For The Someday Book

Posts Tagged ‘novels

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman, New York: Washington Square Press, 2014, 337 pp.

Man called OveI will probably not be able to consider this book without connecting it to a particular season of life. We were moving to London, and I had planned to read my mother-in-law’s copy of this book during our three week sojourn in our hometown before departure. A novel on vacation usually takes me only a couple of days to read. Then I got diagnosed with cancer. I did start the book, but in the three weeks, I only made it halfway through before having to abandon it and head to London. My mom delivered it to me over a year later, the same copy, to be returned when next we travel to the U.S. This time, I finished it in just a few days.

I picked up Backman’s My Grandmother Told Me To Tell You She’s Sorry when I was home last year for my father’s funeral, and returned to Ove with that background. In both books, a seemingly unlikeable curmudgeon becomes the savior of a tiny community. I love it. I want more of it.

Ove is a widow who has been forcibly retired from his job. A man who has lived by strict principles of hard work and duty now feels alone and adrift, as though his life no longer has meaning or purpose. The book slowly coaxes Ove out of his depression and isolation, as his principles lead him into relationship and even a care-taking role for all his neighbors–though caretaking in an irascible, agitated, curmudgeonly way. The book moves backwards and forwards through time, unpacking the story of Ove’s life and the ways he has known and shown love over the years, while also showing the way his life is being saved by the help and saving grace he extends to others in his initially bleak present.

A Man Called Ove is about Ove, but it is grows into an ensemble piece as Ove’s isolated world expands and connects. Backman creates a tiny community of neighbors, each with their own story and personality and evolution in the story. They are diverse and rich, not stock characters at all. To me, this portrait of an international community was my favorite element of the book.

It’s a good novel, good story, beautifully written. Read and enjoy.

Here’s a summary of all the fiction I’ve read in the last 18 months, grouped by some categories and with a short review of each. Non-fiction is here and here, plus an explanation.


These books are what fiction is all about—words and characters that come together to tell a powerful, moving, captivating story about being human. These brought me joy, tears and healing this year.


My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry by Frederik Backman, Washington Square Press, 2015, 372 pp.

I bought this at the airport on my way either to or from my father’s funeral. The narrator offers a child’s perspective on death and grief, on truth and fiction, on love and normality, but woven by a brilliant storyteller. Elsa’s grandmother creates for her a magical world of stories, and when she dies, Elsa journeys to discover the meaning behind them. This book spoke to my heart’s need to tell my story to make sense of my own life and its heartbreaks.

Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter, Faber & Faber, 2015, 114 pp.

This book defies explanation. This short piece explores the topology of grief and loss, with all its attendant feelings, through prose-poetry in multiple voices, including the husband grieving his wife, the two sons grieving their mother, and the giant crow who comes to stay with them, who is sometimes nonsensical and sometimes the only one who makes any sense. Epic, complicated, deep and true. I want to read it again, a year later, living with new grief.

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, Candlewick Press, 2011, 225 pp.

Intrigued by the movie previews, I gave the book to my son for Christmas. I didn’t realize it was about a boy coming to grips with his mother’s death from cancer! And I didn’t learn it until a month later when I finally read it and talked to him about it! Not my finest parenting moment. The monster is his grief and his fear of it, and it abides with him until he opens his heart to accept the reality of loss. Another book that is deep and true, but this time for a younger audience. Even though I should have prepared my son for its content—and perhaps not given it to him right in the middle of my treatment!—it was a gift to open up conversation between us.


These books made me feel better informed about the world and about literature, but the content was sometimes difficult and sometimes reading took work. They demand appreciation, but sometimes withhold joy.

20180102_195322Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward, Bloomsbury Press, 2011, 258 pp.

This is a book about survival in the midst of poverty and hardship. As a hurricane approaches, Esch and her brothers in the Mississippi bayou work with their unreliable father to find food and shelter to survive the storm. The lives and circumstances are harsh and unrelenting, but Ward creates characters with depth and nuance. They lack much, they make choices we might disdain (dog-fighting plays a prominent role), but they have a fierce tenderness for one another that brought me to care for them. A tough but worthwhile read.

Island of Wings by Karin Altenberg, Quercus, 2011, 372 pp.

