I don’t know if anyone is dying for a reprise of my favorite books of 2020. Since I am such an eclectic reader, I don’t always read the new stuff, or the popular stuff. Sometimes I discover something popular three years after everyone else already read it, as I did The Hate U Give this past January (it was released in 2017). Sometimes I find things that no one else has read that are unbelievably good, and I feel vindicated by my weird reading patterns when I am able to share it on my blog. But mostly I just read whatever takes my fancy, whenever it comes up and from whatever source, and readers of the blog have to put up with it.
Anyway, I thought I would do a short summary here of my favorite reads for the year, and since they are somewhat evenly populated between Young Adult and Adult books, I will divvy them up
YOUNG ADULT DISCOVERIES
Fantasy dominated here, as it commonly does, both because fantasy is big in YA and because I am a big fantasy fan. I discovered a stand-alone and two duologies this year, which was a nice break from the usual trilogy and I think worked better for the authors as well (so often the middle book is weak and the last book is rushed in those cases).
The first was The Hazel Wood and The Night Country, by Melissa Albert, and although I characterized them as fantasy, they are truthfully much closer to fairy tale. I say that advisedly with the caveat that this is not the determinedly nice Disney fairy tale, but a real, slightly horrifying portal story to a place that you may not, in the end, wish to visit! Both the story and the language are fantastic, in all senses of the word.
The stand-alone was Spinning Silver, by Naomi Novik. The book borrows a couple of basic concepts from “Rumpelstiltskin,” turns them completely on their heads, and goes on with a story nothing like that mean little tale. There are actual faerie in this book, but they have more to do with the fey creatures of Celtic lore than with any prosaic fairy godmother. It is a beautifully complex, character-driven story about agency, empathy, self-determination, and family that held my attention from beginning to end.
The second duology was The Merciful Crow and The Faithless Hawk, by Margaret Owen, and these were true fantasy, with complex world-building (formal castes in society, each of which has its own magical properties), and a protagonist from the bottom-most caste. It’s a compelling adventure featuring good against evil, hunters and hunted, choices, chance, and character. Don’t let the fact that it’s billed as YA stop you from reading it—anyone who likes a good saga should do so!
I also discovered a bunch of YA mainstream/realistic fiction written by an author I previously knew only for her fantasy. Brigid Kemmerer has published three books based on the fairy tale “Beauty and the Beast” (and they are well done), but the books of hers I fell for this year were about typical teenagers with problems that needed to be solved and love lives that needed to be resolved. My favorite of the four was Letters to the Lost, but I also greatly enjoyed More Than We Can Tell, Thicker Than Water, and Call it What You Want.
These were my five-star Young Adult books for 2020.
As YA selections were dominated by a particular genre, so were my books in Adult fiction, almost all of them falling in the mystery section. But before I give you that list, I will finish up with fairy tale by lauding an original adult story that engaged me from the first page and has stuck with me all year: Once Upon A River, by Diane Setterfield. The fairy tale quality is palpable but the archetypal nature of fairy tales doesn’t dominate the story, which is individual and unique. It is the story of three children and the impact of their disappearances (and possible reappearance) on the people close to them, as well as on the inhabitants of one small town beside the river Thames who are caught up by chance in the events that restore a child to life. But the story encompasses more than her fate: It gives extraordinary insight into the issues of life and death—how much they are worth, how they arrive, how they depart, and what is the best way to pursue them.
Another book I encountered in 2020 that didn’t fall into the mystery genre or belong to a series was the fascinating She Rides Shotgun, by Jordan Harper. This was a short, powerful book by a first-time author, a coming of age story set down in the middle of a dark thriller that bowled me over with its contradictory combination of evil deeds and poignant moments.
And the last stand-alone mainstream fiction novel I enjoyed enough to bestow five stars was Just Life, by Neil Abramson. The story showcases the eternal battle between fear and compassion, and involves a deadly virus and a dog shelter in a fast-paced, gripping narrative that takes over the lives of four people. It made me cry, three times.
Most of the mysteries I enjoyed this year came from a “stable” of staple authors I have developed over the decades and upon whom I rely for at least one good read per year. The first is Louise Penny, whose offering All the Devils Are Here in the ongoing Armand Gamache series is nuanced, perplexing, and utterly enjoyable, all the more so for being extracted from the usual Three Pines venue and transported to the magical city of Paris.
Sharon J. Bolton is a reliable source of both mystery and suspense, and she didn’t disappoint with The Split, a quirky story that takes place over the course of six weeks, in stuffy Cambridge, England, and remote Antarctica. Its main character, a glaciologist (she studies glaciers, and yes, it’s a thing) is in peril, and will go to the ends of the earth to escape it…but so, too, will her stalker, it seems. The Split is a twisty thriller abounding in misdirection, and definitely lives up to Bolton’s previous offerings.
Troubled Blood, by “Robert Galbraith,” aka J. K. Rowling, is my most recent favorite read, and is #5 in that author’s series about London private detective Cormoran Strike and his business partner, Robin Ellacott. It’s a police procedural with a lot of detail in service of both the mystery and the protagonists’ private lives, it’s 944 pages long, and I enjoyed every page.
Finally, this year i discovered two series that are new to me, completely different from one another but equally enjoyable.
The first is the Detective Constable Cat Kinsella series by Caz Frear, which currently encompasses three books. I read the first two earlier in the year and promptly put in a reserve at the library on the third (which had yet to be published at the time), and Shed No Tears just hit my Kindle a couple of days ago. They remind me a bit of Tana French, although not with the plethora of detail, and a bit of the abovementioned Sharon Bolton’s mystery series starring Lacey Flint. Cat is a nicely conflicted police officer who comes from a dodgy background and has to work hard to keep her personal and professional lives from impinging one upon the other, particularly when details of a case threaten to overlap the two. I anticipate continuing with this series of novels as quickly as Frear can turn them out.
The second, which is a mash-up of several genres, is Charlaine Harris’s new offering starring the body-guard/assassin Gunnie Rose. I read the first two books—An Easy Death and A Longer Fall—this year, and am eagerly anticipating #3, coming sometime in 2021 but not soon enough. The best description I can make of this series is a dystopian alternate history mystery with magic. If this leads you to want to know more, read my review, here.
