Category Archives: Fiction

‘Nightingale Point’ by Luan Goldie

“One ordinary day. One extraordinary event. Their lives changed forever.”

The people living in the Nightingale Point block of flats began the day in a very ordinary way. By the time the sun set, there had been a terrible tragedy and their lives would never be the same again.

Some authors are masters at creating characters who are described so well that you feel you would recognise them if you met them on the street, yet without using a lot of cumbersome description. Long-listed for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020, Luan Goldie’s debut novel, like many on the WPF list, is a very readable page turner which touches on themes of race, community, and mental health. The narrative is well crafted and flows easily, drawing the reader in. The people in this novel are low income and marginalised even before their lives are turned upside down, but now they must dig deep to rebound and survive. The author make you feel like you are rooting for them all! Based on real events in the UK (Grenfell Tower) and the Netherlands (Bijlmer).

‘The Vanishing Half’ by Brit Bennett

The Vignes sisters, light skinned black twins, will always be identical but their lives take very different turns because of the choices they make. They live in a small southern black community until at a young age, and after a devastating trauma,  the sisters run away together to New Orleans.

Ten years later, one sister, Desiree, lives with her black daughter in the same southern town she once tried to escape, and the other, Stella,  secretly passes for white, and her white husband knows nothing of her past. She also has a daughter. With the next generation, the cousins–one black, one white–look nothing alike, yet are inextricably linked.

This story is an exploration of racism and the American history of ‘passing’ which I must admit I knew very little about. The Vanishing Half considers the lasting influence of the past as it shapes a person’s decisions, desires, and expectations, and explores some of the multiple reasons and realms in which people sometimes feel pulled to live as something other than their origins. A unique story of family, relationships, and identity, this would be a great book club read. Not surprisingly, there is an HBO series in the works.

I struggled with my feelings while reading this book. Was the story breaking any kind of anti-racist ground or was it just reinforcing stereotypes? I was reading it right after all of the anti-racist protesting worldwide and watching the series Little Fires Everywhere (performances by Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington enhance the reading of Celeste Ng’s novel). As I was researching, I ran across this enlightening piece by Lila Shapiro. It was profoundly helpful and I found that it articulated exactly what I was feeling conflicted about. For the full article click here:

“In the most famous stories about passing, Bennett points out, the protagonists ultimately face society’s reckoning. But Stella is never found out. Instead, she suffers from something more subtle and enduring — the hollowing out of the self. Bennett was interested in passing because of how it both exposes and strengthens the artifice of race. “On the one hand, if you can perform whiteness, then what does it mean to be white? If you can move between these categories because you decide that you will, what does it actually mean that we have systems that are built on reinforcing those categories?” she asks. ‘On the other hand, these characters who pass usually end up reinforcing the hierarchies that they are potentially destabilizing. The tension within passing stories is between this idea of destabilizing race and then reaffirming race at the same time.'”

 

‘To the Land of Long Lost Friends’ by Alexander McCall Smith

This is the 20th instalment in the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency novels.

Even though it was fun to hang out with Mma Ramotswe and the crew again, my feeling is that Sandy Smith has gotten a bit too comfortable coasting along in this series. I still enjoy his ethical mental meanderings, but there’s not a lot of new twists and the characters don’t develop much, with one exception–Charlie is the one to watch in this book. He’s been maturing and in this one he does himself proud!

When I lived in the UK, I went every year to listen to this author speak at my favourite bookstore in London (Daunt Books in Marylebone). He is such an intelligent, warm, hilarious, and engaging speaker. This National Book Festival interview is long, but well worth watching if you have ever enjoyed any of his various books and series.

‘Paris for One and Other Stories’ by Jojo Moyes

A charming novella and a few short stories comprise this collection from a favourite author of mine. For a lighthearted romance, Paris is of course the perfect setting. But Moyes is never saccharine sweet and you can always rely on a few funny and unexpected twists in the story. All of the stories feature troubled relationships and are from the woman’s perspective. Two weeks on from reading this book I remember the novella, but the short stories (which I did enjoy), I now have no memory of anymore–completely forgettable. 🙂

‘The Memory of Old Jack’ by Wendell Berry

This is a slim companion novel to Jayber Crow. I think I liked Jayber Crow a bit better, but The Memory of Old Jack has some really moving reflections on living a life and growing old and some great stories well-told. You get the sense of the generations marching on, each inhabiting the same section of land, the land itself like a character in the novel. Another of his books I would like to read eventually is Hannah Coulter. Might as well hang out in Port William a little longer, although it is not a series, some characters do pop up in other books.

What I enjoy about Wendell Berry is his poetic prose and his mastery at describing the nuance in relationship. His fiction combines wisdom with the earthiness of America’s rural past. A quote from New York Times Book Review says it best:  “Few novelists treat both their characters and their readers with the kind of respect that Wendell Berry displays.”

‘The War I Finally Won’ by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley


(Age 9+)
This sequel to The War that Saved My Life, seamlessly continues the story of Ada and Jamie and Susan, suffering the shortages, constraints, and dangers of the war. After the frightful abuse Ada suffered as a child, a war within herself also continues to rage even though she has found a new family. Ada must fight to find out who she is so that she can learn to love and trust again, especially when things get complicated and an unwelcome visitor arrives.

These two YA novels are easy to read but also get at some very adult issues in a gentle manner, a quality that is often captured in a book narrated by a child. The child’s perspective softens the things that adults know to be complex and challenging. The warmth of the author and her love for horses is very evident in the books, as well as in this little youtube promo below. She has also written many other books for children and young adults: click here.

