Another Brooklyn – Jacqueline Woodson

When August returns to Brooklyn after the death of her father, she is catapulted back in time to her childhood and it is these memories which fuel Jacqueline Woodson’s novel Another Brooklyn.

Twenty years have passed since my childhood. This morning, we buried my father. My brother and I stood shoulder to shoulder at the grave-site, willows weeping down around us, nearly bare-branched against the snow.

Riding the subway, she spots an old friend, Sylvia, and it reminds her of when they (along with Gigi and Angela) “were four girls together, amazingly beautiful and terrifyingly alone.”

Woodson’s novel is an elliptical, poetic examination of what it is to be a young, black woman growing up in the 70s. I also came of age in the 70s, and I suppose in that regard I have something in common with August. Not only does August find herself in an unfamiliar world, one that she watches from a window for the first few months she lives there, but she is also grappling with a missing mother, the shifting landscape of friendships, poverty, and her own growing awareness of the power of her body.

But as she says “This is memory.”

Another Brooklyn isn’t really a novel with a plot. That doesn’t mean that nothing happens. It’s just that the story unfurls like a long, dreamy reminiscence. August remembers her childhood in Tennessee; she remembers the trio of girls she befriends before they were hers.

They called to each other across the yard. They linked arms and laughed. They curled into each other to whisper when the teacher’s back was turned. Before I knew their names, I knew the tiny bones at the back of their necks, the tender curve of their hairlines.

She remembers the “kind of poverty we lived in.” She remembers the music they listened to, the summer the lights went out in New York and Jerome, the boy who, when she was nine “Looked up at my window and winked at me from where he and his friends were playing in the streets.”

This is a beautiful coming-of-age novel, that is very specific but feels universal.

Rules of Attraction – Simone Elkeles

I read the first  novel in Simone Elkeles Perfect Chemistry trilogy, Perfect Chemistry sevenrules years ago. (Yikes!!!) Since then, I have recommended the book countless times to students looking for a romantic, fast-paced story. I have never had a single student tell me they didn’t like it. It’s a great book and even boys enjoy the story of Alex and Brittany. And if they like that book, well, Alex has two brothers and they each get their own novel. I hadn’t read either of the follow -ups, so I grabbed Rules of Attraction to bring home to read during this strange time of quarantine.

At the end of Perfect Chemistry, Alex and Brittany had left Chicago and gone off to college in Colorado. Carlos, 18, has now been sent to live in Colorado to get him away from the gangs in Mexico, where his mother and younger brother Luis still live. Carlos is the proverbial “angry young man”. The decision to go to America was not his

Mi’ama didn’t ask if I wanted to leave Mexico and move to Colorado to live with my brother Alex for my senior year of high school. She made the decision to send me back to America “for my own good” – her words, not mine.

So, he’s pissed off at the world: At his brother who left gang life when he fell in love with Brittany, at the system which seems against him, at the world, and at Kiara, the daughter of the professor with whom he lives as a condition of getting caught with drugs soon after he starts school.

Kiara, also a senior, is a good girl. (Of course, that’s the way these stories go. :-)) She’s recently been text-dumped and she’s feeling a little raw. She knows Alex because he works as a mechanic (to help pay for college) and he’s been helping her refurbish her car. When he asks her to show Carlos around school, she happily agrees. Carlos, however, isn’t interested in being shown anything.

I don’t need a damn peer guide because (1) it’s obvious from the way Alex greeted Kiara a few minutes ago that he knows her, and (2) the girl is not hot; she has her hair up in a ponytail, is wearing leather hiking boots and three-quarter stretch pants with an Under Armour logo peeking out the bottom, and is covered from neck to knee by an oversized T-shirt with the word MOUNTAINEER written on it, and (3) I don’t need a babysitter, especially one my brother arranged.

Of course, readers know that Kiara and Carlos will end up together, that she will bring out the hidden softness in him, that he will fall in love with her inherent goodness, that they’ll overcome the obstacles chucked in their path.

Teen readers will eat it up.

The House at Midnight – Lucie Whitehouse

housemidnightLucie Whitehouse’s debut novel The House at Midnight tells the story of Joanna and her close-knit circle of friends who spend weekends at Stoneborough Manor in Oxfordshire. Her dearest friend, Lucas, has recently inherited Stoneborough from his uncle Patrick, a well-known art dealer. On their first visit there, Joanna observes that the house is “Three storeys high, [and] it reared up out of the night as if it were facing the darkness down.” The house gives Joanna a “pang of anxiety.” She wonders “How could it not change things between us.”

