The End of Your Life Book Club – Will Schwalbe

Will Schwalbe’s memoir, The End of Your Life Book Club, is about the last couple of years before his mother’s death from pancreatic cancer and it is a beautiful tribute to family, faith, hope and books. Always books. This book has been languishing on my tbr shelf for ages and it’s one of those books that when I finished, with a satisfied sigh and perhaps a tear or two, I thought I wish I’d picked you up sooner. I guess Schwalbe and his mom, Mary Anne, might say that the book found me at the right time.

I imagine Schwalbe’s family as sort of East Coast aristocracy, without the snobbish bits. His parents both worked in academia, and then his father got into concert management. Schwalbe describes his mother as “the hub” of the family.

Mom didn’t confine herself to coordinating our lives. She was also helping to coordinate, almost always at their request, the lives of hundreds of others: at her church at The Woman’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children (she’d been the founding director), at the International Rescue Committee (she’d been board staff liaison and founded the IRC’s UK branch), and at all the other myriad organizations where she’d worked or served on boards.

Mary Anne is clearly a force to be reckoned with and her cancer diagnosis is a setback not a death sentence. She’s diagnosed in 2007, first with hepatitis, and then eventually with pancreatic cancer. Mary Anne’s oncologist calls her cancer “treatable but not curable”, and these words offer Mary Anne and her family (her husband, and Schwalbe’s brother and sister) hope.

The Schwalbe family have always been readers and soon Will and his mother have formed a book club of two, reading and discussing a variety of books over the long hours at Memorial Sloan-Kettering in NYC, where Mary Anne gets her hope by way of chemotherapy.

Our book club got its formal start with the mocha and one of the most casual questions two people can ask each other: What are you reading?

Beginning with Wallace Stegner’s 1987 novel Crossing to Safety, a book which I read many years ago, the mother and son read their way through classics, non-fiction, popular fiction and do what any book lovers do – debate, deconstruct and discuss. They don’t always agree, but they appreciate each other’s choices, and as any reader knows many a great discussion can be had even if you didn’t necessarily love the book. These discussions also allow them to share their lives with each other in a meaningful way. Schwalbe is hyper aware that he knows his mother as ‘mom’, the person who kept his world on its axis, but perhaps he doesn’t know her quite so well as Mary Anne, the woman. This is his opportunity.

Mary Anne’s faith is the constant in her journey, and although Schwalbe doesn’t share her certainty about God and the afterlife, he is buoyed by hers. Mary Anne constantly sees the upside. When hearing of a friend’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis she says “I feel so lucky […] I can’t imagine what it would be like not to be able to know the people I love, or to read, or to remember books I’ve read or to visit my favorite places and remember everything that happened there, all the wonderful times. “

The End of Your Life Book Club is not as maudlin as it might sound. It’s a beautiful book that reminds us of the value and irreplaceable nature of family, and reminds us how important it is to cultivate relations with the people in our lives. Mary Anne struck me as the kind of woman who looked you in the eye when she talked to you. As Schwalbe reminds us “we’re all in the end-of-our-life book club, whether we acknowledge it or not; each book we read may well be our last, each conversation the final one.”

Highly recommended.

Hamnet & Judith – Maggie O’Farrell

Very little is actually known about William Shakespeare, the man (I believe is) responsible for writing some of the most beautiful poetry ever committed to paper. His plays are still produced some 400 years after his death. He is a mainstay of English Language Arts curriculums the world over. In fact, I am just beginning to look at Romeo and Juliet with my Grade 10 classes. It is a play I love to talk about and I can totally trace my love of angst back to my first exposure to it in 1977.

Maggie O’Farrell’s novel Hamnet & Judith tells the story of an unnamed man (clearly Shakespeare) and his wife, Agnes (more commonly known to us as Anne) from their first meeting, through the birth of their first daughter, Susanna, followed by the arrival of their twins, Hamnet and Judith. The novel bounces forwards and backwards in time, but somehow still manages to move forward to its perfect (yet heartbreaking) conclusion.

Agnes is really the central character in O’Farrell’s novel. She and her brother Bartholomew (loved him!), have been orphaned by the death of first their mother, and then years later their father. Now they live with their unkind stepmother, Joan, and a gaggle of step siblings. The tutor who is teaching Agnes’s younger brothers, becomes enamoured with Agnes when he sees a figure out walking in the fields with a hawk on her arm.

She has a certain notoriety in these parts. It is said that she is strange, touched, peculiar, perhaps mad. He has heard that she wanders the back roads and forests at will, unaccompanied, collecting plants to make dubious potions.

