Four and Five Star Books 2013 Part Two: Fiction


Mending the Moon by Susan Palwick: Goodreads synopsis: Melinda Soto, aged sixty-four, vacationing in Mexico, is murdered by a fellow American tourist. 
Back in her hometown of Reno, Nevada, she leaves behind her adopted son, Jeremy, whom she rescued from war-torn Guatamala when he was a toddler—just one of her many causes over the years. And she leaves behind a circle of friends: Veronique, the academic stuck in a teaching job from which she can't retire; Rosemary, who's losing her husband to Alzheimer's and who's trying to lose herself in volunteer work; Henrietta, the priest at Rosemary's and Melinda's church.
Jeremy already had a fraught relationship with his charismatic mother and the people in her orbit. Now her death is tearing him apart, and he can barely stand the rituals of remembrance that ensue among his mother’s friends. Then the police reveal who killed Melinda: a Seattle teenager who flew home to his parents and drowned himself just days later.
It's too much. Jeremy's not the only one who can't deal. Friendships fray. But the unexpected happens: an invitation to them all, from the murderer's mother, to come to Seattle for his memorial. It's ridiculous. And yet, somehow, each of them begins to see in it a chance to heal. Aided, in peculiar ways, by Jeremy's years-long obsession with the comic-book hero Comrade Cosmos, and the immense cult of online commentary it's spawned.
Shot through with feeling and inventiveness, Susan Palwick's Mending the Moon is a novel of the odd paths that lead to home.

Reviewed on blog. (This is one of my favouritest writers ever).

The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman: Goodreads synopsis: Set against the gorgeous backdrop of Rome, Tom Rachman’s wry, vibrant debut follows the topsy-turvy private lives of the reporters, editors, and executives of an international English language newspaper as they struggle to keep it—and themselves—afloat.
Fifty years and many changes have ensued since the paper was founded by an enigmatic millionaire, and now, amid the stained carpeting and dingy office furniture, the staff’s personal dramas seem far more important than the daily headlines. Kathleen, the imperious editor in chief, is smarting from a betrayal in her open marriage; Arthur, the lazy obituary writer, is transformed by a personal tragedy; Abby, the embattled financial officer, discovers that her job cuts and her love life are intertwined in a most unexpected way. Out in the field, a veteran Paris freelancer goes to desperate lengths for his next byline, while the new Cairo stringer is mercilessly manipulated by an outrageous war correspondent with an outsize ego. And in the shadows is the isolated young publisher who pays more attention to his prized basset hound, Schopenhauer, than to the fate of his family’s quirky newspaper.
As the era of print news gives way to the Internet age and this imperfect crew stumbles toward an uncertain future, the paper’s rich history is revealed, including the surprising truth about its founder’s intentions.
Spirited, moving, and highly original, The Imperfectionists will establish Tom Rachman as one of our most perceptive, assured literary talents.

I wish I'd taken better notes while reading this book, because I remember when my friend put it on the book club list I thought it sounded fun and interesting, then I remember reading a few pages and feeling a tremendous disinclination to read further, but I can't for the life of me remember why. I did continue, of course, because I almost always do, and then I quite liked it. My friends who are actually in journalism are divided over whether it really captures print journalism - for me it did, quibbles about absolute verisimilitude aside. I could believe, also, that these were the types of characters who would inhabit this sort of expat, exile even, position. It seemed sort of deceptively light and easy to read, with some heavier undertones, and a couple of the stories were extremely affecting precisely because of that light touch. 

Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry: Goodreads synopsis: Geoffrey Firmin, a former British consul, has come to Quauhnahuac, Mexico. Here the consul's debilitating malaise is drinking, and activity that has overshadowed his life. Under the Volcano is set during the most fateful day of the consul's life - the Day of the Dead, 1938. His wife, Yvonne, arrives in Quauhnahuac to rescue him and their failing marriage, inspired by a vision of life together away from Mexico and the circumstances that have driven their relationship to the brink of collapse. Yvonne's mission is to save the consul is further complicated by the presence of Hugh, the consul's half-brother, and Jacques, a childhood friend. The events of this one day unfold against a backdrop unforgettable for its evocation of a Mexico at once magical and diabolical. Under the Volcano remains one of the most powerful and lyrical statements on the human condition and one man's constant struggle against the elemental forces that threaten to destroy him.

