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.

Rabbit Foot Bill – Helen Humphreys

When asked how we (the ladies in my book club) would rate Canadian writer Helen Humphreys’ new book Rabbit Foot Bill on a scale of one to ten, the average score was about six. It’s a shockingly low number for an author whose book The Lost Garden we almost all universally loved. (I have also read her novels Afterimage and Coventry.) I have come to expect a certain degree of poetry in Humphreys’ prose, and while Rabbit Foot Bill is certainly easy to read, it lacked something. Usually after a book club meeting, especially if I am ambivalent about a book, I come away with a deeper appreciation of it. Honestly, I still don’t know how I really feel about this book.

Leonard Flint lives in small-town Saskatchewan with his parents. He’s a solitary kid and his only friend is Bill, a quiet man who lives in Sugar Hill, “right inside the hill.”

We have been friends for a year, Bill and I, and although people don’t approve, we are friends anyway. I like that Bill isn’t bothered by what people say.

The reasons why people don’t like my being friends with Bill are these: first, because he is a man and I am a twelve-year-old boy; and second, because he is a man who is not like other men. He doesn’t talk much. He doesn’t live in a house. He doesn’t have a real job. He doesn’t have a family.

One day, Leonard witnesses a shocking act of violence that lands Bill in prison. It’s fifteen years before he sees his friend again, and when he does it’s at the Weymouth Mental Hospital. Leonard has just accepted his first job as a psychiatrist, a job that he doesn’t really understand how to do. He really is out of sorts and then one night, crossing the yard back to the cottage where he lives he sees a man “moving along the outside of the building. He’s far enough away to be in the shadows and he has his back to me, but I recognize the way he moves as though it was myself moving in my own skin.”

It is indeed Bill, and although Leonard is warned against making contact with him, he can’t help himself. Bill and Leonard’s pasts are so closely linked that it is impossible for him to resist, even though it means that he is derelict in his duties to his own patients.

Rabbit Foot Bill is based a a true story but the real-life relationship between Bill and Leonard is peripheral at best. In Humphreys’ imagination their relationship is far more complex, which is of course the stock and trade of a writer. There were times when I wondered if there wasn’t some sort of homoerotic connection between the men, and the reveal, when it comes, is certainly plausible.

So, I am not sure why I didn’t love this book. Thinking about it now, as I write this, I guess I can see its merits, but I just felt it was somehow superficial. True, as my fellow book club member Karen said, Humphreys doesn’t get in the way of the story. In some ways, though, I wish she had spent just a teensy bit more time making these characters more substantial.

It’s not a total miss for me, but I didn’t love it.

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.

Fall For Anything – Courtney Summers

fallsummersSeventeen-year-old Eddie and her mother have recently suffered a tremendous loss. Eddie’s father, a once-renowned photographer, has taken his own life and neither of the Reeves women are coping very well. Eddie’s mother drifts, ghost-like, around the house wearing her father’s housecoat being fussed over by her best friend, Beth, who drives Eddie “fucking crazy.” Eddie avoids her house as much as possible, choosing instead to hang with her best friend, Milo.

Milo would do almost anything for me. He’s been my best friend since second grade, when a brief but weird obsession with the original Star Trek  got him sort of ostracized at the same time all the girls in our class decided a girl named Eddie must actually really be a boy. By third grade, we weren’t so outcast anymore, but we were beyond needing other people. We still are.

Eddie is trying to make sense of her father’s death, and she is pulled back to the place where he ended his life: Tarver’s Warehouse, an “old and abandoned” building.

I come at night, waiting for some piece of the puzzle to click into place, waiting to understand, and I stay until the living world presses in on me and I have to go back to it…

She is surprised to meet Culler Evans, a protege of her father’s, at Tarver’s. Culler tells Eddie that he knows her father “spent a lot of time here, so I’ve been coming out, just trying to figure it all out, I guess. I mean, to understand why he’d …”

The two instantly bond over their desire to understand this inexplicable suicide. When it appears that Mr. Reeves has left a series of clues that might unravel the ‘mystery’ of his suicide, it sends Culler and Eddie on a road trip.

Canadian YA writer Courtney Summers (Sadie, All the Rage, This is Not a Test, Cracked Up to Be, Some Girls Are)  has created yet another memorable character in Eddie Reeves. This makes the sixth of her books I’ve read and I have not once been disappointed to spend time with her characters. I always find her protagonists to be flawed, tough and vulnerable in ways that make them extremely sympathetic.

Eddie is no different. Her grief is palpable. It manifests itself in her hands, which she claims are dying, and in the ways she pulls people in and pushes them away. Even her escape route at night (she climbs out of her window and jumps to the ground) seems fraught with meaning. “I jump” she says. “It’s effortless. It is so easy.”

Fall For Anything is all the things a great YA book should be (well, all the things any great book should be): well-written, compelling, page-turning and with emotional heft. I held off reading it as long as I could because now I have to wait until February 2021 for The Project, Summers’ next novel. I know it will be worth the wait.

Highly recommended.

Follow Me Down – Sherri Smith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A solid read.

The Damned – Andrew Pyper

223C2A3B-A2C4-455F-AEFE-1A58DF3297B0Canadian writer Andrew Pyper is often compared to Stephen King and I can see why.  Both writers skillfully find the scary in the every day, and in relationships which should be sacrosanct. Pyper mined that territory in his novel The Guardians  and he does it again in The Damned which hooks you in pretty much from page one.

Danny Orchard has come back from the dead on more than one occasion. He wrote about the experience in a memoir called The After a book that, many years later, keeps him busy at “dentists’ conventions and service club fundraisers” where he talks about what’s at the end of the long tunnel. Danny’s experience has inspired a group known as The Afterlifers, “a community for those who’ve traveled to the other side and returned.”

When Danny was sixteen he and his fraternal twin, Ashleigh (Ash), were killed in a house fire. Well, Ash was killed; Danny was saved. If saved is what you want to call it. I guess Danny would have a different opinion about it since he’s been haunted by his sister ever since. Although on the surface, it looked like Danny and his family had it all

My father, mother, and I were aware that a monster lived with us, however photogenic, however scholarship-guaranteed. And because she was only a girl, because she was one of us by name, because we feared her, there was nothing we could do about it.

Ash is clearly a psychopath and death doesn’t change that, so Danny’s life is pretty solitary until he meets Willa and her ten-year-old son Eddie.  He believes that he can keep them safe, but Ash isn’t about to let go that easily and Danny soon realizes that he is going to have to face her on her terms. If heaven is reliving the best day of your life over and over, hell is quite the opposite.

Pyper has created a compelling and nightmarish hellscape and, in Danny, a character readers will actually want to root for. At first he thinks that Ash just wants him to solve the lingering questions about her death. (Why was she in that abandoned house and what happened to the three friends she was supposedly with that day?) But Ash’s motives are far more sinister and when Danny returns to Detroit looking for answers he finds far more than he bargained for.

The Damned would make a terrific movie, but I’ve got a great imagination and Pyper is a great writer. I could see everything just fine, thanks very much. If you don’t mind white-knuckling it through a book, this is the story for you.

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.

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

 

 

 

Mabel Murple – Sheree Fitch

“What if there was a purple planet with purple people on it…?

mabelHow many times did I read those lines, the opening words of Sheree Fitch‘s children’s book Mabel Murple to my kids? About a billion. Fitch ranked right up there with Dr. Seuss when my kids were little. They loved her clever rhymes and I loved reading them aloud. (For me, Mabel might have just been edged out by There Were Monkeys in My Kitchen. That book uses the word Gorgonzola, so come on. ) We could happily read Toes in My Nose every night before bed. I’d like to think that Fitch is a staple in Canadian households, but if you haven’t heard of her I can highly recommend her books. They are classics!

On Sunday July 7, my son Connor and I were heading home from visiting my daughter Mallory in Halifax. It’s a straight shot on a twinned highway between Halifax and Saint John and on a good day you can do it in under four hours. But it’s a journey I have made several times since my daughter moved to Halifax to attend NSCAD (Nova Scotia College of Art and Design) a year ago. It’s quick and it’s boring. Connor and I both love to drive and we both love to get off the beaten path. We had music (my choices excellent; his not so much) and it was a perfect day. My brother had mentioned the Sunshine Coastal drive to me before we’d headed to Halifax and so we decided to check it out on our way home. When we hit Truro we headed towards New Glasgow instead of Amherst. We picked up Hwy #6 in Pictou and it was so worth the detour.

So, we’re cruising along, windows down, ocean to our right, green as far as the eye could see and right before River John I see the sign (had I blinked I would have missed it) for Mabel Murple’s Book Shoppe and Dreamery

Truthfully, I was as excited about this discovery as I was about entering Shakespeare and Co. in Paris last summer. I knew about this little oasis and it has been on my book bucket list, but I didn’t know that our spontaneous detour was going to take as right past it. Yet, there it was. I think my shriek of delight scared Connor half to death.

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If there is a more idyllic spot, I don’t know where it is.  It is literally down a dirt road, a burst of colour on a gorgeous plot of land. I can only imagine how little fans of Mabel Murple must feel upon arrival because I was practically giddy.

After peering into Mabel‘s adorable house, and wandering the grounds visiting horses, a donkey, a couple goats and some chickens, we made our way into the book shoppe. It’s a delightful place. I am – no surprise – of the opinion that all book shops are delightful places, but this one is extra special. Mabel Murple‘s is geared towards children and carries a lot of Atlantic Canadian literature and I wanted to buy all the books. Of course I did.

fitch10As if that weren’t  enough, Ms. Fitch was there! She happily read (well, recited more like) Mabel Murple to a delighted child  (and all the adults who happened to be standing there, too) who seemed to know the words almost as well as she did. 

After making my purchase (a copy of Mabel Murple, of course and A Velocity of  Being, which has been on my tbr list for a while), I asked Ms. Fitch if I could get a picture. She graciously agreed. We stood outside her shop and chatted for a few minutes before Connor snapped the photo.

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A perfect day! Thanks, Sheree!

P.S. Sheree will be reading in Saint John as part of the Lorenzo Society‘s reading series in November. Watch this space.

The Saturday Night Ghost Club – Craig Davidson

The ghosts in Craig Davidson’s novel The Saturday Night Ghost Club are not literal saturdaynightghosts. The ghosts haunting 1980s Niagara Falls (and man, did I love this novel’s setting – from the actual seedy city itself to the allusions to super specific Canadian touchstones like The Beachcombers) are personal.

Davidson is probably best known for his 2013 Giller Prize nominated novel Cataract City, but I have never read that book. I have read Davidson’s horror novel The Troop, though, which he wrote using the pseudonym Nick Cutter. That book was super icky, but also really good. This book, The Saturday Night Ghost Club, is not icky at all. It’s a coming-of-age tale reminiscent of Stephen King – which is a compliment.

Jake Baker is a loner. He lives with his parents, spends a lot of time with his mother’s brother, Uncle Calvin, and  tries to stay out of the way of the town bully, Percy Elkins. Percy isn’t Jake’s only tormentor, but he is the kid who is, perhaps because they were once friends, relentlessly cruel.

The novel takes place the summer Jake turns 12. That’s when he meets Dove and Billy Yellowbird. When Billy shows up at Uncle Calvin’s occult shop looking for a way to contact his dead grandmother, the boys form a fast friendship.

Jake recounts this summer from the vantage point of adulthood.  Now a successful brain surgeon, Jake is fully aware that “memory is a tricky thing….memories are stories – and sometimes these stories we tell allow us to carry on. Sometimes stories are the best we can hope for. They help us to get by, while deeper levels of our consciousness slap bandages on wounds that hold the power to wreck us.” Memories are, in fact, ghosts.

Uncle Calvin suggests that the he and the boys, and Lex, Calvin’s best friend who owns the video store next door, form a sort of ghost hunting club. Calvin knows all the haunted spots in town and on Saturday nights they meet at graveyards and lakes and burned out buildings, where Calvin tells the story of whatever might have happened there. Although there are certainly some creepy moments, that’s not really what The Saturday Night Ghost Ghost Club is all about.

I loved this book. I loved the characters. I loved how Canadian it was. (I know, that’s probably a weird thing.) I loved that this is a story about growing up, which is exactly what Jake does that eventful summer. He goes from being a friendless kid afraid of the monsters in his closet to being someone who is deeply empathetic. It’s a journey well worth taking.

Highly recommended.

 

Exit, Pursued By a Bear – E.K. Johnston

Seventeen-year-old Hermione Winters is a spitfire. Co-captain of her high school bearcheerleading team, she is looking forward to one last cheerleading camp, one last year of school and then the freedom her future offers her. She is smart, fun-loving and although she loves cheerleading and takes it seriously, she is not the stereotypical cheerleader. To be honest, there isn’t actually a mean or petty girl in E.K. Johnston’s YA novel Exit, Pursued by a Bear. 

I wonder if Johnston chose Hermione’s name as an allusion -to the character from Shakespeare’s play The Winter’s Tale. That’s where the novel’s title comes from; it’s is a famous stage direction from the same play. Never mind, as a character she is sympathetic and admirable. And her life is about to get a lot more complicated.

Every year, the cheerleaders meet at Camp Manitouwabing, which is about an hour from Parry Sound. Teams from different schools meet there for two weeks of intense training. At a dance, just before the end of the camp, someone slips something into Hermione’s drink, and when she wakes up, she’s in the hospital. She has no memory of what happened, but she spends the next year dealing with the aftermath of the event.

There are lots of YA novels out there that deal with rape, but I have to say that this is one of the better ones I have read. After the attack, Hermione’s squad closes rank, insulating her from the inevitable rumours. Only Hermione’s boyfriend, Leo, fails to step up. Not that she needs him; she’s got her bestie, Polly, a pit bull of a friend, who is always at the ready to fend of anyone who even looks sideways at Hermione.

There are lots of great people in her corner, actually. Her psychiatrist, the female police officer tasked with finding the perp, Hermione’s parents who want to protect her, but know that offering too much protection would do their daughter a great disservice at the end of the day.

The novel is brisk, but it does allow readers a glimpse into Hermione’s PTSD, and how she tries to figure out the best way to deal with what has happened to her. Will she let this one incident set the course for her life? I am happy to say that the answer is a resounding no.

One scene I particularly liked was when Hermione and Polly are interviewed by a local reporter. Their cheerleading squad is a pretty big deal, but the journalist does manage to ask a question about the attack:

“Hermione, after your attack at the end of last summer, do you have any words of advice on how other girls can be smart, and stop such awful things happening to them.”

Polly, as always, speaks the truth.

“You’re okay with asking asking a girl who was wearing a pretty dress and had nice hair, who went to the dance with her cabin mates, who drank from the same punch bowl as everyone else – you’re okay with asking that girl what mistake she made, and you wouldn’t think to ask a boy how he would avoid raping someone?”

The conversation has to change. Polly knows it. Hermione knows it. It’s time everyone did.

I really liked this book for a lot of reasons. It’s Canadian, it’s well-written, it says important things without being didactic and you will root for Hermione.