More Than Words – Mia Sheridan

I’ll admit it; I have a ‘type’ (of romance story I like). Mia Sheridan’s novel More Than Words should have ticked every single box, but when I was finished reading I just felt sort of ‘meh’ about the whole thing. I have a feeling though, it’s me not the book. Maybe I am just over romance.

Jessica Cresswell is a dreamy eleven-year-old when she meets Callen Hayes in an abandoned rail car.

A boy sat leaning against the far wall, his long legs stretched out before him and crossed at the ankles, his eyes shut. My heat galloped in my chest. Who is he? One of the streetlamps cast a glow into the shadowy interior, enough for me to see that the boy’s lip was bloody and his eye swollen. […] He was a prince. A…broken prince.

For the next few months, Callen and Jessica meet and dream and play make-believe and then, after one sweet kiss, Callen disappears.

Ten years later, Callen is the Sexiest Man in Music and Jessie is a cocktail waitress, but only until she lands her dream gig of translating historical documents. (Yes, apparently that’s someone’s dream job.) Her dream has landed her in Paris; Callen’s there, too, to claim a big award and fate lands them in the same place at the same time in an “in all the gin joints in all the towns in all the word [he] walks into mine” sorta way.

Of course, Jessie recognizes him. Callen’s reaction is more, hmmm, physical and less, OMG, I remember you. “My heart jumped, a buzz of electricity shooting down my spine, and I frowned, surprised by my reaction….God, I couldn’t stop staring at her.” See, Callen’s one of those “bad” boys. He drinks to excess and sleeps around and cares for no one. He’s a jerk but, of course, not an irredeemable jerk because then we wouldn’t be as desperate for these two to get together as Sheridan wants us to be. Really, he’s just misunderstood.

When they finally do connect – in another convenient twist of fate – Jessie is reluctant to give Callen the time of day. And he’s intent on proving that he is still the boy she once knew and cared for.

There’s nothing wrong with More Than Words. The writing is decent. There are some tender moments that ring true. It’s the fairy tale, right? Maybe I am just old and cynical and no longer believe. Perhaps these characters, both in their early twenties, are just too young for me to relate to. Either way, the book was not my cup of tea, but I suspect many others would love it to bits.

You Were Never Here – Kathleen Peacock

There are so many things to admire about Kathleen Peacock’s YA novel You Were Never Here, but let’s just start with the fact that it’s set in New Brunswick. I can’t tell you how much fun it was to read a book that takes place in my home province. Okay – now that that minor squee is out of the way, let’s talk about Mary Catherine Montgomery aka Cat.

Cat has been exiled from New York City, where she lives with her screenplay-writing father, to her Aunt Jet’s in small-town New Brunswick. (The town is called Montgomery Falls, but I pictured Fredericton, for those of you to whom that means something.) Aunt Jet is the caretaker of the family’s now crumbling ancestral home, which she operates – out of necessity – as a boarding house. The reason for Cat’s exile and her subsequent banishment creates just one of You Were Never Here‘s mysteries. Another is the disappearance of Cat’s childhood friend Riley Fraser.

The boy in the picture is handsome. Chiseled jaw and wavy hair kind of handsome. The kind of handsome that gets crowned prom king or maybe class president. Even though the smile on the boy’s face looks forced around the edges, it’s wide enough to bring out the dimple in his left cheek.

There are a thousand Riley Frasers in the world, and the boy in the poster is mine.

Riley Fraser has been missing for months. The two had been friends the summer they were twelve (five years ago, and the last time Cat had been to Montgomery Falls), but something happened between them (another mystery) and even though Cat knows “I don’t owe Riley Fraser anything – not after the last thing he said to me”, knowing that he has disappeared is deeply unsettling.

Cat has no intention of doing anything other keeping to herself while she’s in Montgomery Falls, but then she meets gorgeous Aidan Porter, one of Montgomery House’s boarders. He proves to be a welcome distraction as Cat tries to process not only what happened back home, but also her complicated feelings about Riley, their truncated friendship, and his disappearance.

Those feelings become even more complicated when she bumps into Riley’s older brother, Noah. At first, Noah seems disinterested in his brother’s whereabouts, but soon he and Cat team up to try to solve the mystery of what happened to Riley.

And there’s yet another mystery in You Were Never Here which has to do with Cat herself. She seems very reluctant to touch people. There’s an incident on the bus from NYC to New Brunswick, when Cat hesitates before letting a woman sit beside her.

