The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy – Kate Hattemer

vigilanteEthan Andrezejczak attends Selwyn Academy, a fine arts high school in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He’s the narrator of Kate Hattemer’s debut YA novel The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy. His life revolves around hanging with his friends Jackson, Elizabeth and the too-cool-for-their-friend-group, Luke, and teaching Jackson’s gerbil, Baconnaise circus tricks. Ethan pines for ballerina Maura and loathes Miki Frigging Reagler from afar. Maura and Miki are two of the stars of the reality show For Art’s Sake (FAS), which is filmed at Selwyn.

They’d chosen a school (our school) and they’d chosen contestants (not me). Every episode, they had some artistic challenge and someone got kicked off. The last person standing would be crowned America’s Best Teen Artist.

Ethan and his friends are convinced that For Art’s Sake is wrecking Selwyn. Luke is especially bent out of shape because the school’s literary arts magazine refuses to publish his commentary about the TV show. “It’s a review, but mostly it’s editorial,” he tells Ethan. “I tried to suppress my snideness. I may not have been totally successful.”

The fact that someone as cool as Luke is anti-FAS is a touchstone for Ethan. When he enters Ethan’s orbit in grade seven, Ethan describes him as

the most popular prepubescent on the planet. He was impossible to dislike. That’s not hyperbole: I tried. I have a strict policy of holding automatic grudges against people everyone likes. But Luke had a mouthful of braces and said “awesome” all the time, and he was totally genuine.

It’s Luke’s idea to roast FAS in a poem. He announces “We need to reclaim our society and values and culture.”

Conquistadors, they thundered in,
And dizzy, we succumbed to spin.
They’ve colonized our native land.
What once was vivid now is bland.
We sing and dance at their command.
 – The Contracantos

 

 

Luke’s ultimately betrayal is especially hard on Ethan, but it gives him the chance to take some chances and find his own voice.

The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy plumbs the depths of poetry, friendship, loyalty, art, betrayal and growing up. These characters (and I am certainly including Baconnaise) are witty, intelligent and human. They are trying to figure it all out. They don’t always get it right, but Elizabeth asks Ethan if he thinks he’s “the only one who’s amazed and scared and freaked out by how complicated everyone is.”

This is a smart book. I highly recommend it.

The Hesitation Cut – Giles Blunt

The Hesitation Cut is my first experience with Canadian writer Giles Blunt, who is 34AC2891-84BC-4F62-A5DA-5AAC7D6F7FEFperhaps most famous for his crime novels which feature Detective John Cardinal. (I have watched a couple of those novels brought to the small screen and have found them super intense; I can only imagine what the reading experience would be like.)

In this standalone, 30-year-old Brother William is living the cloistered life of a monk in Rochester, upstate New York. He’s been at Our Lady Of Peace for ten years, living a life punctuated by ritual. One of William’s jobs is to work in the monastery’s library and it is there he meets Lauren, a writer who has come to do research on Peter Abelard, the famous philosopher  from 12th century France, who had an ill-fated relationship with his student, Heloise.

Brother William is almost immediately smitten with Lauren. When he arrives at the library “it was like coming upon a small animal in the forest.” There is something about Lauren that draws William, like the moon pulls the water (if I can make such a clumsy comparison). He is helpless against its pull and when he notices “a scar across her wrist”, he’s done for. Lauren becomes William’s next calling. He decides she’s in trouble and he can save her.

So, he gives up his life, takes back his name (Peter, surely no coincidence) and heads to New York City. A lot of pieces click into place (his estranged brother has saved his share of the family estate, so suddenly a former monk without worldly possessions has disposable cash), he gets a job, and relatively easily in a city the size of NY, tracks Lauren down.  Although I am not sure I bought it, there’s an empty basement studio in the very same building where Lauren lives, and so Peter moves in and befriends her.

The thing about these two characters is that neither of them are even remotely likeable. While Peter pretends to be altruistic, Lauren makes no effort to hide the fact that she is damaged goods; in fact, in some ways, she seems to enjoy the wallowing.  To be fair, she tries to warn Peter:

”Peter, I have my work and nothing else. Nothing. I’m not what you think, or need, or want. I’m just a selfish bitch, you see.”

Peter almost takes this as a personal challenge. Lauren WILL love him.

Then, along comes Mick, Lauren’s former lover. He’s the proverbial bad boy, but he’s actually one of the most likeable characters in the whole book. His arrival on the scene throws Peter into a tailspin.

The Hesitation Cut was easy to read. I couldn’t put it down. Did I buy all the pieces chinking together? No. Did it matter? Probably not. Blunt has constructed a well-made play, peopled with mostly despicable characters. Whether you care about their fates won’t actually impact your enjoyment of their sad journeys.

The Little Paris Bookshop – Nina George

F96E7CCB-2F2E-4033-A1CA-9F4483B1F637A friend once told me that I was the most romantic person they’d ever met. I don’t actually think that’s true. Or, if it used to be true, it’s not true anymore. I think I am cynical about romance now and it’s through that cynical lens I read Nina George’s much lauded novel The Little Paris Bookshop which made me cringe on so, so many levels.

