Category Archives: General Fiction

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce

I got this book for Christmas! And because it got put at the top of the fiction pile, it was the one I read first.

First impressions: It was compared in the opening blurbs to One Day, which I adored. Stylistically, it is quite similar to One Day with relatively plain prose which somehow manages to be ordinary and meaningful at the same time. It’s also similar to One Day in the unexpectedly tragic reveal, and yet still hopeful ending.

….That’s all I have so far.

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Mockingbird, by Kathryn Erskine

Mockingbird is probably most compared to Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, if for no other reason that it features a child protagonist with Asperger’s. It’s a valid comparison: both books do an excellent job of portraying the inner thoughts of a person on the spectrum struggling to make sense of an emotionally charged situation. (At least, I assume they do. I’m further on the neurotypical side than the characters, so I can’t say exactly how accurate it is. Although I do have my moments……)

In Mockingbird, the main character’s teenage brother has died, and her single father has to deal with both the circumstances of his son’s death and his daughter’s reactions. Caitlin is faced with all sorts of uncomfortable-for-her situations, including group projects at school and the community’s grief that she can’t fully comprehend.

I have to say, though, it was heartening to see how much support Caitlin was getting at school. She had daily sessions with a counselor who did an excellent job explaining social conventions and other people’s reactions. Most of the teachers presented in the book seem to have at least some understanding of how to deal with her, and how far they can push her limits. The P.E. teacher is horrible, but some of Caitlin’s classmates step up and genuinely help. On balance, it’s a good school situation for Caitlin to be in.

And she definitely makes social progress through the book. She makes some friends by the end, as well as helping her father (and the community) work through their grief. She even helps the school bully deal with some of his issues, in a way.

It’s a fantastic book – I’d definitely recommend it to anyone who deals with Asperger’s kids or even with tragedy victims.

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Arthur and George, by Julian Barnes

I can’t quite get a handle on Julian Barnes’s writing. I enjoyed England, England despite the lack of any sympathetic characters; I couldn’t get more than a few pages into Flaubert’s Parrot before it started annoying me so much that I had to stop.  Arthur and George sucked me in, but I’m not sure how much of that is the “true story/true crime” nature of it, the interactions with historically familiar people and places, and how much of it is Julian Barnes’s writing. I fear it is the former.

Arthur and George relates the personal histories of Arthur and George up to the point where their lives intersect. George is the son of a vicar who grows up to be a solicitor and a minor expert in railway law. Arthur is the son of an Edinburgh landlady who grows up to be an ophthalmologist and, eventually, a writer of popular stories.

George is accused and ultimately convicted of mutilating horses and serves three years in prison before being released on probation. He and the reader know that he didn’t do it – in fact, it’s basically physically impossible for him to have done it – and he spends the years after his release applying to everyone he can think of to gain a free pardon. He even writes to Arthur, the famous novelist, who has been emotionally dead since his wife’s death and throws himself into this cause with Sherlock Holmes-like vigour and attention. George is pardoned but not compensated, but even more than that, Arthur’s friendship brings him back into society.

Barnes is coy about the key identifying points of his protagonists, which is probably more effective if you don’t go in knowing those details. I did, though – and they’re in almost every review, including the Publisher’s Weekly blurb on Amazon – so I found the avoidance of those details, and especially the way George’s reveal seemed almost forced in (Let’s have a scene specifically to reveal this point!), really awkward and false.

I also found Barnes’s style very unemotional, matter-of-fact. Some of that may have been George’s personality – he came across as having an almost autistic detachment from other people, including his family, and an insistence on accuracy that serves him well as a solicitor but less well as a defendant. Arthur, on the other hand, is supposed to be relatively passionate, and I always felt distanced from him, and from everything that was happening to and around him. I’m not sure I was supposed to; I’m pretty sure I didn’t really like that feeling.

So I’m on the fence about Julian Barnes. I have yet to read The Sense of an Ending, which for some reason is listed as non-fiction in the bibliography at the end of my copy of Arthur and George – maybe that will help me make up my mind.

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Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

Swamplandia! is another book that I learned about from the Tournament of Books. I may have to go back to the Tournament recaps now that I’ve actually read the book, and see how much I agree or disagree with their comments.

Swamplandia! is also one of the books nominated as finalist for the Pulitzer Prize this year, when no prize was ultimately awarded. I will admit, I have no desire to read David Foster Wallace’s book and I don’t know much about Train Dreams, the other finalist. In my mind, Swamplandia!, being the book that I’d heard of, is the de facto winner. This makes me even more curious about the Pulitzer decision – whether they couldn’t come to a consensus or whether they thought none of the finalists were worthy.

