Category Archives: Fiction — general

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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The Mars Room, by Rachel Kushner

marsroomSo many people have recommended this novel to me that I finally had to pick it up. It’s a very well-written, unflinching look at Romy Hall, a woman condemned to life imprisonment for a brutal crime, the life that led her to that crime, and her experience in prison. While Romy’s is the main point of view, we also get glimpses into the perspective of other characters — fellow prisoners, guards, and Gordon, an English teacher in the prison’s education program, who Romy tries to establish a sympathetic relationship with in hopes that he can help her contact her young son who may be lost in the foster care system.

This book is bleak, believable, and highly readable. It’s like an early-season episode of Orange is the New Black without most of the humour: a reminder that everyone caught up in the penal system, those who run it as much as those imprisoned in it, are complicit and deeply flawed. Frankly, I did not find this book as groundbreaking or astonishing as many of the people I know who loved it did, but it certainly was an engaging and troubling picture of life on the inside, and the outside.

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Love, Hate, and Other Filters, by Samira Ahmed

lovehateandThis was a sweet teen novel that started out as a fairly light romance with a relatively engaging love triangle, and took a much more serious and interesting turn partway through. Maya is a 17-year-old Indian-American girl who dreams of going to college in New York City and learning to make movies, while she struggles against the expectations of her more traditional Indian parents. She’s also torn between two guys — an attractive Indian guy who would be the perfect match from her family’s point of view, and a boy from school she’s had a longstanding crush on who finally notices her. 

All those typically teen concerns fade into the background when a terrorist attack focuses hate on the Maya and her family. Suddenly she has to deal with much bigger issues, and they threaten the life she’s trying to build for herself.

I love young adult stories that explore a diverse range of teenage/high school experience, and I loved this one particularly because it explored the world of an Indian-Muslim teen who doesn’t wear hijab and whose family doesn’t attend the mosque regularly — because I think it’s important to remember that there’s not just one template for what it means to be a Muslim immigrant in North America, and the more varied flavours of experience we get represented in stories, the better we’ll know one another. This was a quick and enjoyable read.

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The Silk Roads, by Peter Frankopan

thesilkroadsThis non-fiction book promised a really interesting perspective on history that we don’t often get, and although it only partly delivered (in my opinion) I still learned about it. It’s a retelling of the history of human civilization from the perspective of what was happening in the countries along the old “silk roads” trade routes, mostly through Central Asia and what we in the west call the “Middle East.” There’s an attempt here to shift away from the Eurocentric view of history that we so often get taught as the official story, and while it’s only partly successful it’s very much worth doing.

The earlier sections of the book make a strong case for exploring the importance of the Middle East and Central Asia as the cradle of civilization and the nexus of trade. The history of religion is of course important here too — the roots of Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Buddhism are all explored from the perspective of their impact on the cultures of the countries where they originated and other parts of the world with which they interacted. The story of the rise of Islam, its spread throughout the region, and the blossoming of Islamic culture during Europe’s so-called “dark” ages, is particularly well-told, and an important corrective for people today who are historically ignorant enough to believe that Western, Christian civilization is automatically and always superior and more developed.

A lot of the world, even of Asia, still gets left out here — there are only passing references to what was happening in China and India, and virtually no reference to Japan or most of the rest of the “Far East.” Still, for the focus this book has it’s really interesting — until we get to the “modern” era, particularly from the 19th century onwards (but even beginning a bit before that). As Western civilization industrializes and begins colonizing, the focus shifts — we are still learning the story of what happened in Central Asia and the Middle East, but we are now learning it almost entirely through the lens of how it was seen and acted upon by Europeans and Americans, which I found jarring. It’s as if the author decided to  move away from using primary sources written by and about people in the countries under discussion, and began exploring them through Western eyes, which made the last part of the book much less interesting to me than the first part.

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On the Come Up, by Angie Thomas

onthecomeupThis is a wonderful new YA novel by the author of, and set in the same community as, bestseller The Hate U Give. While On the Come Up is not as obviously tied to specific current events as T.H.U.G. (which dealt with the aftermath of a police officer shooting an unarmed black youth), it is a very timely coming of age story in which racism, poverty, violence and the struggle to find your own path and express your own creativity is explored through an engaging and likeable main character and a rich supporting cast.

Thomas may be drawing on her own autobiographical story here a little bit, since she herself was a rapper before she was a bestselling author, and the novel focuses on 16-year-old Bri, a talented young rapper who dreams of making it big. In a family and a neighbourhood rife with poverty and constantly threatened by gang violence, Bri discovers there are many possible paths to “making it” — and she has to decide what that’s going to look like for her. She is thrust unwillingly into the public eye when she is targeted by the security guards at her school in an incident of racial profiling — and has to decide if she can use that incident to propel her music career, and what she will do with the platform she’s unexpectedly been handed.

Thomas has a gift for creating characters so vivid, so believable and real that they pull middle-aged, middle-class white ladies like me into the world inhabited by girls like Bri and their friends and families. I could not put this book down and raced through it in barely more than a day. Yes, the novel has important things to say about racism and politics — but it’s also so incredibly well-written, enjoyable and entertaining that there’s no sense of it ever feeling preachy or didactic. I can’t wait for what she writes next.

