The Flatshare by Beth O’Leary

 
The Flatshare
by Beth O'Leary
2019

This is sweet and adorable romcom that had me giggling to myself in the living room and then managed to ambush me with some actual serious issues of trauma recovery without ever losing the quirky fun set-up.

The story is about Tiffy, who needs to get a new place to live on very short notice and on a very tight budget, and Leon, who needs to get some extra income and has a one-bedroom flat but works nights at a hospice. The deal is that they will time-share the flat so that Leon sleeps there during the day while Tiffy works, and Tiffy sleeps there during the night while Leon works. Leon has a girlfriend who is more than happy to take up any of his available free time so that Leon and Tiffy never have to meet… That’s the premise.

It reminds me of Attachments by Rainbow Rowell and is very cute and all the characters are quirky and there’s a close friend group on Tiffy’s side and a close family group on Leon’s side, so they each have their own support structures but are also dealing with their own issues outside of their growing relationship with each other. 

It switches perspective between Tiffy and Leon, and then is also divided into month segments from February to October. My one real warning for this book is to make sure you have enough time to read October all in one go. I attempted to put the book down and get a night’s sleep in the middle of October and it was an anxiety-ridden night’s sleep. 

As Anna pointed out when I was telling her about it, this book is the opposite of a tragedy. The best tragedies all have a moment where everything seems to be working out, where everything could go well, and it gets your hopes up, and then it all comes crashing down and the fall is all the worse for the hope. Well, this is the reverse of that: there is a horrifying terrible moment where everything has the chance to fall apart and go horribly wrong. And it doesn’t. It all works out, but that one moment is just terrifying and the release of tension makes the end so much sweeter. 

Reading Through the Pandemic

So, it’s been a while. 2020, huh? I may have aged 20 years since February. Everyone hanging in there?

While I have definitely spent my share of this pandemic doom-scrolling, playing a truly astounding amount of Thirteen, and watching every episode of the Great British Baking Show again, I have actually read a fair amount. My book list from the last five months is an odd mix of romance, non-fiction, and literary best sellers as I keep trying different kind of books, looking for the perfect thing to help me either forget the world or understand what is going on around me. I don’t know that I have yet to find a book that genuinely helped on either front, but I did read some smart, touching, fun things that kept me off Twitter. It’s all I’ve got today, but I’m going to offer it to you: some books that might take you away from the current hellscape for a few minutes.

Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips
A while back I read Reservoir 13, a novel about how the disappearance of a young girl affects the residents of a small town. It got rave reviews, but I found it deeply unsatisfying. This book is everything I had hoped Reservoir 13 would be. I also really enjoyed a peek inside life in a far-flung Russian province, including in its indigenous communities.

The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern
People absolutely adore Morgenstern’s first book, The Night Circus, but I thought it was just pleasant enough and Anna was even less impressed. But it’s a pandemic, I’ve got nothing but time, so I thought I as might as well tackle her second one. It’s another long, sprawling magical realism story with lots of characters and multiple time frames, but I was much more caught up in the characters and the magical world she created this time around.

The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande
I made so much fun of Anna for reading this at the beach a few years ago, but she was totally right! This is a smart, readable book that provides a sense of hope that there are concrete things we can do to improve the world.

Open Book by Jessica Simpson
I know! The Jessica Simpson book! It is actually very good!

The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey
Massey wrote a series of mystery novels about a Japanese-American woman solving crimes in modern-day Tokyo, which I liked a lot, but this book kicked of an even more interesting new series about a female lawyer working in 1920s Bombay. The story was interesting, but I was most impressed with the level of research that Massey must have done, which allowed her to create this world that felt so real, even while being so far from anything I’m familiar with.

Because Internet by Gretchen McCulloch
Have you been wanting to read a linguist discuss how people on the Internet communicate? You want to, whether you know it or not. This can get a little dense at times, but McCulloch is funny and the phenomena she describes will be familiar to anyone who has spent significant time on line over the last 25 years. Having an expert take a specific Internet language thing (a meme, an acronym, ellipses) and then explain exactly what purpose it serves actually gave me a lot of respect for how we create the forms of communications we need in real time every day.

