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

**Want more?  Visit our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/thedustyjacket

 

Rascal by Sterling North (J Biography)

Rascal

Rascal

Sterling North (Juvenile Biography)

One pleasant afternoon in 1918, eleven-year-old Sterling North, along with his Saint Bernard, Wowser, and friend, Oscar Sunderland, were in Wentworth’s woods.  There, in the hollow base of a rotten stump, hid a mother raccoon and her litter of four kits.  Angered and frightened by Wowser’s intrusive digging, mother and kits darted to safety, but not before Oscar was able to capture one of the kits in his knit cap.  On that May 15th day, young Sterling had no idea that this incident would mark the beginning a very unusual and special friendship.  A friendship filled with irresistibly shiny things, strawberry pop, sweet corn, music, crayfish, and a no-good rotten bully by the name of Slammy Stillman.  The next twelve months would be a year that young Sterling would never forget.

Rascal received a Newbery Honor in 1964 and is Sterling North’s memories of growing up in southern Wisconsin from May 1918 to April 1919.  It would be a time marked with his brother, Herschel, serving in World War I, Armistice Day, and the Spanish influenza, which claimed more lives in his beloved town of Edgerton (referred to as Brailsford Junction in this book) than the war.  North was the youngest of four children.  His father was a successful landowner and his mother died when North was only seven.  In Rascal, North describes a time when front doors were never locked, neighbors looked after one another, family and good health were your most prized possessions, and all it took to make young Sterling North the happiest boy in the world were his bike, his pet raccoon sitting in the front basket, and the wind in your face as you barrel down a hill at top speed.

Some reviewers of North’s biography call it a story about friendship while others say it is a journey dealing with loss.  I found it to be more a love letter written to two mothers:  Sterling’s own beloved mother, Sarah, and Mother Nature herself.  North is exactingly detailed when he describes the beauty and splendor of wildlife, the complexities of the various plants, and the science behind selecting the perfect bait when fishing.  Younger readers may find these sections a bit tedious (as they’re probably more anxious to read about Rascal than river trout), but it is a clear reflection of the awe and respect that North has for the world around him and how these observations directly connect him with a mother that he barely had time to know.  He sees his mother in every bud and hears her voice with every new discovery.  Mother Nature is, in effect, his own mother reaching out and embracing him and these moments are truly heartwarming and comforting.

During the Christmas of 1918, Sterling’s Aunt Lillie asked him what profession he was thinking about pursuing.  After discounting his desire to become a doctor, his aunt suggested that a writer might be a more suitable choice, as his mother might have wished this vocation for him.  After Sterling questioned her about it, she explained, “And then you could put it all down…the way it is now…case weather, the fog, the lantern light…and the voices of the men—hear them—coming in for breakfast.  You could keep it just like this forever.”  Lucky for us, young Sterling listened to his aunt and by doing so, allowed readers to keep him, Rascal, and Brailsford Junction, just like this, forever as well.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com

**Want more?  Visit our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/thedustyjacket

 

The Walk by Richard Paul Evans

The Walk

The Walk

Richard Paul Evans (Adult Inspirational)

Alan Christoffersen had it all: a successful advertising agency, a big house, luxury cars, and a beautiful wife who was the love of his life.  But a horrible accident would set off a series of events that would send his world crashing down.  Within weeks, he would lose everything and Alan Christoffersen, the man who had everything, was suddenly left with nothing.  It seemed that even God had abandoned him.  So, Alan decided to walk away from his troubles…literally.  With nothing more than a backpack and a few essentials, Alan set off on a near 3,500 journey stretching from Seattle, Washington to Key West, Florida hoping that this walk might bring him some clarity to a life that didn’t make sense anymore.

I’ve read many What-would-you-do-if-type books: What would you do if you could live forever?  What would you do if you had one wish?  Go back in time?  Trade places with someone?  Were invisible?  This one was different.  Tackling the idea of how to move forward after you’ve lost everything is daunting.  Alan faced this situation, questioned his own faith, and wondered why love, hope, and grace had been so mercilessly taken from him.

The Walk is the first in a series of five books in The Walk Series by Richard Paul Evans.  This first installment takes Alan all the way across the state of Washington: from Seattle to Spokane.  During this first leg of his journey, he meets several people who remind him what kindness, generosity, and gratitude look like: a handless man looking for answers, a scarred woman offering hope, an innkeeper who faced death, and a stranger returning a favor.  Each person along his journey offers Alan little bits of wisdom and insight and their brief presence in his life leaves him undeniably changed.

The Walk is an easy and quick read.  Evans deals with religion and faith without being overly preachy and gives us a likeable protagonist who seeks the good in humanity although he himself has been betrayed by those he had trusted most.  In the opening pages, we know Alan completes his walk and eventually reaches Key West, but as Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey” and we know that Alan has a very long journey ahead of him.  A journey that will hopefully answer some of his questions and perhaps even restore his faith.

Alan keeps a diary of his walk.  In one entry, he wrote, “We truly do not know what’s in a book until it is opened.”  Likewise, we often don’t know what’s in a person until we ask or until we have the opportunity to get to know them.  We don’t know their past, the burdens they may carry, or the pain they may be enduring.  The few people that Alan encountered during his walk through Washington began as unopened books, but by extending a kindness or even just a simple greeting, those books began to open and Alan discovered that perhaps the love, hope, and grace that he thought had been denied him had never really abandoned him after all.

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com

**Want more?  Visit our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/thedustyjacket

 

Bronze and Sunflower by Cao Wenxuan (J Historical Fiction)

Bronze and Sunflower

Bronze and Sunflower

Cao Wenxuan (Juvenile Historical Fiction)

Sunflower was lonely.  Her father was a revered sculptor in the city, but he—like so many others—had been sent to work at the Cadre School and now Sunflower has very little to do all day.  To pass the time, she goes down to the river and looks to the other side at the village called Damaidi.  In Damaidi, there is life, there is activity, and most of all, there are children.  She dreams of what it might be like to go over there and play and explore.  Then one day, Sunflower’s dad tragically drowns in the river and she is accepted into the home of Damaidi’s poorest family.  There she meets Baba, Mama, grandmother Nainai, and Bronze, their mute son.  Suddenly, Sunflower is a daughter, a granddaughter, and a sister and life amongst these poor people was about to make her richer than she could ever imagine.

Translated from Mandarin by Helen Wang, Bronze and Sunflower is a masterpiece in storytelling.  It tells the story of a family and a village caught up in China’s Cultural Revolution during the late 1960s and early 1970s.  Wenxuan doesn’t make this period in history the center of his story, but instead chooses to keep it as a backdrop.  He instead focuses on the unique and touching bond between Bronze and Sunflower and the family’s struggle to survive floods, locusts, famine, and dishonor.  It’s a tale replete with villains and heroes, sadness and joy, and despair and hope.  Wenxuan effortlessly weaves a tale showing us that life isn’t fair, that justice is often elusive, and that those in power—for better or worse—wield a mighty influence.  But he also shows us the importance of family, the power of redemption, and the value of integrity.  It’s a story absolutely brimming with moral lessons and human values and should be devoured by readers of all ages.

The only fault I had with this book is its ending.  It’s vague (I re-read it several times to make sure I didn’t miss any subtle clue or hidden meaning) and puts the burden on the reader to determine what happened.  I’m not a fan of this kind of ambiguous ending, but the overall story isn’t dependent upon it and so its vagueness shouldn’t serve as a detraction from an otherwise engaging and captivating tale that was an absolute joy to read and experience.

Without giving away any spoilers, the saddest part of the story—for me—was the eventuality of Bronze and Sunflower growing up…as children tend to do.  The head of the village of Damaidi stated as much when he met with Baba and Mama and said, “Time’s moving on.”  Simple words that remind us how fleeting and fragile time is and that everything should be cherished and savored for nothing is certain or guaranteed.  With the sudden loss of her father, Sunflower understood the unpredictability of life and the value that came with belonging.  Despite her poverty, Sunflower considered herself wealthy beyond measure because she was part of a family and that family loved her very much.  Actor, author, and activist Michael J. Fox once said, “Family is not an important thing. It’s everything.”  In that respect, Sunflower had everything and perhaps that made her the richest person in all of Damaidi.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.abebooks.com

The Sea by John Banville

The Sea

The Sea

John Banville (Adult Fiction)

Recent widower Max Morden, looking for respite and solace from his grief, returns to the seaside town where he spent his summer holidays as a youth.  Once there, he rents a room in the Cedars, the same house where he met the affluent, affable, and alluring Grace family.  But memories can be both haunting and comforting and as Max begins to remember his first experiences with love and death, he understands just how fragile and unpredictable life can be.

