The End of Your Life Book Club – Will Schwalbe

Will Schwalbe’s memoir, The End of Your Life Book Club, is about the last couple of years before his mother’s death from pancreatic cancer and it is a beautiful tribute to family, faith, hope and books. Always books. This book has been languishing on my tbr shelf for ages and it’s one of those books that when I finished, with a satisfied sigh and perhaps a tear or two, I thought I wish I’d picked you up sooner. I guess Schwalbe and his mom, Mary Anne, might say that the book found me at the right time.

I imagine Schwalbe’s family as sort of East Coast aristocracy, without the snobbish bits. His parents both worked in academia, and then his father got into concert management. Schwalbe describes his mother as “the hub” of the family.

Mom didn’t confine herself to coordinating our lives. She was also helping to coordinate, almost always at their request, the lives of hundreds of others: at her church at The Woman’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children (she’d been the founding director), at the International Rescue Committee (she’d been board staff liaison and founded the IRC’s UK branch), and at all the other myriad organizations where she’d worked or served on boards.

Mary Anne is clearly a force to be reckoned with and her cancer diagnosis is a setback not a death sentence. She’s diagnosed in 2007, first with hepatitis, and then eventually with pancreatic cancer. Mary Anne’s oncologist calls her cancer “treatable but not curable”, and these words offer Mary Anne and her family (her husband, and Schwalbe’s brother and sister) hope.

The Schwalbe family have always been readers and soon Will and his mother have formed a book club of two, reading and discussing a variety of books over the long hours at Memorial Sloan-Kettering in NYC, where Mary Anne gets her hope by way of chemotherapy.

Our book club got its formal start with the mocha and one of the most casual questions two people can ask each other: What are you reading?

Beginning with Wallace Stegner’s 1987 novel Crossing to Safety, a book which I read many years ago, the mother and son read their way through classics, non-fiction, popular fiction and do what any book lovers do – debate, deconstruct and discuss. They don’t always agree, but they appreciate each other’s choices, and as any reader knows many a great discussion can be had even if you didn’t necessarily love the book. These discussions also allow them to share their lives with each other in a meaningful way. Schwalbe is hyper aware that he knows his mother as ‘mom’, the person who kept his world on its axis, but perhaps he doesn’t know her quite so well as Mary Anne, the woman. This is his opportunity.

Mary Anne’s faith is the constant in her journey, and although Schwalbe doesn’t share her certainty about God and the afterlife, he is buoyed by hers. Mary Anne constantly sees the upside. When hearing of a friend’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis she says “I feel so lucky […] I can’t imagine what it would be like not to be able to know the people I love, or to read, or to remember books I’ve read or to visit my favorite places and remember everything that happened there, all the wonderful times. “

The End of Your Life Book Club is not as maudlin as it might sound. It’s a beautiful book that reminds us of the value and irreplaceable nature of family, and reminds us how important it is to cultivate relations with the people in our lives. Mary Anne struck me as the kind of woman who looked you in the eye when she talked to you. As Schwalbe reminds us “we’re all in the end-of-our-life book club, whether we acknowledge it or not; each book we read may well be our last, each conversation the final one.”

Highly recommended.

Hamnet & Judith – Maggie O’Farrell

Very little is actually known about William Shakespeare, the man (I believe is) responsible for writing some of the most beautiful poetry ever committed to paper. His plays are still produced some 400 years after his death. He is a mainstay of English Language Arts curriculums the world over. In fact, I am just beginning to look at Romeo and Juliet with my Grade 10 classes. It is a play I love to talk about and I can totally trace my love of angst back to my first exposure to it in 1977.

Maggie O’Farrell’s novel Hamnet & Judith tells the story of an unnamed man (clearly Shakespeare) and his wife, Agnes (more commonly known to us as Anne) from their first meeting, through the birth of their first daughter, Susanna, followed by the arrival of their twins, Hamnet and Judith. The novel bounces forwards and backwards in time, but somehow still manages to move forward to its perfect (yet heartbreaking) conclusion.

Agnes is really the central character in O’Farrell’s novel. She and her brother Bartholomew (loved him!), have been orphaned by the death of first their mother, and then years later their father. Now they live with their unkind stepmother, Joan, and a gaggle of step siblings. The tutor who is teaching Agnes’s younger brothers, becomes enamoured with Agnes when he sees a figure out walking in the fields with a hawk on her arm.

She has a certain notoriety in these parts. It is said that she is strange, touched, peculiar, perhaps mad. He has heard that she wanders the back roads and forests at will, unaccompanied, collecting plants to make dubious potions.

It is said that the stepmother lives in terror of the girl putting hexes on her, especially now the yeoman is dead. Her father must have loved her, though, because he left her a sizable dowry in his will. Not that anyone, of course, would want to wed her. She is said to be too wild for any man.

Hamnet & Judith concerns the relationship between Agnes and the tutor, a relationship that seems quite modern, actually. Agnes soon learns that the tutor needs out from under his father’s controlling hand and she finds a way to give him his freedom, although I think it does come at great personal cost to her. The way they are portrayed in this novel, one could never doubt their love for one another.

It also concerns the relationship between Judith and Hamnet. The novel actually begins when Hamnet, 11, discovers his sister very ill. It is plague times, of course, and O’Farrell even includes a chapter in the book that explains how Judith came to be ill – from a flea that traveled in a container of glass beads all the way from Murano, Italy. Of course, it is not Judith who dies – I hope that’s not a spoiler – and four years after Hamnet’s death, his father writes, perhaps, his most famous play, Hamlet.

Ultimately, this is a novel about family. It’s about grief, and watching Agnes mourn the loss of her son is absolutely heart-wrenching. It is about the minutiae of daily life. Given that we are experiencing a global pandemic, it’s difficult not to see the parallels despite the 400 years that separate our story from this one. Let’s not forget, although O’Farrell’s story is fiction, Shakespeare and his family were very real.

I loved this book. It’s more than worthy of the praise.

Corrupt – Penelope Douglas

If you are a fan of Penelope Douglas, I suggest you skip this review as you won’t be happy. Kind of like I wasn’t happy that I paid $30 for this brick of utter shite.

Some context.

I occasionally watch book tubers to see what they are recommending. One night I watched this girl talk passionately about the enemies to lovers trope and even though she was WAYYYYY younger than me, it is a trope I enjoy, although I guess my kink is more specifically bad boy/good girl. Still, I like a well-written, smutty book. If it’s a little on the dark side: bonus. So I went looking for the book she really liked: Corrupt by Penelope Douglas (apparently a NY Times best selling author, although Corrupt was clearly self-published.) I couldn’t find it on Amazon or Indigo, but I was able to order it from Book Depository, so I did. (This is how impressive this book tuber’s sales pitch was; I felt as though I MUST read this book.)

So the book arrives. I knew then. The same way that I knew Colleen Hoover’s much-loved-by-anyone-that-is-not-me book Verity was going to suck when it arrived. Just a feeling based on the physical object alone.

So, what is Corrupt about? Please know that there will be spoilers galore in this review so if you really think you want read this book – and I implore you not to waste your time as I will provide, at the end of this review, a list of MUCH better books to read – you have been warned.

SUMMARY: Erika Fane is in love with Michael Crist, her ex-boyfriend Trevor’s older brother. Michael was a big deal when he was at school, and now he’s a professional basketball player. Erika is about to go off to her second year of college in another city and she can’t wait to get away from her mother, who has been in a drug-induced lethargy since Erika’s father died, and Trevor, who irritates her. Trevor and Michael’s family are loaded. So is Erika’s family. Michael is HOTHOTHOT. So is Erika – who for some reason that makes no sense, is called Rika. So, how old are these people? Erika is 19 and Michael is 23 or 24…making Corrupt New Adult. Anyway, Erika has always believed that Michael hates her, especially after what happened when she was sixteen and she ended up hanging out with Michael and his three besties Kai, Will and Damon, collectively known as The Four Horseman. Their Devil’s Night pranks landed Kai, Damon and Will in jail for three years, but now they’re out and they’re looking for revenge. That’s where Michael comes in: he’s going to help them because, after all, he hates Rika, too. Only not so much.

