Crooked River – Valerie Geary

Fifteen-year-old Sam and her younger sister, Ollie, 10, have come to live with their father, Bear, in a teepee in a meadow in Oregon. Bear’s eccentric, sure, but he’s not crazy. One day he left his home, his wife and kids, in Eugene, and just didn’t come back. Sam’s been spending summers with her father since she was seven and she’s come to appreciate the quiet of both the place and her father.

…there was no electricity, only the sun. No plumbing, only the river and a barrel to catch the rain. No roof over our heads to blot out the stars, no television to drown out the bird and cricket songs, so asphalt to burn the soles of our feet. Most kids would probably hate a place like this, but to me it was home.

This is Ollie’s first summer; she’d previously gone to summer camp instead of going to Bear’s, but now there is no choice: the sisters’ mother has died suddenly.

When Valerie Geary’s beautiful novel Crooked River begins, the girls are down by the river and they find a “woman floating facedown in an eddy where Crooked River made a slow bend north.” They try to pull her to shore, but the current takes her. Sam is certain Bear will know what to do, but when they get back to the tent they find something that starts a chain reaction of discoveries, coincidences, and bad decisions. Before the girls can even make sense of what’s happening, their father is arrested for murder.

It is mostly down to Sam to tell this story because Ollie has elected to stop talking. “I was trying to be patient” Sam says, “but her silence was finally starting to wear me thin.” Ollie may not talk to anyone else, but she does commune with ghosts. The night is made of them, she says. “I see. I see things no one else does. I see them there and wish I didn’t. I want to tell and can’t.”

The sisters know their father is innocent, and Sam is desperate to prove it. Part of what makes Crooked River so great is the mystery, but what I really loved about the book is its sense of place. From the meadow’s hidden delights, to the beehives Bear tends, everything in Geary’s novel is written with a true appreciation for their inherent beauty. The mystery part, though, kicks into high gear in the novel’s last third and it’s a thrill ride.

This is also a book about family, grief and growing up. And if you think that’s all too much to cram into one book, then you don’t know Geary’s prodigious gifts as a novelist. There’s a beating heart at the center of this book and a crooked river runs through it.

Highly recommended.

All the Beautiful Lies – Peter Swanson

Harry Ackerson’s father, Bill, is dead. He’s only just found out and he has to leave college (he’s just about to collect his diploma) and head to Kennewick Village, Maine, where his father lives with his second, much younger wife, Alice.

She was a strange kind of beautiful, her eyes set too far apart, her skin so pale that you could make out the blue veins right near the surface. She reminded Harry of one of those hot alien races from Star Trek, a beautiful female who just happened to have green skin, say, or ridges on her forehead. She was otherworldly. Harry found himself in a state of constant, confused sexual turmoil, guiltily obsessing over Alice.

Harry’s arrival in Maine is fraught. Alice is distraught. Their house, known locally as the Grey Lady, has never been home to Harry. It’s filled with his father’s things. His father owned a rare bookstore in the village, and Alice is hoping Harry will stick around and help John, the store’s lone employee, run the place.

Things get complicated with the arrival of Grace, a young woman Harry’s age who seems to have some connection to his father, and the news that Bill’s death might not be an accident after all. This is the general story line in Peter Swanson’s novel All the Beautiful Lies. Of course, things are a lot more twisty than this.

Alice and her mother moved to Kennewick when she was fourteen. Her mother, Edith, had won a settlement from the Saltonstall Mill for a workplace accident which had nearly killed her. The move is supposed to be a fresh start, but there’s no hitting reset on Edith’s drinking. When Edith meets and marries handsome banker Jake, Alice almost can’t believe her good luck.

Swanson’s novel flips between then (Alice’s story) and now (what exactly happened to Bill), and the way that these two stories coil around each other is one of the novel’s pleasures. When someone else turns up dead, Harry finds himself caught in the a maelstrom of lies. (Whether or not they are beautiful will be up to you to decide.)

This is my second book by Peter Swanson (The Kind Worth Killing) and I am solidly a fan now.

Red, White & Royal Blue – Casey McQuiston

Everyone and their dog got really squishy over Casey McQuiston’s frothy romance Red, White & Royal Blue when it came out in 2019. This New Adult debut tells the story of Alex Claremont-Diaz, 21, and Henry Fox-Mountchristen-Windsor, 23. Although they’ve been in each other’s orbit for years, they hate each other; well, at least, Alex hates Henry. It’s problematic because Alex’s mother is the president of the United States, and Henry’s grandmother is the Queen of England. Yes, this is a fantasy. In every category.

When the novel begins, Alex is just wrapping up his final year of university, determined that he is “not going to be the youngest elected congressman in modern history without earning it.” Alex is academically brilliant and politically savvy, but perhaps not quite so clever when it comes to his personal life. He and his older sister, June, spend their free time flipping through the tabloids to see what the world is saying about them, or hanging with their best friend, Nora, the Vice President’s granddaughter. The three of them are known collectively as the White House Trio.

When the Claremont-Diazs are invited to attend the wedding of Henry’s older brother, Philip, it’s clear that there is some rivalry between Alex and Henry.

The tabloids – the world – decided to cast Alex as the American equivalent of Prince Henry from day one, since the White House Trio is the closest thing America has to royalty. It has never seemed fair. Alex’s image is all charisma and genius and smirking wit, thoughtful interviews and the cover of GQ at eighteen. Henry’s is placid smiles and gentle chivalry and generic charity appearances, a perfectly blank Prince Charming canvas.

When that acrimony lands them on top of the eight-tier wedding cake, it causes an international incident that must be squashed with a carefully constructed ruse: Henry and Alex will act like they are best friends instead of mortal enemies. It’s, of course, a trope as old as time. Turns out, though, that these two have a lot more in common than they thought, and that’s when things get interesting.

Although Red, White & Royal Blue takes a little bit to get going, once it picks up steam there’s, well, plenty of it. Henry is disgustingly handsome. thoughtful, intelligent and kind. And a little bit damaged, too. That’s kind of a given in most romance novels, isn’t it? When Henry finally makes a move, it causes a ripple effect, not the least of which is a sexual crisis for Alex. I mean, he’s straight, right? Um, not so much.

I really enjoyed this book. It was sweet, funny, and romantic. Alex and Henry are adorable, truly. I think the book probably caused such a stir because when it was released Trump was still in office and this book imagines a kinder, gentler and much, much saner post-Obama world. It’s kinda hard to find fault with that. It’s fluffy, for sure, but it’s also a book that promotes the idea that we can live in a world that treats people with respect, that acknowledges and supports their choices, that doesn’t care as much about sexual orientation. When Alex’s mom is running for re-election, her competition is a far-right jerk, and the election comes down to Texas (where the Claremont-Diazs are from). I mean, Texas always votes red, right? See, fantasy.

McQuiston’s book is big-hearted, well-written, smart and optimistic. No wonder it’s the perfect antidote for an imperfect world.

Her Last Death – Susanna Sonnenberg

Susanna Sonnenberg’s memoir Her Last Death recounts the author’s dysfunctional relationship with her mother. I couldn’t relate. My mother, Bobbie, was perfect. Well, of course she wasn’t perfect, but she was all the things Sonnenberg’s mother wasn’t: pragmatic, steady, selfless, reasonable. I could always count on her counsel and support. Our disagreements were few and far between and I couldn’t have gone months without talking to her. She died in 2006 of lung cancer at the age of 67 and I miss her every day.

I know I was lucky. Lots of women have fraught relationships with their moms. It wasn’t in my mother’s nature to be competitive or confrontational. She wasn’t interested in being center stage. She wanted her children to be happy and I know she probably made many sacrifices to ensure our lives were as good as she could possibly make them.

