Monthly Archives: December 2017

Saints for All Occasions, by J. Courtney Sullivan

saintsforallSaints for All Occasions is exactly the kind of sprawling family saga I love to read (and sometimes write). In the late 1950s, two Irish sisters, Nora and Theresa, set out for America. Nora is not so much following dreams as following a sense of obligation — to a fiancee she isn’t sure she wants to marry, who has already gone ahead of her to Boston. Theresa, her prettier, smarter, braver younger sister, has great dreams of life in America. Nora has only fears.

But before we even meet Nora and Theresa, we find out that in 2009, Nora’s fifty-year-old son Patrick, the eldest of her four children, dies in a car crash. The threads of story that link Patrick’s troubled life to his mother’s and aunt’s arrival in America half a century ago will make up the plot of the novel, along with a vivid overview of the Boston Irish immigrant experience over the second half of the twentieth century.

There’s everything here you would expect: family secrets, an iron-willed Irish matriarch, a family bound and torn by loyalties and rivalries. There are a few things you wouldn’t expect, like fascinating glimpses into the life of a convent of cloistered nuns in the post-Vatican II era. It’s all carried along with great characterization — not only Nora and Theresa but each of Nora’s four grown children are well-rounded, engaging and fascinating characters. All together it makes for a very competent depiction of family, community, and how the choices you make when you’re young shape the person you end up becoming, sometimes in unexpected ways.

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Love for the Lost, by Catherine Fox

loveforthelostThe third and final book in Fox’s earlier “trilogy” of loosely connected novels introduces us to Isobel, who was a minor character in The Benefits of Passion. Isobel was a fellow student of Annie Brown’s in that book, also studying for the ministry, and often mocked by Annie for her straitlaced, humourless approach to life. In Love for the Lost we are immersed in Isobel’s world as she serves in her first pastoral role, where she is the curate under a gentle, kindly and tolerant priest named Harry. Isobel is, indeed, strait-laced and overly sincere, though we learn a good deal in this story about her early life and what made her the person she is. A person who genuinely tries to be good and thinks she’s doing a pretty good job of it is a difficult character to write sympathetically, but Fox manages to make us feel for Isobel even as the reader sometimes wants to wring her neck.

Isobel believes it’s better to ignore emotional pain and get on with the job, and of course that policy of dealing with problems is always going to bite back at you in the end — most likely in real life, but definitely in fiction. When Isobel falls in love with one entirely unsuitable man and then sleeps with another (who might actually be suitable except for the fact that she doesn’t love him), her carefully constructed world falls apart. Meanwhile, the reader gradually becomes aware of what Isobel is completely oblivious to: a third man, waiting patiently in the wings, who may truly be able to offer her the kind of companionship and acceptance she can only dream of.

Once again, characters from the earlier two novels reappear here, some peripherally and at least one very central to the story. We find out what has become of Mara, John, Annie and Will, but we don’t find out, entirely, what becomes of Isobel. Catherine Fox shows again her fondness for the open-ended ending, leaving Isobel in a place where it’s possible for the reader to hope for a bright future for her, but also leaving many things unresolved, including the romance plot. In fact, if you had read this novel when it first came out, you would have had to wait nearly 20 years for a passing reference in one of the Lindchester novels to find out where the romance plot of Isobel’s storyline was heading. When I finished Love for the Lost I had to go back and skim through the middle Lindchester novel to see if my vague half-memory of some of those passing references was correct (obviously I didn’t pay much attention to them the first time, because not having read the original series I didn’t know the characters to which they were referring).

Now that I’ve read all six of these novels by Catherine Fox I am eager for her to write more (though apparently she’s going to back to writing YA sci-fi for the moment, which, while I’m sure she’s good at it, is not exactly what I’m in the mood to read). It was odd reading her work “in reverse,” as it were, because you can definitely see that she grew and matured as a writer in between the two trilogies. She remains a master at creating believable, real characters, and incorporating their spiritual struggles into stories just as naturally as sexual desire, career choices, and all the other things that characters deal with in the course of a story. I can’t think of anyone who writes better and more naturally about faith and spirituality in the context of the modern novel.

