Ruthless – Carolyn Lee Adams

2E11B418-C156-499C-B40A-C90F9802D4A7Seventeen-year-old Ruth Carver has a nickname on the show-riding circuit: Ruthless. She earned the name by being single-minded  when it comes to competitions, but it’s more than that. At the ranch, it’s “sink or swim” and Ruth lives by that motto. Ruth also understands that her success in the ring will benefit her parents’ struggling ranch. She’ll do whatever it takes to win, even if that means pushing other people away from her. That includes Caleb, the boy who loves her.

Carolyn Lee Adams’ YA novel Ruthless is a thrill-ride of a novel. It starts when Ruth wakes up in the back of a pickup truck, buried in a mound of manure, hay and shavings. She’s hurt and she soon realizes that she is in trouble, serious trouble.

The trouble comes in the shape of a man Ruth nicknames Wolfman.

He is tall and big, with a large, black beard and bushy eyebrows. He has strange hazel-orange eyes. He reminds me of a wolf.

Ruth remembers him from the ranch. “I kept seeing that wolf-looking guy, and that wolf-looking guy kept seeing me,” Ruth recalls. So “I told Dad to fire him.” Seems like Wolfman is the kind of guy to carry a grudge.

Wolfman aka Jerry Balls, is a smart and dogged  psychopath.  He punishes girls who he feels are deserving and Ruth can see that “He hates me in a way that I didn’t know was possible.”

So here is Ruth, trapped with a psycho in the middle of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Left alone when Wolfman is called in to work, she discovers that she is not his first victim, but she is determined that she will be his last. Her breathless escape from his cabin is just the start of 200+ pages of pulse-pounding reading.

If you’re wondering how Ruth is going to manage getting and staying away from Wolfman in the middle of nowhere, in terrain she doesn’t know, without supplies…well, that’s part of what makes Lee’s novel so compelling. Failing is not an option here and readers soon discover that Ruth is every bit as tenacious as Wolfman.

There is nothing graphic about this book, although the threat is imminent. Wolfman is also not a one-dimensional character; his story is told through a series of flashbacks. Doesn’t make him any more sympathetic, but you still get a glimpse into how he might have ended up the way he did.

We also see a bit of Ruth’s story from pre her abduction. One surprisingly prescient snippet recalls a conversation she has with her family. Her grandfather, once a sheriff, is offering advice should she ever be taken. He tells her “Don’t ever let them take you to a second location.” Her father offers “May God have mercy on the soul of the poor bastard who ever dared try.” Truer words.

Ruthless is terrific.

One Day in December – Josie Silver

I expect to be in the minority here, but I really didn’t see the charm of Josie Silver’s B697342F-E7EB-45CA-8ED5-439900BCD1C2novel One Day in December. It’s a book that depends on the chemistry of the central characters, Laurie and Jack, and our willingness to believe that a fleeting eye-lock might actually change the trajectory of someone’s life.

Laurie lives with her bestie, Sarah. They live in London, working post-college jobs and bemoaning their love lives (or lack thereof) over weird little sandwiches made with chicken, blue cheese, mayo and cranberry.

One day on the bus, Laurie locks eyes with a stranger waiting at a bus stop.

We are staring straight at each other and I can’t look away. I feel my lips move as if I’m going to say something, God knows what, and all of a sudden and out of nowhere I need to get off this bus. I’m gripped with the overwhelming urge to go outside, to get to him. But I don’t.

Laurie spends the next year boo-hooing about the boy, looking for him everywhere she goes, determined that he’s the one. And then, there he is. It’s a Christmas miracle. Except maybe not so much because it turns out that the love of Laurie’s life is Sarah’s new boyfriend.

Silver toggles the narrative between Laurie and Jack, so that we get to see just how tortured and two-sided these star-crossed lovers are. Because  – of course –  Jack remembers Laurie from the bus and  – of course –  he hopes she doesn’t realize who he is because he is trying “to establish her place in [his] head as Sarah’s friend rather than the girl I saw once and have thought of often since.” Even though Sarah is smoking hot he worries that if he and Sarah break up she’ll “spirit Laurie away with her.”

Ah, the tangled web.

Jack and Laurie’s relationship morphs over the ten years of the novel. That’s a lot of time to be pining for someone else. Laurie runs away to Thailand for a time and there she meets Oscar, a London banker, “but not a wanker”, who is “funny, self-deprecating, and when he looks at [her] there’s a kindness in his eyes that warms [her].” Truthfully, he’s an altogether nicer bloke than Jack.

But the heart wants what it wants, I guess. At least that’s the premise of Silver’s confection. You’ll need to believe in Jack and Laurie to fall in love with the book. I didn’t care about either of them.

Inexcusable – Chris Lynch

inexcusableAlthough I teach high school English and although Chris Lynch is a prolific writer of award-winning YA literature, his novel Inexcusable is the first of his books I’ve read. This particular novel was a National Book Award finalist, as well as top of  many other “Best of” lists. School Library Journal called it “A finely crafted and thought-provoking page-turner.”

Keir Sarafian is a high school football player and an all-around decent guy. That’s what his single dad, Ray, tells him. That’s what his older sisters, Mary and Fran, tell him. That’s what his class and team mates tell him. So that’s what Keir believes.

When Inexcusable opens Keir tells us that “The way it looks is not the way it is.” From that intriguing opening, we follow Keir through the last few weeks of his high school career. We watch him play a never-ending game of Risk with his father. We watch him take down a player on an opposing football team, a hit which seriously injures the other player and earns Keir several scholarship offers and the nickname “Killer.”

Lynch carefully layers the character of Keir. He’s an affable guy. On the surface, at least, he seems to have it all.

I got along, and got along well. Got along with staff, with teachers and lunch ladies. Got along with guys, with athletes I knew before but knew better now, guys who were studs at basketball, or even guys who played sports that didn’t matter, like tennis. I got along with smart kids like debate, as well as with guys who sat around glassy-eyed and famously did nothing at all.

Keir wants to be liked. “I hate it when people I love scream at me,” he admits, which is one of the reasons he so admires his father. And because he so admires his father, Keir realizes that he “had to be a good guy if you were Ray Sarafian’s kid. You couldn’t possibly be anything less.”

But the real truth about Keir Sarafian is something different. And Lynch unspools Keir’s story  – which is really the story of what happens between Keir and his beautiful classmate Gigi Boudakian on prom night – with care. I felt my feelings about Keir constantly shifting.

Lynch explains in his preface for the 10th anniversary edition of the book that “The novel remains the supreme art for serious investigation for these troubled-troubling individuals who do things that appall us…There are no excuses for doing something deplorable. There is just the story behind the story. And if at the end of one of these stories we cannot feel empathy and compassion for the deplorable character, that is not at all unreasonable. But the hope really is that we might come away with a bit of understanding for a human condition we did not particularly want to understand before.”

What is so remarkable about Lynch’s novel is the way Keir’s version of events – even his version of the kind of young man he is – is so out of sync with the way things actually are.

Good guys don’t do bad things. Good guys understand that no means no, and so I could not have done this because I understand, and I love Gigi Boudakian.

Inexcusable  is a timely, well-written and ultimately devastating story which will offer plenty of opportunities for discussion for mature readers.

 

The Boy Who Drew Monsters – Keith Donohue

Who in the hell knows what really happens in Keith Donohue’s odd but utterly 108FC969-09A2-4584-905C-31766A67CC7Bcompelling novel The Boy Who Drew Monsters. I mean, sure, I could follow the story’s claustrophobic narrative, but at the end of the day I was still shaking my head and going WTF.

Holly and Tim live with their son, ten-year-old Jack Peter, in a small town on the coast of Maine. Jack Peter has never been 100% okay, but when he was seven he almost drowned and since then he “has not suffered easily any human touch.” He also can’t bear leaving the house; if not for his friend Nick, and his parents, Jack Peter would be completely isolated.

Jack Peter had been an inside boy for over three years. Hadn’t been to school, rarely left the house. One by one, his few old friends had nearly forgotten about him, and they always gave Nick grief for continuing his strange friendship.

These characters are isolated anyway. Their community is scattered; Jack Peter and his parents live way out on a cliff overlooking the ocean. It’s winter and constant snow is always further isolating them – so it seems.

Things are about to get slightly creepier, though. For example, driving Nick home one night, Tim sees something unsettling.

Uncoiling, the white mass transformed itself into a living figure rising from a crouch, its pale skin glowed sepulchral blue in the moonlight and it turned with a hunch of its shoulders and began to shuffle away.

Holly starts to have strange visions, too. She imagines the dead from a ship which sank off the coast. One night, home alone with Jack Peter, a “rapid-fire staccato that traveled the length of the waterfront wall” of her house startles her into exiting the house in her slippers to investigate.

As each of the small cast of characters in this novel are visited by stranger and stranger hallucinations – if that’s even what they can be called – Jack Peter’s behaviour grows increasingly more strange. He draws incessantly. And guess what he draws? Yep.

The Boy Who Drew Monsters, not gonna lie, was a weird one for me. I can’t really say with any certainty that I actually knew what was going on. It’s sort of a horror novel by way of the gothic, and sort of a family drama, too. For a while I thought Jack Peter might be autistic and then I started to doubt that diagnosis. When I closed the final page, I still wasn’t certain what I had just read, but I’ve certainly never read anything else like it.

jake, reinvented – Gordon Korman

jake reinventedGordon Korman’s YA novel jake, reinvented takes a page straight out of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic,  The Great Gatsby. Like, straight out of it. This is the story of Rick, a high school kid who is only marginally cool because he is the kicker and back-up quarterback for the F. Scott Fitzgerald (yep!) high school football team and hangs out with Todd Buckley, the team’s hyper-masculine starting quarterback.

Rick Paradis is an observer, much in the same as Nick Carraway watched the action in The Great GatsbyWhen the story opens, he’s observing a raucous party being held at the un-parented home of new-to-town Jake Garrett, the football team’s new long-snapper. It’s the first of many Friday night parties that Jake hosts, each one getting bigger and more out-of-control.

Jake is an enigma. He watches his house getting trashed with an “unruffled calm.” His speech is peppered with ‘baby’ as in “Good hang time, baby”, I suspect an outdated tag even back in 2003 when the book was published.

He looked like he just waltzed off the pages of the J. Crew catalog, or maybe Banana Republic. I mean, nothing he was wearing was all that special – just a plaid shirt, untucked over a white tee and khakis. But everything went together perfectly, and hung on him with that rumpled casual effect that you can’t get by being casual. This guy worked it.

Jake befriends Rick, pulling him into his orbit. It seems like an odd friendship at first, but Rick does have something that Jake needs: a connection to Didi, Todd’s self-absorbed, but perfect girlfriend.

Like in Fitzgerald’s novel, none of these characters are particularly likeable. Todd aka Tom is a big-feeling womanizer; Didi aka Daisy is vapid and spineless; Rick is an observer who is soon calling himself Jake’s bestie, but I was never really sure how they managed to get to that place beyond acquaintances.

The novel’s plot mirrors Fitzgerald’s too, so for anyone familiar with that book, this book will not require much effort. And love or hate Fitzgerald’s novel, there’s no denying the quality of the writing. Korman’s novel suffers a little by comparison in that department.

On the other hand, Korman’s novel does speak to that crappy period of time when you are no longer a kid, but you are not quite an adult. There aren’t any of those (adults, I mean) in this novel, anyway. These kids are pretty much left to their own devices. Like Gatsby, everything Jake has done, the persona he has manufactured for himself, has been done to attract the attention of Didi. Is she worthy of his love? Probably not. As Rick says to Jake: “They’re crappy people. You’re worth more than the lot of them put together.”

As an homage to its source material, jake, reinvented will likely speak to any teen who has desperately wanted to reinvent themselves. And if it encourages students to read The Great Gatsby, then that’s a win in my book.

Stories I Only Tell My Friends – Rob Lowe

I was more of a Robby Benson than a Rob Lowe fan back in the day. I guess they were sort of popular around the same time, give or take a few years. 0D9E8612-E728-46F5-8D69-9E382FBC38EFRob Lowe’s autobiography Stories I Only Tell My Friends, however, made for riveting reading, and the same can not be said for Robby Benson’s novel Who Stole the Funny.

Lowe was born in Charlottesville, Virginia in 1964. He moved with his mother and father to Dayton, Ohio when he was still an infant. His parents chose Dayton because it was “a bustling, growing city,”  home to many national companies. Lowe’s father was a lawyer; his mother gave up her job as a high school English teacher to stay home and raise her son. Four years later, Lowe’s brother, Chad, was born.

Lowe got an early start in the acting business in Dayton. A trip to see a production of Oliver!  turned out to be a “a transformational experience” for ten-year-old Lowe. A few weeks later,  he participated in a community theatre production of The Wizard of Oz. Lowe notes that his parents (well, his mom and step-father because by then his parents were divorced) would have had “no way of knowing how deeply affected I’d been, how electrified I was by the age-old connection of actors, material and audience…that was a club I wanted to belong to.”

Flash forward a few years and the family has moved to Malibu, California.

An entire book could (and should) be written about Malibu in 1976. In the bicentennial sunlight of that year, it was a place of rural beauty where people still rode to the local market on horseback and tied up to a hitching post in the parking lot. Long before every agent and studio president knocked down the beach shacks to build their mega mansions, Malibu was populated by a wonderful mix of normal working-class families, hippies, asshole surfers, drugged-out reclusive rock stars, and the odd actor or two.

It is during this period that Lowe begins to pursue acting in earnest, and also lands the role that will turn him into a household name.

Stories I Only Tell My Friends is an honest, self-deprecating look at fame and its rewards and consequences. It’s a who’s who of the times, which makes it especially fun to read if you are of the same vintage as Lowe…which I am. I loved reading about Lowe’s participation in The Outsiders. He’s candid about his career highs and lows, and about his prodigious romantic interludes (some clearly less to do with romance and more to do with sex – but look at the guy.) Lowe is aware that he’s a good-looking (great looking, really) man, but he never comes across as full of himself. He’s also honest about how he abused alcohol, a hard-earned perspective that comes from being twenty plus years sober.

This is a really dishy memoir – not a tell-all, exactly, but a Hollywood story about a decent guy who came-of-age in the public eye, and managed to keep his wits about him. He wrote it himself and it’s funny and witty and at times it almost seems as though Lowe can’t believe the ride he’s had either.

Great book.

The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy – Kate Hattemer

vigilanteEthan Andrezejczak attends Selwyn Academy, a fine arts high school in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He’s the narrator of Kate Hattemer’s debut YA novel The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy. His life revolves around hanging with his friends Jackson, Elizabeth and the too-cool-for-their-friend-group, Luke, and teaching Jackson’s gerbil, Baconnaise circus tricks. Ethan pines for ballerina Maura and loathes Miki Frigging Reagler from afar. Maura and Miki are two of the stars of the reality show For Art’s Sake (FAS), which is filmed at Selwyn.

They’d chosen a school (our school) and they’d chosen contestants (not me). Every episode, they had some artistic challenge and someone got kicked off. The last person standing would be crowned America’s Best Teen Artist.

Ethan and his friends are convinced that For Art’s Sake is wrecking Selwyn. Luke is especially bent out of shape because the school’s literary arts magazine refuses to publish his commentary about the TV show. “It’s a review, but mostly it’s editorial,” he tells Ethan. “I tried to suppress my snideness. I may not have been totally successful.”

The fact that someone as cool as Luke is anti-FAS is a touchstone for Ethan. When he enters Ethan’s orbit in grade seven, Ethan describes him as

the most popular prepubescent on the planet. He was impossible to dislike. That’s not hyperbole: I tried. I have a strict policy of holding automatic grudges against people everyone likes. But Luke had a mouthful of braces and said “awesome” all the time, and he was totally genuine.

It’s Luke’s idea to roast FAS in a poem. He announces “We need to reclaim our society and values and culture.”

Conquistadors, they thundered in,
And dizzy, we succumbed to spin.
They’ve colonized our native land.
What once was vivid now is bland.
We sing and dance at their command.
 – The Contracantos

 

 

Luke’s ultimately betrayal is especially hard on Ethan, but it gives him the chance to take some chances and find his own voice.

The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy plumbs the depths of poetry, friendship, loyalty, art, betrayal and growing up. These characters (and I am certainly including Baconnaise) are witty, intelligent and human. They are trying to figure it all out. They don’t always get it right, but Elizabeth asks Ethan if he thinks he’s “the only one who’s amazed and scared and freaked out by how complicated everyone is.”

This is a smart book. I highly recommend it.