Jean Perdu (and as I was pointing out some of the novel’s cringe-ier moments, my son said “Perdu means lost, mom”) is a “literary apothecary”. Basically, he can find the right book for what ails you. Geesh, I can do that out of my classroom library, but whatever. He lives in Paris and sells books out of a barge docked on the Seine.

One day, a new woman moves into his apartment building. She’s left her husband and has nothing, so the concierge of his building asks if he might have a table to loan her. He does; the problem is that this table is in a room that he blocked off with a wall of books twenty years ago. For reasons.

The delivery of the table sets off a whole chain of events. The woman, Catherine, finds a letter in the table and it is this letter (and Perdu’s sudden and unexpected feelings for Catherine) which set the novel’s main narrative in motion. Because suddenly Perdu knows what happened to Manon (simply called ———-, for the first part of the story because, clearly, it’s too painful for Perdu to even say her name), the LOVE of his life. She disappeared twenty years ago and for twenty years Perdu has been healing others with his books, but not healing himself. (INSERT EYEROLL)

When he gets his first erection of the last twenty years, Perdu has no choice but to RUN AWAY. He hops onto his barge, about to make a clean getaway when suddenly he is joined by Max Jordan, a wunderkind writer who is now suffering from crippling writer’s block. So, the two of them float down the Seine – Perdu in an effort to bury the past and Max just because.  Along the way, they pick up one more guy, Cuneo.

The Little Paris Bookshop is a road trip bromance sort of novel filled with pithy observations about the world and set-pieces designed to show these dudes as enlightened beings. The women in the novel are props. Everyone is thoughtful and forgiving and treacly.

I had high hopes for this book. Paris (which I visited for the first time in July 2018), books: what’s not to love? I thought.

Le sigh.

Tiger, Tiger – Margaux Fragoso

Margaux Fragoso’s memoir Tiger, Tiger will probably make most readers 44A45046-AC95-4857-AB12-A10A60BD3D53uncomfortable. It’s the story of her sexual relationship with Peter, a man she met when she was seven and he was – wait for it – fifty-one.  In the preface, Fragoso tells readers

I started writing this book the summer after the death of Peter Curran, whom I met when I was seven and had a relationship with for fifteen years, right up until he committed suicide at the age of sixty-six.

Fragoso’s relationship with Peter began at a neighbourhood pool, in Union City, New Jersey. She is the only child of Louie, an immigrant from Puerto Rico, and Cassandra, her mentally ill mother. Life at home is volatile, and Fragoso, despite her youth, longs for a sense of family. When she sees one at the local pool, she is immediately drawn to them.

Their father had bowl-cut sandy-silver hair with sixties bangs like a Beatle. He had full lips, a long, pointy nose that might have looked unattractive on someone else, but not on him, and a strong pert chin. When he looked in my direction, I saw that his eyes were vigorously aquamarine.

It isn’t just Peter that Fragoso is drawn to. There are a couple young boys with him and a woman named Ines. When Peter calls to invite Fragoso and her mother over the visit, it’s the beginning of a time that seems magical at first (Peter’s house is filled with birds and turtles and iguanas), but soon morphs into something else entirely.

It’s hard to read Tiger, Tiger without wanting to scream. Like – where are the adults in this scenario. Even though we understand that Fragoso’s mother is unwell, it is still difficult to comprehend how she so willingly hands over the care of her daughter to a virtual stranger. The other adults in Fragoso’s life seem equally inattentive. Cassandra calls Ines “a dreamer.” Louie is angry most of the time and even when he questions the closeness he sees between Peter and his daughter, he doesn’t really act on it.

Peter is a master manipulator. At first he introduces Fragoso to games like “Danger Tiger”, Mad Scientist and Mad Gardener, but it doesn’t take long before he’s rewarding her with a “quick kiss on the lips” for finding jigsaw puzzle pieces or telling her that she’d make “a perfect wife.” Of course, he’s grooming her, but she doesn’t know it.

One of the fascinating things about Fragoso’s story is that this ‘relationship’ carried on for so long. At some points, it almost seems as though Fragoso is manipulating Peter, until you remember that he has had a hand in creating the person she’s become.

In her prologue, Fragoso writes:

…spending time with pedophile can be like a drug high…and when it’s over, for people who’ve been through this, it’s like coming off heroin, and for years, they can’t stop chasing the ghost of how it felt

Tiger, Tiger is not an enjoyable read. It is, however, a brave book. I would like to think the experience of writing it was cathartic for Fragoso and that when she was done, she was able to turn a new, fresh page in her life. Somehow, though, I doubt that this is the case.

Diablerie – Walter Mosley

5BFAE846-1C5C-4C6F-88E7-2D73D1804D5C
Yeah, so Diablerie was a weird one for me. I haven’t read anything else by acclaimed writer Walter Mosley and I am not sure that I will be rushing out to purchase any more of his work, but all that said, he can definitely write. This book, though, is just odd.