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The Benefits of Passion, by Catherine Fox

benefitsThe Benefits of Passion is the follow-up novel to Fox’s Angels and Men, which I reviewed in my last post. After spending 300 or so pages with the prickly, discontented main character Mara in the previous novel, The Benefits of Passion offers the reader a much lighter mood and a much funnier main character. Annie Brown is a young woman studying for the Anglican priesthood while also, on the side, pursuing a career as a writer (sections of the novel Annie is writing are interspersed here with her own story). Annie is a thirty-one-year-old, single, former teacher, a witty observer of the foibles of others, especially her fellow students. Though she feels she had a genuine call to the ministry, she is now wrestling not only with her vocation but with her faith in God. She’s also wrestling with her own sexual desires, which she personifies as a large, unruly dog called Libby (after a former student’s mispronunciation of “libido” as “Libby-do”). Libby must constantly be called to heel, especially after Annie meets an attractive but irascible young doctor who she finds abrasive and insulting yet somehow endlessly fascinating.

That’s the set-up for the classic romance novel, of course, but this being a Catherine Fox book, the story goes in some very un-romance-like directions, including into some very deep and thoughtful reflections on the nature of ministry and faith. This story takes place some ten years after Angels and Men and at first appears to have little to do with the earlier book except for being set at the same university. But as the novel progresses, Annie encounters both Johnny Whittaker and Mara Johns from the first book, and the reader gets updated on how their story turned out. There’ll be further updates in the last novel of the series, which I’m getting to … but this book focuses on Annie and her need to make a life for herself that is true to all aspects of who she is. It’s not an easily resolved struggle, and in Fox’s novels there are no simple answers. But there is a rewarding story about a character I found very easy to identify with.

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Angels and Men, by Catherine Fox

angels-and-menHaving loved Catherine Fox’s recent trilogy of Lindchester novels to a ridiculous degree, I decided to travel back in time to read her three earlier novels, written in the late 90s. These three books form not exactly a trilogy, but they are linked, with recurring characters carrying over from one book to another. 

The first novel, Angels and Men, tells the story of Mara Johns, a graduate student who is trying to pick up the threads of her “normal” life after both she and her sister got involved with a cult-like religious sect, with tragic results. While Mara is obviously scarred by what happened to her sister, I often felt like the impact of the tragedy, particularly the family’s reaction to it, was not as fully explored or developed as it needed to be. Much more time was spend on Mara’s inner turmoil and her relationships with three young men: Rupert Anderson, Johnny Whittaker, and Andrew Jacks. Andrew, who is her neighbour in college residence, goes from being the thorn in her side to being, at least some of the time, a true friend. He’s also not a contender for her romantic affections, but both Rupert and Johnny, who are both studying for Anglican ministry, are. Mara is, to some degree, attracted to both of them, though far more deeply attracted to the charismatic Johnny, who is just as brilliant and just as tormented as she is.

Overall, I found this to be an intriguing novel, though unsatisfying in many ways — appropriately, I think, for a first novel by someone whose later work I already know is going to turn out to be brilliant. As I said, there are threads undeveloped here that I thought deserved more attention, and there were other things that troubled me — acts of violence within all of Mara’s relationships with the men in the novel that seemed to be just taken for granted as the sort of thing people with a passionate, intense nature are likely to do, but which seemed seriously unhealthy to me (and weren’t dealt with seriously enough to account for that, if you see what I mean). Mara herself is an often unlikeable and difficult character, but I liked that — I like to be inside the head of young female characters who are angry and intractable and don’t fit well into romance-style plots.

The book ends on a very open-ended cliffhanger, but we’ll be meeting some of these characters again in later books, so the lack of resolution wasn’t, in the long run, a big problem for me.

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The Music Shop, by Rachel Joyce

themusicshopRachel Joyce’s novels The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and companion volume The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessey are two of my favourite books of all time: stories of  unrequited love, missed opportunities, and stubborn hope that still haunt me years after first reading them. Any other book by Joyce has a lot to live up to (I enjoyed her novel Perfect, which I read in between the other two, but it hasn’t lingered with me the Harold’s and Queenie’s stories did).

I think The Music Shop will be more like Perfect in that while it was a compelling and quick read which I thoroughly enjoyed, it doesn’t haunt me and I don’t think I’ll reread it. It’s a very good novel, just not (for me) a life-changing one the way the other two were.

The main character in The Music Shop is Frank, a man out of step with the times, running a vinyl-only music shop on a neglected urban street just as everyone in the music business is switching to CDs. Frank is not only passionate about music; he’s passionate about vinyl, a passion that seems prescient now but seemed like economic suicide in the late 80s and early 90s. Music is not only Frank’s passion, it’s the main way in which he connects with the people around him. Then he meets a young woman named Ilse Brauchmann who asks him to teach her about music, and all the carefully constructed walls Frank has built around his life begin to crumble.

