Category Archives: Fiction — general

Oliver Twist, by Charles Dickens

olivertwistI’ve always struggled with Dickens a bit. My first tries at reading him, when I was young, were not successful — I always got bogged down in his Victorian-I-got-paid-by-the-word verbiage. Later, I read and learned to appreciate a few Dickens novels, though I wouldn’t call him one of my favourite authors. But lately, because of a conversation about the musical Oliver, I got interested in re-reading Oliver Twist, mainly because of the prostitute-with-a-heart-of-gold character Nancy. I found it much more readable and enjoyable than I remembered, and was slightly mortified by how I was suckered in by the most blatant examples of sentimentality in the book. What didn’t delight me so much was the equally blatant anti-Semitism. I knew the character of the Jewish thief Fagin was considered an anti-Semitic stereotype, but I had forgotten how broad and offensive the caricature was and how Fagin was referred to as “the Jew” or “the old Jew” multiple times in every scene. Yes, Dickens was a man of his time and all that, but even for his time this is pretty egregious, and it definitely got in the way of my enjoyment of the book. That said, Nancy is still a fascinating character, and I haven’t stopped thinking about her. Maybe I’ll have to write a little Dickensian fan-fiction….

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Lost in September, by Kathleen Winter

lostinseptemberKathleen Winter’s Lost in September both is, and isn’t, a novel about General James Wolfe, the English commander who died in battle on the Plains of Abraham in 1759 after securing victory for England over the forces of New France, more or less ensuring that Canada would be an English-speaking country with a large and unhappy French minority for the next few centuries. It’s a novel about Wolfe, narrated through the eyes and voice of a young man in modern-day Montreal who may be … the ghost of James Wolfe? A time-travelling James Wolfe? A reincarnation of James Wolfe? A traumatized veteran of the Afghanistan war who just happens to be fascinated with and haunted by James Wolfe?

None of this is clear for much of the book, nor does it need to be. The multilayered memories of James Wolfe and Jimmy Blanchard weave in and out of one another on a surreal quest rooted in very real and vivid detail. It’s a quest that ranges from Montreal to Quebec City to the Gaspe Peninsula, a quest to understand the mind and motives of a long-dead man as well as to uncover the life and purpose of one who is still living.

This novel was weird, but I loved how it immersed me in its mystery and plunged me into the troubled mind of its narrator. The shambling, shamanic quest builds to a poignant conclusion with the reminder that whether in the eighteenth or twenty-first centuries, war is brutal and leaves men shattered in its wake. Some die “heroically” on the battlefield; some live on to try to rebuild their lives afterwards. This is a story of both kinds of men in one man, and it’s fascinating and eerie and beautiful.

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The Imperfectionists, by Tom Rachman

theimperfectionistsThe Imperfectionists is not so much a novel as a collection of linked short stories, bound together by the place where all the characters work: an American-owned English-language newspaper in Rome. Each chapter focuses on a different character’s personal story, spanning the decades from the founding of the paper in the 1950s up to the dying days of print newspapers in the new millennium. Some stories and characters were more compelling than others; the vividly-created world of the newspaper and those who worked there was well done, and overall it was an interesting read, especially as the reader catches glimpses of the characters we’ve previously read about, as minor characters in other people’s stories — that sort of multiple-perspective thing is always so interesting.

That said, I found this a pretty depressing book — I don’t require novels to be full of chirpy good spirits, but it is nice to finish a book feeling that there is some hope for the human condition, and The Imperfectionists was not that kind of book. Not only are all the characters engaged in what most of them recognize as a failing industry, but most of them are also pretty unpleasant people (with a few exceptions) , and there is not (that I can recall call) one happy, supportive or successful relationship in the whole crew. Marriages crumble, lovers betray, friends don’t really care for one another. People are awful. Beautifully depicted, with keen insight and wonderful use of language — but mostly still pretty awful.

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Young Jane Young, by Gabrielle Zevin

youngjaneyouthThis was the one contemporary novel I read in the midst of a sea of historical fiction while on my spring vacation. I found it vivid and really compelling — moreso than the previous book I’d read by the same author. The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry was good, but for me, Young Jane Young was a can’t-put-down kind of novel, and I burned through it less than a day (of course, I was on vacation).

It tells the story of Jane Young, who had another life and another identity before she adopted that bland name in a small New England town. She was once Aviva, a college-aged intern for a state politician who became embroiled in a Clinton/Lewinsky style sex scandal — and, just like Monica Lewinsky, she learned that the young female intern was the one who bore most of the public shaming and hate for the affair. It’s enough to make a girl cut all ties with her past, change her name and career, and move to a different part of the country to start over.

