lightbetweenI feel heartless for saying it – but I didn’t particularly like M.L. Stedman’s first novel The Light Between Oceans. I’ve had the book for a while, but it was last month’s book club pick, so I finally had occasion to read it. [insert long-suffering sigh]

Tom Sherbourne is a quiet man, intent on living a quiet life after having survived WW1. He’s returned to Australia and is about to take up his new post as lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock, an island off the coast of Partaguese on Australia’s western coast.

Teetering on the edge of the continental shelf, Janus was not a popular posting. Though its Grade One hardship rating meant a slightly higher salary, the old hands said it wasn’t worth the money, which was meager all the same.

Tom likes the idea of isolation thinking “If only he can get far enough away – from people, from memory – time will do its job.” It’s the horrors of war, he’s escaping, of course. But also his own childhood: a dead mother, an estranged father, a cold brother.

Just before Tom is about to leave for Janus he meets pretty, young Isabel Graysmark. Eventually the two marry and Isabel moves out to Janus. With a boat coming with supplies only about every six months, the newlyweds are certainly isolated, but they are happy.

Things start to get grim though, as Isabel suffers a series of miscarriages and then, shortly after her third, a small craft drifts into shore and in the boat a dead man and an infant. Isabel takes this as a sign from God, but Tom feels that they need to do the right thing, signal the mainland and report the incident. The decision the couple makes carries them through the rest of the novel.

So what’s not to like, you ask?

Ahhh….the melodrama. There’s boatloads of that. As Tom and Isabel wrestle with the moral, ethical and emotional questions posed by the foundling, their marriage suffers and they suffer personally, too. The constant negotiating got a little on my nerves, I have to say.

But there is another side to the story and that side belongs to the child’s birth parents. The introduction of these new characters is meant to up the emotional ante, and while it did for some of the ladies in my book club, I just felt like we were meant to wallow along with these suffering people and I just couldn’t muster any real feelings. Yes, I felt sympathy. I am a parent and I can only imagine how difficult the whole thing must have been. But to a certain degree I could see the clunky machinations of trying to fit all the pieces together and the swelling, heartfelt conclusion just left me feeling manipulated.

beartownI actually put Fredrik Backman’s novel Beartown in my ‘to donate’ bag before I had reviewed it…and I guess that’s pretty telling. This was a book club selection, and not a book I would have ever chosen to read otherwise, so I guess I was skeptical from the beginning. Beartown made me cranky.

Late one evening toward the end of March, a teenager picked up a double-barreled shotgun, walked into the forest, put the gun to someone else’s forehead, and pulled the trigger.

This is the story of how we got there.

From that relatively interesting beginning, Backman spins a melodramatic tale of a small, isolated town in Sweden. Beartown is a hockey town and I mean a fanatical hockey town. It’s the day before the Beartown Ice Hockey Club plays in the country’s biggest tournament and while that might not seem like a big deal, it’s a huge deal in Beartown.

There’s not much worthy of note around here. But anyone who’s been here knows it’s a hockey town.

Everyone in this novel is connected to hockey.

Amat “sleeps with his skates by his bed every night.”

Maya “hates hockey but understands her father’s love for it.” Her father, Peter, is the hockey club’s general manager. He’s a former NHL hockey player who has returned to his hometown.

Sune is the coach of the A-team. He’s on the verge of being fired by the board even though he’s been with the hockey club forever, even though everyone knows him. He knows that they want to fire him because he tells his players to play from the heart instead of telling them to win.

There’s Kevin, Beartown’s star player. Despite the fact that he’s good enough to play in a bigger town for, perhaps, a better team, he keeps turning down the offers. “He’s a Beartown man, his dad’s a Beartown man, and that may not mean a thing anywhere else, but it means something here.”

Yeah. Okay. We get it. Beartown is a hockey town. And although it’s probably un-Canadian to say – I haven’t cared much about hockey since the days of Wayne Gretzky and Brendan Shanahan. I certainly never cared about it as much as the folks in Beartown do. I certainly have never cared about it enough to read 415 repetitive pages about how characters driven by the desire to win backstab and bully and belittle others. There’s also a crime in the book that divides the town in a way that is wholly unbelievable.

