Lolita Does Boarding School

God, I haven’t thought of Glenn in years. Or was his name Carl? No, his name was Glenn. Glenn with two n’s, not just the one. It was about 25 years ago. I worked as a grocery bagger (I know they call them courtesy clerks now but the main thing I did day in and day out was to bag grocery’s and make sure not to put the watermelon on top of the eggs) and there was this older man, a sometime cashier who mostly worked in the back stocking the shelves. He wasn’t particularly good looking. In fact, he reminded me a lot of Dorothy’s sleazy ex-husband on the Golden Girls, Stanley Zbornak. But there was something about Glenn with two n’s that made me notice him. And made me want to be noticed by him in return.

In Kate Elizabeth Russell’s My Dark Vanessa, it’s the year 2000 and 15 year old Vanessa Wye is at a Maine boarding school called Browick. She’s going through the motions of being a teenager, not really interested in classes until her English teacher, Mr. Strane, seems to take an interest in her. He seems to be the first person who really looks at her, really notices her and she likes that feeling.

It begins with him loaning her his favorite books. One of those books is Lolita, the story of an older man grooming a teenage girl to become his lover. One day while the rest of the class is busy, Vanessa is at the front of the class partially blocked by Mr. Strane’s desk. He touches her knee as they discuss something. It is a brief touch but filled with more meaning than the actual brevity of the act.

Mr. Strane, 42, confesses his deep love to Vanessa and begins to gaslight her. He trots out all the familiar lines of “I’ve never felt this way before, I’ve never been this deeply in love.” And of course, Vanessa, at 15, soaks the attention up even though a part of her knows how wrong it is. Their relationship becomes more intimate. She sneaks out of her dorm room to spend the night at his house. He gives her a skimpy pair of pajamas almost exactly like those given to Lolita by the pedophile Humbert Humbert in the novel Lolita.

Vanessa sees how their relationship mirrors the novel, the secrecy, the forbidden meet ups. All the while Strane is telling her how much trouble she could get him into, how he could be fired from his teaching position and even go to jail for statutory rape. It’s all about the trouble he could get into and never about the mental toll the affair is having on Vanessa.

By her junior year, rumors begin traveling around that she’s having an affair with Strane. Her once best friend, Jenny, thinks she sees something in the way Strane grab’s Vanessa’s arm during a fieldtrip and reports him. Vanessa – with a lot of manipulating from Strane – takes a bullet and sacrifices her life at the boarding school, telling the higher ups and a group of students that she lied about the affair because she liked the attention. Strane, for his part (which Vanessa doesn’t find out about until years later) tells his colleagues how Vanessa had been a pesky student who had an obvious crush on him and he was trying to nip it in the bud.

Vanessa is kicked out of school but her relationship with Strane never really ends. Well groomed and slightly mentally abused slave that she already is, Vanessa spends years obsessed with Strane, constantly worried that her life isn’t up to snuff for him, that she’s somehow disappointed him. She doesn’t even get into any other relationships because she’s so mindlessly devoted to him.

The novel bounces back and forth through time, telling the story of 15-year-old Vanessa and then jumping to 32-year-old Vanessa working at a hotel and barely living her life while still under the thrall of her former English teacher Jacob Strane. She finds an article about Browick, her old boarding school, telling the story of a female student who was assaulted by a teacher there. When she confronts Strane, he brushes the assault off as a young girl who misconstrued his patting her knee which was meant a comforting gesture.

Vanessa’s world, already crumbling from the unfaced disaster that began with her teenage affair, begins to rapidly break apart. She realizes she wasn’t the only one Strane mentally waterboarded; she wasn’t the only one who got the line “I’ve never felt this way about someone.” Soon, she begins the work of digging around within herself and asking why she always defended Strane, refusing to see what he did to her as sexual and mental abuse.

At turns horrifying and relatable, My Dark Vanessa is a book that won’t be put down until the last page is soaked up and the story of Vanessa and the almost 20 years under the shadow of a powerful man comes to an end. Whether you have daddy issues and have been in a relationship with an older man who was only flattered by your attention without giving you love in return or you want to read a novel touching on a subject gaining strength and attention throughout the world, My Dark Vanessa will not disappoint you.

Hmmmm…I wonder what Glenn with two n’s is up to these days. Or was it Carl? I really need to write these things down when they happen.

