Category Archives: Fiction
by Garth Stein
Simon & Schuster, 2014
Do you believe in ghosts? Or, if not, are you willing to suspend disbelief long enough to enjoy a story?
There be ghosts in A Sudden Light, and they help to tell a story of redemption and faith, a tale of when to take and when to give back.
If you feel you don’t have enough, you hold on to things, he said. But if you feel you have enough, you let go of things. —Grandpa Samuel in A Sudden Light
Trevor Riddell is the fourteen-year-old descendant of a Seattle lumber baron, Elijah Riddell, who took all he could from clear-cut west coast forests and then repented before his death. Elijah willed his descendants to give his land back to nature, but when do children ever listen to their fathers? Family being what it is, several stagnant and acrimonious generations pass. By the time Trevor arrives at the vast wooden mansion of his great-great-grandfather, he must deal with thwarted ghosts and unfulfilled family members—the spiritual and the nonspiritual— in his quest for the truth.
How do we reconcile the differences between what we see and what we know?
Trevor travels to the Riddell estate with his father, Jones, who is returning there for the first time in decades. They are greeted by Jones’ sister, Serena, and his aging father, Grandpa Samuel. Serena is a weak spot in the story, her motivations not perfectly clear and her intentions questionable.
But the grand wooden house itself is an interesting character. Trevor explores the hidden passageways and secret staircases of an estate that seems, magically, to live and breathe.
Perhaps that’s what life is about . . . The search for magic. The search for the inexplicable. Not in order to explain it, or contain it. Simply in order to feel it. Because in that recognition of the sublime, we see for a moment the entire universe in the palm of our hand. And in that moment, we touch the face of God.
And that is what this novel is really all about. Each strange encounter opens Trevor’s mind to new possibilities and an underlying interconnectedness.
By Melissa DeCarlo
Harper Paperbacks, 2015
“Twenty-seven minutes is, if anyone ever asks, exactly how long it takes to cram everything I own into six giant trash bags.”
—opening sentence of The Art of Crash Landing
I defy you to read that opening sentence and not keep reading.
The title of this book gives hints about the story. Before we even begin to read we know that someone’s life is spiraling out of control, and we know that someone is going to share some insights about the experience. We guess that, one way or another, the person survives. A little banged up maybe, but still in one piece.
That person is Mattie, who is 30, pregnant and couch-surfing. Her mother combined just enough love with just enough alcoholic negligence to shape her into a person who is an absolute mess, but with a capacity for daring compassion.
From that first sentence I liked Mattie. I cheered for her when she made good decisions, and I completely understood when she messed up big-time. Her character appeals to the side of us that has made mistakes, but reassures the side of us that says, “Well, I made some mistakes, but at least I didn’t screw things up that badly.”
Mattie’s mother—who died of cancer—had cut off all contact with family, so Mattie is surprised to hear that her maternal grandmother has died and left her an inheritance. The answer to her problems? Perhaps, but not without some adventures and some mystery.
“But now, my hand turning this last doorknob, the feeling is strong enough to take my breath away. Even though I already know what I’m going to find.” —Mattie in The Art of Crash Landing
What’s behind the door? I bet you want to know.
It takes skill to write a heartbreaking story with humour, and DeCarlo strikes the right balance. Some chapters unfold with an inescapable sense of impending doom, but those chapters are balanced by others that unfold with irrepressible hope. DeCarlo creates well-rounded characters who are flawed, but endearingly so. The extra touches she brings to the story—guinea pigs and farting dogs—make it all the more charming.
I received the book from Harper Paperbacks for review purposes.
I was not financially compensated for this post. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions are completely my own based on my experience.
by Leo Brent Robillard
Turnstone Press, 2015
“Resonating with the familiar” is the phrase that leaps to mind when I think of The Road to Atlantis. Leo Brent Robillard touches on so many places, events and experiences known to me, almost every page had me thinking, “Oh, I know what he’s talking about.”
