Book Lovers, by Emily Henry

This is one of those books that I devoured in less than 24 hours. Admittedly, 5 of those hours were spent in a waiting room at the emergency vet clinic (the dog is okay!!!) so I had a lot of time to read and a lot of need for distraction, but that doesn’t diminish the fact that I found this book incredibly readible and fun. It’s a romance that plays with all the romance-novel tropes, but in the most enjoyable way possible.

The premise of the book is that the main character, literary agent Nora, is the big-city, all-business girl who typically gets left behind when her boyfriend goes to live the Hallmark-movie reality of discovering a simpler, sweeter girl in a small town. In fact this has happened to Nora no less than four times — four previous boyfriends have gone on various types of business trips to backwoodsy places, fallen in love with the local baker or innkeeper or what have you, and dumped her.

And while Nora hates heartbreak, she doesn’t regret being that girl one bit. She loves her job, loves New York, loves her carefully scheduled and organized life. The only thing that can pull her out of it is her beloved younger sister, Libby. When Libby drags Nora on vacation to a picturesque small town full of quirky characters, Libby’s sure Nora’s going to fall in love with some handsome local carpenter or bartender. But that’s not exactly how things work out, and it’s so much fun watching as they do. Everything here is, in one sense, formulaic — we know who Nora’s love interest will be as soon as he steps onto the page, and the progress of the relationship, complete with its setbacks and obstacles, unfolds exactly according to romance-novel formula, but I just found the writing and the characters fresh, funny, and totally enjoyable, so I never minded the predictabilitly.

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The Stolen Book of Evelyn Aubrey, by Serena Burdick

This book takes place in two timelines: there’s the story of Evelyn Aubrey, a young English woman who marries a fellow writer, the famous William Aubrey, just before the start of the 20th century. Evelyn’s marriage is idyllic at first, but it quickly turns dark, culminating in her disappearance and presumed death in 1906, for which her husband was suspected of (though never charged with) her murder. Then, in 2006, Evelyn’s descendent Abby, a young woman in her early 30s living in the US, begins trying to explore her own little-know family history — the family of the father she never knew — in an attempt to get a handle on her own life. Inevitably, the storylines converge as Abby seeks the real story of what happened to Evelyn.

Every so often I come across a book that seems like it’s so perfectly crafted to fit my particular interests that it should be my favourite book of the year before I’ve even read it. Woman novelist overshadowed and possibly murdered by her novelist husband? Check! Dysfunctional late-Victorian marriage? Check! Search for a missing journal and elusive family history, including a stay in a moldering English manor house? Check! Check! Check!

And yet, the experience of reading this book was … just okay. I enjoyed it well enough, but it wasn’t hard to put down, and I don’t think it’ll linger with me long after I’ve read it, and I don’t know why that was. It’s an intriguing setup and the characters are engaging enough … it just didn’t grab me as hard as I wanted it to. Liked it but didn’t love it … but I certainly liked it enough to encourage anyone else to give it a try if the premise sounds interesting to you.

All This Could Be Different, by Sarah Thankam Mathews

So I’ve read quite a few books in the last couple of years where I could describe the general vibe as “young people in their 20s are poor and unhappy, but they describe it beautifully. There’s a lot of conversation, but the writers hardly ever use quotation marks in these lengthy dialogue scenes.” Anything by Sally Rooney qualifies, obviously, and My Year of Rest and Relaxation, and another book Emma and I did a podcast on: Everyone In This Room Will Someday Be Dead, by Emily Austin. Quite a few more local examples as well. And I know that summary sounds flippant, but the fact is that list contains books I have really, really loved, as well as ones I felt “meh” about. This particular theme in literary fiction is definitely having a moment right now (not for the first time) and All This Could Be Different fits that category. I found it slow to get into at first but ended up really engaged and enjoying it a lot.

The 20-something in this story is Sneha, recent college graduate, the child of Indian immigrants to the US who have had to return to India, leaving Sneha in the US to finish college and hopefully get a good job. As the story starts she seems to be on the right track: a promising and decently-paying job that includes an apartment, a few friends in Milwaukee, where she lives, and good prospects for the future. Things unravel, of course, but even as the fragile threads holding Sneha’s life together come apart, she finds new things holding her together — bonds of resilient love she doesn’t always feel worthy of.

Sneha is an interesting character — definitely not immediately likeable, often judgemental and just plain wrong in her attitudes towards others, proud and stubborn, yet I found myself growing to care for her. As a white Canadian, I can’t judge whether the author’s portrayal of a South Asian immigrant experience in the US was authentic or not: I’ve read several reviews by South Asian people saying that yes, this book really captured their experience well, but others saying that they were frustrated by the ways in which the book still manages to centre whiteness — for example with Sneha’s desire to only date white women. For myself as a reader I can just say Sneha is living a life fundamentally different from mine in almost every way, and yet her experience felt real, and vivid, and I loved the way the novel ended.

