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Away: A Novel, by Amy Bloom

Away: A Novel, by Amy Bloom

The lack of sentimentality – of both the heroine and the telling of her tale – actually works to this book’s advantage, making it a crisp, quick and even enjoyable read, some of the disturbing scenes and situations notwithstanding. The perhaps workmanlike tidiness of sewing up each character and storyline is balanced by the fact that not each resolution is conventionally happily ever after. Not a masterpiece, but not bad at all.

The Old Maid, by Edith Wharton

The Old Maid, by Edith Wharton

This is quintessential Wharton. People live within social constraints and perceptions, but still make tolerable lives for themselves despite compromises. However, those compromises bring heartbreak … and sometimes surprising revelations and tenderness. This tale is told in the inimitable crisp but still affecting Wharton style.

A Gate at the Stairs, by Lorrie Moore

A Gate at the Stairs, by Lorrie Moore

Lorrie Moore puts good-hearted Tassie Keltjin, protagonist of “A Gate at the Stairs”, through an improbable amount of complex heartache in a short period of time. Tassie leaves her quirky family’s Midwestern organic farm to attend college in the fall of 2001. Only passing (and actually, rather refreshingly flippant) reference is made to what we all know happened that fall, but somehow it still manages to bring a sense of bewilderment and vague emotional paralysis coupled with yearning to all of Tassie’s interactions in the ensuing months.

Gates and stairs, literal and figurative, do indeed show up regularly in this wry, haunting novel. The reader and Tassie realize perhaps too late that she has most longed to climb stairs and open gates where she wasn’t wanted, needed or fully appreciated. After the fact, she questions with more insight and self-awareness whether or not she established any real connections with the people she encountered during that pivotal year, or just experienced some “random obviousness shared between strangers”. Ironically, whether it was random or not, it wasn’t obvious, at least not to the trusting and strangely optimistic Tassie. Also ironically, where it is clearly obvious that with a bit of communication on her part, she can save people she loves and who love her, she doesn’t. In one case, tragedy is averted, but in another, it isn’t.

Perhaps all this then sounds like a downer of a book featuring a frustrating and hapless heroine. Strangely but wonderfully, in Moore’s skilful and compassionate rendering, it is not only *not* that, but surprisingly optimistic at the end. “A Gate at the Stairs” is engrossing and engaging throughout Tassie’s journey to self-awareness, confidence and maturity.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

This is an interesting post-World War II tale told in epistolary form, where letters are exchanged between various characters. However, it is so homogeneously presented and, as a result, so cloyingly told that it verges on sweetness overload long before the letters stop flying back and forth.

In 1946, British writer Juliet Ashton receives an unexpected letter from a member of an unusual book club on the island of Guernsey, which was occupied by German forces for much of World War II. As she starts to engage in correspondence with this first and then other of the members, Juliet learns that the island community’s book club is pivotal to how many of them survived the occupation. She is inspired to write about this group, goes to visit them to do her research and eventually becomes a member of the community – which is no spoiler in this amiably predictable book.

The book has its touching moments. In particular for this reader, the observations about the heartbreak of sending one’s children away to keep them safe were moving, evoking a recent visit to the extraordinary Imperial War Museum in London.

The irony about the sameness of the voice in this book is that an epistolary novel should have anything but. Novels constructed in a style that incorporates a sequence of letters, journal entries or other documents ostensibly achieve greater versimilitude than a more conventionally narrated work, because those documents capture more readily day-to-day life, intimacy and individuals’ unique modes of expression, including their foibles and faults. Everyone sounds the same in this book – man or woman, urban or rural, literate or supposedly not. And everyone sounds like clever Juliet, whose glib perkiness wears thin rather quickly. Was this perhaps a problem with the final editing process for this book? Did niece Annie Barrows and others not want to interfere too much with the original work of Mary Ann Shaffer, who died before the book was published? Whatever the reason, it’s this sameness that robs the book of authenticity and charm, when it so clearly wants to be loved and I would have liked to comply.

The Wreckage, by Michael Crummey

The Wreckage, by Michael Crummey

The intersecting storylines are engrossing and the main and even more peripheral characters are all strongly delineated. At first, I thought the ending of the book was kind of shambling and inconclusive, but then I remembered the book’s title – “The Wreckage”. Just as Mercedes finds something important and concrete in the literal wreckage of her old home, all of the characters are striving to find something similarly real amidst the wreckage of their respective lives. The wreckage imagery is also echoed hauntingly in Wish’s experiences after the bombing of Nagasaki. The title of the book, in fact, satisfyingly encapsulates so much.

The Girls: A Novel, by Lori Lansens

The Girls: A Novel, by Lori Lansens

At the halfway point in the book, I thought the story premise was interesting, the structure and contrast were good, and the writing was competent … but something I couldn’t put my finger on was not drawing me in to the characters.

After I finished it, I could say the story drew me in a bit more towards the end, and although the ending itself was a bit overstated, it was still very touching, too.

The Flying Troutmans, by Miriam Toews

The Flying Troutmans, by Miriam Toews

I laughed out loud numerous times as I sailed through this book, which is so compellingly easy to gobble up in one gulp. Somehow, Toews manages to make unbelievably snappy dialogue come out of the mouths of utterly believable and attractive, albeit damaged characters. As a complete reading experience, I think A Complicated Kindness was more cohesive and felt more finely crafted, but The Flying Troutmans is still a splendid book. (I was surprised that it was not longlisted for the Giller.)