Category Archives: Fiction

‘The Cruellest Month’ by Louise Penny (Gamache series # 3)

Well, folks, we’ve just made it through the cruellest month, safely into May…yes, the cruel one is April, because anything can happen weather-wise, and sweet young plants that have just bravely burst through the soil often get snuffed out. In Three Pines it’s in any month, really that people get snuffed out, and regularly are. In this one someone dies of fright at a séance at the Old Hadley House! As always, Penny delivers a cozy, comfy, and cruel tale in this third instalment, and I think the series is getting better as it goes along.

Louise Penny is a literary mystery writer, although I don’t know what I exactly mean by that–some mysteries are fun but just not that well written, while others seem to be a cut above. I guess it’s because her turn of phrase is beautiful, the book is not merely plot driven, and there is some existential wisdom to be learned along the way. Gamache continues to be his same elegant, kind, and unflappable self, especially in this one because he himself is under attack. There is a cruel undercover plan to discredit and unseat him from the Surété du Québec so he will have to face some of his own ghosts as well.

‘The Shoe on the Roof’ by Will Ferguson

“Trying to explain human emotions and ideas by referring to their molecular foundations is like trying to explain a cathedral by holding up a brick.”

Canadian author Will Ferguson will be best known for his Giller Prize winner 419, a story of internet scams out of Nigeria, a book which I never read, but did get my husband to write a Guest Post about.

The Shoe on the Roof is Ferguson’s latest novel and it has a unique premise. Thomas Rosanoff grew up world renowned as “The Boy in the Box.” His father conducted experiments on Thomas and wrote a leading book on child development. Now Thomas is himself in medical school, and embarking on research of his own. There are three homeless men who all claim to be Jesus. For reasons that will soon become clear when you read the book, Thomas decides to bring them home and study them, and possibly also cure them from their delusions. Of course the whole caper soon falls apart and points to more sinister events at play. I loved the humour in this book, but the story was just ok for me and not as well crafted or suspenseful as I’d expected.

There are however, many interesting explorations of how faith and spirituality mesh with neuroscience in this novel. For example, one of the main characters is talking about a certain type of brain scan and says, “if I hook you up while you’re praying, the neuro-chemical pathways will light up like a map of God!” Another character is talking about finding empathy, reason, etc. in certain locations in the brain, but love? “Love is hard to locate in one particular area. It’s a bit of a mystery really.” 🙂

‘The Heart’ by Maylis de Kerangal (translated by Sam Taylor)

Driving back from an early morning surfing trip with two friends, Simon Limbres is involved in a fatal car accident on a deserted country road. In the next 24 hours, his heart will be transferred to a woman close to death. It’s a tragic tale told in ruminative prose. Every possible angle of the medical process of organ transplantation is explored in great depth, like a thorough documentary, and yet the wordy reflection also gives the book a contemplative feel.

The Heart is translated from the French. I’m not sure if the style of this book is typical in that language–I found it quite unique in English and my sense is that the translator did a very good job. The sentences are long (300 + words) with run-on phrasing. I wouldn’t recommend this emotional, stylistic book to everyone, but I found it quite beautiful. The pace is slow, read it when you have time to savour it; this is not a page turner in the traditional sense, although I was completely absorbed by it. The subject matter is heavy, so if you have lost a child yourself, this may be a difficult read. There is hope in the transplant but of course such a medical procedure always has a tragic side to it. I would have liked to experience more redemption in this novel, it felt a bit empty and left some loose ends, but it was a worthwhile reading experience all the same.

‘The White Tiger’ by Aravind Adiga

Balram Halwai is a complicated man. Servant. Philosopher. Entrepreneur. Murderer. Over the course of seven nights, by the scattered light of a preposterous chandelier, Balram tells us the terrible and transfixing story of how he came to be a success in life—having nothing but his own wits to help him along.

This was a debut novel by this author, which immediately won the Man Booker Prize in 2008. It provides a darkly humorous perspective of India’s class struggle in a globalized world, examining issues of religion, caste, loyalty, family, corruption and poverty in India. It begs to be compared to another book about India which I read years ago called A Fine Balance by Canadian author Rohinton Mistry. Both books achieve the same insight but in very different ways.

