Stuff and Nonsense: contemporary fiction

Showing posts with label contemporary fiction. Show all posts
Showing posts with label contemporary fiction. Show all posts


Night Strangers

After Chip Linton crashlands his plane in Lake Champlain, causing the death of thirty-nine passengers, he and his family decide to rebuild their lives in rural New Hampshire. The old farmhouse they purchase is a ramshackle affair, full of unsettling wallpaper and hidden weapons, that has seen its share of tragedy. The locals seem friendly enough -- although the local “herbalists” seem weirdly fascinated with the Linton twins, they appear well-intentioned and supply the new arrivals with a steady flow of baked goods and treats.

Unfortunately, while Emily and the girls seem to fit right in, Chip can’t settle down. There’s a door in the creepy, dirt-floored cellar sealed with thirty-nine carriage bolts, you see. Its existence nags at him. As do the ghosts of three of his dead passengers -- especially the littlest ghost, who deserves playmates her own age.

I enjoyed Night Strangers immensely. It was, for me, the perfect, creepy Christmas Eve read. The (deceptively) slow pace of the novel was made deliciously torturous by the constant undercurrent of foreboding -- with every page turned I thought “and now SOMETHING TERRIBLE must happen,” but no. Just the slow, suspenseful slide of Chip from PTSD into Redrum Crazy. And then ... and then all hell broke loose and everything I’d vaguely suspected or feared occurred in a wild denouement that left me torn between “What the hell, Chris Bohjalian?” and “I love you, Chris Bohjalian!”

Night Strangers by Chris Bohjalian. Crown Publishers, 2011. Kindle edition.


The Loveliest Chocolate Shop in Paris

The Loveliest Chocolate Shop in Paris tells two parallel stories -- one of Claire, an older Englishwoman who visited Paris as a young woman and fell in love, and one of Anna, a younger Englishwoman who takes Claire’s advice and moves to Paris after an unfortunate industrial accident at a local chocolate plant. Anna finds work at Le Chapeau Chocolat under world famous Thierry Girard, ebullient chocolatier and former lover of Claire. She learns much about chocolate, life, and love and truly becomes a better Anna for it all.

While I was moved to tears at points, The Loveliest Chocolate Shop in Paris is an essentially light-hearted delight, full of lovingly-written descriptions of Paris and delicious confections. I’ve never thought to visit Paris, but I definitely would if Jenny Colgan (or Sami, but I might not be brave enough for Sami) were my tour guide. Colgan’s Paris is very bohemian -- very Moulin Rouge – and filled with wine, food, music, passion, and romance. All the best things, really.

Like many of Colgan’s other foodie romances, The Loveliest Chocolate Shop in Paris comes with recipes, including ones for “The World’s Best Hot Chocolate” and “Malteser Cake.” I’ve made Malteser cakes before, but never from scratch, so will probably give that a go now that we’re back to cake baking-weather!

The Loveliest Chocolate Shop in Paris by Jenny Colgan (Sourcebooks, 2014)


The Girl Before

Clara is living a seemingly normal life with her husband and daughters on a beautiful rural estate when her home is invaded by masked gunmen and she discovers her life is built upon lies. Her husband and his family are human traffickers and Clara is one of their victims.

But Clara doesn't feel like a victim. Mama, Papa G, and Glen are the only family she's ever known -- or loved. If they are not Clara's family, if they do not love her, if they have lied to her with every breath for as far back as she can remember ... then who is she? And the beautiful daughters she has lovingly raised and prepared for their bright futures with Papa G's customers ... does that make Clara a monster, too?

While The Girl Before was not an easy read, it was certainly a compelling one. I enjoyed Olsen's choice to alternate between the past and present in a thoroughly non-chronological, but thematic way. This meant, of course, I had to pay attention to what I was reading and at a few points, had to flip back to an earlier section of the book, finally realizing how the bits knit together. This did not put me off in the least, as I was glued to the pages and finally finished this book in the wee small hours of a workday morning.

Admittedly, Clara's ... obtuseness ... was sometimes frustrating. Readers only know what Clara knows and what Clara knows is that she had a perfectly okay life before federal agents took her husband and daughters away. She's mourning, she's scared, and she's uncertain who to trust, so she clings to what she "knows." And thus, sometimes, I found myself shouting unsympathetic things like "your daughters are sex slaves, you stupid woman!" while Clara struggled to come to terms with both what had been done to her and what she had done to others.

Overall, an uncomfortable read, but a good one. I look forward to reading more by Rena Olsen.

