Posts Tagged ‘Contemporary Fiction’

The Secrets Between Us – Louise Douglas

Posted in Contemporary Fiction on September 9th, 2011 by admin – 4 Comments

This is my second book choice from The Transworld Reading Challenge and, I’m delighted to say, another good selection.  I haven’t read any of Louise Douglas’ back catalogue as I am not usually fond of “romance” novels but the comparisons with Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca attracted me to this, her latest novel.

Sarah has experienced more than her fair share of misfortune recently and she hopes to find some tranquility when she joins her sister and her brother in law for a holiday in Sicily but instead she discovers Alexander and his young son, Jamie.  The mysterious Genevieve,  Alexander’s “perfect” wife, has apparently vanished off the face of the earth but Sarah is smitten with Alexander and Jamie and she jumps at the chance of a new romance and a new life with them in sleepy Burrington Stoke.  However, there are too many secrets and unsolved mysteries for life to run smoothly.

I really enjoyed this riveting story, full of twists and turns and found it hard to put down.   Sarah’s friends and family are convinced that she has set herself up for a fall and Alexander does little to prove them wrong.  There is a ghostly feel to the story, Sarah is haunted by her own past and also feels the presence of Genevieve at Avalon.  You’re kept on the edge of your seat, constantly wondering who is the real villain of the piece.  Yes, you have to suspend disbelief at times but this is such a gripping storyline, who really cares – the more fantastical elements are neatly balanced by vivid, fleshed out characters.  An absorbing read from a very talented storyteller.

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The Family Fang – Kevin Wilson

Posted in American Fiction, Contemporary Fiction, Proofs on September 9th, 2011 by admin – 1 Comment

I do like a bit of quirkiness in my reading every now and then so I looked forward to getting my teeth (sorry!) into  ”The Family Fang”, the story of Caleb and Camille Fang and their children Annie and Buster aka Child A and Child B.   The children are now adults, trying to find their way in the real world, Annie as an actress and Buster as an author, but when their lives reach crisis point they have nowhere else to turn but back to the heart of their dysfunctional family.

The novel focuses on Annie and Buster’s current problems and their much dreaded reunion with their parents but this is interspersed with accounts of the Fang family’s past performance art including staged events at shopping malls designed to shock and awe the unwitting shoppers.  I found these episodes simultaneously hilarious and horrific, laughing at the weirdness of it all but feeling quite uncomfortable at how the children were used as unwitting pawns, all for the sake of art. 

Whilst Annie and Buster come across as fully formed, credible characters (despite their inauspicious beginnings), I was slightly disappointed by the portrayal of their parents who rarely depart from caricature mode.  Yes they are weird and surreal and I get that they strive to maintain their enigmatic aura but I would have preferred more insight into their motivation.  Having said that, I did enjoy this darkly comedic tale of family relationships.  If you liked   The Royal Tenenbaums then you will feel right at home with the freaky Fang family.

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The Borrower – Rebecca Makkai

Posted in American Fiction, Contemporary Fiction on August 22nd, 2011 by admin – 3 Comments

This debut novel has all the ingredients which usually make a book irresistible for me – take one children’s librarian, add one ten year old boy who loves the books his God fearing parents hate, stir in a road trip and sprinkle with references to classic children’s literature and voila….well, unfortunately the result was more of a sunken souffle for me. 

The story opens well with our narrator, Lucy Hull, a young children’s librarian in Hannibal, Missouri, taking an interest in the well-being of her most regular customer, 10 year old Ian Drake.  In the course of guiding this avid reader towards the best of children’s literature, Lucy discovers that Ian’s very religious mother has enrolled him in anti-gay classes run by Pastor Bob.  Her hand is forced when she discovers Ian camping out in the library and they find themselves on the run in an eventful road trip from Missouri to Vermont.

There is some confusion as to who has “abducted” who.  Ian is the arch-manipulator, playing Lucy in the way a child can, turning on the tears, changing the subject but Lucy is so easily “played” she lost all credibility for me.  There are lots of weird and wonderful characters including Lucy’s Russian immigrant father with his shady past and plenty of amusing incidents from ferrets to the sinister figure who stalks Lucy and Ian.

Although it has glimmers of brilliance, The Borrower, left me unsatisfied and slightly disappointed.  I felt left behind and didn’t feel any real connection with any of the characters.  It seems to be a marmite book though and will provide plenty of discussion for book groups.

