Animals by Emma Jane Unsworth: a review and some realizations

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Here’s the thing about Animals, which I liked far more than you might assume and exactly as much as I expected: it showed me what my life might be like right now, if I’d made different (worse?) decisions just out of University. Had I not moved back to America and started a job I enjoyed in a bookstore I love, would I have ended up in a cramped, chaotic apartment in Manchester? Would I be crawling from my best friend’s more comfortable bed, wracked with hangover, reaching for a bottle of wine while she — glamorous creature — lounged in the back garden with sunglasses and poetry? Would we rail against our impending 30s, our upcoming nuptials, our successful siblings by partying like we did when we were 21? Steal drugs not out of addiction, but just because the scary dealer-lady accidentally left one of us alone in the room? Struggle between dizzying, joyful, reckless friendship and jealousy that aches like bruises do: painful but sometimes out-of-mind?

Probably not in Manchester, probably not the drugs, and definitely none of the questionable sexual decisions. But I can see an alternative reality in which I live with my room-mate and best friend from my Uni years well through our late 20s. (In Animals, Laura and Tyler actually meet after University; Tyler quotes Chaucer in a cafe and Laura likes her immediately. Who wouldn’t? But the intensity of their friendship is very much like ours.) I can see myself, like Laura, getting too tipsy at a daytime literary presentation in a library. I can picture it because it’s happened. I can imagine a group of us getting in over our heads at an underground Spanish bar, accidentally making enemies, knowing we need to get out, not knowing how. I remember what it’s like to spend the week’s last remaining 20 pounds in the pub just for somewhere comfortable and lively to while away the hours. The only reason we never disobeyed the rules and broke into events at the Edinburgh Fringe was that we never attended. We would most certainly behave badly at a family-friendly christening, but make friends with the vicar while we’re at it. No question.

Laura and Tyler’s specific antics don’t necessarily feature in this prediction of what might have been. Nor do the more serious problems they must face: Laura’s fraying relationship with her sweet fiancee who can only handle so much immaturity, Tyler’s bruises and black eyes when her wit and charm can’t get her through a fraught situation. The plot of Animals could only happen to Laura and Tyler themselves, who are as messy and real and memorable as any friends I’ve had. Emma Jane Unsworth has created something entirely believable in her novel, just with snappier dialogue and better timing than my life or (probably) yours. The situations, the characters themselves, are entirely hers.

I saw flashes and reflections of myself and my closest college friend in the emotional terms of their relationship, and honestly these moments were what kept me hooked (even when my Victorian eyes had to be averted from time to time). Their happy moments shine with the same hysterical glow as our happiest moments.

“I’d arrived at the pub to find Tyler resplendent on a picnic bench with a bottle of wine in an ice bucket on the table in front of her.
‘GREETINGS’ she shouted across the beer garden.
Oh god, I thought, she’s doing Christian Slater in Heathers. We’re already there, are we?” (p 42)

This was us. This is still us. This is how we used to be, when we were together, every day.

But then there are moments in Animals that reminded me how friendships this close – in proximity as well as devotion – can get shaken by growing up. Real life insists upon intruding and asking, “Do you really want to stay like this for the rest of your adult existence?” I wonder what have happened to us if we’d shrugged and grinned and answered yes. Would it be similar? Would the desires for safety and romance and stability pull one of us ever so slightly away from the other? Would I end up, like Laura, feeling adrift and alone, testing out too late how to be by myself, my own person, by the end of our story? (Would our story be published in an attractive package by Europa?) Would feelings get hurt?

Laura explains her reasons for wanting to get married:

” ‘So I want to be part of a new team against the world.’ I quailed at my own schmaltziness but I knew it was true – the idea, at any rate.
‘Teams are awful. Families are awful. People are awful. Why perpetuate the awfulness?’
‘So why don’t you live alone? Why have me around?’
Neither of us said it because it was there, unspoken. It flashed through her eyes at the same time it went through my head but I was afraid of saying it and I knew she was too. We used to be a team.” (p 93)

Lucky for me – and happy am I – this isn’t going to be a problem for us. We didn’t stick around with jobs we hated in a crumbling flat, spicing up the day with bottles and chemicals, trying to remember what we loved about our lives. We had fun as young people, together, and now we have slightly less fun as slightly less young people, apart. But whenever she and I find ourselves in the same room, it’s as though we’re back in our old flat in Scotland, above the grocery store on Market Street. Back in the cold living room where all the furniture was so short, you had to sit on the floor to eat from the table. The door handles were down by our knees. Now we drink cocktails flavored with herbs and laugh and tell secrets that maybe we once knew but have sense forgotten. We get into trouble sometimes, still. We can live without each other, even though we’d rather not. We are best friends without ever having to prove it. I hope that Laura and Tyler, if they were real, would have developed this sort of bond after Animals ended.

