Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands, by Kate Beaton

I knew of Kate Beaton as a Nova Scotia artist who was the genius mind behind the weird and brilliant historical and literary comics Hark! a vagrant. I was excited to see she was coming out with a memoir in the format of a literary novel, even knowing it would be something very, very different from Vagrant.

The subject matter is familiar to anyone who’s grown up in Atlantic Canada: having just graduated with a liberal-arts degree, young Katie Beaton can’t find a job in her field or in her area of study (Cape Breton; history) that will even come close to helping her dig out of her massive student-loan hole, so she heads to Alberta like so many East Coasters, picking up one of the plentiful jobs in the oil sands. There, she makes the promised money, but also sees first-hand all the things that make life in that place so hard: the isolation, the loneliness (especially when she moves from living in Fort Mac to working in one of the camps), the rampant sexism (and worse) experienced by the handful of women who live and work among these men who are so far from home. The toll on the environment; the toll on human mental health. All these things are depicted unsparingly, but so are the acts of kindness, the humanity, the fragile sense of community she encountered among the many men and few other women that she worked alongside there. Ducks is a coming-of-age memoir that also paints an unforgettable portrait of life in the industry that makes our world both possible and doomed, an industry we rely on and often revile but are generally glad (if we don’t work in it ourselves) to know as little as possible about. It’s that perfect balance of a deeply personal story set against the backdrop of a huge, complex, and very relevant story that impacts us all, and Kate Beaton’s words and pictures — which are inseparable from each other; I can’t imagine this book as a straight prose memoir — brings it all to awkward, uncomfortable, touching life.

The Year of Miracles, by Ella Risbridger

Recently I went to a bookstore and bought two hardcover new releases. You’d think, knowing how much I love to read, that this is a pretty common occurrence, but it’s actually not. While I am a voracious reader, most of the fiction I read is in the form of e-books, and most non-fiction in audiobooks, often borrowed from the library and well suited for rapid consumption. Books I love enough to own I normally buy in trade paperback, my favourite book format to look at and hold. I actively dislike the feel of most hardcover books in my hand, so rarely buy them.

However, Ella Risbridger’s new cookbook/memoir The Year of Miracles is one that I had to have in print, and I had no intention of waiting a year for it to come out in paperback (the same is true of the other book I bought at the same time, which I’ll review next; Kate Beaton’s graphic-novel memoir, Ducks). I’d already read Risbridger’s Midnight Chicken, another cookbook/memoir mashup: in the review of that one I explained how I came to know of Ella Risbridger and her work, and why it fascinated me. I did read that one as an ebook, but decided I would like to own it eventually in paper, and I had to get this one as soon as it came out, even though I don’t know how many of the recipes I’ll ever try. It’s beautifully illustrated and a joy to look at, another reason, apart from the recipes, that I wanted a hard copy. But the heart of the book is Risbridger’s essays which introduce each recipe, her chronicle of rebuilding her life after a devastating loss, leaning on a circle of dear friends for support, living through 2020’s pandemic year, and falling in love again — cooking all the while.

If you’re one of those people who hates it when recipe blogs introduce the recipe with a long personal story you have to scroll through to get to the instructions and ingredients, you’re going to hate this book, so don’t bother — it’s not really, or mainly, a cookbook. I love Risbridger’s voice, and her insights, and her thoughtfulness about grief, loss, and putting both a meal, and your life, together again.

The House With the Golden Door, by Elodie Harper

Although they are very different types of books, everything I said in my last review about Tasha Suri’s The Oleander Sword is relevant here — this, too, is the second volume of a trilogy, so it is not the place to start; the important thing to tell you about The House With the Golden Door is that it is a magnificent follow up to The Wolf Den, a tale of enslaved sex workers in a Pompeii brothel. At the end of that engrossing novel, our heroine Amara has experienced a change for the better in her circumstances — she is a wealthy man’s mistress, a courtesan rather than a slave, with a greater degree of freedom. But of course she is not completely free — and still has many enemies and faces many dangers. And the greatest of these dangers might just be falling in love.

