Nine Liars by Maureen Johnson

The fifth Stevie Bell novel, and the last to date, although I saw that Johnson is writing more.

Stevie’s back at Ellingham, with most of her friends: Janelle, Vi and Nate are there as well, hard at work on their college applications, while David is away at school in London. Stevie is struggling: she lacks focus except when hyperfocused on a case, and right now there’s no case. “[Hers] was a good brain, but it had only two modes–fog and frenzy.” She’s not functioning well at ‘just’ going to school; she pines for David, and she’s unmotivated. She can’t wrap her head around the college stuff at all. (I begin to think that there’s something diagnosable about Stevie, between her unfocused/hyperfocused poles and her difficulties with social cues, but that’s not my job and she’s fictional. That’s Johnson’s job.) To save the day, a drunken late night call from David sets up a trip for Stevie and her friends to visit London: ostensibly for a little study abroad but mainly, obviously, for the couple.

There’s a cold case – Stevie’s specialty. It involves nine friends who called themselves ‘the Nine’ when they were college students back in the 1990s, and they are obviously counterparts to Stevie and her crew in some respects. There is also Stevie’s evolving relationship with David, her troubles relating to other humans in general, her detective mastermindedness, and everyone’s anxiety about college applications.

I had some frustrations about this novel. I’m disappointed in Stevie, and in David, and frankly, in Johnson as well. [Mild spoilers follow.] In this installment, Stevie makes a big error in her friendship with – well, with all of them, but particularly with Janelle. It is in line and in theme with the title, and the themes of the case she’s working on (which she points out to us herself, in case we’d missed it): the friend group who’ve experienced the murders (two in an old cold case and one present-day missing) are guilty of lying, and so is Stevie. Her crime against Janelle feels so serious to me, and I’m dreading Janelle busting her because I know Stevie’s life is going to change so profoundly when that friendship takes the blow. And then it just fizzles out, like, oh, everything is fine. I feel that Stevie doesn’t suffer consequences appropriate to her misstep. I was dreading the consequence; but when she gets to skip it, I feel that the author has let us down. I feel it was out of character for Janelle to respond the way she did.

And then comes David’s big bonehead move at the end. I guess it’s not entirely out of character, nor out of character for dumb teenagers. But I feel the let-down pretty hard. This one is less about inconsistency, at least, and more about my frustration with the character himself. My bigger gripe here (especially after it’s been a few days) is about the cliffhanger she’s left us on! (I think it was book two that also ended on a big one. But I was already holding book three! And book six doesn’t even exist yet!)

If anything, my frustrations are because I feel so much love for this series, so all is not lost yet. But I am now anxious for the next book in more ways than one.

Rating: 6 and a half slices of doner kebab.

Juno Loves Legs by Karl Geary

In this bittersweet coming-of-age story, scrappy childhood friends from Dublin’s outskirts grow tenuously into young adults with only one another for support.

Juno Loves Legs is a sensitive, scarred coming-of-age story by Karl Geary (Montpelier Parade) set in a troubled housing estate and nearby Dublin in the 1980s. Amid poverty, a harsh and judgmental Catholicism, family dysfunction and personal torment, preteens Juno and Seán form an unlikely but sturdy friendship that will carry them through trauma and violence and–if they’re lucky–into a wider, freer life.

Juno’s harried mother takes in sewing alterations for the neighbors, who look down on her family’s poverty and cheat her out of her meager pay. Her father drinks his days away. “Mam shouted up at him; he shouted down at her. They were two mouths and I was their ear.” Her older sister is absent following her own particularly awful childhood. Catholic school is a trial for a girl as headstrong and underprivileged as Juno. “We were beaten. A sour-smelling odour emerged from Father before he was done. And even Sister’s hands were crimson.” Then she meets Seán, who is shockingly clean but whose home life is equally, if differently, disturbed. For his awkward height she dubs him Legs, and they form an alliance, until an extraordinary act of violence tears everything apart. Years later in Dublin, with new troubles, the young adult versions of these childhood friends attempt a beautiful, possibly doomed, second start.

Juno’s first-person voice is angry, indignant, righteous, both jaded and pitifully innocent: at 12 she sets out to save the family by calling in the small debts owed her mother by their neighbors, but in her temper botches the job. She blusters to hide her vulnerability, where Legs leaves his tender side open and allows the blows to land. Not only the world at large–strangers, predatory adults, a grimly punishing Catholic church, the big city–but their own families are hopelessly cruel to these misfit children: Juno for her poverty, Legs for his sexuality. (A kind librarian provides an appealing single point of light.) They are stronger together, and their bond is artless, crude and true. This is in part a story about the families we build for ourselves: an ode to friendship in which the friends may still not survive. Geary’s young protagonists will face shocking pains before the ending, which glimmers with a touch of hope.

Juno Loves Legs is tender and heartbreaking. Young friendship takes on all the world’s challenges–love, art, family, the simple and overwhelming task of survival–with tragic, poignant results. Readers will find Juno’s bravado and Legs’s persistent sweetness unforgettable.

This review originally ran in the March 23, 2023 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.

Rating: 7 small debts.

The Box in the Woods by Maureen Johnson

The Stevie Bell series continues, but we’ve left Ellingham behind, Stevie having solved the Truly Devious murders (although the world only knows a bit of that story). At this novel’s start, she’s puttering around at home with her parents, selling deli meats and cheeses at the grocery store and cleaning up the salad bar by night. Then she gets an invitation to really go to work: as far as her parents know, she’ll be a counselor at Camp Sunny Pines, but she’s really there to investigate the Box in the Woods murders of 1978, from back when this was Camp Wonder Falls. The tech-bro who’s hired her says he’ll employ her friends, too, which means Nate and Janelle, because David is enjoying his voter registration work in a different (and I’m pretty sure unnamed) part of the country. Stevie’s a bit disappointed, but she respects his mission.

Camp Sunny Pines is an amusing setting. Massachusetts is warm and muggy in the summertime, and Stevie is more cerebral than outdoorsy. She buys into the idea of rugged go-everywhere detectiveship in theory, but she quickly runs out of signature black t-shirts because she has to change them so often – these are sweaty environs, and she’s also doing far more running and biking than she’d like. It’s kind of fun to see her challenged in these ways. Her tech-bro boss does not have a good bedside manner for engaging with the community; Stevie is better at this, but less adept with her personal relationships, and one in particular: David (now her actual boyfriend) finds a reason to come out after all, but Stevie’s responsibilities and preoccupation with the case mean she doesn’t engage all that well with him. He does some driving her around, and tries to have an important conversation, but she’s too checked out. In contrast to what I said about the last few books, I felt sorry for David, who tries to be a good boyfriend and friend, while Stevie’s a bit awkward and inattentive.

I remain baffled by her friendships: Janelle, the purported best friend, is totally rad but much less a day-to-day ride-or-die joined-at-the-hip BFF than Nate, who I feel doesn’t get enough credit.

One of the things that made Nate and Stevie such good friends was their mutual hatred of sharing emotional things. Somehow, they managed to have a deeper bond by staying on the surface–as if they were snorkeling their feelings, floating along side by side, observing all of nature’s wonders without getting close enough to be stung by something under a rock.

That Janelle gets the best friend label is a feature of Johnson’s writing that just confuses me.

But I still love Stevie herself, even in her bumbling. There was, again, a passage that I hold onto as emblematic of her loveable personality. She’s preparing to meet David, and considers fixing herself up a bit, and then just kind of gives up – I love this facet of her, that she’s aware she’s not quite meeting an external social measure of so-called beauty but can’t bring herself to entirely care. (And David doesn’t. It’s fine.) I relate to this entirely.

The mystery is compelling, and I appreciate the final scene, even if the solution is a bit awkward too… I’m really here for Stevie’s clever mind, her interactions with other humans (for better and for worse), and her dear strangeness. I enjoy Johnson’s use of the classic feature wherein the detective just talks it out with her friends and acquaintances, and lets her mind drop things into place. I’m definitely excited about book five.

Rating: 7 crafts.

The Hand on the Wall by Maureen Johnson

On a day that I claimed to be overwhelmed with the student papers I had to grade, I also managed to wake up and immediately begin this book… and then stay up til midnight finishing its nearly 400 pages in the same day. I loved Truly Devious and was even more entranced by The Vanishing Stair, which annoyed me with a cliffhanger the night before and sent me directly into this one, book three. My main goal today is not to read a whole book by accident when I’m supposed to be working.

