Along Comes A Stranger by Dorie McCullough Lawson

Okay – so another book that sounded so promising and ended up being mediocre. What’s up!?

Kate Colter has lived in small-town Wyoming for 15 years. Her husband, George, is a paleontologist; her daughter, Clara, is just seven and suffers from MCADD, a disease that requires her to eat regularly or else her body runs out of glucose and starts to shut down.

What we’re expected to believe – because the author tells us , is that Kate is somehow dissatisfied with her beautiful family and lovely life, that she’s  an East Coast girl at heart and has never really settled into life in the West. That’s why when she meets her mother-in-law’s new boyfriend, Tom Baxter, she’s immediately smitten. He’s from away and as far as Kate’s concerned, he’s exciting and intelligent and they have things to talk about.

About 50 pages in, Kate mentions her aunt Joanie. She’s clearly a plot device, so the author can tell us about Kate’s fascination with criminals.

I can’t say Joanie’s and my interest in the underworld arises from a concern for something greater, like justice, nor does it come from something emotional or psychological within either one of us, like a deep-seated fear of evil, for instance. No, Joanie and I just like to talk about all these crimes and criminals because they make for good, fast-moving stories.

So, life ticks on. George goes off on a dig and Kate is required to fill her days – which she does. Maybe this is the reason why she doesn’t notice, at first, the huge red flags that something is not 100% square with Mr. Baxter. Oh no! Then, even the tiniest things start alarm bells ringing until the novel’s wholly ridiculous conclusion.

Look, I’ve read dozens of these stories – you have, too – lots of them are terrific. This one is not. The characters, every last one of them, are one-dimensional and the  whole thing is contrived and lacks any sort of suspenseful momentum.

The Bronte Project by Jennifer Vandever

I am starting to get annoyed with the recommendations slapped on book covers. For example, Karen Quinn called The Bronte Project “a brilliant first novel of love. ” On the back  there’s more praise: “So original, so enchanting, so poignantly true that it defies you to put it down.” But wait- that’s also by Quinn. Was there only one author willing to give this book their seal of approval? After reading The Bronte Project, I’m not surprised.

The blurb makes this sound like a great read, especially for someone as enamored of Brontes as I am.

Shy young scholar Sara Frost’s unsuccessful search for the lost love letters of Charlotte Bronte hasn’t won her any favours at her university, particularly now the glamorous new Head of Princess Diana Studies has introduced her media-savvy exploits to the staid halls of academia. But it’s not until Sara’s fiance suddenly leaves her that she begins to question her life’s vocation.

I thought the book sounded like it had promise…but not so much. By about half way through I was totally exasperated with the expository nature of the writing, the mini-lessons on the Brontes, the ridiculous decisions Sara made and the even more outlandish denouement. Then I realized that Vandever is a Film School graduate. Like Sara, maybe she hoped her work would somehow make the perfect fodder for a film.

Let’s face it – I don’t have anything intelligent to say about this book…except perhaps – don’t waste your time reading it. Even if, like me, you love Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights.

Town House by Tish Cohen

You can’t help but think that Tish Cohen is going for Hollywood with her novel Town House. There’s the wacky ensemble cast: Jack Madigan, son of deceased rock legend Baz Madigan; Jack’s son, the eccentric stuck-in-the-70’s teen, Harlan;  Jack’s ex-wife, Penelope, and her soon- to- be new husband, Yale; the strangely mature girl-next-door, Lucinda and Dorrie, the real estate agent so inept and adorable you just know she and Jack will end up together. (It will come as no surprise that Town House is, in fact, destined for the big screen.

As for the plot, well, Jack’s agoraphobic; he can’t leave the house without having a meltdown – so he doesn’t leave.  He rigs up a ‘groper’ to retrieve the paper and the mail; Harlan looks after the groceries and Jack lives quite happily in the huge (albeit, slightly decrepit) Boston town house his father left for him. The hilarity starts when the money stops and the bank decides that the house must be sold.

Town House isn’t all that funny, though. Sure, it ticks along, but the characters didn’t really interest me. And some of the plot twists just seemed contrived and unrealistic. I absolutely hated the ending. Cue music, already.

Sometimes the plot seems to be pointing in one direction – for example Jack is apparently a master paint mixer. He has discovered (and understands) the perfect white. A subplot involving that goes nowhere.  Also, I thought his love-interest was spineless. And, despite his illness, of which, I admit, I know nothing, Jack isn’t all that likable. How is he, after all, able to bust free of his illness when Lucinda needs him, but can’t do the same for his own son?

So – I didn’t love this book. It was moderately entertaining, and might make an amusing film, but it wasn’t my cup of tea.

The Night Climbers by Ivo Stourton

A couple weeks ago I mentioned Donna Tartt’s novel The Secret History, a book I read almost 20 years ago. If you haven’t already read it, I can highly recommend it as a compelling novel about art and literature, particularly from the Greek period. But even if this isn’t your thing, The Secret History tells an intriguing tale of friendships made and destroyed on a college campus. It’s a book that has stayed with me all these years and one I should really re-read.

Ivo Stourton’s novel The Night Climbers mirrors Tartt’s novel in some respects. When James Walker arrives at Tudor College, Cambridge, he is careful about the friendships he forms.

My father and Evelyn Waugh had warned me against the dangers of making early friends, so I deliberately avoided contact with my fellow freshers in my first weeks, hoping to cultivate a vague air of mystery that would bring me to the notice of the social elite.

Pure chance brings Michael Findlay into his room and then, shortly thereafter,  into a secret circle known as The Night Climbers.  James is smitten with The Night Climbers, particularly Francis, the son of a Lord.  Francis is beautiful and irreverent, blithely spending his substantial allowance on alcohol, drugs and dinners out. Soon James is a part of this group and the novel follows their escapades from their delirious (both literally and figuratively) highs to their rock-bottom lows.

Stourton’s novel is well written. The story begins some years after James has left university and is paid a visit by one of his former friends who hints at some trouble that might be coming their way. The story then artfully backtracks, introducing us to this interesting group of characters. James is not altogether unsympathetic, either, which is helpful because despite Stourton’s skill, the book lacked any emotional resonance for me.

Revenge by Mary Morris

Revenge is the story of Andrea Geller,  an artist who teaches at a small college in Hartwood. Andrea has gained some notoriety for a collection of art she once showed at a gallery in New York, but now her work has stalled.  She’s also struggling with the recent accidental death of her father. She’s having an affair with a married man.  All in all, Andrea’s a bit of a mess.

She happens to live across the street from Loretta Partlow, a highly successful novelist. Although Partlow had been required reading in high school, Andrea isn’t much of a fan until her stepmother mentions loving Partlow’s novel  What If? So Andrea revisits her work, the novels and essays on gardening and the poems. She becomes sort of obsessed with Partlow and contrives ways to bump into her.

Revenge is the rather odd story of the friendship which develops between Andrea and Loretta. Andrea enters into the relationship thinking Loretta might use her writing skills to exact a sort of revenge on her stepmother, but her scheme is only incidental to the story. Revenge is not a thriller, exactly, but you do race along its bizarre trajectory hoping for answers which never come.

That’s not to say that I didn’t like Revenge. Morris is a fine writer and I look forward to reading more of her work (and, in fact, I have Acts of God on my tbr shelf). This is, however, one of those books that seems to be promising one thing and then delivers something entirely different.

Ultimately, Morris has written a story about two rather quirky and self-centered women who need each other… until they don’t.

A Gathering Light by Jennifer Donnelly

So, while my copy of Donnelly’s novel is called A Gathering Light, apparently the novel is called A Northern Light in the USA. I don’t understand why they have to change book titles. Does anyone know the rationale?

Whatever the book is called – I loved it. I didn’t even realize it fell into the category of teen fiction until I finished it and started reading about Donnelly.

A Gathering Light is the story of 16 year old Mattie who lives with her widowed father and three younger sisters on a farm in Adirondacks in 1906. Her older brother, Lawton, has left home after a fight with their father and the family doesn’t even know where he is. Life on the farm isn’t easy. Mattie’s family doesn’t have much money and Mattie isn’t the homemaker her mother was. Her father – since the loss of his wife – is stern and angry. Mattie has to juggle her responsibilities at home with her secret desire to go off to college and study to be a writer.

Donnelly’s novel does a number of things remarkably well. First of all, it captures a time and place beautifully. After a particularly disastrous start to her day Mattie recalls that her mother could “make breakfast for seven people, hear our lessons, patch Pa’s trousers, pack our dinner pails, start the milk to clabbering and roll out a piecrust. All at the same time and without ever raising her voice.”

Mattie is a wonderful character. I fell in love with her from the start – her kindness (when she feeds a couple kids from down the road, even though there’s barely enough food for her own siblings and father)  and her determination and even her dreams – to leave her home and go off to New York City.

During the summer, Mattie goes off to work at the Glenmore, the finest hotel on Big Moose Lake.  While there she meets a guest, a young woman, who hands her a bundle of letters and tells Mattie to burn them. Later that day, the woman is found drowned; her companion, a young man, is missing. It is these letters and the fact of the woman’s death that propel Mattie on her journey towards freedom and adulthood. Of course, it’s all much more complicated than that. The most handsome boy around, Royal, has his eye on Mattie. She can’t forget the promise she made to her dying mother that she’d look after her sisters and father and her teacher, the outrageously independent Miss Wilcox, is hell-bent on getting Mattie off the farm.

