“It’s impossible not to root for this strong, willful girl as she finds her place in the world and for her brother as he tries to make sense of it.”—Kirkus Reviews
“Charming, touching, and a host of other adjectives not often associated with a murderous thirteen-year-old.”—Booklist
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.
In this gripping story, debut novelist Heather Lloyd brilliantly captures ordinary lives thrust into extraordinary circumstances. Told through a constellation of captivating voices, My Name Is Venus Black explores the fluidity of right and wrong, the pain of betrayal, and the meaning of love and family.
Praise for My Name Is Venus Black
“Fans of realistic coming-of-age fiction will enjoy Lloyd’s fast-paced first novel for the freshly drawn original characters, compelling story line, and beautiful tribute to the healing power of love. It’s bound to have crossover appeal to older YA readers.”—Library Journal
“A dark but ultimately uplifting story about family, love, and forgiveness, and how to find your place in the world, My Name Is Venus Black is a powerful debut novel from a fresh voice in fiction.”—New York Times bestselling author Sarah Jio
|Publisher:||Random House Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||6.10(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.40(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
I could swear I’m in some weird dream or movie, but that can’t be true because the burning sensation between my legs is way too real. Now I know how babies feel when they don’t get their diaper changed. I’m trying to hide what happened beneath my winter coat, but how long can I last?
A female cop and a cranky older detective in plain clothes are trying to interview me, but I’m sobbing so much it’s not going well. They keep saying things like, “Calm down.” “Take a deep breath.” “We can’t understand what you’re saying.”
But I can’t calm down. A bubble of horror has enveloped my brain and left me hysterical.
I make it about five more minutes before pain trumps pride. “I think I wet my pants,” I sputter, looking at the female officer.
She’s blond and prettier than my idea of a woman cop. She stands up. “Let me take Venus for a few minutes,” she says to the man. I don’t get up until she is standing by my chair. I feel like a small child as she leads me to a ladies’ room and tells me to wait inside for her.
The door locks behind me. I use one of the metal stalls, which remind me of the ones in my junior high. When I’m done, I go to the sink to wash. In the mirror, my face glistens with tears and mucus, my eyes are swollen half shut, and my hair is flying everywhere in an enormous black tangle. Then I remember I’ve been madly pulling at it.
Pretty soon, the female cop returns, holding a pair of blue pants that look like pajama bottoms with ties in the front. They’re way too big, but it’s a huge relief to get out of my soaked jeans.
When she leads me back to the interview room, calmer now, I see that Inez is seated off to the side. Has my mother been here the whole time? “I want her out of here,” I say, trembling with anger. And then louder, “I want her out! She’s the one you should arrest!”
Inez looks white as a sheet, like she’s seen a ghost, which I guess isn’t too far off. She exchanges whispers with the male cop and then leaves the room.
After she’s gone, the police try again. They start out with easy questions about my friends at school. I try to cooperate. I admit what I did. But when they want to know details and why, I clam up. “I can’t remember,” I say.
“You mean you don’t want to,” says the old guy.
In the morning, I wake up at Denney Juvenile Justice Center. I’ve heard of plenty of kids getting sent here, but they were always rough, older, criminal types. The kind who dropped out of school, sold drugs to kids, or stabbed each other and stuff like that. The kind who scare me.
When I learned last night that I’d be locked up here, my knees shook like Mexican jumping beans. “I’m only thirteen,” I pleaded. “I get straight A’s! I’ve never gotten drunk, or smoked pot, or even skipped a class. At school I hang out with the smart girls’ group.” But even my biggest achievement—“Last year I was Citizen of the Week a record six times!”—didn’t change anyone’s mind about where I belonged.
At Denney, breakfast is served in a small cafeteria that reminds me of our school’s. I go through the buffet line and then find the table with the fewest people and try to send out a vibe that says, Don’t even think about sitting here.
While I eat, random, bizarre details from last night flash in my mind. Like how good it felt when one of the cops gently laid his hand on my head as he guided me into his police car. For a second there, it seemed like he was rescuing me instead of arresting me. And this one: When the car I was riding in pulled away from our house on Rockefeller, I saw the garage door wide open, lit up like a giant TV and neighbors gathered around like someone should make popcorn.
