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.

I Capture the Castle – Dodie Smith

I Capture the Castle has been on my physical book shelf for at least twenty years. I have always meant to read it because it’s just one of those books that I felt like I should read. In her article “Why I Capture the Castle has gained a secret cult of book lovers”, Constance Grady writes “I Capture the Castle is that kind of book. It’s not quite famous, even among Smith’s works (her most famous title would be 101 Dalmatians), but for a certain kind of reader — mostly women, mostly bookish — it is perfect. Once you read it, you fall in love with it, and from then on you’re part of a secret club, self-selecting and wildly enthusiastic.” (Vox)

The novel’s narrator, 17-year-old Cassandra Mortmain, lives with her family (her father, his much younger second wife, Topaz; older sister, Rose; younger brother, Thomas, and Stephen, son of their deceased housekeeper) in a crumbling old castle in rural England. They leased the castle – crumbling though it was – when they weren’t quite so financially destitute. Cassandra’s father had written a successful book, Jacob Wrestling, a “mixture of fiction, philosophy and poetry.” The book was very successful, “particularly in America, where he made a lot of money by lecturing on it, and he seemed likely to become a very important writer indeed.” Then he stopped writing and with no income, the family fell on hard times.

The novel takes the form of Cassandra’s journal, which she writes in a short hand that no one can read but her. In it she recounts encounters with people from the village, the Vicar and Miss Marcy, the local school teacher/librarian, chief among them. She talks about her relationships with her siblings and father and stepmother. She writes about food – or lack thereof. She struggles with the awareness that Stephen has developed feelings for her.

He grows vegetables for us and looks after the hens and does a thousand odd jobs – I can’t think how we should get on without him. He is eighteen now, very fair and noble looking but his expression is just a fraction daft. He has always been rather devoted to me; father calls him my swain.

The minutiae of Cassandra’s daily life is not as dull as you might think. It’s the 1930s and it’s wonderful to read about a much simpler time and place. The castle itself, though falling down and without modern conveniences, is as romantic as you might imagine. And things don’t stay bucolic for long, anyway. Simon and Neil Cotton, American grandsons of the deceased owner of the castle, arrive and shake things up for the Mortmains.

Dodie Smith is probably best known for writing 101 Dalmatians, and while everyone has certainly heard of that story, it feels lovely to now be among the special group of women who have spent time with Cassandra. She is intelligent, kind and self-deprecating and watching her negotiate her growing feelings for one of the Cotton brothers is sheer delight. I Capture the Castle is charming, beautifully written and well worth your time. Make a cup of tea, eat a scone and sink into its myriad pleasures. It will not disappoint.

Shuggie Bain – Douglas Stuart

Douglas Stuart’s debut Shuggie Bain won the 2020 Booker and was nominated for many other prizes and awards. For good reason. Stuart’s novel traces the life of Hugh “Shuggie” Bain from childhood until he’s sixteen and it’s a doozy.

Shuggie’s mother, Agnes, is central to this story. She’s thirty-nine and lives in a flat with her parents and “to have her husband and three children, two of them nearly grown, all crammed together in her mammy’s flat, gave her a feeling of failure.” Agnes’s endless struggles with men and alcohol are central to Shuggie’s story. His older brother and sister, Leek and Catherine, are far more jaded about their mother’s problems than Shuggie, who is much younger and much more hopeful that Agnes will get better.

When Big Shug, a philandering cab driver, finds a house for them outside of Glasgow, Agnes swells with hope. But when she sees their new home, surrounded by “huge black mounds, hills that looked as if they had been burnt free of life […] the plainest, unhappiest-looking homes Agnes had ever seen” she no longer views the move as a step in the right direction for her marriage. She and her children are isolated from the support system of her parents, and Big Shug essentially walks out on them, too.

Agnes is one of the most fascinating characters I have encountered in a long time. While it is certainly true that she is a hopeless drunk, she is also charming and intelligent. Despite the ways in which she neglects her children, particularly Shuggie, she loves them. Douglas’s novel gives readers plenty of reasons to admire Agnes, even as we watch her sink further and further into the bottle. It is much easier to hate Big Shug because he deliberately abandons his family and does it in such a way as to cause the most damage.

