Forbidden – Tabitha Suzuma

Blame it on V.C. Andrews. If you’re a reader of a certain age, you’ll remember the moment you read that attic scene where brother and sister Cathy and Chris do what no brother and sister should ever do. Flowers in the Attic was published in 1979, which is the year I graduated from high school. I flew through the book and its sequels and prequels, until I lost interest. In the characters, not in the subject matter because while incest is certainly taboo, there is something strangely riveting about relationships that are not meant to be. Ever.

Several of my all-time favourite books including Relations by Carolyn Slaughter (which predates this blog), A Spell of Winter by Helen Dunmore and Billy Dead by Lisa Reardon are about incestuous sibling relationships. Meg Rosoff’s masterful How I Live Now is about cousins who fall in love. You might well ask how books that tackle this subject could possibly be made palatable, and yet they can be. But I think that the material must be handled by a skillful writer because it’s certainly a fine line to walk between compelling and believable, and just uncomfortable ickiness. For example, none of the books I’ve mentioned here concern abusive relationships (although there is horrible abuse in Billy Dead between the sister and a different family member), or relationships between an authority figure, a father or uncle for example, and a much younger person. Two other books I really loved include these sort of relationships: My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent and The Roanoke Girls by Amy Engel. Kathryn Harrison’s memoir The Kiss is about the author’s sexual relationship with her father and it has a huge ick factor, but is also so compelling it’s hard to stop reading. I definitely think incest is a kink and I couldn’t tell you why I find it so fascinating, but I do.

I had never heard of Tabitha Suzuma’s 2010 novel Forbidden until a few days ago, when I stumbled across a mention of it on the Internet. I ordered the book and settled down to read it, and I couldn’t stop reading.

Lochan, almost 18, is trying to keep his family together with the help of his younger sister, Maya, almost 17. They have three younger siblings, Kit, 13, Tiffin, 8, and Willa, 5. Their mother is an alcoholic who works as a waitress and spends most of her time across town at her boyfriend Dave’s house or hung over on the couch. Their father left London with his new girlfriend – now wife – and moved to Australia six years ago. The financial support eventually stopped, but so did any contact.

The novel’s narrative alternates between Lochan and Maya, and it is clear that they depend on each other to make it through the craziness of trying to look after three younger children, the house and meals and everything else you might expect a parent to do, and stay on top of their schoolwork, too. Lochan is brilliant and bound for University London College as soon as he finishes his A Levels. What he struggles with is severe anxiety. He is friendless at school, rarely speaks, and spends most of his time sitting in a stairwell, reading. Maya is more outgoing, but her best friend is her brother, and it’s been that way since even before their father left.

Lochan and Maya get each other. With Maya, Lochan can relax. She can make him smile. She can calm his nerves. Lochan realizes his feelings are changing first.

We are still dancing, swaying slightly to the crooning voice, and Maya feels warm and alive in my arms. Just standing there, moving gently from side to side, I realize I don’t want this moment to end.

It’s only when that closeness crosses the line, and it’s revealed that Maya’s feelings are the same, that the brother and sister find themselves in a precarious predicament.

I refuse to let labels from the outside world spoil the happiest day of my life. The day I kissed the boy I had always held in my dreams but never allowed myself to see. The day I finally ceased lying to myself, ceased pretending it was just one kind of love I felt for him when in reality it was every kind of love possible. The day we finally broke free of our restraints and gave way to the feelings we had so long denied just because we happened to be brother and sister.

From that moment, the novel is relentlessly, breathlessly un-put-downable. I kept waiting for some big twist, something that would allow Lochan and Maya to have the life they want, which is a life together. Every stolen moment is fraught with the danger of being found out and being found out would have devastating consequences for their younger siblings, who would surely end up in the foster system, since their mother is rarely around and certainly not fit to care for them.

Suzuma skillfully navigates a story which has the potential to be so problematic, but which ends up being beautiful and devastating. I really loved this book and I keep wondering what it is about these forbidden relationships that keep me coming back for more. Even Maya is self-aware enough to know that her feelings for her brother are unnatural.

