A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara

Hanya Yanagihara’s 2015 novel A Little Life garnered copious praise and was a finalist for both the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Award, as well as making it onto many ‘Best of’ lists when it was published. It has been sitting on my TBR shelf for at least two years and I made it my mission this summer to make my way through at least two of my chunkier books: I read Empire of the Vampire in July and finished this one a few days ago.

The novel tells the story of four friends who were college roommates and are now making their way in the world in Manhattan in the nineties. There’s JB, the gay artist; Malcom, the bi-racial trust fund kid; Willem, the handsome wannabe actor and Jude, the mysterious, brilliant glue that bonds these men together over three+ decades.

Why wasn’t friendship as good as a relationship? Why wasn’t it even better? It was two people who remained together, day after day, bound not by sex or physical attraction or money or children or property, but only by the shared agreement to keep going, the mutual dedication to a union that could never be codified. Friendship was witnessing another’s slow drip of miseries, and long bouts of boredom, and occasional triumphs. It was feeling honored by the privilege of getting to be present for another person’s most dismal moments, and knowing that you could be dismal around him in return.

At first I was wholly invested in their stories, although it’s really mostly about Jude. It’s clear early on that he’s had some sort of tragedy/trauma in his past (and although there are no trigger warnings: reader beware), but he is not forthcoming about the details of his life and spends most of the novel’s hefty 814 pages alternately berating and abusing himself. He doesn’t deserve happiness, after all, even though almost everyone who meets him admires him and loves him and even, in his early twenties, want to adopt him.

As the narrative starts to close in on Jude and his relationship with Willem (which morphs from besties to something more, although I am not sure there was really a point to having their relationship become romantic), it loses its focus on JB and Malcom. Suddenly they are bit players in their own story and perhaps they should have been treated as such from the beginning because Yanagihara clearly loves Willem and Jude the most. I started to feel a bit as if these two men were trauma-bonded. Jude has clearly had an horrific life and although I am sure there are lots of people who do, it just felt as though Yanagihara went way over the top with Jude (he meets one monster after another over the course of his life, but as smart as he is and despite having so many amazing people in his adult life, he never really gets the help he so desperately needs.) His story wore me out- and not in a good way where I felt as though there was a cathartic payoff; at a certain point, the book just became an exhaustive catalogue of misery.

I think this is a novel that has been quite divisive. People seem to love it or hate it, although I wouldn’t characterize my reaction to it as quite so black or white. The book is not without its charms. In the beginning I enjoyed the writing (it was Donna Tartt-lite), but I found the last 300-ish pages almost unbearable. (It just felt more of the same: misery heaped onto misery.) I also grew weary of the long lists of names — like, really, what are the chances that you’d know two dudes with the same name so you have to call them Asian Henry Young and Black Henry Young? — and the balance between the horrible things that happened to Jude and the amazing things that happened seemed, frankly, unrealistic. By the time the men were in their late forties I expected them to at least sound different than they did at twenty, but no. I didn’t believe in them.

Although there are many critics who love this book and have called it a masterpiece, there are others who point out the book’s flaws. I rarely read reviews before I write my own, but I felt like I had to go see if I was the outlier; it seems I am not. Slate took a closer look at the book when it first came out. The New York Times also had somewhat ambivalent feelings about the novel.

Would I recommend this book? Not really. I am not sure there is an emotional payoff big enough to wade through all the trauma for. It is almost relentlessly grim and not even decent writing can save it from its perpetual bleakness.

First Born – Will Dean

I discovered Will Dean on Twitter and a few months ago I nabbed a copy of his well-reviewed novel The Last Thing to Burn, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I recently picked up First Born and although I read it in just a couple of sittings, I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much.

First Born is the story of 22-year-old identical twins Molly and Katie “KT” Raven. Molly tells us “I don’t use the term identical twin because it’s a blatant lie. A travesty. Our base DNA is identical, sure, but that’s about all that is. We were once one person. We are not anymore.”

When the novel opens, Molly is working in an office in London, while KT is studying in New York City. KT is the risk taker; Molly spends her time assessing threats and preparing for the worst. Molly sees danger everywhere and she is always prepared, even going to far as to making homemade weapons out of pound coins and a sock.

The twins’ parents have been visiting KT in New York and when Molly arrives, they spend their time eating toast and drinking tea and waiting for the police to give them information about just what happened to KT. There’s very little to go on, and Molly feels that it is her duty to help the investigation along. She tracks down KT’s best friend, boyfriend, investigates the creepy son of the landlord and uncovers some things about her sister she did not know.

First Born does offer a couple of excellent twists, and Molly’s voice is definitely singular. The action clips along, for sure. For me, though, it wasn’t believable and I wasn’t sure I understood character motivations at all. By about a third of the way in the prose started to grate a little bit and there was something sort of ‘lazy’ about it. Like, suddenly a character has a gun which she pulled out of nowhere, but we’re told she’d purchased before. That sort of thing. The shenanigans were all a bit over-the-top.

Still – if that sort of thing doesn’t irk you, you’ll probably have a lot of fun reading this book – if you are willing to suspend disbelief and don’t mind the crazy.

Magpie – Elizabeth Day

One of my favourite Booktubers, Jack Edwards, loved Elizabeth Day’s novel Magpie, and it was already on my TBR list anyway, so with his added endorsement, I picked it up. (Oh, who am I kidding? I don’t need anyone’s recommendation to buy more books; I just buy them.)

Anyway.

Marisa hasn’t always been lucky in love until she meets Jake.

He smelled of freshly washed laundry. No cologne. His face was uncomplicated: A defined chin and boyish cheeks. Kind eyes. A smattering of sandy-colored stubble. He had looks you could imagine aging well and at the same time you could see instantly what sort of child he had been.

Marisa moves in with Jake, and they make plans to have a family. If it all seems to be happening a little quickly, which Marisa’s friend Jas suggests, Marisa claims that “when you know, you just know.” But, as it turns out, there are things that Marisa does not know.

When Jake suggests that they take in a lodger to help pay their mortgage, Marisa agrees thinking that “it will alleviate the pressure on Jake and that, as a result, he will be more present with her. Enter Kate.

She is soft-spoken with a lively, sharp face and brown hair with an unruly fringe falling to just below her eyebrows so that the first time they meet to assess her suitability, Marisa notices that Kate keeps blowing it out of her eyes.

At first the new living arrangement works out okay. Marisa writes and illustrates custom children’s books, and she has the house all to herself during the day. But then she starts to notice something between Jake and Kate. As her uneasiness grows, so does her paranoia.

Magpie depends on subterfuge. There were lots of things I liked about this book, but there were also some things that seemed a little over-the-top and contrived. Still, it was well-written, easy to read, and I think most people will enjoy its twists and turns.

The House Next Door – Anne Rivers Siddons

When Anne Rivers Siddons’s 1978 novel The House Next Door begins, Colquitt Kennedy tells us that she and Walter are not the sort of people who you’d find in People magazine. Colquitt and her husband, Walter, are a couple of 30-something yuppies who live on a tony street in suburban Atlanta.

We have a good house, but not a grand one, in a better neighborhood than we can really afford, because the down payment was a wedding gift from my parents. We have two cars, which is all we need since there are only two of us.

Walter is the president of an advertising agency and Colquitt does free-lance public relations. By her own estimation they are “fairly ordinary people,” but all this is about to change because Colquitt and Walter have decided to tell their story to People.

The house next door is haunted, and I am the one responsible for all the publicity.

For the longest time, there was no house next door to the Kennedy’s – just an odd pie-shaped lot which seemed impossible to build on.

In our midtown neighborhood it was an oasis of wild, dark greenness, luminous in the spring with white dogwood and honeysuckle and rhododendron blooms, giving one the feeling of being cloistered away in a mountain retreat even though our street is only one block off one of the city’s main thoroughfares.

When news spreads that someone has bought the land and is intending on building, no one on the street can quite believe it. The newly married Harralsons, Buddy and Pie, (I know – what’s with the names? But, it is the South), and their young, brilliant and handsome architect Kim Dougherty do build there, though, and the house is magnificent: everyone says so. But then stuff starts to happen: dead animals around the property, Pie has a devastating mishap and then, at their housewarming party – well…

Then the Sheehans move in. Anita is emerging from a long convalescence, her husband Buck tells the Kennedys. Things don’t go all that well for them, either. Colquitt has a niggling fear that the house is sinister and that fear is confirmed by Kim, who seems to have lost his designing mojo and tells Colquitt that he believes the house is responsible.

And so it goes. More owners: more troubles, until Colquitt feels that the only thing she can do is warn people.

By today’s standards, The House Next Door isn’t particularly scary and there are some references that certainly haven’t aged well. In his introduction, Stephen King calls the book “well planned and brilliantly cast” and I would have to agree. The book has elements of the southern gothic, which include “the presence of irrational, horrific, and transgressive thoughts, desires, and impulses; grotesque characters; dark humor, and an overall angst-ridden sense of alienation” (Oxford).

I wasn’t scared reading this book, or even creeped out, but it is well-written and wholly enjoyable.

Orbiting Jupiter – Gary D. Schmidt

I’m not sure if award-winning author Gary D. Schmidt’s 2015 novel Orbiting Jupiter is supposed to be Young Adult or Middle Grade, but either way it’s a terrific albeit heart-wrenching tale which I read in one sitting.

Jack is just 12 when Joseph, 14, comes to live on his family’s organic farm in Maine because his parents have a reputation for successfully fostering difficult kids.

…he won’t wear anything orange. He won’t let anyone stand behind him. He won’t let anyone touch him. He won’t go into rooms that are too small. And he won’t eat canned peaches.

[…]

“He has a daughter.”

Despite his troubled past, Joseph is not a delinquent. It is clear he’s been dealt a shitty hand, but his quiet determination soon wins over his foster family as well as a couple teachers at his school. Honestly, it was impossible not to like Joseph, which is what makes the story so tragic.

Another reason to like this novel is Jack. Although he is younger than Joseph and certainly far less experienced, his hopefulness and loyalty to his new ‘brother’ grounds the novel. He catalogues the times Joseph smiles (or almost smiles) and is constantly reminding Joseph that his name is Jack not Jackie, but their banter and their silences is certainly indicative of two boys who care for each other.

Orbiting Jupiter is a thoughtful, quiet and heart-breaking book and I highly recommend it.

Dark Rooms – Lili Anolik

As far as metaphors go, the dark rooms of Lili Anolik’s impressive debut Dark Rooms is apt. This is the story of Grace Baker whose younger sister, Nica, is found murdered in the cemetery which borders Chandler Academy, the private boarding school the sisters attend in Hartford Connecticut and where their parents are teachers.

Nica’s death leaves Grace reeling. Over-shadowed by Nica’s vivacious, doesn’t-give-a-shit personality in life, she now buckles under the weight of her death. She just wanted to “go to sleep [to escape] that total exhaustion, where even my face was numb, and none of the talk matter[ed] anyway because she was already dead dead dead.”

Someone is quickly blamed for Nica’s death, but when Grace discovers evidence which might actually exonerate him, she begins to dig deeper into her sister’s life.

Nica’s death sends ripples into Grace’s life. Her parents’ marriage falls apart and her mother leaves. Grace’s friends – well, Nica’s friends, including her boyfriend, Jamie (for whom Grace has feelings that perhaps cross the line of friendship) – rally around Grace, yet “there was a tension, a hostility even.” Grace escapes to college after graduation, but that’s a disaster, too.

A brand-new life was settling around me. It was ugly and it was empty. but I was okay with it because, thanks to the drugs, I wasn’t really in it. Not really being in it, however, had its consequences.

When she returns home, she gets a job at Chandler and starts to unravel the story of her sister. She soon discovers that nothing in her life is as it seems.

Dark Rooms is a well-written, mystery with some interesting twists. Although the main character is barely out of high school, I wouldn’t call this YA, really, although I did read it from my classroom library. There’s a lot goin on and a lot of characters to keep track of, but I enjoyed my time with Grace (well, maybe ‘enjoyed’ isn’t the right word) and I would definitely read more by this author.

Seven Days in June – Tia Williams

I flew through the first 100 pages of Tia Williams’s novel Seven Days in June. Was this going to be 2022’s The Paper Palace? I wondered.

Nope.

Eva Mercy is the author of the best selling erotica series Cursed. She’s a single mom living with her 12-year-old daughter Audre in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Except for the fact that the fifteenth installment of her witch – in – love – with – a – vampire series is due on her publisher’s desk in a week and she’s run out of steam, she has a fabulous life. Well, she does suffer from debilitating migraines and she does have a complicated relationship with her mother, Lizette. But otherwise, life’s good.

Then, there’s Shane Hall, reclusive award winning author who now spends his time trying to mentor at-risk youth, giving them the support he never had as a kid. He’s recently sober and as part of his recovery, he feels there is one wrong he has to right and it concerns Eva.

He decides the best thing to do is ambush her – after fifteen years – at the State of the Black Author event.

When a horror-movie character sees a ghost, she emits a bloodcurdling shriek. Claws at her cheeks. Runs for her life. Eva was trapped onstage in broad view of New York’s literary community, so she did none of those things. Instead, her hands went completely slack, and her microphone slipped to the floor with a heavy thunk.

For Eva, this was “the moment she’d always feared” but also “the moment she’d always anticipated.” Although he is still devastatingly beautiful – because of course he is – seeing him again shoots Eva straight back to twelfth grade, which is the last time she’d seen him.

Look, I have zero complaints about well-written romance novels. There was lots to like about Seven Days in June. I liked that it was set in NYC; I liked the fandom aspect of Eva’s novels; I liked Audre even though she sounded more like a grown-ass woman than a twelve year old.

Once Eva and Shane are reunited, it’s just a sex romp, really because – sure – two hot thirty-somethings are going to get “groiny” with one another because they have chemistry and feelings and history. But where’s the tension?

Their week together as high school seniors was meant to be some big meeting of the souls, but it was mostly a drug and alcohol fueled week crashing in someone’s empty mansion. I mean, is that the stuff epic romances are made of? Something happened that week, but it’s explained with a phone call. That was one of my issues with this book, actually, all the plot points that just felt like a way for the story to pivot. Ty. Eva’s family ring. For me, the book tried too hard to be more than the sum of its parts.

Seven Days in June is a sometimes funny, decently-written romance about two beautiful people who have sex. A lot. It is not ground-breaking.

Writers & Lovers – Lily King

From my vantage point, a 31-year-old college grad should have it all together. Of course, that’s a ridiculous assumption to make especially given that the last thing I was when I was that age was together.

Casey, the first-person-narrator of Lily King’s novel Writers & Lovers, lives in what is essentially a potting shed, hiding from the creditors who are after her for defaulted student loans, desperately trying to finish the novel she’s been working on for the past six years, and trying to come to terms with the sudden and devastating loss of her mother.

Casey is aware that she is “not the youngest kind of adult anymore.” She has a crap job at Iris, a restaurant located on the third floor of a building owned by Harvard. She doesn’t get the best shifts and is shafted by her co-workers who are always “making sure everything is to their advantage.” Anyone who has ever worked in the service industry will recognize the hierarchy and kitchen shenanigans as King has written them here.

I look beat up. like someone who has gotten ill and aged a decade in a few months. I look into my eyes, but they aren’t really mine, not the eyes I used to have. They’re the eyes of someone very tired and very sad, and once I see them I feel even sadder and then I see that sadness, that compassion, for the sadness in my eyes, and I see the water rising in them. I’m both the sad person and the person wanting to comfort the sad person.

Working at Iris isn’t the only thing sucking the life out of Casey though. Shortly after her mother died unexpectedly, she went to a writer’s retreat and met Luke. It ended badly. Casey has been struggling with the double loss ever since.

King’s novel is a coming-of-age story, really. It is a story of the difficulties of navigating life when you are stuck, as Casey most decidedly is. Enter Silas and Oscar, two different men who offer two different opportunities. I very much enjoyed her journey, even though she seemed very young. I suppose I was once, too.

Sex/Life – BB Easton

I watched the Netflix series Sex/Life when it first came out — oh, who am I kidding, I’ve watched it more than once — and so when I came across the book on which the series is based, I thought – the book is always better so I purchased it.

BB Easton’s memoir Sex/Life: 44 Chapters about 4 Men has very little in common with the Netflix series, though. While the series actually traces one woman’s very realistic mid-life crisis (and I don’t even know whether or not it’s fair to call it that because although she’s married with two kids, she looks like she couldn’t possibly be older than 35. Still – she’s definitely having a crisis), the memoir recounts the story of the author’s sexual awakening with four different men – one of whom is now her husband. None of the other three could realistically be the Brad of the series.

One thing the book and the series have in common is that, like the series, the author is looking for a way to kickstart her married sex life. She loves her husband, he is “at least ninety percent perfect” and although he is gorgeous, and kind, a wonderful father and provider, “self-deprecating and tolerant of [her] bullshit” – he’s kind of boring in the sack. In fact, he is often not interested in sex, like, at all.

This is what compels Easton to do a deep dive into her sexual past, and these reminiscences end up in a journal which her husband discovers and reads, and which seems to kickstart his libido. That’s also like the series. (Except in the series, she’s mostly talking about Brad and none of the three dudes she talks about in this memoir are him – at least I don’t think they are. There’s Knight, a local skinhead she meets when she’s a teen. Knight introduces her to BDSM and body piercings. There’s Harley, the stoner with no brains and a penis tattooed on his head, and there’s Hans, bass player for a local band. Perhaps Brad is some sort of amalgamation of all three of these characters, which is unfortunate because Brad is way more sympathetic than any of these three dudes.)

Easton’s memoir is often funny, definitely raunchy but, strangely, it lacks the introspection of the series. What I appreciated about the series, which did not exist at all in the book, was Billie’s tumble back into her past. She loves her life, but she feels that she is missing something essential – something that makes her feel like herself. I think lots of women can probably relate to that. You’re a mom, and a wife, and especially when your children are young, you make a lot of sacrifices. Billie wants to know why she can’t have it all.

The series is also angsty as hell. Yes, sure, Brad is a “bad boy” and he breaks Billie’s heart – but when he suddenly reappears eight years after their break-up, it detonates a bomb in her life — a bomb that was waiting to go off anyway. I think the series does an exceptional job of walking that line many women traverse. Plus, it’s as steamy as heck.

So, I guess I have to thank Easton for writing Sex/Life as it provided the source material for the series, but the series is just way better, imho.

Every Summer After – Carley Fortune

Persephone “Percy” Fraser is thirteen when her parents decide they want a getaway from their busy lives as U of T professors. Instead of buying a cottage in Muskoka like many of their friends, Percy’s father chooses the less developed Barry’s Bay “a sleepy, working-class village that transformed into a bustling tourist town in the summer.” Barry’s Bay, her father tells Percy is “real cottage country.”

Right next door live the Florek boys, 13-year-old, Sam, and his fifteen-year-old brother, Charlie.

It took eight hours for the Florek boys to find me. […] They were clearly related – both lanky and tanned – but their differences were just as plain. Whereas the older boy was smiling wide, scrubbed clean and clearly knew his way around a bottle of styling gel, the younger one was staring at his feet. a wavy tangle of hair falling haphazardly over his eyes.

This is the beginning of Carley Fortune’s novel Every Summer After, which begins seventeen years after that first summer meeting, and then unspools with a series of flashbacks depicting Percy and Sam’s friendship over the course of six summers, and culminates in something so horrible that they haven’t spoken in twelve years. When Charlie calls Percy to tell her that their mother has died, Percy does the only thing she can do: she returns to Barry’s Bay, even though it means that she must see Sam again.

I hate to poo-poo on a novel that seems to be universally adored, especially a debut and by a Canadian to boot. And besides, I didn’t hate this novel – there were lots of things about the book I loved. So let’s start there.

I loved:

The Canadian setting. I am not familiar with Barry’s Bay (apparently a real life place on Kamaniskeg Lake), but Fortune did a terrific job of evoking a real sense of time and place. Anyone who has ever spent time at a summer house (on a body of water or just away from everyday life) will understand that feeling of time stretching. It’s all water and sand and sunburned noses, and barbecues and endless days.

The childhood friendship between Percy and Sam. Although her mother is reluctant, at first, to let her daughter hang out with Sam, the two are quickly inseparable, bonding over movies and sharing their hopes and dreams. Teenaged Sam and Percy are delightful, and so is their friendship – made official with the ubiquitous friendship bracelets of the time.

The novel’s structure. I am a sucker for novels that jump back and forth between past and present. We know that something horrible happened and we know we’ll eventually find out the reason for the estrangement, but I love a novel that strings us along. For me, the parts of the book that were set in the past were more successful, though.

Which brings me to the bits that weren’t quite as successful for me.

Percy and Sam in the present. It’s Charlie that calls Percy to let her know about his mom and, of course, Percy doesn’t hesitate; of course she will return to Barry’s Bay. When she gets there, though, despite the wedge between her and Sam, he’s pretty much the first person she runs into on her walkabout the town, and for me, that reunion lacked any tension. Honestly, I was expecting angst out the wazoo, but instead

…he takes three giant strides toward me and wraps his arms around me so tight it’s like his large body is a cocoon around mine. He smells like sun and soap and something new that I don’t recognize.

I think we all expect that the couple will end up together, but I sort of also hope that they’re going to have to work at it a little harder than these two do. Their adult conversations (and they’re 30 now; Sam’s a doctor!) are very reminiscent of the conversations they had at 16-17.

And what did Percy do to cause the rift in the first place? Careful readers will figure it out pretty quickly and yes, people make mistakes. It’s just that – they didn’t speak in 12 years. That’s a long time for things to be resolved as quickly and easily as they are.

That’s my only gripe about the book, really. (And some of the writing is kind of Erotica 101-esque.) I would definitely read something else by this author and I would definitely recommend this book if you want a quick, sweet and sometimes steamy beach read.