I really wanted to love this book. I wanted to be captivated by the language (I was) and transported to another world adjacent to this one (I was, mostly). I wanted to be so in tune with the characters that I was startled to find myself when I looked out of the book (….a bit). I got all those things….mostly. And it’s that mostly that makes this book less than perfect.

Oh, the language is amazing. It’s colourful and evocative without being overdescriptive. It put me in the Florida swamps and gave me its history, especially with the Army Corps of Engineers, so very clearly. I could see Swamplandia! and its dinginess and its desperation (I’ve been to the Black Hills….)

And for most of the novel, I was transported to another world adjacent to this one. But then, about three-quarters of the way through the book, what had started off as an almost Orpheus-like journey becomes just another childhood trauma story. Which disappointed me, somewhat. I was anticipating an Underworld, a struggle to recover Osceola, an amorphous but real presence, a parallel with the World of Darkness. Instead I got a well-written but tawdry attack that shifted Ava’s goal from rescue to escape.

And the ending itself was a bit too coincidence-driven for me. Kiwi JUST HAPPENS to be taking his flying test over that particular swamp, where Osceola JUST HAPPENS to spot him, and it all JUST HAPPENS to be in the same area around the same time that Ava JUST HAPPENS to get rescued.  Actually, Ava’s rescue is the most realistic of any of that – it was as close to a Chekov’s Gun as you’re going to find in something like this. (Mama Weeds, on the other hand, totally thrown in at the last minute. Not as cool as I think she was intended to be.)

There were a lot of emotional moments that I wish had been explored more. I thought Kiwi’s reactions to seeing his father again were well-done, but there was no follow-up – things just swept straight into the ending. Ava shifts so rapidly from being concerned for her sister to being concerned for herself that neither is ever really resolved. And Osceola herself is never resolved – how does her experience in the swamp change her, if it does at all?

I really loved this book – right up until the end, when I only liked it. The language is fantastic, and is probably why it got a Pulitzer nod. But the shift at the end is too great – it falls apart right when you want everything to come together.

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Leen Times, by A.R. Dance

I am a bad, bad Nottingham devotee. I didn’t know that the Leen was a tributary of the Trent until I picked up this book and then Wiki-ed “Leen”. I know that the Fleet ran/runs underneath London, but I didn’t know what rivers and canals helped establish my home.

I also don’t know the entire history of the gentry and landowners around here, apart from a bit about Wollaton Hall and the Castle. But luckily there is a book like Leen Times (and its precursor, Narrow Marsh) which provides a highly readable background to early 19th century Nottingham, with a bit of plot thrown in against the slightly cardboard characters.

Don’t get me wrong, I liked it. It wasn’t “good”, but it wasn’t that bad, and I liked it. I thought Narrow Marsh had more dramatic tension – the plot was clearer and the villain was less cardboard-cut-out – but I wasn’t reading it for the plot, really. I was reading it for the references to places I know, for the evocation of being where I am but not when I am, for picturing Nottingham and Beeston and Chilwell before they became almost one entity.

And that’s what I got. The main characters wandering through the streets and highways on their way to Beeston and Chilwell, stopping at some points that still exist today (and some that don’t). They talk about the Reform Act riots that happened in Wollaton Park – that was the topic of the last performance tour at the Galleries of Justice that I went on. They witness the burning of the Beeston Silk Mill and hear about the burning of Nottingham Castle.

It also made me wonder about the history of some things – like the Hallams. The greengrocer in Beeston is called “Hallam’s” – is that a connection to the Hallam who was manager of the Chilwell manor, or the Hallams of Hallams Lane? Was the Duke of Newcastle oppressive, or was he just conservative and uninterested? How long did it take to get Beeston’s silk mill running again, and how does the silk trade reflect in how Beeston is now?

But, like I say, the writing wasn’t great. There was more than one moment that could have used an editor, either to say “This is really obvious” or “This is unnecessary.” (A particularly egregious sentence pointed out the irony of the hero having gone down the same path as the villain, several years before. But the villain is unaware of the fact that it’s the same path! Look at the irony!) And I do think that the story itself, such as it was, suffered from having the same villain as the first book. The “revenge” storyline was weak and the villain became a little bit one-dimensional and insane because of it. I think if the main conflict storyline had been more interwoven with the railroad storyline – for example, have a villain be a canal rival who wants to stop railroad development, or even something more on the modern side where people don’t want to see their land going for a railroad – it could have been a stronger book.