The story is told in several parts from the viewpoints of four women, all of them engaging characters — Jane/Aviva herself, her teenaged daughter Ruby, her mother Rachel, and the congressman’s cheated-on wife Embeth, each of whom gets to share her own perspective on the events and their aftermath. Finally, the story takes us back in time to when the affair actually happened, shifting not into first- but into second-person voice and telling twenty-year-old Aviva’s story as if it were a choose-your-own adventure novel (but in each case, you only get to read about the choices she actually makes — the one that leads to her life falling apart). I didn’t expect this part of the story to unfold in this style, but it was surprisingly effective and compelling.

This is a novel about making mistakes, surviving, and recreating yourself — and it also takes a hard look at the way we judge women and men differently in the wake of highly-publicized scandals like the fictional one in this novel.

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Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng

everythingineverThis novel starts with a tragedy — the disappearance of a teenaged girl, 16-year-old Lydia Lee. The suspense in the story does not derive from our wanting to find out Lydia’s fate — though the characters don’t know for awhile what has happened to her, the reader is told on page one that Lydia is dead. Rather, the mystery to be unravelled is not whether Lydia died or even, really how — though that’s a mystery too, for awhile. What drives the reader through this novel and keeps the pages turning is why Lydia died. The police quickly decide her death is a suicide, but is it? Lydia seems to have been a bright, capable, well-loved high achiever from a stable and happy family. What led her to a situation where she would either take her own life, or run away and put herself in jeopardy that might end in murder? As the story unfolds, we learn that almost every aspect of what people believe about Lydia is a lie — as is much of what appears to be true about her family. Everything I Never Told You is, just as the title suggests, about the things we don’t tell — even to the ones we love. Every member of the Lee family is guarding secrets; some of those secrets might have led to Lydia’s death. This is a novel about parents and children, about hopes and dreams, about prejudice and being an outsider. It’s about how the things we don’t tell can destroy us. It’s beautifully written and very compelling.

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The Conjoined, by Jen Sookfong Lee

conjoinedThe Conjoined has about the most perfect set-up for a page-turner that I’ve ever read. Jessica and her father are cleaning out her mother’s belongings after her mother’s death when two long-undisturbed deep freezers turn out to hold a body each. And it just so happens that 28 years ago, when Jessica was a child and her saintly mother Donna was hosting two of a long string of foster children … two girls who were in Donna’s care disappeared, presumed to have run away.

From this chilling beginning the story unfolds in several timelines. Jessica, who has always loved her mother and also felt a bit intimidated by Donna’s ostentatious goodness, has to rethink everything she thought she knew about her mother — which also leads to her rethinking a fair bit of her own life and her work as a social worker. We also see the backstory of the two foster girls, Casey and Jamie Cheng, and the troubled family situation that led them into foster care. 

This is a fascinating story written with great care and detail. I had two quibbles with it: first, I was very surprised when, midway through the book, I realized that the timeline of the story required Jessica to be in her late thirties. She seemed to me to be portrayed far more like someone in her late twenties — her attitudes towards her parents, her boyfriend, her work, her own life, seem much more believable if she’s 28 than 38. Also, I had some issues with the ending. I understand what Lee was doing with it and probably why, but it left too much unresolved for me. However, not every reader will share my preference for a more resolved ending, and if you are not reading this book mainly for the “whodunit” aspect but for the delicately observed character development, I don’t think you will find it jarring.

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The End of Music, by Jamie Fitzpatrick

Layout 1Jamie Fitzpatrick’s latest book has been on my to-read list for awhile, since we share a publisher and our books were both part of Breakwater’s fall 2017 list, so we even shared a launch event. So it was a pleasure to finally be able to sit down with this fine novel, in which two parallel stories unfold decades apart.

One is the story of Joyce, a young outport girl who comes to Gander, Newfoundland in the 1950s, drawn by the thriving little airport town’s promise of jobs. For a brief time in the mid-20th century, this small central Newfoundland town become a hub of transatlantic air travel, and people like Joyce forged new lives there far from the fishing-centred villages they had come from. As Joyce tries to forge a life and an identity for herself, she comes in contact with a shifting array of characters from around the world who pass through the airport town.

Interspersed with Joyce’s story is the story of Joyce’s son Herb Carter, whose tale unfolds decades later when his mother is an elderly woman in a nursing home and Carter (who’s generally referred to by his surname in the novel) is a middle-aged graduate student with a wife and son, thinking back to his brief stint as a minor rock star. His old bandmate and lover, Leah, is dying, and Carter gets drawn into a project to try to revive and re-release some of their old music, which inevitably pulls him into re-examining some aspects of his own past. Music is a common theme between his story and his mother’s, as Joyce used to sing for a dance band in her early days in Gander. Both characters are well-developed and interesting, and the glimpses of Gander’s history, so different from what we normally think of as “Newfoundland history,” are really fascinating.

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