All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

A couple of years ago I made a “bliss list” of 52 subjects that hook me into reading and enjoying a book: everything from community to eccentricity to Winston Churchill. Number 3 on that list was “insanity, mental illness, and mental differences and disabilities. Everything from schizophrenia to autism to deafness and blindness and how those affect perceptions and ideas.”

All the Bright Places certainly taps into that particular fascination, even though Finch, one of our two protagonists, doesn’t like labels and refuses to think of himself as bipolar or mentally ill. Finch refuses to be characterized by his illness, doesn’t believe that he is the “freak” that the other kids call him, but he definitely isn’t quite normal. He thinks about death and suicide nearly 24/7—until he meets Violet Markey at the top of the school bell tower where he talks her down from the ledge. Everyone else thinks it was Violet who talked Theodore Finch, the Freak, down from jumping off the bell tower, but Violet and Finch know the truth. And now Finch is fascinated with Violet, and vice-versa.

I liked the book, sort of. Ms. Niven did a good job of showing the quirky thought processes of boy who, whether he wants to be labeled or not, is dealing with serious mental illness. And I liked the way the book shows that Theo Finch is actually a real person, not defined by his mania or depression, but definitely becoming more and more enslaved to the sickness as the story progresses.

That said, I had issues with some of the plot and characterizations in this book. Theo’s family is a joke. His father is alternately abusive and absent, and his mother is . . . out of touch? She doesn’t feel like a real person. Theodore lives in a closet half the time, and his mother doesn’t do anything at all. He doesn’t sleep, and he goes out running at all hours of the day and night, and mom is oblivious. He disappears, and she still doesn’t do anything. Do these kind of people exist? Maybe, but I don’t get it.

Then there’s the financial aspect of the story. A lot of YA fiction seems to be written by people who are unaware or actively ignoring the financial realities of middle class life. Theo has a car (why?), but no job. I couldn’t see how he managed to pull twenty dollar bills out of his pocket to pay for books, or keep his car gassed up, or buy gallons and gallons of paint, or buy a huge bouquet of flowers for Violet. His dad didn’t seem like the type to chip in any funds, and Theo’s mom worked two part time jobs, one of them at a bookstore. Violet, too, has all the money she needs to eat out, travel around exploring Indiana with Theo, and do anything else she happens to want to do. Violet also has no job. And both Theo and Violet have the excruciating problem of simply deciding which university they want to attend, with no discussion or consideration of cost. This lack of financial limitations seems to be the case in a majority of YA novels. It only matters which university sends you an acceptance letter; money is no object for these basically middle class teens.

Lastly, All the Bright Places almost glamorizes suicide. Yes, we need to be sympathetic and offer help and not stigmatize those are mentally ill or those who are victims of their own suicidal thoughts. However, the other extreme is to make suicide look good, so cute and quirky. Theo is so creative and intelligent. He’s romantic, even in the throes of suicidal compulsions. He’s the only one who understands Violet. He manages to make his bipolar ravings sound like some kind of esoteric wisdom. SPOILER ALERT: Theo dies, but Violet halfway believes that “[p]eople like Theodore Finch don’t die. He’s just wandering.” At the end of the book, Violet writes an epitaph for Theo: “I was alive. I burned brightly. And then I died, but not really. Because someone like me, cannot, will not die like everyone else. I linger like the legends of the Blue Hole.”

I wanted to say, loudly, to whomever might read this book:

Suicide is NOT glamorous.

It hurts (you and other people).

You won’t linger like a legend.

At the end, you really do die.

Warnings: mild language, and of course, obligatory YA sex.

The Faraway Lurs by Harry Behn

Book #3 for the 48-hour Book Challenge
190 pages, 2 hours

First of all, what are lurs? A lur is “a Bronze-Age musical instrument in the form of a conical tube that is roughly S-shaped, without finger holes. It is end blown, like a trumpet, and sounds something like a trombone. Lurs often come in pairs, so they are often referred to in the plural.”

