Tag Archive | Book Review

Delicate Monsters – Stephanie Kuehn

The three central characters in Stephanie Kuehn’s darkdarkdark YA novel Delicatedelicate Monsters are hard to spend time with. From the moment we meet  Sadie, and Emerson  and his  brother, Miles, we embark on a journey that is both awful and strangely – redemptive. In any case, these train-wreck teens are hard to look away from.

Sadie has just returned to her home from a camp where the girls were “all supposed to be “troubled”” Sadie’s far tougher than these girls who are “wide-eyed and tragic, fragile herd-like things, brimming with stories of Painful Childhoods.” Sadie can’t relate because she is not like them. She has “no interest in introspection” and “she found threats a curious thing because she didn’t respond to them the way she was meant to…threats made Sadie’s skin grow cold and her brain grow mean.” Mean is exactly what Sadie is, too.

At first eighteen-year-old Emerson seems like an uncomplicated lug of a guy. He lives with his widowed mother and younger brother, Miles, 15. Miles is sickly and has been diagnosed – or misdiagnosed –  with a variety of ailments: night terrors, separation anxiety, rashes, fever, celiac. Despite his health concerns and the fact that Miles “didn’t like other people,” Emerson was convinced that his younger brother is “destined for…something. Greatness?” Miles is peculiar and although Emerson seems to care about Miles, he doesn’t defend him against the constant barrage of abuse – both physical and verbal – Miles takes from the thugs at school.

Kuehn dances these three teens together when Sadie returns to her hometown. She’s been expelled from boarding school (again) for almost getting someone killed. (The details of that are revealed through email exchanges between Sadie and her ‘victim’, Roman Bender.) The aforementioned camp was clearly a placeholder because her father is M.I.A. and her mother seems to have no real interest in her daughter. She’s been out of the hometown loop for a while, but she remembers Emerson. She specifically remembers the things they used to do together when they were kids and his mother, a nurse, would bring them out to Sadie’s family’s vineyard to care for Sadie’s grandfather.

Sadie doesn’t remember Miles, though. They meet during fencing and if she has any redeeming qualities, she shows them in her interactions with him. For a kid who tries to blend into the shadows, Miles seems to respond to Sadie’s “I don’t give a shit, but here, eat this sandwich” approach to friendship.

I love the way Kuehn writes her characters. This is my third book by her and although I didn’t love it as much as I loved Charm & Strange, I still couldn’t stop turning the pages. We’d be naïve to think there aren’t lost, damaged kids like Sadie, Emerson and Miles in the world. Kuehn doesn’t mince words or tread lightly in Delicate Monsters, and as prickly as these three are – the mother in me just wanted to hug them and try to right their scarily off-kilter worlds.

The Girl in the Red Coat – Kate Hamer

Until about the midway point, I couldn’t put Kate Hamer’s novel The Girl in the Red Coat down. When eight-year-old Carmel Wakefield disappears, her mother, Beth,  is unhinged by her grief. Hamer’s novel follows Beth’s narrative as well as Carmel’s and until the reader understands the reasons for Carmel’s abduction, the novel is propulsive and riveting.

red coatBeth is sort of a hippie. She and her ex-husband, Paul, had “run a business together buying and selling ginseng and specialty teas.” Paul, after leaving the marriage, has been a relatively absent father and his relationship with Beth is strained mostly because he has a new, much-younger girlfriend.

Carmel is a precocious child. At a parent teacher meeting, the headmaster  explains to Beth that Carmel’s “vocabulary is extremely advanced. Her imagination is amazing, I don’t think she quite sees the world like the rest of us.”

On the fateful day that Carmel disappears, Beth has taken her to children’s story festival. She has decided that she needs to set aside the grief of her crumbled marriage and “start afresh.”

The festival is a treat and Carmel “can feel words come shooting out of the tent doors and [she] just want[s] to stand there at the openings and let them fizz on [her] brain.” It’s a hot, crowded day and pretty soon Beth is getting cross and Carmel, in an act of defiance, ducks under a table to read a book. When she reappears, ages later, the fog has rolled in and her mother is gone. That’s when the man appears. He tells her that he is her grandfather and that her mother has been in a terrible accident.

