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The Skinny: Ten-year-old August “Auggie” Pullman was born with hereditary conditions that, even after multiple surgeries, have caused severe facial deformities. After years of being home schooled, August embarks on his first year in a private school, a year of challenges and triumphs. Wonder is an ultimately uplifting read, one that brings to the forefront kindness and courage. I would recommend this to fans of James Howe and Jordan Sonnenblick.

Full(er) Review:

Although more than anything this is Auggie’s story, Wonder features multiple voices, including Auggie’s sister, Auggie’s friends and his sister’s boyfriend and former best friend. Palacio could have chosen to make this solely Auggie’s story, with readers only hearing his perspective. Yet in featuring both his family and friends, readers instead have with a glimpse of how Auggie’s condition affects others and how others see him – both because of his disorders and despite them. Nevertheless, not every voice was as developed as I’d hoped it would be – I want to hear more about what makes Jack also feel like an outsider because of his economic situation; I want to hear more from Justin, his anxiety, his family situation and his facial tics about which he is so self-conscious.

Although taking place in New York, this story feels as though it could take place anywhere. There are many books that feature being the new kid, starting at a new school, beginning a new year, or transitioning to middle school or high school. Auggie faces challenges that are specific to him, to the reality of his day-to-day life living with his medical conditions, yet he and his friends and family are also simply dealing with change, with the challenges and (although it sometimes doesn’t feel like it) joys of growing up and maturing. Ultimately this is a very sweet and inspirational read.

The Skinny: Cora and her younger sister Mimi have been sent to stay with their Great-Aunt Ida in an isolated little village, yet they soon discover that a centuries-old curse has plagued their family and continues to hold a frightened community in its grasp. Long Lankin is an atmospheric historical horror story and one recommended to fans of Vivian Vande Velde, Carlos Ruiz Zafon or Marcus Sedgwick.

Full(er) Review:

Long Lankin builds in suspense at an even pace, rewarding a patient reader with a deliciously creepy reveal. The historical setting of post-war Britain makes the story suggest a long-standing folk tale, one new to contemporary readers but seemingly rooted in centuries of song and hushed secrecy. This little town in the throws of summer and Auntie Ida’s home, closed off, sweating and steamy, create an oppressive closeness and creeping suspense.

Told in multiple voices – including Cora, a local village boy named Roger, Auntie Ida Eastfield and a handful of letters and journal entries from a former chaplain named Jasper Scaplehorn – a reader follows as Cora and Roger try to piece together the open secret of this town, one that children are warned about but yet still seems ambiguously threatening.

Auntie Ida’s character can at times strain believability. For example, Auntie Ida learned first-hand in the past that keeping secrets from children ultimately led to a broken, frightened family. However, Cora is a feisty and intelligent young woman, unwilling to be treated as just a child and fiercely loyal to her younger sister. Roger, a local young man, and his family are also a delight, bringing moments of humor and fleeting comfort of lazy summer afternoons.

The Skinny: Fourteen-year-old Justin Thyme has made his family’s fortune as a successful scientist and inventor.  When his mother, Lady Henny, is kidnapped and the ransom demands a time machine, Justin’s father, the Laird of Thyme, begins divulging secrets from his past.  Justin Thyme is a humorous whodunit full of plot twists, eccentric characters and some serious speculation about the science of time travel.  Although there seems to be almost too much going on and some passages are particularly dense and difficult to forge through, I would nevertheless recommend this title to fans of Nick of Time by Ted Bell or Gideon the Cutpurse by Linda Buckley-Archer.  I would also recommend this to 5th-7th grade guy readers who like their mysteries with a little snark or their fantasy with a little eccentricity.

Full(er) Review:  This book seemed specifically made to entice me: the Scottish setting; a noble and peculiar family living in a castle with a support cast of even more eccentric servants and locals; the building of a time machine and the possibility of time travel.  Nevertheless, I was somewhat disappointed (and a little unhappy that I was disappointed, to tell you the truth – because I just really wanted to love this book).

So much of this book is well done – the cover art is intriguing; the cast of characters at the beginning introduces us to the many strange and unique people and animals we will meet throughout the narrative; the picture of the castle, with the accompanying key, points out the important rooms through which the reader will follow the characters (kind of like looking at the outside of the Clue mansion, perhaps?); the glossary of unusual terms; the pages for readers to keep their own notes – all of these make the book an attractive package. 

The plot turns, however, were sometimes overly convoluted; it would be easy for a reader to get overwhelmed and lost in detail.  Characters were distinct and well-drawn, yet there were so many it could be difficult for a reader to connect to any.  In addition, we don’t only follow Justin’s perspective, but also that of his sister, mother, father…it could be very easy for a reader to lose track of which character is harnessing the narrative.   Between each chapter is a “hand-written” page from Justin’s journal, describing his theory of time and the possibility of time travel.  Although these do connect with the narrative, a less advanced reader might struggle through these passages or simply skip over them – the concepts could be inaccessible.  The glossary at the end of the book does help readers with less familiar terms (I’m not sure I came across the word phenomenology until philosophy courses as an undergraduate, but maybe I just wasn’t reading the right books!), but I wish the author had made use of footnotes in addition to the back-of-the-book glossary.  Some reader may just skip over words rather than look to see if the glossary included a definition.  A quick, bottom-of-the-page definition could have been an improvement.

Stuart Gibbs' Spy SchoolThe Skinny: When Ben Ripley is selected to attend the CIA’s Espionage Academy, a highly selective school that trains its students to become future operatives, he discovers himself in the middle of a dangerous plot to uncover a clandestine informant. This is a fast-paced and fun read and a good title to recommend to upper elementary or early middle school boys who are reluctant readers.

Full(er) Review: There are more books than can be counted that feature an outsider, the new guy who must learn along the way, thereby also guiding readers through the story. Ben Ripley is this guy, new to a secretive school for aspiring spies that disguises itself as a prestigious science school. From pretty much the moment he arrives on campus, nothing is as it seems. In his first full day, Ben discovers someone has planted information in his school files to draw out a sinister plot and he’s attacked by an attempted kidnapper/assassin. What follows is a mystery and adventure story, where Ben works with the attractive and insanely talented fellow student Erica Hale to seek out the dangerous double-agent.

The strength of a mystery really lies in its plotting. Most mysteries follow a formula and even titles that subvert the formula play off it in some way. Spy School in many ways follows the traditional formula with the necessary red herrings and plot twists, yet the model of Ben as pre-teen detective seems more familiar to young adult fiction than the mystery genre specifically; Ben must “fake it till he makes it,” not understanding much of what happens to him until someone else (namely Erica) lets him in on what’s really going on. Of course Ben eventually comes into his own, saving the day and saving the girl (who immediately saves him back).

Other reviewers find issue with both Gibbs’ plotting and character development. Yes, Gibbs has a tendency to tell rather than show. Yes, adults seem to be both all-powerful and completely clueless. Yes, character development takes a back seat to the action and secondary characters’ voices at times fail to be clearly distinguished. Yes, this will be a familiar story to some readers. While these critiques are well-deserved, I would nevertheless still recommend this title. This is a good title to hand to a reluctant reader. Gibbs skillfully sets a scene, giving just enough detail without making it overwhelming. This action-oriented title has moments that are wonderfully cinematic, with enough secret passageways, underground tunnels and nun-chuck-wielding ninjas to keep things exciting. This story doesn’t get bogged down in a character’s internal struggle or much character development at all; and, really, for this type of story character is not the most important feature.. For a potential reader who does not identify as a reader, has little experience of reading for pleasure or just has to find a ‘choice’ book for an open reading assignment, Spy School is familiar and predictable enough for a reader to feel accomplished, but with enough unanswered questions to make it engaging.