These are the adult books I awarded five stars during 2020.
I hope you have enjoyed this survey of my year’s worth of best books. I am always happy to hear from any of you, and would love to know what you found most compelling this year. I think we all did a little extra reading as a result of more isolation than usual, and what better than to share our bounty with others?
Please comment, here or on Facebook, at https://www.facebook.com/thebookadept. Thanks for following my blog this year.
Best friends Colby and Bev made up their minds in middle school that they were not going to be ordinary, were not going to do what everyone else does after high school—go to college, especially as a default. They may go to college someday, maybe even in a year, but in between, they want to have an adventure. They have been saving their money since they were 14, and are all set to spend some time with Colby’s mother in Paris (she’s there taking an immersion French class), and then go to Amsterdam, see a whole archipelago of islands and…who knows what else? The year is before them, and it’s up to them to choose. All their classmates are in awe of their plan, including sisters Meg and Alexa, the other two members with Bev in an enthusiastic (if not terribly good) girl band called The Disenchantments. The plan is: Graduate, spend a week on the road doing gigs with the band in small towns between San Francisco and Portland, drop Meg at her college there, take Alexa (who is a year younger and won’t graduate until next year) back home to San Francisco, and fly.
Imagine, therefore, how Colby feels when he pulls up in his uncle’s VW van to pick up the girls for their road trip, mentions to Bev (for the third time) that they really need to buy their plane tickets, and Bev blurts out that she has been accepted to the Rhode Island School of Design and isn’t going with him to Europe. She tries to play it off like a last-minute exciting chance that she got accepted…but we all know (as does Colby) that to get into a college you have to apply, to send transcripts and letters of recommendation and (for a prestigious art school) put together a portfolio. So this wasn’t exactly spontaneous, and yet Bev has gone along with him for months, supposedly sharing his enthusiasm for reading travel guides, making note of cool restaurants and must-see museums, and lying the whole time. And now they are shut up in a van together for a week, and Bev won’t talk or tell him why. It doesn’t help, of course, that Colby cherishes unrequited love for Bev.
This all sounds like a set-up for a slog through romantic teen angst, but it doesn’t turn out that way, not for the most part. For one thing, the chemistry between the four of them, the adventures they have while playing their gigs, and the good intentions of all involved—despite bad behavior—save the story from the utter mawkishness that it could have become. While relationships are important to the story, they encompass more than the romantic—we see the connections with family, friends, strangers that turned into friends, and strangers encountered once and left behind, and the book features some real moments with all of those.
The book was more of a quest for understanding and purpose, with Colby pondering his options for the next year. At that age, making a choice seems so definite and so daunting, but with Bev’s defection he is forced to realize that it’s really all up to him. Nina LaCour has set up a story that deals kindly and imaginatively with beginnings and endings, and captures both the intensity and uncertainty of teens on the cusp of adulthood.
It’s also a fun catalog of music preferences amongst the four, and the story of what it’s like to play your music in questionable venues you booked sight unseen, as well as a separate small quest to find out the origins of a tattoo—all of which lightens the mood from what could have been a fatally serious story.
I wish that whoever designed the cover had paid a little more attention. Some of the details of the four teens are right, and some are dead wrong, and it would have been so simple to dress them appropriately for this cover shoot so you could have teenagers say “Wow, that looks just like them!” The descriptions were vivid—why not go with them?
In terms of age group, I would say 15 and up.
In the days that seem longer ago than five months, my habit was to browse library shelves, picking up the books that caught my eye and taking them home perhaps based on the cover, or the description on the flap, or the chance reading of an elegant sentence from a randomly selected page. Achieving serendipity is much harder when you are purposefully searching a catalog, or “browsing” on a vendor’s website. If you don’t know what you are looking for, then a catalog is pretty useless, unless you happen upon something as a result of searching for something else; and vendors’ websites have their own perils, since they are designed, above all else, to sell.
So when I happen upon a book, buy it because I was arrested by the title, and discover that it is “all that” and more, I celebrate Serendipity in all her happy godlike majesty. Such was the case with She Rides Shotgun, by Jordan Harper. I was attracted to the title because I had just finished reading Charlaine Harris’s Gunnie Rose books and this title echoed of “Western” and female empowerment and freedom, and also most likely because my favorite character of Harris’s (albeit in another series) is named Harper. It was a discounted selection on bookoutlet.com, so the expense didn’t stop me; and it was an unassuming, fairly short little book, that I could happily squeeze in between the fat fantasies that are my usual fare. It also turned out to be the Edgar Award-winner for Best First Novel of 2018.
I’m so glad I picked it up. The theme seems an unlikely one to say you “enjoyed”: Nate McCluskey, recently freed from prison a few years early on a technicality, is under death sentence by a gang called Aryan Steel. (They wanted him to work for them on the outside, and they didn’t take it well when he said “no.” The man who tried to convince him and came out second best—i.e., dead—was the brother of the gang leader.) Not only did they put a contract on him, but they also decreed death to his family, which consists of an ex-wife and an 11-year-old daughter, Polly. So Nate shows up at Polly’s school and whisks her away before anyone can notice, including her mother who, with her second husband, is already lying dead in the family home. The rest is a saga, albeit short, about how Nate and Polly evade both the bad guys and the police and try to find a way to survive, free of fear, somewhere out there in the future.
The narrative is spare, told in third person but alternating between Nate’s and Polly’s points of view, and for that reason it becomes all the more engaging, because the author knows how to change it just that little bit to make it feel like the character in question. And the imagery is occasionally so beautiful! Nate believes that if he (“they,” says Polly) makes it painful to have Nate around in revenge mode, perhaps Aryan Steel will lift the bounty on Polly and he can send her away somewhere anonymous to grow up. So they begin by trapping someone who will tell them some of the gang’s biggest operations, and then they show up at the house where the largest methamphetamine stash is hidden in the coat closet, and take both their revenge and the meth. Afterwards, Polly thinks about the evening and looks in the mirror:
She was glad that her dad had hurt the man who had looked at her like that, and she felt bad for feeling good. It seemed when she was a kid she only ever felt one thing at once. She could be happy or sad but she’d only be that one thing. Now she never felt only one thing. It was like walking wearing two different-sized shoes. Nothing was ever level or smooth.