Ben Dibbuk is a successful computer programmer with a beautiful wife and a college-age daughter. He’s 47 and, on the surface at least, has it all together. What he doesn’t get from his wife, Mona, he gets from Svetlana, his 21-year-old Russian grad student girlfriend.

Then at the launch of a new magazine, Diablerie, his wife will be working on, Ben meets a woman, Star, who claims to have known him back in the day. When Ben claims he can’t remember who she is, she replies “Come on, Ben. You can’t forget me, us, that day…not something like that.”

Whatever this something is, it drives Ben batshit crazy trying to remember.  Star tells him that they “spent almost twenty-four hours living on whiskey and sex.”  As Ben tries to recall this former life, his current life starts to unravel.

Readers will have to decide for themselves whether you care about any of it. I didn’t, but I kept reading anyway.

Jar of Hearts – Jennifer Hillier

So a few years back I read and hated Jennifer Hillier’s novel Creep  and so I am DDEC3EB9-C1E8-4BA6-A35F-B2150CAEAEBDactually a bit surprised that I even picked up Jar of Hearts. I guess I didn’t put two and two together before I forked over my money. I am happy to report that Hillier has redeemed herself a little in my eyes because Jar of Hearts wasn’t nearly as cringeworthy as Creep. In face, I liked it quite a bit until the end.

Georgina (Geo) Shaw’s perfect life (rich fiancé, six-figure career) comes crashing down around her when the mutilated body of her best friend Angela Wong is found fourteen years after she disappeared. For her part in the murder, Geo will spend five years in the Hazelwood Correctional Institute. Calvin James, her boyfriend at the time, is connected to three other murders and will likely serve consecutive life sentences. This is the first time Geo has seen him in a very long time and

When their eyes meet, a tingle goes through her. That goddamned tingle, even now, even after everything. From the first day they met to the last day she saw him, that tingle has never gone away. She’s never felt anything like it before, or since.

Who doesn’t love a bad boy, eh?

Jar of Hearts follows Geo through her stint in prison, where she’s savvy enough to make friends with the right people. When she is released, she returns to her childhood home. She’s not particularly welcome in Sweetbay (a suburb of Seattle), but she has no place else to go. She reconnects with her childhood friend, Kaiser Brody, who is now a cop. And then new bodies start to show up.

I liked this novel so, so much better than Creep. While not flawless, Geo was a likeable character. I understood her attraction to Calvin (who was not straight-up evil) especially at the beginning when she was only sixteen and living in Angela’s considerable shadow.  Hillier does a good job of capturing those heady teenage years when you make dumb choices and hurt the people you love. The flashbacks allow us to see what happened to Angela and why.

Some readers will likely like the novel’s ending twist. I wasn’t a big fan, but it didn’t ruin my overall enjoyment. Jar of Hearts was fun to read.

 

The Daughter – Jane Shemilt

732E19BC-CA2D-4623-B4E1-EA31B053BDE9It’s probably every parent’s worst nightmare: your child just doesn’t come home one day. That’s the premise of Jane Shemilt’s debut The Daughter.

Jenny is a successful family doctor in Bristol. She’s married to Ted, also a physician. Together they parent twins, Ed and Theo, 17, and Naomi, 15.  Life is busy for the family, which means that sometimes things slip through the cracks. Pretty much every parent  can relate to that. Things are particularly hectic right now because Naomi is starring in her school’s production of  West Side Story, and she is always dashing off.

But on the night before the last performance, Naomi doesn’t come home. She doesn’t respond to her mother’s frantic phone calls. She’s not at the theatre or the place she’d told her mother she’d be. She’s not with her friends.

The Daughter is a page-turner, for sure, but it is also a meditation on modern marriage, parenting, and the fine balancing act of having a career and a family. Jenny is so convinced that she understands her daughter, her sons, her marriage, but it turns out there are cracks everywhere.  Jenny feels blindsided by her daughter’s disappearance and by the fissures which suddenly appear in her domestic life.

If I was asked, I would say she was happy, that Ted and I were as well. I would say we were all perfectly happy.

The novel’s narrative isn’t straight forward. We are given glimpses into Jenny’s life just before Naomi leaves, and then several months later when she has taken herself to Dorset, to the family’s cottage. In these passages, we see how Naomi’s disappearance has affected Jenny and those around her. It’s not that Jenny’s life has come to a complete standstill, but certain aspects of her life have been derailed. She has not given up all hope that Naomi will be found and her grief is palpable.

But it not only Jenny’s grief that drives the narrative. Her husband also suffers. “I look for her everywhere I go,” he tells Jenny months after Naomi’s disappearance. “Don’t give up,” he tells her. “Don’t ever give up. I still think we’ll find her.” Jenny’s sons also suffer under the horrible weight of this loss.

Shemilt handles all their grief and a plot that might have proved unwieldy with a great deal of finesse. I raced to the end, which was both heartbreaking and unexpected.