Amazing Grace – Lesley Crewe

Holy ol’ Jesus, Amazing Grace is awful. So awful that if it hadn’t been chosen for book club, I would have abandoned it right around the time that Amazing Grace Willingdon, 60, flies off to New York City from her trailer in Baddeck, Namazingova Scotia, to help her estranged millionaire son, Jonathan, rescue her teenage granddaughter, Melissa, from making bad decisions. You know, the kind that you make because you are sixteen.

We are to understand that Grace is a firecracker because she doesn’t suffer fools easily,  the church women give her indigestion and she yells “asshole” at drivers who speed past her. It’s not her fault that she’s curmudgeonly; Grace has had a hard life including a duel with cancer (which she won), a sham marriage and a childhood as a member of a religious cult where she and her sister (Ave Maria – not a joke) and their mother, Trixie,  were repeatedly raped by the cult leader. I wish I could say that these are the only difficulties that Grace endures, but amazingly (see what I did there) they are not.

That’s at least part of the problem with Amazing Grace. When I tried to explain the story to my son, Connor, I found that I could not adequately convey the number of ridiculous things that happened to this character or the number of times she was saved by her inheritance or her son’s private jet or just old-fashioned serendipity. But the bigger problem in Nova Scotian writer Lesley Crewe’s book is the writing itself.  It’s just…bad.

I point my finger in his face. “You are going straight to hell, Ed Wheeler. You have the devil inside you and we all know what happens to evil people. They burn forever. The very thought of it makes me giddy. You tried to destroy me, but you didn’t. You tried to possess me but you couldn’t. I am the powerful one now. The tables have turned, you creep. You have no one. You are a big nobody. You will never cross my mind again, because I win, you bastard. I win.

I live in New Brunswick – right next door to Nova Scotia – so this landscape and these people should at least be familiar to me. On top of that, I am just a few years shy of Grace’s age; she’s my contemporary. But she’s not even remotely believable to me. I have never once overslept and yelled “Holy macaroni.” I can’t imagine being a grandmother and chasing my granddaughter down the hall, grabbing her from behind and then hauling her “squirming and yelling” back to the kitchen to apologize for a snotty comment because words are “the most powerful force of all.” It’s all so melodramatic and over-the-top.

Ultimately, this is a book about family – our biological family and the family we choose. But the book is so overstuffed and the writing so pedestrian that I just couldn’t have cared any less for these people.


If You Find Me – Emily Murdoch

“Mama says no matter how poor folks are, whether you’re a have, a have-not, or break your mama’s back on the cracks in between, the world gives away the best stuff on the cheap.”

IF-YOU-FIND-METhat’s the first thing fifteen-year-old Carey tells us in Emily Murdoch’s amazing novel If You Find Me. From the moment she speaks, it’s almost impossible not to fall in love with her and as her story unspools, it’ll be even more difficult not to want to want to hug her and her little sister, Jenessa, who is just six.

Carey and Jenessa live in a trailer in  in the middle of Obed Wild and Scenic River National Park or, as the girls call it, “the Hundred Acre Wood.” Their mother, Joelle, is usually gone and has, in fact, been MIA for “over a month, maybe two at this point,” leaving the girls to fend for themselves. Carey does the best she can to look after herself and Jenessa but “when you’re livin’ in the woods…with no runnin’ water or electricity, with Mama gone to town for long stretches of time, leavin’ you in charge of feedin’ a younger sister…with a stomach rumblin’ like a California earthquake” it’s not easy. The girls exist, mostly, on beans fixed in “new and interestin’ ways.”

On this particular day, though, Carey and Jenessa have company. A woman “as thin as chicken bones, her gait uneven as her heels sink into the soft forest floor” and a man stumble into the girls’ campsite.

He hasn’t offered his name, and he isn’t familiar to me. But in that instant, hittin’ like a lightnin’ bolt, I know who he is.

If You Find Me is an amazing story of resilience and family and forgiveness, but it is also a horrific story of abuse and neglect, made all the more powerful because of Carey’s compelling and authentic narration. I fell in love with her the moment she started to tell her story and I know this is fiction, but I also know that children endure atrocities at the hands of their parents and guardians all the time.

Suddenly, Carey finds herself living with a father she doesn’t remember, a new step-mother and a step-sister who clearly resents her, attending school for the first time.  Jenessa seems to thrive in her new surroundings and although Carey contemplates returning to the her life in the woods, her love for her sister prevents her from running. Their journey is one of resilience and hope, but it’s not all smooth sailing.

I loved this book because I loved Carey. I wish the ending hadn’t seemed so rushed, though, because I don’t think Carey’s relationship with Ryan was as fully developed as it might have been and other pieces fell into place just a tad conveniently, but whatever; I haven’t read a YA book with a narrator I’ve loved quite as much as I loved Carey in a long time.