Beatle Meets Destiny by Gabrielle WilliamsThe Skinny:

When John “Beatle” Lennon meets Destiny McCartney in a chance encounter of Friday the 13th, it seems as though the stars have aligned and their romantic fate is sealed. But Beatle already has a girlfriend who just happens to be his twin sister’s best friend. This is a laugh-out-loud funny, endearingly quirky, romantic comedy of errors about fate, destiny…and Beatle. I would recommend this book to fans of Rachel Cohn and David Levithan’s joint works (Nick and Norah, Naomi and Ely, and Dash and Lily), to readers who have plowed through Sue Limb or Louise Rennison’s books, or to those who enjoy a good romantic comedy.

Interesting Basics – Yellow Triangle by qthomasbower

Interesting Basics – Yellow Triangle by qthomasbower

Story:

John “Beatle” Lennon and his twin sister, Winsome, were born 45 days apart. There were even in the Guinness Book of World Records for a while. Raised by their single mother, who is as obsessed with astrology and horoscopes as she is with superstitious tales of good and bad luck, Beatle has likewise become superstitious and Winsome has tried to completely ignore it. When Beatle endeavors to make it home early on one Friday the 13th and meets Destiny McCartney, something in the stars seem aligned. Of course everything that could possibly go wrong or present a challenge inevitably does. Beatle currently has a girlfriend, his sister’s best friend Cilla, and although he likes her, he feels their relationship is an almost accidental one. But that doesn’t mean he wants Destiny to find out about her, either; which could be difficult considering that Destiny’s older brother is Beatle’s English teacher and also secretly dating his sister. Destiny has her own share of secrets – like that she sort of stole (it looked like trash, honestly) a really prized antique chair from her neighbor to use in her art project and, after answering a personal ad as a joke, she sort of attracted a kind of creepy stalker into the lives of her family members. Although a relationship between Beatle and Destiny seems like, well, destined, getting these two together is a hilariously rocky journey.

globe by Patrick Q

globe by Patrick Q

Setting: Melbourne, Australia

I guess I’ve been on a bit of an Australian kick lately! Beatle Meets Destiny is thoroughly rooted in its setting. Characters banter about different parts of town, the name of local businesses, various landmarks and quirks of area public transportation. Their slang and word choice also reflects, to an extent, their locale. A back-of-the-book glossary of terms can be helpful for readers unfamiliar with Melbourne or with Australian slang.

Tri Sandwich Faces by G. Russell

Tri Sandwich Faces by G. Russell

Characters:

Beatle, from the time of his birth, has been a bit of an oddity and, raised in a single-parent household (where that parent is anything but conventional), is a slightly conflicted guy. He pretends to not really care much about the astrological charts his mother makes, his daily horoscope, or the superstitious life lessons his mother has imparted on him, but he himself is awfully superstitious and begins reading his horoscope (if only because he finds out that Destiny writes them). When we first meet Beatle, he seems a little selfish and a tad lazy. He obviously feels a connection with Destiny, but hopes that his current girlfriend, Cilla, might make it easy and break up with him. That Beatle feels his relationship with Cilla results from taking of the path of least resistance, that their getting together is just an accident of circumstance, makes Beatle seem kind of jerky…but a sweet and very appealing jerk, nevertheless. Beatle learns throughout the novel that living a life of avoidance (avoiding Friday the 13th, avoiding telling his girlfriend their relationship should end) keeps him from experiencing life to the fullest, even if that involves taking risks and making himself available.

Destiny is equally hilarious and quirky, at times strong and at others insecure. Born into a large family (with so many family members she can basically write her horoscope columns for the newspaper based on what is happening in the lives of her siblings and parents) where everyone has a name that “means” something, Destiny has a large network of supportive and idiosyncratic friends and family members. Destiny also keeps secrets and avoids confrontation; having inadvertantly stolen an expensive chair from her neighbor and then dismantling it for an art project, as well as answering a personal ad that brings a creeper stalker into her life and the lives of her family members, Destiny knows she has done wrong but hopes to avoid addressing the problems she has brought on herself and the consequences of her actions. With the help of her sister, Destiny eventually realizes she must face her problems head-on.

mouth by Darwin Bell

mouth by Darwin Bell

Voice:

Unlike other novels that have dual narrators, Beatle Meets Destiny provides perspectives from each of the title characters, but with a third-person narrative style. In addition to chapters dedicated to Beatle and Destiny, Williams includes scenes from a documentary film (indicated by a film reel graphic) of different sets of twins telling their stories. Some are funny, others touching, demonstrating the bond (and sometimes freaky bonds) that twins have with one another. The film reel clips end with Beatle and his twin sister Winsome’s interview, showing their sometimes fraught but ultimately loving relationship.

Abstract (design) by tanakawho

Abstract (design) by tanakawho

Style:

The third person narrative style of the novel provides a uniquely conversational tone to the novel. The narrator at times even calls out to the reader directly, asking the reader questions, teasing the reader along the way. I found Williams’ style incredibly appealing for this reason. Even though one might assume a first-person narrative would allow readers a more intimate view of the characters, I felt like I was almost friends with the narrator, looking on at two of our hopelessly confused friends repeatedly messing up, but coming through in the end. The narrator and reader share a wink and a nod.

With chapters alternating between Beatle and Destiny, as well as the film segments, the novel has an almost cinematic quality to it. A professional reviewer commented that the novel felt like a comedy of errors romantic comedy (although so much of the book reads so much better than would ever readily translate to film) and that it is a shame couples can’t sit down for a Saturday night date book. I wholeheartedly agree with this assessment; the book reads like a really great, hilarious, and touching romantic comedy that throngs of folks would line up to see and be smiling for days afterward.

two lines two shadows by miuenski

two lines two shadows by miuenski

Themes:

Unsurprisingly, given the title, the role of destiny becomes an important theme. Beatle and Destiny seem inextricablly fated to meet and to feel an immediate connection; other than the obvious affiliation of their names, Destiny’s older brother is Beatle’s teacher and Beatle’s sister is dating said teacher. If they hadn’t met on the fateful evening of Friday the 13th, one could assume they might have found each other anyway. But “destiny” or “fate” also come to help explain circumstances with negative consequences. Of course the chair Destiny unintentionally stole (and was ultimately a perfect fit for her project) would have been something of incredible value and never intended as garbage. Of course Beatle would have to be dating Cilla, a nice girl nevertheless, right at the moment he met Destiny. Although Beatle and Destiny both take some responsibility for these circumstances, each has a way of approaching life as though good fortune and hardship happen to them rather than the result of their own behaviors and circumstance. Williams, without being preachy or didactic, skillfully relates the process through which both characters learn to confront challenges head-on and to remain truthful to themselves and with others.

Books by Paulo Fehlauer

Books by Paulo Fehlauer

So I spent the entire weekend reading books (and finished four all in a couple of days…reviews to follow) and have not really been paying much attention to the world of YA online. That is until Monday afternoon when I saw Liz B’s post on the YA Mafia debacle and her thoughtful comments. One could probably waste a good part of one’s day tracking this issue and I encourage all to read and make personal decisions as to the rights and wrongs. But, as a gal who writes reviews of YA Lit (on a sorta semi-regular basis), as someone who reads YA Lit almost exclusively, and as an individual who is professionally dedicated to putting great books into the hands of teen readers, I feel like this is an important debate.

Part of this kerfuffle is about posting critical reviews online. I totally support well-reasoned and articulated critique in all its varied forms. As a librarian who cannot possibly purchase every professional reviewing source, I consult YA bloggers’ reviews when making purchasing decisions for the YA collections. Some YA bloggers get copies to review from publishers before the books hit the shelves or actively attend the major conferences and can score ARCs from the publishers’ booths, which means I can get a sense of a book before it has been released and put it on order. Some bloggers and professional reviewing sources just print positive reviews. So if a book isn’t reviewed? Mockingjay by Suzanne CollinsThat doesn’t mean it isn’t worth purchasing; not every book is reviewed in a timely manner (i.e. Mockingjay didn’t have reviews out before publication because no one could get a copy to review…not than anyone would be crazy enough to not purchase a copy of it…but, you know) and no one blogger or group of bloggers can read everything (because that would be, you know, insane).