Having a physical relationship with one’s brother? Nobody does that; it’s disgusting; it would be like having Kit as my boyfriend. I shudder. I love Kit, but the idea of kissing him is beyond revolting. It would be horrendous; it would be repulsive –

Perhaps it is their circumstances that make the notion of being in love more palatable. “Lochan has never felt like a brother” Maya rationalizes. “He and I have always been equals.” In every instance of incest that I have read, there has been some trauma involved. For Maya and Lochan it is their total sense of abandonment, of having to be adults when they are really still kids; of having no one to turn to but each other. Another quality of this sort of story is the angst. When two people should be together and can’t be together – for whatever reason, not limited to being siblings – I am all in. 100%,

Suzuma does not shy away from any of this story’s minefields and she doesn’t exploit her characters, either. I will definitely be reading more by this author.

The Night Inside – Nancy Baker

I have a vague memory of reading Nancy Baker’s novel The Night Inside years ago – perhaps closer to the time it was first published in 1993. I am not going to classify this as a re-read, though, because most of it was so unfamiliar it felt like I was reading it for the first time.

Ardeth Alexander is a grad student who is just about ready to graduate, leave academia behind and step into the real world. She’s the dependable one; her younger sister, Sara, is the wild one. She can’t shake this feeling that she’s being followed, though, and one morning on a run near Casa Loma, she’s grabbed by two thugs and whisked off to parts unknown, where she ends up in a basement cell.

The guy in the cell next to her is Dimitri Rozokov. He’s a vampire, and an old one. He’s lived as long as he has by being extremely careful. Even though Ardeth is sure there is no way he can exist because, after all, “Vampires do not exist, except as metaphors,” Ardeth’s captors prove that he’s deadly by showing Ardeth why he’s in a cell.

Turns out, they’re making movies. Roias, one of the men who nabbed her, gives her a private show and what she witnesses horrifies her.

The vampire was hungry and not particularly neat. When he was done, he dropped Suzy’s body over the table. Blood was smeared across her breasts and shoulders, painted across her face in a parody of cosmetics. Her blonde hair was dark with it, but not as dark as the gaping hole in her throat. When he let her fall, one limp arm knocked over the wedding cake and left its remains decorated with red icing.

It turns out, though, that Rozokov is a civilized being, and in their time chained in cells next to each other, the two captives talk. When it becomes clear that their days are numbered, they devise a plan to escape, but the plan comes at a cost.

I have long been fascinated with vampires. When I was a kid, I can remember going to old black and white movies starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee and being terrified. What was my mother thinking?! I’ve read Dracula and devoured ‘salem’s Lot. Then, right around the time my kids were born, I discovered Buffy the Vampire Slayer and that sent me down a rabbit hole.

I didn’t hate The Night Inside, but I didn’t love it, either. Part of the problem is that there was a lot going on. Rozokov’s back story and the people chasing him might have been enough to sustain a novel. There needed to be a meet cute, or a meet ick in this case, though. Ardeth and Rozokov’s time as captives only makes up a small portion of the story, though, and then the pair are separated. Oddly enough, the novel felt dated to me, which is weird considering Rozokov is 500 years old.

Concrete Rose – Angie Thomas

I fall in love with fictional characters all the time, and I fell hard for Maverick Carter, Starr’s father in Angie Thomas’s outstanding debut The Hate U Give. In Concrete Rose, Thomas has turned her gaze to Maverick’s teenage story and it’s a doozy. Could I love Mr. Carter any more than I already did? Um, hell yeah.

The setting is familiar, the Garden Heights neigbourhood where The Hate U Give takes place. Seventeen-year-old Maverick lives with his mother who works two jobs to try to fill in the financial gaps left by Mav’s father’s incarceration. Mav has a legacy on the streets of Garden Heights because of who his father is, former crown of King Lords, (I guess that means top dog.) There’s a gang hierarchy

You got youngins, badass middle schoolers who swear they got next. They do whatever the rest of us tell them to do. Then you got li’l homies like me, King, and our boys Rico and Junie. We handle initiations, recruitment, and sell weed. Next is the big homies, like Dre and Shawn. They sell the harder stuff, make sure the rest of us have what we need, make alliances, and discipline anybody who step outta line. When we have beef with the Garden Disciples, the gang from the east side, they usually take care of it. Then there’s the OGs, original gangstas. Grown dudes who been in this a long time. They advise Shawn. Problem is, there ain’t a lot of OGs left in the streets. Most of them locked up like my pops, or dead.

