Book Reviews

And We Stay: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

And We Stay by Jenny HubbardNo one expected senior Paul Wagoner would walk into his high school with a gun. No one thinks he planned to kill himself and never walk out. Not even his girlfriend, Emily Beam, expected to be threatened by Paul as he confronted her in their high school library.

But all of those things did happen.

Paul is gone and with him pieces of Emily are gone too. Even before his suicide, Emily knew she would never be the same. She just didn’t know it would hurt this much.

Vacillating between guilt and anger, Emily Beam is sent to an all girls boarding school in Amherst, Massachusetts. Surrounded by history from Emily Dickinson’s life, Emily delves into poetry and her new life hoping to escape.

She has help along the way from her habitual liar roommate K. T. and a girl who likes to steal almost as much as she likes to paint. But it is only Emily herself who can forgive and leave her past behind in And We Stay (2014) by Jenny Hubbard.

And We Stay is Hubbard’s second novel. It was also a Printz honor title in 2015. The story is set in 1995 for reasons that are never entirely clear. Despite the obvious setting (all of Emily’s poems are dated) the novel is largely timeless.

And We Stay is a very short, very fast read. In spite of that, Hubbard’s prose is imbued with substance as this slim novel tackles weighty topics ranging from feminism to processing loss and grief.

Written in the third person, present tense this story is often very distancing. Emily Beam is at a remove from readers, however it’s easy to think she prefers it that way. Flashbacks to Emily’s relationship with Paul, the shooting, and other key moments are interspersed throughout the main narrative of Emily’s first two months at the boarding school.

Each chapter ends with one of Emily’s poems which also further develop the story. Emily Dickinson also features heavily as a character of sorts–her poems are used throughout the story and a somewhat improbable plot thread at the end of the novel revolves around Dickinson’s family home in Amherst.

It’s rare to find books that focus so heavily and so well on girls. And We Stay is one of those books. Emily Beam is a prickly, sad, and surprisingly real heroine. Her observations throughout the story are caustic and insightful in a way heroines rarely get to be in most novels. Hubbard’s portrayal of Emily’s relationships with her new friends and her French teacher are beautifully handled and shockingly real.

Although the pacing was slow and a little strange (with a jarring plot thread late in the story), somehow it all works. The plot develops organically and the included poetry feels seamless. And We Stay is a lovely, thoughtful blend of poetry, feminism and fiction about a girl finding her voice.

Possible Pairings: The Vanishing Season by Jodi Lynn Anderson, Hate List by Jennifer Brown, Undercover by Beth Kephart, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart, Falling Through Darkness by Carolyn MacCullough, Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough, Even in Paradise by Chelsey Philpot, Gabi, A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero, Mostly Good Girls by Leila Sales,  Death, Dickinson, and the Demented Life of Frenchie Garcia by Jenny Torres Sanchez, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez, The Beautiful Between by Alyssa B. Sheinmel, Give a Boy a Gun by Todd Strasser, Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein, Some Things That Stay by Sarah Willis

Book Reviews

The Impossible Knife of Memory: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse AndersonHayley and her father Andy have been on the road for the past five years. Sometimes riding in Andy’s rig. Sometimes laying low while Andy tries to hold down a job and Hayley does her version of homeschooling. But then everything stopped and Hayley has been moved back into a life she doesn’t want in a childhood home she refuses to remember.

Being home gives Hayley a chance at a normal life with friends and maybe even a boyfriend. Unfortunately the more the Hayley lets down her guard and allows herself to imagine a future, instead of living day-to-day, the more obvious it is that Andy is still haunted by memories of all the demons and friends he left behind after his last tour over seas. With monstrous memories looming for both of them, Hayley begins to wonder if having a normal life is something she and her father are even capable of in The Impossible Knife of Memory (2014) by Laurie Halse Anderson.

Hayley is an unreliable who lies both to the reader and herself as pieces of her past unfold in memories that cut like knives and unwanted visitors from her past. Slowly, with flashback-like memories from both Hayley and her father, the story of how they returned home unfolds. At the same time, Anderson manages to ground this book in the present with a fledgling romance and a grocery list of other problems that, in the hands of a less skilled writer, would feel trite as the perfect facades of Hayley’s friends also fall apart.

The Impossible Knife of Memory is an interesting book. But it’s also an incredibly difficult read at times. My mother was very sick last year and it took a toll on both of us–so much so that, as I read this book, I saw much more of myself in Hayley than I would have liked. That said, Anderson’s writing is excellent and returns here to the quality found in Speak with the same surprises and another fresh, surprising narrator. Although Andy is deeply troubled it was also nice to see a parental figure in a book with genuine affection for his daughter and interest in her well-being–even if it is mostly mired in the hardships that come with dealing with his own psychological traumas.

On the outset The Impossible Knife of Memory sounds like an issue book with its focus on Hayley’s father’s PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). Anderson, however, brings her usual skill to this topic offering a well-rounded story that encompasses more than this one timely topic. I probably won’t re-read this book because of the personal slant that made it hard to read. I am actually painfully certain I don’t even want a copy in the house. That said, The Impossible Knife of Memory is an important book that is never heavy-handed or obnoxious. Instead Anderson offers an honest, unflinching portrayal of one family’s difficulties with PTSD as well as the promise of not just a way through but also even a chance at a happy ending.

Possible Pairings: I Remember You by Cathleen Davitt Bell, All Fall Down by Ally Carter, If I Stay by Gayle Forman, The Midnight Dress by Karen Foxlee, Paper Towns by John Green, The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl by Barry Lyga, Damaged by Amy Reed, The Beginning of Everything by Robyn Schneider, Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut