Just Listen by Sarah Dessen

Just Listen is my first Young Adult novel by Sarah Dessen, although I was certainly aware of her name. She’s always on Best Books for Young Adults lists and so I figured that, as a teacher of young adults, I should at least see what all the fuss was about.

It also gave Mallory and I another opportunity to share a book. She read this one a couple weeks ago, but I was in the middle of something else which I had to finish first.

I’ll let Mallory start by telling you a little bit about the novel.

Mallory: This book is about a model named Annabel Greene.  She’s the youngest of three girls and both of her older sisters are models, too. Even though on the outside it would seem as though Annabel’s got it all (the looks, the best friend, the beautiful house, basically a charmed life) she’s actually going through some pretty serious things. For one thing, her middle sister, Whitney, has an eating disorder that weighs down the whole family. Secondly, Annabel’s best friend is no longer speaking to her. In fact, no one is speaking to her. This is a book about how Annabel learns how to express her true feelings about things.

Christie: That’s a good summary of what the book’s about.  One of the book’s main points is about how appearances can be deceiving. Annabel often comments about the glass house her architect father has built and how people slow down when they drive by. What they might see is a family sitting down together to dinner, but Annabel knows that it’s much more complicated than that.

Did you like the book?

Mallory: Yes, I liked the book. I’ve read a couple of books before this one about eating disorders. They’re pretty scary, but this one seemed easier to read. Instead of describing everything Whitney does to deprive herself of food, it explains how even though she’s beautiful, she’s still struggling with her appearance. I really liked that part of the book. What about you?

Christie: Well, what I liked was that Whitney’s struggles were only one part of the book. What I liked was how Annabel struggled to make her own voice heard. Something horrible has happened to her (something I found sort of easy to guess at), but she isn’t able to say anything. Instead, she lets her former best friend, Sophie, treat her badly.  It isn’t until Owen, the school’s misunderstood ‘thug’ (by reputation only) befriends her, that she allows herself to be more assertive.

Mallory: I agree. Owen seemed to open up something that Annabel didn’t even know was inside of her. Even though she and Owen only talked about music, she was allowed to express her opinion (mostly about her hate of techno) without any repercussions. And I too predicted the reason for the fallout  between Annabel and Sophie. But I knew all along that Annabel was the real victim, not Sophie. She just didn’t know how to explain the truth.

Christie: There are lots of novels out there that deal with these subjects: eating disorders, failed friendship, parents who don’t understand their kids (although I have to say that the adults in this novel were decent)…what do you think Dessen did well in Just Listen?

Mallory: The main thing that I loved about Just Listen is the way Dessen built up her character’s personalites. By the end of the book I knew that Annabel was a complicated person on the inside, Owen was extremely misunderstood, and Sophie was crazy- basically a wildchid. She made it so clear who each one of these people were. It makes a book so much more enjoyable when you feel like you know the characters. Like they’re your friends.

Christie: I agree. I think Annabel’s voice was well done here. And I have to admit that I fell in love with Owen from the very beginning. I guess I have a soft spot for big, hulking, slightly off-center guys.

Mallory:  I must say that I also knew that Owen wasn’t a ‘thug’ or anyhing that people had said at the start. I always try to see the character in a couple different ways before really deciding if they’re the good guy or the bad guy in a book. I didn’t really have to do this with Owen. He was the quiet, music-lover that was stereotyped for his height and tough persona. Just by Dessen’s description I could tell that Owen was protective, but gentle. And I loved his lttle sister from the very moment her name was mentioned. Mallory. That says it all.

Christie: So – overall..would you recommend this book?

 Mallory: One of my friends is a Sarah Dessen fan and she raved about this book when she saw me reading it at school. She pulled out Dessen’s novel Someone Like You and said “You must read this when you’re done.” I think she basically recommended it for me. But I would like to add that if you can sympathize with the characters in this book, and the situations that they’re in, you’ll love it. It has a moral, it teaches a lesson, and it’s a great read for young adults. I’d definitely say that if you’ve never heard of Sarah Dessen you need to read this book- and check out her other books as well. They look very promising. 

Christie: I don’t disagree. I think she’s topical. The writing is generally crisp. The characters are well drawn. Young adults could do far worse. 

The Secret of Lost Things by Sheridan Hay

The Secret of Lost Things is a quiet book inhabited by a cast of eccentric characters who all work in a labyrinthine book store in New York City.

If I start with my own beginning you will understand how I came to the Arcade, and how it came to mean so much to me.

