Review | Tampa, Alissa Nutting

9780062280541Alissa Nutting’s Tampa is a brave exploration of an uncomfortable subject, and the author’s brazen treatment will cause even the most inured reader to stop and think. Celeste Price is an eighth grade English teacher with a sexual preference for fourteen year old boys. Similar to Lolita in theme, it is starkly different in its approach. Unlike Humbert Humbert, Celeste pulls no punches in her description. She is unapologetically sexual.  The language is forthright and highly charged. As I posted on Goodreads: “Holy hell, Tampa. Powerful, intense, and I’m only 7 pages in.” And Nutting never lets up.

Female pedophiles aren’t as often discussed in popular culture as their male counterparts. Films like The Graduate for example even romanticize the adult female/teenage male sexual relationship. Nutting takes this trope head on by making her protagonist be only in her 20s — she’s young, beautiful, certainly an object of fantasy herself for many of her students. She is also hyper aware of her age, and understands that seducing these young boys may no longer be as easy when she starts getting wrinkles. Yet she is also, unmistakably, a sexual predator, unapologetic and despite the boys’ own fantasies, abusive of her power.

Nutting uses lurid sexual detail with purpose. At times, the scene reads almost like erotica, until you remember that the object of Celeste’s fantasies is a fourteen year old boy. The story is especially horrifying because of Celeste’s job as a teacher, a profession she chose precisely because it puts her in close proximity to the boys she wants. She sets her sights on one of her students in particular, selecting him because he is just shy enough to keep her secret, but bold enough to risk pursuing a sexual relationship with her. Her schemes to seduce the boy are horrific, particularly because her openness as a narrator implicates the reader in her plot. As an adult, we see how she is manipulating the boy and we want to rescue him, yet as readers, all we can do is watch.

Here, the sensual prose also implicates the reader by forcing us into Celeste’s psyche, without even the buffer of Humbert Humbert’s coyly seductive language. Either you are hyperaware the entire time about the boy being only fourteen, in which case the very act of reading feels disgusting, or worse, you forget for a time, and find yourself drawn into the eroticism of the scene, only to recoil with even more disgust when a detail (smooth skin, hairless legs) reminds you of what exactly is happening in the scene. Nutting employs a more brazen form of seductiveness than Nabokov in her prose, and in doing so creates a different type of discomfort. The book design itself plays into this approach; the jacket of the hardcover edition is made of velour, providing a velvety soft surface that invites stroking and that provides the reader with a highly tactile experience.

Celeste is too unapologetic about her proclivities to be an anti-hero, or anyone the reader can ever really cheer for. However, she is certainly a compelling, memorable character. Her utter lack of remorse, and total disregard for the need to sugarcoat her desires for the reader make her in some ways even more reprehensible than Humbert Humbert. Still, when she describes her disgust for the adult male form, you understand why sex with an adult male isn’t an option at all for her. Her horror at the thought of sex with her husband, or with any adult male, is palpable. You do not cheer her on, yet when things come crashing down, you can’t help but feel for her. It’s a difficult balancing act, yet Nutting manages it well.

Tampa is not an easy book to read, but it is powerful. Nutting uses shock value to a purpose, and creates a memorable protagonist in Celeste. The ending somewhat falters because it feels rushed, and the final page in particular feels unresolved. Still, overall a compelling book that demands attention.

Blog Tour: Review | Hidden, Catherine McKenzie

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Catherine McKenzie’s Hidden is a wonderfully nuanced portrait of infidelity. When Jeff Manning is killed in a car accident, he leaves behind his grieving wife Claire and his grieving co-worker and girlfriend Tish. In such a story, it is all too easy to demonize one of the women, or to portray one as the man’s “true love.” McKenzie stays clear of that trap and in so doing, succeeds in crafting a complex, realistic tale of adult relationships, and the way people make them work.

McKenzie tells the story from all three perspectives, which makes each character come even more vividly to life. We see Jeff fall in love with Claire, and we understand the cause of his jealousy over her past relationship with his brother. We also see his first couple of encounters with Tish, and how they form an immediate connection. I love how his connection with Tish, despite the instant chemistry, was mostly more friendly than romantic, and I especially love how this connection in no way detracted from his feelings for Claire.

9781443411929Claire and Tish themselves were fully fleshed out characters. Claire is a former lawyer who now runs a daycare, and the reasons behind her switch in plans gives an idea of how important family is to her. Her son’s grief over his father’s death is deeply felt as well, and his vulnerability when reading the eulogy at the funeral is palpable.

