How Not To Fall – Emily Foster

Remember when Fifty Shades of Grey was all the rage? Sure you do.  125 million people bought that piece of crap. (Okay, yes, I read it. But I did not read its sequels. I have standards, people.) Suddenly everyone was reading erotica – loud and proud or behind the more secretive screens of their e-readers.

I love a good smutty book, but the problem with smut is that no two readers will be alike when it comes to what turns them on. Perhaps E.L. James just got lucky. In fandom, which are the loins from which her books sprang, BDSM is as common as sex in the missionary position with the lights off. My objection to the Fifty Shades book(s) had nothing to do with the subject matter (I spent ten years in fandom; I’ve read it all) and everything to do with the quality of the prose and one-dimensional characterization. (It couldn’t be any other way, Edward/Christian and Bella/Anastasia are about as one-note as they come.)

27208942Enter How Not To Fall. Of course I’d seen this book at the book store, but I don’t think I even picked it up to read the blurb. Then I read a review – although I can’t remember where. The reviewer avoided comparisons with Fifty Shades, but did sing the book’s praises. Smart and hot – which is probably a pretty good combination. So, the next time I was at Indigo, I bought the book and now I’ve read it.

Annabelle (Annie) Coffey is a 22-year-old student at a university in Indiana. Dr. Charles Douglas is a 26-year-old postdoctoral fellow in Annie’s psychophysiology lab. He’s British and brilliant and “a dreamboat” and, technically, her teacher.  Annie’s been lusting after him for two years, but as her undergraduate degree draws to a close, she figures it’s about time to take matters into her own hands – so to speak. She tells her roommate and best friend, Margaret, that she is “going to ask Charles to have sex.” She asks, he declines, but Annie is convinced that she hasn’t misread the signals. She tells him

“The thing is, I think you and I have A Thing, and I know if I don’t at least put it on the table, I’ll always wonder ‘what if’ and so I’m just…putting it on the table, you know, and leaving it there. Like bread. For sharing.”

Turns out, Charles does reciprocate Annie’s feelings; he’s just too professional to act on them. So they make a deal – once all her research is in, once there is no possibility of a sex act compromising ethics – they’ll do it. Cue about 200 pages of smut.

Here’s what I really liked about How Not To Fall.

  1. Annie/Charles  Annie is self-deprecating and her narration is charming and often funny.

Am I a beauty queen? I am not. My nose has a great deal of character. My hair has some interesting ideas about its place in the world. My body is built more along the lines of a wristwatch than an hourglass – flat yet bendy. It works for me – I am my body’s biggest fangirl – but I recognize where it falls short of the culturally constructed ideal.

Charles is smart – like brilliant smart – but also kind and, as we learn gradually, a little bit damaged, too. Also, on the hotness scale – according to Annie “it is a mercy to the world that the man doesn’t try to look good.”

2.  The sex is well-written. That’s a big one for me. If I am going to read erotica, I want to read well-written erotica. And since How Not To Fall contains a lot of sex it might have easily gotten boring. You know – geesh, are they going to do it again? I didn’t skim. Actually, overall, the book is well-written.

3. Personally, I kinda loved the way the book ended – although it did break my heart a little. Apparently, there’s a sequel coming out next year. (I will probably read it: see #1.)

I did have a couple little things that irked me. Charles often sounded like a middle-aged man. He called Annie “Young Coffey” a lot. Like he was twenty years her senior rather than four. He also refers to her as “termagant,” a word I was not familiar with, so I had to look it up. It means a “harsh or overbearing woman.”  I couldn’t really make the connection. Also, I don’t have a foot fetish – clearly Charles does. Too much feet/toes for me. These are niggles, because overall, I enjoyed the book for all the reasons one might enjoy a book of this type.

So – if you are looking for a fun, smutty book to pack in your beach bag – give this one a go.

Breakable – Tammara Webber

Ohhh, Lucas. I still love you. Maybe you will remember a couple years back when I got all 17936925swoony over my  encounter with Lucas in Tammara Webber’s first novel, Easy. In that book we are introduced to sophomore music student Jacqueline Wallace who has followed her douchey boyfriend, Kennedy, from their hometown in Texas to a college somewhere else. (I want to say near Washington, but I am not 100% sure and it really doesn’t matter.)

