Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Award Winners (page 1 of 16)

Days At The Morisaki Bookshop – Satoshi Yagisawa

Days At The Morisaki Bookshop was first published in the original Japanese back in 2010, a debut novel that won Satoshi Yagisawa a sizeable Japanese fanbase and the Chiyoda Literature Prize. It took over a decade for the beloved story to reach Anglophone readers, but it finally did in 2023, an English translation by Eric Ozawa that soared to the top of the best-seller lists.

Days At The Morisaki Bookshop - Satoshi Yagisawa - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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It’s popularity might simply be due to the fact that the premise of Days At The Morisaki Bookshop sounds like every wistful booklover’s dream: living in a spare room on the second floor of a bookshop. I mean… that’s the dream, right?

That’s where Part One of this story begins, with twenty-five-year old Takako moving into her uncle’s overstuffed secondhand bookshop in Tokyo’s Jimbocho book district. She’s fresh off the back of a nasty break-up from a gaslighting clown, and struggling to stay upright most of the time. Her benevolent uncle offers her room and board, in exchange for a few hours working in the bookshop each day. Lacking any other options, Takako accepts.

Gradually crawling out of the fugue, Takako discovers a latent love of books and reading. The musty smell of the Morisaki bookshop becomes comforting, and she befriends several regulars at the nearby coffee shop. She gets to know her eccentric uncle, and discovers that they have more in common than she originally thought (his wife left him, suddenly and dramatically, a few years prior). The bookshop and human connection nurse her back to health, and after several months she is ready to leave and re-enter the real world.

Part Two of Days At The Morisaki Bookshop moves us forward, and Takako returns to the bookshop after one and a half years away. Her life has moved on, but she’s drawn back by the sudden reappearance of her uncle’s estranged wife. Her uncle begs her to discover the reason for his wife’s return (like, bro, ask her yourself?), and as Takako forms a friendship with her, some tragic truths come to light.

The story is all told in very simple and straightforward prose (though, as always with translated works, it’s not really possible for this monolingual reader to know whether that’s a feature of the original text or the work of the translator). Days At The Morisaki Bookshop moves fairly quickly, even though – as you can see – nothing much really Happens, exactly. It’s a short book, just 150-odd pages, so there’s not a lot of room for things to drag.

I guess I’d describe Days At The Morisaki Bookshop as a mild read – a little flat, but perfectly fine for a lazy afternoon. The best thing I can say in its favour is that it’s a surprisingly realistic portrayal of working in a secondhand bookshop, in my experience (though the customers in Jimbocho seem a lot more stable and well-adjusted than the ones you might encounter elsewhere). It’s a quiet book, one to pick up when you need a story that’s minimally challenging and easy to digest.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Days At The Morisaki Bookshop:

  • “This book was like listening to very boring person droning on and on about nothing important. Like following someone going about their day to day life, cleaning the house, dusting the furniture, eating the same thing for lunch every day, in a house with no windows and padded walls so no sound gets through.” – Tweedlebomb
  • “too shallow or silly …like a very diluted curry” – Nandu
  • “This was ok. Steady and without flourish. A bit like a cheese sandwich. You could fill yourself up on it, but you wouldn’t want to live on it forever” – S Robinson

Reckoning – Magda Szubanski

Like a lot of Australian millennials, I grew up on Magda Szubanski’s comedy. I remember laughing out loud at her poor sad-sack character Sharon Strzelecki on Kath & Kim, I remember seething with jealousy when she made out with Heath Ledger on the red carpet, and then – most relevant to this review of her memoir – I remember watching in awe as she came out on live television in 2012. But despite all those years of watching, laughing, and cheering her along, it turns out I knew very little about Szubanski, as I learned when I read her memoir Reckoning.

Reckoning - Magda Szubanski - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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For those of you who aren’t familiar with Szubanski, here’s a quick run-down. She’s an Australian comedian, actress, advocate and (now) author, known for her comic characters and iconic roles like Esme Hoggett in Babe. In 2003 and 2004, surveys found that she was the most-recognised and well-liked Australian television personality. I doubt that many of those surveyed knew what they were getting with her 2015 memoir, Reckoning – I sure didn’t!

It has a killer opening line for starters – literally! “If you had met my father,” Szubanski writes on page one, “you would never, not for an instant, have thought he was an assassin.”

After a brief introduction to her father’s former profession, Szubanski takes us back to her childhood. She was born in England, to a Scottish-Irish mother and Polish father, immigrating to Australia as a child as her family searched for stable lives in sunnier climes. But, as she quickly reveals in Reckoning, moving to the bottom of the earth wasn’t far enough for her father to escape the ghosts of his past.

Szubanski Senior had been an assassin in the counter-intelligence branch of the Polish resistance movement during WWII. Szubanski grew up in the shadows of her father’s war-time violence, and his struggle to reconcile his traumatic past with his safe present. Her adolescence in particular got pretty dark, as she struggled to gain the approval of her mercurial patriarch while secretly coming to terms with her own sexuality (neither of which she truly achieved until decades later). In many ways, Reckoning is a memoir about a dual reckoning, happening simultaneously: with his past, and with her identity.

So, if you pick up Reckoning expecting your standard, relatively light-hearted, comedian memoir… yeah, you’re in for a rude shock. It’s a pensive, penetrating story, told without pretension and with radical vulnerability. Szubanski doesn’t shy away from sharing the least flattering aspects of her own past, personality or behaviour, nor does she redact her father’s historical violence.

Szubanski was widely lauded and acclaimed for her story, with Reckoning winning the Douglas Stuart Prize for Non Fiction, the ABIA Book Of The Year and Biography Of The Year, and the non-fiction prize for the New South Wales Premier’s Awards. Richard Ferguson, in a review for The Sydney Morning Herald, said: “This is documentary writing of the highest order and Szubanski has given life to an incredible war story… Reckoning [is a] tale of war and suburbia, sexuality and comedy.”

As far as I’m concerned, Reckoning offers compelling evidence for the theory of inherited trauma, even that which is unspoken in families affected. My only real criticism of the book is that I really could’ve done with a touch more of the brevity for which Szubanski is so beloved, just to break up the heart-wrenching hard truths of her life. That said, I understand why she didn’t write this book as A Comedian, writing instead from the heart of a daughter who loves her complicated father. While it didn’t offer ‘comic’ relief exactly, finishing the book on the high note of coming out in support of Australia’s marriage equality campaign ensured I closed the final chapter with a smile on my face.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Reckoning:

  • “Too self indulgent, storyline very moving but too much on being a lesbian. I love lesbians but not being one it seems I don’t understand how hard it is to come out.” – Patricia Eastley
  • “With warmth courage and honesty, with her pants full, it was not easy but it was worth it.” – Amazon Customer
  • “Magda seemed to spend a lot of time being depressed and writing about it.” – susan rickert
  • “I am enjoying it overall but am uncomfortable with the details regarding her sexuality. I am not convinced she is a lesbian.” – Amazon Customer

Cat’s Eye – Margaret Atwood

If there’s one thing you should know about Margaret Atwood, it’s that the woman’s got range. She does dystopian worlds, she does historical fiction, she does poetry – and, in Cat’s Eye, she does coming-of-age literary fiction. This is a story about the subtle cruelty of girlhood and the bitterness of aging, told through the ebbs and flows of a friendship between bully and victim.

Cat's Eye - Margaret Atwood - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Through a series of memories and recollections, the story unfolds across mid-20th century Canada (from World War II to the late ’80s). It’s a bit of a throwback, really; thanks to social media, we no longer find ourselves middle-aged and wondering how our childhood bullies turned out. We can see for ourselves after a couple of late-night wines, from the privacy of our own couch.

So, have some sympathy for Elaine – an embittered artist returning to her hometown of Toronto for a retrospective of her work, to be shown at a local gallery. Cat’s Eye begins with her re-familiarising herself with the area, which causes her to think back to her childhood. Her family settled in the Canadian city when she was eight years old, after years of itinerant living while her father studied bugs (yeah, seriously). She became fast friends with two girls from her school, but their circle was broken wide open with the arrival of a new girl – Cordelia.

Cordelia (a villain’s name if I’ve ever heard one!) permanently alters the dynamic of the group. She’s cruel in the subtle way that only pre-teen girls can be, with her bullying disguised as friendship. She masterfully destroys Elaine’s self-esteem, aligning the others against her, and it all culminates in the “friends” leaving Elaine to freeze to death in a spooky snowy ravine.

That incident is enough to make Elaine snap. She breaks away from the toxic circle and makes new friends, slowly rebuilding the confidence that Cordelia shattered. You’d think this might be the ‘happy ending’ of Cat’s Eye, and in any other author’s hands it might have been, but Atwood has plenty more in store for the reader. We’re about halfway through the book at this point.

I started reading faster at this point, figuring that Cat’s Eye was building up to an encounter with Cordelia in adulthood. Elaine would realise that it’s all in the past, or that Cordelia was the true victim, or some other trite nonsense, and they’d all go on their merry way. Once again: NOPE! Atwood won’t let us off that easily (but I won’t spoil it for you by revealing the rest).

Cat’s Eye is so sharp, and so keenly felt, that it’s easy to imagine it’s at least partly autobiographical. Atwood is, after all, the daughter of an entomologist, and famously Canadian. She has generally declined to answer any questions about the similarities between her and Elaine, though. She’s only said that she wrote the book in the ’80s, drawing upon her perspective on her daughter’s pre-teen friendships and the social dynamics of the groups that she saw play out as a parent.

Cat’s Eye isn’t exactly a book that I’d rave about, but that doesn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy it or that it’s not worth reading. I’d wager that it’s probably of most interest to the mothers of girls, though perhaps it’s relevance is stretched a bit thin with Gen Alpha (who are bullying each other through their smart watches or meta-glasses now, or holographs, who knows).

My favourite Amazon reviews of Cat’s Eye:

  • “Nine year old girl is bullied by her three “best friends”.
    She never gets over it.
    The end.” – S. Remi
  • “Woman having bummer life recalls her bummer childhood in which she was bullied by sadistic and twisted friends. Sounds more interesting than it was. Looking for bleak? Try this.” – IMO
  • “Childhood is hard. Bad things happen. Dwelling on your terrible friends, superficial relationships, and general detachment from your own childhood and twenties when you’re fifty isn’t profound, it’s whiny.” – ArtBoy!

18 Award-Winning Non-Fiction Books

When you spend as much time on #Bookstagram as I do, you’ll see a lot of non-fiction slander. I think too many readers have been traumatised by rubbish self-help and dense textbooks for school to appreciate the mastery of a true story well-told. Far be it for me to tell anyone what to read, but if you ever find yourself wanting to give non-fiction another go, here are eighteen award-winning non-fiction books that will grip you just as tightly as the best-written mystery or romance.

18 Award Winning Nonfiction Books - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Feel Free by Zadie Smith

Feel Free - Zadie Smith - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Zadie Smith really can do it all: fiction, non-fiction, whatever takes her fancy. Feel Free is her “thoroughly resplendent” essay collection, which won the 2018 National Book Critics Circle Award. In five sections (“In the World,” “In the Audience,” “In the Gallery,” “On the Bookshelf and “Feel Free”), she explores the concept of freedom as it applies to language and thought and how we experience the world. Smith was praised for the range, with vignettes, profiles, and reviews on subjects as varied as Jay-Z and J.G. Ballard. In her acceptance speech, Smith extended her thanks to her husband, Nick Laird, and apologised for stealing the title for her collection from one of his poetry books.

The Princess Diarist by Carrie Fisher

The Princess Diarist - Carrie Fisher - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Princess Diarist is one of the most bitter-sweet award-winning non-fiction books. Carrie Fisher bared all in her account of filming the first Star Wars film, exposing a long-suspected affair she had with her married co-star Harrison Ford, going so far as to include love letters she wrote to him as a wonder-struck 19-year-old. It was the last book Fisher published before her death in 2016. The following year, she was awarded a posthumous Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album for her narration of the audiobook, beating out fellow nominees Bruce Springsteen, Bernie Sanders, and Neil deGrasse Tyson. Read my full review of The Princess Diarist here.

The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks - Rebecca Skloot - Keeping Up With The Penguins

If there’s any non-fiction book that’s worthy of winning all the awards, it’s The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks. Rebecca Skloot explores the hidden contributions of a woman whose name the world barely knew, contributions that made most of modern medicine possible. It’s a study of bioethics, a masterclass in accessible science writing, and a testament to the human consequences of scientific discovery. And it’s compelling as heck, to boot! For her efforts, Skloot was awarded the National Academies Communication Award (for best creative work that helps the public understanding of topics in science, engineering or medicine), the Wellcome Trust Book Prize, the Heartland Prize for Non-Fiction, a Salon Book Award, and the book was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Read my full review of The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks here.

The Year Of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

The Year of Magical Thinking - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Joan Didion

Anyone who’s lost anyone unexpectedly and turned to literature has undoubtedly encountered The Year Of Magical Thinking. Joan Didion’s memoir (and, later, play) describing her experience of the loss of her husband became an instant classic account of mourning and grief. The New York Times Book Review described it as “exhilarating”, with Didion’s journey through grief making a kind of adventure story for the reader, traversing the terrain of her emotional life. Didion was then awarded the 2005 National Book Award For Non-Fiction, with judges calling it “a masterpiece in two genres” (memoir and journalism) and “a stunning book of electric honesty and passion”.

See What You Made Me Do by Jess Hill

See What You Made Me Do - Jess Hill - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Anyone who’s ever heard about a domestic abuse situation and wondered “why didn’t she leave?” needs to read Jess Hill’s See What You Made Me Do. It’s a deeply disturbing and incredibly illuminating exploration into the causes of domestic abuse, and our collective role in preventing and mitigating the harm it causes. Hill was already an award-winning journalist prior to its release (having taken home Our Watch awards, Walkley Awards, and Amnesty International Australian Media awards for her reporting on domestic violence and the Family Court), but I’d imagine the 2020 Stella Prize for this brilliant book takes pride of place on the trophy shelf.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

When Breath Becomes Air - Paul Kalanithi - Keeping Up With The Penguins

When Breath Becomes Air is every bit as devastating as the most well-written tragedy, and there isn’t even hope for a fictional happily-ever-after. Shortly after finding his footing in the medical profession, neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi is diagnosed with stage IV metastatic lung cancer. This terminal diagnosis, and the transition from doctor to patient, is the subject of his memoir. It’s a meditation on mortality that resonated with readers, as demonstrated by the 2016 Goodreads Choice Award for Memoir & Autobiography.

I’ll Be Gone In The Dark by Michelle McNamara

I'll Be Gone In The Dark - Michelle McNamara - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Michelle McNamara was one of the original true-crime obsessives, detailing her private investigation into the Golden State Killer (a moniker she actually coined) on her blog TrueCrimeDiary. She was about two-thirds of the way into adapting her blog posts into a book when she sadly died unexpectedly in 2016. It took two years for her colleagues and husband to finish her work, and the book was published in its final form, as I’ll Be Gone In The Dark, in 2018. Just two months later, the Golden State Killer was caught. It’s a story as wild as the book itself, one that captured enough public attention to win the 2018 Goodreads Choice Award for Non-Fiction. Read my full review of I’ll Be Gone In The Dark here.

A Short History Of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

A Short History of Nearly Everything - Bill Bryson - book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

A Short History Of Nearly Everything is an ambitious non-fiction book, to say the least. Bill Bryson attempts to provide an overview of the entire history of the whole world, from the Big Bang to biology to subatomic particles. It’s a tough call, especially when you factor in that Bryson – by his own admission – knew very little about science when he began, and he wanted to write a book that was accessible to the every-person, without too much scientific jargon. That it went on to become an award-winning non-fiction book is nothing short of extraordinary: the EU Descartes Prize for science communication, and The Aventis Prize for Best General Science Book. (Bonus points: Bryson donated the prize money to a children’s hospital.) Read my full review of A Short History Of Nearly Everything here.

Tracker by Alexis Wright

Tracker - Alexis Wright - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Tracker is not neat, linear life story told in a single voice. Rather, it is a “collective memoir”, drawing upon the ancient traditions of oral histories, whereby one man’s incredible life is related through the stories of dozens of people. Alexis Wright is not a narrator, but a collaborator, bringing together friends, family members, colleagues, politicians, and countless others to paint a portrait – detailed, contradictory, and powerful – of one of Australia’s most beloved Aboriginal leaders. For her work, she was awarded the Stella Prize in 2018. Read my full review of Tracker here.

The Five by Hallie Rubenhold

The Five - Hallie Rubenhold - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Non-fiction books win awards when they shine a light on aspects of culture and history that make us think about our world in a different way. Well, that’s the case with The Five, anyway. It’s a book about challenging long-held assumptions, specifically about the victims of Jack the Ripper. The serial killer’s name is known the world over, but the names of his victims (Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine, and Mary Jane, for the record) not so much. They’re often reduced to markers in a crime scene, misremembered as sex workers and addicts, when in fact their lives were real and whole and complex. It’s an essential contribution to the historical record and the genre of true crime, for which Rubenhold won the 2019 Baillie Gifford Prize valued at £50,000. Read my full review of The Five here.

Eggshell Skull by Bri Lee

Eggshell Skull - Bri Lee - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Bri Lee’s radical vulnerability in sharing her story is perhaps the main reason it’s been so well received and widely acclaimed. She won multiple awards for Eggshell Skull (the People’s Choice Award at the 2019 Victoria Premier’s Literary Awards, the Davitt Award, and the Ned Kelly Award for Best True Crime), in a just-barely post-MeToo society where we still turn away from many victim’s stories and feel uncomfortable shining light on awful truths. Despite overwhelming internal and external obstacles, Lee shows extraordinary bravery in describing her experiences working as a judge’s associate, and how it led her to report and prosecute her own abuser. Read my full review of Eggshell Skull here.

Murder In Mississippi by John Safran

Murder In Mississippi - John Safran - Keeping Up With The Penguins

John Safran, is a documentary filmmaker and humourist, kind of like an Australian Louis Theroux. He specialises in fish-out-of-water storytelling, and a “you can’t ask that!” style of interview. In Murder In Mississippi (alternative title God’ll Cut You Down), he jets off to the U.S. to investigate the murder of a white supremacist by a Black man. He thinks he’ll EXPOSE INJUSTICE and FIX RACISM… and, of course, nothing of the sort comes to pass. It becomes a book about writing a true crime book, more than a book about the crime itself – but Safran won the 2014 Ned Kelly Award for True Crime, nonetheless. Read my full review of Murder In Mississippi here.

Becoming by Michelle Obama

Becoming - Michelle Obama - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The market for White House memoirs is well and truly saturated, which makes it all the more surprising that Becoming went on to become an award-winning best-seller. Michelle Obama describes her life growing up on the South Side of Chicago, her courtship with and marriage to Barack, and her time as First Lady living at the world’s most famous address. There’s nothing particularly remarkable about the content or format, and yet it captured the public’s attention in a way that not many political memoirs seem to do. The book won the NCAAP Image Award for Biography/Autobiography, and the audiobook, narrated by the author herself, won the 2020 Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album. Read my full review of Becoming here.

Educated by Tara Westover

Educated - Tara Westover - Keeping Up With The Penguins

When it comes to writing memoirs, you’ve either got to have talent for storytelling or a life so fascinating that talent (or lack thereof) doesn’t matter. Luckily, Tara Westover has both. Even in the hands of a real bore, Educated – a memoir about shame, understanding, and the transformative power of education – would be an interesting read. In Westover’s voice, it’s downright enthralling. She won a list of awards and accolades as long as your arm, among them: the ALA’s Alex Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography, and the Goodreads Choice Award for Autobiogaphy. Read my full review of Educated here.

Know My Name by Chanel Miller

Know My Name - Chanel Miller - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The world knew Chanel Miller’s story long before we knew her name – which is why she chose to reclaim it in her memoir, titled (of course) Know My Name. As “Jane Doe”, Miller made headlines for her incisive and moving victim impact statement, describing the after-effects of a disgusting sexual assault perpetrated by “promising young man” Brock Turner. By coming forward and identifying herself, Miller has connected her name to her attacker’s in perpetuity, but she has also won the Ridenhour Book Prize, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize for Non-Fiction, and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography. Read my full review of Know My Name here.

Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris

Me Talk Pretty One Day - David Sedaris - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Not all award-winning non-fiction books are doom and gloom! Me Talk Pretty One Day will have you howling with laughter, in the hands of master storyteller and humourist David Sedaris. In this essay collection, he aligns and contrasts his childhood growing up in Raleigh, North Carolina with his fumbling attempts to integrate as an adult living the ex-pat life in Normandy, France. Making one’s own linguistic shortcomings the butt of the joke doesn’t sting so much, we can assume, when you take home the Lambda Literary Award For Humor, the Puddly Award for Humor, and the Thurber Prize for American Humor. Read my full review of Me Talk Pretty One Day here.

Wild by Cheryl Strayed

Wild - Cheryl Strayed - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Cheryl Strayed discovered, after the publication of her memoir Wild, that rags-to-riches stories don’t play out as quickly as you might think. She was $85,000 in debt when she sold the book, and the advance she received was barely enough to stay afloat. Even when the awards came rolling in – the Goodreads Choice Award for Memoir & Autobiography, the Readers Choice Award at the Oregon Book Awards, and the Puddly Award For Non-Fiction – she still had some financial demons to wrangle. Luckily, she has huge reserves of fortitude and inner strength, as evidenced by her 1,100 hike along the Pacific Crest Trail described in the book in question. Read my full review of Wild here.

Empire Of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe

Empire Of Pain - Patrick Radden Keefe - Keeping Up With The Penguins

You might not know the Sacklers (unless you spend a lot of time in the museums they’ve paid a lot of money to adorn with the family name), but you definitely know their product: OxyContin, the opioid that triggered an epidemic of abuse. Or, maybe you’ve read Empire Of Pain, Patrick Radden Keefe’s award-winning non-fiction book about their exploitation of loopholes in pharmaceutical regulation and their central role in the American opioid epidemic. He, quite rightly, won massive acclaim for his investigative journalism, including the Baillie Gifford Prize for non-fiction and the Goodreads Choice Award for History & Biography. Read my full review of Empire Of Pain here.

Reservoir 13 – Jon McGregor

Reservoir 13 begins like any dime-a-dozen missing-girl mystery novel. A teenage girl on holiday with her family in England goes missing. The whole town turns out to look for her, and the news dominates the headlines… for a while. No trace of her is ever found. Do you think you know what happens next?

Reservoir 13 - Jon McGregor - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Does a hard-boiled heavy-drinking detective take it on as one last case? Does a plucky local teen become obsessed with the story and start a podcast? Does a family member or friend take justice into their own hands and set out on a vigilante mission? Nope! McGregor is up to his old tricks in Reservoir 13, turning your expectations on their heads.

You’ll learn next to nothing about the missing 13-year-old, or her family, or the detectives investigating her case. They all remain unnamed peripheral figures, going about their business in the background of the plot. Instead, this is the story of the town, a community disturbed by a tragedy in its midst but carrying on in its wake.

The narrative perspective is very removed. You experience Reservoir 13 as the town, rather than as any specific character within it. The story moves quickly, too – six months passes in the first twenty pages, a year in each chapter. It stretches out thirteen years, a neat little allusion to the age of the missing girl that sparks it all. People move to town, people move away, people get married and die, kids are born, businesses open and close – it’s all captured in McGregor’s tale.

McGregor’s writing style is a bit unusual, and quite ambitious (you can tell because he never uses punctuation marks for dialogue, ugh), but it still reads smoothly. I had to double back once or twice, to keep pace with the changes in direction and focus, but it’s surprisingly well done on the whole.

The tone and vibe of Reservoir 13 land somewhere between Max Porter and Evie Wyld. There are strong echoes of traditional pastoral novels, with lots of descriptions of local flora and fauna, the changing of the seasons and the impact of the weather. It’s quiet and intimate, but there’s a lot of water running deep in this still river.

In case I haven’t made it clear, I’ll state it plainly for the record: there are infuriatingly few clues about the girl’s fate, all the way to the end of Reservoir 13. Spoiler warning, or whatever, but I don’t think it’s a shock to say that he gives us no answers, not a one. The father is arrested for arson about a decade after his daughter’s disappearance, and the school caretaker is prosecuted for possession of child pornography in an apparently unrelated case, but there is no firm resolution for what’s ostensibly the central mystery of the book. Of course, that’s the Point(TM), but it’s still annoying if you’re a completionist type who hates ambiguity.

All told, Reservoir 13 is a quiet, creeping bummer of a book. It’s a well written one, masterful in fact, but a quiet, creeping bummer nonetheless. Another reviewer called it ” a chilling meditation on time, and loss through change”, if that gives you a better idea of what you’re in for, but either way your heart probably won’t be warmed by this one. We all die alone, or we disappear without anyone ever figuring out why, and you should probably have a bottle of wine ready for when McGregor finishes explaining those depressing truths to you.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Reservoir 13:

  • “Joyce pranked us all with Ulysses and now McGregor is playing the same game, banking on the critics’ gullibility. Frankly there are better ways to pass your time…” – Thomas M. Elder
  • “This may be the most boring book in the universe. I stuck it out until the end and it wasn’t worth it. “Lyrical,” no it’s slow and overly liberal with descriptions of the environment. I disliked this book so much i was motivated to write negative reviews on multiple websites.” – Jeff
  • “More characters than the bible – less interesting than Countryfile – who on Earth wants to read that “it looked like rain”, “John raised his hat to Jane” and “a Blackbird rooted about in the leaves under a hedge”?” – Sony Victim
  • “Words fail me… as they so obviously did in the writing of this awful novel.” – Jeff
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