Tag Archives: literary fiction

Review: Renaissance, by Susan Fish

book cover: huge tree, stone wall, golden grass, blue sky

Renaissance, by Susan Fish (Raven, 2023)

First things first: this cover, on the paperback held in my hand, is absolutely gorgeous. The golden light (especially on the grass), the huge tree, the stone wall and clouds. It speaks rest to me, and warmth.

The story also brings rest. Evocative prose draws us into Liz’s struggles and into the beautiful Italian setting. If you haven’t (yet) experienced any mid-life reshapings of your identity, you’ve likely felt the hurt of being left out, misunderstood, or betrayed.

This is literary women’s fiction with an almost languid feel to it… never boring, just slowly and gently inviting readers in.

It’s a story of self-discovery, family, and forgiveness, with a thread of faith—wrapped up in a virtual tour of Florence, Italy. My only caution is there are a few pages of profanity near the end, catching both Liz and the reader off-guard. I understand why Liz surprises herself by lashing out in this way, and how she finds it entirely appropriate to the situation, but it jarred my peace and could be a deal-breaker for some.

Favourite line:

His words fell into a deep place in me, like olive oil finding every hole in a piece of bread, saturating it.

[page 57; context: Italian gardener was talking about pruning olive trees, while Liz sees a meaning for her own life from his words.]

For more about Canadian author and editor Susan Fish and her other books, visit her website. You can also see my reviews of two of her other books: Seeker of Stars and Ithaca.

[Review copy from the public library.]

Follow me on BookBub

Review: The Red Journal, by Deb Elkink

Book cover: The Red Journal, by Deb Elkink

The Red Journal, by Deb Elkink (The Mosaic Collective, 2019)

At 50, Libby has lived with her grandmother since childhood and is mourning Gram’s recent death. Her lifelong dream is to own her own home, away from the tenement where she’s been raised. She also longs to recreate Gram’s signature soup recipe—perhaps in hopes of restoring the sense of home Gram provided.

Her friend, Sibyl, is about 10 years younger and likes to think she’s found her security in spirituality and sensuality. Sibyl is convinced she knows what Libby needs while having no understanding of her friend’s grief.

Paige is a young woman working at the Laird Mansion Museum in the next state, pushing to finish her research paper before her baby arrives. She’s obsessed with finding a more personal side to the now-deceased MDM Laird and with clearing his name of hints of scandal.

The Red Journal is a carefully-imagined novel for the literary, even scholarly, reader who likes to chew over a novel and tease out its depths. Libby and Sibyl are each searching for sacred spaces in their own ways, and the heart of MDM Laird’s manor is another sacred space.

The story begins with Libby and Sibyl en route to visit the Laird Museum, and alternates this present with the recent past leading up to the journey. I would have found it an easier read in a linear timeline. Movement between multiple timelines is often done, and I’m not sure why it didn’t work for me here. It might be the short distance back in time, or the short duration of the “present” museum tour itself. Breaking the tour into sections may highlight the journey to the heart of the manor, and I’ve seen other readers commenting on enjoying the “dance” between timelines.

As well-written as each scene is, the novel felt long to me. I don’t think we needed as much of Libby’s soup-making and apartment-packing, Sibyl’s travels, or even as much depth in Paige’s research. I wonder, in fact, if the story needed Sibyl’s point of view at all. Possibly any key information in her scenes could have been introduced through Libby’s observations. As with a good soup, condensing could have strengthened the flavour, and readers would have still been able to observe two women’s very different searches for sacred space.

The novel also includes journal excerpts, perhaps to give readers extra clues to tease out the full story before Libby discovers it herself.

Sibyl’s point of view scenes often share rich memories of exotic travels, which will appeal to readers who love to travel (and armchair travellers). Her mashup of various spiritual beliefs shows its hollowness but might still sound appealing enough to lead seekers astray.

On the other side of belief, MDM Laird’s Bible-based faith has a few mentions and there’s some reference to God as “Father” near the end. The faith thread has enough hints for people who know their Bibles—even MDM’s name, Moses David Melchizidek—but biblical literacy is not a given for most mainstream readers.

I appreciated the chance to read about 40- and 50-year-old protagonists, as well as the (fictional) historical character MDM Laird’s exemplary relationships with the Native Americans he invited to dwell on his estate. His focus on keeping their families together was a refreshing counterpart to the true-life travesties imposed by both American and Canadian governments.

Deb Elkink is a skilled, award-winning author who writes at a deeper level than I can easily plumb. I’ve had to work harder than I like to figure this one out, and I’m not sure I have it yet. I think the concentric layout of the Laird Mansion Museum estate somehow connects with the choice of narrative structure, circling back upon itself.

The Red Journal has a strong sense of place, in the unfolding history of the land around the manor and in Sibyl’s vividly-rendered exotic travelogues, which feel like the author has visited in person. Although the characters sometimes frustrated me, I appreciated the ending.

Deb Elkink has also written The Third Grace (a novel) and Roots and Branches: The Symbolism of the Tree in the Imagination of G.K. Chesterton (nonfiction). For more about the author and her work, visit debelkink.com.

[Review copy from my personal library.]

Follow me on BookBub

Review: Ithaca, by Susan Fish

Ithaca, by Susan FishIthaca, by Susan Fish (Storywell, 2014)

When your life revolves around your husband and his work, what do you do when you have to start over? Alone?

Ithaca is a coming-of-age story—for a 59-year-old woman.

Daisy Turner’s husband, Arthur, was a professor at Cornell University. She typed his notes and kept his home. And made soup for a crowd every Wednesday.

They married young, and Daisy found fulfillment as a wife and mother. Now her son works overseas, and she’s a widow. And most of her friends are really Arthur’s friends.

She finds herself developing a friendship with a man who is slowly losing his wife to illness, and with a young woman who’s an environmental activist. Daisy surprises herself—and her son—by signing up for a university course to learn about fracking. She doesn’t know what it is, but the protest signs are everywhere, and she’d like to learn.

There’s so much to appreciate about this novel. Daisy seems quiet and ordinary, but it’s that very ordinariness that connects with readers. She’s candid about her grief, and the struggles it brings. We can identify. As her concern grows about the possible environmental danger from the fracking proposals, we can relate to this polite, reserved, non-activist who’s afraid that by doing nothing she’s surrendering the fight.

Most of us have concerns about some issue or another, and we know that feeling of helplessness. It’s interesting to watch Daisy discover how she fits into the bigger picture, how she can express her concerns in a way that’s true to who she is.

Ultimately, I think that’s what the story is about: finding—and being true to—one’s identity. Prepare to be charmed by Daisy, and by the town of Ithaca, NY, along the way.

Ithaca is a mainstream novel, and certain characters occasionally use mild profanity. Daisy herself was raised in the church, left for a time, but returned as an adult. Her faith shapes her life, but she’s still human and still open to making poor choices, as are we all.

Susan Fish writes beautifully and with an honesty I admire. Here are some of my favourite lines:

I needed the present to hold me very close because the past was threatening to engulf me. [p. 15]

Mondays were the days I stayed in my housecoat and watched hours of television shows, just to hear a human voice. [p. 19]

She carried loaves of bread from the restaurant like she was Miss America and they were her flowers. [p. 20, Daisy, about another friend]

I’m a farmer, Daisy Jane. I save my anger for what really matters. [p. 91: Carmel, the young activist. I love this perspective.]

Susan Fish is a Canadian author and editor as well as the principal of Storywell, an online resource for writers. You can find her blog at susanfishwrites.wordpress.com. If you missed the character interview I did with Daisy Turner, you can read it here.

[Review copy provided by the author.]

Follow me on BookBub

Review: The Devil Walks in Mattingly, by Billy Coffey

The Devil Walks in Mattingly, by Billy CoffeyThe Devil Walks in Mattingly, by Billy Coffey (Thomas Nelson, 2014)

Jake and his wife, Kate, live under long-held regrets centering around one of their high school classmates, Phillip. Phillip’s death 20 years ago was ruled a suicide, but Jake and Kate each believe they killed him.

Jake is sheriff of the small mountain town of Mattingly, VA. He took the job because he’s desperate for peace, not because he’s strong like his father was. When violence rocks his town, Jake is out of his depth.

Characters like Jake and Kate feel real yet a touch distant, as if we’re peering into another world. Others like the hermit Taylor, are even more distant yet eerily believable. This separation may be due in part to the multiple points of view (each one expertly rendered) and to the switch from third person to first for Jake’s viewpoint. It’s probably a good thing, too, because it lets us read without being overwhelmed by the characters’ pain.

Billy Coffey’s writing impressed me from the start. The novel has a haunting, lyrical feel, and I understand why one reviewer called the author a minstrel. This is not my type of story, but I found much to appreciate in its pages. It’s deeper, introspective, literary. A slow read, not a race.

The title says “horror” to me, but the devil in question is the sins of the townsfolk. It’s eerie and supernatural, but definitely not the “screamfest” type of horror.

The Devil Walks in Mattingly digs into those regrets we all hold, big or small, and reminds us that although we can never undo the past or earn a pardon, there is forgiveness and grace if we’ll stop holding onto the past.

Favourite lines:

Jake: “I came into this world pure and unblemished, but I will leave it bearing all of my scars. My comfort rests in a grace that will mold those scars into the jewels of my crown.” p. 3

Narrator: “Few people knew of Charlie Givens. Those who did agreed that not only was he born to trouble, but the sole purpose of his head was to keep rain out of his neck.” p. 26

Jake: “It’s our desire to be left alone that causes evil to flourish in this world.” p. 187

Jake: “None of us can write a new beginning to our story. All we can do is start a new end.” p. 328

You can learn about Billy Coffey and his writing on his website, and if you sign up for his newsletter you’ll receive the opening chapters of The Devil Walks in Mattingly for free. You can read a shorter sample on the publisher’s website. The Devil Walks in Mattingly takes place four years before one of Mr. Coffey’s previous novels, When Mockingbirds Sing.

[A review copy was received from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. I was in no way compensated for this review.]

Review: The Third Grace, by Deb Elkink

The Third Grace book coverThe Third Grace, by Deb Elkink (Greenbrier Book Company, 2011)

Aglaia Klassen is a thirty-something single woman developing a strong reputation in the world of costume design. Her goal: become a “seasoned urban artist” and find the inner peace that’s eluding her.

Born Mary Grace Klassen, she left that name behind with the family farm and the Mennonite faith of her childhood. ‘Aglaia’ is the name of one of the Three Graces in Greek mythology, and it connects her to a major root of her inner turmoil: François Vivier, the young French exchange student who spent a summer on the farm—and who left with her heart.

An upcoming business trip to Paris, and François’ sensual notes in an old Bible, bring the past into the present and Aglaia develops an obsession with finding Francois again. If she can see him now, perhaps she can put the past to rest and find her true identity.

The main influences in Aglaia’s life are Dr. Lou Chapman, a self-focused feminist who wants to lure her away from her employer to work for Lou’s upscale university, and Ebenezer MacAdam, Aglaia’s gentle boss who’s been quietly grooming her as his replacement.

Aglaia may not know who she is, but everyone else seems to know who they want her to be. Lou pushes, Eb suggests, and François’ notes reveal his own agenda. Author Deb Elkink presents each character as him/herself without commentary and without judgement and lets the reader worry over whether Aglaia will find herself—or be shaped into someone else’s version of reality.

The Third Grace is women’s fiction with the introspection of a literary novel, and the central characters are well-realized and strong of voice.

This is a thinking reader’s novel, although it will satisfy those of us who read mainly for the story. The characters of Lou and François see the Bible as only one of the many valid sources of myth, and Lou is selective in the mythology she uses to prove her own view of the universe.

Eb remembers his own questions along those lines, but he’s found his personal satisfaction in the Bible as truth and he knows it means more than vague philosophy. He’s not threatened, and he’s comfortable to pray for others without trying to argue them into his understanding.

The novel itself does not feel preachy or like a philosophical treatise (although Lou speaks that way because that’s who she is). It’s written by a Christian, perhaps more for wandering women than for those secure in the Kingdom, and portions of the content are more worldly than some Christian readers will find comfortable. Nothing is gratuitous, though, and each character’s thoughts and actions are true to who they are. That’s why the story worked so well for me even when bits were a bit out of my comfort zone.

The Third Grace is the story of one woman’s journey to reconcile with her past and find herself in the present.

You can learn more about Canadian author Deb Elkink at her website, or check out her blog, Rolled Scroll.

[Advance review copy provided by the Greenbrier Book Company in exchange for a fair review.]