Two Fiction Reads to Borrow from the Library

Neverhome by Laird Hunt

NeverhomeShe calls herself Ash, but that’s not her real name. She is a farmer’s faithful wife, but she has left her husband to don the uniform of a Union soldier in the Civil War. NEVERHOME tells the harrowing story of Ash Thompson during the battle for the South. Through bloodshed and hysteria and heartbreak, she becomes a hero, a folk legend, a madwoman and a traitor to the American cause. Laird Hunt’s dazzling new novel throws a light on the adventurous women who chose to fight instead of stay behind. It is also a mystery story: why did Ash leave and her husband stay? Why can she not return? What will she have to go through to make it back home?

 

  • I added this book to my TBR after reading Shannon @ River City Reading’s review back in August 2014. She quoted the first line – “I was strong “I was strong and he was not, so it was me went to war to defend the Republic”. That opener was enough to capture my interest.
  • I enjoyed the prose. Ash’s manner actually felt kind of soothing, as opposed to a distracting dialect. Early example:
    • “There was an old lady outside Ketering fetched me up a drink of water from her well, took a long look at me as she handed it tome, and told me I needed to watch my step. No one else outside that lady saw what I was. I slept just exactly like a pine plank on that walk. I sent Bartholomew my first letter from Dayton. I sent him about the same one from Cincinnati. I wrote that I missed him fierce. I wrote that I was fierce happy too” (3).
  • The basic nature of the story line (woman disguised as man so she can fight for the Union in the Civil War, in place of her husband) kept me intrigued. The story lost steam for me when Ash became separated from her troop. I kept reading because I liked the mood, but that was a situational feeling – I might have dropped the book if I had read it at a different time. The conclusion was sadder than I anticipated.
    • By the end, I realized that I had been following an unreliable narrator. I dislike such narrators. Instead of understanding their reliability as a story telling technique, I just feel like I trusted someone and they abused that trust, haha. Ash reminded me a bit of the protagonist from Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing.

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

The Uncommon ReaderWhen her corgis stray into a mobile library parked near Buckingham Palace, the Queen feels duty-bound to borrow a book. Discovering the joy of reading widely (from J. R. Ackerley, Jean Genet, and Ivy Compton-Burnett to the classics) and intelligently, she finds that her view of the world changes dramatically. Abetted in her newfound obsession by Norman, a young man from the royal kitchens, the Queen comes to question the prescribed order of the world and loses patience with the routines of her role as monarch. Her new passion for reading initially alarms the palace staff and soon leads to surprising and very funny consequences for the country at large.

 

  • I read this cute novella one afternoon during my family’s winter holiday.
  • The Uncommon Reader had been on my TBR for a very long time, though I don’t remember how I discovered it. I wanted to read it because it sounded like a sweet story celebrating reading. That’s exactly what I got.
  • The story eventually shifts to focus on writing. I understand the relationship between reading and writing, but I thought the story was going to focus solely on reading. The Queen ‘evolves’ from reading to writing, leading to a humorous and abrupt (though fitting) conclusion.
  • A few clues scattered throughout, mostly in reference to relatives, indicate that this Queen is our Queen Elizabeth II.

I borrowed both of these titles from the library. Though I enjoyed them both fine enough, I wouldn’t call them must buys. But if you spot them at your library – know they are solid reads for a quiet afternoon. Have you read any ‘library recommendation’ books recently? 
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Brief Thoughts: A Drop in the Ocean by Jenni Ogden

Author: Jenni Ogden
  Title: A Drop in the Ocean
  Rating★★★
  Links: GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Amazon  
I received a complimentary copy from the publisher through Netgalley in exchange for my honest review.

On her 49th birthday, Anna Fergusson, Boston neuroscientist and dedicated introvert, arrives at an unwanted crossroads when the funding for her research lab is cut. With her confidence shattered and her future uncertain, on impulse she rents a cabin for a year on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. However Turtle Island, alive with sea birds and nesting Green turtles, is not the retreat she expected. Here she finds love for the eccentric islanders who become her family; for Tom, the laid-back turtle whisperer; and for the turtles whose ancient mothering instincts move her to tears. But Anna finds that even on her idyllic drop in the ocean there is pain, and as the months fly past her dream for a new life is threatened by a darkness that challenges everything she has come to believe about the power of love. .