Some of those places, events and experiences made me smile. I live in Ottawa, and I grew up in Eastern Ontario, so I know about Canterbury High School, Bon Echo, life in a government city, and the “university town on the shore of Lake Ontario.” He even referred to the Persian Gulf and the HMCS Terra Nova. My brother served on that ship during that time. Heartwarming.
Some of the places, events and experiences landed on ouchy places: female preoccupation with weight and body image, the effects of alcohol abuse on a family and the challenges of parenting teenagers. Thought-provoking.
And then there’s the loss of a child. Thank goodness that one is not familiar to me.
In Robillard’s novel, David and Anne start out on a road trip with their daughter, Nat, and young son, Matty. Along the way, a playful stop at the beach ends in tragedy. David, Anne and Matty must do the unthinkable and learn to live as a family of three, instead of four.
“. . . in a single day and night . . . the island of Atlantis . . . disappeared in the depths of the sea. For which reason, the sea in those parts is impassable and impenetrable, because there is a shoal of mud in the way . . .” —from Plato’s Account of Atlantis, translated by Benjamin Jowett
David and Anne find themselves in a metaphorical shoal of grief, guilt and blame mud. Poor Matty, too young to really remember his sister but living in the shadow of her death his whole life, bears the brunt of the inadequate tools David and Anne choose to try to deal with their pain: obsessive overprotection, infidelity, alcohol abuse and the bottling up of emotions.
Fathers—the good, the inflexible, the absent and the damaged—play a dominant role in the story. One of the most endearing scenes involves a carload of questionable fathers driving desperately through a snowstorm to arrive at the birth of a child.
I’m an admirer of Robillard’s work. I was once accused of “gushing” about his poetic literary style. To read a Robillard book is to curl up in a comfy chair with a cup of tea and feed your poetic soul. This novel is poetic in a starker way but, as always, his professionally lean prose deftly summarizes complex life circumstances and personalities.
“. . . the boy would never leave his own child. That took a cold mechanical precision. You had to be scalpel sharp with a selective memory. You had to be able to shut doors and never again test the handles.”
Robillard covers a lot of ground in a short book (192 pages). Concise, incisive and psyche-testing, The Road to Atlantis relates one family’s evolutionary journey from submersion to surface.
I received the book from Turnstone Press for review purposes. I was not financially compensated for this post.I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions are completely my own based on my experience.
by Michel Faber
I had my defences up for the first part of this book. The main character, a Christian minister, travels to the faraway planet of Oasis to live with and teach Christianity to the indigenous alien population.
Considering the damage done to indigenous populations around the world by Christian missionaries of centuries past, I was not prepared to buy into that as a good idea, at least not initially. But I had to keep reading just to see if Peter Leigh, Christian minister, ended up tortured and murdered by less-than-welcoming aliens.
As I read on, I realized that Peter does not use his considerable knowledge of the Bible to proselytize but to enlighten. He calls the Bible “a storehouse of messages,” and he leaves room for metaphorical appreciation of its stories.
The trouble is, Peter is not the first Christian missionary to have contact with the Oasan beings. Previous missionaries taught the Bible—the Book of Strange New Things—with more fervor and factual flair, and the Oasans are not equipped with the ability to perceive subtleties of meaning or metaphor. When fact-based Oasans baldly quote passages like, “We will have no other God than God our saviour. In Him alone we have hope of life,” it makes Peter uneasy. He begins to see the dark side of his purpose there.
Meanwhile, back on Earth, Peter’s wife, Bea, is dealing with apocalyptic-like climatic and economic disasters. The distance between her and Peter and the daunting challenges she must face alone stress their relationship and diminish her faith.
In The Book of Strange New Things, messy, complicated humans seem delightfully fascinating next to the stoic, plodding, straightforward Oasans. Faber’s message could be that we can’t—and shouldn’t—stomp out our human controversies and complexities, much as we might sometimes want to.
In The Book of Strange New Things, Peter’s allegorical, multi-layered interpretation of the Bible seems delightfully reassuring next to the inflexible—and ultimately, unsatisfactory—factual view. Faber’s message could be that there is a time for faith and a time for doubt.
