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.

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 Wards, by Terry Doyle

This will likely be my last book review for 2022, and honestly, I may have saved one of the best for last. I knew from reading Terry Doyle’s short stories that he’s a vivid and incisive writer who can depict slices of contemporary Newfoundland working-class life like almost nobody else writing today. I was excited to see what he could do with the space of a novel, and I wasn’t disappointed. I started reading The Wards after midnight last night, when I finished the other book I was reading and wasn’t sleepy yet. Stayed awake until almost 1:30 reading it, then woke in the morning and didn’t get out bed till I’d finished it — that was how compelling I found it.

That’s not to say that this is a book that’s going to pull you along with a mystery plot or anything else that will keep the pages turning to find out “what’s going to happen?” Only one major thing is going to happen, and it happens between the halfway and two-thirds point of the book. What will keep you reading is not trying to resolve suspense or solve a puzzle, but seeing how one simple, though devastating, event affects every member of a family whose characters are sketched in relentless but loving detail.

The Wards — Gloria, her husband Al, their 19-year-old daughter Dana and 23-year-old son Gussey — are a middle-class St. John’s family, their lifestyle (house on a cul-de-sac, giant lifted pickup truck in the driveway) sustained by pipefitter Al’s stints working away from home on various megaprojects, currently at Voisey’s Bay. Gloria and Al seem — not exactly happy, but contented and used to the rhythm, and the annoyances, of their marriage. Dana is trying to spread her wings at university and fly beyond her family’s limited circle; unemployed Gussey, whose main interest is smoking weed with his best friend Mark, seems to be forever stuck on the ground. Completing the circle of characters is Gloria’s sister Paula, who lives on the same street; with a husband who has left her and two sons working away in Alberta and rarely in touch, she envies Gloria’s life.

None of these people — not even Dana, with her aspirations to an educated and broader life — is good at handling, or talking about, emotions. The person who might be most in touch with his feelings is not one of the Wards, but Gussey’s loser friend Mark — a guy portrayed as so incompetent that, in a hilarious appropriation of a real-life event for fictional purposes, he is the person who painted “DRIVE TRUE” on a drive-through restaurant’s pavement. Mark scribbles poems (which he calls “lyrics” although he’s not a musician; he recognizes that a young man who admits to writing poems is about 5000x more vulnerable than one who says he’s writing lyrics) in a notebook that nobody sees, but he can’t articulate what he’s feeling any better than any of the Wards can.

It’s a galactic distance from the St. John’s world of the Wards to the upper-crust British world of The Crown, yet something that I said when I first watched that TV series came back to me in reading this book: “It’s quite an accomplishment to make an entire dramatic series about a group of people whose guiding principle is to show as little emotion as possible.” The emotional incoherence of the Wards and their family and friends does not stem from exactly the same sources as the British stiff-upper-lip philosophy, but it’s not entirely different either. You do what your sphere in life requires you to do — whether that’s working away from home at a job you hate, or keeping a family together when they seem to have no desire to be together — and, crucially, you don’t complain. Or rather, you “piss and moan,” as Al accuses Gloria of doing at one point in the novel, but you don’t ever open up about how you really feel, or have an honest conversation about difficult emotions with someone you care about.

So the central question at the heart of The Wards is (for me, anyway): when people who are so distanced from their own emotions and any ability to talk about them get hit with one of life’s Big Events, how do they process it? How do they deal with themselves, with each other, with loss, with change? That’s what this book is about, and there are no huge epiphanies or giant about-faces: the Wards are not those kind of people. There are only small moments: a tiny self-discovery, a mute attempt at connection, a missed opportunity to love. The book isn’t flawless, but it’s beautiful and sharply observant and a little heartbreaking, in all the best ways.

Also, there’s a dog in the book, and I have an ongoing beef with author Terry Doyle about the fate of dogs in fiction that goes back to a short story in his collection Dig and a conversation on my podcast. When I heard him read the first few pages of this novel, in which Gloria buys a dog off Facebook Marketplace, I was very concerned for the fate of the dog. I won’t do a “Does The Dog Die” style spoiler here, but I will say — the dog probably makes out better, in the end, than most of the Wards do.

