Tyler Johnson Was Here – Jay Coles

Tyler Johnson Was Here adds another voice to #BLM and it’s a worthy voice indeed. Inspired by events in his own life, debut novelist Jay Coles tells the story of seventeen-year-old twins Marvin and Tyler who live with their mom in Sterling Point, Alabama. Their father has been incarcerated for a crime he did not commit.

The novel’s opening scene is a doozy. Heading back from the corner store to their house with their best friends Ivy and G-Mo, the brothers find themselves in the middle of an incident. An incident involving guns. And a cop. And already I am 100% out of my element. Of course, I am present enough in the world and read enough YA to know that this clash and the bullets and the violence are not an anomaly.

At first the friends think they’ve found themselves in the middle of some sort of gang dust-up, but when the cop shows up they realize it’s much, much worse. The cop has a kid with him, and as Marvin and the others watch

The cop keeps bashing the poor kid into the sidewalk, smashing his face onto the surface, screaming hate into the back of his head, screaming that he forgot his place in the world, screaming that his wide nose had it coming. All I can see – all I can focus on – is the cop as he pulls out his baton.

It is hard not to be affected by this scene, or any of the other things that happen as Marvin tries to figure out what he wants to do with his life, especially after it seems that Tyler is making some decisions that are clearly not of the good, including a friendship with Johntae, a known drug dealer.

The odds seem stacked against Marvin and Tyler simply because of the colour of their skin. There are very few white folks in this world, but I have to say I didn’t trust any of them – even Mrs. Tanner Marvin’s English teacher. I think she was sincere, but did she just have a white saviour complex? And here’s something I never thought about. Marvin describes his Advanced English class as “whack as shit”.

We don’t learn anything worth knowing, and today’s been just the same old dead white people, and white poems that she forces us to write on white pages. And now she tells me that Shakespeare was the world’s first rapper.

Ouch. As an English teacher myself, that stings a little, but the kid’s got a point. The Western canon leaves a lot to be desired – even I know that – and I love a lot of it.

Tyler Johnson Was Here is a readable, propulsive and frustrating novel. It is a much-needed reminder that everyone does not have the privileges that I have taken for granted my whole life. If the characterization is not quite as robust as I might have liked, it’s a small complaint because ultimately I was invested in Marvin’s story and spending a couple hours with him is time well spent.

Looking For Alaska – John Green

Miles Halter, the protagonist of John Green’s debut novel Looking for Alaska, is a loner who is about to leave Florida to attend a boarding school in Alabama. Just how much of a loner is Miles? His mother insists on throwing him a going away party and Miles is “forced to invite all [his] “school friends,” i.e., the ragtag bunch of drama people and English geeks [he] sat with by social necessity” even though he knew they “wouldn’t come.”

Miles loves famous last words. That’s one of the reasons he’s anxious to head off to Culver Creek, the same school his father and all his uncles attended, a school where they had “raised hell”, which sounds like a much better life than the one Miles currently has. In the words of Francois Rabelais, Miles wants to “go to seek a Great Perhaps.” That’s the reason, Miles tells his father, that he wants to leave Florida, “So I don’t have to wait until I die to start seeking a Great Perhaps.”

Miles’s roomate at Culver Creek is Chip Martin aka “Colonel”. He immediately renames Miles “Pudge” and then introduces him to Alaska Young, the force-of-nature, girl who lives five doors down. The novel follows this trio’s adventures and misadventures and their tragic consequences.

I have long been a fan of Green’s ability to write smart, believable and heartbreaking YA characters. The juggernaut The Fault in Our Stars was my first book by him, and I totally got the fuss. (I have also read Turtles All the Way Down and Paper Towns). If I didn’t already know how good Green was, I would have been amazed by Looking for Alaska. As a debut it’s funny, irreverent, and thoughtful. And so, so smart.

My grade 10 students are currently examining what it means to come of age. Two of them are reading this book and as I was reading it, I kept thinking that it was such a perfect book to help them think about this topic. I know the book has been challenged on many occasions for language and sexual content, but, really, who are we kidding? Shouldn’t we want our kids to read books that ask (and tries to answer) big and complicated questions? Shouldn’t we rejoice when we find an author that doesn’t talk down to kids, or pretend that they are one-dimensional?

