Dare Me – Megan Abbott

daremeWe have cheerleaders at the high school where I teach, but they’re sure as hell not like the cheerleaders in Megan Abbott’s compelling YA novel, Dare Me. These girls are vicious.

Addy Hanlon is the  narrator of this sordid tale.

There I am, Addy Hanlon, sixteen years old, hair like a long taffy pull and skin tight as a rubber band. I am on the gym floor, my girl Beth beside me, our cherried smiles and spray-tanned legs, ponytails bobbing in sync.

Her ‘girl’ is Beth Cassidy, an acerbic teen who spits out insults like bullets. Beth and Addy have been besties since they were young enough to “hang on the monkey bars, hooking [their] legs round each other.” Now they rule their school, part of a cheer squad that makes boys go weak in the knees and girls run for cover when they swagger down the hall, an impenetrable mass of venom.

Ages fourteen to eighteen, a girl needs something to kill all that time, that endless itchy waiting, every hour, every day for something – anything – to happen.

The social order of things is thrown into disarray, though, when the squad gets a new coach.

The New Coach. Did she look at us that first week and see past the glossed hair and shiny legs, our glittered brow bones and girl bravado? See past all the that to everything beneath, all our miseries, the way we all hated ourselves but much more everyone else? Could she see past all that to something else, something quivering and real, something poised to be transformed, turned out, made? See that she could make us, stick her hands in our glitter-gritted insides and build us into magnificent teen gladiators.

Colette French is demanding. On the second day she “takes a piece of Emily’s flab in her fingers” and tells her to “fix it.” The girls discover they can’t fluster her, that she is already bored with their nonsense. Then, Coach dismisses Beth as captain, saying that she doesn’t “see any need for a captain.”

Addy knows Beth’s response, when it comes, will change everything, and it does.

Dare Me is a riveting look at the world of girls on the cusp of adulthood and the woman who allows them a glimpse of what waits for them on the other side. There are no parents here, no sane adults to pull back the reins. Even Coach, who seems dazzling and perfect to the cheerleaders, is soon revealed as damaged and flawed. Addy is particularly taken with Coach and as their relationship morphs into something more intimate, Addy realizes she’s been “waiting forever, my palm raised. Waiting for someone to take my girl body and turn it out.”

I can’t express how  terrific this book is. The writing is dazzling; it was like a mouth full of pop-rocks, you know that candy that fizzes in your mouth? Watching Addy try to navigate her sixteenth year, despite the fact that the world of cheer-leading is totally alien to me, was a thing of horrible beauty.

Highly recommended.

The Reading Promise – Alice Ozma

readingpromiseAlice Ozma’s dad, Jim,  made a promise to his daughter: he’d read to her every single night for 1000 consecutive nights. When they reached that pretty impressive goal they extended “The Steak” which, ultimately,  lasted for nine years. Nine years! Ozma shares their  story in her memoir,The Reading Promise.

“Our rules were always clear and firm: we had to read at least ten minutes (but almost always much more) per night, before midnight, with no exceptions. It should come from whatever book we were reading at the time, but if we were out of the house when midnight approached, anything from magazines to baseball programs would do. The reading should be done in person, but if the opportunity wasn’t there, over the phone would suffice. Well, just barely.”

Reading is something that Alice’s dad clearly values and is passionate about. As a librarian/teacher at an elementary school, he believes in the research that clearly shows that reading aloud is  “the single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success in reading.”   But this nine-year reading “Streak” serves another very important purpose: as a single father, Jim is doing his best to spend quality time with Alice. His older daughter, Kathy, had announced when she was in grade four that she no longer wished to be read to. Alice is different.

The Reading Promise isn’t all about the books Jim and Alice shared. I found the book more interesting when Alice talked about the books, though. I laughed when Jim read Dicey’s Song to fifteen-year-old Alice, skipping over the parts he felt too embarrassed to read aloud. I admired Jim and Alice when they patched up small squabbles through reading together. Not even teenage hormones or adult frustration stymied their reading. I was as incensed as Alice was when the principals at both schools where Jim worked decided he should read no more than five minutes a day to his students, that he should, instead, teach them how to use a computer.

