Late last month I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
Because I teach a novel writing class, I try to practice what I preach and read, read, read, because honestly, I don’t think you can write well if you don’t. So with my latest manuscript finally out the door, it was time at last to dip into the stack of books that I received for Christmas – some by authors I was trying for the first time, and a few by authors I always enjoy.Visit Lynda Simmons' website.
Where to begin was the problem. When I pick up a book, I’m looking to be engaged from the opening line. I want the writer to reach out, grab me by the throat and hold on until the very end. But beyond a compelling plot, I also hope the characters will be memorable, that they’ll linger in my heart and mind, drawing me back again and again. Characters like Lilah Kemp in Timothy Findlay’s Headhunter, who believes she has freed Kurtz from page 92 of Heart of Darkness and now must find her own Marlow to help get him back. Or the dog in Stephen King’s Gerald’s Game, who is torn between survival and being a ‘good dog’ – fabulous bit of characterization there.
So as I started in on my stack of books, I was hoping to find at least one with staying power, one that would stick with me long after I’d closed the cover and set the book back on the shelf. And I was delighted to discover that Claudia Dey’s Stunt definitely sticks.
The main character, Eugenia is nine years old, wise beyond her years and desperate for her father to love her. When he disappears, leaving behind a note of apology addressed only to her mother and sister, Eugenia is convinced he’s coming back for her. That her name was left out, not because he forgot to include her, but because he has no intention of leaving her behind. Now picture a nine year old girl sitting on the front stairs in a corduroy dress. “Teeth brushed. Hair brushed.” With provisions sewn into the hem of that dress. Things a little girl believes they will need. “. . .nuts, a handkerchief, rope, a pen and paper and a knife. I will move with you as seamlessly as you move through the world. I will be your shadow.” Heart breaking stuff for the adult reader who just knows that man is never coming back.
Stunt is not an easy read, not the kind of book you can skim through, toss aside and move on to the next. Dey’s style makes you slow down, take your time, savour every image, every quirky twist and turn in this unique and fascinating novel. Chances are good you’ll read it a second time, and a third, to catch what you surely missed the first time through.
Another book that hooked me from the beginning was The Help, by Kathryn Stockett. In case you haven’t heard about the book, which I doubt, The Help is set in Mississippi in 1962 and tells the story of Skeeter, a young white woman who cannot squeeze herself into the narrow life that awaits every woman of her social class. Like everyone else she knows, Skeeter was raised by the family’s maid, a black woman named Constantine who disappeared without a word to the girl who loved her as much as she loved her own mother. In trying to find out what happened to Constantine, Skeeter grows more and more curious about the lives of the women who work in the homes of her friends and family. Deciding their stories need to be told, Skeeter convinces one of the maids, Abileen, to not only write down her own story, but to help her recruit other maids to tell theirs as well.
While The Help is not a story with a lot of action, the affection the reader feels for the characters and knowing how dangerous this project could be for both Skeeter and the maids who agree to take part, keep the tension tight and the reader turning the pages well after the rest of house has gone to sleep.
Short stories are a blessing for anyone cursed with a love of books and too little time to indulge their cravings. Usually, I save short story collections for those agonizing weeks when I’m in deadline hell with a new book of my own and only have time for a quick reading fix. But having received a copy of Stuart McLean’s Vinyl Café Unplugged, I decided to indulge myself early. The first thing you need to know is that Stuart Mclean is an oral storyteller with a weekly radio show I try hard not to miss. His ongoing tales of Dave and Morley – a fictional couple whose lives I have been following for years – are funny, insightful and real enough to make me wish they’d invite me to dinner some time. McLean won the Stephen Leacock award for humor for this collection, and there is not a single entry that disappoints.
These are not hard-hitting, gritty, urban tales. These are stories about the every day things in life. Things like trying to keep the dog off the bed, and first snowfalls, and picking the wrong time to leave the bathroom naked. Tender moments, hilarious moments and more importantly the difficult moments every one of us has known. But whatever moment McLean is sharing with us, he does it with humour, compassion and an obvious affection for the human race that is guaranteed to make even the most cynical reader smile.
It’s almost March now and I’m not even half way through my stack of books. Still, I’m optimistic and hoping to get through most of them by the summer. I’ll let you know if any of them stick!