Still Mine – Amy Stuart

I haven’t read a book quite as weird as Amy Stuart’s Still Mine  in a long time and I still can’t decide whether it was good weird or just weird. It reminded me a little of Go With Me – a quirky, but affecting novel by Castle Freeman Jr.

still-mine-9781476790428_hrClare O’Dey has run away from her abusive husband, Jason. In an unusual twist, the man Jason sends to find her, Malcolm Boon,  hires Clare to go to Blackmore, a remote mining town in the mountains, to look for another missing woman, Shayna Fowles.  For reasons that won’t be immediately clear, Clare invests wholeheartedly in the search for Shayna, a woman whose past is as tricky and messed up as Clare’s.

Blackmore is a shriveled up nothing of a town. “A blast at the Blackmore Coal Mine five years ago killed thirty-two men and trapped  eighteen others underground for three weeks,”  Malcolm’s notes tell Clare. She pretends to be a photographer in town to take pictures, but it’s a ruse no one buys. The only hotel in town is closed and so Clare rents a trailer on Charlie Merritt’s property. Charlie is the town drug dealer and his property (his father and brothers were killed in the mine) butts up against Shayna’s parents’ place.  Clare figures it will be a good place to snoop.

Blackmore is filled with broken people: Jared, Shayna’s ex-husband; Sara, her friend; Derek, the town’s only doctor and Shayna’s parents, Louise (who is suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s) and Wilfred, her father, the man responsible for saving the eighteen men who did make it out of the mine alive (but also the man Charlie holds responsible for the deaths of his father and siblings). None of them seem to know what happened to Shayna and with no police in town, no one is looking for her.

As Clare attempts to find out what has happened and which of the town’s odd assortment of outcasts might be responsible for Shayna’s disappearance, her own past is revealed; her own frailties are exposed. Like Shayna, Clare has a penchant for drugs and alcohol, making Charlie particularly dangerous to her. She also finds herself strangely attracted to Shayna’s ex-husband, Jared. She forges a bond with Louise, replacing the mother she recently lost to cancer. In many ways, Clare steps into the life Shayna has abandoned. Even so she realizes

These people in Blackmore, they are not Clare’s friends. Derek and Jared and Sara and Charlie. They are not even one another’s friends. They are only characters in Shayna’s story and Shayna is not here.

Still Mine is an unusual, albeit strange, psychological mystery. Apparently there is a sequel on the way, but I was quite content with how the book ended.

Definitely worth checking out.

 

And We Stay – Jenny Hubbard

Sixteen-year-old Emily Beam, the protagonist in Jenny Hubbard’s YA novel And We Stay,  has been whisked away from her home town to attend a boarding school in Massachusetts. It’s midway through Emily’s junior year, an odd time for a student to be starting at The Amherst School for Girls.  Emily just wants to be left alone, though, and she keeps her head down and her cards close to her chest.  It’s clear that she’s suffered some sort of trauma and her parents have decided she will not be returning to her old school to “deal with the whispers and stares and, of course, the memories.”

andwestay

Emily settles into life at Amherst as best she can. Her roommate, K.T. is friendly and not too nosey and that’s good because Emily isn’t willing to talk about her life. The most she is willing to divulge is that she’s come from Boston – which isn’t exactly true.

Although she doesn’t want to talk about why she’s started school half way through the year, her story is revealed to the reader in short order: her boyfriend, Paul, has died. The details of his death are revealed through flashbacks and the poetry Emily begins to write, in part, inspired by Emily Dickinson. As it turns out, Dickinson had been a student at Amherst one hundred years before.

Hubbard is clearly a poet. Poetry figured in her first YA novel, Paper Covers Rock, a book I really loved, too. In And We Stay, Emily uses her poetry as a way to try and make sense of the senseless. In her poem “Ashes” she writes:

The same sky that once

held her dreams has stolen

her story. And the stars

will know just

how to tell it:

night after night

over and over.

Slowly, Emily opens herself up to the possibility of recovery and healing, but the journey is not without its difficulties. Hubbard negotiates Emily’s journey with a keen sense of the teenage heart.  Perhaps one might view Emily Dickinson as a plot device, but it didn’t feel that way to me. Poetry is the art of heightened emotion, of making the unknowable knowable and Emily is trying to do just that: make a horrific act something that she can survive – because she can. Because she must.

