2017 Reviews, Long Fiction

The Gustav Sonata: A Novel

In a post-WWII village in Switzerland, Gustav builds a deep friendship with the sensitive Anton.  Throughout childhood, Gustav tries to understand his widowed mother Emilie’s cold indifference to him, his mythical father, Emilie’s resentment of Anton’s Jewish family, his own poverty compared to Anton’s wealth, and the stark contrast between his and Anton’s lives.  Through decades of Gustav and Emilie’s lives, author Rose Tremain explores the impact of choice, or lack of choice, on individuals and society as a whole. Told in three parts, first in Gustav’s childhood, then his parents’ heartbreaking history, and finally when Gustav and Anton are old men learning to ‘be who they always should have been’, Tremain spins a cautionary tale about action and inaction between painfully staid Gustav, histrionic Anton, and despondent Emilie. Read my first look here.  

This is a photo of Swiss verdingkinder- contract children. The Gustav Sonata is not about the verdingkinder, but they are worth reading about. Read more here. 

According to reviews, this is a book about neutrality, morality, and cowardice- and the choices of Gustav are mirrored by Swiss neutrality in WWII. But this book is less about war, or any one event, and more about how human choices ripple through many lives. That human truth, the characters of this book, are much more compelling to me than any broader application. Gustav is a sweetheart who spends a pitiful lifetime trying to adhere to Swiss expectations put forth by his mother; he almost never finds the joy he deserves. Anton, a passionate and privileged musician with doting parents, can never find satisfaction or peace. Emilie’s story, told through Gustav’s narration as well as her own, compelled me through this novel. Emilie battles her depression, gender norms, poverty, the powerlessness of women (Swiss women couldn’t vote until the 1970s!), racial resentment, dashed expectations, devastating loss, and maternal guilt. Emilie was both my favorite and most despised character. All three characters, and the language and structure of the book itself,  felt very Swiss to me: stark, self-reliant, aloof, and desperately hiding a deep well of un-accessed emotion.

“He taught himself to laugh instead. Laughing was a bit like crying. It was a strange convulsion; it just came from a different bit of your mind. The trick was to move the crying out of that bit and let the laughter in. And so he’d pick himself up and carry on, laughing.”


Tremain is a genius at conveying misery with restraint. There are so many moments within this book that precisely capture the mundane pain of poverty, isolation, longing, depression, guilt, and regret. The Gustav Sonata is beautifully wrought, and subtle, and melancholic– all things I tend to enjoy. But the secrets, and quiet disappointments, and nurtured hidden resentments, and dashed hopes, and squashed passions just kept building, thin layer upon thin layer until whole lives were obscured. My heart ached for these characters, and the people in the world like them. There is a glimmer of joy at the end of this novel, worth reading to, but even that held great conflict for me.


“He thought that this was how he was going to live life from now on, savouring small pleasures and not looking beyond them for happiness that was more complete.”


The Gustav Sonata is about action- taking it or avoiding it. But life is not simple. Characters who do the right thing, or take chances, or follow their passions, are left lamenting their impulsive kiss, their blind ambition, their humanity in the face of genocide. The characters who defend against risk are equally punished. Many characters, like the Swiss during WWII, chose indifference, neutrality, paralysis in the fact of this uncertainty. That, too, is a failure.

The Gustav Sonata made me depressed for a few days while reading it. It also made me grateful. I am not Gustav, with a cold family and paralyzing uncertainty. I am not Emilie, a life of bitter regrets and resentment. I am not Anton, so self-absorbed that I am blind to those that matter around me. Maybe reading the Gustav Sonata could be a Stoic exercise- cathartic in some ways.

This one is hard to recommend. It is phenomenal, delicate, subtle. But I also didn’t like reading it. If you need a kick in the ass to act on what you know you want, or what is morally right, then read this book. It won’t tell you that everything will be ok when you make the right choice, but it will make you terrified of letting that choice slip you by.

Scent Notes: Anise-seed liquor, the fresh summer breeze coming off the mountain, and cherry blossom trees.

Copy of Aunty Lee's Delights





2017 Reviews, Long Fiction

When the Moon was Ours

Rumors swirl about odd best friends, Miel and Sam. Sam paints moons to hang in the trees around town and mostly keeps to himself. Roses grow out of Miel’s wrists, and no one knows where she came from before she tumbled out of the town’s water-tower. But as odd as Miel and Sam are, even stranger are the Bonner girls, four beautiful, redheaded sisters who enchant the town and always get what they want. One of the Bonner sisters decides she wants the roses from Miel’s wrists, and the sisters are willing to do anything, and betray everyone, to get them. Read my First Look here. 


“…both he and she were creek beds, quiet when they were full and quiet when they were dry. But when they were half-full, wearing a coat of shallow water, the current bumped over the rocks and valleys in the creek beds, wearing down the earth. Giving someone else a little of who they were hurt more than giving up none or all of it.”

When the Moon was Ours is a tender exploration of teenage identity and love, with sensual prose and stunning heart. This is the most evocative young adult novel I’ve ever read, and McLemore exhibits precise control over ethereal elements of magical realism,  sensitive portrayal of latinx, Pakistani, and trans characters*, and a very grounded-to-life plot that will remind any reader of being a teenager with secrets to hide. This character-driven romance is simply gorgeous.

