The Lies They Tell – Gillian French

Pearl Haskins lives with her alcoholic father on the wrong side of the tracks in Tenney’s Harbor, Maine. (For the record, I am spelling harbour that way because, USA.) Pearl works at the local country club, where the wealthy summer folk flaunt their, well, wealth. It was here, at Christmas, that Pearl last saw the Garrisons: David, the patriarch; Sloan, his beautiful wife and two of their children, seventeen-year-old Cassidy and ten-year-old Joseph. Tristan, the oldest Garrison child, is not present. Later that night, while Pearl’s dad sleeps in the Garrison’s gatehouse, someone broke into the house and shot the Garrisons in their sleep, then set their mansion on fire.

Gillian French’s impossible-to-put-down YA mystery The Lies They Tell picks up the story the following summer. Pearl has graduated from high school and she’s still working at the country club, still impossibly in love with her best friend, Reese, and still trying to manage her father’s drinking, which hasn’t really improved because most of the summer elite blame him for what happened at the Garrison’s – even though he is clearly not to blame. In fact, the culprit was never caught and the main suspect, Tristan, has an ironclad alibi.

And now here he was “with his entourage, the boys of summer, owning the place.” For reasons Pearl can’t quite understand, she is drawn to Tristan, “gripped by the physical and emotional recoil she – and almost everyone else – felt in his presence.” She feels a kinship to him because she senses he is “so alone, even in a room full of people….”

When one of Tristan’s friends, Bridges, takes a romantic interest in Pearl, she suddenly finds herself drawn into a world which she has only ever watched from the outside. Bridges seems nice and seems to genuinely like Pearl, but is he to be trusted? The third boy in the group, Akil, seems to openly disapprove of her. And Tristan, he doesn’t seem to know she exists, until he turns his laser focus on her.

I really enjoyed this novel. For one thing, it’s very well-written and the characters are believable. You know how characters in mysteries and thrillers sometimes do stupid things? Not here. Pearl is smart. She wants to figure out what happened to Tristan’s family, on the surface so that the blame can be shifted away from her father, but also because Tristan just seems like a whipped puppy to her. As she sifts through the gossip and tries to make sense of Tristan himself, she comes closer and closer to danger.

Like Pearl, I kept changing my mind about whodunnit and by the time I got to the book’s final pages my palms were sweating.

Highly recommended.

Homegoing – Yaa Gyasi

I am not sure I would have ever come to Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel Homegoing on my own. A former student (now colleague – yes, I am that old) brought it to my classroom a week ago and announced that it was one of the best books she’d ever read and I had to read it. Under normal circumstances, I don’t take books from people because my tbr pile is out of control and I like to read what I want when I want, but how could I say no to that impassioned recommendation?

Homegoing is a sweeping story which begins in the late 1700s with two half sisters, Effia and Esi. Born in different villages in Ghana, neither knows the other exists; they are joined only by a black stone pendant.

Effia, the beloved daughter of Cobbe Otcher, is married to James Collins, newly appointed governor of the Cape Coast Castle, a place where many captured Africans are held captive until they can be sold. Despite the business he’s in, James seems to care for Effia, and she comes to care for him, I guess. Esi, on the other hand, meets a worse fate. She is captured and eventually sold to a plantation owner in America, going through the very castle where her half-sister lives a privileged existence.

Gyasi’s novel, however, isn’t content to follow these women through their whole lives though. Instead, each chapter introduces readers to a new character, a descendant of Effia or Esi, tracking the family lines all the way to modern day. It’s a confusing trip, trying to keep track of the names and their relationships (and I somehow missed the handy family tree provided at the beginning of the book until I got about half way through and started grumbling to myself because I didn’t know who these people were.)

These brief glimpses into so many lives lived is both frustrating and illuminating. Personally, I like to spend time with characters in books, take the whole journey with them, but aren’t we all just drops in the big bucket? Maybe we don’t think about it, but we are part of all the women and men, who came before us. Truthfully, I can’t go much further back than my great-grandparents. Their struggles become a part of our destiny and I think I should know a little bit more about them than I do. At my age, I am running out of relatives to ask, too.

One character, Yaw, is a history teacher. In delivering a lesson to his students he says “We cannot know that which we were not there to see and hear and experience for ourselves. We must rely upon the word of others. Those who were there in the olden days. They told stories to the children so that the children would know, so that the children could tell stories to their children. And so on, and so on.”

We are our stories, and not just the stories we are living, but all the stories that came before. I think we live in a transient world; we care little about the past, and that’s a shame. Gyasi’s novel is elliptical in nature, but the accumulation of all these lives does pack a considerable punch even if, like me, you find the novel’s ending a tad contrived.

Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel

Emily St. John Mandel’s award-winning novel Station Eleven, published in 2014, is about as prescient a novel as one might expect to read during these world-wide pandemic times. In her book, the world succumbs to the Georgia Flu in record time, leaving behind a landscape inhabited by only a few hopeless (and hopeful) survivors.

The novel’s main characters, Arthur Leander, a famous Hollywood actor; Jeevan, the man who tries to save Arthur when he collapses onstage in a Toronto theatre; Clark Thompson, Arthur’s friend; Kirsten, a young actress with a troupe of musicians and actors, collectively known as the Symphony, who travel around the post-apocalyptic landscape performing works by Shakespeare, and Miranda, Arthur’s first wife, have, in many respects, a tenuous connection, but their stories intertwine over many years.

Jeevan is the first to learn of the flu’s ferocity. After the incident in the theatre, Jeevan finds himself walking through the Toronto streets and his friend Hau calls him. “You remember the SARS epidemic?” his friend asks?

“We’ve admitted over two hundred flu patients since this morning,” Hua said. “A hundred and sixty in the past three hours. Fifteen of them have died. The ER’s full of new cases. We’ve got beds parked in the hallways. Health Canada’s about to make an announcement.” It wasn’t only exhaustion, Jeevan realized. Hua was afraid.

St. John Mandel’s story skips back and forth in time. We learn about the characters’ backstories, how they survived (or didn’t) and the one person they all have in common: Arthur Leander.

Although, on the surface at least, this might seem like a survival story, Station Eleven is also a story about art, friendship, family, fanaticism and fame. When the end of the world comes, it comes with a vengeance, leaving these people to question their own lives, their pettiness, and their attachment to things.

Station Eleven is our first book for the 2020-21 season of my book club. I am not certain it was the most uplifting choice given that we are still in the clutches of Covid 19.

I live in one of the safest places on the planet, but that doesn’t mean I am immune to the fraught state of the world. Nevertheless, I found this book to be rather beautiful and hopeful. It is possible, the books posits, to be sustained by art and nature and friendship and these, it seems, are worthwhile things to care about. What did I miss when the world shut down back in March? Not shopping. Not dining out. I missed hugging my family and seeing my friends. What will we care about when the end truly comes, as it must for all of us?

The pink magnolias in the backyard of the house in Los Angeles

Outdoor concerts, the way the sound rises up into the sky.

Tyler in the bathtub at two, laughing in a cloud of bubble bath.

Miranda’s eyes, the way she looked at him when she was twenty-five and still loved him.

Any book that requires me to think about my life and its meaning, is worth my time. This book was worth my time.

They Called Us Enemy – George Takei

Readers of a certain age will recognize George Takei from his stint on Star Trek (1966-69), where he played Lt. Sulu. He’s had a long show biz career beginning back in 1955. At 83 he’s still working, but is probably best known (currently) for his provocative and political Tweets. I am one of his 3.1 million Twitter followers. He is also an outspoken advocate for gay rights.

Takei, along with Justin Eisinger and Steven Scott, wrote the words and Harmony Becker has illustrated the story of Takei’s young life in graphic form. They Called Us Enemy introduces readers to George, who lives with his brother, Henry, and baby sister, Nancy, with their parents in Los Angeles.

My father, Takekuma Norman Takei, was born in Yamanashi, Japan. He came to America as a teenager and was educated in the Bay area. He later pursued a lucrative dry cleaning business in Los Angeles’ Wilshire corridor.

My mother, Fumiko Emily Nakamura, was born in Florin. California, but was raised traditionally Japanese. Her father had sent her to Japan to avoid school segregation in Sacramento.