Breakable is pretty much their story, only this time from Lucas’s point of view. And you might think, “Hold on, wait a minute. Why in the heck do we need to hear the same story all over again?” Trust me – you need to hear Lucas’s story because Lucas is that guy – you know, the hot one with a tragic backstory. Also, Webber can write and it will not be a hardship to plow through Lucas’s story. Did I mention he’s hot?

Lucas first spots Jacqueline in an introductory Economics class. He is there, not as a student, but as the tutor – taking notes so he can help struggling students. He observes Jacqueline from across the room noting

There was nothing in the room as interesting as this girl…This girl wasn’t tapping her fingers restlessly, though. Her movements were methodical. Synchronized. …and at some point,  I realized that when her expression was remote and her fingers were moving, she was hearing music. She was playing music.

It was the most magical thing I’d ever seen anyone do.

Lucas can’t stop watching her, but he also can’t do anything about it. For one thing – she has a boyfriend (the aforementioned douche) and for another, it’s against the tutor-potential tutee rules. And Lucas is not anything, if he’s not principled. Plus, the professor of the course is his de facto father and Lucas would never willingly do anything to disappoint him.

Except, of course, he doesn’t really want to stay away from Jacqueline. He can’t.

Avoidance would have been the smart thing, but where she was concerned, all logical thought was useless. I was full of irrational desires to be what I could never be again, to have what I could never have.

I wanted to be whole.

Anyone who has already read Easy will already know how Jacqueline and Lucas officially meet. They will also know how intense their feelings for each other are. What they won’t know is how Lucas came to build the walls around his heart or the horrible feelings of guilt he carries with him or why he and his father have such a strained relationship. Breakable will answer all those questions.

Breakable is a companion rather than a prequel or a sequel. It’s also a much racier book than Easy, which I had no qualms about putting on my classroom library shelves. I’ll probably keep this one here at home.

I am sucker for the bad boys. Lucas and Jacqueline 4eva!

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets – J.K. Rowling

I wish I had jumped on the Harry Potter broomstick a little earlier, and certainly way before I’d watched the films a gazillion times withharry-potter-new-chamber-of-secrets-cover-630 my kids. But I didn’t. I did, however, promise my daughter that I would read the series this summer. I actually made the promise on CBC radio so I feel extra obligated to make an attempt. I actually read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone out loud to a grade nine class a couple years back and I certainly enjoyed reading it. Now I’ve finished Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and I enjoyed reading that, too. Problem is, I keep seeing the movie in my head, although I guess that’s not the worst thing that could happen when reading a novel.

We join Harry once more at the home of his aunt and uncle, Vernon and Petunia Dursley. They haven’t changed a bit since we met in them in the first book. If possible, Uncle Vernon is perhaps even more odious. Harry is feeling particularly miserable because he hasn’t heard from either Ron or Hermione all summer long. Life is pretty grim and he can’t wait to get back to Hogwarts.

Harry is trying to stay out of everyone’s way when he enters his bedroom and is startled by a “little green creature on the bed [with] large, bat-like ears and bulging green eyes the size of tennis balls.” Meet Dobby, the house-elf.

Like all of Rowling’s characters, Dobby is fully realized and it’s almost impossible not to fall in love with him straight away. One of Rowling’s many strengths is her ability to make her characters gloriously human (or, non-human, but also amazingly well-drawn). Because I knew it was coming, I waited through the whole book for Dobby to be freed from servitude and I loved the written version as much as I loved the on-screen version.

Back at Hogwarts, there are strange and scary things happening in the castle and once more Harry, Ron and Hermione are called upon to figure out how to stop evil in its tracks. That part of the mystery wasn’t so interesting to me since I already knew how it would all turn out.

The part of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets I enjoyed the most was Gilderoy Lockhart, the new Defense Against the Dark Arts tutor.

Although I loved Kenneth Branagh’s portrayal of the narcissistic Lockhart, he was so much funnier in the book.