Highly recommended.

Off the Shelf – Moving Day

bookshelvesListen here.

So, I recently moved. I moved a lot as a kid and a young adult; I probably didn’t appreciate how much work it was for my mom to pack up a whole household, kids and pets and move as much as we did.  I’ve been in the same place for eight years and the amount of crap my kids and I had accumulated was daunting, but I figured that now was the time to divest myself from some of the junk we no longer used or wanted. But I am a terrible hoarder, so how was I ever going to part with some of this stuff.

Enter The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo

So Marie Kondo is a Japanese cleaning consultant who claims that if you adopt her “KonMari” method of decluttering, you’ll never be untidy again. Her secret is to discard and then organize and she offers all sorts of tips on everything from how to fold your clothes (apparently we all do it wrong) to organizing your closet to getting rid of ephemera (and don’t we all have way to much paper even in a so-called paperless society)…and then here’s the one I needed help with – books. I guess, to a degree, Marie and I parted company on books.

bookshelvesSo, I moved into my new place and pretty much the first thing that had to happen was I needed bookshelves built, which my amazing brother Tom did for me. Now, if I was going to follow Marie’s advice, I’d put all my books on the floor (as it turns out – that’s where they all were – in piles all over the floor) – she’s big on having people put stuff on the floor, spread out so you can see it, but also so you have to pick up the book to put it back on the shelf. Here’s her criteria for making the decision about whether or not the book goes back on the shelf: decide “…whether or not it gives you a thrill of pleasure when you touch it.”

Kondo herself only keeps about 30 books at a time – which is horrifying to me, that’s about the amount I have stacked on my bedside table – but I think her advice is generally sound. She would definitely take issue with my tbr shelf because her take on that is when it comes to the claim that you will get around to reading a book “sometime” is that “sometime” never comes. Kondo and I have differing opinions on that, I guess.

This book would be a great little gift for someone who needs to do some decluttering and she really does make the claim that if you follow her advice, you’ll never be buried under your junk again.

So, once I got all my books on my shelves…they all sparked joy, every one of them, btw…I picked a book from my tbr shelf (I think just to show Ms. Kondo that I actually DID read those books – eventually) and that books was

Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberly McCreight

This is a book about a high-powered lawyer who lives with her daughter Amelia in Brooklyn. She’s a single mom and a bit of a workaholic, but she and her daughter, who is 15, have a great relationship. Her daughter attends a prestigious private school where she’s a top student and athlete.  The book opens with Kate getting a call from the school that Amelia is being suspended for plagiarizing an essay and Kate has to go pick her up from the school. By the time she arrives, Amelia is dead – which, not a spoiler, it’s on the back of the book. McCreight unspools the story, not only from Kate’s point of view, but also through Amelia’s first person narrative and it’s a real page-turner as Kate tries to figure out what happened to her daughter and Amelia tries to navigate the tricky underbelly of teenage cliques.

This book was scary, actually, because it really highlighted how little we know  – as parents – about the lives of our kids, even when we have a good relationship with them…and a lot of that has to do with social media, cell phones…so this is a timely story, a family drama and sort of a thriller all rolled into one.

Then I picked a book off my tbr shelf at school…yes, I have one…it’s a thing

Complicit by Stephanie Kuehn

So I read Kuehn’s book Charm & Strange earlier this year and loved that book and Complicit is pretty dang good, too. Kuehn actually has a doctorate in clinical psychology, which is why I think she manages to create such compelling damaged characters. In this instance, a story about siblings Cate and Jamie, who were placed in foster care s children after the shooting death of their mom. Years later, Cate ends up being sent to juvie after she burns down a neighbour’s barn…and then a couple years after that, she comes back to town and throws her brother’s life into turmoil. It’s a total page turner, with complex characters, excellent writing.

Although I am not completely settled into my new place, my books are in their rightful place and looking at them gives me great joy.

Reconstructing Amelia – Kimberly McCreight

reconstructingI’m sure all the mothers out there can appreciate how difficult it is to really know what is happening in our children’s lives these days. I mean, on the surface, it seems like it would be easier, right? We have phones that connect us immediately – but the flip side of that is that, because of this technology,  our kids can live lives very separate from us, too. When I was a teenager there was one phone and it was in the kitchen. If you got a call, you took it in full view of your parents and siblings; there were ears everywhere. Hardly anyone calls my house phone anymore – and certainly not the friends of my kids.

It is this very private world that is central to Kimberly McCreight’s suspenseful and timely novel Reconstructing Amelia.

