A Trio of Twins (Sort of)

What are the odds that I would randomly read three books in a row that featured twins?  Two books maybe, but when twins showed up in the third book, even though they were minor characters, it started to get a little creepy.

Beside Myself  Eleanor  The Good Goodbye

Ann Morgan’s Beside Myself, out from Bloomsbury back on January 12, is a disturbing, little thriller, one that would make any set of twins think twice about pulling the switcheroo trick on folks.  As a young girl in late ‘80s/early ‘90s England, Helen convinces her twin Ellie to swap places to see who they can fool.  An innocent game, right?  Not so much, and the consequences bring disastrous results for Helen for the rest of her life.  Much emotional trauma and mental illness ensue and it’s difficult to tell the villains from the victims.  I felt for Helen and her predicament at times; at others, when she managed to dig her hole even deeper, I just wanted to give her a good smack.  Sometimes, I wondered if the entire identity switch never even happened, instead possibly being contained entirely within the confines of Helen’s scrambled-egg brain.  At all times, I deeply loathed Helen and Ellie’s utterly rigid and dysfunctional mother, a beast of a woman whose main goal is to appear perfect at all times.

Ann Morgan is a decidedly British writer in style and tone which suited me just fine, and she has crafted a fantastic psychological debut novel in Beside Myself.  Take the time to check this one out.

January 12 also brought Crown’s release of Eleanor by Jason Gurley, which features another set of identical twin sisters, Eleanor and Esmerelda.  A car accident claims Esmerelda at the age of six or seven, leaving Eleanor and her parents adrift.  Her mother retreats inwardly into alcoholism, while her father abandons the family home, leaving Eleanor to grow up with her mother’s drunkenness and increasing rage.  As Eleanor enters her teen years, her reality begins to shift in the weirdest of fashions.  As she passes through a school doorway, she suddenly finds herself plunked smack in the middle of a beautiful cornfield.  She eventually manages to fall back into her own world only to find much more time has passed than she realized.  The next time her world shifts she’s thrown into a rainy, muddy wilderness.  These transferences, always against her will, increase and ultimately she learns much about her family’s loss and her shattered parents.

As I read Eleanor, smartly-written and compelling, I couldn’t decide whether Gurley was aiming his tale at adults or young adults.  These days I realize that just as many adults are fans of YA lit as teens are so I suppose it’s a moot point.  It could also be called a modern fantasy novel, given its dream-world dimensions, or even literary speculative fiction.  Whatever.  I should just shut up and say I found it lovely and ethereal and sad.  No matter what you call it, Jason Gurley’s Eleanor is a damn good book.

Twins also factor in The Good Goodbye (release date:  January 19) by Carla Buckley, although they’re the younger brothers of Arden, who is the main event here along with her cousin, Rory.  Arden and Rory might as well be sisters though, growing up tightly together with Rory as the ringleader and Arden as her loyal disciple.  Told from the differing perspectives of Arden, Rory and Arden’s mother, Natalie, Buckley’s novel explores family dynamic and dysfunction in the wake of a dorm room fire that leaves both girls clinging to life in a hospital ICU.  How did the fire start?  Who started it?  Were Arden and Rory two points of a love triangle that suddenly disintegrated?  What secrets were they keeping from their parents?  There was more than enough suspense and trepidation to keep me turning pages.

Several themes abound here:  the strength of familial bonds and how much it takes to break them, parental pressure, teenage secrecy and manipulation of parents and each other.  Rory and Arden are complex characters, each driven by different impulses to succeed in academics and life in general.  They have a fierce, sisterly love for each other, yet Rory is more than a little manipulative with Arden, and Arden almost always willingly caves.  It was hard to like Rory, but even harder to like her domineering mother, Gabrielle; as a result, while I found Rory’s ways more than a little objectionable, it was easy to understand the source of her psyche.

I was absolutely dying to find out the cause of and motivation for the fire, and I have to say, while some reviewers have indicated the ending was a let-down, I found it completely satisfying.  But no spoilers here.  You’ll have to read it yourself.

Full Disclosure: A review copy of Beside Myself was provided to me by Bloomsbury USA via NetGalley; a review copy of Eleanor was provided to me by Crown Publishing via NetGalley; and finally, a review copy of The Good Goodbye was provided to me by Random House Publishing Group – Ballantine via NetGalley. I would like to thank each of these publishers for providing me the opportunity to read and review these titles. All opinions expressed herein are my own.

A Baker’s Dozen (Plus One) of My All-Time Favorite Books: Part III

As I write this, I’m still riding the wave of elation and rapture that is the beautiful beat-down my Carolina Panthers gave to the Dallas Cowgirls on Thanksgiving.  Luuuuuuuuke!!!!!  Cam and the Dab!  11-0 baby!  And to think the Vegas odds makers initially had a 3-7 Dallas team as the favorite over my undefeated boys.  What in the fuck were they thinking?  I guess the Panthers still are, as they always have been, the Rodney Dangerfields of the NFL.  But that was one collarbone and a 33-14 game ago.  How ‘bout some respect now, suckas?!

But forgive me my gloating.  Let’s get back to business.  Part III of the Baker’s Dozen (Plus One) is fresh out of the oven.

Fair and Tender Ladies – Lee Smith

I read across all genres, fiction and nonfiction, so long as it’s well written.  But Southern literature in all its variations is where my heart is, being a daughter of the South and all.  From Eudora Welty to George Singleton, from sweet, honeysuckle-scented stories to edgy Grit Lit, I love it all.

