A Lite Too Bright – Samuel Miller

A Lite Too Bright  is a crazy good debut YA novel by Samuel Miller.  I bought the book alitetoobrightbecause 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.

Arthur’s  journey is well worth taking.

The Current – Tim Johnston

the currentI 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.

 

Don’t You Forget About Me – Mhairi McFarlane

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 forgetabout methe 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.

 

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn – Betty Smith

I have been wanting to re-read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn for a long time. It’s one of treebrooklynthose books from my childhood that has stayed with me and that I often recommend to students in my class, based solely on my hazy memories of having loved it. So, now, 45 years after reading it for the first time, I have finally finished spending some more time with one of literature’s most beloved characters, Frances (Francie) Nolan.

Betty Smith’s most famous novel tells the story of young Francie, who comes of age in Brooklyn during the early part of the 20th century. She is the daughter of Katie and Johnny, and older sister to Neeley. Francie’s entire adolescence is captured in Smith’s un-embellished prose (not to say that the writing isn’t beautiful, because it is). The Nolans are poor and they live in a time where every penny counts. Katie is a hard-working janitress and Johnny a singing waiter, when he can get some work (and he often cannot). He’s a beautiful, dreamy man, who mostly drinks. It’s impossible not to love Johnny who believes “how wonderful [it would be if] everything you talked about could come true!” Francie idolizes her father and, in some way, resents her mother.

When the novel opens, Francie is just eleven. Francie and her brother are already industrious children. She and Neeley

collected rags, paper, metal, rubber, and other junk and hoarded it in locked cellar bins or in boxes hidden under the bed. All week Francie walked home from school slowly with her eyes in the gutter looking for tin foil from cigarette packages or chewing gum wrappers. This was melted in the lid of a jar.

I remember, as a kid, being fascinated with how the Nolans stretched every single penny. How the pennies Francie earned by bringing her junk to the junkman gave her the privilege of going into a store and “What a wonderful feeling to pick something up, hold it for a moment, feel its contour, run her hand over its surface [because] her nickel gave her this privilege.” I probably read this book for the first time in the early 1970s and I remember feeling awed by the fact that Francie had nothing. Although my parents weren’t rich, we were always warm and fed and Francie’s poverty was remarkable to me.

But I think what makes Francie such a remarkable and beloved character is her resilience. And her capacity for hope. Although her circumstances were often dire, she is a girl who believes in limitless possibilities and isn’t afraid to work hard to achieve them. I admire that about her. As a kid, I loved that Francie was a reader and a writer because I loved both of those things, too. When Francie read she was “at peace with the world and happy as only a little girl could be with a fine book and a little bowl of candy and all alone in the house.”

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is one of those books that captures a simpler time. It’s anecdotal in that sometimes we have little glimpses into the lives of other characters, and there are pivotal moments in Francie’s life that are beautifully rendered. It’s also a modern book, given when it was published (1943). In one instance, after Francie meets and falls in love with a young soldier, but declines to spend some private time with him, she asks her mother if she should have gone with the young man.

As a mother, I say it would have been a terrible thing for a girl to sleep with a stranger – a man she had known for less than forty-eight hours. Horrible things might have happened to you. Your whole life might have been ruined…. But as a woman…I will tell you the truth as a woman. It would have been a very beautiful thing. Because there is only once that you love that way.

Yes, the book is dated. Yes, there are moments of racism and sexism. But it is also a time capsule. It is a full-hearted look at a time and place that no longer exists and captures the life of a girl who, like a tree growing up through the cracks in cement, reaches for the light.

 

 

BtVS: High School Is Hell, v1 – J. Bellaire, D. Mora & R. Angulo

BtVS HighschoolIn the days after Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel finished their television run (2003 and 2004 respectively), I was an avid reader of the post-series comics, which was a slightly weird thing for me because I was never really a comic book reader. I wasn’t ready to let go of the characters that I loved, though, so I had a standing order at my local comic book store and I faithfully bought them.  Then it all got sort of overwhelming and I stopped buying them. Until High School is Hell  was released, that is.

If you’ve been living under a rock – or are perhaps to young to know the cultural touchstone that is Buffy Summers, here’s a quick primer.

Buffy is a sixteen-year-old girl who moves to Sunnydale from Los Angeles. She’s the Slayer, the ‘Chosen One”. Chosen for what? you might well ask. To fight the vampires (and other demons) that roam the earth. Sunnydale, as it happens, is built on the Hellmouth, so there are a lot of demons. She is aided by Rupert Giles, her Watcher, and her friends Willow and Xander. She falls in love with a beautiful, tortured vampire Angel, and crosses paths with other vampires, including Drusilla and Spike. Over the course of seven seasons Buffy fights the good fight, often at great personal cost. The show is spectacular: witty, funny, heartbreaking. It’s must watch television, as is its spin-off, Angel.

I picked up volume one of High School Is Hell (comprised of the first four issues) recently, and quite enjoyed it. In this iteration of Buffy’s story, our beloved vampire slayer is back in high school. It’s a slightly AU (alternate universe) look at Buffy’s beginnings. For example, Buffy’s mother, Joyce, has a live-in boyfriend, Eric. Drusilla, Spike and Anya are already in Sunnydale. Robin Wood (high school principal in season 7) is now a hot teenager. No sign of Angel yet. Cordelia is actually nice. Willow and Xander are still besties and still the first to befriend L.A. transplant, Buffy.

