Tag Archive | favourite authors

Delicate Monsters – Stephanie Kuehn

The three central characters in Stephanie Kuehn’s darkdarkdark YA novel Delicatedelicate Monsters are hard to spend time with. From the moment we meet  Sadie, and Emerson  and his  brother, Miles, we embark on a journey that is both awful and strangely – redemptive. In any case, these train-wreck teens are hard to look away from.

Sadie has just returned to her home from a camp where the girls were “all supposed to be “troubled”” Sadie’s far tougher than these girls who are “wide-eyed and tragic, fragile herd-like things, brimming with stories of Painful Childhoods.” Sadie can’t relate because she is not like them. She has “no interest in introspection” and “she found threats a curious thing because she didn’t respond to them the way she was meant to…threats made Sadie’s skin grow cold and her brain grow mean.” Mean is exactly what Sadie is, too.

At first eighteen-year-old Emerson seems like an uncomplicated lug of a guy. He lives with his widowed mother and younger brother, Miles, 15. Miles is sickly and has been diagnosed – or misdiagnosed –  with a variety of ailments: night terrors, separation anxiety, rashes, fever, celiac. Despite his health concerns and the fact that Miles “didn’t like other people,” Emerson was convinced that his younger brother is “destined for…something. Greatness?” Miles is peculiar and although Emerson seems to care about Miles, he doesn’t defend him against the constant barrage of abuse – both physical and verbal – Miles takes from the thugs at school.

Kuehn dances these three teens together when Sadie returns to her hometown. She’s been expelled from boarding school (again) for almost getting someone killed. (The details of that are revealed through email exchanges between Sadie and her ‘victim’, Roman Bender.) The aforementioned camp was clearly a placeholder because her father is M.I.A. and her mother seems to have no real interest in her daughter. She’s been out of the hometown loop for a while, but she remembers Emerson. She specifically remembers the things they used to do together when they were kids and his mother, a nurse, would bring them out to Sadie’s family’s vineyard to care for Sadie’s grandfather.

Sadie doesn’t remember Miles, though. They meet during fencing and if she has any redeeming qualities, she shows them in her interactions with him. For a kid who tries to blend into the shadows, Miles seems to respond to Sadie’s “I don’t give a shit, but here, eat this sandwich” approach to friendship.

I love the way Kuehn writes her characters. This is my third book by her and although I didn’t love it as much as I loved Charm & Strange, I still couldn’t stop turning the pages. We’d be naïve to think there aren’t lost, damaged kids like Sadie, Emerson and Miles in the world. Kuehn doesn’t mince words or tread lightly in Delicate Monsters, and as prickly as these three are – the mother in me just wanted to hug them and try to right their scarily off-kilter worlds.

The Interrogation – Thomas H. Cook

My love affair with Thomas H. Cook goes back several years when I stumbled upon his novel Breakheart Hill in a secondhand bookstore. Since then I have read several of his books including Instruments of Night, The Chatham School Affair, Places in the Dark, Evidence of Blood, The Fate of Katherine Carr, Master of the Delta, Red Leaves and The Cloud of Unknowing. Geesh, that’s a lot of books by one author!  In my reading life perhaps Stephen King is the only author I’ve read more of. (Yes, I am ending that sentence with a preposition; sue me.)

Cook is a prolific writer (he has over 30 novels to his credit) and has won many awards including the Edgar and the Crime Writers’ Association Duncan Laurie Award, yet you’d be lucky to find any of his novels on the shelves at your local bookstore – trust me, I look.  So how come he isn’t as well known as other authors writing in the same genre? Unless you’ve read him, or are a super mystery novel aficionado, you may have never even heard of him. How come? Ali Karim asked the same question for an article in January magazine.

I buy his books whenever I find them and I hang on to them, usually until I can replace the one I am about to read with a new one. I like to have one waiting in the wings for the next time I need a fix.

Albert Jay Smalls is an odd little man who lives in a drain pipe in a local park. He’s been 237180arrested for the murder of a little girl. The problem is there’s no evidence and no witnesses and so the police can only hold him for twelve hours before they have to cut him loose. Thomas Burke, the chief of police ( a man with his own troubles) sends  his two best interrogators into the room to get a confession from Smalls.

The Interrogation is the story of those two cops, Norman Cohen and Jack Pierce. Each man has a heart full of demons (Cohen is haunted by his experiences in war; Pierce’s young daughter was a murder victim), but they are tenacious and accomplished interrogators. Since the story is set in 1952 they have to rely on the evidence they gather the old-fashioned way: visiting crime scenes, talking to people, chasing leads. There’s no Google and everything takes time and time isn’t on their side.

As Cohen and Pierce question Smalls and try to follow a breadcrumb trail, the reader will try to determine Smalls’ guilt or innocence too. Make no mistake, Cook’s novels are mysteries and half the fun is trying to figure out whodunit, but that’s not the only thing Cook’s got going on.

As with every single Cook novel I’ve read – his characters are really dynamic. You believe them from the minute they open their mouths. They have complicated interior lives. His heroes are always men trying to do the right thing – even when they can’t. Minor characters, like garbage collector Eddie Lambrusco, are equally well-drawn. Cook can create empathy with just a few word as he does when we watch Eddie handle his father’s watch and thinks

a laborer’s timepiece with its chinks and scratches and slightly skewed hands that circled turgidly around the yellowing dial. After a lifetime, he thought, this.

There are a lot of father/child motifs in The Interrogation –  dads who are helpless to save their children; dads who do everything for them; dads estranged from their children. It’s a theme Cook visits often and yet he always seems to have fresh things to say about the topic.

And like with virtually every Cook novel (I almost said book there and then thought better of it) I’ve read, the story’s resolution will be a surprise. It won’t feel like a cheat, either…because with Cook the clues always exist.

If you like mysteries that are thoughtful, intelligent and well-written – try to get your hands on Thomas H. Cook. You will not be disappointed.

That’s amore

Listen here.

Boy meets girl – it’s the oldest story in the book, right? And now, thankfully for modern readers, we can also add boy meets boy and girl meets girl.

A couple of years ago I talked about love and the sorts of stories that make my heart skip a beat, or more often than not, break…a feeling I have to admitting I like just a little more than is probably healthy. You can read about what I said here.

I am a romantic at heart. Sappy, even. I’m not sure I grew up believing that a handsome prince was going to ride in on his white stallion and save me, but I did believe in happily-ever-after, although I am currently on the fence about that now.

My most favourite kind of love story is the one where the couple overcomes tremendous obstacles to be together – sacrifices are made – or, even better, that they love each other deeply but just can’t be together. Angst, baby. Buffy and Angel. Hello.

So since Valentine’s Day has just passed, I thought I would talk about romantic books.

I cut my teeth on my mom’s bodice rippers – Rosemary Rogers type stuff. Sweet Savage Love. You know, wild men who can’t be tamed and the virginal women who tame them.

Clearly romance novels have changed over the years – like 40 of them – when I first starting reading them. Some argue that modern romance novels are actually empowering because they are mostly written by women for women, women are generally the hero – or should I say heroine – of the piece and then there’s the s-e-x. In the modern romance novel, women are often in charge of their own pleasure, something I doubt Rosemary Rogers would have acknowledged back in the day.

All that said – I still have a soft spot for romance between two people who have to overcome horrible odds…and if they can’t actually overcome them – even better. Clearly, I have a type and it’s all about the doomed love. I am the person who still blubbers like a baby watching Zefferelli’s Romeo and Juliet.

Ultimately, though, I think there should – at the very least- be the potential for a happy ending, even if it never actually happens.

So, if you are feeling the love – or you want to feel the love – or, you just want to curl up in a ball and cry…I have some recommendations for you.

The Lost Garden – Helen Humphreys lostgarden

The link to my musings about this book predate this blog, but what you’ll find if you follow the link is an entry I did for Book Drum.

Humphreys is a Canadian writer and The Lost Garden is the story of Gwen Davis a young horticulturist in 1941 London. She gets a job leading a team of Land Girls at a neglected estate in Devon. They’re going to be growing crops for the war effort. While there she meets Raley, a Canadian officer waiting to be posted to the front. She also befriends Jane, a young woman whose fiancé is MIA. From these two people – in these fraught circumstances, Jane comes to understand the meaning of love. I was so enchanted with this book that when I was in England in 2007, my kids and I spent the day at The Lost Gardens of Heligan, an estate which is very much like the one Gwen works on in the novel.

IMG_0834 IMG_0838

Can I just share a little bit from the beginning of the book?

We walk the streets of London. It is seven years ago. We didn’t meet, but we are together. This is real. This is a book, dusty from the top shelf of a library in Mayfair. The drowned sound of life under all that ink, restless waves breaking on this reading shore. Where I wait for you. I do. In a moment. In a word. Here on the street IMG_0846corner. Here on this page.

But it is shutting down, all around me, even now, this moment that I stopped. The story disappears as I speak it. Each word a small flame I have lit for you, above this darkened street.

The Lost Garden is a really lovely, and surprising love story.

So, I asked my eighteen-year-old daughter why she reads romance. She was pretty quick to point out that most of the love stories she reads are unrealistic and that she realizes that. However, that doesn’t get in the way of her enjoyment. She counts books like John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars and Nicholas Sparks’ The Notebook or The Last Song among her favourites. Nicholas Sparks definitely offers readers a heaping helping of schmaltz.

If you’re looking for schmaltz, you can’t go wrong with Robert James Waller’s 1992 novel The Bridges of Madison BridgesOfMadisonCountyCounty. You could read this book in an afternoon, it’s short. I don’t mean to suggest that Waller is a wordsmith, but this book broke my heart when I first read it. Francesca is a war bride and she lives with her husband and her kids on a farm in Iowa and one afternoon – while her family is away at a state fair or something – she meets a photographer named Robert who is in the area to photograph covered bridges. The encounter changes her life and his, too. Sacrifices must be made. Their story is discovered by her adult children after her death and they are shocked to realize their mother was more than the woman who made their meals and washed their clothes. People might know the movie with Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood and it’s a decent version, but the book is pretty good if you have a couple hours and a box of Kleenex.

So clearly, I’ve just outed myself – if a book can make me cry the writing doesn’t even have to be stellar.

Now – how about a YA romance?

easyEasy – Tammara Webber

This is for mature teens…it kind of just crosses the line, but it’s about a second-year university student named Jacqueline who has just been dumped by her boyfriend. She meets Lucas and he’s – I suppose – the proverbial bad boy, but he’s not really. This book hit all my guilty pleasures and then some. There’s tension galore, there’s a likeable minor cast and the two main characters are smart and kind and when they finally reach their happily ever after, you’ll be swooning.

Yep – there’s something super satisfying about a love story. Check out these:

The Time Traveler’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger

I cried so hard when I read this book, I couldn’t even see the pages.

The Banquet – Carolyn Slaughter

Henry meets Blossom at Marks & Spencer. He’s a conservative architect; she’s a young shop girl. There’s is an all-consuming love affair. Carolyn Slaughter is one of my all-time favourite writers.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe – Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Two boys, true love. So beautiful and life-affirming.

Me Before You – JoJo Moyes

Just in time for the movie. Plain Jane meets handsome paraplegic.

Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte

My first-ever romance. And you never forget your first, right?

What’s your favourite romance novel?

 

 

 

The Grownup – Gillian Flynn

Gillian Flynn is best known for her smash hit Gone Girl , but her two other novels Dark Places and Sharp Objects are also excellent. Flynn is a masterful writer and her protagonists are generally prickly women with dark pasts.

The Grownup is Flynn’s latest literary offering, a slender little story you could polish off over a cup of tea and a biscuit. (Literally – it’s 62 pages long.) She thanks George R.R. Martin (author of Game of Thrones) for asking her to “write him a story.” This particular story actually won an Edgar, a prestigious award given by the Mystery Writers of America.grownup

“I didn’t stop giving hand jobs because I wasn’t good at it. I stopped giving hand jobs because I was the best at it,” says our narrator. Now she has painful carpal tunnel syndrome and needs to find another way to make money. She’s been a grifter her entire life, learning at her now-absent mother’s hem.

“I came to my occupation honestly,” she tells us. Raised by her mother “the laziest bitch I ever met”, the narrator now guarantees satisfaction at Spiritual Palms: tarot readings in the front, hand jobs in the back.

One day Spiritual Palms’ owner, Viveca asks the narrator if she’s clairvoyant and before she can say poltergeist, the narrator is giving readings to the public. That’s where she meets Susan Burke, a harried woman who proclaims “my life is falling apart.”

Wanting to help, imagining a life where she does, the narrator goes to Susan’s home, Carterhook Manor, and there things take a decidedly creepy turn.

I can’t say much more than that, really. After all, in the time it would take you to read this review, you could be half way through The Grownup. What are you waiting for? Go on.

 

Some Girls – Kristin McCloy

somegirlsWhat’s a reader to do when the author of her favourite book of all time, Velocity, encourages her to read another of her books. Said book, Kristin McCloy’s second novel, Some Girls, has been languishing on my tbr shelf for at least four years and clearly I intended to read it at some point – I wouldn’t have purchased it otherwise. The stakes are higher now, though. Not only have I recently re-read Velocity, but I’ve struck up a sort of email friendship with Ms. McCloy and I was terrified to read this book (I have her third book, Hollywood Savage also waiting to be read) for a variety of reasons – not the least of which is that I LOVE Velocity and nothing could ever be as good as that. Also, what happens if I don’t like this book or the next one. Gah!

Ok, I have my reader-angst out of the way.

Some Girls is the story of twenty-three-year-old Claire Stearn who flees Alamogordo, New Mexico for the bright lights of NYC circa  1989. She leaves behind her divorced and bitter mother, Ginny, her older sister, Paula, and her boyfriend, a rancher called Tommy. In many ways, Claire isn’t different from  any other young person who, desperate to escape the confines of their lives,  makes their way to a big city. Claire is “aware of her spine, the strength of her pelvic bones, the arches of her feet. It was all she needed to support her.” She’s ready to become herself.

New York City is very much a character In Some Girls. The 1989 version depicted in the novel isn’t the NYC of 2015.  As Claire rides into the city from the airport she describes it as “a terror, glossy buildings rising out of a slum, a place of anarchy, crooked and lawless, impenetrable.” I remember that New York because I spent some time in the city in the 1980s. It was a little rough around the edges, but for a small-town girl like me still spectacular.

For that reason, I related to Claire’s assimilation. Those first few days, when Claire had “nothing but the speed with which she walked and her sunglasses to protect her” reminded me of me. I was so desperate to blend in, to not look like I knew nothing.  I’m sure, in the early days,  you could smell my terror from twenty paces. And like, Claire, I was constantly pinching myself and thinking “I’m here, I’m in New York City, a shock each time.”

McCloy captures the frenetic energy, the heat and the smells, the blast of icy cold, the patchwork quilt of humanity that is New York City and I liked revisiting the city through her lens very much.

Claire meets Jade the day she moves into her little downtown apartment. (I sort of imagine it in the area of Soho, but I wasn’t familiar with White Street so I had to look it up on the map.)  Jade is, to Claire’s innocent eyes, “a woman of the city.”  When they finally spend a little time together Claire feels “the crushing sense of anonymity that had dogged her ever since she had arrived suddenly turned to reveal its other face.” There is erotic tension between the two women from the start.

This relationship was a little harder for me to relate to than Ellie’s relationship with Jesse in Velocity. I am worldly enough now to know that sexuality is vastly more fluid than I might have viewed it when I was Claire’s age. I think my unease has more to do with the fact that I didn’t particularly care for Jade. She seemed self-centered and reckless and I never felt as though I knew her well enough to understand Claire’s attraction to her. She was startlingly beautiful, but surely there was more to it than that? That said, I felt as though Claire’s feelings – about Jade, about her life, about what she was leaving behind when she said good-bye to Tommy – were authentic. Complicated and messy, but certainly true.

Some Girls does a fine job of capturing a young adult on the precipice of figuring her life out, making choices that are both difficult and blindingly simple. While I may not have been able to relate to Claire’s relationship with Jade, I did love her journey and ultimately, isn’t that the point?

I also loved the writing in this novel. It was different from Velocity, which demonstrates the depth of McCloy’s talents, but still a pleasure to read.

Velocity – Kristin McCloy

velocityA couple of days ago on Information Morning, I talked about how I wished that I could carve out some time to revisit some of my favourite books. I mentioned three in particular: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte and Kristin McCloy’s Velocity. All three of these books had a profound impact on me, the first two when I was much younger and McCloy’s book when I first read it as a twenty-something. Of those three, I have actually already re-read Velocity numerous times and I just finished reading it again.

I think I am going to have a difficult time articulating exactly why I continue to find Velocity so compelling, but I do want to honour the book and its place in my personal canon here, especially because I recently had the very good fortune of exchanging a couple emails with the novel’s author, Kristin McCloy. (Insert fangirl squee here.)

When it was first published in 1988, Velocity caused quite a stir and earned copious praise. I am not sure what year I picked up my copy, perhaps 1989, but I definitely purchased it at The Strand in NYC. I devoured the book then for reasons that will surely become apparent a little further on.

So, what’s the book about?

Twenty-five-year-old Ellie Lowell has returned to her backwater North Carolina hometown to scatter her mother’s ashes. Ellie’s an only child and she’s been living in New York City for the past six years, so she’s finding it difficult to connect with her taciturn father, a local cop. They share the family home like two strangers might share a taxi ride to the airport – making small talk, but never really connecting.

Despite the awkwardness, Ellie decides to stay home for the summer, leaving her fledgling career in the film business and her boyfriend, Dec, back in the Big Apple. She gets a job at a local diner and before you can say two eggs over easy, she’s hooked up with Jesse, the half-Cherokee biker who lives down the road. Ellie knows he’s trouble. She says

…it occurs to me, a thousand woman, he’s had a thousand women, and every one of them has fed him everything she had.

Even though Jesse isn’t much for talking, Ellie finds herself pulled into his orbit. The attraction is sexual, of course, and she remarks that his “crazy height and that straight hair down to [his] shoulders, even from the shadows of [his] porch, the way [he] stared at me would’ve burned a hole in a blind woman’s side…”

When she’s with Jesse, she doesn’t think about anything else and that’s a good thing because what Ellie doesn’t want to think about is that her mother is dead. She can’t avoid the knowledge that “Everything crumbles. The walls, the rooftop…every structure will fall. Everything known, all that is so familiar, will vanish. Including myself.” What she can do, however, is push that knowledge away and although she is “aware of [her] grief waiting for [her], patient and thick,…right now it is remote.” Jesse is in its path.

At her age I was doing much the same thing, which is, I suppose, why Velocity struck a chord with me when I first read it all those years ago. I don’t recall what I was running from, but I sure knew what I thought I was running to. My guy, let’s call him S., was crazy tall, mostly silent, beautiful, at least to me, and he’d often disappear for days at a time, throwing me into a frenzy of longing, and then reappearing like an apparition. Like Ellie, I read into the smallest of gestures – a moment of tenderness could sustain me for weeks. S. wasn’t a criminal, but he definitely had his own demons and he was in no position to give me what I so desperately wanted. Our relationship was doomed from the start, but that didn’t prevent me from showing up where I’d know or hope he’d be or using sex as a bargaining chip. Our whole relationship was just fraught. And the weird thing is, 30 years later, I still feel that little electric charge on the rare occasion that I see him around.

When I read this book back in the day it was ALL about Jesse and Ellie’s relationship. I believed that Jesse did, in his own way, care for Ellie. I excused his bad behavior because Ellie excused it. I wasn’t blind to Ellie’s grief, but I hadn’t experienced real grief yet and so, although I could sympathize, I couldn’t personally relate to that part of her story. I knew exactly how she felt with Jesse, though. I knew that “electrical current” and the “pleasure like mercury.”

So, how does the book hold up upon rereading? Um – it’s still freaking fantastic. And here’s why. McCloy is a beautiful writer. That has always mattered to me. From the book’s opening line:

Sometimes in my dreams you rise up as if from a swamp, whole, younger than I remember, dazzling, jagged, and I follow you into smoky rooms, overwhelmed by the sense of being in the presence of an untamed thing, full of light, impossible to control.

…until the final pages, McCloy’s writing is fluid and evocative and painfully honest. But we readers know that beautiful writing only goes so far; we have to care about the characters, too. From this vantage point (on the slippery downward slope), I want to tell Ellie what I’m sure she already knows: he’s not the right guy. But I never wanted to shake her and say “Ellie, you’re acting like an idiot.” Her grief is palpable. I feel it like she feels it “a fist, hard-knuckled and small.”

She is so clearly out of control and there is no one able to ease her pain. Her father is caught in his own. Dec is helpless in New York and when he arrives unexpectedly, his presence just muddies the waters. It’s easy to see why Jesse becomes the center of her universe. He doesn’t ask questions that she can’t answer. He doesn’t ask anything of her at all, he simply “hunted down [his] needs – simple and precise – and in those days, it was me.”

Velocity is a novel about loss. And grief. It just so happens that it also has some incredibly erotic sex scenes; trust me, you’ll feel it in your knees. But here’s something interesting about my reread: this time, for the first time ever, I cried.

Now I understand. Since the last time I read this book – and it’s been a few years – both my parents have passed away, my mom in 2006 and my dad in 2009. I get Ellie’s frantic desire to sublimate her grief. Everything about her journey seemed organic and honest to me. I ached for her. I missed my parents. I also missed, strangely, that feeling of being so crazy in love with someone that you can’t think straight. All those things are lost to me now.

Velocity is a special book. Thanks, Kristin, for writing it.

The Children Act – Ian McEwan

children's actYou can always count on Ian McEwan to bring on the controversy. This is the fourth of the prolific British novelist’s books we’ve read in my book club and it prompted a loud and lively discussion.

The main character in The Children Act is Fiona Maye, a High Court judge in London. She’s about to turn 60 when her husband, Jack, a professor, announces that he wants to have an affair (this is not a spoiler, really; the revelation comes pretty much on page one). She’s been married for thirty years and until the moment her husband tells her that he needs this because it is his “last shot” and he’s “yet to hear evidence of an afterlife” she’s been pretty smug about her life. While it is true that they don’t have children, they have had a good life together: enough money, a nice home, friendship and, Fiona admits ” she had always loved him.”  To say that Jack’s confession throws Fiona for a loop is an understatement, but she does not intend to “manage the rest of her life alone.”

Into Fiona’s fractured world comes the Henry family. Adam Henry is seventeen and he and his family are refusing the blood transfusion that may save his life because they are Jehovah’s Witnesses. According to their beliefs, “Mixing your own blood with the blood of an animal or another human being is pollution, contamination. It’s a rejection of the Creator’s wonderful gift. That’s why God specifically forbids it in Genesis and Leviticus and Acts.”

Fiona’s actually quite adept at sorting through these complicated and potentially incendiary cases, but even she is not quite sure what compels her to reserve judgment so she can visit Adam in the hospital. She calls the decision “a sentimental error,” but she goes anyway and discovers that seventeen – year – old Adam is , despite his illness, “beautiful.” It’ll be obvious to careful readers that Fiona is smitten. In fact, during the first few moments of their meeting she “caught nothing.” The visit that follows is charged – not sexually, really, although there is an element of that, too – with the kind of energy that happens when two people discover a shared passion. For Adam and Fiona it is music and poetry. Ultimately, Fiona’s decision sets Adam on a path that has profound consequences for them both.

I really liked The Children Act. McEwan is a smart writer and he’s adept at spinning a narrative that is tightly focused. Fiona isn’t a particularly likeable character, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to relate to her. This is a great book to get people talking.