Category Archives: Fiction — general

Acts and Omissions, by Catherine Fox

actsandomissionsNow we go straight from my review of a book by a favourite author that I’d been eagerly anticipating and absolutely loved, to a book by an author I’d never heard of, only picked up because it was being discussed in an online book club and looked sort of interesting … which I also absolutely loved. Going straight from Robin Hobb’s Fool’s Quest to Catherine Fox’s Acts and Omissions was like going from a wonderful vacation in a beautiful spot to another vacation in a completely different spot — like going from the beach to the mountains, or vice versa. The only shared elements were that I read both books ravenously and far too quickly, and all I wanted in either case when I was done was an unobtainable sequel (unobtainable in Hobb’s case because it’s not been written yet and in Fox’s because although it’s written and published I can’t get hold of it in my country yet!).

But enough of my reading adventures: what about the actual book?

Catherine Fox is attempting, pretty transparently I think, to do for the twenty-first century Church of England what Anthony Trollope did in the nineteenth-century with his Barchester novels: use the Church and its clergy as the setting for a series of novels featuring a wide variety of characters living through ordinary and earth-shattering moments. I both laughed aloud and cried genuine tears while reading Acts and Omissions, which is set in and around the fictional Lindchester Cathedral and explores the lives of a large group of characters over the course of a calendar (and church) year.

Right off the top, one thing I know some readers won’t like about this book is the narrative voice. Acts and Omissions features not only an omniscient narrator, but a very intrusive one who addresses the reader directly and comments on the actions of the characters — who, in other words, tells as well as shows in the way that was quite acceptable for novelists of Trollope’s era but that fell out of favour in the twentieth century (though now that we’re all postmodern and meta, the voice of the intrusive narrator is having its day again). Dickens, Trollope, Austin, all the nineteenth century novelists used this voice, and some readers of today will find it jarring (or will not mind the device but will find the slightly snarky voice of this particular narrator annoying; I don’t, but I understand why some people do). I’m reminded most of Thackery and the closing lines of Vanity Fair: “Come, children, let us shut up the box and the puppets, for our play is played out.” Fox, like those nineteenth-century novelists, never lets us forget that we are reading a novel about fictional characters — yet somehow the characters come to life of their own accord and leap off the page as real people who can make us laugh and cry (see my note above about laughing and crying).

There are several levels on which to enjoy this book, which I’ll categorize as the Anglican Level, the Christian Level, and the General Human Being Level. There’s obviously a lot of rich material here for Anglicans, especially those familiar with church hierarchies and politics, and despite the narrator’s best attempts to make some of this clear to the rest of us, a lot of this will just sail over the heads of readers like me who are not members of the Anglican church. This is OK; I don’t mind inside jokes and references, since that’s part of why I read — to catch glimpses into other worlds and other subcultures. So when the narrator assures us, before introducing the wonderful character of the Archdeacon Matt, that we will of course have certain preconceptions in our head as soon as she says “the Archdeacon” — well, no, of course I don’t; I haven’t got the faintest clue what an Archdeacon is or does, and thus have no idea of the stereotypes about Archdeacons. But I’m OK with that.

I read this book accepting the hardcore Church of England business as I would accept a lot of the details in a novel set among cannibal tribes on a remote Pacific island — I don’t understand it, but it’s interesting to read about. Where the novel touched me most deeply was on what I’ll call the Christian level — because apart from the machinations of a particular church culture, this is a novel about hope, faith and redemption; about the ways we try to be better people and often tragically fail; about how our religious faith can both help us along that path and sometimes, for some of us, be the stumbling block that makes us fall. 

The novel has, as I’ve said, a huge cast of characters and the narrator dips in and out of their lives, but the central conflict of the story focuses mainly on Paul Henderson, the Bishop of Lindchester, his wife Susanna, and a troubled young man named Freddie May who they’ve taken to live in their home for a few months. The personal struggles of these characters and a host of others are set against the bigger-world backdrop of the Church of England’s struggle with the issue of same-sex marriage, significant to this story because Paul is a fairly conservative bishop who opposes same-sex marriage but has, of course, gay clergy and gay parishioners in his care, as well as a large number of more liberal colleagues who completely disagree with his stance. The political becomes very personal by the end of the novel, not just for Bishop Paul but for many others.

This is not a “Christian novel” in the sense that you’d expect to find it on the shelves of a Christian bookstore where you can be guaranteed no swear words, no sex, and a Jesus-driven resolution to every conflict by the last page. But it is a deeply  Christian novel in the sense that it is about real people struggling with the real issues of living a life of faith (or avoiding doing so, as not every character in the book is a professed Christian). While I think this is a human enough and interesting enough story to be enjoyed on the General Human Being Level by readers who are not particularly interested in questions of faith, I feel like it’s written primarily for people who do see the big (and little) struggles of human life playing out on the bigger canvas that contains God, hope, redemption, sin and salvation. While this book may not be everyone’s cup of tea it was absolutely mine: I fell in love with almost every character (even the unlikable ones) and cannot wait to spend more time in Lindchester. If only I can get my hands on that sequel!

 

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In the Unlikely Event, by Judy Blume

unlikelyeventIt may be hard to believe that three unrelated plane crashes could hit residential areas in the same town over a period of a few months, but that’s exactly what happened in New Jersey when Judy Blume was growing up, and she fictionalizes that incredibly real-life coincidence as the backdrop for her novel In the Unlikely Event. Though this is billed as one of Blume’s novels for adults, the main character throughout the novel is teenaged Miri Ammerman. Miri, along with the other teenagers in the novel, lives through the three crashes and the fear and uncertainty that descends on the community in the wake of the tragedies. For Miri and her friends the crashes are just one more puzzles piece to fit into the complex jigsaw of growing up, falling in love, coping with family and changing friendships. Perhaps this is marketed as an adult rather than a young-adult novel because we get a few point of view chapters from the perspective of adult characters, and in a framing story the adult Miri goes back to her hometown for a reunion and meets many of the people she knew as a teenager. But essentially, this is a standard coming of age story with the unusual twist of a series of improbable but unrelated disasters in the background.

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The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde

Arkham cover D finalThis is one of those classics that I’ve always intended to read and never gotten around to. And I sort of do love Oscar Wilde, so it seems strange that I’d never read his one novel.

Everyone knows the basic premise, maybe because it’s one of the most fascinating premises in all of literature (an agent would call this “high concept” if ol’ Oscar were trying to sell it today!). In fact, I made a Dorian Gray joke just this morning on Twitter about a friend who seems to be perpetually youthful and energetic even as he gets older. So there’s a painting of Dorian Gray, made when he’s young, handsome, and innocent, and as he becomes older and evil and corrupt (but not very old; he’s only 38 at the end of the book!), he never ages or changes, but the portrait changes to reflect the corruption of his soul. It really is a wonderfully weird book, engaging and thought-provoking and chilling all at once.

Also, I had huge fun on my Facebook page announcing that I was going to read that controversial book about the wicked Mr. Gray by the scandalous British author. I can’t believe how many of my Facebook friends actually thought I was going to read Fifty Shades of Grey. Really, people? Really???

Give me Oscar Wilde any day.

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Geek God, by Victoria Barbour

geekgodI always preface reviews of genres I don’t read much by confessing my lack of expertise; I read so few romances, for example, that I never feel I’m really well-qualified to judge or recommend them because ever genre has its own conventions and you need to be familiar with those. Generally, I only pick up a romance if it’s written by a friend of mine or, as in the case of Victoria Barbour, a writer I’m about to meet because we’re doing a reading together. (Well, now we’ve done a reading together. When I read her book, the reading was still in the future).

Victoria is one of a small but growing coterie of romance writers from my home province, Newfoundland, and local readers will enjoy the Newfoundland settings the form the backdrop of her stories. Geek God is the first of a trilogy of novellas (the series continues with Geek Groom and Geek Dad, which I haven’t read yet) about university prof Jillian and hot gamer geek Evan, who are both sort of adorable (and adorably geeky in different ways). This is a light and fun romance where it’s easy to root for both characters as you genuinely want to see them end up together. It’s also a fairly sweet and relatively non-explicit novel; she does have steamier ones as well, which I haven’t yet read! But I’ll definitely check out the next two novellas in this series to see how Evan and Jillian’s journey continues.

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Where There is Life, by Charlene Carr

wherethereislifeWhere There is Life begins in a moment of shattering loss. Newlywed Autumn, just arrived in London for a honeymoon with her new husband Matt, wakes in a hospital room alone. Instead of living her dream come true, Autumn has lost the man she loves and can’t imagine how to move forward from this moment. She returns home to a concerned family and well-meaning friends, but finds herself unable to pick up the threads of the life she lived before Matt. Her grief drives her away from home again, hoping that travel will provide her with a way to forget.

Autumn’s home is in St. John’s, Newfoundland, and the story moves from there back and forth to Italy and England as Autumn searches for a place where she can start a new life free from the searing pain of loss. The novel is a realistic portrayal of a young woman struggling with grief, and Autumn’s anguish will ring true to many readers. This is the second book in a series but can be read as a stand-alone novel, since minor characters from one book become main characters in another. Charlene Carr delivers a compelling story with a believable heroine, and readers will be rooting for Autumn as she tries to put the pieces of her life back together.

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The Rancher’s City Girl, by Patricia Johns

rancherscitygirlI’ve said before and I’ll say again: I’m not a great reviewer for romance because I don’t read enough of them to be a good judge — however Patricia Johns is a friend of mine and I always make a point of picking up her latest Love Inspired titles even if romance is not my usual genre. Titles in Harlequin’s Love Inspired line are not only sweet and wholesome without any graphic sex, but also highlight the spiritual journeys of their Christian characters along with their romantic journeys (I have now officially used the word “journey” TOO MUCH). In Johns’s latest romance, Eloise is a nurse providing home care to a cranky old man who has only recently discovered he has a long-lost son from an affair he had years ago — and he’s not too pleased about this blast from his past showing up now. The long-lost son just happens to be handsome rancher Cory, who, not surprisingly, is attracted to his father’s pretty and kindhearted nurse. But Cory and Eloise are both recovering from broken relationships — in her case, a husband who walked out on her; in his case a fiancee who dumped him. The ostensible conflict is whether city girl Eloise can ever learn to love Cory’s rancher life, but the real struggle here is whether two people who have been hurt badly can trust enough to love again. Cory’s relationship with the father he never knew is another element of the plot that’s skilfully drawn without providing any too-easy resolution. If you like inspirational romances you will have to go a long way to find a writer who handles this genre better than Patricia Johns does.

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Belzhar, by Meg Wolitzer

belzharThis was another young adult novel I picked up recently, in this case by a writer whose adult fiction I had already read. It was interesting to compare Meg Wolitzer’s portrayal of adolescent experience in The Interestings, which starts out with a group of gifted teens at a summer camp, and here in Belzhar, which is set among a group of gifted but emotionally damaged teens at a boarding school. Apart from the fact that The Interestings follows the characters into midlife, its portrayal of the characters and their experience is also subtler and more nuanced, and I don’t think it’s necessary that the emotional landscape of a teen novel has to be flatter or more black-and-white than that of a novel for adults.

That said, there was a lot to like about Belzhar, as the main character, Jam, tries to cope with the grief from a shocking loss that has thrown her into a deep depression. The boarding-school setting is a little contrived (actually, by the end of the book I’d decided it was more contrived than I thought it was, based on the ending, but I’ll get to that later). The school is designed for students who are gifted but “fragile,” and the friends the main character meets at school have suffered a wide range of traumas — but apparently the school does not allow students to be on any medication, nor does any form of psychological counselling or any other sort of therapy seem to be offered. The suggestion seems to be that simply by isolating a bunch of traumatized teens from their families and friends and educating them together in a remote rural setting, they’ll get better without any more specific interventions.

This seems unlikely, as does the school’s ban on cellphones and internet access (question: how would any modern high-school student complete homework without internet?) — but, like the blizzard that keeps Jam from getting home over Thanksgiving break, it’s an obvious contrivance — to make the world of the boarding school a closed system, in which inconvenient relationships and information from the outside world can’t break in to trouble the plot. A kind of bell jar, in fact — the students read Sylvia Plath, and the title is a reference both to her book and to the sealed-off world they find themselves entering (a concept I’ll get to in a moment) — but it also relates to the school itself.

Once you accept these contrivances, the story is pretty good, and kept me engaged. The main conceit of the plot is that a group of students gets hold of something that allows them a kind of limited time-travel — back to the times and people in their lives that triggered their traumatic experiences. Everyone has the opportunity to revisit those experiences, enabling them, ideally, to find the kind of closure that was denied them in real life, and then move forward with their lives. It’s an intriguing concept, though you can see how it would work better with some traumas than others. For someone grieving the loss of a loved one, as Jam is throughout the novel, it’s easy to see how a chance to say goodbye and accept the loss might help. But what about the girl who endlessly relives the day she let her younger brother get off the bus a few stops before home so he could go to a store, only to lose him forever when he’s kidnapped between the bus stop and home? What kind of re-living could ever help a person reconcile themselves to a moment like that? All the time-travel device could do would make you search endlessly for things you could have done differently — and, in fact, this is pretty much what happens.

Despite my doubts about it, I read this book quickly and found it engaging. The ending has a big twist that did a good job of surprising me — but the more I thought about it, the more the twist ending made me reconsider what I thought of the rest of the book.

If this is enough to intrigue you and you think you might read this book sometime, STOP HERE. I’m going to discuss the ending, so SPOILERS BELOW!!!

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