Amazing Alaska Mystery

I’m delighted to report that the new book in the Kate Shugak mystery series by Dana Stabenow, No Fixed Line, was recently published and is now available in the library’s digital collection as an Overdrive MP3 audiobook. This is one of my favorite mystery series – I love the Alaska setting and Kate Shugak is a totally original and absolutely fascinating heroine!

In this book, a major snowstorm has occurred and caused a private plane to crash. Some friends of Kate’s are nearby and rush to the plane to help out before the snow buries it. The only survivors are two small children who don’t speak English. It quickly becomes apparent that the children were kidnapped and have been abused. Who were the adults on this plane and why were they flying in such terrible weather conditions? As always, one thing leads to another and we follow along with Kate on another fascinating investigation.

There’s also a second plot in this book. A very wealthy (and evil) man Kate helped send to prison has died and left her in charge of a foundation he set up. Did he have some sort of personality change and become a completely different person because of his prison time? Or is this an elaborate plan to destroy Kate (who he really, really hated)? Kate chooses to believe the second option and begins investigating this foundation to figure out how she is being set up.

This is an exceptional series. Not only are the books set in Alaska, but Kate Shugak is an Aleut who lives on a 160-acre homestead in a generic national Park in Alaska so these books reveal an Alaska that most people never get to see (even if we visit Alaska as tourists). The supporting cast of characters is also wonderful, especially Kate’s dog, Mutt. At some point in every book, someone asks “Is that a wolf?” Kate replies, “Only half”. She’s completely serious. A lot of bad guys have Mutt’s teeth marks somewhere on their person. Did I mention that Mutt is female?

The author, Dana Stabenow, grew up in Alaska. Her author bio says she “was born in Alaska and raised on a 75-foot fish tender. She knew there was a warmer, drier job out there somewhere and found it in writing”. How cool is that?!

We also have two more books in this mystery series available as e-books if you prefer reading to listening:

Bad Blood and Restless in the Grave

Saint X

Family. Sisters. An undying bond. We all think we know our families, but do we? Do we really?

I found myself asking these questions and more after reading Saint X by Alexis Schaitkin.

Seven-year-old Claire and her big sister Alison are on a family vacation with their parents to a beautiful Caribbean island resort. Alison is on break during her first year of college.

Of course, Claire idolizes her sister but doesn’t understand her aloofness and flirty behavior. Alison sneaks out at night and asks Claire to cover for her. She would do anything for her sister.

When Alison goes missing the family’s last night of vacation, Claire is put in a tough spot… continue to deny she knows anything or tell them she’s been covering for Alison all along. And when Alison is found dead, she is terrified to admit knowledge of anything.

As the mystery of Alison’s death unfolds, we find out about the people she had contact with: Edwin and Clive (Gogo to his friends) working at the resort, the blond boy from the beach on vacation with his family, the locals at Paulette’s bar where she had sneaked off to almost every night.

Fast forward years in the future, and Claire, now going by Emily, is living and working in New York. One-night, Clive (no longer Gogo) is her taxi driver. This opens a flood of memories for Emily and she decides one way or another that she will learn the truth of Alison’s death.

During her journey she realizes she didn’t really know her sister after all. After months of following and then getting to know Clive, she wonders if she wants to get the answers she was looking for, and if it will change anything.

Saint X is a beautifully written story of sisterly love and abandonment. I really enjoyed the path of Claire’s enlightenment and her realizations concerning herself and her sister.

The Stand in a New Light

I’m surprised I’ve never written a post about Stephen King’s The Stand before. I read it about once a year. Maybe its massive size (just over 1,000 pages) has deterred me from trying to write about it. But there’s no better time than now to write about a book depicting a super flu that wipes out most of the world’s population; leaving behind both good and evil who then must battle it out to save what is left of humanity.

The Stand begins at a government base where a man-made flu breaches a medical lab. In the days following, people begin to come down with the flu. It’s not unusual to hear coughing and sniffling in a movie theater and in the streets. People begin to stay off the streets, quarantining themselves in their homes. What starts off as a seemingly simple flu becomes a pandemic nicknamed Captain Trips. The human population is reduced to almost nothing and the streets and freeways are littered with cars and the bodies of people who tried to flee the cities. The world becomes a wasteland.

