Breathless – Jessica Warman

breathlessA few months back I read Jessica Warman’s novel, Between, and although I didn’t love it straight off it definitely grew on me. A student in my writing class saw Breathless on my bookshelf and told me that I had to read it next. All I can say is that I kept reading for her because there’s really nothing to recommend this book.

Breathless was written when Warman herself was just out of high school and sadly, that’s how it reads. The novel is apparently semi-autobiographical and tells the story of Katie Kitrell, a fifteen-year-old championship swimmer with an alcoholic mother, workaholic father and psychopathic older brother.  When her brother, Will, goes off the deep end again, Katie’s parents make the decision to send her off to boarding school. Breathless ends up cramming every possible teenage trope into its 331 pages: friendship, drinking, religion, sex, drugs, wealth, first love, jealousy, mean girls and damaged girls etc etc.

The characterization is all over the place, too. At the beginning of the novel Katie seems to almost idolize her brother. They spend hours on the roof of their house smoking and talking, but Katie can always sense “his emotional axis shifting a little, off-kilter. It’s something I’ve come to call privately the kaleidoscope pf crazy- shimmering and beautiful in certain lights, paisley and horrifying in others.”

Her parents seem unable to cope. Her father, a doctor, just works more and her mother paints and drinks. In no way is Katie’s family functional.

Once she goes off to school the focus shifts away from her family and we are forced to endure 1) the bitchy pretty girl with whom everyone wants to be friends and her 2) nice but kowtowing friend and 3) Katie’s MIA roommate who suddenly shows up but barely says a word and 4) the most perfect boy in the world who just happens to fall in love with Katie.

Nothing happens, though. This is a coming-of-age story and there are some lovely moments here (it’s clear that Warman has talent) but Breathless  is in desperate need of an editor. It’s biceps not bicep and the glaring error in this sentence almost made me shut the book for good “…all of our hands, white gloves pulled taught  and flawless over out fingers-” Who is editing books these days anyway?

Warman clearly had a story to tell and even at a young age, she had the ability to tell it, but the novel’s uneven characterization and bloodless plot made this a miss for me.

Keep Holding On – Susane Colasanti

keepholdingonNoelle, the narrator of Susane Colasant’s YA novel Keep Holding On,  is just trying to make it through high school so that she can get the hell out of Dodge. (Dodge isn’t actually the name of the town where she lives; Noelle actually calls it “Middle of Nowhere, USA.” ) Every day Noelle wishes she could “be transported to another school in an alternate universe where required learning doesn’t have to involve this traumatic test of survival skills.” Noelle doesn’t stand out, not really, but nevertheless she’s an outsider. Mostly she’s a target because she’s poor; her lunch and clothes are often cause for ridicule. There’s also some stuff following her from her middle school days – a misunderstanding that was blown out of proportion and hangs over her like a dark cloud. The biggest problem in Noelle’s life, besides the jerks at her school who make her life miserable, is her mother.

This one time last year, she came home really late and woke me up when she slammed the front door. Then she whipped my door open. I could see her glaring at me, the light from the hall illuminating the hate in her eyes. She didn’t say anything. She just slammed my door.

Noelle’s mom isn’t abusive per se, but she is neglectful. Noelle can’t remember a time when her mother really looked at her, but it’s certainly been since her stepfather, her mom’s second husband, died of cancer. This was clearly a traumatic event for mother and daughter and yet it’s hard to feel any empathy for Noelle’s mom; she’s just awful.  “There are plenty of days,” Noelle observes,” when mother says less than ten words to me.” Noelle’s biological father isn’t in the picture at all. Then there’s Matt, the boy Noelle likes who seems to like her back at least enough to make out with her – although the fact that they make out is top-secret. Even though you can see the reason for Matt’s need for secrecy a mile away, it still a believable situation for Noelle. Keep Holding On treads familiar teen ground, but the book separates itself from the pack in part because Noelle is immensely sympathetic. She wants, more than anything, to fit in, but what she eventually figures out is that fitting in isn’t nearly as important as finding your own place to belong.

Good People – Ewart Hutton

goodpeopleD.S. Glyn Capaldi, the protagonist of Ewart Hutton’s debut Good People, is a Welsh cop who got into a bit of trouble in Cardiff and had been reassigned to a dinky town in the middle of nowhere, a place where the higher-ups figure he can’t get into any more touble.

