The kids have returned to school, there’s a hint of a chill in the air and pumpkin spice lattes are back which can only mean one thing – it’s time to plan your fall reading list!
My recommendations for the best books to read fall 2023 include recently published works of contemporary fiction, romance, non-fiction, mystery, and historical fiction that I have read or have on my TBR list for this fall.
So get your cup of tea and cozy blanket ready – it’s time to curl up with one of these best books to read fall 2023!
You Might Also Enjoy Reading
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1. The Fraud by Zadie Smith
Setting: England, Jamaica
Based on real historical events, Zadie Smith’s latest novel takes place against the backdrop of a controversial criminal trial in Victorian-era England.
In 1873, Mrs. Eliza Touchet is the Scottish housekeeper/cousin by marriage/editor of William Ainsworth, a once successful novelist whose career is now stuck in a downward spiral. Like the rest of England, the Ainsworth household (particularly Sarah, Ainsworth’s young second wife/former housemaid) has been captivated by the Tichborne trials in which a man who quite likely is a lower class butcher from Australia claims to be the rightful heir to a sizable estate. All evidence points to the Claimant being a complete fraud but he has a large group of fervent supporters, including the young Mrs. Ainsworth, who view him as a victim of the elites conspiring to deny him his due.
Eliza agrees to accompany Sarah to observe the trial and is fascinated both by the spectacle and by Mr. Andrew Bogle, an elderly, formerly enslaved, Jamaican man who is testifying as a witness for the Claimant. Observing the trial prompts Eliza to consider writing a novel herself and she endeavors to get closer to Mr. Bogle and learn more about the man and his life.
Smith tells a story set in 19th century England but with quite clear and interesting parallels to today’s populism and the phenomenon of unwavering belief in someone who is clearly a fraud prompting her reader to ponder the nature of truth/fiction/fraud. I particularly liked Eliza who is a wonderful character – a fascinating woman with strongly held opinions on colonialism, abolition, politics – and Ainsworth’s friend, Charles Dickens.
The book does have shortcomings – it’s quite long (450+ pages divided into 8 volumes) and Eliza’s story meanders a bit while jumping back and forth in time between the 1870s and the 1830s when she first came to live with Ainsworth but I didn’t mind as I thought the book was very well-written, funny and quite thoughtful. The Fraud is quite different from Zadie Smith’s previous books that I have read but she writes so well that I honestly think that I would enjoy anything she writes!
2. A Traitor in Whitehall by Julia Kelly
Setting: London, England
I love Julia Kelly’s historical fiction so was excited to read her latest which is a foray into the mystery genre. A Traitor in Whitehall is set in 1940 London around the start of the Blitz in World War II. Evelyne Redfern has been working at a munitions factory when she is recruited by an old friend of her father to work in the typing pool in Churchill’s Cabinet War Rooms (CWR).
Within days of starting her new job, Evelyne stumbles on the body of another secretary and is determined to put her amateur sleuthing skills to work (she’s a fan of detective fiction) to solve the crime. She soon teams up with David Poole, a minister’s aide who is investigating an information leak from the CWR and believes there might be a link between the murder and the mole who is providing top-secret information to Britain’s enemies,
This is an enjoyable read that straddles the line between mystery and cozy mystery. Having visited the CWR a couple of times, I loved the underground setting and could imagine the action taking place there. Evelyne is a fun character – she’s a plucky, intelligent young woman who refuses to be limited by gender norms and won’t let anyone stand in her way.
It appears that this might be the first in a new “Parisian Orphan” series and a fair bit of the beginning of this book is establishing Evelyne’s character and her background particularly the scandalous high-profile divorce of her parents and death of her mother when she was a young girl. Parisian Orphan is the name that was given to young Evelyne by the press. I enjoyed this enough that I’ll definitely read the follow-up book to find out how Evelyne’s story progresses.
Thank you NetGalley and St. Martin’s Press for sending a digital ARC of this book for review consideration. All opinions are my own.
3. The Museum of Failures by Thrity Umrigar
Setting: Bombay (Mumbai), India
Remy Wadia left India as a young man when he was accepted to an MFA program in the United States and stayed after completing his degree marrying an American woman, starting a business and settling in Columbus, Ohio. Remy, now in his late ’30s, returns to Bombay (Mumbai but Remy still refers to the city of his birth as Bombay) for the first time since the death of his beloved father to pursue a potential adoption.
Shortly after arrival, Remy learns that the young pregnant woman who wanted to give up her baby is reconsidering and that his mother is in hospital and has stopped speaking and eating. Despite the turbulent relationship that Remy has always had with his mother, he feels guilty and is determined to help her recover before he returns to the U.S. While staying in her apartment, Remy stumbles upon a shocking family secret that causes him to reevaluate the relationship he had with each of his parents.
The Museum of Failures is a slow paced novel – a beautifully written story about family secrets, betrayal and forgiveness. It’s also a story of immigration and how it feels to belong to two places. Remy is happy with the life that he and his pediatrician wife have in the US and he often refers to Bombay as a museum of failures (“an exhibit hall filled with thwarted dreams and broken promises”) but spending an extended period of time in the city by the sea makes him realize that it is still very much his home and an important part of who he is.
The Museum of Failures is a touching, relatable story and I appreciated learning about the Parsi culture and about modern day Mumbai – not my favourite book of Umrigar’s but an enjoyable read!
4. Asking for a Friend by Kerry Clare
Setting: Toronto, Canada
Asking for a Friend is a well-written book about female friendship from Canadian author, Kerry Clare.
Jess and Clara meet in their dorm during their first year of university in 1998 and feel an instant connection although Jess is a bit awestruck by worldly Clara and Clara who travelled during a two year long “gap year” has struggled to fit in with the other younger girls in the dorm. The two young women become inseparable over the next four years until tragedy tears them apart shortly before graduation. The novel follows them over two decades of friendship as their lives take divergent paths and they deal with relationships, careers, heartbreak, marriage and motherhood.
Jess and Clara’s story shows the messy but real ups and downs of friendship, the challenge of maintaining friendships over time and the difficulty of determining whether a friendship is worth maintaining or whether it should be let go when friends no longer have as much in common.
Over the course of their 20 year friendship, there are difficult issues addressed including abortion rights, infertility, and pregnancy loss. The setting of the novel isn’t specified but there are enough street names and descriptions of places that it is recognizable as Toronto which I enjoyed as well.
Asking for a Friend is an engaging book that would be a great pick for a book club as it will definitely prompt some meaningful discussions on the nature and importance of friendship.
Thank you to Penguin Randomhouse Canada for the complimentary copy of Asking for a Friend. All opinions are my own.
5. A House for Alice by Diana Evans
Setting: London, England
A beautifully written family drama set in London at the time of the Grenfell Tower fire.
Cornelius Pitt, a man in his ’90s, dies alone in a fire sparked by a cigarette left burning in an ashtray in his home the same night that 72 people die in a fire at Grenfell Tower apartments. In the aftermath of her estranged husband’s death, a fiercely determined Alice declares that she wants to return to her Nigerian homeland as she has never felt that she belonged in England but her daughters are divided on whether she should go.
Adel is dismayed at the thought of Alice leaving London and her children and grandchildren behind to live alone in Nigeria while Carol thinks they should respect their mother’s wishes. Melissa just wants to keep the peace between family members while she continues to put the pieces of her life back together following her marriage breakdown.
A House for Alice is a story told in lyrical prose of love, loss, and the loneliness of people struggling to find a home/a place where they belong. It includes complicated familial and romantic relationships, racism, and political and social issues with the Grenfell tragedy and other current events such as Harry and Meghan’s wedding, Brexit and Boris Johnson’s blundering in the background.
Told from many viewpoints, the novel reads like interconnected short stories and can be a bit hard to follow at times because of the abundance of characters. This novel features some of the same characters from the author’s earlier novel, Ordinary People, which is about the breakdown of Melissa and Michael’s relationship and their friendship with Damian and Stephanie. A House for Alice is an enjoyable read as a standalone but wish I would have known that it was a sequel of sorts and read Ordinary People first.
6. A Winter in New York by Josie Silver
Setting: New York City
Iris is a young chef who moved from London to New York City to restart her life after losing her mother and ending an emotionally abusive relationship. While attending a fall street festival in Little Italy, she spots a gelateria with a door that she recognizes from a picture in her mum’s photo album.
Iris returns to the gelateria later and meets the handsome Gio Belotti who confides that the shop is in danger of closing because his uncle is recuperating from a stroke and can’t remember the family’s famous recipe for vanilla gelato. When she samples the gelato, Iris realizes that Gio’s family’s gelato and her mum’s gelato are one and the same.
Iris isn’t sure how her mother came to have this recipe but she resolves to try and help Gio and his family without giving away the fact that she has the secret recipe his uncle wasn’t supposed to divulge to anyone.
A Winter in New York is a cozy romance with two people who have experienced grief and heartbreak learning to trust their hearts and love again. Secrets and miscommunication threaten the budding relationship between Iris and Gio which is frustrating but overall it’s a sweet romance as well as a story about family loyalty, loss, grief and healing.
The story takes place in New York City from September through to New Year’s which I loved as it’s one of my favourite places in the world. I haven’t spent much time in Little Italy but now I want to head there on my next visit. New York, love and gelato – a good combination!
This isn’t really a holiday romance but a chunk of the book does take place during the holiday season so it probably could have been included on my list of 21 Festive New Christmas Books to Enjoy This Holiday Season as well.
7. Absolution by Alice McDermott
Setting: Vietnam, United States
Alice McDermott’s Absolution is a beautifully-written historical novel set in Saigon in 1963 when the U.S. had military advisors in Vietnam but not combat troops. McDermott takes us into the lives of two memorable characters – Tricia and Charlene, young American women whose husbands are stationed in Saigon.
Tricia is a demure newlywed who has recently arrived with her engineer husband – self-conscious and unsure of herself as she tries to adjust to this new life in Vietnam. She meets Charlene at an embassy party and the more experienced woman draws Tricia into her “cabal” of do-gooder American wives and their various fundraising projects in Saigon.