Perhaps something was lost in translation, but for me Beartown was 200 pages too long and peopled with stereotypes. I often felt the novel’s didactic impetus. Pithy nuggets like “We become what we are told we are” and “A long marriage is complicated” are sprinkled throughout and, honestly, made me roll my eyes.

A big no for me.

 

fierceJoan and her four-year-old son Lincoln are enjoying a late afternoon in the zoo when Gin Phillip’s novel Fierce Kingdom begins. It’s almost five o’clock and they are in the Dinosaur Discovery Pit playing with Lincoln’s menagerie of action figure heroes and villains.

She and Lincoln come here sometimes after she picks him up from school – they alternate between the zoo and the library and the parks and the science museum – and she steers him to the woods when she can. Here there are crickets, or something that sounds like crickets, and birds calling and leaves rustling but no human sounds except for Lincoln calling out his dialogue.

With only a few moments left before the zoo closes, Joan and Lincoln make their way to the exit. Joan has a moment of prescience when she imagines “camping in the zoo overnight, maybe even intentionally hiding back there, going to visit the animals in the pitch-black of midnight.” They are almost at the exit when Joan notices the bodies (at first she thinks they are toppled over scarecrows, but no…) and the man in dark clothes, carrying a rifle. Joan grabs Lincoln and they run. For the next three hours the pair are trapped in the zoo with armed men intent on killing them – and anyone else they find.

The scariest thing about Fierce Kingdom is probably that in the current climate it’s not such a far-fetched premise that innocent people are gunned down in what is supposed to be a safe place. I live in Canada and we don’t have the same love affair with our firearms as Americans do, but even so, it’s hard not to be paranoid about being  at the wrong place at the wrong time. Joan might have taken Lincoln to any one of their regular spots – but today they are at the zoo.

Joan’s number one priority is to get them to safety and for a big chunk of the novel they hide out in an old porcupine enclosure “deep in the twists and turns of the primate house. It does not look fit for humans, and that is what strikes her as perfect about it.”  Everything Joan does, every decision she makes, is about protecting Lincoln, and her ingenuity and bravery will likely strike a chord with anyone who has kids. Well, with anyone, really, who has a desire to live.

Phillips keeps the focus  – for the most part – on Joan and Lincoln, but she does introduce a handful of other characters (Kailynne, a teenager who works in a concession stand; Margaret Powell, an older school teacher; Robby Montgomery, a young man with a connection to the shooters), which keeps the narrative from being too insular.

As Joan works to keep Lincoln safe, she ponders the peculiarities of motherhood…the myriad of ways that harm might come to our children. As any parent knows, you can’t think about that stuff or you’ll go crazy; you’d never let your children leave the house.

Fierce Kingdom  is a book about what it means to be a parent wrapped up in a page-turning thriller.

nutshellThere’s no arguing with the fact that Ian McEwan is an astoundingly good writer. I have read enough of his books over the years to know that I like him, even when he’s hard work. (I have read Saturday, On Chesil Beach, and The Children Act   Predating this blog I’ve read First Love, Last Rites, The Comfort of Strangers, The Cement Garden and my favourite McEwan novel, the devastating Atonement. I have a couple more on my tbr shelf.) McEwan is astonishingly prolific and you really never feel like you are reading the same book over and over. He has lots to say about a variety of topics and he says it well.

That’s the saving grace of Nutshell, which was chosen as our book club selection this month. I did a little inward grown when Sylvie revealed this book. Not because it was McEwan – clearly that wouldn’t bother ne – but because I already knew about the novel’s conceit and I wasn’t really interested in reading this book. At all. But then: it’s McEwan. In less capable hands, this book would be a dog’s breakfast and instead it was, while not exactly enjoyable, an easy read.

So here I am, upside down in a woman. Arms patiently crossed, waiting, waiting and wondering who I’m in, what I’m in for. My eyes close nostalgically when I remember how I once drifted in my translucent body bag, floated dreamily in the bubble of my thoughts through my private ocean in slow-motion somersaults, colliding gently against the transparent bounds of my confinement, the confiding membrane that vibrated with, even as it muffled, the voices of conspirators in a vile enterprise. That was in my careless youth.

That’s the opening of Nutshell. If it’s not obvious, the narrator of McEwan’s book is an unnamed fetus. He’s sentient and trapped inside his mother’s womb. I say trapped because instead of biding his time until he’s born, he must listen to his mother, Trudy, plot with her lover, Claude, to kill Trudy’s husband, John. Matters are further complicated by the fact that Claude and John are brothers. If any of this sounds familiar, you know your Shakespeare. That’s all I’ll say about that.

