The Night Inside – Nancy Baker

I have a vague memory of reading Nancy Baker’s novel The Night Inside years ago – perhaps closer to the time it was first published in 1993. I am not going to classify this as a re-read, though, because most of it was so unfamiliar it felt like I was reading it for the first time.

Ardeth Alexander is a grad student who is just about ready to graduate, leave academia behind and step into the real world. She’s the dependable one; her younger sister, Sara, is the wild one. She can’t shake this feeling that she’s being followed, though, and one morning on a run near Casa Loma, she’s grabbed by two thugs and whisked off to parts unknown, where she ends up in a basement cell.

The guy in the cell next to her is Dimitri Rozokov. He’s a vampire, and an old one. He’s lived as long as he has by being extremely careful. Even though Ardeth is sure there is no way he can exist because, after all, “Vampires do not exist, except as metaphors,” Ardeth’s captors prove that he’s deadly by showing Ardeth why he’s in a cell.

Turns out, they’re making movies. Roias, one of the men who nabbed her, gives her a private show and what she witnesses horrifies her.

The vampire was hungry and not particularly neat. When he was done, he dropped Suzy’s body over the table. Blood was smeared across her breasts and shoulders, painted across her face in a parody of cosmetics. Her blonde hair was dark with it, but not as dark as the gaping hole in her throat. When he let her fall, one limp arm knocked over the wedding cake and left its remains decorated with red icing.

It turns out, though, that Rozokov is a civilized being, and in their time chained in cells next to each other, the two captives talk. When it becomes clear that their days are numbered, they devise a plan to escape, but the plan comes at a cost.

I have long been fascinated with vampires. When I was a kid, I can remember going to old black and white movies starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee and being terrified. What was my mother thinking?! I’ve read Dracula and devoured ‘salem’s Lot. Then, right around the time my kids were born, I discovered Buffy the Vampire Slayer and that sent me down a rabbit hole.

I didn’t hate The Night Inside, but I didn’t love it, either. Part of the problem is that there was a lot going on. Rozokov’s back story and the people chasing him might have been enough to sustain a novel. There needed to be a meet cute, or a meet ick in this case, though. Ardeth and Rozokov’s time as captives only makes up a small portion of the story, though, and then the pair are separated. Oddly enough, the novel felt dated to me, which is weird considering Rozokov is 500 years old.

Concrete Rose – Angie Thomas

I fall in love with fictional characters all the time, and I fell hard for Maverick Carter, Starr’s father in Angie Thomas’s outstanding debut The Hate U Give. In Concrete Rose, Thomas has turned her gaze to Maverick’s teenage story and it’s a doozy. Could I love Mr. Carter any more than I already did? Um, hell yeah.

The setting is familiar, the Garden Heights neigbourhood where The Hate U Give takes place. Seventeen-year-old Maverick lives with his mother who works two jobs to try to fill in the financial gaps left by Mav’s father’s incarceration. Mav has a legacy on the streets of Garden Heights because of who his father is, former crown of King Lords, (I guess that means top dog.) There’s a gang hierarchy

You got youngins, badass middle schoolers who swear they got next. They do whatever the rest of us tell them to do. Then you got li’l homies like me, King, and our boys Rico and Junie. We handle initiations, recruitment, and sell weed. Next is the big homies, like Dre and Shawn. They sell the harder stuff, make sure the rest of us have what we need, make alliances, and discipline anybody who step outta line. When we have beef with the Garden Disciples, the gang from the east side, they usually take care of it. Then there’s the OGs, original gangstas. Grown dudes who been in this a long time. They advise Shawn. Problem is, there ain’t a lot of OGs left in the streets. Most of them locked up like my pops, or dead.

Despite his gang affiliations, Mav is not a punk. His girlfriend, Lisa, is college-bound. His mother is supportive and no-nonsense. Mav’s older cousin, Dre, is one of the big homies, and always has his back. When Mav gets the news that he’s a father, his world is rocked back on its heels, and the book shifts into high gear. When the baby’s mother essentially abandons him, Mav has to start making some tough decisions. If you’ve already read The Hate U Give you know how that turns out because Maverick as a father: chef’s kiss.

I loved this book. First of all, I loved how immediate and compelling Mav’s voice is. I live in small-town Atlantic Canada. I don’t know anyone who speaks this way.

When it comes to the streets, there’s rules.

They ain’t written down, and you won’t find them in a book. It’s natural stuff you know the moment your momma let you out the house. Kinda like you know how to breathe without somebody telling you.

For me, the way this book is written is absolutely one of the best things about it. Mav’s voice is so compelling and original.

I also loved how many people were in Mav’s corner, pushing him to make better choices. I mean, he’s a seventeen-year-old father who still has to go to school and work part time at a job he hates for way less money than he’d make selling dope on the street. His boss, Mr. Wyatt, tells it like it is and doesn’t cut Mav any slack. Three strikes, he’s out. His baby cries all night, Mav still has to go to school. But these people are still in his corner, and watching him try to live up to his responsibilities is truly a thing of beauty.

Although Maverick’s story obviously takes place seventeen years before the events in The Hate U Give, and so is perhaps technically a prequel, I still suggest you read The Hate U Give first. You will fall in love with him as an adult. Going back and learning how he got there will only make you love him more.

Highly recommended.

Crooked River – Valerie Geary

Fifteen-year-old Sam and her younger sister, Ollie, 10, have come to live with their father, Bear, in a teepee in a meadow in Oregon. Bear’s eccentric, sure, but he’s not crazy. One day he left his home, his wife and kids, in Eugene, and just didn’t come back. Sam’s been spending summers with her father since she was seven and she’s come to appreciate the quiet of both the place and her father.

…there was no electricity, only the sun. No plumbing, only the river and a barrel to catch the rain. No roof over our heads to blot out the stars, no television to drown out the bird and cricket songs, so asphalt to burn the soles of our feet. Most kids would probably hate a place like this, but to me it was home.

This is Ollie’s first summer; she’d previously gone to summer camp instead of going to Bear’s, but now there is no choice: the sisters’ mother has died suddenly.

When Valerie Geary’s beautiful novel Crooked River begins, the girls are down by the river and they find a “woman floating facedown in an eddy where Crooked River made a slow bend north.” They try to pull her to shore, but the current takes her. Sam is certain Bear will know what to do, but when they get back to the tent they find something that starts a chain reaction of discoveries, coincidences, and bad decisions. Before the girls can even make sense of what’s happening, their father is arrested for murder.

It is mostly down to Sam to tell this story because Ollie has elected to stop talking. “I was trying to be patient” Sam says, “but her silence was finally starting to wear me thin.” Ollie may not talk to anyone else, but she does commune with ghosts. The night is made of them, she says. “I see. I see things no one else does. I see them there and wish I didn’t. I want to tell and can’t.”

The sisters know their father is innocent, and Sam is desperate to prove it. Part of what makes Crooked River so great is the mystery, but what I really loved about the book is its sense of place. From the meadow’s hidden delights, to the beehives Bear tends, everything in Geary’s novel is written with a true appreciation for their inherent beauty. The mystery part, though, kicks into high gear in the novel’s last third and it’s a thrill ride.

This is also a book about family, grief and growing up. And if you think that’s all too much to cram into one book, then you don’t know Geary’s prodigious gifts as a novelist. There’s a beating heart at the center of this book and a crooked river runs through it.

Highly recommended.

Her Last Death – Susanna Sonnenberg

Susanna Sonnenberg’s memoir Her Last Death recounts the author’s dysfunctional relationship with her mother. I couldn’t relate. My mother, Bobbie, was perfect. Well, of course she wasn’t perfect, but she was all the things Sonnenberg’s mother wasn’t: pragmatic, steady, selfless, reasonable. I could always count on her counsel and support. Our disagreements were few and far between and I couldn’t have gone months without talking to her. She died in 2006 of lung cancer at the age of 67 and I miss her every day.

I know I was lucky. Lots of women have fraught relationships with their moms. It wasn’t in my mother’s nature to be competitive or confrontational. She wasn’t interested in being center stage. She wanted her children to be happy and I know she probably made many sacrifices to ensure our lives were as good as she could possibly make them.

Sonnenberg was born into a family of wealth and privilege. Her parents, Ben and Wendy Adler (known in the book as Nat and Daphne) were movers and shakers in NYC. Her father was something of a literary legend on Grand Street in the 1980s. Her parents divorced when Sonnenberg was three, and Sonnenberg’s relationship with him seems rather sporadic until she’s older and makes a concerted effort to spend time with him.

Her mother is a larger-than-life character. From a very young age, her mother confides in her, depends on her, schools her in the skewed way she sees the world. When Sonnenberg is just a little girl her mother tells her “”You must never let a man remove your knickers unless you intend to sleep with him.”” Daphne parades an endless string of men into their apartment; she seems only to have to crook her finger. As Sonnenberg gets older, some of these men happen to be her classmates. On her sixteenth birthday, Daphne presents Sonnenberg with a Montblanc fountain pen, “…the finest pen ever made…for your writing” and a gram of okay, which she proudly announces she cut herself. She cautions her daughter: “Please, please, darling, don’t ever do someone else’s coke. You never know what it’s cut with. Promise?”

Daphne is clearly mentally ill, but somehow that doesn’t make her sympathetic. Sonnenberg isn’t particularly sympathetic, either, but at least you can understand how she ends up so screwed up. And she is: she’s selfish and self-absorbed. She sleeps with pretty much every guy she crosses paths with. It takes her a long time to figure out who she is and what she wants. The last third of the memoir is pretty much un-put-downable.

Being a mother requires a great deal of sacrifice. In her way, Daphne loved her children, but that love was predicated on her own desires. She always came first. For many years, Sonnenberg lives by that same creed. It’s not until she really falls in love and has her own children that she understands how much must be given of oneself.

I lift my children from the water and rub them warm with the towel. I bind them tight, hold them against me, whisper into their hair. I know this is love. It’s the single moment of parenting in which I am certain I am doing the right thing, in which, without review, I yield to an instinct.

My mother had good parenting instincts. She knew how to say the right things. She protected us when we needed it, and pushed us out into the world when we needed that, too. Parenting is hard work. It’s frustrating and exhausting and scary. Sometimes it’s no fun. But then, sometimes, it’s everything.

Looking For Alaska – John Green

Miles Halter, the protagonist of John Green’s debut novel Looking for Alaska, is a loner who is about to leave Florida to attend a boarding school in Alabama. Just how much of a loner is Miles? His mother insists on throwing him a going away party and Miles is “forced to invite all [his] “school friends,” i.e., the ragtag bunch of drama people and English geeks [he] sat with by social necessity” even though he knew they “wouldn’t come.”

Miles loves famous last words. That’s one of the reasons he’s anxious to head off to Culver Creek, the same school his father and all his uncles attended, a school where they had “raised hell”, which sounds like a much better life than the one Miles currently has. In the words of Francois Rabelais, Miles wants to “go to seek a Great Perhaps.” That’s the reason, Miles tells his father, that he wants to leave Florida, “So I don’t have to wait until I die to start seeking a Great Perhaps.”

Miles’s roomate at Culver Creek is Chip Martin aka “Colonel”. He immediately renames Miles “Pudge” and then introduces him to Alaska Young, the force-of-nature, girl who lives five doors down. The novel follows this trio’s adventures and misadventures and their tragic consequences.

I have long been a fan of Green’s ability to write smart, believable and heartbreaking YA characters. The juggernaut The Fault in Our Stars was my first book by him, and I totally got the fuss. (I have also read Turtles All the Way Down and Paper Towns). If I didn’t already know how good Green was, I would have been amazed by Looking for Alaska. As a debut it’s funny, irreverent, and thoughtful. And so, so smart.

My grade 10 students are currently examining what it means to come of age. Two of them are reading this book and as I was reading it, I kept thinking that it was such a perfect book to help them think about this topic. I know the book has been challenged on many occasions for language and sexual content, but, really, who are we kidding? Shouldn’t we want our kids to read books that ask (and tries to answer) big and complicated questions? Shouldn’t we rejoice when we find an author that doesn’t talk down to kids, or pretend that they are one-dimensional?

