Like Samuel Miller’s debut novel, A Lite Too Bright, Redemption Prep doesn’t give up its secrets willingly. I think was about two thirds of the way through this thoughtful, intelligent mystery before I felt as though I was on semi-firm ground. And even then…
Redemption Prep is a private high school deep in the woods in Utah. Students have been told that “recruitment was incredibly selective, that [they’d] been chosen because of [their] accomplishments.”
Miller’s novel focuses on three of these students: Evan, Aiden and Neesha. Besides all being students at Redemption, they have another thing in common: Emma. When the novel opens, Emma has disappeared. Aiden is her star-basketball-player boyfriend; Neesha is her roommate and Even is the boy who watches her every move.
As the school scrambles to locate Emma, it is clear that each of the students associated with her have their own concerns. Neesha, for example, is worried that Emma has disappeared because of the drugs she was selling for her. Aiden has been worried that Emma was going to break up with him and that her disappearance might have something to do with that; she’s certainly been acting strangely over the past couple of weeks. Evan is convinced that something more complicated, or perhaps even sinister, is going on.
Something is definitely not quite right at Redemption Prep. For one thing, no one is allowed to miss Mass. Ever. (Even though a high proportion of the student body is not Christian.) For another thing, there are a lot of maintenance workers at the school, and it soon becomes apparent that they aren’t your run-of-the-mill janitors. Then there’s the school’s head instructor, Dr. Richardson, a formidable leader with whom one does clearly not want to mess.
Eventually, despite their differences, Aiden, Evan and Neesha – along with a couple of their classmates, Zaza and Peter – form an alliance. Despite the school’s claims to the contrary, they are convinced that something nefarious is going on at Redemption Prep. They’re not wrong.
There is a lot going on in this book. It’s definitely well-written, but I do think it’s a little slow-going until it hits about the 3/4 mark, and then things really speed up. The ambiguous ending wasn’t wholly satisfying, but I still enjoyed the book overall.
Everyone should have a guncle (gay uncle/ GUP/gay uncle Patrick) like Patrick. He’s the single, but not by choice, good-looking, middle-aged – well, 43 – famous former star of a sitcom, The People Upstairs, which ran for nine seasons and provides him with more money than he needs. He’s even won a Golden Globe. He currently lives in a swanky part of Palm Springs, spending his days doing exactly what he wants – which is mostly avoiding his agent and trying to stay out of the public eye.
Then his sister-in-law, Sara, dies. Although Patrick hadn’t seen her in a while, they’d once been close. In fact, he knew her before his brother Greg did. Patrick races to the East coast to be with his family and it’s then that Greg tells him that he’s an addict and he needs Patrick to take care of the children for the summer while he goes to rehab in California. It has to be Patrick and not their older sister, Clara, who takes them because as Greg explains “The only way this is going to work, the only way I’m going to be able to do this, is if I know they’re nearby. They’re my strength.”
Patrick isn’t exactly father material, but he loves his brother and he loved Sara and so he agrees to take nine-year-old Maisie and six-year-old Grant back home with him. Thus begins a summer of healing, not just for the kids but for Patrick, too, who is still mourning the loss of his partner, Joe.
Understandably, Maisie and Grant are shell-shocked by the loss of their mother, but they are also children who need daily care and attention. They ask irritating questions, have peculiar eating habits, and need his undivided attention. In the early days, Patrick imagines scenarios that would allow someone else to take over the caretaking duties he feels ill-prepared to manage on his own. But as the summer goes along, the three fall into a rhythm that is endearing and frequently funny.
The Guncle is not without its charms, for sure. If it was perhaps a tad schmaltzy, it can certainly be forgiven. It tackles the difficult subject of grief, manages to ring true regarding sibling relationships, even the prickly ones, and ultimately lands on the side of family is everything. It was an enjoyable read.
Jo Baker’s novel The Body Lies opens with two acts of violence, a body curled up in the snow “her skin blue-white, dark hair tumbled over her face” and then our unnamed narrator being attacked on her walk home, a man telling her “what he’d like to do to me” and then attempting to do it. These two seemingly unrelated events do click together eventually, but Baker’s novel goes beyond straight-up thriller.
Three years after the attack, the narrator, a novelist with one published book, has taken a job as a creative writing instructor at a small university in the north of England; London is a city where she no longer feels safe. She believes she and her son, Sammy, with whom she was pregnant when the man assaulted her, can have a more peaceful life outside of the city. Her husband, Mark, doesn’t want to give up his teaching job, so they decide to maintain two households until they can work out a better arrangement. She and Sammy rent a little house, Gill House, with a “view of open fields, a derelict barn, pylons, woodland and sky.”
The narrator feels slightly overwhelmed at work where she is offering a graduate writing class, as well as being tasked to do other jobs left by the professor who’d previously taught writing but who was now on sabbatical in Canada. She is, as it turns out, the sole creative writing instructor.
There are six students in her graduate class, including “the good-looking almost-ugly guy with the cigarettes and the scar through his eyebrow.” That’s Nicholas Palmer, a young writer who is “interested in pushing the form, pushing [his] writing as far as it will go.” Nicholas is talented and problematic. He claims to only write the truth, and soon the narrator starts to recognize herself in some of the pages Nicholas turns in.
The Body Lies has elements that make it very much a thriller: a man lurking outside of Gill House in the dusk, Nicholas’s murky past and suspect mental health, the isolated locale including lack of cell service. The novel is more ambitious than that, though, offering commentary on university politics, the way women are used as props in fiction, and how violence against them is often used as entertainment. This is a literary novel that is both beautifully written and unputdownable.
When Tyler Feder was nineteen, her much-adored mother died of cancer. Feder recounts her relationship with her mother, her mother’s brief illness and death, and the stages of guilt that follow in her beautiful graphic memoir Dancing at the Pity Party.
A mother-daughter relationship is special. I was very close to my mother and felt bereft when she died of lung cancer in 2006. I was 45 and had two young children and a flailing marriage. My mom was always in my corner. I am the oldest of four kids and being the only girl made our relationship extra special. (I know my brothers would all say they had a special relationship with mom – she was that kind of mother.)
My mom, Bobbie, was a tiny woman – 96 pounds soaking wet – who loved AM radio, instant coffee, really bad white wine, sappy movies, cooking, cheap shoes, and Tai Chi. You only had to meet her once to be considered part of the family. She loved to laugh and didn’t mind being the butt of the joke, and she often was. She made and kept friends easily because she was thoughtful and kind and generous with her time. She was a wonderful grandmother for the short time my children had her in their lives. We lived close enough to each other that my kids could go down to her house on their own from a very young age. She’d drop anything to make cookies or watch a show or go for a walk. Having her so close was handy because I am squeamish and she was a nurse. On more than one occasion she’d come running after I called and said “There’s blood.” She fixed scraped knees, and torn clothes, and broken hearts. She made perfect poached eggs and lasagna and chocolate cake with boiled icing. Following in the tradition of her mother, Sunday dinner was usually at mom’s. There could be six people or sixteen or twenty-six; it never mattered because she could cook for all of us and never break a sweat. I miss her wise counsel, her steadfastness, her unwavering support, even when I screwed up.
So, Feder’s memoir about her mother resonated with me. Her mom is carefully rendered, a warm and complete human being with a crazy fixation on eyebrow maintenance, distinctive spiky handwriting and “smiley brown eyes.” Feder herself is the oldest of three girls and, as I well know, being the oldest comes with both perks and hardships. By the time her mom’s health problems announce themselves, her prognosis is dire. Like my mom, Mrs. Feder died very quickly. There is hardly any time to process the illness, let alone the loss.
I found Dancing at the Pity Party to be funny and heart-wrenching in equal measure. Other than the fact that Feder is Jewish and so the customs surrounding grief and mourning are different from my own essentially atheist views, there was little in this memoir that wasn’t familiar to me. Her mother’s physical decline, the spread of the disease, the toll chemo took, the often inappropriate jokes and laughter contrasted with the grief and despair: all of it is part and parcel of what cancer steals from us, and weirdly, gives to us.
I think Feder’s memoir will certainly speak to anyone who has lost someone they’ve loved to cancer. Although it has been many years since my mom died, I found Dancing at the Pity Party cathartic, humourous, and honest. I think anyone who has ever been in Feder’s shoes will find something of themselves in these pages.
It is also a wonderful reminder that our loved ones never really leave us. I send Christmas cards by the dozens because I watched my mother do it year after year, including a little family update with each card she sent to the many people she knew from the many moves we’d made as I was growing up. I now host Sunday dinner – though not nearly as often as my mom did – and I feel her with me every time I pull a turkey from the oven or make Washington Pie. I love the family stories we tell around the dinner table, each of us remembering something different about our mom/sister/grandmother. I love sappy movies, (I can’t watch Dirty Dancing without thinking abut her), and Gordon Lightfoot. I get my work ethic from her. Whenever I say “Age is just a number” I think of her. She used to say that energy couldn’t be created or destroyed. She had the most positive energy of anyone I ever met, even when life was serving her a shit sandwich.
She is with me, I know. I hope Feder feels like her mother is with her, too. In any case, she has written a beautiful tribute to her and I highly recommend others read it.
I can’t remember the last time I read a book with a protagonist as distinctive as Cricket Cherpin, the seventeen-year-old narrator of Scott Blagden’s debut YA novel Dear Life, You Suck. Some reviewers have compared Cricket to Holden (Caulfield, The Catcher in the Rye) and I guess I can see it, but I found Cricket less navel-gazey and more sympathetic than Holden, although I guess that might just be a function of context.
Cricket has lived at the Naskeag Home for Boys in Maine since he was eight. The way Cricket describes it, “It was a minimum-security facility, so the joint looks more like a mansion than a penitentiary, but you’ll never catch me calling this jailhouse home.” More often than not, Cricket refers to it as “Prison.” The Home is run by Mother Mary, a formidable figure; “She’s a presence. A planet. She has her own gravity.” Cricket has a million names for Mother Mary: Mother Mary Mockery. Mother Mary Mushroom Cloud. Mother Mary Mafia. You get the picture.
Cricket’s mouth often gets him into trouble. So do his fists. Caretaker, the actual caretaker at the home, has been teaching Cricket to box for years, but he only uses his fists to protect the Little Ones – the younger boys who live at the home – and the weaker students at school. Cricket won’t start a fight, but he is certainly capable of ending it.
There are clues that Cricket has had it tough. When his flakey English teacher, Moxie Lord, asks her students to write a letter to anyone they “have beef with but ain’t ever had the nads to tell”, Cricket writes a letter to life. When Ms. Lord actually takes Cricket’s letter seriously, it compels him to dig a little deeper and in doing so he starts to unearth his trauma.
What are the prospects for a foul-mouthed, quick-tempered, irreverent teenager? Cricket might not think he has much going for him or much to look forward to beyond taking a more active role in his BFF’s drug business, but there are more people in Cricket’s corner than he realizes.
Sure, the story isn’t new, but Cricket’s distinctive voice, and good heart make Dear Life, You Suck, a total winner in my book.
The Weight of Blood is my third novel by Tiffany D. Jackson. (Allegedly,Monday’s Not Coming). It’s the story of Maddy Washington, a high school senior with a big secret: she’s biracial. Her father insists that she do everything possible to keep this a secret, but one day in gym class, an outdoor run catches her in the rain and soon everyone knows.
It’s not like Maddy had friends anyway; she’s odd. She wears poodle skirts and musty old sweaters, doesn’t have a cell phone and only watches old black & white movies. But when the secret that she’s been hiding her ethnicity from others gets out, the bullying ramps up. In a town that is already racially divided, the pot gets stirred even more.
Wendy decides that in order to calm things down two things should happen. 1. Instead of having a Black prom and a white prom, there should be one integrated prom and 2. her Black boyfriend, Kenny, the school’s star football player, should take Maddy to the prom. Her intentions seem sincere, but she doesn’t count on her best friend Jules’s plans for revenge after a video of her throwing pencils into Maddy’s hair goes viral and she gets into trouble.
Maddy is a sympathetic character who longs for the mother she believes died in child birth and who does her best to make her father happy, even though nothing she does seems to satisfy him. Kenny is counting the days until he can get away from his father’s relentless demands. Wendy is counting on Kenny to take her away from her impoverished life. What no one is counting on is for Kenny to develop feelings for Maddy.
If any of this sounds even remotely familiar it’s because The Weight of Blood is essentially Stephen King’s Carrie with a racism twist. I think if you aren’t familiar with Carrie you’d probably enjoy Jackson’s book, but I kept seeing Brian DePalma’s movie in my head.
I am not even going to try to hide the fact that I loved Emma Straub’s novel This Time Tomorrow. Never mind that it takes place in New York City, a city I adore, never mind that it references all the great time travel movies (Peggy Sue Got Married, 13 Going on 30, Back to the Future), never mind that Sarah Michelle Gellar is mentioned, this novel would be fantastic even without those things.
Alice Stern is turning 40. She likes her life just fine, even if it hasn’t turned out exactly as she might have imagined. She has good friends, a sweet apartment, a boyfriend, a decent job in admissions at her old school. But her father, Leonard Stern, is currently ailing in the hospital “heavily pregnant with death” and because they are close – her mother skipped out early after “she’d had a self-actualized visit from her future consciousness” – Alice spends as much time with him as she can.
Leonard is the author of the cult classic Time Brothers, “a novel about two time-traveling brothers that had sold millions of copies and gone on to become a serialized television program that everyone watched”. She and her father had lived on Pomander Walk “a straight dash through the middle of the block, cutting from 94th to 95th Street between Broadway and West End […] with two rows of tiny houses that looked straight out of “Hansel and Gretel” locked behind a gate.”
On her 40th birthday, Alice gets drunk and ends up heading back to Pomander where she passes out in the little guardhouse and wakes up the next morning back in 1996, on the morning of her 16th birthday. It’s disconcerting because Alice was “herself, only herself, but she was both herself then and herself now. She was forty and she was sixteen.” And her father was young, “forty-nine years old. Less than a decade older than she was.”
This is an opportunity for a do-over. Perhaps she can convince Leonard to make healthier choices; perhaps she can treat herself a little more kindly because “Every second of her teenage years, Alice had thought that she was average. Average looks, average brain, average body[…] But what she saw in the mirror now made her burst into tears.”
Okay, a book about time travel logistically seems ridiculous so I didn’t spend too much time worrying about the physics/magic/science fiction of it. Instead, I paid attention to the things that Alice noticed as if for the first time. Like Emily in Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town, Alice begins to appreciate “every, every moment.”
In her acknowledgements, Straub thanks her father, acclaimed novelist Peter Straub, who died the same year this book was published – making the book just that much more poignant. She writes “thank you to my dad, for showing me what fiction could do, and for knowing that the real story is both here and not here, that we are both here and not here”.
This Time Tomorrow is full-hearted, life-affirming, and heartbreaking and I highly recommend it.
The “Heartbreak Homes” referenced in the title of Nova Scotia – based YA author Jo Treggiari’s (She is also co-owner of the fabulous Block Shop Books in Lunenburg), latest novel is an upscale housing development that went belly up leaving only the model home finished. This is where the story starts, at a blow-out party hosted by Malcom “Mal” Bradley, whose father was the developer of Heartwood Homes. The “Heartbreak” comes from the fact that the project went bankrupt and many people lost their money and their livelihood.
The story’s three narrators all attend the party. Frankie goes with her best friend Jessa, who has recently started hanging out with the cool kids and has a crush on Mal. Martin goes because he is desperate to reconnect with his old friends, friends he lost because his father had invested his (and others’) money in the project and lost it all, necessitating a move across town and a change of schools for Martin. Cara is there with her gang of three other girls to steal. They are homeless and desperate for food and items they might be able to sell in order to make their lives slightly less awful.
These three characters are there when a horrible crime takes place. In fact, it is Martin and Frankie who discover the body of a classmate and from there the novel’s locked-room structure (everyone’s a suspect) keeps you turning the pages lickety-split. This is a story that, like One of Us Is Lying, tests the allegiances of these characters as they try to figure out who the culprit might be. All three of these kids are sympathetic, likeable, and believable. I was particularly taken with Cara; her circumstances are awful and she does her best to look after the other girls she ‘lives’ with.
All I ever wanted was a home. For the ground to settle under my feet long enough for me to put down roots. Instead, for the last fourteen days, we’d been colder, wetter, and hungrier than ever.
Strangely, the book’s title also relates to the heartbreak found in all three of the these characters’ homes – or lack thereof. Frankie lives with her grandparents, who do not seem to understand her or even, at times, really like her. Martin’s father drinks too much and home is no longer a safe and warm place. Cara doesn’t have a home at all, has been – along with her friends – in and out of foster homes or without a safe place to call home for as long as she can remember.
While Heartbreak Homes is definitely a mystery, complete with the requisite red herrings and plot twists, it is also an interesting commentary on homelessness, family, responsibility and loyalty. I loved spending time with these characters and if the mystery itself unraveled just a little too neatly, it hardly matters. This is a great book.
Six-year-old Lark Erhardt is the precocious narrator of Faith Sullivan’s Depression-era novel The Cape Ann. She lives with her mother, Arlene, and father, Willie, in Harvester, Minnesota. Her father is the clerk at the train depot and when he took the job, there was no housing for train employees so he and his family live in what was a “large empty room at the east of the ground floor.” Arlene is willing to make due, viewing her accommodations as their “rent-free living quarters for the next few years” while she saves money for a house of their own. The room has no running water or plumbing, no heat source, no comforts of any kind, but Arlene is determined and it is this determination that fuels the story.
Arlene and Lark settle upon The Cape Ann, plan #127, a house that “had two bathrooms, one up and one down.” Lark can’t imagine being lucky enough to live in a house with two bathrooms, especially since one of her jobs is to drag slop buckets across the railway tracks and empty them. When the novel opens, Arlene has squirreled away five hundred dollars, a princely sum at that time, and enough for a down payment.
Unfortunately, Willie has a gambling problem, enjoys drinking a little too much and is prone to violent outbursts. He really is the villain in this story. Every time Arlene gets close to achieving her dream of building The Cape Ann, Willie thwarts those plans with his selfishness. He is really a detestable character.
Sullivan’s book isn’t just about Arlene and Lark’s dreams of building a place to call their own, though. Harvester is a town filled with interesting characters, including Hilly, a handsome young man who had gone off to war, been injured and returned home with physical wounds that soon healed but with a “mind [that] had carried him back to early childhood.” Then there’s Beverly Ridza, a girl from Lark’s First Communion class, who “had no manners” which, according to Arlene, wasn’t her fault because her “drunken, good-for-nothing papa had done a disappearing act”. There are also some other family members who make an impression, including Arlene’s sister, Betty.
Nothing much happens in The Cape Ann. It is hard to believe that Lark has the insight she does at such a young age. She certainly doesn’t sound like any six-year-old I’ve ever encountered. She is both worldly and naïve, an often comical combination. She believes, for example, that the stork brings babies and that even though her father has undermined all her mother’s efforts to save for a house, staying together as a family is important.
Although I found the book slow-moving, I also really enjoyed my time spent in Harvester. Arlene was spunky. When she realizes that Willie is useless, she teaches herself to type and builds a thriving business. When Betty is pregnant and needs help, Arlene takes Lark and goes to her, taking charge of a messy situation. Arlene is a mother to be admired and when I finished The Cape Ann I knew that she and Lark were going to be okay.
Kristina lives with her mother, step-father, younger brother and sometimes, when she’s not away at school, her older sister. Life is pretty good: she’s a great student, has good friends, and has never been in any trouble. The summer between grade 11 and 12 she goes to spend three weeks with her father, and her life takes a turn down a dark path.
Based on personal experiences with her own daughter, Ellen Hopkins has crafted a compelling novel-in-verse about the horrifying effects drugs can have on a person and a family. Crank traces Kristina’s journey in graphic detail, from her discovery that her father is every bit the deadbeat loser her mother claimed and not the “King of Albuquerque” like she thought straight through to the book’s ambiguous ending. At her father’s, Kristina meets Adam who lives in the same block of apartments.
Nothing/but ragged/ cut-offs,/ hugging a / tawny six pack,/ and a smile.
No pin-up/ pretty boy/ could touch/ a smile that/ zapped every cell./ He was definitely/ not my type.
There’s nothing to do in New Mexico and when Adam suggests they hang out, Kristina reinvents herself on the spot, calling herself Bree. Bree is fearless and when Adam suggests first pot and then crank, telling her it will “make you want to fly all night”, Bree agrees.
According to therecoveryvillage.com “Meth is a man-made stimulant drug. It can come in various forms, including traditional meth in powder or pill form, and crystal meth which looks like glass or shiny rock fragments.” It’s extremely addictive and extremely dangerous, and it doesn’t take very long before it has taken over Kristina’s life.
Even after she returns to Reno and her family, she is jonesing for a fix. It doesn’t take too long for things to spiral out of control. She lies to her friends, steals from her parents, sneaks out at night and makes poor decisions based on her need to feed the “monster.”
Crank, you see/ isn’t any ordinary/ monster. It’s like a/ giant octopus,/ weaving/ its tentacles not/ just around you,/ but through you,/ squeezing/ not hard enough to/ kill you, but enough/ to keep you from/ reeling/ until you try to get/ away.
Hopkins captures the intensity of crank’s hold on Kristina’s life and the book is riveting, heartbreaking and important.