Totally Joe – James Howe

totally joeWhen Joe Bunch is given an ‘alphabiography’ as a seventh grade English project he thinks it’s lame. Joe’s teacher, Mr. Daly wants students to write about themselves from A-Z and that’s all well and good, except as Joe writes “I’m not exactly your average Joe.” But that, as it turns out, is just one of the many charms of Totally Joe by James Howe.

Howe is a prolific writer; he’s written over 70 books including the Bunnicula series. Totally Joe is also part of a series, The Misfits. Anyone who has read that book will be familiar with Joe and his friends, Addie, Skeezie, and Bobby, but you don’t need to have read it to fully appreciate Totally Joe.

It won’t take the reader very long to figure out that Joe is gay. When he meets Addie for the first time she says: “I thought you were supposed to be a boy. Why are you wearing a dress?” They were four at the time and have been fast friends ever since.

Joe is totally self-aware. It’s one of the pleasure of Totally Joe, really, that he is a person who understands and accepts himself. That doesn’t mean he’s not susceptible to the taunts of others. For instance, Kevin Hennessey who has “an IQ smaller than his neck size” has been picking on Joe forever.

“I’m not calling you a name, faggot, I’m calling you a girl, which you are.”

Somehow, though, despite the name-calling, Joe manages to rise above and he does this with the help of his parents (who are pretty awesome), his aunt Pam and even his older brother, Jeff whom despite being a “total guy-guy who’s all “yo” and “dude” and grabbing at his crotch and belching” is still decent.

Totally Joe is aimed at a 12-14 year-old audience and if Joe does, at times, sound way more mature than the average teenager it’s pretty easy to cut him some slack. He’s had time to settle into himself and he’s smart. The novel manages to be both funny and affirming and Joe even manages some sympathy for the mostly undeserving Kevin Hennessey. It would be a great middle school novel to generate discussion about what it means to be yourself, be a friend and the positive outcome of standing up to the bullies. I really liked it.


The Devil’s Footprints – John Burnside

devilAlthough John Burnside is a prolific and award-winning writer (he is one of only two poets to have been awarded both the T.S. Eliot and Forward Poetry prizes for his collection, Black Cat Bone and in addition to over a dozen volumes of poetry he has written non-fiction, novels and a screenplay), The Devil’s Footprints is my first encounter with him.

Michael Gardiner has lived in Coldhaven, a seaside town in northern Scotland, his whole life. His parents were distant, creative people: his father a well-known photographer, his mother a painter. They were outsiders when they came to the village, but it’s the only home Michael has ever known and he lives in the house where he grew up with his wife, Amanda.

When The Devil’s Footprints begins, Michael is considering the deaths of Moira Birnie and her two young sons. Michael had a brief relationship with Moira back when he was nineteen and the circumstances of their deaths troubles Michael. He also wonders why Moira’s 14-year-old daughter, Hazel, was spared. But The Devil’s Footprints is not a mystery.

Burnside effortlessly weaves past and present, illuminating his solitary childhood and the fact that he was mercilessly bullied by Moira’s older brother, Malcolm.

“I always walked to and from school alone. I didn’t have a best friend, I didn’t really have friends at all,” Michael recalls.

As an adult, Michael doesn’t appear to have any friends, either. The reader learns little about his relationship with Amanda, a woman to whom he’s been married for about a decade. Michael doesn’t have to work because his father’s death has left him financially independent. Amanda “liked her job and insisted on going every day, full-time, even though we didn’t need the money.” Michael’s view of his marriage from a strangely impassive perspective. He notes “We had quickly passed the stage in a marriage when being together counts for much” and he knew what Amanda wanted from him was “stability.”

The thing of it is, Michael seems decidedly unstable, especially after he becomes  fixated on Hazel. There are all sorts of Nabokov comparisons to be made in their relationship; Michael makes them himself. But it isn’t until he packs his bags and spirits young Hazel away that the reader starts to understand the huge knot of grief Michael has been carrying around with him.

