Category Archives: Fiction — general

Another Brooklyn, by Jacqueline Woodson

anotherbrooklynThis is a short and lovely book about four young African-American girls growing up in Brooklyn in the 1970s. I wasn’t surprised to learn that Woodson is best known for a verse memoir (Brown Girl Dreaming) because, although Another Brooklyn is written in prose, it’s very poetic prose. The writing has not only the beautiful and thoughtful word choices, but also the terse and spare structure of poetry. There’s a lot less exposition here than in a traditional novel: it’s almost as if we are being given glimpses or vignettes into the life of main character August, her three closest girlfriends, and her family, but it’s up to the reader to imagine the connective tissue that links those scenes together.

August’s father brings her and her brother to Brooklyn from Tennessee as children, in the wake of a family tragedy that leaves them motherless. The story is bracketed by loss: as the novel opens, present-day August meets with her remaining family after her father’s death, and memory takes her back to the childhood loss of her mother. Along the way, there are other losses. The loss of innocence as children turn into teenagers and young girls become aware of predatory men all around them. The loss of hope in neighbourhoods left blasted by “white flight” and blighted by drugs and poverty. The loss of friendships that were supposed to be lifelong. All this loss makes Another Brooklyn at times a difficult book to read, but it’s a beautifully written and haunting one.

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Turtles All the Way Down, by John Green

tatwdA new John Green book is always going to be a treat for me, as well as for the teenaged reader in my house, because we’re big John Green fans. Turtles All the Way Down, coming five years after his blockbuster hit The Fault in Our Stars and carrying all the weight of expectations that accompanies the next release after a huge bestseller. It does not disappoint.

Turtles is told from the point of view of Asa Holmes, a 16-year-old girl who suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder (as does the author himself). It’s rare to see a depiction of mental illness, especially an anxiety disorder, as raw, unsparing, and honest-feeling as this one. Asa feels like a prisoner of her own thoughts, unable to escape them and wondering who she even is if her mind is invaded by thoughts she doesn’t want and can’t control. Everything else in her life — her relationship with her loving but worried mom, her friendship with best friend Daisy, and her attempts to solve a mystery surrounded a cute guy who might be a possible boyfriend — is pushed to the side and subverted by anxious thoughts that Asa can’t escape.

This novel is hard to read at times, just like it’s hard to live inside a brain that seems determined to sabotage itself. But the novel is also often funny, always insightful, and ultimately hopeful and life-affirming — though it’s not a hope cheaply bought. Both John Green and Asa Holmes are realistic about the fact that narratives of mental illness are not simple “I was sick and then I got better” stories. Reality is harder and sometimes uglier — but it’s beautiful, too.  And so is this book.

(Btw, for those who like podcasts, you can hear a great discussion between me and my daughter Emma, who is an insightful and incisive 17-year-old reader, on this episode of my Shelf Esteem book podcast where we discuss this and other YA novels we’ve read lately).

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Realms of Glory, by Catherine Fox

realmsofgloryA lot of what I might say about this book has already been said in my review/rave of the first volume in this trilogy, Acts and Omissions, and its sequel Unseen Things Aboveso you should check those out. Some of the things I mentioned in that first review — the intrusive omniscient narrator, the minutiae of life in a Church of England cathedral community — will put some readers off, but I love everything about these books (despite my extreme non-Anglicanness). Having read the first two volumes in 2015, I was following Catherine Fox’s blog as she posted the chapters of Realms of Glory week by week on her blog last year.

While the two earlier volumes were also self-published in this way before appearing as complete books, there was something uniquely appropriate about the fact that Realms of Glory  was the book I got to read in installations, in the much the same way nineteenth-century novelists serialized their stories in the papers of the time (Fox consciously casts herself as a modern-day Trollope). While the first two books did make occasional reference to events happening in the wider world that paralleled the fictional world of the story, Realms of Glory is the volume of the trilogy in which outside events seemed to have the most impact on the clergy and people of Lindchester. For people of certain ages, interests, and political affiliations, 2016 was a year of one body blow after another, and as the chapters of this novel unfolded on Fox’s blog, she addressed each celebrity death, each terrorist attack, the Brexit vote, the US election outcome, in real time as it happened, her characters reacting just as so many of us did to these events.

