I picked up Ask Again, Yes, by Mary Beth Keane, because it has been so hyped and apparently so beloved by so many; and it sounded like an interesting story.
I have to say I can’t understand why this book gets almost exclusively four- and five-star ratings and rave reviews from everyone on Goodreads. First of all, it was interminably long relative to the story that emerges, which is to say that it was slow. In fact, I’m looking at my Goodreads timetable in disbelief, because it seemed like my reading experience went on so much longer than two days!
There were certainly tumultuous events included in the story, but in between it was a rather mundane accounting, and several times in various characters’ segments I thought to myself, Do I really need to know that about you? Isn’t there something more important or personal you’d like to share? There is a certain degree of soul-searching amongst the many protagonists, but mostly we get the symptoms without the explanation of the root of the problems (or else we are expected to intuit them for ourselves), and several of the characters dwell so obsessively within the symptoms that it becomes wearing on the reader.
It’s hard to know, from chapter to chapter, what—or whom—the book is about. It begins with two young rookie cops, Brian Stanhope and Francis Gleeson, on the beat in the Bronx, but it only dwells on their work lives for a minute. Then it focuses on the fact that they both decide to move to a suburb known to be hospitable to those “on the job.” There is a lengthy description of the quiet, rather barren and empty vibe of Gillam by Francis’s wife, Lena, who would have preferred to stay in the lively and friendly heart of the city. Bill and his wife, Anne, then move in next door; but all Lena’s hopes for companionship and the raising of their children together is dashed by the cold aloofness of Anne despite all Lena’s friendly overtures. At this point in the book, I thought the story was going to be about this isolated and specialized town of cops, perhaps exploring the corruption or the bigotry that results from this false association of all one “kind” of people. But after Lena’s narration is done, not another mention is made of that aspect of the town, throughout the rest of the book. It felt to me like a complete false start, and I had to consciously reorient myself from that point in the story to see what the rest of it was about.
Despite Bill’s wife’s coldness and sense of superiority, their only son Peter ends up being best friends with Francis and Lena’s youngest daughter, Kate until, in the year they turn 14, everything goes off the rails in a volatile and ultimately tragic way. Then we get the years of estrangement from several points of view, detailing what happens to each of the characters, although this is quite uneven and gives vastly more attention to some than to others. It seems, despite everything that has happened between their families, that Peter and Kate are both adamant they are a match not to be broken, and they end up together. (This isn’t a spoiler, it’s in the book description.) And then we get the details of their joint life and how everything plays out, influenced by the tragedy and drama of the past.
Again, I felt like I was reading several separate books. There’s the parents’ story, together and separately, there’s Peter’s story and Kate’s, there’s Peter’s and Kate’s together…and at each turn I felt at a loss to say what this book was about. Is the point of the story that true love prevails no matter what? Is the point that a person’s upbringing has lasting effects that reverberate throughout his life, even if he thinks he is fine and the past is the past? Is the point that people can recover from anything, given time and space and an occasional helping hand? Is the point that you’re stuck with your family, no matter what? Is the point that living in the suburbs is the kiss of death to a fulfilling or exciting life?
Many other reviewers noted that the book was a masterful character study, and I guess I could admit to this; but when I think back on what I actually know about some of these characters, it’s hard to say, based on the dearth of personal feelings they reveal. Peter’s character, in particular, has upsetting feelings that he is completely unable either to express or explain. So…what’s the point of an outsider dwelling on them? If I, as the reader, have insight into Peter that he doesn’t share, what does that benefit the story?
There was a comment in the book about things being very different in the 1970s than they were 25 years later in terms of therapy, shame, avoidance, and all the other ways to deal with mental illness or addiction, and that this reticence to talk about or even bring up the subject had a profound effect on people who suffered from or were associated with it, but I didn’t understand this as the point of an entire book. There is a resolution of sorts in the end, but it felt so anticlimactic and like such a platitude that I turned the last page with resentment for having had to go through every step with these characters to get there.
One reviewer compared this book to Big Little Lies, by Liane Moriarty, a book I read with enthusiasm and reviewed positively, finding it smart, witty, and suspenseful. Perhaps the disconnect with Ask Again, Yes is that I failed to find a home with any of the characters, to identify with one sufficiently that I cared about what happened to them. All I can say is, if you enjoy a character-driven plot (and aren’t put off by a somewhat disjointed story arc), you might love this book.
I did not.
After being completely bowled over by Lily King’s Writers & Lovers, I decided to check the library for others of her books I could immediately access with my Kindle, and discovered The English Teacher.
The story is about Vida Avery and her 15-year-old son, Peter. Vida (pronounced Vee-dah) showed up 16 years ago at the Fayer Academy, an elite private school housed in the mansion formerly owned by her grandfather. She was pregnant, and there was no sign of a father’s presence for the baby; she took an entry-level job and began slowly working her way up through the grades and positions until she came out where she wanted to be, which was as the best and most revered English teacher in the school, instructor to honors students and seniors. She and her son live in an old gardener’s cottage on the grounds of the school, so they are both cocooned by this small academia, socializing only with other faculty members and students, eating most meals in the cafeteria, and hardly ever leaving the grounds.
Then widower Tom Belou encounters and is smitten by Vida (or by a version of her that he sees at an emotional moment), and soon comes the thing for which Peter has prayed his entire life: Tom asks Vida to marry him, and for her and Peter to become a part of his family (he has three children). Peter has dreamed of having a father (Vida never lets a word about his pass her lips) and siblings and a real family home where meals are made in the kitchen, people sit down together to eat them, and experiences are shared. It’s too bad for Peter that married life doesn’t change his mother one iota, and his hopes are largely unfulfilled. And soon he begins to observe that Vida, far from being happy in her new life, is exhibiting strange signs of disconnection, not just from her changed circumstances but from all parts of her life, including in the classroom where she formerly ruled.
This was a weird one, coming off King’s other book, which I adored. Although this, too, was a character study of a person in transition, the thing that initially put me off about it was the very thing I loved about the other—the protagonist. As much as I loved Casey, that much and more did I dislike Vida. I had the sense all through the book that there was something deeply damaged about her, that it would come out, and that I would then discover some empathy for her; but for a large percentage of the book she was simply repellent. I pitied her, but I didn’t like her at all until about the 85-percent mark! (Remember, I’m reading on Kindle, so we go by percentages, not pages.)
It was a good story, revealing and proficiently told, and the parts that were attuned to Peter kept me going, but it was a hard one to sit through in some ways. I’m glad the book wasn’t longer, and that it started to resolve just as I thought I couldn’t hang in there any more.
Lily King is an expert writer who always searches for and finds the perfect word, and whether I liked or loathed Vida, this ended up being a worthwhile experience. I have placed a hold on her book Euphoria at the library. It’s apparently popular—I’m #410 on the wait list!
As with her book The Language of Flowers, Vanessa Diffenbaugh has found a nature-based analogy to support the story in We Never Asked for Wings. The theme of birds and their migratory habits is connected to more than just the immigration part of this tale in which people cross over the border between California and Mexico each for his or her own reasons, or in some cases try to avoid re-crossing that border at all costs. There is a fact about migration that sums up the actions of at least one of the protagonists:
Although she has born two children—Alex, now 15, and Luna, just six—Letty has in many respects been an absent mother for most of their lives. Only 18 when she became pregnant with Alex, she chose not to tell the father, who had a bright future with which she didn’t want to interfere, instead essentially handing over the baby to her own parents, who raised first Alex and then Luna while Letty worked three jobs to support the family and send money back to relatives in Mexico. She spent the rest of her time partying like a perennial teenager (which is how she ended up with Luna).
Suddenly, everything changes: Letty’s father makes the decision to visit Mexico and, while he initially allows his family to believe he will return, he doesn’t. Once Letty’s mother realizes he’s not coming back—whether by choice or because the “coyote” they paid to bring him was no good—she leaves San Francisco, her grandchildren, and Letty, with a freezer full of pre-made meals, a bunch of notes on how to do all the parenting tasks so foreign to her daughter, and a belief constructed almost entirely from her own wishes that everything will be okay with them.
Everything is emphatically not okay—they get off to a rocky start and, as the story progresses partly through Letty’s eyes and partly narrated by Alex, their existence becomes increasingly complicated and precarious. But all of them are given the opportunity, like the migrating birds, to correct their paths, and it’s the chronicle of these struggles to do right that makes up the rest of this engaging story.
Diffenbaugh deals in this book with a lot of themes—immigration, parenting, bullying, responsibility, and love—seriously, but with a light touch. The book held my attention throughout, and I enjoyed the change of voice between Alex and his mother and their different perceptions of what was going on in their lives. I can’t say I enjoyed it quite as much as I did The Language of Flowers, but it’s definitely a worthy addition to the author’s oeuvre.
Appended note: The cover is sadly inappropriate. The child is too young to be Luna; they never (would never) have a bird in a cage; and I can only conclude that whoever designed it didn’t read the book. The cover on the Italian version, depicting a worried-looking young woman who could be the frantic Letty, is a better fit, but why not do something with the grandfather’s beautiful traditional feather art or include some migratory birds? A big miss.
I just finished reading Troubled Blood, the new Cormoran Strike novel by Robert Galbraith, aka J. K. Rowling. (I don’t know why she ever bothered to use a pseudonym, since she outs herself right on the first book cover flap, but whatever.) I’d almost like to make that statement (I finished!) twice or three times, because at 944 pages, this was a gargantuan achievement!
At that many pages, I also expected it to be an achievement that cost me some labor, and to be saying afterwards that she needs an editor—but I’m not going to do that. I loved the entire book. I didn’t find anything extraneous I wanted to cut.
I enjoyed reading it 40 or 50 pages at a time at the breakfast table or during my middle-of-the-night intermission from sleep, wherein I wake up and need to separate myself from my dreams, get a glass of water, and redirect my mind with good fiction, and I was reluctant to finish it.
Just to deal with this up front, there is absolutely no transgender character (or scandal) here. If you have heard that, you have been misinformed. In one instance, a killer puts on a wig and trenchcoat to disguise himself. That’s it. If you want to argue about this, go somewhere else. I’m tired of all the ugliness.
This book was such a wonderful adventure or exploration of all the ways two dedicated and stubborn people solve a mystery by following every lead, reading every note, re-interviewing anyone with any potential involvement, however small, and keeping their minds open and churning up ideas and solutions. It’s the first time that Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott have tackled a cold case, let alone one more than 40 years old, but their innate curiosity leads them down the path of one of the most fascinating mysteries they have ever encountered—the disappearance of Dr. Margot Bamborough. They are simultaneously tending to three or four other clients’ cases at the same time, aided by their contract hires Barclay and Morris, and organized by new secretary Pat; and their personal lives, both apart and together, are also on display. Robin is hoping that her unexpectedly acrimonious divorce from Matthew will conclude soon, while Strike is still dealing with the fallout from his ex-girlfriend Charlotte, who married someone else and gave birth to twins but still texts him wistful (and manipulative) messages in the middle of the night. And both of them are all too conscious of some significant moments they have shared that could mean more, if either of them chooses to act.
This is the ultimate in police procedurals, without having the police involved. Because of some good contacts, some clever thinking, and some helpful people, the detectives are able to get their hands on a good part of the police record, but the complication is that the original lead detective was suffering a mental breakdown while conducting the case, while his successor was more interested in devaluing everything his predecessor had done than in actually breaking new ground. So in some ways they are looking at the case not only with fresh eyes, but with attention to details that no one previous had seen in the same light.
As usual, Rowling also provides great side characters, who give both darkness and whimsy as their contribution to the main story she is telling. Robin’s relationship with Morris and Strike’s interactions with Pat, as well as the background of Cormoran’s family problems, provided great context and cushioning for the rest.
I don’t know what it was about this book—whether it was the book itself or simply the way I approached reading it, a little at a time rather than an all-out binge-fest—but I never got impatient with any red herring or tired of their continued speculations to one another about the various aspects. Part of it, of course, is the way Rowling writes the interactions between the partners, and the excruciatingly slow build she has given their relationship through multiple volumes that keeps you reading for any hint of a shift. There are some in this book, but I’m neither giving them away nor hinting at how extensive they might be. All I will say is that I felt completely satisfied by the resolution of the case, and that I have no doubt that the next chapter in the Cormoran-and-Robin show will be interesting!
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.