What I Saw and How I Lied – Judy Blundell

liedJudy Blundell’s YA novel What I Saw and How I Lied won the National Book Award and was named a best book by both the School Library Journal and the ALA (American Library Association). The accolades are well-deserved. This novel offers a glimpse into another time and another world and makes a nice change from reading all the dystopian and fantasy novels crowding the shelves these days.

Fifteen-year-old Evie lives with her beautiful mother, Bev, and her step-father Joe, a  veteran of World War 2,  and Joe’s mother Grandma Glad in Queens, New York. It is 1947. Things have been different since Joe returned from the war. Evie remembers a man who “made walking look like dancing…had a special greeting for everyone on the block.”  The post war Joe was different.

It was the war. You couldn’t ask him about it. You didn’t want to remind him. What every wife and daughter could give was a happy home. That was our job.

One night, out of the blue, Joe announces that he is taking Bev and Evie on vacation to Palm Beach, Florida. he makes the holiday sound so glamorous, but when they arrive it is to discover that Palm Beach is practically a ghost town, “the rest of the hotels didn’t even open until December. All of the stores on Worth Avenue, Palm Beach’s main drag, were closed. The Paramount Theatre was closed.”

Into this strangely other-worldly cotton-candy coloured world walks Peter Coleridge.

…I saw him under the moon. My breath stopped. He was not just handsome, he was movie-star handsome. Dark blond hair, a straight nose. A hunk of heaven

Peter turns Evie`s world upside down and creates a strange friction between her parents that she does not  quite understand. Not that she cares too much. Peter is older and more sophisticated and despite his mixed signals, Evie begins to take those first tentative steps towards adulthood.

As a coming-of-age story, What I Saw and How I Lied works quite well. It is definitely evocative of  another time and place. Once she realizes what is waiting for her on the other side of childhood, Evie is desperate to grow up. But there is a price to pay. This would be a great book for careful readers. It`s not action-packed, but it is well-written and thoughtful. When Evie and her parents finally return from their holiday, Evie`s life has been  altered. The line between innocence and experience has been crossed and for Evie at least, a terrible price has been paid.

The Dark Endeavour – Kenneth Oppel

oppelKenneth Oppel’s novel This Dark Endeavour was a finalist for Canada’s Governor General’s Literary Awards and it’s no wonder. It’s a terrific book. We’ve been talking about it at school recently as several of my colleagues have read it and think it would make a great addition to the classroom. I agree. The language of the novel is almost old-fashioned, but the action will appeal to boys and the elements of romance will appeal to girls (or vice-versa) making This Dark Endeavour the perfect gateway drug to introduce students to classic novels like, well, Frankenstein.

Sixteen – year – old Victor Frankstein lives with his twin brother, Konrad, younger siblings and parents in a chateau in Bellerive on Lake Geneva. They also share their home with their cousin, Elizabeth. Their friend Henry also spends a great deal of time at the chateau. They four teenagers spend their time riding, boating, studying and exploring the centuries old chateau.

One day, the foursome discover a narrow passage behind a bookshelf and upon further investigation, a door with the greeting “enter only with a friend’s welcome.”  Upon gaining entry, they find “tables scattered with oddly shaped glassware and metal instruments – and row upon row of shelves groaning with thick tomes.”

When the young people are discovered by Konrad and Victor’s father he says, “You’ve discovered the Biblioteka Obscura I see.” Mr. Frankenstein is a local magistrate, a powerful and intelligent man who encourages his children’s intellectual pursuits but is none too happy about their discovery of this Dark Library.

You must understand that these books were written centuries ago. They are primitive attempts to explain the world. There are some shards of learning in them, but compared to our modern knowledge they are like childish dreams….This is not knowledge….It is a corruption of knowledge and these books are not to be read.