I should be too upset to eat, but I’m starving. The toast is spread with what I’m pretty sure is real butter, not margarine. I wolf down the scrambled eggs even though they come in a square that leaks water.
While I eat, I wonder what my friends are thinking—or if they’ve heard what happened yet. Who is my best friend, Jackie, going to sit with at lunch today? I’m dying to call her, but I’m sure they won’t let me.
Since I might be here for a while, I hope they’ll let Jackie pick up all my assignments from school and bring them to me. I don’t want to fall behind.
It hurts to think of my teachers, because I know they won’t understand. Over the years, I’ve always been teacher’s pet, and now I can just hear them saying, “Venus Black? But she was one of my favorite students! And always such a nice girl.”
Inez would probably beg to differ with nice. She likes to remind me that smart isn’t the same as nice. She also insists that I have two personalities, one for school, and one for at home. Every time she comes back from a parent-teacher conference, she tells me how surprised she was to hear what a pleasure I am to have in class.
So maybe I’m not a pleasure to have at home. But did she ever think there might be a reason for that?
After breakfast, a guard brings me to a room half-filled with toys. My mother is seated in one of two blue plastic chairs situated next to a messy desk.
Part of me wants to rush into her arms and plead with her to get me out of here. I want her to comfort me and tell me it will be all right. But a bigger part of me wants her to know how much I blame her for what happened.
She must feel the same way, because she doesn’t get up or try to hug me. All she says is, “Venus.”
“Inez,” I say right back.
Before I sit down across from her, I make a big show of scooting my chair farther back from hers. Like she smells bad or something. Right off, I notice how horrible she looks. Her eyes are red and raw, and her face is all puffy like mashed potatoes. She’s clutching a white hanky that belonged to her father back in Greece, which she knows I think is super gross. It’s the eighties! Who still uses a handkerchief?
At first, she is all motherly and worried. She asks how they’re treating me, if I’m okay, and if I got breakfast. For a second there, she’s my old mom again, and her seemingly genuine concern threatens to crack my anger.
“Aren’t you going to talk to me, Venus? Are you really just going to sit there?”
That’s when I realize she’s suggested a good strategy. Just because you put me in a room with Inez doesn’t mean I have to talk to her. Which is something I never thought about before, how you can force people to do a lot of things, but speaking isn’t one of them. You can’t grab someone’s jaw and move it up and down and make words come out.
Eventually I hear her say, “How could you do this, Venus?”
How can she even ask that? She already knows the answer. Clearly she’s planning to act like she has no idea, so people won’t realize how easily she could have stopped this.
I continue trying to block out her words, but it’s hard to miss when she refers to Raymond. She’s trying to explain, trying to defend herself. “You didn’t give me a chance, Venus.”
What is she talking about? I gave her all the chance in the world. I manage to tune her out again for a while, until I can tell she’s getting angry. “You better smarten up right now, young lady,” she scolds. “Damn it. I can’t help you if you won’t talk to me.”
It’s a ridiculous thing to say, because she didn’t help me when she could have. I glare at her, hoping she’ll guess what I’m thinking, but she’s looking down at her hands.
I used to think Inez was pretty, in a Cher sort of way. I was always jealous of her straight black hair because I hated my wild curls. When people said we looked alike, I thought that meant I was beautiful, like her. But now I know it only means we both have black hair, the same Greek nose, and the same darkish eyelids.
Sitting here watching Inez’s mouth move, I notice she’s been chewing on her lips again. Small pieces of flesh stick up like bits of plastic in her bright-orange lipstick. The lipstick flashes me back to when I was little and she’d ask the Avon lady for lots of those tiny white tubes of lipstick samples so I could play with them later. But that’s a happy memory, so I squash it.
“Okay. Be that way, Venus,” I hear her say. “That’s fine if you’re angry at me. But for your own sake, we need to discuss your defense.”
I want to scream, My defense? What is your defense?
How does Leo do it? My little brother is so good at ignoring people that he should be in the Guinness Book of World Records. But they’d probably disqualify him, because he has something wrong with him that makes it easy for him to pretend you’re not there.