Pudge and his friends, after a tragedy which occurs about half way through the book, seek to find answers to their questions. Pudge notes

There comes a time when we realize that our parents can not save themselves or save us, that everyone who wades through time eventually gets dragged out to sea by the undertow – that, in short, we are all going.

Looking for Alaska is terrific.

More Than Words – Mia Sheridan

I’ll admit it; I have a ‘type’ (of romance story I like). Mia Sheridan’s novel More Than Words should have ticked every single box, but when I was finished reading I just felt sort of ‘meh’ about the whole thing. I have a feeling though, it’s me not the book. Maybe I am just over romance.

Jessica Cresswell is a dreamy eleven-year-old when she meets Callen Hayes in an abandoned rail car.

A boy sat leaning against the far wall, his long legs stretched out before him and crossed at the ankles, his eyes shut. My heat galloped in my chest. Who is he? One of the streetlamps cast a glow into the shadowy interior, enough for me to see that the boy’s lip was bloody and his eye swollen. […] He was a prince. A…broken prince.

For the next few months, Callen and Jessica meet and dream and play make-believe and then, after one sweet kiss, Callen disappears.

Ten years later, Callen is the Sexiest Man in Music and Jessie is a cocktail waitress, but only until she lands her dream gig of translating historical documents. (Yes, apparently that’s someone’s dream job.) Her dream has landed her in Paris; Callen’s there, too, to claim a big award and fate lands them in the same place at the same time in an “in all the gin joints in all the towns in all the word [he] walks into mine” sorta way.

Of course, Jessie recognizes him. Callen’s reaction is more, hmmm, physical and less, OMG, I remember you. “My heart jumped, a buzz of electricity shooting down my spine, and I frowned, surprised by my reaction….God, I couldn’t stop staring at her.” See, Callen’s one of those “bad” boys. He drinks to excess and sleeps around and cares for no one. He’s a jerk but, of course, not an irredeemable jerk because then we wouldn’t be as desperate for these two to get together as Sheridan wants us to be. Really, he’s just misunderstood.

When they finally do connect – in another convenient twist of fate – Jessie is reluctant to give Callen the time of day. And he’s intent on proving that he is still the boy she once knew and cared for.

There’s nothing wrong with More Than Words. The writing is decent. There are some tender moments that ring true. It’s the fairy tale, right? Maybe I am just old and cynical and no longer believe. Perhaps these characters, both in their early twenties, are just too young for me to relate to. Either way, the book was not my cup of tea, but I suspect many others would love it to bits.

You Were Never Here – Kathleen Peacock

There are so many things to admire about Kathleen Peacock’s YA novel You Were Never Here, but let’s just start with the fact that it’s set in New Brunswick. I can’t tell you how much fun it was to read a book that takes place in my home province. Okay – now that that minor squee is out of the way, let’s talk about Mary Catherine Montgomery aka Cat.

Cat has been exiled from New York City, where she lives with her screenplay-writing father, to her Aunt Jet’s in small-town New Brunswick. (The town is called Montgomery Falls, but I pictured Fredericton, for those of you to whom that means something.) Aunt Jet is the caretaker of the family’s now crumbling ancestral home, which she operates – out of necessity – as a boarding house. The reason for Cat’s exile and her subsequent banishment creates just one of You Were Never Here‘s mysteries. Another is the disappearance of Cat’s childhood friend Riley Fraser.

The boy in the picture is handsome. Chiseled jaw and wavy hair kind of handsome. The kind of handsome that gets crowned prom king or maybe class president. Even though the smile on the boy’s face looks forced around the edges, it’s wide enough to bring out the dimple in his left cheek.

There are a thousand Riley Frasers in the world, and the boy in the poster is mine.

Riley Fraser has been missing for months. The two had been friends the summer they were twelve (five years ago, and the last time Cat had been to Montgomery Falls), but something happened between them (another mystery) and even though Cat knows “I don’t owe Riley Fraser anything – not after the last thing he said to me”, knowing that he has disappeared is deeply unsettling.

Cat has no intention of doing anything other keeping to herself while she’s in Montgomery Falls, but then she meets gorgeous Aidan Porter, one of Montgomery House’s boarders. He proves to be a welcome distraction as Cat tries to process not only what happened back home, but also her complicated feelings about Riley, their truncated friendship, and his disappearance.