…there’s only so much you can do when you’re big. You can twist and contort all you want, but volume is volume, and with both of us “fat” – “overweight,” my dad always corrects, as if that somehow sounds better – a trickle of sweat forms where our hips press against each other.

Cat’s size is only part of the issue, though. (And how awesome to encounter a protagonist who is not a ‘perfect’ size zero; neither is her weight a punchline or flaw.) The other reason for Cat’s reluctance to touch people is germane to who Cat is, but I’ll let you discover that secret on your own.

I flew through You Were Never Here because it was all the things I love in YA: well-written, suspenseful, peopled with realistic characters, and loads of fun. The last third of the book was so tense, I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough. The fact that I was in a somewhat familiar setting was just the icing on the cake.

Highly recommended.

The Guest List – Lucy Foley

Lucy Foley’s thriller The Guest List is the perfect book to pick up if you’ve got a couple hours and you want to be distracted. Although I didn’t find the writing to be spectacular (do people not care about comma splices anymore?) and the twists weren’t necessarily twisty (once you see one, the house of cards starts to crumble), I still thoroughly enjoyed my time on Innis an Amplora or Cormorant Island.

Jules and Will (a digital magazine editor and a reality tv star) are getting married and they’ve decided to hold the exclusive event on Cormorant Island, located in the Atlantic, off the coast of Ireland. There’s nothing much on the island now, except for the Folly (aptly named as it turns out), a few crumbling buildings, a graveyard and a peat bog. To this event they’ve invited 150 or so of their closest friends, but the people who really matter come the day before.

There’s Hannah, wife of Charlie, who’s Jules’s best friend. Hannah’s quite aware that she and Jules are “the two most important people in [her] husband’s life.” There’s Johnno, Will’s best friend and best man. The two men went to an exclusive boarding school called Trevellyan. There’s Olivia, maid-of-honour and Jules’s half sister. Finally there’s Aiofe, wedding planner and owner of the Folly with her husband Freddy. Each of these people, and Jules, reveal their feelings about the event and the people in attendance in first person narratives. The book jacket tells us that one of these people is a murderer, although we don’t find out until the very end who has actually been killed.

Years ago, I read Agatha Christie’s magnificent “locked room” mystery (although at the time, I’m not sure I knew that’s what it was called) And Then There Were None. The “locked-room” or “impossible crime” mystery is a subgenre of detective fiction in which a crime (almost always murder) is committed in circumstances under which it was seemingly impossible for the perpetrator to commit the crime or evade detection in the course of getting in and out of the crime scene.[1] The crime in question typically involves a crime scene with no indication as to how the intruder could have entered or left, for example: a locked room. Following other conventions of classic detective fiction, the reader is normally presented with the puzzle and all of the clues, and is encouraged to solve the mystery before the solution is revealed in a dramatic climax. (From: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Locked-room_mystery).

The Guest List isn’t totally a “locked room” mystery, but I think Foley does owe a debt of gratitude to Christie. And to every unreliable narrator on the planet. Every one one of the guests who arrive early on the island have something to hide. Secrets are alluded to. Friendships fray. Relationships strain. And it’s all enormous, mindless fun.

Born a Crime – Trevor Noah

Although I knew that U.S. based comedian Trevor Noah was from South Africa, I knew nothing other than that about him. Noah’s 2016 memoir, Born a Crime was named one of the best books of the year by just about everyone including The New York Times, CBC and NPR. The accolades don’t stop there, and nor should they, because Born a Crime is the immensely readable, inspirational and funny story of Noah’s extremely humble beginnings.

Noah was raised mostly by his mother, Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah. His father, a white man, is of Swiss/German descent. “During apartheid, one of the worst crimes you could commit was having sexual relations with a person of another race. Needless to say, my parents committed that crime,” Noah explains. The book’s title refers to Noah’s birth.

…on February 20, 1984, my mother checked into Hillbrow hospital for a scheduled C-section delivery. Estranged from her family, pregnant by a man she could not be seen with in public, she was alone. The doctors took her up to the delivery room, cut open her belly, and reached in and pulled out a half-white, half-black child who violated any number of laws, statutes, and regulations – I was born a crime.

Noah guides us through the early years of his life, years that were marked by trips to church, “at least four nights a week”, poverty, and his mother’s no-nonsense but loving approach to parenting. From her, Noah learned that language is power (and because of this Noah learned to speak several languages.) “It became a tool that served me my whole life,” he explains. Once, when he was being followed by a group of Zulu guys, he heard them say in their own language that they were going to mug him. He was able to diffuse the situation when he spoke to them in Zulu.