Leo is seven but acts more like he’s three or four. He has what Inez calls “developmental issues,” probably because he was born too early. My stepdad, Raymond, was super disappointed when Leo didn’t turn into a regular little boy. But Leo’s always just been Leo to me. So what if he makes weird noises and doesn’t want to be touched? He likes things to stay the same, and sometimes, he throws big tantrums. But really he’s the sweetest thing, which is hard to believe when you think about where he came from.
When I trace my life back to make it so Inez never met or married Raymond, I always get stuck here. Because what would I do without Leo?
By this point, Inez is actually crying and pleading with me to talk to her. I’m not used to seeing her this way, and it makes me uncomfortable. It’s like I have more power than she does. And in a way, it’s true. Here I’ve gone and done the worst thing in my life and she can’t even ground me.
No wonder she’s so upset.
After a while, she stops crying and begins staring at me in this weird way. When she gathers her purse off the floor, I think she’s getting ready to leave and I’m so relieved because it takes a lot of work not to talk to somebody.
Instead, she leans forward in her chair and whispers to me like it’s a secret question, “Venus, are you even a little bit sorry for what you did?”
When I don’t answer, she gets this frozen look on her face and makes a strange little gasping sound. Then she stumbles from the room like she’s drunk or blind.
Or like she can’t wait to get away from me.
Leo wakes up in a bed that is not his bed. The bedspread is the wrong color of green. Where is his blue bedspread? He can’t stop seeing last night. His mother is crying. She makes him get in a strange truck with the lady called Shirley. He knows Shirley, but this time she has pink plastic things all over her head.
Soon the woman called Shirley comes into the room where Leo is, only now she looks different. The plastic things are gone and her hair is curly and the wrong yellow.
“Good morning, Leo!” she says too loud. “Remember me? From when I came to your house and babysat you.”
“I want my mom,” Leo says.
“Remember? She had an emergency and asked me to watch you for a while.”
Leo doesn’t know the word emergency. He ignores the lady and her talking until she asks if he needs the bathroom. He does. After he is done, he washes his hands like he’s been taught. The towel is the wrong color. Shirley is waiting for him when he comes out.
He goes back to the room with the bed. So does the curly lady.
Leo asks, “Where is Venus? Where is my mom?”
He might have what his mother calls “a big tantrum.” He had a big tantrum last night.
“I’m sorry, Leo,” the lady says. “You will see your mom soon. She’s going to stay here for a while, too. She’ll sleep right out there in the living room on the couch. She’s not here now, but she will be. And, look, she gave me some of your favorite things. See?” She points to the floor by the bed. Leo sees some of his toys. “Your mom even brought your blanket,” she adds, holding out his purple blanket. He needs it to ride in a car or when he wants to be in his closet.
He takes the blanket, sits on the bed, and rocks while the lady keeps talking. He blocks out her voice. He puts his head between his knees because he hears the scary sounds from last night. The fire trucks hurt his ears. So many people were yelling and there were red feelings everywhere.
My cell has white cement walls, a plain metal cot, and a small wooden cupboard for clothes. Obviously, someone—a cop, or Inez?—has raided my dresser at home and picked out a small wardrobe for me. Seeing a bra and undies in the mix makes me angry. The thought of someone pawing through my drawers.
When I look for my shoes, I can only find a pair of ugly white sneakers with Velcro, like my little brother, Leo, wears, since he can’t tie his shoes. They’re the right size, so I put them on.
We’re also given a notepad and a few pencils without erasers. I don’t know why. Do they think I might want to write home like I’m away at summer camp?
It turns out they let you leave your cell during the day and hang out in what they call the common area, where there are couches, tables, and a TV. I plan to just stay in my room, though. I already know I don’t want to make any friends in here.
But instead of sitting in my room all day, all of a sudden it’s like I’m this important person with lots of meetings to attend. Everyone wants to talk to me—including a geezer guy with enormous nostrils who is my lawyer, a woman doctor named Barbara, and a young-looking caseworker who asks me to call him Officer Andy.
Reading Group Guide
1. What would you say was your most significant take-away from the story? What surprised you the most?
2. Who was your favorite character, and why? Which characters—if any—did you identify with, and why?
3. For much of the novel, one of Venus’s primary emotions seems to be anger at her mother. How did her anger both help and hurt Venus on her journey toward healing?
4. The novel deals with some very dark subjects—child abuse, murder, kidnapping—and explores deep personal losses for many of the characters. Did the story strike you as unrelentingly bleak or depressing? If not, why?
5. Themes like innocence, guilt, forgiveness, and redemption are delved into for many of the characters in the book. How would you define Leo’s role and the theme that it represents?
6. Did Raymond deserve to die? If not, what would justice look like for him?
7. Most stories require some kind of villain—and we have a clear one in Raymond. But what about Tinker? He kidnapped Leo, robbing Inez of her son and depriving Venus of her brother for six years. In your view, is Tinker just as evil as Raymond? What do you think became of Tinker after he abandoned Leo?
8. Why do you think Tessa became so quickly enamored of Leo? How realistic did you find Tony’s willingness to illegally adopt Leo?
9. At first Venus resists getting too involved with Piper, but they soon develop a strong bond. Why do you think their relationship became so important to Venus?
10. Soon after the Seattle Times reporter blows Venus’s cover at the Dipper, Venus shows up on Inez’s doorstep. Were you surprised at the way that evening between them unfolded? If so, in what way?
11. Inez’s point of view isn’t revealed until late in the story. Why do you think the author chose to wait until then? How did knowing Inez's point of view change the way you saw her?
12. When Venus returns to her old bedroom in the basement, she relives the series of painful events that led to her crime. What did the scene reveal about Venus, Inez, and Raymond that you didn’t know? What emotions did you feel while you were reading it?
13. When the story closes, Venus and Inez have established a new relationship. But we don’t know for certain that Venus has fully forgiven her mom. Do you think she has? So many adult children are estranged from their parents. Why do you think a parent’s failures are so hard to forgive?
14. How do you feel Leo brought two disparate families together? Do you think Inez should have forgiven Tony and Tessa for keeping Leo?
15. Would you say that, in the end, My Name Is Venus Black is an uplifting and hopeful story or a cautionary tale of abuse? Or both?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Didn’t know what to expect but this was an amazing story. I couldn’t put this book down and can’t wait for the next one. I loved the characters and especially Leo.
I sometimes rate books by how many different places I read this book. I read this book at work, during my lunch, when I woke up on the weekend, and while watching TV instead of just 5-10 minutes before going to bed. This was a compelling read filled with many flawed, but captivating characters. I loved Venus, Leo, Piper, Mike, Tessa, Tony, and even Inez. I think that it really illustrated how one tragic event in a family can have such rippling effects over such a long period of time. And that there are no easy answers....and we all have to forgive others and forgive ourselves. Life just goes on and we are lucky to have some good people to love us along the way. The ending was a little too pat and easy for my taste, but I guess is appropriate for a YA book. Some of the themes were a bit heavy handed, i.e. the starfish and tip beetle analogies, but overall it was a great read.
This was so much more than I expected. It is set in the early 80's and it amazes me how much things have changed and stayed the same. It is hard to describe as this book can be in a few genres but it is captivating. It makes you think deeply and wonder about others and their circumstances around certain situations. How one decision can change a life, and how the love for another human being can make you rethink everything you have ever learned about life.
Happy I gave this book a chance. It was so good.
Venus is a thirteen year old very intelligent girl that is interested in astronomy. In the beginning of the book we learn that she has committed a crime, but the details are not explained until later. She has a young brother who is mentally disabled and goes missing shortly after her crime. This book details her life after serving her time as she assumes a new identity. The characters are very complex and riveting. I read this book straight through as I couldn’t put it down!
What a hauntingly beautiful story. So much sadness and emotions it had me teared up at times. Take a dysfunctional family, tear it apart with a murder, child abuse, a missing mentally challenged son and a convict daughter, then try and put it all back together again. This story does just that, kind of like Humpty Dumpty, it tries to put the pieces all back together. Not possible to go back the way it was, so they must forge a new normal, one that works 7 years later for the survivors. This is their story, told from each of their viewpoints. Just read it already!
The characters in this story grabbed me from the beginning and wouldn’t let me go. I read it over two days and kept thinking about it once I put it down. For me, this was a coming of age story that was so much more. There we some tragic decisions made by some otherwise good people – some based on love, and some based on fear. The outcome and resolution of these decisions makes for an emotional, heart-wrenching read, but it is so worth it! This is a story that will stay with me for a while.