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There There, by Tommy Orange

There ThereThere There is a book I’ve heard people talking about for the past year, and it really is amazing. The novel has a huge cast of characters, especially for a short book. The characters are all First Nations people (they, like lots of First Nations people in the US, usually refer to themselves as Indians and of course people get to pick what they are called; it’s just that as a settler-descended white Canadian it feels weird to type “Indian” when that term is sometimes seen as pejorative in this country), mostly living in contemporary urban settings in and around Oakland, California. They are all kinds of people — those fiercely proud of their native heritage and those completely cut off from it; powwow dancers and activists; criminals and addicts; people who want to build something and people who want to tear something down. And none of those categories is discrete, because these are real, complex, flesh-and-blood people.

The pace of the book seems dizzying at first — you meet character after character in short chapters, and at first these characters seem to have little or nothing to do with each other and the book reads more like a collection of loosely linked short stories — linked, perhaps, by the experience of being Native American in today’s America and, more specifically, in today’s Oakland. But soon you start to see links and connections, see how some of these characters’ stories are woven together. Some connections are direct — members of an estranged extended family who may not even realize they are related — while others are indirect. The most important connection, it turns out, is that all these people are going to the same event: a powwow held in a local arena. They’re all going for different reasons, but when the trajectories of their journeys begin to converge, the pace of the story picks up. The multiple points of view continue, but the chapters get shorter, the camera shifting from one character to another as we see how events play out, leading to a climax that’s shattering in every sense.

There There is a beautiful piece of writing (and a master class in how to handle multiple points of view), but it’s also the kind of writing by Native American/Indian/First Nations writers that more settler-descended people like me need to read. It’s one thing to toss around phrases like “intergenerational trauma” but another to see so vividly and viscerally depicted the impact of generations of dispossession and discrimination. This was an important, overpowering, almost overwhelming piece of fiction.

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Something for Everyone, by Lisa Moore

somethingforeveryoneLisa Moore is almost certainly the most nationally celebrated and critically acclaimed author to come out of the Newfoundland literary scene in my generation, and of the four of us who are up for this year’s NL Reads award, she’s the only one who could be considered a literary household word. Her latest collection of short stories, Something for Everyone, provides what her readers have come to expect: stories whose insight into the human experience (centred almost always in contemporary St. Johns, though there is, unusually for Moore, one historical piece in this collection) is mediated through richly layered metaphor and detailed observations. Some of her short stories feel as much like prose poems as like short fiction.

There are times, in the midst of a Lisa Moore story, when I feel I’m almost drowning in sensory detail. I can find myself submerged in paragraph after paragraph of incredibly detailed description of — to pull one example from a story in this collection — a hotel caretaker using a long-handled net to pull debris from an outdoor pool, a description so minute it includes the sentences: “The pole he has is made of sections joined by plastic cuffs that screw together. Some blue sections, some silver, joined together without consideration for alternating colour.” Swimming through sentences like that in the midst of four paragraphs of the caretaker cleaning the pool (that’s four paragraphs just at that point in the story — Moore will bring us back to this description later, more than once) can leave a reader a little breathless. You can love the attention to detail but also wonder if this story is going anywhere or whether it’s just flowing from one visual image to the next in non-linear fashion. Then, two-thirds of the way through the story that contains the pool caretaker, you’re suddenly reminded of a tiny detail in the first sentence of that story, a detail you almost forgot: “Orlando, Florida. I’m here with a conference of twenty thousand librarians from all over North America, two weeks after the Pulse massacre.” When you’re suddenly reminded of the when and where of this story and (at least part of) the why, it’s like being yanked out of that warm pool of sensory detail, gasping for breath in the sudden sharp air of human tragedy.

Possibly because I generally prefer novels to short stories, my favourite part of this collection was the last story, Skywalk, which is really a novella in five chapters. It begins with a chance encounter between two young university students: the girl, newly come to St. John’s to study nursing, is nervous about crossing the parkway skywalk at one a.m., and asks a boy standing nearby to call her and stay on the phone till she’s made it safely across. From that single brief encounter, the story spirals out like the arms of a starfish, reaching backwards into the girl’s past, and the boy’s, forward into their futures, each piece of the story unfolding gradually against the backdrop of a series of horrific crimes being committed in St. John’s. Every character, every encounter, every piece of dialogue, and yes, every lovingly-detailed sensory description, is note-perfect in this piece.

Maybe it’s just because so many of these stories are set on the same streets where I live and work and walk every day, and those streets and the people who frequent them are so vividly depicted (though sometimes with jarring changes presumably for fictional purposes — I wasted far too much time trying to figure out where Chelsea’s bus stop was, sure it was in my neighbourhood but that it couldn’t logically exist within the parameters given, until I reminded myself that Lisa Moore has a poetic license and the right to use it), but to me the strength of these stories is how real some of the moments within them feel. They feel like slices of life that seem to be lifted directly from a spot right next to me, where I might have been standing a moment ago. 

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