A lot of the time when I read slice-of-life short stories, I feel underwhelmed more than anything else. It’s not that I dislike these stories, exactly, but rather that they often end up feeling ungrounded, “slices” that don’t evoke any underlying sense of the totality that they’ve presumably been “sliced” from. That is, the characters and their stories feel like props on a stage, a tableau contrived for the sake of the short story but that falls apart as soon as that story is over.
I bring this up because you will find none of that in Lily King’s excellent collection. King’s stories are slice-of-life, yes, but far from feeling flimsy or ungrounded, they are substantial and, more remarkably, moving. The stories in Five Tuesdays in Winter find their characters–children, teenagers, young adults, mothers, fathers–in singular moments in their lives, times during which their ways of thinking–and living–have been called into question, brought into the light, disrupted, shifted. All these moments hinge on the interpersonal, on a growing relationship or a severed one, or else on a relationship that a character must now renegotiate on different terms: a mother trying to connect with her daughter in the wake of her husband’s death, a boy learning to see his life differently in the absence of his parents, a man reuniting with the college roommate he used to be infatuated with. To say that these moments are singular, though, is not to say that they entail some kind of monumental upheaval; they are small moments, but just because they are small does not mean that they register as any less important to the characters who experience them.
More to the point, what I love about King’s stories is that they feel meaningful without being dramatic; they convey a real sense of impact without resorting to overblown scenes or language. The writing is measured and graceful, the stories pared down in a way that feels compelling rather than plain: you want to know more, but you are only given enough to know that you want more. Nowhere is this more evident than in this collection’s characters: the characters in Five Tuesdays in Winter feel fleshed out not because we’re given some perfunctory background on them in each story, but rather because we are allowed illuminating little glimpses into the lives they lead.
(My favourite story was by far “Five Tuesdays in Winter,” but I also especially loved “When in the Dordogne,” “North Sea,” “Creature,” and “South.”)
The stories in Five Tuesdays in Winter are by turns affirming and unsettling, hopeful and melancholy, but regardless of tone I thought this was just an all around lovely collection.
Thank you to Grove Atlantic for providing me with an e-ARC of this via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review!
Based on the short story collections that I’ve read, what I’ve to come to expect from a typical short story is a discrete narrative, a kind of novel in miniature. That is to say, most of the short stories I’ve encountered have been more or less like polished gems, very much self-contained in their little short-story packages. Where such stories are polished gems, though, Barrett’s are like rocks chipped out of some surface, rough and jagged and imperfect in the way that all organic things are. They’re stories that feel ongoing rather than discrete, not always going where you expect them to, and not always giving you what you want, either. In Barrett’s hands, though, that’s not at all a drawback.
Barrett’s stories are not really interested in giving you a nice, clean narrative with a delineated beginning, middle, and end, but rather in dropping you into the lives of their characters and seeing what happens. In “The Ways,” three siblings who have recently lost both their parents to cancer go about their lives; in “Anhedonia, Here I Come,” a struggling poet mired in his work attempts to deal with his various frustrations over it; in “The Alps,” the patrons of a club encounter a young man who walks in with a sword. They’re stories that, for the most part, don’t have any flashy or grandiose moments–in fact a lot of them actively lean towards the mundane–but in every one of them there is a tautness, a dramatic tension that holds the story upright and keeps you wanting to keep reading.
Unlike the typical short story I’m used to reading, Barrett’s don’t all end with a moment that clinches the point of the story, or come with some kind of critical passage that’s the key to unlocking the thematic focus of the story. That’s not to say that these stories are pointless, or that they’re devoid of any important moments–because of course they have a point, and of course they have important moments; it’s just that those are all woven into the various circumstances that these characters find themselves in.
And let me just say, these stories are so propulsive, so intensely readable. I think a big part of this is because they’re very much built around narratives where things happen: people go places, do things, meet other people, talk to them, etc. Characters think about things, but they also do things, and the “doing” part is what really spurs the “thinking” part of these stories on. (I don’t know how to describe this in a way that doesn’t sound trite–don’t literally all stories feature people thinking and doing things?–butIT’S TRUE, OKAY.)
It would be impossible to review this collection without talking about Barrett’s writing, because it’s just stellar. Colin Barrett’s writing feels like a photo with the contrast turned up: everything stark and punchy and evocative. It’s so sensorily rich, all the details just pop. I highlighted a lot of descriptions, but here are some of my favourites:
“At the far end of Lorna’s table an elderly woman was supping on a bowl of vegetable soup the colour and consistency of phlegm. The woman was eating with great involvedness. As she brought each tremulous spoonful to her lips her features contracted in an expression of anticipatory excruciation.”