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The Translation of the Bones – Francesca Kay

Posted in Contemporary Fiction, Literary Fiction, Proofs on July 28th, 2011 by admin – Be the first to comment

Francesca Kay won the Orange Prize for New Writers in 2009 for her first novel, An Equal Stillness, a fictional biography of a female artist. 

In The Translation of the Bones she explores new territory, setting her story in a quiet Roman Catholic parish in Battersea, London – well, perhaps things are not as they seem and the peace and calm belies a whirlwind of emotions and tumultuous questions about faith, organised religion, relationships especially those between mothers and their offspring.

Mary Margaret O’Reilly is a devout young parishioner, spending most of her time cleaning the Sacred Heart Church.  She is described by the parish priest as a “duine de Dhia” which literally means “child of God” but which used to be the Irish term for a child with special needs.  Whilst cleaning one particular statue of Jesus on the cross, she witnesses a “miracle” and she believes the statue is actually bleeding.  Religious hysteria and frenzy ensue and the church suddenly becomes the focus of manic religious fervour.  Indeed the story reminded me of the many reported sightings of “moving statues” in Irish churches during the mid-80s – folk are always hungry for examples of modern “miracles”.

However, the “miracle” is merely a backdrop to the stories played out by local parishioners including Margaret Mary’s reclusive mother, Fidelma who is confined to her high-rise flat where she reminisces about maltreatment by the “holy” nuns whilst waiting for her daughter to feed her.  Stella Morrison feels the removal of her son to boarding school like the cutting of  the cord, Alice Armitage keeps herself busy tending to the needs of elderly parishioners in an effort to distract herself from the pain of having her son fighting in Afghanistan.  After a decade in the priesthood, Father Diamond, still finds himself questioning his vocation.  One would be forgiven for thinking that the Sacred Heart parish is indeed in a “state of chassis”.

I really enjoyed this novel – there are times when loud and brash does the trick for me but I also appreciate those quiet, unassuming books which gradually reveal little gems of characterisation and exploration of themes, here, the painful nature of motherhood, the role of faith in our lives, the frightening aspects of change.  The lack of chapters, speech marks could sound alarm bells amongst prospective readers but I can assure you that the prose flows so smoothly that I didn’t even notice their absence until I finished reading the novel and flicked through it – she’s that skilful as a writer!  Whilst reading I was reminded of the writing of Brian Moore (The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne) which is another reason I’m looking forward to reading more from the pen of Francesca Kay.

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Every Last One – Anna Quindlen

Posted in Contemporary Fiction on June 21st, 2011 by admin – 3 Comments

The Lathams are a fairly ordinary American family with their usual share of ups and downs.  Our narrator, Mary Beth Latham, reflects on her life, her husband and three children.   Mary Beth has her own landscape gardening business but her life is firmly focussed on her family, so much so that she is oblivious to the impending disaster which will shake this picture of tranquillity to the very core.

This was my first experience of Anna Quindlen’s fiction and I will certainly be coming back for more.  She has a very deft touch at capturing family dynamics, creating extremely believable characters who might not always be likeable but are most definitely realistic.  From the very first pages I was drawn into the world of the Latham family, sharing their highs and lows, experiencing their happiness and emotional turmoil, especially the experiences of the teenage children.

The less folk know about the plot, the better but suffice to say that this is an extremely hard-hitting novel which affected me in a very visceral, emotional way,  I don’t think  I have cried so long and hard in years!   If you’re at either extreme of the emotional spectrum, cynic or perhaps over-sensitive, then you’re best to stay clear.   I think fans of Jodi Picoult would appreciate this novel, it doesn’t have Jodi’s usual moral dilemna but it does echo her excellent depiction of family scenarios.  Anna Quindlen’s back catalogue will now be swiftly added to my “to be acquired” list – highly recommended.

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The Loss Adjustor – Aifric Campbell

Posted in Contemporary Fiction on March 7th, 2011 by admin – Be the first to comment

  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Serpent’s Tail (25 Feb 2010)
  • ISBN-10: 1846687306
  • ISBN-13: 978-1846687303
  • The Loss Adjustor is a beautifully written novel, its quietness and understated tone belie a great powerhouse of emotions such as passion, regret and how heavily the past weighs upon our shoulders.

    Caro (Caroline) Fraser spends her working life assessing the losses of others in her job as a loss adjustor.  Ironically she has never addressed the major losses in her own life, the sudden death of her father when she was twelve, the emotional loss of her mother who withdraws following her husband’s death, the loss of two of her closest childhood friends, Estelle and Cormac.  Post-adolescence, Caro has learned to steel herself against any possible emotional attachments and she leads a solitary, bland existence as a result.  However, change is on the horizon in the unlikely shape of pensioner, Tom, and his feisty jack russell, Jack who have also experienced loss but are now willing to face the past.