Set in 1830 on St. Kilda’s Island, the most remote corner of Britain, where a young couple goes as missionaries to the pagan Gaelic inhabitants. In addition to teaching me about the geography, zoology and history of these Britons, the book reflects on what it means to be a missionary—to inhabit a particular place, to love and mingle with others, to find God already there even in the most remote places.

England’s Lane by Joseph Connolly, Quercus, 2012, 532 pp.

I picked up this book because it’s set in our neighborhood in London. England’s Lane is just at the end of our street, and we venture there almost daily for coffee or groceries. This novel tells about life in the 1950’s, with three couples living and working there—the ironmonger, the confectioner and the butcher. The story taught me a lot about our neighborhood and about post-war London, and the writing was excellent. However, it was a novel driven by character development rather than plot, and I didn’t find any of the characters particularly likeable. That made it feel like a bit of a slog at times, but that may also have been the timing. I started it in January, and slowly finished after my father’s death in February.

Girl Reading by Katie Ward, Virago, 2012, 352 pp. (Not Pictured)

This novel was almost like a series of short stories, moving through time. In each, a girl or woman’s story unfolds around the time an artist captures her image, and in each of those images, she is (or appears to be) reading a book. The book was exquisitely crafted, and each of the stories made me want an entire novel about those characters. I enjoyed moving through the ages (stories move chronologically from the 14th century to the future 21st), even as I wanted to linger with each set of characters just a bit longer. Definitely recommended!


These last books were just for entertainment. They were good and well-written, but not outstanding or especially memorable. (I am struggling to recall the details of some enough to even write these small reviews.) We all need that kind of fiction in our lives as much as the profound and life-changing kind.

20180102_195428The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon, The Borough Press, 2016, 454 pp.

This is the story of a British neighborhood in the 1970s. Mrs. Creasy has gone missing, and two ten-year-old girls decide to take on the job of finding out what happened. It opens them to adult realities and to the complicated relationships within households and between neighbors. As someone who was just a little younger than the characters in the 1970s and is the mother of a ten-year-old, I connected with the story in several ways. I also enjoyed understanding all the Britishisms in the book, which I never would have gotten before!

The Muse by Jessie Burton, Picador 2016, 445 pp.

I enjoyed this book because it introduced me to worlds I would never otherwise see—London art galleries in the late 1960s and Spain in the Spanish Civil War. The story was about a painting created in 1936 Spain, discovered by a young gallery worker in the 1960s. The characters were likeable, and the plot was interesting, as we come to discover the painting’s origins alongside them. A fun and fast read.

The Innocents by Francesca Segal, Vintage Books, 2012, 436 pp.

This book is also set in North London where we live, but much wider ranging than one little street. It’s a story of love and family, set in the tight-knit Jewish community here. Adam and Rachel are childhood sweethearts, but Adam has feelings for her wild cousin Ellie. The book follows Adam as he feels torn between Rachel and Ellie. I loved the way the story lifted up the tangled relationships between family, community, faith community and more as he considered the possible consequences of his choices. Another entertaining and enjoyable read.

The Carriage House by Louisa Hall, Penguin Books, 2013, 279 pp.

This story struck me as one about upper class fears of decline. William Adair is a wealthy man with three daughters, for whom he had enormous dreams—and who have each stumbled along into disappointment. When he has a stroke, they return to care for him and fight to preserve the beloved Carriage House behind their home. In so doing, they are able to shake off the shadow of his expectations find themselves and even discover a bit of joy. Good to pass an afternoon or two, but not especially memorable.


Orphan #8 by Kim van Alkemade, William Morrow/HarperCollins, 2015, 381 pp.

Orphan 8I enjoyed reading this book, which was more like fictionalized history than historical fiction. Van Alkemade learned of her grandfather’s time spent in the Hebrew Orphans home, while his own mother also lived and work there. In pursuing more about his life there, she stumbled across the story of a group of orphans suffering from alopecia caused by “x-ray treatments” received in their time there. She continued to pursue her research, learning as much as possible about the medical experiments, life in the home, and stories of those who lived there.

This novel is a fictionalized version of that collected history. Van Alkemade does a marvelous job of weaving together a unified story and full, fictionalized characters from the history she unearthed, but there are moments and plot developments that feel forced or uneven–usually because she chooses to stick with what actually happened, rather than what might make a more satisfying story. It’s the danger found in all memoir, of neglecting storytelling in favor of recording facts. The novel suffers only lightly, however, and it is still well worth reading.

