Monday, September 28, 2009

#52 - Corelli's Mandolin

Many, many years ago my friend Kathleen handed me a copy of Corelli's Mandolin and told me I had to read it. It's a favourite of many friends of ours and it's been sitting on my shelf for probably close to a decade (wow that's frightening to admit). I don't know what made me pick it up a couple weeks ago when I was on my way into the hospital to get a post-surgery check up, but I'm glad I did. It's a lovely, flawed, novel.

At first, it was hard for me to get into the narrative. Louis de Bernières has an interesting writing style. It's dense and worthy of your concentrated attention but it's also whimsical and a little magical (reminding me of Allende and Garcia Marquez). Interspersed with the stories of two of the main characters, father and daughter Iannis and Pelagia, are stories of the Italian dictator, Greece rebels, Italian soldiers (including Antonio Corelli of the aforementioned mandolin), and various other people. It all comes together to create a rich and layered book that presented one of the most gruesome, terrifying portraits of war I've ever read. The scenes where Francesco (an Italian soldier) finds himself knee-deep in the fighting were as deeply affecting as Saving Private Ryan was when I watched it for the first time all those years ago.

The love story between Corelli, an Italian invader of the Greek island where Pelagia and her father live, is complicated by her previous relationship to a foolish, troubled boy named Mandras. War also divides them. The impossibility of the situation heightens their emotions but the impossibility of the situation refuses to abait, especially when both Italy and Germany are found to be on losing sides of the war. De Bernières plums the depths of human nature as it relates to society in this novel. It's always up for discussion, whether it's men forced to obey the orders of war or of humanity; for women forced into situations because of their gender; for the pressures that social justice sets upon a person, the larger themes to the novel go on and on. And like many novels that explore, these larger philosophical discussions are set against the very real situation of human suffering. Rape, murder, theivery, you name it, people do awful things to one another, but at the same time it's the idea of love that keeps the idea that there's a reward to life, even if it takes years to realize.

The end of the novel sort of fell down for me. To discuss it in too much detail would spoil the entire novel, so I'll just say that it was flat and somewhat cliched, tired and a little bit implausible. Yet, the strength of this book for me was the gruesome, realistic and utterly terrifying sections about the men suffering through the harrowing days of combat. My heart ached for them.

READING CHALLENGES: 1001 Books baby!

Monday Rambles

The best part about Word on the Street, for me anyway, is talking to avid readers about the books they've read and then giving them recommendations. One of the books I was talking about to anyone who'd listen yesterday was Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin. My favourite part of the day was pitching the book to a couple while a fellow was listening (I wasn't even talking to him!) who said, "Sold! I wouldn't have picked up that book based on the cover but you've got me now." He walked away with my favourite book of the season under his arm.

For the most part, I have convinced myself that I'm not a "marketing" person. When I first started my career, while I was finishing up my schooling, I worked in circulation. I hated it. In fact, I would even go so far as to say I despised it. For years I tried to get into magazine editorial and no one would give me a job. Not even an assistant's job. Nothing. And so I gave up. I found writing work elsewhere (on the web) and have always been a little disappointed in myself for not knowing how to find that work in any other way.

I'm rambling, I know.

There were things that I loved about being a content producer (back in the day). But I've only ever wanted to write about what I want to write about. But that sits in direct conflict with one of the goals I've set out for myself -- which is make a living by my pen (me and Aphra Behn; natch). The thing is, I'm not sure I'll ever get there. I'm too old to start a whole new career, too young to give up on finding fulfillment at work, and too tired to put much effort into the whole freelance racket. And let's face it, I'm too shy and also too insecure to be any good at pitching.

But here's the rub -- once a year I love (at Word on the Street) being in "marketing." Most of the time I'll deny the designation. I have a love/hate relationship with the term. I've never wanted to have much to do with the idea of it as a career. It's tangential to working with books online. The companies aren't big enough to have digital departments proper (here in Canada anyway) and there are marketing elements to what we do online. If you want to do online and be in books, you have to at least accept the fact that you will also be in marketing.

