The Vanishing Half – Brit Bennett

Brit Bennett’s novel The Vanishing Half tells the story of twin sisters Desiree and Stella Vignes, who run away from their small-town home at sixteen. Mallard, Louisiana is “more idea than place.” Founded in 1848 by a man “who would never be accepted as white but refused to be treated like Negroes”, Mallard seems to pride itself on breeding generations who are “lighter than the one before.” That’s how one of the twins is able to pass as white, and thus enters a world that, in the mid 1950s, she would normally be allowed to inhabit.

At first the sisters head to New Orleans, where they hope they will be able to fulfill their dreams which had been “trapped by [Mallard’s] smallness.” Stella, the practical one, is studious and dreams of a bigger life. Desiree “imagined herself escaping into the city and becoming an actress.” But then, one day, Stella disappears. It will be many years before the sisters see each other again.

The Vanishing Half begins when Desiree and her young daughter, Jude, arrive back in Mallard fourteen years after she and Stella first ran away. It’s big news in a small town because nobody left Mallard and “nobody married dark”, but Desiree had done both. From here, the novel reaches back to tell the story of the girls’ initial disappearance, their separation and then what becomes of their lives.

Stella’s story is vastly different than her sister’s. She meets Blake Sanders, and marries him and they move to California, where they have a daughter called Kennedy. It isn’t until a black family moves onto their cul de sac that Stella’s past starts to resurface and we begin to see how much she has buried. Blake doesn’t know she’s black. Kennedy doesn’t know her mother has a sister. She passed as white and she lives as white and it seems to make her life both easier and harder.

It isn’t until Jude decides to attend college in Los Angeles and, by chance, sees Stella at an event where she is working as a catering waitress, that the sisters’ stories merge. Fascinated with her violet-eyed, blonde cousin Kennedy, Jude tries to put her mother’s story back together.

I really enjoyed this book. It was easy to read; the characters were interesting and complicated, and although I guess I didn’t really understand Stella’s motivation for keeping her past a secret, for denying she had a twin, I guess the truth of the matter is that we can never really understand someone until we walk in their shoes. I loved Desiree’s childhood sweetheart, Early Jones, who comes back into her life when he is hired by Desiree’s abusive ex-husband to find her. I loved Jude and her boyfriend, Reese.

Families are complicated and the families in Bennett’s novel are no different. Everyone keeps secrets, some more damaging than others. Stella’s secret, of course, is the biggest of all. Stella’s husband, for example, seems to love her unconditionally, but he doesn’t really know her. Stella’s relationship with Kennedy is, especially as Kennedy gets older, tense, but how could it be anything but. Kennedy has questions; Stella has no answers she’s willing to give.

I didn’t finish Bennett’s novel The Mothers, but I have no qualms about recommending this one to readers.

My Name is Lucy Barton – Elizabeth Strout

Lucy Barton is recovering from surgery in a New York City hospital with a view of the Chrysler Building. She’d gone into the hospital to have her appendix removed and ended up staying for nine weeks, fighting an infection that nobody seemed able to identify. During her time in the hospital, her mother comes to stay for a few days and as the two women sit together, parts of Lucy’s childhood float to the surface. This is the premise of Elizabeth Strout’s novel My Name if Lucy Barton. Last year I read Olive Kitteridge, a book which had been languishing on my tbr shelf for years. I loved it. I really enjoyed this book, too. It’s a quiet book and as the story moved along, it seemed to build in intensity.

Lucy and her mother have a strained relationship; in fact, they have not spoken in several years, but when she shows up at Lucy’s bedside “using my pet name, which I had not heard in ages, [it] made me feel warm and liquid-filled, as though all my tension had been a solid thing, and now was not.”

For five days, Lucy’s mother sits with her and the two talk of the past, a past which hadn’t been necessarily kind to them.

We were oddities, our family, even in that tiny rural town of Amgash, Illinois, where there were other homes that were run-down and lacking fresh paint or shutters or gardens, no beauty for the eye to rest on. […] We were told on the playground by other children, “Your family stinks,” and they’d run off pinching their noses with their fingers; my sister was told by her second-grade teacher – in front of the class – that being poor was no excuse for having dirt behind the ears, no one was too poor to buy a bar of soap.

Lucy gets out, though. A teacher recognizes Lucy’s love of reading and provides her with lots of books to read. The books make Lucy feel “less alone. This is my point. And I thought: I will write and people will not feel so alone!” Despite her insecurities, Lucy takes herself, her studies and her writing very seriously and earns herself a full-ride scholarship to college. This is the beginning of Lucy’s journey of self-discovery and also the beginning of her exile from her family. It is only her mother’s arrival at her bedside which makes her re-examine her roots and she is telling this story from many years in the future when she actually has the perspective necessary to understand.

As Lucy and her mother share stories about the people of Amgash, Lucy also looks more closely at her memories of her family and her own strengths and weaknesses as a person. These observations are the heart and soul of Strout’s novel.

It interests me how we find ways to feel superior to another person, another group of people. It happens everywhere, and all the time. Whatever we call it, I think it’s the lowest part of who we are, this need to find someone else to put down.

I think My Name is Lucy Barton is a book that would benefit from a second read. It really asks the reader to look closely at their own lives, their harsh judgments of others, their estrangements, the second-chances we’re offered and often stupidly refuse. When Lucy and her husband divorce, Lucy’s adult daughter tells her “when you write a novel you get to rewrite it, but when you live with someone for twenty years, that is the novel, and you can never write that novel with anyone again!”

I think this is a novel that is deceptive, now that I’ve tried to capture my thoughts about it here. Quiet, yes, but powerful in the way that it examines one woman’s story. And that’s what we all have, our own stories.

The Girls Are All So Nice Here – Laurie Elizabeth Flynn

So. Much. Fun.

Ambrosia (Amb) Wellington has just received an invitation to attend the tenth reunion of her Wesleyan graduating class. When the email arrives, Ambrosia deletes it immediately. As she does the second email. Then she gets a note in the mail: “You need to come. We need to talk about what we did that night.” The who and what implied in this message is at the centre of Laurie Elizabeth Flynn’s thriller The Girls Are All So Nice Here. Flynn’s first novel for adults (she has written three novels for young adults) is pretty much un-put-down-able. I started it one night when the book I was reading just wasn’t floating my boat. I read 100 pages and only stopped because it was a school night and I needed to turn off my light.

The novel flips back and forth between now, Amb in the present day, an executive at a NYC PR firm and then, when Amb was an awkward college freshman looking for a way to fit in. She arrives at her college dorm, Butterfields, and meets her new roommate, Flora, and although they’d been emailing back and forth over the summer, Amb seems to bristle when she meets Flora in person. She thinks about what she’ll say about her when she texts her high school bestie, Billie, recalling how they’d studied the pretty girls in high school, peeling “them like overripe fruit in marathon gossip sessions to lessen the sting of not being invited to their parties.”

Flora isn’t a mean girl, though. She’s kind and thoughtful and leaves cheerful, positive post-its on the doors of the other girls in their dorm. Her life at home, despite her wealth, isn’t perfect. Her long-term boyfriend, son of her mother’s best friend, is attending Dartmouth, three hours away. So the friction isn’t instigated or perpetuated by Flora; Amb’s insecurities are the problem. The low-key cool she’d cultivated back home seems misplaced here where “the girls seemed casually beautiful in a way that felt unachievable.” Then she meets Sloane (Sully) Sullivan, a girl with “a face that instantly held everybody’s attention.”

To timid, trying-too-hard Amb, Sully seems fearless. And she is, I guess, if your idea of fearless is someone who drinks, does drugs, and sleeps with just about anyone she crosses paths with. For whatever reason, Amb finds that she will do pretty much anything to get herself on Sully’s radar because when Sully “fixed her gaze on me. It was like being anointed.” Sully’s roommate, Lauren, warns Amb that Sully has “zero attention span”, but Amb is intrigued. Sully isn’t nice though, far from it, and she warps Amb’s insecurities and deep-seated desire to fit in into something toxic.

The Girls Are All So Nice Here, beyond being a page-turning thriller, has lots to say about female relationships. If you were ever on the outside looking in, you’ll relate to these girls. Even when Amb realizes that she’s being manipulated, Sully’s approval means more to her than doing the right thing. And the right thing might have prevented a tragedy which destroys more than one life. The book also has lots to say about a culture that still seems to pit women against each other. Instead of looking out for each other, these girls look for ways to undermine each other. It’s like Mean Girls on steroids.

“Our reign was short and bloody,” Amb recalls. She’s not lying.

Highly recommended.

Bloodline – Jess Lourey

I read Jess Lourey’s Unspeakable Things a few months ago and really enjoyed it so I was looking forward to reading Bloodline. It wasn’t quite the same reading experience, but it was a quick, enjoyable read nonetheless.

Joan Harken, a journalist, moves to Lilydale, Minnesota with her boyfriend, Deck. The impetus for trading big city life for small town living was a recent mugging, which left Joan shaken up and afraid, especially since she’s pregnant. Deck assures Joan that “Lilydale was peaceful, friendly. Everyone knows everyone, looked out for one another, The world outside might scream and swirl like a tornado, but Lilydale floated in a bubble, outside of time, as safe as a smile.”

It won’t take readers very long to figure out that Lilydale has some seriously creepy Stepford-vibes. We’re seeing things through Joan’s eyes – and let’s not forget she’s trained to be observant and ask questions. First there are the people who live on Mill Street, the street where Deck and Joan are to live in Deck’s childhood home. The town Mothers and Fathers give off definite cult-vibes. Then there’s the fact that everyone in Lilydale seems to know her business. As Deck’s father tells her “You have to understand how a small town works. We’re a big family here. You don’t keep secrets from family.”

Well, it turns out, you can keep some secrets and there are a lot of them in Lilydale. Some of those secrets have to do with Paulie Aandeg, a little boy who disappeared from his kindergarten class on his first day. Although it happened decades ago, the child was never found and later his mother’s house burned to the ground and she disappeared, too. When someone claiming to be Paulie turns up in Lilydale, Joan feels like she’s landed on the story of a lifetime. Unfortunately, she discovers, people in Lilydale aren’t all that forthcoming with information. As Joan’s investigation heats up, she feels more and more like people are watching her – not watching out for her as you might reasonably expect in a small town, but literally spying on her. When she starts to feel as though her life and the life of her unborn baby might be in danger, she becomes even more paranoid.

It’s interesting reading a story set in the sixties. Joan’s doctor allows for four cigarettes a day and that reminded me of an old Dr. Spock pregnancy book I found years ago. His recommendation: limit drinking to two cocktails a day and cigarettes to half a pack. Imagine. There are jellied salads, crème de menthe and Peter Pan collars galore.

Bloodline is a super-quick read. It’s straight-forward, page-turning fun.

Sing, Unburied, Sing – Jesmyn Ward

Jesmyn Ward’s 2017 award-winning novel Sing, Unburied, Sing is the kind of book you can’t really put down once you pick it up. Partly it’s because the real action takes place over a very short amount of time and is so nerve-wracking I just couldn’t bear to stop reading, and partly it’s because the narrators in the book, Jojo and his mother, Leonie, and Richie, a boy who died years before the action of the story, are just too compelling to turn away from.

Jojo lives with his mother, his little sister, Kayla, and his maternal grandparents, Pop and Mam, in rural Mississippi. It’s Jojo’s thirteenth birthday when the novel begins, and Jojo’s first task of the day is to help his grandfather slaughter a goat for his birthday barbecue. Jojo says “I like to think I know what death is. I like to think that it’s something I could look at straight.” Oh, he’ll be looking at it straight, all right, and so will the reader. Ward doesn’t shy away of any of the details and so you’ll know pretty much from that opening scene that violence is part of the deal in this book.

This family has its share of troubles. Mam is currently bedridden, ravaged by cancer; Leonie is addicted to drugs; Michael, Jojo’s white father is currently in prison. Jojo depends on himself and his grandfather, who is loving albeit taciturn. Pop demonstrates his affection for Jojo by telling him stories, stories about his childhood and stories about his own incarceration.

Sometimes he’ll tell me the same story three, even four times. Hearing him tell them makes me feel like his voice is a hand he’s reached out to me, like he’s rubbing my back and I can duck whatever makes me feel like I’ll never be able to stand as tall as Pop, never be as sure.

Jojo’s main concern is Kayla, who is only three. He no longer depends on his mother and, in fact, thinks of her as Leonie. “It was a new thing, to look at her rubbing hands and her crooked teeth in her chattering mouth and not hear Mama in my head….”

When Michael is due to be released from prison, Leonie decides that she should make the journey to the prison to pick him up. She also thinks it would be a great idea to bring Jojo and Kayla, and her co-worker, a white woman named Misty whose boyfriend, Bishop, is also serving time. It’s hot, Kayla is almost immediately car sick, and the whole journey just seems fraught with danger.

Both Leonie and Jojo see ghosts. Literally. Leonie sees the ghost of her brother, Given, who was killed in a hunting accident fifteen years ago. Given was, by all accounts, destined for greatness: a talented athlete, popular and well-liked. Jojo sees Richie, a young boy who was incarcerated with Pop. In some ways Richie and Given are a manifestation of the guilt carried by those still living, but at the very least they are indicative of the way we are shaped by our pasts. Can we blame Leonie’s vices on the loss of her brother? Can we, at least, empathize with her? I’m not sure I did, she was just so negligent, but I was wholly invested in Jojo and found it impossible not to worry about him the entire time.

Sing, Unburied, Sing tackles the prickly topic of racism, too. Michael’s parents are make-no-bones-about-it racists. Leonie has talked to them exactly four times and is well aware that Michael’s father, Big Joseph (after whom Jojo is named) would rather “hang up in my face […] than speak to me, the nigger his son had babies with.” When a white cop pulls them over, my heart was in my throat the whole time. This is a story that carries the weight of hundreds of years of racism on its shoulders. My white privilege, I know, makes me blind to it.

This is a must-read book.

We Begin at the End – Chris Whitaker

Chris Whitaker’s novel We Begin at the End was all over my Twitter feed and the praise was copious, so I did what any booklover does, I ordered the book. Regular readers will know that having possession of a book doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to land on my bedside table (which is where my currently-reading books live), but this one called to me. I needed to know what all the fuss was about. I needed to know if it was deserving of the fuss.

Hell, yeah.

Whitaker’s mystery/coming-of-age/noir novel concerns the fates of a whole cast of characters. It starts in the past as the town of Cape Haven, California, including Walk and his best friend Vincent King, are out looking for the body of Sissy Radley, younger sister of Vincent’s girlfriend, Star. Flash forward thirty years: Vincent’s been languishing in prison, Walk is now the town sheriff, and Star’s the messed-up mom of 13-year-old Duchess and 5-year-old, Robin.

Walk has made it his mission to look out for Star and her kids. Star’s a bit of a hot mess. She and her kids live in poverty, and Star spends a lot of time self-medicating with booze and pills. Duchess thinks part of her mom’s difficulty stems from what happened to Sissy all those years ago. “Duchess had got the bones of the story over the years, from Star when she slurred it, from the archive at the library in Salinas.”

When Vincent is released from jail he returns to Cape Haven and sets about restoring his family home, which just happens to be on a prime piece of waterfront. Dickie Darke, the local badass and sometime consort of Star, wants Vincent’s land badly, but Vincent isn’t interested in selling. He mostly just wants to be left alone. Vincent’s freedom is short lived though, and he’s soon back in jail for another crime, and this crime is the mystery which threads itself through the novel. Vincent insists on Martha May, another childhood friend and Walk’s old girlfriend, to represent him even though she’s not a criminal lawyer. That brings Martha back into Walk’s orbit after a long absence.

There are lots of surprises in Whitaker’s novel and some of the best ones are saved for the end, but it isn’t really the mystery that kept me turning the pages, it’s the characters.

Walk is loyal and dogged, and he’s spent his whole life in Cape Haven, where he knows everyone, Cape Haven is a quiet coastal town and he’s never even really had occasion to draw his gun. Vincent is taciturn and patient. Star is a hot mess. Even Dickie Dark is complicated. Minor characters, Milton, the town butcher and head of the local neighbourhood watch, Cuddy, the guard at the prison where Vincent has spent the last thirty years of his life, and Hal, the children’s grandfather, are compelling. But it’s Duchess who draws you in

If Duchess is perhaps a tad too precocious, she’s to be forgiven. She’s been dealt a rotten hand. And when circumstances land her and Robin in Montana with the grandfather they don’t know, her life is upended again. It takes every ounce of energy she has to rein herself in, and she’s really only willing to do that for her little brother. She doesn’t let people get close; it takes patience and perseverance to get past her defenses. Luckily, there are people in her life willing to keep trying. I loved her. She reminded me of Turtle, the protagonist of Gabriel Tallent’s stellar debut My Absolute Darling. This is a compliment, trust me.

There are a lot of moving pieces in Whitaker’s novel, and a lot of characters, too. There has been some criticism of his prose and the short hand he uses. I don’t read westerns and while much of this novel feels like a western, I chalked Duchess’s odd vernacular up to bravado: “I am the outlaw Duchess Day Radley” she tells more than one adversary. Perhaps odd coming from a kid from California, but not necessarily from a smart kid looking to build a protective shield around herself and those she loves. As for the novel’s prose, once I settled into Whitaker’s world, the writing just seemed spare. I think it suited the story, laid it bare.

This is a great book on so many levels. Read it for the mystery. Read it for the characters. Read it for the gut punch at the end. But read it!

The Lesser Dead – Christopher Buehlman

I think vampire stories are difficult to do well. Do you mess with the tropes? Do you make them evil or angsty? Should they sparkle? Have a conscience? Be sexy? Ruthless killers? Earlier this year I re-read Nancy Baker’s The Night Inside and it didn’t quite hold up to my memories of it. Christopher Buehlman’s 2014 book The Lesser Dead is, on the other hand, a fabulous book about vampires, if bloodsuckers are a thing you enjoy.

Joey Peacock was just fourteen when he was turned in 1933. Now it’s 1978 and Joey lives with an ad hoc family of vamps in the unused subway tunnels of New York City. His first person narrative is both funny and kind of heartbreaking.

If you’re looking for a story about nice people doing nice things, this isn’t for you. You will be burdened with an unreliable narrator who will disappoint and repel you at every turn.

Still with me?

Too bad for you.

I can’t wait to break your heart

Joey tells us a tale of monsters and warns readers that “if you like those stories, it means you’re bad.” He spends the early part of his story explaining how he and the others live, their hierarchy and how they hunt. He tells us the story of how he came to be a vampire and it’s a life he likes just fine. Then, one night, he sees something peculiar on the subway.

It was a kid. A little girl. Long black hair like an Oriental, but she was Anglo. Pale skin. Pretty but haunted. She was sitting two seats closer than she had been, though I never saw her move, holding a Raggedy Ann doll she didn’t seem interested in. She was looking at briefcase-hooker-notepad guy.

He looked back at her. And stared. It was all wrong.

This won’t be the only time Joey encounters this little girl, and the other children she hangs with. Their arrival in NYC starts a chain of events that is gory, horrifying and a lot of fun to read.

It’s interesting to read a vampire story that respects the lore, but isn’t afraid to tweak it a little. These vampires can eat and drink, but it’s only for show; food of the non-blood variety upsets their tummies. Sunlight. Not good. Thrall – totally a thing. Decapitation – end of the road for a vampire in this world. I loved all these little details.

I also loved the other vampires who shared Joey’s life: Margaret, their leader; Cvetko, Old Boy, Ruth, Billy and Luna are among the fourteen vampires in Joey’s immediate circle. Of them, he’s closest to Cvetko, who was turned around 1890. He’s the scholar in the group and acts, in some ways, as Joey’s mentor. Television, he tells Joey, will rot his brain. Joey describes Cvetko as a “charming but endearing calamity.”

The Lesser Dead is a great book and Joey is a fantastic narrator. I loved the time I spent with him trolling the tunnels of NYC and trying to do the right thing. Turns out, some vampires do care a great deal for humanity, even if their reasons are somewhat selfish.

Highly recommended.

Girl Crazy – Russell Smith

Justin, the protagonist of Russell Smith’s novel Girl Crazy, is a 32-year-old community college instructor fresh from a break-up with his long-time girlfriend Genevieve. Justin knows it is “a little weird that they kept making plans to see each other and pretending to be friends so soon after the breakup.”

One day, Justin meets Jenna near a payphone. She’s dressed in yoga gear that leaves little to the imagination and Justin is smitten…or aroused…or something. Jenna, it turns out, is in need of medical attention and Justin has a friend who’s a resident at a local hospital. This chance encounter leads Justin into a life that is totally unfamiliar to him.

Although Justin has a grown-up job, it doesn’t take him long to start behaving like an adolescent. That’s the main thing that stood out to me: Justin is immature. But then, I also acted like a crazy person at around that time in my life, or perhaps just a few short years before then, so I shouldn’t be so quick to judge. Perhaps he only seems super young and ridiculous to me because he is half my age.

Once he and Jenna hook up, it’s like a fuse has been lit. Justin is fueled by lust and manipulated into behaving in ways I can’t imagine are in character for him pre-Jenna. I kept wondering why he was doing such crazy things: casually hanging out with criminals, buying drugs via the Internet, seeking out underground card games. But then, I did some stupid things when I was young, usually because there was a boy involved.

It’s interesting to see this world through a guy’s eyes, actually and Justin sees everything through sex. Women are reduced to the sum of their sexiest parts: “a stripe of her belly was visible”, “her lips were so full they looked swollen”, “her thong, rising like a tattoo from between her muscles.” Smith describes sex without romance, but that doesn’t mean it’s not well-written. But it’s also not erotica. But I don’t think this is a love story, either.

Justin is obsessed with Jenna and he wants to save her from herself. Jenna, however, is not interested in being saved. I don’t think she misrepresents herself; I think Justin is thinking with his dick.

I don’t know how I feel about Girl Crazy. I don’t think I am the target audience, but I had zero trouble turning the pages. I would definitely read more by this Canadian writer.

The Project – Courtney Summers

Regular readers of this blog – hmmm, do I even have any of those? – will be familiar with the name Courtney Summers because I have loved every book she has ever written and I have read them all except for her novella Please Remain Calm, which she wrote as a sequel to This is Not a Test, a book which was perfect all on its own. Her other novels include Sadie, (my favourite) Cracked Up to Be, Some Girls Are, Fall For Anything, and All the Rage .

There’s lots to admire about Summers. She’s Canadian. She writes tough, smart, fierce female characters and she puts them (and the reader) through the emotional wringer. Summers herself is delightfully gleeful about the fact that her books are going to emotionally torture you. And as her latest novel, The Project, was nearing its release date, she ramped up her delight at the thought that she was going to wreck us with this new book. Although I didn’t necessarily feel wrecked, I enjoyed The Project , although ‘enjoyed’ might not be the best characterization for a book that is mostly grim.

Bea is six when her little sister Lo is born. She is none-too-pleased about her baby sister’s arrival, but reconsiders her position after her mother tells her that “Having a sister is a promise no one but the two of you can make – and no one but the two of you can break.” That’s the beginning for Lo and Gloria; theirs is an unbreakable bond.

Years later, Lo and her parents are in a terrible car accident. Their parents are killed and Lo lingers on death’s door because “There’s so much wrong […] that what the accident did isn’t going to be what kills her. It’s the infection she’s gotten since.” Bea feels like she will do anything to save her sister and anything turns out to be Lev Warren, leader of The Unity Project.

Flash forward six years. Lo is 19 and working at SVO, a small magazine. Lo’s dream has always been to write, but that’s not what she’s doing at SVO; she’s the editor’s assistant. Bea is gone, sucked into the vortex of The Unity Project, where Lo can’t go. Her dreams of being a writer are stalled. Her life is stalled. And then, waiting for the train, someone who “looks like he hasn’t known sleep in any recent sense of the word” says “You’re Lo.” and then jumps in front of a moving train. His connection to Lo: The Unity Project.

Under Lev Warren’s leadership, The Project is purportedly a “rising social movement” whose “divine mission is to save us from ourselves.”

They have twenty-four/seven drop-in shelters in each city. These shelters also run The Unity Connection, pairing people in need with Project-affiliated services, programs or professional advocates best suited to help them navigate their particular situation – various fresh start programs, youth and adult mentorships, support programs for at-risk youth, domestic violence survivors, addicts, counseling and legal aid, it goes on…not to mention the regular food drives, clothing drives and various fundraising efforts for non-Project charities…people go to that annual sermon at the Garrett Farm and they come out and they want to make the world a better place.

So, yeah, cult. Except no one can prove it and Lev Warren no longer gives interviews.

Lo has always known that’s where Bea is, but she hasn’t been allowed to see her or speak to her in years. When she is suddenly granted the opportunity to interview Warren, she jumps at the chance.

I am fascinated by cults. I watched the whole HBO series about Keith Raniere and NXIVM. You have to wonder how anyone would follow that little tool, but they did. Smart, educated, successful people bought what he was selling. Scientology?! C’mon. You don’t see the problem with worshipping at the altar of a sci-fi writer? Jim Jones? It’s easy to scoff when you’re on the outside, but cult leaders are master manipulators and Lev Warren is no different. I found myself buying into his vision. He had an allure that was undeniable.

The Project is a fascinating look at the bond between sisters, the psychology of cults and the disenfranchised people they prey on and is another solid book by Summers. It didn’t pack the same emotional gut punch as Sadie did, but that is not meant to be a demerit. It will be impossible not to feel worried for Bea and Lo or fascinated by Warren’s thrall.

Forbidden – Tabitha Suzuma

Blame it on V.C. Andrews. If you’re a reader of a certain age, you’ll remember the moment you read that attic scene where brother and sister Cathy and Chris do what no brother and sister should ever do. Flowers in the Attic was published in 1979, which is the year I graduated from high school. I flew through the book and its sequels and prequels, until I lost interest. In the characters, not in the subject matter because while incest is certainly taboo, there is something strangely riveting about relationships that are not meant to be. Ever.

Several of my all-time favourite books including Relations by Carolyn Slaughter (which predates this blog), A Spell of Winter by Helen Dunmore and Billy Dead by Lisa Reardon are about incestuous sibling relationships. Meg Rosoff’s masterful How I Live Now is about cousins who fall in love. You might well ask how books that tackle this subject could possibly be made palatable, and yet they can be. But I think that the material must be handled by a skillful writer because it’s certainly a fine line to walk between compelling and believable, and just uncomfortable ickiness. For example, none of the books I’ve mentioned here concern abusive relationships (although there is horrible abuse in Billy Dead between the sister and a different family member), or relationships between an authority figure, a father or uncle for example, and a much younger person. Two other books I really loved include these sort of relationships: My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent and The Roanoke Girls by Amy Engel. Kathryn Harrison’s memoir The Kiss is about the author’s sexual relationship with her father and it has a huge ick factor, but is also so compelling it’s hard to stop reading. I definitely think incest is a kink and I couldn’t tell you why I find it so fascinating, but I do.

I had never heard of Tabitha Suzuma’s 2010 novel Forbidden until a few days ago, when I stumbled across a mention of it on the Internet. I ordered the book and settled down to read it, and I couldn’t stop reading.

Lochan, almost 18, is trying to keep his family together with the help of his younger sister, Maya, almost 17. They have three younger siblings, Kit, 13, Tiffin, 8, and Willa, 5. Their mother is an alcoholic who works as a waitress and spends most of her time across town at her boyfriend Dave’s house or hung over on the couch. Their father left London with his new girlfriend – now wife – and moved to Australia six years ago. The financial support eventually stopped, but so did any contact.

The novel’s narrative alternates between Lochan and Maya, and it is clear that they depend on each other to make it through the craziness of trying to look after three younger children, the house and meals and everything else you might expect a parent to do, and stay on top of their schoolwork, too. Lochan is brilliant and bound for University London College as soon as he finishes his A Levels. What he struggles with is severe anxiety. He is friendless at school, rarely speaks, and spends most of his time sitting in a stairwell, reading. Maya is more outgoing, but her best friend is her brother, and it’s been that way since even before their father left.

Lochan and Maya get each other. With Maya, Lochan can relax. She can make him smile. She can calm his nerves. Lochan realizes his feelings are changing first.

We are still dancing, swaying slightly to the crooning voice, and Maya feels warm and alive in my arms. Just standing there, moving gently from side to side, I realize I don’t want this moment to end.

It’s only when that closeness crosses the line, and it’s revealed that Maya’s feelings are the same, that the brother and sister find themselves in a precarious predicament.

I refuse to let labels from the outside world spoil the happiest day of my life. The day I kissed the boy I had always held in my dreams but never allowed myself to see. The day I finally ceased lying to myself, ceased pretending it was just one kind of love I felt for him when in reality it was every kind of love possible. The day we finally broke free of our restraints and gave way to the feelings we had so long denied just because we happened to be brother and sister.

From that moment, the novel is relentlessly, breathlessly un-put-downable. I kept waiting for some big twist, something that would allow Lochan and Maya to have the life they want, which is a life together. Every stolen moment is fraught with the danger of being found out and being found out would have devastating consequences for their younger siblings, who would surely end up in the foster system, since their mother is rarely around and certainly not fit to care for them.

Suzuma skillfully navigates a story which has the potential to be so problematic, but which ends up being beautiful and devastating. I really loved this book and I keep wondering what it is about these forbidden relationships that keep me coming back for more. Even Maya is self-aware enough to know that her feelings for her brother are unnatural.

Having a physical relationship with one’s brother? Nobody does that; it’s disgusting; it would be like having Kit as my boyfriend. I shudder. I love Kit, but the idea of kissing him is beyond revolting. It would be horrendous; it would be repulsive –

Perhaps it is their circumstances that make the notion of being in love more palatable. “Lochan has never felt like a brother” Maya rationalizes. “He and I have always been equals.” In every instance of incest that I have read, there has been some trauma involved. For Maya and Lochan it is their total sense of abandonment, of having to be adults when they are really still kids; of having no one to turn to but each other. Another quality of this sort of story is the angst. When two people should be together and can’t be together – for whatever reason, not limited to being siblings – I am all in. 100%,

Suzuma does not shy away from any of this story’s minefields and she doesn’t exploit her characters, either. I will definitely be reading more by this author.