On the Edge – Allison Van Diepen

ontheedgeOne of my favourite YA tropes is bad boy/good girl. I can’t seem to get enough of it, really, and if there’s a heaping helping of angst thrown in, well, it doesn’t really get much better than that. Allison Van Diepen’s novel On the Edge seemed like it might have the goods, but it was only just okay.

Maddie Diaz is headed for college on a full scholarship. She lives with her single mother, works part time at McDonald’s and has a posse of good girlfriends.

One night after work she’s cutting through the park on her way home when she witnesses to members of the Reyes gang kicking the crap out of a homeless guy, someone everyone in the neighbourhood knows by name. She does the right thing and identifies the guys, but that means that her own life is in danger.

Enter Lobo, tall, dark, handsome and mysterious. After Maddie gets jumped, Lobo swoops in to rescue her and sparks fly.

He wore a black bandanna over his face. That couldn’t be a good thing – I should be scared of him, shouldn’t I? But I wasn’t. I knew that I was safe. I felt it in the gentle way he was supporting my head.

To complicate things, there’s also Maddie’s growing attraction to Ortiz, the guy who works at the local convenience store and is unbelievably hot with his “unruly black hair…chiseled, clean-shaven face.”

There’s nothing really wrong with On the Edge, but it doesn’t really break any new ground, either. The characters are mostly stereotypes; Maddie has a vein of heroism; Lobo is more than he seems, including seeming way older than 19.

I wouldn’t dissuade students from reading this book, but as for scratching my bad boy/good girl itch, it didn’t quite fit the bill.

 

The Chalk Man – C.J. Tudor

I’d really been looking forward to reading C.J. Tudor’s thriller The Chalk Man  and I chalkfinally picked it up. The book was well-reviewed and was a finalist for Crime Writers’ Association’s Steel Dagger Award. What can go wrong, right?

There was definitely an IT vibe when I first started reading the novel. (Stephen King’s IT, I mean.) Adult Eddie is recounting the events of 1986, when he and his gang of friends, Fat Gav, Metal Mickey, Hoppo and Nicky (who “didn’t have a nickname because she was a girl, even though she tried her best to pretend she wasn’t.”) used to hang out together in their small English town of Anderbury. They do normal kid stuff: ride their bikes, go to the fair, play in the woods, and try to stay out of way of Metal Mickey’s older brother Sean and his thug friends.

As an adult, Eddie lives in the house he grew up in and teaches at his former school. He’s single and lives with Chloe who is “youthful and cool and could pass for a teenager.” There’s nothing romantic between them; she’s just a boarder, but Eddie likes to think of her as a friend, too.

The Chalk Man  flashes back and forth between kid Eddie and adult Eddie and, at least in the beginning, that worked just fine for me. One of Tudor’s writerly quirks was to foreshadow events or drop hints at the end of chapters and I always wish writers didn’t tell us things like “I found out eventually. After the police came round to arrest him for attempted murder” before the fact. But oh well.

The title of the book refers to the chalk stick figures Eddie and his friends used to leave for each other on the sidewalk outside each other’s houses and in the playground. When Eddie was a kid, a series of these chalk figures lead him and his friends to a horrible discovery, and now in present day someone has sent him a letter with a single chalk figure. Bound to stir up old memories.

It doesn’t take very long for Tudor’s story to get convoluted and, for me at least, lose momentum. I raced through the first 50 pages, but then something happened. It lost some of its initial charm. Doesn’t mean it’s a dud, it just wasn’t a home run for me.

 

 

The Broken Girls – Simone St. James

Broken GirlsAlthough I don’t usually trust author endorsements on book covers (except for Stephen King’s praise; he’s a pretty reliable reader), Simone St. James’s novel The Broken Girls  had an equal number of positive reviews from places like Kirkus, Library Journal and Booklist. I felt pretty confident when I chose it as my book club pick back in March.

