Never Fall Down – Patricia McCormick

neverfalldown Arn Chorn-Pond, the young narrator of Patricia McCormick’s novel Never Fall Down, finally escapes Cambodia and  makes it to the safety of Thailand sometime in the spring of 1979.  At the very same time, I was getting ready to graduate from high school. I knew nothing of the Khmer Rouge and their violence – or if I did, I don’t remember. Reading Arn’s story has reminded me again of the priviledged life I’ve lead and of the absolute power of literature to crack open the insulated world in which we often live.

Arn is just eleven when the Khmer Rouge, a radical Communist regime, and an offshoot of the Vietnam People’s Army, sweeps through Cambodia displacing people and separating families. Arn has lived a relatively happy life up until then. He says, “At night in our town, it’s music everywhere. Rich house. Poor house. Doesn’t matter. Everyone has music.”

When the army blows through town, it’s exciting. Arn says, “…I think this is the most exciting thing to happen here. Real Americans coming. Real airplane.” But that excitement doesn’t last. Soon Arn, his aunt and his siblings (four sisters and one brother) are marching out of town with everyone else. And then the real horror begins.

And this book is horrific.

McCormick spent two years interviewing Arn and then  made the choice to tell his story as a novel because “like all trauma survivors, Arn can recall certain experiences in chilling detail; others he can only tell in vague generalities.”  It’s no wonder his mind has decided to compartmentalize; the atrocities he’s witnessed are almost unbearable.

But Arn does bear them. He survives the separation from his family, the endless work in the rice fields, the starvation, illness, walking miles and miles through the heat. He makes himself indespensible by learning to play an instrument, but even that doesn’t save him from witnessing the Khmer Rouge’s atrocities against men, women and children.

And then, even more horrible, Arn suddenly finds himself with a gun in his hand, fighting with the very people who have held him captive for more than three years. Never Fall Down is a survival story because Arn surely does that.

McCormick makes the decision to tell this story in Arn’s distinctive sing-song voice and it’s a wise choice. We see everything though his eyes and he is a truthful and unflinching narrator.

One night the girl next to me at dinner, she dies. She dies just sitting there. No sound. Just no breathing anymore. All of us, we eat so fast, no one even see this girl. Very quick, I take her bowl of rice and keep eating.

I guess we can never really know what we’re capable of until we are put in the situation where our limits might be tested. Arn was a remarkable boy and he has turned into a remarkable man, a champion for humanitarian causes around the world and the winner of many international prizes. Never Fall Down is a must read book.

This video explains  what happened during that period.

I also highly recommend the movie, The Killing Fields.

Paper Covers Rock – Jenny Hubbard

paper-covers-rockJenny Hubbard, the author of Paper Covers Rock, was a high school and college English teacher for seventeen years and I am guessing she was a good one. Her debut novel is filled with  references to poetry and literature and how they make us have “the feels” and allow us to connect with the world etc.

Sixteen-year-old Alex Stromm attends Birch Academy, a boarding school in North Carolina. He is, by his own admission, a good solid kid. When the story opens, Alex is writing in a journal his father had given him to write his impressions in when he’d started at Birch two years previously. Although the book has remained blank, now has something to write about: his friend Thomas is dead. He writes:

What I carry in my backpack down to the river, I carry not knowing that in less than an hour Thomas Broughton will be dead. That is not a knowledge I carry yet, but I will carry it soon – the knowledge of my darkest self – and I will carry it forever.

The reader learns about what happened that fateful day when Alex, Thomas, Clay and Glenn were at the rock by the river in fits and starts. Alex’s feelings of grief and guilt are only part of what compels him to scribble in his journal. He is also in love with his English teacher, Miss Dovecott, a recent Princeton graduate who is only a few years older than the boys she teaches. When she takes an interest in Alex’s writing he becomes even more conflicted about what happened that day on the rock.

