Searching for John Hughes – Jason Diamond

People of a certain age will likely understand what I mean when I say that John Hughes’s movies were a touchstone for adolescents. I know that 16 Candles is definitely problematic now – I mean hunky Jake Ryan hands over his drunken girlfriend to the Geek – but back in 1984 it spoke our language.

Jason Diamond grew up in the Chicago suburbs made famous in many of Hughes’s films (Home Alone, The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Pretty in Pink, Some Kind of Wonderful to name but a few). His memoir Searching For John Hughes traces his childhood with deeply unhappy parents who eventually divorce and then, by the time he is a teenager, all but abandon him. (Just as well: they sound awful.) He literally couch surfs his way through high school until a kind teacher offers him a more permanent place to stay.

Diamond is an outlier for most of his adolescence. He’s not smart enough or athletic enough or good-looking enough; he doesn’t fit in anywhere or have any particular talents. He does love John Hughes movies, though. Molly Ringwald is the first girl Diamond ever loves “before [he] even liked girls, when they were still “gross” to [him].”

…watching Pretty in Pink made me feel good. It made me happy…and we’re led to believe everybody will live happily ever after.

Although I was familiar with the concept, this idea that you could one day be happy and have what you wanted, it seemed so foreign. It was usually the kind of thing I’d read about in fairy tales, something about some prince or princess, people I couldn’t really relate to; they were cartoons or made up stories. But here, right before my eyes, were these kids only a few years older than me, things turning out right for them after all, and they seemed real to me. As if I could be them some day.

After high school, Diamond moves to NYC. The only thing he wants to do, the only thing he’s good at, is writing. He decides that he’s going to write the definitive biography of his idol, John Hughes. It’s not that easy, of course, and the book we eventually get is less biography and more memoir about how Diamond muddles through his 20s, making lattes or waiting tables and selling the odd music review to pay the bills. I actually lived in New York when I was in my 20s, so in some respects I could relate to Diamond’s angst, but I have to say that his recollections of this time are relentlessly grim.

Although Hughes does play a role in the book – after all, Diamond tells everyone he is writing it – this is more a book about someone who is desperately lost trying to figure it out. That’s likely a story many people can relate to. The nods to Hughes and his movies will be meaningless to people who aren’t fans — that was the reason I bought the book — but even if you don’t even know who Hughes is, it’s likely you’ll find something to relate to in Diamond’s quest to grow up and make something of his life.

The Bed I Made – Lucie Whitehouse

The Bed I Made is my third outing with British writer Lucie Whitehouse (The House at Midnight, Before We Met). Like Before We Met, this novel concerns a love affair gone wrong.

Kate works as a translator in London. One night, out with her friend Helen, she meets Richard.

He was watching me intently but didn’t speak. It was strange: it should have unnerved me but instead I found myself responding to the intensity, It was like suddenly finding myself in a spotlight.

Kate is generally practical and reserved, but her attraction to Richard is immediate and intense and soon they are in a full-fledged relationship. Richard is handsome, charming and successful – quite unlike anyone Kate has ever dated before. And if you’re thinking he sounds too good to be true, you’d be correct. Eighteen months after they first kiss, Kate sublets her apartment and flees to the Isle of Wight, a place that has personal significance to her, but where she is a stranger in the community.

The problem is that Richard isn’t about to let her go so easily. He might not know where she is, but he can still text her (until she changes her number) and email her (she can’t seem to stop herself from reading his messages and when she finally tells him that they are never, ever, ever getting back together, he starts making unpleasant threats.)

I guess you could say that The Bed I Made is a relatively straightforward domestic thriller. The Isle of Wight is supposed to offer Kate sanctuary, but soon after she arrives, a local woman goes missing and she becomes fascinated with her disappearance. Then she meets the woman’s husband, Pete, and things start to get even more complicated.