The Faraway Lurs, published in 1963, honored by ALA as a “notable book”, is a book I read back in the day when I was a teen. I didn’t remember much about it, but I did think it was notable in my reading past as a story with a different setting and feel from most historical fiction set in the distant past. Most fiction based on ancient history is either set in Egypt, Palestine, Greece or the Roman Empire. This one has an early Bronze Age setting in Denmark, about 3000 years ago.

The romantic protagonists are Heather Goodshade of the Forest People tribe and Wolf Stone, a young chieftain’s son from the tribe of the invading Sun People. A Romeo and Juliet story ensues, as Heather and Wolf Stone fall in love and try to bring their two very different tribal cultures together in peace so that they can be together as man and wife. Wolf Stone’s people are savage savages, worshippers of the Sun God and very warlike and violent both within the tribe and toward outsiders. Heather’s people are more gentle savages, but still the ending of the book demonstrates that even Heather’s gentle forest tribe is in cruel bondage to the whims of their “gentle” gods, an ancient Tree and a whispering Spring.

Of course, Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy, and The Faraway Lurs, drawn from the discovery of a burial mound for a young beautiful Stone Age/early Bronze Age girl, ends in tragedy, too, as any reader who read the introduction, where Mr. Behn tells about the discovery that inspired his novel, would know. The girl in the burial mound died young, and so does Heather Goodshade. How that tragic ending comes about is the hook upon which the novel hangs, so I won’t tell you any more.

This book would be good for teens who are studying ancient history, lending to that study a different perspective and a different cultural understanding. The ancient world wasn’t all pharaohs and Roman legions. And it would be to pair the novel with a viewing of Romeo and Juliet and then a comparison of the two stories. There’s nothing sexually explicit in the novel, and the violence is mostly off-stage or described in unobjectionable but straightforward language. The presentation of the tribal cultures themselves would lend itself to a discussion of the need for all humanity in all its tribes and cultures to be redeemed, saved from our propensity toward sin, brutality, and idolatry. Particularly, as I compare Behn’s story with Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and with the recent event of the church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, I am reminded of how human sin and prejudice is only covered over by civilization with a very thin veneer. Our idols continue to betray us; our desire for both power and safety continues to lead us into sin and tragedy; and our separation from God continues to play out in divisions between the people He created as we do violence to ourselves and to others in futile attempts to heal the breach or destroy the other.

May God have mercy upon us all.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.

The Silver Pencil by Alice Dalgliesh

A 1945 Newbery Honor book, The Silver Pencil really isn’t a children’s book at all. It’s more of a young adult fiction book in the tradition of L.M. Montgomery’s sequels to Anne of Green Gables or her Emily of New Moon books, or maybe more like Little Women, the book that The Silver Pencil alludes to and depends upon for its framing device. (The main character, Janet, is a fan of Little Women, and hence of the United States, a country she has never seen until she comes to New York to study in her late teens, except in the pages of Alcott’s inspirational book.)

The Silver Pencil is also quite the autobiographical novel:

“Born October 7, 1893 in Trinidad, British West Indies, to John and Alice (Haynes) Dalgliesh, Alice immigrated to England with her family when she was 13. Six years later she came to America to study kindergarten education at the Pratt Institute in New York City. She eventually received a Bachelor in Education and Master in English Literature from the Teachers College at Columbia University. While she was at school Dalgliesh applied for and received her naturalization as an American citizen. She taught for 17 years at the Horace Mann School, while also leading courses in children’s literature and story writing at Columbia.”

The Silver Pencil‘s protagonist, Janet Laidlaw, also moves from Trinidad to England and then to the United States, to study kindergarten education. She has some health issues and also spends some time recuperating in Nova Scotia, Canada. Janet becomes a kindergarten teacher, but finds that she is better suited to be a writer. She struggles with young adult sorts of issues: finding her vocation, responding to the men who come into her life, deciding in what country her true citizenship should lie. I daresay most young adults don’t need to make the final decision, but they do decide how much of a citizen they will be and what citizenship and civic duty entail.