The evolution of Polly into a little badass is poignant and also frightening, both to the reader and to her father; while he teaches her to be tough, showing her choke holds and coaching her in boxing, when she puts his teachings to good use, the new person looking out of pale blue eyes so like his own gives him the willies. The narrative strengthens as it goes, mostly because the author doesn’t just recount the difficulties the pair endures in their quest to stay hidden but also lethal, he also lets the reader watch as the connection between them as father and daughter—not strong to begin with, since Polly hadn’t seen her father since she was almost too young to remember—grows, solidifies, and turns into something palpable. The other feature that proves engaging is Polly’s stuffed bear: Yes, she knows that eleven is too old to carry around a stuffed animal, but Polly treats him more like a ventriloquist’s dummy than a cuddly toy, and uses him both to express the innermost feelings she can’t bring herself to voice and to disarm people. It’s pretty hilarious to see a weathered ex-con gang leader react first with surprise and then with engagement to the pantomimes of a teddy bear in the hands of a girl who is turning into a consummate con artist right before your eyes.
This was a powerful book, a coming of age story set down in the middle of a dark thriller. It has everything you would want; even more amazing that it’s a first novel. I look forward to see what’s next from Jordan Harper, if he can pull this off on his first try.
Making note of the “readalike” component: I would liken Harper’s narrative style and sense of drama to that of Peter Heller, though his sentences aren’t as choppy; and another book that comes to mind that you might like if you enjoyed this one is Canary, by Duane Swierczynski.
I tend to think of “coming of age” novels as those in which a teenager starts finding his/her stride, discovering what’s important in life and making some meaningful moves towards growth and change. For some reason (probably because there are so many of them for which this is true), the COA novel has become synonymous in my mind with boarding school books, i.e., the kid who survives the trials and tribs of that rarefied atmosphere and comes out better on the other side. I’m thinking of books like Brutal Youth, by Anthony Breznican, The Mockingbirds, by Daisy Whitney, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, by E. Lockhart, books in which the artificially fraught surroundings of the protagonists mold or shape them in some way.
Lawn Boy, by Jonathan Evison, is nothing like that.
First of all, the protagonist is already 22. He’s probably never owned a proper striped tie, and (in his easygoing way) would view all the inhabitants of those stories as effete slackers. Or perhaps I’m wrong—perhaps he would wistfully wish to be one of them, reading his way through the school library and finding a kindred soul with whom he could discuss the books he loves.
The truth is, Miguel “Mike” Muñoz is himself kind of a slacker. He loves his work as a landscape guy (but won’t call himself an “artist,” he just does his thing) and takes inordinate pride in a uniformly mown lawn, pristine edges, raked beds, and well-trimmed hedges. His secret desire is to let loose his knack for making shrubbery sculptures (topiary), but nobody is interested in those skills.
Mike starts life way down low on the spectrum. He lives with his mother, who is divorced and works every shift she can pick up at the local tavern; his older brother is developmentally disabled and has the mind of a petulant five-year-old inside the body of a well-fed moose; his father gave up all responsibility long ago and never looked back; and Mike is stuck holding the bag a lot. He serves as his brother’s care-giver and minder five days out of seven while his mom is working, precluding much of a social life. His boss is the worst, and the first moment of reckless clarity in Mike’s life comes when he rebels against picking up dog shit (it’s a Saint Bernard, to give perspective) and quits. But unlike those with a side hustle or a skill, Mike doesn’t really have the luxury of quitting a job, lousy pay and conditions or not—he has no experience in sales, can’t fix a car or wield a hammer—and soon he is desperately seeking out any job on offer. He gets a helping hand from a few unlikely people, but is then beaten down again when the so-called help turns out to be self-interest on his “savior’s” part and Mike once more gets the shaft.
There were many things to like about this book. As the narrator, Mike is conversational, funny, and honest, and his narrative sucks you over to his side even as you see all the ridiculous mistakes he makes in his attempts to get by. You really experience things from the perspective of starting from nothing—knowing what it means to go hungry, to have to share a space with way too many people, to take two steps back for every step forward. There’s a scene where he’s on his way to a new landscaping job when his truck, on its last legs for years now, simply gives up the ghost. Mike doesn’t have money to fix it, or even to tow it away, so he puts the key under the mat, pries the vin number tag out of the dashboard, unloads his lawn mower and a few precious tools, and abandons his ride to march home down the highway, pushing the mower along the verge. It’s a symbolic scene of how things go for him.
This is not your typical story of a guy who wants to rise from the ashes to make a million and set himself up in a McMansion, either—Mike just wants to afford minutes for his cellphone, and move out of the garden shed in his mom’s back yard. He wants to be able to sit and read for as long as he wants, to buy what he’d like to eat instead of what he can afford, to treat his friends to a beer or two. In this way he is at odds with the people in his story who exploit him on their own way to their perception of success. They don’t understand why he isn’t driven, like they are, or motivated by money to stick with a job they hate, yielding a lifestyle they don’t have time to enjoy.
This book has a lot to say about the structures and classes of people in our society, showcasing the lives of the privileged vs. those of the poor, whether they be white, brown, or black. It exposes the “by his bootstraps” philosophy as the fallacy it is for many or most people, and shows what those people who do embrace that philosophy are willing (or have) to do to make it come true, usually not such a pretty picture.
I did grow a bit impatient with Mike, because every time he encountered Tito, his former mate from the landscaping business and heard his tale of woe about low pay and bad conditions, I was silently thinking, There, Mike, there is your solution! but he didn’t pick up on it. I loved the relationship in which he eventually finds himself, so unconventional and yet so true to his innocent personality that takes people at face value and works with their quirks and flaws (such as his racist, homophobic friend Nick). Over all, experiencing this narrative was a delightful outtake in a run of more typical reading for me. It was my first book by Jonathan Evison, but I don’t think it will be my last. It also contained a love letter to librarians, which pushed it over the top in my estimation! (And I loved the cover.)
