Island of Lost Girls – Jennifer McMahon

Rhonda Farr, the protagonist of Jennifer McMahon’s second novel Island of Lost Girls, has stopped at the Mini Mart for gas when she sees something that sends her reeling back through her past. A gold VW Beetle pulls up next to her, a car she recognizes, but instead of being driven by the eccentric Laura Lee, it’s being driven by a large, white rabbit.

…when the rabbit got out of the car, there in the Pat’s Mini Mart parking lot at quarter to three on a Monday afternoon, it didn’t occur to Rhonda that there might be a person inside. He hopped like a bunny, moved quickly, nervously, jerking his white head one way, then the other. He turned toward Rhonda, and for an instant he seemed to stare at her with his blind plastic eyes.

While Rhonda watches, the rabbit knocks on the door of another car parked in the lot and leads little Ernestine Florucci, whose mother is inside the store, away. It is from this absurd beginning that Jennifer McMahon (Promise Not to Tell, Dismantled, The Winter People) spins the tale of not one missing girl, but two.

Rhonda, perhaps out of guilt, decides to help with the search effort and to do a little investigating of her own. She’s aided by Warren, Pat’s nephew. Pike’s Crossing is a small place, and Rhonda knows everyone. Trying to help find Ernestine also brings back a wave of memories about Lizzy, Rhonda’s childhood best friend who also went missing many years ago. It also brings to mind the summer they spent together launching a production of Peter Pan with Lizzie’s older brother, Peter, who is the object of Rhonda’s unrequited affection and also her dearest friend. As she searches for clues, Rhonda comes to suspect that Peter might have something to do with Ernestine’s disappearance.

There is a mystery, well two mysteries, at the centre of McMahon’s novel and I think she successfully pushes the plot of both along, switching between the past and present with ease. (I read the book in pretty much one sitting, which is about a good a recommendation as I can offer, really.)

This is also a book about the loss of innocence. Rhonda loses hers when she discovers family secrets, and when she realizes her feelings towards Peter are not returned. It also ruminates on the end of childhood. Rhonda recalls her role as Wendy in Peter Pan and remembers saying her lines and having “a sudden vision of herself as an adult,saying that line quietly on some far-off night as she stared up at the sky, like it might help bring her back.”

I haven’t always liked everything McMahon has written, but I did enjoy this book.

The Wildling Sisters – Eve Chase

The four Wilde sisters (Flora, Pam, Margot and Dot) are spending the summer at Applecote, a manor house in the Cotswolds. They have many happy memories of time spent here, but this summer is different. For one thing, their cousin, Audrey, is gone – having disappeared without a trace five years earlier – and their aunt and uncle haven’t quite recovered from the loss. For another, there’s Tom and Harry, the boys from the estate across the river. Their arrival upsets the easy camaraderie between the three oldest sisters as they vie for the boys’ attention.

Eve Chase’s novel The Wildling Sisters is a slow burn gothic novel that slips back and forth between that summer in 1959 and the present day when Jessie and her husband Will, (and their young daughter Romy, and Will’s teenage daughter from his first marriage, Bella) buy Applecote in an effort to escape London’s madness and settle into a quieter life. There’s also that thing that happened at Bella’s school. Fresh start and all that.

Crime. Crowds. The way a big city forces girls to grow up too fast, strips them of their innocence. It’s time for the family to leave London, move somewhere gentler, more benign.

Jessie also hopes that this will be a new beginning for her and Bella. Being a step mother is hard enough without the shadow of Bella’s mom, the perfect and tragically-killed-in-a-car accident super mom, Mandy, hanging over their heads. The idyllic notion Jessie has of what Applecote might do for her family doesn’t quite come to fruition, though. Will spends a great deal of time in the city dealing with a work crisis, and Jessie begins to feel more and more isolated. Plus, there are all sorts of rumours about Applecote and what happened there 50 years ago.

Fifteen-year-old Margot is our narrator in 1959. The middle sister, she is aware of her shortcomings. She doesn’t “turn heads like Flora” or “command attention in a room like Pam through sheer, unembarrassable life force.” She was closest to Audrey, and so she is the most apprehensive about returning to Applecote.

