Check, Please! by Ngozi Ukazu

Have you ever unexpectedly read a book in a day? You sit down with it, figuring you’ll just start it, and before you know it, you’re done? That happens to me a lot, especially with fiction and graphic novels, so I wasn’t too surprised when I read Check, Please! Book 1 by Ngozi Ukazu from cover to cover in an afternoon. If you need a quick and lighthearted read, then I can’t recommend this book enough.

Originally published in 2018, this upbeat story follows Eric Bittle, dubbed “Bitty” by his teammates, as he starts school at Samwell University as part of the men’s hockey team. He navigates a much more challenging atmosphere than he’s accustomed to, including hockey that includes violent physical ‘checking’, of which he is deathly afraid. Luckily, his teammates are true friends – utterly supportive, relentlessly funny, and deeply appreciative of Bitty’s skill as a baker. Over the course of his freshman and sophomore years at Samwell, Bitty finds his place on the team and forges a strong bond (and an equally strong crush) on team captain Jack. But what happens when Jack and the others graduate?

I found this book completely adorable, with an endearing art style and lovable characters. The immersion into Canadian hockey culture was fascinating, and I appreciated that Ukazu didn’t overwhelm the reader with too many details, giving just enough information to keep you engaged. I also really liked that the story was told in the form of Bitty’s video blog entries; this was a clever narrative tactic that worked perfectly for the graphic novel medium. However, I wasn’t always satisfied with how the scenes were fleshed out: a lot of backstories and events had to be inferred from context or brief mentions, or understood only after multiple throwaway lines. Especially in the case of romantic storylines, I just wanted more. Luckily, there was a lot of additional material after the story – bonus comics and Bitty’s Twitter feed – which helped add some details and context.

If you’re a graphic novel lover, reluctant reader, hockey fan, or are looking for a fluffy read about friendship, falling in love, and LOTS of baking, this book may be for you.

Edinburgh, San Francisco, Dublin: Classic Novels of Place

When life has me stressed, there are a lot of books I can’t read. Anything emotionally intense will only make me feel worse – which means my options for reading material narrow down a lot. Lately I  find myself taking a very particular prescription at times like these: what I think of as “novels of place”. These are books centered in one particular city or region, where the goal is to give a glimpse into the everyday lives of many people who live there. I love the opportunity to see how different people navigate their daily routines, and I like the immersion into a city I’ve never been to. Best of all, there’s not enough violence, romance, or angst to be intrusive. If you want to try this genre, here are a few of my favorites and why they work (for me).

44 Scotland Street by Alexander McCall-Smith launched a popular series, with the latest installment published in 2017. Set in Edinburgh, Scotland, the novel centers on the residents of the apartment building located at (you guessed it) 44 Scotland Street. The book opens when Pat, a twenty-year-old on her second gap year, moves out of her parents’ house and into a shared apartment in Scotland Street. Hijinks ensue as she meets her roommate Bruce, neighbor Domenica, and the family downstairs including 5-year-old prodigy Bertie. I like this book because it immerses you into all the good and bad things about living in Scotland, introduces you to realistic but quirky characters, and is liberally sprinkled with insightful comments on life, parenthood, attraction, and art. Most fascinating for me was the moral ambiguity of characters like Bruce the narcissist and Irene the pushy mother. I didn’t root for them, but I am intrigued enough to want to know what happens to them, and they make me think about self-awareness and what kind of person I want to be.

Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin is very similar to the Scotland Street series: it started as a serialized novel (published in installments in the newspaper), launched a popular series, and is centered on the residents of an apartment building. In this case, however, the setting is 1970s San Francisco, and the apartment building is 28 Barbary Lane. Also like Scotland Street, the book starts when a young woman moves into the building: Mary Ann Singleton, a young secretary from Ohio. This is where the similarity ends, however: Tales of the City leans fully into the bohemian diversity of the San Francisco scene, and the domestic dramas involve less art and politics and more intrigue and debauchery. This book has been on my to-read list for a long time, partly because of its unapologetic diversity, and partly because its soap-opera storylines are perfect escapist reading!

Scarlet Feather by Maeve Binchy is a favorite of both mine and my mother’s. Set in Dublin,  Ireland in the early 2000s, it follows Cathy Scarlet and Tom Feather as they open a catering business together and it completely transforms their lives. This book has more of a cohesive plot than some of the others, along with a good mix of warmth, humor, and domestic drama. While this isn’t part of a series, like the others, if you can’t get enough of Binchy’s Dublin, you can also read its companion novel featuring some of the same characters: Quentins. The best thing about Maeve Binchy’s work, as evident in these books as well as many of her others, is that despite the unfortunate things that happen to her characters – the doomed relationships and betrayals – there’s an equal measure of friendship, true love, and hope to balance out the scales. And isn’t that what we all want to know?

I think that’s the main draw of all these novels for me – the wholesomeness, the strong sense of community and friendship, and the sense that the world keeps turning through all the petty, inconvenient, or unpleasant things that happen. Life goes on, and given time people grow, change, and heal. Oftentimes healing and growth happens because of the people who walk alongside us: friends, neighbors, and even strangers. In some cases, we’re helped by animals, which leads me to my last recommendation: All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot.

Originally published in 1972, this is a true classic, but a perfect gentle read for the stressful times in life, especially for when you’re feeling lost. This biographical work tells the story of a young veterinarian who moves to the Yorkshire region of England to join a new practice. This rural, rugged region of England is full of unique characters, challenging terrain, and many animals. The young vet must treat livestock and pets alike while struggling to earn the respect of the locals. Despite the enormous challenges faced, the book shines with hope, humor, and deep love for animal life. If you’re an animal lover, this book (and its sequels) is a great choice.