It was wonderful, almost addictive, to read about their misadventures as they backpedaled from adulthood at all costs, but I’m relieved to have taken a slightly different path after all. I gave Animals to my friend when she came to visit this past weekend — easily the greatest two days of 2016 so far. Maybe now we’ll both know what we’re missing by pretending to be grown-ups, and maybe just reading about it will be enough.

Book Review: Treasure Island!!! by Sara Levine

I read Treasure Island!!! on Mount Desert Island.  Good stuff.

I read Treasure Island!!! on Mount Desert Island. Good stuff.

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: 15 and up. (Book is aimed at grown-ups, with lots of swearing and some sex.)

There’s a reason for the three exclamation points, and the reason is this: TREASURE ISLAND!!! Isn’t Robert Lewis Stevenson’s magnificent nautical jaunt simply the best story of adventure, the best test of character, ever told? You bet your scurvy soul it is. The heroine narrator of Sara Levine’s absurdly funny, wonderfully glib novel agrees. When she reads Treasure Island, she realizes that her 25 years of unfulfilling jobs and subdued interactions have been a waste of her potential. She should be more like Jim Hawkins, swept out amongst rogues into a world of adventure! She should face all the little problems in her uncomfortably comfortable middle-class existence with seafaring spirit! She should read Treasure Island over and over, making notes on index cards, and refusing to speak about anything else! She should acquire a parrot!

Obviously, I’ve had similar experiences with pirate books. I, too, wish that more altercations were solved with a cutlass and a challenge and no care for consequences. But where I find Long John Silver to be the most compelling character in the old classic, (as do most other readers, the “spiritual healer” points out in Levine’s novel), our fearless [???] narrator cares about no one but Jim Hawkins. She decides to try and live her life based around the lad’s best qualities, which supposedly make up the Core Values of Treasure Island:

BOLDNESS

RESOLUTION

INDEPENDENCE

HORN-BLOWING

Alas, in the real world there aren’t ample opportunities for 19th century style horn-blowing. Boldness often comes across as a blatant disregard for good manners. And it’s hard to be independent when you’ve gracelessly quit your job at the Pet Library, after abandoning your post and stealing your boss’s money to buy a parrot, and must move back home with your well-meaning parents. The narrator’s new found zeal for Stevenson’s adventure story borders on religious fervor. Even while it destroys her relationship with a good-natured young man, threatens her friendships, and sets the course for a full scale mental breakdown, she cannot give up her obsession with living a boy-hero’s life; a life undaunted by any obstacle between herself and complete freedom.

So the narrator starts out seeming a little cracked and gets more gleefully unlikable by the page. At first you shake your head at her in fond bewilderment: “Oh, that volatile, self-centered lass and her funny obsession,” you think to yourself. A few chapters in: “Oh, wow, she’s really going to buy that parrot? I don’t know if that’s wise…”

And then, soon enough, “WHAT is she doing with that macaroni and cheese!??”

“WHY is she hiding in the back of her sister’s car?!!”

“HOW does she plan to get herself out of THIS mess???”

“WHERE is she going with that pie knife?!!!”

There’s a twisted good time to be found in Oh No She Didn’t type stories. And in Treasure Island!!!, the answer is always OH YES SHE DID! Every action, from a conversation at the breakfast table to an awkward moment at the local sandwich shop, seems to ring with the exclamation marks that feature in the novel’s title. !!! Because how could anything not be an adventure once you’re seeing life through a veil of gunpowder, hearing dialogue from inside an apple barrel, and treating your childhood home like the decks of the Hispaniola?