Life was pretty awesome until the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour and the government decided to round up anyone of Japanese descent and place them in camps. These people could take only what they could carry. Their homes and businesses were confiscated; their rights as American citizens null and void.

First stop for George and his family was the Santa Anita Racetrack where they were “assigned to a horse stall still pungent with the stink of manure.” George’s reminiscences are seen through a child’s eyes and all his experiences are tempered by his father, who somehow managed to make the best of the situation in which they found themselves.

Through my child’s eyes, Daddy always seemed in command of any given situation. It was my father who bore the pain, the anguish…and the torturous experiences the most in our family.

Takei’s story is one of resilience and it is no wonder that he is such a force of nature when it comes to activism of all sorts. They Called Us Enemy methodically, and almost without emotion, recounts his story, and the story of thousands of other Japanese who were wrongly imprisoned. I think it’s also a love letter to his father, who Takei claims “taught me the power of American democracy – the people’s democracy.” That’s saying something given the circumstances.

Canada did no better post- Pearl Harbour. Our government rounded up 21,000 Japanese Canadians without charge or due process, exiling them to remote areas of British Columbia and elsewhere. It’s a shameful part of our history and the only way to atone is to make sure it never happens again. Sadly, the world seems to be getting crazier by the moment.

They Called Us Enemy is a chilling and sobering look at what happens when we become afraid of people who don’t look like us. It’s yet another skeleton in our historical closet, and is well worth your reading time.

Hotel for the Lost – Suzanne Young

Audrey has had a tough go. Her mother recently died; her older brother, Daniel, is barely speaking to her, and her father is so fed up he’s shipping her off to spend the summer with her maternal grandmother. This is how Audrey and her family ends up at Hotel Ruby, the creepy setting in Suzanne Young’s gothic romance Hotel for the Lost.

There’s a pathway into the trees, a road covered in debris of broken branches. I’m about to ask my father where the hell he’s going when a set of open iron gates appear in front of us. They’re ornate and oversize. Beautiful. Golden lights wrap their way up the tree trunks and illuminate the drive, now cleared.

Here, in the middle of nowhere, is a grand building – lit up at 3 a.m. like it’s New Year’s Eve. A white stone front, huge archway with ivy crawling up the walls.

Hotel Ruby is not like other hotels. For one thing, their stay there mellows Audrey’s dad out and one night turns into three. For another, there’s a massive party held in the ballroom nightly, but it’s by invitation only and Audrey is not invited. And then there’s Elias, the hot, strangely old-fashioned guy whose “smile is absolutely disarming in the most wonderful way.”

Audrey’s stay at Hotel Ruby gives her an opportunity to reflect on her mother’s death (something she has struggled to come to terms with). It also gives her the chance to see her father in a new light and to attempt to work through her complicated feelings for Ryan, the boy she recently dumped. Mostly, though, she wanders the strangely labyrinthine halls of the hotel, snogging Elias and trying to figure out why the place feels so strange.

Part of that strangeness has to do with Kenneth, the hotel’s uber-creepy concierge. And then there’s Audrey’s hallucinations, which become more pronounced the longer she’s at the hotel.

I think Hotel for the Lost had a lot of (often unrealized) potential, and the novel definitely picked up steam in the latter half. I think readers who enjoy a little bit of “what the heck is going on” will enjoy the story’s twists and turns, and anyone who enjoys romance will be rooting for Eli and Audrey.

Darius the Great Is Not Okay – Adib Khorram

It is impossible to count all the accolades Adib Khorram’s debut novel Darius the Great is Not Okay accumulated, but let’s just say if there is a “best” list, this YA book is likely on it.

In this compelling coming-of -age story, seventeen-year-old Darius Kellner feels like an outsider. Even in his own family he feels “other”. His mother is from Iran and his father is, as Darius calls him, an “Ubermensch.”

I did not inherit any of Dad’s good looks.

Well, people said I had his “strong jawline,” whatever that meant. But really, I mostly looked like Mom, with black, loosely curled hair and and brown eyes.

Standard Persian.

