You Let Me In – Camilla Bruce

Camilla Bruce’s debut You Let Me In is quite unlike anything I have ever read before and although it was odd, it was also strangely compelling.

Eccentric and reclusive romance writer Cassandra Tipp has disappeared….or died…no one is really sure. Her life has been a strange one which has included the death of her husband and then the apparent murder-suicide of her brother and father. In her will, she leaves everything to her sister’s children, but first they have to read the manuscript she’s left them.

Cassandra’s life has been difficult. Her mother was “a stern woman, maybe not too happy.” Her father was “a big man with fleshy lips and cheeks like a basset hound.” She had a younger brother, Ferdinand, and a younger sister, Olivia. By her own account, Cassandra was a bad girl and

No one keeps an eye on the bad girl. The peculiar daughter is left on her own. So easy to slip away then, fall into the twilight places of the world. To be taken and lost. Preyed upon.

This is how Cassandra comes into contact with Pepper-Man, a twilight figure who would “appear at the end of [her] bed and sit there cross-legged, grooming his hair with a comb made of bone.”

Cassandra’s relationship with Pepper-Man is an intimate one. He feeds on her; sometimes Cassandra wakes up with “his deep buried deep in [her] throat.” It’s difficult for readers to know if he is real or whether, like Cassandra’s psychiatrist believes, a manifestation of childhood trauma because sometimes “something happens that is so horrible, so painful and confusing our brains take charge and rewrites.”

Dr. Martin writes a whole book about Cassandra: Away with the Fairies: A Study in Trauma-Induced Psychosis. This book tries to explain an alternate view of Pepper-Man. Its publication doesn’t do anything to make Cassandra and the strange circumstances of her life any more palatable, and it sure as heck won’t help the reader determine what the heck is really going on in Bruce’s novel.

I do have my own theory, but I won’t spoil the book by offering it up. You Let Me In wasn’t at all what I was expecting, but it was – I was going to say enjoyable, but that’s not the right word- definitely a fascinating read.

Dreaming Darkly – Caitlin Kittredge

After her mother dies, seventeen-year-old Ivy Bloodgood is sent to Darkhaven, a small island off the coast of Maine, to live with her mother’s brother Simon. Ivy and her mother haven’t had the most stable of lives, moving from place to place and existing on what they could make reading tarot cards and stealing. Ivy isn’t sure life is going to be much better at Darkhaven, a place made “from granite blocks the size of Volkswagens”.

Ivy doesn’t know much about her mother’s family and when she arrives at Darkhaven she realizes she might not have known very much about her mother, either.

Why would my mother have left this behind? She was ruthless, and she loved money. I couldn’t believe poor-little-rich-girl syndrome have driven her out of this spectacular house and away from the credit cards and clothes and cars that came with a family like this. Never mind the inheritance.

Darkhaven isn’t a safe haven, though. Almost as soon as she arrives, Ivy begins having horrifying dreams of blood and violence. Then there’s the Ramseys, the only other family who lives on the island. There’s bad blood between the Ramseys and the Bloodgoods, but that doesn’t stop Ivy from spending time with Doyle Ramsey, the only person she feels like she can trust.

There’s a lot going on in Caitlin Kittredge’s YA novel Dreaming Darkly. As Ivy digs into her family history, she starts to discover that her mother had withheld more than just the size of the house she grew up in. Uncle Simon isn’t all that forthcoming with the family stories, either, and that just makes Ivy even more determined to get to the bottom of the family secrets. And there are lots of them.

While I did enjoy reading this book, I think it’s about 100 pages too long. The last 25 pages, as the secrets of Darkhaven are revealed, happen so quickly, you barely have time to get your feet underneath you. There were lots of moments in the middle that just slowed the narrative down and probably didn’t need to be there. There were also some instances where characters appeared only as a way to impart information to Ivy; they didn’t seem to serve any other purpose.

Still, if you like family secrets, a creepy location, and a plucky heroine then Dreaming Darkly might just be the book for you

Meet Me at the Lake – Carley Fortune

Canadian writer Carley Fortune’s second novel, Meet Me at the Lake, doesn’t stray too far from the plot of her first book Every Summer After. In that book, childhood besties become more and are then separated by a bad decision, only to reunite many years later.

In this iteration, Fern Brookbanks meets Will Baker in Toronto just after she’s graduated with her BBA. He’s an artist who has been hired to paint a mural at the coffee shop where Fern works.

Guys this hot were the worst. Cocky, self-absorbed, dull. Plus, he was tall. Hot plus tall meant he’d be completely insufferable.

Except, Will is not insufferable; he’s actually pretty great. He suggests a tour of Toronto before he heads back to Vancouver and she heads home to Hunstville, where she’s about to start working at the family business, a resort on the lake. The problem is, Fern is at a crossroad. She is pretty sure that’s not what she wants to do, even though that’s where her boyfriend of four years, Jamie, is. She has different dreams.

There is definitely a spark between Fern and Will, and they agree to meet in Muskoka in one year – except Will doesn’t show. Well, he does show, actually: nine years late.

Fortune offers readers two timelines: the day Will and Fern spend together and then their reunion in present day. Will is nothing like Fern remembers him, except that he’s still tall and hot. Instead of being an artist, he’s some sort of consultant who was apparently hired by Fern’s mother Maggie, to help breathe new life into the resort. He is both Will and not Will, but Fern still feels the crazy chemistry she felt all those years ago. What’s a girl to do?

The things I liked about the book are the same things I liked about Every Summer After. Canadian settings (I have friends in Huntsville, though I have never been), and references just make me happy. There are some fun characters in the book; I particularly liked the Roses, a couple who have been coming to the resort Fern’s whole life and “have hosted a Sunday cocktail hour at Cabin 15” since Fern was born and Peter, the pastry chef and Fern’s surrogate father.

The story itself, vague details of running a lodge and lots of food talk, is mildly diverting. But that’s not why you read this sort of book anyway. We’re here for the romance and I am guessing, based on the book’s massive popularity – shooting to the top of the NYT’s best sellers list when it was released – that most everyone loves that aspect of it. Like with her first book, it just didn’t quite work for me.

But maybe that’s just me. I like angst. Will and Fern had a day, a really special day from all accounts, but then ten years later Fern is almost immediately ready to put that in the past because Will is there to work with her and she needs him to do that to save a business she didn’t even want anything to do with ten years ago -and yes, I get it people/circumstances change. And he’s tall. And hot. Their reunion just felt a little too easy and the bumps, when they arrive, come out of nowhere, and are all resolved with a little bit of familial exposition.

I didn’t hate this book. It was 50 pages too long, but it was easy to read. I didn’t feel annoyed when I was done reading, but I also didn’t feel that post-romance swoon. If you’re not going to break my heart – which is actually what I’d prefer – at least I don’t want to read Erotica 101. That’s mean: this book is definitely better than that, really, but it didn’t 100% scratch my romance itch even though I liked both main characters just fine. Still, a great book for your beach bag.

The Hunted – Roz Nay

I was hooked from the very start of Canadian writer Roz Nay’s novel The Hunted.

A hand over my mouth wakes me, the skin of it tinny with metal and salt.

“Stevie,” he whispers, his voice hoarse. “It’s not safe here. You’re not safe.”

Stevie and Jacob are high school sweethearts who have left their small-town Maine home in search of adventure and respite from the death of Stevie’s grandmother, a loss that meant that she is out of a job and a place to live. Now, at twenty-four, they’ve landed in Africa, where Jacob has taken a job as a dive instructor at GoEco, which is located on an island south of Zanzibar.

Stevie is clearly on tenterhooks and her first few days in Africa do nothing to settle her nerves. Nothing is like it is back home. On her first night at a hostel, another traveler tells her that “You can’t trust anyone.”

Then they meet Leo and Tasmin, a beautiful British couple. We know Leo isn’t to be trusted because he is the other narrator.

They seemed new. Vulnerable. I have to admit, I felt an almost immediate fondness for them both.

It’s interesting to read a cat and mouse thriller when the cat is identified so early on; you’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop. As the novel moves on, we get to learn a little bit about both Leo and Stevie – seems they both have some carefully guarded secrets.

Although things sort of fell apart for me once the foursome arrived in Rafiki and the machinations seemed a little over-the-top, I still enjoyed the read.

This is my second novel (Our Little Secret) by Nay. I will definitely continue to read what she writes.

Wilder – Andrew Simonet

Jason Wilder is a high school senior who doesn’t actually attend classes. Instead, he spends his time in the Rubber Room…for his own protection.

Officially, it was In-School Suspension, but kids called it the Rubber Room. It wasn’t covered in rubber, but it was delinquent proof. […] The Rubber Room was set up to prevent tragedies like school shootings, or at least to make it look like you could prevent them.

Jason set a fire that hurt someone and now he’s a target. The thing about Jason is that he’s big and tough and, according to Meili, “a danger because [he] wants to be.”

Meili is in the Rubber Room because, according to the story that’s been passed around and likely exaggerated, she broke someone’s finger. She’s not afraid of Jason or his reputation for violence; she is fearless, mysterious, and just a tad crazy.

These are the characters in Andrew Simonet’s debut YA novel, Wilder.

Despite his propensity for violence, Jason is a sympathetic character. He has a distinctive voice and a troubling backstory. He lives alone; his mother and her boyfriend, Al, have moved to Florida, apparently to dry out. He lives in their crappy house existing on the little bit of money they send home to him. Because he is on probation for setting the fire, he can’t let anyone know that he lives alone. It’s not that hard to keep it a secret; Jason doesn’t really have any friends. Until Meili.

It is clear from early on in the story that something happens to Jason and Meili. Jason informs us

I have lots of time now to think about what happened. I’m straightening out how one thing led to the next, how I got drawn in, how things became inevitable.

Other people have their ideas, what should have happened, what I did and didn’t do. Meili has her version. This is my story, what it’s like inside my skin.

It is no wonder Jason and Meili are drawn to each other. It is also no wonder why things end up going horribly wrong.

I never want Meili – or anyone – to be so betrayed and broken. But if we’re gonna live in a world where that happens, I want this. I want her thrashing sobs and gut screams. I want to clench my body to hers and tumble. I want this velocity. I want my share.

Wilder is full of forward momentum. I found it a compelling read, by it’s definitely for mature readers. There is violence, lots of swearing and some fairly explicit sex.

Please See Us – Caitlin Mullen

Caitlin Mullen’s debut novel – and Edgar Award Winner – Please See Us is well written, but it took me forever to read. I don’t know: is that a bad thing?

Twenty-something Lily has run away from NYC and a messy breakup with about-to-be-famous sculptor Matthew and landed back home in Atlantic City. She needs a job but “it was unsettling to be in Atlantic City again — coming home had filled [her] with an inarticulate dread.” She takes a job as a receptionist at a hotel spa, a job she doesn’t want but needs if she wants to get back to her life, a new life, in New York.

Ava, aka Clara Voyant, is a teenager who reads tarot cards and palms on the strip. She lives with her aunt, Des, above the shop. They’re behind on their rent and Ava lives with the dream of saving enough money to join her mother in California. When the novel opens, Ava reads the cards of a man looking for his niece, Julie. Ava has seen the missing posters around town, but she doesn’t want to mislead the man.

I didn’t want to disappoint him with the truth: what I saw was limited, out of my control. I couldn’t just call up information from the universe as easily as plugging a question into a Google search.

Ava and Lily’s paths cross and soon they are working sort of together to find out what has happened to the missing girl who, turns out, is one of several missing girls. Of course, the reader will already know that the outcome of the man’s search probably won’t be good. The novel’s opening lines tell us that “By the second week of June, there are two dead women laid out like tallies in the stretch of marsh just behind the Sunset Motel.”

Mullen’s novel meanders through the interior lives of Ava and Lily and also, Luis, a deaf and mute janitor who works at the spa. We also get a glimpse into the lives of the girls who end up in the marsh, poignant snapshots into who they are, and the circumstances and choices which led to this most horrifying end.

Ava and Lily are compelling characters, both young enough – especially Ava – to use poor judgement and make bad decisions. Please See Us definitely has a something to say about the violence against women, and how society sees and judges women who, often through no fault of their own, end up using their bodies as a means to an end. (Frankly, the most despicable character in this whole thing is Ava’s Aunt Des who essentially pimps her out to make rent money.) There is a mystery here, but it’s a s-l-o-w burn and might not appeal to readers who want things to move along a little more quickly.

Horrid – Katrina Leno

There was a little girl 
Who had a little curl 
Right in the middle of her forehead. 
And when she was good, 
She was very, very good, 
But when she was bad, she was horrid. 

You’re familiar with the nursery rhyme, right? Well, so is Katrina Leno and she puts it to excellent use in her YA horror novel Horrid. (And look at that fantastic cover!)

