We Are Okay – Nina LaCour

Nina LaCour’s award-winning YA novel We Are Okay, is a lyrical and moving look at the weareoknature of grief. This is a quiet novel, and so I would caution readers not to expect histrionics or very much action. Instead, LaCour focuses on the protagonist’s interior life, which has been altered by loss.

Eighteen-year-old Marin is attending school on the East Coast, far away from her hometown, San Francisco. It’s Christmas, and everyone has left the dorm except Marin, who has no place to go. Her roommate, Hannah, is clearly worried about her and Marin knows

why she’s afraid for me. I first appeared in this doorway to weeks after Gramps died. I stepped in – a stunned and feral stranger – and now I’m someone she knows, and I need to stay that way. For her and for me.

Marin is anticipating the arrival of her best friend, Mabel.  She knows “Mabel is coming tomorrow, whether I want her to or not.” The idea fills Marin with a sort of dread, even though she knows she should be happy.  She hasn’t communicated with Mabel in months though, and has, in fact, ignored all of Mabel’s attempts to make contact. She thinks she can fool Mabel into thinking that everything is okay but

Mabel knows me better than anyone else in the world, even though we haven’t spoken at all in these four months. Most of her texts to me went unanswered until eventually she stopped sending them.

There will be no way to fool her.

Nothing much happens in We Are Okay, but that’s just plot, anyway. The story toggles between Marin’s reunion with Mabel and the story of their friendship back in California. We also learn that Marin has been raised by her grandfather, a fierce but tender man, who has a few secrets of his own. Her grandfather’s death clearly accounts for some of Marin’s sadness, but flashback’s reveal that Mabel is also central to Marin’s story.

There is a lovely, melancholy cadence in LaCour’s book. It’s poetic without being showy and the nature of Marin’s grief is unspooled in a way that will keep readers turning the pages. I guess that’s what prevents We Are Okay from being all doom and gloom. Yes, Marin is sad, but she’s trying to come to terms with her derailed life. She finds small ways to tether herself to the world, a pair of pottery bowls, the “perfect shade of yellow” for instance.

This is a thoughtful, lovely and moving novel and I highly recommend it.

The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood & Renee Nault

I probably shouldn’t admit this, being both a Canadian and an English teacher, but I have handmaidbestnever read Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale. I haven’t watched the series, either. I know, I know. I figured that I could rectify that by reading Renee Nault’s stunning graphic novel of Atwood’s book.

First published in 1985, Atwood’s novel explores a dystopian America. Atwood imagines a totalitarian state where women are commodities without their own names or lives. Some women are sexual servants, that is if they are of the age to bear children. Their names reflect the men they serve, so the book’s narrator is Offred or “of Fred”. In another life, Offred was married, had a daughter, but the family was separated when they tried to escape to Canada. The novel won several awards, including the Governor General’s Award and the Booker.

In many ways, Atwood’s novel was prescient. Flash forward almost 35 years and reflect on what is currently happening in the States (and around the world) and The Handmaid’s Tale  should make your skin crawl.

Nault’s beautiful drawings highlight the horrific lives lived by these handmaids.

handmaidstalegraphicnovel

They dress in red “the colour of blood, which defines us.” Their hats prevent “keep us from seeing, but also from being seen.”Offred reveals her defiance to her situation early on claiming that “I never looked good in red, it’s not my colour.” Friendships are discouraged between the handmaids. Their only job is to be an incubator.

It’s easy to see why Atwood’s novel was ground-breaking when it was first published. It’s difficult to read it even now. Nault’s adaptation should introduce a whole new generation of readers to Atwood’s acclaimed novel. I might just go read the original now.

They Both Die at the End – Adam Silvera

theybothdieIn a not-too-distant future universe- or I don’t know, maybe it’s way in the distance – Mateo Torrez gets the call everyone dreads:

…I regret to inform you that sometime in the next twenty-four hours you’ll be meeting an untimely death. And while there isn’t anything we can do to suspend that, you still have a chance to live.

Mateo is only seventeen and he certainly doesn’t want to die.

Neither does eighteen-year-old Rufus Emeterio. He gets the call as he’s beating the snot out of Peck, his ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend.