But there are pockets of people who are immune to the flu, people who pack a few belongings and set out to find other survivors. As decent people search for each other, people filled with darkness also seek out their kind. Randall Flagg, also known as The Walking Dude, is a god to some, but a demon to others. He gathers the evil ones to him and has a plan for what’s left of the population. The heels of his cowboy boots can be heard clicking down the roads of America as he searches for those with evil tucked away in them. Side note: Randall Flagg pops up in King’s Dark Tower series as well. It’s a cross-over event, like when two of your favorite shows merge.

Stu Redman becomes the reluctant leader of a group of good people who find a new place to settle and begin life again. But Randall Flagg has appeared to many of them, showing them nightmare visions of the world he wants to create. On the flip side, there’s Mother Abigail, a 108-year-old woman who is tasked with saving the rest of humankind. She needs to gather the good of humanity to her to give them a chance to overcome Randall Flagg. Along the way, a couple of Flagg’s spies have embedded themselves in Stu’s group and wreak havoc. In the end, there can only be an ultimate sacrifice to bring about a new beginning.

With a brilliant and memorable cast of characters, Stephen King’s The Stand is about more than just Good vs. Evil. It’s about the human condition when presented with the end of the world and the luck of an immune system that bucks disease. The Stand is about being alone at the end of the world and then finding people to create a new life. To quote another King book, Doctor Sleep:  We go on, even in the dark. Even when the darkness seems unending. We go on.

Now look, I know this new disease is terrifying and something like The Stand doesn’t seem like fiction right now, but remember this: wash your hands while singing Happy Birthday all the way through twice, stay away from large gatherings, and if you hear the clip-clop of dusty cowboy boots, run the other way. The Walking Dude has found you.

Great New Mysteries

I’m a huge mystery fan and I wanted to let you know about two mystery novels published in January that I particularly enjoyed. I’m sure there were many more good mystery novels published in the same month that I haven’t read yet (the number of books published every month boggles the mind), but I can personally recommend these two.

The Wild One by Nick Petrie

This is the new book in the Peter Ash thriller series. The second book in this series, Burning Bright, is one of my favorite thriller novels of all time so I’m always interested in reading a new book in this series.

In this book, war veteran Peter Ash has flown to Iceland to find and save the young son of a murdered woman. After the murder, the boy’s father fled with him to Iceland where the father has a large, close and mostly criminal family. The boy’s grandmother (his mother’s mother) wants to know that the boy is alive and well, and to have the boy returned to her in the U.S. if all is not well in Iceland.

It’s a thriller, so all is definitely NOT well in Iceland. Peter travels through the harsh Icelandic landscape and weather, battling foes all the way, to find the boy.

I enjoyed this book very much. The setting in Iceland adds a tremendous amount to the fun and interest of this book – I don’t think I’ve ever read a mystery/thriller set in Iceland before. The writing is excellent.

For those of you who have read other books in this series, this book is very similar to the first book in the series, The Drifter, in the way it’s written. If you enjoyed The Drifter, I think you’ll enjoy The Wild One.

The Vanishing by Jayne Ann Krentz

Jayne Ann Krentz is a local author (she lives in Seattle) and an absolute master at writing romantic suspense novels. In all of her novels, the mystery and the love story receive about equal weight (sometimes the mystery gets more emphasis).

For a number of years, she wrote books (both historical and contemporary) about a paranormal society founded in Victorian times called the Arcane Society, run by a family named Jones. The contemporary books followed the descendants of the Jones family in the present day. The Arcane Society sprang from Jayne’s fertile creative mind, but it does have a basis in reality – the Victorians were very big on the paranormal. This is a WONDERFUL series. Jayne has a real passion for writing books that include the paranormal, and her enjoyment in writing these books shows on every page.

Then, unfortunately, her publisher asked her to stop writing the Arcane Society books (I have no idea why). The books she wrote subsequently were still excellent – she’s a remarkable writer – but for me they lacked the spark of magic that the Arcane Society books had.

Well, I’m delighted to report that in her new book, The Vanishing, she returns to the paranormal! This book doesn’t include the Arcane Society, but it does feature a new paranormal organization called the Foundation.

I do miss having a Jones show up, but this book has all the paranormal aspects in a contemporary romantic suspense novel that we Arcane Society fans love. And Jayne has revealed that a Jones may show up in the next book in this series!

Spot-Lit for March 2020

These titles – from established, new, and emerging authors – are some of the most anticipated new releases of the month, based on advance reviews and book world enthusiasm.

Click here to see all of these titles in the Everett Public Library catalog, where you can read reviews or summaries and place holds. Or click on a book cover below to enlarge it, or to view the covers as a slide show.