And We Stay is all the things I want my YA books to be: beautifully written, smart and engaging, emotionally intelligent and a page-turner. The book won several awards and is, in my opinion, deserving of them all.

Highly recommended.

That Night – Chevy Stevens

I suppose that some fans of psychological suspense might call BC-based Chevy Stevens the Canadian Gillian that nightFlynn – except that, in my opinion, Flynn takes the prose prize and the plotting prize and, well, all the prizes, really. Sorry, Chevy.

This is the second novel I’ve read by Stevens. The first, Still Missing, won the International Thriller Writers Award for Best First Novel in 2011. I liked Still Missing, actually, though – if memory serves – I wasn’t keen on its ending. I didn’t like anything about That Night, although I wanted to. I didn’t abandon it to my Book Graveyard, though,  and I guess that’s saying something. Maybe it’s because Stevens is Canadian.

Toni Murphy and her boyfriend, Ryan Walker,  are in prison for the murder of Toni’s younger sister, Nicole. They maintain their innocence and while the evidence against them is circumstantial at best, they’ve both been locked away for fifteen years. (Not in the same institution, obviously.) The novel weaves between the events leading up to Nicole’s horrific murder, Toni’s incarceration and ultimate release (after serving her full sentence) and her attempts to reintegrate herself into society in her hometown of Campbell River, a town on Vancouver Island.

Toni is the problem child and Ryan is the son of a drunken criminal – so a bad boy by blood. Everyone seems to be waiting for them to get into trouble even though Toni seems more like a victim than a victimizer. She and Ryan are just waiting for high school to be over so they can get on with their lives together. Toni is especially anxious to get out of Dodge because of Shauna McKinney. “Most of the girls in our class either feared her or desperately wanted to be her friend, which I guess was kind of the same thing in the end,” Toni observes. Toni and Shauna used to be friends, but a misunderstanding over a boy changed all that and now Shauna does whatever it takes to make life living hell for Toni. Clearly, Toni is not as bad-ass as people think she is.

Nicole is the golden girl, the  mom’s favoured daughter because of her grades and sunny disposition. Until she starts hanging out with Shauna and her hench-women. Then she’s sneaking out of the house, coming home drunk and acting all weird.

Stevens’ first person narration allows us to see Toni’s journey through her final months in high school and then a sped up fifteen years in the big house where we watch Toni negotiate her way through a system that is bound to fail her. She makes friends; she makes enemies, and finally she is paroled. One of the conditions of her parole is that she has no contact with Ryan, who has also been released and who has also headed back to Campbell River. Despite the no contact rule which, if broken, has the potential to send them back to jail,  Toni and Ryan are determined to find out what really happened to Nicole.

Mostly I didn’t like That Night because I didn’t care about any of the characters. Toni’s parents were particularly irksome. Yes, it’s true that they’ve lost one daughter at, supposedly, the hands of another. But she swears she didn’t do it. How about a little faith, people?

When the true story of what happens is finally revealed, all the pieces click into place with precision, but ultimately this is less a mystery and more a story (sort of) of redemption. I found the writing a bit clunky – lots of exposition – and the characterizations superficial. For me, That Night wasn’t all that.

 

Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea – April Genevieve Tucholke

Seventeen-year-old Violet and her twin brother, Luke, live in a crumbling mansion in the town of Echo, somewhere on the coast of the Eastern United States. Their parents are absent, artists traipsing through Europe, so Vi and Luke are left to fend for themselves in the house built by their rich great grandparents. The money is long gone and now the house is no longer “dignified and elegant and great and beautiful.” Vi calls it Citizen Kane, but mostly because her grandmother, Freddie, had given it the nickname. Now Freddie is gone and so is the rest of the money Vi’s parents had left for her and Luke to live off until they returned from Europe. That’s the reason Vi decides to rent the guest house and that’s how River comes into her life. between-the-devil-and-the-deep-blue-sea

He was not tall – less than six feet, maybe – and he was strong, and lean. He had thick, dark brown hair, which was wavy and parted at the side…until the sea wind lifted it and blew it across his forehead and tangled it all up. I liked his face on sight.

