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.

After You – Julie Buxbaum

Do we really know the people we love?

Ellie Lerner’s already problematic life is turned upside down when her best friend, Lucy, is murdered while walking her daughter, Sophie, to school. Ellie flies to London to be with Lucy’s husband, Greg, and daughter, leaving behind her own husband, Phillip.

As Ellie settles into life with Greg and Sophie, she pushes her own problems further away. And it is clear from the beginning that she has problems. When, after the funeral, Phillip suggests that she come home, Ellie replies:

” They need me here.”

“I need you here,” he says, but we both know he is pretending.

After You is a story about friendship – a long complex friendship between women who have known each other virtually their whole lives. The novel tells the story of Lucy and Ellie in anecdotes Ellie recalls during her time in London.

When you meet someone at the age of four, tumbling and doing the “downward doggie” in Mommy & Me yoga, and their house is just two blocks away and they make you laugh for over three decades, starting their first day when she stuck out her tongue and made stupid faces behind the yoga teacher’s back, a friendship is inevitable. Maybe even fated.

But as Ellie settles into her life in London, she begins to realize that she didn’t know everything about Lucy. In many ways, Ellie is closed off to possibilities. Instead of dealing with her marital problems and the issues that precipitated them, she decides that she will stay in London where she is needed and wanted. As a way of helping Sophie cope, Ellie starts to read her Frances Hodgson Burnett’s magical book The Secret Garden. Burnett’s book, if you’ve never had the pleasure of reading it, is a book about grief and renewal. As they read, Ellie and Sophie book begin the process of letting go of their pain.

Buxbaum’s novel tackles some  big questions: what do you do when you’ve been betrayed? how do you move on? how do you forgive? is it really possible to have a second chance at love? I think she does an admirable job in After You. Ellie is a likeable character; in fact there are no bad guys here – just people, doing their best to live their lives, however imperfectly.

One Night – Margaret Wild

The parties were Bram’s idea-

calculated,

sophisticated,

daring.

For a long time

they were the best-kept secret

in the city.

They ended one night

when Al nearly killed Raphael.

 

Margaret Wild isn’t the first writer to pen a novel written in poems, but One Night is the first poetic novel  ever read. One Night tells the story of three friends, Gabe (the beautiful one), Al (the wild partier) and Bram (the planner).  They’re in their last year of high school somewhere in Australia. Their personalities are revealed slowly, little snapshots that illuminate them, make them more than what they seem on the surface. Bram, for example “catches two buses to school,/ and never brings friends home.”  Al wears a coat summer and winter because “without it he would be/ a snail without it’s shell-/soft/exposed/defenseless.”

Into the boys’ world comes Helen. She has a damaged face and a dazzling smile. Just one night and one of the boy’s lives is forever changed.

One Night only took a couple hours to read, but that doesn’t mean that Wild’s novel is lightweight.  These characters are fully realized. In just a few short lines, Wild had me feeling tremendous sympathy for Bram, a character who appears to be – on the surface at least – all hard edges. One Night captures the daring sense of ‘anything goes’ shared by many young people; the notion that actions have no real consequences. In Helen, we have a character willing to make sacrifices and decisions far beyond her years.

One Night is also about family. It isn’t only biology that binds us; sometimes we choose our families out of need and circumstances and sometimes these families serve us better than those we came by naturally.

One Night is a terrific novel – timely and beautifully witten.

Too Close to Home – Linwood Barclay

Linwood Barclay has been compared to Harlan Coben. I’ve only read a couple Coben novels and they were okay. Too Close to Home is okay, too. But just okay.

Jim Cutter used to drive the mayor of Promise Falls around. The mayor’s a bit of an ass and Jim’s just not the kind of guy to put up with his shenanigans. Now he owns a lawn care company, but the book makes it clear that Jim’s way too smart for the job. His wife, Ellen, organizes a big literary festival for the local college, the president of which is a literary phenom- except for the youth part and the fact that he’s only written one book.  Jim and Ellen have a teenage son, Derek.

The action of Barclay’s novel starts straight away. There’s no simple way to explain it: Derek is hiding at the next door neighbour’s house when they’re all shot and killed. Instead of fessing up to being an almost-witness, he acts like he was somewhere else. Jim tries to figure out why anyone would kill the Langleys, but then comes to realize that perhaps the Langleys weren’t the intended target after all.

It’s a convoluted plot, people. Maybe consumers of this type of story like it that way and despite the fact that Barclay’s ducks do end up in a row by the conclusion, it all seemed – well –  a little silly to me.

I did like Jim Cutter, though. He isn’t perfect, that’s for sure, but he isn’t a pushover either. He is smart and tenacious and often quite funny – especially in his dealing with the smarmy mayor.

I’m not a literary snob. I like a rollicking good suspense thriller as much as the next guy who likes suspense thrillers…but Too Close to Home just didn’t quite do it for me. I have another Barclay novel on my tbr list and I’ll certainly get to it at some point…but I’m not in any hurry.

 

Every Last One – Anna Quindlen

Sometimes I feel as though the entire point of a woman’s life is to fall in love with people who will leave her. The only variation I can see is the ones who fight the love, and the ones who fight the leaving.  It’s too late for me to be the first, and I’m trying not to be the second.

Anna Quindlen’s 6th novel Every Last One is  filled with the quiet detritus of every day life.

“This is my life: the alarm goes off  at five-thirty…” thinks Mary Beth Latham, the novel’s narrator. Wife to Glen, mother to daughter Ruby, 17, and twins Max and Alex, 14, Mary Beth spends her days spinning the every day plates that keep families in motion and trying to carve out a little time for herself, something to remind her that she is more than just a wife and mother.

Mary Beth loves her family, but she doesn’t gloss over the difficulties of raising kids or trying to keep a marriage afloat. Ruby, an aspiring writer,  is just about ready to leave home. The twins are as different as night and day and as Mary Beth finds herself focusing more and more on Max’s moodiness, she fails to acknowledge that Ruby’s ex-boyfriend, Kiernan, is trying too desperately to win Ruby back.

Quindlen does a masterful job of leading the reader towards a climax that – even if you see it coming – shocks the hell out of you. It’s her careful layering of life’s little details – the slights, the carelessness, the mistakes we make, family dinners, blow-ups and meltdowns, reconciliations – that add power to the book. Mary Beth isn’t a saint.  And just like the rest of us, she’s forced to put one foot in front of the other and keep on walking, even when it doesn’t seem possible to take another step.

Anna Quindlen has the distinction of being the first author my book club ever read twelve years ago. We read Black and Blue for our first ever meeting and despite the subject matter (domestic abuse), we all really enjoyed it. A few years ago we read Rise and Shine, but I have to say I didn’t enjoy that one at all. Every Last One, while often difficult to read, confirms what I always thought about Quindlen’s talents though. It’s definitely worth a read.

 

What Love Mean to You People – NancyKay Shapiro

I started to read NancyKay Shapiro’s debut novel a couple years ago, got about 40 pages in and put it aside. I’m not really sure why I stopped, I just wasn’t groovin’ to the story. And I desperately wanted to like it. See, NancyKay Shapiro was something of a Big Fandom Name back in my days in a certain fandom (which shall not be named so I don’t out her). She wrote a different pairing than I did and I didn’t always agree with her characterization, but there was no question that she could turn a phrase.

In a way, What Love Means to You People is sort of like reading her fanfiction. The writing is smart and often quite beautiful, but I had serious problems with the characterizations of her three main characters: Jim, a widowed gay man in his early 40s; Seth, Jim’s new beautiful, troubled, much younger lover and Cassie, Seth’s sister who shows up and causes all sorts of trouble for the men.

Jim is a rich advertising guy. He’s been single ever since the love of his life, Zak, died. One day, he meets Seth McKenna:

Rippled nose with a slender ring in one nostril. Cheekbones and a clean jaw. Shorty bleached hair in trailing bangs, pointy sideburns. Silver rings climbing one earlobe, small, smaller, smallest. An appealing athletic body, too, in white chinos and a tank shirt. Quite nice, despite the trivializing modifications.

Jim is smitten. They have dinner. Seth tells a lie. Or two. Seth, it seems, has a past from which he has tried desperately to distance himself. It looks like none of it will matter, until his younger sister, Cassie, shows up with her small-minded attitudes about gay men and the key that opens the door to Seth’s past.

There are lots of plot twists, relationships fractured and pieced back together. Lots of graphic gay sex, too, if that’s your thing. I think Shapiro was aiming for a story that examines families, and how sometimes the ones we choose are better than the ones biology gives us but, ultimately, for me, What Love Means to You People wasn’t really much more than a well-written soap opera, complete with stock characters and a neatly tied bow of an ending.

30 Day Book Meme – Day 27

The most surprising plot twist or ending

I don’t think it’s actually fair to talk about this. I certainly don’t want to give anything away! All I will say is read Fingersmith by Sarah Waters. It has plot twists galore and every single one of them is jawdroppingly fantastic! That book is SO much fun to read.

In the same vein, The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield, has a few twists and is definitely worth the read. And the ending of One Day by David Nicholls amps up the story in a really remarkable way. Loved it.

Of course, if you’re looking for twists – you can’t go wrong with Thomas H. Cook. I have yet to finish a novel by this master of mystery/suspense and not been totally surprised. He’s fantastic.