This is Your Life, Harriet Chance by Jonathan Evison

I’m warning you now, spoilers. There are spoilers in this post. Instead of a typical review, this is more of a book discussion, because this book really messed with my head and it doesn’t feel like enough to just talk about the plot and move merrily on. 



Here’s the setup: Harriet,78, has just received a gift from her husband Bernard: two tickets he won at auction to go on an Alaskan cruise. Thing is, Bernard died last year, after more than a year of Harriet nursing him through Alzheimer’s. Harriet’s only just found out about the tickets (Bernard bid on them quite a while ago)as they are due to expire soon if she doesn’t use them.  Harriet decides to go, and asks her best friend of many years, Mildred, to accompany her.  At the last minute, Mildred pulls out but won’t explain why, and sends Harriet a letter not to be opened until she is on the cruise ship.

Guess what’s in the letter? Four out of five people I told about this book guessed correctly just from that setup–that Mildred had an affair with Bernard. Did you guess? Please tell me in the comments if you guessed right or not, because I’m really wondering how obvious it is. I sort of guessed as I was reading the book but I was hoping I was wrong. Alas. 

First of all, Mildred, you absolute beast! How could you do that to your best friend? Obviously, telling Harriet wasn’t for Harriet’s benefit, although Mildred has deluded herself into thinking that it was. Really, it’s her own guilt she wants to assuage, and she wants to share the burden of knowing the truth. Selfish, selfish, selfish. As we learn through flashbacks, Mildred was having an affair with Bernard before she ever met Harriet, and seems to have  purposely become friends with Harriet out of a sense of guilt for the affair. So the value, the truth of that whole friendship, is thrown into question for Harriet with this letter.  

Evison’s chapters mostly switch back and forth between the linear narrative of now (preparing for the cruise, being on the cruise, etc.) told in third-person, and flashbacks to significant moments (especially several with a creepy uncle who wasn’t really an uncle) in Harriet’s life, told in a confronting second person, addressing Harriet. These second-person chapters use the  frame of having a narrator choose what she reminisces about, not unlike in the old game show “This is Your Life.” But this atypical second-person narrator is not just a gimmick: it argues for a higher power in charge of shaping the meaning of Harriet’s life.  

The chapters in which Bernard’s afterlife so far is a kind of limbo where he is breaking the rules (again) by appearing to Harriet to try to help her get through this difficult time more obviously frame the story in terms of a higher power in charge. The irony is that in trying to help, Bernard is risking being able to meet up with Harriet in the afterlife; although it’s not super clear where he’s headed (thumbs up or thumbs down), his handler makes it clear that he still has something to lose.  This in itself is a fascinating idea, that we would still have free will in the waiting room directing us to heaven or hell, and be able to make choices that would change where we were bound, and moreover, that people would still make choices they knew would send them to hell. 

It’s hard to know what to make of Bernard. Is he just a fuck-up? His visits to Harriet are backfiring, making their grown children question Harriet’s sanity when they catch her seemingly talking to herself, but he doesn’t seem to care. Is his behavior motivated by love for Harriet, or, like Mildred, by guilt? Of course there is no explanation that will justify Bernard’s affair, but his conversations with Harriet are brief and unilluminating. 

Even though Evison seems to set up the reader to believe in a higher power shaping Harriet’s life, his tone works against taking any of it seriously, especially in his game-show host persona: “Yes, yes, we’re all over the place again, pinballing across the decades, slinging and bumping our way through the days of your life, seemingly at random.” He seems to tease her that there is “a method to the madness,” but never delivers. Does Evison feel obligated to play to the jadedness of the prevailing culture? His game-show narrator is so wittily unsympathetic to Harriet’s tradgedies and disappointments, that I wonder if he is, in fact, malevolent. When Harriet dies at the end, the novel feels unresolved. She never gets to confront either Bernard or Mildred. Not that confronting them would have resolved everything. But allowing her only the confines of her own mind in which to battle it out with them seemed cruel.

If This is Your Life, Harriet Chance embodies the new vision of our overseers from above, I’ll stick with the voiceovers in  It’s A Wonderful Life, thanks. If you read this book, I’d be really eager to hear what you thought of it! It depressed me for weeks! Thanks.


The Life We Bury by Allen Eskens

The banners on this blog show my various bookshelves, and one of them contains the book The Life We Bury by Allen Eskens. I bought it at last year’s Twin Cities Book Festival, and actually met the author and had him sign my copy.  I was looking for new mysteries, possibly for my Mystery Book Club.  Eskens was very unassuming, approachable, and taking some flak for his quiet demeanor from a fellow mystery writer who was hawking her wares like a pro.  

I finally read it, and it was a page-turner.  I finished it off in two days, and it was, in a word, transporting.  It’s one of those books that makes you forget what’s going on around you.  There are two story lines, one in the past, and one in the present, and each is fraught with injustice, misunderstandings, and most importantly, characters you want to win against life’s crazy odds.

Joe, a college student, is trying to complete an assignment for his English class.  Sounds simple enough.  He has to find a stranger and interview that person and write their biography in brief.  His idea is to find someone at a nursing home to talk to, but the person he ends up meeting is not at all what he bargained for.  Carl Iverson is a convicted murderer who’s been in jail for thiry years, but has just been released to the nursing home because he’s dying of cancer. 

But Joe is committed to finishing the assignment.  It took all he had just to leave home and start college. And his mother keeps calling, needing him.  She’s an alcoholic and Joe’s been the parent of the household for a long time, putting his own life on hold.  Then his mother calls from jail, and Joe has no choice but to go back home, not for his mother, but to take care of his older brother Jeremy, who is autistic.  

Jeremy is a sweet kid, and Joe is stunned when Lila, the girl in the apartment next to his, who he’s been trying to chat up for weeks, warms up to Jeremy immediately. After Joe convinces Lila to come to dinner with him and Jeremy, she finds out about the interview and clashes with Joe over the idea. The argument ultimately causes the two of them to investigate the murder further, partly because Carl isn’t talking about it.   Joe doesn’t mind, as it’s more time he gets to spend with Lila, but it’s suddenly a lot to juggle–taking care of his brother, attending college, working a part-time job, trying to keep away from his toxic mother, and maybe having a girlfriend. 

Eskens’ writing is solid, and there were several passages that had me on the edge on my seat.  At one point, Joe upsets some people who don’t want him investigating Carl’s history, and he’s attacked and then stranded in the woods in a Minnesota snowstorm. How he survives is brilliant fun, a cross between one of writer Gary Paulsen’s wilderness survival tales for kids and Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne.

The Life We Bury is a fabulous debut for Eskens. The characters are flawed and likeable, the setting is a beautiful, unpredictable character of its own–Minnesota in winter–and the action builds to a nail-biting crescendo.  Mystery/thriller readers will love it, but I suspect it will gain a wider audience.  Joe is just trying to break away from his family and figure out how to be his own person, and who can’t relate to that?

Dolphins and Creaky Old Houses

Okay, not in the same book.  But still, both topics are kind of irresistible, no?

greenglass house cover

Greenglass House, by Kate Milford, is a children’s book for 8-12-year-olds that was recommended by another blogster, although the way she described it gave away a crucial part of the plot, which was annoying because it ruined the surprise for me.  Like describing The Crying Game as a transgender story–oh, thanks, you just gave away the whole thing.  Anyhoo, I won’t do that.

Twelve-year-old Milo lives in a creaky old four-story inn with his parents.  He’s just been released from school for Christmas break, and he’s looking forward to being with his parents and celebrating the holidays, as Christmas is a notoriously slow time for the inn, and there’s a terrific snowstorm that should keep anyone with any sense at home.

But visitors start arriving, annoying and disappointing Milo, as now his parents’ attention is taken up by being innkeepers.  They call in the cook, who usually takes off Christmas break, and her daughter Meddy is the only person around who’s Milo’s age, so they start hanging out.  The guests all seem to have some odd connection or interest in the history of the house, which intrigues Milo.  The two start an investigation of their own, and the results are unpredictable and exciting.

One of the most effective facets of the story for me was Milo’s changing understanding of himself, and how he fits into his family, as he is an adopted child.  He feels conflicted in a way I’m sure most adopted children go through, wondering if it’s ok to wonder about his birth parents or if even thinking about them is disloyal to his adoptive parents.

I also loved the creaky-old-house stuff, learning the history of who lived there before, and the significance of different design elements of this unique relic. Jaime Zollars’ illustrations are intricate (look at the that cover!) and fun.

Part coming-of-age story, part adventure, Greenglass House was a fun adventure with heart.  Not as creepy as Doll Bones, so good for the kid who doesn’t like their adventures too icky or scary.

neptune project cover

The Neptune Project, by Polly Holyoke, is a middle grade novel, so it’s aimed at a slightly older audience.  It’s a dystopian tale, which is one of my favorite genres, for child or adult.  In this version of the near future, much of the United States is now uninhabitable, thanks to global warming.  There is famine and war as well, so it’s not a super fun place to live anymore.

Nere and her mother live near present-day  Goleta, California, in a coastal fishing town, where they do important oceanic research, part of which involves a pod of dolphins.  Nere can communicate telepathically with the dolphins, which, okay, c’mon! How cool is that?  Yeah, I wanted The Day of the Dolphin (1973 film in which George C. Scott trains a pair of dolphins to talk) to be real, just like everyone else who saw that movie.  My mom tells the story of seeing it with my Dad and asking him afterwards if he thought it could be real, if the dolphins could really talk.  “Oh, yeah,” he said.  Well, she wanted it to be true! I like to think of it as optimistic gullibility (because I inherited it from her). Anyhoo, tangent.

Nere’s world turns upside down when she finds out that her mother has genetically modified her and some other children in town so that they can live underwater.  Nere is both excited and infuriated, since she had no say in this decision to change her life so dramatically.

Nere’s parents and a few others have realized that there is no future on land for humans, that the real future lies in the ocean, and more specifically, under the ocean.  So they genetically modified their children to be able to–or rather, to have to–breathe water.  Nere is part of an experiment called The Neptune Project.

Nere must quickly adjust to life under the sea to survive.  She and the others have to be alert at all times for the dangers of both marine predators and the government police looking to arrest them.  She is with a small group, and they must travel hundreds of miles at sea to meet up with the larger group that consists of the Neptune Project.  For years she thought her father was dead (her mother kept the truth from her for her own safety), but now she knows he is the director of the Neptune Project, and she can hardly believe she will see him again when (if?) she makes it to the rendezvous.

The long journey is a brilliant adventure, with close escapes and life-and-death decisions that must be made on the spur of the moment.  Nere doesn’t know most of the other children in her group, and yet she must decide who to trust almost immediately.  Sometimes things turn out well, but not always.  When one of the group is injured, they can’t simply go to a hospital, and blood in the water puts them all in danger of being attacked by sharks.

Used to being a bit of a loner, Nere is forced to find her place in a group, to find where she fits in this new life.  She’s suddenly had to become completely self-reliant, with no adults around to fall back on.

This is a great adventure about fascinating possibilities, wonderful sci-fi for kids. And the sequel comes out next month!!

When Is It”Meh”?

So I’ve been reading, yes, and even finishing a few more books since last post, but really, are any of them that great?  I am not sure if it’s me, feeling depressed in the midst of a dreary winter–I kind of think it is, because I’m almost always excited about books.  But I do wonder sometimes, is it me or the book that’s just “meh”? Have you ever felt like that? Sometimes I think it’s just bad timing and I miss a good book because I’m in the wrong frame of mind for it.  It could be depression, or it could be unpleasant personal circumstances that the book reminds me of, or it could be “a bit of undigested tofu,” to slaughter Dickens.

mrs poe cover

A friend loaned me Mrs. Poe by Lynn Cullen, ostensibly a fictional version of the real cousin of Edgar Alan Poe, whom he really married.  At first I was into it, and I rather like the fragile, intense, strange creature that Cullen has created as Mrs. Poe.  And that Mr. Poe is sick to death of everyone asking him to recite “The Raven,” a publishing sensation but far from his own favorite.

Alas, I’m halfway through the book and I can stand no more.  The problem is not Mrs. Poe, but the narrator, who is a woman trying to break into the literary circles of New York with little success.  She meets Mr. Poe and is instantly smitten.  I really hate it when people are smitten, don’t you?  They seem to lose all self-respect.  And perspective.  So now all she does is obsess over Mr. Poe and her feelings towards him.  Oh, and did I mention that she’s also married?  No matter that her husband seems to have left her high and dry with two kiddies to raise alone.

What’s worse is that Mr. Poe seems to return her feelings.  Ugh.  Why can’t we just focus on the weird relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Poe? That’s what I wanted to read.  So, meh.  Farewell, Mrs. Poe.

doll bones cover

I finished Doll Bones about a week ago and it was one of those books that felt extraordinary, but like a secret that no one else would understand.  I felt like it spoke to me rather personally and that probably no one else would really get it.  Which I know is wrong! Because it’s a popular book already (that’s how I found out about it) and so a lot of people are probably feeling the same way I did.  Isn’t that funny how that works?

Doll Bones is a what I’d call a middle-grade novel.  I was just talking to another Mom today about how so many middle-grade kids are reading young adult books now, but I think this is a standout in that it is about and would appeal to middle-grade kids.  It’s about that transition you make from being a little kid to a bigger kid, to pre-teenage. But it doesn’t beat you over the head with the message that “aw, you’re growing up.” I’d like to peer into Holly Black’s mind to see how she comes up with such crazy adventures.  There’s a creepiness factor that’s really fun in this story, and I like that she doesn’t resolve everything in the end.  I mean, it’s resolved enough, but she doesn’t wipe away all the magic.

The story is of three friends living in the same neighborhood who are in families with varying degrees of dysfunctionalism, and you’re just so glad they have each other to play with. Poppy, the youngest, is in awe of an antique porcelain doll that her mother keeps in a glass-fronted cabinet, not to be touched and certainly not to be played with (you picture Mom going on Antiques Roadshow, full of hope).  Poppy and Zach and Alice all weave stories around this imaginary queen, using other dolls (and action figures) to play out their adventures.

Zach’s father, who has been absent the last few years but recently moved back in, makes a serious misstep when he tries to grow up his son by chucking his favorite toys–the action figures he uses to play with Alice and Poppy.  Dad thinks Zach is too old to be doing imaginary play. And of course he wants Zach to do more sports, to be manly (this is a parent I loved to hate, although he does eventually become more three-dimensional and less hateful). Zach is so upset with his father’s actions that he can’t even speak about it to Poppy and Alice because he’s afraid he’ll burst into tears.  So he tries to pretend that he just doesn’t want to play anymore.

Meanwhile, the game escalates when Poppy has a vision of the doll talking to her like a ghost, telling her where she wants her bones–the doll–properly buried.  The three friends end up going on this quest together, and along the way, they realize their relationships with each other are changing, and that’s hard.  I’m making it sound very Oprah-esque, and it’s not. Black makes convincing observations of their motivations and thought-processes:

In the end, [Zach] wasn’t sure if he went because he half believed in the ghost already or because he was used to following Poppy’s lead in a story or simply because leaving allowed him to run away and still believe he could come back.

If he wanted.

Their quest is not without its perils–creepy guy on the bus, police nosing around, a Huck Finn-worthy jaunt down a river, and much more.  Breaking into a library was one of my favorite bits.  And that doll is Miss Creepypants.  She seems to move when no one is looking, and other people react to her presence as if she’s another child, the friends notice.

For my Masters Thesis in school, I wrote a middle-grade novel, about this same kind of coming of age transition, with friendships changing.  I haven’t looked at it since I graduated, because at the time I had a personal tragedy that sort of wiped out everything else.  For the first time since then, reading this book made me want to go back to mine and work on it, to start the rewrite.  That’s a big thing for me.  Thanks, Holly Black.  And I’ll definitely be reading more of your books!