And then there’s Dumbledore’s famous line, which when I finally came to it, gave me the warm fuzzies and reminded me of why these characters will endure. After all the fuss in the Chamber of Secrets and Harry’s own bouts with self doubt, Dumbledore reassures Harry that “It is our choices, Harry, who show us who we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

Truer words.

I Must Say – Martin Short

I think it’s probably un-Canadian not to like Martin Short. He (and his alter egos) has been
making me laugh for at least 30 years, so I was really looking forward to reading his memoir I Must Say. Just the title  alone conjures up an image of Ed Grimley, the horn-haired, high-waisted-pant wearing, triangle-playing nerd who coined the phrase.

Short was born in Hamilton, Ontario, the youngest of five. His father,  Charles, an 20604377executive at the steel plant, and his mother, Olive, a classically trained violinist created a family environment that nurtured  his offbeat creativity from an early age.

Outside, on Whitton Road, normal Canadian childhoods were taking place, with kids playing hockey in the streets until darkness fell and the streetlights came on. Inside, little Marty was snapping his fingers and  singing, “Weather-wise, it’s such a cuckoo- daaay!”

Despite his artistic leanings, Short hadn’t planned on a career in show business and he credits Eugene Levy with encouraging him to try out for a Toronto-based production of Godspell. It was 1972 and Short had just graduated from McMaster University. His intention was to do social work, but he said he’d give the acting thing a year. We all know how that turned out.

I Must Say is a chatty, name-dropping memoir that is both fun to read (mostly because you’ll know virtually every single name Short drops; it’s a veritable who’s who of Canadian comedy royalty) and also illuminating. Short makes us laugh – well, he makes me laugh at any rate – but his life has not been without its tragedies. He lost his older and much admired brother, David, when he was just twelve. He was young when both his parents died. And I read about the death of his wife of 36 years, Nancy, with a lump in my throat.

Other bits of the book are laugh-out-loud funny, especially when you are familiar with Short’s iconic characters including Lawrence Orbach, Franck from Father of the Bride  and my personal favourite, the ill-prepared, self-important, overweight celebrity interviewer, Jiminy Glick. I could watch Jiminy interview celebs for hours and pee my pants laughing every single time.

I don’t read a lot of memoirs and certainly don’t care that much about the cult of celebrity
to read those written by the rich and famous, but Short gets a pass because I have loved him for many years. Whenever I need a pick-me-up, he’s my go-to guy. I was happy to ‘read’ that despite his Rolodex of famous friends he’s a pretty down-to-earth guy – a creative, smart and self-deprecating man who often had painful bouts of self-doubt. If you have any love for SCTV, SNL or The Three Amigos, I Must Say is an enjoyable way to spend a handful of hours.

The Girls in the Garden – Lisa Jewell

Although I have hundreds of books waiting for me on my tbr shelf, I can’t seem to stop buying new books whenever I am at the bookstore, which is – let’s face it – often. There’s been all these suspense thrillers out there like I’m Thinking of Ending Things and The Widow and Twisted River  and The Crooked House which I seem to be drawn to like the proverbial moth to the flame. Maybe it’s because it’s summer and I just like to read something that’s fun, I dunno. But I have no trouble ignoring the huge catalogue of back-listed books I have waiting to be read and, instead, buy the shiny new books.

the-girls-in-the-garden-9781476792217_hrThe Girls in the Garden is one of those books. Although it turned out to be not the book I thought it would be, it was a great read nonetheless.

Clare has moved to a small enclave somewhere in urban London. Virginia Park is “formed in the space between a long row of small, flat-fronted Georgian cottages on Virginia Terrace and a majestic half-moon of  stucco-fronted mansions on Virginia Crescent, with a large Victorian apartment block at either end.” She and her children, eleven-year-old Pip and twelve-year-old Grace are recovering from a horrible incident involving Clare’s husband, Chris. (And again, what is it with book blurbs getting it wrong? The back cover says Pip is older, but she’s not.)

From the outside, Virginia Park seems like a miracle of a place. In the boundary formed by the buildings is a beautiful park which Pip describes in a letter to her father as being “like Narnia.”

…there are all these pathways and little tucked-away places. A secret garden which is hidden inside an old wall covered with ivy, like the one in the book. A rose garden which has bowers all the way around and benches in the middle. And then there’s a playground, too.