The story of these two women is unfurled as a series of letters 60 years later between Tricia and Charlene’s daughter, Rainey, who was a young child during the Vietnam years. After meeting a veteran who knew her mother in Vietnam, Rainey felt the need to reach out to Tricia. Tricia tells Rainey about their time in Saigon and also reminisces about growing up in New York.
McDermott has written a captivating and thought-provoking examination of moral ambiguities. Over the course of the novel, the question is raised many times of who actually benefits from actions that are intended to be morally good. Were they trying to heal the world or trying to heal themselves? This moral ambiguity of actions applies to individuals but is also a subtle observation on the motivations of the US government and what they were trying to accomplish in Vietnam.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading Alice McDermott’s Absolution – it’s a quiet, insightful story told with compassion – highly recommend.
Thank you to NetGalley and Farrar, Straus, and Giroux for sending a digital ARC of this book for review consideration. All opinions are my own.
8. The Second Chance Hotel by Sierra Godfrey
Amelia and James have both fled problems at home in the U.S. to travel in Europe for several months when they find themselves as the only guests at a hotel on a small Greek island that doesn’t get much tourist traffic. In a strange turn of events, they find themselves married and owners of the hotel. As the book’s blurb says: “It’s all fun and games until you accidentally marry a stranger in Greece and inherit a hotel!”
Amelia agrees to stay and run the hotel through the busy summer season with James but as she finds her attraction to him growing she begins to wonder if she should be returning to her real life as a project manager in San Francisco or whether the universe has presented her with a second chance to start over and live a different sort of life.
A fun rom-com set in a beautiful destination! I thought this was an enjoyable read – funny with quirky secondary characters and a great sense of place – The Second Chance Hotel made me want to run off to Greece and run a hotel!
Thank you to NetGalley and Sourcebooks Landmark for sending a digital ARC for review consideration. All opinions are my own.
9. Lies and Other Love Languages by Sonali Dev
Setting: Los Angeles primarily but also Mumbai
An emotional story that takes place over two timelines and told from the point of view of three women. In the present timeline, Vandy Guru is a successful advice columnist/agony auntie grieving her husband who died several months earlier and her 27 year-old daughter, Mallika, is an aspiring choreographer who doesn’t quite fit in with her mother’s family of successful doctors.
When Mallika goes missing, Vandy’s search eventually leads to Rani, her childhood friend now living in Mumbai who she hasn’t seen in close to 30 years. Rani’s POV tells the story of her friendship with Vandy from the time they met as 12 year-olds in 1979 when Rani moved to California from India through to 1995.
Lies and Other Love Languages is a beautifully-written, thought-provoking story of lies and secrets intertwined with motherhood, friendship, family and love that asks the reader to consider how far they would be willing to go to make someone they love happy and whether getting what you want is worth it if the consequences include losing someone you love. The plot touches on issues relating to grief, the mental and physical impact of infertility, and self-discovery.
This is the first book that I have read by Sonali Dev and I enjoyed her writing style and the characters she created – flawed but likeable with distinctive voices – including the strong cast of supporting characters. It wasn’t hard to predict where the story was going (although there are some twists) but getting there was enjoyable.
Thank you to NetGalley and Lake Union Publishing for sending a digital ARC for review consideration. All opinions are my own.
10. The Exchange: After the Firm by John Grisham
Setting: NYC, Rome, Libya and other locations
Shortly after graduating law school in 1992, I was browsing in a bookstore and picked up a copy of a legal thriller by an author I wasn’t familiar with. That book was John Grisham’s The Firm and I was hooked! For several years, I read and loved everything he wrote but I gradually lost interest and prioritized other books in the limited reading time I had while raising young kids. I haven’t been tempted to pick up one of his books since – until I heard that he had written a sequel to The Firm and I found myself very curious about what happened to young attorney Mitch McDeere after taking down his corrupt Memphis law firm.
The Exchange doesn’t really read like a sequel – it’s more a new story featuring the same character and could easily be read as a stand-alone. This book takes place in 2005 (15 years after The Firm) with Mitch and his wife, Abby, now living a privileged life in New York City with their twin boys as Mitch is a partner at the world’s largest law firm, Scully & Pershing.
After a brief trip to Memphis regarding a pro bono death row case, Mitch travels to Rome to meet with a Scully partner, Luca Sandroni, who is terminally ill and wants Mitch to take over the case of a Turkish construction firm that is suing the Government of Libya/Gaddafi for $400 million. The case involves default on payment for a bridge constructed in the Libyan desert so Mitch travels to Libya for a site visit along with Giovanna Sandroni, Luca’s daughter who is also an associate from Scully & Pershing’s London office. When Mitch is hospitalized with a bad case of food poisoning, Giovanna opts to travel alone with bodyguards to the site of the bridge but they are ambushed en route and she is kidnapped. A demand is made for a $100 million dollar ransom and Mitch spearheads the efforts to raise the cash before the deadline.
I was really looking forward to this book and, to be completely honest, it was disappointing. There’s very little law in this “legal thriller”, the writing is nowhere near as good as I remember from early Grisham books, there’s graphic violence that I could have done without, the conclusion is anti-climactic and I kept waiting for the plot to somehow connect to Mitch’s past but it never did.
