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.

I Kissed Shara Wheeler, by Casey McQuiston

Having read and greatly enjoyed Casey McQuiston’s previous books, Red White & Royal Blue and One Last Stop, I naturally was drawn to her newest, I Kissed Shara Wheeler. This one is geared at a somewhat younger audience — the characters are in high school rather than in their early 20s — and does not contain the explicit sex scenes of the other two. There is a same sex romance (more than one, actually) which is definitely in McQuiston’s wheelhouse, and a character who mysteriously disappears just before high school graduation, leaving her friends and enemies to puzzle out what happens to her.

I’ve seen Shara Wheeler’s disappearance compared to the novel Gone Girl, but I’d suggest the much closer parallel is John Green’s Paper Towns, in which a mysterious and beautiful girl leaves town right before high school graduation, after an unexpectedly intimate evening with the boy who’s had a crush on her for years, and the boy and his friends follow a trail of cryptic clues to find her. In this novel, Shara Wheeler is the beautiful and perfect golden girl in a small-town Christian school, and outsider Chloe Green, the novel’s main character who’s competing with Shara for class valedictorian, has wavered between hating Shara and being obsessed with her for all of high school. McQuiston’s not unaware of the Paper Towns parallels; Chloe specifically references the whole set-up being “like a John Green novel” at one point.

The message of Paper Towns is: Boys, don’t turn a beautiful young woman into your Manic Pixie Dream Girl: she is a real person with her own thoughts, feelings, and problems, and doesn’t exist to serve your story. The message of I Kissed Shara Wheeler is, perhaps, also that the beautiful girl is more complex than you think she is — but so is everyone else. In a world that rigidly enforces being straight, cisgender, Christian, and compliant, Chloe finds both within her safe circle of queer friends and in unexpected places outside of that circle, that almost everyone is more than she thinks they are. I found this a fun romp with some thoughtful insights underlying it.

This Is How We Love, by Lisa Moore

This new novel by Lisa Moore, arguably Newfoundland’s best known contemporary fiction writer, is (at least on one level) a story about a young man who is the victim of a violent crime, and the mother who makes her way through the snowstorm of a century to be by his side in hospital.

It’s much more than that, of course: most of the story unfolds through flashbacks, though the viewpoints of three main characters: Jules, the mother, Xavier, her son, and Trinity, a girl who grew up in their neighbourhood who was briefly a childhood friend of Xavier’s and re-appears unexpectedly in his life as a young adult.

Stories and scenes from their past, not unfolding chronologically, are layered over one another with the densely detailed sensory images that any reader of Moore’s fiction is familiar with. These memories and scenes, laid next to and sometimes overlapping one another like collage, do exactly what the title promises: explore the ways we love the ones we love. What love is like in families, in blended families, in chosen families, in wildly dysfunctional families — all these variations and permutations are on display here.

I think this is my favourite Lisa Moore book partly because it felt so close to my own experience and concerns. Moore and I are the same age and live in the same city, and she creates a lovingly detailed St. John’s in this novel, entirely recognizable to anyone who lives here (it’s just my nit-picky brain that has to chime in, whenever a local author does this, to notice the few details that have been changed for the author’s own reasons: no other sensible reader would break the stride of this story to say “But why are Xavier and Trinity at Mary Queen of Peace for elementary school? They’re not zoned for there, are they?” although to be fair I have had St. John’s readers ask me the same kinds of questions about choices I’ve made in my own books, so maybe it’s not just me).

Apart from the broader details of life in downtown St. John’s during the span of decades covered by this novel, all of which were recognizable, there’s the extremely specific detail of Snowmageddon, the January 2020 storm that, for residents of the St. John’s area, put us into “state of emergency” mode two months before the pandemic started. The closed airport, the snow-clogged streets, the power outages, the locked hospital doors — it’s all familiar, and rendered in that beautifully specific detail that makes a great story come alive.

The specific pull of love between a mother and a young-adult son — the worry you feel, the boundaries you observe or violate — is also very close to my own concerns and something I’ve written about recently, so this book hit home for me on that level too, as I imagine it would for many parents of young adults. If it’s really important to you to have a story unfold in a straight-forward, linear fashion, or if you don’t like writers who linger for a long time on loving, detailed descriptions of sensory images or moments from a scene, then this novel might not be for you — and that’s fair; no novel is for everybody. But if you’re willing to travel with a skilled writer like Moore along the winding path that leads up to a single, life-changing incident, and along the way experience a thousand vivid images of how we love — then I recommend this novel, which I found completely absorbing.

The Summer Place, by Jennifer Weiner

Back in spring 2020 when Covid first struck and most places were under some degree of lockdown, there was much discussion around whether there would ever be great “lockdown novels” or “Covid novels” — whether the collective pandemic weirdness that we were all experiencing in different ways would make its way into fiction, or whether there would be a collective literary forgetting about this huge event (as there was, with some exceptions, to the 1918/19 flu epidemic).

