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.

Monsters of Men – Patrick Ness

My love affair with Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking trilogy began with The Knife of Never Letting Go. The next book, The Ask and the Answer was also fabulous. Last night I finished the third book, Monsters of Men. I am not ashamed to say that I cried.

Monsters of Men begins on the eve of war. Todd and the Mayor, and  Viola and Mistress Coyle are not only at a stand-off with each other, The Spackle (the indigenous people of New World) have risen up to annihilate them. War proves to be frightening and messy and dangerous.

The flames spill out from the top of the horned creacher and cut thru the middle of soldiers and men are screaming  and burning and screaming and burning and soldiers are turning back and running and the line is breaking and Angharrad is bucking and bleeding and squealing and we’re slammed by a wave of men retreating and she bucks up again and-

The lines between hero and villain, good and evil, are  blurred in Monsters of Men. I found my feelings about the Mayor constantly changing. Is he a decent man caught up in extraordinary times? Is he a master manipulator? Is he a monster? Mistress Coyle didn’t fair much better in my estimation. Viola and Todd ask the same questions about the adults nearest them and as they aren’t physically together for much of this book, they also ask it of each other. How have circumstances changed them?

There’s also a new point of view to consider in Monsters of Men: the Spackle. For the first time we get to hear their noise. Truthfully, I found some of this bothersome because of the names they ascribed to things: the Burden, the Clearing, the Knife, the Sky, the Source. I was caught up in the narrative and it slowed me down trying to figure out who or what  they were talking about. Nevertheless, the Spackle are no longer a faceless enemy – if they ever were the enemy at all.

There are big questions to be considered in this novel, in the series as a whole. Despite the fact that Chaos Walking is marketed as a Young Adult series, Ness doesn’t shy away from asking them. Why do we fight? What does it mean to be human? I even think there is something in the books about this information age – the constant bombardment of data and noise we endure every day. With no quiet space to think, don’t we all have the potential to be driven a little mad? Alternatively, can’t we use this information to better understand and empathize with each other?

As the Mayor says to Todd near the end of the book, “War makes monsters of me, you once reminded me.” It is messy business, to be sure. But there is great humanity in these books. And Todd and Viola, as characters, will be with me for a long, long time.

A Must Read series!

The Knife of Never Letting Go – Patrick Ness

Patrick Ness …I think I may love you just a little bit. Okay, maybe a lot. I can’t remember the last time I read a book where I literally had to force myself to slow down while reading. I’d start a page and I just couldn’t stand it – my eyes would race to the bottom of the page, skip over to the next page…I was so invested in these amazing characters and this  story and look, I’m doing it here.

Context coming right up.

The Knife of Never Letting Go is the first book in the Chaos Walking trilogy (The Ask and the Answer and Monsters of Men are the other two titles in the series.) I purchased it based on someone’s blog review – sorry, don’t remember the blog – and it languished on my tbr pile for several months before I finally picked it up. I read about 10 pages and put it aside. I had the same sort of lukewarm feelings about the book as I did after my first attempt to read The Book Thief. And we all remember how that turned out, right?

The second time I picked up Ness’ book, I fell into the narrative. By page 38 there was NO WAY I was putting the book down; I couldn’t have put it down even if I’d wanted to.

Todd is just days away from becoming a man; that’s what he’ll be on his 13th birthday. He lives in Prentisstown, a place notable for two reasons: there are no women and everyone can hear everyone else’s thoughts. Todd calls it the ‘noise’ and we hear about as he heads off to the swamp to pick apples.

…the swamp is the only place anywhere near Prentisstown where you can have half a break from all the Noise that men spill outta theirselves, all their clamor and clatter that never lets up, even when they sleep. men and the thoughts they don’t know they think even when everyone can hear. Men and their Noise. I don’t know how they do it, how they stand each other.

This visit to the swamp is remarkable though; Todd hears…silence. But that can’t be because “there’s no such thing as silence. Not here, not nowhere. Not when yer asleep, not when yer by yerself, never.” When he returns to the home he shares with Ben and Cillian, he gets an even bigger surprise: Ben tells Todd he has to go. There is no time for discussion or explanation, Todd must run.

The shocks keep coming for young Todd and his faithful dog, Manchee. (And can I just say here that I have never been one to fall for the old ‘boy and his dog’ story until now – I love that dog, whose thoughts Todd can also hear.)

Patrick Ness has created a compelling, suspenseful narrative.  Todd’s life is constantly in danger and  he has to keep adjusting his own story because, clearly, he hasn’t been told the whole truth about the town he comes from or even his own personal history. He leaves Prentisstown with a book he can’t read and a knife and a sense of urgency that propels him forward with barely a chance to catch his breath. I felt like that, too.

I know that dystopian literature is all the rage these days and yes, I am a fan of The Hunger Games, but I think Ness has done something else quite original with The Knife of Never Letting Go. This is a story that grabs you by the throat and shakes the living daylights out of you for 479 pages.  The subject matter is often dark. The character of the preacher, Aaron, is one of the creepiest psychopaths I’ve encountered in literature in a long, long time. And this is a book I want to hand to people and say “read this now!” I love it when that happens.