Favorite Poets: Dante Gabriel Rossetti

“A Sonnet is a moment’s monument,—
Memorial from the Soul’s eternity
To one dead deathless hour.”

~Dante Grabriel Rossetti

Hidden Harmony

THE thoughts in me are very calm and high
That think upon your love: yet by your leave
You shall not greatly marvel that this eve
Or nightfall—yet scarce nightfall—the strong sky
Leaves me thus sad. Now if you ask me why,
I cannot teach you, dear; but I believe
It is that man will always interweave
Life with fresh want, with wish or fear to die.
It may be therefore,—though the matter touch
Nowise our love,—that I so often look
Sad in your presence, often feeling so.
And of the reason I can tell thus much:—
Man’s soul is like the music in a book
Which were not music but for high and low.

“The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”
― C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory

Mary Lee Hahn is hosting the Poetry Friday Roundup at A Year of Reading.

Through the Ever Night by Veronica Rossi

For the second book in a trilogy, Through the Ever Night is not bad. It has a beginning that brings readers up to speed fairly quickly (although it would be better to have read the first book in the series, first and recently), and it has an ending, sort of.

As the novel opens Perry and Aria are reunited, but there are obstacles to their romance and threats to their survival. Aria is being blackmailed by Hess, the ruler of Reverie, which is the virtual reality home of her childhood. In the Real world, Perry is now Blood Lord of the Tides, but along with great power comes great responsibility (where have I heard that one before?). The Tides don’t like Dwellers from Reverie, like Aria. And Aria must find the Still Blue, a storied land of calm and safety, in order to free Perry’s nephew, Talon, from the clutches of the evil Hess. Perry also needs to find the possibly mythical Still Blue as a last refuge for his people from the Aether storms and the marauding bands of displaced people who will eventually destroy them.

By the end, they still haven’t found exactly what they’re looking for, some people have died, others have betrayed or been betrayed, and all is still not well under the never sky. But Perry and Aria are together, which is what most readers will have been rooting for all along. This fantasy adventure romance is mostly romance, with a touch of female empowerment and a brooding, wild man hero. Teens will love it, and I found it definitely readable and good enough to keep me on the hook for the third book in the series.

Semicolon review of Under the Never Sky, the first book in this series.

The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson

This YA novel by well-known author Laurie Halse Anderson (Speak, Twisted, Wintergirls, Chains, and Forge) is what I call “an ABC after school special” work of fiction. For those of you who aren’t old enough to remember the after school special movies that were featured on the ABC network back in the day, they were usually dramas (sometimes comedy or documentary) aimed at middle school and young adult audiences about issues that the producers thought were relevant to teens: drug abuse, teen pregnancy, popularity, cancer, sexual harassment, blended families, racism, alcoholism, anorexia, etc. Each drama usually focused on one or more of these teen issues and gave guidance to viewers about how to handle the problem in the form of a story or parable or panel discussion.

Well, The Impossible Knife of Memory is a problem novel about the issue of having a parent who is a veteran suffering from PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder. As the novel opens, Hayley Kincaid and her father, Andy, have been traveling the country for the past five years, running away from Andy’s recurring nightmares and violent outbursts in response to his time as a soldier in Iraq and Afghanistan. Andy is a mess, but he’s decided that Hayley needs a more stable life and a chance to graduate from a brick-and-mortar school. So, the two of them move back to Andy’s hometown.

For the rest of the book, Andy, the dad, messes up: marijuana, fights, alcoholism, suicide attempts, incoherent and dictatorial behavior, criminal associates, and general irresponsibility. Hayley tries to take care of her father and live a “normal” teen life at school at the same time. She acquires a boyfriend, Finn, who is cute and sweet, mostly, but has his own dysfunctional family. In fact, all of Hayley’s friends and acquaintances seem to come from seriously messed-up families. Does Ms. Anderson mean to indicate that all teens deal with some form of parental misbehavior and irresponsibility, or is it just that Hayley picks the ones with dysfunctional families to be friends with?

The title indicates that the book will be about the double-edged sword that is memory: how our memories can both strengthen us and capture us in a web of hopelessness, depending on how we see and process those memories. I’m not sure that the theme indicated in the title came through clearly; I was too distracted by “cute little puppy-dog-like” Finn and by Hayley’s need to get away from her borderline abusive dad. I couldn’t think about the larger themes and issues that the book was trying to illuminate. Maybe if ABC made it into an after-school special, the script writers would hone the focus. As it was, I felt sorry for Hayley, liked Finn, couldn’t stand Gracie (best friend) and her boyfriend, and wanted Andy to go a hospital and get some help.

And that’s about all I gleaned from this particular after-school special novel. I prefer Ms. Anderson’s historical fiction. The book, and maybe the TV special, would be rated PG for some language and “adult” situations and discussions, such as drug abuse, suicide, and adultery.

Dangerous by Shannon Hale

“Shannon Hale as you’ve never read her before!” screams the back cover of my ARC. I would concur. If you’re a fan of Shannon Hale’s Goose Girl and its sequels or her other fairytale-ish stories for middle graders or her take-off on Jane Austen for adult readers, Dangerous might feel a little, well, like new and dangerous territory for Ms. Hale and her readers.

Dangerous is very sci-fi and it’s very much a super-hero story, like Superman(Girl) or Batman or (fill-in-the-blank). The author makes use of lots of common super-hero tropes: a team of superheroes with different powers that work together, hero who dies but is not really dead, the love triangle, big business is evil, superhero needs to save the world from evil aliens. However, and this is where it gets interesting, some of the cliches Ms. Hale turns inside out. Our protagonist, Maisie Danger Brown, who ends up being the only one who can save the world, is a girl. She has loving parents who play a large role in the story. She quotes poetry to express her emotions; however, she’s really into science and math, but not geometry. The team turns out to be not very team-like, with traitors and brokenness abounding.

I read the ARC back in November of 2013, and I’ve found that the outlines of the story stuck with me. Ms. Hale is a skilled writer, with some solidly good ideas. I highly recommend her latest.

Publication date: March 4, 2014.

Under the Never Sky by Veronica Rossi

A homeschooling mom friend recommended Under the Never Sky, the first in a futuristic, dystopian trilogy of YA novels about a place I wouldn’t want to visit In Real Life. Aria lives in Reverie, an enclosed pod-like city where everyone spends their time experiencing life in virtual reality “Realms”. When she visits the outside, the “Real”, Aria is in for a dangerous surprise and a journey that will both change her and show her true self.

Perry is a hunter and a fighter; for him, violence is a way of life, a tool for survival. When he meets the Dweller-girl Aria, the two opposites form an unlikely alliance so that both of them can maybe get what they want. Aria wants to find her mother who has been lost in a research accident (or attack), and Perry wants to find his nephew who was kidnapped by the Dwellers.

Plot and characters were at the forefront of this YA novel, and the story itself was a page-turner. I couldn’t tell you what the story was about, in terms of themes, except maybe that surviving together in a harsh and dangerous world can breed inter-dependence, or even what Perry calls “being rendered” with another person.

“Aria smiled, turning toward him, her eyes dropping to his mouth. The room sweetened with her violet scent, drawing him in, becoming everything, and he felt it. A shift deep within him. The seal of a bond he’d known once before. And suddenly he understood . . .
It happened.
He had rendered to her.”

This one is a good, romantic yet wild and ferocious, adventure story for alternate universe geeks who love a good rendering on or around Valentine’s Day (or anytime really). The second and third books in this trilogy are titled Through the Ever Night and Into the Still Blue.

Edenbrooke by Julianne Donaldson

“In true romance fashion, it’s pretty easy to guess how the relationships will all work out.” ~Susan Coventry at ReadingWorld.

Susan made this rather predictable observation about a different Regency romance novel that she was reviewing, but the truism pretty much sums up Edenbrooke as well. I picked up Edenbrooke from my library bookshelf because I needed something light, and easy, and yes, predictable, to distract me from the not-so-light, not-so-easy, and not predictable at all things that are going on in my real life. Edenbrooke served its purpose admirably.

