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Breathe My Name – R.A. Nelson

Fireless is the country where we live. Every day Momma teaches us something new about it.

Frances is 18 and something of a loner. She lives with her parents and two younger brothers in small-town Alabama.  It isn’t until the new boy, John Mullinix  or Nix, arrives at her school that Frances’ life cracks open.  Frances has been living in the shadow of a traumatic event – an event so horrible that she never talks about it and has, in many ways, surpressed its horror.

Frances’ best friend Ann Mirette insists that Frances tell Nix about her “first family,” but Frances is understandably reluctant. She really likes Nix and one senses that Frances doesn’t form attachments easily. She’s afraid that if she tells Nix what happened in Fireless, he’ll bolt.

Breathe My Name is a beautifully written book about facing your past and freeing yourself from its terrible hold. I don’t want to spoil the novel by spilling Frances’ closely guarded secrets. She’s been protected by her parents for eleven years, but the past has a way of finding you even when you’re trying desperately to hide from it.

I gladly went along with Frances on her journey to adulthood but I do have one niggle with the book. I just didn’t buy what happened in Charleston. The book had this beautiful rhythm going and Nelson deftly handled the past and the present, but the climax of the novel just felt out of place and Carruther’s motivation seemed like an afterthought. One of those: okay now why would this guy behave in this manner, wait, let’s make him an obsessed psychopath sort of solutions. I would have been just as happy if after he set Frances on her journey he was never heard from again.

Still, in the great scheme of things it hardly matters. Breathe My Name had lovely things to say about family and the courage it takes to confront your past and, more importantly, forgive yourself for surviving it.

After – Francine Prose

Minutes after the shootings, everbody’s cell phone rang.

So begins Francine Prose’s topical  YA novel, After.  The novel’s narrator, 16-year-old, Tom, is in Math class when his father calls to let him know about a school shooting at Pleasant Valley, a school about 50 miles away. The killing spree at the neighbouring high school was perpetrated by three students, two boys and a girl, students who “never even registered as blips on the other kids’ radar.”

It’s almost impossible not to immediately think about Columbine. I remember exactly where I was when the entire continent was riveted to the tv screen watching the events in Littleton, Colorado unfold.  Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris had  planned to kill hundreds of their classmates and teachers that day, April 20, 1999. They’d been planning the massacre for months. In the end,  12 students and one teacher were dead and so were Klebold and Harris.

The fictional killing spree at Pleasant Valley costs five students, and  three teachers their lives. Fourteen more students are critically injured. All the shooters killed themselves. It’s a pretty dramatic opening.

But it isn’t actually what After is about.  At first, Prose’s novel seems to be about how Tom’s school reacts to the events at Pleasant Valley.  First of all, the school board hires a grief and crisis counselor, Dr. Willner. “We can no longer pretend to ourselves that it can’t happen here,” Dr. Willner says to the student body at an assembly. “And so we must change our lifestyle to keep our community safe and make sure that it won’t happen.”

Things start to go south for Tom and his friends after that. The school installs a metal detector, students aren’t allowed to wear the colour red or have cell phones. Certain books are banned for being subversive. All of these things make excellent talking points, actually. How much freedom should students have? Where is the line in the sand between safety and a police state? Then, there seems to be something even more sinister happening and for me the book veered off into territory which was less interesting to me.

Still, I liked After. It asks some compelling questions and Tom is a likeable and sympathetic hero.

In Search of Adam – Caroline Smailes

“Jude, I have gone in search of Adam. I love you baby.

I didn’t understand. But I took the note. It was mine. I shoved it into the pocket of my grey school skirt. I crumpled it in. Then.”

Jude is just six years old (four months and two days) when she discovers the lifeless body of her mother. It shatters her young life and the hurt train keeps on coming.

Her father farms Jude off to various neighbours after the death of his wife while he begins a new relationship with Rita. One of these neighbours is Aunt Maggie at Number 30. It is here that Aunt Maggie’s brother, Eddie, sexually assaults Jude. And it is here that Jude begins a journey that twists her life in ways that are often impossible to read about.

Jude is desperate for attention – and it’s completely understandable since her father virtually ignores her. At school, one of her teachers takes a special interest in her, but it isn’t enough to save her from the hurt that is gnawing away at her insides; big girls don’t cry is Jude’s mantra.

Smailes writing is often beautiful, but unlike anything I’ve ever read before. Sentences are fractured and stagger across the page, perhaps to mimic Jude’s own thoughts. This isn’t one of those novels where a child endures horrors only to bounce back, more resilient than ever. In Search of Adam is almost relentlessly dark and as a mom, it was often extremely difficult to read.

But I couldn’t put it down.

One Night – Margaret Wild

The parties were Bram’s idea-

calculated,

sophisticated,

daring.

For a long time

they were the best-kept secret

in the city.

They ended one night

when Al nearly killed Raphael.

 

Margaret Wild isn’t the first writer to pen a novel written in poems, but One Night is the first poetic novel  ever read. One Night tells the story of three friends, Gabe (the beautiful one), Al (the wild partier) and Bram (the planner).  They’re in their last year of high school somewhere in Australia. Their personalities are revealed slowly, little snapshots that illuminate them, make them more than what they seem on the surface. Bram, for example “catches two buses to school,/ and never brings friends home.”  Al wears a coat summer and winter because “without it he would be/ a snail without it’s shell-/soft/exposed/defenseless.”

Into the boys’ world comes Helen. She has a damaged face and a dazzling smile. Just one night and one of the boy’s lives is forever changed.

One Night only took a couple hours to read, but that doesn’t mean that Wild’s novel is lightweight.  These characters are fully realized. In just a few short lines, Wild had me feeling tremendous sympathy for Bram, a character who appears to be – on the surface at least – all hard edges. One Night captures the daring sense of ‘anything goes’ shared by many young people; the notion that actions have no real consequences. In Helen, we have a character willing to make sacrifices and decisions far beyond her years.

One Night is also about family. It isn’t only biology that binds us; sometimes we choose our families out of need and circumstances and sometimes these families serve us better than those we came by naturally.

One Night is a terrific novel – timely and beautifully witten.

30 Day Book Meme – Day 30

Your favourite book of all time

I don’t know whether or not I have a favourite book of all time. I mean, who knows what’s right around the corner…of my bookshelf. Maybe I haven’t read my favourite book of all time yet.  Instead of trying to name one book, I am going to direct you to my reader’s table, an idea dreamed up by Simon over at Savidge Reads.

Back when I worked at Indigo, my favourite thing was to talk with customers…and I loved putting books into their hands. You must read this. Now I do it with my students and there is no greater feeling than when a student comes back to me and says, You’re right. That was a great book. I love it that my students know that I am obsessed with books.  I loved Simon’s idea of a book table – something that might greet visitors at your house, a place to display all your favourite books, with copious copies to give away.

I have spoken, over the past 30 days, of many of the books on my reader’s table. If you have a reader’s table on your blog, I’d love a link!

I just want to, once again, thank the Portrait of a Would-Be Artist as a Young Woman for coming up with this book meme. I have enjoyed thinking about each and every one of these book-related questions…and it was fun to post something every day, something I haven’t done since I started this book blog. It’s been so much fun.

30 Day Book Meme – Day 29

A book everyone hated but you liked

Billy Dead.

Lisa Reardon’s novel was chosen by several top ten book lists and Alice Munro called it a “brave, heartwrenching debut.”

People lose people. I don’t know why we’re all so damn careless. Folks lose their kids, men lose their women, even friends get lost if you don’t keep your eye out. I look through the windshield at the houses going by. For every person sitting in them houses, watching TV or eating a ham sandwich, there’s someone somewhere wondering where and why they lost them. All those lost people, carrying on their everyday business like the air’s not full of the sound of hearts breaking and bleeding.

Reardon’s novel tells the  story of siblings Billy, Ray and Jean. They’ve had nothing close to an idyllic childhood and now, as adults, they are estranged. I chose this book as my book club choice several years ago and I read it with a knot in my stomach. The subject matter is not easy and I knew that no one in my group would like it. And I was right.

But Billy Dead is a beautiful book about what it means to be family, love and redemption, forgiveness. It is also a love story, although the lovers might cause some discomfort for some (most) readers.

Lisa Reardon herself has had a troubled life. She was recently arrested for shooting (but not killing) her father. After reading that I wondered whether or not the subject matter of her books (dysfunctional families, violence) weren’t perhaps subjects with which she was intimately familiar.

She’s an amazing writer and Billy Dead is a fantastic book.

 

 

30 Day Book meme – Day 28

Favorite title(s)

I guess titles are important. As a writer, I am really happy when I come up with a title that speaks to the story;  sometimes I have the title before I even know where the story might be going, but that’s rare.

Sometimes the titles are the only good thing about the book.

Sometimes they pique your interest and you get lucky – the books live up to the promise in the title.

The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly is a great title and it’s an even better book.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows didn’t quite live up to its mouthful of a title.

Billy Dead by Lisa Reardon hints at the trouble ahead.