River’s arrival shakes things up for Vi. She’s an introspective girl, prone to solitude and tucking herself away with a volume of Nathaniel Hawthorn short stories. Her one friend, Sunshine (the daughter of hippies who live down the road) is more a friend of proximity than anything else.

April Genevieve Tucholke’s YA novel Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea is a strange hybrid of gothic romance and suspense thriller. Although Vi is naive, she’s no – wait for it – shrinking violet. River’s just about the most exciting thing to happen in Echo in her whole life. The problem is that shortly after his arrival strange things start to happen. For one thing, a little girl goes missing and children in town claim to have seen the devil. Then the town drunk slits his own throat, in broad day-light, in the town square. Then River’s brother, Neely, shows up and Vi discovers that River has a tendency to lie about just about everything.

There are some truly creepy moments in Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea and, like Vi, you’ll be conflicted about River’s motives and actions. I don’t want to say too much about what’s going on because it’ll be more fun if you find out for yourself. Let’s just say, there’s some nasty energy in Echo and this book has a kick-ass denouement. There is a second book, Between the Spark and the Burn and according to Tucholke there are no plans for a third (praise the book gods!) so I will probably purchase the second book just to see what happens.

Lovely writing and page-turning fun makes Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea a winner.

Books, books and more books.

Listen here.

So usually when I am preparing for a visit to Info AM, I try to think of a theme – something to hold all my bookish thoughts together. That’s probably the teacher in me – trying to make connections. Not going to happen today – today I just want to talk about some books I’ve read recently that I’ve really loved.

Everything I Never Told You – Celeste Ng everything

So this was my book club pick this year. I had such a hard time picking because I left it really late. This book was on my tbr shelf already and there were loads of copies at the book store and it had received copious praise, so it met all the requirements. It was an amazing book.

The book opens “Lydia is dead” and then it unspools the story of Lydia Lee, her younger sister, Hannah, and older brother Nathan and their parents Marilyn and James. It’s 1970s Ohio. Lydia’s story can’t be told without understanding Marilyn and James’ story…so we hear about Marilyn who is brilliant and won a scholarship to Radcliff. She’s on her way to becoming a doctor when she meets James, a fourth year graduate student in history. He’s Chinese. They fall in love, in part, because they recognize the “otherness” in each other. It’s the 50s, remember. So, Marilyn’s dreams have been deferred and she hoists all her failed ambition on Lydia. This is a tremendously powerful novel about family – and the things that we keep from the people we love the most. You know, we often talk about the transformative power of fiction – the ability of a story to just get under your skin and shake something loose and this book certainly did that for me. I came of age in the 70s, so I recognized the pop culture references and the whole book just felt familiar to me. But beyond that, it’s a mystery – like, what happened to Lydia – but it’s also about our need to follow our own path, which is sometimes very difficult to do. I felt this book in my heart and my gut. So good.

 

Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock – Matthew Quick

forgive meQuick might be better known for his novel (and the subsequent film) Silver Linings Playbook. This is a YA novel about a tricky subject – a book that, I think, has the potential to articulate something many of its readers might not be able to talk about. What do I do when life it just utterly miserable and I no longer have the will to go on?

Well, the answer to that question for 18-year-old Leonard Peacock is to pack his grandfather’s P38 WW2 handgun in his bookbag and head to school where he first intends to kill his former best friend, Asher, and then take his own life.

You know sometimes you start reading a book and you just fall in love with a character – yep, I loved Leonard from the start. He’s wry and self-deprecating and brutally honest. He’s also in terrible emotional distress. His mother has virtually abandoned him to pursue a career in fashion design; his father – a former rock star – is on the lam from the IRS. Leonard, although he is 18, is pretty much left to his own devices. So, on the day he decides to end it, he wraps some gifts and sets off to first visit the handful of people who have made a difference in his life including the old man who lives next door with whom he watches classic films and the one teacher at his school who actually looks him in the eye. Think about that – going through your whole day without anyone really looking at you.

Anyway – this is a fine book, quirky and funny and heart-breaking and hopeful. High school can be really hard for some kids – it seems interminable and pointless and teenagers have interior lives to which adults are not privy. This book would certainly speak to those kids. Loved it.

