You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott (2016)

you-will-know-me-cover

“That’s what parenthood was about, wasn’t it? Slowly understanding your child less and less until she wasn’t yours anymore but herself…a girl who kept so much inside.”

All of Megan Abbott’s novels have a tense undercurrent to them, a sustained unease that permeates them from beginning to end, so that readers cannot help but read feverishly, hoping that the next page — the next conversation, the next chapter — reveals one more sliver of the story.

You Will Know Me is perhaps the most wonderful example of that mastery of suspense. From the opening pages, it is clear that the author is presenting these specific events to us because they are crucial to understanding the story that is unfolding, but she does not reveal why they are important…that she requires her readers to unearth for themselves. The story is only partially revealed throughout the novel. The novel’s characters are all constantly telling one another lies — or at the very least cloaked, half-truths — so that some of what they reveal leads readers astray, but some bring us closer to the ending; always only one small step at at time.

Telling the story of the Knox family, You Will Know Me introduces readers to the intensely competitive world of Olympics-level girls gymnastics. The exploration of this largely unknown community — the intense practices, the injuries, the jealousy, the costs it exacts on its gymnasts and their families — serves as the back-drop for an accidental death that may or may not relate to the Knox’s.

At the novel’s center is Devon Knox, a supremely talented gymnast who is preparing for her last possible chance at a spot on the US National team. Not only is Devon under pressure from relentless practices and strategy sessions, her entire family — mother Katie, father Eric and brother Drew — are also weighed down by the demanding preparations.  It is Katie who narrates to readers Devon’s path to toward gymnastic super-stardom and the oversized toll it has taken on them all. Katie presents a family that has committed everything to Devon’s success: house crumbling and mortgaged to the hilt; work lives stymied; their younger son largely ignored; their marriage built almost exclusively on supporting Devon. At the start of the novel, readers find the Knox family weary and run-down from the demands of gymnastics, “all their duties hung like heavy raiment over then all of the time.”

Adding the the emotional toll of Devon’s competition preparations are the rumors and jealousies that swirl around her and her success: other gymnasts nasty and undermining, other parents suspicious of her talent and hoping to reveal her secrets to their own daughters. When rumors reach Katie and Eric about Devon, they largely brush them off as part of this constant undercurrent of resentment. Both of her parents believe they know all there is to know about their daughter; that all she thinks about is gymnastics and all that occupies her thoughts is competition. When a young man who works at the gym is killed in a hit-and run accident, Devon’s parents — indeed all of the parents in the story — must confront the fact that their children all keep parts of their lives hidden.

The stress of the murder and its subsequent investigation begin to tear apart first the tenuous camaraderie of the gym and ultimately the relationships between all of the members of the Knox family. All four of them are keeping secrets from one another and from the police and they all become desperate to extract themselves from the case so that they can, once again, pursue only one thing…Devon’s spot on the Olympic team.

As in all of her novels, Abbott explores at length how risky it is for anyone — parent, spouse, sibling — to think they know another’s secrets. Readers follow along as the Knox family struggles to come to terms with the lies they have all been telling one another and as they decide just how many lies they are willing to tell the rest of the world in order to protect their investment in Devon.

“Isn’t it a strange day when you realize you have no idea what’s going on in your kid’s head? One morning you wake up and there’s this alien in your house. They look like your kid, sound a little like them, but they are not your kid. They’re something else that your don’t know. And they keep changing. They never stop changing on you.”

Dare Me by Megan Abbott (2012)

Dare Me is an in-depth and deeply disturbing look into the complex social hierarchies of teenage girls, their cutthroat politics and ruthlessness often making them simultaneously best friends and worst enemies. At the center of their universe is their queen bee: the most ruthless and reckless of them all, a girl whom the others are both terrified of and desperate to befriend. As if caught up in her spell, the girls grant the queen bee a terrifying amount of control over their lives: taking her abuse and accepting her challenges, all for a chance to be pulled into her inner circle. “Queen of the hive. Don’t mess with the queen.”