Jane and her mother, Ruthellen, have left their lives in Los Angeles and driven across country to Bells Hollow, Maine. Neither of them particularly want to be there, but they have no choice: they have no place else to go. Ruth’s has inherited North Manor, “a large colonial-style mansion with three gables at the front and four white columns supporting a white-railed balcony.” The issue is that the house is dilapidated and creepy, looking like “one big tetanus trap.” Still, Jane and her mother are hoping for a fresh start and a place to heal from their personal tragedy.

Ruth gets a job and Jane resumes her senior year, where she meets and befriends Susie and Alana. School is school and Jane doesn’t have any issues until she encounters Alana’s cousin, Melanie, who seems to dislike her on sight. Jane isn’t interested in drama and besides, Melanie has troubles of her own, including an older sister who is very ill.

North Manor’s reputation as the “creep house” is well-deserved. Lights come on before there is electricity. Jane sees a shadow in an upstairs room. Marbles roll across the floor. The smell of roses is so strong, Jane feels choked by it. There are sounds that Ruth says are just the house settling, but they sound like footsteps to Jane.

In all the usual ways, Horrid is a straight-up haunted house story. And an unsettling one, too. But there’s more going on in Leno’s book than just things that go bump in the night. Jane is tortured by her father’s death and her blind-rage temper, which only he seemed able to subdue. The house seems to exacerbate Jane’s anxiety and when she discovers a decade’s old secret, well things get really interesting.

I really enjoyed reading Horrid. Jane was a sympathetic character and the ending was not YA – all – is – well – in -the – world, which I actually really appreciated. Loads of fun.

We Weren’t Looking To Be Found – Stephanie Kuehn

Stephanie Kuehn’s latest YA offering We Weren’t Looking To Be Found concerns the lives of Dani and Camila, two teenagers who end up as roommates at Peach Tree Hills, a live-in treatment facility for young women who suffer from addiction/mental health issues.

Dani comes from an affluent Dallas family. Her mother is a city councilor, about to make another re-election bid. Dani’s relationship with her mother is strained.

…leave it to Emmeline Rosemarie Washington to care more about our community than she cares about her only daughter’s happiness. But that’s par for the course around here, as is my insistence on ignoring her concerns. My mother only cares about the Black community so much as it can make her look good and boost her political clout…

Dani’s father is “clueless; he’s always griping about stuff like eating disorders and depression being these frivolous “white people problems””.

Dani deals with her messy life by not really dealing with it at all. Instead, she self-medicates with alcohol and the pills she steals from her parents’ medicine cabinet: Xanax, Adderall and Vicodin.

Camila comes from decidedly less affluent circumstances. She lives in Lamont, Georgia where “A foulness […] clings to our clothes, seeps into our skin, and haunts our dreams.” Her father is from Colombia and her mother is Mexican American and although she knows they love her, she doesn’t feel as though they understand her. What Camila wants more than anything is to attend Fieldbrook, a prestigious dance school in New Jersey. She’s auditioned twice before and failed to gain entry; she’s hoping this time will be different. And when it is different, and then her plans are kiboshed, Camila takes drastic measures.

When their lives go off the rails, Camila and Dani end up at Peach Tree Hills. Peach Tree Hills is “the best place for adolescent girls, especially girls of color. The staff is very diverse and sensitive to context and culture.” Neither girl wants to be there, but it is also clear that they have a lot to work through in order to become whole and healthy.

Kuehn is a clinical psychologist and it would probably be easy for this book to feel didactic, but it doesn’t. The professionals who work with the girls certainly sound authentic, but they don’t “instruct” the reader or the characters. More importantly, they aren’t able to wave a magic wand and fix these girls. Each of the main characters are a work in progress and the work is often messy and difficult. Often, it’s two steps forward and one step back.

I have read several other books by Kuehn (Charm & Strange, Complicit, Delicate Monsters, and When I Am Through With You) and each of those books had a sort of psychological suspense element. We Weren’t Looking To Be Found does have a teensy mystery, which I think is oversold in the book’s synopsis. The book really doesn’t need it anyway. Camila and Dani are engaging, and intelligent narrators (they take turns telling their story) and their journey to healing – while certainly not easy – is more than enough to keep readers engaged.

The Four Winds – Kristin Hannah

Although I am certainly familiar with Kristin Hannah, The Four Winds is the first book I have read by her. This novel has loads of positive reviews and made several ‘Best of’ lists, and while I certainly had no trouble reading it, I am not sure this book has turned me into a fan.

