Tag Archives: literary fiction

The Bright Forever by Lee Martin

Lee Martin’s novel The Bright Forever has restored my faith in fiction. After a long drought, The Bright Forever accomplished what all good novels should: it held me spellbound. It is beautifully written, has a cast of damaged and damned characters and is almost impossible to put down.

Nine-year-old Katie Mackey goes missing one hot July night in small-town Indiana. She’s the youngest child of Patsy and Junior Mackey. Junior is a man about town; he owns the glass factory. Katie and her older brother, Gilley, are not spoiled rich kids, though – they are smart and kind.

The Bright Forever is told from the viewpoints of Gilley, Mr. Dees (the bachelor math teacher who is helping Katie improve her math skills that hot summer) and Raymond and Clare, a couple of misfits who live on the other side of town, close to Mr. Dees. Occasionally, the story drops into 3rd person omniscient, allowing us to see how the town is reacting to Katie’s disappearance. These transitions are handled effortlessly and the various voicesare distinct and original. Each perspective adds to the story’s central mystery – what happened to Katie – but also allows us to see how fragile and broken these people are.

It’s clearly early on that Mr. Dees and Ray are the prime suspects in this case, but what the reader isn’t suspecting is their complicated complicity and the way their story unfolds. Suffice to say – there is more than one victim in this story.

The Bright Forever is remarkable – it moves at a suspenseful clip and yet, ultimately, it’s a tragedy.  A worthy read, indeed.

Blogcritics Review

The Evening Reader shares her personal recollections of author Lee Martin.

The Trade Mission by Andrew Pyper

I hate it when a book flummoxes me. I hate it when I feel outsmarted by a book, too. Andrew Pyper’s novel The Trade Mission is probably one of those books which deserves to be read twice: once for the story and once for the deeper philosophical issues that I knew were there, but which somehow eluded me. Mostly, anyway.

Jonathan Bates and Marcus Wallace are childhood friends who have become dot com millionaires for their invention of something called Hypothesys.

“We feel that Hypothesys is something that is truly going to change the way we conduct our lives,” explains Wallace to investors gathered in Brazil. “It’s not another Internet site…Hypothesys helps you make the best decisions of your life.”

Ironically, when it comes to making moral decisions with real consequences, Wallace and Bates are left to their own devices. While playing tourist on the Rio Negro, deep in the Amazonian jungle, they (and their companions Elizabeth Crossman, their interpreter; Barry, their managing partner and Lydia, their European counsel) are kidnapped by pirates. What follows is a strange combination of violence and soul searching.

The Trade Mission is narrated by Crossman and she’s in a unique position; as the only one of the party able to speak the language she can embellish or omit.  She also seems to love and hate Wallace in equal measure.  Truthfully, he isn’t particularly sympathetic. His relationship with Bates is eerily sexual and he often seems smug about his intellectual prowess. As for Crossman herself, she isn’t the most accessible of characters and I have to admit that her role, when the story finally starts to unravel, seems a bit of a cheat. The novel’s section After was too sentimental for me, especially coming after the horrors the characters experienced.

Pyper’s a terrific writer. I’m a fan. I liked his novel Lost Girls, which I read several years ago. But I remember feeling somehow unsatisfied after reading that novel, too.  The Trade Mission is billed as a ‘novel of psychological terror.’ Sure, some of it was squirm inducing, but it wasn’t a page-turner in that ‘oh my God, what’s gonna happen next’ way.

Thus the flummox. And the am I missing something. Still worth a read, though.

Author’s Site

Quill and Quire Review

Canadian Literature Review

Still Alice by Lisa Genova

stillalice

My mother was a geriatric nurse for most of her career. When I was in my late teens I had a summer job working at the nursing home where she was head nurse. Many of the patients had dementia and I remember one lady in particular, Annie. She was sweet and over the summer we became friends…except she never remembered who I was from one day to the next.

Lisa Genova’s novel Still Alice is the story of Alice Howland, renowned Harvard professor, mother of three, happily married to John, also a Harvard prof. After seeing her doctor because she’s suffering from strange lapses in her memory, Alice is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s. She is 50.

The novel traces Alice’s diagnosis and subsequent decline. At first she merely struggles to find words (and I don’t do this, but sometimes I start a story and totally forget what I was going to say!) but then her lapses in memory become more pronounced: she gets lost walking a familiar route, she forgets people who were introduced to her only moments before, she mistakes a mat on the floor for a black hole.

Still Alice isn’t literature. Okay, yes, it tells a story, but often times I felt like the author was trying to convey information. Alice says to her neurologist:

“You should also tell them about DASNI. It’s the Dementia Advocacy and Support Network International (247).”

There are several other instances of this sort of writing, places where I felt Genova had an agenda and she was writing to fulfill it. Somehow it lessens the emotional impact of the story because as a reader I was more interested in Alice and her life than I was in hearing about clinical trials.