It is said that the stepmother lives in terror of the girl putting hexes on her, especially now the yeoman is dead. Her father must have loved her, though, because he left her a sizable dowry in his will. Not that anyone, of course, would want to wed her. She is said to be too wild for any man.

Hamnet & Judith concerns the relationship between Agnes and the tutor, a relationship that seems quite modern, actually. Agnes soon learns that the tutor needs out from under his father’s controlling hand and she finds a way to give him his freedom, although I think it does come at great personal cost to her. The way they are portrayed in this novel, one could never doubt their love for one another.

It also concerns the relationship between Judith and Hamnet. The novel actually begins when Hamnet, 11, discovers his sister very ill. It is plague times, of course, and O’Farrell even includes a chapter in the book that explains how Judith came to be ill – from a flea that traveled in a container of glass beads all the way from Murano, Italy. Of course, it is not Judith who dies – I hope that’s not a spoiler – and four years after Hamnet’s death, his father writes, perhaps, his most famous play, Hamlet.

Ultimately, this is a novel about family. It’s about grief, and watching Agnes mourn the loss of her son is absolutely heart-wrenching. It is about the minutiae of daily life. Given that we are experiencing a global pandemic, it’s difficult not to see the parallels despite the 400 years that separate our story from this one. Let’s not forget, although O’Farrell’s story is fiction, Shakespeare and his family were very real.

I loved this book. It’s more than worthy of the praise.

Corrupt – Penelope Douglas

If you are a fan of Penelope Douglas, I suggest you skip this review as you won’t be happy. Kind of like I wasn’t happy that I paid $30 for this brick of utter shite.

Some context.

I occasionally watch book tubers to see what they are recommending. One night I watched this girl talk passionately about the enemies to lovers trope and even though she was WAYYYYY younger than me, it is a trope I enjoy, although I guess my kink is more specifically bad boy/good girl. Still, I like a well-written, smutty book. If it’s a little on the dark side: bonus. So I went looking for the book she really liked: Corrupt by Penelope Douglas (apparently a NY Times best selling author, although Corrupt was clearly self-published.) I couldn’t find it on Amazon or Indigo, but I was able to order it from Book Depository, so I did. (This is how impressive this book tuber’s sales pitch was; I felt as though I MUST read this book.)

So the book arrives. I knew then. The same way that I knew Colleen Hoover’s much-loved-by-anyone-that-is-not-me book Verity was going to suck when it arrived. Just a feeling based on the physical object alone.

So, what is Corrupt about? Please know that there will be spoilers galore in this review so if you really think you want read this book – and I implore you not to waste your time as I will provide, at the end of this review, a list of MUCH better books to read – you have been warned.

SUMMARY: Erika Fane is in love with Michael Crist, her ex-boyfriend Trevor’s older brother. Michael was a big deal when he was at school, and now he’s a professional basketball player. Erika is about to go off to her second year of college in another city and she can’t wait to get away from her mother, who has been in a drug-induced lethargy since Erika’s father died, and Trevor, who irritates her. Trevor and Michael’s family are loaded. So is Erika’s family. Michael is HOTHOTHOT. So is Erika – who for some reason that makes no sense, is called Rika. So, how old are these people? Erika is 19 and Michael is 23 or 24…making Corrupt New Adult. Anyway, Erika has always believed that Michael hates her, especially after what happened when she was sixteen and she ended up hanging out with Michael and his three besties Kai, Will and Damon, collectively known as The Four Horseman. Their Devil’s Night pranks landed Kai, Damon and Will in jail for three years, but now they’re out and they’re looking for revenge. That’s where Michael comes in: he’s going to help them because, after all, he hates Rika, too. Only not so much.

WHY IT’S GAWDAWFUL:

  1. No one behaves the way these people do. Seriously. No one. Can we just have some sensical character development, please? Here’s my best example of crazy town. Once everyone but Damon realizes that Rika is NOT the reason three of the four horsemen ended up in the clink, Michael and Erika settle into the relationship we’re all supposed to be rooting for. They start to make out in a steam room, only to discover that Kai is also in the steam room. So, what’s a girl to do?

He looked so alone all the time, and tears lodged in my throat, because we’d all been changed forever. Michael had hated, because he couldn’t take being helpless. Kai had suffered, because his limits had been pushed, I’d gathered. And I had struggled to find out who I was and where I belonged for so long.

“Touch me,” I whispered. “Please.”

Yep – Rika’s road to healing for the three of them is hot three-way sex in a steam room. Is Michael jealous? No, he’s woke. “You’re fucking perfect,” he tells her before encouraging her to “Show me how much you like my friend eating your pussy.” This is the road to a perfect, healthy relationship.

And before you accuse me of being a puritan, I am most definitely not. Get it on, I don’t care. My problem is that a New York minute ago, Michael and his friends were trying to make Erika’s life a living hell by standing outside her bedroom window at night wearing their ridiculous masks, by cutting her off financially (Michael can do this because his father looks after the Fane estate), by making her mother disappear, by threatening her with bodily harm. All is forgiven, though, if you can make a girl come. Am I right?

2. Douglas is a fan of repeating herself. One of the irritating ways she does this is by telling us what song is on the car radio, the CD player, the wherever music comes from

  • “Starting the car, 37 Stitches by Drowning Pool poured out of the speakers…” p 11
  • “Slipknot’s The Devil in I blared through the classroom…” p 20
  • “Like a Storm’s Love the Way You Hate Me echoed all around me…” p 72
  • The Vengeful One by Disturbed echoed through the house…” p. 110

I could go on (and on), but you get the point. Yes, Ms. Douglas, you clearly have a playlist.

Douglas has other little writing ticks. For instance, Michael often fists Rika’s hair – straight out of the porn handbook. Rika often folds her lips between her teeth. Michael is always pulling Rika back by the front of her neck, which I believe is called the throat. When I start to notice clunkiness, that’s all I notice.

3. It’s borderline misogynistic. We’re supposed to believe that Michael’s feelings for Rika are just as powerful as Rika’s feelings for Michael, yet he often treats her like shit.

He ignored me, condescended, and insulted on occasion, but the cruelty hurt beyond words.

“That was English, Rika,” he barked, making me jump. “A dog listens better than you.”

OR

She was only a floor away, and I had the key to her apartment burning a hole in my pocket. I needed her on her hands and knees as I took whatever I wanted, whenever and however hard I wanted it.

OR

He let out an aggravated sigh. “Your fucking mouth never stops, does it?”

And let’s not forget the time when the Four Horsemen tell Rika about the girl who was drugged and raped in an old church basement where everyone hangs out at to party. They didn’t catch all the guys who had a go at her. There’s still at least four running around, Michael makes a point to tell her. Good times.

This is the guy Rika can’t stop thinking about? We’re supposed to be all in? Dear Lord. Girls, just because a guy is hot and makes your panties moist doesn’t mean he’s a good guy. And we’re supposed to understand Michael because he’s just trying to help his buddies out? His number one rule regarding Rika is “Don’t be alone with her” because he wants her and the heart dick wants what it wants.

There was nothing redeeming about this story. The characters were one dimensional. The plot, nonsensical. The writing – well, I’ve read wayyyy better fanfiction. So why in the hell did I keep reading it? Maybe because I paid $30. Maybe because it has loads of positive reviews. Maybe because I’m a masochist. I dunno, but if you want to read books of the same ilk that are worth your time and effort (New Adult/YA/and Adult), here are some titles for your consideration.

  1. Easy – Tammara Webber (NA)
  2. Breakable – Tammara Webber (NA, companion to Easy)
  3. Perfect Chemistry – Simone Elkeles (YA)
  4. Topping From Below – Laura Reese (Adult/graphic)
  5. How Not to Fall – Emily Foster (Adult, not bad boy/good girl, but smutty fun)
  6. Velocity – Kristin McCloy

The Lesser Dead – Christopher Buehlman

I think vampire stories are difficult to do well. Do you mess with the tropes? Do you make them evil or angsty? Should they sparkle? Have a conscience? Be sexy? Ruthless killers? Earlier this year I re-read Nancy Baker’s The Night Inside and it didn’t quite hold up to my memories of it. Christopher Buehlman’s 2014 book The Lesser Dead is, on the other hand, a fabulous book about vampires, if bloodsuckers are a thing you enjoy.

Joey Peacock was just fourteen when he was turned in 1933. Now it’s 1978 and Joey lives with an ad hoc family of vamps in the unused subway tunnels of New York City. His first person narrative is both funny and kind of heartbreaking.

If you’re looking for a story about nice people doing nice things, this isn’t for you. You will be burdened with an unreliable narrator who will disappoint and repel you at every turn.

Still with me?

Too bad for you.

I can’t wait to break your heart

Joey tells us a tale of monsters and warns readers that “if you like those stories, it means you’re bad.” He spends the early part of his story explaining how he and the others live, their hierarchy and how they hunt. He tells us the story of how he came to be a vampire and it’s a life he likes just fine. Then, one night, he sees something peculiar on the subway.

