Reconstructing Amelia – Kimberly McCreight

reconstructingI’m sure all the mothers out there can appreciate how difficult it is to really know what is happening in our children’s lives these days. I mean, on the surface, it seems like it would be easier, right? We have phones that connect us immediately – but the flip side of that is that, because of this technology,  our kids can live lives very separate from us, too. When I was a teenager there was one phone and it was in the kitchen. If you got a call, you took it in full view of your parents and siblings; there were ears everywhere. Hardly anyone calls my house phone anymore – and certainly not the friends of my kids.

It is this very private world that is central to Kimberly McCreight’s suspenseful and timely novel Reconstructing Amelia.

Kate Baron is a high-powered lawyer and single mom. She and her  fifteen-year-old daughter, Amelia, live in Brooklyn, where Amelia attends Grace Hall, a hoity-toity private school. Despite Kate’s busy job, she and Amelia share a close bond, likely forged because it’s always been just the two of them. There have been a few bumps in the road recently: Kate chalks it up to teenage moodiness. Then she gets a call from the school: Amelia is being suspended, for plagiarizing an essay. The suspension is a shock to Kate because

Amelia had never been in trouble in her entire life. Her teachers called her a delight – bright, creative, thoughtful, focused. She excelled in athletics and was involved in every extracurricular activity under the sun. She volunteered once a month at CHIPS, a local soup kitchen, and regularly helped out at school events.

The accusation of cheating is clearly a mistake. However, when Kate arrives at Grace Hall she is devastated to discover that her daughter is dead (not a spoiler: it’s on the book jacket). Apparently, Amelia jumped from the roof of the school. Although Kate can’t quite believe her daughter would do such a thing, the police rule Amelia’s death a suicide and the case is closed.

That is until Kate gets an anonymous text: Amelia didn’t jump.

With the help of Lew, a crusty police detective, Kate begins reconstructing Amelia’s life only to discover that there were many things she didn’t know about her daughter.

There are dual narratives in McCreight’s book. Kate’s limited third person narrative allows us to take her journey, but we also have Amelia’s first person narration – which gives the reader a glimpse into a life Kate could never be privy to. There are also text conversations, Facebook posts, and an anonymous blog called ‘gRaCeFULLY,’ which tracks the comings and goings of Grace Hall students. All the bits fit together to create a picture of entitled girlhood and head-in-the-sand adulthood.

There are some bits of the book which didn’t necessarily belong (Rowan) and I am not 100% sure I bought some of the twists, (I won’t say which because, hello, spoilers) but that doesn’t mean I didn’t turn those pages at breakneck speed to find out what happened to Amelia and why.

I would like to think that the girls in Reconstructing Amelia are just fictional, but I know that’s naïve. Sometimes, even when we love our kids and feel close to them, we don’t always know what is really happening in their worlds. That’s the sad truth.

Great book.

Hausfrau – Jill Alexander Essbaum

hausfrauPoor Anna. Her life sucks. She’s the protagonist in Jill Alexander Essbaum’s novel Hausfrau,  an American living in Dietlikon, a suburb of Zurich, with Bruno, her Swiss banker husband and her children: Victor, 8, Charles, 6, and baby Polly. She doesn’t work. She’s barely even learned to speak the language despite having lived in Switzerland for almost a decade. Her mother-in-law seems wholly unimpressed with her – and no wonder: Anna disappears for hours, taking language classes and having sex with random men.

It’s hard to really like Anna very much. She’s not the effusive American one might expect. Instead of joining the other mothers when she meets her sons at school she “scuffed the  sole of a brown clog  against the sidewalk’s curb…fiddled with her hair and pretended to watch an invisible bird flying overheard.”  She claims she is “shy and cannot talk to strangers.”  That may be true, but she speaks the universal language just fine.

Yep – Anna is a serial cheater. The reader meets Archie Sutherland first, an expat Scotsman.

Archie and Anna shared a plate of cheese, some greengage plums, a bottle of mineral water. Then they set everything aside and fucked again. Archie came in her mouth. It tasted like school paste, starchy and thick. This is a good thing I am doing, Anna said inside of herself, though “good” was hardly the right word. Anna knew this. What she meant was expedient. What she meant was convenient. What she meant was wrong in nearly every way but justifiable as it makes me feel better, and for so very long I have felt so very, very bad.

Oh, well, that’s all right then. You just go ahead and fuck whomever you please without any regard for anyone else but yourself because, clearly, life is rough for you. Oh please.

I am not a prude. I think everyone deserves a chance to be happy. The problem with Hausfrau is that I didn’t care one bit about Anna and by the time Essbaum actually gave me a reason to care about her it was too late. Anna is a hot mess and for no good reason that I can see.  She’s whiney and self-centered and in one instance, treats her adored younger son, Charles, so deplorably that there was just no way for me to like her after that.

Okay – maybe I am being too harsh. I mean, it’s tough to be a modern woman. Like, she’s got three kids and she lives in a foreign country and her husband is a stoic workaholic. Oh, wait, she comes and goes as she pleases. She doesn’t have to worry about money. She recognizes that her affairs are a product of her “longing for diversion…and from boredom particular habits were born.” No Netflix in Switzerland, eh? How about knitting or a good book, Anna?

Not even her psychoanalyst, Doktor Messerli, is able to offer any real useful advice. Instead, she imparts pithy gems like “Shame lies. Shame a woman and she will believe she is fundamentally wrong, organically delinquent.” And when it is clear Anna is desperate, the good doctor tells her to stop ringing her bell and leave immediately. Okay, then.

Critics loved this book. I did not.

What Happens Next – Colleen Clayton

whathappensnextColleen Clayton’s debut YA novel, What Happens Next, follows sixteen year old Cassidy ‘Sid’ Murphy after she’s drugged and raped while on a school ski trip. That seems like a pretty big spoiler, I know, but it’s not. The book pretty much spoils it with the tag line “How can you talk about something you can’t remember?” Besides, it’s not the most dramatic thing that happens in this book, even though it is the impetus for Sid’s journey.

Sid and her best friends Kirsten and Paige are pretty excited about this ski trip, but of the three Sid is the amateur and so after a few hours at the bunny hill she sends her friends off to do some real skiing. While on her own, she meets Dax Windsor, “a hot specimen.” Sid can’t quite believe he’s looking at her. He’s

… the best-looking guy I have ever seen up close and he is interested in me – goofy, loud-mouthed Sid Murphy, with my crazy red hair, bubble butt and obnoxious laugh.

Dax is all slippery charm, though, and when he invites Sid to a party the next night Sid seems powerless to refuse, even though it will mean sneaking out of her chalet. But sneak she does and when she wakes up the next morning in a strange bed with no memory of what happened the night before, Sid’s world is shattered.

Instead of telling anyone – her friends, mother, police – what happened, Sid isolates herself. Her relationship with her besties fractures; she’s kicked off the cheerleading squad, her reputation is sullied, despite the fact that no one actually knows what happened.

This is where things get tricky for the reader (and mother) in me. Although Sid has no control over what has happened to her and is powerless to undo what has been done, she finds a way to quell the panic and shock she feels. First she starts running. A lot, like hours. Then she starts eating and purging. And no one notices. Is it a case of, we see what we want to see?  I don’t know. I would like to think if something this horrific happened to my daughter, I would sense that something was wrong, but all Mrs. Murphy seems to want to do is serve starch-heavy meals.

Then, into the mix, comes Corey Livingston: slacker, stoner, degenerate. Sid judges him  in exactly the same way as everyone is judging her – without knowing all the facts. As the two start spending time together, though, Sid feels herself starting to trust Corey, not enough to tell him her darkest secret, mind, but enough to at least feel like she has one friend. Their relationship is one of the nicest things about What Happens Next.

Despite a few things that didn’t quite work for me – that last 20 pages or so just seemed rushed – Clayton’s book will appeal to any teenager who has ever felt that they have a burden too insurmountable to overcome. Sid is a likeable character, but I think the real prize here is Corey.

Complicit – Stephanie Kuehn

Kuehn-Stephanie-COMPLICITA few months ago I read Stephanie Kuehn’s riveting and devastating YA novel Charm & Strange so I was pretty excited to read Complicit. Also YA, Complicit is the story of siblings Jamie and Cate Henry, who have lived for a decade with their foster parents after their young mother is killed in mysterious drug-related circumstances. As a teen, Cate did some pretty bad things and she’s spent the last couple of years in juvie. To say Jamie and Cate are estranged would be an understatement.