The Alice Network by Kate Quinn
This last one isn’t cheerful, I’ll warn you, but it was compelling. I think I found this book in a round-up of WWII stories, but it actually has an interesting twist. The story follows two timelines–a female spy in France during the first World War, and then a young American girl in Europe in the years immediately following the end of the second war. Anyone who reads a lot of historical fiction ends up reading a lot of WWII stories, and that’s all fine, but they often focus exclusively on the war years and little before or after. I liked how Quinn’s story showed how close and connected the wars, and individuals’ experiences of them, were and how Europe had begun to rebuild in the late 1940s.

Sapphire Flames by Ilona Andrews

SapphireFlamesSaphire Flames
(4th book in the Hidden Legacy series)
by Ilona Andrews
2019

This series is something of a guilty pleasure for me and this is the fourth book and the first one about Catalina Baylor, sister to the prior main character, Nevada Baylor.

The reason this is a guilty pleasure is the set up, which is an urban magic world where about 150 years ago, there was a serum developed that gave people magical powers. (Or killed them, or turned them into monsters, but the survivors at this point have magical powers.) And this has created something of a three-tiered society, where there are civilians going about their daily lives with no magic, and living their lives much like anyone else in the modern day; there are magic-users who have a little bit of extra magical skill; and then there are the members of the magical Houses, where families have bred themselves into powerhouses and accumulated vast wealth and are essentially above the law and only counterbalance each other in particularly lethal ways. The bad guys are the people who are trying to destabilize this society.

In any reasonable universe, I would be cheering on the rebels trying to take down this insane society. Instead, I am agog to see what these high society magical killers are doing in their love lives.

The (purported) good guys are the super-handsome, super-wealthy, super-powerful, super-psychopathic killer, scions of these Houses who, despite being psychopaths who barely feel compassion for anyone else, are desperately in love with our main protagonists: lovely ladies who had once thought they were in the middle tier of magical civilians, but discovered their ‘hidden legacy’ that means they are actually extremely powerful and have now formed a House of their own.

Don’t judge me. I love these.

Unfortunately, I don’t love this particular book as much as the previous three (I still like it though!), because the narration keeps on trying to convince me that Catalina and Alessandro are desperately in love even as they deny themselves and each other, despite them having met for all of 15 minutes three years ago when she was 18 years old. He’s a high society heart-throb who she was able to cyberstalk on Instagram (while secretly being a James Bond style assassin maybe?), while there’s hints that he might have actually stalked her for a bit (wealth, power, etc, make all things possible), but the narration keeps on denying that it’s a crush, or simply lust, or obsession. It’s love! Which mostly means that there’s no character arc for them to fall in love because it starts out with the premise that they are both in love already, just pining from afar. My suspension of disbelief, which is normally quite strong, hit a snag on that.

But anyway, the world building is still fascinating and the action sequences are ludicrous and amazing and the dialogue is fun.

What I enjoyed even more is the prequel novella:

DiamondFireDiamond Fire
by Ilona Andrews
2018

This is a good segue between books three and four, as it covers the wedding of Nevada Baylor and Mad Rogan, and sets up Catalina Baylor as a main character who is about to have a lot of changes, and thus book four can happen after the three-year training montage implied at the end of this novella. But in the meantime, the novella itself is fun and a detective story because all of Rogan’s kookie/creepy/lethal relatives show up and then the family wedding tiara gets stolen and shenanigans ensue, with Catalina being conscripted as the detective.

The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine

PrinceOleomargarineThe Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine
by Mark Twain and Philip Stead
illustrated by Erin Stead
2017

I saw this at a library book sale and it was a Mark Twain story that I had never heard of before and had beautiful illustrations so I bought it and then the sale was over so I sat down on one of the library benches and I read it and it is sweet and sharp and funny and pleasing. It also reminded me of The Princess Bride in the way it pulls back from the story periodically to remind the reader that it is a story and that the people telling the story have their own story happening.

And: I need to reiterate this: the illustrations are beautiful and make excellent use of white space.

So while this is a children’s story, it’s also an adult story, and even the children’s fairy tale section has some rather pointed aspects as one would expect from Mark Twain. Plus, the history of the actual book is incorporated into the background of the story in a way to intentionally blur the lines between reality and fiction.

But the history of the book is that Mark Twain wrote down extensive but incomplete notes for this story, and those notes were only relatively recently identified within his his archive, at which point the rights to co-author, finish, and publish the story were licensed out.

