Tyler Johnson Was Here – Jay Coles

Tyler Johnson Was Here adds another voice to #BLM and it’s a worthy voice indeed. Inspired by events in his own life, debut novelist Jay Coles tells the story of seventeen-year-old twins Marvin and Tyler who live with their mom in Sterling Point, Alabama. Their father has been incarcerated for a crime he did not commit.

The novel’s opening scene is a doozy. Heading back from the corner store to their house with their best friends Ivy and G-Mo, the brothers find themselves in the middle of an incident. An incident involving guns. And a cop. And already I am 100% out of my element. Of course, I am present enough in the world and read enough YA to know that this clash and the bullets and the violence are not an anomaly.

At first the friends think they’ve found themselves in the middle of some sort of gang dust-up, but when the cop shows up they realize it’s much, much worse. The cop has a kid with him, and as Marvin and the others watch

The cop keeps bashing the poor kid into the sidewalk, smashing his face onto the surface, screaming hate into the back of his head, screaming that he forgot his place in the world, screaming that his wide nose had it coming. All I can see – all I can focus on – is the cop as he pulls out his baton.

It is hard not to be affected by this scene, or any of the other things that happen as Marvin tries to figure out what he wants to do with his life, especially after it seems that Tyler is making some decisions that are clearly not of the good, including a friendship with Johntae, a known drug dealer.

The odds seem stacked against Marvin and Tyler simply because of the colour of their skin. There are very few white folks in this world, but I have to say I didn’t trust any of them – even Mrs. Tanner Marvin’s English teacher. I think she was sincere, but did she just have a white saviour complex? And here’s something I never thought about. Marvin describes his Advanced English class as “whack as shit”.

We don’t learn anything worth knowing, and today’s been just the same old dead white people, and white poems that she forces us to write on white pages. And now she tells me that Shakespeare was the world’s first rapper.

Ouch. As an English teacher myself, that stings a little, but the kid’s got a point. The Western canon leaves a lot to be desired – even I know that – and I love a lot of it.

Tyler Johnson Was Here is a readable, propulsive and frustrating novel. It is a much-needed reminder that everyone does not have the privileges that I have taken for granted my whole life. If the characterization is not quite as robust as I might have liked, it’s a small complaint because ultimately I was invested in Marvin’s story and spending a couple hours with him is time well spent.

Island of Lost Girls – Jennifer McMahon

Rhonda Farr, the protagonist of Jennifer McMahon’s second novel Island of Lost Girls, has stopped at the Mini Mart for gas when she sees something that sends her reeling back through her past. A gold VW Beetle pulls up next to her, a car she recognizes, but instead of being driven by the eccentric Laura Lee, it’s being driven by a large, white rabbit.

…when the rabbit got out of the car, there in the Pat’s Mini Mart parking lot at quarter to three on a Monday afternoon, it didn’t occur to Rhonda that there might be a person inside. He hopped like a bunny, moved quickly, nervously, jerking his white head one way, then the other. He turned toward Rhonda, and for an instant he seemed to stare at her with his blind plastic eyes.

While Rhonda watches, the rabbit knocks on the door of another car parked in the lot and leads little Ernestine Florucci, whose mother is inside the store, away. It is from this absurd beginning that Jennifer McMahon (Promise Not to Tell, Dismantled, The Winter People) spins the tale of not one missing girl, but two.

Rhonda, perhaps out of guilt, decides to help with the search effort and to do a little investigating of her own. She’s aided by Warren, Pat’s nephew. Pike’s Crossing is a small place, and Rhonda knows everyone. Trying to help find Ernestine also brings back a wave of memories about Lizzy, Rhonda’s childhood best friend who also went missing many years ago. It also brings to mind the summer they spent together launching a production of Peter Pan with Lizzie’s older brother, Peter, who is the object of Rhonda’s unrequited affection and also her dearest friend. As she searches for clues, Rhonda comes to suspect that Peter might have something to do with Ernestine’s disappearance.

There is a mystery, well two mysteries, at the centre of McMahon’s novel and I think she successfully pushes the plot of both along, switching between the past and present with ease. (I read the book in pretty much one sitting, which is about a good a recommendation as I can offer, really.)

This is also a book about the loss of innocence. Rhonda loses hers when she discovers family secrets, and when she realizes her feelings towards Peter are not returned. It also ruminates on the end of childhood. Rhonda recalls her role as Wendy in Peter Pan and remembers saying her lines and having “a sudden vision of herself as an adult, saying that line quietly on some far-off night as she stared up at the sky, like it might help bring her back.”