Despite his gang affiliations, Mav is not a punk. His girlfriend, Lisa, is college-bound. His mother is supportive and no-nonsense. Mav’s older cousin, Dre, is one of the big homies, and always has his back. When Mav gets the news that he’s a father, his world is rocked back on its heels, and the book shifts into high gear. When the baby’s mother essentially abandons him, Mav has to start making some tough decisions. If you’ve already read The Hate U Give you know how that turns out because Maverick as a father: chef’s kiss.

I loved this book. First of all, I loved how immediate and compelling Mav’s voice is. I live in small-town Atlantic Canada. I don’t know anyone who speaks this way.

When it comes to the streets, there’s rules.

They ain’t written down, and you won’t find them in a book. It’s natural stuff you know the moment your momma let you out the house. Kinda like you know how to breathe without somebody telling you.

For me, the way this book is written is absolutely one of the best things about it. Mav’s voice is so compelling and original.

I also loved how many people were in Mav’s corner, pushing him to make better choices. I mean, he’s a seventeen-year-old father who still has to go to school and work part time at a job he hates for way less money than he’d make selling dope on the street. His boss, Mr. Wyatt, tells it like it is and doesn’t cut Mav any slack. Three strikes, he’s out. His baby cries all night, Mav still has to go to school. But these people are still in his corner, and watching him try to live up to his responsibilities is truly a thing of beauty.

Although Maverick’s story obviously takes place seventeen years before the events in The Hate U Give, and so is perhaps technically a prequel, I still suggest you read The Hate U Give first. You will fall in love with him as an adult. Going back and learning how he got there will only make you love him more.

Highly recommended.

Perfect Days – Raphael Montes

Teo Avelar is a twenty-two-year-old med student whose best friend is a cadaver. If that doesn’t tell you everything you need to know about the protagonist of Raphael Montes’s novel Perfect Days, you’re not paying attention.

Teo lives with his paraplegic mother, Patricia, in an apartment in Rio de Janeiro. Life used to be better for them, but that was back when Teo’s father was alive. Then, at a party, Teo meets Clarice. She is the exact opposite of Teo, brash and outgoing. She tells him

I drink a lot, eat everything, and I’ve smoked everything too, but now all I smoke are Vogue menthol girlie cigarettes. I fuck every now and then. I’m studying art history at the university. But I’m not sure if it’s what I want to do. I’m really interested in screenwriting.

Teo is smitten. Well, more than smitten. He’s obsessed and before you can say psychopath, he’s kidnapped Clarice and squirreled her away at a resort run by dwarves (his word and I am not joking.) He manages to keep nosey Nelly’s away by telling them that Clarice is working hard on her screenplay, “Perfect Days”, but he can’t keep people away for ever and when Clarice’s on-again-off-again boyfriend Breno shows up, well, things take a decided turn.

As I have said before, I rarely like translations, but I didn’t find this one irksome at all. Perhaps it’s because the whole thing was just sort of ridiculous. I mean, Teo is clearly delusional and the fact that he manages to hoodwink so many people is sort of unbelievable, but I guess we don’t need this sort of story to be realistic, do we? Was it entertaining? Well, I read it pretty much in one sitting. Did I like any of the characters? No. Teo just wants Clarice to like him, love him, but she’s a shadow person. I was never really invested in her and therefore cared little for her fate. Teo is smart, sure, but sort of one-dimensional. The violence is icky and graphic, but I wondered if it wasn’t perhaps a bit gratuitous in an effort to make up for the novel’s lack of psychological insight.

Crooked River – Valerie Geary

Fifteen-year-old Sam and her younger sister, Ollie, 10, have come to live with their father, Bear, in a teepee in a meadow in Oregon. Bear’s eccentric, sure, but he’s not crazy. One day he left his home, his wife and kids, in Eugene, and just didn’t come back. Sam’s been spending summers with her father since she was seven and she’s come to appreciate the quiet of both the place and her father.

