Twisted River – Siobhan MacDonald

I was that customer at Indigo a couple weeks ago when I sent  Matt and Jerrod looking25810336 for a book that I described as “blue” and “used to be on the front table.” Yep. So ridiculous, right, thinking that those descriptors would help them locate a book in a store filled with books. Talk about the proverbial needle in a haystack. Strangely enough, I found it on my own in the mystery section – although the book’s cover is definitely not blue.  (And it might have helped if I’d remembered the keys on the cover.)

Kate and Mannix O’Brien and their children Izzy and Fergus, and Hazel and Oscar Harvey and their children Elliot and Jess, are the central characters in Siobhan MacDonald’s novel Twisted River. We meet them separately, the O’Briens in their house in Limerick, Ireland and the Harveys in their Manhattan apartment. Each family has their own domestic rhythms and  difficulties. For example, Fergus is being bullied at school. Hazel is lying to her children – and herself – about her damaged cheekbone and her eye which “had swollen a mix of red and purple.” Mannix and Oscar each have work-related troubles. Then there’s Mannix’s brother Spike, a nightclub owner who’s mixed up with a local crime family.  When the families’ crises reach a boiling point, the moms take matters into their own hands and arrange a vacation. Using a house swap site they connect and swap houses; the O’Briens head to New York and the Harveys to Limerick, Hazel’s place of birth.

And a family vacation sounds great – except the novel starts with Oscar stuffing the body of a woman into the trunk of a car. (Not a spoiler – the novel’s opening line is “She would never have fit as neatly into the trunk of his own car.”) From that compelling opening line, the story weaves past and present, revealing secrets and lies.

Twisted River is twisted, all right. It’s really one of those books where things are not entirely as they seem. MacDonald’s layered narrative reveals characters and their motives with slippery-eel finesse. I didn’t feel duped by MacDonald’s  plot as much as I did by the novel’s kind of fallen souffle ending.  But as  far as being a page-turner, yes, I turned the pages.





The Girl With All The Gifts – M.R Carey

Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel) called The Girl With All The Gifts “Heartfelt [and] painfully human.”   Without really knowing I was buying a zombie book, I picked up M.R. Carey’s novel  a few weeks ago  and finally settled down to read it.  I am not a huge fan – or even a fan at all really – of zombies. I am, however, a fan of Joss Whedon, and an endorsement from him is enough for me to read outside of my comfort zone. Zombies, unlike vampires (Joss Whedon’s vampires at any rate), are just not sexy, and while I am still not a fan of zombie novels, I did really like this book.

17235026Melanie is ten. She lives at some sort of army base, dubbed ‘Hotel Echo’ in an area of the U.K. known as region 6. The base is about thirty miles north of London, and just beyond that is Beacon. Welcome to life since the Breakdown.

Most of region 6 is clear, but the only thing that keeps it that way is the burn patrols, with their frags and fireballs. This is what the base is for, Melanie is pretty sure. It sends out burn patrols, to clear away the hungries.

Melanie is not an ordinary girl. For one thing, she is kept locked in a cell. For another, she and the other children at Hotel Echo exist on a diet of grubs.  Every morning, she is strapped, wrists, ankles and neck, into a chair and taken, along with the other children,  to the classroom where their teacher – usually Helen Justineau – teaches them. Those are Melanie’s favourite days because when Miss Justineau is teaching “the day is full of amazing things.” The children learn math and spelling; sometimes they are read to. Melanie is keen to learn as much as she can, but it’s difficult to know just what the lessons are for because as Mr. Whitaker (another one of the teachers) explains “None of this stuff matters anymore…it’s irrelevant. It’s ancient history! There’s nothing out there any more. Not a damn thing. The population of Birmingham is zero.”

Dr. Caldwell also lives at Hotel Echo. She’s busily working on a cure for the infection that causes people to become ‘hungries’ (and you’d be right in thinking that what they’re hungry for is humans). She sees the children as test subjects, nothing more. Helen Justineau strenuously disagrees with Caldwell’s methods and the relationship between the two women is fraught with ethical disharmony.

When Hotel Echo is attacked by junkers (violent scavengers taking advantage of the chaotic state of the world) Justineau, Caldwell and Melanie end up on the run with two soldiers, Parks and Gallagher.

I don’t really have a frame of reference for a zombie apocalypse book. I don’t watch The Walking Dead, which I have been told is really good, but really gory. I read and loved Courtney Summers’ This Is Not a Test, but despite the fact that it’s a zombie novel it is zombie-lite compared to The Girl With All The Gifts. So I don’t have any preconceived zombie notions, not like when I read vampire fiction and get all annoyed when they sparkle.

But make no mistake, The Girl With All The Gifts is more than a zombie novel. It’s a novel that asks us to consider what makes us human and whether or not we can be more than our nature allows. Caldwell views Melanie as a test subject, someone with the biological potential to save the world. Justineau views Melanie as a little girl. Parks views Melanie as a monster. They are all right. And wrong. The journey they take together will horrify and break the hearts of any reader prepared to go with them.

Highly recommended.

Read it before the movie comes out!




The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox – Maggie O’Farrell

Maggie O’Farrell’s novel The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox is the story of sisters Euphemia (Esme) and Kitty and while the novel’s first line announces that the story begins “with two girls at a dance”, the story really begins in India, where Kitty and Esme live with their parents. There, one hot afternoon, Esme, aged four and a half,  recalls an insect getting caught in her ear and letting “out another piercing shriek.” She staggers around the lawn until the insect crawls out of her ear. “Could this be her earliest memory?” she wonders. “It might be. A beginning of sorts – the only one she remembers.”

250729This is also the story of Iris, Kitty’s granddaughter, owner of a small vintage clothing store, and half-heartedly involved with a married man.

The narrative jumps around a lot: present day, India,  Edinburgh in the 1930s after Esme and Kitty and their parents return from India. To confuse matters even more, Kitty now suffers from dementia and her fragmented thoughts are part of O’Farrell’s narrative. If it sounds complicated, it’s actually not.

The main part of the story is Esme’s. The psychiatric hospital where she has spent the last sixty years of her life is closing and she needs to be moved. Kitty clearly can’t care for her – she’s in a nursing home herself. It falls to Iris to look after a woman she’s never met and knows nothing about. When Iris finally meets her great aunt, she seems quite sane.

Iris had, she realises, been expecting someone frail or infirm, a tiny geriatric, a witch from a fairy tale. But this woman is tall, with an angular face and searching eyes. She has an air of slight hauteur, the expression arch, the eyebrows raised.

Esme is a fascinating character and her story is both heartbreaking and compelling. She is a victim of the time, of family tragedy and the will of others, yet she remains somehow sane. She wanted an education, but her parents wanted her to make a good marriage.  The circumstances of her incarceration are revealed to the reader through the novel’s layered narrative and it’s more than enough to keep you turning the pages.

However, I do feel there was more to be said. I was particularly drawn to Iris’s story and her relationship with her brother, Alex, and that felt (in some ways) like another book entirely. Some people probably won’t like the way The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox finishes, but I didn’t mind how it ended. I think my overall reaction to the book was that it was lightweight despite the novel’s more serious themes. Easy to read, sad, but somehow sort of superficial.

Off the Shelf – Should we let kids read what they want?

Listen here.

Um. Yeah. That’s the short answer. The long answer is a lot more complicated.

This is a topic we’ve tackled before, but it’s endlessly fascinating, isn’t it?  Just the thought of someone telling me what I can and can’t read gets my hackles up – but it’s an even pricklier subject when you start to consider younger readers. I deal with young adult readers every day and have a classroom library of more than 1000 books, several of which have been on a banned book list at some point, I’m sure.

According to an article in The Guardian, books are banned for all sorts of reasons including “Racism, homosexuality, offensive language, sexually explicit scenes, gritty topics like suicide and drugs, and talking animals.”  C’mon, you’re going to tell me Winnie the Pooh is objectionable – some of my fondest childhood memories of are of my mom reading me Winnie the Pooh.

“According to the American Library Association, the most common initiators of book challenges are parents, and the most common settings for book challenges are schools, school libraries, and public libraries. In other words, we can assume that books are most frequently challenged by concerned parents, who believe materials are unsuitable for children or teens.”

Okay, we’re going to head down the rabbit hole now.

TwilightbookObjecting to reading material is subjective. I object to Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series all the time – loudly – in my classroom, but I have the whole series in my library. My students know I think Meyer is a hack, but that’s about the quality of her writing, not about the subject matter and it’s a personal opinion.  If students want to read her books, they should read them. And then they should read other, better vampire books like Holly Black’s The Coldest Girl in Cold Town or the granddaddy of them all Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Young adult novels have definitely changed – but as much as things change they stay the same. So let’s have a quick primer.

Seventeenth Summer released by Maureen Daly in 1942 is widely considered the first ever YA novel. Fairly benign, certainly by today’s standards.

The first golden age of YA books happened in the 70s with novels by Judy Blume, Robert Cormier and Lois Duncan

Judy Blume’s novel Forever was an absolute a right of passage for anyone who grew up in the 70’s. The book has been on many, many challenged/banned lists since it was published in 1975, but as Ms. Blume says “How are young people supposed to make thoughtful decisions if they don’t have information and no one is willing to talk with them?”

