Category Archives: Fiction — general

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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The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy, by Rachel Joyce

queeniehennessyThe last book I’m reviewing this year is NOT the last book I read this year. It’s a book I read and loved back in the spring, posted the draft of a review for, and then … forgot to write the review. But I’m glad I realized that before the end of the year, because it was actually one of my favourite and most engaging books this year.

Queenie is the companion volume — not a sequel — to one of my favourite books of 2012, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. In that novel, a message from an old friend, Queenie Hennessy, who is now dying, is the catalyst for Harold’s long and strange journey across the length of England and into the depths of his own life. Queenie remains a shadowy figure throughout that book; though she is the ostensible reason why Harold is inspired to walk, it becomes clear that Harold never really knew Queenie all that well, or understood why he was important enough for her to reach out to after all these years.

The story is complete when you read Queenie’s side of it, which is as poignant, beautiful and insightful as Harold’s. Queenie steps out of the shadows in this haunting novel to become a fully rounded person with hopes, loves and fears. The other character who moves from two- to three-dimensional in this book is Harold’s son David, who skirts the edges of his father’s story but becomes a living, breathing person in the pages of Queenie’s book, as we realize that his father’s friend and co-worker knew David, in some ways, much better than his own father did.

There are tragedies at the heart of both Queenie’s and Harold’s stories, so this could never have been a story with a simple happy ending. But it is a story that reminds us of the tremendous potential, even in the midst of tragedy, for moments of kindness, warmth and human connection. I am so glad that Rachel Joyce wrote this second book, because the story would not have been complete without it.

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The Dragon’s Song, by Bernice Morgan (illustrated by Jennifer Morgan)

dragonssongI’m sorry to say that one of the best books I’ve read recently is a book I won’t be able to recommend to you — not because you wouldn’t enjoy it, but because you might have a hard time getting your hands on it. The Dragon’s Song is a limited-edition art book from novelist Bernice Morgan and her daughter, printmaker Jennifer Morgan. Bernice’s novella, her first published story since 2008’s Cloud of Bone, is illustrated by Jennifer’s woodcut engravings. I’m related to both author and illustrator so I got to go to the launch and get a copy, and while I believe this limited-edition, rather expensive release is appropriate for such a lovely and beautifully-illustrated piece of work, it does make me sad to realize that this story won’t reach the thousands of readers who would love to read another Bernice Morgan tale.

The novella opens with an old woman in Coley’s Point, Newfoundland, trying to adapt to widowhood after the death of her minister husband. Though neighbours and friends only know her as a quiet, white-haired old lady, Dora Mercer has a past life they don’t suspect. As a newlywed she accompanied her husband to China, where they served as missionaries. What happened there still haunts her a lifetime later, and “haunting,” along with “beautiful,” are the words that best describe this story and its accompanying illustrations for me. If you do get a chance to read it, don’t hesitate!

The Dragon’s Song is available, while copies last, from the publisher, Running the Goat Books and Broadsides, at a price that reflects the fact that it is a work art.

 

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The One Thing, by Marci Lyn Curtis

theonethingMy daughter, a discerning teenage reader, read this YA novel a little while back and was telling me about it with great enthusiasm. She made it sound so interesting that I decided I should read the book myself. Unfortunately, I would have enjoyed it more had I not been spoiled on a major plot point — yet that spoiler was the very thing that drew me and made me want to read the novel. I’m not going to spoil it for you, though, so perhaps you’ll read and enjoy it.

The narrator of The One Thing is teenage Maggie, who was enjoying a normal, soccer-filled adolescence until she lost her vision. She’s not adapting well to being blind, and her snarky, far from optimistic voice carries the novel. Curtis does a great job of portraying Maggie as far from the stereotypical “inspiring” disabled person, although sometimes she strays a bit too far in the direction of being simply unlikeable. 

One day, in the office of her parole officer (she’s been getting into a little trouble since getting sent to a special school for the blind), Maggie sees a ten-year-old boy named Ben who walks with crutches.  That’s the odd thing: she sees Ben. She hasn’t seen anyone or anything for months — so why can she suddenly see this kid?

From that one inexplicable circumstance the story spins out into a tale of friendship, family, and learning to live with loss. It’s a good story, but it’s a bettr one if you don’t get spoiled, so I’ll stop here.

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A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara

alittlelifeA Little Life is a novel that’s received a lot of attention, a lot of critical acclaim (it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Award), a lot of rave reviews, but also a lot of negativity from a smaller coterie of readers and reviewers who absolutely hated it. For me, the experience of reading it compared to another recent (much less literary) blockbuster: The Girl on the Train, in that I found it almost impossible to put down while I was reading it, but had to stop and evaluate when I got to the end how good it really was and how much I actually enjoyed it.

Spoiler: A Little Life is a much better book than The Girl on the Train. But it’s not without its flaws.

There will be other spoilers. I’ll try to not to give away any major plot points that you won’t have learned within the first 100 pages of this 700-page novel, but I can’t promise to keep you completely unspoiled.

If you read any blurbs, or even if you just read those first hundred pages or so, you may believe that A Little Life is the story of four college friends: Jude, Willem, Malcolm and JB, as they make their young adult lives in New York City and embark on their various careers (law, theatre, architecture and visual art, respectively). But that’s misleading. A Little Life is the story of one character, Jude. Point of view shifts, so it’s not always told from Jude’s perspective, but it quickly becomes clear that this is in no way a true ensemble cast: The other characters’ perspectives and stories matter only as they impact upon Jude. This is sometimes annoying when another character — JB in particular — clearly has as rich, interesting and troubled a life as Jude does, but we get to learn very little of it. However, it’s not necessarily a flaw in the story; in a book of this length the author definitely had time and space to explore four lives thoroughly if she really wanted to, but she only wanted to tell one story, Jude’s, and that story is more than enough to fill these pages and make them an engrossing read.

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