On the other hand, there is no way that I wasn’t going to read this book because I loved The Firm and I think anyone who was a fan of the earlier book will want to read it too. I was compelled to keep reading to find out how it was all going to end and I did enjoy the globetrotting from New York to Libya, Istanbul and other international destinations as they tried to raise the ransom and satisfy the kidnappers – I’m sure it will make for a beautiful movie adaptation! Grisham hints in an Author’s Note that he might not be finished with the McDeere’s yet – here’s hoping that he returns to form for the next effort.
11. Walking With Sam by Andrew McCarthy
Setting: Camino de Santiago, Spain
This book was published in May but I didn’t get around to reading it until August. I mostly read fiction but every once in a while a non-fiction book like Walking With Sam catches my eye and I’m glad it did. I really enjoyed this travel memoir by Andrew McCarthy about walking the Camino de Santiago (a 500 mile pilgrimage across Spain) with his young adult son, Sam – both for the travelogue aspect as well as the exploration of the parent/child relationship.
Andrew shares the experience and the conversations that he and Sam had while walking the Camino as well as thoughts about his relationship with Sam, his relationship with his own dad and other aspects of his life including his previous Camino decades earlier. He also includes some interesting information about the history of the Camino which I enjoyed. The memoir is realistic (the walk is physically grueling in the heat of summer) and it’s also relatable (I’ve been frustrated on many vacations trying to get my kids out of bed).
Walking With Sam didn’t inspire me to walk the Camino de Santiago but I enjoyed experiencing it vicariously through Andrew and Sam and it did make me want to plan more travel with my own young adult daughters.
12. Let Us Descend by Jesmyn Ward
Setting: American South (North Carolina to Louisiana)
In Let Us Descend, Jesmyn Ward tells the story of a teenage girl born into slavery – her mother an enslaved woman and her father the white owner of the plantation where they live in North Carolina. The plantation owner sells Annis’s mother when she tries to frustrate his attempts to get Annis alone in the house and a few months later he sells his own daughter as well.
Men in chains and women tied together with ropes are starved, abused and treated like animals while being forced to march hundreds of miles from the Carolinas to the slave markets in New Orleans where Annis is eventually sold to the owner of a sugar plantation. Memories of her mother, stories of her grandmother and conversations with a spirit help Annis to survive the inhumane conditions. Her harrowing journey to Louisiana echoes the descent into hell from Dante’s Inferno that Annis learned about while eavesdropping on the lessons of her half sisters in North Carolina.
Let Us Descend is an unflinching portrayal of the evils of slavery in the American South, the misery inflicted on enslaved people and the cruelty of separating family members from one another. Despite the unimaginable suffering, Annis has an inner strength and will to survive that makes her an unforgettable character.
This is a beautifully told story of historical fiction which is infused with magical realism/supernatural elements. As the novel progresses, Annis converses more and more with a spirit who helps her endure the brutal journey to New Orleans and life on the sugar plantation. The magical realism detracted a bit from the story for me (entirely a ‘me’ problem) but I did appreciate Ward’s lyrical prose and her retelling of the story of slavery in the U.S. in a thoroughly original way.
13. The House of Doors by Tan Twan
Setting: Penang, Malaysia
The House of Doors begins and ends on a farm in South Africa in 1947 but most of it takes place in Malaysia more than 25 years earlier. The story opens with Lesley Hamlyn receiving a package containing a book by famous author W. Somerset Maugham which prompts her to recall a time in 1921 when Maugham (known as Willie) and his secretary, Gerald, visited her and her late husband, Robert, for 2 weeks at their home on the Straits Settlement of Penang.
Lesley is meeting him for the first time as Maugham and Robert are old school friends who haven’t seen each other in many years. Maugham has a wife back in London that he doesn’t love and has been travelling in Asia for a lengthy period of time with Gerald, who is also his lover, gathering stories for what will be his next book. While in Penang, Maugham learns that he has lost his fortune because of a bad investment and feels immense pressure to write several stories suitable for publication to alleviate his financial problems.
During that visit in 1921, Maugham learns that Lesley was close to Chinese revolutionary Dr. Sun Yat-Sen and probes for information as he suspects the two had an affair – a story which might make good fiction. As the two become closer, Lesley decides to share a story about her life with Maugham that she has never told anyone else – a story that takes place 11 years earlier about a man she fell in love with and the murder trial of an Englishwoman in Kuala Lumpur. The narration alternates between the two time periods and between narrators – Lesley in the first person and Maugham in the third person in both time periods.
Longlisted for the Booker Prize, The House of Doors is a beautifully-written, mesmerizing read. The novel is based on real events – a reimagining of the travels that led Maugham to writing The Casuarina Tree (a collection of short stories set in the Federated Malay States), the activities of Dr. Sun Yat-Sen in Malaysia and the sensational trial of Ethel Proudlock who was charged with murdering a man who she claimed had attempted to rape her. A delicious blend of fact and fiction (like the stories that Maugham himself wrote) – a story about storytelling and the line between fiction and truth or one’s perception of the truth
Tan Twan Eng has written an atmospheric historic novel with evocative descriptions that transport readers to the colonial world of Penang early in the 20th century in a slowly revealed story that touches on many issues including colonialism, adultery, betrayal, and sexuality. A fascinating look at human relationships, a compelling plot, and memorable characters – I was lost in the story and the beautiful prose and couldn’t put it down.
