About Christie

Book lover. Teacher. Writer. Mother. Canadian.

Don’t You Forget About Me – Mhairi McFarlane

Fans of Simple Minds (or the John Hughes film The Breakfast Club) will likely recognize the title of Mhairi McFarlane’s latest novel Don’t You Forget About Me at a glance. The comparison pretty much stops there, though.

Georgina Horspool meets Lucas McCarthy in school. He’s a transplant from Ireland and forgetabout methe two bond over an English project about Wuthering Heights. Soon the pair are inseparable and Georgina admits that “I didn’t know what falling in love felt like, I’d never done it before. I discovered you recognize it easily when it arrives.”

But then something happens at the pair’s ‘leaving party’ (the book takes place in the U.K., so let’s say prom party) and whatever was between them is suddenly over.

The book fast forwards 12 years at this point and we catch up with Georgina just as her life is falling apart. She’s fired from her job at a crappy Italian restaurant and then she walks in on her boyfriend Robin, a minor-celebrity comic, in a compromising position with his assistant. Her relationship with her older sister, Esther, and her mother is prickly. She has good friends, sure, but most everything else in her life is shite. A last minute bar tending job brings her back into Lucas McCarthy’s orbit. The thing is, he doesn’t seem to remember her. Like, at all.

McFarlane’s book depends on the assumption that readers’ patience will last through  400 plus pages. Truthfully, I almost abandoned the book around page 50 because it felt like it was trying so hard to be a British rom com in the vein of Richard Curtis (and, trust me, no one loves Love Actually  more than me!) It just felt disingenuous. But a friend whose reading proclivities are similar to my own said she liked it, so I picked it back up and settled into the book. I’m not going to say that it 100% won me over, but I didn’t find the book as irksome as I did when I first started it.

Georgina, as it turns out, has a lot of baggage. Her life is stuck. Her beloved father died when she was in her first year of university. Her mother’s new husband is a loathsome bully. And then there’s the thing that happened at the prom that  ended Georgina’s relationship with Lucas. When Lucas’s brother, Devlin, offers Georgina a job at the brothers’ new pub, it puts the pair in close proximity. Lucas is “at turns standoffish, slyly funny, dour, mischievous, helpful, haughty. It’s behaviour borne of beauty privilege….”

For me, some of the novel’s moving parts seemed slightly contrived and some of the resulting patch-ups are sort of deflated by that. I also felt like Lucas was, although certainly attractive, not a fully realized character. Georgina is transformed by a beautiful adult coat. Familial relationships are repaired almost by magic.

I don’t read a lot of romance novels. I think Don’t You Forget About Me  is trying for something slightly more complicated than straight-up romance and I liked that about it.  It takes a LONG time for these two to find their way back to each other, but most readers will likely find the journey worthwhile.

 

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn – Betty Smith

I have been wanting to re-read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn for a long time. It’s one of treebrooklynthose books from my childhood that has stayed with me and that I often recommend to students in my class, based solely on my hazy memories of having loved it. So, now, 45 years after reading it for the first time, I have finally finished spending some more time with one of literature’s most beloved characters, Frances (Francie) Nolan.

Betty Smith’s most famous novel tells the story of young Francie, who comes of age in Brooklyn during the early part of the 20th century. She is the daughter of Katie and Johnny, and older sister to Neeley. Francie’s entire adolescence is captured in Smith’s un-embellished prose (not to say that the writing isn’t beautiful, because it is). The Nolans are poor and they live in a time where every penny counts. Katie is a hard-working janitress and Johnny a singing waiter, when he can get some work (and he often cannot). He’s a beautiful, dreamy man, who mostly drinks. It’s impossible not to love Johnny who believes “how wonderful [it would be if] everything you talked about could come true!” Francie idolizes her father and, in some way, resents her mother.

When the novel opens, Francie is just eleven. Francie and her brother are already industrious children. She and Neeley

collected rags, paper, metal, rubber, and other junk and hoarded it in locked cellar bins or in boxes hidden under the bed. All week Francie walked home from school slowly with her eyes in the gutter looking for tin foil from cigarette packages or chewing gum wrappers. This was melted in the lid of a jar.

I remember, as a kid, being fascinated with how the Nolans stretched every single penny. How the pennies Francie earned by bringing her junk to the junkman gave her the privilege of going into a store and “What a wonderful feeling to pick something up, hold it for a moment, feel its contour, run her hand over its surface [because] her nickel gave her this privilege.” I probably read this book for the first time in the early 1970s and I remember feeling awed by the fact that Francie had nothing. Although my parents weren’t rich, we were always warm and fed and Francie’s poverty was remarkable to me.

But I think what makes Francie such a remarkable and beloved character is her resilience. And her capacity for hope. Although her circumstances were often dire, she is a girl who believes in limitless possibilities and isn’t afraid to work hard to achieve them. I admire that about her. As a kid, I loved that Francie was a reader and a writer because I loved both of those things, too. When Francie read she was “at peace with the world and happy as only a little girl could be with a fine book and a little bowl of candy and all alone in the house.”

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is one of those books that captures a simpler time. It’s anecdotal in that sometimes we have little glimpses into the lives of other characters, and there are pivotal moments in Francie’s life that are beautifully rendered. It’s also a modern book, given when it was published (1943). In one instance, after Francie meets and falls in love with a young soldier, but declines to spend some private time with him, she asks her mother if she should have gone with the young man.

