I started reading Kathleen Glasgow’s YA novel How to Make Friends with the Dark at school last week…and then all hell broke loose. On Friday March 13 (how appropriate, eh?) the government of New Brunswick closed all schools in the province for a two week period (minimum) in an effort to slow down the spread of Covid-19. So, that’s me, home for at least two weeks. These are weird times, people.
Luckily, I have enough unread books in my house to last a least five years and so I am going to to look at social-distancing as a gift of time. If nothing else, reading will distract me from this new world. I am a naturally optimistic person and I hope that when we come out on the other side we will be kinder to each other, and gentler to the planet.
How to Make Friends with the Dark is the story of fifteen-year-old Grace “Tiger” Tolliver. She lives with her single mother, June, a kind but ineffective parent.
We’re what my mom likes to call “a well-oiled, good-looking, and good-smelling machine.” But I need the other half of my machine to beep and whir at me, and do all that other stuff moms are supposed to do. If I don’t have her, I don’t have anything.
On the day Tiger and Kai, a boy from school, finally kiss (something Tiger has been dreaming about for a long time), the unthinkable happens: Tiger’s mother dies. (Not a spoiler, the blurb tells you as much.) The aftermath of her mom’s death, and Tiger’s grief is what Glasgow’s very affecting book is about.
You feel skinned. Like whatever held you together has been peeled away. You half expect to look down and see your heart hanging out, a slow-beating, nearly dead thing.
Your legs wobble and your mouth tastes dry and your mother is dead.
Because Tiger has no other family member available to take her, she is placed into the foster system (which is shocking given that her best friend’s parents are willing to look after her, but rules.) Her first foster placement is not great; her second placement is better.
The book traces Tiger’s journey down into the dark sinkhole of grief. There is very little light down there and Glasgow doesn’t shy away from the ugly places grief sometimes takes us. If you think you’re in for an unremittingly grim read, you’re not totally wrong, but there is some light in the darkness. Tiger is a sympathetic character and anyone who has ever lost someone dear to them will recognize her struggles, her small victories and her grief.
For the past several years I’ve completed a little reading survey, a sort of look back at the reading year that was. I normally spend a few hours reflecting on my year, choosing most favourite and least favourite books and talking about other bookish things that happened to me, but I usually do that in advance of January 1st. This year I had to return my daughter to university and then I spent a couple days with my best friend and her family out of the city…so no time to get that post ready in advance. I do like to think about my reading year, though, so here are some random thoughts.
Goodreads provides a handy overview of your reading year at the end of their challenge. This is mine. I think I had a pretty good year. I read nine more books than I did in 2018, and I hope to up that number again this year by spending WAY less time on the Internet. My reading goal for 2020 is 70 books, but I would love to surpass that.
Of the books I read in 2019, a couple really stand out. Gabriel Tallent’s debut novel My Absolute Darling was a difficult book to read, but the protagonist, Turtle, has stayed with me. As I said in my review, this book will not be everyone’s cup of tea; however, if you can stomach the subject matter (sexual abuse, violence), it is so worth the read because of the incredible beauty of Tallent’s writing and the novel’s stunning main character.
They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera – smart, thoughtful, heartbreaking and – not a spoiler – they do both die at the end. LOVED it.
We Were Liars by E. Lockhart – twisty, gothic, beautifully written… a page-turner with a beating heart
I read some mediocre books this year, too…and many of them were really popular books. These are books that were just okay for me – certainly not, imho, worth the hype.
Don’t You Forget About Me by Mhairi McFarlane landed me in a little mini Twitter shitstorm. First time EVER I had an author and her minions come at me, even though I didn’t think (and still don’t think) my review of her book was all that critical. The book just didn’t do it for me.
The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides is a serviceable thriller and I had no trouble reading it, but I just didn’t think it was worthy of all the fuss. For me.
The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer was one of last year’s book club picks and it just didn’t float my boat because I didn’t really care too much for the main female characters, which is a problem in a book about women.
The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani – was it the translation? I dunno. I just found this book about a nanny who kills the children she is charged to care for S-L-O-W
The Broken Girls by Simone St. James – this was my book club pick last year and it just had too much going on
This is How it Always Is by Laurie Frankel – captures the zeitgeist of gender identity and, overall, does it well, but I still had some issues and couldn’t give it a hearty thumbs up
Other bookish things that were exciting this year:
I stumbled upon, purely by chance, Sherree Fitch’s magical bookstore, Mable Murple’sBook Shoppe and Dreamery in River John, Nova Scotia.
