Category Archives: Fiction

The Calling and The Taken by Inger Ash Wolfe

The Calling by Inger Ash Wolfe

Harcourt, New York, 2008

Borrowed from my local library.

A well-written mystery/thriller whose main character is a sixty-one year old female Detective Inspector who suffers with a bad back, a dependence on pain-killers and a mother who keeps her on a strict diet.  Her small town office, threatened by budget cuts, is suddenly over-whelmed by the murder of a local elderly women, a murder that turns out to be connected to a string of murders that take place all across Canada.

D.I. Hazel Micallef is a winner.   Short-tempered, with a caustic tongue, she is smart as a whip and facing the same troubles at work as many woman run into, politics and an old boy network that won’t quit.

     Her head was swimming with details.  Everything they knew now had a relationship with everything they did not know.  What they’d learned stood like a range of trees on a lakeshore, reflected in reverse on the water below.  Hazel dreaded the journey it would take to get to those dark shapes.  A dead woman, a dead man.  A pact of some kind.  What was being kept? Were these deaths, at least, part of something longed for.  As she got older and acclimatized herself to her own failures, she had begun to understand death’s draw. From pages 100/101.

The Taken by Inger Ash Wolfe

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, 2010

Borrowed from my library.  This is the second Hazel Micallef mystery.

Following on the heels of her last case, D.I. Hazel Micallef has had back surgery and must recuperate in the home of her ex-husband and his second wife.  Detective Constable James Wingate , who is running things while Hazel is on leave, calls for her help after someone fishes a body from one of the local lakes.  Things start to get really strange when Hazel discovers a mystery story running in the local paper.  The story sounds surprising like their drowning case.

I think these are great mysteries, smart and beautifully written.  I love Hazel, and her colleagues.  This is a great series and I hope my library orders the newest book, A Door in the River, as soon as possible!

“I’m reading between your lines”

“Yes, yes, you are,” said the voice.  “I’ve been very pleased, I think we are doing very well together.  Maybe the story will have a different ending than the one I’ve been planning.”

Wingate spoke.  “What ending have you planned?”

“Now, now, Detective Constable.  Do you read the end of a book before its beginning?”  She began to write again.  “I knew someone who used to do that.  Couldn’t stand the suspense of not-knowing.  Let’s just say the trajectory of the story has a natural end-point.  We’re wired for it, did you know that?  The shape of our lives imposes itself on the way we tell stories: a welter of possibilities at the beginning narrows and narrows and instabilities appear that obligate us to take certain turns.  And then the end is a forgone conclusion.  However, twists are possible in such stories as the one we’re telling.  Unexpected outcomes.  In my experience, it happens only  rarely.  But we can see.”  from page 235.

Inger Ash Wolfe is a pseudonym.  People have been  wondering (and guessing at)  who the mysterious author is since The Calling was first published.  At the end of last month the mystery was solved when The Globe and Mail published this essay.  Turns out my library has several books by the culprit and I have added them to my TBR list.

7 Comments

Filed under Canadian, Fiction, Mystery, Thoughts, Thriller

Memory Wall by Anthony Doerr

Memory Wall by Anthony Doerr

Scribner, New York, 2010

Borrowed from my local library.  Winner of the 2010 Story Prize.

I am not really much of a short story reader.  I might read the latest story published in the New Yorker, or link to a story someone has sent to me, but I much prefer novels.  There are a few exceptions.  This author is one of them.

I discovered Anthony Doerr by accident.  While browsing the shelves at my local library the cover of his first story collection, The Shell Collector, caught my eye. 

I brought it home and was captured by Doerr’s writing, his depth of feeling and the places time and nature take in his work.  I put his newest collection on hold at the library thinking I would get to it right away.  Things kept pushing it aside until I finally carved out the space to read it.  I will not let that happen with his next collection.

From Afterworld:

We return to the places we’re from; we trample faded corners and pencil in new lines.  “You’ve grown so fast,” Robert’s mother tells him at breakfast, at dinner.  “Look at you.”  But she’s wrong, thinks Robert.  You bury your childhood here and there.  It waits for you, all your life, to come back and dig it up.  From page 242.

The stories in this new collection are about memory, how it connects us through time, how it haunts us and changes us.  These stories read like novels, full of care and tenderness.  Somehow Doerr’s stories each hold a universe of  space and time, a sense of distance and the knowledge that life goes on around us whether we are aware of it or not.

From The River Nemunas:

     It’s not a fish.  I know it’s not a fish.  It’s just a big lump of memory at the bottom of the River Nemunas.  I say a prayer Dad taught me about God being in the light and in the water and the rocks, about God’s mercy enduring forever.  I say it quickly to myself, hissing it out through my lips, and pull then crank, pull then crank.  God is in the light, God is in the water, God is in the rocks, and I feel Mishap scrabbling around the boat with his little claws and I can even feel his heart beating in his chest, a bright little fist opening and closing, and I can feel the river pulling past the boat, its tributaries life fingernails dragging through an entire country, all of Lithuania draining into this one artery, five hundred slicing miles of water, all the way to the Baltic, which Grandpa Z says is the coldest sea in Europe, and something occurs to me that will seem obvious to you but that I never thought about before.  A river never stops.  Wherever you are, whatever your doing, forgetting, sleeping, mourning, dying – the rivers still keep running.  From page 182.

I love these stories and highly recommend this collection.

Other reviews:

Reflections from the Hinterland

6 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Review, StoryCollection

Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns

Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns

Dorothy, Urbana, 2010

I own this, ordered it from Dorothy, a publishing project.  I have Sarah to thank for writing about this unusual book.

Barbara Comyns’ short novel is the story of the Willoweed family, cranky and forceful Grandmother Willoweed, her unemployed  son  Ebin, and his three children.  Along with their servants and the citizens of the small village where they live, they cope with a disastrous flood and a series of strange deaths.  People die and people change.

In the garden Old Ives was tying up the flowers that had been damaged by the flood.  While he worked he talked to his ducks, who were waddling about hopefully, as it was almost time for the red bucket to be filled with sharps and potato-peelings. Emma dawdled up to him and said:

“Don’t you think, Ives, that we should send a wreath to Grumpy Nan’s funeral?  It’s tomorrow and people seen to be making a great fuss about it.”

“Of course they are making a fuss, her being drowned and all.  It’s a long time since we’ve had a drowning by flood;  it’s an important event in this village.  And don’t you worry about the wreath neither.  I was just telling my ducks as you came along about the pretty wreath I’m going to make this evening.  White Peonies it will be made of, Miss, and little green grapes.  There won’t be another to touch it, will there my dears?” and he turned to the ducks who agreed with him in chorus.  From pages 21/22.

Comyns’ ability to strike a balance between light and dark, in a way that appears effortless,  is somewhat disconcerting.  That is what, for me, makes this little novel so fascinating.  She was clearly a master of  observation, both of human behavior and human relationships, and these observations are expressed in such a clear and direct way that what should be painful and ugly appears almost whimsical, much like a fairytale, not Grimm’s but Disney’s.

I think it is the voices of the Willoweed children, Emma, Hattie and Dennis, that give Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead its light and fanciful tone.  That is the only explanation I have for not being completely creeped out by all the dead animals and the butcher’s suicide, but you’ll have to read it yourself to determine if I’m right.

Please check out Dorothyproject.Com.  This is a quote from their website:

Dorothy, a publishing project is dedicated to works of fiction or near fiction or about fiction, mostly by women. We want to publish books that, whether conventional or un-, are uniquely themselves, that do not lean against preconceived ideas of what is wonderful, but brilliantly and purposefully convince us that they are, themselves, wonderful.

This very small press deserves our support.

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Filed under Fiction, Review

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman

Canongate, New York, 2010

I own this one.

Philip Pullman is a favorite author, His Dark Materials is a favorite trilogy.  I looked forward to reading this book, part of the Canongate Myth Series, a retelling of the story of Jesus.  I now find it difficult to write about for it brings up old feelings, so I am just going to give a brief outline and leave it at that

The story is based on the New Testament descriptions of Jesus.  By splitting Jesus Christ into two characters, twins born to Mary, Pullman allows us to see the paths that diverge at this point in human history.

There is Jesus,  a brilliant and often tormented preacher and storyteller.  He is loved by his followers, a problem for the temple elders and a threat to those in power.  And there is Christ, hebrew for “Messiah” who, at the urging of a “stranger”, begins to record what his brother says and what people see, or believe they see, him do.

It is the “stranger” who directs Christ to record what is happening around him, to give that record a certain tone, and each time they meet he guides Christ, tells him to write in a certain way, to add a bit more to the story.

…There are dark days approaching, turbulent times; if the way to the  Kingdom of God is to be opened, we who know must be prepared to make history the handmaiden of posterity and not its governor.  What should have been is a better servant of the Kingdom than what was

…There is time and there is what is beyond time.  History belongs to time, but truth belongs to what is beyond time.  In writing things as they should have been you are letting truth into history.  You are the word  of God.  From pages 98/99

These writings will, eventually,  plant the seeds of the gospels and the Christian church.  Pullman never makes it clear who the “stranger” is, is he acting on his own?  Is there some power behind him?