The Broken Girls tells two stories. In one, we follow four friends (Katie, CeCe, Roberta and Sonia) who are attending Idlewild Hall, a boarding school for troubled young ladies. It’s 1950. Idlewild Hall is an unforgiving place, and while none of the girls is a delinquent by any stretch, they each have their own troubles. And the school has troubles of its own, in the shape of Mary Hand, a ghost many girls have seen on the school grounds.

Flash forward to 2014 and meet Fiona Sheridan. She’s a local journalist, still struggling with the death of her older sister, Deb, whose body was found in an overgrown field on the grounds of the now ruined Idlewild. When Fiona hears that someone has bought the derelict school with plans to renovate and re-open it, Fiona is determined to get the scoop. The blurb on the back of the book announces a “shocking discovery” during the renovations, but I am just going to tell you now {{{{SPOILER ALERT}}}} that another body is found, one that connects the past to the present.

Fiona races around to try to connect all the dots, and that’s one of the problems I had with this book: there was a lot going on. There’s the back stories of all four of the 1950s girls; there’s the ghost; there’s Fiona and her boyfriend, Jamie, a local cop; there’s the death of Fiona’s sister, which although Deb’s boyfriend is currently in prison for the crime, still niggles in the back of Fiona’s mind, even though twenty years have passed. It’s not that it’s all that difficult to keep track of all these threads, it’s just that it felt like there were too many of them to make a coherent story. There’s a boatload of red herrings, but again, I think St.James just attempted too much here because by the end, I felt all the pieces clicked together just a teensy bit too neatly.

On the plus side, Fiona is a likable character, and so is Jamie. The four girls from the past are also sympathetic. The writing is straightforward and there were a couple of truly creepy moments.

Was it a popular choice with my book club? Nope. Only one of my friends gave it a thumbs up. Luckily for me, dinner was fantastic.

Easter ‘Book’ Hunt

So, before I begin preparing Easter dinner for the family, I thought I’d participate in The Savvy Reader’s Bookish Easter Egg Hunt. I can’t think of a nicer way to spend this rainy Sunday morning, and so with tea in hand I present my own book eggs.

1. Roses are red, violets are blue… Nope, I can’t rhyme. Instead, find your favourite book about love!

This is too hard because I love me a great love story, especially if it comes with a heaping helping of angst.

timetraveler

The Time Traveler’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger

Henry and Clare and time travel and so many tears I couldn’t see the pages. Skip the crap movie and read this amazing book.

2. Dystopian novels are so 1984… Find a great dystopian novel!

knife-of-never-letting-go

The Knife of Never Letting Go – Patrick Ness

Although I didn’t groove to this book the first time I picked it up, I did give it a second chance and I am so glad I did. I am not really a fan of dystopian novels, but this series has it all: sympathetic protagonists, cool premise (everyone can hear everyone else’s thoughts), a relentless bad guy…and don’t even get me started on Manchee, the main character’s dog. The next two books in the series are The Ask and the Answer and Monsters of Men.

3. Book it to the library for a book that has aged like fine wine. Find a book you’ve read more than once and gets better every time you read it.

velocity

Velocity – Kristin McCloy

Velocity and I go wayyyyyy back. I bought the book at The Strand in the late-eighties and have re-read it many times. I can’t even begin to tell you how much I continue to love this book.

4. This book blue us away. What blue book can you find?

blue eyed

Your Blue-Eyed Boy – Helen Dunmore

I am a bug fan of Helen Dunmore, a British writer who, sadly, passed away in 2017. If you haven’t read her yet, I can highly recommend her work. Her novels have elements of psychological suspense, complicated family relationships, and beautiful writing always.

5. Past, Present and Future walk into a bar. It was tense. Find a book that plays with time in an interesting way.

 

life-after-life-

Life After Life – Kate Atkinson

Kate Atkinson’s brilliant novel plays with the narrative form, skip-hopping readers through the main character’s life (lives), though it is not as confusing as it sounds. And very much worth the effort.

6. Check your shelf before you wreck your shelf. Find a great self-improvement book.

selp helf

Selp-Helf – Miranda Sings

I didn’t review this book back when I bought it, but I chose it for this category because I don’t really read self help books…plus, I love Miranda.

7. I like big books and I cannot lie! Look for a book that’s more than 500 pages.

fingersmith

Fingersmith – Sarah Waters

This book clocks in at 548 pages and won me best book at my book club the year I chose it (2010). It’s a fantastic novel set in Victorian England and, trust me, you won’t be able to put it down once you start reading.

8. I was in a relationship with an apostrophe, but we broke up… It was too possessive! Find a book with a complicated romantic relationship.

 

one-day

One Day – David Nicholls

This was actually a hard category for me because I LOVE me some complicated relationships…especially if the lovers are really damaged people, but in the end, I chose One Day because it’s awesome.

9. Take my advice… I don’t use it anyway. Find a book that you would recommend to everyone.

 

I am constantly recommending books – here, in my classroom, on the radio.  I could have chosen a million books, but I stopped at five:

Sadie  – Courtney Summers is one of my favourite YA writers and this book, her latest, is soooo good. Everyone should read it, not just teens.

A Short History of the Girl Next Door – Jared Reck is a teacher and this is his debut novel. I cried at the end of this book. LOVED it and recced it hard in my classroom.

My Sunshine Away – M.O. Walsh’s coming-of-age novel is beautifully written, suspenseful and heart-breaking and everyone should read it.

Everything I Never Told You – Celest Ng’s novel is just perfect and has stayed with me for a long time.

Descent – Tim Johnston has written a page-turner and  family drama in language that is beautiful without bogging the story down. And, trust me, this is one helluva story.

10. 4 out of 5 dentists recommend hockey. Find a good sports book.

now is thetime

Now is the Time for Running – Michael Williams

Although there is soccer in this book, it’s mostly about what happens when two brothers are forced to leave their African village.

I don’t read that many sports-related books. 😦

11. Bonus Question! Find a book cover with your name on it.

christie

The Christie part.

Happy Easter!

We Are Okay – Nina LaCour

Nina LaCour’s award-winning YA novel We Are Okay, is a lyrical and moving look at the weareoknature of grief. This is a quiet novel, and so I would caution readers not to expect histrionics or very much action. Instead, LaCour focuses on the protagonist’s interior life, which has been altered by loss.

Eighteen-year-old Marin is attending school on the East Coast, far away from her hometown, San Francisco. It’s Christmas, and everyone has left the dorm except Marin, who has no place to go. Her roommate, Hannah, is clearly worried about her and Marin knows

why she’s afraid for me. I first appeared in this doorway to weeks after Gramps died. I stepped in – a stunned and feral stranger – and now I’m someone she knows, and I need to stay that way. For her and for me.

Marin is anticipating the arrival of her best friend, Mabel.  She knows “Mabel is coming tomorrow, whether I want her to or not.” The idea fills Marin with a sort of dread, even though she knows she should be happy.  She hasn’t communicated with Mabel in months though, and has, in fact, ignored all of Mabel’s attempts to make contact. She thinks she can fool Mabel into thinking that everything is okay but

Mabel knows me better than anyone else in the world, even though we haven’t spoken at all in these four months. Most of her texts to me went unanswered until eventually she stopped sending them.

There will be no way to fool her.

Nothing much happens in We Are Okay, but that’s just plot, anyway. The story toggles between Marin’s reunion with Mabel and the story of their friendship back in California. We also learn that Marin has been raised by her grandfather, a fierce but tender man, who has a few secrets of his own. Her grandfather’s death clearly accounts for some of Marin’s sadness, but flashback’s reveal that Mabel is also central to Marin’s story.

