Consent – Nancy Ohlin

When Nancy Ohlin’s YA novel Consent opens, seventeen-year-old Bea is in an interrogation room at the local police station. Her goal is to “Stay as close to the truth as possible.”

The truth is a grey area, though.

Bea and her best friend Plum attend Andrew Jackson High School, a “Campus for Baccalaureate and Performing Arts”. The two girls are over-achievers with “the two highest GPAs in school.” They have their lives mapped out: graduation and then Harvard. That is, until Bea meets Dane Rossi, the new AP Music History teacher.

Mr. Rossi turns from the blackboard and scans the class. Oh my Godi, he’s cute. Chiseled features and sexy stubble…Are teachers allowed to be that good looking?

Mr. Rossi is more than cute, though. He sees Bea, and recognizes her talent, a talent she has kept hidden from everyone. For reasons. He encourages her to join two other students in an ensemble; he hooks her up with an audition at Julliard; he deflowers her. Because, of course he does.

Consent is problematic, but not for the reasons that you might think. Yes – it’s all sorts of wrong that a teacher enters into a sexual relationship with a student, but it’s more the way that. None of the characters feel fully fleshed out. Bea’s father, a lawyer, is basically absent – until he isn’t. Her older brother is a non-entity. Dane is too good to be true, and their insta-attraction to each other just doesn’t seem realistic. Before you can Schumann they are planning their lives together. Just, y’know, after she turns eighteen. When they get caught, Bea convinces Plum and another boy to lie for her.

It was easy to read, but I never truly felt invested in these characters. It was hard to see Bea as a victim or Dane as a predator and although there was certainly potential for something a bit more dramatic, it never really happened.

Breathless – Jennifer Niven

Oh, young love.

Jennifer Niven’s (All the Bright Places ) novel Breathless took me back, way back, to a very particular time in my life. You know, that time when you fall in love and you’re filled with both dread and delight.

Claudine Henry’s life is pretty sweet. She lives with her mother (an acclaimed writer) and her father (works at the local college) in small-town Ohio. She and her best friend, Saz, are about to graduate from high school and embark on a post-graduation road-trip before they head off to their respective colleges. Then her father drops a bombshell: “…your mom and I are separating, and she asked me to tell you because it’s not her idea; it’s my idea.”

Claude is devastated by the news, and it upends her plans and her life. Instead of heading off with Saz, she and her mother make their way to an island off the coast of Georgia. The island has ties to their family and Claude’s mom is going to use the time to do some research and some writing. Claude is going to spend her time being miserable.

That is until she meets Jeremiah Crew. He has a “resting wiseass face” and an easy charm that is almost irresistible. The island is small and it’s impossible for Miah and Claude to avoid each other and it’s clear pretty ear they don’t want to anyway. He’s always around, barefoot and ready with some witty or caustic remark. I think I fell in love with him almost as quickly as Claude did.

As Miah and Claude start to spend more time together, Claude also starts to come to terms with her own life. Being away from Saz (there’s limited WiFi/cell service on the island) causes some tension, and miscommunication. And how is she supposed to navigate this new family dynamic? Her father was her person, the parent she shared morning rituals with, her protector, and now she doesn’t know who he is or how she’s supposed to feel about him. We forget at that age, that our parents are just trying to figure it out, too. Sometimes we get caught up in our own feelings and we forget that our parents have their own stuff to get through. Both Claude’s parents seemed like real people – which is often not the case in YA fiction. I loved Claude’s coming-of-age journey.

Ultimately, though, this is Claude and Miah’s story – and it is swoon worthy. They are eighteen, so this is slightly more NA than YA (and while the sex scenes aren’t particularly graphic, there are some in the book). Their banter is ::chef’s kiss:: awesome. I loved Miah so much.

“Here’s the thing,” Miah tells Claude. “I don’t want you getting too crazy about me, because I’m only here for the next few weeks.”

Trust me, resistance is futile.

Migrations – Charlotte McConaghy

In the not-too-distant-future Charlotte McConaghy imagines in her novel Migrations, “The animals are dying. Soon we will be all alone.”

When the novel opens, Franny Stone is in Greenland tagging Arctic terns. Now she needs a way to follow them. Enter Ennis Malone, captain of the fishing vessel Saghani. Franny just needs a way to convince him to let her come along. She tells him that the terns will lead him to the fish; all they have to do is follow them, and they can do that because of her electronic tags. This is a big deal because fish are scarce, but it’s a risk for Ennis because the birds are likely going further south than he normally sails and Franny has zero experience on a boat.

Franny is an enigma. Born in Australia to an Irish mother, Franny spends the first ten years of her life in Galway before her mother disappears and she is sent back to Australia to live with her paternal grandmother. Her father’s whereabouts are unknown. She spends much of her young adulthood trying to figure out what happened to her mother.

Then she meets Niall, a lecturer at the National University of Ireland, where Franny works as a cleaner.

My heart is beating too fast and I will myself to be calm, to breathe more slowly, to really take this in. To savor it and remember every detail because too soon I will be gone from the circle of his perfect words.

Their attraction is immediate and deep, and while Franny is on the Saghani, she writes letters to Niall to tell him of her progress. He is, she knows, as invested in her results as she is.

There is a lot going on in McConaghy’s novel: tracking the terns, Franny’s hunt for her mother, the complicated relationships which develop on the Saghani and, of course, Niall. Some might argue that there is too much going on and that the multiple, shifting timelines are unnecessary. But those shifting timelines unspool Franny’s complete story and keep you turning the pages. Franny is a complicated character. She is the sum total of all her experiences, plus also a victim of her own restless nature and readers must parse the information she provides.

I found Migrations almost unbearably beautiful. Although the Epilogue was a tad contrived, it didn’t spoil my overall reading experience. And sure, you could argue that McConaghy has never actually been to Newfoundland, but niggles like that are a waste of energy. This is a novel that asks some big questions: what are we doing to our climate? what does any of this mean? what will we take when we go?

Highly recommended.

The Lying Room – Nicci French

What starts as an interesting premise quickly devolves into oh no she didn’t territory in husband and wife team Nicci French’s 2019 thriller The Lying Room. I have a read a few of French’s novels (Catch Me When I Fall, Until It’s Over, Dark Saturday, and a handful of others that predate this blog) and for the most part I have enjoyed them, particularly Killing Me Softly.

In this story, married mother of three Neve gets a text from her boss and lover, Saul, to meet her at their Covent Garden love nest, but when she arrives she discovers him dead – his head bashed in with a hammer. I mean, the sensible thing to do is call the police, but Neve doesn’t do that. Instead she imagines the fallout if her betrayal is discovered, especially for her teenage daughter Mabel.

What would happen when she discovered that her mother had been having an affair, that her beloved father had been betrayed? Would everything unravel, the life that had been so painstakingly stitched back together?

In that instance, Never makes a decision. She decides to erase all trace of herself from the apartment and spends the next while scrubbing and cleaning and collecting any evidence that Saul was anything other than her boss. Yeah, that’ll end well.

It isn’t until later that she discovers that she left a piece of recognizable jewelry behind and when she returns to the scene of the crime…

There are a lot of characters in French’s book. There’s Neve and her immediate family, including her stay-at-home husband, Fletcher. There’s her three college besties (with whom she started a business called Sans Serif, which was purchased by Saul’s company); there’s the detective investigating Saul’s murder and Saul’s wife, Bernice, who comes to Neve – Lord knows why – to confide that she thinks Saul was having an affair. It’s not hard to keep track of them, but Neve (and presumably the reader) finds it increasingly difficult to know who to trust. People keep secrets, that’s a fact, and as Neve continues to lie about her involvement with Saul in an effort to protect – or, at least that’s what she tells herself she’s doing – her family, her life starts to unravel.

I mean, people love this book. Sure, pages were turned and I read it to the end. But – I didn’t care about any of these people, least of all Neve. It was, for me, a wholly unsatisfying read.

All the Things We Do in the Dark – Saundra Mitchell

One hot summer when nine-year-old Ava is outside riding her bike around the apartment complex where she lives, a man tells her “I have something that will keep you cool…” He leads Ava down a lane between the apartments and the trees and assaults her. This is the beginning of Saundra Mitchell’s YA novel All the Things We Do in the Dark.

Flash forward and Ava is now seventeen. Her parents are divorced. She has one best friend, Syd. She tries to be as invisible as possible, although she lives in small-town Maine where everyone knows who she is and what happened to her and if they didn’t, the scar the man left down the side of her face would certainly be cause for curiosity.

Ava has never really dealt with the trauma of her assault. Her mother keeps close tabs on her, but even she doesn’t know everything and Ava is prone to keeping secrets. This becomes evident when one day, walking home through the woods, she stumbles upon the body of a young girl.

She’s twisted like a Barbie doll at the waist. Her top half points forward, baring her face, her chest, those Vs. It takes me a minute to realize they’re stab wounds. Her bottom half faces down. Somehow both her breasts and her butt are exposed at the same time.

Human people, alive people, they don’t make that shape.

Ava makes a decision: she doesn’t tell anyone about the body. Chalk it up to shock or her own bad experience post-assault, but she decides to protect her. It’s a ridiculous decision to make – readers will know that – but Ava hasn’t ever really recovered from her own post-assault experience.

When Ava returns to the scene of the crime, she discovers someone else there, and convinced that she has stumbled upon the murderer, she gives chase. That’s where Mitchell’s book morphs from an examination of the trauma of assault to a straight-up mystery. I think I found this part of the book a little less successful, mostly because some of the decisions Ava makes (even though I could sort of understand why she was making them) seemed a little unrealistic.

Mitchell does do a wonderful job of crafting a character who has been through something horrific, something she still struggles with many years later as she tries to navigate relationships (with her bestie and a new friend, Hailey) and her own complicated feelings about her body and sexuality.

While I found the writing a bit choppy, a students in my class (who recommended the book) said that she liked the writing, that it felt like a conversation with her friends and that she related to some of the relationships in the book. That’s the true test of a YA book, I think: does it speak to its intended audience?