The Nickel Boys – Colson Whitehead

The Nickel Boys won Colson Whitehead his second Pulitzer Prize. (He also won for The nickelUnderground Railway in 2017.) And now I pause because I am afraid of this review.

Anyone who reads my reviews will know that I generally don’t have any trouble sharing my feelings about books, but I am nervous about this one. Why? Is it because it won the Pulitzer. No. I had no trouble talking about Olive Kitteridge or The Goldfinch. Or is it because it speaks very specifically about an experience that I can never truly understand as a white, middle-aged woman living in Canada? Um, no. I have no personal experience with the horrors of concentration camps (Lilac Girls) or  dealing with the supernatural (any Stephen King book ever).

I started reading, and I kept thinking, what if I don’t love it, what if I just think it’s okay, will people accuse me of being racist? But here’s the thing that my very smart newly adult children have taught me: I probably am racist in all sorts of little ways that I don’t even realize, ways that come from being born into the white middle class. Sure, as a woman, I have my own row to hoe, but my experiences as I’ve gone through this life have been mostly positive. Now comes the question of how those experiences inform my reading of Whitehead’s novel.

The Nickel Boys  is inspired by a real place, the Dozier School for Boys located in Marianna, Florida. The reform  school operated from 1900 until 2011, despite being investigated for allegations of abuse many times during its 111-year history. There are many excellent articles about the school online, including this one  published in The Washington Post in 2019.

In Whitehead’s fictionalized account, Elwood Curtis, a bright, scholarly young man ends up at the Nickel Academy because he just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Elwood is an idealist. He believes in the teachings of Martin Luther King, Jr. (whose words are sprinkled throughout the novel.) Elwood is going to change the world and the first step is getting an education. His life is upended when he is sent to Nickel and at first he is optimistic.

He got a look at the school and thought maybe Franklin was right – Nickel wasn’t that bad. He expected tall stone walls and barbed wire, but there were no walls at all. The campus was kept up meticulously, a bounty of lush green dotted with two – and three-story buildings of red brick. The cedar trees and beeches cut out portions of shade, tall and ancient. It was the nicest looking property Elwood had ever seen – a real school, a good one, not the forbidding reformatory he’d conjured the last few weeks.

Of course, Elwood’s optimism is misplaced. Nickel is a horror-show and it doesn’t take long for Elwood to find himself the target of abuse. It would be almost impossible for any reader not to read this book without a knot of dread in their stomach. And I did care about Elwood, but I also found that there was an element of didacticism in this novel which prevented me from wholly investing in Elwood’s awful journey.

I need the lesson. I need ALL the lessons because of my privileged position. I am becoming more and more aware of my blind spots and I think literature is a wonderful way for me to have experiences which are far removed from my own. I think of Angie Thomas’s YA novel The Hate U Give which made me think all sorts of thinky thoughts and also moved me to tears. I was wholly invested in Starr’s journey because it forced me to look at myself and also gave me a window into a life which is very much not my own.

I want to be a more thoughtful person, a more woke individual. It’s my duty as an educator and as a human being. I look to stories to help me on my journey, to help me see around those blind corners I know I have. I am not saying The Nickel Boys  will not have a part to play. Three times as many black boys died at Dozier compared to white boys (Smithsonian Magazine) and you only need to look at what’s happening in the world to know that people of colour are mistreated in ways that are, frankly, shocking. We need to do better. If Whitehead’s novel helps push us forward because we read it and  start to understand the inequity that exists, then that’s a win.

But as a piece of ‘fiction’ I guess it was just okay for me. It seemed as though the book was more interested in telling the story rather than Elwood’s  story and maybe that was a deliberate choice. As a reader, though, I needed an emotional centre and although there is a little twist that I didn’t see coming, I finished the book feeling rather underwhelmed.

 

Blind Kiss – Renee Carlino

blindOh dear. Renee Carlino is a USA Today bestselling author, whatever that means. It doesn’t mean much to me after reading Blind Kiss, which was an impulse buy for me and cringe-y on every level.

Penny is in her final year of college when she is railroaded into taking part in a psych experiment where she is blindfolded and made to kiss an absolute stranger.  This kiss made Penny feel as though she is going to “spontaneously combust” and that  even “If he was the ugliest guy in the world [she] would have still been attracted to him.” Of course, Gavin is not unattractive. “He was gorgeous, with warm green eyes and an angled jawline.”

Chemistry doesn’t lie and Penny and Gavin have chemistry up the ying yang, but Penny wants to focus on finishing her dance degree so she friend zones Gavin. Thus begins a ridiculous fourteen year “friendship” where Gavin dates a million other people and Penny marries the most boring dude on the planet. The best friends schtick is fooling no one, of course, but that doesn’t stop these two from denying their feelings over and over, and, quite frankly, acting like idiots for most of the book.

Look, I am all over a book where a couple – for whatever reasons including misplaced honour, or bad timing  – can’t seem to get their shit together. Serve me up a heaping helping of angst and I will fall to my knees, but Blind Kiss  didn’t have that.

These characters behave in ways that are wholly, well, frankly, ridiculous. For example, in the present, when Gavin tells Penny he’s moving to France she “screamed at the top of [her] lungs and then made a guttural sound as [she] hunched over and held [her] stomach.” They’re in a bar. She’s 35. I mean, is this the behaviour of a married mother of a teenager? It was at that point (page 6) that I felt like this story, which I felt might have promise – which is why I bought the book – went off the rails. Every interaction between Gavin and Penny is so over-the-top histrionic that it was hard to take any of it seriously.

Which I didn’t.

The Raising – Laura Kasischke

I have a soft spot for books that take place on college campuses. Maybe it’s the nostalgia. Maybe it’s a hangover from Donna Tartt’s masterpiece The Secret History. I don’t know. Laura Kasischke’s novel The Raising ticks a lot of those college campus narrative boxes for me, but I can’t say that it was a thoroughly satisfying read despite the fact that it is well-written and intriguing.

“The scene of the accident was bloodless, and beautiful” is how Kasischke begins thisraising story of students and faculty on a small (unnamed?) campus. The accident in question kills Nicole Werner: beautiful, intelligent, desired-by-all freshman. Her boyfriend, Craig Clements-Rabbitts, was driving the car and he walks away from the accident unharmed, which makes him a sort of campus parihah.

The details of the accident are sketchy. First on the scene is Shelly Lockes. After the accident is reported in the paper, she calls the paper to tell them that the story is “full of inaccuracies […] and although the reporter to whom her call was forwarded assured her that he would “set the record straight on the details of the accident as reported in our paper right away,” no corrections ever appeared.”

Craig returns to college for his sophomore year and moves into an apartment with Perry, his first-year roomie, who also happens to be from Nicole’s hometown, Bad Axe. Everyone on the campus still seems to be shell shocked about Nicole’s death. And then people start seeing her around campus.

Perry decides to take matters into his own hands, seeking out Professor Mira Polson, who teaches a seminar called “death, Dying and the Undead.” Although her personal life is spinning out of control (two-year-old twins at home; a bitter, unemployed husband) Mira is fascinated with Perry’s story and the two start looking into the rumours.

College is a time for trying to figure out who you are. I remember that, and I remember – almost fondly now – all the mistakes I made on my path to adulthood. In some ways The Raising  is this story, the one about how young adults stumble along trying to figure their stuff out,  as much as it is a ‘ghost’ story. (And whether it’s even a ghost story is up for debate.)

I was definitely invested in the story. I liked Perry a lot and felt sorry for other characters who had their own dramas (Mira’s flailing marriage; Shelly’s entanglement with a student). Perhaps the reason I wasn’t wholly satisfied is because …well, I was going to say that it’s because the mystery aspect of the story isn’t resolved, but that isn’t true. Maybe it’s just right book, wrong time, because truthfully it has everything I like in a novel.

It’s certainly worth your time.

 

Teach Me to Forget – Erica M. Chapman

High school junior Ellery has a plan. The plan involves a gun. Nothing is going to stop teachher. The money she’s saved for a trip to Paris will instead pay for her funeral. She’s already booked cleaners to come in the day after. This is the scenario in Erica M. Chapman’s YA novel Teach Me To Forget.

There are, she understands, a couple flaws in her plan. Her bestie Jackson is one of them.

Jackson will hurt. We’ve been best friends since he climbed my tree and broke his leg in second grade. He’ll get over it. He’ll find another friend. Someone who deserves him more than me.

Her mother is another one; “…there’s a sadness in her eyes” that Ellery feels responsible for. And then there’s Colter Sawyer, the high school senior who just happens to be working at the K-Mart when she tries to return the gun (which turns out to be defective).

Colter is in Ellery’s AP English class, but the two are not friends. He is immediately suspicious of Ellery telling her “There’s no way anyone sold that gun to you.” Colter recognizes in Ellery something he has seen before and he makes it his mission to “save” her.

I don’t really know how to feel about this book. On the one hand, it highlights the helplessness and hopelessness of a suicidal person. It also tries to illustrate the importance of having people in your life, connections that you can count on. There are moments of surprising humour and the relationship between Jackson and Ellery is lovely. Jackson was my favourite character, but as things heat up between Ellery and Colter, he seems to drop off the page.

There was also something sort of shrill about it the book, though. Ellery was constantly screaming and running away from situations. I get that she is unwell and I had a great deal of sympathy for her. I also wondered why her mother, a nurse of all things, didn’t notice that her daughter seemed to be going off the rails. Yeah, I know, she was dealing with her own grief, but still. Not even a little bit suspicious? And then there’s Colter, whose own backstory, while tragic, makes him wayyyy too patient with Ellery. Given his circumstances, and knowing what he knows, you’d think he’d be a little bit more aggressive with getting Ellery professional help. “I love you” doesn’t necessarily save the day.

I appreciated what the book was attempting to do. It worked on some levels, but some of the characterization was a miss for me.

Hello Goodbye – Emily Chenoweth

helloEmily Chenoweth’s debut novel Hello Goodbye was inspired by the author’s life. Her mother was diagnosed with a brain tumour when Chenoweth was in her first year of college. Instead of writing a memoir, though, the author decided to use her experiences as fodder for a work of fiction because she could “explore the feelings and experiences that I did remember, but I could also craft a story that had a different arc than my own.”

And what a story it is.

The novel begins with Helen Hansen returning from a run and collapsing on the kitchen floor. Fast forward a few months and Elliott has arranged a holiday armed with the knowledge that Helen, due to the “astrocytoma in her frontal lobe”  hasn’t much time left.  Eighteen-year-old Abby has accompanied her parents to The Presidential Hotel (think Dirty Dancing‘s Kellerman’s, complete with dance lessons and liveried staff) in New Hampshire.  Elliott wants to celebrate their twentieth wedding anniversary, but also invites the couples’ dearest friends as a farewell of sorts.

He’s made the decision not to tell Helen because he wants her to keep fighting but has also decided that this holiday will be his opportunity to break the news to his daughter and their oldest friends.

Abby is mildly annoyed by the whole affair, but she is also hoping that this change of scenery will do them all some good.

In a grand place like this, it seemed possible that everything might get a little bit better. She could imagine her father relaxing, her mother feeling stronger, and herself becoming kinder and more attentive,

She is also hoping that she might meet someone…anyone, really and when someone slips a note under her door Abby feels like “there might be something to look forward to.” She does meet two someones: Alex and Vic. Vic, by a strange twist of fate, is from her hometown back in Ohio. He was a student at the school where her father is headmaster, a delinquent plucked from the system by her mother, a counsellor. He also happens to be the first person Abby ever kissed, and it is a moment she remembers vividly.

Elliott is watching his daughter almost as closely as he is watching his wife. Abby is “unfamiliar to him in a new way.” He acknowledges that Abby has always been closer to her mother than she has been to him; “She looked just like her mother — everyone said so.”

Over the course of the week, each of the members of the family grapple with the future and Chenoweth manages to make every single moment ache with …well, life, really. Here are the Hansens remembering all the good times they had with their friends. Here is Helen regarding the body that is now failing her.

Why hadn’t she celebrated those big strong thighs instead of trying all the time to shrink them? Why hadn’t she found her feet beautiful, or her sturdy ankles. Why hadn’t she loved her coarse, graying hair? Why had she not praised every perfect square inch of herself? She feels an almost unbearable ache of longing for all that doesn’t belong to her anymore.

Here is Abby filled with a combination of dread and embarrassment and unarticulated love.  Here is Elliott traveling back and forth over the twenty  years he’s shared with Helen.

I can’t begin to express how moving this novel is. I don’t think it’s necessary to have lost someone in your life to appreciate the journey these characters are on. This is a glorious, beautifully written testament to family, friendship and the inherent joys and sorrows to be found in the minutia of a life. Just glorious.

Highly times a thousand recommended.

 

Freewill – Chris Lynch

Will, the seventeen-year-old protagonist of Chris Lynch’s YA novel Freewill has suffered freewill-9781442482708_hra horrible tragedy. Now he lives with his grandparents who are “Kind people. They didn’t have to take you in. Or did they? Love? Is it love? Charity.”

That’s the first thing about Freewill: it’s written in the second person. Not many books are and I suspect that many YA readers will wonder what the heck is going on. Once Will’s circumstances reveal themselves, readers will likely be able to figure out why Lynch chose this point of view. At the very least, it would be an interesting conversation to have with students. But second person is a stylistic choice and not everyone grooves to it.

Will, as a character, is frustrating and sympathetic. He spends most of his time in woodshop, where he clearly has some talent. He makes furniture and carves little statues which start showing up in advance of the deaths of local students. He doesn’t have any friends until he meets Angela, another misfit in his woodworking class.

Has she spoken to you before? You know her name, though, don’t you? Haven’t bothered knowing any of the others. What’s the use, after all. But you haven’t been able to not know Angela.

The novel works as a sort of interior monologue as Will comes to grips with the facts of his life. He’s stuck in limbo. He tells his teacher “I’m supposed to be a pilot, Mr. Jacks. How did I wind up in woodshop?”

The how reveals itself – sort of – relatively quickly, but Will’s mental health is clearly in jeopardy and it will take a while before the whole thing plays out.

I didn’t love this book, but that doesn’t mean it’s without merit. Mature, patient reads will likely get something from the reading experience.

Fall For Anything – Courtney Summers

fallsummersSeventeen-year-old Eddie and her mother have recently suffered a tremendous loss. Eddie’s father, a once-renowned photographer, has taken his own life and neither of the Reeves women are coping very well. Eddie’s mother drifts, ghost-like, around the house wearing her father’s housecoat being fussed over by her best friend, Beth, who drives Eddie “fucking crazy.” Eddie avoids her house as much as possible, choosing instead to hang with her best friend, Milo.

Milo would do almost anything for me. He’s been my best friend since second grade, when a brief but weird obsession with the original Star Trek  got him sort of ostracized at the same time all the girls in our class decided a girl named Eddie must actually really be a boy. By third grade, we weren’t so outcast anymore, but we were beyond needing other people. We still are.

Eddie is trying to make sense of her father’s death, and she is pulled back to the place where he ended his life: Tarver’s Warehouse, an “old and abandoned” building.

I come at night, waiting for some piece of the puzzle to click into place, waiting to understand, and I stay until the living world presses in on me and I have to go back to it…

She is surprised to meet Culler Evans, a protege of her father’s, at Tarver’s. Culler tells Eddie that he knows her father “spent a lot of time here, so I’ve been coming out, just trying to figure it all out, I guess. I mean, to understand why he’d …”

The two instantly bond over their desire to understand this inexplicable suicide. When it appears that Mr. Reeves has left a series of clues that might unravel the ‘mystery’ of his suicide, it sends Culler and Eddie on a road trip.