WHY IT’S GAWDAWFUL:

  1. No one behaves the way these people do. Seriously. No one. Can we just have some sensical character development, please? Here’s my best example of crazy town. Once everyone but Damon realizes that Rika is NOT the reason three of the four horsemen ended up in the clink, Michael and Erika settle into the relationship we’re all supposed to be rooting for. They start to make out in a steam room, only to discover that Kai is also in the steam room. So, what’s a girl to do?

He looked so alone all the time, and tears lodged in my throat, because we’d all been changed forever. Michael had hated, because he couldn’t take being helpless. Kai had suffered, because his limits had been pushed, I’d gathered. And I had struggled to find out who I was and where I belonged for so long.

“Touch me,” I whispered. “Please.”

Yep – Rika’s road to healing for the three of them is hot three-way sex in a steam room. Is Michael jealous? No, he’s woke. “You’re fucking perfect,” he tells her before encouraging her to “Show me how much you like my friend eating your pussy.” This is the road to a perfect, healthy relationship.

And before you accuse me of being a puritan, I am most definitely not. Get it on, I don’t care. My problem is that a New York minute ago, Michael and his friends were trying to make Erika’s life a living hell by standing outside her bedroom window at night wearing their ridiculous masks, by cutting her off financially (Michael can do this because his father looks after the Fane estate), by making her mother disappear, by threatening her with bodily harm. All is forgiven, though, if you can make a girl come. Am I right?

2. Douglas is a fan of repeating herself. One of the irritating ways she does this is by telling us what song is on the car radio, the CD player, the wherever music comes from

  • “Starting the car, 37 Stitches by Drowning Pool poured out of the speakers…” p 11
  • “Slipknot’s The Devil in I blared through the classroom…” p 20
  • “Like a Storm’s Love the Way You Hate Me echoed all around me…” p 72
  • The Vengeful One by Disturbed echoed through the house…” p. 110

I could go on (and on), but you get the point. Yes, Ms. Douglas, you clearly have a playlist.

Douglas has other little writing ticks. For instance, Michael often fists Rika’s hair – straight out of the porn handbook. Rika often folds her lips between her teeth. Michael is always pulling Rika back by the front of her neck, which I believe is called the throat. When I start to notice clunkiness, that’s all I notice.

3. It’s borderline misogynistic. We’re supposed to believe that Michael’s feelings for Rika are just as powerful as Rika’s feelings for Michael, yet he often treats her like shit.

He ignored me, condescended, and insulted on occasion, but the cruelty hurt beyond words.

“That was English, Rika,” he barked, making me jump. “A dog listens better than you.”

OR

She was only a floor away, and I had the key to her apartment burning a hole in my pocket. I needed her on her hands and knees as I took whatever I wanted, whenever and however hard I wanted it.

OR

He let out an aggravated sigh. “Your fucking mouth never stops, does it?”

And let’s not forget the time when the Four Horsemen tell Rika about the girl who was drugged and raped in an old church basement where everyone hangs out at to party. They didn’t catch all the guys who had a go at her. There’s still at least four running around, Michael makes a point to tell her. Good times.

This is the guy Rika can’t stop thinking about? We’re supposed to be all in? Dear Lord. Girls, just because a guy is hot and makes your panties moist doesn’t mean he’s a good guy. And we’re supposed to understand Michael because he’s just trying to help his buddies out? His number one rule regarding Rika is “Don’t be alone with her” because he wants her and the heart dick wants what it wants.

There was nothing redeeming about this story. The characters were one dimensional. The plot, nonsensical. The writing – well, I’ve read wayyyy better fanfiction. So why in the hell did I keep reading it? Maybe because I paid $30. Maybe because it has loads of positive reviews. Maybe because I’m a masochist. I dunno, but if you want to read books of the same ilk that are worth your time and effort (New Adult/YA/and Adult), here are some titles for your consideration.

  1. Easy – Tammara Webber (NA)
  2. Breakable – Tammara Webber (NA, companion to Easy)
  3. Perfect Chemistry – Simone Elkeles (YA)
  4. Topping From Below – Laura Reese (Adult/graphic)
  5. How Not to Fall – Emily Foster (Adult, not bad boy/good girl, but smutty fun)
  6. Velocity – Kristin McCloy

The Cousins – Karen M McManus

Milly, Aubrey and Jonah Story have been invited to spend the summer on Gull Cove Island by their grandmother, Mildred. That might not be an out-of-the-ordinary invitation for some people, but it is for these three teens. For one thing, they’ve never met their grandmother. For another, they haven’t seen each other for years and their parents (Milly’s mom and Aubrey and Jonah’s dads) are also estranged. So, it’s a weird request all-around.

Gull Cove Island was a little-known haven for artists and hippies when Abraham Story turned it into what it is today: a place where rich and semifamous people spend ridiculous amounts of money pretending they’re getting back to nature.

Milly’s mother, Allison, is anxious for her daughter to go. Twenty four years ago, she and her brothers (Adam, Anders and Archer) had each received a letter from their mother which said “You know what you did.” With that, they were cut out of their mother’s life both personally and financially and none of them really understood why. Milly’s mom thinks this invitation may be the opportunity to mend fences and for the cousins to get to know each other.

This is the set up for Karen M. McManus (One of Us is Lying, One of Us is Next) latest novel The Cousins. The novel is told from multiple perspectives during two different time-lines, so you get to see the parents as young adults and then their offspring who arrive on Gull Cove Island to a less-than-warm reception. Clearly there is something strange going on, and Milly is determined to figure it out, with or without her cousins’ help.

Like her previous novels, McManus manages to keep all the plates of a compelling mystery spinning. Each of the three teens are intelligent and likeable. The real mystery is rooted deep in their parents’ past and some of those characters aren’t so nice, particularly Jonah and Aubrey’s dads. Readers will have a lot of fun trying to figure out what the heck is going on, but like with her previous novels, McManus will always be one step ahead of you.

The Night Inside – Nancy Baker

I have a vague memory of reading Nancy Baker’s novel The Night Inside years ago – perhaps closer to the time it was first published in 1993. I am not going to classify this as a re-read, though, because most of it was so unfamiliar it felt like I was reading it for the first time.

Ardeth Alexander is a grad student who is just about ready to graduate, leave academia behind and step into the real world. She’s the dependable one; her younger sister, Sara, is the wild one. She can’t shake this feeling that she’s being followed, though, and one morning on a run near Casa Loma, she’s grabbed by two thugs and whisked off to parts unknown, where she ends up in a basement cell.

The guy in the cell next to her is Dimitri Rozokov. He’s a vampire, and an old one. He’s lived as long as he has by being extremely careful. Even though Ardeth is sure there is no way he can exist because, after all, “Vampires do not exist, except as metaphors,” Ardeth’s captors prove that he’s deadly by showing Ardeth why he’s in a cell.

Turns out, they’re making movies. Roias, one of the men who nabbed her, gives her a private show and what she witnesses horrifies her.

The vampire was hungry and not particularly neat. When he was done, he dropped Suzy’s body over the table. Blood was smeared across her breasts and shoulders, painted across her face in a parody of cosmetics. Her blonde hair was dark with it, but not as dark as the gaping hole in her throat. When he let her fall, one limp arm knocked over the wedding cake and left its remains decorated with red icing.

It turns out, though, that Rozokov is a civilized being, and in their time chained in cells next to each other, the two captives talk. When it becomes clear that their days are numbered, they devise a plan to escape, but the plan comes at a cost.

I have long been fascinated with vampires. When I was a kid, I can remember going to old black and white movies starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee and being terrified. What was my mother thinking?! I’ve read Dracula and devoured ‘salem’s Lot. Then, right around the time my kids were born, I discovered Buffy the Vampire Slayer and that sent me down a rabbit hole.

I didn’t hate The Night Inside, but I didn’t love it, either. Part of the problem is that there was a lot going on. Rozokov’s back story and the people chasing him might have been enough to sustain a novel. There needed to be a meet cute, or a meet ick in this case, though. Ardeth and Rozokov’s time as captives only makes up a small portion of the story, though, and then the pair are separated. Oddly enough, the novel felt dated to me, which is weird considering Rozokov is 500 years old.

Concrete Rose – Angie Thomas

I fall in love with fictional characters all the time, and I fell hard for Maverick Carter, Starr’s father in Angie Thomas’s outstanding debut The Hate U Give. In Concrete Rose, Thomas has turned her gaze to Maverick’s teenage story and it’s a doozy. Could I love Mr. Carter any more than I already did? Um, hell yeah.

The setting is familiar, the Garden Heights neigbourhood where The Hate U Give takes place. Seventeen-year-old Maverick lives with his mother who works two jobs to try to fill in the financial gaps left by Mav’s father’s incarceration. Mav has a legacy on the streets of Garden Heights because of who his father is, former crown of King Lords, (I guess that means top dog.) There’s a gang hierarchy

You got youngins, badass middle schoolers who swear they got next. They do whatever the rest of us tell them to do. Then you got li’l homies like me, King, and our boys Rico and Junie. We handle initiations, recruitment, and sell weed. Next is the big homies, like Dre and Shawn. They sell the harder stuff, make sure the rest of us have what we need, make alliances, and discipline anybody who step outta line. When we have beef with the Garden Disciples, the gang from the east side, they usually take care of it. Then there’s the OGs, original gangstas. Grown dudes who been in this a long time. They advise Shawn. Problem is, there ain’t a lot of OGs left in the streets. Most of them locked up like my pops, or dead.

Despite his gang affiliations, Mav is not a punk. His girlfriend, Lisa, is college-bound. His mother is supportive and no-nonsense. Mav’s older cousin, Dre, is one of the big homies, and always has his back. When Mav gets the news that he’s a father, his world is rocked back on its heels, and the book shifts into high gear. When the baby’s mother essentially abandons him, Mav has to start making some tough decisions. If you’ve already read The Hate U Give you know how that turns out because Maverick as a father: chef’s kiss.

I loved this book. First of all, I loved how immediate and compelling Mav’s voice is. I live in small-town Atlantic Canada. I don’t know anyone who speaks this way.

When it comes to the streets, there’s rules.

They ain’t written down, and you won’t find them in a book. It’s natural stuff you know the moment your momma let you out the house. Kinda like you know how to breathe without somebody telling you.

For me, the way this book is written is absolutely one of the best things about it. Mav’s voice is so compelling and original.

I also loved how many people were in Mav’s corner, pushing him to make better choices. I mean, he’s a seventeen-year-old father who still has to go to school and work part time at a job he hates for way less money than he’d make selling dope on the street. His boss, Mr. Wyatt, tells it like it is and doesn’t cut Mav any slack. Three strikes, he’s out. His baby cries all night, Mav still has to go to school. But these people are still in his corner, and watching him try to live up to his responsibilities is truly a thing of beauty.

Although Maverick’s story obviously takes place seventeen years before the events in The Hate U Give, and so is perhaps technically a prequel, I still suggest you read The Hate U Give first. You will fall in love with him as an adult. Going back and learning how he got there will only make you love him more.

Highly recommended.

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.

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.

Looking For Alaska – John Green

Miles Halter, the protagonist of John Green’s debut novel Looking for Alaska, is a loner who is about to leave Florida to attend a boarding school in Alabama. Just how much of a loner is Miles? His mother insists on throwing him a going away party and Miles is “forced to invite all [his] “school friends,” i.e., the ragtag bunch of drama people and English geeks [he] sat with by social necessity” even though he knew they “wouldn’t come.”

Miles loves famous last words. That’s one of the reasons he’s anxious to head off to Culver Creek, the same school his father and all his uncles attended, a school where they had “raised hell”, which sounds like a much better life than the one Miles currently has. In the words of Francois Rabelais, Miles wants to “go to seek a Great Perhaps.” That’s the reason, Miles tells his father, that he wants to leave Florida, “So I don’t have to wait until I die to start seeking a Great Perhaps.”

Miles’s roomate at Culver Creek is Chip Martin aka “Colonel”. He immediately renames Miles “Pudge” and then introduces him to Alaska Young, the force-of-nature, girl who lives five doors down. The novel follows this trio’s adventures and misadventures and their tragic consequences.

I have long been a fan of Green’s ability to write smart, believable and heartbreaking YA characters. The juggernaut The Fault in Our Stars was my first book by him, and I totally got the fuss. (I have also read Turtles All the Way Down and Paper Towns). If I didn’t already know how good Green was, I would have been amazed by Looking for Alaska. As a debut it’s funny, irreverent, and thoughtful. And so, so smart.

My grade 10 students are currently examining what it means to come of age. Two of them are reading this book and as I was reading it, I kept thinking that it was such a perfect book to help them think about this topic. I know the book has been challenged on many occasions for language and sexual content, but, really, who are we kidding? Shouldn’t we want our kids to read books that ask (and tries to answer) big and complicated questions? Shouldn’t we rejoice when we find an author that doesn’t talk down to kids, or pretend that they are one-dimensional?

Pudge and his friends, after a tragedy which occurs about half way through the book, seek to find answers to their questions. Pudge notes

There comes a time when we realize that our parents can not save themselves or save us, that everyone who wades through time eventually gets dragged out to sea by the undertow – that, in short, we are all going.

Looking for Alaska is terrific.

More Than Words – Mia Sheridan

I’ll admit it; I have a ‘type’ (of romance story I like). Mia Sheridan’s novel More Than Words should have ticked every single box, but when I was finished reading I just felt sort of ‘meh’ about the whole thing. I have a feeling though, it’s me not the book. Maybe I am just over romance.

Jessica Cresswell is a dreamy eleven-year-old when she meets Callen Hayes in an abandoned rail car.

A boy sat leaning against the far wall, his long legs stretched out before him and crossed at the ankles, his eyes shut. My heat galloped in my chest. Who is he? One of the streetlamps cast a glow into the shadowy interior, enough for me to see that the boy’s lip was bloody and his eye swollen. […] He was a prince. A…broken prince.

For the next few months, Callen and Jessica meet and dream and play make-believe and then, after one sweet kiss, Callen disappears.

Ten years later, Callen is the Sexiest Man in Music and Jessie is a cocktail waitress, but only until she lands her dream gig of translating historical documents. (Yes, apparently that’s someone’s dream job.) Her dream has landed her in Paris; Callen’s there, too, to claim a big award and fate lands them in the same place at the same time in an “in all the gin joints in all the towns in all the word [he] walks into mine” sorta way.

Of course, Jessie recognizes him. Callen’s reaction is more, hmmm, physical and less, OMG, I remember you. “My heart jumped, a buzz of electricity shooting down my spine, and I frowned, surprised by my reaction….God, I couldn’t stop staring at her.” See, Callen’s one of those “bad” boys. He drinks to excess and sleeps around and cares for no one. He’s a jerk but, of course, not an irredeemable jerk because then we wouldn’t be as desperate for these two to get together as Sheridan wants us to be. Really, he’s just misunderstood.

When they finally do connect – in another convenient twist of fate – Jessie is reluctant to give Callen the time of day. And he’s intent on proving that he is still the boy she once knew and cared for.

There’s nothing wrong with More Than Words. The writing is decent. There are some tender moments that ring true. It’s the fairy tale, right? Maybe I am just old and cynical and no longer believe. Perhaps these characters, both in their early twenties, are just too young for me to relate to. Either way, the book was not my cup of tea, but I suspect many others would love it to bits.