Thank you to NetGalley and Bloomsbury USA for sending a digital ARC of the book for review consideration. All opinions are my own.
14. The Mystery Guest by Nita Prose
Setting: Unspecified city
This sequel to New York Times bestseller The Maid takes place a few years later and Molly Gray has been promoted to Head Maid at the five-star Regency Grand Hotel. A special event is taking place in the posh boutique hotel’s tea room featuring J.D. Grimthorpe, a world-famous author of mysteries, but the writer drops dead after several sips from his cup of tea and before he can make the special announcement that his audience came to hear.
Molly’s former nemesis, Detective Stark, arrives on the scene to lead the investigation and foul play is soon confirmed. Molly and her maid-in-training, Lily, come under suspicion at first but Stark soon realizes that Molly’s unique powers of observation may help her solve the crime. Told over two timelines with flashback chapters to Molly’s childhood when she accompanied her beloved Gran to work at the Grimthorpe mansion, Molly has to decipher clues from the present and her past in order to identify the killer.
I enjoyed The Maid so was happy to read The Mystery Guest and return to Molly’s world at the Regency Grand. It’s a fun read primarily because quirky (possibly neurodivergent) Molly with her flair for cleaning and her tendency to misunderstand social clues is such a likable narrator.
The mystery aspect of this book is not as sharp as it was in The Maid but, like the first book, this is more than just an entertaining cozy mystery. It’s an uplifting, feel-good read with an underlying theme about acceptance and that’s what I enjoyed most about both books. The Mystery Guest can be read as a standalone but will be enjoyed more by reading The Maid first.
Thank you to NetGalley and Penguin Random House Canada for sending a digital ARC for review consideration. All opinions are my own.
15. Amazing Grace Adams by Fran Littlewood
Setting: London, England
Grace is 45, perimenopausal and not sure how she got to this point because she used to be amazing – everyone thought so. But now she’s lost her job, her husband has filed for divorce and her teenage daughter, Lotte, has moved in with her father. Today is Lotte’s 16th birthday and Grace has been banned from the birthday party but is on her way to pick up an expensive cake to deliver to Lotte so she will know how much Grace cares.
But Grace is stuck on a blistering hot day in gridlocked traffic, horns are blaring and a man in a nearby car is staring at her. Grace has had enough – she snaps and abandons her car sitting in traffic and heads out on foot to pick up the cake and walk across London to get to her daughter on her birthday.
Told in three alternating timelines, Amazing Grace Adams is a family drama with a main character dealing with very relatable stress of going through perimenopause while parenting a teenage girl during the age of social media. As the two past timelines (one starting in 2002 and the other 4 months ago) move forward the reader slowly learns how Grace ended up where she is in the “now” timeline.
I was expecting a light, amusing read about a mom who has just had enough but as the story progresses and we learn what has happened over the past 17 years it became much more serious than I had anticipated. Grace, Ben and Lotte are dealing with some quite serious issues and I had so much empathy for all of them but especially for Grace. I’m surprised she hadn’t broken down sooner. Ultimately this is a feel-good story of redemption and the healing of a broken family. An enjoyable debut novel!
16. A New Season by Terry Fallis
Setting: Toronto, Canada and Paris, France
62 year-old Jack McMaster is a writer living in Toronto who seems to have it all. A beautiful house in a downtown neighbourhood, a successful career, a loving relationship with the young adult son who lives with him and good buddies from his ball hockey league. But Jack has been learning to live with loss for the past 2.5 years and his life feels grey – the colour has vanished and he’s not sure how to get it back.
An unexpected video message prompts Jack to plan the trip to Paris that he has always wanted to take. Jack has an obsession with 1920s Paris and The Lost Generation but has never visited the City of Light in person so he rents an apartment, books flights and heads to Paris for 5 months planning to be back before the next season of ball hockey.
As Jack explores Paris wandering the streets of the Left Bank in the footsteps of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, he feels the melancholy start to lift and colour slowly comes back into his life with a little help from someone he meets by chance in a neighbourhood café.
A New Season is a contemplative novel that looks at aging, friendship and loss. The story is told in the first person with much self-deprecating humour – it had the feel of a good friend telling a story and I enjoyed that style.
This is a book that will likely appeal more to readers of a similar age or in similar circumstances who can relate to Jack’s mid-life struggle. Parts of the novel are quite poignant and I sobbed through some of the early chapters of the book as Jack slowly reveals the loss he has suffered and his nearly 3 year long experience with grief. His observations on aging and the feeling that life is slowly slipping away are very relatable to anyone in their ’50s or ’60s.
I loved the Paris setting and learning more about the writers and artists that made Paris their home in the ’20s. There are some fun and very Canadian aspects to the plot as well with all of the ball hockey games and Jack’s love of music and songwriting that brings Jim Cuddy in as a character. (I doubt there’s a Canadian who attended university in the mid to late ’80s who didn’t enjoy a performance by Jim Cuddy and Blue Rodeo at a campus pub and I was happy to read in the author’s note that he’s a genuinely nice human being!).