Whitehouse’s story works on a variety of different levels. First of all, the house is, at least to Joanna, menacing. To her, it feels like a malevolent entity, intent on causing harm. Despite the fact that she and her friends Martha (an American ex-pat and Jo’s roommate), Rachel and her new boyfriend Greg, Michael, Danny and, of course, Lucas, gather here to drink and dance and try,  in some ways, to recapture the headiness of their college days, there is something about the house that unsettles her.

I had the sudden sense that there were eyes on me…My skin prickled. The sound of my voice played in my ear. I took a breath and forced myself to stand still for a moment and look into the unlit corners away from the lamps and up above my head to the landings. I half expected to see someone there, leaning over the banisters watching me. There was nothing. And yet there was.  It seemed to me that there was something lurking, something that was not benevolent.

Then there’s Lucas. Joanna meets him during her first week at college and the two form a strong bond. For a minute it seemed like their friendship might morph into something more romantic, but the moment passed. Now, ten years later, Jo is wondering whether she and Lucas might have a chance.

The House at Midnight captures that fraught period post college when you might be wondering what you’re going to do with the rest of your life. Lucas is a lawyer; Danny is in advertising. Jo works as a junior writer for a small weekly newspaper. None of them is particularly satisfied with their lives.

Then comes the romantic entanglements, which in a small, close-knit group often seem almost incestuous. As the novel moves along, it draws and redraws lines in the romantic sand, and some of the shifts cause irreparable damage to the group.

There were moments in the novel whether I wondered if Jo was a reliable narrator. Could I trust what she was telling me? Were her feelings about the house the result of an over-active imagination or something else? I liked that I didn’t quite trust her.

This book is SO good. The house itself is a character, full of shadowy corners and dark secrets.  There’s something claustrophobic about it and about these friends as they try to sort themselves out. Ultimately, the most sinister thing about the book is the length people will go to get what they want and the damage they are willing to cause in the name of love.

This is my second novel by Whitehouse. I read and loved Before We Met at the beginning of the year.

I can highly recommend both of these books.

The Lost Daughter – Lucy Ferriss

The whole time I was reading Lucy Ferriss’s novel The Lost Daughter  I was trying tolostdaughter figure out whether I liked it – not the book, exactly, the whole family drama thing. Am I really interested in life’s ups and downs? Do I care about people’s children and marriages? Well, if every book was as good as this one, the answer would be yes.

When the novel opens high school seniors Brooke and Alex have taken refuge in a hotel where Brooke is about to give birth. It’s a harrowing beginning to their stories. Brooke was bound for Tufts in the fall, and Alex was going off to college on a soccer scholarship.

Fast forward fifteen years and Brooke is married to Sean. They have a six-year-old daughter called Meghan. Their marriage is solid, but Sean is pressing for another baby; in his big Irish Catholic clan, a single child is blasphemy. Brooke is reluctant; she has her reasons although it’s difficult for her to articulate them. Sean doesn’t understand Brook’s reticence and her

excuses bewildered him. His love for her harbored no doubts, and he had seen the joy she took in Meghan. Every time they talked about another pregnancy it went this way, but he loved her too much to stop.

Then Alex blows through town. He’d been living in Japan with his wife and young son, but his life has fallen apart. “I’d like to see you from time to time…If that’s okay. I’m not going to, you know,  invade your life or anything,” Alex tells her. Their reunion causes a ripple effect and sets them both on a path from which there is no turning back.

There are no bad guys in The Lost Daughter. This is a novel that asks you to examine the choices people make, the consequences of those choices and how sometimes life throws you an unexpected curve ball. Ferriss’s characters seem like real people. Sean’s bewilderment over Brooke’s behaviour and his own disappointments make him a dynamic character, rather than just a foil against which Alex and Brooke’s story plays out. Brooke and Alex are equally authentic. It didn’t really matter whose part of the journey I was following, it was all compelling. That’s a credit to Ferriss’s writing. I’ve never read anything by her before this, but I would definitely like to read more of her work.

While The Lost Daughter is ultimately hopeful, it does recognize that “…life itself, in the end, [is] a tragic journey…”. This journey, however, is well worth taking.

Highly recommended.

 

Shopping My Shelves

We’ve been sheltering in place since March 16, which means I have not been to a book store since…March 16. Typically, my son Connor and I hit Indigo about once a week. Occasionally, we simply browse – neither of us need to add anything to our TBR shelves, to be honest. More often than not, though, we simply can’t resist buying something. Since Covid 19 has made it impossible to hit the book store, I have been shopping my own shelves.

