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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The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry

The Secret Scripture

The Secret Scripture

Sebastian Barry (Adult Fiction)

The Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital is scheduled for demolition.  All current patients are to be evaluated in order to determine whether they are mentally suitable for integration into the community.  This process goes fairly well until Dr. William Grene has to make a recommendation concerning Roseanne McNulty—a patient nearing her one hundredth year and who has spent over half of her life in hospitals.  Her original paperwork has long since vanished and the only history he has to go on are a combination of Roseanne’s memory of her past, the notes from a Catholic priest in her hometown of County Sligo, Ireland, and diary entries that she personally has made throughout her hospital commitment.  Can Dr. Grene put together enough of Roseanne’s past in order to safely and confidently determine her future?

The Secret Scripture was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, was the recipient of the Costa Book of the Year Award, and named a Best Book of the Year by Boston Globe and Economist.  For such a heralded book, it makes me wonder why I am seemingly in the minority for disliking it so much.  Firstly, this is one of those rare books that I was tempted—more than once—to discard and just move on to something else.  Although the writing was beautiful and the descriptions and details were vivid and elaborate, the stories of both Roseanne and Dr. Grene were boring and failed to capture either my imagination or interest.  Imagine being on a boat surrounded by beautiful sights, smells, and sounds and just when your anticipation for your upcoming excursion has reached its apex, you are kindly told to get out.  Of course, the obvious response would be, “But, we haven’t GONE anywhere yet.”  This is exactly what this story felt like…an abundance of artistry surrounding a journey to nowhere.  Secondly, I think Barry has built his entire story on a false premise.  Given the fact that Roseanne is nearing the century mark, her health is failing, she has spent almost sixty years in an infinitely convalescent state, and her mental capacity is such that neither she nor the evaluating psychiatrist can determine fact from fiction, why is this “evaluation” even taking place?  It’s clearly a nonstarter.

I finished this book with the singular purpose of providing an honest review, which I cannot do unless the entire book has been read.  After a very long two weeks, I am able to move on with life for this book is now done as is this review.  By my rating, this is clearly not the worst book that I’ve ever come across, but it certainly is far from being an award winner which is why I placed it squarely in the middle.  I wish I could have loved it as much as so many others undoubtedly did, but its draw and praises have left me as clouded and confused as the mind of our aged and sympathetic centenarian heroine.

Rating: 3/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

The Bell Jar

The Bell Jar

Sylvia Plath (Adult Fiction)

Esther Greenwood knew something was wrong with her that summer, and it wasn’t just the electrocution of the Rosenbergs or all the non-stop talk surrounding it.  She was supposed to be having the time of her life.  She was in New York and living the high life—a far cry from her 19 years living in a small New England town.  It was the summer of 1953 and what Esther knew for certain was that one of her troubles was Doreen.

Published in 1963, The Bell Jar was poet Sylvia Plath’s first and only novel.  Weeks after her book’s publication, Plath committed suicide at the age of 30.  Given that Plath’s personal struggles with money and depression parallels those of her main character, it is understandable why many view The Bell Jar as being semi-autobiographical.  Although this book deals with grave and bleak issues, Plath’s poetic prowess shines through giving readers a story that is poignant yet subtly lighthearted.  Although Plath’s future as a novelist would never be fully realized, she managed to give us a heroine that epitomized the women of her day.  The feminist movement saw its beginnings in 1963 and Plath put Esther right on the front lines—questioning societal views on conformity, conservatism, femininity, marriage, and family.

Much has changed since the release of The Bell Jar, but the increasing number of individuals diagnosed with depression or anxiety, as well as the rise in suicides, continue to make this novel timely and relevant.  Throughout the story, told in first-person narrative, Esther often describes herself as existing inside a bell jar: continually experiencing isolation and detachment from the outside world, always feeling that she is on display and expected to be more than she is or ever will be, and constantly struggling to be “perfect”.  When Esther learned that the famous novelist, Philomena Guinea, would be willing to pay for her treatment and education, Esther could conjure up neither gratitude nor any amount of relief: “I knew I should be grateful to Mrs. Guinea, only I couldn’t feel a thing.  If Mrs. Guinea had given me a ticket to Europe, or a round-the-world cruise, it wouldn’t have made one scrap of difference to me, because wherever I sat—on the deck of a ship or at a street café in Paris or Bangkok—I would be sitting under the same bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.”

Esther Greenwood is a young woman trapped in a life that she is tired of living, yet afraid of leaving.  During her story, I often found myself silently cheering those times when the seal of her bell jar was lifted just enough to allow a bit a fresh air to seep through.  It was during these times that I hoped Esther, and others who suffer under their own bell jar, would be able to momentarily experience a feeling of joy, worth, and hope.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.barnesandnoble.com

 

The Stormchasers by Jenna Blum

The Stormchasers

Jenna Blum (Adult Fiction)

Karena Jorge is a writer for the Minneapolis Ledger.  Charles Hallingdahl is a gifted stormchaser with bipolar disorder.  Twins separated for 20 years who share a horrifying secret from their past.  As Karena discover, “Time will fold over the past if you let it”.  But does it, really?

This book is divided into three parts: the first and third are set in present day with the second set in the past.  I found the middle section far more interesting and better written.  It provides a more intimate look at Karena and Charles, their relationship and unique bond as twins, his debilitating disorder, and the incredible toll it takes on the family.

Blum is a proficient storyteller who deftly exposes the raw emotions of dealing with mental illness.  The book is an easy read with some dramatic moments.  I would have enjoyed this book a bit more if Blum had focused less on the physical tornadoes wracking the Midwest and more on the mental whirlwinds that perpetually plagues and ravages Charles.

Rating: 3/5