Category Archives: Fiction — general

The Bookshop, by Penelope Fitzgerald

thebookshopI picked this book up on a whim; it was one of several available at a good sale price from the place I usually buy e-books, and knowing nothing more about it than that it was titled The Bookshop, I followed my usual rule of thumb — if the title references a bookshop or a library, I’ll read it — and bought it for something like $1.99.

Even after reading the blurb, I was surprised by this book. For one thing, I thought it was a recent release. It’s not: it’s a 1978 novel that’s recently been made into a movie (hence the movie tie-in cover pictured here). I thought it would be a fairly light piece of fluff: it was, in fact, short-listed for the Booker Prize. And while it is, ostensibly, about a bookshop, it’s really about other things (well, that part it has in common with most ostensibly bookshop-related books).

It’s 1959, and in the small English town of Hardborough, middle-aged widow Florence Green opens a bookshop, despite the lack of interest of most of her neighbours and the open hostility of the local society matron, who wants Florence’s bookshop property for the arts centre she dreams of opening. Aided only by a fiercely opinionated ten-year-old assistant, Florence perseveres against the mounting odds.

In the sort of book I was expecting when I picked it up, Florence’s bookshop would eventually prevail and the matron would get her come-uppance. The ten-year-old girl from the impoverished family would be inspired by her association with the bookstore to reach for bigger and better things in life. And one of the unlikely, crusty old bachelors in town would prove an unexpected love interest for Florence. (One feels this would be especially likely to be the case when one learns that the movie adaptation stars Bill Nighy).

But none of these things happen. Instead, The Bookshop is an intensely detailed, witty but also dark, exploration of a small town and its highly class-bound, prejudiced, provincial society. The book is not particularly plot-driven, but what plot there is does not tend towards wish-fulfillment. Rather, the fate of Florence’s bookstore is harshly realistic, and many questions are left unanswered at the end of the novel. There is no heartwarming ending or midlife romance. Instead, there’s just life, as awkward and inconvenient and unsatisfying as it often is. It’s observed here with humour, with generosity, but entirely without sentimentality.

Also, there’s a poltergeist. I almost forgot about that.

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Split Tooth, by Tanya Tagaq

splittoothI picked up Split Tooth because it was long-listed for the Giller Prize and I’ve been (as you probably know if you follow this blog at all) trying to diversify my reading list, so I was looking specifically for books by indigenous writers. I glanced at a copy in the bookstore and added it to my library hold list without knowing too much about what Split Tooth was actually about.

As it turns out, it’s a hard book to classify. If you follow this blog AND pay any attention to the category tags, you’ll see that I’ve categorized this book as General Fiction, Fantasy, and Memoir. Much of the early part of the book feels like memoir, though of course I don’t know how closely it tracks with the author’s real-life experience since it’s not marketed as memoir. It’s a vivid, first-person story about a young girl growing up in the high Arctic, interspersed with poetry. Partway through the book, the narrative pieces begin including elements of mythology/magical realism, and by the end it becomes clear the narrative has veered very far from realistic fiction (or memoir) into the realm of the mysterious, strange and mythical. It’s very unusual but also very beautiful.

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Clock Dance, by Anne Tyler

clockdanceAnne Tyler is always a reliable go-to author if you want the human experience rendered in loving and insightful details. Clock Dance tells the story of Willa, who is eleven years old in the late 1960s when the story opens, and in her sixties in the present day when the book ends.

The structure of the story is unusual — the first sixty-some years of Willa’s life, and the first part of the book, focuses only on three vignettes. The first is a day when Willa is eleven and her mother disappears, leaving Willa, her father and younger sister, adrift. In the second scene, Willa is a young college student, coming home for a visit with her soon-to-be fiance. In the third, forty-year-old Willa suffers th sudden and tragic death of her husband.

The second part of the book leaps forward to the present day and changes the pace as Willa, now remarried and retired, finds herself plunged unexpectedly into the lives of her son’s ex-girlfriend and that woman’s daughter. Now the pace slows to the day-by-day as we see how Willa rises to the occasion in this crisis and finds herself questioning a lot of things about her life, re-examining how she wants to spend her “sunset years.”

There are flaws in this structure — a lot of interesting things, particularly about Willa’s mother, are brought up in the first part that never have time to get fully developed because we leap over so many years between vignettes. The point of each of the early scenes seems to be to show Willa’s passivity, how she simply lets life happen to her without seizing control of situations because she doesn’t want to upset anyone. The situation that unfolds in the second part is, similarly, one she gets into because of her desire to please people, but the book’s resolution finds Willa questioning that desire and wondering whether she can make a decision to please herself for once in her life.

Willa’s early life occurs in different parts of the US but the final section takes place, as you would expect from an Anne Tyler novel, in Baltimore. The lower-income Baltimore neighbourhood where Willa finds herself helping out her not-daughter-in-law Denise is perhaps a bit too idealized, with a colourful cast of characters who are maybe a bit unrealistically involved in each other’s lives (and including, as another review I read pointed out, a few details that are maybe a bit tone-deaf for a novel set in 2017 — cultural details, especially for the child and teenaged characters, that are just a little off). But the point is that Denise’s neighbourhood is a community, and that’s something Willa has never really had before, and realizes she craves. With all its quirks that was a very readable novel that I enjoyed and finished quickly.