Now, two years into the whole thing, I think we are starting to see the great Covid novels emerge, whether those are literary (like the last book I reviewed, Louise Erdrich’s The Sentence), or popular, like Jennifer Weiner’s The Summer Place. The specific slice of pandemic reality that this novel touches on is the strain that months of lockdown together (even if a very spacious Brooklyn brownstone, where the lucky protagonists of The Summer Place get to live) can put on relationships, as couples are exposed to each other’s annoying habits at close range, week after week, without the release of going to different offices or going out with friends.

Of course, there’s more going on below the surface of Sarah and Eli’s marriage than lockdown combined with midlife crisis. In fact, there’s more below the surface than appears to be happening with every single character in this big, sprawling novel about an extended family meeting at a Cape Cod beach house (the same house that links this novel to Big Summer and That Summer). The secrets we keep, the lies we tell, the regrets we hang onto, the choices we did or didn’t make — all those are the engines that fuel the story of Sarah’s family in the first year of the pandemic, and it all comes to a head on the weekend of a big, impulsive, beach house wedding. This is the perfect Jennifer Weiner novel for our times and I loved every minute of it.

The Sentence, by Louise Erdrich

This powerful, engrossing, funny, sad, enraging novel tells the story of Tookie, an Indigenous woman who is rebuilding her life after several years of incarceration. Tookie is brilliant, stubborn, and an absolutely memorable first-person narrator. She is married to Pollux, an old friend who’s also the officer who arrested her. She works at an Indigenous-focused bookstore that is very closely modelled on the bookstore Louise Erdrich actually owns in real life (and the store’s owner, “Louise,” is a minor character in this novel). Oh, and the bookstore — at least, when Tookie is in it — is being haunted by the ghost of a former customer, a white woman who was fascinated (in a fairly pushy way) with Indigenous culture. So, along with everything else, it’s a ghost story.

If that (and just the fact that it’s written by Louise Erdrich) is not enough to hook you, there’s a whole other layer that makes this book fascinating. Except for the opening, which gives us the backstory on Tookie’s crime and punishment, the novel takes place between November 2019 and November 2020, so the lives of the characters are impacted first by the Covid-19 pandemic, then by the protests following George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, where the story is set. These contemporary events don’t feel gimmicky: they feel like the heart of a story that is about resilience, persistence, and love in the face of illness, racism, and everything else the world throws at these characters. This was a fascinating and beautiful book to read.

Hell of a Book, by Jason Mott

This is a novel about a writer on a book tour. The writer is kind of a jerk; in his opening scene he’s running naked down a hotel corridor because the husband of the woman he’s just jumped into bed with has burst in on them. Who the woman is isn’t important: we won’t see her or hear about her after the next five pages of the book. The writer is not good with women, not good with relationships in general, not good with people. He’s also not good with himself. He’s dazed and confused by his own book tour and unsure what his book is about, though he knows his job is to go to a bunch of events, give interviews, and agree with everyone who tells him it’s a hell of a book.

This is also a novel about a young boy nicknamed Soot, a Black boy in the American south with skin so very black it makes him notable — and a target — to everyone, including other Black kids. Soot’s parents try to teach him to become invisible, and when it seems that sometimes he literally can, you get your first hint that this is not a straight-ahead realistic novel.

The third main character, besides Soot and the writer (whose chapters alternate with each other), is The Kid, a young Black boy who mysteriously appears to the writer (who sometimes has hallucinations, so he’s not too surprised by this) even though others can’t see him.

This is a novel about race, about Blackness and anti-Black violence in America. The writer is a Black man who has tried not to centre race in his writing, who is consciously trying not to be a “Black writer.” But when his book tour coincides with the shooting of a Black teenager (who is, and is not, the “Kid” who appears in his hallucinations) and a series of protests about police brutality, he finds himself having to address racial issues, and his own muddied memory of the past.

All of this makes the novel sound more linear, and more coherent, than it is. Several reviews I’ve read of Hell of a Book, which won the National Book Award for Fiction in the US, have spent a lot of ink trying to parse out whether Soot, the writer, and the Kid are all the same person, and pointing out where their stories different. But that’s wasted effort, in my opinion — this isn’t that kind of book. Of course they’re the same person, and also, of course, they aren’t – they are Black men, and boys, and teenagers in America, confronting or trying not to confront the realities of racism. If you let go of trying to “make sense” of this story and just read it and experience it, scene by scene, it’s powerful. Trying to map out the plot or figure out who these characters “really are” just gets in the way of experiencing the novel.

I will say that one part of the book that didn’t land for me nearly as well as the focus on racism and the Black experience, is all the humour (?) around the surreal, disorienting book tour. I’ve read an interview where Mott talked about how it’s based on his own experiences on book tour, how you get so jet-lagged and disoriented by travel that you don’t know who you’re talking to and the canned responses you give about your book to every interview become almost meaningless. I’m sure there’s a rich vein of humour to be mined here but as one of the legion of small-press authors who can only fantasize about ever being sent on a paid, cross-country book tour, I have to say that there’s a whiff of “Gee, I’d sure like to have your problems” for me in reading about the rigours of a book tour.

However, this was a minor quibble, and one that’s probably personal to me and people in my situation — the book is, after all, not really about a writer on a book tour. It’s about a man who’s in the public eye, who communicates for a living, yet who has in a sense made his real self as silent and invisible as Soot on the school bus: hiding from bullies; hiding from his own past; hiding from the harsh truth of being a Black man living in a racist world.

