Matt’s Weekly Reads, April 22, 2023


Something Wild and Wonderful, Anita Kelly (2023)

After coming out, Alexei is disowned by his parents and ostracized from the church that had always given his life meaning. Unsure of what comes next, he decides to hike the Pacific Coast Trail to try to figure things out. But his solitude is broken when, in a chance encounter with a rattlesnake, he meets Ben, who’s just graduated from nursing school and is trying shake a past of bad relationships. They decide to travel together and develop a close friendship that could turn into something more, if they can just overcome the ghosts of their pasts and take a step of faith.

This is in a lot of ways a very typical romance, but it worked really well for me. While my own story is far less dramatic than Alexei’s, I could definitely relate to his experience, as someone who came out well into adulthood in a move that required some major religious reconfigurations and a lot of loss and grief. This is difficult material for authors to manage well, and Anita Kelly does an excellent job with it. Just as importantly, the religious trauma storyline doesn’t swallow up the narrative or define Alexei’s character. Both of the leads are well-rounded, with personalities, strengths, and weaknesses, and that was very welcome.

The only real weakness of the book for me was in a bit of the plotting. I was most successful when it wasn’t trying to check off the expected plot elements of the Romance genre and it was weakest when it was. (The ‘Darkest Moment’ was particularly frustrating, though Kelly handled the consequences of it very well.)

Content warnings for: Homophobia, Spiritual Abuse, Ostracism, and also Snakes

Read this if you’re interested in:

  • LGBTQ2S+ Romance
  • Religious Trauma
  • Hiking
  • Complicated Families
  • Friendship
  • Self-Acceptance

My Rating: Premise 10, Atmosphere 10, Main Character(s) 10, Plot 6, Intrigue 10, Relationships 10, Success 10, Writing 8, Enjoyment 10, Lasting Impact / Meaning 10: TOTAL 94

Weekly Roundup

In the Lives of Puppets, T.J. Klune (NEW RELEASE, April 25, 2023), 82: This charming piece of speculative fiction follows a young man named Victor and his robot friends as they travel to the mysterious City of Electric Dreams to try to rescue his father, who has been taken captive there. There’s a lot to appreciate here, particularly in Klune’s penchant for giant-hearted stories of found-family and trademark witty banter. I would say, however, that I couldn’t really figure out who the intended audience of the book is. It reads like a middle grade novel in terms of characterization, plotting, and some of the themes, but contains a fair bit of adult content, leading me to wonder who exactly it’s for. But, it stuck the landing with a meaningful pay-off, and overall, I have to say I enjoyed it. (Dystopian Fiction, Found Family, Human Nature, Adventure)

Eastbound, Maylis de Kerangal (2012, trans. 2023), 96: On a days-long train ride across Siberia, a desperate Russian conscript enlists the help of a French first-class passenger to help him desert. I don’t have words for how good this was. Such a quiet but intense story. I may be anxious for days just thinking about it! (Desperation, Flight, Trains, Locked Room)

Tatouine, Jean-Christophe Réhel (2019, trans. 2021), 88: A poet living with cystic fibrosis juggles his physical and mental health, along with practical realities like finding work and paying his rent, while dreaming of life on another world where none of these worries would matter. The original French title of this book translates to What We Breathe on Tatouine, and that seems like a much better fit for a book where breath, both literal and figurative, is such a major theme. At any rate, this started off a bit slow for me, but not only did I come to respect the quality of the writing and the important themes and representation here, but I also came to genuinely enjoy it. (Canadian Literature, Québécois Literature, Chronic Illness, Cystic Fibrosis, Disability)

Signal Fires, Dani Shapiro (2022), 90: One night  in 1985, teenage brother and sister Theo and Sarah are driving home in their quiet New York surburb when their car hits a beautiful old oak tree, leaving a friend dead. Together with their physician father, Ben, they make a split-second decision that will ripple across the next three-and-a-half decades of their lives. Years later, on the night Ben is packing up the family home, he finds Waldo, a curious neighbor boy who finds his only solace — from his father’s disapproval and his classmates’ ridicule — in the stars, sitting under that same oak tree, and their lives become intertwined. I have to say that I almost didn’t pick this up, since I generally find stories of the petty dramas and secrets of suburban life to be horribly dull. But, I’m so glad I pushed past my reticence on this one. It’s less a story about suburban secrets getting out than it is about the longterm impacts of secrets on those who keep them. It’s a moving family drama filled with realistic relationships and complex, dynamic characters. (Secrets, Family, Suburban Life, Neurodivergence, Trauama)

Sir Callie and the Champions of Helston, Sir Callie 1, Esme Symes-Smith (2022), 93: Callie wants nothing more than to be a knight in the kingdom of Helston, but faceds challenges far greater than they had imagined when it is discovered that a reactionary spirit has taken over the capital that insists on keeping boys and girls in their very different ‘rightful’ places — no matter the costs and no matter how much they have to deny to enforce it. The allegory here to our current socio-political climate is pretty obvious and blunt, but that doesn’t make it any less effective. This is more than just a morality tale about inclusion and the power that comes from being yourself — though it is that and it’s important enough on that count. It’s also a really great and fun story. (Middle Grade, Fantasy, LGBTQ2S+, Adventure)

Greenglass House, Kate Milford (2015), 88: Milo’s hopes of a quiet Christmas with his mom and dad at their inn are dashed when a series of guests arrive unexpectedly, even though it’s always dead in Winter. With the help of a new friend, he seeks to uncover the mystery of why they have all come. This is a strong middle grade detective story. While it deals with some important themes of belonging and identity, especially for adopted children, it succeeds most as entertainment. (Middle Grade, Mystery, Adoption, Christmas, Locked Room)

Winter in Sokcho, Elisha Shua Dusapin (2016, trans. 2021), 75: A young woman working at an inn in a small coastal Korean town develops a strange fascination with a French guest. This book has won numerous awards, both in its original French and its English translation, and I can understand why. There are some interesting themes, a setting that’s unusual for a Western audience, and beautiful, spare prose. That said, it didn’t quite work for me. I feel like I could see what it was doing, but just didn’t care. But, I think this could be perfect for fans of European postmodern fiction or the work of authors like Banana Yoshimoto and Yoko Ogawa (who are obviously Japanese and not Korean, but I bring them up because they have a similar focus on small-stakes stories of women trying to find their place in the world.) (Korea, Biracial Identity, Fish out of Water, Tourism)

The Tale of Despereaux, Kate DiCamillo (2003), 61: Drama abounds when a mouse breaks all of his people’s rules and makes himself known to the human king and princess. This did not work for me whatsoever. The only thing I liked about it was that it didn’t shy away from having disturbing content (we see a girl sold into slavery, a mother die, a father who watches on coldly as his child is sentenced to death, among other things!). But overall, this just seemed to be a mess. (Children’s Lit, Fantasy, Adventure, Honour, Forgiveness)


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