BOOK REVIEW: A Gentleman In Moscow by Amor Towles

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I knew I was in love with Amor Towles’ writing when, in the opening pages of his novel A Gentleman In Moscow, he referred to a pigeon as having a “decidedly proprietary air.”

This was the first of hundreds of lovely turns of phrase and literary delights to unfold over the course of the nearly 500 page novel about a man’s life within the walls of a famed Russian hotel. With the humour, curiosity and surprising depth of a Wes Andersen film, Towles has penned a masterpiece about parenthood, redemption, and love for ones’ country. A Gentleman In Moscow has joined the ranks of my favourite books of all time, and I’m about to tell you why.

In the 1920s, 30-year-old Count Alexander Rostov is sentenced by a Bolshevik tribunal to live the rest of his life under house arrest in the Metropol Hotel in Moscow. His crime? Being an unrepentant aristocrat. Over the remaining decades of his life, the Count befriends a series of peculiar and charming hotel workers and visitors who fill his small world with light, laughter, and adventure. Despite his restricted reality, Count Rostov comes to realize life is not about the amount of space within which one can move around, but rather how one fills the space he is given in life.

Should you feel slightly deterred by the premise, know that the limited setting in which Towles must work does not hinder his ability to pepper the novel with gun fights, spying, blackmail, thievery, incredible cuisine, deep friendship, beautiful romance, an adept mixologist, a goose being thrown out a window, and a man who has befriended a hive of bees.

“There was Andrey with his perfect poise and long judicious hands, Vasily, the hotel’s inimitable concierge; and Marina, the shy delight with the wandering eye who had recently been promoted from chambermaid to seamstress.”

- Amor Towles, A Gentleman In Moscow

The list of strengths I could write up for this novel would go on and on: the beautiful writing, the incredible characters, the vibrant setting and witty humour. Count Rostov is a main character every reader will be able to root for. His charm and wit are matched by his kindness and adaptability, and as he ages throughout the story he becomes only more relatable and endearing. His punishment never truly feels like a sentence because he is able to make the most of it and see the light in his bleak situation.

A Gentleman In Moscow covers decades of complicated Russian history, and Towles navigates the polarizing political context with grace. He explores the Counts’ deep connection to his homeland and perfectly demonstrates how a man can still love a country that has wronged him. Readers will be pleased to see references to important Russian figures they recognize, but will also come away with new knowledge and understanding, and perhaps even a newly sparked interest in the history of a country that has been frequently misunderstood.

While I could continue to write for many hours about the beauty of this novel, I think it is best to end my review by simply letting Mr. Towles writing speak for itself:

“For what matters is not whether we receive a round of applause; what matters is whether we have the courage to venture forth despite the uncertainty of acclaim.”

- Amor Towles, A Gentleman In Moscow

BOOK REVIEW: Where The Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

Setting is everything in Delia Owens’ debut novel Where The Crawdads Sing. North Carolina’s coastal marsh takes centre stage in this beautiful and heartbreaking story about family, judgment, and one girl’s magical relationship with her homeland.


Born in the mid-20th century, Kya Clark has always been a force of nature. Growing up in poverty in the swampy forests of the southern east coast, her one true love has always been the land. As her brothers and sisters all depart to search for better lives, Kya eventually finds herself alone in her tiny family home, struggling to survive at an age when she is barely able to work or fend for herself. For years she is isolated from her peers and harshly judged by a society she has no desire to be a part of. Nicknamed “The Marsh Girl” by the people of a nearby town, Kya spends her adolescence hiding from those who don’t understand her, only ever opening up to two very different men who want two very different things from her.

When a young, popular man turns up dead in the marsh, the townspeople immediately suspect Kya, using her unusual way of life as evidence of wrongdoing. As she struggles to defend herself and reclaim her home, Kya is put through an ordeal she may never overcome. Part crime story, part love story, and part natural history lesson, Where The Crawdads Sing is a masterpiece of literary storytelling.

Owens, while a first-time novelist, is no stranger to writing. She has co-authored three books about her life as a wildlife scientist in Africa, and has won several major awards for her work. Her knowledge and insight into the many mysteries of nature shine through in Where The Crawdads Sing, which in many ways is written as a love story to a part of the world that many people don’t understand.


Owens’ writing is eloquent and flowy, and fits perfectly with the themes of the novel, which include isolation and judgment and the misperceptions people develop of anything or anyone who might be different. Kya’s universe exists on a very small parcel of land, but Owens writing transforms the marsh into a living, breathing, vibrant ecosystem in which her main character can spend decades and yet never lose interest or her sense of excitement. Kya’s strange habits – talking to pigeons and jetting around alone in her boat – lose their strangeness as the reader comes to love her and understand her past.

Despite her two romantic relationships which feature prominently in the plot of the novel, Kya is never a character defined by her love life. She is independent – although not always desiring to be – and strong, and can fend for herself better than any other person she knows. Nothing in life has come easily to her, and her hard work and openness to the unusual are what have sustained her in a life of loneliness and hardship. The most beautiful part of Where The Crawdads Sing are the passages in which Kya first learns to read, despite only ever having attended school for one day. It is magical to follow along as her world is opened up beyond the confines of her small house and little boat.

Where The Crawdads Sing defies categorization, dipping its toes into various genres including literary fiction, mystery, romance and historical fiction. There really is something for everyone in this book, and I’ll end my review by signing off with nothing but the highest praise.

Disclaimer: Below I have attached a purchase link for Where The Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens. If you click through a purchase this book I will receive a small commission from Amazon which will go towards keeping my website updated. Thank you for reading my review.

BOOK REVIEW: A Death In The Family by Karl Ove Knausgaard

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In one extensive passage of his autobiographical novel A Death in the Family, Karl Ove Knausgaard describes in depth the events leading up to a New Year’s Eve celebration he attended in his youth. Over dozens of pages, Knausgaard explains the frustrations of trying to buy alcohol, sort out plans, find a ride, and weasel his way into a better party. The passage has no immediately clear purpose, other than to demonstrate what it was like to grow up as he did, and, were it not for Knausgaards’ uncanny way with words, would be so dull as to put readers to sleep.

But despite being separated from my own adolescent experience by a generation and an ocean, Knausgaard’s New Year’s ordeal resonated strongly with me. The mundanities of youth, which at the time feel unbelievably exciting and important, seem to be a worldwide phenomenon. Those days of scrambling to find alcohol and hoping to be invited to a party are not so far in my past, and yet when I read A Death In The Family I felt the same mild embarrassment Knausgaard now experiences when he looks back on his youth. This is the secret to his literary success, this ability to so perfectly capture what it is to be alive not in the exciting times, but rather in the mundane, boring everyday moments, and then to critique them through the lens of aging.

I heard about A Death In The Family through a co-worker. She described it as a Norwegian literary phenomenon that has caused uproar for its detailed and unsparing descriptions of real people and real events. I Googled it, as one does, and spent hours reading about Knausgaard and the fame he has achieved through the writing of his six-part autobiographical series. A Death In The Family, the first book in the series, deals mostly with his complicated relationship with his father, and the subsequent turmoil he endures when his father dies.

“In recent years the feeling that the world was small and that I grasped everything in it had grown stronger and stronger in me, and that despite my common sense telling me that actually the reverse was true: the world was boundless and unfathomable, the number of events infinite, the present time an open door that stood flapping in the wind of history.” - Karl Ove Knausgaard, A Death In The Family

A Death In The Family has no clear narrative structure. Knausgaard bounces between times and places, constantly introducing new people and stories. His sentences and paragraphs are often long and rambling. Few of his anecdotes have clear endings or meanings. It seems he sat down one day at his computer and simply decided to talk about his life in any way that pleased him and, unbelievably, the result was a masterpiece.

Knausgaard lays bare feelings and thoughts most people would not dare to express – the annoyance he sometimes feels when his children bother him, the possibility he doesn’t really love his wife, the idea it would be better if his father were dead. It is impossible not to question his morality as you read, to wonder if it wouldn’t be better for his loved ones if he didn’t share so much. But at the same time his bold declarations are a refreshing change from the uptight, highly edited autobiographies and memoirs and self helps books that line bookstore shelves in North America. Knausgaard’s story offers no suggestions on how to live, instead leaving readers to their own devices to choose how to use and learn from his experiences.

A Death In The Family is a fascinating character study and insight into human nature. It’s long and mundane at times, but Knausgaard’s ramblings only add to what he is ultimately trying to accomplish.

BOOK REVIEW: There There by Tommy Orange


In the opening pages of his debut novel, Tommy Orange weaves a story not of fiction, but of history. In visceral, searing, and beautifully simplistic style, Orange explains the circumstances Indigenous North Americans are born into. Gun violence, inter-generational trauma, alcoholism, disease – no brutal, heart-wrenching topic is left untouched in the blistering opening essay. This brief preface, and another similar interlude mid-way through the novel, set the stage for a story about colonialism and the lasting effects it has left on Indigenous communities across the continent.


“When we go to tell our stories, people think we want it to have gone different. People want to say things like ‘sore losers’ and ‘move on already,’ ‘quit playing the blame game.’ But is it a game? Only those who have lost as much as we have see the particularly nasty slice of smile on someone who thinks they’re winning when they say ‘get over it’.” - Tommy Orange, There There

There There is a story about stories. Over the course of the 300 page novel, at least a dozen characters are introduced and their backstories explored. One is a young man hoping to secure a grant to make a documentary, another is an older woman who struggles with addiction and her decision to give up a child years before. While many of them don’t know each other at the beginning, they are all intricately connected by a web of shared history and trauma. Each of them, for their own personal reasons, is planning to attend the Big Oakland Powwow, where their experiences will intersect in life-altering ways.

“We all came to the Big Oakland Powwow for different reasons. The messy, dangling strands of our lives got pulled into a braid – tied to the back of everything we’d been doing all along to get us here. We’ve been coming from miles. And we’ve been coming for years, generations, lifetimes, layered in brayer and handwoven regalia, beaded and sewn together, feathered, braided, blessed, and cursed.” - Tommy Orange, There There

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There are many plotlines to follow and personalities to remember, and Orange asks a lot of his readers. But topics like the ones presented in There There – colonization and trauma and illness – are not the stuff of relaxing beach-reads. Orange’s high expectations for his readers are necessary. The jumping timelines and points of view require attention, and attention is something so many of us have failed to give to marginalized communities throughout history.

Despite its important content, There There wouldn’t work without Orange’s strong and elegant writing. With so many characters to juggle and such a complex plot, this novel could easily have been a failure. But Orange pulls each thread together deftly and with flare, showcasing originality in his writing that makes it almost incomparable to anything else.

There There's ending, while fitting perfectly with the rest of the story, is not satisfying - and it is not intended to be. It is a novel of sadness and hardship and moments of hope. It is a book about the various ways in which people react to the situations they are forced into, and the reality that no response to difficulty can be perfectly categorized as right or wrong, because so many small events have formed the path to the decision that was made.

This book is a must-read. It is educational and original, and written in a style that will draw readers in and leave them raw and contemplative. There There will make you think about the changes you can make in your life to be more accepting and accommodating and helpful, and that is it’s real strength.

If you liked this you might also like:

  • Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

  • Seven Fallen Feathers by Tanya Talaga