A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara

Hanya Yanagihara’s 2015 novel A Little Life garnered copious praise and was a finalist for both the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Award, as well as making it onto many ‘Best of’ lists when it was published. It has been sitting on my TBR shelf for at least two years and I made it my mission this summer to make my way through at least two of my chunkier books: I read Empire of the Vampire in July and finished this one a few days ago.

The novel tells the story of four friends who were college roommates and are now making their way in the world in Manhattan in the nineties. There’s JB, the gay artist; Malcom, the bi-racial trust fund kid; Willem, the handsome wannabe actor and Jude, the mysterious, brilliant glue that bonds these men together over three+ decades.

Why wasn’t friendship as good as a relationship? Why wasn’t it even better? It was two people who remained together, day after day, bound not by sex or physical attraction or money or children or property, but only by the shared agreement to keep going, the mutual dedication to a union that could never be codified. Friendship was witnessing another’s slow drip of miseries, and long bouts of boredom, and occasional triumphs. It was feeling honored by the privilege of getting to be present for another person’s most dismal moments, and knowing that you could be dismal around him in return.

At first I was wholly invested in their stories, although it’s really mostly about Jude. It’s clear early on that he’s had some sort of tragedy/trauma in his past (and although there are no trigger warnings: reader beware), but he is not forthcoming about the details of his life and spends most of the novel’s hefty 814 pages alternately berating and abusing himself. He doesn’t deserve happiness, after all, even though almost everyone who meets him admires him and loves him and even, in his early twenties, want to adopt him.

As the narrative starts to close in on Jude and his relationship with Willem (which morphs from besties to something more, although I am not sure there was really a point to having their relationship become romantic), it loses its focus on JB and Malcom. Suddenly they are bit players in their own story and perhaps they should have been treated as such from the beginning because Yanagihara clearly loves Willem and Jude the most. I started to feel a bit as if these two men were trauma-bonded. Jude has clearly had an horrific life and although I am sure there are lots of people who do, it just felt as though Yanagihara went way over the top with Jude (he meets one monster after another over the course of his life, but as smart as he is and despite having so many amazing people in his adult life, he never really gets the help he so desperately needs.) His story wore me out- and not in a good way where I felt as though there was a cathartic payoff; at a certain point, the book just became an exhaustive catalogue of misery.

I think this is a novel that has been quite divisive. People seem to love it or hate it, although I wouldn’t characterize my reaction to it as quite so black or white. The book is not without its charms. In the beginning I enjoyed the writing (it was Donna Tartt-lite), but I found the last 300-ish pages almost unbearable. (It just felt more of the same: misery heaped onto misery.) I also grew weary of the long lists of names — like, really, what are the chances that you’d know two dudes with the same name so you have to call them Asian Henry Young and Black Henry Young? — and the balance between the horrible things that happened to Jude and the amazing things that happened seemed, frankly, unrealistic. By the time the men were in their late forties I expected them to at least sound different than they did at twenty, but no. I didn’t believe in them.

Although there are many critics who love this book and have called it a masterpiece, there are others who point out the book’s flaws. I rarely read reviews before I write my own, but I felt like I had to go see if I was the outlier; it seems I am not. Slate took a closer look at the book when it first came out. The New York Times also had somewhat ambivalent feelings about the novel.

Would I recommend this book? Not really. I am not sure there is an emotional payoff big enough to wade through all the trauma for. It is almost relentlessly grim and not even decent writing can save it from its perpetual bleakness.

First Born – Will Dean

I discovered Will Dean on Twitter and a few months ago I nabbed a copy of his well-reviewed novel The Last Thing to Burn, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I recently picked up First Born and although I read it in just a couple of sittings, I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much.

First Born is the story of 22-year-old identical twins Molly and Katie “KT” Raven. Molly tells us “I don’t use the term identical twin because it’s a blatant lie. A travesty. Our base DNA is identical, sure, but that’s about all that is. We were once one person. We are not anymore.”

When the novel opens, Molly is working in an office in London, while KT is studying in New York City. KT is the risk taker; Molly spends her time assessing threats and preparing for the worst. Molly sees danger everywhere and she is always prepared, even going to far as to making homemade weapons out of pound coins and a sock.

The twins’ parents have been visiting KT in New York and when Molly arrives, they spend their time eating toast and drinking tea and waiting for the police to give them information about just what happened to KT. There’s very little to go on, and Molly feels that it is her duty to help the investigation along. She tracks down KT’s best friend, boyfriend, investigates the creepy son of the landlord and uncovers some things about her sister she did not know.

First Born does offer a couple of excellent twists, and Molly’s voice is definitely singular. The action clips along, for sure. For me, though, it wasn’t believable and I wasn’t sure I understood character motivations at all. By about a third of the way in the prose started to grate a little bit and there was something sort of ‘lazy’ about it. Like, suddenly a character has a gun which she pulled out of nowhere, but we’re told she’d purchased before. That sort of thing. The shenanigans were all a bit over-the-top.

Still – if that sort of thing doesn’t irk you, you’ll probably have a lot of fun reading this book – if you are willing to suspend disbelief and don’t mind the crazy.

Heartstopper – Alice Oseman

Heartstopper by British author Alice Oseman began its life as a web series on Tumblr and Tapas. According to Oseman’s websiteHeartstopper has amassed an enormous online fanbase with over 52.1 million views to date. [She] crowd-funded a limited print-run edition, meeting her funding goal in less than two hours. Hachette Children’s Group published Heartstopper Volume One more widely in Spring 2019, followed by Volume Two in July of the same year.”

This is the story of Charlie Spring, a fifteen-year-old who becomes friends with Nick Nelson, who is a sixteen-year-old rugby player. Although they attend the same school, their paths have never crossed, probably because Nick is an outgoing, popular athlete and Charlie is shy. Oh, and Charlie is openly gay.

When the novel opens, Charlie is making out with Ben. In secret. That’s because Ben has a girlfriend and Charlie hasn’t quite come to terms with the fact that he is being used. Nick and Charlie end up sitting next to each other in class, and the two become unlikely friends. When Nick notices how fast Charlie is, he invites him to join the rugby team. Despite his friends’ caution that Nick is straight, Charlie starts to develop feelings for Nick.

The relationship that develops between the boys is sheer delight. Nick is good for Charlie, but Charlie helps Nick, too. Watching them navigate their feelings for each other is a joyful experience.

I haven’t seen the Netflix series, but it looks terrific.

Magpie – Elizabeth Day

One of my favourite Booktubers, Jack Edwards, loved Elizabeth Day’s novel Magpie, and it was already on my TBR list anyway, so with his added endorsement, I picked it up. (Oh, who am I kidding? I don’t need anyone’s recommendation to buy more books; I just buy them.)

Anyway.

Marisa hasn’t always been lucky in love until she meets Jake.

He smelled of freshly washed laundry. No cologne. His face was uncomplicated: A defined chin and boyish cheeks. Kind eyes. A smattering of sandy-colored stubble. He had looks you could imagine aging well and at the same time you could see instantly what sort of child he had been.

Marisa moves in with Jake, and they make plans to have a family. If it all seems to be happening a little quickly, which Marisa’s friend Jas suggests, Marisa claims that “when you know, you just know.” But, as it turns out, there are things that Marisa does not know.

When Jake suggests that they take in a lodger to help pay their mortgage, Marisa agrees thinking that “it will alleviate the pressure on Jake and that, as a result, he will be more present with her. Enter Kate.

She is soft-spoken with a lively, sharp face and brown hair with an unruly fringe falling to just below her eyebrows so that the first time they meet to assess her suitability, Marisa notices that Kate keeps blowing it out of her eyes.

At first the new living arrangement works out okay. Marisa writes and illustrates custom children’s books, and she has the house all to herself during the day. But then she starts to notice something between Jake and Kate. As her uneasiness grows, so does her paranoia.

Magpie depends on subterfuge. There were lots of things I liked about this book, but there were also some things that seemed a little over-the-top and contrived. Still, it was well-written, easy to read, and I think most people will enjoy its twists and turns.

The House Next Door – Anne Rivers Siddons

When Anne Rivers Siddons’s 1978 novel The House Next Door begins, Colquitt Kennedy tells us that she and Walter are not the sort of people who you’d find in People magazine. Colquitt and her husband, Walter, are a couple of 30-something yuppies who live on a tony street in suburban Atlanta.

We have a good house, but not a grand one, in a better neighborhood than we can really afford, because the down payment was a wedding gift from my parents. We have two cars, which is all we need since there are only two of us.

Walter is the president of an advertising agency and Colquitt does free-lance public relations. By her own estimation they are “fairly ordinary people,” but all this is about to change because Colquitt and Walter have decided to tell their story to People.

The house next door is haunted, and I am the one responsible for all the publicity.

For the longest time, there was no house next door to the Kennedy’s – just an odd pie-shaped lot which seemed impossible to build on.

In our midtown neighborhood it was an oasis of wild, dark greenness, luminous in the spring with white dogwood and honeysuckle and rhododendron blooms, giving one the feeling of being cloistered away in a mountain retreat even though our street is only one block off one of the city’s main thoroughfares.

When news spreads that someone has bought the land and is intending on building, no one on the street can quite believe it. The newly married Harralsons, Buddy and Pie, (I know – what’s with the names? But, it is the South), and their young, brilliant and handsome architect Kim Dougherty do build there, though, and the house is magnificent: everyone says so. But then stuff starts to happen: dead animals around the property, Pie has a devastating mishap and then, at their housewarming party – well…

Then the Sheehans move in. Anita is emerging from a long convalescence, her husband Buck tells the Kennedys. Things don’t go all that well for them, either. Colquitt has a niggling fear that the house is sinister and that fear is confirmed by Kim, who seems to have lost his designing mojo and tells Colquitt that he believes the house is responsible.

And so it goes. More owners: more troubles, until Colquitt feels that the only thing she can do is warn people.

By today’s standards, The House Next Door isn’t particularly scary and there are some references that certainly haven’t aged well. In his introduction, Stephen King calls the book “well planned and brilliantly cast” and I would have to agree. The book has elements of the southern gothic, which include “the presence of irrational, horrific, and transgressive thoughts, desires, and impulses; grotesque characters; dark humor, and an overall angst-ridden sense of alienation” (Oxford).

I wasn’t scared reading this book, or even creeped out, but it is well-written and wholly enjoyable.

Empire of the Vampire – Jay Kristoff

Oh, vampires. Unless you sparkle, you’re my favourite fantasy creature. It’s hard to find books about vampires with any real bite, y’know. I enjoyed Grady Hendrix’s The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires and Christopher Buehlman’s The Lesser Dead, but never in my wildest dreams did I think I was going to enjoy a 700+ page high fantasy novel about vampires. The first in a series, no less! Because 700+ pages. And fantasy. Not really two things that make my very-much-still-beating bookish heart pitter pat. I was gifted a copy of Jay Kristoff’s novel Empire of the Dead last Christmas and it seemed like a good time to take a crack at it because I am now on holiday.

Gabriel de Leon is a Silversaint. What’s that you might well ask? Silversaints are paleblood’s (half vampire) who have taken a vow to protect the church and the realm from coldbloods, full-on vampires. At fifteen, Gabriel was whisked away from his home to San Michon, a holy place where he is trained in the art of killing vampires.

I do here vow; Let the dark know my name and despair. So long as it burns, I am the flame. So long as it bleeds, I am the blade. So long as it sins, I am the saint. And I am silver.

When the story begins, Gabriel is a prisoner of Margot Chastain, Undying Empress of Wolves and Men. Chastain’s historian, Marquis Jean-Francois, has joined Gabriel in his cell to “gather all knowledge of [his] order.”

The conversation between Gabriel and Jean-Francois provides the structure for the story the Silversaint tells. It bounces back and forth in time and introduces a cast of characters, many of whom readers will fall madly in love with (including a lioness, a horse and a sword. Not joking.) As for Gabriel: he’s cynical, foul-mouthed, loyal and brave. He’s the hero of the tale, but he’s imperfect, for sure. He’s also likeable.

I wouldn’t have necessarily said that I read fantasy, but according to this definition from Book Riot, I guess I do:

The basic defining tenet of high fantasy is that a fantasy story is set in an alternative fictional world, typically with magical elements. High fantasy is sometimes called epic fantasy, and some of the hallmarks of this subset of the fantasy genre include a high page count, lots of characters, usually a quest, and, most importantly, an alternative or secondary world as opposed to the real or primary world. With high fantasy, there are usual global stakes involved—you know, good versus evil, saving the world, and all that.

In any case, I read enough to understand the world building and the mention of mythical creatures. It’s easy to spot the nods to Tolkien, Martin, Malory, Christianity, Beowulf, and even Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It is clear that Kristoff is a reader, and books and their myriad joys are mentioned on more than one occasion.

As an English teacher, I could easily identify the hero’s journey and so I was able to anticipate some of the twists. I probably don’t read enough fantasy to know whether Kristoff’s novel is cream of the crop or not though, but by my metric it’s great.

I’ve read some reviews that complained about the novel’s pacing. That wasn’t a problem for me. I read this book in a week and I very much looked forward to picking it up whenever I had the chance. There was lots of gory action and well-written fight scenes. There were lots of funny moments and also some truly heart-breaking moments.

I would suspect that when you are creating a world, lots of exposition is necessary – but I never felt as though Kristoff wasted time with backstory. Readers were dropped into a fully-realized world and I wasn’t too concerned with who everyone was beyond who is good and who is most definitely not. I have no clue how Kristoff managed to keep all the characters and the rules of this world straight, but it felt like a real enough place to me.

Books need stakes and Empire of the Vampire has them. The world has been dark for almost three decades, and part of this story is when Gabriel runs into someone from San Michon who claims they have found something that can finally bring an end to the darkness. Gabriel is on a vengeance mission, but he agrees to accompany the group. Cue the bloodshed.

If I have one niggle about the story, it’s the expletive-heavy insults like “you fuck-eyed little pig dick” and “fuck you, you little shitgrubber.” There’s a lot of swearing in this book. A lot a lot. I swear a fair bit myself, so when I notice it in fiction it’s past the annoying phase.

Still, I have to say that I had fun reading Empire of the Vampire far more than I expected I would. It’s the first book in a series and while I am generally pretty lazy about keeping up with series, I will definitely be spending more time with Gabriel de Leon.

Orbiting Jupiter – Gary D. Schmidt

I’m not sure if award-winning author Gary D. Schmidt’s 2015 novel Orbiting Jupiter is supposed to be Young Adult or Middle Grade, but either way it’s a terrific albeit heart-wrenching tale which I read in one sitting.

Jack is just 12 when Joseph, 14, comes to live on his family’s organic farm in Maine because his parents have a reputation for successfully fostering difficult kids.

…he won’t wear anything orange. He won’t let anyone stand behind him. He won’t let anyone touch him. He won’t go into rooms that are too small. And he won’t eat canned peaches.

[…]

“He has a daughter.”

Despite his troubled past, Joseph is not a delinquent. It is clear he’s been dealt a shitty hand, but his quiet determination soon wins over his foster family as well as a couple teachers at his school. Honestly, it was impossible not to like Joseph, which is what makes the story so tragic.

Another reason to like this novel is Jack. Although he is younger than Joseph and certainly far less experienced, his hopefulness and loyalty to his new ‘brother’ grounds the novel. He catalogues the times Joseph smiles (or almost smiles) and is constantly reminding Joseph that his name is Jack not Jackie, but their banter and their silences is certainly indicative of two boys who care for each other.

Orbiting Jupiter is a thoughtful, quiet and heart-breaking book and I highly recommend it.

Dark Rooms – Lili Anolik

As far as metaphors go, the dark rooms of Lili Anolik’s impressive debut Dark Rooms is apt. This is the story of Grace Baker whose younger sister, Nica, is found murdered in the cemetery which borders Chandler Academy, the private boarding school the sisters attend in Hartford Connecticut and where their parents are teachers.

Nica’s death leaves Grace reeling. Over-shadowed by Nica’s vivacious, doesn’t-give-a-shit personality in life, she now buckles under the weight of her death. She just wanted to “go to sleep [to escape] that total exhaustion, where even my face was numb, and none of the talk matter[ed] anyway because she was already dead dead dead.”

Someone is quickly blamed for Nica’s death, but when Grace discovers evidence which might actually exonerate him, she begins to dig deeper into her sister’s life.

Nica’s death sends ripples into Grace’s life. Her parents’ marriage falls apart and her mother leaves. Grace’s friends – well, Nica’s friends, including her boyfriend, Jamie (for whom Grace has feelings that perhaps cross the line of friendship) – rally around Grace, yet “there was a tension, a hostility even.” Grace escapes to college after graduation, but that’s a disaster, too.

A brand-new life was settling around me. It was ugly and it was empty. but I was okay with it because, thanks to the drugs, I wasn’t really in it. Not really being in it, however, had its consequences.

When she returns home, she gets a job at Chandler and starts to unravel the story of her sister. She soon discovers that nothing in her life is as it seems.