My TBR shelf is ridiculous. Some people buy shoes; I buy books. Marie Kondo would not approve.  I love them. They are objects of beauty, which is why eReaders do not appeal to me.  They are, as Stephen King says, “uniquely portable magic.” I love knowing that when I finish a book, I have dozens (okay, hundreds) more to choose from.

Recently, Connor volunteered to colour block my TBR shelf. Although my read shelves are alphabetized so I can find books easily, and another shelf is organized by genre, colour blocking my TBR shelf kept both of us busy for a handful of hours. Browsing my TBR shelf isn’t anymore difficult this way, because I don’t really know what’s on it anyway. (That’s the problem of having a book-buying addiction, although it’s a good problem to have.)

bookshelves

I enjoy shopping my shelves. It’s kinda cool, when I stumble upon a book I’d forgotten that I owned, or something that’s been on my shelf forever. Or, when I come across a book that I don’t remember buying, read it and it turns out to be spectacularly good, which is the case with a book I recently read called The Roanoke Girls.

Today, I thought I would take you on a tour of some of the books on my TBR shelf.

First of all – let’s take a look at some of the books with buzz. I don’t automatically buy every single book that wins a prize or garners lots of praise or makes the NY Times best seller list. But I do buy some. These books are on my TBR shelf.

Of the books pictured, Olive Kitteridge has been on my shelf the longest. I don’t know why I haven’t read it because I have heard nothing about good things about it.

My TBR shelf also consists of books that I’ve started and, for some reason, stopped reading. I don’t want to call them DNFs just yet, so I stick them back on the shelf in the hopes that I will pick them up and enjoy them in the future. At one point in my reading life, I finished every book I started. That served me well in university, when I was often called upon to read something I didn’t necessarily want to read. Nowadays, I am easier on myself; if a book doesn’t float my boat, I give it 50-75 pages and then move on. These books, for whatever reason, I just can’t break up with.

So, a little about some of the books pictured above:

The JJ Abrams book  (middle right) was a birthday gift from Connor a few years ago. It’s a book that requires real focus because it’s a book filled with documents (see picture top right) and footnotes etc. I want to read it, but I know I need to read it straight through without distractions.

Hollywood Savage (top left) is by the author of one of my all-time, most-read novels Velocity I read another of her novels, Some Girls, and while I enjoyed it, I  don’t think anything McCloy ever writes will usurp Velocity‘s place in my heart. I gave Hollywood Savage a go a while back, and I don’t think it’s going to be my cup of tea…but since I love McCloy, I am not going to give up on this one.

Shelter (bottom right) has the distinction of being on my TBR shelf since 1994. I have tried to read this book on more than one occasion. I am not sure why I keep trying other than I seem to recall there was some controversy surrounding the book, and I can’t resist a good book scandal. I can’t seem to give up on it.

The other books will remain on my TBR shelf because they are by local authors (Finding Woods), are by authors I have enjoyed before (The Secret Keeper), or have been approved by readers I respect (Foxlowe, Cruel Beautiful World).

shoppingrereadOccasionally, a book that I have read before ends up on my TBR shelf. Usually, it’s a book  that I read a long time ago, and that I remember really fondly and want to revisit. That happened with A Tree Grows in Brooklyn which I reread last summer. Carolyn Slaughter’s novel Magdalene is another one of those novels I hope to reread one day. Actually, I wouldn’t mind re-reading several of Slaughter’s books as I LOVE her.  This is my second copy of this book; I lent my original and never got it back. 😦 It’s very difficult to get any of Slaughter’s novels, but I have had pretty good luck with Abe Books or The Book Depository. I highly recommend The Banquet and The Story of the Weasel (also known as Relations).

Another book I would love to re-read is Peter Straub’s novel Shadowlands. I have been ashoppingreread1 long-time fan of Straub, although I don’t read him much anymore (even though I have several books on this shelf: see below.) I think the last book I read by him was Lost Boy, Lost Girl, which I recall not liking very much. His earlier stuff, though, is fantastic. Check out Ghost Story or If You Could See Me Now, both of which probably deserve a re-read.

I also tend to hoard books by authors I like, y’know, so I always have something dependable to grab. Some of those authors include Helen Dunmore (who sadly died in 2017), Andrew Pyper, Lisa Jewell, Thomas H. Cook, Stephen King to name but a few.

