Tag Archives: ContemporaryFiction

Fauna by Alissa York

Fauna by Alissa York

Vintage Canada, Toronto, 2011

From my TBR pile.

I’m not sure what drew me to this one, maybe it was the title.

Edal Jones, a Federal Wildlife officer, is falling apart.  One too many baby tortoises, packed in egg cartons and crushed in a suitcase.  She is home, on leave, exhausted, emotionally spent.

One morning, on a bike ride, she sees a young woman picking up stunned birds from around the glass towers of downtown Toronto.  She follows this woman into the Don Valley and discovers a small group of people and animals living in ways very different from those around her.

Fauna is mainly Edal’s story.  Named after one of the otters from Gavin Maxwell’s Ring of Bright Water, she had joined the Federal agency to help wildlife, and finds herself devastated by loss.

     Having entered that room full of oddities, her thoughts are inclined to remain there.  As Baloo and Bagheera chase through the jungle after their beloved man-cub, her mind’s eye moves over confiscated grizzly rugs and black bear galls, a dried tiger penis, a leopard skin coat.   When they make a friend of Kaa, the massive rock python, she can only see wallets and handbags, hideous pointy-toed boots.  She manages to focus again during the great battle at the ruined city know as the Cold Lairs, but only until Mowgli tumbles down into the abandoned summer house and lands among the hissing hoods of the Poison-People.  Why would someone shove a cobra inside a bottle and pickle it?  More to the point, why would anyone spot such an atrocity in a marketplace and long to possess it, let alone attempt to smuggle it home?  From page 88.

This novel is also an interesting mix of characters, both human and animal, that live in this city and of the fragile connections between them.  It reminds me of how, even in a place of glass and concrete, life can flourish.  Something I find I need to remember.

And mixed in with all this is a love of books.  Each of the main characters has an important book in their past.  There is also the thread of The Jungle Book, read aloud following group dinners, and the effect it has on all who read and hear it.  York’s writing is rich in detail, precise, and hard-edged.  I found Fauna an interesting, enjoyable book.


Filed under Animals, Canadian, CanadianBookChallenge5, ContemporaryFiction, Thoughts

Cool Water by Dianne Warren

Cool Water by Dianne Warren

Harper Collins, Toronto, 2010

From my TBR pile, this novel won the Governor General’s Prize for Fiction in 2010 and was long listed for the Giller Prize.

The novel takes place in Juliet, a  small town on the edge of the Great Sand Hills of Saskatchewan. Cool Water tells overlapping stories of a day in the lives many of the towns inhabitants.  It reminds me a bit of Olive Kitteridge.

The characters are unpretentious, their stories are quiet and most are unaware of how they entwine, interlock and deeply affect each other.  Warren writing is spare and understated, very evocative of place.  I would like to read more of her work.


Filed under Canadian, CanadianBookChallenge5, ContemporaryFiction, Review

Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell

Once Upon A River by Bonnie Jo Campbell

W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2011

Borrowed from my library.

Margo Crane grew up as a member of a large dysfunctional family living next to the Stark River outside of the town of Murrayville .  Because of abuse and a rift between adults she finds herself alone and disconnected.  When her father dies in an act of family violence, Margo decides to take to the river in her Grandfather’s boat.  She runs from her family in search of her mother.

The Stark River flowed around the oxbow at Murrayville the way blood flowed through Margo Crane’s heart.  She rowed upstream to see wood ducks, canvasbacks, and ospreys and to search for tiger salemanders in the ferns.  She drifted downstream to find painted turtles sunning on fallen trees and to count herons in the heronry beside the Murrayville cemetary.  She tied up her boat and followed shallow feeder streams to collect crayfish, watercress, and tiny wild strawberries.  Her feet were toughened against sharp stones and broken glass.  When Margo swam, she swallowed minnows alive and felt the Stark River move inside her.  From page 15.

Campbell writing is clear and direct.   Margo at 16 is determined but unsure of herself and falls in with men to gain security and support.  Some of these men are kind, some are violent.  By the end of the novel Margo gains strength and independence and is clear in the choices she makes.  I found some parts of Once Upon a River hard to read and others quite beautiful, particularly the descriptions of the river and the animals and humans that live on it.  The novel didn’t really grab me until the last third of so, then I found it quite moving.

Because of Margo’s journey  Once Upon a River has been compared to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.  I found it more like Winter’s Bone, a novel I loved.  If you have read this book leave a comment and I will link to your review.


Filed under ContemporaryFiction, Review

Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta

Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta

Scribner, New York, 2011

Borrowed from my library.

