Book Chat


Vivi and Jonah, the narrators of Emery Lord’s YA novel When We Collided, are damaged collidedseventeen-year-olds, but that doesn’t mean that they’ve given up on living. Their singular voices will likely strike a nerve with many young readers.

Jonah lives in Verona Cove, a small coastal town in California. He’s smack in the middle of six kids and is often tasked with looking after his younger siblings because his older sister has been away at college and his brother is working. His father recently died and his mother can’t seem to get out of bed.

Vivi and her mother are summering in Verona Cove. They needed an escape and Vivi has already decided that she loves Verona Cove, but she “waited until the seventh day to commit.” When she meets Jonah and his youngest sister, Leah, 5, she’s immediately smitten. Vivi falls fast and hard for a lot of things. Listening to her is sort of like watching the ball in a pinball machine bing off all the obstacles. It’s tiring to try to keep up, but she is utterly charming and Jonah has never met anyone like her.

The girl looking down at us has white-blond hair, and her lips are the color of maraschino cherries. She doesn’t look like any girl in my school. She doesn’t look like any girl I’ve ever seen in real life.

Vivi and Jonah hit it off and before you can say “summer romance”, the two are inseparable. For Jonah, Vivi is like a breath of fresh air. She makes him feel special. She listens to him as he tries to navigate the loss of his father and his new situation at home. He doesn’t understand what is happening with his mother and he doesn’t know how to help her. Like his older siblings, he’s just trying to keep his head above water and keep “the littles” (the family name for the younger kids) healthy and whole.

Things seem to be going fine between the two, until they’re not…and they’re not because Vivi starts to act increasingly more bizarre. I think Lord does an exceptional job of tracking the course of Vivi’s mental illness – the erratic and increasingly manic behaviour that finally comes to a head.

Teenage romance has the potential to be a messy business, no question, and the stakes are high for Vivi and Jonah who realize they need each other and also realize that their relationship is problematic (for a variety of reasons.) I appreciate that Lord didn’t try to tidy things up for these two extremely likable characters. You’ll root for them. Your heart will break for them. Your life will be better for having known them.

 

5919CB39-1143-49E3-BCAE-98D1717F025EDanya Kukafka’s debut novel, Girl in Snow, earned copious praise from anybody who’s anybody in the book world and it’s easy to see why everyone was hyped up.

When they told him Lucinda Hayes was dead, Cameron thought of her shoulder blades and how they framed her naked spine, like a pair of static lungs.

Kukafka’s novel is a sort of mystery, but not in the traditional sense. Lucinda, a popular 15- year-old, is discovered  in the playground of the elementary school. She’s been murdered.  Lucinda’s death is certain in the incident that kicks the novel off, but it’s the three-person narrative that keeps its motor running.

First there’s Cameron, the boy who loved Lucinda from afar. Perhaps saying Cameron ‘loved’ her isn’t quite the right word. He watched her obsessively.  He drew her.  He feels like he knew her better than anyone, “The way her legs flew out when she ran…How her hair got frizzy at the front when she walked home from school in the heat….the way she squinted when she couldn’t see the board.”  When Lucinda’s body is found, Cameron is one of the first suspects because a classmate had once told a teacher that Cameron “was the sort of kid who would bring a gun to school.”

Then there’s Jade. When she hears the news of Lucinda’s death she says that “faking shock is easier than faking sadness.”  Jade lives with her mother and sister and I wouldn’t characterize her life as necessarily happy. She resented Lucinda, and so her classmate’s death inspires little more than antipathy.

Finally, there’s Russ, a local cop who used to be Cameron’s father’s partner before he did a runner, leaving his wife and son behind.  He feels protective towards Cameron and his feelings are further complicated by the feelings he had for Cameron’s father, Lee.  He is also suspicious of his wife, Ines’, ex-con brother, Ivan, who just happens to be the person who discovered Lucinda’s body.

It is through the lens of these characters that we see Lucinda. I wouldn’t say that Girl in Snow is a page-turner, but that’s because these are complicated people with complicated feelings and Kukafka cares about every word she writes. This is a book to be savoured and these are characters you won’t soon forget.