His looks aren’t the only thing that sets him apart from the other kids at his school. Darius is a bit of a geek, too. He loves Star Trek – it’s the one thing he and his father have in common and they rewatch an episode together every night – and Tolkien. He’s a tea aficionado. He also has a special relationship with his younger sister, Laleh.

…guys are not supposed to love their little sisters. We can look out for them. We can intimidate whatever dates they bring home, although I hoped that was still a few years away for Laleh. But we can’t say we love them. We can’t admit to having tea parties or playing dolls with them, because that’s unmanly.

And, the most damning thing of all: Darius suffers from clinical depression.

When Mrs. Kellner learns that her father back home in Iran is terminally ill, the family decides to visit. She hasn’t been home in seventeen years, and Darius and Laleh haven’t ever seen their grandparents except via a computer screen. It is to be a life-changing trip.

As much of an outsider as Darius is at home, he feels just as much on the outside in Iran. Unlike his sister, he doesn’t speak Farsi. He is a “Fractional Persian” at best, and the customs and culture are almost as alien to him as they might be for someone without any ties to the country. Luckily, he meets Sohrab almost as soon as he arrives, and this new friendship teaches him not only about his heritage, but about himself as a person. Their unfolding friendship is truly a thing of beauty to behold.

There is a real sense of place in Khorram’s novel. What I know about Iran would likely fill a teaspoon, and most of that is likely negative. Not sure why. This novel is full of history and culture and food and family. It is brimming with life, even with the shadow of political and religious unrest simmering beneath the surface. But that is not what this book is about. This book is about finding your place, accepting your perceived flaws, belonging.

Darius is a complex character, a teen you want to hug. As he taps into all the things that make him who he is, his notion of who he might be shifts, too. And that is a joy to behold.

Highly recommended.

Island of Lost Girls – Jennifer McMahon

Rhonda Farr, the protagonist of Jennifer McMahon’s second novel Island of Lost Girls, has stopped at the Mini Mart for gas when she sees something that sends her reeling back through her past. A gold VW Beetle pulls up next to her, a car she recognizes, but instead of being driven by the eccentric Laura Lee, it’s being driven by a large, white rabbit.

…when the rabbit got out of the car, there in the Pat’s Mini Mart parking lot at quarter to three on a Monday afternoon, it didn’t occur to Rhonda that there might be a person inside. He hopped like a bunny, moved quickly, nervously, jerking his white head one way, then the other. He turned toward Rhonda, and for an instant he seemed to stare at her with his blind plastic eyes.

While Rhonda watches, the rabbit knocks on the door of another car parked in the lot and leads little Ernestine Florucci, whose mother is inside the store, away. It is from this absurd beginning that Jennifer McMahon (Promise Not to Tell, Dismantled, The Winter People) spins the tale of not one missing girl, but two.

Rhonda, perhaps out of guilt, decides to help with the search effort and to do a little investigating of her own. She’s aided by Warren, Pat’s nephew. Pike’s Crossing is a small place, and Rhonda knows everyone. Trying to help find Ernestine also brings back a wave of memories about Lizzy, Rhonda’s childhood best friend who also went missing many years ago. It also brings to mind the summer they spent together launching a production of Peter Pan with Lizzie’s older brother, Peter, who is the object of Rhonda’s unrequited affection and also her dearest friend. As she searches for clues, Rhonda comes to suspect that Peter might have something to do with Ernestine’s disappearance.

There is a mystery, well two mysteries, at the centre of McMahon’s novel and I think she successfully pushes the plot of both along, switching between the past and present with ease. (I read the book in pretty much one sitting, which is about a good a recommendation as I can offer, really.)

This is also a book about the loss of innocence. Rhonda loses hers when she discovers family secrets, and when she realizes her feelings towards Peter are not returned. It also ruminates on the end of childhood. Rhonda recalls her role as Wendy in Peter Pan and remembers saying her lines and having “a sudden vision of herself as an adult,saying that line quietly on some far-off night as she stared up at the sky, like it might help bring her back.”

I haven’t always liked everything McMahon has written, but I did enjoy this book.