The story told in Dare Me focuses on a high-school cheerleading squad, a group of gorgeous young girls drunk with their power: a mix of popularity, sex appeal, and exclusivity. At their helm is their hard-as-nails Captain, Beth Cassidy, whose wildness sets the tone for the entire squad. At Beth’s side for years is Addy, the story’s narrator and Beth’s “Lieutenant,” always up to harass the other girls or stay out late drinking and taunting lustful boys. Hardly anyone dares cross Beth and Addy — certainly not other girls, not even adults — and they both revel in their freedom to be as wicked as they please.

Enter Colette French, the school’s new cheerleading coach and former Queen Bee of her own teenage life. She is young, beautiful, and tough: the girl’s on her squad are immediately enamored with her and her glamorous seeming life. In hardly no time, Coach French has maneuvered herself into the power position, dethroning Beth of her team captaincy, her head-girl status, and her best friend, Addy.

The girls are all frantic with longing for their adult lives to begin, spending their time trying on behaviors the associate with growing up: drinking stolen bottles of vodka, popping their mother’s pills, and tempting men with their new-found sexiness.

“Ages fourteen to eighteen, a girls needs something to kill all that time, that endless itchy waiting, every hour, every day for something — anything — to begin….We are all waiting, wanting things we don’t understand. Thing we can’t even name. The yearning so deep like pinions over our hearts.”

Colette offers to the girls on the squad a place to try on their grown-up selves; hosting them for parties at her home where she doles our cigarettes, diet pills, and wine…sharing some of her secrets with the grasping girls. In return, Colette gets adulation and, more importantly, a chance to reconnect with her youthful self: before marriage and motherhood tamed her.

Soon, however, the adult world she has brought the girls into — especially Addy — grows all too real. Addy, longing to be claimed as Coach’s favorite, jumps into a wild, after-hours life that Colette begins to lead, discarding many of her own pursuits to play wing-man (and alibi) to her Coach.

Dethroned and wild with rage at her growing impotence, Beth channels all of her conniving into finding out Coach French’s secrets so that she can cost the woman her job at least, ideally her entire life. When she learns that Addy is a willing accomplice to Coach French’s double-life, Beth realizes she has the power to not only bring down Coach, but also to punish Addy for her disloyalty.

The author repeatedly refers to the girls in terms of their “witchiness,” and describing them as having power over one another and over others, especially men and boys, a power that often wield without understanding the consequences. Selfish and self-absorbed with themselves — keeping their tiny bodies tiny and their boyfriends interested — the girls on the cheerleading squad fail to see any of the potential pitfalls that might ensnare them. Their coach is also blinded: her desire to recapture her youth and the power she feels having the girls in her thrall blind her to the risks she is taking with their lives.

The author creates a creepy, realistic world in which young and beautiful girls play fast and loose with their bodies and with their very lives. A truly wonderful and haunting novel.

Apprentice in Death by JD Robb (2016)

In Death series, Book #43

Lt. Eve Dallas and her team of cops are back for their forty-third case in Apprentice in Death, this time working to stop a serial killer sniper who shoots the — seemingly random — victims from miles away. Using a combination of police work and a whole lot of hi-tech software and gear, Eve Dallas and her cohort quickly find a link between some of the victims and, from there, begin to narrow in on two possible suspects. Complicating the search, however, is the apparent involvement of a teenager in the crimes. The cops must question whether or not such a young person could be a willing participant in so many killings…or worse, be the primary perpetrator.

This novel, like the forty-two that proceed it in the In Death series, blends futuristic science fiction elements with those of the classic police procedural. Dallas and her team collect evidence at a break-neck pace and in record time have a suspect and a motive. All that is left is for the team to find the perpetrators and bring them to justice.

Although I am a fan of Nora Roberts and JD Robb books, I cannot help but feel that this series is growing just a tiny bit stale. While the cases the author has dreamed up continue to be thought-provoking and exciting, the formulaic way in which the cases are pursued and solved seem very, very familiar. Just as in all her  previous cases, Dallas is able to solve the case and bring it to a close in record time and with little effort. While I understand that part of the charm of book series is their repetitive nature, I cannot help but wish that Robb would bring in some fresh characters, a new locale, or even a harder case for the team to crack.