I liked the book, but it’s not going to appeal to the masses. For teen and twenty-something girls who like stories about bookish and thoughtful young ladies growing up in and earlier time period (again fans of Montgomery’s Emily books, perhaps), The Silver Pencil might be just the thing.

Soulprint by Megan Miranda

The premise of this YA novel is that souls enter new bodies when people die, i.e. human reincarnation. And someone has a computer database record of whose soul has gone where and what that soul did in a past life. This database is controversial, secret, and important because of the other premise in the novel: souls of evil people (in new bodies with new identities) tend to repeat their past crimes. In other words, if I was thief in this life, my thieving soul gets passed on to the next person who inherits my soul.

So, in spite of the philosophically flawed idea of reincarnation, I found the book’s questions intriguing. Nature vs. nurture. Can we overcome or transcend our own past mistakes and sins, even those in this life? How? Why do we often repeat those bad decisions and sinful patterns? How do we become something better than what people expect us to be?

The book begins with seventeen year old Alina Chase, in seclusion on an island by order of the government to keep her from repeating the crimes of her past life. Alina doesn’t know much about who she was in her past life or what she did, but she’s tired of being blamed for something she didn’t really do and can’t even remember. When three other young people help Alina to escape the island, the four go on the run together, but Alina finds that the others have their own agendas and want to use her to gain their own ends. There’s romance, a bit of a triangle, but it’s fairly chaste as YA novels go these days: lots of heavy breathing and some intense kissing.

I liked the book, but the reincarnation thing bothered me because I just don’t believe in it. I found it hard to suspend disbelief and take the “database of past lives” seriously. However, that’s a flaw in my imagination. Otherwise, I thought it was deftly plotted and intriguing enough. It’s for teens looking for a psychological romance thriller in a sci-fi world.

The Captive Maiden by Melanie Dickerson and Five Things That Made Me Smile

I do enjoy a good fairy retelling, but unfortunately this novel, based on the story of Cinderella, is not quite up to par. The characters—Gisela (Cinderella), Valten (the prince), Ruexner (inserted villain), and other minor characters—all seem rather wooden and dull and obscurely motivated. Ruexner especially is the stock villain, complete with black armor and an evil laugh. Had the setting been the Old West rather than medieval Germany, I’m sure he would have been twirling his mustaches and wearing a black hat. As it was, I never could figure out why Ruexner was so evil and so relentless; maybe that unfortunate name made him grouchy? Gisela repeats the cycle of kidnap, escape/rescue, and recapture, not once, not twice, not even the magical thrice, but rather six times over the course of the novel if I counted correctly, and finally when the villain returns for the fifth or sixth time, Gisela groans, “Not again!” I commiserated with her.

I read to the end, hoping that I would get to know and understand the characters better, but I never did. I would only recommend it to the reader who wants a dull and predictable romance story for the purpose of putting herself to sleep at bedtime.

Five Thing That made Me Smile on February 9, 2015:
1. I am losing my hearing. This bare fact does not make me smile; however, sometimes you’ve just gotta laugh at yourself.
I thought she said, “A stick a day keeps the doughnuts away.” ???
She actually said, “A sketch (drawing) a day keeps the dullness away.”

2. Do you believe in Mother? A parable/thought experiment from the Hungarian writer Útmutató a Léleknek. From Gene Veith’s blog, Cranach.

3. Downton Abbey, Season 5, Episode 6. Of course, Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess, Lady Grantham had the best lines: “Oh, all this endless thinking, it’s very overrated. I blame the war: before 1914 nobody thought of anything at all.”

4. Beautiful weather in Houston, sunshine, high temperature in the 70’s.

5. Z-baby is reading Kisses from Katie by Katie Davis, “an excellent and challenging book.”

What made you smile today?

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.