The Sea was the 2005 winner of the Man Booker Prize and despite its bestseller status and numerous accolades, I was counting the pages to its completion (I don’t provide a review unless I finish a book in its entirety).  I agree with critics and reviewers that the writing is indeed superb, but I found it so over-the-top in its detail that I quickly became a victim of prosaic poisoning.  Here is an example of Max describing his mental haze before his wife, Anna, receives her fatal diagnosis: “In the ashen weeks of daytime dread and nightly terror before Anna was forced at last to acknowledge the inevitability of Mr. Todd and his prods and potions, I seemed to inhabit a twilit netherworld in which it was scarcely possible to distinguish dream from waking, since both waking and dreaming had the same penetrable, darkly velutinous texture, and in which I was wafted this way and that in a state of feverish lethargy, as if it were I and not Anna who was destined soon to be another one among the already so numerous shades.”  Again, simply beautiful in its artistry and imagery, but completely exhausting to absorb and resulted in more frustration than enjoyment on my part.

Another aspect of this book, which only added to its incredible weightiness, is that it lacked chapters and was only separated into Book I and II.  The Sea was simply paragraph after paragraph after paragraph with the occasional (and much welcomed) double-spaced separation.  It’s as if John Banville was feeding us a wonderfully delectable five-course meal and never giving us the opportunity to savor, swallow, and digest each bite.  We just keep getting spoonful upon spoonful and end up pushing ourselves away from the table for our own self-preservation—leaving a perfectly lovely meal unappreciated.

The downfall of writing a story where each word and phrase are so meticulously constructed is that you have characters that feel a bit one dimensional and lacking true warmth or vulnerability.  It’s like a room staged for an opulent magazine spread.  While it’s gorgeous and truly exquisite, you really can’t imagine living in it for it’s missing the heart and soul that allow you to connect with it.  That immersive feeling that wraps around you like a warm blanket or well-worn bathrobe.  But we’re not talking about a room or a home, but something majestic and vast and powerful and in the end, that is the problem with this book.  The problem is that we’re dealing with the sea.

Rating: 3/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

**Want more?  Visit our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/thedustyjacket

 

 

Astrid & Veronika by Linda Olsson

Astrid and Veronika

Astrid & Veronika

Linda Olsson (Adult Fiction)

“’And who will you dream of, Veronika?’ Astrid said, without taking her eyes off the water.  ‘With the flowers under your pillow.  Who?’  Veronika didn’t answer.  She sat with her legs pulled up and her arms clasped around them, her chin resting on her knees.  ‘I came here to escape my dreams,’ she said eventually.”

Author Veronika Bergman arrived in Stockholm, Sweden with just a few bags and her personal belongings.  Her rental home was next door to Astrid Mattson, the village witch—at least that’s what the people in town call her.  Astrid is nearly eighty years old and keeps to herself.  She doesn’t like people and has left the village only once in her life.  She likes her secrets and her solitude, but when she meets Veronika, something remarkable happens.  Something quite unexpected.  Astrid begins to care and slowly these two women discover that although loss and heartbreak connect them, friendship would forever bind them.

Astrid & Veronika is Linda Olsson’s first novel and was originally published in New Zealand under the title Let Me Sing You Gentle Songs.  Her writing is fluid and the storytelling is effortless and captivating.  Olsson gives readers Veronika and Astrid—two women tormented by their past, haunted by their memories, and brought together by fate.  These two restless souls form a committed bond that becomes instinctive—each aptly anticipating the other’s needs and providing comfort, support, and understanding.

I truly enjoyed this book, but found that there were too many unanswered questions that kept me from wholly appreciating Olsson’s extraordinary debut work.  In particular, Astrid’s story had one pivotal plot point that left me confused and frankly horrified at the choice she made.  Her backstory lacked sufficient detail that might have allowed me to be more sympathetic to her and the action she took.  Instead, Olsson put the burden on me to draw my own conclusions, which is seldom a sufficient or satisfying solution.

