Category Archives: Fiction

‘Olive, Again’ by Elizabeth Strout

Olive Kitteridge is one of my all time favourites, so I was excited to read the sequel Olive, Again. And it did not disappoint. In fact, everything I would say about this second book, was said in my previous post about the first book, so you might as well turn back to that now: click here.

Strout is a genius at capturing many varied moments in one novel: holy, ordinary, heartbreaking, endearing, frustrating, joyous, sensual, horrible, humorous, and awkward. I think she writes ‘awkward’ best, I can’t imagine it’s easy to do. The sequel carries on seamlessly from the first book and holds the same tone and form: loosely connected stories about people in Crosby, Maine but what you can count on is that Olive will show up, and it will be intriguing. This book in particular is poignant and real in describing aging Olive, the way she copes, and what she learns about herself. Olive continues to be a strange and enigmatic woman, brutally candid but also refreshingly honest–I can’t get enough of her.

Most public libraries have the four-part HBO miniseries of Olive Kitteridge in DVD format starring Frances McDormand, or I would think it could be streamed online. It’s very true to the book and is a pleasure to watch.

‘The Stationery Shop’ by Marjan Kamali

This is a unique story set in 1953 Tehran against the backdrop of the Iranian Coup. It’s about a young couple in love who are separated on the eve of their marriage, and who are reunited sixty years later, after both have moved on to live independent lives in America. It’s a sweeping romantic tale of thwarted love amidst the chaos of unrest. There’s really not enough information to classify it as historical fiction, although it does give a flavour of that place during that time.

The novel begins very effectively at the end of the story, when Roya and Bahman meet again, begging the question of what happened all those years ago. As the author flashes back, the story slowly unfolds. Why did these young lovers fail to meet up? How did they manage to find each other again so late in life? What was the truth in the tale and what deceptions may have been at play? Despite being a bit tedious and occasionally cliché, I really liked this book. I did feel hugely sorry for one character, and it’s not who you might think.

‘After the End’ by Clare Mackintosh

Clare Macintosh is a favourite go-to author for domestic thrillers.  I Let You Go and I See You  among others, were easy to read and kept me on the edge of my seat. So I was quick to read a copy of her latest novel, but it is completely different. This emotional book is still fiction but it gets personal–it is based on her own experience of losing a child.

The premise is heart breaking. Max and Pip are the strongest couple you know. They’re best friends, lovers–unshakable. But then their son gets sick and the doctors have no choice but to make the parents choose between painful treatments to prolong his life or allow him to die naturally. For the first time, Max and Pip can’t agree. They each want a different future for their son. The matter goes to court and what happens afterwards takes up the second half of the novel.

The suspense and intrigue is in how the tragedy plays out and affects people and their relationships. It reminded me of Jodi Picoult’s bestseller My Sister’s Keeper. The first half was beautifully written and I thought this would be a great novel that would be relatable and redemptive for parents in these types of nightmare situations. But with all due respect to the author for writing from the heart, I found the second half repetitive, pointless, overlong and there were confusing bits that I never understood. The narrative arc felt weak and I almost bailed on it many times. As for parents who actually have to make such an impossible choice, I think this would be a very hard and triggering book to read because of what happens, but I can’t tell you why without giving spoilers.

‘The Dutch House’ by Ann Patchett

Being a devout library user, rarely do I ever buy a book. This time I made an exception because it was by a favourite author and I was charmed by both the title and the lovely cover. But if I wouldn’t have bought it, I don’t think I would have finished it. As with Commonwealth (which I also oddly bought on a whim and was disappointed in), I am realising that I liked Patchett’s earlier works like Bel Canto, State of Wonder, and This is the Story of a Happy Marriage much better. I must be an outlier in this, since reviews for both of Patchett’s recent novels have been glowing. Incidentally, in case you plan to read it by listening to the audio, it is narrated by Tom Hanks.

This book is a classic example of an inanimate object taking its place as a character in the novel. I connected fully with the house and feel I could recognise it if I saw it, but sadly connected less fully with any of the people or the story line. Not much happens in this novel and I found it rather boring, to be honest, despite the flyleaf promises of suspense and a ‘tour de force.’

