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Watching Edie – Camilla Way

Camilla Way is a new-to-me author,  but after reading Watching Edie I would definitely watchingediebe amenable to reading more. Told by two characters Heather (who narrates ‘Before’) and Edie (who narrates ‘After’), Watching Edie is about the adolescent friendship between the two girls, their subsequent estrangement and what happens when Heather re-enters Edie’s life many years later.

Edie, 33, is living in London when the literal knock on her door comes.

I’m entirely unprepared for what’s waiting for me beyond the heavy, wide front door and when I open it the world seems to tilt and I have to grip the doorframe to stop myself from falling. Because there she is, standing on my doorstep, staring back at me. There, after all this time, is Heather.

It’s clear that whatever happened between the two girls has taken its emotional toll; however,  Edie invites Heather in for tea and they make polite conversation. Nevertheless, Edie is suspicious of Heather’s re-appearance in her life even though she has “imagined this, dreamed of this, dreaded this, so many hundreds of  times for so many years.”

Heather’s narrative fills in the back story of how the two girls met at the end of Year 11. (In England, students would be sixteen at this point, destined to move on to A-levels or employment.) Heather is a bit of a loner at school, so while she is outside with her peers, she’s not joining in on the fun. That’s when she first sees Edie.

As I watch, her facing appearing and then disappearing  behind others in the crowd, she stops, her eyes squinting up at the building before darting around herself again and then finally landing upon me. I hold my breath. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone so pretty before, not in real life.

The girls, despite their differences, bond over their shared fraught parental relationships and their hatred of their hometown, Fremton, which Heather describes as “horrible.”  And then, Edie meets Connor. Heather doesn’t like him on sight, although he’s “very handsome.” She doesn’t understand “this strange heat that’s there in the crackling, held-breath space between them; I only know that it has no place for me.”

Heather makes another present-day appearance in Edie’s life after the first reunion. And this time, Edie is grateful. She’s just given birth to her daughter, Maya, product of a one-night-stand with a co-worker and she’s sunk into a horrible post-partum depression. Heather arrives – one can only imagine she’s been nearby, watching – and takes over, looking after the baby, letting Edie sleep for hours at a time, but also cutting Edie off from her Uncle Geoff, her closest relation. When Edie befriends a new neighbor and starts to come out of her funk, she sends Heather away again.

It’s clear that something traumatic has happened between the two girls, but Way doesn’t give up the secret easily. Heather is actually, especially in her sixteen-year-old incarnation, a very sympathetic character. Edie has many redeeming qualities, but her life is seriously derailed when she meets Connor. The girls’ story is both heartbreaking and horrific and it makes for riveting reading.

 

Chopsticks – Jessica Anthony & Rodrigo Corral

ChopsticksSixteen-year-old Glory Fleming is a piano prodigy. When Jessica Anthony and Rodrigo Corral’s hybrid novel – more about that in a moment – opens, Glory is missing. Then the story flashes back eighteen months to help us understand how her life has gone off the rails.

Chopsticks is a quick read, but that’s because much of the story is told through pictures: drawings and photographs.

For example, we learn about Glory’s childhood by flipping the pages of a family photo album. Pictures of her parents Victor and Maria, and baby pictures of Gloria and ‘pasted in’ cards and programs, give us a glimpse into a tight family unit.

Victor is a music teacher and Glory is his star pupil. After the accidental death of her mother, Glory throws herself into her music until she is so accomplished that The New Yorker calls her “The Brecht of the Piano.” Glory is known for her “innovative performances of classical pieces alongside modern scores.”  Soon, she is playing sold-out shows at Carnegie Hall.

 

And it’s all good until Francisco and his family, Argentinian immigrants, move into the house next door. Chopsticks gives us the same insight into Frank’s character by showing us cards from his parents and his diary in which he writes: “She is the most beautiful girl I have ever seen. She invited me over and played Chopin on her piano.”

The pair form a friendship;  it seems as though Glory hasn’t actually had too many over the years. Although it’s completely natural,  their bond deepens and as she pulls away from her father and her music, Victor tightens his hold on his daughter. Frank isn’t without his own problems. Although he comes from a wonderful family, he has trouble fitting in at school and with the exception of art, and music, isn’t excelling academically.

In an effort to separate the teens, Victor plans a European tour for his daughter. Text messages, post cards and photos mark this period. But, of course, by this time Frank and Glory are in love and the time apart only heightens their feelings for each other.

Chopsticks is a beautiful book to read – each page is visually interesting and the story of Glory and Frank, each of whom want to find their own way out from under parental expectations and to discover their own path,  is certainly one most teens will relate to.

I’ve been wanting to read this one for a while and it did not disappoint.

Commonwealth – Ann Patchett

Ann Patchett is one of those writers who can maneuver a huge cast of characters so commonwealthdeftly that you hardly notice the machinations.  Her novel Commonwealth, the story of the intersecting lives of two families, might have crashed and burned in less talented hands, but Patchett moves these people backwards and forwards in time without seeming to  break a sweat.

Fix and Beverly Keating are hosting a christening party for their daughter when Bert Cousins shows up with a bottle of gin. Of the dozens of people invited to celebrate baby Franny, police officer Fix “struggled to make the connection” when he opened the door to the district attorney. Bert’s arrival was precipitated by the fact that “he hated Sundays.” By Sunday, Bert had had all he could stand of his three children and pregnant wife, Teresa: “he couldn’t play with them and he didn’t want to play with them and didn’t want to get up  and get the baby…”. Trapped in a life he clearly doesn’t want, he latches on to Fix’s party as a momentary escape hatch. By the end of the afternoon – perhaps lubricated by the gin, Bert has kissed Beverly and set off a chain of events that reverberates through the years.

After Beverly and Bert leave their marriages and form a new relationship, the five children (Franny and Caroline Keating and Cal, Holly, Jeanette and Albie Cousins) form a lasting bond. They navigate their lives – sharing confidences and allegiances, tragedies and achievements. Central to this story is Franny, who as an adult begins a love affair with Leon Posen, a celebrated writer looking for his next commercial success. He finds it in Franny’s family and the novel he writes exposes fault lines, mends fences, rights wrongs and assuages guilt.

As happened with her novel Bel Canto, I found myself falling madly in love with these characters and their very human-ness. The novel twists around itself, moving backwards and forwards in time – jumping years and characters. Sometimes we get just a taste of a character and their life, sometimes we are fully immersed. I never felt short-changed because I didn’t know everything about everyone; I didn’t mind the novel’s elliptical narrative. That’s life, isn’t it? Days and days of sameness marked by little heartbeats of pain or sorrow or happiness. Patchett manages to capture those heartbeats beautifully and there are moments in this book that took my breath away.

Commonwealth made me consider how we are our memories and the stories we tell ourselves and each other. And sometimes, as Franny remarks, there are stories we need to keep for ourselves.

Highly recommended.

 

Stolen – Lucy Christopher

Sixteen-year-old Londoner Gemma  is in the Bangkok airport, a stop-over on her way to a family vacation to Vietnam. She’s just had a fight with her parents and she’s gone off on her own to grab a coffee and cool down. That’s when she notices the man. He’s hard to miss because he “had that look in [his] eyes, as though [he] wanted something from me.”  Gemma, on the precipice of adulthood, is drawn to the man and “those blue, blue eyes, icy blue, looking back at me, as if I could warm them up.”

stolenThis encounter is the beginning of Gemma’s journey in Lucy Christopher’s debut novel Stolen. Before Gemma has even realized what’s happening, the man is buying her coffee, introducing himself as ‘Ty’ and engaging Gemma in a conversation that makes her feel “grown-up, sitting there with the most handsome man in the café, drinking a coffee he had just bought for me.”

But then, things change for Gemma. When she wakes up – hours or days later – she is far away from her family, alone in the Australian outback with Ty. Thus begins a period of captivity for Gemma. Ty claims to have stolen her as a way to keep her safe, although from what, Gemma cannot discern.

Ty has clearly been planning this kidnapping for a long time. He slowly reveals parts of his life to Gemma and in some ways he is a sympathetic character – until you remember that he’s taken a sixteen-year-old girl away from her family and friends. The harsh landscape is alien to Gemma; they truly are in the middle of nowhere. Although there is a vehicle, Gemma has no idea where she is or how to find help. Although Ty has not physically harmed her, Gemma is constantly worried that he’ll soon tire of her and kill her. If he doesn’t, any number of poisonous critters or the harsh conditions might get her.

