A Room Away From the Wolves: A (WIRoB) Review

This piece originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books:
cover art for A Room Away from the Wolves by Nova Ren Suma
Sabina “Bina” Tremper is used to being known as a liar and a thief. The real surprise comes when Bina’s mother, Dawn, sides with Bina’s stepsisters and refuses to even consider that. this time, Bina might be telling the truth.

Hoping to defuse the situation, Dawn plans for Bina to temporarily move out. She hopes if Bina stays with her stepfather’s church friends, the girls will have time to reconcile.

But Bina has other plans. She instead decides to go to New York City.

New York City has always been a dream for Bina — a dream she used to share with her mother before Dawn abandoned it for safety and stability in the suburbs with Bina’s churchgoing stepfather.

It feels a little like destiny when Bina calls Catherine House and finds out they have a room available right when she needs it. Catherine House is “a boardinghouse for young women, first opened in 1919 after a personal tragedy,” when an incident took Catherine de Barra’s life. The house was also the site of many of her mother’s cherished stories from a summer spent in New York City before she returned to the abusive boyfriend she would marry soon after Bina was born.

Bina is certain that going to the city is the answer and her chance for a new start. “With an old suitcase and a fresh black eye,” Bina follows in her mother’s footsteps, hitchhiking to Manhattan and making her way to Catherine House at the intersection of Waverly Place and, yes, Waverly Place.

Inside the house, Bina is expected to follow rules that are “binary and boring and lifted from another time,” including a strict curfew and keeping the upper floors of the house as a “no-male zone at all times.”

The last of the rules is a vow asking boarders to promise they will not speak to “reporters, authors, historians, or anyone else, excluding female blood relations in the first and second degree (mothers and daughters, grandmothers and granddaughters) about the goings-on inside the house, nor the founder, though deceased, while in residence or afterward, effective up to 99 years.”

The stipulation doesn’t bother Bina. She’s more than willing to follow the rules and sign the vow, so long as it means she will finally have a room to call her own in the city in A Room Away From the Wolves (2018) by Nova Ren Suma.

Find it on Bookshop.

The glamor and camaraderie from her mother’s stories about Catherine House never materialize for Bina. The closest thing she has to a friend is Monet Mathis, her downstairs neighbor and, according to Bina, “the first person on this patch of crowded earth who knew who I was and not who I tried to be.”

Monet could be Bina’s greatest threat in the house, her closest friend, or maybe even something more. Unlike everyone else in her life, Bina is able to meet Monet as equals — liars and thieves and girls who are only able to take off their masks with each other.

Tangled up in her fascination with Monet and the girl’s lavish lies about her past, Bina begins to suspect she’s also unearthing secrets about the house — something to do with the summer her mother spent there all those years ago, a ring that should be lost but suddenly isn’t, and a photograph of the house’s founder, Catherine de Barra, that seems to move with a purpose Bina can’t quite grasp.

A Room Away From the Wolves is an exploration of unfulfilled potential, female friendship, and second chances as much as it is an ode to New York City and all of the things that make it “sinister and strange and perfect.”

Deliberate, tense plotting combined with an unreliable narrator and looping prose obscure as much as they reveal both about Bina and the boardinghouse. This novel is part mystery, part ghost story, and intensely focused on growing up and what that means for a girl who already has a reputation for all of the wrong reasons.

Readers familiar with Suma’s earlier novel The Walls Around Us will recognize similar themes as Bina is forced to strip away her reputation and her bravado until she is left with only the truth about herself and her place in the house.

A Room Away From the Wolves is a timely book about a flawed girl who learns that she is allowed to be broken, so long as she can also keep trying and continue chasing that best version of herself.

Possible Pairings: The Careful Undressing of Love by Corey Ann Haydu, We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, Tigers, Not Daughters by Samantha Mabry, The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan, You Are the Everything by Karen Rivers, The Deceivers by Kristen Simmons, Wild Swans by Jessica Spotswood, Suicide Notes from Beautiful Girls by Lynn Weingarten

The Walls Around Us: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“We were alive. I remember it that way. We were still alive, and we couldn’t make heads or tails of the darkness, so we couldn’t see how close we were to the end.”

The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren SumaAmber is an inmate at the Aurora Hills juvenile detention center. She might have been innocent once but that’s a hard quality to hold onto on the inside. Like most of the girls at Aurora Hills, Amber is obsessed with the regrets inherent in choosing one path over the other; with the moment everything goes wrong.