I found this book kind of slow, actually. Not slow in that I didn’t want to read it or find out what was going to happen – even though I had a pretty good idea. Whitehouse captures Kate’s sense of loneliness and isolation and claustrophobia really well, and she was a likeable – if often times naïve – character. By the time we get to the novel’s dénouement, I sort of felt as though I was reading a completely different book. There was a lot of time when nothing much was happening – Kate was wandering around the town, or she and Pete were sailing – and then bam. Thriller mode.

Still, Whitehouse has been a dependable author for me and I will definitely continue to read her.

The Missing Years – Lexie Elliott

If only the first 300 pages had been as riveting as the last 86; that’s my review of Scottish writer Lexie Elliott’s novel The Missing Years in a nutshell.

Ailsa Calder inherits her childhood home after the death of her mother. She and her mother weren’t particularly close; in fact, after her father disappeared, her mother had married another man, Pete, and had another daughter, Ailsa’s half-sister, Carrie. Now these siblings have moved out to this manor house in the Scottish Highlands, Carrie in an effort to save her per diem from her latest acting gig, and Ailsa with a view to sprucing the place up and selling it.

The Manse is not the place of Ailsa’s childhood memories, though. Ailsa feels that “The Manse has been waiting a long time for me – a quarter of a century, give or take”.

It’s strange, isolated building and things start to go wrong almost immediately. Dead animals turn up on her doorstep, doors thud, and one night Ailsa finds a strange man standing on the landing. His name is Jamie and he claims to be looking for his sister, Fi, who sometimes comes into the house. That’s creepy, right?

So are the inhabitants of the nearby village, some of whom remember Ailsa as a child or knew her parents. There’s Ben, the handsome man who works at the local hotel and who might be interested in buying the Manse; there’s his friend, Ali, whose family was ruined when Ailsa’s father disappeared with absconded with their property; there’s Fi herself, who has a hard time keeping track of time. The only person who isn’t weird is Callum, Fi’s seven-year-old son, who says that the animals won’t come onto Manse property because they sense something is not quite right, including the fact that time folds there.

All of these things should make for an interesting story…and they did, in the last 86 pages – before that, not so much. The story was slow-moving, the relationship between Carrie and Ailsa was awkward and shrill and sometimes the conversations between people was cringe-y and I just felt like everyone was shrieking.

Too bad, because I loved Elliott’s novel The French Girl.

Cascade – Craig Davidson

The first Craig Davidson book I ever read was actually a book by his alter ego Nick Cutter. The Troop is the gruesome story (and there are parts of this book that are so gross, I had to read the pages through slitted eyes) of a troop of Boy Scouts who, on their annual overnight camping expedition, come face-to-face with bioengineered evil. It was only after I got my hands on The Saturday Night Ghost Club that I realized Craig Davidson and Nick Cutter were one and the same. Since then I have also read Davidson’s Giller-nominated novel Cataract City and I just finished reading his collection of short stories, Cascade. I guess at this point I am going to have to say that I am a fan.

Short story collections aren’t something I read a lot of, and I am not sure why that is because I do love short stories. They’re like these perfect little miniature worlds. There are six stories in this collection and I enjoyed every single one of them.

Davidson writes about family – both biological and found – and about the places that root us (for him it is Cataract City aka Niagara Falls.) None of these stories is tidy – or even necessarily linear – and even better, none of them have tied-up-with-a-bow endings. Ambiguity is a friend of mine. And apparently Mr. Davidson’s.

In “The Ghost Lights”, a car crash leaves a mother and her infant son stranded in s snow storm. The mother has grappled with the whole idea of subverting her own identity after her son’s birth, but now she is “filled with a mindless need to protect.”

“One Pure Thing” returns an basketball player to the court after a stint in jail. In “The Vanishing Twin”, fraternal twins Charlie and Hen looks out for each other in a Juvenile Custody Facility. A social worker looks after a little boy, while waiting for the birth of her own child in “Friday Night Goon Squad.” Each of these stories scratches at the surface of the choices we make, the sacrifices and compromises. Davidson’s writing is assured and nostalgic and I found myself sinking into each of the worlds created by these stories after only a line or two.

