The Midnight Library – Matt Haig

Nora Seed, the protagonist of Matt Haig’s novel The Midnight Library, wants to die. She’s just been fired from her job at a music store, she is estranged from her brother, the only remaining member of her immediate family, and her cat has died. What has she got to live for, really? So she takes too many antidepressants and ends up – well, in the Midnight Library.

The librarian (who just happens to have been the librarian at Hazeldene School back when Nora was a kid) tells her

“Between life and death there is a library […] And within that library, the shelves go on forever. Every book provides a chance to try another life you could have lived. To things how things would be different if you had made other choices…Would you have done anything different, if you had the chance to undo your regrets?”

There’s a bunch of mumbo-jumbo and quantum physics and philosophy and stuff about “sliders” (others, like Nora, who are dipping in and out of “lives less traveled”), but ultimately, Nora gets to choose new lives until she settles on a life she actually wants to live.

First, though, she has to tackle her Book of Regrets. That’s a brick of a book where “Every regret [she has] ever had, since the day [she was] born, is recorded.” All those regrets are bound to wear a person down, right?

I know people will lap The Midnight Library up like it’s the most perfect bowl of ice cream on the planet. And why not? It’s easy enough to read; the plot is straightforward despite the fact that Nora can cast off undesirable lives like unwanted coats. She eventually realizes what I could have told her in about thirty seconds: no life is perfect. The perfect life is the life – the one and only life – you’ve got. If only Nora had realized that, y’know, before she swallowed the pills.

There was no emotional punch for me. Nora was okay. The rest of the characters were okay. The writing was okay. It was all…okay. Well, perhaps a bit twee, really. I’d suggest that if you want to read something that really encourages you to consider the value of every day of your life, you read (or even better, watch) Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize winning play Our Town.

The Reunion – Guillaume Musso

There must be something about fall that has me reading these thrillers about reunions. In this latest outing, The Reunion (translated from the French), Guillaume Russo spins the story of successful novelist Thomas Degalais who returns to  Côte d’Azur to attend his 25th high school reunion. He’s nervous about coming home; there are secrets buried at Lycee International Saint-Exupery. Literally.

First, there’s the unsolved disappearance of Thomas’s popular classmate, Vinca Rockwell, thought to have run off with her philosophy teacher, Alexis Clement.

They were last seen the following day in a hotel in the seventh arrondissement near the Basilica Saint-Clotilde. After that, all trace of their presence in Paris was lost. They never reappeared, never contacted friends or family. They quite literally vanished.

That, at least, was the official version.

Clearly, there is more to the story than this. Thomas was in love with Vinca, and when he arrives back in his home town, long-held secrets start to spill out. Reunited with his besties, Maxime and Fanny, Thomas starts to pull at the threads of his memories. And that, right there, is a can of worms.

Then, there’s the body buried in the gym walls (not a spoiler; it’s revealed in the blurb), a body which may at long last be discovered as the gym is due to be demolished. Who is it? Who committed the crime? Worry not, all is revealed quite quickly, but this reveal is only the tip of the iceberg.

The Reunion flashes back and forth between now, at the reunion, and then, back before Vinca went missing. There is A LOT going on in this novel. Too much, I’d say; I never felt really invested in any one thing because I didn’t feel like I knew any of the characters (or liked any of them) well enough to care. Yeah, sure, it all ties together but it didn’t feel satisfying.

Maybe it’s because it’s a translation – which regular readers (do I actually have any of those?) will know, I often find stilted and stodgy. Loads of critics thought it was the BEST BOOK EVER. I found it kind of slow-moving, until it wasn’t, but so much was packed into the last 40 pages, I just found it all sort of…ridiculous. Apparently, a limited TV series is in production. That might be okay. For me, though, the book was just sort of meh.

Alone – Cyn Balog

Cyn Balog’s YA novel Alone is the story of sixteen-year-old Seda who lives with her mother and four younger siblings in Bismarck-Chisholm House or, as she calls it, Bug House. Seda’s mother is a former Boston College professor who is currently writing a book, her father is MIA and her siblings are two sets of twins aged six and four. Seda was a twin, too, but her brother Sawyer was absorbed into her own body in the womb, or so says family lore.

For years Bug House was run as a “Murder” house, where patrons could stay in one of eighteen guest rooms and had the daylights scared out of them. It’s an isolated spot; the nearest store is twenty miles down the mountain. Seda, our narrator, laments the isolation, the loss of her life in Boston, her father’s disappearance from her life, her mother’s kookiness, the fact that there’s no cell service, and just the general creepiness of Bug House.

All that changes though when a freak snow storm ushers in a handful of strangers, three boys and two girls.

