How to Make Friends with the Dark – Kathleen Glasgow

I started reading Kathleen Glasgow’s YA novel How to Make Friends with the Dark at school last week…and then all hell broke loose. On Friday March 13 (how appropriate, eh?) the government of New Brunswick closed all schools in the province for a two week period (minimum) in an effort to slow down the spread of Covid-19. So, that’s me, home for at least two weeks. These are weird times, people.

Luckily, I have enough unread books in my house to last a least five years and so I am going to to look at social-distancing as a gift of time. If nothing else, reading will distract me  from this new world. I am a naturally optimistic person and I hope that when we come out on the other side we will be kinder to each other, and gentler to the planet.

darkHow to Make Friends with the Dark is the story of fifteen-year-old Grace “Tiger” Tolliver. She lives with her single mother, June, a kind but ineffective parent.

We’re what my mom likes to call “a well-oiled, good-looking, and good-smelling machine.” But I need the other half of my machine to beep and whir at me, and do all that other stuff moms are supposed to do. If I don’t have her, I don’t have anything.

On the day Tiger and Kai, a boy from school, finally kiss (something Tiger has been dreaming about for a long time), the unthinkable happens: Tiger’s mother dies.  (Not a spoiler, the blurb tells you as much.) The aftermath of her mom’s death, and Tiger’s grief is what Glasgow’s very affecting book is about.

You feel skinned. Like whatever held you together has been peeled away. You half expect to look down and see your heart hanging out, a slow-beating, nearly dead thing.

Your legs wobble and your mouth tastes dry and your mother is dead.

Because Tiger has no other family member available to take her, she is placed into the foster system (which is shocking given that her best friend’s parents are willing to look after her, but rules.) Her first foster placement is not great; her second placement is better.

The book traces Tiger’s journey down into the dark sinkhole of grief.  There is very little light down there and Glasgow  doesn’t shy away from the ugly places grief sometimes takes us. If you think you’re in for an unremittingly grim read, you’re not totally wrong, but there is some light in the darkness. Tiger  is a sympathetic character and anyone who has ever lost someone dear to them will recognize her struggles, her small victories and her grief.

 

 

We Are Still Tornadoes – Michael Kun & Susan Mullen

Yes, it was a million years ago, but I do remember that first year of university right after high school. Most of my friends went away, but I stayed home. This was before the Internet and way before long distance was cheap/free. How did we keep in touch? We wrote letters.

I was a big letter writer back in the day. I had a zillion pen pals and then when all my friends went off to university, I wrote letters. I miss letter writing because, while it’s not as immediate as sending an e-mail, it gives you the opportunity to think about what you want to say, to catalogue the minutiae of your life and allow your recipient to have a little time capsule of your thoughts and feelings. It’s kinda cool.

tornadoesThat’s what Scott and Cath do in Michael Kun and Susan Mullen’s epistolary novel We Are Still Tornadoes. Cath has gone off to Wake College in North Carolina, but Scott has stayed home. He’s currently working in his father’s men’s clothing store – a job that is the subject of much derision until it’s not.

Cath and Scott have been besties since they were kids. They live across the street from each other and know each other, in some ways, better than they know themselves. Of course, this relationship comes with the requisite squabbles and misunderstandings, but mostly they are each other’s best and most loyal cheerleaders.

 

Their correspondence – which starts with the note Scott leaves in Cath’s suitcase – is  a joy to read. From these inauspicious beginnings, the two trade stories about their daily lives, their struggles to fit in or, in Scott’s case, figure out what he’s doing with his life. When things happen to them – good or bad – they turn to each other, as they always have. Cath meets new people; Scott longs for an old girlfriend; their lives, as lives often do, become more complicated.

tornadoes1

The novel takes place in 1982 – so just a couple years after I would have graduated from high school – and it is peppered with pop culture references (particularly musical) which I appreciated. Imagine talking about Thriller as if you were hearing it for the first time! Imagine going to see English Beat in concert!

I laughed-out-loud on more than one occasion, particularly at Scott (his sense of humour was totally my jam).

As for whether your parents are being weird, I don’t know how to answer that. The only time I ever see your mom is when she forgets to close the shade in the bathroom when she’s taking a shower, and even then it’s only if I feel like walking all the way over to my closet to get my binoculars, take them out of the box, walk back to the window, etc. It’s a whole production.

Ultimately, We Are Still Tornadoes is a coming-of-age story, but it is also a story about friends and how amazing it is to have one who, even when they let you down, always finds a way to pick you back up. I loved it.

Highly recommended.