Two YA

Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future by A.S. King.
Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer

I read these two recently acclaimed young adult speculative fiction novels over the Christmas break, and I liked one very much, despite its faults, while I hated the other, despite the interesting premise and better-than-adequate writing.

First, I read Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future by A.S. King. Cringe. The protagonist, Glory, spends almost the entire book grousing about how self-centered her best (and only) friend, Ellie, is. However, it’s Glory herself who comes across as self-absorbed and practically narcissistic. Everything that everyone else in the book does or says is all about Glory and how it affects Glory and what Glory wants. Yes, she’s the narrator of the story, but still I never felt for a moment that Glory had any insight into how someone else in the book might be feeling or what someone else might be thinking. Nor did I feel that she wanted to have that kind of insight. Even the one unselfish thing that Glory does toward the end of the book is sort of mixed-up and full of thoughts about how Glory feels about her own unselfish act. The fantasy part of the book, in which Glory and her friend Ellie see flashes of what has happened and what will happen to people they meet, adds to the story as it reveals the possibilities that lie in the future, but the initial impetus for their ability to see the past and the future is rather ridiculous. They drink a shriveled up, powdered bat. Really. And then they can see brief glimpses of other people’s timelines. I thought through about half of the book that someone was going to realize that both Glory and Ellie were simply bat-crazy and horribly, mind-numbingly egocentric.

Belzhar was a much more satisfying read, even though the language and dialog in the book were not as well-written as Glory O’Brien. The difference was that I somehow cared about what happened to Jam (short for Jamaica), the narrator of Belzhar, whereas I just wanted Glory to hurry up and grow up and get over her navel-gazing. Belzhar tells the story of Jam and her classmates who are in a Special Topics for English class at a special school for teens who are having trouble coping with life and regular school. The teens can’t be mentally ill or drug-addicted, but they are all borderline, dealing with issues in their recent past that have made them unable to cope for one reason or another. Jam is at The Wooden Barn because she recently lost her boyfriend, Reeve, and the grief is killing her. When she realizes that the journal that she writes in for English class can transport her to a magical place, Belzhar, where she can reunite with Reeve, Jam is both thrilled and scared. Is she going crazy? Are her interludes with Reeve real, and how can she make sure they will last forever?

Even though I saw the plot twist coming, and even though the pacing of the novel was uneven, and even though the dialog was sometimes clunky, and even though I wanted to excise the minor homosexual subplot, I enjoyed reading Belzhar. I was intrigued to find out what had happened to Jam and her friends to bring them to their school/retreat, The Wooden Barn, and I was even more curious to see how they would succeed or fail in coping with the issues that they brought with them. Unlike Glory, Jam actually retains, or regains, the ability to care about other people, even while coping with her own difficulties. Jam, like all of us, is a flawed character, and we come to see just how broken she is by the end of the book, but I could identify with her in a way that I couldn’t with Glory O’Brien.

So, read Glory O’Brien ‘s History of the Future for flashy writing and empty, self-centered characters.
Or read Belzhar for engaging stories and characters described in slightly more pedestrian writing style and execution.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.

12 Favorite Young Adult Ficton Books I Read in 2014

Not all of these YA fiction books were published in 2014, but several of them were.

The Winter Horses by Phillip Kerr. Historical fiction/magical realism set in the Ukraine, winter, 1941. If you like horses or World War II stories, check it out.

The Windy Hill by Cornelia Meigs. If this one were published now, it would be YA since it features teenaged protagonists. It’s not at all like contemporary YA, though.

Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys. 1950’s New Orleans, on the seamy side of town.

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart. This novel hit way too close to home for me to be able to write an objective, or even subjective, review. However, I found it quite haunting and memorable.

If You’re Reading This by Trent Reedy. As his senior year in high school begins, Mike receives a series of letters from his father who died in Afghanistan when Mike was eight years old.

Merlin’s Blade by Robert Treskillard. Good Arthurian fiction series, The Merlin Spiral also includes Merlin’s Shadow, and Merlin’s Nightmare.