When Will There Be Good News? by Kate Atkinson (2008)

Jackson Brodie PI Series #3. Reviews of books #1 and #2 can be found here: http://wp.me/p6N6mT-cS and here: http://wp.me/p6N6mT-15Z

“What he had felt for most of his life was that he was living on in the aftermath of a disaster, in the endless postscript of time that was his life following the murder of his sister and the suicide of his brother. He had drawn those terrible feelings inside himself, nourished them in solitary confinement until they formed the hard, black nugget of coal at the heart of his soul, but now the disaster was external, the wreckage was tangible, it was outside the room he was sleeping in.”

“You’re going the wrong way,” a causal comment from a woman on the roadside made to Jackson Brodie has a profound, prophetic effect on the man and his life in the days and weeks that follow. As if the stranger had cast a spell on him, Jackson boards a train that speeds him not toward his London home and his new life there, but toward Edinburgh, the city he had fled three years prior after becoming involved in a series criminal investigations. Upon entering the Edinburgh train station, the train crashes, killing hundreds and leaving Brodie with little memory of his recent past.

The train crash has a profound effect not only on Brodie, but on all of the characters in the book, scattering them as if they are bowling pins and tearing apart their stories and completely re-threading them, tying them to one another in ways none of them could have predicted.

There is Louise Monroe, the gritty police Detective whom Brodie met briefly during his stay three years earlier: drawn into the story as a first responder to the crash (who does not see Brodie’s dramatic rescue by a young girl) and later when a just-released, convicted murderer of a local woman’s family goes missing in the crash and again even later when Brodie’s young rescuer, a teen named Reggie, calls Louise to report that her boss is missing. Reggie’s boss, it turns out, is the very woman — named Joanna Hunter — that Louise fears the missing murderer has set out to find.

As if that does not complicate the plot enough, the story of young Reggie is also deeply tied to the crash. Recently orphaned by both her mother and her mentor, her closet ties are to her boss, to whom she feels a deep connection. A witness of the train disaster, Reggie is one of the first to arrive at the site and it is her CPR skills that save Brodie. When Detective Louise Monroe refuses to look into Joanna Hunter’s disappearance, Reggie tracks down a confused and severely injured Brodie as asks, in repayment for her CPR ministrations, Brodie to help her find Joanna.

As the story unfolds, the pieces of several cases begin to tie all of the characters into tighter and tighter relation with one another. Soon the murder of Joanna’s family, her disappearance, the missing murderer, the train crash, and the fates of Brodie, Reggie, Louise, and Joanna become one intertwined story.

Filled with Atkinson’s trademark deep character developments and with her teasing manner of leaving readers only small bread crumbs, one at a time, about the mystery and about the characters in it. Those elements combine with her poetic prose to create an ending that will keep you guessing until the final pages.

The Fever by Megan Abbott (2014)

You spend a long time waiting for life to start — her past year or two filled with all these firsts, everything new and terrifying and significant — and then when it does start you realize it isn’t what you’d expected or asked for.”

In this dark and atmospheric novel, Megan Abbott turns an icy, gray, windswept small town into a dangerous, sinister place where young girls are falling victim to an unexplainable and possibly fatal illness. It was a town “where nothing every happened, until it did.” From the moment a young girl collapses with a seizure in class, the high-school she attends, and the town the school is in, are a buzz with rumors and theories on her illness…but none come close to the horrible truth.

While at first the possibilities put forth for the illness remained modest — stress, dieting, boy troubles — when a second girl becomes sick, the community begins floating wild and than wilder ideas. The parents are desperate for concrete answers and, when doctors are unable to provide them, they take aim at all possible targets: contaminated HPV vaccines; chemicals in the water from nearby fracking; toxic sludge in the town lake. The parents didn’t necessary “want the truth, [they] just wanted an answer.”

The teens themselves, phones never far from their hands, are constantly texting and re-texting their own theories — toxic shock syndrome, STD’s, birth control pills, many more most related to sex — creating an undercurrent through the whole book of phones constantly “jangling” and buzzing with news and accusations. “Everyone knew things so fast, phones like constant pulse under the skin.”

Tensions continue to rise between the adults and their peers, fighting over possible causes; between the teens and their parents; and between the teens at school, due in part to the social status and popularity that attaches itself to whomever has the most current and plausible information on the contagion. The status afforded to the sick girls also leads to a Salem Witch Trial affect with girl after girl showing signs of illness. Town officials must cull the truly ill from the pretenders, which causes untold complications. Soon it seems half the town is at risk and the other half are to blame. The theatrics, however, have not brought anyone closer to the truth.

Enter our main character Deenie, whose two best friends are the first to fall ill. Deenie must work through her own demons and address her own risky behaviors in order to puzzle out whether she holds the key to the sickness…all the while she must constantly monitor herself for signs that she too is succumbing.

“When you thought about your body, about how much of it you couldn’t even see, it was no wonder it could all go wrong.”

The truly scary aspect of the novel, in addition to the the illness that is plaguing the teenage girls, is the terrifying (at least to me, the mother of a teenager) discordance between the adults — what they think their children are doing, who they believe their teens to be — and the lives their kids are actually living. Existing in a secret world of smart-phones and chat rooms, under the noses of distracted and absent parents, the kids are involved of very adult relationships and taking part in very serious activities, often with far-reaching consequences.

Despite what the parents in The Fever believe, neither the hyper-vigilant helicopter parents nor the relaxed “I trust you” parents, exert more than a cursory influence over their children. The adults in the novel underestimate the intensity of the experiences their children are having: it is far easier to downplay their concerns or claim that youth is the reason for their volatility. In reality, the boys and girls in the novel are all deeply affected by ambition, rage, jealousy, sexual tension and are hugely motivated — in their quest to be grown — to take risks their parents cannot fathom. Deenie wonders, “Bad things happen and then they’re over, but where do they go? Are they ours forever, leeching under our skin?”

A haunting and thought-provoking novel, to be sure, with a wonderful grasp of the pitfalls that both teens and their parents face.

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“October Series” books are spooky, scary, or otherwise unsettling books that I read each year during October, a truly perfect month for contemplating dark endings…and of course, for celebrating Halloween.

Night Shift by Stephen King (1978)

This post was written by my husband, a literature professor and fellow book lover. He reads as many scary books as I do in October, so I asked him to write a review of one book that stood out for him this season. Here it is…

Outside of creative writing classes, the short story doesn’t command a large readership these days. We can still see the vestiges of the short story’s former glory days in mainstream magazines like The New Yorker, The Atlantic and Harper’s, but the short story has, by and large, been relegated to more academic publications. Novels are the literary form of choice for readers at a time when screens provide most of our short-form narrative entertainment.

That being said, the brevity and intensity of the short story still maintains a challenge to the length and depth of the novel in the horror genre. Horror starts with folk tales and bedtime stories told by firelight on cool nights in the autumn and winter months. Horror is developed in the short, concentrated explorations of the creepy and the weird by Poe and H.P. Lovecraft and Flannery O’Connor and, in our generation, Stephen King. The short story is the perfect vehicle for horror, allowing us to experience the mind-bending and be utterly frightened, but only for a moment, as we come back to the relative safety of our real worlds.

I was probably twelve or thirteen when I first read Night Shift, snagging it one latch-key after-school afternoon from my parents’ eclectic bookshelf. I remember starting with one of the easier stories, almost appropriate for a twelve year-old boy, the playful “Battleground.” In this story, an apparent hitman is one-upped by his next mark, who cuts the assassin off at the pass by sending him a very unique letter bomb. The package contains a platoon full of live—and heavily-armed—action figures. Once our protagonist realizes that these G.I. Joes are serious, he has to quickly shake off his disbelief and fight back. King invests as much in this shaking off and fighting back as he does in creating the strange horrors that his characters have to face.

The now-famous story, “Children of the Corn,” follows much the same pattern: regular folks must face horror and find out if they can live long enough for it to change their lives. In both “Jerusalem’s Lot” and “One for the Road,” we get two points in the history of what will become the wonderful novel, Salem’s Lot, and in these stories, regular Down Easters have to face the apparent reality that has come to a small Maine town.

In “Gray Matter,” we get something a bit more difficult to handle, a man who is overtaken by the botulinum-ish something that has infected one of his beers. Poor Richie becomes something unthinkable. Likewise, the grounded astronaut in “I am the Doorway” must come face-to-face, or at least hand-to-hand, with an experience beyond comprehension.

King’s Night Shift takes up the work begun by Poe’s Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, meaning that he uses these stories to explore two similar but distinct responses to what scares us. For Poe, the grotesque refers to the kind of fright that drives one instantly mad, the gory and the unspeakable, while the arabesque seems to refer to something that is horrible and repulsive but that profoundly absorbs our attention. The grotesque is the horror that we just cannot even…; the arabesque is the horror that we need to deal with, and terror is how we deal with it. Night Shift gives us both kinds.

Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith (2015)

Cormoran Strike Novel #3 Read my brief mention of the first two books in this series in my October 9, 2015 post here: http://wp.me/p6N6mT-B and there is a full review of The Cuckoo’s Calling on this blog here http://wp.me/p6N6mT-Xx

To say that I was thrilled when my husband picked us up a brand new copy of the new Cormoran Strike book, Career of Evil, would be a huge understatement. I was ecstatic! This series – British PI murder mysteries written by the incomparable JK Rowling, using the alias Robert Galbraith – is simply not to be missed by fans of the genre or fans of the author. (Forgiving her that awkward book, A Causal Vacancy, which displayed enormous talent but was populated with stories and character’s that were unlikable and almost all heartbreaking. A review of it can be found here: http://wp.me/p6N6mT-Md )

Before reviewing, I would like to point out that while you could read this book on its own — since Galbraith’s wonderful writing makes for a thrilling mystery even without the back story — you should absolutely read the previous two books in the series (in order!) Skipping those books would deprive you not only of the reading of two thrilling tales written by a master storyteller, but also of the chance to participate in the slowly unraveling stories of the series’ hero and heroine, Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott.

The story opens with the stalwart private investigator, Cormoran Strike, a self-described “fat bastard,” an ex-boxer with the body of a man “who smokes too much and eats too much fast food, who wears a permanent expression of crossness.” He is keeping afloat a small private investigation business with the help of his beautiful, savvy assistant, Robin Ellacott. Robin has eschewed a more profitable career in accounting to study surveillance, self-defense, and investigative tactics under Strike. The two work side-by-side solving their clients’ crises, keeping up their platonic relationship. However, there are undercurrents of attraction between the two (readers of the series will be thrilled to learn that Robin is still has not married that tosser Matthew at the start of this book.)

The newest case for the pair comes not from a client but from a gruesome package containing a severed human leg that is delivered to Robin at the end of Chapter Two. Although the leg comes addressed to Robin, Strike is immediately certain that the package is meant as a message for both of them…as a threat against Robin and a riddle for Strike to solve. The package and its accompanying letter lead Strike to zero in on four men he knows from his past, each a likely murderer. Reluctantly, he begins to sift through his past (time spent as a neglected child, an army recruit, a military investigator) for hints at the package’s sender. “His vague memories of the past had weakened, no doubt by his deliberate attempts to forget,” but the arrival of the package means “now the memories were rising to bite him as though he had trodden on a nest of sleeping snakes.”

Galbraith has once again delivered a novel true to its murder mystery roots while offering readers so much more than another formulaic read. Skillfully moving between Strike’s, Robin’s and the murderer’s points-of-view, Galbraith delivers us a modern story that is filled with wit and intelligence and populated with full-bodied characters that we quickly come to know so well. One beautifully crafted sentence follows another, sketching out in perfect detail the past and present lives of the characters – of large and small importance to the story – and the places they each inhabit.

Curling up with a book as good as this one is one of life’s greatest pleasures. There is nothing as euphoric as being unable to put down a fabulous book. Enthralled, I lugged the (not insubstantial) book everywhere for the two days, ignoring my errands, my work, and even my children — with in reason…they were playing on the playground or in their rooms with Legos) to find out how the story would end. Heavenly!

NOTE: This book, as is true of all murder mystery novels, contains graphic (although not gratuitous) depictions of murder as well as some graphic very sexual content. This story marks a much darker theme than the first two Cormoran Strike novels, but it is nonetheless outstanding. This is NOT a book for young adults, even though the author is JK Rowling.

career of evil cover