Tag Archive | Book Review

This Gorgeous Game – Donna Freitas

Olivia Peters, the protagonist in Donna Freitas’ YA novel This Gorgeous Game,  is a seventeen-year-old aspiring writer who lives with her single mom and older sister in a close knit Catholic community in Boston. How Catholic? Let’s just say that the Peters’ have lots of priests and nuns for dinner and Olivia attends a high school where the principal is a nun.

gorgeousOlivia is beautiful and outgoing, but she’s one of those girls who doesn’t really know it – or, if she knows it, she doesn’t flaunt it. She’s a good girl. She’s obedient. All she wants-  all she can ever remember wanting – is to be a writer. When she wins the first annual Emerging Writers High School Fiction Prize  she admits “I’ve always loved writing but I didn’t really think it would amount to anything.” The prize is substantial: a ten thousand dollar scholarship towards the college of Olivia’s choice, publication of her story and a spot in Father Mark Brendan’s prestigious summer fiction seminar.

Yeah, that  Mark Brendan. Olivia knows him – by reputation, at least.

I am struck by the tiny lines that web from his smiling eyes, the gleam from his perfect white teeth, his thick salt-and-pepper hair, the size of his hands, so large, the hands of a strong man. Everything about him seems to glow from within and soon I am aware that I am not the only person in the room who finds this visitor striking.

This priest is a celebrity, and also super-creepy. I mean, c’mon, the first thing he does is invite Olivia for a drink. She shows up in her school uniform and drinks hot chocolate while he drinks scotch and holds court.

I probably shouldn’t say this, but the moment I first saw you, I wondered to myself: how did so much talent, such insight and imagination, come from a girl so young, and with such startling beauty? What a beauty! I thought. God must have such extraordinary plans for such a creation as this.

In the beginning, Olivia basks in the glow of Father Mark’s attention: the private meetings to (ostensibly, at least) work on editing her story, the notes he leaves for her, the packages he sends. But soon Olivia is feeling isolated from her friends and family and Mark’s enthusiasm for her talent starts to feel like a yoke around her neck. He turns up unexpectedly in places he shouldn’t be, waits for her outside the school, gives her inappropriate gifts, calls her incessantly.

Turns out, Father Mark is not only a talented writer, but a talented stalker, too. Is it because of his celebrity status that the adults in Olivia’s life don’t see the change in her demeanor: she stops eating, her hair is listless, the spark is gone. She makes excuses until she can’t anymore, but I was really disappointed in her mother and in Sister June, the school principal, who seemed to have some misgivings early on, but didn’t intervene.

This Gorgeous Game is a page-turner that highlights the ways  in which someone in a position of power takes advantage of someone vulnerable. There is nothing graphic here and Olivia is a likeable narrator, if a little sheltered and naïve – which is, of course, completely understandable given her upbringing.

 

 

 

Modern Monsters – Kelley York

Kelley York’s YA novel Modern Monsters is a relatively straight-forward story about the modernmonstersaftermath of a sexual assault. This is my second novel by York and while there is certainly nothing wrong with it, I preferred Made of Stars, which I found to be beautifully written and nuanced. Modern Monsters suffers (but only slightly) by comparison.

Vic Howard is a senior at high school. He’s a slightly awkward loner with a stutter who knows his place on the social ladder.

I am not important. I am tolerated by association. I am Vic Howard, Brett Mason’s Best Friend, so while people don’t always care to learn anything about me, they do recognize my face. Being cool to me, they seem to think, is a way to stay cool with Brett.

Vic and Brett have been friends since they were kids. Sometimes when Vic looks at Brett he sees “the chubby pimple-faced kid with braces and glasses.” This long-standing relationship is why Brett doesn’t impress or intimidate Vic. It’s also the reason why Vic does anything even remotely sociable: he is often Brett’s plus one.

That’s how he ends up at a huge party out at a cabin by a lake. He doesn’t want to go, but Brett insists. And that’s how he happens upon Callie Wheeler throwing up in the bushes. Vic deliberates leaving her alone – but only for a moment. Vic helps Callie to a bedroom, places a waste bucket beside the bed, and acknowledges that he’s done his part.

Except a day or two later the police arrive at Vic’s house to question him. Callie was raped at the party and Vic was the last person seen with her.

Modern Monsters tackles a tricky  and timely subject with a great deal of care.  The horror of being accused of something is bad enough, but Vic’s mother doesn’t seem to believe Vic when he vehemently denies the accusation. She can’t even seem to look him in the eye. He takes refuge at Brett’s house. Brett’s parents have always been like a surrogate family and Brett’s father is a lawyer who agrees to help him.

The kids at school are less forgiving and when the rumours start to spread Vic finds himself in some pretty dicey situations. It is Callie’s best friend, Autumn, who first believes Vic’s innocence and together the two begin to try to figure out who the real rapist is. Their sleuthing also leads to a relationship, Vic’s first.

Vic is a likeable character. He’s not perfect, but he’s decent. He’s a hard-working, honest and sympathetic character and it’s impossible not to like him. Autumn is feisty and smart. Even Caillie, although her role is peripheral, reveals herself to be forgiving and human.

This book is as much about standing up for yourself as it is about the horrors of sexual assault. Vic must navigate tricky family dynamics, the first stirrings of romance, and people’s mistrust of him. Whatever his perceived shortcomings, Vic is a good guy and readers will be rooting for him.

The Kind Worth Killing – Peter Swanson

kindworthI have been in a bit of a reading slump this year – which seems like a ridiculous thing to say considering we are only two months in. The first couple of books I read at the start of 2017 were lackluster at best, and I just haven’t been able to find my reading groove. Peter Swanson’s The Kind Worth Killing may have actually changed all that.

Lily Kintner and Ted Severson meet in a bar at Heathrow. Over martinis,  Ted discloses a few details about his life including the fact that he thinks his wife, Miranda, is having an affair with Brad,  the contractor that is building their dream home in a coastal town in Maine.

Ted admits to Lily that he wants to kill his wife. Perhaps even more unusual, Lily offers to help. It might take a teensy bit of suspension of disbelief to believe that a cuckolded husband would meet a beautiful woman in a bar in a foreign country who expresses a desire to help him plan his wife’s murder, but stranger things have surely happened.

Once on the plane, Lily suggests that “…since we’re on a plane, and it’s a long flight, and we’re never going to see each other again, let’s tell each other the absolute truth. About everything.” During the trans-Atlantic flight, the two reveal tidbits both mundane and philosophical. Lily remarks: “…everyone is going to die eventually. If you killed your wife you would only be doing to her what would happen anyway. And you’d save other people from her. She’s a negative.”

Lily isn’t quite as forthcoming about her life as Ted is about his. Her story is revealed in alternating chapters. The daughter of  bohemian academics, Lily is an intelligent, thoughtful child. Through her eyes, we learn about growing up in “Monk’s House,” a Victorian mansion  deep in the Connecticut woods, about an hour from New York City.

There was never only one guest at Monk’s House, especially in the summertime when my parents’ teaching duties died down and they could focus on what they truly loved –  drinking and adultery. I don’t say that in order to make some sort of tragedy of my childhood. I say it because it’s the truth.

Lily has a skewed morality, but it’s the very thing that makes her such a fascinating character. She’s a charming psychopath, and it’s almost impossible not to like her, to root for her, even. She’s  – by far –  the most interesting of cast of characters in Swanson’s novel. She reminded me a little bit of Alice Morgan, a character in the brilliant BBC crime series, Luther. (If you haven’t ever seen the show, you must watch it immediately. It’s on Netflix.)

There are twists and turns aplenty in The Kind Worth Killing. The plot did unravel slightly for me towards the end, but that in no way undermined my enjoyment of the shenanigans these people got up to.

The Kind Worth Killing was a whim purchase for me. I needed a book for my book club and this one was popular on Litsy. I am pleased to report that everyone in my group really enjoyed the book, even though it was definitely a departure from the sort of stuff we normally read.

This is a page-turner.

The Possessions – Sara Flannery Murphy

Eurydice (Edie) is a “body” for the Elysian Society. As a body, she works with clients who possessions1seek to speak with loved ones they have lost. Dressed in a simple white dress, she sits in Room 12 and once in possession of an item belonging to the deceased, she swallows a lotus – a pill that  summons the spirits of the deceased – and the living communes with the dead. That’s the general principle of Sara Flannery Murphy’s debut novel The Possessions.

Edie has been working at the Elysian Society for five years, a long time for a body. She leads a very quiet, private life. “Since I joined the Elysian Society,” she says, “my emotions have evolved. They’ve gone from unwieldy to finely attuned. ready to snap into nothingness.”

That ability, to become a blank slate, is perhaps one of the reasons that Edie has been able to do this job for as long as she has. But then Patrick Braddock walks into her life. Patrick wants to speak with his wife, Sylvia. She drowned in a lake. The circumstances of Sylvia’s death are part of what propels the plot forward, but the relationship between Patrick and Edie is definitely the driving force.

Although Edie tells Patrick that she is not privy to the conversations that take place between a client and their loved ones, the line between Edie and Sylvia definitely blurs.

I was evasive with Patrick in Room 12 today. The truth is that Sylvia’s memories have lingered. One image in particular, clear and deep. I remember Patrick’s hand against me, at my waist. The golden hairs at his wrist, his long fingers holding the ghost of a summer tan. One or two fingernails endearingly frayed, as if he bites them when no one is watching. I could reach right into the memory, interlace my fingers with his. Feel the light calluses of his fingertips.

Before long, Edie and Patrick’s professional relationship crosses a line and Edie experiences the burgeoning weight of desire. As it often does, it clouds her judgment and drives her to find out what really happened to Sylvia.

The Possessions is a well-written literary hybrid: part mystery, part sci fi (the world seemed slightly off-kilter to me, not the far future but certainly not present day), part love story. It is certainly intriguing and yet…I found it slow going.

Edie’s past is a mystery. Her past is certainly alluded to, but we don’t learn much about her until the very end of the novel and by then it feels more like expository backfill. She’s really a non-entity and that makes it difficult to feel any empathy for her.

Patrick fares only a little bit better. As the grief-stricken husband trying to move on, he’s serviceable enough. Ultimately, neither he nor Edie are well-rounded enough to make me root for their relationship.

So in the plus column: great writing, intriguing plot, lots of potential. In the minus column: slow-moving, lackluster characters, some clunky plot machinations.

That said, Sara Flannery Murphy is definitely an author to keep your eye on.

Thanks to Harper Collins for my review copy and to TLC Book Tours for the chance to participate in this tour.

 

The Best Kind of People – Zoe Whittall

I have never returned a book to the bookstore before. In the past, if I read a book and the-best-kind-of-people_jpg_size_custom_crop_427x650didn’t like  it, I would normally just donate it to goodwill. Zoe Whittall’s The Best Kind of People comes with Heather Reisman’s money back guarantee, though. Reisman is the CEO of Indigo, Canada’s largest book retailer. If she endorses a book with her Heather’s Pick sticker and you don’t like it, you can return the book – no questions asked – for a full refund. So, that’s where The Best Kind of People is going.

Although I was intrigued by the premise of Whittall’s novel, there were some negative reviews on Litsy and so I didn’t purchase it. Then it was chosen as our book club book and I had no choice but to read it.

George Woodbury is a local hero in Avalon Hills, a sleepy bedroom community in Connecticut.