Always Emily by Michaela McColl. An atmospheric mystery featuring Emily Bronte and her sister Charlotte as a mismatched but effective detective duo.

The Extra by Kathryn Lasky. A fictionalization of the true story of how Hitler’s pet film director, Leni Riefenstahl, enslaved Sinti and Roma gypsies to have them work as extras in her movies.

I Kill the Mockingbird by Paul Acampora. Borderline between middle grade and YA and lots of fun for bookish types.

The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud. Maybe middle grade, maybe YA, but good anyway.

The Whispering Skull by Jonathan Stroud. Book #2 in the Lockwood & Co. series about ghost-busting adolescents in an alternate history Victorian world.

Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer. I just read this one yesterday, but I liked it a lot despite some flaws. My review will be posted in 2015.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.

The Land Uncharted by Keely Brooke Keith

Shangri-la. Brigadoon. The Village. The setting of a land unspoiled by modern technology or by modern barbarity is not a new device. However, in The Land Uncharted, debut author Keely Brooke Keith uses such a setting to anchor a mystery/romance story that transcends time and place.

Lydia Colburn is the only doctor for her village of Good Springs in The Land. She stays busy caring for pregnant women, delivering their babies, and treating accidental injuries. Sickness is rare in The Land. However, when Naval Aviator Connor Bradshaw parachutes onto the beach near Good Springs, injured and unconscious, it is Lydia who is called upon to treat his injuries.

Now The Land itself and its people are in danger, since in the year 2025 the outside world is in the throes of a world war and a shortage of fresh water. The Land has been uncharted and undisturbed for seven generations, since Lydia’s forbears first settled there in the mid-nineteenth century, but now with Connor’s arrival, their bucolic lives may be threatened.

The Land Uncharted is not only a debut novel for the author, a Nashville musician and mom, but it is also the first novel published by the small Christian publisher, Edenbrooke Press, which “exist[s] to publish books written from a Christian worldview.” The Christian worldview in The Land Uncharted is subsumed under a nineteenth century worldview, which assumes Christian values and beliefs rather than preaching or espousing them. Connor Bradshaw, a child of the twenty-first century and a man of war, seems to have very little trouble stepping into this retro-culture and clothing himself in its old-fashioned mores and thought patterns. I would have expected Connor to grapple a bit more with accepting the ideas and religious beliefs of The Land, but then again those ideas and beliefs are never really spelled out for him or for the reader, just assumed.

Nevertheless, The Land Uncharted is a promising start to a series that I will want to continue reading. The second book in the series, which will focus more on Lydia’s brother Levi, is set to be published in March of 2015. This first book would make a lovely Christmas gift for readers of Christian fiction or general romance readers who like a little futuristic speculative fiction in the mix.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.

Always Emily by Michaela MacColl

Last year I read Michaela MacColl’s Nobody’s Secret, a mystery story for young adults set in Amherst, Massachusetts, 1846, and featuring a young Emily Dickinson as the protagonist and sleuth. MacColl’s latest novel, Always Emily, features a different literary Emily, Emily Bronte and her sister Charlotte as a mismatched but effective detective duo.

Emily and Charlotte are as different in character, personality, and appearance as it is possible for two sisters to be. On the first page of the novel the family is at a funeral. Charlotte sat “stiffly, her back perfectly straight.” Emily “fidgeted unconscionably.” Charlotte is later portrayed as bossy, prim, near-sighted and anxious. Emily, on the other hand, is wild, independent, outspoken, and undisciplined. The two sisters share only three things: a passionate nature, inquisitive intelligence, and a love for writing.

The two young women, ages 17 and 19 in the book, squabble and argue incessantly. And yet they manage to work together to solve a mystery and bring a miscreant to justice. I was impressed with the author’s ability to bring these two famous writers to life, along with their sometimes chaotic home life. The youngest Bronte sister, Anne, doesn’t play a part in Always Emily; she’s away on a visit. But their father the Reverend Bronte is very much present, as an indulgent father and a socially concerned pastor and counselor. The Bronte brother, Branwell, is already headed toward a weak and dissolute life in this story. And Tabitha, the young ladies’ Yorkshire cook, servant, and substitute mother-figure, rounds out the cast of characters who live in the Bronte household.