Still could have used some quotations marks though — I’m never, ever going to be OK with the lack of them. But a great and compelling novel at least makes me not think too much about it.

The Dictionary of Lost Words, by Pip Williams

Having listened to The Meaning of Everything a couple of years ago — a nonfiction book about the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary — I knew a little of the background of this monumental, decades-long project to catalogue every word in the English language. Pip Williams’ novel The Dictionary of Lost Words takes a fictional perspective on the story through the eyes of young Esme, whose father is one of the scholars working on the project. An only child whose mother is dead, Esme spends her childhood — and, eventually, much of her young womanhood — in the magical world of the “Scriptorium,” watching and eventually participating as the dictionary takes shape. But Esme has a side project of her own — beginning with a “missing” word that she steals from the Scriptorium, she begins collecting words the (for the most part) don’t make it into the dictionary — slang words, swear words, words that are only used by (or used differently by) women, or poor people, or people otherwise marginalized from the official English language.

It’s an interesting take on the story, and Esme and the characters surrounding her provided an engaging fictional way to enter the great story of the dictionary, while also reflecting on the uses of language to unite and divide us.

Cousin Phillis, by Elizabeth Gaskell

Once again, a book by Elizabeth Gaskell has been a surprising pleasure. I feel like she is really underrated compared to so many other 19th century English novelists. Although she’s very much “of her time” (in both good and bad ways), Gaskell has a wonderful way with characterization and the observation of tiny details. This story of a very sweet, sheltered young girl whose quiet world is disturbed by the arrival of a young man from outside that quiet world, is very short (originally published in six installments), and very quiet and without dramatic incident, save for a good old fashioned case of brain fever. But it is a lovely little slice of life and was a short and enjoyable read.

If an Egyptian Cannot Speak English, by Noor Naga

This novel was on the Giller Prize shortlist and is a short but compelling story about a young woman who is Egyptian by heritage but raised in the US, who goes to live in Egypt and starts a relationship with a young man who was a photographer during the Arab Spring uprisings (this story is set a few years later) and has since struggled to find regular work and is also dealing with a drug addiction. Through the course of their brief affair, told in alternating point-of-view chapters, the novel explores the cultural gaps between them, the experience of Egyptians who participated in the uprisings only to find the hoped-for freedom did not follow, and the difficulty of navigating gender, culture, and class differences in a relationship where two people do not share a common first language.

I’ve seen some readers criticize this book for the ending, which, after a shocking end to the affair, suddenly turns very meta, with the first-person “author” having the work critiqued in a writing seminar. She has written an epilogue to the story that is not in the text we have before us, and the other writing students are critiquing that ending, in an extended scene that seems to suggest there is no “right” way to end this story. I liked the metafictional twist, and found the story overall thought-provoking and insightful.

The Sleeping Car Porter, by Suzette Mayr

The 2022 Giller Prize winner is a relatively short, tightly focused historical novel about a Black man working as the titular sleeping car porter on the train that runs between Montreal and Vancouver in the 1920s. It’s a vivid, descriptive glimpse into many pieces of a bygone world: the luxury of train travel for first-class passengers, whose needs were catered to; the exhausting work done by the porters who did the catering. The novel explores the racism of that world where the porters are all Black and the passengers all white; it also explores the hidden life of a closeted gay man in that era. All of that is general, the broad brush strokes of recreating a moment in time from almost 100 years ago, but as with all the best novels, the brilliance is the specificity, the life and perspective of this one man, R.T. Baxter, who dreams of earning enough money to study to become a dentist. Baxter and his world, sketched in the few days of an eventful rail journey, spring to life on these pages.

Seasonal Fears, by Seanan McGuire

This novel is a sort of sequel (different characters, but set in the same world and with a brief appearance by the characters from the first novel) to Middlegame, which I read last month and enjoyed. This one also deals with two apparently normal young people who are in fact, unknowingly, part of something much better than themselves. Harry and Melanie are not the embodiment of abstract concepts with awesome powers, like Roger and Dodger in Middlegame; rather, they are the embodiment of the seasons, called to be crowned as King of Summer and Queen of Winter — if only they can avoid or defeat all the other contenders for the crowns. Unlike Roger and Dodger in the first book, who have a decidedly brother/sister (or even twin, really, given their background) vibe, Harry and Melanie are childhood friends who turned into teenage sweethearts, before discovering their role in the cosmic scheme of things. This one was entertaining enough and kept me reading, especially as it turned into a kind of bizarre road-trip novel, but it didn’t engage me as much as Middlegame. Ultimately, while I like McGuire’s writing and her characters, this specific urban fantasy world in which modern-day alchemists are manipulating people to try to control great cosmic forces, didn’t engage me enough that I would necessarily come back to the series if it goes on for more books. That’s not to say it’s bad though — it’s interesting, and well-written; it just didn’t, ultimately, grab me enough to make me want to read on.