It was a kid. A little girl. Long black hair like an Oriental, but she was Anglo. Pale skin. Pretty but haunted. She was sitting two seats closer than she had been, though I never saw her move, holding a Raggedy Ann doll she didn’t seem interested in. She was looking at briefcase-hooker-notepad guy.

He looked back at her. And stared. It was all wrong.

This won’t be the only time Joey encounters this little girl, and the other children she hangs with. Their arrival in NYC starts a chain of events that is gory, horrifying and a lot of fun to read.

It’s interesting to read a vampire story that respects the lore, but isn’t afraid to tweak it a little. These vampires can eat and drink, but it’s only for show; food of the non-blood variety upsets their tummies. Sunlight. Not good. Thrall – totally a thing. Decapitation – end of the road for a vampire in this world. I loved all these little details.

I also loved the other vampires who shared Joey’s life: Margaret, their leader; Cvetko, Old Boy, Ruth, Billy and Luna are among the fourteen vampires in Joey’s immediate circle. Of them, he’s closest to Cvetko, who was turned around 1890. He’s the scholar in the group and acts, in some ways, as Joey’s mentor. Television, he tells Joey, will rot his brain. Joey describes Cvetko as a “charming but endearing calamity.”

The Lesser Dead is a great book and Joey is a fantastic narrator. I loved the time I spent with him trolling the tunnels of NYC and trying to do the right thing. Turns out, some vampires do care a great deal for humanity, even if their reasons are somewhat selfish.

Highly recommended.

The Cousins – Karen M McManus

Milly, Aubrey and Jonah Story have been invited to spend the summer on Gull Cove Island by their grandmother, Mildred. That might not be an out-of-the-ordinary invitation for some people, but it is for these three teens. For one thing, they’ve never met their grandmother. For another, they haven’t seen each other for years and their parents (Milly’s mom and Aubrey and Jonah’s dads) are also estranged. So, it’s a weird request all-around.

Gull Cove Island was a little-known haven for artists and hippies when Abraham Story turned it into what it is today: a place where rich and semifamous people spend ridiculous amounts of money pretending they’re getting back to nature.

Milly’s mother, Allison, is anxious for her daughter to go. Twenty four years ago, she and her brothers (Adam, Anders and Archer) had each received a letter from their mother which said “You know what you did.” With that, they were cut out of their mother’s life both personally and financially and none of them really understood why. Milly’s mom thinks this invitation may be the opportunity to mend fences and for the cousins to get to know each other.

This is the set up for Karen M. McManus (One of Us is Lying, One of Us is Next) latest novel The Cousins. The novel is told from multiple perspectives during two different time-lines, so you get to see the parents as young adults and then their offspring who arrive on Gull Cove Island to a less-than-warm reception. Clearly there is something strange going on, and Milly is determined to figure it out, with or without her cousins’ help.

Like her previous novels, McManus manages to keep all the plates of a compelling mystery spinning. Each of the three teens are intelligent and likeable. The real mystery is rooted deep in their parents’ past and some of those characters aren’t so nice, particularly Jonah and Aubrey’s dads. Readers will have a lot of fun trying to figure out what the heck is going on, but like with her previous novels, McManus will always be one step ahead of you.

Girl Crazy – Russell Smith

Justin, the protagonist of Russell Smith’s novel Girl Crazy, is a 32-year-old community college instructor fresh from a break-up with his long-time girlfriend Genevieve. Justin knows it is “a little weird that they kept making plans to see each other and pretending to be friends so soon after the breakup.”

One day, Justin meets Jenna near a payphone. She’s dressed in yoga gear that leaves little to the imagination and Justin is smitten…or aroused…or something. Jenna, it turns out, is in need of medical attention and Justin has a friend who’s a resident at a local hospital. This chance encounter leads Justin into a life that is totally unfamiliar to him.

Although Justin has a grown-up job, it doesn’t take him long to start behaving like an adolescent. That’s the main thing that stood out to me: Justin is immature. But then, I also acted like a crazy person at around that time in my life, or perhaps just a few short years before then, so I shouldn’t be so quick to judge. Perhaps he only seems super young and ridiculous to me because he is half my age.

Once he and Jenna hook up, it’s like a fuse has been lit. Justin is fueled by lust and manipulated into behaving in ways I can’t imagine are in character for him pre-Jenna. I kept wondering why he was doing such crazy things: casually hanging out with criminals, buying drugs via the Internet, seeking out underground card games. But then, I did some stupid things when I was young, usually because there was a boy involved.