It probably would have made more sense to talk about Linda Brooks’ beautiful 953A7BC0-3D92-49DF-B19E-85D966DCF6A4coffee table book Orchestra in My Garden back in the spring, which is when I purchased my copy.  But spring is always a busy time at school, and then I went away, and then school  started again…you know how it goes. Now that the days are getting darker and colder, I feel like Linda’s book is the perfect antidote.  Plus,  Orchestra in My Garden would make a fabulous gift for the gardeners, wannabe gardeners and musicians on your list this holiday season.

Linda and I are cousins, although I wouldn’t say that we know each other particularly well. She is the second youngest of five and I am the oldest of four, so on the few occasions when our families would get together,  we would have been of little interest to each other. My dad and Linda’s dad are first cousins. I do have childhood memories of going to the farm where Linda grew up. It was always a lot of fun. My parents loved her parents, Jack and Margie, and I remember loving them, too.  It was probably a lot of fun for the adults to get together and let the nine of us run wild.

Orchestra in My Garden is a love song, and not just to gardening, although Linda is clearly a talented gardener. (She would say “enthusiast” not “expert”.) Her beautiful Nova Scotia garden, nurtured for over a decade, is simply the backdrop, though, for Linda’s blossoming awareness of a new season in her life. (And look at me, with all these corny gardening metaphors. They just write themselves, people!)

I was between albums with  no immediate pressure to produce more content and no outside expectations. Life was throwing some milestones my way. The approach of a 50th birthday coinciding with a first child heading off to university may have encouraged a greater awareness that my life was taking a new turn.

Linda has lead a creative life. Although she has a BA from Mt. Allison and a Bachelor of Law degree from Dalhousie, I always think of her as a musician. She has recorded several albums, two of them in Nashville, and been nominated for ECMAs.  The essays included in her book are her way of expressing herself “beyond the lyrics of a song.”

The essays in this book tackle a wide range of topics: the joys of digging deep (literally and metaphorically, I think), marriage and motherhood, family, inspiration. There really is something for everyone in Linda’s essays. The nice thing about them is that they really feel like personal reflections, rather than didactic lessons.

Supporting and nurturing and, perhaps especially, challenging each other to bloom means understanding that no one of us has all the answers and there is not only one perspective. When we learn to respect another’s growth, we accelerate our own. That’s what family, friendships, and my garden keep teaching me.

And what would a book about gardens be without pictures. First time garden photographer Mark Maryanovich has taken some truly beautiful photos for this book. This might be his first time snapping pics of flowers, but he comes with an impressive resume and it shows.

If all this weren’t enough, Linda has included a code which allows you to download 22 original songs inspired by four seasons in her garden.

Orchestra in My Garden would be a lovely book for anyone who loves nature, sure, but also for anyone who might appreciate what it means to come to a crossroad in life and consider the paths that lay ahead. Download Linda’s songs, make a cup of tea and enjoy.

 

E1A054FB-47D3-4BF8-93BC-7A8F56A62626The characters in Joanne Proulx’s second novel We All Love the Beautiful Girls are so perfectly imperfect that you can’t help but fall in love with them.

At the centre of this finely crafted family drama is the Slate family, Mia and Michael, and their seventeen-year-old son, Finn. Then there’s Jess, Finn’s former babysitter who now sneaks into his bedroom at night to…you know. Frankie is the daughter of Michael’s business partner, Peter. Peter’s wife, Helen, is Mia’s best friend. Frankie and Finn have grown up together.

Mia and Michael’s perfect life starts to unravel when they get a visit from Stanley, the company accountant (I’m not sure that’s his actual his title, but it doesn’t really matter; he’s only the messenger). He’s discovered that Peter has restructured the company and written Michael out. Michael has, it turns out, been pretty lax about the financials of the company because he and Peter have “known each other since high school.”

