I somehow never picked up The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wroblewski, back in 2008 when it was published and getting all the buzz. I had started my first job in my new career as a youth services librarian, and was far too exhausted ordering books for the library and trying to get current on children’s literature to read much of anything for my own pleasure. I was buying some remaindered books from bookoutlet.com recently and saw that it was available, so I included a copy in my order and started reading without knowing anything about it.
It reminded me, with its gorgeous prose, descriptive scene-setting, and intriguing characters, of a few other books I have lately read—This Tender Land, by William Kent Krueger; The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell, by Robert Dugoni; and Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens. Like those books, it has a young protagonist with a challenging facet to his character, and is both a coming-of-age saga and a snapshot of the times and locale in which its events take place.
In This Tender Land, the boys are orphans being raised in a reservation institution during the depths of the Depression; in Sam Hell, the protagonist is born with red eyes, an odd genetic marker that is a target for bullies; in Crawdads, Kya grows up in isolation in the North Carolina marshes after being deserted by her family, and is regarded with suspicion by the rural community surrounding her. Edgar Sawtelle is more fortunate than these others, in that he has two loving parents and a meaningful life working on his family’s farm in northern Wisconsin, breeding and training dogs for sale. But Edgar has his challenge, too: He was born mute. He hears, but is unable to speak, scream, or make any kind of verbal noise. He is fortunate to meet a woman early in life who teaches him and his parents to sign, and he and his mother go on to make up their own peculiar gestures for all the dog-related trainings, which he does silently with his hands while she verbalizes.
When Edgar is a teenager, his uncle Claude comes back into their lives (he has been in prison), and as soon as he is on the scene, things begin to change. Edgar’s father and his uncle quarrel almost constantly, his father’s native caution coming up against his uncle’s rash impulsiveness. It begins to seem like they are all doomed to live in a constant state of turmoil. Then Edgar’s father dies unexpectedly, leaving he and his mother to carry on the ambitious and taxing breeding and training program with the family’s dogs, and Claude begins to insert himself into the business as his mother, bereft and grieving, reaches out for help. When Edgar has an astounding realization about Claude’s character and actions, he lashes out with tragic consequences and flees into the woods with three of the dogs from “his” litter. But he can’t stay away forever, and is ultimately forced to face the consequences of his flight.
The book has been called a riveting family saga and a compulsively readable modern classic, and I couldn’t disagree with either of those descriptions. Edgar is an immediately sympathetic character, beset by frustration and grief and unable to make himself understood. The story is so moving, in both its triumphs and tragedies. There are those who quibble that the details of the dog breeding and training involve way too much description and attention, just as some readers disliked the lengthy descriptions of nature in Crawdads and asserted in each case that these were flaws of a first-time writer; but I actually enjoyed learning about this trade, and also specifically how it was undertaken by a boy who was mute and couldn’t call out his commands. Others decry the hint of magical realism and/or the anthropomorphism involved in having a few chapters told from a dog’s point of view. But for me, the characters of both the humans and the dogs come to life on the page and are so distinct and compelling that it’s hard to leave them behind when the book is over.
I honestly don’t know what to say, however, about the resolution of the book. I kept expecting, despite all the portents, for it to be a heart-warming boy-and-his-dog story, and up through about 75 percent of it I hung onto that; but the last 25 percent devastated me. After it was over, I went back to Goodreads and discovered that the author had patterned the book on Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It might have been good knowing that, going in! I can’t say that I wouldn’t have read it anyway; but perhaps I wouldn’t have invested so heavily in my belief that there would be a redemptive, if not precisely happy, ending.
I have probably said too much for either proper readers’ advisory or a book review; but it’s hard to get over the emotion that was provoked by this book. It’s beautiful, evocative, and tragic. I would still say to read it, but hold a tiny part of yourself in reserve from wholly committing to the characters.
I picked up a Kindle copy of The Truth According to Ginny Moon, by Benjamin Ludwig, partly because it sounded like a good story and partly because it was discounted to $1.99 and I was looking for something realistic to bounce back from my prolonged immersion in fantasy.