Finally, there are some books on my TBR shelf that are kind of embarrassing. These are books that I probably should have read way before now, for a variety of reasons: everyone and their dog has already read (and loved it), it’s been on my shelf a stupidly long time and I have no excuse or I was really excited to read it, but then didn’t and now it languishes with all the others. Le sigh. Here are but a handful in this category.

And just in case you think the books on my colour blocked TBR shelf are the only TBR books I own, you’d be wrong. In my world, you can never have too many books.

shoppingtoomany

 

 

Goldengrove – Francine Prose

goldengroveNico is just thirteen when her seventeen-year-old sister Margaret drowns. Nico tells us “We lived on the shore of Mirror Lake, and for many years our lives were as calm and transparent as its waters.” Margaret is the poet in the family, the beautiful daughter about to graduate from high school and head off to study music. She was named for Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem “Spring and Fall: To a Young Child.”

Nico is “Debbie Downer.” She doesn’t resent her older sister; she admires her. Her beauty, her talent, her relationship with Aaron.

Francine Prose’s novel Goldengrove follows the summer immediately following Margaret’s death and it is a masterful meditation on grief. Margaret’s death is “like a domino falling and setting off a collapse that snakes out toward the horizon and spills over into the future.”

Nico and her parents struggle to make sense of Margaret’s drowning, and they retreat into their own lives. For Nico’s mother Daisy, it’s a cocktail of pain-killers; for her father, it’s working on his book about how different cultures viewed end-of-days. For Nico, it’s Aaron, the beautiful boyfriend Margaret left behind. Over the course of the long, hot summer she and Aaron drift perilously close to each other in an effort to mend their broken hearts.

I didn’t care that he was a boy. An older guy. A relative stranger. At that moment, he was the person who knew me best in the world.

And she and Aaron do feel the same about the loss of Margaret. Aaron tells Nico

…the strangest part is that she was alive and now she isn’t. That’s the thing I can’t get past. I can’t get my head around it. The absence. How someone can be here one minute, and the next minute they’re gone. You tell them everything in your life and then they…can’t be reached. Unlisted number forever.

I loved Goldengrove.  If Nico sounds perhaps too worldly for a kid, it’s because she is telling this story from a place far in the future. From this vantage point, she understands that “time layered over everything, cementing in the gaps, repairing or covering over what was cracked and broken, pressing it down into the earth and building on top, and on top of that.”

Goldengrove is a coming-of-age story, and a story about grief that it is beautifully written and crackles with energy.

Highly recommended.

The Savage Garden – Mark Mills

savagegardenIt’s 1958 and 22-year-old British student Adam Strickland has been given the opportunity to study a Renaissance garden at the Villa Docci in Tuscany. Of course, he jumps at the chance. Signora Docci will soon be leaving her home in the care of her son, Maurizio, but until she goes she knows the garden has some secrets to give up.

Mark Mills’ historical mystery The Savage Garden  is a slow, thoughtful and complex puzzle of a book that begs you to pay attention. Adam arrives in Tuscany and “In almost no time he had fallen under Villa Docci’s spell.” The garden in question was built as a memorial to Flora Bonfadio. Her husband Frederico Docci had built the estate and then added the garden after her premature death at just 25.

The memorial garden at Villa Docci sat firmly within this tradition, and although it couldn’t match its eminent counterparts at Villa di Castello, Villa Gamberaia and Villa Campi for sheer size and grandiosity, it stood out for its human dimensions, its purity of purpose, the haunting message of love and loss enshrined in its buildings, inscriptions, and groupings of statues buried in the woods.

It is hard not to be caught up in Adam’s story, especially if you have spent any time at all in Italy. Interactions with the locals and with Signora Docci’s family, including her lovely granddaughter, Antonella, offer Adam both distraction and cause for concern: not all the pieces of the family’s history quite add up.

Although The Savage Garden isn’t a ‘page-turner’ in the strictest sense of the word (the novel’s pace is relatively slow and the nods to Greek mythology and Italian history were probably mostly lost on me), I still felt wholly invested in Adam’s story. Signora Docci is delightful and I enjoyed their relationship. I also really liked Adam’s older brother, Harry. He’s a sort of irreverent character, someone at odds with Adam’s more scholarly personality and while Harry certainly seems to rub Adam the wrong way, his arrival in Italy breathes fresh air into Adam’s hot and insular  life. There are two mysteries at Villa Docci, and Adam is keen on solving them both.

It’s  worth the effort to tag along.