The Tragic Age – Stephen Metcalfe

Billy Kinsey is an outsider. It’s not just the port-wine hemangioma on the right side of his face. It’s not just the fact that he’s moved to L.A. suburb from the San Joaquin Valley, where he lived a slightly more normal life. It’s not just that he’s an insomniac. It’s not just that his father won 37 million dollars in the lottery and now his mother lunches and plays tennis and his father drinks. It’s not even just that when he was 11, his twin sister Dorrie died of cancer. Well, actually, it’s all of these things.

Stephen Metcalfe’s debut novel, The Tragic Age, is laugh-out-loud funny, tender and wry. Billy, 17, is adrift. He wants to do the right thing, but he’s not exactly sure what the right thing is. It isn’t until Willard “Twom” Twomey comes into his life, followed by the re-entrance of his sister’s childhood bestie, Gretchen, that the fog starts to lift for Billy.

Twom is a larger-than-life character. He doesn’t back down from anyone. When the school’s meathead starts teasing Twom about his name, Twom lets him have it with the back of his dinner tray.

I also soon discover that despite his revolutionary’s attitude towards rules and authority, Twom has his own highly evolved sense of right or wrong. He dislikes what he calls the “dickhead club” and he has complete empathy for the underdog.

Although I wouldn’t necessarily say that Billy’s an underdog, he sure could use a friend or two and Twom comes along at the right time.

So does Gretchen. Although Billy of course knows her, she and her family have been, until recently, living in Africa, where Gretchen’s father “was a hotshot doctor of infectious diseases.” Her arrival back in Billy’s orbit is problematic.

It goes without saying that girls can make you do insane things. One minute a guy can be, if there is such a thing, normal, the next, he’s cracking stupid jokes and running and dancing in place like a babbling, mindless idiot. Another word for this is “dating.”

The Tragic Age follows Billy as he navigates his final year of high school, falls in love and tries to figure out what anything means…and whether anything is worth it, after all. The grief he feels over Dorrie’s death is clearly unresolved; in fact, he and his parents never even talk about Dorrie. They don’t really talk about much of anything, and that’s part of Billy’s problem.

Billy is on a slippery slope and the novel’s final pages are made for the big screen. That makes sense, since Metcalfe has worked in the film biz. I’m not sure the frenetic pace suits the rest of the book, but I still really enjoyed it. Billy is a memorable character and his experience of disillusioned, navel-gazing, teenagedom will be recognizable to anyone who has ever struggled to fit in or figure out how to simply survive.

Unspeakable Things – Jess Lourey

Cassie McDowell, the narrator of Jess Lourey’s riveting novel Unspeakable Things, confronts her memories of her thirteenth summer when she returns to her small Minnesota hometown for a funeral. She alludes to writing a novel about a “gravedirt basement”, but now “that cellar stink doubled back with a vengeance.”

It’s the 1980s and Cassie lives with her older sister, Sephie, and her parents on a thirteen acre hobby farm. Her father, Donny, is an artist and her mother, Peg, a teacher. It doesn’t take very long to feel the sense of dread that permeates Cassie’s home life. She “felt a quease leaving [Sephie] up with [her parents] when they’d been drinking” and she sleeps either under her bed, or squirreled away in her bedroom closet. The basement of their farmhouse of off limits. The tension is almost unbearable.

Their town, Lilydale, is full of strange characters, like Sergeant Bauer, the local cop, and Goblin, the creepy guy who lives down the road from the McDowells. And then, boys start disappearing. This causes the town to invoke a 9 p.m. curfew, which does little to alleviate fear.

That sent a shiver up my spine. First, what Betty had said this morning about the boy being raped, and now this. Mom’d told us on the drive over that we didn’t need to worry about anything, but Betty had most definitely seemed concerned. Bauer did, too. He suddenly had our complete attention.

“Always travel in pairs. I don’t want to see ay of you kids out alone this summer.”

That shushed us all up, every last one of us.

