October 2018


cuckoo songI don’t think I have ever read a book quite like Frances Hardinge’s YA novel Cuckoo Song. I am not much of a fantasy fan, you know – word building and that sort of thing, but I was totally enchanted by Hardinge’s story, which is as much about grief and loss, as it is a creepy story about…well, I can’t really tell you.

I can tell you that the story follows 13-year-old Triss, who wakes up after falling into the Grimmer – a pond near the cottage where she is vacationing with her family. Her mother comforts her, telling Triss that she’s “just been ill again, that’s all. You had a fever, so of course you feel rotten and a bit muddled.”

Triss’s younger sister Penny, Pen for short, doesn’t seem all that thrilled with Triss’s recovery. “She’s pretending!” she screams, when she comes to Triss’s bedroom. “It’s fake! Can’t any of you tell the difference?”

Things just get weirder for Triss because even she has to admit that something isn’t quite right. For one thing, she has a voracious appetite – never mind easing herself back into the world of food, as “soon as she saw the first bowl of soup arrive, great crusty rolls on the side of the tray, her hands started to shake.” Triss is horrified to discover that food is not the only thing that will sate her hunger; she’ll willingly eat just about anything and lots of it.

Other strange things begin to happen in Triss’s life.  Dead leaves in her hair when she wakes up. Dolls that move in her hands. Dolls that speak to her. And then what’s with all the letters from her brother, Sebastian? Those letters are impossible because Sebastian was killed in the war.

Hardinge has created a masterful, creepy and mysterious novel that is both exciting and kind of heartbreaking. I don’t want to spoil the novel’s surprises, but I will say this: you won’t forget Triss because she is brave, endearing and clever. Her desire to solve the mystery of what’s happened to her keeps the plot ticking along, but her capacity for self -reflection and self-awareness is what makes her a character who will stay with you long after the last page is turned.

Highly recommended.

9BC8A38C-E581-4BB6-A29F-B5302D5437FCAlthough I didn’t lead the life of debauchery that Tess, the first-person narrator of Stephanie Danler’s novel Sweetbitter lives, I did spend most of my twenties working in the service industry.  Those were the best of times and the worst of times. For Tess, too.

Tess arrives in New York City without a plan. She’s 22-years-old and she left home to escape something – although she is perhaps not quite sure what:

The twin pillars of football and church? The low, faded homes on childless cul-de-sacs? Mornings of the Gazette and boxed doughnuts? The sedated, sentimental middle of it. It didn’t matter. I would never know exactly, for my life, like most, moved only imperceptibly and definitively forward.

She moves in with the friend of a friend, a guy with an apartment in Williamsburg. And then she scores an interview at New York’s most famous restaurant, a place in Union Square. Tess has no real experience (because you can’t count the coffee shop she worked at back home) and when Howard, the restaurant’s general manager asks her why she chose NY, Tess says “It really didn’t feel like a choice Where else is there to go?” She smiles too much; sweats through her sundress. And lands a job.

This job changes Tess. In some ways it chews her up and spits her out. She encounters lifers who make a lot of money – so much money, it’s understandable why they’ve chosen this life as their career.

One of these people is Simone – an ageless goddess who seems to know everything. Tess develops something of a crush on her, longs to be like her, hangs on her every word.

“Tasting is a farce,” Simone tells her. “The only way to know a wine is to take a few hours with it.”

Then there’s Jake, possessor of the pale, spectral eyes. His total disregard for her traps Tess in his orbit.

Of course, there are loads of other characters at the restaurant: the gay Russian, the cranky waitresses, the handsome owner who tells the staff that “The goal…is to make  the guests feel that we are on their side. Any business transaction – actually any life transaction – is negotiated by how you are making the other person feel.”

Tess  starts as a “backwaiter”, a job I’d call server assistant. It’s hot, thankless work, but Tess is a quick learner. She’s soon part of the family – drinking and snorting coke until the wee hours, sleeping, and doing it all again and again.

I had a few summers like that – without the coke snorting. I do remember running from the restaurant where I worked down to another bar and knocking back a drink during my fifteen-minute break. That was about as wild as it got for me. Still, I could relate to Tess and her topsy-turvey lifestyle. Up late into the night, sleeping late into the day. Always cash in your pocket.

Sweetbitter will definitely remind anyone who’s worked in the the restaurant business of those crazy days when those “loose, slippery bills” filled your pockets. But it is a business that can ruin you. Tess says that “What I didn’t see was the time had severe brackets around it. Within those brackets nothing else existed. Outside of them, all you could remember was a blur of temporary madness.”

I very much enjoyed my time with Tess. And I am very happy that those days are behind me.

Before Laine Green even hears her mother answer the phone, she knows that Leahlessons Greene is dead.