A Gathering Light draws some of its inspiration from a real life murder, but ultimately this is Mattie’s story. It’s impossible not to root for her.

Scribbling the Cat by Alexandra Fuller

Alexandra Fuller’s memoir Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight has been on my tbr list forever.  It was universally praised and having recently finished Scribbling the Cat I am even more anxious to read it.

Fuller was born in England and moved, with her family, to Rhodesia when she was 3.  Here’s an even more interesting fact: Fuller received her B.A. from Acadia University.  Since I live next door to Nova Scotia –  I feel a certain kinship to her now; she’s an honorary Maritimer!

Scribbling the Cat is Fuller’s story of  ‘K’,  a man she meets on a trip back to Zambia to visit her parents who still live and work there. Fuller has left her husband and two children behind in the States. She does a wonderful job, throughout this book, of juxtaposing those two very different worlds: one of excess and waste and one where nothing is wasted, where potential danger always seems to be lurking.

K  is something of an enigma.  She hears about him before she actually meets him and when she meets him, he takes her breath away.

Even at first glance, K was more than ordinarily beautiful, but in a careless, superior way, like a dominant lion or an ancient fortress.

Of course, I immediately thought that Scribbling the Cat was going to be about a sexual relationship between Fuller and K –  but their relationship turns out to be far more complicated than that. K was a soldier in the Rhodesian war and having grown up there, Fuller is intensely interested in his story. As their friendship develops, she gets the idea that they should journey to the places he had fought. She is, after all, a writer and he is a remarkable subject.

K is an endlessly fascinating subject – he rants, he weeps, he recalls with equal vigor.

Scribbling the Cat is an unflinching look at war – the horrible things people do and how they must find some sort of peace with their actions when the war is over. This is K’s story, to be sure, and it’s a horrific one.  But this is Fuller’s story, too, and it’s a remarkable.

Read for the Memorable Memoir Challenge.

The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson

Well, we’re back with another mother/daughter review.  This time we’re going to talk about The Adoration of Jenna Fox. It tells the story of a young girl, Jenna, who wakes up after having been in a coma for a year. Her parents tell her she’s been in a terrible car accident and it’s taken this long to recover.  The thing is, Jenna doesn’t remember very much about her life before the accident.

There were all sorts of clues  about what this book was going to be about. I had it figured out pretty early on, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy the book. How quickly did you figure out Jenna’s story, Mallory?

Mallory: Well, I was pretty clueless at the start. I thought she was just a girl who’d woken up from a coma- and everything was normal. But near the middle of the story, I started to put things together and by the end, I’d already figured it out.

Christie: Pearson does an excellent job, though, of stringing the reader along. Under normal circumstances, waking up from a long coma would be disorienting. Jenna doesn’t even live in the same state as she had before the accident. Her friends aren’t there. Nothing is familiar. Strangely, her grandmother (who is living with them) is almost hostile. Plus, Jenna is also trying to cope with being a teenager and that’s all complicated by this 12 month hiatus from her own body.

Pearson does something else in this novel which seems to be popping up more regularly in fiction – she’s included some poetry which has been written by Jenna. What did you think of that, Mal?

Mallory: To be honest, I didn’t like the poetry. I’ve never been a massive fan of poetry and I didn’t really look forward to the regular poetry pieces that were scattered throughout the whole book. They were interesting, but I think the book could have done without it. All the pieces in the book were more or less the same. They were either about Jenna not remembering words or her being confused. It bored me; I’m sorry.

Christie: No need to be sorry. LOL

The Adoration of Jenna Fox reads like a mystery/thriller. You really race along trying to get at the novel’s center because even if you think you’ve figured Jenna’s story out, there are all sorts of little pieces that have to be fit together.

Mallory: Yeah, I agree. The whole book (like the cover art) is like a puzzle. You need to take all the little events and clues and piece them together. Some pieces may not fit, and then you have to start over. Because I have no patience at all for puzzles, I didn’t try to figure out the book at the start because I just end up angry and frustrated. But everything makes perfect sense in the end.

Christie: I’m not sure how Mallory feels about this, but I liked how this book made me think about what makes us human. I liked the way it echoed  Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, which is obviously a much more sophisticated novel, but Pearson’s book is a terrific book for its intended audience. I think it would be a great novel to teach. What was your overall feeling about it, Mal? Would you recommend it to your friends?

Mallory: Unfortunately, barely any of my friends care about reading, and they absolutely hate reading in class. But, if more of my friends read, I’d recommend this. I don’t know if this matters to you, Mom, but a huge part of a book- to me at least- is the characters. I need to fall completely in love with the characters and that makes the whole reading experience so much better. An example would be Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now. I probably mention this book wayyy too much,  but I’m obsessed. The first time I read this book I felt like I was a sister to all the characters. I loved them all, and my heart was bursting out of me whenever they were in danger. This is how I want to feel about a book, and I honestly didn’t feel that for Jenna Fox. If I had, I would’ve liked the book a lot more, but during the read I didn’t really care what happened to her. This disappointed me because it wasn’t me who was making the decision to not care for Jenna; it was just the way Pearson developed her main character.  Rosoff took nearly half the book to develop all of her characters, and it took me three words to become attached to Daisy. I wish every book could be like How I Live Now, but overall this book was good. Not amazing. But good.

Christie: Wordy much? That’s my kid- talking about character. It makes the book nerd (and English teacher) in me  swoon with delight.

I guess I liked this book a little more than you because I could see it from a couple different points of view. I understood Jenna’s mom, for example, and her motivations. I understood the grandmother…and as I have a daughter who is minutes away from being a teenager, I sort of got that perspective, too. It’s a great book for discussion…but it’s hard to discuss without giving stuff away…and we don’t want to do that.

After Life by Rhian Ellis

After Life was a delight to read from beginning to end. The novel opens with the compelling line: “First I had to get his body into the boat.”   The narrator is Naomi Ash, a woman in her early 30s who lives in Train Line, a whole town owned by The Church of Spiritualist Studies in Upstate New York.

My first impression of the town was of clutter. Cars were parked nearly on the front steps, cats jumped from porch roofs and windowsills, hanging plants and wind chimes and mobiles dangled by every door. Winnie Sandox – said one painted wooden sign – Reader. And another: Mrs. Lawrence, Medium, is out. I couldn’t believe it: a town made just for us.

It really is a town for Naomi and her mother, Madame Galina, who is a medium.

After Ellis is Naomi’s story. It’s the story of her relationship with her mother, the story of her relationship with the quirky little town and its odd assortment of characters and her relationship with Peter.

It is also about Naomi’s relationship with the dead. Although she grew up helping her mother augment her readings with sounds and voices, Naomi doesn’t really believe in any of it or as she says: “I sort of believed. I pretended to. I enjoyed the attention I got when I worked message services and sat for seances , and sometimes I felt the thrill of connection, but part of me held back.”

When Naomi hears her first voice, everything changes.

After Life is a wonderful novel. Naomi is a terrific character: flawed and odd and vulnerable. The novel’s mystery – who is this ‘body’ she has to get in the boat and why – propels the story along at a thriller-like clip, but ultimately After Life is really about a woman trying to make her way in the world, which just happens to include a few ghosts.

Loved it.

Isolation by Travis Thrasher

Travis Thrasher’s novel Isolation is a sheep  in wolf’s clothing. It pretends to be one thing, but it’s actually something very different indeed.

Isolation tells the story of missionaries James and Stephanie Miller. They’ve recently returned home from Papua New Guinea with their two young children, Zach, 8 and Ashley, 5. Something traumatic happened in Papua New Guinea and Jim and Stephanie are feeling disillusioned and isolated – from each other and from their church.

Jim wants to take some time to recharge his spiritual battery and so he moves his family  to North Carolina, to an isolated lodge built by an eccentric millionaire. The house has secrets though and so, apparently, does Stephanie’s family history.

Now, if this had been a book about how this couple and family overcome obstacles to find their way back to their faith, that might have been one thing. But this is supposed to be a ‘horror’ novel. Thrasher even thanks scare-master Stephen King in his acknowledgments. I’m not saying the book doesn’t have a certain creep-factor. It does. But I think that this book is more about God and putting your faith him him. Evil in this book is the work of the devil and the ability to fight against it comes from a higher power.

I’m not religious. In my book club, I proudly wear the flag of heathen. Organized religion irritates me. Hopefully that will explain, in part, why I felt duped by Isolation.  Whole sections of the novel felt preachy to me, like when we learn about how Stephanie’s character came to be Christian.

The camp was run by Christians who were sincere and loving. They weren’t like the televangelists her parents mocked or the pious churchgoers in her neighbourhood who never even bothered to wave hello. They weren’t like the preachy kids at school who made others feel bad for not believing. These were simply loving, fun men and women who wanted to befriend the campers.

Oh, so there are different kinds of Christians, then.

Apparently, because the author takes great pains to describe Stephanie’s friend, Michelle’s “no-nonsense” qualities.

Why aren’t there women elders in the church, and why can’t they serve Communion, and what’s the big deal about having a beer every now and then, and why can’t Christians get off their high horse sometimes?

It’s stuff like this that made me feel as though Isolation‘s agenda was not actually to scare, but to instruct. Too bad because all the ingredients were there for a creepy little story…if only it hadn’t felt so much like a sermon.