The Silent Patient – Alex Michaelides

silentI guess I can see why The Silent Patient, Alex Michaelides’ debut novel, seemed to be on everyone’s radar over the past few months. It’s definitely one of those page-turners, the kind you stuff in your beach bag or read on the deck (which is where I read mine). But does it actually have a “twist that will make even the most seasoned suspense reader break out in a cold sweat” (Booklist)? Not so much.

Theo Faber became a psychotherapist because he was “fucked up.”

I was on a quest to help myself. I believe the same is true for most people who go into mental health. We are drawn to this profession because we are damaged – we study psychology to heal ourselves. Whether we are prepared to admit this or not is another question.

What is Theo’s childhood trauma, you might well ask? His father was/is an abusive dick; his mother a mostly mute witness to her husband’s shenanigans. So, from early on, readers know that Theo is damaged goods. Why he thought the psychiatry business was a good fit, we’ll never know, but his choice of profession should give readers pause. Holy unreliable narrator, Batman!

Theo has taken a new job as a forensic psychotherapist at the Grove because Alicia Berenson is there. Alicia, an up and coming painter, killed her husband, Gabriel, a well-known photographer six years ago. She hasn’t spoken a word since. Theo is convinced that he can help her.

The Silent Patient follows Theo’s determined quest to free Alicia from her self-imposed silent prison. That would probably get pretty boring, though, so we’re also privy to Alicia’s journal entries. (How else would we get to know anything about what really happened?)

The problem with all of this, though, is there is nothing much to see in either case. Theo chases around London talking to the people from Alicia’s life: her cousin, Paul; her art dealer, Jean-Felix; her brother-in-law, Max. These conversations don’t really yield anything interesting; readers will have to rely on Alicia’s journal to fill in the blanks. (Her journal often quotes entire conversations verbatim, which is just odd. It’s a diary, not a court transcript.)

So, while The Silent Patient was certainly easy (easy really is the operative word here; the prose is straight-forward and unembellished) to read, did it add anything new to the thriller genre? Not really. The characters, virtually all of them,  are one-dimensional. I didn’t particularly like or care for any of them, meaning I didn’t really have any skin in the game. They seemed more like chess pieces Michaelides moved around the board to suit the plot. This is a story that is trying to be more than the sum of its parts, but its parts are just not that interesting.

 

 

 

The Thousand Dollar Tan Line & Mr. Kiss and Tell by Rob Thomas and Jennifer Graham

I have a confession to make. I am a fangirl.

DavidCassidy-shaghaircutAt first it was just me and my Tigerbeat magazines. Posters on my bedroom wall. The usual suspects – given my age: David Cassidy. Robby Benson. Richard Gere. Around the time my son was born, I discovered Buffy the Vampire Slayer and that was a game changer. I just happened to catch the end of season three, that moment when Buffy and Angel stare at each other across the smoking ruins of Sunnydale High and I was all Who is that?  This was before PVRs. I rented the previous seasons of Buffy at Blockbuster and when the new season started I was ready. Then I discovered fanfiction. Well, fandom in general. I met amazing people. I attended conventions in Las Vegas and Atlanta. For about a decade I was all-in. Then, of course, life gets busier and the shows ended and I sort of drifted away from fandom.

veronica mars1Flash forward a decade or so and at the encouragement of one of my friends from the Buffy fandom, I started watching Veronica Mars. Veronica Mars (2004 – 2007) is of roughly the same vintage as Buffy (1997- 2004) and in fact several Buffy actors appear on Veronica Mars including Allison Hannigan, Charisma Carpenter and Buffy creator Joss Whedon. I watched the first three seasons of Veronica Mars in about ten days. Then I rented the movie, which I watched three times. I knew season 4 was due to be released tomorrow, and my intention was to watch the series straight through again before then, but the new series dropped a week early. I am two episodes away from finishing season 4 and managed to remain spoiler free until I inadvertently saw something which literally made me feel ill. I am sick with anticipation. (I have now seen the entire eight episodes and I am shaking my fist at you Rob Thomas!)

So, what’s a fangirl to do? First stop Archive of Our Own. That’s really the premiere site for all your fanfiction needs. It used to be Fanfiction. net before they got all uptight about smut. I’ve been out of the fic game for so long and so in order to expedite the process (aka avoid reading junk) I asked my Buffy friends for some names. Someone recommended giving the Veronica Mars books a go. Wait? There are books? And sure enough, there are.

Veronica Mars, when the series opens, is a seventeen-year-old high school student who lives with her dad, Keith, in Neptune, California, a sort of seedy beach town near San Diego. The town is divided by wealth. There’s the very, very rich, those who live in the ’09 zip code (known as 09ers) and then there’s everyone else. When the series opens, Veronica is on the outside looking in. Once, she’d been part of the rich crowd because she was dating Duncan Kane, son of the richest guy in Neptune. Veronica’s best friend was Lilly Kane, Duncan’s sister. She had a little extra cache because her father was the town sheriff. When the series begins, though, Lilly has been murdered. Keith, for accusing Mr. Kane of playing a part in his daughter’s death, has been run out of office, and no one is speaking to Veronica.  The series is populated with fantastic characters. There’s Eli ‘Weevil’ Navarro, leader of Neptune’s notorious PCH  bike gang; Wallace Fennel, a new kid who becomes Veronica’s bestie; Cindy “Mac” Mackenzie, a computer whiz, Dick Casablancas, a rich, entitled surf rat and Logan Echolls, son of movie star Aaron Echolls and Lilly’s boyfriend.

Over the course of three seasons, friendships are tested, alliances made and broken, and mysteries solved because that’s what Veronica does. Like her vampire-slaying contemporary, Buffy, Veronica is smart and fearless and tenacious. Like Buffy, she has to juggle her own personal life with her driving need to get to the truth of things, even if the truth often puts her in harm’s way. Like Buffy, she’s just a girl.

The show was created by Rob Thomas (not Matchbox 20‘s Rob Thomas) and it is whip-smart, filled with witty writing, heartache, laugh-out-loud zingers and clever mysteries. The acting is stellar, particularly Kristen Bell as Veronica. I loved the show. Well, loved might be an understatement.

The movie, funded by a kickstarter project  came out in 2014 and takes place about nine years after the series ended. I won’t spoil anything, but it’s a must-watch if you are going to watch season 4.

veronica marsThe two Veronica Mars novels take place after the end of the movie and so while they probably aren’t necessary I loved them. Rob Thomas considers them 98% canon and as he wrote them, along with Jennifer Graham, I think they are really must-reads for any fan of the show.

The first, The Thousand Dollar Tan Line, is the story of a girl who goes missing during Neptune’s notorious spring break. Veronica is called upon to investigate and she is soon plunged into a dangerous world of drug cartels and organized crime. When a second girl goes missing, things become even more complicated because it brings someone from Veronica’s past back into her life.

The second book, Mr. Kiss and Tell, is the story of a girl, the younger sister of one of Veronica’s high school classmates, who is found badly beaten in a field. She identifies someone who worked at the Neptune Grand as the assailant, but that man has fled the country because he was in the US illegally. The victim is trying to sue the hotel for damages and Veronica has been hired by the hotel to disprove the victim’s claims. Of course, like with every single Mars investigation, things are not as they seem.

If you had no prior knowledge of the show, I think you could still enjoy these two books as straight up mysteries. There are the requisite red herrings, clues, action – all the stuff mystery fans would like. But for fans of the show there’s going to be a little extra something something.

And really, if you haven’t watched Veronica Mars you are in for a real treat. I haven’t fangirl squee’d like this in years. (But I am still shaking my fist, Rob!)

A Velocity of Being – M. Popova & C. Bedrick

Marie Kondo says that your possessions should spark joy.  She also says that about 30 books is the magic number. She and I would not get along. At all. Books are talismans and touchstones and time machines. I wish that I still had every book I ever owned, but we moved a lot when I was growing up and I’ve moved a lot as an adult and it’s just not possible to save everything. Still, like Stephen King, I believe in the “portable magic”of books.

