Category Archives: Manaster Tracy

2017: It’s a Wrap

One station awayCatalina

Before I sat down to write this post, I briefly thought about the past year in reading. I had a feeling that it had been, to quote Frank Sinatra, “a very good year,” and I also thought that it was probably going to be harder to pick my favourite books.

I was right.

Catalina by Liska Jacobs

This is the story of a self-destructive young woman who flees New York and returns home to California. Connecting with old friends, Elsa pops pills, drinks too much and generally wrecks everything around her.

One Station Away: Olaf Olafsson

A neurologist whose research focuses on MRI studies of patients in vegetative states wrestles with questions of subconscious, the conscious, denial and avoidance.

The Done Thing: Tracy Manaster

A novel that explores our darkest behaviours. After her sister is murdered by her husband, Lida adopts her niece, Pamela. Now decades later, as the day of the scheduled execution nears, Lida assumes an internet identity to connect with her brother-in-law who’s on Death Row.

The Arrangement: Sarah Dunn

A young married couple, feeling trapped (and bored) by life and with middle age on the horizon decide to try an experiment and give each other carte blanche when it comes to extra marital relationships. What could possibly go wrong???? I enjoyed this one very much indeed, so special thanks to author Sarah Dunn for making me laugh out loud.

The Confusion of Languages: Siobhan Fallon

This novel has a very unusual setting–the US ex-pat community in Jordan. The novel examines the relationships between two very different cultures through two married couples who are forced, by proximity, into a pseudo friendship. While we are expected to modify our behaviour in a different country, do we also modify our morality?

A Lovely Way to Burn: Louise Welsh

Ok, so an Apocalypse novel–not normally a genre I care much for, but I LOVED this novel.

The House of Paper: Carlos María Dominguez

A cautionary tale for any book lover.  This a short, playful tale which tells the story of the ultimate book lover, a man who bought so many books, they destroyed his life.

The Blinds: Adam Sternbergh

This one has to be the most unusual premise I read this year. The novel concerns an experimental witness protection programme out in the middle of nowhere. The residents, who’ve been accused and convicted of the most heinous crimes, agree to have their memories wiped and live out their days in this ad-hoc, miserable, primitive western-style town. Oh but wait … someone is murdering residents.

The Newspaper of Claremont Street: Elizabeth Jolley

I love Elizabeth Jolley’s dark sense of humour. This is the story of a hard-working charwoman who plans to retire to the country. And nothing is going to get in the way of her plans.

The Executioner Weeps: Frédéric Dard

Dard has been a relatively new find for me. In this short novel, a man finds a woman, in mysterious circumstances, who is suffering for anemia. Morally, he becomes obligated to help her and discover her identity.

The Locals: Jonathan Dee

A post 9-11 state-of-the-nation novel which explores the unity and then the divisions within North America. A big, bold novel.

But A Short to Time to Live: James Hadley Chase

A short noir novel with a femme fatale and more than one desperate character

Hotel du Lac

I could call 2017 the year of Anita Brookner. I read 9 of her novels this year, and stopped myself from going any further in order to save some titles for the future.

This year, I didn’t use categories. I just picked the books that have stayed with me–the ones that I remember the most. As I look over the list, one thing strikes me: I prefer books about people behaving badly, but this isn’t news.

Disclaimer: These are the best books that I read this year. I’m sure I missed many other great books, but such is life.


Filed under Brookner Anita, Chase James Hadley, Dard Frédéric, Dee Jonathan, Dunn Sarah, Fallon Siobhan, Fiction, Jacobs Liska, Manaster Tracy, Olafsson Olaf, Sternbergh Adam, Welsh Louise

The Done Thing: Tracy Manaster

“If you live long enough there’s no line that you won’t cross.”

Tracy Manaster’s powerful novel, The Done Thing, examines the actions of a retired orthodontist, Lida Stearl, whose sister, Barbra, was murdered almost two decades earlier. The killer, Barbra’s husband, Clarence Lusk, is sitting on Death Row in Arizona while his appeals run out. In the aftermath of the crime, which left Barbra, her lover and a young policeman dead, Lida raised Pamela, Clarence and Barbra’s child. But now Lida is a widow, and Pamela is married. Largely left to her own devices, Lida stumbles across a website for prisoners who are seeking penpals, and here Lida finds Clarence, admitting his boredom and loneliness, seeking correspondence. For Lida, who has tried to visit Clarence once a year  only to be refused, a correspondence is just too tempting an opportunity. She rents a PO box, assumes a fake name, pretends to be a young flirtatious girl, and begins a correspondence….


Lida is admirable in many ways; she’s had a successful career, a happy marriage, and she’s shelved her own desires for motherhood in order to raise Pamela, but she’s also deeply twisted when it comes to the subject of Clarence Lusk, and yet who can blame her? When it comes to Clarence, Lida is completely obsessed; it’s an unhealthy thing to indulge, yet she does–sometimes in ways that are downright nasty. Here’s how the book opens, brilliantly, showing us both Lida’s obsession and her train of thoughts.

The State of Arizona conducted her executions at dawn and had for several years, a policy change from midnight for which no explanation had been offered. I liked to keep abreast of such things. I had the Daily Star delivered to my St. Louis home, days late and at not small cost. For nearly two decades I’d collected clippings and taken notes on legal pads. I ran calculations and so I knew: forty-eight percent of inmates took breakfast as their final meals. Maybe they sought grounding, one last moment in step with the breakfasting rest of the world. The eggs, though, threw me. Thirty-four percent of prisoners-even some slated for electrocution-demanded fried eggs.

Lida should, of course, walk away from the penpal scenario for her peace of mind alone, but she doesn’t; she embraces the opportunity to suck Clarence in to a fake relationship. Lida’s husband used to keep her grounded and “knew there was no peace to be had from a certain vein of thought,” but Lida is worried that Pamela may have a lover (like her mother) or even be in touch with her father. Lida has “waited for eighteen years and four appeals” to see Clarence exit this world, but “Clarence lingered, unshakeable as the phantom weight a watch leaves on a naked wrist.” She even has special “execution suits” ready for the Big Day, and the window opened through the penpal relationship allows Lida a tempting glimpse into Clarence’s inner life.

It wasn’t actually peace I wanted. I wanted to be sure Clarence Lusk wouldn’t find any.

There are some wonderful secondary characters here including Pamela, who has effectively lost both parents, and who becomes the staging ground for emotional ownership. Then there’s Pamela’s in-laws, the boisterously happy  Claverie clan. Finally there’s Marjorie Lusk, Clarence’s mother, “funneling her retirement into his defense.”  A small part of the novel details letters back and forth between Clarence and Lida aka Maisie, and since Lida is our first person narrator, a great deal of her thoughts are directed towards Clarence.

I loved this novel–not just for its unique approach, and for the way the author showed another way of tackling the topic of crime, but also for the way the author created such horribly flawed human beings.  The novel explores the idea that it is impossible to tell what Lida would have been like if this crime hadn’t hijacked her life and stained her personality. There’s definitely a before-and-after for Lida who is left to wonder how Barbra might have aged, what she might have achieved. Lida does some very nasty things in the book, but these acts are hand-in-glove with the murder of her sister, and this is one of the marvellous aspects of this book: I asked myself how I would act under the circumstances.

I hadn’t yet learned to think more terrible things.

The book’s blurb  says: “As letters pass steadily between Lida and Clarence, her preoccupation with his crime and its echoes intensifies, and she finds that crossing one line makes the ones that follow all the more tempting to cross.”  That’s a perfect quote, and I can’t do better so I’m including it here. While this is a story of one woman’s obsession, the book opens into much more complicated avenues which include notions of justice, the irrevocable nature of murder, the death penalty, and forgiveness. And lest you yawn at some of those topics, I’ll add that the novel is not preachy and does not take definite positions–the plot is far too subtle for that. This is a beautiful, mature examination of some of our darkest behaviours, and the plot wisely doesn’t step into the muddy waters of motive, repentance  and justification, and instead allows the reader to chew over the plot without authorial heavy-handedness. Murderer and victim(s) are forever linked together, and in The Done Thing, Tracy Manaster explores the terrible damage incurred in an act of violence.

I liked Tracy Manaster’s first novel, You Could be Home By Now, but The Done Thing is unique and thought-provoking. It’s only January, and The Done Thing is already a candidate for my best-of-2017 list.

Review copy


Filed under Fiction, Manaster Tracy

You Could Be Home by Now by Tracy Manaster

Point me in the direction of a novel set in a retirement or gated community, and there’s a good chance I’ll read it. Take Claudia Piñeiro’s Thursday Night Widows–a novel set in an affluent Argentinian community whose residents are not as immune to the imploding economy as they think. Then earlier this year I read Pascal Garnier’s fantastic Moon in a Dead Eye about a handful of French retirees who discover that a gated community is not the healthy, safe choice they imagined.  Eli Gottlieb’s novel Now You See Him  brings an Arizona retirement community into focus, and this brings me to Tracy Manaster’s novel You Could Be Home By Now set in The Commons, a luxury retirement community located outside of Tucson, Arizona.

you could be home by nowThe gently humorous You Could Be Home by Now is partly about life inside the retirement community, but the main thrust of the novel is grief–how we cope with it, how we live with it, and whether or not we move on from tragedy.  The number one rule of The Commons is that no permanent resident can be under age 55, and the novel’s central dilemma revolves on the discovery that one of the residents is now the guardian of a small child. This discovery raises a debate, subsequent moral questions, and creates opposing camps within the community, but even more than that, the discovery of the child causes simmering emotions and tensions to explode.

But let’s back up a bit. The novel begins with Seth and Alison Collier, two young, married teachers, working at the same Vermont school, who after the loss of their baby, decide they need a fresh start. They toss aside their old lives and, on a whim, relocate to Arizona when they accept jobs at The Commons–a luxury “cart accessible,” retirement community of over six thousand residences with two golf courses and “three convenient villages for all your shopping, entertainment, and social needs.” Hoagie Lobel, President and CEO of The Commons employs the Colliers–Seth to run the community newspaper and Alison to be the town historian. Of course, there’s a bit of a problem with getting history for a newly constructed town.

The houses were all flat roofs and projecting beams, sand-colored stucco, corners rounded to benign nubs. They devoured their lots and the trees were all spindly and new.

“I don’t see any For Sale signs,” Alison said. “I guess you haven’t been hard hit by this real estate mess?”

“HOA doesn’t allow them. Messes with the neighbors’ heads.” Lobel tapped his temple. “But we’re doing alright. Had to postpone work on Phase IV, but what’s already built… well, most folks bought to live here, right? And that’s why you’re here, see. We’re going to add to that whole experience.” Lobel drew out the word. “Tough times hit and people like living in a real place. Like be a part of that place. So we get our own paper. And you—” he turned to Alison. The cart drifted into the neighboring lane. “You, Miss, you’ve got to add some authenticity to our town. Some history when there’s really none.”

While Seth and Alison begin by being central characters, they’re very quickly pushed aside as we are introduced to various residents. Benjamin, for example, is a divorced retired veterinarian, whose ex-wife, Veronica aka Ronny and ex-home are still in Portland. Benjamin relocated for a fresh start.  He plans for an active retirement in the sun, far away from his old life and his old problems, and The Commons fits the bill.  It’s through Ben that we really get a sense of life in The Commons and why it’s a gold-plated living arrangement for retirees:

The layout of the cart paths made it a huge pain in the rear to shop off site, so most folks didn’t bother. Ben Thales did though. Eggs were fifty cents a dozen cheaper at the Wal-Mart across the way. Chicken breasts too, almost a dollar less a pound. And it had been a close eye on his money that got him here in the first place. Golf twice a week, tennis twice a week.

Most of the residents drive everywhere on golf carts–the place was designed that way. The residents are in the same income bracket, golf-aficionados and there are widows aplenty.

The novel’s theme: surviving grief is played out in three story strands. Benjamin and his wife, now-ex-wife, Ronny had a daughter, a junkie, who disappeared years before. Her absence helped contribute to the demise of their marriage, and even though they are divorced, they still retain a PI who rakes over the long since cold trail of the missing daughter. Another grief thread is played out through Seth and Alison. They’re attracted to The Commons because they think that a new environment will allow them to heal and forget and that in a retirement community “they could jog down the streets of a town without strollers.” Seth and Alison learn the hard way that you can’t run away from your problems.

The final story thread that ties into surviving grief concerns recent widow Sadie whose granddaughter, Lily arrives in The Commons to spend a few months with her grandmother. It’s through this relationship that author Tracy Manaster does a good job of showing that the generations need each other. Sadie and Lily discover a healthy rapport that grounds them both, and it’s through this relationship and the uproar involving a resident child that the reader begins to question the nature of ‘perfect’ retirement communities in general. While this was a pleasant read, a couple of scenes rang false; Seth and Alison’s abrupt change of career tested credulity, a couple of the meltdowns seemed unlikely, and teenage Lily was a little too sharp and wise-cracking for my tastes.

Review copy.


Filed under Fiction, Manaster Tracy