Courtney C. Stevens’ debut novel “Faking Normal” takes on some tough issues. It opens at the funeral for a neighbor who has been killed by her own husband. The dead woman’s teenaged son, Bodee, is a bit of an oddball and outcast already– a boy who dyes his hair with KoolAid and keeps to himself. After the tragedy, he is taken in by Alexi’s family to live with them for a while, and is the only one who notices that Lexi has a dark secret of her own. She’s been “faking normal” and has convinced her two close friends, Liz and Heather, her parents, and everyone else around her that she’s living the life of a normal high school teen. But Lexi is not doing such a good job in suppressing her internal demons, and has turned to hiding in her closet at night and tearing at the back of her neck until it bleeds. Stevens keeps the reader guessing as to the specifics of Lexi’s incident, but it is clear that it involves some form of sexual abuse. Bodee, mature beyond his years, supports her until she seems stronger and then presses her to make a full disclosure. In turn, Lexi is pressuring him to swear out a disposition against his father. It is a lovely story of the two teens growing closer, the mis-steps they take along the paths of high school dating, break-ups, drinking, and other pitfalls. Lexi, in love with an imagined boy who leaves song lyrics on her desk, almost misses the real flesh-and-blood boy right in front of her. If I were to find fault with the novel, it is in the portrayal of the minor characters around Lexi and Bodee: the girlfriends Liz and Heather are not fleshed-out individuals and the football player boyfriends are somewhat cartoonish stereotypes. Stevens certainly has writing skills and could have made them more fully formed. Also, Bodee speaks at times with the voice of a wise sage years older than his teens, which jars at times, but he is such a sympathetic and lovable character, it is forgiven. One thing I must applaud Stevens for is her bravery in including references to God and religion in a Young Adult work. The mother attends a prayer meeting, the kids have attended church school, and there is a definite thread of a religious nature throughout. The author also in the back of the book has provided a special message to any boy or girl who has suffered rape or abuse, telling them it is never their fault, they can find help to a normal life again, and they must learn to trust again. It is a beautiful, honest and brave footnote to the book. Thank-you, Courtney.
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Suzanne Berne’s “The Ghost at the Table” was described as “a crash course in sibling rivalry.” It is the tale told by younger sister Cynthia, a single writer, who is invited to spend Thanksgiving with her perfect sister, Frances, in her lovingly-restored New England home, along with Frances’s husband and two grown daughters. Already tense family interactions are strained to the breaking point when Frances springs a surprise on Cynthia: the fact that she has also invited their estranged father. The story is told through the eyes of Cynthia, who relates past family dramas to include her suspicions that her father, possibly aided by her sister Frances, had a hand in killing their bedridden and ailing mother. The first part of the book reads more like a mystery, as we try to piece together the past, provided only in glimpses, through Cynthia’s recollections, juxtaposed with family concerns going on in the house in the present, as the family prepares for the holiday. And there is no shortage of family dysfunction in the past or present, as marital infidelity, alcoholism, “cutting”, eating disorders, and a host of other mental illnesses are hinted at or observed by Cynthia. But then, the story seems to turn on its reader, and we start to doubt Cynthia’s reliability as a narrator– her ability to discern the truth of what she sees, and how she has interpreted the past. I personally enjoy the “unreliable narrator” technique, and this shift would have been compelling if masterfully played out, but instead, I felt cheated as a reader and a little bit angry with author Berne. So many threads of the narrative were never resolved or even re-visited to attempt to provide a solution. They were just dropped. What are we to believe, that Cynthia was totally unreliable in all her experiences? And even so, she would have gone over them in her own mind to try to resolve them. Suzanne Berne is talented writer who is able to paint a picture of domestic life so realistic the reader feels they are in the room, at the table, observing the drama unfold. She has created compelling and interesting characters, set them in motion around a complex and compelling plot (the possible murder of the mother), and then leaves us hanging in the end. Maybe I have just read too many mysteries lately and need the closure, but I get the sense that Berne had no idea how to end the novel, and it feels as if she just stopped writing when there was so much more to tell.