As a mother, I say it would have been a terrible thing for a girl to sleep with a stranger – a man she had known for less than forty-eight hours. Horrible things might have happened to you. Your whole life might have been ruined…. But as a woman…I will tell you the truth as a woman. It would have been a very beautiful thing. Because there is only once that you love that way.

Yes, the book is dated. Yes, there are moments of racism and sexism. But it is also a time capsule. It is a full-hearted look at a time and place that no longer exists and captures the life of a girl who, like a tree growing up through the cracks in cement, reaches for the light.

 

 

BtVS: High School Is Hell, v1 – J. Bellaire, D. Mora & R. Angulo

BtVS HighschoolIn the days after Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel finished their television run (2003 and 2004 respectively), I was an avid reader of the post-series comics, which was a slightly weird thing for me because I was never really a comic book reader. I wasn’t ready to let go of the characters that I loved, though, so I had a standing order at my local comic book store and I faithfully bought them.  Then it all got sort of overwhelming and I stopped buying them. Until High School is Hell  was released, that is.

If you’ve been living under a rock – or are perhaps to young to know the cultural touchstone that is Buffy Summers, here’s a quick primer.

Buffy is a sixteen-year-old girl who moves to Sunnydale from Los Angeles. She’s the Slayer, the ‘Chosen One”. Chosen for what? you might well ask. To fight the vampires (and other demons) that roam the earth. Sunnydale, as it happens, is built on the Hellmouth, so there are a lot of demons. She is aided by Rupert Giles, her Watcher, and her friends Willow and Xander. She falls in love with a beautiful, tortured vampire Angel, and crosses paths with other vampires, including Drusilla and Spike. Over the course of seven seasons Buffy fights the good fight, often at great personal cost. The show is spectacular: witty, funny, heartbreaking. It’s must watch television, as is its spin-off, Angel.

I picked up volume one of High School Is Hell (comprised of the first four issues) recently, and quite enjoyed it. In this iteration of Buffy’s story, our beloved vampire slayer is back in high school. It’s a slightly AU (alternate universe) look at Buffy’s beginnings. For example, Buffy’s mother, Joyce, has a live-in boyfriend, Eric. Drusilla, Spike and Anya are already in Sunnydale. Robin Wood (high school principal in season 7) is now a hot teenager. No sign of Angel yet. Cordelia is actually nice. Willow and Xander are still besties and still the first to befriend L.A. transplant, Buffy.

It’s a slightly off-kilter, yet somehow comforting world to slip back into. Sort of like well-written fanfiction…with pictures.

 

 

Mortal Memory – Thomas H. Cook

cook-e1564403930383.jpgIf you are regular reader of this blog, then you know that I am a huge fan of American mystery/crime writer Thomas H. Cook. I found his book Breakheart Hill by chance well over a decade ago and I look for his books whenever I am in a book store. The problem is, he’s very rarely to be found on the shelves even though he is an Edgar Award winner (The Chatham School Affair) and a much-lauded writer. The Los Angeles Times Book Review  said that “Cook is an important talent, not simply a plotter but a prose stylist with a sensitivity to character and relationships…A storytelling writer of poetic narrative power. His crime fiction extends the boundaries of the form.” (This is why I hoard the books I find and don’t read them all at once; I have to pace myself so I don’t run out.) Besides the two books I’ve already named, I also really loved Master of the Delta and Instruments of the Night which might be my favourite of Cook’s books.  But really, you can’t go wrong reading anything this guy writes.

This much I remembered from the beginning: the floral curtains in their second- floor bedroom pulled tightly together; Jamie’s new basketball at the edge of the yard, glistening in the rain; Laura’s plain white bra lying haphazardly in the grass behind the house, the rest of our clothes, drenched and motionless as they hung from the line above it.

Thus begins Mortal Memory, a story that begins when narrator Stevie Farris discovers, mortalat age 9, that his father has shot and killed his mother, Marie, older brother, Jamie and sister, Laura. The knowledge of this horrific act tortures Stevie, mostly because he doesn’t understand why his father committed such a horrible crime. Wasn’t his family happy?

Flash forward 30 plus years and Steve is married with a son of his own. That’s when he meets Rebecca Soltero. She’s a writer who’s “writing a book about men who have killed their families.” Rebecca’s arrival and her penetrating questions bring all sorts of memories back for Steven. The story seamlessly weaves between past and present as Steve recalls the cracks in the family veneer, which ultimately causes him to examine the fault lines in his own family.

That’s one of the things I most admire about Cook. His books always operate on more than one level. Yes, there’s a mystery – that’s what will keep you feverishly turning the pages, but there is always some sort of family drama, often between fathers and sons, which is carefully and thoughtfully crafted. Another thing Cook does extremely well, is to turn your expectations upside down. Trying to figure out what’s happened is half of the fun of reading Cook, but I’ve never been right once. And I wasn’t this time, either.

So where does Mortal Memory fit in the Cook continuum? Probably somewhere in the middle. Not my favourite – mostly because I didn’t love the resolution – but any time spent with this author is time well spent.

 

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.