Death-Cast makes the call, but they can’t tell you anything more than sometime in the next twenty-four hours your number is up. That’s the premise of Adam Silvera’s philosophically astute and heart-breaking YA novel, They Both Die at the End.

Mateo and Rufus came from vastly different worlds. Mateo is introverted and lives his life from the safety of his apartment. His father in in the hospital in a coma; his best friend, Lidia and her infant daughter, Penny, are his closest friends. Rufus lives in a group home. His family had received the Death-Cast call and perished. He has a new family, now, a rag-tag group of foster kids and the foster parents who love them. Despite the fact that he was beating someone up when we meet him, he is a sweet and thoughtful kid.

Mateo and Rufus meet via the Last Friend App, an app “designed for lonely Deckers and for any good soul who wants to keep a Decker company in their final hours.” (Decker meaning those on deck to die). Although the boys come from vastly different worlds, their one night together opens them up to life’s possibilities in ways neither could have imagined.

“To live is the rarest thing in the world. Mot people exist, that’s all.” Oscar Wilde

That’s the quote that opens this much-lauded novel. It’s so true, isn’t it? We hide behind our phones, we curate our lives for social media (just look at pictures of people at concerts; everyone is holding up a phone to video the performance rather than enjoying it in the moment.) We collect stuff, not memories. We don’t really talk to each other anymore. With the specter of the end hanging over their heads, Mateo and Rufus spend the day criss-crossing NYC, having meaningful moments with their loved ones and moments of introspection with themselves.

Thornton Wilder warned audiences back in the 1930s that life was “too wonderful for anybody to realize.” In his play, Our Town, Emily asks the Stage Manager if “any human beings ever realize life while they live it? – every, every minute.” I think Mateo and Rufus would have appreciated Wilder’s sentiment.

I truly fell in love with these characters, and I kept thinking “surely they’re not going to die” but the book’s title is not misleading. Silvera’s novel is outstanding and I highly recommend it.

Skim – Mariko Tamaki & Jillian Tamaki

I am surrounded by teenagers every day and their world seems difficult to me, more200px-skim_bookcover difficult than I remember my adolescence. There was no social media back then. We hung out, gathering at someone’s house on Friday night to play Trivial Pursuits and drink Pop Shoppe soda. We had dances where you’d just pray not to be asked to slow dance with some geeky guy, especially for the last dance, which was always “Stairway to Heaven” – longest song on the planet. My locker was covered with pictures of Robby Benson. The drama happened in the girls’ bathroom and the bullying happened in person. We talked for hours on the phone…which was in the kitchen, so your end of the conversation could be heard by pesky brothers and eavesdropping moms.

It’s always interesting to read about young people because even though I feel so far removed from those years (my 40th high school reunion happens this summer!), their lives are fascinating to me. A really good YA novel can capture the essence of what it is to be young and send me spinning back to my own fraught teenage years.

Skim, the award-winning graphic novel by the cousin team of Mariko Tamaki (writer) and Jillian Tamaki (illustrator), unspools the life of sixteen-year-old Kimberly Keiko Cameron aka Skim as she navigates friendships, crushes, school, suicide and depression. Like with their graphic novel This One Summer, the Tamakis zero in on what it is to be young and to cope with all the shit life often throws at you.

Skim’s parents are divorced. She’s interested in wicca and tarot cards and her English and drama teacher, Mrs. Archer, who is “always saying weird stuff like – I’m telling you girls. You might think different, but chocolate is better than sex.” Skim relates to Mrs. Archer because she considers herself a bit of a freak, too.

The simple black and white illustrations capture the essence of high school life; the constant navigating and negotiating that comes with being a young person. Skim is thoughtful and fragile, but there is a toughness to her that allows the reader to believe that she will survive.

skimsillywalk-min

You couldn’t pay me money to be a teenager. All those hormones. All that heartache. Still, there is something about this period in your life that is pretty amazing. All that potential. All those feelings so close to the surface. Skim manages to capture that beautifully and Skim’s story will resonate with anyone…well, anyone. Because we were all young once and if you are young now – then at least part of Skim’s story is your story, too.

My Absolute Darling – Gabriel Tallent

Gabriel Tallent’s debut (DEBUT!) novel, My Absolute Darling, is going to be difficult tomyabsolutedarling write about – not only because the subject matter is contentious, but because I don’t have an adequate vocabulary to express just how truly astounding this novel is. (I guess he gets the extra ‘l’ in his last name because when they were handing out talent, he got more than his share. Seriously.)

Julia (though everyone calls her Turtle) Alveston is fourteen. She lives with her father, Martin, in Northern California. Her mother is dead. Although her father sometimes works as a carpenter, the two of them are isolated and live pretty much off-the-grid. The only other adult in her life is her grandfather, Martin’s dad, who lives in a trailer on their property. Turtle goes to school, but she is friendless; she is more comfortable roaming the woods and shooting guns, than she is talking to kids her own age.

Turtle’s relationship with Martin is complicated. Martin is an imposing figure, both physically and intellectually. But he is also a seriously damaged man and it won’t take long for readers to see that the relationship between father and daughter is, among other things, abusive. But then, even that doesn’t adequately explain things.

After a meeting at school, where Turtle’s teacher expresses concern with her progress, Martin says “Is this the sum of your ambition? To be an illiterate little slit?”

His meaning comes to her all at once like something lodged up in a can glopping free. She leaves parts of herself unnamed and unexamined, and then he will name them, and she will see herself clearly in his words and hate herself.

There is always simmering violence in Turtle’s home, a house tellingly “overgrown with climbing roses and poison oak.” There are guns and knives inside, both of which Turtle knows how to use with startling proficiency.  Martin is a survivalist who fervently believes that “Humanity is killing itself – slowly, ruinously, collectively shitting in its bathwater….”

Turtle has learned to read her father, to anticipate what’s coming. It’s hard – very hard – to watch her negotiate with herself, or justify Martin’s abuse, particularly the sexual abuse. Tallent wisely chooses a limited third person point of view to tell Turtle’s story; I don’t know how readers could bear it otherwise.

She thinks, do it, I want you to do it. She lies expecting it at any moment, looking out the window at the small, green, new-forming alder cones and thinking this is me, her thoughts gelled and bloody marrow within the piping of her hollow thighbones and the coupled, gently curving bones of her forearms. He crouches over her and in husky tones of awe, he says, “Goddamn, kibble, goddamn.”

When Turtle meets Jacob and Brett, her world starts to crack open a little bit, but it’s not until Martin arrives home, after a protracted absence, with ten-year-old Cayenne in tow, that Turtle starts to reconsider her life. She knows she has to “really goddamn look at it without lying….”

Tallent said in a 2017 interview for Mashable that ” “…good books ask us to be courageous readers.” I think he’s right, of course, but I don’t think everyone will be able to stomach the violence in My Absolute Darling. That said,  this book is worth the effort.

First of all, Tallent’s a gifted writer. His descriptions of the natural world – almost a character in and of itself – are masterful. This is Turtle’s domain and it’s important. She can survive in the wild, and those survival instincts serve her well. Secondly, Turtle is a character you will not soon – if ever –  forget. She is tough because she has to be, but there is a tenderness about her, too. Her friendship with Jacob is unexpected and impossible, but also essential because it gives Turtle a glimpse into a normal world that has been denied to her. Finally, Martin is not a one-note villain. Although my feelings about him didn’t really waver, I still found some sympathy in my heart for him. That’s a tribute to Tallent because, mostly, Martin is a narcissistic monster. I believe Martin loves Turtle, but in a twisted, possessive, controlling way.

I highly recommend this book, although I understand that it won’t be palatable for many readers. It was on my short list as a potential selection for my book club, but I knew – even before I read it – that most of the women in my group would have a very difficult time with its subject matter. After reading it, I can say with certainty that I was right: they would have hated it. But I would argue that it’s compelling, intelligent and  worthy of the copious praise it has received.

Highly recommended.

 

Mosquitoland – David Arnold

Mary Iris Malone, Mim for short, is not okay. Life has thrown her some curve-balls of mosquitolandlate: her parents’ divorce; her father’s quicky marriage to Kathy; their subsequent move from Ashland, Ohio to Jackson, Mississippi. When Mim overhears her father and stepmother talking to the principal, she’s convinced that her biological mother is sick and makes the decision to hop a Greyhound and travel the 947 miles back to Ohio to see her.