There’s some really thoughtful exploration here of the institution of slavery in the ancient Roman world — what it meant to be enslaved, what enslaved people could and could not do, and how even as people chafed under the cruelty of that system, it was so ingrained in the culture that many newly-freed slaves became slaveowners themselves. Some people have criticized this series for sounding “too modern” but I feel like it does that only with language, making ancient places and customs feel vivid and real and reminding us of our similarities to them — such as when characters refer to the places that sell hot meals to the public as “fast food stalls,” which might not have been exactly the term they used in Pompeii, but does emphasize that people 2000 years ago had the same urge to pick up hot food they didn’t have to cook themselves, as we do today! (I did balk a bit at one of the characters referring to something as happening “on Wednesday” — since that’s a day of the week that’s tied very specifically to a mythology the Romans would not have known or used — but lapses like that are rare). What Harper does so well, though, is avoid anachronism where it really matters — in people’s thoughts or attitudes, particularly in the way they view the institution of slavery. It would be so easy to impose modern sensibilities on a character like Amara, but she is completely a woman of her time, even if she swears in modern English.

The setting is not just a beautifully evocative picture of the ancient world in the first century CE — it’s also quite specifically Pompeii in the mid-70s CE. This is a great setting because of course the author is able to draw on so much of the Pompeiian graffiti that’s been preserved, not just as chapter epigraphs but as windows into how people thought about prostitutes, slaves, love, sex, and power. It’s also a time setting with an obvious looming bit of foreshadowing of which the characters are unaware … and that I’m sure is going to play a key role in the third volume of the series.

Beautiful, vivid, so engaging and powerful — I love this series and can’t wait for book 3.

The Oleander Sword, by Tasha Suri

It’s hard to know what exactly to say in reviewing a sequel, because it’s either a satisfying and worthy follow-up to the original book, or it’s a bit disappointing. You can’t really tell people to dive in and read the second book in a series without reading the first (at least, I wouldn’t). So what I will say about The Oleander Sword is that it an absolutely satisfying, wonderful follow-up to The Jasmine Throne. Set in a fantasy-world version of the Indian subcontinent, this is a brilliantly realized, vivid, gorgeous world. Empress Malini, fighting for her throne, and servant-girl-turned-priestess Priya, her lover, are as compelling as ever; their relationship is tender and terrible and very fraught, and the dangers that menace both their homelands are terrifying. I am simultaneously so excited for the third book in this series, and also have no idea how Tasha Suri will resolve these storylines in a way that’s not completely tragic and heartbreaking (maybe it will be!). And that is about the highest praise I can give to the second book of a trilogy.

A Wayside Tavern, by Nora Lofts

I came to this novel by a rather roundabout route. I had just watched the episode of Sandman (the new TV series based on the Neil Gaiman graphic novels) in which Death makes a deal with a man in 14th-century England who doesn’t want to die. Death grants him immortality on the condition that once every hundred years, the man will meet up with Death and tell him how eternal life is going. I loved the episode, and my favourite part about the whole concept was that they kept meeting up in the same location, which was a tavern in the 1300s and retained its nature as some kind of an inn/pub/etc throughout the centuries. Seeing how the tavern and its patrons changed over 700 years was one of my favourite things about the episode.

A day or two after I watched that, in a completely unrelated online conversation, someone mentioned this novel, which I’d never heard of, and of course I had to find it. The premise is that the same building on the spot in, I think, Suffolk, serves as some kind of a tavern or inn from the era when the Romans are pulling out of Britain, up to the mid-20th century. The story jumps forward a hundred years or more in each chapter, showing how the inn, the town around it, and the people running it (often descendants of the same family) change with the changing times. I loved the little glimpses into people’s lives and how they intersect with the larger stories of history, the details about the inn itself, the way unfinished stories from one time period would be referenced in passing as bits of family history years later, the tiny details that become memory and then legend — I just loved everything about this book. Great stuff.