It’s a place of magic for the girls and a place for Clare to catch her breath. Except, of course, the magic is short-lived.

Adele also lives in Virginia Park with her husband, the handsome and slightly oily Leo, and their daughters Catkin, Fern and Willow. The girls are home-schooled and the family leads a slightly bohemian life. Soon, Clare and her girls are brought into the welcoming embrace of Adele’s family. (Okay, maybe the girls aren’t 100% welcoming; you know how kids are.)

Tyler, another pre-teen who lives in one of the flats and her best friend, Dylan, the beautiful thirteen-year-old boy who also lives at the park, round out the gang that Grace and Pip find themselves hanging around with.

The Girls in the Garden reads like a thriller. The novel begins with the discovery of Grace’s unconscious and bloody body being discovered by her sister in the rose garden and then backtracks to unspool the story, mainly from the point of view of Clare, Adele and Pip.

Jewell cleverly manipulates the reader into imagining a variety of very plausible scenarios before the story takes an unexpected (but not unbelievable) turn, ultimately making The Girls in the Garden less of a thriller and more of a domestic drama. But really, is there anything more thrilling than that? Isn’t it absolutely true that we never really know people, even those closest to us?

I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

The Crooked House – Christobel Kent

I can certainly see why Christobel Kent’s novel The Crooked House has drawn comparisons with the British mystery Broadchurch. Like that story, Kent’s novel takes place in an isolated village (in this case, Saltleigh) and concerns a horrific crime which has rippled out into the community.

Alison used to be Esme and when she was fourteen her entire family was slaughtered. 748d3761900605840ce32be83a67d549Since that horrible night, Alison has flown under the radar. She lived first with her aunt in the south and then, after school, she moved to London where she worked in publishing, and where she met Paul. Paul is older, in his forties, and a professor. They had “Long, lazy conversations about books and movies and work, eating dinner at his big wooden table, or leaning against each other on his old sofa.” Alison likes him, so when he asks her to accompany him to Saltleigh to attend the wedding of a former girlfriend, she can’t seem to refuse even though she hasn’t been back since the crime.

Saltleigh is the same as Alison remembers.The smells, the colours, the landscape, and the memories of living there with her older brother, younger twin sisters, and her parents are palpable. On the first morning, while Paul sleeps on, Alison answers the memories and goes to her childhood home.

The house was boarded and derelict, weathered plywood splintered and graffitied at each window and the purple spikes of some plant sprouting above the lintel over the front door. The little enclosed yard behind where they had hidden and whispered and left secret messages. Thirteen years.

Despite the fact that she has spent the last thirteen years trying to forget, the memories have been triggered by coming back and she can do nothing but follow where they lead. What really happened that night?

The Crooked House was clearly a big hit in the UK. My version was covered with praise – a combination of praise from other authors, which is always suspect to me, and from the press.  Good Housekeeping said it “Demands to be read in one sitting.” I think that might actually be wise advice because although I did like this book (it’s clever, smart and well-written), I found it really disjointed. It shifts time periods all over the damn place and there are loads of characters and subplots (all relevant, mind you) to keep track of. If I managed to read without interruption, I easily settled into the book’s rhythms. but it definitely wasn’t a book you could pick up on the fly.

I think this book would make an excellent mini-series or movie. Get on that, would you, BBC!

The Interrogation – Thomas H. Cook

My love affair with Thomas H. Cook goes back several years when I stumbled upon his novel Breakheart Hill in a secondhand bookstore. Since then I have read several of his books including Instruments of Night, The Chatham School Affair, Places in the Dark, Evidence of Blood, The Fate of Katherine Carr, Master of the Delta, Red Leaves and The Cloud of Unknowing. Geesh, that’s a lot of books by one author!  In my reading life perhaps Stephen King is the only author I’ve read more of. (Yes, I am ending that sentence with a preposition; sue me.)

Cook is a prolific writer (he has over 30 novels to his credit) and has won many awards including the Edgar and the Crime Writers’ Association Duncan Laurie Award, yet you’d be lucky to find any of his novels on the shelves at your local bookstore – trust me, I look.  So how come he isn’t as well known as other authors writing in the same genre? Unless you’ve read him, or are a super mystery novel aficionado, you may have never even heard of him. How come? Ali Karim asked the same question for an article in January magazine.

