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

One of Us Is Next – Karen M. McManus

Well, my second YA novel by Karen M. McManus caps off my 2020 reading year, and has the distinction of being my 86th book. I thought when I set my 2020 challenge at 75 I was being optimistic, and then Covid happened.

I read McManus’s book One of Us Is Lying this summer and I really enjoyed it. One of Us Is Next is a sequel of sorts as some of the characters from the first book make an appearance in this one, too. (Bronwyn & Nate!) Eighteen months after Simon’s death (first book), students at Bayview High School find themselves under attack by someone who entices them to play a game of Truth or Dare. It’s clear that whoever this is, they knows some pretty dark secrets and they’re not afraid to share them. As one student says, “Always take the Dare.”

Phoebe, Knox and Maeve narrate this story. Phoebe is the first victim of the game and the secret revealed about her has a damaging ripple effect. Maeve (Bronwyn’s younger sister) refuses to play, and her punishment is to have a secret revealed which damages her friendship with former boyfriend now bestie, Knox. Things take a decided turn for the worst when a students accidently dies.

McManus juggles the different perspectives and all sorts of other teenage drama while moving the mystery along. Alliances are made and broken. There’s some swoon-worthy romance (those Rojas sisters are lucky in love), and there’s also some commentary about slut shaming, bullying and just how clique-y high school can be. It’s clear that McManus cares deeply about these characters and she has a real ear for how teens talk.

This is another fun page-turner by a YA writer worth reading.

Together We Caught Fire – Eva V. Gibson

Eva V. Gibson’s debut YA novel Together We Caught Fire sounded right up my alley when I added it to my TBR list. My son bought it for me for Christmas and I read it in pretty much one sitting. I wish that I could say that the book lived up to its promise, but it wasn’t quite a hit for me.

Lane Jamison’s life was upended when she was five and discovered her mother lying in a pool of blood in their pristine white bathroom. Now 18, she acknowledges that “Blood itself wasn’t the problem. Cuts, now, those were a different story – the parting of skin beneath steel, blood or no blood, never failed to fuck me up.” Lane’s mother’s suicide has left her with deep, unhealed psychic wounds and an inability to sleep properly.

Her life is further unsettled when her father marries Skye, mother to the boy Lane has been in love with since he took over frog dissection duty in eighth grade AP Biology. Suddenly this unattainable boy is sharing her house and, well, that situation is just untenable because Grey McIntyre was the “longtime occupant of my heart’s most vulnerable nook, hopeful and buoyed in the chair next to mine. The only boy I’d ever loved.”

Grey’s girlfriend Sadie is the daughter of the local televangelist. Sadie has her life mapped out, and that life involves getting married and having a truckload of kids. She’s a good person, if perhaps a little judge-y. Her older brother, Connor, is the black sheep, kicked out of the house when he was fourteen and only just now finding his footing as an artist. That’s one of the ways he and Lane bond: she is also an artist, crafting creations from yarn. Connor sees right through Lane and claims he sees right through Grey, too. That his sister is caught between them is problematic, even though Lane assures him that her feelings for Grey predate Sadie and, anyway, she would never act on them. Thus, you know, the angst.

One of the main issues I had with this book is how over-the-top dramatic everything is and I think that drama isn’t helped by Gibson’s prose, which is beyond purple.

My skin simmered; my veins were kerosene, aching for the touch of a match. Everything hung on that word – our lives and family, past and future; the seconds before and after it left his mouth ran together like gooseflesh melting smooth in the sun, and this wasn’t my fault – he’d found me on his own, plunged blind into dark, brackish depths, dredged me from the groundwater so we surfaced together. Never stopped to think if we should breathe in open air.

The odd thing is that I found some the writing in the book quite beautiful; it’s just that it got in the way of the plot’s momentum – and in a book where nothing really happens, that’s a problem.

I loved the idea of this book because I am all for angst, but I think too much is made of the fact that Grey is now Lane’s brother/step-brother; they are both adults and not related by blood, so the taboo is a bit watered down. C’mon, it’s not Flowers in the Attic level wrong. Truthfully, these young people are going through what many teenagers do: heartache, depression, guilt and lust. It just feels like more because of the way the story is written. Strip that away and what’s left? Your enjoyment will depend on your patience for the way the story is told.