    The Loss Adjustor is an absolute delight to read, absolutely every single word counts and the use of the first person and the present tense adds to this feeling of immediacy, economy and directness.   I found myself rooting for Caro to be happy, to take that risk and engage with life instead of living in the past.  The author recreates the past very well, capturing the innocence of childhood, the trauma of teenage years, the ups and downs of friendships, showing how the past has moulded Caro into her present emotionally bereft state, frozen in place and haunted by the ghosts of the past.  Her childhood friends, Estelle and Cormac, now absent from her life, are actually very vividly presented and you realise what a huge impact they had on her life. 

    I do not recall a time when I did not feel my friends’ presence on either side of me.  I do not remember a single moment when I experienced the solitariness that could have come with being an only child.  From the earliest days I was part of both their families and wandered in and out at will.

    The story moves from loss to guilt and ends on a note of redemption.  This is Aifric’s second novel and with such engaging, elegant writing, I am sure that she will go from strength to strength with future novels.

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    Ape House – Sara Gruen

    Posted in Contemporary Fiction on February 25th, 2011 by admin – 4 Comments

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Two Roads (17 Feb 2011)
  • ISBN-10: 1444716018
  • ISBN-13: 978-1444716016
  • Having thoroughly enjoyed Sara Gruen’s previous novel Water for Elephants, I was eagerly anticipating Ape House, thinking it would paint an equally tender portrait of the bonobo apes and hopefully contain the same magical spark as its predecessor.  You’ve probably already  guessed that my expectations were not exactly met…indeed, in the midst of reading I found myself wondering if Ape House was written by the same author.

    Anyway, the blurb would have you know that this “is an absorbing, heart-warming and ultimately uplifting tale of how six bonobo apes change the lives of three humans”.   Isabel Duncan works as a scientist at the Great Ape Language Lab, a scientific research facility which examines language acquistion in primates.   She clearly has a better rapport with the bonobos than with humans and she is devastated when the facility is blown up, allegedly by animal liberationists and her beloved animals end up being used in a particularly sick reality tv show named Ape House.  John Thigpen is a down at heel journalist who finds the bonobo story fascinating.  His fiancee, Amanda, is trying to carve a career as an author but she’s not handling the rejection letters very well.  Throw in a briefly appearing green haired vegan, a pink  haired animal rights supporter named Celia who becomes Isabel’s ally, some lapdancers, a salivating pit bull terrier named Booger and you have a extremely quirky backdrop.  What ensues is a madcap race to save the bonobos with many plot twists and turns along the way.

    Yes, this is a different novel to Water for Elephants and deserves to be judged on its own merits but unfortunately it just didn’t work for me.  I don’t need likeable characters for an enjoyable reading experience, they just need to stir some sort of emotion within me.   I didn’t really care what happened to any of the humans as they seemed so superficial - ironically the only characters I had any kind of feeling for were the bonobo apes and they appear so infrequently it was frustrating.

    So, a disappointing read for me, probably because my expectations were so high – it’s not a bad read, just not what it says on the tin/cover/blurb…

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    Witness – Cath Staincliffe

    Posted in Contemporary Fiction on February 21st, 2011 by admin – 3 Comments

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Constable (21 April 2011)
  • Language English
  • ISBN-10: 1849013438
  • ISBN-13: 978-1849013437

    I hadn’t heard of Cath Staincliffe until last year when I saw so many excellent reviews of her novel The Kindest Thing which explores the aftermath of a woman’s decision to help her husband die.  She has also written an 8 book crime series but with The Kindest Thing and now Witness, her writing has an added dimension – the crime and its investigation no longer take centre stage.

    Witness opens with the brutal murder of a teenage boy in Manchester.  The story revolves around four bystanders who happen to witness the killing – Fiona, a midwife who suffers panic attacks following the murder, Mike, a delivery man who is torn between doing the right thing and protecting his family, Cheryl, a single mother who knows the perpetrators and Zach, a homeless young man who is hoping for a fresh start via a witness protection programme.   As in her previous novel, the question, “What would you do?”, is put very firmly to the reader. 