So do the people in Maria Popova and Claudia Bedrick’s beautiful book A Velocity ofvelocity of being Being. They’ve gathered letters from a variety of well-known (and less well-known) artists, writers, thinkers, scientists, musicians and philosophers. These letters are addressed to young readers and each letter is accompanied by bookish art. It’s a win-win book for me.

Popova begins the book’s introduction this way

When asked in a famous questionnaire devised by the great French writer Marcel Proust about his idea of perfect happiness, David Bowie answered simple: “Reading.”

I couldn’t agree more. I have whiled away many wonderful hours with books. My love affair began early. Both my parents were readers and there were always books in my house. My mother read to my brothers and me from the time we were babies and I have very specific memories of her not being able to get through O. Henry’s story  “The Ransom of Red Chief” without breaking down in uncontrollable giggles. She loved Uncle Wiggly, too and Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verse.

When I started reading on my own, I fell in love with the Bobbsey Twins and Trixie Beldon and Cherry Aames. I was really an equal opportunity reader. So reading A Velocity of Being is like being with my tribe. These are people who, like me, understand the particular joys of words words on a page. Their stories and recollections made me smile, laugh, tear up and nod my ahead in agreement.

For example, poet, essayist and naturalist Diane Ackerman writes “No matter where life takes you, you’re never alone with a book, which becomes a tutor, a wit, a mind-sharpener, a soulmate, a performer, a sage, a verbal bouquet for a loved one. Books are borrowed minds, and because they capture the soul of a people, they explore and celebrate all it means to be human. Long live their indelible magic.”

Rebecca Solnit, writer, historian and activist, reminds us that although “Nearly every book has the same architecture – cover, spine, pages – […] you open them onto worlds and gifts far beyond what paper and ink are, and on the inside they are every shape and power.”

And Helen Fagin, born in 1918, reminds us that “To read a book and surrender to a story is to keep our very humanity alive.”

All proceeds from the sale of A Velocity of Being will benefit the New York public library system. Really, everyone should have a copy. I can’t wait to share some of these letters with my students in the fall…and perhaps even have them write their own odes to reading.

 

Out of Sight – Isabelle Grey

Out of Sight, by British writer Isabelle Grey, is the story of  Patrickoutofsight Hinde, a homeopath who, when the novel opens, lives with his wife, Belinda, and young son, Daniel, in Brighton. He has a happy life, for the most part, except for the stress brought on when his parents visit. He seems to be a bottled up sort of fellow and although he is capable of offering impartial advice to his patients, I wonder if he wouldn’t benefit from his own advice. As the novel goes on, readers will become aware of Patrick’s own emotional trauma, a condition he describes as “An inherited predisposition…something that leaves a residue which has a negative impact on the vital force.”

Flash forward five years and meet Patrice (aka Patrick) who is now living in the house his grandmother Josette left him in France. Leonie, another Brit who is working in the same small town as a letting agent for holiday properties, meets Patrice and is immediately smitten. Patrice proves to be a bit cagey, but despite his reticence to share feelings or disclose too much about his life, Leonie sets her romantic sights on him.

Leonie, for her part, is still recovering from a recent break-up. You’d think she’d know better than to put all her romantic eggs into Patrice’s clearly flawed basket, but she’s keen on him. The heart wants what it wants, that sort of thing, even though Patrice tells her he doesn’t “want [her] thinking he’s a good bet when [he’s] not.”

Patrice’s reluctance to get too involved with Leonie is legitimate. There’s nothing sinister about it, though, although you might be mislead by the novel’s tagline “A moment of madness. A family changed forever.” For some reason I was under the impression that Out of Sight  was going to be sort of a thriller and it’s really not.

I didn’t dislike Out of Sight, but I didn’t love it either. I found Leonie tiresome and although I don’t dispute the fact that Patrick’s trauma is worthy of sympathy, at the end of the day the book lacked any real emotional heft for me.

Little Fires Everywhere – Celeste Ng

littlefires“Sometimes you need to scorch everything to the ground and start over,” Mia tells Izzy in Celeste Ng’s second novel Little Fires EverywhereI read Ng’s first novel Everything I Never Told You a couple years ago and I love that book. So much. Little Fires Everywhere is also excellent. There is no doubt that I will buy and read whatever Ng writes going forward.

