The Ruins by Scott Smith

Smith’s book has been on my to-read list for a while. I have had a life-long love affair with horror novels…both the truly creepy (Peter Straub’s Ghost Story springs to mind) and the truly schlocky (just about anything by John Farris) but I don’t read them too much anymore. Still, The Ruins came with quite a pedigree. Smith wrote A Simple Plan a kick-ass book about how the discovery of a crashed plane and millions of dollars irrevocably changes the lives of three average guys. If you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend it.

The Ruins
follows the fortunes of four friends on vacation in Mexico. They go to the site of Mayan ruins with Mathias and Pablo to search for Mathias’s missing brother. What follows is an entertaining enough story of pure fantasy- meaning that the horror they encounter isn’t the worst thing to happen to them. (And it’s not all that believable, even for a horror fan.) Smith’s true talent is in scraping at the dark things people do to each other and themselves when they find themselves in a bad place.- For my money though, A Simple Plan does a much better job of making us both wince and shudder.

Stephen King called The Ruins “the best horror novel of the new century.” I’m a King fan, but I’m going to have to disagree. If you want to go to the dark place, read A Simple Plan or better still, read King’s classic, It.

Rise and Shine by Anna Quindlen

Anna Quindlen’s book Black and Blue, was the first novel my book club ever read together- almost eight years ago now. I remember liking it quite a lot, so when her novel Rise and Shine was chosen for last month, I was quite happy.

Until I started reading.

Meghan and Bridget are sisters living in New York City. They couldn’t be more opposite. Meghan is the famous host of a morning TV show, Rise and Shine, and her sister, Bridget, the dowdier and less confident one, is a social worker. You can already see where this is going, can’t you?

Although Meghan seems to have it all- a wonderful husband and a fabulous son, both of whom Bridget adores, there are cracks in her seemingly perfect life and one day she utters something wholly inappropriate on live television and her world comes crumbling down. And the problem with the book is  I could care less.

What follows is 269 pages of Meghan and Bridget trying to sort through their personal baggage and come to terms with each other on a different level. And all of that was okay- not great, but okay…until the last 50 or so pages when Quindlen does what I hate….takes all the lives she’s dangled in front of us and propels them into the future giving us the ‘happily ever after’ she so clearly thinks they deserve.

Ugh.

The Lake Dreams the Sky by Swain Wolfe

I don’t know how Swain Wolfe’s novel The Lake Dreams the Sky ended up on my bedside table. Somehow I managed to score an advanced reading copy of it and it has been in my ‘to-read’ pile forever. I finally picked it up and couldn’t put it down.

The Lake Dreams the Sky
tells the story of Elizabeth, a high-powered something or other who returns to the lake of the title to visit her elderly grandmother and reacquaint herself with the Montana landscape of her youth. What follows is a beautiful love story prompted by Liz’s discovery of a picture she’d admired as a child.

Liz’s story isn’t anywhere near as interesting as the story the picture has to tell. Ruth, a white woman raised by the Red Crow and Cody, a drifter who arrives in town when his truck breaks down, meet and fall in love. They are both good people who got dealt a shitty hand and their relationship fuels the jealousy of the small-minded people who live in the town. Their only allies are the owner of a local business, who is also an outsider of sorts, and Rose’s Red Crow mother.

Theirs is a story of passion and hope and it is beautifully told. If you aren’t rooting for them to make it by the book’s end, you have a hole where your heart should be.

The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing

The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing has been on my to-read list for quite some time, but I had a difficult time finding it. I finally happened upon it at a second-hand book store. It’s a short book, only 159 pages, but it took forever to read because Lessing writes dense, intense prose. Every single word counts.

About The Fifth Child, Newsday said: “I’d be willing to wager that if she never wrote another word, it would be The Fifth Child– and not, say, her famous The Golden Notebook– that ultimately confirmed Lessing’s stature as a writer.”

Harriet and David meet at a party, fall in love, buy a house that is too big for them and immediately start to fill it up with children. Theirs is a seemingly happy family- extended at holidays with parents and siblings and over the years more children. Each of Harriet’s first four pregnancies are without difficulty. She seems one of those natural mothers, perfectly content to waddle around feeding whoever happens to be sitting around the table, doting and content.