Emergency Contact – Mary H.K. Choi

Penny Lee can’t wait to get away from her mom, Celeste. Not because she’s overbearing, emergencybut because Penny has always felt like she’s the parent and her mom’s the kid. Sometimes Penny wanted to “shake Celeste until her fillings came loose.” Now it’s time for Penny to go off to college –  University of Texas in Austin, only an hour or so away, but away nonetheless.

Her dorm mate Jude, and Jude’s bestie, Mallory, seem like every mean girl Penny has ever encountered, but like everyone else in Mary H.K. Choi’s debut novel Emergency Contact appearances can be deceiving. Penny isn’t anything like them, she’s like the “tiny Asian girl from the Japanese horror movie The Grudge.” (Penny is, in fact, Korean.) Although her friendship with Jude and Mallory isn’t immediate, it turns out, once she lets them in, they’re tremendous allies.

Then there’s Sam. Sam is related (sort of) to Jude through some complicated family tree consisting of defunct marriages. At twenty-one, he works at a local coffee shop where he cooks scrumptious pastries, and lives in a room overhead. He’s skinny, floppy-haired and tattooed, and Penny is almost immediately smitten when she joins Jude and Mallory  for iced coffees. Sam is “different. Sleek. Brooding and angular.”

A chance encounter one afternoon, causes Sam and Penny to become each other’s emergency contacts,  and thus begins a series of light-hearted, and then increasingly more personal texts. Such is romance in the 21st century, I guess. The thing is, Penny has a boyfriend back home and Sam is still in love with his ex, the obnoxiously self-centered Lorraine. But since Penny and Sam never meet in person and only rarely speak on the phone, they manage to keep their relationship superficial, even if neither of them actually feels that way about each other.

I read my fair share of YA romance, and I have to say that Emergency Contact  is definitely one of the better ones I’ve read. Both Sam and Penny are delightfully drawn. Penny is closed off, but clearly as smart as a whip. Sam, too, has had his problems, and things get more complicated for him as he tries to navigate his feelings for Lorraine and his growing feelings for Penny. The thing about these two people is that they are genuinely nice and Choi doesn’t resort to any ridiculous tactics to keep them apart…or push them together, either. There’s certainly lots of potential for misunderstandings and crossed wires, but the little snags in their journey seem realistic rather than ridiculous.

And even though you know where all this is headed and you’ll want these guys to get together, too, it’s the journey, not the destination.

 

 

A Lite Too Bright – Samuel Miller

A Lite Too Bright  is a crazy good debut YA novel by Samuel Miller.  I bought the book alitetoobrightbecause I loved the cover and it had lots of praise from media outlets, not other YA writers (I never trust those, really). I wish that I had read the novel in one or two sittings because it deserves that kind of attention, but I enjoyed the book anyway.

Arthur Louis Pullman III is the grandson of legendary author Arthur Louis Pullman I, whose novel A World Away, is a literary classic and required reading in most high schools, even though Arthur III never got around to finishing it.

Arthur has recently suffered some sort of crisis which requires him to come stay with his Uncle Tim and Aunt Karen in Truckee, “one of those places you go when you’ve thrown in the towel on doing anything extraordinary in your life.”  Arthur’s life has fallen apart, the details of which are only alluded too in visions of him crashing his Camaro into a body of water and feeling himself “floating, untethered by gravity.” Whatever has happened, he’s been removed from the scene of the crime in Palo Alto, perhaps in the hope that he can get himself sorted out.

There’s clearly some family dysfunction. Aunt Karen wants to send him off to some Christian wilderness camp. His father and brother are trying to figure out out to handle what is left of their father’s estate –  which has sustained the brothers but is now beginning to run out.

Arthur Louis Pullman III was something of a literary legend, a sort of Harper Lee-like character who only ever wrote one book, albeit a famous one. At the end of his life, he suffered from Alzheimer’s and he died a week after he disappeared from his home.  A Lite Too Bright follows Arthur I as he attempts to recreate his grandfather’s final week after he discovers what he believes is a clue left specifically for him.

Miller’s novel is an ode to writing, to family, and to living a full and complete life. It’s also a road trip novel, with a complex mystery at its core. Young Arthur is an engaging narrator, desperate to find his grandfather, not in the literal sense, of course, but to understand him, and as he embarks on this journey he discovers that other people are intent on getting close to Pullman Sr., too. As Arthur retraces his grandfather’s last steps, he also comes to terms with his own trauma.

Arthur’s  journey is well worth taking.