The story centers on the fictional character Rachel Rabinowitz, who becomes an orphan at age 4, along with her older brother. They are separated when Rachel goes to the Hebrew Infants Home rather than the Orphan Home for older children, and it is during her time at the Infants Home that she experiences the dangerous radiation, the medical experiment of a young doctor. We meet Rachel as an adult, when she is a nurse in a hospice unit who discovers she is caring for the doctor who gave her those painful, life-altering treatments.

There is a lot going on in the story–Rachel’s coming out, her relationship with her brother, her ethical decision about how to relate to the ailing doctor in her care as a nurse, the environment and information about the life of orphans in the early decades of the 20th century, and more. While it was all interesting material, it was cumbersome from time to time, as the novel bounced between different eras and relationships. Again, van Alkemade chooses to service history over story from time to time. Yet Rachel is such an enjoyable companion that it overcomes much.

Nevertheless, Orphan #8 was a fascinating read, van Alkemade is a good storyteller, and I enjoyed learning about this unique time and place in history.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, Little Brown & Co., 2007, 230 pp.

ImageI kept hearing reports and conversations about this book. Many loved it, a few didn’t, each had elements they shared for critique or praise. Everyone said it was an important contribution to young adult literature, because Sherman Alexie brings a new perspective, often lauded as the first modern Native American voice in young adult fiction. So I decided to see for myself. After Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, I’m developing a much greater openness to young adult fiction. 

Alexie’s book is the story of Arnold Spirit, who usually goes by “Junior,” growing up on a reservation in Washington. Junior was born with water on the brain, but grows up smart and top of his class. On top of the normal challenges of middle school, he deals with bullying, poverty, alcoholic family members, drunk driving, and violence. He copes by drawing cartoons, which appear throughout the book. His intellect give him the opportunity to transfer out of the reservation school and into the rich, white high school. In spite of unreliable transportation and harassment from both sets of schoolmates, Junior perseveres at the white high school, even making the basketball team. 

Alexie gives Junior a strong voice, that sounds just like you’d expect a high school boy to sound. I did think from time to time that the story became too much, and wondered how so many bad things could happen to the same kid. But Alexie claims to have based the novel on his own experiences, so I trust it comes from an authentic place. The novel does open up a view into the situation of poverty and addiction that is all too common on the reservation, but I didn’t find it especially insightful. Perhaps that’s because I am already familiar with many of those issues, or because I am not the target audience of young adults.

I am grateful that the world of young adult literature is expanding to include new and different voices. Junior’s story was honest, encouraging and inspiring. I would definitely recommend it to middle and high schoolers in my life.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, Crown Publishers, 2012, 419 pp.

0806_gone_425This was a great summer thriller, and a perfect escape novel. I don’t often read thrillers, but this one came highly recommended, and the story was eloquently written and intricately told.

Nick comes home one day to discover that his wife Amy has disappeared. There are signs of a struggle, but no signs of where she might be. The story is told in alternating chapters, one voiced by Amy, the other by Nick. The story unwinds the intricate, tangled web of their complicated relationship, even as it details the efforts by police, family and Nick to find out what has happened to Amy, whether she is alive or dead. Without giving anything away, let’s just say I started out liking both characters, then disliking one, then liking that one and disliking the other, then back and forth again, and ended up uncertain if I liked either of them anymore–and it didn’t matter, because I was already so attached to them that likability was no longer relevant.

Flynn’s prose was a big step above the average thriller. For example, I just loved this little bit, voiced by Nick:

It seemed to me that there was nothing new to be discovered ever again. Our society was utterly, ruinously derivative (although the word derivative as a criticism is itself derivative). We were the first human beings who would never see anything for the first time. We stare at the wonders of the world, dull-eyed, underwhelmed. Mona Lisa, the Pyramids, the Empire State Building. Jungle animals on attack, ancient icebergs collapsing, volcanoes erupting. I can’t recall a single amazing thing I have seen firsthand that I didn’t immediately reference to a movie or TV show. … I’ve literally seen it all, and the worst thing, the thing that makes me want to blow my brains out, is: The secondhand experience is always better. The image is crisper, the view is keener, the camera angle and the soundtrack manipulate my emotions in a way reality can’t anymore. (72-73)

This particular example drew me in because I resonated with the sentiment, but the book is full of other keen observations that add to the interesting characters and plot.