4.5 totally intriguing stars This was quite the story of family, love lost and regained, and the proof that love exists not because of blood but because of kindness, goodness, and concern from those around you. Venus is thirteen and lives with her mother Inez, a step father, and a beloved younger brother Leo who is mentally handicapped. For all intents and purposes, Venus is Leo's caregiver, she adores him, understands him, and keeps him close. He looks to her for guidance, for patterns, for routines that he is comfortable with, and most especially for the love that he really can't ever understand. Venus is often troubled but is quite the straight laced bright young girl. However, when an awful occurrence happens, Venus is thrown into a juvenile detention home where she is confined for five years. In that time span, Leo goes missing, taken by the brother of her step father where they wind up in the home of a tattoo artist and his young daughter. We learn details of his existence and we follow him as he grows. In bits and pieces we also learn of what happened to Venus and how she never forgot her brother and will strive to find and be with him. The characters that Ms Lloyd created are amazing. They represent that life oftentimes is difficult, parents are not always perfect, and that blood is not always the deciding factor in who we love and care for. Love has no boundaries life can continue to grow and blossom in the very worst of circumstances, sometimes seeing that tragedy can bring hope to all those who have seemed to have lost it all. As Venus eventually finds out, running from one's past can never allow a person to see a future. The characters were all ordinary people but extraordinary circumstances can change your life. It did theirs. "You must remember, family is often born of blood, but it doesn't depend on blood. Nor is it exclusive of friendship. Trenton Lee Stewart wrote, "Family members can be your best friends, you know. And best friends, whether or not they are related to you, can be your family.”In this book everyone finds out what family truly is.
My Name Is Venus Black by Heather Lloyd is a highly recommended debut coming-of-age novel that explores the repercussions of two crimes on two siblings. This is for mature YA readers. It is 1980 and Venus Black is thirteen and living in Everett, Washington with her mother and stepfather. She is a good kid, straight A student, and loving sister. Venus is enamored with astronomy and wants to be an astronaut. While she refuses to talk about what happened the night she killed Raymond, her stepfather, she does blame her mother, Inez, for reason why it happened. We don't learn what happened until the end of the book, but we do begin to understand that Venus wanted to protect herself and Leo, her developmentally challenged (autistic) younger brother from Raymond. While Venus is locked up awaiting trial, her brother Leo is abducted and goes missing. Leo is seven, but looks much younger. In 1986 at the age of nineteen Venus is released from the juvenile detention facility. Desperate to start over and try to live a normal life, she finds a job under a fake identity and tries to live a normal life in Seattle. She has no contact with her mother and Leo was never found. While Venus is trying to make a new life for herself, her past catches up with her and she realizes that she needs to face her past, talk to Inez, and try to find Leo. The narrative follows Venus and what happens to Leo in alternating chapters in corresponding timelines. Both characters are treated with understanding, insight, and compassion. Leo's story line is particularly well-handled, considering the limitations the autism places on his ability to communicate with those around him. Lloyd has populated her novel with complicated well-developed characters, and handled them with empathy and compassion. There is a message about love, what constitutes a family, forgiveness, and the gray areas that can exist in determining what is right and wrong based on a legal foundation versus a humanitarian/emotional reaction. While the plot moves along quickly and the narrative is very compelling, the actual writing is basically pretty simplistic. It is a YA novel, but that shouldn't mean you need to eliminate all complex sentences or language. I was caught up in the story, however, and concede it is YA so I just went with the straightforward plot and the predictability of the end. I did have to suspend disbelief in a couple cases, one major enough to cause an eye rolling moment. Still, this ends up being a feel-good, heartwarming novel. Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Random House Publishing Group via Netgalley.
It’s been a while since I last really enjoyed a new YA book. My name is Venus Black is such a moving story. I like the way the story unfolds slowly, and little by little you understand what happened. They don’t deliver the whole story all at once - you get to unfold it chapter by chapter, year by year. Even though the story is actually pretty engaging, there are some drawbacks as well. They keep changing the narrator, which is kind of confusing at some parts. And for me, it feels like a YA book for adults, since the story might be a little bit too complicated for teenagers to fully understand. At least I feel I wouldn’t understand it completely if I were like 12 or 13 years old. Overall, it’s my favorite book in 2018 so far.