Sounds sinister, eh? It’s not really, but I have to say that I did keep turning the pages and read the book in one sitting. Alex’s feelings for Miss Dovecott are complicated by his feelings of loyalty for Glenn. (Clay has taken the blame and left school; I’ll leave you to discover the reason why on your own.) Turns out that just after Thomas drowned, drawn by the screams, Miss Dovecott arrived on the scene and Glenn is convinced that she knows more than she is letting on. Oh what a tangled web.

And I have to say, the writing is stellar. The poetry Alex writes is lovely and it’s easy to see why Miss Dovecott takes an interest in him. Ms. Hubbard captures the male voices beautifully (not as crass as they might be now because, after all, the story is set in 1982) and also manages to make Alex both sympathetic and self-serving on his journey to manhood.

 

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl – Jesse Andrews

earlThis book contains precisely zero Important Life Lessons, or Little-Known Facts About Love, or sappy tear-jerking Moments When We Knew We Had Left Our Childhood Behind For Good, or whatever. And, unlike most books in which a girl gets cancer, there are definitely no sugary paradoxical single-sentence paragraphs that you’re supposed to think are deep because they’re in italics.

Meet Greg Gaines. He’s the seventeen-year-old narrator of Jesse Andrews’ debut novel Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.  He lives with his parents, and two younger sisters in a Pittsburgh suburb. He’s a trash-talking, cynical, slacker who is just trying to make it through his final year of high school.

…you have to to start from the premise that high school sucks. Do you accept that premise? Of course you do. It is a universally acknowledged truth that high school sucks.

Greg goes through the days in a weird state of disconnect because he feels as though the only way to survive school is to stay on the periphery of all the various groups, rather than belonging to any one of them.  He says, “I didn’t join any group outright, you understand. But I got access to all of them.” Of course, that makes having real relationships slightly problematic.

Greg’s only friend is Earl; well, as Greg puts it, they are more like co-workers.   They’ve known each other since they were in kindergarten and discovered a shared love of movies. Since then they have made several films together.

So Greg goes through his days doing as little as possible, using his sense of humour to cover up the fact, I think, that he is insecure about his weight and his looks and his life (all totally relateable to anyone who has ever survived a difficult – or any –  high school  experience.) And then Rachel Kushner is re-introduced to his life.

Greg and Rachel had been sort-of friends when they were kids although Greg admits that he hadn’t been all that nice to her. Turns out Rachel has recently been diagnosed with leukemia and Greg’s mom calls in a favour – rally around Rachel.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is not a cancer book, though. It is a profane, often funny and honest look at a teenager on the cusp of adulthood who doesn’t get it…and then does. Despite a great family, Greg is sort of closed off to the world. He doesn’t know how to have authentic relationships even though he is clearly capable of them. He spends his time with Rachel making lame jokes, trying to divert the focus away from Rachel’s illness –  not for her benefit, but for his own.

There is no way Greg is going to come away from spending time with “the dying girl” unscathed and he doesn’t. Mature readers won’t either.

I read this book as part of a program that lets teachers read books being considered for classrooms in New Brunswick. I do think this is a worthwhile and well-written book. My one caveat would be that there is a lot of swearing. A lot a lot. That said, as a high school teacher and a mom of teenagers I think we are fooling ourselves if we think kids don’t talk like this (not my kids, of course!). I think we do mature teens a disservice by leaving books like this off the shelf. I think some students will see themselves in Greg and Earl and it would be a shame not to give strong readers the opportunity to share time with them. I don’t believe in censorship anyway, but beyond that Me and Earl and the Dying Girl has real merit.

 

 

 

Endangered – Eliot Schrefer

endangeredWhen my 14-year-old son saw that I was reading Eliot Schrefer’s novel Endangered he rolled his eyes and said, “Mom, our teacher tried to read us that book last year and no one liked it – not even her.” Connor is a voracious reader and we have often read and enjoyed the same books so I have to admit that I was skeptical as I started this book.

Fourteen-year-old Sophie is visiting her mother in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Her parents  are divorced and she has been living with her father in Miami since she was eight, but it’s the summer holidays and so she is visiting with her mom at the bonobo sanctuary her mother runs in Kinshasa. Bonobos are a member of the ape family and they are endangered. Bonobos, as it turns out, are our closest relatives, “sharing over 98.7 percent of our DNA.” Adult bonobos are often killed for food; babies are kidnapped and sold on the black market. It is just such an encounter that starts Sophie’s story.

