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.

 

The Kind Worth Killing – Peter Swanson

kindworthI have been in a bit of a reading slump this year – which seems like a ridiculous thing to say considering we are only two months in. The first couple of books I read at the start of 2017 were lackluster at best, and I just haven’t been able to find my reading groove. Peter Swanson’s The Kind Worth Killing may have actually changed all that.

Lily Kintner and Ted Severson meet in a bar at Heathrow. Over martinis,  Ted discloses a few details about his life including the fact that he thinks his wife, Miranda, is having an affair with Brad,  the contractor that is building their dream home in a coastal town in Maine.

Ted admits to Lily that he wants to kill his wife. Perhaps even more unusual, Lily offers to help. It might take a teensy bit of suspension of disbelief to believe that a cuckolded husband would meet a beautiful woman in a bar in a foreign country who expresses a desire to help him plan his wife’s murder, but stranger things have surely happened.

Once on the plane, Lily suggests that “…since we’re on a plane, and it’s a long flight, and we’re never going to see each other again, let’s tell each other the absolute truth. About everything.” During the trans-Atlantic flight, the two reveal tidbits both mundane and philosophical. Lily remarks: “…everyone is going to die eventually. If you killed your wife you would only be doing to her what would happen anyway. And you’d save other people from her. She’s a negative.”

Lily isn’t quite as forthcoming about her life as Ted is about his. Her story is revealed in alternating chapters. The daughter of  bohemian academics, Lily is an intelligent, thoughtful child. Through her eyes, we learn about growing up in “Monk’s House,” a Victorian mansion  deep in the Connecticut woods, about an hour from New York City.

There was never only one guest at Monk’s House, especially in the summertime when my parents’ teaching duties died down and they could focus on what they truly loved –  drinking and adultery. I don’t say that in order to make some sort of tragedy of my childhood. I say it because it’s the truth.

Lily has a skewed morality, but it’s the very thing that makes her such a fascinating character. She’s a charming psychopath, and it’s almost impossible not to like her, to root for her, even. She’s  – by far –  the most interesting of cast of characters in Swanson’s novel. She reminded me a little bit of Alice Morgan, a character in the brilliant BBC crime series, Luther. (If you haven’t ever seen the show, you must watch it immediately. It’s on Netflix.)

There are twists and turns aplenty in The Kind Worth Killing. The plot did unravel slightly for me towards the end, but that in no way undermined my enjoyment of the shenanigans these people got up to.

The Kind Worth Killing was a whim purchase for me. I needed a book for my book club and this one was popular on Litsy. I am pleased to report that everyone in my group really enjoyed the book, even though it was definitely a departure from the sort of stuff we normally read.

This is a page-turner.

Where They Found Her – Kimberly McCreight

9200000033245456I’ve had a slow start to the 2017 reading year. Usually I power though a handful of books over the Christmas break, but this year I tended to binge-watch Netflix (The Fall – check it out if you haven’t already seen it) and sleep. I have about a half-dozen novels started, but none of them really grabbed me. Although it rarely happens to me, I’ve been in the book doldrums. I needed something to grab me by the throat and swing me back into reading gear. I chose what I was sure was going to be a winner, but I was disappointed. I did finish though.

Where They Found Her is the second book by Brooklyn-based novelist Kimberly McCreight. I read her debut novel, Reconstructing Amelia last year and loved it. It was one of those books that you just couldn’t put down and was well-written to boot. A literary win-win. Where They Found Her didn’t work for me at all.

When the body of an infant is found floating in the creek at Essex Bridge, Molly Anderson gets the call to check it out. She’s the Lifestyles reporter for the Ridgedale Reader and crime wouldn’t normally be her beat, but she’s the only one available to cover the story.

Molly’s at a fragile point in her life. She and her husband, Justin, are new in Ridgedale, a bedroom community in New Jersey. Justin teaches English at the local college and their daughter, Ella, is in kindergarten. Life is just starting to settle down after the death of Molly’s unborn baby, so the discovery that the body at the creek is also an infant is almost more than Molly can handle. She’s plucky, though.

On the other -shittier – side of town lives sixteen-year-old Sandy and her floozy of a mother, Jenna. Sandy is the adult in that relationship. She loves her mother, but she’s also tired of being the adult.

Barbara is the Stepford-wife of Steve, the town’s police chief. Her daughter, Hannah, is tutoring Sandy so that Sandy can graduate. Her young son, Cole, has been sucking all the oxygen from the room with his odd behavior.

Although it won’t be immediately obvious how the lives of these women intersect, their paths will cross and that’s when the gears started to grind for me. (It took me about 100 pages just to keep all the names straight – and that’s only a slight exaggeration.)

In all the ways that Reconstructing Amelia was a tightly focused story about a mother and daughter who are close, but still keep secrets from each other, Where They Found Her borders on melodrama. As Molly starts to unravel the identity of the baby and what happened to her, the reader will, too. There’s a fair share of red herrings, but everything gets tidied up in the end.

I turned the pages (once I got going), but I can’t say that I cared very much about any of the players and, for me, that’s one of the failings of McCreight’s novel. Where They Found Her just didn’t resonate on any level with me. I’m definitely in the minority, though. Critics loved it.

So – decent mystery (red herrings and tidy-ending aside). McCreight can certainly write and I would definitely read her again. But Where They Found Her was only so-so for me.

All The Bright Places – Jennifer Niven

Not all YA books are created equal. When I was a teen in the 70s YA was barely a thing. Basically I went from reading The Bobbsey Twins and Trixie Beldon to reading Jane Eyre and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. The Scholastic flyer at school offered some options and I can all-the-bright-places-jktspecifically remember reading and falling in love with S.E. Hinton’s That Was Then, This is Now (a book I loved way more than I loved The Outsiders), and Judy Blume’s Forever, but the reading choices certainly weren’t as varied as they are for teens today.  I read a lot of YA now because I teach teens. Lots of it is mediocre. Lots of it is good. Then, every so often, you read a book you just want to tell all your students about. You want every single teen you know on the planet to read it. Jennifer Niven’s All the Bright Places is one of those books.

Theodore Finch is seventeen. He begins his story by asking “Is today a good day to die?” He’s considering this question from “a narrow ledge six floors above the ground.” That’s when he sees the girl, Violet Markey. “She stands a few feet away on the other side of the tower, also out on the ledge…”

This is how Niven begins to tell the story of Finch and Violet. Finch ‘rescues’ Violet, but because he has a reputation as being a freak, a loser, and unstable, the rumour around school is that Violet saved him. From this unlikely scenario, a beautiful friendship springs.

After Finch talks Violet off the ledge he asks her: “Do you think there’s such a thing as a perfect day?…A perfect day. Start to finish. Where nothing terrible or sad or ordinary happens. Do you think it’s possible?”  Just typing that now makes me feel as though I want to cry.

Violet doesn’t seem like a likely match for Finch. She’s “cheerleader popular” and dates Ryan Cross, a movie star handsome baseball star. Still, when the two are paired to participate in a “Wander Indiana” project (part of a course in U.S. Geography), they discover a kinship neither expected. As they travel to various points of interest, they start to trust each other. Violet begins the painful process of shedding the grief of a tragic accident and Finch finds more and more reason to stay “awake.”

One of the things that makes a YA novel great for me is characterization. I want the teens to feel authentic, not like stereotypes. Finch and Violet are beautifully crafted creations, and the people who circle their lives (parents and siblings and friends) are also well-drawn and nuanced. Finch’s mom is broken from her failed marriage; Violet’s parents are over-protective. As a mom of teens myself, I like to see parents in YA portrayed as real people – flawed and messy and trying to do the best they can even when they can’t fix anything at all.

The other element of the novel that Niven handles so well is the issue of mental illness. All the Bright Places is not a “sick lit” book. Finch’s struggles are authentic and nuanced and painfully rendered in prose that is a joy to read. I can’t remember the last time a character has broken my heart, but Finch most certainly did.

I can’t recommend All the Bright Places highly enough. Buy it for every teen you know. Buy it for yourself.

 

 

Ten – Gretchen McNeil

There are enough diversions and red herrings in Gretchen McNeil’s YA mystery Ten to tenkeep attentive readers on their toes. The straight-forward narrative and familiar characters (the mean girl, the jock, the good girl) will certainly be appealing to readers of a certain age, but there isn’t much on offer here for anyone else.

Meg and her best friend, Minnie, have been invited to a weekend party on Henry Island, one of the islands off the coast of Washington State. Meg’s not really the party type and she’s already anxious about the fact that they’ve “lied to [their] parents and gone to a house party in the middle of nowhere.”

The party comes on the heels of a gruesome discovery at a rival high school – “the charred remains of a body found in the locker room.”

When the girls arrive (by ferry), they find the rest of the party guests: T.J. Fletcher, hunky football player and Meg’s not-so-secret-crush; Ben, the new boyfriend of their hostess, Jessica (who never shows us); Gunner, surfer dude; Kumiko, Gunner’s new girlfriend (Minnie was his former girlfriend); Vivian, seemingly sensible; Lori, random girl; Nathan and Kenny; token Neanderthals.

The festivities start with a few beers and then things start to go whacky. First of all, Ben almost dies from anaphylactic shock. Then, the group watches a strange and disturbing video that claims : “Vengeance is Mine.”  Someone tosses the room Meg and Minnie are sharing. Meg finds a strange diary. And then, one by one, people start to die.

Alliances and nerves start to fray as the teens realize they are cut off from civilization (no cell service or Internet) and that no one knows where they are. The most they can hope for is that Jessica arrives, as planned, on the next ferry.

McNeil keeps the action ticking along. The third person narrative is focused pretty tightly on Meg – but who hasn’t heard of an unreliable narrator before? There’s not a lot of opportunity for character development, not that it really matters. I think most teens will enjoy the straight ahead action, the creepy deaths and Meg’s valiant attempt to figure out who the killer is before it’s too late.

For the record: I didn’t get it right.