Elsa Wolcott has been lonely her whole life. She is tall and awkward, skinny and shy.

It didn’t take a genius to look down the road of Elsa’s life and see her future. She would stay here, in her parents’ house on Rock Road, being cared for by Maria, the maid who’d managed the household forever. Someday, when Maria retired, Elsa would be left to care for her parents, and then, when they were gone, she would be alone.

Elsa is twenty-five when she meets Rafe Martinelli, a young man “so handsome she felt a little sick.” Soon after meeting Rafe, she discovers that she is pregnant and her father packs her up and drives her out to the Martinelli farm in Lonesome Tree and leaves her there. Although Rafe is not unkind, he is also not all that interested in marrying Elsa, but his parents, Mary and Tony, insist and soon Elsa finds herself absorbed into this warm, Italian family. Despite knowing nothing about farming life, Elsa is a hard worker and proves herself willing to do whatever it takes, which turns out to be a lot more than she bargained for when the droughts and wind storms come.

Years of drought, combined with the economic ravages of the Great Depression, had brought the Great Plains to its knees.

They’d suffered through these dry years in the Texas Panhandle, but with the whole country devastated by the Crash of ’29 and twelve million people out of work, the big-city newspapers didn’t bother covering the drought. The government offered no assistance, not that the farmers wanted it anyway. They were too proud to live on the dole.

Elsa and her family stumble through devastating windstorms, lack of water, dying animals, devastated crops, scorching temperatures and dust for many years until Elsa’s youngest child, Anthony, gets ill from dust pneumonia and Elsa makes the decision to take her children to California, the supposed land of milk and honey. It turns out things are not any better there.

The Four Winds is an easy read and I liked some of these characters a lot, especially Elsa’s in-laws. I was familiar with the Dustbowl and what happened during the 1930s, but I didn’t know anything about how migrant workers were treated in California, when they arrived by the hundreds of thousands in the 1930s.

What I didn’t like was Hannah’s very obvious emotional manipulation. I knew she wanted me to cry – which I did not. Perhaps that’s because the last 75 pages or so felt rushed, or maybe it’s just that I could hear the swelling music and the language felt purposely manipulative. I love a good cry, and there were certainly some things in this book that should have had me reaching for the tissue, but it just didn’t work for me.

The Taking of Jake Livingston – Ryan Douglass

Jake Livingston, the sixteen-year-old protagonist of Ryan Douglass’s debut novel The Taking of Jake Livingston, can see ghosts. Mostly ghosts are harmless, at least in Jake’s experience. They live inside death loops and can’t really interact with the world of the living.

There are several theories for why death loops happen. Mine is that the people who end up trapped just didn’t see it coming, so their minds got stuck in a glitch. As opposed to some people who did see it coming, because they brought it on themselves. Maybe ghosts who killed themselves get more autonomy when they cross over.

For Jake, an outsider and one of the only Black kids at St. Clair Prep, real life is more problematic than what’s going on in the afterlife. His only friend is Grady, who is nothing more than a “long lasting accident,” and his single-mother is a pilot who is often away for two weeks at a time, leaving Jake at home alone with his older brother, Benji.

Then there’s Chad, the school bully and “one of those rugby dudes who can’t mind his own business. Chews his gum extra loud and throws his voice in your face when he speaks. Just to be heard.”

When the boy who lives next door to Jake, Matteo Mooney, turns up dead, Jake’s life gets more problematic than it already is. That’s because Jake knows who is responsible for killing Matteo. It’s Sawyer Doon, a student who had gunned down several students at Heritage High. Doon is unlike any ghost Jake has ever encountered; he can make things happen in the living world.

Douglass wisely allows readers a glimpse into Sawyer’s life by way of diary entries and by doing so he becomes less a malevolent ghost and more of a troubled teenager who is bullied and traumatized until he can’t take it anymore. While little glimpses into his life in no way excuse the violence he commits, at least they offer some explanation.

I can’t say that I really loved The Taking of Jake Livingston as far as reading experiences go. That said, Jake was an interesting character and I was really rooting for him as he started to make some new friends, one a potential romantic interest. I do think the book has insightful things about friendship, bullying, school violence and as it’s a debut, I would certainly say Douglass is a young author to watch out for.