This time it wasn’t the words, or even his tone.

I think it was the first moment we caught a whiff of what was coming for us.

Something is coming for the boys of Lilydale, and when it comes for Gabriel, the cute boy Cassie has a crush on, she decides to do some investigating of her own. But, make no mistake, this isn’t a light-hearted Nancy Drew-esque detective story. There are creepy-crawly things in Lilydale’s underbelly and in Cassie’s own home. In fact, there is so much to be worried about the dread quotient is off-the-charts.

Yes, someone is scooping boys off the streets and when they come back they are changed in ways they seem unable to articulate. But Cassie has to deal with what is going on in her own backyard: her father’s mercurial moods, her parents’ ‘parties’ and the implied sexual abuse going on her home. When her father’s footsteps start up the stairs, the terror Cassie – and surely the reader – feels is palpable.

Unspeakable Things is a mystery and a coming-of-age story, and all of it (and Cassie’s voice) will twine around your heart and squeeze hard. Some might find the end of this novel less-than-satisfactory. Lourey wrote an epilogue, but then left it out of the final version. You can read that here. I liked both versions.

I loved this book. Highly recommended, but potentially triggering.

Looking For Alaska – John Green

Miles Halter, the protagonist of John Green’s debut novel Looking for Alaska, is a loner who is about to leave Florida to attend a boarding school in Alabama. Just how much of a loner is Miles? His mother insists on throwing him a going away party and Miles is “forced to invite all [his] “school friends,” i.e., the ragtag bunch of drama people and English geeks [he] sat with by social necessity” even though he knew they “wouldn’t come.”

Miles loves famous last words. That’s one of the reasons he’s anxious to head off to Culver Creek, the same school his father and all his uncles attended, a school where they had “raised hell”, which sounds like a much better life than the one Miles currently has. In the words of Francois Rabelais, Miles wants to “go to seek a Great Perhaps.” That’s the reason, Miles tells his father, that he wants to leave Florida, “So I don’t have to wait until I die to start seeking a Great Perhaps.”

Miles’s roomate at Culver Creek is Chip Martin aka “Colonel”. He immediately renames Miles “Pudge” and then introduces him to Alaska Young, the force-of-nature, girl who lives five doors down. The novel follows this trio’s adventures and misadventures and their tragic consequences.

I have long been a fan of Green’s ability to write smart, believable and heartbreaking YA characters. The juggernaut The Fault in Our Stars was my first book by him, and I totally got the fuss. (I have also read Turtles All the Way Down and Paper Towns). If I didn’t already know how good Green was, I would have been amazed by Looking for Alaska. As a debut it’s funny, irreverent, and thoughtful. And so, so smart.

My grade 10 students are currently examining what it means to come of age. Two of them are reading this book and as I was reading it, I kept thinking that it was such a perfect book to help them think about this topic. I know the book has been challenged on many occasions for language and sexual content, but, really, who are we kidding? Shouldn’t we want our kids to read books that ask (and tries to answer) big and complicated questions? Shouldn’t we rejoice when we find an author that doesn’t talk down to kids, or pretend that they are one-dimensional?

Pudge and his friends, after a tragedy which occurs about half way through the book, seek to find answers to their questions. Pudge notes

There comes a time when we realize that our parents can not save themselves or save us, that everyone who wades through time eventually gets dragged out to sea by the undertow – that, in short, we are all going.

Looking for Alaska is terrific.

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.

Born a Crime – Trevor Noah

Although I knew that U.S. based comedian Trevor Noah was from South Africa, I knew nothing other than that about him. Noah’s 2016 memoir, Born a Crime was named one of the best books of the year by just about everyone including The New York Times, CBC and NPR. The accolades don’t stop there, and nor should they, because Born a Crime is the immensely readable, inspirational and funny story of Noah’s extremely humble beginnings.

Noah was raised mostly by his mother, Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah. His father, a white man, is of Swiss/German descent. “During apartheid, one of the worst crimes you could commit was having sexual relations with a person of another race. Needless to say, my parents committed that crime,” Noah explains. The book’s title refers to Noah’s birth.

…on February 20, 1984, my mother checked into Hillbrow hospital for a scheduled C-section delivery. Estranged from her family, pregnant by a man she could not be seen with in public, she was alone. The doctors took her up to the delivery room, cut open her belly, and reached in and pulled out a half-white, half-black child who violated any number of laws, statutes, and regulations – I was born a crime.

Noah guides us through the early years of his life, years that were marked by trips to church, “at least four nights a week”, poverty, and his mother’s no-nonsense but loving approach to parenting. From her, Noah learned that language is power (and because of this Noah learned to speak several languages.) “It became a tool that served me my whole life,” he explains. Once, when he was being followed by a group of Zulu guys, he heard them say in their own language that they were going to mug him. He was able to diffuse the situation when he spoke to them in Zulu.

That, and so many other smaller incidents in my life, made me realize that language, even more than color, defines who you are to people.

No surprise, then, that Noah goes on to make his living with words.

Noah hustles his way through his adolescence – making money by getting people what they want, everything from treats from the school canteen to bootlegged CDs to DJ services for events. He tells these stories with charming self-deprecation. I can only imagine that the audio book would be so much fun to listen to.

Although this memoir doesn’t tell us how Noah got his big break, I think it’s clear how, out of necessity, determined and resourceful he was. The book is dedicated to his mother, and it’s easy to see why: her faith in her son is unwavering and fierce.

This is a really excellent book.

Here’s a bit of Noah from a stand up show in 2015.

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.

The Lies They Tell – Gillian French

Pearl Haskins lives with her alcoholic father on the wrong side of the tracks in Tenney’s Harbor, Maine. (For the record, I am spelling harbour that way because, USA.) Pearl works at the local country club, where the wealthy summer folk flaunt their, well, wealth. It was here, at Christmas, that Pearl last saw the Garrisons: David, the patriarch; Sloan, his beautiful wife and two of their children, seventeen-year-old Cassidy and ten-year-old Joseph. Tristan, the oldest Garrison child, is not present. Later that night, while Pearl’s dad sleeps in the Garrison’s gatehouse, someone broke into the house and shot the Garrisons in their sleep, then set their mansion on fire.

Gillian French’s impossible-to-put-down YA mystery The Lies They Tell picks up the story the following summer. Pearl has graduated from high school and she’s still working at the country club, still impossibly in love with her best friend, Reese, and still trying to manage her father’s drinking, which hasn’t really improved because most of the summer elite blame him for what happened at the Garrison’s – even though he is clearly not to blame. In fact, the culprit was never caught and the main suspect, Tristan, has an ironclad alibi.

And now here he was “with his entourage, the boys of summer, owning the place.” For reasons Pearl can’t quite understand, she is drawn to Tristan, “gripped by the physical and emotional recoil she – and almost everyone else – felt in his presence.” She feels a kinship to him because she senses he is “so alone, even in a room full of people….”

When one of Tristan’s friends, Bridges, takes a romantic interest in Pearl, she suddenly finds herself drawn into a world which she has only ever watched from the outside. Bridges seems nice and seems to genuinely like Pearl, but is he to be trusted? The third boy in the group, Akil, seems to openly disapprove of her. And Tristan, he doesn’t seem to know she exists, until he turns his laser focus on her.

I really enjoyed this novel. For one thing, it’s very well-written and the characters are believable. You know how characters in mysteries and thrillers sometimes do stupid things? Not here. Pearl is smart. She wants to figure out what happened to Tristan’s family, on the surface so that the blame can be shifted away from her father, but also because Tristan just seems like a whipped puppy to her. As she sifts through the gossip and tries to make sense of Tristan himself, she comes closer and closer to danger.

Like Pearl, I kept changing my mind about whodunnit and by the time I got to the book’s final pages my palms were sweating.

Highly recommended.

Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel

Emily St. John Mandel’s award-winning novel Station Eleven, published in 2014, is about as prescient a novel as one might expect to read during these world-wide pandemic times. In her book, the world succumbs to the Georgia Flu in record time, leaving behind a landscape inhabited by only a few hopeless (and hopeful) survivors.

The novel’s main characters, Arthur Leander, a famous Hollywood actor; Jeevan, the man who tries to save Arthur when he collapses onstage in a Toronto theatre; Clark Thompson, Arthur’s friend; Kirsten, a young actress with a troupe of musicians and actors, collectively known as the Symphony, who travel around the post-apocalyptic landscape performing works by Shakespeare, and Miranda, Arthur’s first wife, have, in many respects, a tenuous connection, but their stories intertwine over many years.

Jeevan is the first to learn of the flu’s ferocity. After the incident in the theatre, Jeevan finds himself walking through the Toronto streets and his friend Hau calls him. “You remember the SARS epidemic?” his friend asks?

“We’ve admitted over two hundred flu patients since this morning,” Hua said. “A hundred and sixty in the past three hours. Fifteen of them have died. The ER’s full of new cases. We’ve got beds parked in the hallways. Health Canada’s about to make an announcement.” It wasn’t only exhaustion, Jeevan realized. Hua was afraid.

St. John Mandel’s story skips back and forth in time. We learn about the characters’ backstories, how they survived (or didn’t) and the one person they all have in common: Arthur Leander.

Although, on the surface at least, this might seem like a survival story, Station Eleven is also a story about art, friendship, family, fanaticism and fame. When the end of the world comes, it comes with a vengeance, leaving these people to question their own lives, their pettiness, and their attachment to things.

Station Eleven is our first book for the 2020-21 season of my book club. I am not certain it was the most uplifting choice given that we are still in the clutches of Covid 19.

I live in one of the safest places on the planet, but that doesn’t mean I am immune to the fraught state of the world. Nevertheless, I found this book to be rather beautiful and hopeful. It is possible, the books posits, to be sustained by art and nature and friendship and these, it seems, are worthwhile things to care about. What did I miss when the world shut down back in March? Not shopping. Not dining out. I missed hugging my family and seeing my friends. What will we care about when the end truly comes, as it must for all of us?

The pink magnolias in the backyard of the house in Los Angeles

Outdoor concerts, the way the sound rises up into the sky.

Tyler in the bathtub at two, laughing in a cloud of bubble bath.

Miranda’s eyes, the way she looked at him when she was twenty-five and still loved him.

Any book that requires me to think about my life and its meaning, is worth my time. This book was worth my time.

My Best Friend’s Exorcism – Grady Hendrix

In the way that the monsters and demons in Buffy the Vampire Slayer are a metaphor for the horrors of high school, Grady Hendrix’s page-turner My Best Friend’s Exorcism works on a both a figurative and literal level. Or, at least, it did for me.

Abby and Gretchen have been besties since the day that Gretchen, a new kid in school, turns up to Abby’s tenth birthday party. She’d invited the whole class to the roller rink for an E.T. themed party (it’s the 80s), but Gretchen is the only one who shows up. All the others accepted an invitation to Margaret’s polo plantation (the novel takes place in South Carolina, where apparently there are such things) for a day of horse-back riding. When Abby asks Margaret why she didn’t go to that party, Gretchen replies “You invited me first.” It is from this awkward beginning that the two girls become best friends.

My best friend story has a similar beginning. When Michelle arrived at the country school I attended at the beginning of grade eight, I didn’t like her. And she didn’t like me. At least that’s how I remember it. Her hair was too blonde, her jeans were too tight and she hung out with the older kids. I was about as geeky as they came. We both imagined being writers and I remember that the Prize for English was a hot commodity; I won. Then in grade nine, more than half of the students in our class went on an exchange to Marathon, Ontario. Neither of us went, and that meant that we were without our usual friend groups. One afternoon, we found ourselves talking at the back of a classroom. Turns out, we had way more in common than not and that afternoon cemented a friendship that is now 45 years strong.

Abby and Gretchen have the best friend short-hand. They bond over movies and music. They trade secrets and commiserate about their families; “Everything happened over the next six years. Nothing happened over the next six years.” When Abby’s home life starts to crumble, Gretchen’s family is there to pick up the pieces.

And then. Abby, Gretchen, Margaret (same one, now a friend) and Glee are in high school and one afternoon, they decide to take acid. Just to try it out, not because they’re druggies. It’s 1988. The incident kicks off a descent into a hellscape that causes friendships to fracture. Gretchen disappears that night, and when Abby finds her the next morning she can’t remember anything about her night lost in the woods.

Things take a decided turn for the worst over the coming weeks, and the beauty of this novel (and there are many of them) is that I couldn’t decide whether Gretchen’s possession was literal or just a function of being a high school sophomore. People change, right, especially at this point in their lives. They’re always trying on new personas, shedding one skin to try out another. Abby never gives up on her friend, even when Gretchen behaves horribly; even when her own sanity and safety are threatened.

The nostalgia is a river running through Hendrix’s book, the chapters titled after popular songs, the allusions to the TV shows and pop culture of the era. The book is packaged like a high school yearbook. And I was sent hurtling back to my high school days, when friendships are the most important things in your life. About fifty pages in, I couldn’t put the book down.

And for the record, I would fight the devil for you, too, Michelle.

Highly recommended.

Darius the Great Is Not Okay – Adib Khorram

It is impossible to count all the accolades Adib Khorram’s debut novel Darius the Great is Not Okay accumulated, but let’s just say if there is a “best” list, this YA book is likely on it.

In this compelling coming-of -age story, seventeen-year-old Darius Kellner feels like an outsider. Even in his own family he feels “other”. His mother is from Iran and his father is, as Darius calls him, an “Ubermensch.”

I did not inherit any of Dad’s good looks.

Well, people said I had his “strong jawline,” whatever that meant. But really, I mostly looked like Mom, with black, loosely curled hair and and brown eyes.

Standard Persian.

His looks aren’t the only thing that sets him apart from the other kids at his school. Darius is a bit of a geek, too. He loves Star Trek – it’s the one thing he and his father have in common and they rewatch an episode together every night – and Tolkien. He’s a tea aficionado. He also has a special relationship with his younger sister, Laleh.

…guys are not supposed to love their little sisters. We can look out for them. We can intimidate whatever dates they bring home, although I hoped that was still a few years away for Laleh. But we can’t say we love them. We can’t admit to having tea parties or playing dolls with them, because that’s unmanly.

And, the most damning thing of all: Darius suffers from clinical depression.

When Mrs. Kellner learns that her father back home in Iran is terminally ill, the family decides to visit. She hasn’t been home in seventeen years, and Darius and Laleh haven’t ever seen their grandparents except via a computer screen. It is to be a life-changing trip.

As much of an outsider as Darius is at home, he feels just as much on the outside in Iran. Unlike his sister, he doesn’t speak Farsi. He is a “Fractional Persian” at best, and the customs and culture are almost as alien to him as they might be for someone without any ties to the country. Luckily, he meets Sohrab almost as soon as he arrives, and this new friendship teaches him not only about his heritage, but about himself as a person. Their unfolding friendship is truly a thing of beauty to behold.

There is a real sense of place in Khorram’s novel. What I know about Iran would likely fill a teaspoon, and most of that is likely negative. Not sure why. This novel is full of history and culture and food and family. It is brimming with life, even with the shadow of political and religious unrest simmering beneath the surface. But that is not what this book is about. This book is about finding your place, accepting your perceived flaws, belonging.

Darius is a complex character, a teen you want to hug. As he taps into all the things that make him who he is, his notion of who he might be shifts, too. And that is a joy to behold.

Highly recommended.