I have yet to read A Visit from the Goon Squad, but some have made comparisons between it and Stone Arabia.   I think it’s just because they are both about a certain time period in America and, specifically about music, be it pop, blues, rock or punk.

This is a story about a brother and sister.  Denise Kranis and her brother, Nik, grew up in Los Angeles during late  seventies/early eighties.  Since their father had handed him a guitar at age ten, Nik had played music, he wrote music, he had a band.  But something happened,  Nik broke up the band and drifted from job to job, eventually ending up pouring drinks in a dive bar, where he has been for the last fifteen years.

Denise has a decent job,  a daughter, a relatively quiet life,  and has always supported Nik when he needs it.  But as her mother begins to lose her memory and Nik seemed to be sliding into depression, Denise chooses to revisit and evaluate her past.  Her focus turns to examining Nik’s creative projects, particularly The Chronicles, a collection of music, CD’s , liner notes and reviews.   Nik has built an alternative life, a musical life,  and documented every bit of it.

This short novel is really about family and memory, the way the two intertwine and change each other.  It is not straight forward,  moving between the present and the past, told in the first and third person.  There is a lot of America in it, both past and present.  I liked Stone Arabia and found it moving and intelligent.

Memory resides in what you notice, what you feel, what catches in your mind.  And the things I remember best about the last year are not conversations with Ada or dates with Jay or helping Nik.  All of those things fuzz into one another.  The things I remember best are not my experiences at all.  They are what I call the permeable moments: events that breached the borders of my person.  Let’s call them breaking events.  I don’t mean breaking news.  I mean the breaking of boundaries.  These are incidents that penetrated my mind, leaked the outside inside.  From page 106.

…We are all really good at pretending we are a normal family, and somehow us pretending all at once is a big part of what makes us feel like a family.  It is like a willed self-delusion.  Or maybe you can lie to yourself, that’s a self-delusion, but if you have a delusion about several people, if you all share in this delusion, that isn’t self-delusion, is it?  That is a family.  From page 232.


Filed under ContemporaryFiction, LiteraryFiction, Review

Deloume Road by Matthew Hooton

Deloume Road by Matthew Hooton

Vintage Books, London, 2011

I broke my book buying ban and must blame the Canadian Book Challenge.  I ordered this one and several others by Canadian authors when I realized my library would not be purchasing them because of budget cutbacks.  Thank goodness for Better World Books.

This book reminded me of other stories about boys growing up together, Different Seasons by Stephen King being one of them.  It is the story of a rural community,  somewhere down a road between Victoria and Nanaimo, on Vancouver Island.  In a summer during the first Gulf War four boys spend time riding their bikes, exploring the woods and just enjoying their free time.  The adults in the community have their own stories, some more aware of the boys then others, and mingled with this is the history of the place and connections with the town’s founder.  As hot August moves toward September tension builds until the final, terrible event.

This is a beautifully written book, Hooton certainly knows how to convey a sense of place, and the children, their thoughts, and behaviors are so like children I know.  They remind me of myself, my siblings, and my friends growing up close to the woods in Maine.  I wanted to love this one, but found I only liked it.  There are many characters with many stories.  For me some worked, some didn’t and I found myself distracted by things that felt unnecessary to the story.

Don’t let my thoughts dissuade you from reading Deloume Road.  I found some of it truly wonderous.

Blades of grass grow waist-high along both sides of Deloume and tangles of blackberry bushed and crabapple trees border the dairy farms in patches, filling the space between the road and the fence, cutting the cows off from view in places.  Children stop here in August, laying their bikes in the grass on the roadside and wandering deep into the mess of thorns and branches, eating berries as they go, until it appears from the road that they are impossibly far in and must have sprung from the fertile ground.  They pick sour apples and bite into them, squinting and chewing their bottom lips as they wait for the sourness to pass, the bitterness sharper because of the blackberries they have eaten.  The smell of overripe berries and the buzzing of fat insects surrounds them.  That night the children will have stomach aches but won’t complain in case their mothers see their stained fingers or thorn-scratched arms and know.  from page 3.


Filed under Canadian, CanadianBookChallenge5, ContemporaryFiction


I’m not sure how I’m feeling about book prizes at the moment.   I picked up a couple more books from the Man Booker Prize longlist at my library, read them and didn’t enjoy them half as much as the last two books I read and reviewed.    They’re good but I didn’t think they were that good.  I found KevinfromCanada’s post  and the comments about the list helpful.  There is a lot of interesting discussion happening around the choices and the process of choosing books for prize lists.  Fascinating.

