Book Review: Complicit by Stephanie Kuehn

Jamie Henry’s sister Cate has been in a juvenile detention center for two years, since the night she burned down a barn with horses and a classmate inside.  The classmate survived (albeit very hurt), the horses did not.  Since then, Jamie has tried to live life as normally as possible, dealing with his own anxiety issues.  But now Cate’s out, and she’s coming for him, telling him it’s time to face the truth.  But Jamie isn’t sure what truth she means.

Kuehn’s latest offering is a gripping, absolutely riveting thrill of a novel.  From the onset, readers will be find Jamie’s narrative compelling, his voice authentic, and the slow-burn of the story absolutely unforgettable.  This is a knockout of a novel, and despite the fact that many readers will extol or lament the ending, the novel as a whole is as strong as can be.  This is not a case where the ending makes the book.  The book makes the book, because it’s really that good.

From the start, readers will know that there’s more to this story than meets the eye.  Jamie is a classic unreliable narrator, and while he has moments of sympathy, he’s also kind of a dick.  All of this works perfectly, and Kuehn’s grasp of the character and his affectations make this a hell of a read.  Readers know that Jamie isn’t telling the whole truth, either because he doesn’t want to or because he literally can’t, but there are clues in the text to help them figure it out alongside Jamie.

A great example of a look at mental illness from inside the mental illness, this book stands apart from others of similar ilk because it’s so exceedingly well done.  Tight pacing, excellent plotting, and a firm grasp on the prose makes this a quick read, but one that demands a second or third, much closer reading.  Readers are going to want to go back and look for clues they missed the first time around.  And they’re going to want to talk about them.  Because this is a book that demands to be discussed.

Absolutely engrossing and horrifying.  Recommended for teens and adults alike.  This will make a great discussion book, and is guaranteed to haunt readers for a good long while.  One of the best of the year.

Complicit by Stephanie Kuehn. St. Martin’s Griffin: 2014. Library copy.

Book Review: The Lemon Grove by Helen Walsh

Jenn and Greg are happily married and enjoying their annual vacation in Majorca.  After a week spent alone, drinking, swimming, sunbathing, and languorous afternoon sex, the two are joined by Greg’s daughter Emma arrives with her new boyfriend, Nathan.  Their arrival alters the chemistry of the house, and Jenn finds herself drawn to Nathan despite her better judgment.  At the end of the week, nothing will be the same–for any of the four.

This short, sexy novel is being touted as a literary beach read, and that’s probably fairly apropos.  Helen Walsh’s sparse novel takes aim at a woman on the cusp of middle-age who finds herself viscerally drawn to someone completely inappropriate for her in many ways.  Walsh’s writing is sparse but also taut, and while readers will enjoy the crackling tension between Jenn and Nathan–and it is there, no doubt about it–they will also feel the suspense of what could happen if they two get found out.  It’s a book readers won’t be able to put down.

What is commendable is how Walsh doesn’t shy away from the book’s exploration of aging, of lust and love, of the ins and outs of marriage.  Jenn is aware of her own body and her aging, but she also recognizes her own sexuality.  This frankness makes the book all the more compelling, and Jenn’s conflicted feelings about her thoughts and actions all the more intense.  There’s never any doubt that what is happening is wrong, but that’s part of what makes it so exciting.

And there’s never any doubt that everything is going to turn out okay for everyone, which also makes for an interesting read.  The tension throughout the book is expertly done, and the taut narrative makes this a page-turner of the highest order.  This reviewer blew through this in one sitting, and weeks later is still thinking about the characters.

Perhaps the book’s only downfall is that the characters aren’t fully developed.  Nathan and Greg sometimes feel like props for Jenn’s thoughts and actions, and while her relationship with Emma has some nuance, she falls a little flat.  Even Jenn, whom readers spend so much time with, has limitations in terms of development.  Readers are given no sense of who she is outside of this vacation, making her actions seem all the more wild.  But that might also be Walsh’s point: vacation makes people do crazy, stupid things.

The Lemon Grove by Helen Walsh. Doubleday: 2014. Library copy.

 

Book Review: Tease by Amanda Maciel

When Emma Putnam commits suicide, a community is up in arms.  Everyone seems to think that it’s the fault of several teens who bullied Emma relentlessly.  Sara Wharton is one of those teens.  Along with her best friend Brielle and a few other classmates, the group is awaiting trial for their role in the death of the sixteen-year-old.  Completely ostracized from everyone in town and ordered to stay away from Brielle, Sara reflects on what has happened in the days leading up to the trial.

Amanda Maciel’s ambitious debut succeeds on a lot of levels.  Creating a story and characters loosely based on real events, she crafts a novel that is achingly real, ultimately heartbreaking, and pretty unforgettable.  By choosing to have Sara, one of the bullies, narrate the story, Maciel’s approach to the subject matter is different than many other authors.  It’s a risk, because there are many readers out there who won’t like Sara.

And while that shouldn’t matter, because since WHEN do readers have to “like” the narrator, it will to some.  But what Maciel does is elevate Sara from a stock character and make her a deeply flawed protagonist who is also very real.  For the most part, at least.  Both Sara and the character of Carmichael are fairly well done, as are brief moments with Sara’s family–in particular, her younger brothers.

Less successful characters include Brielle, who is clearly supposed to be the Queen Bee Mean Girl.  While there’s a moment or two where Maciel hints at something underneath Brielle’s surface, it feels like too little to get on board with her.

There’s lots of stuff for readers to chew on and discuss here.  Not merely about issues like bullying and suicide, the book raises questions about who is complicit when a suicide like this occurs, what other factors play into something this horrific, and how one can move on after something like this happens.  Readers are going to want to talk about this one, and it will be great for discussion.

Which is why it’s so disappointing when Maciel’s ending makes everything a little too convenient, too easy, and more than a little inauthentic.  It undermines all of the groundwork that Maciel worked so hard to put in place.  It’s too bad, because it takes what could have been a knockout of a book to one that is merely pretty good.

Tease by Amanda Maciel. Balzer & Bray: 2014. ILL’d through library.

Book Review: Life by Committee by Corey Ann Haydu

Tabitha’s friends think she’s changed, and they’ve dropped her like a bad habit.  Tab isn’t exactly sure how she’s changed, except that her boobs got bigger and she started to get attention from dudes.  Lonely, Tab seeks solace in carrying on a secret relationship with Joe, who already has a very public girlfriend.  Then she stumbles upon an online community called Life By Committee.  There, members spill secrets and complete Assignments.  As the Assignments raise the stakes, Tab wonders if she’s going too far.

Haydu is an author to watch.  She proved that with her debut, OCD Love Story, and she does it here again, creating a fully-realized female protagonist who makes mistakes, feels authentic, and is absolutely memorable.  Although the ending might feel a little too convenient for some readers, this is still an ultimately satisfying–and completely riveting–story about growing up.

What works here is how deeply Tabitha becomes entrenched in her feelings about everything happening in her life.  She’s lonely, and she’s really attracted to Joe, the boy who already has a manic-pixie-dream-girl girlfriend, so when he spills his secrets to her during online chats, she wants their thing to be the Real Deal.  But he isn’t totally present for her, and her parents are dealing with a new baby on the way and her dad’s chronic pot-smoking tendencies, so even though they seem like good parents, they aren’t totally there, either.  Because of this, her discovering an online community in which she can spill her secrets and feel connected to other people at the same time makes total sense.  It’s easy to see how this becomes her distraction from her life’s problems.

The novel really takes off once Tab becomes enmeshed in LBC.  There’s a lot of great stuff to talk about with other readers here, including how social media plays a role in our lives, how things like spilling secrets to strangers rather than friends can be so alluring, and how far is too far when it comes to taking on a dare or a challenge to live life.  Haydu isn’t afraid to make things uncomfortable for her characters or the readers, and the book is all the more authentic for it.  It can be hard, at times, to watch Tabitha make increasingly poor choices, but it never feels forced.

While some might think that the novel’s climax is a bit too much (like, straight out of a movie, too much), others will devour it.  The one faltering step here isn’t enough to keep this book from packing a serious punch.  Highly recommended–this one will stimulate discussion.

Life by Committee by Corey Ann Haydu. Katherine Tegen/Harper Collins: 2014. Library copy.

Mini Reviews of (non-YA) Books I’ve Been Reading

In my unscientific analysis, I’ve read more adult novels in the past 6 months or so than in many, many years.  I don’t always feel like reviewing them fully (this might change, as I really am running out of YA novels to review here), but I do like talking about them sometimes.  Here are a couple good-to-great ones I’ve read lately.

Watch How We Walk by Jennifer Lovegrove

Narrated by a young girl and then also her older self, this novel follows the interpersonal dramas of a devout Jehovah’s Witness family as they deal with an overbearing father, an increasingly checked-out-of-the-faith mother, and an older sister who has entered her rebellious teenage years.   It is sparsely written, very compelling, and has a haunting feel to it throughout.  It is an incredibly sad story with very little hope in it.  There’s mental illness at play, as well as the questioning of faith, the questioning of self, and much more in between.

This is definitely an adult fiction title, but there might be some teen appeal here, especially for savvy, sophisticated readers who like their endings depressing and ambiguous.

 

(ECW Press, 2013, Library Copy)

Mother, Mother by Koren Zailckas 

This one was read for book club and was actually my pick for the month.  I’m not saying there’s a trend here, but this one is also about a family where the mother (who is maybe an undiagnosed case of Narcissistic Personality Disorder) has wreaked havoc on her three children’s lives.  Rose, the eldest, ran away, Violet comes down off a bad trip to find herself committed, and Will, the youngest, is home schooled and fully under his mother’s spell.  It’s a hell of a ride, and it’s nearly impossible to put the book down once it gets going.  Although the ending might be a bit melodramatic for some readers, it’s definitely an engaging and fascinating read.

It was the most well-received book our book club has read.  That’s a point of pride for me (the librarian in the group).

(Crown, 2013, Library Copy)

An Untamed State by Roxane Gay

Arguably the best of the bunch in this post, this searing novel by Roxane Gay (it’s getting a lot of press/good buzz, and deservedly so) is narrated by a Haitian-American woman who gets kidnapped in Haiti by a group of men who extort her wealthy father for ransom.  Instead of paying the ransom immediately, she is held for nearly two weeks.  This is the story of her before and after, and it is not for the faint of heart.  But it is beautifully written, beautifully rendered, and absolutely unforgettable.  Excellent.

It is purely excellent.

(Grove Press, 2014, Library Copy)

Book Review: Say What You Will by Cammie McGovern

Amy was born with cerebral palsy and can’t walk without a walker or talk without a computer voice box.  She can’t even completely control her facial expressions.  All of these things have largely alienated her from her peers.  When she decides to hire student helpers for her last year of high school, her mother is reluctant, but Amy is persistent.  She wants Matthew, a student at the school who is struggling with obsessive-compulsive disorder, to be one of her helpers.  As the two become enmeshed in each other’s lives, a deep friendship forms, and the two of them wonder if they could ever be more.

Let’s get this out of the way: Cammie McGovern’s debut is garnering comparisons to John Green and Rainbow Rowell, but this is a novel that doesn’t need those comparisons.  This one stands well enough on its own.  Comparisons like that only do it a disservice, and may actually alienate readers who might otherwise read and love it.  McGovern’s debut is smart, heartfelt, and absolutely original.  One of the best books of the year, this is a must-read for fans of contemporary YA.

Both Amy and Matthew are remarkably well-drawn characters.  Amy is smart, funny, and fiercely independence, despite the physical limitations imposed on her body.  Her realization that she’s been kept at a distance from her peers for the entirety of her schooling forces her to confront the fact that she needs to learn how to relate to people her own age, and her attempts to do so feeling achingly authentic.