Jamie is now sixteen. He’s an awesome piano player; he’s got a thing for a girl at school which seems to be reciprocated; he has a pretty good life. It’s not all sunshine and roses though: he has huge gaps in his memory, he sometimes blacks out and out of nowhere he loses all feeling in his hands, a condition for which there seems to be no explanation. Then Cate gets out of jail and starts calling him.

I have no proof it was Cate who called, but what if?…I can definitely see her calling me on a throwaway phone in the dead of night. That’d be Cate all the way.

Complicit reads like a psychological thriller where you’re just waiting for all the pieces to click into place. Told in Jamie’s anxious, confused voice, the reader is given a glimpse into his past when his relationship with Cate wasn’t quite so hostile. As kids, Cate was “precocious. Outgoing. Spunky.”  As a teenager, though, she seemed angry and wild, “her jeans too tight. Her shirt too low. her mood too black.”

Jamie is not really interested in a reunion, but Cate is persistent. The more she calls him, the more Jamie feels compelled to follow the bread crumb trail she leaves about their mother’s death and what really happened the night that the Ramirez barn was burned to the ground, the crime for which she spent time in juvenile detention.

Although he is desperate to “forget the empty ache where my mother should be, my sister’s madness, my own rotten feelings of guilt,” he can’t help but somehow feel complicit in Cate’s crimes. And Cate doesn’t seem to want to let Jamie forget anything.

Fortunately for the reader, Jamie’s story isn’t quite as straightforward as it seems. Kuehn paces her twists perfectly and although careful readers might think they’ve got it all sorted out by the time they’ve reached the novel’s shocking conclusion, I’m guessing not so much.

Another winner by Kuehn.

The Swimming Pool – Holly LeCraw

swimmingHolly LeCraw’s novel The Swimming Pool was well-reviewed when it was published in 2010 and so my lackluster feelings about the book make me feel like I must have missed something. I kept thinking it was ultimately bound for my Book Graveyard but I kept at, mostly because LeCraw’s writing was quite lovely even though the characters were mostly irritating.

Marcella Atkinson and her husband, Anthony, and daughter, Toni, spend a summer at Cape Cod. There, they meet the McClatcheys, Cecil and Betsy and their children, Jed and Callie. Marcella is an exotic Italian goddess, somehow separate from all the other women on the Cape and Cecil is drawn to her.

Flash forward a handful of years: Cecil and Betsy are dead and adult Jed finds an old bathing suit in the family home. He knows it belongs to Marcella, so he tracks her down. He’s at loose ends – he’s taken a leave of absence from his job as a lawyer to spend time with his sister, Callie, who has just given birth to her second child and is clearly super-depressed. Everyone in this book is depressed – maybe that’s why it seemed like such a slog. Geesh, people, you’re on the Cape, you clearly have pots of money for which you don’t have to work, some of you are having sex…on the floor…lighten up already!

Marcella welcomes Jed into her world like she’s been waiting for him all her life. After their first night together (nothing happened, btw) he watches her in the kitchen.

She was barefoot. Her feet on the wooden floor were narrow, with a high, delicate arch. Her legs were slender – he’d noticed that already, but in this morning light they were not like a young girl’s legs – the skin was different, looser, not taut and smooth. He didn’t care.

It’s hard to say whether Marcella’s feelings for Jed blossom out of all those babies she lost or the fact that he’s the son of the man she had an affair with, but before you can say strudel, those two are at it like rabbits.

All the people in The Swimming Pool have angst to spare and perhaps that’s one of the main reasons I found the book so slow. Where’s the narrative center? Is this a story about Callie and her post-partum depression? Is it the story of Marcella’s estranged relationship with her daughter? Is it a love story? Is this a story about the power of secrets to destroy families? There’s all this and more crammed into the book, but at the end of the day, the pretty writing doesn’t make up for the listless plot.

Made of Stars – Kelley York

madeofstarsHalf-siblings Hunter and Ashlin have been friends with Chance since they were kids and first started to spend summers in Maine with their father. Chance is the glue that bonds the three together, despite the fact that Hunter and his sister don’t really know all that much about him.

I knew all the things about Chance that mattered most. Chance was strangeness and whimsy in human form.

Chance was our summer.

We didn’t see him or talk to him through the winter, but when we arrived for summer vacation, the three of us came together like we’d never been apart.

This year things are different, though. Hunter and Ashlin have decided to take a gap year and spend it with their father, who is still recovering from a workplace accident (he’s a cop and was shot; Hunter and his sister were kept with their mothers and away from their dad for a couple years).

So, now they’re back in Maine with their dad and each other…and with no way to contact Chance. When they finally do track him down,  they discover that Chance hasn’t been 100% honest with them.  For one thing, his house “is nothing like what Chance described.”  His parents are clearly not glamorous jetsetters, either. Instead, his mother looks “like she cuts [her own hair], and her face is gaunt and tired. She’s wearing a gray men’s bathrobe over a nightgown and pink slippers that have seen better days.” Chance’s father is “broad-shouldered and stone-faced, with a jaw that hasn’t seen a razor in a few days.”

But Chance is the same. And not the same.

Kelley York’s YA novel Made of Stars captures that time between innocence and experience. These three teens have a shared history made more complicated by an unexpected love triangle. But Made of Stars isn’t a straight-up love story.  When someone turns up dead, Chance is implicated and Hunter and Ashlin set out to prove his innocence. Turns out, even that is more complicated and dangerous than the siblings could have imagined.

Enjoyable read.

Off the Shelf – My Book Graveyard

Listen here.

Books are like a relationship, sometimes you have to break up with them

I’ve been a little bit of a reading slump of late. I blame Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, which at almost 800 pages gave me a total book hangover. After finishing that, I definitely needed some lighter fare to cleanse my palate. So, I headed to my ridiculous TBR shelf and chose The Swimming Pool by Holly LeCraw. I thought that might have been just the ticket to jumpstart my reading again, but it’s been super-slow going. It’s the story of two families whose lives intersect because of not one but two affairs and I have almost given up on it a couple of times. The writing is good though, so I keep trudging along.

I used to be the reader who finished everything she started. I couldn’t stand the thought of abandoning a book that I’d started, but the older I get and with more demands on my time (aka Netflix bingeing) I find that I am not as willing to go the distance with a book that doesn’t float my boat.

So, what causes me to close the book forever?

  1. Style over substance. Okay,  I am attracted to the pretty. But I am also more – how should I say this – seasoned. I am less enthralled by a beautifully written book with nothing to say. It doesn’t take long for  the pretty to wear off.  I’ll compare it to being at the bar. Across the room you see this gorgeous guy. You make eye contact. Then you realize he isn’t actually looking at you; he’s looking at his reflection in the mirror behind you. A book that works so hard to be literary, to impress, but is really just naval gazing loses my interest pretty fast.
  2. Unbelievable characters. I don’t have to like the characters, but I do have to believe in them. Even if the author has chosen to put them in crazy situations, I want to share their journey.  I can’t travel with characters who fail to earn my respect or admiration or sympathy. So, I’m back at the bar. Handsome guy across the room. Eye contact made. You move towards each other. He buys you a drink. Then he starts talking and after about five minutes you realize he’s as dumb/self-involved/humourless/dull… as a pet fence.  You stop listening to him because you stop caring about him. Characters like that.
  3. S-L-O-W/tooquick  plot. Not every novel is driven by plot. Some stories don’t depend on what happens as much as to whom it happens. I don’t have a preference. Pacing is everything. Back at the bar, you’ve consumed your drink(s); there’s potential. And then he sticks his tongue down your throat. Whoa, buddy, didn’t see that coming! Timing is everything. If you are building suspense, build it. If your characters are going to do the horizontal mambo, let them take their time; but if nothing happens for page after page after freakin’ page while the author describes cutlery and grass clippings, sorry, it’s over. Or, if without any character development or too much exposition the book lands me in an unreasonable place, we’re through.
  4. Bad writing. Come on. Who is going to slog through a poorly written book? Not me. Not anymore. It’s amazing to me that these things get published! I mean, Twilight, okay. New Moon. Seriously!? And two more after that? Yikes. Books like that come with buzz – like your handsome friend at the bar. Until he opens his mouth and, dude, you need some breath mints or something.

So, I have a little Book Graveyard at The Ludic Reader and that’s where I send the books that just don’t make the cut. Some of those books include:
Erin Vincent’s memoir Grief Girl, which was well-reviewed but I just couldn’t finish it. It’s the story of an Australian teen whose parents are involved in a horrific traffic accident…but it was just so plodding and

City of Bones by Cassandra Clare  is a super popular teen franchise which has been adapted for television. Loads of my students have read and loved these books but I just found them derivative and poorly written. I gave up pretty early.

The Dark Heroine: Dinner with a Vampire by Abigail Gibbs

I actually read 300 pages of this book before I relegated it to the book graveyard. I would consider myself a huge fan of vampire fiction, but this book – which was written by a seventeen year old and started its life in serial form on Wattpad. Seems to be the way lots of writers are discovered by traditional publishers, but man – this book needed some serious editing help.

I would love to hear from you: what book have you given up on and why?

The Ruining – Anna Collomore

ruiningEighteen-year-old Annie Phillips, the first person narrator of Anna Collomore’s YA novel The Ruining,  is desperate to escape her trailer trash world outside of Detroit, Michigan and begin a new life. When she’s offered the opportunity to become a nanny on Belvedere Island, located about six kilometers north of San Francisco, she jumps at a chance. The gig sounds perfect: she’ll care for three-year-old Zoe and baby Jackson and take classes at San Francisco State University.

Libby and Walker Cohen are not like anyone Annie has ever met and it doesn’t take very long before Annie feels “a sudden, desperate urge to please Libby, to do everything right, to be the most exemplary nanny the Cohen family had ever had.”

In the beginning, life seems too good to be true. The Cohen’s house is “more like an estate or a castle” and  Libby seems more like a girlfriend than an employer, offering Annie wine, shared confidences and a chance to raid her closet. It’s heady stuff for Annie, who comes from nothing and is dragging the baggage of a personal tragedy from her past.

The reality of my life in Detroit, a reality I’d spent almost every day wishing to escape, was gone. Disappeared, like I’d never been a part of it at all. And in order to leave it in the past, I couldn’t let myself worry about leaving my mother behind.

It won’t take the reader long to see the cracks, though, even if Annie is a little bit slow on the uptake. I cut her some slack because she’s young and damaged and trying so hard to make something of her life. However, Annie seems determined to ignore the signs that something is not quite right in the Cohen house. Libby is like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: solicitous and kind one day, passive aggressive the next.  Walker is gregarious and friendly, but  mostly absent. There are no grandparents, no extended family – Annie is isolated until she meets Owen, the literal boy next door.

The Ruining races along at a good pace, traversing the line between suspenseful and ridiculous with aplomb. Collomore manages to make it just possible for the reader to believe that Annie might be more damaged from her past than even she realizes; however, there can be no mistaking who the villain of the piece is.

The Ruining was fun to read, well-written and definitely recommendable; I know my students will gobble it up. Can’t say I was a huge fan of the ending, though. For me it was contrived and way too tidy given the complicated nature of Annie’s circumstances.

The Girl on the Train – Paula Hawkins

girlontrainSo, you know how everyone and their dog was reading and talking about Gone Girl when it was released? The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins’ debut novel, is this summer’s version of that book. I talked about books with buzz  last week on Information Morning and this book most definitely had buzz. Is it worthy, though? That’s the question.

Rachel takes the same trains from Ashbury, a tiny suburb outside of London, every day –  into the city on the 8:04 and home from the city on the 17:56. From her seat, she can see into the gardens of the homes she passes and one garden in particular captures her interest. That’s the house where Jason and Jess live.

They are a perfect, golden couple. He is dark haired and well built, strong, protective, kind. He has a great laugh. She is one of those tiny bird-women, a beauty,  pale- skinned with blonde hair cropped short. She has the bone structure to carry that kind of thing off, sharp cheekbones dappled with a sprinkling of freckles, a fine jaw.

Every day when Rachel’s train shudders to a stop at the red signal, Rachel imagines the life Jason and Jess must share (imagining is all she can do because she doesn’t really know them, not even their real names).  But  there is another reason that Rachel is fixated on this house and that’s because for five years she lived just down the road with her husband, Tom. Tom still lives in their old house, only now with his new wife, Anna, and their infant daughter, Evie.