Gentleman meets lady in dire circumstances. Her carriage has just been attacked by a highwayman, and she has escaped, barely. The gentleman is at first unhelpful and insufferably rude. Then, he realizes his mistake and becomes quite charming. The two develop a bantering relationship, interspersed with smoldering looks, racing pulses, and lots of double talk. Misunderstandings ensue. The Noble Idiot plot is enacted on both sides: she must give up him because her twin sister planned to pursue him first, and he must not pursue her because honor forbids that he do so while she is a guest in his house (really?).

Misunderstandings are eventually cleared up to the satisfaction of all concerned. Barriers to true love are removed. Pulses continue to race. Smoldering looks become passionate kisses, and all live happily ever after.

Thank you, Ms. Donaldson, for an afternoon of pleasant distraction.

Note: Both Edenbrooke and Ms. Donaldson’s second Regency romance, Blackmoore, are billed as “A Proper Romance.” There are no sex scenes, and the prose never turns even slightly purplish. “Proper Romance” is a product category of Shadow Mountain Publishing, which is, in turn, the general trade imprint of Deseret Books, owned by the Church of Jesus Christ, Latter Day Saints (Mormon). There is nothing specifically “Mormon” about Edenbrooke.

Shadow Mountain Publishing announces a new brand of romance novels, appropriately dubbed “a proper romance,” with the newly released title Edenbrooke, by Julianne Donaldson.
This new brand of “proper” romance allows readers to enjoy romance at its very best—and at its cleanest—portraying everything they love about a passionate, romantic novel, without busting corsets or bed scenes.

For Darkness Shows the Stars by Diana Peterfreund

Futuristic, post-apocalyptic science fiction that’s very loosely based on or inspired by Jane Austen’s novel of manners and thwarted love, Persuasion. Eliot North, the main character, is a girl who, like Ann Eliott in Persuasion has chosen duty over love and passion. As she is unavoidably throw together with the man she rejected over four years previously to the opening of our story, Elliot must decide how to guard her heart and remain true to her principles of loving and caring for the innocent and helpless.

There is, as I said, a science fiction apocalypse aspect to this story: the world is living in the aftermath of genetic experimentation gone awry, and the Luddites, who rejected the genetic experiments, are the only ones who are holding things together and providing for the Reduced, the mentally challenged victims of the experimentation. Elliot is a Luddite. Some characters, called Posts, have transcended the Reduction of their ancestors, but the Luddites still treat the Posts like Reduced slaves.

What I liked best about this novel was the Jane Austen tie-in. It made me want to go back and re-read Persuasion. I also liked Elliot as a character, although she could be remarkably obtuse at times. In fact, all of the characters in the novel had their moments when they should have seen what I as the reader could see clearly, but they didn’t. And sometimes, in a way I can’t exactly put my finger on, the characters jumped to slightly erroneous conclusions or unusual interpretations of events that didn’t seem to be warranted by the information given in the book. It made the novel skew very juvenile, maybe middle grade even, definitely YA rather than adult.

Maybe the problem was that Elliot North and her rejected suitor Malakai Wentforth just aren’t adult in the same way that Ann Elliot and her erstwhile love Frederick Wentworth are grown-up and mature in Jane Austen’s Persuasion. Elliot and Malakai are only eighteen, and they act emotionally like sixteen year olds or younger. None of these issues spoiled what was essentially a good story, but they were there nagging at the back of my mind as I read.

Rainbow Rowell and the World with No Rules

I plead guilty. I am a prude, a moralist, a prig. And I am so tired of living in world without rules. I am so tired of reading about a world without rules, watching movies and TV shows in which there is nothing that is off limits (except rules themselves). Yes, I know we need grace; I need grace the way I need air, food, and water. I survive and live by the grace of God. But we also need Law. Boundaries. Some sort of framework to live by, to measure by, something besides my own emotions and my own weakness. Something to which to apply the grace that God so freely offers.

