Vanishing Girls – Lauren Oliver

Now that I am back at school, it’s time to start reading YA fiction again. I give it a little  break in the summer so that I can tackle my own mammoth tbr pile. I started this year by reading Lauren Oliver’s highly praised book Vanishing Girls. It’s pretty un-put-down-vanishing-girls-jacketable, folks.

Nicole (Nick) and her younger sister, Dara, couldn’t really be more unalike. Nick is the responsible one; Dara is the wild child and for as long as Nick can remember, people have been comparing the sisters.

She’s not as pretty as her younger sister…shyer than her younger sister…not as popular as her younger sister.

But despite their differences, Nick and Dara are close. Dara recalls that they’d spent

practically our whole lives sneaking into each other’s rooms to sleep in the same bed, whisper about our crushes, watch moon patterns on the ceiling and try to pick out different shapes…cut our fingers and let them bleed together so we’d be bonded forever, so we’d be made not just of the same genes but of each other.

Parker is Nick’s best friend – the boy from the neighbourhood who has shared every single milestone in Nick’s life. Then he and Dara hook up and things get awkward. Dara goes off the rails – drinking and doing drugs – and then there’s the car accident.

Oliver has written a novel that is both an exciting page-turner (a young girl goes missing and then Dara disappears and Nick is convinced the two disappearances are somehow connected) and a moving family drama. Nick and Dara’s parents have separated and the accidents adds extra emotional weight to the already damaged family.

The narrative unfolds in dual first-person narratives, through diary entries and police reports and photographs and illustrations. Each sister has her own version of the truth of what happened on the night of the accident and the time-shifting narrative will yield important clues to careful readers, but the truth is that when all is revealed, you’ll probably still be scrambling to figure out how Oliver’s pulled it off.

Oliver is well-known in the YA world. She wrote the popular Delirium series and I have been looking forward to reading her adult novel, Rooms. After reading Vanishing Girls I think I’ll have to move Rooms up my reading list. That’s pretty much the highest praise I can give.

Happy anniversary to me!

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How is it even possible? I’ve been prattling on about books here for eight years…and that seems like a cause for celebration. So, in honour of my eight years here, please comment below (be sure you leave a way for me to get in touch) and name your eight favourite
books (or eight things you love about The Ludic Reader) and eight days from now, I will randomly choose a winner to receive a fabulous bookish prize from me!

Bittersweet – Miranda Beverly-Whittemore

18339743Mabel Dagmar, the seventeen-year-old narrator of Miranda Beverly-Whittemore’s stunning novel Bittersweet is attending an upper-crust East Coast college on a scholarship. Her roommate, Genevra “Ev” Winslow is from an  influential blue blood family. The two girls couldn’t be any more different and yet somehow Mabel finds herself invited to spend the summer at Winloch, the Winslow family compound in Vermont. Mabel has no interest in returning home to Oregon for the summer, so she gratefully agrees even though she has to help Ev prepare Bittersweet, Ev’s personal cottage, for her father’s “inspection”.

“…if we don’t get that little hovel in shipshape in less than a week, I won’t inherit it,” Ev tells Mabel on the train to Vermont.

Winloch is a strange out-of-time place comprised of an assortment of cottages and a communal Dining Hall set around a beautiful lake,  inhabited by Ev’s immediate family including her parents, Birch and Tilde. It’s isolated and idyllic and Mabel is enchanted. This, she decides, is the life she wants.

Her visit to Birch and Tilde’s cottage only reaffirms her admiration:

Upon the honey-colored floor stood antique wood sideboards and a large mahogany table. An exquisite burgundy Oriental rug tied the furniture together, ending before a large fireplace sporting a brass fender and matching andirons. Canapes were arranged in colorful formations upon hand-painted porcelain platters: crab cakes and mini-lobster rolls and demitasses of chilled pea soup.

Even more impressive, the Winslow’s cottage boasts an impressive Van Gogh, “the most beautiful painting I’d ever seen.”

But there is also something slightly sinister about Winloch. For one thing, Ev installs bolts on the bathroom and bedroom door at Bittersweet. Then Mabel meets Indo, Birch’s sister, who enlists Mabel’s help in locating some important documents lost somewhere in the attic of the Dining Hall, claiming she’d been “looking for a friend like [Mabel] for a while.”

Mabel soon finds herself negotiating a landscape of shifting loyalties and strange tensions. It makes for compelling reading, that’s for sure; I couldn’t turn the pages quickly enough.

Although the bulk of Bittersweet takes place during that one summer, Mabel is actually remembering the events from a vantage point many years later. This will, in part,  help explain why Mabel seems older than seventeen. Her own personal history, revealed in tantalizing snippets, will also help the reader understand her motivations. Bittersweet is Shakespearean in its scope.

Highly recommended.

I Let You Go – Clare Mackintosh

There have been a lot of books in the suspense thriller vein of late and I love them, especialllet you goy in the summer when I just want to give my brain a break from school.  Publishers always want to draw comparisons to Gone Girl, which is the book that perhaps kick-started this newest craze, but I think it’s better to let a book stand on its own bookish merits.

