Category Archives: Fiction — general

Home Fire, by Kamila Shamsie

homefireHome Fire is the rare book that retells a classic story for the modern era in a way that, to me at least, never feels at all forced. With a book like Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl, even though I enjoyed it, I felt some elements of the plot, some things the characters did, were shoehorned in there only because they paralleled plot points in The Taming of the Shrew. In Home Fire, Kamila Shamsie retells Sophocles’s Antigone in the setting of a family of Pakistani immigrants to the U.K. Isma, Aneeka, Parvaiz, Eamonn and Karamat are parallels to Ismene, Antigone, Polynices, Haemon and Creon, but they are also real, flesh-and-blood people, living out their lives against the backdrop of a country torn by anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim suspicion. The opening scene, with Isma going through a rigorous security screening at Heathrow Airport and missing her flight to her graduate program in the US, sets the tone for the rest of the novel.

The parallels to the classic Greek tragedy are not heavy-handed, though they do get more direct in the later sections of the story. (You don’t have to have read or remember Antigone to appreciate the novel; it works perfectly well as a story on its own, but for those who know the play the parallels add a great deal of richness and interest). Instead of a father who killed his own father and accidentally married his mother, Isma, Aneeka and Parvaiz suffer a different kind of “family curse” — a jihadi father who abandoned his father in the UK to go fight with Islamic militants.

Like the curse of the gods on Oedipus’s family, the absent father’s choice shadows the lives of all three of his children. The role of the overbearing Creon, King of Thebes, in the play, is filled here by Karamat Lone, Home Secretary in Britain’s Conservative government. He, too, is of Pakistani Muslim origin, but in order to rise to power he has recreated himself, marrying a white American woman, ceasing to be an observant Muslim, and lecturing other Muslims on the importance of assimilating to white British culture and not standing out.

When Karamat’s son Eamonn encounters first Isma and later her sister Aneeka, it’s inevitable there will be conflict between the two families. How shattering that conflict will be is clearly foreshadowed by the fact that the novel is based on a Greek tragedy.

Point of view throughout this novel moves from one character to the next, with sections told from the perspective of each of the major characters. At first I found it jarring that we did not return to the point of view of a character we’d already met and grown close to, but I found each of the characters so compelling, believable and intriguing that the book never ceased to engage me. I knew this story was going to break my heart — again, Greek tragedy set against the background of modern racism and terrorism wasn’t likely to turn out any other way — but I could not put the book down until I found out exactly how. 

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Swing Time, by Zadie Smith

swingtimeZadie Smith is one of those writers I have been meaning to read forever but never getting around to, probably because her work comes with so much literary acclaim I was afraid it was going to be impenetrable and a little boring (because let’s be honest, some — by no means all, but some — books that win a lot of literary awards are less than fun to read). I couldn’t have been more wrong. When I finally picked up Swing Tim(because of the happy coincidence of it appearing both on the Booker Prize longlist and my library’s list of available e-books this summer), I was immediately drawn in to a believable character with a compelling voice and a richly drawn world that I found hard to put down. I will definitely be reading more of Zadie Smith.

The first-person narrator of Swing Time (who never reveals her name, though it took me more than halfway through the book to realize this) is a young girl of mixed race (black mother, white father) growing up on a North London council estate in the 1980s. She takes dance lessons as a young girl, and though she shows no remarkable talent, she develops a passionate interest in dance and the history of dance, immersing herself in old Fred Astaire movies on TV and VHS, and devouring the biographies of dancers as her recreational reading. In young adulthood, she is suddenly catapulted from her entry level job in television to an entirely different and more glamorous life when she gets hired as a personal assistant to a major pop star, and plunges into the world of the rich and famous.

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The Greatest Hits of Wanda Jaynes, by Bridget Canning

wandajaynesThis is one of several recent novels by Newfoundland writers (and one upcoming one) that I had the privilege of reading before it was published, when I got to judge an unpublished novel contest a few years ago. The Greatest Hits of Wanda Jaynes was one of the very strongest contenders, and it’s terrific to read it in its finished form.

Wanda Jaynes is a youngish Newfoundland woman, an adult-ed instructor whose job is about to be budget-cut out of existence, and is in a long-term relationship with attractive and charismatic musician Ivan. Her life is pretty average — until the day she goes to the supermarket at the same time as a man with a gun, and finds herself in the unexpected position of stopping a mass shooting.

Overnight, with the help of a viral video, Wanda goes from being a nobody to being a local hero — a position she’s not at all comfortable with. The novel explores serious issues — post-traumatic stress, the dark side of internet fame, random acts of violence — yet manages to be wickedly funny, largely due to the wry voice of Wanda as the point of view character. There’s also a wealth of great detail here about contemporary St. John’s life that really rings true.

This connects to something I said about the last Newfoundland novel I read, Berni Stapleton’s This is the Cat: if you’re going to introduce fantastical or hard-to-believe elements into a realistic story, the realistic bits really have to ring true. The Greatest Hits of Wanda Jaynes contains no talking cats or restless ghosts, but Wanda does find herself catapulted into a realm of experience most of us don’t share: we rarely get to take out a would-be mass murderer with a well-aimed can of coconut milk, nor do most of us become the focus of overnight online fame. But as Wanda moves through these unlikely events, the everyday details of her life feel completely believable and lived. It was those everyday details that drew me into the story originally: I, like Wanda (and, I believe, like the author) teach in an adult-education program, and while I wasn’t personally affected, I vividly remember the round of real-life budget cuts to our sector that, in Wanda’s fictional world, kicks off her horrible, no-good, very bad day. Details like this ground the reader in Wanda’s world and make it easy to follow her into her less likely adventures.

To draw yet another parallel to a book I’ve read lately, the details about Wanda’s internet fame, from her viral YouTube video to the way she becomes an instant meme, are very much grounded in the social media world of the mid-2010s, in the same way the use of teen slang and hip-hop music grounds Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give in the year it was written. Like Thomas’s YA novel, Canning’s book will feel “dated” in a few years, but I think that’s fine, because it’s a snapshot of what it means to “go viral” and become famous at this specific moment in time. It’s not meant to be a universal experience, because the way the world reacts to Wanda’s sudden notoriety is unique to this time and place.

What is universal is the way Wanda’s life starts to unspool in the face of trauma, the way the cracks in her relationships and her own view of herself can no longer be ignored once the pressure is on. Bridget Canning has written a funny, serious, fast-paced, thoughtful contemporary novel that remains light while exploring heavy subjects. This is an extremely readable and enjoyable book, and I hope to read more from Bridget Canning soon.

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This is the Cat, by Berni Stapleton

ithisisthecatEven the most compulsive overreader would be hard-put to read every book published by a Newfoundland author every year, but I try to get through a good cross-section of local fiction. One thing that always mystifies me is why some books seem to fly under the radar, getting far less acclaim and attention than (I would think) they deserve. Berni Stapleton’s This is the Cat is one such book. Most Newfoundlanders probably know Stapleton best as an actor, comedian, and playwright, but her fiction debut shows she’s got significant talent in this area as well. 

This is the Cat tells, in short chapters and snippets of e-mail, the story of Bridie Savage, who lives the life of a modern-day Newfoundland artist, existing from contract to contract strung together with long threads of Employment Insurance to keep her balancing in between. She’s currently in an ongoing argument with Service Canada because they claim that her benefits are “exhausted,” although, as Bridie points out, her benefits aren’t nearly as exhausted as she is. Interspersed between chapters from Bridie’s point of view and her emails with Service Canada and others are chapters narrated by one of Bridie’s two cats, who is enjoying the latest in her long series of incarnations, and happy to have finally found a means to communicate with the outside world through Bridie’s Come-Pewter (the cat’s syntax and grammar leave much to be desired, but her insight and wit are on-point). Oh, and let’s not forget the ghosts inhabiting Bridie’s downtown St. John’s house, and the prostitutes camped out at the end of her street — all these characters and many more parade through this vividly detailed, funny and poignant story.

I think one of the keys to writing a story with quirky, fantastical elements (like ghosts, and cat narrators) is to keep the real-life elements as believable and grounded as possible, and this is where I feel Stapleton really shines. Anyone who has had a protracted battle with any kind of bureaucracy will be able to relate to Bridie’s Service Canada emails, but beyond this, the fact that Stapleton has lived the life of a working artist in this city for many years really shines through — even when the details of Bridie’s working (or non-working) life are clearly exaggerated for humourous effect, the author’s knowledge of the world she’s writing about shines through. It doesn’t necessarily come across as autobiographical but as “write what you know” in the best and truest sense: take what you know well and use it as a jumping-off point to explore the fantastical, including a cat who once lived with Cleopatra and is now using your computer to create an online dating profile for you without your knowledge.

