In a Dark, Dark Wood – Ruth Ware

Ruth Ware and I have lived parallel lives. I, too, have worked as a waitress, EAL teacher and  bookseller. Okay, I may have never been an official book publicist, but I could argue that I sell books all the time by talking about them here and in my classroom and on the radio. I have not, however, written a much-lauded “instant New York Times bestseller.” Crap.

Leonora (also known as Lee and Nora and Leo) is a reclusive and slightly odd mystery th9H5NVHJNwriter who lives in a small flat in London. One day she receives an email invitation to a weekend bridal shower (a “hen” night) for her once best friend, Clare. The invitation is puzzling to Nora because she hasn’t seen Clare in a decade and it seems as though they may have ended things on relatively awkward terms.

The invitation to the party starts Nora’s trip down memory lane, but it’s not a journey she takes willingly.

Clare had been my friend. My best friend, for a long time. And yet I’d run, without looking back, without even leaving a number. What kind of friend did that make me?

There’s only one other name Nora recognizes on the invite list: Nina da Souza. Nora reaches out and the two women make an “I’ll go if you go” pact. This is how they end up in the middle of the woods at a house that seems “as if it had been thrown down carelessly by a child tired of playing with some very minimalist bricks.” For someone used to living in close quarters in the middle of a huge city, Nora finds the location of Clare’s hen night “painfully exposed.” There’s a reason the place is called ‘The Glass House.’

The party’s host is Clare’s best friend from university, Flo. The other attendees are Melanie, a new mother and Tom, the token gay friend. When Nina and Nora arrive, Clare is not yet there. The whole event is awkward and fraught with tension.

Ware intersperses the hen night shenanigans with the aftermath of the weekend. Nora wakes up and “everything hurts. The light in my eyes, the pain in my head. There’s a stench of blood in my nostrils, and my hands are sticky with it.” There are police officers outside her hospital room door and someone is dead.

I enjoyed reading In a Dark, Dark Wood, but I sure wish people would stop comparing every psychological thriller/mystery to Gone Girl. This book is nothing like Gone Girl. That’s not a criticism, by the way. Ware doesn’t waste time with verbosity; this book moves along lickity split. Nora is a perfectly serviceable character, although not particularly endearing. There are plenty of creepy moments – as you’d expect in the fishbowl of a location.  The book has “blockbuster movie starring Reese Witherspoon (an early fan of the novel)” written all over it.

 

 

Lilac Girls – Martha Hall Kelly

Lilac Girls, the debut novel by Martha Hall Kelly,  is the first novel for my book club’s 2016-17 reading year. When it was chosen I can’t say that I was all that interested in reading it. We have all summer to read the book chosen for our first meeting of the new reading year, but I tend to like to read fast, snappy thrillers/mysteries in the summer – with the occasional YA or lit fic thrown into the mix. Also – not a tremendous fan of historical fiction. But I always read the book club selection because our get-togethers are a lot more fun when I’ve read the book. All this to say that I started this novel with a relatively negative attitude.

Lilac book jacketKelly’s novel tells the story of three very different women: New York socialite Caroline Ferriday, Polish teenager, Kasia Kuzmerick and German doctor Herta Oberheuser. It is 1939 and the one thing these women have in common is Adolf Hitler.

Caroline is 37 when the story opens. She’s a retired actress who volunteers at the French consulate. Kasia is just 16 when Germany invades Poland and changes her life forever. She is working as a courier for the underground resistance movement when she and her older sister, Zuzanna, and their mother are arrested and shipped off to Ravensbruck, a Nazi concentration camp for women. It is there that she encounters Herta, a young doctor who has taken a post at the camp because it is difficult for women in the medical field to find work.

The novel is told in three separate first person narratives and once the book gets going it’s almost impossible not to be carried along by the horrors of Ravensbruck and Kasia’s desperate attempts to survive. There’s also a little angsty love story between Caroline and famous French actor Paul Rodierre.  I read the first 200 pages in one sitting.

Caroline and Herta are real people, as Kelly explains in her notes. Kazia and her sister are

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Caroline Ferriday

“loosely based on Nina Iwanska and her physician sister, Krystyna, both operated on in the camps.”

It is almost impossible not to invest in these characters, and the sections concerning Kasia in Ravensbruck are particularly harrowing. There, she and her sister are among hundreds of women used as real-life guinea pigs (or “rabbits” as they are called) for the Ravensbruck doctors to experiment on. Herta’s participation in these horrific experiments,  crimes that are against every aspect of the Hippocratic oath, seal her fate as a villain.

The book is long and the ending seemed a little rushed to me and I could never figure out the title or the dumb book cover- which makes it seem like three girls are the best of friends. I also wasn’t fussy about Kasia and Herta’s showdown, but ultimately Lilac Girls was a good read.

The Dog Days of Summer

Listen Here.

Want to live longer? Apparently all you have to do is read. According to a study that will be published in  the Sept issue of the journal Social Science & Medicine  “reading doesn’t only help us to tolerate existence, but actually prolongs it,”  and that “that people who read books for 30 minutes a day lived longer than those who didn’t read at all.” The study looked at the reading habits of about 3500 people aged 50 and older and discovered that readers lived, on average, two years longer than non-readers.

Of course this is great news for people like me because I read every day – clearly in a bid to prolong my life, but also because I stubbornly refuse to leave this earth until all the books on my tbr shelf have been read. I figure I’m good until at least 140.

So there’s no time like the present to make reading a part of your regular routine – like yoga for the brain. Read the entire article from The Guardian here.

At the start of the summer I talked all about the books that I was going to try to read this summer, including the entire Harry Potter series. Yeah, not so much. I did read The Chamber of Secrets and I am currently reading Prisoner of Azkaban and there is no question of the appeal of these books but I am, for obvious reasons, finding them young. I know that as the characters get older, the themes will get darker and I will read them all as promised…but I am never getting through them all this summer.

I also said I was going to read Martin Short’s memoir I Must Say and I did read that. If you20604377 are at all a fan of Canada’s funny man, it’s worth a look. Apparently the audiobook is narrated by Short and although I don’t listen to audiobooks, I might have made an exception in this case because he does all his characters. In any case, I enjoyed reading about Short’s early life in Hamilton and his start in show business.  It’s a namedropping extravaganza.

But of the books I spoke about back at the beginning of July, that’s as far as I got. I got distracted by shiny new books and so I thought I’d offer some suggestions for the dog days of summer.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things – Iain ReidIm+Thinking+of+Ending+Things

So, Reid is a Canadian writer and this is his first book of fiction although he’s written a couple memoirs. This book is a total mind-you-know-what. An unnamed narrator is on her way to meet her boyfriend’s parents. In a snowstorm. As they drive, she catalogues their relationship and contemplates ending things. When they arrive at Jake’s parent’s house – which is in the middle of nowhere – things take a turn for the what-the-hell. It’s compulsively readable and totally strange. If you read this book, I’d love for you to tell me what you think happens.

The Crooked House – Christobel Kent

If you are a fan of the BBC miniseries Broadchurch, this is the book for you. It’s about a girl named Alison who, until she was 14, lived in a small British town called Saltleigh. Her life is irrevocably changed when her entire family, with the exception of her father,  is murdered. The police determine that it was  her dad that committed the crime. Fast forward several years later and Alison finds herself back in Saltleigh with her boyfriend to attend a wedding.  She has no choice but to start to examine the past and try to figure out what really happened. This is a slow burn, but it’s well-written and perfect for a rainy day because it can (and should ) be read in one go.

the-girls-in-the-garden-9781476792217_hrThe Girls in the Garden – Lisa Jewell

This book is about a woman who moves to a small community in London after her husband has a psychotic break and burns their house down. Which, would probably be enough fodder for a book on all its own, but that’s not really what the book is about. When the book starts the eldest daughter, soon-to-be-thirteen-year-old Grace,  is found bloody and unconscious in the community garden behind the house. Then the book sort of unspools the story of the residents that live around the garden…and the children…and what really happened to Grace. It’s a domestic drama that reads like a thriller.

 

 

 

 

Two books for summer school

Every year for the past seven, I’ve transitioned from regular school to teaching a month of summer school. Why, you might very well ask? Mostly for the money – although this summer my paychecks hardly seemed like incentive enough.Obviously I can’t cover a year’s worth of curriculum in three and a half weeks, so it’s mostly trying to teach grade nine and ten students reading and writing skills that will help them be successful next year. We read some short stories and poetry and this year we read Lois Lowry’s The Giver (Grade 10) and Todd Strasser’s The Wave. I’d never read either of them, but I knew they were accessible, high interest and short enough to get through in the limited time we had.

the_giver_1.jpg.CROP.promovar-medium2The Giver takes place in a community that values Sameness. On the surface it might even appear like a Utopia. Eleven-year-old Jonas lives in a family unit lives with his younger sister, Lily, and his mother and father. None of them are biologically connected.  His life is structured around school and volunteering and ceremonies that mark the important moments in the lives of the citizens. He is apprehensively waiting the next ceremony. His mother tries to calm Jonas’s nerves by telling him

“Well, it’s the last of the ceremonies, as you know. After Twelve, age isn’t important. Most of us even lose track of how old we are as time passes, though the information is in the Hall of Open Records, and we could go and look it up if we wanted to. What’s important is the preparation for adult life, and the training you’ll receive in your Assignment.”

Feeling apprehensive is unusual for members of this community. Their lives are not complicated by hunger,  disease or even bad weather. Everyone has productive work to do. They share their feelings as part of a nightly ritual. They apologize immediately if they say something even remotely offensive to another member of the community. They start taking a pill as soon as they acknowledge “stirrings” of a sexual nature. The Elders make all the decisions and “Rules were very hard to change.” The very old, the very weak and those who commit crimes are “released.”

At the Ceremony of the Twelves, Jonas gets his assignment. He is to be the Receiver, which means he will work with The Giver, the community’s most important citizen. He alone holds all the memories and he will transfer them to Jonas. Suddenly the only home Jonas knows seems less like Utopia and more like a nightmare.

The Giver is a great book – suitable for all readers and filled with lots of opportunities to talk about what it is to be human, free-will and the value and importance of memory. I really enjoyed it and would definitely use it in the classroom again.

Todd Strasser’s novelization The Wave is less literary, but offers lots of opportunities to51MDeY-2CjL._SX302_BO1,204,203,200_ talk, too.  The book is based on the true story of  California history teacher Ron Jones’ social experiment. (He’s been renamed Ben Ross in this book.) The year was 1969 and Ross had just shown his senior class a film about the Holocaust. When one of his students asked how the Germans could have just sat back and let the Nazis do what they did, Ross tried to think of a way he could illustrate the power of a fascist movement. He came up with “The Wave” and began to teach his students about discipline, community and action. Although the experiment was meant to be short-lived, it grew to include a salute, slogans and even a secret police force before it was finally dismantled due to complaints from parents and colleagues.

Virtually every one of my grade nine students really enjoyed reading The Wave. It was easy to read, so it’s perfect for struggling readers, plus it offered a lot of food for thought.

 

How Not To Fall – Emily Foster

Remember when Fifty Shades of Grey was all the rage? Sure you do.  125 million people bought that piece of crap. (Okay, yes, I read it. But I did not read its sequels. I have standards, people.) Suddenly everyone was reading erotica – loud and proud or behind the more secretive screens of their e-readers.

I love a good smutty book, but the problem with smut is that no two readers will be alike when it comes to what turns them on. Perhaps E.L. James just got lucky. In fandom, which are the loins from which her books sprang, BDSM is as common as sex in the missionary position with the lights off. My objection to the Fifty Shades book(s) had nothing to do with the subject matter (I spent ten years in fandom; I’ve read it all) and everything to do with the quality of the prose and one-dimensional characterization. (It couldn’t be any other way, Edward/Christian and Bella/Anastasia are about as one-note as they come.)

27208942Enter How Not To Fall. Of course I’d seen this book at the book store, but I don’t think I even picked it up to read the blurb. Then I read a review – although I can’t remember where. The reviewer avoided comparisons with Fifty Shades, but did sing the book’s praises. Smart and hot – which is probably a pretty good combination. So, the next time I was at Indigo, I bought the book and now I’ve read it.

Annabelle (Annie) Coffey is a 22-year-old student at a university in Indiana. Dr. Charles Douglas is a 26-year-old postdoctoral fellow in Annie’s psychophysiology lab. He’s British and brilliant and “a dreamboat” and, technically, her teacher.  Annie’s been lusting after him for two years, but as her undergraduate degree draws to a close, she figures it’s about time to take matters into her own hands – so to speak. She tells her roommate and best friend. Margaret, that she is “going to ask Charles to have sex.” She asks, he declines, but Annie is convinced that she hasn’t misread the signals. She tells him

“The thing is, I think you and I have A Thing, and I know if I don’t at least put it on the table, I’ll always wonder ‘what if’ and so I’m just…putting it on the table, you know, and leaving it there. Like bread. For sharing.”

Turns out, Charles does reciprocate Annie’s feelings; he’s just too professional to act on them. So they make a deal – once all her research is in, once there is no possibility of a sex act compromising ethics – they’ll do it. Cue about 200 pages of smut.

Here’s what I really liked about How Not To Fall.

  1. Annie/Charles  Annie is self-deprecating and her narration is charming and often funny.

Am I a beauty queen? I am not. My nose has a great deal of character. My hair has some interesting ideas about its place in the world. My body is built more along the lines of a wristwatch than an hourglass – flat yet bendy. I works for me – I am my body’s biggest fangirl – but I recognize where it falls short of the culturally constructed ideal.

Charles is smart – like brilliant smart – but also kind and, as we learn gradually, a little bit damaged, too. Also, on the hotness scale – according to Annie “it is a mercy to the world that the man doesn’t try to look good.”

2.  The sex is well-written. That’s a big one for me. If I am going to read erotica, I want to read well-written erotica. And since How Not To Fall contains a lot of sex it might have easily gotten boring. You know – geesh, are they going to do it again? I didn’t skim. Actually, overall, the book is well-written.

3. Personally, I kinda loved the way the book ended – although it did break my heart a little. Apparently, there’s a sequel coming out next year. (I will probably read it: see #1.)

I did have a couple little things that irked me. Charles often sounded like a middle-aged man. He called Annie “Young Coffey” a lot. Like he was twenty years her senior rather than four. He also refers to her as “termagant,” a word I was not familiar with, so I had to look it up. It means a “harsh or overbearing woman.”  I couldn’t really make the connection. Also, I don’t have a foot fetish – clearly Charles does. Too much feet/toes for me. These are niggles, because overall, I enjoyed the book for all the reasons one might enjoy a book of this type.

So – if you are looking for a fun, smutty book to pack in your beach bag – give this one a go.

Breakable – Tammara Webber

Ohhh, Lucas. I still love you. Maybe you will remember a couple years back when I got all 17936925swoony over my  encounter with Lucas in Tammara Webber’s first novel, Easy. In that book we are introduced to sophomore music student Jacqueline Wallace who has followed her douchey boyfriend, Kennedy, from their hometown in Texas to a college somewhere else. (I want to say near Washington, but I am not 100% sure and it really doesn’t matter.)

Breakable is pretty much their story, only this time from Lucas’s point of view. And you might think, “Hold on, wait a minute. Why in the heck do we need to hear the same story all over again?” Trust me – you need to hear Lucas’s story because Lucas is that guy – you know, the hot one with a tragic backstory. Also, Webber can write and it will not be a hardship to plow through Lucas’s story. Did I mention he’s hot?

Lucas first spots Jacqueline in an introductory Economics class. He is there, not as a student, but as the tutor – taking notes so he can help struggling students. He observes Jacqueline from across the room noting

There was nothing in the room as interesting as this girl…This girl wasn’t tapping her fingers restlessly, though. Her movements were methodical. Synchronized. …and at some point,  I realized that when her expression was remote and her fingers were moving, she was hearing music. She was playing music.

It was the most magical thing I’d ever seen anyone do.

Lucas can’t stop watching her, but he also can’t do anything about it. For one thing – she has a boyfriend (the aforementioned douche) and for another, it’s against the tutor-potential tutee rules. And Lucas is not anything, if he’s not principled. Plus, the professor of the course is his de facto father and Lucas would never willingly do anything to disappoint him.

Except, of course, he doesn’t really want to stay away from Jacqueline. He can’t.

Avoidance would have been the smart thing, but where she was concerned, all logical thought was useless. I was full of irrational desires to be what I could never be again, to have what I could never have.

I wanted to be whole.

Anyone who has already read Easy will already know how Jacqueline and Lucas officially meet. They will also know how intense their feelings for each other are. What they won’t know is how Lucas came to build the walls around his heart or the horrible feelings of guilt he carries with him or why he and his father have such a strained relationship. Breakable will answer all those questions.

Breakable is a companion rather than a prequel or a sequel. It’s also a much racier book than Easy, which I had no qualms about putting on my classroom library shelves. I’ll probably keep this one here at home.

I am sucker for the bad boys. Lucas and Jacqueline 4eva!

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets – J.K. Rowling

I wish I had jumped on the Harry Potter broomstick a little earlier, and certainly way before I’d watched the films a gazillion times withharry-potter-new-chamber-of-secrets-cover-630 my kids. But I didn’t. I did, however, promise my daughter that I would read the series this summer. I actually made the promise on CBC radio so I feel extra obligated to make an attempt. I actually read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone out loud to a grade nine class a couple years back and I certainly enjoyed reading it. Now I’ve finished Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and I enjoyed reading that, too. Problem is, I keep seeing the movie in my head, although I guess that’s not the worst thing that could happen when reading a novel.

We join Harry once more at the home of his aunt and uncle, Vernon and Petunia Dursley. They haven’t changed a bit since we met in them in the first book. If possible, Uncle Vernon is perhaps even more odious. Harry is feeling particularly miserable because he hasn’t heard from either Ron or Hermione all summer long. Life is pretty grim and he can’t wait to get back to Hogwarts.

Harry is trying to stay out of everyone’s way when he enters his bedroom and is startled by a “little green creature on the bed [with] large, bat-like ears and bulging green eyes the size of tennis balls.” Meet Dobby, the house-elf.

Like all of Rowling’s characters, Dobby is fully realized and it’s almost impossible not to fall in love with him straight away. One of Rowling’s many strengths is her ability to make her characters gloriously human (or, non-human, but also amazingly well-drawn). Because I knew it was coming, I waited through the whole book for Dobby to be freed from servitude and I loved the written version as much as I loved the on-screen version.

Back at Hogwarts, there are strange and scary things happening in the castle and once more Harry, Ron and Hermione are called upon to figure out how to stop evil in its tracks. That part of the mystery wasn’t so interesting to me since I already knew how it would all turn out.

The part of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets I enjoyed the most was Gilderoy Lockhart, the new Defense Against the Dark Arts tutor.

Although I loved Kenneth Branagh’s portrayal of the narcissistic Lockhart, he was so much funnier in the book.

And then there’s Dumbledore’s famous line, which when I finally came to it, gave me the warm fuzzies and reminded me of why these characters will endure. After all the fuss in the Chamber of Secrets and Harry’s own bouts with self doubt, Dumbledore reassures Harry that “It is our choices, Harry, who show us who we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

Truer words.