Kate Baron is a high-powered lawyer and single mom. She and her  fifteen-year-old daughter, Amelia, live in Brooklyn, where Amelia attends Grace Hall, a hoity-toity private school. Despite Kate’s busy job, she and Amelia share a close bond, likely forged because it’s always been just the two of them. There have been a few bumps in the road recently: Kate chalks it up to teenage moodiness. Then she gets a call from the school: Amelia is being suspended, for plagiarizing an essay. The suspension is a shock to Kate because

Amelia had never been in trouble in her entire life. Her teachers called her a delight – bright, creative, thoughtful, focused. She excelled in athletics and was involved in every extracurricular activity under the sun. She volunteered once a month at CHIPS, a local soup kitchen, and regularly helped out at school events.

The accusation of cheating is clearly a mistake. However, when Kate arrives at Grace Hall she is devastated to discover that her daughter is dead (not a spoiler: it’s on the book jacket). Apparently, Amelia jumped from the roof of the school. Although Kate can’t quite believe her daughter would do such a thing, the police rule Amelia’s death a suicide and the case is closed.

That is until Kate gets an anonymous text: Amelia didn’t jump.

With the help of Lew, a crusty police detective, Kate begins reconstructing Amelia’s life only to discover that there were many things she didn’t know about her daughter.

There are dual narratives in McCreight’s book. Kate’s limited third person narrative allows us to take her journey, but we also have Amelia’s first person narration – which gives the reader a glimpse into a life Kate could never be privy to. There are also text conversations, Facebook posts, and an anonymous blog called ‘gRaCeFULLY,’ which tracks the comings and goings of Grace Hall students. All the bits fit together to create a picture of entitled girlhood and head-in-the-sand adulthood.

There are some bits of the book which didn’t necessarily belong (Rowan) and I am not 100% sure I bought some of the twists, (I won’t say which because, hello, spoilers) but that doesn’t mean I didn’t turn those pages at breakneck speed to find out what happened to Amelia and why.

I would like to think that the girls in Reconstructing Amelia are just fictional, but I know that’s naïve. Sometimes, even when we love our kids and feel close to them, we don’t always know what is really happening in their worlds. That’s the sad truth.

Great book.

Hausfrau – Jill Alexander Essbaum

hausfrauPoor Anna. Her life sucks. She’s the protagonist in Jill Alexander Essbaum’s novel Hausfrau,  an American living in Dietlikon, a suburb of Zurich, with Bruno, her Swiss banker husband and her children: Victor, 8, Charles, 6, and baby Polly. She doesn’t work. She’s barely even learned to speak the language despite having lived in Switzerland for almost a decade. Her mother-in-law seems wholly unimpressed with her – and no wonder: Anna disappears for hours, taking language classes and having sex with random men.

It’s hard to really like Anna very much. She’s not the effusive American one might expect. Instead of joining the other mothers when she meets her sons at school she “scuffed the  sole of a brown clog  against the sidewalk’s curb…fiddled with her hair and pretended to watch an invisible bird flying overheard.”  She claims she is “shy and cannot talk to strangers.”  That may be true, but she speaks the universal language just fine.

Yep – Anna is a serial cheater. The reader meets Archie Sutherland first, an expat Scotsman.

Archie and Anna shared a plate of cheese, some greengage plums, a bottle of mineral water. Then they set everything aside and fucked again. Archie came in her mouth. It tasted like school paste, starchy and thick. This is a good thing I am doing, Anna said inside of herself, though “good” was hardly the right word. Anna knew this. What she meant was expedient. What she meant was convenient. What she meant was wrong in nearly every way but justifiable as it makes me feel better, and for so very long I have felt so very, very bad.

Oh, well, that’s all right then. You just go ahead and fuck whomever you please without any regard for anyone else but yourself because, clearly, life is rough for you. Oh please.

I am not a prude. I think everyone deserves a chance to be happy. The problem with Hausfrau is that I didn’t care one bit about Anna and by the time Essbaum actually gave me a reason to care about her it was too late. Anna is a hot mess and for no good reason that I can see.  She’s whiney and self-centered and in one instance, treats her adored younger son, Charles, so deplorably that there was just no way for me to like her after that.

Okay – maybe I am being too harsh. I mean, it’s tough to be a modern woman. Like, she’s got three kids and she lives in a foreign country and her husband is a stoic workaholic. Oh, wait, she comes and goes as she pleases. She doesn’t have to worry about money. She recognizes that her affairs are a product of her “longing for diversion…and from boredom particular habits were born.” No Netflix in Switzerland, eh? How about knitting or a good book, Anna?

Not even her psychoanalyst, Doktor Messerli, is able to offer any real useful advice. Instead, she imparts pithy gems like “Shame lies. Shame a woman and she will believe she is fundamentally wrong, organically delinquent.” And when it is clear Anna is desperate, the good doctor tells her to stop ringing her bell and leave immediately. Okay, then.

