Review: Pretty Girl 13

Pretty Girl 13 by Liz Coley. Katherine Tegen Books, an imprint of HarperCollins. 2013. Reviewed from ARC.

The Plot: Angie is on a Girl Scout Camping trip when she leaves her tent in the early morning to find a private space to “take care of business.”

Three years later, she appears at her own front door, confused, bewildered, with no idea what happened to her.

No idea where she’s been for the last three years.

She doesn’t even know three years have passed.

Angie looks at her parents, older, and acting so weird. She looks in the mirror and sees a face that she only vaguely recognizes. It is older, it is thinner. Her body is hers and not hers, with strange scars. Marks on her wrists and ankles.

Where has she been? What has happened to her?

The Good: A girl, lost, then found. A miracle! A miracle with so many questions, and Angie is the only one who can answer them.

Pretty Girl 13 is about Angie’s return to her family, with Angie thinking and believing she is a thirteen year old. Thinking and believing nothing bad has happened. Confused and angry and uncertain about the lost years. Angie cannot just step back into her old life, no matter how hard she wishes it, because time has passed. She is not thirteen. Her friends are no longer thirteen.

Pretty Girl 13 is about Angie’s journey in remembering what happened, while trying to navigate the world she is now in.

As I’m sure you’ve guessed, even before Angie does, Angie did not run away. Angie did not get lost and wander in the forest for three years. Angie was not taken in by a kindly person wanting a child of their own.

Angie was taken by a man. And while he would say it was for love — it was not for love or kindness.

How Angie dealt with the trauma of the kidnapping and being held for three years and all that happened during those three years is complex; it is heart breaking; and it is not something that is discovered easily. Basically, she created multiple personalities to protect herself, so that things didn’t happen to “Angie.” “Angie” remained protected and whole, to return to her family as if nothing happened.

Except, of course, something did happen. And Angie has to become whole, to face the truth of those three years and the truth of the present. And that takes time.

One important thing to know about Pretty Girl 13: It is about surviving. Angie is a survivor. She does not realize it at first. It takes time: she and the reader realize it as she learns about the personalities that formed to protect her, personalities that are indeed part of her. A terrible thing happened; and it marked her; but it does not define her.

Other reviews: Belle of the Literati; Book Chic; Busy Bibliophile.


Review: Gone Girl

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. Crown Publishing Group. 2012. Personal copy. Part of my “vacation reads” series; that is, when I review a book for the grown ups instead of teen books.

The Plot: On the morning of their fifth wedding anniversary, Nick Dunne’s wife Amy goes missing. He tells us how he comes home from work to find the door open, the living room showing signs of a struggle and Amy gone. Nick is telling us the story, his story, about two New Yorkers who lost their jobs and so moved back to his home town in Missouri to take care of his sick mother. Nick tells his story, and it’s not pretty. He’s honest about his emotions and resentment and it’s not pretty.

Then Amy speaks up, or, rather, Amy from years ago, her diary from when she first met Nick, and back and forth this married couple go, telling their story, not realizing how their words interact and create a rhythm and a whole story. A story of two people in an unhappy marriage, he telling it now, she going through the history of courtship and marriage, not realizing she is leading us to the day. The fifth anniversary. The day she goes missing.

The Good: Sorry, but this is another one of those books where I gush about loving it yet cannot tell to much about it.

Nick and Amy, Amy and Nick. When they were both writing and in New York, half living off Amy’s trust fund, things were easy and happy and wonderful. Then the trust fund disappeared, their jobs writing for magazines were gone, and they were in Missouri renting a McMansion while Nick runs a local bar with his twin sister and Amy. . . . Amy sits at home, getting older, no longer the cool, pretty, rich young girl she once was.

Here is Nick, on renting their home in a failed development: “It was a compromise, but Amy didn’t see it that way, not in the least. To Amy, it was a punishing whim on my part, a nasty, selfish twist of the knife. I would drag her, caveman-style, to a town she had aggressively avoided, and make her live in the kind of house she used to mock. I suppose it’s not a compromise if only one of you considers it as such, but that was what our compromises tended to look like. One of us was always angry. Amy, usually.” Only page eleven, and Nick’s own words, and already I don’t like him.

