Review: MY NAME IS VENUS BLACK by Heather Lloyd

Review:  MY NAME IS VENUS BLACK by Heather LloydMy Name Is Venus Black by Heather Lloyd
four-stars
Published by Dial Press on February 27th 2018
Genres: Fiction, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 368
Source: Netgalley
Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

MY REVIEW:

Set in the 1980s, Heather Lloyd’s moving debut My Name is Venus Black follows the story of Venus Black, a thirteen year-old straight A student who dreams of becoming the first female astronaut in space.  When the story opens, Venus is being placed into the backseat of a police car and taken away from her home and subsequently charged with a horrific crime.  Venus refuses to talk to anyone about what happened or why it happened, but she is adamant that her mother is to blame and refuses to speak to her as well. Ultimately Venus is convicted and sentenced to a juvenile detention facility for more than five years.  As if Venus’s crime and imprisonment wasn’t enough to tear apart the Black family, Venus’ seven year old brother Leo, who is developmentally disabled, also goes missing.  One minute he’s playing in the neighbor’s sandbox, the next he vanishes without a trace.  During one of their infrequent meetings, Venus’ mother Inez blurts out that she holds Venus responsible for the fact that Leo has gone missing.  Thus an already strained relationship becomes even more strained.

When Venus is finally released, she chooses not to go back home.  Instead, she decides she needs to make a fresh start so she obtains a fake id and thus tries to escape from her past and start over.  At first Venus is completely alone and refuses to trust anyone around her, but as she finally starts to meet new people, she finds herself opening up and letting more people in.  She makes a friend at the local coffee shop where she lands her first job, becomes like a big sister to the young daughter of a man she rents a room from, and even begins a bit of a flirtation with one of the regular customers at the coffee shop. What Venus eventually realizes, however, is that she can’t have these new relationships while living a lie and constantly looking over her shoulder wondering if someone has figured out who she really is.  This realization causes old wounds to reopen and Venus realizes that she has to face her past head on, including her estranged relationship with her mother as well as the disappearance of her brother (who is still missing), if she ever hopes to move past it.

Can Venus come to terms with the actions from her past and go after the second chance she deserves?  Can she forgive her mother for looking the other way when Venus needed her the most?  And most importantly, can Venus learn to forgive herself?

My Name is Venus Black is a moving coming of age story about second chances, forgiveness, facing up to one’s past, and most importantly, about family.

 

The focus on family was one of the themes that really resonated with me.  Whether it’s the family you’re born with or a family that you’ve made because you all happen to be living under one roof, this book is all about the connections we make with those around us.  Even though she is alone and has every intention of remaining so when she is first released, Venus slowly but surely finds herself forming an almost sisterly bond with a young girl named Piper that she lives with for a while.  Venus is also constantly reminded of the family she has lost and left behind.  She misses Leo and is always thinking about him and wondering if he is okay.  This story also strongly focuses on the idea that no matter how badly you think you’ve messed up, your family is always there for you and it’s never too late to start over if you’re willing to try.

What really got to me about My Name is Venus Black is that it was told mostly from the perspective of the two children, Venus and Leo.  Because some of the events of the story are so dark, it’s just all the more poignant to see them unfold through the eyes of a child.  All of the emotions, the fears and the uncertainty just got to me even more than they probably would have if the story had been presented to me differently.

I also loved both Venus and Leo.  Venus is such a strong voice in this story and her character development is incredible.  I felt bad for her in the beginning because she just wouldn’t talk about what happened and in some ways probably made things harder for herself by refusing to tell her story.  Venus’ story is all about growth though and what she goes through in this story takes her from being basically a terrified little girl in the beginning to a fierce young woman ready to take on the world by the end.

And even though this is mainly Venus’ story, Leo also plays a huge role.  He isn’t given a diagnosis in this book but based on the way he needs structure and the way he panics when his routine is disrupted, I think he is quite possibly autistic. Leo is such a vulnerable character that I immediately felt protective of him because he’s caught up in the middle of something he can’t even begin to comprehend.  Leo is important to the story primarily because of how his disappearance impacts Venus and Inez.  No matter how many years have passed, neither of them give up on the idea that he is still out there so he remains a connection between them no matter how estranged they are from one another.

