Cuckoo Song – Frances Hardinge

cuckoo songI don’t think I have ever read a book quite like Frances Hardinge’s YA novel Cuckoo Song. I am not much of a fantasy fan, you know – word building and that sort of thing, but I was totally enchanted by Hardinge’s story, which is as much about grief and loss, as it is a creepy story about…well, I can’t really tell you.

I can tell you that the story follows 13-year-old Triss, who wakes up after falling into the Grimmer – a pond near the cottage where she is vacationing with her family. Her mother comforts her, telling Triss that she’s “just been ill again, that’s all. You had a fever, so of course you feel rotten and a bit muddled.”

Triss’s younger sister Penny, Pen for short, doesn’t seem all that thrilled with Triss’s recovery. “She’s pretending!” she screams, when she comes to Triss’s bedroom. “It’s fake! Can’t any of you tell the difference?”

Things just get weirder for Triss because even she has to admit that something isn’t quite right. For one thing, she has a voracious appetite – never mind easing herself back into the world of food, as “soon as she saw the first bowl of soup arrive, great crusty rolls on the side of the tray, her hands started to shake.” Triss is horrified to discover that food is not the only thing that will sate her hunger; she’ll willingly eat just about anything and lots of it.

Other strange things begin to happen in Triss’s life.  Dead leaves in her hair when she wakes up. Dolls that move in her hands. Dolls that speak to her. And then what’s with all the letters from her brother, Sebastian? Those letters are impossible because Sebastian was killed in the war.

Hardinge has created a masterful, creepy and mysterious novel that is both exciting and kind of heartbreaking. I don’t want to spoil the novel’s surprises, but I will say this: you won’t forget Triss because she is brave, endearing and clever. Her desire to solve the mystery of what’s happened to her keeps the plot ticking along, but her capacity for self -reflection and self-awareness is what makes her a character who will stay with you long after the last page is turned.

Highly recommended.

The House on the Cliff – Charlotte Williams

Hmmm…yet another book about a therapist whose life is in shambles. This time it’sDE5C7121-EA75-4E9F-9BDC-AA702E37EEC3 Jessica Mayhew in Charlotte Williams’ novel The House on the Cliff.

Jessica is married to Bob and they live in Wales with their two young daughters. Their marriage isn’t rock-solid: Bob has recently admitted to a one-night stand, and Jessica is having a difficult time forgiving him. Understandably.

Enter  Gwydion Morgan.

I noticed immediately when he walked into the room that he was a remarkably handsome man, tall and broad-shouldered, with a natural grace in the way he carried himself. I judged him to be in his late twenties, or thereabouts.

Up close I could see that his eyes were green, fringed with thick, black lashes. I looked away. It seemed indecent to do anything else.

That instant attraction is bound to cause some professional conflict, just sayin’. Anyway, Gwydion has come to Jessica with a fear of buttons. Apparently it’s a thing: Koumpounphobia.

Gwydion is an actor on the cusp of his big break. He has a certain theatrical pedigree, too, because his father, Evan, is a brilliant but volatile theatre director. His mother, Arianrhod, is worried about her son’s mental health. Their relationship seems, to the casual observer, a tad co-dependent. When she calls Jessica concerned that Gwydion is suicidal – even though Jessica had seen no signs of this in their therapy – Jessica drives out to their house on the – you guessed it – cliff.

From the minute Jessica steps into the Morgan house, her life becomes entangled with theirs. There is definitely something going on in the house and with the family and Jessica is drawn to them, particularly Gwydion who is both erratic and impossibly attractive. The more time she tries to figure out what is going on, the more she drops the ball in her own life.

There is a Morgan family scandal at the centre of Gwydion’s story. Jessica begins behaving more like a detective and less like a therapist, but whether or not you actually believe someone would make some of the choices she makes or not  is actually beside the point. It’s all page-turning fun.

 

 

You Should Have Known – Jean Hanff Korelitz

32555CAA-AE7E-4E76-8348-87072A3324C0Grace Sachs, the protagonist in Jean Hanff Korelitz’s compelling domestic thriller You Should Have Known, is an outspoken marriage counsellor who believes that women know from the very beginning if their partners are duds.

Over and over I’ve heard women describe their early interactions with their partner, and their early impressions of their partner. And listening to them, I continually thought: You knew right at the beginning. She knows he’s never going to stop looking at other women. She knows he can’t save money. She knows he’s contemptuous of her…But then she somehow lets herself unknow what she knows.

Grace’s tough talk is easy enough: she’s married to the perfect man, Jonathan, a pediatric oncologist and they have a twelve-year-old-son, Henry.

…she had chosen him, and now, as a result, she was having the right life, with the right husband, the right child, the right home, the right work.

Turns out, though, that all those rights actually make a wrong.

When the mother of one of the students at Henry’s school is murdered, the violent act opens up a fissure in Grace’s perfect life. First, her husband, who is away at a medical conference, stops answering her calls and texts. Then,  she discovers his phone  – not with him, but hidden in his bedside table. And then the police come knocking.

