On the third day of Christmas, my true love read to me: Three Wishes, Two Boys Kissing and One Shot in a pear tree.
Continuing my review series The Twelve Reads of Christmas, for the third day I’m reviewing Three Wishes by Liane Moriarty.
I love Moriarty’s books. This was her first, way back in 2003 (Baby Duck was just a hatchling!), but it doesn’t read like a first novel. She has fabulous control of voice, and can be laugh-out-loud funny and deeply moving all on the same page. When she changes point of view, you know it immediately from the differing word choices and sentence constructions.
Three Wishes begins with a prologue which switches seamlessly between several different narrators – an uptight mother, a waitress, a random guy on a blind date – all telling the story of a crazy incident at a restaurant, where three sisters – triplets! – were having a great night out celebrating their birthday, until suddenly a huge argument blew up, ending in one sister being stabbed in her very pregnant stomach with a fork and another collapsing in a faint and breaking her jaw. These different narrators are clearly differentiated and nicely observed.
But why did this happy occasion come to such an abrupt and violent end? As the triplets’ mother asks, “what in the world started it?”. That’s the question the novel sets out to answer.
“You could argue that it started thirty-four years ago”, Chapter One begins, when the girls’ parents met, had unprotected sex and became young unwilling parents. At least, that’s how Gemma, the commitment-phobic drifter sister, would put it.
“Cat would argue that if she was going to start with their conception, then why not go back through their entire family tree? Why not go back to the apes? Why not start with the Big Bang? I guess I did really, Gemma would chortle – Mum and Dad’s big bang. Oh funn-y, Cat would say. Let’s look at it logically, Lyn would interrupt. Quite clearly, it started the night of the spaghetti.
And Lyn, quite naturally, would be right.”
– all of which give an amusing insight into the sisters’ relationships. Cat, desperate for a baby and dumped by her husband on “the night of the spaghetti”, would argue till her last breath, just for the fun of it. Lyn, the uptight perfectionist, is always right, though even her “perfect” life has its problems, including a teenage stepdaughter. Not as big as the problems sweet dreamy Gemma has been hiding from them all, though.
The sisters’ relationship is at the heart of the novel, full of the love and hate, old arguments and remembered injuries, passionate loyalty and childhood memories, that bind any siblings. Moriarty does family relationships in a marvellously entertaining but very real way. You’re nodding along, seeing things you recognise even as you’re laughing at the over-the-top antics of the trio.
The chapters alternate between the sisters’ points of view, starting with Cat’s and the infamous night of the spaghetti. The story then weaves its way through the tangle of their lives till it arrives once more at the restaurant of the start, only this time we know what’s going on and how important this night is for all three.
There are also amusing email exchanges between the sisters, and funny glimpses of the sisters’ past, little vignettes narrated by complete strangers about a moment when the lives of the girls influenced their own all unknowingly. This nicely illustrates the theme flowing through the novel of the interconnectedness of people’s lives, as well as being a clever way of introducing family history without interrupting the present-day story.
We get to know each of the sisters very well and care deeply about what happens to them. They are warm, funny, and loving – as well as occasionally bitchy, mean and point-scoring. Very real, in other words. There are developments in the story that felt inevitable, as well as twists you never saw coming, and the plot races along, full of the energy that sparks between the sisters whenever they’re together.
It’s a great read; often funny, sometimes poignantly real. If you like stories about relationships and the give-and-take of life, this is one birthday dinner you won’t want to miss.
Coming on the fourth day of Christmas, some non-fiction for a change of pace: The 4-Hour Work Week by Timothy Ferriss.
On the second day of Christmas, my true love read to me: Two Boys Kissing and One Shot in a pear tree.
Sorry, but I’ve had that damn carol stuck in my head for weeks, so I’m sharing the earworms around. Today, for the second day of Christmas, I’m reviewing Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan.
Two Boys Kissing could hardly be more different from One Shot, in both style and substance. At its heart are two boys, Craig and Harry, making an attempt to get into the Guinness Book of Records for the world’s longest kiss. They used to be a couple, but now are just friends. Around them and woven through the story of the record attempt are the stories of other boys: Peter and Neil, who have been going out for a year; Avery and Ryan, who have only just met and are exploring the exciting possibilities of new romance; and Cooper who, with no one to love, despises himself more than anyone else possibly could.
Levithan uses these relationships to explore love and friendship in all their messy varieties. There are supportive parents, oblivous ones and angry, disapproving ones. There are the usual teenage problems of coping with bullying, finding acceptance among your peers and navigating those first awkward romances, all with the added difficulty of being gay in a straight world. There is even a transgender character, who was born a girl but is now a gay boy.
We are a long way from the usual teen romance fare.
Having said that, though, Drama Duck, our resident teen romance junkie, loved this book. She needed a little hint to understand who was telling the story, but once she was up to speed with that she raced through it.
Levithan has a beautiful, lyrical style and a mastery of the telling detail. The story of the record-breaking kiss is the story arc the rest of the book revolves around, but he manages to drop hints of the past and future of the characters, so you feel as if you’re seeing a slice of the lives of real people who live on outside the confines of the novel.
The story is narrated by the ghosts or spirits of those who died in the AIDS epidemic, but not in a woo-woo supernatural way. There are no ghost sightings in the novel. The narrators are more like a Greek chorus, who watch the lives of these boys with both compassion and envy, and tell their stories with delight at their passion and energy even while mourning their own lost opportunities. The tone is elegaic and beautiful:
“If you are a teenager now, it is unlikely that you knew us well. We are your shadow uncles, your angel godfathers, your mother’s or your grandmother’s best friend from college, the author of that book you found in the gay section of the library. We are characters in a Tony Kushner play, or names on a quilt that rarely gets taken out any more.”
I found that reference to a quilt particularly compelling, having once seen one of those enormous memorial quilts, contributed to by hundreds of people who’d lost a loved one. That’s what I mean by Levithan’s mastery of the telling detail – that one reference carries so much history and emotion, a whole story in itself.
It’s a beautiful book, and an important book. Not the kind of book I usually read, and certainly not lighthearted entertainment, but a story that stays with you a long time. Highly recommended.
Next up, the third day of Christmas and Three Wishes by Liane Moriarty.
Welcome to The Twelve Reads of Christmas, a series of book reviews based on the classic Christmas carol. Today we start with the first day of Christmas (maybe a day late, ssshhh, there was pudding to eat and presents to open yesterday) – but instead of a partridge in a pear tree, I’m reviewing One Shot by Lee Child.
Some of you may have seen the recent movie Jack Reacher, starring Tom Cruise. Oh, the travesty! Reacher’s meant to be a big ugly customer about 6 foot 5. Tom Cruise is at least 8 inches too short and waaay too pretty to play Reacher. Casting decisions aside, that movie was basically the novel One Shot, with a few things about the climax changed. Not a bad movie, actually, if you can overlook Tom’s … er … shortcomings.
And the Reacher books are not bad books, either. There’s a whole bunch of them now, and they’ve made Lee Child a big name in thriller writing. I’ve read quite a few, and mainly enjoyed them, though a couple had violence that verged on torture porn, a little too graphic for my taste. Performed by the bad guys, of course, not by Reacher. Though he’s very comfortable with violence, Reacher’s no sadist.
In fact, Reacher’s just about perfect – the guy that every guy wants to be, and every girl wants to go to bed with (even if he looks nothing like Tom Cruise). He’s a loner, travelling the US on a whim, never staying long anywhere. No commitments, no responsibilities, no phone. An ex-military police investigator, living off the grid and loving it. The guy doesn’t even carry a suitcase: he wears the same clothes for three days, then throws them away and buys a new outfit.
He’s unbeatable in a fight, smarter than everyone else in the room, a crack shot, and an amateur psychologist who can figure out any bad guy’s motivations and movements, thereby solving any crime – the perfect man. Whatever the situation, he always knows exactly what to do. He’s what writers call “a Mary Sue” – that character so beloved of his or her author that he’s given no flaws. He’s the embodiment of what the author would like to be, perfect in every way.
After a few books Reacher’s perfection can become a little tiresome, but the individual novels rattle along at such a pace there’s no time to do anything but strap in and enjoy the ride, and One Shot’s no exception.
It’s written in a spare, no-nonsense style, very heavy on detail, but nothing flowery. Just the facts, ma’am. The first sentence is typically brief. It’s simply:
I’m always interested in first sentences. They don’t come any shorter than this! The next sentence builds a little on this, adding one more piece of detail. Then the next builds on the piece before:
“Friday. Five o’clock in the afternoon. Maybe the hardest time to move unobserved through a city.”
The whole book is like this, with details – lots and lots of details! – accumulating on each other to form pictures. And you go along with it, accepting the overload, because the pictures Child is building are intriguing. Already by the third sentence you know someone’s up to no good. Why is someone trying to move through the city unobserved?
Here’s another example from later in the first scene:
“He opened the minivan’s sliding rear door and leaned inside and unfolded a blanket and revealed the rifle. It was a Springfield MIA Super Match autoloader, American walnut stock, heavy premium barrel, ten shot box magazine, chambered for the .308.”
The rest of this paragraph continues with the gun’s history, its uses, accuracy, and the type of ammunition it’s loaded with. So much detail might be boring, except you already know this gun’s out of place. The shooter is a sniper in a parking station. So you read on, anxious to find out what happens, knowing it can’t be good.
The detail compels you to trust the narrator – he knows so much about guns, he’s giving you all these facts. He has authority. So you settle into the story, feeling you’re in safe hands.
And whatever you think about the improbability of Reacher’s character, you can trust Child to spin a good yarn. As shown by those opening sentences, he knows how to snag the reader’s interest, and then hold it.
Our mystery sniper shoots down five civilians seemingly at random, leaving so much evidence behind that the police soon have a suspect in custody. And that’s where Reacher comes in: though the suspect refuses otherwise to talk, he asks his defence to get Reacher.
Which raises an interesting conundrum. Why does he ask for Reacher when Reacher is one of the few people in the world who knows he’s committed an almost identical crime once before?
The answer to this riddle leads Reacher through a story full of fascinating twists and turns. A great read if you like your thrillers to keep you eagerly turning the pages and your heroes to be … well, perfect. (And not at all like Tom Cruise.)
Stay tuned for the second day of Christmas and Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan.
Hope you had a fabulous Christmas!