The Nature of Fragile Things, by Susan Meissner

Susan Meissner, whose novel As Bright As Heaven was about the 1918/19 flu pandemic, has a gift for writing historical fiction about subjects that don’t get enough historical fiction written about them. (Seriously, I know every single thing about WW2 is fascinating, but it seems like in the past few years, 80% of the historical novels I see in bookstores are about the war, the Nazis, the Holocaust, the Resistance, the spies, the war, the war, the war … and it’s all fascinating and there are so many untold women’s stories from the WW2 era of course … but there are so many great untold stories from other events too!). This one is about the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, and a young Irish immigrant woman with a mysterious past, a hasty marriage to a mysterious stranger, a child in need, and an unlikely friendship with another woman who should be her enemy. In the midst of all this, the city is torn apart by the earthquake, and it’s both a fascinating bit of history and an apt metaphor for the upheaval of Sophie Whalen’s life. A really good read.

Missed Connections: A Memoir in Letters Never Sent, by Brian Francis

I stumbled across this book in a most old-fashioned away — seeing it on the shelf at the bookstores — and that seems appropriate, because it’s about an old-fashioned experience. Brian Francis writes about the time that, as a young gay man in the early 1990s, barely out of the closet, he placed a personal ad in the newspaper. None of the replies he got panned out into a lifelong love, though he did meet up with a few of the respondents. He also held on to several letters he never answered, and now, as an older man, he goes back to those letters and writes what he would like to say to those men all these years later. It’s an intriguing way to structure a memoir about coming out, growing up, and re-evaluating the person you were and the person you’ve become. This was a wonderful, quick read that I thoroughly enjoyed.

The Jane Austen Society, by Natalie Jenner

This was a quick and fairly light read about villagers in the English village of Chawton forming an unlikely alliance to try to save Jane Austen’s family home and preserve it as a historic site. This actually did happen in the same post-WW2 era in which the novel is set, but this is a work of fiction. The varied cast of characters — a movie star, a grieving war widow, a troubled small-town doctor, a bright and ambitious servant girl, and a few others — who form the Jane Austen Society in this novel, are not the same people who actually came together to do that work in real life, nor are the circumstances of the way the property came down through Austen family descendants historically accurate. This is fine, of course, but it did feel slightly jarring to have a story inspired by real events in such recent history in which all the characters were fictional. It didn’t put me off enjoying the novel (or wanting to read the sequel, which I have on hold at the library) but it did make me think, as I so often do, about the boundaries of historical fiction versus historical fact.

Please Scream Inside Your Heart, by Dave Pell

This is another one I listened to as an audiobook which is hard to categorize, although I did really enjoy it. It’s an almost day-by-day journey through 2020 from the perspective of someone who admittedly consumes way too much media (Pell produces an online newsletter called NextDraft that offers “a quick and entertaining look at the day’s most fascinating news”); it’s a summary of American’s twin obsessions in that year — Donald Trump and Covid-19 — and how they were entwined; it’s also a memoir of Pell’s own personal and family response to the events of the year. The family perspective is particularly interesting as both Pell’s parents were Holocausts survivors, and their observations about the growing right-wing movement in the United States form a backdrop to the ever-escalating crises of life in 2020 America.

Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, by Gabrielle Zevin

I absolutely adored this novel. I’ve really enjoyed Gabrielle Zevin’s last two novels, Young Jane Young and The Storied Life of AJ FIkry, but this was my favourite of them by far. I read it in 24 hours, almost all while lying in my hammock in the back yard — is there a more perfect summer day than one where you have nothing to but read and it’s warm enough to read in the hammock??! (No there is not).

Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow is a novel about friendship. It’s about a lot of other things, of course, including video games, both as the backdrop of the story (main characters Sam and Sadie team up as video-game developers, and much of the plot is about their career as friends and co-workers, and how the ups and downs of their business affect their personal relationship). It’s also about loss, grief, and so many other things. But mostly it is a deeply absorbing knowledge about the ties that bind people who have been in each other’s lives for decades, about the ways in which we hurt the people we love and how (or sometimes, if) it’s possible to forgive them. Wonderful book.