There’s also some romance and a little mystery to be solved in Paris but mostly this is the story of a man in late middle age learning to be happy again and enjoy a new season in his life. An enjoyable read!!
Thank you to NetGalley and Penguin Random House Canada for sending a digital ARC of the book for review consideration. All opinions are my own.
17. The Good Part by Sophie Cousens
From the Publisher: Lucy Young is twenty-six and tired. Tired of fetching coffees for senior TV producers, sick of going on disastrous dates, and done with living in a damp flat with roommates who never buy toilet paper. After another disappointing date, Lucy stumbles upon a wishing machine. Pushing a coin into the slot, Lucy closes her eyes and wishes with all her might: Please, let me skip to the good part of my life.
When she wakes the next morning to a handsome man, a ring on her finger, a high-powered job, and two storybook-perfect children, Lucy can’t believe this is real—especially when she looks in the mirror, and staring back is her own fortysomething face. Has she really skipped ahead like she’s always wanted, or has she simply forgotten a huge chunk of her life? As Lucy begins to embrace new relationships and the perks of maturity, she’ll have to ask herself: Can she go back to her previous life, and if so, can she stand to leave the good part behind?
18. The Burnout by Sophie Kinsella
Setting: British seaside resort (Devon)
Sophie Kinsella is still making me laugh out loud after more than 20 years of reading her rom-coms!
In The Burnout, Sasha is exhausted from doing the job of several people at the tech startup where she works and has lost interest in everything. After an epic meltdown at the office, she takes a stress leave and travels to the seaside resort that she loved as a child. It’s the off-season and the resort is no longer the elegant establishment she remembers but Sasha is determined to make the best of the situation and focus on getting healthy again by drinking kale smoothies and doing yoga on the beach.
The only other guest at the resort is a grumpy guy named Finn who is annoying Sasha by his very existence but when mysterious messages appear on the beach the two start talking. As they talk and spend more time together, Sasha and Finn discover that they have quite a bit in common and a friendship develops before sparks begin to fly.
I love the British sense of humour so have always found Kinsella’s books laugh out loud funny. This book also has a nice mix of lighthearted antics and consideration of serious issues like taking care of one’s mental health, loss of a parent, and dementia in aging adults.
The Burnout is an enjoyable slow burn romance between two people who have been going through a hard spell, finding healing in a place that was important to them as children and are feeling hopeful about the future again.
19. Sisters Under the Rising Sun by Heather Morris
Sisters Under the Rising Sun is an interesting historical novel about a group of Australian Army nurses and civilian women and children (primarily English and Dutch) who were held captive in Japanese POW camps in the jungles of Indonesia for more than 3.5 years during World War II.
The novel focuses primarily on two women – Nesta James who is one of the Australian nurses and Norah Chambers, an English musician who had been living in Malaya before the outbreak of the war. The women were fleeing Singapore ahead of the Japanese invasion in February 1942 and their ship, the SS Vyner Brooke, sank after sustained bombing.
The survivors of the shipwreck came ashore on the remote beaches of an island in Indonesia and were captured and placed in a POW camp. Conditions in the camps were brutal – starvation and disease ran rampant and many of the women did not survive the ordeal.
The story that Morris tells in Sisters Under the Rising Sun is one of resilience, survival and sisterhood during a time of war and also of the joy that can be found in music even in the worst of situations.
This is a novel based on the lives of real people and events during World War II that aren’t well known and is a worthwhile read for that reason alone. I enjoy reading historical fiction for what it teaches me and I appreciated the additional information contained in the detailed author’s note and the notes from the families of the women at the heart of the story that were included at the end of the book. I read the author’s previous novel, Three Sisters, last year and thought it was quite good so I was a bit disappointed as Sisters Under the Rising Sun is just not as well-written but it is an important story that deserved to be told.
20. The Adversary by Michael Crummey
A gritty historical novel set in a northern outpost of Newfoundland late in the 18th century about a catastrophic rivalry between the owners of the two largest fishing operations in the region.
This is the fourth novel by Michael Crummey that I have read and each has been a brilliant and beautifully-written story about the history and the people of Newfoundland. The Adversary is a sort of companion or mirror to Crummey’s prior novel, The Innocents, which is set nearby and in the same time period but whereas the first is about love between a brother and sister this novel is about hate.
The novel opens with Abe Strapp, a vile drunk, arriving late to church to marry the young teenage daughter of another merchant in order to consolidate their businesses – a marriage arranged and to be officiated by the Beadle (a Church of England official who also works alongside Strapp). The ceremony is interrupted by the Widow Caines – a manipulative act of sabotage which escalates a lifelong feud and inevitably leads to a violent, tragic conclusion.
The Adversary is a dark, thought-provoking novel about a remote community where the people suffer through pandemics, unforgiving weather, food shortages, invading pirates and other hardships. There are a number of deaths in just the first few chapters which made me recall the phrase about man’s life being “nasty, brutish and short”.
Surviving in Mockbeggar isn’t easy and the malevolence of the egotistical and power-hungry Strapp who is, for all intents and purposes, above the law makes life even harder. Crummey weaves a gripping story about this community and the two rival merchants – a tale of brutality, corruption, the abuse of power, misery and death.
21. The Frozen River by Ariel Lawhon
Setting: Maine, USA
From the Publisher: Maine, 1789: The Kennebec River freezes, entombing a man in the ice. Martha Ballard is summoned to examine the body and determine cause of death. As the local midwife and healer, Martha is good at keeping secrets. Her diary is a record of every birth and death, every murder and debacle that unfolds in the town of Hallowell. In that diary she also documented the details of an alleged rape that occurred four months earlier. Now, one of the men accused of that heinous attack has been found dead in the ice.
While Martha is certain she knows what happened the night of the assault, she suspects that the two crimes are linked, and that there is more to both cases than meets the eye. Over the course of one long, hard winter, as the trial nears, and whispers and prejudices mount, Martha’s diary lands at the center of the scandal and threatens to tear both her family and her community apart.
22. The River Runs South by Audrey Ingram
Setting: Southern Alabama coastal town
A heartwarming debut novel about starting over. Camille Taylor, a high-powered lawyer in Washington, DC, is still struggling with overwhelming grief almost a year after the unexpected death of her husband. She is forced to take a leave of absence from her firm and returns home to the Alabama coast with her 6 year-old daughter for the summer to regroup. Not long after arriving in Alabama she learns that a local fisherman is suing a land developer over environmental damage to a river and her father who is a landscaper has been added to the lawsuit.
The River Runs South was an enjoyable read – a well-written, feel-good story about dealing with grief, motherhood, work/life balance and the courage to start over after a devastating loss and find love again.
I appreciated the ecological message about protecting the environment that is deftly woven into the personal story as Camille gets involved in the lawsuit and learns about the environmental issues relating to the destruction of Mobile Bay’s fragile ecosystem. I also enjoyed the descriptions of small-town coastal Alabama and the delicious local recipes that Camille cooks. An easy to read, enjoyable book with a good message!
Thank you to NetGalley and Alcove Press for sending a digital ARC of this book for review consideration. All opinions are my own.
23. Rage the Night by Donna Morrissey
Rage the Night is a gripping historical novel that tells the story of one young man’s search for a sense of identity in the context of the greatest marine disaster in Newfoundland history now known as the 1914 Sealing Disaster.
20 year-old Roan, raised by Dr. Wilfred Grenfell in the Northern Peninsula, believed that he was an orphan with no last name until a nun’s deathbed confession calls into question everything he thought he knew about himself. Despite Dr. Grenfell’s pleas, Roan heads out on a quest to find Ashur Genge who he believes is the one person who knows the truth relating to his birth.
Roan’s journey takes him across a bitterly cold and snowy landscape first by dog sled and then by train from the remote north to Deer Lake, on to St. John’s and then finally, along with Genge and his nephew, aboard the SS Newfoundland sealing boat heading out on the North Atlantic for the spring hunt.
Rage the Night exemplifies what I love about the best historical fiction – a cracking good story that also educates and informs the reader about a place, a time, or an event. Here the reader gains insight into the conduct of the annual seal hunt early in the 20th century and despite personal feelings about the practice, I empathized with these men and what they endured and came away with a much better understanding of the role the seal hunt played in Newfoundland’s history and culture.
Morrissey is an exceptionally good writer and I appreciated her vivid descriptions that set the scene of late winter/early spring in the Northern Peninsula, aboard the ship and on the shifting ice of the North Atlantic. I also loved the way she used Roan’s story to bring to life this real event from Canadian history and the well-drawn characters who convey the humour of Newfoundlanders and their resiliency in the face of adversity – both individually and as a community. The author made me care deeply about these men and their desperate, heartbreaking struggle for survival. As the tragic events unfolded, I felt their fear and hopelessness and shared their collective grief.
The characters in this novel are unforgettable and the story is spellbinding. I was familiar with the SS Newfoundland and the preventable tragedy that took place in 1914 before reading Rage the Night yet I was still holding my breath and hoping that Roan and the other men that I had come to care about would somehow all survive – one of my favourite reads so far this year!
24. Love Me Do by Lindsay Kelk
Setting: Los Angeles, California
Phoebe Chapman didn’t want to be home in England at the time of her ex’s wedding so she travels to Los Angeles for two weeks to visit her sister, Suzanne. Unfortunately, Suzanne has to head out of town immediately on a last-minute business trip but Phoebe soon meets Ren, the handsome carpenter/bird watcher next door, and Bel, her sister’s beautiful personal trainer who has a huge crush on Ren.
Phoebe has a way with words so she agrees to play matchmaker for Bel despite her own feelings for Ren and spends her vacation with the two of them. Phoebe also becomes friends with an elderly recluse on the street who was once a Hollywood starlet. LA was meant to be a relaxing vacation but this trip might be life-changing for Phoebe!
I enjoyed this fun friends to lovers rom-com and especially the nod to Cyrano de Bergerac! There’s more than just romance here – the story also touches on family, friendship and toxic relationships plus there’s some exploring of the hidden gems of Los Angeles as Bel and Ren take Phoebe to the beach, hiking, and to a Dodgers game so she gets to know the real LA. Loved the British humour and the secondary characters – Phoebe’s relationships with Bel, Myrna, and Suzanne are every bit as much fun as the one with Ren.