The novel is bookended with Shuggie at sixteen, living in a bed-sit and fending for himself. If you ever want to understand how a person comes to be where they are, examine their childhood. For better or worse, there’s no escaping the influence our families have on us. Shuggie does his best to look out for his mom, especially after Catherine leaves to get married and Leek is finally put out (and can I just say for the record that I LOVED Leek. There’s a scene when he escapes to the top of a hill with his sketchbook that broke my heart.) Shuggie is too young to realize what his older siblings already know: nothing he can do will save Agnes. But that doesn’t stop him from trying.

Although you might think that a book about an alcoholic living in Glasgow (the setting for so much despair in the 1980s due to Thatcher’s economic policies) would be relentlessly grim, it isn’t. These characters are resilient and determined and so lovingly rendered, they will find a place in your heart.

Apparently, Stuart’s manuscript was turned down 32 times! Imagine. If you haven’t yet read the book, I urge you to give it a go. Stuart is a born story teller and this is clearly a story that needed to be told.

Highly recommended.

The Great Godden – Meg Rosoff

Nothing much happens in Meg Rosoff’s latest novel The Great Godden. Well, maybe I shouldn’t say nothing happens. The novel is a quiet gut-punch rather than the wallop Rosoff packed with her novel How I Live Now, but it’s a fascinating character study and great read.

Two families spend time every summer on the Suffolk coast. There’s our unnamed narrator and their siblings Mattie, Tamsin and Alex and their parents. Then there’s Hope and Mal, who live in another little house on the property. Hope is the narrator’s father’s “much younger cousin”. This summer is disrupted by the arrival of Kit and Hugo Godden, sons of Hope’s godmother, Florence, Hollywood film star.

Our narrator’s gender is deliberately ambiguous and one of the delights of the novel is trying to suss out if they are male or female – although ultimately it doesn’t matter. Either way, the first time they see Kit Godden, as he unfolds himself from the back of his mother’s limo, they think

Kit Godden was something else – golden skin, thick auburn hair streaked with gold, hazel eyes flecked with gold – a kind of golden Greek statue of youth. […] In my memory he seems to glow. I can shut my eyes and see how he looked to us then, skin lit from within as if he’d spent hours absorbing sunlight only to slow release it back into the world.

Kit’s younger brother, Hugo, pales by comparison and the two brothers don’t seem to get along. Kit’s charm contrasts sharply with Hugo’s surly quiet. But as we all know, all that glitters in not gold.

The narrator watches as Kit’s attention focuses on the their younger (and beautiful) sister Mattie, and how “Within four seconds he had charmed her practically to death.” The narrator is also smitten, though. As the summer goes along, they watch Mattie coast on the romantic highs Kit offers, and also watch her shrink when Kit diverts his attention away from her. And that’s what Kit does: he’s a player and The Great Godden is a wonderful character study of how we take the shiny, pretty bauble at face-value.

The Great Godden is shot through with a vein of dread; we can see the potential for the train wreck a mile down the track, but we keep heading for it. That’s what the narrator does. One part of them doesn’t believe a thing that comes out of Kit’s mouth; the other part believes every word and the whole thing is fascinating.

This is a story which is told from some distant point, where the narrator has had time to reflect on that summer and it adds an air of melancholy to the story because the narrator realizes, in retrospect, exactly what was lost. I love books that do this. The plot unfolds in the moment, but the gaze is distant. The writing is straight-forward and clean and I gobbled the book up in a couple of sittings.

Meg Rosoff talks about the book here.

When We Were Vikings – Andrew David MacDonald

Zelda MacLeish, the protagonist of Andrew David MacDonald’s debut When We Were Vikings, was born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, “an umbrella term describing the range of effects that can occur in an individual prenatally exposed to alcohol. These effects may include physical, mental, behavioral, and/or learning disabilities with lifelong implications.” (https://nofas.org/) Some of the common developmental disabilities found in people with FAS include “decreased IQ and deficits in motor skills, attention, executive function (working memory, problem solving, planning, and response inhibition), language, visual perception, adaptive functioning (skills necessary for everyday living).” (https://nofas.org/)

Now 21, Zelda lives with her older brother Gert. The siblings live a life dictated by schedules and rules that have been put in place to make Zelda feel secure. Gert is attending college on a scholarship and he does his best to look after his sister, but the truth is that he is only a couple years older and life isn’t easy.