“She had left the stars on her skin the whole day, while they let the sun heat their backs. When they ran, her perspiration made the foil shine damp, and it wore the edges of the adhesive, but the little stars stayed. And that night he had lifted each one off her, slowly, so they didn’t pull at her skin… He had mapped her body like a new sky.”

redhead-women-portrait-photography-maja-topcagic-1_zpsbj8kctvfMany things reveal slowly in this story – the backstories of many of the main characters, the secrets held dearly by Sam and Miel, the reason for the Bonner sister’s hostility- each unfurling in their own time, much like the flowers that Miel grows from a wound in her wrist. This book is rich with legends, cultural folklore, family dynamics, and small-town magics.

Unlike many teen romances, this book is not about the tension of ‘will they won’t they’, and there is no flimsy misunderstanding designed to give our characters something to overcome. This book uses love in the best way possible, to explore the strength and resilience of human relationships and the willingness to sacrifice for the people we love.

The two main characters’s love moves from friendship to something more in a slow burn, and this book handles the complexity and earnestness of teen love and sexuality with the respect that teens rarely get but truly deserve. That one character is trans is important, but not treated as a barrier to their relationship or a curiosity to exploit. It was very important to see erotic and meaningful sex on the page for these two characters, and not an ounce of  shaming of teens exploring their sexuality in a consenting and loving way.


You should read this book. It is threaded with magic and heart, in plot and character and prose. McLemore gives a truly inspiring romance that I’d happily see more relationships modeled after. It reaffirmed my belief that YA can be literary and groundbreaking, and it made my heart ache in the best way.

Scent Notes: Paint thinner in the night air, blood-damp roses, and brown sugar.

*McLemore’s partner is trans, and McLemore is Latina. Her author’s note at the back of this book is, like everything else, beautiful.


2017 Reviews, Fiction, Long Fiction

The Sunlight Pilgrims


A harsh and unprecedented winter is about to overtake the earth, resulting in chaos across the globe. Three characters, Dylan, Constance, and Stella, are neighbors in a caravan park in Scotland. Together, they live as the temperature falls to -65, as a massive iceberg approaches the coast, as people go mad and modern comforts disappear. Read my First Look here. 

The Sunlight Pilgrims explores how the three main characters, and people in general, respond to change and despair. The story begins at the end of fall, as the unending winter approaches. Stella, a young teenager, has recently begun to live publicly as a girl in their small rural community. Her mother Constance, never a ‘fall in line’ type of woman anyway, is working to make sure Stella grows up happy and safe in a community that doesn’t quite understand transgenderism or Constance’s own unconventional romantic life. Dylan, a grieving cinophile from the city moves into a neighboring caravan.untitled-design-1As the sunlight fades to just a few hours a day, and the temperatures go deep in the negatives, the caravan park is thrown into isolation. Dylan wrestles with grief, Constance tries her best to be a good mother and provider, and Stella works to come to terms with her growing gender dysphoria as she enters puberty. As the community tries to survive, a close bond grows between the three neighbors as they come to rely on one another for safety, company, and human compassion. The characters process their personal problems and the impending climate disaster in myriad ways- with ignorance and denial, stunned fear, research, with acts of bravery and compassion, with sadness, determination, joy, and trust.untitled-design-3Fagan does an excellent job of painting scenes, and some moments in this book have an air of magical realism. I live in a climate that regularly reaches -40 in the winter, and she did an excellent job of conveying how the cold is both mundane and deadly, how the people that live in it manage to acclimate and even appreciate the beauty that comes with blizzards, frost flowers, and the silence of heavy snowfall. Vivid moments- Constance’s wolf-pelt coat, Dylan’s large frame folding under the small caravan table, the viewing of the Northern Lights, Stella’s awesome sled down the cow hill- were each perfectly wrought and will last with me a long time.

“…the child of a wolf may not feel like she has fangs until she finds herself facing the moon, but they are still there the whole time regardless.”

The “Sunlight Pilgrims” of the title is an important component of the story and I won’t spoil it– but it is a concept that felt particularly meaningful to me reading in early 2017, as I processed our own impending dark. We all struggle with keeping hope in cold and lonely times, and this book has something of a remedy in store for readers. There were moments, like the quote above, that I desperately needed this January.

The one thing that lacked for me was the pacing and resolution. It felt a bit overlong; moments of little eventual concern were lingered heavily over for a reason I couldn’t determine, while momentous occasions that were ripe for character processing were glossed over quickly. There was some lag for me in the middle end, and the final paragraph left me frustrated at the lack of resolution. I don’t usually feel this way, but this end really felt incomplete both in plot and in character development.

I have not yet found a review of this book written by a trans person, so if anyone has any suggestions, I’d love to link to them in my review. From my limited perspective, Fagan did a nice job of portraying Stella’s life, struggles, and strengths without relying too heavily on stereotypes or problematic representations. Stella’s trans identity is only a component of a well-rounded character. Stella is full of energy, fashion sense, sarcasm, and hope, and is the type of proud young woman I wish I’d been more like in my early teens.

If you have Cheimatophobia, probably skip this one. If you’re looking for a quiet but surprisingly lush, sensual story about human resilience and companionship, pick this one up (I also recommended Station Eleven, one of my top books in 2016). If you want to read a story about two flawed and brave adults who still love and stand up beside a trans child, this one’s for you.

Scent Notes: Wolf fur, gin whispers, and cold metal