It’s interesting to see this world through a guy’s eyes, actually and Justin sees everything through sex. Women are reduced to the sum of their sexiest parts: “a stripe of her belly was visible”, “her lips were so full they looked swollen”, “her thong, rising like a tattoo from between her muscles.” Smith describes sex without romance, but that doesn’t mean it’s not well-written. But it’s also not erotica. But I don’t think this is a love story, either.

Justin is obsessed with Jenna and he wants to save her from herself. Jenna, however, is not interested in being saved. I don’t think she misrepresents herself; I think Justin is thinking with his dick.

I don’t know how I feel about Girl Crazy. I don’t think I am the target audience, but I had zero trouble turning the pages. I would definitely read more by this Canadian writer.

The Project – Courtney Summers

Regular readers of this blog – hmmm, do I even have any of those? – will be familiar with the name Courtney Summers because I have loved every book she has ever written and I have read them all except for her novella Please Remain Calm, which she wrote as a sequel to This is Not a Test, a book which was perfect all on its own. Her other novels include Sadie, (my favourite) Cracked Up to Be, Some Girls Are, Fall For Anything, and All the Rage .

There’s lots to admire about Summers. She’s Canadian. She writes tough, smart, fierce female characters and she puts them (and the reader) through the emotional wringer. Summers herself is delightfully gleeful about the fact that her books are going to emotionally torture you. And as her latest novel, The Project, was nearing its release date, she ramped up her delight at the thought that she was going to wreck us with this new book. Although I didn’t necessarily feel wrecked, I enjoyed The Project , although ‘enjoyed’ might not be the best characterization for a book that is mostly grim.

Bea is six when her little sister Lo is born. She is none-too-pleased about her baby sister’s arrival, but reconsiders her position after her mother tells her that “Having a sister is a promise no one but the two of you can make – and no one but the two of you can break.” That’s the beginning for Lo and Gloria; theirs is an unbreakable bond.

Years later, Lo and her parents are in a terrible car accident. Their parents are killed and Lo lingers on death’s door because “There’s so much wrong […] that what the accident did isn’t going to be what kills her. It’s the infection she’s gotten since.” Bea feels like she will do anything to save her sister and anything turns out to be Lev Warren, leader of The Unity Project.

Flash forward six years. Lo is 19 and working at SVO, a small magazine. Lo’s dream has always been to write, but that’s not what she’s doing at SVO; she’s the editor’s assistant. Bea is gone, sucked into the vortex of The Unity Project, where Lo can’t go. Her dreams of being a writer are stalled. Her life is stalled. And then, waiting for the train, someone who “looks like he hasn’t known sleep in any recent sense of the word” says “You’re Lo.” and then jumps in front of a moving train. His connection to Lo: The Unity Project.

Under Lev Warren’s leadership, The Project is purportedly a “rising social movement” whose “divine mission is to save us from ourselves.”

They have twenty-four/seven drop-in shelters in each city. These shelters also run The Unity Connection, pairing people in need with Project-affiliated services, programs or professional advocates best suited to help them navigate their particular situation – various fresh start programs, youth and adult mentorships, support programs for at-risk youth, domestic violence survivors, addicts, counseling and legal aid, it goes on…not to mention the regular food drives, clothing drives and various fundraising efforts for non-Project charities…people go to that annual sermon at the Garrett Farm and they come out and they want to make the world a better place.

So, yeah, cult. Except no one can prove it and Lev Warren no longer gives interviews.

Lo has always known that’s where Bea is, but she hasn’t been allowed to see her or speak to her in years. When she is suddenly granted the opportunity to interview Warren, she jumps at the chance.

I am fascinated by cults. I watched the whole HBO series about Keith Raniere and NXIVM. You have to wonder how anyone would follow that little tool, but they did. Smart, educated, successful people bought what he was selling. Scientology?! C’mon. You don’t see the problem with worshipping at the altar of a sci-fi writer? Jim Jones? It’s easy to scoff when you’re on the outside, but cult leaders are master manipulators and Lev Warren is no different. I found myself buying into his vision. He had an allure that was undeniable.

The Project is a fascinating look at the bond between sisters, the psychology of cults and the disenfranchised people they prey on and is another solid book by Summers. It didn’t pack the same emotional gut punch as Sadie did, but that is not meant to be a demerit. It will be impossible not to feel worried for Bea and Lo or fascinated by Warren’s thrall.