On the same night that Michael finds himself screwed out of his own company, Finn finds out that Jess won’t be leaving her boyfriend, Eric, for him. She can’t even though Finn is “So gorgeous and so nice.”  Finn is just a kid. (She’s 23.) Eric’s a total douche and happens to be the older brother of Finn’s best friend, Eli. Finn’s at a party at their house, drunk, and after an encounter with Jess he makes a couple of bad choices. First, he hooks up with Frankie. Second, he passes out in the backyard. It’s  January. In Canada.

These two incidents are game-changers for the Slate family and their repercussions propel Proulx’s story along like a thriller. I literally could not put this book down. I finished it well past my bed-time. On a school night.

The novel flips between characters. We watch Finn’s heart break. We watch Mia and Michael’s marriage topple. We watch friends become enemies. Proulx toggles between these perspectives masterfully, the blame and the shame carefully shared. And if there is redemption or peace to be had, it’s hard won.

No one makes it through life unscathed, but perhaps the key to surviving is understanding. As Finn tells his mother: “I’m not the same as I was….I’m different now….But it’s good, you know? I’m good. Like I understand things I didn’t understand before.”

The boy becomes a man. The parents – well, I guess they do what all parents do. The best they can.

I LOVED this book.

155356C2-E75D-4FCF-8F1B-CEB6EB1DA2B9Eleanor Oliphant, the titular character of Gail Honeyman’s debut novel Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, is not like anyone else you have likely met before. She has worked in the same office for the last nine years, she has no friends and she lives on a diet of vodka and pizza or pasta and pesto. Her life is structured and predictable, right down to her weekly calls from “Mummy.”

It doesn’t take long to figure out that Eleanor is actually not completely fine. She is pretty much the loneliest person I have ever met. She has no aptitude for social niceties; she says whatever pops into her head. It makes it difficult for her co-workers to warm up to her. Her mother is particularly harsh.   When she wins tickets to a concert and asks one of her office mates to accompany her, she becomes the butt of the joke because as everyone knows “she’s mental.”

Enter Raymond. He’s the new office IT guy. When he comes to fix Eleanor’s computer she notes that “he was barely taller than me, and was wearing green training shoes, ill-fitting denim trousers and a T-shirt showing a cartoon dog lying on tops of its kennel. It was stretched taut against a burgeoning belly….All of his visible skin, both face and body, was very pink.”

It’s funny that Eleanor dismisses Raymond as she has, similarly, been dismissed by others. She is aware of her own appearance, her “face a scarred palimpsest of fire. A nose that’s too small and eyes that are too big. Ears: unexceptional.” But Raymond doesn’t seem to see Eleanor’s appearance – or care much either way, at least, and is persistent and the two become unlikely friends.

The stuff that comes out of Eleanor’s mouth is often funny. She has no filter and doesn’t seem to take offence to the things she hears, even when she is the subject of ridicule. When an office mate makes a cruel joke at her expense, Eleanor admits that she “laughed at that one, actually.” Her world is very black and white. When she and Raymond stumble upon an elderly man in distress, Eleanor is tasked with keeping him calm.

…don’t worry, you won’t be lying here in the middle of the street for long. There’s no need to be anxious; medical care is completely free of charge in this country, and the standard is generally considered to be among the best in the world. You’re a fortunate man, I mean, you probably wouldn’t want to fall and bump your head in, say, the new state of South Sudan, given its current political and economic situation.

Oh, Eleanor.

It is Eleanor’s friendship with Raymond that starts to crack open her insular, dysfunctional life. The more we know of her story, the more amazing she becomes. Eleanor Oliphant will stay with you long after you’ve closed the final pages and you will leave her knowing that she will actually be completely (mostly) fine.

 

cuckoo songI don’t think I have ever read a book quite like Frances Hardinge’s YA novel Cuckoo Song. I am not much of a fantasy fan, you know – word building and that sort of thing, but I was totally enchanted by Hardinge’s story, which is as much about grief and loss, as it is a creepy story about…well, I can’t really tell you.

I can tell you that the story follows 13-year-old Triss, who wakes up after falling into the Grimmer – a pond near the cottage where she is vacationing with her family. Her mother comforts her, telling Triss that she’s “just been ill again, that’s all. You had a fever, so of course you feel rotten and a bit muddled.”