Pudge and his friends, after a tragedy which occurs about half way through the book, seek to find answers to their questions. Pudge notes

There comes a time when we realize that our parents can not save themselves or save us, that everyone who wades through time eventually gets dragged out to sea by the undertow – that, in short, we are all going.

Looking for Alaska is terrific.

More Than Words – Mia Sheridan

I’ll admit it; I have a ‘type’ (of romance story I like). Mia Sheridan’s novel More Than Words should have ticked every single box, but when I was finished reading I just felt sort of ‘meh’ about the whole thing. I have a feeling though, it’s me not the book. Maybe I am just over romance.

Jessica Cresswell is a dreamy eleven-year-old when she meets Callen Hayes in an abandoned rail car.

A boy sat leaning against the far wall, his long legs stretched out before him and crossed at the ankles, his eyes shut. My heat galloped in my chest. Who is he? One of the streetlamps cast a glow into the shadowy interior, enough for me to see that the boy’s lip was bloody and his eye swollen. […] He was a prince. A…broken prince.

For the next few months, Callen and Jessica meet and dream and play make-believe and then, after one sweet kiss, Callen disappears.

Ten years later, Callen is the Sexiest Man in Music and Jessie is a cocktail waitress, but only until she lands her dream gig of translating historical documents. (Yes, apparently that’s someone’s dream job.) Her dream has landed her in Paris; Callen’s there, too, to claim a big award and fate lands them in the same place at the same time in an “in all the gin joints in all the towns in all the word [he] walks into mine” sorta way.

Of course, Jessie recognizes him. Callen’s reaction is more, hmmm, physical and less, OMG, I remember you. “My heart jumped, a buzz of electricity shooting down my spine, and I frowned, surprised by my reaction….God, I couldn’t stop staring at her.” See, Callen’s one of those “bad” boys. He drinks to excess and sleeps around and cares for no one. He’s a jerk but, of course, not an irredeemable jerk because then we wouldn’t be as desperate for these two to get together as Sheridan wants us to be. Really, he’s just misunderstood.

When they finally do connect – in another convenient twist of fate – Jessie is reluctant to give Callen the time of day. And he’s intent on proving that he is still the boy she once knew and cared for.

There’s nothing wrong with More Than Words. The writing is decent. There are some tender moments that ring true. It’s the fairy tale, right? Maybe I am just old and cynical and no longer believe. Perhaps these characters, both in their early twenties, are just too young for me to relate to. Either way, the book was not my cup of tea, but I suspect many others would love it to bits.

You Were Never Here – Kathleen Peacock

There are so many things to admire about Kathleen Peacock’s YA novel You Were Never Here, but let’s just start with the fact that it’s set in New Brunswick. I can’t tell you how much fun it was to read a book that takes place in my home province. Okay – now that that minor squee is out of the way, let’s talk about Mary Catherine Montgomery aka Cat.

Cat has been exiled from New York City, where she lives with her screenplay-writing father, to her Aunt Jet’s in small-town New Brunswick. (The town is called Montgomery Falls, but I pictured Fredericton, for those of you to whom that means something.) Aunt Jet is the caretaker of the family’s now crumbling ancestral home, which she operates – out of necessity – as a boarding house. The reason for Cat’s exile and her subsequent banishment creates just one of You Were Never Here‘s mysteries. Another is the disappearance of Cat’s childhood friend Riley Fraser.

The boy in the picture is handsome. Chiseled jaw and wavy hair kind of handsome. The kind of handsome that gets crowned prom king or maybe class president. Even though the smile on the boy’s face looks forced around the edges, it’s wide enough to bring out the dimple in his left cheek.

There are a thousand Riley Frasers in the world, and the boy in the poster is mine.

Riley Fraser has been missing for months. The two had been friends the summer they were twelve (five years ago, and the last time Cat had been to Montgomery Falls), but something happened between them (another mystery) and even though Cat knows “I don’t owe Riley Fraser anything – not after the last thing he said to me”, knowing that he has disappeared is deeply unsettling.

Cat has no intention of doing anything other keeping to herself while she’s in Montgomery Falls, but then she meets gorgeous Aidan Porter, one of Montgomery House’s boarders. He proves to be a welcome distraction as Cat tries to process not only what happened back home, but also her complicated feelings about Riley, their truncated friendship, and his disappearance.

Those feelings become even more complicated when she bumps into Riley’s older brother, Noah. At first, Noah seems disinterested in his brother’s whereabouts, but soon he and Cat team up to try to solve the mystery of what happened to Riley.

And there’s yet another mystery in You Were Never Here which has to do with Cat herself. She seems very reluctant to touch people. There’s an incident on the bus from NYC to New Brunswick, when Cat hesitates before letting a woman sit beside her.

…there’s only so much you can do when you’re big. You can twist and contort all you want, but volume is volume, and with both of us “fat” – “overweight,” my dad always corrects, as if that somehow sounds better – a trickle of sweat forms where our hips press against each other.

Cat’s size is only part of the issue, though. (And how awesome to encounter a protagonist who is not a ‘perfect’ size zero; neither is her weight a punchline or flaw.) The other reason for Cat’s reluctance to touch people is germane to who Cat is, but I’ll let you discover that secret on your own.

I flew through You Were Never Here because it was all the things I love in YA: well-written, suspenseful, peopled with realistic characters, and loads of fun. The last third of the book was so tense, I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough. The fact that I was in a somewhat familiar setting was just the icing on the cake.

Highly recommended.

The Guest List – Lucy Foley

Lucy Foley’s thriller The Guest List is the perfect book to pick up if you’ve got a couple hours and you want to be distracted. Although I didn’t find the writing to be spectacular (do people not care about comma splices anymore?) and the twists weren’t necessarily twisty (once you see one, the house of cards starts to crumble), I still thoroughly enjoyed my time on Innis an Amplora or Cormorant Island.

Jules and Will (a digital magazine editor and a reality tv star) are getting married and they’ve decided to hold the exclusive event on Cormorant Island, located in the Atlantic, off the coast of Ireland. There’s nothing much on the island now, except for the Folly (aptly named as it turns out), a few crumbling buildings, a graveyard and a peat bog. To this event they’ve invited 150 or so of their closest friends, but the people who really matter come the day before.

There’s Hannah, wife of Charlie, who’s Jules’s best friend. Hannah’s quite aware that she and Jules are “the two most important people in [her] husband’s life.” There’s Johnno, Will’s best friend and best man. The two men went to an exclusive boarding school called Trevellyan. There’s Olivia, maid-of-honour and Jules’s half sister. Finally there’s Aiofe, wedding planner and owner of the Folly with her husband Freddy. Each of these people, and Jules, reveal their feelings about the event and the people in attendance in first person narratives. The book jacket tells us that one of these people is a murderer, although we don’t find out until the very end who has actually been killed.

Years ago, I read Agatha Christie’s magnificent “locked room” mystery (although at the time, I’m not sure I knew that’s what it was called) And Then There Were None. The “locked-room” or “impossible crime” mystery is a subgenre of detective fiction in which a crime (almost always murder) is committed in circumstances under which it was seemingly impossible for the perpetrator to commit the crime or evade detection in the course of getting in and out of the crime scene.[1] The crime in question typically involves a crime scene with no indication as to how the intruder could have entered or left, for example: a locked room. Following other conventions of classic detective fiction, the reader is normally presented with the puzzle and all of the clues, and is encouraged to solve the mystery before the solution is revealed in a dramatic climax. (From: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Locked-room_mystery).

The Guest List isn’t totally a “locked room” mystery, but I think Foley does owe a debt of gratitude to Christie. And to every unreliable narrator on the planet. Every one one of the guests who arrive early on the island have something to hide. Secrets are alluded to. Friendships fray. Relationships strain. And it’s all enormous, mindless fun.

