fiction · suspense

Book Review: A Girl Named Anna by Lizzy Barber

Despite kidnapping being one of my worst fears, I’m still kind of drawn to fiction about it- I still remember exact lines from reading The Deep End of the Ocean by Jacquelyn Mitchard in my early 20’s. Maybe my brain feels like if I face it in a controlled setting, it won’t be so bad, and I can figure out how to prevent my own children from experiencing this terrifying fate? Who knows. I’m pretty sure I learned about A Girl Named Anna by Lizzy Barber (MIRA, 2019) from Susan at Bloggin’ ‘Bout Books– she’s fabulous; give her a follow if you haven’t already! It went straight to my TBR, but it’s been checked out almost continuously at my library for the past year. I got lucky with my last library order and was excited to dive into this dual-narrative suspense novel.

Anna has been raised in a fairly isolated fashion by her strict, religious widowed mother. Her life has been small; she hasn’t been allowed to do the things normal kids do thanks to her mother’s rules and overprotectiveness. A secret birthday trip to a local theme park (where she’s never been allowed to go) with her boyfriend (the pastor’s son, of course) brings back some strange feelings and images, though- a ride on a carousel, and the name Emily. Who is Emily? The man who leaves a bizarre letter in her mailbox seems to know, and Anna is positive that the images flashing before her eyes are real. When she discovers a hidden trove of items her mother tucked away long ago, she realizes something is very, very wrong, and that her entire life has likely been a lie.

Rosie’s lived her entire life under the shadow of her kidnapped older sister, a sister who was taken when Rosie was too young to remember. All she knows is parents who have struggled with the disappearance of their firstborn and the pain that infects their every move. When she realizes the trust that has funded the investigation into Emily’s kidnapping is about to dry up, she defies her mother’s wishes and begins looking into things herself. An online messageboard dedicated to crime investigation leads her down a rabbit hole of information, and soon Rosie’s turning up clues that have been long overlooked by authorities. As each girl lives out her own story on separate continents, the drama comes to a head and secrets buried for years come to light.

This isn’t an edge-of-your-seat thriller; there are some tense moments towards the end, but I feel like suspense fits this better. Ms. Barber comes at this with a strong voice; dual narrative (which I love!) can be hard to pull off, but Anna and Rosie have distinctly different voices. Anna’s narrative is stiffer, slightly more formal, a product having been raised by her mother (whose comparison to the mother in Stephen King’s Carrie does not go unnoticed by Anna’s classmates- a comparison she doesn’t quite understand, having been so entirely sheltered). Rosie’s tone is more relaxed, lighter but with the forced maturity of a child having grown up under the canopy of family trauma. The plot moves along at a brisk pace, allowing the reader to be fully immersed in the two girls’ divergent worlds, while still uncovering shocking information alongside of them as the story unfolds, yet never being overwhelmed by too much at once.

There are a few moments I felt pushed the boundaries of being realistic- Rosie’s discovery near the end, the one that convinced her mother of the veracity of her claims, for one- and many questions that are left unanswered, especially by what I felt was an abrupt ending with no follow-up to what was obviously a life-changing moment. How did Anna’s mother manage to do things like enroll her in school without a birth certificate? Did she forge one? How did Father Paul slip under the radar for that long? (I wasn’t buying that Mary was the first or only one he’s traumatized; in this age of the internet, someone out there had to be talking about the Lilies online.) What happened to Mason’s family after his death and what the Lilies did afterwards? Did they not care about what happened to their granddaughter? Did they condone what happened? I have a lot of questions that the book didn’t fully answer, and that left me feeling unsatisfied.

But overall, this is a strong novel about a devastated family, and two teenage girls who are beginning to question who they are and their places in the world against the backdrop of personal trauma. Anna’s mother is creepy as hell, and the way she and Anna lived fascinated me and kept me turning the pages. Despite my ambivalence about the ending, this was absolutely worth my reading time.

Visit Lizzy Barber’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Book Review: Pointe by Brandy Colbert

I usually remember where the books on my TBR come from, but as for Pointe by Brandy Colbert (Penguin, 2014), I’m not entirely sure. A fellow blogger? A recommendation on Twitter? A book list? I really don’t know, but that’s okay! I’m glad it ended up on there.

Theo may look like her struggles with anorexia have gotten better, but in this case, looks are definitely deceiving. They were better, and then the news broke: Donovan has been found. Donovan, Theo’s childhood best friend, was abducted four years ago, leaving Theo and everyone in their community traumatized and afraid. What’s worse: when his abductor is identified, Theo realizes she knows him- it’s Chris, the man who was her boyfriend, the one who told her he was 18 to her (at the time) 13, the one who is actually in his 30’s.

No one knew about Theo’s relationship with Chris except for Donovan, and he’s not talking. Theo’s alone with her secret and she’s not sure what to do: continue to keep the secret and maybe her life will remain unchanged and she’ll make that summer ballet intensive with no issues, or tell the truth, change everyone’s idea of who she is, and maybe have to let her dreams of professional dance go? The more she struggles with this dilemma, the more she fights to control her body, the one thing she can control, until Theo’s forced to make a decision, the only one she truly can.

Theo is the kind of character who’s so deeply wounded, yet who tries so hard to hide it, that I just wanted to scoop her up and hug her and cry through the whole book. She’s carrying so much pain, from being victimized by Chris (and she doesn’t yet realize that she’s been victimized), to the guilt she feels over Donovan’s disappearance, to the many secrets she’s kept for so long. Dancing helps dull the pain, but it comes out in the many poor decisions she makes- there’s some drinking and drug use here (not a lot, but enough that it was stressing me out worrying about the effects on her health and her dance career), the choice she makes to begin restricting her food intake again, and the relationship she strikes up with Hosea, the drug-dealing bad boy musician, who has a girlfriend whom he refuses to break up with. Ms. Colbert has created a marvelously complex character in Theo, one who remains sympathetic and deserving of the reader’s care even as she spirals under the weight of her stress.

She’s got a fantastic group of friends- Sarah-Kate and Phil are absolute dreams. Even as they disagree with Theo’s choices, they still support and love her. Ruthie, Theo’s main competition at dance class, pulls out a Hail Mary moment that plants the seed that ends up saving Theo, and she comes close to tying for my favorite character of the whole book. Hosea…ehhhhhh, not so much. He had wayyyyyyyyyyy too many red flags right from the beginning for me, and I was so sad for Theo that she fell so hard for him when he was obviously so undeserving of her.

 There are obvious content warnings here for sexual content including rape, drug and underage alcohol use, and disordered eating. Hold off on this one if reading it right now is too much for you; we’re all doing the best we can, but sometimes certain subjects are just too difficult at that point in time, and that’s okay.

Pointe is a heavy story of pain and loss, but it’s also one of strength, of bending but not breaking. It’s a story that will hit you right in the heart.

Visit Brandy Colbert’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel That Scandalized the World- Sarah Weinman

I think it was around 2008 that I read Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, maybe 2007. I’d been going through a classics streak and trying to get through all those books I should have read but never got around too, and I plowed through the book during the last days of a run of the flu (actual influenza, with fever and body aches, the whole nine yards. YUCK. Also, don’t judge my reading choices when I’m ill…). It was…a creeptastic book, that was for sure. Humbert Humbert is a jarring narrator and Nabokov did an amazing job at absolutely making my skin crawl with how awful Humbert is. And at the time, I had absolutely no idea that much of the story parallels a real life case, one that Nabokov absolutely knew of, because it’s referenced right there in his novel. I learned of The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel That Scandalized the World by Sarah Weinman from an episode of All the Books! the other night, and I actually sat up out of bed to put in on my Goodreads TBR list, thinking it sounded fascinating and figured I’d get to it sometime in the murky, distant future. Imagine my surprise when I came across this at the library the next evening before book group! I literally gasped and marched it right to the checkout.

Sally Horner was 11 years old, in the midst of stealing a five-cent notebook from a drugstore in 1948, when Frank La Salle, pretending to be an FBI agent, stopped her and told her he wouldn’t turn her in and send her to a reformatory school if she would report to him. Fearful of her single, overworked mother finding out she’d been stealing to impress some girls at school, Sally agreed. She didn’t see him again for months, but when he reappeared, he meant business. Before Elizabeth Smart, before Jaycee Dugard, before the scores of women and children that have made headlines for the horrors they’ve suffered, there was Sally Horner, abducted at age 11 by Frank La Salle, who held her captive and raped her for twenty-one months.

There are obvious content warnings in this book for rape and child molestation (and not just Sally), along with a description of a mass shooting. Just like in Lolita, Frank takes Sally on a cross-country journey, far from her native Camden, New Jersey; from Atlantic City to Baltimore, onward to Dallas, and finally San Jose, he forces her to pose as his daughter. It’s not until she trusts a neighbor enough to answer her questions truthfully that she’s able to ask for help. Sally returns home just shy of her thirteenth birthday, having spent close to two years being held by her rapist. Unfortunately, the tragedy doesn’t end there. After her return, Sally lives for only two more years.

Mingled with the recounting of Sally Horner’s far too short life is the story of how Nabokov wrote Lolita, how older male predators were a theme he explored throughout his literary career, how he struggled to tell the story he wanted. Sally wasn’t his inspiration; he’d been working on the novel for years before her disappearance and eventual return made headline news across the country, but the details of what happened to her did seem to inspire him to be able to pull the whole story together. Even in the screenplays he wrote (which were ultimately mostly rewritten by director Stanley Kubrick, although Nabokov still received credit, along with the Oscar nomination) made allusions to the case, making his denials of shaping the story around the Horner case seem facetious at best.

This is one of those stories that I can’t believe hasn’t been better known until now (and it makes me wonder what other books exist that are heavily based on real-life cases and the general public isn’t aware of it. Can that even be done anymore?) Although far too many people misinterpret it, Lolita is a cultural phenomenon at this point; even if you haven’t read it, odds are you’ve at least heard of it and have a vague idea of what it’s about. That this could stay so far out of the mainstream that even Sally Horner’s family had no idea of the connection until a family member read the brief Wikipedia entry on Sally is utterly flooring to me.

Ms. Weinman mentions several times throughout the book how difficult this story was to research: practically everyone connected to the story has since passed away, records, both official and non-, weren’t saved or maintained. and even the places where the story took place (such as Sally’s hometown of Camden, NJ) have disappeared or undergone such great changes that they would be unrecognizable to someone from Sally’s day. Hearing something like that from the author made me enjoy the book all the more, because I’ve often thought that researching a nonfiction book must be an incredibly daunting task. It was kind of cool to hear that, at least in this case, my suspicions were correct.

The Real Lolita is the book where the literary biography meets true crime. Even if you’ve never read Vladimir Nabokov’s best-known work, this would still be a great read, and if you’re into true crime, this is definitely right up your alley. Do yourself a favor and pick this one up!

Check out Sarah Weinman’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.