Violet, on the other hand, is at the start of a promising ballet career on the outside. Violet has never had much use for co-dependence when her own success and future are at stake. She has a singular focus on the future, on what comes next, on endings.

Then there’s Orianna. Her story is inextricably linked to both Amber’s and Violet’s, but it’s only in the gaps and overlaps in both of their stories that anyone can begin to understand Ori’s.

These three girls had lives and dreams and futures on the outside. They have secrets they keep close inside the walls of Aurora Hills and in their own hearts. At some point three girls arrive at Aurora Hills. But only time will tell if all of them get to walk away in The Walls Around Us (2015) by Nova Ren Suma.

Every aspect of The Walls Around Us comes together to deliver a story about contrasts in one form or another, something that often comes across in terms of themes like guilt vs. innocence and perception vs. reality. Even the title of the book and the vines on the cover hint at the dichotomy between what is “inside” and “outside” for these characters whose lives are all defined in some way by arriving at the Aurora Hills juvenile detention center as well as by the secrets that they hold close.

Subtle characterization and Suma’s deliberate writing serve to bring the two narrators, Amber and Violet, to life.

Amber’s narration is filled with short sentences and staccato declarations. She has spent so long defining herself as part of the whole at Aurora Hills that for much of her narration she describes herself as part of a collective “we”; part of a group comprised of her fellow inmates even when she is usually on the periphery as an observer. Everything about Amber’s narration focuses on beginnings and the past. Her chapter titles are always taken from the first words of her chapters. She has an intense and pathological fear of choosing the unknown and having to start again–a motif that is brought to disastrous fruition by the end of the novel.

Violent, despite being on the outside, is a harder character with sharper edges. Her narrative is filled with racing thoughts and run-on sentences. Her chapters are all titled for the final words in her chapters. Throughout the novel she returns, again and again, to what her future will hold. Until the end of the novel when her ever-forward momentum is cut abruptly and permanently short.

Although she is not a narrator and is most often seen in flashbacks or memories, Orianna is the third pivotal character in the novel. Everything Violet and Amber do within the arc of the book is informed by their relationships to Orianna. If Amber is meant to signify the past in The Walls Around Us and Violet is meant to exemplify the future, it’s safe to argue that Orianna is firmly grounded in the present with all of the opportunity and promise that position implies.

Suma’s lush writing moves readers between the past and the present as the story shifts fluidly between Amber and Violet’s memories of what brought them to Aurora Hills and what comes after in this novel that explores the cost of freedom and the power of hope.

The Walls Around Us received 5 starred reviews and much critical acclaim. It is a masterful blend of literary writing, magic realism and a decidedly eerie ghost story. With a layered and thoughtful plot, vivid prose, and skillfully explore themes and characters, The Walls Around Us is not to be missed. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Tumbling by Caela Carter, Tiny Pretty Things by Dhonielle Clayton and Sona Charaipotra, Leverage by Joshua C. Cohen, With Malice by Eileen Cook, The Graces by Laure Eve, Bunheads by Sophie Flack, The Careful Undressing of Love by Corey Ann Haydu, Don’t You Trust Me? by Patrice Kindl, We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, All the Wind in the World by Samantha Mabry, The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan, Wild Swans by Jessica Spotswood, We Are the Wildcats by Siobhan Vivian, Suicide Notes from Beautiful Girls by Lynn Weingarten

17 and Gone: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“The snow came down and the bristly trees shuddered in the wind, sharing secrets, and no one stopped to listen. Until I did.”

17 and Gone by Nova Ren SumaWhen seventeen-year-old Lauren first sees the Missing flyer for Abigail Sinclair, she knows it was left for her. Against all odds, Lauren is certain that she was meant to find this poster, to find out Abigail’s story, maybe even to find her.

As Lauren digs into Abigail’s disappearance she finds out that the missing girl preferred to be called Abby. She hated the summer camp where she was working. And she definitely didn’t just run away.

The problem is no one else seems to care. The more Lauren investigates, the more missing girls she finds. All of them seventeen. All of them gone without a trace. Abby went missing in the summer. But it’s winter now. Any girl could be next. Maybe even Lauren herself.

While trying to find Abby, Lauren will have to face secrets from her past and confront several uncomfortable truths in 17 & Gone (2014) by Nova Ren Suma.

