The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore – Kim Fu

In The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore, five girls camp2out with their camp leader on a kayaking and camping excursion. Their leader decides to push the girls even harder, rowing for a farther, more secluded island for camping. No one from camp knows where they went, and no one from camp knows that these girls are stranded and alone. There is a pivotal point in these characters’ lives that changes the course of their adulthoods.

The novel is told in vignettes, back and forth in time from the adolescent girls at Camp Forevermore and then their later adult lives. Each girl’s story is told in turn. Not all the girls’ adult stories seem relevant to the camp incident, but perhaps that’s the point the author is subtly implying: some girls overcome, and some never recover. I appreciated that the characters were not cardboard stereotypes. The girls have different personalities and come from different backgrounds, and that adds to their experience and also to their suffering on the island.

I enjoyed this novel. The writing is intelligent and contemplative. The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore is a story of basest natures coming to the surface when faced with adversity with the follow up of how one trauma can infect people’s minds for the rest of their lives. I look forward to reading more from this author.

Many thanks to Netgalley and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for the advance copy in exchange for my honest review.

New Boy – Tracy Chevalier

Chevalier does not disappoint with this modern spin on the classic tale.  New Boy is a retelling of Othello in Random House’s Hogarth Shakespeare series. Other retellings in this series include Hagseed by Margaret Atwood (a retelling of The Tempest) and Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler.

newboyAt 206 pages, this is almost a novella, but its succinctness is perfect for the retelling. The simmering racism pervades throughout, and the setting Chevalier chose lends an interesting cultural perspective.

Set in Washington, DC in the 1970s, the cast of characters are sixth graders on the cusp of adolescence, experimenting with adult situations that involve romance and manipulation. The new boy is Osei, a dark-skinned African who has some experience being the “other” in a classroom of white faces. He keeps to himself, ignoring the curious stares and reluctant approaches of the other kids. He befriends Dee, a popular girl who is fascinated with his exoticness. There is also the conniving Ian, intent on destroying their relationship.

The entire story takes place in a single day, mostly through drama on the playground. An ordinary day at the elementary school turns dark quickly as alliances dissolve and primal fears emerge.

The use of tweens is a clever twist on the original; they’re young enough to maintain a sheen of naivete and just old enough to begin the subtle art of manipulation. The diabolical machinations of Ian, however, were a little too complicated to be completely believable. The complicated maneuvers were necessary, however, in order to reflect the original Shakespeare, even though in this instance Iago is only eleven years old. That complaint aside, New Boy is a refreshing take on the old story, one that many younger readers will be able to identify with.

Recommended. Many thanks to bloggingforbooks.com for this copy in exchange for my honest review.

Rust and Stardust – T. Greenwood

rustandstardustIn 1948, 11-year-old Sally Horner stole a notebook from Woolworth’s. Frank LaSalle, newly released from prison, witnessed the theft and grabbed Sally, telling her he was with the FBI. Terrified of getting in trouble, she agreed to leave with him, and she didn’t come home for two years.

I was drawn to read this novel after discovering that Sally’s story inspired Nabokov’s Lolita.

Rust and Stardust is a fictionalized account of what may have happened during Sally’s two years on the run with Frank LaSalle. LaSalle mentally and physically abused Sally, convincing her at first that he was the law, then that he was her real father. Sally was naïve and gullible, believing that she had to keep quiet or she would get in trouble. He took her across the country, evading the police and the FBI, telling neighbors that Sally was his daughter.

No one thought to question his story.

Rust and Stardust gives life to a real story that has almost been lost to history. Told from multiple points-of-view, the story follows Sally’s nightmare with Frank LaSalle, and also the horrible anguish of her family searching for her. The author deftly recreates Sally’s thought processes, showing how this young girl could believe such outlandish lies even while enduring abuse and isolation. Even though I knew the outcome, this was a gripping story. My heart was racing while I turned the pages.

Highly recommended.

Many thanks to Netgalley and St. Martin’s Press for the advance copy in exchange for my honest review.

 

War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy (yes, that one)

I read this . . . so you don’t have to. And please, if you’re thinking of reading it anyway, just don’t. Try some Turgenev. Or anything else, really.

Also, I read this entire thing on my phone. Thanks, Serial Reader app! It only took me seven months to read 235 installments of this book.

aint-nobody-got-time-for-war-and-peace_o_1065936
Meme stolen from the Internet

This was a slog.

Ol’ Leo apparently couldn’t decide if he wanted to try to write Anna Karenina (which he did, later) or publish his dissertation about the motives of war, military strategy, how historians should address historical events, and philosophical musings about  the theory of the The Great Man. I’d say War and Peace gives you about half a story and about 9,000 lectures of historical analysis.

If you’re looking for a great epic novel like Anna Karenina, this ain’t it. If you want to read an expository text about military strategy and philosophical musings about how historians should approach battles with the benefit of hindsight, please, enjoy this dry, Homeric tome of pedantic scholarship. Maybe since he got all this analysis of politics and society in 19th century Russia out of his system, it freed him to go on and actually write a novel.

There are some good parts that I enjoyed. I liked Pierre and was fascinated with his time as a French prisoner of war. It was interesting. The rest of the characters . . . eh. Didn’t care. That’s a lot of reading for “didn’t care.” In War and Peace, Tolstoy also has a 13-year-old girl’s perspective of  romance. Girls develop crushes instantaneously, boys see a girl at the opera one time and become obsessed. I think he was bored with the fiction parts and just wanted to get back to telling us why Napoleon wasn’t really all that great.

Leo, please, kill your darlings. You’re boring the shit out of us.

Try Anna Karenina instead! It’s like a Russian, Victorian Downton Abbey! I still love you, Leo, but I’m glad this is over.