The Wildling Sisters – Eve Chase

The four Wilde sisters (Flora, Pam, Margot and Dot) are spending the summer at Applecote, a manor house in the Cotswolds. They have many happy memories of time spent here, but this summer is different. For one thing, their cousin, Audrey, is gone – having disappeared without a trace five years earlier – and their aunt and uncle haven’t quite recovered from the loss. For another, there’s Tom and Harry, the boys from the estate across the river. Their arrival upsets the easy camaraderie between the three oldest sisters as they vie for the boys’ attention.

Eve Chase’s novel The Wildling Sisters is a slow burn gothic novel that slips back and forth between that summer in 1959 and the present day when Jessie and her husband Will, (and their young daughter Romy, and Will’s teenage daughter from his first marriage, Bella) buy Applecote in an effort to escape London’s madness and settle into a quieter life. There’s also that thing that happened at Bella’s school. Fresh start and all that.

Crime. Crowds. The way a big city forces girls to grow up too fast, strips them of their innocence. It’s time for the family to leave London, move somewhere gentler, more benign.

Jessie also hopes that this will be a new beginning for her and Bella. Being a step mother is hard enough without the shadow of Bella’s mom, the perfect and tragically-killed-in-a-car accident super mom, Mandy, hanging over their heads. The idyllic notion Jessie has of what Applecote might do for her family doesn’t quite come to fruition, though. Will spends a great deal of time in the city dealing with a work crisis, and Jessie begins to feel more and more isolated. Plus, there are all sorts of rumours about Applecote and what happened there 50 years ago.

Fifteen-year-old Margot is our narrator in 1959. The middle sister, she is aware of her shortcomings. She doesn’t “turn heads like Flora” or “command attention in a room like Pam through sheer, unembarrassable life force.” She was closest to Audrey, and so she is the most apprehensive about returning to Applecote.

…the sky is as I remember it: blue, warm as a bath, the air transparent. not washing-up-water-tinged as it is in London, alive with butterflies and birds, so many birds. So much is the same that it highlights the one crushing, unbelievable thing that is not: Audrey isn’t about to come belting out of the house, running down the path, excitedly calling my name.

This is a slow burn sort of novel. It’s a mystery: what happened to Audrey? It also begins with the image of the girls dragging a body across the lawn of Applecote. That can’t be good, right? It takes a long time to get anywhere, which isn’t a criticism because the book is well-written and does evoke a specific time and place. It also plumbs the depths of family relationships, not just between the Wilde sisters, but also the longings of daughters for mothers and mothers for daughters.

Definitely worth a read.

Sweet Sorrow – David Nicholls

Because I have such a backlog of books on my tbr shelf, I rarely make impulse purchases these days. If I buy a new book, it’s usually because I’ve heard of it somehow and even if I do buy it, that doesn’t necessarily mean I will read it straight away. David Nicholls’ (One Day) new book, Sweet Sorrow, was irresistible, though. I bought it and read it immediately.

Charlie Lewis, our narrator, is recounting his post GCSE summer. His life is kind of a mess. His parents have recently split; his mother and younger sister, Billie, have gone off to live with his mom’s new man and Charlie has been left to look after his father, who spends his days in the gloom, listening to jazz albums and drinking or sleeping on the sofa. Of his three best mates from school, Harper, Fox and Lloyd, only Harper seems to understand what a grim time this is for Charlie. When he’s not working his part-time job at a local petrol station, Charlie spends most of his time riding his bike around. That’s how he comes across Fran Fisher.

Fran is part of the theatre troupe Full Fathom Five. They’re rehearsing Romeo and Juliet at Fawley Manor, a country estate owned by senior thespians, Polly and Bernard. The troupe is in desperate need of more males, and so Fran agrees to have coffee with Charlie if he comes back on Monday and participates.

I did go back, because it was inconceivable that I would not see that face again, and if doing so meant a half day of Theatre Sports, then that was the price I’d pay.

Thus begins a summer of Shakespeare and first love for Charlie. “When these stories – love stories – are told, it’s hard not to ascribe meaning and inevitability to entirely innocuous chance events,” Charlie says. But the truth is that Charlie thinks Fran is “lovely” and despite their differences (Fran attended the much posher Chatsborne Academy and is clearly destined for great things; Charlie lives on a council estate with streets named after famous writers and is pretty sure flunked his GCSEs so won’t be going on to college), they fall in love.

