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.

 

 

Ruthless – Carolyn Lee Adams

2E11B418-C156-499C-B40A-C90F9802D4A7Seventeen-year-old Ruth Carver has a nickname on the show-riding circuit: Ruthless. She earned the name by being single-minded  when it comes to competitions, but it’s more than that. At the ranch, it’s “sink or swim” and Ruth lives by that motto. Ruth also understands that her success in the ring will benefit her parents’ struggling ranch. She’ll do whatever it takes to win, even if that means pushing other people away from her. That includes Caleb, the boy who loves her.

Carolyn Lee Adams’ YA novel Ruthless is a thrill-ride of a novel. It starts when Ruth wakes up in the back of a pickup truck, buried in a mound of manure, hay and shavings. She’s hurt and she soon realizes that she is in trouble, serious trouble.

The trouble comes in the shape of a man Ruth nicknames Wolfman.

He is tall and big, with a large, black beard and bushy eyebrows. He has strange hazel-orange eyes. He reminds me of a wolf.

Ruth remembers him from the ranch. “I kept seeing that wolf-looking guy, and that wolf-looking guy kept seeing me,” Ruth recalls. So “I told Dad to fire him.” Seems like Wolfman is the kind of guy to carry a grudge.

Wolfman aka Jerry Balls, is a smart and dogged  psychopath.  He punishes girls who he feels are deserving and Ruth can see that “He hates me in a way that I didn’t know was possible.”

So here is Ruth, trapped with a psycho in the middle of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Left alone when Wolfman is called in to work, she discovers that she is not his first victim, but she is determined that she will be his last. Her breathless escape from his cabin is just the start of 200+ pages of pulse-pounding reading.

If you’re wondering how Ruth is going to manage getting and staying away from Wolfman in the middle of nowhere, in terrain she doesn’t know, without supplies…well, that’s part of what makes Lee’s novel so compelling. Failing is not an option here and readers soon discover that Ruth is every bit as tenacious as Wolfman.

There is nothing graphic about this book, although the threat is imminent. Wolfman is also not a one-dimensional character; his story is told through a series of flashbacks. Doesn’t make him any more sympathetic, but you still get a glimpse into how he might have ended up the way he did.

We also see a bit of Ruth’s story from pre her abduction. One surprisingly prescient snippet recalls a conversation she has with her family. Her grandfather, once a sheriff, is offering advice should she ever be taken. He tells her “Don’t ever let them take you to a second location.” Her father offers “May God have mercy on the soul of the poor bastard who ever dared try.” Truer words.

Ruthless is terrific.

Stories I Only Tell My Friends – Rob Lowe

I was more of a Robby Benson than a Rob Lowe fan back in the day. I guess they were sort of popular around the same time, give or take a few years. 0D9E8612-E728-46F5-8D69-9E382FBC38EFRob Lowe’s autobiography Stories I Only Tell My Friends, however, made for riveting reading, and the same can not be said for Robby Benson’s novel Who Stole the Funny.

Lowe was born in Charlottesville, Virginia in 1964. He moved with his mother and father to Dayton, Ohio when he was still an infant. His parents chose Dayton because it was “a bustling, growing city,”  home to many national companies. Lowe’s father was a lawyer; his mother gave up her job as a high school English teacher to stay home and raise her son. Four years later, Lowe’s brother, Chad, was born.

Lowe got an early start in the acting business in Dayton. A trip to see a production of Oliver!  turned out to be a “a transformational experience” for ten-year-old Lowe. A few weeks later,  he participated in a community theatre production of The Wizard of Oz. Lowe notes that his parents (well, his mom and step-father because by then his parents were divorced) would have had “no way of knowing how deeply affected I’d been, how electrified I was by the age-old connection of actors, material and audience…that was a club I wanted to belong to.”

Flash forward a few years and the family has moved to Malibu, California.

An entire book could (and should) be written about Malibu in 1976. In the bicentennial sunlight of that year, it was a place of rural beauty where people still rode to the local market on horseback and tied up to a hitching post in the parking lot. Long before every agent and studio president knocked down the beach shacks to build their mega mansions, Malibu was populated by a wonderful mix of normal working-class families, hippies, asshole surfers, drugged-out reclusive rock stars, and the odd actor or two.

It is during this period that Lowe begins to pursue acting in earnest, and also lands the role that will turn him into a household name.

Stories I Only Tell My Friends is an honest, self-deprecating look at fame and its rewards and consequences. It’s a who’s who of the times, which makes it especially fun to read if you are of the same vintage as Lowe…which I am. I loved reading about Lowe’s participation in The Outsiders. He’s candid about his career highs and lows, and about his prodigious romantic interludes (some clearly less to do with romance and more to do with sex – but look at the guy.) Lowe is aware that he’s a good-looking (great looking, really) man, but he never comes across as full of himself. He’s also honest about how he abused alcohol, a hard-earned perspective that comes from being twenty plus years sober.