Pages later, Amy, and Amy from seven years ago: “I met a boy! . . . I met a boy, a great, gorgeous dude, a funny, cool-ass guy.” The enthusiasm! Of course, I like Amy. And yet… and yet. There are things she says, like when she talks about how other couples are not as cool as she and Nick: “Nick and I, we sometimes laugh, laugh out loud, at the horrible things women make their husbands do to prove their love. The pointless tasks, the myriad sacrifices, the endless small surrenders. We call these men the dancing monkeys. . . . I don’t need pathetic dancing-monkey scenarios to repeat to my friends; I am content with letting  him be himself.” The situation this comes up in is Amy describing a night out for drinks with her friends and their husbands. Nick never shows, because he is not some “dancing monkey” and if he wants to do something different, he does, and aren’t Amy and Nick wonderful for not being overly demanding of each other? It’s as if Amy doesn’t realize she is painting Nick as incredibly self-centered and selfish, in not showing up or even calling about meeting for drinks. It’s as if Amy doesn’t realize it’s also making her look judgmental and cruel.

And so Gone Girl continues, showing us all their warts, all the deep, dark bad places in a person’s heart. Is Amy missing? Or did Nick kill her? Nick killing her almost seems like too easy an answer, even though at times it seemed like he was quite capable of hurting her. As for Amy, yes, we have her diary. But who is Amy, really?

And just when you think you have figured out the story, the kaleidoscope shifts, and everything you thought changes. And then changes again. This is wonderful storytelling, layered, complex, and deep, about two very flawed people. Gone Girl is about the way we see ourselves, and how we treat others, but told using two people who — well. After this book, I wanted to take a hot shower, to scrub my brain clean, to erase them from my brain. Some books show me the best in people; this showed me the worst. Yet, I want everyone to read it, because, whether as mystery or psychological character study, this is a brilliant book. I had to know what happened next, and kept turning pages, until it was two in the morning.

There is an interesting children’s literature tie-in: Amy’s parents write children’s books. Not just any books, but a series about Amazing Amy, slightly modeled on their only child. Amy ages and grows up, and she’s popular with readers. Amy’s relationship with her parents and with her  literary-other is fascinating. What does it do to someone whose childhood is fodder for books? Is it the ultimate gift to a child or the ultimate punishment?

Do I think teens would like this book? Well,  honestly, this is more for the grown ups. I’m not saying teens shouldn’t read it; I just don’t see it having teen appeal. Yes, they may find the Amazing Amy aspect interesting, but that is only a part of the book.

Because I am haunted by Nick and Amy. Because as god made them, he matched them. Because of the unreliable narrators. Because of the puzzle like structure. This is a Favorite Book Read in 2012.

Other reviews: EW’s Shelf Life author interview; S. Krishna’s Books.

Review: My Sister’s Stalker

My Sister’s Stalker by Nancy Springer. Holiday House. 2012. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: When sixteen-year-old Rig’s parent’s divorced, he went to live with his mother while his sister, Karma, stayed with their father. The two haven’t really kept in touch in the four years since, especially since she left for college,

One day, Rig, missing her searches the Internet for her rather distinct name. What he finds chills him: a website by someone obsessed with his sister. Photographs that could only be taken by someone watching his sister.

Will Rig be able to convince his parents that his sister is in danger? Will he be able to save his sister?

The Good: My Sister’s Stalker is a suspense/mystery, building around the questions of who is stalking Karma and what can be done to stop her?

 Before Rig can do anything to find out what is happening with his sister, first he must address his family issues. His parents were a case of opposites attracting: his all-business father and his arty mother. Each thought the other would change as time went by; Rig’s father thought his wife would settle down, his mother thought her husband would loosen up. Instead, they split up, and the children stayed with the parent they were most like: Daddy’s girl and Mommy’s boy. Needless to say, that the relationship between Rig and his father is shaky at best. Rig has to set aside the family disagreements and past hurts to help his sister.

My Sister’s Stalker is very fast paced; once Rig acts on his discovery, things start happening rather quickly. A lot happens, and I don’t want to reveal the twists and turns. I will say this: Rig is not one to sit back and relax. He’s not one to stay at home while his sister’s in danger.  Both the action and the page length (a trim 128 pages) make this an ideal selection for reluctant readers.

Review: Black Heart

Black Heart (The Curse Workers, Book Three) by Holly Black. Margaret K. McElderry Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. 2012. Reviewed from ARC from publisher. Book One: White Cat. Book Two: Red Gloves.

Spoilers for first two books.

The Plot: Cassel Sharpe, 17, couldn’t stay out of trouble if he wanted to. (Now that’s a question; given his talents, his family, and his background, does he want to?)

The Feds are forgiving his past crimes if he works for them, using his unique talent as a transformation worker, someone who can transform whatever he touches.

His mother is in big trouble with the local crime boss, and all will be forgiven if Cassel does him one little favor. Cassel knows there is no such thing as one favor. It’s complicated by the fact that neither the mob nor the feds can now he’s working for the other. Oh, and another thing — the crime boss just happens to be the father of the girl Cassel loves.

Just to make things all that more simple — not — Cassel has to worry about his senior year in high school. Classes, avoiding demerits, friends, and a possible blackmail scheme.