The ache of that love – and, trust me, it aches – is heightened because the pair are rehearsing literature’s most famous tragedy, a play Charlie comes to understand and appreciate because he and Fran spend endless lunch hours talking about it, and because Charlie is telling this story twenty years in the future. C’mon – who doesn’t look back at their first love with a certain degree of nostalgia? Y’know, “misty water-coloured memories” and all that.

Not gonna lie, I love Romeo and Juliet. I know what you’re going to say, but I don’t care. I love the language and the heightened emotions and when I first encountered the play, 40 odd years ago, I thought it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. Do I believe in love at first sight? Kinda.

Nicholls has written a book that is both laugh-out-loud funny and also deeply moving. How we ever survive those fraught teen years, I’ll never know, but somehow we do. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the book to mature teens in my class, but this is not a YA novel. The tears I shed at the end of the book came from understanding something I could never really know at sixteen: that first love doesn’t last, but it stays with you forever anyway.

Highly recommended.

Daisy Jones & The Six – Taylor Jenkins Reid

I feel like I am probably the last person on the planet to succumb to Daisy Jones & The Six‘s considerable charms, but fall I did. And hard. Taylor Jenkins Reid’s novel about the rise and fall of Daisy Jones and Billy Dunne, two uber-talented musicians in the 1970s, is the PERFECT book for a summer afternoon. I read it straight through, start to finish; I couldn’t have put it down, even if I wanted to.

Told in the style of an oral history, (so basically there’s no real exposition, it’s just people talking, as if they were being recorded and their words then transcribed,) the story follows Jones and Dunne’s separate journeys up until they meet and their musical fortunes become entwined.

This novel is so nostalgic – especially if you were around in the 70s, which I was. I graduated from high school in 1979 and while Billy and Daisy’s experiences certainly bear no resemblance to mine, I nevertheless appreciated some of the allusions. For instance, Daisy is introduced to the hedonistic and drug-fuelled club scene when she is just fourteen by flirting with a roadie at Whiskey a Go Go. The concierge of the Continental Hyatt House (preferred hotel of touring rock bands) remembers that some of the girls who hung around hoping to meet band members were young “but they tried to seem older. Daisy just was, though. Didn’t seem like she was trying to be anything. Except herself.”

Then there’s Billy Dunne. Gifted with a guitar for his fifteenth birthday, Billy and his younger brother Graham start a band while they are still in their teens. Billy is everything a lead singer should be: charismatic, sexy, beautiful and talented. The band’s manager says “Billy Dunne was a rock star. You could just see it. He was very cocksure, knew who to play to in the crowd. There was an emotion that he brought to his stuff.”

Both Billy and Daisy have their demons. In many ways, they are loners and they depend on a variety of substances to get them through the days and nights. Billy, though, has a wife, Camila, and a vested interest in getting his shit together. When Daisy and Billy meet, it catapults the two of them to super-fame. Their chemistry is off-the-charts. They record a song together that leads to a more permanent collaboration.

This novel is the bomb. I don’t claim to be an aficionado, but I do love music. Billy and Daisy start writing songs together and their creative partnership is both a blessing and a curse. Every song is fraught (Jenkins Reid has written all these songs and they are found at the back of the novel) and reminds us how incredibly powerful music (and art in general) can be in tapping into our souls.

…what we all want from art…When someone pins down something that feels like it lives inside us? Takes a piece of your heart out and shows it to you? It’s like they are introducing you to a part of yourself.

The creative partnership between Daisy and Billy cannot be sustained, for reasons that will be readily apparent. The push-pull between these two damaged, yet wholly likeable characters is so full of longing and angst, I just couldn’t bear it. (Truthfully, the angst is off the charts and I loved every wretched minute of it.)

Daisy Jones & The Six is pure entertainment. It’s beautiful, funny, human, nostalgic, heart-breaking awesomeness. I can’t WAIT for Reese Witherspoon’s adaptation.

Highly recommended.