BTW, if you are noticing that I’m defaulting to reading series a lot during this pandemic, you would be correct. This is because it takes less energy to focus on a book when I already know some of the characters and the setting. Older books are easier to access with libraries closed and I am enjoying the sense of accomplishment by catching up. I highly recommend this reading strategy for those of you who are struggling with reading focus during this weird and troubling time in the world. Know that you are not alone–many people I know are ironically reading less, even though they may actually have more time!

‘Lethal White’ by Robert Galbraith

(Cormoran Strike # 4) If you’ve read the first three in this series (The Cuckoo’s Calling, The Silkworm, Career of Evil) it’s definitely worth going on with this brick of a book (650 pages). The books in this series do need to be read in order. Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling) seems to be in the same pattern of writing as Harry Potter–the books keep getting longer as the series goes on. And with this fourth instalment the crime/mystery seems to take a back seat to the relationship between the main detective war veteran Cormoran Strike and his agency partner Robin Ellacott. I enjoyed hanging out with these two again, and Rowling’s writing is good, but I was a little disappointed and found the book overlong. The crime and the reasons for it were tediously complicated and not compelling enough. After the cliffhanger ending of book 3, Robin and Matthew’s relationship continues to be troubled as the detective agency meets with ever more success.

‘The War that Saved My Life’ by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley


Age 9+

A disabled girl and her brother are evacuated from London to the English countryside during World War II. Nine-year-old Ada has never left her one-room flat. Her mother is too humiliated by Ada’s twisted foot to let her outside. So when her little brother Jamie is shipped out of London to escape the war, Ada doesn’t waste a minute—she sneaks out to join him.

This award winning Young Adult novel is a moving story of triumph against all the odds. Although it is set in WW 2 and deals with child abuse, it is a beautiful historical fiction about love, struggle, loss, belonging, courage, and new beginnings. It is unsentimental, suspenseful, and written in a simple style that is easy to read, yet will appeal to children and adults alike. It made me think of books by one of my favourite authors, Kate DiCamillo, who has a similar style and also writes books for children without ever talking down to them.

For those struggling to focus on reading in this pandemic, cross-over books like this (which are classified YA but are compelling for adults too) are a perfect choice. And there is a sequel called The War I Finally Won.

 

‘The Royal Secret’ by Lucinda Riley

In the UK this book is published under the title:  The Love Letter.

An ambitious young journalist, unravels a dangerous mystery that threatens to devastate the British monarchy. Keeping secrets is a dangerous game. When Sir James Harrison, one the greatest actors of his generation, passes away at the age of ninety-five, he leaves behind not just a heartbroken family but also a secret so shocking, it could rock the English establishment to its core. Joanna stumbles on something dark beneath the glamour: the mention of a letter James Harrison has left behind–the contents of which many have been desperate to keep concealed for over seventy years. As she peels back the veil of lies that has shrouded the secret, she realises that she’s close to uncovering something deadly serious–and the royal family may be implicated. Before long, someone is on her tracks, attempting to prevent her from discovering the truth. And they’ll stop at nothing to reach the letter before she does.

For pure escapism, this royal scandal fit the bill, but I found it weaker than The Lavender Garden and the Seven Sisters series. This is a thrilling page-turner, but I found it a bit overlong and the plot rather improbable and exaggerated. If you are new to Riley, don’t start with this one, but if you are a diehard fan like I am, it’s still a fun engaging read and also interesting because she wrote it 20 years ago. It was recently republished so it definitely shows how the author has improved in her writing!

‘Jayber Crow: The Life Story of Jayber Crow, Barber, of the Port William Membership, as Written by Himself’ by Wendell Berry

“You have been given questions to which you cannot be given answers. You will have to live them out–perhaps a little at a time.”
“And how long is that going to take?”
“I don’t know. As long as you live, perhaps.”
“That could be a long time.”
“I will tell you a further mystery,” he said. “It may take longer.”

The really, really good books will always still be around when we finally get to them. But sometimes we wonder why it had to take so long? I’m embarrassed to say how long ago I borrowed this book from my sister-in-law Ina. She’s an avid reader of really good books and a very patient person. Why did it take so long? Well the usuals–new books blinking at me, the sheer volume of things that demand to be read on shelf, kindle, and library book pile. But I am finally reading some books on my own shelf during the pandemic, and that feels good. Wendell Berry strikes me as a patient person so I think it’s ok. His writing reminds me of other authors like Marilynne Robinson, Kent Haruf, Mary Lawson, William Kent Krueger, and David Rhodes. Berry writes with heart, soul, humour, and wisdom at a slow, gentle thoughtful pace that paints a picture rather than taking the reader for a thrilling ride.

Jayber Crow is a fine novel beautifully written. It’s a slow, gentle story that richly imagines ordinary people in a small rural town and grapples with humanity–love and loss, joy and despair, death and life, judgement and grace, as well as alienation and community. For some odd reason I have never figured out, I have a hard time remembering endings of books, but this one was so poignant I will never forget it.

Berry is a farmer, poet, activist and academic which is an interesting combination. Berry understands the connection that people have with place and cares about stewardship of the earth. From the symbolism of the river to the rootlessness of his orphaned wanderings, to the exploration of a hard-won faith, Berry is giving us variations on some themes of Mark Twain and Huckleberry Finn. His love from a distance hints at Dante’s love for Beatrice. And yet it celebrates the simple and ordinary things in life that give us pleasure and keep us going. Jayber Crow, a seminary drop-out, humble barber, church janitor, and grave digger is telling his story on his own terms, and it just feels right.