The Fish Ladder: A Journey Upstream by Katharine Norbury

A pensive, meandering memoir of searching–for the source of both a river and the author’s life.

fish ladder

In The Fish Ladder: A Journey Upstream, a memoir of two concurrent paths, Katharine Norbury aims to find a river’s source and to discover her own. She is mourning a recent miscarriage and the loss of her father, taking solace with her mother and her daughter, Evie. Norbury was adopted, and all she knows of the woman who abandoned her at a convent is a name. Neil M. Gunn’s novel The Well at the World’s End inspires her to walk a waterway from the sea to the source, as does Gunn’s protagonist. But Norbury’s journey is clearly also metaphorical, a search for herself and her roots.

The route she chooses is not specific: with Evie, she walks parts of several waterways, eventually setting more precise goals along the way, and reaching for Gunn’s work when her plans falter. Her expedition to find her biological family proves to be more challenging, intersecting her pathway upriver, from the location she has discovered is her birthplace.

Norbury’s seeking is set in Britain, and The Fish Ladder doubles as an amateur naturalist study of the country’s flora and fauna. She shares her insecurities and questions alongside Celtic folk tales about salmon traveling upriver to the places of their birth. Her story wanders, but in the end makes emotional and profound ventures into landscape, the importance of place and the very real connections between physical and interior voyages.


This review originally ran in the August 25, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 5 pieces of chocolate.

In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware

An enchantingly unsettling thriller with mysterious characters and a classically spooky setting.

dark dark wood

Ruth Ware’s chilling, atmospheric thriller In a Dark, Dark Wood is her first novel and the inaugural title published by Simon & Schuster’s new imprint, Scout Press.

Nora is a writer of crime novels, a loner who buys her groceries online and appreciates her solitude. But when she gets an invitation to a hen party being thrown for a woman she hasn’t spoken to in 10 years, her carefully structured life is disrupted. Against her instincts, she agrees to attend, and the party’s setting serves as a disturbing beginning: an isolated castle of steel and glass set deep in the English woods, populated for the weekend by nervous guests, each apparently with secrets to keep.

In the novel’s disjointed timeline, Nora later wakes up in the hospital with fractured memories of being covered in blood, running through dark woods with a sense of urgency; the police are waiting outside her door. What happened to her? Or… what has she done? As the narrative switches between Nora’s confusion in her hospital bed and the events leading up to her hospitalization, she and the reader together begin to wonder: Can she really not remember, or does she not want to? Both timelines accelerate with building suspense toward the big reveal, and eventually Nora will have to go back and recall events from her past that she’d rather leave forgotten.

In a Dark, Dark Wood is peopled by mysterious characters set to a classically spooky backdrop and culminating in blood, broken glass and memory loss. Readers who appreciate being unnerved will be charmed.


This review originally ran in the August 14, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!
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Rating: 7 tequila shots.

A Clue to the Exit by Edward St. Aubyn

Edward St. Aubyn’s favorite of his own novels surveys characters from his other work, in a clever, sophisticated consideration of death and consciousness.

clue to the exit

Edward St. Aubyn (Mother’s Milk) calls A Clue to the Exit his favorite of his own novels. Originally published in 2000, it’s now being reissued by Picador.

Charlie is a hack screenwriter who’s just been told he has six months to live. (He takes issue with the idea that his doctor has “given” him six months, as if it were a gift he should be grateful for.) He starts driving more carefully, even as he considers suicide, experimenting with the proper response to this news. He contacts his ex-wife about seeing his daughter; he sells his house and takes half his riches to Monte Carlo to lose it as quickly as possible. And, suddenly inspired, he sets out to write a serious novel–much to his agent’s exasperation.

In Monte Carlo, he meets a beautiful stranger, who he imagines might help him with his burden of mortality. Angelique is a gambling addict, and in her company Charlie feels an equal craving for his own writing. They have a deal: she gambles away his fortune, and he writes in the casino as he watches her. His novel, On the Train, tackles the big question of consciousness, or nothing less than the meaning of life, and Charlie’s autobiographical protagonist is none other than Patrick Melrose, St. Aubyn’s most famous character, who is joined by others that St. Aubyn’s fans will recognize from previous work. The characters of the novel within the novel argue philosophy on a train stuck in Didcot, as Charlie finds himself stuck as well between games of chance and the need to map his own final months.

