A Friend of the Family – Lauren Grodstein

friendfamilyThe Washington Post named Lauren Grodstein’s novel A Friend of the Family one of the best books of 2009. In fact, just about every major media outlet lauded this tale of  Dr. Pete Dizinoff who lives in suburban New Jersey with his wife, Elaine and their son, Alec.

Dr. Pete tells his story  – and I have to admit that it wasn’t at all the story I thought he was going to tell – from some point in the future.  If people ask him how he’s doing these days his reply is “Listen, life goes on.” And I’m not just feeding them formula, pap. Life really does go on. That’s what I’ve learned. It goes. You’d be surprised.”

Dr. Pete’s life is pretty perfect, although he is certainly not immune to life’s trials and tribulations. He loves his wife. He adores and is frustrated by his son in equal measure, especially since Alec recently dropped out of college “after three semesters and almost sixty thousand dollars of tuition, books, board, and other proofs of parental esteem.” Now Alec is living at home and creating art in the studio his parents have built above the garage. Well, that’s not exactly true, since the studio above the garage is where Dr. Pete is currently sleeping. The reasons for this are alluded to but never really revealed until much later in the book.

Pete and Elaine’s best friends Joe (also a doctor) and Iris live in the same neighbourhood, and the two families spend lots of time together. In the past, their close bond is tested when Joe and Iris’s daughter, Laura, commits a horrible crime, and when Laura reappears many years later the residual feelings of horror colour  Pete’s feelings towards her.

I hadn’t seen her since the week they took her to Gateway House thirteen years ago, and Christ, the girl had changed in a million beautiful ways. Back then she had been hollow-eyed, eviscerated by the trial and the confinement and everything that had preceded it. A criminal, a teenager, depressed and hidden in oversized shirts. But now-

For Pete, Laura’s arrival back in their lives reminds him of the latent feelings he has for her mother and also draws his son further away from him. A Friend of the Family is a domestic drama at its finest: well-written, fraught with tension and ultimately devastating.

 

A Street Cat Named Bob – James Bowen

There was no way I wasn’t going to fall in love with James Bowen’s story about being a recovering heroin addict who befriends a stray tomcat in London. I stumbled across a clip of the movie and I was blubbering by the time it was done. Then I tracked down the full movie (Amazon Prime, I believe). There was no question that I was going to read the book A Street Cat Named Bob. 

Here’s a little taste of the film.

Bob turns out to be a lifesaver for James who is in a methadone program when he encounters the feline curled up on the mat in front of a neighbour’s apartment door. He makes an attempt to find Bob’s owner, but the truth is in a city the size of London it’s just not possible, and it seems as though Bob has been living rough for a little while, anyway. It costs James his last 30 quid to get Bob the antibiotics he needs.

bobSoon, Bob is hopping the bus  with James to to head to Covent Garden, where he busks daily. Bob turns out to be a real draw and the first day Bob is with him while he busks, James triples the money he normally made.

Despite the gut feeling I had that this cat and I were somehow destined to be together, a large part of me figured that he’d eventually go off and make his own way. It was only logical. He’d wandered into my life  and he was going to wander back out again at some point.

But Bob doesn’t wander off. He is a steadfast and loyal companion. Bowen’s book traces his relationship with Bob, and the tremendously positive impact the feline has on his life. Suddenly, James understands what it is to have another living thing that depends on you.

Bob and  James soon become a fixture around Covent Garden. Bob often rides on James’s shoulder and the attention is both positive and negative. Eventually he gives up busking and starts selling Big Issue. Again, Bob causes people to stop and pay attention.

Being with Bob had already taught me a lot about responsibility but the Big Issue took that to another level. If I wasn’t responsible and organized I didn’t earn money. And if I didn’t earn money Bob and I didn’t eat.

James makes the decision to wean himself off methadone and soon he feels better than he has in years and “the thought of returning to the dark dependencies of the past made me shiver. I had come too far now to turn back.”

I loved James’s redemption story. He and Bob were constant companions until Bob’s death June 15th at the age of 14. Of his friend’s death Bowen said: “Bob saved my life. It’s as simple as that. He gave me so much more than companionship. With him at my side, I found a direction and purpose that I’d been missing. The success we achieved together through our books and films was miraculous. He’s met thousands of people, touched millions of lives. There’s never been a cat like him. And never will again.”