“Bobby stared at his teeth, which were neatly aligned and all the same, toothpaste-ad hue. He appeared to be nothing more than a nondescriptly handsome wodge of heteronormative generica, tidily styleless in a sweater and chinos.”
“It was only gone two in the afternoon, but the sky was already so grey it was like being on the moon, the light a kind of exhausted residue. To their right coursed the Moy, dark as stout and in murderous spate; to their left high conifers stood like rows of coats on coat racks.”
“Steven Davitt, the lad at the rear of this pack, was such a specimen. A comely six-foot string of piss, faintly stooped, with shale eyes darting beneath a matted heap of curly black fringe. He shied from looking her way, of course. In the middle was one of the Bruitt boys, the scanty lichen of an unthriving moustache clinging to his lip.”
Barrett is funny, too, and his sense of humour shines through in a lot of these stories. Sometimes the humour comes in the form of wry or witty comments, and sometimes in the form of cutting comebacks (sibling dynamics in particular are so well-portrayed here). “The Alps” actually made me laugh out loud at one point, so absurd and absolutely wild it was but still surprisingly moving.
Favourite short story is easily “The Ways.” Other favourites include “The Alps,” “The Low, Shimmering Black Drone,” and “Anhedonia, Here I Come.” I liked all the other ones, too; the only story that I didn’t really get was “The Silver Coast,” though I feel like it would definitely benefit from a reread.
As you’ve probably gathered already, this was a different kind of short story collection than I’m used to reading, but I absolutely loved it.
Thank you so much to Grove Atlantic for providing me with an e-ARC of this via NetGalley!
Alexandria Bellefleur has quickly become one of my favourite contemporary romance authors, and this book (and the next one) is such a clear example of why. Our main characters here are Annie, who comes to Seattle to visit her best friend, Darcy; and Brendon, who’s Darcy’s brother, and who just so happened to have a big crush on Annie when they were kids. And listen: Annie and Brendon are just so cute. 🥺 First of all, I just loved Brendon, who really reminded me of Gideon Prewitt from Emma Mills’s Foolish Hearts (a rare YA favourite of mine); he’s a total sunshine character, an optimist and a hopeless romantic, all traits which I rarely see in male characters, so it was especially refreshing to see them here. I also found Annie and Brendon’s interactions so sweet — Bellefleur excels at writing moments, whether big or small, that really show you how much these characters care about each other. Also, the third act conflict felt really believable to me, which is a major plus since that’s where a lot of romances tend to go wrong.
Count Your Lucky Stars by Alexandria Bellefleur (★★★★)
Basically everything I said about Hang the Moon applies to Count Your Lucky Stars. I think I preferred this book more, though, because it’s just so deliciously ANGSTY. Our main characters in this one are Margot, who’s Darcy and Brendon’s friend, and Olivia, Darcy’s best friend from high school that Margot sort of got together with/was very much in love with. When Olivia is hired to plan Annie and Brendon’s wedding, her and Margot meet for the first time since high school, and the novel’s plot takes off. 👀 And, like I said, ANGST. I adore any kind of estrangement-then-reconciliation plot/second-chance romance, and this was just a really well-executed example of that. I loved getting to see how the history between Margot and Olivia played out in their current interactions, especially because that history made their relationship feel a lot more grounded and believable than if they had just met. Just a really, really great romance. I will absolutely be reading anything that Alexandria Bellelfleur comes out with next (so excited for her 2023 novel!!).
Bombshell by Sarah MacLean (★★★.5)
2021 was the year that I got into Sarah MacLean, and I’m so glad that I did. I have no problem finding contemporary romances that I love, but when it comes to historical romances, I just always feel very underwhelmed. Not the case with Sarah MacLean’s historical romances. I’ve read 3 of her novels so far–Bombshell, and also Daring the Duke and The Day of the Duchess–and have figured out what it is that I like so much about her novels. First, the characters really have to earn their romance; there are believable obstacles as to why they aren’t/can’t be together in the beginning, and so over the course of the novel you follow them trying to navigate those obstacles so that they can actually be together. We see this in Bombshell, where Caleb is reticent to engage romantically with Cecily for ~Mysterious Reasons~, reasons which make for a lot of–here it is again–ANGST that helps move the story forward. Another thing is that emotions are always turned up to like 1000000 in Sarah MacLean’s novels; sometimes it gets to be a little much, but on the whole I find it works for me because, like I said, the characters really work to get to a point where they can actually communicate their feelings to each other. Overall, really enjoyable, and I am definitely planning on reading MacLean’s entire backlist (also super excited for the next novel in this series!).
