Exit, Pursued By a Bear – E.K. Johnston

Seventeen-year-old Hermione Winters is a spitfire. Co-captain of her high school bearcheerleading team, she is looking forward to one last cheerleading camp, one last year of school and then the freedom her future offers her. She is smart, fun-loving and although she loves cheerleading and takes it seriously, she is not the stereotypical cheerleader. To be honest, there isn’t actually a mean or petty girl in E.K. Johnston’s YA novel Exit, Pursued by a Bear. 

I wonder if Johnston chose Hermione’s name as an allusion -to the character from Shakespeare’s play The Winter’s Tale. That’s where the novel’s title comes from; it’s is a famous stage direction from the same play. Never mind, as a character she is sympathetic and admirable. And her life is about to get a lot more complicated.

Every year, the cheerleaders meet at Camp Manitouwabing, which is about an hour from Parry Sound. Teams from different schools meet there for two weeks of intense training. At a dance, just before the end of the camp, someone slips something into Hermione’s drink, and when she wakes up, she’s in the hospital. She has no memory of what happened, but she spends the next year dealing with the aftermath of the event.

There are lots of YA novels out there that deal with rape, but I have to say that this is one of the better ones I have read. After the attack, Hermione’s squad closes rank, insulating her from the inevitable rumours. Only Hermione’s boyfriend, Leo, fails to step up. Not that she needs him; she’s got her bestie, Polly, a pit bull of a friend, who is always at the ready to fend of anyone who even looks sideways at Hermione.

There are lots of great people in her corner, actually. Her psychiatrist, the female police officer tasked with finding the perp, Hermione’s parents who want to protect her, but know that offering too much protection would do their daughter a great disservice at the end of the day.

The novel is brisk, but it does allow readers a glimpse into Hermione’s PTSD, and how she tries to figure out the best way to deal with what has happened to her. Will she let this one incident set the course for her life? I am happy to say that the answer is a resounding no.

One scene I particularly liked was when Hermione and Polly are interviewed by a local reporter. Their cheerleading squad is a pretty big deal, but the journalist does manage to ask a question about the attack:

“Hermione, after your attack at the end of last summer, do you have any words of advice on how other girls can be smart, and stop such awful things happening to them.”

Polly, as always, speaks the truth.

“You’re okay with asking asking a girl who was wearing a pretty dress and had nice hair, who went to the dance with her cabin mates, who drank from the same punch bowl as everyone else – you’re okay with asking that girl what mistake she made, and you wouldn’t think to ask a boy how he would avoid raping someone?”

The conversation has to change. Polly knows it. Hermione knows it. It’s time everyone did.

I really liked this book for a lot of reasons. It’s Canadian, it’s well-written, it says important things without being didactic and you will root for Hermione.

 

A List of Cages -Robin Roe

cagesI could NOT put this book down. From the moment I met Julian and Adam, the two narrators of Robin Roe’s debut novel A List of Cages, I was immediately invested. This is a book with so much to say, but its messages are never didactic. It’s horrifying and heart-warming in equal measure.

So, Julian, aged 14, is a loner. He has just started high school and he is friendless and often in trouble at school – even though he does his level best to make himself invisible. When he’s called to the principal’s office he calls himself “a microscopic boy”; his English teacher tells him he’s “too quiet” and the other kids are horrible to him. He eats lunch alone in a small room in the attic of the auditorium. There he can dream about the life he used to have.

Adam is a senior. He’s a popular kid and even though Julian  has “only been in this school for a little while…heard his name a hundred times, mostly from girls who are in love with him.” Adam is happy, clumsy, and popular.

Adam and Julian have history, though. When Adam was in Grade 4 and Julian in kindergarten, they worked together to improve Julian’s reading skills. When Julian’s parents are tragically killed in an accident when he is 9, he goes to live with Adam and his single mom, who is a social worker. The arrangement falls apart when Julian’s Uncle Russell turns up out of the blue and claims him.

Their reunion is awkward at first. Julian is shy and distrustful, but it doesn’t take long for him to figure out that Adam is, above all else, kind. And Julian could certainly use a little kindness in his life.

It won’t take readers long to figure out that Russell is a monster – there’s really no other word to describe him. Roe drops clues early on and I have to admit to feeling very uneasy from the first couple of pages. Maybe it’s the mother in me; maybe it’s the teacher, but either way, I knew that Julian was neglected for sure, and certainly not safe.

The first time Russell ever punished me was for hanging a picture in this room. I should have checked with him first, I know that now, but I didn’t think to do so at the time. In my old room I could hang pictures whenever I wanted. Russell’s punishment wasn’t all that severe, but that had never happened to me before, and it shocked me. After it was over, he asked if I would nail holes into a stranger’s wall.

