Linking up with Housewifespice!
I’m so thrilled to be joining in again…so thrilled, I have SEVERAL reviews to post. A perk of job as a bookseller is that I get access to advance reader copies (or ARCs or galleys) of books and the freedom to check out hardcovers. And as a library assistant, have access to a statewide circulation system. So I’ve been taking advantage of this power the past few months! Especially with all the snow and lack of work time. This post is about the teen/YA books I read. A separate post has the grown-up books, coming shortly.
Falling into Place by Amy Zhang (YA/Teen). Despondent Liz Emerson tries to commit suicide by driving her car into a tree. Employing the device of an intimately involved, but unseen narrator (a la Death in The Book Thief), Ms. Zhang captures the life of a high school junior and the effect her wreck has on her friends and family. The prose is quite good, especially when you think about Ms. Zhang being a teen herself (18 at time of publication). For me, the biggest hook was the near poetic voice of the narrator and trying to figure out who she is and her relation to Liz. The surrounding cast of characters are aptly drawn, but also just so typical of what today’s authors, reviewers, etc. think high schoolers are. They drink, go to crazy parties, have absent (literally or figuratively) parents, and are sexually involved. Though the story is about Liz, it’s also about the people she’s tried to leave behind, and unfortunately, I liked the other characters better. While the intent may have been to get the reader to eventually care that Liz ultimately lives, she is so unlikable a person in her backstory, that her crash became for me more the vehicle (if you will) for how her possible death affects the characters you really care about (especially Liam). Catholic codicil: The teens make some very poor decisions, and though by the end there’s a couple turnarounds or hint that behavior will change, and while I don’t think this should exclude this book from reading, I ought to tell you that one character mentions having had an abortion. She’s a little sad, but that’s about it. My philosophy for teen reading is that if your kid is spiritually mature, the book is careful enough when portraying sin, and the story has an overall goodness (writing, theme, redeeming actions), then go for it. However, I don’t think this book is quality enough to merit that. Recommendation: If your teen wants it, have a conversation and maybe come to a different pick; if she already has it and is reading it, check in about those elements mentioned above.
All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven (Ya/Teen). Okay, who wants to cry? This story of Finch and Violet, two sad teens who find a happiness in each other, features gorgeous writing, characters you can empathize with, a romance (of course), and heartbreaking path to still find light amid the darkness. When comparing this book to the one above purely on a gut reaction, Ms. Niven’s was clearly superior. The two do share a mild similarity: issue of suicide. In this case, both main characters want to leave the world, but theirs is less a narrative of cause and effect, but one of what happens when you decide to live. Told in alternating perspectives between Finch and Violet, you get two strong voices and a compelling insight into their individual psyches. I greatly enjoyed it, but….Catholic codicil: If you are the sort of parent who disallows books in which teens make poor choices and face little to no consequences or moralistic diatribes, then this book is not for you. Desire to commit suicide is the sin of despair, it’s teens in love with a backseat of a car, and of course, typical of the genre, no one goes to church or has any language for how faith can lead you to the true light in a darkness. The book does have a quality factor, especially with its depiction of mental illness–the kind of portrayal that makes you really get a person’s experience with it and want to do something, anything, to make it better for the suffering–including becoming less harsh in armchair judgments and understanding why treatment may be necessary. Recommendation: Mature teens (at least high school) and discussion with a parent.
Afterworlds by Scott Westerfield (upper YA/teen): [Given that this book is 600 pages, two novels in one–literally–it gets a longer review.] Not a suicide book! Seriously–at my store the other day I grabbed the most appealing covers, read the flap copy, and disgruntedly set it back. There are only maybe a couple of themes floating around the secular YA/Teen contemporary realism publishing circuit, and it’s getting harder to be both objective but also respectful of Catholic parents’ wishes that their teens only read books based in Catholic values. So it’s getting harder for me to write reviews. In a literary sense, these books are “good,” but from a moral sense, I get the impression you all may think them not good because of a plot element or two. So I almost didn’t want to write this particular review. Because the book “was good,” like stay up half the night and finish it the next day “good.” But it has something more traditional, conservative parents would say is not good.
So. Here goes. Mr. Westerfield does something ambitious with this novel. About half the book is told in third person, narrating the life of 18-year-old wunderkid writer Darcy Patel (three cheers for a diverse character that is not “look how diverse I am!”), who moves to New York to work on her two-book deal that’s worth $300 grand. (THIS IS NOT AT ALL TYPICAL OF ANY PUBLISHING DEAL UNLESS YOU ARE SUZANNE COLLINS OR JOHN GREEN. Politely steps off soapbox). Alternating these chapters of her dream life of lit parties (complete with fake ID), whirlwind cross-country book tours, and a “that yearly rent is more than I made in a year working full time” Manhattan apartment, are the chapters of her completed novel, meta-ly called “Afterworlds.” This book within a book is definitely a fantasy (not a fantasy painted as real life) in which a teen girl slips to the afterlife during a terrorist attack, falls in love with a hottie Indian death god, and the complications that ensue from being able to cross over between that world and this one, and what to do with the ghosts–literal and proverbial–that haunt you. This made up “Afterworlds” was actually thoroughly engrossing, and had it been published separately and reviewed, the Catholic codicil would have been just about the making out, the murder (yes, I am afraid), and hell.
But there’s another story: Darcy’s. If you are in the book publishing circuit, you will both appreciate the meta-ness of a YA author writing about the dream scenario of “being a writer in New York” and also snark on it, for Darcy’s experience is so very, very atypical. Darcy herself is also a bit of a Mary Sue. I liked her annoying-called “protag” Lizzie immensely better. That girl at least made some decisions (even if they were bad), had some spunk, and a compassion for others that won you over. Darcy just has everything handed to her–especially compliments about her writing (look, it’s good, but not devastatingly brilliant)–and I’m not sure why I should like her. Perhaps Mr. Westerfield was trying to give the reader their dream experience by letting Darcy be so flat that the reader could relate to her, make it like she was the one in “YA heaven.”
Catholic codicil: The making out in the “fake” book, I wouldn’t be so worried about. Maybe just a talk about the sharing beds with boys (it helps Lizzie sleep). Then there’s a murder committed. Even though it speaks to that part of us that would feel it justified, it’s quite clear no one in the book thinks it’s a good thing to have done…in fact it costs the murderer nearly everything. So a good point for sin and consequences. The hell parts: definitely a conversation with the teen reader about what we believe–maybe some compare and contrast, why are such notions attractive, and how the Heaven we have is so much better than haunting the world. Now here comes the other part. I will just tell you what I feel you all may like to know, and you make the call yourselves. Darcy has a girlfriend. Aside from kissing, there’s no description of anything else, just insinuation, like so many other teen novels.
Recommendation: On their own, the Darcy chapters are not especially compelling, but the Lizzie story is definitely a page turner, and there’s some method to the madness of teasing them out with the parallel real world. Definitely an upper teen book. But again. You’re the parent (or the adult); you know your kid (or yourself); so you know if they should only read the black-bordered pages (Lizzie’s) or the whole thing. I don’t believe in chucking out entire books because of one element; I do believe in conversations, and this one could spark some good ones. This is your children’s world and their friends, and they have thoughts and opinions; you have yours and your values. Open up to one another.