Review: Haroun and the Sea of Stories, Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie’s novel Haroun and the Sea of Stories is the story of Haroun Khalifa, the son of storyteller Rashid. Rashid has lost his “gift of gab” after his wife, Haroun’s mother, leaves him for the boring, clerkish Mr. Sengupta, their neighbor. The Khalifas live in the country of Alifbay in a sad city that has forgotten its name. When Rashid attempts and fails to tell a story at a political rally (he makes something of a career telling stories at such rallies), he is quite literally run out of town and must go to the Valley of K and redeem himself at a rally for Mr. Snooty Buttoo. Or else. Mr. Snooty Buttoo takes Rashid and Haroun out on the Dull Lake in a ship, and Haroun wakes in the night to find a Water Genie disconnecting his father’s invisible tap, from which all his stories spring. Haroun is whisked away by the genie to speak to the Walrus, leader of the Eggheads who control the Processes to Complicated to Explain on the moon of Kahani, or Story, where the societies of Gup and Chup are about to go to war over the pollution of the Sea of Stories and the kidnapping of Guppee princess Batcheat.

Haroun and the Sea of Stories is ostensibly a children’s or young adult book, but the philosophical underpinnings and questions it raises are definitely meant for people of all ages to ponder. It was the first book Rushdie wrote after the fatwa dictated by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini put Rushdie’s life in danger in an attempt to silence Rushdie’s own stories. It’s a fantastic novel that explores the complexities of where stories come from and what happens when they are “polluted” by those who would attempt to use them for their own ends or to silence them altogether. Motifs such as freedom of speech, the truth or reality of stories, creating meaning from stories in a modern world, and the purpose of stories and storytelling are at the center of what looks, at first blush, like a fantasy children’s tale. It’s a thoughtful meditation on the importance of stories. Rushdie apparently began telling the story orally to his son at bathtime, and it later evolved into this book.

I will start teaching it tomorrow to students in my ninth grade World Literature course. I should have finished the novel a long time ago, but it’s not been an easy year for me in a lot of ways, and perhaps it’s for the best that I waited to read it so that it is quite fresh for me. It means I wasn’t able to help as much as I wanted to with the initial planning of the novel, but I am blessed to have wonderful colleagues who stepped in when I wasn’t ready, and I feel I can contribute now. I’m so glad we picked this book, not just because it has a hero’s journey motif, which is one focus for the year, and not just because we were able to introduce an Indian author where previously we had a white British author, but also because it’s an excellent book that speaks to our schoolwide essential question: How do we honor and harness the power of our stories?

Rating: ★★★★★

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Review: Library of Souls, Ransom Riggs

Library of Souls is the third novel in the Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children series. At the end of the previous novel, Hollow City, Jacob Portman has discovered that he not only has the power to see and fight hollowgasts, but he can also control them. He is going to need this power as he travels to the Devil’s Acre, a corrupted loop in the cesspool of Victorian London controlled by wights, to rescue all his peculiar friends and their guardian, Miss Peregrine, along with other ymbrynes.

Emma and Jacob encounter Sharon, who says he can take them to Devil’s Acre, near the docks in London. They set off with Addison the dog for the most dangerous adventure they will yet experience—right into the fortress of the wights itself. The fate of all peculiardom rests on their shoulders.

Library of Souls introduces what I think is probably one of the best secondary characters in the series—the boatman Sharon (think Charon). His dark sense of humor is fun, and he’s interesting to watch—can he be trusted? Jacob and Emma also learn a lot more about the seedier side of peculiardom, including the horrible accident in Siberia (we know it as the Tunguska event) that created hollowgasts, and therefore, also created wights—a scourge peculiars have been hiding from for about 100 years.

As Jacob and Emma learn more, the mythos of peculiardom is fleshed out, and there are ample opportunities for Riggs to continue the series, focusing on new adventures. This particular volume of the series was hard to put down. I think it had perhaps a little bit less of the humor (thought it still retains plenty of funny moments), which makes sense due to the seriousness of the situation in which Jacob and Emma find themselves. I read nearly all of the last half of the book in one big gulp today. It’s been a while since I’ve picked up a book so good I didn’t want to put it down.

Rating: ★★★★★

This book made for a great creepy read for the R. I. P. Challenge, and I’m counting it also for the Reading England Challenge, as Devil’s Acre is the worst of Victorian London. However, I am not counting for other challenges. I just bought the book in September, and it hasn’t been on my TBR list long. It’s not exactly historical fiction either—more of a fantasy.

RIP Eleven

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Review: Hollow City, Ransom Riggs

When Hollow City, the second novel in the Miss Peregrine series, came out a few years ago, I bought it immediately. I also started reading it right away. But for some reason, I set it aside after maybe the first chapter or so, and I didn’t pick it up again until recently. I just can’t imagine now how I ever put it down! The book is nonstop action pretty much from start to finish. One of my students who had read the series last year said that I would want to start the third book immediately after finishing this one, and he was right.

Hollow City picks up right where Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children leaves off, as Jacob and the other peculiars escape their island with the injured and “stuck” Miss Peregrine. Be warned: this book does not fill in the gaps for anyone who hasn’t read the first book. You are going to have to start with the first book if you want to follow the story. I had a bit of trouble because it had been a long time since I read Miss Peregrine. In this second book, the peculiars go in search of an ymbryne who can help Miss Peregrine return to her human form. They search for and find a time loops run by an ymbryne named Miss Wren, but they learn Miss Wren is missing. She is the only known ymbryne who has not been captured by wights, so the peculiars set off to London in search of her.

Riggs writes good dialogue, and his characters are well-drawn, particularly his secondary characters like Olive, Millard, Addison the dog, and Enoch. I admit I found the “romance” between Jacob and Emma to be a bit wooden and pat, but the story itself was interesting, and the ending was an excellent surprise. The images are amazing. Do yourself a favor and read this one on paper and not on an e-reader or audiobook. You will get a lot more out of the images if you can savor them and flip through the book.

In all, I definitely recommend the book. It’s a great choice for the R. I. P. Challenge.

Rating: ★★★★½

Because I’ve had this book on my shelf and TBR (or really, a to-be finished) pile for a long time, I’m glad to be able to count it for my Shelf Love and Mount TBR Challenges. I’m also counting this book for both the Reading England 2016 and R. I. P. Challenges.

RIP Eleven

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Review: American Girls, Alison Umminger

Alison Umminger’s novel American Girls will be released next month on June 7, but I received an ARC at an English teacher’s conference in November. I hadn’t picked it up until recently. April and May were busy and stressful at work, and I’m afraid my reading life took a bit of a backseat. I share books I think my students will like each class period because they are doing independent reading, and I know hearing about a book that sounds intriguing will encourage them to pick up books to read. Book talks make all the difference in helping students select books to read. I shared this book a couple of weeks ago and found myself rather intrigued by the book’s premise, so I picked it up instead of putting it back on the shelf for my students.

Fifteen-year-old Anna steals her stepmother’s credit card and buys a plane ticket to Los Angeles with the vague notion of visiting her sister, who is trying to make it as an actress. As the story unfolds, it is clear Anna is running from a fairly dysfunctional family. She feels sidelined and ignored by both her mother and her father, and her best friend Doon talked her into bullying a classmate of Doon’s. Anna’s mother agrees to let Anna stay in Los Angeles for the summer, but she needs to work to earn back the money to repay her stepmother. Delia, Anna’s sister, manages to find Anna a job researching the Manson Family for creepy film director Roger, Delia ex-boyfriend. Meanwhile, Delia also arranges for Anna to stay with Delia’s current boyfriend Dex on the set of the TV show for which he writes, Chips Ahoy, a ridiculous and terrible show starring the Taylor twins, Josh and Jeremy, the younger brothers of washed-up superstar actress and pop singer, Olivia Taylor. Anna spends her summer hanging around the D-list, immersing herself in the history of the Manson Family, and becoming increasingly intrigued by the Manson “girls,” Leslie Van Houten, Patricia Krenwinkle, Susan Atkins, and Squeaky Fromme. Ultimately, what this book really explores is the way in which American society crushes its girls and women, particularly in Los Angeles, where “pretty winds up looking like a hundred girls who look like a hundred other girls who are all trying to look like the same person,” and “after a while, pretty doesn’t even register” (263).

This is an interesting book, and not only because it’s probably the first YA novel I’ve ever seen to explore the Manson Family. Anna’s voice is whipsmart and sarcastic. She has a chip on her shoulder, but she has pretty good reasons. Even with its sometimes dark subject matter, there is plenty of humor in this book, courtesy of the strong first-person narration of Anna. She is realistically drawn and easy to sympathize with. The book skewers the Disney child-star road to ruination quite effectively. We should all be praying for those kids with Disney shows. Olivia Taylor is clearly similar to Miley Cyrus/Britney Spears, and the Taylor twins (and even their TV show) make one think of Dylan and Cole Sprouse, whose TV show The Suite Life on Deck sounds remarkably similar to Chips Ahoy. Though it should be said, the real-life Sprouse twins don’t seem to have as many issues as the Taylor twins, and they have even taken time away from Hollywood to go to college. Olivia, Josh, and Jeremy’s mother could be Pamela Des Barres or Bebe Buell—she was a groupie whose children are the results of relationships with rock stars. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that Olivia Taylor’s name is so similar to that of Liv Tyler, the daughter of Aerosmith singer Steven Tyler and groupie Bebe Buell.

One thing the book captures really well is the disposable way in which young women in Southern California are treated. I lived there for a few years when I was in high school, and if there is any place in the country that is the absolute worst for sexualizing teenage girls and taking their identities away and replacing them with these plastic veneers—all facelifts, capped teeth, and anorexia—I can’t think of one. One scene stands out vividly in my mind. I was in marching band, and the girls in the flag corps were running some drills or practicing or maybe getting ready—that part is actually fuzzy—but I clearly remember their coach saying, “Be sexy! Be sexy!” They were fifteen and sixteen. I could tell you about worse, but I don’t really want to put it on a blog. Suffice it to say I don’t think teenage girls grow up in Southern California unscathed. This book really exposes what it’s like. A couple of passages that particularly resonated:

But If I had to write a memo to America, on what to do to improve the future, on how to go back and correct the past, it would be simple: Dear America: Please give your daughters sturdy bedroom doors that lock from the inside. And when they are hungry, give them a place at the table. (262)

Later, Anna connects her understanding of what she has seen in Los Angeles to the American Dream of Jay Gatsby:

Maybe Los Angeles was like Gatsby’s dream of Daisy, but for all of America. Instead of sitting on a pier and gazing at a green light across the water, now people just sat in their living rooms and watched the wide-screen, 3-D version of some life that was out there for the taking, if only they could get off the couch. (284)

Anna thinks a great deal about the Manson girls and what led them to follow Charles Manson’s orders to kill. Ultimately, her conclusions should make all of us shudder. I thought this book was different from most YA I have read, and I would highly recommend it. The gritty picture it paints of American girls will trouble you, but it’s all the more troubling that the picture is real.

Rating: ★★★★½

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free at the NCTE annual convention. I was not asked to write a review in exchange.

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Review: The Rock and the River, Kekla Magoon

Kekla Magoon’s novel The Rock and the River is the story of Sam, son of a civil rights leader named Roland Childs, who is a friend of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s and a leading voice of the Movement. Sam and his older brother Steven, whom Sam calls “Stick,” find themselves increasingly frustrated by the lack of progress they see. When they are attacked at one of their father’s rallies, they fight back, and Stick winds up in the hospital. Some time later, Sam and his friend Maxie witness the brutal beating and false arrest of one of their friends. Sam finds Black Panther literature in his brother’s things. Though he knows involvement in the Black Panther Party would disappoint his father, Sam finds himself drawn to the group, especially the political education classes, free breakfast program, and the promise of a free clinic. At the same time, he is also attracted to the Black Panther Party’s more militant ideals, especially after the Movement loses Dr. King to an assassin’s bullet, and Sam’s own experiences with police lead him to question whether his father’s way will really bring about change or if there is a another way.

The Rock and the River is an intriguing coming-of-age story. I can’t recall that I’ve ever read any historical fiction, or even memoir/nonfiction about the Black Panther Party (aside from Wikipedia). Most of the focus of the Civil Rights Movement is on nonviolent social protest and leaders like King. Given the attention police violence against the black community has received over the last couple of years, many young adults will find Sam’s story interesting in offering a historical perspective. After a fashion, the Black Panther Party is one of the first #blacklivesmatter organizations. Some of the good they did for their communities is obscured by violence perpetuated by some individuals in the Black Panther Party. As shown in Magoon’s novel, the Panthers did institute free breakfast programs, legal counsel, and clinics in underserved and forgotten communities. Magoon does not flinch from showing the Panthers’ tensions with the police, either. I found the book to be an honest and balanced portrayal of the group (based on my own research). I plan to recommend the book for my students and get a copy for my own classroom library.

Something I have been thinking about a great deal, as it has come up both in my teaching and in my own thinking, is that we need everyone’s stories. All of us have stories. I know for a long time I heard one story about the Black Panther Party, and it wasn’t a very nuanced one. I think I started digging into my own albeit somewhat cursory research around the time I started reading and later watching Aaron McGruder’s comic/TV show, The Boondocks. The strip’s main character, Huey Freeman, is named after Huey P. Newton, one of the founders of the Black Panther Party. This connection prompted me to read a little bit more about Newton and the Black Panthers. Magoon’s book is the first novel I’ve seen about the group, however. I particularly appreciated the novel’s nuanced portrayal of the Black Panthers. It was an intriguing book and told a story that I haven’t seen told before. There is a danger in hearing only one story or one side. People, and by extension groups of people, are rarely all good or all bad or all black or all white. For that reason, I think it’s important that we hear as many stories as we can and make it our business to listen to one another. I’m glad that Magoon told this story.

Rating: ★★★★☆

Set in 1968 Chicago, this book was published in 2009. I purchased it for my Kindle in 2010, but I hadn’t read it until now. Picking it up enabled me to address a book that’s been on my reader library and in my TBR pile for quite some time. A good start for three challenges in the first week and a half of January!

 

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Review: Revolution, Jennifer Donnelly, narrated by Emily Janice Card and Emma Bering

I believe I’ve just finished reading my last book of 2015, and it was a re-read of one of my favorites, Jennifer Donnelly’s novel Revolution. This time, I listened to the audio book. I have this book in hardcover, Kindle, and audio book, but I hadn’t listened to it until this week. It was even better on a re-read than it was the first time I read it.

Since I reviewed the book last time I read it, this time, I really want to mention a couple of things that struck me. First, this book is tightly written. It all works. I picked up on so many things I missed on a first reading. The sections of Dante’s poetry correspond well to Andi’s descent into darkness and her literal descent into hell in the catacombs, where she is, naturally, accompanied by Virgil. I was so swept away with the plot the first time I read that I missed some of the artistry of the writing. Equally impressive is Donnelly’s research. She fictionalizes some details. Andi’s thesis focus, the composer Amadé Mahlerbeau, is fictional, as are her Nobel-prize winning father and his historian friend G. However, they all have their basis in historical or contemporary figures who do similar work. Another thing I noticed about Donnelly’s writing is that she allows the reader to be creative and connect the dots. She doesn’t knock you over the head with the connections. She wants you to do the work. She wants you to do some digging and find out what she has learned.

I also noticed how well Donnelly pulls off the twinning. Maximilien Robespierre and the schizophrenic Maximilien R. Peters, who is responsible for the death of Andi’s brother Truman, work very well in a pair and serve as an interesting symbol of the brutality and stupidity of the world and the cyclical nature of history’s desperate individuals. It’s almost not too hard to believe that Alex might reach across history, 200 years in the future, to save Andi and let her know that just because the world goes on, stupid and brutal, it doesn’t mean that she has to—she can be a positive force for good in the world. She can make people happy. The world can be a scary, crazy place. Particularly today, we see a lot of stories in the news that make us despair and make us want to give up. Perhaps in the end, all we have left to do is to do the good that we can. We don’t have to participate in the world’s brutality and stupidity.

Donnelly said in an interview that “a good story with a compelling character that’s well written should appeal to anybody.” I think that’s why this book is so good. Andi may be a teenager, but the fact that she is a young protagonist doesn’t make her story any less applicable or interesting. This book really makes me want to write, and that’s always the sign of a really good book to me—the ones that make me want to write.

Emily Janice Card narrated most of the book, while Emma Bering narrated Alex’s diary entries. Both narrators were brilliant. Card especially does a brilliant job bringing Andi’s sarcastic and hard edge to life. You can hear the chip on her shoulder. Card happens to be the daughter of Orson Scott Card. I read that she was named for two of my favorite writers (and Orson Scott Card’s, apparently): Emily Dickinson and Emily Brontë. I really didn’t want to stop listening to this book. I have to be doing something mindless while I listen to audio books or else I get distracted from the story. When I didn’t have anything mindless to occupy me while listening to this book, I pulled my hardcover off the shelf and read along with the narrators. I need to go back and re-read a few favorite passages.

Last time I read this book, I was craving more books just like it, but I’m afraid there probably aren’t any. It’s brilliant.

Keep scrolling for the book’s playlist. You don’t want to miss it.

Rating: ★★★★★
Audio Rating: ★★★★★

The playlist for this particular book is massive and varied, as Andi is one of those folks who loves music. All kinds. I suspect it needs a bit of revision because there are musical references on just about every page of the book. That’s another thing I love about it. The music.

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Review: Where She Went, Gayle Forman

Where She Went is the sequel to Gayle Forman’s novel If I Stay. It picks up the story of Mia and Adam about three years after the events of the previous book. In the intervening time, Mia and Adam broke up and lived very separate lives. Mia went to Juilliard and pursued her dream of being a renowned cellist. Meanwhile, Adam channeled all his hurt and pain over Mia’s rejection into writing songs, and almost before he knew it, his band Shooting Star had a hit record, and he was a rock star, complete with an actress girlfriend and a jet set lifestyle. Inside, he feels hollow, and even music no longer means much to him. On his last night in New York before heading to London for a tour with his band, Adam is alone. He’s just flipped out in the middle of an interview, and his manager gives him the evening off to pull himself together. Wandering around New York, he finds himself at Carnegie Hall, and he is stunned to discover Mia is playing there, that night. He purchases a rush ticket and watches her concert. At the end, an usher approaches him and says that “Ms. Hall would like you to come backstage.” Mia takes Adam on a tour of her New York, and over the course of the evening, they say all the things they left unsaid when they parted.

Some reviewers claim that they like this book even better than the first, which is unusual, as sequels often don’t measure up to the promise of the first book in a series. In my own review of If I Stay, I mentioned that it would have been a book I’d have adored as a teenager—and I do mean it would have been one my absolute favorite books of all time if I had encountered it in high school. Adam would have been exactly the kind of boyfriend I’d have wanted in high school. By my mid-twenties, I had soured big time on that kind of guy because of the kind of person Adam became after his band made it big. The problem with so many of those types is that they never really mature out of their own selfishness. They’re terribly cool people, and they are interesting and artistic. But they are horrible to be in love with. The interesting thing about this book is that it exposes that side of rock musicians and also that it allows Adam a chance to grow out of it. This book is told from Adam’s point of view rather than Mia’s, and I found her to be very interesting in his head. As someone who has read the first book, I also have Mia’s own point of view, but Adam doesn’t have it. He is filled with insecurity and anxiety, but mostly he’s just numb and sort of sleepwalking through his life. I think I actually liked this book better, too. What happens to Mia in the first book is terrible—almost too terrible—but the horrible mundanity of a devastating breakup is something we can all relate to, and Forman captures the feeling so well. Mia and Adam are grown up now, too, and though they are young, they have lost that naivete and innocence they had in the first book. Well, they must. They’ve experienced a great deal of pain and growth. One has the sense at the end of Where She Went that they will be okay and will be able to handle whatever happens next, whether that means they will be together or not.

Rating: ★★★★★

Here’s the playlist, with one substitution unavailable in Spotify (Le Tigre’s “My My Metrocard” for “Deceptacon,” a track from the same album).

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Review: If I Stay, Gayle Forman

Gayle Forman’s novel If I Stay is the story of Mia, an accomplished cellist and senior in high school. Mia lives in Oregon, and when the schools close for a snow day (“I think the county overreacted,” Mia says), the family decides to make a day of it and visit friends, family, and the bookstore. In a split second, Mia’s entire life is shattered when her family’s car is hit by a pickup truck. Mia finds herself outside her body, watching as the ambulance arrives, watching as she is taken to Portland by medivac, and watching as she lies in a coma in the ICU. Mia realizes that she must make the decision: “I realize now that dying is easy. Living is hard” (175).

I’m a little late with If I Stay. I think a lot of folks have read it already, so it might not be new to you. In fact, it’s been on my TBR list for years. This is exactly the kind of book I’d have been in love with as a teenager. I must have re-read Judy Blume’s Tiger Eyes countless times. In many ways, Mia reminds me a bit of Davey in Blume’s book, though the tragedy she must cope with is much larger in scope and also involves her own personal fight for recovery. I think if this book had existed when I was in high school, I’d have re-read it as much as I re-read Tiger Eyes, and I can’t praise it much more highly than that. Adam is definitely the kind of boyfriend I’d have wanted in high school. Like Mia, I was a musician in high school with some starry-eyed dreams of actually being good enough to go to Juilliard. Unlike Mia, I knew I didn’t have the talent it would take to do it. The cello is, in fact, one of my favorite instruments, and my daughter played it in school. I think I would really have connected to this story if I’d read it in high school.

So what about adult me? Well, at this stage of my life, I recognize Adam is NOT the kind of guy I’d want to be with (nice enough, but the rock musician types are more cool on paper). I consider music important, but it doesn’t consume me as much as it did when I was in high school, and perhaps that is my loss. I have really wanted to get back into playing either the flute or the guitar (or both) again. I’m in a different place, which is as it should be, and it makes me a little sad this book wasn’t around when I was in high school (but I think Gayle Forman was probably in high school right then as well). It’s a great book. I enjoyed it a lot. It’s the first time in a long time that I’ve considered how much more I might have liked a book if I’d read it at a different time. As it is, it was well-written, but some of the cracks showed a bit more to adult me. They wouldn’t have bothered teenager me at all. In fact, I might not have seen them as cracks at all.

Still, I really enjoyed the book, and as for grabbing and keeping my attention, it absolutely did. I definitely want to read the sequel.

Rating: ★★★★½

I found this blog post on hosting the ultimate book group party for this book (very cool ideas). I also found an interesting Bustle post about the fictional band in the movie soundtrack. Speaking of the movie, some liberties were taken with the story, but f you have Amazon Prime, it’s free to watch with your membership. It wasn’t bad.

I made a Spotify playlist based on the music mentioned in the book, on Gayle Forman’s website, and the movie. Caveat: I couldn’t bring myself to include Bette Midler’s song “The Wind Beneath My Wings” (though it’s mentioned in the book), and I cut Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” as well. I don’t hate that song, but it doesn’t fit well with the rest of the punk/indie and classical tracks in the playlist. I guess Frank Sinatra doesn’t either, but he stayed in.

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Review: All the Bright Places, Jennifer Niven, narrated by Kirby Heyborne and Ariadne Meyers

I decided that I would listen to All the Bright Places after I finished We Were Liars, which was also read by Ariadne Meyers. She’s a really good interpreter for YA.

First all, if you read or listen to this book, be prepared to cry. Maybe especially if you listen to it, because Ariadne Meyers will make you cry at the end, and if she doesn’t, then Jennifer Niven will in her author’s note.

All the Bright Places is the story of Violet and Finch, who meet in the most improbable place: the bell tower at their high school. Both of them are contemplating suicide. Violet has sunk into depression after losing her sister in a car accident, while Finch’s problems are a bit more complicated—he has bipolar disorder, a disinterested family, an abusive father, and is bullied at school. Somehow, it’s not exactly clear who saves who, as the book’s description says, but soon they become friends and then something more as they work on a school assignment to explore the attractions of their home state of Indiana.

This is a great book, and the narration is particularly good. You are going to like it if you liked books like The Fault in Our Stars and Eleanor & Park. In fact, I’ve seen some reviews that insinuate that this book is a bit derivative of similar books that preceded it. First of all, I don’t think that’s the case. The stories all deal with similar themes, but ultimately, this book is Jennifer Niven’s story. I felt her characters were very real and recognizable in some ways that perhaps John Green’s aren’t. I feel his characters are often a bit too precocious and quirky, whereas I feel I have known teenagers who are more like Violet and Finch.

The narration is great, the story is great (give it a chance; the comparisons to other YA books are inevitable, but I really think this one stands on its own), and it’s not a topic that is dealt with a lot in YA. If you’re a teacher, get a copy for your classroom library; it will not be on your shelves very often.

Rating: ★★★★★
Audio Rating: ★★★★★

Some spoiler-y parts to follow, so fair warning. If you keep reading, it will help you understand how this book moved from four to five stars for me right at the end, but my assumption is that if you keep reading, then you are prepared to be spoiled because you either have already read this book and WANT TO TALK ABOUT THE FEELINGS or you don’t mind spoilers. You can still turn back if you are not sure.

 

Spoiler alert!

I had figured out that Theodore Finch was going to commit suicide well before he did. I mean, why else include the Help Line and Resource Guide, right? Plus, Finch is obsessed with suicide. He has researched the suicide methods of several famous people and recites them for the reader, and he actively tries to commit suicide at least once before he actually does. Then, he starts getting rid of his belongings and withdraws completely from everyone, even Violet. So I wasn’t surprised when he did it, and my eyes stayed pretty dry until the end when Ariadne Meyers read the last chapters when Violet found the note that Finch left her in one of the places they had planned to visit. Still, just a few sniffles really because, you know, fiction. I know, I know. I can bawl my eyes out knowing Catherine is going to die at the end of A Farewell to Arms (a book from which, aptly, Niven draws a line for her introduction), and I can’t shed a tear for Theodore Finch? Well, like Violet, I guess I was mad at him for not getting help (even though I knew he wouldn’t). I was furious with his parents for not caring enough for him to notice he was in real trouble. I don’t really know how I felt. However, Jennifer Niven explained that this book came from her own story in her author’s note. Her great-grandfather committed suicide, which was an event that left ripples through her family even to the present day.

The same thing happened in my family. My great-grandfather, Omar Gearhart, committed suicide on December 29, 1930. He had been battling some major problems, and I’m not clear what they were, except that later, my grandfather described his father as “crazy,” and his younger brother recalled hiding under the porch from my great-grandfather. There is a lot that I do not know. I know some of his children were taken away from the family and were adopted by other families before he died. I know that my grandfather was one of them. I know also that the children were told their father was murdered, which is something my grandfather’s sisters both confirmed. I guess somehow their mother thought it would be easier to hear, though I confess I’m not sure why, because then the children grew up thinking that their father had been murdered and nothing was ever done about it. I didn’t think that sounded right. More and more, I wondered if the official story was true, so I sent away for my great-grandfather’s death certificate—a matter of public record. And it said he died of a gunshot wound to the head, self-inflicted. Contributing cause was “despondency.” And still, to this day, I had family members whose first reaction when I told them was shame and secrecy.

People, shame and secrecy is not how we prevent suicide. It’s how we perpetuate the problem. We say that having a mental illness is something to be embarrassed about, hidden. Finch says, “Labels like ‘bipolar’ say This is why you are the way you are. This is who you are. They explain people away as illnesses.” He, too, is reluctant to connect himself with this label. Even though I didn’t know the truth about my great-grandfather until recently, his death did ripple across the generations.