In the end, I liked this book, but I can see how many people would not. I’m a member of a progressive Christian church, and I found the Christian zeal of Peter at the beginning of the book off-putting. I bet atheists would bail early.
by Rita Leganski
You will enjoy this book if you are a fan of magical realism. If you prefer cold hard facts, maybe not so much.
Given the title, The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow, I don’t think I’m giving away too much when I say the main character does not speak, or at least not with words. Voiceless, he uses other means to communicate deeply with people (alive or dead) and with nature and the universe.
Rita Leganski creates a charming character in Bonaventure Arrow. Because he doesn’t speak, Leganski can’t use traditional dialogue to convey his insights and emotions. She uses head nods, gestures, and thoughts in a way that I feared might get tedious and annoying after a while, but it never did.
The mystical New Orleans setting matches the mystical nature of the story. Leganski brings in Southern Baptist tent revivals, Roman Catholic rituals, Voodoo curses, and Hoodoo charms to add spicy twists to her narrative.
Occasionally, just very occasionally, the stilted dialogue of Bonaventure’s mother, Dancy, did not ring true to me. Dialogue is not Leganski’s strong suit as a writer. Her strength is beautiful, descriptive narrative that captures the essence of a thing.
“Dancy did not know of Gabe’s feelings, but Bonaventure could hear them and he thought they sounded like a pearl that forms in concentric layers of kindness to protect a helpless oyster from a hurtful grain of sand.”
Fortunately, since Bonaventure doesn’t speak, dialogue is not a prominent feature of the book, so the dreamy story flows.
Leganski gives us plenty to think about: life after death, different ways to perceive the unspoken, the benefits and dangers of religion, the need for forgiveness (or not), acceptance of differences, and the poison of guilt, revenge and loneliness.
The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow received unanimous approval from the members of my book club: fans of magical realism all.
by Sean Michaels
Random House, 2014
Odd questions crossed my mind when I was reading Us Conductors.
How long did Sean Michaels spend coming up with “DZEEEEOOOoo” as the proper translation of the theremin sound? It captures perfectly the eerie sound of the instrument invented by the novel’s main character, Lev Sergeyevich Termen.
Under what circumstances did Michaels receive the inspiration to add Kung Fu to Termen’s list of interests? That one aspect to his character strikes me as . . . out of character.
And why haven’t I heard of the many inventions and exploits of the “Russian Edison”, a man who seemed to be able to invent on demand? We have him to thank for everything from motion-activated lights to a clear picture on our televisions.
The breadth of those questions summarizes my overall impression of this novel.
First, Michaels is not a poetic writer, but he has a knack for encapsulating an image or feeling. The theremin sound is one example, and later in the novel when Termen has to brush off rusty musical skills after a lengthy and harrowing imprisonment in a Siberian gulag, he writes: “I was about to wrench open an overgrown gate.” Perfect.
Second, bits and pieces of the novel perplex me, because they don’t seem to fit. The Kung Fu is curious. And Termen’s first wife is there—and not there—in an inexplicable, and mildly annoying way.
Finally, it enlightened me. I learned so much. This book is fiction, but based on real people and real events from history: Russia at the time of Lenin, New York City in the Jazz Age and later the market crash of 1929, and then the harsh Siberia of Stalin’s time.
Michael’s double-edged epigraph at the beginning of the Giller Prize-winning book is prize-winning in itself: “This book is mostly inventions.” It lets the reader know that the author intends to play fast and loose with facts, which Michaels does, but it also refers to the many brilliant inventions of the main character.
The Lev Sergeyevich Termen of this book is scientifically brilliant and socially inept. Unable to navigate his way to a meaningful loving relationship, unable to leave either Russia or America behind, and unable to manage such banalities as personal finances, the man is the master of his own demise.
This book won’t warm your heart. You won’t come to the end of it, close it with a sigh and hold it close to your chest. Aspects of it might frustrate you. But if you read it, you have the opportunity to admire some insightful writing, and you probably will learn something.