Every once in a while I feel the need to dive into a dense, tortuous, practically impenetrable thicket of a classic novel. Sometimes I lie down and this need goes away, and I turn back to sparer, more modern prose. Sometimes I read a classic of my own volition. Sometimes a friend puts Under the Volcano on the book club list, and I spend the entire meeting after reading it going "SHUT UP! That was a FLASHBACK?" and "wait, that happened WHEN?" and "Seriously? That wasn't just an alcoholic delusion, it really happened?" And the friend says things like "yes, but don't worry, I didn't realize it until my third time through. This book was a riotous fever dream. You should really go to Goodreads and read the reviews. Phrases like 'modernist soup of interior monologue', 'lush evocative language in imitation of the riot of exotic vegetation', "in addition to alcoholism, the consul suffers from acedia, spiritual despair", and "bombastic lyricism" capture it better than I can. I found the reading experience quite enjoyable, even though the sentences meandered on forever and I sometimes couldn't figure out who was talking and there seemed to be a boozy film hanging over the entire thing. I was more sympathetic to the booze-addled, self-destructive, weary, sad central figure than some of my friends - I wondered if this was because I haven't had to deal with addiction in any of my real-life friends or family. I found his constant striving to put a few more minutes between now and the next drink, coupled with his tremendous need and frailty and inevitable failure, incredibly moving. I will probably read the book again, although I really should tackle Trollope first. Ha. Trollope. 

The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon: Goodreads synopsis: Written with love and expertise by the mother of an autistic teenager, "The Speed of Dark" is a riveting exploration into the mind of an autistic man as he struggles with the question of whether he should risk a medical procedure that could make him "normal."

My review from Goodreads: I couldn't put this down. I have no way of knowing for a fact if this is an accurate portrayal of an autistic person's inner life, but I am utterly convinced anyway. The parts that are ever so slightly clumsy, such as the evil Big Boss Man who borders on caricature, are forgivable to me on the strength of the characters and the plot. This is the very best kind of speculative fiction.

Bone and Bread by Saleema Nawaz: Goodreads synopsis: Winner of the Quebec Writers' Federation Paragraphe Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction.
Beena and Sadhana are sisters who share a bond that could only have been shaped by the most unusual of childhoods -- and by shared tragedy. Orphaned as teenagers, they have grown up under the exasperated watch of their Sikh uncle, who runs a bagel shop in Montreal's Hasidic community of Mile End. Together, they try to make sense of the rich, confusing brew of values, rituals, and beliefs that form their inheritance. Yet as they grow towards adulthood, their paths begin to diverge. Beena catches the attention of one of the "bagel boys" and finds herself pregnant at sixteen, while Sadhana drives herself to perfectionism and anorexia.
When we first meet the adult Beena, she is grappling with a fresh grief: Sadhana has died suddenly and strangely, her body lying undiscovered for a week before anyone realizes what has happened. Beena is left with a burden of guilt and an unsettled feeling about the circumstances of her sister's death, which she sets about to uncover. Her search stirs memories and opens wounds, threatening to undo the safe, orderly existence she has painstakingly created for herself and her son.
Heralded across Canada for the power and promise of her debut collection, Mother Superior, Nawaz proves with Bone and Bread that she is one of our most talented and unique storytellers.

Reviewed on blog

Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple: Goodreads synopsis: Bernadette Fox is notorious. To her Microsoft-guru husband, she's a fearlessly opinionated partner; to fellow private-school mothers in Seattle, she's a disgrace; to design mavens, she's a revolutionary architect, and to 15-year-old Bee, she is a best friend and, simply, Mom.
Then Bernadette disappears. It began when Bee aced her report card and claimed her promised reward: a family trip to Antarctica. But Bernadette's intensifying allergy to Seattle—and people in general—has made her so agoraphobic that a virtual assistant in India now runs her most basic errands. A trip to the end of the earth is problematic.
To find her mother, Bee compiles email messages, official documents, secret correspondence—creating a compulsively readable and touching novel about misplaced genius and a mother and daughter's role in an absurd world.

My review from Goodreads: It really shows that it's written by a television writer - I could totally picture it unfolding cinematically. Early on, I was a little put out by the fact that I couldn't figure out if characters were supposed to be likable or not, which is different from being put out because a character is NOT likable. Then I liked that, in fact, everyone was kind of a schmuck, with opportunities for redemption - the one slight exception being Elgin, who I didn't find wholly internally consistent. Overall, it was a delicious confection that I devoured in a single late-night gulp.