17 & Gone is a chilling blend of suspense and what may or may not be ghosts. As Lauren grapples with the missing girls that are haunting her she also comes to realize that her mind may not be as reliable as she thought. Suma deftly unravels the stories of the missing girls and also examines Lauren’s mental state from a variety of angles.

Eloquent prose and a gripping story come together here in a story that is as literary as it is unexpected. Recommended for readers who like their mysteries to be open-ended and their heroines to be clever and determined.

Possible Pairings: Find Me by Romily Bernard, All Fall Down by Ally Carter, The Night She Disappeared by April Henry, Damaged by Amy Reed, Missing Abby by Lee Weatherly, Wherever Nina Lies by Lynn Weingarten, Cathy’s Book: If Found Call 650-266-8233 by Jordan Weisman and Sean Stewart

Synchronized Reading Roundup: Imaginary Girls by Nova Ren Suma

Synchronized Readings are a semi-regular feature The Book Bandit and I will be running together every few months.

This month Nicole and I read Imaginary Girls by Nova Ren Suma.

Here’s a rundown of all the posts I wrote up for the Synchronized Reading:

You can also head over to Nicole’s blog to see her posts:

I’m also giving away a copy of Imaginary Girls. Details here!

 

Imaginary Girls Synchronized Reading Post #1: Local Legends

Synchronized Readings are a semi-regular feature The Book Bandit and I will be running together every few months.

Our current Synchronized Reading is Imaginary Girls by Nova Ren Suma.

Since the mythical town of Olive plays such a big role in Imaginary Girls, we decided a fun post for this Synchronized Reading would be one on local legends.

Now, you would think I would have a lot since New York City is filled with cool and historically significant places.

What I do have instead of a pile of urban legends, are building that I am constantly drawn to.

One of them is my local library: Jefferson Market. This branch is where my library career started when I was in high school. It’s where I got my first library card. It’s where I spent many a summer day picking up books for me and (mystery) books for my mom.

I also have some fun facts about this building including that, contrary to popular belief, the building was never a church. Instead it was a courthouse where Mae West infamously appeared during the “lady on the swing” court case. The garden next to the library used to be a women’s house of detention as featured in David Duchovny’s film “House of D.”

There aren’t a lot of rumors about the library being haunted. But with that kind of energy, you do wonder. In a fit of peer induced hysteria myself and two fellow pages managed to convince ourselves that we saw a ghost or some kind of unnatural presences in the reference room in the basement. Now, years later, I’m comfortable saying that probably wasn’t true. But I also still don’t like being in the references room. So you can draw your own conclusions.

The other building that I refer more than any other is the Flatiron Building. It is my mom’s favorite building (possibly mine as well although I also quite like the Chrysler Building). It is probably the building I photograph most when I am wandering the city.

The building has a unique shape (reminiscent of an old-time flatiron) thanks in part to the nature of real estate in New York City. It was one of the city’s first skyscrapers and even created a wind tunnel when it was first built.

As far as I know there aren’t any ghosts in residences but with so many occupants coming and going, who can really say?

Speaking of spooky stories in libraries, I recently learned that my new place of employ, Brooklyn’s Central Library, has a local legend of its own. (True story, this was the second thing I learned on my first day at the new job. It’s that important!)

Let me direct you now to the story of Agatha Cunningham who disappeared on her school’s trip to the library in 1977: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CSO946WWjSY

You may be thinking, surely this can’t be real. And, being the age of the Internet, you might find articles online debunking this story. Then again, you might also find people disputing the reality of the tree octopus and saying that they and Agatah are not real.

I’ll leave you all to draw your own conclusions (as long as that conclusion is that Brooklyn Public Library did not in fact lose a child in the lower decks and instead helped some very talented teens make a documentary about it).

Imaginary Girls: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“It sounded impossible, something no one would believe if anyone other than Ruby were the one to tell it. But Ruby was right: The body found that night wouldn’t be, couldn’t be mine.”

Imaginary Girls by Nova Ren SumaChloe’s older sister, Ruby, has said a lot of things over the years. She’s said that Chloe would never drown. She said she was there when Chloe first opened her eyes. Sometimes she would say that Chloe was her baby when Ruby herself was only five years old.

Everyone always believes Ruby. Believing her is easy.

Loving her is easy.

Anything Ruby wants, she can get. Until one night a party by the local reservoir goes horribly wrong and a dead girl is found floating in the water. The body of London Hayes does the unthinkable driving Ruby and Chloe apart when Chloe leaves.