Rabbit Foot Bill – Helen Humphreys

When asked how we (the ladies in my book club) would rate Canadian writer Helen Humphreys’ new book Rabbit Foot Bill on a scale of one to ten, the average score was about six. It’s a shockingly low number for an author whose book The Lost Garden we almost all universally loved. (I have also read her novels Afterimage and Coventry.) I have come to expect a certain degree of poetry in Humphreys’ prose, and while Rabbit Foot Bill is certainly easy to read, it lacked something. Usually after a book club meeting, especially if I am ambivalent about a book, I come away with a deeper appreciation of it. Honestly, I still don’t know how I really feel about this book.

Leonard Flint lives in small-town Saskatchewan with his parents. He’s a solitary kid and his only friend is Bill, a quiet man who lives in Sugar Hill, “right inside the hill.”

We have been friends for a year, Bill and I, and although people don’t approve, we are friends anyway. I like that Bill isn’t bothered by what people say.

The reasons why people don’t like my being friends with Bill are these: first, because he is a man and I am a twelve-year-old boy; and second, because he is a man who is not like other men. He doesn’t talk much. He doesn’t live in a house. He doesn’t have a real job. He doesn’t have a family.

One day, Leonard witnesses a shocking act of violence that lands Bill in prison. It’s fifteen years before he sees his friend again, and when he does it’s at the Weymouth Mental Hospital. Leonard has just accepted his first job as a psychiatrist, a job that he doesn’t really understand how to do. He really is out of sorts and then one night, crossing the yard back to the cottage where he lives he sees a man “moving along the outside of the building. He’s far enough away to be in the shadows and he has his back to me, but I recognize the way he moves as though it was myself moving in my own skin.”

It is indeed Bill, and although Leonard is warned against making contact with him, he can’t help himself. Bill and Leonard’s pasts are so closely linked that it is impossible for him to resist, even though it means that he is derelict in his duties to his own patients.

Rabbit Foot Bill is based a a true story but the real-life relationship between Bill and Leonard is peripheral at best. In Humphreys’ imagination their relationship is far more complex, which is of course the stock and trade of a writer. There were times when I wondered if there wasn’t some sort of homoerotic connection between the men, and the reveal, when it comes, is certainly plausible.

So, I am not sure why I didn’t love this book. Thinking about it now, as I write this, I guess I can see its merits, but I just felt it was somehow superficial. True, as my fellow book club member Karen said, Humphreys doesn’t get in the way of the story. In some ways, though, I wish she had spent just a teensy bit more time making these characters more substantial.

It’s not a total miss for me, but I didn’t love it.

Sunburn – Laura Lippman

Sunburn is my second outing with Laura Lippman. I just re-read my review of The Most Dangerous Thing from 2014 and the issues I have with Sunburn are pretty much the same issues I had with that book.

Sunburn concerns the fates of Polly and Adam. Polly (who has several other names) walks away from her husband, Gregg, and daughter, Jani, while the three are on a beach holiday. She lands in a little backwoods town (Belleville, Delaware), and that’s where Adam finds her. Adam has been hired to find her, actually. He couldn’t have known that he would be so attracted to her. “It’s the sunburned shoulders that get him.”

Adam and Polly end up taking jobs at High-Ho, a dump of a bar, where Polly waits tables and Adam, who happens to be a trained cook, revamps the menu. At first they keep their distance from each other.

He doesn’t go in hard. He’s not that way. Doesn’t have to be, if that doesn’t sound too vain. It’s just a fact: he’s a Ken doll kind of guy, if Ken had a great year-round tan. Tall and muscular with even features, pale eyes, dark hair. Women always assume that Ken wants a Barbie, but he prefers his women thin and a little skittish.

Skittish is certainly one way to describe Polly. Secretive and calculating would also be apt. Polly’s complicated past stretches beyond leaving her family on the beach. “If anyone knew her whole story, that might be the truly shocking part, the way she ruined her own second chance. But no one knows her whole story.”

For a while, the dance between Adam and Polly is interesting. They each have secrets and they are keeping their true feelings and motives close to their chests. Is Polly a player, a maneater? How does a mother walk away from her kid? It’s a question worth asking. And Adam? Who is the mysterious man who has asked him to keep tabs on Polly? What is he really after?