Those feelings become even more complicated when she bumps into Riley’s older brother, Noah. At first, Noah seems disinterested in his brother’s whereabouts, but soon he and Cat team up to try to solve the mystery of what happened to Riley.

And there’s yet another mystery in You Were Never Here which has to do with Cat herself. She seems very reluctant to touch people. There’s an incident on the bus from NYC to New Brunswick, when Cat hesitates before letting a woman sit beside her.

…there’s only so much you can do when you’re big. You can twist and contort all you want, but volume is volume, and with both of us “fat” – “overweight,” my dad always corrects, as if that somehow sounds better – a trickle of sweat forms where our hips press against each other.

Cat’s size is only part of the issue, though. (And how awesome to encounter a protagonist who is not a ‘perfect’ size zero; neither is her weight a punchline or flaw.) The other reason for Cat’s reluctance to touch people is germane to who Cat is, but I’ll let you discover that secret on your own.

I flew through You Were Never Here because it was all the things I love in YA: well-written, suspenseful, peopled with realistic characters, and loads of fun. The last third of the book was so tense, I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough. The fact that I was in a somewhat familiar setting was just the icing on the cake.

Highly recommended.

The Guest List – Lucy Foley

Lucy Foley’s thriller The Guest List is the perfect book to pick up if you’ve got a couple hours and you want to be distracted. Although I didn’t find the writing to be spectacular (do people not care about comma splices anymore?) and the twists weren’t necessarily twisty (once you see one, the house of cards starts to crumble), I still thoroughly enjoyed my time on Innis an Amplora or Cormorant Island.

Jules and Will (a digital magazine editor and a reality tv star) are getting married and they’ve decided to hold the exclusive event on Cormorant Island, located in the Atlantic, off the coast of Ireland. There’s nothing much on the island now, except for the Folly (aptly named as it turns out), a few crumbling buildings, a graveyard and a peat bog. To this event they’ve invited 150 or so of their closest friends, but the people who really matter come the day before.

There’s Hannah, wife of Charlie, who’s Jules’s best friend. Hannah’s quite aware that she and Jules are “the two most important people in [her] husband’s life.” There’s Johnno, Will’s best friend and best man. The two men went to an exclusive boarding school called Trevellyan. There’s Olivia, maid-of-honour and Jules’s half sister. Finally there’s Aiofe, wedding planner and owner of the Folly with her husband Freddy. Each of these people, and Jules, reveal their feelings about the event and the people in attendance in first person narratives. The book jacket tells us that one of these people is a murderer, although we don’t find out until the very end who has actually been killed.

Years ago, I read Agatha Christie’s magnificent “locked room” mystery (although at the time, I’m not sure I knew that’s what it was called) And Then There Were None. The “locked-room” or “impossible crime” mystery is a subgenre of detective fiction in which a crime (almost always murder) is committed in circumstances under which it was seemingly impossible for the perpetrator to commit the crime or evade detection in the course of getting in and out of the crime scene.[1] The crime in question typically involves a crime scene with no indication as to how the intruder could have entered or left, for example: a locked room. Following other conventions of classic detective fiction, the reader is normally presented with the puzzle and all of the clues, and is encouraged to solve the mystery before the solution is revealed in a dramatic climax. (From: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Locked-room_mystery).

The Guest List isn’t totally a “locked room” mystery, but I think Foley does owe a debt of gratitude to Christie. And to every unreliable narrator on the planet. Every one one of the guests who arrive early on the island have something to hide. Secrets are alluded to. Friendships fray. Relationships strain. And it’s all enormous, mindless fun.

Rabbit Foot Bill – Helen Humphreys

When asked how we (the ladies in my book club) would rate Canadian writer Helen Humphreys’ new book Rabbit Foot Bill on a scale of one to ten, the average score was about six. It’s a shockingly low number for an author whose book The Lost Garden we almost all universally loved. (I have also read her novels Afterimage and Coventry.) I have come to expect a certain degree of poetry in Humphreys’ prose, and while Rabbit Foot Bill is certainly easy to read, it lacked something. Usually after a book club meeting, especially if I am ambivalent about a book, I come away with a deeper appreciation of it. Honestly, I still don’t know how I really feel about this book.

Leonard Flint lives in small-town Saskatchewan with his parents. He’s a solitary kid and his only friend is Bill, a quiet man who lives in Sugar Hill, “right inside the hill.”

We have been friends for a year, Bill and I, and although people don’t approve, we are friends anyway. I like that Bill isn’t bothered by what people say.

The reasons why people don’t like my being friends with Bill are these: first, because he is a man and I am a twelve-year-old boy; and second, because he is a man who is not like other men. He doesn’t talk much. He doesn’t live in a house. He doesn’t have a real job. He doesn’t have a family.

One day, Leonard witnesses a shocking act of violence that lands Bill in prison. It’s fifteen years before he sees his friend again, and when he does it’s at the Weymouth Mental Hospital. Leonard has just accepted his first job as a psychiatrist, a job that he doesn’t really understand how to do. He really is out of sorts and then one night, crossing the yard back to the cottage where he lives he sees a man “moving along the outside of the building. He’s far enough away to be in the shadows and he has his back to me, but I recognize the way he moves as though it was myself moving in my own skin.”

It is indeed Bill, and although Leonard is warned against making contact with him, he can’t help himself. Bill and Leonard’s pasts are so closely linked that it is impossible for him to resist, even though it means that he is derelict in his duties to his own patients.

Rabbit Foot Bill is based a a true story but the real-life relationship between Bill and Leonard is peripheral at best. In Humphreys’ imagination their relationship is far more complex, which is of course the stock and trade of a writer. There were times when I wondered if there wasn’t some sort of homoerotic connection between the men, and the reveal, when it comes, is certainly plausible.

So, I am not sure why I didn’t love this book. Thinking about it now, as I write this, I guess I can see its merits, but I just felt it was somehow superficial. True, as my fellow book club member Karen said, Humphreys doesn’t get in the way of the story. In some ways, though, I wish she had spent just a teensy bit more time making these characters more substantial.

It’s not a total miss for me, but I didn’t love it.

Sunburn – Laura Lippman

Sunburn is my second outing with Laura Lippman. I just re-read my review of The Most Dangerous Thing from 2014 and the issues I have with Sunburn are pretty much the same issues I had with that book.

Sunburn concerns the fates of Polly and Adam. Polly (who has several other names) walks away from her husband, Gregg, and daughter, Jani, while the three are on a beach holiday. She lands in a little backwoods town (Belleville, Delaware), and that’s where Adam finds her. Adam has been hired to find her, actually. He couldn’t have known that he would be so attracted to her. “It’s the sunburned shoulders that get him.”

Adam and Polly end up taking jobs at High-Ho, a dump of a bar, where Polly waits tables and Adam, who happens to be a trained cook, revamps the menu. At first they keep their distance from each other.

He doesn’t go in hard. He’s not that way. Doesn’t have to be, if that doesn’t sound too vain. It’s just a fact: he’s a Ken doll kind of guy, if Ken had a great year-round tan. Tall and muscular with even features, pale eyes, dark hair. Women always assume that Ken wants a Barbie, but he prefers his women thin and a little skittish.

Skittish is certainly one way to describe Polly. Secretive and calculating would also be apt. Polly’s complicated past stretches beyond leaving her family on the beach. “If anyone knew her whole story, that might be the truly shocking part, the way she ruined her own second chance. But no one knows her whole story.”

For a while, the dance between Adam and Polly is interesting. They each have secrets and they are keeping their true feelings and motives close to their chests. Is Polly a player, a maneater? How does a mother walk away from her kid? It’s a question worth asking. And Adam? Who is the mysterious man who has asked him to keep tabs on Polly? What is he really after?

Ultimately, though, in the same way that the climax of The Most Dangerous Thing was anticlimactic, Sunburn doesn’t really get anywhere….and it certainly doesn’t get anywhere quickly. The first third of the novel is far more page-turning than the last third. By the time I got to the end, I didn’t even believe in Adam anymore. He seemed sort of neutered.

I’ll say the same thing about Lippman as I did the first time around: she can write. And maybe some readers won’t mind a meandering journey like this one, but it was just so-so for me.