This is a really dishy memoir – not a tell-all, exactly, but a Hollywood story about a decent guy who came-of-age in the public eye, and managed to keep his wits about him. He wrote it himself and it’s funny and witty and at times it almost seems as though Lowe can’t believe the ride he’s had either.

Great book.

The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy – Kate Hattemer

vigilanteEthan Andrezejczak attends Selwyn Academy, a fine arts high school in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He’s the narrator of Kate Hattemer’s debut YA novel The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy. His life revolves around hanging with his friends Jackson, Elizabeth and the too-cool-for-their-friend-group, Luke, and teaching Jackson’s gerbil, Baconnaise circus tricks. Ethan pines for ballerina Maura and loathes Miki Frigging Reagler from afar. Maura and Miki are two of the stars of the reality show For Art’s Sake (FAS), which is filmed at Selwyn.

They’d chosen a school (our school) and they’d chosen contestants (not me). Every episode, they had some artistic challenge and someone got kicked off. The last person standing would be crowned America’s Best Teen Artist.

Ethan and his friends are convinced that For Art’s Sake is wrecking Selwyn. Luke is especially bent out of shape because the school’s literary arts magazine refuses to publish his commentary about the TV show. “It’s a review, but mostly it’s editorial,” he tells Ethan. “I tried to suppress my snideness. I may not have been totally successful.”

The fact that someone as cool as Luke is anti-FAS is a touchstone for Ethan. When he enters Ethan’s orbit in grade seven, Ethan describes him as

the most popular prepubescent on the planet. He was impossible to dislike. That’s not hyperbole: I tried. I have a strict policy of holding automatic grudges against people everyone likes. But Luke had a mouthful of braces and said “awesome” all the time, and he was totally genuine.

It’s Luke’s idea to roast FAS in a poem. He announces “We need to reclaim our society and values and culture.”

Conquistadors, they thundered in,
And dizzy, we succumbed to spin.
They’ve colonized our native land.
What once was vivid now is bland.
We sing and dance at their command.
 – The Contracantos

 

 

Luke’s ultimately betrayal is especially hard on Ethan, but it gives him the chance to take some chances and find his own voice.

The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy plumbs the depths of poetry, friendship, loyalty, art, betrayal and growing up. These characters (and I am certainly including Baconnaise) are witty, intelligent and human. They are trying to figure it all out. They don’t always get it right, but Elizabeth asks Ethan if he thinks he’s “the only one who’s amazed and scared and freaked out by how complicated everyone is.”

This is a smart book. I highly recommend it.

We All Love the Beautiful Girls – Joanne Proulx

E1A054FB-47D3-4BF8-93BC-7A8F56A62626The characters in Joanne Proulx’s second novel We All Love the Beautiful Girls are so perfectly imperfect that you can’t help but fall in love with them.

At the centre of this finely crafted family drama is the Slate family, Mia and Michael, and their seventeen-year-old son, Finn. Then there’s Jess, Finn’s former babysitter who now sneaks into his bedroom at night to…you know. Frankie is the daughter of Michael’s business partner, Peter. Peter’s wife, Helen, is Mia’s best friend. Frankie and Finn have grown up together.

Mia and Michael’s perfect life starts to unravel when they get a visit from Stanley, the company accountant (I’m not sure that’s his actual his title, but it doesn’t really matter; he’s only the messenger). He’s discovered that Peter has restructured the company and written Michael out. Michael has, it turns out, been pretty lax about the financials of the company because he and Peter have “known each other since high school.”

On the same night that Michael finds himself screwed out of his own company, Finn finds out that Jess won’t be leaving her boyfriend, Eric, for him. She can’t even though Finn is “So gorgeous and so nice.”  Finn is just a kid. (She’s 23.) Eric’s a total douche and happens to be the older brother of Finn’s best friend, Eli. Finn’s at a party at their house, drunk, and after an encounter with Jess he makes a couple of bad choices. First, he hooks up with Frankie. Second, he passes out in the backyard. It’s  January. In Canada.

These two incidents are game-changers for the Slate family and their repercussions propel Proulx’s story along like a thriller. I literally could not put this book down. I finished it well past my bed-time. On a school night.

The novel flips between characters. We watch Finn’s heart break. We watch Mia and Michael’s marriage topple. We watch friends become enemies. Proulx toggles between these perspectives masterfully, the blame and the shame carefully shared. And if there is redemption or peace to be had, it’s hard won.

No one makes it through life unscathed, but perhaps the key to surviving is understanding. As Finn tells his mother: “I’m not the same as I was….I’m different now….But it’s good, you know? I’m good. Like I understand things I didn’t understand before.”

The boy becomes a man. The parents – well, I guess they do what all parents do. The best they can.

I LOVED this book.