This is not an easy story to read; I don’t mean that from the standpoint of time or vocabulary, but rather because the heroine, Ginny, is so overwhelmed by frustration at unmet expectations that her constant state of tension, confusion, anger, and sadness, all further accentuated by the characteristics of autism, is hard to bear in prolonged doses. But what kept me reading was knowing that what was hard for me to read must be impossible for Ginny to experience; I almost felt compelled to continue for her sake, as if she was a real person and needed me to advocate on her behalf!
The story opens when Ginny is 14 years old. She grew up in an untenable situation with a flighty, impulsive, irresponsible drug addict of a mother and her dysfunctional rager of a boyfriend. Ginny was removed from the household at the age of nine, when she showed a “failure to thrive” that included malnutrition, bruises, and evidence of broken bones and possibly worse violations in her past. She then went through several foster situations and finally ended up with Brian and Maura, who have adopted her. But the birth of their baby, Wendy, triggers profound and unsettling memories for Ginny, causing a drastic shift in her demeanor that baffles everyone who knows her. Ginny seems to revert to a younger age, obsessing over her Baby Doll that she left behind at her mother’s apartment; she ultimately finds a way to contact her birth mother (who is forbidden to see her) so that she can find out if they found the Baby Doll after she left, and if it is okay.
This initial innocent action on Ginny’s part turns her world upside down, as she tries in vain to communicate her fears to those around her—her new parents, her therapist—while they must deal with the intrusion of the birth mother, Gloria, and others from Ginny’s past, and become increasingly frustrated by Ginny’s continuing erratic and difficult behavior.
I can’t speak to the accuracy of the depiction of autism as expressed in Ginny. I tend to think that a lot of her situation, while exacerbated by the functional issues of the condition—emotional disconnection, apparent lack of empathy, inadequate socialization, extreme sensitivity to external stimuli, compulsive habits—could equally be blamed on PTSD from the unendingly stressful situation in which she was raised. But regardless, she is the fascinating narrator of her own story, and seeing everything from her perspective gives the reader a glimpse into what it must be like to try to navigate the world as such an unusual person. The literalism, the skewed but also sensible logic, the heartbreaking self-analysis as those she loves seem to reject her, all come together to create a truly heroic individual who is confronting her demons despite her despair. Bravo to Benjamin Ludwig for giving this child such a wonderful voice.
As with other recent choices, this book came to me through the multiple raves of members of the “What Should I Read Next?” Facebook group. Like the others I have read, I did my best not to learn what it was about until I decided to pick it up myself.
The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell is a coming-of-age tale with something of a twist: Sam is born with ocular albinism, which results in him having red eyes. Everyone who encounters him does a double-take, starting with his father, when he takes one look at his new-born son and exclaims, “What in the Sam Hell?!” Their last name is Hill; they christen him “Samuel,” and the nickname sticks.
This story was so engaging, from page one. Sam’s mother is definitely the heroine of the early years, as she fiercely stands up to all the people who discriminate against Sam because of his weird appearance, starting with Sister Beatrice, the Catholic school principal who wants to exclude him from her school because he “may be a disturbing influence.” His mother is quick to point out the inherent lack of Christian charity in this attitude and the concomitant opportunity for her students to practice tolerance and, when this fails to accomplish her objective, takes the story to a friend at the local newspaper. Score one for Mom—Sam is admitted on day two. It’s not a blessing to Sam himself, however, who is shunned, mocked, and called “devil boy,” and eats his lunch alone on the bleachers. His salvation comes in the form of Ernie Cantwell, the only African American kid in the school, who makes common cause with Sam, and Mickie Kennedy, whose mid-term banishment to Our Lady of Mercy is a blessing in disguise for all three of the children over the length of their extended friendship.
As a child who was targeted for being fat (despite the fact that there were at least three other kids bigger than me in my grade), I completely sympathized with Sam’s plight as a bullied outsider, although no one acted against me beyond hurtful words. But after a while, I wondered just how bad he really had it, especially when he became old enough to choose to wear contact lenses that hid his secret from the world, a luxury not afforded to those with more obvious “flaws.” I appreciated Mickie’s perspective on Sam’s “disability” when she finally delivers it to him, and wished that this had happened earlier in the story: When bad things happen to Sam and he is bewailing the results of “God’s will” (as his mother has always insisted on calling it), Mickie points out to him that despite his red eyes, Sam has grown up with two loving, involved parents, friends who have always had his back, and pretty much every other advantage, while Mickie lived with an alcoholic mother whose dysfunction caused Mickie to be the adult in the household from age 12. This perspective is a bit arresting for Sam and causes him to rethink some things.
The writing style flows easily, and the characters in this book are so personable and real that I thoroughly enjoyed reading about them, up until about 15 percent from the end. The book began to drain me of interest when Sam lets guilt over a terrible circumstance he could not have foreseen nor prevented run his life off the familiar track into a prolonged period of atonement for a nonexistent “sin.” Although he does eventually have an epiphany that brings him back to himself, I felt like the book turned sentimental and overtly religious, and I didn’t like the dragged-out ending, although I appreciated the author’s final conclusions (shorn of the religious overtones).
I found out in the afterword to the book that Robert Dugoni writes a mystery series about which many people rave. I can well believe, from his writing chops in this book, that they are good, and will regard this as my fortunate introduction to an excellent writer. Someone with fewer buttons to push regarding Christianity will no doubt love this book, as attested to by the many five-star ratings on Goodreads; I’m not sorry I read it—the characters will remain extraordinary in my memory—but I do look forward to enjoying some of the author’s product not focused on religious themes.
When I ran across the quote in This Tender Land, by William Kent Krueger, after which the book was named, I thought the reference too slight to justify calling it that. But there are, in fact, many tender and poignant moments in this book to be enjoyed and appreciated, not the least of which is expressed in the beautiful narrative of the natural world through which the characters pass.
I didn’t know what to expect from this story, but my pulse beat a little faster when I saw the description of four children traveling downriver by canoe; ever since having read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as a child, I have loved the adventurous nature of travel by water, somewhat in control of your vessel but ultimately subject to the whims of the ever-changing river. And yes, I know that Huck Finn has fallen out of fashion since its reexamination for egregious racism but, despite that, the central narrative of a couple of disadvantaged people at the bottom of the rungs of society encountering others supposedly more elevated along their way but themselves turning out to be the more ethical and compassionate is a powerful theme, repeated in this tale by Krueger.
Odie, 12, and his brother Albert, 16, are the only two white children at one of the notorious “training” schools for Indian children, this one in Minnesota. Albert is stolid and even-tempered, an engineer by talent as well as by nature, but the more volatile Odie is constantly in trouble for one reason or another, and at this school under the reign of Superintendent Brickwood (the Black Witch, as the boys call her), the last thing you want to do is stand out. The brothers have a best friend, Moses, an Indian boy about Albert’s age, whose tongue was cut out when he was too small to remember; due to the brothers’ having had a deaf mother, they are able to teach him American Sign Language and he is thus able to communicate.
The boys survive an existence marked by ragged clothes and and shoes with holes, too little food and too much labor, and constant persecution from the staff of the school by focusing on the good: They have a champion in two of their teachers—Herman Volz and Cora Frost—and Mrs. Frost does her best to ensure they spend carefree time in her company, helping out at her farm and playing with her beloved daughter, six-year-old Emmy, while Volz tries to protect them from the worst of the punishments inflicted upon them by Mrs. Brickwood and her henchman. But disaster comes calling, and the boys decide their only option is to run away from the school. Rather than take to the roads or the railroad—both almost guaranteed routes to recapture—they hit upon the idea of rowing Mrs. Frost’s canoe downstream from the small tributary near her house to a larger river within a few days’ travel, ultimately hooking up with the mighty Mississippi. They also, against their better judgment, take Emmy along with them, knowing that the charge of kidnapping will bring more avid pursuit.
The helpless and downtrodden yet stubbornly optimistic outlook of the main protagonist, Odie, is endearing and captivating. Likewise the natures of his three companions—his brother Albert, a realist with a soft heart; their friend Mose, unspoiled despite the terrible treatment he has received at the hands of multiple offenders; and the small but immensely matter-of-fact Emmy, with her weird fit-induced pronouncements—immediately draw the reader in and engender commitment to their fates.
The four Vagabonds, as Odie calls them in his made-up stories told around multiple campfires, go from bad to worse to better in the course of their journey. Ultimately, each is looking for “home,” whatever that means to them, and each finds a version of this waiting for them, although it may not be what they expected when they set out. This is a beautifully told odyssey of privation (it takes place during the height of the Depression, in 1932) and the powerful bonds of love and friendship that overcome all hardships. The epilogue, of which literary device I am usually not a fan, gives a look at how this significant period in their lives impacted everyone who participated, and brings the journey to a satisfying conclusion, once more along the banks of the Gilead River. I’m so happy I took this trip with the Vagabonds.
Bonus feature: Odie’s talent (other than storytelling) is that of playing the harmonica, and the author mentions a Spotify playlist (This Tender Land, by Jen Hatmaker Book Club) that enables the reader to experience the songs he (and other characters) played in the book, popular in that era and location in history.
Writers & Lovers, by Lily King, is the subject of discussion Saturday at the book club I joined but somehow never manage to attend. By the time you read this, which I’m purposely publishing on Saturday afternoon so as not to interfere with that discussion, it will hopefully be a book club I have now attended, at least once, because I couldn’t resist the lure of sharing thoughts about this special book with other readers.
I don’t know how to begin about what a different experience it is to read this book. On the surface, it’s a balanced, mostly sequential story of a 31-year-old woman that includes her private writing life, her daily grind at the upscale restaurant where she waitresses to afford time for her writing, her grief over her mother’s death, and her relationships with co-workers, friends, and two new men; but it’s so much more that it almost renders any one of these topics insignificant.
The description of the book—she’s a writer, she’s dating two men—could be the precursor to yet another story about love life choices, but because of the author’s incredible perception of this woman’s life at a particular age in a particular place with a specific mindset, it’s not clichéd, it’s not even “regular”—the character somehow transcends her experience while living it fully.
My first impulse is to say that it’s an interior novel, that it’s about the character’s inner self, and that would be true…but it also deals squarely and realistically with all the mundanities of her life in a way that makes them simultaneously matter-of-fact and wildly interesting. There’s something about her particular responses that makes her story a compelling read throughout, even when you feel like you should find it boring.
This is making me incoherent. Here’s the thing: In reading this book, I identified so closely with the protagonist that her anxiety on the page began to leak into my life. When she experienced a sleepless night, when she could hardly sit still or even stay in the same room for five minutes, when she walked it off or sat and cried or hid in the bathroom at work, I was right there with her. There was grief, sadness, uncertainty, an almost overwhelming lack of self-confidence in Casey, and yet I never despised or looked down on her, judged her, perceived her in the way that she sometimes did herself; there was something transformative and positive about her, no matter what her fumbling actions portrayed. She charmed me with her honesty, authenticity, and humor.
This is an introspective, literary novel, and yet nothing about it is dry, removed, superior. It is completely immersive and it engaged me in a fascinated hopefulness on behalf of its heroine. And she felt more like a heroine than a simple protagonist, because even though she was sad and sometimes indecisive, bereft, depressed, and occasionally clueless, she kept going. She kept going, she thought, she learned, she acted, and ultimately she came out the other side, and it was all her.
This book is witty, profound, and nuanced, with language that is both beautiful and intentional. It might not be for everyone, but for me it was practically perfect.
Oh, and I love the cover.
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!