Roe’s book is a wonderful reminder of how little we know about the lives of others. Our snap judgments and cruel remarks never take into account what the subject of our derision might be facing on a daily basis. Adam is naturally empathetic. Even Julian notes that while “Hate ricochets…kindness does, too”.

A List of Cages is important, genuine and brimming over with heart.

I can’t recommend it highly enough.

A Short History of the Girl Next Door – Jared Reck

shortI can’t remember the last time I cried actual tears reading a book, but Jared Reck’s debut novel A Short History of the Girl Next Door actually made me cry. And also laugh.

This is the story of 15-year-old Matt Wainwright, who is in love with his childhood bestie, Tabby, who lives – not exactly next door – but across the cul-de-sac from him.

I am completely in love with my best friend from childhood, she has absolutely no idea, and now she’s interested in older, more popular guys.

This sounds like a bad movie already.

Matt is a talented basketball player and a writer, big brother to four-year-old Murray. He is pretty awesome in every category, actually, but Tabby has definitely friend-zoned him. They’re freshmen at Franklin High and by October, she’s caught the attention of senior stud Liam Branson, starter on both the school’s football and basketball teams. Matt is consumed with jealousy, even though, as it turns out, Liam is a pretty awesome guy.

And it’s not like Tabby is flaunting her new relationship in Matt’s face. They’ve always been just friends. They like Star Wars movies and Nerds and, until Liam started picking Tabby up in the mornings, riding the school bus together. Tabby has always been a part of Matt’s family dynamic because his “mom started babysitting Tabby when she was four months old. And since my mom stayed home with me until I started school, Tabby was at our house nearly every day. She’s part of our family.”

Matt imagines a different future with Tabby, but his longings live in his head. He never actually gathers the courage to tell her how he feels, and their relationship endures some bumps along the way as she navigates her first relationship and Matt tries to tamp down his feelings about that relationship.

Their relationship starts to deteriorate and then the unspeakable happens.

Reck’s novel is everything a great YA novel should be. The characters are believable and appealing; even the adults get a fair shake. I especially loved Matt’s grandfather and this book really made me miss my own grandparents, long gone now. Matt is, often, immature, as you’d expect him to be, but he’s smart and sensitive, too. Tabby is more than just the gorgeous object of both Matt and Liam’s affections. She has feelings and depth.

I loved everything about A Short History of the Girl Next Door and highly recommend it.

 

They Both Die at the End – Adam Silvera

theybothdieIn a not-too-distant future universe- or I don’t know, maybe it’s way in the distance – Mateo Torrez gets the call everyone dreads:

…I regret to inform you that sometime in the next twenty-four hours you’ll be meeting an untimely death. And while there isn’t anything we can do to suspend that, you still have a chance to live.

Mateo is only seventeen and he certainly doesn’t want to die.

Neither does eighteen-year-old Rufus Emeterio. He gets the call as he’s beating the snot out of Peck, his ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend.

Death-Cast makes the call, but they can’t tell you anything more than sometime in the next twenty-four hours your number is up. That’s the premise of Adam Silvera’s philosophically astute and heart-breaking YA novel, They Both Die at the End.

Mateo and Rufus came from vastly different worlds. Mateo is introverted and lives his life from the safety of his apartment. His father in in the hospital in a coma; his best friend, Lidia and her infant daughter, Penny, are his closest friends. Rufus lives in a group home. His family had received the Death-Cast call and perished. He has a new family, now, a rag-tag group of foster kids and the foster parents who love them. Despite the fact that he was beating someone up when we meet him, he is a sweet and thoughtful kid.

Mateo and Rufus meet via the Last Friend App, an app “designed for lonely Deckers and for any good soul who wants to keep a Decker company in their final hours.” (Decker meaning those on deck to die). Although the boys come from vastly different worlds, their one night together opens them up to life’s possibilities in ways neither could have imagined.

“To live is the rarest thing in the world. Mot people exist, that’s all.” Oscar Wilde

That’s the quote that opens this much-lauded novel. It’s so true, isn’t it? We hide behind our phones, we curate our lives for social media (just look at pictures of people at concerts; everyone is holding up a phone to video the performance rather than enjoying it in the moment.) We collect stuff, not memories. We don’t really talk to each other anymore. With the specter of the end hanging over their heads, Mateo and Rufus spend the day criss-crossing NYC, having meaningful moments with their loved ones and moments of introspection with themselves.

Thornton Wilder warned audiences back in the 1930s that life was “too wonderful for anybody to realize.” In his play, Our Town, Emily asks the Stage Manager if “any human beings ever realize life while they live it? – every, every minute.” I think Mateo and Rufus would have appreciated Wilder’s sentiment.

I truly fell in love with these characters, and I kept thinking “surely they’re not going to die” but the book’s title is not misleading. Silvera’s novel is outstanding and I highly recommend it.

We Were Liars – E. Lockhart

liarsCadence Sinclair, the narrator of E. Lockhart’s riveting YA novel We Were Liars, lives a seemingly charmed life. The eldest of the Sinclair grandchildren, she summers with her cousins Johnny, Mirren, Liberty, Bonnie, Will and Taft on Beechwood Island, a private island off the coast of Massachusetts, somewhere near Martha’s Vineyard. Her grandparents, Harris and Tipper, have a created a sort of kingdom on Beechwood. Each of their three daughters has their own house on the island, but everything revolves around the patriarch. There is a lot of drinking and in-fighting, all of it held together by Tipper. When she dies, the daughters and their children, who are used as pawns to secure Harris’s favour, go a little off the rails.

The summer that Cadence is eight, Johnny brings his friend Gat to the island.

His nose was dramatic, his mouth sweet. Skin deep brown, hair black and waving. Body wired with energy. Gat seemed spring-loaded. Like he was searching for something. He was contemplation and enthusiasm. Ambition and strong coffee. I could have looked at him forever.

Cadence, Johnny, Mirren and Gat, the Liars,  become an inseparable foursome. Gat is invited back every summer and by the time they are fourteen, Cadence and Gat have begun tentative steps towards crossing the friendship line. Cadence feels “the love rush from me to Gat and from Gat to me.”

But then summer fifteen happens. That’s the summer Tipper dies. It’s also the summer that Cadence goes swimming alone at the little beach. She doesn’t remember much of what happened

“I only remember this: I plunged down into this ocean,                                                          down to rocky rocky bottom, and                                                                                                      I could see the base of Beechwood Island and                                                                            my arms and legs felt numb but my fingers were cold.                                                        Slices of seaweed went past as I fell.”

It’s a summer that changes everything. Cadence is taken home to Vermont to recover and she doesn’t return to Beechwood until summer seventeen. Her memory is suspect, making her a terrifically unreliable narrator. She suffers from debilitating migraines; she starts to give away her possession. Her island has changed and so have the Liars. One thing remains unchanged though: the way she and Gat feel about each other.

I loved pretty much everything about We Were Liars. I loved the jagged edges of Cadence’s memory as she tries to piece together the mystery of her accident. I loved the dysfunctional nature of the Sinclair family. As Cadence admits in the beginning, “I am the eldest Sinclair grandchild. Heiress to the island, the fortune, and the expectations.”  And I loved the Liars.

Lockhart’s book has a big plot twist. Some might see it coming; I did not. I am not a teenage reader so while the twist wasn’t exactly shocking to me, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t effective. We Were Liars is a page-turning puzzle of a book. I read it in one breathless gulp.

Highly recommended.

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Absolute Darling – Gabriel Tallent

Gabriel Tallent’s debut (DEBUT!) novel, My Absolute Darling, is going to be difficult tomyabsolutedarling write about – not only because the subject matter is contentious, but because I don’t have an adequate vocabulary to express just how truly astounding this novel is. (I guess he gets the extra ‘l’ in his last name because when they were handing out talent, he got more than his share. Seriously.)

Julia (though everyone calls her Turtle) Alveston is fourteen. She lives with her father, Martin, in Northern California. Her mother is dead. Although her father sometimes works as a carpenter, the two of them are isolated and live pretty much off-the-grid. The only other adult in her life is her grandfather, Martin’s dad, who lives in a trailer on their property. Turtle goes to school, but she is friendless; she is more comfortable roaming the woods and shooting guns, than she is talking to kids her own age.

Turtle’s relationship with Martin is complicated. Martin is an imposing figure, both physically and intellectually. But he is also a seriously damaged man and it won’t take long for readers to see that the relationship between father and daughter is, among other things, abusive. But then, even that doesn’t adequately explain things.

After a meeting at school, where Turtle’s teacher expresses concern with her progress, Martin says “Is this the sum of your ambition? To be an illiterate little slit?”

His meaning comes to her all at once like something lodged up in a can glopping free. She leaves parts of herself unnamed and unexamined, and then he will name them, and she will see herself clearly in his words and hate herself.

There is always simmering violence in Turtle’s home, a house tellingly “overgrown with climbing roses and poison oak.” There are guns and knives inside, both of which Turtle knows how to use with startling proficiency.  Martin is a survivalist who fervently believes that “Humanity is killing itself – slowly, ruinously, collectively shitting in its bathwater….”