The Rabbit Hutch, by Tess Gunty

It’s very rare that I don’t finish a book I start — there’s only been one I didn’t finish in 2022, and that’s mainly because it was essentially three novellas in one volume and I decided it was OK to read only the first two. I almost didn’t finish The Rabbit Hutch, but ultimately I decided to finish it, and I’m not sorry I did.

The concept sounded intriguing, which is why I picked up the book in the first place. Four young adults recently aged out of the foster care system are sharing an apartment in a low-rent building in a dying middle-American town. The novel culminates in an act of violence; we know from the beginning that it’s going to happen, but what exactly happens and why unfolds throughout the pages. At the centre of the story is Blandine, the only girl in the apartment, a brilliant, troubled young woman who is obsessed with the lives and legends of female mystics, and longs for an ecstatic experience such as the saints claimed to have experienced. Her desire for mystical transformation is at odds with the grim realities of her everyday life and the setting in which she lives.

This is, in itself, an interesting enough story, and quite strong enough to hold up the novel. Where it gets iffy is in the author’s decision to focus not just on the stories of this central quartet, but also to write from the point of view of several other people who live in the same apartment building, or whose lives intersect with theirs in some way. I love the idea of this — the classic concept of telling a story from the point of view of many different people in a community, but with the twist that there is no real community here; these people are so isolated by the bleak landscape of poverty in capitalist small-town America that they are like separate planets orbiting the warmth-less sun of the apartment building. It’s a good idea, but I think the execution is uneven; some of the stories are linked to the others either plot-wise or thematically, while others seem to be off in their own cul-de-sac — for this reader, more of a distraction than an enrichment to the central story.

That’s why I almost gave up partway through — too many pages spent on subplots that didn’t interest me and didn’t seem to go anywhere, and while the writing is often beautiful, there’s also some of what I would consider over-writing — long passages of dialogue where a character speaks for three or four pages without stopping, for example. But there was something intriguing in it, so I stayed with is, and it paid off as I got more engaged in the second half of the book and found the ending very satisfying and even a little bit beautiful.

This Time Tomorrow, by Emma Straub

This novel was a quick and generally enjoyable read, but didn’t pack as much of an emotional punch as I thought it could have. The premise is good, especially for a reader like myself who really enjoys stories that involve time travel or otherwise play around with time. The main character, Alice, is about to turn 40, and while she’s not unhappy with her life, she’s discontented, feeling that things could be better. Her beloved father is dying, and she wishes she had more time with him. Looking back through her life, she wishes she’d made some different choices. And then, suddenly … she wakes up and it’s the morning of her sixteenth birthday. She gets to relive that day again, then finds herself back in a new version of her 40-year-old life, now changed by the choices she made when she was 16.

It’s a great premise, and I don’t think the book handles it badly, but whether it’s the way Alice, her father Leonard, and the other characters are developed, or the way the high-concept premise of revisiting and change your own past plays out in this particular story, I didn’t feel as engaged by Alice and her life and her choices as I thought I would be. Put this one in the “liked it; didn’t love it” category.

The Satsuma Complex, by Bob Mortimer

When I reviewed Richard Osman’s first mystery novel, The Thursday Murder Club, I suggested that whenever I (or many other people, I suspect) read a novel by a celebrity, I approach it with the question, “Can it really be good, or is it just popular because the author is a known name?” In the case of Osman’s mystery, my conclusion was that it was a perfectly good mystery novel, enjoyable by anyone whether they have any knowledge of mysteries or not.

Now Bob Mortimer, one of my favourite (and one of the quirkiest) UK comedians, has released his first novel, a sort of mystery/thriller, and I approached it with the same trepidation. I love Bob Mortimer so much: what if his book was a disappointment?

To cut to the chase: it was not. But I’m not entirely sure it has the same broad appeal as, say, The Thursday Murder Club, because if you’re not already a Bob Mortimer fan, you’d have to at least be a potential Bob Mortimer fan to enjoy this book, because it’s permeated with Mortimer’s sense of humour and slightly off-centre view of the world.