Critics loved this book. I did not.

What Happens Next – Colleen Clayton

whathappensnextColleen Clayton’s debut YA novel, What Happens Next, follows sixteen year old Cassidy ‘Sid’ Murphy after she’s drugged and raped while on a school ski trip. That seems like a pretty big spoiler, I know, but it’s not. The book pretty much spoils it with the tag line “How can you talk about something you can’t remember?” Besides, it’s not the most dramatic thing that happens in this book, even though it is the impetus for Sid’s journey.

Sid and her best friends Kirsten and Paige are pretty excited about this ski trip, but of the three Sid is the amateur and so after a few hours at the bunny hill she sends her friends off to do some real skiing. While on her own, she meets Dax Windsor, “a hot specimen.” Sid can’t quite believe he’s looking at her. He’s

… the best-looking guy I have ever seen up close and he is interested in me – goofy, loud-mouthed Sid Murphy, with my crazy red hair, bubble butt and obnoxious laugh.

Dax is all slippery charm, though, and when he invites Sid to a party the next night Sid seems powerless to refuse, even though it will mean sneaking out of her chalet. But sneak she does and when she wakes up the next morning in a strange bed with no memory of what happened the night before, Sid’s world is shattered.

Instead of telling anyone – her friends, mother, police – what happened, Sid isolates herself. Her relationship with her besties fractures; she’s kicked off the cheerleading squad, her reputation is sullied, despite the fact that no one actually knows what happened.

This is where things get tricky for the reader (and mother) in me. Although Sid has no control over what has happened to her and is powerless to undo what has been done, she finds a way to quell the panic and shock she feels. First she starts running. A lot, like hours. Then she starts eating and purging. And no one notices. Is it a case of, we see what we want to see?  I don’t know. I would like to think if something this horrific happened to my daughter, I would sense that something was wrong, but all Mrs. Murphy seems to want to do is serve starch-heavy meals.

Then, into the mix, comes Corey Livingston: slacker, stoner, degenerate. Sid judges him  in exactly the same way as everyone is judging her – without knowing all the facts. As the two start spending time together, though, Sid feels herself starting to trust Corey, not enough to tell him her darkest secret, mind, but enough to at least feel like she has one friend. Their relationship is one of the nicest things about What Happens Next.

Despite a few things that didn’t quite work for me – that last 20 pages or so just seemed rushed – Clayton’s book will appeal to any teenager who has ever felt that they have a burden too insurmountable to overcome. Sid is a likeable character, but I think the real prize here is Corey.

Complicit – Stephanie Kuehn

Kuehn-Stephanie-COMPLICITA few months ago I read Stephanie Kuehn’s riveting and devastating YA novel Charm & Strange so I was pretty excited to read Complicit. Also YA, Complicit is the story of siblings Jamie and Cate Henry, who have lived for a decade with their foster parents after their young mother is killed in mysterious drug-related circumstances. As a teen, Cate did some pretty bad things and she’s spent the last couple of years in juvie. To say Jamie and Cate are estranged would be an understatement.

Jamie is now sixteen. He’s an awesome piano player; he’s got a thing for a girl at school which seems to be reciprocated; he has a pretty good life. It’s not all sunshine and roses though: he has huge gaps in his memory, he sometimes blacks out and out of nowhere he loses all feeling in his hands, a condition for which there seems to be no explanation. Then Cate gets out of jail and starts calling him.

I have no proof it was Cate who called, but what if?…I can definitely see her calling me on a throwaway phone in the dead of night. That’d be Cate all the way.

Complicit reads like a psychological thriller where you’re just waiting for all the pieces to click into place. Told in Jamie’s anxious, confused voice, the reader is given a glimpse into his past when his relationship with Cate wasn’t quite so hostile. As kids, Cate was “precocious. Outgoing. Spunky.”  As a teenager, though, she seemed angry and wild, “her jeans too tight. Her shirt too low. her mood too black.”

Jamie is not really interested in a reunion, but Cate is persistent. The more she calls him, the more Jamie feels compelled to follow the bread crumb trail she leaves about their mother’s death and what really happened the night that the Ramirez barn was burned to the ground, the crime for which she spent time in juvenile detention.

Although he is desperate to “forget the empty ache where my mother should be, my sister’s madness, my own rotten feelings of guilt,” he can’t help but somehow feel complicit in Cate’s crimes. And Cate doesn’t seem to want to let Jamie forget anything.

Fortunately for the reader, Jamie’s story isn’t quite as straightforward as it seems. Kuehn paces her twists perfectly and although careful readers might think they’ve got it all sorted out by the time they’ve reached the novel’s shocking conclusion, I’m guessing not so much.

Another winner by Kuehn.