Category Archives: Literary Fiction

Review: PAPA’S GIFT

A young woman receives a manuscript left to her by her great-grandfather that changes how she understands herself and the world.

Papa's Gift

Papa’s Gift

Amazon US
Amazon UK

This unique literary novel is half warm family tale and half philosophical/spiritual meditation. When Ellen Marie takes her husband and baby daughter to visit her great-grandmother in South Florida, she has no idea of the treasure that’s been kept for her. She was only five when she visited Papa and Nana in their Port Ludlow, WA condo, and never had the chance to return. Thus, her Papa didn’t get the opportunity to pass along the life lessons he wanted her to have. But Ian Barrett MacLogan doesn’t let a little thing like chronological time get in the way of such an important matter. He wrote a journal that covers a two-week vacation that he imagined would have happened when Ellen was twelve or so. During this imagined trip, he details all of their adventures and the words of wisdom he and his beloved wife shared with her.

“Well, remember, Nana and I promised some time back to talk with you only about truth and not about facts.”

The plot itself alternates smoothly between grown up Ellen’s visit with Nana in Florida and this imagined visit to Port Ludlow. Both realities are filled with wonderful characters and finely wrought scenic descriptions that helped shape and advance the story. Through out the book, I felt as if I were right there. This grounding of the senses kept me tethered through the more abstract and esoteric discussions of the nature of the soul and its place both in creation and as co-creator of its own experience.

McLendon has a warm, rich writing style that is full of humor. His characters are people you feel you know…or wish you knew. I felt a special affinity to Cy, Nana’s elderly neighbor. He’s a holocaust survivor, whose own experiences of the non-material kind leave him in need of daily assurance that he is, indeed, still among the living. Cy’s wonderful mix of sprightly energy and human vulnerability made for some of the most memorable scenes, especially during the book’s rather “electrifying” climax.

PAPA’S GIFT made me laugh, cry, and wonder. It also left me remembering Papa’s words of encouragement to Ellie about the time and pacing of her spiritual growth, an insight that I find myself repeating throughout the day: “There is no deadline. There is no hurry. There is no rush hour in eternity.”

Review: RETURN TO KAITLIN

*Advanced reading copy provided by the author in return for an honest review.

A troubled young man seeks work in the oilfields of northern Canada and in the process finds himself.

Return to Kaitlin

Return to Katilin

Ty is a college student with an overworked mother and an absent (and hard-drinking) father. He’s not a bad kid, but he’s impulsive and teetering on the edge of his own drinking problem. This is made worse when his girlfriend breaks his heart. Ty suffers a downward spiral that results in his being asked to leave his university. He heads north to the oil fields in hopes of making enough money to continue his education once he’s allowed back into school.

This book wasn’t an easy read for me, which is strange considering the high quality of the writing. There is plenty of attention paid to setting and character development. The world Yeomans creates feels real. All the grime and grit of life in the oil fields and the small, rough towns that go along with them is powerfully evoked. That said, RETURN TO KAITLIN didn’t capture my imagination. It didn’t carry me away.

I had trouble connecting with Ty. The fact that he’s been wounded, first by his father’s abandonment of the family, then by his girlfriend, certainly justifies some of his melancholy. Problem is that we meet him in the midst of his crisis, and there’s not enough sweetness/vulnerability early on to balance out all the resentment and anger. I just didn’t like the guy. This made it hard to hang on through the twists and turns of his journey to self-awareness.

Another problem was the novel’s pacing. SLOW. There is so much description about the trip north (I should say “trips”–Ty doesn’t get to Kaitlin right away) and then his daily round that it weighs down the narrative and obscures the arc of the story. I caught myself skimming long paragraphs of exposition and struggling to figure out which episodes and character interactions were significant and which were merely minor interludes.

Overall, RETURN TO KAITLIN didn’t give me the reading experience I was looking for.

Review: Chergui’s Child

Upon her aunt’s death, a young woman learns information about her own troubled past that changes the course of her life.

It’s almost impossible to talk about CHERGUI’S CHILD without revealing pivotal details, but I’ll try. Olivia, the heroine, is a complex character. Life has been a struggle for her on many levels. As the book opens she seems confident and capable, but we learn bit by bit that her appearance of control masks deep psychological wounds and an ongoing struggle to maintain a normal life. Her efforts are hampered by her overbearing, intrusive mother. Matters are forced to a head when Olivia’s aunt’s death leads to a huge revelation centered on what appears at first to be a simple failed romance but, as we learn through flashbacks, is actually much more. Olivia has a choice–she can go on with her rather empty life or act upon what she’s learned and possibly reclaim something precious. She decides to act and in the process transforms her life and that of several others.

CHERGUI’S CHILD is an emotionally rich story full of complex characters and unexpected plot twists. Riddell excels at two things in particular–a evoking a wonderful sense of place and populating it with fascinating individuals. The people we meet here aren’t necessarily likable, there’s too much infidelity for my taste, but they are REAL. That’s important. You pay attention to Riddell’s characters. You want to understand them.

I would have preferred a more linear narrative. The flashbacks are well done, but I don’t think they were necessary and found them a drag on the story’s forward momentum. I was so invested in Olivia’s quest, I didn’t care to be interrupted and dragged back in time five years. Also the plot turns on three separate letters. Here I may be tiptoeing too close to spoiler-land, so feel free to skip to the next paragraph. The first one, written by Olivia’s aunt, initiates the main conflict. The second one (written by her ex lover) is fairly benign and offers Olivia some sense of closure. The third (also by the ex-lover) seems too convenient and ends up letting the air out of what should have been the most suspenseful event in the book, the one that decides whether or not Olivia will be granted what she’s fought so hard for. The ending is still satisfying, but that third letter robs it of some of its power.

CHERGUI’S CHILD is a powerful exploration of how the past and the stories we tell ourselves about that past both shape our present.

Review: POETS CAN’T SING

In Post-WW II San Francisco, wounded servicemen struggle to heal their physical and emotional scars and find comfort in an often unkind world.

Poets Can't Sing

Poets Can’t Sing

There is a standard (and rather annoying) convention that “historical fiction” refers to narratives set before 1900. That might have worked fine in 1940 or 1960 or even 1990. Today, though, this rule of thumb is more suffocating than useful. POET’S CAN’T SING is set in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. Firmly set in its period, it captures the flavor of that particular moment–a time when public pride over a hard-won victory too often overshadowed the personal suffering of those who made this victory possible.

Earl, Brooks, and Ivory have all been left shattered by their war experience. They cross paths at a veterans’ hospital run by corrupt administrator Victor Mann and his psychotic orderly, Elroy. As Mann pretends not to notice, Elroy uses intimidation, blackmail, and violence to control the patients and staff. The only individuals not under his thumb are Nurse Stella Tate and Henry Akita, a Japanese-American former army medic, now an orderly. Despite Elroy’s menacing presence, Stella and Henry are determined to do what they can for the men under their care. They use Earl’s and Brooks’s musical talents to get these two blind men to both reengage with the world and to help other patients.

The author’s writing is top notch. He moves seamlessly from point-of-view to point-of-view and from past to present. We get to know his characters in all their messy humanity. Smith does a great job showing us the profound sadness that lives in the gap between what these men intended to be and what life and the war has made of them. We watch as they struggle to get better and be better in spite of their own self-destructive tendencies and the cruelty and incompetence of those around them.

There’s a good dose of humor to balance out the darker scenes. Which is good, because Elroy is like a cancer that spreads from chapter to chapter. I don’t know that I could have dealt with him all the way to the end if not for Earl and Brooks’s amusing interaction. As for the resolution, things take an interesting turn for the main character after their time at the hospital. Yet the question of whether such damaged souls as Earl, Brooks, and Ivory can ever learn to live with their scars and build decent, worthwhile lives is left open.

POETS CAN’T SING is an absorbing and emotional work of literary-historical fiction.

Review: GIRL UNDERWATER

NOTE: I’ve prepared an even more detailed video review of this book on Amazon. VIDEO REVIEW

A college swimmer struggles to put her life back together after a deadly plane crash that stranded her in the Rocky Mountains for five days with a teammate and three young boys.

Girl Underwater

Girl Underwater

Great example of New Adult fiction that crosses into literary territory. A powerful, character-driven novel. The chapters alternate between the crash/surviving until rescue and Avery’s attempts to get over what happened. I thought that knowing who survives so early on would ruin the excitement, but Avery’s PTSD is so serious that she reveals details of the stranding little by little, so the tension grows and grows.

There are two major conflicts here. One, will Avery pursue a relationship with Collin Shea, the swimmer stranded with her, also the one person in the world (besides her dad) who calls her to task for opting to take the easy road through life rather than use her considerable talents. Two, what kind of life and future does Avery want to have? The answer to the second question determines the answer to the first.

This is an incredibly romantic book, even though there’s almost no sex. Collin and Avery’s relationship advances through character development and small interactions. The result is a beautiful intimacy.

