The Girls Are All So Nice Here – Laurie Elizabeth Flynn

So. Much. Fun.

Ambrosia (Amb) Wellington has just received an invitation to attend the tenth reunion of her Wesleyan graduating class. When the email arrives, Ambrosia deletes it immediately. As she does the second email. Then she gets a note in the mail: “You need to come. We need to talk about what we did that night.” The who and what implied in this message is at the centre of Laurie Elizabeth Flynn’s thriller The Girls Are All So Nice Here. Flynn’s first novel for adults (she has written three novels for young adults) is pretty much un-put-down-able. I started it one night when the book I was reading just wasn’t floating my boat. I read 100 pages and only stopped because it was a school night and I needed to turn off my light.

The novel flips back and forth between now, Amb in the present day, an executive at a NYC PR firm and then, when Amb was an awkward college freshman looking for a way to fit in. She arrives at her college dorm, Butterfields, and meets her new roommate, Flora, and although they’d been emailing back and forth over the summer, Amb seems to bristle when she meets Flora in person. She thinks about what she’ll say about her when she texts her high school bestie, Billie, recalling how they’d studied the pretty girls in high school, peeling “them like overripe fruit in marathon gossip sessions to lessen the sting of not being invited to their parties.”

Flora isn’t a mean girl, though. She’s kind and thoughtful and leaves cheerful, positive post-its on the doors of the other girls in their dorm. Her life at home, despite her wealth, isn’t perfect. Her long-term boyfriend, son of her mother’s best friend, is attending Dartmouth, three hours away. So the friction isn’t instigated or perpetuated by Flora; Amb’s insecurities are the problem. The low-key cool she’d cultivated back home seems misplaced here where “the girls seemed casually beautiful in a way that felt unachievable.” Then she meets Sloane (Sully) Sullivan, a girl with “a face that instantly held everybody’s attention.”

To timid, trying-too-hard Amb, Sully seems fearless. And she is, I guess, if your idea of fearless is someone who drinks, does drugs, and sleeps with just about anyone she crosses paths with. For whatever reason, Amb finds that she will do pretty much anything to get herself on Sully’s radar because when Sully “fixed her gaze on me. It was like being anointed.” Sully’s roommate, Lauren, warns Amb that Sully has “zero attention span”, but Amb is intrigued. Sully isn’t nice though, far from it, and she warps Amb’s insecurities and deep-seated desire to fit in into something toxic.

The Girls Are All So Nice Here, beyond being a page-turning thriller, has lots to say about female relationships. If you were ever on the outside looking in, you’ll relate to these girls. Even when Amb realizes that she’s being manipulated, Sully’s approval means more to her than doing the right thing. And the right thing might have prevented a tragedy which destroys more than one life. The book also has lots to say about a culture that still seems to pit women against each other. Instead of looking out for each other, these girls look for ways to undermine each other. It’s like Mean Girls on steroids.

“Our reign was short and bloody,” Amb recalls. She’s not lying.

Highly recommended.

Girl Crazy – Russell Smith

Justin, the protagonist of Russell Smith’s novel Girl Crazy, is a 32-year-old community college instructor fresh from a break-up with his long-time girlfriend Genevieve. Justin knows it is “a little weird that they kept making plans to see each other and pretending to be friends so soon after the breakup.”

One day, Justin meets Jenna near a payphone. She’s dressed in yoga gear that leaves little to the imagination and Justin is smitten…or aroused…or something. Jenna, it turns out, is in need of medical attention and Justin has a friend who’s a resident at a local hospital. This chance encounter leads Justin into a life that is totally unfamiliar to him.

Although Justin has a grown-up job, it doesn’t take him long to start behaving like an adolescent. That’s the main thing that stood out to me: Justin is immature. But then, I also acted like a crazy person at around that time in my life, or perhaps just a few short years before then, so I shouldn’t be so quick to judge. Perhaps he only seems super young and ridiculous to me because he is half my age.

Once he and Jenna hook up, it’s like a fuse has been lit. Justin is fueled by lust and manipulated into behaving in ways I can’t imagine are in character for him pre-Jenna. I kept wondering why he was doing such crazy things: casually hanging out with criminals, buying drugs via the Internet, seeking out underground card games. But then, I did some stupid things when I was young, usually because there was a boy involved.