Gone Girl is summer reading at its finest. Go and enjoy it.

Flight Behavior, by Barbara Kingsolver, HarperCollins, 2012, 437 pp.

Flight BehaviorAs always, Barbara Kingsolver has delivered a novel rich with symbol, beautiful in language and filled with characters of intrigue and gravitas. While, in my opinion, this was not Kingsolver at her best, it was still a great read.

The main character is Dellarobia Turnbow, a young mother of two somewhere in rural Appalachia. Pregnant in high school, she married her high school beau only to lose the baby. Nearly a decade later, they now have two children, but Dellarobia feels stuck in her life. She is always looking for a quick escape or distraction, and heads up the mountain one day for a tryst when she sees something like a lake of fire in the trees. It turns out to be a massive colony of monarch butterflies, overwintering far from their normal course. First comes the family, then the media, then a scientist and his assistants, then the campers and environmentalists, changing the Turnbow family’s life forever. Dellarobia’s relationships with her husband and in-laws were strained from the beginning—this new development forces them to a new uncertainty.

Kingsolver is at her best when she captures a particular community and way of life, in this case among the working poor in Appalachia. Her running commentary from Dellarobia’s mind about shopping for Christmas presents in the discount store, sorting piles in the secondhand store, making a meal with cheap ingredients, and putting a third engine in the truck provide a picture of what it means to be poor in Appalachia (or anywhere) without falling into stereotypes or condescension. She also tackles issues of climate change, and the clashes of class between the people who live on the mountain and the outsiders who come with their own agendas.

While I thought it was a little long and a little slow at times, Flight Behavior was well worth the read. While some companions in my book group did not like the ending, I thought it was just right.

Calico Joe by John Grisham, Doubleday, 2012, 198 pp.

calico joeI needed something quick and light and distracting to read on New Year’s Day, and my parents had made this as a gift to me for Christmas. It was the perfect fit.

Calico Joe is a story about baseball, about fathers and sons, about sin and forgiveness, about tragedy and overcoming. The narrator is the adult Paul Tracey. His father is Warren Tracey, a former professional baseball player and a nasty jerk. Joe Castle was a rookie phenom in the summer of 1973, and adored by an eleven-year-old Paul Tracey. His short career ended after he was hit in the head by a fastball thrown by Warren Tracey. The pitch left him seriously disabled, and many suspect it was intentional. Only Paul and Warren know the truth.

Calico Joe is about what happens 30 years later, when Warren is dying and Paul tries to somehow forge healing for his own relationship with his estranged father, his childhood hero Calico Joe, and the past they all share.

It’s as simple as that–a good story, told well. Just the thing for a holiday treat.

Her Fearful Symmetry, Audrey Niffenegger, Scribner, 2009, 406 pp.

I adored The Time Traveler’s Wife when I read it a few years ago, and I found Audrey Niffenegger to be a brilliant, intricate storyteller. When I saw her second novel on the library shelf, I grabbed it greedily. Her Fearful Symmetry was dramatically different than The Time Traveler’s Wife, but it did not disappoint.

Her Fearful Symmetry is a dark and sophisticated ghost story, set in the neighborhood and backdrop of London’s Highgate Cemetery. Although the novel is contemporary, the setting is so Victorian that I frequently found myself startled at references to cell phones, e-mail and modern life. The novel takes place after the death of Elspeth Noblin, who has left her London flat and all her estate to her nieces, daughters of her twin sister Edie, and twins themselves. The twin nieces, Julia and Valentina, have never met their aunt, and their mother refuses to discuss the separation. They are only 21, and they are developing their adult identity and negotiating separate lives as twins. In order to claim their inheritance, they must come and live in the flat for a year. There they meet Elspeth’s neighbors, including her lover Robert, a reclusive Martin suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder, and Highgate Cemetery and its residents. As the story unfolds, the girls get to know their aunt Elspeth as well—and not just through the eyes of others. The haunting of this tale slowly turns darker and more monstrous.

The story tells of love and death and love beyond death, of the intermingling of the souls of twins and lovers, of the possibility of healing and hope. To tell more might be to give too much away, and this novel is too good to spoil. Read it and enjoy it. I’ll have to eagerly await Niffenegger’s next offering.

God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Dell Publishing, 1965, 190 pp.

J. is a huge Vonnegut fan, and we got to talking about this book’s setting in southern Indiana. I’ve read a few of Vonnegut’s novels, and I enjoy their mix of dark subjects with light (almost flip) style, a mocking tone that ridicules injustice. Having lived in southern Indiana now for more than six years, I was eager to hear Vonnegut’s take on his home state.

Vonnegut’s novel tells the story of Eliot Rosewater, the son of fictional Senator Lister Ames Rosewater of Indiana. He is the President of the Rosewater Foundation (his father’s money), and spends his life giving away the Foundation’s money to anyone and everyone who might have a need. He is also a passionate volunteer firefighter. Eliot lives with intense capacity for compassion and love, seeing the need of each person who asks and responding without cynicism.

The plot of the story involves a lawyer, Norman Mushari, who believes he can make a lot of money if he forces the Foundation’s money to transfer hands from the eccentric Eliot to his closest relative, a distant cousin who does not know he is related to the Senator or the Foundation. In order to make this happen, he must prove that Eliot is insane. In the end, through Vonnegut’s twists and turns, the reader is convinced that Eliot is probably a sane man in an insane world.

As always, Vonnegut skewers with humor. Some of my favorites:

Thus did a handful of rapacious citizens come to control all that was worth controlling in America. … Honest, industrious, peaceful citizens were classed as bloodsuckers, if they asked to be paid a living wage. And they saw that praise was reserved henceforth for those who devised means of getting paid enormously for committing crimes against which no laws had been passed. (12)

Hard to believe that Vonnegut wrote that in 1965, and not in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. You could cut-and-paste it into a speech for the Occupy movement.

Later on, Eliot is fighting with his Senator father, who believes Eliot’s generosity is a terrible waste of money. Eliot replies with a brilliant screed about the disparity between rich and poor:

Nobody can work with the poor and not fall over Karl Marx from time to time—or just fall over the Bible, as far as that goes. I think that it’s terrible the way people don’t share things in this country. I think it’s a heartless government that will let one baby be born owning a big piece of the country, the way I was born, and let another baby be born without owning anything. The least a government could do, it seems to me, is to divide things up fairly among the babies. (87-88)

Eliot follows this with a powerful description of the “Money River,” which the wealthy can drink in repose until they are full beyond capacity—yet they still insist on damming up for themselves to acquire more. But you’ll have to read God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater yourself to enjoy that one.

Vonnegut’s portrayal of my neighbors here in this corner of Indiana was not flattering, but it was compassionate. His treatment of injustices between rich and poor, however, was ruthless—and I cheered it all the way. It’s maddening to realize that the problems Vonnegut mocked nearly 50 years ago have multiplied exponentially since then.

The Birth of Venus, by Sarah Dunant, Random House, 2003, 403 pp.

After reading Sacred Hearts, I was eager to read more from Sarah Dunant. Thanks to Juniper, I had a chance to read her most popular novel The Birth of Venus next.

The Birth of Venus is set in the late 15th century in the city of Florence, during the unraveling of the di Medici rule. The book starts with a prologue that details the death of an elderly nun, a death which unexpectedly contains elements of mystery. The novel then proceeds from the time that nun was 14 years old, and tells the story of her life, which was full of passion, sexual exploration, art, history, violence, and more. In other words, not what you’d expect out of an elderly nun.

I enjoyed the book, but it was more beach reading than substance or lasting depth. Dunant is a great storyteller, and her characters, historical research and ability to construct entire worlds made The Birth of Venus a really fun read. Her prose is solid and evocative, but it does not arrest you, and it’s not the kind of book I felt compelled to slow down and savor. It’s a good story, and you want to just keep turning pages. I stayed up until 2:00 a.m on a Wednesday just to get to the end.

In the end, I think I enjoyed Sacred Hearts much more, because I was more intrigued by the setting, exclusively in the world of women inside the convent. The Birth of Venus was a more traditional historical novel, but it still centered on a smart, independent, creative woman trying to make a meaningful life in a time and place that does not accommodate women’s intellect or passion. I love those kinds of stories, and I had a good time reading this one. I’ll be looking for more from Sarah Dunant next time I get an escapist urge to immerse myself in a novel.

About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

Helpful Hint

If you only want to read regular posts, click the menu for Just Reflections. If you only want to read book reviews, click the menu for Just Book Reviews.



Member & Certified Reviewer

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 1,659 other subscribers
%d bloggers like this: