Night School – C.J. Daugherty

Over 400 pages and I read them all lickety-split. C.J. Daugherty’s YA novel Night School is so much fun! Even when I discovered – about half way in – that the book is the first in a series (and you know how I feel about series), even then…I had to keep reading. (I don’t really have anything personal against series. It’s just that it’s such a commitment of reading time and that’s in short supply in my reading world. Still, as soon as I finished the book, I had to go online to see whether the sequel(s) was out. Um. There are four more books, people!)

Sixteen-year-old Allie Sheridan is always in trouble these days. She used to be a good kid, but then her older brother, Christopher, disappeared under extremely mysterious circumstances, and Allie’s been hanging with losers, defacing school property and just generally getting into trouble ever since. Finally her parents can’t take it anymore and decide to send her to Cimmeria Academy, an elite private school in the middle of the English countryside.

Night_SchoolThere – cut off from the outside world (no technology allowed) – she meets Isabelle, the school’s headmistress, and a cast of intriguing teenagers, among them Sylvain, gorgeous and French; Katie, the snotty rich girl; down-to-earth, Jo and Carter West, he of the endless brown eyes and bad reputation. They are all staying on at Cimmeria for the summer term. (School breaks up about mid-July in England and then goes back after Labour Day, early September…so about a six week break.)

Allie soon falls into the school’s rhythms and discovers that she kind of likes it at Cimmeria. Jo is nice and Sylvain is paying special attention to her. The food is great and the school is beautiful.  What’s not to like?

Well, first of all there’s ‘Night School’, but like ‘fight club’ – you’re not supposed to talk about it.

Students in certain advanced areas of study take part in Night School to prepare them for life after Cimmeria so you will sometimes hear them working late in the evening. Only very few select students are offered this opportunity; if you are not among them, you must not attempt to interfere with or observe Night School, and the fourth floor of the class-room wing is off limits.

Then there’s the woods though, according to Jo,  “we don’t actually do much in the woods, and they kind of discourage it because of, I dunno, health and safety or something.”  Then there’s Carter’s cryptic warning: “You haven’t been at Cimmeria long enough to understand how things are here. So be careful, okay? Things are not what they seem. People aren’t always who they seem to be.”

And I still had 200 pages to go!

There are creepy moments aplenty in Night School. Intrigue galore. And even if the payoff isn’t quite there, there’s more than enough to keep readers turning the pages. I would definitely be interested in reading the next book in the series, Legacy, to see how Allie makes out.

My only other niggle is that the characters don’t sound British. The occasional ‘blimey’ thrown into their dialogue does not a British accent make. They sounded decidedly American to me, which stands to reason: Daugherty is from New Orleans, though she now lives in England. That’s a small thing, though, and in no way undermined my overall reading experience.

Fun, fun, fun!

Coming Up For Air – Patti Callahan Henry

Patti Callahan Henry’s heroines all have the same problem: they are women of a certain age at a crossroads in their lives. For Amy, the protagonist in my first Henry novel Losing the Moon, it’s the unexpected reunion with her college boyfriend, Nick. In Where the River Runs  it’s the emotions rekindled by revisiting a tragedy from Meridy’s youth.

Then there’s Ellie Calvin, the main character in Coming Up For Air. Ellie realizes at her coming-up-for-airmother’s funeral that she no longer loves her husband, Rusty. Truth be told, he’s a bit of a douche, a passive aggressive clout from the right side of the tracks. What Ellie really longs for is Hutch, her “bad boy” college boyfriend. Of course, she doesn’t know that just yet. It’s not until he’s suddenly standing in front of her and

…I saw his face. Twenty years later, minutes and hours and days rearranged to allow me to see him again as if time hadn’t passed at all. Mostly I saw his eyes: almond shaped and kind, brown with green underneath, as if the eyes had meant to be the color of forest ferns and then at the last minute changed their mind.

As a reader, you pretty much know what’s going to happen about then – all that remains to be seen is just how meandering the journey. In this instance, Hutch is an historian and he’s been working on an exhibit at the Atlanta History Centre, an exhibit honouring some of the South’s great dames – in which Ellie’s mother, Lillian,  figures prominently. Ellie has had a prickly relationship with her mother. Much of the acrimony,  ironically, involved Hutch.

Then Ellie finds a journal her mother kept. The entries, one a year, reveal that Ellie’s mother wasn’t always the proper and stiff woman Ellie had grown up. In fact, she’d had a deep and passionate love affair before she’d married Ellie’s father to a man identified only as Him.(Not sure why it’s capitalized.)  Furthermore, she’d been involved in the Civil Rights Movement.

Obviously, Ellie and Hutch need to find out what all this means and so they head down to the Alabama coast where Lillian’s best friend, Ms. Birdie, lives. Ms. Birdie also happens to be Ellie’s best friend’s mom…so, see how that all works out? Of course, Ms. Birdie is reluctant to tell Ellie anything much. There’s still half a book to get through, after all.

I read the whole thing, of course I did. It’s not because it’s full of hot sex, either. Hutch and Ellie barely exchange a platonic kiss. It’s not because I particularly cared about any of the characters. Even the revelation of who the mysterious Him was is a disappointment. I was hoping Lillian had been really brave.

I guess I didn’t give up on Coming Up For Air because the romantic in me wants to see the potential for love at a certain age. I’m older than Ellie and I don’t have a marriage to walk away from anymore, but I do – sometimes – long for that chemical connection. Of course, I don’t have pots of money allowing me to step away from my life and go live in a magical cottage on the water. I also don’t have a “one-that-got-away” college boyfriend.

If our lives are a story and we are characters in that story, perhaps Ellie’s Uncle Cotton’s question is valid: “What’s the next best thing to happen here?”

Unfortunately, I think Henry took the path most traveled, but I guess if you like happily-ever-after that’s probably okay.

Cowboy – Sara Davidson

Sara Davidson‘s memoir Cowboy chronicles her affair with a cowboy – yes, they are real – in the mid 90s. Davidson is a best-selling novelist (Loose Change), television writer (Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman) and biographer (Rock Hudson, Joan Didion).

Davidson meets Zack (not his real name) at a cowboy poetry and music festival in Elko, cowboy Nevada. Since Davidson was working on Dr. Quinn at the time, she convinced her co-worker to make the journey. Their first meeting, at a stall where Zack is selling his hand-crafted bridles and reins is prickly, to say the least. Later, though, despite her claims that Zack is “a yokel, an insolent yokel” Davidson remarks that he has “good hands” to which Zack responds that he has “magic hands.” Oh, Bessie.

Davidson and Zack have virtually nothing in common. He’s ten years younger, divorced with three kids. He’s mostly unemployed, making money where and when he can. Davidson, also divorced with a son, 10, and a daughter, 11, has a  successful career. Zack isn’t remotely worldly; although he was  – at one time – considering a career as an engineer, the ‘cowboy’ lifestyle grabbed him by the horns – so to speak – and never let him go. He can’t spell and doesn’t know who Anne Frank is, two details which drive wordsmith Davidson crazy. Nevertheless, there is a spark between them that Davidson can’t (or won’t – fine line) ignore.

Cowboy is, I suppose, that classic ‘fish out of water’ story. How are these two crazy kids (ahem) ever going to make it work? Should they even try? The thing is, once they get over the initial awkwardness they end up having crazy sex all the freakin’ time. I suppose as a woman of a certain age, it would be hard to say no – even if you have misgivings on a whole lot of other levels.

For one thing, after the initial blush has worn off, Davidson’s kids, Gabriel and Sophie, are hateful to Zack. They complain about his smoking (although he doesn’t do it in the house), they say he yells at them when their mom isn’t home. They are rude and disagreeable whenever he’s around.

Then there’s the money issue: Zack never has any. Davidson’s a modern woman, sure, but every once in a while you’d like your partner to at least pay his share.

In a weird way, though, Davidson and Zack make an odd kind of sense. He’s laid back, attentive and honest; she’s high strung and stressed out. They balance each other out – sort of. So I have to say that I was rooting for them by the end of Cowboy.

What once seemed ludicrous and impossible has become the norm, although, as Zack puts it, “normal’s a relative term.” At times, I ask myself, how did this happen? How did I steer so far from the conventional track?

Sadly, I don’t think they are still together.

I’d like to think, however,  that as a divorced woman of a certain age whose children are on the precipice of leaving the nest – there’s a Zack out there for me. He doesn’t have to be a cowboy. Just a decent guy who is kind and thoughtful. Magic hands wouldn’t hurt, either.

 

The Widow – Fiona Barton

Although I often enter book giveaways on Good Reads, I never win. That is until a couple weeks ago when an ARC of Fiona Barton’s novel The Widow showed up at my door compliments of Penguin Random House Canada. The book was cleverly packaged in an ‘evidence bag’ along with a package of Skittles. Awesome to get a book in the mail, but Skittles, too. Jackpot!

widowI seem to be on a roll these days, reading books I can’t seem to put down. I motored through The Widow in a couple of days.  Although the subject matter (porn) may not appeal to everyone, rest assured that there’s no graphic content in Barton’s book. Your imagination will fill in the gaps, trust me.

Jean and Glen Taylor are an average thirty-something couple living in England. Jean is a hairdresser and Glen, a banker. They are unremarkable  until they come under the scrutiny of the police because of the disappearance of a little girl, Bella, who has gone missing from her front garden.

Told from various viewpoints, The Widow mostly revolves around Jean as she decides whether or not to share her story with the press. Glen has been killed, “knocked down by a bus just outside Sainsbury’s” and now Jean no longer has to keep his secrets or put up with his “nonsense.”

When we are not with Jean, we’re with Kate, the reporter who is trying to convince Jean to tell her side of things or Bob Sparkes, the police detective trying to figure out what happened to little Bella. It’s Bella’s disappearance that drives Kate and Bob, although each of them views the crime from a different perspective. As Sparkes follows a trail of clues, many of which don’t pan out, Jean reveals her own misgivings about Glen and what he does on the computer in the spare room. Slowly she unravels the story of her marriage and while she may seem like a victim, there is something unreliable about her narrative. She admits “I had to keep his secrets as well as mine.”

The Widow delves into the sordid world of online pornography, skeezy Internet clubs where men hide in booths to pay-per-view and magazines sold out of the back of trunks at gas stations on the motorway. When Jean finally learns about her husband’s preferences

he told me it wasn’t his fault. He’d been drawn into online porn by the Internet – they shouldn’t allow these things on the Web. It was a trap for innocent men. He’d become addicted to it – “It’s a medical condition, Jeanie, an addiction.” But he’d never looked at children. Those images just ended up on his computer – like a virus.

Whether or not Jean suspected Glen of anything is one of the key elements that will keep you turning the pages. Barton’s crisp, no-nonsense prose is another. The Widow will keep you turning the pages way past your bedtime.

 

The Replacement – Brenna Yovanoff

Brenna Yovanoff’s YA novel The Replacement is quite unlike anything I have read before, which is a good thing. It was well-reviewed when it debuted in 2010 and I have been wanting to read it for a while. I was particularly intrigued by the cover, which is creepy, although I try not to chose books based on their cover alone – that has lead me down a few crap book paths.

Gentry isn’t like other places and Mackie isn’t like other 16-year-olds. He’s a replacement,  left in the crib of a human baby who was spirited away by the strange inhabitants of the the labyrinthine world beneath Gentry.

7507908Mackie lives with his older sister, Emma and his parents. He has a best friend, Roswell. He has a crush on a pretty girl, Alice. But he also can’t abide blood. Or get close to anything made of stainless steel. Or go to church, even though his father is a preacher.

