Tag Archive | 2017

The Truth Commission – Susan Juby

Normandy Pale, the narrator of Susan Juby’s award-winning YA novel, The Truth Commission,  lives with her parents and older sister, Keira, on Vancouver Island. Keiratruth is a celebrated graphic novelist, whose series Diana: Queen of Two Worlds, tells the story of “a suburban girl who lives with her “painfully average”  family which includes her  high-strung easily overwhelmed mother, her ineffectual father, and her dull-witted, staring lump of a sister.”

Keira published three volumes of Diana, a smash hit with a huge cult-following, and then went off to college in the States.

That’s the same time Normandy (Norm for short) started attending Green Pastures Academy of Arts and Applied Design where everyone knew who she was because of her sister. It was notoriety Norm didn’t particularly covet because “you cannot imagine how embarrassing it is to be in these books, especially when all the Earth plotlines are taken from minor and usually un-excellent incidents in our real life.”

The Truth Commission‘s conceit is that Norm is writing her Spring Special Project, a story which covers three months from the previous fall (Sept-November).

Here’s how the project is supposed to work: Each week I will write and submit chapters of my story to my excellent creative writing teacher. She will give me feedback on those chapters the following week. I will write as if I do not know what will happen next – as if I’m a reporter, which is a device used in classic works of non-fiction.

Norm’s story is about The Truth Commission, a committee consisting of Norm and her best friends Neil and Dusk (aka Dawn) who “went on a search for the truth and…found it.” Norm discovers that the truth is a complicated thing and that is especially true in her own family.

Keira has returned from college under a rather dark cloud. “She wouldn’t tell us what happened,” Norm tells us, “and when my parents asked if everything was okay, Keira got mad and said she’d leave if they asked again.”  Now she spends most of her time in her room or in the closet she and Norm share and “when she did leave, she stayed out for days and we had no idea where she went.”

Since Norm and Keira have never been particularly close, Norm is almost flattered when Keira starts sneaking into her room at night admitting “I think it’s time for me to tell someone what happened.”

I loved every minute I spent with Norm and her friends, who are equally smart and funny. There is a sort of mystery at the core of the novel: what happened to Keira? Although that is certainly one reason to turn the pages I think Normandy pretty much had me at ‘hello.’

Highly recommended and BONUS! Canadian.

 

 

 

Not a Sound – Heather Gudenkauf

Amelia Winn is a hard-working trauma nurse when Heather  Gudenkauf’s novel Not a Sound begins. Then she’s hit by a car. Fast forward ten years and Amelia is unemployed, a recovering alcoholic, separated and deaf. She and her “hearing” dog, Stitch, live in a remote house by  Five Mines River where Amelia spends her days paddling  and trying to right the wreckage of her life. On this particular day, she is feeling somewhat optimistic. She has a lead on a job which her ex isn’t trying to sabotage and for once things seem to be looking up – that is, until she discovers the body of a nurse she once worked, a woman named Gwen, with lying on the edge of the river.

notasoundNot a Sound is a straight-up mystery and while it was easy enough to turn the pages – I didn’t particularly enjoy reading the story because…well, mostly for a whole lot of niggly reasons.

We’re expected to believe that Amelia is going to go all undercover cop because a friend from her previous life is found dead. Even though her brother’s best friend, Jake,  is the cop in charge, she takes matters into her own hands – staking out buildings and breaking into people’s garages and asking questions she shouldn’t ask.

Jake is pretty free with giving out what I would consider privileged information about the crime. He tells Amelia how the victim was murder and then posits “my bet is on the husband. It’s always the husband.” That’s police work at its finest, folks.

Some of the minor characters, her new neighbor Evan for example, just seem like conveniently placed chess pieces.

Amelia doesn’t have any real reason to be so torn up about Gwen and yet she persists in trying to figure out who would have wanted her dead. Readers will follow along, but likely won’t be too surprised with how it all turns out.

 

20th Century Ghosts – Joe Hill

Yikes! It’s been a month since I’ve written about the books I’ve been reading. I blame school and other work and life in general. To be honest, I’ve had a lackluster reading life of late and I’m not even sure I understand the reason why. I am still reading, but I can’t remember the last time I was head-over-heels in love with a book. Yes – I am experiencing the proverbial book slump. I guess I need to find that one book that kick starts my reading libido.

But, I do need to tell you about a handful of the books I’ve plowed through over the last 20th centuryfew weeks and I’ll start with Joe Hill’s collection of short stories, 20th Century Ghosts. I bought this book eons ago and it languished on my tbr shelf forever. During the summer I thought that maybe reading some short stories would cure me of my reading lethargy.  I was a big fan of Hill’s novel Heart-Shaped Box and his short stories didn’t disappoint, either, although not all of them would fall into the horror vein.

