Category Archives: Fiction — general

Mister Nightingale, by Paul Bowdring

nightingaleThe latest book by Newfoundland novelist Paul Bowdring was one I did not want to miss. Mister Nightingale is the story of a middle-aged Newfoundland writer, James Nightingale, returning to his home province after living in Toronto for many years. His marriage has ended, his books are modestly successful, and while he takes some time out to reconnect with old friends, his university-aged daughter, and his aging father, Nightingale reflects on where life has taken him and what he’s actually accomplished.

There’s a lot of reflection here — this is not the book for anyone who wants a fast-paced, plot-driven story. If I’m comparing it to other books I’ve read in the past few weeks, the comparison that resonates most is between James Nightingale and Sripathi Rao from The Hero’s Walk. Both are men in later middle life whose lives have, in many ways, disappointed them, men who feel they have not fulfilled their own early dreams or others’ expectations of them. However, as Nightingale is a writer, there is the added layer of artistic angst, which means that he not only struggles with the meaning of his artistic vocation, what it has achieved and whether it was even worth pursuing — but also that he does so in stunningly beautiful language.

This is a novelist’s novel, a book for people who love words. It’s also a fun read for anyone who knows and loves St. John’s, Newfoundland and its literary scene, which is the main reason it floated to the top of my overcrowded “to-read” list. Apart from the general caricatures of the local scene and the loving evoked details of the city, there are a few characters that are pretty clearly (and in some cases, hilariously) based on thinly-disguised real people. Another strand of the novel that will strike a chord with many readers is Nightingale’s relationship with his elderly father, Malc. Malc, who lives in a long-term care facility, occupies that marginal space around the edges of actual dementia that is so familiar to those of us who have dealt with aging loved ones. Sometimes his conversation is completely sensible, only to be replaced seconds later by non-sequiturs that show how far he’s strayed from the present-day reality.

I’ll admit there were aspects of this novel’s plot that I didn’t find entirely believable or satisfying (particularly one major incident near the end of the book), but in the end, this is not a novel to be read for the plot. This is one man’s reflection (Nightingale’s and, perhaps, Bowdring’s, though I always try to be careful in speculating about how autobiographical a writer’s work is) on what it means to be a writer, what it means to be more than halfway through your life, and what it means to go back to the place you came from. A reflective and well-written book, and often quite a funny one as well.

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Bone and Bread, by Saleema Nawaz

boneandbreadThird in the three “Canada Reads” selections I covered this month was Saleema Nawaz’s Bone and Bread, the story of two sisters united and divided by family and personal tragedy. The narrator of the story is Beena, a woman in her early 30s who has just learned of the death of her sister Sadhana. The story alternates between the present tense, in which Beena, her 18-year-old son Quinn, and her boyfriend Evan try to deal with the aftermath of Sadhana’s death, and the past in which the story of the girls’ childhood and troubled adolescence unfolds.

Beena has a strong, readable first-person narrative voice that carried me quickly through this story. Her relationship with her sister has all the complexity of a real sibling relationship — it’s definitely love/hate — with the added twist of hardship added by the girls being orphaned quite young. In addition to (or most likely in response to) their losses, the girls both have a difficult time as teenagers — Beena becomes pregnant at 16 while Sadhana develop anorexia. The story is set in 1980s, 90s and 2000s Montreal, with the characters’ love for the city an ever-present background to their story (even though Beena has chosen to live in Ottawa as an adult). Bone and Bread was a story that carried me forward quickly through its pages, not so much because of any shocking plot twists or breathtaking suspense (almost everything I’ve told you in this plot summary is clear from the first couple of pages of the book, so I’m not spoiling it) — rather, it’s a strong narrative voice and a realistic portrayal of tangled family relationships and complicated grief that keeps the pages turning. I found the resolution of the story just a little anticlimactic, but not enough to mar my enjoyment of the whole. 

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Birdie, by Tracey Lindberg

birdieIt’s really, really hard to know what to say about Birdie. It’s the second of this year’s Canada Reads selections that I read this month, and it is beautifully written. It deals with the very important and current issue of the abuse and murder of Aboriginal women in Canada. Almost every woman in the story, including the main character Birdie (Bernice) has been the victim of some kind of violence. Birdie herself spends much of the novel in bed in a near-catatonic state as a result of trauma, and a good bit of the novel is relayed through her memories and dreams while she is bedridden. However, the story unfolds in such a non-linear, allusive fashion that I wasn’t always fully certain what was actually going on. There are vivid, beautifully drawn vignettes, but even a few days after reading this book I would have a hard time giving you a plot summary of what actually happened. I found this a shortcoming, although it was obviously done deliberately, because the characters were engaging enough that I wanted to get more involved in their story. Yet the narrator seemed to always keep me, the reader, at arms’ length, never quite sure what was actually going on. Beautiful writing on an important issue, but I needed the story to be a bit more plot-driven before I could fully immerse myself in it.

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The Hero’s Walk, by Anita Rau Badami

heroswalkLike two other books I read this month, The Hero’s Walk was a selection in this year’s annual “Canada Reads” competition. Sometimes I get around to reading all the Canada Reads books before or during the contest week (and sometimes I never do); this time, except for one I’d already read, I got around to them long after the radio discussion had ended, but it introduced me to some excellent books, as it always does.