As research goes, though, it’s clearly a labour of love, and evocative enough. People outside the Nottingham area aren’t going to be able to find it, I don’t think – but then they might not care about the background as much as I do.

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Certain Girls, by Jennifer Weiner

It’s been years since I read Good in Bed, but there are some things that stay with you. The shock of that one scene, the frantic scanning to find out whether the baby would be okay, and most of all, how much I liked Cannie.

Certain Girls is Joy’s book, though. Cannie is a point-of-view character, and stuff happens to Cannie, but the main point of the book is to detail the changing situation between mother and daughter, between teenager and the world. This is made absolutely clear in the first two chapters. The first chapter, Cannie’s, includes a list of all the things that they do together and all the ways that they are close. The second chapter, Joy’s, includes the same list but as a list of reasons why Joy can’t stand her mother.

Just like Good in Bed, it’s a tumultuous time in their lives. Joy is approaching thirteen, which is a difficult time for anyone, and she’s also secretly discovering the truth about her conception and birth – ultimately, about all her male ancestors (Cannie’s dad is included in her formerly idealised disappointments). She surreptitiously reads Cannie’s book (taking it as autobiographical),  overhears a devastating conversation between her father and his wife, and flies across the country to try to meet her grandfather. Pretty big stuff for a thirteen-year-old to deal with, on top of the normal stuff that a thirteen-year-old Jewish girl has to deal with – bat mitzvah planning, schoolwork, first crushes, peer pressure, and the need to be treated as both an adult and a child simultaneously.

Just like Good in Bed, though, there’s a stunning and devastating moment about two-thirds of the way through that sets the book and the characters on a completely different path.  But while that scene in Good in Bed feels natural and important and organic, here it feels jarring. And it’s the type of thing that is jarring in real life, but from a narrative perspective, it doesn’t quite work for me. I mean, she makes it work because she’s a good writer. But it doesn’t work nearly as well as the analogous scene in Good in Bed. It takes over the rest of the novel, and not necessarily in a good way. It doesn’t reshape what went before; it just overshadows everything else. And again, that’s what an event like that does in real life, but it feels forced here. “Oh, we need some kind of trauma and something to get Cannie writing again. I know!….”

Sidenote: why does suffering/trauma/difficult life situation always equate to prolific writing?  Is my problem just that I’ve been too relatively happy over my life? Please someone write a book about a writer that doesn’t imply that you need suffering in order to be successful….

I did like Certain Girls, but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who hasn’t read Good in Bed. It’s not the best introduction to Weiner’s work, if only because most of the story and character development for both Cannie and Joy rely so heavily on the events of Good in Bed.  If you have read the first one, though, this is a great way to catch up with Cannie and Joy – despite the abrupt heartbreak that leads to the end.

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England, England, by Julian Barnes

I may have read this book before, years ago. The premise of it – billionaire turns the Isle of Wight into an England Experience/theme park type place – seemed really familiar, and I kept getting a sense of déjà vu while I was reading it (without actually recalling anything about it). This is not meant to be a slam against Julian Barnes at all, just that if I did read it, it was years ago and probably a random discovery from a library bookshelf. If I did read it before, I enjoyed it. I certainly enjoyed it this time.

There are several major themes in this book, but one of the most important ones (and most explicit ones) is the idea that, eventually, replica becomes reality. This is a stated belief and inspiration when they are planning the park, and it is proven in many different ways throughout the narrative. The actor playing Samuel Johnson, for example, starts dissociating and believing that he actually is Samuel Johnson; the locals playing “peasants” start wanting to sleep rough.  The tipping point of the second part is a showdown between the Merrie Men and the SAS team that stormed the Iran Embassy.

And the third part is the fallout of this new reality, taken to extremes: Old England has now become Anglia, an isolated and isolationist agrarian society based around the Saxon heptarchy. Everything that has internationally defined England has gone to the Island, tourism has collapsed, and the only thing left for England is to become locally focused again.

The idea that replica eventually becomes reality is an interesting one. It starts from the idea that, if it’s more convenient, people are fine with seeing the replica of something rather than seeking out the real thing – an example of this is Michelangelo’s David, in Florence. Then the replica becomes indistinguishable from reality (again, with David, who’s going to say that they haven’t seen it, just because they’ve seen the replica in the square rather than the original in the museum?). And ultimately, the replica becomes as desirable as the reality – especially if reality is difficult or inconvenient to access.