Canadian YA writer Courtney Summers (Sadie, All the Rage, This is Not a Test, Cracked Up to Be, Some Girls Are)  has created yet another memorable character in Eddie Reeves. This makes the sixth of her books I’ve read and I have not once been disappointed to spend time with her characters. I always find her protagonists to be flawed, tough and vulnerable in ways that make them extremely sympathetic.

Eddie is no different. Her grief is palpable. It manifests itself in her hands, which she claims are dying, and in the ways she pulls people in and pushes them away. Even her escape route at night (she climbs out of her window and jumps to the ground) seems fraught with meaning. “I jump” she says. “It’s effortless. It is so easy.”

Fall For Anything is all the things a great YA book should be (well, all the things any great book should be): well-written, compelling, page-turning and with emotional heft. I held off reading it as long as I could because now I have to wait until February 2021 for The Project, Summers’ next novel. I know it will be worth the wait.

Highly recommended.

The French Girl – Lexie Elliott

Ten years ago, Kate spent a week in the French countryside with five of her friends fromfrench Oxford. That’s where they meet Severine, the girl next door.

Severine, slim and lithe in a tiny black bikini, her walnut brown skin impossibly smooth in the sun, one hip cocked with the foot pointing away as if ready to saunter off the moment she lost interest. Severine, who introduced herself, without even a hint of a smile to soften her devere beauty, as “the mademoiselle next door,” and who disappeared without a trace after the six of us left for Britain.”

Her disappearance has remained a mystery. Until now.

Lexie Elliott’s novel The French Girl ticks a lot of boxes for me. First of all, I am a sucker for books about groups of friends whose loyalties shift and erode over time. Kate’s circle includes Lara, her bestie; Seb, her beautiful ex-boyfriend; Tom, Seb’s cousin and best friend; Caro, the ice queen of the group and Theo, whose parents owned the French farm where the group stayed. When Tom calls to tell Kate that Severine’s body has been found on the farm property, and that the French police will be wanting to speak to them all again, it exposes the cracks in Kate’s relationships with these people.

Elliott wisely chooses to set her novel in the present and make Kate our first person guide through these events. First, her reunion with Tom – returned from Boston after a break-up with his fiance. Then, more fraught, a reunion with Seb, whom she has not really seen since their break-up at the French farm. Suddenly, the former friends are thrust back into each other’s orbits, trying to align their memories about the last time they saw Severine and speculating about what actually might have happened to her.

Ever since the discovery of Severine’s body, Kate has sensed “a presence that rests on my consciousness just out of reach of my field of vision.” Kate sees Severine’s bones “bleached white, and neatly stacked in a pile with the grinning skull atop” and on other occasions  as “a fleshed-out version of walnut-coloured skin, secretive eyes and a superior lack of smile.” As the investigation progresses, Severine insinuates herself more and more into Kate’s life. Is she a manifestation of guilt or memory or something even more sinister?

I really enjoyed The French Girl. Kate is a smart and likable character and even though we only see the other characters through her eyes, I trusted her assessment of them and their shared events because she was constantly readjusting her own perspective as new information revealed itself. This is a clever mystery and would certainly appeal to anyone who enjoys character-driven plots. I look forward to reading more by this author.

 

 

The Perfect Girlfriend – Karen Hamilton

perfectgfThere’s no nuance in Karen Hamilton’s debut novel The Perfect Girlfriend. The narrator, Juliette (aka Lily. aka Elizabeth) is crazy. For reasons. She’s on a mission: to reclaim Nate, the man who dumped her seven months ago, unceremoniously kicking her out of his swanky Richmond (near London) flat.

Nearly seven months ago, Nate had appeared in a chapter of my life like a scene from a romantic novel. As I’d taken my gaze away from my computer screen at the hotel reception desk – a work smile fixed firmly in place – I’d struggled not to gasp out loud. The man in front of me looked as though he had absorbed the best bits of life and shrugged off anything unpleasant or sad.