Turtle has learned to read her father, to anticipate what’s coming. It’s hard – very hard – to watch her negotiate with herself, or justify Martin’s abuse, particularly the sexual abuse. Tallent wisely chooses a limited third person point of view to tell Turtle’s story; I don’t know how readers could bear it otherwise.

She thinks, do it, I want you to do it. She lies expecting it at any moment, looking out the window at the small, green, new-forming alder cones and thinking this is me, her thoughts gelled and bloody marrow within the piping of her hollow thighbones and the coupled, gently curving bones of her forearms. He crouches over her and in husky tones of awe, he says, “Goddamn, kibble, goddamn.”

When Turtle meets Jacob and Brett, her world starts to crack open a little bit, but it’s not until Martin arrives home, after a protracted absence, with ten-year-old Cayenne in tow, that Turtle starts to reconsider her life. She knows she has to “really goddamn look at it without lying….”

Tallent said in a 2017 interview for Mashable that ” “…good books ask us to be courageous readers.” I think he’s right, of course, but I don’t think everyone will be able to stomach the violence in My Absolute Darling. That said,  this book is worth the effort.

First of all, Tallent’s a gifted writer. His descriptions of the natural world – almost a character in and of itself – are masterful. This is Turtle’s domain and it’s important. She can survive in the wild, and those survival instincts serve her well. Secondly, Turtle is a character you will not soon – if ever –  forget. She is tough because she has to be, but there is a tenderness about her, too. Her friendship with Jacob is unexpected and impossible, but also essential because it gives Turtle a glimpse into a normal world that has been denied to her. Finally, Martin is not a one-note villain. Although my feelings about him didn’t really waver, I still found some sympathy in my heart for him. That’s a tribute to Tallent because, mostly, Martin is a narcissistic monster. I believe Martin loves Turtle, but in a twisted, possessive, controlling way.

I highly recommend this book, although I understand that it won’t be palatable for many readers. It was on my short list as a potential selection for my book club, but I knew – even before I read it – that most of the women in my group would have a very difficult time with its subject matter. After reading it, I can say with certainty that I was right: they would have hated it. But I would argue that it’s compelling, intelligent and  worthy of the copious praise it has received.

Highly recommended.

 

Educated – Tara Westover

educatedOur first book club pick for 2019 was Tara Westover’s compelling memoir Educated.  Born and raised in southern Idaho, Westover tells the remarkable story of living in the shadow of  Buck’s Peak, the youngest of seven children. Like virtually everyone else in the nearby town, Tara was raised as a Mormon, but as she says in the author’s notes “This is not a book about Mormonism.”

It doesn’t take long to figure out that Tara’s father is beyond the pale in terms of his beliefs and how they impact his children.  Not only is he a devout Mormon, he’s a survivalist. He preaches that the government is evil. Tara and her siblings don’t go to school, or to the hospital when they are sick. Tara didn’t even have a birth certificate until she was nine. When his mother suggests that Tara (and her sisters and brothers) should be attending school, he tells her that “public school was a ploy by the Government to lead children away from God. “I may as well surrender my kids to the devil himself…as send them down the road to that school.””

Instead of school, Tara helps with a variety of jobs around their property. Her three oldest brothers had helped their father build barns or hay sheds, but her two oldest brothers had recently left and then her brother Tyler announces that he wants to go to college. Tara is perhaps ten when Tyler makes this announcement and she has to ask what college is. Her father tells her that it’s “extra school for people too dumb to lean the first time around.”

The fact that Tyler leaves the mountain to attend school has a profound impact on Tara. He’s not like her oldest brothers, Tony (whom we learn very little about) and Shawn (the story’s villain). Tyler “liked books, he liked quiet.” He introduces Tara to classical music and it becomes their secret language. To understand the huge impact Tyler has on Tara’s life, one only has to note that her book is dedicated to him.

Eventually, Tara makes the decision that she, too, wants an education. This is remarkable because she’s had no formal schooling. Instead, she has to study on her own and pass ACT, a standardized test that will allow her to attend college without a high school diploma. She is motivated, not only by her desire to learn, but also by the increasingly violent and erratic behaviour of her brother, Shawn.

Educated is a riveting family drama and also the story of how an education (and I’m not even really talking about a formal education here, although Tara certainly has one of those, including a PhD from Cambridge) can change a person’s life. Despite the fact that Tara might describe her childhood as happy, there is no doubt that her father suffered from mental illness and her mother is complicit in the abuse she suffers at the hands of her brother, Shawn. Tara’s attempt to honestly portray her family and the things that happened to her makes for compelling reading.

Listen to Tara answer questions about her story here.

Highly recommended.