There are a multitude of contemporary authors you could start off with if your Southern lit education is lacking:  Reynolds Price, Kaye Gibbons, Jill McCorkle, Allan Gurganus, Ron Rash, Wiley Cash, Tim Gautreaux.  Or you can go old school:  the aforementioned Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, William Faulkner, Katherine Anne Porter.  The list is endless and stacked with literary behemoths.  I’d even go so far as to say that, in my opinion, no other region of the country is so steeped with written tradition and essence.

Fair and Tender Ladies

While there are any number of biscuit-and-gravy flavored books I could trot out here (it’d be easy to produce innumerable blogs posts about my Southern favorites alone), Lee Smith’s Fair and Tender Ladies has held a revered place in my heart for a long, long time.  One of my dirty little secrets is that I’m a sucker for epistolary novels, stemming from my reading at a very young age of Jean Webster’s Daddy-Long-Legs, and Fair and Tender Ladies is composed entirely of the correspondence of Ivy Rowe, a young girl growing up in the mists of Appalachia.  The epistolary tale is a rare bird these days, as is letter writing itself, an art lost to the millennial generation born of the instant gratification of texting.  If I shoved this book into the arms of an under-thirty-something, most of them would look at me as if I’d sprouted two heads.  So all you millennials out there:  download this one onto your Kindle or your iPad or your smartphone and find out what real correspondence looks like.

Ivy’s first letters bear the misspellings and colloquialisms of her age and her environment, but this book wouldn’t have worked nearly so well if Lee Smith had prettied up the grammar.  It’s Ivy’s unaffected, down-home voice that, as politely as possible, still smacks you upside the head and knocks you flat on your ass squarely in the middle of a holler in the Virginia mountains.  As Ivy grows up and becomes a mother, then a grandmother, her words gain maturity and polish but her voice never loses its direction.

I had the opportunity to meet Ms. Smith a year or so ago at a book signing for her then-new release Guests on Earth, but it was Fair and Tender Ladies that I wanted her to sign.

 A Game of Thrones – George R.R. Martin

Call me a sellout for placing A Game of Thrones on my all-time favorites list, since by now everybody and his brother has either read the books or seen the HBO series, but hear me out.

A Game of Thrones

I had never been much of a fantasy or sci-fi reader (other than Tolkien) and, like what I imagine are quite a lot of folks, I might have even considered myself above genre fiction of that sort.  I lumped it in with romance and took a literary snob’s view that most of its writers were hacks.  I have to admit I still feel that way about romance novels – I have yet to find a romance author who I think has any serious literary chops (yes, I hear the boos and hisses from the romance crowd – just don’t throw any tomatoes!).  Keep in mind it’s just my opinion so if I’ve now managed to alienate you romance aficionados out there, try to change my mind and let me know who you think is worthy.  I can be open-minded . . . I think.

So around early spring 2011, I hit a wall in my reading.  I was coming off a rough two or three years with my dad’s illness and then passing, and all of a sudden I found that I just didn’t want to read about real people with real problems (i.e., pretty much all fiction AND nonfiction).  I had had enough problems of my own to deal with for a while.  “Bon”, the attorney I work with who I’ve mentioned in a previous post, and a serious fantasy buff, suggested several of his sword and dragon favorites as potential escapes and alternatives.  I was skeptical but I figured, what the hey . . . so I picked up A Game of Thrones . . . and LIFE WAS NEVER THE SAME!

I landed smack dab in the middle of Westeros somewhere near The Wall and suddenly I knew I wasn’t in Kansas anymore, and no amount of heel-clicking was going to bring me back home any time soon.  That was fine with me; I didn’t want to be at home anyway.  I had developed some pretty asinine assumptions over the years about fantasy novels and their authors in general, but George Martin and his Starks and Lannisters put paid to that in short order.  These weren’t your cookie cutter wizards, fairies, knights saving damsels in distress.  These guys (and the girls too) were snarky, conniving, deadly, and charming as hell all at the same time.  Plus there were badass dragons.  Dragons are like horses, if horses could fly and barbecue your ass to cinders.  I fell in with Ned, Jon, Arya, Sansa (well, maybe not Sansa; she’s a little too sniveling for my taste), Tyrion, Jamie, Cersei, Daenerys, the Hound, et al. like I’d known them my whole life, then proceeded to be absolutely astounded at the rate in which George Martin slashed and burned his main characters.  Oh, and did I mention the man can write?

In all fairness, I should probably have just listed the entire A Song of Ice and Fire series as my entry here.  I read all five of the existing books in the series straight through, something I NEVER EVER do with series fiction.  Placing them here on a list of what is supposed to be my great literature recommendations may still seem like a cop-out to some of you higher-minded readers.  But what makes these books so special to me is that they accomplished two important things:  they provided me a welcome and ready safe haven when real life was taking a toll, and they offered a jumping-off point into a genre at which I’d previously sneered and of which I’m now a giant fan.  I’ve since read Nalo Hopkinson, Kevin Hearne, John Scalzi, Patrick Rothfuss, Robin Hobb, Ursula K. Le Guin, Philip K. Dick, Neil Gaiman, Lois McMaster Bujold, Glen Cook, China Mieville, Anne McCaffrey, Jack Vance and Arthur C. Clarke, and the list goes on.

Do yourself a favor and try reading something outside of your comfort zone.  It doesn’t have to be fantasy or sci-fi.  For you it might be horror or biography, mystery or history.  You might surprise yourself (like I did) and open up whole new worlds of exploration, enjoyment and knowledge.  And isn’t that what reading’s all about?