 

I only had one real issue with My Name is Venus Black and that had to do with the way it would sometimes switch from one character’s perspective to another without warning right in the middle of a chapter.  Hopefully this is just an ARC formatting issue that will not be in the finished copy, but in the review copy I read, occasionally it would just randomly switch from Venus’ perspective to Leo’s from one paragraph to the next.  I found that a little odd, especially since the chapters themselves were told from different perspectives.  Why add further switches within the chapters instead of just making more chapters?  Anyway, it didn’t dampen my enthusiasm for the book but it did slow me down a few times while reading since it was a little jarring each time it happened.

 

My Name is Venus Black is an incredibly moving story about family and forgiveness.  It’s about learning that your actions have consequences and that you have to accept responsibility for them, but it’s also about second chances and how we’re all entitled to them.  If you’re looking for a poignant story filled with memorable characters, I’d highly recommend My Name is Venus Black.

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

Venus Black is a straitlaced A student fascinated by the study of astronomy—until the night she commits a shocking crime that tears her family apart and ignites a media firestorm. Venus refuses to talk about what happened or why, except to blame her mother. Adding to the mystery, Venus’s developmentally challenged younger brother, Leo, goes missing.

More than five years later, Venus is released from prison with a suitcase of used clothes, a fake identity, and a determination to escape her painful past. Estranged from her mother, and with her beloved brother still missing, she sets out to make a fresh start in Seattle, skittish and alone. But as new people enter her orbit—including a romantic interest and a young girl who seems like a mirror image of her former lost self—old wounds resurface, and Venus realizes that she can’t find a future while she’s running from her past.

four-stars

About Heather Lloyd

Heather Lloyd, who has spent many years working as an editor and writing coach, lives with her husband in New York City. My Name Is Venus Black is her first novel.

ARC Review: The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley

ARC Review: The Twelve Lives of Samuel HawleyThe Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti
four-stars
Published by Dial Press on March 28th 2017
Genres: Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 480
Source: Netgalley
Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Goodreads Synopsis:  A father protects his daughter from the legacy of his past and the truth about her mother’s death in this thrilling new novel from the prize-winning author of The Good Thief.

After years spent living on the run, Samuel Hawley moves with his teenage daughter, Loo, to Olympus, Massachusetts. There, in his late wife’s hometown, Hawley finds work as a fisherman, while Loo struggles to fit in at school and grows curious about her mother’s mysterious death. Haunting them both are twelve scars Hawley carries on his body, from twelve bullets in his criminal past; a past that eventually spills over into his daughter’s present, until together they must face a reckoning yet to come. This father-daughter epic weaves back and forth through time and across America, from Alaska to the Adirondacks.

Both a coming-of-age novel and a literary thriller, The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley explores what it means to be a hero, and the cost we pay to protect the people we love most.

 MY REVIEW

 

Do you ever read a book, know that you love it, but yet somehow can’t really put into words why?  That’s how I feel about Hannah Tinti’s The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley.  What initially drew me to this book was reading the synopsis and realizing that the book focuses on the relationship between a father and daughter.  I can’t say that I’ve read nearly enough books that explore that dynamic so I was eager to give this book a shot.

Samuel Hawley and his daughter Loo (short for Louise) have spent most of Loo’s life living what can best be described as a transient lifestyle, moving from place to place and never staying anywhere too long.  The only sense of permanence that Loo has experienced all this time is the makeshift shrine that Hawley builds for Loo’s mother in each place.  Loo’s mother, Lily, drowned when Loo was just a baby, so it has just been Loo and her dad for as long as she can remember.  We are given hints early on that the transient lifestyle Loo and her Dad are living stems from the fact that Hawley has a somewhat checkered past.  Although Loo appears perfectly content living the way she and her Dad always have, when the novel opens and we meet Hawley and then 12 year old Loo, Hawley has decided that it’s time for Loo to have a more permanent and stable way of life and thus has settled them back in Lily’s hometown of Olympus, Massachusetts.  As they go about their day-to-day lives in this tiny town, we start to get more and more hints that Hawley’s past is indeed a colorful one and that not even Loo, the person who is closest to him in the world, knows all that there is to know about him.  The extent of Hawley’s past misadventures becomes very apparent when Hawley is coerced into participating in a town event and is required to remove his shirt to take part.  When the shirt comes off, we see that Hawley’s body is riddled with old bullet wound scars.  So many scars, in fact, that it seems nearly impossible he is even still alive.

LIKES

The revealing of so many scars was where things got especially interesting for me because the author then proceeds to use the bullet wound scars as a roadmap to carry us through Hawley’s past.  She alternates chapters that are devoted to explaining how he received each bullet wound with chapters of the new life he is trying to start with Loo.  What I loved about this way of constructing the story was how we see Hawley first as a dad, doing the best he can, willing to sacrifice anything and everything to give his daughter a normal life.  Tinti fully humanizes him before revealing his past where we then see that Hawley has done a lot of awful things in his day.  He has stolen things, hurt people, heck he has even killed people.  But somehow, because I still see him first as Loo’s dad, I love the character in spite of the many questionable choices he has made in the past.  I think if Tinti had revealed the gory details of Hawley’s past first and then tried to move forward and show that he has now reformed himself and become a great dad, Hawley wouldn’t be nearly as endearing as he is.

As much as the story is about Hawley and his past, I would also consider it to be a coming of age story for Loo.  She spends much of the story trying to make sense of this new world she is now living in and what her place is in it, and she is particularly determined to learn more about what happened to her mother.  Hawley has sought to protect Loo from the full truth of her mother’s death because he knows that it will be even more heartbreaking for her than the truth she has been led to believe all her life.  When Loo meets her grandmother (Lily’s mother) for the first time after they settle in Olympus, her grandmother implies that Hawley is in some way responsible for Lily’s death. This makes Loo’s journey to find the truth all the more poignant as Hawley is all she really has in this world. Can she forgive him if he is responsible?   Loo’s story becomes especially moving as we cycle back and forth between her chapters set in the present and Hawley’s chapters set in the past.  In Hawley’s chapters, we see how he and Lily met and fell in love, and then in present-day chapters, we follow Loo as she slowly unravels the mystery surrounding her mom’s death.  Tinti does a beautiful job weaving together the past and present in a heartwrenching journey that ultimately brings Loo to that truth she has been so desperately seeking.

Tinti adds even more complexity to her story by making it a bit of a thriller as well as the ghost of Hawley’s past still lurks and threatens this new life he is trying so hard to make for his daughter.  All of these different layers – the past, the present, the love, the suspense — and how they effortlessly fit together is what makes The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley such an engaging read.

DISLIKES?

I can’t really say that I have any complaints about the novel.  At first I’ll admit I was a little wary about the bullet hole chapters, especially since they were actually named BULLET NUMBER ONE, BULLET NUMBER TWO, etc. I thought ‘Oh boy, this is either going to be hokey or it’s going to be brilliant.’  Thankfully, brilliant won out and it worked fabulously.

FINAL THOUGHTS

If you’re looking for a wonderfully intricate read that authentically captures the father-daughter bond, then give The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley a read.  I would, however, forewarn that there is a lot of violence as you can probably guess from the few hints I dropped about Hawley’s past.  Both love and violence are at the core of this tale.

RATING:  4 STARS

four-stars

About Hannah Tinti

Hannah Tinti grew up in Salem, Massachusetts, and is co-founder and editor-in-chief of One Story magazine. Her short story collection, ANIMAL CRACKERS, has sold in sixteen countries and was a runner-up for the PEN/Hemingway award. Her first novel, THE GOOD THIEF, was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, recipient of the American Library Association’s Alex Award, and winner of the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize. Hannah’s new novel, THE TWELVE LIVES OF SAMUEL HAWLEY will be published by The Dial Press on 3/28/17.