Danny and Maeve are exiled by their stepmother but for years and years to come they continue to park outside of the house just to stare and remember and reflect. They go on with their lives, but the obsessive stalking clearly weighs them down. The story explores relationships tainted by loss, longing, and a sense of displacement. In the end there is a bit of redemption, but for me it was too little too late.

‘Jewelweed’ by David Rhodes

This sequel to Driftless, carried on seamlessly with many of the same characters in Words, Wisconsin. I loved the kids in this instalment. They get themselves into some very unique adventures. I worried about Blake who is out of prison but risks re-entry because all of the odds are against him, and very few people are willing to help. There is a budding secret romance and a pastor with a crisis of faith. There is a family not coping with the constant care of two seniors and a very ill child, who enlist the help of a spunky young woman with burdens of her own. The writing is filled with empathy and wonder. As with Driftless, this is not a quick read but the time spent is well worth it.

‘Driftless’ by David Rhodes

Driving through rural America while reading this book was so perfect. Rhodes makes the characters come alive with the way he describes them…flawed, salt of the earth people just trying to cope with life and living. As we drove along cornfields, swept over soft green hillsides, and crept through tired and deflated little towns, it was possible to picture who might be living there. Rhodes’ writing is so generous and insightful without even a hint of cliché. This is slow reading that brings quiet understanding, so it won’t be for everyone, but it is a wonderful story to sink into for those who love authors who can speak to the wisdom of the soul and turn the mundane into profound reflections on life and humanity. Although having said that, shocking things do happen and at times the pace is fast-moving enough. Other authors who are similar in style are Elizabeth Strout (Olive Kitteridge), William Kent Kruger (Ordinary Grace), Mary Lawson (Crow Lake), and Marilynne Robinson (Gilead).

As a young man David Rhodes worked in fields, hospitals and factories across Iowa. After receiving an MFA degree from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop (always pay attention to writers who have studied here, they are the best!) he published three novels from 1972-75. In 1977 a motorcycle accident left him paralysed from the chest down. After ten years he published again, with this sequel to his earlier novel Rock Island Line and prequel to Jewelweed which I am eager to read next. Rhodes lives with his wife, Edna, in rural Wisconsin.

In ten words or less this book is about a bunch of people muddling through in small town Wisconsin. But it is so much more than that. There is connection to the land, to place, and to community. There is mistrust of big business and industrialisation–things that are a threat to a simple way of life. There is a fidelity to good values, hard work, and something to believe in. Here’s what Goodreads says, “The setting is Words, Wisconsin, an anonymous town of only a few hundred people. But under its sleepy surface, life rages. Cora and Grahm guard their dairy farm, and family, from the wicked schemes of their milk co-op. Lifelong paraplegic Olivia suddenly starts to walk, only to find herself crippled by her fury toward her sister and caretaker, Violet. Recently retired Rusty finds a cougar living in his haymow, dredging up haunting childhood memories. Winifred becomes pastor of the Friends church and stumbles on enlightenment in a very unlikely place. Driftless finds the author’s powers undiminished in this unforgettable story that evokes a small-town America previously unmapped, and the damaged denizens who must make their way through it.”

 

‘The Huntress’ by Kate Quinn

There are number of ‘women in war’ books that I’ve enjoyed: Code Name Verity, The Nightingale, and this author’s other book The Alice Network to name just a few. The Huntress is about war heroes, war criminals, and Nazi hunters. It’s also about journalists and photographers who were crucial participants in the war effort.

I found the book was longer than it needed to be but in the end I think it was well done and I’m glad I stuck with it. It’s not a quick read (until the last 100 pages), but still worth it both as background to the characters in the novel, as well as for historical content. I did learn a lot of new things about WW 2 which is amazing considering how many novels about that time period I’ve read. So kudos to the author for that!

Three narrators take turns telling the story: a battle-haunted British journalist, a feisty female Russian fighter pilot, and a young woman photographer in America who has a very mysterious step-mother who may well be a monster. I don’t consider that a spoiler because with a title like “The Huntress,” a reader would have to be quite dim not to see what was going on early in the novel and that’s ok. With that knowledge the tension builds in the present at the same time as the backstories converge to a thrilling climax.