And what has this rant to do with the latest, greatest, most popular YA fiction author of 2013 (if I am to judge by all the 2013 best-of lists that include one or both of the books she published this past year)? Rainbow Rowell is the author of Eleanor and Park, a high school love story, and Fangirl, a freshman year in college love story. I read Eleanor and Park first, and I’ll admit I liked it. The lady knows how to tell a story and especially how to create characters that shine. Eleanor is a fat girl with a dysfunctional family. Park is a Korean American boy with a fully functional family, but he lives life at the mercy of school bullies and of his own insecurities about being short and small and sort of geeky (or nerdy, I can never remember the difference). The slow build-up to romance between the two outsiders was fun to read and well-written. Then, wham! The two sixteen year olds did whatever it was they did in the backseat of a car (I skimmed). Oh, why did we have to have that part? Why couldn’t Park just say that he thought Eleanor was beautiful but he respected her and didn’t want to take advantage of her vulnerability, or something? I got a little tired, but as I said, I skimmed.

Then, I read Fangirl, different plot, different age group, similar characters. There’s a girl, Cath, with a dysfunctional family who’s closed off and vulnerable at the same time. There’s a guy, Levi, from a Baptist family, who’s sweet and caring and giving to the point of saccharinity. But Ms. Rowell reins in the sweet so that Levi is just that, adorable and no more. Fangirl feels for a while as if it could be about the consequences of living without any moral framework. In fact, Cath’s twin sister, Wren, messes up big time because no one has ever told her what the rules are or expected her to live by any rules at all (absent mother, mentally ill father). But Levi and Cath get along just fine without any reference to religion or morality or . . . anything. All that stuff is so . . . old-fashioned. Levi mentions that his mom is involved in church and attends a “prayer circle”, but that whole world is dismissed lightly and quickly as parental quirkiness. Cath’s and Wren’s dad tries to make some rules for Wren, the out of control daughter, but the whole stern parent thing comes out of nowhere. I can’t imagine any eighteen year old who has been as neglected as Wren and Cath have been listening to the lecture Wren’s dad gives or adhering to his sudden burst of regulations and injunctions.

So we come back to a world without authority. Without a moral framework. Why is it wrong for one of the characters in the novel to plagiarize? Because Cath doesn’t like it? Why is OK for Cath and her roommate to badmouth and make fun of all the freshmen in the cafeteria? Because it makes them feel better about themselves and because they’re witty when they do it? Why is it wrong for Wren to get drunk every weekend and drink herself into oblivion? Because it feels bad? Why is it right for Cath and Levi to make out in his bedroom? Because it feels good? Why do I want to read details of these make-out sessions? Because . . . I can’t really think of any good reasons. (I skimmed . . . again.)

I agree with this essay by Shannon Hale, in which she argues that YA novels should be written for teen readers, not adults who just want the teenagers in the books to hurry up and grow up. I’m not advocating for the teens in this book to grow up already and have their worldview and ethics all figured out. I just want them to have something, preferably Christianity, but something, to push against, to wrestle with, and possibly to grow into. All they have in these books is empty air and secularist posing. It’s sad and it makes me tired, no matter how good the writing may be. And I fear for our kids who are going to be even more jaded and exhausted with the shadow boxing and with the vacuum of virtue and moral standards before they ever get to be adults.

This post is not so much a review of the books as it is a reflection on the world we live in. Read the books and see what you think. I will admit that I will be thinking about Eleanor and Park and Cath and Levi and Wren for a long time. I would be praying for them if they were real people. I’m saddened to think that they probably are real people.

A Song for Bijou by Josh Farrar

I know all about girls who are boy-crazy. Some of my friends in junior high seemed to change overnight into make-up slathering, giggling, boy-watching, clothes horse, obsessives. However, Alex Shrader is a change from the old female heartsick for boys protagonist. He’s a seventh grade boy who’s recently become absolutely fixated on girls, and within the first few paragraphs of the story Alex becomes fixated on one girl in particular, the new girl at St. Catherine’s School, Bijou, who’s newly arrived from Haiti.

