The Ten Thousand Doors of January, by Alix Harrow

I fell in love with both the title and the cover art of this book without even having much of an idea what it was about, but it was a charming little piece of magic realism. January Scaller is a young woman growing up in Vermont in the early 1900s, cared for by the stern Mr. Locke, her father’s employer, while her mysterious and distant father travels the world looking for exotic objects for Mr. Locke’s collection. As a child, January discovers that perennial childhood fantasy: a door that leads to another world. It’s closed before she has a chance to explore it — but little hints begin coming from all directions that she didn’t just imagine it; there really are doors all over that are portals to other realities. When she finds a mysterious book that tells of the discovery of just such a door, January’s adventures are only beginning.

For some reason this book reminded me of two others I read this year: Erin Morgenstern’s The Starless Sea and Susanna Clarke’s PiranesiAll three could be classed as either fantasy or magic realism, depending on which label you prefer; all three introduce the reader to lovingly detailed otherworlds that exist just on the other side of a door, a portal, a thin veil, from our own everyday world. I found this novel well-written and engaging; it kept me turning pages to find out how January’s story would be resolved and (most importantly) when I got to the end I was satisfied with the resolution. I would recommend this book to anyone who, like me, keeps looking for magical doors to other realities.

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The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander

I’ve heard of this book, which is now more than 10 years old, for a long time, but I didn’t fully understand what it was about until I read it (well, listened to it — it was an audiobook, and a long one, but well worth the time it took to listen to).

I knew the book was about the mass incarceration of Black men in the United States, but I somehow had the idea that it was going to focus on the prison system instead, the actual conditions in prisons and that kind of thing. In fact, there’s very little about prison itself — rather, the book is a very careful, detailed study of the system that has landed so many Black men either in prison, or in the “invisible” prison system of being on probation or parole that can last a lifetime.

Alexander traces the history of white America’s attempts to control the Black population from slavery, through the Jim Crow laws that existed in the post-Civil War South for nearly 100 years, up to the “War on Drugs” of the 1980s and 90s. I’ve long known that many Americans see that “war” as being targeted more at getting Black men into prison than at getting dangerous drugs off the streets, but I’ve never seen clearly before exactly how racist the process was. Besides recounting how things unfolded historically over the past few decades, Alexander lays out some thought-provoking questions. The one that really struck me was: If the US government was serious about stopping the use and sale of illegal drugs, why didn’t police start doing massive searches and arrests on college campuses, where young white users of illegal drugs congregated (and still congregate), using and selling, as openly and in as close proximity and large numbers as in any urban Black neighbourhood. Could we even imagine a world in which the “War on Drugs” had unfolded in this way? Once you start asking questions like that, it’s easy to come to the conclusion, as Alexander and many other have, that racism is not an unfortunate side-effect of “tough on crime” policies — racism was the point all along.

Canada does not have, of course, the identical history of large-scale chattel slavery followed by well-entrenched Jim Crow laws as the US has — but we do have Black people and other people of colour (and especially Indigenous people) over-represented in prison and in the criminal justice system generally. I would love to read a book that traces the history of racism in the criminal justice system in this country as well as Michelle Alexander did for the US in The New Jim Crow. And then I’d like to know what I, as a white Canadian, can be doing to help make things better.

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Melt, by Heidi Wicks

Local writer Heidi Wicks’s debut novel, Melt, tells the story of two St. John’s women, Jess and Cait, and the friendship that has bound them together since their teens. The story begins with both women in their mid-thirties, married with children, on the night Cait’s marriage ends. Shifting between past and present, the storyline traces Jess and Cait as teenagers finding their place in the world, slipping into their roles — Jess as the practical, good girl, Cait as the adventurous free spirit. Those scenes are set against the two adult women questioning the new roles as wives, mothers, professional women, testing their assigned roles – and their high school friendship – to see if these still fit comfortably as they look ahead to midlife.

Jess and Cait are both engaging and believable characters, as are the other characters who populate the book, particularly the men in their lives. Wicks’s writing style reminds me of another Newfoundland writer of her generation, Bridget Canning, and for me, as with Canning’s novels, a lot of the pleasure of reading her writing is in seeing the contemporary culture of the place I call home so lovingly and accurately depicted, but with the slight shift of seeing it from the perspective of characters whose age and life experience differs from mine (Jess and Cait are in high school during the same years I was getting married and having my first child, so their experience of St. John’s in the late 90s is different and yet recognizable for me). This is a thoroughly enjoyable debut novel and I look forward to reading more from Heidi Wicks.

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Axiom’s End, by Lindsay Ellis

I’ve been familiar with Lindsay Ellis’s work as a video essayist and commenter on media for some time, but only realized she was also a fiction writer when her science-fiction novel, Axiom’s End, was released this summer. 

Axiom’s End contains an enthusiastic blurb from Hank Green, who is a friend of Ellis’s and is also mentioned in the Acknowledgements; that’s a great endorsement to have but it’s also a very slight touch unfortunate because if I give you a very brief summary of Axiom’s End — an alien comes to earth and chooses one young adult woman to be their “first contact” person to connect with the rest of humanity — it’s going to remind you a lot of the plot of Hank Green’s An Absolutely Remarkable Thing. But Axiom’s End has a very different feel to it, and a very different kind of alien encounter. It also has a whole complicated subtext about conspiracy theories and actual conspiracies, because its protagonist, Cora Ortega, is the estranged daughter of a kind of vaguely Julian-Assange-like figure, Nils Ortega, who has been trying to tell the world for several years (this story is set in 2007 btw) that aliens are already on earth, the US government knows this, and they’ve been covering it up for a long time. Cora thinks her father is crazy as well as egotistical and obsessed — until she discovers that a lot of what he’s been trying to tell the world is true.

Axiom’s End is an engaging and unusual first contact story, and it’s set up for a sequel, so I’ll be interested to see where Ellis takes this story.

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Watching You Without Me, by Lynn Coady

This was one of those rare and joyful experiences where a book so completely drew me in that I devoured it in less than a day. 

The premise is simple: Karen’s mother has died, and Karen has come back to her childhood home in Nova Scotia for the first time in many years to care for her sister Kelli. Kelli’s developmental disabilities mean that their elderly mother devoted her whole life to caring for Kelli, and now Karen is faced with either taking over Kelli’s care herself, or trying to transition her into a long-term care facility.

Into this emotionally fraught situation steps Trevor, who at first seems like a godsend: he is one of the many home-care workers who has been assigned by an agency to help out with Kelli, dropping by the house to take her on regular walks. Karen soon realizes he’s been doing more than that: Trevor has become a sort of odd-job man and a family friend to her mother and sister. Now he wants to continue playing the same role for her — but the relationship soon takes on a darker edge, and Karen is unsure who she can trust.

The plot could easily be that of a thriller, and it certainly kept me turning pages, but there’s no overt violence, only the unease of not knowing what or whom to believe, and not being sure when a benign situation might turn ugly. What really kept me engaged was not the plot alone but the brilliance and fluidity of Coady’s writing. This book has been nominated for major awards this year and it’s not one bit surprising — the acclaim is richly deserved!



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Death of a Clergyman, by Riana Everly

Death of a Clergyman is a Pride and Prejudice-inspired mystery. Unlike, for example, P.D. James’ Death Comes to Pemberley, which imagines a murder mystery as a sequel to the existing Austen story, Riana Everly’s latest spinoff re-imagines the events of Pride and Prejudice, deviating from Austen’s tale immediately after Reverend Collins’s proposal to Elizabeth Bennett. In this story, Collins is found dead in a field not far from Longbourn the next day, and Elizabeth Bennett is blamed for his murder

Darcy calls in the only major non-Austen character we meet in this novel, a Scots investigator called Alexander Lyons. Somewhat against his willing, Lyons finds himself teamed up with the least-developed of Austen’s Bennett sisters, the quiet, devout and bookish Mary.

The development of Mary’s character into a fully-fleshed-out person is the greatest delight of this book, although the mystery itself is intriguing and satisfying. And as the well-known romances of the original novel — Lizzie and Darcy; Jane and Bingley — unfold as expected, there’s a hint of romance in the air for Mary too … as well as the promise of a sequel. I look forward to Mary’s further adventures in crime-fighting!

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The North-West Is Our Mother, by Jean Teillet

I wrote a blog post awhile back about my teenaged fascination with Louis Riel. That was years ago, but the story of Riel and the two uprisings he led against the Canadian government on behalf of the Metis people still intrigues me. So I was interested to pick up this book by Jean Teillet, Riel’s great-grandniece.

The North-West is Our Mother is much more than the story of Louis Riel, or of the rebellions in which he participated. It is a detailed history of the Metis people of the Canadian Northwest. It was really helpful to me because I’d had a lot of misunderstandings about what it meant to be Metis – I wasn’t sure how a group of people formed out of intermarriage between French fur traders and indigenous women had developed an identity as an independent nation, but this book traces that process in detail. And I wasn’t sure about the appropriateness of different people or groups using the term “Metis” to mean “mixed European and Indigenous heritage” generally (according to Teillet, this is not appropriate although many people do it; the term refers specifically to the Metis Nation of the North-west, the people whose heritage she traces in this book).

This was an interesting, important and informative read.

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A Borrowed Life, by Kerry Anne King

From Kerry Anne King, author of Everything You Are, I Wish You Happy, and several other novels, comes a book about the kind of heroine women my age would to read more of — a middle-aged woman who has to navigate a sudden change in her life. Liz has been the perfect pastor’s wife for decades — until Thomas, her husband, drops dead of a sudden heart attack and Liz has to decide what her life as a widow is going to look like. When she decides to reinvent herself, she faces disapproval from her husband’s parishioners and from her daughter — but a close friend and a local theatre group give Liz courage to explore parts of herself she’s kept hidden for years. 

