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.

Wicked Ties by Shayla Black

Everyone looks for something different when they read erotica. (Those of us who actually read erotica – or admit to reading it- that is. *g*) Often times we have to forsake some of our wish list to get other needs (so to speak) met. Shayla Black’s novel Wicked Ties surprised me- in a good way.

Not that the plot actually matters, but the novel tells the story of Morgan O’Malley, host of a cable talk show called ‘Turn Me On’. During the course of research for a show on Dominance and submission she meets Master J aka Jack. Naturally he’s a total stud and although his reputation in the D/s scene is impeccable, what Morgan doesn’t know is that he’s arranged to meet her because of some ridiculous revenge he’s plotted against someone from his past with whom Morgan is connected.

Oh, Morgan’s got a stalker, too. And Jack just happens to be a bodyguard.

Truly- the plot is convoluted and silly and has holes you could drive a truck through. The novel succeeds despite the plot though because Ms. Black writes very good sex scenes. And really, come on, isn’t that why we read erotica?

Jack senses that despite her denials (she’s only doing research, after all), Morgan is really intensely curious about what it would be like to submit to a man. It doesn’t take long for Jack to whisk Morgan off to his isolated cabin in the swamp (for her protection, of course) and start to tutor her on the finer points of being submissive.

Your enjoyment of this book will ultimately depend on whether or not you are interested in this sort of sexual relationship and whether or not you want to read graphic sex scenes. If either of these things intrigue you- you could do far worse than this book.

I found it …um…gratifying.

Prmoise Not to Tell by Jennifer McMahon

Jennifer McMahon’s novel Promise Not To Tell is a gem of a story which, as promised on its cover, once I started reading, I couldn’t put down.

Part ghost story, part whodunit, and part coming-of-age tale…[it] takes you through the twisted world of adolescent friendship, betrayal and murder
. says author, Pam Lewis. Yeah, I know these little endorsements are meant to entice readers- but Lewis is telling the absolute truth.

Kate Cypher returns to rural Vermont to care for her mother- who is showing the symptoms of Alzheimer’s. Her arrival back home coincides with the murder of a local girl; a murder almost identical to one that took place 30 years ago.

The beautiful thing about Promise Not To Tell is its gorgeous, complicated (but not convoluted) layers. Kate’s visit home forces her to recall her childhood friendship with Del, the victim of that decades old crime. Bullied and mocked by the other children, Del befriends Kate if only because Kate, too, is an outsider. (She and her mother live in a hippie commune.) Theirs is a friendship of necessity- a friendship where secrets are bartered and withheld, but I think it is also a friendship that is poignant and true. It has to be for the book to have the authentic emotional impact it has.

McMahon’s writing is perfectly pitched and the book is alternately spooky and insightful.  The characters are well-drawn, even minor-characters. More importantly, as the story unravels, you don’t feel cheated by the denouement.

I loved every minute of this book.

The Reunion by Alan Lightman

Alan Lightman is an adjunct Professor of Humanities, Creative Writing, and Physics at MIT. Of his novel Reunion the New York Times Book Review said: “Elegant…spare, economical and charged with meaning.”

I’m going to be honest: I am a sucker for this kind of book – lost love, longing, a trip to the past. So I would have thought that Reunion would be right up my alley because it has all the ingredients necessary to punch me in the gut.

Charles is professor at a small college. He’s divorced and the father of a grown daughter. We meet him as he is about to return to his Alma Mater for his 30th reunion. It is here that Charles is catapulted back into his past to relive his first love-affair, with a ballerina named Juliana. His past doesn’t rise up to meet him in the flesh. Instead, while gazing into a model of the college campus as it once was, Charles has a sort of complicated hallucination where he relives the whole affair and struggles to reconcile the memory with the reality of it.

On some levels the book really worked for me.

Young people explode with their discovery of the world and the newness of life…What young people don’t realize is that so much is happening for the last time as well. The world is both opening and closing at once.

I understood this. I felt tremendous empathy for Charles as he came to terms with the knowledge that he couldn’t go back and recapture those first, fleeting moments of love or be the person that he was then.

And while Lightman is a gifted writer, I think it’s the scientist in him that kept me from fully engaging in the book. There were sections of the book that bored me – a lot of the first 50 pages or so- but when Charles was fully sucked into his past, reliving his love affair with the enigmatic, Juliana, I went with him gladly, even though I knew it would not end well.

The Falls by Karen Harper

You know you’re in trouble when you come across a line like this in a book: “I have a feeling my survival training from years ago and my duty during Operation Desert Storm is going to come in real handy.’

Of course the joke’s on me. The revelation- spoken by hard-as-nails Sheriff Nick Braden doesn’t come until page 285- but I knew the book was gonna be a stinker by page 10…yet I still kept reading.

Publishers Weekly loved The Falls and said Harper has a fantastic flair for creating and sustaining suspense… Um- okay.

Claire Malvern wakes up in the middle of the night and discovers that her husband, Keith, is missing. They live in Washington State, where they are renovating an old fishing lodge they intend to open as a B and B. When Keith’s body turns up in the river, presumably after having jumped off the bridge at Bloodroot Falls, the Sheriff calls it suicide, but Claire just knows Keith would never kill himself.

Sadly, though, Claire knows less about her husband than she thinks she does. And it turns out that most of the small cast of characters in Harper’s cliched novel have something to hide. Sadly, none of it is very interesting.

Look- there are all sorts of this kind of book out there and I’ve read lots of them. What’s the most important ingredient to make them work? You have to care about the characters. They have to be believable.

Nothing to look at here, folks. Move along and save your money.

The End of Alice by A.M. Homes

I haven’t read a book this creepy, violent, or disturbing in a long time. A.M. Homes is, quite possibly, the most fearless writer I have ever read and The End of Alice is a book that is both horrifying and beautiful. Beautifully written, that is, because there isn’t a character in this novel that is particularly sympathetic.

The novel is narrated by an unnamed incarcerated pedophile. He begins a correspondence with a nineteen year old girl- also unnamed- who writes him the details of her growing obsession with a twelve year old boy.

That’s the book in a nutshell. The old pedophile and the pedophile-to-be exchange letters (although not in the traditional sense) and reveal their dirty deeds bit by bit, culminating in a retelling of the old guy’s crime: the end of Alice.

All the characters are reprehensible: the pedophile’s mother, the young boy’s father. Even the so-called victims are less innocent than you might think they are. As each crime is revealed you think it will help you understand how it shaped the person…but really it just adds to the feeling of itchy voyeurism. And since one guy is in jail, there’s a lot of graphic male/male sex.

So- do I recommend this book? It’s not for the faint of heart, that’s for sure. Is it well-written? Certainly. Could I stop reading despite the high gross-out factor? No. Whether it says something valuable or useful about the state-of-the-world, I don’t know.

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

I wasn’t sure I was going to like Ann Patchett’s novel Bel Canto when I started reading it. I mean – it didn’t seem like a book that would either grab my interest or hold it. But a funny thing happened to me about 75 pages in…I started to care about these characters.

Bel Canto is actually based loosely on something that happened in Lima, Peru. On December 17, 1996, the terrorist organization Tupac Amaru took over the Japanese embassy there. From this nugget of truth, Patchett unspools the story. It’s Mr. Hosokawa’s birthday and the government of  an unnamed South American country are hoping he will open an electronics plant there. They have hired Roxane Coss to sing and the only reason Mr. Hosokawa has agreed to attend the party is because she will be there; he is an opera fan and she is the best soprano in the world. The party is being held at the home of the country’s Vice-President; the President had to attend to ‘matters in Israel’. In the middle of the festivities, the house is taken over by a group of terrorists.

What happens when a group of wildly different people are forced to share close quarters? The book forces the characters- a wonderful, eccentric group- to be both more and less than they are. A priest, for example, finally has the opportunity to hear confession; Mr. Hosokawa’s translator, a central character named Gen Wantanabe, gets to converse in Spanish, German, French, English, and Russian and because of it- is privy to people’s most private thoughts and Roxane Coss uses the power of her voice to tame the savage beast- so to speak.

The terrorists themselves are also central to the story and we learn much about them…and I dare say, we come to care for them every bit as much as we care for the privileged party-goers. There is a message to be had in this book and Patchett’s fine prose illustrates that without hitting the reader over the head. This was a book club selection and, truthfully, not everyone loved this book.

For me, though, this is a book about love- how it shapes us and changes us, how beauty transforms and transports and how you just might take a risk if you thought it might be your last opportunity to do so.