Olsson’s original book title came from a poem by Karin Boye called “Min stackars unge, My poor little child”, which she includes in her book.  It accurately describes our heroines and reads in part,

“My poor child, so afraid of the dark,

who have met ghosts and another kind,

who always among those clad in white

glimpses those with evil faces,

now let me sing you gentle songs,

from fright they free, from force and cramp.”

Astrid and Veronika are two women separated by age and circumstance but connected through the ghosts of their pasts.  Both lost mothers and loves, but through patience and understanding, they formed their own gentle song and found the strength and courage to live and to love again.

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

 

The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich (J)

The Birchbark House

The Birchbark House    

Louise Erdrich (Juvenile Fiction)

“She was named Omakayas, or Little Frog, because her first step was a hop.”

Omakayas is seven years old and lives on an island in Lake Superior with her family.  They are Native American and belong to the Ojibwa tribe.  It is the summer of 1847 and everyone is busy preparing for fall.  Once their birchbark house is built, there are skins to soften and tan, berries to gather, and the corn patch to tend.  The family works together to ensure their survival from season to season, but all Omakayas is focused on is avoiding her pesky little brother, thinking of ways to be more like her big sister, and watching her father worry about the ever-increasing encroachment of the “chimookoman”, the white people.  Still, life is good for Omakayas and her family until that one winter night when a stranger enters their community and makes Omakayas reevaluate everything that she once thought important.

The Birchbark House is reminiscent of The Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder, only Erdrich tells her story from the Native American point of view.  We follow Omakayas and her family through one full year and learn how they gather and preserve their food, construct their lodgings, deal with the harshness and dangers of their environment, treat their sick and wounded, and struggle for survival.  Any fan of our spirited prairie heroine, Laura Ingalls, will appreciate this new perspective on the same issues that we all encounter: love, loss, family, friendship, and finding your place in a very big world.

There is an Ojibwa proverb that says, “Sometimes I go about pitying myself and all the while I am being carried across the sky by beautiful clouds.”  There is point in the story where Omakayas is thrown into a very deep and dark place that tests both her strength and faith.  But in time, she realizes all the gifts that life has yet to offer and that is just enough to allow her to rise above her sorrow and look up to the sky—into the clouds—for hope.

*Reviewer’s note: The Birchbark House is the first in a series of five books by Louise Erdrich that follows the life of Omakayas and her Ojibwa community.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com 

The Story of Arthur Truluv by Elizabeth Berg

The Story of Arthur Truluv

The Story of Arthur Truluv

Elizabeth Berg (Adult Fiction)

Arthur Moses has had lunch with his wife Nola every day for the past six months (missing only just one day, which is not bad for an octogenarian with no car and bad knees).  He departs the bus with his folding chair and bagged lunch, sits beside her headstone (she’s passed away you see, but “a promise is a promise”), and tells Nola about the day’s events or complains about their neighbor, Lucille (who considers the world to be her classroom, BUT happens to make THE most wonderful desserts).  While Arthur gains comfort through his daily cemetery visits, 18-year old Maddy Harris seeks escape.  Maddy is a budding photographer and artist (who is rather pretty despite that awful nose ring), but she is viewed as an outsider by her high school classmates and therefore endures relentless ridicule and abuse.  At the graveyard, she finds peace, and it is here where she and Arthur meet and begin a very unlikely friendship.

Berg delivers an endearing, amusing, and pleasant story about three flawed individuals who, like most of us, merely want to be accepted, useful, and loved.  Each one of them holds a piece to the others’ happiness and when they are placed together, they fit to form a quirky yet beautiful puzzle.  This is a delightful read that is surprisingly uplifting and inspirational, despite the underlying themes of death and loss.

Early in the book, Maddy mentions that her English teacher taught her one of her favorite words: hiraeth, a Welsh word meaning yearning and grief for lost places.  The Story of Arthur Truluv provides the reader with some glimmer of promise and hope that grief is never permanent and what is lost will once again be found.

Rating: 4/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.penguinrandomhouse.com