The Burning Air – Erin Kelly

burning airI was a big fan of Erin Kelly’s novel The Dark Rose and so I was very much looking forward to reading The Burning Air. Kelly is a terrific writer, which is what saved The Burning Air for me because while the writing was great and I certainly had no trouble turning the pages, I just thought it was a lot of fuss for nothing.

The MacBrides have it all. Dad, Rowan, is the headmaster at a prestigious school; mom, Lydia, is a magistrate, and then there are three adult children: Sophie, Tara, and Felix. The novel opens with a deathbed confession. Lydia writes:

Of course it was love for my children, love for my son, that caused me to act as I did. It was a lapse of judgment. If I could have foreseen the rippling aftershocks that followed I would have acted differently, but by the time I realized the extent of the consequences, it was too late.

When Sophie, Tara and Felix and their families arrive to spend a weekend with their father at the family’s special getaway, Far Barn in Devon, it’s clear that the death of their mother has caused some collateral damage. But there were cracks in the family’s perfect façade anyway. And they aren’t the only ones with secrets.

Darcy also has a connection to the MacBride family. I am carefully going to avoid saying too much about Darcy, other than to say that they are filled with vitriol for the MacBride family. Their lives intersect when Darcy interviews for a place at Rowan’s school and fails to make the grade, so to speak. What happens next sets the course for all their lives.

The novel flips back and forth between present day and back when Darcy and Sophie, Tara and Felix were children, mostly concentrating on Sophie’s 3rd person and Darcy’s first person narrative.

There is a lot of stuff happening in The Burning Air, complicated resentments and personal trauma. Darcy’s revenge plot seems over-the-top considering its impetus, but the thing about Kelly is that she can manage to make just about anything believable. I believed in Darcy’s hatred towards the MacBrides, but I felt that underneath all that pent up anger was little more than hot air and when the denouement finally arrived, it felt rather like a fallen soufflé.

That said – The Burning Air is way better than a lot of books in the genre and I will definitely be checking out the third Erin Kelly book on my TBR shelf: The Poison Tree.

My Sunshine Away – M.O. Walsh

My-Sunshine-AwayJust when I thought my reading slump was never going to end, I read M.O. Walsh’s compelling debut novel My Sunshine Away. I can’t even begin to tell you how much I loved this book – start to finish.

The unnamed adult narrator is recalling the time between ages 14 and 16, when he lived with his mother on Piney Creek Road, in an affluent area outside Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He’s obsessively in love with Lindy Simpson, the beautiful fifteen-year-old track star who lives across the street. After Lindy is raped, our narrator’s life is irrevocably changed. Through his eyes we try to unravel the mystery of who hurt Lindy and so, in that respect, My Sunshine Away is a total page-turner. But it is so, so much more than that.

First of all, Walsh evokes a sense of time and place that is both exotic (I have never been to Louisiana, although I would love to visit once Trump is no longer in office) and familiar. Set in 1989, the book’s sense of time and place is practically nostalgia now. The children on the street get together and play football, go fishing, wander the woods, gather piles of moss. It’s pre-Internet and so reminiscent of my own childhood despite the fact that it’s 20 years later. You know, back when kids played outside. With each other.

The main character is completely authentic. From his vantage point as an adult, he spills both the varnished and unvarnished truth about those two turbulent years when he watched Lindy so closely that readers might actually believe he could have had something to do with her attack. He even admits that  he was “one of the suspects”,  but then begs the reader to “Hear me out. Let me explain.”

There was something about My Sunshine Away that reminded me of Thomas H. Cook.  This is a compliment. Really. At his best, Cook writes literate mysteries that often plumb the complicated depths of family and memory. I couldn’t help but think of Cook while reading Walsh because Cook’s characters are never stereotypes. They are so fully realized that his novels always feel like  much more than just a straight-up mystery. This was true of My Sunshine Away, also. Like our narrator, we want to find out who had hurt Lindy, but we also want to come to terms with the narrator’s relationship with his father who has left the family home, and his wife and son bereft. We want to see him work his way through his awkward adolescence. This is  a bildungsroman done so well that your breath will literally catch in your throat.

The narrator’s self-awareness is so profound that it takes My Sunshine Away to another level entirely.

And it is not until times like these, when there are years between myself and the events, that I feel even close to understanding my memories and how the people I’ve known have affected me. And I am often impressed and overwhelmed by the beautiful ways the heart and mind work without cease to create this feeling of connection.

I highly and wholeheartedly recommend this book.

 

Turtles All the Way Down – John Green

turtlesI have a deep and abiding love for John Green. He’s a passionate advocate for reading and learning. He makes nerdish pursuits cool and I think he’s a terrific writer. Lord knows, I was a sobbing, snotty mess at 2 a.m. finishing The Fault in Our Stars. I was pretty excited, then, to get my hands on Green’s latest book, Turtles All the Way Down.

Aza is sixteen and suffers from almost debilitating mental illness. She has no control of her thoughts and her thoughts take her to some pretty unusual and scary places. Even the simple act of eating is problematic for Aza who finds “the whole process of masticating plants and animals and then shoving them down my esophagus kind of disgusting, so I was trying not to think about the fact that I was eating, which is a form of thinking about it.”

Still, she finds ways of coping. Daisy, for example, “played the role of my Best and Most Fearless Friend.” And then there’s Davis Pickett, a childhood friend with whom Aza reconnects after she reads in the paper that his billionaire father, Russell, has disappeared.

There’s not really a plot, but that’s not to say that nothing happens in the novel. Aza and Daisy decide they are going to play detective and figure out what happened to Russell. That leads to Aza and Davis picking up their friendship and discovering that they might have feelings for each other, which is complicated by the fact that Aza has spiraling thoughts. She fixates on things and can’t seem to stop, which leads her down a rabbit hole of worry. I suspect that anyone who suffers from anxiety or mental health issues will totally get Aza’s erratic thoughts. I didn’t, especially, but I thought Green did a tremendous job of illustrating how Aza gets trapped in her own head.

The sting of the hand sanitizer was gone now, which meant the bacteria were back to breeding, spreading though my finger into the bloodstream. Why did I ever crack open the callus anyway? Why couldn’t I just leave it alone? Why did I have to give myself a constant, gaping open wound on, of all places, my finger. The hands are the dirtiest parts of the body. Why couldn’t I pinch my earlobe or my belly or my ankle? I’d probably killed myself with sepsis because of some stupid childhood ritual that didn’t even prove what I wanted it to prove, because what I wanted to know was unknowable, because there was no way to be sure about anything.

Green has spoken quite openly about his own struggles with mental health. In an article with Time he said: “I still can’t really talk directly about my own obsessions. The word triggering has become so broadly used in popular culture, but anyone who has experienced an anxiety attack knows how badly they want to avoid it. It was really hard, especially at first, to write about this thing that’s been such a big part of my life. But in another way, it was really empowering because I felt like if I could give it form or expression I could look at it and I could talk about it directly rather than being scared of it. And one of the main things I wanted to do in the book was to get at how isolating it can be to live with mental illness and also how difficult it can be for the people who are around you because you’re so isolated.”

Turtles All the Way Down does not simplify Aza’s problems and there are no happy endings here, but I do believe this is a hopeful novel. And while it didn’t leave me a sobbing mess like The Fault in Our Stars there is much to admire here. Green remains one of my favourite YA writers.

Nutshell – Ian McEwan

nutshellThere’s no arguing with the fact that Ian McEwan is an astoundingly good writer. I have read enough of his books over the years to know that I like him, even when he’s hard work. (I have read Saturday, On Chesil Beach, and The Children Act   Predating this blog I’ve read First Love, Last Rites, The Comfort of Strangers, The Cement Garden and my favourite McEwan novel, the devastating Atonement. I have a couple more on my tbr shelf.) McEwan is astonishingly prolific and you really never feel like you are reading the same book over and over. He has lots to say about a variety of topics and he says it well.

That’s the saving grace of Nutshell, which was chosen as our book club selection this month. I did a little inward grown when Sylvie revealed this book. Not because it was McEwan – clearly that wouldn’t bother ne – but because I already knew about the novel’s conceit and I wasn’t really interested in reading this book. At all. But then: it’s McEwan. In less capable hands, this book would be a dog’s breakfast and instead it was, while not exactly enjoyable, an easy read.

So here I am, upside down in a woman. Arms patiently crossed, waiting, waiting and wondering who I’m in, what I’m in for. My eyes close nostalgically when I remember how I once drifted in my translucent body bag, floated dreamily in the bubble of my thoughts through my private ocean in slow-motion somersaults, colliding gently against the transparent bounds of my confinement, the confiding membrane that vibrated with, even as it muffled, the voices of conspirators in a vile enterprise. That was in my careless youth.

That’s the opening of Nutshell. If it’s not obvious, the narrator of McEwan’s book is an unnamed fetus. He’s sentient and trapped inside his mother’s womb. I say trapped because instead of biding his time until he’s born, he must listen to his mother, Trudy, plot with her lover, Claude, to kill Trudy’s husband, John. Matters are further complicated by the fact that Claude and John are brothers. If any of this sounds familiar, you know your Shakespeare. That’s all I’ll say about that.

Although the conceit of having the story narrated by a fetus might have proven problematic in less capable hands, Nutshell, is totally readable. Of course it is. Our narrator relates overheard conversations and imagines others to which he is not privy. Through him we see the adults in this story – none of them particularly likeable.  For example, he describes Claude as “a man who prefers to repeat himself. A man of riffs….This Claude is a property developer who composes nothing, invents nothing.” As for Trudy, “my untrue Trudy, whose apple-flesh arms and breasts and green regard I long for”, our narrator both loves and hates her. John, his father, was “Born under an obliging star, eager to please, too kind, too earnest, he has nothing of the ambitious poet’s quiet greed.”

As the narrator contemplates his mother and her lover’s plans to kill John, he also waxes poetic on a variety of topics including philosophy, poetry, and the best wine. He might be stuck where he is, but remarkably (or maybe not remarkably: this is McEwan, after all) the plot moves along at the pace of a good page-turner. Careful readers will love the allusions and readers smarter than me will likely find the overall reading experience intellectually satisfying.

Nutshell  is classy fan fiction by a writer whose talent and intelligence are undeniable, but I wouldn’t have ever picked this book up on my own.

 

 

Commonwealth – Ann Patchett

Ann Patchett is one of those writers who can maneuver a huge cast of characters so commonwealthdeftly that you hardly notice the machinations.  Her novel Commonwealth, the story of the intersecting lives of two families, might have crashed and burned in less talented hands, but Patchett moves these people backwards and forwards in time without seeming to  break a sweat.

Fix and Beverly Keating are hosting a christening party for their daughter when Bert Cousins shows up with a bottle of gin. Of the dozens of people invited to celebrate baby Franny, police officer Fix “struggled to make the connection” when he opened the door to the district attorney. Bert’s arrival was precipitated by the fact that “he hated Sundays.” By Sunday, Bert had had all he could stand of his three children and pregnant wife, Teresa: “he couldn’t play with them and he didn’t want to play with them and didn’t want to get up  and get the baby…”. Trapped in a life he clearly doesn’t want, he latches on to Fix’s party as a momentary escape hatch. By the end of the afternoon – perhaps lubricated by the gin, Bert has kissed Beverly and set off a chain of events that reverberates through the years.

After Beverly and Bert leave their marriages and form a new relationship, the five children (Franny and Caroline Keating and Cal, Holly, Jeanette and Albie Cousins) form a lasting bond. They navigate their lives – sharing confidences and allegiances, tragedies and achievements. Central to this story is Franny, who as an adult begins a love affair with Leon Posen, a celebrated writer looking for his next commercial success. He finds it in Franny’s family and the novel he writes exposes fault lines, mends fences, rights wrongs and assuages guilt.

As happened with her novel Bel Canto, I found myself falling madly in love with these characters and their very human-ness. The novel twists around itself, moving backwards and forwards in time – jumping years and characters. Sometimes we get just a taste of a character and their life, sometimes we are fully immersed. I never felt short-changed because I didn’t know everything about everyone; I didn’t mind the novel’s elliptical narrative. That’s life, isn’t it? Days and days of sameness marked by little heartbeats of pain or sorrow or happiness. Patchett manages to capture those heartbeats beautifully and there are moments in this book that took my breath away.

Commonwealth made me consider how we are our memories and the stories we tell ourselves and each other. And sometimes, as Franny remarks, there are stories we need to keep for ourselves.

Highly recommended.

 

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.