A Cupboard Full of Coats By Yvvette Edwards

One World Books, Oxford, 2011

Jinx is trying to live her life but carries the memory of  living with abuse and of her mother, murdered when Jinx was fourteen.  When an old family friend comes to visit they spend a weekend trying to deal with and honor the past.

Jinx is closed off from her ex-husband and her son.  She has walled herself in and it takes honesty and hard work, facing the truth of her past, to break down the walls.  This book is well-written, filled with the sights and sounds of the immigrant West Indian community living in London.  I have to say it never really grabbed me.

Snowdrops by A.D. Miller

Doubleday, New York, 2011

I heard about this one way back in January on the Guardian Books page, wanted to read it and waited for it to be released in the U.S.

I found the structure of this small novel interesting.  The protagonist is writing to his fiance, telling her about his past in Russsia.  He is writing because he wants her to know a truth about whom she is planning to marry.  As he tells this story we learn how during his time in Russia he constantly lied to himself about what was going on around him.  It reminded me a lot of how blind people can be to their own actions, even when they know better.  It is a snapshot of an amoral society, one we may be on the edge of falling into.

Nicholas Platt is a lawyer.  Leaving what he considers a dull life in England he has travels to Moscow and joins a law firm.  Nick is questioning his life and all he believes in when he helps two women who have been robbed.  Maybe one of these women is “the one”.  He is drawn into a love affair and imagines bringing Masha home to England.

The smell of the poplar trees crept in through the open windows of my kitchen, along with the sounds of sirens and breaking glass.  Some of me wanted her to be my future, and some other me wanted to do what I should have done, and throw the ticket with the phone number out the kitchen window and into the pink and promising evening air.  from page 19.

There are signs all around him,  a deal his firm is cutting that is not as sound as it should be.  His neighbor’s best friend disappearing.  But it is just easier to ignore the signs, to go along with it all, after all that is live in Moscow.

He opened his bag and took out a card with a double-headed eagle on one side and on the other a photo I.D.  It stated that he worked for the economic affairs secretariat at the Kremlin.  He twirled his contraband card between his fingers.  “Forbidden,” he said, “only means expensive.”  from page 192.

I actually enjoyed this one, felt is was an honest portrayal of a man adrift in modern culture.  I just wanted to scream at him, tell him to wake up.


Filed under Booker, ContemporaryFiction

Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman

Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, 2011

Borrowed from my library.   I’ve been waiting for it to come in  since I heard about it on the Guardian website, back in early spring.  It is now on the longlist for the 2011 Man Booker Prize.

Harri Opuku, eleven years old and recently emigrated from Ghana, lives in a huge London housing project and loves to run.  When he finds himself standing near the body of a classmate whose blood has covered the walkway, stabbed by someone who probably lives in the same area.  He is driven, along with his friend Dean, to find the killer.

Stephen Kelman has created a character straight out of his personal history.  Harri is very like many eleven year old boys I know, curious, filled with excitement and the desire to grow up.  My favorite parts were his memories of life in Ghana, and the comparison with Harri’s present life.

Harri worked for me but other parts of this novel just didn’t hold together.  The other characters seem shallow, as if lifted out of a bad TV  series, and the inclusion of Harri’s pigeon seemed odd and out-of-place.  I’d love to have a glimpse of Kelman’s thinking behind that, and his need to write from Harri’s point-of view in the first place.

I think Pigeon English reads like a novel for young adults and I don’t quite understand why it made the Booker long list in the first place.  But that’s just me.  Have you read it?  What do you think?


Filed under Booker, LiteraryFiction, Review

The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht

The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht

Random House, New York, 2011

Borrowed from my local library.  This book, the first novel written by 25-year-old Obreht, who was born in Belgrade in the former Yugoslavia and moved to the United States at the age of twelve, won the 2011 Orange Prize.  The reviews have been all over the map, everything from high praise to vitriolic ranting.  I had not been following all the pre-publication hype, all I knew about it was that it included folk tales and folklore and that it took place during and after a war in an unnamed eastern European country.  I put it on hold at the library and then it appeared on the Orange Prize long list.

At the root of this story is the relationship between Natalia, a young doctor traveling to clinic bringing medicine to sick children, and her Grandfather, a famous surgeon.  He has died away from home, ostensibly following Natalia, and her Grandmother is shocked and angry because they had both covered up his illness.