    I don’t read a lot of contemporary fiction but I think Cath Staincliffe may very well have converted me with this novel.  Written in the third person, each chapter relates the back story of each witness, how they came to be at the murder scene, how they are encouraged/discouraged re the looming trial.  The characters are distinctive, all coming from different backgrounds but all have so much to lose by bearing witness.  The author creates a very vivid picture of modern-day Manchester and the influence of gang culture, the sway held by gang leaders.  We also see how difficult it is for the police to gain the trust of potential witnesses, trying to reaasure them that there will not be any repercussions.

    Witness is an extremely readable, well paced story about ordinary folk  in extraordinary circumstances.  Each of the main characters is strongly delineated, realistic, filled with the same strengths and weaknesses as we readers and thus the author makes it easy for us to empathise with their dilemna.  Looking forward to reading Cath Staincliffe’s  previous stand-alone novels and future writing  from this very perceptive author.

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    We Had It So Good by Linda Grant

    Posted in Contemporary Fiction on February 11th, 2011 by admin – 4 Comments

    I loved The Clothes on Their Backs by Linda Grant and eagerly anticipated her latest novel, a tale of the “baby boomer” generation who indeed “had it so good” and perhaps did not appreciate their good fortune.

    The novel is first and foremost character driven, covering 40 years in the lives of first generation American, Stephen Newman, his English wife, Andrea, their family and friends.  Stephen, son of a Polish-Jewish immigrant father and a Cuban mother, manages to dodge the draft thanks to a Rhodes Scholarship during which he meets and marries Andrea, a pleasant English girl with bad teeth.  It is initially a marriage of convenience as he avoids the horrors of war but they settle into each other despite Stephen’s occasional pangs for American life.  Somehow, despite little effort on his part, they land on their feet, having fully enjoyed the benefits of free university education, easy access to the property ladder, free health care, job opportunities – in part due to the sacrifices of their parents’ generation.

    So, is Stephen counting his blessings?  Far from  it, he is a most unlikeable character, taking everything for granted, never satisfied with his life, completely out of touch with his own children yet berating (in private) his own parents for their lack of affection.  His friend Ivan, with whom he experimented in LSD manufacture whilst at Oxford, seemed to personify anarchy as a student but ends up as an advertising executive.  The only character who stands true to her rebellious student stance is Grace who certainly doesn’t find her honesty rewarded.

    In this very thoughtful novel, Linda Grant lets her characters speak for themselves, hanging themselves as they do so.  None of them have great emotional depth as they are from a self-obsessed generation, too busy contemplating their own navels to have developed any empathy along the way.  Admittedly they might veer dangerously into stereotype territory at times but the author reins them in sufficiently so we can capture the zeitgeist of a generation, clueless but well-meaning, complacent yet ambitious.  It is especially interesting to compare the “baby boomers” with our current youth who genuinely don’t have it so good.

    So, plenty of food thought here in this insightful, extremely readable novel.  You might not like the characters but you will develop an understanding of what motivates them and how their emotional and social inheritance moulded them this way.  A very interesting, well written novel which will make you think, long after the final page is turned.

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    Review – The Weight of Silence – Heather Gudenkauf

    Posted in Contemporary Fiction on March 6th, 2010 by admin – 1 Comment

    The Weight of Silence (MIRA)

  • Paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Mira Books (16 April 2010)
  • ISBN-13: 978-0778303695
  • My Rating = A-

    In this powerful debut novel, Heather Gudenkauf tells the story of a parent’s worst nightmare when two 7 year old girls go missing from their homes in Willow Creek, Iowa during the night. The action unfolds over a 24 hour period and the story is related using chapter by chapter multiple point of view, a style with which Jodi Picoult fans will be very familiar. Each character tells their story in the first person apart from one of the missing girls, Callie Clark, who is a selective mute who hasn’t spoken for the past 3 years. Also missing, is her best friend, Petra, who has acted as her “voice” in the interim.

    We, the readers, are in a privileged position, as we have more information about these disappearances than the police or the girls’ loved ones but, despite this, the author maintains a constant tension throughout the narrative. The result is a gripping, suspenseful novel which the reader will find unputdownable. Gudenkauf acts as a master puppeteer manipulating the distinct voices of each of her narrators, keeping us guessing as to the identity of the abductor until the very last few pages.

    This relatively short novel manages to tackle many themes of small town life – childhood friendship, family relationships, alcoholism and the usual idiosyncrasies of family life – whilst simultaneously spinning a tale which will keep you on the edge of your seat. If you already enjoy authors like Jodi Picoult and Anita Shreve, you will relish this exceptional debut. It would also be an ideal Book Club read, providing plenty of meaty topics for discussion and debate.

    My thanks to Easons for sending me a review copy.

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