The Girl Before by Rena Olsen (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2016)


Behold the Dreamers

Jende and Neni Jonga want desperately to stay in America, to make something of themselves, and give their son a future he could not even dream of in Cameroon. But making those dreams come true is dependent on money and money depends on employment and employment depends on immigration status. And immigration status? That depends on who is asking the question. Jende wants to be aboveboard but he is trapped in a legal limbo while he waits for a decision from the USCIS regarding his petition for asylum status. Working as a driver for Clark Edwards, the seeming epitome of the American Dream, entangles Jendi and Neni in the Clark family's secrets and exposes the cracks behind the Dream's facade. This entanglement inevitably spurs several desperate acts, leading to a surprising, but realistically unavoidable, ending.

Behold the Dreamers is of those audio books you can’t stop listening to and find yourself idling extra long in parking lots, waiting for a "good place" to pause. Alas, there are no good places -- this is an audio book that deserves all of your attention, all of the time. Much of that is due to Mbue’s exemplary writing style and intricate story-telling skills, of course, but Onayemi's masterful reading deserves awards.

Behold the Dreamers written by Imbolo Mbue & read by Prentice Onayemi (Random House Audio, 2016)


The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper

The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper is one of those rather lovely, whimsical reads that leaves you feeling better about the world than when you began it while, happily, managing not to be overly sentimental or trope-heavy. It's the kind of heartwarming book I can easily talk about with my older "gentle reads" loving coworkers and could see giving my mother for Christmas. (Which is not to say The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper is unrelentingly sunny and optimistic -- there is real sadness and grief in this book, but it is dealt with deftly and realistically, leaving the book all the better for it).

On the one-year anniversary of his wife's death, Arthur Pepper clears out her wardrobe. In the process, he finds a rather posh gold charm bracelet tucked away in a pair of boots. Arthur has never seen this piece of jewelry before, thinks it doesn't look like anything she would have worn, and begins to wonder about it having been so hidden away. Of course wondering leads to worrying -- what kind of life did his wife have that he didn't know about? -- and Arthur, with a gentle shove or two from the universe, finds himself on a journey to discover the meaning behind each charm. This journey will take him from a tiger's den to Paris and home again, while strengthening his own relationships with the living ... and the dead.

If you enjoyed Fredrik Backman's books (A Man Called Ove, etc) or Helen Simonson's Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, I really think you'll enjoy The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper.

The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper by Phaedra Patrick (Mira, 2016)


Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands

The problem with always having to be right is that sometimes you’re not. And so, if you’re like me, those times when you’re not, you try and save face—especially after you’ve seriously fucked up. You make one bad decision and then another, trying to fix that very first fuck-up.

I started reading Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands two years ago, but it was a bad case of "right book, wrong time" and I never got further along than the first chapter. Still, it remained on my ever-growing "to read list" and, when I saw the audiobook, I thought "Why not? It can't be more depressing than sitting through Simon Prebble reading Isherwood's A Single Man." (And I even liked A Single Man ... it was just veryvery depressing, in a beautiful, fucked up way).

And, you know, Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands is an utterly harrowing story. After a nuclear disaster, Emily Shephard, through a cascading downward spiral of catastrophic choices, finally reaches bottom. She "survives" drug abuse, alcoholism, homelessness, cutting, rape, and prostitution, but can she survive herself? She really seems hellbent on failing.

But then she's a child. Yes, a teenager, but who could rationally expect a teenager to behave well and make "smart" choices in such a time? And she's so utterly alone for most of the story. I kept waiting for things to get better for her and ... I still don't know that they did, but the ending was the appropriate real-world one. It's a compelling, beautifully crafted story and I found myself continuously scanning back, to re-listen to previous passages, finding something new in them each time. And it wasn't all there in context ... there's a lot of subtext going on. Sometimes, it's what Emily didn't say that creeped me out the most.

Clearly, Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands is a layered, emotionally complex story ... but it's just the right amount of "real life" complexity. It's easy to say that, in a hypothetical disaster like the meltdown of a nuclear power station "I would do X," but you can't truly know until you get there. Could teenage me, growing up twelve miles from a nuclear power station, have handled Emily's experiences any better than she did? Mentally? Emotionally? Physically? I think not. I think I'd be desperate to go home and find my dog, too. And I'd also make a whole bunch of terrible decision along the way.

Narrator Grace Blewer was an excellent fit for Close Your Eyes Hold Hands. Her interpretation of Emily Shepard was tone-perfect, I think. I truly loved this novel and actually listened to the last disc two and a half times just because I couldn’t let Emily Shephard go. She was as real to me as any of the troubled young people who haunt the library and a lot of that is down to Blewer's reading (yes, Bohjalian writes incredibly well, but Blewer is Emily). Anwyay, there’s an excellent interview of Blewer and Bohjalian by Random House Audio’s Kelly Gildea at the end of the audiobook which is well worth listening to.

I haven't talked about the science-y bits at all, but they're definitely worth mention. Close Your Eyes Hold Hands isn't a novel that uses a nuclear power plant melt-through as mere window dressing. It's very much the constant, unavoidable elephant in the room and Bohjalian doesn't dance around it.

Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands written by Chris Bohjalian & read by Grace Blewer (Random House Audio, 2014)


Find Me

Find Me started out with an interesting premise and quickly spiraled into a mess of unresolved metaphors. I mean, I think everything from meeting up with Marcus through their stay at the Mansion was supposed to be largely metaphorical or symbolic in some kind of Magical Realism way? I don't know. I just found this a frustrating read -- it felt as if the story was taking place on two different levels, one very real and concrete where Joy, a survivor of terrible childhood trauma, now tries to survive a terrible plague. And the other, all weird with masks and whales and buried bodies. And am I even meant to believe in either story? Joy is, by her own admittance, an unreliable narrator. And who can blame her for that? Suppressing past memories keeps her alive, even if it skews her present toward a kind of madness.

Because I feel I don't understand much of what happened in the second part of the novel, I keep thinking about it, trying to make sense of it. I find myself wondering, was anything that happened after Joy left the Hospital real? Or did she freeze to death in those woods and everything that happened from the first bus onward was just a story she told herself as she died?

And then there's the whole weird (I know I keep using that word) Alice-in-Wonderland vibe from Marcus's White Rabbit mask that makes me want to interpret the book in a completely different light. Agh. I don't know what Find Me is trying to say, but it won't leave me alone. It nags at me. I'm not tempted to re-read it, but I can't stop thinking about it either.

2 out of 5 white rabbit masks

Find Me by Laura van den Berg (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2015)


A Man Called Ove

People said Ove saw the world in black and white. But she was color. All the color he had.

Having lost the only thing that mattered to him, a cranky old man tidies up the few loose-ends of his life before preparing to kill himself. But every suicide attempt is thwarted.

I picked up A Man Called Ove because I had seen it linked in reviews with The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry -- a novel I had enjoyed very much -- and, while there are strong similarities, there are also strong differences and I want to caution you against beginning this novel with the assumption Ove is just a grumpier version of Harold. Ove is very much his own person and is best approached in as unbiased a way as possible.

I came to the novel with the assumption Ove was a cranky old curmudgeon with a hidden soft center and then spent the first third of the book absolutely appalled by how big of an asshole he was. Even when I could clearly see the direction the novel was taking and that the author intended me to start the novel disliking Ove so I could grow and change with him ... that didn't help me think more highly of Ove.

But that dislike changed, slowly, into a grudging respect and then a strong liking. Indeed, so strong a liking that the end left me in tears. Yes, I cried! And yet, whilst boohoo-ing, was extremely aware of how thoroughly and cleverly my emotions had been manipulated by the author. Backman knows how to hit all the right notes and, even though quite a lot of the novel is predictable and familiar -- like a Pixar movie (at points I was like "Oh, that's a Despicable Me moment!" or "Why do I feel like I'm reading Up?") -- that does not detract from the novel's overall charm. (Also, feel I should give a tip o' the hat to Henning Koch for his fine translation skills, because translators never get enough credit).

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman w/ trans. by Henning Koch (Atria Books, 2014)


The Slippage

I always felt as if I were standing on the outside of the story, never quite in it, and it didn't help that I found William Day to be utterly unlikeable and, therefore, could not trust him as a narrator -- especially concerning his wife, Louisa. Her early odd behavior (hiding the mail, etc) made me expect there to be something "real" wrong with her -- some tragedy in their marriage or other insurmountable issue rendering her emotionally weird -- that would be revealed further on, but no. We never get more than the surface of Louisa.

Maybe not the best read for a childless mid-thirties suburbanite three days before her 15th wedding anniversary! It's probable I just wanted to get in Louisa's head because of the niggling little voice in mine whispering Louisa could be me.

The Slippage by Ben Greenman (Harper Perennial, 2013)


The Crow Trap

Netflix kept recommending the series Vera to me and I was all "Blarg, Netflix, I don't want to watch more UK detective dramas. Weren't the umpty-million I already watched enough?" and then I saw it was based on a series of novels by Ann Cleeves and immediately went out and borrowed the first novel, The Crow Trap, because that is what I do. Complain about something in one format and then happily ingest it in another.