George could be recognized by his trademark brown tweed jackets with the corduroy elbow pads, and his perpetual armload of books and papers. Everybody knew him, from school or from the many boards and committees he sat on. He was a fixture in town. He remained the man from Woodbury Lake who saved the children.

Ten years ago, George stopped a lone gunman who entered a school to kill his girlfriend. Now George is a beloved and respected teacher at the local private school. George has the added privilege of being extremely wealthy because of his father’s business acumen: doctor turned real estate tycoon. His two children, adult lawyer Andrew, who lives in New York City with his partner, Jared, and seventeen-year-old, Sadie, are used to being part of the inner circle. Joan, George’s wife, is a nurse who dotes on George and loves him without question. Until there’s something to question.

And there is. In present day, the police come to the Woodbury estate to arrest George for “sexual misconduct with four minors, attempted rape of a minor.” Of course, everyone believes it’s a huge misunderstanding. George assures his wife that “it’s just an error.” But it’s an error that throws everything Joan has ever believed about her marriage and her life into question. It also throws Andrew and Sadie’s life into turmoil.

It’s a pretty good hook for a book. And it might have been a pretty good book, too, if Whittall had written characters that were even remotely believable.  There’s the “stand by your man” wife who is so overwhelmed she lets her daughter move in with her boyfriend, Jimmy, and his mother. There’s Andrew, the angry gay son who races to his mother’s side but who hates the small-minded town he grew up in. (The town, by the way, where he came of age in a relationship with one of his teachers.) There’s Clara, Joan’s shrill sister who used to be a “staple on the 1990s New York City party scene.” There’s Kevin, the parasitic writer who lives with Jimmy’s mother. There’s Amanda, Sadie’s supposed best friend who and whose younger sister is one of the complainants. Her comment to Sadie: “I know your dad is a fuckin’ perv and all, but you don’t have to act like I’m dead.”

The dialogue is one of the things that irked me the most about Whittall’s narrative. I read whole sections out loud to my son because it was just so…unrealistic. For example, when Kevin moves out of the house, Elaine, Jimmy’s mother explains his absence by saying: “Right now he’s staying at the Hilton while we work through some…grown-up issues.” It’s a ridiculous comment to make to the son for whom she is providing condoms and looking the other way while he sleeps with Sadie.

The Best Kind of People offered a good opportunity to raise all sorts of questions…without being didactic (which the book often is). Instead, wooden people moved through a series of hoops towards a conclusion which is neither satisfying or brave.

Don’t waste your time.

All The Bright Places – Jennifer Niven

Not all YA books are created equal. When I was a teen in the 70s YA was barely a thing. Basically I went from reading The Bobbsey Twins and Trixie Beldon to reading Jane Eyre and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. The Scholastic flyer at school offered some options and I can all-the-bright-places-jktspecifically remember reading and falling in love with S.E. Hinton’s That Was Then, This is Now (a book I loved way more than I loved The Outsiders), and Judy Blume’s Forever, but the reading choices certainly weren’t as varied as they are for teens today.  I read a lot of YA now because I teach teens. Lots of it is mediocre. Lots of it is good. Then, every so often, you read a book you just want to tell all your students about. You want every single teen you know on the planet to read it. Jennifer Niven’s All the Bright Places is one of those books.

Theodore Finch is seventeen. He begins his story by asking “Is today a good day to die?” He’s considering this question from “a narrow ledge six floors above the ground.” That’s when he sees the girl, Violet Markey. “She stands a few feet away on the other side of the tower, also out on the ledge…”

This is how Niven begins to tell the story of Finch and Violet. Finch ‘rescues’ Violet, but because he has a reputation as being a freak, a loser, and unstable, the rumour around school is that Violet saved him. From this unlikely scenario, a beautiful friendship springs.

After Finch talks Violet off the ledge he asks her: “Do you think there’s such a thing as a perfect day?…A perfect day. Start to finish. Where nothing terrible or sad or ordinary happens. Do you think it’s possible?”  Just typing that now makes me feel as though I want to cry.

