going to be juvenile; the characters are barely teens and they sound young; the ideas and the themes in this novel, however, are anything but. The novel starts out quite innocently, but it goes down a very dark path, invites the reader to consider some equally dark ideas and you won’t come out the other end feeling even remotely hopeful about life.

The Winter Sister – Megan Collins

When Sylvie was 14, her older sister, Persephone, was murdered. No one was ever charged with the crime. Now, 16 years later, Sylvie has returned home to Spring Hill to help care for her mother, Annie, who is taking chemotherapy. Sylvie and her mother haven’t been close in years, not since Persephone’s death, and being home is stirring up all sorts of detritus.

Megan Collins’s debut novel The Winter Sister is a murder mystery framed by a family drama, or maybe it’s the other way around. It’s definitely a novel about complicated family relationships, love, and the way our memories morph over time.

When they found my sister’s body, the flyer’s we’d hung around town were still crisp against the telephone poles. The search party still had land to scour; the batteries in their flashlight still held a charge. Persephone had been missing for less than seventy-two hours when a jogger caught a glimpse of her red coat through the snow, but by then, my mother had already become a stranger to me.

Sylvie’s life hasn’t been successful. She went to art school, then got a job as a tattoo artist, a job she seemed destined for. As a kid, she’d drawn pictures over the bruises Persephone’s boyfriend Ben had left on her sister’s wrists and arms and ribs. These bruises had always seemed like proof to Sylvie that Ben was responsible for Persephone’s murder. When she bumps into him at the hospital, it dredges up all her suspicions. Why is he allowed to be walking around, living his life, when her sister is dead.

But it’s not just Ben that makes being home so difficult; Sylvie has to interact with her mother, something she hasn’t really done since she went off to college. She has a hard time reconciling her pre-murder mother with the shrunken, bitter woman she sees now. It isn’t just the cancer that’s eating away at Annie.

Collins does an excellent job of stringing the reader along, dropping clues about the murder so that it feels like you are reading a thriller of sorts. But this is also a book about the secrets families keep. Can we ever really know each other? How do small decisions impact the trajectory of our lives? It has never occurred to Sylvie that her memories of what happened that night might be tangled in something bigger. Instead, she’s carried a tremendous amount of guilt around like an anvil.

The Winter Sister is a well-written family drama. I will definitely be reading more from this author.