…there was no electricity, only the sun. No plumbing, only the river and a barrel to catch the rain. No roof over our heads to blot out the stars, no television to drown out the bird and cricket songs, so asphalt to burn the soles of our feet. Most kids would probably hate a place like this, but to me it was home.

This is Ollie’s first summer; she’d previously gone to summer camp instead of going to Bear’s, but now there is no choice: the sisters’ mother has died suddenly.

When Valerie Geary’s beautiful novel Crooked River begins, the girls are down by the river and they find a “woman floating facedown in an eddy where Crooked River made a slow bend north.” They try to pull her to shore, but the current takes her. Sam is certain Bear will know what to do, but when they get back to the tent they find something that starts a chain reaction of discoveries, coincidences, and bad decisions. Before the girls can even make sense of what’s happening, their father is arrested for murder.

It is mostly down to Sam to tell this story because Ollie has elected to stop talking. “I was trying to be patient” Sam says, “but her silence was finally starting to wear me thin.” Ollie may not talk to anyone else, but she does commune with ghosts. The night is made of them, she says. “I see. I see things no one else does. I see them there and wish I didn’t. I want to tell and can’t.”

The sisters know their father is innocent, and Sam is desperate to prove it. Part of what makes Crooked River so great is the mystery, but what I really loved about the book is its sense of place. From the meadow’s hidden delights, to the beehives Bear tends, everything in Geary’s novel is written with a true appreciation for their inherent beauty. The mystery part, though, kicks into high gear in the novel’s last third and it’s a thrill ride.

This is also a book about family, grief and growing up. And if you think that’s all too much to cram into one book, then you don’t know Geary’s prodigious gifts as a novelist. There’s a beating heart at the center of this book and a crooked river runs through it.

Highly recommended.

All the Beautiful Lies – Peter Swanson

Harry Ackerson’s father, Bill, is dead. He’s only just found out and he has to leave college (he’s just about to collect his diploma) and head to Kennewick Village, Maine, where his father lives with his second, much younger wife, Alice.

She was a strange kind of beautiful, her eyes set too far apart, her skin so pale that you could make out the blue veins right near the surface. She reminded Harry of one of those hot alien races from Star Trek, a beautiful female who just happened to have green skin, say, or ridges on her forehead. She was otherworldly. Harry found himself in a state of constant, confused sexual turmoil, guiltily obsessing over Alice.

Harry’s arrival in Maine is fraught. Alice is distraught. Their house, known locally as the Grey Lady, has never been home to Harry. It’s filled with his father’s things. His father owned a rare bookstore in the village, and Alice is hoping Harry will stick around and help John, the store’s lone employee, run the place.

Things get complicated with the arrival of Grace, a young woman Harry’s age who seems to have some connection to his father, and the news that Bill’s death might not be an accident after all. This is the general story line in Peter Swanson’s novel All the Beautiful Lies. Of course, things are a lot more twisty than this.

Alice and her mother moved to Kennewick when she was fourteen. Her mother, Edith, had won a settlement from the Saltonstall Mill for a workplace accident which had nearly killed her. The move is supposed to be a fresh start, but there’s no hitting reset on Edith’s drinking. When Edith meets and marries handsome banker Jake, Alice almost can’t believe her good luck.

Swanson’s novel flips between then (Alice’s story) and now (what exactly happened to Bill), and the way that these two stories coil around each other is one of the novel’s pleasures. When someone else turns up dead, Harry finds himself caught in the a maelstrom of lies. (Whether or not they are beautiful will be up to you to decide.)

This is my second book by Peter Swanson (The Kind Worth Killing) and I am solidly a fan now.

Red, White & Royal Blue – Casey McQuiston

Everyone and their dog got really squishy over Casey McQuiston’s frothy romance Red, White & Royal Blue when it came out in 2019. This New Adult debut tells the story of Alex Claremont-Diaz, 21, and Henry Fox-Mountchristen-Windsor, 23. Although they’ve been in each other’s orbit for years, they hate each other; well, at least, Alex hates Henry. It’s problematic because Alex’s mother is the president of the United States, and Henry’s grandmother is the Queen of England. Yes, this is a fantasy. In every category.