18-year-old Rosemary Savage leaves her homeland of Tasmania after the death if her mother. Rosemary really only knows two things: the hat business (her mother was a milliner) and books (her mother’s only friend , Chaps, owned a bookstore.) Upon her arrival in New York, Rosemary stumbles across the Arcade and lands a job.

The Arcade reminded me immediately of The Strand. Any book lover who’s spent time in NYC has likely visited The Strand. It’s a sprawling, book-crammed paradise for bibliophiles.

As it turns out, Sheridan Hay actually worked at The Strand for nine months, so the similarities I saw in her fictionalized  bookstore were no doubt based on her real-life experiences at The Strand.

Rosemary’s colleagues are a strange crew. There’s Pearl, the man transitioning to become a woman. There’s Oscar, the beautiful gay man in charge of the Non-Fiction section. And there’s Walter Geist, the bookstore’s manager who is an albino.

Although the blurb on the back of The Secret of Lost Things makes it sound like a literary thriller, that’s not what the book is really about.  The characters who work at the Arcade are bookish types, more comfortable with the dusty tomes they sell than with each other. Each of them guards their little book store nook like jealous lovers. Rosemary’s arrival awakens all sorts of feelings and pettiness and passions. Rosemary develops a crush on Oscar even though he’s clearly not interested in her. (In fact, he’s downright mean.) But it’s Geist whose life is forever changed by Rosemary’s arrival. In retrospect she remarks:

Walter Geist’s blindness is important, but it’s my own with regard to him, that remains a lasting regret.

The Secret of Lost Things is a coming of age story. It’s a story about loss and grief. And it’s a story about the transformative power of literature. While there is a literary mystery at the book’s core, it’s not nearly as interesting as the mysteries of the heart.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

I still remember the feeling I had the first time I read The Diary of Anne Frank. I was probably about 11 or 12. No teacher could have explained the horrors of Nazi Germany to me as well as Anne did. She was speaking to me. Many years later, I visited her attic annex and it was a profound experience.

Reading The Book Thief was also a profound experience for me.

I don’t even know how to begin to talk about The Book Thief. The New York Times said it was “the kind of book that can be life changing.” I mean, you start a book like that with a little trepidation: can it really live up to all the hype? For the first 30 pages or so I thought, “no.” Last night, as I closed the book and wiped the tears away I thought, “every person alive should read this book. I want to teach this book.”

The Book Thief has so many things going for it, I’m not sure where to start singing its praises.

The Book Thief is the story of Liesel Meminger.  Liesel is almost ten when she ends up in Molching with Hans and Rosa Hubermann, her new foster parents. It is 1939. In Nazi Germany.

Readers are either going to be totally enchanted or annoyed by the story’s central conceit: the novel is narrated by Death. “Here is a small fact, ” Death tells us. “You are going to die.” For the next 500-plus pages, Death is our constant companion. Sometimes the action unfolds without commentary, other times he weighs in.  Although I found the first 30 pages or so a bit of a slog, I soon settled into the book’s rhythms.

Then I fell in love with Liesel. And Hans. And Rudy. And Rosa.

Liesel is extraordinary. She and Hans bond late at night, when Liesel’s nightmares wake her, and Hans teaches her to read. Books and words are central to Liesel’s story. So is her friendship with Rudy, the boy next door. Through their eyes we see Hitler and Nazi Germany; we experience the atrocities and the small kindnesses. Zusak’s story is mostly about everyday things: hunger, pettiness, laughter, hope, cruelty and kindness.

Liesel is sustained by the books she steals and anyone who loves words will appreciate and understand their ability to comfort Liesel. But she is also intelligent enough to understand how words can be used to hurt and coerce.

Where is Death in all this? He carts the souls of the dead off and is, in this story at least, a loving and benign figure.

Death gets the last word. He always does.

Cleave by Nikki Gemmell

I am not a Nikki Gemmell newbie. I first discovered her a few years ago when I stumbled across her book The Bride Stripped Bare. I liked that book enough to track down more of Gemmell’s work. Cleave is the third novel I’ve read by her.

Cleave is the story of Snip Freeman, a 30 year old Australian artist. The novel opens with Snip making a long journey from Sydney to Alice Springs in Central Australia.  Snip’s  grandmother has died and left Snip enough money to buy a ute (which I gather is the Australian version of a pick up truck), but she has one request: Snip has to return to Alice and find Bud. Bud, as it turns out, is Snip’s father. Finding him isn’t a problem: Snip knows where he is.

Alice (and Bud) have an emotional hold on Snip. Well, lots of things have an emotional hold on Snip. She’s prickly and needy and in desperate need of the answers to some of the big questions of her life.

The distance between Sydney and Alice Springs is roughly 2700km and Snip doesn’t want to make the journey alone so she puts an ad in the paper: Girl plans ute, Sydney to Alice, share the lot, now. Dave is intrigued by the ad and ends up sharing the journey with Snip. Dave becomes a major player in Snip’s life. She’s always reckoned herself a free spirit, bouncing between friends, setting up makeshift studios wherever she lands. Although he’s slightly younger, Dave is settled and he wants Snip to settle, too.

Cleave means to break or come apart. Cleave is a story about fathers and daughters, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, lovers. Although that might be familiar territory, Gemmell’s story is made new by her original and fresh prose and, for this Canadian at least, the unfamiliar terrain. Gemmell’s characters are intriguing, particularly Snip and her father. I think Gemmell’s a brave writer, too. She takes chances with her words and pushes the reader along ground that is often uncomfortable, but all the more rewarding because of it.

I am happy to say that I have now completed the first book in the Aussie Author Challenge.

Before the Knife by Carolyn Slaughter

The Betty and Boo Chronicles is hosting a Memorable Memoir Reading Challenge and as I actually have a few memoirs on my tbr pile, I thought I could manage to fulfill the challenge’s requirements: read four memoirs in one year. That’s doable.

I just finished my first memoir, Before the Knife by Carolyn Slaughter.

Before I talk about the book, let me say a few words about the author. I discovered Carolyn Slaughter 20 odd years ago, purely by accident. I came across her novel, The Banquet in a book store and its tag line “a taut and powerful story of obsessive love” caught my attention.  Well of course it did. At the time I was madly (and a little obsessively) in love myself. I devoured the book and then went looking for more. In a second hand store I came across her novel Relations (which is also known as The Story of the Weasel in that weird way books have their name changed between the UK and North America). That book was stunning. That book caused me to write a letter to Ms. Slaughter, the first and only fan letter I have ever written to an author. A letter to which she replied. In total I have read six novels by Ms. Slaughter (I highly recommend Magdalene as well as the two I have already mentioned) and I count myself a huge fan. She is an immensely talented writer.

Her memoir wasn’t what I expected, however, and I can’t say I loved it. Born in India, her parents moved to Africa when Slaughter was very young. Her father had some sort of government job; her mother was mostly emotionally unavailable and Carolyn, her older sister, Angela and her younger sister, Susan had a weird and unhappy childhood.

Carolyn prefaces her story by telling the reader of a horrific incident that happened to her when she was six. Then she goes on to say that Before the Knife isn’t a memoir about that. Except it is –  because Carolyn was clearly shaped by what happened to her. She does her best to survive her cruel mother and horrible father and much of her survival depends on her affinity with the land. She clearly loves Africa, its wild and exotic landscape a place of  refuge for her.

The story covers Slaughter’s life from her arrival in Africa to her return to England when she’s 16 or so. The pages in between are filled with striking images of the land, the people (both blacks and whites) who occupied it and Slaughter’s complicated and strained relationship with her siblings and parents. She’s not entirely likable – prone to violence against others and herself.

It’s not until years later, when she herself remembers what had transpired when she was just a little girl, that her story comes into focus. By then, though, I felt disconnected from her – the strange little bits of revealed life never really coming together. And I really wish she’d talked about writing.

Nevertheless, I have no regrets about reading her story. There was certainly nothing ordinary about it!

Jane-Emily by Patricia Clapp

Well, Mallory and I have read another book – this time a story I remember reading (and loving) when I was about Mal’s age. I stumbled across Jane-Emily when I was ‘shopping’ at Book Closeouts and couldn’t resist. It’s a story about a little girl, Jane, who goes to visit her paternal grandmother after her parents are killed in a buggy accident. She’s accompanied by her 18 year old aunt, Louisa. Her grandmother is kind but stern. She’s had some tragedies in her life – the recent loss of Jane’s father, of course, but also the death of her beloved husband and young daughter, Emily. Emily appears to have some unfinished business at the house.

I remember this book as being really creepy, but let’s face it, that was 35 years ago. I wonder how it compares to some of the books Mal’s read. What did you think, Mallory, did you find Jane-Emily scary?

Mallory: No. Not at all. It wasn’t scary, but I loved the way the story took place in 1912. I love books that take place in the past. What about you?

Christie: Well, I have to agree with you, Mal. Not scary at all. In fact, I have to admit to finding the book a little slow-moving. It’s just a novella, only 140 pages, but it moved fairly slowly. I think I remember it as being slightly more action-packed. I did like how atmospheric it was, though. Do you know what I mean by that?

Mallory: Umm… I think you might be talking about the feeling each day brought as it passed in the book. If I’m right, then yes, I did. I liked the way each moment seemed a little care-free or relaxed. It is summer vacation, remember.

Christie: You’re close. Atmosphere is the way the story makes you feel…so, for example, Clapp took her time making you feel the heat of each summer day – when it was hot, you knew it was. Remember how they were always going to sit in the shade of the tulip tree? And when they went up into the attic, there was this sense of foreboding, like they might discover something awful and they did – remember?

Mallory: Yeah, I do remember what poor little Jane found. That wax doll with the melted face. Emily sure seemed like a nice little girl, right?

Christie: Well, I guess that’s the difference of 35 years. This isn’t a splashy book. There wasn’t any violence or anything graphic, but as  a ghost story I think it was okay. How does it compare with other creepy stories you’ve read?

Mallory: I think the romance in this book overshadowed any ‘creepy’ parts. As for a comparison- the book The Enchanted Attic by M.D Spenser forced me to read it only in daylight. Literally. And truthfully, (and I’ll only admit to doing this once) I read nearly all of Jane-Emily at night with a little reading light. I didn’t even shiver.

Christie: Busted.

Mallory: I’m going to deny anything you accuse me of. ;). I recommend Jane-Emily to  to readers who can’t handle a huge scare- and who prefer more ‘mild’ creepy books. But I must say, this novella paints a gorgeous picture of summertime in your head. And I think every ludic reader loves a book that does that!

The Wheat Field by Steve Thayer

So, cutting back on the television really does promote reading. On Sunday I started and finished Steve Thayer’s book The Wheat Field. Mostly I read in the evening, after the kids had gone to bed and my husband had gone to work. Blissful silence!

The Wheat Field, as it turns out, is one of those lightweight page turners. I am particularly conscious of this because I’ve just finished reading Cook’s Instruments of Night, a book that has all the bells and whistles of literary fiction.

The Wheat Field is the tale of small-town Wisconsin, 1960. The naked bodies of married couple Mike and Maggie Butler are found in a crop circle and it’s up to Deputy Pennington to discover just what happened. Just what happened turns out to be a sordid tale of sex, politics and guns.

Deputy Pennington has  been in love with Maggie his whole life, so solving the mystery surrounding her death is personal to him. Leaving no stone unturned, however, turns out to be dangerous in Kickapoo Falls and Pennington often finds his own life in danger.

The book is straightforward in every way.

Labor Day came and went. The kids went back to school. The tourists went back home. The valley returned to what passed as normal. The September days stayed sunny and warm. But the nights cooled. And so did my investigation.

Thayer doesn’t make much of an attempt to examine the interior lives of his characters, not even our (anti)hero, Pennington. Still, it doesn’t matter. The book races along to its conclusion – a pleasant enough journey if you’ve got a few hours to kill.

Instruments of Night by Thomas H. Cook

There’s a really great interview with mystery writer, Thomas H. Cook, in the September ’09 issue of January Magazine. In the article Ali Karim asks the very question that puzzles me every time I finish one of Cook’s novels. Why is this man not enormously famous? I mean, perhaps he is famous in mystery circles – but even if you’re not a fan of the genre, I think you should still give Cook a go.

I picked up Instruments of Night on Friday night and read about 30 pages. It was late when I started and so eventually my eyes gave out. On Saturday I picked it up again and didn’t put it down until I finished – with a gasp, I must add – the book.  I stumbled on Cook totally by accident three or four years back. I picked up, at a second hand bookstore, his novel Breakheart Hill and read these lines: “This is the darkest story I ever heard and all my life I have labored not to tell it.” Hooked. 

Instruments of Night is the fifth novel I’ve read by Cook. It’s the story of writer Paul Graves, a man who has spent his career writing about the horrible dance between serial killer and sadist Kessler (and his accomplice, Sykes) and the man who has spent his career chasing him, Detective Slovak. Instruments of Night operates on more than one level, though. Graves has almost completed the 14th installment of his series when he is invited to upstate New York to meet with Allison Davies, mistress of an estate known as Riverwood. Fifty years ago, Allison’s best friend, Faye, was murdered on the grounds and now Allison wants Paul to “imagine what happened to Faye. And why.”

But that’s not all. Paul Graves is a tortured man. His own past is filled with ghosts, horrible ghosts. He is a beautifully nuanced character and I particularly admired the glimpse we got into his head as a writer. Perhaps Cook was revealing a little bit about himself there, I don’t know, but Paul’s imagination allowed him to write scenes, and adjust them as needed, on the fly. Using this technique, he attempts to solve the question of who killed Faye.