The other members of his group are beautiful, yes, but he – with his thick mop of hair spilling out of the openings of the hockey mask and big heavily-lidded brown eyes – is godly. He’s the kind that always gets it last and worst in slasher films, just before his smart and sassy girlfriend-heroine saves the day.

Alone amps up the creepy house narrative with an unreliable narrator, a house full of secrets and a scavenger hunt game that quickly goes off the rails. There’s enough twists and turns and things that go bump in the night to make any fan of horror movies or scary stories happy. I did find that it got off to a slow start, but once it got going it was an enjoyable page-turner.

In My Dreams I Hold a Knife – Ashley Winstead

There seems to be a lot of novels out there about college reunions these days. Must be a millennial thing. I was excited to read Ashley Winstead’s debut In My Dreams I Hold a Knife because I love the title and that cover. Sadly, I am ambivalent about the book as a whole. I am not going to say I didn’t like it because I was wholly invested for the first third and still hanging in there for the second, but by the last third I was just….nope.

Jessica Miller is headed back to Duquette University to attend her ten-year class reunion. She is keen to show her former gang, collectively known as the East House Seven, that she has made it.

I wanted them to see perfection. I ached for it in the deep, dark core of me: to be so good I left other people in the dust.

The East Coast Seven are “the people responsible for the best days of [Jessica’s] life, and the worst.” She’d met them all early in freshman year, and they’d bonded instantly. There’s Jack (“an eighteen-year-old Mr. Rogers”), Heather ( “the confident blonde”), Coop (hot in a “one-time, get-the-bad-boy-out-of-your-system kind of way”), Mint (“the most beautiful boy” Jess had ever seen) , Frankie (“tall and broad…in a way that screamed athlete”), and Caro (“small and olive-skinned and pretty”).

Fast-forward a decade though and she’s really only speaking to Caro, her bestie, and Jack. Going back to Duquette means seeing Mint (her boyfriend through college) and Coop (the boy she actually loved) again. One is married to another girl, and one is engaged to Caro. As if this drama isn’t enough, this reunion has the potential to stir up the unsolved murder of Heather, who was savagely stabbed to death senior year.

So – there are lots of things I did like about this book. First of all, I am all about angst and the relationship between Jessica and Coop has that in spades. Although I am long past my university days, I do enjoy books set on college campuses. Heather’s unsolved murder has lots of potential for red herrings and such and, of course, who doesn’t love a story where people are reunited after a trauma? I also thought the writing was quite good – no quibbles with that.

The novel flips back and forth between then and now. We get glimpses of the East House Seven at various points during the four years of college, but mostly through Jess’s eyes. Towards the end, we do see certain events from the 3rd person perspective of some of the other characters. These sections felt mostly expository because they were things Jess couldn’t possibly have known, but the reader had to be told in order for the narrative to make sense.

I was wholly invested at the start. It started to unravel, though, when Eric Shelby, Heather’s younger brother, confronts the group at the reunion. He’s determined to reveal who is responsible for his sister’s death – something the police hadn’t been able to do. As each character is accused and their closely-held secrets start spilling out, the book started to lose momentum for me. I think part of the issue might have been that Winstead just tried to cram way too much into the book, and none of these “secrets” had any room to breathe. Part of the problem might have been the first person narration. It’s limiting because we only know that character’s perspective and of course, in a book like this, you have to wonder how reliable the narrator actually is. The denouement just felt sort of ridiculous – lots of shouting, and running.

All of that said, though, I would 100% read something else by Winstead. Despite the fact that In My Dreams I Hold a Knife didn’t quite work for me, it was brimming with potential and I suspect that her next offering will be awesome.

The Night She Disappeared – Lisa Jewell

It takes a skilled writer to successfully plot a novel with a million moving parts and Lisa Jewell (The Girls in the Garden, I Found You, Watching You, The Family Upstairs, Invisible Girl ) always makes it seem so easy. Her latest novel, The Night She Disappeared flips back and forth in time, and between characters and tells the riveting tale of one mother’s desperate search for her nineteen-year-old daughter, Tallulah.

Tallulah and her boyfriend, Zach, and their baby son, Noah, live with Tallulah’s mom, Kim. Zach has only recently become a part of the family again; when Tallulah told him she was pregnant he didn’t believe her, but now they are trying to make a go of it. When the novel opens, Zach and Tallulah are heading out for a much-deserved break to celebrate the end of term for Tallulah’s college course and, unbeknownst to her, a surprise proposal. But they don’t come home.

