Tag Archive | favourite books

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?

 

 

 

Everything I Never Told You -Celeste Ng

everythingLydia is dead.

It’s been quite a while since I’ve had such a visceral reaction to a book.  I read the bulk of Celeste Ng’s debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, on my snow day (a gift for a teacher, even if it’s only because we get to catch up on  marking/yearbook/planning – and, yeah, reading). I don’t think I will ever  be able to adequately explain how I feel about this book or these characters.

Lydia is just sixteen when she is found at the bottom of the lake across the street from her home in small-town Ohio. It’s the 1970s, the decade in which I, too, was coming-of-age. On the morning she is discovered missing (and it is this “innocuous” fact that sets the story in motion) we see the Lee family dynamic.

As always, next to her cereal bowl, her mother has placed a sharpened pencil and Lydia’s physics homework, six problems flagged with small ticks.

Hannah, Lydia’s younger sister is “hunched[ed] moon-eyed over her cornflakes, sucking them to pieces one by one.” Lydia’s older brother, Nathan, is sitting on the stairs trying to wake up. James, their father, has already left for his job as a professor at the local college.

Lydia is never late. She is never anything but compliant. She is a “yes” girl, the favoured daughter. It is only after her body is found that her story, and that of her family, begins to unravel. And yes, you will want to know what happened to Lydia, but trust me, it’s just one of the many things that will break your heart in this magnificent novel.

While every family has their own secrets and burdens, the Lee family is further set apart because Marilyn is white and James is Chinese. Their story is integral to Lydia’s story. Marilyn herself was a gifted student, earning a scholarship to Radcliff, and there – while she heads towards a degree in medicine – she meets James, a fourth year graduate student in history. She is ‘other’ because she is a woman studying in a field that is dominated by men; he is ‘other’ because he’s Chinese. All Marilyn knows is that “she wanted this man in her life. Something inside her said, He understands. What it’s like to be different.”

Marilyn’s career plans are pre-empted when she gets pregnant. She and James marry and move to Ohio.  Of course, their union wouldn’t be quite so problematic now (I’d like to think, but there are always some people….), but it’s the late 50s when they marry. Another world, another time. And life, fraught as it is, moves on. But why is it fraught? Because James grew up attending private school for free because his mother worked there as the cook and his father the janitor? Because he never fit in anywhere?  Because Marilyn didn’t want the life her mother had? Because of dreams deferred? And what happens when our parents’ lives are complicated and damaged by their own childhoods? Ah, we all know the answer to that question, right? It all trickles down.

Everything I Never Told You is an astounding, complex and heart-breaking look at the secrets we keep, not only from our families but from ourselves. Why we keep them, and the damage caused because of it, is just part of what happens in Ng’s book. The horrible longing we feel to crack ourselves open, the desire for true communication and intimacy, is another part. There wasn’t a single character in this novel I didn’t want to hug – I loved them all. That they were so fabulously human and fragile is a testament to Ng’s talent.

Highly (times a billion) recommended.

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.

Easy – Tammara Webber

easyEasy was easy to love. So easy, in fact, that I started it and finished it in pretty much one sitting – abandoning all else yesterday after I got home from school and fed my kids –  reading until I’d turned the last page…about midnight. This novel by Tammara Webber hit all my guilty-pleasure buttons and a few others besides.

I think Easy is one of those novels that belongs in this New Adult category I see everyone talking about.  I actually wish we didn’t spend so much time shelving books into these categories  but, anyway, I can see how this book just crosses over the line from YA. For those of you unclear about the New Adult designation, Goodreads defines it as ” fiction [that] bridges the gap between Young Adult and Adult genres. It typically features protagonists between the ages of 18 and 26.” I also think that New Adult is a little more forthcoming with details of a sexual nature. (I should also add that at Indigo, this book is filed in the Adult section.)

Okay, so now that we’re all on the same page with regards to New Adult, let’s get to the good stuff.

Easy is narrated by Jacqueline Wallace,  a sophomore (for Canadians who don’t know what that means because we don’t use those terms it’s 2nd year) at an unnamed university. She’s there because she followed her high school sweetheart, Kennedy.  He’s just dumped her. She’s heartbroken. But that’s not how Easy starts.  It starts with Jacqueline leaving a frat party and getting jumped by someone she knows and always considered benign. Buck has other things on his mind, though, and the relatively graphic nature of the attack is an early indication that we’re leaving strictly teen fiction behind.

Jaqueline has a knight in shining armour, though. The stranger, Lucas,  pulls Buck off Jaqueline before he actually rapes her and beats the crap out of  him. After Jaqueline declines a trip to the hospital or police station, he whisks her to her dorm and safety.  I pretty much fell in love with Lucas from this moment on.

I stared back into his clear eyes. I couldn’t tell their color in the dim light, but they contrasted compellingly with his dark hair. His voice was softer, less hostile. “Do you live on campus? Let me drive you. I can walk back over here and get my ride after.”

Easy is a lot of things, but what it isn’t is the clichéd bad boy, good girl story we’ve all read a thousand times. Yes, Lucas has a pierced lip and lots of tattoos and a body to die for (I wish Ms. Webber’s editor had told her it was biceps not bicep though – even when referring to one) but anyway – that’s beside the point. He’s HOT. Smokin’ hot. And smart. And kind. And mysterious. And tragic. And sometimes, when he speaks, there was swooning – and I’m not just talking about Jaqueline’s reaction.

There’s more than just a love story going on in this novel. To Ms. Webber’s credit she’s created several other compelling minor characters including Jaqueline’s roommate bestie, Erin, and, Benji,  a boy in Jacqueline’s Economics class. The book offers lessons about personal safety and girl power without being didactic. In addition, there’s enough push/pull between Jaqueline and Lucas to sustain Easy through its 310 pages and I never once found myself screaming “just get on with it.”  If Lucas sounds just a tad too mature for his age – his childhood experiences will explain all. He’s a keeper and Jacqueline deserves him.

Will it go in my classroom library?  Yep. I can think of a dozen girls who will love it as much as I did.

The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian – Sherman Alexie

part time indianI can’t remember the last time I rooted for a character the way I rooted for Arnold ‘Junior’ Spirit, the fourteen-year-old narrator of Sherman Alexie’s YA novel, The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian.

Junior is a member of the Spokane Tribe and lives with his parents, grandmother and older sister on the Rez. Without a drop of self-pity, Junior tells the reader that his “head was so big that little Indian skulls orbited around it” and that “the bullies would pick me up, spin me in circles, put their finger down on my skull, and say, ‘I want to go there.'”

Skinny, born with ten extra teeth, and prone to seizures, Junior is also determined, smart and really funny. He says, “With my big feet and pencil body, I looked like a capital L walking down the road.” He both stutters and lisps and so everyone calls him a retard. “Do you know what happens to retards on the rez?” he asks the reader. “We get beat up. Yep, I belong to the Black-Eye-of-the-Month-Club.”

As if Junior’s physical problems weren’t bad enough, Junior and his family are also very poor. They’re so poor, Junior often goes hungry. But, as he explains, “It’s not like my mother and father were born into wealth. It’s not like they gambled away their family fortunes. My parents came from poor people who came from poor people who came from poor people, all the way back to the very first poor people.”

His father is an alcoholic who often disappears on benders. His mother is slighty flakey, but also super smart. Junior is perfectly aware of the limitations that come from being an Indian on the rez.

…we reservation Indians don’t get to realize our dreams. We don’t get those chances. Or choices. We’re just poor. That’s all we are.

Strangely, none of this seems like whining coming from Junior’s mouth. It is what it is and he’s found ways to cope. For one thing, his best friend,  Rowdy, is the toughest kid on the reservation. For another thing, his parents are kind and loving and supportive. While it seems like there are too many obstacles in Junior’s way, the reader soon learns not to underestimate him.

An incident at school prompts a visit from one of his teachers and suddenly Junior has left the rez and is traveling 23 miles into a town to attend a white school where he has the chance to make something of himself. (But not without a lot of soul-searching about what it means to have to leave the rez behind and enter the white world.) But make something of himself, he does. I can’t imagine anyone reading this book and not getting a little va-klempt at Junior’s journey.

The back cover of my edition of The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian  says that the novel is inspired by Sherman Alexie’s own experiences growing up. The book has won numerous awards including the National Book Award. It’s most deserving of the praise.

This is a laugh-out-loud, tear-in-your-eye, 100% uplifting novel about the challenges of growing up and making your own way in the world. Everyone should read it.

A Monster Calls – Patrick Ness

Monster-calls_shadow“Are you crying, Mom?”

My daughter was settled in at the foot of my bed playing on her iPhone and I was  reading the last few pages of Patrick Ness’s remarkable novel, A Monster Calls.

And, yeah, I was crying. Hard by the end of it.

Damn you, Patrick Ness.

Siobhan Dowd is credited for the idea for A Monster Calls, but sadly Ms. Dowd died  – at the age of 47 – before she ever had the chance to see her idea through to the end. As Ness acknowledges in his Author’s Note, “the thing about good ideas is that they grow other ideas. Almost before I could help it, Siobhan’s ideas were suggesting new ones to me, and I began to feel that itch that every writer longs for: the itch to start getting words down, the itch to tell a story.”

A Monster Calls is the story of thirteen-year-old Conor O’Malley who lives with his mom in a little house in a little town in England. His parents are divorced and his dad now lives in the States with his new wife and a baby daughter. Conor rarely sees him.

Conor’s mom is ill. Readers will figure out early on that she has cancer and that Conor is doing his level best to cope, with varying degrees of success.  Then the monster shows up “just after midnight. As they do.”

Conor isn’t particularly afraid of this monster. Despite its “great and terrible face”, Conor tells the monster he’s “seen worse.” And even though he claims not to be frightened of the monster, the monster replies that he will be “before the end.”

The monster continues to visit at night with stories that make no sense to Conor. The monster also claims that there will come a time for the fourth tale – that is Conor’s story. Conor knows what the monster is talking about: a recurring nightmare which terrifies him and which he insists he will not be sharing. In the meantime, his mother grows weaker, his grandmother steps in to help out (much to Conor’s dismay) and his father visits from America – a sure sign of the Apocalypse.

The monster drives Conor to action, but also to irrefutable truths. The monster says,” Stories are important. They can be more important than anything. If they carry the truth.”

Conor’s truth is one that he is unwilling to face, but which comes barrelling towards him anyway. And as a reader, I have to say, I was unprepared for its impact.

A Monster Calls reminded me a little bit of John Connolly’s brilliant novel The Book of Lost Things. Connolly’s story is also about a boy on a journey from innocence to experience. You should definitely check it out.

As for A Monster Calls – I cannot recommend it highly enough.

 

 

 

The Sky is Everywhere – Jandy Nelson

The Sky is EverywhereJandy Nelson has written a debut novel which will resonate with anyone who has ever lost someone they’ve truly loved.  The Sky is Everywhere is seventeen-year-old Lennie Walker’s journey through the grief of losing her nineteen-year-old sister.

My sister Bailey collapsed one month ago from a fatal arrhythmia while in rehearsal for a local production of Romeo & Juliet. It’s as if someone vacuumed up the horizon while we were looking the other way.

The loss of her sister isn’t the first significant loss of Lennie’s young life. She lives with her grandmother and her uncle ‘Big’ (yes, he is indeed) because her mother abandoned her and her sister when Lennie was only one. Despite the fact that Gram and Big are awesome, Lennie is finding it difficult to cope. Lucky for her, Bailey’s boyfriend, Toby, is on hand to share her grief.

“How will we do this? I say under my breath. “Day after day after day without her…”

“Oh, Len.” he turns to me, smooths the hair around my face with his hand.

I look into his sorrowful eyes and he into mine, and I think, He misses her as much as I do, and that’s when he kisses me –

There isn’t a thing I didn’t love about Lennie. She’s lived, thus far, in her sister’s shadow; Bailey was the outgoing, beautiful one.  Now, suddenly, Bailey is gone and Lennie is lost. Perhaps that’s what makes Toby so desirable. They can share their grief, but also their memories of someone they both loved.

But, then it gets complicated.

“Even in the stun of grief, my eyes roam from the black boots, up the miles of legs covered in denim, over the endless torso, and finally settle on a face so animated I wonder if I’ve interrupted a conversation between him and my music stand.

Meet Joe Fontaine, the “gypsy,” “rock star,” “pirate,” who arrived at school while Lennie was away. Suddenly Lennie finds herself in a precarious predicament: she is  impossibly drawn to Toby even as she crushes hard on Joe. Those feelings are compounded by her guilt because she’s supposed to be sad. And she is.

Make no mistake, The Sky is Everywhere is not a romantic comedy; it’s a beautifully written novel about loss, about being left behind and about what it means to be alive. All the characters are fully realized; even the adults have interior lives, a fact Lennie only begins to understand months after her sister’s death. She also comes to understand that grief is a living thing. Lennie thinks, “I don’t know how the heart withstands it.”

I’m not a fan of eReaders, but I can’t imagine reading this book on one would offer as satisfying an experience as reading the book the traditional way. The novel is filled with poetry written on scraps of paper and found in various places which are named on the back of the found object.  How they came to be collected is revealed at the end of the story. The poetry itself is beautiful (Nelson herself is a poet) and I loved its inclusion in the book.

This is a novel I will really look forward to passing on to and talking about with my students.