Although the conceit of having the story narrated by a fetus might have proven problematic in less capable hands, Nutshell, is totally readable. Of course it is. Our narrator relates overheard conversations and imagines others to which he is not privy. Through him we see the adults in this story – none of them particularly likeable.  For example, he describes Claude as “a man who prefers to repeat himself. A man of riffs….This Claude is a property developer who composes nothing, invents nothing.” As for Trudy, “my untrue Trudy, whose apple-flesh arms and breasts and green regard I long for”, our narrator both loves and hates her. John, his father, was “Born under an obliging star, eager to please, too kind, too earnest, he has nothing of the ambitious poet’s quiet greed.”

As the narrator contemplates his mother and her lover’s plans to kill John, he also waxes poetic on a variety of topics including philosophy, poetry, and the best wine. He might be stuck where he is, but remarkably (or maybe not remarkably: this is McEwan, after all) the plot moves along at the pace of a good page-turner. Careful readers will love the allusions and readers smarter than me will likely find the overall reading experience intellectually satisfying.

Nutshell  is classy fan fiction by a writer whose talent and intelligence are undeniable, but I wouldn’t have ever picked this book up on my own.

 

 

seeingredBack when Stephen King was writing a column for Entertainment Weekly, he recommended Sandra Brown’s novel Hello, Darkness as a must-read book for that year.  It was part of a Top Ten list and I thought, okay, I’ll give it a go. I bought it; I read it, and I was sort of ‘meh’ about the whole thing. Thus, when Brown’s newest suspense thriller Seeing Red was chosen as the first selection for my book club’s 2017-18 year I was not overly excited. Perhaps it’s unfair, but after reading only one book I sort of considered Brown a grocery store author….not that that means anything really: she’s written 68 novels, sold 80 million copies and been on the New York Times Bestseller list 30 times.

But I gotta say – Seeing Red was just bad. Like, laugh-out-loud bad.

Kerra Bailey is a rising-star journalist about to land the biggest interview of her life. She’s convinced The Major to go on national television and talk about the day he’d heroically saved lives when a hotel was bombed twenty-five odd years before. One of the lives he’d saved was Kerra’s, so interviewing him isn’t the only big deal; she’s outing herself as a survivor, too.

The interview is over and while Kerra is using the restroom she hears shots fired. At first she thinks The Major has discharged the shotgun he’d been showing her, but then she hears voices and realizes they’re not alone in the house. Trapped in the bathroom, she makes her escape out the window and all that happens by page six.

Six days earlier…that’s where the story begins with Kerra meeting John Trapper, a former ATF agent (I had to look that up because I had no idea what that was, but apparently it’s a specially trained member of  law enforcement who deals with alcohol, tobacco, firearms and explosives), and estranged son of The Major. Kerra’s been having trouble getting The Major to speak to her and she’s reached out to Trapper (he goes by his last name because of course he does) for help. The problem is that Trapper is “the last person on the planet who could convince [the Major] to do anything.”

This is the meet cute, of course, because we already know from the prologue that Kerra got her interview and now she’s been witness to attempted murder. Trapper is convinced his father was shot as part of an elaborate conspiracy that he’s been chasing for years, the very same conspiracy that got him fired from the ATF.

But none of that matters because Trapper and Kerra have chemistry…of the you-can- smell-it-coming-from-a-hundred-paces variety.  Kerra describes Trapper as “everything bad-boy wrong, which makes you everything desirable, and, yes, even knowing better than to fall for the sexy charm, I did.”  And it’s not just Trapper’s incredible sex appeal, he’s also a wounded bird, having had to live his entire life in The Major’s considerable shadow. Boo. Hoo.

So, while  Kerra  and Trapper chase around for answers to who tried to kill The Major (and Kerra) they also chase each other because, y’know, they’re hot and that’s what hot people do.

Some of the descriptions were literally snort-inducing.

“The wedge of damp, softly curled hair over his pecs tapered to form a sleek, yummy trail. The landscape beneath the towel was so well defined it was decadent.”

Yummy is used twice to describe Trapper’s treasure trail and I laughed both times because um, ew. And, trust me, I am not a prude. I love well-written sex scenes. Well-written being the operative words.

