I’ve had the most excellent reading month. It was one of those times that feels almost too good to be true, and the luck at finding myself transported by the excellent work of these writers felt like a blessing. I’m sure you will find something to love and something to transport you from this list of excellent new releases.
Companion Piece by Ali Smith
It would be inaccurate to call this a Covid novel. In keeping with her seasonal quartet (four books, named for the seasons, published one per year), Ali Smith writes and publishes up to the minute fiction that feels both immediate and timeless. It’s her gift to mix realism and myth, to tap into ancient stories and history to give texture to the present day.
The present day is locked down Britain, and the main character is nearly broken by her inability to visit her father in hospital. Further chaos arrives in the shape of a former classmate, and trailing behind her, her disintegrating family and the mystery of a girl who became a gifted blacksmith. The word play is gorgeous, the musical repetition of images and words like refrains. The main character is a painter, and the world through her eyes is spangled and sparkling and many layers deep.
Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel
This is a time travel book that will make your brain fizz. Mandel excels at the puzzles of narrative structure, and her accomplishments are all the more impressive when you learn that she does not work with an outline. The story is told from the points of view of several characters at several points in time from the early 20th to the 25th centuries. Characters from her previous book, The Glass Hotel, reappear here, and I found that a comforting tether to the here and now.
There is wonderful comedy in the misadventures of the various characters, and the dialogue is snappy and clever. It has a propulsive plot, and you’re driven to want to know how all the strands connect, even as you want to slow down and dwell on its more meditative moments. It’s clever and sharp and satisfying.
This is How We Love by Lisa Moore
In an interview at the Toronto Public Library, Lisa Moore said she wrote this book to try to understand the rise in violence in her home city of St. John’s, Newfoundland. This is the story of a mother hurriedly returning to Newfoundland from holiday in Mexico. Her son has been badly beaten up and is in hospital in critical condition. There are many scenes of violence, and the story imagines the successes and failures of love in the community in which the violence takes place. Lisa Moore excels at articulating the ephemeral, the odd and the overwhelming. Witness this passage, describing 20-year-old Xavier’s texts to his girlfriend:
His texts were supposed to be wise and sensible but auto-corrected to something goofy and misspelled. Every text he wrote had a subtext and the subtext was that he cared about her. They autocorrected to ordinary things like where’s the phone charger? from I love you with everything I am.
Oh, how that made my heart ache.
Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus
I laughed out loud so many times reading this book. This novel about a 1960s research chemist turned cooking show host is hilarious. The all too plausible sexism sits very comfortably alongside the wildly improbable witty dialogue. I only wish there were more women with the quickness of wit and mind that Elizabeth Zott has in these pages.
It’s not all fun and games. There are scenes of sexual violence, and the author neither shies away from the reality of it nor cheapens it with her comedic overlay. That is a tough thing to pull off, but she does it. The plot is one of those satisfying ones in which all the loose ends are tied up, but, again, the neat closure does not cheapen the real struggles the characters face in the story. I want to say “charming.” I want to say “feel-good.” It’s that, and it’s laced with arsenic.
Bonus: a most excellent dog, with killer dialogue. In this book about how women are criminally underestimated, the author is careful not to underestimate our canine friends.
Book Lovers by Emily Henry
I have so enjoyed Emily Henry’s wildly popular romances. They are clever and self-referential and steamy and offer all the satisfactions of traditional romance plots but with a knowing smile. She speaks about and back to the book trade, about narrative expectations and conventions, about how romance is devalued because it’s a woman’s genre. In this book, she takes on the trope of city girl moves to the country. It includes a list of all the traditional ingredients of such a story in romance novels, and much of the clever comedy comes from how the characters tick items off of this list. You get your romance and your feminist take on the genre, too.
Again, Rachel by Marian Keyes
My introduction to Marian Keyes was Rachel’s Holiday, and once I’d found that, I raced through all of the Walsh Family books. Mammie Walsh is comic genius, and the scene in Rachel’s Holiday when Mammie Walsh finds Rachel’s g-string–I thought I might do myself physical harm with the laughing. There are five sisters in the Walsh family, and they have each had their own book. Now they’re all back, and they’re all in fine form in this return to Rachel’s story.
I’ve organized this post into different genres, but here more than anywhere, I think it’s important to say that popular fiction is not a category less than literary fiction. Marian Keyes taught me that. She tackles issues of addiction, depression, grief and divorce in her fiction and she gives them such clear and compassionate articulation. You could read this without having read the others, but if you haven’t read them, they’re a treat and you’d be giving your self the gift of many hours of excellent company.
More excellent reading: