Firefly Rain – Richard Dansky

firefly rain Not to be confused with Firefly Lane, Richard Dansky’s debut novel Firefly Rain is about the prodigal son coming back to his childhood home in some back woods town in North Carolina – although he just calls it ‘Carolina.’ His business in Boston has failed, his parents are dead, but the old homestead is just waiting for him.

So, yeah, Jacob Logan goes home to Maryfield. His childhood isn’t quite as he remembered it. For one thing, the fireflies he used to catch on his property now don’t seem to want to come onto Logan land – they stop just at the border of his property and if they cross onto it, they die. For another, his house is creepy – doors open and bang shut; toy soldiers turn up where they shouldn’t be. Carl, the old guy who Jacob has been paying to look after the property after his parents died, is weirdly antagonistic. Then someone steals his car.

Firefly Rain is supposed to be scary. In fact, Publishers Weekly called it “Disturbing…remarkable” and Library Journal called it “Classic horror…a tightly paced tale of mystery and terror.”

I call it hokum.

Nothing was scary about this book. At all. Except perhaps the way the characters spoke.

“I need someone down here whom I can trust,” Jacob says to his friend Jenna. “I’m spooked Jenna, spooked bad, and I need someone who can watch my back until I can get my head screwed on straight.”

Then there’s the scene where Jacob chases his stolen car up and down a dirt road until he finally collapses in the ditch. In his slippers. In the rain.

And then there’s the convoluted denouement – where all the men of Maryfield show up on the property because of some wacky promise they made to Jacob’s mother.  I didn’t really get it…but by then, I didn’t really care.

Creep – Jennifer Hillier

creepDumbest. Book. Ever.

Seriously…I can’t even believe I read it.

So, Dr. Sheila Tao, she of the velvet lips, is a psychology professor at Puget Sound State University. Apparently she’s an expert in human behaviour – except not so much because she doesn’t realize that Ethan Wolfe, the 23-year-old teaching assistant she’s been sleeping with for the past three months, is actually bat-shit crazy. That’s probably because she’d been blinded by lust. He’s HAWT. Oh, also, she’s a sex addict but until her father died (trigger) and she took up with Ethan (couldn’t resist the hawtness), she’d been living sex-free.

Anyway, she’s fallen in love – for realsies.  His name is Morris and he’s an ex NFL player and an ex-alcoholic and just an all-round great guy. He doesn’t know about Ethan, or Sheila’s addiction to sex. He’s also apparently never questioned why his 39-year-old, once-married girlfriend won’t have sex with him. He kinda likes that about her.

Okay, so Sheila’s got a problem. She’s now engaged to Morris so clearly she has to dump Ethan. Which she does…on page five. Understandably, Ethan doesn’t take it too well. Obviously: he’s a psychopath. Nevertheless, I knew I was dealing with crazy people pretty early on – like when Sheila becomes infuriated when Ethan turns the tables on her and announces that he’d “never wanted this to be a long-term thing. But you were so goddamned needy. You kept telling me not to go.” Really? Who cares who breaks up with whom? Move on, Sheila.

Anyway, Ethan threatens to expose their affair with some video he’d apparently taken of them doing the deed and so Sheila has no choice but to let him remain her T.A. But then that’s not enough for Ethan, he’s got to kidnap her and hold her hostage in the retro-fitted basement of the mansion he paid for with cash and you see where all this is going, right? Oh…and he’s a master of disguise, people. A master – with like amazing custom-made silicone masks and make-up skills etc.

It’s just all ridiculous. All of it. What does Ethan do with Sheila once he has her all chained up in his basement. Um. Nothing. He keeps her drugged and makes her wear adult Depends. That is until he finally lets her go to the bathroom and that, my friends, is one reason to steer clear of this book. It’s meant to be scary. A thriller. No, no. This is what we get:

It was ridiculous to be embarrassed about a fart – after all, she was being kept here against her will, and what could be worse than having to urinate in adult diapers – but she was ashamed nonetheless.

We get to hear about her cramps and the stench and how grossed out Ethan is.

He was looking at her with such shock and disgust that, despite her abdominal pain, she couldn’t resist a chuckle.

“Well, what did you expect? I’ve been here for days, you cocksucker.” Sheila grunted again. “I’m not done. I suggest you get the fuck out.”

Even Sheila has to admit that it was “quite possibly the world’s stupidest conversation.” One of many, Ms. Hillier.

Critics loved this book. Loved it. There was nothing frightening, suspenseful, or creep-y about it. Stock characters, a deux ex machina visit from Morris’s estranged son, Randall…I’m just…gah. Hillier is compared to Chelsea Cain. Please read Heartsick instead.

Always Something There to Remind Me – Beth Harbison

alwaysI’m not a book snob. I like a good ‘chick lit’ book as well as the next gal. I know Beth Harbison is a much-loved, best-selling author of women’s fiction…but Always Something There to Remind Me will have the distinction of being both my first and last book by Ms. Harbison. Blech.

Erin Edwards is a beautiful, successful party planner in Washington D.C., where she lives with her precocious sixteen-year-old daughter, Camilla. She and Camilla’s father are no longer together…not that we know much about their relationship (and not that it matters anyway). Always Something There to Remind Me is Erin’s story to tell and we get the then (in third person) and now (in first person).

Then happened twenty years ago. Sixteen-year-old Erin has her heart set on eighteen-year-old Nate Lawson.

From the first time she’d seen him, his image had been emblazoned on her mind, and when he stepped into view it was as if her mind closed over it like a trap. She didn’t want to think about him, but she couldn’t stop.

His eyes met hers and something clicked.

Ahh. Young love.

Erin and Nate’s teenage romance has all the requisite twists and turns: silly fights, jealousy, sneaking around in the dead of night to have sex on basement floors. But even though Erin really, really, really loves Nate, she still can’t help doing childish things and eventually he dumps her, breaking her heart and leaving her to wallow (however secretly) for the next twenty years.

Fast forward twenty-odd years and she is in a relationship with smart and perfect and handsome Rick who has just asked her to marry him. Erin’s hesitating though because she can’t stop thinking about Nate…even though she hasn’t seen him in forever.

Until the day she’s visiting her mother in the old neighbourhood and she decides to take a walk which invariably leads her past Nate’s parents’ house and – as luck (or fate) would have it – there’s Nate.

I just watched the shock in his eyes as he took me in, and knew mine probably looked the same. Shocked, glad, scared…it was hard to read both what I saw and what I felt.

But I couldn’t look away. And when I saw him try, I realized he couldn’t either. He glanced down, a muscle in his jaw tensed, but then he looked back at me, still unspeaking.

People – you can see where this story is going from like a mile away and that would all be fine except that WHO CARES? Seriously. Erin is annoying as a teen and not even remotely self-aware as an adult. Her daughter, Cam, sounds like a therapist and the treacley ending made my teeth ache.

I bought this book because it sounded like it might have something significant to say about regret and love, but if you want a book that looks backwards at what you’ve left behind, read Losing the Moon instead.




Cemetery Girl – David Bell

cemeteryI read the first 192 pages of David Bell’s novel Cemetery Girl lickety split. I couldn’t put the book down. I wondered – how come I’ve never heard of this book or this author? How come the only positive promotion is from other authors? Where has this author been all my life?

And then it all went to hell in a hand basket.

Cemetery Girl is the story of college professor Tom Stuart and his wife, Abby, and their daughter, Caitlin, who disappeared four years ago when she was twelve.  Now, Abby has decided it’s time to say goodbye to Caitlin and has organized a memorial service for her daughter. It’s caused something of a rift between Tom and Abby because Tom hasn’t given up hope that his daughter will come home to them because her body has never been found.  But Tom and Abby’s marriage is on the slippery slope anyway. Abby has found religion and is spending more and more time with Pastor Chris her new ‘best friend.’ Yeah, right.

For the first half of the book I was totally invested in Tom’s story and the novel’s attempt to make him a somewhat unreliable narrator. For example, he and his half-brother, Buster, have different takes on their childhood. Tom remembers his step-father, Paul, as a mean and abusive drunk; Buster claims it wasn’t like that at all.

There are a bunch of minor characters in the novel – Detective Ryan, the one and only cop still assigned to Caitlin’s case; Susan Goff, a volunteer with the police department (who is not a therapist or professional counsellor, just someone to talk to); Liann Stipes, a lawyer whose own daughter had been murdered and who has acted as an advisor to Tom; Tracy Fairlawn, a stripper who claims she saw Caitlin. Then there’s this mysterious blonde girl who keeps appearing near Caitlin’s tombstone or outside the Stuart house in the middle of the night.

Like I said, Bell kept me turning those pages for quite a long time. Then I just didn’t believe it anymore. I didn’t believe the way characters started to speak to each other. I didn’t believe the resolution of the book’s central mystery. I didn’t believe any of Tom’s interactions with anyone – they just all felt artificial. I’m a parent; I wouldn’t behave this way.

Cemetery Girl had a lot of potential, but a book like this depends on credibility and at the end of the day – it just didn’t have any.


Bellman & Black – Diane Setterfield

bellmanWe were all pretty excited when Marianne chose Bellman & Black as this month’s book club selection. We all loved Diane Setterfield’s first novel The Thirteenth Tale when we read it a few years back. Sadly, this novel lacked that book’s  – well, everything.

As I pointed out when we met last night: “Did you notice that all the praise on the back of the book was for The Thirteenth Tale.”  And true enough – there isn’t a single endorsement for this novel on its cover or inside its pages. Okay, maybe that doesn’t mean much in the whole scheme of things and I know I’m making it sound as though Bellman & Black is horrible and I guess I wouldn’t go so far as to say that, but it isn’t very good, either.

William Bellman is just a kid playing somewhere in the English countryside  when he decides to show off in front of his friends and uses a catapult to shoot a rook (similar to a crow) out of a tree.

It took a long time for the stone to fly along its preordained trajectory. Or so it seemed. Time enough for William to hope that the bird, flapping into life, would rise upwards from the branch. The stone would fall harmlessly to earth and the rook’s granite laughter would taunt them from the sky.

Instead, William hits and kills the bird and thus leaves innocence and childhood behind him and begins  the downward slope towards death. And yes, it’s really this heavy-handed.

Will’s life is marked with great successes and tremendous tragedies. We watch him turn his uncle’s mill into a financial success. We watch him fall in love and have a family. And we watch things start to fall apart. But the thing is – and it is a thing that we talked about last night – none of it mattered all that much because Will was a character we knew or cared little about. He was driven, surely and haunted, certainly, but not by the rooks which made strange appearances (sort of like encyclopedia entries) throughout the book.

When William suffers a tragic personal loss, he makes a deal with a mysterious stranger, Mr. Black, and he suddenly finds himself building a one-stop funeral emporium. We’re talking Victorian England here, when people mourned for years and spent money (apparently) on all manner of funereal accoutrements. So, just as we watched him build Bellman Mill, we learn all the nooks and crannies of Bellman & Black, but none of it is interesting enough to sustain a 300 plus page narrative. And trust me, the stuff about the rooks doesn’t help.

At the end of the day, Setterfield’s book is a less schmaltzy take on, say, a book like Tuesday’s With Morrie. We’re meant to understand that life must have checks and balances, and that when we care too much about things that don’t matter (wealth, success) we miss out on those things that truly do.

Bellman & Black wasn’t hard to read, but I won’t be recommending it to anyone else.

Crazy Beautiful – Lauren Baratz-Logsted

crazyMy arm rises toward my face and the pincer touch of cold steel rubs against my jaw.

I chose hooks because they were cheaper.

I chose hooks because I wouldn’t outgrow them so quickly.

I chose hooks so that everyone would know I was different, so I would scare even myself.

That’s Lucius Wolfe. He’s 15 and the new kid at school. He and his younger sister, Misty, and his parents had to move because Lucius got in the middle of a bomb making experiment gone wrong and blew himself – and most of his house – up. Now he’s got hooks for hands. Why was Lucius making a bomb, one might ask? Ask away – you’re not going to get any real insight from Lucius other than a vague “I was practicing to do harm, somewhere, sometime, maybe.”

I hear the dog alarm go off in the same instant I become aware of the first morning light in my room. I like rising early, like sleeping with the blinds open, because I’m scared of the dark.

In the dark, almost anything can happen.

That’s Aurora Belle. She’s 15 and also the new kid at the school. She and her father moved because Aurora’s mom had recently died of cancer and her dad thought it was time to change the scenery. Aurora is beautiful and smart and perfect…and immediately popular at school.

On the bus on the first morning  (and what are the chances, eh?) Aurora and Lucius’s eyes meet and wowza. But it’s even more than that for Lucius; he decides to become Aurora’s Gallowglass. It means ‘foreign soldier’ but to Lucius it is “the greatest personal protection service you can think of all rolled into one person.”

Aurora doesn’t really strike me as the person who actually needs protecting. She’s absorbed almost immediately into the school’s who’s who and soon thereafter wins the lead in Grease (which, unbelievably, Lucius has never even heard of).

Still, there is Jessup Tristan (and by now the names are starting to be as irritating as the characters), school douche-bag, and a couple of superficial girls and Nick Greek, the security guard who frisks Lucius after he sets off the alarm going through the school’s metal detector. It’s an embarrassing moment for Nick, but then it’s all made well when the 15 year old boy and the 22 year old security guard become fast friends and Lucius actually helps Nick reconsider his career path. I kid you not.

If Lucius didn’t have hooks for hands and a slightly suspect psyche, Crazy Beautiful would be nothing more than an adequately written YA novel.  Take away those hooks and Lucius’s raison d’etre and you’ve got…nothing. Seriously. At a mere 193 pages there’s no time to really develop the characters or their relationships.

Boy sees girl on the bus and falls instantly in love.

Girl sees boy on the bus and “there was an instant connection.”

We’re on page 28.

And what are the chances, when the plot twist comes – separating these two ‘damaged kids’ – that Aurora knows exactly what Gallowglass is?

As it turns out, pretty damn good.

Give this one a miss.



Wild – Cheryl Strayed

WildTP_Books-330I am of the opinion that everyone has a story to tell – that doesn’t mean everyone should tell it, though. Cheryl Strayed’s memoir should have made for a compelling read, but ended up winning “Book I Enjoyed Reading the Least” at our final book club meeting. (Although in my mind, it was  neck and neck with Death Comes to Pemberley for the position.)

When I teach memoir to students in my writing class, we talk a lot about the ‘why’? Why is this the story you are telling? What have you taken away from this experience? If you want to take a reader on the journey through your life, there has to be a pretty compelling reason.

Some memoirs are more successful than others. In order for a memoir to work – for me at least – it has to combine three elements: story, character and writing. So, for example, Elizabeth Gilbert’s best selling memoir Eat, Pray, Love both worked and didn’t work for me. The writing was terrific; I loved the idea of her journey, but I didn’t like her very much. Let’s compare Eat, Pray, Love to another best-selling memoir, Julie & Julia. I loved the story, the writing and Julie herself.

Then there’s Wild. At twenty-six Cheryl Strayed is still mourning the death of her mother, who died when she was 22,  the dissolution of her marriage, which ended soon after, and recovering from her addiction to a guy named Joe and their shared heroin habit. Good times. Impulsively, she decides to hike the Pacific Coast Trail. That’s 4268 km of therapy. With very little preparation (or at least it seemed that way to me – she bought a book and some ill-fitting hiking books and suddenly she was walking), Strayed embarks on a journey which she hopes will clear her head or mend her broken heart.

Pacific-Crest-TrailWhen the book opens, Cheryl has lost a boot over the edge of a mountain:

My boot was gone. Actually gone.

I clutched its mate to my chest like a baby, though of course it was futile. What is one boot without the other boot. It is nothing. It is useless, an orphan forevermore, and I could take no mercy on it. It was a big lug of a thing, of genuine heft, a brown leather Raichle boot with a red lace and metal fasts. I lifted it high and threw it with all my might and watched it fall into the lush trees and out of my life.                                         …

I looked south, to where I’d been, to the wild land that had schooled and scorched me, and considered my options. There was only one, I knew. There was always only one.

To keep walking.

I felt like Strayed’s journey had all sorts of potential. I mean, her life was a total mess and here was her opportunity to work out her issues and reset her course. But the more I read the less I cared. I can’t quite say what it was about her, but others in book club had the same sort of feeling: we just didn’t like Strayed.

Wild felt like a missed opportunity to me.  Regardless of whether your relationship is awesome or toxic, the death of a parent is a game-changer. Strayed’s brother and sister and her beloved step-father, Eddie, sort of scatter to the wind and it made me wonder why. When my parents died – first my mom and then a couple years later, my dad – my three younger brothers and I circled the wagons and became even closer. We understood that it was just us now and ‘us’ was important. Strayed’s brother doesn’t even visit his mother when she is dying in the hospital.

So, is Strayed ‘cured’ after her long walk.  I doubt it. While on the surace it would seem that her journey to  the Bridge of the Gods (and oh, those heavy-handed metaphors!) delivers her back to herself, I’m not sold.