Our Kind of Cruelty – Araminta Hall

Mike and Verity spent much of their nine years together (from second year university until their late twenties) playing a game called the Crave. The two would head to a club, where Mike would hide in the shadowy corners watching while Verity waited at the bar until some poor unsuspecting guy would hit on her. When she’d had enough, she’d touch her necklace and Mike would “rescue” her.

I would push through the mass of people, pulling at the useless man drooling over her, and ask him what he thought he was doing talking to my girlfriend. And because I am useful-looing in that tall, broad way, and because V likes me to lift weights and start all my days with a run, they would invariably back off with their hands in front of their faces, looking scared and timid. Sometimes we couldn’t wait to start kissing, sometimes we went to the loo and fucked in the stalls, V calling out so anyone could hear.

Things are different now, though, for these crazy kids. Mike has just returned to London after two years in New York City. And he’s just received an invitation to Verity’s wedding. He’s pretty sure that this wedding is just a newer, more complicated version of the Crave. After all, he and Verity are end game. When he returned to London he bought a house he knew she’d like, had it decorated as she would like it, spent thousands of pounds redoing the garden. Mike knows Verity better than she knows herself.

Early on in Araminta Hall’s novel Our Kind of Cruelty, we learn that Mike is telling his story at the request of his barrister who “needs to get a clear handle on the situation.” Mike reveals his horrific childhood, living in extreme poverty with his addicted mother, and her various abusive boyfriends until he is taken into care by his loving foster parents, Elaine and Barry. Despite his past, Mike has had a successful and lucrative career as a banker but everything starts to spin out of control after he gets the wedding invitation. When it comes to Verity, Mike is not clear-headed.

Hall chooses to tell the story from Mike’s perspective; we never hear Verity’s side of things. Although Mike is clearly delusional, he isn’t unsympathetic. (Much in the same way that Joe in You, despite the fact that he is clearly a psychopath, isn’t unsympathetic.) To believe Mike is to believe that Verity took a shy, awkward, damaged young man and molded him into a physically imposing, devoted lover. And then, when she tired of the game, she abandoned him.

What’s missing, of course, is Verity’s perspective, which we never get. On top of that, Mike is an unreliable narrator. Then, in court, Verity is further punished – which hints at Hall’s political agenda. I kept thinking that the story might be slightly more interesting as a psychological thriller if, in fact, Mike had been right all along: they were still playing the Crave.

Nevertheless, Our Kind of Cruelty is well-written and moderately entertaining.

Heartstopper – Alice Oseman

Heartstopper by British author Alice Oseman began its life as a web series on Tumblr and Tapas. According to Oseman’s websiteHeartstopper has amassed an enormous online fanbase with over 52.1 million views to date. [She] crowd-funded a limited print-run edition, meeting her funding goal in less than two hours. Hachette Children’s Group published Heartstopper Volume One more widely in Spring 2019, followed by Volume Two in July of the same year.”

This is the story of Charlie Spring, a fifteen-year-old who becomes friends with Nick Nelson, who is a sixteen-year-old rugby player. Although they attend the same school, their paths have never crossed, probably because Nick is an outgoing, popular athlete and Charlie is shy. Oh, and Charlie is openly gay.

When the novel opens, Charlie is making out with Ben. In secret. That’s because Ben has a girlfriend and Charlie hasn’t quite come to terms with the fact that he is being used. Nick and Charlie end up sitting next to each other in class, and the two become unlikely friends. When Nick notices how fast Charlie is, he invites him to join the rugby team. Despite his friends’ caution that Nick is straight, Charlie starts to develop feelings for Nick.

The relationship that develops between the boys is sheer delight. Nick is good for Charlie, but Charlie helps Nick, too. Watching them navigate their feelings for each other is a joyful experience.

I haven’t seen the Netflix series, but it looks terrific.

