Category Archives: Fiction

‘The Sleepwalker’ by Chris Bohjalian

Two books I read by this author were fabulous (Midwives and The Double Bind) and since reading those, I have been trying to find others of his that are just as good. Alas, this one wasn’t, and neither was The Guest Room, although both are intriguing beach reads, just not as good as the other two. The ending of this one was completely unpredictable which is always fun (this novel is chock-a-block full of red herrings). Bohjalian  is a good writer and can craft a compelling enough story, his novels covering a wide range of topics–you never quite know what you are going to get with this author.

The topic of this novel is sleepwalking, which was interesting to delve into. Sleepwalking is more common in childhood than in adulthood (17% of children sleepwalk in their early years–I did twice) but very few continue to do so as adults. The author focuses mostly on ‘sexsomnia’ a disturbing ‘arousal disorder’ (pun intended) where the adult sleepwalker engages in sexual encounters without waking up–a rather rare occurrence I would think, but interestingly has been used in criminal defence of rape.

When Annalee Ahlberg goes missing, her children fear the worst. Their mother has done bizarre things in the night before. As oldest daughter Lianna peels back the layers of the mystery she asks herself: Why did Annalee leave her bed only when her husband was away? And if she really died while sleepwalking, where is the body? Why does the detective on the case know so much about her mother and why is he now interested in her? Why does her sister have jet-black hair when everyone else in the family is blonde?

‘Exit West’ by Mohsin Hamid

This is an inventive and elegant love story set in the middle of an unnamed war zone. The author, who is best known for his book and subsequent movie The Reluctant Fundamentalist, has a strangely compelling writing style and a fanciful premise for this story which I will not mention since it is best discovered while reading. (Hint: think about something in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe) Saeed and Nadia meet when their country is at the brink of civil war. Eventually their only option is to escape to an alien and uncertain future. Can their relationship weather such a huge transition? Issues such as the plight of refugees and migrants, as well as the anger of nativist extremists are all well portrayed, making this slim novel extremely current.

To be honest I loved the creativity of the first half of the book, but found it became a bit flat and less strong in the latter half.  Nevertheless, I’m glad I read it for its quietly profound quality, its perspective on emigration, and because it covers the kind of events that are happening right now.

‘Anything is Possible’ by Elizabeth Strout

This is a must-read for Elizabeth Strout fans who have read My Name is Lucy Barton. As with Olive Kitteridge, it is a collection of linked short stories featuring characters from Lucy Barton’s home town. It’s not a sequel per se, more of a companion novel, but nevertheless an amazing back story giving portraits of people living in this fictional small town. I guess she wasn’t quite done with them yet! Because it isn’t a sequel, either book could be read first. Anything is possible when one human makes an authentic connection to another. One reviewer called this book a requiem to small town pain!

“Here, among others, are the ‘Pretty Nicely Girls,’ now adults: One trades self-respect for a wealthy husband, the other finds in the pages of a book a kindred spirit who changes her life. Tommy, the janitor at the local high school, has his faith tested in an encounter with an emotionally isolated man he has come to help; a Vietnam veteran suffering from PTSD discovers unexpected solace in the company of a lonely innkeeper; and Lucy Barton’s sister, Vicky, struggling with feelings of abandonment and jealousy, nonetheless comes to Lucy’s aid, ratifying the deepest bonds of family.”

Strout is one of my favourite authors just because her stories are so real and unsentimental yet evoke such feeling and conflict. I’m not thrilled about investing in short stories, so I do expect to be drawn into a story immediately and completely, and in this Strout does not disappoint. If you are an Alice Munro fan, you’ll love Strout. They both have a way of capturing deep nuance and hope in everyday life: love and loss, reconciliation, complicated family bonds, resentments big and small, indignities, disappointments, grace, kindness, etc. and there is not necessarily a happily-ever-after or a definitive ending involved. Strout respects the reader enough to allow them to fill in some of the blanks.

‘Do Not Say We Have Nothing’ by Madeleine Thien

“In Canada in 1991, ten-year-old Marie and her mother invite a guest into their home: a young woman called Ai-Ming, who has fled China in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square protests.

Ai-Ming tells Marie the story of her family in Revolutionary China – from the crowded teahouses in the first days of Chairman Mao’s ascent to the Shanghai Conservatory in the 1960s and the events leading to the Beijing demonstrations of 1989.  It is a story of revolutionary idealism, music, and silence, in which three musicians – the shy and brilliant composer Sparrow, the violin prodigy Zhuli, and the enigmatic pianist Kai – struggle during China’s relentless Cultural Revolution to remain loyal to one another and to the music they have devoted their lives to.  Forced to re-imagine their artistic and private selves, their fates reverberate through the years, with deep and lasting consequences for Ai-Ming – and for Marie.”