 

 

 

Child 44 – Tom Rob Smith

Child 44, Tom Rob Smith’s 2008 debut, likely would have languished on my tbr shelf indefinitely if it hadn’t been for Litsy  Every month, a Litsy member, Sarah,  hosts a book spin. We choose 20 books from our TBR shelf and she chooses two random numbers, a #bookspin and a #doublespin. It’s our opportunity to clear some books from our shelves. Even if you end up abandoning the books (which I did the first couple months), at least they’re off your shelves.

child44Leo Demidov is a member of MGB, Russia’s State Security Force under Stalin. It’s 1959 and everyone is suspicious of everyone else. Leo has arrived at his position by way of a decorated stint in the army. He’s good at his job. He

enjoyed the independence of his operations, although he was careful to keep that observation to himself. […] He’d flourished. As a result he’d been awarded the Order of Suvorov Second Class. His levelheadedness, military success, good looks and above all his absolute and sincere belief in his country had resulted in him becoming a poster boy …

Things get dicey for Leo, though, when he is asked to check in with a colleague who insists that his four-year-old son has been murdered. The authorities have called the death an accident, though, and Leo is tasked with convincing the family that no further investigation is needed. This event is the beginning of the cracks in Leo’s life and his belief in a state where Stalin’s “well-known aphorism Trust but Check” actually means “Check on Those We Trust.” It is almost impossible to determine who is trustworthy because everyone seems to have something to hide.

When an operation Leo is in charge of goes awry, he’s demoted and sent to work in a backwater town. That’s when the bodies start piling up, bodies of kids. Leo convinces his new boss that there’s a serial killer on the loose and the two men start investigating – no easy task when the authorities aren’t really willing to share information, even with each other.

Child 44 is a thriller and there were certainly some exciting moments. Leo is a great character, and I was invested in his growth from rule-follower to renegade truth-seeker. I think this books, which is the first in a series, would likely appeal to many readers, but I felt sort of ambivalent about it. Perhaps it was all the Russian names, or the fact that we got just about every character’s backstory and so the plot dragged a little.

Still, I had no trouble reading it. It’s a solid book.

College Girl – Patricia Weitz

There’s a scene in Patricia Weitz’s debut novel College Girl, when the protagonist, 20-year-old college senior Natalie Bloom cuts off all her hair. I don’t know if the scene was inspired by J.J. Abram’s character, Felicity, but it was the first thing I thought of when I read it.

Natalie makes the decision to cut off her hair after she loses her virginity.

…I wanted my reflection to be as ugly as I felt, but it wasn’t and it angered me. I was vile. Base. Life was traveling in a direction I had never wanted it to go in. I hd to stop it. I had to regain control. It scared me where this slippery slope might lead.

I am probably not the demographic for Weitz’s novel or Abraham’s show (which I love collegeand have watched straight through on more than one occasion.) Still, Natalie Bloom’s story resonated on so many levels for me. It shot me straight back to my university days; not the rose-coloured view I have now, but the awkard, muddled, feeling-my-way experiences I actually lived.

Natalie is the youngest of six; she has five older brothers, one of whom killed himself when she was just ten. On top of navigating her final year of college, it seems like the residual grief over her brother’s suicide is just now catching up to her. She has questions, but the answers are not forthcoming. Her older brothers mostly make fun of her; her father is a taciturn man; her mother, kind but flustered by talk of feelings.

Her family life definitely contributes to Natalie’s personality. She has difficulty articulating what she wants and people tend to walk over her. At school, she rooms with Faith, a “twenty-five-year-old college senior who looked like an eighties chick straight out of a Poison video.” The only person she is nominally friendly with is Linda who “liked everyone […] because she took it for granted that people were generally nice.”

Then Natalie meets Patrick Dunne. He figures larger-than-life in Natalie’s fantasies, but the reality of him is far less appetizing. This tentative first-relationship pushes Natalie firmly away from the shores of adolescence. It was frustrating to watch Patrick capitalize on her insecurities from this vantage point, but it also reminded me so much of my own experiences in my early 20s. I wanted to be liked, but I didn’t always know whose attention was sincere. I never trusted my own instincts.

I would certainly recommend this book to any young woman in her early 20s, but I also enjoyed this book. If nothing else, it made me happy that that part of my life is but a distant memory.

