One of Us Is Next – Karen M. McManus

Well, my second YA novel by Karen M. McManus caps off my 2020 reading year, and has the distinction of being my 86th book. I thought when I set my 2020 challenge at 75 I was being optimistic, and then Covid happened.

I read McManus’s book One of Us Is Lying this summer and I really enjoyed it. One of Us Is Next is a sequel of sorts as some of the characters from the first book make an appearance in this one, too. (Bronwyn & Nate!) Eighteen months after Simon’s death (first book), students at Bayview High School find themselves under attack by someone who entices them to play a game of Truth or Dare. It’s clear that whoever this is, they knows some pretty dark secrets and they’re not afraid to share them. As one student says, “Always take the Dare.”

Phoebe, Knox and Maeve narrate this story. Phoebe is the first victim of the game and the secret revealed about her has a damaging ripple effect. Maeve (Bronwyn’s younger sister) refuses to play, and her punishment is to have a secret revealed which damages her friendship with former boyfriend now bestie, Knox. Things take a decided turn for the worst when a students accidently dies.

McManus juggles the different perspectives and all sorts of other teenage drama while moving the mystery along. Alliances are made and broken. There’s some swoon-worthy romance (those Rojas sisters are lucky in love), and there’s also some commentary about slut shaming, bullying and just how clique-y high school can be. It’s clear that McManus cares deeply about these characters and she has a real ear for how teens talk.

This is another fun page-turner by a YA writer worth reading.

Together We Caught Fire – Eva V. Gibson

Eva V. Gibson’s debut YA novel Together We Caught Fire sounded right up my alley when I added it to my TBR list. My son bought it for me for Christmas and I read it in pretty much one sitting. I wish that I could say that the book lived up to its promise, but it wasn’t quite a hit for me.

Lane Jamison’s life was upended when she was five and discovered her mother lying in a pool of blood in their pristine white bathroom. Now 18, she acknowledges that “Blood itself wasn’t the problem. Cuts, now, those were a different story – the parting of skin beneath steel, blood or no blood, never failed to fuck me up.” Lane’s mother’s suicide has left her with deep, unhealed psychic wounds and an inability to sleep properly.

Her life is further unsettled when her father marries Skye, mother to the boy Lane has been in love with since he took over frog dissection duty in eighth grade AP Biology. Suddenly this unattainable boy is sharing her house and, well, that situation is just untenable because Grey McIntyre was the “longtime occupant of my heart’s most vulnerable nook, hopeful and buoyed in the chair next to mine. The only boy I’d ever loved.”

Grey’s girlfriend Sadie is the daughter of the local televangelist. Sadie has her life mapped out, and that life involves getting married and having a truckload of kids. She’s a good person, if perhaps a little judge-y. Her older brother, Connor, is the black sheep, kicked out of the house when he was fourteen and only just now finding his footing as an artist. That’s one of the ways he and Lane bond: she is also an artist, crafting creations from yarn. Connor sees right through Lane and claims he sees right through Grey, too. That his sister is caught between them is problematic, even though Lane assures him that her feelings for Grey predate Sadie and, anyway, she would never act on them. Thus, you know, the angst.

One of the main issues I had with this book is how over-the-top dramatic everything is and I think that drama isn’t helped by Gibson’s prose, which is beyond purple.

My skin simmered; my veins were kerosene, aching for the touch of a match. Everything hung on that word – our lives and family, past and future; the seconds before and after it left his mouth ran together like gooseflesh melting smooth in the sun, and this wasn’t my fault – he’d found me on his own, plunged blind into dark, brackish depths, dredged me from the groundwater so we surfaced together. Never stopped to think if we should breathe in open air.

The odd thing is that I found some the writing in the book quite beautiful; it’s just that it got in the way of the plot’s momentum – and in a book where nothing really happens, that’s a problem.

I loved the idea of this book because I am all for angst, but I think too much is made of the fact that Grey is now Lane’s brother/step-brother; they are both adults and not related by blood, so the taboo is a bit watered down. C’mon, it’s not Flowers in the Attic level wrong. Truthfully, these young people are going through what many teenagers do: heartache, depression, guilt and lust. It just feels like more because of the way the story is written. Strip that away and what’s left? Your enjoyment will depend on your patience for the way the story is told.

I Hope You’re Listening – Tom Ryan

I Hope You’re Listening, Tom Ryan’s latest YA offering, capitalizes on a couple of today’s most popular phenomena: podcasts and true crime. Dee Skinner was seven when she and her bestie Sibby Carmichael headed out to the woods to play in the treehouse built by their friend Burke’s uncle Terry. Dee’s life is forever changed by that afternoon because Sibby disappears.

What happened to Sibby Carmichael that afternoon in the woods?

If anyone should remember, it’s me. I was there, after all. But ten years and a million sleepless nights later, nothing new comes to me. No sudden revelations, no deeply buried memories emerging from a haze. Just the same few fragments, still crisp and clear in my mind, still as useless as they’ve always been.

Dee struggles with what happened to her friend, and because she wants to help, but doesn’t know how, she starts a podcast called Radio Silent which becomes something of an Internet sensation. Her friend Burke is the only person who knows she’s behind Radio Silent; Dee, known as The Seeker online, wants to keep it on the down-low for reasons mostly having to do with wanting to stay out of the public eye. She was, after all, the girl who didn’t get taken that day in the woods.

Dee uses the power of the Internet to investigate other missing persons cases, but not Sibby’s. She introduces the stories and then lets her listeners, known collectively as the Laptop Detective Agency, share information and look for clues. Radio Silent has actually had some success, too, but survivor guilt still weighs Dee down.

Then another local girl, Layla, goes missing, and the coincidences start piling up. Dee is reluctant to use her platform to dig for evidence; the disappearance is just too close to home, both literally and figuratively. Already the media is sniffing around, and Dee is keen on staying as under the radar as is humanly possible.

I Hope You’re Listening is a page-turning mystery times two: what happened to Sibby? what happened to Layla? The last third of the book is almost impossible to put down. I could totally see this story as a limited series on Netflix. Dee is a wonderful character, vulnerable for sure, but also fearless and smart. I really enjoyed spending time with her.

Tom Ryan is a new-to-me YA writer. I’ve seen him around Twitter and recently attended a virtual reading through the Lorenzo Society where he, Kathleen Peacock (You Were Never Here) and Jo Treggiari (The Grey Sisters) spoke about their writing and read from their novels.. All three of these authors are from the Maritimes, which makes me extra happy to support their work.

American Dirt – Jeanine Cummins

The debate rages on: does an artist have the right to create something even though it is outside of their lived experience? My answer is always going to be yes, otherwise how do I justify the ten-plus years I wrote vampire fanfiction? I mean, I’ve never met a vampire let alone had sex with one. Jeanine Cummins found herself in the middle of a maelstrom after the release of her novel American Dirt.

Vulture magazine did a whole piece tracing the controversy about the book which “has been called “stereotypical,” and “appropriative” for “opportunistically, selfishly, and parasitically” telling the fictional story of a Mexican mother and son’s journey to the border after a cartel murders the rest of their family.” The entire article is worth the read because it explains the whole situation much more succinctly than I could.

One of the very first bullets comes in through the open window above the toilet where Luca is standing. He doesn’t immediately understand that it’s a bullet at all, and it’s only luck that it doesn’t strike him between the eyes.

Thus begins the story of Luca, 8, and his mother, Lydia. At a family barbecue to celebrate Luca’s cousin Yenifer’s 15th birthday, the entire family (with the exception of Luca and Lydia) are gunned down. It is immediately apparent to Lydia who is responsible. Her husband, Sebastian, is a journalist and he has recently published a piece about Javier Fuentes, the most powerful drug lord in Acapulco. Javier and Lydia had also become friends, not lovers exactly, but there is definitely an intimacy between them born from their love of literature. (Lydia owns a bookstore.) Lydia had no idea who Javier was when she met him; she saw him only as a kindred spirit, someone with whom she could talk “about literature and poetry and economics and politics.”

It was just as Lydia had always hoped life in her bookstore would be one day. In between the workaday drudgery of running a business, that she would entertain customers who were as lively and engaging as the books around them.

Javier’s cartel, Los Jardineros aka The Gardeners, earned their name because they “used guns only when they didn’t have time to indulge their creativity. Their preferred tools were more intimate: spade, ax, sicle, hook, machete. The simple tools of hacking and trenching.”

After the massacre, Lydia takes Luca and runs. She has no choice; she knows that Javier will not rest until she and her son are dead too. The novels traces their arduous journey from their ruined home to the United States, seen here as a beacon of freedom and hope – but, of course, knowing what we know now about undocumented immigrants, perhaps not so much. Still, Lydia feels as though she has only one choice and so they run.

Of course, what does a middle-class business owner know about fleeing under the radar? Not too much. I think the book expects us to believe that because she is protecting her son, she is willing to do just about anything. She’s a quick study because she has to be. She doesn’t dwell too long on the fact that she didn’t see the red flags waving around Javier; she trusts her gut now as the two make their way to el norte.

It’s a gruesome trip. Lydia knows that the cartel has eyes everywhere and that Javier won’t stop until he finds them. Along the way, they meet other migrants with stories of their own. Sisters Soledad and Rebeca are particularly sympathetic.

I enjoyed the book. I guess that’s my white, middle-age, privilege talking, but I found it hard to put down. Criticism claims that there are many inaccuracies, and of course I couldn’t tell you what they are. All I can tell you is that I was wholly invested in Lydia and Luca’s journey and that I tore through the book.

Invisible Girl – Lisa Jewell

I can always depend on Lisa Jewell to deliver a well-written, page-turning, character-driven book. She’s the perfect author to read if I am ever experiencing a book slump. I have read several of her books (The Family Upstairs, The Girls in the Garden, I Found You, Watching You) and I haven’t been disappointed once.

Invisible Girl is the story of a group of people whose lives intersect when seventeen-year-old Saffyre Maddox disappears. Saffyre’s life has been touched by tragedy; most recently her beloved grandfather has died, but before that there was an incident of abuse that resulted in some therapy. Her therapist was Roan Fours. Fours lives with his wife, Cate, and teenage children, Georgia and Josh in Hampstead. They’re renting a flat while their house is being repaired due to land subsidence. This flat is across the street from an old mansion, now flats, where Owen Pick lives with his aunt Tessie. These are the main players in Jewell’s story, told from Saffyre, Cate and Owen’s points of view.

Saffyre is the invisible girl of the title because once Roan considers her “cured” and cuts her loose from therapy, she finds herself somewhat fixated on him. She starts following him around. She’s stealthy, pulling up her hood and disappearing into the shadows. She has mastered the art of being invisible, literally, but also figuratively. She hides things from the one person who loves her most, her Uncle Owen, with whom she lives. She doesn’t let people into her life; on the outside she seems well-adjusted, successful in school, etc, but inside she is still tortured by what happened to her when she was ten.

Saffyre isn’t the only invisible character in this novel, though. Roan’s wife, Cate, is also invisible. She’s a physiotherapist who “gave up her practice fifteen years ago when Georgia was born and never really got back into treating patients.” She acknowledges the twenty-five-years of her marriage as a “hazy tableau of a marriage at its midpoint….with likely another twenty-five years to go.” She also admits that her husband “hates her. She knows he does. And it’s her fault.” Only her son, Josh, provides her with any real comfort. He seems like the perfect kid, thoughtful and loving. Of course, he’s got secrets, too.

Owen Pick, the poor sod across the street is also invisible. He teaches computer science at the local college, and he seems exactly as you might imagine a 33-year-old computer geek: friendless, awkward and a virgin. He’s not even allowed into the living room in his aunt’s flat. When he is suspended because of the accusations of some of his students, Owen’s life hurtles out of control. When it turns out he was one of the last people to see Saffyre, he quickly becomes a suspect in her disappearance. His bewilderment leads him to the internet, where he stumbles across information about incels and that rabbit hole leads to no good.

The stories shock him at first, but then the shock recedes into a kind of numb acceptance, a sense that he’d always known this about women. Of course. Women lie. Women hate men and want to hurt them. And what easier way in there to hurt a man than to accuse him of rape?

In true Lisa Jewell fashion, you won’t know who to believe until the plot unravels. Like always, I was happy to go along for the ride.

The Hypnotist – Lars Keplar

I am going to take a little break from reading translations now. I know some people don’t mind them, but it’s the rare translation that doesn’t irk me. Lars Keplar’s well-reviewed suspense thriller The Hypnotist was another translated miss for me.

Detective Joona Linna is on the hunt for a serial killer after a family is discovered in their home stabbed to death. Well, the father was killed elsewhere, the oldest sister is missing, and the son – although suffering from major injuries – has survived, but is in a coma. Linna figures that time is of the essence because what if the killer is after the sister? He needs whatever information the survivor, Josef, can provide. Who you gonna call?

That would be Erik Maria Bark, disgraced hypnotherapist. He’s got all sorts of professional and personal baggage, but he’s absolutely the dude you want to call if you want to reach someone unreachable. Apparently. He takes some convincing, though, because he has sworn off practicing hypnosis.

Okay – so I was relatively invested in the beginning. Gruesome murder. Conflicted doctor. Whodunnit. You know, all the things. But then the translation started to irritate me, mostly the dialogue which always seems clunky and inauthentic to me. I sorta feel like once something’s been translated into English, a native English speaker needs to have a pass at it to smooth out the rough edges or something. Or maybe that’s what has happened. In any case, when there’s a lot of dialogue it just rips me out of the story because I keep think, people don’t speak this way.

Listen to this exchange between Linna and a witness. (And it’s not even a good example.)

After a while a man appears with a towel wound around his hips. His skin looks as if it’s burning; he’s leathery and very tanned. “Hi. I was on the sun bed.”

Nice,” says Joona.

“No, it isn’t,” Tobias Franzen replies. “There’s an enzyme missing from my liver. I have to spend two hours a day on that thing.”

“That’s quite another matter, of course,” Joona says dryly.

“You wanted to ask me something.”

“I want to know if you saw or heard anything unusual in the early morning of Saturday, December twelfth.”

Tobias scratches his chest. His fingernails leave white marks on his sunburned skin.

“Let me think, last Friday night. I’m sorry, but I can’t really remember anything in particular.

OK, thank you very much, that’s all,” says Joona, inclining his head.

Yep. That’s your crack detective, right there. No wonder it took 500 pages to solve this thing.

And then, the whole thing started to fall apart for me.

Josef goes missing. And then is rarely mentioned again. His sister is put into witness protection…and is rarely mentioned again. Then we get all this stuff about Erik Maria Bark’s past. (Yes, that’s how he’s referred to almost every time.) And his son, Benjamin, goes missing. And his wife’s ex-cop father gets involved. And all these previous hypnosis patients come into the mix. I just lost interest in the whole proceeding and I slogged through only because I was mildly interested in seeing how the whole thing played out.

Unsatisfactorily, I must say.

This is the beginning of a series featuring Detective Linna. I will not be reading any more.

The Tragic Age – Stephen Metcalfe

Billy Kinsey is an outsider. It’s not just the port-wine hemangioma on the right side of his face. It’s not just the fact that he’s moved to L.A. suburb from the San Joaquin Valley, where he lived a slightly more normal life. It’s not just that he’s an insomniac. It’s not just that his father won 37 million dollars in the lottery and now his mother lunches and plays tennis and his father drinks. It’s not even just that when he was 11, his twin sister Dorrie died of cancer. Well, actually, it’s all of these things.

Stephen Metcalfe’s debut novel, The Tragic Age, is laugh-out-loud funny, tender and wry. Billy, 17, is adrift. He wants to do the right thing, but he’s not exactly sure what the right thing is. It isn’t until Willard “Twom” Twomey comes into his life, followed by the re-entrance of his sister’s childhood bestie, Gretchen, that the fog starts to lift for Billy.

Twom is a larger-than-life character. He doesn’t back down from anyone. When the school’s meathead starts teasing Twom about his name, Twom lets him have it with the back of his dinner tray.

I also soon discover that despite his revolutionary’s attitude towards rules and authority, Twom has his own highly evolved sense of right or wrong. He dislikes what he calls the “dickhead club” and he has complete empathy for the underdog.

Although I wouldn’t necessarily say that Billy’s an underdog, he sure could use a friend or two and Twom comes along at the right time.

So does Gretchen. Although Billy of course knows her, she and her family have been, until recently, living in Africa, where Gretchen’s father “was a hotshot doctor of infectious diseases.” Her arrival back in Billy’s orbit is problematic.

It goes without saying that girls can make you do insane things. One minute a guy can be, if there is such a thing, normal, the next, he’s cracking stupid jokes and running and dancing in place like a babbling, mindless idiot. Another word for this is “dating.”

The Tragic Age follows Billy as he navigates his final year of high school, falls in love and tries to figure out what anything means…and whether anything is worth it, after all. The grief he feels over Dorrie’s death is clearly unresolved; in fact, he and his parents never even talk about Dorrie. They don’t really talk about much of anything, and that’s part of Billy’s problem.

Billy is on a slippery slope and the novel’s final pages are made for the big screen. That makes sense, since Metcalfe has worked in the film biz. I’m not sure the frenetic pace suits the rest of the book, but I still really enjoyed it. Billy is a memorable character and his experience of disillusioned, navel-gazing, teenagedom will be recognizable to anyone who has ever struggled to fit in or figure out how to simply survive.

Unspeakable Things – Jess Lourey

Cassie McDowell, the narrator of Jess Lourey’s riveting novel Unspeakable Things, confronts her memories of her thirteenth summer when she returns to her small Minnesota hometown for a funeral. She alludes to writing a novel about a “gravedirt basement”, but now “that cellar stink doubled back with a vengeance.”

It’s the 1980s and Cassie lives with her older sister, Sephie, and her parents on a thirteen acre hobby farm. Her father, Donny, is an artist and her mother, Peg, a teacher. It doesn’t take very long to feel the sense of dread that permeates Cassie’s home life. She “felt a quease leaving [Sephie] up with [her parents] when they’d been drinking” and she sleeps either under her bed, or squirreled away in her bedroom closet. The basement of their farmhouse of off limits. The tension is almost unbearable.

Their town, Lilydale, is full of strange characters, like Sergeant Bauer, the local cop, and Goblin, the creepy guy who lives down the road from the McDowells. And then, boys start disappearing. This causes the town to invoke a 9 p.m. curfew, which does little to alleviate fear.

That sent a shiver up my spine. First, what Betty had said this morning about the boy being raped, and now this. Mom’d told us on the drive over that we didn’t need to worry about anything, but Betty had most definitely seemed concerned. Bauer did, too. He suddenly had our complete attention.

“Always travel in pairs. I don’t want to see ay of you kids out alone this summer.”

That shushed us all up, every last one of us.

This time it wasn’t the words, or even his tone.

I think it was the first moment we caught a whiff of what was coming for us.

Something is coming for the boys of Lilydale, and when it comes for Gabriel, the cute boy Cassie has a crush on, she decides to do some investigating of her own. But, make no mistake, this isn’t a light-hearted Nancy Drew-esque detective story. There are creepy-crawly things in Lilydale’s underbelly and in Cassie’s own home. In fact, there is so much to be worried about the dread quotient is off-the-charts.

Yes, someone is scooping boys off the streets and when they come back they are changed in ways they seem unable to articulate. But Cassie has to deal with what is going on in her own backyard: her father’s mercurial moods, her parents’ ‘parties’ and the implied sexual abuse going on her home. When her father’s footsteps start up the stairs, the terror Cassie – and surely the reader – feels is palpable.

Unspeakable Things is a mystery and a coming-of-age story, and all of it (and Cassie’s voice) will twine around your heart and squeeze hard. Some might find the end of this novel less-than-satisfactory. Lourey wrote an epilogue, but then left it out of the final version. You can read that here. I liked both versions.

I loved this book. Highly recommended, but potentially triggering.

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.

Looking For Alaska – John Green

Miles Halter, the protagonist of John Green’s debut novel Looking for Alaska, is a loner who is about to leave Florida to attend a boarding school in Alabama. Just how much of a loner is Miles? His mother insists on throwing him a going away party and Miles is “forced to invite all [his] “school friends,” i.e., the ragtag bunch of drama people and English geeks [he] sat with by social necessity” even though he knew they “wouldn’t come.”

Miles loves famous last words. That’s one of the reasons he’s anxious to head off to Culver Creek, the same school his father and all his uncles attended, a school where they had “raised hell”, which sounds like a much better life than the one Miles currently has. In the words of Francois Rabelais, Miles wants to “go to seek a Great Perhaps.” That’s the reason, Miles tells his father, that he wants to leave Florida, “So I don’t have to wait until I die to start seeking a Great Perhaps.”

Miles’s roomate at Culver Creek is Chip Martin aka “Colonel”. He immediately renames Miles “Pudge” and then introduces him to Alaska Young, the force-of-nature, girl who lives five doors down. The novel follows this trio’s adventures and misadventures and their tragic consequences.

I have long been a fan of Green’s ability to write smart, believable and heartbreaking YA characters. The juggernaut The Fault in Our Stars was my first book by him, and I totally got the fuss. (I have also read Turtles All the Way Down and Paper Towns). If I didn’t already know how good Green was, I would have been amazed by Looking for Alaska. As a debut it’s funny, irreverent, and thoughtful. And so, so smart.

My grade 10 students are currently examining what it means to come of age. Two of them are reading this book and as I was reading it, I kept thinking that it was such a perfect book to help them think about this topic. I know the book has been challenged on many occasions for language and sexual content, but, really, who are we kidding? Shouldn’t we want our kids to read books that ask (and tries to answer) big and complicated questions? Shouldn’t we rejoice when we find an author that doesn’t talk down to kids, or pretend that they are one-dimensional?

Pudge and his friends, after a tragedy which occurs about half way through the book, seek to find answers to their questions. Pudge notes

There comes a time when we realize that our parents can not save themselves or save us, that everyone who wades through time eventually gets dragged out to sea by the undertow – that, in short, we are all going.

Looking for Alaska is terrific.