Sounds like a straightforward love story, but it’s definitely not, and the journey of Frank, Ilse, and Frank’s little music shop is a bittersweet one, though Joyce allows more hope — perhaps more sentimentality — into her ending than she did in either Harold’s or Queenie’s stories. There were aspects of the story, especially towards the end, that felt more like fairy tale than realism to me (this was also true of the Unlikely Pilgrimage, though, so it’s not out of keeping with Joyce’s work). The Music Shop is a beautifully sketched portrait of a man determined to hold onto a world that is slipping away — but also a reminder that sometimes, not unlike vinyl records, things can come back around when we least expect them to.

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His Majesty’s Dragon, by Naomi Novik

hismajestysdragonThis is the first book in a series that my husband read and really loved. I was more in the “liked it, didn’t love it” category. The premise is brilliant and definitely drew me in — historical fiction mixed with fantasy, in that it takes place during the Napoleonic  Wars, but dragons are a thing. So England and France, as well as fighting on sea and land, are also fighting in the air with the trained squadrons of dragons. The main character of the story, Lawrence, is a naval officer whose life takes an unexpected turn when a dragon’s egg hatches on the deck of the ship he’s commanding. Since dragons bond to the first human they encounter upon hatching, Lawrence’s life is now bound up with that of the dragon Temeraire, and he has to leave the Navy to take up a new life as a dragon-rider.

So far, so good. Brilliant premise, and there’s a lot of great work done here by Novik in blending the historical world of the Napoleonic Wars with the fantastical world of dragons. But in this first volume, which deals with Temeraire’s training and how Lawrence adapts to his new life, there’s just not enough high-stakes conflict to keep me on the edge of my seat. Every conflict that Lawrence and Temeraire encounter seems to be resolved a little bit too easily, as though this is a world where nothing can go too seriously wrong. And as a huge fan of Robin Hobb’s novels, in which dragons are an arrogant species who believe that they, and not humans, deserve to rule the world, it’s hard to accept that a species as intelligent and powerful as dragons would be unquestioningly content with their role serving humans and fighting in human wars, as they are here.

His Majesty’s Dragon is the first in a long series of novels, and I found the characters and the world interesting enough that I will probably revisit it and read some of the others since they’re on my iPad now from Jason reading them. But I hope the plots get more high-stakes and compelling, because I really want to believe things can go terribly wrong for these characters, so that I can feel I just have to read on.

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The Broken Earth trilogy, by N.K. Jemisin

brokenearthI’ve been hearing about this trilogy for awhile; it’s one of the hottest fantasy series of recent years. Actually I’m not sure whether to call it fantasy or science fiction, because it has elements of both. The series takes place in a far-distant future world where the surface of the planet has become unstable and human life is frequently disrupted and destroyed by catastrophic shiftings of the earth’s surface. When the earth moves, a “fifth season” of environmental devastation can last for years, bringing untold hardship.

In the world of these books, there are also people with unique abilities to sense and even control the movements of the earth. These people are known as orogenes, but their powers are feared as much as they are respected, and they are kept under tight control, raised to believe that they are dangerous and not-quite-human. The main character of the trilogy, Essun, is an orogene. As the first book opens, a Fifth Season is just beginning as Essun finds herself the victim of a horrific act of violence.

From there, things unfold forward and backwards as we learn Essun’s origin story (orogene story!) and see how she copes with the disaster that has struck her world. This is an incredibly detailed, thoroughly developed world with a complete system of magic/science, history, and the relationships among the different people groups within the world. It’s so detailed there were times I got overwhelmed and felt like I couldn’t entirely follow what was going on … this was especially true in the second book, where the story dragged for me a little bit as I got bogged down in the detail of trying to understand this intricate world Jemisin created. However, this is entirely my shortcoming as a reader, not hers as a writer — she’s brilliant.

In the end, the deeply flawed, angry, strong heroine Essun drew me on through the story even through bits I had to skim over because I wasn’t fully following the complex plotline. This is a series about what it means to be human, about environmental devastation, about how humans treat other humans and about whether we’re worth saving as a species. It wrestles with some big issues through deeply flawed and real characters, and every lover of fantasy or science fiction should check it out.

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