Matthew’s obsessive-compulsive disorder is also sensitively written, and his personality as a kid who cares but lacks direction feels very realistic.  The two have an immense chemistry that leaps off the page, and their rapport is guaranteed to hook readers early on.  Neither character is defined by their diagnosis, and this means that the characters are full, real people.  What McGovern does so well is create real suspense between the two characters as they tentatively search out what their relationship could mean.

The normalization of each character’s disability makes this book a standout when it comes to inclusion lit.  The romance, the wit, and the excellent characterization of the book’s leads make this one a must-have for the summer.  Although the book is slightly over-plotted and some of the secondary characters could be fleshed out a bit more, these are easy nitpicks to overlook.  Buy this one.  Highly recommended.
Say What You Will by Cammie McGovern. HarperTeen: 2014. Electronic galley accepted for review via Edelweiss.

Book Review: Far From You by Tess Sharpe

Because of a car accident when she was fourteen, Sophie Winters lives in constant, crippling pain.  Not long after the accident, she got hooked on Oxy, and it’s years before she manages to kick the addiction.  Then her friend Mina is murdered right in front of her, and the killer plants pills on Sophie to make it look like a drug deal gone very wrong.  After a stint in rehab (not her choice, especially because this time she really was clean), she’s home again, struggling to deal with the fact that her best friend–the person she loved more than anyone–is gone.  Determined to solve Mina’s murder and force everyone to confront the truth, Sophie embarks on unraveling the mystery in front of her, while also dealing with the fact that it will force her to reveal Mina’s biggest secret of all.

Tess Sharpe’s debut is a knockout of a novel, and it’s likely to make some best-of lists when the year winds to a close.  Fully realized characters, a compelling plot and narrator, and a strong grip on the prose makes this novel one readers will want to seek out.

Sharpe’s novel features an authentic, deeply flawed protagonist.  Sophie is a complex character, and she’s not overly concerned with whether or not people like her.  She is concerned with the truth, and her abrasiveness often reveals that.  Wracked with grief, regret, and loss, Sophie struggles with Mina’s death not only because she witnessed her best friend murdered in cold blood, but because the two were in love–and this realization has deep ramifications for Sophie’s world.

Also notable is the deft way that Sharpe renders the supporting characters in the story.  There are no simple characters here.  Each person in the story is full of flaws and motivations that make them feel like whole people.  Complex relationships and all-to-human reactions to the events of the book make it that much more compelling.

The book alternates between events past and present, and while this structure works very well here, the mystery often takes a backseat to Sophie’s interpersonal struggles.  This works just fine, but readers looking solely for a hard-boiled mystery won’t find that here.  Even so, the writing is strong enough to hook even the most jaded reader.

Highly recommended.

Far From You by Tess Sharpe. Indigo: 2014. Electronic galley accepted for review via Netgalley.

 

Book Review: Pointe by Brandy Colbert

Theo has been doing a lot better since returning from being away.  She’s eating again, and dancing again.  She’s dating boys who are almost good for her, and her future is looking up.  But then Donovan, her childhood friend, returns home after living with his kidnapper for over four years.  His return–and the revelation of who took him–makes Theo start reliving the past.  She’s haunted by what happened, and the role she played in it all.

Without a doubt one of the strongest debuts in recent memory and absolutely one of the best books of the year, Brandy Colbert’s excellent, haunting, gorgeous novel about a girl who struggles to find balance in her life after it’s completely upended is something you don’t want to miss.  Absolutely compelling, beautifully written, and wholly memorable, this is a knockout of a book.

Pointe tackles an immense amount of subjects and topics, but it does so with a kind of rare grace.  In a lesser author’s hands, the sheer amount of ground this novel covers would feel like too much stuffed into the book, but it works well here.  Colbert is able to weave together the many issues in a seamless way, making her characters fully realized and startlingly authentic.  By combining Theo’s past and present, readers are presented a full picture of who Theo is and how she became that girl.  It’s amazingly well done, and Theo is the kind of complicated, smart heroine that makes complex novels like this one so good.

Colbert also fleshes out the characters who inhabit Theo’s world, making the story that much richer. She has two devoted best friends, present, loving parents, and other supportive adults in her life.  But she also has secrets, and those cause her a great deal of shame.  Her oftentimes tortured inner monologue never feels like too much, though: Colbert’s characters are flawed but very human.

There’s a great deal more to the story, but it’s best left to the readers to discover it.  With Pointe, Colbert has crafted a novel that is compelling, empathetic, and sharp.  Theo is a memorable, strong character, and her story is a fascinating one.  Although the book doesn’t end with all the loose ends tied up, it does end on a hopeful note, making Theo’s journey all the more satisfying.

Highly, highly recommended.

Pointe by Brandy Colbert. Penguin: 2014. Purchased copy.

 

Book Review: We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

Cady Sinclair’s family is wealthy, and they intend to stay that way.  They reunite each summer on her grandfather’s private island.  There, his three daughters and their children–Cady’s cousins–live out a life that’s close to a fairy tale.  After a summer apart from her cousins, Cady returns once again to the island to sort out family secrets and come to terms with the darkest parts of their pasts.

The less readers know going into this story, the better.  Coming up with a summary that doesn’t spoil the book’s plot was one of the more difficult tasks this reviewer has undertaken recently.  Dark, complex, and unbelievably haunting (this book is one that will stay with you for a long, long time), We Were Liars marks a departure from Lockhart’s other books (all of which are very good).  Fans of her previous works might like this one, but should be warned that it is very, very different.

There are many remarkable things about Lockhart’s book, but her ability to create a cast of characters that are complex and undeniably human is one of the more striking aspects of this novel.  Instead of simply tearing apart the Sinclair family and their destructive, all-consuming greed, Lockhart allows the reader to see that they are fully human characters, full of love and full of flaws.  This helps make the book’s foreshadowed tragedy all the more searingly painful when it happens.

This is a brutal story.  It’s going to divide readers, to be sure.  But it’s also incredibly beautiful, thoughtful, and compelling.  Highly recommended.  It’s likely to generate a lot of discussion for teens and adults alike.  Absolutely memorable.

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart. Delacorte: 2014.  ARC read for review.

Book Review: Capricious by Gabrielle Prendergast

Ella’s 11th grade year was kind of a disaster, what with the controversial photo she took that wound her up in all sorts of trouble, her mother’s eating disorder relapse, and the hate crimes on campus.  Now that summer is on the horizon, she hopes that things will improve.  She’s back with Samir, but they’re keeping it a secret.  The problem is, she’s also sort of seeing David (but not fully committed to the concept of him as boyfriend).  Unable to resist the urge to be different from the masses, Ella faces new challenges and lessons as she realizes that her actions definitely have consequences–and she can hurt people more than she realizes.

This follow-up to Prendergast’s excellent Audacious offers readers more of Ella’s complex, authentic world.  Told in gorgeous, sparse verse, the novel picks up where the last left off, but it should work for readers who haven’t read the first just fine.  Unlike many verse novels, Prendergast uses the format to great advantage here, playing with form and length to mimic Ella’s emotional ups and downs.  It’s damn near perfect.

Ella is a complex character, fully realized, and Prendergast’s respect for her and her growth is apparent on every page.  She allows her characters to make mistakes and learn from them, all without ever judging them.  There’s a great deal of nuance here, especially with regard to belief systems and how they can change as people change.  Instead of falling into didacticism, Prendergast remains in tight control of these explorations.

The result is a sensitive, absolutely compelling gem of a novel.  It’s memorable, moving, and well worth a reader’s time and investment.  Definitely recommended to fans of the first novel, but also for new eyes.  Prendergast is an author to watch.

Capricious by Gabrielle Prendergast. Orca Books: 2014. E-galley accepted for review via publisher.