Category Archives: Fiction — general

Whirl Away, by Russell Wangersky

whirlawayRussell Wangersky’s collection Whirl Away is the second short-story collection I’ve read this year, which is something of a record for me, and like the other collection (Ed Kavanagh’s Strays) I thoroughly enjoyed it. Wangersky is a master of using language: every phrase and sentence seems perfectly polished. But the beauty of his writing never distracts from the characters in the stories and the dark, often painful situations they face. Weeks after reading this collection, two of the stories still haunt me; both are, in a way, about domestic violence, but in each case the situation is approached from a perspective you wouldn’t normally see, and it makes the sadly familiar suddenly chilling. In “Echo,” a five-year-old (possibly autistic?) child suffers from echolalia and can only repeat the words he hears his parents exchange: coming from a child’s mouth those words tell a frightening story. In “Look Away” an isolated man in an isolated place — a lighthouse keeper — is frustrated with his wife and children; only as the story unfolds does the reader grasp that the lighthouse-keeper’s perception and his reality are two very different things. 

If you love a well-constructed short story that captures a slice of time and human experience so vividly you won’t be able to shake it off — or if, like me, you’re skeptical about short stories but would like to try a few — pick up Whirl Away. You may be haunted, but you won’t regret it.

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The Islands of Doctor Thomas, by Francoise Enguehard

islandsdoctorthomasThis slim novel, set mostly in the French islands of St. Pierre et Miquelon off Newfoundland’s south coast, tells the story of a collection of decades-old photographs taken by a doctor who came to the islands in the early 1900s and used his camera to record the life of the community he saw around him. The photographs are discovered by Francois, a middle-aged architect who now lives in France but returns to his St. Pierre homeland for frequent visits, and Emilie, the teenaged daughter of Francois’s childhood friends. Francois and Emilie feel a strong affinity both for each other and for the photographs, and dedicate themselves to curating the collection, sharing it with others, and finding out more about the mysterious Doctor Thomas. Pieces of his story are imagined by Emilie, who aspires to be a writer, as a sort of novel-within-the-novel.

The material is interesting and the glimpse into St. Pierre culture intriguing — like many Newfoundlanders I know far too little about these islands, which still belong to France, despite how close they are to our shores. But the novel is so short that many potentially interesting elements of character development — especially the nature of the tie that binds Emilie and Francois — are left only as hasty sketches rather than fleshed out in vivid colour, and there is very little in the way of a strong plot to pull the reader forward. This was definitely one of those books that left me wanting much more.

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Every Little Thing, by Chad Pelley

everylittlethingI’ve read most of the fiction published in Newfoundland over the last two years, and of all the books I’ve read, whether by “big name” writers or relative unknowns, whether considered “literary” or “commercial” fiction, Chad Pelley’s Every Little Thing was by far the book that kept me turning the pages most quickly, eager to find out what happened to his characters. His main character and first-person narrator, Cohen Davis, is in prison as the novel opens, and tells the story of how he got there in a series of flashbacks. Even moreso than Lisa Moore’s antihero David Slaney in CaughtCohen Davis is an unlikely prisoner, a highly educated and thoughtful young man, and the reader is naturally interested to find out about the crime that landed him in jail. His story goes back several years to a tragic death in his family, and indeed there’s tragedy piled on tragedy in this story — disease and disability, multiple assaults, deaths both accidental and violent, love and betrayal. There’s a woman at the centre of it all, of course, Cohen’s ex-girlfriend Allie Crosbie, who comes into his life on the heels of one tragedy and is driven out of his life by another. And guiding us through his story is Cohen, a nebbishy everyman with a keen intellect but frequently poor judgement.

I really liked Cohen and I liked the way the story unfolded. I liked the way Pelley avoids the easy and too-obvious resolution at a few points in the story, even though that left me with an ending bleaker than I was happy with. I was caught up enough in the story that I was only able to judge its flaws only on reflection, after finishing the story. One major gap in the story is the lack of any strong sense of place: it’s set somewhere in Atlantic Canada, but the details are vague enough that it could be anywhere in Newfoundland (though the geography doesn’t fit easily with that of this island), or in New Brunswick or Nova Scotia. Only a few scenes set on a trip to Halifax feel genuinely grounded in a real landscape, as specific and recognizable places in Halifax play a role in that part of the story. Another weakness is that Allie, while fun to read about in her scenes with Cohen, is very much an “alluring woman” as filtered through a male gaze (whether that of Cohen the narrator or Pelley the writer, I’m not entirely sure); if you look at her as a separate character it’s hard to understand what motivates Allie at certain crucial points in the book, and her characterization doesn’t always seem consistent. That said, though the book has its flaws, I found it highly readable and far more compelling than Pelley’s debut novel, Away from Everywhere. I finished it in less than a day and was never bored, which to be honest is more than I can say for a lot of literary fiction. 