I haven’t always liked everything McMahon has written, but I did enjoy this book.

The Railway Children – E. Nesbit

One of my all-time favourite childhood movies is The Railway Children.  I don’t remember the-railway-children-26specifically when I first watched it, but it came out in 1970 and I probably saw it shortly after that. I have it on VHS somewhere, but no longer have a VHS machine. I did, however, have the book.

E. Nesbit’s story, first published in 1906, tells the story of siblings Roberta (Bobbie), Peter and Phyllis who live with their well-to-do parents “in an ordinary red-brick-fronted villa.” Their father works in government and their mother was always “ready to play with the children, and read to them, and help them to do their home-lessons.”

One evening, out of the blue, two men arrive at the villa and the father is “called away on business.” Afterwards, the children and their mother leave London and head out to the countryside where they will live in a “ducky dear little white house.” Although they seem to be destitute they get by. The mother is a writer and when she sells a story, the children get a treat of buns.

The children occupy their days with adventures, including making friends with the porter at the local railway station and an old gentleman who waves at them from the window of the 9:15 train they nickname the Green Dragon. There is pretty much nothing sweeter than what these three kids get up to. They are thoughtful, resilient, and kind. Revisiting their story was like being wrapped in a warm hug and Bobbie’s sentiments seemed particularly poignant given the circumstances in which we find ourselves at this point in history:

I think everyone in the world is friends if you can only get them to see you don’t want to be un – friends.

 

Before We Met – Lucie Whitehouse

86364353-FF33-4875-B41D-4A13891EA2B3When Hannah’s husband, Mark, doesn’t arrive home from a business trip as planned, Hannah is sent down a rabbit hole of lies. Sounds like every other thriller, right? I can happily say that Lucie Whitehouse’s novel Before We Met is a cracking good read that had me turning the pages way past my bed time.

Mark and Hannah met in NYC where Hannah had been living and working for an advertising agency. Mark was there on business, but when the relationship headed into serious territory they made the decision to return to London, the home base for Mark’s successful IT company.

When Mark doesn’t get off his flight and doesn’t answer his phone, Hannah starts to panic, but not in the ridiculous way some heroines in thrillers do. Even though she and Mark have only been married for eight months, she knows him. The novel flashes back to their introduction, via friends, and their courtship. Hannah had really believed that she’d spend the rest of her life in New York, perhaps alone, but Mark changes all that. Now, although she’s unemployed, she’s married to a charming, wealthy and handsome man.

When Mark finally does contact Hannah, with a story that is so crazy it’s almost plausible, Hannah does believe him. Kind of, sort of. But something just doesn’t add up for her and she starts poking around. She wants to make sure that “he hadn’t hidden [anything] to conceal evidence of money spent on hotels and dinners and presents for someone else.”

What I appreciated about Before We Met is that it was full of twists and turns that kept me changing my mind about what was going on, and I love that. I hate it when you can see the plot twist coming from a mile away and when the characters behave in a way that just isn’t realistic.  Hannah is no dummy and she doesn’t take  crazy risks to figure out what in the heck is going on. I was right there with her every step of the way.

So, if you are looking for a well-written page turner with an intelligent, sympathetic main character and a plot that’ll keep you on your toes, I highly recommend Before We Met. It’s a perfect book to curl up with on a cold winter’s night.

Emergency Contact – Mary H.K. Choi

Penny Lee can’t wait to get away from her mom, Celeste. Not because she’s overbearing, emergencybut because Penny has always felt like she’s the parent and her mom’s the kid. Sometimes Penny wanted to “shake Celeste until her fillings came loose.” Now it’s time for Penny to go off to college –  University of Texas in Austin, only an hour or so away, but away nonetheless.

Her dorm mate Jude, and Jude’s bestie, Mallory, seem like every mean girl Penny has ever encountered, but like everyone else in Mary H.K. Choi’s debut novel Emergency Contact appearances can be deceiving. Penny isn’t anything like them, she’s like the “tiny Asian girl from the Japanese horror movie The Grudge.” (Penny is, in fact, Korean.) Although her friendship with Jude and Mallory isn’t immediate, it turns out, once she lets them in, they’re tremendous allies.

Then there’s Sam. Sam is related (sort of) to Jude through some complicated family tree consisting of defunct marriages. At twenty-one, he works at a local coffee shop where he cooks scrumptious pastries, and lives in a room overhead. He’s skinny, floppy-haired and tattooed, and Penny is almost immediately smitten when she joins Jude and Mallory  for iced coffees. Sam is “different. Sleek. Brooding and angular.”

A chance encounter one afternoon, causes Sam and Penny to become each other’s emergency contacts,  and thus begins a series of light-hearted, and then increasingly more personal texts. Such is romance in the 21st century, I guess. The thing is, Penny has a boyfriend back home and Sam is still in love with his ex, the obnoxiously self-centered Lorraine. But since Penny and Sam never meet in person and only rarely speak on the phone, they manage to keep their relationship superficial, even if neither of them actually feels that way about each other.

I read my fair share of YA romance, and I have to say that Emergency Contact  is definitely one of the better ones I’ve read. Both Sam and Penny are delightfully drawn. Penny is closed off, but clearly as smart as a whip. Sam, too, has had his problems, and things get more complicated for him as he tries to navigate his feelings for Lorraine and his growing feelings for Penny. The thing about these two people is that they are genuinely nice and Choi doesn’t resort to any ridiculous tactics to keep them apart…or push them together, either. There’s certainly lots of potential for misunderstandings and crossed wires, but the little snags in their journey seem realistic rather than ridiculous.

And even though you know where all this is headed and you’ll want these guys to get together, too, it’s the journey, not the destination.

 

 

Long Way Down – Jason Reynolds

long-way-down_1_origIt’s hard to wrap my head around gun violence as it exists in the U.S. My dad had a couple hunting rifles when I was a kid, but I don’t recall ever seeing them. No one I know has a gun in their bedside drawer…just in case. When I wrote a review for This Is Where It Ends a few months back, I tracked down some  stats about school shootings in Canada versus the U.S. and the disparity between our two countries is staggering.

Award-winning author Jason Reynolds addresses the issue of gun violence in his novel Long Way Down. Written in verse, the novel follows the aftermath of a shooting in which the narrator, 15-year-old Will, struggles to come to terms with the shooting death of his older brother, Shawn.

“The Sadness/is just so hard/to explain,” Will tells us. “Imagine waking up/ and someone,/ a stranger,/ got you strapped down,/ got pliers shoved/ into your mouth,/ gripping a tooth/…and rips it out./ But the worst part,/ the absolute worst part,/ is the constant slipping/ of your tongue/ into the new empty space,/ where you know/ a tooth supposed to be/ but ain’t no more.”

Will has clearly grown up in a neighbourhood where gun violence is a way of life. When they hear a gun everyone “Did what we’ve all/ been trained to do.”  And after the shooting, there are yet more rules to follow: 1. No crying. 2. No snitching. 3. Get revenge.

That’s what Will is after and he knows where Shawn keeps his gun. He thinks he knows who shot his brother, too, and he is headed there when something astonishing happens.

“…I’m telling you,/ this story is true./ It happened to me./ Really.”

Will gets onto the elevator in his apartment building, and the elevator stops at every floor on the way down. At each stop,  Will is joined by a ghost, someone connected to him, someone whose life was also ended by a bullet. As the elevator descends, each spirit shares their story, compelling stories of lives cut short, accidental deaths, and the horrific consequences of choices made.

Just because I have no experience with guns, doesn’t mean I am not affected by gun violence. I am about as anti-gun as a person can be, but Reynolds’ novel goes far beyond that. It’s a philosophical book about the deep roots of violence, the tentacles (sorry, I am mixing my metaphors here) of which reach out into the community in ways that are probably impossible for a white middle-aged mom in Canada to understand.  All I know is that when I finished reading Long Way Down  I felt hollowed out.

Complacency is not an option. Reynolds’ novel should be required reading for everyone.

Paperback Crush – Gabrielle Moss

paperbackI couldn’t resist picking up Paperback Crush,  a colourful, sometimes snarky look at the Young Adult fiction published in the 1980s and 90s. Author Gabrielle Moss say that the book is “here to honor the young adult lit published after Judy Blume but before J.K. Rowling.” Those decades produced more YA than the previous decades, but the quality, I suspect, wasn’t what we’ve come to expect from modern YA. And I read a lot of YA.

It’s a hotly debated subject (okay, maybe not hotly): what’s the first YA book?

…experts don’t agree on exactly when [YA] dawned. Books from the original 1930s Nancy Drew stories to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s 1932 book Little House in the Big Woods  to the 1936 novel Sue Barton, Student Nurse by Helen Dore Boylston have all been held up as the first-ever YA novel

I like to think that S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders  is the first true example of YA, a story written expressly for young people, but according to Young Adult Library Services Association president Michael Cart YA “all started with Maureen Daly’s Seventeenth Summer.” I actually have vague memories of reading that book, but my memories of reading The Outsiders and Hinton’s follow-up That Was Then, This is Now  are seared into my adolescent memory.

Moss tracks the trends in YA, everything from first love and love-gone-wrong to sick lit and paranormal romance. She examines teenage jobs (babysitters and camp counselors); friendships (bffs and frenemies); family (siblings and cousins and evil step-parents).  She looks at specific books and authors, flagging the more famous titles with passive-aggressive admiration (Wakefield twins!)

I wasn’t reading a lot of YA lit in the 80s and 90s, but I am a reader, so I was at least familiar with 80% of the literature Moss mentioned. I mean, you would have had to be living on another planet not to know Sweet Valley High  or The Baby-Sitters Club [sic]. I enjoyed reading about these books, and often found Moss’s commentary laugh-out-loud funny.

Literature from this time period was not without its issues. As Moss points out “a lot of these books centered on the stories of white rich thin heterosexual women with naturally straight hair.” But no matter. For better or worse “They validated girls’ stories by putting them to paper….”

I came of age in the 1970s, but as a teacher I enjoyed Paperback Crush.  It is pure nostalgia. Although I am just a bit older than the book’s target demographic, I too remember the joys of the Scholastic flyer, and the thrill of choosing my own books to read. Many of the titles mentioned caused a flood of memories. If books were a part of your life, this one will give you all the feels.

Educated – Tara Westover

educatedOur first book club pick for 2019 was Tara Westover’s compelling memoir Educated.  Born and raised in southern Idaho, Westover tells the remarkable story of living in the shadow of  Buck’s Peak, the youngest of seven children. Like virtually everyone else in the nearby town, Tara was raised as a Mormon, but as she says in the author’s notes “This is not a book about Mormonism.”

It doesn’t take long to figure out that Tara’s father is beyond the pale in terms of his beliefs and how they impact his children.  Not only is he a devout Mormon, he’s a survivalist. He preaches that the government is evil. Tara and her siblings don’t go to school, or to the hospital when they are sick. Tara didn’t even have a birth certificate until she was nine. When his mother suggests that Tara (and her sisters and brothers) should be attending school, he tells her that “public school was a ploy by the Government to lead children away from God. “I may as well surrender my kids to the devil himself…as send them down the road to that school.””

Instead of school, Tara helps with a variety of jobs around their property. Her three oldest brothers had helped their father build barns or hay sheds, but her two oldest brothers had recently left and then her brother Tyler announces that he wants to go to college. Tara is perhaps ten when Tyler makes this announcement and she has to ask what college is. Her father tells her that it’s “extra school for people too dumb to lean the first time around.”

The fact that Tyler leaves the mountain to attend school has a profound impact on Tara. He’s not like her oldest brothers, Tony (whom we learn very little about) and Shawn (the story’s villain). Tyler “liked books, he liked quiet.” He introduces Tara to classical music and it becomes their secret language. To understand the huge impact Tyler has on Tara’s life, one only has to note that her book is dedicated to him.

Eventually, Tara makes the decision that she, too, wants an education. This is remarkable because she’s had no formal schooling. Instead, she has to study on her own and pass ACT, a standardized test that will allow her to attend college without a high school diploma. She is motivated, not only by her desire to learn, but also by the increasingly violent and erratic behaviour of her brother, Shawn.

Educated is a riveting family drama and also the story of how an education (and I’m not even really talking about a formal education here, although Tara certainly has one of those, including a PhD from Cambridge) can change a person’s life. Despite the fact that Tara might describe her childhood as happy, there is no doubt that her father suffered from mental illness and her mother is complicit in the abuse she suffers at the hands of her brother, Shawn. Tara’s attempt to honestly portray her family and the things that happened to her makes for compelling reading.

Listen to Tara answer questions about her story here.

Highly recommended.

 

 

Mosquitoland – David Arnold

Mary Iris Malone, Mim for short, is not okay. Life has thrown her some curve-balls of mosquitolandlate: her parents’ divorce; her father’s quicky marriage to Kathy; their subsequent move from Ashland, Ohio to Jackson, Mississippi. When Mim overhears her father and stepmother talking to the principal, she’s convinced that her biological mother is sick and makes the decision to hop a Greyhound and travel the 947 miles back to Ohio to see her.

This is the premise of David Arnold’s debut novel Mosquitoland , a book which garnered massive praise and stellar reviews when it was published in 2015. I have to say, it’s worthy of all the fuss.

Mim’s journey is both literal, and she meets all-sorts on the bus and beyond, and figurative; this is a journey of self-discovery only a quirky, intelligent and empathetic sixteen-year-old could take.  Mim reveals herself in journal entries addressed to Isabel, and to various passengers, including Arlene, the old lady who sits next to her on the bus. Arlene turns out to be just what Mim needs because “it’s nice to sit that close to someone and not feel the incessant need to talk.”

Then there’s Walt, the boy Mim meets when she ends up getting off the bus. Walt is slightly left of center. He lives in a tent in the woods. “What are you doing?” He asks her  when he finds her asleep under an overpass. “…as a part of big things?”

Walt is a completely endearing character and Mim is “100 percent intrigued” when he says “Do you like shiny things? I have lots of shiny things there. And a pool…You’re a pretty dirty person right now. You could use a pool. Also, there’s ham.”

And then there’s Beck. Mim first notices him on the bus and then in a weird twist of fate, she meets him again at the police station (long story).

He’s older than me, probably early twenties, so it’s not completely out of the question – us getting married and traveling the world over, I mean. Right now, a five-year difference might seem like a lot, but once he’s fifty-four and I’m forty-nine, well shoot, that’s nothing.

There’s a quality about him, something like a movie star but not quite. Like he  could be Hollywood if it weren’t for his humanitarian efforts, or his volunteer work, or his clean conscience, no doubt filled to the brim with truth, integrity, and a heart for the homeless.

There is nothing I didn’t love about Mim or her journey. There is nothing I didn’t love about the other characters she meets – except for Poncho Man. (Obviously.) Mosquitoland has it all: the absurd, the laughs and the feels. It is a beautifully written book about growing up, facing your fears, what family means (both the family you are born with and the family you make) and why it is okay to admit that you are not okay.

Mad love for this book, so of course it is highly recommended.

 

Me Being Me Is Exactly As Insane As You Being You – Todd Hasak-Lowy

me-being-me-is-exactly-as-insane-as-you-being-you-9781442495746_hrDarren Jacobs isn’t having a particularly great year. He’s a slightly over-weight almost-sixteen-year-old who lives with his workaholic divorced mother (his father moved out about two years ago). His older, significantly cooler, brother Nate goes to school at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Todd Hasak-Lowy’s YA novel Me Being Me Is Exactly As Insane As You Being You is comprised completely of lists. That’s right, lists. For example: 5 Contributions Darren’s Dad Makes to This Morning’s Conversation Before Darren Makes Any Himself and 13 Adjectives Darren Wouldn’t Be Surprised to Hear His Peers Using to Describe Him.

The story follows Darren as he navigates  his prickly junior and senior years. As if being a teenager isn’t problematic enough,  his father has just told Darren that he’s gay. His mother is often on the West Coast for work. Plus, there’s this girl, Zoey, who is suddenly back on Darren’s radar even though “they actually went to elementary school together.” Although they don’t share any classes and although they’ve barely spoken, this one time

she looked at Darren, right at him, for a moment or two, her pale face either curious or confused, and it was then that he realized she may be the saddest person at North High, sadder than him even. And so he would hug her if she ever asked.

Impulsively, Darren kind of takes off on his own to Ann Arbor hoping that his older brother has some sage words of comfort. Zoey ends up tagging along and that turns out to be one more complication in his life.

7 Predictions That Darren Makes After Zoey Leans Over to Put Out Her Cigarette on the Underside of the Bottom Stair, Because Immediately After She Does That and Sits Back Up, She Smiles at Darren in This Impossibly Straightforward/Friendly/Kind/Open/Supportive/Sympathetic/Reassuring/Optimistic Way

  1. Darren will fall in love with Zoey.

  2. Zoey will welcome this development.

  3. Meaning she will too (fall in love with him).

  4. Darren will smoke cigarettes with some degree of regularity for the last couple years of high school.

  5. Zoey will remain a bit unusual, but Darren will learn that she’s not really such a freak overall.

  6. Darren’s running off to Ann Arbor with her will prove to be the best decision he ever made.

  7. Everything will be different from now on.

Darren is a completely endearing character. He’s smart and wry and is trying desperately not to disappoint his parents. He is filled with doubts and anxieties, and spends a lot of time on his own because his best friend Bugs has moved away.

All of Darren’s relationships are a combination of confusing, infuriating, and heartbreaking.

The narrative isn’t exactly linear, but careful readers will have no trouble tracking Darren’s story. Some of his lists are funny, some sad, but every list reveals some essential part of Darren’s journey towards adulthood. It’s a trip worth taking.