Category Archives: Fiction — general

The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde

Arkham cover D finalThis is one of those classics that I’ve always intended to read and never gotten around to. And I sort of do love Oscar Wilde, so it seems strange that I’d never read his one novel.

Everyone knows the basic premise, maybe because it’s one of the most fascinating premises in all of literature (an agent would call this “high concept” if ol’ Oscar were trying to sell it today!). In fact, I made a Dorian Gray joke just this morning on Twitter about a friend who seems to be perpetually youthful and energetic even as he gets older. So there’s a painting of Dorian Gray, made when he’s young, handsome, and innocent, and as he becomes older and evil and corrupt (but not very old; he’s only 38 at the end of the book!), he never ages or changes, but the portrait changes to reflect the corruption of his soul. It really is a wonderfully weird book, engaging and thought-provoking and chilling all at once.

Also, I had huge fun on my Facebook page announcing that I was going to read that controversial book about the wicked Mr. Gray by the scandalous British author. I can’t believe how many of my Facebook friends actually thought I was going to read Fifty Shades of Grey. Really, people? Really???

Give me Oscar Wilde any day.

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Geek God, by Victoria Barbour

geekgodI always preface reviews of genres I don’t read much by confessing my lack of expertise; I read so few romances, for example, that I never feel I’m really well-qualified to judge or recommend them because ever genre has its own conventions and you need to be familiar with those. Generally, I only pick up a romance if it’s written by a friend of mine or, as in the case of Victoria Barbour, a writer I’m about to meet because we’re doing a reading together. (Well, now we’ve done a reading together. When I read her book, the reading was still in the future).

Victoria is one of a small but growing coterie of romance writers from my home province, Newfoundland, and local readers will enjoy the Newfoundland settings the form the backdrop of her stories. Geek God is the first of a trilogy of novellas (the series continues with Geek Groom and Geek Dad, which I haven’t read yet) about university prof Jillian and hot gamer geek Evan, who are both sort of adorable (and adorably geeky in different ways). This is a light and fun romance where it’s easy to root for both characters as you genuinely want to see them end up together. It’s also a fairly sweet and relatively non-explicit novel; she does have steamier ones as well, which I haven’t yet read! But I’ll definitely check out the next two novellas in this series to see how Evan and Jillian’s journey continues.

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Where There is Life, by Charlene Carr

wherethereislifeWhere There is Life begins in a moment of shattering loss. Newlywed Autumn, just arrived in London for a honeymoon with her new husband Matt, wakes in a hospital room alone. Instead of living her dream come true, Autumn has lost the man she loves and can’t imagine how to move forward from this moment. She returns home to a concerned family and well-meaning friends, but finds herself unable to pick up the threads of the life she lived before Matt. Her grief drives her away from home again, hoping that travel will provide her with a way to forget.

Autumn’s home is in St. John’s, Newfoundland, and the story moves from there back and forth to Italy and England as Autumn searches for a place where she can start a new life free from the searing pain of loss. The novel is a realistic portrayal of a young woman struggling with grief, and Autumn’s anguish will ring true to many readers. This is the second book in a series but can be read as a stand-alone novel, since minor characters from one book become main characters in another. Charlene Carr delivers a compelling story with a believable heroine, and readers will be rooting for Autumn as she tries to put the pieces of her life back together.

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The Rancher’s City Girl, by Patricia Johns

rancherscitygirlI’ve said before and I’ll say again: I’m not a great reviewer for romance because I don’t read enough of them to be a good judge — however Patricia Johns is a friend of mine and I always make a point of picking up her latest Love Inspired titles even if romance is not my usual genre. Titles in Harlequin’s Love Inspired line are not only sweet and wholesome without any graphic sex, but also highlight the spiritual journeys of their Christian characters along with their romantic journeys (I have now officially used the word “journey” TOO MUCH). In Johns’s latest romance, Eloise is a nurse providing home care to a cranky old man who has only recently discovered he has a long-lost son from an affair he had years ago — and he’s not too pleased about this blast from his past showing up now. The long-lost son just happens to be handsome rancher Cory, who, not surprisingly, is attracted to his father’s pretty and kindhearted nurse. But Cory and Eloise are both recovering from broken relationships — in her case, a husband who walked out on her; in his case a fiancee who dumped him. The ostensible conflict is whether city girl Eloise can ever learn to love Cory’s rancher life, but the real struggle here is whether two people who have been hurt badly can trust enough to love again. Cory’s relationship with the father he never knew is another element of the plot that’s skilfully drawn without providing any too-easy resolution. If you like inspirational romances you will have to go a long way to find a writer who handles this genre better than Patricia Johns does.

