Claire Marvel by John Burnham Schwartz

A few year’s back I read Jonathan Burnham Schwartz’s devastating novel Reservation Road and was really impressed. So I was really looking forward to reading Claire Marvel. The book’s opening lines: “There was before her and now there is after her and that is the difference in my life” promised great things- but I’m not sure Schwartz actually delivers.

The book is narrated by Julian Rose, a grad student at Harvard who meets and falls immediately in love with Claire Marvel during a rainstorm. The book traces their relationship through all the requisite romantic obstacles and I suppose I can fairly say that the only thing that prevents this book from being totally been there, done that is the quality of Schwartz’s prose.

As Julian chases and abandons and chases and abandons the love of his life- we are never really certain of her and, in fact, even though the book is named after her- we really come to know very little about Claire as a person.

Members of my book club loved this book…but I found it somehow unsatisfying.

Hot Spell by Leigh, Walker, Brook

Oh dear. I bought Hot Spell on a whim, intrigued by the promise of ‘paranormal passion’. What I got were four rather tame novellas rife with cliched descriptions of sex with four perfect men.

In the first story, The Countesses’s Pleasure, the heroine Georgiana DuBarry hooks up with an indentured demon, Sawai. Recently widowed, Georgiana hires Sawai to deflower her, because although she had positive feelings for her husband- theirs was a sexless marriage. Sawai is hot!hot!hot! and brings Georgiana to the pleasure of the title many times over…and in less time than it takes for you to say ‘multiple orgasms’, they’ve fallen in love.

In Leigh’s story, The Breed Next Door, Tarek Jordan is a member of the Feline Breed on an undercover stakeout. One might think he’s scouting for coffee and fresh-baked bread because he does quite a bit of drooling over the smells coming from his neighbour, Lyra’s, kitchen. There’s a convoluted plot, of course, but it turns out that Lyra is Tarek’s mate. So, there’s sex…and a happy ending.

In Falling for Anthony by Meljean Brook, a young doctor is granted the opportunity to come back from the dead as a Guardian, to help the sister of his childhood friend recover from a vampire’s bite. (And when he does recover, he’s one of those sweet vampire types, apparently.)

And finally, werewolves battle vampires in The Blood Kiss by Shiloh Walker. The prize, Julianna Capriet (um- obvious much? of why not call her Capulet – she may as well have been, the story is a total rip off of Shakespeare’s play) is the daughter of the Vampire King…but her heart belongs to Roman, the Wolf King. La la la.

Three of the women in these stories are virgins, ripe for the taking. The men are all perfect specimens. There are lots of sighs and moans and breaching of virgin tissue. I might have loved this book 20 years ago- but for my money- fanfiction is a hundred times better.

A good book for the beach- you won’t be heartbroken if you leave it in the sand.

Breakheart Hill by Thomas H. Cook

“You’ll think you know who (and maybe you do) and you’ll think you know why (and I suppose it’s possible); but trust me, you won’t have guessed everything. “Breakheart Hill” is one of the best written and most marvelously crafted books I’ve read in a long, long time. It’s dark and it’s sad and it’s very, very good. Read it.” – Mystery News

I picked up Thomas H. Cook’s 1995 novel Breakheart Hill at the second hand store. On the cover was the tagline “a mesmerizing tale of love and betrayal” and I thought, okay, good Sunday afternoon book and bought it. The opening line is one of the most intriguing I’ve read in recent memory: “This is the darkest story that I have ever heard, and all my life I have labored not to tell it.”

The narrator of this dark tale is Ben Wade, a respected doctor in Choctaw, Alabama. As a teenager, Ben grows to love the beautiful Kelli Troy who has moved to Choctaw from the north. It is 1962. The story expertly weaves Ben’s memories of high school with present day, dropping ominous clues about just what happened the afternoon Kelli’s battered body was discovered on Breakheart Hill.

I suppose in some ways, I’ve been spoiled by mystery/thriller/suspense novels which unfold at breakneck speed; I was often impatient reading this book. Sometimes it seemed to take forever to get anywhere, but ultimately that’s one of the book’s many charms.

Breakheart Hill is a leisurely southern gothic novel, filled with a real sense of place and time. The characters are interesting and flawed and I was 100% surprised by the ending- which wasn’t a cheat even though it felt like it should have been.

If you like an intelligent mystery- that will break your heart- this is the book for you.

The Attack by Yasmina Khadra

Yasmina Khadra’s novel The Attack set off a firestorm of debate at book club. The novel follows the journey of Muslim surgeon Amin Jaafari, a naturalized citizen of Tel Aviv. He shares his life with the love of his life, Sihem. It isn’t giving anything away to say that Amin’s wife turns out to be a suicide bomber, detonating herself in the middle of a restaurant filled with school children. The novel then follows Amin’s journey from denial and disbelief to acceptance, if not of his wife’s actions then at least of the motivation behind the attack.

I didn’t like the book. The problem for me is that the character of Sihem is never humanzied. She is “the creature I loved most in the world.” Anything we learn about her, we learn through the eyes of the extremeists with whom she had aligned herself behind her husband’s back. He doesn’t understand and neither did I. Mostly I felt as though I was getting a lecture about the very messy and complicated and, clearly, emotional landscape of the Middle East.

Still, the book led to a great, and often heated, discussion- if that’s your thing.

The Girls He Adored by Jonathan Nasaw

Years ago I read the Dean Koontz book, Intensity. It was freakin’ terrifying. I generally find Koontz to be a pretty reliable writer- delivering fast-paced and exciting suspense, sometimes with a dash of the supernatural. (Of late I find him a little wordy, but never mind that.)

I was hoping Nasaw’s book would offer me the same thrill ride as Intensity, you know- one of those page-turners that you carry with you everywhere and can’t put down. The Girls He Adored is well-written (as these sorts of books often aren’t) and the potential for some serious suspense exists and the three main characters, Irene Cogan (psychiatrist), E.L. Pender (FBI) and Ulysses “Max” Maxwell  (total nutjob) are all interesting. But something is missing from this book.

Max has multiple personality disorder. He’s a violent killer who targets women with strawberry blonde hair. Pender has been on his trail for ten years, but it’s a difficult trail to follow because no one knows Max’s real name, plus he’s super intelligent. Then, by fluke, he gets caught and Dr. Cogan is assigned to see whether he is fit to stand trail. But Max is cunning and he escapes. And kidnaps Irene…and you can see where this is going.

If you’re interested in multiple personality disorder, you might find all the pycho-babble interesting. For me, when I read this sort of book- I want to feel my heart race. I want to be afraid for the characters. And I wasn’t.

The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards

Everyone is raving about Kim Edwards’ book, The Memory Keeper’s Daughter. The Library Journal said “first time novelist Edwards  has written a heart-wrenching book, by turns light and dark, literary and suspenseful. A natural for book discussions groups; recommended.”

The Memory Keeper’s Daughter
follows the lives of Dr. David Henry and his wife Norah at the beginning of their married lives. It is 1964 and Norah is pregnant. She delivers twins, a boy first and then a girl with Down syndrome. David makes the decision to keep the little girl a secret, handing her to his nurse, Caroline, with instructions to take her to an institution- not an uncommon thing for the time when babies born with Down weren’t expected to live long or healthy lives. This decision shapes all the characters in the book in unexpected and complicated ways.

I didn’t like the book- but I was in the minority when we discussed it at book club. The characters- all of them- are chilly people and it was very hard to find their emotional center. But not everyone agreed with me. Most of the women in my group felt enormously sorry for Norah- who didn’t have a chance to say goodbye to her daughter…and who suffered enormously because of the secret her husband kept from her. The guilt of his decision haunted and shaped David- who already had some serious issues. Their marriage was irreparably damaged; Norah’s relationship with her son, Paul, was tentative.

The book was easily 100 pages too long.

Still- many people will love this book. Just not me.

The Other Woman by Evelyn Lau

Evelyn Lau’s book Other Women is a difficult book to recommend whole-heartedly. Alternating between first and third person, it tells the story of an artist, Fiona, who is recovering from a 15-month affair with successful businessman, Raymond- twenty years her senior and married.

The problem with the book isn’t the story (what little story there is)- anyone who has ever had an obsessive relationship with the wrong person will certainly relate. The problem isn’t the prose- Lau can certainly write, although I would have to say that this story is over-written- nothing is stated simply, there’s a metaphor for every emotion. For me the problem is the characters. Raymond isn’t at all likeable; he comes across as narcissistic (and in fact Fiona actually says this of him) and although he once cautions Fiona that she  mustn’t let him hurt her- he yanks her along a romantic trail of self-destruction and worse, Fiona isn’t the only affair he’s ever had. Fiona isn’t much more sympathetic. The whole novel is spent lamenting Raymond’s loss. Fiona drinks and compares every other man to Raymond- and all this for a relationship that is never even consummated.

Still, it was hard not to be swept along by Lau’s poetic prose- even though I could have cared less about the characters and their rather soggy affair.

The Truth About Celia by Kevin Brockmeier

Devastating and dazzling; in its painful fusion of pathos, fantasy – ultimately- realism, Brockmeier’s heartbreaking book is reminiscent on The Lovely Bones” so says Time Out.

I’d agree with the first bit of this assessment of Kevin Brockmeier’s book,  but not with the second- this book is nothing like The Lovely Bones a book which I admired the heck out of for the first 100 pages and was then incredibly disappointed with.

Other than a few rave reviews, I knew nothing about this book or its author. The book’s cover is disconcertingly like The Time Traveler’s Wife (a book I love to bits) but there are no other similarities. Brockmeier’s book is an incredible journey into the devastating grief that grips fantasy writer, Christopher Brooks, and his wife Janet, after their seven year old daughter, Celia, goes missing from their back yard.

The book consists of several short stories, all written by Christopher as he attempts to come to terms with Celia’s disappearance; he imagines (and writes about) her living in different worlds and he also addresses his own grief- and the grief of his wife- in these stories.

There is nothing linear about this book…and there is no resolution- and the mystery of Celia’s disappearance is never solved and none of that matters one bit. The Truth About Celia is luminous, heartbreaking and utterly beautiful. I highly recommend it.

Swimming Sweet Arrow by Maureen Gibbon

Maureen Gibbon’s novel, Swimming Sweet Arrow, is something of a surprise. The first surprise might be the very graphic sex. But the second surprise will most definitely be how affecting the novel’s narrator, 18 year old Vangie is.

“When I was eighteen, I went parking with  my boyfriend Del, my best friend June, and her boyfriend Del. What I  mean is that June fucked Ray and I fucked Del in the  same car, at the same time.”

Gibbon establishes Vangie’s voice- at once innocent and experienced- from the novel’s opening lines and from that moment on it’s hard to stop turning the pages as a year in Vangie’s life unfolds.

Vangie graduates from high school, moves in with Del, parties incessantly and slowly begins climbing out of her youth and into her adulthood. The success of the book is the way in which Gibbon writes Vangie, a character who never shies away from who she is or what she wants. And even when she makes horrible mistakes in judgment, Vangie never passes the buck. Despite the subject matter, which might be potentially too-graphic for some, Vangie’s search for meaning, for love, and for a place to belong is a thing of beauty.

End of Story by Peter Abrahams

I cut my teeth on mystery novels when I was about eight. Every gift-giving occasion, my uncle would give me two brand new Bobbsey Twin books- hard covers. I loved following Bert and Nan, Flossie and Freddie as they solved mysteries in and around their home town, Lakeport. My daughter has those books I managed to save through numerous moves.

Anyway- I still love a good mystery and I finished a new one this morning. Peter Abraham’s new book End of Story. I added this book to my ‘must read’ list when it appeared on Entertainment Weekly’s list of Best Books for 2006. End of Story is a great book…but not just because EW said so. (Or any of the other media outlets which have called it everything from “cunning…suspenseful…very scary” (New York Times Book Review) to “almost physically impossible to put down.” (Booklist) I’d have to agree with that last one; I read last night until my eyes were burning. This is a great book because it pays attention to details, transcends crime-story cliches and delivers characters that are cunning, charismatic, naive.

End of Story tells the compelling tale of Ivy Siedel, an aspiring writer, who takes a job teaching writing to a small group of inmates at Dannemora Prison, in Upstate New York. When one of her students, Vance Harrow, turns out to be a talented writer, Ivy decides to take a closer look at his history and discovers something about him that both shocks and excites her…and changes her life forever. Abrahams doesn’t waste any time –  dumping the reader right into the middle of Ivy’s story- which barrels along as fast as you can turn the pages (and I was turning pretty fast. I read the book over the course of two days.) Obviously, since this is a mystery novel I can’t give you too much info. But I can say that the novel’s natural climax offers a surprising twist as Ivy works and reworks the details of Vance’s story. Along the way Abrahams makes some interesting observations about writing and the process of doing it.