Then there was a little lull before the baby boomers came of age in 2000. This second golden age in YA introduced readers to J.K. Rowling, Suzanne Collins and, yes, Stephanie Meyer.

If  you ask me whether or not we should allow young people to make decisions about what they read my answer has to be yes. Because let’s face they have access to way more potentially contentious stuff than what they’ll find in my classroom library, or the school library and they’ve got the power right in the palms of their hands.

And that’s really the crux of the matter. Books that are potentially controversial (and the range is crazy, Who Has Seen the Wind? for goodness sake)  are the exact books that are worth talking about because those are the books that will help young readers learn about their own limits and tastes and viewpoints and by deciding for them what those things should be we are taking away their right to develop into discerning and well-read humans.

I have been at Harbour View since 2009 and I haven’t had any issues with parents objecting to the books in my classroom. I post an introductory letter at the start of each academic year telling parents about my library and that some of the books might be considered ‘objectionable’ and I would certainly respect any parent’s right to prevent their teen from reading a book from my library – but why? It makes more sense to let them read the book and then, you read the book and then talk about the book together. That’s what I do in class. Talk about the books.

I read an article titled “The Not So Horrible Consequence of Reading Banned Books” where  psychologist Christopher Ferguson was quoted from the journal  Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts. He noted that “Reading banned books did not predict nonviolent or violent crime, or contribute to school GPA.” However, it was “positively associated with civic and volunteering behaviors.”  Ferguson’s research went on to report that “Such works can prompt readers to ponder ethical dilemmas, or — better yet — to discuss them with parents or teachers. In this way the books may foster higher-level thinking about these issues and promote more civic mindedness, even if the material is dark.”

And yes, there are some dark books out there. It’s a dark world. Burying our heads in the sand doesn’t make it any less dark. But I will say this – a book could save a life and Ferguson found that “It may be possible that youth with higher levels of mental health symptoms may select books that speak to them, offer them a chance for introspection, or a release from their symptoms.”

161426Allowing students to self-select reading material is important, but it is a skill and it starts at a young age. Read to your kids when they are young, take them to the library, talk about what they’re reading and read it, too. I know that when my daughter Mallory was about twelve she read a book called How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff…a book that I also read…quite an adult YA book and we actually did a mother/daughter review for my blog. Fantastic book and a powerful book for her and a book and conversation that we got to share. To me, that’s way better than any social media interaction I have with my kids.

Alice Munro talks about banning books, including her book Lives of Girls and Women here.



Another Little Piece – Kate Karyus Quinn

It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book as whackadoodle as Another Little Piece. But I kinda mean that as a compliment because even though I often didn’t have a sweet clue how all the disparate pieces of Kate Karyus Quinn’s novel worked together, I couldn’t seem to stop reading.

12665819A teenage girl wanders out of a field, her feet “bare and bloodied” tugging at the “garbage bag she’d refashioned as a poncho.” She doesn’t know who she is or where she is. It turns out she’s Annaliese, missing and presumed dead for the past year.

Her identity and what happened to her is just one part of the mystery and quite frankly I’m not sure I’m up to trying to untangle the messy threads of Annaliese’s life because it’s not just Annaliese’s life. In fact, Annaliese isn’t actually Annaliese at all. It’s hard to say much, but  there’s definitely something not quite right about her. She’s a girl who watches a football player across the field and feels, of all things, a pang of hunger.

I could see the beads of sweat on his golden brown skin. Except it didn’t resemble sweat so much as the juices dripping from the crisp and crackling skin of a roasted chicken. I wanted to sink my teeth into him.

As Annaliese (let’s call this one Annaliese Two) tries to reconcile her new life in this body that isn’t hers, she starts to have flashes of memory. In the first memory she is standing in the woods watching a girl (the real Annaliese, let’s call her One) have sex with a football player (same as the juicy  chicken one) and when they are done and the boy has left her, Annaliese Two steps out from her hiding place and tells  Annaliese One that “It’s time to pay.” Payment, as it turns out, is pretty gruesome, but that’s how Annaliese Two gets from body-to-body. And she’s been doing it for a long time.

Despite the desire to bite someone, Annaliese isn’t a vampire, but she is something very old (I think) and very deadly. That said, she isn’t altogether unsympathetic. When she meets Dex, the reclusive boy next door, she starts to wonder if she might not have another kind of life, a real life, one that actually belongs to her.

I had a hard time keeping all the girls straight in the story and I think that after a while I just stopped caring so much about the logistics of the plot. I followed the through-line of Annaliese and glossed over the bits that made me go WTF. Another Little Piece is well-written, creepy and original. There’s lots for careful readers to gnaw on…and that line will be really funny once you’ve read the book.