This is the premise of David Arnold’s debut novel Mosquitoland , a book which garnered massive praise and stellar reviews when it was published in 2015. I have to say, it’s worthy of all the fuss.

Mim’s journey is both literal, and she meets all-sorts on the bus and beyond, and figurative; this is a journey of self-discovery only a quirky, intelligent and empathetic sixteen-year-old could take.  Mim reveals herself in journal entries addressed to Isabel, and to various passengers, including Arlene, the old lady who sits next to her on the bus. Arlene turns out to be just what Mim needs because “it’s nice to sit that close to someone and not feel the incessant need to talk.”

Then there’s Walt, the boy Mim meets when she ends up getting off the bus. Walt is slightly left of center. He lives in a tent in the woods. “What are you doing?” He asks her  when he finds her asleep under an overpass. “…as a part of big things?”

Walt is a completely endearing character and Mim is “100 percent intrigued” when he says “Do you like shiny things? I have lots of shiny things there. And a pool…You’re a pretty dirty person right now. You could use a pool. Also, there’s ham.”

And then there’s Beck. Mim first notices him on the bus and then in a weird twist of fate, she meets him again at the police station (long story).

He’s older than me, probably early twenties, so it’s not completely out of the question – us getting married and traveling the world over, I mean. Right now, a five-year difference might seem like a lot, but once he’s fifty-four and I’m forty-nine, well shoot, that’s nothing.

There’s a quality about him, something like a movie star but not quite. Like he  could be Hollywood if it weren’t for his humanitarian efforts, or his volunteer work, or his clean conscience, no doubt filled to the brim with truth, integrity, and a heart for the homeless.

There is nothing I didn’t love about Mim or her journey. There is nothing I didn’t love about the other characters she meets – except for Poncho Man. (Obviously.) Mosquitoland has it all: the absurd, the laughs and the feels. It is a beautifully written book about growing up, facing your fears, what family means (both the family you are born with and the family you make) and why it is okay to admit that you are not okay.

Mad love for this book, so of course it is highly recommended.

 

The Marrow Thieves – Cherie Dimaline

marrowGah! This book, you guys.

Francis, though everyone calls him Frenchie, is on the run from the “recruiters”.  Pretty much every Indigenous person is because their bone marrow holds the key to dreaming, which is something white folks no longer have the ability to do.

“Dreams get caught in the webs woven in your bones. That’s where they live, in that marrow there.”

“You are born with them. Your DNA weaves them into the marrow like spinners….That’s where they pluck them from.”

It’s sometime in the not too distant future and we’ve pretty much wrecked the Earth. Because of course we have. When Cherie Dimaline’s YA novel The Marrow Thieves opens, Frenchie is holed up in a tree house with his older brother, Mitch. But then the recruiters show up, and the boys are separated, and Frenchie finds himself on the run once more.

The characters in The Marrow Thieves are all too aware of their rocky history with the Canadian government, and sharing those stories is part of what keeps them focused on getting to safety, which in this case is north where they hope they will find fresh water and clean air and freedom.  So north is the direction Frenchie heads and it isn’t long before he meets a group of travelers. Frenchie joins this ad hoc family and his adventure begins.

The dystopian nature of this novel is really only the story’s framework. It’s enough to know that these people are considered ‘other’ and useful only for what they can provide to the government. Their current plight mirrors the whole residential school debacle, a part of my country’s history, I am ashamed to admit, I was grossly ignorant of until recently.  Those places were less about assimilation (and even that is abhorrent)  and more about annihilation.

The real story, the heartbeat of Dimaline’s novel, is the characters and their stories – both individually (which they tell in their own ‘Coming-To’ stories) and collectively. Getting to know these people felt like a privilege; I fell in love with them and the way they looked out for each other. I experienced a real fear for their safety and on the few occasions they were rewarded with something good, I felt that, too.

I will not forget these people, their connection to the Earth and each other, for a long time. The Marrow Thieves should be required reading for all Canadians…and, trust me, once you start reading, you won’t want to put it down anyway.

Highly recommended.