Violet doesn’t seem like a likely match for Finch. She’s “cheerleader popular” and dates Ryan Cross, a movie star handsome baseball star. Still, when the two are paired to participate in a “Wander Indiana” project (part of a course in U.S. Geography), they discover a kinship neither expected. As they travel to various points of interest, they start to trust each other. Violet begins the painful process of shedding the grief of a tragic accident and Finch finds more and more reason to stay “awake.”

One of the things that makes a YA novel great for me is characterization. I want the teens to feel authentic, not like stereotypes. Finch and Violet are beautifully crafted creations, and the people who circle their lives (parents and siblings and friends) are also well-drawn and nuanced. Finch’s mom is broken from her failed marriage; Violet’s parents are over-protective. As a mom of teens myself, I like to see parents in YA portrayed as real people – flawed and messy and trying to do the best they can even when can’t fix anything at all.

The other element of the novel that Niven handles so well is the issue of mental illness. All the Bright Places is not a “sick lit” book. Finch’s struggles are authentic and nuanced and painfully rendered in prose that is a joy to read. I can’t remember the last time a character has broken my heart, but Finch most certainly did.

I can’t recommend All the Bright Places highly enough. Buy it for every teen you know. Buy it for yourself.

 

 

Winger – Andrew Smith

It is so much easier for me to read YA books that are geared for girls, but since it’s often the boys who are reluctant readers in my classes, I really make an effort to buy and read books I think might appeal to them. Andrew Smith’s book Winger is one book which has garnered copious praise – and it is definitely a book I can highly recommend to those boys who say they don’t like to read.

Ryan Dean West attends a private school called Pine Mountain in Oregon. He’s in Grade Eleven winger-smitheven though he’s only fourteen. He’s super smart. He’s also a talented artist (many of his drawings, cartoons and graphs are included in this novel) and he’s also a terrific rugby player. His nickname, “Winger”, comes from the position he plays on the team.

But despite a whole list of things in Ryan Dean’s plus column, there’s a few things on the negative side. For one, this year he’s living in Opportunity Hall, O-Hall, where they stuck him “after they caught me hacking a cell phone account so I could make undetected, untraceable free calls.” Living in O-Hall sucks for two reasons: 1. Ryan Dean isn’t living with his two best friends Seanie and J.P. and 2. His new roomie is Chas Becker “a friendless jerk who navigated the seas of high school with his rudder fixed on a steady course of intimidation and cruelty.”

The one thing in Ryan West’s life that is both blessing a curse is Annie Altman.  Annie is also in grade eleven, but she’s sixteen. She’s Ryan Dean’s best friend, but he is also desperately in love with her.

…most people would think there couldn’t possibly be anything between us beyond a noticeable degree of friendship, even if I did think she was smoking hot in an alluring and mature “naughty babysitter” kind of way

This year at Pine Mountain turns out to be a year of firsts for Ryan Dean, but it is also a year when he makes a lot of mistakes. He capitulates to teen pressure and drinks for the first time. He gets into fist fights. He makes out with another guy’s girlfriend. But through it all, he remains self-deprecating. In his words: “I am such a loser.”

Ryan Dean is just one of the many lovely things about Smith’s book. I am not a fourteen-year-old-boy, nor have I ever been, but Ryan Dean’s voice feels authentic to me. He is constantly walking that fine line between making a smart choice and doing something he knows he shouldn’t. His narrative is filled with inappropriate talk about sex (just about every girl/woman he encounters makes his acute sexual radar) and expletives which he only ever uses “in writing, and occasionally in silent prayer.”

Winger is filled with laugh-out-loud moments – mostly due to inappropriate sex-talk, but also really lovely moments between Annie and Ryan Dean and Ryan Dean and Joey, another guy on the rugby team who also happens to be gay.

You couldn’t pay me to be a teenager today. But spending time with them is always a delight, even when they break my heart.

Highly recommended.