Monsters – Emerald Fennell

monstersWhat would you get if you mixed Enid Blyton with Stephen King? I think you’d probably get Monsters by Emerald Fennell.

Monsters is the story of a twelve-year-old girl who has spent the last three summers at her Aunt Maria and Uncle Frederick’s crumbling seaside hotel because her “parents got smushed to death in a boating accident.”  The unnamed narrator now resides with her maternal grandmother and “During the summer holidays, Granny always decides she has enough of me…” That’s how she ends up in Fowery, somewhere on the Cornish coast of England.

The town of Fowery is as eccentric as its residents, a “tiny multicoloured town…built up the side of a green, green hill” and ruled by William Podmore, a recluse who is rarely seen.

Everyone in town knows our narrator – she’s a regular visitor to the candy store and book shop. She knows they think she’s peculiar. And she is. She’s fascinated with murderers and she and her grandmother often watch gory films together. She’s practically memorized The Murderers’ Who’s Who. So she hits the creepy jackpot when the body of a woman is found caught in a fisherman’s net. Suddenly, the summer is starting to look up.

Then thirteen-year-old Miles arrives with his over-bearing mother. Turns out  Miles has a lot in common with our narrator:  he’s fascinated with true crime, a little on the eccentric side and he’s smart.

I really enjoyed Monsters. It’s quite unlike any recent YA book I’ve read.  I was a big reader of Enid Blyton’s books when I was a kid. I loved solving the mysteries in the Adventure series. Fennell’s book is certainly more subversive than Blyton’s books – which were straight up mysteries a la The Bobbsey Twins. Monsters is decidedly darker.

Miles and our narrator spend the summer trying to figure out who murdered the young woman and when another body turns up, they try to figure out who might be next on the killer’s list. They also play their own murder game.

This time instead of being strangled, the victim was drowned. Miles would push me under the water, and I would have to thrash around, yelling and screaming, begging for my life.

If this sounds a little twisted, it is. Monsters is a page-turner with an extended cast of characters ripped straight from a Tim Burton movie. It is odd and oddly fun.

Highly recommended.

 

 

This Gorgeous Game – Donna Freitas

Olivia Peters, the protagonist in Donna Freitas’ YA novel This Gorgeous Game,  is a seventeen-year-old aspiring writer who lives with her single mom and older sister in a close knit Catholic community in Boston. How Catholic? Let’s just say that the Peters’ have lots of priests and nuns for dinner and Olivia attends a high school where the principal is a nun.

gorgeousOlivia is beautiful and outgoing, but she’s one of those girls who doesn’t really know it – or, if she knows it, she doesn’t flaunt it. She’s a good girl. She’s obedient. All she wants-  all she can ever remember wanting – is to be a writer. When she wins the first annual Emerging Writers High School Fiction Prize  she admits “I’ve always loved writing but I didn’t really think it would amount to anything.” The prize is substantial: a ten thousand dollar scholarship towards the college of Olivia’s choice, publication of her story and a spot in Father Mark Brendan’s prestigious summer fiction seminar.

Yeah, that  Mark Brendan. Olivia knows him – by reputation, at least.

I am struck by the tiny lines that web from his smiling eyes, the gleam from his perfect white teeth, his thick salt-and-pepper hair, the size of his hands, so large, the hands of a strong man. Everything about him seems to glow from within and soon I am aware that I am not the only person in the room who finds this visitor striking.

This priest is a celebrity, and also super-creepy. I mean, c’mon, the first thing he does is invite Olivia for a drink. She shows up in her school uniform and drinks hot chocolate while he drinks scotch and holds court.

I probably shouldn’t say this, but the moment I first saw you, I wondered to myself: how did so much talent, such insight and imagination, come from a girl so young, and with such startling beauty? What a beauty! I thought. God must have such extraordinary plans for such a creation as this.

In the beginning, Olivia basks in the glow of Father Mark’s attention: the private meetings to (ostensibly, at least) work on editing her story, the notes he leaves for her, the packages he sends. But soon Olivia is feeling isolated from her friends and family and Mark’s enthusiasm for her talent starts to feel like a yoke around her neck. He turns up unexpectedly in places he shouldn’t be, waits for her outside the school, gives her inappropriate gifts, calls her incessantly.

Turns out, Father Mark is not only a talented writer, but a talented stalker, too. Is it because of his celebrity status that the adults in Olivia’s life don’t see the change in her demeanor: she stops eating, her hair is listless, the spark is gone. She makes excuses until she can’t anymore, but I was really disappointed in her mother and in Sister June, the school principal, who seemed to have some misgivings early on, but didn’t intervene.

This Gorgeous Game is a page-turner that highlights the ways  in which someone in a position of power takes advantage of someone vulnerable. There is nothing graphic here and Olivia is a likeable narrator, if a little sheltered and naïve – which is, of course, completely understandable given her upbringing.

 

 

 

Modern Monsters – Kelley York

Kelley York’s YA novel Modern Monsters is a relatively straight-forward story about the modernmonstersaftermath of a sexual assault. This is my second novel by York and while there is certainly nothing wrong with it, I preferred Made of Stars, which I found to be beautifully written and nuanced. Modern Monsters suffers (but only slightly) by comparison.

Vic Howard is a senior at high school. He’s a slightly awkward loner with a stutter who knows his place on the social ladder.

I am not important. I am tolerated by association. I am Vic Howard, Brett Mason’s Best Friend, so while people don’t always care to learn anything about me, they do recognize my face. Being cool to me, they seem to think, is a way to stay cool with Brett.

Vic and Brett have been friends since they were kids. Sometimes when Vic looks at Brett he sees “the chubby pimple-faced kid with braces and glasses.” This long-standing relationship is why Brett doesn’t impress or intimidate Vic. It’s also the reason why Vic does anything even remotely sociable: he is often Brett’s plus one.

That’s how he ends up at a huge party out at a cabin by a lake. He doesn’t want to go, but Brett insists. And that’s how he happens upon Callie Wheeler throwing up in the bushes. Vic deliberates leaving her alone – but only for a moment. Vic helps Callie to a bedroom, places a waste bucket beside the bed, and acknowledges that he’s done his part.

Except a day or two later the police arrive at Vic’s house to question him. Callie was raped at the party and Vic was the last person seen with her.

Modern Monsters tackles a tricky  and timely subject with a great deal of care.  The horror of being accused of something is bad enough, but Vic’s mother doesn’t seem to believe Vic when he vehemently denies the accusation. She can’t even seem to look him in the eye. He takes refuge at Brett’s house. Brett’s parents have always been like a surrogate family and Brett’s father is a lawyer who agrees to help him.

The kids at school are less forgiving and when the rumours start to spread Vic finds himself in some pretty dicey situations. It is Callie’s best friend, Autumn, who first believes Vic’s innocence and together the two begin to try to figure out who the real rapist is. Their sleuthing also leads to a relationship, Vic’s first.

Vic is a likeable character. He’s not perfect, but he’s decent. He’s a hard-working, honest and sympathetic character and it’s impossible not to like him. Autumn is feisty and smart. Even Caillie, although her role is peripheral, reveals herself to be forgiving and human.

This book is as much about standing up for yourself as it is about the horrors of sexual assault. Vic must navigate tricky family dynamics, the first stirrings of romance, and people’s mistrust of him. Whatever his perceived shortcomings, Vic is a good guy and readers will be rooting for him.

The Kind Worth Killing – Peter Swanson

kindworthI have been in a bit of a reading slump this year – which seems like a ridiculous thing to say considering we are only two months in. The first couple of books I read at the start of 2017 were lackluster at best, and I just haven’t been able to find my reading groove. Peter Swanson’s The Kind Worth Killing may have actually changed all that.

Lily Kintner and Ted Severson meet in a bar at Heathrow. Over martinis,  Ted discloses a few details about his life including the fact that he thinks his wife, Miranda, is having an affair with Brad,  the contractor that is building their dream home in a coastal town in Maine.

Ted admits to Lily that he wants to kill his wife. Perhaps even more unusual, Lily offers to help. It might take a teensy bit of suspension of disbelief to believe that a cuckolded husband would meet a beautiful woman in a bar in a foreign country who expresses a desire to help him plan his wife’s murder, but stranger things have surely happened.

Once on the plane, Lily suggests that “…since we’re on a plane, and it’s a long flight, and we’re never going to see each other again, let’s tell each other the absolute truth. About everything.” During the trans-Atlantic flight, the two reveal tidbits both mundane and philosophical. Lily remarks: “…everyone is going to die eventually. If you killed your wife you would only be doing to her what would happen anyway. And you’d save other people from her. She’s a negative.”

Lily isn’t quite as forthcoming about her life as Ted is about his. Her story is revealed in alternating chapters. The daughter of  bohemian academics, Lily is an intelligent, thoughtful child. Through her eyes, we learn about growing up in “Monk’s House,” a Victorian mansion  deep in the Connecticut woods, about an hour from New York City.

There was never only one guest at Monk’s House, especially in the summertime when my parents’ teaching duties died down and they could focus on what they truly loved –  drinking and adultery. I don’t say that in order to make some sort of tragedy of my childhood. I say it because it’s the truth.

Lily has a skewed morality, but it’s the very thing that makes her such a fascinating character. She’s a charming psychopath, and it’s almost impossible not to like her, to root for her, even. She’s  – by far –  the most interesting of cast of characters in Swanson’s novel. She reminded me a little bit of Alice Morgan, a character in the brilliant BBC crime series, Luther. (If you haven’t ever seen the show, you must watch it immediately. It’s on Netflix.)

There are twists and turns aplenty in The Kind Worth Killing. The plot did unravel slightly for me towards the end, but that in no way undermined my enjoyment of the shenanigans these people got up to.

The Kind Worth Killing was a whim purchase for me. I needed a book for my book club and this one was popular on Litsy. I am pleased to report that everyone in my group really enjoyed the book, even though it was definitely a departure from the sort of stuff we normally read.

This is a page-turner.

The Possessions – Sara Flannery Murphy

Eurydice (Edie) is a “body” for the Elysian Society. As a body, she works with clients who possessions1seek to speak with loved ones they have lost. Dressed in a simple white dress, she sits in Room 12 and once in possession of an item belonging to the deceased, she swallows a lotus – a pill that  summons the spirits of the deceased – and the living communes with the dead. That’s the general principle of Sara Flannery Murphy’s debut novel The Possessions.

Edie has been working at the Elysian Society for five years, a long time for a body. She leads a very quiet, private life. “Since I joined the Elysian Society,” she says, “my emotions have evolved. They’ve gone from unwieldy to finely attuned. ready to snap into nothingness.”

That ability, to become a blank slate, is perhaps one of the reasons that Edie has been able to do this job for as long as she has. But then Patrick Braddock walks into her life. Patrick wants to speak with his wife, Sylvia. She drowned in a lake. The circumstances of Sylvia’s death are part of what propels the plot forward, but the relationship between Patrick and Edie is definitely the driving force.

Although Edie tells Patrick that she is not privy to the conversations that take place between a client and their loved ones, the line between Edie and Sylvia definitely blurs.

I was evasive with Patrick in Room 12 today. The truth is that Sylvia’s memories have lingered. One image in particular, clear and deep. I remember Patrick’s hand against me, at my waist. The golden hairs at his wrist, his long fingers holding the ghost of a summer tan. One or two fingernails endearingly frayed, as if he bites them when no one is watching. I could reach right into the memory, interlace my fingers with his. Feel the light calluses of his fingertips.

Before long, Edie and Patrick’s professional relationship crosses a line and Edie experiences the burgeoning weight of desire. As it often does, it clouds her judgment and drives her to find out what really happened to Sylvia.

The Possessions is a well-written literary hybrid: part mystery, part sci fi (the world seemed slightly off-kilter to me, not the far future but certainly not present day), part love story. It is certainly intriguing and yet…I found it slow going.

Edie’s past is a mystery. Her past is certainly alluded to, but we don’t learn much about her until the very end of the novel and by then it feels more like expository backfill. She’s really a non-entity and that makes it difficult to feel any empathy for her.

Patrick fares only a little bit better. As the grief-stricken husband trying to move on, he’s serviceable enough. Ultimately, neither he nor Edie are well-rounded enough to make me root for their relationship.

So in the plus column: great writing, intriguing plot, lots of potential. In the minus column: slow-moving, lackluster characters, some clunky plot machinations.

That said, Sara Flannery Murphy is definitely an author to keep your eye on.

Thanks to Harper Collins for my review copy and to TLC Book Tours for the chance to participate in this tour.

 

I’ll Give You The Sun- Jandy Nelson

This is us. Our pose. The smush. It’s even how we are in the ultrasound photo they took of us inside Mom…Unlike most everyone else on earth, from the very first cell of us, we were together, we came here together.

20820994That’s almost-fourteen-year-old Noah, one of the twins who narrates  Jandy Nelson’s remarkable YA novel I’ll Give You the Sun. Alternating between Noah and his sister, Jude, who tells her part of the story at age sixteen, the novel traces the siblings’ journey from innocence to experience.

Jude and Noah are artists who dream of getting into California School of the Arts (CSA).  Their parents, both professors, are going through something neither understands. Noah observes “Dad used to make Mom’s eyes shine; now he makes her grind her teeth. I don’t know why.” The summer they turn fourteen, though, their world is rocked by tragedy.

When Jude picks up the story, it is clear that whatever closeness the twins shared has leeched away, their “twin-telepathy long gone…because of all that’s happened, we avoid each other – worse, repel each other.”

Jude and Noah are both eccentric as heck. Jude channels the spirit of her dead Grandma Sweetwine. She’s a self-proclaimed bible thumping klutz who is boycotting all boys because of a traumatic experience she had with Zephyr, the three-years-older than her surf god who “made [her] feel faint every time he spoke to [her].” Noah has his own issues. For one, he paints in his head – elaborate pictures that he’s never told anyone about, not even Jude when they were speaking.  Then there’s Brian, the boy next door. And Noah’s strained relationship with his father who wants him to man up. When the unthinkable happens and Jude is accepted into CSA and Noah is not, the rift between the twins grows larger. It takes a long time before either realizes that the secrets they’d been keeping in an effort to protect each other were, in fact, part of the reason they were estranged.

I’ll Give You The Sun is one of those amazing (and rare) YA novels that actually treats its target audience like they are intelligent (which as a high school teacher, I can tell you with certainty, they are). Everything from the novel’s narrative structure, to its examination of art, love, grief, jealousy, personal happiness versus personal responsibility,  and family dynamics is designed to make you think and question.

Once you’ve settled into the twins’ strange world, you will fall in love with them. They are resilient, brilliant, and endlessly fascinating. They are also just barely hanging on on their own and when Jude finally lets her heart break “Noah is there, strong and sturdy, to catch me, to hold me through it, to make sure I’m safe.”

Jandy Nelson writes beautiful books (check out her first exceptional novel The Sky is Everywhere) peopled with flawed and  totally sympathetic characters. That says nothing of the beautiful prose – resplendent language that spills out of every page. I’ll Give You The Sun is deserving of its copious praise and numerous awards. Jude and Noah will certainly stay with me in the days ahead.

Highly recommended.

A Step Toward Falling – Cammie McGovern

astepAlthough Belinda and Emily, the alternating narrators of Cammie McGovern’s excellent YA novel A Step Toward Falling, attend the same high school, the two girls couldn’t be more unalike.  Belinda is twenty-one and spends her days in the Life Skills class with other students who have physical  or developmental disabilities. Emily is a high school senior who co-chairs her school’s Youth Action Coalition with her gay bff, Richard, but hasn’t ever really taken a stand, preferring to work behind-the-scenes..

At a high school football game, Belinda is attacked and Emily witnesses the event and does nothing – not because she’s a horrible person, far from it, but because her “brain couldn’t process what it was seeing.” Anyway, in the next instant she sees Lucas, one of the school’s football players, running from under the bleachers and she is sure he saved Belinda. The fact that he did nothing either, sends Lucas and Emily to the Lifelong Learning Centre where they must volunteer with young adults who have  a variety of  developmental disabilities.

As for Belinda, she retreats to the safety of her home where she lives with her mother and grandmother. She watches Pride and Prejudice, and avoids talking about what happened to her because according to her Nan “what’s done is done, sweetheart. The important thing is you’re home now and you’re safe. You never have to go back to that school or see those people again as far as I’m concerned.”

Navigating high school is hard enough, but everything about the girls’ journey – albeit different –  feels  honest. Belinda is in love with Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy. She is quite sure that he is watching her from the television screen, and she’s “pretty sure he loves me, too.”  Belinda’s innocence is what protects her from understanding that Ron, one of the football team’s star players, doesn’t actually care for her, even though he asked her to dance at a Best Buddies event.

Emily has spent all of high school hiding out in the library. She watches the table of football players and their picture-perfect cheerleader girlfriends and dreams about a post-high school life where everything will be better.

Lucas, who is seen only through Emily’s eyes, is huge and “a little scary-looking.” But, like all the characters in McGovern’s novel, there is more to him than first meets the eye.  And that’s kind of the point. How can we ever truly know someone if we never bother to talk to them, try to understand them or  extend the branch of friendship?

McGovern’s novel might have veered into ‘preachy-ness’ had it not been for the authentic voices of Belinda and Emily. I loved spending time with these girls. I loved how Emily and Lucas made a genuine effort to make amends and, in the process, became better people. There is certainly a lesson here, but it doesn’t feel instructive as much as it feels heartfelt and human.

Highly recommended.