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Fly Away Home, by Jennifer Weiner

flyawayhomeIf you read my last review, you’ll note that I said I needed some recovery time after The Great Believers. Something a little less intense. To my great relief, I remembered I had a Jennifer Weiner novel on my e-reader, and, well, you can count on Jennifer Weiner to lighten the mood.

I’m not sure why. I mean, it’s not like bad stuff doesn’t happen to characters in her novels. In Fly Away Home, a popular politician cheats on his wife, and when the story breaks, the long-suffering, supportive wife Sylvie is left to pick up the pieces. Her two grown daughters, Diana and Lizzie, aren’t doing so great either — Lizzie’s just out of rehab, while high-achiever Diana is questioning everything about the life she’s constructed for herself.

Tragedies happen, but Weiner’s characters, as in all her novels, are smart, funny, and relentlessly resilient. (And also, none of the tragedies are on the “everyone in your friend group died of AIDS” level, so it’s definitely going to be lighter than The Great Believers). You know Jennifer Weiner’s going to take good care of her characters, and that they’ll be more or less OK in the end.

And they are.

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The Great Believers, by Rebecca Makkai

greatbelieversThis novel tells two stories in alternating chapters. The first story, set in the 1980s, is told from the point of view of Yale, a young gay man in Chicago just as AIDS is becoming a crisis. Yale and his boyfriend Charlie suffer the loss of several friends, beginning with Nico, whose younger sister Fiona becomes a substitute sister and caregiver for several of her late brother’s friends. Yale himself doesn’t worry too much about contracting AIDS: he’s already tested negative and he and Charlie have been monogamous for a long time. But as the virus cuts a swathe through his circle of friends, Yale finds himself questioning everything he thought he could rely on.

The other half of the story is Fiona’s story, thirty years later. She’s in her early fifties, divorced, and the mother of a grown daughter from whom she’s become estranged. On the slight chance of a hint that suggests her daughter might be in Paris, Fiona flies to that city, stays with an old friend, and hires a private detective to search for her daughter. As her present-day story unfolds alongside Yale’s story of the past, we discover the sources of the scars Fiona is carrying, as well as the fates of all the characters from Yale’s story.

Part of the 1980s story involves Yale’s job — he works in development and fundraising at a university art gallery, which has received an exciting but complicated bequest from a woman who lived in Paris and knew several famous artists before and after the First World War. The Lost Generation of Paris in the 20s is paralleled with the lost generation of young gay men in the 1980s, as the story explores how such widespread trauma leaves survivors haunted by the faces of those they’ll never see again.

This is a big, sprawling, beautiful, heartbreaking novel. I read it quickly, found myself very immersed in both stories, and needed a little recovery time afterwards.

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An Absolutely Remarkable Thing, by Hank Green

remarkableYou all know I’m a big fan of YA author John Green, so when his younger brother Hank, better known till now as a YouTube science educator and singer of mostly-novelty songs, wrote a book, I was naturally interested to read it as well. An Absolutely Remarkable Thing is quite unlike one of John Green’s books — for one thing, it’s adult, not YA, although I guess if you have an overwhelming urge to cut the literary market up into smaller and smaller segments you could call in New Adult as the main characters are all in their early 20s. Also, it’s probably best classed as sci-fi, although it takes place in a very real and present-day America not in a galaxy far, far away. Hank’s book is not like one of John’s books: it is its own absolutely remarkable thing.

The novel’s first-person narrator, art-school graduate and graphic designer April May, starts out being just a little too cute and quirky for comfort (I mean, she is named April May) but quickly develops from the “quirky artsy girl” stereotype into something much more complex and multilayered. The action of the novel gets going almost immediately when April discovers what she thinks is an enormous piece of street art — a statue of a robot in the middle of a New York sidewalk — and calls her YouTuber friend Andy to come make a video about it in the middle of the night. When April wakes up the next morning to discover that dozens of identical statues have appeared in cities all over the globe and her video has gone viral.

As the mystery of the “Carls” (April called the original statue Carl in her video and the name catches on) grows more complex, so does April’s online fame and her increasingly strained relationship with her public self. This book does a lot of things well, including one thing Hank Green is extremely well-qualified to do: examine the pressures and expectations that are brought to bear on a human being who suddenly becomes larger than life. Sudden fame turns April from a woman into a brand, a symbol, and, eventually, a target for people driven by hate and fear. But April herself is far from a flawless innocent — she is impulsive, shows terrible judgement at times, and finds herself doing frankly cruel things in pursuit of what she increasingly comes to see as a cause.