St. Aubyn’s craft is on full display with this inward-looking work of simultaneous parody and earnestness. Nearly every line is quotable, a small but shining victory of prose. On the Train visits with Proust and Buddha, while “a clue to the exit” references Henry James on “the human maze,” but alongside serious, even wearying considerations, Charlie’s story is often very funny and self-referential. A third-person narrative “is so much more personal than a first-person narrative, which reveals too flagrantly the imposture of the personality it depends on,” writes St. Aubyn in Charlie’s voice: A Clue to the Exit is told in first-person, while On the Train is in the third. This feedback loop is a central device. “Feeling too upset to write, I made the brave decision to write about feeling too upset.” A parade of absurd characters and dinner parties accompanies Charlie’s, and his character Patrick’s, contemplations of death. As Charlie’s six months run out, St. Aubyn continues to surprise his reader in the final pages.

A refined and stylish novel of cynicism and the question of death, A Clue to the Exit is a perfect sample of St. Aubyn’s craft.


This review originally ran in the August 13, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 6 chips.

The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth

This compelling novel of resistance to the Norman Invasion, told in a hybrid of Old English, will satisfy motivated readers of history, ecology and the persistent pull of the old gods.

wake

The Wake is a singular debut novel by Paul Kingsnorth (One No, Many Yeses; Real England), set in England immediately following the Norman invasion of 1066. Its first-person narrator is a landowner named Buccmaster, who has lost everything to the attack: his family, his home, his land and his privilege. He takes to the fens and woods, with revenge in his heart and an intention to drive the French from his land and all of England. There he becomes one of the guerrilla fighters known as green men, whose chapter in history is little known.

What makes this powerful story distinctive is Kingsnorth’s decision to write the story in what he calls a “shadow tongue,” an Old English hybrid of the author’s invention, made slightly more understandable to the modern reader. This choice presents an undeniable challenge to the reader, and requires substantial extra effort to pursue the story. (Hint: try reading aloud, to hear cognates and the rhythm of the speech). But Kingsnorth defends his strategy: it evocatively renders Buccmaster’s voice, and brings to an already gripping saga a layer of new meaning, in that the reader has to participate in creating that meaning through interpreting unfamiliar words. A partial glossary deciphers some words, but many are left for the reader to define via context clues and, yes, guessing. Some readers will be turned away. But those who persist will find the language easier to follow after 20-40 pages, and will be rewarded by Buccmaster’s riveting narrative.

Buccmaster is a follower of the eald (old) gods, as was his grandfather, the gods of wilde places on the earth and its wihts (creatures). His father was not. “I will not spec of my father,” he says, but the story of his father is only one of the details that this unreliable narrator leaves out. As Buccmaster travels overland on foot, gathering companions who also wish to drive out the French, he journeys as well into the myths and traditions of his elders, and envisions a grand role for himself. The fate of his band of green men is as tenuous as that of England, as their leader struggles with reality.

The Wake is an ambitious novel in its themes and scope, in addition to its unusual linguistic decisions. As the English folc in his story become disconnected from their land, they lose their freedom: “if the frenc cums and tacs this land and gifs these treows [trees] sum frenc name they will not be the same treows no mor.” As an impassioned defense of the natural world and people’s responsibilities toward it, the novel acts as a metaphor for modern times. Buccmaster’s personal narrative is a lesson in pride and its dangers, a glimpse of another culture in its own language. Kingsnorth’s captivating first novel is thought provoking, multi-faceted and intriguingly rendered.


This review originally ran in the August 11, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 fugols.

Wondering Who You Are by Sonya Lea

A woman’s thoughtful account of life after her husband’s traumatic brain injury.

wondering

When Sonya Lea’s husband, Richard, had surgery to treat his rare appendiceal cancer, they knew there were risks. But they had not considered that Richard would wake up with no memory of his 23 years of marriage and two young adult children, or of his own personality and past. Sonya considers their shared history and difficult recovery in her memoir, Wondering Who You Are.