There is a lovely, melancholy cadence in LaCour’s book. It’s poetic without being showy and the nature of Marin’s grief is unspooled in a way that will keep readers turning the pages. I guess that’s what prevents We Are Okay from being all doom and gloom. Yes, Marin is sad, but she’s trying to come to terms with her derailed life. She finds small ways to tether herself to the world, a pair of pottery bowls, the “perfect shade of yellow” for instance.

This is a thoughtful, lovely and moving novel and I highly recommend it.

A Short History of the Girl Next Door – Jared Reck

shortI can’t remember the last time I cried actual tears reading a book, but Jared Reck’s debut novel A Short History of the Girl Next Door actually made me cry. And also laugh.

This is the story of 15-year-old Matt Wainwright, who is in love with his childhood bestie, Tabby, who lives – not exactly next door – but across the cul-de-sac from him.

I am completely in love with my best friend from childhood, she has absolutely no idea, and now she’s interested in older, more popular guys.

This sounds like a bad movie already.

Matt is a talented basketball player and a writer, big brother to four-year-old Murray. He is pretty awesome in every category, actually, but Tabby has definitely friend-zoned him. They’re freshmen at Franklin High and by October, she’s caught the attention of senior stud Liam Branson, starter on both the school’s football and basketball teams. Matt is consumed with jealousy, even though, as it turns out, Liam is a pretty awesome guy.

And it’s not like Tabby is flaunting her new relationship in Matt’s face. They’ve always been just friends. They like Star Wars movies and Nerds and, until Liam started picking Tabby up in the mornings, riding the school bus together. Tabby has always been a part of Matt’s family dynamic because his “mom started babysitting Tabby when she was four months old. And since my mom stayed home with me until I started school, Tabby was at our house nearly every day. She’s part of our family.”

Matt imagines a different future with Tabby, but his longings live in his head. He never actually gathers the courage to tell her how he feels, and their relationship endures some bumps along the way as she navigates her first relationship and Matt tries to tamp down his feelings about that relationship.

Their relationship starts to deteriorate and then the unspeakable happens.

Reck’s novel is everything a great YA novel should be. The characters are believable and appealing; even the adults get a fair shake. I especially loved Matt’s grandfather and this book really made me miss my own grandparents, long gone now. Matt is, often, immature, as you’d expect him to be, but he’s smart and sensitive, too. Tabby is more than just the gorgeous object of both Matt and Liam’s affections. She has feelings and depth.

I loved everything about A Short History of the Girl Next Door and highly recommend it.

 

The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood & Renee Nault

I probably shouldn’t admit this, being both a Canadian and an English teacher, but I have handmaidbestnever read Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale. I haven’t watched the series, either. I know, I know. I figured that I could rectify that by reading Renee Nault’s stunning graphic novel of Atwood’s book.

First published in 1985, Atwood’s novel explores a dystopian America. Atwood imagines a totalitarian state where women are commodities without their own names or lives. Some women are sexual servants, that is if they are of the age to bear children. Their names reflect the men they serve, so the book’s narrator is Offred or “of Fred”. In another life, Offred was married, had a daughter, but the family was separated when they tried to escape to Canada. The novel won several awards, including the Governor General’s Award and the Booker.

In many ways, Atwood’s novel was prescient. Flash forward almost 35 years and reflect on what is currently happening in the States (and around the world) and The Handmaid’s Tale  should make your skin crawl.

Nault’s beautiful drawings highlight the horrific lives lived by these handmaids.

handmaidstalegraphicnovel

They dress in red “the colour of blood, which defines us.” Their hats prevent “keep us from seeing, but also from being seen.”Offred reveals her defiance to her situation early on claiming that “I never looked good in red, it’s not my colour.” Friendships are discouraged between the handmaids. Their only job is to be an incubator.

It’s easy to see why Atwood’s novel was ground-breaking when it was first published. It’s difficult to read it even now. Nault’s adaptation should introduce a whole new generation of readers to Atwood’s acclaimed novel. I might just go read the original now.