A year later, Sophie Beck and her partner, Shaun Gray, move into a little cottage on the grounds of Maypole House, the private school where Gray is to be the new headmaster. They’ve given up their London lives, but Sophie hopes that this change will suit them. She’s a writer of cozy crime novels and the last thing she is expecting is to discover a mystery in her own back garden, but that’s what happens. Someone has left a sign “Dig Here” and when she does, Sophie finds an engagement ring and, putting her detective skills to work, she discovers that the ring was purchased by Zach.

Then there’s Scarlett Jacques, the enigmatic girl from Tallulah’s school. She was the last person to see Tallulah and Zach alive. They’d been with her and some other friends at Dark Place, her family’s home. The house is

a hodgepodge of disparate architectural styles, blended almost seamlessly together across three wings, set around a central courtyard. The sun sparkles off the diamonds of leaded windows on the left wing and larger Victorian casement of sash windows on the right. It should be a mess, but it’s not; it is exquisitely beautiful.

It seems as though Tallulah and Zach have vanished into thin air, a notion Kim simply cannot accept. They would never leave their son, but it isn’t until Sophie discovers the ring that some new information shakes loose. All the while, Jewell reveals the secrets characters have been keeping, revealing complex interior lives.

Like all Jewell’s novels, The Night She Disappeared is twisty-turny, well-written and loads of fun to read. I always keep a stock of unread novels by her on my shelf because nothing beats a book slump like Lisa Jewell.

It Sounded Better in My Head – Nina Kenwood

Nina Kenwood’s YA debut It Sounded Better in My Head wasn’t even on my radar when I recently picked it up at the bookstore. It was a William C. Morris Debut finalist and had excellent reviews from School Library Journal and Bookpage (I trust those sort of endorsements over author plugs, tbh) so I bought it. It might have languished with all the other unread books in my class library, but I picked it up to read and honestly couldn’t put it down.

Eighteen-year-old Australian, Natalie, is waiting for her university admission results and planning her future with her besties Zach and Lucy, when her parents announce that they are separating. Worse, they knew this was coming and had neglected to tell her for ten months. Some almost-adults might take this in their stride, but it knocks Natalie sideways because she likes solid plans and the status quo. That’s how her world works.

Or that’s how it has worked ever since she hit puberty and her body betrayed her.

I went from being a straight up-and-down stick figure to a scribble of hips, stomach, breasts, thighs and stretch marks. I didn’t even know stretch marks were a thing.

[…]

But the stretch marks were nothing compared with the pimples. A regular scattering of pimples at first, and then more, and more. Then pimples that turned, almost overnight, into deep, cystic acne. […] It’s gross. I was gross. I woke up thinking that every day for a long time.

I suspect we can all remember the awkwardness of being a teenager, of comparing yourself to others, and Natalie spends most of her early teens friendless and hiding out. At thirteen, she becomes “Reluctant Natalie. Anxious Natalie. Bitter Natalie. Neurotic Natalie.” At fifteen, though, after medication clears up her skin a little and her mother convinces her to attend a creative writing camp, she meets Lucy and Zach.

It’s still hard for Natalie to put herself out there, but all that is about to change when Zach’s older brother, Alex, and his friend, Owen, invite her to a party and Natalie surprises herself by accepting. When Alex and Natalie find themselves in a dark alley because of a game of Spin the Bottle, Natalie finds herself in uncharted water.

And the whole thing is sheer delight. Honestly, I loved Natalie. Let’s face it, it’s only as an adult looking back that your teen years seem even mildly awesome. The best years of your life, my ass. I suspect Natalie speaks for a whole bunch of teens who breathe a sigh of relief when Friday night rolls around. For Natalie it meant that she didn’t “have to go outside or see anyone other than [her] parents for the next two whole days.”

Over the course of just a few days, Natalie’s life is upended, but sometimes that’s what needs to happen in order to get the life you want.

Highly recommended.

Shuggie Bain – Douglas Stuart

Douglas Stuart’s debut Shuggie Bain won the 2020 Booker and was nominated for many other prizes and awards. For good reason. Stuart’s novel traces the life of Hugh “Shuggie” Bain from childhood until he’s sixteen and it’s a doozy.

Shuggie’s mother, Agnes, is central to this story. She’s thirty-nine and lives in a flat with her parents and “to have her husband and three children, two of them nearly grown, all crammed together in her mammy’s flat, gave her a feeling of failure.” Agnes’s endless struggles with men and alcohol are central to Shuggie’s story. His older brother and sister, Leek and Catherine, are far more jaded about their mother’s problems than Shuggie, who is much younger and much more hopeful that Agnes will get better.

When Big Shug, a philandering cab driver, finds a house for them outside of Glasgow, Agnes swells with hope. But when she sees their new home, surrounded by “huge black mounds, hills that looked as if they had been burnt free of life […] the plainest, unhappiest-looking homes Agnes had ever seen” she no longer views the move as a step in the right direction for her marriage. She and her children are isolated from the support system of her parents, and Big Shug essentially walks out on them, too.

Agnes is one of the most fascinating characters I have encountered in a long time. While it is certainly true that she is a hopeless drunk, she is also charming and intelligent. Despite the ways in which she neglects her children, particularly Shuggie, she loves them. Douglas’s novel gives readers plenty of reasons to admire Agnes, even as we watch her sink further and further into the bottle. It is much easier to hate Big Shug because he deliberately abandons his family and does it in such a way as to cause the most damage.

The novel is bookended with Shuggie at sixteen, living in a bed-sit and fending for himself. If you ever want to understand how a person comes to be where they are, examine their childhood. For better or worse, there’s no escaping the influence our families have on us. Shuggie does his best to look out for his mom, especially after Catherine leaves to get married and Leek is finally put out (and can I just say for the record that I LOVED Leek. There’s a scene when he escapes to the top of a hill with his sketchbook that broke my heart.) Shuggie is too young to realize what his older siblings already know: nothing he can do will save Agnes. But that doesn’t stop him from trying.

Although you might think that a book about an alcoholic living in Glasgow (the setting for so much despair in the 1980s due to Thatcher’s economic policies) would be relentlessly grim, it isn’t. These characters are resilient and determined and so lovingly rendered, they will find a place in your heart.

Apparently, Stuart’s manuscript was turned down 32 times! Imagine. If you haven’t yet read the book, I urge you to give it a go. Stuart is a born story teller and this is clearly a story that needed to be told.

Highly recommended.

The Great Godden – Meg Rosoff

Nothing much happens in Meg Rosoff’s latest novel The Great Godden. Well, maybe I shouldn’t say nothing happens. The novel is a quiet gut-punch rather than the wallop Rosoff packed with her novel How I Live Now, but it’s a fascinating character study and great read.

Two families spend time every summer on the Suffolk coast. There’s our unnamed narrator and their siblings Mattie, Tamsin and Alex and their parents. Then there’s Hope and Mal, who live in another little house on the property. Hope is the narrator’s father’s “much younger cousin”. This summer is disrupted by the arrival of Kit and Hugo Godden, sons of Hope’s godmother, Florence, Hollywood film star.

Our narrator’s gender is deliberately ambiguous and one of the delights of the novel is trying to suss out if they are male or female – although ultimately it doesn’t matter. Either way, the first time they see Kit Godden, as he unfolds himself from the back of his mother’s limo, they think

Kit Godden was something else – golden skin, thick auburn hair streaked with gold, hazel eyes flecked with gold – a kind of golden Greek statue of youth. […] In my memory he seems to glow. I can shut my eyes and see how he looked to us then, skin lit from within as if he’d spent hours absorbing sunlight only to slow release it back into the world.

Kit’s younger brother, Hugo, pales by comparison and the two brothers don’t seem to get along. Kit’s charm contrasts sharply with Hugo’s surly quiet. But as we all know, all that glitters in not gold.

The narrator watches as Kit’s attention focuses on the their younger (and beautiful) sister Mattie, and how “Within four seconds he had charmed her practically to death.” The narrator is also smitten, though. As the summer goes along, they watch Mattie coast on the romantic highs Kit offers, and also watch her shrink when Kit diverts his attention away from her. And that’s what Kit does: he’s a player and The Great Godden is a wonderful character study of how we take the shiny, pretty bauble at face-value.

The Great Godden is shot through with a vein of dread; we can see the potential for the train wreck a mile down the track, but we keep heading for it. That’s what the narrator does. One part of them doesn’t believe a thing that comes out of Kit’s mouth; the other part believes every word and the whole thing is fascinating.

This is a story which is told from some distant point, where the narrator has had time to reflect on that summer and it adds an air of melancholy to the story because the narrator realizes, in retrospect, exactly what was lost. I love books that do this. The plot unfolds in the moment, but the gaze is distant. The writing is straight-forward and clean and I gobbled the book up in a couple of sittings.

Meg Rosoff talks about the book here.

The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires – Grady Hendrix

I was introduced to vampires at an early age. My mom used to take my younger brothers and me to the community centre where they offered Saturday matinees of movies like Count Dracula and Taste the Blood of Dracula starring Christopher Lee. I mean, they’re campy now, but back when I was a kid of 11 and 12, they were scary. Although I probably didn’t understand the sexual component of the thrall as a kid, I knew that vampires were powerful opponents and you wouldn’t want to be running into them in a dark alley. So, I have always loved vampires, but I guess I love the romantic version of them, the beautiful, tortured versus the ugly creepy. David Boreanaz as Angel rather than Gary Oldman as Dracula, if you know what I mean.

The vampire in Grady Hendrix’s novel The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires lands somewhere between Angel and Dracula. He’s charming, handsome and a skilled predator. When he arrives in Old Village, an enclave of Charleston, South Carolina, he causes a stir amongst the women who live there. These are women who are expected to look after the children, the house, the pets, their appearance and not much more.

The novel opens with a funny scene. Patricia, the protagonist, is getting ready to host book club. There are very strict rules about this book club: Marjorie Fretwell chooses thirteen “appropriate” titles from the Western canon, and the members of the book club vote for the eleven they would like to read. Tonight, Patricia is supposed to lead a discussion about Cry, the Beloved Country and that’s a problem because she didn’t manage to read it. Turns out, Patricia is just in the wrong book club and when she and some other women band together to read things like Helter Skelter and Psycho, things turn around for her.

When James Harris shows up in Old Village, though, things become decidedly weird. First, Patricia discovers Mrs. Savage, an old woman from down the street (and James Harris’s aunt), in her alley eating a raccoon, “one gory hand [in] its open belly [scooping] up a fistful of translucent guts.” This scene is an early reminder that this is indeed a horror novel. There are many other totally squicky scenes: rats and bugs and all manner of yuck – which is, gross, yes, but also awesome. Then, Miss Mary, her mother-in-law, who now lives with Patricia and her family, claims she knows James Harris from decades before – although surely that can’t be, and besides, Miss Mary has dementia. Fans of vampire lore will have fun spotting the tropes, and seeing the ways Hendrix has upended them, too.

It takes a while for Patricia to figure out what’s going on and even then it’s unbelievable and impossible and, by then, James Harris has made himself a part of the community. When children start disappearing, though, Patricia is determined to do something about it.

Patricia is a wonderful character. At the beginning, she’s a southern housewife who is unable to assert herself. She gave up her nursing career to marry her psychiatrist husband, who is a jackass, and raise her children, Korey and Blue, and her life is now monotonous; she is a shadow of who she was. James Harris shakes her out of her stupor.

I loved The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires. It’s funny, horrifying, nostalgic and smart. If you like horror novels, I can highly recommend this one. I have also read My Best Friend’s Exorcism, which is also excellent.

Punching the Air – Ibi Zoboi & Yusef Salaam

I try to remember what I privileged position I inhabit when I read books like Punching the Air by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam. What can I, a white, middle-aged (I know, it’s a stretch to call me middle-aged), middle-class woman from Eastern Canada, really know about what it is to live in this world as a BIPOC? Nothing. It would be a stretch to even say that I have been discriminated against because I am female because if I have been, I haven’t really been aware of it.

I do think I have a responsibility, as an educator – sure – but also as a human being, to educate myself and expose myself to experiences that are unfamiliar to me. It’s not enough to hope that our children will be better humans than we are; we all have to do better.

Punching the Air is a novel-in-verse that tells the story of sixteen-year-old Amal Shahid, an artist and poet, who finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time and ends up in jail for a crime he didn’t commit, although he does admit that he “threw the first punch.” Turns out “…it wasn’t about/who threw the first punch/ It was about courts, turf, space/ Me and them other boys/ were just trying to go home”.

Jeremy, the white boy who gets hurt in the altercation is in a coma, and Amal ends up in a juvenile detention facility. He tries to work through his confusion and anger, but it isn’t easy. “I went from/kid to criminal to felon/to prisoner to inmate” and despite a supportive family he must navigate his new reality on his own.

Punching the Air tracks Amal’s time in the facility where he vacillates between hopelessness and hopefulness. Although he is not doing hard time with hardened criminals, juvie is still an unpleasant place. Amal tries to keep his head down. He goes to school. He does what is asked of him – mostly. But he’s a kid and the system is stacked against him and the weight of all those bricks of discrimination weigh heavy on him.

I read Punching the Air in an afternoon. Amal’s voice is clear as a bell. This experience, while fictional, comes from a place of truth. Yusef Salaam himself was convicted of a crime he did not commit when he was just fifteen. (Central Park Five) His experiences with a justice system that is clearly stacked against people of colour – and there is no one in their right mind who could dispute this – adds a layer of authenticity to Amal’s story. But even without Salaam’s experiences, this novel has much to contribute to the discussion and is a worthy addition to classroom and personal libraries. I will certainly be recommending it to my students.