Tish has a more unusual family situation, with a highly intelligent doctor husband and a genius-level poet daughter. Their accomplishments are in stark contrast to Tish’s own lack of ambition, and despite her natural talent at golf and poetry, she is mostly content to coast. Her connection with Jeff, and the intensity of her feelings towards him, are therefore a significant step forward, and his death forces her even further out of her comfort zone.

Complex relationships form this book, but strong characterization makes it work. We are drawn to all three characters; they feel like people we know, and even though we already know it ultimately ends in tragedy, we still want to see how it progresses. Knowledge of Jeff’s impending death add poignancy to the flashbacks of his chapters, and reading about Claire and Tish’s grief interspersed with Jeff’s story just enhances the nuance.

Hidden is a captivating read, and a compelling portrayal of three people whose lives are inextricably intertwined. A mature, richly drawn narrative that is ultimately more about relationships, and making them work.

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Thank you to the author for the invitation to join the blog tour, and thank you as well for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review and Giveaway | Crash and Burn, Michael Hassan

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Michael Hassan’s young adult novel Crash and Burn presents a unique perspective on the subject of school shootings. Rather than delve into the psyche of the shooter, Hassan focuses on the hero, Steven “Crash” Crashinsky, who has somehow managed to talk his classmate David “Burn” Burnett out of killing anyone when he took the school hostage. Crash becomes a local hero and media darling with a book deal — no one knows exactly how Crash convinced Burn to surrender, nor does anyone know exactly what Burn whispered to Crash before he did.

The mystery of Burn’s last words before surrendering forms the core of the rest of the story and propels it forward. Given that, Hassan makes the interesting decision not to make the hostage taking the focus of his story — it provides the catalyst for the story, certainly, and we are constantly aware of it having happened, but the story is really about Crash, a socially awkward young boy with ADHD who relates most with video game character Crash Bandicoot and who has a major crush on Burn’s wise cracking yet deeply troubled older sister Roxanne.

One of the major questions in any school shooting story is: what finally pushes the shooter over the edge? In Hassan’s story, it’s Crash’s family problems we are privy to — his domineering, almost cruel, father forms a shadow that haunts Crash for most of his life. Seeing Crash’s own troubles creates an interesting parallel between the two boys, and leaves the question hanging: what makes one boy a villain and the other a hero?

Even as a hero, Crash is hardly a saint. He uses his fame to pick up much younger girls, he treats the girl he loves pretty horribly, he is more interested in smoking pot than in actually doing anything. His book deal forces him to deal with memories of Burn, but he still often needs his agent or his friends to prod him into it. Dealing with a boy like Burn, and seeing him snap to the point of taking the entire school hostage — that’s a lot to deal with, and the image of Crash is not so much that of a hero as that of a young boy who has been forced to deal with an experience much bigger than himself, and the aftermath of that.

Crash and Burn is a gripping exploration of growing up with an unescapable source of fear. One question people usually ask after a school shooting incident is whether or not there were any warning signs, whether or not it could have been prevented. In Hassan’s book, Burn was clearly disturbed from the beginning. He almost blew up the school in elementary school, he was institutionalized time and again, and put on medication — and still, for some reason or another, he always ended up back in the public school system, free to take the school hostage. How could that happen? Hassan offers no easy answers, nor does he assign blame — teachers, administrators, even Burn’s mother all seem to be doing what they can, and yet due to one circumstance or another, it wasn’t enough.

Crash’s relationship with Burn is similar to Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort — their destinies are inextricably intertwined. Despite Crash’s attempts to keep Burn out of his life, they always manage to end up connected anyway, often because of the simple fact that their mothers are friends. The sensation then is of inevitability — like Crash, we know Burn is disturbed, and like Crash, we know at some point Burn will snap. Due to the sequence of events in the book, we even know how he will snap. And yet like Crash, we can’t seem to look away. Burn is a menacing presence throughout the book, even when he isn’t physically present in the scene.

It’s tragic, seeing Crash try to live his own life, seeing him already having to deal with a horrible father, seeing him try for happiness with his friendship with Roxane — and then seeing how no matter what, Burn happens to be by his side. More than tragic however, it’s also chilling, because unlike Harry Potter/Voldemort, Crash and Burn’s story is very much set in the real world. There are boys like Burn out there, and they may just be in your local school system.

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GIVEAWAY

Harper Collins has kindly offered two of my readers copies of Crash and Burn by Michael Hassan. Enter to win here: a Rafflecopter giveaway. (US and Canada only)

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Thank you to Harper Collins for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.