I buy his books whenever I find them and I hang on to them, usually until I can replace the one I am about to read with a new one. I like to have one waiting in the wings for the next time I need a fix.

Albert Jay Smalls is an odd little man who lives in a drain pipe in a local park. He’s been 237180arrested for the murder of a little girl. The problem is there’s no evidence and no witnesses and so the police can only hold him for twelve hours before they have to cut him loose. Thomas Burke, the chief of police ( a man with his own troubles) sends  his two best interrogators into the room to get a confession from Smalls.

The Interrogation is the story of those two cops, Norman Cohen and Jack Pierce. Each man has a heart full of demons (Cohen is haunted by his experiences in war; Pierce’s young daughter was a murder victim), but they are tenacious and accomplished interrogators. Since the story is set in 1952 they have to rely on the evidence they gather the old-fashioned way: visiting crime scenes, talking to people, chasing leads. There’s no Google and everything takes time and time isn’t on their side.

As Cohen and Pierce question Smalls and try to follow a breadcrumb trail, the reader will try to determine Smalls’ guilt or innocence too. Make no mistake, Cook’s novels are mysteries and half the fun is trying to figure out whodunit, but that’s not the only thing Cook’s got going on.

As with every single Cook novel I’ve read – his characters are really dynamic. You believe them from the minute they open their mouths. They have complicated interior lives. His heroes are always men trying to do the right thing – even when they can’t. Minor characters, like garbage collector Eddie Lambrusco, are equally well-drawn. Cook can create empathy with just a few word as he does when we watch Eddie handle his father’s watch and thinks

a laborer’s timepiece with its chinks and scratches and slightly skewed hands that circled turgidly around the yellowing dial. After a lifetime, he thought, this.

There are a lot of father/child motifs in The Interrogation –  dads who are helpless to save their children; dads who do everything for them; dads estranged from their children. It’s a theme Cook visits often and yet he always seems to have fresh things to say about the topic.

And like with virtually every Cook novel (I almost said book there and then thought better of it) I’ve read, the story’s resolution will be a surprise. It won’t feel like a cheat, either…because with Cook the clues always exist.

If you like mysteries that are thoughtful, intelligent and well-written – try to get your hands on Thomas H. Cook. You will not be disappointed.

Summer Reading 2016

Listen here.

So – it’s summer. I’ve got all this free time stretching out in front of me and all I can think about is – what am I going to read? It’s the perfect time to make a dent in my tbr pile and yet I keep buying more books. Ridiculous. I do have a reading plan and an anti-gravity deck chair…and an awesome new deck, so I thought I’d talk a little bit about what’s on tap for  my summer reading.

First of all, I promised my daughter, Mallory,  I’d read the complete Harry Potter series, which is 4224 pages. Yikes. I’ve actually read the first book and I’ve seen all the movies multiple times.

9780545162074_p0_v2_s1200x630Here’s a funny thing. The first Harry Potter book came out the year Mal was born and probably when she was about two I started to read it to her and I just couldn’t finish it. I just didn’t like it and she was too young. She was probably in middle school when she started reading the books on her own and I think she’s read the series a half dozen times or so. I subsequently fell in love with J.K. Rowling’s adult books, The Casual Vacancy and the Cormoran Strike books which she wrote as Robert Galbraith. (I’ve only read the first, The Cuckoo’s Calling.) I also think Rowling is an amazing human being – she gives away scads of  money, crazy amounts. Anyway, I will definitely be tackling Harry Potter this summer.

Here’s another book I should have read, but haven’t – A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway’s memoir of the time he spent living in Paris in the 1920s. I would say, generally speaking, that I am not a fan of Hemingway. I understand his place in the literary canon, but just not my cup of tea. Then I read The Paris Wife by Paula McLain. It’s a fictional account of Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson, and their time spent in Paris surrounded by the literati of the day: Gertude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound. I mean, you can’t really call yourself a literature lover and not be a little bit intrigued by those people. I highly recommend The Paris Wife and after I finished it,  I bought A Moveable Feast and my friend Karen has chosen Hemingay’s novel For Whom The Bell Tolls as our summer book club on FB. So, looks like I’ll be reading two Hemingways this summer.