The main character of The Satsuma Complex is Gary, a thirty-year-old legal assistant who is not particularly thrilled about his job, his social life, or his modest London flat. In fact, Gary is, externally, a pretty dull guy — but his inner life is rich and vivid. He’s a sort of Walter Mitty-esque character, bumbling through his boring life while carrying on imagined dialogues with the squirrel he passes on his morning commute, and mentally describing everything and everyone he sees with the most unlikely similes and comparisons. “When I arrived I noticed a colourful read and white striped bicycle leant up against the wall by the entrance. It crossed by mind that there might be a pissed juggler inside the building throwing his skittles willy-nilly at the light fittings.”

Basically, to get into this novel, you have to accept that the fairly bland Gary with his bland life and bland job has the most incredibly vivid imagination and off-the-wall sense of humour. But if you’ve read Bob Mortimer’s memoir (which of course I have), you’ll know that he basically was Gary, prior to doing comedy professionally — a guy with a law degree, doing a low-level municipal job without great enjoyment or ambition, living a quiet social life badly hampered by shyness and anxiety.

Anyway, when Gary meets an acquaintance at a pub for a drink, he also meets an attractive young woman who seems to be interested in him, but who mysteriously disappears when his back is turned. Then the acquaintance he met for drinks turns up dead, possibly murdered, and we’re off with a marvellously twisty plot that I will confess I could not predict the twists and turns of at all, right up to the last page of the final chapter. I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

Small Game, by Blair Braverman

If you know Blair Braverman’s name at all, you may know her as the owner, trainer, musher, and social media representative of an exceptionally beautiful team of sled dogs (Blair and her dogs are among the few genuinely good things that Twitter has brought to our world; just something to think about as the whole thing goes into a slow-motion crash — Twitter, that is, not the dog team). She’s also an accomplished non-fiction writer, but Small Game is her first foray into fiction.

In it, Braverman draws upon her own experience both of wilderness survival, and of being a contestant on a survival-style reality show. The main character, Mara, signs up to be a contestant on a show called Civilization because she’s had loads of experience with wilderness living, her life is at a bit of a stuck place, and the $100,000 cash prize the show offers would be a big help in getting unstuck. She’s taken to a remote spot in the deep woods of the northern US (or possibly Canada; we never find out for sure where the location is) along with five other people and, of course, a camera and production crew. The contestants have to survive for six weeks; everyone who makes it to the end will be a winner.

Of course, something goes wrong.

I found this book to be as taut and tense and un-put-downable as a really good thriller. In some ways it reminded me of Elisabeth de Mariaffi’s The Retreat, in that it felt like a more thoughtful and literary take on the idea of an individual, or a small group of people, trying to survive against the odds in a deadly situation. In this case, the question the story turns on is simple: what if something went wrong, and a survival reality show became … just reality? Just survival?

Going right back to William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, which I was cursed to have to teach many, many, many years in a row, stories of this type are usually vehicles for writers to explore, not just tales of survival, but theories about human beings and how they interact. Lord of the Flies had shock value in its time because it posited that without the veneer of civilization’s structures, the raw selfishness and desire for dominance at the heart of all human beings would tear apart even a group of children — supposedly the best and most innocent of humans. Stories of this type often end up with a pretty bleak view of human nature, suggesting that when the pressure is on, people will always turn on each other.

These questions were clearly also on Blair Braverman’s mind, and will be on the reader’s mind once Mara and the other reality-show contestants find that their survival is no longer a game. I found the conclusion she reached in this story very satisfying, and the road she took to get there almost impossible to put down. A very compelling debut novel.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo

I read this book months ago — over the summer — but I didn’t post a review because Emma and I ended up recording a podcast about it. We did one of our “Bookswap!” features where we each recommended the other read a book, and Emma recommended I read this one. So if you want to know what I thought about Evelyn Hugo and her seven husbands, have a listen.