The reader doesn’t get to learn very much about Capaldi. He’s divorced. He’s smart. He’s got good instincts, but isn’t really a team player and he’s very much an outsider in Carmarthen. Detective Chief Superintendent Galbraith describes him as ” someone who used to be a good cop,” which is why Galbraith has rescued him so he isn’t “wearing a rinky-dink security uniform and patrolling the booze aisle in some shanty-town supermarket.” Capaldi is getting another chance, but he’s on a short leash.

Which is why no one wants to give him the time of day when Capaldi is suspicious about Carmarthen’s latest crime. Six men coming home from a soccer game in England, disappear into the woods with a young girl. Their abandoned mini-bus is found on the side of the road, but hours later when the party is found, not everyone is accounted for.

Police who are familiar with the men believe their story – convoluted as it is – but Capaldi isn’t as convinced.

Good People is a relatively straightforward mystery that is fast-paced and intriguing. Capaldi certainly grows on you and the story is not your standard whodunit. Instead, Good People is about  the underbelly of a town that, on the surface at least, seems quaint and shiny and  our capacity for deception.

12 Years A Slave – Solomon Northrup

12 years I can’t say that I was thrilled when 12 Years a Slave, Solomon Northrup’s true-life account of slavery, was chosen for book club. I haven’t seen the much-lauded film because I’ve heard it’s quite violent and my tolerance for violence seems to be on the decline these days and I didn’t really have any desire to read this book either. I understand its importance but, truthfully, this isn’t a book that I’d ever pick up.

“Having been born a free man,” Northrup writes, and having “been kidnapped and sold into slavery, where I remained, until happily rescued in the month of January, 1853, after a bondage of twelve years – it has been suggested that an account of my life and fortunes would not be uninteresting to the public.”

Northrup intends to offer up “a candid and truthful statement of the facts: to repeat the story of my life, without exaggeration, leaving it for others to determine, whether even the pages of fiction present a picture of more cruel wrong or severer bondage.”

And factual it is – which I think might be part of the problem.

My first and most powerful experience with the subject of slavery came in 1977. I was in high school and there was a television event known as Roots. This mini-series was really must watch television and it had a profound impact on me. The story, based on the life of author Alex Haley’s grandmother, was shocking and horrific to me – a middle-class white girl from Eastern Canada. My experience with people of African-American descent was really limited; I could count the number of black kids at my school on one hand. I distinctly remember watching Roots and being ashamed of the colour of my skin. I still remember the characters Kunta Kinte and Chicken George. Such is the power of fiction.

Northrup is married with three small children when he is duped by a couple of white men and taken from his life in New York to a plantation in Louisiana.  His account of the  journey and his time spent as a slave is  – I don’t know – instructive. Once in New Orleans he is purchased by a relatively kind man, William Ford. Northrup describes him as “kind, noble, candid, Christian.”

The influences and associations that had always surrounded him, blinded him to the inherent wrong at the bottom of the system of slavery. He never doubted the moral right of one man holding another in subjection. Looking through the same medium with his fathers before him, he saw things in the same light. Brought up under other circumstances and other influences, his notions would undoubtedly have been different. Nevertheless, he was a model master…

Unfortunately, he is sold again to a less charitable master, Mr. Epps, a man whose manners are “repulsive and coarse.” When drinking, Epps’ chief delight was “dancing with his “niggers,” or lashing them about the yard with his long whip, just for the pleasure of hearing them screech and scream.” It is with Epps that Northrup spends the bulk of his incarceration. 12 years_a

Perhaps modern readers have been spoiled by today’s memoirs, which often read like fiction. Northrup’s motivation for writing this book was, I believe, to instruct – and while I understand the merits of his tale, I felt it was missing a key ingredient: character. Yes, Northrup was clearly a good, intelligent, brave man, but there was something distancing about the very formal language of this tale. I think in his effort to report the facts, the story loses some of its impact. For example, when Eliza (someone else who has been kidnapped) is separated from her young children Northrup remarks “never have I seen such an exhibition of intense, unmeasured, and unbounded grief.” Imagine how that scene might have played out in fiction.

I am not sorry that I read Northrup’s story, but is it great literature? Is it a book I would press into the hands of my friends and say “you’ve got to read this.” No.