The Greatcoat – Helen Dunmore

The-Greatcoat-Helen-DunmoreI am a Helen Dunmore fan, no doubt about it. Although her novels aren’t especially propulsive, I still find her work compulsively readable. She is particularly gifted when it comes to creating believable and sympathetic characters and her novels are moody and atmospheric. Her latest novel, The Greatcoat, caught my eye in the horror section – of all places.

Isabel Carey is a young bride who has moved to Yorkshire with her husband, Philip, a doctor.  They’ve been married just two months and this move to Kirby Minster is isolating: it’s a small town where they are clearly outsiders, Isabel is somewhat socially awkward and “bookish” and although she considers finding some work, Philip doesn’t think it would be acceptable for the wife of the town’s newest doctor to be employed. It is 1952. Although the war is over, both Isabel and Philip “had been children of wartime and all they asked of food was that it should fill them up.”  Good thing: Isabel is a terrible cook and food is still scarce and often unpalatable. Isabel is clearly out of her depth. She is “a little girl pretending to be her mother.”

Isabel and her husband take a flat in the home of Mrs. Atkinson, a woman Isabel dislikes on sight.  The flat is cold and grey and their landlady is constantly pacing the floor over their head. There is something decidedly menacing about her.

One particularly cold night, Isabel roots around in a closet looking for something extra to put on the bed and discovers an old greatcoat.

It was a coat. An RAF   officer’s greatcoat, she saw at once, recognising it with a thud of memory. There was the heavy, slatey grey-blue  wool, the buttons, the belt with its heavy brass buckle. It had been folded up a long time, she thought.

The coat does provide warmth, but it also brings a visitor. A man comes to her window:

She saw the pallor of his face first, as it seemed to bob against the glass, too high up to belong to a man who had his feet on the ground. The street lamp lit him from the side, throwing the sharp shadow of his cap over his face. He was too close, inside the railings that separated the house from the pavement. Of course, the level of the ground there was higher than the level of the floor inside. That was why he seemed to float in middair. A man in a greatcoat.

From this point in the novel, Dunmore elegantly weaves past and present as Isabel succombs to loneliness and the thrall of the past.

The Greatcoat was published under the Hammer banner (horror aficianados will recognize Hammer as the British production company behind  films like The Woman in Black and Let Me In.  They’ve entered the world of publishing in partnership with Arrow, a subsidiary of Random House. It’s nice to read a “horror” story that is less about blood and guts and more about the kind of chills which prickle your skin and send a shiver up your back. There are no mosters here, but The Greatcoat is deliciously creepy nonetheless.

Wild – Cheryl Strayed

WildTP_Books-330I am of the opinion that everyone has a story to tell – that doesn’t mean everyone should tell it, though. Cheryl Strayed’s memoir should have made for a compelling read, but ended up winning “Book I Enjoyed Reading the Least” at our final book club meeting. (Although in my mind, it was  neck and neck with Death Comes to Pemberley for the position.)

When I teach memoir to students in my writing class, we talk a lot about the ‘why’? Why is this the story you are telling? What have you taken away from this experience? If you want to take a reader on the journey through your life, there has to be a pretty compelling reason.

Some memoirs are more successful than others. In order for a memoir to work – for me at least – it has to combine three elements: story, character and writing. So, for example, Elizabeth Gilbert’s best selling memoir Eat, Pray, Love both worked and didn’t work for me. The writing was terrific; I loved the idea of her journey, but I didn’t like her very much. Let’s compare Eat, Pray, Love to another best-selling memoir, Julie & Julia. I loved the story, the writing and Julie herself.

Then there’s Wild. At twenty-six Cheryl Strayed is still mourning the death of her mother, who died when she was 22,  the dissolution of her marriage, which ended soon after, and recovering from her addiction to a guy named Joe and their shared heroin habit. Good times. Impulsively, she decides to hike the Pacific Coast Trail. That’s 4268 km of therapy. With very little preparation (or at least it seemed that way to me – she bought a book and some ill-fitting hiking books and suddenly she was walking), Strayed embarks on a journey which she hopes will clear her head or mend her broken heart.

Pacific-Crest-TrailWhen the book opens, Cheryl has lost a boot over the edge of a mountain:

My boot was gone. Actually gone.

I clutched its mate to my chest like a baby, though of course it was futile. What is one boot without the other boot. It is nothing. It is useless, an orphan forevermore, and I could take no mercy on it. It was a big lug of a thing, of genuine heft, a brown leather Raichle boot with a red lace and metal fasts. I lifted it high and threw it with all my might and watched it fall into the lush trees and out of my life.                                         …

I looked south, to where I’d been, to the wild land that had schooled and scorched me, and considered my options. There was only one, I knew. There was always only one.

To keep walking.

I felt like Strayed’s journey had all sorts of potential. I mean, her life was a total mess and here was her opportunity to work out her issues and reset her course. But the more I read the less I cared. I can’t quite say what it was about her, but others in book club had the same sort of feeling: we just didn’t like Strayed.

Wild felt like a missed opportunity to me.  Regardless of whether your relationship is awesome or toxic, the death of a parent is a game-changer. Strayed’s brother and sister and her beloved step-father, Eddie, sort of scatter to the wind and it made me wonder why. When my parents died – first my mom and then a couple years later, my dad – my three younger brothers and I circled the wagons and became even closer. We understood that it was just us now and ‘us’ was important. Strayed’s brother doesn’t even visit his mother when she is dying in the hospital.

So, is Strayed ‘cured’ after her long walk.  I doubt it. While on the surace it would seem that her journey to  the Bridge of the Gods (and oh, those heavy-handed metaphors!) delivers her back to herself, I’m not sold.

Autobiography of My Dead Brother – Walter Dean Myers

9780060582913-LWhile this wasn’t a book I particularly enjoyed, I absolutely see its merits. Autobiography of My Dead Brother is the story of 15-year-old Jesse who grows up in a violent New York neighbourhood.  He’s smart, talented and although he’s got all the typical teenage issues – he’s not going to make decisions which adversely impact his life.

His best friend is Rise. Rise is seventeen and he and Jesse have been friends since they were little.

His mother likes to tell me that when Rise first saw me, he was scared of me. She said they had a puppy and a turtle and he liked to play with them both, but when he saw me he started crying.

I didn’t remember any of that, but me and Rise grew up to be really close. He was more than my best friend – he was really like a brother.

Myers’ novel opens, Jesse and his friend C.J. are at the funeral of their friend, Bobby, who has been killed in a drive-by shooting. While Jesse and Bobby are horrified by the event because, after all, Bobby wasn’t doing anything, just sitting on his stoop, Rise thinks Bobby “went out like a man.” It’s an early indication that Jesse and Rise might be heading in two different directions.

Rise wants Jesse, an artist, to draw his autobiography and so the reader starts to see Rise through Jesse’s very focused lens. We see his “funny way of walking, with one shoulder higher than the other”; we see Rise’s home life (he lives with his mom and aging maternal grandparents); we see Jesse start to feel the troubling disconnect between him and Rise.

Myers also captures the adults in this book very well. None of these kids come from uncaring families. While some come from single parent households, all the parents work and care and even the police are painted as fair and reasonable human beings. But there still manages to be trouble for Jesse and his friends.

The book is interesting; the drawings are great (done by Christopher Myers, the author’s brother) and Myers certainly writes authentically about the experience of  – in this case – African American kids who just happen to live in a neighbourhood where crappy things happen. Ultimately though, this is a story about the friendship between two kids which unravels over time.

I know a lot of boys would really enjoy it.

The Doctor’s Wife – Elizabeth Brundage

thedoctorswife_325Interesting timing. I finished Elizabeth Brundage’s novel The Doctor’s Wife just a couple days before Dr. Henry Morgentaler passed away at the ripe old age of 90.  What do a novel and a  doctor who changed the laws regarding abortion in Canada have to do with each other? Well, it’s the polarizing subject of abortion which is at the centre of Brundage’s over-written and  uneven novel.