It’s all in a day’s work for someone with a black heart like Cassel.

The Good: Black Heart is the third book in the trilogy about “case workers,” an alternate world that looks a lot like ours with one simple twist: curse workers. People who, with a touch of a finger, can kill you — or erase your memory — make you fall in love — or, in Cassel’s case, transform.

In the first two books, Cassel discovers his particular gift and realizes he has to make a choice about his future. Black Heart explores Cassel’s need to choose and what that means; and the ties, both blood and friendship and love, that link him to other people and what those ties mean about his future.

Black creates a flawless world, full of such tiny details as a society that always wears gloves so that a naked hand is more shocking than a naked body, to bigger issues such as the impact of the criminalization of people based on genetics beyond their control.

Are the feds the good guys and the mob the bad guys? Are curse worker by their nature criminals?

Cassel’s mother worked a politician, and it ended badly, with repercussions large and small. Is the only way to fix it to kill the politician? Will Cassel do that? Meanwhile, Cassel’s mother stole something from someone very powerful. Problem is, this happened years and years ago. Will Cassel be able to hunt through his family’s shady past, a mix of lies and truths and rearranged facts, to find the missing object?

Cassel narrates, and, as with the others, his observations and delivery are delightful. On love: “Lila would still be mine. Mine. The language of love is like that, possessive. That should be the first warning that it’s not going to encourage anyone’s betterment.”

Cassel on how he was raised to be able to con anyone, regardless of curse magic: “Mom taught it to me when I was ten. Cassel, she said, you want to know how to be the most charming guy anyone’s ever met? Remind them of their favorite person. Everyone’s favorite person is their own damn self.”

As with the previous books, Cassel appears to share everything with the reader, but holds back somethings. Not only is the book a con — a con of the reader — isn’t any book? At one point, Cassel thinks about someone, “she’s kind. She’s good. She wants to help people, even people that she shouldn’t.  . . . It’s easy to take advantage of her optimism, her faith in how the world should work. . . . . When I look into Mrs. Wasserman’s face, I know that she’s a born mark for this particular kind of con.” Later as he listens to something his brother is telling him: “the story he’s telling adds up . . . . Barron’s story is messy, full of coincidences and mistakes. As a liar myself, I know that the hallmark of lies is that they are simple and straightforward. They are reality the way we wish it was.”

Aren’t writers con artists, and readers the mark? Happy marks, happy to be born that way, because we want the story, we want the story to work, we want to like what we read. We enter into a bargain with the author: tell me lies, and I’ll believe them to be true.

If you’re one of those people who waits until it’s complete to read and buy a series, you have a new set of covers. If you aren’t, you have a cool thing to explain to people who look at your shelves and wonder about the change. And, if you wait till a series is over to make sure it’s worth investing the time: yes, this series is worth it and then some. Black Heart nicely wraps up the most important questions in Cassel’s journey, yet doesn’t answer every question or resolve every little thing. I could easily see a new series (possibly even a for-adults series) set in this world.

Other reviews: Sonderbooks; Ex Libris; Q&A with the author at Novel Novice (Part One, Two, Three).

Review: The Book of Blood and Shadow

The Book of Blood and Shadow by Robin Wasserman. A Borzoi Book published by Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House, Inc. 2012. Reviewed from ARC from NetGalley.  

The Plot: It started simply enough: a senior year independent study at the local college as a research assistant for a historian. Nora’s best friend, Chris, had done it the year before when he was a senior and he assured her it would be easy and fun, with the extra bonus of spending time with Chris, now a college freshman.

Professor Hoffpauer is obsessed with unlocking the secrets to “the Book,” the Voynich Manuscript, a book hundreds of years old that is written in code. “Historians, cryptographers, mathematicians, the NSA’s best code breakers gave it all they had, but the Voynich manuscript refused to yield.”

Nora is assigned a minor task: translating the Latin letters of Elizabeth Weston, written in the late sixteenth century. Weston was the step-daughter of Edward Kelley, an alchemist rumored to have broken the code.

Who would think a dusty volume and the letters of a long-dead girl would end in blood?

The Good:  If I’d known that my high school Latin class would lead to centuries old conspiracies, secret societies, and Prague, maybe I would have taken more than two years. Then again, it also leads to betrayal and murder, so maybe I’m just as well off not having become a translator of medieval manuscripts.

If I had to give an elevator pitch for this book, it would be Dan Brown meets Indiana Jones. A bunch of bright students use their knowledge of history and language to track down and discover ancient secrets, while trying to hide from secret societies with no qualms about killing to get what they want. (Except, I have to clarify: this is so much better written than Brown’s books.)

I fell for The Book of Blood and Shadow at the first sentence: “I should probably start with the blood.” Before she shares her own name, Nora tells us that “Chris will never be anything more than a corpse, . . . Adriane nothing but a dead-eyed head case,  . . . Max would be nothing but a void.”

Nora is a liar. Well, maybe not a liar, but rather, someone who withholds information. When she started at Chapman Prep as a scholarship student, she told people she was an only child. Chris knew her secret: her older brother had died several years before in a drunk driving accident, killing himself and a girl. Nora becomes best friends with Chris and his girlfriend, Adriane, yet they never visit her in at her house. They are both very close yet at arms length. In many ways, Nora is as full of secrets and hidden messages as the Book and letters she studies.

Nora is also a girl with few friends, but those friends she has mean the world to her. When those friends are threatened, it makes sense that Nora risks everything by going to Prague to get answers.

The letters that Nora studies are those of a teenage Elizabeth: Elizabeth’s father is dead, she is living in poverty while trying to regain her family’s property and position in court, she misses her brother and she is falling in love. Whether it’s because Nora knows what it’s like to live with secrets, or because she knows about grief, or about feeling alone, or has just begun to fall in love, she begins to identify with Elizabeth Weston.

Nora sweeps the reader into the story of how she began working on translating the Weston letters, of the friendship between herself, Chris, and Adriane, of falling in love with Chris’s roommate Max and, I confess, I forgot. I forgot the blood; or, rather, I wasn’t prepared for it. I was as shocked as Nora by the blood and broken bodies.

Nora isn’t stupid, and quickly realizes that there must be something more to the Book and the letters, something important, something worth killing for. Her pursuit of the truth, of who killed Chris, takes her to Prague. Prague is where Elizabeth Weston lived, and as her letters reveal, Weston herself knew the secrets of the Voynich manuscript and hid clues around Prague for her beloved brother to find.

Prague; even though this is a Prague of blood and murder and secrets and lies, Wasserman’s descriptions were such that I want to visit that city and see the ancient buildings.

Without being too spoilery, it turns out that the Book contains instructions to create the Lumen Dei, a machine that is a “miracle and it is [a] curse. It is bridge from human to divine. It is knowledge and power of God in the hands of man.” Two groups have sprung up around the Lumen Dei: the Hledaci, or “seekers,” who want the power of the Lumen Dei, and the Fidei Defensor, those who want to protect the world from the Lumen Dei. It is between these two groups of zealots that Nora finds herself, unsure of her role, not knowing which group killed Chris.

I’m afraid there isn’t much more I can tell, because part of the wonder of The Book of Blood and Shadow is the twists and turns it takes.

Because Nora was smart and brave. Because it makes Latin and history and learning and being smart cool and fun. Because it brings history alive. Because the Voynich manuscript, Edward Kelley and Elizabeth Weston are all real. Because I believed in Elizabeth’s own story so fully I forgot I only knew it through her own letters. Because now I want to go to Prague. Because Nora and her friends are a diverse cast of characters. Because it’s a standalone book. For all these reasons, The Book of Blood and Shadow is a Favorite Book Read in 2012.

Review: I Hunt Killers

I Hunt Killers by Barry Lyga. Little, Brown & Co. 2012. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: You may have heard about Jasper Dent’s father. Billy Dent? The Artist? Green Jack. Yes, THAT Billy Dent. The serial killer.

What’s Jazz up to now? He was, what, thirteen when his father was arrested? So now he’s seventeen?

Right now, at this moment, he’s hiding in some trees, binoculars trained on a bunch of police and yellow police tape. Looking at what they’re looking at — a dead body. A dead body in a field. A dead body, in a field, that’s naked. With fingers missing.

It’s not the first dead body Jazz has seen. Billy never hid what he did from his son; Billy taught his son the tricks of the trade.

Jazz knows: this is not just any murder. This is a serial killer. And as the son of the infamous Billy Dent, he knows people will be looking at Jazz with suspicion and fear.

There’s only one solution. Whether the cops want his help or not, Jazz is going to use all that Billy taught him about how to be a serial killer to find a serial killer.

The Good: The concept alone is terrific. The son of a serial killer using his knowledge to hunt other serial killers? A serial killer book for teens? Sign. me. up.

What truly rocks is that I Hunt Killers is more than just a cool premise. It is also a fascinating study about choice and dark desires and hope. It is a character study, a study of Jazz, who is doubly cursed by nature and nurture. Is he destined to be a killer because he is the son of a killer? Is he destined to be a killer because he was taught to be a killer?