The Hero’s Walk is set in India (with a very brief section taking place in Canada). It is essentially the story of how one man, Sripathi Rao, copes with middle age and the sense that he has not accomplished much in life, as well as how his extended family copes with a horrific tragedy. Sripathi’s family — his long-suffering wife, his disappointing son, his disappointed sister, and his frankly nasty old mother — are all drawn with beautiful detail. So is his community, set against the wider backdrop of contemporary India. I love everything with an Indian setting, and this novel gives a flavour of India that feels authentic without being “exotic” or romanticized. Sripathi Rao is living, essentially, a very ordinary life, and that’s really his problem — he was led, mostly by his mother, to expect that he needed to live an extraordinary life, and as he nears old age he realizes this hasn’t happened. Can he cope with it, especially in the face of shattering loss?

This novel reminded me very much of Joan Clark’s The Birthday Lunch, in that it examines in minute detail a family’s response to a sudden tragedy, and how that loss reveals the fault lines in all the family relationships. It is an intimate novel about people struggling to make meaning out of their ordinary lives, and I enjoyed it very much.

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Closer Home, by Kerry Anne King

CloserHomeYou already know a little about this book because I interviewed the author a couple of weeks ago. Having now read the book, I am so happy to report that I really loved it. I read most of it on the plane on the way to Florida over Easter vacation, and when my e-reader battery suddenly died mid-sentence in the penultimate chapter of the book, I was devastated — I had to make sure the characters were going to be all right!

Closer Home is the story of a woman living a quiet, simple life, who is plunged into the spotlight when her famous sister dies suddenly. Lise has to cope not only with Callie’s fame and money but also with Callie’s angry teenaged daughter and the aftermath of her own confused relationship with Callie. There’s a road trip, a romance, a quest, and a journey into the past to uncover the truth. Closer Home is heart-warming without ever becoming sentimental, and I truly cared about the characters.

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Harriet Wolf’s Seventh Book of Wonders, by Julianna Baggott

harrietwolfThis is a book I didn’t enjoy quite as a much as I thought I would, and I’m finding myself hard-pressed to pinpoint exactly why. All the right elements are in place — a three-generation drama about a family of strong, eccentric women, an intriguing historical setting reaching back to early 20th century America, and a literary mystery. Yet the elements didn’t quite come together for me.

Beloved and critically-acclaimed novelist Harriet Wolf has died. She has left behind six beloved books unfolding the story of the same pair of characters. She’s also left behind her daughter, Eleanor, and Eleanor’s two chalk-and-cheese daughters, Ruth and Tilton. What Harriet Wolf may also have left behind, her fans like to think, is a seventh book that will complete the story. But if there is a seventh book it’s hidden in the house where Harriet died, where Eleanor tries to keep Tilton packed in layers of cotton wool (metaphorically, but almost literally) to protect her from the world. This is the house to which the runaway Ruth returns to wreak havoc on the lives of her mother and sister and the memory of her grandmother, and to uncover family secrets left and right.

As I said, this should be the recipe for a novel that pushes all my buttons (history, literature, families, women) but I found it hard to finish. The only parts I found truly engaging were the flashback scenes narrated (posthumously) by Harriet, telling about her early life growing up in a home for “mentally defective” children at the turn of the twentieth century, and falling in love with a fellow “moron” before being unexpectedly set free to begin life outside the institution. If Harriet’s story had been the whole novel, I would have found it engrossing, but I never connected with Eleanor, Ruth or Tilton as characters, so I wasn’t as engaged with their parts of the story. However, it may just be a matter of personal taste. Not every book appeals to every reader, and I can’t say there’s anything terrible or badly-written about this book. Maybe you should give it a try — you might like it better than I did!

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Life & Death, by Celeste Perrino-Walker

lifeanddeathLife and Death is a gentle and sweet romance; it’s also a novel about overcoming grief and moving on with your life. It’s the first in a series of novels about a fictional small town named Toussaint, Vermont. While the town and its inhabitants are imaginary, the region, its culture and people are all very real, and author Perrino-Walker is at her strongest here, re-creating on paper a world she obviously knows very well.

The main character in the novel is a woman named Emerson Giroux, single mother of a teenaged daughter. Emerson is still grieving the loss of her husband in an accident four years ago and despite the strength she draws from a loving community of family and friends, she hasn’t really moved forward in her life since then. The tall, dark and handsome stranger (except he’s not really a stranger) who moves to town piques her interest, but he turns out to come with some baggage of his own that may be impossible to carry for a woman who’s suffered the kind of loss Emerson has.

The real strength of Life & Death, and the thing that makes me happy it’s the first of a series, is the novel’s strong sense of place. The largely French-speaking area of Vermont snuggled right under the Canadian border is a place rich with traditional music (which plays a huge part in this novel), lively spoken Franglais, and small-town values. There’s  a rich tapestry of minor characters in this novel, enough that it’s easy to see how the author will have a wide range of possible stories to tell about the people in this small town. 

If I have one quibble with this novel it’s that a large part of the romantic plot turns on the tried-and-true “a misunderstanding keeps them apart” trope that could so easily be dispelled with a good, honest conversation. Now it’s true that far too often we avoid those honest conversations, but after you’ve read enough novels where this is a key plot element, it becomes hard to believe that so many people, so much of the time, avoid sharing simple, basic pieces of information with each other! However, this is a minor complaint (and one I have with nearly every novel where romance is a major part of the storyline, so obviously most readers don’t have a problem with it!).

Perrino-Walker is a Christian novelist, and there’s definitely an inspirational element to the book — as Emerson struggles to move on with her life after loss, a more devout friend shows her that going to church to play the organ isn’t enough — she needs to read the Bible and pray for herself so she can develop her own relationship with God. The novel is light and lively enough that it manages to resist being preachy, and Emerson’s spiritual journey feels like a natural part of her overall journey away from despair and into hope.

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