This book is part of a series of myths, and myths are narratives that explain how we came to be and how we got to be where we are.  Pullman shines a light into a corner, revealing things about power and coercion, about the formation of belief. It is always about the story and about who tells it.

He says:

The story I tell comes out of the tension within the dual nature of Jesus Christ.  But what I do with it is my responsibility alone.  Parts of it read like a novel, parts like a history and parts like a fairy tale;  I wanted it to be like that because it is, among other things, a story about how stories become stories.

I think I am going to have to step away and then come back and reread this one.

Other reviews:

Bookphilia

Stuff As Dreams Are Made On

The Captive Reader

things mean a lot

2 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Mythology, Review

The Singer’s Gun by Emily St. John Mandel

The Singer’s Gun by Hilary St. John Mandel

Unbridled Books, 2010

Borrowed from the library.

I looked forward to this one, both because I had heard great things about St. John Mandel and because it is from Unbridled Books, a small press I admire.

The writing is clean and crisp, the story timely,  but somehow the book never really grabbed me.  It was like looking at something beautiful and realizing that the beauty is fading away right before my eyes.  I never felt much for the characters, even though they are well thought out.

Anton Waker grew up an a family of thieves and, encouraged by his cousin Aria he begins a life of crime at a young age.  When he decides to get out, go straight, have what he considers a real life, he finds it much more difficult than he expected.

The story is very well constructed, told from different points of view and I think St. John Mandel is a fine writer, but there is a chilliness, a edge to this book that just pushed me away, like the same poles of two magnets repelling each other.  Maybe it’s the characters, they seem detached and hollow.  Maybe it’s the times we live in.  Maybe it’s just me, the book left me feeling sad.  I will read The Last Night In Montreal because I want to see if it has a different feel, and I do like this author’s way with words.

Other reviews:

Caribousmom

Musings of a Bookish Kitty

S. Krishna’s Books

She is too fond of books

You Gotta Read This

4 Comments

Filed under CanadianBookChallenge4, Fiction, New Authors 2010, Review

Baking Cakes in Kigali by Gaile Parkin

Baking Cakes in Kigali by Gaile Parkin

Delacorte Press, New York, 2009

Borrowed from the library.

I saw this on the display shelf at my library and remember reading a blog post about it.  Of course, I can’t remember who’s blog it was.  Thank you, whoever you are.

Angel Tungaraza, a women from Tanzania now living in Kigali, Rwanda, is building a business.  She and her husband are struggling to raise their five grandchildren and her cakes bring in needed income.   They also allow her the opportunity to ask questions of  and listen to her customers.  Angel is kind and open-hearted.  From her customers and her neighbors she hears stories of pain and survival.  There is HIV, there are the memories of terrible slaughter.

Through Angel’s thoughts we learn of  her history, her own losses.  With her intelligence, generosity and kindness she offers help to others and a clear-sighted vision of the world around her.

When I first started reading this lovely book it reminded me of the series by Alexander McCall Smith, The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency.  Parkin uses the same light touch with Angel as McCall Smith uses with his heroine,  Precious Ramotswe.  Baking Cakes has much of the same tone, it is gentle and funny at times, but it deals with deep emotions and the struggles of  people recovering from tramua and learning to deal honestly with a frightening disease.  Parkin uses Angel, her family, friends and customers to tell the stories of the deadly spread of AIDS in Africa and the effects of the 1994 genocide on Rwanda’s people.  For such an gentle, pleasing book it offers quite a punch.

For those wishing to learn more about the genocide in Rwanda there is an very well written and intense book , We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families by Philip Gourevitch, and a movie called Hotel Rwanda which is based on real life events.  The book is difficult reading and the film is very hard to watch.

Other reviews:

BookLust

BookNAround

Rebecca Reads

The Book Nest

2 Comments

Filed under 2010 Global Reading Challenge, Fiction, New Authors 2010

Waiting For Columbus by Thomas Trofimuk

Waiting For Columbus by Thomas Trofimuk

Doubleday, New York, 2009

Borrowed from the library.

Consuela is a nurse working at the Sevilla Institute for the Mentally Ill.  Her days are long, her nights somewhat lonely.  One day a man is brought to the Institute.  He was found in the straits of Gibraltar, battered and bruised and clearly delusional.  He believes he is Christopher Columbus. Consuela and those working with her must help this man discover who he really is.