Returning two years after that horrible night, Chloe finds that nothing is how it used to be in town anymore. Nothing, in fact, is quite right. Soon secrets, and even some lies, stack up between Chloe and Ruby that threaten to tear them apart. But bonds like theirs–like sisters who love each other better than anyone else–are not easily broken in Imaginary Girls (2011) by Nova Ren Suma.

Imaginary Girls is an eerie blend of suspense and magic realism. Suma’s prose is taut and filled with tension as narrator Chloe works to unravel the lies and secrets surrounding her larger than life big sister. Suma also weaves elements of a local legend into the story as Ruby (and by extension Chloe) become fascinated by the town of Olive–a town supposedly buried underwater when the area was flooded to create a new reservoir.

Filled with subtle writing that is equal parts vivid and razor sharp, Imaginary Girls is a surprising mystery that will keep readers guessing. There is a constant struggle here as Chloe works to determine what is real and what is something else. By creating a character like Ruby with so much power and charm throughout the novel, Suma offers a powerful commentary on the limits of both belief and persuasion in this story.

Imaginary Girls is a sophisticated book, a slow burn of a read that will linger. It’s impossible to say what, exactly, happens over the course of the novel. The entire plot lends itself to multiple interpretations and discussions. What is certain is that Imaginary Girls is filled with wit, humor and love. As much as this story can be a mystery or a thriller, what remains at the end of the novel is an ode to the enduring strength of sisterly love.

Possible Pairings: The Moon and More by Sarah Dessen, The Devil You Know by Trish Doller, The Lost by Sarah Beth Durst, Charlie, Presumed Dead by Anna Heltzel, Golden by Jessi Kirby, Tragedy Paper by Elizabeth LaBan, We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, Amelia Anne is Dead and Gone by Kat Rosenfield, The Hundred Lies of Lizzie Lovett by Chelsea Sedoti, Wherever Nina Lies by Lynn Weingarten, The Space Between Trees by Katie Williams, Paper Valentine by Brenna Yovanoff

You can also read my exclusive interview with Nova about this book.

Author Interview: Nova Ren Suma on Imaginary Girls

Nova Ren Suma author photoNova Ren Suma is here today to talk about her novel Imaginary Girls. This year also marks the three year anniversary of the book being published. To celebrate, in addition to our nifty interview, Nova is running a blog series with guest posts from authors about the “book of their heart” so be sure to check that out. (You may also want to enter to win a copy of Imaginary Girls! Just saying.)

Miss Print (MP): Can you tell us a bit about your path as a writer? How did you get to this point?

Nova Ren Suma (NRS): It’s a long and convoluted story about how I came to be a published YA author—because writing YA wasn’t my original intention, and I started off writing novels for adults. During those years I worked a series of day jobs in book publishing in New York City—I was a production editor, the in-house person who handles the copyediting of the books. It was at one of these day jobs that I started reading YA novels that blew my mind. Novels by Laura Kasischke. Laura Ruby. Rita Williams-Garcia. Bennett Madison. I realized what was possible in YA, and I wanted to be a part of it. I took a short story I’d written and shifted and reshaped and expanded it, and it became Imaginary Girls. That’s one part of the story, but I’ll leave it at that.

MP: What was the inspiration for Imaginary Girls?

NRS: Place and a person. Most of my novels start out that way. The place is my hometown and the reservoir where I used to sneak swims with friends when I was a teenager. And the person is my little sister, Laurel Rose. I wanted to write about the bond between an older sister and her baby sister, and throw in some magical thinking to see what happens…

MP: Obviously, Imaginary Girls is a story about sisters among other things. You have written on your website about this book being written largely for your sister and also interviewed your sister about the book. When you started Imaginary Girls did you always know this story would center around two sisters?

NRS: Oh yes—that’s the heart of the book. Imaginary Girls first started off as a short story about two sisters, Ruby and Chloe. They were always there, from the beginning. My little sister was born when I was nine and a half years old, and I delighted in helping take care of her, so it felt like she was mine. I guess this makes me the Ruby of the story, but actually Chloe is more like me and my sister is a lot more like Ruby—beautiful and magnetic. We both see ourselves in the book in different ways, and I would never have written it if not for my sister.

MP: Although ultimately fictional, the town Ruby and Chloe call home is based on a real one. Did any actual locations make it into this novel? What was it like writing about a real place where you spent some of your formative years?

NRS: The town in Imaginary Girls is taken and distorted from the Woodstock area in the Hudson Valley of New York, which is where I lived during high school. The reservoir is the Ashokan Reservoir, which was a short walk across the highway and through the woods from one of the houses where I lived back then. The Town Green, in the center of Woodstock, where I wasted many hours waiting for something interesting to happen on weekend nights is there in the book. The rec field and the artists’ cemetery are both there. The Youth Center, where I hung out with my friends, is there. Cumby’s, the convenience store at the edge of town, is there. Sweet Sue’s in Phoenicia, where I’d get strawberry-banana pancakes on weekends is there… I can’t even remember all the places that ended up in the book. Yet at the same time, I shifted and distorted and played with the place. It’s totally real and yet entirely made-up.

I often take real things, places, and people and distort them for my novels. The weirdest—and yet coolest—thing is when people from my past recognize things, like a night we went skinny-dipping in the reservoir and ran from the cops. We’re immortalized in a way, even if the story took a magical turn none of us lived through.

MP: During the story Ruby (and sometimes even Chloe) manages to say something strongly enough to make it true. If you had the same power of conviction, what would you say into being?

NRS: If I had that kind of power, I would save those pronouncements for the people I love. There is someone I want to be healthy. I would speak those words for her. And there is someone I want to be recognized for his talent. I would make that happen for him and then I’d step back and applaud.

MP: Is there any character or scene in this story that you especially enjoyed writing? Is there any character or scene you were excited to introduce to readers?

NRS: I loved writing about Chloe swimming across the reservoir. In reality, I am too afraid to swim far, and I’m not such a good swimmer—I would never have attempted that, no matter who asked me. I also loved imagining what might be under that water, still breathing beneath her, after all these years. Those were the most exhilarating pieces to write.

MP: You describe your books as including elements of magic realism and have written about the subject of magical realism in YA on your website before. What is your favorite part of writing magic realism into your stories?

NRS: I like playing with the surreal, and twisting a bit of the fantastical into the everyday world. I guess I’ve always believed there could be more than what we see out there, even if we’ll never understand it or know for sure. It all feels perfectly realistic to me.

MP: Can you tell us anything about your next project?

NRS: My next book is a ghostly story of suspense called The Walls Around Us, set partly inside a girls’ juvenile detention center and partly in a ballet school, and told in two voices, one living and one dead. It’s coming out in Spring 2015 from Algonquin Young Readers.

MP: Do you have any advice to offer aspiring authors?

NRS: The first manuscript you write may not always be the one that gets published. Or the second, or others beyond that. As someone who wrote and tried to publish two novels before my first book deal and securing an agent, I will tell you that I was very close to giving up. I reached a moment when I thought it just wasn’t going to happen for me, that maybe publication wasn’t in my future. I thought I’d failed.

So I took some time to wallow—I’ll be honest here, wallowing was part of it—but after that, I realized I could never give up, and so I reinvented myself, and I tried again.

Successes are all the more delicious when you’ve struggled to get them. I’m glad, now, that it wasn’t too easy.

Thank you again to Nova for taking the time to answer these questions and happy 3 year anniversary to Imaginary Girls!

To find out more about Imaginary Girls you can read my review.

You can also visit Nova’s website for more information about her and her books or read her blog for more smart thoughts on writing from her and guest authors.

I’m also giving away a copy of Imaginary Girls. Details here!

Synchronized Reading: Imaginary Girls

Synchronized Reading is back! This time Nicole and I will be reading Imaginary Girls by Nova Ren Suma.

Be sure to check here this week and also check out Nicole’s blog to get the full reading picture! I’ll also be running an interview with Nova. And you might want to check her blog out since this week also marked the third anniversary of the publication of Imaginary Girls.

I can’t remember everyone on the panel, but I saw Nova talking about Imaginary Girls shortly after its release at Books of Wonder during one of the first book events I attended (with Nicole obvs) so it feels a bit like coming full circle to be talking about the book here.

As is tradition now I also had a manicure to match the cover:

imaginary girls nails

In summary: Nicole and I will be reading Imaginary Girls by Nova Ren Suma together. We will be blogging about it. It will be awesome. You, too, can read Imaginary Girls by Nova Ren Suma as it is now out in both hardcover and paperback.

I’m also giving away a copy of Imaginary Girls. Details here!