Niven also shares the other personal connection she had to this story: she loved a boy when she was a teenager, and that boy committed suicide. And Jennifer found him. How devastating. I think, but I’m not sure, that my great-grandmother found my great-grandfather. My dad says he remembers her. He remembers visiting her. He told me that even when she smiled, she seemed sad. She lost several of her children for reasons I will probably never know, though she was allowed to visit them, and she lost her husband. She had a very sad life. And she was beautiful.

Omar Gearhart, Gertrude Perkins & John Douglas Gearhart

My great-grandfather Omar Gearhart, great-grandmother Gertrude Perkins Gearhart, and great -uncle John Douglas Gearhart, circa 1912

So, I don’t know, that personal connection somehow added a star to the book. I think books are sometimes mirrors for us, and I could see my own story in that book, in some way.

Spoiler over.

 

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Review: We Were Liars, E. Lockhart, narrated by Ariadne Meyers

Wow. I’m going to try not to spoil anything for you because the less you really know about E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars going in, the more you are likely to enjoy it. Having said that, I know a little taste of the book is sometimes necessary for readers who might be on the fence about reading a book. Here goes.

Cadence Sinclair Eastman, known as Cady, is the granddaughter of the wealthy and WASPish Harris and Tipper Sinclair, who own a private island near Martha’s Vineyard complete with a full staff, a large manor house where Harris and Tipper live, and three houses for each of Harris and Tipper’s daughters: Carrie, Bess, and Penny. Carrie is the oldest and has two sons: Johnny and Will. They live in New York City. Bess, the middle daughter, lives in Cambridge with her four children: Mirren, twins Liberty and Bonnie, and Taft. The youngest daughter, Penny, is Cady’s mother. They live in Burlington, Vermont. Each summer the family gathers to spend their vacation on the private island, known as Beechwood Island.

We Are Sinclairs

Cady can’t remember much about the year fifteen summer due to an accident she had, and a shroud of secrecy surrounds the story. Her family does not speak to her about it. Cady is desperate to return to Beechwood Island and see her two cousins Johnny and Mirren along with Gat, nephew of the man Cady’s Aunt Carrie is living with. Gat has been visiting Beechwood Island as a guest of the Sinclairs for years, and over time, Cady has fallen in love with him. Together, they were the Liars, and they forged a close summer friendship that waned as they returned to home and school each year, but picked up right where it left off the following summer. But even the Liars are strangely silent and reluctant to talk about Cady’s accident.

I anticipate that some readers will have difficulty identifying with the privileged Sinclairs and their idyllic summers on their own private island. I admit it’s a barrier, but if you take a peek at the family dynamic, it’s a great deal easier to feel empathy for the family. They have a secretive, fractured family. One of my favorite aspects of the novel was its connection to King Lear and an assortment of fairy tales. In fact, I’m wondering if this book might not be a good one to bring into my AP Literature class, which will be reading both King Lear and Jane Smiley’s modern adaptation A Thousand Acres. I could see a small literature circle group really enjoying the connections between this novel and the other texts.

I understand that some readers don’t like the writer’s style. I listened to the audio book, and the narrator naturally had a great deal of influence over how the text was interpreted, so I can’t speak to those complaints except to say that if the style is bothering you, you might try listening to the book instead. I don’t think I have ever finished an audio book in one day before. I just wanted to find out what would happen. The suspense of not knowing what was going on with Cady’s family or her accident kept me up late until I finished the book some time after 1:00 A. M. Saturday night.

Silence

This was a perfect start-of-summer read, even if the story is a tough one. While it is YA, I would classify it as more mature YA—for high schoolers rather than middle schoolers, but it’s definitely appropriate for students in high school, whom I would imagine would really love it. I know this is the kind of book I would have inhaled had it existed when I was in high school.

Ariadne Meyers’s narration is perfect for the story. She emotes when necessary, and she pulls the cynical teenager when it’s called for. I liked her reading so much that I downloaded another book that I’ve been wanting to read that she also narrates through Audible.

Rating: ★★★★★
Audio Rating: ★★★★★

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