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Strays, by Ed Kavanagh

straysI don’t normally gravitate towards short story collections — give me a good, meaty novel I can get lost in! — but this collection by Ed Kavanagh really drew me in from the very first story. This is Kavanagh’s first book since his award-winning The Confessions of Nipper Mooney more than 10 years ago, and the time and effort he’s put into crafting these stories really shows. His characters are outsiders, people on the margins, and there are moments of striking clarity and compassion in every story. The longest piece in the collection, “The Strayaway Child,” is the only one not set in the present or recent past, and it draws such an evocative picture of a threadbare childhood in Depression-era Newfoundland that I wished this one were a novel — it would probably be one of my favourite novels of the year. But as a short story collection, this is a book not to be missed.

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The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, by Ayana Mathis

hattieI read this book quickly and on one level I really loved it. The writing is brilliant, and it’s my favourite kind of historical fiction in that it’s deeply evocative, vivid, and pulls me right into a place and time through the experiences of people who lived there. “There” in this case is Philadelphia from the 1920s up through the 1980s, and the people involved are an African-American couple, Hattie and August, who migrate up from Georgia to take advantage of a freer society and greater opportunities in the North. Balanced against the lack of Jim Crow laws and overt racism is the longing for home that permeates the novel and the sense of being perpetual outsiders in a northern city.

Philadelphia does not realize its promise for Hattie and August; their marriage is unhappy and they find themselves locked in a life of poverty that they not only can’t escape but seem doomed to pass on to their children, almost all of whom lead troubled lives as adults. The subsequent chapters of the novel follow the stories of various children (and one grandchild) in the family, and nobody has it easy. These aren’t easy lives and this isn’t an easy read, but that’s not what gave me reservations about the book.

My problem — if you can call it a problem, given that I devoured the book in a single day — with The Twelve Tribes is that it’s billed as a novel and it clearly is not a novel. It’s a collection of connected short stories, which is a great and perfectly legitimate thing to write, but it’s misleading if what you want is a story you can follow from beginning to end. The most frustrating aspect of this structure is that every story has a different main character, and each character makes only passing reference, if any, to what has happened to his or her brothers and sisters since the last story we read. This means the reader is left with a lot of loose ends and unanswered questions. Does Floyd ever come to terms with his sexuality? Does Franklin get out of Vietnam alive? Does Bell recover or die? Don’t read on for the answers to those questions, because you won’t be getting them, and that might drive you crazy if, like me, you get invested in a particular character’s story and want to know how it ends.

Do read on if what fascinates you is the beautiful writing, powerful vignettes of what it was like to be an African-American migrant family in mid-20th-century US, or, most importantly, if the character of Hattie is what fascinates you from the beginning. She is the consistent thread that runs through all these stories, though she is more present in some than in others. In the end, it’s the story of Hattie much more than it is the story of her “tribe” of children, and she is both far more and far less than the stereotypical strong black matriarch we often see in American fiction. Hattie is both intensely loving and cruel, generous and mean, wise and foolish. She is a real human being and she comes off the page vividly as we see her story unfold from the time when she’s a girl of 17 to an aging woman. I only wished for as detailed a portrait of some of the other characters, who pass by us as quickly as intriguing strangers glimpsed from the window of a passing bus.

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Minister Without Portfolio, by Michael Winter

ministerwithoutportfolioMichael Winter’s Minister Without Portfolio is another of those books — like Alice McDermott’s Someone — that I can’t  help admiring for its literary virtuosity, yet that left me with some reservations. As with Someone and other such novels, I’m left to struggle with whether my reservations have more to do with Winter’s writing or with me as a reader. Certainly the book is very compelling at times; Winter is a master of the small detail, the casual phrase that reveals more than pages of exposition could do. There’s a certain hapless charm to his main character, Henry Hayward, a man in his thirties who seems to be just drifting through his life until an incident in Afghanistan (where Henry is working as a civilian contractor with the Canadian military) costs a friend his life. Henry blames himself (not without some cause) for the death, and begins a slow process of trying to build a life for himself back in Newfoundland that is intentional rather than accidental. Though there were times when the story moved very slowly, that’s not something I mind if it’s well told, and there is a wealth of beautiful detail here.