Shaker Heights, Ohio is America’s first planned community with rules determining what colour your house can be painted and where schools are placed so that children don’t have to cross any major streets.

The underlying philosophy being that everything could – and should – be planned out, and that by doing so you could avoid the unseemly, the unpleasant, and the disastrous.

Elena Richardson believes in the defining principles of Shaker Heights and, in fact, that’s the way she runs her household and her life. Her three oldest children Lexie, Trip, Moody seem to tow the family line. Her youngest, Izzy, is more of a problem child and when the novel opens “Everyone was talking about […] how Isabelle, the last of the Richardson children, had finally gone around the bend and burned the house down.”

What would compel Izzy to commit such an act?  Meet Mia and Pearl. They’ve just moved into the Richardson’s rental property. Mia is an artist and Pearl her intelligent fifteen-year-old-daughter. When Pearl and Moody become friends, the two families’ lives intersect. In the Richardsons Pearl sees “a state of domestic perfection” and in Mia Izzy has someone who understands her and listens to her.

Little Fires Everywhere is a book about motherhood and it asks important questions about what it means to be a mother. Are you a mother because you’ve given birth? Is it a choice? Is a relationship between a mother and their child automatic or is it something that must be cultivated beyond mere biology? What happens if you give up a child? Do you have the right to change your mind?

Free-spirited Mia worries that her daughter is perhaps being unduly influenced by the Richardsons and wonders “if it was right for her daughter to fall under the spell of a family so entirely.” She and Pearl have always been vagabonds, moving from place to place in search of inspiration for Mia’s photography. Now she has promised Pearl that they will stay put.

In Mia, Izzy finds a sort of surrogate mother, someone who listens to her complaints about the state of her world and asks her what she intends to do about it. “Until now her life had been one of mute, futile fury” but Mia encourages her to consider her options.

This is a book that is very female-centric. We don’t spend a lot of time with the men, but that’s okay, the women are fascinating. Their hopes and dreams, some derailed by circumstance, others by choice, are worthy of close inspection. I loved my time in Shaker Heights. Little Fires Everywhere  is filled with stymied, passionate, damaged, beautiful and complicated characters, and like Everything I Never Told You  there is something about the way Ng tells a story that just keeps you turning the pages to get to the end. Then, you want to start all over to spend more time with her magnificent characters.

Highly recommended (and not just by me. The accolades are endless.)

Design Your Next Chapter – Debbie Travis

I have been a longtime fan of Debbie Travis. Here in Canada she was on the leading edge of the decorating show craze beginning with Painted House, a show about faux. She went on to develop several other decorating shows, some she starred in, some she produced with her husband Hans.

Life took a turn for her while she was on vacation in Thailand. On her last day, shedebbietraviscomposite decided to have a detoxifying sauna. After only eight minutes, she recalls in Design Your Next Chapter, she was “deathly bored with my own company.” In an effort to distract herself, she started reading a paperback someone had left behind. It was about finding personal happiness.

Travis knew she had many things to be grateful for but “The book had asked one simple question: Was I happy? It rocked me to the core.”

Travis couldn’t stop thinking about the question of personal happiness.

I’d realized what made me truly happy were just three things: being with my children, being with my priceless friends, and being with my beloved husband. On the plane home, I had to admit that I was not spending enough time with these precious people.

Serendipitous perhaps, but Travis was seated next to a monk on the flight home from Thailand. Seeing that she was still visibly upset, he asked if he could help and Travis poured out her confusion and distress.

His advice was simple: “Change your priorities, change your attitude – focus on what makes you happy before you run out of time.”

And that, in a nutshell, is what Travis has done, and is offering to help readers do in Design Your Next Chapter.

A spontaneous meal with a family while on holiday in Italy with Hans, had “lit up in [Travis’s] head like a beacon.” You know the rest of the story, but if you don’t, it’s documented in a six-part series called La Dolce Debbie. Although it didn’t happen overnight, she and Hans eventually found a Tuscan property which they renovated over five years. Now she hosts groups of women (mostly) who are looking for a way to redesign their own lives. Read more about that here.