The way Cook juggled the three threads of this story: the mystery of Faye’s death, the stand-off between Kessler and Slovak and the past that is creeping up on Paul is nothing short of amazing. But Cook is an accomplished writer. And this is literature. Truly. Page-turning, white-knuckling, horrifying literature. In every book I’ve read by him, I’ve been amazed at how complex his characters are and Paul is no exception.

If you haven’t read Cook yet, I beg you to give him a go. He’s fabulous!

Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee

J.M. Coetzee is a South African writer and former winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Disgrace is the first novel I’ve read by Coetzee. It won the Booker Prize in 1999.

Disgrace is the story of Literature Professor, David Lurie. Lurie is a man who answers only to himself. Twice divorced, Lurie has “solved the problem of sex rather well.” But then his life starts to unravel; he pursues a student who seems ambivalent (but not altogether resistant) about his advances. When she accuses him of impropriety, Lurie does nothing to defend himself.  He packs himself off to his adult daughter’s farm on the Eastern Cape. His relationship with his daughter, Lucy, isn’t a particularly close one. Lurie, it seems, has been a haphazard father. He loves her, but he doesn’t know her. One day a horrific event changes their lives forever.

On the surface it would seem that Disgrace is about one man’s midlife crisis. Lurie chases beauty. He’s attractive and charming enough to grasp it – however fleetingly. What Lurie doesn’t have, however, is substance. And it isn’t until he’s forced to reorder his self-centered world that he gains real insight into what makes him human. That compassion, when it comes, is hard-earned. One of the interesting things about Lurie is that as a teacher of Romantic poetry (a movement that reveres nature), he actually finds all things natural distasteful – so life on the farm isn’t comfortable at all for him.

Disgrace was an easy book to read, but don’t let the prose fool you. This book is jam-packed with thoughtful ideas: how does a parent love a child; how does a man, at the mid-point of his life, reconcile who he thinks he is with who he is in actuality; how do the white people of South Africa co-exist peacefully with the Blacks – can they?

Disgrace isn’t a feel-good book. I did, however, feel that Lurie attained a certain grace by the novel’s final pages and, while in his company, I felt a little like it might be possible for everyone to achieve a similar state – although the trip is often unpleasant.

The House of Gentle Men by Kathy Hepinstall

My book club meets once every five weeks or so. It’s organized so that each of the ten members chooses one book per year…and the rule is that it has to be a book you haven’t read. The reveal is a big deal to us – we all love to see what’s coming next. Although we do have a big book store in town now, it’s still not always possible to stray too far off the beaten track. That’s why, when I was preparing my reveal in December, I took advantage of the great fiction sale at Book Closeouts. com. I read reviews and blurbs and blogs and finally made my decision. Book Closeouts had 12 copies of the book and they were $1.24 each…for a hard cover! So, I was able to buy a copy for everyone in the group and hand them out – gift-wrapped – at our Christmas meeting. So much fun!

Last night we discussed my pick. The House of Gentle Men has been on my radar for a long time. A few years back I read Hepinstall’s novel The Absence of Nectar which I liked quite  a lot.  There was something intriguing about the premise of The House of Gentle Men so I took a chance. I’m not sure that everyone in my book club would agree, but this book paid off for me.

The House of Gentle Men is actually the name of an establishment run by Mr. Olen, a single father who is hoping that if he makes up, in some way, for neglecting the wife who subsequently left him, she’ll return to him. He opens a house for Gentle Men, offering men who have the need to atone for some past wrongdoing the opportunity to redeem themselves.

“You think you could spend all night with someone, just kissing? Touching? Whispering sweet nothings? Maybe a little waltzing?”

These are the questions he asks, Justin, a young man who wanders into the house looking for a way to right his own wrongs.  Justin, as it turns out, has a lot to atone for. Seven years previous, while he was a young soldier on maneuvers, he came upon two fellow soldiers raping a young girl in the woods. Instead of doing the right thing, he took his turn.

Several lives intersect at the house for gentle men. Hepinstall deftly creates interior lives for even minor characters. All of them are damaged in some way; some of them are reprehensible; many of them deserve the redemption they so ardently seek.

This book took a few pages (about 75) to work for me. It seemed somehow cheesy –  this whole idea of a place where tired, frustrated, broken women could go to find comfort – not from sex  (although everything but intercourse is allowed), but from companionship. But, in the end, it did work . I grew attached to the characters, Charlotte in particular – who loses her voice (or chooses not to speak) after the attack. As she navigates her way out of her pain and anger, into the light offered by forgiveness, it’s almost impossible not to feel something for her.

So The House of Gentle Men may require a suspension of disbelief, but I think it’s worth it in the end.