Mackie knows he is different. “I dream of fields,” he says, “dark tunnels, but nothing is clear. I dream that a dark shape puts me in the crib, puts a hand over my mouth, and whispers in my ear. Shh, it says. And, Wait. “

The way his sister tells it, someone took her real brother in the middle of the night when she was four years old.

When she reaches her hand between the bars, the thing in the crib moves closer. It tries to bite her and she takes her hand out again but doesn’t back away. They spend all night looking at each other in the dark. In the morning, the thing is still crouched on the lamb-and-duckling mattress pad, staring at her. It isn’t her brother.

When the little sister of Mackie’s classmate, Tate,  goes missing, Mackie is forced to confront his own origin story and this leads him the The House of Mayhem and The Morrigan, a girl who rules there and whose “jagged teeth and tiny size made her seem more implausible, more impossible than all the rest.” All the rest of what, you might ask? Yeah, that would be the living dead girls. The Morrigan  tells him “We were so pleased that you survived childhood. Castoffs generally don’t.”

When Tate asks for Mackie’s help, he is reluctant; he’s got his own problems. But when The Morrigan offers to help Mackie feel better even he can’t resist. There is a strange barter system between Mayhem and Gentry: Mayhem thrives on adulation. But Mayhem isn’t the only world beneath the town. The Morrigan has a sister, and she thrives on blood sacrifice.

Mackie doesn’t fit in, but  whether or not Yovanoff meant for his journey to be a metaphor (like Joss Whedon’s monsters in Buffy the Vampire Slayer) hardly matters because The Replacement is a thrill ride.

Great book.

The Book of You – Claire Kendal

You know how sometimes you start a book and you just can’t put it down – that’s what happened when I started reading Claire Kendal’s debut novel The Book of You. I mean, it’s not an original story – woman sleeps with guy after a bad break up and guy turns out to be a psychopathic stalker – but Kendal’s novel had an extra layer of creep, plus some interesting things to say about victim-blaming.

Thirty-eight-year-old Clarissa works as an administrator at the university in Bath. Her book of youaffair with Henry, a professor, has recently ended. Rafe also works at the university and has just published a new book on fairy tales and it is at his book launch that Clarissa drinks too much. She hadn’t really wanted to go, but he’d sent her three invitations. Hello, alarm bells.

“It is the night that I make the very big mistake of sleeping with you,” she writes in her journal. She has decided to follow the advice from the literature on stalkers and document everything. Clarissa knows she has to build a case before she can even consider going to the police.

I am trying to piece it all together. I am trying to fill in the gaps. I am trying to recollect the things you did before this morning, when I started to record it all. I don’t want to miss out a single bit of evidence – I can’t afford to. But doing this forces me to relive it. Doing this keeps you with me, which is exactly where I don’t want to be.

Everything about Rafe is skin-crawlingly-creepy.

“It makes me want to scream, the way you say my name all the time,” Clarissa writes. And Rafe has plenty of opportunities to say it. He is everywhere: outside her apartment, lurking at train stations, waiting for her outside the court room where she is on jury duty. He sends her things: chocolates, notes, flowers. He calls and texts her dozens of times. He rallies her friends against her, isolates her further. He makes Clarissa question her own sanity.

If there is a bright spot in Clarissa’s day, it is the time she spends in court, listening to the rather horrific details of a violent drug-related rape. It is here where she meets fellow-juror, Robert, a firefighter who recently lost his wife. As she and Robert become closer, Rafe becomes more aggressive.

The Book of You is an edge-of-your-seat thriller which also happens to be well-written. Clarissa refuses to let herself be a victim, but she is human and doesn’t always make the right choices. I never once thought “What?! Don’t do that!” though – which is certainly due to Kendal’s skill.

It’s a bit graphic, so if that’s not your thing perhaps this isn’t the book for you. However, I couldn’t put it down and highly recommend it.