I wanted to read this book because it is set in the Great Barrier Reef (a location I was planning to visit at the time, and have now visited!), because it features an older female protagonist, and because it sounded like a good vacation read.  My main reason for not giving this book a higher rating is the plot. The story takes awhile to get going. Everything is picture perfect for a good while. I wondered when any sign of conflict or ‘trouble in paradise’ would finally happen. Certain dramatic sub plots are resolved too conveniently for my liking. The writing can be very episodic. A lack of transitions or connections makes the story feel choppy at times. The depiction of a wise cancer survivor and cheerful Huntington’s patient irked me as tropey and unrealistic.

 Despite these criticisms, I enjoyed the book enough to finish reading it. The ending took the road I wasn’t expecting, which was a nice change. Overall, I found the plot somewhat bland and stiffly progressive, but I enjoyed the setting and the role of Huntington’s and marine turtles. These aspects brought a dimension of reality to the tale, not usually found in these kinds of stories. I especially appreciated the author’s note at the end providing more information on each topic.
 

Review: On the Shores of Darkness, There Is Light by Cordelia Strube

Author: Cordelia Strube
Title: On the Shores of Darkness, There is Light
Format/Source: eBook/NetGalley
Published: 12 April 2016
Publisher: ECW Press
Length: 372 pages
Genre: General fiction
Why I Read: Net galley browsing; liked description and cove
Read If You’re:  Looking for a realistic character-driven story
 Rating★★★½
Links: GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Amazon 
 I received a complimentary copy from the publisher through Netgalley in exchange for my honest review.

Harriet is 11 going on 30. Her mixed-media art is a source of wonder to her younger brother, Irwin, but an unmitigated horror to the panoply of insufficiently grown-up grown-ups who surround her. She plans to run away to Algonquin Park, hole up in a cabin like Tom Thomson and paint trees; and so, to fund her escape, she runs errands for the seniors who inhabit the Shangrila, the decrepit apartment building that houses her fractured family. Determined, resourceful, and a little reckless, Harriet tries to navigate the clueless adults around her, dumpster dives for the flotsam and jetsam that fuels her art, and attempts to fathom her complicated feelings for Irwin, who suffers from hydrocephalus. On the other hand, Irwin’s love for Harriet is not conflicted at all. She’s his compass. But Irwin himself must untangle the web of the human heart.

I adored Harriet. Although she finds herself in a bleak and seemingly loveless home life, she has a strong go-getter personality. She makes the best of situations you’d wish children never found themselves in. It’s definitely heartbreaking how most of the adults in her life are so clueless about her. It sobered me up to think there are many adults in the world who must be just like the ones in this book, so self-absorbed and ignorant. I wonder what would happen if someone like Uma or Gennedy read this book…That being said, there are moments when you realize the adults might have more going on to explain their vapidity than Harriet can understand. The characters (which include a motley bunch of seniors and a welcoming Filipino family) are what I enjoyed most about this novel. Strube knows her craft well. Harriet is the star, of course, so unfortunately I found the novel lost some of its appeal when the third person narrative shifted from Harriet’s perspective to Irwin. He doesn’t have her perspective or spunk so the narration slowed down for me in his half of the book. I find this a difficult book to review without spoilers. If you have read anything by Strube, or about her works, I think I can just say that it seems this one falls in line with the others.

  The Bottom Line: A vivid and moving read distinguished by clearly drawn characters, but not for those who prefer more light than dark in their stories.

  Further Reading:

Brief Thoughts: The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall

  • The publisher’s description misleads, making no mention of Rachel’s pregnancy or brother, disregarding the family dynamics that make up the bulk of the plot. (The description does mention a mother, but she is removed from the story early on.) This tales is less about wolves and more about family. I wanted to read the story described on the back, but it’s not really the story you’ll find here. If you’re looking for a book about family relationships and repairing mends, though, you might enjoy this one. 
  • The ‘wolf border’ is, I think, just a subplot – one which Rachel actually has little to do with. Obviously, the wolf project affects her daily life, but the plot that winds through the story is little impacted by her. 
  • Rachel is very self-absorbed (which isn’t quite the right word, but it’s close enough). She doesn’t ever really get to know others (the Penningtons, Michael, Huib, barely even Lawrence) and makes assumptions about their behaviour or situations based on very little. The other characters consequently seem to have very little depth, even though one can imagine to be far more interesting people than Rachel encounters.
  • I hope I’m not disparaging Rachel too much. I found her relatable, if a little dull in her moments of inaction. 
    • I appreciated her character growth, which especially shows in her relationship with Lawrence.
  • The story proceeds very slowly with little action. The wolf plot picks up in the last 75 pages or so. I found myself tensing up when the story finally reached the point of something happening. I was invested by then.
  • This book doesn’t use quotation marks. I know that puts some people off… I like the dreamy distance (or closeness?) atmosphere that a lack of punctuation seems to give me. I also liked Hall’s prose, which created a great visual for the estate and the English countryside.
  • These next points contain SPOILERS re: the conclusion .
    • .
    • ..
    • I felt extremely pissed at Thomas, just as Rachel does – not because he necessarily did a bad thing, but because he went about it so sneakily and high-and-mightily. I couldn’t believe that was actually his endgame. There’s a good example of an eccentric person.
    • The reader doesn’t receive any closure with Rachel’s decision to tell Kyle about their son. I was frustrated by that, even though I felt it was going to be that kind of book, that ends just before you find out what happens. But, what’s the point of having Rachel occasionally hem and haw about telling Kyle (it’s really just a few moments where she thinks about it), and then finish with her heading to America to tell him…while not totally resolving that thread? I dunno, I suppose the point is more than Rachel made the decision than the outcome of that decision. But I like my plot threads to be neatly finished in these kind of stories.

Review: The North Water by Ian McGuire

Author: Ian McGuire
Title: The North Water 
Format/Source: eBook/NetGalley 
Published: 11 February (UK)/15 March (North America)
Publisher: Henry Holt & Company
Length: 272 pages
Genre: Literary thriller
Why I Read: Dark whaling tale
Read If You: Can stomach graphic, want to try Arctic ‘noir’
Rating★★★★ 
Links: GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Amazon 
I received a complimentary copy from the publisher through Netgalley in exchange for my honest review.

Behold the man: stinking, drunk, and brutal. Henry Drax is a harpooner on the Volunteer, a Yorkshire whaler bound for the rich hunting waters of the arctic circle. Also aboard for the first time is Patrick Sumner, an ex-army surgeon with a shattered reputation, no money, and no better option than to sail as the ship’s medic on this violent, filthy, and ill-fated voyage. In India, during the Siege of Delhi, Sumner thought he had experienced the depths to which man can stoop. He had hoped to find temporary respite on the Volunteer, but rest proves impossible with Drax on board. The discovery of something evil in the hold rouses Sumner to action. And as the confrontation between the two men plays out amid the freezing darkness of an arctic winter, the fateful question arises: who will survive until spring?

I found this review tough to write. I enjoyed this book (to my own surprise!) but there’s a lot about it I feel that I need to ‘set straight’. I like to include the publishers description in my blog posts for books that aren’t yet published, but this time I do so with a hint of hesitation. Everyone’s impression of a book after reading one of these marketing descriptions will be different. However, I think there is an objective difference between the book I read and this blurb. Not a huge difference, but one that might influence your decision or whether or not to check out this book.  The North Water is Sumner’s story, not Drax’s. The two are not pitted in some sort of conflict the whole way through (which is what I expected after reading the description :P). If you’re wondering (like I did…) “How can they end up not killing each other? Are they each going to gather men to their sides?” etc., then you can put those thoughts to rest. Their conflict plays out naturally. Something else that might muddy your impressions of this tale is the first chapter, which focuses on Drax. If Drax disgusts you, and you find yourself thinking “How can I read a whole novel about this man??” – don’t worry, you won’t be reading a whole novel about him. That being said… Drax is not just evil incarnate. He’s a shocking, disgusting man, yet McGuire successfully puts some effort towards exploring why. There’s not a whole lot to the why – certainly nothing that attempts to justify Drax’s actions – just enough to make him all the more creepy.

This courtyard has become a place of vile magic, of blood-soaked transmutations, and Henry Drax is its wild, unholy engineer. (Loc128)

Going back to that first chapter… If you’ve heard anything about this book, you’ve probably heard that it’s graphic (applicable in this tale to that trinity of violence, sex and language). I don’t think I’d read anything this graphic before. It certainly made me uncomfortable at times, inducing a bit of stomach churning. I learnt from reading this book where that line of what I can and cannot stand lies. (The North Water is right on the border). Anything more graphic than this will be too unpleasant for me to bother reading. Chapter 1 functions as a warning, a shock to the system. It flashes, “If this is too icky for you, pick up another book.” But if that’s about as much as you can handle, then proceed. (If the entire book was like chapter 1, I couldn’t read it.)  The story doesn’t get worse than that. The graphic descriptions generally apply to bodily states and functions, rather than the actual acts being committed. Having said all that, the graphic descriptions don’t overwhelm the novel. I can count the descriptions of Drax’s violence on one hand. Those moments are intense and disgusting, yet they don’t become the entire story. There are other moments where you brace for the worst and it doesn’t happen. Attempting to avoid spoilers here. Just know that not everyone is as awful as you might expect. Finally, I’ll add that the foul language that seems too thick and cartoonish at the beginning eventually thins out, but the descriptions of unpleasant bodily functions never entirely cease. There’s a few spots where I commented “Is this really necessary? =.=” I’ll spare you the quotes.

“I’d venture the Good Lord don’t spend much time up here in the North Water,” he says with a smile. “It’s most probable he don’t like the chill.” (Loc1437)

Yup, I feel a bit weird writing my opening paragraph about how the book’s description and first chapter don’t give a good impression of what it’s about, but I wanted to clear that up. So that review was mostly me defending the book against gory claims…what can I say is good about The North Water? Quite a bit, actually! I loved the prose, the setting, and Sumner. The plot held my interest. What fuelled all this is probably that I had this intense feeling that I, the reader, being the averagely decent modern sort of human being that I am, would never encounter such scenes as those depicted within the tale. I know this sounds like a simple concept. Isn’t that why we read? To experience that which we would never otherwise experience? This book takes that experience to another level. I was keenly aware of the sorts of lives I will never interact with, let alone experience.

The men from the Zembla are dancing with the whores; they are all whooping and stamping their feet on the floorboards. The air is filling with sawdust and peat smoke. There is a warm, fetid odor of tobacco and ashes and stale beer. Drax looks disdainfully across at the dancers and then asks Sumner to buy him another whiskey. (Loc429)

The plot held my interest. It wasn’t wholly predictable, surprising me at times. (Thankfully, there were no twists of the WTF variety.) The rhythmic prose, however, drew me in more than the plot. McGuire can create an intense atmosphere, using precise yet evocative prose. I highlighted more great quotes than I should stuff into this post. (Also, I’ve rarely felt such emotion at the final line of a novel.) I also appreciated Sumner’s character arc. I’ve never encountered a character quite like him, one who finds himself facing such a dreadful situation. His development over the story had me glued to the page, wondering where he would end up. This is another book to add to your dark winter reading list. 

Although [Sumner] is certainly annoying, there is something admirable in his persistence. He is a dogged little fucker all in all. (Loc1509)

A small aside: I find ebooks super convenient for these historical novels. I can easily look up old slang, origins of words, historical events referenced in passing, all those little tidbits which flavour a novel that I would otherwise overlook.

The Bottom Line: A tale held together by gruesome events, you may nonetheless find The North Water a rewarding read. Setting, plot, prose, and characterization may all well captivate the reader who can grit their teeth and dig in.

 

Further Reading: