Rooms – Lauren Oliver

Lauren Oliver is well-known in the YA fiction world, but Rooms is her first novel for roomsadults…although the distinction hardly matters, really. Rooms is the story of the Walker family, alcoholic mother Charlotte; twenty-something Minna, her single-mother daughter, and Amy, her granddaughter; and Trenton, her awkward teenage son. They’ve returned to the house they once called home to pack things up. Richard, Charlotte’s ex and the children’s father, has died and now it’s been left to them to pick up the pieces. They aren’t alone. The house is inhabited by two ghosts: Sandra and Alice.

All of these characters have stories to tell. Mostly they are stories of loss and dysfunction. Sandra and Alice, in particular, are trapped by their memories, which Sandra claims are “thick as mud.” These two women watch the Walker family stumble around with varying degrees of affection and distaste. Alice has tender feelings towards Trenton, who she remembers as a young child claiming that “For years, I’ve longed to see Trenton. He was the most beautiful child….” She can’t quite believe that the “absurdly tall, skinny adolescent, with the sullen look and dingy-dark hair”  who stumbles into the house all these years later is the same boy.

The Walker children don’t seem to have happy post-divorce memories of their father. Minna is caustic towards Trenton and indifferent toward her daughter. Trenton has clearly had a difficult time, too. He is virtually friendless and has recently been in an accident (the details of which are revealed slowly), which has left him physically damaged. He longs for someone in his family to tell the truth.

Everyone in his family lacked integrity. They were corrupt (antonym).  His mom, Caroline, was the worst. She had lied to everyone for so long, Trenton wasn’t even sure she knew the difference anymore.

Rooms doesn’t follow a linear narrative. There’s more than one story to be told here, and the ghosts want their fair share of the limelight. While Richard was still alive, Sandra and Alice took bets about where he would die. Alice wins, remarking “Richard Walker does not die at home. Thank God. I’ve shared the house with him for long enough.”

The house itself is a character. “It’s corners are elbows, its stairways our skeleton pieces, splinters of bone and spine.” Trenton takes a different view.

…they were just rooms, many of them empty and thus unfamiliar, like the rooms of a stranger’s house. It didn’t matter much. The past would come along with you, whether you asked for it or not.

Rooms is a family drama and a ghost story. It is a story about secrets, regrets and finding a way to forgive – yourself and others. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Diablerie – Walter Mosley

5BFAE846-1C5C-4C6F-88E7-2D73D1804D5C
Yeah, so Diablerie was a weird one for me. I haven’t read anything else by acclaimed writer Walter Mosley and I am not sure that I will be rushing out to purchase any more of his work, but all that said, he can definitely write. This book, though, is just odd.

Ben Dibbuk is a successful computer programmer with a beautiful wife and a college-age daughter. He’s 47 and, on the surface at least, has it all together. What he doesn’t get from his wife, Mona, he gets from Svetlana, his 21-year-old Russian grad student girlfriend.

Then at the launch of a new magazine, Diablerie, his wife will be working on, Ben meets a woman, Star, who claims to have known him back in the day. When Ben claims he can’t remember who she is, she replies “Come on, Ben. You can’t forget me, us, that day…not something like that.”

Whatever this something is, it drives Ben batshit crazy trying to remember.  Star tells him that they “spent almost twenty-four hours living on whiskey and sex.”  As Ben tries to recall this former life, his current life starts to unravel.

Readers will have to decide for themselves whether you care about any of it. I didn’t, but I kept reading anyway.

The Daughter – Jane Shemilt

732E19BC-CA2D-4623-B4E1-EA31B053BDE9It’s probably every parent’s worst nightmare: your child just doesn’t come home one day. That’s the premise of Jane Shemilt’s debut The Daughter.

Jenny is a successful family doctor in Bristol. She’s married to Ted, also a physician. Together they parent twins, Ed and Theo, 17, and Naomi, 15.  Life is busy for the family, which means that sometimes things slip through the cracks. Pretty much every parent  can relate to that. Things are particularly hectic right now because Naomi is starring in her school’s production of  West Side Story, and she is always dashing off.

But on the night before the last performance, Naomi doesn’t come home. She doesn’t respond to her mother’s frantic phone calls. She’s not at the theatre or the place she’d told her mother she’d be. She’s not with her friends.

The Daughter is a page-turner, for sure, but it is also a meditation on modern marriage, parenting, and the fine balancing act of having a career and a family. Jenny is so convinced that she understands her daughter, her sons, her marriage, but it turns out there are cracks everywhere.  Jenny feels blindsided by her daughter’s disappearance and by the fissures which suddenly appear in her domestic life.

If I was asked, I would say she was happy, that Ted and I were as well. I would say we were all perfectly happy.

The novel’s narrative isn’t straight forward. We are given glimpses into Jenny’s life just before Naomi leaves, and then several months later when she has taken herself to Dorset, to the family’s cottage. In these passages, we see how Naomi’s disappearance has affected Jenny and those around her. It’s not that Jenny’s life has come to a complete standstill, but certain aspects of her life have been derailed. She has not given up all hope that Naomi will be found and her grief is palpable.

But it not only Jenny’s grief that drives the narrative. Her husband also suffers. “I look for her everywhere I go,” he tells Jenny months after Naomi’s disappearance. “Don’t give up,” he tells her. “Don’t ever give up. I still think we’ll find her.” Jenny’s sons also suffer under the horrible weight of this loss.

Shemilt handles all their grief and a plot that might have proved unwieldy with a great deal of finesse. I raced to the end, which was both heartbreaking and unexpected.

 

 

Girl in Snow – Danya Kukafka

5919CB39-1143-49E3-BCAE-98D1717F025EDanya Kukafka’s debut novel, Girl in Snow, earned copious praise from anybody who’s anybody in the book world and it’s easy to see why everyone was hyped up.

When they told him Lucinda Hayes was dead, Cameron thought of her shoulder blades and how they framed her naked spine, like a pair of static lungs.

Kukafka’s novel is a sort of mystery, but not in the traditional sense. Lucinda, a popular 15- year-old, is discovered  in the playground of the elementary school. She’s been murdered.  Lucinda’s death is certain in the incident that kicks the novel off, but it’s the three-person narrative that keeps its motor running.

First there’s Cameron, the boy who loved Lucinda from afar. Perhaps saying Cameron ‘loved’ her isn’t quite the right word. He watched her obsessively.  He drew her.  He feels like he knew her better than anyone, “The way her legs flew out when she ran…How her hair got frizzy at the front when she walked home from school in the heat….the way she squinted when she couldn’t see the board.”  When Lucinda’s body is found, Cameron is one of the first suspects because a classmate had once told a teacher that Cameron “was the sort of kid who would bring a gun to school.”

Then there’s Jade. When she hears the news of Lucinda’s death she says that “faking shock is easier than faking sadness.”  Jade lives with her mother and sister and I wouldn’t characterize her life as necessarily happy. She resented Lucinda, and so her classmate’s death inspires little more than antipathy.

Finally, there’s Russ, a local cop who used to be Cameron’s father’s partner before he did a runner, leaving his wife and son behind.  He feels protective towards Cameron and his feelings are further complicated by the feelings he had for Cameron’s father, Lee.  He is also suspicious of his wife, Ines’, ex-con brother, Ivan, who just happens to be the person who discovered Lucinda’s body.

It is through the lens of these characters that we see Lucinda. I wouldn’t say that Girl in Snow is a page-turner, but that’s because these are complicated people with complicated feelings and Kukafka cares about every word she writes. This is a book to be savoured and these are characters you won’t soon forget.

We All Love the Beautiful Girls – Joanne Proulx

E1A054FB-47D3-4BF8-93BC-7A8F56A62626The characters in Joanne Proulx’s second novel We All Love the Beautiful Girls are so perfectly imperfect that you can’t help but fall in love with them.

At the centre of this finely crafted family drama is the Slate family, Mia and Michael, and their seventeen-year-old son, Finn. Then there’s Jess, Finn’s former babysitter who now sneaks into his bedroom at night to…you know. Frankie is the daughter of Michael’s business partner, Peter. Peter’s wife, Helen, is Mia’s best friend. Frankie and Finn have grown up together.

Mia and Michael’s perfect life starts to unravel when they get a visit from Stanley, the company accountant (I’m not sure that’s his actual his title, but it doesn’t really matter; he’s only the messenger). He’s discovered that Peter has restructured the company and written Michael out. Michael has, it turns out, been pretty lax about the financials of the company because he and Peter have “known each other since high school.”

On the same night that Michael finds himself screwed out of his own company, Finn finds out that Jess won’t be leaving her boyfriend, Eric, for him. She can’t even though Finn is “So gorgeous and so nice.”  Finn is just a kid. (She’s 23.) Eric’s a total douche and happens to be the older brother of Finn’s best friend, Eli. Finn’s at a party at their house, drunk, and after an encounter with Jess he makes a couple of bad choices. First, he hooks up with Frankie. Second, he passes out in the backyard. It’s  January. In Canada.

These two incidents are game-changers for the Slate family and their repercussions propel Proulx’s story along like a thriller. I literally could not put this book down. I finished it well past my bed-time. On a school night.

The novel flips between characters. We watch Finn’s heart break. We watch Mia and Michael’s marriage topple. We watch friends become enemies. Proulx toggles between these perspectives masterfully, the blame and the shame carefully shared. And if there is redemption or peace to be had, it’s hard won.

No one makes it through life unscathed, but perhaps the key to surviving is understanding. As Finn tells his mother: “I’m not the same as I was….I’m different now….But it’s good, you know? I’m good. Like I understand things I didn’t understand before.”

The boy becomes a man. The parents – well, I guess they do what all parents do. The best they can.

I LOVED this book.

Sweetbitter – Stephanie Danler

9BC8A38C-E581-4BB6-A29F-B5302D5437FCAlthough I didn’t lead the life of debauchery that Tess, the first-person narrator of Stephanie Danler’s novel Sweetbitter lives, I did spend most of my twenties working in the service industry.  Those were the best of times and the worst of times. For Tess, too.

Tess arrives in New York City without a plan. She’s 22-years-old and she left home to escape something – although she is perhaps not quite sure what:

The twin pillars of football and church? The low, faded homes on childless cul-de-sacs? Mornings of the Gazette and boxed doughnuts? The sedated, sentimental middle of it. It didn’t matter. I would never know exactly, for my life, like most, moved only imperceptibly and definitively forward.

She moves in with the friend of a friend, a guy with an apartment in Williamsburg. And then she scores an interview at New York’s most famous restaurant, a place in Union Square. Tess has no real experience (because you can’t count the coffee shop she worked at back home) and when Howard, the restaurant’s general manager asks her why she chose NY, Tess says “It really didn’t feel like a choice Where else is there to go?” She smiles too much; sweats through her sundress. And lands a job.

This job changes Tess. In some ways it chews her up and spits her out. She encounters lifers who make a lot of money – so much money, it’s understandable why they’ve chosen this life as their career.

One of these people is Simone – an ageless goddess who seems to know everything. Tess develops something of a crush on her, longs to be like her, hangs on her every word.

“Tasting is a farce,” Simone tells her. “The only way to know a wine is to take a few hours with it.”

Then there’s Jake, possessor of the pale, spectral eyes. His total disregard for her traps Tess in his orbit.

Of course, there are loads of other characters at the restaurant: the gay Russian, the cranky waitresses, the handsome owner who tells the staff that “The goal…is to make  the guests feel that we are on their side. Any business transaction – actually any life transaction – is negotiated by how you are making the other person feel.”

Tess  starts as a “backwaiter”, a job I’d call server assistant. It’s hot, thankless work, but Tess is a quick learner. She’s soon part of the family – drinking and snorting coke until the wee hours, sleeping, and doing it all again and again.

I had a few summers like that – without the coke snorting. I do remember running from the restaurant where I worked down to another bar and knocking back a drink during my fifteen-minute break. That was about as wild as it got for me. Still, I could relate to Tess and her topsy-turvey lifestyle. Up late into the night, sleeping late into the day. Always cash in your pocket.

Sweetbitter will definitely remind anyone who’s worked in the the restaurant business of those crazy days when those “loose, slippery bills” filled your pockets. But it is a business that can ruin you. Tess says that “What I didn’t see was the time had severe brackets around it. Within those brackets nothing else existed. Outside of them, all you could remember was a blur of temporary madness.”

I very much enjoyed my time with Tess. And I am very happy that those days are behind me.

The Light Between Oceans – M.L. Stedman

lightbetweenI feel heartless for saying it – but I didn’t particularly like M.L. Stedman’s first novel The Light Between Oceans. I’ve had the book for a while, but it was last month’s book club pick, so I finally had occasion to read it. [insert long-suffering sigh]

Tom Sherbourne is a quiet man, intent on living a quiet life after having survived WW1. He’s returned to Australia and is about to take up his new post as lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock, an island off the coast of Partaguese on Australia’s western coast.

Teetering on the edge of the continental shelf, Janus was not a popular posting. Though its Grade One hardship rating meant a slightly higher salary, the old hands said it wasn’t worth the money, which was meager all the same.

Tom likes the idea of isolation thinking “If only he can get far enough away – from people, from memory – time will do its job.” It’s the horrors of war, he’s escaping, of course. But also his own childhood: a dead mother, an estranged father, a cold brother.

Just before Tom is about to leave for Janus he meets pretty, young Isabel Graysmark. Eventually the two marry and Isabel moves out to Janus. With a boat coming with supplies only about every six months, the newlyweds are certainly isolated, but they are happy.

Things start to get grim though, as Isabel suffers a series of miscarriages and then, shortly after her third, a small craft drifts into shore and in the boat a dead man and an infant. Isabel takes this as a sign from God, but Tom feels that they need to do the right thing, signal the mainland and report the incident. The decision the couple makes carries them through the rest of the novel.

So what’s not to like, you ask?

Ahhh….the melodrama. There’s boatloads of that. As Tom and Isabel wrestle with the moral, ethical and emotional questions posed by the foundling, their marriage suffers and they suffer personally, too. The constant negotiating got a little on my nerves, I have to say.

But there is another side to the story and that side belongs to the child’s birth parents. The introduction of these new characters is meant to up the emotional ante, and while it did for some of the ladies in my book club, I just felt like we were meant to wallow along with these suffering people and I just couldn’t muster any real feelings. Yes, I felt sympathy. I am a parent and I can only imagine how difficult the whole thing must have been. But to a certain degree I could see the clunky machinations of trying to fit all the pieces together and the swelling, heartfelt conclusion just left me feeling manipulated.