That said, there were also times when the author’s literary flourishes detracted from the story rather than adding to it, particularly with the use of dialogue that doesn’t sound as if it was ever spoken by any real person, much less the character in whose mouth it’s placed. Henry, as a main character, can be hard to get a handle on, though the small Southern Shore community around him is populated by vividly realized minor characters. I also didn’t understand some of Winter’s choices with point of view — the story sticks almost exclusively to a third-person-limited narration from Henry’s point of view, yet there were a couple of occasions when we were dropped into another character’s perspective for a chapter and then just as quickly taken back out again, for no reason I could discern.

I think the best way I could characterize my experience of reading this book is “uneven” — I certainly enjoyed it greatly at times, and felt distant from the story and characters at other times — a distance that may be intentional, but that tempered my enjoyment of this obviously well-written book.

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The Round House, by Louise Erdrich

roundhouseLike much of Louise Erdrich’s work, The Round House is set on an American Indian reservation, exploring with realism, humour and depth the world of the contemporary Native American. Or, almost contemporary – The Round House is set in the 1980s. The narrator, 13-year-old Joe, is living a comfortable life as the son of a Bazil, a native judge and Geraldine, who is in charge of the tribal records office. When Geraldine is the victim of a brutal rape, she withdraws from her husband, son and community, refusing to talk about the crime. Despite her silence, it’s not long before everyone figures out who raped Geraldine — the more pressing question is whether the man can ever be prosecuted. The Round House points up the prevalence of rapes of Indian women by white men and the difficulty of bringing such cases to justice because of tangly questions of jurisdiction. On a more intimate level, though, it’s the story of a teenage boy coming of age in the context of a close-knit family and community, dealing with the trauma that strikes his family, and figuring out what “justice” looks like — which, in the world of this novel, doesn’t always mean following the letter of the law. I found this a compelling book, well-written as is always the case with Erdrich and, if not exactly enjoyable because of the painful subject matter, certainly powerful.

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The Age of Miracles, by Karen Thompson Walker

ageofmirraclesI’m going to say right up front: it was a mistake to read this book during the “rolling blackouts” that led to the power outages in the first week of 2014. Reading dystopia when you’re safe, warm and comfortable is one thing. Reading dystopia when you’re living through a freezing cold weekend without power and realizing all too vividly how precariously our entire lifestyle is balanced on the reliability of electrical power and supplies, is a whole different experience. This is a well-written dystopian novel that starts in a time and place that is entirely relatable and believable — current-day suburban California, as experienced by an eleven-year-old girl — and quickly spins into nightmare as the earth’s rotation inexplicably starts to slow. Days and nights are thrown out of whack and everything reliable about the environment and human culture gradually slips into crisis as 24-hour days become 25-hour, then 30-hour, 48-hour and 60-hour days. Julia, the protagonist, is going through the typical changes and challenges of middle school in a world that appears at first to be keeping a grip on normality, but is changing in ways she can’t even begin to understand.

I found this novel very hard to put down and very hard to forget. While the actual triggering event — the slowing of the earth’s rotation — is farfetched and never explained (which annoyed some readers who were expecting a more sciencey science-fiction book), the resulting devastation is the kind that could occur as a result of any one of a number of ecological disasters. As I said, I was probably more vulnerable to this kind of thinking because I read it during a dark night when we were being warned that our power plants could generate enough electricity to see us through a winter cold spell, so the picture of a world where everything humans have come to rely on slowly falls away was poignant and terrifying. This book gave me chills on a very cold night, and troubled me in a way dystopian visions of the future don’t normally do.

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Someone Else’s Love Story, by Joshilyn Jackson

someone else love storyWhen I finished reading this book, I felt such a sense of loss, it was like a break-up. We’d only been together less than a day — since I could not stop reading it — but during that time I fell deeply in love with at least three of the book’s characters. As for the author, I’ve always been in literary love with Joshilyn Jackson, but this, her sixth novel, may be my very favourite.