The passage from freedom to incarceration is never an easy one. The passage from an unacknowleged, untested sanity to a diagnosed insanity is equally problematic.  The first time Nurse Consuela Emma Lopez entered his world, it was with nervousness-with the trepidation of a sparrow pecking the ground a few meters in front of a perfectly motionless cat.  He was immobile on a bed in the admitting area, restrained and drugged.  He’d arrived at the institute kicking and screaming. From page 1.

I was hooked from the first paragraph.  Trofimuk has created a character so well drawn that it is easy to forget he is not Christopher Columbus.  Those around him struggle to find the truth, yet fear the truth may cause him to disappear into madness forever.

This novel is about the stories we tell ourselves and each other, sometimes out of a sense of fun or drama, sometimes from necessity.  It is even more about how we listen.

One the morning of the liturigal feast of Saint Pammachius, Columbus is in a lawn chair, overlooking the garden.  He is wearing his standard institute-issue maroon robe and gray socks.  He looks like any number of other patients wandering around the courtyards and gardens surrounding the institute.  He’s speaking to Consuela over his left shoulder.  “I have to tell you, poeple used to roll up on the beach on a regular basis-well, chewed-up bodies anyway.  When I lived in Palos we’d find them all the time-stinking and rotten.  Even the foulest of birds or animals wouldn’t touch them.”

“I’m sorry?” She really was not in the mood for a story.  She was unfocused-half watching the ducks in the pond, half keeping an eye on him.  She’d rather be curled up in bed reading.

“Dead people.  On the beach.  The result of shipwrecks.” From page 55.

It’s hard to tell you more without giving too much away.  There is a deep knowledge of history in the stories Columbus tells but that history is combined with the present day.  The stories are wonderful, but the interweaving of past and present is strangely disconcerting.   Trofimuk uses this device to give the sense of someone running away into the past to avoid the trauma of the present.  How one’s inner world can seem much, much safer then the outer one.  It is a wonderful way to tell the story of Columbus’s madness and  of his recovery.

I want to thank Jill at Fizzy Thoughts for introducing me to Waiting For Columbus.

Other reviews:

Book Addiction

Fizzy Thoughts

ReviewsByLola’s Blog

S. Krishna’s Books

The Book Lady’s Blog

16 Comments

Filed under CanadianBookChallenge4, Fiction, New Authors 2010, Review

Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto

Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto

Translated from Japanese by Megan Backus

Grove Press, New York, 1993

Borrowed from the library.  This is my second book for the Japanese Literature Challenge 4.  Thanks to Bellezza for organizing this wonderful event.

Oh, what a book!  Kitchen is a combination of a novella and a short story.  Simply and beautifully written, they present emotions in a way that is direct and clear, never simpering or overly sweet.   Both tell of loss, love and family and I moved through then easily.  Sometimes the words felt like a  warm breeze, sometimes like a sudden shower.   Yoshimoto’s storytelling is magic, reading this book I did not expect the depth I found there.  So subtle, so simple, it all snuck up on me.

Kitchen is the story of Mikage, a young women who has lost most of her family.  She lives with her Grandmother, but is always aware of the possibility of loss.

The space that cannot be filled, no matter how cheerfully a child and an old person are living together – the deathly silence that, panting in the corner of the room, pushes its way in like a shutter.  I felt it very early, although no one told me about it. From page 21.

When her Grandmother dies she is invited by a friend to join him and his mother in their home.  These kind people help Mikage open herself to memories and emotions.

In the uncertain ebb and flow of time and emotions much of one’s life history is etched in the senses.  And things of no particular importance, or irreplaceable things, can suddenly resurface in a cafe one winter night.  From page 75.

Part of this novella are strangely chilling.  Maybe it is the shadows of Mikage’s past, like ghosts, that create this effect.

The second part of this little book is a short story, Moonlight Shadow, also about love and loss.  It reads like  a fairy tale.

In retrospect I realize that fate was a ladder on which, at the time, I could not afford to miss a single rung.  To skip out on even one scene would have meant never making it to the top, although it would have been by far the easier choice. What motivated me was probably that little light still left in my half-dead heart, glittering in the darkness.  Yet,without it, perhaps, I might have slept better. From page 127.

While reading this book I kept thinking of  the fall of cherry blossoms in Kurosawa’s Dreams. Kitchen is that beautiful.

Other reviews:

A Striped Armchair

Adventures in Reading

An Adventure In Reading

Regular Rumination

The Reading Life

14 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Japanese Literature Challenge 4, New Authors 2010, Review

Caramelo by Sandra Cisneros

Caramelo, or, puro cuento By Sandra Cisneros

Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2002

Caramelo was nominated for the Orange Prize in 2003.