This is a fun, feel-good read – perfect as a summer beach read or when you need an escape to sunny California!
Thank you to NetGalley and HarperCollins Canada for sending a digital ARC of the book for review consideration. All opinions are my own.
25. The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store by James McBride
Setting: A small town in Pennsylvania, United States
The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store opens in 1972 with a prologue of sorts when construction workers discover a human skeleton at the bottom of an old well in a small town in Pennsylvania. The police suspect foul play but the evidence is blown away by a hurricane before they can complete an investigation.
After the opening chapter, the reader is taken back in time to the 1930s when a group of African Americans, Jews and other poor immigrants are living in a neighbourhood known as Chicken Hill in Pottstown, Pennsylvania. There’s Moshe, a Jewish immigrant who owns an integrated dance hall; Moshe’s kindhearted wife, Chona who was crippled by a childhood bout of polio and now runs the Heaven & Earth Grocery store at a loss because she extends credit to whoever needs it; Nate and Addie, a black couple who work for Moshe and Chona; Dodo a 12 year-old orphaned deaf boy living with Nate and Addie who the state wants to institutionalize; and a large cast of secondary characters from the community of Chicken Hill and beyond.
McBride is a masterful storyteller who takes his time setting up the world of the novel and letting the reader get lost in the details. He introduces a large cast of characters and backstories but each of them play an important role in the narrative although it might take some time before the reader realizes just how each detail fits together. I was so completely absorbed in the story of these characters and their community of Chicken Hill that the skeleton plot slipped to the back of mind until the very end of the book.
McBride has written a novel about race and class in a changing America that acknowledges the negative while remaining hopeful and uplifting. The message of The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store is that love, compassion and community are what sustains us – that our purpose here on earth is to love, to form connections and to treat everyone with humanity.
26. The Unsettled by Ayana Mathis
Setting: Philadelphia and Alabama, United States
From the best-selling author of The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, The Unsettled is a multigenerational story about a Black family that takes place in Alabama and Philadelphia in the 1980s. Ava Carson and her pre-teen son, Toussaint, are living in a room in a squalid homeless shelter in Philadelphia after leaving her husband, Abemi, in New Jersey. Meanwhile her estranged mother, known as Dutchess, is in rural Bonaparte, Alabama – a historic Black town founded by emancipated slaves although there are now only a few elderly residents left in the community and they are struggling to hold onto what remains of their properties.
Ava, dealing with mental and physical issues, is making poor decisions and Toussaint who is also having difficulty coping stops attending school. They are about to pack up again and leave for Bonaparte when Toussaint’s father, Cass, comes back into their lives. Cass is a charismatic former Black Panther who had been a doctor but has become a sort of preacher/activist who wants to set up a commune. Their lives are improved for a short time and then the situation starts to deteriorate while Ava struggles to parent her son and deal with her own escalating issues.
The Unsettled is slow moving – an uncomfortable, difficult yet compelling read. The story is gut-wrenching and tragic with characters who have suffered and are suffering from past trauma, abuse, and mental health conditions. A number of issues are explored including complicated family relationships, intergenerational trauma, racism, abuse, and the dehumanizing impact of living in poverty.
So many characters making bad decisions and my heart broke for them – but especially for Toussaint who just wants to find a home – a place where he belongs – stability. There is no happy ending here – it left me unsatisfied and perhaps a bit unsettled.
Thank you to NetGalley and HarperCollins Canada for sending a digital ARC of this book for review consideration. All opinions are my own.
27. The Vaster Wilds by Lauren Groff
Setting: Colonial America
Set in early 17th century colonial America, a teenage servant girl runs from the Jamestown, Virginia settlement into the wilderness. It’s early spring and the young woman, referred to mostly as “the girl”, has left behind a settlement where people have been dying of starvation and sickness. She has few possessions with her as she runs north through the harsh landscape fleeing violent men, hiding from predators, building makeshift shelters for protection from the cold and foraging for anything remotely edible – desperately trying to stay alive.
Through flashbacks we learn that the servant girl had travelled to the New World the previous fall with the family she served in London. The girl’s primary responsibility was taking care of her mistress’s daughter who has profound intellectual disabilities. Lamentations is the name that was given to her at an orphanage but her mistress refers to her as “Zed” which had also been the name of a pet monkey – and routinely treated her no better than an animal. Flashbacks also reveal the various hardships that she has endured in her brutal young life – in London, aboard the ship, in the New World – and eventually the shocking reveal of the reason she’s on the run from Jamestown.
This was my first Lauren Groff book and I had no idea what to expect. She writes exceptionally well in a beautiful, descriptive style and the rhythm of her language pulls the reader into the gripping story. The story itself is bleak and full of despair – the suffering that the girl endures as she struggles to survive is relentless.
I thought this was a compelling literary read – the story of a girl trying to survive in the vaster wilds of the world and reflecting on her life and humanity including some progressive observations relating to colonialism, environmental destruction, women’s rights and organized religion.
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