Did I like The Devil’s Footprints?  I think it’s a book that does an admirable job of reaching into the dark heart of one character. The writing is, understandably, poetic. I am glad that I read it.

The Lantern – Deborah Lawrenson

lantern If you’ve ever been to Provence, I suspect you’ll recognize the lush and aromatic landscape Deborah Lawrenson describes in her novel The Lantern. I’ve never been, but after reading this gothic romance, I’d love to go.

…the lavender fields, sugar-dusted biscuits, wild-flowers in meadows, the wind’s plainsong in the trees, the cloisters of silver-flicking olives, the garden still warm at midnight

The Lantern is two stories in one, stories that share Les Genevriers, an abandoned house in southern France. In one story we meet Benedicte, the youngest of three children who grows up in the house back when it was a working farm. In the other we meet Dom and an unnamed narrator, who is affectionately called ‘Eve,’ who have recently purchased Les Genevries with a view to restoring it to its former glory.

Eve is a twenty-something translator who meets Dom, a forty-something composer, in Switzerland, in a maze – which is prescient, as her life suddenly becomes a tangle of wrong turns and dead ends. She is instantly smitten with him and he seems to return the affection. When they return to London, Eve says “I tried to play it cool. So did he. But we both knew.” Their whirlwind romance eventually takes them to France and Les Genevries.

That summer, the house and its surroundings became ours. Or, rather, his house; our life there together, a time reduced in my memory to separate images and impressions: mirabelles – the tart ornage plums like incandescent bulbs strung in forest-green leaves; a zinc-topped table under a vine canopy; the budding grapes; the basket on the table, a large bowl; tomatoes ribbed and plump as harem cushions; thick sheets and lace secondhand from the market, and expensive new bed covers that look as old as the rest; lemon sun in the morning pouring through open windows; our scent in the linen sheets. Stars, the great sweep of the Milky Way making a dome overhead. I have never seen such bright stars, before or since.

Sounds romantic, eh? But it’s also isolated and when Dom starts to behave strangely and Eve starts to smell things and see things that aren’t actually there, The Lantern  crosses over into gothic territory. There’s also, as it turns out, an ex-wife whom Dom doesn’t want to talk about and a real estate agent in the local town who does. The plot thickens.

Then there’s Benedicte. She lives her whole life at Les Genevries. Her story, and that of her blind sister Marthe and malevolent brother, Pierre, weave throughout Eve’s narrative and make up some of the “many stories about the place.” As an old woman living in Les Genevries, Benedicte becomes convinced that she is being haunted. She sees her brother, Pierre, “standing, waiting expectantly in front of the hearth, silent, as if his intention was perfectly clear.” And then he is gone. Benedicte has never believed in ghosts, but it is hard to deny that Les Genevries is full of spirits.

Lawrenson does a fabulous job of weaving together the stories of Eve and Benedicte, their connection to Les Genevries and of making Provence jump off the page. The novel is creepy, clever and compelling and a lot of fun to read.

Highly recommended.

The Twisted Thread – Charlotte Bacon

TwistedThread The Twisted Thread is the story of Madeline Christopher, a twenty-something teaching intern at the prestigious Armitage Academy, a New England boarding school. In the novel’s expository opening we get to hear all about Madeline’s education and lack of job prospects, her prickly relationship with her mother (who apparently suggested Madeline get some Botox), her equally prickly relationship with her older sister, Kate (an Armitage graduate and the reason Madeline has this job at all), and her thoughts about the year she’s spent at Armitage. All this while she is running during the forty-five minutes she has to herself.

Upon her return to campus, Madeline is shocked to discover the place crawling with cops and EMTs. A student in  Madeline’s dorm has died. And not just any girl: Claire Harkness, a girl whose “crystalline beauty and complete disdain for the adults around her” had awed Madeline.