The Crow Trap was phenomenal. And I say that as someone who doesn't usually read mystery/detective novels, so make of that what you will. I loved the way much of the novel was told through the eyes of the three women at Baikie's Cottage. I loved that the detective, Vera Stanhope, doesn't turn up until the last third of the novel. I loved that the resolution of the case had as much to do with background sleuthing of the women as it did with Stanhope's police work. In short, I am now a fan of Ann Cleeves and Vera Stanhope.

The Crow Trap is quite a chunkster and I thought for sure the story would be larded with details not necessary to the story. But it wasn't. While Cleeves provides lots of detail, she doesn't tell you anything that isn't eventually relevant to the story and I really enjoyed the cyclical nature of her storytelling -- the way something might be briefly mentioned, then seemingly dropped, only to pop up again later. I thought it was most obvious with Grace and the striped pillow case, but that's probably because that's where I first noticed it.

The Crow Trap by Ann Cleeves (Pan Books, 1999)


Nowhere But Home

I need to cook something. I need to lose myself in something else besides the fractured light of my own memory. I'll cook a big supper as a thank-you for being so welcoming. I'll cook. And not think about crying at cemeteries, principals walking down hallways with squeaky shoes, and, most of all, about Everett Coburn ... No. I'll cook. It'll be fine. I've not been thinking about Everett Coburn for going on twenty years.

Queen Elizabeth Wake (Queenie) is a fine chef, but can never hold a job down for long because, among other quirks, she can't stop telling people how they should eat. Ketchup on eggs? Never! (Note to self: do not invite Queenie over for brunch). Finally, at both emotional and financial lose ends, Queenie finds she has no choice but to go home to Texas and the town she's been running from for years. Queenie doesn't intend to stay, but the more time she spends with her sister and nephew the more she thinks that, maybe, it's time to face down old gossip. Oh yes, try living this down -- not enough your Mama slept with every man in sight, but then she gets herself killed by her best friend after being caught "in the act" with said friend's husband! Naughty!

Nowhere But Home was one of those stories that manages to be both funny and moving and just immensely satisfying. A perfect book for reading on the porch with a cool glass of iced tea and the scent of a neighbors' barbecue in the air. It was easy to become swept up in the petty dramas played out between the Wake sisters and the clique of small-minded judgmental women that seemed to dominate the town.

This novel made me cry three times. Three! And I still kept reading! I knew Queenie's job cooking last meals would play havoc with my emotions, but I didn't realize how much power her cooking would have over me.

Speaking of food, if there's one thing I didn't like about Nowhere But Home was the lack of recipes! The novel made me hungry! All the talk of food -- especially ribs -- made me crave some serious home cooking. I actually ended up making ribs, but they weren't as good as I imagine the fictional ones were. I know I'm going to sound like a big ol' food nerd, but I wish the author had included a few recipes.

Nowhere But Home by Liza Palmer (William Morrow, 2013)


Not Just for Christmas

After twenty years apart Jimmy Murphy has called his brother, Danny, and invites him for a drink at a local pub. Danny is nervous -- there is so much bad blood between them -- but agrees to meet his brother. On the way to the pub, Danny dawdles along, not wanting to be early as Jimmy ways always late for things. And then he gets to remembering (obsessing?) over some rather terrible boyhood memories starring Jimmy. His brother almost suffocating him. His brother and friends "kidnapping" him. His brother with a bread knife. His brother with his girl.

"You always were the mammy's boy," he said.
"Grow up," said Danny.
"You're the one who should grow up," said Jimmy. "You never could stand up for yourself. Someone else was always to blame. You were always running to Ma. And you haven't changed a bit."

Of course, it's impossible to know if Danny is a reliable narrator as Jimmy's memories don't match. And surely they must have good memories of each other, but if that's so the story doesn't say. It doesn't really matter who's at fault or if they have good memories of each other, really, because I found them both equally unsympathetic. I know these are fictional men, but are brothers really like this with each other? If so ... ugh.

Not Just for Christmas by Roddy Doyle (Gemma Media, 2009)


No Dress Rehearsal

Lizzie is a bit disappointed with her life. Her flat is a tip. Her boyfriend of two years won't make the big commitment. Her mother doesn't understand her. Her father barely speaks to her. And then she gets in an accident cycling home from work and her life changes. Drastically.

She left the driver to his silent mouthing and got on her bike. By some miracle it was undented. And away she cycled. Leaving her still and bloody body lying beneath the car wheels.

As she wobbled off, she almost bumped into someone. A tall, pale figure in a long, black, hooded cape. He nodded at her in a friendly way. But she hardly noticed.