The quirky main human character and her animal narrator invites, in my mind, comparisons to Jessica Grant’s Come Thou Tortoise, another witty and unusual local book that won acclaim and awards when it was released a few years back. I’m surprised This is the Cat didn’t get the same level of attention, as in my mind it certainly deserved it. While I know that Stapelton keeps pretty busy on stage, I hope that she (and possibly her cats) find the time to return to the Come-Pewter for more fiction before too long.

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The Almost Sisters, by Joshilyn Jackson

almostsistersOne of the most unfair things about being an avid reader is that it takes a favourite author two to three years to produce a new novel (and I’m talking about a writer who writes at a good clip here; I don’t mean George Freakin R.R. Martin), and then I read it in 24 hours or so and have to wait two to three years for the next one. Why can’t I have the luxury of living in the world of a wonderful book and spending time with the characters for as long as the author got to do which she was writing it? It’s fundamentally unfair.

All this to say: I’ve been waiting for a long time (like, since two days after her last book, The Opposite of Everyone, came out) for Joshilyn Jackson’s book The Almost Sisters to be released. It came out yesterday, and I finished reading it this morning, tears rolling down my face as they always are on the last page of one of her books. And now she has to get busy writing a new book and I have to get busy waiting for it.

The Almost Sisters is the story of Leia Birch Briggs, whose lifelong love-hate relationship with her “perfect” stepsister Rachel comes to a head during a fevered few weeks in a small Southern town. Leia, a successful, single comic-book artist, is unexpectedly pregnant as the result of a one-night stand. Rachel’s picture-perfect marriage is crumbling and her daughter, Leia’s adored niece Lavender, is damaged in the fallout. And the matriarch of the Birch clan, Leia’s 90-year-old grandmother Birchie, has suddenly gone from being the firm foundation on which Leia’s world rests, to being a problem Leia desperately needs to solve.

This novel tackles big issues in the guise of a deceptively light (and often wickedly funny) contemporary novel. Faced with Birchie’s dementia and the determination of her lifelong companion Wattie to help her hide it, Leia has to confront the messy realities of aging and mortality. She also has confront something she’s skated over the surface of her whole life: the racism bubbling beneath her beloved town. Her position in a well-off, respected white family has allowed her to mostly ignore or dismiss racism, but when Leia is confronted with a threat to her grandmother’s black best friend Wattie, she recognizes how much broader that threat has always been — and how it also envelops her own unborn, mixed-race baby. She sees, in a sudden shifting moment, how there has always been a “second South” lurking in the shadows of the loving and loved community she grew up in, and she rightly fears raising her child in that second South, which she knows his skin colour will not allow him to ignore.

What lurks in the shadows matters here, because the third major theme in this short novel is a Jungian meditation on embracing your shadow side. One of the things I love about Jackson’s work (and there are so many) is how fully-fleshed-out the outer as well as the inner lives of her characters are, and this always includes her protagonists’ jobs. Leia is a comic book artist, and there are far more than just perfunctory references to her work and her attendance at conventions (where she’s a bit of a superstar). Jackson shows her own nerd cred with geek references that are spot-on, and it’s clear that she’s done her research into the world of comics, but Leia’s job is far more than just interesting detail. Even as she is wrestling with the complexities of her own real life and the lives of her family, Leia is also planning a follow-up book to her hit graphic novel Violence in Violet and struggling with the relationship between  her two characters, the naive and innocent Violet and her protector Violence, a goddess-of-vengeance type superhero. The reader realizes before Leia does that Violet and Violence are two sides of the same coin; Leia has to not only accept this reality about her characters but also apply it to her own life. In order to confront of the racism of the “second South” she lives in, Leia has to embrace both sides of her own nature: the dark side that’s willing to fight fierce and dirty to protect those she loves, and the brighter side that dares to believe a better future may be possible.

Speaking of things the reader figures out before Leia does, there’s a plot twist near the end of this novel that I had worked out from about page one, but I don’t think that’s a weakness: it may be intentional. There are always deeply buried, long-held family secrets in Joshilyn Jackson’s novels: her complicated, loving, blended Southern families teem with skeletons and closets, both literal and metaphorical. Sometimes the whole point of a family secret is that it isn’t that big of a secret to an outside observer, like the reader. It’s only when you’re immersed in the world of a family, a town, a culture, as the characters are, that the truth is unthinkable — until you’re forced to confront it. Leia and her family confront a lot of hard truths in this novel, and the journey is rich, rewarding and often funny for the reader — till you find yourself on the last page, crying, and realizing you have to wait another two or three years to read a book this good again.

