Category Archives: Fiction

‘Akin’ by Emma Donoghue

Eighty-year old Noah is about to embark on a trip to his birthplace Nice to discover some things about his past, especially about how his family was affected by the war. But he ends up having to pack more baggage than he bargained for. Just before he leaves on the trip to France, Noah is contacted by a social worker who thinks he is the only living relative who can take custody of an 11 year old grand-nephew he has never met, and save him from foster care. Michael needs a guardian for a time until his mother is released from jail. With no options for postponing Michael’s arrival or postponing his trip, Noah decides to take Michael along to Nice, and the adventure begins! Noah is a retired chemistry professor, who has never had children and has lost his wife and Michael is a cocky but vulnerable preteen who has been raised in poor circumstances and has already sustained significant loss in his young life.

Part historical fiction and part comedy, this odd couple set out on a journey which is funny, poignant, and albeit a bit slow, very gently entertaining. The two manage to help each other and irritate each other in oh so many ways, but together they pursue the mystery of what happened to Noah’s mother during the war and forge an unlikely companionship. The story is in no way sentimental or twee, it has a real feel, and in Donoghue’s capable hands is fresh and original.

Donoghue likes to draw from her own experience in her writing, in this case the inspiration for the book came from a couple of years she spent living in Nice with her French speaking partner and their children. Donoghue says she likes to get material for her novels from her children, as she did with Room when her child was 5. Now she has teens and it feels like she took every example of how tweens can be annoying and put them into Michael. 🙂 Although he does redeem himself on more than one occasion, and Noah continually reminds himself that Michael is a good kid, and just needs to be given a chance, considering his upbringing. On the trip they discover that life is full of risk in any generation and every era is marked by love and loss. Here’s a link to a more comprehensive Guardian review: click here.

 

‘Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead’ by Olga Tokarczuk (translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones)

Just the title alone of this one is worth the price of admission! Bonus points for you if you know where the quote comes from…ok, I’ll save you the trouble of looking it up. It’s from the English poet and printmaker William Blake, a book called “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” which is a series of texts written in imitation of biblical prophecy but expressing Blake’s own intensely personal revolutionary beliefs.

Translated from Polish, Blake features prominently in this novel which is basically a weird philosophical genre defying literary whodunit. It also includes some dark feminist comedy and mini-essays on vegetarianism. It won the Nobel Prize in Literature (2018) and was shortlisted for the 2019 International Booker Prize. It’s a bit of a quirky read, probably not for everyone, but I really enjoyed it. The ending has a nice twist and is well executed (pardon the pun) but also made perfect sense upon reflection. That’s all I’m saying.

Janina Duszejko dabbles in astrology and lives in a remote area where she oversees a number of summer homes. She is wonderfully eccentric and self-sufficient but suffers from some (never quite defined) ailments that become quite serious at times. People are named according to their qualities: Bigfoot, Oddball, Dizzy, etc. As always, the Guardian has a wonderful extended review: click here.

I also loved this creative and animated review by a fan which contains no spoilers and is a lovely introduction to the book:

‘Things You Save in a Fire’ by Katherine Center

This author is a great pick if you are in the mood for an easy romance with some good suspense and decent values thrown in. Romance isn’t my usual genre, but I found it grand for a busy holiday time. The other novel of hers I’ve read called How to Walk Away, was about hope and finding joy in dark circumstances, and this one focuses on forgiveness. It was on the 2019 Goodreads Best Choice Awards List for Romance. There are many lists in different categories for each year on Goodreads, which are really helpful!!

As the only female firefighter in her Texas firehouse, Cassie Hanwell is excellent at dealing with other people’s tragedies. But she never anticipated that her estranged and ailing mother would ask her move to Boston. The tough, old-school Boston firehouse is as different from Cassie’s old job as it could possibly be. Hazing, a lack of funding, and poor facilities mean that the firemen aren’t exactly thrilled to have a “lady” on the crew, even one as competent and smart as Cassie. Only the infatuation-inspiring rookie doesn’t seem to mind having Cassie around. Her old captain gave her some advice: don’t date firefighters. Will she jeopardise her place in a career where she’s worked so hard to be taken seriously?