I Hope You’re Listening – Tom Ryan

I Hope You’re Listening, Tom Ryan’s latest YA offering, capitalizes on a couple of today’s most popular phenomena: podcasts and true crime. Dee Skinner was seven when she and her bestie Sibby Carmichael headed out to the woods to play in the treehouse built by their friend Burke’s uncle Terry. Dee’s life is forever changed by that afternoon because Sibby disappears.

What happened to Sibby Carmichael that afternoon in the woods?

If anyone should remember, it’s me. I was there, after all. But ten years and a million sleepless nights later, nothing new comes to me. No sudden revelations, no deeply buried memories emerging from a haze. Just the same few fragments, still crisp and clear in my mind, still as useless as they’ve always been.

Dee struggles with what happened to her friend, and because she wants to help, but doesn’t know how, she starts a podcast called Radio Silent which becomes something of an Internet sensation. Her friend Burke is the only person who knows she’s behind Radio Silent; Dee, known as The Seeker online, wants to keep it on the down-low for reasons mostly having to do with wanting to stay out of the public eye. She was, after all, the girl who didn’t get taken that day in the woods.

Dee uses the power of the Internet to investigate other missing persons cases, but not Sibby’s. She introduces the stories and then lets her listeners, known collectively as the Laptop Detective Agency, share information and look for clues. Radio Silent has actually had some success, too, but survivor guilt still weighs Dee down.

Then another local girl, Layla, goes missing, and the coincidences start piling up. Dee is reluctant to use her platform to dig for evidence; the disappearance is just too close to home, both literally and figuratively. Already the media is sniffing around, and Dee is keen on staying as under the radar as is humanly possible.

I Hope You’re Listening is a page-turning mystery times two: what happened to Sibby? what happened to Layla? The last third of the book is almost impossible to put down. I could totally see this story as a limited series on Netflix. Dee is a wonderful character, vulnerable for sure, but also fearless and smart. I really enjoyed spending time with her.

Tom Ryan is a new-to-me YA writer. I’ve seen him around Twitter and recently attended a virtual reading through the Lorenzo Society where he, Kathleen Peacock (You Were Never Here) and Jo Treggiari (The Grey Sisters) spoke about their writing and read from their novels.. All three of these authors are from the Maritimes, which makes me extra happy to support their work.

American Dirt – Jeanine Cummins

The debate rages on: does an artist have the right to create something even though it is outside of their lived experience? My answer is always going to be yes, otherwise how do I justify the ten-plus years I wrote vampire fanfiction? I mean, I’ve never met a vampire let alone had sex with one. Jeanine Cummins found herself in the middle of a maelstrom after the release of her novel American Dirt.

Vulture magazine did a whole piece tracing the controversy about the book which “has been called “stereotypical,” and “appropriative” for “opportunistically, selfishly, and parasitically” telling the fictional story of a Mexican mother and son’s journey to the border after a cartel murders the rest of their family.” The entire article is worth the read because it explains the whole situation much more succinctly than I could.

One of the very first bullets comes in through the open window above the toilet where Luca is standing. He doesn’t immediately understand that it’s a bullet at all, and it’s only luck that it doesn’t strike him between the eyes.

Thus begins the story of Luca, 8, and his mother, Lydia. At a family barbecue to celebrate Luca’s cousin Yenifer’s 15th birthday, the entire family (with the exception of Luca and Lydia) are gunned down. It is immediately apparent to Lydia who is responsible. Her husband, Sebastian, is a journalist and he has recently published a piece about Javier Fuentes, the most powerful drug lord in Acapulco. Javier and Lydia had also become friends, not lovers exactly, but there is definitely an intimacy between them born from their love of literature. (Lydia owns a bookstore.) Lydia had no idea who Javier was when she met him; she saw him only as a kindred spirit, someone with whom she could talk “about literature and poetry and economics and politics.”

It was just as Lydia had always hoped life in her bookstore would be one day. In between the workaday drudgery of running a business, that she would entertain customers who were as lively and engaging as the books around them.

Javier’s cartel, Los Jardineros aka The Gardeners, earned their name because they “used guns only when they didn’t have time to indulge their creativity. Their preferred tools were more intimate: spade, ax, sicle, hook, machete. The simple tools of hacking and trenching.”

After the massacre, Lydia takes Luca and runs. She has no choice; she knows that Javier will not rest until she and her son are dead too. The novels traces their arduous journey from their ruined home to the United States, seen here as a beacon of freedom and hope – but, of course, knowing what we know now about undocumented immigrants, perhaps not so much. Still, Lydia feels as though she has only one choice and so they run.

Of course, what does a middle-class business owner know about fleeing under the radar? Not too much. I think the book expects us to believe that because she is protecting her son, she is willing to do just about anything. She’s a quick study because she has to be. She doesn’t dwell too long on the fact that she didn’t see the red flags waving around Javier; she trusts her gut now as the two make their way to el norte.

It’s a gruesome trip. Lydia knows that the cartel has eyes everywhere and that Javier won’t stop until he finds them. Along the way, they meet other migrants with stories of their own. Sisters Soledad and Rebeca are particularly sympathetic.

I enjoyed the book. I guess that’s my white, middle-age, privilege talking, but I found it hard to put down. Criticism claims that there are many inaccuracies, and of course I couldn’t tell you what they are. All I can tell you is that I was wholly invested in Lydia and Luca’s journey and that I tore through the book.

Invisible Girl – Lisa Jewell

I can always depend on Lisa Jewell to deliver a well-written, page-turning, character-driven book. She’s the perfect author to read if I am ever experiencing a book slump. I have read several of her books (The Family Upstairs, The Girls in the Garden, I Found You, Watching You) and I haven’t been disappointed once.

Invisible Girl is the story of a group of people whose lives intersect when seventeen-year-old Saffyre Maddox disappears. Saffyre’s life has been touched by tragedy; most recently her beloved grandfather has died, but before that there was an incident of abuse that resulted in some therapy. Her therapist was Roan Fours. Fours lives with his wife, Cate, and teenage children, Georgia and Josh in Hampstead. They’re renting a flat while their house is being repaired due to land subsidence. This flat is across the street from an old mansion, now flats, where Owen Pick lives with his aunt Tessie. These are the main players in Jewell’s story, told from Saffyre, Cate and Owen’s points of view.

Saffyre is the invisible girl of the title because once Roan considers her “cured” and cuts her loose from therapy, she finds herself somewhat fixated on him. She starts following him around. She’s stealthy, pulling up her hood and disappearing into the shadows. She has mastered the art of being invisible, literally, but also figuratively. She hides things from the one person who loves her most, her Uncle Owen, with whom she lives. She doesn’t let people into her life; on the outside she seems well-adjusted, successful in school, etc, but inside she is still tortured by what happened to her when she was ten.

Saffyre isn’t the only invisible character in this novel, though. Roan’s wife, Cate, is also invisible. She’s a physiotherapist who “gave up her practice fifteen years ago when Georgia was born and never really got back into treating patients.” She acknowledges the twenty-five-years of her marriage as a “hazy tableau of a marriage at its midpoint….with likely another twenty-five years to go.” She also admits that her husband “hates her. She knows he does. And it’s her fault.” Only her son, Josh, provides her with any real comfort. He seems like the perfect kid, thoughtful and loving. Of course, he’s got secrets, too.

Owen Pick, the poor sod across the street is also invisible. He teaches computer science at the local college, and he seems exactly as you might imagine a 33-year-old computer geek: friendless, awkward and a virgin. He’s not even allowed into the living room in his aunt’s flat. When he is suspended because of the accusations of some of his students, Owen’s life hurtles out of control. When it turns out he was one of the last people to see Saffyre, he quickly becomes a suspect in her disappearance. His bewilderment leads him to the internet, where he stumbles across information about incels and that rabbit hole leads to no good.

The stories shock him at first, but then the shock recedes into a kind of numb acceptance, a sense that he’d always known this about women. Of course. Women lie. Women hate men and want to hurt them. And what easier way in there to hurt a man than to accuse him of rape?

In true Lisa Jewell fashion, you won’t know who to believe until the plot unravels. Like always, I was happy to go along for the ride.

The Hypnotist – Lars Keplar

I am going to take a little break from reading translations now. I know some people don’t mind them, but it’s the rare translation that doesn’t irk me. Lars Keplar’s well-reviewed suspense thriller The Hypnotist was another translated miss for me.

Detective Joona Linna is on the hunt for a serial killer after a family is discovered in their home stabbed to death. Well, the father was killed elsewhere, the oldest sister is missing, and the son – although suffering from major injuries – has survived, but is in a coma. Linna figures that time is of the essence because what if the killer is after the sister? He needs whatever information the survivor, Josef, can provide. Who you gonna call?

That would be Erik Maria Bark, disgraced hypnotherapist. He’s got all sorts of professional and personal baggage, but he’s absolutely the dude you want to call if you want to reach someone unreachable. Apparently. He takes some convincing, though, because he has sworn off practicing hypnosis.

Okay – so I was relatively invested in the beginning. Gruesome murder. Conflicted doctor. Whodunnit. You know, all the things. But then the translation started to irritate me, mostly the dialogue which always seems clunky and inauthentic to me. I sorta feel like once something’s been translated into English, a native English speaker needs to have a pass at it to smooth out the rough edges or something. Or maybe that’s what has happened. In any case, when there’s a lot of dialogue it just rips me out of the story because I keep think, people don’t speak this way.

Listen to this exchange between Linna and a witness. (And it’s not even a good example.)

After a while a man appears with a towel wound around his hips. His skin looks as if it’s burning; he’s leathery and very tanned. “Hi. I was on the sun bed.”

Nice,” says Joona.

“No, it isn’t,” Tobias Franzen replies. “There’s an enzyme missing from my liver. I have to spend two hours a day on that thing.”

“That’s quite another matter, of course,” Joona says dryly.

“You wanted to ask me something.”

“I want to know if you saw or heard anything unusual in the early morning of Saturday, December twelfth.”

Tobias scratches his chest. His fingernails leave white marks on his sunburned skin.

“Let me think, last Friday night. I’m sorry, but I can’t really remember anything in particular.

OK, thank you very much, that’s all,” says Joona, inclining his head.

Yep. That’s your crack detective, right there. No wonder it took 500 pages to solve this thing.

And then, the whole thing started to fall apart for me.

Josef goes missing. And then is rarely mentioned again. His sister is put into witness protection…and is rarely mentioned again. Then we get all this stuff about Erik Maria Bark’s past. (Yes, that’s how he’s referred to almost every time.) And his son, Benjamin, goes missing. And his wife’s ex-cop father gets involved. And all these previous hypnosis patients come into the mix. I just lost interest in the whole proceeding and I slogged through only because I was mildly interested in seeing how the whole thing played out.

Unsatisfactorily, I must say.

This is the beginning of a series featuring Detective Linna. I will not be reading any more.

The Tragic Age – Stephen Metcalfe

Billy Kinsey is an outsider. It’s not just the port-wine hemangioma on the right side of his face. It’s not just the fact that he’s moved to L.A. suburb from the San Joaquin Valley, where he lived a slightly more normal life. It’s not just that he’s an insomniac. It’s not just that his father won 37 million dollars in the lottery and now his mother lunches and plays tennis and his father drinks. It’s not even just that when he was 11, his twin sister Dorrie died of cancer. Well, actually, it’s all of these things.

Stephen Metcalfe’s debut novel, The Tragic Age, is laugh-out-loud funny, tender and wry. Billy, 17, is adrift. He wants to do the right thing, but he’s not exactly sure what the right thing is. It isn’t until Willard “Twom” Twomey comes into his life, followed by the re-entrance of his sister’s childhood bestie, Gretchen, that the fog starts to lift for Billy.

Twom is a larger-than-life character. He doesn’t back down from anyone. When the school’s meathead starts teasing Twom about his name, Twom lets him have it with the back of his dinner tray.

I also soon discover that despite his revolutionary’s attitude towards rules and authority, Twom has his own highly evolved sense of right or wrong. He dislikes what he calls the “dickhead club” and he has complete empathy for the underdog.

Although I wouldn’t necessarily say that Billy’s an underdog, he sure could use a friend or two and Twom comes along at the right time.

So does Gretchen. Although Billy of course knows her, she and her family have been, until recently, living in Africa, where Gretchen’s father “was a hotshot doctor of infectious diseases.” Her arrival back in Billy’s orbit is problematic.

It goes without saying that girls can make you do insane things. One minute a guy can be, if there is such a thing, normal, the next, he’s cracking stupid jokes and running and dancing in place like a babbling, mindless idiot. Another word for this is “dating.”

The Tragic Age follows Billy as he navigates his final year of high school, falls in love and tries to figure out what anything means…and whether anything is worth it, after all. The grief he feels over Dorrie’s death is clearly unresolved; in fact, he and his parents never even talk about Dorrie. They don’t really talk about much of anything, and that’s part of Billy’s problem.

Billy is on a slippery slope and the novel’s final pages are made for the big screen. That makes sense, since Metcalfe has worked in the film biz. I’m not sure the frenetic pace suits the rest of the book, but I still really enjoyed it. Billy is a memorable character and his experience of disillusioned, navel-gazing, teenagedom will be recognizable to anyone who has ever struggled to fit in or figure out how to simply survive.