The details of Richard’s medical story are inarguably painful but often sweet. Sonya’s changed husband is empathetic, guileless and highly motivated to learn. Alternating chapters cover the trauma of his surgery and aftermath, and the story of their teenage romance and decades of marriage, until the timelines merge into one: Sonya’s quest for the husband she lost and her eventual acceptance of the one she’s found. This powerful, gut-wrenching narrative negotiates spirituality, hope and despair, sexual experimentation and a dedicated caregiver’s tireless research and advocacy. Sonya and Richard’s family story wanders geographically as well, from Kentucky to Ontario, Banff, Memphis, Seattle, California, France, India and more. Through assorted, arduous adventures, they learn again to rely on one another, to persist and to accept.

Sonya Lea is a fascinating narrator, by turns vulnerable and fierce, patient and maddened, always devoted. Her writing is contemplative and lovely, and contains just enough scientific detail. The result is a lyrical, intensely candid meditation on memory, identity and the stories we create for ourselves–and a love letter to both the new and old versions of Richard.


This review originally ran in the July 28, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 9 journal entries.

Coming of Age at the End of Days by Alice LaPlante

In this expert psychological thriller, a disturbed teenaged girl meets a doomsday cult and struggles for survival and identity.

coming of age

The title of Alice LaPlante’s third novel, Coming of Age at the End of Days, succinctly describes its plot. At the beginning, Anna Franklin is 16 and terribly depressed, fixated on death. Therapy and medication do nothing to bring her out of it. Her anti-religious mother begins reading to her from the Bible, just to give them some time together and to introduce Anna to literary references; this does not lighten Anna’s world, but instead gives its darkness meaning, as Revelations resonates with her mood. What finally causes her depression to break is a new family in the neighborhood. Lars and his parents introduce Anna to their church, where it is preached that the Tribulation at the End of Days is coming. There will be blood, violence and suffering. Her heart sings at the news.

Anna begins having a recurrent dream of a central image in her church’s system of beliefs; she has visions and becomes convinced she has an important role to play. Joyfully, she plans for the coming End of Days. Her parents are relieved that she no longer appears suicidal, but disturbed anew at this fresh challenge. Anna and Lars, a compelling, alternately magnetic and frightening young man, are socially isolated and bullied at school. On the other hand, Anna’s parents are loving, wise and committed to her well-being. Additionally, there is Anna’s neighbor Jim–back in his parents’ basement, in his mid-20s, suffering his own breakdown–and a chemistry teacher, the youthful, no-nonsense Ms. Thadeous. When Anna experiences a tragedy that “more than satiate[s] her hunger for death,” these few but remarkable friends represent a chance to reconsider the End she is working toward.

At the center of Anna’s story–and of all these characters’ stories–are obsessions. “Images. Sounds. The Red Heifer. Bosch’s depiction of hell. A rock hitting a tree.” Anna’s mother is a deeply devoted pianist; her father is an earthquake nut, eagerly awaiting The Big One, in a secular obsession otherwise not unlike his daughter’s. LaPlante (Turn of Mind) masterfully weaves a distressing plot in which complex, sympathetic characters, each with a complete and absorbing past, are brought to the brink of destruction and then seemingly asked: What kind of life, and death, will you choose? The reader’s imagination will be won by this brilliant, thought-provoking and memorable novel. Coming of Age at the End of Days perfectly captures the dynamics of family relationships and friendships, loyalties and priorities, and the nuanced workings of an unusual mind.


This review originally ran in the July 23, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 times vermillion.

Maximum Shelf: The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on July 22, 2015.


gap of timeThe Hogarth Shakespeare project undertakes to reinvent the Bard’s classic works in novel form; the first installment is The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson (Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit; Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?), a “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale. In Shakespeare’s original, the kings of Sicilia and Bohemia are great friends until one accuses the other of sleeping with his wife. The jealous Leontes plots to murder his friend Polixenes, but misses his chance and instead takes out his rage on his pregnant wife, the queen Hermione. By the time his suspicions are proved false, he has lost both his son and his wife, and the baby girl Hermione gives birth to has disappeared. Leontes ordered the baby taken into the wilderness and abandoned, but the man he assigned this task died in the process, so the baby’s fate is unknown. Sixteen years later, a romance between Polixenes’s son and a beautiful, mysterious shepherd’s daughter may offer redemption and even a second chance.

The Gap of Time is set dually in modern London, just following the 2008 economic crisis, and the fictional American city of New Bohemia. Londoners Leo and Xeno were childhood friends and, for a time, lovers; as adults, despite very different values, the bohemian Xeno and the materialistic Leo have become business partners in Sicilia, a high-tech gaming company. Leo’s wife, MiMi, son, Milo, and his uber-capable assistant, Pauline, round out a highly functional, loving family of sorts, until Leo becomes obsessed with the idea that MiMi and Xeno are sleeping together. Leo reacts violently, and loses his son and wife. When he tries to ship MiMi’s baby daughter overseas to Xeno, whom he wrongly believes to be her father, the little girl goes missing.

In New Bohemia, Shep and his son, Clo, who run a piano bar, come across a carjacking too late to save its victim, after which Shep is able to pull a baby out of the nearby hospital’s BabyHatch, a high-tech receptacle for abandoned infants. He is convinced this child is a gift meant for him, to help him heal after his wife’s death, and raises the girl as his own. Her name, according to papers found with her, is Perdita. He could never conceal from her that she is adopted: Perdita is white, while Shep and Clo are black; but she grows up in a home filled with love and music, never doubting that she is wanted. As in the original, 16 years will pass before Perdita encounters a romantic interest who, though equally ignorant of their connected past, will lead to her learning about her origins.

A very brief recap of The Winter’s Tale at the beginning of the book informs the reader, so that no knowledge of the original is necessary to follow or enjoy this retelling. Indeed, The Gap of Time will please readers who have never given Shakespeare a second glance, as well as his committed fans. Winterson has fashioned the ideal remake: paying respect to the original and faithfully following many plot points, as well as the general spirit, she simultaneously builds upon it, not only making Shakespeare’s work accessible to modern minds but providing a freshly felt and relevant emotional experience.

Shakespeare’s sympathetic and intriguing plot involving several twists and changes of heart plays well with Winterson’s nuanced tone, while her characters are more multi-faceted than the originals. Leo is a deeply flawed man who nonetheless attracts the reader; Xeno is magnetic, beautiful and sensual; and MiMi is a woman of more complex feelings than the dignity Shakespeare gives Hermione. The next generation, Perdita and Zel, Xeno’s son, are appealing, with passions and interests of their own. It is Shep and Clo, though, Shakespeare’s nameless Shepherd and Clown, who get the most reworking, and to great advantage.

Most of The Gap of Time takes place in London and New Bohemia, but also visits Paris, the Seine and, of course, the bookshop Shakespeare and Company. As realistic as these settings are, it is the gaming world invented by Leo and Xeno that is most imaginative and vibrant. Leo is obsessed with the scene in Superman: The Movie where Superman zips round the world and turns back time to save Lois Lane. Their game is creative, vividly rendered and evocative of Xeno’s disappointment in what his life has become, as well as Leo’s preoccupation with the idea of time’s malleability. It is a game filled with angels of death, and it is called The Gap of Time.

As the title indicates, Winterson’s version of The Winter’s Tale plays with the concept of time even more than the original did, asking questions about what is changeable about our pasts and our futures. Leo wishes he could take back his madness and its consequences; Xeno wishes he’d handled it differently. This is a stirring tale filled with waste, simple mistakes and regrets. But as in the original, it also offers hope, young love and the possibility of new beginnings. In an unusual twist, Winterson herself steps forward in the final pages to speak in the first person about what she hopes for from this story–and then she steps back to allow her characters to finish it.


Rating: 7 feathers.
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