Annie and Michael Knowles live in upstate New York. Michael is an obstetrician who practices in Albany. Annie is a journalist who teaches at the local college. When the novel opens, it is clear that their marriage is rocky: Michael is a workaholic; Annie is dissatisfied with her role as mother and the doctor’s wife.

Then there’s Lydia and Simon Haas. Simon was a renowned artist, but now he’s a bit washed up and he teaches at the same college as Annie. His wife, Lydia, is much younger and clearly unstable. She’s also found Jesus and is hanging out with a bunch of bible thumping right wing conservatives.

When Lydia discovers that Simon and Annie are having an affair and her church friends decide that Michael’s new role at the local abortion clinic is worthy of punishment, The Doctor’s Wife propels the reader into page-turner territory.  But it’s a weird mash-up of social commentary and scorned-wife-gone-wild.

None of the characters in this novel are particularly likeable. Usually when people enter into an extramarital affair it’s sort of easy to choose a side. Simon might be sympathetic if you really had a better of understanding of his relationship with Lydia. Does he love her? Is he afraid of her? (If not, he should be!) Does he love Annie?

And Annie’s feelings for her husband are equally ambiguous. She is “no longer the college girl Michael had fallen in love with.” When she and Simon hook up at a faculty party it’s like they hop a fast-moving train that’s not able to stop until it either runs out of fuel or crashes. The fact that Simon is a bit of a doofus makes you question Annie’s sense.

I actually didn’t mind the affair part of the story. And Lydia was bat-shit crazy. Where the story really  veered off the believability path was how Lydia was involved with these crazy church people and how she had the cunning to plan and execute some of these outlandish crimes.

By the end of the book, the whole thing felt a little bit like a made-for-tv-movie. Which is too bad, as there was potential there at the beginning.


The Sky is Everywhere – Jandy Nelson

The Sky is EverywhereJandy Nelson has written a debut novel which will resonate with anyone who has ever lost someone they’ve truly loved.  The Sky is Everywhere is seventeen-year-old Lennie Walker’s journey through the grief of losing her nineteen-year-old sister.

My sister Bailey collapsed one month ago from a fatal arrhythmia while in rehearsal for a local production of Romeo & Juliet. It’s as if someone vacuumed up the horizon while we were looking the other way.

The loss of her sister isn’t the first significant loss of Lennie’s young life. She lives with her grandmother and her uncle ‘Big’ (yes, he is indeed) because her mother abandoned her and her sister when Lennie was only one. Despite the fact that Gram and Big are awesome, Lennie is finding it difficult to cope. Lucky for her, Bailey’s boyfriend, Toby, is on hand to share her grief.

“How will we do this? I say under my breath. “Day after day after day without her…”

“Oh, Len.” he turns to me, smooths the hair around my face with his hand.

I look into his sorrowful eyes and he into mine, and I think, He misses her as much as I do, and that’s when he kisses me –

There isn’t a thing I didn’t love about Lennie. She’s lived, thus far, in her sister’s shadow; Bailey was the outgoing, beautiful one.  Now, suddenly, Bailey is gone and Lennie is lost. Perhaps that’s what makes Toby so desirable. They can share their grief, but also their memories of someone they both loved.

But, then it gets complicated.

“Even in the stun of grief, my eyes roam from the black boots, up the miles of legs covered in denim, over the endless torso, and finally settle on a face so animated I wonder if I’ve interrupted a conversation between him and my music stand.

Meet Joe Fontaine, the “gypsy,” “rock star,” “pirate,” who arrived at school while Lennie was away. Suddenly Lennie finds herself in a precarious predicament: she is  impossibly drawn to Toby even as she crushes hard on Joe. Those feelings are compounded by her guilt because she’s supposed to be sad. And she is.

Make no mistake, The Sky is Everywhere is not a romantic comedy; it’s a beautifully written novel about loss, about being left behind and about what it means to be alive. All the characters are fully realized; even the adults have interior lives, a fact Lennie only begins to understand months after her sister’s death. She also comes to understand that grief is a living thing. Lennie thinks, “I don’t know how the heart withstands it.”

I’m not a fan of eReaders, but I can’t imagine reading this book on one would offer as satisfying an experience as reading the book the traditional way. The novel is filled with poetry written on scraps of paper and found in various places which are named on the back of the found object.  How they came to be collected is revealed at the end of the story. The poetry itself is beautiful (Nelson herself is a poet) and I loved its inclusion in the book.

This is a novel I will really look forward to passing on to and talking about with my students.

The Painted Girls – Cathy Marie Buchanan

paintedgirlsCathy Marie Buchanan has taken French Impressionist Edgar Degas’  famous statue, Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, and spun it into a piece of historical fiction that will probably really appeal to some people, but with which I had a love/hate relationship. The Painted Girls is the story of sisters Marie and Antoinette van Goethem, who live with their widowed, absinthe addicted mother and younger sister, Charlotte, in Paris in 1878.

The novel alternates between elder sister Antoinette’s story and Marie’s as they struggle to survive extreme poverty and a mother who just doesn’t seem capable of taking care of them. The only way out of their dire situation is if Marie makes it into the Paris Opera (Antoinette tried, but didn’t have the talent) as a ballet dancer.

With the news that Maman is sending us to the dance school, Charlotte threads her fingers together, knuckles whitening as she works to hide her joy. I keep my face still, my dismay to myself. The petit rats – the scrawny, hopeful girls, vying for the quickest feet, the lightest leap, the prettiest arms – are babies, like Charlotte, some as young as six. It puts my nerves jumping, the idea of me – a thirteen-year-old –  lost among them at the barre, rats who earn their name by scurrying along the Opera corridors, hungry and dirty and sniffing out crumbs of charity.

It is here that she comes to the attention of Mr. Degas, who hires her to model for him. Marie wants something more for her life and she is willing to do whatever it takes to achieve it. That is not to say that she consistently makes wise choices, only that the desire for a better life is what drives her.

Antoinette’s journey is slightly more bumpy. She has already been turned out of the ballet as she is too old and not talented enough. She understands Marie’s talents, though, and works to ensure she has the lessons she needs to progress and food in her belly. Then she meets Emile Abadie, a shifty boy who  “is not much to look at …with that scrub-brushy hair of his creeping low on his forehead and his black eyes sinking too deep beneath the weighty ridge of his brow and his jaw looking like the sort of those on dogs it is best to steer away from in the streets.” Emile is a charmer though and even when he abuses Antoinette, she stays by his side.

The Painted Girls evokes the Belle Époque  period in Paris, a period which is, ironically, characterized by optimism. Art, music, literature and scientific discoveries all flourished during the period and Buchanan makes the most of them including bringing Zola’s masterpiece L’Assommoir to the stage.

Despite the novel’s merits (and there are many) I found the book overwritten. Not badly written, the language is often quite beautiful, just over-written. The sisters’ journey was intriguing, I am a fan of both the ballet and Degas, but at times I have to admit that it was a bit of a slog.

You – Charles Benoit

youKyle Chase, the 15-year-old protagonist of Charles Benoit’s novel You, isn’t much different from a lot of boys his age. He doesn’t get along with his parents, he’s crazy about a girl who just thinks of him as a buddy and he has a habit of getting into trouble.

Every day you get up, go to school, fake your way through your classes, come home, get hounded about your homework, go online, fake your way through your homework, go to bed – and the next day you get to do it all over again.

This is Kyle’s life. He’s not a bad kid, really. He’s not particularly motivated, but he’s also not as dumb as he pretends to be. Still, his life isn’t really going anywhere…and then Zack arrives.

Zack is clever and charismatic and suddenly Kyle finds himself doing things he never imagined he’d be doing. In some ways, on the surface at least, it would seem that Zack is looking out for Kyle. It turns out, though, that there is nothing magnanimous about Zack at all. Kyle (you) moves through his days in a sort of  anesthetized daze, a sort of listless funk that will perhaps be familiar to teens. When Zack starts to shake things up, at first seemingly benignly, the reader might get the impression that Kyle will make something of himself. Zack is nobody’s friend, however.