It’s interesting to see this world through a guy’s eyes, actually and Justin sees everything through sex. Women are reduced to the sum of their sexiest parts: “a stripe of her belly was visible”, “her lips were so full they looked swollen”, “her thong, rising like a tattoo from between her muscles.” Smith describes sex without romance, but that doesn’t mean it’s not well-written. But it’s also not erotica. But I don’t think this is a love story, either.

Justin is obsessed with Jenna and he wants to save her from herself. Jenna, however, is not interested in being saved. I don’t think she misrepresents herself; I think Justin is thinking with his dick.

I don’t know how I feel about Girl Crazy. I don’t think I am the target audience, but I had zero trouble turning the pages. I would definitely read more by this Canadian writer.

The Project – Courtney Summers

Regular readers of this blog – hmmm, do I even have any of those? – will be familiar with the name Courtney Summers because I have loved every book she has ever written and I have read them all except for her novella Please Remain Calm, which she wrote as a sequel to This is Not a Test, a book which was perfect all on its own. Her other novels include Sadie, (my favourite) Cracked Up to Be, Some Girls Are, Fall For Anything, and All the Rage .

There’s lots to admire about Summers. She’s Canadian. She writes tough, smart, fierce female characters and she puts them (and the reader) through the emotional wringer. Summers herself is delightfully gleeful about the fact that her books are going to emotionally torture you. And as her latest novel, The Project, was nearing its release date, she ramped up her delight at the thought that she was going to wreck us with this new book. Although I didn’t necessarily feel wrecked, I enjoyed The Project , although ‘enjoyed’ might not be the best characterization for a book that is mostly grim.

Bea is six when her little sister Lo is born. She is none-too-pleased about her baby sister’s arrival, but reconsiders her position after her mother tells her that “Having a sister is a promise no one but the two of you can make – and no one but the two of you can break.” That’s the beginning for Lo and Gloria; theirs is an unbreakable bond.

Years later, Lo and her parents are in a terrible car accident. Their parents are killed and Lo lingers on death’s door because “There’s so much wrong […] that what the accident did isn’t going to be what kills her. It’s the infection she’s gotten since.” Bea feels like she will do anything to save her sister and anything turns out to be Lev Warren, leader of The Unity Project.

Flash forward six years. Lo is 19 and working at SVO, a small magazine. Lo’s dream has always been to write, but that’s not what she’s doing at SVO; she’s the editor’s assistant. Bea is gone, sucked into the vortex of The Unity Project, where Lo can’t go. Her dreams of being a writer are stalled. Her life is stalled. And then, waiting for the train, someone who “looks like he hasn’t known sleep in any recent sense of the word” says “You’re Lo.” and then jumps in front of a moving train. His connection to Lo: The Unity Project.

Under Lev Warren’s leadership, The Project is purportedly a “rising social movement” whose “divine mission is to save us from ourselves.”

They have twenty-four/seven drop-in shelters in each city. These shelters also run The Unity Connection, pairing people in need with Project-affiliated services, programs or professional advocates best suited to help them navigate their particular situation – various fresh start programs, youth and adult mentorships, support programs for at-risk youth, domestic violence survivors, addicts, counseling and legal aid, it goes on…not to mention the regular food drives, clothing drives and various fundraising efforts for non-Project charities…people go to that annual sermon at the Garrett Farm and they come out and they want to make the world a better place.

So, yeah, cult. Except no one can prove it and Lev Warren no longer gives interviews.

Lo has always known that’s where Bea is, but she hasn’t been allowed to see her or speak to her in years. When she is suddenly granted the opportunity to interview Warren, she jumps at the chance.

I am fascinated by cults. I watched the whole HBO series about Keith Raniere and NXIVM. You have to wonder how anyone would follow that little tool, but they did. Smart, educated, successful people bought what he was selling. Scientology?! C’mon. You don’t see the problem with worshipping at the altar of a sci-fi writer? Jim Jones? It’s easy to scoff when you’re on the outside, but cult leaders are master manipulators and Lev Warren is no different. I found myself buying into his vision. He had an allure that was undeniable.

The Project is a fascinating look at the bond between sisters, the psychology of cults and the disenfranchised people they prey on and is another solid book by Summers. It didn’t pack the same emotional gut punch as Sadie did, but that is not meant to be a demerit. It will be impossible not to feel worried for Bea and Lo or fascinated by Warren’s thrall.

The Night Inside – Nancy Baker

I have a vague memory of reading Nancy Baker’s novel The Night Inside years ago – perhaps closer to the time it was first published in 1993. I am not going to classify this as a re-read, though, because most of it was so unfamiliar it felt like I was reading it for the first time.

Ardeth Alexander is a grad student who is just about ready to graduate, leave academia behind and step into the real world. She’s the dependable one; her younger sister, Sara, is the wild one. She can’t shake this feeling that she’s being followed, though, and one morning on a run near Casa Loma, she’s grabbed by two thugs and whisked off to parts unknown, where she ends up in a basement cell.

The guy in the cell next to her is Dimitri Rozokov. He’s a vampire, and an old one. He’s lived as long as he has by being extremely careful. Even though Ardeth is sure there is no way he can exist because, after all, “Vampires do not exist, except as metaphors,” Ardeth’s captors prove that he’s deadly by showing Ardeth why he’s in a cell.

Turns out, they’re making movies. Roias, one of the men who nabbed her, gives her a private show and what she witnesses horrifies her.

The vampire was hungry and not particularly neat. When he was done, he dropped Suzy’s body over the table. Blood was smeared across her breasts and shoulders, painted across her face in a parody of cosmetics. Her blonde hair was dark with it, but not as dark as the gaping hole in her throat. When he let her fall, one limp arm knocked over the wedding cake and left its remains decorated with red icing.

It turns out, though, that Rozokov is a civilized being, and in their time chained in cells next to each other, the two captives talk. When it becomes clear that their days are numbered, they devise a plan to escape, but the plan comes at a cost.

I have long been fascinated with vampires. When I was a kid, I can remember going to old black and white movies starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee and being terrified. What was my mother thinking?! I’ve read Dracula and devoured ‘salem’s Lot. Then, right around the time my kids were born, I discovered Buffy the Vampire Slayer and that sent me down a rabbit hole.

I didn’t hate The Night Inside, but I didn’t love it, either. Part of the problem is that there was a lot going on. Rozokov’s back story and the people chasing him might have been enough to sustain a novel. There needed to be a meet cute, or a meet ick in this case, though. Ardeth and Rozokov’s time as captives only makes up a small portion of the story, though, and then the pair are separated. Oddly enough, the novel felt dated to me, which is weird considering Rozokov is 500 years old.

I Hope You’re Listening – Tom Ryan

I Hope You’re Listening, Tom Ryan’s latest YA offering, capitalizes on a couple of today’s most popular phenomena: podcasts and true crime. Dee Skinner was seven when she and her bestie Sibby Carmichael headed out to the woods to play in the treehouse built by their friend Burke’s uncle Terry. Dee’s life is forever changed by that afternoon because Sibby disappears.

What happened to Sibby Carmichael that afternoon in the woods?

If anyone should remember, it’s me. I was there, after all. But ten years and a million sleepless nights later, nothing new comes to me. No sudden revelations, no deeply buried memories emerging from a haze. Just the same few fragments, still crisp and clear in my mind, still as useless as they’ve always been.

Dee struggles with what happened to her friend, and because she wants to help, but doesn’t know how, she starts a podcast called Radio Silent which becomes something of an Internet sensation. Her friend Burke is the only person who knows she’s behind Radio Silent; Dee, known as The Seeker online, wants to keep it on the down-low for reasons mostly having to do with wanting to stay out of the public eye. She was, after all, the girl who didn’t get taken that day in the woods.

Dee uses the power of the Internet to investigate other missing persons cases, but not Sibby’s. She introduces the stories and then lets her listeners, known collectively as the Laptop Detective Agency, share information and look for clues. Radio Silent has actually had some success, too, but survivor guilt still weighs Dee down.

Then another local girl, Layla, goes missing, and the coincidences start piling up. Dee is reluctant to use her platform to dig for evidence; the disappearance is just too close to home, both literally and figuratively. Already the media is sniffing around, and Dee is keen on staying as under the radar as is humanly possible.

I Hope You’re Listening is a page-turning mystery times two: what happened to Sibby? what happened to Layla? The last third of the book is almost impossible to put down. I could totally see this story as a limited series on Netflix. Dee is a wonderful character, vulnerable for sure, but also fearless and smart. I really enjoyed spending time with her.

Tom Ryan is a new-to-me YA writer. I’ve seen him around Twitter and recently attended a virtual reading through the Lorenzo Society where he, Kathleen Peacock (You Were Never Here) and Jo Treggiari (The Grey Sisters) spoke about their writing and read from their novels.. All three of these authors are from the Maritimes, which makes me extra happy to support their work.

You Were Never Here – Kathleen Peacock

There are so many things to admire about Kathleen Peacock’s YA novel You Were Never Here, but let’s just start with the fact that it’s set in New Brunswick. I can’t tell you how much fun it was to read a book that takes place in my home province. Okay – now that that minor squee is out of the way, let’s talk about Mary Catherine Montgomery aka Cat.

Cat has been exiled from New York City, where she lives with her screenplay-writing father, to her Aunt Jet’s in small-town New Brunswick. (The town is called Montgomery Falls, but I pictured Fredericton, for those of you to whom that means something.) Aunt Jet is the caretaker of the family’s now crumbling ancestral home, which she operates – out of necessity – as a boarding house. The reason for Cat’s exile and her subsequent banishment creates just one of You Were Never Here‘s mysteries. Another is the disappearance of Cat’s childhood friend Riley Fraser.

The boy in the picture is handsome. Chiseled jaw and wavy hair kind of handsome. The kind of handsome that gets crowned prom king or maybe class president. Even though the smile on the boy’s face looks forced around the edges, it’s wide enough to bring out the dimple in his left cheek.

There are a thousand Riley Frasers in the world, and the boy in the poster is mine.

Riley Fraser has been missing for months. The two had been friends the summer they were twelve (five years ago, and the last time Cat had been to Montgomery Falls), but something happened between them (another mystery) and even though Cat knows “I don’t owe Riley Fraser anything – not after the last thing he said to me”, knowing that he has disappeared is deeply unsettling.

Cat has no intention of doing anything other keeping to herself while she’s in Montgomery Falls, but then she meets gorgeous Aidan Porter, one of Montgomery House’s boarders. He proves to be a welcome distraction as Cat tries to process not only what happened back home, but also her complicated feelings about Riley, their truncated friendship, and his disappearance.

Those feelings become even more complicated when she bumps into Riley’s older brother, Noah. At first, Noah seems disinterested in his brother’s whereabouts, but soon he and Cat team up to try to solve the mystery of what happened to Riley.

And there’s yet another mystery in You Were Never Here which has to do with Cat herself. She seems very reluctant to touch people. There’s an incident on the bus from NYC to New Brunswick, when Cat hesitates before letting a woman sit beside her.

…there’s only so much you can do when you’re big. You can twist and contort all you want, but volume is volume, and with both of us “fat” – “overweight,” my dad always corrects, as if that somehow sounds better – a trickle of sweat forms where our hips press against each other.

Cat’s size is only part of the issue, though. (And how awesome to encounter a protagonist who is not a ‘perfect’ size zero; neither is her weight a punchline or flaw.) The other reason for Cat’s reluctance to touch people is germane to who Cat is, but I’ll let you discover that secret on your own.

I flew through You Were Never Here because it was all the things I love in YA: well-written, suspenseful, peopled with realistic characters, and loads of fun. The last third of the book was so tense, I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough. The fact that I was in a somewhat familiar setting was just the icing on the cake.

Highly recommended.

Rabbit Foot Bill – Helen Humphreys

When asked how we (the ladies in my book club) would rate Canadian writer Helen Humphreys’ new book Rabbit Foot Bill on a scale of one to ten, the average score was about six. It’s a shockingly low number for an author whose book The Lost Garden we almost all universally loved. (I have also read her novels Afterimage and Coventry.) I have come to expect a certain degree of poetry in Humphreys’ prose, and while Rabbit Foot Bill is certainly easy to read, it lacked something. Usually after a book club meeting, especially if I am ambivalent about a book, I come away with a deeper appreciation of it. Honestly, I still don’t know how I really feel about this book.

Leonard Flint lives in small-town Saskatchewan with his parents. He’s a solitary kid and his only friend is Bill, a quiet man who lives in Sugar Hill, “right inside the hill.”

We have been friends for a year, Bill and I, and although people don’t approve, we are friends anyway. I like that Bill isn’t bothered by what people say.

The reasons why people don’t like my being friends with Bill are these: first, because he is a man and I am a twelve-year-old boy; and second, because he is a man who is not like other men. He doesn’t talk much. He doesn’t live in a house. He doesn’t have a real job. He doesn’t have a family.

One day, Leonard witnesses a shocking act of violence that lands Bill in prison. It’s fifteen years before he sees his friend again, and when he does it’s at the Weymouth Mental Hospital. Leonard has just accepted his first job as a psychiatrist, a job that he doesn’t really understand how to do. He really is out of sorts and then one night, crossing the yard back to the cottage where he lives he sees a man “moving along the outside of the building. He’s far enough away to be in the shadows and he has his back to me, but I recognize the way he moves as though it was myself moving in my own skin.”

It is indeed Bill, and although Leonard is warned against making contact with him, he can’t help himself. Bill and Leonard’s pasts are so closely linked that it is impossible for him to resist, even though it means that he is derelict in his duties to his own patients.

Rabbit Foot Bill is based a a true story but the real-life relationship between Bill and Leonard is peripheral at best. In Humphreys’ imagination their relationship is far more complex, which is of course the stock and trade of a writer. There were times when I wondered if there wasn’t some sort of homoerotic connection between the men, and the reveal, when it comes, is certainly plausible.

So, I am not sure why I didn’t love this book. Thinking about it now, as I write this, I guess I can see its merits, but I just felt it was somehow superficial. True, as my fellow book club member Karen said, Humphreys doesn’t get in the way of the story. In some ways, though, I wish she had spent just a teensy bit more time making these characters more substantial.

It’s not a total miss for me, but I didn’t love it.

Our Little Secret – Roz Nay

New-to-me Canadian writer Roz Nay’s debut, Our Little Secret, delivers the goods. I couldn’t put this book down.

Our Little Secret is Angela Petitjean’s story, and it unfurls in an interrogation room at the local police station. Detective Novak is asking questions about a missing woman, Saskia Parker.

That’s the thing: they sound like they’re asking about Saskia, but all roads lead to Mr. Parker and me. The police want to know if I’m in love with him, and they ask it like it’s the simplest explanation rather than the most complicated. My definition is nothing like theirs, though.

Angela meets HP, (the Mr. Parker in question) when they are in Grade 10. This is a new school for Angela and she tells the detective that “Moving when you’re fifteen is terrifying.” Angela is immediately targeted by the mean, cool girls until HP comes to her rescue. That moment forges a bond between the two teens. Over the course of the next two years, Angela (or “Little John” as he calls her) and HP are inseparable, but not romantically linked.

I never understood why HP had chosen me as his friend, or how I’d gotten an all-access pass to him. It was like having a key to the White House. He told me everything he thought and felt and wanted, and I don’t think he told anyone else in the world…

By the end of high school, though, their relationship shifts gears. And then, Angela gets an opportunity to spend a year at Oxford, but HP stays behind. The distance complicates their new status. Enter Saskia, an effusive Australian HP meets while visiting Angela in England..

Our Little Secret garnered a lot of praise when it was published in 2017. I find thrillers are hit and miss. They sound good, but they ultimately disappoint. Not this one.

I felt terrific sympathy for Angela, who claims and maintains her innocence after Saskia goes missing. Her friendship and then romantic relationship with HP is believable and complicated. There’s angst here and I love me some angst. It’s only as her story unravels, that we start to see that her version of events might be just a tad unreliable. But we all revise our histories to a certain degree, don’t we?

If you’re looking for an addictive, well-written, smart thriller, look no further.

Highly recommended.

Fall For Anything – Courtney Summers

fallsummersSeventeen-year-old Eddie and her mother have recently suffered a tremendous loss. Eddie’s father, a once-renowned photographer, has taken his own life and neither of the Reeves women are coping very well. Eddie’s mother drifts, ghost-like, around the house wearing her father’s housecoat being fussed over by her best friend, Beth, who drives Eddie “fucking crazy.” Eddie avoids her house as much as possible, choosing instead to hang with her best friend, Milo.