But then she gets pregnant for the fifth time. Understandably, with four small children to cope with, Harriet is upset by this unexpected pregnancy- but it is more than that.

…she could not sleep or rest because of the energy of the foetus, which seemed to be trying to tear its way out of her stomach.

“Just look at that,” she said as her stomach heaved up, convulsed, subsided. “Five months.

The arrival of the fifth child, Ben, throws the Lovatt family into turmoil. The aftermath of his birth, his otherworldliness and Hariett’s attempts to cope make up the remainder of this book.

I can’t say that I loved The Fifth Child. As a mother, I certainly understood Harriet’s feelings, first of antipathy, later of remorse and finally of acceptance does get under your skin- but Lessing writes from a sort of detatched point of view and I never felt completely settled in Harriet’s world. Or maybe that was the point.

Blood Red by Sharon Page

Sharon Page’s book Blood Red is basically 347 pages of sex scenes linked together by a plot that is so nonsensical, I stopped paying attention to it.

Althea Yates is a vampire hunter in England circa 1818. For a while now she’s been having these strange and highly erotic dreams and she is shocked when, one night at the inn where she and her father are staying, one of the men in her dreams (there’s two, naturally) shows up.

He’s Yannick. A perfect specimen. But drat, he’s a vampire.

His brother, Sebastien (known as Bastien in the novel) is also a vampire. Together they are known as The Demon Twins. And once Althea and her father release Bastien from his tomb, where he’s been languishing these last ten years, he and Yannick set about introducing virginal (but up for just about anything) Althea to the delights of the flesh.

Yannick and Bastien aren’t like any vampires I’ve ever encountered. Soulless they may be, but they never kill for food, they can shoot bolts of coloured energy from their hands and they have a reflection. Apparently they have a few other vampire tricks up their sleeves, too.

Reading Blood Red was like eating a bowl of chips- absolutely no redeeming nutritional value, but tasty enough.

The End of the Alphabet by CS Richardson

Richardson’s first novel is a slim 139 page contemplation on how one would spend the remaining days of a relatively uneventful life. Ambrose Zephyr is diagnosed with an unnamed incurable disease on his 50th birthday. After the initial shock wears off he embarks on a whirlwind trip with his wife, Zipper. (Don’t even ask about the ridiculous names.) He decides to visit one place for each letter of the alphabet. A is for Amsterdam and so on.

My book club was divided down the middle on this one. Some of the women really loved it. They thought Richardson’s pared down, choppy prose suited the story- giving it an urgency which was mirrored by Ambrose’s desperate attempt to pack as much into his remaining days as he could. Others, like myself, thought the book failed to connect the reader with Ambrose. How can you care about someone you know so little about?

Before publishig this first novel, Richardson was an award-winning book designer.

The White Iris by Sandy MacDonald

This book was chosen for our book club last month…and the woman who chose it was quite sure that she’d win ‘best book’ this year with this comical look at three eccentric women in rural Nova Scotia.

The White Iris was written by lawyer Sandy MacDonald and after reading it (well, trying to read it) I would humbly suggest that he not give up his day job. The story is hardly the sparkling and witty examination of environmental issues it claims to be. For me- it was a diatribe of a novel peopled by stock characters, pedestrian prose and enough lifeless filler for three novels.

Worst book I’ve read this year.

Come Closer by Sara Gran

I dunno. Margot Livesey said Come Closer ought to carry a warning to readers. It’s impossible to begin this intense, clever, beautifully written novel without turning every page.” And Stewart O’Nan said: “Sara Gran has created a sly, satisfying novel of one young woman possessed not only by a demon but also by her own secret desires.”

I quote these two reviews because I have read both Livesey and O’Nan and admire their writing. Believing their assessment of this book is sort of like reading fic recced by an author you like. You sort of hope they’ll point you in the direction of the good stuff.

And while Gran’s novel isn’t exactly what I’d call the good stuff- it wasn’t rotten, either.

Amanda is an architect who lives with her wonderful husband, Ed, in an unnamed American city. We don’t get any real insight into Amanda’s life before weird things start to happen: funny noises in her home, strange and troubling dreams, black outs, missing time she can’t account for.  These events transpire in little snippets. Things happen, we hear about them and then we’re on to the next thing. I never really felt connected to Amanda. I didn’t fear for her or care for her and if the novel has a failing for me, that’s probably it. As Amanada says herself: “What we think is impossible happens all the time.” And sometimes those impossible occurrences are horrific.

Just not in this book.

Which is apparently being made into a flick.

The Birth House by Ami McKay

One of the first books I read this year and easily the best novel I encountered in 2006, this account of a midwife in turn-of-the-(20th)-century Nova Scotia is everything a novel should be: funny and tragic, joyful and sorrowful, filled with rich, carefully drawn characters and experiences that linger long in the mind.

The Birth House
spent most of the year on bestseller lists and marked the arrival of a splendid new talent. I can’t wait to see what Ami McKay does next.
– Robert Wiersema, for the Vancouver Sun.

Ami McKay’s book The Birth House is a natural selection for book clubs. Set in rural Nova Scotia circa the First World War, it tells the story of Dora Rare, the “only daughter in five generations of Rares.” Dora is a smart girl who spends much of her time with Miss B, the area midwife. Miss B is part-healer and part-witch and Dora learns much under her tutelage.

Truthfully, it took me a while to get settled into Dora’s quiet world, but the book’s charms are undeniable. For one thing, Dora is utterly likeable. She is kind and sensible and although she is young, she is no shrinking violet. McKay does a wonderful job of creating a world far removed from technology and the horrors of the war, but certainly not immune to either. For example, Dora’s faith in midwifery is tested (as is the faith of all the women of her community) when Dr. Thomas arrives in the area and sets up a hospital, offering women pain-free births. And when the Halifax Explosion of 1917 happens, Dora rushes off to help and is forever changed by the experience. Scots Bay isn’t modern and McKay paints a riveting picture of poverty and backwoods thinking.

But the book isn’t without a sense of humour either. Dora’s marriage to town hunk, Archer, necessitates a visit to Dr. Thomas where he diagnoses her with “neurasthenia” and prescribes treatment using the Swedish Movement Health Generator. I dare you to keep a straight face.

The Birth House isn’t a flashy book, but it’s a book that will resonate with readers, particularly women, and I heartily recommend it.

Twilight by Stephanie Meyer

“Propelled by suspense and romance in equal parts, this story will keep readers madly flipping the pages of Meyer’s tantalizing debut.” – Publishers Weekly

I picked up Twilight by Stephenie Meyer despite the fact that it is geared for a teenage reader. How could I resist this?

About three things I was absolutely positive. First, Edward was a vampire. Second, there was a part of him- and I didn’t know how dominant that part might be- that thirsted for my blood. And third, I was unconditionally and irrevocably in love with him.

This is the story of 17 year old Isabella (Bella) who moves to Forks, Washington to temporarily live with her father, Charlie, the local Chief of Police, while her mother goes off to Florida with her new husband. Bella hates Forks; her childhood memories of the place include the devastating end of her parents’ marriage.

At her new school she gets her first glimpse of the Cullens, their faces “so different, so similar… all devastatingly, inhumanly beautiful.” She is particularly taken by Edward Cullen, who turns up in her Biology class and also turns out to have taken an immediate and hostile dislike to her.

But Edward is hiding a dark secret. And, of course, Bella is drawn to him- moth to flame.

There are, of course, lots of vampire stories out there. But I have to say that I liked this one quite a lot, even though it was rather tame. (As it would be given that it was written for teens.)

Bella is a smart, likeable character and Edward is haunted and beautiful- perhaps too perfect. The prose is clear and straightforward and the story (all 498 pages of it) moves along at a good clip.

You begin these sorts of stories with a willingness to suspend disbelief anyway. And my view of vampires is coloured by my love of those in the Jossverse. Although Edward (and the vampire mythology employed here) is quite unlike any I’ve ever read about- he was a seductive character.

And apparently the book has legions of fans…there are lots of sites dedicated to Edward and Bella.