Having watched the story unfold week by week on the author’s blog, I looked forward to reading it all at once in book form, and was delighted when Fox’s publisher approached me to ask would I like a free copy of the book in return for an honest review. Needless to say I snapped up that offer, and took the opportunity to re-read the whole trilogy back to back.

As good as these books were reading them individually, reading all three together is a better, more complete experience. I originally felt that the first book, Acts and Omissions, had the tightest and most compelling plot of the three, but reading them all together I can see how the plot arcs and character development stretch over all three books and how beautifully many things are resolved (while some, as in real life, must be left without a satisfying resolution — yet even this is well handled). Yes, the reread of Realms of Glory did make me feel a bit like I was reliving the worst of 2016 over again — but coloured by Fox’s relentless insistence on mercy, grace, and redemption even in the darkest of times. “Love love love,” one character texts when he thinks the plane he’s on may crash, and the recipient of the text reflects that it would be hard to top that as a final message. Through the terrorist attacks and the horrible elections and the bigotry and the petty church politics and the dying celebrities of our youth: Love love love.  Divine and human love. What else do we have?

As I said in my original review of Acts and Omissions, you don’t have to understand the inner workings of an Anglican cathedral to appreciate these books (though I’m sure if you do, there are layers of nuance, especially of Fox’s wickedly funny humour, that you will appreciate better). If that’s not your world, you can regard these as the colourful details of setting that introduce you, as good books should, to a world outside your own. What is universal is the human condition, so richly detailed in these books. Especially if you are a person of faith who loves stories of grace and redemption yet finds most “Christian fiction” to be too squeaky-clean and insipid — you should try Catherine Fox’s books. And if you do, I hope you’ll love this trilogy as much as I do.

In my review of Unseen Things Above I expressed my fervent hope that Fox would not limit herself to a trilogy but would keep coming back to the rich world of Lindchester she has created in these novels, as I think there are enough great characters and plots here to sustain many, many books. However, Realms of Glory is quite clearly written as a final volume, with several characters’ storylines brought to a decisive point where the author wants to leave them. While I still think there’s more than enough material in Lindchester for, say, a follow-up trilogy in a few years, I’ll also be interested to read whatever she writes next.

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On Beauty, by Zadie Smith

onbeautyHaving read and really loved Zadie Smith’s Swing Time a few weeks ago, I had a harder time with On Beauty, although it is just as well written with as much wit and insight. The big struggle for me with On Beauty is that, while it’s told from an omniscient point of view with several major characters, one of the central characters, Howard, is a man I found so unpleasant I couldn’t bring myself to care what happened to him (or else I was actively hoping for the worst to happen to him).

I don’t mind flawed characters. I don’t even need characters to be “likable,” exactly, as long as there’s something there that’s interesting and that I can relate to, or that intrigues me. But Howard — a middle-aged white academic married to a black woman, raising three young adult children and locked in a professional feud with a fellow academic whose family life becomes entwined with Howard’s in myriad ways — is both awful and boring. And I really felt this was a flaw in the book, not in my appreciation of Howard. Several chapters in, Howard’s wife, Kiki, who has not decided whether or not to forgive him for a spot of infidelity, reflects that whatever else he did, he could always make her laugh. As the reader, I had to that point seen nothing in the story to indicate Howard had a sense of humour. He certainly never made me laugh. Kiki thinks of herself as having married her best friend, while I found it impossible to believe that a woman as interesting and vital as Kiki could ever have had this limp dishrag of a man as her best friend.

I did enjoy all the other characters and points of view, and the story itself was interesting, but Howard as the big soul-sucking cypher at the centre of the narrative was a major flaw I never got over. After I read it, I found out that it’s sort of a riff on the novel Howard’s End, which I’ve never read. Maybe I’d have appreciated it more if I had, but the end of this particular Howard couldn’t come quickly enough for me.

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The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, by Arundhati Roy

This boutmosthappinesok took me quite awhile to get through. Not that it’s not brilliantly written — it is. But one of the issues with reading more diverse books from writers of different cultural backgrounds — which is something I am consciously trying to do — is that the introduction of a lot of unfamiliar setting, vocabulary, and background can slow the reader down, and it certainly did for me in this case. 