Bijou on the other hand, is NOT interested in having Alex or anyone else for a boyfriend. She has just come to New York City to live with her very strict Uncle Pierre and Aunt Marie Claire, and she couldn’t meet with a boy, even if she wanted to, which she doesn’t. Haitian tradition doesn’t allow young girls to spend time with anyone outside the family, not even girlfriends, much less boys, so budding romance just isn’t a possibility.

But of course, this is a romance novel, so love triumphs over all obstacles: Alex’s awkward shyness and inexperience, Bijou’s lack of interest in romance, Bijou’s strict family rules, Alex’s immature friends and enemies, the fact that the two middle school students go to different schools, etc. Lots of obstacles. Nevertheless, I was rooting for Alex because he is such a gentleman.

And I’m rooting for this middle grade novel, even though it has a few barriers to success, too. The cover picture is adorable, but I’m a girl. Are guys, even girl-crazy guys going to carry around a book with an “adorable” cover like this one? OK, so say the male readership buys their copies on an ereader. There are still a few awkward scenes and bits of dialog. For example, Bijou asks herself, about one of the girls who has been making fun of her, but is now almost in tears after a war of words: “Is she so filled with hate, she can’t enjoy her victory for even a moment?” What does that mean? Wouldn’t some one who is filled with hate enjoy her victory (in an argument) all the more?

There are few other false notes in this otherwise lovely song for Bijou, but I just skipped over those. Alex is so goofy and sweet, and Bijou is so reserved and mysterious. It really is a good match, and who can resist young love between two awkward adolescents in New York City? Well, probably lots of people can resist, but I was hooked. The fact that Bijou is from Haiti and that Haitian culture is featured prominently in the story helped the appeal. I like learning about other cultures alongside my book characters.

So if you’re interested in rara music, drumming, Haiti, first love, middle school drama, Haitians, Dominicans, and Jamaicans in the U.S., or none of the above, you might enjoy A Song for Bijou. This middle grade novel has been nominated for the Cybils Award in the category of Middle Grade Fiction. The thoughts in this review are my own and do not reflect the thoughts or evaluations of the Cybils panel or of any other Cybils judge.

The Clear Light of Day by Penelope Wilcock

I’m a huge fan of Penelope Wilcock’s series of books called The Hawk and the Dove about a medieval monastery and the lives of the monks of St.Alcuin. So when I spotted The Clear Light of Day, set in present day England, at the used bookstore, I snapped it up. And it was a lovely, but frustrating, read.

The lovely part was an unconventional romance between a middle-aged, divorced Methodist minister, Esme Browne, and an older (much older) country eccentric who repairs bicycles, does odd-jobs, and spins rather unoriginal homespun philosophies. The frustrating part was the Oprah-ish spirituality that was supposed to be oh-so-free-thinking and new and unorthodox. Jabez Ferral and his even older friend Ember are “spiritual but not religious” and the parts of the book in which they told about how they believed in “simplicity” and “thinking globally and acting locally” bored me and made me want to quit reading. Here’s an example:

I’m not sure what deity is, my love; but life is sacred, life is wise. One day, if my smoke finds the way home, and wakes the great Spirit, then the face of life that is death will come speeding silent like a hunting owl, and take the cancer of humanity off this poor, stripped, raped mother Earth, take it silent and quick, no more than a squeak of alarm; and the mountains will have their peace again, and the oceans give back the heavenly blue. The guns and the cars will rust, and the televisions will be quiet at last, and the factories and schools and government buildings will be for the bramble, the rat, and the crow. Is that what you call praying?

I don’t like preachy books, especially when they’re not even preaching the gospel, but rather some kind of spiritual gobbledygook.

So, good story, good characters, too much (bad) philosophy. Stick to Ms. Wilcock’s monks, who sometimes venture into post-modern spirituality but are kept from its worst excesses by the need for historical verisimilitude.