A Matter of Life and Death or Something by Ben Stephenson: Goodreads synopsis: Even though he?s only ten years old, there are lots of things Arthur Williams knows for sure. He knows all about trilobites, and bridge, and that he doesn't want to be Victoria Brown's boyfriend, and that tapping maple trees causes them excruciating pain. He knows his real dad is probably flying a hot-air balloon across the Pacific, or paving a city with moss. And he knows that Simon, the guy who pretends to be his dad, does absolutely nothing interesting.
But when Arthur finds a weather-worn notebook in the woods behind his house, all he has are questions. Why was its author, Phil, so sad, and why does it end on Page 43? Suddenly, there are other questions too: Why do people abandon people? Why do they abandon themselves?
Arthur embarks on a top-secret investigation to find out who Phil is, or was. But getting straight answers from grown-ups is impossible - and before long, the only thing he knows for sure is that everything he thought he knew about life is probably wrong, and that what he has to do is ten times bigger than what he can do.
Told through a trio of voices: the wildly imaginative and perpetually awkward Arthur, Phil?s manic journal, and the forest which watches them both, Ben Stephenson?s debut novel is a heartbreaking story of love, death, and the unspeakable pain of being small.
A Matter of Life and Death Or Something marks the exciting debut of an inventive and gifted storyteller.

Strangely, I remember that I didn't like this QUITE as much as I thought I would. But obviously I still really liked it. 
We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver: Goodreads synopsis: The gripping international bestseller about motherhood gone awry. Eva never really wanted to be a mother and certainly not the mother of the unlovable boy who murdered seven of his fellow high school students, a cafeteria worker, and a much-adored teacher who tried to befriend him, all two days before his sixteenth birthday. Now, two years later, it is time for her to come to terms with marriage, career, family, parenthood, and Kevin's horrific rampage in a series of startlingly direct correspondences with her estranged husband, Franklin. Uneasy with the sacrifices and social demotion of motherhood from the start, Eva fears that her alarming dislike for her own son may be responsible for driving him so nihilistically off the rails.
Reviewed on blog
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith: Goodreads synopsis: The beloved American classic about a young girl's coming-of-age at the turn of the century, Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a poignant and moving tale filled with compassion and cruelty, laughter and heartache, crowded with life and people and incident. The story of young, sensitive, and idealistic Francie Nolan and her bittersweet formative years in the slums of Williamsburg has enchanted and inspired millions of readers for more than sixty years. By turns overwhelming, sublime, heartbreaking, and uplifting, the daily experiences of the unforgettable Nolans are raw with honesty and tenderly threaded with family connectedness -- in a work of literary art that brilliantly captures a unique time and place as well as incredibly rich moments of universal experience.

My review from Goodreads: I feel like I should research this book before I review it, because against years of scholarship I'll probably sound like a dork. But that seems wrong, so I'm not doing it. I was utterly transported. I can't believe I lived this long without reading this book - it was like discovering music, or the taste of peaches. This was the clearest, tenderest rendering of a time and place, and the people in it are both representative of all the people in that time and place and utterly themselves and special and different. (I lent it to my mother after I read it, and I told her that if she didn't like it then I would have to regretfully terminate our relationship). 

Ragged Company by Richard Wagamese: Goodreads synopsisFour chronically homeless people–Amelia One Sky, Timber, Double Dick and Digger–seek refuge in a warm movie theatre when a severe Arctic Front descends on the city. During what is supposed to be a one-time event, this temporary refuge transfixes them. They fall in love with this new world, and once the weather clears, continue their trips to the cinema. On one of these outings they meet Granite, a jaded and lonely journalist who has turned his back on writing “the same story over and over again” in favour of the escapist qualities of film, and an unlikely friendship is struck. 
A found cigarette package (contents: some unsmoked cigarettes, three $20 bills, and a lottery ticket) changes the fortune of this struggling set. The ragged company discovers they have won $13.5 million, but none of them can claim the money for lack proper identification. Enlisting the help of Granite, their lives, and fortunes, become forever changed.
Ragged Company is a journey into both the future and the past. Richard Wagamese deftly explores the nature of the comforts these friends find in their ideas of “home,” as he reconnects them to their histories.

My review from Goodreads: Really, really good. If I have any complaint, it would be that sometimes it edges slightly over into that territory where being homeless and poor automatically confers an oracular wisdom on you, which strikes me as a dangerous romanticizing of the condition. But on the whole, beautiful story, wonderful characters, each with a clear and unique voice, fantastic writing filled with so much sadness and kindness and the magic of extraordinary connections. (The first few pages undid me completely). 