For me, however, it's always been about the words. Until I'm forced into a crowd and made to stand up and shout. And once a year I discover that I absolutely adore talking to strangers about books. I love being asked what I've read and what I thought. I love finding kindred spirits in terms of reading habits. And I get over my whole-hearted fear of crowds and people and talking in public and all the normal insecurities that have me generally communicating by written instead of spoken words.

I don't know what the point of this post really is beyond a couple of observations. I sat down at home on Saturday and wrote for the first time in months. I felt like myself. And then I felt angry that I had committments that took me away from those words I wrote. I finished two articles that I adored writing for ExperienceTO and wondered, again, if I shouldn't just take the plunge and try to make a living solely from my pen.

These last few month have seen me be so utterly conflicted about so many different elements in my life. I guess I'm just waiting for the universe to show up and give me a little direction. What say you Astrology Zone?

Monday, September 21, 2009

#51 - Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

It seems I'm starting every book review off with a confession of sorts. Well, today is no exception. The only reason I read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (P+P+Z) was for work -- we've been running a fun Undeath Match with my friend Dan at Raincoast, which pits our HarperCollins book The Strain against their Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Dan's taking the side of zombies and I'm defending vampires. So trust that the review I write about P+P+Z here will be a little more balanced than the one I'll probably post over there.

Let me just say that I enjoyed Seth Grahame-Smith's literary mash-up more than I thought I would. When the book exploded over the summer, like many other literary snobs, I sort of poo-pooed the whole idea. Who would want to read a ruined version of Austen's timeless classic? Thousands upon thousands of readers, it turns out, myself included. The novel doesn't take itself too seriously, it basically follows the plot of the original, and tosses in more than a few awesome (and funny) scenes of Elizabeth battling the "unmentionables" (the zombies) throughout.

For all its clever humour, there is an underlying respect, I hope, for the original text because there's more of a film adaptation feeling to the book than anything else. Entire sections of dialogue read almost verbatim to the Keira Knightley version (yes, I've seen it enough times to know), which sort of made the whole enterprise a little more palatable for me. Grahame-Smith got quite a few things wrong too -- the shrill nature of his Mrs. Bennett doesn't have any of the savvy humour from the original, and Elizabeth seems to share a lot of her inner thoughts in ways that would have made the original Lizzie cringe.

The success of P+P+Z has spawned a sequel, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Creatures, which I probably won't read only because the original is still on my 1001 Books Challenge (shameful, I know), and I don't want to ruin the utter perfection of reading a Jane Austen novel along the way. But if you're looking for a bit of escapist, oddly engaging, and definitely funny words to pass a weekend, I'd recommend the book, even if it's just for the last fight scene. I'm not going to spoil it, but it's awesome.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

TRH Movie - The Private Lives of Pippa Lee

There are few times in my life when I'm honestly star struck. I'm sure that if I was in the same room as George Clooney, I'd be tongue tied and shaking in my boots, but for the most part I've met some very cool people in my time working in both television and publishing. However, last night, at the gala premiere of The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, I have to admit I was a little gaga over Rebecca Miller, Keanu Reeves and Robin Wright Penn. They were all just so luminous, humble, appreciative and lovely (and I didn't even get to actually meet them).

Rebecca Miller's film, adapted from her novel of the same name, remains hard to describe. Simply, it's a solidly good film with great characters, an interesting story, and fantastic performances. It's everything a movie should be, and then some. I know I'm a little biased because I really enjoyed the book and have been a fan of Miller's writing ever since I saw Personal Velocity. I still remember this line every time I think of that film: "Delia Shunt was 34. She had fine, dirty-blond hair and a strong, heavy ass...which looked excellent in blue jeans."

For girls with heavy asses, it was a revelation of sorts.

But back to Pippa Lee, the titular main character who finds herself marooned in a retirement community after her much older husband suffers from three separate, serious heart attacks. The consumate wife, Pippa spends her days planning meals and raising her kids. She's paying penance, it seems, for her earlier, wilder years. Suffering from what she calls a quiet mental breakdown, Pippa starts walking, eating, even driving, in her sleep. The sleepwalking is just the beginning. Pippa's carefully constructed life crumbles down around her but it's not a bad thing. It's surprisingly, enlightening, even fabled, in a way.

The press point that Robin Wright Penn keeps mentioning, both in the conference yesterday and her red carpet interview, is how there are so few roles like this for women in Hollywood. It's a familiar theme: women of a certain age getting cast aside for younger, fresher models. Maybe we need more auteurs like Miller, women who not only write, but also direct, intelligent films that present complex, honest, flawed characters like Pippa Lee. Wright Penn inhabits the role in ways that brought it to life beyond the book. She has a range and depth of emotion that displays a tenderness toward life, for her kids, for her husband, even when they're being utterly shitty to her. When everything changes and she does something so out of character (although not necessarily so when you look at her actions in the context of her entire life), it's hard not to cheer her on. You're utterly on Pippa Lee's side and that's entirely because of Wright Penn's performance.

There's a lovely chemistry between Keanu Reeves and Wright Penn. Equally troubled in his own life, Reeves' character finds himself in his mid-thirties, divorced and back living with his parents. Their friendship remains the most honest relationship (for a point) in Pippa's life. With all new friendships, what's nice is finding out the other's story without any judgment. That's biggest difference between Chris and Pippa's husband Herb (Alan Arkin). So it's easy to see why and how their relationship develops. Plus, there's a point in the movie where Chris says, "Hi there," to Pippa and I must admit, swoon.

Also, Winona Ryder, Alan Arkin and Mike Binder do well as the supporting characters, and Blake Lively's even passable as the young Pippa (but her "bite my lip" equals "emotion" style of "Serena" acting gets a little tired). I was surprised by Reeves' casting but, like everyone in the film, he's really good. I can't say much else -- it's just a good film. That might sound trite but I honestly mean it. Usually, I'll say that one should just read the book, forget about the movie; it'll only pale in comparison. But here the film is an amazing complement to the novel -- so I'm happily suggesting one should do both.

Monday, September 14, 2009

#50 - Shutter Island

I am this-close to being all caught up with my book reviews. I've got two more after Dennis Lehane's Shutter Island, and then I'm almost current. What a shock to my system that'll be: actually talking about my life in real time. Like The Best of Everything, Shutter Island was another book that I read in pretty much one sitting.

Here comes the confessional. [whispers] I cheat and sometimes read the endings of books first. I know. It's terrible. But it's something I started doing when I was a kid and can't control. So, after I started Shutter Island, I just had to know what happened. Like, HAD to know. Like, COULDN'T wait until I actually got to the end, and I resisted. Oh, I resisted until early evening when everyone else was playing cards and I was still reading. And then I couldn't stop myself. Flipping the book over I scanned the last few pages and said, "WHAT? No, that can't be right. I don't understand."

Serves me right.

Back to the traditional old-school read it from beginning to ending. U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels and his new partner, Chuck Aule, arrive on Shutter Island for a routine missing persons case. Except, is it really all that routine when the island, separated from the mainland by high tides, rocky outcrops and cold water, is home to a prison for some of the country's most disturbed and dangerous offenders? So, one of them has gone missing -- she's utterly disappeared from her cell (not unlike Andy in The Shawshank Redemption only without the giant poster and the actual explanation) and no one knows what's happened. But when Teddy and Chuck step off the ferry, nothing is as it seems. The staff are cryptic and unhelpful. The clues are confusing and don't make sense. And soon Teddy's not only lost his partner but he's on the verge of losing his mind too. He can't get off the island. No, wait, let's rephrase that, they won't let him off the island.

Let me tell you: I did not expect the ending. It came out of left field for me so much that I had to re-read the prologue AND the last few pages more than once. Lehane's such a convincing writer that you get swept away in Teddy's story the moment he tosses his cookies on the ferry ride over. That's a part of why the novel's so masterful too -- that for a twist of this magnitude to work, you need to be with the main character from the very beginning. You need to sweat when he sweats, so to speak, and sweat you do.

I'm stoked for the movie, even if they've delayed its opening until next winter. Here's the trailer in case you've been living under a rock these last few months:




Is it just me or is it totally terrifying? Trust me when I say that the book throws the same kind of punch.

Friday, September 11, 2009

#49 - The Best of Everything

We had some friends from Winnipeg come to stay with us a couple of days ago. It marked another milestone in our house. We finally have an actual spare bedroom with an actual spare bed -- a place for guests to rest their weary, travelled heads on comfy pillows and cozy sheets. It's not that I'm not an adult, but I haven't felt like one in quite some time living in our cramped, half-used house. But the more rooms that become finished and look beautiful (the living room; the dining room; half of the kitchen), the happier I am that we can use the upstairs for its actual intent.

Okay /tangent.

We all went up to our cottage for an extended long weekend. Happily, I took a few days off because my body still wasn't ready for a full week of work. I'm not convinced I am even now but again I'm writing in tangents instead of getting to the point. We spent a lovely day at the Petroglyphs Provincial Park, and even went hiking, which utterly killed me. So the following day, when everyone else was boating and cavorting, I sat down inside and out and read Rona Jaffe's excellent The Best of Everything cover to cover.

The book was first published in 1958, and author Rona Jaffe based it somewhat on her own experiences as a young editor at Fawcett publications. The novel reads like Mad Men, only it's from the perspective of four different women (somewhat complete with a less suave Don Draper-esque character in the senior editor, Mike Rice) who work at the publishing company. They all start off in the secretarial pool, and some remain there until they get married, then pregnant, and leave the story. While there are many women featured in the novel, there are four whose stories drive the majority of the action. Their stories intersect as their friendships do -- sometimes accidentally, sometimes on purpose -- but the skillful nature of Jaffe's narrative never lets the threads drop that sew the entire story together.

Caroline, a young girl with an ivy league eductation, steps out of the subway from a long commute into Manhattan excited about her first job. She was to have been married to her college sweetheart who, after taking one last hurrah to Europe, found himself walking down the aisle with someone else. A career girl in the making, Caroline soon rises up the ranks to become a junior editor, but the road isn't easy, and she simply can't find the same kind of success in her personal life. Being beautiful, smart, and talented means that Caroline questions everything, and her story was the one that I found so heartbreaking by the end.

Then there's April and Gregg, two aspiring actresses, the former whose wholesome, mid-Western roots don't necessarily prepare her for the big city, and the latter who can't help but make disasterous mistakes after she becomes involved with a powerful Broadway producer. The majority of their problems (read: all) come in the form of love affairs. April gets in over her head with a wealthy playboy and Gregg can't seem to stop herself from troubling behaviour. The fourth and final woman Jaffe centres the novel around, Barbara, is a divorcee with a young child. She works hard to support her mother and her daughter, and struggles with the societal implications of divorce in the 1950s.

They are all flawed, fascinating and forgiving characters. They are women who search for meaning in a world where they're just trying to find their footing. All four of them exist somewhat outside the "normal" women who sit beside them planning their weddings and having babies, even if that's eventually what happens in their lives. The Best of Everything reminded me in tone and storytelling of Revolutionary Road, even of Jaffe's not as exacting as Yates remains in his prose. It's a product of its time, surely, so a realistic picture of the concerns of women from the time period, but the themes are so universal. Women dealing with sexual abuse, women defining themselves in the work place against men, women coping with the expectations of a relationship, love, and life. I can't put into words what kind of an effect the novel had upon me -- I just couldn't put it down until I got to the very end, and even then, I didn't want it to be over.

There's a comparison to it being a kind of pre-Sex and the City. But I think that's a glib comparison, more of a marketing pitch than a thoughtful critique. Sure there are similiarities that can't be ignored in terms of their gender, and even their personalities, but these four women are compelling because they exist within these pages. They're not driven by the weekly melodrama of a half-hour television series. They're broken in ways that can't be fixed. They're complex in ways that can't be quipped. And they have stayed in my mind, especially Caroline, since I finished reading.

Highly recommended. Thanks to Rachel again for telling me about this novel. Again, she's a gem.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

#48 - Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

Sometimes, you need a little lightness in your life. After a hard summer and an even harder year, I'm happy to say that there are a couple of things I've watched and read over the last couple weeks that just make me smile. Glee (Freaks and Geeks meets Fame meets Election) equals bliss and belly laughs, but it's only one once a week. So over the last few weeks I was reading Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day only at the cottage and only before I went to sleep just to make it last that little bit longer.

I adored this novel.

Miss Pettigrew finds herself on Delysia Lafosse's doorstep after a particularly trying last assignment as a governess. In fact, Miss Pettigrew has found herself sent off on a number of trying assignments as she attempts to make her way in the world. Plain (by her own standards), practical, and quite downtrodden, if this job doesn't work out, Miss Pettigrew will find herself out on the streets. Only when Miss Lafosse opens up the door to usher Miss Pettigrew inside, there's been a mixup -- she's not there to take care of any children but be a maid (of sorts) for the vivacious young actress/singer who finds herself in quite a pickle when it comes to her love life.

Over the course of the day Miss Pettigrew fixes, fiddles, meddles and generally makes herself indispensible to Delysia and her group of friends. She puts love affairs right, makes sure Miss Lafosse flies in the right direction and even spares some fun for herself. As the minutes and hours tick by, Miss Pettigrew evolves from the unconfident, unhappy, unsuccessful governess into a bright, witty, attractive woman who remains in charge of her station in life. It's a simple Cinderella story in a way -- but that doesn't take away from the charm and utter bliss of this book.

When I was reading a little about the author, Winifred Watson, I learned that she wrote the majority of her first novel while working in an office as a sectretary. Her first books had darker themes and when she submitted Miss Pettigrew, her publisher rejected it (Lionel Shriver can relate). It's a familiar story -- publishers and agents rejecting books that find resonance, win prizes and get made into equally delightful Hollywood films (yes; I've seen the film version that starts Francis McDormand and Amy Adams). I'm so pleased that Persephone exists and a little ashamed that this is the first of their novels that I've read. It certainly won't be the last.

READING CHALLENGES: Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is one of the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die, and while I did actually buy it vs pull it off my shelf, I'm counting it anyway. Also, high props to Rachel for recommending it to me. She's a gem.

The Money Books (#s 46, 47)

For those of you who know the real me, the non-virtual Deanna, you know that I'm a worrier. I fret a lot. I spend a lot of sleepless nights pondering things as random as why I'm so obsessed with True Blood this season and how on earth I'm ever going to finish the book I've been writing the last few years. A recurring theme in my sleepless nights is listmaking. I find that if I get up and write down a list of all the things I can actually do to assuage whatever is bothering me at that moment, I can actually get some sleep. One of the main things I consistently write down has to do with money: paying bills, managing accounts, moving things around, and debt.

Debt and I have quite a history together. For years I thought of debt as free money. I thought of credit cards as a means of filling in the gaps. Maybe it's because I wasn't really taught proper money management as a kid (and that's not the fault of my parents; it just wasn't something we discussed and then there was a lot of tragedy that sort of took over...). I was in my early 20s when I truly started to understand how money works. And with that understanding came a glimpse of a day when I wouldn't have to worry about it all the time. I learned that it's not just important to be in control of your financial situation but it's also necessary to understand the true cost of things.

So, over the years I've read a number of money-related books: Suze Orman, David Bach, and many, many more. These books all pretty much say the same thing: buy a house, keep up with extra mortgage payments, invest wisely, blah de freaking blah. It's the same advice packaged in fancier ways: Women and money. Going green and your money. Getting married and your money. Yawn.

I didn't need any more "whys." What I needed were "hows." Enter Kerry K. Taylor's excellent 397 Ways to Save Money. When I read this book in manuscript form before we published it, I honestly sat at my desk, skipped lunch, and then wrote an exuberant note to her editor about how smart and savvy I thought it was. It's a little bit of the "whys" but it's mainly pages upon pages of good tips about how to save money. How and when to reduce, reuse and recycle. How to shop smarter. How to make your resources stretch further and longer so that you aren't looking down the barrel of double and triple-digit credit card debt month after month.

Then I learned we were publishing a book called Debt-Free Forever by Gail Vaz-Oxlade. I'd never heard of her nor had I watched 'Til Debt Do Us Part (both situations I have now rectified). I read it, too, in manuscript form and am only going to say that it's changed my outlook entirely on budgeting (always thought it was more trouble than it's worth) and living within your means (what's the difference if all the bills get paid anyway).

I've also been doing a lot of thinking about money in general and what it means to my life. Truly, it's a means to an end; it's a way for us to finish the house but, it, inherently, doesn't have any value. What do I mean? Well, it's not worth fighting over. It's not worth worrying over, and it's certainly not worth killing yourself (or others) for. Over the course of my reading, I'm going to share some of the "revolutions" I'm trying to make over the next little while. Again, if I share the list, I'm going to stick to it, right?

1. Use what I buy. Like so many people who work above a Shopper's Drug Mart and down the street from Sephora and Holt Renfrew, I've got cupboards full of make up, creams, gift baskets, foot massagers, shampoos, etc. I keep buying more and more -- it's on sale, I'm there, I like the smell, and I used them, but our shower's all clogged up with half-empty plastic (natch) bottles. I've vowed to use up every single last bit of something before buying something new. That includes all the samples I've been saving for goodness knows what and the umpteen travel kits I've bought from Dermologica over the years. Good for the environment and good for the wallet. Although if you see me wandering around with fuzzy, dried out hair and clumpy mascara, you know why.

2. Use up my gift certificates. I don't know why I hoard these things but I do. I think that it's not a good idea to spend them so I've got them tucked away into all corners of things. Redeem all my points for more certificates and use up those too? The best thing I've done? Cash in HBC rewards points for MAC makeup and Levi's jeans. Oh, and a new coffee maker for the cottage. All FREE. Well, sort of free because we have so many points from renovation costs that we've cashed in on HBC gift certificates. Um, also, did you know you can use your AirMiles points for a TTC pass? Yeah, that's what I'm doing in October...

3. Wear what I buy. See #1 above. This one's harder because I've lost a pile of weight due to the almost-dying appendicitis nightmare and none of my clothes fit. Like, none of them. It's a good thing I own some belts.

4. Use cash. I've put my RRHB and I on a budget that we're going to try to stick to over the next few months while we try to make a pile of payments on the renovation debt. It's not easy. And it's not something we've EVER done before.

5. Engage in some serious staycation activities. We did some of this at the cottage the other weekend when we went to Petroglyphs Provincial Park. Even though gas isn't cheap, I put a little extra in our transportation budget so we can take advantage of fun things we can do within driving distance. Also, we're lucky because we have a cottage. That doesn't mean we won't take a vacation, it just means that we'll be finding some new and interesting things to do that don't involve spending $100.00 at the movies. This will be hard. I love to go to the movies.

6. Garden more. Both indoors and out. It's hard to do during the winter, I know, but I'm already planning our garden for next spring/summer because we ate so much of our own homegrown food this year that makes the effort worth it. What I won't do? Spend obsessive amounts of money on more and more seeds.

7. Pay all our bills on time, including our taxes. I'm usually pretty good at this but tend to let the taxes drift and drift and drift...

8. Take care of the important but really boring things like RRSPs, wills and other financial planning. I always put these off as "oh, I'll get around to it one day."

9. Try to find ways to write more for me. This isn't necessarily money-related but it does go to the whole idea of the true cost of the things in your life. The more I write the more potential I have for becoming a "real" writer one day. The more I write the less it becomes a hobby and more the job that I've always wanted it to be.

10. Become more crafty. And not how the Beastie Boys meant it. But more like discovering the girl that grew up making pinecone decorations and sewing. This will also be hard. I feel as though I am terribly untalented in the crafty areas. It's not a skill I inherited from my truly crafty and wonderfully creative mother.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Tuesday That Feels Like Monday

When the day starts off out of the ordinary, like when your RRHB breaks his car key and you need to take a cab to find him only to discover you've left your phone at home and have no idea where he's parked, you're already tired even before you begin. Then you have to run for the streetcar, which you hate taking because you can't read (it makes you car sick), but decide to take the long way round on the subway even if it'll make you late just so you can squeeze in 10 minutes of Captain Corelli's Mandolin because it's a really good book that you should have read more of yesteday instead of watching every episode of 'Til Debt Do Us Part. So now you're overtired and overstimulated because the MANY hours of TV yesterday afternoon kept you up all night and you haven't been able to do yoga since the whole appendix nightmare, which means that you're behind in just about every aspect of your life because you lost a whole month to the sickness and when you're this out of sorts where do you even start in terms of trying to get caught up?

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

#45 - The Last Summer (of You & Me)

Before I review Ann Brashares first adult novel (she's the author of the uber-lovely Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series), I'm going to make a confession. This book made me cry. Big, crocodile tears that caused my RRHB to put his hand on my shoulder and ask if I was okay as I was reading in bed. I was sobbing. Sniffling, snorting, bawling. Except I'm not really sure why. For the most part, the novel itself was utterly predictable, the characters were a little one-dimensional, and the story never truly resonates like her previous series.

Two sisters, Alice and Riley, have spent their summers (for their entire lives) on a tiny island off the coast of New York. Fire Island might be where they spend the warm months but for Riley and Alice, like so many Canadian kids who grew up at cottages (like me), it's where their whole world starts and ends. Their collective best friend Paul (he's Riley's age; Alice is younger) lives next door. He's slightly troubled with a crazy mother, a pile of money from his rich grandparents, and a heart that seemingly always lands in the right place. So when Paul comes back to the island to spend the summer after he's finished university, everything changes. And the relationship between the three of them will never be the same again when the cold weather rolls in.

But it's not just growing up that changes their relationship, it's tragedy. Unpredictable, yet honestly a little too twee, the plot feels too contrived to make a great impact on me as a reader. Even if Brashares can write emotion like few others, the novel doesn't feel adult, it still feels on the cusp of YA. It has predictable situations that are written with deep feeling and characters who wear their hearts on their sleeves only after a little prodding. Alice and Riley, despite their differences, felt a little too much like characters, if that makes any sense. They're too polar opposite, trying too hard to be "distinct," and, in ways, just a little too perfect despite everything that happens to them. There's everything and the kitchen sink in this novel, issue piled upon issue, so you feel a little like you're watching a movie of the week. 

It might seem like I'm being overly critical. Maybe I am. Yet, despite all of my criticisms, let me just say again, when it came to the tragic bits, I ended up with giant, salty tears falling down my sweet cheeks. Now that's got to count for something. 

#44 - Dark Places

There's a certain macabre element to Gillian Flynn's writing that I can appreciate. Yes, it scares the crap out of me (but I am easily frightened). Yes, it seems a little overtly horrific at times. But, overall, they're solid thrillers that camp more in the David Fincher and Mo Hayder side of the genre than say the Law and Order and Alexander McCall Smith side. Her latest novel, Dark Places, climbs into just that, both metaphorically and literally. 