But when Konrad falls seriously ill, Victor returns to the Dark Library looking for a cure and This Dark Endeavour ramps up the fun.  Victor, Elizabeth and Henry try to  gather the ingredients for the Elixir of Life in the hopes that its mystical properties will restore Konrad’s good health and their quest is what propels the plot forward. It’s exciting and dangerous work, but Victor is a character readers will easily root for – even though he is hot-tempered and sometimes struggles to do the right thing – especially where it concerns Elizabeth.

Careful readers will spot some of the literary shout-outs embedded in the novel. For example, Victor seeks the help of Dr. Polidori who was, in fact, a real physician and writer ( 1795 – 1821), consort of Lord Byron and credited with writing the first vampire story, “The Vampyre.” Dr. Polidori lives on Wollstonekraft Alley. Fans of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein might recognize Wollstonekraft as Shelley’s mother’s name. Wollstonekraft  (1759 – 1797) was a writer and feminist, well-known for her work A Vindication of the Rights of Women. It’s references like these which would make This Dark Endeavour such a great book for the classroom.

The Last Weekend – Blake Morrison

Henry Sutton wrote an interesting article for The Guardian about fiction’s most unreliable narrators but he neglected to include Ian from Blake images_list_co_uk_blake-morrison-the-last-weeken-chatto-and-windusB-LST072324Morrison’s entertaining novel The Last Weekend. Although it isn’t obvious in the beginning, Ian’s narrative soon starts to unravel as he and his wife, Em, spend a weekend with his college roommate, Ollie and Ollie’s partner, Daisy.

Ian is a primary school teacher and Em a social worker and their marriage seems solid enough, although perhaps slightly lacklustre compared to Ollie and Daisy’s relationship. Of course, as seen through a series of reminiscences, we come to understand that Ian’s relationship with Ollie has always been fraught with jealousy and a certain prickliness.

“I met Ollie in my second term at university,” Ian remembers. He admits that he was something of a loner, that  he “didn’t really have a circle – my circle was me.” Ollie, on the other hand, was hard to miss  with his “brooding intensity. ” He was, Ian admits, “smart, sporty, funny, handsome and popular – the antithesis of me.” And yet chance throws the two young men together and a strangely co-dependent relationship is forged.

It’s a lopsided relationship, a fact that Ian is only too willing point out.

The essential contrasts, all to our disadvantage, go: large Georgian house in west London vs small modern semi in Ilkeston; Range Rover and BMW vs Ford Fiesta; Mauritius (Florence, Antigua, etc.) vs Lanzarote (if we’re lucky); The Ivy vs Pizza Express; Royal Opera House vs local Odeon; Waitrose vs Morrisons; golden couple vs pair of ugly toads. I exaggerate but not much.

So, off Ian and Em go, on a hot summer weekend at the end of August to visit with Ollie and Daisy. And it’s weird from the very start. First of all, Ian had been expecting “posh” accommodations instead of a dwelling which is a “serious disappointment.”  Secondly, there is a strange undercurrent in the house. At first I suspected that Ollie wasn’t all Ian had described, but as it turns out much of what happens during that weekend is not quite as it seems.

“As to the events of August,” Ian says near the beginning of the novel, “I don’t suppose I’ll ever get over them. I’m the kind of guy who feels guilty even when he’s innocent…” It’s only after I finished reading The Last Weekend that these words revealed their menacing underbelly. And much of the novel is strangely creepy and also deeply funny. Once it is revealed that Ian is not to be trusted, The Last Weekend becomes a wonderful maze of a book.

The Things a Brother Knows – Dana Reinhardt

brotherWhen  17-year-old Levi Katznelson’s brother, Boaz, returns from his stint as a marine in an unnamed Middle Eastern country, he’s a changed man.  This relationship between the brothers is what propels The Things a Brother Knows by Dana Reinhardt along.

When Levi was a kid, he adored Boaz.