A meditation on fame in the internet age, an exploration of how humanity might react as a group if faced with something outside our collective experience, a coming of age story, a parable about polarization in today’s political climate — An Absolutely Remarkable Thing is all those things, but mostly it’s a strong, fast-paced story that left me hurrying to finish it and eager for the sequel. The story doesn’t end on a cliffhanger exactly — many threads are resolved, but enough are left open to invite the reader into the next chapter of April’s (and, I guess, Carl’s) story.

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Ayesha at Last, by Uzma Jalaluddin & Pride, by Ibi Zoboi

ayesha pride

I’m reviewing these two books together because I read them in the space of a couple of weeks and they have a lot in common. Both are loosely-inspired modern retellings of Pride and Prejudice, written by women of colour and set in communities that we don’t normally think of as “Austenesque.” But both retellings work really well, for reasons that are rooted in the communities in which they are set.

Ayesha tells the story of Ayesha Shamsi, a hijab-wearing Muslim girl from an Indian-Canadian family in Toronto. Ayesha, the Elizabeth Bennet of this story, dreams of being a poet and performs at open-mic poetry slams, but has laid aside dreams of writing as a full-time career in favour of a substitute teaching job she doesn’t think she’s well suited for. She’s skeptical about the idea of arranged marriage, though her pretty younger cousin, Hafsa, from the wealthier branch of the family, is excited about the many offers of marriage she’s receiving and generously offers Ayesha the chance to interview some of her rejects. When Ayesha meets bearded, robe-clad IT guy Khalid, she’s immediately put off by his fundamentalist attire and superior attitude. Khalid believes in arranged marriage as devoutly as he believes in his Muslim faith, and trusts his domineering mother to find the right girl for him. This being a P&P remix, we know from the beginning that Ayesha and Khalid are each going to find out there’s more to the other than appears on the surface, but as always, the fun is in how they get there. Along the way we get a picture not only of some very engaging and lovable characters but a vivid and believable immigrant community.

Pride is set in Bushwick, Brooklyn, with a heroine who, oddly enough, is also a spoken-word poet who performs at open-mic events (interesting that two very different writers would imagine a 21st century Lizzie Bennet as a slam poet). Zuri Benitez is entering her last year of high school (the few years’ age difference between Ayesha and Zuri is literally the only reason I can see why one book is marketed for adults and the other for teens, and the similarities between the two books really point up some of the silliness in the bookshelf division between adult and YA — I can’t imagine a reader who would relate to one of these books and not the other, at least not because of age).

Zuri loves her big, noisy Haitian-Dominican family and their diverse low-income neighbourhood, but she worries about how that neighbourhood is changing under the influence of gentrification, especially when a formerly abandoned building across the street is turned into a mini-mansion by a wealthy black family. When the new family moves in, their two sons, friendly Ainsley and stuck-up Darius, don’t fit in well at all with the neighbourhood teens. But they quickly attract the interest of Zuri and her sweet older sister Janae and … well, with some more twists and turns, you know the rest of the story.

The pleasure with a story that retells a familiar tale is in the route the author takes to the expected destination, and in the ways in which she brings in elements from the original story as well as what she adds that’s new. (A fun game to play with any modern P&P retelling is “spot which one of these dudes is going to turn out to be George Wickham”). My favourite modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice is always going to be the Lizzie Bennett Diaries from 2013, because I loved the actors and enjoyed what the use of vlogging and other social media added to the story. But one thing that video series demonstrated is that there were elements of the original story that don’t translate well to the lives of “average” white, middle-class North American women in the 21st century.

The Bennet family’s obsession with marrying off their daughters — the twin assumptions that young women need husbands, and that finding husbands is an affair that involves the whole family — feel out of place in many parts of modern North American society, but they fit in perfectly with an immigrant South Asian community like the one Uzma Jalaluddin writes about. Here, young people debate the wisdom of arranged marriages versus love matches, but everyone accepts that marriage is not only a worthy goal but an affair that will involve two extended families and a whole community. Class differences are also vital to Austen’s original story, and that also doesn’t translate well in every modern retelling — even if Darcy has more money than a modern-day Elizabeth, that doesn’t necessarily convey the same feeling of difference as it did in early 19th century England. But in Ibi Zoboi’s vividly realized Brooklyn neighbourhood, class matters, because class and money are threatening to irrevocably change the community. The gap between Zuri’s working-class immigrant clan and Darius’s “bougie” family is about more than just social awkwardness, and a character as keenly aware of those important differences as Zuri is brings that class division into sharp focus.

If there’s a flaw with both these novels, it’s a shared one as well: although both stories was lively and the characters engaging, I found the writing in both books a little too “explainy” for me — I like it better when authors leave more to the reader to conclude rather than spelling out for us what a character is feeling in a given moment. But although this irritated me mildly for about the first quarter of each book, I quickly got drawn in because the characters were so easy to care about. As well as glimpses into richly detailed and developed cultural worlds (with great descriptions of food as a bonus — I actually had to go out and get Indian food while reading Ayesha), these writers give us two great heroines — truly diverse Lizzie Bennets for the 21st century.

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