Fitch’s children’s books were on permanent rotation in my house when my kids were little, so it was pretty exciting to find the store and then find the author herself chatting to patrons.
I purchased my copy of A Velocity of Being here and I can’t recommend it highly enough. If you love books, this is a MUST read.
I also had the opportunity to meet Lauren B. Davis, author of one of my favourite books, Our Daily Bread, when she read from her newest novel, The Grimoire of Kensington Market. Davis and I have interacted a little bit on social media, and in fact back when my book club read Our Daily Bread, she graciously offered to answer any questions we had in real time via Twitter.
I intend to make going to author readings more of a regular habit in 2020, as I do love to see them in person. I am so sorry I missed my opportunity to hear Craig Davidson read from his book The Saturday Night Ghost Club, which I read in 2019 and really liked a lot.
One other thing I did in 2019 that I have never done before was to make a vlog. I had a crazy busy few weeks and let my read books pile up and knew I would never get around to writing reviews about them, so I thought, what the heck, I’ll talk about them instead. Not that easy, people. If you want to waste 20 minutes, you can watch that here.
Overall, it’s been a great reading year and I look forward to discovering new favourites in 2020. I hope you’ll visit often and stay a while.
Catherine West wants a family – which is sort of funny once you get to know her. The narrator of Swan Huntley’s novel We Could Be Beautiful is vain, spoiled and selfish. It’s hard to imagine she’d ever be selfless enough to have kids. Plus, she’s pushing the biological envelope: Catherine’s 43.
She thinks she has everything it would take to be a mother, but when she categorizes her success, it feels like having a baby would be just one more accessory.
I was rich, I owned a small business, I had a wardrobe I replaced all the time. I was tones enough and pretty enough. I moisturized, I worked out. I looked younger than my age. I had been to all the countries I wanted to see. I collected art and filled my West Village apartment with it. My home was bright and tastefully bare and worthy of a spread in a magazine.
The only problem is that Catherine’s single. She’s had lots of boyfriends (and a girlfriend), and two broken engagements, but now she’s alone. Her most significant relationship is with Dan, the massage therapist who comes to her house to rub her neurosis away.
Then she meets William Stockton, a “stunning, square-jawed man with gentle eyes and elegant gray hair, full and parted to the side.” There’s something familiar about him, and as it turns out William’s parents and Catherine’s parents used to be great friends. Catherine is several years younger than William, so her memories of him are vague.
Almost immediately, Catherine is smitten and too-good-to-be-true William is moving in. On paper, he seems like a great guy (he’s educated, has a good job in banking, he’s charming and attentive), but readers will clue in that there’s something not quite right. Catherine isn’t so swift on the uptake.
We Could Be Beautiful is billed as a thriller, and it certainly reads like one. I mean, you’ll certainly figure out pretty quickly that William is up to something, even if you’re not sure what it is. When Catherine mentions William to her mother, who is suffering from dementia, Mrs. West’s reaction is visceral. Then Catherine finds a box of old ephemera, including a letter from a long-ago nanny which alludes to some event that she hadn’t protected Catherine from.
Probably the more interesting aspect of this book, though, is Catherine’s journey. I found her vapid at the beginning of the book. She doesn’t need to work because her father left her and her sister a pile of money. She owns the West Village house she lives in. She owns a little store called Leaf, which sells – tellingly – beautiful art cards, with nothing printed inside. Her one friend, Susan, is as superficial as she is. She has a strained relationship with her only sibling, Caroline. On the surface it’s a beautiful life, sure, but it’s style over substance. Her relationship with William forces Catherine to do some recalibrating, and that’s interesting to watch.
I enjoyed this book. It’s well-written, the pages turn themselves, and even if it’s less ‘thriller’ and more ‘drama’, it’s still entertaining.
Marion Zetland lives with her older brother, John, in a house that’s seen better days in a coastal town in Northern England. The siblings, now in their 50s, have never been especially close, but now that both their parents have died, they have to rely on each other and their relationship is a sort of co-dependent nightmare. There is something very odd going on in their house, a house filled with the bric-a-brac of a childhood spent in some luxury (the Zetlands owned a textile mill), and now the domain of a couple hoarders.
Catherine Burns’s debut novel The Visitors focuses the story on Marion. She is mostly friendless, surrounds herself with stuffed animals, and spends her days watching sappy television movies, remembering events from her past, and imagining a future which she surely never had access to. She’d learned at a young age that she was plain, and spent most of her life living in John’s considerable shadow. He, after all, had gone off the Oxford, and she had limped through school, barely able to understand the most basic things.