‘The Family Upstairs’ by Lisa Jewell

Soon after her twenty-fifth birthday, Libby Jones returns home from work to find the letter she’s been waiting for her entire life. She rips it open with one driving thought: I am finally going to know who I am. She soon learns not only the identity of her birth parents, but also that she is the sole inheritor of their abandoned mansion on the banks of the Thames in London’s fashionable Chelsea neighborhood, worth millions.

Everything in Libby’s life is about to change. But what she can’t possibly know is that others have been waiting for this day as well–and she is on a collision course to meet them. Twenty-five years ago, police were called to 16 Cheyne Walk with reports of a baby crying. When they arrived, they found a healthy ten-month-old happily cooing in her crib in the bedroom. Downstairs in the kitchen lay three dead bodies, all dressed in black, next to a hastily scrawled note. And the four other children reported to live at Cheyne Walk were gone. There are dark secrets in this house that will slowly be revealed.

Lisa Jewell is a great go-to for a creepy domestic thriller–a mindless, absorbing page turner that offers just the right amount of creepy and evil. This is her latest but it wasn’t her best. I did like the premise and the first half, then it fizzled. I found it a bit hard to keep track of the characters, there were not enough twists and turns, and the ending was weak.

‘The Testaments’ by Margaret Atwood

Here’s something I never thought I would say: “Just read a really fun page-turner by Margaret Atwood!” 🙂

Sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, The Testaments is a testament to Atwood and perhaps a swan song of her lifelong career. It is narrated by Aunt Lydia, a character from the previous novel; Agnes, a young woman living in Gilead; and Daisy, a young woman living in Canada. Atwood was asked to write another instalment about the chilling Republic of Gilead and remarkably she did, in her twilight years, while caring for a partner living with dementia who has since passed away. That is remarkable.

Though I must admit to finding some of her earlier works unapproachable and perhaps too literarily lofty for me, this one was something for anyone and everyone to enjoy. I do wonder if some of her die-hard fans will be disappointed. Although the subject matter is as sobering as ever when it comes to Gilead, it has a lighthearted feel to it. The Testaments  has already won an award and I’m sure it is flying off of the shelves this Christmas. Indeed I purchased it for one of my family members, but stealthily flew through it first before wrapping it up! I also really enjoyed the tongue-in-cheek humour, especially around Canada and Canadians. I think Atwood had a lot of fun with this one. Way to go Margaret! As always, the Guardian has the best extended review: click here.

‘The Ex’ by Alafair Burke

After agreeing to defend her ex-fiancé when he is arrested for a triple homicide, top criminal lawyer, Olivia Randall begins to have doubts as the evidence mounts against him. Twenty years ago she ruined his life. Now she has a chance to save it.

This was a fun and easy to read stand-alone legal/detective crime novel. A good one to snuggle up with on a cold winter’s evening. Nothing remarkable about it, and I had it pretty much figured out early on, but enjoyable all the same. The author teaches criminal law and lives in Manhattan. I’ve heard that her more recent books are twisty and suspenseful and have put them on my TBR list: The Wife and The Better Sister. Funny thing–when I arrived at the gym yesterday a fellow fitness class member had just picked up The Wife from the library. I’d never heard of this author before and now I’m seeing her everywhere. My fitness colleague said she’d group Burke with Joy Fielding, Mary Higgins Clark, and Mary Jane Clark in terms of read-alikes.

‘The Gown’ by Jennifer Robson

Books become very enjoyable when there are lots of points of contact–places we’ve been to, experiences we’ve had, or activities we are familiar with. The Gown is historical fiction about the women who embroidered Queen Elizabeth’s wedding gown. It brilliantly highlights the postwar era in which the wedding took place and points out how in many ways excitement around the wedding was meant to lift the mood of a war weary country. The novel captures that spirit of hope.

For me it was a treat to read because it was about sewing, embroidery, the city of London, the royal family, and immigration to Canada–all points of contact and interest for me. Three women narrate the story that is woven together so well–a seamstress from France, an embroiderer from England, and a granddaughter in Canada blend their voices to move the story forward. This highly readable novel isn’t only about sewing. It’s also about the value of friendship, the intrigue of legacy, and the revelation of family secrets.

This Canadian author also published an article in Time magazine with interesting background information about the real event as well as Norman Hartnell’s Fashion House commissioned to make the gown. Click here.