Someone Else’s Love Story tells the stories of two characters — Shandi Pierce and William Ashe — whose lives collide when they are both held at gunpoint in a convenience-store robbery. Shandi is a young single mom trying to finish college, raise a brilliant three-year-old, and balance the competing claims of two divorced parents who both love her very much but want different lives for her and her son. William is a brilliant scientist with a touch of Asperger’s and a life shattered by the tragic loss of his wife and daughter a year earlier. Shandi falls head-over-heels for William, and the story alternates between their two perspectives (Shandi’s in first-person, William’s in third-person) chapter by chapter as they deal with the aftermath of the store robbery and the secrets from their pasts each of them has been forced to confront.

Jackson has such a beautiful command of voice in this novel: William and Shandi are very different people and the way they think and view the world is completely different, and the language in their chapters reflects that perfectly, drawing us into each of their minds. This is not the sort of story where the desired “happy ending” is obvious from the start: as you read you realize that many outcomes are possible and there will be some joy and some loss however it works out. One thing Joshilyn Jackson is a master of is the unexpected twist in the story that forces you to view everything that’s happened so far in a different light — and when she pulls off the twist in this one, the ground under your feet will shift and so will your idea of what a “happy ending” might look like.

Shandi and William are great, multilayered, well-developed characters but so are the others in this book — William’s tough-as-nails best friend Paula; Shandi’s mother; William’s wife Bridget, whose love story unfolds in the flashbacks, and perhaps my very favourite, Shandi’s devoted best friend Walcott, who genuinely seemed to me like he had wandered into a Joshilyn Jackson novel from his original home in the pages of a John Green novel. Even the most potentially hateable character in the book — I won’t tell you who that is — turns out to have a very human face. This is a novel where people are capable of making wrong choices and doing very bad things, but even the villains are viewed through a compassionate lens.

What I love most about Joshilyn Jackson’s writing is that she’s a good church lady whose books are full of the kind of scenes that good church ladies’ books aren’t supposed to contain — by which I mean that she’s a Christian who writes novels no Christian bookstore would carry, because they have sex scenes and people are flawed and messed-up and real. Every book Jackson writes is a work of theology and her one theological teaching is always the same: grace. Her characters need grace and they extend it to each other, sometimes in the most unexpected ways. Her novels nearly always include at least a few characters who are overtly religious, church-going people — and often it’s those same characters who are agents of divine grace, but rarely in traditionally religious ways. For example, in this novel, William’s wife Bridget is a devout Catholic girl who plans to become a nun. Even after she abandons that vocation to marry William, she works at inner-city missions, but for her atheist husband, the most powerful way in which Bridget acts out grace is through a rundown city park that she transforms into a place of beauty and refuge by planting flowers and building birdhouses. In Jackson’s novels, grace comes in unexpected ways and sometimes from the people  you’d least expect to receive it from — but it never fails to show up.

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Big Brother, by Lionel Shriver

big-brother_customI’ve never read a Lionel Shriver novel before, because everybody I know has read We Need to Talk About Kevin and I just found the subject matter too disturbing to pick it up. I did feel I ought to read one of her books and I was intrigued by the premise of Big Brother — a middle-aged woman takes her brother, a down-on-his-luck jazz musician, into her home for awhile, but is horrified to discover that in the years since she’s seen him last he has become morbidly obese and a compulsive over-eater. It’s not like these are the only problems in their adult sibling relationship — they both bear the scars of being raised by an actor father more invested in his Brady-Bunch-style TV family than in his real kids — but Edison’s weight is always central to the story. His sister, Pandora, is married to a man who is as obsessed with health and fitness as her brother is obsessed with snack foods. For her, Edison’s obesity leads to reflections about her own body image, about the meaning of eating and food in American culture, and about the responsibility family members have toward each other.

I found this an interesting book to read; my enjoyment of it was somewhat muted by the fact that I disliked all three of the main characters — Pandora, Edison, and Pandora’s husband Fletcher — almost equally. I go back and forth on this question of how likable characters should be — I know you don’t have to “like” characters in order to find them well-written and compelling, and you certainly don’t need to approve of their life choices, but I think for me it’s hard to connect emotionally to a book if there’s not at least one character I find sympathetic on some level, so that was a problem for me here. The main character, Pandora, was one of those characters I just want to shake till her teeth rattle, which did not predispose me to be sympathetic to her.

Other quibbles I had with the book — parts that I thought were simply unrealistic or unbelievable — were beautifully resolved by some unexpected twists at the end, which left me far more impressed by Shriver’s skill as a writer than I had been in the middle of the book. All in all, I enjoyed reading the book, but I don’t think it will linger as long with me as some others because of my inability to connect with the characters emotionally or care deeply about what happened to them.

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