As I listen to her panicked voice, I feel the tiny bricks that have walled away certain memories continue to crumble….All I see behind my eyelids is Leah. Leah with her red-glossed lips. Leah standing above me. Leah telling our secret to a crowded room of strangers and my only friends in the world. Leah walking away, leaving me in the rubble of my ruined life.

Laine, the seventeen-year-old first person narrator of Jo Knowles’ YA novel Lessons From a Dead Girl, had willed Leah to die, had wanted it more than anything. And now that it is actually fait accompli, her feelings are complicated, an “overwhelming sense of guilt and fear.”

Once Lainey and Leah were best friends. Their older sisters were friends, and they’d decided that Leah and Laine should be pals, too. It’s an awkward relationship at first, for reasons that are obvious,  at least to Laine.

Leah is popular and I’m not. Leah is also beautiful. Everyone wants to be Leah’s best friend. But me? Most people don’t even know who I am.

When the pair are children, the forced friendship soon morphs into something more genuine…and then seems to morph into something else again. The girls practice being husband and wife in Lainey’s “doll closet”, a game that makes Lainey both uncomfortable and “tingly.”

It is easy to see why Lainey is so conflicted. She’s not like the other girls. Her hair is “like a boy’s, short and brown and messy. My striped shirt is too small and has a grass stain on the front. Even my face is dirty. I look like a boy. An ugly boy. And I feel like one, too. Why would Leah be my friend?”

That question is at the root of this compelling novel and as the girls grow up and their relationship shifts and strains against the warped rules of adolescent girlhood, their bond frays and eventually breaks. Laine chafes against the secret she is keeping, but Leah has a few troubling secrets of her own.

Lessons From a Dead Girl is a very different book from See You at Harry’s. Knowles writes with authority no matter the topic, and Laine’s journey from innocence is powerful and compelling.

 

I was a BIG fan of Claire Mackintosh’s first novel I Let You Go and so I was very 0155E57B-5748-4E40-A9CA-1BF823E44218
much looking forward to reading I See You. I think that had I discovered Mackintosh through this book, I would have likely been impressed, but ultimately it pales a little in comparison to her debut.

Zoe Walker, a divorced mother of two, lives in London with her kids and her boyfriend, Simon. She’s on the commute home one day when she sees a personal ad in the Gazette. It’s for a company called Find the One, which looks like a dating sight, and the picture in the advertisement is of her.

Zoe doesn’t pay much attention to the ad at first because, surely it’s not really her in the photo. Besides, there’s a lot of stuff going on at home. Her 22-year-old son, Justin, is just starting to get his act together, employed at a cafe owned by her next-door-neighbour and bestie, Melissa; her daughter, Katie, is growing up too fast for Zoe’s liking. Only Simon is a solid presence in her life – even though his relationship with Zoe’s kids is sometimes strained.

Mackintosh unravels the story of the mysterious advertisement through several points of view: Zoe, Kelly,  the police officer who finds a connection between Zoe’s ad and the attack of several other women, and an unnamed predator who is always watching.

I see you. But you don’t see me. You’re en grossed in your book; a paperback with a girl in a red dress. I can’t see the title but it doesn’t matter; they’re all the same. If it isn’t boy meets girl, it’s boy stalks girl. Boy kills girl.

The plot clicks along at a pretty good clip, chucking some plausible red herrings along the way, and ultimately ending up with a tidy (although somewhat implausible) conclusion. That said, I was totally invested in Zoe and her mounting suspicions about the people in her life. I will definitely read Let Me Lie.

Hmmm…yet another book about a therapist whose life is in shambles. This time it’sDE5C7121-EA75-4E9F-9BDC-AA702E37EEC3 Jessica Mayhew in Charlotte Williams’ novel The House on the Cliff.

Jessica is married to Bob and they live in Wales with their two young daughters. Their marriage isn’t rock-solid: Bob has recently admitted to a one-night stand, and Jessica is having a difficult time forgiving him. Understandably.

Enter  Gwydion Morgan.

I noticed immediately when he walked into the room that he was a remarkably handsome man, tall and broad-shouldered, with a natural grace in the way he carried himself. I judged him to be in his late twenties, or thereabouts.

Up close I could see that his eyes were green, fringed with thick, black lashes. I looked away. It seemed indecent to do anything else.

That instant attraction is bound to cause some professional conflict, just sayin’. Anyway, Gwydion has come to Jessica with a fear of buttons. Apparently it’s a thing: Koumpounphobia.

Gwydion is an actor on the cusp of his big break. He has a certain theatrical pedigree, too, because his father, Evan, is a brilliant but volatile theatre director. His mother, Arianrhod, is worried about her son’s mental health. Their relationship seems, to the casual observer, a tad co-dependent. When she calls Jessica concerned that Gwydion is suicidal – even though Jessica had seen no signs of this in their therapy – Jessica drives out to their house on the – you guessed it – cliff.