When the novel opens, Marion has just been awakened by a scream, a sound that “flapped its wings against the inside of her skull.” She knows where the scream is coming from, and she even knows, although perhaps only subconsciously, why someone might be screaming inside her house, but she tamps down the feeling by calling forth her mother’s voice, which she knows would tell her that “John is doing the very best for them; you have to trust him – he is your brother and a very clever person.”
Slipping easily between the past and the present, we learn about the extremely dysfunctional Zetland family, about how Marion was bullied by her peers, and John’s own perverse personality, which is alluded to many times. The only time we aren’t closely watching Marion, we are reading emails to someone called Adrian. The first time they appeared, I thought there’d been some sort of printing error, but it’ll all make sense in the end.
I really enjoyed TheVisitors. I found Marion to be quite a sympathetic character, someone who clearly had been dealt a crappy hand in the family department, but was also dealing with some mental illness, too. Turns out, though, the lens through which the story is told is just a tad unreliable. Although this story is not told in the first person, we are really only privy to Marion’s thoughts, and there’s no question – she’s an odd duck.
Although I wasn’t 100% sold on the ending, I still recommend giving this one a go. It’s well written and you’ll totally keep turning the pages.
I was invited to talk about books at this year’s Harbour Lights show held in the Saint John City Market. Five minutes goes super fast, so I thought that I would put links to the full reviews for all the books I spoke about here. Please consider making a donation to the cause. You can do that here
Now that it’s all said and done – I have to say that was a nerve-wracking experience. When you’re in the studio, it’s quiet and there’s just you. Not so much at the City Market. Still, I love talking about books, so it was fun!
What books will you be giving to your loved ones this year?
Instead of telling you that – because what if they’re listening – I think everyone should follow Iceland’s terrific tradition of giving books on Christmas Eve. This is known as the “Christmas Book Flood” or Jolabokaflod (yo-la-bok-a-flot), and Iceland, if you don’t know, has more writers, more books published and more books read than anywhere else in the world. I think they’re on to something.
Penny Lee can’t wait to get away from her mom, Celeste. Not because she’s overbearing, but because Penny has always felt like she’s the parent and her mom’s the kid. Sometimes Penny wanted to “shake Celeste until her fillings came loose.” Now it’s time for Penny to go off to college – University of Texas in Austin, only an hour or so away, but away nonetheless.
Her dorm mate Jude, and Jude’s bestie, Mallory, seem like every mean girl Penny has ever encountered, but like everyone else in Mary H.K. Choi’s debut novel Emergency Contact appearances can be deceiving. Penny isn’t anything like them, she’s like the “tiny Asian girl from the Japanese horror movie The Grudge.” (Penny is, in fact, Korean.) Although her friendship with Jude and Mallory isn’t immediate, it turns out, once she lets them in, they’re tremendous allies.
Then there’s Sam. Sam is related (sort of) to Jude through some complicated family tree consisting of defunct marriages. At twenty-one, he works at a local coffee shop where he cooks scrumptious pastries, and lives in a room overhead. He’s skinny, floppy-haired and tattooed, and Penny is almost immediately smitten when she joins Jude and Mallory for iced coffees. Sam is “different. Sleek. Brooding and angular.”
A chance encounter one afternoon, causes Sam and Penny to become each other’s emergency contacts, and thus begins a series of light-hearted, and then increasingly more personal texts. Such is romance in the 21st century, I guess. The thing is, Penny has a boyfriend back home and Sam is still in love with his ex, the obnoxiously self-centered Lorraine. But since Penny and Sam never meet in person and only rarely speak on the phone, they manage to keep their relationship superficial, even if neither of them actually feels that way about each other.
I read my fair share of YA romance, and I have to say that Emergency Contact is definitely one of the better ones I’ve read. Both Sam and Penny are delightfully drawn. Penny is closed off, but clearly as smart as a whip. Sam, too, has had his problems, and things get more complicated for him as he tries to navigate his feelings for Lorraine and his growing feelings for Penny. The thing about these two people is that they are genuinely nice and Choi doesn’t resort to any ridiculous tactics to keep them apart…or push them together, either. There’s certainly lots of potential for misunderstandings and crossed wires, but the little snags in their journey seem realistic rather than ridiculous.
And even though you know where all this is headed and you’ll want these guys to get together, too, it’s the journey, not the destination.
I think some authors could write about paint drying and it would be worth reading. Ann Patchett is one of those authors. The Dutch House is the third book I’ve read by Patchett (Bel Canto, Commonwealth), and it did not disappoint.
Danny and Maeve grow up in the Dutch House, a gorgeous jewel-box of a house in Elkins Park, a suburb of Philadelphia. The house seems to “float several inches above the hill it sat on.” Danny and Maeve’s father, Cyril, had bought the house as a surprise for their mother, Elna, but she didn’t like the house – or so the story goes – and left the family for parts unknown. When the novel opens, Danny and Maeve are 8 and 15 respectively, and being introduced to their father’s ‘friend’, Andrea and her two young daughters Norma and Bright. The arrival of Andrea into their lives changes everything for the siblings.
The Dutch House is not a linear story. It bounces back and forth through time, covering roughly fifty years. Not every writer could manage this sort of narrative as easily as Patchett does. Although the perspective is Danny’s, readers will come to know and love (or hate) many other characters, most notably Maeve, who is the centre of Danny’s world.
She taught me the proper way to hold a fork. She attended my basketball games and knew all my friends and oversaw my homework and kissed me every morning before we went our separate ways to school and again at night before I went to bed regardless of whether or not I wanted to be kissed. She told me repeatedly, relentlessly, that I was kind and smart and fast, that I could be as great a man as I made up my mind to be. She was so good at all that, despite the fact that no one had done it for her.
When Andrea turfs them from their house, their lives are thrown into chaos. They find themselves parking in front of the Dutch House over the years, reminiscing about and redacting their past, never quite able to let go. In some ways, their lives are halted by this connection to a place.
Not much happens in the novel, but at the same time everything happens. Danny and Maeve’s lives and relationship are the story, which makes sense, really. As we’re waiting for our own plots to unfold, life is actually happening all around us. The bitter feelings Maeve clings to derail her life, but we don’t really understand that until her mother turns up out of the blue. Or we see what ends up happening to Andrea.
Patchett has written characters you will absolutely come to care about and given them lives which should remind us to care more deeply about our own, and the people we share them with.
A Lite Too Bright is a crazy good debut YA novel by Samuel Miller. I bought the book because I loved the cover and it had lots of praise from media outlets, not other YA writers (I never trust those, really). I wish that I had read the novel in one or two sittings because it deserves that kind of attention, but I enjoyed the book anyway.
Arthur Louis Pullman III is the grandson of legendary author Arthur Louis Pullman I, whose novel A World Away, is a literary classic and required reading in most high schools, even though Arthur III never got around to finishing it.
Arthur has recently suffered some sort of crisis which requires him to come stay with his Uncle Tim and Aunt Karen in Truckee, “one of those places you go when you’ve thrown in the towel on doing anything extraordinary in your life.” Arthur’s life has fallen apart, the details of which are only alluded too in visions of him crashing his Camaro into a body of water and feeling himself “floating, untethered by gravity.” Whatever has happened, he’s been removed from the scene of the crime in Palo Alto, perhaps in the hope that he can get himself sorted out.
There’s clearly some family dysfunction. Aunt Karen wants to send him off to some Christian wilderness camp. His father and brother are trying to figure out out to handle what is left of their father’s estate – which has sustained the brothers but is now beginning to run out.
Arthur Louis Pullman III was something of a literary legend, a sort of Harper Lee-like character who only ever wrote one book, albeit a famous one. At the end of his life, he suffered from Alzheimer’s and he died a week after he disappeared from his home. A Lite Too Bright follows Arthur I as he attempts to recreate his grandfather’s final week after he discovers what he believes is a clue left specifically for him.
Miller’s novel is an ode to writing, to family, and to living a full and complete life. It’s also a road trip novel, with a complex mystery at its core. Young Arthur is an engaging narrator, desperate to find his grandfather, not in the literal sense, of course, but to understand him, and as he embarks on this journey he discovers that other people are intent on getting close to Pullman Sr., too. As Arthur retraces his grandfather’s last steps, he also comes to terms with his own trauma.
I was so excited to get my hands on Tim Johnston’s novel The Current. I gazed longingly at the hardcover every time I went to the book store, but I rarely spring for a hardcover unless they’re on sale. Then one day: paperback. I dropped everything that I was reading to deep dive into it.
I read Johnston’s novel Descent three years ago and I loved it. I often recommend it to others because it is the perfect combination of page-turning-thriller and thoughtful family drama. The Current examines some of the same themes but is, in some ways, even more ambitious.
College students Caroline and Audrey are on their way to Audrey’s hometown in Minnesota. Audrey’s father, former sheriff, is dying of cancer and Audrey wants to spend some time with him. They are almost there when they have an ‘accident’ and their vehicle is plunged into the icy river. Only Audrey survives. That seems spoiler-y. I know, but that much information is provided for the reader on the back of the book.