Ozma clearly had no notion that she’d be committing the story of “The Streak” to paper when she started her reading journey with her father. If her memoir suffers a little because of it, so what? Their commitment to reading and to each other makes for a lovely story.

Ten Tiny Breaths – K.A. Tucker

tentinybreaths“New Adult (NA) fiction is a developing genre of fiction with protagonists in the 18-25 age bracket. The term was first coined by St. Martin’s Press in 2009 when they held a special call for “…fiction similar to YA that can be published and marketed as adult—a sort of an ‘older YA’ or ‘new adult’.”[1] New Adult fiction tends to focus on issues such as leaving home, developing sexuality, and negotiating education and career choices,” says Wikipedia.

K.A. Tucker’s novel Ten Tiny Breaths ticks all the New Adult boxes. Protagonist Kacey Cleary’s life is irrevocably  altered at sixteen when her parents, best friend and boyfriend are all killed in a drunk driving accident. Kacey is spared and so is her younger sister, Livie. Flash forward four years and Kacey and her younger sister, who is now fifteen, have left their aunt and uncle’s home in Michigan and headed for Florida. They had to go: Kacey had seen the looks Uncle Raymond had been giving her sister.

So now Kacey and Livie are in Miami. They’ve got enough money to pay for a skanky apartment they found online (luckily their superintendent has a heart of gold). They move in and meet the stripper and her daughter who live next door (luckily the stripper has a heart of gold and also gets Kacey a good gig bar-tending at the club where the owner and all the bouncers have hearts of gold). Then Kacey meets the too-hot-to-be-believed guy who lives in the complex (also with a heart of gold…and a big ol’ secret).  So, yeah, New Adult, sure since there’s a teensy bit of not-very-graphic sex, some swearing and a main character in the 18-25 range…but none of her story is plausible. None. Of. It.

Okay – it’s completely believable that Kacey would be messed up after losing her parents.  Kacey had “spent a year in physical rehabilitation to repair her shattered body, only to be released with a shattered soul…sank into a world of drugs and alcohol for a year to cope…doesn’t cry, not a single tear.”  I get that. Kacey doesn’t like physical touch, that Livie’s hand is the only one she can hold because it “doesn’t feel dead.”

The problem with Ten Tiny Breaths isn’t the writing; it’s the plot and the characters – all of whom seem to have completely altruistic motives. Kacey’s messed up, no question. And sure, Post Traumatic Stress can do some wonky stuff…but the last third of the book is just overwrought and unbelievable and saccharine.

If you want to give the New Adult genre a try, I recommend you check out  Easy. That’s a New Adult novel with some meat on its bones.

 

 

Early Decision – Lacy Crawford

Early Decision PB

Here is what was going to happen: Anne was going to wake up one morning in full possession of the authority she needed to go out and start her life.

Anne Arlington hasn’t quite figured out what to do with her life, but while she figures it out  she acts as a consultant to parents hoping their (mostly) spoiled, coddled and rich offspring make it into the Ivy League. Even Canadian readers will know that the Ivy League is comprised of eight schools considered, by reputation and name, to be  academically excellent, selective, and socially elitist. For those who need a refresher, the  schools  are Brown, Columbia,  Cornell, Dartmouth College, Harvard, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania and Yale.

Early Decision‘s author, Lacy Crawford, spent fifteen years working as just such a counselor, coaching parents and high school students through the highly competitive world of college applications and entrance essays. Although the names of the schools will be familiar, the process itself will be less so to Canadian students (unless they have made applications to American schools.) No matter, there’s a little something for everyone in Early Decision.

The novel follows Anne’s interactions with five of her students and their (mostly) helicopter parents. For five grand, she all but guarantees her students will get into the school of their (parent’s) dreams.  The interesting thing about Early Decision is that  the parents often don’t have a clue what their children actually want. These children are often merely an extension of their parents’ egos.