Liz is a relatable character and I enjoyed reading this book. There were a few characters who felt more stereotypical than lifelike, and I definitely had a different idea for how I wanted the end of the book to work out, but in the end I enjoyed the ride very much. Author Kerry Anne King is a friend of mine from many years back, and I enjoy every one of her books a little more than the last, I think. Definitely well worth checking out, especially if you’re a (ahem) woman of a certain age who wants to read about a heroine at this stage of life.

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Jack, by Marilynne Robinson

Reading this book was an incredibly intense experience for me, and I’m not going to so much try to review this book as to tell you what reading it was like for me (which is pretty much the whole vibe of this “book review” blog of mine here).

I’ve read and loved all three of Marilynne Robinson’s beautiful novels set in the fictional town of Gilead: Gilead, Home, and LilaOf the three, Home was my favourite. It tells the story of the aging Presbyterian minister Robert Boughton, and two of his many children who return home in midlife — his virtuous and reliable daughter Glory, and his ne’er-do-well black-sheep son Jack. It’s a kind of Prodigal Son story, with an older sister rather than an older brother, a father who tries hard to fling wide the doors of welcome but struggles with his fears and prejudices, and Jack, the beloved prodigal, who cannot quite muster the appropriate prodigal penitence even for things he is genuinely sorry for.

Home leaves Jack’s story on an unresolved note, and the novel that came after it, Lila, focuses on a different character and covers the same time period, so if, like me, you wanted to know “what happened to Jack,” you would be no further along at the end of Lila. So when I saw that Robinson had a new book coming out simply titled Jack, I thought I might finally get that longed-for resolution.

Short version: I didn’t, but also, I did.

Long version, which I’ll try to do with minimal spoilers: these four novels are not really a series (a tetralogy?) in the way you might imagine — that is, they belong together, with the same group of characters centred around the same Iowa small town in the 1950s, but they don’t move forward chronologically as you might expect a four-book series to do. At the end of Gilead (and the end of Home, which covers the same time period from different points of view), you are as far ahead as you are ever going to get, chronologically, in this series. Lila goes further back in time to show the events in Lila’s life that led up to her coming to Gilead and marrying Reverend Ames; Jack also begins much earlier than the events of Home and Gilead, showing the backstory of Jack’s prodigal life in St. Louis (this is the only one of the four books where characters spend no time in Gilead) and his relationship with Della, the woman we meet as his wife in Home.

So, if I was hoping this novel would answer the questions of what happened to Jack after the last pages of Home — it did not. In fact, if I was hoping (which I was, for much of the book) to get the story of what led him to come back home in Home — I also did not get that. Instead, this is the earlier story of how a man who is a self-recognized loser, alcoholic, sometime-homeless-person and ex-con falls in love with a respectable young teacher hoping to build a good life for herself; it’s also the story of how a white man in 1950s Missouri falls in love with a Black woman in a society where neither the white nor the Black community has any place for such a couple.

I just reread my review of Home from 12 years ago when it came out, and what I wrote about that book is also absolutely true of this book — there’s something about Robinson’s writing, and these characters she’s created, that makes me want to read with my breath held:

“I tried to read this book slowly (which, as you know, is nearly impossible for me), partly because I never wanted it to end, and partly because I was afraid the ending would break my heart.  Sure enough, I didn’t get the resolution I’d hoped for after the end of Gilead, though the ending of Home does take us one tiny step further down the hard road of redemption.  There are no easy, sentimental happy endings with Marilynne Robinson; she leaves the reader to imagine their own ending, with enough hope to believe that grace will, in the end, touch everyone who longs for it.”

The same is true of the ending of Jack: no sentimentality; no easy resolutions — but hope.

(I do have thoughts about how the ending of Jack informs the later events of the ending of Home, but they would definitely be spoilery for both books and I won’t post them here — however, if anyone who’s read both books wants to discuss that question, bring it up in comments and I’ll let you know what I think!)

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Filed under Fiction -- general, Fiction -- historical

The Midnight Library, by Matt Haig

This recently-released novel from the author of The Humans and How to Stop Time tells the story of an unhappy young woman named Nora who decides to end her life (so, a content warning for suicide pretty much comes up-front with this book). Like many people, Nora is convinced that if she had made different choices along the way, she would be living a different, and happier life. Because she’s stuck in a life she doesn’t want to be living, she thinks she’d be better off dead.

But the afterlife Nora steps into is not anything she might have expected — it’s a vast library, presided over by her favourite high-school teacher, where she is given the opportunity to live her life over again — and again, and again, and again, if she chooses. At each point, she is able to step into a life different from the one she left — different because at a crucial point in the past she made a different choices. She is given the opportunity to explore all these possible lives and see whether she might actually have been happier in any of them.

The concept is brilliant, and while I do have one quibble with the way it’s executed, I can’t really talk about that without spoilers, so I’ll say that overall I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. The story is obviously a vehicle (as all Haig’s stories that I’ve read are) for exploring what it means to be human, to live a life worth living. This one, in particular, delves into the choices we make and the power they have to affect us and others.

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