I used to worship him too. All little brothers worship their big brothers, I guess. It sort of goes with the job description. Think about it. Your brother’s face is one of the first you ever see. His hands are among the first to ever touch you. You crawl only to catch him. You want nothing but to walk like he does, talk like he does, draw a picture throw a ball, tell a joke like he does, let loose one of those crazy whistles with four fingers jammed in your mouth or burp the ABCs just like he does. To your mind, he’s got the whole of the world all figured out.

Levi didn’t really understand why Boaz, a popular high school athlete went off to war anyway. So  his homecoming is a complicated thing. The Boaz who returns to Levi and his parents is withdrawn, rarely speaks and won’t get in a car. He spends hours and hours in his bedroom studying maps and doing stuff on the computer. It frustrates Levi because he doesn’t understand and Bo doesn’t seem willing to explain.

Then Boaz announces that he’s going to walk the Appalachian Trail. Levi is suspicious and does a little snooping and discovers a map that reveals a different route altogether. That’s when he makes the decision to abandon his summer job and go after Boaz.

Although Levi’s figurative  journey is quite a bit different from his brother’s, that summer is pivotal on his journey to adulthood. And while it’s true that The Things a Brother Knows is a “road-trip” book of sorts, the real story here is one of understanding. Understanding each other, sure, but also understanding ourselves. What do we believe in? What matters to us? I think Reinhardt manages this without coming off too preachy.

Levi is a great character and so is his best friend, Pearl. an out-spoken Chinese girl Levi met in Hebrew school. Levi’s grandfather, Dov, is also  memorable. Spending time with these characters is no hardship.

At the end of the day, though, The Things a Brother Knows was just okay for me. The writing is fine. (There’s some swearing, for those concerned with that in a YA book.) The story moves a long, but I just felt it was sort of superficial and that, ultimately, the bow was tied a little too neatly. Still, it’s a book worth having in my classroom library.


April & Oliver – Tess Callahan

april and oliverApril Simone is the damaged character at the centre of Tess Callahan’s first novel, April & Oliver. She’s the sort of twenty-something girl you want to shake and hug because her decision-making skills have been compromised. (I was going to say  somewhere along the road to adulthood, but once you know her story – you know exactly where it happened). We meet her younger, much adored, brother Buddy, first. But we don’t get to spend much time with him because he’s killed in a car accident:

He wishes he could let her know that what’s happening now doesn’t hurt at all. He’s fine. A veil of snow shrouds the windshield. Buddy feels a growing pause between each breath, like a stride lengthening, an aperture opening by increments, until at last he slips through.

And then we meet Oliver, her cousin – although they are not linked by blood. (They sort of share a grandmother because their fathers had been step-brothers through Nana’s second marriage. I think.) April and Oliver had been best friends as children and teenagers, but they have been estranged for the last several years. Oliver moved away and they just lost touch. Buddy’s funeral brings them back together – but their reunion is anything but happy.

Every conversation between April and Oliver is barbed and sexually charged. While Oliver  certainly seems like the one who has it all together (he’s a law student, engaged to the beautiful and selfless, Bernadette), the longer he spends with April the more his carefully constructed life seems to unravel.

April tells him: “I know your problem, Oliver. In your head is a girl who doesn’t exist.”

Bernadette is all too aware of April’s magnetic pull. “Is there anything else I should know about?” she queries. “It was never like that,” Oliver answers. But it’s a lie because between April and Oliver it’s always been like that and denying it is perhaps part of the problem.

But April is a mess. She’s recently invoked a no contact order against her boyfriend, TJ – a man with a horrific past who is both scary and somehow sympathetic. She lives in a dump of an apartment, has a crap job and has so many skeletons in her closet, it’s no wonder she pushes Oliver away. He knows her too well.

They know each other too well, and their ability to peer into each other’s dark corners both antagonizes and comforts them.

April & Oliver is beautifully written; I’ll give it that. And when I finished the book I did feel satisfied  despite its ambiguous ending.  Sometimes, I admit, I did find the book frustrating – but perhaps I was meant to. I am a sucker for angst, though,  and April & Oliver has that in spades.