Borrowed from the library.

Caramelo is a multi-generational novel that  weaves playfully through time.  It is the story of Celaya Reyes, known as Lala, the youngest in a family of seven children, all of them boys except for her.  Cisneros is a master at bringing this family and all their relatives to life.  We first meet them as they travel to Mexico City on their annual trip to visit Grandfather and Grandmother Reyes.

There are many themes running through this novel, women in Mexican society, family vs. independence, religious and social expectations, loyalty, lies and love being just a few of them. Cisneros handles all of this deftly as she plays fast and loose with the structure, adding song lyrics, film references and footnotes along the way.  The novel is fast paced and at times I felt it was veering off track, trying to cram too much in too many layers, but it works.  Somehow all of the history characters and memories hold together to form a wonderful, solid novel.

There are many beautiful scenes and images within all these memories.  Food, its preparation, serving and eating,  is one constant that runs through the novel, as is the difficult relationship between Mexico and the United States.  The title, Caramelo, references many things.  The sweetness of candy, the many colors of the Mexican people, and something that connect Lala with her history.  Her Grandmother came from a family of weavers and dyers, famous for their rebozos, and a special wrap travels through time in this novel.

…The Grandmother snaps open the carmelo rebozo.  It gives a soft flap like wings as it falls open.  The candy-colored cloth unfurling like a flag – no, like a hypnotist’s spiral…

The Grandmother unfolds it to its full width across the bed.  How nice it looks spread out, like a long mane of hair.  She plays at braiding and unbraiding the unfinished strands, pulling them straight with her fingers then smoothing them smooth.  It calms her, especially when she’s nervous, the way some people braid and unbraid their own hair without realizing they’re doing it.  With an old toothbrush she brushes the fringe.  The Grandmother hums bits of songs she doesn’t know she’s humming while she works, carefully unworking the kinks and knots, finally taking a comb and nail scissors to snip off the ragged ends, holding the swag of cloth in her arms and sniffing its scent.  Good thing she thought to burn dried rosemary to keep it smelling sweet all these  years.  From page 254.

Fieda Khalo with red rebozo

Lala ends up with this beautiful shawl and a deeper understanding of her family.  I read The House on Mango Street many years ago and now want to read it again.  My thanks to Claire at kiss a cloud for suggesting I read this book.

Other reviews:

Biblofreakblog

Eva at Color Online

6 Comments

Filed under Fiction, OrangePrize

The Calcutta Chromosome by Amitav Ghosh

The Calcutta Chromosome: A Novel of Fevers, Delirium & Discovery

By Amitav Ghosh

Perennial, New York, 2001

Borrowed from the library.

I am an admirer of Amitav Ghosh, but when I learned he had written some kind of sci-fi, speculative fiction novel I wasn’t all that interested.  Until I learned that The Calcutta Chromosome had won the 1997 Arthur C. Clarke Award.

This book is a wild ride between the past and the future.  Antar, a researcher for the giant International Water Council, works from home using their AVA computer system.  His job?  To sit in front of a monitor and look at every item entered into the IWC inventory from all over the world.  Why?  Just in case there might be something unusual. It’s like sifting through sand on an archeological dig, you never know what you might find.  His identification of an object leads him to India, the impact of  British colonialism and the study of malaria.

Antar uncovers the stories of people from his past, the struggle between India’s ancient wisdom and Western science  and a vast medical conspiracy.  The novel flashes back and forth in time and between characters.  At times it feels like the shards of a broken mirror.  Ghosh’s characteristic use of detail, myth and storytelling hold it all together.

It was mid-July.  The monsoons had set in and the whole of eastern India was awash in rain.  Several of the famously restless rivers of the region had burst their banks and swept across the broad, flat plains.  Those waters, so full of menace to those they nourished, presented and entirely different aspect to a casual spectator in a train, watching from the safety of a tall embankment.  The still waters, lying in great silver sheets under the lowering monsoon skies, presented an enchanting, bewitching spectacle.  Phulboni, raised amidst the hills and forests of Orissa, had never seen anything like this before: this majestic, endless plain mirroring the turbulent heavens.  From page 257.

Just the fact that Antar works for something called the International Water Council is intriguing, fresh water being a finite resource that we are running out of, much like oil.  This alone drew me into reading the book. It is interesting and challenging,  I very much enjoyed it.

I admit it, I love Amitav Ghosh’s writing and his story-telling.  I can not wait for the follow-up to A Sea of Poppies.

12 Comments

Filed under 42SciFiChallenge, Arthur C Clarke Award, Fiction, SpeculativeFiction