French Braid, by Anne Tyler

The last Anne Tyler novel I read, Redhead by the Side of the Road, dealt with one of her classic storylines: a lonely man who avoids meaningful connection with others. French Braid picks up another common Tyler thread: a large, multigenerational family (in Baltimore, of course), and the relationships between them, the loneliness that can exist within the seemingly tightly-braided network of an extended family.

The novel begins with a simple and telling scene in a train station in 2010: college student Serena, heading home from a trip with her boyfriend, sees her first cousin Nicholas from a distance but doesn’t speak to him, because she’s not sure a) if it’s him, and b) if he would know her. Her boyfriend is amazed that a family can be so distant that first cousins wouldn’t recognize each other in a train station (they live in different US states, but not particularly far apart, so it’s not as if they’ve grown up separated by continents).

Then, we get the backstory of this family, beginning with Serena’s and Nicholas’s grandparents, Mercy and her husband Robin, taking their first and last family vacation with their three children in the summer of 1959. Moving forward in chapters spaced roughly ten years or so apart, we get brief glimpses into the lives of the Garrett family, shifting point of view from one character to another, exploring not just the connections that tie families together but also the spaces that push them apart.

There’s no big secret to be revealed here, no shocking moment when we discover the horrible event that drove the Garretts apart. Rather, there’s a series of little secrets, little lies, little misunderstandings — as well as little moments of warmth, love, and connection — unfolding over the decades. It’s a story both big and small, told with the loving attention to detail that we always get from an Anne Tyler novel, with warmth, humour, and an overarching sense (for me at least) of melancholy: why can’t all these good people be a little better at showing how much they care for each other?

New Girl in Little Cove, by Dahmnait Monaghan

This is a delightful novel that somehow flew under my radar when it came out last year. I read it in less than 24 hours and found that, while generally light in tone and heart, it was completely compelling.

The story is set in 1985, when Rachel arrives from Ontario to teach French in a tiny Newfoundland outport. It’s pre-moratorium, so most of the men in the community are still fishing, and it’s pre-end-of-denominational-education, so Rachel has to cross her fingers and promise she’s an observant Catholic before she can get the job at St. Jude’s. Even more troubling, the local priest sits her down for a little talking-to about the importance of upholding Catholic values in her teaching, in her encounters with students, and in her personal life — intrusive, but perhaps relevant as the previous French teacher ran away with the previous priest.

There’s lots of great local characters, insightful and humourous depictions of rural Newfoundland life in that era, painfully accurate scenes of the trials and tribulations of being a first year teacher, and a gently-blossoming romance to sweeten the story. There were definitely elements here I could relate to — my first year teaching was 1986, the year after Rachel’s, although in my case the journey was in the opposite direction, from Newfoundland to Ontario.

Author Dahmnait Monaghan, who lives in the UK but has Newfoundland roots, hits that sweet spot that so many of the best writers of what’s often dismissively called “women’s fiction” are good at: a light tone with lots of humour occasioned by Rachel’s fish-out-of-water status in a fishing community, but with that lightness, touching on some deep topics. Yes, this is about a mainlander finding her place in a tiny remote outport, about a first-year teacher learning the ropes, about a lapsed Catholic trying to fit in in a place where everyone, especially a teacher, is expected to show up for Mass every Sunday. But it’s also about recovering from grief, and about the tough moral choices you sometimes have to make when your personal convictions chafe against what your job demands. It’s also, while being amusing, a loving and respectful look at Newfoundland outport life as it was 35 years ago. One of the strongest parts of the novel is Rachel’s reaction to the Newfoundland dialect around her (which is very well rendered, not always the case in fictional portrayals of outport life) and how she learns, or is taught, to question her own assumptions about that dialect. She’s come to teach French, but she finds herself learning another language as well.

Sweet, sincere, and surprisingly thought-provoking in spots, New Girl in Little Cove was a quick read and one I found completely absorbing.

The Blue Moth Motel, by Olivia Robinson

Olivia Robinson’s debut novel The Blue Moth Motel, already longlisted for a major local literary award, is a lyrical coming-of-age story. The main character is Ingrid, who grows up with her sister Norah, their mother Laurel, and their mother’s partner Elena, in the titular motel owned by her grandmother Ada. The time frame shifts between Ingrid’s childhood, narrated in third-person, and Ingrid’s first-person story as a young woman living in London, England, trying to make a living and build a career as a singer.

The motel setting of Ingrid and Norah’s childhood is lovingly evoked: a small, again, slightly run-down hotel perched outside the epicentre of Prince Edward Island’s busy tourism industry (even though it’s a different part of Canada, I kept picturing the motel from Schitt’s Creek). Also beautifully sketched are the close and loving bonds between this unconventional family, and the way music becomes a thread that weaves through both girls’ lives. Though Ingrid has struck out on her own to start a new life for herself, she is drawn to home as the perhaps-mythical blue moths are drawn to firelight.

Olivia Robinson is a brilliant young writer who has a beautiful way with language, and I look forward to seeing what she does next.