The Kind Worth Killing – Peter Swanson

kindworthI have been in a bit of a reading slump this year – which seems like a ridiculous thing to say considering we are only two months in. The first couple of books I read at the start of 2017 were lackluster at best, and I just haven’t been able to find my reading groove. Peter Swanson’s The Kind Worth Killing may have actually changed all that.

Lily Kintner and Ted Severson meet in a bar at Heathrow. Over martinis,  Ted discloses a few details about his life including the fact that he thinks his wife, Miranda, is having an affair with Brad,  the contractor that is building their dream home in a coastal town in Maine.

Ted admits to Lily that he wants to kill his wife. Perhaps even more unusual, Lily offers to help. It might take a teensy bit of suspension of disbelief to believe that a cuckolded husband would meet a beautiful woman in a bar in a foreign country who expresses a desire to help him plan his wife’s murder, but stranger things have surely happened.

Once on the plane, Lily suggests that “…since we’re on a plane, and it’s a long flight, and we’re never going to see each other again, let’s tell each other the absolute truth. About everything.” During the trans-Atlantic flight, the two reveal tidbits both mundane and philosophical. Lily remarks: “…everyone is going to die eventually. If you killed your wife you would only be doing to her what would happen anyway. And you’d save other people from her. She’s a negative.”

Lily isn’t quite as forthcoming about her life as Ted is about his. Her story is revealed in alternating chapters. The daughter of  bohemian academics, Lily is an intelligent, thoughtful child. Through her eyes, we learn about growing up in “Monk’s House,” a Victorian mansion  deep in the Connecticut woods, about an hour from New York City.

There was never only one guest at Monk’s House, especially in the summertime when my parents’ teaching duties died down and they could focus on what they truly loved –  drinking and adultery. I don’t say that in order to make some sort of tragedy of my childhood. I say it because it’s the truth.

Lily has a skewed morality, but it’s the very thing that makes her such a fascinating character. She’s a charming psychopath, and it’s almost impossible not to like her, to root for her, even. She’s  – by far –  the most interesting of cast of characters in Swanson’s novel. She reminded me a little bit of Alice Morgan, a character in the brilliant BBC crime series, Luther. (If you haven’t ever seen the show, you must watch it immediately. It’s on Netflix.)

There are twists and turns aplenty in The Kind Worth Killing. The plot did unravel slightly for me towards the end, but that in no way undermined my enjoyment of the shenanigans these people got up to.

The Kind Worth Killing was a whim purchase for me. I needed a book for my book club and this one was popular on Litsy. I am pleased to report that everyone in my group really enjoyed the book, even though it was definitely a departure from the sort of stuff we normally read.

This is a page-turner.

The Possessions – Sara Flannery Murphy

Eurydice (Edie) is a “body” for the Elysian Society. As a body, she works with clients who possessions1seek to speak with loved ones they have lost. Dressed in a simple white dress, she sits in Room 12 and once in possession of an item belonging to the deceased, she swallows a lotus – a pill that  summons the spirits of the deceased – and the living communes with the dead. That’s the general principle of Sara Flannery Murphy’s debut novel The Possessions.

Edie has been working at the Elysian Society for five years, a long time for a body. She leads a very quiet, private life. “Since I joined the Elysian Society,” she says, “my emotions have evolved. They’ve gone from unwieldy to finely attuned. ready to snap into nothingness.”

That ability, to become a blank slate, is perhaps one of the reasons that Edie has been able to do this job for as long as she has. But then Patrick Braddock walks into her life. Patrick wants to speak with his wife, Sylvia. She drowned in a lake. The circumstances of Sylvia’s death are part of what propels the plot forward, but the relationship between Patrick and Edie is definitely the driving force.

Although Edie tells Patrick that she is not privy to the conversations that take place between a client and their loved ones, the line between Edie and Sylvia definitely blurs.

I was evasive with Patrick in Room 12 today. The truth is that Sylvia’s memories have lingered. One image in particular, clear and deep. I remember Patrick’s hand against me, at my waist. The golden hairs at his wrist, his long fingers holding the ghost of a summer tan. One or two fingernails endearingly frayed, as if he bites them when no one is watching. I could reach right into the memory, interlace my fingers with his. Feel the light calluses of his fingertips.

Before long, Edie and Patrick’s professional relationship crosses a line and Edie experiences the burgeoning weight of desire. As it often does, it clouds her judgment and drives her to find out what really happened to Sylvia.

The Possessions is a well-written literary hybrid: part mystery, part sci fi (the world seemed slightly off-kilter to me, not the far future but certainly not present day), part love story. It is certainly intriguing and yet…I found it slow going.

Edie’s past is a mystery. Her past is certainly alluded to, but we don’t learn much about her until the very end of the novel and by then it feels more like expository backfill. She’s really a non-entity and that makes it difficult to feel any empathy for her.

Patrick fares only a little bit better. As the grief-stricken husband trying to move on, he’s serviceable enough. Ultimately, neither he nor Edie are well-rounded enough to make me root for their relationship.

So in the plus column: great writing, intriguing plot, lots of potential. In the minus column: slow-moving, lackluster characters, some clunky plot machinations.

That said, Sara Flannery Murphy is definitely an author to keep your eye on.

Thanks to Harper Collins for my review copy and to TLC Book Tours for the chance to participate in this tour.

 

I’ll Give You The Sun- Jandy Nelson

This is us. Our pose. The smush. It’s even how we are in the ultrasound photo they took of us inside Mom…Unlike most everyone else on earth, from the very first cell of us, we were together, we came here together.

20820994That’s almost-fourteen-year-old Noah, one of the twins who narrates  Jandy Nelson’s remarkable YA novel I’ll Give You the Sun. Alternating between Noah and his sister, Jude, who tells her part of the story at age sixteen, the novel traces the siblings’ journey from innocence to experience.

Jude and Noah are artists who dream of getting into California School of the Arts (CSA).  Their parents, both professors, are going through something neither understands. Noah observes “Dad used to make Mom’s eyes shine; now he makes her grind her teeth. I don’t know why.” The summer they turn fourteen, though, their world is rocked by tragedy.

When Jude picks up the story, it is clear that whatever closeness the twins shared has leeched away, their “twin-telepathy long gone…because of all that’s happened, we avoid each other – worse, repel each other.”

Jude and Noah are both eccentric as heck. Jude channels the spirit of her dead Grandma Sweetwine. She’s a self-proclaimed bible thumping klutz who is boycotting all boys because of a traumatic experience she had with Zephyr, the three-years-older than her surf god who “made [her] feel faint every time he spoke to [her].” Noah has his own issues. For one, he paints in his head – elaborate pictures that he’s never told anyone about, not even Jude when they were speaking.  Then there’s Brian, the boy next door. And Noah’s strained relationship with his father who wants him to man up. When the unthinkable happens and Jude is accepted into CSA and Noah is not, the rift between the twins grows larger. It takes a long time before either realizes that the secrets they’d been keeping in an effort to protect each other were, in fact, part of the reason they were estranged.

I’ll Give You The Sun is one of those amazing (and rare) YA novels that actually treats its target audience like they are intelligent (which as a high school teacher, I can tell you with certainty, they are). Everything from the novel’s narrative structure, to its examination of art, love, grief, jealousy, personal happiness versus personal responsibility,  and family dynamics is designed to make you think and question.

Once you’ve settled into the twins’ strange world, you will fall in love with them. They are resilient, brilliant, and endlessly fascinating. They are also just barely hanging on on their own and when Jude finally lets her heart break “Noah is there, strong and sturdy, to catch me, to hold me through it, to make sure I’m safe.”

Jandy Nelson writes beautiful books (check out her first exceptional novel The Sky is Everywhere) peopled with flawed and  totally sympathetic characters. That says nothing of the beautiful prose – resplendent language that spills out of every page. I’ll Give You The Sun is deserving of its copious praise and numerous awards. Jude and Noah will certainly stay with me in the days ahead.

Highly recommended.

A Step Toward Falling – Cammie McGovern

astepAlthough Belinda and Emily, the alternating narrators of Cammie McGovern’s excellent YA novel A Step Toward Falling, attend the same high school, the two girls couldn’t be more unalike.  Belinda is twenty-one and spends her days in the Life Skills class with other students who have physical  or developmental disabilities. Emily is a high school senior who co-chairs her school’s Youth Action Coalition with her gay bff, Richard, but hasn’t ever really taken a stand, preferring to work behind-the-scenes..

At a high school football game, Belinda is attacked and Emily witnesses the event and does nothing – not because she’s a horrible person, far from it, but because her “brain couldn’t process what it was seeing.” Anyway, in the next instant she sees Lucas, one of the school’s football players, running from under the bleachers and she is sure he saved Belinda. The fact that he did nothing either, sends Lucas and Emily to the Lifelong Learning Centre where they must volunteer with young adults who have  a variety of  developmental disabilities.

As for Belinda, she retreats to the safety of her home where she lives with her mother and grandmother. She watches Pride and Prejudice, and avoids talking about what happened to her because according to her Nan “what’s done is done, sweetheart. The important thing is you’re home now and you’re safe. You never have to go back to that school or see those people again as far as I’m concerned.”

Navigating high school is hard enough, but everything about the girls’ journey – albeit different –  feels  honest. Belinda is in love with Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy. She is quite sure that he is watching her from the television screen, and she’s “pretty sure he loves me, too.”  Belinda’s innocence is what protects her from understanding that Ron, one of the football team’s star players, doesn’t actually care for her, even though he asked her to dance at a Best Buddies event.

Emily has spent all of high school hiding out in the library. She watches the table of football players and their picture-perfect cheerleader girlfriends and dreams about a post-high school life where everything will be better.

Lucas, who is seen only through Emily’s eyes, is huge and “a little scary-looking.” But, like all the characters in McGovern’s novel, there is more to him than first meets the eye.  And that’s kind of the point. How can we ever truly know someone if we never bother to talk to them, try to understand them or  extend the branch of friendship?

McGovern’s novel might have veered into ‘preachy-ness’ had it not been for the authentic voices of Belinda and Emily. I loved spending time with these girls. I loved how Emily and Lucas made a genuine effort to make amends and, in the process, became better people. There is certainly a lesson here, but it doesn’t feel instructive as much as it feels heartfelt and human.

Highly recommended.

Gearing up for another reading year

Listen here.

So, a new year means a new year of reading and there’s nothing I like more than flipping my calendar over and anticipating all the great new books that might cross my path. A lot of my reading friends sign up for reading challenges and there are lots of them out there if you’re looking to expand your reading horizons.

Pop Sugar offers up a great list of suggestions for its reading challenge – everything from “a book set in a hotel” (The Shining, anyone?) and “a book with pictures” – here’s your opportunity to read a graphic novel. There’s also an advanced challenge which includes “a book over 800 pages” or “a book recommended by a librarian.”

Book Riot offers up the Read Harder Challenge  for people who want to challenge themselves to up their reading game.

Goodreads also offers a reading challenge. If you are already a member of GoodReads, you’ll know this one. There’s no list to follow, you just set a reading goal – I’ll read 50 books this year- and then track them. 50 Book Pledge offers the same sort of thing, if you’re just interested in tracking books read. It’s kind of cool to see them all on a shelf and you can give yourself a part on the back when you reach your reading goal. I didn’t actually set a goal last year – I didn’t want the pressure, but I managed to read 60 books in 2016. Yay me.

If you are at all interested in directing your reading a little bit, or try reading new genres, just Google Reading Challenges 2017 and everything from reading Austen to reading the alphabet will pop up.

Another thing I like about the new year is the buzz around new books…not that I need any new books, mind you, but I still enjoy the potential for new books.

Some particularly intriguing book titles include:

little-heaven-9781501104213_hrCanadian Nick Cutter aka Craig Davidson is the author of the very disturbing novels The Deep and one I read a couple years ago called The Troop. His latest horror novel Little Heaven is getting a lot of buzz. It’s about three hired guns who go to rescue a woman’s nephew from a remote New Mexico settlement called Little Heaven. Stephen King said it scared the hell out of him and that he couldn’t put it down. I almost chose this book for my book club, but I didn’t want to freak my reading friends out. I can definitely vouch for Cutter, though. The Troop is total squicky fun and I will definitely be adding this one to my tbr list.

Fans of Paula Hawkins novel The Girl on the Train will be delighted to know that her second novel Into the Water willintowater be hitting the shelves in May. All I can tell you about it is that it features a single mother and her daughter whose bodies are discovered at the bottom of a lake. I’m not sure that The Girl on the Train was the best of the bunch of thrillers that came out over the past couple years. If I were you, I’d add Claire Macintosh’s killer I Let You Go to my list…but since I’ve already read it, I’m looking forward to her second novel I See You.

Non fiction readers should be on the look-out for Sherman Alexie’s collection of essays and poems about his mother, with whom he had an emotionally fraught relationship. It’s called You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me and it’s due out in June. Before you read that, though, I encourage you to read Alexie’s amazing YA novel The Absolutely True Story of a Part Time Indian. Not only has it win lots of praise, it also has the distinction of being one of the most challenged books. It’s so good.

And most exciting of all, Celeste Ng’s follow up to Everything I Never Told You – my absolute favourite novel of 2016 – will be out at some point this year. There’s very little information about it other than the title, Little Fires Everywhere, but when it comes out it’s going straight to the top of my reading pile.

all-the-bright-places-jktAs for YA – because you know I am always on the lookout for the next YA book I can gush about to my students…I am going to cheat a little and suggest you add a book to your reading list that I have already read. That book is Jennifer Niven’s novel All the Bright Places. It is the story of high school seniors Finch and Violet who meet at the top of the school’s bell tower. They are both at dark places in their lives, but Finch manages to talk Violet down. The thing, though, is that Violet is beautiful and “cheerleader popular” and Finch is, well, kinda odd. Nevertheless, this shared experience and a school project throw them together and they become friends and then more than friends and OMG, this book will give you all. the. feels. It deals with mental health, grief, bullying, family dynamics…and it is so beautifully written. And it’s going to be a movie. So excited.

Niven started out writing general fiction and All the Bright Places was her first YA novel. Her second YA novel Holding Up The Universe also sounds terrific.

Finally, one more YA book you should add to your TBR list: A Step Toward Falling byastep Cammie McGovern. It’s the story of what happens after super smart Emily and a football player called Lucas fail to stop an attack on Belinda – a young adult with developmental delays – at a high school football game. Emily and Belinda take turns telling their story and the voices are pretty awesome. It’s  a ‘message’ novel without being preachy and would certainly be a welcome novel in any classroom library.

Good luck with your reading list. I’d love to hear how you make out.

The Best Kind of People – Zoe Whittall

I have never returned a book to the bookstore before. In the past, if I read a book and the-best-kind-of-people_jpg_size_custom_crop_427x650didn’t like  it, I would normally just donate it to goodwill. Zoe Whittall’s The Best Kind of People comes with Heather Reisman’s money back guarantee, though. Reisman is the CEO of Indigo, Canada’s largest book retailer. If she endorses a book with her Heather’s Pick sticker and you don’t like it, you can return the book – no questions asked – for a full refund. So, that’s where The Best Kind of People is going.

Although I was intrigued by the premise of Whittall’s novel, there were some negative reviews on Litsy and so I didn’t purchase it. Then it was chosen as our book club book and I had no choice but to read it.

George Woodbury is a local hero in Avalon Hills, a sleepy bedroom community in Connecticut.

George could be recognized by his trademark brown tweed jackets with the corduroy elbow pads, and his perpetual armload of books and papers. Everybody knew him, from school or from the many boards and committees he sat on. He was a fixture in town. He remained the man from Woodbury Lake who saved the children.

Ten years ago, George stopped a lone gunman who entered a school to kill his girlfriend. Now George is a beloved and respected teacher at the local private school. George has the added privilege of being extremely wealthy because of his father’s business acumen: doctor turned real estate tycoon. His two children, adult lawyer Andrew, who lives in New York City with his partner, Jared, and seventeen-year-old, Sadie, are used to being part of the inner circle. Joan, George’s wife, is a nurse who dotes on George and loves him without question. Until there’s something to question.

And there is. In present day, the police come to the Woodbury estate to arrest George for “sexual misconduct with four minors, attempted rape of a minor.” Of course, everyone believes it’s a huge misunderstanding. George assures his wife that “it’s just an error.” But it’s an error that throws everything Joan has ever believed about her marriage and her life into question. It also throws Andrew and Sadie’s life into turmoil.

It’s a pretty good hook for a book. And it might have been a pretty good book, too, if Whittall had written characters that were even remotely believable.  There’s the “stand by your man” wife who is so overwhelmed she lets her daughter move in with her boyfriend, Jimmy, and his mother. There’s Andrew, the angry gay son who races to his mother’s side but who hates the small-minded town he grew up in. (The town, by the way, where he came of age in a relationship with one of his teachers.) There’s Clara, Joan’s shrill sister who used to be a “staple on the 1990s New York City party scene.” There’s Kevin, the parasitic writer who lives with Jimmy’s mother. There’s Amanda, Sadie’s supposed best friend who and whose younger sister is one of the complainants. Her comment to Sadie: “I know your dad is a fuckin’ perv and all, but you don’t have to act like I’m dead.”

The dialogue is one of the things that irked me the most about Whittall’s narrative. I read whole sections out loud to my son because it was just so…unrealistic. For example, when Kevin moves out of the house, Elaine, Jimmy’s mother explains his absence by saying: “Right now he’s staying at the Hilton while we work through some…grown-up issues.” It’s a ridiculous comment to make to the son for whom she is providing condoms and looking the other way while he sleeps with Sadie.

The Best Kind of People offered a good opportunity to raise all sorts of questions…without being didactic (which the book often is). Instead, wooden people moved through a series of hoops towards a conclusion which is neither satisfying or brave.

Don’t waste your time.

Where They Found Her – Kimberly McCreight

9200000033245456I’ve had a slow start to the 2017 reading year. Usually I power though a handful of books over the Christmas break, but this year I tended to binge-watch Netflix (The Fall – check it out if you haven’t already seen it) and sleep. I have about a half-dozen novels started, but none of them really grabbed me. Although it rarely happens to me, I’ve been in the book doldrums. I needed something to grab me by the throat and swing me back into reading gear. I chose what I was sure was going to be a winner, but I was disappointed. I did finish though.

Where They Found Her is the second book by Brooklyn-based novelist Kimberly McCreight. I read her debut novel, Reconstructing Amelia last year and loved it. It was one of those books that you just couldn’t put down and was well-written to boot. A literary win-win. Where They Found Her didn’t work for me at all.

When the body of an infant is found floating in the creek at Essex Bridge, Molly Anderson gets the call to check it out. She’s the Lifestyles reporter for the Ridgedale Reader and crime wouldn’t normally be her beat, but she’s the only one available to cover the story.

Molly’s at a fragile point in her life. She and her husband, Justin, are new in Ridgedale, a bedroom community in New Jersey. Justin teaches English at the local college and their daughter, Ella, is in kindergarten. Life is just starting to settle down after the death of Molly’s unborn baby, so the discovery that the body at the creek is also an infant is almost more than Molly can handle. She’s plucky, though.

On the other -shittier – side of town lives sixteen-year-old Sandy and her floozy of a mother, Jenna. Sandy is the adult in that relationship. She loves her mother, but she’s also tired of being the adult.

Barbara is the Stepford-wife of Steve, the town’s police chief. Her daughter, Hannah, is tutoring Sandy so that Sandy can graduate. Her young son, Cole, has been sucking all the oxygen from the room with his odd behavior.

Although it won’t be immediately obvious how the lives of these women intersect, their paths will cross and that’s when the gears started to grind for me. (It took me about 100 pages just to keep all the names straight – and that’s only a slight exaggeration.)

In all the ways that Reconstructing Amelia was a tightly focused story about a mother and daughter who are close, but still keep secrets from each other, Where They Found Her borders on melodrama. As Molly starts to unravel the identity of the baby and what happened to her, the reader will, too. There’s a fair share of red herrings, but everything gets tidied up in the end.

I turned the pages (once I got going), but I can’t say that I cared very much about any of the players and, for me, that’s one of the failings of McCreight’s novel. Where They Found Her just didn’t resonate on any level with me. I’m definitely in the minority, though. Critics loved it.

So – decent mystery (red herrings and tidy-ending aside). McCreight can certainly write and I would definitely read her again. But Where They Found Her was only so-so for me.