Dark Rooms is a well-written, mystery with some interesting twists. Although the main character is barely out of high school, I wouldn’t call this YA, really, although I did read it from my classroom library. There’s a lot goin on and a lot of characters to keep track of, but I enjoyed my time with Grace (well, maybe ‘enjoyed’ isn’t the right word) and I would definitely read more by this author.

Seven Days in June – Tia Williams

I flew through the first 100 pages of Tia Williams’s novel Seven Days in June. Was this going to be 2022’s The Paper Palace? I wondered.

Nope.

Eva Mercy is the author of the best selling erotica series Cursed. She’s a single mom living with her 12-year-old daughter Audre in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Except for the fact that the fifteenth installment of her witch – in – love – with – a – vampire series is due on her publisher’s desk in a week and she’s run out of steam, she has a fabulous life. Well, she does suffer from debilitating migraines and she does have a complicated relationship with her mother, Lizette. But otherwise, life’s good.

Then, there’s Shane Hall, reclusive award winning author who now spends his time trying to mentor at-risk youth, giving them the support he never had as a kid. He’s recently sober and as part of his recovery, he feels there is one wrong he has to right and it concerns Eva.

He decides the best thing to do is ambush her – after fifteen years – at the State of the Black Author event.

When a horror-movie character sees a ghost, she emits a bloodcurdling shriek. Claws at her cheeks. Runs for her life. Eva was trapped onstage in broad view of New York’s literary community, so she did none of those things. Instead, her hands went completely slack, and her microphone slipped to the floor with a heavy thunk.

For Eva, this was “the moment she’d always feared” but also “the moment she’d always anticipated.” Although he is still devastatingly beautiful – because of course he is – seeing him again shoots Eva straight back to twelfth grade, which is the last time she’d seen him.

Look, I have zero complaints about well-written romance novels. There was lots to like about Seven Days in June. I liked that it was set in NYC; I liked the fandom aspect of Eva’s novels; I liked Audre even though she sounded more like a grown-ass woman than a twelve year old.

Once Eva and Shane are reunited, it’s just a sex romp, really because – sure – two hot thirty-somethings are going to get “groiny” with one another because they have chemistry and feelings and history. But where’s the tension?

Their week together as high school seniors was meant to be some big meeting of the souls, but it was mostly a drug and alcohol fueled week crashing in someone’s empty mansion. I mean, is that the stuff epic romances are made of? Something happened that week, but it’s explained with a phone call. That was one of my issues with this book, actually, all the plot points that just felt like a way for the story to pivot. Ty. Eva’s family ring. For me, the book tried too hard to be more than the sum of its parts.

Seven Days in June is a sometimes funny, decently-written romance about two beautiful people who have sex. A lot. It is not ground-breaking.

Writers & Lovers – Lily King

From my vantage point, a 31-year-old college grad should have it all together. Of course, that’s a ridiculous assumption to make especially given that the last thing I was when I was that age was together.

Casey, the first-person-narrator of Lily King’s novel Writers & Lovers, lives in what is essentially a potting shed, hiding from the creditors who are after her for defaulted student loans, desperately trying to finish the novel she’s been working on for the past six years, and trying to come to terms with the sudden and devastating loss of her mother.

Casey is aware that she is “not the youngest kind of adult anymore.” She has a crap job at Iris, a restaurant located on the third floor of a building owned by Harvard. She doesn’t get the best shifts and is shafted by her co-workers who are always “making sure everything is to their advantage.” Anyone who has ever worked in the service industry will recognize the hierarchy and kitchen shenanigans as King has written them here.

I look beat up. like someone who has gotten ill and aged a decade in a few months. I look into my eyes, but they aren’t really mine, not the eyes I used to have. They’re the eyes of someone very tired and very sad, and once I see them I feel even sadder and then I see that sadness, that compassion, for the sadness in my eyes, and I see the water rising in them. I’m both the sad person and the person wanting to comfort the sad person.

Working at Iris isn’t the only thing sucking the life out of Casey though. Shortly after her mother died unexpectedly, she went to a writer’s retreat and met Luke. It ended badly. Casey has been struggling with the double loss ever since.

King’s novel is a coming-of-age story, really. It is a story of the difficulties of navigating life when you are stuck, as Casey most decidedly is. Enter Silas and Oscar, two different men who offer two different opportunities. I very much enjoyed her journey, even though she seemed very young. I suppose I was once, too.