It won’t take the reader very long to figure out that Rachel is an unreliable narrator and the reason for that will be obvious: Rachel is a drunk. She drinks in the morning, in the evening, mostly alone. She throws up, passes out and often doesn’t remember what has happened to her. She calls her ex-husband at all hours. She admits

I am not the girl I used to be. I am no longer desirable, I’m off-putting in some way. It’s not just that I’ve put on weight, or that my face is puffy from the drinking and the lack of sleep; it’s as if people can see the damage written all over me…

Then one day Jess (whose real name is Megan) goes missing and Rachel is sure that she has seen something that will help the police to find her. The problem is, of course, that once she pulls on the thread of what she thinks she saw, a whole lot of things start to unravel.

As messed up as Rachel is, it’s difficult not to empathize with her; her life has gone to hell in a hand basket in a variety of ways and she isn’t quite sure how to right herself.  Hers is not the only viewpoint Hawkins allows the reader, though. We also spend time with Megan and Anna and each woman has their own suspect relationship with the truth.

The Girl on the Train is an entertaining read. I can certainly see what all the fuss is about and given that it only took me a few hours to read, I certainly can’t say that I didn’t like it. But I didn’t love it.

Orphan Train – Christina Baker Kline

orphan2I was unaware of the history which inspired Christina Kline Baker’s novel Orphan Train. According to the notes found at the back of the book “between 1854 and 1929, so-called orphan trains transported more than two hundred thousand orphaned, abandoned, and homeless children – many of whom, like the character in this book, were first-generation Irish Catholic immigrants – from the coastal cities of the eastern United States to the Midwest for “adoption,” which often turned out to be indentured servitude.”

In a nutshell, Orphan Train is the story of one such girl.

But it is also the story of another girl, someone who is also without a home and has spent much of her childhood bouncing between foster homes. The lives of these two people (one just seventeen, the other ninety-one) intersect, but that is actually the least interesting part of this novel.

Niamh Power is a little girl when her parents decide to leave their impoverished lives in Western Ireland and make the arduous journey across the Atlantic to America.

People all around us were fleeing to America: we heard tales of oranges the size of baking potatoes; fields of grain waving under sunny skies; clean, dry timber houses with indoor plumbing and electricity. Jobs as plentiful as the fruit on the trees.

Of course, the reality is something quite different and Niamh finds herself living in a four-room apartment with her parents and three younger siblings. The landlord tells them “I have no trouble with the Irish, as long as you stay out of trouble.”  Still, Niahm is hopeful for a new start because her father “had the promise of a new job. We could pull a chain for light; the twist of a knob brought running water…”

Sadly, Niamh’s hopes for the future soon turn to despair and she finds herself alone and on one of the orphan trains bound for childrenontrainthe west. She is only nine when she is taken on a journey to find her a new family.

They call this an orphan train, children, and you are lucky to be on it. You are leaving behind an evil place, full of ignorance, poverty, and vice, for the nobility of country life.

Not so much, really.

Molly is the other character in this book. She works hard at being different in an attempt to push people away, mostly in an effort to protect herself. She had “liked the distance her persona created, the wariness and distrust she saw in the eyes of her peers.” Just lately, though, Molly has found that maintaining her ‘look’ was making her “impatient.”

When she tries to steal a copy of Jane Eyre from the local library, she is assigned community service and it is that sentence which brings her into Niamh’s world. From a prickly beginning, a real bond is formed between the two disparate women – which is both lovely and problematic for the novel.

I read Orphan Train in an afternoon; the pages literally turned themselves. I loved reading Niamh’s story. I knew nothing about these orphan trains and Niamh’s tale was fascinating and heartbreaking. Molly was also likeable. Despite her attempts at pushing people away, she is clearly smart and resilient. C’mon, her favourite book is Jane Eyre! It would be impossible for an avid reader not to like her.

For about two-thirds of the book I was all-in. Then, things started to speed up a little too much. Characters made decisions  that I just didn’t buy and things happened that made me go “oh no you didn’t!” and even though I kept turning the pages I can’t say that I enjoyed the book quite as much at the end as I did at the beginning.

Nevertheless, Orphan Train is an entertaining and well-written novel about a relatively unknown part of American history and many readers would certainly enjoy it.