The Broken Girls – Simone St. James

Broken GirlsAlthough I don’t usually trust author endorsements on book covers (except for Stephen King’s praise; he’s a pretty reliable reader), Simone St. James’s novel The Broken Girls  had an equal number of positive reviews from places like Kirkus, Library Journal and Booklist. I felt pretty confident when I chose it as my book club pick back in March.

The Broken Girls tells two stories. In one, we follow four friends (Katie, CeCe, Roberta and Sonia) who are attending Idlewild Hall, a boarding school for troubled young ladies. It’s 1950. Idlewild Hall is an unforgiving place, and while none of the girls is a delinquent by any stretch, they each have their own troubles. And the school has troubles of its own, in the shape of Mary Hand, a ghost many girls have seen on the school grounds.

Flash forward to 2014 and meet Fiona Sheridan. She’s a local journalist, still struggling with the death of her older sister, Deb, whose body was found in an overgrown field on the grounds of the now ruined Idlewild. When Fiona hears that someone has bought the derelict school with plans to renovate and re-open it, Fiona is determined to get the scoop. The blurb on the back of the book announces a “shocking discovery” during the renovations, but I am just going to tell you now {{{{SPOILER ALERT}}}} that another body is found, one that connects the past to the present.

Fiona races around to try to connect all the dots, and that’s one of the problems I had with this book: there was a lot going on. There’s the back stories of all four of the 1950s girls; there’s the ghost; there’s Fiona and her boyfriend, Jamie, a local cop; there’s the death of Fiona’s sister, which although Deb’s boyfriend is currently in prison for the crime, still niggles in the back of Fiona’s mind, even though twenty years have passed. It’s not that it’s all that difficult to keep track of all these threads, it’s just that it felt like there were too many of them to make a coherent story. There’s a boatload of red herrings, but again, I think St.James just attempted too much here because by the end, I felt all the pieces clicked together just a teensy bit too neatly.

On the plus side, Fiona is a likable character, and so is Jamie. The four girls from the past are also sympathetic. The writing is straightforward and there were a couple of truly creepy moments.

Was it a popular choice with my book club? Nope. Only one of my friends gave it a thumbs up. Luckily for me, dinner was fantastic.

Easter ‘Book’ Hunt

So, before I begin preparing Easter dinner for the family, I thought I’d participate in The Savvy Reader’s Bookish Easter Egg Hunt. I can’t think of a nicer way to spend this rainy Sunday morning, and so with tea in hand I present my own book eggs.

1. Roses are red, violets are blue… Nope, I can’t rhyme. Instead, find your favourite book about love!

This is too hard because I love me a great love story, especially if it comes with a heaping helping of angst.

timetraveler

The Time Traveler’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger

Henry and Clare and time travel and so many tears I couldn’t see the pages. Skip the crap movie and read this amazing book.

2. Dystopian novels are so 1984… Find a great dystopian novel!

knife-of-never-letting-go

The Knife of Never Letting Go – Patrick Ness

Although I didn’t groove to this book the first time I picked it up, I did give it a second chance and I am so glad I did. I am not really a fan of dystopian novels, but this series has it all: sympathetic protagonists, cool premise (everyone can hear everyone else’s thoughts), a relentless bad guy…and don’t even get me started on Manchee, the main character’s dog. The next two books in the series are The Ask and the Answer and Monsters of Men.

3. Book it to the library for a book that has aged like fine wine. Find a book you’ve read more than once and gets better every time you read it.

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Velocity – Kristin McCloy

Velocity and I go wayyyyyy back. I bought the book at The Strand in the late-eighties and have re-read it many times. I can’t even begin to tell you how much I continue to love this book.

4. This book blue us away. What blue book can you find?

blue eyed

Your Blue-Eyed Boy – Helen Dunmore

I am a bug fan of Helen Dunmore, a British writer who, sadly, passed away in 2017. If you haven’t read her yet, I can highly recommend her work. Her novels have elements of psychological suspense, complicated family relationships, and beautiful writing always.

5. Past, Present and Future walk into a bar. It was tense. Find a book that plays with time in an interesting way.

 

life-after-life-

Life After Life – Kate Atkinson

Kate Atkinson’s brilliant novel plays with the narrative form, skip-hopping readers through the main character’s life (lives), though it is not as confusing as it sounds. And very much worth the effort.

6. Check your shelf before you wreck your shelf. Find a great self-improvement book.

selp helf

Selp-Helf – Miranda Sings

I didn’t review this book back when I bought it, but I chose it for this category because I don’t really read self help books…plus, I love Miranda.

7. I like big books and I cannot lie! Look for a book that’s more than 500 pages.

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Fingersmith – Sarah Waters

This book clocks in at 548 pages and won me best book at my book club the year I chose it (2010). It’s a fantastic novel set in Victorian England and, trust me, you won’t be able to put it down once you start reading.

8. I was in a relationship with an apostrophe, but we broke up… It was too possessive! Find a book with a complicated romantic relationship.

 

one-day

One Day – David Nicholls

This was actually a hard category for me because I LOVE me some complicated relationships…especially if the lovers are really damaged people, but in the end, I chose One Day because it’s awesome.

9. Take my advice… I don’t use it anyway. Find a book that you would recommend to everyone.

 

I am constantly recommending books – here, in my classroom, on the radio.  I could have chosen a million books, but I stopped at five:

Sadie  – Courtney Summers is one of my favourite YA writers and this book, her latest, is soooo good. Everyone should read it, not just teens.

A Short History of the Girl Next Door – Jared Reck is a teacher and this is his debut novel. I cried at the end of this book. LOVED it and recced it hard in my classroom.

My Sunshine Away – M.O. Walsh’s coming-of-age novel is beautifully written, suspenseful and heart-breaking and everyone should read it.

Everything I Never Told You – Celest Ng’s novel is just perfect and has stayed with me for a long time.

Descent – Tim Johnston has written a page-turner and  family drama in language that is beautiful without bogging the story down. And, trust me, this is one helluva story.

10. 4 out of 5 dentists recommend hockey. Find a good sports book.

now is thetime

Now is the Time for Running – Michael Williams

Although there is soccer in this book, it’s mostly about what happens when two brothers are forced to leave their African village.

I don’t read that many sports-related books. 😦

11. Bonus Question! Find a book cover with your name on it.

christie

The Christie part.

Happy Easter!

We Are Okay – Nina LaCour

Nina LaCour’s award-winning YA novel We Are Okay, is a lyrical and moving look at the weareoknature of grief. This is a quiet novel, and so I would caution readers not to expect histrionics or very much action. Instead, LaCour focuses on the protagonist’s interior life, which has been altered by loss.

Eighteen-year-old Marin is attending school on the East Coast, far away from her hometown, San Francisco. It’s Christmas, and everyone has left the dorm except Marin, who has no place to go. Her roommate, Hannah, is clearly worried about her and Marin knows

why she’s afraid for me. I first appeared in this doorway to weeks after Gramps died. I stepped in – a stunned and feral stranger – and now I’m someone she knows, and I need to stay that way. For her and for me.

Marin is anticipating the arrival of her best friend, Mabel.  She knows “Mabel is coming tomorrow, whether I want her to or not.” The idea fills Marin with a sort of dread, even though she knows she should be happy.  She hasn’t communicated with Mabel in months though, and has, in fact, ignored all of Mabel’s attempts to make contact. She thinks she can fool Mabel into thinking that everything is okay but

Mabel knows me better than anyone else in the world, even though we haven’t spoken at all in these four months. Most of her texts to me went unanswered until eventually she stopped sending them.

There will be no way to fool her.

Nothing much happens in We Are Okay, but that’s just plot, anyway. The story toggles between Marin’s reunion with Mabel and the story of their friendship back in California. We also learn that Marin has been raised by her grandfather, a fierce but tender man, who has a few secrets of his own. Her grandfather’s death clearly accounts for some of Marin’s sadness, but flashback’s reveal that Mabel is also central to Marin’s story.

There is a lovely, melancholy cadence in LaCour’s book. It’s poetic without being showy and the nature of Marin’s grief is unspooled in a way that will keep readers turning the pages. I guess that’s what prevents We Are Okay from being all doom and gloom. Yes, Marin is sad, but she’s trying to come to terms with her derailed life. She finds small ways to tether herself to the world, a pair of pottery bowls, the “perfect shade of yellow” for instance.

This is a thoughtful, lovely and moving novel and I highly recommend it.

A Short History of the Girl Next Door – Jared Reck

shortI can’t remember the last time I cried actual tears reading a book, but Jared Reck’s debut novel A Short History of the Girl Next Door actually made me cry. And also laugh.

This is the story of 15-year-old Matt Wainwright, who is in love with his childhood bestie, Tabby, who lives – not exactly next door – but across the cul-de-sac from him.

I am completely in love with my best friend from childhood, she has absolutely no idea, and now she’s interested in older, more popular guys.

This sounds like a bad movie already.

Matt is a talented basketball player and a writer, big brother to four-year-old Murray. He is pretty awesome in every category, actually, but Tabby has definitely friend-zoned him. They’re freshmen at Franklin High and by October, she’s caught the attention of senior stud Liam Branson, starter on both the school’s football and basketball teams. Matt is consumed with jealousy, even though, as it turns out, Liam is a pretty awesome guy.

And it’s not like Tabby is flaunting her new relationship in Matt’s face. They’ve always been just friends. They like Star Wars movies and Nerds and, until Liam started picking Tabby up in the mornings, riding the school bus together. Tabby has always been a part of Matt’s family dynamic because his “mom started babysitting Tabby when she was four months old. And since my mom stayed home with me until I started school, Tabby was at our house nearly every day. She’s part of our family.”

Matt imagines a different future with Tabby, but his longings live in his head. He never actually gathers the courage to tell her how he feels, and their relationship endures some bumps along the way as she navigates her first relationship and Matt tries to tamp down his feelings about that relationship.

Their relationship starts to deteriorate and then the unspeakable happens.

Reck’s novel is everything a great YA novel should be. The characters are believable and appealing; even the adults get a fair shake. I especially loved Matt’s grandfather and this book really made me miss my own grandparents, long gone now. Matt is, often, immature, as you’d expect him to be, but he’s smart and sensitive, too. Tabby is more than just the gorgeous object of both Matt and Liam’s affections. She has feelings and depth.

I loved everything about A Short History of the Girl Next Door and highly recommend it.

 

The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood & Renee Nault

I probably shouldn’t admit this, being both a Canadian and an English teacher, but I have handmaidbestnever read Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale. I haven’t watched the series, either. I know, I know. I figured that I could rectify that by reading Renee Nault’s stunning graphic novel of Atwood’s book.

First published in 1985, Atwood’s novel explores a dystopian America. Atwood imagines a totalitarian state where women are commodities without their own names or lives. Some women are sexual servants, that is if they are of the age to bear children. Their names reflect the men they serve, so the book’s narrator is Offred or “of Fred”. In another life, Offred was married, had a daughter, but the family was separated when they tried to escape to Canada. The novel won several awards, including the Governor General’s Award and the Booker.

In many ways, Atwood’s novel was prescient. Flash forward almost 35 years and reflect on what is currently happening in the States (and around the world) and The Handmaid’s Tale  should make your skin crawl.

Nault’s beautiful drawings highlight the horrific lives lived by these handmaids.

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They dress in red “the colour of blood, which defines us.” Their hats prevent “keep us from seeing, but also from being seen.”Offred reveals her defiance to her situation early on claiming that “I never looked good in red, it’s not my colour.” Friendships are discouraged between the handmaids. Their only job is to be an incubator.

It’s easy to see why Atwood’s novel was ground-breaking when it was first published. It’s difficult to read it even now. Nault’s adaptation should introduce a whole new generation of readers to Atwood’s acclaimed novel. I might just go read the original now.

White Rabbit – Caleb Roehrig

white rabbitRufus Holt is having a really fucking bad day. I use the expletive because, well, there’s a lot of F-bombs in Caleb Roehrig’s YA mystery White Rabbit. I’m not a prude by any stretch, but I have to admit that by the end of the novel I was getting a little tired of all the swearing. Surely teenagers as smart as the ones who populate Roehrig’s world would have the vocabularies to match.

But, really, that’s just a niggle. Overall, Roehrig has written a tightly plotted and well-written (I know what I said, it’s still a well-written book!) mystery.

Sixteen-year-old Rufus has just received a call from his half-sister April. He’s pissed because his ex-boyfriend, the handsome and thoughtful Sebastian, has just hauled him out of the 4th of July party they were attending to “talk.” But then, April tells Rufus that she’s in trouble and needs his help.

Rufus’s relationship with April is somewhat contentious. Her father is his father, but Rufus is the black sheep. His father is never anything but cruel to Rufus. His relationship with his older brother, Hayden, is downright abusive. But when April calls, Rufus feels obligated to help. What he discovers is his sister, whacked out of it,  sitting in a puddle of her boyfriend Fox Whitney’s blood surrounded by White Rabbits, “a designer drug known to cause euphoria, heightened sensory perception, and hallucinations.” But “the pills have also been linked, notoriously, to acts of extreme violence.”  April swears she didn’t kill Fox and begs Rufus to help her.

Rufus and Sebastian spend the rest of the book trying to prove April’s innocence by visiting the other people who’d attended the same party. Rufus has never been a part of the “IT” crowd, but one of the party attendees is Lia, Sebastian’s ex-girlfriend. Sebastian insists that he’s not leaving Rufus, and besides he has the car.

White Rabbit  is a carefully plotted mystery. The characters are, generally speaking, awful people – with the exception of Rufus (despite his potty mouth) and Sebastian. As the boys try to get answers to clear April’s name (and there is a financial incentive for Rufus to take on this mostly thankless task), they are lied to, shot at, chased with cars. While they try to figure out whodunit, Rufus and Sebastian also try to navigate their feelings for one another. There are red herrings galore and people with nefarious motives, but all of it makes for page-turning fun.

 

 

They Both Die at the End – Adam Silvera

theybothdieIn a not-too-distant future universe- or I don’t know, maybe it’s way in the distance – Mateo Torrez gets the call everyone dreads:

…I regret to inform you that sometime in the next twenty-four hours you’ll be meeting an untimely death. And while there isn’t anything we can do to suspend that, you still have a chance to live.

Mateo is only seventeen and he certainly doesn’t want to die.

Neither does eighteen-year-old Rufus Emeterio. He gets the call as he’s beating the snot out of Peck, his ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend.

Death-Cast makes the call, but they can’t tell you anything more than sometime in the next twenty-four hours your number is up. That’s the premise of Adam Silvera’s philosophically astute and heart-breaking YA novel, They Both Die at the End.

Mateo and Rufus came from vastly different worlds. Mateo is introverted and lives his life from the safety of his apartment. His father in in the hospital in a coma; his best friend, Lidia and her infant daughter, Penny, are his closest friends. Rufus lives in a group home. His family had received the Death-Cast call and perished. He has a new family, now, a rag-tag group of foster kids and the foster parents who love them. Despite the fact that he was beating someone up when we meet him, he is a sweet and thoughtful kid.

Mateo and Rufus meet via the Last Friend App, an app “designed for lonely Deckers and for any good soul who wants to keep a Decker company in their final hours.” (Decker meaning those on deck to die). Although the boys come from vastly different worlds, their one night together opens them up to life’s possibilities in ways neither could have imagined.

“To live is the rarest thing in the world. Mot people exist, that’s all.” Oscar Wilde

That’s the quote that opens this much-lauded novel. It’s so true, isn’t it? We hide behind our phones, we curate our lives for social media (just look at pictures of people at concerts; everyone is holding up a phone to video the performance rather than enjoying it in the moment.) We collect stuff, not memories. We don’t really talk to each other anymore. With the specter of the end hanging over their heads, Mateo and Rufus spend the day criss-crossing NYC, having meaningful moments with their loved ones and moments of introspection with themselves.

Thornton Wilder warned audiences back in the 1930s that life was “too wonderful for anybody to realize.” In his play, Our Town, Emily asks the Stage Manager if “any human beings ever realize life while they live it? – every, every minute.” I think Mateo and Rufus would have appreciated Wilder’s sentiment.

I truly fell in love with these characters, and I kept thinking “surely they’re not going to die” but the book’s title is not misleading. Silvera’s novel is outstanding and I highly recommend it.