Charles Benoit has chosen to write You in the second person, a point of view that will likely be unfamiliar to many young readers unless they are exceptionally well-read. Let’s face it, not many novels are written in the second person. It’s a distancing point of view, somehow, but it serves this story very well because it drops the reader into Kyle’s skin.

When Kyle’s association with Zack starts to spin out of control, the reader knows it will end badly because of the book’s opening line: “You’re surprised at all of the blood.”

You is an ALA Quick Pick for Reluctant Young Adult Readers and I suspect many readers would find the book enjoyable..

What I Saw and How I Lied – Judy Blundell

liedJudy Blundell’s YA novel What I Saw and How I Lied won the National Book Award and was named a best book by both the School Library Journal and the ALA (American Library Association). The accolades are well-deserved. This novel offers a glimpse into another time and another world and makes a nice change from reading all the dystopian and fantasy novels crowding the shelves these days.

Fifteen-year-old Evie lives with her beautiful mother, Bev, and her step-father Joe, a  veteran of World War 2,  and Joe’s mother Grandma Glad in Queens, New York. It is 1947. Things have been different since Joe returned from the war. Evie remembers a man who “made walking look like dancing…had a special greeting for everyone on the block.”  The post war Joe was different.

It was the war. You couldn’t ask him about it. You didn’t want to remind him. What every wife and daughter could give was a happy home. That was our job.

One night, out of the blue, Joe announces that he is taking Bev and Evie on vacation to Palm Beach, Florida. he makes the holiday sound so glamorous, but when they arrive it is to discover that Palm Beach is practically a ghost town, “the rest of the hotels didn’t even open until December. All of the stores on Worth Avenue, Palm Beach’s main drag, were closed. The Paramount Theatre was closed.”

Into this strangely other-worldly cotton-candy coloured world walks Peter Coleridge.

…I saw him under the moon. My breath stopped. He was not just handsome, he was movie-star handsome. Dark blond hair, a straight nose. A hunk of heaven

Peter turns Evie`s world upside down and creates a strange friction between her parents that she does not  quite understand. Not that she cares too much. Peter is older and more sophisticated and despite his mixed signals, Evie begins to take those first tentative steps towards adulthood.

As a coming-of-age story, What I Saw and How I Lied works quite well. It is definitely evocative of  another time and place. Once she realizes what is waiting for her on the other side of childhood, Evie is desperate to grow up. But there is a price to pay. This would be a great book for careful readers. It`s not action-packed, but it is well-written and thoughtful. When Evie and her parents finally return from their holiday, Evie`s life has been  altered. The line between innocence and experience has been crossed and for Evie at least, a terrible price has been paid.

The Dark Endeavour – Kenneth Oppel

oppelKenneth Oppel’s novel This Dark Endeavour was a finalist for Canada’s Governor General’s Literary Awards and it’s no wonder. It’s a terrific book. We’ve been talking about it at school recently as several of my colleagues have read it and think it would make a great addition to the classroom. I agree. The language of the novel is almost old-fashioned, but the action will appeal to boys and the elements of romance will appeal to girls (or vice-versa) making This Dark Endeavour the perfect gateway drug to introduce students to classic novels like, well, Frankenstein.

Sixteen – year – old Victor Frankstein lives with his twin brother, Konrad, younger siblings and parents in a chateau in Bellerive on Lake Geneva. They also share their home with their cousin, Elizabeth. Their friend Henry also spends a great deal of time at the chateau. They four teenagers spend their time riding, boating, studying and exploring the centuries old chateau.

One day, the foursome discover a narrow passage behind a bookshelf and upon further investigation, a door with the greeting “enter only with a friend’s welcome.”  Upon gaining entry, they find “tables scattered with oddly shaped glassware and metal instruments – and row upon row of shelves groaning with thick tomes.”