When the novel begins, Alex is just wrapping up his final year of university, determined that he is “not going to be the youngest elected congressman in modern history without earning it.” Alex is academically brilliant and politically savvy, but perhaps not quite so clever when it comes to his personal life. He and his older sister, June, spend their free time flipping through the tabloids to see what the world is saying about them, or hanging with their best friend, Nora, the Vice President’s granddaughter. The three of them are known collectively as the White House Trio.

When the Claremont-Diazs are invited to attend the wedding of Henry’s older brother, Philip, it’s clear that there is some rivalry between Alex and Henry.

The tabloids – the world – decided to cast Alex as the American equivalent of Prince Henry from day one, since the White House Trio is the closest thing America has to royalty. It has never seemed fair. Alex’s image is all charisma and genius and smirking wit, thoughtful interviews and the cover of GQ at eighteen. Henry’s is placid smiles and gentle chivalry and generic charity appearances, a perfectly blank Prince Charming canvas.

When that acrimony lands them on top of the eight-tier wedding cake, it causes an international incident that must be squashed with a carefully constructed ruse: Henry and Alex will act like they are best friends instead of mortal enemies. It’s, of course, a trope as old as time. Turns out, though, that these two have a lot more in common than they thought, and that’s when things get interesting.

Although Red, White & Royal Blue takes a little bit to get going, once it picks up steam there’s, well, plenty of it. Henry is disgustingly handsome. thoughtful, intelligent and kind. And a little bit damaged, too. That’s kind of a given in most romance novels, isn’t it? When Henry finally makes a move, it causes a ripple effect, not the least of which is a sexual crisis for Alex. I mean, he’s straight, right? Um, not so much.

I really enjoyed this book. It was sweet, funny, and romantic. Alex and Henry are adorable, truly. I think the book probably caused such a stir because when it was released Trump was still in office and this book imagines a kinder, gentler and much, much saner post-Obama world. It’s kinda hard to find fault with that. It’s fluffy, for sure, but it’s also a book that promotes the idea that we can live in a world that treats people with respect, that acknowledges and supports their choices, that doesn’t care as much about sexual orientation. When Alex’s mom is running for re-election, her competition is a far-right jerk, and the election comes down to Texas (where the Claremont-Diazs are from). I mean, Texas always votes red, right? See, fantasy.

McQuiston’s book is big-hearted, well-written, smart and optimistic. No wonder it’s the perfect antidote for an imperfect world.

Her Last Death – Susanna Sonnenberg

Susanna Sonnenberg’s memoir Her Last Death recounts the author’s dysfunctional relationship with her mother. I couldn’t relate. My mother, Bobbie, was perfect. Well, of course she wasn’t perfect, but she was all the things Sonnenberg’s mother wasn’t: pragmatic, steady, selfless, reasonable. I could always count on her counsel and support. Our disagreements were few and far between and I couldn’t have gone months without talking to her. She died in 2006 of lung cancer at the age of 67 and I miss her every day.

I know I was lucky. Lots of women have fraught relationships with their moms. It wasn’t in my mother’s nature to be competitive or confrontational. She wasn’t interested in being center stage. She wanted her children to be happy and I know she probably made many sacrifices to ensure our lives were as good as she could possibly make them.

Sonnenberg was born into a family of wealth and privilege. Her parents, Ben and Wendy Adler (known in the book as Nat and Daphne) were movers and shakers in NYC. Her father was something of a literary legend on Grand Street in the 1980s. Her parents divorced when Sonnenberg was three, and Sonnenberg’s relationship with him seems rather sporadic until she’s older and makes a concerted effort to spend time with him.

Her mother is a larger-than-life character. From a very young age, her mother confides in her, depends on her, schools her in the skewed way she sees the world. When Sonnenberg is just a little girl her mother tells her “”You must never let a man remove your knickers unless you intend to sleep with him.”” Daphne parades an endless string of men into their apartment; she seems only to have to crook her finger. As Sonnenberg gets older, some of these men happen to be her classmates. On her sixteenth birthday, Daphne presents Sonnenberg with a Montblanc fountain pen, “…the finest pen ever made…for your writing” and a gram of okay, which she proudly announces she cut herself. She cautions her daughter: “Please, please, darling, don’t ever do someone else’s coke. You never know what it’s cut with. Promise?”