Clare Mackintosh’s novel I Let You Go is definitely top of the thriller heap. I couldn’t put this book down and galloped through it in just a couple of sittings.

In the book’s opening pages, a mother is walking home in the pouring rain with her young son. Just at the road across the street from their home, he lets go of her hand and runs across the street. Out of nowhere, a car comes barreling down the street and hits the boy. From this point on, I Let You Go is a grab-you-by-the-throat suspense thriller that follows Jenna Gray as she goes to the Welsh coast to escape the tragic death and the police detectives, Ray and Kate, who are trying to find the driver behind the wheel.

Jenna’s grief is palpable. “Everything has changed,” she muses. “The instant the car slid across the wet tarmac, my whole life changed.” She stays until she can’t anymore and then, packing only what will fit into her holdall, including a box of treasures from her life, she runs away.

Unable to resist, I open the box and pick up the uppermost photo: a Polaroid taken by a soft-spoken midwife on the day he was born. He is a tiny scrap of pink, barely visible beneath the white hospital blanket.

As a mom, it’s hard to imagine how Jenna will ever survive this tragedy, but survive she must. She finally settles in a tiny tourist town called Penfach, somewhere outside of Swansea. There she rents an isolated, dilapidated cottage and begins the arduous process of overcoming her grief.

In the meantime, Ray and Kate sift through the non-existent evidence, hoping for a break in the case. Mackintosh spent twelve years as a police officer and so these sections are authentic, but don’t weigh the narrative down with unnecessary police jargon. In addition, Ray and Kate – especially Ray – are given interesting personal lives, which add another dimension to the story.

It doesn’t always work, but it does here – Mackintosh pushes the story along and months pass. Jenna starts to make a life for herself; Ray and Kate are taken off the hit and run case because they’ve done all they can do and then all hell breaks loose in a totally WTF fashion. You’ll know what I mean when you get there and from that moment on, it is a breathless race to the book’s conclusion.

LOVED IT!

 

 

 

In a Dark, Dark Wood – Ruth Ware

Ruth Ware and I have lived parallel lives. I, too, have worked as a waitress, EAL teacher and  bookseller. Okay, I may have never been an official book publicist, but I could argue that I sell books all the time by talking about them here and in my classroom and on the radio. I have not, however, written a much-lauded “instant New York Times bestseller.” Crap.

Leonora (also known as Lee and Nora and Leo) is a reclusive and slightly odd mystery th9H5NVHJNwriter who lives in a small flat in London. One day she receives an email invitation to a weekend bridal shower (a “hen” night) for her once best friend, Clare. The invitation is puzzling to Nora because she hasn’t seen Clare in a decade and it seems as though they may have ended things on relatively awkward terms.

The invitation to the party starts Nora’s trip down memory lane, but it’s not a journey she takes willingly.

Clare had been my friend. My best friend, for a long time. And yet I’d run, without looking back, without even leaving a number. What kind of friend did that make me?

There’s only one other name Nora recognizes on the invite list: Nina da Souza. Nora reaches out and the two women make an “I’ll go if you go” pact. This is how they end up in the middle of the woods at a house that seems “as if it had been thrown down carelessly by a child tired of playing with some very minimalist bricks.” For someone used to living in close quarters in the middle of a huge city, Nora finds the location of Clare’s hen night “painfully exposed.” There’s a reason the place is called ‘The Glass House.’

The party’s host is Clare’s best friend from university, Flo. The other attendees are Melanie, a new mother and Tom, the token gay friend. When Nina and Nora arrive, Clare is not yet there. The whole event is awkward and fraught with tension.

Ware intersperses the hen night shenanigans with the aftermath of the weekend. Nora wakes up and “everything hurts. The light in my eyes, the pain in my head. There’s a stench of blood in my nostrils, and my hands are sticky with it.” There are police officers outside her hospital room door and someone is dead.

I enjoyed reading In a Dark, Dark Wood, but I sure wish people would stop comparing every psychological thriller/mystery to Gone Girl. This book is nothing like Gone Girl. That’s not a criticism, by the way. Ware doesn’t waste time with verbosity; this book moves along lickity split. Nora is a perfectly serviceable character, although not particularly endearing. There are plenty of creepy moments – as you’d expect in the fishbowl of a location.  The book has “blockbuster movie starring Reese Witherspoon (an early fan of the novel)” written all over it.

 

 

Lilac Girls – Martha Hall Kelly

Lilac Girls, the debut novel by Martha Hall Kelly,  is the first novel for my book club’s 2016-17 reading year. When it was chosen I can’t say that I was all that interested in reading it. We have all summer to read the book chosen for our first meeting of the new reading year, but I tend to like to read fast, snappy thrillers/mysteries in the summer – with the occasional YA or lit fic thrown into the mix. Also – not a tremendous fan of historical fiction. But I always read the book club selection because our get-togethers are a lot more fun when I’ve read the book. All this to say that I started this novel with a relatively negative attitude.

Lilac book jacketKelly’s novel tells the story of three very different women: New York socialite Caroline Ferriday, Polish teenager, Kasia Kuzmerick and German doctor Herta Oberheuser. It is 1939 and the one thing these women have in common is Adolf Hitler.

Caroline is 37 when the story opens. She’s a retired actress who volunteers at the French consulate. Kasia is just 16 when Germany invades Poland and changes her life forever. She is working as a courier for the underground resistance movement when she and her older sister, Zuzanna, and their mother are arrested and shipped off to Ravensbruck, a Nazi concentration camp for women. It is there that she encounters Herta, a young doctor who has taken a post at the camp because it is difficult for women in the medical field to find work.

The novel is told in three separate first person narratives and once the book gets going it’s almost impossible not to be carried along by the horrors of Ravensbruck and Kasia’s desperate attempts to survive. There’s also a little angsty love story between Caroline and famous French actor Paul Rodierre.  I read the first 200 pages in one sitting.

Caroline and Herta are real people, as Kelly explains in her notes. Kazia and her sister are

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Caroline Ferriday

“loosely based on Nina Iwanska and her physician sister, Krystyna, both operated on in the camps.”

It is almost impossible not to invest in these characters, and the sections concerning Kasia in Ravensbruck are particularly harrowing. There, she and her sister are among hundreds of women used as real-life guinea pigs (or “rabbits” as they are called) for the Ravensbruck doctors to experiment on. Herta’s participation in these horrific experiments,  crimes that are against every aspect of the Hippocratic oath, seal her fate as a villain.

The book is long and the ending seemed a little rushed to me and I could never figure out the title or the dumb book cover- which makes it seem like three girls are the best of friends. I also wasn’t fussy about Kasia and Herta’s showdown, but ultimately Lilac Girls was a good read.

The Dog Days of Summer

Listen Here.

Want to live longer? Apparently all you have to do is read. According to a study that will be published in  the Sept issue of the journal Social Science & Medicine  “reading doesn’t only help us to tolerate existence, but actually prolongs it,”  and that “that people who read books for 30 minutes a day lived longer than those who didn’t read at all.” The study looked at the reading habits of about 3500 people aged 50 and older and discovered that readers lived, on average, two years longer than non-readers.

Of course this is great news for people like me because I read every day – clearly in a bid to prolong my life, but also because I stubbornly refuse to leave this earth until all the books on my tbr shelf have been read. I figure I’m good until at least 140.

So there’s no time like the present to make reading a part of your regular routine – like yoga for the brain. Read the entire article from The Guardian here.

At the start of the summer I talked all about the books that I was going to try to read this summer, including the entire Harry Potter series. Yeah, not so much. I did read The Chamber of Secrets and I am currently reading Prisoner of Azkaban and there is no question of the appeal of these books but I am, for obvious reasons, finding them young. I know that as the characters get older, the themes will get darker and I will read them all as promised…but I am never getting through them all this summer.

I also said I was going to read Martin Short’s memoir I Must Say and I did read that. If you20604377 are at all a fan of Canada’s funny man, it’s worth a look. Apparently the audiobook is narrated by Short and although I don’t listen to audiobooks, I might have made an exception in this case because he does all his characters. In any case, I enjoyed reading about Short’s early life in Hamilton and his start in show business.  It’s a namedropping extravaganza.

But of the books I spoke about back at the beginning of July, that’s as far as I got. I got distracted by shiny new books and so I thought I’d offer some suggestions for the dog days of summer.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things – Iain ReidIm+Thinking+of+Ending+Things

So, Reid is a Canadian writer and this is his first book of fiction although he’s written a couple memoirs. This book is a total mind-you-know-what. An unnamed narrator is on her way to meet her boyfriend’s parents. In a snowstorm. As they drive, she catalogues their relationship and contemplates ending things. When they arrive at Jake’s parent’s house – which is in the middle of nowhere – things take a turn for the what-the-hell. It’s compulsively readable and totally strange. If you read this book, I’d love for you to tell me what you think happens.

The Crooked House – Christobel Kent

If you are a fan of the BBC miniseries Broadchurch, this is the book for you. It’s about a girl named Alison who, until she was 14, lived in a small British town called Saltleigh. Her life is irrevocably changed when her entire family, with the exception of her father,  is murdered. The police determine that it was  her dad that committed the crime. Fast forward several years later and Alison finds herself back in Saltleigh with her boyfriend to attend a wedding.  She has no choice but to start to examine the past and try to figure out what really happened. This is a slow burn, but it’s well-written and perfect for a rainy day because it can (and should ) be read in one go.

the-girls-in-the-garden-9781476792217_hrThe Girls in the Garden – Lisa Jewell

This book is about a woman who moves to a small community in London after her husband has a psychotic break and burns their house down. Which, would probably be enough fodder for a book on all its own, but that’s not really what the book is about. When the book starts the eldest daughter, soon-to-be-thirteen-year-old Grace,  is found bloody and unconscious in the community garden behind the house. Then the book sort of unspools the story of the residents that live around the garden…and the children…and what really happened to Grace. It’s a domestic drama that reads like a thriller.