Friday, January 26, 2018

Book Review: "My Name is Venus Black" by Heather Lloyd

Yes, me, too, Tom! This was such a great book!

One night in 1980, 13-year-old Venus Black's life, and the life of her family, changes dramatically when she commits a crime. She doesn't want to talk about it, but the media can't get enough of it. It's a surprise to many who know Venus well, because she is a straight-A student who dreams of being an astronaut. Her crime, and her subsequent refusal to talk about that night, or the events which led up to it, strains her already-difficult relationship with her mother, Inez, whom Venus blames for everything.

"A few days ago, I was hanging out by my school locker, gossiping about boys with my girlfriends. My biggest worry was how to talk Inez into buying me a new pair of Jordache jeans. Now I'm locked up with junior criminals, I've been labeled a violent offender, and my biggest worry is getting beat up."

To make matters worse, Venus' seven-year-old stepbrother, Leo, who is developmentally disabled (in modern vernacular he'd probably be diagnosed as autistic), has gone missing. No one knows what happened to him or where he could have gone, but it's just another thing Venus blames herself for (and Inez blames Venus as well).

Five years later, Venus is released from prison and is determined to make a fresh start, as someone new. She has a fake ID and a suitcase of used clothes, and what she wants is to find a job, make some money, and then move from Washington State to California, where no one will know who she was or what she did. She all too quickly finds that it's not easy to start over when you haven't resolved your own issues, or said the things you've needed to say.

She gets a job and starts to settle in, and meets both a young girl who reminds her a little of herself when she was younger, and a man who is interested in her romantically, although she knows she must keep him at arm's length. But after a while she realizes that she can't escape her guilt or hurt, and she needs to do everything she can to try and find Leo, to see if he's even alive five years later.

My Name is Venus Black is powerful, moving, and utterly compelling. It's a story of second chances, of forgiveness and regret, fear of rejection and fear that someone will discover the secrets you've kept hidden. It's a story of family and friendship, of realizing you are worthy of happiness and love, and that you can't push people away forever. It's also a story of how people we least expect can rescue us.

From the book's very first sentence I was completely hooked on Venus' story. Venus is a complex character but she is so easy to become enamored of, and root for, despite what she did when she was younger. I was so happy that Heather Lloyd made the choice to focus more on Venus after prison than have to endure the young woman-in-prison clich├ęs. There are a number of memorable characters other than Venus—Inez, Leo, Piper, Danny, and two other characters I won't mention for fear of spoiling their role in the story. I did feel as if the character of Tinker seemed to be little more than a device to advance part of the story; I'm still not completely clear on his motivations to do what he did.

Lloyd doesn't quite settle for wrapping everything up with a neat bow, she doesn't take a heavy-handed approach with describing her characters' flaws, and allows you to come to your own conclusions about whether they should be considered guilty or not. There were a few times I worried she was going to sacrifice the integrity of her story for some quick drama, and I was so glad she didn't.

All in all, this is a beautifully written, memorable, moving story, and Venus Black is truly unforgettable.

NetGalley and Random House Publishing Group provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

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