Still Life, by Louise Penny

For ages it seems like everyone in my extended family (well, my dad, my cousin, and my aunt, anyway) have been reading Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache mysteries, but I had never picked one up. I finally decided with the new year, and the appearance of a TV series based on the books, that I should give them a try.

So … Three Pines, in the Eastern Townships of Quebec (I think it’s the Eastern Townships … some rural place with a lot more English people than you’d expect in Quebec) is an idyllic little village made up of quirky, colourful characters. Idyllic, that is, until a beloved local former teacher and aspiring artist is brutally murdered, and the wise and kind Inspector Gamache comes down from Montreal to investigate. Unfortunately, it looks like this is going to be the first in a string of (at this point) 18 brutal murders, so I’m guessing Three Pines is a lot less idyllic after all these books have been written, but it’s still a pretty quiet little place in this novel, and if the quirkiness of the characters sometimes veers a bit into twee-ness, well, it’s still better than a hard-edged gritty mystery that ends with you hating the victim, the murderer, the detective, and the rest of the human race.

Inspector Gamache is a nice change from the hard-bitten, cynical, world-weary detective: a gentle, insightful man whose most important detective skill is really listening to people, and who seems to genuinely care. I hope that he, like Three Pines, is not too badly tarnished by the bloodbath that’s about to unfold over the next several volumes. The actual mystery took till about halfway through the book before it became genuinely engaging (and I found the same to be true of the second book in the series, A Fatal Grace, which is all I’ve read so far — but I have no problem with a book that has a slow start and takes time setting the scene. Not an un-put-downable five-star read for me, but a solid four stars that interests me enough to continue on with the series.

Ten Favourite Books from 2022

Coming up with a “Top Ten” or “Top Anything” list of favourite books from the past year is a little project I’ve been doing since, oh … 2006? Some years it’s easy, and other years it’s frickin’ difficult, mostly because I’ve read so many good books in a given year that I can’t narrow it down.

This was one of those years. I could probably generate a Top 25 (or so!) list, but narrowing it down any further than that simply becomes arbitrary. For this year-end favourites list, I picked 8 novels and two non-fiction audiobooks that I really enjoyed, ones where something about the story or the experience of reading (or listening to) it lingered with me long after I’d finished the book. But it was a fairly arbitrary choice and for every book on here, there are at least two more that I really enjoyed that I left off the list. It’s been a good reading year, folks, and these are good problems to have.

If you want to read my reviews of the books above, they are (in no particular order, because if picking a “Top Ten” was pretty arbitrary, ranking them would be even more arbitrary!):

Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow, by Gabrielle Zevin
Devil House, by John Darnielle
Dark Tides (and also Dawnlands, next in the series), by Philippa Gregory
The Sentence, by Louise Erdrich
All the Seas of the World, by Guy Gavriel Kay
The Wolf Den, (and its sequel, The House With the Golden Door), by Elodie Harper
Small Game, by Blair Braverman
The Marriage Portrait, by Maggie O’Farrell
Unmask Alice, by Rick Emerson
Where the Light Fell, by Philip Yancey

I always like to track — more for my own interest than anyone else’s — a few stats about the kinds of books and kinds of writers I have read during the year. Sometimes these are more estimates than hard numbers, since I don’t always have full information about who a writer is and where they come from, but I like the big-picture element of tracking some of my own reading trends over time. So, in that spirit, a few 2022 stats:

  • Total books read: 125
  • Fiction vs non-fiction: 107/18
  • New books vs re-reads: 112/13
  • Women writers vs men: 100/24 (one book had multiple authors. Didn’t read any writers that were, to my knowledge, non-binary this year).
  • Newfoundland writers: 11 (from here originally, or primarily based here)
  • Writers from the rest of Canada: 20
  • Writers from the UK: 44
  • Writers from the US: 42
  • Unknown or from other countries: 8
  • Writers who are BIPOC or otherwise would identify as racialized or “not white”: 16

That last stat is really interesting to me because a few years ago I started making a concerted effort to read more book by Black, Asian, Indigenous and Latine authors, and in the year that I started consciously trying to do that, my stats were about 70% primarily white-identifying authors, to about 30% other writers. What I’m learning is that if I don’t make a concerted effort to diversify my reading, it’s very easy to default to reading mostly white authors (and thus missing a lot of great books along the way!)

So that’s my reading “journey,” if you want to call it that, for 2022! Onwards!