Ultimately, though, in the same way that the climax of The Most Dangerous Thing was anticlimactic, Sunburn doesn’t really get anywhere….and it certainly doesn’t get anywhere quickly. The first third of the novel is far more page-turning than the last third. By the time I got to the end, I didn’t even believe in Adam anymore. He seemed sort of neutered.

I’ll say the same thing about Lippman as I did the first time around: she can write. And maybe some readers won’t mind a meandering journey like this one, but it was just so-so for me.

Born a Crime – Trevor Noah

Although I knew that U.S. based comedian Trevor Noah was from South Africa, I knew nothing other than that about him. Noah’s 2016 memoir, Born a Crime was named one of the best books of the year by just about everyone including The New York Times, CBC and NPR. The accolades don’t stop there, and nor should they, because Born a Crime is the immensely readable, inspirational and funny story of Noah’s extremely humble beginnings.

Noah was raised mostly by his mother, Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah. His father, a white man, is of Swiss/German descent. “During apartheid, one of the worst crimes you could commit was having sexual relations with a person of another race. Needless to say, my parents committed that crime,” Noah explains. The book’s title refers to Noah’s birth.

…on February 20, 1984, my mother checked into Hillbrow hospital for a scheduled C-section delivery. Estranged from her family, pregnant by a man she could not be seen with in public, she was alone. The doctors took her up to the delivery room, cut open her belly, and reached in and pulled out a half-white, half-black child who violated any number of laws, statutes, and regulations – I was born a crime.

Noah guides us through the early years of his life, years that were marked by trips to church, “at least four nights a week”, poverty, and his mother’s no-nonsense but loving approach to parenting. From her, Noah learned that language is power (and because of this Noah learned to speak several languages.) “It became a tool that served me my whole life,” he explains. Once, when he was being followed by a group of Zulu guys, he heard them say in their own language that they were going to mug him. He was able to diffuse the situation when he spoke to them in Zulu.

That, and so many other smaller incidents in my life, made me realize that language, even more than color, defines who you are to people.

No surprise, then, that Noah goes on to make his living with words.

Noah hustles his way through his adolescence – making money by getting people what they want, everything from treats from the school canteen to bootlegged CDs to DJ services for events. He tells these stories with charming self-deprecation. I can only imagine that the audio book would be so much fun to listen to.

Although this memoir doesn’t tell us how Noah got his big break, I think it’s clear how, out of necessity, determined and resourceful he was. The book is dedicated to his mother, and it’s easy to see why: her faith in her son is unwavering and fierce.

This is a really excellent book.

Here’s a bit of Noah from a stand up show in 2015.

Our Little Secret – Roz Nay

New-to-me Canadian writer Roz Nay’s debut, Our Little Secret, delivers the goods. I couldn’t put this book down.

Our Little Secret is Angela Petitjean’s story, and it unfurls in an interrogation room at the local police station. Detective Novak is asking questions about a missing woman, Saskia Parker.

That’s the thing: they sound like they’re asking about Saskia, but all roads lead to Mr. Parker and me. The police want to know if I’m in love with him, and they ask it like it’s the simplest explanation rather than the most complicated. My definition is nothing like theirs, though.

Angela meets HP, (the Mr. Parker in question) when they are in Grade 10. This is a new school for Angela and she tells the detective that “Moving when you’re fifteen is terrifying.” Angela is immediately targeted by the mean, cool girls until HP comes to her rescue. That moment forges a bond between the two teens. Over the course of the next two years, Angela (or “Little John” as he calls her) and HP are inseparable, but not romantically linked.

I never understood why HP had chosen me as his friend, or how I’d gotten an all-access pass to him. It was like having a key to the White House. He told me everything he thought and felt and wanted, and I don’t think he told anyone else in the world…

By the end of high school, though, their relationship shifts gears. And then, Angela gets an opportunity to spend a year at Oxford, but HP stays behind. The distance complicates their new status. Enter Saskia, an effusive Australian HP meets while visiting Angela in England..

Our Little Secret garnered a lot of praise when it was published in 2017. I find thrillers are hit and miss. They sound good, but they ultimately disappoint. Not this one.

