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Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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The Space Between Trees by Katie WilliamsThe Skinny: When Evie lies to a stranger at Zabet’s funeral, claiming that her once childhood friend was still her best-friend, she unintentionally becomes involved in figuring out who killed Zabet with Zabet’s real best-friend, Hadley. This is an unusual, haunting, and suspenseful mystery told by a fresh and witty narrative voice. I would recommend this title to fans of mystery and suspense, but also to fans of angsty narrators or darkly gritty realistic fiction.

Interesting Basics – Yellow Triangle by qthomasbower

Interesting Basics – Yellow Triangle by qthomasbower

Story:

On the day Zabet’s body was discovered, Evie was delivering newspapers on her route. She saw the body in a bag being pulled out from the woods, not realizing that her former best friend from childhood, Zabet, was the victim. When Evie becomes friends with Zabet’s current best friend, Hadley, the two young women begin searching for Zabet’s killer. Yet Hadley soon spirals out of control, dragging Evie on a dangerous path.

globe by Patrick Q

globe by Patrick Q

Setting: Unnamed Suburban Enclave

The basic geography within The Space Between Trees is important to the narrative, yet is detached enough from any real place to make the story seem as though it could reasonably happen anywhere. One could divide this unnamed suburban town into the Hokepe Woods subdivision, the surrounding “woods,” the condos full of divorced men, and the less affluent side of town full of rental homes and apartments. Having spent a fair number of years in suburban enclaves and planned communities when I was growing up, I could envision these distinct regions; the setting provided a loose familiarity that I appreciated in a narrative of such raw discordance.

Tri Sandwich Faces by G. Russell

Tri Sandwich Faces by G. Russell

Characters:

Evie narrates her story and is probably one of the most unique characters I have met in quite a while. Evie has grown up an only child to a single parent and, with the exception of her childhood friendship with Zabet, she has never really had any friends and remains pretty much a fairly satisfied outcast. Sure, she has acquaintances, the so-called “Whisperers,” who have allowed her to sit at their lunch table, but her closest relationships are fueled more by her imagination than any actual emotional intimacy. Evie lies about practically everything: she lies to the “Whisperers” about her relationship with Jonah, a college-age guy who works picking up dead animals in the Hokepe Woods, probably to get them to pay attention to her; she lies to her mother about having friends, so that her mother, a formerly very popular girl herself, will not worry or push Evie to become more involved; and Evie eventually lies to Zabet’s father, claiming a close friendship with Zabet that had ended years earlier. Evie’s distance from most people and her reflective manner make her relationship with Hadley all the more dangerous and, as the two become friends and more entangled in one another’s life, Evie continually believes she can keep Hadley’s behavior in check while things are spiraling further and further out of control. Although Evie’s character does not change dramatically and her actions, even in the end, are shocking, she does seem to finish the novel with the ability to connect in a more truthful way with others and seems to have learned that deceiving others is as dangerous and insidious as deceiving oneself.

Hadley is known around school as a “bad girl,” attending college parties, drinking, smoking, having sex, getting in fights. When Hadley moved to Hokepe Woods at the beginning of high school, she and Zabet became very close friends, although as the novel progresses a reader can see that Hadley was the more dominant and domineering of the two. Hadley knows Evie lied to Zabet’s father, but allows the charade to continue for reasons that are not immediately clear. Hadley is a master manipulator and probably a burgeoning sociopath and, even in the end, she does not seem to have been punished in any way for her behavior, nor does she seem to have changed in any meaningful way.

Jonah, a college drop-out who works picking up animal carcasses from the woods surrounding the Hokepe subdivision, has functioned as idealized eye candy for many of the teenage girls living in the neighborhood and to Evie herself. In her mind and in the stories she recounts to the Whisperers, Evie has a much closer relationship with Jonah than he would think. Evie has an obvious crush on him and engages in some stalkerish behavior – following him around the neighborhood, driving around looking for his truck, calling his place of employment to see whether or not he has returned to work. Jonah is not a particularly well-rounded character, but nevertheless plays and important part in the story: he discovers Zabet’s body and becomes very distraught over the incident; he ultimately rejects Evie’s advances; and he becomes a suspect in Hadley’s mind, resulting in dangerous consequences.

mouth by Darwin Bell

mouth by Darwin Bell

Voice:

Evie tells her story in first-person and, due to her compulsive lying, one might assume she is a totally unreliable narrator. Although she never explicitly explains why she feels the need to constantly fabricate stories, Evie does demonstrate a very clear understanding of when others are being disingenuous or performative. Evie is a constant observer (very rarely acting out) and knows when her mother acts or speaks in a practiced, observed, and mannered way and Evie comments on these behaviors in others. Her one blind spot tends to come from Hadley; whether Evie does not wish to truly see Hadley for what she is or if Hadley is just so skillful at hiding her motives, Evie seems a little slow, but believably so, at piecing together Hadley’s disintegration.