Anne isn’t that far removed from this process herself; she’s only 27. As she coaches her students through the essay writing process, she encourages them to consider what they really want for themselves. As a high school writing teacher, I particular appreciated Anne’s attempts to get the students as close to the truth of themselves as they could, to strive for an authentic voice.

And I don’t know whether it’s these students in particular or just where Anne happens to be in her own journey, but she finally gets the courage to make a change in her own life.

tlc tour hostEarly Decision was provided to me by the folks at TLC Book Tours in exchange for my honest review. I can honestly say that this is not a book I would have ever picked up on my own, but there’s a lot of great stuff here. The writing is terrific and Anne is a character who manages to see straight into the heart of the people she deals with, yet lacks the confidence to take her own life by the horns. Although the college application process isn’t quite as onerous here in Canada, Early Decision is a great book for people who are on the cusp of adulthood, trying to figure out what they want – juggling their dreams with those of their parents – and eventually figuring out what it means to be true to themselves.

 

 

 

The Birthing House – Christopher Ransom

Birthing_HouseConrad Harrison takes a wrong turn after leaving his father’s funeral and ends up in Black Earth, Wisconsin. He stops for food, glances at the paper someone left behind, and sees a listing for a house he decides to check out. When he goes to meet the real estate agent, Conrad had to admit that the house “made his heart beat faster.”

Faster than you can say “sold,” Conrad has bought the house. Then he returns home to Los Angeles to tell his wife Joanna. Except that when he gets home he discovers that Jo is not alone.

Christopher Ransom’s debut novel The Birth House is a lot of things, but sensical ain’t one of them. Okay, yes, I get it that Conrad was itching for change and that catching his wife with another guy (although not really) could certainly be impetus for said change, but he bought a house in a hick town without consulting his wife. Was it grief over the death of his father and the fact that he had a huge insurance cheque burning a hole in his pocket? The reader will never know because we never learn very much about his relationship with his dad other than he wasn’t around much. Clearly his relationship with Jo is at a crossroads because almost as soon as they move to Black Earth, Jo is head-hunted and takes a new job which requires her to leave for eight weeks of training.

That means Conrad is all alone in the house.  (Well, not completely alone; he has his dogs.)

Cue creepiness.

First there’s the guy who used to live in the house with his wife and kids, all of whom have birth defects.

Then there’s the book of the house’s history, delivered by its former owner. The book explains that the house used to be a birthing house, a place women went to have their babies, but it freaks Conrad out so much that he burns the book in the fireplace.

Then there’s the woman who appears at night.

And something weird is happening with Conrad’s snakes. (Yes, he keeps snakes except that they seem more like a convenient plot point than an actual thing that could potentially escape and wreak havoc.)

And let’s not forget about the mind-blowing orgasms Conrad has in his…sleeps? dreams?

As if that’s not enough, Conrad has a back story involving a girl called Holly and while his wife is away he befriends the nineteen-year-old daughter of his next door neighbours who just happens to be pregnant.

Conrad just keeps getting dumber and dumber. And so does the book.

Blech.

 

 

 

The Pull of the Moon – Elizabeth Berg

pullofthemoon Nan is fifty. One day she wakes up and just decides to leave. Her daughter, Ruthie, is grown and gone; her husband, Martin, remains at home receiving the letters Nan writes to him from the road. In the first she tells him

I just wanted you to know I was safe. But I shouldn’t have said I’d be back in a day or two. I won’t be back for awhile. I’m on a trip. I needed all of a sudden to go, without saying where, because I don’t know where. I know this is not like me. I know that. But please believe me, I am safe and I am not crazy, I felt like if I didn’t do this I wouldn’t be safe and I would be crazy.

Elizabeth Berg’s novel The Pull of the Moon is one of those novels that book clubs (whose members are of a certain age) will have a field day over. And I would be the dissenting voice. (I usually am.) It’s not because I don’t get it, it’s just because I didn’t wholly believe it.

