Starry Eyes – Jenn Bennett

Although it took the story a little while to get going, Jenn Bennett’s YA romance 94B71DCC-2A46-44E4-90BF-CABC55A86A33Starry Eyes ended up being a sweet love story with believable main characters.

Seventeen-year-old Zorie lives with her father and stepmother in Melita Hills, California. Her parents own a health clinic, acupuncture and massage and the like. Sharing the building with them is Toys in the Attic, a sex shop owned by Sunny and Jane, married mothers to Lennon. Lennon and Zorie used to be besties. Childhood friends whose feelings for each other had crossed the line into something more complicated before Lennon ditched Zorie, without explanation, Before the homecoming dance. Now the two are barely speaking to each other. And Zorie’s father seems to have a total hate-on for Lennon and his moms now, too.

It’s the summer before senior year and Zorie is in hard-core planning mode. She’s a planner because “Spontaneity is overrated.” When she is invited on a glamping trip (high end camping) with her “kind of, sort of friend” Reagan, she really doesn’t want to go. Her mother thinks it would be good for Zorie to go, though, and when Zorie finds out that Brett, “a minor celebrity in our school” will be going, Zorie agrees to go with.  Zorie has been “nursing a crush on him since elementary school” and the two had exchanged one kiss at a party. There’s also the problem that Zorie has recently discovered that her father has been cheating on her mom and she needs some time to decide how to handle the discovery.

Things get complicated when it turns out that Lennon is also going on the trip.

The first third of the book sets up this premise, and it’s the part of the book that moved the most slowly for me. When I was done reading, I did understand why some of this set up was important, but for the me, the best part of the book was when Zorie and Lennon suddenly find themselves on their own in the woods.

Being alone gives them a chance to talk, something the two hadn’t really done for a long time. There’s real energy between the pair, sexual energy, for sure, but also something more powerful: Zorie and Lennon clearly care very deeply for each other. As they walk through the woods, they talk. They are not distracted by the outside world and the solitude gives them time to reveal long-held wounds.

Readers will root for Zorie and Lennon. These are imperfect teens, but they also felt real to me. There’s a beating heart at the centre of this romance.

 

Watching You – Lisa Jewell

01B345DC-2890-42FE-9E54-71D514747137The current flavour-of-the-month in book stores these days seems to be duplicitous nannies or wives, unreliable narrators of all stripes, characters and plots that simply can’t be trusted. In my experience, books like this come with varying degrees of pedigree. But then there’s Lisa Jewell.

Watching You is my third novel by this British writer. My first experience with Jewell was The Girls in the Garden and then I read I Found You. I always have another of her books waiting for me because I know I can depend on Jewell to deliver a cracking story, believable characters and a few unexpected twists.

Watching You takes place in Melville Heights, a tony neighbourhood in Bristol. The cast of characters is varied. There’s screw-up Josephine (Joey), newly married to gorgeous lug, Alfie. The two have recently returned to Melville Heights and are living with Joey’s older brother, Jack, a heart surgeon and his wife, Rebecca, who is pregnant. Then there’s Tom Fitzwilliam and his wife, Nicola, and their son, Freddie. Tom’s the new headmaster at the local school. Then there’s Jenna Tripp and her mother.

Everyone is watching everyone else in Melville Heights. Freddie spies on people from his bedroom window, keeping tabs on their comings and goings because “In the absence of  any friends or any real desire to have friends, Freddie had spent the past year or so compiling a dossier called The Melville Papers.” Down below, Mrs. Tripp is doing the same and while Freddie’s surveillance seems a bit creepy, Mrs. Tripp is clearly paranoid. And Joey watches Tom Fitzwilliam. She can’t help it.

Joey watched him walking back to his table. He wore a blue suit with a subtle check. The bottom buttons, she noticed, strained very gently against a slight softness and Joey felt a strange wave of pleasure, a sense of excitement about the unapologetic contours of his body, the suggestion of meals enjoyed and worries forgotten about over a bottle of decent wine. She found herself wanting to slide her fingers between those tensed buttons, to touch, just for a moment, the soft flesh beneath.

The story opens with a murder, a gory stabbing, and as the stories of this disparate cast of characters unravels, we watch (through a series of police interviews) the clues start to build a case. But of course, this is Lisa Jewell – so nothing is ever as it seems. They say you can never really know someone, and I think Jewell uses that premise to her advantage here. Who are these people? What are there motives? Where are their loyalties?

I had zero problem turning the pages. Ultimately, at the end of a book like this, you want to feel satisfied with the resolution. The red herrings have to be plausible at least. I like to try to figure things out along the way, and I don’t like it when the plot drives off the cliff of ridiculous. No chance of that here. Jewell masterfully manages all the players, even those with only a minor role to play.

Watching You is a great book to curl up with on these cold winter nights.

Foe – Iain Reid

foeFoe is my second novel by Canadian writer Iain Reid. I read  I’m Thinking of Ending Things  a couple of summers ago. I found that book deeply unsettling. And clever. Foe is well… deeply unsettling and clever.

Junior and his wife, Henrietta, Hen for short, live a sort of isolated existence out in the country. It’s just the two of them, so the arrival of a man, Terrance, is strange because as Junior remarks: “We don’t get visitors. Never have. Not out here.”

Terrance has come to tell Junior that he’s made OuterMore’s long list.

We’re an organization formed more than six decades ago. We started in the driverless automobile sector. Our fleet of self-driving cars was the most efficient and safest in the world. Our mandate changed over the years, and today it is very specific. We’ve moved out of the auto sector and into aerospace, exploration, and development. We’re working toward the next phase of transition.

Junior has been selected to go to space as part of The Installation, “the first wave of temporary resettlement.” Junior isn’t all that chuffed, but Terrance is pretty excited on his behalf. It’s not a done deal yet, of course, and Terrance will have to make several visits over the coming months because if he is chosen, Hen will be provided with a companion – someone who looks and talks and acts just like Junior; someone who is 3D printed just for her – to stay with her while her husband is gone.

When Terrance actually moves into their house to collect data (although even that is vague enough to cause Junior unease), Junior starts to feel his marriage unraveling. Hen is distant and secretive. The structure of their very ordered lives starts to crumble. Junior becomes more paranoid. It won’t be long before you, too, will be wondering just what in the heck is going on.

You’ll be swept along by Reid’s unfussy prose and metaphysical questions. Junior tries to remember his life before Hen, but his life “was unremarkable, unmemorable.”

We only get so much mental space in which to store our memories, and there’s no reason for me to waste it on what came before.

Reid builds on these questions of identity and memory, while also creating an ominous atmosphere. I love unreliable narrators, and Reid is especially good at writing them. Reid is definitely an author to keep your eye on.

Skim – Mariko Tamaki & Jillian Tamaki

I am surrounded by teenagers every day and their world seems difficult to me, more200px-skim_bookcover difficult than I remember my adolescence. There was no social media back then. We hung out, gathering at someone’s house on Friday night to play Trivial Pursuits and drink Pop Shoppe soda. We had dances where you’d just pray not to be asked to slow dance with some geeky guy, especially for the last dance, which was always “Stairway to Heaven” – longest song on the planet. My locker was covered with pictures of Robby Benson. The drama happened in the girls’ bathroom and the bullying happened in person. We talked for hours on the phone…which was in the kitchen, so your end of the conversation could be heard by pesky brothers and eavesdropping moms.

It’s always interesting to read about young people because even though I feel so far removed from those years (my 40th high school reunion happens this summer!), their lives are fascinating to me. A really good YA novel can capture the essence of what it is to be young and send me spinning back to my own fraught teenage years.

Skim, the award-winning graphic novel by the cousin team of Mariko Tamaki (writer) and Jillian Tamaki (illustrator), unspools the life of sixteen-year-old Kimberly Keiko Cameron aka Skim as she navigates friendships, crushes, school, suicide and depression. Like with their graphic novel This One Summer, the Tamakis zero in on what it is to be young and to cope with all the shit life often throws at you.

Skim’s parents are divorced. She’s interested in wicca and tarot cards and her English and drama teacher, Mrs. Archer, who is “always saying weird stuff like – I’m telling you girls. You might think different, but chocolate is better than sex.” Skim relates to Mrs. Archer because she considers herself a bit of a freak, too.

The simple black and white illustrations capture the essence of high school life; the constant navigating and negotiating that comes with being a young person. Skim is thoughtful and fragile, but there is a toughness to her that allows the reader to believe that she will survive.

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You couldn’t pay me money to be a teenager. All those hormones. All that heartache. Still, there is something about this period in your life that is pretty amazing. All that potential. All those feelings so close to the surface. Skim manages to capture that beautifully and Skim’s story will resonate with anyone…well, anyone. Because we were all young once and if you are young now – then at least part of Skim’s story is your story, too.

My Absolute Darling – Gabriel Tallent

Gabriel Tallent’s debut (DEBUT!) novel, My Absolute Darling, is going to be difficult tomyabsolutedarling write about – not only because the subject matter is contentious, but because I don’t have an adequate vocabulary to express just how truly astounding this novel is. (I guess he gets the extra ‘l’ in his last name because when they were handing out talent, he got more than his share. Seriously.)

Julia (though everyone calls her Turtle) Alveston is fourteen. She lives with her father, Martin, in Northern California. Her mother is dead. Although her father sometimes works as a carpenter, the two of them are isolated and live pretty much off-the-grid. The only other adult in her life is her grandfather, Martin’s dad, who lives in a trailer on their property. Turtle goes to school, but she is friendless; she is more comfortable roaming the woods and shooting guns, than she is talking to kids her own age.

Turtle’s relationship with Martin is complicated. Martin is an imposing figure, both physically and intellectually. But he is also a seriously damaged man and it won’t take long for readers to see that the relationship between father and daughter is, among other things, abusive. But then, even that doesn’t adequately explain things.

After a meeting at school, where Turtle’s teacher expresses concern with her progress, Martin says “Is this the sum of your ambition? To be an illiterate little slit?”

His meaning comes to her all at once like something lodged up in a can glopping free. She leaves parts of herself unnamed and unexamined, and then he will name them, and she will see herself clearly in his words and hate herself.

There is always simmering violence in Turtle’s home, a house tellingly “overgrown with climbing roses and poison oak.” There are guns and knives inside, both of which Turtle knows how to use with startling proficiency.  Martin is a survivalist who fervently believes that “Humanity is killing itself – slowly, ruinously, collectively shitting in its bathwater….”

Turtle has learned to read her father, to anticipate what’s coming. It’s hard – very hard – to watch her negotiate with herself, or justify Martin’s abuse, particularly the sexual abuse. Tallent wisely chooses a limited third person point of view to tell Turtle’s story; I don’t know how readers could bear it otherwise.

She thinks, do it, I want you to do it. She lies expecting it at any moment, looking out the window at the small, green, new-forming alder cones and thinking this is me, her thoughts gelled and bloody marrow within the piping of her hollow thighbones and the coupled, gently curving bones of her forearms. He crouches over her and in husky tones of awe, he says, “Goddamn, kibble, goddamn.”

When Turtle meets Jacob and Brett, her world starts to crack open a little bit, but it’s not until Martin arrives home, after a protracted absence, with ten-year-old Cayenne in tow, that Turtle starts to reconsider her life. She knows she has to “really goddamn look at it without lying….”

Tallent said in a 2017 interview for Mashable that ” “…good books ask us to be courageous readers.” I think he’s right, of course, but I don’t think everyone will be able to stomach the violence in My Absolute Darling. That said,  this book is worth the effort.

First of all, Tallent’s a gifted writer. His descriptions of the natural world – almost a character in and of itself – are masterful. This is Turtle’s domain and it’s important. She can survive in the wild, and those survival instincts serve her well. Secondly, Turtle is a character you will not soon – if ever –  forget. She is tough because she has to be, but there is a tenderness about her, too. Her friendship with Jacob is unexpected and impossible, but also essential because it gives Turtle a glimpse into a normal world that has been denied to her. Finally, Martin is not a one-note villain. Although my feelings about him didn’t really waver, I still found some sympathy in my heart for him. That’s a tribute to Tallent because, mostly, Martin is a narcissistic monster. I believe Martin loves Turtle, but in a twisted, possessive, controlling way.

I highly recommend this book, although I understand that it won’t be palatable for many readers. It was on my short list as a potential selection for my book club, but I knew – even before I read it – that most of the women in my group would have a very difficult time with its subject matter. After reading it, I can say with certainty that I was right: they would have hated it. But I would argue that it’s compelling, intelligent and  worthy of the copious praise it has received.

Highly recommended.

 

Book Love – Debbie Tung

bookloveI discovered Debbie Tung’s Book Love while looking for something else…and so, of course, I had to buy it. Tung is a writer-illustrator based out of Birmingham, England, and Book Love captures, in black and white, her love for all things bookish which includes books, book stores, libraries, cozy places to curl up and tea.

As any true book nerd knows, you can never have too many books. And there’s nothing worse than being delayed or stranded somewhere with nothing to read. We all appreciate an uninterrupted afternoon in a bookstore or library. We fall in love with fictional characters and settings, people and places that will stay with us for our entire lives. Tung knows these things, too, and she captures the magic of books in her simple drawings, which are sometimes laugh-out-loud funny or sweet, but 100% relatable for anyone who loves the portable magic of books.

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If you love books…and all things bookish…Book Love is a delight. You’ll certainly recognize yourself in its pages.

You can visit Tung at Where’s My Bubble. And check out her book Quiet Girl in a Noisy World (which is actually on the shelf in my classroom library, although I haven’t read it yet.)

The Voice of the Night – Dean Koontz

I have read more than one novel by Dean Koontz, most memorably his 7939529 thriller Intensity.  I wouldn’t say I am a fan, really, but I know that I can depend on him to deliver a decently-written page-turner.

The Voice of the Night tells the story of fourteen-year-old Colin, who moves with his newly divorced mother to Santa Leona, a coastal town near San Francisco. There he meets Roy, a kid who is the same age, but who possesses all the qualities Colin lacks: charisma, confidence and good looks.  Colin has never really had a best friend before, and for some reason Roy seems to take a shine to him.

But it’s a sinister shine. Roy is fascinated with death. He wants to know if Colin has ever killed anything. He brags that he has, but Colin is pretty certain, at least at first, that it’s some sort of friendship test. When Roy brags about torturing a cat,

…Colin sensed that Roy was testing him. He felt certain that the gruesome story about the cat was just the latest test, but he couldn’t imagine what Roy had wanted him to say or do. Had he passed or failed?

Despite Colin’s uneasiness, Roy is “just about the best friend a guy could ask for.” Until he isn’t. And it doesn’t take long for The Voice in the Night to kick into high gear.

There are no adults in this book. Colin’s mother is running an art gallery and getting her post-divorce sea legs under her. She is rarely home. Colin’s dad takes him fishing once with a bunch of his friends, who are all drunk jerks. Roy’s parents, too, are MIA. When Colin’s relationship with Roy begins to unravel, he is all alone to try to figure it out. And more and more, Colin begins to feel as though his life depends on it.

The Voice in the Night clicks along without too much interference. The cast of characters is small, their motivations obvious and the conclusion, although a tad trite, is believable.