One thing you have to do as a reader, if you are not to be eternally disgruntled with life, is to try not to have outsize expectations of authors. That’s tough sometimes, particularly if an author has never disappointed you with a single one of her books until the one you are reading right now, which you cannot believe came from the same person’s formerly fertile brain. Sometimes it’s not a matter of your icon having written a bad book, simply that she has written one that doesn’t resonate with you, or is directed to a different age group than you expected, or was written earlier in her career before she developed the amazing story-telling abilities that hooked you later on.
There are several authors I have run across who have surprised me in this way: One of them is Elizabeth George, whose masterful mysteries featuring the unlikely detective team of Thomas Lynley, son of the peerage, and Barbara Havers, woman of the people, cause me much excitement whenever they emerge. When I found out she was also trying her hand at young adult books, I was excited to see what she would produce, particularly because, as a teen librarian, I was always looking for a gifted “new” author to pitch to my YA book clubs. I read the first one the minute it hit the library shelf, and was both amazed and dismayed; where was the intricate plotting of her adult mysteries? This pseudo-paranormal mish-mash couldn’t be a product of the same sharp, incisive wit! I’m told that they did improve as she wrote more of them, but I never found out, I stopped at number one. I am still a dedicated fan of Lynley/Havers, and steadfastly ignore the rest.
Another author where the contrast isn’t so wide but nonetheless exists is V. E. (Victoria) Schwab. Her book Vicious is among my top 10 favorite books of all time, and I tout her Shades of Magic series to all and sundry, from 12-year-olds to the elderly. But her two series for young adults—The Archived and Monsters of Verity—left me feeling not exactly disappointed but certainly underwhelmed. I did enjoy the first of her Cassidy Blake books (City of Ghosts) for slightly younger readers, and I am looking forward to reading her new, long-awaited The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, which Schwab has spent 10 years bringing forth and of which she says, “I’ve put my heart and soul, my teeth and blood and bones into this one.” I’m really hoping that it falls into the “I want a copy so I can reread it multiple times” category and not into the “I’m wishing I had read something else this weekend” pile.
Anyway…that’s a long preface to say that I have experienced something similar this week with the book I chose. A few years back I read Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein, an historical fiction novel of World War II, set in Nazi-occupied France, with an American and a British protagonist, both women, one a pilot and the other a spy. To say the book captured my imagination as thoroughly as one of its protagonists is held hostage by the Germans is an understatement. I read it straight through in one sitting, and wept profusely several times, the first occasion on which a book has caused tears since I was a teenager. The story, and the specific way it was recounted, simply bowled me over, and I actually couldn’t read anything else for a couple of days while I thought about and recovered from the book.
I remember, when I read it, thinking, “I do not understand why this has been marketed and sold as a YA book. Will some teens love this book? Definitely. Is it a teen book? Not in the least.” I followed up by telling blog readers, “I find myself sad that [CNV] has been marginalized in any way from finding its full audience, because this book deserves to be widely read. Adults out there, recommend this to your teens, and then read it yourselves, and give it to your mother and your friends and to strangers on the bus.”
As you can imagine, this set up high expectations for all the rest of Wein’s oeuvre, and when I saw one of them for a discounted price from bookoutlet.com, I snapped it up and prepared to be wowed.
The book is The Pearl Thief, and it is as different as night and day or, to be specifically British about it, as chalk and cheese, to her previous work, even though its protagonist is one of the women from CNV, at age 15. And it is definitely written for a younger teenage audience. Before you expect me to pan it, let me say that it was a completely enjoyable read. But I was unconsciously expecting a level of drama and pathos, based on Code Name Verity, that simply didn’t manifest in this story.
If I hadn’t had specific expectations of this author, I still think I would have been intrigued by the book and its subject matter. It takes place in Scotland in 1938, and drops in at the end of an era for one family whose “perfect little Scottish estate, with a ruined castle and a baronial manor, nestled in woodland just where the River Fearn meets the River Tay” will no longer belong to the family, now that the death of Julia Beaufort-Stuart’s grandfather has triggered a reckoning. Lord Streathfern did all he could to save the house and the land for his heirs, but the combination of a lingering illness and a downturn in the economy made it necessary to sell up to a boys’ school, and the family are now inhabiting a small section of the house while the school administrators oversee the renovations and conversions necessary to turn it into the institution it will become. This will be Julie’s last summer on her grandfather’s land, with her brothers, her mother and grandmother, and the few servants left, and then they will move back to their own Craig Castle near Aberdeen, taking her widowed grandmother with them.
By broad contrast with Julie’s sheltered and privileged upbringing, the other vital characters in this story are the two teenagers, Ellen and Euan, in a family of Travelers who have spent seasons on Streathfern land time out of mind, helping harvest “tatties,” beating the bushes and collecting the downed birds during shooting holidays and, in between, collecting tin from the townsfolk and weaving baskets from the withies in the marshy land near the river. This land was ceded to them by right for the past 300 years in exchange for a small fortune in river pearls (which play a vital role in the story), but now the changing fortunes of the laird will mean change for them all.
As the story begins, Julie has just arrived home for the summer three days before she is expected. When no one is around up at the house, she changes out of her traveling outfit into a T-shirt and an old kilt and goes out hiking around the estate, reacquainting herself with her favorite haunts. One moment she is lying on the bank of the river with one arm immersed, tickling for trout in the deep, cold water, and the next she is awaking in a hospital ward with a splitting headache from a lump on her head, being treated with disrespect and disdain as the “tinker” girl they believe her to be. She discovers that she was found, unconscious, on a path in the woods, and brought into the hospital by two of the Travelers; once her mistaken identity is resolved, her mother is called, and she returns home, feeling battered and wondering about how it all happened.
It soon becomes clear that the thump on her head was no accident, and that it is probably directly related to a missing employee of the estate, who disappeared on the same day she landed in the hospital. Along with the two travelers, Euan and Ellen, she seeks out the reason why anyone would have sought to hurt her or the missing man and, in the process, must stand up for her Traveller friends as local bias against them starts framing Euan up for murder.
This book is a delightful combination of murder mystery, coming of age story, and a serious depiction of prejudice, as exhibited by many of the “regular” people towards the Travelers they hold in suspicion and distrust for their alternate lifestyle. Although it wasn’t quite what I expected in terms of drama and emotional engagement, it surprised me (in a good way) with its exposition of the themes Wein did choose to explore. I think adults could enjoy the book, but it is definitely written with teens in mind, and is one of those books one could recommend that promotes empathy to its young readers. The book would be appropriate for anyone 12 and up, although probably a lower age of 14 would find it more relateable.
This review is also to say, placing expectations on your favorite authors and holding them to some rigid ideal may make you miss out on books they wrote that are different but nonetheless effective and providing of considerable enjoyment.
ADDENDUM: Today (according to a post on Facebook) is National Book Lovers Day. I’m not making a special post like for the cats, because EVERY day is book lovers’ day here @TheBookAdept!
In 2015, I picked up Bellweather Rhapsody, by Kate Racculia, to check it out for my high school book club. It had just won an Alex Award, which is given to 10 books each year that are written for adults but that have appeal for teens. My high school club had become sophisticated readers, and that year we were going almost exclusively for Alex Award books, since 18 out of our 23 members were seniors and the rest were juniors.
I never persuaded the club to choose the book; it always got high votes, but never made it to the final pick, and I always regretted that.
Recently, I was reminded of how much I liked it when I saw on the “What Should I Read Next?” Facebook page that Racculia had published a new book, Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts, in 2019. I put it on reserve for my Kindle at the library and awaited its arrival.
While I waited, I went back to Goodreads to review what I had thought of that first book. A brief description: Every year the Bellweather Hotel in upstate New York hosts a high school musical competition called “Statewide,” where music and performance students gather to display their skills. In 1997, twin high school seniors Alice and Bertram “Rabbit” Hatmaker have both qualified to attend. Rabbit plays bassoon in the orchestra, while his sister, an aspiring actress and singer, is in the chorus. Meanwhile (unrelated to the competition), Minnie Graves, who was a child attending a wedding in 1982 when she discovered the groom shot dead and the bride hanging from the light fixture in room 712, has returned for the weekend with her support dog, Augie, to attempt to face down her demons.
Alice is paired as a roommate (in that same room, of course!) with flute prodigy Jill, who also happens to be the daughter of the hated and feared Viola Fabian, sarcastic head of Statewide. Alice discovers Jill’s hanging body in their room on the first evening, but while she runs to get help, the body disappears. Viola dismisses it as an attention-seeking prank, but…if so, where is Jill? All in attendance will have plenty of time to find out, as the Bellweather is enveloped by the biggest snowstorm of the season, and no one is able to leave.
This book started out feeling like a cliché, if an enjoyable one:
The set-up was like a combination of The Shining (Stephen King) and Christie’s And Then There Were None, and I had resigned myself to enjoying it for those familiarities, with perhaps a few modern twists. But there’s a whole lot more going on in this book than just a murder mystery. It’s a coming of age story, for both children and adults, compressed into a wild weekend in which the adults must re-examine what they’ve been told, what they’ve experienced, and what they remember longing for, and the children go through profound changes due to the catalysts provided by this weird music festival in a moldering old resort, while everyone (well, almost everyone—it is a murder mystery, after all!) comes out the other side changed. Parts are hilarious, parts are incredibly touching, and I loved the resolution for all the characters, who were sharp and quirky, and all of them unique.
Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts has a lot of the same things going for it. Racculia’s real gift is for creating memorable characters and making you care what happens to them, and in this book it’s Tuesday, Dex, and Dorry (and well, maybe Archie).
Tuesday Mooney has an unconventional job: She is what’s called a prospect researcher, which means she profiles wealthy people (for a Boston hospital) to see who best for the office fundraisers to hit up for donations. She has the skills of a private detective, but goes beyond those to assess property, analyze gossip, and also rely on her finely honed instincts to find information and connections. She is uniquely suited to this work, being a loner who prefers to be on the outside, noticing what the insiders will miss. She is a guarded person, whose best friend of 10 years has never even been to her apartment. Her austere reserve rises from a genuine and justified fear of having her heart broken.
She is among a dozen employees who have volunteered to work at the hospital’s “Auction for Hope,” to staff the sign-in tables, keep track of auction bids, and make herself generally useful. Tuesday always volunteers, because after learning absolutely everything she can about her subjects, these events are her only opportunity to interact with them in person. But she’s no fan-girl: She simply wants to weigh her assessment of their facts and figures against the reality of a first impression.
At this particular event, Tuesday manages to finagle a place on the guest list for her best friend, Dex Howard, a gay financier who longed to be in musical theater but settled for a large paycheck. Dex looks around for someone interesting to sit with, and meets eccentric billionaire Vincent Pryce, a collector of Edgar Allan Poe memorabilia, and his much younger wife, Lila. In the course of the evening, Pryce is outbid, stands up dramatically as if to challenge the person doing the bidding, and drops dead of a stroke. The Boston Herald headline the next day read PRYCE BIDS FAREWELL.
But his death is not the big news: Pryce has created an epic treasure hunt throughout Boston—clues inspired by Edgar Allan Poe—whose winner will inherit a share of Pryce’s wealth. Tuesday’s curiosity combined with her skills lead her and her oddball crew—Dex, her teenage neighbor Dorry, and the handsome heir to the Arches fortune she met at the benefit—into a complicated game that will make them face past tragedies, present shortcomings, and future hopes.
As I initially underestimated Bellweather Rhapsody, so did I have lesser expectations for this book. First of all, both the title and the cover art strongly suggested a middle-school novel, especially since many reviewers were comparing it to that old chestnut The Westing Game, by Ellen Raskin. Although it was reminiscent, in some ways, of that book, the one it reminded me of more was The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict, the prequel to the Benedict Society series by Trenton Lee Stewart. I immediately thought of Tuesday as a more mature version of Nicholas—clever, introverted, and innovative. Her selection of her friends was likewise unexpected but key.
The supernatural element doesn’t actually merit the implications of the name of the book: Tuesday talks to only one ghost, that of her dead teenage friend Abby, and it’s a toss-up whether this is a real spirit contact or just a trauma reaction to her loss. (Her young friend Dorry longs to talk to ghosts, notably that of her deceased mother, and covets Pryce’s possession of Edgar Allan Poe’s goggles, said to allow one to see them.) But the plot is engaging, not just because of the mystery or the potential for ghosts but also as a result of what pursuing the treasure hunt reveals in each of the four main characters. The book shows what it’s like to be haunted, not by a spirit but by longings to express the person you have squashed down inside of you in the interests of practicality. It deals with the ethics, pleasures, and responsibilities of money, and what it’s like to have it/not have it. It enters in depth into the theme of friendship. It’s a great mix of mystery, introspection, campy humor, and cultural references that shouldn’t work but does. I couldn’t put it down.
I see from Goodreads that Racculia wrote another book, her debut, back before Bellweather. It’s on my list.
Appeals: Eccentric, captivating, substantial characters; evocative world-building with some attention to detail (in both cases); a nice genre mix of mystery, ghosts, and human drama; and an engaging writing style.
After completing and thoroughly enjoying Brigid Kemmerer’s Call It What You Want earlier this week, I was positively compelled to read two of her other contemporary realistic teen fiction novels: Letters to the Lost, and More Than We Can Tell. Previous to 2015, Kemmerer was apparently known for her “Elementals” series about four brothers with paranormal powers, but when I read the descriptions, I wasn’t enticed to read one. I can’t say the same for her contemporary realistic novels, which I have practically inhaled one after another without stopping, becoming incensed when my Kindle ran out of juice at 2:30 in the morning about 40 pages from the end of the last one!
These books remind me of a few other authors—Dessen, Caletti, Rowell—because their books also contain that ideal combination of relationship and life events that propels the story. Even though there are elements of romance to each book, the primary motivation is understanding, empathy, and relationship. Although I have seen some young reviewers on Goodreads remark on the swoon-worthiness of various protagonists (as do some of the other characters!), most recognize that they are not reading these books for the romance but for the real-life transformations that occur as a result of the connections made by the people in Kemmerer’s books.
Letters to the Lost is, as one might assume from its title, an epistolary tale. While working his community service gig at the local cemetery by clearing up the debris left by its visitors and then mowing the plots, Declan Murphy finds a letter left by one of the headstones. When he picks it up and reads it, he feels a surprising affinity with the feelings expressed by its author and, in an impulsive moment, he pulls a pencil out of his pocket, appends the words “Me, too” to the end of it, and lays it back on the grave, never dreaming that the original writer would come back to find his alteration of her letter.
Juliet Young, who has been heartbroken for four months since the death of her photojournalist mother in a hit-and-run, is outraged when she sees that someone has dared to appropriate her grief, and writes another, indignant letter addressing not her mom but the encroaching P.S. person. This is the beginning of both a correspondence and a friendship that grows faster than either could have dreamed, as they each feel free in their anonymity to express some of their deepest feelings and fears.
The truth is, Declan and Juliet are not complete strangers to one another; but the public personnas they wear at school have blinded each other and almost everyone else to who they are or have the potential to be. It takes some extraordinary events to bring them out of hiding, for one another and with all the other people in their lives with whom they need to clear the air.
In More Than We Can Tell, one of the significant sidekicks from Letters to the Lost gets his own tale, which is a more than satisfying happenstance for those who loved the first book. He was an intriguing and important character in the first story, but although we gleaned bits and pieces of his history, there was so much more to tell. As in Letters, and also in the book I read earlier, Rev Fletcher gets a counterpart, Emma Blue, to help him reveal his story while dealing with the fallout from her own, and together the two are able to transition some difficult events with all the ambivalent feelings they stir up.
Rev has loving adoptive parents who took him in 10 years ago at age seven, and adopted him a few years later. He has for the most part put the effects of his troubled early childhood aside, but when he turns 18 and receives a letter from the father who abused him both mentally and physically, it sends him into a tailspin from which he is having a hard time recovering.
Emma has parents who love her, but her mother is hypercritical of Emma’s choice to follow in her father’s footsteps as a creator of video games. To escape the bickering between them, Emma focuses all her time and attention on the perfecting of a computer game she has created from scratch. But when an intrusive and insistent “troll” begins harassing her online, she is reluctant to reveal this problem to a mother who will order her to stop or a father who will be disappointed in her less-than-perfect design security.
Rev and Emma meet, and each serves as an outlet for the other’s private fears. But then issues arise that cause a lack of trust, and it’s not clear whether the budding relationship will survive them.
These books, while sounding formulaic (the alternating points of view, the pairing of two protagonists, the problems they must overcome) are in all honesty totally immersive, nuanced, and redemptive in tone. I can’t imagine a teenager who couldn’t relate to at least one, if not all, of these characters, and the “lessons” that are being taught are not heavy-handed. Some of the messages—that you can ask for what you want instead of passively waiting to be given it; that unkindness should always be resisted on your own behalf and that of others; that talking to people will mostly relieve all kinds of unfortunate misunderstandings; and that a moment is just a moment and a day is just a day, always making room for a different choice or change—are beautifully illustrated by these stories.
I do plan to read the sequel to the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale retelling Kemmerer has written, and I still maintain hers is one of the better and more original one of these out there, but I think her true strength lies in writing about real teenagers in the throes of their confusing, sometimes difficult lives.
I also have great admiration for her, in that she has written at least a dozen books between the years of 2012 and 2020, while simultaneously being married and having four sons!
While scrolling through books on bookoutlet.com in the search of a few more to round out my $35 minimum, I came across Call It What You Want, by Brigid Kemmerer. The name sounded familiar to me, so I looked her up on Goodreads and realized that she was the one who wrote the fairy tale retelling of Beauty and the Beast that I liked so much, so although it didn’t appear to be fantasy, I decided to try this one, which seems to have been written (or at least published) between that book and its sequel, A Heart So Fierce and Broken, which I also own but have not yet read.
Having read both books, I can see that Kemmerer has created for herself something of a formula, although in this case that’s a good thing. One of the ways that her fairy tale book worked was to tell it from two perspectives—those of the enchanted prince and the commoner girl—and this book echoes that by also giving us two protagonists with story lines that intersect.
The male protagonist, Rob, is a victim of circumstance, although many of his peers think he is more than that. Rob’s father, Rob Sr., a financial advisor, was a mini Bernie Madoff who ran a Ponzi scheme on his clients that lost them all their money. To add insult to injury, when he was turned in Rob’s father tried and failed to commit suicide, and survived in a vegetative state, needing constant care from his now destitute wife and son. Rob had been working as an intern in his father’s company when all this transpired, and despite his protestations of ignorance, his classmates and their parents who were injured by his father’s actions refuse to believe that he wasn’t “in the know,” causing him to become a pariah at his high school. He’s basically putting his head down and trying to survive for the rest of his senior year until he can get out of town.
The female protagonist, Maegan, has her own issues: Despite being an honors student with high grades, Maegan questions her abilities and makes an impulsive decision to cheat during her SAT test. She is caught, resulting in 100 other kids’ tests being invalidated and discarded. So Maegan has her share of abuse to survive, and is likewise walking around school in a solitary bubble. Fun fact: Maegan’s dad is the cop who arrested Rob’s dad.
The two share a calculus class, and when their teacher pairs everyone up for a class project, Rob and Maegan are the two conspicuously left standing, ending up together. Neither of them is happy about this and both consider asking the teacher to change the assignments, but with the prospect of having to be third wheels on teams who don’t want them, they resign themselves and tentatively try for a way to work together.
Kemmerer does a brilliant job of first investing you in their situations and then illustrating how these two closed-off teens are gradually able to open up to one another and seek sustenance in an unlikely friendship. Prior to Rob’s family’s “fall,” he was one of the privileged, über-popular lacrosse stars, while Maegan’s family is from much humbler blue-collar origins, although Rob and Maegan’s sister, Samantha, share a love of lacrosse that bridges an initial gap. The sub-plots in the book, involving Rob’s former best friend, Connor, who is determined to constantly remind everyone of Rob’s supposed culpability, Rob’s new and unexpected friend, Owen, with whom Rob conceives of a “Robin Hood” plan to assist the have-nots, and Maegan’s sister Samantha’s secret pregnancy, further enliven the story.
The book explores such themes as right and wrong (doing right for the wrong reasons and wrong for the right ones), trust, responsibility, mistakes, and transparency, but does so in such a way that the reader never feels imposed upon by those themes. Kemmerer presents black and white and every shade of gray as they appear to all participants and makes the reader as eager as the characters to resolve the issues, find justice, and give the misunderstood some relief. There is romance, but it’s far from the dreaded insta-love; this is realistic young adult fiction at its best. If you are a teen who enjoys contemporary fiction, this is a writer who will give you what you want.
I have already lined up Kemmerer’s other two contemporary novels on my Kindle.
I’m at the end of Week Six of self-quarantine, and feeling restless. That’s not to say that I agree with any of these initiatives to hurry to open things back up—we stay inside to lower the curve, to protect others and ourselves, and it isn’t time yet. But I can acknowledge my feelings and those of others who are going a little stir-crazy.
So, what could be better to read in a time of restriction than something completely escapist? And what could be a more familiar escape trope than running away to join the circus? It’s a notion secretly cherished by people young and old. Running away is one thing, but in this fantasy, destination is all.
I have a few favorites in the run-away-to-the-circus panoply of titles. First on my list is A Stranger at Wildings, originally titled Kirkby’s Changeling, by Madeleine Brent (otherwise known as Peter O’Donnell). At age 13, Chantal discovers the devastating truth about her parentage, and is about to be sent to an orphanage; instead, she decides to disappear into the world of the circus that has just paused in her English town on its way to Hungary. We follow Chantal’s career as a trapeze artist until she turns 18, at which point events conspire to change her life and send her back to England. But she’s not sure she wants this change, especially if it means leaving her circus family. It’s pure gothic magic in the style of Mary Stewart.
The book Meridon, by popular historical fiction writer Philippa Gregory, is one of my personal favorites, because the protagonist is both a gypsy and a bareback rider, so you get lots of horsey bits. But the book is the third in the Wideacre trilogy, and you really do need to have read the first two in order to understand particularly the second half of this book. All three books are engaging (although a bit scandalous here and there), so if you have the time…and you do…? The first two are Wideacre and The Favored Child (neither of which has any circus motif).
The following would most likely be found in the young adult section:
Wonder When You’ll Miss Me, by Amanda Davis, is a coming-of-age book, a triumph over adversity book, a story in which a seriously damaged and divided girl gets the chance to work through it all and pull herself together, with a backdrop of circus life that jumps off the page. The writing is beautiful, the characters are real and individual, and the story-telling is captivating. I wish the publisher had designed a cover to match.
That Time I Joined the Circus, by J. J. Howard, tells of Lexi, a snarky New York City girl, who makes a huge mistake and faces a terrible tragedy. In the face of this, she decides she must track down her mother, who is rumored to be traveling with a circus somewhere in Florida. Lexi doesn’t find her mother there, but she does find a temporary home with the circus. In this story, what the protagonist is running from is equally as important as what she is running to, and she
has to resolve these issues, which are dealt with in jumps from past
Even in the circus sub-genre, there are books with “girl” in the title!
Girl on a Wire, by Gwenda Bond, is a little different, in that most of these stories start with someone running away to the circus, but Julieta Maroni is already a circus performer who is fleeing her family to convince her father, the best wire walker in the world, to join the giant Cirque American despite his feud with their other stars, the Flying Garcias. It’s a rather obvious Romeo-and-Juliet set-up, but it’s also a mystery, a fantasy, and a great depiction of performances on the high wire and trapezes. It has a sequel,
Girl in the Shadows, with a different protagonist but taking place at the same circus.
Some more adult books in this sub-genre:
One title to which your mind will probably immediately go is The Night Circus, by Erin Morganstern, in which the circus is the magical, seductive background for both a battle of wills and a deeply romantic love story.
Another is Johannes Cabal the Necromancer, by Jonathan L. Howard, a funny gothic tale about a man who sold his soul to the devil, but decides he wants it back. Satan agrees to a wager: Johannes has to persuade 100 other people to sign over their souls in exchange for his own. He can have one calendar year and a traveling carnival as the timeframe and setting to achieve his task. Johannes summons an unearthly crew and takes his show on the road.
Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti, by Genevieve Valentine portrays a post-apocalyptic future in which a band of lost souls travels from one ruined city to the next, bringing their marvels to eager crowds of war-ravaged humans. It’s been described as steampunk, as a prose poem, and as a disjointed tapestry of image and text that will only appeal to a few—but those few rave about it.
In Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen, Jacob Janowski, 23 years old and only days away from his final exams to become a veterinarian, is devastated (and stricken by poverty) when his parents are killed in an auto accident. He hops a freight train that happens to be transporting a circus, and soon becomes an integral part, caring for the animals while yearning after a married woman and a difficult elephant. The story is told in flashback, from the viewpoint of an elderly nursing home resident reflecting on his past. (There is also a movie, though I haven’t seen it.)
The Blue Moon Circus, by Michael Raleigh, is the highly rated story of ringmaster Lewis Tully, who gathers together an eclectic group of people to form an independent traveling show. It’s sweet and funny, with likeable characters both human and animal, and a lot of heart.
There are also those stories of circuses that occupy the dark end of the spectrum, the evil circus or carnival from which you wish to escape, such as the classic Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury, Full Tilt, by Neal Shusterman, or The Carnivorous Carnival, by Lemony Snicket. (To this day, hearing the eerie carousel music soundtrack to the movie version of Something Wicked can really mess with my mood.)
Goodreads has quite a comprehensive list of “circus and carnival books” you might want to visit, if one of these books whets your appetite for more “escapist fiction”! One I have always wanted to try is Nights at the Circus, by Angela Carter.
Perhaps, during this time of forced social inactivity, you are ready to get stuck into an immersive series. And perhaps that series should take you away from this uncertain present and into a past, future, or parallel world compelling enough that you can live there for a few days. Here are some suggestions…
First of all, written for young adults but really just an exciting sci fi series for anyone, is the Chaos Walking trilogy by Patrick Ness. The books are The Knife of Never Letting Go, The Ask and the Answer, and Monsters of Men.
The series begins in Prentisstown, an outpost on a planet that is not Earth, a village whose population is mostly hick farmers, 100 percent male, and possessed of an interesting anomaly: They can all hear one another’s thoughts.
It’s not like telepathy, though, it’s more like a constant barrage of the unconscious things people think to themselves in their heads. There’s a reason they call it “the Noise.” It’s almost impossible to withstand, although they all work hard to guard their own thoughts and resist those of the others.
A short way into the story we are introduced to the last boy in Prentisstown, who will become a man on his 13th birthday. But everything he has been told by his fathers, his preacher, the mayor, is a lie:
- All the women on the planet caught a virus and died: LIE.
- That same virus is what caused “the Noise” in the men: LIE.
- This is the only settlement on the planet: LIE.
- All of the “aliens” who used to live on this planet are dead: LIE.
Todd Hewitt’s world has fallen apart. After he makes an interesting discovery that exposes one of these lies, his fathers kick him out of the house to save him, and he is on the run, with his talking dog Manchee. A madman preacher and a power-hungry mayor are chasing him for some reason, and he is about to discover that most of what he thinks he knows is just not true. Worst of all, he is pursued by “the Noise.” Imagine how hard it is to hide when you can hear every stray and random thought of everyone within a couple-mile radius—and they can hear yours.
With underlying themes of genocide, slavery, racism, and sexism, this series is an addictive page-turner that starts with a slow burn and increases the heat from chapter to chapter and book to book, ratcheting up the tension to an almost unbearable peak as Ness lays the foundations for the climax. It’s a fascinating combination of science fiction, coming of age, and social commentary that’s hard to resist.
A story that may resonate with you at this time in history when the One Percent owns more of the world’s wealth than the other 99 put together is contained in the three-book series by Starhawk: The Fifth Sacred Thing, Walking to Mercury, and City of Refuge. These books tell of a utopia and a dystopia that exist side by side within the future state of California. In the northern end of the state, a group of old women start a revolution in the streets of San Francisco that ends in a cooperative state in which sustenance is shared by all, and the motto is, “There is a place for you at our table should you decide to join us.” The water flows freely, the streets have been torn up and turned into gardens, personal freedom is as important as personal responsibility, and the entire “village” not only raises the child but looks out for everyone else as well. Meanwhile, down south, centered on Los Angeles, the contrast couldn’t be greater: It is the ultimate expression of the haves versus the have-nots. The haves live in shuttered mansions with swimming pools and drive armored cars and control the army by putting drugs in their food, while the have-nots quarrel over a tin cup of water or a morsel of bread, and are daily more emaciated as they work harder and harder only to starve and die. What happens when the rulers of the south turn their eyes northward and decide that the bounty they see there should also belong to them?
A group of books that is only loosely a series is known as the Hainish Cycle, written by formidable sci-fi talent Ursula K. LeGuin, and spanning decades of her career. There are both major (award-winning) and minor books contained within this grouping, and although I read them as they were published, I have never gone back and put them in the proper order to see the overall evolution of the Ekumen, a star-spanning society that is the League of All Worlds. There is no internal consistency among these books, nor is there an over-arching story line, but the presence of the Ekumen, either behind the scenes or in the thick of the action, makes LeGuin’s works into a philosophical whole. The first three books (Rocannon’s World, Planet of Exile, and City of Illusions) can be had in one volume called Worlds of Exile and Illusion; after those, it’s The Left Hand of Darkness, The Word for World is Forest, The Dispossessed, the short stories of Five Ways to Forgiveness and A Fisherman of the Inland Sea, and culminating in The Telling.
Reading all of these sequentially and all at one go would be a tremendous undertaking, and you would have to get a feel from reading the early books whether LeGuin is one of “your” authors or not…but reading them all gives a heightened sense of what’s at stake when an alliance of worlds decides to interact with deeply complex cultures in the attempt to forge further connections. The layers of psychology, sociology, and sheer human orneriness that LeGuin encompasses are fascinating.
These are all ambitious suggestions, and also pretty serious reading. For my next post, I’ll look for series just as engaging and every bit as long, but perhaps a little more lighthearted.