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett: Goodreads synopsis: Award-winning "New York Times"-bestselling author Ann Patchett (Bel Canto, The Magician's Assistant) returns with a provocative novel of morality and miracles, science and sacrifice set in the Amazon rainforest--a gripping adventure story and a profound look at the difficult choices we make in the name of discovery and love.
In a narrative replete with poison arrows, devouring snakes, scientific miracles, and spiritual transformations, State of Wonder presents a world of stunning surprise and danger, rich in emotional resonance and moral complexity.
As Dr. Marina Singh embarks upon an uncertain odyssey into the insect-infested Amazon, she will be forced to surrender herself to the lush but forbidding world that awaits within the jungle. Charged with finding her former mentor Dr. Annick Swenson, a researcher who has disappeared while working on a valuable new drug, she will have to confront her own memories of tragedy and sacrifice as she journeys into the unforgiving heart of darkness. Stirring and luminous, State of Wonder is a world unto itself, where unlikely beauty stands beside unimaginable loss beneath the rain forest's jeweled canopy.

My review from Goodreads: I got halfway through this book and suddenly realized to my chagrin that I wasn't loving it the way I typically love Ann Patchett books. Then I got a little further and suddenly I was in that transported, delirious-with-delight stage again. And because it's an Ann Patchett book I am completely willing to believe that that is the way she meant for me to experience it. (In case it's not clear, there is no doubt that I am Ann Patchett's bitch). 

The Antagonist by Lynn Coady: Goodreads synopsis: Against his will and his nature, the hulking Gordon Rankin ("Rank") is cast as an enforcer, a goon -- by his classmates, his hockey coaches, and especially his own "tiny, angry" father, Gordon Senior.
Rank gamely lives up to his role -- until tragedy strikes, using Rank as its blunt instrument. Escaping the only way he can, Rank disappears. But almost twenty years later he discovers that an old, trusted friend -- the only person to whom he has ever confessed his sins -- has published a novel mirroring Rank's life. The betrayal cuts to the deepest heart of him, and Rank will finally have to confront the tragic true story from which he's spent his whole life running away.
With the deep compassion, deft touch, and irreverent humour that have made her one of Canada's best-loved novelists, Lynn Coady delves deeply into the ways we sanction and stoke male violence, giving us a large-hearted, often hilarious portrait of a man tearing himself apart in order to put himself back together.

My review from Goodreads: A year with a Lynn Coady novel AND a book of short stories - what an embarrassment of riches. Somehow the plot description of this book didn't make me eager to plunge into it. When I finally read it, I wrote on Facebook "every time I start reading a Lynn Coady book I remember how in love I am with reading a Lynn Coady book". Why do I even bother to READ the plot synopsis? Mean Boy was the first of her books that I read, and although I loved all the others, I think this one really took me back to the delirious joy of discovering a Canadian voice that was deceptively light, delightfully skewed, and amazingly similar to my favourites of the ones in my head. 


Nicole said…
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is one of my favourites, ever. State of Wonder was AMAZING. Noting down others here for my list.
Mary Lynn said…
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is one of my fave books of all time. And Where'd You Go, Bernadette was a blast. I'll need to check out the rest....
StephLove said…
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was my mother and my mother-in-law's favorite book when they were teens. I haven't read it in a long time, but I did like it quite a bit.

If you lived here and my book club was reading Trollope (which we never have, but the last vote was between The Iliad, The Golden Notebooks, and Don Quixote-- so who knows, we might read Trollope someday) you would totally read it and go because I would insist on it. You'd be so fun to have there.
Bibliomama said…
Thanks! I should totally put Trollope on my book club list - it's how I got myself to read Huxley. And we've done George Gissing and Elizabeth Gaskell.
Bookmarking this!!! Definitely going to add the Imperfectionists to my bedside table next now. (Also - I loved Under the Volcano when I read it ages ago as a teenager ... I should read it again!) thanks for talking books! I love bookish posts!
Sarah McCormack said…
you comment about "a Tree Grows in Brooklyn" and your Mom cracked me up, 'cause I get that way about books/movies sometimes!
Sasha said…
Lynn Coady - YES! Thank you so much for introducing me to her (via The Antagonist). I found exactly the same thing: I never would have read it based on the synopsis. Hell Going just flipped to "In Transit" at OPL. Woot! Fingers crossed, I know it's had mixed reviews, but I feel like I'm ready to take on short stories again.

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