For as long as Jazz can remember, Billy Dent didn’t hide who he was. Doesn’t every parent have human teeth in their nightstand? Billy had plans for Jazz: “You’ll be the greatest ever, Jasper. They’ll never catch you. You’ll be the new boogeyman parents use to scare their kids into behaving. You’ll make everyone forget Speck and Dahmer and even Jack the Goddamn Ripper. My boy. My boy.” According to Billy, the only people who are real, who matter, who exist, are Billy and Jasper. This is the lesson Jasper has learned, and it’s a lesson he fights to unlearn, reminding himself that people are real; people matter; even those he’s never met, they are real. They matter. They shouldn’t be tortured and killed.

Jazz is the son of a serial killer, taught how to clean up evidence and how to dispose of bodies. Every dark thought he has makes him wonder, “am I thinking this because I am a killer?” Despite it all, he hopes – hopes that he is not. Hopes that his friendship with Howie and his relationship with his girlfriend Connie are not just things he’s doing to look “normal,” the way Billy was a good neighbor who coached sports teams to look “normal.”

Other lessons, Jasper tries to forget. Like what happened to his dog, Rusty. Like what happened to his missing mother. And some lessons . . . . Jasper uses. And even enjoys a little. Like turning on the smile to get what he wants. Like reading people, to know what buttons to push to get them to do what he wants.

The portrait of Jazz is brilliant. Jazz, fearing he is what his father wants, fighting it, yet wondering if maybe he really is a killer like his father.

Jasper. Oh, Jasper. Not only is he stuck with being Billy Dent’s son, he also has Gramma Dent to deal with. Billy’s mother is a nasty, mean, bitter woman whose best quality is her dementia. At one point Jazz sees a photograph of his grandmother as a young woman, and oh the questions — what turned her into such a mean, sour person? What went on in that house years ago that created Billy Dent?

The plotting and pacing of I Hunt Killers is perfect: it begins with Jazz observing the police investigation of a dead girl and takes place over the following days as Jazz becomes increasingly convinced this is the work of a serial killer while the police dismiss his theories. Lyga gives the reader two stories: the present story of the dead girl in the field, and the story of Billy Dent. The connection between the two is Jazz. The information about Billy, his past crimes, Jazz’s twisted childhood are given in bite-size doses, just enough to let us know how bad it was without overwhelming the reader. They mystery and the suspense were so overwhelming that I almost stapled the last chapter shut to prevent myself from cheating and skipping ahead to the end, to find out both “who done it” and who survived to the last page.

One last thing: this is going to be a great crossover for adult readers who like true crime and serial killer stories, especially those who don’t like them with gore. Don’t get me wrong: Lyga doesn’t hide the violence and brutality of Billy Dent and his crimes. Murder, torture, rape. But, here’s the thing: Lyga uses few words, leaving it to the reader’s imagination. One or two sentences describes what Billy did, rather than pages and pages of explicit detail.

Because I find myself almost being charmed by Billy Dent. Because I hope that Jazz doesn’t become his father. Because of Jazz’s friendships with Howie and Connie. Because I turned page after page, needing to know what would happen next, unable to guess. Because I am rooting for Jazz. Because I love a good mystery and have a weakness for stories about serial killers. I Hunt Killers is a Favorite Book Read in 2012.

Review: Imaginary Girls

Imaginary Girls by Nova Ren Suma. Dutton Books, a member of Penguin. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: Two years ago, Chloe and her older sister Ruby were at a party at the reservoir. Dares and drinking, one thing leads to another, and Chloe’s classmate London Hayes is dead and Chloe leaves town, leaves Ruby, and goes to live with her father out of state.

It’s two years later. Chloe is coming home; returning to the town she left, the friends she left, returning to her sister, Ruby.

Two years away, and something seems off. Not quite right. Something is different with the town, with Ruby. At a party, Chloe comes face to face with the biggest difference of all; with something that just shouldn’t be.

The Good: Oh, how to do this without spoilers! How to explain the spell of Ruby, the web she weaves around all who know her. To know her is to love her. And as I write this, trying to both explain the magic and wonder of this book without revealing too much, I find that all I can write about is Ruby. All I want to write about is Ruby.

Ruby is a magical older sister, almost mythical to her younger sister, Chloe. Zoey Deschanel would play Ruby in a movie, with her sundresses and boots, her big old Buick with the gas gage that always reads E yet always has a few extra miles left in her, ex-boyfriends ready to do any favor she asks, because, well, it’s Ruby. Some people are like that; charismatic, magnetic. Everyone loves Ruby. Best of all, Ruby loves Chloe. She includes Chloe in her circle, makes her part of it, whether its a circle of friends or of family (Ruby has practically raised Chloe).

When Ruby says something is possible, it is.  When Ruby says Chloe is capable of something, she is.

