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.

 

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.

 

 

 

A Velocity of Being – M. Popova & C. Bedrick

Marie Kondo says that your possessions should spark joy.  She also says that about 30 books is the magic number. She and I would not get along. At all. Books are talismans and touchstones and time machines. I wish that I still had every book I ever owned, but we moved a lot when I was growing up and I’ve moved a lot as an adult and it’s just not possible to save everything. Still, like Stephen King, I believe in the “portable magic”of books.

So do the people in Maria Popova and Claudia Bedrick’s beautiful book A Velocity ofvelocity of being Being. They’ve gathered letters from a variety of well-known (and less well-known) artists, writers, thinkers, scientists, musicians and philosophers. These letters are addressed to young readers and each letter is accompanied by bookish art. It’s a win-win book for me.

Popova begins the book’s introduction this way

When asked in a famous questionnaire devised by the great French writer Marcel Proust about his idea of perfect happiness, David Bowie answered simple: “Reading.”

I couldn’t agree more. I have whiled away many wonderful hours with books. My love affair began early. Both my parents were readers and there were always books in my house. My mother read to my brothers and me from the time we were babies and I have very specific memories of her not being able to get through O. Henry’s story  “The Ransom of Red Chief” without breaking down in uncontrollable giggles. She loved Uncle Wiggly, too and Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verse.

When I started reading on my own, I fell in love with the Bobbsey Twins and Trixie Beldon and Cherry Aames. I was really an equal opportunity reader. So reading A Velocity of Being is like being with my tribe. These are people who, like me, understand the particular joys of words words on a page. Their stories and recollections made me smile, laugh, tear up and nod my ahead in agreement.

For example, poet, essayist and naturalist Diane Ackerman writes “No matter where life takes you, you’re never alone with a book, which becomes a tutor, a wit, a mind-sharpener, a soulmate, a performer, a sage, a verbal bouquet for a loved one. Books are borrowed minds, and because they capture the soul of a people, they explore and celebrate all it means to be human. Long live their indelible magic.”

Rebecca Solnit, writer, historian and activist, reminds us that although “Nearly every book has the same architecture – cover, spine, pages – […] you open them onto worlds and gifts far beyond what paper and ink are, and on the inside they are every shape and power.”

And Helen Fagin, born in 1918, reminds us that “To read a book and surrender to a story is to keep our very humanity alive.”

All proceeds from the sale of A Velocity of Being will benefit the New York public library system. Really, everyone should have a copy. I can’t wait to share some of these letters with my students in the fall…and perhaps even have them write their own odes to reading.

 

Out of Sight – Isabelle Grey

Out of Sight, by British writer Isabelle Grey, is the story of  Patrickoutofsight Hinde, a homeopath who, when the novel opens, lives with his wife, Belinda, and young son, Daniel, in Brighton. He has a happy life, for the most part, except for the stress brought on when his parents visit. He seems to be a bottled up sort of fellow and although he is capable of offering impartial advice to his patients, I wonder if he wouldn’t benefit from his own advice. As the novel goes on, readers will become aware of Patrick’s own emotional trauma, a condition he describes as “An inherited predisposition…something that leaves a residue which has a negative impact on the vital force.”

Flash forward five years and meet Patrice (aka Patrick) who is now living in the house his grandmother Josette left him in France. Leonie, another Brit who is working in the same small town as a letting agent for holiday properties, meets Patrice and is immediately smitten. Patrice proves to be a bit cagey, but despite his reticence to share feelings or disclose too much about his life, Leonie sets her romantic sights on him.

Leonie, for her part, is still recovering from a recent break-up. You’d think she’d know better than to put all her romantic eggs into Patrice’s clearly flawed basket, but she’s keen on him. The heart wants what it wants, that sort of thing, even though Patrice tells her he doesn’t “want [her] thinking he’s a good bet when [he’s] not.”

Patrice’s reluctance to get too involved with Leonie is legitimate. There’s nothing sinister about it, though, although you might be mislead by the novel’s tagline “A moment of madness. A family changed forever.” For some reason I was under the impression that Out of Sight  was going to be sort of a thriller and it’s really not.

I didn’t dislike Out of Sight, but I didn’t love it either. I found Leonie tiresome and although I don’t dispute the fact that Patrick’s trauma is worthy of sympathy, at the end of the day the book lacked any real emotional heft for me.

Little Fires Everywhere – Celeste Ng

littlefires“Sometimes you need to scorch everything to the ground and start over,” Mia tells Izzy in Celeste Ng’s second novel Little Fires EverywhereI read Ng’s first novel Everything I Never Told You a couple years ago and I love that book. So much. Little Fires Everywhere is also excellent. There is no doubt that I will buy and read whatever Ng writes going forward.

Shaker Heights, Ohio is America’s first planned community with rules determining what colour your house can be painted and where schools are placed so that children don’t have to cross any major streets.

The underlying philosophy being that everything could – and should – be planned out, and that by doing so you could avoid the unseemly, the unpleasant, and the disastrous.

Elena Richardson believes in the defining principles of Shaker Heights and, in fact, that’s the way she runs her household and her life. Her three oldest children Lexie, Trip, Moody seem to tow the family line. Her youngest, Izzy, is more of a problem child and when the novel opens “Everyone was talking about […] how Isabelle, the last of the Richardson children, had finally gone around the bend and burned the house down.”

What would compel Izzy to commit such an act?  Meet Mia and Pearl. They’ve just moved into the Richardson’s rental property. Mia is an artist and Pearl her intelligent fifteen-year-old-daughter. When Pearl and Moody become friends, the two families’ lives intersect. In the Richardsons Pearl sees “a state of domestic perfection” and in Mia Izzy has someone who understands her and listens to her.

Little Fires Everywhere is a book about motherhood and it asks important questions about what it means to be a mother. Are you a mother because you’ve given birth? Is it a choice? Is a relationship between a mother and their child automatic or is it something that must be cultivated beyond mere biology? What happens if you give up a child? Do you have the right to change your mind?

Free-spirited Mia worries that her daughter is perhaps being unduly influenced by the Richardsons and wonders “if it was right for her daughter to fall under the spell of a family so entirely.” She and Pearl have always been vagabonds, moving from place to place in search of inspiration for Mia’s photography. Now she has promised Pearl that they will stay put.

In Mia, Izzy finds a sort of surrogate mother, someone who listens to her complaints about the state of her world and asks her what she intends to do about it. “Until now her life had been one of mute, futile fury” but Mia encourages her to consider her options.

This is a book that is very female-centric. We don’t spend a lot of time with the men, but that’s okay, the women are fascinating. Their hopes and dreams, some derailed by circumstance, others by choice, are worthy of close inspection. I loved my time in Shaker Heights. Little Fires Everywhere  is filled with stymied, passionate, damaged, beautiful and complicated characters, and like Everything I Never Told You  there is something about the way Ng tells a story that just keeps you turning the pages to get to the end. Then, you want to start all over to spend more time with her magnificent characters.

Highly recommended (and not just by me. The accolades are endless.)

Design Your Next Chapter – Debbie Travis

I have been a longtime fan of Debbie Travis. Here in Canada she was on the leading edge of the decorating show craze beginning with Painted House, a show about faux. She went on to develop several other decorating shows, some she starred in, some she produced with her husband Hans.

Life took a turn for her while she was on vacation in Thailand. On her last day, shedebbietraviscomposite decided to have a detoxifying sauna. After only eight minutes, she recalls in Design Your Next Chapter, she was “deathly bored with my own company.” In an effort to distract herself, she started reading a paperback someone had left behind. It was about finding personal happiness.

Travis knew she had many things to be grateful for but “The book had asked one simple question: Was I happy? It rocked me to the core.”

Travis couldn’t stop thinking about the question of personal happiness.

I’d realized what made me truly happy were just three things: being with my children, being with my priceless friends, and being with my beloved husband. On the plane home, I had to admit that I was not spending enough time with these precious people.

Serendipitous perhaps, but Travis was seated next to a monk on the flight home from Thailand. Seeing that she was still visibly upset, he asked if he could help and Travis poured out her confusion and distress.

His advice was simple: “Change your priorities, change your attitude – focus on what makes you happy before you run out of time.”

And that, in a nutshell, is what Travis has done, and is offering to help readers do in Design Your Next Chapter.

A spontaneous meal with a family while on holiday in Italy with Hans, had “lit up in [Travis’s] head like a beacon.” You know the rest of the story, but if you don’t, it’s documented in a six-part series called La Dolce Debbie. Although it didn’t happen overnight, she and Hans eventually found a Tuscan property which they renovated over five years. Now she hosts groups of women (mostly) who are looking for a way to redesign their own lives. Read more about that here.

I read Design Your Next Chapter  while sitting on my back deck on a beautiful summer afternoon. Although Travis doesn’t profess to be a self-help expert, she is a woman who has been successful at a great many things. Her advice, and she does offer some, is mostly common sense, but I think the best advice often is. We may know what we need to do to fix what’s broken in our lives, but we sometimes lack the impetus to make the necessary changes. Travis offers practical suggestions for taking meaningful steps towards personal happiness. You really can’t argue with that.

I’ve been to Italy twice with my three dearest girlfriends. It’s a magical place. Many of the examples Travis uses in her book come from the retreats she offers at her villa. In the evening, the women gather with their Prosecco and share their stories. There’s a lot of power in that, I think. Although I like my life and my job, I have hit a few bumps along the way and I know that I am sometimes my own worst enemy. I’d give anything to sit under Travis’ olive tree and listen to people share their own stories. This is a bucket list item for sure.

Design Your Next Chapter is not quite the same as what I imagine the experience of being in Italy with Travis herself might be, but it’s definitely worth the virtual visit. So, pour yourself a cold glass of Prosecco and let your  journey towards personal happiness begin.

italy

This is Michelle, me, Sheila and Diane on our first Italian adventure in 2012. We were in Cortona.