One True Loves – Taylor Jenkins Reid

So I will preface my thoughts about Taylor Jenkins Reid’s 2016 novel One True Loves by saying that Daisy Jones & the Six was one of my favourite reads last year. It had all the things: humour, nostalgia, angst. It was my first book by Jenkins Reid and so I knew I would be dipping into her back list and that is how I ended up with a copy of One True Loves.

One True Loves sounded totally like my jam because there is nothing I like more than people who love each other but can’t be together (Buffy/Angel, Sid/Vaughn after Vaughn thinks Sid is dead and marries she who will not be named). In this story, Emma Blair lives with her older sister, Marie, and their parents in Acton, Massachusetts where they own a bookstore called Blair Books.

One day at a swim meet, Emma sees Jesse Lerner, high school swimming star and the boy Emma develops a crush on that lasts until the night at a senior year party where they finally speak to each other. The connection is instant and before you can say “I love you”, they are actually saying “I love you.” And that’s pretty much my problem with the entire book.

Fast forward several years and Jesse and Emma have settled – after years of traveling the world – in Los Angeles. Emma is a travel writer; Jesse works as a production assistant on wildlife documentaries. Then, just before their one year anniversary, Jesse takes a job in Alaska and the helicopter he is on crashes.

Emma’s grief is all consuming. She demonstrates this by climbing up onto her roof with a pair of binoculars to watch the sliver of ocean she can see, sure that she will see Jesse trying to make it home to her. Eventually, though, she decides to return to Acton and takes a job at Blair Books, something she swore she would never do. Then, she runs into Sam Kemper, the other boy from high school whom she’d friend-zoned. Suddenly she has feelings for Sam. I say suddenly because all the relationships in this novel are sudden and soul-mate deep. The pronouncements would be so much more effective if I actually felt as though I got to know any of these characters on anything more than a superficial level.

We don’t see Jesse and Emma struggle. We don’t see any of their travels or any of their growing up. They come face to face at a party in their senior year, then they hide in the bushes when the cops come to bust it up and then they are revealing their innermost selves to each other – and I get it, sometimes chemistry just knocks the wind out of you. Emma explains her feelings like this:

I was madly in love with him and had been for as long as I could remember. We had a deep meaningful history together. It was Jesse who had held my hand when my parents were furious to find out I’d never sent my application to the University of Massachusetts, and in doing so, had forced their hand to send me to California. It was Jesse who supported me when they asked me to move home after we graduated, Jesse who dried my tears when my father was heartbroken that I would not come home to help run the store. And it was also Jesse who helped me remain confident that, eventually, my parents and I would see eye-to-eye again one day.

The boy that I first saw that day at the swimming pool had turned into an honorable and kind man. He opened doors for me. He bought me a Diet Coke and Ben & Jerry’s Chunky Monkey when I had a bad day. He took photos of all the places he’d been, all the places he and I had been together, and decorated our home with them.

And this is the problem with One True Loves: it’s all tell. I never felt invested in these characters and their story because I never really spent any time with them. They are all nice people, but the tension which should develop when Jesse is returned from the dead (not a spoiler, the book blurb tells you) never actually materializes. By this time, Emma and Sam have met, fallen in love and are engaged. What’s a girl to do?

Nice guy Sam is teary-eyed, but stoic about this situation, but he loves Emma and her happiness is all that matters to him. There’s no real angst here because Emma’s feelings for both of these handsome, kind, lovely men (c’mon, really?!) are kinda equal. Like, toss a coin equal. There’s no downside to ending up with either of them.

One True Loves is easy to read, but utterly forgettable. It does not, however put me off Jenkins Reid. I have Malibu Rising on my bedside table and I am very much looking forward to it.

The Children of Red Peak – Craig DiLouie

Despite the assertions that Craig DiLouie’s novel The Children of Red Peak is a “genuinely unsettling psychological horror novel” and “a chilling tale of horror”, I wouldn’t call this book horror or even psychological suspense. It’s really more a family drama, a story of the after effects of trauma. Make no mistake, though, the trauma is real.

Deacon, Beth and David have reunited to attend the funeral of their childhood friend, Emily, who has taken her own life. These four, along with David’s older sister, Angela, were the only survivors of a terrible mass suicide which took place on Red Peak. But before Red Peak, there was Tehachapi, which is where David and Angela’s mother takes them after her husband leaves them because “Everybody at the community lives in harmony with each other and God. I want to be surrounded by people who love me no matter what and won’t hurt me just because they can.”

Sounds ideal, which is the appeal of most cults, I guess. Angela and David are skeptical, but David eventually settles into life in the valley where isolation from society, and a steady diet of hard work, fresh air and religious doctrine from the leader of the Family of the Living Spirit, Jeremiah Peale, slowly wins him over.

The Reverend founded the Family after the 9/11 attacks, which he interpreted as a sign. History was coming to an end, and Jesus was on his way back after being gone two thousand years. He didn’t know the exact time and date of Christ’s return, only that he was certain it would happen. After all, Jesus had promised he’d come back, it said so right in the Bible, and the Bible never lied.

DiLouie wisely flips between past and present, and in doing so strings out the mystery of what happened to the Family. We see the bond forged by the main characters when they were kids and we see what their lives have become as adults (Deacon is a musician who writes his trauma into his songs; Beth is a psychologist; David helps people exit cults; Angela is a cop). It is apparent though that these adults all suffer from PTSD, which they cope with by either starting their day with a glass of Cab Sav or ignoring their past completely. Emily’s suicide, though, necessitates a return to the time and place where all was lost.

Cults are fascinating, and the Family is no different. It’s a doomsday cult and when Jeremiah visits Red Peak and comes back to the valley with news that the end is nigh, his followers are excited at the prospect of eternal life. This is what they’ve been longing for. I think the novel does a good job of examining the religious doctrine and hysteria that might cause this wholesale belief in an afterlife. I did think that there might be something else going on at Red Peak that was never really explored, and so for that reason I found the novel’s dénouement sort of anti-climactic.

So, while not a horror novel and not – for me at least – scary, I still found The Children of Red Peak a quick and interesting read with characters I did care about.

In Ruins – Danielle Pearl

Carleigh (Carl) and Tucker have been friends since they’ve been kids. Then they fell in love. Now they’re barely speaking. This is the narrative of Danielle Pearl’s New Adult (but we’ll talk about that later) novel In Ruins. Told in the voices of both Carl and Tuck, the novel unravels scenes from the pair’s childhood, their tentative relationship, and their love story, but it leaves the details of their breakup – something big, something Carl feels she’ll never be forgiven for – until near the end.

The story begins when Carl starts her first year of college. Carl is feeling unsettled about being at school, mostly because Tuck is also there (on a lacrosse scholarship – I guess lacrosse is cool in the States) and their relationship had “implode[d] before summer was out.” Now, when she should be excited about her classes, and the parties and being away from her mother, Carl is walking “on eggshells, because Tucker knows my secret. He hates me for it, and he should.”

Tucker, for his part, is

angry that she’s here. I’m angry that she’s not who I thought she was. I’m angry that she’s beautiful, and that my teammates have already noticed her. I’m angry that she ran out of that bar alone last night when she should fucking know better. I’m angry that she still affects me – that my dick doesn’t seem to care whether or not she’s a conniving little liar.

Carl and Tuck are hoping to avoid each other, but they end up in the same Marketing class and before you can say “of course they do” they end up working on a group project. Their feelings are complicated and try as they might to bury them deep, it’s just not possible. But that’s how these stories work, right? And I think, overall, Pearl does a good job of stringing us along, even though we know the “will they won’t they” will ultimately be “of course they will”. There’s lots of other stuff happening here, too: family drama, absent parents, and even some fast-paced intrigue near the end. Overall, I did enjoy reading In Ruins and found it to be well-written and, on the Scoville scale of hotness, it’s about Trinidad Scorpion Butch T hot. I might have rated it higher except….I didn’t believe any of the sex scenes.

I was eighteen about a million years ago – but eighteen-year-old boys like Tucker did NOT exist. I teach high school. There are zero Tucks. There are zero Carleighs, for that matter. Tuck is a gigolo-grade eighteen year old. He’s physically perfect (although I could have done with a little less of his army green eyes), but we sort of expect an idealized version of our main characters in this kind of story. The things I couldn’t get past were the dirty talk and just Tuck’s general skill, which is porn star amazing. I suppose this book counts as NA because of the age of the characters and the fact that it is set in college, but I wouldn’t put it in my classroom library, mostly because I don’t want to give teenage girls unrealistic expectations about what sex is like. There is also so much swearing. It’s irksome. I like a well-placed F bomb, too, but geesh.

Neverthless, if I was going to suggest a quick, decently written, smutty book to read In Ruins would probably fit the bill. It’s far better (by a country mile) than Corrupt.

The Perfect Liar – Thomas Christopher Greene

Max W. and Susannah meet at a fancy art party in New York City. They are drawn to each other almost immediately and soon after, they are married. Now they live in Vermont where Max has taken a job as a lecturer at a small liberal arts college. One morning, while Max is away giving a lecture at an art institute in Chicago, Susannah discovers a note pinned to their front door:


Thomas Christopher Green’s (The Headmaster’s Wife, Envious Moon) The Perfect Liar is the perfect book for a rainy afternoon because you can read it pretty much in one sitting. It won’t take you long to realize that you are dealing with a couple of unreliable narrators – my favourite kind of narrator – and that’s what makes this book so much fun.

Max has reinvented himself from runaway/vagabond – to artist – to viral TedTalk phenom. He’s pretty forthcoming about the details of his life and he also knows that “he had the gift to read people. He imagined he could often tell what they desired even before he knew it themselves.” He knows how to hold a room, so he’s soon a sought after speaker at art institutes and corporate functions.

Susannah was widowed young and is the mother of one son, Freddy, now sixteen. Her former husband was her therapist first and despite the obvious conflict of interest, she continued to see him professionally even after they were married. Joseph was twenty years older than her with a “voice calming like a metronome. Susannah loved his voice and she loved how he used words. She couldn’t get enough of his voice. Just the sound of it was enough for her to feel at ease, to stop being aware of her heart.”

Susannah suffers from extreme panic attacks and anxiety, and being in Vermont seems to be helping – until she finds the first note. Then this perfect life she seems to have found starts to unravel. And Max, too, seems unsettled by the note…and the notes that follow.

Greene does a great job of moving the narrative along and giving you lots of opportunities to shift allegiances. I’m not sure I would go so far as to say that either Max or Susannah are particularly sympathetic, but that doesn’t really matter at the end of the day. I don’t want to spoil any of the novel’s several surprises, so I’ll just say The Perfect Liar is the perfect book for your beach bag.

Keeping Lucy – T. Greenwood

Keeping Lucy by T. Greenwood is not the sort of book I would have ever picked on my own to read. Apparently it was inspired by “incredible true events” and while I don’t doubt the novel’s sincerity, there were just too many schmaltzy or wtf moments for me to invest in any of the characters.

Ginny Richardson and her husband Abbott (Ab because he father is Abbott, too) have just welcomed their second child into the world, a daughter they call Lucy. After the delivery, Ginny is told that Lucy has a “condition [that] comes with many, many challenges” including “Heart defects, hearing and vision problems, Thyroid malfunctions.” Ginny is informed that

She’s mongoloid. Which means severe mental retardation. She’ll be feeble-minded, no more intelligent than a dog. The hardship she will bring to your family – women never realize the impact that raising an imbecile has on a marriage. On the other children. You must think of your son.

Okay, sure, it’s 1969, but it’s as if Ginny has no agency of her own. By the time she recovers from giving birth, Lucy has been sent to Willowridge, a “special” school where her particular problems can be looked after. The party line is that Lucy died during delivery and no one but her closest friend, Marsha, her mother and her in-laws know the truth. Ginny returns to her life as mom to her son and wife to her lawyer husband and long days of deciding what to serve for dinner and making sure the house is sparkling when Ab gets home.

Then, two years after Lucy is born, Marsha drops a bombshell. There’s been an exposé about Willowridge. The reporter visited the facility undercover and discovered

the bathrooms without stalls. The sleeping quarters’ walls smeared with human waste. The kitchen with its cockroaches. As she read about the vats of slop meant to pass as sustenance, as food, her stomach turned. […] Broken elevators filled with dirty laundry. Sewage spills. And the children. God, the children huddled into corners. Alone.

Although Ginny has never once visited her daughter, passive enough to believe her husband when he tells her that Lucy is better off where she is, she is mortified by these articles and she insists that Ab do something. Ab can’t though because his father is representing the school in several class action law suits. Ginny decides, with Marsha’s help, to go see for herself. What she discovers is so appalling that she kidnaps Lucy and they, along with her son Peyton, now six, and Marsha head to Florida to try to come up with a plan.

I know that we are supposed to admire Ginny’s maternal instincts and her overwhelming desire to rescue Lucy from what are clearly deplorable conditions, but I just kept shaking my head. You know how sometimes things take you out of a story – there were several instances of that in this book. For example, they stop for food and Ginny buys hamburgers and milkshakes for her children. Her two year daughter who has Down syndrome and has been institutionalized since birth is going to chow down on a McDouble and a shake? Say what? When they stop at Marsha’s aunt’s house for the night, it is described first as “a big farmhouse with plenty of rooms” and when they drive up the driveway suddenly it’s “a small cabin”, which she’d built herself. Stuff like this drives me crazy and I notice it a lot more when I am not invested in the book.

My brothers and I were all born in the 60s. I can’t imagine my mother ever letting any one of us be taken away and placed in an institution. I know things were different, I get it, but Ginny was such a frustrating character to me. When she and Ab meet they have such big plans and suddenly Ab is working for his dad and Ginny is relegated to the role of haus frau. depending on the allowance Ab gives her to run the household. She doesn’t drive; she doesn’t know how to use a credit card; she seems as innocent of the world as Lucy. Except it doesn’t take long for Lucy to be learning words and calling Ginny “momma”.

Keeping Lucy is treacle-y sweet and, while it was easy to read, I just didn’t like it.