And the Trees Crept In – Dawn Kurtagich

When Silla and Nori arrive at La Baume, their mother’s ancestral home, they are tired, hungrytrees and afraid. They’ve run away from home and come to the only place they thought they might be safe. But La Baume is not safe.

“You must never, never go into Python Wood” their Aunt Cath tells them.

You need to hear this as well, Silla. A monster of sorts. He did terrible things. And then he returned to the woods. He’s still in there, waiting for young girls to go wandering so he can capture them. So he can tear them up and eat their flesh from their – “

Dawn Kurtagich’s YA novel And the Trees Crept In is a nightmarish tale of impending doom. Silla is just 14 when she and Nori, 4, arrive from London. They’ve run away from home, specifically from their father who is a violent drunk. La Baume seems magical, if a little dilapidated, at first. There was a garden, plenty of food and “It was paradise. It was almost a home.”

But Aunt Cath wasn’t joking about the woods or The Creeper Man, and soon the girls, particularly Silla, are feeling isolated. The post man stops coming, there’s news of an impending war, and then, after months of not seeing a living soul, Gowan appears.

And the Trees Crept In is a page-turning puzzle of a book. Kurtagich includes diary entries, pages ripped from books, lists, and odd typography. If you’ve read Kurtagich’s novel The Dead House you will be familiar with some of these literary bells and whistles. It makes for an immersive reading experience.

Life becomes increasingly more claustrophobic for Silla and Nori, particularly once Cath seems to suffer from some sort of breakdown and cloisters herself in the attic. There’s no food. A terrifying trip through the woods to the local village reveals boarded up businesses and houses. If not for Gowan arriving from somewhere  with apples, Silla and Nori would starve. Worse than that, though, there seems to be someone in the house with the girls, and even more horrifying, the trees seem to be closing in on them.

And the Trees Crept In is like a horrifying fairy tale. The boogey man is right outside their door, and there is no escape for the sisters. Even Gowan seems helpless. I changed my mind several times about what was happening, and I was wrong. When the narrative resolved itself, and I am happy to say that it’s a terrific ending, I felt utterly wrung out and 100% satisfied (although a little gutted, too.)

If you’re looking for a creepy, compelling, well-written read-past-your-bedtime book, I highly recommend this one.

 

 

When I Am Through With You – Stephanie Kuehn

throughwithuCharm & Strange  was my introduction to Stephanie Kuehn’s work and I have been a fan ever since. When I Am Through With You is her latest YA offering and it’s a layered and tense thriller.

The narrator of the story, Ben Gibson, is a high school senior.  From the very beginning, readers know that something has gone horribly wrong Ben’s life.

This isn’t meant to be a confession. Not in any spiritual sense of the word. Yes, I’m in jail at the moment. I imagine I’ll be here for a long time, considering. But I’m not writing this down for absolution and I’m not seeking forgiveness, not even from myself. Because I’m not sorry for what I did to Rose. I’m just not.

Rose is (was) Ben’s girlfriend. She chose him, not the other way around. She is an exotic combination of her French Peruvian heritage, a “girl with bright eyes and brown skin and very short hair.”

…Rose was my first everything. First kiss, first touch, first girl to see me naked and lustful without bursting into laughter (although she was the first to do that, too). We did more eventually. We did everything. Whatever she wanted, Rose dictated the rhyme and rhythm of our sexual awakening, and I loved that. I never had to make up my mind when I was with her.

Ben is an engaging narrator, even though the reader might consider him unreliable. Kuehn wisely keeps her cards close to her chest, unspooling Ben’s backstory carefully. Why does he suffer from debilitating migraines? Why does he feel like his life is on the road to nowhere? What happened to Rose?

Much of the action happens in the middle of the book. Ben is helping his teacher, Mr. Howe, lead a camping trip out in the wilderness. Rose and her twin Tomas, Duncan (the high school drug dealer), Clay ( a quiet , studious kid), Archie (the wild card), Avery (Ben’s childhood friend), and Shelby (volleyball goddess) are the other campers. It’s kind of like the Breakfast Club of orienteering. Out of their natural element (with the exception of the teacher, who isn’t really front and centre, but manages to be important nonetheless), alliances fray and a combination of bad luck, bad decisions and bad weather cause total chaos and panic.

When I Am Through With You wasn’t at all what I was expecting. I knew to expect great writing, and I knew that the characters would be smart and prickly – something I’ve come to expect from Kuehn. This book asks you to  consider the moral choices these characters make. Ben is unrepentant, but he is also sympathetic. I felt tremendously sorry for him throughout the novel. It’s not all introspection, though. There are some truly heart-racing moments in this novel, and its propulsive plot will keep you turning the pages.

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.