32555CAA-AE7E-4E76-8348-87072A3324C0Grace Sachs, the protagonist in Jean Hanff Korelitz’s compelling domestic thriller You Should Have Known, is an outspoken marriage counsellor who believes that women know from the very beginning if their partners are duds.

Over and over I’ve heard women describe their early interactions with their partner, and their early impressions of their partner. And listening to them, I continually thought: You knew right at the beginning. She knows he’s never going to stop looking at other women. She knows he can’t save money. She knows he’s contemptuous of her…But then she somehow lets herself unknow what she knows.

Grace’s tough talk is easy enough: she’s married to the perfect man, Jonathan, a pediatric oncologist and they have a twelve-year-old-son, Henry.

…she had chosen him, and now, as a result, she was having the right life, with the right husband, the right child, the right home, the right work.

Turns out, though, that all those rights actually make a wrong.

When the mother of one of the students at Henry’s school is murdered, the violent act opens up a fissure in Grace’s perfect life. First, her husband who is away at a medical conference stops answering her calls and texts. Then,  she discovers his phone  – not with him, but hidden in his bedside table. And then the police come knocking.

Grace’s life – it turns out – is a sham, and You Should Have Known unravels like any good thriller, stringing the reader (and Grace) along. The whodunit part of the story isn’t actually what’s interesting about Hanff Korelitz’s narrative though. It’s that Grace, a therapist who tells her patients to trust their guts, didn’t trust hers.

 

Dear Mrs. Bird by AJ Pearce is one of those frothy, inconsequential novels that is 54A58E82-4A09-4E79-93EB-33445980025A
easily read and just as easily forgotten. I actually read the first thirty pages or so and put it down; I only picked it back up and finished it because it was a book club pick and I hate going to book club without having read the book.

Emmeline Lake lives with her best friend, Bunty, in London during WW2. Emmeline works at a solicitor’s office and volunteers at the Auxiliary Fire Service, where Bunty’s boyfriend, William is a volunteer firefighter. What Emmeline aspires to, though, is becoming a Lady War Correspondent and she thinks she’s hit paydirt when she sees an advertisement in the paper for a Junior at The London Evening Chronicle.

For the last ten years – ever since I’d won a trip to the local newspaper as a prize for writing a quite dreadful poem when I was twelve – I had dreamt of a journalistic career.

Turns out, the job isn’t much more than glorified secretary to Mrs. Bird, Woman’s Friend’s  agony aunt. (Woman’s Friend being the poor relation to The Chronicle.)  Emmy is shocked and dismayed to realize that she’s taken the wrong job, but gives a “plucky Everything is Absolutely Tip Top Smile.”

Mrs. Bird has a strict policy about the sort of letters she will and will not answer in the magazine. Letters concerning marital or premarital or extramarital relations are to be binned. Mrs. Bird will not deign to answer queries about physical relations, illegal activity, politics, religion, the war or cooking. There’s also a long document containing a list of “Words and Phrases That Will Not Be Published Or Responded To By Mrs. Bird.”

Emmy feels stifled by her inability to help the people who write to Mrs. Bird looking for a light in what is clearly often a dark time. And this might have been an entertaining story, if it weren’t for the fact that Emmy is annoying and the story is pretty much a “you-can-see-it-coming-for-a-country-mile” romp.

For starters, Pearce capitalizes random phrases in the middle of sentences so, I think, you can hear how British and, well, to steal a phrase from Emmy herself, plucky these characters are.

Bunty said rather too quickly that the army always lets you know if something awful had happened so No News Is Good News and then Bill took up the baton and said Don’t You Worry, Emmy, Edmund Is Made Of Very Stern Stuff.

I can’t tell you how annoying that got after a while. The story sort of veers away from the letter writing, too, once the ‘tragedy’ happens. It all gets knit together in the end, though, So That’s All Right.

Ultimately, Dear Mrs. Bird wasn’t my cup of tea, even though it might have been a winner in different hands. I will be passing this book on to my 80-year-old aunt. I think she will love it.

EC4364B5-CF87-4ACD-9942-7867FDAC012AJoe Goldberg is crazy smart. Hmm, let me rephrase. Joe Goldberg is crazy. He works at a rare book store in New York City’s East Village and when Guinevere Beck aka Beck walks into the store one day, Joe is instantly smitten.

You didn’t walk in there for books, Beck. You didn’t have to say my name. You didn’t have to smile or listen or take me in. But you did.

Caroline Kepnes’ debut novel You has won copious praise and has also been turned into a series on Lifetime.  Is it deserving of all the accolades? Let’s break it down.

1. Joe isn’t your garden variety psycho. He’s well-read and funny and often times he’s more sympathetic than Beck is. After their chan

You didn’t walk in there for books, Beck. You didn’t have to say my name. You didn’t have to smile or listen or take me in. But you did.

Caroline Kepnes’ debut novel You has won copious praise and has also been turned into a series on Lifetime.  Is it deserving of all the accolades? Let’s break it down.

1. Joe isn’t your garden variety psycho. He’s well-read and funny and often times he’s more sympathetic than Beck is. After their chance meeting, Joe sets out to learn everything he can about Beck, an easy enough task since millennials put the minutiae of their daily lives online for everyone to see. It’s pretty easy for Joe to infiltrate Beck’s life.

What do we know about Joe? Not too much. He lives in a shitty apartment, doesn’t seem to have any friends and has clearly earned the trust (and the keys to the kingdom) of his employer, Mr. Mooney.

2. Beck is an MFA student who seems to enjoy (rough) sex and is pining for a guy called Benji when Joe first meets her. Truthfully, she’s not that interesting, but I guess that’s not really the point. She’s just a vessel for Joe to pour all of his psychopathy into. Whether any of the attraction Beck feels for Joe is real, or whether the appeal of Joe’s total devotion to winning her affections is just part of her own narcissism, it’s hard to say.

3. The plot actually moves along relatively slowly for a novel that is meant to be a thriller. That’s because it’s over-written…sometimes it seemed to take forever for anything to happen. Joe imagines all the times he is going to have sex with Beck before he actually has sex with her, and when they finally do the deed, it’s a horrible disappointment to them both. Talk about your performance anxiety. Other sub-plots bog down the main action of the story…the will he won’t he get the girl and from there, what’s going to happen?

That said, the writing is terrific. Kepnes does an amazing job of making Joe seem both believable, creepy and, on some level at least, likeable. He is patient and volatile in equal measure. Ultimately, it’s his obsession with all things Beck that is his undoing, and the end of his relationship with Beck, when it comes, unravels in record time.

And it’s over . You begin to yelp and spring at me and I don’t like you right now. You make me do terrible things like hold you down and clap my hand over your mouth. You make me twist your arms and bear down on you, and this is our bed.

Look, You doesn’t tread any new water, but that doesn’t mean that, of its type, it isn’t worth a look if you enjoy crazy stalkers.

sadieI thought if I waited a few days after finishing Courtney Summers’ latest book Sadie, I would have a better chance of articulating my feelings coherently. Sadly, I don’t think I am actually going to be able to adequately express all the ways I loved (and hated) this book.

The premise is clever. West McCray, a radio producer at New York’s WNRK, is shaking up the station’s format by introducing a new podcast, The Girls. The podcast “explores what happens when a devastating crime reveals a deeply unsettling mystery.”  McCray dives headlong into the story of Mattie Southern, a thirteen-year-old whose dead body was discovered in an orchard near a burning schoolhouse, and her nineteen-year-old sister, Sadie, who is missing.

I’ve decided the gruesome details of what was uncovered in that orchard will not be part of this show. While the murder, the crime, might have captured your initial interest, its violence and brutality do not exist for your entertainment – so please don’t ask us.

Transcripts of the podcast (and you can actually listen to those here) alternate with Sadie’s first person narrative. Sadie leaves Cold Creek’s trailer park and her surrogate grandmother, May Beth, to find Keith, a man who once lived with Sadie and Mattie’s mother, Claire. Claire is currently out of the picture, an addict who’s had a steady stream of creeps in her bed.

Despite being blocked at every turn, Sadie is like a dog with a bone when it comes to tracking down Keith, a man she claims is her father. She buys a junker car, and asks fearless questions, hindered only by her stutter and youth. By about page thirty I was as invested in Sadie’s hunt as she was. She is equal parts vulnerable and tough-as-nails and 100% believable.

And this is where I have to pause and commend Summers, once again, for writing characters who are so real. Regular readers to this blog will know I am a fan of Summers and have read several of her books including Cracked Up to Be, All the Rage, This Is Not a Test, and Some Girls Are. I’ll tell you this – Summers is not writing the same book over and over. Her characters are not stereotypes. They are vulnerable, broken, tough, cynical and hopeful and every combination in between. Sometimes they say or do things that are wince-worthy, but as a mom and high school teacher, I know that Summers cuts as close to the bone as it’s possible to get. Like it or not.

So, I wasn’t surprised that I fell in love with Sadie, rough edges and all. I expected to be invested in her journey and I hated (that’s what I hated, folks) that it was a journey that she felt compelled to take. I hated that I was afraid for her the entire freakin’ time! Sadie loved her sister and made sacrifices for her that Mattie would never have the opportunity to understand. That’s what it is to love someone.

McCray is always just one step behind Sadie, but his podcasts fill in some blanks, allowing us to see how Sadie is viewed from other perspectives. Former teacher, Edward Colburn, says, “She was teased by her classmates because of the stutter and that caused her to withdraw.” Her boss, Marty McKinnon said Sadie was “a good kid, hard worker.” Mae Beth said that “The only thing Sadie was afraid of was losing the family she had left and that was Mattie.”

All of these ingredients add up to a story that McCray describes as being “about family, about sisters, and the untold  lives lived in small-town America. It’s about the lengths we go to protect the ones we love…and the high price we pay when we can’t.”

There are few moments of levity in this novel, but Sadie (the novel and the character) will haunt your dreams.

Highly recommended.

 

 

 

Thirteen-year-old Claudia and Monday are inseparable, even though they come from twomonday different worlds. Claudia lives with her stable and loving parents; Monday lives with her single mom and three siblings in Washington’s Ed Borough Complex, a part of town Claudia isn’t allowed to visit without an adult.

After returning to DC from a summer with her grandmother, Claudia is looking forward to starting grade eight with her bestie, but Monday is a no-show. When she doesn’t show up at school all week, and when calls to her house yield no answers, Claudia gets worried. A frightening visit to Monday’s apartment only ratchets up Claudia’s concern.

Tiffany D. Jackson’s YA novel Monday’s Not Coming is part mystery and part coming-of-age story. Claudia’s life is upended by the disappearance of her friend. For one thing, Monday helped Claudia with her school work and without her, Claudia is lost and “Without her, the [lunch] line went on for eternity. Without her, I ate alone. Being alone made you a target, though, and ain’t nobody got time for stupid boys throwing food at your head.”

Life ticks along for Claudia. She joins a dance group, meets a boy at church, starts getting help with her schoolwork, but none of these things fill the hole left by Monday. The two girls shared a lot of dreams – attending the same high school, making it on the dance squad, leaving the horrors of middle school behind. The longer Monday is gone, though, the more Claudia has to move forward with her life.

Readers will turn the pages of Monday’s Not Coming desperate to know what has happened to her, but I was interested in Claudia’s personal journey. Monday is a larger-than-life character, not afraid to stand up for herself or go after what she wants including the hottest boy in school. Claudia is shocked to discover new things about her best friend and she begins to wonder just how well she actually knew her.

There’s a twist in this novel that I didn’t see coming, and I can’t say that it worked 100% for me. However, it in no way undermined my overall reading experience. Monday’s Not Coming is a worthy addition to my classroom library.

I just looked at the date of my last post: May 25th! Where has the time gone? Well, I can tell you where the first three weeks of July went…to Italy (with a teensy three-day layover in Paris.) I did read a couple books while I was on holiday, neither of them particularly memorable.

My trip began in Amalfi, which as you probably know is the name of the coast, but also the name of the town we stayed in. If you’ve always wanted to go to Amalfi, I highly recommend it. Amalfi town is not as vertical as some of the other towns along the coast, which makes it the perfect spot.  I was with my three best girlfriends and this is the second time we have traveled to Italy together. We walked lots, ate well, visited nearby towns (Capri, Positano, Ravello) and generally had a wonderful, sun-filled week.

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After a week, two of my girlfriends headed home and I headed to Verona with the third. Verona has been on my bucket list for a long time. I’m an English teacher; what can I say?

Verona is an absolutely beautiful city – even without its famous connection to Romeo and Juliet, but for anyone who is a fan of the play (and I am), visiting Verona is a must-do.

I am not ashamed to admit that standing in that little touristy courtyard and up on the balcony gave me all the feels.

Romeo and Juliet is not the only tragic love story to come out of Verona. The Well of Love, IMG_0120just off Piazza della Erbe, tells another story of a soldier who fell in love with the daughter of a rich and powerful man. He would not let his daughter marry the soldier, convincing her that he was only interested in her money. She told her lover that he must prove himself to her, so he threw himself in the well. When she realized what he had done, she threw herself in after him, thus uniting the lovers for eternity. Sad that the motorcycle is in the picture, but you can see the two lovers at the front of the well.

 

Verona did not disappoint on any level.

After three days, we headed to Venice. This is my third time in Venice and while I still think it’s a magnificent city, I am not sure that I will ever return. It was so crowded – not that crowds bother me particularly – and so full of junky shops and bad food. Still. Venice.

One thing I had not done on any of my previous trips was visit Libreria Aqua Alta. It’s definitely a “must-see” for any book lover. It’s billed as “the most beautiful bookshop in the world”. It’s certainly the most ‘fragrant’.  I don’t know how anyone would find anything in this place, but I certainly loved visiting.

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After Venice, my friend headed home and I headed to Bologna. I had made the decision to extend my trip just to see how I would feel about traveling on my own. I mean, obviously I have traveled on my own before…but not for a long time. I picked Bologna because it was a place I had never been, it was easy to get to from Venice, and it was supposed to be the foodie capital of Italy.  Hmmm.