Anyway, this is very cute and I definitely recommend it, but I am sufficiently out of touch with children these days that I have no idea what the intended age range for it is.

The Short Story Advent Calendar 2019

advent calendarThe Short Story Advent Calendar – 2019
https://www.hingstonandolsen.com/

This was a very cool concept by the publisher and a great present from @bookdom. Thank you, Anna!

25 unlabeled short stories to be read as an advent calendar from December 1st through December 25th. They came in a boxed set with each story is bound and sealed with its own individual cover listing only a number. Sweet! 

2019-advent calendarI love the concept! The implementation, alas, was a bit rough.

Only four of the stories were Christmas-themed, and I only actually enjoyed seven of them. The stories tended to be “literary”, which made me think about what “literary” really means to me. I had started out with the definition of “miserable people living miserable lives”, but then expanded it to, “miserable people living miserable lives written by an author who dislikes the world.” And then expanded that to, “… an author who dislikes the world but is proud of their dislike, because it’s ‘realistic’ rather than ‘niave’.”

One of the commonalities I kept on running across is that the main characters, dealing with a variety of their own issues, would look at someone else walking down the street or sitting on a bus or whatever and say in the narration: that person has dead eyes and no understanding of the world or philosophy or whatever, that person has no interior life.

To which I think: there is no person in the world who doesn’t have their own life, their own story. It’s ignorant and disrespectful to pretend otherwise. That random person may not be pivotal to whatever the current story is, but don’t pretend they don’t have their own story.

But while I only enjoyed seven of the stories (and even those could be a grind near the end, to get over my own expectation of dislike and give each story a fair chance to be appreciated), it was still interesting to see the different ways in which the authors were experimenting with the genre. The ways the stories were similar to one another, was often terrible, but the ways in which they differed had the potential to be fascinating, even, or especially, if sometimes I could tell the author was trying to accomplish something but couldn’t quite figure out what.

Anyway, the stories varied between 7 and 30 pages long, and each day, the website got updated with a short discussion post about the story.

To sum up: I would recommend this as a whole compilation to anyone interested in the craft of writing because it’s a great opportunity to see a lot of short trial runs, and decide which you think work and which you don’t and maybe be inspired to do something similar (but better.) But overall I disliked the stories. In case you were wondering, the stories I thought were actually good were 3, 7, 9, 20, 22, 24, and 25.

Also, I loved the concept and I wonder how hard it would be to put together my own advent calendar of recommended short stories for next year. I might need to make the attempt.

Wrapping Up 2019 Recommendations

As usual, when I look back at the list of things I read this year, many of my favorites are already represented here. Some of them are things I already wrote about (A Sky Painted Gold, The Great Believers), while Rebecca and Anna have covered others (My Sister, the Serial Killer, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street and The Bedlam Stacks). But before we move on to the shiny new world of the 20s, I wanted to highlight a few more books that never quite made it to the blog this year, but that have stuck with me over the year. So, four quick ones:

1. There There by Tommy Orange. I read this right at the beginning of the year, and in my memory it was a very delicate book, sometimes closer to poetry than prose. It tells a modern-day story of urban Indians–Native Americans who live not on reservations, but in Oakland. Different narrators connect and overlap, representing different tribes and generations, painting a vibrant, layered portrait of this community. Did you know that in the 70s a group of Native Americans occupied Alcatraz for more than a year? It’s embarrassing that I had no idea about this.

2. Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala. Okay guys, this one is rough. This is a memoir by a woman who lost her whole family–husband, kids, parents–in the 2004 tsunami. Deraniyagala is unflinching in describing her grief and her process of, I wouldn’t say healing, but of survival. Not for the faint of heart, but this book is really something.

3. Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe. Earlier in the year I mentioned how much I adored the show Derry Girls, which is set in Northern Ireland in the early 90s. In fact, I was so charmed by the show I decided I should read a bit more about the Troubles, which is how a took a sharp tonal turn away from the comedy of Derry Girls to this non-fiction book. Say Nothing ended up on all the major Best of 2019 lists and it is deserved. This is a gripping story that covers generations of conflict while reading like a thriller, not a history book. My main take-away? Gerry Adams is probably a sociopath.