…the sky is as I remember it: blue, warm as a bath, the air transparent. not washing-up-water-tinged as it is in London, alive with butterflies and birds, so many birds. So much is the same that it highlights the one crushing, unbelievable thing that is not: Audrey isn’t about to come belting out of the house, running down the path, excitedly calling my name.

This is a slow burn sort of novel. It’s a mystery: what happened to Audrey? It also begins with the image of the girls dragging a body across the lawn of Applecote. That can’t be good, right? It takes a long time to get anywhere, which isn’t a criticism because the book is well-written and does evoke a specific time and place. It also plumbs the depths of family relationships, not just between the Wilde sisters, but also the longings of daughters for mothers and mothers for daughters.

Definitely worth a read.

Wonder When You’ll Miss Me – Amanda Davis

In the Afterward of Amanda Davis’s novel Wonder When You’ll Miss Me, Michael Chabon laments the fact that Davis died in a tragic airplane accident at just 32. “It is unfair, as well as cruel, to try to assess the overall literary merit, not to mention the prospects of future greatness, of a young woman who managed to produce…a single short-story collection, the remarkable Circling the Drain, and a lone novel,” he says. According to Chabon, Davis was the real deal, someone who likely could have written just about anything due to her “sharp, sharp mind, her omnivorous interests, and her understanding of human emotion.”

Wonder When You’ll Miss Me is Faith Duckle’s story. She’s returned to school after several months in hospital after a suicide attempt.

I did it on a clear day, just before Christmas. I had thought about it constantly and planned a little, but when it came right down to it, I didn’t wake up that morning with an idea of what would happen or when I would know. I just knew. The light inside me had flickered and gone out.

The impetus for Faith’s suicide attempt is a horrific assault which had taken place under the bleachers at school during homecoming. A group of junior boys had plied Faith with “red punch that tasted like popsicles” and made her feel “normal.” Now, seven months later, she is back at school, forty-eight pounds lighter, but it seemed like “no one had even noticed I was gone.”

Friendless, except for the fat girl who follows her in the hall and sits behind her in class, offering unsolicited commentary, Faith struggles to regain equilibrium. Eventually, as memories of the event start to resurface, and with the fat girl’s constant prodding, Faith commits an act of violence and then hits the road in search of Charlie, the brother of her friend from the psych ward.

She ends up with a traveling circus, shoveling elephant shit and dreaming of becoming an aerial artist. Seeing Mina perform for the first time is revelatory for Faith, who must learn how to live in a body that has been changed by trauma. Mina “flew lightly, gracefully, as though it were perfectly natural to trust her entire body to this single thread.”

Wonder When You’ll Miss Me is a beautiful book about misfits, kindness, and our ability to heal. I loved Faith’s time with the circus-folk and I was rooting for her success the whole time.

Sweet Sorrow – David Nicholls

Because I have such a backlog of books on my tbr shelf, I rarely make impulse purchases these days. If I buy a new book, it’s usually because I’ve heard of it somehow and even if I do buy it, that doesn’t necessarily mean I will read it straight away. David Nicholls’ (One Day) new book, Sweet Sorrow, was irresistible, though. I bought it and read it immediately.

Charlie Lewis, our narrator, is recounting his post GCSE summer. His life is kind of a mess. His parents have recently split; his mother and younger sister, Billie, have gone off to live with his mom’s new man and Charlie has been left to look after his father, who spends his days in the gloom, listening to jazz albums and drinking or sleeping on the sofa. Of his three best mates from school, Harper, Fox and Lloyd, only Harper seems to understand what a grim time this is for Charlie. When he’s not working his part-time job at a local petrol station, Charlie spends most of his time riding his bike around. That’s how he comes across Fran Fisher.

Fran is part of the theatre troupe Full Fathom Five. They’re rehearsing Romeo and Juliet at Fawley Manor, a country estate owned by senior thespians, Polly and Bernard. The troupe is in desperate need of more males, and so Fran agrees to have coffee with Charlie if he comes back on Monday and participates.

I did go back, because it was inconceivable that I would not see that face again, and if doing so meant a half day of Theatre Sports, then that was the price I’d pay.

Thus begins a summer of Shakespeare and first love for Charlie. “When these stories – love stories – are told, it’s hard not to ascribe meaning and inevitability to entirely innocuous chance events,” Charlie says. But the truth is that Charlie thinks Fran is “lovely” and despite their differences (Fran attended the much posher Chatsborne Academy and is clearly destined for great things; Charlie lives on a council estate with streets named after famous writers and is pretty sure flunked his GCSEs so won’t be going on to college), they fall in love.

The ache of that love – and, trust me, it aches – is heightened because the pair are rehearsing literature’s most famous tragedy, a play Charlie comes to understand and appreciate because he and Fran spend endless lunch hours talking about it, and because Charlie is telling this story twenty years in the future. C’mon – who doesn’t look back at their first love with a certain degree of nostalgia? Y’know, “misty water-coloured memories” and all that.

Not gonna lie, I love Romeo and Juliet. I know what you’re going to say, but I don’t care. I love the language and the heightened emotions and when I first encountered the play, 40 odd years ago, I thought it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. Do I believe in love at first sight? Kinda.

Nicholls has written a book that is both laugh-out-loud funny and also deeply moving. How we ever survive those fraught teen years, I’ll never know, but somehow we do. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the book to mature teens in my class, but this is not a YA novel. The tears I shed at the end of the book came from understanding something I could never really know at sixteen: that first love doesn’t last, but it stays with you forever anyway.

Highly recommended.

Daisy Jones & The Six – Taylor Jenkins Reid

I feel like I am probably the last person on the planet to succumb to Daisy Jones & The Six‘s considerable charms, but fall I did. And hard. Taylor Jenkins Reid’s novel about the rise and fall of Daisy Jones and Billy Dunne, two uber-talented musicians in the 1970s, is the PERFECT book for a summer afternoon. I read it straight through, start to finish; I couldn’t have put it down, even if I wanted to.

Told in the style of an oral history, (so basically there’s no real exposition, it’s just people talking, as if they were being recorded and their words then transcribed,) the story follows Jones and Dunne’s separate journeys up until they meet and their musical fortunes become entwined.

This novel is so nostalgic – especially if you were around in the 70s, which I was. I graduated from high school in 1979 and while Billy and Daisy’s experiences certainly bear no resemblance to mine, I nevertheless appreciated some of the allusions. For instance, Daisy is introduced to the hedonistic and drug-fuelled club scene when she is just fourteen by flirting with a roadie at Whiskey a Go Go. The concierge of the Continental Hyatt House (preferred hotel of touring rock bands) remembers that some of the girls who hung around hoping to meet band members were young “but they tried to seem older. Daisy just was, though. Didn’t seem like she was trying to be anything. Except herself.”

Then there’s Billy Dunne. Gifted with a guitar for his fifteenth birthday, Billy and his younger brother Graham start a band while they are still in their teens. Billy is everything a lead singer should be: charismatic, sexy, beautiful and talented. The band’s manager says “Billy Dunne was a rock star. You could just see it. He was very cocksure, knew who to play to in the crowd. There was an emotion that he brought to his stuff.”

Both Billy and Daisy have their demons. In many ways, they are loners and they depend on a variety of substances to get them through the days and nights. Billy, though, has a wife, Camila, and a vested interest in getting his shit together. When Daisy and Billy meet, it catapults the two of them to super-fame. Their chemistry is off-the-charts. They record a song together that leads to a more permanent collaboration.

This novel is the bomb. I don’t claim to be an aficionado, but I do love music. Billy and Daisy start writing songs together and their creative partnership is both a blessing and a curse. Every song is fraught (Jenkins Reid has written all these songs and they are found at the back of the novel) and reminds us how incredibly powerful music (and art in general) can be in tapping into our souls.