The first story in the collection, “Best New Horror” tells the story of  Eddie Carroll, jaded editor of the anthology America’s Best New Horror. He’s sixteen editions in and “he didn’t finish most of the stories he started anymore, couldn’t bear to. He felt weak at the thought of reading another story about vampires having sex with other vampires.”

Then, out of the blue, he receives an unsolicited story by way of an English professor named Harold Noonan. Noonan insists that the story “Buttonboy: A Love Story” is “a remarkable, if genuinely distressing, work of fiction.” Noonan himself had published it in the literary journal True North and the reaction had been immediate. And not in a good way. Carroll reads the story and admits that it is “cruel and perverse and he had to have it.”

When he decides to track down the story’s author, things take a turn for the truly horrifying.

Another story, “You Will Hear the Locust Sing” begins with the sentence “Francis Kay woke from dreams that were not uneasy, but exultant, and found  himself an insect.”

“Better Than Home” is a melancholy story of fatherhood and baseball.

All the stories in the collection are slightly reminiscent of Stephen King, which is unsurprising since Hill is his son. It makes one wonder if the ability to write is a genetic trait that can be passed from parent to child, but the thing is, it’s clear that Hill has crafted his stories with care, and all the stories in this collection are wildly imaginative and often as tender as they are creepy. I didn’t like them all, but all of them are admirable.

 

Ask the Dark – Henry Turner

askthedarkSometimes you happen upon a book with a narrator who just feels 100% authentic. That was the case with Henry Turner’s debut YA mystery  Ask the Dark, a finalist for the Edgar Award for Best Young Adult Mystery.

Fourteen-year-old Billy Zeets lives a hard scrabble life with his widowed father and older sister, Leezie. Ever since Billy’s father hurt his back and has been unable to work, things have gone south. Now the family is on the brink of losing their house and despite Billy’s reputation for cuffing school and petty theft, he’s determined to help his father get back on his feet.

The novel starts at the end where Billy informs us that he’s feeling better. People keep asking him about what happened and Billy has decided that he’s just going to tell the story once and “get it the hell over with.”  He’s not used to being the center of attention. In fact, Billy is about as much of an outlier as you can get. His classmate Sam Tate tells him

…you’d never have done it, never even found out about it, if you hadn’t done all the things people hated you for. It turns out those were the right things to do, Billy. Isn’t that funny? All that stealing and never going to school. It’s what made it so you were outside a lot, seeing things nobody else saw. Hidden and secret things.

Billy tells us that “The first boy got took last September” and that he knew him. “He was fourteen then, same as me.”  They weren’t friends or anything, only he “prob’ly didn’t like me ’cause’f how I’m in trouble all the time, and his parents prob’ly told’m I ain’t the right sort of boy for him to get to know.”

When Billy stumbles upon the naked body of another missing boy, he understands that something evil is happening in his neighbourhood. He becomes more watchful and utilizing skills he’s learned from years of ducking in and out of dark alleys, back yards and woods – he starts to pay attention. He’s convinced that he can figure out who the killer is just by doing what he’s always done.

Ask the Dark has some truly creepy moments and  although Billy insists he “ain’t no hero” but you’d be hard pressed to find a braver or more sympathetic kid.

Highly recommended.

This One Summer – Mariko Tamaki & Jillian Tamaki

thisonesummerThis One Summer by cousins Mariko and Jillian Tamaki is a Governor General’s Literary Award winner in addition to being on several Best Of…lists. I can’t claim any real expertise when it comes to graphic novels, so I don’t really know what the criteria might be for determining what makes a graphic novel superior to others. Like everyone of my generation, I used to be a big fan of Archie and horror comics, but it’s only since I returned to the classroom that I have made it a point to read graphic novels – mostly because I do have students who enjoy them and I want to be sure that I include them in my classroom library.

Rose and her family have been going to Awago Beach every summer since she can remember. Rose says, “My dad says Awago is a place where beer grows on trees and  everyone can sleep in until eleven.” It’s magical. It’s also where  Windy, Rose’s “summer cottage friend since I was five” lives.

This summer is captured in monochrome as Rose and Windy revisit old haunts and settle back into their summer routine. thisonesummer_gifIt’s clear, though, that the one and a half year difference between the girls is impactful this year. Rose, the elder, is contemplative and watchful and often reacts to Windy’s suggestions with a shrug and a “maybe.”  At Brewster’s “the only store in all of Awago” the girls buy penny candy, rent horror movies and watch (Windy with girlish disgust and Rose with curious fascination) the overtly sexual relationship between older teens Dunc and Jenny.

This one summer is different in another way. Rose is hyper aware that her parents don’t seem to be getting along all that well and Rose senses the rift is sucking them all in even when her father assures her that “It’s all  just adult junk that doesn’t mean anything.” It’s hard to navigate that tricky path from childhood to adulthood without touchstones and Rose is aware, perhaps without quite understanding it, that she is on shaky ground.

This One Summer is a coming of age novel steeped in nostalgia. It will remind adult readers of their “one” summer, that time that now seems captured in a permanently dreamy  gauze and it will ring true to young adults for whom that one summer may be this summer.

 

The Hate U Give – Angie Thomas

I cannot remember the last time I fell so hard for fictional characters. I just wanted to hatescoop Starr Carter and her family up and hug them forever. Starr’s the sixteen-year-old narrator of Angie Thomas’s debut novel The Hate U Give, and her story might have been ripped from recent headlines. It feels especially timely now, given what is happening in the U.S.A and around the world. I would like to think Canada is immune to racism, but I know it’s not true.

Starr lives with her parents, Lisa, a nurse, and Maverick, an ex-con who now owns and runs the neighbourhood grocery store in Garden Heights, an inner-city neighbourhood prone to violence and crime. Starr straddles two worlds; she lives in Garden Heights, but she and her older brother, Seven, and younger brother Sekani attend a “bougie private school” across town. Starr realizes at a young age that “Williamson is one world and Garden Heights is another, and I have to keep them separate.”

Driving home from a spring break party, Starr and her childhood best friend, Khalil, are pulled over by the police and Khalil is shot and killed by the cop. (Not a spoiler – honest!) It is a horrifying moment in the book, and for Starr the beginning of personal journey which changes her life and the lives of those around her.

Let’s just establish some context for me as a reader. I live on the East Coast of Canada, in a small blue collar town of about 75,000 people. I can count on one hand the number of black kids who attended my high school back in the 70’s. I knew them; I was friendly with them; I don’t recall them being treated any differently, but how would I know? Fast forward almost 40 years and now I teach high school – same city, different school. There is certainly more racial diversity at my school of about 900 kids, but it is still predominantly white. My city has had an influx of Syrian refugees in the last couple years, but still, mostly white. I would like to think that I am not racist, but honestly, sometimes I say things that are probably not PC and my kids – who are 20 and 18 –  say “Mom, you can’t say that.”  I have never been the minority, but as a woman I have encountered – I am sure – instances of discrimination or harassment that I have likely joked about or glossed over.

Starr agrees to testify in front of the grand jury to determine whether or not the officer who shot her friend should be indicted for the crime, but she has already come to understand how the world works. She sees it first hand every day – on her own streets where gangs and drug lords run the show and the potential for violence is simmering on the surface. She’s seen it her private school  where

Williamson Starr doesn’t use slang – if a rapper would say it, she doesn’t say it, even if her white friends do. Slang makes them cool. Slang makes her “hood.” Williamson Starr holds her tongue when people piss her off so nobody will think she’s the “angry black girl.”  Williamson Starr is approachable. No stank-eyes, side-eyes, none of that. Williamson Starr is nonconfrontational. Basically, Williamson Starr doesn’t give anyone a reason to call her ghetto.

I can’t stand myself for doing it, but I do it anyway.

Starr tries to keep her two lives separate and she doesn’t tell her school friends that she’s the witness in the shooting death of her friend. There’s a lot of pressure on her from all sides – to maintain the status quo and to stand up for what’s right. Finally, Starr decides to choose differently in all aspects of her life, telling her Chinese friend, Maya, “We let people say stuff, and they say it so much that it becomes okay to them and normal for us. What’s the point of having a voice if you’re gonna be silent in those moments you shouldn’t be?”

How can that not resonate with people? How long will we let the  Donald Trumps of the world trash talk  – well – just about everyone? Because if The Hate U Give taught me one thing (and trust me, it taught me way more than one thing) it’s that we need to stand up and call people out when they are speaking derogatorily about others.

The Hate U Give ripped back the curtain and exposed a world I knew nothing about and as a reader and an educator, that’s a good thing. I often say that books are a great way for young readers to see themselves reflected back at them, but I think it’s equally important for them to see into the lives that are not like theirs. How else will they ever understand someone else’s point of view if they are never exposed to it? There is beauty to be found in our differences, people.

I loved every second spent with Starr and her amazing family. The Hate U Give is hopeful, heart-breaking,  beautiful and important and highly recommended. Read it and then get everyone you know to read it, too.

 

A Beautiful, Terrible Thing – Jen Waite

a-beautiful-terrible-thingEven though my marriage ended seven plus years ago – well, it actually ended way before that, although not formally – I am still drawn to books about broken marriages and I just finished Jen Waite’s memoir  A Beautiful, Terrible Thing. It was an impulse buy and I read it in three sittings.

Waite is a struggling New York actress when she starts training as a waitress at a trendy new restaurant and meets Marco, the head bartender, who is “tall and Latin with black, slicked-back hair and mocha skin [and] a quick, easy smile.” Despite the fact that she has a boyfriend back home in Maine, she is smitten and before you can say Argentina (which is where Marco is from), she is head-over-heels in love. It’s easy to see why, too. Marco is self-deprecating, sensitive and Waite believes that he really sees her for who she is. Throw in the chemistry and it’s an intoxicating and irresistible combination.