Triss’s younger sister Penny, Pen for short, doesn’t seem all that thrilled with Triss’s recovery. “She’s pretending!” she screams, when she comes to Triss’s bedroom. “It’s fake! Can’t any of you tell the difference?”

Things just get weirder for Triss because even she has to admit that something isn’t quite right. For one thing, she has a voracious appetite – never mind easing herself back into the world of food, as “soon as she saw the first bowl of soup arrive, great crusty rolls on the side of the tray, her hands started to shake.” Triss is horrified to discover that food is not the only thing that will sate her hunger; she’ll willingly eat just about anything and lots of it.

Other strange things begin to happen in Triss’s life.  Dead leaves in her hair when she wakes up. Dolls that move in her hands. Dolls that speak to her. And then what’s with all the letters from her brother, Sebastian? Those letters are impossible because Sebastian was killed in the war.

Hardinge has created a masterful, creepy and mysterious novel that is both exciting and kind of heartbreaking. I don’t want to spoil the novel’s surprises, but I will say this: you won’t forget Triss because she is brave, endearing and clever. Her desire to solve the mystery of what’s happened to her keeps the plot ticking along, but her capacity for self -reflection and self-awareness is what makes her a character who will stay with you long after the last page is turned.

Highly recommended.

9BC8A38C-E581-4BB6-A29F-B5302D5437FCAlthough I didn’t lead the life of debauchery that Tess, the first-person narrator of Stephanie Danler’s novel Sweetbitter lives, I did spend most of my twenties working in the service industry.  Those were the best of times and the worst of times. For Tess, too.

Tess arrives in New York City without a plan. She’s 22-years-old and she left home to escape something – although she is perhaps not quite sure what:

The twin pillars of football and church? The low, faded homes on childless cul-de-sacs? Mornings of the Gazette and boxed doughnuts? The sedated, sentimental middle of it. It didn’t matter. I would never know exactly, for my life, like most, moved only imperceptibly and definitively forward.

She moves in with the friend of a friend, a guy with an apartment in Williamsburg. And then she scores an interview at New York’s most famous restaurant, a place in Union Square. Tess has no real experience (because you can’t count the coffee shop she worked at back home) and when Howard, the restaurant’s general manager asks her why she chose NY, Tess says “It really didn’t feel like a choice Where else is there to go?” She smiles too much; sweats through her sundress. And lands a job.

This job changes Tess. In some ways it chews her up and spits her out. She encounters lifers who make a lot of money – so much money, it’s understandable why they’ve chosen this life as their career.

One of these people is Simone – an ageless goddess who seems to know everything. Tess develops something of a crush on her, longs to be like her, hangs on her every word.

“Tasting is a farce,” Simone tells her. “The only way to know a wine is to take a few hours with it.”

Then there’s Jake, possessor of the pale, spectral eyes. His total disregard for her traps Tess in his orbit.

Of course, there are loads of other characters at the restaurant: the gay Russian, the cranky waitresses, the handsome owner who tells the staff that “The goal…is to make  the guests feel that we are on their side. Any business transaction – actually any life transaction – is negotiated by how you are making the other person feel.”

Tess  starts as a “backwaiter”, a job I’d call server assistant. It’s hot, thankless work, but Tess is a quick learner. She’s soon part of the family – drinking and snorting coke until the wee hours, sleeping, and doing it all again and again.

I had a few summers like that – without the coke snorting. I do remember running from the restaurant where I worked down to another bar and knocking back a drink during my fifteen-minute break. That was about as wild as it got for me. Still, I could relate to Tess and her topsy-turvey lifestyle. Up late into the night, sleeping late into the day. Always cash in your pocket.

Sweetbitter will definitely remind anyone who’s worked in the the restaurant business of those crazy days when those “loose, slippery bills” filled your pockets. But it is a business that can ruin you. Tess says that “What I didn’t see was the time had severe brackets around it. Within those brackets nothing else existed. Outside of them, all you could remember was a blur of temporary madness.”

I very much enjoyed my time with Tess. And I am very happy that those days are behind me.

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