GIRL UNDERWATER has an epilogue. Nine out of ten times these serve no purpose. But this one is essential to the two conflicts resolving themselves without overshadowing each other. At the end of the novel, Avery decides what sort of life she really wants. And that leads to the events of the epilogue and the revelation of what happened between her her and Collin.

Review: ON YOUR OWN by Jonathan Miller

A collection of short stories focused on individuals coming to grips with their inherent isolation–even from those they love.

On Your Own

On Your Own

The stories here are filled with flawed characters led astray by their own illusions and failure to connect with the people around them. They generally fall into two categories. First, there are generally good people gobsmacked by an unkind, inflexible world. Second, there are those who do wrong though they know better and often want to be better. All of Miller’s characters seem trapped by their own misconceptions and miscalculations. They either cannot attain intimacy or they cannot accept the restraints that intimacy imposes on them.

Miller’s writing is sharp and accomplished, and he has a good grasp on the emotional nuances that make for realistic characters. The world view presented in this volume is a bit grim, but that is literary short fiction for you, moody and leaning toward the pessimistic. Nevertheless, there are some lighter moments. “Mrs. Dumont and the Aroused Tenant” had me on the floor laughing. Also, “The Last Week of Summer” is full of a sharp-edged humor as a mini-war between two brothers clouds a much anticipated visit to their grandparents.

A thoughtful, nicely balanced collection.

Review: EMMA–A MODERN RETELLING

A modern retelling of Jane Austen’s classic about a young woman whose arrogant interference in her friends’ romantic relationships nearly ruins her own.

Emma: A Modern Retelling (The Austen Project, #3)

Emma: A Modern Retelling

This is the third entry in the Austen Project, where each of Jane Austen’s classics is tackled by a modern author. So far the results have been mixed. Joanna Trollope’s SENSE & SENSIBILITY was a disaster in my opinion. On the other hand, Val McDermid did an amazing job with NORTHANGER ABBEY. I like her retelling better than the original. With EMMA, Alexander McCall Smith falls somewhere in between. There’s nothing here to send an Austen fanatic into hysterics, but it doesn’t quite shine as brightly as it could, either.

EMMA–A MODERN RETELLING is a witty book full of gorgeous writing and fascinating characters. Austen’s plot is basically a story of a young woman’s emotional and moral maturity wrapped in the gloss of comedy. Smith gets this. His version is funny and offers Emma a clear path of growth as she learns the difference between charity and kindness, sympathy and condescension. Smith also successfully translates the social/economic world of the original into the 21st century. This was probably the biggest failing of Trollope’s SENSE & SENSIBILITY.

The problem I have with this book is that it starts too early and by doing so throws itself entirely off balance. The first 58 pages have little to do with Emma at all. We barely see her until her college days (around page 70). Instead, we get a detailed history of the relationship between Mr. Woodhouse and Miss Taylor. On the one hand, Emma’s father is one of best parts of the book. I love how Smith makes him an integral part of the overall plot. But Miss Taylor dominates the first several chapters then pretty much vanishes until the end. Smith repeats this strange authorial decision with John Knightly, brother to the novel’s (kind of) hero. We get this long, detailed courtship of how John and Isabella meet, marry, and breed then they’re largely absent forever after.

These early missteps lead to larger difficulties. We meet Emma herself so late, we don’t have much time to bond with her. This makes her pushy and high-handed behavior seem due to nastiness rather than to a failure of understanding. Further, her growth arc is rushed, the lessons and the epiphanies they lead to are too close together and too close to the end. Sure, along the way we’re treated to some wonderful additional characters with fun histories, but that’s all beside the point. This is Emma’s story. Her journey is the one that counts most.

A secondary problem caused by the extended initial back story is that it leaves no room for the the serious discussions of morality, of what is right and what is wrong, of what it means to care for others as much as or more than the self, that McCall gives us toward the end. These longish sections of exposition would be a challenge to a plot’s forward momentum under the best of circumstances. In this case, they stop the plot dead just at the time when it should be, if not speeding, at least trotting briskly toward its resolution.

Despite these issues, EMMA–A MODERN RETELLING is entertaining and laugh-out-loud funny. I enjoyed it enough to add it to my “keeper shelf” of books I plan to reread. I just wish it gave us more EMMA.

In Search of the Lost Self

A woman’s discovery of her late mother’s stage play leads her to explore the mysteries of her past and of her own inner world.

Dead Mentors

Dead Mentors

Sophia Deming is a disenchanted woman. Stuck in a suffocating position in the healthcare industry, she feels terminally cut off from the creative life she craves. The novel is told through the eyes of John Burns, a psychic who gave Sophia the reading that set her off on her spiritual quest. Through his visions we follow Sophia’s travels between her home in Florida to her native Canada as she struggles to rediscover her authentic self. A turning point comes when she and her sisters are cleaning out the family’s holiday cottage and come upon a play written by their mother. The main character is a scientist living in a future society where citizens are forced to take mood-stabilizing drugs that stunt all individuality and innovative thought, which closely parallels Sophia’s feelings about her own situation.

There’s a wonderful Gothic feel here. This otherworldly sensibility is helped by the presence of several ghosts–some actual spiritual entities, others more memory imprints of the past–and Sophia’s own richly symbolic dream life. Yet the story is at its best when Sophia is interacting with her husband, and when she and her sisters are together laughing, remembering, and causing mayhem in one another’s lives. Sophia and Nigel have wonderful chemistry. I also enjoyed the glimpses into John Burns’s life on Prince Edward Island with his wife and mother-in-law.

Ironically, it’s John’s narration that made it so difficult to orient myself at the start of the story. Observing Sophia at such a great remove, and with John’s constant commentary, made it hard to engage with her at first. That said, once I was sure of my footing, the narration became enjoyable. John’s head is a peaceful place to linger.

Nichols does an excellent job creating her settings. The Florida scenes and the ones in Canada (city and rural) played off each other really well. The sensory detail is extraordinary.

The philosophical/psychological concepts explored (especially in the stage play) do get a bit dense. It’s rough going in places, but the characters are so interesting I couldn’t help hanging on to the end.

DEAD MENTORS is a book with many layers. I’d describe it as “subtext on steroids”–and yet it also manages to entertain.

Suki

A young couple experiences profound loss.

Suki

Suki

It is hard to talk about this unique and compelling book without giving too much away, but I’m going to try.

Dwayne and Savannah are young and in love. They’re in the midst of planning their life together when fate throws them a curve ball neither could have expected.

The narrator’s voice is powerful. It keeps us on the outside looking in and creates an aching quality. The emotion is at a remove and we feel a bit numb, as if what’s happening is going on in slow motion and we are powerless to act, which is exactly the position in which Dwayne and Savannah find themselves.

Winn does a good job creating characters the reader can care about. Dwayne and Savannah are both portrayed with humor and honesty. Their creator allows them their flaws and forces them to face the consequences of their own decisions. Savannah’s mom and her difficult boss come through especially well. So does “Uncle Aaron.”

What I love about this book is how it bends so many of the “rules” of storytelling (tells rather than shows, allows profound authorial intrusion, odd jumps back and forth in time) and yet still works so beautifully.

SUKI is a book with a voice of its own. Reading it is to experience the heights of love and the depths of loss and come through it changed.

How Much Should a Writer Demand from Her Readers?

A successful barrister’s carefully constructed life comes crashing down when the case he’s working on unearths his secret past.

Patchwork Man

Patchwork Man

Lawrence Juste–“Kenny” to his birth family–isn’t particularly likable. He’s cool, secretive, arrogant and wound as tightly as a watch spring. This top legal eagle has taken great pains to hide his hard scrabble origins and achieve his current position, which has him poised to become a high court judge. Then his wife is run down and killed. Her death sets into motion a series of events that threaten to rain down public humiliation and professional ruin. Ironically, the only way Lawrence can save himself requires him to go out on a limb for someone else…a boy whose life parallels his own in more ways than Lawrence could ever have imagined.

Martin’s plot is complex and full of twists. She gives readers a large cast of seriously flawed characters, each with his or her own agenda, and writes them in a way that makes us care for them despite their grievous shortcomings. As the story unfolds, there’s a wonderful sense of past and present knitting together…almost creating a fait accompli. Almost. It’s in that narrow space between THEN and NOW that Lawrence has the opportunity to leave behind the victimized child and become a man at least somewhat worthy of the faith and responsibility bestowed on him. But can he seize this chance when doing so threatens everything he’s built for himself?

More literary fiction than mystery, this novel is long and complicated. It’s easy to become lost in Lawrence’s labyrinthine thought process. The author writes from a deeply psychological point-of-view and expects us to follow her protagonist’s (often unstated) logical leaps. At times, especially toward the end, I felt as if I were running to keep up. Reading this book requires focus (to follow the tangled train of clues) and commitment (that eventually the complexities will iron themselves out).

Personally, I found all the hard work to be worth it. PATCHWORK MAN is an incredibly human book about the power of the past to find us wherever we hide.