So Nan (who has enough money at her disposal that she can just take the car and wander off and stop whenever and wherever she wants – and there’s the first fly in this self-discovery ointment; it’s Eat, Pray, Love for the middle-aged set) has had it with her suburban life. But it’s not even that so much as that she no longer recognizes the woman she’s become. All her dreams and aspirations have buckled under the weight of being a mother and wife and now she wonders “who in the hell am I?”

This question is likely something most women of a certain age can understand because many of us chuck our own desires under the bus when the kids come along. Nan takes this opportunity to examine who she was and who she is and what she wants going forward. She writes letters to Martin and also writes in a journal, something she hasn’t done since she was eleven.

She meanders along back roads, stopping for food and rest and pondering the sorry state of her life. She also randomly befriends people: the waiter in the diner where she gets breakfast, a hitchhiker she picks up, a man mourning the loss of his wife, an old woman shelling peas. These interactions weren’t all that believable to me because Berg expects the reader to believe that a simple question will open everyone’s floodgates. Suspicion quickly gives way to confession.

Strangely, despite the fact that I didn’t really buy the characters Nan meets (or the short time she spends with them) I did empathize with Nan.  Maybe that’s because, although my kids aren’t yet grown and gone and I no longer have a ‘Martin’, I am 53. I am way past the mid-way point of my life and although I try not to spend my life wallowing in regret, I do wish I had done some things a little differently. I also desperately wish I could call someone up and say, “I want and new house and this is what it’s going to look like. As soon as I get back from this roadtrip, we’re building that puppy. You got that buster?” (Seriously, Nan writes to Martin that she wants a new house!)

Nan writes in her journal that when she was twelve her life “was like a wild, beating thing, exotic, capable of unfolding and enlarging itself, pulling itself higher and higher like a kite loved by the wind.”  The best thing about The Pull of the Moon is Nan’s attempt to recapture the essence of that feeling, life’s enormous possibilities which have long been buried under the weight of the expectations of others. When she does that, Nan’s journey is one worth taking.

 

 

 

Totally Joe – James Howe

totally joeWhen Joe Bunch is given an ‘alphabiography’ as a seventh grade English project he thinks it’s lame. Joe’s teacher, Mr. Daly wants students to write about themselves from A-Z and that’s all well and good, except as Joe writes “I’m not exactly your average Joe.” But that, as it turns out, is just one of the many charms of Totally Joe by James Howe.

Howe is a prolific writer; he’s written over 70 books including the Bunnicula series. Totally Joe is also part of a series, The Misfits. Anyone who has read that book will be familiar with Joe and his friends, Addie, Skeezie, and Bobby, but you don’t need to have read it to fully appreciate Totally Joe.

It won’t take the reader very long to figure out that Joe is gay. When he meets Addie for the first time she says: “I thought you were supposed to be a boy. Why are you wearing a dress?” They were four at the time and have been fast friends ever since.

Joe is totally self-aware. It’s one of the pleasure of Totally Joe, really, that he is a person who understands and accepts himself. That doesn’t mean he’s not susceptible to the taunts of others. For instance, Kevin Hennessey who has “an IQ smaller than his neck size” has been picking on Joe forever.

“I’m not calling you a name, faggot, I’m calling you a girl, which you are.”

Somehow, though, despite the name-calling, Joe manages to rise above and he does this with the help of his parents (who are pretty awesome), his aunt Pam and even his older brother, Jeff whom despite being a “total guy-guy who’s all “yo” and “dude” and grabbing at his crotch and belching” is still decent.

Totally Joe is aimed at a 12-14 year-old audience and if Joe does, at times, sound way more mature than the average teenager it’s pretty easy to cut him some slack. He’s had time to settle into himself and he’s smart. The novel manages to be both funny and affirming and Joe even manages some sympathy for the mostly undeserving Kevin Hennessey. It would be a great middle school novel to generate discussion about what it means to be yourself, be a friend and the positive outcome of standing up to the bullies. I really liked it.