I ran out of time and therefore couldn’t talk about the next two books:

For my third choice I was torn between two books I read – one YA and one not, so I am going to briefly talk about them both because I couldn’t decide. Of their type they were both really good.

The first one is The Book of You by Claire Kendall. book of you

I started it and finished it pretty much in one sitting. The story is not original – woman has a one night stand with a guy she works with who turns out to be a psychopathic stalker times a million. It’s a really timely story because woven into Clarissa’s narrative is the court case she’s on jury duty for – a woman with a dodgy past who has been raped and the guys who did it are on trial. Kendall has some interesting observations about victim blaming. Not only is Clarissa reluctant to go to the police until she has gathered sufficient evidence against her stalker, we also have to hear the horrific details about the rape-victim…and her past being called into question as a way to dismiss the charges against her attackers. Total page-turner, well-written, I’d warn readers that it is graphic.

Second book is The Replacement by Breanna Yovanoff

7507908This was quite unlike anything I’ve read in the YA genre. Sort of a hybrid horror/fantasy novel. Sixteen year old Mackie is a replacement. He was swapped with the real Mackie when they were infants. He can’t stand blood or metal or go to church. The reason for the swap is a weird bargain the townsfolk have made with the House of Mayhem, a strange underground world ruled by The Morrigan, a child-like creature. In return for human babies, Gentry flourishes. But then when the little sister of a classmate goes missing, Mackie has to decide just how human he really is. It’s a creepy, compelling story that was quite unlike anything else I’ve ever read…which is cool in YA because genres tend to come in waves.

So, that’s what I’ve been reading recently. What’s on your nightstand?

The Husband’s Secret – Liane Moriarty

It’s no secret to the ladies in my book club: I didn’t like Liane Moriarty’s novel The Husband’s Secret. At all. But here’s the thing, the critics loved it. Geesh, even Anne Lamott called it “smart, wise, funny.” husband

The husband in question in The Husband’s Secret is Cecilia’s husband,  John-Paul Fitzpatrick, he of the “deep, warm and comforting” voice; hopeless at the minutiae of daily life, but “he took care of his wife and daughters, in that old-fashioned, responsible I-am-the-man-and-this-is-my-job way.”  One day, while searching in the attic for a little piece of the Berlin Wall (cue metaphor alert) to give to her  daughter, Esther, who has recently shown an interest, Cecilia discovers  (by accident…or is it fate?)  an envelope upon which is written: For my wife Cecilia Fitzpatrick,  To be opened only in the event of my death.

In another part of town is Rachel, a woman whose life has been forever coloured by the death of her teenage daughter, Janie, some twenty-eight years ago. She has a son, Rob, and daughter-in-law, Lauren and a two-year-old grandson, Jacob. Rob and Lauren have just told Rachel that they are moving to New York to take advantage of a terrific job opportunity for Lauren. Jacob is the light of Rachel’s life and the news is devastating to her – never mind that she has discounted Rob and Lauren forever, because – you know – she’s grieving. Still. Always.

The third woman to figure in Moriarty’s over-stuffed plot is Tess, who has recently come home with her young son, Liam,  because her husband, Will, and cousin, Felicity, (who are also her business partners) have just revealed that they have fallen in love. Ouch.

Really, there’s enough going on in The Husband’s Secret to fuel three novels, but Moriarty chooses, instead, to tangle the fates of all these three women together and also try to comment on infidelity, love, marriage, family, parenting, friendship, and how to make a million bucks selling Tupperware.

A novel like this, let’s call it domestic drama, depends on one thing and one thing alone and that’s believability. I didn’t believe any of these characters, nor care about them one iota. The book seemed interminable to me, over 400 pages bookended with a prologue and epilogue that asks you to consider the myriad of ways your life might have gone had you only chosen a different path. But as Robert Frost’s misunderstood poem “The Road Not Taken” warns us “the passing there/ Had worn them really about the same.” No matter which path you choose in life,  a belief in fate is also a belief that everything turns out as it should.

The Husband’s Secret is an “everything but the kitchen sink” novel that tries hard to be all things to all readers: mystery (though not so much for careful readers), and family drama, with a little bit of sex thrown in for good measure. When one of my friends joked “just wait until you get to the aliens,” I actually considered she might be telling the truth.

A world of no.