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I Wish You Happy, by Kerry Anne King

happyKerry Anne King, who also writes fantasy as Kerry Schafer, is a real-life friend of mine from nearly thirty (gasp!) years ago, so I may be a bit biased. But I’ve read everything she’s ever published and so far I Wish You Happy is my favourite book of hers.

It’s a heartwarming novel of self-discovery with a dash of romance, where the plot is kicked off by a suicide attempt and key scenes occur at the funeral of a pet rat. That will probably give you a sense of how quirky the novel is. The main character, Rae, is a nurse whose highly empathetic nature makes it easy for her to do her job and also to take in lots of stray animals in need of car, but causes her to put up barriers to intimate relationships with other people — she’s never really learned how to negotiate a friendship or a romance with appropriate boundaries.

When a cyclist swerves her bike in front of Rae’s car, that inability to set boundaries sends Rae’s tightly controlled world spiralling into chaos — but out of the chaos comes not only a deeper understanding of herself, but also (conveniently, as so often happens in novels but so rarely in real life) a hot new guy.

This novel manages to be light while still treating heavy subjects with appropriate gravity. The author’s experience with mental health crisis work shows clearly in this book as the topic of suicide is handled in a sensitive and thoughtful manner. Her characters navigate some important life lessons against the backdrop of a troubling, codependent friendship and a budding romance. Both major and minor characters in this story are well-developed, believable people, especially Kit, the cyclist with whom Rae forms a bond after the accident-that’s-maybe-not-so-much-an-accident. As Rae is forced to re-examine many of the assumptions she’s made about her life, her gentle transformation is rewarding and believable. I highly recommend this book!

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The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas

THUGAngie Thomas’s excellent novel The Hate You Give came my way, as many good YA novels do, via a recommendation from my teenaged daughter. It’s a story about a sixteen-year-old African-American girl who is in the car with a boy — her best friend from childhood — when he is pulled over and shot by a white police officer in a traffic stop gone horribly wrong. As the only witness to Khalil’s death, Starr finds herself pulled into the centre of controversy and activism in her community.

Like many teenage protagonists in fiction, Starr is a bit of an outsider: she doesn’t entirely fit in with the white kids at her private school, though she has friends and a boyfriend there; she also no longer fully fits in with her childhood friends and extended family in her lower-income neighbourhood, simply because her parents have made it possible for her to attend private school. (This dynamic reminded me a little of the narrator in Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian).

Starr is a vibrant, believable young woman whose fears and hopes are easy for the reader to identify with. It’s always hard, as a reader, to tell whether a writer is capturing a subculture accurately when it’s not your own subculture, but this certainly feels, to Old White-Lady me, like an authentic glimpse into the life of a black teenager in an American city right now. The language and pop-culture references are so contemporary that they will date the novel in a few years, but that’s not a bad thing: this is a novel very much of its specific time and place. It’s rooted in 2016-2017 America and the Black Lives Matter movement; this is the specific cultural moment that produced this story. This is particularly evident at the end of the novel when Starr, having finally spoken out publicly about Khalil’s death, says: 

“It’s about way more than [Khalil] though….

It’s also about Oscar.
Aiyana
Trayvon.
Rekia.
Michael.
Eric.
Tamir.
John.
Ezell.
Sandra.
Alton.
Philando.”

I was reading this book on the same day the verdict was handed down in the Philando Castile case, finding the officer who killed him not guilty despite the horrifying video evidence. For the record, the list above, where Thomas integrates her fictional character into a list of real victims, was the exact spot where I started crying while reading The Hate U Give.

We’re long past the era (if we were ever really in it; I’m not sure) when readers can assume that a subject is treated with less complexity because the novel is targeted at teenaged readers. This YA novel delves deep into the gray areas around the black-and-white issue of young African-American men dying at the hands of police. Starr faces the covert racism of her white classmates who think they’re being progressive by organizing a day of protest over Khalil’s murder; she faces the real and constant threats of gang violence and drug abuse within her own community. Her uncle, a black police officer, is at once sympathetic to the stresses faced by his colleagues, and outraged by what one of them did to Khalil. Issues that, for many of us, are only theoretical because they are so removed from the communities where we live, take on human faces here. Like every great novel, The Hate U Give is not really about “issues” even when it is — it’s about people. Novels resonate because their characters feel like people we know, or can know. Starr brings us into her world, and into the horrible experience she has lived through, and readers are richer for making this journey with her.

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