The little ape sat down tiredly in the dirt and lowered his arms, wincing as his sore muscles relaxed. I kneeled and reached out to him. The bonobo glanced at his master before working up the energy to stand and toddle over to me. He leaned against my shin for a moment, then extended his arms to be picked up. I lifted him easily and he hugged himself to me, his fragile arms as light as a necklace.

Sophie’s mother is none-too-happy when her daughter arrives at the sanctuary with the bonobo. Not because Sophie rescued the bonobo, but because she didn’t follow the proper protocol and that could cause more trouble down the road. But Sophie has fallen in love with the little bonobo she names Otto and their relationship sustains them through the difficult times ahead.

In the beginning I found Endangered a little didactic. Admittedly, I knew nothing about bonobos and even less about the scary situation in the DRC, but the way the information was relayed to the reader – via Sophie – just didn’t feel organic. Thankfully, Schrefer didn’t spend a lot of time instructing us.  When the Congo’s president is assassinated and rebels flood into the area Sophie’s peaceful existence at the sanctuary crumbles.  That’s when things get really interesting.

Sophie is a remarkably resilient character. Despite the fact that she has been leading a relatively privileged life in the States for the past six years, she hasn’t forgotten where she came from. As she and Otto travel through the jungle and up the Congo river to find her mother (who had left just before the coup to take some bonobos to an island release site), my heart was really racing. I mean, this war (despite being fictional) is based on decades of bloody conflict and although Schrefer stays away from the truly graphic, one only has to use their imagination to imagine the atrocities Sophie and Otto encounter on their way.

And don’t even get me started on the subject of Sophie’s bond with Otto. If even half of what transpires between them is true, bonobos are beyond remarkable; they’re us.

Con, honey, I respectfully disagree with your assessment of this book.

Every Day – David Levithan

16BLEVITHANWhat if every day you woke up in someone else’s body? You are you, but also them; you have access to their memories, but also retain your own. This is A’s predicament in David Levithan’s clever and emotionally resonant YA novel, Every Day.

I don’t know how this works. Or why. I stopped trying to figure it out a long time ago. I’m never going to figure it out, any more than a normal person will figure out his or her own existance. After a while, you have to be at peace with the fact that you simply are. There is no way to know why.

Dispensing with the prickly question of how this works (or doesn’t) early on, Levithan dumps the reader into A’s life on Day 5994. He is 16.  Today he is in Justin’s body.  Justin’s not a particularly likeable guy and A figures that out pretty quickly. He admits: “I know I am not going to like today.”

A’s ability to access information from each person he inhabits allows him to live each day with relative ease, plus he always has an escape hatch because he knows that he will wake up as someone else the next day. Even if he wakes up in the body of an idiot, he knows it’s not forever.  Justin is a bit of an idiot and that wouldn’t be such a big deal if it weren’t for Rhiannon. She’s Justin’s girlfriend.

…there’s something about her – the cities on her shoes, the flash of bravery, the unnecessary sadness – that makes me want to know what the word will be when it stops being a sound. I have spent years meeting people without ever knowing them, and on this morning, in this place, with this girl, I feel the faintest pull of wanting to know. And in a moment of either weakness or bravery on my own part, I decide to follow it. I decide to find out more.

Thus begins A’s relationship with Rhiannon. And as you might imagine, there’s nothing typical about it. There’s nothing typical about Every Day period.

A has spent his entire existence trying to keep himself separate from the person whose body he inhabits. His feelings for Rhiannon complicate his life in ways too numerous to mention; suffice it to say that every day becomes a challenge to see her, but first he somehow has to convince her of the truth of his strange reality.

In one sense, Every Day works as a terrific page-turner: will A and Rhiannon find a way to be together despite their terrific obstacles? After all one day A could be in the body of a hunky football player and the next he could be an overweight teenage girl. Will Rhiannon love him back despite his outward appearance? What is love anyway?

But I think this novel also works hard to be something more and in that way I think it will probably speak to teenagers everywhere. It allows us to inhabit the bodies of confident, beautiful teens and also depressed teens who wish themselves harm. We hang with straight teens and gay teens, teens with parents who smother them and parents who trust them. Each scenario allows Levithan the opportunity to show the reader his tremendous capacity for empathy. And it also allows us to see A  – despite his lack of corpreal form – as the embodiment of what it means to be human.

Blood – Patricia Traxler

BloodNorrie Blume, the protagonist of Patricia Traxler’s debut novel, Blood, is a thirty-five-year-old painter who has taken a leave of absence from her job as a graphic artist to focus on her art. To do that, she has accepted a Larkin fellowship at Radcliffe in Boston and has moved into one of the residences. It is there that she meets two other Larkin fellows, Clara, a journalist from Chile and Devi, a poet from London. Norrie doesn’t make friends easily and she is used to a certain degree of isolation – partly because of her vocation and partly because of her relationship with Michael Sullivan, a best-selling novelist who just happens to be married. It’s not like they can hang out in public. Nevertheless, she likes Devi immediately and sees all Clara’s character flaws just as quickly.

I have mixed feelings about Blood. Generally speaking, I liked it. The writing was decent and the story moved along. My problem had to do with a certain degree of uneveness.

Norrie tells the reader, “Though it’s true there’s a killing in my story, its principal violence is, I think I’d have to say, the violence of love.”

True enough: Norrie and Michael can’t keep their hands off each other and in one respect, Blood is a relatively explicit examination of infidelity. Of course, while  there’s no real honour in adultery, Michael does genuinely seem to love Norrie and wants a future with her. On the other hand, he can’t quite seem to get his shit together enough to leave his wife of 25 years. And why should he when he can have his cake and eat it, too.

Much of Blood is given over to the push/pull of Norrie’s top-secret relationship with Michael (no one, not even her best friend Liz, knows about him even though they’ve been together for two years.) And that might have been quite enough for one novel, but Traxler also delves into the mysterious world of female relationships and that’s where Clara and Devi come in.

Clara is clearly passive-aggressive and Norrie alternates between feeling sorry for and irritated by her. When she meets Devi, however, her feelings are immediately of the warm and fuzzy variety. This strangely dysfunctional threesome makes up the other third of the novel’s narrative. It’s also what, apparently, drives the book’s suspense – not to say that I didn’t turn the pages, but towards the end it did get a little, um, silly.

Not content with all those relationships, Traxler also dips a brush into the whole world of creativity. Traxler herself is an award-winning poet and so she likely knows a thing or two about the creative process, I’m just not sure that as it was written here is added any value to this story.

I guess that’s why when I came to the end of Blood I couldn’t really say I loved the book. I might have liked it a whole lot better if it had been about just Norrie and Michael, or just Norrie and Clara and Devi or even just about Norrie and her struggles to create art. As it was, the canvas was just a little too crowded for me.

A Monster Calls – Patrick Ness

Monster-calls_shadow“Are you crying, Mom?”

My daughter was settled in at the foot of my bed playing on her iPhone and I was  reading the last few pages of Patrick Ness’s remarkable novel, A Monster Calls.

And, yeah, I was crying. Hard by the end of it.

Damn you, Patrick Ness.

Siobhan Dowd is credited for the idea for A Monster Calls, but sadly Ms. Dowd died  – at the age of 47 – before she ever had the chance to see her idea through to the end. As Ness acknowledges in his Author’s Note, “the thing about good ideas is that they grow other ideas. Almost before I could help it, Siobhan’s ideas were suggesting new ones to me, and I began to feel that itch that every writer longs for: the itch to start getting words down, the itch to tell a story.”

A Monster Calls is the story of thirteen-year-old Conor O’Malley who lives with his mom in a little house in a little town in England. His parents are divorced and his dad now lives in the States with his new wife and a baby daughter. Conor rarely sees him.

Conor’s mom is ill. Readers will figure out early on that she has cancer and that Conor is doing his level best to cope, with varying degrees of success.  Then the monster shows up “just after midnight. As they do.”

Conor isn’t particularly afraid of this monster. Despite its “great and terrible face”, Conor tells the monster he’s “seen worse.” And even though he claims not to be frightened of the monster, the monster replies that he will be “before the end.”

The monster continues to visit at night with stories that make no sense to Conor. The monster also claims that there will come a time for the fourth tale – that is Conor’s story. Conor knows what the monster is talking about: a recurring nightmare which terrifies him and which he insists he will not be sharing. In the meantime, his mother grows weaker, his grandmother steps in to help out (much to Conor’s dismay) and his father visits from America – a sure sign of the Apocalypse.

The monster drives Conor to action, but also to irrefutable truths. The monster says,” Stories are important. They can be more important than anything. If they carry the truth.”

Conor’s truth is one that he is unwilling to face, but which comes barrelling towards him anyway. And as a reader, I have to say, I was unprepared for its impact.

A Monster Calls reminded me a little bit of John Connolly’s brilliant novel The Book of Lost Things. Connolly’s story is also about a boy on a journey from innocence to experience. You should definitely check it out.

As for A Monster Calls – I cannot recommend it highly enough.

 

 

 

Master of the Delta – Thomas H. Cook

masterofthedeltaI always say Thomas H. Cook is a mystery writer and he is…but I think he is also so much more than that. Master of the Delta is my 8th outing with Cook and it didn’t disappoint, even though some of the themes were familiar. The novel has the propulsive energy of a mystery, a book with a thread of whodunit twined with a ribbon of ‘is this going to end like I think it’s going to end?’ And of course – nothing is ever quite what it seems. But Cook operates on another level and this is where I think he excels.

Master of the Delta is Jack Branch’s story. Branch is a twenty-three year old teacher who has returned to his hometown to teach at Lakeland High School. Branch has had a priviledged upbringing: he grew up at Great Oaks, one of the town’s massive plantation homes.  It is 1954.

As a boy I’d sat with my father on just such a veranda, evenings that despite all that has happened since still hold a storied beauty for me. There was something calm and sure about them, and it would never have occurred to me that anything might shatter the sheer stability of it all, a father much admired, a son who seemed to please him, a family name everywhere revered and to which no act of dishonour had ever been ascribed.

Branch is a fussy young man – no, fussy isn’t the right word. He’s cocky. He believes his own hype. I don’t mean to say that he is without merit, but his youthful arrogance is partly to blame for events that haunt him for the rest of his life.

And that’s one of the cool things about Master of the Delta (and Cook’s novels in general). Cook always manages to weave past and present together seamlessly so Branch’s story is told as it unfolds, but also from the vantage point of Branch as a much older man – someone who is, from this vantage point at least, able to see his own character flaws.

Branch is teaching a course on evil through the ages and he discovers that one of his students, Eddie Miller, is the son of Luke Miller, the Coed Killer – a man who had killed a local girl and subsequently been killed in jail. Branch encourages Eddie to write a paper about his father. He feels it will help Eddie get out from under the weight of his awful heritage. So Eddie starts to research the father he barely remembers, but when this research reaches into his own life, Branch’s age and inexperience begin to show.

Really, Master of the Delta is a book about fathers and sons, about the part luck plays in how our lives turn out, about kindness and cruelty.  It is a book that has something to say about teachers and books and as a teacher who loves books, I enjoyed that. I truly believe Cook is a masterful observor of human life – our weaknesses and our strengths.  He might wrap it all up in a mystery, but I can’t think of anyone who does it better than he does.

Falling Under – Danielle Younge-Ullman

fallingunderMara, the twenty-something narrator of Danielle Younge-Ullman’s debut novel, Falling Under,  is a hot mess.  An artist who can barely leave the house except to have violent sex with a guy called Erik, Mara is clearly suffering from the cumulative effects of a troubled childhood, a stalled career and a tragic love affair.