That, and so many other smaller incidents in my life, made me realize that language, even more than color, defines who you are to people.

No surprise, then, that Noah goes on to make his living with words.

Noah hustles his way through his adolescence – making money by getting people what they want, everything from treats from the school canteen to bootlegged CDs to DJ services for events. He tells these stories with charming self-deprecation. I can only imagine that the audio book would be so much fun to listen to.

Although this memoir doesn’t tell us how Noah got his big break, I think it’s clear how, out of necessity, determined and resourceful he was. The book is dedicated to his mother, and it’s easy to see why: her faith in her son is unwavering and fierce.

This is a really excellent book.

Here’s a bit of Noah from a stand up show in 2015.

Our Little Secret – Roz Nay

New-to-me Canadian writer Roz Nay’s debut, Our Little Secret, delivers the goods. I couldn’t put this book down.

Our Little Secret is Angela Petitjean’s story, and it unfurls in an interrogation room at the local police station. Detective Novak is asking questions about a missing woman, Saskia Parker.

That’s the thing: they sound like they’re asking about Saskia, but all roads lead to Mr. Parker and me. The police want to know if I’m in love with him, and they ask it like it’s the simplest explanation rather than the most complicated. My definition is nothing like theirs, though.

Angela meets HP, (the Mr. Parker in question) when they are in Grade 10. This is a new school for Angela and she tells the detective that “Moving when you’re fifteen is terrifying.” Angela is immediately targeted by the mean, cool girls until HP comes to her rescue. That moment forges a bond between the two teens. Over the course of the next two years, Angela (or “Little John” as he calls her) and HP are inseparable, but not romantically linked.

I never understood why HP had chosen me as his friend, or how I’d gotten an all-access pass to him. It was like having a key to the White House. He told me everything he thought and felt and wanted, and I don’t think he told anyone else in the world…

By the end of high school, though, their relationship shifts gears. And then, Angela gets an opportunity to spend a year at Oxford, but HP stays behind. The distance complicates their new status. Enter Saskia, an effusive Australian HP meets while visiting Angela in England..

Our Little Secret garnered a lot of praise when it was published in 2017. I find thrillers are hit and miss. They sound good, but they ultimately disappoint. Not this one.

I felt terrific sympathy for Angela, who claims and maintains her innocence after Saskia goes missing. Her friendship and then romantic relationship with HP is believable and complicated. There’s angst here and I love me some angst. It’s only as her story unravels, that we start to see that her version of events might be just a tad unreliable. But we all revise our histories to a certain degree, don’t we?

If you’re looking for an addictive, well-written, smart thriller, look no further.

Highly recommended.

Verity – Colleen Hoover

Verity is one of those books that sucked me in with its hype. In fact Colleen Hoover herself has legions of fans and her name seems to be synonymous with romance of the sexy kind, but the only other book of hers I’ve ever attempted I DNF, and have no idea what it was called. It was just…meh.

So along comes Verity, and it seemed as though everyone in the bookish circles I hang out in was talking about it. I am nothing if not a lemming. People were saying things like “It is a dark, addicting, and compelling psychological thriller” and “Creepy, unsettling, hard to read in parts” and “Five stars”. I mean, c’mon, what’s a girl to do? So, I ordered it.

People, I am here to tell you: Do NOT believe the hype.

Lowen Ashleigh is a struggling writer who, while published, is broke and desperate when she meets Jeremy Crawford. (Their meet cute is more ick cute, but whatever.) Turns out Jeremy is married to Verity Crawford, author of the best-selling Chronics series. The series is incomplete because Verity has been in a horrific car accident and can’t finish because she’s a vegetable, so her publisher is looking for a ghost writer. Jeremy wants Lowen. For reasons.

This opportunity couldn’t come at a better time. Lowen’s mother has just died, her personal life is a bit of a mess, and she needs the cash. It’s problematic that Jeremy is so hawt, but necessity is a great motivator, so Lowen moves to the Crawford mansion. The plan is to go through Verity’s office and look for the meticulous notes she’s made about the next three novels so that Lowen can start writing them.

Lowen finds something a lot more than Verity’s notes, though; she finds her autobiography and shocker! Verity is not a nice person (which is how Lowen justifies getting nekkid with Jeremy).