Libby Day survives one of the most brutal crimes ever to take place in Kinnakee, Kansas. She's just seven when her mother and two sisters are murdered (in cold blood, yes, indeed) late one winter night. Dashing from the house after taking refuge in her mother's bedroom, Libby hides from her brother Ben, the only other survivor, when he comes calling for her. Based on her own fuzzy recollections, Ben is convicted of the murders and has spent the past 25 years in jail. 

Bittersweet and slightly morose, Libby has made a decent living from being the lone survivor of "The Satan Sacrifice of Kinnakee, Kansas." Scraping the barrel of the trust fund that was set up after the deaths of her family members, her father lost to alcohol and hard living, Libby hasn't ever truly held down a real job. Then along comes The Kill Club, a group of amateur sleuths who thrive on the more grotesque nature of the crimes, combing through old evidence to try and solve the unsolvable. The Kill Club, and its obsession with serial killers, gives Libby a second chance to come to terms with her life -- they (and especially one of their main members, Lyle Wirth) don't believe Ben committed the crime and they're willing to pay her to dig deeper into her past to find out the truth. And find out the truth she does, but it's not what Libby, or the reader for that matter, expects.

Whenever I read a book that circles around  such disturbing events, I can't help but think about something Alissa York said once, that a writer's imagination, because it's that, made-up, can go places that people don't normally go. They explore situations and characters that seemingly come from out of left field and that only work in the context of that particular book. Flynn does a great job with these dark places, both from the novel's title and from the pages within, and if I have one complaint, it's that I'm not entirely convinced by the conclusion. Like her first novel, Sharp Objects, the novel rips along like mad for the first two-thirds, and then falls down just slightly when the penultimate moment arrives. The true ending, however, as in the very last chapter of the book, was utterly satisfying.

#43 - The Wife's Tale

Lori Lansens has yet again written an all-consuming kind of novel. Just like her two previous books, Rush Home Road and The Girls, The Wife's Tale, from start to finish, remains the kind of novel that once you've read the first sentence you don't stop until you've finished the entire book. When the whole appendicitis turned from bad dream into nightmare, I'm not ashamed to admit that The Wife's Tale was a big part of holding on to my sanity that second week I spent in the hospital.

The novel opens with Mary Gooch on the cusp of celebrating her 25th wedding anniversary. She married her high school sweetheart but they've drifted apart over the years. And the losses, personal, professional, have manifested in her psychological and physical self. Borderline agoraphobic (she still leaves the house) and morbidly obese, Mary has tightened up her life in such a way that it couldn't be any smaller. Her menial job at the pharmacy in town is a means to an end (and a chocolate delivery) and her husband Gooch's isn't much more satisfying. Once a golden boy, Gooch isn't apparently unsatisfied with his life, but when he disappears leaving nothing behind but a fat bank account, Mary must face life for the first time alone.

In a way, it's a novel of discovery for Mary, a long, rambling Chaucer-like adventure that transforms her in ways she never would have imagined. The narrative keeps tight to Mary: you're on the edge when Gooch doesn't come home, you feel her pain when she finds herself completely lost without him, and when she takes the steps towards becoming her own person you can't help but cheer her on. Lansens has a way of writing this character, this woman who could be the butt of so many jokes, without any caricature. While she may come from a small town, she's not a hick; she's not a stereotype, and her transformation is kind of movie-esque magical.

There are unsatisfying elements to the story that I'm not going to spoil here. I'm going to leave off with my first impressions of this book, remembered now a month after reading: it takes a hell of a writer to take such a Hollywood plot, "woman abandoned on her 25th anniversary, obese, unsatisfied and unhappy" and turn it into moments that bring tears to your eyes for their honesty, originality and utter good-heartedness. 

READING CHALLENGES: I'm counting The Wife's Tale as the second book in my Canadian Book Challenge. While I haven't done my "official" post about the theme I'm going to try just yet because I honestly haven't decided what I want to read for the rest of the year, I still think a year that includes The Wife's Tale and February can only be counted as inspiring.