Sonnenberg was born into a family of wealth and privilege. Her parents, Ben and Wendy Adler (known in the book as Nat and Daphne) were movers and shakers in NYC. Her father was something of a literary legend on Grand Street in the 1980s. Her parents divorced when Sonnenberg was three, and Sonnenberg’s relationship with him seems rather sporadic until she’s older and makes a concerted effort to spend time with him.

Her mother is a larger-than-life character. From a very young age, her mother confides in her, depends on her, schools her in the skewed way she sees the world. When Sonnenberg is just a little girl her mother tells her “”You must never let a man remove your knickers unless you intend to sleep with him.”” Daphne parades an endless string of men into their apartment; she seems only to have to crook her finger. As Sonnenberg gets older, some of these men happen to be her classmates. On her sixteenth birthday, Daphne presents Sonnenberg with a Montblanc fountain pen, “…the finest pen ever made…for your writing” and a gram of okay, which she proudly announces she cut herself. She cautions her daughter: “Please, please, darling, don’t ever do someone else’s coke. You never know what it’s cut with. Promise?”

Daphne is clearly mentally ill, but somehow that doesn’t make her sympathetic. Sonnenberg isn’t particularly sympathetic, either, but at least you can understand how she ends up so screwed up. And she is: she’s selfish and self-absorbed. She sleeps with pretty much every guy she crosses paths with. It takes her a long time to figure out who she is and what she wants. The last third of the memoir is pretty much un-put-downable.

Being a mother requires a great deal of sacrifice. In her way, Daphne loved her children, but that love was predicated on her own desires. She always came first. For many years, Sonnenberg lives by that same creed. It’s not until she really falls in love and has her own children that she understands how much must be given of oneself.

I lift my children from the water and rub them warm with the towel. I bind them tight, hold them against me, whisper into their hair. I know this is love. It’s the single moment of parenting in which I am certain I am doing the right thing, in which, without review, I yield to an instinct.

My mother had good parenting instincts. She knew how to say the right things. She protected us when we needed it, and pushed us out into the world when we needed that, too. Parenting is hard work. It’s frustrating and exhausting and scary. Sometimes it’s no fun. But then, sometimes, it’s everything.

White Ivy – Susie Yang

My first book of 2021 is White Ivy which was marketed as a coming-of-age thriller of sorts with plot twists that “will leave readers breathless” (according to Library Journal, at least). It concerns the fate of Ivy Lin, born in China, but left behind when her parents move to America. Then, “when Ivy turned five, Nan and Shen Lin had finally saved enough money to send for the daughter.” She joins her parents and baby brother, Austin, in Massachusetts.

Ivy is “average and nondescript” and grows up dreaming of about looking different.

Ivy’s only source of vanity was her eyes. They were pleasingly round, symmetrically situated, cocoa brown in color, with crescent corners dipped in like the ends of a stuffed dumpling. Her grandmother had trimmed her lashes when she was a baby to “stimulate growth,” and it seemed to have worked, for now she was blessed with a flurry of thick, black lashes

You know what they say about eyes being the windows to the soul, right? I’m not gong to go so far as to say that Ivy is soulless, only that she never seems quite sure about what she wants and even when she is, she seems to think that the only way to get it is through cheating. She’s a narcissist and given her early childhood, it’s no wonder.

Ivy Lin was a thief but you would never know it to look at her. Maybe that was the problem. No one ever suspected – and that made her reckless.

What does Ivy steal? Little things at first, things her strict immigrant parents don’t want her to have: tampons, cassette tapes, a walkman. Then she tries to steal her way into another life, a life inhabited by the object of her teenage desire: Gideon Speyer. For just one moment, when she is invited to Gideon’s birthday party at his “handsome glass and stone manor”, Ivy imagines what it might be like to belong. It’s a short-lived dream because when her parents find out that she lied to them to attend the party, they humiliate her by picking her up, send her to China for the summer and then move to New Jersey. It’s not until many years later that Ivy crosses paths with Gideon once again.

White Ivy is a strange book. I read it in a couple of sittings, but I never really felt as though I understood Ivy’s motivation. Does she lie out of habit? What is it about Gideon that she desires, really? They have zero chemistry. And then there’s Roux, a childhood friend who resurfaces right around the time Ivy’s relationship with Gideon is going to next level (aka meet – or in this case, re-meet – the parents).

Roux is rough around the edges. He cares little what anyone thinks of him. He’s made something of himself, although whether or not his success is strictly legal is up for debate. In many ways, he would make a much better partner for Ivy, but he’s not the waspish dream. He does complicate Ivy’s life, and then he offers an ultimatum which pushes the novel into thriller-esque territory.

I am not really sure how I feel about this book. I didn’t hate it. I didn’t love it. I wouldn’t call it a coming-of-age novel because there is no moment of epiphany for Ivy. It’s not a thriller. It’s definitely character driven and Ivy isn’t necessarily a character you will warm to. Not that that matters. Did I want her to succeed? ::shrugs:: I felt sort of as if there were some missed opportunities in this novel, but it wasn’t a waste of reading time.

My Reading Year in Review 2020

One of my favourite things to do at this time of year is to reflect on the reading year that was, and Jamie aka The Perpetual Page-Turner makes this very easy to do by providing this list of questions.

Number Of Books You Read: 86
Number of Re-Reads: 2 (but I didn’t count them in my 86 as they were for school & I only skim read them.)
Genre You Read The Most From: literary fiction/YA (not really genres, I know – but in those categories I read a lot of thrillers, mysteries, realistic fic)

best-YA-books-2014

1. Best Book You Read In 2020?

(If you have to cheat — you can break it down by genre if you want or 2020 release vs. backlist)

I think I am going to have a hard time picking the best book I read this year because, honestly, I read a lot of them. How about a Top Five list.

  1. Hello Goodbye – Emily Chenoweth
  2. The Roanoke Girls– Amy Engel
  3. Daisy Jones & The Six – Taylor Jenkins Reid
  4. Olive Kitteridge – Elizabeth Strout
  5. Where All Light Tends To Go – David Joy

2. Book You Were Excited About & Thought You Were Going To Love More But Didn’t?

I was excited about Verity by Colleen Hoover because everyone was talking about it. It sounded deliciously dark but it was just over-the-top stupid. 

3. Most surprising (in a good way or bad way) book you read?  

I was probably most surprised by Olive Kitteridge. That book has been languishing on my TBR shelf pretty much since it came out and I finally got around to it. I was sure I wasn’t going to like it when I started and I was so wrong.

 4. Book You “Pushed” The Most People To Read (And They Did)?

I spend a lot of time encouraging people to read books – both in my classroom and just in general. A couple books I recommended a lot were One of Us is Lying by Karen M. McManus and Where All Light Tends to Go by David Joy

 5. Best series you started in 2020? Best Sequel? Best Series Ender of 2020?

Well, I am not really a series reader. Probably One of Us is Lying could slide into this slot as I finished the year with its sequel One of Us Is Next.

 6. Favorite new author you discovered in 2020?

There are a few authors I discovered this year that I will definitely be reading more from including Amy Engel, Roz Nay, Lucie Whitehouse, Gillian French, Tom Ryan, and Emily Chenoweth

7. Best book from a genre you don’t typically read/was out of your comfort zone?

Yeah – I don’t generally read outside of my genre (so no fantasy or sci fi for me) and nothing is really outside of my comfort zone. I have a pretty high tolerance for ick.

 8. Most action-packed/thrilling/unputdownable book of the year?

I read a LOT of page turners this year, books that had me turning the pages way past my bedtime. I think I might have read Daisy Jones & the Six in one sitting. I was just enchanted by that whole book and really couldn’t put it down.

 9. Book You Read In 2020 That You Would Be MOST Likely To Re-Read Next Year?

I am a re-reader, but I am not sure there’s anything on this year’s list that I might re-read with the exception of The Fountains of Silence as it may end up as something students read.

10. Favorite cover of a book you read in 2020?

How pretty is that? Tyler Johnson Was Here

11. Most memorable character of 2020?

Olive Kitteridge and Jacob McNeely from Where All Light Tends To Go are two characters I won’t soon forget.

 12. Most beautifully written book read in 2020?

I dunno. Ahhhh. I read some beautifully written books this year. It’s a toss up between Olive Kitteridge (I am starting to see a pattern here) and Hello Goodbye.

13. Most Thought-Provoking/ Life-Changing Book of 2020?

Where All Light Tends To Go was a really visceral experience for me in the same way Our Daily Bread was when I read it in 2013.

 14. Book you can’t believe you waited UNTIL 2020 to finally read? 

Olive Kitteridge. I am sorry I waited so long to make her acquaintance; however, what a delight it was to spend time with her. Truthfully, I have so many books on my TBR shelf, there’s always something I’m taking too long to get to.

 15. Favorite Passage/Quote From A Book You Read In 2020?

I never think to do this and then I never have anything for this category. I am definitely going to keep it in mind for next year, though!

16.Shortest & Longest Book You Read In 2020?

Longest: Stephen King’s The Outsider, 561 pages

Shortest: I Will Judge You By Your Bookshelf, 128 pages

 17. Book That Shocked You The Most

(Because of a plot twist, character death, left you hanging with your mouth wide open, etc.)

The Headmaster’s Wife by Thomas Christopher Green had a pretty amazing twist for literary fiction

18. OTP OF THE YEAR (you will go down with this ship!) (OTP = one true pairing if you aren’t familiar)

Bronwyn & Nate 4eva: One of Us Is Lying

Honourable Mentions to: Daisy & Billy: Daisy Jones & The Six; Charlie & Fran: Sweet Sorrow

19. Favorite Non-Romantic Relationship Of The Year

James and Bob in A Street Cat Named Bob. Of course, as a cat lover, I was 100% rooting for these two crazy kids. The movie is a delight if you have not yet seen it.

20. Favorite Book You Read in 2020 From An Author You’ve Read Previously

I can always count on Lisa Jewell to deliver a well-written page-turner, and I thoroughly enjoyed both books of hers that I read in 2020, but I am going to have to go with The Family Upstairs. I always have an unread book by Jewell on my shelf, in case of emergencies.

21. Best Book You Read In 2020 That You Read Based SOLELY On A Recommendation From Somebody Else/Peer Pressure/Bookstagram, Etc.:

Thanks to Litsy I have added so many books to my TBR shelf, which is I think how My Dark Vanessa ended up in my hands. It was grim, but I enjoyed it. I also read Homegoing because a former student now colleague literally put it in my hands and said it was the best book she’d ever read.

22. Newest fictional crush from a book you read in 2020?

Some characters I have loved include: Cooper (The Roanoke Girls), Darius (Darius the Great Is Not Okay), and Abby (My Best Friend’s Exorcism)

23. Best 2020 debut you read?

Our Little Secret by Roz Nay had all the things.

24. Best Worldbuilding/Most Vivid Setting You Read This Year?

Both My Best Friend’s Exorcism and We Are Still Tornadoes shot me straight back to the 1980s, a decade I am supremely fond of.

25. Book That Put A Smile On Your Face/Was The Most FUN To Read?

Daisy Jones & The Six was a blast to read even though it was angsty (but as I love angst even that made me smile.) You Were Never Here was also a delight to read because it’s set in my home province. (There are other delightful reasons to read this book, but this was especially awesome.)

26. Book That Made You Cry Or Nearly Cry in 2020?

Hello Goodbye by Emily Chenoweth was a heartbreaker

Where All Light Tends To Go by David Joy also broke my heart

Sweet Sorrow by David Nicholls also made me teary

27. Hidden Gem Of The Year?

For me, The Roanoke Girls. I bought it in the 3 for $10 section at Indigo and I tore through it in pretty much one sitting. I would read anything this author wrote. There’s nothing better than falling in love with a book and author you’ve never heard of before.

28. Book That Crushed Your Soul?

Gotta be Where All Light Tends To Go. I rooted so hard for the main character, Jacob, to find his way out of the hell of his life.

29. Most Unique Book You Read In 2020?

Daisy Jones & The Six, a story told as an oral history, which was way more fun to read than you might think.

30. Book That Made You The Most Mad (doesn’t necessarily mean you didn’t like it)?

I am mad that I wasted money on Verity. I am mad that Delia Owens ruined Where the Crawdads Sing with that crap ending. I am mad that translations don’t figure out how to get dialogue right. (The Hypnotist, I Remember You). I am mad at the tripe that is Blind Kiss for wasting my time.

book-blogging

1. New favorite book blog/Bookstagram/Youtube channel you discovered in 2020?

I don’t know whether I discovered her this year or not, but I love watching Jen Campbell on YouTube. A little closer to home, I enjoy @kittslit on Instagram.

2. Favorite post you wrote in 2020?

I find my scathing review of Verity quite comical. I am not often scathing, but that book was infuriating.

3. Favorite bookish related photo you took in 2020?

I don’t really have a photo game, but here are a couple I like. You’ll notice a theme.

4. Best bookish event that you participated in (author signings, festivals, virtual events,  etc.)?

I was very happy to talk about dystopian fiction on CBC radio during the lockdown. I also attended a virtual YA panel hosted by The Lorenzo Society which was a lot of fun.

5. Best moment of bookish/blogging life in 2020?

It always makes me super happy to interact with authors whose books I have enjoyed.

6. Most challenging thing about blogging or your reading life this year?

I had a great reading year, actually. Yeah, Covid sucks, but when schools closed on March 13 I suddenly had a lot more free time on my hands because it took the government some time to figure out what the rest of the academic year was going to look like. We couldn’t go anywhere, but I didn’t need to because I have books enough to last me the rest of my life.

7. Most Popular Post This Year On Your Blog (whether it be by comments or views)?

My blog stats for 2020 are as follows:

  • 7204 views
  • 4858 visitors
  • Normal People got the most love with 156 visits

8. Post You Wished Got A Little More Love?

I keep saying this and it’s mostly true: I keep this blog mainly for myself. If I do a radio spot, I get a spike in views. If I tweet about a book I’ve loved and the author retweets, that often pays dividends. Mostly though, I am content in my little spot on the WWW. That said, sometimes I write something that I wish somebody besides myself had read. For example, I wrote a post about abandoning books which I quite liked (I Just Can’t Seem To Quit You) and did another on Shopping my Own Shelves.

9. Best bookish discovery (book related sites, book stores, etc.)?

Oh Reader , a new-to-me (and the world) magazine devoted to all things bookish. ::heart::

10.  Did you complete any reading challenges or goals that you had set for yourself at the beginning of this year?

Yes, indeed. See my year-end wrap up at My Reading Pledge

looking-ahead-books-2015

1. One Book You Didn’t Get To In 2020 But Will Be Your Number 1 Priority in 2021?

I am very much looking forward to reading A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara and The Heart’s Invisible Furies two books that have been on my reading radar for a while.

2. Book You Are Most Anticipating For 2021 (non-debut)?

Either of those books, plus Red, White and Royal Blue, which I am hoping is as sweet as everyone claims.

3. 2021 Debut You Are Most Anticipating?

Don’t really keep track.

 4. Series Ending/A Sequel You Are Most Anticipating in 2021?

Not a series reader, really.

5. One Thing You Hope To Accomplish Or Do In Your Reading/Blogging Life In 2021?

I would like to hit 100 books – so less time on social media and more time with a book in my hand. Perhaps make better use of my Instagram.

6. A 2021 Release You’ve Already Read & Recommend To Everyone (if applicable):

n/a