 

Where All Light Tends to Go – David Joy

alllightI was invested in Jacob McNeely, the narrator of David Joy’s novel Where All Light Tends to Go,  by the end of the first chapter. The eighteen-year-old high school drop out has climbed to the top of the water tower to smoke a joint and watch what should have been his graduating class leave the school. From his perch, he can see Maggie, the girl he has loved for as long as he can remember.

…Maggie was different. Even early on I remember being amazed by her. She’d always been something slippery that I never could seem to grasp, something buried deep in her that never let anything outside of herself decide what she would become. I’d always loved that about her. I’d always loved her.

Jacob knows that once Maggie breaks free of their backwater Appalachia town, she’ll make something magnificent of her life. He also knows that his fate is set. His mother is  addicted to crack; his father makes his living selling it. All Jacob has ever known is a life of violence and hardship.

The senior McNeely is a scary dude. He’s got eyes everywhere in town, including with the police. He’d kicked Jacob’s mother out years before, but kept her in a shack on his property, a house that “was truly unfit for any sort of long-term living.” Jacob visits her sometimes, mostly when he “just needed a place to kill a few hours and a safe spot to dodge the law while [he] got stoned.”

When Jacob’s father instructs him to murder an informant, and Jacob botches the job, it sets in motion a violent chain of events. His father thinks he’s soft and it is perhaps only the fact that Jacob is his son that he doesn’t kill him.

The only light in the darkness is Maggie, and Jacob wonders if perhaps there might not be a way to escape the only life he’s ever known. Maggie is going to leave and maybe he can go with her.

I could not put this book down. It is a chilling and violent and yet there is something tender about Jacob. It is this tenderness that causes him to push Maggie away, but it is that same softness that allows him to see a glimmer of the life he might have if only he were able to crawl out from under the rock of his father. I literally read the last 50 pages with my heart in my throat.

None of Jacob’s experience is my experience. I don’t know anyone who lives the way he lives, and yet that universal yearning for something better is something anyone can relate to. I can’t remember the last time I wanted to reach through the pages and just yank a character to safety. Jacob joins a list of other characters I will never forget including My Absolute Darling‘s Turtle and Our Daily Bread‘s Albert Erskine.

Highly recommended.

Follow Me Down – Sherri Smith

When Mia’s twin brother Lucas goes missing after being linked to the death of one of his followstudents, Mia has no choice but to return to her small North Dakota hometown. Sherri Smith’s debut novel Follow Me Down plumbs the depths of sibling ties, and uncovers the slimy underbelly of a town that seems to be filled with dark secrets and duplicitous characters.

Mia isn’t exactly living her best life in Chicago when the Wayoata Police Chief calls her asking if she’s heard from her brother. (She hasn’t.) She works the night shift at a corner pharmacy, lives alone and is generally a prickly character. Lucas was always the golden child.

Lucas was already showing signs of how annoyingly good-looking he was going to be.[…] Blond, startling blue eyes, and movie star bone structure. […] As an adult, I’d actually witnessed women going slack-jawed over him, like, unable to speak for a few seconds as they took him in.

Mia is convinced that her brother is innocent of any wrongdoing; he just doesn’t have it in him to hurt anyone. He is a beloved English teacher and hockey coach at the local high school. The local police, including her childhood friend Garrett Burke, seem to have their sights set on Lucas, though, and Mia is sure that she has to a) find her brother and b) prove his innocence.

To say Follow Me Down is jam packed is an understatement. Mia ignores Garrett and turns over every rock possible trying to figure out what might have happened, not only to her brother but to the teenager he is accused of killing. The rumour mill is working overtime, and people in the community seem to think that Lucas and Joanna Wilkes were having an affair. Mia’s amateur investigation seems to stir up a hornet’s nest. A black truck keeps following her and trying to run her off the road; someone seems to be sneaking into her brother’s apartment and taking things; there are more shady characters than you can shake a stick at.

The whole time Mia is sleuthing, she’s self-medicating from her own personal stash of prescription meds. On more than one occasion, I wondered whether she was a reliable narrator. I can’t say that I warmed to her, really.

Still, by about the half-way mark there was no turning away from this story. I needed to know what happened to Lucas, and even if Mia didn’t exactly endear herself to me, I was still invested in her quest for answers.

A solid read.