But despite the fact that Evie is not the most admirable of characters, her voice is frank, unique and interesting. She has a particular view of life that struck me as fresh and endearing and her, although somewhat slight, transition was subtle. As a constant observer, Evie lived life in a dreamlike state, disconnected from the world and from people. By the end of the novel, things are definitely not rosy and many questions are left unanswered, yet Evie’s response to these events shows some maturation and some sense of having learned that part of living life is in the relationships we form.

Abstract (design) by tanakawho

Abstract (design) by tanakawho

Style:

Katie Williams writes beautifully. With a quirky, intelligent and mostly antisocial narrator, The Space Between Trees is certainly haunting, but with very humorous moments. While the tone might at times seem more sophisticated than one might expect of a teenage girl, I never doubted for a moment that this was Evie’s voice. Williams executes teen dialogue in a spot-on way and she balances Evie’s introspective nature with a fast-paced and compelling plot.

 

two lines two shadows by miuenski

two lines two shadows by miuenski

Themes:

Structured almost like a who-dun-it mystery and with Evie’s lies initiating the action, the question of truth plays a vital role. Evie has made a habit of being a storyteller, sometimes of very tall tales, yet she has a very clear sense of the facades people show to the outside world. Evie’s mother takes great pride in a clean and well-maintained household and in presenting herself in the best light; yet Evie seems cognizant that there is discord underneath her mother’s practiced stance and years of former tenants who showed less respect to their rental homes. Evie is also struck by the disparity between the exterior of Hadley’s home, in such an affluent neighborhood, and the interior with fractured parents and piles of garbage, dirty clothes and dishes. Although readers get a sense of this earlier on, Evie eventually discovers that Hadley is a walking contradiction; that while Evie seems to want to defend Hadley from what she considers abuse at the hands of volatile young men, Hadley often picks fights, hurls abuse, and initiates discord. This is not a traditional murder mystery; no reader could piece together exactly what happened to Zabet and who was responsible. Instead the mystery lies in figuring out the truth of Hadley’s irrational behavior and how both girls will (if they can) come to terms with the irrational.

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Wildthorn by Jane EaglandThe Skinny: The moment Louisa Cosgrove arrives at Wildthorn Hall, she knows something is not quite right. Although she expected to begin work as a companion to a wealthy, slightly older young woman, Louisa is instead stripped of her possessions and her identity at what turns out to be an insane asylum. This is a suspenseful, beautifully written novel that is a unique addition to the ranks of historical fiction in its handling of love relationships between women, changing cultural norms of gender, and the history of psychiatric institutions. I would recommend this title to historical fiction fans, to readers of GLBTQ young adult fiction, or to romance readers.

Interesting Basics – Yellow Triangle by qthomasbower

Interesting Basics – Yellow Triangle by qthomasbower

Story:

After the death of her supportive father, Louisa Cosgrove feels trapped taking care of her distraught mother and denied the opportunity to attend a Women’s Medical College in London by her older brother. When her brother forces her to take a position as a companion to a slightly older young woman, Louisa reluctantly agrees and finds herself on a journey to the country mansion. Deposited on the steps of a massive estate, Wildthorn Hall, Louisa is whisked away, locked up, her belongings taken, her identity stripped. This is no private home, but an insane asylum, where the attendants are brutal, the inmates deprived, and where Louisa is now known as Lucy Childs. Louisa struggles to comprehend what has happened to her, what has led her to this miserable fortress, and how she might escape.

globe by Patrick Q

globe by Patrick Q

Setting: Victorian Era England

Eagland excels in her descriptions of setting, from the lush estates of Louisa’s family, to the fetid and claustrophobic environs of the asylum, to the grim apartment in London that Louisa’s brother, Tom, calls home, making each scene almost cinematic. The author further situates the novel in the period with attention to dress and through very physical demarcations between the classes and the sexes.

 

 

Tri Sandwich Faces by G. Russell

Tri Sandwich Faces by G. Russell

Characters:

Louisa Cosgrove/Lucy Childs narrates the novel and, at least until it becomes more obvious why she has been institutionalized, a reader might assume she is not a very reliable one. From childhood, Louisa was always more of a tom boy, interested in science and experimentation, and wished one day to be a hero, to become a doctor, and to make a difference. Although this routinely brought her into conflict with her traditional mother, Louisa’s father, himself a physician, encouraged her dreams and allowed for a less-traditional (and much more masculine) education. Once in the asylum, Louisa routinely demonstrates her incredible strength: she tries to hold onto her sanity against incredible odds; she forms a strong relationship with one of the attendants, Eliza, and she continually plots her own escape (where her medical education learned alongside her father comes in handy). Although Louisa eventually learns why she was institutionalized and who was responsible, she never quite forgives or forgets and rather than sink back into expected roles of women, Louisa comes out of the asylum with greater strength and determination.

