On Maureen Johnson’s “Truly Devious”

This review appears on paperbackparis.com:

Maureen Johnsonthe official “Queen of Teen,” is back and better than ever with her latest novel, Truly Devious. In what might be her finest book to date, this mystery combines the best components of YA fiction — an elite boarding school, murder, a beautifully relatable protagonist, and young love — to create a compulsively readable page-turner. Sometimes I exaggerate about good books, but believe me when I say you will not be able to put this one down until you’ve reached the end.

Johnson first showed off her mystery/crime-fighting chops in the Shades of London series, which begins with a return of Jack the Ripper in present-day London and follows a group of young people who are able to see ghosts. Each installment is brilliantly plotted and exhibits Johnson’s keen eye for detail as well as her ability to construct three dimensional characters. Her ability to shed light on the nuances of adolescence was always present in her work, but so many things about Truly Devious combine these elements and take Johnson’s storytelling to a whole new level.

In the beginning of the novel, Stephanie “Stevie” Bell has gained admittance to Ellingham Academy — a school built by a 1930s industrialist named Albert Ellingham who wanted to share his philosophy of education as a game with the rest of the world. Fifty students of all backgrounds are admitted each year tuition free to explore their niche interests with access to the school’s bottomless resources. There are inventors, artists, musicians, and gamers, but Stevie is different. Her obsession with the Ellingham affair and careful study of criminology is what got her into the school.

Stevie’s goal at Ellingham Academy is simple: solve the murder/kidnapping of Iris and Alice Ellingham, Albert’s wife and daughter, and student Dottie Epstein.

Like the Shades series weaves in and out of the streets of London, Truly Devious relies heavily on the landscape of Ellingham Academy. Situated on a mountain just outside of Burlington, Vermont, the school is isolated from society in an idyll that is perfect for the students’ pursuits. But a shroud of eeriness looms over the campus, which houses countless mysteries from the past, ones that Stevie is eager to examine.

Things take an unexpected turn, though, when Hayes — a handsome young actor who has recently found fame with his YouTube series — is found dead in an underground tunnel where key events of the Ellingham affair unfolded decades earlier in April 1936. The school community is rocked with shock and grief. Stevie sees Hayes’ body when it’s discovered by campus security, and she must finally reconcile the theories of studying crime with the reality of an untimely death.

What the police determine to be an accident soon appears like something slightly more sinister to Stevie. The circumstances surrounding Hayes’ death don’t quite add up, and she’s determined to figure out what, or who, was involved.

Investing herself in the Ellingham affair and Hayes’ death isolates Stevie from those around her. Johnson’s characterization of Stevie’s isolation and anxiety is masterful in its presentation. From the beginning, Stevie feels alien in her own family because her parents are devotees of a fictional senator who mirrors the racist and misogynistic idealogy of someone like Roy Moore. Instead of building the typical kind of familial tension into the storyline that we find in most YA novels, Johnson subtly creates a dynamic between Stevie and her parents that I found extremely moving.

Many teenagers and young adults disagree with their parents over politics and ideology. In Stevie’s case, she doesn’t understand her parents, and they don’t understand her, but they love each other deeply. The way her mom makes sure Stevie has her anxiety medication, and the way Stevie looks out for a cheap place to eat when her parents come to see her because she knows they don’t have much money shows a mutual simplicity of affection at the heart of a complicated relationship.

Stevie is also uncertain about whether she even belongs at Ellingham considering the nature of her interests, isolating her further.

To that end, Johnson builds a lot of heavy hitting material into the historical chapters of the novel. Albert Ellingham, the great benefactor, is clearly modeled after late 19th century, early 20th century titans of industry like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller. His magnificent wealth is legendary, funding his many enterprises, but it is also the source of his greatest loss.

When his wife and daughter are kidnapped, ransom is demanded on three occasions, all of increasing amounts, which prompts his secretary to comment that the kidnappers will always want more. Excess and decadence are hallmarks of the Ellingham lifestyle. Johnson brilliantly underscores the Gatsby-esque nature of the household and the family’s privilege with the inclusion of anarchists as dark clouds over the Ellingham dream world.

There are so many layers to this book, combining all the great elements of a YA novel and a good mystery. I gushed with anticipation as I pieced together the tiny details that Johnson sprinkled throughout the plot like breadcrumbs.