MIDDLE OF THE ROAD
The Good Girl’s Guide to Rakes by Eva Leigh (★★★)
The Good Girl’s Guide to Rakes was an enjoyable historical romance for me, but not necessarily a memorable one. There’s some fun plot stuff in this, and I didn’t think the romance between the hero and the heroine was bad, necessarily; they had some noteworthy and, I thought, meaningful scenes together. My main problem with this novel is that, unlike MacLean’s, the romance didn’t feel very earned. At least, it didn’t feel like it merited the kind of reactions that we got at the end of the book. The romance here develops pretty quickly, which I don’t always mind, except that by the end of the novel the characters are confessing their deep and everlasting love for each other–“I was made to love you”-type confessions–in a way that made the whole novel feel sappy rather than romantic. Those sorts of confessions really undermined all the work that the novel had been doing to develop the romance, and ultimately they kind of soured the reading experience for me. This definitely wasn’t a bad novel, but I felt like its last third needed more work.
Weather Girl by Rachel Lynn Solomon (★★★.5)
Weather Girl falls under the category of “perfectly serviceable” for me. I gave it a 3.5 stars, which means that I did enjoy it, but like The Good Girl’s Guide to Rakes, it was not particularly memorable. Rachel Lynn Solomon clearly does the work of developing the romance in this novel: we get plenty of interactions between Ari and Russell, and we see them learn to trust and confide in each other over the course of the novel. My issue is that the relationship didn’t feel super substantial to me; like it was definitely developed, but I never felt like I needed Ari and Russell to be together or that I was super invested in their relationship working out. All this novel got out of me was a lukewarm “it’s nice they got together,” which is not really the reaction I want from a romance. Rachel Lynn Solomon does write well, but I wanted some angst or drama in this one just so the romance could feel a bit more earned.
Delilah Green Doesn’t Care by Ashley Herring Blake (★★★)
I was so excited to read this. Alas, I may have overhyped it a bit too much in my mind, because ultimately this was a disappointment for me. Again, it wasn’t bad, but I wanted it to be much better than it was. As with Weather Girl, the romance between Delilah and Claire didn’t feel very substantial; this is all the more evident in this novel because the romance happens over the course of, like, 10 days, which is definitely not enough time to make the relationship feel earned. (Then again Act Your Age, Eve Brown happens over the course of about 2 weeks and I absolutely adored the romance in it, so maybe it’s more a matter of execution.) Another thing that didn’t work for me in this novel was the dialogue. Dialogue is one of the most important things to me in a romance. If the dialogue between the love interests is great, then that’s already a huge chunk of the work of the romance taken care of. Sadly, this wasn’t the case here. This is very much a matter of personal taste, so take it with a grain of salt, but the humour in this book didn’t work for me at all; it felt forced, like it was trying to be fun and banter-y when it actually wasn’t. Sad I didn’t love this one, but what can you do. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
IT’S A NO FROM ME
It Happened One Summer by Tessa Bailey (★★.5)
Prior to reading this novel, I had zero interest in reading anything by Tessa Bailey. I’d heard plenty of negative reviews of her work, and could very much tell that her novels weren’t going to be for me. Alas, I succumbed to the hype around this novel–and now that I’ve read it, I should’ve just trusted my gut and moved on lol. This novel does two of my least favourite romance things. First, the alpha male love interest, which I despise. Apparently the love interest in this novel wasn’t even that alpha compared to Bailey’s other books, but even here it was too much for me. I cannot stand male love interests who are possessive, or who get jealous if a man so much as breathes around the female love interest. It’s an instant no from me (“immediately no,” in TikTok parlance). Another huge problem with this book–and, from what I’ve been able to gather from Twitter discussions, Bailey’s novels in general–is the gender essentialism. Oh my god, literally every single thing in this novel feels like it’s gendered. We have Brendan’s “male vulnerability” and Piper’s “feminine message,” and, at one point, a “feminine chair” ??? like ??? Methinks this novel has a fundamental problem when it comes to its depiction of gender dynamics and I was not about it. Will definitely not be reading anything else by Tessa Bailey in the future.
Thank you so much to HarperCollins Canada and Berkley for providing me with eARCs of these books via Edelweiss!