Of the three Gemma Media Open Door Series' low-literacy novellas I've read so far, No Dress Rehearsals seems to be the most well-crafted as it feels complete in itself. The characters are well developed for such a short work and the story is consistently compelling. Indeed, if this is how Marian Keyes does short fiction, then I need to read more of it.

I must admit I find No Dress Rehearsal's version of the afterlife extremely nice:

Something rushed through her, then the last of Lizzie was speeding away like a genie spinning back into the bottle. Yet she sparkled through everything in a tingle of glitter. Reforming and reconnecting. Into every drop of rain, every blade of grass, every word spoken.

Blissful, happy, ever-present nothingness. White-out.

No Dress Rehearsal by Marian Keyes (Gemma Media, 2009)


Read-A-Thon: The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady by Elizabeth Stuckey-French

Many years ago, Marylou Ahearns life was destroyed by the aftereffects of a government study she unwittingly participated in. Bent on avenging herself upon the doctor who oversaw the study, she has tracked him down to his Tallahassee home. Calling herself "Nancy Archer" after the heroine of "Attack of 50 Foot Woman" she sets out to infiltrate his family and destroy it from within. Much to her chagrin, she finds the good doctor is flirting with dementia and that his family is already tearing itself to pieces without any help from her. What to do? Be their friend!

I have mixed feelings about this novel. Early reviews I read in Booklist and Publishers Weekly led me to expect a zany, madcap adventure whereas The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady actually reads like a slow-paced family problem novel (with backyard nuclear experiments thrown in for color). Oh, the novel was interesting and I never once wanted to stop reading it, but it just wasn't what I expected.

The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady by Elizabeth Stuckey-French (Doubleday, 2011)


Marshmallows for Breakfast by Dorothy Koomson

Returning to England after a long stay in Australia, Kendra Tamale hopes her new flat is the perfect place to rebuild her life -- a quiet, tranquil, solitary place where she could spend time licking her wounds and getting herself back together. Alas, it seems her landlord's children have other plans! The children, Jaxon and Summer, keep coming to Kendra for help and attention. Soon she is drawn, unwillingly but necessarily, into their lives and their parents' relationship drama.

While the novel looks fluffy, it tackles some pretty dark and serious issues -- abuse, infertility, adultery, separation, alcoholism. Koomson approaches them with great sensitively and intelligence and I found myself pretty much cheering at the end. A less skilled writer might have gone for an obliviously happy ending, but Kooomson went with the one that was best for her characters. It's the right ending even if it lacks Romance.

My only complaint lies not with the novel, but with its American cover art. Kendra is black and the woman on the cover (what can be seen of her, anyway) is the same color as the (white) child next to her. Race isn't an issue in the novel, but the whitewashing of the cover has made it one for me because I can't understand why the publisher would have done this. It's essentially the same cover as the UK edition -- just whiter. Wtf?

Cover art aside, I thought Marshmallows for Breakfast made an excellent afternoon's read and I look forward to reading Koomson's recent novel, The Ice Cream Girls.

Marshmallows for Breakfast by Dorothy Koomson (Bantam Dell, 2009)


Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson

Major Pettigrew is a sixty-eight-year-old widower, living on his own in the village of Edgecombe St Mary since his wife passed away six years ago.  After his brother dies unexpectedly the Major is rather shaken and in his grief finds himself confiding in Mrs. Ali, a widow who runs the village shop.  The two begin a shy sort of friendship which quickly deepens into love.  Their neighbors and families are, of course,  quite scandalized.

A quiet love story set against a background of family strife and societal upheaval, this novel is strongly recommended to readers who enjoy Joanna Trollope and/or E.M. Forster.

Some of my favorite passages include:
"Well, it's quite all right." He gave her hand a quick squeeze.
"You are a most astonishing man," she said, and he realized he had inspired a sense of trust and indebtedness that would make it entirely impossible for an honorable man to kiss her anytime soon. He cursed himself for a fool
"I will do anything you ask," he said. He read gratitude in her face. He wondered if he might also be seeing some happiness. He turned away and made himself busy poking at a large weed with the tip of his stick as he added, "You must know that I am entirely yours to command."
"They are a motley and ragged bunch," she said, "but they are what is left when all the shallow pretense is burned away."
"Will it do?" said the Major, laying his hands over her cooled fingers. "Will it be enough to sustain the future?"
"It is more than enough for me," she said. "My hear is quite full."
I loved Major Pettigrew's cover art -- the coats and hats snuggled up next to each other on the coat stand as if they are kissing. Such a sweetly simple image and so well-suited to the story it decorates.

Watch Helen Simonson read an excerpt from the first chapter:

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson (Random House, 2010)