The Knife of Never Letting Go – Patrick Ness

Patrick Ness …I think I may love you just a little bit. Okay, maybe a lot. I can’t remember the last time I read a book where I literally had to force myself to slow down while reading. I’d start a page and I just couldn’t stand it – my eyes would race to the bottom of the page, skip over to the next page…I was so invested in these amazing characters and this  story and look, I’m doing it here.

Context coming right up.

The Knife of Never Letting Go is the first book in the Chaos Walking trilogy (The Ask and the Answer and Monsters of Men are the other two titles in the series.) I purchased it based on someone’s blog review – sorry, don’t remember the blog – and it languished on my tbr pile for several months before I finally picked it up. I read about 10 pages and put it aside. I had the same sort of lukewarm feelings about the book as I did after my first attempt to read The Book Thief. And we all remember how that turned out, right?

The second time I picked up Ness’ book, I fell into the narrative. By page 38 there was NO WAY I was putting the book down; I couldn’t have put it down even if I’d wanted to.

Todd is just days away from becoming a man; that’s what he’ll be on his 13th birthday. He lives in Prentisstown, a place notable for two reasons: there are no women and everyone can hear everyone else’s thoughts. Todd calls it the ‘noise’ and we hear about as he heads off to the swamp to pick apples.

…the swamp is the only place anywhere near Prentisstown where you can have half a break from all the Noise that men spill outta theirselves, all their clamor and clatter that never lets up, even when they sleep. men and the thoughts they don’t know they think even when everyone can hear. Men and their Noise. I don’t know how they do it, how they stand each other.

This visit to the swamp is remarkable though; Todd hears…silence. But that can’t be because “there’s no such thing as silence. Not here, not nowhere. Not when yer asleep, not when yer by yerself, never.” When he returns to the home he shares with Ben and Cillian, he gets an even bigger surprise: Ben tells Todd he has to go. There is no time for discussion or explanation, Todd must run.

The shocks keep coming for young Todd and his faithful dog, Manchee. (And can I just say here that I have never been one to fall for the old ‘boy and his dog’ story until now – I love that dog, whose thoughts Todd can also hear.)

Patrick Ness has created a compelling, suspenseful narrative.  Todd’s life is constantly in danger and  he has to keep adjusting his own story because, clearly, he hasn’t been told the whole truth about the town he comes from or even his own personal history. He leaves Prentisstown with a book he can’t read and a knife and a sense of urgency that propels him forward with barely a chance to catch his breath. I felt like that, too.

I know that dystopian literature is all the rage these days and yes, I am a fan of The Hunger Games, but I think Ness has done something else quite original with The Knife of Never Letting Go. This is a story that grabs you by the throat and shakes the living daylights out of you for 479 pages.  The subject matter is often dark. The character of the preacher, Aaron, is one of the creepiest psychopaths I’ve encountered in literature in a long, long time. And this is a book I want to hand to people and say “read this now!” I love it when that happens.

 

 

 

Land of Milk and Honey – William Taylor

As a result of two world wars, thousands of children from Britain were sent to live in Canada, the United States, South Africa, Australia and new Zealand. While many of these children were war orphans, many were not. Their parents merely decided to send them away in the hopes that they would have a better life. About 750 children ended up in New Zealand.

William Taylor’s ironically titled novel Land of Milk and Honey follows the fortunes of one such boy, Jake Neill, aged 14. When he arrives with his younger sister, Janice, in Wellington  in 1947 he is told he’s ‘lucky’ because he’s going to be shipped off to a farm where he’ll have access to “milk and butter and cream and eggs. Fresh meat.” Jake isn’t actually an orphan; his mother has been killed in an air raid and his father has lost a leg and doesn’t feel able to look after his children.

Jake’s first trauma comes when he is separated from his sister. While Jake knows he is bound for the Pearson farm, the authorities don’t know where they are sending Janice and Jake leaves her without knowing whether or not he will ever see her again. Turns out, this is the least of his worries.

The Pearsons – mother, father and 16-year-old son, Darcy, are about as far away from warm and welcoming as you can get. It doesn’t take him long to figure out that he’s nothing more than slave labour and worse, that Darcy is a sadist. The evidence comes early on when Darcy tortures a calf taunting Jake by saying: “Useless bastard. Look….See its nuts? Deserves everything it’s getting.” Darcy proceeds to slowly twist the calf’s leg until it cries out.

Darcy’s cruelty escalates and I found some of the scenes almost impossible to read about. I seriously felt sick to my stomach, but in that way where I knew I was reading something authentic not gratuitous.

William Taylor is a well-known and prolific New Zealand author. He’s written over 30 novels, including books for adults and children. Land of Milk and Honey, while not easy to read, should be read. It is a novel that deals with themes like resilience and determination which should resonate with its readers. Jake’s time on the Pearson farm is difficult to read about, but he is a remarkable character and his story reminds us of how it is possible to overcome tremendous odds.

The Town That Drowned – Riel Nason

In all our years together, my book club has never been joined by the author of our chosen book. This month, as we met to discuss The Town That Drowned, we were fortunate to have the novel’s author, Riel Nason, with us. Riel and one of the members of my book club have known each other since university, so it made sense for Chrissy to choose this book and to invite Riel to join us while we discussed it.

The Town That Drowned is Riel’s first novel, but she has honed her skills writing a regular column on antiques and collectibles for the Telegraph Journal, is the author of a collection of short stories, some of which have been published, and blogs about quilting here. For the women who gathered for a discussion of the book, it was a real treat to get the inside scoop on the book’s development.

Narrated by 14-year-old Ruby, The Town That Drowned tells the story of what happens to a town when the government decides to build a dam. The narrative of the story is actually based on a true event, as Riel explained at our meeting and on her blog:

“In the late 1960s, before my friends and I were born, the area had been flooded when the Mactaquac Dam was built about 15 miles downstream. As a kid, I thought it was all pretty neat information.  Lots of great trivia. But, now if we fast forward to just a few years ago when I was possessed with the idea that I-Must-Write-A-Novel, I immediately knew that the flooding would be the background event.”

The Town That Drowned is a quiet story. Riel might have even admitted that nothing much happens, but I would disagree. I think Riel actually did a very nice job of capturing rural New Brunswick during the 1960s. My dad grew up just a few clicks further up the river from Riel’s fictional Haventon, in a small town called Perth-Andover and I spent a fair amount of time there as a kid, so I am intimately familiar with towns like that. You know the kind: everyone knows everyone, meaning everyone knows your business and there’s no escape from the town bullies. Ruby observes her neighbours and the events that transpire over the course of a couple of years through remarkably mature eyes.

My favourite character in the novel is Ruby’s younger brother, Percy. Although it’s never overtly stated, Percy has Asperger’s, a high-functioning form of autism. Every time he opens his mouth, he is a delight.

“Our mother says we should give you the message of her love,” he says to Mr. Cole – a much loved neighbour – on the occasion of a picnic he and Ruby share with him.

Percy thrives on structure and order and routine and the thought that his house might be moved is kept a secret from him for as long as possible. Ruby adores him and is embarrassed by him in equal measure. I just adored him.

The Town That Drowned will have special meaning to those readers familiar with the St. John River Valley and those who remember the Mactaquac Dam being built. But even if you aren’t from around here, the story offers up plenty of  treasures: first love, the importance of family, and what it means to have a place to call home.

Envious Moon – Thomas Christopher Greene

I am a sucker for star-crossed lover stories. People who can’t or shouldn’t be together, but who have this tremendous connection – something that they can’t fight even if they wanted to.

Thomas Christopher Greene’s novel Envious Moon tells the story of Anthony Lopes, son of Portuguese immigrants, who lives in  a coastal town, Galilee, Rhode Island, where he earns money by fishing. Anthony is smart, but poor. His father was killed on a fishing boat; his mother works hard to provide and while Anthony dreams of a better life, he doesn’t quite know how he’s going to have it.

One day Anthony’s best friend, Victor, tells him something that has the potential to change both boys’ lives forever. Victor sometimes worked for a funeral home and he’d been at a wake on Cross Island. He was alone in the room and he’d lifted the corner of the Persian rug. There – to his amazement – he’d found an envelope, stuffed full of money. Victor tells Anthony that the house is empty and that they should break in and steal the money. Who could it hurt?

Of course, the boys’ plan doesn’t play out in quite the way they expect. Inside the house, Anthony sees a girl:

…a girl surrounded by golden light and wearing a white nightgown. Through the gown I could see the outline of her legs. I could not see her eyes and I could not tell the colour of her hair. But the part of her face that I could see, was more beautiful than any face I had ever seen. her high cheekbones and her full lips and her strong nose. Part of me understood that I should not be considering any of this, that I should just run, but something kept me completely still.

It is a moment that changes Anthony’s life forever.

Greene’s novel begins as an older Anthony contemplates that failed heist and its aftermath. He says, “I confess that I sometimes forget what she looks like.” Whatever tale Anthony is about to tell, the reader knows that it is part of some sort of therapy because this forgetting is considered a good thing by Dr. Mitchell. Every once and a while, we revisit present-day Anthony as he works through the events of his 17th summer.

Anthony is a likeable character. It’s impossible not to care about him as he makes one bad decision after another – each becoming more desperate than the last.  Hannah, the girl he loves, is slightly less transparent.  Anthony’s motives seem clear, but it is impossible to know how much of their story is motivated by grief.