Winner of the Giller Prize and Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction and nominated for the Man Booker, this is no doubt an important literary novel but I found it hard to get into and kept losing the thread. There are a lot of characters with multiple names and time shifting to add to the confusion. I soldiered on and found the second half better, but I know a lot of people who have given up on this novel before the first 100 pages were finished and that is a shame. Some editing of the first half might have helped and I think I would have benefited from a family tree chart and character list (which are actually available on Wikipedia). Parts of it were beautifully written, and there are interesting aspects, but even though I tried, I found it hard to connect to the characters. What did come through loud and clear in this book, was the controlling feature of Chinese government and politics in this time period. The author did powerfully use music as a passionate and poignant counterpoint to strict cultural and political ideologies. Telling Chinese history is tricky and often dangerous business. Thien courageously tackles this, but the book falls into the unfortunately common trap of being a noteworthy literary novel that is not readable enough for a wide audience.

For a more literary review of this book, please go the Globe and Mail or The Guardian. Both are excellent resources.

‘The Dry’ by Jane Harper (Aaron Falk #1)

This very well written debut mystery novel had me gripped on the first page and kept me going throughout, with plenty of twists and turns, right to the end. It’s one of those gems that I can recommend to anyone and everyone. Good pacing, great characters, and evocatively described scenes. Set in the Australian outback, in the middle of a crippling drought, the author made me feel the overwhelming heat and taste the dust and despair in the air.

Tragically and oddly, it seems Luke Hadler has killed his wife and small son in his own home, leaving his infant daughter untouched. A murder suicide almost seems plausible from a desperate man in a town that is dying. But when Aaron Falk arrives back to the place of his youth to attend his friend’s funeral, he is confronted with questions about what actually happened. Was this murder connected to secrets from their childhood? Should he stay to investigate when all he wants to do is run away as he had to before?

‘The Woman in Cabin 10’ by Ruth Ware

There’s a lot of things I liked about this book (the cover art is great!) but I wouldn’t highly recommend it. It’s ok, but it felt a bit like a waste of time in the end, to be honest. It’s a bit like The Girl on the Train meets Agatha Christie–a contemporary old style whodunit with an unreliable narrator, all of the characters contained in one place, and the killer hiding in plain sight–on a cruise ship.

Laura (Lo) Blacklock can’t believe her good fortune when she ends up with an assignment on a luxury liner, cruising the fjords in the North Sea. A journalist for a travel magazine, it’s the trip of a lifetime for Lo, except that she unwittingly gets caught up in a murderous plot that threatens to take her life. The cruise ship setting was intriguing, as was the premise, but it ended up being a bit slow and boring at times. I found some parts of the story confusing and illogical which I found annoying. I did want to find out what happened so I kept reading and finished it, but I don’t think it was worth it in the end.  If you are marooned on a desert island when your boutique boat has sunk, and this is the only book available, by all means go for it, but there was nothing special about it from my perspective.

‘The Tale of Halcyon Crane’ by Wendy Webb

“It all sounds quite Gothic,” he said. “A huge old house, stuck on an island in bad weather, an unsolved murder, mysterious encounters with ghosts and rude townspeople, even the eerie old maid.”

Hallie James was raised by her father, being told, as a child, that her mother had died in a fire. Naturally, she’s shocked to receive a letter years later stating that her mother just died recently. Anxious to know what really happened, Hallie travels to a beautiful but remote island in the Great Lakes where her mother lived. Hallie isn’t exactly embraced warmly by the locals, and she realizes the secrets to her past are likely to be revealed on this mysterious and strange island.

A nice spine tingling romantic ghost story for a windy night curled up in front of the fire with a steaming cup of tea. But not so scary that you can’t let your husband go up to bed early, leaving you alone. I liked the creative premise and felt intrigued by the journey Hallie takes to find out who she really is. It reminded me of The Secrets Between Us by Louise Douglas, which I also really enjoyed. Although I believe in the spirit world, I’ve never encountered any ghosts, so that keeps me always looking for and preferring reasonable living explanations for the naughty souls long passed who keep doing weird things and just won’t go away!

A light contemporary spooky read that is also warm and fuzzy and kept my attention throughout! I think I have found a new author to return to for horror-lite!