Abbott sticks the landing and delivers a perfect 10

You Will Know Me ★★★★★
Megan Abbott
Little Brown, 2016

 

“Take my hand when I falter, for I cannot make this journey alone. I do not know you, but you will know me.”
~Nadia Comaneci, Letters to a Young Gymnast

youwillknowmeIf, like me, you’ve lived a life of inexplicable obsession fascination with the world of competitive gymnastics, this latest by the Mighty Megan Abbott is going to rock your world. If you’ve never given competitive gymnastics a single thought what is wrong with you — this book is going to rock your world anyway.

In recent years, Abbott has taken the domestic thriller, suburban noir and made it her bitch. She’s often writing about the interior lives of adolescent girls because she’s proven time and again what deep, murky waters run there, what unsettling truths there are to be found when innocence is lost and a sexual awakening is found.

You Will Know Me is more focused on the family unit this time, though its teen protagonist — 15 year old Devon Knox — certainly plays a major role. Devon’s compulsive, all-consuming journey to be the best, to be a champion, has also consumed her family — mom Katie, dad Eric, and little brother Drew (who just about broke my heart). Most of the book unfolds from Katie’s viewpoint as she strives to be the perfect support and anchor for her prodigy daughter, while keeping the domestic front of chores, groceries, wifely duties and a freelance job on track. Katie also has a quiet, patient, introverted little boy to nurture who sees much but says very little.

nadia2

Nadia Comaneci, 1976 Olympics

Down into the rabbit hole of competitive gymnastics Abbott takes us, the sacrifices required of a family to raise an Olympic competitor, because the young female gymnast could never get there on her own. But Devon’s quest to reach Olympic level competition will be threatened by the tragic death of a handsome young man, a death that comes like a nuclear bomb dropped into the middle of a perfectly, rigidly balanced life of discipline and routine. The Knox family are left reeling, seeking answers, and fearing truths. Secrets will out, and in the light of day they will come to realize that those we often feel we know the best, we don’t really know at all.

This is a twisty book, and Abbott has a few surprises up her sleeve, but not of the Gone Girl variety — that’s not what she’s up to here. I figured it all out several times, and knew where she was headed, but that in no way diminished from the sense of tension and inexorable suspense. If anything, knowing amped it all to eleven. As readers we’re watching the train leave the tracks in slow motion as the main characters move closer to unbearable discovery. And I felt the point wasn’t really figuring out what happened, the point becomes what characters do now that they know.

Abbott is at the top of her game here — I had no hesitation awarding all five stars. This one you will not want to miss.

Recently, Abbott wrote an article for Elle in which she attempts to answer: “Why Are We So Obsessed With Gymnasts?” As a companion piece to this book, it’s worth checking out.

“Because now, of course, these gymnasts are girls but also, and foremost, powerful and blazingly talented women. Perhaps that is the paradox that keeps us rapt. Biles, four feet nine inches tall, in a pink, crystal-studded leotard and with that cherubic face, radiates girl. And yet the instant she takes glorious flight, she is beyond reckoning, defying gravity, logic, reason.
~Megan Abbott, “Why We are So Obsessed With Gymnasts”

Book Review: All The Missing Girls

All the Missing Girls ★★★
Megan Miranda
Simon and Schuster Canada
Release Date: June 28, 2016

missing_girlsHeaded to the beach or cottage this summer? Got a long plane ride ahead of you? Just hanging out by the pool with a pitcher of margaritas? Yeah, this is the book you’ll want to have with you. It’s one of those unreliable narrator psychological thrillers that once you start it, you will be utterly compelled to keep turning the pages until you get to the end to find out what the hell really happened? As these kind of books go, it’s a satisfying resolution. There are enough sleights of hand, and red herrings, to keep a reader on their toes and guessing until the last page is turned.

The author is trying something a little tricky with her narrative too; she tells the story backwards over the course of fifteen days. This is a neat little fun trick, but really, at the end of the day, I don’t think it added much to the tension of the novel, or its structure. Had she just adhered to a straight linear narrative approach I don’t think anything would have been lost in the overall impact and delivery of her story.

There are also a few scenes that genuinely had me feeling creeped out and uneasy, because for most of the novel you’re really not sure where the threat is coming from (and even if there’s any threat at all). Miranda conjures up a heavy and pressing atmosphere that’s practically claustrophobic at times, always welcome in a book like this. The setting is suitably small town and insular, carrying its secrets and guarding them closely to the peril of those who wish to turn over the mossy rock and expose the dank underbelly to the glaring sun.

None of the characters are very likeable, but I think because out of necessity, Miranda has to create an impenetrable distance between them and the reader to keep us off kilter and guessing. At their core however, most of their motivations are very relatable and when you finish reading and put the book down, you’ll find yourself questioning what you would have done in the same circumstances.

I would like to thank Simon and Schuster Canada for providing me with a copy to review.

You give me fever

The Fever: A Novel ★ ★ ★ ★
Megan Abbott
Little, Brown & Co.
Expected Publication: June 2014

 

the feverNow you’ve listened to my story, here’s the point I have made: Chicks were born to give you fever, be it Fahrenheit or Centigrade

They give you fever – when you kiss them, fever if you live and learn: Fever – till you sizzle, what a lovely way to burn.
“Fever”, Cooley/Davenport

***

Sexual debut. Sometimes it seemed to Deenie that high school was like a long game of And Then There Were None. Every Monday, another girl’s debut.
The Fever, Megan Abbott

Nobody (and I mean nobody) writes the dark and secretive interiors of a teenage girl’s psyche better than Megan Abbott. But make no mistake: while she is writing about teenagers, she is not writing Young Adult. Her books are so far removed from YA Lit it’s not only a different country, but another planet. So if you haven’t had the shocking and titillating pleasure to read her yet and have Ms. Abbott shelved as Young Adult, get her off there post-haste please — asap — I mean immediately.

Seriously, do it.

Go on.

I’ll wait for you.

One of the things I’ve come to love about Abbott the most is that even when I think I’ve figured out how the story is going to go, she always manages to surprise me. And she never cheats. Here, she not only surprised me, she creeped the hell out of me, something I wasn’t expecting at all. The Fever isn’t a horror story, but Jesus damn, there are aspects of the story that are extremely unsettling and creeeeepy. I was reading this into the wee hours of the morning last night, and got to this one part and the little hairs on the back of my neck stood to attention:

She started clearing her throat, and once she started it was like she couldn’t stop. “But most of all it’s here,” she said, clawing at her neck. “It feels like there’s something in my throat. And it’s getting bigger.”

::shiver::

megan abbott

Megan Abbott

I’ve been fangirling for Megan Abbott for awhile now, but with this she’s made me her slave. And she’s so pixie-cute petite you can fit her in your pocket. Looking at her mischievous, Mona Lisa smile you’d never expect her to so eloquently and ruthlessly explore the twisted, perilous, coming-of-age waters of teenage girls, waters that run black and deep. There are monsters that swim in that water, monsters that bite, scar and maim for life.

My only sadness and regret is that I’m finished, and this book isn’t even coming out until June, which means I’ve got a bit of a wait before I get my next Megan Abbott fix. I’m jonesing already. What can I say: she’s made me her junkie bitch.

You can find out more about the author at her website.
She’s also on the Twitter: @meganeabbott

This review has also been posted to Goodreads.

****

A free copy was provided by the publishers through Netgalley for an honest review.

Review: A Land More Kind Than Home, Wiley Cash

A Land More Kind Than Home ★★★★★
Wiley Cash
William Morrow, 2012

Trade Paperback

Trade Paperback

This book has everything I love — a Southern setting, secrets, family tragedy, religious zealotry run amok, and strong narrative voices. If I had read it, it would have been an easy four stars. But because I listened to it, and the audio version is one of the best I’ve ever heard, it’s getting five stars.

This is a debut novel — is it flawless? No. But you know what? I didn’t care. I don’t think you will either. I got so swept up and carried away by the story I was being told I was living it. I was right there in that small town watching it all go down with a flutter of anxiety in my stomach, and a lump of sadness in my throat.

What really made me love this story as an audiobook is that we have three narrators read by three different readers– 1) Jess Hall, a precocious nine year old who has a penchant for spying and will eventually see something he wishes he hadn’t that will change his life and the life of his town forever 2) Adelaide Lyle, a feisty old woman who has born witness to much of the town’s history and dark secrets and 3) Clem Barefield, seasoned Sheriff with a painful past who must confront the evil that has taken hold of his town like a cancer.

Getting the story from these three very distinct voices and points of view is fantastic. It makes what is essentially a simple and straight forward story feel richer, more layered and emotional. I loved the reader for the Sheriff. What a fantastic performance. That voice married to the author’s prose is a match made in heaven. In the best ways it reminded me of Tommy Lee Jones’s performance in No Country for Old Men.

A Land More Kind Than Home is set deep in the heart of snake-handling country where you better hope that when the preacher arrives in town, he ain’t the devil in disguise.

Read this book — and if you do the audio thing — listen. You won’t be able to stop, I promise.

And since I have a thing for book trailers, this one does a great job of capturing the edgy, southern Gothic mood of this novel that’s so portent with revelation, betrayals, and tragedy.

This review is also posted to Goodreads.

Recommended Readalikes:

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter | Tom Franklin
The Devil All The Time | Donald Ray Pollock
The Scent of Rain and Lightning | Nancy Pickard

Review: The Burn Palace, Stephen Dobyns

The Burn Palace ★ ★ ★
Stephen Dobyns
Blue Rider Press, 2013
Available Now

Surely fear is the oldest emotion. Not love, not pride, not greed. The emotion urging you to run is older than the one telling you to embrace. ~The Burn Palace

burn palaceLet’s get the Negative Nelly rant out of the way first: I may have just taken too damn long to read this book (it was a hellish work week, and I couldn’t seem to find the time needed to just attack the book and submerse myself in it the way it demands). It starts out really strong — with a great premise — but somewhere along the way, Dobyns has created so many colorful characters and so many plot threads that the book begins to unravel and stall, rather than gain momentum and tightly coil for the final climactic reveal.

I am officially diagnosing this novel with Attention Deficit Disorder. Because there are so many leads to uncover and investigate, as well as so many people to get to know within the borders of this sleepy little Rhode Island town, the narration flits about quickly often jerkily with no discernible pattern, from character to character, plot point to plot point — a busy bee desperate to pollinate ALL the flowers in the garden.

Dobyns almost pulls it off. Parts of this novel work extremely well, but it is messy and misdirected in too many places and dare I say a little bit of the investigation starts to feel like an episode of Scooby-Doo. Alright, that’s harsh. I should retract that.

Dobyns has proven in the past he has the writing chops to create memorable characters and capture the psychology of small towns besieged by fear and paranoia. What didn’t work for me here, worked exceedingly well I thought in The Church of Dead Girls. The difference between that book and this one comes down to narration. While Dead Girls introduces almost as many characters, I feel the story benefits tremendously from the voice of a single narrator telling the story in first-person. It gives the novel a cohesiveness and determined direction that this one seems lacking in.

Okay, those are my complaints. Here are some things I enjoyed, because overall, I did like this book very much. When I did get the time to sit with it for a few hours, I found it casting a spell over me. The descriptive prose sucked me into the streets and lives of Brewster, Rhode Island. Stephen King has been very supportive of Dobyns in the past, blurbing his books, and this time is no different. King writes:

“I entered the small-town world Stephen Dobyns creates with such affection, horror, and fidelity….Dobyns has always been good, but this book is authentically great. The characters are vivid originals, not a stereotype among them, and the story pulled this reader in so completely that I didn’t want the book to end, and actually did go back to re-read the first chapter.”

Super generous, yes? Reading Dobyns you can definitely sense a “King vibe” going on and it is not a stretch to say that Dobyns has been influenced by King’s New England tales of the macabre and small town sinister shenanigans. Dobyns appears to be paying homage to King specifically here with such references as:

  • The novel opens with a baby being stolen from hospital room 217. Later, an abusive father states: “No boy likes to be corrected.” (The Shining)
  • One of the lead detectives is named Bobby Anderson. (The Tommyknockers)
  • Another main character describes reading The Shining, Cujo and The Dark Half.

Okay, small things to be sure, but they jumped out at me despite that and made me smile.

I also really enjoyed how the kids are written in this story. They are quirky and precocious without coming off as bratty and annoying. They are King-worthy kids, the highest compliment I can pay. I just wish there had been more of them and less of some of the other plot threads.

So that’s it. If only I had more glowing praise to offer. This is a dense book that demands your attention and patience. If you like a challenge, and lots of colorful characters, you may just love this. Dobyns is a great writer and I would never discourage anyone from picking up one of his books.

***Review of ARC provided by publisher through NetGalley.

Megan Abbott knocks the wind out of me

The End of Everything★★★★
Megan Abbott
Reagan Arthur Books, 2011

Can you remember the first time you ever had the wind knocked out of you? I was about ten. I was playing with my cousins out in their front yard. There was this fence that ran about 2 feet off the ground that we liked to walk along, imagining tight ropes and balance beams. It was during one of these wobbly walks when my ten year old body lost its balance and I came crashing down hard upon that low fence. It caught me right across my stomach where my diaphragm lives.

end of everythingIn a swift “whoosh” all the air was pushed out of my lungs. Every bit of it, or it seemed so at the time. I fell over onto the ground curled protectively around myself. In a blinding moment of sheer panic that exploded into terror, I found I couldn’t actually catch my breath. As hard as I tried, I could not breathe in and in those few seconds of sickening realization, I was sure I was going to die. It’s one of the clearest childhood memories I have.

Reading Megan Abbott’s version of a coming-of-age tale shot through with dark secrets and unbidden impulses is like getting the wind knocked out of you for the first time. It’s sudden, inexplicable, frightening and leaves you breathless. When it’s all over and done with, you feel a little nauseous, a lot bruised and newly wary of the world surrounding you. It’s as if your senses have been heightened, and a forbidden knowledge passed onto you that you don’t ever remember asking for, or wanting.

The End of Everything is a story about that tender, delicate, powerful place girls find themselves in before they become women, when they cling to each other like life support systems, sharing breaths, secrets, curiosity and hormones. Hug your daughters close, because I did not need Megan Abbott to grip me by the throat and show me that when our girls are laughing the hardest, and tumbling cartwheels in the sunshine, that is when they are at their most vulnerable. How they yearn for what they cannot name and do not understand, moving towards it like moths to flames, ignorant to the perils, to how much something can burn and leave scars. Thirteen-year-old Lizzie is our narrator, which makes for a brilliant choice. We see events from her innocent eyes and as she is thinking one thing, we are thinking something else.

This is a sad story, and it is a difficult read. There are many times where you will feel deeply uncomfortable. There are truths here that we do not want to know, do not want to ponder, and for some readers, truths they will not want to remember. But it is also a beautifully constructed piece of prose and if I wasn’t a fan of Megan Abbott before now, this novel has clinched it.

To my ridiculous delight, I also just recently found out Ms. Abbott is married to Joshua Gaylord (a.k.a Alden Bell) author of one of my Desert Island books The Reapers Are The Angels (see previous post Literary zombies is not an oxymoron). You can find out more about Megan Abbot at her website, or by following her on Twitter (@meganeabbott)

This review also appears on Goodreads.com

The Scent of Rain and Lightning

The Scent of Rain and Lightning★★★★
Nancy Pickard
Ballantine Books, 2010

scentI was browsing in my library’s fiction stacks one day when I came across Nancy Pickard’s The Scent of Rain and Lightning. Let me just say I was smitten from the start as you’ll never meet a bigger sucker for a great cover or even better title. I’ve been cruelly disappointed using this method to ferret out books in the past, but I’ve also stumbled upon some real gems. I grew up in the Maritimes of Canada – Newfoundland to be precise – a craggy, fogged in island rock that’s bathed in the sun’s rays about 15 minutes every year. I’ve since transplanted myself to the Canadian Prairies and oh how I’ve fallen in love with the never-ending blue sky that stretches uninterrupted as far as any ocean, and the rolling flat prairie lying out as far as the eye can see. This is where land and sky come together with dazzling results. A common joke from these parts is you can watch your dog run away for three days.

The cover of this book grabbed my eye because it immediately reminded me of any grid road in southern Saskatchewan on a sunny day (of which there are plenty). The title charmed me – calling up my favorite things. You live through enough prairie storms and it doesn’t take long to realize that rain and lightning do indeed have a scent. At this point, I didn’t even care what the book was about I just knew I wanted to read it. Once I started reading it I was drawn into the landscape (small town Kansas) and to the characters that populated it – strong, rough, country people, hewn from the soil and forged through hard work. At the heart of this story is a murder that happens on a dark and stormy night, with the rain lashing the earth and lightning sundering the sky. A father is shot in cold blood, his wife is also presumed dead even though her body is never recovered. Their little girl – three year old Jody Linder – is left parentless, though not an orphan since her loving grandparents swoop in to raise and protect her, as well as three uncles who would do anything for her – Meryl, Chase and Bobby.

When the book starts, twenty-three years have passed since that horrible night and Jody is a grown woman about to embark on a career as a high school English teacher. She is looking towards the future until her past shows up on her doorstop one morning; it’s her three uncles with the news that the man convicted of killing her parents has been released from prison and is on his way back to Rose. The news is devastating and causes a ripple effect throughout the town’s inhabitants and shakes the Linder family to its very core. Because not everyone believes Billy Crosby is guilty of the crime he was sent to prison for – and now Jody’s life is shattered and everything she ever believed thrown into chaos, for if Crosby didn’t kill her parents, who did?

Once I started this story I couldn’t put it down. Not only did I have to know what the hell really happened that awful night, I became submersed in the lives of the people involved. Pickard has a way of writing that puts you into the story – I could see everything unfold as if it were a movie playing in my mind’s eye, and I love when a book can do that. Let’s just say more than once I could smell the scent of rain and lightning.

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