I just can’t seem to quit you

Since March 13th, which is when life as we knew it came to a halt in these parts, I have read 18 books, and I have started and abandoned many others. That got me thinking about why some books haven’t captured my interest during this crazy period in time. I hesitate just to toss them in the “give away” pile because perhaps under different circumstances, I might actually be able to read and enjoy them. This was something I thought about when I considered adding them to my Book Graveyard. When I think about the books that I have flown through, they all seem to have something in common: fast-paced, with great writing. These are books I just couldn’t put down and were totally diverting, which is what I needed so that I didn’t stress about other things, mainly my job.

Of the novels I have read since the beginning of quarantine, The Roanoke Girls has beenRoanoke my favourite. Even if I had read it during a different period in my life, I would have loved this story about a girl who discovers a dark secret about her family’s history. It had all the things I love in a book.

I also loved Lisa Jewell’s novel The Family Upstairs. In my experience, Jewell has always been a dependable writer. She’s someone I turn to when I am having a bit of a slump because I know I will enjoy her clever plots and excellent writing. This novel, about the impact one family has on another, delivered on all counts.

Then, there are the books that I’ve started, but just abandoned. Before I consign them to the Book Graveyard, though, I do a little research to see if I should give them another crack. I mean, there has to be a reason I bought them in the first place, right?

Here’s a look at some of the titles I have started and abandoned since the beginning of quarantine. I am not quite ready to break up with them just yet.

tutorFirst up is Peter Abraham’s novel The Tutor.

From the jacket: Master of psychological suspense Peter Abrahams returns with an ingenious take of an ordinary family that unknowingly invites the agent of their destruction into their own home.

Goodreads rating: almost 4 stars.

Review says: “An insidious tutor affects the lives of a dysfunctional family, in this sharply written psychological suspense.” – from Kirkus 

My thoughts: Although I have read a couple other books by Abrahams, (Reality Check, End of Story ), I just couldn’t settle into this novel about a family with every problem under the sun (professional disappointments, failed academic aspirations, troubled teen) and the tutor they hire to help them out. I think I got about 50 or so pages in, but then I just put it to the side. The reason I keep hesitating about tossing it is that I have enjoyed Abrahams in the past, and it is generally well-reviewed by readers.

Strange Fits of Passion – Anita Shreve

From the jacket: Set in the early 1970s, this powerful portrait of truth and deception strangecenters around two New Tork City journalists, Maureen and Harold English. Everyone believes the couple has a happy, stable marriage, and despite strange events, no one suspects domestic abuse could plague their seemingly perfect life together.

Goodreads rating: almost four stars

Review says: “As in her acclaimed Eden Close (1989), Shreve here picks up the loose threads of long-ago murder to weave a gripping and articulate story that has much to say about love and spite and domestic tragedy.” – from Kirkus

My thoughts: I am a big fan of Anita Shreve (Body Surfing, Testimony ) and I think the reason that I didn’t immediately groove to this novel (I only got as far as page 17) is because I knew that it was going to require some effort on my part. Some books need your undivided attention, and I expect that this is going to be one of them. I wasn’t prepared to buckle down at the time, so I put it aside. I will get to again it eventually.

longingThe Longings of Wayward Girls – Karen Brown

From the jacket: It’s an idyllic New England summer, and Sadie is a precocious only child on the edge of adolescence. It seems like July and August will pass lazily by, just as they have every year before. But one day, Sadie and her best friend play a seemingly harmless prank on a neighbourhood girl. Soon after, that same little girl disappears from a backyard barbecue – and she is never seen again.

Goodreads rating: three and a half stars

Review says: “Even with flaws, Brown’s complex and haunting piece is better than average.” – from Kirkus

My thoughts: This is actually my second attempt to read this book and I am not quite certain why I have never managed to get very far in either time. It sounds like a book that would totally be my jam, but for some reason I just never get far enough in to be invested. Perhaps third time’s the charm because I am not ready to give it away just yet.

Broken As Things Are – Martha Witt broken

From the jacket: From the day that Morgan-Lee is born, her extraordinarily beautiful and withdrawn older brother, Ginx, is obsessed by her. […] Morgan-Lee is the only person who is able to understand and engage Ginx. Sharing a secret language, they escape together into a make-believe world.