But even though I love to read a glowing review (especially of a book that I personally loved), critical reviews that point out weaknesses in a particular book also have an important place. When making purchasing decisions, I have to balance what I think might be popular in the community I serve and what are great books that have the potential for longevity or that support the curriculum. Sometimes those books are one in the Once Upon a Marigold by Jean Ferrissame (Once Upon a Marigold is on our local middle school reading lists, but is also a great recreational read), but often they are not. I know that I have mentioned it before, but this is one reason I particularly appreciate and subscribe to VOYA: I get a sense of both the quality and potential popularity of a work. And, although I am personally opposed to “content ratings” of YA books, having a very specific review that points out sexual content, rough language, violence, etc. of a particular title is useful when working with kiddos and parents in a readers’ advisory context. Those who work in school libraries (both private and public) are very familiar with the challenges they face in collection development. One particular passage might incite reconsideration requests from teachers or parents and not every school librarian has strong administrative support when it comes to fighting contested materials. Critical reviews have a place in helping those of us who order materials know broadly what we’ll be getting (or getting ourselves into).

Critical reviews also incite discussion and conversation. Those of us invested in young adult literature (whether as librarians, teachers, parents, published authors, aspiring authors, etc.) have a stake in literature for teens being recognized as important cultural and social products, worthy of our attention and study. Those who have been in graduate seminars or taken college lit courses can attest that critical analysis, whatever the discipline, can be utterly brutal. I remember my first semester in graduate school and taking an inter-disciplinary class in the women’s studies department. I was the only person in the class in my first Cindy Sherman/Librariansemester of graduate school and one of only two students working towards a master’s degree (everyone else was in a PhD program). Most of our grade was dependent on one final paper and I worked harder on producing something of quality for that class than on anything else that semester. Toward the end of our course we all had to give a presentation on our research, our methods and our conclusions. Coming from an interdisciplinary undergraduate program where I spent most of my time taking philosophy and art history courses, I had very little concept of “research methods.” I understood schools of thought and critical stances, but nothing anywhere close to a “methodology.” I was incredibly nervous presenting and although both of my professors were supportive and tried to make me feel comfortable, my peers totally beat me down with criticism. My research methods were inexact; my conclusions weak; my sources selective. I ended up getting a good grade on the paper and in the class. My professor even encouraged me to expand my research and submit it for publication. Were my peers wrong? No, they weren’t. Each and every one of them had been trained to pick every argument apart and to look for something “wrong”; nothing is perfect – there will always be something that could be improved upon.

Why does any of this matter? Because part of taking young adult literature “seriously,” rightly or wrongly, is to submit its products to a higher level of scrutiny. Just because one person feels that some elements in a book are flawed or that he or she personally did not quite get what the author was going for doesn’t mean the book is without merit, that the book is unworthy, or to even discourage others from reading it. It is to enter into a critical dialogue with a work as a reader. At least for me, there are plenty of things I enjoy that I can recognize as being problematic and imperfect. Recognizing the strengths and weaknesses of a cultural production makes us engaged viewers and consumers. I can read nutrition labels; I know that pint of Ben and Jerry’s Ben & Jerry'sHalf-Baked is no good for me; I’m going to eat some of it anyway, while simultaneously acknowledging that I’ll either need to push myself a little harder during my next work out or my hips will tell the tale of my indulgence. There’s a place in our lives for books that are Ben and Jerry’s, that don’t necessarily challenge us intellectually or emotionally. And there’s a place for those books that fill us up and cause us to question our lives or our world. But books don’t come with nutrition labels; we have to digest them and address them to figure out where they fit in our lives. Or we have to find people whose opinions we value to give us a hint as to whether or not a particular book is going to be worth our time (if it is something we might enjoy; if it is a decadent Ben & Jerry’s afternoon; or if it is something scrumptious and nutritious that will stay with us long after the reading, etc.).

