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.

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.

 

Eurydice (Edie) is a “body” for the Elysian Society. As a body, she works with clients who possessions1seek to speak with loved ones they have lost. Dressed in a simple white dress, she sits in Room 12 and once in possession of an item belonging to the deceased, she swallows a lotus – a pill that  summons the spirits of the deceased – and the living communes with the dead. That’s the general principle of Sara Flannery Murphy’s debut novel The Possessions.

Edie has been working at the Elysian Society for five years, a long time for a body. She leads a very quiet, private life. “Since I joined the Elysian Society,” she says, “my emotions have evolved. They’ve gone from unwieldy to finely attuned. ready to snap into nothingness.”

That ability, to become a blank slate, is perhaps one of the reasons that Edie has been able to do this job for as long as she has. But then Patrick Braddock walks into her life. Patrick wants to speak with his wife, Sylvia. She drowned in a lake. The circumstances of Sylvia’s death are part of what propels the plot forward, but the relationship between Patrick and Edie is definitely the driving force.

Although Edie tells Patrick that she is not privy to the conversations that take place between a client and their loved ones, the line between Edie and Sylvia definitely blurs.

I was evasive with Patrick in Room 12 today. The truth is that Sylvia’s memories have lingered. One image in particular, clear and deep. I remember Patrick’s hand against me, at my waist. The golden hairs at his wrist, his long fingers holding the ghost of a summer tan. One or two fingernails endearingly frayed, as if he bites them when no one is watching. I could reach right into the memory, interlace my fingers with his. Feel the light calluses of his fingertips.

Before long, Edie and Patrick’s professional relationship crosses a line and Edie experiences the burgeoning weight of desire. As it often does, it clouds her judgment and drives her to find out what really happened to Sylvia.

The Possessions is a well-written literary hybrid: part mystery, part sci fi (the world seemed slightly off-kilter to me, not the far future but certainly not present day), part love story. It is certainly intriguing and yet…I found it slow going.

Edie’s past is a mystery. Her past is certainly alluded to, but we don’t learn much about her until the very end of the novel and by then it feels more like expository backfill. She’s really a non-entity and that makes it difficult to feel any empathy for her.

Patrick fares only a little bit better. As the grief-stricken husband trying to move on, he’s serviceable enough. Ultimately, neither he nor Edie are well-rounded enough to make me root for their relationship.

So in the plus column: great writing, intriguing plot, lots of potential. In the minus column: slow-moving, lackluster characters, some clunky plot machinations.

That said, Sara Flannery Murphy is definitely an author to keep your eye on.

Thanks to Harper Collins for my review copy and to TLC Book Tours for the chance to participate in this tour.

 

towndrownedA few years back, my bookclub read Riel Nason’s debut novel The Town That Drowned and we all fell in love with Ruby and her younger brother, Percy, inhabitants of a little town called Haventon. Nason’s story drew from actual events: the area was flooded after a dam was built. Anyone who lives in New Brunswick, Canada, where Nason’s story is set, will be familiar with the landscape and many of the place names, even if they don’t quite remember the flood that drowned the town.

All The Things We Leave Behind revisits the Saint John River Valley, this time a fictional town called Riverbend, circa 1977. On this occasion, our narrator, seventeen-year-old Violet, is taking care of the family business while her parents are on a road trip looking for her older brother, Bliss, who disappeared just after his graduation from high school.

The book starts ominously enough as Violet recalls the “boneyard deep in the woods.” She and Bliss discovered the place when they were kids even though “the boneyard’s location is supposed to be secret.  This is the final resting place for the moose and deer that have killed up and down the Trans Canada rielHighway.   When Violet recalls the time she and Bliss had stumbled upon the boneyard, aged nine, she also recalls how Bliss had tried to protect her from the gruesome sight. He assures her they’re never going back, but he also tells her “we can’t let it wreck the whole forest for us.”

Nason weaves Violet’s recollections of her brother into a narrative which is mostly concerned with Violet’s summer-time responsibilities, tending The Purple Barn, her family’s roadside antique store, literally  “an enormous rectangle, a hundred-foot-long-barn, painted purple.”  Violet isn’t too young for the gig

I know what I’m doing and I’m almost an expert on antiques from hanging around the store and listening to my father my whole life. I can rattle off statements like, “It’s a late Victorian, Eastlake period piece, factory made, ash not oak, but excellent quality.”