 

The Devil’s Footprints – John Burnside

devilAlthough John Burnside is a prolific and award-winning writer (he is one of only two poets to have been awarded both the T.S. Eliot and Forward Poetry prizes for his collection, Black Cat Bone and in addition to over a dozen volumes of poetry he has written non-fiction, novels and a screenplay), The Devil’s Footprints is my first encounter with him.

Michael Gardiner has lived in Coldhaven, a seaside town in northern Scotland, his whole life. His parents were distant, creative people: his father a well-known photographer, his mother a painter. They were outsiders when they came to the village, but it’s the only home Michael has ever known and he lives in the house where he grew up with his wife, Amanda.

When The Devil’s Footprints begins, Michael is considering the deaths of Moira Birnie and her two young sons. Michael had a brief relationship with Moira back when he was nineteen and the circumstances of their deaths troubles Michael. He also wonders why Moira’s 14-year-old daughter, Hazel, was spared. But The Devil’s Footprints is not a mystery.

Burnside effortlessly weaves past and present, illuminating his solitary childhood and the fact that he was mercilessly bullied by Moira’s older brother, Malcolm.

“I always walked to and from school alone. I didn’t have a best friend, I didn’t really have friends at all,” Michael recalls.

As an adult, Michael doesn’t appear to have any friends, either. The reader learns little about his relationship with Amanda, a woman to whom he’s been married for about a decade. Michael doesn’t have to work because his father’s death has left him financially independent. Amanda “liked her job and insisted on going every day, full-time, even though we didn’t need the money.” Michael’s view of his marriage from a strangely impassive perspective. He notes “We had quickly passed the stage in a marriage when being together counts for much” and he knew what Amanda wanted from him was “stability.”

The thing of it is, Michael seems decidedly unstable, especially after he becomes  fixated on Hazel. There are all sorts of Nabokov comparisons to be made in their relationship; Michael makes them himself. But it isn’t until he packs his bags and spirits young Hazel away that the reader starts to understand the huge knot of grief Michael has been carrying around with him.

Did I like The Devil’s Footprints?  I think it’s a book that does an admirable job of reaching into the dark heart of one character. The writing is, understandably, poetic. I am glad that I read it.

The Lantern – Deborah Lawrenson

lantern If you’ve ever been to Provence, I suspect you’ll recognize the lush and aromatic landscape Deborah Lawrenson describes in her novel The Lantern. I’ve never been, but after reading this gothic romance, I’d love to go.

…the lavender fields, sugar-dusted biscuits, wild-flowers in meadows, the wind’s plainsong in the trees, the cloisters of silver-flicking olives, the garden still warm at midnight

The Lantern is two stories in one, stories that share Les Genevriers, an abandoned house in southern France. In one story we meet Benedicte, the youngest of three children who grows up in the house back when it was a working farm. In the other we meet Dom and an unnamed narrator, who is affectionately called ‘Eve,’ who have recently purchased Les Genevries with a view to restoring it to its former glory.

Eve is a twenty-something translator who meets Dom, a forty-something composer, in Switzerland, in a maze – which is prescient, as her life suddenly becomes a tangle of wrong turns and dead ends. She is instantly smitten with him and he seems to return the affection. When they return to London, Eve says “I tried to play it cool. So did he. But we both knew.” Their whirlwind romance eventually takes them to France and Les Genevries.

That summer, the house and its surroundings became ours. Or, rather, his house; our life there together, a time reduced in my memory to separate images and impressions: mirabelles – the tart ornage plums like incandescent bulbs strung in forest-green leaves; a zinc-topped table under a vine canopy; the budding grapes; the basket on the table, a large bowl; tomatoes ribbed and plump as harem cushions; thick sheets and lace secondhand from the market, and expensive new bed covers that look as old as the rest; lemon sun in the morning pouring through open windows; our scent in the linen sheets. Stars, the great sweep of the Milky Way making a dome overhead. I have never seen such bright stars, before or since.

Sounds romantic, eh? But it’s also isolated and when Dom starts to behave strangely and Eve starts to smell things and see things that aren’t actually there, The Lantern  crosses over into gothic territory. There’s also, as it turns out, an ex-wife whom Dom doesn’t want to talk about and a real estate agent in the local town who does. The plot thickens.

Then there’s Benedicte. She lives her whole life at Les Genevries. Her story, and that of her blind sister Marthe and malevolent brother, Pierre, weave throughout Eve’s narrative and make up some of the “many stories about the place.” As an old woman living in Les Genevries, Benedicte becomes convinced that she is being haunted. She sees her brother, Pierre, “standing, waiting expectantly in front of the hearth, silent, as if his intention was perfectly clear.” And then he is gone. Benedicte has never believed in ghosts, but it is hard to deny that Les Genevries is full of spirits.

Lawrenson does a fabulous job of weaving together the stories of Eve and Benedicte, their connection to Les Genevries and of making Provence jump off the page. The novel is creepy, clever and compelling and a lot of fun to read.

Highly recommended.

1Q84 – Haruki Murakami

I am very excited to turn this blog over to my 15-year-old son, Connor, for his review of 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami.

IMG_0760*

A strategy I use often to pick books, one which my mom wholeheartedly disagrees with, is by cover only. I had never heard of Murakami before (I don’t know how, he takes up nearly an entire shelf of the fiction section at the book store, and has been on the scene since the late seventies) but when I saw the cover of 1Q84, designed by Chip Kidd, I thought it was a masterpiece, and bought the book. When I told people that the Murakami I was starting with was 1Q84, his 1150 page contemporary odyssey, they were shocked and confused, wondering why I didn’t start with something modest like Norwegian Wood or The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. I soon found out why.

1Q84 alternates chapter by chapter between Aomame and Tengo, both 30 or so and living in Tokyo. Aomame is an isolated woman who works as a physical therapist and personal trainer for an elderly woman living in a grand estate, (though she has a second job which is… interesting, to say the least, but I won’t give anything away.)

Tengo is a struggling novelist slash cram school math teacher who is convinced by editor Komatsu to take part in a dangerous plan that will shock the literary scene. Komatsu, seeing the potential in sixteen year old Eriko Fukada’s short story, which she submitted to a contest, ropes Tengo into re-vamping it and publishing it as a novel.

These two characters share a metaphysical connection from their days spent in the same elementary school, but have since drifted very far apart. As a student, children were put off from Aomame because she was fanatically religious and from Tengo because he was the son of an aggressive, work obsessed NHK fee collector. Over the course of the novel, they are slowly drawn back together by the strange series of events, and each character’s utterly depressing past is revealed, much to the dismay of the reader.

Murakami infuses into this fantastical urban idyll themes of sexual promiscuity, aggression towards women, death, violence, and abuse, the supernatural, and memory, among other things; themes you may not expect in a novel which is primarily a speculative fiction romance. Along with this, Murakami skillfully blends every possible genre you can think of. 1Q84 is crime; it is mystery, romance, fantasy, science fiction. It is drama, erotic, historical, philosophical and political. Seriously, you name it, 1Q84 has it.

1Q84The book itself is split into three parts. The first part takes place between April and June, the second between July and September, and the third between October and November. The first two parts I really loved, mostly because so much was happening and because I instantly took to both Tengo and Aomame. I regret to say that in the third part, the book crashed and burned. I can’t quite explain why without giving anything away, but let’s just say there is a violent change in pace and the density and speed (as Donna Tartt would say,) that Murakami had built up over those 600 or so pages, slows nearly to a stop. It was like a disappointing punch to the gut.

Luckily, 1Q84 has a really pretty and ever so slightly redeeming ending, enough to stop me crying about it, but just barely.

Reviewers are far too hyperbolic about this book, trashing it every chance they get. That’s ridiculous. It’s a huge book, and I have no trouble believing that it’s the magnum opus of his career. He is clearly a talented writer, and it’s clear that 1Q84 was an immensely challenging novel to write. It’s 1 000 pages long for heaven’s sake!

Recommended.

 

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