Another part of this YA Mafia issue, however, is whether or not “negative” reviews can impact people’s perceptions of review writers and whether or not writing “negative” reviews can affect one’s professional pursuits.

Angry_Bread_Large by Psycholabs

Angry_Bread_Large by Psycholabs

As someone not seeking to be a published author in the creative writing sphere and with absolutely no experience in the publishing business, I have no insideknowledge of this. I do, however, think it is important to try one’s best to ensure that any publicly viewable material puts one in a good professional light. It seems easy to think that because it is online one can disassociate oneself from the product – or – because it is “for fun” that being flippant or snarky is appropriate. Either attitude does not create goodwill, I would think. Unless, of course, you just don’t care. But most of us have jobs we depend upon and personal or professional goals that go beyond our current daily routines. Something I’ve told teenagers I work with is useful in this context: people will judge you or make assumptions about you based on how you present yourself, how you communicate, how you dress, or what you look like. Is it right or fair? No. But it happens anyway. Whether or not a cabal of authors and/or publishers scour the internet looking for aspiring authors to take down (which I doubt), whatever is publicly accessible is fair game. Is it right to judge or make decisions about an aspiring author based on a critical or snarky review? Maybe not. But publicly available content is all part of a package and presentation.

One last comment and then I’ll leave it at that. I personally post critical reviews and there are plenty of books I have read that I didn’t particularly enjoy. My personal response is just that: personal. Am I entitled to my opinions? Yup, but not at the exclusion of anyone else’s. As a librarian I value the opinions and personal quirks of all the folks I work with. I have recommended plenty of books I personally did not enjoy (including books that I thought were poorly written, poorly edited, or for whatever reason rubbed me the wrong way). That is part of my job. I’m not a big fan of speculative fiction, but that does not stop me from recommending science fiction and fantasy titles to readers who enjoy the genres. I tend to be drawn to realistic fiction, historical fiction, and mysteries…but I do not solely recommend these types of books and I can’t assume that anyone will have the same taste that I do. I’m a firm believer of the “every book its reader, every reader his/her book” philosophy. There have been situations where I have read a book that I cannot imagine a group of readers or even a single person I would recommend it to. In a readers’ advisory situation, if I meet that reader, I will recommend that book. And in the mean time I put that book on display and hope a person who might not otherwise talk to me will find it and enjoy it.

The Beginner's Guide to Living by Lia HillsThe Skinny: With his mother’s recent death, Will Ellis starts on an intellectual and physical journey to discover the meaning of life and death.  Told through present-tense narrative, journal-styled entries, and black and white photographs, this is a powerful and poetic novel.  I would recommend this book to mature high school readers who appreciate a thought-provoking novel that packs an emotional punch.

Interesting Basics – Yellow Triangle by qthomasbower

Interesting Basics – Yellow Triangle by qthomasbower

Story:

Will, having always had a fairly close relationship with his mother, begins to flounder after her death.  His father, although present, throws himself into work and remains pretty emotionally distant.  His brother, Adam, has returned home from living abroad and spends much of his time out of the house or acting like a belligerent jerk.  When Will meets Taryn, the daughter of a distant family friend, at his mother’s wake, she seems like a breath of fresh air.  Taryn comes from a very different family than Will’s, with parents that are not distant, but hands-off, and in a more liberal household where it seems that practically every topic is open to family discussion.  Influenced by Taryn’s family and his own impulse at discovery, Will begins reading religion and philosophy texts and taking risks with his sexuality, his emotions, and his safety.  Through experiencing life to the limits, both positive and negative, Will comes to an acceptance of mortality, to an understanding of loss, and to an acknowledgement of the power in forging connections with others.

Setting: Melbourne, Australia

globe by Patrick Q

globe by Patrick Q

 Although in terms of geography and occasionally language use the story is specific to Melbourne and Australia, Will’s experiences and his physical and emotional journey make the novel accessible to those who have no knowledge of its specific setting.  Will’s life and the lives of those he knows seem, for the most part, thoroughly middle class and roughly urban.  Much of Will’s story is interior and the setting reflects this; specific locations are muted by a fluid lack of specificity: we know the interior of Taryn’s home to be very different from that of Will’s, but neither home has solid or exclusive dimensions.  Even Will’s journey into the brush becomes an almost “anywhere” area of the distinctly natural.  Divisions in setting become more defined by Will’s time alone or ways in which he isolates himself and spaces in which he is surrounded by or interacting with other people.     

Tri Sandwich Faces by G. Russell

Tri Sandwich Faces by G. Russell

 Characters:

Will Ellis is a seeker.  His mother’s unexpected death leaves him searching for answers and understanding and this novel is the story of his journey through grief.  His father and brother are emotionally distant, leaving Will to search for meaning outside of his remaining family.  Will converses with philosophers and poets; he seeks guidance from Taryn’s sister; he throws himself with abandon into a sexual relationship with Taryn; he takes risks, spraying graffiti for an unknown audience and taking hallucinogenic drugs; and he wanders in a fairly isolated region, communing with nature and a well-meaning stranger.  Throughout all of his experiences, however, Will might appear as though he is grasping, but has a very clear sense of what might and what will not work for him. 

Taryn becomes Will’s girlfriend, of a sort, but never seems very clearly defined and her motivations do not appear fully explored.  Taryn’s sister seems so much more interesting; she practices meditation, is constantly on an adventure to some exotic locale, and tries to help guide Will’s journey with suggested readings in Eastern philosophy.  By comparison, Taryn appears considerably less interesting.  She and Will obviously have a very powerful sexual connection and, although she at one point pushes him away when Will goes out a little too far in his journey, their relationship seems more physical than emotional.  In part, however, this seems understandable since we are reading Will’s story.  We get the sense that his relationship with Taryn throughout most of the novel is just one more way in which he seeks meaning, never mind what she hopes to achieve.

mouth by Darwin Bell

mouth by Darwin Bell

 Voice:

Although this is Will’s story and readers meet Will through his first-person, present-tense observations, journal-style entries, and photographs, Will’s narrative is in conversation throughout the novel with his own memory and with the philosophers, writers and poets whose words Will chooses as resonant with his at-the-moment experience.  I found Will’s perspective and voice unique and engaging; he believable struggles in communicating his feelings of grief, loss and anger, yet he is refreshingly insightful.

Abstract (design) by tanakawho

Abstract (design) by tanakawho

 Style:

The Beginner’s Guide to Living is a combination of present-tense narration, journal-style entries, quotes, dream sequences, fragmented memories and black and white photographs.  These lead to a feeling of non-linear thought in a linear story.  The memories, most especially, go back and forth in time as Will pieces together his last moments with and memories of his mother.  The journal-type entries give a feeling of Will working out and through his thoughts and feelings.  The inclusion of disparate quotes feels genuine to Will’s character and engages readers in a way that adds depth and promotes self-reflection.  The black and white photographs are often illuminating and tastefully chosen.  Nevertheless, I am still somewhat undecided about how effective this combination method is; these divergent elements work well in concert and none seems to outshine the other, but their incongruence might prove a struggle for some readers.  If one wants a more effective deployment of the journal style, Stephen Emond’s Happyface might be the way to go.

two lines two shadows by miuenski

two lines two shadows by miuenski

 Themes:

The most obvious theme in The Beginner’s Guide to Living is grief and how one handles the loss of an important person.  Will, his father and his brother each deal with loss in very different ways.  Will’s dad throws himself into work, avoiding his grief with distractions; Will’s brother, Adam, avoids the family and seems to have a very difficult time getting past the stage of anger; and Will searches for meaning, for something that might explain or assuage grief, and for a reason for living.  Will’s journey to find purpose in (a perhaps fleeting) existence leads him to take risks and engage in what might be termed “limit” experiences.  A limit experience might be thought of as something beyond explanation or a happening that is difficult to articulate; Will seems to search for an almost mystical limit experience, taking risks that push against the limits of language and understanding.

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