Daphne is clearly mentally ill, but somehow that doesn’t make her sympathetic. Sonnenberg isn’t particularly sympathetic, either, but at least you can understand how she ends up so screwed up. And she is: she’s selfish and self-absorbed. She sleeps with pretty much every guy she crosses paths with. It takes her a long time to figure out who she is and what she wants. The last third of the memoir is pretty much un-put-downable.

Being a mother requires a great deal of sacrifice. In her way, Daphne loved her children, but that love was predicated on her own desires. She always came first. For many years, Sonnenberg lives by that same creed. It’s not until she really falls in love and has her own children that she understands how much must be given of oneself.

I lift my children from the water and rub them warm with the towel. I bind them tight, hold them against me, whisper into their hair. I know this is love. It’s the single moment of parenting in which I am certain I am doing the right thing, in which, without review, I yield to an instinct.

My mother had good parenting instincts. She knew how to say the right things. She protected us when we needed it, and pushed us out into the world when we needed that, too. Parenting is hard work. It’s frustrating and exhausting and scary. Sometimes it’s no fun. But then, sometimes, it’s everything.

White Ivy – Susie Yang

My first book of 2021 is White Ivy which was marketed as a coming-of-age thriller of sorts with plot twists that “will leave readers breathless” (according to Library Journal, at least). It concerns the fate of Ivy Lin, born in China, but left behind when her parents move to America. Then, “when Ivy turned five, Nan and Shen Lin had finally saved enough money to send for the daughter.” She joins her parents and baby brother, Austin, in Massachusetts.

Ivy is “average and nondescript” and grows up dreaming of about looking different.

Ivy’s only source of vanity was her eyes. They were pleasingly round, symmetrically situated, cocoa brown in color, with crescent corners dipped in like the ends of a stuffed dumpling. Her grandmother had trimmed her lashes when she was a baby to “stimulate growth,” and it seemed to have worked, for now she was blessed with a flurry of thick, black lashes

You know what they say about eyes being the windows to the soul, right? I’m not gong to go so far as to say that Ivy is soulless, only that she never seems quite sure about what she wants and even when she is, she seems to think that the only way to get it is through cheating. She’s a narcissist and given her early childhood, it’s no wonder.

Ivy Lin was a thief but you would never know it to look at her. Maybe that was the problem. No one ever suspected – and that made her reckless.

What does Ivy steal? Little things at first, things her strict immigrant parents don’t want her to have: tampons, cassette tapes, a walkman. Then she tries to steal her way into another life, a life inhabited by the object of her teenage desire: Gideon Speyer. For just one moment, when she is invited to Gideon’s birthday party at his “handsome glass and stone manor”, Ivy imagines what it might be like to belong. It’s a short-lived dream because when her parents find out that she lied to them to attend the party, they humiliate her by picking her up, send her to China for the summer and then move to New Jersey. It’s not until many years later that Ivy crosses paths with Gideon once again.

White Ivy is a strange book. I read it in a couple of sittings, but I never really felt as though I understood Ivy’s motivation. Does she lie out of habit? What is it about Gideon that she desires, really? They have zero chemistry. And then there’s Roux, a childhood friend who resurfaces right around the time Ivy’s relationship with Gideon is going to next level (aka meet – or in this case, re-meet – the parents).

Roux is rough around the edges. He cares little what anyone thinks of him. He’s made something of himself, although whether or not his success is strictly legal is up for debate. In many ways, he would make a much better partner for Ivy, but he’s not the waspish dream. He does complicate Ivy’s life, and then he offers an ultimatum which pushes the novel into thriller-esque territory.

I am not really sure how I feel about this book. I didn’t hate it. I didn’t love it. I wouldn’t call it a coming-of-age novel because there is no moment of epiphany for Ivy. It’s not a thriller. It’s definitely character driven and Ivy isn’t necessarily a character you will warm to. Not that that matters. Did I want her to succeed? ::shrugs:: I felt sort of as if there were some missed opportunities in this novel, but it wasn’t a waste of reading time.