The mystery itself was somewhat slight, but it served as a vehicle for the characters to shine. Fans of the Brontes will enjoy the book, and some readers might become fans after reading about the two fiery and independent Bronte sisters. For a biography of the Brontes, try The Bronte Sisters: The Brief Lives of Charlotte, Emily and Anne by Catherine Reef, a Cybils finalist from last year. For more Bronte-related fiction, I recommend The Return of the Twelves by Pauline Clarke. Ms. Clarke’s fantasy about the Brontes’ toy soldiers who come to life and try to return to the Bronte home in Yorkshire won the Carnegie Medal in 1962 (British title: The Twelve and the Genii). Of course, if you’re interested in direct exposure to the Bronte sisters, Emily and Charlotte, I also recommend either Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre, if you haven’t already read both. Like the sisters themselves, the two books are quite different, but each one is insightful and appealing in its own way.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.
This book is also nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

Throne of Glass by Sarah Maas

I can’t believe I read the whole thing. I even started the second book in the series, Crown of Midnight. Wikipedia says, “The series has received critical acclaim and appeared on the New York Times Best Seller list.” I am not impressed. And hereafter, be warned that since I didn’t like the book very much, and I don’t recommend it, there may be spoilers in my review.

The protagonist, Celaena Sardothien, aside from having an annoyingly unpronounceable first name, seems to be a failed attempt at creating a forceful, aggressive, feminist Cinderella heroine. Author Sarah Maas said in an interview, “I’d love for some young woman to read [Throne of Glass] and feel empowered.” Celaena is supposed to be a master assassin who has survived a year in the salt mines of Endevier, a horrific prison/work camp. However, she comes across to me as a frivolous girl who loves food, especially sweets, and clothes and parties and hunky guys. She is an expert with weapons of any make or model, but in the entire course of Throne of Glass, Celaena never actually assassinates anyone. (She does kill a sort of monster demon cat, but no people.) She mostly depends on the guys, a friend from another country named Nehemia, and some kind of goddess ancestor ghost named Queen Elena, to rescue her from the ultimate dangers in which she finds herself embroiled in an assassin’s competition that forms the backbone of the plot of Throne of Glass.

The book includes (of course) a love triangle. Celeana is pursued by both Prince Darian and Captain of the Guard Chaol (another annoying name). She frequently expresses her desire (in her thoughts) to kiss Darien, and eventually she does. But there’s no chemistry or interest to the budding romance between the assassin and the prince. Chaol is more the strong, silent type, and he and Celeana never get to the point of kissing. The verbal sparring and flirting that goes on between Celeana and each of the guys is neither witty nor romantic; in fact, it’s mostly boring. I didn’t really care which man Celeana chose, and at least in the first book of the series, I wasn’t disappointed because she chooses neither, keeping them both on the string.

So many contradictions marred the plot of this Hunger Games wannabe. Celeana is deathly afraid of and hates the King of Adarlan, her employer, but she is sure her skills are so developed that she could assassinate him in a heartbeat. She says she has no choice but to enter and win the competition to become the King’s Champion, but when she finds a way to escape from the castle and the competition, she decides to wait and see what happens. Some of the competitors are being murdered in a particularly gruesome way, but Celaena is worried about whether or not she is invited to the ball and pouts when she is not.

I could go on, but you get the idea. Throne of Glass is poorly plotted and the characters are unbelievably shallow and contradictory. Celaena is a twit, and I would hate to meet the young woman who is inspired by her character. The series doesn’t improve in the first few chapters of the second book, Crown of Midnight, in which our heroine goes on an extravagant shopping trip for ball gowns in between assassination assignments, so I gave up.