I felt terrific sympathy for Angela, who claims and maintains her innocence after Saskia goes missing. Her friendship and then romantic relationship with HP is believable and complicated. There’s angst here and I love me some angst. It’s only as her story unravels, that we start to see that her version of events might be just a tad unreliable. But we all revise our histories to a certain degree, don’t we?

If you’re looking for an addictive, well-written, smart thriller, look no further.

Highly recommended.

Verity – Colleen Hoover

Verity is one of those books that sucked me in with its hype. In fact Colleen Hoover herself has legions of fans and her name seems to be synonymous with romance of the sexy kind, but the only other book of hers I’ve ever attempted I DNF, and have no idea what it was called. It was just…meh.

So along comes Verity, and it seemed as though everyone in the bookish circles I hang out in was talking about it. I am nothing if not a lemming. People were saying things like “It is a dark, addicting, and compelling psychological thriller” and “Creepy, unsettling, hard to read in parts” and “Five stars”. I mean, c’mon, what’s a girl to do? So, I ordered it.

People, I am here to tell you: Do NOT believe the hype.

Lowen Ashleigh is a struggling writer who, while published, is broke and desperate when she meets Jeremy Crawford. (Their meet cute is more ick cute, but whatever.) Turns out Jeremy is married to Verity Crawford, author of the best-selling Chronics series. The series is incomplete because Verity has been in a horrific car accident and can’t finish because she’s a vegetable, so her publisher is looking for a ghost writer. Jeremy wants Lowen. For reasons.

This opportunity couldn’t come at a better time. Lowen’s mother has just died, her personal life is a bit of a mess, and she needs the cash. It’s problematic that Jeremy is so hawt, but necessity is a great motivator, so Lowen moves to the Crawford mansion. The plan is to go through Verity’s office and look for the meticulous notes she’s made about the next three novels so that Lowen can start writing them.

Lowen finds something a lot more than Verity’s notes, though; she finds her autobiography and shocker! Verity is not a nice person (which is how Lowen justifies getting nekkid with Jeremy).

What you will read will taste so bad at times, you’ll want to spit it out, but you’ll swallow these words and they will become part of you, part of your gut, and you will hurt because of them.

Hoover might have been talking about this book, really. It’s a train wreck peopled with one dimensional characters who are handed backstories as character development. Lowen is a sleepwalker; Jeremy grew up on an alpaca farm. Say what? That’s not character development, it’s just ridiculous.

The “hard to read” stuff fans were talking about might be some of the info Verity reveals in her autobiography, like SPOILER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!SPOILER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!how she tries to abort her twin girls (whom Jeremy loves more than her) with a coat hanger or maybe how Verity uses sex (not even kinky sex) to manipulate Jeremy. None of this sex is titillating or even very well-written. END SPOILER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!ENDSPOILER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Almost immediately after Lowen arrives, strange things start to happen. Think Rebecca if it had been written by a teenager. Verity seems to be looking at Lowen, even though she’s not supposed to be cognizant . One day she catches Crew (Jeremy’s son) waving up at his mother’s bedroom window? Why?! Verity can’t possibly be standing at the bedroom window. She can’t walk. Then there’s the time that she and Jeremy are making out on the couch and Lowen spots Verity standing at the top of the stairs. But WHO CARES? Aren’t we supposed to root for these two crazy kids? I mean, Verity is a monster, right?

Not so fast. There’s a twist NO ONE SEES COMING. But you’ll have to wade through all the other nonsense (not to mention the clunky exposition and dialogue) to get to it, and by then it will feel more like a bait and switch than a twist.

Hoover says in her acknowledgments that Verity “is a personal indie project.” (I suspected as much when my copy arrived and it has clearly been self-published. That should have been my first clue.) Although Hoover is traditionally published by Atria (a division of Simon & Schuster), for some reason she wanted to do this on her own. Apparently it was originally only available online. Like fanfiction. No, wait, that’s giving fanfiction a bad rap. I have read loads of fanfic that is a billion times better than this.

The best thing about my physical copy of this book is the paper it was printed on. It was really nice. The book was a waste of my precious reading time.