4. Daisy Jones & the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid. Let’s end on something that is not quite such a downer! This is basically a fictional oral history of a band a lot like Fleetwood Mac. If you’ve ever imaged what it might have been like to be a 70s L.A. rocker, this is the book for you. It’s also a super quick read–I read it on one airplane flight and it was perfect for that.

Here’s wishing us all a 2020 of good reading!

The Great Believers

The Great Believers by [Makkai, Rebecca]

I struggle with literary fiction. I read it, but I often feel like there is a disconnect with how the rest of the world, and reviewers in particular, see these novels and how I react to them. Over and over I read a book that the reviews call “funny” or “charming” or “romantic” and come away wondering about their definition of those words, because I found it painfully sad or extremity upsetting. It certainly could be that I am very delicate, or that I have skewed my assessment by reading lots and lots of YA books and romances. It’s not that I require a happy ending and simple black-and-white story in everything I read, but if I dread reading a book because it is making me so unhappy to watch characters suffer, well, it doesn’t matter how well constructed the sentences are. I’m going to stop reading it. I want books to teach me and make me feel things and show me the truth of the human experience! But I also have to get out of bed every day and be a functioning person, and depressing books don’t always help with that. All of this is to say: The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai is the best book I read this year and I recommend it only with extreme caution.

The story runs in two times and two places in parallel–Chicago in the early 1980s and Paris in the recent past. In Chicago we are following Yale, a gay man trying to tackle a professional challenge and be a supportive partner and friend, all while AIDS has begun crashing through his community like a giant snowball gathering steam and size as it rolls down a hill. Decades later in Paris, Fiona, the little sister of one of Yale’s friends, is trying to track down her estranged daughter, lost for years in a cult. The story moves back and forth between these characters, only slowly revealing all the connections between them and how the trauma of the AIDS epidemic continues to ripple through lives.

The book is gorgeous. Yale and Fiona both leap off the page as real people–complicated, not always great decision-makers, but loving. And in the Chicago chapter especially, the sense of place is so strong that I could almost feel that horrible icy wind blowing off Lake Michigan. But I also struggled to read it sometimes, because a felt such a sense of dread about what was going to happen. I swung between not being able to put it down, and wanting to put the book in the freezer because I was so upset for these characters. And I want anyone reading it to know going in: this is not going to be a book about miraculous survival and reunion. I cried and cried. There are parts I would like to go back and reread because I know I raced through them, but I can’t bring myself to do it. But this wasn’t a story that made me think, “Well, what’s the point of anything then?” Which is sometimes my reaction at the end of a fancy literary novel.

I completely understand if, after looking at the headlines of the day, all you want to do is read something light and fluffy and warm and comforting. I have done more than my share of that lately, and I don’t want to a recommend a book that could upset someone at a time when they can least handle it. Reading isn’t your job, there is no course credit here–read the books you enjoy. But if you are in a place to be challenged and to be sad and to feel, The Great Believers is a wonderful book. For me, this is a literary fiction novel that speaks to the fact that there is a point and that we are all here together to find it.

Kinsey’s Three Word Review: Heartbreaking but beautiful

You might also like: TransAtlantic by Colum McCann is another gorgeous book that moves about in time to tell interwoven stories, although on a big bigger scale, and The Three Junes by Julia Glass is always a favorite of mine. Then there is The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin–I read this earlier in the year and almost reviewed it here, before deciding that the book started much stronger than it ended. It’s the story of four siblings who visit a fortune teller who tells them each the exact date she says they are going to die. Whether they believe it or not, that information affects how each of them move forward, and the book follows each sibling in succession. I adored the first story–the youngest son moves to San Francisco to live as an out gay man–and liked each of the next three less and less. But other people liked this book a lot, and that first story is gorgeous.

War Witch by Layla Nash

WarWitchCoverWar Witch
by Layla Nash
2017

This was a BookBub find and it was a fun urban fantasy with witches and werewolves. It’s set fifteen years after The Breaking, when supernatural powers and creatures were revealed to the rest of humanity, and five years after The Truce was implemented at the end of an exceptionally bloody 10-year-long civil war in which everyone was fighting everyone else and a lot of people died.

Out main character, Lily, was an incredibly powerful witch at the forefront of the fighting during the civil war and is now trying to find some semblance of peace and wanting nothing to do with the current power structure, staying as unaligned as she possibly can from the many, many factions still struggling to figure out their place. Nash has done some amazing world building with the concept that there’s the truce between humans and supernatural beings, but each side is made up of groups that contain smaller groups that contain individuals and pretty much all of them have their own conflicts and alliances and motives. And five years is a very short time for peace while ten years is a very long time for a civil war. So the whole society is extremely fraught.

And into this situation some witches work illegal demon magic and Lily is the main suspect. (In part because she’s been hiding that she can and has summoned demons, but not this particular time.)

In addition to the world building, I also kind of love the romance side plot. It’s really obvious the Lily, an unaligned witch trying to lay low, and Leif, an extremely high ranked werewolf enforcer for the current power structure, are attracted to each other. However, they are also in conflict with each other because they can sympathize with but not abide by each other’s political stances. It’s just a really interesting dynamic and I enjoyed seeing how Nash worked it.

What I wasn’t so happy with was how it ended with a clear set-up for a second book. I’m increasingly developing a pet peeve against books that spend their final chapter(s) setting up the next book rather than completing the current book. Also, this book doesn’t appear to have a sequel yet anyway. But anyway, I found the end of the book annoying, but the world building was excellent and the character interactions were both fascinating and hilarious.

 

Certain Dark Things by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

CertainDarkThingsCertain Dark Things
Silvia Moreno-Garcia
2016

This book was listed on the tumblr post Adult fantasy books not by straight white men and only realized afterwards that Anna was already reading a book by the same author. This book was summarized as “vampire noir in Mexico city.” It is really good!

It’s a vaguely futuristic dystopian world where there’s so much extreme poverty that the futuristic elements are minor flashes that just highlight how nothing has changed for the vast majority of people. It’s also a world where all the vampire legends from different lands are based on real beings, and there are ten confirmed types of vampires. It’s only been a few decades since vampires were revealed as real creatures but it’s now the norm, and the norm is that vampires run several of the major drug cartels. So in addition to the conflicts between government and drug cartel, there’s also conflict between government and vampires, between different vampire species, and between different drug cartels. And it all gets extremely messy and extremely bloody.

While the novel switches out point of view between several different characters, our main character is Domingo, a human guy in his late teens I think, who starts off feeling pretty good about himself and his place in the world: he’s got a steady income picking through trash and finding things he can sell and a place of his own in an abandoned metro tunnel. And then he sees a beautiful woman and tries talking to her and she actually acknowledges him! How lucky is he?

And just, he is kind of lucky because of all the vampires that he could have met she needs help that doesn’t involve him dying. Mostly.

It is also very much a noir. The bad guys are the bad guys because they are truly horrifically evil and the good guys are the good guys because at least they’re not as bad as the bad guys. But it’s a gritty world and no one is truly innocent. In the end everything works out in the best possible way but there’s just no real chance at a happy ending.

Actually, I take that back, spoiler alert: the dog lives. So that’s happy.

Fast Women by Jennifer Crusie

FastWomenFast Women
by Jennifer Crusie
2001

This was both a perfect palate cleanser after How To Be Alone and something of a direct rebuttal of it as well. Because this is definitely a romance novel, with a plot focused around two characters getting together and a guaranteed happy ending, but it’s also a remarkably nuanced look into a number of complex relationships. Fast Women is very much on the literary side of things — it deals with divorce, alcoholism, abuse, neglect, despair, and having to start over — and but is saved from that genre by maintaining a generally optimistic outlook on life. While a lot of purported ‘literature’ is unpleasant people living unpleasant lives, this book is consists of delightful people living interesting lives, but it’s no less complex or nuanced. It also has a number of ridiculous situations and conversations that had me giggling every other page.

The main character is Nell and her love interest is Gabe, but Nell has a friend group of two other women, and Gabe has a friend and business partner, and they each have a college-age kid, and each of these five characters is fully developed with their own personal issues and plot-lines.

The plot, such as it is, is an investigation that’s in large part trying to figure out what to investigate because there’s blackmail and murder and arson and theft and they’re all connected in some way, but it takes a good 400 pages for our characters to figure out how.

Anyway, it’s delightful and funny and I definitely recommend it. It’s also a reminder to me that the romance book genre is massive and contains pretty much any subgenre a person could possibly want to read.