 

 

 

You Deserve Nothing – Alexander Maksik

youdeservenothingAlmost everyone has had The One Professor, the one who “made a difference,” who taught you how think critically, who made you question your faith, your values, your fundamental morals.

Did you take the class from The One Professor and move on to other classes, feeling a little bit smarter, a little less naïve? Or, like me, and like the students in You Deserve Nothing, was the curtain lifted and you discovered that The One Professor wasn’t the guru you imagined, was not the enlightened philosopher you thought he was, that maybe he was a just an average guy with his own failings?

The cracks in the professor/student hero-worship foundation are exposed in You Deserve Nothing. Maksik delves into the moral ambiguity that stems from professors craving their students’ adoration and the students longing for praise. The novel presents several characters’ interpretations of events through the veil of their perspectives: the mentor, the idealistic student, the insecure ingénue. Overlying it all are the philosophies of great existentialists, Sartre and Camus, which filled me with nostalgia over those past afternoons in senior seminars with my peers, navel-gazing about  the meaning of life. I remember bright classes with thrilling discussion, leaving the class on a cloud, or storming out, passionately angry from a heated argument. A good teacher knows how to foster this type of discourse and can direct it and challenge his students. He also wields power in his encouragement, which must be kept in check lest it overinflate his ego.

Mr. Silver, The One Professor in You Deserve Nothing, is a great teacher. He’s engaging, he’s genuinely interested in the literature, and he treats his students with respect, believes their opinions are valid. As a high school student, teachers like Mr. Silver gave me self-worth, and I yearned to make them proud. The question then arises, what responsibility does he have to his students, knowing that they see him as an example of moral goodness, a result of the examined life?

Things begin to fall apart when Mr. Silver succumbs to a sexual relationship with a student. Surprisingly, this is not the usual trope of someone in power abusing their authority. Mr. Silver is just as much the seducer as he is the seduced. Many readers may be disgusted, but I appreciated the even-handedness of the relationship, as devastating as it was for both of them.

THE BIG REVEAL (*not a spoiler):  Maksik was a professor who was fired after having an affair with a student, and many of his former students were outraged when this novel was published, asserting that some of the discussions and comments were taken directly from their classrooms. They felt betrayed and exploited.

This outrage made me wonder, however, if perhaps they already felt betrayed and exploited when they discovered when they were students that Maksik isn’t the pinnacle of courage he professed to be through Sartre and Camus, that he is just a regular guy who doesn’t always do the brave thing, or have the courage of his convictions.

This book raised many questions for me, and, like all great literature, made me feel less alone in my experiences.

Highly recommended, if you can overlook the fictionalization-of-memoir aspect. Especially recommended to English lit nerds everywhere, even more so for those who took AP at prep schools.

The Stowaway – Laurie Gwen Shapiro

the-stowaway-9781476753867_hrThis is the story of seventeen-year-old Billy Gawronksi, a stowaway (after a few attempts) on the ship Eleanor Bolling that followed Admiral Richard Byrd’s flagship to Antarctica. In the late 1920s, Byrd-mania had swept through America, igniting the imaginations of youth in New York City where his ships were docked before his grand polar adventure. Young Billy was not going to fall victim to a sad existence of life working in his father’s upholstery business. He was going to have a life of adventure, and nobody was going to thwart him. Billy’s chutzpah was without parallel, and his derring-do earned him a spot on the unknown continent.

Shapiro provides enough biographical information to make Billy’s motivations relevant and sympathetic without bogging down her reader with extraneous details. Billy’s story, along with those of other historical characters on Byrd’s first Antarctic expedition, is set against the backdrop of the Jazz Age in between the World Wars. Shapiro weaves in the significance of the Great Depression, the nationalistic pride in America’s heroes, and the onset of WWII on Billy’s decisions and career. Shapiro also doesn’t shy away from including the blatant racism and prejudice that affected Billy’s tenure, among other wannabe adventurers on Byrd’s expedition. Her perseverance in uncovering the details and admirable life story of this unknown boy-explorer is evident in the comprehensive story she presents to her readers.

The Stowaway filled a lot of gaps in my knowledge of American polar exploration. The stories of the lesser-known idealistic adventure-seekers who accompanied Byrd to Antarctica provided an interesting perspective of the polar-fever that had captured Americans during the beginning of the 20th century.

This book will appeal to many different readers: those interested in Polar exploration will, of course, love Billy’s tale, but anyone with a passing interest in early 20th century American history, particularly the immigrant experience, will find a great story in this book as well. Highly recommended.

 

Many thanks to Netgalley and Simon & Schuster for this advance copy in exchange for my review.

The Chalk Man – C J Tudor

A little bit Stand By Me, a little bit Mystic River, The Chalk Man delivers mystery, suspense, and horror in a tight story with no loose ends.

chalkmanAlternating between 1986 and 2016, the protagonist, Eddie, is still haunted by violence that he witnessed the summer when he was 12.  He and his friends discovered the body of a dead girl in the woods, and chalk drawings of stick men lead them right to the site of her murder. The circumstances of the crime seem obvious to police, but evidence comes to light 30 years later that puts all of the pieces together, and Eddie figures out the police had it all wrong. There is also the added nightmare of Eddie seeing the chalk men.  When the drawings of chalk men appear, something bad is going to happen.

 

It’s suspenseful, often frightening, and always exciting. The Chalk Man is a captivating thriller with enough drama to give it some substance.  The pacing makes the pages fly, and I looked forward to reading this book every time I had the chance to crack it open.

Highly recommended.

Many thanks to bloggingforbooks.com for this advance copy in exchange for my honest review.