Category Archives: Fiction — general

A Spool of Blue Thread, by Anne Tyler

bluethreadAs always, Anne Tyler delivers a well-written story with vividly drawn characters. A Spool of Blue Thread follows the fortunes of three generations of the Whitshank family — Abby her husband Red, and their grown children, with glimpses back into the past at Red’s parents, Junior and Linnie. The story is woven around a beloved family home and a family business that stretches across three generations, but the threads (see what I did there?) that really hold the three generations together are the two things that run through every family: love and lies. Throughout the story the Whitshank family’s many secrets are gradually revealed — some of which are quite surprising, and would be disturbing if everyone knew the truth. But the story suggests that when it comes to love and lies, you can’t have one without the other.

There’s a change in point of view about two-thirds of the way through the novel that is unavoidable but jarring, and I wondered if I would continue to be as engaged with the story after that point, but Tyler is more than equal to the task of keeping a reader involved in the story even as other characters’ points of view move to the forefront. The ending of the book — which actually happens before much of the story occurs, because the novel doesn’t unfold in chronological order — is bittersweet, suggesting how complicated family relationships always are, now much love and how many lies simmer below the tranquil surface of a well-loved family home.

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The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, by Claire North

harryaugustThe First Fifteen Lives of Harry August travels territory already explored in Kate Atkinson’s brilliant Life after Lifebut in quite a different way. Like Ursula in Life After Life, Harry August lives his life, then is reborn in exactly the same place and time to re-live his life again. And again, and again, and again. Always the same starting point — same parents, same location, same birthdate. Unlike Atkinson’s main character, who only gradually begins to sense that she might be re-living her life, Harry August is aware, very early in his second life, that he has been here and done all this before, and the knowledge very nearly drives him mad. But of course, he gets another chance.

The fact that Harry is completely aware of his re-lived lives changes the direction of this story, as does the fact that he is not alone — during his third life he learns that he is one of a worldwide network of such people who are living their lives over and over. They keep in touch, look out for one another, and pass useful information back through time. So in this novel, along with the reflections about the value of an individual human life that I enjoyed so much in Life After Life, there is an added sense of urgency when an emissary from the future lets Harry know that something is going very wrong in the near future, and he and others who live in the present time have to attempt to fix it.

From that point on, the novel takes on the feel of a thriller, as Harry works to defeat a villain who, like himself, has an infinite number of lives at his disposal. This book was an intriguing page turner with lots of twists and turns. If, in a regular thriller, the reader’s fear is that the hero may be killed before he gets to carry out his mission, that fear doesn’t apply here. If Harry is killed, it’s inconvenient, because he has to start over from scratch and go through childhood again, but he’s able to put plans and resources in place that he can use again in future lives. The real danger is not that he might be killed — but that his enemy might somehow be able to prevent him from ever being born at all.


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Ledger of the Open Hand, by Leslie Vryenhoek

Layout 1Anytime I’ve asked anyone what Leslie Vryenhoek’s new novel is about, people have always said, “It’s about debt.” Which actually turns out to be true, but makes the book sound much less interesting and engaging than it actually is. While I love a novel that has big ideas behind it, I don’t pick up a book to read about ideas; I want to read about people.

So, here’s what Ledger of the Open Hand is about, according to me: it’s about Meriel-Claire, who leaves her prairie small town to go to college in the 1980s and embarks on a lifelong friendship with her wealthy, gifted, larger-than-life roommate Daneen. Meriel-Claire thinks of herself as being a little smaller-than-life in comparison: her family, her background, her aspirations are all quite ordinary.

The book is about debt in the most basic sense that Meriel eventually ends up working as a debt counsellor, but it’s about debt in the deeper sense that it explores the debts, financial and emotional, that we end up owing each other — in friendship, in romance, and especially in families. The novel follows Meriel, Daneen, and Meriel’s family through decades of life, exploring how these debts accumulate and burden us, and how free we can ever actually be. Though there were moments throughout the book when I found myself wanting to shake Meriel a little and give her a good slap, to me that’s just a sign that I’m engaged with the book and caring about the characters. I found this an engaging and enjoyable read from the first page to the last.

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Unseen Things Above, by Catherine Fox

unseenthingsaboveReally, all I need to say about Catherine Fox’s Unseen Things Above is that it picks up the story from her earlier book, Acts and Omissions, which was my completely unexpected favourite-book-of-the-summer, and that the sequel is just as good as the original. Once again we are in the fictional diocese of Lindchester, where an omniscient (and sometimes intrusive, but amusingly so) narrator gives us glimpses into the lives of the clergy and others who live and work around Lindchester Cathedral. Fox is quite consciously modelling this series about a Church of England diocese in the 21st century after Anthony Trollope’s 19th-century fictional Barchester novels, and my greatest hope is that with the upcoming next book, she does not conclude a trilogy but rather follows in Trollope’s footsteps and gives us at least half a dozen Lindchester novels. These rich, vividly realized characters and their inner and outer struggles inhabit a world I would happily revisit over and over again.

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The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins

girlontrainThis extremely popular book was one I read quickly — the story of unhappy Rachel, who leaps to conclusions about the lives of a couple whose backyard she glimpses through the window of her London commuter train kept me turning pages, wanting to find out how all the pieces would git together. In this sense, it did its job as a thriller, and crafted a satisfying ending that made sense of all the plot threads that had gone before. However, in terms of engaging with the characters and caring deeply about their fates, the book fell a little flat. I tore through it in a day, but the characters haven’t lingered in my mind to the extent that I’m still thinking about them a few weeks later. Good, but by no means great, is my judgement on this novel.

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Close to Hugh, by Marina Endicott

closetohughOne thing that fascinates me in literary fiction is how blatantly a good writer can break all the broadly accepted rules of storytelling and get away with it. Writers are often told not to overwhelm readers with too many characters too quickly, nor to make it too difficult to figure out who’s who and what’s going on. But in the first pages of Close to Hugh, we are bombarded with a large cast of characters, all of them connected in some way to the main character, middle-aged gallery owner Hugh. It took me several chapters to figure out who was who and how they were all connected, but the book rewarded the effort it took to get to know the characters with a rich and vividly realized tale of two generations of friends and family intertwined in the crises of midlife and the crises of youth. It’s a gentle, quiet book, often funny, full of wordplay (mostly puns on Hugh/you, with all the meditations on identity you’d expect to go along with that). I’ve enjoyed all Marina Endicott’s books, though I think Good to a Fault will always be my favourite. Close to Hugh is book that rewards the attentive reader by introducing us to a varied cast of intriguing characters.

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Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan

penumbraThis is an odd, quirky little book about a character who goes to work in an out-of-the-way bookshop where all is not what it seems to be. Clay becomes curious about the regular customers who show up to borrow a series of mysterious books. There is a secret society, an ancient mystery, a quest, a journey, and even a very light dash of romance. The book is intriguing enough that I found it hard to imagine how the author could pull together an ending that would be truly satisfying and answer all the questions the story raised. As is often the case with such an intricately plotted book, the payoff at the end was not quite as satisfying as I’d dreamed, but still satisfying enough to make it an enjoyable reading experience, and I would recommend it.

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