Monthly Archives: August 2019

Never Have I Ever, by Joshilyn Jackson

It’s always the same old story with Joshilyn Jackson — I wait a couple of years for her to come out with a new book and then I devour it in less than a day. Her writing is always so crisp, her plots so compelling, her characters so real and believable.

Never Have I Ever starts with a group of suburban moms whose tight little circle is infiltrated by Roux, a newcomer to the neighbourhood. Roux gets everyone a little drunk at book club and gets people to confess the worst thing they’ve ever done. Turns out lots of these ladies have secrets they’d rather hide, but only one — main character Amy — has a secret she’s willing to do anything to protect. And as the story unfolds it becomes clear that Roux’s game wasn’t just an edgy icebreaker: she’s after Amy’s secret, and if she reveals it, Amy’s marriage, her kids, her entire life could be at stake.

This is a bit more thriller-y than Jackson’s previous novels, and I don’t usually read thrillers, but I’m willing to be taken on this kind of ride by a writer I trust. This, like my last review, is another book where the “dark secret in a character’s past” trope really pays off — it’s utterly believable that Amy would do everything she does to keep the truth from coming to light. There was one small aspect of Amy’s character (her relationship with her mother, glossed over in a fairly cliche way by a writer who is normally so good at mother-daughter relationships and almost never resorts to cliches) that disappointed me a little bit. But it’s the only remotely flat note in an otherwise pitch-perfect symphony of plot and character that pulled me right along to the satisfying conclusion.

And now I have to wait for her next book ….

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Melmoth, by Sarah Perry

This is an odd book that took quite awhile to lure me in, but in the end I found very compelling and moving. It starts in modern-day Prague, where an English translator, Helen Franklin, is living a life of quiet austerity that goes beyond mere introversion — it becomes clear that she is haunted by guilt and trying to atone for something in her past. Into Helen’s tidy and ordered world collides an ancient tale of a restless spirit called Melmoth the Witness, the Wanderer, who might be real (what is real?) or an embodiment of guilt, or a symbol of those who bear witness to atrocities.

The story shifts around — from Helen’s present, to several different characters and locations in the past, including the Holocaust and the Armenian genocide, and eventually back into the hidden secret in Helen’s own past. Along the way, these gothic-horror-tinged narratives all play with the idea of “bearing witness.” It can be deadly: standing by and doing nothing when your words or actions might save someone. But sometimes, when tragedy is inevitable, bearing witness is the only thing you can do. The idea of the shadowy Melmoth as a witness becomes a metaphor for all the tragedies we bear witness to.

I’ve read several novels this summer that play on the idea of a character having a terrible, guilty secret in their past, and the problem with this trope is that often, when the secret is finally revealed, it’s anticlimactic — the reader has either already guessed it, or it wasn’t that big a deal. Not so here (or, in fact, in the other books I read this summer — the “dark secret” was uniformly dark in all of them). When we find out what (other than Melmoth) has been haunting Helen, her guilt and her need to punish herself make perfect sense. The only question is, when she finally meets both her past and the ghost that haunts her — what is she going to do now?

Weird, mystical, creepy, and thought-provoking.

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Harry’s Last Stand, by Harry Leslie Smith

I realize the last two books I reviewed are ones about which I’ve said, “People really need to read this!” but people also, really really really need to read Harry’s Last Stand. Yes it gets a bit ranty in places, but the author was well into his 90s when he wrote it and he had every right to get ranty.

Harry Leslie Smith was born into abject poverty in 1920s England. His childhood was like Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes but without any veneer of beautiful writing or sentimentality — just poverty, disease, and hunger. Harry fought in the RAF during WW2, married a German girl after the war, eventually emigrated to Canada and ended his life as a solidly comfortable member of the middle class. But this is not a rags-to-moderate-riches story where the moral is that things got better because Harry worked hard, or was blessed, or even lucky. No, Harry Smith’s thesis is clearly that things got better after WW2 for people of his social class because governments in the UK and elsewhere put together a social safety net of programs that provided health care, education, and the means for people to get out of dire poverty. And when, as an elderly man, Smith began to see those same governments rolling back those safety nets and stripping away those protections in favour of unregulated capitalism and tax breaks for big corporations, he became an activist. In his 90s. He began writing and speaking about the importance of governments that are by, of, and for the people, and how we need to get back to those values.

Anyone who believes in the claptrap that we all automatically become conservative as we age, anyone who hearkens back for some imagined “good old days” when people didn’t complain and pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, needs the good harsh dose of reality provided by this admittedly cranky old man. Harry passed away a couple of years ago but his message is as relevant today as when he first took up his pen, and we all need to listen. Read the book.

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White American Youth, by Christian Picciolini

I’ve heard about Christian Picciolini for years and read interviews with him, but I finally got around to reading his memoir. It is chilling to realize how easily a teenage boy feeling disaffected and isolated could be drawn into the white supremacist movement and made to feel like a “leader” within that world — and in Picciolini’s case, that all happened long before the era of social media that makes it so much easier for these dangerous ideas to spread. White American Youth is the story of how teeanged Picciolini got into the movement and, eventually, how adult Picciolini got out of it. Today he is active in helping people to better understand white supremacist hate groups and to leave that world if they choose to. In today’s atmosphere it’s important to listen to people like Picciolini who know what they’re talking about and know how deadly white supremacist hate groups can be.

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Maid, by Stephanie Land

This is the one book that was a crossover between my summer reading list and Barack Obama’s, so that tells you a little bit about the buzz around it. I think a lot of people are drawn to this book by the idea that it’ll be a kind of tell-all about the grungy reality of cleaning other people’s houses, but while there is some of that, it’s really a deeply personal memoir about the reality of living in poverty. Stephanie Land grew up in a family clinging to middle-class status, and, as is true for so many women, it took one bad relationship and one unplanned pregnancy for her to slip into the vast underclass of people who get by on a patchwork of government assistance and menial manual labour.

How tenuous and difficult that patchwork of assistance and manual work is, how hard it is to navigate, how nearly impossible to provide a child with a safe place to grow up and enough food on the table, is the theme of Maid, and Land tells her story in a way that is simple, powerful, and utterly believable. Anyone who thinks that poor single moms are sitting on their butts collecting handouts from the government needs to read this book and get a glimpse of what the reality actually is.

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The Grand Duchess of Nowhere, by Laurie Graham

So this is kind of fun, to the extent that anything dealing with the Russian Revolution can be described as “fun.” Actually the revolution is sort of an afterthought in the life story of Princess Victoria Melita of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, aka “Ducky,” one of the gazillion grandchildren of Queen Victoria.

Ducky, born in 1866 and coming of age in a rapidly-changing world, was mildly notorious at the time for being divorced from her first husband, mostly because he was gay and not discreet enough about it, and then marrying her second husband for love. Mind you, both husbands were well within the extended-family-circle that these folks tended to marry within — it’s not like she married someone who wasn’t both royal and a distant cousin, or anything shocking like that. But she was seen as being just a teensy bit rebellious, and a bit of a handful, within the context of the rather stifling expectations of a woman of her rank and time.

She is also, as presented in this first-person novel, a complete and utter airhead, and very hard to sympathize with. I mean, it’s obviously not nice for her when she catches Husband #1 in bed with a stableboy — nobody likes that — but she comes across, in this book, as a woman so completely wrapped up in the insular world of privilege and rank that when she finds herself in the middle of the actual Russian Revolution (Husband #2 is a Russian Grand Duke), she simply has no idea what’s going on. How could anybody possibly want dear Cousin Nicky to abdicate, even if he is an ass and his wife Sunny is insufferable? And all right, if he does abdicate, surely someone else in the family will step up — how can there be no Czar at all?

The degree to which Ducky and her circle are out of touch with the real world is almost hilarious, and I’m not sure if that was the author’s intent or not, but it made it hard to take any of Ducky’s trials and tribulations seriously when she floats above reality on a cloud of wealth and status that makes it impossible for her to grasp … well, anything, actually. If you didn’t sympathize with the Bolsheviks before reading this novel, you might start to think they had a point by the time you’ve finished.

It’s light and entertaining, it’s well-researched, it’s well-written, but don’t ask me to shed any tears for poor Ducky (who, with her husband, was one of the few highly-placed members of the Romanov clan to actually survive the Bolshevik purge and die in exile).

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Mortimer and Whitehouse: Gone Fishing, by Bob Mortimer and Paul Whitehouse

This audiobook, which Jason and I listened to on a drive to Bonavista and back (just the right length!) is a companion volume to Bob Mortimer and Paul Whitehouse’s BBC TV series about, well, two middle-aged entertainers taking up fishing after they have both experienced serious heart problems. Narrated by the two authors in alternating chapters, the book is a hybrid of a memoir, a comedy routine, and a serious book about angling in the UK. It’s definitely entertaining to listen to (not sure what it would be like to read without Bob Mortimer’s comic delivery), but the best vehicle for this material is definitely the TV series, which includes all of the above plus stunning nature photography and more.

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Filed under Audiobook, Nonfiction -- general, Nonfiction -- memoir