When the young people are discovered by Konrad and Victor’s father he says, “You’ve discovered the Biblioteka Obscura I see.” Mr. Frankenstein is a local magistrate, a powerful and intelligent man who encourages his children’s intellectual pursuits but is none too happy about their discovery of this Dark Library.

You must understand that these books were written centuries ago. They are primitive attempts to explain the world. There are some shards of learning in them, but compared to our modern knowledge they are like childish dreams….This is not knowledge….It is a corruption of knowledge and these books are not to be read.

But when Konrad falls seriously ill, Victor returns to the Dark Library looking for a cure and This Dark Endeavour ramps up the fun.  Victor, Elizabeth and Henry try to  gather the ingredients for the Elixir of Life in the hopes that its mystical properties will restore Konrad’s good health and their quest is what propels the plot forward. It’s exciting and dangerous work, but Victor is a character readers will easily root for – even though he is hot-tempered and sometimes struggles to do the right thing – especially where it concerns Elizabeth.

Careful readers will spot some of the literary shout-outs embedded in the novel. For example, Victor seeks the help of Dr. Polidori who was, in fact, a real physician and writer ( 1795 – 1821), consort of Lord Byron and credited with writing the first vampire story, “The Vampyre.” Dr. Polidori lives on Wollstonekraft Alley. Fans of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein might recognize Wollstonekraft as Shelley’s mother’s name. Wollstonekraft  (1759 – 1797) was a writer and feminist, well-known for her work A Vindication of the Rights of Women. It’s references like these which would make This Dark Endeavour such a great book for the classroom.

The Last Weekend – Blake Morrison

Henry Sutton wrote an interesting article for The Guardian about fiction’s most unreliable narrators but he neglected to include Ian from Blake images_list_co_uk_blake-morrison-the-last-weeken-chatto-and-windusB-LST072324Morrison’s entertaining novel The Last Weekend. Although it isn’t obvious in the beginning, Ian’s narrative soon starts to unravel as he and his wife, Em, spend a weekend with his college roommate, Ollie and Ollie’s partner, Daisy.

Ian is a primary school teacher and Em a social worker and their marriage seems solid enough, although perhaps slightly lacklustre compared to Ollie and Daisy’s relationship. Of course, as seen through a series of reminiscences, we come to understand that Ian’s relationship with Ollie has always been fraught with jealousy and a certain prickliness.

“I met Ollie in my second term at university,” Ian remembers. He admits that he was something of a loner, that  he “didn’t really have a circle – my circle was me.” Ollie, on the other hand, was hard to miss  with his “brooding intensity. ” He was, Ian admits, “smart, sporty, funny, handsome and popular – the antithesis of me.” And yet chance throws the two young men together and a strangely co-dependent relationship is forged.

It’s a lopsided relationship, a fact that Ian is only too willing point out.

The essential contrasts, all to our disadvantage, go: large Georgian house in west London vs small modern semi in Ilkeston; Range Rover and BMW vs Ford Fiesta; Mauritius (Florence, Antigua, etc.) vs Lanzarote (if we’re lucky); The Ivy vs Pizza Express; Royal Opera House vs local Odeon; Waitrose vs Morrisons; golden couple vs pair of ugly toads. I exaggerate but not much.

So, off Ian and Em go, on a hot summer weekend at the end of August to visit with Ollie and Daisy. And it’s weird from the very start. First of all, Ian had been expecting “posh” accommodations instead of a dwelling which is a “serious disappointment.”  Secondly, there is a strange undercurrent in the house. At first I suspected that Ollie wasn’t all Ian had described, but as it turns out much of what happens during that weekend is not quite as it seems.

“As to the events of August,” Ian says near the beginning of the novel, “I don’t suppose I’ll ever get over them. I’m the kind of guy who feels guilty even when he’s innocent…” It’s only after I finished reading The Last Weekend that these words revealed their menacing underbelly. And much of the novel is strangely creepy and also deeply funny. Once it is revealed that Ian is not to be trusted, The Last Weekend becomes a wonderful maze of a book.