Always Something There to Remind Me – Beth Harbison

alwaysI’m not a book snob. I like a good ‘chick lit’ book as well as the next gal. I know Beth Harbison is a much-loved, best-selling author of women’s fiction…but Always Something There to Remind Me will have the distinction of being both my first and last book by Ms. Harbison. Blech.

Erin Edwards is a beautiful, successful party planner in Washington D.C., where she lives with her precocious sixteen-year-old daughter, Camilla. She and Camilla’s father are no longer together…not that we know much about their relationship (and not that it matters anyway). Always Something There to Remind Me is Erin’s story to tell and we get the then (in third person) and now (in first person).

Then happened twenty years ago. Sixteen-year-old Erin has her heart set on eighteen-year-old Nate Lawson.

From the first time she’d seen him, his image had been emblazoned on her mind, and when he stepped into view it was as if her mind closed over it like a trap. She didn’t want to think about him, but she couldn’t stop.

His eyes met hers and something clicked.

Ahh. Young love.

Erin and Nate’s teenage romance has all the requisite twists and turns: silly fights, jealousy, sneaking around in the dead of night to have sex on basement floors. But even though Erin really, really, really loves Nate, she still can’t help doing childish things and eventually he dumps her, breaking her heart and leaving her to wallow (however secretly) for the next twenty years.

Fast forward twenty-odd years and she is in a relationship with smart and perfect and handsome Rick who has just asked her to marry him. Erin’s hesitating though because she can’t stop thinking about Nate…even though she hasn’t seen him in forever.

Until the day she’s visiting her mother in the old neighbourhood and she decides to take a walk which invariably leads her past Nate’s parents’ house and – as luck (or fate) would have it – there’s Nate.

I just watched the shock in his eyes as he took me in, and knew mine probably looked the same. Shocked, glad, scared…it was hard to read both what I saw and what I felt.

But I couldn’t look away. And when I saw him try, I realized he couldn’t either. He glanced down, a muscle in his jaw tensed, but then he looked back at me, still unspeaking.

People – you can see where this story is going from like a mile away and that would all be fine except that WHO CARES? Seriously. Erin is annoying as a teen and not even remotely self-aware as an adult. Her daughter, Cam, sounds like a therapist and the treacley ending made my teeth ache.

I bought this book because it sounded like it might have something significant to say about regret and love, but if you want a book that looks backwards at what you’ve left behind, read Losing the Moon instead.




Joyland – Stephen King

joylandAlthough I devoured Stephen King as a teen and young adult, it’s probably been 15 years since I’ve read a King novel (Bag of Bones, which I loved). I decided to give Joyland a go and it was like settling into a comfortable pair of slippers. (I know, it’s ridiculous to compare the Master of Horror to a pair of comfy slippers, but I’m talking more about that feeling of just knowing that you are in really good hands – which you always are with King.)

Joyland is not a horror story really. It’s the story of Devin Jones, a college student who takes a job at Joyland, a Disney-style amusement park (I imagined Family Kingdom at Myrtle Beach, S.C., which I visited once as a teen) in North Carolina.  Devin tells the story of his summer and autumn at Joyland through the lens of late middle age. He says

That fall was the most beautiful of my life. Even forty years later I can say that. And I was never so unhappy. I can say that, too.

Devin’s unhappiness stems from his recent break-up with his first serious girlfriend, Wendy. Devin has an inkling that their relationship has run its course when Wendy doesn’t even hesitate to encourage him to take the job at Joyland, even though it means that they will be separated for the summer. “It’ll be an adventure” she tells him, without realizing just how much of an adventure it’ll actually be.

Devin meets a cast of interesting characters at Joyland and in the little seaside town he calls home while he works there. Characters like Lane Hardy (who shows him the ropes around the park) and Rosalind Gold (the resident fortune teller who makes a couple of astute predictions about Devin’s future) and Emmalina Shoplaw (who owns the boarding house where Devin rents a room and who tells him about the murder associated with Joyland’s  Horror House) add a bit of local character to the story.  Other characters, like Mike and his mother, Annie, have a more profound impact on Devin’s life.

Devin Jones calls that summer “the last year of my childhood” and he is right. King expertly balances the story’s nostalgic look back, and his protagonist’s bittersweet reminiscences (“I still want to know why I wasn’t good enough for Wendy Keegan”). Joyland is as much a coming-of-age tale as it is a murder-mystery. Both aspects of the novel will keep you turning the pages.

Bookish lists – I want yours

I have a love/hate relationship with the end of the year. On one hand it means I have to reflect on all the ways I have flailed and failed, my squandered opportunities, that 10k I didn’t quite manage, the times I wasted worrying about things and people I can’t change. On the other hand, once 2013 slips into the past, I can start thinking about what I can accomplish in 2014. The places I’ll go, the people I’ll gather close, the ways I can improve my life, the books I’ll read. calendar

And that’s another reason I love this time of year – every book lover/organization on the planet shares their best books lists. I love lists. I love reading about the books that have risen to the top of the heap. I love it that there’s always disagreement and someone’s best book invariably ends up on someone else’s worst list.

It’s easy enough to find fantastic book lists online. Book Riot has a great selection of the Ten Best Top 100 Book Lists . And, of course, at this time of year everyone wants to weigh in on the best books of 2013. Here’s a small sampling.

Good Reads

Publisher’s Weekly


Huffington Post


Seabury Reads

I, too, always offer a top ten list. I’ll do that in the next few days because although I did meet my reading challenge of 60 books, I am hoping to read a couple more before year’s end and, who knows, perhaps one of those books will be worthy of a place on the list.

In the meantime, I’d love to feature your favourite books of 2013 here at The Ludic Reader. If you’ve posted a list at your blog, link me up. Otherwise, shoot me an email (ludicreader AT and I’ll let you have the floor in an upcoming post. Or leave a comment and tell me about the best or worst book you’ve read this year.

You Against Me – Jenny Downham

youagainstmeI read Jenny Downham’s first novel Before I Die a few years ago and I really like it a lot. I liked You Against Me, too. Downham certainly isn’t afraid to tackle the big stuff.

Eighteen-year-old Mikey McKenzie’s life is far from perfect. His mother is an alcoholic and he has two younger sisters, Karyn, 15, and Holly, 8, for whom he is responsible. He’s doing the best he can, but he’s all too aware that sometimes it’s just not good enough. Especially now. Karyn was recently raped while at a party and she now won’t leave the house. Mikey figures he can make everything right again if he beats the crap out of the guy who did it, Tom Parker. He and his best friend, Jacko, come up with a plan but everyone knows nothing ever goes to plan.

Sixteen-year-old Ellie Parker is every bit as anxious as her parents for her older brother Tom’s homecoming. He’s spent the last couple of weeks detained after having been accused of rape, but now he’s coming home to await the trial. Ellie’s her brother’s star witness; she was home the night Tom brought a bunch of friends back from the pub, Karyn included.  She’s already told the police that she didn’t hear or see anything much and her parents are convinced that Tom will be found not guilty.

And this might have been nothing more than a he said – she said YA novel except that Mikey and Ellie meet and discover…they like each other. Of course it’s more complicated than that, but once the wires are uncrossed and trust has been earned, Ellie and Mikey really do genuinely fall in love.

Downham does a good job of balancing the story of Ellie and Mikey  with everything else that’s going on including Ellie’s doubts about her brother’s innocence, Mikey’s concern for his sisters and frustration with his mother’s lack of responsibility. The novel moves pretty quickly, allowing the reader plenty of time with both Ellie and Mikey so we get a real sense of who they are and how they’re coping with their complicated circumstances. What started as one thing quickly becomes something else for both of them and as Mikey says to Jacko

When I first saw Ellie, I knew it was her – she was my fantasy. I didn’t want it to be true, but every time I met her it was obvious, and the funny thing was that she was better than the fantasy, like I got more stuff than I’d imagined.

You Against Me is about family and friendship and making choices that have far-reaching consequences. Downham offers careful readers lots to think about and has created two young people worth rooting for.


Cemetery Girl – David Bell

cemeteryI read the first 192 pages of David Bell’s novel Cemetery Girl lickety split. I couldn’t put the book down. I wondered – how come I’ve never heard of this book or this author? How come the only positive promotion is from other authors? Where has this author been all my life?

And then it all went to hell in a hand basket.

Cemetery Girl is the story of college professor Tom Stuart and his wife, Abby, and their daughter, Caitlin, who disappeared four years ago when she was twelve.  Now, Abby has decided it’s time to say goodbye to Caitlin and has organized a memorial service for her daughter. It’s caused something of a rift between Tom and Abby because Tom hasn’t given up hope that his daughter will come home to them because her body has never been found.  But Tom and Abby’s marriage is on the slippery slope anyway. Abby has found religion and is spending more and more time with Pastor Chris her new ‘best friend.’ Yeah, right.

For the first half of the book I was totally invested in Tom’s story and the novel’s attempt to make him a somewhat unreliable narrator. For example, he and his half-brother, Buster, have different takes on their childhood. Tom remembers his step-father, Paul, as a mean and abusive drunk; Buster claims it wasn’t like that at all.

There are a bunch of minor characters in the novel – Detective Ryan, the one and only cop still assigned to Caitlin’s case; Susan Goff, a volunteer with the police department (who is not a therapist or professional counsellor, just someone to talk to); Liann Stipes, a lawyer whose own daughter had been murdered and who has acted as an advisor to Tom; Tracy Fairlawn, a stripper who claims she saw Caitlin. Then there’s this mysterious blonde girl who keeps appearing near Caitlin’s tombstone or outside the Stuart house in the middle of the night.

Like I said, Bell kept me turning those pages for quite a long time. Then I just didn’t believe it anymore. I didn’t believe the way characters started to speak to each other. I didn’t believe the resolution of the book’s central mystery. I didn’t believe any of Tom’s interactions with anyone – they just all felt artificial. I’m a parent; I wouldn’t behave this way.

Cemetery Girl had a lot of potential, but a book like this depends on credibility and at the end of the day – it just didn’t have any.


Eleanor & Park – Rainbow Rowell

eleanor and parkEleanor & Park turned up on Kirkus’s list of Top Teen Books in 2013, and rightfully so. Rainbow Rowell is a new-to-me author, although I have been wanting to read Fangirl for a while.

Set in Omaha, Nebraska in the 1980s, Eleanor & Park is a novel about two young people who find each other and themselves despite the many obstacles in their way.

When Eleanor moves to a new house and school she’s already aware of how different she is.  Park notices her right away because she is

…big and awkward. With crazy hair, bright red on top of curly. And she dressed like…like she wanted  people to look at her. Or maybe like she didn’t get what a mess she was. She had on a plaid shirt, a man’s shirt, with half a dozen weird necklaces hanging around her neck and scarves wrapped around her wrists. She reminded Park of a scarecrow or one of the trouble dolls his mom kept on her dresser. Like something that wouldn’t survive in the wild.

Park notices something else, too. He notices that she starts to read his comic books out of the corner of her eye.

At first he thought he was imagining it. He kept getting this feeling that she was looking at him, but whenever he looked over at her, her face was down.

He finally realized that she was staring at his lap. Not in a gross way. She was looking at his comics-he could see her eyes moving.

Eleanor notices Park, too.  (“Stupid, perfect Asian kid.”) And soon, over a shared love of comic books and new wave music, the two teenagers discover a mutual appreciation for each other.

The course of true love doesn’t run smoothly, of course. It never does.

Eleanor lives with her mother, four younger siblings and her step-father, Richie, who is not a nice man. At all. In fact, Eleanor has just returned home after living with family friends for a year. She’d been kicked out and the stay was supposed to be temporary. Now Eleanor lives in a home where everyone is always walking on eggshells, especially her.

Park is half Korean and lives with his parents and younger brother, Josh. Everything about his home life is stable and ‘normal’, but Park still finds it difficult to fit in.

Eleanor is a prickly person and Park is exceedingly patient with her, but that doesn’t always prevent hurt feelings and misunderstandings. It’s impossible not to love her, though. Park, too. They are not nearly as frustrating as other ‘teens in love’ might be. I wanted to shake Eleanor’s mom  though. But then I had to take into consideration the year in which the novel takes place – 1986.

I was a young(er) person in the 1980s and I loved the pop culture references in Eleanor & Park. Setting it then also allows the reader to forgive the lack of  outside agencies (school, Child Protective Services, police) involved in Eleanor’s dreadful home life. Even Park’s dad knows Eleanor’s stepfather and offers Eleanor a safe place to be.

If I have any criticism of the book it’s that I didn’t love the ending. I’m all for ambiguity, but it just seemed a little anti-climactic after everything that happens. It’s a small thing, though. Time with Eleanor and Park is time well spent.

Bellman & Black – Diane Setterfield

bellmanWe were all pretty excited when Marianne chose Bellman & Black as this month’s book club selection. We all loved Diane Setterfield’s first novel The Thirteenth Tale when we read it a few years back. Sadly, this novel lacked that book’s  – well, everything.

As I pointed out when we met last night: “Did you notice that all the praise on the back of the book was for The Thirteenth Tale.”  And true enough – there isn’t a single endorsement for this novel on its cover or inside its pages. Okay, maybe that doesn’t mean much in the whole scheme of things and I know I’m making it sound as though Bellman & Black is horrible and I guess I wouldn’t go so far as to say that, but it isn’t very good, either.

William Bellman is just a kid playing somewhere in the English countryside  when he decides to show off in front of his friends and uses a catapult to shoot a rook (similar to a crow) out of a tree.

It took a long time for the stone to fly along its preordained trajectory. Or so it seemed. Time enough for William to hope that the bird, flapping into life, would rise upwards from the branch. The stone would fall harmlessly to earth and the rook’s granite laughter would taunt them from the sky.

Instead, William hits and kills the bird and thus leaves innocence and childhood behind him and begins  the downward slope towards death. And yes, it’s really this heavy-handed.

Will’s life is marked with great successes and tremendous tragedies. We watch him turn his uncle’s mill into a financial success. We watch him fall in love and have a family. And we watch things start to fall apart. But the thing is – and it is a thing that we talked about last night – none of it mattered all that much because Will was a character we knew or cared little about. He was driven, surely and haunted, certainly, but not by the rooks which made strange appearances (sort of like encyclopedia entries) throughout the book.

When William suffers a tragic personal loss, he makes a deal with a mysterious stranger, Mr. Black, and he suddenly finds himself building a one-stop funeral emporium. We’re talking Victorian England here, when people mourned for years and spent money (apparently) on all manner of funereal accoutrements. So, just as we watched him build Bellman Mill, we learn all the nooks and crannies of Bellman & Black, but none of it is interesting enough to sustain a 300 plus page narrative. And trust me, the stuff about the rooks doesn’t help.

At the end of the day, Setterfield’s book is a less schmaltzy take on, say, a book like Tuesday’s With Morrie. We’re meant to understand that life must have checks and balances, and that when we care too much about things that don’t matter (wealth, success) we miss out on those things that truly do.

Bellman & Black wasn’t hard to read, but I won’t be recommending it to anyone else.

The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian – Sherman Alexie

part time indianI can’t remember the last time I rooted for a character the way I rooted for Arnold ‘Junior’ Spirit, the fourteen-year-old narrator of Sherman Alexie’s YA novel, The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian.

Junior is a member of the Spokane Tribe and lives with his parents, grandmother and older sister on the Rez. Without a drop of self-pity, Junior tells the reader that his “head was so big that little Indian skulls orbited around it” and that “the bullies would pick me up, spin me in circles, put their finger down on my skull, and say, ‘I want to go there.'”

Skinny, born with ten extra teeth, and prone to seizures, Junior is also determined, smart and really funny. He says, “With my big feet and pencil body, I looked like a capital L walking down the road.” He both stutters and lisps and so everyone calls him a retard. “Do you know what happens to retards on the rez?” he asks the reader. “We get beat up. Yep, I belong to the Black-Eye-of-the-Month-Club.”

As if Junior’s physical problems weren’t bad enough, Junior and his family are also very poor. They’re so poor, Junior often goes hungry. But, as he explains, “It’s not like my mother and father were born into wealth. It’s not like they gambled away their family fortunes. My parents came from poor people who came from poor people who came from poor people, all the way back to the very first poor people.”

His father is an alcoholic who often disappears on benders. His mother is slighty flakey, but also super smart. Junior is perfectly aware of the limitations that come from being an Indian on the rez.

…we reservation Indians don’t get to realize our dreams. We don’t get those chances. Or choices. We’re just poor. That’s all we are.

Strangely, none of this seems like whining coming from Junior’s mouth. It is what it is and he’s found ways to cope. For one thing, his best friend,  Rowdy, is the toughest kid on the reservation. For another thing, his parents are kind and loving and supportive. While it seems like there are too many obstacles in Junior’s way, the reader soon learns not to underestimate him.

An incident at school prompts a visit from one of his teachers and suddenly Junior has left the rez and is traveling 23 miles into a town to attend a white school where he has the chance to make something of himself. (But not without a lot of soul-searching about what it means to have to leave the rez behind and enter the white world.) But make something of himself, he does. I can’t imagine anyone reading this book and not getting a little va-klempt at Junior’s journey.

The back cover of my edition of The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian  says that the novel is inspired by Sherman Alexie’s own experiences growing up. The book has won numerous awards including the National Book Award. It’s most deserving of the praise.

This is a laugh-out-loud, tear-in-your-eye, 100% uplifting novel about the challenges of growing up and making your own way in the world. Everyone should read it.

Crazy Beautiful – Lauren Baratz-Logsted

crazyMy arm rises toward my face and the pincer touch of cold steel rubs against my jaw.

I chose hooks because they were cheaper.

I chose hooks because I wouldn’t outgrow them so quickly.

I chose hooks so that everyone would know I was different, so I would scare even myself.

That’s Lucius Wolfe. He’s 15 and the new kid at school. He and his younger sister, Misty, and his parents had to move because Lucius got in the middle of a bomb making experiment gone wrong and blew himself – and most of his house – up. Now he’s got hooks for hands. Why was Lucius making a bomb, one might ask? Ask away – you’re not going to get any real insight from Lucius other than a vague “I was practicing to do harm, somewhere, sometime, maybe.”

I hear the dog alarm go off in the same instant I become aware of the first morning light in my room. I like rising early, like sleeping with the blinds open, because I’m scared of the dark.

In the dark, almost anything can happen.

That’s Aurora Belle. She’s 15 and also the new kid at the school. She and her father moved because Aurora’s mom had recently died of cancer and her dad thought it was time to change the scenery. Aurora is beautiful and smart and perfect…and immediately popular at school.

On the bus on the first morning  (and what are the chances, eh?) Aurora and Lucius’s eyes meet and wowza. But it’s even more than that for Lucius; he decides to become Aurora’s Gallowglass. It means ‘foreign soldier’ but to Lucius it is “the greatest personal protection service you can think of all rolled into one person.”

Aurora doesn’t really strike me as the person who actually needs protecting. She’s absorbed almost immediately into the school’s who’s who and soon thereafter wins the lead in Grease (which, unbelievably, Lucius has never even heard of).

Still, there is Jessup Tristan (and by now the names are starting to be as irritating as the characters), school douche-bag, and a couple of superficial girls and Nick Greek, the security guard who frisks Lucius after he sets off the alarm going through the school’s metal detector. It’s an embarrassing moment for Nick, but then it’s all made well when the 15 year old boy and the 22 year old security guard become fast friends and Lucius actually helps Nick reconsider his career path. I kid you not.

If Lucius didn’t have hooks for hands and a slightly suspect psyche, Crazy Beautiful would be nothing more than an adequately written YA novel.  Take away those hooks and Lucius’s raison d’etre and you’ve got…nothing. Seriously. At a mere 193 pages there’s no time to really develop the characters or their relationships.

Boy sees girl on the bus and falls instantly in love.

Girl sees boy on the bus and “there was an instant connection.”

We’re on page 28.

And what are the chances, when the plot twist comes – separating these two ‘damaged kids’ – that Aurora knows exactly what Gallowglass is?

As it turns out, pretty damn good.

Give this one a miss.



I Am Scout – Charles J. Shields

It’s pretty much a rite of passage that every teenager reads To Kill a Mockingbird at some point during their high school career. Published in 1960, Harper Lee’s only book won the Pulitzer Prize and was made into a movie starring Gregory Peck.  I love the book , but even I can see how today’s teens might struggle with it.

tkamIn case you’ve been living under a rock, To Kill a Mockingbird is the story of Jean Louise (Scout) and Jem Finch and their father, Atticus, a small-town lawyer. Narrated by Scout, the story takes place in Maycomb, Alabama in 1935. Although the action of the story takes place when Scout and her brother are children, the story is narrated from an adult’s vantage point which is how Scout is able to make some very worldly observations about society, childhood, prejudice and evil – all of which are themes in the book.

It’s an English teacher’s dream book, but it’s not without its problems – especially when you teach a generation of students who mostly read about sparkly vampires and cuddly werewolves. Still, I think it’s worthwhile.

I started reading I Am Scout, Charles J. Shield’s student-friendly autobiography of Harper Lee  ( adapted by Shields from his book, Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee) just before my students and I began our discussion of To Kill a Mockingbird.  Even though I have probably read To Kill a Mockingbird a half dozen times or more, I’d never read anything about Lee’s life and I was interested.

If you ever wondered why Lee never published another book (and, really, who hasn’t wondered that?) this is the book for you. Shields traces Lee’s childhood, the youngest of four children growing up in Monroeville, Alabama. Almost from the beginning, it’s impossible not to see Scout when you read that Nelle (Ellen spelled backwards) Harper Lee:

had a reputation as a fearsome stomach-puncher, foot-stomper, and hair-puller, who “could talk mean like a boy.” Three boys had tried challenging her once. They came at her, one at a time, bravely galloping toward a dragon. Eithin minutes, each had landed face down, spitting gravel and crying “Uncle!”

Almost everything about Scout’s make-believe life is drawn from Lee’s childhood. Lee did call her father by his first name and he was a lawyer. Her childhood friend, Truman Capote, was the inspiration for the character of Dill. Lee’s mother was virtually absent from her life owing to issues with mental health. Several other characters in To Kill a Mockingbird were inspired by people in Lee’s life including Mrs. Dubose, a cranky morphine addict and Boo Radley, who is based on Alfred Boleware Jr., a Monroeville native who was rumoured to be  “a captive in his own home, tied to a bed frame by his father.”

Shields also tells how Lee helped Truman Capote research (and some say write) In Cold Blood, easily considered one of the quintessential pieces of true-crime writing of the last century. The relationship between Lee and Capote lasted thoughout their lives, but was not without its trials; Capote was, perhaps, jealous of Lee’s success –  even though he was certainly no slouch.

I am scoutSo, why didn’t Harper Lee ever write another novel?  According to Shields:

She reportedly had every intention of writing many novels, but never could have imagined the success To Kill a Mockingbird would enjoy. She became overwhelmed. Every waking hour seemed devoted to the promotion and publicity surrounding the book. Time passed, she said, and she retreated from the spotlight. She claimed to be inherently shy and was never comfortable with too much attention. Fame had never meant anything to her, and she was not prepared for what To Kill a Mockingbird achieved.

I felt after reading Shields’ biography that the reason Lee never wrote another novel was because this was the only story she had to tell. But that’s okay – if you only have one, it may as well be the one that wins the Pulitzer.