I don’t know if that’s always true, though. I think from a logistical perspective, people are willing to accept replicas in place of reality (buy a postcard or poster of a painting rather than the real thing) but I think that we value things that are more difficult to attain, whether that difficulty comes in the physical object or the experience. I buy prints of paintings I like because I can’t feasibly get the originals – I value an original painting more highly. From a logistical perspective, it’s great that all of the quintessentially English experiences are on one island, easily accessible if you’ve got enough money. From a value perspective, I prefer the journey – the ability to treat each site as its own experience rather than an item on a checklist. From an emotional perspective, I also appreciate the time in between the experiences to absorb and reflect on wherever I’ve just been – if I went to the Island and was faced with Stonehenge next to Robin Hood next to Nell Gwynn’s orange (juice) stall next to Buckingham Palace, I think my brain would explode from overload. (And, for the record, I saw David in the museum, as well as in the square. I also think that one of the reasons that the replica is so easily accepted in place of the original is because it is in the original location, while the original is in an artificial location – so I don’t think the David analogy is quite right for their replica replacing reality argument, but that’s the one that they use, so there you go.)

I also have some serious questions about the society on the Island. For something that is supposed to be a self-contained entity, there are a lot of ways that it defies its containment. The Island simply could not exist independently of the rest of the world, and that’s something that I think that Pitco completely ignores. It works in the context of the book (which is, of course, all that it’s meant to do), but it should never be forgotten that the Island is, in fact, a theme park, not a functioning country the way that it pretends to be. There is no allotment for sick, elderly, or young – presumably they must be shipped over to Dieppe.  If there were an apocalyptic event and tourists could no longer come to the Island, the whole system would collapse. They’d want Anglia’s help then, wouldn’t they? WOULDN’T THEY!

……….whoops, got a little bit carried away there……….

Speaking of Anglia, one of the more intriguing things for me was the list and discussion of “what is England” – England specifically, rather than UK generally, as one of the points of the Island project is to counterbalance devolution. One of my classes on my study-abroad year dealt a lot with the idea of English identity, versus British identity – Scottish independence or at least autonomy was a big deal at the time, and we visited the Scottish Parliament which had either just opened or was just about to, and we also talked a bit about Wales and touched on Northern Ireland (which is a whole other topic in and of itself, beyond even UK devolution). Come to think of it, that might be where I read or at least encountered this book before. Any Notts want to help jog my memory?

Anyway, it’s always struck me as an interesting, and essential idea. What defines a nation? (In the same vein, what defines an individual?) Is identity reliant on how we see ourselves, or how others see us, or some mix of the two? What about when how others see us is radically different from how we see ourselves? How can we adjust the way we present ourselves to others, without altering how we see ourselves? And, eventually, to get back to the main theme, does how we present ourselves, and how others see us, irrevocably alter how we see ourselves and become the reality of our identity, even if we were acting the whole time? Does our replica identity end up becoming our real identity?

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Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen

Sara Gruen is my hero.

I say that with the caveat that I know essentially nothing about her. But what I do know makes her one of my role models. Because she did something that I have not yet managed to do: she finished NaNoWriMo, and then kept with it. She edited and rewrote, and probably rewrote some more, and then she started submitting.

And the result is an eminently readable book that deserves the praise it’s gotten. It may not have bookmarkable prose or anything, but it works, and it’s a lot better writing than a lot of other things that get published.

I’m fascinated by structure right now – mostly because I don’t really understand it yet, and don’t have a good sense of it in my own writing. The structure of Water for Elephants is pretty cool – it’s a mixture of flashback and present-day, but the transitions are very smooth. Jacob is an old man, in a nursing home, and when the circus comes to town, he starts drifting back to his days working at a circus. Every so often, he gets pulled back to the present, in part by a nurse named Rosemary (rosemary for remembrance, and another important character is named Rosie – I doubt this is a coincidence).

The story of his time at a circus is a complete story, encompassing all the rules of circus life, friendship, and love – all tricky and complicated.

For me, one sign of a good book is one that leaves you wanting to know more. This book had at least two points for that: it was incredibly interesting to get a sense of the peripatetic circus life during the Depression – not knowing whether you’d get paid that week, pulling up stakes quickly because another circus has gone broke and you want to pick through their performers and stock, the perils of Prohibition and moonshine – both physical and social.  The other is that of circus disasters – Water for Elephants features a menagerie stampede, and mentions a Ringling Brothers fire and a circus train crash. These are both things that my brain wants to explore further, so thank you, Sara Gruen, for making me interested in them.

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State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett

I loved Bel Canto. Absolutely adored it. I thought that its portrayal of the tensions of a hostage situation were incredibly nuanced, and its depiction of the emotional power of music was incredibly moving. I thought that her prose was very lyrical and flowed incredibly well.

State of Wonder struck me in much the same way. It’s not a hostage situation, there are no musicians (although there is a performance of Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice that is fantastically portrayed), but the sense of taking us into an extreme situation and making it feel real, making us sympathise with all the different perspectives without necessarily taking a stand on the morality of any of them, is still there. As is the lyrical prose. It was a joy to read, to immerse myself in the words and the world that she has established.

It’s a complicated world, spanning Minnesota and Brazil and navigating the tricky issues of fertility, research ethics, and truth. Race (the main character is half-Indian, half-white; the doctors are with a native tribe in the Amazon basin) is explored but not one of the major issues of the book, refreshingly. More important are the culture clash issues, connected with but not reliant on race. How do you shift from a lab in Minnesota to a village in Brazil? How does a white woman doctor navigate the politics between tribes with languages she can’t even speak?

More importantly, how to you balance the demands of research funding (and funders) with the demands of the research itself, or the researchers? Who needs to be accountable to whom? And, because fertility is such an issue, there’s also the matter of who is responsible for whom?

The characters are all very complex – but understandable even if you don’t like them. Even Dr. Swenson, who does some pretty horrible and amoral things, is understandable. And she does some very horrible, amoral if not actually immoral things. She also seems to feel that everyone who doesn’t act and react the same way that she does is lacking, or inferior in some way.

Marina is also very understandable, partially because she’s the main character. But while I did understand her, and identify with her, and empathise with her, I did realise (on reflection) that she’s really quite passive. Almost everything that happens in the book happens to her; nothing really happens because of her. Even the action she does take is propelled by other people, and she carries it out with a sense of inevitability: she acts because she can’t NOT act.

But, then, who among us wouldn’t do the same? Who, on being faced with the fact of the death of a friend and colleague, wouldn’t help his grieving widow understand, especially when her request coincides with a near-demand from your boss that you finish his job and retrieve his possessions? Who, on being abruptly taken into a completely alien world and culture, wouldn’t sit back and observe the situation, at least at first, and especially if you were scientifically trained? It’s letting things happen, but it’s also what makes her human.

[Sidenote: I’m 99% sure that Marina is pregnant at the end. Anyone read it and want to weigh in?]

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A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan

Literary review pretentiousness to get out of the way: beautiful, spare prose. Interesting structure: a series of almost-vignettes with loose connections via the characters. A sense of continuity and yet incompleteness as we get only glimpses into each of the lives portrayed. I can see why it won the Pulitzer.

It’s the kind of book you read for the construction of it, for the writing. It’s not the kind of book you read for character, and certainly not for story. If you are in the habit of reading for character or story, there will be difficult moments when you’re trying to figure out who’s narrating. Sometimes it’s first person (and hence unnamed); sometimes it takes ages to establish the connection between chapters. And it’s not just the characters: time jumps inconsistently between chapters, and that can also be difficult to adapt to.

I can’t unequivocally say that I enjoyed it, in part because I don’t think I “got” it. (Not that full understanding is necessary for enjoyment: there are things that I enjoy without really understanding them, like the works of T.S. Eliot.) I would, however, like to study it. Structure is something I’m becoming more and more interested in, and this book is very structurally interesting. I want to map it.  I want a bubble map or spider map of the characters in each chapter and how they’re connected. I wonder how flexible the chapter order is, and how much Jennifer Egan and her editor played with that before publication.

There are also a couple of themes that I’d like to review on rereading, to see if they carry through or if they’re coincidental. The main one is the theme of pauses. The chapter that I found most interesting deals very explicitly with pauses. It’s in the form of PowerPoint slides, so white space is very important. It also describes pauses in various songs, sometimes very technically. Personally, I thought it was not only the most interesting chapter in the book, but also the one that I understood the most. The characters were all very clear, even the ones who were fairly peripheral to the chapter. One part of the structural map I’m eventually going to make, then, is going to determine the pauses of the chapters. I can think of at least one other chapter off the top of my head that ends with a pause, and I wonder if there are others.

And now, onto something more narratively straightforward, less mentally taxing.

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