Zelda is fascinated by Vikings. For her 21st birthday, Gert hires a stripper dressed as a Viking. Zelda remarks “Even if you were not an expert on Vikings and had not read Kepple’s Guide to Vikings, you would say, that is a Viking.” But Zelda is an expert and she notices several things about the stripper which are not historically accurate including the fact that his sword isn’t made of metal, his outfit is plastic, and his blonde hair isn’t natural. Zelda follows the Viking code, dividing the people she meets into members of her tribe: Gert, AK47 (also known as Annie, Gert’s ex-girlfriend), Marxsy (Zelda’s boyfriend), Dr. Laird (her therapist) and villains (most of the people Gert associates with).

Once Dr. Laird asked me why I liked Vikings. I told him three reasons:

One, they are brave,

Two, they are strong and people have to think twice before trying to hurt them.

Three, Viking heroes stand up for people who can’t defend themselves.

I told Dr. Laird that I wanted to be all of those things. People look at me and do not think that I am brave or strong and that I am the one who needs protection. My legend will show people that, even if you are not gargantuan, you can still be strong and brave and help others in your tribe.

Zelda will have her chance to prove that she is a Viking when Gert’s extra-curricular activities land him in hot water. She is so much more than meets the eye and I loved every single second of my time with her. One of the things I most love in a book is a strong voice…and Zelda’s is just perfection.

When We Were Vikings is funny, and heart-breaking (often at the same time). This is a novel about found family, but also about the unbreakable bond between siblings. Gert is a deeply flawed human being, but he loves Zelda. This is definitely a coming-of-age story, and watching Zelda navigate the tricky waters of her life is a marvelous journey to take.

Highly recommended.

The Paper Palace – Miranda Cowley Heller

I read Miranda Cowley Heller’s debut novel The Paper Palace sitting on the porch at my best friend’s “farm.” (I put farm in quotation marks because it’s not a farm anymore, just a peaceful retreat in a beautiful spot at the top of a hill looking over rolling pastures, and the river. It’s magic.) I read for hours because I couldn’t stop. If there’s a list of things I love in books, I’d say The Paper Palace ticks them all.

Elle Bishop, 50, (there’s a thing I loved right there; Elle is 50.) is at her family’s compound in the Back Woods on Cape Cod. She has been coming here her whole life, and it is here where she first met Jonas when he was eight and she was eleven. For the next few summers, Elle and Jonas are inseparable, but then something happens that changes everything, and the two go their separate ways. They meet intermittently, but somehow find their way back into each other’s lives as adults. They are BFFs. Or, at least, that’s the boat they’re trying to float. They’ve managed, until this summer.

The novel takes place over twenty-four hours, but really spans a life time, flipping back and forth between then and now. Elle cherry picks the stories she tells: her mother’s failed marriages, her father’s abandonment, the history of “The Paper Palace” (the name of the place where they summer), her complicated relationship with her older sister, Anna, her friendship with Jonas.

In the here and now, the story begins with a betrayal. It’s not a spoiler to say that Elle and Jonas consummate their relationship; the blurb on the back tells us that much.

I could look at him and nothing else for eternity and be happy. I could listen to him, my eyes closed, feel his breath and his words wash over me, time and time and time again. It is all I want.

What Elle has, though, is a pretty amazing husband, Peter, and three kids. Jonas, too, is married to Gina whose “petite, perfect little bee-sting of a body” makes Elle wonder: “That’s what he wanted?” Elle and Jonas’s shared act is a powder keg with the potential to blow up many lives.

So, those of you who know me or read this blog regularly know that I love angst. LOVE it. Chuck an obstacle in front of people who love each other and I will be swooning before you can say, “hell, yeah!” Wanna stick a literary dagger in my heart? Yes, please. Heller wisely avoids making any of the players villains, which ups the ante for Elle. She’s our narrator; this is her story to tell. And the fact that she has invested in her marriage and it has been a happy one, makes her decision about what to do post-coitus, even more compelling. Then Heller reveals all the details of Elle’s life and the whole concoction is

I truly loved everything about this book. Some people have complained about all the time jumps: didn’t bother me in the least. If I had any complaints it would be 1) there are a lot of names and sometimes I was like “who’s that, again?” and 2) I love you, Reese, and I hope your production company is going to turn this puppy into a limited series *pretty please*, but I hate that your “Reese’s Book Club” sticker is not actually a sticker that I can take off and mars an otherwise gorgeous cover.

That said, The Paper Palace 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.

Highly recommended.