Cracked Up to Be – Courtney Summers

crackeduptobeCourtney Summers is one of my favourite YA writers. Cracked Up to Be was her debut novel, but it’s the fourth book I have read by this talented Canadian author. I have also read her terrific zombie novel This is Not a Test, her caustic novel about high school bullies, Some Girls Are and All the Rage, a frightening look at the aftermath of sexual assault.

In Cracked Up to Be, Parker Fadley has clearly gone off the rails. The once perfect student, cheerleading captain, and homecoming queen is potentially not going to graduate, must adhere to a strict curfew and she’s come to school hung over on more than one occasion. What could have possibly happened to upend Perfect Parker’s perfect life?

Figuring that out is what pushes this novel along and whether or not you’ll feel satisfied with the explanation for Parker’s fall from grace will be up to you. This is high school – so everything has a heightened sense of drama, but ultimately, that’s not what is so awesome about Summers’ book.

What’s awesome is Parker herself, a fully realized character that is both 100% unlikeable and 100% sympathetic…if that’s even possible.

The problem with alienating, self-destructive behavior is people get it into their heads it’s a cry for help. I wasn’t. It was just a really poorly executed plan to get everyone off my back. So now I’m halfway between where I started (not alone) and where I want to end up (alone) and I just have to roll with it if I want to graduate or else I’ll never be alone.

The thing about Perfect Parker is that she doesn’t sound like she was an altogether stellar human being even before whatever happened happened. Perhaps it’s true of all perfectionists: it’s their way or the highway. But post-event Parker is particularly prickly. Becky, the girl who has taken over as head cheerleader and hooked up with Parker’s ex-boyfriend, Chris, takes the blunt end of most of Parker’s vitriol.

“Screw him, Becky. I don’t care.”

“Parker – ”

“Becky, really. I don’t want to hear it. You’re dull.”

She rolls her eyes. “For five seconds you almost seemed human.”

The truth is that Parker is very much human. She is someone who feels as though she has done an awful thing and must be punished. If the universe can’t punish her sufficiently, she’ll punish herself. And if that means pushing away everyone who cares for her (Chris is about as good a friend as Parker has and he remains steadfastly in her corner even when she is utterly horrible to him.), well, that’s what she’s going to do.

The thing I have always admired about Summers’ writing is that it always feels unflinchingly honest. Her characters speak their minds. They are awful and vulnerable in equal measure. The more time we spend with Parker, the more we  start to see the cracks in her veneer. And by the novel’s conclusion, readers will be hopeful that those cracks will let a little healing light in.

Highly recommended.

The Woman in the Window – A.J. Finn

The-Woman-in-the-Window-A_-J_-FinnHoly unreliable narrator, Batman! There seems to be a whole slew of books of this type post- The Girl on the Train. A.J. Finn (nom de plume of Daniel Mallory, executive editor at Morrow) adds yet another to the cast with Anna Fox, the first person narrator in The Woman in the Window. A student in one of my classes wanted to read this book, so I bought it for my classroom library. He read it lickety-split and then encouraged me to read it, which I did, in two breathless days.

Anna Fox is a watcher. From the windows of her  Victorian home in Harlem, she watches the lives of her neighbours. “My Nikon D5500 doesn’t miss much, not with that Opteka lens,” she admits.

From her vantage point, she can observe people living their daily lives: cheating spouses, book club meetings, teenagers playing video games and musical instruments. Slowly it is revealed that Anna is separated from her husband and daughter, and also suffers from agoraphobia. As Anna explains “Agoraphobic fears…include being outside the home alone; being in a crowd, or standing in a line; being on a bridge.” She considers herself to be an extreme case, “the most severely afflicted…grappling with post-traumatic stress disorder.”

She occupies her time on the Internet, learning French and playing chess and overseeing a discussion board called Agora, set up for other sufferers of her condition. (She’s actually qualified because before her life went south, Anna was a psychologist.)  She’s a fan of old movies, particularly noir films, and merlot – of which she drinks a lot. The fear of being outside the safety of her mansion/prison is not the only problem in Anna’s life; she is clearly depressed and self-medicating with alcohol and the drugs her own psychiatrist prescribes, a lethal combination that impacts what Anna sees one night.

That would be a murder.

By then, Finn has done such a good job of portraying Anna as such a hot mess that readers won’t know what to believe. Anna doesn’t either. When the police investigate the crime, they discover there’s no body and the person Anna thought she saw doesn’t even exist. Oh, what a tangled web.

Keeping Anna trapped in her house ups the suspense ante, for sure. Her days are often a drunken blur and even when she tries to get it together so that she can figure out what she saw or didn’t see, she just can’t. Despite this, Anna is a sympathetic character, whose well-being you will care about, especially when you discover one of the novel’s central plot points (which I did relatively early on but, trust me, that in no way hindered my enjoyment of this novel).

The Woman in the Window has garnered a lot of buzz and for good reason. It’s well-written, page-turning fun, with a beating heart at its core.

Highly recommended.

Stronger Than You Know – Jolene Perry

strongerIn  Jolene Perry’s novel Stronger Than You Know, fifteen-year-old Joy Neilsons has come to live with her aunt and uncle after having been removed from the trailer home she was living in with her mother. The Child Services Summary Report  indicates that she wasn’t allowed out of the 750 sq. ft. mobile home, did not attend school and was dehydrated and malnourished when authorities removed her.

Turns out, not having enough to eat or drink was the least of Joy’s problems, and although Perry wisely spares us the graphic details of Joy’s abuse, readers will easily be able to fill in the horrific blanks.

Stronger Than You Know is the story of Joy’s recovery which, as you can imagine, is not without its setbacks. For one thing, Joy hasn’t been properly socialized, so dealing with large groups of people is problematic. Imagine going to school – high school, at that –  for the first time. For another thing, Joy distrusts men, making it difficult for her to be around her uncle, Rob, and her cousin, Trent. Trent’s twin sister, Tara,  is a little easier to cope with, but Joy is still distrustful of this new life she’s been given, a life she knows she doesn’t belong in. Aunt Nicole offers safety and comfort, but the PTSD Joy is experiencing is palpable.

She measures her recovery by listing her accomplishments:

  • Went to school.
  • Ate in the cafeteria.
  • Answered a teacher’s question.
  • Ate a few bites of dinner with the family in the dining room.

All the people in Joy’s new life, even Trent, who initially seems like an asshat (and one could make the argument that he turns the corner with a little too much ease), are warm and loving humans. The boy she meets on the walk to school is patient and understanding when Joy acts peculiarly. Her Uncle Rob is super protective because he’s had some personal experience with trauma. If any characters are under-developed it’s because they are the villains of the piece and it’s easy enough for smart readers to fill in those blanks.

Overall, Stronger Than You Know will speak to any young reader who has had to overcome horrific circumstances in the hopes for a better life. As Joy learns, a better life is waiting.

 

 

The Burning Air – Erin Kelly

burning airI was a big fan of Erin Kelly’s novel The Dark Rose and so I was very much looking forward to reading The Burning Air. Kelly is a terrific writer, which is what saved The Burning Air for me because while the writing was great and I certainly had no trouble turning the pages, I just thought it was a lot of fuss for nothing.

The MacBrides have it all. Dad, Rowan, is the headmaster at a prestigious school; mom, Lydia, is a magistrate, and then there are three adult children: Sophie, Tara, and Felix. The novel opens with a deathbed confession. Lydia writes:

Of course it was love for my children, love for my son, that caused me to act as I did. It was a lapse of judgment. If I could have foreseen the rippling aftershocks that followed I would have acted differently, but by the time I realized the extent of the consequences, it was too late.

When Sophie, Tara and Felix and their families arrive to spend a weekend with their father at the family’s special getaway, Far Barn in Devon, it’s clear that the death of their mother has caused some collateral damage. But there were cracks in the family’s perfect façade anyway. And they aren’t the only ones with secrets.

Darcy also has a connection to the MacBride family. I am carefully going to avoid saying too much about Darcy, other than to say that they are filled with vitriol for the MacBride family. Their lives intersect when Darcy interviews for a place at Rowan’s school and fails to make the grade, so to speak. What happens next sets the course for all their lives.

The novel flips back and forth between present day and back when Darcy and Sophie, Tara and Felix were children, mostly concentrating on Sophie’s 3rd person and Darcy’s first person narrative.

There is a lot of stuff happening in The Burning Air, complicated resentments and personal trauma. Darcy’s revenge plot seems over-the-top considering its impetus, but the thing about Kelly is that she can manage to make just about anything believable. I believed in Darcy’s hatred towards the MacBrides, but I felt that underneath all that pent up anger was little more than hot air and when the denouement finally arrived, it felt rather like a fallen soufflé.

That said – The Burning Air is way better than a lot of books in the genre and I will definitely be checking out the third Erin Kelly book on my TBR shelf: The Poison Tree.