When these two crazy kids finally do get it on, I literally had to put the book down.

“As he worked his jeans down, a drop of escaped semen slicked his thumb. He was that close.”

“She came long and lusciously.”

Well, of course she did. Trapper had wanted “this to be the fuck Kerra remember[ed] for the rest of her life.” He’s good like that.

I could go on, but I won’t.

I bought my copy of Seeing Red at the Superstore. It was 40% off and I had enough points that it only cost me $2.00. That was $2.00 too much.

 

 

Amelia Winn is a hard-working trauma nurse when Heather  Gudenkauf’s novel Not a Sound begins. Then she’s hit by a car. Fast forward ten years and Amelia is unemployed, a recovering alcoholic, separated and deaf. She and her “hearing” dog, Stitch, live in a remote house by  Five Mines River where Amelia spends her days paddling  and trying to right the wreckage of her life. On this particular day, she is feeling somewhat optimistic. She has a lead on a job which her ex isn’t trying to sabotage and for once things seem to be looking up – that is, until she discovers the body of a nurse she once worked, a woman named Gwen, with lying on the edge of the river.

notasoundNot a Sound is a straight-up mystery and while it was easy enough to turn the pages – I didn’t particularly enjoy reading the story because…well, mostly for a whole lot of niggly reasons.

We’re expected to believe that Amelia is going to go all undercover cop because a friend from her previous life is found dead. Even though her brother’s best friend, Jake,  is the cop in charge, she takes matters into her own hands – staking out buildings and breaking into people’s garages and asking questions she shouldn’t ask.

Jake is pretty free with giving out what I would consider privileged information about the crime. He tells Amelia how the victim was murder and then posits “my bet is on the husband. It’s always the husband.” That’s police work at its finest, folks.

Some of the minor characters, her new neighbor Evan for example, just seem like conveniently placed chess pieces.

Amelia doesn’t have any real reason to be so torn up about Gwen and yet she persists in trying to figure out who would have wanted her dead. Readers will follow along, but likely won’t be too surprised with how it all turns out.

 

Ann Patchett is one of those writers who can maneuver a huge cast of characters so commonwealthdeftly that you hardly notice the machinations.  Her novel Commonwealth, the story of the intersecting lives of two families, might have crashed and burned in less talented hands, but Patchett moves these people backwards and forwards in time without seeming to  break a sweat.

Fix and Beverly Keating are hosting a christening party for their daughter when Bert Cousins shows up with a bottle of gin. Of the dozens of people invited to celebrate baby Franny, police officer Fix “struggled to make the connection” when he opened the door to the district attorney. Bert’s arrival was precipitated by the fact that “he hated Sundays.” By Sunday, Bert had had all he could stand of his three children and pregnant wife, Teresa: “he couldn’t play with them and he didn’t want to play with them and didn’t want to get up  and get the baby…”. Trapped in a life he clearly doesn’t want, he latches on to Fix’s party as a momentary escape hatch. By the end of the afternoon – perhaps lubricated by the gin, Bert has kissed Beverly and set off a chain of events that reverberates through the years.

After Beverly and Bert leave their marriages and form a new relationship, the five children (Franny and Caroline Keating and Cal, Holly, Jeanette and Albie Cousins) form a lasting bond. They navigate their lives – sharing confidences and allegiances, tragedies and achievements. Central to this story is Franny, who as an adult begins a love affair with Leon Posen, a celebrated writer looking for his next commercial success. He finds it in Franny’s family and the novel he writes exposes fault lines, mends fences, rights wrongs and assuages guilt.

As happened with her novel Bel Canto, I found myself falling madly in love with these characters and their very human-ness. The novel twists around itself, moving backwards and forwards in time – jumping years and characters. Sometimes we get just a taste of a character and their life, sometimes we are fully immersed. I never felt short-changed because I didn’t know everything about everyone; I didn’t mind the novel’s elliptical narrative. That’s life, isn’t it? Days and days of sameness marked by little heartbeats of pain or sorrow or happiness. Patchett manages to capture those heartbeats beautifully and there are moments in this book that took my breath away.

Commonwealth made me consider how we are our memories and the stories we tell ourselves and each other. And sometimes, as Franny remarks, there are stories we need to keep for ourselves.

Highly recommended.