I read Design Your Next Chapter  while sitting on my back deck on a beautiful summer afternoon. Although Travis doesn’t profess to be a self-help expert, she is a woman who has been successful at a great many things. Her advice, and she does offer some, is mostly common sense, but I think the best advice often is. We may know what we need to do to fix what’s broken in our lives, but we sometimes lack the impetus to make the necessary changes. Travis offers practical suggestions for taking meaningful steps towards personal happiness. You really can’t argue with that.

I’ve been to Italy twice with my three dearest girlfriends. It’s a magical place. Many of the examples Travis uses in her book come from the retreats she offers at her villa. In the evening, the women gather with their Prosecco and share their stories. There’s a lot of power in that, I think. Although I like my life and my job, I have hit a few bumps along the way and I know that I am sometimes my own worst enemy. I’d give anything to sit under Travis’ olive tree and listen to people share their own stories. This is a bucket list item for sure.

Design Your Next Chapter is not quite the same as what I imagine the experience of being in Italy with Travis herself might be, but it’s definitely worth the virtual visit. So, pour yourself a cold glass of Prosecco and let your  journey towards personal happiness begin.

italy

This is Michelle, me, Sheila and Diane on our first Italian adventure in 2012. We were in Cortona.

 

 

 

You – Joanna Briscoe

youjoannabriscoeYou, by new-to-me author Joanna Briscoe, is the elliptical story of two families, the Bannans and the Dahls, whose lives first intersect in Dartmoor, England in the 1970s.

Dora and Patrick Bannan have moved into a dilapidated longhouse, Wind Tor House, with their children. The house is in rough shape and soon there are various “men with foxy beards and fluty women in dresses resembling aprons” living in various outbuildings on the property, ostensibly to help with the mortgage or help fix up the property with their labour.

Cecilia, the middle child, is an adult returning to Wind Tor when the novel opens. She and her partner, Ari, and their three daughters have moved back to her childhood home to help Cecilia’s mother recover from breast cancer and to hopefully patch up a rocky relationship. But the move sends her spinning back to when she was seventeen and “slender and omnipotent and powerless.”

That’s when Cecilia first meets James Dahl, an English teacher at the local school, a bohemian place called Haye House. Cecilia feels like a misfit there; she’s a bookish, dreamy girl and “she couldn’t even pretend to relax in a school where class attendance was voluntary and children swarmed naked across the lawns.” Mr. Dahl and his wife Elizabeth have come to teach at Haye House and their arrival changes everything.

At fifteen, Cecilia is almost immediately smitten with Mr. Dahl. He’s beautiful and the two bond over a shared love of literature. Briscoe does a beautiful job of capturing  those impossible feelings of longing  as Mr. Dahl opens first Cecelia’s mind and then her heart.

But James is not the only Dahl making an impression. Dora is also teaching at Haye House (Wind Tor is proving impossible to maintain and she has the marketable skills) and she is as drawn to Elizabeth Dahl as her daughter is to James.

Dora couldn’t tell anyone. It was imperative. Distraction had come upon her and yet she had barely noticed its arrival, its source was so outlandish. Elizabeth Dahl, that wife, mother, new housemistress at the school – above all, that woman – was nagging at her thoughts, staining them, unsettling her.

You hops back and forth in time as the Bannan women navigate their untenable circumstances. Dora is married and her attraction to another woman is, even in the bohemian 70s, unthinkable. James is more than 20 years older than Cecilia and their relationship is fraught. Both mother and daughter keep secrets from each other, but as we all know the truth will out. Cecilia’s return to Wind Tor reveals the fault lines and complicates her already complicated life in unexpected ways.

I loved this book. The poetic writing reminded me of one of my favourite British authors, Helen Dunmore.  It’s a book to savour, even though you desperately want to know how this riveting family drama is going to play out. And the ending….perfection, although it is perhaps slightly too loose-endy for some readers.

Highly recommended.