Category Archives: Fiction — general

Neverworld Wake, by Marisha Pessl

In this very high-concept young-adult novel, a group of high school friends is torn apart after the mysterious death of their golden boy, Jim, in a possible suicide near the end of senior year. Or rather, one of the group — Jim’s girlfriend, Beatrice — is torn away from the rest of the group, retreating into her private grief while the other four members of the group remain close. At the end of her first year of college, Beatrice meets up with the other four, and a second tragedy at the end of that night traps all five young people in a time loop. They are doomed to relieve the last few hours of their lives over and over until they can agree on which one of them will survive — and only one can make it out alive.

This contrivance is used to explore the five characters and how they react to the situation. The ways in which they deal with the time loop will be familiar to anyone who’s seen any film or read any book that deals with the premise of repeated time or repeated lives — they try to escape, then they immerse themselves in hedonistic pleasure, then they finally settle down to seriously trying to solve the problem presented by the loop. One of the group, Martha,, convinces everyone that in order to get out of the loop, they need to solve the mystery of Jim’s death, and so they become obsessed with conducting an investigation, eventually learning that they can travel back to relive different days. When they finally get back to relive the night Jim died, all the pieces are in place for them to finally break out of the Neverworld Wake. Or rather, for one of them to break out.

I read this in a day; it kept the pages turning and kept me engaged in solving the mystery of Jim’s death and waiting to see how/if/who would survive at the end of the novel.

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Filed under Fiction -- general, Young Adult

Even Weirder Than Before, by Susie Taylor

Even Weirder Than Before is a quiet, introspective coming of age story set in a Toronto suburb in the late 1980s. As the book opens, Daisy is a Grade Eight student struggling with the breakup of her parents’ marriage and the normal adolescent “where-do-I-fit-in?” questions. The novel is  not long, but it unfolds over the next four years: by the time the story ends, Daisy is finishing Grade Twelve and has learned a great deal about her family, her friends, and, of course, herself.

Despite covering so many years in a relatively short book, the story is, in a way, slow-paced, in the sense that it’s more episodic than plot-driven. It’s a coming of age novel that is just that: the story being told is simply the story of Daisy growing up, dealing with all the issues that growing up entails. It’s fascinating to watch her relationships with those around her change. We see that change within her family, as her mother copes with single parenthood and a new relationship, and her older sister seeks her own path in life, and her father settles in with the younger woman he left for. We also see it, perhaps even more so, with her friends. The most important of these relationships is with her childhood best friend Wanda: the shape and fabric of this friendship stretches and changes over the years of high school as both girls grow up, and as other friendships and crushes bloom and fade, but Wanda remains a constant in Daisy’s life.

The book is filled not only with beautiful, understated moments of self-realization, but also with wonderful period detail. I am about half a generation older than the author — at my first job out of college I was teaching students Daisy’s age — and I was keenly aware of the story manages to feel both contemporary and like a period piece, a throwback to that time when teenagers managed to meet up and hook up without cellphones or Snapchat. The pains of adolescence are, to some extent, universal and timeless, yet deeply rooted in the popular culture of the years during which you’re a teenager. Daisy’s world is a completely believable one anchored in a very specific time and place, but also in the growing pains that we can all, to some extent, relate to.

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Filed under Canadian author, Fiction -- general, Newfoundland author, Young Adult

The Break, by Katherena Vermette

I had picked up and looked at The Break a few times when it was up for Canada Reads a couple of years ago, but it was a friend’s recommendation that finally got me to read it. The Break tells the story of a single act of violence on a winter night in Winnipeg’s North End, and how the lives of numerous people, most of them connected by ties of extended family, are impacted by this crime. Victim, perpetrator, police officer, witness, and many people affected simply because they’re part of the community — perspectives and voices overlap as the many characters, most of them First Nations women, tell their parts of the story.

In the multi-voiced structure and the story’s situation within the larger story of First Nations communities in a contemporary North American city, this book reminded me to some extent of Tommy Orange’s There, There. In that book, all the multiple characters’ stories converged towards a single act of violence; here, they refract outwards from it, showing a little of what led to the crime but far more of what happens as a result. Along the way there is anger, grief, resilience, humour and hope. It’s a beautiful novel, largely about strong indigenous women and how they try to hold themselves and their families and communities together amid the impacts of generational trauma and institutionalized racism.

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Filed under Canada Reads, Canadian author, Fiction -- general

Unsheltered, by Barbara Kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver’s latest novel tells two parallel stories, separated by time but linked by a physical location. In Vineland, New Jersey — a planned utopian community — in the 1880s, science teacher Thatcher Greenwood befriends naturalist Mary Treat. (Both Treat the woman and Vineland the community are historical, though Greenwood is the author’s invention). Meanwhile, over a century later on the same piece of Vineland property, writer Willa Knox copes with an old house (the one formerly occupied by Greenwood, which Willa and her husband have inherited) that is literally falling apart and an extended family that is metaphorically doing the same thing. Both stories evoke the complexity of living in a time of change and upheaval: while Mary Treat and Thatcher Greenwood grapple with new ideas like Darwinian evolution that are considered too dangerous to talk about in the established social order of Vineland, Willa and her family cope with the threat of environmental collapse and the shattering reality of living in an era where a lifetime of work with two middle-class incomes still cannot provide enough security to care for their grown children, a grandchild, and a sick and aging parent.

Not surprisingly, I loved this historical story, but I was a bit surprised that I was even more engaged by the contemporary story. I loved Willa, and the overwhelming pressure that she and her husband always seemed to be under with needs pressing in from them on all sides felt all too real. Willa’s free-spirited daughter Tig provides the difficult and complicated voice of hope in this novel: when everything seems to be collapsing, hope does not reside in trying to hang onto the old order and prop it up (as Willa is constantly trying to prop up the crumbling house they live in with various doomed reclamation schemes) — but to let it go and accept something new, even if it’s hard and unfamiliar. A difficult lesson in the 1880s and in the 2010s, but a necessary one.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

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The Sickroom, by Shayna Krishnaramy

This novella was a quick read but not entirely what I was expecting. It explores a snapshot in time — a summer when teenaged Jacob, who has mono, is sent to stay with his aunt, uncle, and cousins. Confined mostly to the titular sickroom, Jacob doesn’t play with the boy cousins his own age but instead becomes close to his eccentric younger cousin Macon, a gifted ten-year-old artist. When he has to choose between honouring that friendship or being accepted by Macon’s older brothers, Jacob’s loyalty is tested, and his choice shapes the people that both he and Macon (seen in a later flash-forward scene at the end) grow up to be. This was an intriguing premise but felt a little too bare-bones to me; the consequences of Jacob’s decision were not developed nearly as much as I wanted them to be, though the moment of choice was vivid.

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Filed under Canadian author, Fiction -- general

The Back of the Turtle, by Thomas King

Like everything else I’ve read by Thomas King, The Back of the Turtle explores indigenous life in North America through unexpected and sometimes troubling lenses. This novel is about environmental devastation sliding into dystopia, about a scientist on a personal journey of redemption, about an abandoned reserve and and abandoned motel, about an artist looking for a lost home and a multi-gazillionaire capitalist trying to cover up his company’s involvement in the aforementioned environmental devastation. It’s both realistic and mythical, including a trinity of characters who might just represent Jesus, Satan, and God the Father. Oh, and there’s also a dog.

If this sounds like a lot — it is. It’s also highly readable and engaging, often funny as well as tragic, and ultimately, cautiously, hopeful. I picked up this book on a whim after putting down another book that I’d really wanted to read and sadly found I just could not get into. The Back of the Turtle drew me right in and wouldn’t let me go till I put it down.

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The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, by Stuart Turton

7deathsThis book has looked intriguing to me for awhile. I love stories where people are trapped in loops living their lives over and over again for some reason. This book is not quite like that, but it’s similarly high-concept.  A nameless man finds himself in the woods outside what appears to be an upper-class party at an English country estate. A woman may have just been murdered in front of him — but he has no recollection of who or where he is. And just as he’s starting to figure it out — he falls asleep and wakes up on the same day, at the same party, but as a different person.

It turns out that our main character has eight (I think? I lost track) chances to experience this day, each as a different person, with the ultimate goal of solving the mystery of who killed a woman named Evelyn Hardcastle. This is a fiendishly complicated puzzle-type of book, and it’s the sort of thing that’s only going to be worthwhile if the author can pull it off in a satisfactory way. I think Stuart Turton pretty much did — but what didn’t work for me was any deep sense of emotional engagement. I wanted to solve the puzzle but I never got really pulled into the characters or caring what happened to them, which I think is an important missing piece in a novel like this — it can’t be just about the puzzle.

 

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