This novel gets at some hard truths without judgement or sentimentality which I appreciated and I found it to be a hugely compelling and enjoyable story. It is upbeat, pithy, sharp and fast-paced. In contrast, Mistry’s book, though beautifully written, was quite heavy and depressing. Actually this one is just as depressing in what it reveals about India, but because I found it funny, it made it so very readable. Just like The Simpsons, whether you like it or hate it (and most people seem to be in one camp or the other), does get at uncomfortable truths using humour. Whether you enjoy that humour is, of course, a personal matter.  Here is an interesting article from The Guardian about this controversial novel and an interview with the author:

‘The Lost Garden’ by Helen Humphreys

Book clubs always get us reading books we wouldn’t normally pick up. That’s what happened with this short lyrical novel set in WW 2. It beautifully describes the horrors of war from the relative comfort and serenity of an idyllic English country farm, sort of like refracted light.

In the spring of 1941 Gwen Davis leaves the chaos of wartime London to go to Devon. There her new job is to tend a neglected garden at a country house and to take charge of some Land Girls. Their job is to grow potatoes for the war effort. There’s also a house full of handsome soldiers in the house up the lane and a white wisp of a ghost flitting about. Gwen Davis at age 35, is completely unprepared for this assignment because as a horticulturalist, she relates better to  parsnips than people. “They are truly more reliable. The stupidity of vegetables is preferable to the unpredictability of people.” She discovers a lost garden, but also many things inside of herself that she never knew were there, like the capacity to love.

This is a beautifully written little gem by this Canadian author and poet, deceptively simple, subtly comic, yet with layers of depth.

‘The House We Grew Up In’ by Lisa Jewell

Ever seen a reality documentary (shock-umentary) about hoarding? The objective in producing such a ‘slice of life’ seems to be more about sensational shaming and humiliation, than about gaining empathy or information about fellow human experience. Hoarding is generally regarded as a serious mental illness (in the OCD family) and has mental, psychological, social, and physical consequences for many. The disorder deserves a more sympathetic treatment than the media often gives it.

This novel by Lisa Jewell is an attempt at that, trying to get at the core reasons for this disturbing dangerous behaviour and how it can affect families. Lorelei, the main character, is a vibrant mother who loves to gather her chicks for Easter and displays her children’s artwork on the walls of their cozy kitchen. While Lorelei knows how to love people, she doesn’t know how to care for them. The idyllic scene eventually gives way to tragedy and dysfunction. It reminded me of Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle, a true story of a severely dysfunctional family.

What makes a person become a hoarder? How do families deal with such a problem? What might cause them to dismiss or defend something that clearly is out of control? The author definitely creates a compelling family drama, interesting in its own right, while at the same time attempts to give insight into how an average family affected by hoarding might cope (or not cope) with it.

Lisa Jewell has recently come on my author radar and I will look forward to reading more of her books. This one was written 10 years ago, while a more recent one that I read not long ago, called I Found You, was more suspenseful– in the category of what we now call the domestic thriller.

‘Young Jane Young’ by Gabrielle Zevin

This is the latest novel by Gabrielle Zevin who also wrote The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry. Do not be fooled by the seemingly light tone in Zevin’s books; they are full of humour and easy to read but have depth. This one digs down into politics, truth telling, and female empowerment. It felt very current. At first glance it seems to be just a tabloid Monica Lewinsky story, but then it morphs into something a lot more. Yes, the affair was consensual, but there was such an imbalance of power in the relationship that it took all hope of recovery for the woman away–name recognition alone would hound her for the rest of her days…

I really enjoyed this book. I loved the relationship between the mothers and daughters and was cheering for the main character who is quirky and strong. Against the odds, she seeks to find a meaningful life after mistakes have been made.

One image from the novel stuck with me and caused me to reflect as I drove along a windswept beach in New Zealand. Trees were bent away from the sea, their very shape altered by the relentless buffeting winds, forming them into unique reinvented examples of strength and resilience. Here is the quote: “When you think about it, isn’t a person just a structure built in reaction to the landscape and the weather?” Yes. Beautiful.