The Hand on the Wall is book three of three in the Truly Devious series – but the Stevie Bell series continues for two more books, a bit confusingly. The Truly Devious murders themselves (aka the crime of the century, the murder/kidnapping at Ellingham Academy in the 1930s) are wrapped up in this book, but newly minted detective hero Stevie apparently continues on. (I haven’t read book four yet! I’m staying strong.) This installment sees the advancing of Stevie’s investigations and her modest decline in terms of personal hygiene and nutrition; the beginning of real fears for her personal safety and/or that Ellingham may indeed be cursed; the continuing friendship and alliance with Security Larry (this is a relationship I have really enjoyed in two books now); and the bumpy evolution of Stevie’s match with the troubled David. I said in my last review that getting to know him a bit better would yield more sympathies, and we do get that here. I still find him a bit obnoxious and don’t appreciate his treatment of Stevie, but they’re making progress.

Stevie grows in her relationships with others. A bit weirdly, the amazing Janelle continues to be identified as Stevie’s best friend, but our hero actually spends more time talking with and confides more in Nate, a hilariously Eeyore-like blocked writer. Janelle is a great friend, but involved in her own love match (that’s going more smoothly than Stevie’s), and it’s actually Nate who ends up fulfilling a day-to-day best-friends role. We have a new friend as well, Mudge, who is loveable if a bit of a cariaciture: he’s here to exhibit exactly how drolly eccentric Ellingham students can be.

Mudge was Stevie Bell’s lab partner–a six-foot-something death-metalhead who wore purple-colored contacts with snake pupils and a black hoodie weighed down with fifty Disney pins, including some very rare ones that he would show off and explain to Stevie as they dissected cows’ eyes and other terrible things for the purposes of education. Mudge loved Disney more than anyone Stevie had ever met and had dreams of being an animatronic Imagineer. Ellingham Academy was the kind of place where Mudges were welcomed and understood.

Security Larry, mentioned above, is a former police detective and becomes a mentor to Stevie in her own work, both cautioning and trying to enforce the rules upon her and gradually, increasingly, viewing her as a peer. He’s great. Several other faculty members develop as well. I very much related to poor Dr. Quinn trying to convince her students to do the readings before class.

I love Stevie more and more. She “would rather eat bees than share her tender inner being with anyone else–she didn’t even want to share it with herself.” She undergoes an actual epiphany (pages 108-109) when she realizes that her weird, awkward self is just a perfectly fine version of a human, and that her own unique combination of qualities is precisely what’s gotten her where she is in life; this is a passage I would like to share with everyone I know, but especially young people and especially girls just making their way and finding themselves. I would follow this protagonist anywhere.

As befits the final book in a trilogy, this one ends on a note of triumph, closure, and hope – perhaps a bit neatly tied up, in fact, but I know there’s another Stevie Bell book to follow. Again, for the sake of my sleep I’m taking a day or two off, but expect more any time now. Maureen Johnson is my new favorite. Thanks again, Liz.

Rating: 9 moose.

The Vanishing Stair by Maureen Johnson

Book two of the Truly Devious series flew by. I stayed up late to finish this one and it ended on a serious cliffhanger, so look for my review of book three to follow this one immediately.

At the close of Truly Devious (for which there are mild-to-moderate spoilers here), The Vanishing Stair opens with Stevie glumly returned home to her parents’ house and her public high school. The gamechanger comes quickly in the form of the despicable Senator Edward King, her parents’ hero and employer and (surprise) the father of her love interest from Ellingham Academy. King has arranged everything for Stevie to return to Ellingham – funding the trip, heightening security following a student’s mysterious death, and convincing her parents of her safety. He wants Stevie, in return, to keep an eye on his wayward son David, with whom Stevie’s not on particularly good terms anyway. She’s thrilled to be back at the school where she feels stimulated: with her friends Nate and Janelle again, working on her life’s greatest passion, the solving of the 1930s Ellingham murders, and yea, David. Quickly a second body is added to the modern Ellingham count. Stevie gains a new advisor, an eccentric academic from the local (Burlington, Vermont) university with a drinking problem and a very nice nephew. David’s moods and attitude toward Stevie continue to swing wildly, hot to cold to nuclear.

The best thing about these books is Stevie herself. She’s socially awkward but mostly doesn’t care; she’s occasionally bothered by her inability to fit in back in the ‘normal’ world (of which Ellingham is not part), but only when she remembers. Despite sometimes showing signs of a standard teenager’s low self-esteem, she generally carries on as herself, unbothered. I like her. She’s an extremely focused detective – perhaps to the point of mild self-neglect, but that’s part of a long tradition of detective types in fiction (a fact she’s aware of). Johnson’s prose is downright funny: after camping out overnight in the school’s yoga studio, Stevie “felt a waffle pattern of yoga blanket on the right side of her face and the faint smell of lavender and patchouli permeating her being. It was like she had been run over by a boulder made of hippies.” Our young hero can be a little bumbling and dense – just like a teenager, no matter how smart. I have a little less patience for David’s antics, perhaps in part because he’s a rich boy? but mostly, I think, because we don’t have the close third person window into his interior self that we have into Stevie’s. He’s a suffering kid, too, and I think if we got inside his head it would be just as sympathetic as hers.