Notable New Fiction 2020 (to date) | All On-Order Fiction | 2020 Debuts

Heartwood 10:1 – Lives & Deaths

Two brief reviews of small books that are well-worth your time.

Marcel Schwob’s Imaginary Lives contains twenty-two short biography-like accounts of lives that, in life-like fashion, are all rounded out in death. Schwob focuses on a variety of historical figures, such as Empedocles, Herostratus, Lucretius, Petronius, Pocahontas, Paolo Uccello, and Captain Kidd. He also includes stories of the associates of famous people: Cecco Angiolieri (wannabe poet rival of Dante), Nicolas Loyseleur (deceiver of Joan of Arc), Major Stede Bonnet (romanticizer of piracy, who crosses paths with Blackbeard), and actor Gabriel Spenser (falling under the sword of Ben Jonson), to name a few.

I relished these tales (each about a half-dozen pages) reading one or two at a time, savoring their richness, and marveling at Schwob’s way of capturing character in resonant details. Though I’m incapable of reading the original French, it appears that Chris Clarke has done an excellent translation – the attention to word choice is notable and his awareness of Schwob’s sources (usually unattributed) speaks to his deep knowledge of the author’s personal interests and reading history.  The Wikipedia page for this book provides links to the (real) characters that have Wikipedia entries.

The main narrative thread of Valérie Mréjen’s very brief book, Black Forest, involves a daughter’s lifelong reflections and speculations about her mother and the day she died of an overdose while she, the daughter, was at the hairdressers. But this unfolding account is frequently interrupted by extremely compressed descriptions of the various deaths of other individuals – a woman who chokes to death while laughing at a joke while dining; an overweight man whose body blocks the bathroom door and prevents his girlfriend from assisting him when he has a heart attack; a man who is thrown from his motorcycle and lands alive and intact in a wheat field only to be mowed down by a truck as he returns to the road; a woman whose baby drowns in the bathtub when she steps away to answer the telephone. It is not always easy to tell when these transitions are occurring, and this is partly due to the main storyline being told variously in first- and third-person voices, but also by the distance achieved by the careful diction – a finely rendered tone and immediacy that is open and honest, personable but free of sentimentality. The language is so fine, in fact, that the reader would never guess that this is a translation. A gem.

Short But Not So Sweet

I’ve always had a soft spot for short stories. Maybe it is my limited attention span or perhaps wanting to feel I’ve accomplished something quickly, but there is always a short story collection or two on my reading list. In addition to brevity, I’m also drawn to fiction that is odd, introspective, and, might as well admit it, a tad dark at times.

So be warned, if you want to invest in characters for 800 pagers or more and need a happy ending, the titles I’m about to recommend are probably not for you. If you don’t mind visiting the dark side now and again, however, here are three collections that are well worth your limited reading time. I will be brief. Promise.

…and Other Disasters by Malka Older is a surprisingly unified work for a collection of stories, a poem or two and a few written fragments. All are brought together by their subject: a speculative future that seems both plausible and frightening. You will learn about a child implanted with a recording device, a Lifebrarian, from birth, receive advice from voting ‘counselors’ who scientifically measure who you should vote for and why, and get inside the head of an artificial intelligence that is taught to feel in order to make better decisions. While the ideas are big, all the stories are told from an individual and personal perspective. This makes them all the more affecting, and chilling.

Quirky, at times surreal and always a bit odd, the stories making up Raised in Captivity: Fictional Nonfiction by Chuck Klosterman are many things, but never dull. How odd you ask? Well there is the story of a man who finds a puma in an airplane lavatory, a couple considering a medical procedure that transfers the pain of childbirth to the man, and a high school football team that only executes one play repeatedly every game. All the stories are told in a plain and matter of fact style, with the characters accepting the weirdness as perfectly natural. If you give this unique collection a try, you might come to accept the altered reality as well and will definitely have a good chuckle or two in the bargain.

The darkest of the three titles, Rag: Stories by Maryse Meijer is a powerful, intimate and deeply unsettling collection. The writing is sparse and direct, but the author has an uncanny ability to convey her characters’ inner thoughts and struggles. Whether you want to be in that headspace is another matter. I won’t give away any of the plots, but each story deals with ideas of gender, violence and the roles we are assigned and what we do with them. While there are elements of horror, or perhaps dark fairy tales, in these stories, they come off as all too real. This adds to their impact and is a credit to Meijer’s unique and affecting style. This is an unforgettable collection, just remember: you have been warned.

 

Tayari Jones coming to Everett

This weekend, there is an outstanding library sponsored event that we here at A Reading Life had to let you know about. This Saturday, February 15th, Tayari Jones will be at the Everett Performing Arts Center starting at 7 pm to talk about her award wining novel, An American Marriage.

This novel is a moving portrayal of the effects of a wrongful conviction on a young couple. Newlyweds Celestial and Roy are standing on the threshold of the American dream when Roy is arrested and imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit, and their lives implode.

In addition to a great plot, An American Marriage has received much praise and many accolades. It was named a notable book by The New York Times and The Washington Post and was awarded the Women’s Prize for Fiction, the Aspen Words Prize, and an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work in Fiction. It has been published in over 20 countries, with more than 700,000 copies in print domestically. It was selected as a 2018 Oprah  Book Club pick, a summer reading list pick by Barack Obama, and one Bill Gates’ top five books of 2019.

So join us this weekend for an excellent and thought provoking program. No registration is required and copies of the book will be available for sale and signing following the presentation.

Gonna Wait ‘Til the Midnight Hour

Anne Rice’s The Witching Hour begins with a doctor visiting a beauty of a Victorian house in the Garden District of New Orleans. Two elderly sisters have asked a doctor to see to their youngest sister who has been in a catatonic state for years. The doctor often sees a man standing on the porch with the catatonic woman and when the doctor asks who the man is, both sisters deny the existence of a man visiting with their sibling.

The doctor doesn’t think much of their denial. It is, after all, New Orleans where wealthy people don’t even try to act like every day normal humans. But the doctor knows he saw the man being tenderly attentive to the woman locked within herself. When the man attacks the doctor, the physician believes he’s lost his own mind. Because the man wasn’t there when he attacked the doctor. There was no physical form to the doctor’s attacker. Shaken and having escaped the house, he realizes the only explanation that makes sense is that he was attacked by a spirit.

The Mayfair’s are an old money family with a not so secret history of being called a family of witches. Rowan Mayfair has been kept from the New Orleans Mayfairs and was raised by another family member in San Francisco with the knowledge of who her birth mother is: the woman languishing on the porch of the grand painted Lady house in New Orleans. Rowan is a brilliant neurosurgeon with an odd talent of being able to heal a sick patient along with the power to destroy a life. Her mother’s death in New Orleans sends her back to her birthplace where she begins to learn about the family she’s been estranged from for her entire life.

Michael Curry was born in New Orleans but left for San Francisco many years before to become a popular architect whose talent is restoring old Victorian homes. Michael dreams of the houses of his childhood in New Orleans and longs to return. One day Michael drowns in San Francisco bay only to be brought back to life by Rowan who found him while sailing. A side effect of coming back from the dead is Michael’s clairvoyance, a very unwanted new skill. He can touch any object and see its past. Rowan and Michael fall in love (as two people usually do when brought back from death) and Michael travels to New Orleans with Rowan.

Aaron Lightner is a scholar with a shadow group known as the Talamasca who study strange happenings. He has followed the Mayfair family for centuries and calls them “the Mayfair witches.” He has also seen the ghostly man on the porch and knows what it is – not human and not exactly a ghost – and that it means danger to those outside the family. The not human man has a plan for Rowan, and nothing can stop it from getting what it wants.

This hugely sprawling novel spans centuries of the Mayfair witches along with the guardian man who attaches itself to the stronger females in the family. Will Rowan be the family member to break the thing’s hold or will she too become seduced by it and its ancient history?

Ah, now I remember why I never posted about this book. I can’t fit all the details in from this 976 page saga of a family of witches and the being who is passed down to them like hand me down jeans. The Witching Hour may be ridiculously long, but it doesn’t read as a long novel. It doesn’t feel like you’re slogging through a dense forest of words. Instead, The Witching Hour plays out like a rich theatrical release and the credits roll before you’re ready for them.

If you get into Anne Rice’s The Witching Hour and want more, don’t worry. She has written a series of books featuring the Mayfair Witches and at one point the books have a crossover between the Mayfairs and the vampires from Rice’s Vampire Chronicles. So enjoy, take frequent breaks, make yourself a snack and keep reading as the Mayfair world unfolds like some kind of night blooming flower.