The forty days of the soul begin on the morning after death.  That first night, before its forty days begin, the soul lies still against sweated-on pillows and watches the living fold the hands and close the eyes, choke the room with smoke and silence to keep the new soul from the doors and the windows and the cracks in the floor so that it does not run out of the house like a river.  The living know that, at daybreak, the soul will leave them and make its way to the places of its past – the schools and dormitories of its youth, army barracks and tenements, houses razed to the ground and rebuilt, places that recall love and guilt, difficulties and unbridled happiness, optimism and ecstasy, memories of grace meaningless to anyone else – and sometimes this journey will carry it so far for so long that it will forget to come back…  From Page 7.

Natalia’s Grandmother gives her a task.  Find the few things – the hat, the wallet, the watch – that her grandfather always had with him and that had not been returned home with his body.  During her search for the place where he died, not found on any map, she remembers her life with him, the stories he told her,  their trips to the local zoo to visit the tigers and the worn copy of the book he always carried in his coat pocket.

He read the alphabet book, that staple of childhood learning, the first philosophy we are exposed to – the simplicity of language, the articulation of a letter that sounds exactly how it looks.  Then he read The Jungle Book, a gift from the apothecary himself.  For weeks, my grandfather sat in the long-stemmed grass and poured over the brown volume with its soft pages.  He read about the panther Bagheera, Baloo the bear, the old wolf Akela.  Inside the cover was the picture of a boy, thin and upright, thrusting a stick of flame into the face of an enormous square-headed cat.  From page 105.

And then there are her grandfather’s tales of the Deathless Man and of the Tiger’s Wife:

The tiger did not know that they were bombs.  He did not know anything beyond the hiss and screech of the fighters passing overhead, missiles falling, the sounds of the bears bellowing in another part of the fortress, the sudden silence of the birds.  There was smoke and terrible warmth, a gray sun rising and falling in what seemed like a matter of minutes, and the tiger, frenzied, dry-tongued, ran back and forth across the span of rusted bars, lowing like an ox.  He was alone and hungry, and that hunger, coupled with the thunderous noise of the bombardment, had burned in him a kind of awareness of his own death, an imminent and innate knowledge he could neither dismiss or succumb to.  He did not know what to do with it.  His water had dried up and he rolled and rolled in the stone bed of his trough, in the uneaten bones in the corner of his cage, making the long sad sound that tigers make.  From page 93.

There are multiple threads to this novel, something some readers had problems with.  At times it all seems disconnected, arbitrary, like cut-out thoughts pulled from a hat.  It came together for me as the shards and shrapnel of war, overshadowed by death  and the devastated pieces of lives that have to be collected after a conflict tears a country and its people apart.

He had his hands inside the sleeves of his cassock, and then he said again that it had been very hard for his mother, and I wanted to say I knew, but I didn’t know.  He could have said your paramilitary, but he didn’t.  I kept waiting for him to say it, but he didn’t, and then I let him not say anything, and I didn’t say anything either, and then he told me, “It’s not much further now.”  From page 270.

Using a contemporary,  inter-generational story mixed with touches of magical realism,  Tea Obreht’s novel tells of war as something that overwhelms, dividing people, driven by politics and quickly out of anyone’s control.  Yet people somehow manage to get through it with indomitable spirit, like the Tiger.  I really enjoyed it and look forward to more from this author.

Other Reviews:

Another Cookie Crumbles

S. Krishna’s Books

Savidge Reads

The Mookse and the Gripes


Filed under ContemporaryFiction, OrangePrize, Review

The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli

The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli

St Martins Griffin, New York, 2010

From my TBR shelf.  Earlier in the year I read about this novel on many of my favorite blogs.

In the fall of 1965 Helen Adams arrived in Vietnam trying to find out about the death of her brother Michael and a desire to break out of her normal life.

    ” My brother wrote me a letter before he was killed.  He said no matter what happened he couldn’t regret coming.  I needed to see for myself.  And the only way to become famous is to cover combat, right?  I dropped out because I was worried it would be over by the time I graduated.”  From pages 86/87.

Drawn into the excitement and chaos of  war and attracted to combat photographer Sam Darrow, Helen stays, learns to take photographs and discovers an obsession she had no idea she was carrying.

This book surprised me.  I find it is hard to believe it is Tatjana Soli’s first novel.

When I first started reading it I wasn’t sure what to expect.  Would this be a story that revolved around the covert and overt attractions between three photographers?  Would it be a blood and guts war story?  What I found was a tightly woven novel that brought the “American war” to me  in a way that connects it to the land and its people.  It is beautiful and appalling and after reading a few pages I found it hard to put down.

All I can do now is include a few passages and hope they seduce you, cause you to pick up and read this book.