Highly recommended.

Blood Innocents – Thomas H. Cook

Blood Innocents is American crime writer Thomas H. Cook’s first novel. Published in 1980, it tells the story of NYC police detective John Reardon who, returning to work after the death of his wife, is given a strange case involving the slaughter of two deer in the Children’s Zoo in Central Park.

Yep – deer. Not people.

The deer had been gifted to the zoo by one of New York City’s most prominent businessmen, Wallace Van Allen. When Reardon balks at the assignment, his lieutenant, Piccolini tells him

“…this is a big case. One of the biggest. Some real big people are looking in on this one, interested in it, if you know what I mean. I know you’re in homicide, but this is bigger than a homicide right now, and the people downtown want top people on it all the way.”

Reardon has made a reputation for himself by following his instincts and so despite the strangeness of the case, he starts digging. Then, when the bodies of two young women turn up in their apartment with almost identical injuries as the deer, Reardon redoubles his efforts to solve the crimes.

I have been a Thomas H. Cook fan for many years. He’s a prolific writer, with more than 30 books to his credit, and yet many people have never heard of him. The first book I ever read by him is called Breakheart Hill (1995) and it had such an amazing twist that I was keen to read more by him. Except it was almost impossible to find his books anywhere. Over the years I have managed to track down and read Evidence of Blood, Peril, Mortal Memory, The Interrogation, The Fate of Katherine Carr, Master of the Delta, The Cloud of Unknowing, Instruments of the Night, Red Leaves, Places in the Dark, The Chatham School Affair and I have one more book on my tbr shelf, Night Secrets, which I will not read until I track down at least one more.

If Blood Innocents had been the first book I’d ever read, I am not sure I would have become the super fan I am now. It’s not that the book wasn’t any good, it’s just that it lacked the layers I’ve always found in his novels: complicated father/son relationships (although Reardon does have a son, and they are certainly not close), a clever twist (this novel is really just a straight-forward detective story), philosophical underpinnings (although Reardon is certainly at a thoughtful point in his life after the loss of his wife.)

It was definitely cool to go back to the very beginning, but I am glad it’s not where I started.

In Pieces – Danielle Pearl

THIS REVIEW CONTAINS A LOT OF SWEARING. You’ve been warned.

Fucking nineteen-year-old Beth Caplan (also known as ‘kid’, ‘Bits’ and ‘Bea’) and fucking twenty-one-year old David March have known each other their whole motherfucking lives because David is fucking Sammy ‘Cap’ Caplan’s bestie. These fuckers are players, but fucking David has secretly fucking yearned for fucking Beth for fucking-ever. The feeling is fucking mutual. Back in high school when she was dating Brian fucking Falco, David told Cap he was interested in Beth, but that was never going to fucking fly because Cap knew exactly what kind of fucking fucker David was. A fist-fight ensued and that was the fucking end of that. Until it wasn’t. Because now Beth is at the same fucking college and David is tasked with looking out for her fucking ass – and it’s a fine ass, trust me. Beth/kid/Bits/Bea is fragile because of Brian fucking Falco, and when he shows up on some sports scholarship, and some other dude from her Abnormal Psychology class seemingly starts to stalk her, well, fucking David loses his fucking shit and before you can say “hot porn sex” these two are having, well, hot porn sex.

Yeah. That’s annoying, right?

I actually started highlighting how many times the characters in Danielle Pearl’s NA novel In Pieces said the word fuck. (And it’s not NA really because this isn’t about navigating that slippery period between being a teenager and an adult as much as it is about having sex.) It was a lot. I stopped counting at 500. So much swearing that it distracted from everything else that was going on. I read a previous novel by Pearl, In Ruins, and I had the same complaint. Too much swearing. And I say this as someone who enjoys a well-placed f-bomb. It was grating, distracting and it made these characters, particularly David, sound like idiots.

