Matt’s Weekly Reads, February 25, 2023


The Woman Next Door, Yewande Omotoso (2016)

Hortensia, a successful Black designer, and Marion, a White retired architect, are nextdoor neighbours in an affluent Cape Town suburb, with a long history of animosity. Neither ever gives up an opportunity to get one over on the other, be it on the street or in neighbourhood council meetings. But when they are forced to team up in the aftermath of a freak accident, they try to bury the hatchet and build something of a relationship. But is it too late to teach old dogs new tricks?

This is a wonderful book that deftly demonstrates the ways South Africa’s shameful racist history continues to haunt it, without slipping into easy stereotypes. Both of the women are fully formed and complex characters, and both equally contribute to their difficult relationship. (The way Omotoso manages to make Marion remotely sympathetic while still showing her justifying some deeply racist attitudes was particularly impressive.) That said, I do wish the two protagonists weren’t quite as unlikable as they are — it would have been nice, for example, for either of them to have at least one healthy relationship with someone, rather than them both be completely isolated. But overall, it really hit the mark for me.

Description and review

Read this if you’re interested in:

  • Mature Protagonists
  • Aging
  • Social Change
  • Race Relations
  • South African History
  • Curmudgeons

My Rating: Premise 10, Atmosphere 10, Main Character(s) 8, Plot 8, Intrigue 8, Relationships 8, Success 10, Writing 10, Enjoyment 8, Lasting Impact 10: TOTAL 90

Weekly Roundup

All the Way Happy, Kit Coltrane (2022), 76: After they each realize the other has divorced his wife, high school enemies turned gap-year lovers Jack and Theo are offered a second chance, provided they can get past the baggage of their messy past together and abusive childhoods. My biggest feeling about this book was frustration. There was so much good here, but so much that just didn’t work, particularly the pacing, both externally in terms of how the story was told and internally in terms of the pacing of the characters’ lives. I wanted badly to love this, and unfortunately, it just didn’t get there for me. Highs: Premise and Main Characters; Lows: Plot and Writing (Romance, LGBTQ2S+, Second Chances),

Zorrie, Laird Hunt (2021, 80: In this National Book award finalist, a woman named Zorrie looks for meaning and connection in her simple life in rural Indiana, a life that has known more loss than love. This is exactly the kind of book one would expect from a creative writing professor. It’s very well done; it’s hard to critique a single thing about it, and yet, I struggle to understand why it was written at all; it almost felt more like the result of a writing prompt than a fully formed novel. But it’s successful for what it is and will sure to be a big hit with readers who love the big-heart, small-stakes stories of Elizabeth Strout and Marilynne Robinson (even as I don’t think it hits their heights). Highs: Writing and Setting; Lows: Premise and Intrigue (Twentieth Century History, Americana, Small Towns, Rural Life)

The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger (1951), 78: Holden Caulfield spends three days on his own in New York City before facing the consequences of yet another expulsion from school. Holden Caulfield is one of the most insufferable narrative voices in literature; but there’s also a reason why he’s also become an archetype over the past few decades. This is a ‘classic’ because it is an angry and disaffected exploration of a particular psychological space many of us can relate to — that moment in our development when we realize the world is a complete mess and yet we aren’t in a place yet to either adjust to it or try to change it. Highs: Setting and Impact; Lows: Plot and Intrigue. (Classics, Disillusionment, 20th Century History, 1940s)

The Fall, Albert Camus (1956), 73: In an Amsterdam bar, a French expatriate contemplates the absurdity of life and the falseness that living in society requires. This classic of French existentialist literature is exactly what you’d expect, for good and for bad. The place existentialism goes is the point where my own view of the world starts, so I don’t find it all that compelling; my general feeling of it is “Yes, and?” Highs: Fulfillment of the premise and Writing; Lows: Character, Plot, and Meaning. (Literature, Classics, Existentialism, Twentieth Century History, 1950s)

You & I, Rewritten, Chip Pons (2022), 77: All the pieces of Will’s life are coming together at last: a new job with a great publishing house with his best friend and roommate and, better still, it quickly becomes apparent that the boss’s gorgeous son is into him. But ghosts from his past won’t stop haunting him. If you want to see a lot of positive, non-toxic masculinity, and mature, honest and vulnerable relationships, this book has plenty of them. And that’s really great to see. However, the book really falls down in the writing — the pacing and the dialogue in particular — and structure of the book. Ironically, considering the main characters are all editors, but this could have benefited a lot from a good edit. It almost felt like three novellas were badly edited into one volume. (LGBTQ2S+, Romance, Complicated Families, Masculinity, Publishing, Mental Health, Anxiety)

Better than Fiction, Alexa Martin (2022), 80: Drew is insistent on living up to her beloved grandmother’s legacy by keeping the bookstore she inherited up and running — despite her selfish father’s machinations. When gorgeous romance writer Jasper comes in for a reading, sparks fly. There was a lot to enjoy here, especially as a love letter to Colorado’s natural beauty. But the stuff with Drew’s dad was uncomfortable, and the plot needed a lot of suspension of disbelief to stick with it. Highs: Setting and Main Character; Lows: Plot and Meaning (Romance, Complicated Families, Colorado)

Hatchet (Brian’s Story 1), Gary Paulsen (1986), 83: Brian is being flown to visit his father in the northern oil country when his pilot has a heart attack and dies. Miraculously, Brian manages to safely ditch the plane in a lake but that’s just the first of many trials he faces in order to survive. There is no grace in the wilderness, and the learning curve is very steep. This started out great — the first scenes were one of the best book beginnings I’ve ever encountered, but my interest petered out a bit towards the end. All in all, a great survival story for a middle grade audience. Highs: Premise & Setting; Lows: Relationships and Meaning (Middle Grade, Survival, Wilderness)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: