A Peculiar Grace – Jeffrey Lent

peculiargraceIt took me forever to finish Jeffrey Lent’s highly praised novel A Peculiar Grace. Forever. Just under 400 pages, it felt twice as long because Lent’s prose is just shy of purple and nothing happens. Nothing. Well, okay, that’s not exactly true. Stuff happens.

40-something Hewitt Pearce is leading a solitary life in the Vermont house he inherited from his father. Hewitt’s a blacksmith, a prickly artistic type who “had to sit there a while to see if  it was a day for iron or not. This was the essence of what his customers perceived as a great problem – the fact he refused to state a deadline however vague.”  A sign near his forge’s door states: “If you want it done your way learn how to do it & make it yourself. Your commission is not my vision.”

Well, okay then.

Into Hewitt’s insular life comes 20-something Jessica. Her VW breaks down on Hewitt’s property and he offers her something to eat and a place to clean up. So she pretty much moves in. Jessica isn’t 100% emotionally secure, and Hewitt is 100% emotionally closed off so anything that’s going to happen between them is going to be a long time coming. (No pun intended.)

There are complications. Hewitt’s still hung up on Emily, a girl he met and loved many years ago. She’d married someone else and Hewitt has worshipped and brooded from afar ever since. There are also some family skeletons including  a famous painter father, and  an older sister Hewitt’s on the outs with.  Then Emily’s husband dies and Hewitt decides it’s time to make his feelings known to her once more, but really – can these two crazy middle-aged kids overcome their past and make it? And what about Jessica?

I kept reading. I don’t know why. When Hewitt’s mother, sister and niece arrived for a visit and these family members started talking to each other it was bizarre. People don’t actually talk to each other like this, do they?

“Jesus mother. Don’t you flush?”

“I certainly do. …And haven’t you heard about conserving water? Speaking of which you need to change the gaskets in the faucets of the tub and sink upstairs. At Broad Oakes they sent around a pamphlet about the unnecessary use of water. And not just because of the drought but because there’s long-term stress on the aquifers all over the U.S. and people still want green lawns in August”

“I don’t think so, girlie. Whatever nonsense you’re up to here I want to be able to watch your face when it comes out.”

By the time Hewitt and Jessica (and Emily and Hewitt’s sister)  finally work out their messy and strangely overwrought lives,  I had reader’s fatigue. Partly it had to so with the stylistic nature of Lent’s prose – weirdly fragmented and dense – and partly it had to do with not really caring very much about any of these people.

The Lost Boy – Greg Ruth

lostboyGreg Ruth has a successful career as a writer and comic book artist and has worked for Dark Horse Comics, DC/Vertigo and even illustrated Barack Obama’s picture book Our Enduring Spirit.

I saw The Lost Boy sitting on a shelf at Indigo and thought it looked and sounded interesting and as I am always on the hunt for graphic novels to add to my small but growing collection, I added it to my shopping bag.

The Lost Boy is the story of Nate who moves to a new town and a new house with his parents. His father tells him that he gets to choose any room he wants and upon a desultory inspection of the rooms upstairs Nate finds an old tape recorder under a loose floor board. Even more strange, there’s a note with his name on it which simply says: Find him.

The tape recorder belongs to Walter Pidgin and when Nate presses play he hears the voice of Walter, a boy about the same age as Nate.

“These are the facts,” Walter’s voice says. “Six dogs and three cats have gone missing in the past ten weeks. The pattern is too deliberate to be coyotes.”

Walter tells his tape recorder that something ‘unnatural’ is at work in Crow’s Woods and it turns out he’s right.

lostboy2 When Nate meets Tabitha, a girl down the street, she’s able to tell him that Walter went missing many years before and when the ‘otherworld’ starts encroaching on the real worl, Nate and Tabitha decide that they need to go into the woods to find out just what happened to Walter.

I found myself getting confused by the players – and maybe that’s because there’s this complicated world which is unveiled by talking dolls and bugs. Cool, but a perhaps too convoluted for one reading. I liked the art in The Lost Boy better than I liked the story, actually – although the story had a lot of potential.

Nevertheless, a worthy and intriguing additiong to my classroom library.

The Cuckoo’s Calling – Robert Galbraith

cuckooDespite the fact that my children, my daughter in particular, are over-the-top Harry Potter fans, I have only ever read the first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. When my daughter was really little, say four or five, I had tried to read the book to her and I just couldn’t do it.  I did end up reading it out loud to a grade nine class a couple of years ago and they loved it; so did I.

That said, I wasn’t really looking forward to tackling J.K. Rowling’s massive post Potter novel, The Casual Vacancy, when it was one of last year’s book club selections. That book ended up being a really pleasant surprise, however,  and proved once and for all (as if being one of  the best-selling authors of all time wasn’t proof enough) that Ms. Rowling can write the hell out of a story.

My book club recently met to discuss Rowling’s mystery novel The Cuckoo’s Calling, which Rowling wrote using the pseudonym, Robert Galbraith. (There’s an interesting article about her decision to do so here. ) By the time we got to the book, though, the gig was up and we already knew Rowling had penned the book.

Cormoran Strike, the novel’s protagonist, is a former soldier who lost a leg below the knee to a land mine in Afghanistan. Now he lives in London where he works – although not very successfully – as a private investigator.  His relationship with Charlotte has just ended badly – again. He’s broke and living in his office. And then John Bristow arrives with a case for him.

Bristow is the brother of Strike’s childhood friend, Charlie, who had died when they were kids. He’s also the brother of Lula Landry, the most famous model on the planet. Landry recently committed suicide, but John believes something more sinister happened and wants Strike to investigate.

Of course, it’s really impossible to say much more about the story without giving away important plot points. Suffice it to say that as far as the ‘detective’ part of the novel goes – there’s lots to keep mystery-lovers in the game.

Rowling’s real strength as a writer is characterization. And as I tell the students in my writing class – character is the most important thing anyway; they are what drives your plot.

The Cuckoo’s Calling is chock-a-block with characters of all sorts, the most important of which is Cormoran Strike himself.

The reflection staring back at him was not handsome. Strike had the high, bulging forehead, broad nose and thick brows of a young Beethoven who had taken to boxing, an impression only heightened by the swelling and blackening eye. His thick curly hair, springy as carpet, had ensured that his many youthful nicknames had included “Pubehead.” He looked older than his thirty-five years.

Although the women at book club couldn’t agree on whether we found Strike attractive or not (trying to cast him in a movie version was hysterical), we all agreed that he was super-smart and that’s always the sexiest thing anyway.

Strike and his office temp, Robin (who is pretty smart herself) work their way through the list of Lula Landry associates, turning over rocks in an effort to understand the model and the world she inhabited. It makes for a pretty compelling tale.

The best endorsement I can offer for The Cuckoo’s Calling is this: I bet we’ll be seeing Cormoran again and since he’s a character I can’t seem to stop thinking about, I welcome the opportunity to join him on his next case.

The Missing Girl – Norma Fox Mazer

missing girlIt’s a total fluke that I am writing my review of Norma Fox Mazer’s last novel, The Missing Girl, on the anniversary of her death. She died on October 17, 2009 and although she was a very well-known and highly regarded young adult novelist, The Missing Girl was my introduction to her writing. In a career that spanned over 40 years, Mazer wrote over 30 books including Newbery Honor Book, After the Rain and National Book Award Finalist A Figure of Speech.

The Missing Girl is the story of the five Hebert sisters: Beauty, Mim, Faithful, Fancy and Autumn. They live with their out of work father, Poppy, and slightly air-headed mother, Blossom, in Mallory, New York.  Beauty, the eldest at 17, dreams of graduating high school and fleeing Mallory.

When she left Mallory, it would be for Chicago, which she had first heard about from Mr. Giametti, her seventh-grade language arts teacher who gre up there. She was going to a place where no one knew her, a place where she could become whoever it was she was meant to be…

The Hebert family dynamics would actually be quite enough to make The Missing Girl a compelling read, but Mazer had something else in mind.

If the man is lucky, in the morning on his way to work, he sees the girls. A flock of them, like birds.

Slight of build, stoop shouldered, wearing a gray coat, a gray scarf around his neck against the cold, his wire-rimmed glasses set firmly on his nose, minding his own business, he could be any man, any respectable, ordinary man.

But there is nothing ordinary about this man. He is watching the sisters carefully, biding his time, waiting for the perfect moment. The reader knows it’s coming. The girls are unaware. They have their own issues and petty grievances with each other. Their lives are chaotic and slightly ramshackle.

What struck me about The Missing Girl was the quality of the prose and the very authentic voices of the characters. Employing first, second and third person points of view, Mazer manages to create compelling lives for all the girls and without anything gratuitous makes their “admirer” a creepy predator.

Mazer said she came to write The Missing Girl via a series of short stories about the Hebert sisters which she wrote for various anthologies. It wasn’t until she lost her daughter to cancer in 2001, though, that she settled in to write this novel. “Her death was unbearable,” Mazer said,” “but of course I bear it. I must. Yet below the surface of my life, her loss remains unbearable and will always remain so.

“I still do not understand this fully, but it seems to me that after her death I was compelled to write about something hard, difficult – you might call it unbearable – and to name that ‘something’ with the three words that name my grief, my loss, my sorrow: the missing girl.”

Hemlock – Kathleen Peacock

HemlockSo this rarely happens to me. The other night, after I turned my light off, I couldn’t turn my brain off and so I stared at the shapes in my room until 1 a.m.. Then I turned my light back on and raced through the final 100 or so pages of Kathleen Peacock’s debut novel, Hemlock.

Seventeen-year-old Mackenzie ‘Mac’ Dobson lives with her cousin, Tess, in the small town of Hemlock.  Her close knit circle of friends, Jason, Kyle and Amy, have recently been reduced by one: Amy was found dead in an alley, victim of a werewolf attack.

Those pesky werewolves, always maiming and eating.

Mac is suffering from very disturbing dreams brought on, she believes, by a guilty conscience. Amy had called her the night she’d died, but Mac had blown her off so she could study. But her grief and guilt are compounded by other issues: her growing feelings for her best friend, Kyle; Jason’s increasingly erratic behaviour after the death of his girlfriend, Amy, and the arrival of the Trackers, specialized werewolf hunters. On top of all this, Mac decides she is going to figure out what really happened to Amy on the night she was attacked.

There’s a lot going on in Hemlock – the town and the book. Here’s what I liked:

– I liked the fact that the whole werewolf thing just ‘is’. Werewolves exist, let’s move on. In Peacock’s version of the lore, anyone  who is scratched or bitten by a werewolf (at least those that survive the attack) become infected with lupine syndrome. Those people are captured – where it is possible to find them – and sent to rehabilitation camps. (I immediately thought of the Nazis rounding up the Jews and whether this comparison was Peacock’s intention or not, it actually works on all sorts of levels.)

– I also liked how there were werewolf supporters, sort of a ‘live and let live’ faction, which means that anyone who shares this view is also in danger of persecution, thus upping the stakes for a whole bunch of other characters. Mac is decidedly on the fence about this issue:

…I knew not all werewolves were good. Some of them did attack and kill people. And one of them had killed Amy. But Charles Manson, the kids from Columbine, that guy with the Kool-Aid – regs did horrible things to each other, too.

– I liked how propulsive the narrative was. I think Peacock really excelled at moving things along, especially when it came to fight scenes, or scenes where the wolves transformed from human to wolf.

– I liked Peacock’s sense of humour. Sometimes the dialogue made me chuckle.

But here’s my problem. Werewolves.

werewolf2I have no problem with fantasy worlds built around creatures of the night. I have a healthy imaginary life which involves virile vampires. Trust me, I get it. But I don’t get werewolves. There’s nothing sexy about them. Or particularly sympathetic, even. (Yeah, I know, they didn’t ask for this life.)

I was invested in Mac’s quest to find out the truth about Amy. I was less invested in her love triangle, a sort of Bella, Edward, Jacob thing. There was something contrived about it that just didn’t work for me. Bottom line: I didn’t care about them. Jason’s a douche. Kyle is in full-on push pull mode. Both have their reasons; all will be revealed, but I never settled into a space where I wanted her to be with either particularly and that’s a problem in a paranormal romance.

And I felt like there was perhaps a tad too much going on in the opening book of a trilogy. Love. Duplicity. Politics. Family issues. Murder and Werewolves. All the pieces click together neatly by the end though and will leave fans howling for Hemlock‘s sequel. Thornhill.

thornhillI have had the pleasure of ‘meeting’ Kathleen Peacock – virtually. She graciously agreed to speak to students at last year’s Write Stuff workshop. We linked Kathleen via the Internet and had Riel Nason, author of The Town That Drowned with us at the venue and both authors talked to the participants about the perils and rewards of writing. It was really exciting for me and for the students, too. How often do you get to talk to published writers? Kathleen is funny and smart and honest in person – well, you know what I mean. She’s also geeky, which appeals to me. I predict she has a long and successful writing career ahead of her.