…what we all want from art…When someone pins down something that feels like it lives inside us? Takes a piece of your heart out and shows it to you? It’s like they are introducing you to a part of yourself.

The creative partnership between Daisy and Billy cannot be sustained, for reasons that will be readily apparent. The push-pull between these two damaged, yet wholly likeable characters is so full of longing and angst, I just couldn’t bear it. (Truthfully, the angst is off the charts and I loved every wretched minute of it.)

Daisy Jones & The Six is pure entertainment. It’s beautiful, funny, human, nostalgic, heart-breaking awesomeness. I can’t WAIT for Reese Witherspoon’s adaptation.

Highly recommended.

The Vanishing – Wendy Webb

The Shining is the scariest ‘haunted house’ novel I’ve ever read. King knows how to make things go bump in the night. Wendy Webb, not so much.

The Vanishing is the story of Julia Bishop. Her husband, Jeremy, has recently blown his brains out after being caught with his hand in other people’s cookie jars. Julia tells us several times that Jeremy is Chicago’s version of Bernie Madoff. Anyway, after her husband’s suicide, Julia is left penniless, friendless and possibly on her way to jail.

Enter Adrian Sinclair. He has a too-good-to-be-true offer. Come to Havenwood, an estate deep in the Wisconsin forest and be a companion to his mother, Amaris Sinclair, world-famous horror writer, who has been presumed dead for the past decade. If the gig doesn’t suit, Adrian will help Julia create a new identity and give her enough cash to start over.

Havenwood was massive, with turrets and parapets and stained glass windows and balconies and chimneys. The house was surrounded by outbuildings and delicately manicured gardens through which a river flowed. Not far from the house, I noticed a lake – not Lake Superior, but a smaller inland lake.

Desperate to escape her circumstances, Julia accepts Adrian’s offer and heads to the middle of nowhere, where things start to get immediately creepy. (Without the actually creepy part.)

Havenwood is so massive, Julia is constantly getting lost. Mrs. Sinclair, who often sports velour tracksuits and calls people “piglet”, hardly seems in need of a companion. Although her day is structured, Julia has a lot of free time. Then there’s Drew McCullough, handsome Scottish, I don’t know, ranch hand? In-house vet? The house is also host to a variety of ghosts because, you know, isolated mansion in the middle of the woods.

There’s a reason Julia has been selected for this cushy gig, but I won’t spoil it for you. Some might call this a slow burn; I’d just call it a bore.

One of Us is Lying – Karen M. McManus

Nate and Bronwyn 4eva! Yeah, sure, there are other characters in Karen M. McManus’s super fun YA page-turner One of Us is Lying, but as we all know I am a sucker for a misunderstood bad boy. (At my age, I should really be over that. ) Okay, let’s not get off track here.

Bronwyn (super-smart), Nate (known drug dealer), Cooper (star athlete), Addy (beauty queen) and Simon (outcast) are all sent to detention for having phones in class. (Cue The Breakfast Club soundtrack.) Yes, these are the stereotypes you’d expect to find in a YA novel, but McManus manages to make each of these characters way more than they appear on paper.

Each character is given their opportunity to speak, so the narrative clicks along really quickly. (I read this novel in about one sitting – mostly because I couldn’t put it down.) Before detention is over, Simon is dead and the four remaining students find themselves prime suspects in his death. (Murder?)

Simon wasn’t actually a very nice guy. He ran a blog called About That which reported high school gossip and revealed dark secrets, secrets students would certainly rather not share. And it turns out that the four remaining teens all have something to hide. As Bronwyn says: “As a general rule, and especially lately, I try to give Simon as little information as possible.”

As some of these secrets come to light, suspicion shifts from one student to the other. And all the while, someone is still posting on Simon’s blog. So whodunnit is definitely a big part of the fun with this book.

Additionally, though, McManus makes you care about each of the four main characters. They are fully realized individuals, with back stories which will likely speak to many teen readers. There are a slew of equally compelling secondary characters and even the parents (who are often remote, shadowy creatures in YA) are not static.