What you will read will taste so bad at times, you’ll want to spit it out, but you’ll swallow these words and they will become part of you, part of your gut, and you will hurt because of them.

Hoover might have been talking about this book, really. It’s a train wreck peopled with one dimensional characters who are handed backstories as character development. Lowen is a sleepwalker; Jeremy grew up on an alpaca farm. Say what? That’s not character development, it’s just ridiculous.

The “hard to read” stuff fans were talking about might be some of the info Verity reveals in her autobiography, like SPOILER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!SPOILER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!how she tries to abort her twin girls (whom Jeremy loves more than her) with a coat hanger or maybe how Verity uses sex (not even kinky sex) to manipulate Jeremy. None of this sex is titillating or even very well-written. END SPOILER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!ENDSPOILER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Almost immediately after Lowen arrives, strange things start to happen. Think Rebecca if it had been written by a teenager. Verity seems to be looking at Lowen, even though she’s not supposed to be cognizant . One day she catches Crew (Jeremy’s son) waving up at his mother’s bedroom window? Why?! Verity can’t possibly be standing at the bedroom window. She can’t walk. Then there’s the time that she and Jeremy are making out on the couch and Lowen spots Verity standing at the top of the stairs. But WHO CARES? Aren’t we supposed to root for these two crazy kids? I mean, Verity is a monster, right?

Not so fast. There’s a twist NO ONE SEES COMING. But you’ll have to wade through all the other nonsense (not to mention the clunky exposition and dialogue) to get to it, and by then it will feel more like a bait and switch than a twist.

Hoover says in her acknowledgments that Verity “is a personal indie project.” (I suspected as much when my copy arrived and it has clearly been self-published. That should have been my first clue.) Although Hoover is traditionally published by Atria (a division of Simon & Schuster), for some reason she wanted to do this on her own. Apparently it was originally only available online. Like fanfiction. No, wait, that’s giving fanfiction a bad rap. I have read loads of fanfic that is a billion times better than this.

The best thing about my physical copy of this book is the paper it was printed on. It was really nice. The book was a waste of my precious reading time.

I Remember You – Yrsa Sigurðardóttir

Yrsa Sigurðardóttir is a big deal in Iceland and I Remember You is the winner of the Icelandic Crime Fiction Award. It sounded like a book that I would really enjoy and I am always game to try new-to-me authors. The thing that I keep forgetting is that nine times out of ten translations are often disappointing, and this was no exception.

I Remember You is two stories, really. In one, three friends Garðar, his wife Katrín  and their widowed friend, Líf, have decided to travel to Hesteyri, a deserted village “way up north in the middle of nowhere.” The reason for this journey? It’s really Líf’s dead husband Einar’s fault.

He had spun them the story of a village at the end of the world, beauty and peace, and endless hiking trails in an unforgettable setting. Garðar had been inspired – not by the lure of nature, but by the fact that Einar hadn’t been able to rent a room in Hesteyri, since the only guesthouse there had been full. Katrín  couldn’t remember which of them had gone on to suggest they see if any of the other houses there were for sale and transform one into a guesthouse, but it didn’t matter: once the idea had been mooted there was no going back.

So, these three crazy kids head out to this remote place, in the winter, to begin refurbishing the house that is without electricity, running water, heat and, oh, yeah, there’s no one else around for miles. The captain of the boat who takes them to Hesteyri tells them they can return with him, free of charge, but they’re keen on this adventure. Lord knows why.

In the parallel story, Freyr, a psychiatrist, is helping Dagný, a police detective, discover who had broken into a primary school and caused a lot of damage. Freyr still isn’t over the loss of his son, Benni, who disappeared three years ago. His marriage is done, and he has thrown himself into his work. At first it appears that Freyr’s story has nothing to do with what’s happening on Hesteyri, but the more digging Freyr does the more coincidences start to reveal themselves.

I wish I could tell you that all of this is super creepy, but it’s not.  It takes f-o-r-e-v-e-r to get anywhere until the very end, when things seem to unravel super quickly. And, of course, the dialogue – especially near the end – is as clunky as hell. I understand this is a translation, but I always think it would be better to have someone go over dialogue after the translation is done to try and make people sound more natural. Given the circumstances these people find themselves in, you’d think they’d spend less time explaining and more time reacting.

There were a couple of creepy moments, but overall, it was a lot of fuss and bother for nothing.

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.