Other things make these characters sound way older than they chronologically are. For example, David says “I’m a single, red-blooded, relatively good-looking guy who’s never been in a relationship. Who’s never even considered one. Relationships are for guys who want marriage and a mortgage and a nine-to-five.” Um, not sure there are many 21-year-old dudes like that out there. Is this supposed to count as character development, a reminder of how Beth is changing him?

These two crazy kids consummate their relationship while intoxicated. Remember, David is supposed to have feelings for Beth. What does he say to her?

“Fuck, you feel amazing,” David rasps, his words resonating in every part of me – even the one place it really shouldn’t – and I silently scold my heart and demand it make itself scarce. “So fucking tight,” he marvels. “So wet. Goddamn, beautiful girl…”

There are no words. Although post coitus, Beth decides that David is the smooth talker of her dreams and that even if he doesn’t have feelings for her, she definitely enjoys seeing him naked because he’s hawt, perhaps they could have a friends with benefits sort of arrangement.

After all sorts of stoopid miscommunications and other contrived plot twists, these star-crossed lovers end up together because of course they do. They’re a match made in fucking heaven.

Yuck.

Everything We Didn’t Say – Nicole Baart

There’s a certain type of book I really like. It’s a dual timeline, family secrets, coming-of-age, angsty hybrid that, if well-written, makes my reading heart happy. Everything We Didn’t Say by Nicole Baart ticked all the boxes for me.

Juniper (June) Baker has returned to Jericho, Iowa after 15 years of exile. She’s come home to help an old friend in the town library, but this is also an opportunity to repair some relationships, particularly with her brother, Jonathan, and her 13-year-old daughter, Willa, who has been living with Juniper’s parents since she was born.

Why are these relationships damaged? Well, that part of the story happened fifteen years ago, when June had just graduated from high school, was flirting with Sullivan, the youngest son of the town’s richest farmer, and Beth and Cal Murphy, a middle-aged couple who live in the farm across the lake from Juniper and her family, are brutally murdered, a crime for which Jonathan is suspected but never convicted.

One of the reasons that Juniper is anxious to return to Jericho is because someone on the WWW is talking about a podcast aimed at proving, after all these years, that Jonathan is, in fact, responsible for the Murphys’ deaths. Juniper aims to prove the opposite, but doing so means revisiting that long-ago summer when everything seemed to change, particularly between her and her brother. Once their sibling bond seemed like “a tangible thing, a thread woven from shared experiences,” but as the summer lengthens, Jonathan becomes secretive and moody.

There’s a lot of moving parts in Baart’s story. Of the two timelines, I liked the one set in the past the best. June is heading off to college at the end of the summer, and she knows she is leaving this life behind. Her best friend, Ashley, is crazy about Sullivan, but June finds herself impossibly attracted to him and it appears the feeling is mutual. That’s a disaster waiting to happen. There are other things happening at home, too, things June doesn’t understand.

All of that seems uncomplicated, though, when compared to the present day. Shortly after she arrives, Jonathan – who seems about to share a long-held secret – is in a life-threatening accident, She bumps into Sullivan, and that’s confusing. And a local cop seems to be digging into the Murphy’s cold case. Oh, and her daughter seems to hate her – which stands to reason since she all but abandoned her.

Everything We Didn’t Say has lots to recommend it and although I did guess one significant plot twist, I enjoyed my time in Jericho, and looked forward to reading this book, which I haven’t said about a book for a while.

Two thumbs up.

The Last Thing to Burn – Will Dean

Coming on the heels of a really disappointing read, made Will Dean’s novel The Last Thing to Burn extra terrific. I probably would have felt that way about it no matter when I read it though. I discovered this book via Twitter, which is the same way I came across Chris Whitaker’s amazing novel We Begin at the End. Twitter, keep up the good work.