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Belzhar, by Meg Wolitzer

belzharThis was another young adult novel I picked up recently, in this case by a writer whose adult fiction I had already read. It was interesting to compare Meg Wolitzer’s portrayal of adolescent experience in The Interestings, which starts out with a group of gifted teens at a summer camp, and here in Belzhar, which is set among a group of gifted but emotionally damaged teens at a boarding school. Apart from the fact that The Interestings follows the characters into midlife, its portrayal of the characters and their experience is also subtler and more nuanced, and I don’t think it’s necessary that the emotional landscape of a teen novel has to be flatter or more black-and-white than that of a novel for adults.

That said, there was a lot to like about Belzhar, as the main character, Jam, tries to cope with the grief from a shocking loss that has thrown her into a deep depression. The boarding-school setting is a little contrived (actually, by the end of the book I’d decided it was more contrived than I thought it was, based on the ending, but I’ll get to that later). The school is designed for students who are gifted but “fragile,” and the friends the main character meets at school have suffered a wide range of traumas — but apparently the school does not allow students to be on any medication, nor does any form of psychological counselling or any other sort of therapy seem to be offered. The suggestion seems to be that simply by isolating a bunch of traumatized teens from their families and friends and educating them together in a remote rural setting, they’ll get better without any more specific interventions.

This seems unlikely, as does the school’s ban on cellphones and internet access (question: how would any modern high-school student complete homework without internet?) — but, like the blizzard that keeps Jam from getting home over Thanksgiving break, it’s an obvious contrivance — to make the world of the boarding school a closed system, in which inconvenient relationships and information from the outside world can’t break in to trouble the plot. A kind of bell jar, in fact — the students read Sylvia Plath, and the title is a reference both to her book and to the sealed-off world they find themselves entering (a concept I’ll get to in a moment) — but it also relates to the school itself.

Once you accept these contrivances, the story is pretty good, and kept me engaged. The main conceit of the plot is that a group of students gets hold of something that allows them a kind of limited time-travel — back to the times and people in their lives that triggered their traumatic experiences. Everyone has the opportunity to revisit those experiences, enabling them, ideally, to find the kind of closure that was denied them in real life, and then move forward with their lives. It’s an intriguing concept, though you can see how it would work better with some traumas than others. For someone grieving the loss of a loved one, as Jam is throughout the novel, it’s easy to see how a chance to say goodbye and accept the loss might help. But what about the girl who endlessly relives the day she let her younger brother get off the bus a few stops before home so he could go to a store, only to lose him forever when he’s kidnapped between the bus stop and home? What kind of re-living could ever help a person reconcile themselves to a moment like that? All the time-travel device could do would make you search endlessly for things you could have done differently — and, in fact, this is pretty much what happens.

Despite my doubts about it, I read this book quickly and found it engaging. The ending has a big twist that did a good job of surprising me — but the more I thought about it, the more the twist ending made me reconsider what I thought of the rest of the book.

If this is enough to intrigue you and you think you might read this book sometime, STOP HERE. I’m going to discuss the ending, so SPOILERS BELOW!!!

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I’ll Give You The Sun, by Jandy Nelson

giveyouthesunThis very highly-acclaimed young adult novel has an appealing premise and an intriguing structure. Jude and Noah are twins who are inseparable (though very different) at 13 and barely speaking to each other at 16. In alternating point-of-view chapters, Noah tells the story of what happened that summer three years ago to change the direction of both twins’ lives and tear their family apart, while Jude narrates what’s happening now, in their sixteenth year. Both voices are vivid and compellling though I did find the author’s attempts to make them quirky and distinctive went too far at times, particularly artist Noah’s habit of interpreting people’s emotional states in terms of visual images he could imagine painting. It’s intriguing and appropriate in small doses, but we often get it in large doses and it sometimes distracts from the story.