Milo would do almost anything for me. He’s been my best friend since second grade, when a brief but weird obsession with the original Star Trek  got him sort of ostracized at the same time all the girls in our class decided a girl named Eddie must actually really be a boy. By third grade, we weren’t so outcast anymore, but we were beyond needing other people. We still are.

Eddie is trying to make sense of her father’s death, and she is pulled back to the place where he ended his life: Tarver’s Warehouse, an “old and abandoned” building.

I come at night, waiting for some piece of the puzzle to click into place, waiting to understand, and I stay until the living world presses in on me and I have to go back to it…

She is surprised to meet Culler Evans, a protege of her father’s, at Tarver’s. Culler tells Eddie that he knows her father “spent a lot of time here, so I’ve been coming out, just trying to figure it all out, I guess. I mean, to understand why he’d …”

The two instantly bond over their desire to understand this inexplicable suicide. When it appears that Mr. Reeves has left a series of clues that might unravel the ‘mystery’ of his suicide, it sends Culler and Eddie on a road trip.

Canadian YA writer Courtney Summers (Sadie, All the Rage, This is Not a Test, Cracked Up to Be, Some Girls Are)  has created yet another memorable character in Eddie Reeves. This makes the sixth of her books I’ve read and I have not once been disappointed to spend time with her characters. I always find her protagonists to be flawed, tough and vulnerable in ways that make them extremely sympathetic.

Eddie is no different. Her grief is palpable. It manifests itself in her hands, which she claims are dying, and in the ways she pulls people in and pushes them away. Even her escape route at night (she climbs out of her window and jumps to the ground) seems fraught with meaning. “I jump” she says. “It’s effortless. It is so easy.”

Fall For Anything is all the things a great YA book should be (well, all the things any great book should be): well-written, compelling, page-turning and with emotional heft. I held off reading it as long as I could because now I have to wait until February 2021 for The Project, Summers’ next novel. I know it will be worth the wait.

Highly recommended.

Follow Me Down – Sherri Smith

When Mia’s twin brother Lucas goes missing after being linked to the death of one of his followstudents, Mia has no choice but to return to her small North Dakota hometown. Sherri Smith’s debut novel Follow Me Down plumbs the depths of sibling ties, and uncovers the slimy underbelly of a town that seems to be filled with dark secrets and duplicitous characters.

Mia isn’t exactly living her best life in Chicago when the Wayoata Police Chief calls her asking if she’s heard from her brother. (She hasn’t.) She works the night shift at a corner pharmacy, lives alone and is generally a prickly character. Lucas was always the golden child.

Lucas was already showing signs of how annoyingly good-looking he was going to be.[…] Blond, startling blue eyes, and movie star bone structure. […] As an adult, I’d actually witnessed women going slack-jawed over him, like, unable to speak for a few seconds as they took him in.

Mia is convinced that her brother is innocent of any wrongdoing; he just doesn’t have it in him to hurt anyone. He is a beloved English teacher and hockey coach at the local high school. The local police, including her childhood friend Garrett Burke, seem to have their sights set on Lucas, though, and Mia is sure that she has to a) find her brother and b) prove his innocence.

To say Follow Me Down is jam packed is an understatement. Mia ignores Garrett and turns over every rock possible trying to figure out what might have happened, not only to her brother but to the teenager he is accused of killing. The rumour mill is working overtime, and people in the community seem to think that Lucas and Joanna Wilkes were having an affair. Mia’s amateur investigation seems to stir up a hornet’s nest. A black truck keeps following her and trying to run her off the road; someone seems to be sneaking into her brother’s apartment and taking things; there are more shady characters than you can shake a stick at.

The whole time Mia is sleuthing, she’s self-medicating from her own personal stash of prescription meds. On more than one occasion, I wondered whether she was a reliable narrator. I can’t say that I warmed to her, really.

Still, by about the half-way mark there was no turning away from this story. I needed to know what happened to Lucas, and even if Mia didn’t exactly endear herself to me, I was still invested in her quest for answers.

A solid read.