Grace, Louisa’s cousin, figures predominantly throughout much of the novel as an ideal. Louisa clearly has feelings for Grace that go beyond the love of family, yet Louisa fails to fully see Grace’s shortcomings. Grace routinely reminded Louisa throughout their childhood that Louisa’s dreams were impractical and inappropriate for girls and, in what seems an arranged situation rather than a love match, becomes engaged to an older man who clearly typifies the age in his feelings toward women. Although Grace is one of Louisa’s most ardent supporters to the end, it is clear that Grace does not have the strength of character to step outside of traditional feminine roles and ultimately sacrifices her own happiness for duty.

Tom Cosgrove, Louisa’s brother, seems a very perfect, albeit somewhat tragic, villain. Even in their childhood, Tom appears a very vindictive sort and always looking for ways to draw attention to Louisa’s failings or away from himself. Tom pursues a medical education while simultaneously depriving Louisa of the opportunity and his personal vices leave him open to manipulation. Despite the complex and often unpleasant relationship between Tom and Louisa, Tom eventually gets his due and remains a sympathetic (if mostly pathetic) character.

Eliza, an attendant at Wildthorn Hall, is one of the few employees of the asylum who has sympathy for the patients and attempts to improve their quality of life within her limited sphere of influence. Eliza and Louisa strike up a friendly relationship and, once Louisa is transferred to another ward, Eliza continues to visit Louisa where their friendship grows. Eliza routinely puts her own well-being at risk to help Louisa and through their relationship, Louisa learns to trust others again and finds love in the process.

mouth by Darwin Bell

mouth by Darwin Bell

Voice:

In this first-person narrative, Louisa Cosgrove (Lucy Childs) tells her story in real-time and through fragmented memories of her childhood and the more recent past. As Louisa spends more time in the asylum and as she tries to piece together what could have led up to her internment, readers could begin to question her reliability as a narrator; most especially as she becomes isolated in solitary confinement and as her memories progress from childhood to more recent events, Louisa begins to question herself, her resolve, and whether or not her confinement really is a mistake. But despite her self-doubt, Louisa remains a strong and observant narrator.

Abstract (design) by tanakawho

Abstract (design) by tanakawho

Style:

The language of Louisa’s narrative reads consistently with her time, yet does not read as though it would alienate modern readers. And whereas the slipping of time between events that happen to Louisa in real-time and her childhood and recent memories might seem likely to lead to confusion, the memories and current events are clearly demarcated. As the pieced-together memories begin to expose the reasons for Louisa’s confinement, Louisa’s experiences within Wildthorn Hall also build in intensity to the culminating escape attempt.

Eagland also situates the story in the Victorian era through dialogue. The ways in which individuals address one another demarcate both their station and their sex. Despite her status as an inmate, Louisa is constantly referred to as “Miss” by Eliza, marking Louisa as of a higher class. Louisa’s experiences visiting other ladies with her mother demonstrate very rigorously maintained social roles of appropriate decorum for young women. And Louisa’s interactions with her family, such as at the dinner party where she explodes to defend her dreams at becoming a doctor, result is severe reprimands. Eagland also employs the use of regional dialect, marking Eliza as native to a particular region or marking those who have less formal (or educated) speech.

two lines two shadows by miuenski

two lines two shadows by miuenski

Themes:

Perhaps one of the most complex themes of Wildthorn rests in how insanity or sanity become socially and culturally defined. Particular members of Louisa’s family believe her unfeminine actions (her education, her desire to be a doctor, her outspokenness, her rebuking of marriage) mark her as mentally unstable or suffering from a sexual disorder. Louisa even doubts her moral or ethical make-up because of her attraction to women, although she clearly believes she is not insane. Some 21st century readers might not understand how this situation could even have happened, yet Eagland thoroughly places this judgment in its historical context. Despite affluent women’s increasing access to advanced education, there were many men and women who felt threatened by these changes and viewed these women as a danger not only to themselves but to society as a whole. In passing, Grace mentions that her husband reads many papers coming out of Vienna; both Germany and Austria were home to many influential thinkers in the burgeoning field of psychiatry. The confluence of a system of thought to explain and categorize mental illness comes at a very complex social and political time throughout the world. Wildthorn brings some of these social and cultural changes to light.

In terms of interpersonal relationships, Wildthorn is also a story of trust and love. Louisa’s trust is broken with some members of her family, those who worked together for their own personal motives to institutionalize her. Yet Louisa also begins to learn that her mother, with whom she has never had a particularly strong relationship, is much more aware and less fragile than Louisa once believed and that, through honesty, they can have a better and more supportive bond. Eliza also teaches Louisa to trust and take risks again, leading to a loving relationship between the two.

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