The story is good and well told — the desire to find out what happened in the past that was affecting everything the twins did in the present, kept me turning the pages. In some ways I thought the ending resolved things a little too neatly, but overall this was a quick and enjoyable YA read.

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Walt, by Russell Wangersky

waltI read Walt very quickly — finished the book in less than a day, so it certainly kept the pages turning. The style is pure Russell Wangersky — beautiful writing, perceptive descriptions, but the language is always made to serve the plot and characters rather than the other way around. The main character is the titular Walt, a nondescript middle-aged guy who works as a janitor in a St John’s grocery store. I couldn’t decide if Walt’s first-person narrative voice always felt authentic for the character Walt is supposed to be, but it certainly was compelling. There are other voices here too — a police officer trying to solve the disappearances of several women, including Walt’s wife Mary, and a young women, Alisha, who believes someone is stalking her.

Someone is, and that someone is Walt. The device that lets us into Walt’s head, and lets him into the lives of Alisha and the other women he stalks, is the simple grocery list — torn-off scraps of paper people leave behind in their carts and on the supermarket floor. Walt collects and analyzes these, putting together mental pictures of the shoppers behind the lists, and sometimes, as in Alisha’s place, even taking it so far as to actually follow them home and watch their lives through lighted windows. Sometimes, Walt goes farther.

But how far? It’s explicit from early on in the story that Walt is a stalker, but what else is he? Is he a home invader? (Yes). Is he a rapist? (Maybe?) Is he a murderer? (Hmmmm…) As he’s the first-person narrator for most of the book and relates his own stories, this also raises the question of how unreliable a narrator Walt is. He doesn’t mind relating tales of peering through women’s windows or pawing through their underwear drawers, but he’s evasive about other specifics, like what happened to the hitchhiker he picked up, or where exactly Mary went when she left him.Is this Walt being evasive with us, or Russell Wangersky, or both? This book raises a lot of questions, and they won’t all be answered by the last page — which will frustrate some readers who came to this book because they saw it described somewhere as a “thriller.” If it’s a thriller, the thrill is of a very literary type, and at the end of the novel you still may not know whodunit, or at least whathedun.

A friend of mine had a stalker in college, and it was creepy to watch the escalation of this guy’s obsession. Some time later, I tried to write a story from a stalker’s point of view, making his actions not at all excusable, but justifiable within his own head. The story was a disaster — I read it to a writing class I was taking at the time, and people actually started laughing out loud because the idea of this guy trying to justify these actions was so ridiculous, no-one could take it seriously. So I know from experience that it’s very hard to do what Wangersky does here — take a person who does inexcusable things, and bring us into his perspective enough to show how he is able to excuse them to himself.

The genius of using the shopping lists as a device is that that kind of fascination with other people’s lives is something most of us can relate to. Just as I was reading Walt, I heard another Canadian writer, in an interview, talk about her penchant for picking up other people’s discarded shopping lists in stores and perusing them (she wasn’t discussing Wangersky’s book, either — the topic arose completely separately from that). If we haven’t done that with shopping lists, we’ve certainly eavesdropped on other people’s conversations in the coffee shop (maybe even incorporating them into our novels!). Most of us have looked curiously at an attractive or intriguing stranger and wondered who they were and what they were like. And the vast majority of us wouldn’t take that curiosity to the next step of following the person home, much less peering into their windows or breaking into their houses. But what Walt, the novel, does so well is to show us how Walt, the character moves from the kind of curiosity we find acceptable, through the invasion of privacy we know is clearly “over the line,” to actions far more serious … and how, in his mind, it all makes sense. While this book may not have given the reader quite as much information as many of us will want, I do admire Wangersky’s brilliant ability to get inside Walt’s psyche and make it seem real.

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