Love always starts out well. There’s the chemistry, the lust, the gushy, dizzy, cuddly, branch-eating phase, the wonder, the miracle of togetherness. And then familiarity creeps in, followed by disappointment, disillusionment, fear. Inevitably there is silence, screaming, betrayal, the wrenching ugly truth when you look at each other and know that your love has turned to disgust, despair, boredom, hate.  All happiness gone, all rotten, all rotting.

Good times.

Younge-Ullman employs two narrative perspectives in the novel. When Mara is reliving her childhood, her parents’ messy divorce and its fallout, she speaks in the second person: “When you reach out to touch your shiny new bike, Mommy might start yelling at Daddy about how dare he spend their money and how you’re only five and what do you  need a new bike for anyway?”  The second person works really well here because Mara’s childhood, although not abusive per se, scars her emotionally and clearly hinders her ability to form healthy attachments to people as she grows up.  The second person narration is both intensely personal and somehow distancing at the same time.

The rest of the novel is first person narration and Mara’s black humour, self-doubt and neurosis is on full display. The reader will traipse though Mara’s life, often unwillingly, as she negotiates the thorny relationship with her mom, her co-dependent relationship with her dad and, miraculously, a new relationship with Hugo. But none of it is easy for Mara. She just doesn’t have the skills. She is sure, as was Chicken Little, that the sky is about to fall.

He would never understand how being happy makes you sad. How the happier you are the more you know the sky is about to explode into tiny, sparkling shards of glass that will pick up speed as they fall to the earth and slice right through you leaving your skin with little holes in it, leaving your heart bleeding.

Mara is, despite her quirks, a likable character. And Falling Under is a good book. But I can’t say that I finished it feeling wholly satisfied. Was it really necessary to make all the dangling and complicated threads of Mara’s life into a beautiful cat’s cradle in the end? Maybe – but given her problems, I wouldn’t have minded a little less happily-ever-after.

In the Woods – Tana French

in the woodsWhen Tana French’s first novel In the Woods was published in 2007, critics and mystery lovers went wild. The book was an Edgar Award winner (no small feat for a debut novelist) and for a while everyone was talking about it. It’s been on my TBR list for ages…and I finally picked up a copy at the library book sale this year.

In the Woods is Rob Ryan’s story. Ryan is a Murder detective in Dublin, Ireland. He and his partner, the spunky Cassie Maddox, have been given the task of determining who killed twelve-year-old Katy Devlin and left her body in Knocknaree Woods. As with all good police procedurals, In the Woods offers readers plenty of red herrings and plot twists – all of it anchored by the relationship between Ryan and Maddox.

But there’s more.

In 1984, three other children went missing in Knocknaree. Two of the children were never found. Ryan was the third.

When I was found I was wearing blue denim shorts, a white cotton T-shirt, white cotton socks and white lace-up running shoes. The shoes were heavily bloodstained, the socks less heavily. Later analysis of the staining pattern showed that the blood had soaked through the shoes from the inside outwards; it had soaked through the socks, in lesser concentrations,  from the outside in. The implication was that the shoes had been removed and blood had spilled into them; some time later, when it had begun to coagulate, the shoes had been replaced on my feet, thus transferring blood to the socks. The T-shirt showed four parallel tears, between three and five inches in length, running diagonally across the back from the mid-left shoulder blade to the right back ribs.

Ryan doesn’t remember a thing. Nothing from the moment he left the house with the friends to go into the woods – where they had played all the time – until he was found and being examined in the hospital.

So when he has to return to Knocknaree, it opens the proverbial can of worms. Are there any parallels between the Devlin case and his own? Will he finally remember what happened all those years ago?

The Devlin case is interesting and as Maddox and Ryan knock on doors, ask questions and try to piece together who would have killed Katy, Ryan also wrestles with his own complicated past. All of it makes for page-turning goodness.

And the icing on the cake: Tana French can write. I mean, a great mystery doesn’t really depend on stellar writing to be entertaining and fun to read, but French gives you more bang for the buck: a compelling mystery times two, characters who are complicated and human, and writing which forces you to slow down.

As you know, I am a huge fan of Thomas H. Cook – a mystery writer who cares about the writing, too. I’d definitely stick French in that category and I look forward to reading more of her work.