Empire of the Vampire – Jay Kristoff

Oh, vampires. Unless you sparkle, you’re my favourite fantasy creature. It’s hard to find books about vampires with any real bite, y’know. I enjoyed Grady Hendrix’s The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires and Christopher Buehlman’s The Lesser Dead, but never in my wildest dreams did I think I was going to enjoy a 700+ page high fantasy novel about vampires. The first in a series, no less! Because 700+ pages. And fantasy. Not really two things that make my very-much-still-beating bookish heart pitter pat. I was gifted a copy of Jay Kristoff’s novel Empire of the Dead last Christmas and it seemed like a good time to take a crack at it because I am now on holiday.

Gabriel de Leon is a Silversaint. What’s that you might well ask? Silversaints are paleblood’s (half vampire) who have taken a vow to protect the church and the realm from coldbloods, full-on vampires. At fifteen, Gabriel was whisked away from his home to San Michon, a holy place where he is trained in the art of killing vampires.

I do here vow; Let the dark know my name and despair. So long as it burns, I am the flame. So long as it bleeds, I am the blade. So long as it sins, I am the saint. And I am silver.

When the story begins, Gabriel is a prisoner of Margot Chastain, Undying Empress of Wolves and Men. Chastain’s historian, Marquis Jean-Francois, has joined Gabriel in his cell to “gather all knowledge of [his] order.”

The conversation between Gabriel and Jean-Francois provides the structure for the story the Silversaint tells. It bounces back and forth in time and introduces a cast of characters, many of whom readers will fall madly in love with (including a lioness, a horse and a sword. Not joking.) As for Gabriel: he’s cynical, foul-mouthed, loyal and brave. He’s the hero of the tale, but he’s imperfect, for sure. He’s also likeable.

I wouldn’t have necessarily said that I read fantasy, but according to this definition from Book Riot, I guess I do:

The basic defining tenet of high fantasy is that a fantasy story is set in an alternative fictional world, typically with magical elements. High fantasy is sometimes called epic fantasy, and some of the hallmarks of this subset of the fantasy genre include a high page count, lots of characters, usually a quest, and, most importantly, an alternative or secondary world as opposed to the real or primary world. With high fantasy, there are usual global stakes involved—you know, good versus evil, saving the world, and all that.

In any case, I read enough to understand the world building and the mention of mythical creatures. It’s easy to spot the nods to Tolkien, Martin, Malory, Christianity, Beowulf, and even Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It is clear that Kristoff is a reader, and books and their myriad joys are mentioned on more than one occasion.

As an English teacher, I could easily identify the hero’s journey and so I was able to anticipate some of the twists. I probably don’t read enough fantasy to know whether Kristoff’s novel is cream of the crop or not though, but by my metric it’s great.

I’ve read some reviews that complained about the novel’s pacing. That wasn’t a problem for me. I read this book in a week and I very much looked forward to picking it up whenever I had the chance. There was lots of gory action and well-written fight scenes. There were lots of funny moments and also some truly heart-breaking moments.

I would suspect that when you are creating a world, lots of exposition is necessary – but I never felt as though Kristoff wasted time with backstory. Readers were dropped into a fully-realized world and I wasn’t too concerned with who everyone was beyond who is good and who is most definitely not. I have no clue how Kristoff managed to keep all the characters and the rules of this world straight, but it felt like a real enough place to me.

Books need stakes and Empire of the Vampire has them. The world has been dark for almost three decades, and part of this story is when Gabriel runs into someone from San Michon who claims they have found something that can finally bring an end to the darkness. Gabriel is on a vengeance mission, but he agrees to accompany the group. Cue the bloodshed.

If I have one niggle about the story, it’s the expletive-heavy insults like “you fuck-eyed little pig dick” and “fuck you, you little shitgrubber.” There’s a lot of swearing in this book. A lot a lot. I swear a fair bit myself, so when I notice it in fiction it’s past the annoying phase.

Still, I have to say that I had fun reading Empire of the Vampire far more than I expected I would. It’s the first book in a series and while I am generally pretty lazy about keeping up with series, I will definitely be spending more time with Gabriel de Leon.

Our Chemical Hearts – Krystal Sutherland

“I always thought the moment you met the great love of your life would be more like the movies,” Henry Page, the protagonist of Krystal Sutherland’s YA novel Our Chemical Hearts announces. Henry, a high school senior, is a romantic at heart and when he imagines falling in love, it’s not with someone like Grace Town, the new girl at school. Grace wears boy’s clothes, walks with a cane and seems neither clean nor healthy.

When Henry and Grace are picked to co-edit the school’s newspaper and are forced to spend time together, Henry finds himself drawn to Grace’s quirks because he has some of his own. Then he discovers that before moving the Henry’s town and school, Grace was “a girl in a red dress with red lipstick and loose curls in her honey-blond hair. She was smiling brilliantly…” Henry wants to know more and the more he knows the more he falls, until Grace’s secret is revealed and his life implodes.

Our Chemical Hearts is not a fluffy YA romance. It deals with some serious real-life issues and treats its characters like the almost-adults that they are. Henry, for example, has long admired the “perfect” relationship his parents have and yearns for the same sort of fairy-tale love. It’s not until his much older sister, Sadie, shares some things about his family that he may not know that he starts to understand that relationships, and the people who inhabit them, are complicated.

Grace is truly messed up. She starts to reveal herself, bit by bit, to Henry and his optimism is the seemingly perfect antidote to her pessimism – the ying to his yang.

…tell me you believe that our lives are anything more than a ridiculous cascade of random chances. A cloud of dust and gas forms our planet, a chemical reaction creates life, and then all of our cavemen ancestors live long enough to bone each other before they die awful deaths. The universe is not the magical place people like to paint it as. It’s excruciatingly beautiful, but there’s no magic there, just science.

Ouch.

Henry and Grace bond over music, literature, even their co-editing gig provides them with common ground, and their story is as true a depiction of a high school romance as you’re likely to find.

Highly recommended.

The Maid – Nita Prose

Back-to-back books with autistic main characters – what are the chances? I just read The Kiss Quotient, and I also recently finished Nita Prose’s debut The Maid.

In this novel, 25-year-old Molly Gray (and don’t worry, even Molly sees the joke) works as a maid at the Regency Grand Hotel. It is a position that she is very proud of because “Never in [her] life did [she] think [she’d] hold such a lofty position”. She loves everything about her job, her “perfectly stocked maid’s trolley”, the scent of the hotel, a “mélange of ladies’ fine perfumes, the dark musk of the leather armchairs, the tangy zing of lemon polish”; even her uniform gives her pleasure, a joy to see it hanging on her locker every morning, her “second skin – clean, disinfected, newly pressed.”

Her job, her ability to do it as well as she does, makes her confident because

The truth is, I often have trouble with social situations; it’s as though everyone is playing an elaborate game with complex rules they all know, but I’m always playing for the first time. I make etiquette mistakes with alarming regularity, offend when I mean to compliment, misread body language, say the wrong thing at the wrong time.

Raised by her grandmother, Molly is alone in the world now. It isn’t always easy for her to know who to trust, and that’s how she gets into trouble when one of the VIP guests at the hotel turns up dead.

There’s nothing wrong with The Maid. It’s like a locked room mystery, or a game of Clue. Someone killed Mr. Black and the someone to find him is Molly. There’s a whole cast of characters in the hotel: the manager, the hunky bartender, the immigrant dishwasher, the friendly doorman, the sneaky head maid. The fact that she trusts the wrong people to help her is certainly no surprise given her inability to read people. The mystery isn’t all that sophisticated, and the ending is so sweet it’ll make your teeth ache.

I feel like this is a book that’s gotten a lot of buzz because the main character is neurodiverse. And there’s nothing wrong with that, either. Just not my cup of tea.

Shuggie Bain – Douglas Stuart

Douglas Stuart’s debut Shuggie Bain won the 2020 Booker and was nominated for many other prizes and awards. For good reason. Stuart’s novel traces the life of Hugh “Shuggie” Bain from childhood until he’s sixteen and it’s a doozy.

Shuggie’s mother, Agnes, is central to this story. She’s thirty-nine and lives in a flat with her parents and “to have her husband and three children, two of them nearly grown, all crammed together in her mammy’s flat, gave her a feeling of failure.” Agnes’s endless struggles with men and alcohol are central to Shuggie’s story. His older brother and sister, Leek and Catherine, are far more jaded about their mother’s problems than Shuggie, who is much younger and much more hopeful that Agnes will get better.

When Big Shug, a philandering cab driver, finds a house for them outside of Glasgow, Agnes swells with hope. But when she sees their new home, surrounded by “huge black mounds, hills that looked as if they had been burnt free of life […] the plainest, unhappiest-looking homes Agnes had ever seen” she no longer views the move as a step in the right direction for her marriage. She and her children are isolated from the support system of her parents, and Big Shug essentially walks out on them, too.

Agnes is one of the most fascinating characters I have encountered in a long time. While it is certainly true that she is a hopeless drunk, she is also charming and intelligent. Despite the ways in which she neglects her children, particularly Shuggie, she loves them. Douglas’s novel gives readers plenty of reasons to admire Agnes, even as we watch her sink further and further into the bottle. It is much easier to hate Big Shug because he deliberately abandons his family and does it in such a way as to cause the most damage.

The novel is bookended with Shuggie at sixteen, living in a bed-sit and fending for himself. If you ever want to understand how a person comes to be where they are, examine their childhood. For better or worse, there’s no escaping the influence our families have on us. Shuggie does his best to look out for his mom, especially after Catherine leaves to get married and Leek is finally put out (and can I just say for the record that I LOVED Leek. There’s a scene when he escapes to the top of a hill with his sketchbook that broke my heart.) Shuggie is too young to realize what his older siblings already know: nothing he can do will save Agnes. But that doesn’t stop him from trying.

Although you might think that a book about an alcoholic living in Glasgow (the setting for so much despair in the 1980s due to Thatcher’s economic policies) would be relentlessly grim, it isn’t. These characters are resilient and determined and so lovingly rendered, they will find a place in your heart.

Apparently, Stuart’s manuscript was turned down 32 times! Imagine. If you haven’t yet read the book, I urge you to give it a go. Stuart is a born story teller and this is clearly a story that needed to be told.

Highly recommended.

The Great Godden – Meg Rosoff

Nothing much happens in Meg Rosoff’s latest novel The Great Godden. Well, maybe I shouldn’t say nothing happens. The novel is a quiet gut-punch rather than the wallop Rosoff packed with her novel How I Live Now, but it’s a fascinating character study and great read.

Two families spend time every summer on the Suffolk coast. There’s our unnamed narrator and their siblings Mattie, Tamsin and Alex and their parents. Then there’s Hope and Mal, who live in another little house on the property. Hope is the narrator’s father’s “much younger cousin”. This summer is disrupted by the arrival of Kit and Hugo Godden, sons of Hope’s godmother, Florence, Hollywood film star.

Our narrator’s gender is deliberately ambiguous and one of the delights of the novel is trying to suss out if they are male or female – although ultimately it doesn’t matter. Either way, the first time they see Kit Godden, as he unfolds himself from the back of his mother’s limo, they think

Kit Godden was something else – golden skin, thick auburn hair streaked with gold, hazel eyes flecked with gold – a kind of golden Greek statue of youth. […] In my memory he seems to glow. I can shut my eyes and see how he looked to us then, skin lit from within as if he’d spent hours absorbing sunlight only to slow release it back into the world.

Kit’s younger brother, Hugo, pales by comparison and the two brothers don’t seem to get along. Kit’s charm contrasts sharply with Hugo’s surly quiet. But as we all know, all that glitters in not gold.

The narrator watches as Kit’s attention focuses on the their younger (and beautiful) sister Mattie, and how “Within four seconds he had charmed her practically to death.” The narrator is also smitten, though. As the summer goes along, they watch Mattie coast on the romantic highs Kit offers, and also watch her shrink when Kit diverts his attention away from her. And that’s what Kit does: he’s a player and The Great Godden is a wonderful character study of how we take the shiny, pretty bauble at face-value.

The Great Godden is shot through with a vein of dread; we can see the potential for the train wreck a mile down the track, but we keep heading for it. That’s what the narrator does. One part of them doesn’t believe a thing that comes out of Kit’s mouth; the other part believes every word and the whole thing is fascinating.

This is a story which is told from some distant point, where the narrator has had time to reflect on that summer and it adds an air of melancholy to the story because the narrator realizes, in retrospect, exactly what was lost. I love books that do this. The plot unfolds in the moment, but the gaze is distant. The writing is straight-forward and clean and I gobbled the book up in a couple of sittings.

Meg Rosoff talks about the book here.

The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires – Grady Hendrix

I was introduced to vampires at an early age. My mom used to take my younger brothers and me to the community centre where they offered Saturday matinees of movies like Count Dracula and Taste the Blood of Dracula starring Christopher Lee. I mean, they’re campy now, but back when I was a kid of 11 and 12, they were scary. Although I probably didn’t understand the sexual component of the thrall as a kid, I knew that vampires were powerful opponents and you wouldn’t want to be running into them in a dark alley. So, I have always loved vampires, but I guess I love the romantic version of them, the beautiful, tortured versus the ugly creepy. David Boreanaz as Angel rather than Gary Oldman as Dracula, if you know what I mean.

The vampire in Grady Hendrix’s novel The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires lands somewhere between Angel and Dracula. He’s charming, handsome and a skilled predator. When he arrives in Old Village, an enclave of Charleston, South Carolina, he causes a stir amongst the women who live there. These are women who are expected to look after the children, the house, the pets, their appearance and not much more.

The novel opens with a funny scene. Patricia, the protagonist, is getting ready to host book club. There are very strict rules about this book club: Marjorie Fretwell chooses thirteen “appropriate” titles from the Western canon, and the members of the book club vote for the eleven they would like to read. Tonight, Patricia is supposed to lead a discussion about Cry, the Beloved Country and that’s a problem because she didn’t manage to read it. Turns out, Patricia is just in the wrong book club and when she and some other women band together to read things like Helter Skelter and Psycho, things turn around for her.

When James Harris shows up in Old Village, though, things become decidedly weird. First, Patricia discovers Mrs. Savage, an old woman from down the street (and James Harris’s aunt), in her alley eating a raccoon, “one gory hand [in] its open belly [scooping] up a fistful of translucent guts.” This scene is an early reminder that this is indeed a horror novel. There are many other totally squicky scenes: rats and bugs and all manner of yuck – which is, gross, yes, but also awesome. Then, Miss Mary, her mother-in-law, who now lives with Patricia and her family, claims she knows James Harris from decades before – although surely that can’t be, and besides, Miss Mary has dementia. Fans of vampire lore will have fun spotting the tropes, and seeing the ways Hendrix has upended them, too.

It takes a while for Patricia to figure out what’s going on and even then it’s unbelievable and impossible and, by then, James Harris has made himself a part of the community. When children start disappearing, though, Patricia is determined to do something about it.

Patricia is a wonderful character. At the beginning, she’s a southern housewife who is unable to assert herself. She gave up her nursing career to marry her psychiatrist husband, who is a jackass, and raise her children, Korey and Blue, and her life is now monotonous; she is a shadow of who she was. James Harris shakes her out of her stupor.

I loved The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires. It’s funny, horrifying, nostalgic and smart. If you like horror novels, I can highly recommend this one. I have also read My Best Friend’s Exorcism, which is also excellent.

Punching the Air – Ibi Zoboi & Yusef Salaam

I try to remember what I privileged position I inhabit when I read books like Punching the Air by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam. What can I, a white, middle-aged (I know, it’s a stretch to call me middle-aged), middle-class woman from Eastern Canada, really know about what it is to live in this world as a BIPOC? Nothing. It would be a stretch to even say that I have been discriminated against because I am female because if I have been, I haven’t really been aware of it.

I do think I have a responsibility, as an educator – sure – but also as a human being, to educate myself and expose myself to experiences that are unfamiliar to me. It’s not enough to hope that our children will be better humans than we are; we all have to do better.

Punching the Air is a novel-in-verse that tells the story of sixteen-year-old Amal Shahid, an artist and poet, who finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time and ends up in jail for a crime he didn’t commit, although he does admit that he “threw the first punch.” Turns out “…it wasn’t about/who threw the first punch/ It was about courts, turf, space/ Me and them other boys/ were just trying to go home”.

Jeremy, the white boy who gets hurt in the altercation is in a coma, and Amal ends up in a juvenile detention facility. He tries to work through his confusion and anger, but it isn’t easy. “I went from/kid to criminal to felon/to prisoner to inmate” and despite a supportive family he must navigate his new reality on his own.

Punching the Air tracks Amal’s time in the facility where he vacillates between hopelessness and hopefulness. Although he is not doing hard time with hardened criminals, juvie is still an unpleasant place. Amal tries to keep his head down. He goes to school. He does what is asked of him – mostly. But he’s a kid and the system is stacked against him and the weight of all those bricks of discrimination weigh heavy on him.

I read Punching the Air in an afternoon. Amal’s voice is clear as a bell. This experience, while fictional, comes from a place of truth. Yusef Salaam himself was convicted of a crime he did not commit when he was just fifteen. (Central Park Five) His experiences with a justice system that is clearly stacked against people of colour – and there is no one in their right mind who could dispute this – adds a layer of authenticity to Amal’s story. But even without Salaam’s experiences, this novel has much to contribute to the discussion and is a worthy addition to classroom and personal libraries. I will certainly be recommending it to my students.

The Chain – Adrian McKinty

Whether or not you believe the hype surrounding Adrian McKinty’s novel The Chain will depend on what you look for in a book. If the hype is to be believed, The Chain is “a blazing, full-tilt thriller” (Guardian), “a rare thriller that ends up being highly personal” (USA Today) and “psychologically rich” (Entertainment Weekly). The book also won several awards including the International Thriller Writers Best Novel of the Year. So its pedigree precedes it, and I guess that can be both a blessing and a curse.

The Chain tells the story of Rachel O’Neill, divorced mom to 13-year-old Kylie. The last few months have been shitty for Rachel because she’s been battling breast cancer, but things are looking up because her cancer is in remission and she’s going to be starting a new job as a philosophy lecturer at a local community college. Then the unthinkable happens, and her daughter is kidnapped.

It makes no sense for someone to take Kylie; Rachel has no money, but as the kidnappers tell her, it’s not about the money it’s about the chain.

“You’re in The Chain now, Rachel. We both are. And The Chain is going to protect itself. So, first thing is no cops. If you ever talk to a cop, the people who run The Chain will know and they’ll tell me to kill Kylie and pick a different target, and I will. They don’t care about you or your family; all they care about is the security of The Chain.

The way this thing works is someone whose own child has been kidnapped must pay a Bitcoin ransom and kidnap someone else’s child. Once that person has paid the ransom and kidnapped someone else’s child, the first person’s child will be released. And so on and so on aka The Chain. It’s all pretty clever and diabolical, really.

But.

Look, I had zero trouble turning the pages as Rachel and her brother-in-law Pete (ex-military and low-key heroin addict) try to figure out how they are going to comply with The Chain’s demands. As a mom myself, I could understand her panic and her willingness to do whatever was asked of her. Her motivation was clear. Still, I didn’t feel like she or Kylie (as resourceful and brave as she was) or Pete were particularly fleshed out.

Then there’s the people behind The Chain. I mean, I guess it ultimately doesn’t matter what motivated them, because clearly they’re psychos, but when their identities are revealed and the novel’s final confrontation happens it all just felt a little over-the-top cartoon-y to me.

Lots of thriller lovers will (and clearly did) enjoy the way this book is written: straight forward, unembellished prose. Lots of dialogue. Short, choppy sentences. I mean, there’s something to be said for writing this way for this kind of book, something that mimics the breathlessness that the characters must be feeling. If you don’t have to spend any real time with anybody, there’s a lot you can pack into 350 pages, and I feel like that’s what McKinty did. It’s a case of plot over substance.

So, ultimately, this was a so-so read for me. There was a lot of momentum going in, but the final bit of the book just felt contrived and wayyyyy too implausible for me. Because we never really know the characters, it’s hard to really care too much about them. They feel like cardboard cut outs: the plucky kid, the down-on-her-luck-but-determined mom, the has-his-demons-but-is-a-great-guy uncle. If you don’t care too much about writing or nuance or investing emotionally, then The Chain might be the book for you.