From the minute Jessica steps into the Morgan house, her life becomes entangled with theirs. There is definitely something going on in the house and with the family and Jessica is drawn to them, particularly Gwydion who is both erratic and impossibly attractive. The more time she tries to figure out what is going on, the more she drops the ball in her own life.

There is a Morgan family scandal at the centre of Gwydion’s story. Jessica begins behaving more like a detective and less like a therapist, but whether or not you actually believe someone would make some of the choices she makes or not  is actually beside the point. It’s all page-turning fun.

 

 

32555CAA-AE7E-4E76-8348-87072A3324C0Grace Sachs, the protagonist in Jean Hanff Korelitz’s compelling domestic thriller You Should Have Known, is an outspoken marriage counsellor who believes that women know from the very beginning if their partners are duds.

Over and over I’ve heard women describe their early interactions with their partner, and their early impressions of their partner. And listening to them, I continually thought: You knew right at the beginning. She knows he’s never going to stop looking at other women. She knows he can’t save money. She knows he’s contemptuous of her…But then she somehow lets herself unknow what she knows.

Grace’s tough talk is easy enough: she’s married to the perfect man, Jonathan, a pediatric oncologist and they have a twelve-year-old-son, Henry.

…she had chosen him, and now, as a result, she was having the right life, with the right husband, the right child, the right home, the right work.

Turns out, though, that all those rights actually make a wrong.

When the mother of one of the students at Henry’s school is murdered, the violent act opens up a fissure in Grace’s perfect life. First, her husband, who is away at a medical conference, stops answering her calls and texts. Then,  she discovers his phone  – not with him, but hidden in his bedside table. And then the police come knocking.

Grace’s life – it turns out – is a sham, and You Should Have Known unravels like any good thriller, stringing the reader (and Grace) along. The whodunit part of the story isn’t actually what’s interesting about Hanff Korelitz’s narrative though. It’s that Grace, a therapist who tells her patients to trust their guts, didn’t trust hers.

 

Dear Mrs. Bird by AJ Pearce is one of those frothy, inconsequential novels that is 54A58E82-4A09-4E79-93EB-33445980025A
easily read and just as easily forgotten. I actually read the first thirty pages or so and put it down; I only picked it back up and finished it because it was a book club pick and I hate going to book club without having read the book.

Emmeline Lake lives with her best friend, Bunty, in London during WW2. Emmeline works at a solicitor’s office and volunteers at the Auxiliary Fire Service, where Bunty’s boyfriend, William is a volunteer firefighter. What Emmeline aspires to, though, is becoming a Lady War Correspondent and she thinks she’s hit paydirt when she sees an advertisement in the paper for a Junior at The London Evening Chronicle.

For the last ten years – ever since I’d won a trip to the local newspaper as a prize for writing a quite dreadful poem when I was twelve – I had dreamt of a journalistic career.

Turns out, the job isn’t much more than glorified secretary to Mrs. Bird, Woman’s Friend’s  agony aunt. (Woman’s Friend being the poor relation to The Chronicle.)  Emmy is shocked and dismayed to realize that she’s taken the wrong job, but gives a “plucky Everything is Absolutely Tip Top Smile.”

Mrs. Bird has a strict policy about the sort of letters she will and will not answer in the magazine. Letters concerning marital or premarital or extramarital relations are to be binned. Mrs. Bird will not deign to answer queries about physical relations, illegal activity, politics, religion, the war or cooking. There’s also a long document containing a list of “Words and Phrases That Will Not Be Published Or Responded To By Mrs. Bird.”

Emmy feels stifled by her inability to help the people who write to Mrs. Bird looking for a light in what is clearly often a dark time. And this might have been an entertaining story, if it weren’t for the fact that Emmy is annoying and the story is pretty much a “you-can-see-it-coming-for-a-country-mile” romp.

For starters, Pearce capitalizes random phrases in the middle of sentences so, I think, you can hear how British and, well, to steal a phrase from Emmy herself, plucky these characters are.

Bunty said rather too quickly that the army always lets you know if something awful had happened so No News Is Good News and then Bill took up the baton and said Don’t You Worry, Emmy, Edmund Is Made Of Very Stern Stuff.

I can’t tell you how annoying that got after a while. The story sort of veers away from the letter writing, too, once the ‘tragedy’ happens. It all gets knit together in the end, though, So That’s All Right.

Ultimately, Dear Mrs. Bird wasn’t my cup of tea, even though it might have been a winner in different hands. I will be passing this book on to my 80-year-old aunt. I think she will love it.

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