The Kiss by Kathryn Harrison

Appalling but beautifully written…jumping back and forth in time yet drawing you irresistibly toward the heart if a great evil. – Christopher Lehmann Haupt, The New York Times

Memoirs are all the rage these days and I have read a few- but I’ve never read anything like The Kiss, by Kathryn Harrison. I’ve read a couple other books by Harrison and I now more fully understand some of the recurring themes in her novels (dysfunctional families, issues of love and the withholding of it, estrangement, emotional blackmail) after finishing The Kiss.

This is a well known book, I think, despite having been published ten years ago. It received copious praise and, despite its difficult subject matter, I can see why. In fandom, we often write incest fic and consider it to be hot- but Harrison’s story of her affair with her father is never titillating. Instead, it’s a breathtaking and gut-clenching examination of how her seemingly unrequited love for her mother manifested itself into an all consuming and ultimately devastating sexual affair with her estranged father.

Harrison’s father left the family (at his in-law’s request) when the author was six months old. Until she was twenty she only saw him twice. Her father, a well-educated preacher, drew her into an affair with a kiss.

The book is frighteningly honest – Harrison doesn’t spare herself or her part in the relationship. She turns a keen, intelligent (but very emotional) eye on her life, the important relationships she had (or desperately wanted to have) and her father- who is one of the vilest characters I have ever met.

I couldn’t put this book down and when I was done I felt such a great sadness for her.

Shiver by Nikki Gemmell

The first book I read by Australian author Nikki Gemmell was The Bride Stripped Bare. I fell in love with the way she wrote and so I found myself looking for other novels by her. Shiver is her first novel and it’s worthy of praise.

I can catalogue Antarctica by touch.

The touch of air sucked dry on my cheek, the fur of a day-old seal pup, the touch of an iceberg, a blizzard, a lover, the touch of sweat at minus twenty-three, of a camera stuck to the skin on my face, of cold like glass cutting into my skin, of a snowflake, of a dead man, of a doctor’s fingers on my inner thigh, of a tongue on my eye.

Fin is a twenty-six year old Sydney-based radio journalist who gets the opportunity to travel to Antarctica to “capture noises.” The trip down and her subsequent stay at the Australian station would be a compelling enough read all on its own  because of how alien the landscape is and the weird subculture of scientists and others who  make the journey. But Fin does something she isn’t supposed to do- she falls in love.

Her relationship with 38-year-old biologist, Max, is – of course- intense because of where they are, their lack of privacy, the rules surrounding fraternization. Fin is buoyed by her feelings- not the first relationship of her adult life, but certainly the most important. She and Max share an unquenchable thirst for each other physically and are, in other ways, perfectly suited.

Of course, something tragic happens and even though you know it’s coming, it’s still horrible.

Gemmell herself spent time in Antarctica and says that this is her most autobiographical novel. Knowing the circumstances of her inspiration adds an extra layer of meaning to the book- but I suggest you wait to read about her real-life experiences until after you’ve finished the novel.

The Lake by Richard Laymon

This almost never happens to me. I couldn’t finish this book. It was CRAP…I mean, crap in the sense that it was poorly written, unbelievable and stupid…not crap in the sense of lots of fun- the sort of entertainment I generally read quickly in between books. Sort of a palate cleaner.

I bought it on the bargain table and paid very little for it…but 100 pages in I wish I’d saved my money.

So, I went looking for book reviews…and strangely, other people seemed to like it.

This totally absorbing crime thriller will have readers enthralled and unable to put it down until the last page is turned
, says one review.

But when one of the characters is chased by a man wearing a chef’s hat carrying a cleaver turns out to be, in fact, a crazy chef her mother recently fired…well, you can see where I’m going with this.

I have no idea what happens…and I don’t care.

Save your money!

The Story of My Face by Kathy Page

An elegantly compelling story of how a young girl’s obsession forever changes the lives of those around her…a disciplined exploration of the complexity of human motivation and our need for redemption. – Lynne Van Luven, Vancouver Sun

Kathy Page’s The Story of My Face is at once compelling and confounding. Page is a skilled enough writer that you are pulled into the mysterious events surrounding Natalie’s disfigurement- the cause and extent of which you learn little about until the book’s final pages- from the beginning. But the central event of Natalie’s life is buried in adult-Natalie’s search for meaning and understanding.

We meet Natalie Baron as an adult on her way to Finland to research Tuomas Envall, the leader of a strict religious sect. Natalie’s own connection to the cult comes in the form of Barbara Hern, her husband, John, and son, Mark. These three people have important roles to play, particularly Barbara for whom Natalie has a possessive affection.

Page weaves past and present together, but for me- the story was at its most compelling during the time Natalie is with the Herns on a retreat with other members of this religious sect.

The story of what happens to her face is actually not as startling as how she impacts the lives of the Hern family, most specifically Barbara.

Darkness Bound by Larry Brooks

Two strangers meet. A woman without inhibitions…a man without limits…for a private game between two consenting adults.

Yeah, so it’s obvious why I chose this book- but it didn’t turn out to be the book I expected. Instead of a book filled with kinky sex, this turned out to be a rather well written crime story, filled with lots of twists and turns. Dillon Masters and his wife, Karen, separate. Dillon’s a stock broker with a penchant for kinky sex- something his wife doesn’t exactly share. So, when the mysterious woman of his dreams – a woman who seems to know all his dark desires- walks into his life, he can’t resist indulging in his fantasies. Turns out that this ‘Dark Lady’ is far more dangerous than Dillon had first giddily anticipated.

Lucky for the reader, though, Dillon’s no slouch- he’s able to more than hold his own with her and Darkness Bound turns out to be not so much a book about naughty sex, as a cat and mouse thriller where the players try to outmaneuver each other.

I read it in an afternoon and had a ball.

Men at Work by Denison, Bangs, Davidson

So this book was on the display of books that have been reduced; I can never walk by that display. I always have to buy something. Sometimes I luck out. I found Denise Mina that way. All I can say about Men at Work is that it only cost $4.99- and it was worth about one third of that because the second and third stories were so bad, I couldn’t even finish them.

So, yeah, this book is supposed to be “three sizzling tales of men who are good with their hands.” Okay- what?

If you can believe it, there’s actually a review.

Trust me- if you’re looking for smut I can recommend some great stuff. I can’t recommend this.

Taming the Beast by Emily Maguire

A thought-provoking and searing first novel. -The Age

Sarah Clark is a smart kid. That’s what we’re told, anyway. By the time she turns fourteen she’s read every one of Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets, and then the works of Donne, Marlowe, Pope and Marvell. At fourteen she meets the English teacher, Daniel Carr, who will change her life.

“For the entire forty minutes of his first class he spoke about why Yeats was relevant to Australian teenagers in the year 1995. In the second class, Sarah put up her hand to make a comment on something he said about ‘Hamlet’. When he called on her to speak, she started and could not stop. She stayed in the classroom all through lunch, and when she re-emerged into the sunlight and the condescending stares of the schoolyard cliques, she was utterly changed.”

It’s not a huge leap to believe that a meeting of the minds turns to a meeting of the flesh. But their sexual affair is not quite the same as the poetry they’ve discussed- it’s raw, aggressive often brutal. The obvious questions to ask would be- is this abuse? (Clearly he’s breaking the law based on his position and the difference in their ages.) But Sarah has a penchant for this sort of sex, it seems.

And when Carr is forced to choose between Sarah and his wife and children, he chooses the latter- leaving Sarah to drift through the next eight years of her life in a haze of alcohol, drugs, and sex with hundreds of men.

Until Carr re-enters her life.

This is not a love story. Watching Sarah move through her days(and nights) is like peering through the windows of a car wreck. The characters are almost despicable- and so as I was reading, even when things were particularly horrible, I kept thinking -you know what, you guys deserve each other.

Saturday by Ian McEwan

I am not a McEwan newbie. Saturday is the 4th of his books I have read and, thus far, my least favourite. But even though I didn’t love this book, I would still have to praise McEwan’s ability to write. If I have a criticism of Saturday it’s that it’s over-written. That may be the fault of McEwan’s decision to set the novel in one day in the life of neurosurgeon, Henry Perowne.

Saturday is Henry’s favourite day. He plays squash, does some shopping and on this particular Saturday- anticipates the homecoming of his daughter, Daisy. But, of course, this Saturday isn’t going to be like all the others. He awakens in the middle of the night and watches from his bedroom window as a plane- streaming fire, cuts across the sky to (crash, he assumes) land at Heathrow.

This event wouldn’t be the cause of so much concern if this story wasn’t set post 9/11 and on the very day when hundreds of thousands on people are set to march in London’s streets to protest the war against Iraq.

As Henry sets out to accomplish his long list of things to do before his daughter arrives he gets into a minor fender bender that will propel (although not quickly) the book towards its denouement. Whether or not you find the ending, or the book for that matter, satisfying, will depend on how much you care for Henry and the minutia of his Saturday.

Carrie’s Story by Molly Weatherfield

Man, it’s hard to find good porn. And I was hopeful about this book, I truly was. Apparently I have been spoiled by the Internet, though. Or perhaps I am just more perverse than I thought I was. Perhaps, five years ago this book would have shocked me…or made me hot. But…now?

Carrie’s Story
is exactly what the title says it is- Carrie’s account of being a sexual slave to Jonathan, a rich, good-looking guy with a penchant for having his shoes licked and beating Carrie’s perfect ass.

Carrie’s a smart cookie. She analyzes every little thing that happens to her and makes no apology for the fact that s/m turns her on. And, to her credit, Weatherfield doesn’t make any apology for it either. She acknowledges that whatever floats the boat between consenting adults- even if that means acting like a pony- is fine by her. And she writes about it intelligently.

But for me it was just so-so in the erotic department. I guess I just like my porn to be, well, pornier.

Sweetness in the Belly by Camilla Gibb

British born, Canadian raised writer Camilla Gibb’s stunning new novel Sweetness in the Belly divided my book club. I was among those who loved it. The book tells the story of Lilly, born to hippie parents and brought up, after their death, in the city of Harar as a Muslim. Her story is told by layering her young years in a politically charged Ethiopia with her life as a nurse in London. It’s a fascinating picture of a world torn apart by poverty and prejudice and by Lilly’s own beliefs. It is also a love story as we wait with Lilly to learn the fate of her lover, Aziz.

I know nothing of the politics of Ethiopia under Emperor Haile Selassie. I know very little about the Muslim religion, but Gibb’s beautiful prose and attention to detail (she conducted fieldwork in Ethiopia for her PhD in social anthropology) makes this book a page-turner. The characters are complex and interesting and the day to day struggles of the women, in particular, are riveting. I was both gutted and elated by book’s end.