Late Nights on Air by Elizabeth Hay

“Psychologically astute, richly rendered and deftly paced. It’s a pleasure from start to finish.” – Toronto Star

Canadian author Elizabeth Hay won the Giller Prize for her novel, Late Nights on Air. Obviously, you begin a book like this- one with a certain pedigree already attached- with a little trepidation. I mean, what if you hate it?

I am happy to report that this is a beautiful book.

Set in Yellowknife in 1975, the novel tells the story of the intersecting lives of Harry (a CBC radio station manager), Dido (a beautiful announcer who has fled to the North to escape a complicated, but profound, relationship), Eleanor (the station’s secretary), Eddy (the station’s technician), Ralph (a local photographer and on-air book reviewer) and Gwen (a newcomer, who had come to the North inspired by the tragic story of an explorer named John Hornby.) Although Gwen is clearly the central character of the book, Hay deftly manages the interior lives of all the characters and, in doing so, makes us yearn to know more.

The last third of the book takes four of the characters on a tremendous canoe trip, inspired by the life of Hornby. That trip and the consequences of it forever change the lives of these characters.

I have always said that I hate a book that flashes us forward in time and shows us where the characters are now. Hay employs this device, but it seems almost organic. And at the book’s conclusion, I felt truly sad to be parting company with these people.

Ultimately, though, this book is about silence, longing, isolation, community and what love looks like.

I highly recommend it.

Sweet Ruin by Cathi Hanauer

Cathi Hanauer’s book takes an age-old theme, adultery, and turns it into a gripping page-turner of a novel. Sweet Ruin introduces us to 35 year old Elayna, a work-at-home editor who is just crawling out of a two-year depression after the death of her infant son, Oliver. Her husband, Paul, is a benign, but absent figure, someone who is clearly burying his own grief in his work as a lawyer. Their six-year-old daughter, Hazel, is intelligent and demanding.

“…that brilliant April, after rain had soaked us all March, it felt to me as if the earth and the plants, the insects and trees just couldn’t stay in their pants,” Elayna observes. And from the ruin of her life, Elayna begins to emerge and just as she does she meets, Kevin, a much younger boy-man who lives across the street.

It would be easy to find fault with Elayna- after all, she loves her husband and her daughter and has, what appears to be a perfect life. But Hanauer asks us to imagine Elayna as a woman who has lost more than a child; she’s lost, in a life filled with bossy caregivers and schedules dictated by a busy child and workaholic husband, some essential part of herself. It’s almost impossible not to relate to her.

And as Elayna’s relationship with Kevin skirts closer and closer to something from which there will be no turning back, it’s hard not to be swept along. Partly it has to do with Hanauer’s beautiful prose and partly it has to do with how carefully she builds Elayna’s world. Either way, it was impossible to put this book down because even though the it tells an age-old story, it felt new and heartbreaking to me.

Gorgeous.

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

“The Thirteenth Tale is a cleverly plotted, beautifully written homage to the classic romantic mystery novel… Gothic elements are skilfully re-imagined in a peculiar tale of madness, murder, incest and dark secrets…. It is a remarkable first book, a book about the joy of books, a riveting multi-layered mystery that twists and turns, and weaves a quite magical spell for most of its length.” –The Independent

Diane Setterfield’s first novel is a wonderful accomplishment. This is a book lover’s book- even the book’s cover and the weight of the pages appealed to the bibliophile in me. But beyond the aesthetics of the book, Setterfield tells a rip roarin’ tale, an old-fashioned tale filled with mystery and intrigue and personal ghosts.

Margaret Lea lives a quiet life, working with her father in their little antiquarian bookstore. We know very little about Margaret other than the fact that she is close to her father, but not to her mother. She is unmarried. We don’t know how old she is. We do learn, early on, that she is a surviving twin- a fact she stumbles upon, quite by accident when she is young, a piece of her family history which haunts her throughout her life.

Then Vida Winter, the most celebrated writer of the time, writes to Margaret inviting her to hear the truth of her life- a life which has been largely reclusive. This story is the subject of The Thirteenth Tale. And it is a tale that is Gothic, relying on the conventions of literature from the 18th and 19th centuries: ghosts and secrets and unrequited love abound in its pages. It’s a page-turner in the very best sense.

And as the story’s mystery unravels, you’ll find yourself wondering whether all the clues were there from the very beginning…and want to go back to trace the breadcrumb trail.

Ice Cream by Helen Dunmore

Helen Dunmore is a prolific and talented British writer, whose work I discovered several years ago when I picked up her novel With Your Crooked Heart in the bargain bin. She began her writing career as a poet but has written short stories and books for children as well. Her novel A Spell of Winter won the first-ever Orange Prize.

The fact that Dunmore is a poet is obvious in her collection of short stories, Ice Cream. Her use of language is spare and precise. But the thing that makes this collection of stories resonate is the subject matter: death, friendship, regret. And even more interestingly, I couldn’t name one story in this collection that has a tidy ending. So if you like a short story that wraps everything up in a neat bow- this volume will likely disappoint you.

I don’t know that many writers, though (Alice Munro excepted because she can write a short story about anything!) who could dedicate a few hundred words to the tale of a man driving at night who really, really wants a cigarette. Or tell the deeply affecting tale of a man watching his young wife die. Or the slightly creepy tale of a world where women have their babies through artificial means and what happens to one couple who chooses the natural route.

For the short time you spend with the characters in Dunmore’s stories, you are entranced, mystified and troubled. And even though we don’t always learn their ultimate fate, the stories are enough because of the writer telling their tale.

Catch Me When I Fall by Nicci French

I’m a big fan of Nicci French. (For those of you who don’t know- Nicci French is actually the married couple Nicci Gerrard and Sean French.)

I first discovered them with the book Killing Me Softly, which I absolutely loved. Since then I have read several more of their books, plus two others written by Nicci Gerrard on her own. So- I am a fan. Together as Nicci French, they write a really great sort of psychological fiction- filled with menace and surprises and shadowy figures. Page-turners.

Catch Me When I Fall
was unlike any French book I’d read before. It tells the story of Holly Krauss, this wildly confident career woman who lives in London with her husband, Charlie, a graphic artist. When we first meet Holly we think she might be merely reckless, but it turns out her behaviour is more complicated than that. Her husband and her best friend and business partner, Meg, watch helplessly as Holly’s behaviour becomes more and more bizarre and self-destructive.

As an examination of mental illness, this is a compelling read. But that’s not the only thing French has up for grabs in this book. It isn’t my favourite French book- but I enjoyed it just the same.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Margaret Atwood says Never Let Me Go is “a brilliantly executed book by a master craftsman who has chosen a difficult subject: ourselves, seen through a glass, darkly.”

The Undependent (UK) called it “an exquisitely nuanced, and extremely moving process of revelation. Never Let Me Go is a novel about love and goodness and the hopes and fears of the human heart.”

Time Magazine named it one of the greatest 100 novels since 1923.

Ishiguro’s novel tells the story of Kath, Ruth and Tommy three students at an exclusive English boarding school called Hailsham. There is something odd about Hailsham and the reader comes to undertsand its secrets at just about the same time as the story’s main characters. It’s actually quite difficult to say any more without giving away plot points which are essential to the novel.

Despite the fact that there is a sense of urgency to understand just what is going on at the school, Never Let Me Go is not a mystery story. Ishiguro does a great job of stringing the reader along, sure, but the true genious of this novel is what he says about hope where there can be none and love where there shouldn’t be. And despite the fact that it does tackle larger issues- of morality and the consequences of science- the novel is also about these three friends, their triangular love affair and their hopes and dreams for the future.

It’s a remarkable novel.

But I didn’t like it very much.

I found it somehow disorganized- the narrative was choppy. The novel’s climax was mainly expository. The novel’s themes are reiterated by a secondary character. I wanted to care for Kath and Tommy and Ruth- and I did- but I wanted to care more, I guess. Still- the final scene of the novel is haunting and if the novel were to be held up as an example of the extremes (both the cruelty and kindness) of mankind- I’m sure you’d be hard pressed to find a book that does it better than this one.

So, I didn’t particularly enjoy the book, but I wouldn’t hesitate in saying that it is worth reading.

Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill

I didn’t know who Joe Hill was when I bought Heart-Shaped Box. I read a review, thought it sounded interesting and bought it.  The book sat on my to-read shelf for several months (yes, my to-read shelf is ridiculous!) until I had a conversation one day in the bookstore.

Customer: I’m looking for 20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill. You probably don’t even have him.

Me: He wrote Heart-Shaped Box.

Customer: (looking surprised) Yeah. Have you read it?

Me: (sheepishly) No. But I’m going to.

Customer: He’s Stephen King’s son.

Me: (my turn to be surprised) Really? Wow.

Customer: I *loved* Heart-Shaped Box. It’s fantastic.

And now,  just this morning,  after my kids left for school and my husband left for work and before I had breakfast or started any of the things I have to do before I go to work…I finished the book. Ironically, the last time I carted a ‘horror’ novel around with me it was King’s book It. That was a long time ago. I loved that book.

I loved Heart-Shaped Box, too. As a matter of fact, before I was even half-way through the book, I hand-sold a copy to a woman who was purusing the Horror section. (I work at Indigo.)

Me: Do you like scary stories?

Customer: (looks sheepish) Yes.

Me: Have you heard of Joe Hill?

Her: No.

Me: I am currently reading Heart-Shaped Box. It’s great. (hand her a copy). He’s Stephen King’s son.

Her: (looking at picture) Only better looking. (laughs and puts book in shopping bag)

I hope Mr. Hill doesn’t think it’s a disservice to draw a comparison between him and his famous Dad. I grew up reading Stephen King. I don’t like everything he’s ever written. For example, even after several attempts I cannot get into The Stand and I know people who love that book. But the thing about King is that he writes books peopled with characters whose fate you actually care about. If you didn’t give a toss about them- the horrible things that happen to them wouldn’t matter. They’d have it coming.

Judas Coyne, the middle-aged, former rock star, slightly misogynistic anti-hero of Heart-Shaped Box, might have had it coming except for this:

“Not my hand! No, Dad, not my hand!”

Any ambivalence I felt about Jude’s fate ended right then and there. Suddenly, he was a character- fully drawn, with an aching past and a boulder the size of Mount Rushmore lodged in his heart. Hill doesn’t go over-the-top with details of Jude’s horrific childhood; I didn’t need to hear anymore anyway. Your imagination always fills in the blanks.

Besides, Heart-Shaped Box operates on a more immediate level. The book has barely begun before Jude buys a dead man’s suit and the ghost that accompanies it. Then all hell breaks loose and Jude and his goth-girlfriend-of-the-moment are running for their lives. And, thanks to Hill, they are lives we actually care about.

Of course there are some horror conventions in this book: radios that intone doom, television news reports that announce horrible endings, creepy people with scribbled out eyes.  There are no cliches here, though.

And I wonder if Jude’s flight- away from the ghost that he’s bought and towards the ghost that has haunted him for the past 34 years was intentional on Hill’s part. It must have been, I know. It adds an extra layer of depth to the book’s denouement, though, that’s for sure

Mr. King must be tremendously proud.