Violet takes her job seriously, but she is also prone to melancholy and introspection. She is not exactly a typical teenager; she is certainly not partying her way through the summer despite the fact the she is sharing a cabin at Seven Birches Campground and Cabins with her best friend, Jill,  and despite the fact that she promised Jill she’d try to have a fun summer.

All the Things We Leave Behind is a quiet novel of growing up and letting go – even when you don’t really want to do either. Nason adeptly evokes a specific time and place, but the novel’s themes are universal in scope. Even though I didn’t quite settle into the book’s rhythms in quite the same way as I settled into The Town That Drowned and even though I wasn’t totally satisfied with some of the denouement’s machinations, I would still recommend All The Things We Leave Behind because Nason’s prose is consistently good and the novel has many charms.

Brett loves Charlie. He’s the older brother of lastsepther best friend, Eli. She and Eli are students in Colorado and one stormy night they attend a party and Charlie is there, too, his flight delayed because of the storm.

That day, the first day I ever saw him, he had three days’ worth of stubble. He wore a thin black thread around his neck, beaded with a smooth lapis stone that matched the color of his eyes.  When I looked at him, his lips slid up at the corners. My heart lurched. I don’t know why. It lurched toward him and refused – stubbornly – to ever lurch away.

Nina De Gramont’s book The Last September takes zero time to hook you by the throat and it doesn’t let you go until the very end. I really couldn’t put this book down. On the surface it’s a love story. But it’s a love story that goes horribly wrong because by the end of the first sentence we learn that Charlie is dead. Brett tells us “Because I am a student of literature, I will start my story on the day Charlie died. In other words, I’m beginning in the middle.” By the end of the first page we’ll know that Charlie has been murdered.

Their love story unfolds in flashback. When the novel opens, Charlie, Brett and their toddler daughter, Sarah, are living in Charlie’s family cottage at Cape Cod Bay. Brett is finishing her PhD dissertation; Charlie is doing odd jobs.  On this particular day, Brett is frustrated with Charlie, a feeling not at all out of place in most marriages. When Charlie mentions that Eli had called and that he wanted to come for a visit, Brett is reluctant to see her old friend because “the last time we saw Charlie’s brother he’d dropped an enormous amount of weight and begun scribbling notes on his jeans and forearms.”

I have guilty reading pleasure buttons and, I have to say, The Last September hit every single one of them. Angsty love affair. Check. Unbearable suspense. Check. Heartbreak. Check. Check.

What happened to Eli? What happened to Charlie? What happens when Ladd, Brett’s former fiancé arrives back in town? If this sounds suspiciously like Peyton Place, you’re not wrong. But, omg, The Last September is so much fun to read. The writing is luminous and so even when I didn’t 100% buy the plot twists, it didn’t matter because I just wanted to find out what had happened to Charlie and I wanted to know that Brett was going to survive the grief.

Highly recommended.

 

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It took me four reads before I finally fell in love with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great American novel, The Great Gatsby. I might not have ever read it again after the last time (a couple years ago my book club had a ‘year of classics’) had it not been for the fact that I am teaching grade twelve this year. Often referred to as the quintessential American novel, its place in literary canon is certainly undeniable, but I just never bought in. The Great Gatsby  is my daughter Mallory’s favourite novel and she was understandably flummoxed as to why her English teacher geek of a mother never really liked the book. Now we’re on the same page. If you believe that a classic is a book that never runs out of things to say, this book certainly qualifies. I guess I’m just late to the party.

how-whimsical-2006-great-gatsby-book-coverNick Carraway, the novel’s narrator, moves from the mid-west to Long Island’s West Egg to take a job on Wall Street. Across the bay in East Egg lives his cousin, Daisy Buchanan, and her husband, Tom, an old Yale classmate of Nick’s, a man so “enormously wealthy” he’d brought  “down a string of polo ponies from Lake Forest.”  Nick comments “It was hard to imagine that a man in my own generation was wealthy enough to do that.”

Despite their wealth, Daisy and Tom don’t seem particularly happy and on his first visit with them Nick discovers that Tom is having an affair.  When it comes to the Buchanans, all that glitters is not gold.

Next door to Nick’s little house, and directly across the bay from the Buchanans,  lives Gatsby. His mansion is “a colossal affair by any standard.” Gatsby throws lavish parties every weekend  – huge glittering affairs attended by the who’s who of New York and “In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars.”  On the first night Nick attends a party at Gatsby’s he is “one of the few guests who had actually been invited.” Soon after meeting his charming and enigmatic host, Nick finds himself drawn into a compelling love affair between Daisy and Gatsby, a love affair that had actually begun five years earlier.

The Great Gatsby operates on two very distinct levels: as a love story and a social commentary on the decadence and decay at the heart of the American Dream.

Gatsby’s single-minded devotion to Daisy, his desire to wipe out the present and reclaim their shared past drives him to create a sort of fantasy life. Everything Gatsby does is for Daisy and Nick remarks on his “extraordinary gift for hope,” his “romantic readiness such as I have never found in another person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again.” But Nick also acknowledges that perhaps Gatsby wants “too much” of Daisy and cautions him  that “You can’t repeat the past.”

On another level, Fitzgerald’s novel captures the glittery, frenetic 20s. A generation of young men had returned from the Great War, Wall Street was booming and in Fitzgerald’s version, anyway, people cared about little else except having fun.   Underneath the façade, though, there is rot and corruption. No one works except for Nick. They just drink and laze about. Nick sees it and when the veil is pulled back he tells Gatsby, “They’re a rotten crowd….You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.”

The Great Gatsby is a beautiful novel, I see that now. I am sorry it took so long to believe in the dream.

 

 

 

On November 14, 1940, Coventry, a city in England’s West Midlands, was devastated by a German bombing raid that  leveled two thirds of the city, including the city’s cathedral, which was built in the 14th century.

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This event is the backdrop of Helen Humphrey’s 2008 novel, Coventry. The novel captures the horror and chaos of that night as seen through the eyes of Harriet Marsh, a 44-year-old woman who is acting as a fire-watcher on the cathedral rooftop and Maeve, an artist whose 22-year-old son, Jeremy,  is also acting as a fire-watcher the evening the Germans dropped 500 tonnes of explosives on the city.

coventryWith the exception of a flashback to introduce us to Harriet’s husband, Owen, and to allow Harriet and Maeve to briefly meet, the novel spends its time during the ten-hour raid. Although it might be hard to imagine the scene, Humphreys does capture the horrible chaos of that night in simple, unembellished prose.

The bombing shakes the ground so that people fleeing through the streets stumble as though drunk. The trembling earth shifts them one way, and then the other, and Harriet finds herself reaching out to steady herself on walls that are no longer standing. She falls in the street, picks herself up from the shaking ground, and falls again.

Nearly 600 people were killed on that night; over 1000 more were injured. It’s perhaps not easy to imagine the chaos, but Humphreys does manage to capture it as Harriet and Jeremy make their way through the city to their respective homes. The horrors of war are all around them: people who have been fatally wounded, people buried under rubble, animals wandering aimlessly. Maeve leaves the shelter of the pub and heads home, but she and Jeremy miss each other.

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The British were known for their stoic resilience during the Second World War. Some of that resilience is seen on display in Coventry. In one particular scene, Harriet and Jeremy happen upon a makeshift first aid station and while Jeremy jumps in to help, Harriet wanders off to see if she can’t rustle up some tea. C’mon! It doesn’t get any more British than that.

How did these people cope? They just did what they had to do and when it seemed like they couldn’t go on, they did that, too.

I am a fan of Helen Humphreys. I loved her novel The Lost Garden  which I talked about here.  I also really enjoyed Afterimage, which I read before I started this blog. What I admire about her writing is her ability to capture moments so perfectly. Perhaps that ability comes from having started her writing career as a poet.  I just know that she is one of those rare writers who make you pause and nod your head in agreement.

Coventry is a short novel that, nevertheless, captures the horror and the unexpected beauty to be found amidst  chaos.