As Audrey recovers, her father, Tom, sets out to discover just what happened to the girls because, well, this wasn’t quite an accident. And this wasn’t the only time the river had claimed a life. Ten years ago, Holly Burke, 19, had turned up dead in the river. Her father, Gordon, shows up at the hospital to remind Audrey’s father about the fact that his daughter’s murder was never solved.
…I just kept asking myself: What would Sheriff Sutter do differently now, if it was his girl instead of that other one who didn’t make it? What would he do for himself that he didn’t do for me?
Holly’s murder has haunted Tom Sutter and as Audrey recovers, it begins to haunt her as well, although she was only a child when Holly was killed. Their stories, though, begin to twine around each other, and many other people are swept along in that current.
Unlike Descent, which is very tightly focused on the Courtland family, The Current, drifts in and out of the lives of other characters, specifically Rachel Young and her sons Mark and Danny. Danny was a prime suspect in Holly’s murder, but there’d never been enough evidence to convict him. Gordon and Rachel had been close, but of course that friendship had ended.
Danny and Mark are characters that will really stay with me. Danny’s whole life is changed by the accusations made against him and even when he returns to visit his mother, the past is always nipping at his heels. Mark is somewhere on the spectrum and is tasked with filling in for his brother when he leaves. I worried about these guys. A lot. That’s saying something since in some ways they are peripheral to Audrey’s story. Still, I loved them.
Johnston is gifted when it comes to characterization. These people seem wholly human: frail and foolish, damaged and determined. The whole town seems stuck, somehow; no one has recovered from Holly’s murder. The novel is filled with moments of heartbreaking kindness, bravery and selflessness. And the town they live in: secrets galore.
And yes, you’ll want to know whodunit, but that’s actually the least interesting part of this masterful book.
If Tim Johnston is not yet on your reading radar, he should be. Highly recommended.
Fans of Simple Minds (or the John Hughes film The Breakfast Club) will likely recognize the title of Mhairi McFarlane’s latest novel Don’t You Forget About Me at a glance. The comparison pretty much stops there, though.
Georgina Horspool meets Lucas McCarthy in school. He’s a transplant from Ireland and the two bond over an English project about Wuthering Heights. Soon the pair are inseparable and Georgina admits that “I didn’t know what falling in love felt like, I’d never done it before. I discovered you recognize it easily when it arrives.”
But then something happens at the pair’s ‘leaving party’ (the book takes place in the U.K., so let’s say prom party) and whatever was between them is suddenly over.
The book fast forwards 12 years at this point and we catch up with Georgina just as her life is falling apart. She’s fired from her job at a crappy Italian restaurant and then she walks in on her boyfriend Robin, a minor-celebrity comic, in a compromising position with his assistant. Her relationship with her older sister, Esther, and her mother is prickly. She has good friends, sure, but most everything else in her life is shite. A last minute bar tending job brings her back into Lucas McCarthy’s orbit. The thing is, he doesn’t seem to remember her. Like, at all.
McFarlane’s book depends on the assumption that readers’ patience will last through 400 plus pages. Truthfully, I almost abandoned the book around page 50 because it felt like it was trying so hard to be a British rom com in the vein of Richard Curtis (and, trust me, no one loves Love Actually more than me!) It just felt disingenuous. But a friend whose reading proclivities are similar to my own said she liked it, so I picked it back up and settled into the book. I’m not going to say that it 100% won me over, but I didn’t find the book as irksome as I did when I first started it.
Georgina, as it turns out, has a lot of baggage. Her life is stuck. Her beloved father died when she was in her first year of university. Her mother’s new husband is a loathsome bully. And then there’s the thing that happened at the prom that ended Georgina’s relationship with Lucas. When Lucas’s brother, Devlin, offers Georgina a job at the brothers’ new pub, it puts the pair in close proximity. Lucas is “at turns standoffish, slyly funny, dour, mischievous, helpful, haughty. It’s behaviour borne of beauty privilege….”
For me, some of the novel’s moving parts seemed slightly contrived and some of the resulting patch-ups are sort of deflated by that. I also felt like Lucas was, although certainly attractive, not a fully realized character. Georgina is transformed by a beautiful adult coat. Familial relationships are repaired almost by magic.
I don’t read a lot of romance novels. I think Don’t You Forget About Me is trying for something slightly more complicated than straight-up romance and I liked that about it. It takes a LONG time for these two to find their way back to each other, but most readers will likely find the journey worthwhile.