It all makes for a pretty compelling read.  Gemma slowly begins to adapt to her new reality and begins to trust that Ty doesn’t want to harm her and the book’s strange and alien landscape (he captures a wild camel, for instance) begins to work its peculiar magic on both Gemma and the reader.

In some ways, the book reminded me of an old movie from the 1970s, Sweet Hostage. In that film, Martin Sheen picks up hitchhiker Linda Blair and takes her to his version of  ‘Xanadu’. Under his tutelage, Blair begins to see the world as a much more beautiful place than her hard-scrabble upbringing would have her believe it is, but you can’t argue with the fact that she was, in fact,  kidnapped. Both the movie and Christopher’s novel plumb the depths of Stockholm Syndrome.

Christopher’s novel certainly offers something new to the YA genre and many teens will find Gemma’s story riveting.

 

 

 

Delicate Monsters – Stephanie Kuehn

The three central characters in Stephanie Kuehn’s darkdarkdark YA novel Delicatedelicate Monsters are hard to spend time with. From the moment we meet  Sadie, and Emerson  and his  brother, Miles, we embark on a journey that is both awful and strangely – redemptive. In any case, these train-wreck teens are hard to look away from.

Sadie has just returned to her home from a camp where the girls were “all supposed to be “troubled”” Sadie’s far tougher than these girls who are “wide-eyed and tragic, fragile herd-like things, brimming with stories of Painful Childhoods.” Sadie can’t relate because she is not like them. She has “no interest in introspection” and “she found threats a curious thing because she didn’t respond to them the way she was meant to…threats made Sadie’s skin grow cold and her brain grow mean.” Mean is exactly what Sadie is, too.

At first eighteen-year-old Emerson seems like an uncomplicated lug of a guy. He lives with his widowed mother and younger brother, Miles, 15. Miles is sickly and has been diagnosed – or misdiagnosed –  with a variety of ailments: night terrors, separation anxiety, rashes, fever, celiac. Despite his health concerns and the fact that Miles “didn’t like other people,” Emerson was convinced that his younger brother is “destined for…something. Greatness?” Miles is peculiar and although Emerson seems to care about Miles, he doesn’t defend him against the constant barrage of abuse – both physical and verbal – Miles takes from the thugs at school.

Kuehn dances these three teens together when Sadie returns to her hometown. She’s been expelled from boarding school (again) for almost getting someone killed. (The details of that are revealed through email exchanges between Sadie and her ‘victim’, Roman Bender.) The aforementioned camp was clearly a placeholder because her father is M.I.A. and her mother seems to have no real interest in her daughter. She’s been out of the hometown loop for a while, but she remembers Emerson. She specifically remembers the things they used to do together when they were kids and his mother, a nurse, would bring them out to Sadie’s family’s vineyard to care for Sadie’s grandfather.

Sadie doesn’t remember Miles, though. They meet during fencing and if she has any redeeming qualities, she shows them in her interactions with him. For a kid who tries to blend into the shadows, Miles seems to respond to Sadie’s “I don’t give a shit, but here, eat this sandwich” approach to friendship.

I love the way Kuehn writes her characters. This is my third book by her and although I didn’t love it as much as I loved Charm & Strange, I still couldn’t stop turning the pages. We’d be naïve to think there aren’t lost, damaged kids like Sadie, Emerson and Miles in the world. Kuehn doesn’t mince words or tread lightly in Delicate Monsters, and as prickly as these three are – the mother in me just wanted to hug them and try to right their scarily off-kilter worlds.

Juliet’s Answer – Glenn Dixon

juliets-answer-9781501135484Glenn Dixon’s memoir Juliet’s Answer has a lot going for it especially if you a) love Italy b) teach high school English and are intimately familiar with Romeo and Juliet and c) have ever been unlucky in affairs of the heart.

Dixon started out to write a book about love – all different types, all over the world. He landed in Verona and became one of Juliet’s secretaries. These are the women of Club  di Giulietta, an organization founded by Giulio Tamassia. Tamassia, a baker  by trade, took over the task of responding to the hundreds of letters which arrive in Verona yearly. Beginning in 1937,  the letters were  answered  by the groundskeeper who tended the gravestones at the Monastery of San Francesco where Juliet is said to have been buried and where the letters were first left, propped against the gravestones, and then by a poet in the 50s and finally by Tamassia and his daughter, Giovanna. Dixon was on holiday from his day job as a high school English teacher when he volunteered to help answer the letters, the only man in the group of volunteers.

Dixon admits that he’d had his own problems with love and “part of the reason I’d come to Verona was to learn something more about this all-encompassing force in our lives. To learn something, anything, that would help me understand my own heartbreak and help me, maybe, trust in love once more.”

See – there’s this girl. She’s the one; at least that’s what Dixon thinks. They’ve known each other since university and “I guess you could say that I fell in love with her right from the start. She was pretty and smart, but it was more than that. She seemed to “get” me, just as I seemed to “get” her.” But in the 20 years since university,  Dixon has never managed to get past the friend-zone. He’s watched as the woman, he calls her Claire, falls in and out of love with other men and he doesn’t disagree when she says “you can’t choose who you fall in love with.” Ain’t that the truth. So he pines.

Dixon teaches high school English. It’s probably not a coincidence that the time we spend with him in the classroom is shared with literature’s most famous lovers – Romeo and Juliet. I admit it: I am a card-carrying member of the club. It’s amazing how many of my colleagues don’t like Romeo and Juliet, but I love the play. I love teaching it. I never get sick of Shakespeare’s language or the gut-wrenching, sob-inducing, star-defying story of those two crazy kids. What can I say? I’m a romantic.

And Italy – that’s my place. I’ve only been twice, but I dream of spending an extended period of time there. I’m not sure what it is: the heat, the wine, the shuttered windows and amazing vistas, the pasta. Did I mention the wine?  I just know that I love it.

So it was a no-brainer that I was going to like Juliet’s Answer. I related to Dixon’s quest to understand the nature of love. He’s my people aka fellow English teacher. And, hey, love found him. How’s that for a happy ending?

 

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The Girl in the Red Coat – Kate Hamer

Until about the midway point, I couldn’t put Kate Hamer’s novel The Girl in the Red Coat down. When eight-year-old Carmel Wakefield disappears, her mother, Beth,  is unhinged by her grief. Hamer’s novel follows Beth’s narrative as well as Carmel’s and until the reader understands the reasons for Carmel’s abduction, the novel is propulsive and riveting.

red coatBeth is sort of a hippie. She and her ex-husband, Paul, had “run a business together buying and selling ginseng and specialty teas.” Paul, after leaving the marriage, has been a relatively absent father and his relationship with Beth is strained mostly because he has a new, much-younger girlfriend.

Carmel is a precocious child. At a parent teacher meeting, the headmaster  explains to Beth that Carmel’s “vocabulary is extremely advanced. Her imagination is amazing, I don’t think she quite sees the world like the rest of us.”

On the fateful day that Carmel disappears, Beth has taken her to children’s story festival. She has decided that she needs to set aside the grief of her crumbled marriage and “start afresh.”

The festival is a treat and Carmel “can feel words come shooting out of the tent doors and [she] just want[s] to stand there at the openings and let them fizz on [her] brain.” It’s a hot, crowded day and pretty soon Beth is getting cross and Carmel, in an act of defiance, ducks under a table to read a book. When she reappears, ages later, the fog has rolled in and her mother is gone. That’s when the man appears. He tells her that he is her grandfather and that her mother has been in a terrible accident.

Carmel has no reason to doubt the man. Her mother has been estranged from her parents for her whole life – it’s one of the things that has plagued Carmel’s young mind. Why doesn’t she have grandparents to bring her treats like her friends do?  So, fearful and clearly alone, Carmel goes with the man who promises to take her to the hospital to see her mother. Of course, that’s not what happens.

The Girl in the Red Coat is suspenseful until Granddad’s motives are revealed and then it started to feel like a different book to me. In the first part, when Carmel is taken to a strange house where she meets her grandfather’s partner, Dorothy, Hamer does a wonderful job of stringing the reader (and Carmel) along. Why can’t she see her mom? Why can’t they contact her dad? Where are they?

Beth’s journey is also heart-wrenching. She counts the days Carmel has been gone. She searches for her daughter. She goes through the motions. But the time goes by and it’s like Carmel has dropped off the face of the earth.

Those early days are compelling for Beth, Carmel and the reader. For me, though, the novel’s suspense is spoiled by its key secret – and once that’s out I found myself caring less about all the players, which is too bad, because the book is beautifully written and had a lot of potential.