For two years, Chloe has missed having someone believe in her so deeply, support her so completely: “Ruby could turn me from an ordinary girl you wouldn’t look at twice into someone worth watching, someone special, mythical even.”

Who wouldn’t want a bond like Ruby and Chloe’s?

But now, two years later, something is off, with Ruby, with that bond. Ruby has a secret, a secret she’s keeping from Chloe. Even when Chloe thinks she knows what it is, she isn’t even close to the truth.

What more can I say, without ruining the wonder, the discovery?

One of the things I love about Stephen King is his tone, his use of place, his build up of suspense. Suma does all this: the slowly increasing sense of dread, the creation of the town and reservoir and Ruby’s half-finished house, and, finally, the suspense as Ruby’s secrets begin to unravel, begin to get out of control. My heart is still racing, my mind still whirring, as I realize Ruby’s secrets. Once I knew (or, rather, thought I knew), I got to the last page and then turned to the first page and —  What would I see in the beginning, that would point the way to where Imaginary Girls goes? Or would I see something else? To be able to do that, to have a the book start as one thing, end as another, be both at the same time, is pretty fine writing. When I reread it, I saw so many clues, yet didn’t pick up on them the first time. Or, maybe I did, and that explained the growing sense of unease as I read.

Suma builds up the tension of what is happening in Chloe’s hometown, and at the same time shows this tight, amazing, bond between two sisters that makes the reader think, I want that. Ruby doesn’t see her life as one stuck taking care of her baby sister because her mother is the town drunk and their respective fathers skipped out long ago. Ruby instead has created a life for herself, and for her sister — before she went away — a life of watching movies, roller skating, hanging out at the Village Green, a life where each of those things is infused with fun. Ruby is the sister who texts, “my boots miss your feet” and “my head misses your hairbrush.” Ruby has a way of looking at the world; when Ruby decides a boy isn’t right for Chloe, she says, “Owen is too pretty. . . . There’s something ugly about a pretty boy who knows he’s pretty and assumes everyone else knows it, too.”  Ruby is the type of girl who, when she says she wants cheesecake from a certain restaurant hours away, the guy will drive to get it for her.

What does it mean to Chloe to have Ruby in her life? It means living a life that is a story worth telling. Without Ruby, life is ordinary. Even as the web of Ruby’s wonderfulness is spun, Suma builds the suspense. Something is not quite right. Ruby is hiding something; Ruby is different from what Chloe remembers. Little things strike the reader, like how Ruby doesn’t like to leave the town limits, and doesn’t want Chloe to, either. How Ruby lives in sight of the Reservoir, but puts Chloe in the only room without a view. How Ruby disappears.

The town, a town next to a reservoir, a live town next to a dead drowned town, because when the reservoir was created generations ago it killed the towns in its way. The people were told to leave, but Ruby whispers stories about the people who refused to leave their homes. It is a nameless town next to a dead town with a name; nameless tourists visit the Village Green. The town is special only because Ruby is there. And the reader has to understand just who Ruby is and what she means to Chloe, to understand why Chloe returns home . . . and why after she comes face to face with what is happening in town, she stays. A reader has to understand Ruby to understand what happens in town.

While reading Imaginary Girls, I though of people I’ve known like Ruby. The charismatic person that everyone wants to be around. But the further I read, the more I realized… I’ve never met anyone quite like her.

For other reviews, and to see how others address how to review this book without revealing all the secrets of Chloe, Ruby, their town and their friends — and to see some different views of Ruby:

The Book Smugglers: “Imaginary Girls is very creepy, uncomfortable and disturbing. In fact, it reads a lot like a Twilight Zone episode.” That gives a little bit away about what happens . . . but hey, my referring to Stephen King is also a clue.

Stacked: “Nova Ren Suma has created a deliciously creepy book full of odd happenings all seen through a sort of haze. It’s difficult to get a handle on what’s really going on, because Chloe herself isn’t always sure. That aspect gives the book a feeling of magical realism rather than straight up fantasy or paranormal. And even though Imaginary Girls has elements of the paranormal, which can be found in so many current YA books, you’ll come away from it knowing you’ve really never read anything like it.”

GalleySmith: “If it felt like I was talking in circles in this review it’s because that is exactly how this book made me feel.  Upside down then right side up, all in the best possible way.  Suma is one of the few authors I’ve read that I wouldn’t fear stepping outside of my typical reading boundaries to get hold of her stories.  I’d read anything, anywhere, anytime if she wrote it.”

Because I still cannot get Ruby out of my head. Because Chloe haunts me. Because I’m not quite sure what did or did not happen. Because I could talk about this book all night, over glasses of wine, and then all morning, over cups of coffee. Because the writing wrapped around me like a blanket. This is a Favorite Book Read in 2011.

My last words: if you’ve read Imaginary Girls and want to talk about just what did, or did not, happen, chat away in the comments! The rest of you — you’ve been warned.

Review: Blink and Caution

Blink & Caution by Tim Wynne-Jones. Candlewick. 2011. BrillianceAudio. Narrated by MacLeod Andrews. 2011. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: Blink accidentally witnesses a crime — actually, a non-crime. Jack Niven, an important businessman, has been kidnapped, but Blink saw Niven with the so-called kidnappers and knows he not only went willingly; Niven was in charge, the boss. Homeless and living on the streets, Blink helps himself to the man’s smartphone and wallet and now has linked himself to the crime.

Caution has run away from her drug-dealing boyfriend, taking his stash of money and pot. Somehow, he keeps tracking her down.

Blink and Caution are both on the run. Their paths cross, their stories merge, and two broken teens begin to put together the pieces of their lives. 

The Good: Blink & Caution is told in alternating chapters. Blink’s chapters are told by a person talking to him, a step or two ahead of him: “You lean against the wall, exhausted from the act of holding yourself together. You got off at the wrong floor, my son — that’s all. The wrongest floor of all. You don’t know that yet, but you’re never far from that feeling.” I loved this way of storytelling; MacLeod Andrews, the narrator for the audiobook, brilliantly conveyed the tone of the person talking to Blink. (Andrews does such a stunning job with this book that I now want to listen to everything he’s narrated). Blink’s half of the story is one of mystery — who is Niven? what is happening? why did he fake a kidnapping? — and the unknown narrator adds to the feeling of suspense. Blink quickly finds himself in over his head, but he cannot stop himself. He cannot leave the mystery of Niven alone.

Caution’s story is both more basic and more heartbreaking. Oh, Blink has had a tough few years; his father left, his mother’s new husband is abusive, so Brent (known as Blink because he blinks frequently) is living on the streets. Caution (aka Kitty) ran away from home like Blink, but she ran away for different reason. Caution killed her brother, and yes it was an accident, but he’s still dead and the life she is now living is one built upon punishing herself for her crime.

Blink and Caution are two teens who fate has not treated well. Both deserve better than what life has given them. Caution, especially, has almost been broken by what she did. Almost . . .  because while she ran away, while she hooked up with a drug dealer, while she is now on the run for her life, she is on the run. She does want to live. Blink & Caution is about two broken people coming together and being made whole, but it’s two broken people who are ready to be made whole. Had their paths crossed earlier, it would not have been the right time in either of their lives. Together, they are stronger; together, they may be able to figure a way out of the mess Blink is in. Together, they may become strong enough to survive on their own.

Because I found myself caring so deeply about what happened to Blink and Caution. Because it hurt, knowing how deeply Caution was hurt by what she’d done. Because I wanted these two teens to connect, and once they connected, I wanted to see what they would do. Because this was one of the best audiobooks I’ve ever listened to. This is one of my Favorite Books Read in 2011.

Review: Tighter

Tighter by Adele Griffin. Knopf Books for Younger Readers, an imprint of Random House. 2011. Reviewed from copy from publisher.

The Plot: Jamie, seventeen, is spending her summer as an au pair at ritzy Little Bly, Rhode Island, taking care of eleven year old Isa McRae while Isa’s dad works in Hong Kong. The only other person in the large beachfront estate is the housekeeper, Connie, a disapproving local woman.

It turns out, there are things Jamie wasn’t told about Isa and the McRaes. There’s an older brother, Milo, fourteen, who turns up unexpectedly, spoiled and handsome. Then there’s Jessie, last year’s au pair, a free spirited girl who Isa adored. Jessie, who along with her boyfriend, Peter, died in a plane crash the year before.

Even creepier, it turns out that Jamie looks like Jessie. Jamie is seeing the ghosts of the two lovers, and is somehow drawn into the echoes of the drama, heartache, and betrayals of the year before. But is she really seeing Jessie and Peter? Or is something else going on?

The Good: Tighter creeped me out. In a good way. In a this is how I like to be scared way.

Jamie may not have been told everything about her summer job and the previous summer’s tragedy, but she has a few secrets of her own. While running track, she suffered a back injury (a major lower lumbar sprain) and has been self-medicating ever since by raiding the medicine cabinets of her parents and siblings. Jamie has brought along fifty-odd pills for the summer, hoping they’ll ease the aches and help her sleep. But, the reader wonders, is that all it is? Especially after Jamie shares with the reader that two relatives who killed themselves “had started to appear to me, claiming me in secret hours as one of their own. My eyes would open into darkness — not in terror, not yet — to find them right there, in my room. The rope skewed around Uncle Jim’s neck and Hank staring blankly, the bullet wound black as a cigarette burn at his temple. And then I’d wake up for real, in a gasp, my heart beating fast as rain, my newly identified lumbar muscles — extensor, flexor, oblique — pulsing the nerve roots of my spine. By then, they’d be gone.”

When Jamie starts seeing the ghosts of Jessie and Peter, when she starts sensing the anger and jealousy Pete, one of the working class locals, felt for Jessie and her fellow rich summer residents, is Jamie seeing ghosts? Or is it the pills and the pain and her imagination? Jamie sees more and more evidence of Pete’s dark nature, and begins to believe that it has permanently impacted Isa and Milo. Is Milo somehow channelling the dead teen? The suspense builds, especially as Jamie becomes more and more obsessed with the dead teens and her actions become more and more erratic.

In case you haven’t guessed, Tighter is inspired by Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw. I’m not sure if I ever read the James novella, but I’ve seen some of the films based on the book. I don’t think you need to read the novella to read the book, but readers of the novella will catch some references: Miles is now Milo, one of Isa’s nicknames from Jessie is Flora.

Because Tighter spooked me. Because the twists and turns kept me guessing — and surprised me even when I guessed them. Because the ending made me see the book in an entirely different light, making me reread it immediately. This is one of my Favorite Books Read in 2011.

Review: The Uninvited

The Uninvited by Tim Wynne-Jones. Candlewick on Brilliance Audio. Narrated by Angela Dawe. 2010. Candlewick. 2009. Listened to on audiobook supplied by publisher.

The Plot: It seemed like a good idea. Mimi Shapiro escapes New York City after an eventful freshman year that included an affair with an older professor who won’t stop calling. Mimi goes to the Canadian cottage of her father, artist Marc Soto, expecting solitude. Instead she finds musician Jackson “Jay” Page, 22, who has been using the cottage as a music studio.

Jackson, rather than reacting like a squatter who has been caught, acts as if Mimi is the intruder. He suspects her of the odd things that have been going on: a dead bird and snake skin left at the cottage.

What Mimi and Jay don’t know, as they eye each other with suspicion, is that someone is watching from the shadows.

The Good: Count this as one of those hard to write reviews, because I don’t want to give too much away!

There are three main characters to this story: Mimi, Jay, and Cramer Lee, the watcher. The prologue begins with Cramer’s story, a young man whose life is all about taking care of his mother. Cramer’s mother is an artist, who has good moments and bad moments and tends to have bad boyfriends. Cramer is always there to pick up the pieces, to work the steady jobs to pay the bills. At twenty two, he’s in low wage jobs because instead of going away to college he stayed home to take care of his mother. The reader would think, then, that this is Cramer’s story so that he is the hero. The prologue ends with his mother demanding he steal a necklace.

Suddenly, the story shifts to Mimi in her car, on an adventure, a road trip, to the cottage her father hasn’t seen in over twenty years. It says a lot about her father that he never tells her that he had given permission to Jay to use it as a studio; and he never tells Mimi about Jay at all. Mimi and Jay’s friendship begins with the shared cottage and the odd happenings. Is there anything scarier than realizing that your home is not safe? That it’s been violated? That someone has gone through your things? All the worst by, well, nothing big really happening. A dead bird outside a door? A rock missing from a window ledge?

The story shifts again, to Cramer’s point of view, to his own explanations for what he has done.

Who is the uninvited? Mimi, Jay, Cramer?

The suspense builds and builds, almost unbearably. As the reader watches Cramer watch Jay and Mimi, it seems like Cramer is more villain than hero, that he is a stalker. And yet, and yet — there seems to be more to him. And Cramer has his reasons. As the summer goes by, the reader learns more about Jay, about Mimi, about Cramer. The suspense becomes not just “what will happen next in the cottage,” but, also, what will happen with these three? Will their paths all cross? What about the professor who won’t stop calling Mimi? Is Cramer’s mother finding her path as an artist, or slipping into darkness?

In addition to the friendships, relationships, and mystery of this book, The Uninvited also offers something not always found in books for teens: three college-age students. Mimi has just finished her freshman year, Jay has just graduated, Cramer is in his early twenties. They are old enough to be on their own, old enough to work. Yet, they are still all their parents’ children. Jay is taking a year off before graduate school because his mother supports his music. Mimi has left New York City for an independent summer, but it’s independence made possible by her father’s house and, one assumes, both her parents money as she never worries about a job to pay for groceries and bills. Cramer works two jobs to pay the bills, watches others follows dreams, yet remains tied to his mother. He cannot abandon her, as so many others have. Their age allows all three to have a certain level of freedom from parental oversight, but each still is caught in familiar child-parent patterns and dependencies that a teen reader may identify with.