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is not a simple, easy to read novel. It may not be an easy read even for someone who is very familiar with life in contemporary India, the politics of the Punjab, and the roles of transgender people in Indian culture. The writing is dense, the story multilayered with many different points of view and characters whose stories don’t intersect till near the end of the book. It’s the story of Anjum, a transgender woman growing up in Delhi, eventually finding a niche in the community as part of a group of recognized-yet-outcast trans women called hijras. The role of the hijra in Indian society is fascinating and I did a little googling to learn more about it afterwards, but Roy writes (as is, I think, appropriate for a writer immersing a reader in a different culture) as though we already know all this, leaving the reader to piece together the bits of information. Then, just as we’re absorbing Anjum’s character and world, the scene shifts to a different place and time, a whole new cast of characters.

This book is very well done, but it’s also quite a lot of work. at least, it was for me — so readers who are not already very familiar with the world Roy is writing about should be prepared for a total-immersion course.

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Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

americanahAmericanah is the first book I’ve read by Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and one of the few books I’ve read at all by African novelists. It tells the love story of two people who are apart for most of the book — the main character, Ifemelu, and her high school and college boyfriend, Obinze. When student life in Nigeria is interrupted by political unrest and frequent strikes at their university, Ifemelu moves to the United States to get her degree. The plan is for Obinze to join her eventually, but amid the struggle of trying to adapt to immigrant life and earn a living, Ifemelu slips into depression and cuts off contact with Obinze. When she begins to rebuild her American life, she starts afresh, leaving Obinze in the past.

Meanwhile, Obinze moves to London, where he too struggles to make a living. His position is even more difficult than Ifemelu’s, because he outstays his original visa and tries to live and work in the UK as an undocumented immigrant. For a boy who grew up as the son of a university professor, living an enviable upper-middle-class life in Nigeria, this is a huge come-down indeed.

By the time both return to Nigeria and their paths cross again, they have both changed greatly (and Obinze has acquired a wife and child). Yet the attraction between them has not faded with the years. The final section of the novel explores where their relationship goes from there. But the bulk of the story is the tale of their separate years apart, the insights each of them gains into their very different immigrant experiences in two different countries. Adichie’s writing not only gives the reader a very clear picture of life in Nigeria, but of the subtle shadings of cultural difference between Nigeria, the U.S., and the U.K., as well as racial and class differences within each of these countries. Ifemelu parlays her trenchant and witty observations about life as a “Non-American Black” in the U.S. into a wildly successful blog, and it is the fineness of those observations, the keen eye for detail in a character, a scene, a hairstyle, an item of clothing, that drives this thoughtful and often funny novel.

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Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore, by Matthew J. Sullivan

midnightbrightideasI’ll pretty much pick up any book with the word “bookstore” in the title, or any book that’s set in a bookstore (whether wholly, or just in part). In the cast of Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore, with its appealing title and cover, the titular bookstore provides the backdrop for a story that takes the main character, bookstore employee Lydia Smith, on a reluctant journey into her own past.

Lydia enjoys her quiet life — a steady relationship with her kind and undemanding live-in boyfriend, and her work at a bookstore where she finds pleasure not only in the books but in the patrons, including the many outcasts, misfits and homeless (or nearly homeless) people who take shelter there. When tragedy invades the bookstore one night and a man hangs himself among the upstairs bookstacks, Lydia is horrified. But the horror becomes more personal when she realizes that the dead man not only has ties to her, but to a past she has done everything possible to distance herself from.

It was at this point (as often happens with me in reading) that I realized I was reading a mystery novel, even if it’s not marketed primarily as such. Lydia has to follow a trail of clues to find out the connection between the violent death in the bookstore and another act of terrible violence in her own past — and to find out who committed the original crime, and why.

This is the sort of book that, midway through avidly turning the pages, I found myself thinking, “This author has set up SUCH an intriguing mystery — can he possibly resolve it in a satisfying way?” The answer is almost yes … everything is resolved and does tie together, but the author has to introduce a couple of pretty big coincidences to make the resolution work, and I’m always wary of staggering coincidences. There’s also a method of leaving clues that is way too clever to be believable … but I still found the story enjoyable, and thought Lydia, in particular, was a very likeable and relatable character, as a person who has tried to construct a new life amid the ruins of tragedy. I don’t agree with every choice Lydia makes (especially a big one at the end) but I always empathized with her.

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