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.

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.

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.

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.