Unfortunately, I’m going to assume book two of the series won’t be released until 2019 or 2020, and I might go crazy if I think about all the possibilities that could unfold. It felt like a loss having to turn the last page of this intoxicating story, and I can promise you that whatever comes next will be even more wild.

On “Still Me” by Jojo Moyes

9780399562471This review appears on paperbackparis.com:

At least once a month for the past couple years, I’ve entered Goodreads giveaways to no avail. I expected nothing different when I requested an advanced copy of Jojo Moyes‘ final installment in the Me Before You trilogy, Still Me.

I was sad to hear that Louisa Clark’s story would be coming to an end, but nonetheless eager to see how her story would unfold in New York City. As luck would have it, I finally won. It doesn’t escape me that this will probably be the last thing in my life that I win (unluckiest girl in the world, at your service!)…but I’m happy my one-time good fortune brought me this book.

This is an ARC review of Jojo Moyes’ Still Me, which releases January 30, 2018.

*Special thanks to Penguin for allowing us to read and review ahead of publication.

In Still Me, we find Louisa beginning her new job in New York after a whirlwind two years back in England. She met and fell in love with Will Trainor, who ultimately decided to take his own life in Me Before You, and she learns to pick up the pieces of her life in After You — finding solace and companionship with Will’s daughter, Lily, and Ambulance Sam, a new romantic interest.

Just as Lou is getting comfortable with her life, she gets a job offer from her friend, Nathan, who helped with Will’s physical therapy. Leaving behind her newfound love and friendships, Louisa has become a companion once again. This time to the second Mrs. Gopnik — the much younger Polish wife of one of New York City’s richest men. Not only must she adjust to a new country, Lou must also adapt her worldview to include the unparalleled wealth of old New York money.

But it turns out New York City is exactly Lou’s kind of place. The sights, sounds, and endless diversity of the bustling streets around her swiftly become home, changing her in ways she does not realize. Her service to Mrs. Gopnik is not quite as simple, however. Even though Agnes is a vivacious, outspoken, and funny woman, she is deeply unhappy in the elite world she has married into. The first Mrs. Gopnik’s cronies are loyal until death and refuse to acknowledge Agnes as a suitable or worthy counterpart. Despite her best efforts, social events are always a trial, and Lou becomes obligated to attend in the guise of friendship.

It becomes clear that Mrs. Gopnik might be hiding something. But despite the warning she receives from Nathan and the Gopnik’s housekeeper, Ilaria, Lou believes she and Agnes are friends. In a whirlwind twist of events, this turns out to be her greatest mistake.

In the meantime, Lou must attempt to maintain a long-distance relationship with Sam as it becomes progressively more difficult to keep their still new love alive. Jealousy and mistrust mar the rare occasions that they can see and speak to each other. And to top it all off, Lou’s life is turned awry when she meets a man who looks exactly like Will Trainor–a well-off corporate striver whose ambition lets nothing get in his way.

Moyes’ effortless storytelling ability does not falter in the final portion of Lou’s story. She perfectly bends the arch of her “coming-of-age” into its natural conclusion without forcing any inorganic plotlines. I had almost forgotten how much I admired Lou’s tenacity and optimism from the previous novels, but Moyes brings her best qualities back into focus from page one.

Despite some flaws in the galley proof and minor plot discrepancies, Still Me is a fantastic conclusion to Louisa Clark’s story that will have you laughing and crying almost at once as we finally see her come into her own.

On “Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine” by Gail Honeyman

51JStdvqDJL__SY344_BO1,204,203,200_This review appears on paperbackparis.com:

During the latter half of 2017, Gail Honeyman‘s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine gained a lot of attention both in literary circles and mainstream media. Even my boss recommended that I read it. It’s commonplace for new writers to produce fresh, buzz-worthy novels, but I wondered, after reading the book’s description, how it came to resonate so deeply with people. Surely the story of a 30-year-old socially awkward office worker sounds like a Bridget Jones spin-off—something that would read like a light comedy of errors…

Alas, Honeyman offers us something altogether different in her debut. Yes, Ms. Eleanor Oliphant is a painfully well-mannered outcast in the accounts payable department of an ad design agency. She follows the same routine every day—lunchtime crossword puzzles and carefully chosen sandwiches. Same bus route, same outfits, same radio programs.

Eleanor is such a firm narrator that we barely even notice the strangeness of the facts she gives us about her life, like the fact that she’s near fluent in Latin and won prizes for her studies in classics; or that she has burn scars on her face; or that her weekends always kick off with a pizza from her beloved Tesco’s and vodka. Quite a lot of it. Enough to blur the edges of nightmares that haunt her in ways that become clearer as the novel progresses. Enough so that she can handle her weekly conversations with “Mummy,” an emotionally abusive narcissist who did something horrific in Eleanor’s past, though Eleanor protested to know what happened.

Eleanor sticks to her routines without fail until she falls helplessly in love with a musician she sees one night out in Glasgow. She knows nothing about him but firmly believes they are meant to be together and will fall in love once they meet. In preparation for such a meeting, Eleanor embarks on a personal project, deciding to make some (mostly cosmetic) changes, including a cringe-worthy encounter during an appointment to wax her undercarriage…

Slowly but surely, other things in her life begin to change as well. In the nascent days of her newfound love, Eleanor meets Raymond—one of the IT guys in her office. Nearly everything about him repels her; he’s slightly overweight, smokes often, and wears nothing but t-shirts, jeans, and sneakers. But what probably would have been a one-time encounter blossoms into an odd friendship after they assist an elderly man named Sammy who stumbles on the street.

Now, the loneliness of Eleanor’s life shifts into days that are sometimes filled with places to go and people to see. Through her conversations with Raymond, Eleanor confirms what the reader has suspected since the beginning—that she has experienced unimaginable abuse at the hands of her mother and her one and only boyfriend, and that the only real social interaction she’s had in her twenties is with social workers and an employee at her local market.

Having a few friends seems to benefit Eleanor, but the darkness of her past lies just beneath the surface of her simply crafted life. The novel—separated into Good Days and Bad Days—takes a sharp turn about halfway through. One moment we are with Eleanor as she’s about to attend one of the rock star’s gigs, the next we find her naked on her kitchen floor with self-induced alcohol poisoning and a display of tools with which she can kill herself.

Such is the range of Honeyman’s staggering book. Readers are endeared to Eleanor’s strange ways from the beginning, maybe even recognizing some of our own tendencies in her. She is awkward—often painfully so—even though she thinks she’s being proper. But she is charming in her way: a lover of animals, books, Tesco’s, and mismatched furniture. We see her transition from a broken person to a recovering one—surrounded by unexpected friendships and caregivers.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is a stunning, heartbreaking story of healing that is often darkly funny and full of sharp observations. Honeyman moves her narrative at a steady, digestible pace without missing moments that infuse the text with transcendent bits of introspection in the mind of Eleanor—so much that one cannot help but reread certain passages and covet the new talent springing forth from these pages.

On “The Grandmothers” by Doris Lessing

Even though I have a mountainous stack of library books to get through before I accrue enough fines to bankrupt the Queen of England, I often take great pleasure in reading random short stories or novellas just to change things up. I had not read any of Doris Lessing’s work prior to “The Grandmothers,” and I had no intention of doing so at present…But the version of this short story that I found at my library–published as “Adore” for the 2013 film adaptation–had an image on its cover of gorgeous looking people lying on a wooden platform, floating on a clear, blue body of water.

In the midst of winter, it seemed perfect.

My lack of familiarity with Lessing’s style of writing hindered my enjoyment at the beginning. Her narrative structure took some getting used to, but I really enjoyed the way she transitioned between perspectives throughout the piece. After about 30 pages or so, the mark of her greatness began to reveal itself in the way she was able to navigate several fully formed characters and build a gorgeous setting–something that is really a character in its own right–in just over 100 pages.

The naturalness of her four protagonists–Lil, Roz, Tom, and Ian–rolls off the page in waves. I almost went into a trance reading about their adventures in the sea and sun…And there’s this indelible, deliciously intoxicating image of the boys licking dried sea salt off of their mothers’ skins as children that has stayed with me for days now.

I found there was nothing but beauty in the narrative. The taboo of two older women sleeping with each other’s sons isn’t something I needed to grapple with in order to digest the story Lessing was trying to tell. Ultimately, “The Grandmothers” is seductive, hypnotizing, and deftly executed. If you’re like me and need a break from your regularly scheduled reading, it’s a beautiful distraction.

On Jennifer Haupt’s “In the Shadow of 10,000 Hills”

513m5AoY97LThis review appears on paperbackparis.com:

Jennifer Haupt‘s debut novel In the Shadow of 10,000 Hills tackles heavy subject matter of both the personal and political. It is just as much a story about the large-scale brutality of the Rwandan genocide and the Civil Rights movement as it is about the smaller tragedies of the family unit. The multiple-point-of-view narrative Haupt builds is an all-encompassing tale of love, loss, family, and the horrors of war.

The novel begins with Rachel Shepherd, a 33-year-old bartender, who desperately wants to find out what happened to her father, Henry Shepherd. He left the family when Rachel was eight. For many years she thought that Henry—now a famous photographer—had not bothered to make contact with her at all throughout her childhood and young adulthood. She comes to find, however, that things were not as they seemed. Her mother, Merilee, has just died from cancer, and, on her deathbed, suggests that Henry may have tried to reach out to young Rachel after all. Her jealousy over the bond Henry and Rachel shared, as well as Henry’s constant traveling, made Merilee resentful.

Now, some twenty-five years later, Rachel discovers a treasure trove of postcards Henry had sent to her over the years hidden inside a box Merilee left Rachel after she died. She needs to know more about him, especially since her marriage is crumbling and everything rests on the birth of her baby girl.

Halfway across the world, a woman named Lillian Carlson is running an orphanage in Rwanda for children who have lost their families in the war. She, too, is coping with the loss of Henry Shepherd with whom she’s had an intimate relationship since she was a young woman. For years, Henry had been a constant in her life until he moved to London permanently, effectively abandoning another family.

Rachel reaches out to her with the hope that she will be able to give her some information about Henry and help her get closure for the sake of her own family. From that moment on, the lives of these two women and their allies are bound together by the presence/absence of Henry Shepherd.

Haupt does an excellent job of building a sound narrative driven by the voices of well-developed characters. Their introspection provides moments of profound insight and clarity, exhibiting their greatest passions and vulnerabilities. Though the transition between these multiple perspectives is not always smooth, the plotting of each moment—and the shifting back and forth between time periods—appears effortless for Haupt.

I highly recommend In the Shadow of 10,000 Hills for a story that moves seamlessly through eras, countries, and heartbreaks without breaking stride. It is beautiful, poignant, and immensely readable.

On Sarah J. Maas’ “A Court of Wings and Ruin”

9781619634480_p0_v3_s550x406The third installment of Sarah J. Maas A Court of Thorns and Roses series is an absolute thrill ride. Readers, strap in: Maas goes full throttle from start to finish.

This novel’s predecessor, A Court of Mist and Fury, triggered some unexpected plot twists. We find out that Rhysand and Feyre are mates and that the King of Hybern plans to use the Cauldron—the entity from which their universe was created—to destroy the wall separating the faerie world from the mortal world in an attempt to gain back what he feels is rightfully theirs. In the process, the lives of countless humans and lesser faeries will be compromised—left to the whims of the sadistic King and his cronies.

Driven by jealousy, Tamlin aids the King in A Court of Mist and Fury, which leads all the High Lords to question his loyalty in the war against Hybern. Feyre and Rhysand’s biggest challenge lies in rallying forces together that are strong enough to combat the power that the King yields. Feyre’s sister, Nesta, becomes the key to unlocking the mystery. The iron-willed, fiery-tempered young woman took something from the Cauldron when it changed her so that she can communicate with it in ways no one else can.

The Night Court crew has to convince the other High Lords to offer their armies in defense of Prythian and the human lives that are at stake. But the High Lord of Autumn—Lucien’s father—is rotten to the core, constantly wavering on the cusp of loyalty to Prythian and becoming a sycophant to Hybern. The battle of wills that ensues between the courts is only a minor bump in the road. Feyre and Rhysand must also harness some of Prythian’s darkest forces to defeat the King. These entities come from other realms and are as old as time itself.

In the midst of all this, each character has to deal with his or her own personal demons. Mor and Azriel are still doing their painful dance; Cassian and Nesta maintain a hate/barely tolerate each other relationship that contains obvious passion; Feyre has to deal with the fallout from Tamlin; Amren has to unlock the Cauldron so she can finally return to her original form; and Lucien has to keep a distance from his mate, Elain, who remains a shell after her encounter with the Cauldron and is devastated over her broken engagement with a rich, faerie-hating human.

Everything comes to a head in one of the most breathtaking battles I’ve ever encountered in young adult fantasy literature. Maas’ imagery is brutal and vivid, and the way she weaves each character’s personal dilemma into the final reckoning is beyond compare. Everyone pushes beyond brokenness to defeat the evils the King of Hybern plans to unleash on the people and faeries of Prythian.

All the organizing Feyre and Rhysand accomplish over the course of the novel almost crumbles when several unexpected twists and turns nearly destroy everything. But with the unbridled bad-assery of the three Archeron sisters, the Night Court, and its assembled forces, save the island from a terrifying end. What they’re left with, though, is the mass carnage of thousands and thousands of faeries. What will become a new age for Prythian will also be another period of great mourning for all involved.

a court of frost and starlight sarah j maas

I was ecstatic to find that this novel—what I thought was going to be the final installment in the trilogy—is not the end for our heroes. In May 2018, Maas will be releasing a novella titled A Court of Frost and Starlight. Narrated by Rhysand and Feyre, it will bridge the gap between the original trilogy and a new trilogy set in the Court of Thorns and Roses universe. Next spring cannot come quickly enough.

On Maureen Johnson’s “The Shadow Cabinet”

shadesWHY HASN’T THE FOURTH BOOK COME OUT YET?!?! Oh…have I given myself away already? You could say my investment in this series has gotten out of hand. Or you could say my enthusiasm/outrage is entirely proper because I NEED to know what happens between Stephen and Rory, and what those crazy Lannister-like twins are going to get themselves into.

As I’ve said before about Maureen Johnson’s Shades of London series, the novels are so fast-paced and intricately plotted that the reader cannot put them down easily. The Name of the Star will, perhaps, always be the strongest installment in the series, but The Shadow Cabinet is a close second. The devastation and anger that wracks the Shades after Stephen’s death provides the foundation for great fiction, and we see Johnson’s characters grow as they move through this trauma.

Rory is at a crossroads. Her guilt about the car accident that caused Stephen’s head injury overwhelms her at times, and she’s determined to use her power as a terminus to keep him around as a ghost at the end of The Madness Underneath. Callum, who is driven in his work by his hatred of ghosts, can’t stand the thought of his best friend taking that form–being trapped in the liminal space between life and what comes after.

Boo and Thorpe are left to rebuild after the fallout. Despite their loss, they must locate Charlotte who has been kidnapped by Jane Quaint and her weird cult. Of course, Rory fails to follow instructions and tries to find her own information when she inadvertently brings a new member to the team–Freddie Sellers. Freddie’s intelligence and enthusiasm repel Boo and Callum at first, suspicious that she might be working for Jane. But they grudgingly come to accept the skills she can offer.

Johnson packs quite a few punches into this book because, when we find out what Jane has planned, it seems impossible that Rory and the others will make it through unscathed.

*Spoiler alert* Jane is attempting to revive her friends and mentors–the power hungry twins, Sid and Sadie. We find out that, like Stephen, these two have been in a state between life and death since the night they murdered ten people and drank poison in 1973. Jane wants them back so that she, too, can “defeat death” and reach some new level of consciousness or whatever.

Rory just wants Stephen back.

The most compelling pieces of this novel take place in that liminal space as Rory tries to pull them back to the living. We find out that Stephen is a member of the illusive Shadow Cabinet whose sole purpose is to guard the stones that keep the boundaries of life and death separate, and aid souls on their way to whatever comes after death. The termini the Shades had been using before the Ripper threw them into the Thames were cut from the Eye of Isis–one of the nine stones that protected London. When it was destroyed, the tear made London a hotbed for the supernatural.

Since Rory is a stone, Stephen is also tasked with protecting her. Loving her isn’t part of the plan. It can’t be. The push and pull of their relationship is heartbreaking, and the reader wants nothing more than for it to be okay for them to be together, living like normal teenagers. In peace.

But it is not to be. Once Rory and Stephen return to the world of the living (with Sid and Sadie in tow), they have to return another major stone that Jane stole to complete the ritual. Of course, they manage to do it, but nothing is the same. No one else in the Shades knows about the Shadow Cabinet. Rory doesn’t remember what happened when she went in after Stephen, so she doesn’t know why she and Stephen can’t be together. It’s just the hint of a feeling that something is off…and Sid and Sadie are on the loose, murderous as ever.

You can understand why Johnson needs to release the fourth novel pronto. The lives of these beautiful characters hang in the balance. *lets loose a sigh* Stephen and Rory have to get their happy ending…and Sid and Sadie need to pass from this life.