A one-night stand turns into co-habitation, but that is short lived and Nate tells Juliette that he needs some space. He finds her a new apartment in Reading, moves her in, pays three months rent for her and bids her adieu. Of course, Juliette isn’t having any of it. She wants Nate and “his family’s welcoming acceptance, the comfortable lifestyle and kids who grow up to be a footballer….”

Juliette has a plan. First, she takes the course to be a flight attendant. (Nate is a pilot.) She makes sure that she doesn’t bump into him, thus providing him with the “space” he claimed to need. She tries to make friends. She tries to “improve” herself in an effort to be, well, the perfect girlfriend.

Perfect psycho girlfriend.

Hamilton pulls out all the stops when it comes to unhinging Juliette. She has keys to Nate’s apartment. She knows all his passwords. She puts spyware on his phone. She knows his work schedule. She sabotages any perceived romantic relationship between Nate and other women. And if you think these psycho ex-girlfriend moves are mere child’s play, just wait.

There is also the problem of Bella. Her identity is revealed slowly, so I won’t spoil it here. She is a thorn in Juliette’s side and as Juliette says herself “Revenge is a dish best served cold, and mine is going to be frozen.”

Look, we’ve all had a relationship that has made us a little bit crazy. I am pretty sure I have done more than one slightly crazy thing to get the desired object of my affection to like me back. The trouble with Juliette is that she has no dimension. I think we’re supposed to feel some sympathy for her because of a childhood trauma, but I didn’t. Another “big” reveal is meant to add fuel to that flame, but it really just seems more convenient than anything.

Still, the unembellished prose races through the crazy landscape of Juliette’s plan to win Nate back and most readers will enjoy the ride.

No Saints in Kansas – Amy Brashear

A chance encounter with the relative of Bobby Rupp, one of the original suspects in the deaths of the Clutter family, inspired Amy Brashear to write No Saints in Kansas. In this YA novel, Brashear reimagines the murders, made famous in Truman Capote’s masterpiece of non-fiction In Cold Blood, from the point of view of fifteen-year-old Carly Fleming. Although she is a work of fiction, her father, Arthur, is the lawyer who ultimately defends one of the two men convicted of the homicides.

Carly and her younger brother Asher and their parents have relocated to Holcomb, Kansas from New York City after one of Mr. Fleming’s cases goes sideways. Holcomb is a backwater compared to Manhattan, and Carly has a hard time fitting in. She is an “outsider” and no matter what she does, it feels like she always will be. From her point of view, the way “in” is through Nancy Clutter because “Everyone likes – I mean, everyone liked – the Clutter family.” It feels like a dream come true with she is asked to tutor Nancy, although Nancy seems less happy about it. In her imagination, Carly imagines that tutoring Nancy is

…how we became best friends. From that moment on, we were inseparable. We were attached at the hip. At lunch, at 4-H club, at every school event, double dates, sleepovers, I was popular by association.

I wish.

When the Clutters are found dead in their home, and Carly learns that Nancy’s boyfriend Bobby is a suspect, she is determined to clear his name. She snoops in ways that are, truthfully, wholly unbelievable including a visit to the Clutter farm post-murders and stealing documents from the courthouse.

Although the real-life Clutter murders are the backdrop for Carly’s story, this is just as much about what it is to not fit in. Holcomb is a tight-knit community where everyone knows everyone. Some of the teens in Carly’s orbit are downright mean to her. Her one “friend”, Mary Claire, runs hot and cold. No Saints in Kansas is as much about navigating an awkward adolescence as it is about the Clutter crime.

For anyone who has read In Cold Blood this book will obviously pale in comparison. Capote’s book, which I read many, many years ago, is meticulously researched (interestingly, Harper Lee spent time in Holcomb acting as Capote’s researcher), but still reads like fiction. Capote reconstructs the Clutter’s last day, follows the investigation and also paints a picture of their murderers that is often quite sympathetic, particularly towards Perry Smith, with whom Capote had a close relationship.

None of this is to say that Brashear’s  book is without merit. I think most younger readers would find it compelling enough and reading it  might encourage them to tackle Capote’s book, too.