She rode out with the helicopter pilots high over the land of the delta south of Saigon, trailing over the endless paddy fields that reflected up at them like broken pieces of a mirror.  The dull green of choking jungle and sinewy-limbed mangrove swamp contrasting with the light green of new rice; the land only rarely broken signs of human habitation – small clusters of thatched roofs or an occasional one of red tile.  From above, the land appeared empty and peaceful, only farmers bent  in the paddies or orchards  She sat like a tourist, enthralled by the dirty green and reddish brown rivers, slow and thick-moving like veins pumping life into the lands.  From page 116.

After the calm of the village, the sheer numbers of people overwhelmed; the scale of the disaster made her feel useless.  Dry-mouthed, she licked her lips, tasting salt, growing more thirsty.  When an old man collapsed on the side of the road, she stooped down, shielding him from view, and gave him precious mouthfuls of water, but in seconds a crowd formed, and she had to move on.  From page 203.

The Vietnamese called the the Tay Nguyen, the Western Highlands, because in their minds they saw the country as a whole, not accepting the artificial divisions of north and south.

Names were important.

Names, finally, were the only things the Vietnamese had left.  For a whole period of history, Vietnam existed only on the tip of someone’s tongue, forbidden to be said out loud.

Geography became power.  From page 317.

I have read other books about the Vietnam war, The Things They Carried, Dispatches and Fire in the Lake, being the most memorable.  I am adding The Lotus Eaters to that list.


Filed under ContemporaryFiction, Historical Fiction, Review, Vietnam

Kamchatka by Marcelo Figueras

Kamchatka by Marcelo Figueras

Translated from the Spanish by Frank Wynne

Black Cat, New York, 2010

Borrowed from the library.  I have to thank Stu at Winstonsdad’s Blog for introducing me to this wonderful, funny and moving book.  This book was nominated for the Booktrust 2011 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

What does a child do when the world around him starts to fall apart?  Kamchatka is a story of  a ten-year-old boy and his family living in Buenos Aires in1976.  The boy, who eventually calls himself Harry after Harry Houdini, and his brother, the “Midget”,  live in a world of school  and comic books, TV, friends and loving parents.  His biggest thrills are the games of Risk he plays with his father.

As the military takes over the country, Harry’s parents friends start disappearing.  Eventually his mother pulls him from school and the family travels outside of the city to stay in a country house.

Kamchatka is  Harry’s story, we hear him looking back on his life as a ten-year-old.  I found this to be one of the best portrayals of a young person I have read in quite a while, and knowing some of the history of Argentina during that time only added to the tension that Figueras creates in his novel.

Since the uncertainties of the present weighed heavily on me, I had been spending a lot of time thinking about my future.  The idea of becoming an escape artist struck me as clearly as a vision: once the notion was firmly planted in my brain, all my worries disappeared.  Now I had a plan, something that, in the near future, would tie up all the loose ends of my circumstances.  From page 95.

Then there is Harry as an adult, looking back on his life, his family, his country.

We get our first glimpses of the big wide world from those we love unconditionally.  If we see our elders suffer because they cannot get a job, or see them demoted, or working for a pittance, our compassion translates these observations and we conclude the world outside is cruel and brutal. (This is politics.)  If we hear our parents badmouthing certain politicians and agreeing with their opponents,  our compassion translates these observations and we conclude that the former are bad guys and the latter are good guys.  (This is politics.)  If we observe palpable fear in our parents at the very sight of  soldiers and policemen, our compassion translates this observation and we conclude that, though all children have bogeyman, ours wear uniforms.  (This is politics.) From page 39.

Kamchatka is presented not in chapters but in periods, like a school day: Biology, Geology, Language, Astronomy, History,  allowing Harry to integrate as an adult the lessons he learned as a child, allowing him to tell his story.  He constantly references his favorite books, books that help him make sense of his past and help him to move into his future.  Kamchatka, like most books I love, is a novel about stories.  It is through stories that we tell our truths and hold on to our histories.

I believe that stories do not end, because even when the protagonists are dead, their actions still have an impact on the living.  This is why I believe that History is like an ocean into which rivers of individual histories flow.  Everything that has gone before underpins the present; we continue those stories just as those who come after us continue ours.   We are bound together in a web that spans all of space; a web large enough to include all those alive today, but also all those of yesterday and tomorrow.  From pages 273/274.

I think Frank Wynne has done a fantastic job of translation, maintaining the spirit of Figueras’ intention. I hope there are other Figueras translations in the works,  I cannot wait to read more.


Filed under Argentina, ContemporaryFiction, InTranslation, Review