The Last Thing to Burn opens with our first-person narrator hobbling across a field, her “right ankle the size of a fist.” Her voice is so distinct and her anxiety so palpable that I was immediately sucked into the story. It is only when a Land Rover appears on the track and the man driving comes for her, that we realize this person is a captive.

He holds me with no force. His power is absolute. He needs no violence at this moment because he controls everything the eye can see. I can feel his forearm at the back of my knees and he’s holding it there as gently as a concert violinist might hold a bow.

His name is Lenn. Her name is Jane. Except that’s not her name. She’d come to England from Vietnam with her younger sister, Kim-Ly. They’d been told there would be jobs waiting for them and that they’d be earning enough money to send home. First, though, they would have to pay back the people who’d arranged for their travel. This debt is endless. At first, Jane and Kim-Ly work on a farm where they are fed and have one day off. Then, Jane is sold to Lenn and Kim-Ly is sent off. That was seven years ago.

Jane’s life is one of captivity. There are cameras everywhere in the little farmhouse she shares with Lenn. Every day when Lenn comes back from tending to the fields, he watches the tapes. Her responsibilities are to keep the house just as his mother, also called Jane, did and to cook his meals, the same rotation every week, exactly as his mother did. She wears his mother’s old clothes, uses her cloth sanitary napkins. One week a month, Jane is allowed to sleep in the back bedroom. Three weeks a month,

I lie on the bed and pull the thin cotton sheet over myself. I adjust it so the sheet’s covering me from the navel and higher. This is, in some ways, the worst of it. The waiting. because it drives the truth home like a hammer would drive a nail through a plank of rotten wood.

When Jane misbehaves, Lenn throws one of her precious belongings into the fire. All these years later, all that remains are her ID with her true name on it, letters from her sister (who is working in a Manchester), a picture of her parents and a copy of Of Mice and Men.

The Last Thing to Burn is really one of those books that you read with your heart in your throat. I flew through it in two sittings because I had to know what was going to happen. Jane is an unforgettable character, but so is Lenn. He’s clearly a monster, a psychopath, and “even though he’s not a violent man, not usually, […] he’ll take what he wants in his own horrifically gentle way.” Dean wisely avoids being too graphic, but it won’t matter, the implied is enough.

Although the ending was a teensy bit abrupt, The Last Thing to Burn is a solid, well-written, propulsive page turner, and I doubt you’ll soon forget Jane.

Highly recommended.

Malibu Rising – Taylor Jenkins Reid

Oh dear.

I loved Daisy Jones and the Six. Loved loved it. I was convinced that Taylor Jenkins Reid and I were going to be book besties. Then I bought One True Loves. Okay, I thought, well that was one of her earlier titles – a book she wrote way before the juggernaut success of Daisy Jones. Malibu Rising came after Daisy Jones and so it was bound to offer up the same sort of fast-paced, character-driven narrative right?

Right?

The Riva siblings, Nina, Jay, Hud and Kit, come from Hollywood royalty. Their father is Mick Riva – who makes an appearance in Daisy Jones – a superstar musician. He’s also a philandering dead-beat, who leaves his wife, June, when she is pregnant for Kit. I mean, I guess he’s charming in the beginning, which is why June – a young girl who works at her parent’s Malibu take-out falls for him. But his pretty promises don’t amount to much and June turns to alcohol to numb the pain.

It’s Nina, the eldest Riva child, who steps in when her mother can no longer keep it together. It’s because of her that her younger siblings are successful. Then, someone sees her surfing and she’s so beautiful she gets some sort of contract and suddenly she’s everyone’s poster-girl. That’s how she ends up married to tennis pro Brandon Randall. One year later, she’s been dumped.

The action of Malibu Rising takes place over the course of one day – the biggest day of the year: the Riva’s annual party. If you know where it is, you’re invited. But simmering beneath all the party excitement are all these secrets and resentments and lost dreams, and you best be sure those things are all going to come to the surface and burn that fucker to the ground. Literally and figuratively because as metaphors go, the fire in this book is not subtle.