I worry about how much I related to the increasingly disturbed main character in Sara Levine’s farcical novel. I know she’s a complete wreck; out of touch with reality, a terrible friend, a total drag on her family. The Core Values don’t get her very far. In fact, her attempts at fearlessness render her incapable of even scraping by on her own. But the way her hapless story is told, with a narrative that is peppered with misused nautical terminology and no self-awareness whatsoever, absolutely cracked me up. It’s the sort of tale that encourages you to laugh at the main character rather than with her. And, yes, it’s very much the sort of novel I want to write, right up there with Daniel Handler’s We Are Pirates.

It’s damned hard to be a buccaneer in this day and age. I just hope I never end up at an intervention with the wrong kind of pie, faced by concerned loved ones who think I’ve grown addicted to a library book.

Book Review: Cartwheeling In Thunderstorms by Katherine Rundell

This new children’s novel by Katherine Rundell (author of my much-beloved Rooftoppers) came out in August.  I read an advance reader’s copy, so some details may have changed before publication.  The UK title of this book is The Girl Savage.

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: *** (3 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age rage recommendation: 8 – 12

Cartwheeling In Thunderstorms begins in Zimbabwe, a land I don’t know much about and have never before encountered in a children’s book.  So that’s an intriguing start, right away.  Will – Willhelmina Silver – has grown up free and happy on an African farm owned by a fun old fellow called the Captain. Her days are full of sunshine and dust, racing her best friend Simon on horseback; never cutting her hair; and sleeping in the bush like a wildcat whenever she pleases.  Will’s like a wild cat all over, actually.  She can fight and run and bounce back from most hurts.  But when Will Silver the eldest – the father she utterly adores – dies and the farm owner’s new wife wants to sell the land, Will finds herself shipped off to boarding school in London.  London is not a wildcat’s ideal territory.  The rain falls in a grey drizzle – a “grizzle”, the school girls are heartless, and adults refuse to understand why she has to get back to Africa. An escape, a night in the zoo, and a quest for freedom take Will all around London, but through it all she manages to keep cartwheeling and singing and following the Captain’s parting advice:

“Don’t you get out of the habit of bravery. Even if you think nobody’s seeing, hey? It’s still so important, Will, my girl.”

I thought this was a lovely book, but not quite as good as Rooftoppers. The narrative didn’t flow quite so well, ambling slowly in some parts and then bursting forth without always moving the story along. The plot took a while to get going, though the scenes of Will’s joyful life in Zimbabwe were so fun to read that I didn’t really mind the lag too much. Once misfortune fell and the despicable Cynthia was introduced to life on the farm, it was easier to see how Will might have to adapt and grow instead of just standing her ground. She was a stubborn, improper young heroine – untidy and without a filter– and much as I liked her at the beginning I was interested to see how her perceptions would change.

The pranks and little defiances which Will and Simon employ against Cynthia were quite entertaining. I could have happily read a whole book about the farm hands and children re-claiming the farm, but Rundell does a good job of showing how adults and rich people can do away with narrative justice just by virtue of claiming control. Unfair indeed, but that’s what life is like when you’re a free-spirited child. (Both Cartwheeling and Rooftoppers highlight how cruel the world of regulated civility can be to children who are happy in unusual situations. It’s a theme that will never get old, in my opinion.) I found the spiteful atmosphere at Leewood School a little less convincing, but with a little time a few of the mean girls and harsh teachers did show surprising depths.

A lot of Cartwheeling In Thunderstorms is about surprising depths, actually. People, places, and situations turn out to have more to them than Will initially sees. She’s not a perfect lens through which to see Africa or England: one is perfect in her eyes and the other a horror. So when a pretty sight or fiercely protective old lady give her a glimmer of hope, the landscape itself almost seems to change its hue. I found that the action in this book wasn’t nearly so mesmerizing as the precarious journey which Sophie undertakes in Rooftoppers. Instead, it’s the solace Will finds in Zimbabwe and the strangeness of England which make Rundell’s second novel so appealing. She has a way with words that can make a place which is utterly foreign to me feel like home after only a few pages, while turning a city I can picture easily into an incomprehensible jungle. That skill of writing – as well as the bolstering mantras and pep-talks Will gives herself now and then, which made me laugh; and smile; and file them away for later use myself – easily justifies the occasionally imbalanced pacing and a few shallow characterizations.