The fun of this novel is not only trying to figure out who might have a motive to kill Simon (they all do), but how this supposed murder might have taken place. And that would have made for a great book all on its own. but McManus makes this novel about so much more than that. She tackles bullying, the weight of expectations, friendships, toxic relationships, the rumour mill and its devastating consequences, and trust without making any of it instructive.

I loved these characters and I had so much fun reading this book. Can’t wait to read the sequel.

Highly recommended.

A Game For All the Family – Sophie Hannah

gameSophie Hannah’s novel A Game For All the Family belongs in the “WTF did I just read category?” Hannah is a well-known and much-lauded British writer of thrillers, but this is the first book I have read by her.  And I didn’t love it.

Justine Merrison has left her high powered job as a TV exec to move from London to a country house called Speedwell located in Devon. She will do “Nothing” with a capital ‘N’ except look after her fourteen-year-old daughter, Ellen, and her opera-singing-husband, Alex.

Life in Devon doesn’t turn out to be as blissful as Justine imagined though. Only a few months into the move, she starts to receive anonymous and increasingly threatening phone calls. Then Ellen starts to act strangely, and when Justine presses her Ellen admits that her best friend at school, George, has been expelled because of a stolen coat, which Ellen insists that she gave to him. When Justine goes to Ellen’s school, the headmistress assures Justine that no such pupil has been expelled. In fact, George doesn’t even exist.

Interspersed with this weirdness, is a story Ellen is writing for school. The story traces the strange history of the Ingrey family, also inhabitants of Speedwell House.

Perrine Ingrey dropped Malachy Dodd out of a window. She wanted to kill him and she succeeded. Later, no one believed her when she screamed ‘I didn’t do it!’

Eventually these two stories (Justine’s and Ellen’s made-up story – or is it? duhduhduh) merge. I was constantly adjusting my notion of what was true…if, in fact, the truth could be stranger than fiction, or the fiction  actually be the truth. Ellen says as much in her story:

But what about you, who are reading this story? Do you respect the truth? I haven’t told you what it is yet, have I? I could have done quite easily, but then you would have taken it for granted. I don’t want you to do that. I think you’ll appreciate the truth more if you struggle for a while to work it out.

I suppose that’s the ‘fun’ of any mystery/thriller: trying to work it out. There’s no question, Hannah is a capable writer and A Game For All the Family is a skillfully plotted story, it’s just that after I feverishly turned all 419 pages, I felt sort of disappointed in where I landed.

The Nickel Boys – Colson Whitehead

The Nickel Boys won Colson Whitehead his second Pulitzer Prize. (He also won for The nickelUnderground Railway in 2017.) And now I pause because I am afraid of this review.

Anyone who reads my reviews will know that I generally don’t have any trouble sharing my feelings about books, but I am nervous about this one. Why? Is it because it won the Pulitzer. No. I had no trouble talking about Olive Kitteridge or The Goldfinch. Or is it because it speaks very specifically about an experience that I can never truly understand as a white, middle-aged woman living in Canada? Um, no. I have no personal experience with the horrors of concentration camps (Lilac Girls) or  dealing with the supernatural (any Stephen King book ever).

I started reading, and I kept thinking, what if I don’t love it, what if I just think it’s okay, will people accuse me of being racist? But here’s the thing that my very smart newly adult children have taught me: I probably am racist in all sorts of little ways that I don’t even realize, ways that come from being born into the white middle class. Sure, as a woman, I have my own row to hoe, but my experiences as I’ve gone through this life have been mostly positive. Now comes the question of how those experiences inform my reading of Whitehead’s novel.

The Nickel Boys  is inspired by a real place, the Dozier School for Boys located in Marianna, Florida. The reform  school operated from 1900 until 2011, despite being investigated for allegations of abuse many times during its 111-year history. There are many excellent articles about the school online, including this one  published in The Washington Post in 2019.

In Whitehead’s fictionalized account, Elwood Curtis, a bright, scholarly young man ends up at the Nickel Academy because he just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Elwood is an idealist. He believes in the teachings of Martin Luther King, Jr. (whose words are sprinkled throughout the novel.) Elwood is going to change the world and the first step is getting an education. His life is upended when he is sent to Nickel and at first he is optimistic.

He got a look at the school and thought maybe Franklin was right – Nickel wasn’t that bad. He expected tall stone walls and barbed wire, but there were no walls at all. The campus was kept up meticulously, a bounty of lush green dotted with two – and three-story buildings of red brick. The cedar trees and beeches cut out portions of shade, tall and ancient. It was the nicest looking property Elwood had ever seen – a real school, a good one, not the forbidding reformatory he’d conjured the last few weeks.

Of course, Elwood’s optimism is misplaced. Nickel is a horror-show and it doesn’t take long for Elwood to find himself the target of abuse. It would be almost impossible for any reader not to read this book without a knot of dread in their stomach. And I did care about Elwood, but I also found that there was an element of didacticism in this novel which prevented me from wholly investing in Elwood’s awful journey.

I need the lesson. I need ALL the lessons because of my privileged position. I am becoming more and more aware of my blind spots and I think literature is a wonderful way for me to have experiences which are far removed from my own. I think of Angie Thomas’s YA novel The Hate U Give which made me think all sorts of thinky thoughts and also moved me to tears. I was wholly invested in Starr’s journey because it forced me to look at myself and also gave me a window into a life which is very much not my own.

I want to be a more thoughtful person, a more woke individual. It’s my duty as an educator and as a human being. I look to stories to help me on my journey, to help me see around those blind corners I know I have. I am not saying The Nickel Boys  will not have a part to play. Three times as many black boys died at Dozier compared to white boys (Smithsonian Magazine) and you only need to look at what’s happening in the world to know that people of colour are mistreated in ways that are, frankly, shocking. We need to do better. If Whitehead’s novel helps push us forward because we read it and  start to understand the inequity that exists, then that’s a win.

But as a piece of ‘fiction’ I guess it was just okay for me. It seemed as though the book was more interested in telling the story rather than Elwood’s  story and maybe that was a deliberate choice. As a reader, though, I needed an emotional centre and although there is a little twist that I didn’t see coming, I finished the book feeling rather underwhelmed.

 

Blind Kiss – Renee Carlino

blindOh dear. Renee Carlino is a USA Today bestselling author, whatever that means. It doesn’t mean much to me after reading Blind Kiss, which was an impulse buy for me and cringe-y on every level.

Penny is in her final year of college when she is railroaded into taking part in a psych experiment where she is blindfolded and made to kiss an absolute stranger.  This kiss made Penny feel as though she is going to “spontaneously combust” and that  even “If he was the ugliest guy in the world [she] would have still been attracted to him.” Of course, Gavin is not unattractive. “He was gorgeous, with warm green eyes and an angled jawline.”

Chemistry doesn’t lie and Penny and Gavin have chemistry up the ying yang, but Penny wants to focus on finishing her dance degree so she friend zones Gavin. Thus begins a ridiculous fourteen year “friendship” where Gavin dates a million other people and Penny marries the most boring dude on the planet. The best friends schtick is fooling no one, of course, but that doesn’t stop these two from denying their feelings over and over, and, quite frankly, acting like idiots for most of the book.

Look, I am all over a book where a couple – for whatever reasons including misplaced honour, or bad timing  – can’t seem to get their shit together. Serve me up a heaping helping of angst and I will fall to my knees, but Blind Kiss  didn’t have that.

These characters behave in ways that are wholly, well, frankly, ridiculous. For example, in the present, when Gavin tells Penny he’s moving to France she “screamed at the top of [her] lungs and then made a guttural sound as [she] hunched over and held [her] stomach.” They’re in a bar. She’s 35. I mean, is this the behaviour of a married mother of a teenager? It was at that point (page 6) that I felt like this story, which I felt might have promise – which is why I bought the book – went off the rails. Every interaction between Gavin and Penny is so over-the-top histrionic that it was hard to take any of it seriously.

Which I didn’t.