Through flashbacks, Reid unspools June and Mick’s romance and marriage and Mick’s rise to fame. We watch June’s disintegration when Mick leaves her, her renewed hope when he returns. Then, of course, he leaves her again. We learn about the children, their unbreakable bond, their surfing prowess (because that’s what you do at Malibu, you surf, right?) We learn about Nina’s struggle to keep it together, the sacrifices she makes. Her quick-fire romance. Her separation. All of this in an effort to help us understand – I dunno – the familial bonds that nothing can break?

This book is long. Like almost 400 pages long. And I didn’t give a hoot about a single character. Early on, when it was June and Mick’s story I was, like, okay. This isn’t what I thought it was going to be, but it’s readable. But like with One True Loves, Malibu Rising is all tell. And all the tell is supposed to get us to the big, I dunno, party? So that when it all comes to a head we’re going to actually care. Yeah, no.

Suddenly we’re introduced to all these new characters, who have had sweet FA to do with the Riva story: best friends out of the wood work, actors (some made up, some real names air dropped in) who show up for colour, I guess. The woman Brandon ran off with, Carrie Soto (who is apparently getting a book of her own), makes a crazy appearance on the Riva lawn, someone who might be a sibling arrives, there’s models and producers and the people who work at the family diner. It’s chaos. Cocaine is passed around like hor d’oeuvres, gun shots are fired, plates are being thrown like frisbees and people are literally swinging on chandeliers.

And what are the Riva children doing? Why, they’re down on the beach with Papa Riva, whom they haven’t seen or heard from in years, having a “come to Jesus” share session.

It’s, frankly, ridiculous.

I would say thus ends my short-lived love affair with Reid, but apparently The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is worth the read, so I may bite the bullet and give it a go.

This book, however, was a colossal waste of my precious reading time.

The Kiss Quotient – Helen Hoang

Stella Lane is a task-oriented, intelligent, wealthy single 30-year-old. If it weren’t for her mother badgering her about settling down, Stella might have been content to focus on her career as an econometrician. (Yeah, I’d never heard of it either. It’s a person who uses “statistics and calculus to model economic systems.”) Stella has had exactly three sexual encounters in her life, each more disappointing than the last.

Her latest sexual experience had been with one of her mother’s blind dates. He’d been good looking – she had to give him that – but his sense of humor had confused her. […] When he straight-out asked her if she wanted to have sex with him, she’d been caught completely off guard. Because she hated to say no, she’d said yes. There’d been kissing, which she didn’t enjoy. He’d tasted like the lamb he’d had for dinner. She didn’t like lamb.

Stella figures she needs practice in the sex department, and so she hires an escort, Michael Phan, a Vietnamese-Swedish hunk, to teach her the ropes – so to speak. For Stella, Michael is “by far the finest male specimen she’d ever laid eyes on.” For Michael, Stella is quite unlike anyone he’s ever met.

The hook for Helen Hoang’s The Kiss Quotient is that Stella is on the autism spectrum. She doesn’t like loud noises, strong scents, any disruption to the routine that makes her feel safe. She says what she thinks and has trouble reading social cues. Career-wise, she’s respected and successful, but as she tells Michael on their first date “I’m awful at…what you do. But I want to get better. I think I can get better if someone would teach me.”

I doubt you will ever meet two characters as sweet and wholesome as Stella and Michael and yet the sex in this book is on the face-fanning steamy side. Turns out, Michael is extremely good at his job, but more than that, he genuinely likes Stella and as their relationship morphs from a pay-for-sex gig into friendship things start to get complicated for the both of them. Suddenly, Michael is taking Stella home to meet his family and revealing his private life in a way that is very unprofessional. I’m not sure the complication at the end was necessary (after all, everyone and their dog could see these two were CRAZY for each other) but it hardly matters because at that point you’ll be all-in.

The Kiss Quotient is smut with two delightful central characters and if that’s your thing, enjoy.