Goodreads rating: three and a half stars

Review say: “Follows old trails, yet everything you come upon seems absolutely new. A real wonder.” – from Kirkus

My thoughts: I got to page 39 before I set this book aside. It wasn’t because I wasn’t enjoying it, although it was definitely an odd book. Sometimes, because of its rhythms,  I think you need to read a book straight through. For whatever reason, I didn’t do that with this one and I sort of lost momentum. I will definitely give this one another go at some point.

fatesThe Fates Will Find Their Way – Hannah Pittard

From the jacket: Sixteen-year-old Nora Lindell is missing. And the neighborhood boys she’s left behind are caught forever in the heady current of her absence.

Goodreads rating: three and a half stars

Review says: “A melancholy coming-of-age debut novel in the spirit of The Virgin Suicides.” – from Kirkus

My thoughts: I got 70 pages into this one, and that’s generally the point of no return for me, so I can only assume that I was just having a hard time staying focused. It’s definitely well-written, and it’s definitely a book I will return to.

What reasons do you have for abandoning a book? I’d love to hear what books you’ve set aside, but intend to get to at some point.

Harriet Wolf’s Seventh Book of Wonders – Julianna Baggott (although my copy is called The Seventh Book of Wonders)

seventh

From the jacket: A tale of long-lost love, motherhood, and family secrets that spans an entire century, this is Baggott’s most enchanting novel yet.

Goodreads rating: almost four stars

Review says: “Moments of heartbreak balance moments of hilarity in Baggott’s ambitious portrait of a family created from equal parts secrecy and love.” – from Kirkus

My thoughts: I made it to page 44, but I just couldn’t seem to fall into the book’s rhythms. The NY Times named it one of 2015’s Notable Books, and while I am not normally swayed by these sorts of accolades, I do think it will be worth getting back to at some point.

risenThe Risen – Ron Rash

From the jacket: While swimming in a secluded creek on a hot Sunday in 1969, sixteen-year-old Eugene and his older brother, Bill, meet Ligeia, a free-spirited redhead from Daytona Beach banished to their small North Carolina town. {…} But when Ligeia vanishes as suddenly as she appeared, the growing rift between the two brothers becomes immutable.

Goodreads rating: almost four stars

Review says: “The novel hits its share of false or clumsy notes, but it’s not ruined by them thanks to Rash’s sure evocation of the time and place and the complexity and poignancy of his portrait of his protagonist.” -from Kirkus

My thoughts: I actually almost hit the 100 page mark and could probably easily finish it – except it’s been a few weeks and in order to give the book its due, I would probably have to start again. I think this book would totally be my jam, if I could just commit to it.

 

 

Deep Winter – Samuel W. Gailey

deepwinter-3My son actually purchased this Samuel W. Gailey’s novel Deep Winter because he liked the cover. In my experience, this isn’t generally a great way to choose a book, but when he was doing a purge this book ended up off his bookshelf and on mine because I thought it sounded good.

This is the story of Danny Bedford, a man who, when he was a kid,  suffered brain-damage after a near drowning that cost him the lives of both his parents. Since then he has been raised by an abusive uncle and now lives a solitary life over the laundromat where he works. His only friend is a waitress named Mindy.

Danny lives in Wyalusing, a backwater town in Eastern Pennsylvania. When the novel opens, Danny has trekked the three miles out to Mindy’s trailer to deliver a carved bird he’s made for her birthday. He comes across a scene of horror: Mindy is dead. 

Her body sprawled out on the trailer floor next to Danny like a discarded rag doll. He knelt beside her with his hands folded and clenched together in his lap, like he was praying at her bedside. Blood soaked into the faded carpet from an open wound on the back of her head, and a few pieces of jagged glass were still stuck in her scalp.

Because Danny intellectually impaired, it’s easy to pin Mindy’s death on him, and that’s exactly what happens. What follows is the story of that death, and the malevolent tendrils that reach out into the community because of it.  The story is told from multiple points of view, which probably helps things move along. 

Gailey’s novel is populated by a relatively unpleasant cast of characters, most notably Sokowski, the Deputy, and his side-kick, Carl. In fact, the villains are so awful they’re almost caricatures. It takes place in the dead of winter, during a storm, and is almost relentlessly grim. 

Gailey has written for film and TV and that’s how Deep Winter reads. There’s not a lot of literary bells and whistles, here. That’s not a criticism, really, although I didn’t love the book. It’s a straightforward, nuance-free crime thriller and I doubt you’d have any trouble turning the pages. 

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.