It’s a slightly off-kilter, yet somehow comforting world to slip back into. Sort of like well-written fanfiction…with pictures.

 

 

Mortal Memory – Thomas H. Cook

cook-e1564403930383.jpgIf you are regular reader of this blog, then you know that I am a huge fan of American mystery/crime writer Thomas H. Cook. I found his book Breakheart Hill by chance well over a decade ago and I look for his books whenever I am in a book store. The problem is, he’s very rarely to be found on the shelves even though he is an Edgar Award winner (The Chatham School Affair) and a much-lauded writer. The Los Angeles Times Book Review  said that “Cook is an important talent, not simply a plotter but a prose stylist with a sensitivity to character and relationships…A storytelling writer of poetic narrative power. His crime fiction extends the boundaries of the form.” (This is why I hoard the books I find and don’t read them all at once; I have to pace myself so I don’t run out.) Besides the two books I’ve already named, I also really loved Master of the Delta and Instruments of the Night which might be my favourite of Cook’s books.  But really, you can’t go wrong reading anything this guy writes.

This much I remembered from the beginning: the floral curtains in their second- floor bedroom pulled tightly together; Jamie’s new basketball at the edge of the yard, glistening in the rain; Laura’s plain white bra lying haphazardly in the grass behind the house, the rest of our clothes, drenched and motionless as they hung from the line above it.

Thus begins Mortal Memory, a story that begins when narrator Stevie Farris discovers, mortalat age 9, that his father has shot and killed his mother, Marie, older brother, Jamie and sister, Laura. The knowledge of this horrific act tortures Stevie, mostly because he doesn’t understand why his father committed such a horrible crime. Wasn’t his family happy?

Flash forward 30 plus years and Steve is married with a son of his own. That’s when he meets Rebecca Soltero. She’s a writer who’s “writing a book about men who have killed their families.” Rebecca’s arrival and her penetrating questions bring all sorts of memories back for Steven. The story seamlessly weaves between past and present as Steve recalls the cracks in the family veneer, which ultimately causes him to examine the fault lines in his own family.

That’s one of the things I most admire about Cook. His books always operate on more than one level. Yes, there’s a mystery – that’s what will keep you feverishly turning the pages, but there is always some sort of family drama, often between fathers and sons, which is carefully and thoughtfully crafted. Another thing Cook does extremely well, is to turn your expectations upside down. Trying to figure out what’s happened is half of the fun of reading Cook, but I’ve never been right once. And I wasn’t this time, either.

So where does Mortal Memory fit in the Cook continuum? Probably somewhere in the middle. Not my favourite – mostly because I didn’t love the resolution – but any time spent with this author is time well spent.

 

The Silent Patient – Alex Michaelides

silentI guess I can see why The Silent Patient, Alex Michaelides’ debut novel, seemed to be on everyone’s radar over the past few months. It’s definitely one of those page-turners, the kind you stuff in your beach bag or read on the deck (which is where I read mine). But does it actually have a “twist that will make even the most seasoned suspense reader break out in a cold sweat” (Booklist)? Not so much.

Theo Faber became a psychotherapist because he was “fucked up.”

I was on a quest to help myself. I believe the same is true for most people who go into mental health. We are drawn to this profession because we are damaged – we study psychology to heal ourselves. Whether we are prepared to admit this or not is another question.

What is Theo’s childhood trauma, you might well ask? His father was/is an abusive dick; his mother a mostly mute witness to her husband’s shenanigans. So, from early on, readers know that Theo is damaged goods. Why he thought the psychiatry business was a good fit we’ll never know, but his choice of profession should give readers pause. Holy unreliable narrator, Batman!

Theo has taken a new job as a forensic psychotherapist at the Grove because Alicia Berenson is there. Alicia, an up and coming painter, killed her husband, Gabriel, a well-known photographer six years ago. She hasn’t spoken a word since. Theo is convinced that he can help her.

The Silent Patient follows Theo’s determined quest to free Alicia from her self-imposed silent prison. That would probably get pretty boring, though, so we’re also privy to Alicia’s journal entries. (How else would we get to know anything about what really happened?)

The problem with all of this, though, is there is nothing much to see in either case. Theo chases around London talking to the people from Alicia’s life: her cousin, Paul; her art dealer, Jean-Felix; her brother-in-law, Max. These conversations don’t really yield anything interesting; readers will have to rely on Alicia’s journal to fill in the blanks. (Her journal often quotes entire conversations verbatim, which is just odd. It’s a diary, not a court transcript.)

So, while The Silent Patient was certainly easy (easy really is the operative word here; the prose is straight-forward and unembellished) to read, did it add anything new to the thriller genre? Not really. The characters, virtually all of them,  are one-dimensional. I didn’t particularly like or care for any of them, meaning I didn’t really have any skin in the game. They seemed more like chess pieces Michaelides moved around the board to suit the plot. This is a story that is trying to be more than the sum of its parts, but its parts are just not that interesting.