Then – on top of all this, I am going to try to make some room to read some fun stuff. I started Martin Short’s memoir I Must Say a couple nights ago. I’ve been a life-long fan and I can hear all his voices – Ed Grimley and Jiminy Glick –  in my head.

I also have a couple thrillers on my bedside table, Christobel Kent’s The Crooked House, for example.

Speaking of thrillers, if anyone out there is looking to read a highly unusual thriller I can recommend M. R. Carey’s The Girl With All the Gifts. It’s a zombie apocalypse novel – not normally my cup of tea, but definitely worth checking out, especially if you like to read the book before you see the movie. Carey is quite a well-known writer of comic books, The X Men and Lucifer. The book takes place in the U.K. and concerns a heavily guarded compound where ten-year-old Melanie and other “hungries” are studied in the hopes of finding a cure for the world’s zombie problem. It’s quite a big problem, actually. Melanie is a wonderful character and the novel is action-packed, smart and kinda sad, too.

What are you planning to read this summer?



I’m Thinking of Ending Things – Iain Reid

Um. WTF? So, I saw I’m Thinking of Ending Things at the book store. Sounded good. Bought it. Read it straight through. Listened to author Iain Red talk about it on CBC Radio. You were no help at all, by the way, Iain, so I am going to work on the premise that I know what happened. Kinda. Sorta.

Im+Thinking+of+Ending+ThingsThe unnamed narrator and her boyfriend, Jake, are on their way to visit Jake’s parents for the very first time. Their relationship is new, but already the narrator is “thinking of ending things.”  It’s not that she doesn’t like Jake. They met at a party and she tells us “He wasn’t the first guy I noticed that night. But he was the most interesting.”

On the long, snowy drive to Jake’s family home Reid’s characters exchange awkward conversation about, among other things,  secrets, space, and memory. She remarks, “Part of everything will always be forgettable. No matter how good or remarkable it is. It literally has to be. To be.”

The journey also gives her an opportunity to catalogue her relationship with Jake. She mentions the way he chews, the toothpaste lingering on the corner of his mouth, his “jagged cheekbones.”  The narrator comments that “Individually, we’re both unspectacular.” But that isn’t exactly true.

When the narrator and Jake finally arrive at the family farm, it’s isolated and creepy. A tour of the outbuildings reveals dead lambs “Limp and lifeless, stacked  up outside against the side of the barn.” They visit empty pigpens and the chicken coop before the narrator catches a glimpse of a “gaunt figure, standing, looking down at us.” Don’t go in that house is probably what you’re thinking. You wouldn’t be wrong because from this point on I’m Thinking of Ending Things takes a turn off awkward street onto sinister avenue.

Jake’s parents are strange. His dad is “reserved, borderline standoffish.” Jake’s mom smiles a lot and is wearing “so much makeup I find it unsettling.” Dinner conversation is bizarre. Jake contributes nothing; “I have never seen Jake so singularly focused on his plate of food.”

A surreptitious tour of the house reveals a basement that Jake had claimed was not used, but which the narrator reveals is “not true at all.”  She discovers a disturbing painting and a bookshelf filled with pages and pages of equally disturbing drawings.

And all this would be enough to make your skin crawl, but Reid’s novel is not nearly as straightforward as this. For instance, the narrator has been receiving strange phone calls from someone she refers to as “The Caller.”  When she doesn’t answer, he leaves her strange, cryptic messages: “I feel a little crazy. I’m not lucid” says the first. The narrator also refers to a childhood memory of being watched through her bedroom window. Trying to figure out how these elements play into Reid’s narrative is half the fun of this puzzle of a book. Or half the frustration, depending on how you look at it.

By the novel’s conclusion, I thought I’d figured out what was going on. I actually thought I’d figured it out by page 88. If I’m right, I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a trippy, creepy thriller that pushes lots of suspense-thriller boundaries. It also has something to say about  identity and memory. Even if I’m not right – and we’ll never know because, hello – spoilers – it’s still a great book.

Highly recommended.