The mystery plot remains compelling: this book focuses in on the riddle that Albert Ellingham left behind on his final day, which the title of this book nods to. We’re learning things, about the historic murders as well as the modern suspicious deaths, but not the big final thing we want to know. Again: this one ends on a mad cliffhanger; I was actually a little peeved, and even more relieved that I already had book three ready and waiting. I recommend you do the same.

Liz was (as ever) 100% correct about this one. I’m pretty sure she said she ripped through the whole series, as I am clearly going to do as well.

These books are recognizably YA in a few ways: teenaged protagonists, a gentle handling of gore, violence, and sexual content, and humor. But the plotting is not too simplified for adult readers to enjoy, and a strong female lead who is still in her teens appeals to this reader at any age. I’m a fan.

Rating: 8 cats.

Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson

Yet another gem from Liz, Truly Devious is a positively delightful piece of fun (that also involves murder). It’s for young adults, but easily well-written enough, and sufficiently funny and clever on a few levels, to please adults (like Liz & me).

There are two timelines, although we spend the bulk of the book in one of them. First, in 1935, a teenaged genius is lucky enough to be plucked out of her New York City public school to attend a special new educational experiment in the mountains of Vermont: Albert Ellingham, major mogul, has established the Ellingham Academy to let kids like Dottie pursue the joys of learning in their own ways. Unluckily, a year later, Dottie is murdered at the idyllic Academy, apparently a bystander in a plot to kidnap for ransom Albert Ellingham’s wife and daughter. Readers get a glimpse of Dottie’s final moments, but her assailant is unnamed, undescribed, and genderless.

Much later, more or less in contemporary times (I didn’t notice a year for this timeline?), another teenaged girl is also delighted to be admitted to Ellingham, not despite but because of its murderous history. Stevie Bell, of Pittsburgh, is crime-obsessed: she hopes to become a detective, ideally for the FBI, and the Ellingham Academy murders are her dearest project. The remains of Iris Ellingham (Albert’s wife) were found as well as Dottie’s, but the body of young Alice Ellingham, aged four at the time of her disappearance, has never been found; technically Alice is Stevie’s host and educational benefactor in absentia. Socially awkward Stevie arrives at Ellingham determined to distance herself from her parents (who love her but do come off rather obnoxious, especially with their unfortunate political leanings), begin a new chapter in her life, maybe finally make some friends, and – most importantly – solve the biggest best crime she knows. Each of these goals will turn out to be ambitious, but Stevie is both smart and scrappy. She easily pairs up with Janelle (who hails from Chicago and excels at building machines and gadgets) and establishes a harder-won friendship with even more socially awkward Nate (a published and thoroughly writer’s-blocked novelist). Their dormmate Ellie is a free-wheeling artist who both impresses Stevie and makes her nervous; there is also a famous and spectacularly handsome filmmaker/actor (who however seems not very smart), and a mysterious boy named David who both attracts and repels Stevie.

While we check back in with 1936 (investigation, trial of an apparent straw man, Ellingham’s grief), the modern timeline dominates. Stevie is both a fine amateur detective (in a long literary tradition) and a teenaged girl, grappling with hormones, friendships, school, the sandpaper grip of her parents, and other challenges that will be familiar to all readers, not just those with true crime obsessions and unusual educational settings. By nature of having a female lead, Truly Devious involves some girl-empowerment messaging, but like its handling of nonbinary genders and queer characters, this messaging is simply built into the story, not A Point To Be Made.

Was this was pretty was?
Who knew. This was what a Stevie was, anyway.

Stevie and her friends are lovable above all; also smart, bumbling, funny, painfully awkward, and pleasingly eccentric. There is everything to enjoy.

I finished this book having just ordered book two but it wasn’t here yet and I felt a real sense of loss. I expect to burn right through books two through five, so look out for more Stevie Bell.

Rating: 8 poles.

Brutes by Dizz Tate

A group of 13-year-old girls tries to deal with another teenager’s disappearance alongside their own coming-of-age in an unattractive Florida town beset by increasingly adult threats.

Dizz Tate’s first novel, Brutes, is set in Falls Landing, Fla., a small town formed of theme parks, mall food courts, gated communities and swampland. At its center is the mystery of a missing teenage girl, and the group of younger girls who adored her: the narrative voice is the unusual first-person plural “we,” which perfectly suits a girlhood of conformity and togetherness. The 13-year-old narrators yearn for individual recognition but also fear separation. Their collective voice slips into the singular only when the girls speak from their adult perspectives, looking back. This narrative “we” contributes greatly to the haunting atmosphere of a story about loss, secrets and the costs of growing up.

“Where is she?” the girls imagine Sammy’s parents asking the morning after her disappearance, and this question will echo. They worshipped, followed and watched Sammy on the nights when she climbed over the wall of her exclusive community to meet her boyfriend, Eddie; they share her love for Eddie and, after she’s gone, shift to attach themselves to Sammy’s best friend and rival, Mia. “We wanted to be like them, to become ever louder and brighter, but we could feel their futures slipping through our fingers, because we were not stupid.” Sammy and Mia had both been affiliated with Star Search, the local talent agency, and everyone in town wants to be selected, to be seen as special, to be given a business card or a plane ticket to L.A. “We squashed our faces against the glass of our own lives. Is this it? we asked. Are we having fun like they have fun? Are we in love like they are in love? We filled up our days following them, watching them, waiting to be invited in.” The girls come from the apartment towers of Falls Landing, not the desirable neighborhood behind the white walls that they watch obsessively. Their mothers are harshly portrayed with both love and derision by the daughters they call “brutes” for their childish cruelties.

Brutes offers stark and unlovely characterizations, but with moments of striking beauty. The girls (and their mothers) are grasping, even desperate, but capable of compassion. Tate’s Florida is steamy and thickly rank, with blinding sunlight and shadowy depths, not least in the lake that many residents believe houses a monster–maybe the monster that took Sammy, although the human monsters in this community are plenty sinister. This is a dark coming-of-age tale and meditation on childhood and the cusp of adolescence: authentic, often grim, but with glimmers of hope.

This review originally ran in the December 16, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.

Rating: 6 fire ants.

rerun: Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell

Pulled from the depths of October 2011, please enjoy this rerun review.

Once Upon a River is a beautiful book. The story is not joyful, let me say that right off. But it’s beautifully wrought, and in fact, when I finished it and stepped back and viewed it as a whole, I decided that the story has a certain beauty, too. A sad beauty, but a beauty that’s true to life.

This is the story of Margo. She grows up in a little town on the Stark River in Michigan, hunting, fishing, and living and breathing the river. She is close to her grandfather, and lives in the outdoors; school and social situations are difficult for her. She’s a very skilled outdoorswoman, and an especially good shot; Annie Oakley is her hero. Bad things happen. Margo’s mother leaves, and as her situation further deteriorates, she takes off upstream in the boat her grandfather gave her to look for her mother. Margo lives off the land and the river, mostly. She makes a few alliances but they all fall apart. People and relationships are not as reliable as the river and the outdoor world in which she feels safe and comfortable. More bad things happen. She grows up some, learns about people, and learns more about the natural world. She moves upstream and downstream, learns how to survive with her hands, a few tools, and her skills, along the lines again of Annie Oakley (she will eventually own two biographies, among her few prized possessions).

This story is painful in more than a few spots. Plenty of bad things happen, including several rapes and quite a bit of death. There’s no shortage of young people having sex, to which your reactions may vary. (Consensual? In itself a “bad thing”?) You will cringe. But like many books that are both sad and realistic, the cringing might be worth it. Margo’s story actually looks skyward, hopefully, at the end. She finds and makes some good things, too.

Campbell has full grasp of metaphor. The river flows on, and Margo learns its rhythms, and how to assert herself while following its current. She finds the river to be a more constant (if not predictable) force than human nature. Campbell has full grasp of language, too; she writes beautifully, lyrically, symbolically. In the end it’s a gorgeous book and I recommend it wholeheartedly. So, to recap: bad things happen, but beautifully. It’s a book about life.

I shan’t attempt a retrospective rating at this distance of more than eleven years, but I still remember this one fondly.

Factory Girls by Michelle Gallen

Amid the Troubles in Northern Ireland, a scrappy young woman comes of age in this inspiring, humorous and moving novel.

With Factory Girls, Michelle Gallen (Big Girl, Small Town) delivers a heartrending, funny, blistering and beautiful novel of foreboding and hope. In the summer of 1994, Maeve Murray and her two best friends are on the cusp of escaping their small Northern Irish town for bigger, better and safer things. Maeve is a child of the Troubles: “neighbours shooting neighbours was just the way things had always been for her.” She comes from a poor Catholic family and has been taught to expect little, but she has hopes that her exam results will move her beyond the background that, in her world, defines her. “Nobody as poor as Maeve could afford to have notions about herself. Which was why she treasured them.” Maeve and her friends Caroline and Aoife find summer jobs at a shirt factory in town, hoping to save a bit before going away to college. Exam results loom all summer, in this novel organized by a countdown beginning “74 days until results.”

Caroline has a loving family, and Aoife is downright privileged compared to Maeve’s rather stark upbringing, not only in poverty but with the death of her sister (unexplained for much of the novel) shadowing all her family’s interactions. “Maeve sometimes wondered if [her sister]’d still be alive if she’d failed and stayed in the town.” Factory work is a bit of a miracle in this depressed town, but it comes with unforeseen challenges, like working alongside Protestants, while outside the gates a never-ending war of retaliation is played out by paramilitary groups on both sides. Maeve worries about losing her kneecaps or her life before she ever makes it to London. “The news reports had said the children were ‘lucky,’ for despite being packed together in the parish hall, they’d received only minor injuries…. She didn’t feel lucky when she felt the slap of the explosion.” Alongside wrestling with grueling work making shirts that nobody she knows can afford and fending off her slimy English boss, Maeve will find still greater challenges spring from the factory floor. “It was the factory workers–both Prods and Taigs–who were at the bottom of a very long and merciless food chain.”

Factory Girls takes on class, corruption and the Catholic/Protestant and English/Irish divides; gender and labor rights; female friendships; family disappointments; the specter of opportunity and the puzzle of how to transcend one’s roots without leaving part of oneself behind. This may sound like a heavy, ambitious group of subjects, but Gallen draws delightful, richly rendered characters and imbues her narrative with a vernacular voice that will charm readers and keep them firmly rooted in time and place. This novel is as hilarious as it is heartbreaking: not to be missed.

This review originally ran in the October 25, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.

Rating: 8 crisp sandwiches.

Yolk by Mary H. K. Choi 

This review from Shelf Awareness prompted me to buy and read this book, and it delivered. I felt fully involved and invested in the lives of Jayne and June Baek, Korean-American sisters born in Seoul and raised in San Antonio, Texas, now living as young adults in New York City. They haven’t been close for years, and now Jayne (our first-person narrator) avoids her sister’s phone calls as she does their mother’s, until June tracks her down on a disastrous third-wheel date and demands they meet. June is very sick. Outwardly, Jayne is the sister with more obvious problems – self-loathing, squalor, harmful sexual practices, generally low functioning as an adult (and some more serious issues that are only gradually revealed). Now that they are sharing increasing challenges, the estranged sisters might just come together again.

As an only child, I have always been fascinated by siblings, whose various dynamics I can only watch from outside, generally with jealousy. One of my favorite things about this novel is its intimate, insider look at the sisters’ relationship, which is troubled (but aren’t they all), love and dislike intertwined with violence and yearning. One of Yolk‘s great strengths overall is immediacy and intimacy, how close we feel to Jayne, in all her messes and flaws. I also really appreciated the writing about place. New York feels right to me, but what do I know; brief sojourns home to San Antonio I am in a better position to judge, and I think Choi (who shares geographical background with her characters) gets it just right. The humid night air and the big skies make me a little homesick, too. The tone of young twenty-somethings dealing with all the madness of life feels pitch-perfect.

Choi includes a brief note at the book’s beginning about some difficult subject matter, acknowledging that she shares some of Jayne’s difficulties and that “for those struggling with body image and food, this story might be emotionally expensive for you.” I had to pause at that phrase, emotionally expensive: I like it. “Sensitivity is a superpower,” Choi instructs us. It is not a novel with an overt message, but I appreciated this one.

I also need to note the loveliness of this hardback book as a physical object: I love the design, the dust jacket, what’s under the dust jacket, and the print on the edges of the pages that continues the image on both dust cover and hardcover. It’s a beautiful piece that feels good in the hand and I’m glad to own it.

Sensitive, funny, raw and often painful – I worried a little early on that I’d taken on something sadder than I needed at this time. But Yolk is a beautiful book about love and hope, too, and with a thread of unlikely romance to it as well. I found it delightful and do recommend.

Rating: 8 glasses of water.
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