All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven (YA)

All the Bright Places

All the Bright Places

Jennifer Niven (Young Adult Fiction)

“Is today a good day to die?”  Theodore Finch asks himself this question in the morning, during third period, and at supper.  He also counts the days that he is Awake.  Awake is good and safe and where he needs to be.  Violet Markey counts the days until graduation.  When she can begin a new life away from Bartlett, Indiana and the pain she feels every day since her sister died.  Both Finch and Violet are counting, but what they didn’t count on was meeting on the ledge at the top of the high school bell tower.  They didn’t count on wandering around their state discovering out-of-the-way landmarks and attractions.  Most of all, they didn’t count on falling in love.

All the Bright Places gives readers a gritty and honest look into bipolar disorder.  Told in alternating narratives by Finch and Violet, we experience bullying, loss, domestic abuse, suicide, and mental illness.  With so many disturbing and difficult topics, it is a testament to Niven that readers are given a story filled with laughter, love, and hope.  Through two fractured and flawed main characters, we see teenagers struggling to understand their place in the world and determined—despite all odds—to make their mark within it.

Young Adult Me liked the star-crossed relationship between Finch and Violet.  He was the Yin to her Yang and the two complemented one another well.  Finch’s fearlessness in approaching Violet about her loss enabled her to break free from her psychological prison and regain her independence.  Violet, in turn, acted as a compass giving Finch direction and much-needed stability.  However, Adult Me really had a problem with Finch’s family and how they chose to deal with his manic depression.  It seemed too easy and convenient to chalk up his behavior as quirky and weird and, “Oh, that’s just Finch.”  When he disappears for days, they dismiss it as, “He does that sometimes.”  This cavalier attitude seems a bit apathetic for a family already put through the wringer with divorce…and a nasty one at that.  During weekly visits with the Finch patriarch, it’s obvious that Finch’s condition is hereditary and one would think that his mother would be hesitant to turn a blind eye a second time around.  But in the end, Young Adult Me just told Adult Me to stop overthinking things and enjoy the story…so I did.

Niven gives us a raw and poignant story about two teens drowning in their own pools of mental anguish and personal guilt.  Whether by luck or fate, they find each other and extend the healing lifelines of forgiveness, acceptance, and love to each other.  Through them, we see that it is possible for life to go on no matter how impossible or improbable it may seem at the time.  Throughout their story, Finch and Violet express their need to feel relevant, their desire to matter, and their wish to be remembered.  By seeking out the hidden treasures within their own state (a backyard roller coaster, a shoe tree, or a book mobile park), the two begin to uncover their own self-worth that eventually allows a violet to bloom and a finch to fly.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.target.com

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Vinegar Hill by A. Manette Ansay

Vinegar Hill

Vinegar Hill

A. Manette Ansay (Adult Fiction)

There are many ways to describe Ellen Grier: wife, mother, daughter, daughter-in-law, sister, caregiver, teacher.  All of these different roles and yet Ellen still feels incomplete…invisible almost.  She had been happy in Illinois in their rented house, but after her husband lost his job, she and her family are back in their hometown of Holly’s Field, Wisconsin and living with her in-laws at 512 Vinegar Hill—a harsh, loveless, and cold home filled with secrets.  She wants to be happy, but finds herself drowning under a sea of hopelessness and despair.  Can Ellen save herself and the ones she loves before Vinegar Hill consumes them all?

Vinegar Hill is an Oprah’s Book Club selection.  I’ve read several of her recommendations and often found them to be “hit” or “miss”.  This book is clearly a “miss”.  On the back cover, a review from Washington Post Book World calls it “Sweet, tender, and chilling.”  After reading this and several other critics’ comments printed on the book, I’m wondering if I actually read the same novel that they did.  Sweet?  Tender?  Vinegar Hill is the type of book that would make Edgar Allan Poe pause and say, “Wow!  Now THAT’S dark!”  This is a depressing, depraved, and disturbing story devoid of purpose, value, or meaning.  We’re introduced to several generations of individuals whose intolerance, callousness, cruelty, meanness and spite are clearly hereditary.  It’s an endless cycle of verbal and physical abuse with a skosh of religious hallucinations and psychological delusions thrown in for interest.  Ellen’s daughter, Amy, “buries” her “dead” dolls in shoeboxes; her husband, James, sees his children as the personification of Halloween with their skeletal hands and sunken ghostly eyes; and her elderly and bitter mother-in-law, Mary-Margaret, has dreams of her deceased twin infants growing back inside of her.  THIS is sweet and tender?  The Chicago Tribune even called Vinegar Hill “one of the year’s best books.”  I’m absolutely speechless.  I found the characters unpleasant and unsympathetic, religious judgements are frivolously tossed out as if they were beads at Mardi Gras, intelligence is scorned and vilified, and helplessness is encouraged and celebrated.

When Ellen sought advice from her fellow co-worker, she was told, “No one gets used to anything, they just get numb.”  After a while, with the constant derisions and disparagements, I too became numb and found myself eagerly counting down the pages until I could finally close the covers of this book and walk—or actually run—away from Vinegar Hill and all of its inhabitants…never to look back again.

Rating: 2/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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The Dry Grass of August by Anna Jean Mayhew

The Dry Grass of August

The Dry Grass of August 

Anna Jean Mayhew (Adult Fiction)

In August of 1954, we took our first trip without Daddy, and Stell got to use the driver’s license she’d had such a fit about.  It was just a little card saying she was Estelle Annette Watts, that she was white, with hazel eyes and brown hair.  But her having a license made that trip different from any others, because if she hadn’t had it, we never would have been stuck in Sally’s Motel Park in Claxton, Georgia, where we went to buy fruitcakes and had a wreck instead.  And Mary would still be with us.

It’s 1954 and Jubie Watts, her mother, brother, sisters, and their maid, Mary, are embarking on the ultimate road trip from Charlotte, North Carolina to Florida.  They’re traveling without father and there’s talk of the Klan in Georgia.  “We’ll be fine,” Mama assured.  She needed this trip and nothing was going to change her mind.  So with that final word, the six of them headed out in the family’s Packard for a journey that would have unforeseeable impacts on them all.

Several reviewers noted that fans of Kathryn Stockett’s 2009 novel The Help (I read it and count myself as a fan) would also enjoy this book.  “A must-read,” one went so far as saying.  But other than the story being set in the South during segregation, the parallels stop there.  Mayhew’s story does deal with the atrocities of racial and social injustice, but—through the Watts family—she also delves into the darkness of infidelity, alcoholism, and physical abuse.  This is a story about both a country and a family being torn apart from the inside out.  The ugliness of racial disparity and the effects of substance abuse are on full display and is authentic in their depiction and raw in their detail.  What’s perhaps most disturbing is the fact that in this place and time in American history, these behaviors were indeed the status quo and viewed as socially acceptable.

In the back of the book, there is an author Q&A section where Mayhew is asked if her novel is young adult fiction given that her protagonist is thirteen years old.  Mayhew answers, “My novel is literary fiction; however, I hope young adults will read it, because it’s set in a time long before their lives and can give them a look into history through the eyes of someone of their age.”  I searched Penguin Teen for iconic YA heroines and pulled up such descriptions as “sharpshooter, ancient beast tamer”, “futuristic Resistance fighter”, “post-apocalyptic survivor”, “female gladiator”, and “dress-wearing demon destroyer”.  After reading The Dry Grass of August, it was refreshing to see just an ordinary young girl standing up for principles she feels are worth defending and standing beside people she feels are worth protecting.  Jubie Watts is such a person and a heroine that any reader—young or old—can learn a thing or two from.

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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Chosen by a Horse – Susan Richards (Memoir)

Chosen by a Horse

Chosen by a Horse

Susan Richards (Memoir)

She was only five years old when she was given her first horse.  Her grandmother had given it to her and its name was Bunty.  From that moment on, Susan Richards’s love for horses would be equaled only by her love for books and writing.  Horses, like books, were Susan’s escape from a world filled with abuse, betrayal, and loss.  For the first time in her memory, her life now was happy on her farm with her three horses.  But on a cold March day, Susan received an urgent call from the SPCA asking for emergency foster homes for a number of abused race horses.  Susan didn’t hesitate to heed the call.  When she arrived, how could she ever have known that a gentle and lame horse named Lay Me Down would not only choose Susan to be her rescuer, but would ultimately be the one that would rescue Susan.

Chosen by a Horse is an emotional and loving memoir about two broken and neglected souls who miraculously found each other.  Susan describes Lay Me Down’s ability to trust and love again to be far easier than her own by writing, “Unlike me, Lay Me Down seemed to feel no rancor.  In spite of everything, she was open and trusting of people, qualities I decidedly lacked…What exactly was it that enabled an abused animal, for lack of a better word, to love again?”  Susan’s struggle to commit and trust was clearly detailed throughout the book.  Through all of her emotional battles, she couldn’t have asked for nor gotten a better mentor than Lay Me Down.  Her quiet faith and hope would inspire Susan to take another chance and to trust in another…even if it meant getting hurt all over again.

You don’t have to be a horse-lover to appreciate this book and its message of second chances, survival, and healing.  Anyone who has ever opened their home and heart to an animal will be touched, moved, and inspired by this heartbreakingly beautiful and compassionate story.  “In the steady gaze of the horse shines a silent eloquence that speaks of love and loyalty, strength and courage.  It is the window that reveals to us how willing is his spirit, how generous is his heart.”—Author Unknown.  Susan Richards heard the silent words spoken by a broken horse and it was those words that helped heal her broken heart.  How blessed was she to be chosen by a horse.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

 

 

Breathing Water by T. Greenwood

Breathing Water

Breathing Water

T. Greenwood (Adult Fiction)

“Do not ask me for haunted.  Do not ever ask me for haunted, because I will give you haunted and you will never be the same.”

Effie Greer is living a fugitive life.  When you are a fugitive, you don’t sign leases, you don’t bother unpacking, and you don’t make any friends.  But after three years, she finally feels safe enough to return home to Lake Gormlaith, Vermont.  There, she refurbishes her grandmother’s lake house, reconnects with an old school friend, and develops an interest in a mysterious and kind artist.  Only time will tell if Effie can truly leave the past behind and begin anew.

Breathing Water jumps from the years 1991, 1994, and 1987 and deals with issues such as domestic violence and substance abuse.  Despite its strong and promising beginning, the story just seems to aimlessly float along with no real purpose or direction.  At times, the text seems overly flowery (“The rust-gold-orange-purple of the woods behind him blurred through the spray of the hose…”) and the transitions between time periods are awkward and require the reader a few moments to continually readjust.  Also, I found the main character to be a bit contradictory.  As a survivor of abuse, she is prone to keeping secrets although she eventually finds great relief and peace once she finally divulges her abusive past to friends and family.  Despite this, she finds it absolutely reasonable to keep secrets from her new love interest.  So, we are led to assume that some secrets are acceptable and absolution is purely discretionary.

All in all, not the worst novel I’ve ever read, but it was lacking on several fronts:  the characters were somewhat flat, the plot was thin, and finally reaching the end of the book was akin to treading water—there’s just not that much to hold onto.

Rating: 3/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com