Gripping stories

Gripping stories

While summer brings to mind relaxation and vacation reading — perhaps while lounging by a pool with a cocktail — the past season fell far from that ideal for me.

I've had several stressful things happening at once, and it definitely adversely affected my reading life. There were many books I wanted to read, but I had limited time for reading and it was hard to focus, so many were returned to the library unread.

Recently, though, I read three novels that grabbed me from the very beginning and kept me reading, despite all the things I should have been doing (and often despite the late hour and my early alarm clock):

— Ivy Pochoda's new novel, "Visitation Street," explores the impact a young girl's disappearance has on her community in Red Hook, Brooklyn.

It opens with two teenage girls, bored on a hot summer evening, venturing out into the East River on a pink raft. The next morning, one of the girls, Val, is found unconscious. The other girl, her best friend, June, is missing.

How did Val end up under the pier? What became of June? As time goes on and June remains missing, these questions loom large in the minds of the Red Hook community.

The story is explored through alternating viewpoints: Val, the best friend left behind; Fadi, the bodega owner who called 911 after Val was found; Jonathan, a local barfly and music teacher who discovered Val; and Cree, an acquaintance of the girls and one of the last ones to see them, who is struggling to move forward after his father's murder.

Each character and their story is believable and fleshed out, as are the greater struggles of a Brooklyn community on the edge of gentrification.

— The tension and desperation in Kelly Braffet's "Save Yourself" is palpable from the first paragraph, in which we are introduced to Patrick Cusimano, on the way to his late-night shift at the convenience store.

Patrick is in his 20s — and still living in the house he grew up in with his older brother and his brother's girlfriend, Caro. His father has gone to prison for killing a child in a drunken-driving accident, and Patrick is in free-fall, feeling isolated and developing a complicated relationship with Caro.

Caro herself is on the run from her own demons. In addition to this, a goth teenager, Layla, suddenly seems intent on insinuating herself into his life for reasons he doesn't understand. And Layla's younger sister, Verna, is just starting high school and beginning to realize that her sister's life is darker and more complicated than she ever imagined.

These characters are all teetering on the edge of disaster, and as their lives get more enmeshed, the tension is ratcheted up. Braffet has crafted a story with all the suspense of a great thriller, filled with achingly real characters.

— Scottish author Jenni Fagan's debut novel "The Panopticon" might be my favorite book of the year so far.

It's told in the frenetic first person voice of Anais Hendricks, a 15-year-old who has just been remanded to a juvenile facility after being accused of an assault that left a police officer in a coma. The facility is referred to as The Panopticon because it was designed so that every part of the facility can be seen from a central watchtower.

Anais denies taking part in the assault but doesn't have a clear memory of the day in question. Anais has been "in care" for her entire life, and as bits of her past are slowly revealed, we come to understand the emotions that underlie her history of violence and drug use.

Despite the imposing name of the facility, Anais has a fair amount of autonomy and forms strong friendships with some of the other residents. She slowly adjusts to life at The Panopticon while awaiting the results of the assault investigation. She knows that if she is found guilty, she will be placed in a "lockdown" facility until her 18th birthday, so she is intent on hatching a plan.

While this novel is not for the faint of heart, I found Anais to be a fierce and funny heroine with a unique perspective, and Fagan's creative language and hyperactive style brings her heartbreaking story to explosive life.

While it can be hard to concentrate on reading when life takes a turn for the stressful, if you find the right books to engage you they can be a welcome respite from the endless to-do lists.

These books were so gripping that they pulled me into the lives of their characters and didn't let go, and I eagerly await more works from these young authors.

Kasia Hopkins is an adult services librarian at the Urbana Free Library. She can be reached at khopkins@tufl.info.

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