I can only imagine that being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s is the worst torture imaginable. The disconnect between your life and the lives of the people you love would be beyond horrific. The thought of losing the ability to read (I can’t even imagine my life without books!), to watch a movie, to do simple tasks, to recognize the faces of my children and husband fills me with dread. Yet near the end of the novel, Alice still has the wherewithal to stand up in front of the delegates of a Dementia Care Conference and give an impassioned lecture about how, despite her symptoms, she is still a person worthy of note.

“Please don’t look at our scarlet A’s and write us off. Look us in the eye, talk directly to us. Don’t panic or take it personally if we make mistakes, because we will” (253).

The whole lecture seemed like  authorial commentary…and it didn’t work for me. Strangely, the part that I found most moving in the novel was when Alice attends the graduation of her last grad student, Dan. Even though we’ve seen very little of their relationship and hardly anything of Dan in the novel, his post-graduation moment with Alice is very touching.

People will love Still Alice. My feeling about it is that it’s a timely topic written without artifice.

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Another Review

Talking to the Dead by Helen Dunmore

talkingdead

The events of Helen Dunmore’s beautifully written novel Talking to the Dead take place during a blazing summer on the Cornwall coast. Nina has come to spend time with her sister, Isabelle, who has just given birth to Antony. It is a difficult labour and delivery and Isabelle is having a slow recovery.

You don’t look very alike, Susan said yesterday. I wouldn’t have guessed you were sisters. (29)

Susan has been hired to care for Antony while Isabelle recovers from the complications of Antony’s birth. Although the sisters are, as Susan notes,  unalike physically, they share the bond of family: an emotionally distant mother who worked as a potter, a drunkard father and the crib-death of their little brother, Colin.

They also share knowledge, perhaps suppressed, about the death of their little brother. It is during the hot days that follow that a family secret is revealed and Nina begins an illicit affair that sends shrapnel through the house Isabelle and her husband, Richard, have leased for the summer.

I’m a Dunmore fan. She’s a beautiful writer and much of the prose in this slim volume is breathtaking. So I am going to attribute the fact that I didn’t tear through this  novel (only 214 pages!) to the fact that I’ve had a serious case of book lethargy over the last few weeks. After all, like all of the Dunmore novels I’ve read – as literary as they are – this one has an element of psychological suspense. The pace isn’t fast though; information is revealed slowly, like veils pulled back one at a time. Under normal circumstances, this wouldn’t be a problem for me…like I say, I was in a bit of a slump.

If you haven’t yet read Dunmore, you really should.  She’s quite remarkable.

Helen Dunmore’s Site

Reading Guide

Q and A with Dunmore about the novel

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

elegance-of-the-hedgehog

Several months ago Muriel Barbery’s novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog was chosen as the book for the bookstore reading group I lead. We have a sort of willy nilly way of choosing our books and this novel ended up on the top of the heap. When we came together to discuss it a month later, other than the woman who had thrown it into the pile, no one else had finished the book- including me. I got about halfway through…and I just really didn’t like the book at all. So imagine my dismay when the novel was chosen by my longstanding book club as our first novel for our new reading year! I had no choice but to finish the book.

So, I started again. And strangely, this time around, I didn’t find the book so grating. That’s not to say that I found it all that plausible, either. Still, I did manage to get through it.

Barbery’s novel tells the story of Renee, a concierge at an elegant apartment building in Paris.

I am short, ugly and plump, I have bunions on my feet and, if I am to credit early mornings of self-inflicted disgust, the breath of a mammoth. I did not go to college, I have always been poor, discreet and insignificant. (19)

Renee has, despite what she considers her considerable flaws, a deep and abiding love for literature, art and music. Seriously, the novel opens with a rumination on Marx – which is perhaps the reason why I didn’t groove to the novel straight away the first time around: I know nothing about Marx.

Paloma lives in the building with her parents and older sister. At twelve, Paloma is already sick of the world and everyone in it.

My parents are rich, my family is rich and my sister and I are, therefore rich….Despite all that, despite all this good fortune and all this wealth, I have known for a long time that the final destination is the goldfish bowl. How do I know? Well, the fact is that I am very intelligent. Exceptionally intelligent. (23)

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is about appearances. Renee is forever fearful about giving away her love of the finer things; after all, she’s just a concierge. Paloma,  is keeping a journal of profound thoughts and plotting her own death. And then into their lives comes a Japanese gentleman named Kakuro Ozu. He sees straight through these women, into their very heart of hearts and changes them in ways they might have never imagined.

This novel was a sensation in France. As with any translation, it’s important to remember that you are not reading it in its original form; something is bound to be lost in the translation no matter how good it is.

I have a feeling that when we discuss this novel tomorrow night, most everyone will have loved it. I didn’t love it (in fact I didn’t like the ending at all!), but I did see the novel’s charms- even though I often found the novel pretentious (all these mini-lessons on art and literature) and perhaps just a tad contrived.

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Another review

Another review

Book Questions

1.  The book has two narrators:  bizarrely brilliant 12 year old Paloma and short, ugly, plump concierge Renee.  Did the two storytellers detract or add to your enjoyment of the story and in whose head did you prefer to dwell?

2.  A great deal of the book asks a single question that Paloma eventaully poses to Renee. “Do you feel that life has meaning?” Do you?

3. How do you measure a life’s worth? By Paloma’s calculation, what you are doing at the moment of your death is important. Renee died at a moment when she had “met another and was prepared to love.” If you could pick the  moment of your death, what would you be doing?

4. Renee thinks most people take the easy way out when it comes to living their lives. We anethesize ourselves with children, TV and God who “appeases our animal fears and the unbearable prospect that someday all our pleasures will cease.” Have you taken the easy way out?

5. Paloma’s Journal of the Movement of the World is a quest to document whatever is beautiful enough to give life meaning. If you were asked to develop a list of your own, what might make your list?

Food

Biscuits

Oven 450 degrees

2 cups flour

1 T baking powder

2 t sugar

½ t cream of tartar

¼ t salt

½ cup shortening, margarine, or butter

2/3 cup milk

  • Stir together the whites
  • Cut in the butter
  • Add milk
  • Stir till dough just clings together
  • On a lightly floured surface kneed dough gently for 10 or 12 strokes
  • Roll or pat out …Cut the biscuits

Cook for 10 to 12 minutes

(Thanks to S.  for allowing me to use her questions and the recipe!)

The Moment You Were Gone by Nicci Gerrard

moment

Nicci Gerrard writes terrific psychological suspense thrillers with her husband Sean French. As Nicci French they have written a few books I have enjoyed immensely, particularly Killing Me Softly. On her own, Gerrard is a thoughtful and talented writer, generally concerned with the minutia of  daily life and the relationships which both trouble and sustain us.

So I’m going to blame the fact that I didn’t love Nicci Gerrard’s third novel The Moment You Were Gone on the fact that August was a bit of a bust for me reading-wise. Perhaps it was the spectacular weather, but this was the third novel I’ve started in the last couple of weeks (and the only one I finished).

The Moment You Were Gone is the story of Nancy and Gaby, childhood friends. We see them as children, as young adults and then we meet Gaby  again as she’s dropping her only son, Ethan, off at university.  At this point in the story, she and Nancy have been estranged for almost 20 years, although Gaby has an inkling of where her old friend is.  Instead of going home after leaving Ethan, Gaby decides to revisit her past and hops a train to Cornwall where she tracks Nancy down. It is this reconnection which sets off a chain of events which you can see coming a mile off. What you might not see coming, however, is the way these  revelations change and shape the people involved.

This is a novel about friendship, certainly, but is also a novel about love:  the love between siblings and families, between husbands and wives and between friends. As Gaby’s life begins to unravel, Ethan’s life begins to flourish. We watch him navigate those first few weeks away from home and we watch him fall in love with his best mate’s girl.

Despite the secret that is central to this novel, there are no bad guys here. Everyone makes the choices they think are the best for the right reasons. Watching Gaby deal with the fall out from her discovery is more like watching a fender bender than a train wreck, but I think I actually mean that as a compliment. Although I didn’t necessarily warm to Gaby, I did admire the way she moved forward despite the fact that her world had been tipped over.

The last third of this book is a thoughtful meditation on what happens when you reach a certain point in your life.  From this vantage point you can look back.

She asked herself  what point there was in the frantic emotions of the past few weeks if in the end she was just a pinprick on a dot in a galaxy that was itself negligible. All the scrabbling around, the desperate search for happiness, meaning and union – while around us the millions of stars shine on, implacably distant and remote…. How strange, to care so passionately and yet to mean so little and to die alone and go where no one can follow. (362)

It would be impossible not to relate to some aspect of this book and I can’t fault either the story or the writer for the fact that I didn’t love it. Just reader’s fatigue, I guess.

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Dismantled by Jennifer McMahon

dismantled

I was so excited to be given this book which had arrived at the bookstore where I used to work. The manager there knew I was a huge fan of McMahon’s novel Promise Not to Tell, and so she passed this along. Dismantled is the story of the Compassionate Dismantlers, four art students: Tess, Henry, Winnie and the charismatic Suz. The Compassionate Dismantlers believe that “to understand the nature of a thing you have to take it apart.” What they really believe, it seems, is that you can ruin someone’s career and set fires and manipulate lives for your own personal gain. At the end of their post-graduation summer in a cabin by the lake, Suz is dead and the remaining Dismantlers go their separate ways. Flash forward ten years. Henry and Tess are unhappily married and have a 10 year old daughter, Emma. Winnie has had her own struggles with mental illness. A simple act by Emma sets off a chain of events with far reaching consequences.

Dismantled was a big disappointment for me and it truly pains me to say that because I loved Promise Not To Tell and encouraged everyone I know to read it. For me, there was just too much going on. Was Dismantled a novel about a failing marriage, infidelity, the nature of art, childhood fears, imaginary friends, ghosts – real and imagined? Was it a mystery? Was it a ghost story? Was it a novel about revenge?

Honestly, I really struggled to finish Dismantled and only kept going because I thought maybe the end would justify the rest.  I didn’t like any of the characters and worse, I didn’t care about any of them.

Read Promise Not to Tell instead.

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Author’s Web Site