It was okay. I would have been happy spending a day, maybe two there. Three was too much.  I didn’t eat any amazing food, but I definitely enjoy the wine in the north of Italy more than I do in the south.

IMG_0183The library was housed upstairs in this building. Unfortunately, you’re not allowed to visit it as a tourist. I actually couldn’t quite believe that. Bologna is a university town and there were bookstores galore. Sadly, I don’t read Italian. 🙂 It’s also a city made up of arcades or porticos…40 kilometers of them to be exact. They are a nice reprieve from the sun.

I stayed in a very nice AirBnB in Bologna, and I would definitely say it’s worth a visit. It’s also very easy to make day trips to other worthwhile spots from here.

After Bologna, I headed back to Venice for one more night. Instead of spending the day in the city, I bought a vaporetti pass and headed to Murano and Burano, two more bucket list places. Murano was a bit disappointing, but Burano was sheer magic.

And then it was on to Paris.

I have never been to Paris. Truthfully, I have never been all that interested in going. I know, eh? I guess I bought into the hype that Parisians are rude and that if you don’t speak French, forget about it. Since my flight home went through Paris, though, I figured what the hell. I should get off the plane. I am SO glad I did. I am totally smitten and am already planning a return visit.

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Paris is like a secret. Every corner you turn offers up another feast for the eyes. I thought I walked a lot in Italy! I walked soooo much in Paris, but I also used the buses and metro a lot and found them super user- friendly. In fact, I found Paris friendly in general. I don’t speak French, but it wasn’t a problem. I ‘Bonjoured’ and ‘merci-ed’ my way along and was always met with a pleasant response…in restaurants, on the bus, in shops, on the street.

Of course, I took a literary tour of Paris because it’s a significant city for fans of  writers of the 1920s, including, most famously, Ernest Hemingway. Gertrude Stein coined the term the “Lost Generation” to refer to the young writers who hung out in Paris (and London) during this period, Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound among them.

The tour mostly took us around to look at plaques on buildings (put up by building owners themselves, not the city) and cafes (most famously Cafe de Flore, where a coke will set you back 7 euro) where these writers would write and drink. Certainly an interesting way for anyone literary-minded to while away a few hours.

And, of course, no visit to Paris would be complete without a visit to Shakespeare and Company. Quite appropriately, my literary tour finished here.

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I was so happy to finally be able to visit this store. 🙂

 

So, there you have it. A beautiful way to start my summer and memories to last a lifetime.

I will be back with some reviews asap.

 

 

belzharJam Gallahue just hasn’t been able to recover from the death of her boyfriend Reeve Maxfield. “I loved him,” she explains, “and then he died, and almost a year passed and no one knew what to do with me.” As a last resort, Jam’s parents send her to The Wooden Barn, “a boarding school for ’emotionally fragile, highly intelligent’ teenagers.”

Meg Wolitzer’s YA novel Belzhar follows Jam on her journey of recovery, although it probably won’t be the sort of recovery readers will be expecting.

Jam is picked to take a course called Special Topics in English, the “smallest, most elite class in the entire school.” Taught by Mrs. Quenell, Special Topics has a reputation at The Wooden Barn. Jam’s roommate, DJ, tells her that students who haven taken the class act like it’s no big deal, but “when it’s over, they say things about how it changed their lives.”

Jam shares the class with Casey, a girl in a wheelchair, Sierra, Marc, and Griffin, a boy who is “good-looking but in a hostile way.” Their special topic is Sylvia Plath, who will be the only author the five students will study. In addition, they are required to write in journals that Mrs. Quenell hands out to them. Mrs. Quenell tells the students that each of them “has something to say. But not everyone can bear to say it. Your job is to find a way.”

The thing about these five students is that they have each suffered some sort of trauma and it turns out that their journals and the entries they write in them magically transport them back to a happier time in their lives. These experiences, which they call going to Belzhar (a weird take onthe title of Plath’s only novel The Bell Jar) causes them to open up to each other and to the world.

Whether you buy into the magical realism elements of this novel or not, there is certainly truth to the fact that some people get stuck in their grief or anger. Each of these teens has been trapped by their experiences  and the act of writing allows some of the poison in their lives to seep out.  “Words matter,” Mrs. Quenell tells her students, and I wholeheartedly agree.

Not everyone will appreciate Belzhar. I can see how some students might balk at the notion of Belzhar as a real place, but as a metaphor it most certainly works. Human beings do get stuck. We hold on to things and people that are not healthy. We don’t fully live; we deceive ourselves. It takes work, sometimes, to shed trauma, but surely it’s worth it.

“You’re all equipped for the world, for adulthood, in a way that most people aren’t…So many people don’t even know what hits them when they grow up. They feel clobbered over the head the minute the first thing goes wrong, and they spend the rest of their lives trying to avoid pain at all costs. But you all know that avoiding pain is impossible.

Belzhar is worth a look.