Grace’s life – it turns out – is a sham, and You Should Have Known unravels like any good thriller, stringing the reader (and Grace) along. The whodunit part of the story isn’t actually what’s interesting about Hanff Korelitz’s narrative though. It’s that Grace, a therapist who tells her patients to trust their guts, didn’t trust hers.

 

Sadie – Courtney Summers

sadieI thought if I waited a few days after finishing Courtney Summers’ latest book Sadie, I would have a better chance of articulating my feelings coherently. Sadly, I don’t think I am actually going to be able to adequately express all the ways I loved (and hated) this book.

The premise is clever. West McCray, a radio producer at New York’s WNRK, is shaking up the station’s format by introducing a new podcast, The Girls. The podcast “explores what happens when a devastating crime reveals a deeply unsettling mystery.”  McCray dives headlong into the story of Mattie Southern, a thirteen-year-old whose dead body was discovered in an orchard near a burning schoolhouse, and her nineteen-year-old sister, Sadie, who is missing.

I’ve decided the gruesome details of what was uncovered in that orchard will not be part of this show. While the murder, the crime, might have captured your initial interest, its violence and brutality do not exist for your entertainment – so please don’t ask us.

Transcripts of the podcast (and you can actually listen to those here) alternate with Sadie’s first person narrative. Sadie leaves Cold Creek’s trailer park and her surrogate grandmother, May Beth, to find Keith, a man who once lived with Sadie and Mattie’s mother, Claire. Claire is currently out of the picture, an addict who’s had a steady stream of creeps in her bed.

Despite being blocked at every turn, Sadie is like a dog with a bone when it comes to tracking down Keith, a man she claims is her father. She buys a junker car, and asks fearless questions, hindered only by her stutter and youth. By about page thirty I was as invested in Sadie’s hunt as she was. She is equal parts vulnerable and tough-as-nails and 100% believable.

And this is where I have to pause and commend Summers, once again, for writing characters who are so real. Regular readers to this blog will know I am a fan of Summers and have read several of her books including Cracked Up to Be, All the Rage, This Is Not a Test, and Some Girls Are. I’ll tell you this – Summers is not writing the same book over and over. Her characters are not stereotypes. They are vulnerable, broken, tough, cynical and hopeful and every combination in between. Sometimes they say or do things that are wince-worthy, but as a mom and high school teacher, I know that Summers cuts as close to the bone as it’s possible to get. Like it or not.

So, I wasn’t surprised that I fell in love with Sadie, rough edges and all. I expected to be invested in her journey and I hated (that’s what I hated, folks) that it was a journey that she felt compelled to take. I hated that I was afraid for her the entire freakin’ time! Sadie loved her sister and made sacrifices for her that Mattie would never have the opportunity to understand. That’s what it is to love someone.

McCray is always just one step behind Sadie, but his podcasts fill in some blanks, allowing us to see how Sadie is viewed from other perspectives. Former teacher, Edward Colburn, says, “She was teased by her classmates because of the stutter and that caused her to withdraw.” Her boss, Marty McKinnon said Sadie was “a good kid, hard worker.” Mae Beth said that “The only thing Sadie was afraid of was losing the family she had left and that was Mattie.”

All of these ingredients add up to a story that McCray describes as being “about family, about sisters, and the untold  lives lived in small-town America. It’s about the lengths we go to protect the ones we love…and the high price we pay when we can’t.”

There are few moments of levity in this novel, but Sadie (the novel and the character) will haunt your dreams.

Highly recommended.

 

 

 

Monday’s Not Coming – Tiffany D. Jackson

Thirteen-year-old Claudia and Monday are inseparable, even though they come from twomonday different worlds. Claudia lives with her stable and loving parents; Monday lives with her single mom and three siblings in Washington’s Ed Borough Complex, a part of town Claudia isn’t allowed to visit without an adult.

After returning to DC from a summer with her grandmother, Claudia is looking forward to starting grade eight with her bestie, but Monday is a no-show. When she doesn’t show up at school all week, and when calls to her house yield no answers, Claudia gets worried. A frightening visit to Monday’s apartment only ratchets up Claudia’s concern.

Tiffany D. Jackson’s YA novel Monday’s Not Coming is part mystery and part coming-of-age story. Claudia’s life is upended by the disappearance of her friend. For one thing, Monday helped Claudia with her school work and without her, Claudia is lost and “Without her, the [lunch] line went on for eternity. Without her, I ate alone. Being alone made you a target, though, and ain’t nobody got time for stupid boys throwing food at your head.”

Life ticks along for Claudia. She joins a dance group, meets a boy at church, starts getting help with her schoolwork, but none of these things fill the hole left by Monday. The two girls shared a lot of dreams – attending the same high school, making it on the dance squad, leaving the horrors of middle school behind. The longer Monday is gone, though, the more Claudia has to move forward with her life.

Readers will turn the pages of Monday’s Not Coming desperate to know what has happened to her, but I was interested in Claudia’s personal journey. Monday is a larger-than-life character, not afraid to stand up for herself or go after what she wants including the hottest boy in school. Claudia is shocked to discover new things about her best friend and she begins to wonder just how well she actually knew her.

There’s a twist in this novel that I didn’t see coming, and I can’t say that it worked 100% for me. However, it in no way undermined my overall reading experience. Monday’s Not Coming is a worthy addition to my classroom library.

Amelia Anne is Dead and Gone – Kat Rosenfield

ameliaanneKat Rosenfield’s YA novel Amelia Ann is Dead and Gone is lush and languid, a coming-of-age story and a mystery that sends ripples through the small, insular community of Bridgeton.

At the same time that eighteen-year-old Becca is anticipating the beginning of a new and better life away at college, the unidentified body of another young girl turns up on the side of the road, outside of town.

People buzzed and hummed and speculated. It seemed impossible that the dead girl, the rag-doll on the road-shoulder, could remain anonymous for long. Not with everybody talking about her, her, her.

Everything is about to change for Becca. She’s just graduated from high school (salutatorian, no less) and her “too-smooth boyfriend with a beater pickup and no diploma of his own” has just broken up with her.

Our first meeting was romantic. High school legend-like, it made me yearn to stay with him just for the chance to tell our someday-kids about how their father had swept me off my feet at the tender age of sixteen.

The news of the dead girl is diverting at first, but then becomes a constant buzz in the back of Becca’s head. She can’t stop wondering about her – who she is and what happened to her, and it’s this compulsive fascination that brings the novel to its dramatic climax.

Amelia is experiencing a similar ‘new beginning’. She’s just graduated from college and decided to  pursue acting, a track-jump that her boyfriend, Luke, simply cannot or will not understand. The time spent with Amelia, is time well-spent. She is a girl who is finding her feet, discovering what she wants to be and understanding that sometimes that means leaving people behind.

When Rosenfield sticks to Becca and Amelia, Amelia Anne is Dead and Gone races along like a thriller (albeit a really beautifully written thriller). Sometimes, though, she diverted my attention away to talk about the town from the vantage point of a sort of disembodied third-person omniscient vantage point.

In a small town, there are things you simply grow up knowing. You need them all – the shortcuts, secrets, and scandals that make up the town’s collective unconscious, the whispered bits and pieces passed from older lips to younger ears.

I found this stuff sort of extraneous to the plot (although I suppose it did, in some ways, explain the town’s mentality), and bogged things down a bit. A subplot about a tractor in the lake was, likewise, unnecessary. When Rosenfield stuck to Becca and Amelia’s story, though, I was all in and even with my minor grumble, I still highly recommend this book.

The Woman in the Window – A.J. Finn

The-Woman-in-the-Window-A_-J_-FinnHoly unreliable narrator, Batman! There seems to be a whole slew of books of this type post- The Girl on the Train. A.J. Finn (nom de plume of Daniel Mallory, executive editor at Morrow) adds yet another to the cast with Anna Fox, the first person narrator in The Woman in the Window. A student in one of my classes wanted to read this book, so I bought it for my classroom library. He read it lickety-split and then encouraged me to read it, which I did, in two breathless days.

Anna Fox is a watcher. From the windows of her  Victorian home in Harlem, she watches the lives of her neighbours. “My Nikon D5500 doesn’t miss much, not with that Opteka lens,” she admits.

From her vantage point, she can observe people living their daily lives: cheating spouses, book club meetings, teenagers playing video games and musical instruments. Slowly it is revealed that Anna is separated from her husband and daughter, and also suffers from agoraphobia. As Anna explains “Agoraphobic fears…include being outside the home alone; being in a crowd, or standing in a line; being on a bridge.” She considers herself to be an extreme case, “the most severely afflicted…grappling with post-traumatic stress disorder.”

She occupies her time on the Internet, learning French and playing chess and overseeing a discussion board called Agora, set up for other sufferers of her condition. (She’s actually qualified because before her life went south, Anna was a psychologist.)  She’s a fan of old movies, particularly noir films, and merlot – of which she drinks a lot. The fear of being outside the safety of her mansion/prison is not the only problem in Anna’s life; she is clearly depressed and self-medicating with alcohol and the drugs her own psychiatrist prescribes, a lethal combination that impacts what Anna sees one night.

That would be a murder.

By then, Finn has done such a good job of portraying Anna as such a hot mess that readers won’t know what to believe. Anna doesn’t either. When the police investigate the crime, they discover there’s no body and the person Anna thought she saw doesn’t even exist. Oh, what a tangled web.

Keeping Anna trapped in her house ups the suspense ante, for sure. Her days are often a drunken blur and even when she tries to get it together so that she can figure out what she saw or didn’t see, she just can’t. Despite this, Anna is a sympathetic character, whose well-being you will care about, especially when you discover one of the novel’s central plot points (which I did relatively early on but, trust me, that in no way hindered my enjoyment of this novel).

The Woman in the Window has garnered a lot of buzz and for good reason. It’s well-written, page-turning fun, with a beating heart at its core.

Highly recommended.