There is a lot going on in this novel and several subplots which add nothing to the book’s central ‘mystery’ – which is what happened to Claire? There are also a million characters, some mentioned in passing and then recalled as essential after the fact. Teachers are called upon for their expertise in French and scrutinized for strange behaviour (of which there is a lot.) Madeline’s sister Kate shows up unannounced, refuses to answer a few questions about this secret Armitage society and then stomps off in a huff – never to be seen again.

Madeline is desperate to figure out what happened to Claire. While comforting a hysterical student in clear view of Claire’s dead and naked body, Madeline realized something was not quite normal with Claire. “It was her breasts. They were full and rigid with veins…” Claire, Madeline figures, has recently given birth. OMG! Where’s the baby!?

The Twisted Thread is an okay book. The back cover calls it a “gripping and suspenseful story in the tradition of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History,” but I respectfully disagree. Although it’s been twenty years since I read The Secret History, that’s a book that has stayed with me. My 15-year-old son just finished reading it and called it “the best book he’s ever read.”  I think The Twisted Thread  desperately wants to be more than the sum of its parts, but at the end of the day it’s only just a pleasant enough beach read. I doubt anyone will be talking about it twenty years from now.

The Fate of Katherine Carr – Thomas H. Cook

katherine carrThe Fate of Katherine Carr is the story of things lost and found. George Gates is a former travel writer who now writes features for the local paper and spends his evenings drinking scotch at his neighbourhood bar. He’s a broken man, but no wonder: his eight year old son, Teddy, had been taken off the street on his way home from school, murdered and the murderer had never been caught. That was seven years ago, but George hasn’t recovered. He was supposed to pick Teddy up at the bus stop and hadn’t because he’d been trying to write the perfect sentence. He’s consumed with guilt.

One night at the bar, George runs into Arlo McBride, a retired police detective. Over drinks, Arlo tells George about the one missing person’s story which has stayed with him because it was never solved.  She vanished, Arlo tells George,  “like she cut a slit in the world and stepped through it into another one.”

George is intrigued. Before he’d retired from travel writing, he’d spent the bulk of his career writing about places where people had disappeared. Creepy places like Saipan, where Japanese parents – fearing American soldiers – had hurled their children and then themselves from the cliffs. He suddenly finds himself investigating what might have happened to Katherine. As it turns out, Katherine was also a writer and she left behind a handful of poems and a story which Arlo provides to George.

During the course of his ‘investigation’ George meets Alice Barrows, a twelve-year-old with progeria, a disease which causes premature aging. At first, Alice is just a potential subject for a story, but their relationship quickly becomes more profound. Alice is alone in the world and so is George. She is interested in mysteries and George is soon sharing  Katherine’s story with Alice.

Thomas H. Cook is one of my favourite writers. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – he writes literary mysteries. They’re page-turners, to be sure, but they are beautifully written, too. The characters are complicated and, more often than not, damaged. George is particularly sympathetic. As a parent, I can only imagine how horrific it must be to lose a child to a monster, but to live daily with the guilt of not being where you said you would. Cook ups the ante every single time.

The Fate of Katherine Carr works on many levels. Narratively, it’s a story within a story within a story. Emotionally, it’s hard not to be moved by George’s never-ending grief or Alice’s own sad fate. Some might argue that nothing much happens, but I respectfully disagree. While Cook might not write blood and guts thrillers, and while his endings might not leave all the loose ends tied in a neat bow – I think he writes fantastic books for careful and thoughtful readers.


Firefly Rain – Richard Dansky

firefly rain Not to be confused with Firefly Lane, Richard Dansky’s debut novel Firefly Rain is about the prodigal son coming back to his childhood home in some back woods town in North Carolina – although he just calls it ‘Carolina.’ His business in Boston has failed, his parents are dead, but the old homestead is just waiting for him.

So, yeah, Jacob Logan goes home to Maryfield. His childhood isn’t quite as he remembered it. For one thing, the fireflies he used to catch on his property now don’t seem to want to come onto Logan land – they stop just at the border of his property and if they cross onto it, they die. For another, his house is creepy – doors open and bang shut; toy soldiers turn up where they shouldn’t be. Carl, the old guy who Jacob has been paying to look after the property after his parents died, is weirdly antagonistic. Then someone steals his car.

Firefly Rain is supposed to be scary. In fact, Publishers Weekly called it “Disturbing…remarkable” and Library Journal called it “Classic horror…a tightly paced tale of mystery and terror.”

I call it hokum.

Nothing was scary about this book. At all. Except perhaps the way the characters spoke.

“I need someone down here whom I can trust,” Jacob says to his friend Jenna. “I’m spooked Jenna, spooked bad, and I need someone who can watch my back until I can get my head screwed on straight.”

Then there’s the scene where Jacob chases his stolen car up and down a dirt road until he finally collapses in the ditch. In his slippers. In the rain.

And then there’s the convoluted denouement – where all the men of Maryfield show up on the property because of some wacky promise they made to Jacob’s mother.  I didn’t really get it…but by then, I didn’t really care.

Life After Life – Kate Atkinson

life-after-life-“What if we had the chance to do it again and again, until we finally did get it right? Wouldn’t that be wonderful,” says Teddy to his big sister, Ursula, the unusual main character of Kate Atkinson’s even more unusual novel Life After Life.

Ursula is born  in February, 1910. She dies and is born again. And again. Attempting to piece these multiple lives into any sort of coherent order is damn near impossible so I suggest you don’t even try. It’s far easier to just be with Ursula as she is born, grows up and then grows up again, each time encountering different possibilities based on life’s many variables. The reader is dropped into Ursula’s life at different points, just as she seems to be. Ursula hits the ground running, and eventually – with a little bit of attention paid –  so does the reader.

Ursula is a fine character with which to spend your time. She was “born with winter already in her bones” and when winter comes around again she “recognized it from the first time around.” It is through her eyes we see her parents: her perfect and beloved father, Hugh and her slightly snippy mother, Sylvie. When she is born she already has two older siblings, Maurice and Pamela, and then her arrival is followed by Teddy and James. The siblings and their parents live at Fox Corner, an English estate. Her lives and deaths flow almost seamlessly together, darkness falls and she is no more until she is again – still with the same family, still Ursula.

I don’t pretend to understand the novel’s finer points (it would take at least another reading), but I can say this: Life After Life clocks in at almost 500 pages and it was a joy to read. Sometimes Ursula makes choices which are ultimately detrimental to her well-being. One bad decision tips the balance and causes her life to spin out of control.  It’s only human to wonder how things might have been different if only… Other times her life is better, but not perfect. People suffer and die. World War I and then II upset the status quo.

There is a part of Ursula’s conscious that recognizes that her life seems to be on repeat. Her mother tells her it’s déjà vu, “a trick of the mind.” Dr. Kellet introduces her to the word “reincarnation” when she is just ten. But explanations are not necessary for Ursula or the reader. And although not every version of her life is a joy to read about, each one is as compelling as the next. Perhaps Ursula knows instinctively that ” If there’s no great glorious end to all this, if nothing we do matters… , then all that matters is what we do. ‘Cause that’s all there is. What we do. Now. Today. ” (Thanks for that quote, Joss Whedon! From the Angel episode “Epiphany.”)

It might be interesting to consider that Atkinson is also playing with the notion of novelist as God. Of course a novelist really does have the opportunity to make anything they want to happen to their characters happen. They don’t however, under normal circumstances, make every scenario happen in the same novel. If this was an experiment for Atkinson, it paid off in spades. The writing is beautiful. Ursula is everything you’d want in a protagonist; the minor characters are compelling and each and every one of Ursula’s lives offers something of value to careful readers.

Highly recommended.