Carmel has no reason to doubt the man. Her mother has been estranged from her parents for her whole life – it’s one of the things that has plagued Carmel’s young mind. Why doesn’t she have grandparents to bring her treats like her friends do?  So, fearful and clearly alone, Carmel goes with the man who promises to take her to the hospital to see her mother. Of course, that’s not what happens.

The Girl in the Red Coat is suspenseful until Granddad’s motives are revealed and then it started to feel like a different book to me. In the first part, when Carmel is taken to a strange house where she meets her grandfather’s partner, Dorothy, Hamer does a wonderful job of stringing the reader (and Carmel) along. Why can’t she see her mom? Why can’t they contact her dad? Where are they?

Beth’s journey is also heart-wrenching. She counts the days Carmel has been gone. She searches for her daughter. She goes through the motions. But the time goes by and it’s like Carmel has dropped off the face of the earth.

Those early days are compelling for Beth, Carmel and the reader. For me, though, the novel’s suspense is spoiled by its key secret – and once that’s out I found myself caring less about all the players, which is too bad, because the book is beautifully written and had a lot of potential.

Behind Her Eyes – Sarah Pinborough

Louise is a single mom to six-year-old Adam. She has a penchant for wine, smokes (although not in front of her son) and could stand to lose a few pounds.

My life is a blur of endless routine. I get Adam up and get him to school. If I’m working and want to get in early, he goes to breakfast club. If I’m not working, I may spend an hour or so browsing charity shops for designer castoffs that will fit the clinic’s subtly expensive look. Then it’s just cooking, cleaning, shopping until Adam comes home and then it’s homework, tea, bath, story, bed for him, and wine and bad sleep for me.

Adele is a the wife of David, a doctor. Their marriage is clearly rocky, The new house, David’s new practice, the fact that Adele is beautiful, none of it seems to make any difference.

Why can’t he still love me? Why can’t our life been as I’d hoped, as I’d wanted, after everything I’ve done for him? We have plenty of money. He has the career he’d dreamed of. I have only ever tried to be the perfect wife and give him the perfect life.

Adele and Louise take turns narrating in Sarah Pinborough’s novel Behind Her Eyes. behindTheir lives intersect when Louise meets David at a bar and they share a ‘moment’ and then she discovers he’s her new boss and then she bumps into Adele (literally) in the street. Louise is charmed by Adele who seems wholly glamorous and somehow innocent. Adele takes Louise on as a project, encouraging her to quit smoking and join the gym. Soon the women are sharing a close friendship which is complicated by the fact that Louise is in love with David and pretty soon the two have moved from the ‘moment’ to a full-on relationship.

Behind Her Eyes is full of conveniences. Louise’s ex-husband takes Adam away to France for a month leaving Louise the freedom to sleep with David and have coffee with Adele. She is bereft of friends except for Sophie, an unemployed actress married to a music exec. Despite the fact that Sophie continually sleeps around on her husband, she turns sanctimonious when discussing Louise’s affair with David, telling her that “having an affair is a big enough secret and not one you’re really cut out for.” Louise and Adele bond over the fact that they both suffer from night terrors.

The novel drops a breadcrumb trail of then, which allows the reader a glimpse into Adele’s murky past – parents killed a fire that destroyed part of the estate where she grew up, a stint in some sort of care facility, a close friendship with a fellow patient, Rob. In the now, Adele is less transparent. She is clearly duplicitous, we’re just not sure how or why.

Behind Her Eyes was a book club pick and although some of the women in my group enjoyed reading the book – even I did to a point – I don’t think any of us would say we loved it. I definitely didn’t. Perhaps you could argue that the clues were there all along and I know all the BIG NAME  readers out there loved the novel’s twist, but for me – I just felt cheated. Way too deus ex machina for me.

That said – I am in the minority for sure and if nothing else, Behind Her Eyes will get you turning the pages.

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.