Envious Moon reminded me a little of Endless Love by Scott Spencer. Love is the one emotion that drives people, especially young people, to reckless behaviour. Greene’s novel captures that love-fueled momentum and propels Anthony, Hannah and the reader on a journey that is both heart-felt and heart-breaking.

I Think I Love You – Allison Pearson

Before I talk about Allison Pearson’s delightful novel, I Think I Love You, I have to talk about David Cassidy.   I think it’s important for you to understand my total predisposition to love this book based on my adolescent feelings about David. I LOVED HIM! Oh, I know I wasn’t alone – millions of girls my age loved him. It’s just that I loved him more. And to illustrate the deep personal connection we had, let me tell you about what happened to me in 1995 at the backstage door of the London production of  Blood Brothers. For four weeks only, David Cassidy played the role of Mickey. As luck would have it I was living in England at the time, where I’d been teaching high school English in a little town outside of Birmingham. We were due to fly home for Christmas and so we arranged to go down to London early so I could see the play. I was 34.

Let me back up. My love for David Cassidy came on the heels of my love for Davy Jones (The Monkees). Call me fickle, but who hasn’t heard “Day Dream Believer” and fallen just a little bit in love with Davy’s accented voice?

Then The Partridge Family debuted on television and I was knocked off my feet. I joined the fan club (wish I still had that little plastic record they sent!) I bought TigerBeat magazines by the truckload; I still have have scrapbooks and pictures galore. I sent hundreds of friendship books and slams through the mail. (Anyone else remember those?) I bought all the records – still have them  –  and the puka shells and the Indian cotton shirts. I believe when I was 13, I even had David’s shag hair style. Trust me, it didn’t look nearly as good on me!

So to be sitting in a theatre where I would be hearing David sing live was slightly surreal. I have to admit, I was a little bit nervous. I was dreading that moment when I learned that my childhood memories of him were eclipsed by the reality. After all, he was 20 years older, too. And what if he couldn’t really sing? I shouldn’t have worried. While he didn’t sing enough, when I did hear that clear beautiful voice live for the first time it took me straight back to my childhood. I think I started to cry after the first note. I think I cried pretty much through the rest of the performance.

The musical was spectacular and so was David. After it was over, I said “I need to meet him.” In my head, our eyes would lock, I would invite him for drinks and because I was from North America and so was he, he’d agree and it would be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. I wasn’t counting on the fact that at least 75  other women of my vintage  would also be waiting for their opportunity to have their moment with David.  Even when I turned the corner of the theatre and saw them all standing there, I was still convinced that he’d pick me.

Finally the stage door opened and David appeared, with Petula Clark (the hussy!) on his arm. There was an audible intake of breath from all the ladies – and an amused chuckle from their long suffering husbands – and then David spoke: “Thanks for coming. I’m happy to sign autographs for everyone, but if I could just ask you to take a step back that would be great.”

I hung back and rehearsed what I would say to David. “Hi. I’m from Canada. I’ve loved you since I was 10. I have all your records. Do you want to go for a drink?” Something like that. Not very eloquent, I guess, but it was the best I could do considering the blood pounding in my head and my heart racing in my chest. David Cassidy! OMG!

The crowd didn’t exactly thin out, but as women got their autographs, they’d move aside and let others have their opportunity. The kind lady standing next to me offered me her pen when I realized I didn’t have one and then…

I was standing in front of him, playbill in hand, staring up into those soulful hazel eyes (he was standing on a step; height isn’t one of DC’s attributes, sadly!) I think David said “Hi. Thanks for coming.” I think I said, “Grdodvnlsnolrijosrivl.”  He signed my programme and then I burst into tears and had to be led away.

Soon afterwards, David and Petula got into a fancy car of some sort and sped off into the London night. I wish I could say that this was the only time a celebrity has made me cry. I’ll save my story about David Boreanaz for another day though.

Here’s a great clip of David and his brother Shaun talking about performing in Blood Brothers on Broadway on the Regis and Kathy Lee Show. Near the end, they sing together. It never fails to make me teary.

 

All this brings me to Allison Pearson’s novel, I Think I Love You.

Petra is thirteen, Welsh and hopelessly devoted to David Cassidy. She remarks early on in the story:

Honest, it’s amazing the things you can know about someone you don’t know. I knew the date of his birth – April 12, 1950. He was the typical Aries, but without the Arian’s stubborness. I knew his height and his weight and his favourite drink, 7Up. I knew the names of his parents and his stepmother, the Broadway musical star. I knew all about his love of horses, which made perfect sense to me because when you’re that famous it must be comforting to be around someone who doesn’t know or care what famous is.

I Think I Love You captures – in glorious detail –  that first  giddy adolescent crush just about every girl has had on a celebrity. Petra is a very real creation. She’s smart and beautiful (but not in the right way for a 13 year old) and she plays the cello. She longs to be popular like her classmate, Gillian. Her one true friend, Sharon, shares her love of David and the two girls spend hours in Sharon’s bedroom, making scrapbooks and taking turns kissing David’s posters. (Petra’s stern German mother would never let her put posters of a pop star on her walls.)

Petra’s story is paralleled by Bill’s. Fresh out of college with a degree in English, Bill is hired to write for The Essential David Cassidy Magazine. Not just hired to write, hired to be David Cassidy – writing notes about his life and answering letters from fans. There’s a hysterical moment when he arrives for his interview and mistakes a picture of David on the cover of a magazine for a girl, exclaiming she’s not his type.

Petra and Bill’s lives collide when they both attend David’s famous White City concert. At the height of his career, when David Cassidy was pretty much the biggest star on the planet, he played a show at this London venue and a young girl died. David retired from performing after that.

Pearson’s novel isn’t just a trip down memory lane, though. We revisit Petra as an adult just as her life begins to unravel – as lives sometimes do. Her mother has just died and her husband, Marcus, has recently announced that he is leaving her. Her daughter, Molly, is 13 and has her own celebrity crush on Leonardo Di Caprio. Suddenly Petra is adrift. The life she thought she built is falling apart and she isn’t quite sure what to do about that. Her salvation comes, strangely enough, in a pink envelope addressed in her very own hand.

I Think I Love You was so much fun to read. I was that girl – totally in love with a pop star. I have also been adult Petra, trying desperately to hold onto the dangling ends of my fraying life.  Lots of touchstones in this book for me.

And I don’t think you have to have  been a David Cassidy fan to appreciate the references to those popstar magazines we all read religiously. Sure, being of a certain age allows certain references to resonate more strongly, but I Think I Love You has lots to say about first love, childhood friendships, dreams dashed and even more miraculously, realized.

After – Francine Prose

Minutes after the shootings, everbody’s cell phone rang.

So begins Francine Prose’s topical  YA novel, After.  The novel’s narrator, 16-year-old, Tom, is in Math class when his father calls to let him know about a school shooting at Pleasant Valley, a school about 50 miles away. The killing spree at the neighbouring high school was perpetrated by three students, two boys and a girl, students who “never even registered as blips on the other kids’ radar.”

It’s almost impossible not to immediately think about Columbine. I remember exactly where I was when the entire continent was riveted to the tv screen watching the events in Littleton, Colorado unfold.  Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris had  planned to kill hundreds of their classmates and teachers that day, April 20, 1999. They’d been planning the massacre for months. In the end,  12 students and one teacher were dead and so were Klebold and Harris.

The fictional killing spree at Pleasant Valley costs five students, and  three teachers their lives. Fourteen more students are critically injured. All the shooters killed themselves. It’s a pretty dramatic opening.

But it isn’t actually what After is about.  At first, Prose’s novel seems to be about how Tom’s school reacts to the events at Pleasant Valley.  First of all, the school board hires a grief and crisis counselor, Dr. Willner. “We can no longer pretend to ourselves that it can’t happen here,” Dr. Willner says to the student body at an assembly. “And so we must change our lifestyle to keep our community safe and make sure that it won’t happen.”

Things start to go south for Tom and his friends after that. The school installs a metal detector, students aren’t allowed to wear the colour red or have cell phones. Certain books are banned for being subversive. All of these things make excellent talking points, actually. How much freedom should students have? Where is the line in the sand between safety and a police state? Then, there seems to be something even more sinister happening and for me the book veered off into territory which was less interesting to me.

Still, I liked After. It asks some compelling questions and Tom is a likeable and sympathetic hero.

In Search of Adam – Caroline Smailes

“Jude, I have gone in search of Adam. I love you baby.

I didn’t understand. But I took the note. It was mine. I shoved it into the pocket of my grey school skirt. I crumpled it in. Then.”

Jude is just six years old (four months and two days) when she discovers the lifeless body of her mother. It shatters her young life and the hurt train keeps on coming.

Her father farms Jude off to various neighbours after the death of his wife while he begins a new relationship with Rita. One of these neighbours is Aunt Maggie at Number 30. It is here that Aunt Maggie’s brother, Eddie, sexually assaults Jude. And it is here that Jude begins a journey that twists her life in ways that are often impossible to read about.

Jude is desperate for attention – and it’s completely understandable since her father virtually ignores her. At school, one of her teachers takes a special interest in her, but it isn’t enough to save her from the hurt that is gnawing away at her insides; big girls don’t cry is Jude’s mantra.

Smailes writing is often beautiful, but unlike anything I’ve ever read before. Sentences are fractured and stagger across the page, perhaps to mimic Jude’s own thoughts. This isn’t one of those novels where a child endures horrors only to bounce back, more resilient than ever. In Search of Adam is almost relentlessly dark and as a mom, it was often extremely difficult to read.

But I couldn’t put it down.