But, of course, it’s all fake. Five years into the relationship, shortly after Waite gives birth to their daughter, Louisa, she discovers a suspicious e-mail. It’s like a house of cards: the email is one card and when Waite removes it, the whole structure of her life starts to crumble.

Marriages break down, everyone knows this. It’s a devastating thing that happens to many couples. But there is an extra layer of horror in the dissolution of Waite’s marriage to Marco because he goes from being suave and loving to a blank stranger almost overnight. When Marco tells her that “For around a year now, I haven’t been happy. I lost all my feelings….Like right now, I’m looking at you, and I feel nothing. I feel numb,”  Waite’s reaction is one of disbelief. She thinks “There is something very, very wrong  with my husband. He is sitting across from me, it is his body, but he is not my husband.”

Waite tries to explain away Marco’s admission: they’ve just had a baby, he’s over-worked, tired.  But no amount of rationalizing explains Marco’s increasingly disconcerting behavior. Although Marco adamantly denies having an affair, and even though her parents are inclined to believe that he’s telling the truth, Waite finds it almost impossible to stop obsessing over Marco’s email and social media accounts. When she finally leaves him, he begins a campaign of emotional abuse towards her, employing every trick up his sociopathic sleeve.

Because – as it turns out – that’s exactly what Marco is.

Waite hits Google and starts researching.

I did the same thing. I wasn’t exactly blind-sided when my husband of 17 years told me in a parked car, in the pouring rain, that he didn’t love me. Things had been rocky for a while, although I’d kept telling myself that we’d weather the storm, that it was just a rough period, that despite the problems we were having he still loved me.  But from that moment on, the guy I’d known for 25 plus years, the father of my two children, became a complete stranger. I knew exactly what Waite was talking about.

Her research is a desperate attempt to explain behavior that makes no sense to her. Reading about pathological lying leads her to an article about sociopaths and suddenly the alarm bells start to go off in her head.

My eyes quickly scan to find the criteria, or red flags, of a sociopath. As I read each trait, my hear beats faster, and the hair on my arms rises. Charming. Check. Impulsive. Check. No remorse, guilt, or shame. Check. Invents lies. Speaks poetically. Incapable of apologizing. Check. Check. Check.

I remember my brother calling me and saying, “I am going to read you these qualities of a sociopath and you tell me which of these apply to M.” It was both horrifying and hilarious to discover that I could ‘checkcheckcheck’ my way through the list. Before I even knew what a narcissist was, I’d been describing M. as a vampire. He had taken everything he could from me and then discarded me; overnight the person I had built a life with became a complete stranger.  As all sociopaths are narcissists it’s no wonder – upon reflection – that so much of what I was reading at the time was ticking all the boxes. All of them.

One piece of information that Waite discovers was particularly interesting: narcissistic supply.

If a target is providing a constant stream of supply, they may be overvalued and idealized by the sociopath for many years. However, when their supply eventually decreases, they will quickly be devalued and discarded.

Things started to go south – really south – when my mother was diagnosed with lung cancer. Her illness was brief – diagnosed in July, gone in November – but during that time, M. was carrying on an affair (probably one of many.) I remember when I found out, instead of an apology he said “You weren’t paying any attention to me.” And I remember thinking “My mother was fucking dying!” Then three short years later, I lost my dad and then M. was gone.

I did everything humanly possible to facilitate an amicable relationship for the sake of our kids (who were 13 and 11 at the time). I took a class in co-parenting. I tried to encourage a regular schedule for him to see his children, but the horrible truth of the matter is – he really wasn’t all that interested. Once he cut me out of his life, he began the process of detaching himself from his kids.  He always had an excuse as to why he couldn’t see them and when he did see them, the visits often ended abruptly with the kids calling me and telling me to come get them. Neither of them have had any contact with him in several years.

I struggled for a long time – a torturous time for which I give my dearest friends and immediate family lots of credit for not throttling me – to come to terms with what had happened to my marriage and to the person I thought I knew. Eventually, I began to suspect that I had been conned, but even still it hurt. And it hurt my kids. We live in a small city and it was almost impossible to avoid hearing about or seeing M. live his new life. A life which was bizarrely hipster and one we would have laughed at ten years prior. But of course, he was simply creating a new reality for himself, something he found exceedingly easy to do because like Marco he “lack[ed] empathy and  an inner moral compass.”

A Beautiful, Terrible Thing must have been a difficult story for Waite to tell.  I  always say now that M. leaving was the best thing that could have ever happened to me and my kids. He did us a favour. Truly. I have no doubt Waite will be feeling that way at some point, if she isn’t already.