I have recommended this book to children who liked Rundell’s first book, but also to a girl who liked mature writing but nothing too scary. I sold it to a family who needed something good to read aloud, and suggested it to kids who like books full of mischief but want more depth than mere silly hijinks. It’s a fun book – a crazy journey with a wildcat for a tour guide – told in beautiful language which should resonate with smart kids and imaginative grown-ups alike.

(Seriously, buy and read Rooftoppers as soon as you can. ‘Cause this book was charming, but that one is gorgeous.)

Book Review: What Is Left The Daughter by Howard Norman

Another realistic, grown-up book set on the Atlantic coast? I guess it was that kind of weekWhat Is Left The Daughter is the final book I read while on vacation.  It was a lovely, bittersweet conclusion to several days of reading and writing by the crashing waves.

Reading on the rocks at Schoodic Point.

Reading on the rocks at Schoodic Point.

Star Ratings:

Characters: ***** (4 stars)

Character Development: *** (3 stars)

Plot **** (4 stars)

Writing **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: 15 +

Both of Wyatt’s parents died on the same day, when he was seventeen years old.  His mother and his father jumped off of separate bridges in Halifax, unbeknownst to one another, because they were each having an affair with the same woman.  How’s that for the beginning of a fellow’s adult life?  Odder, still: Wyatt’s story only gets more tragic and tangled from there. His parents’ demise takes up barely one chapter, setting up for twenty one years of bittersweetness and unexpected calamity. He look back on it all so calmly, though – so open to irony and wry observances – that the book is nicely devoid of too much self-pity.  The writing is candid, not maudlin.  And whenever Wyatt’s remembered experiences reflect too much pent-up tension, a funny conversation or absurd circumstance reminds us not to take things too seriously.  

This novel is framed as a long letter to his daughter, looking back through the decades to when the action began.  After his parents die, Wyatt moves to live with his Aunt and Uncle in a smaller Nova Scotia town called Middle Economy.  With no particular plans for the future, he agrees to become an apprentice to his Uncle Donald’s trade making sleds and toboggans.  Donald and Constance are raising an adopted daughter, Tilda, who quickly captivates Wyatt’s attention with her “ravishing” beauty and lively charms.  Tilda a strange, likable girl: she wants to be a professional mourner and reads all the obituaries, but she’s also fashionable and charming.  In scenes when other characters stumble through awkward social situations, Tilda shines with conscious good humor.  

Life in 1940s Middle Economy has a gentle rhythm into which Wyatt falls easily enough.  He keeps his love for Tilda secret (she sees him as a cousin despite the lack of shared blood).  He tries hard to please his kind aunt and impress his uncle.  But World War II rages on, bringing a reality of violence to Canadian shores in the form of U-boats, deaths overseas, and a constant threat of spies.  Uncle Donald and others start to fixate on the dangers of German weapons sinking their boats and endangering their waters.

So when a German philology student comes to town and gets close with Tilda, the rhythm of Middle Economy is thrown out of balance. Hans Mohring is no Nazi – he and his family moved away when Germany started to spin out of control – but his accent and his attentions rile up some citizens of Middle Economy.  Uncle Donald shatters all his own beloved Beethoven records in a moment of suspicious anger, to make a point. (Music and trust run in the same metaphors throughout What Is Left The Daughter, illuminating certain characters’ deeper conflicts.)  Some army boys rough up the friendly owner of a Halifax music shop because Hans was teaching him a little German language.  Tilda and Hans eventually move above the local bakery – owned by a delightful local lady who takes no nonsense from any townsfolk – and plan a hurried wedding.  Throughout all this, Wyatt hovers somewhere between friendship and an aching jealousy which bursts out at unfortunate moments.  What was once a peaceful seaside town soon fills with pockets of unease.

And then a boat is sunk.  And then a murder.  And then a split-second decision which will change everything for Wyatt, his family, and the town.  There’s an image which I saw so clearly, I felt like I was standing in the house myself: Tilda sitting at the kitchen table while the song playing skips on the gramophone.  The needle keeps jumping over a bullet hole.  The gun in Tilda’s hand, pointed at her head, is at contrast with her measured voice.  It’s a moment of still clarity in the midst of panic.  It’s the calm before a slow storm of tragedy.  

Things can never go back to the way they were, and the next twenty one years bring Wyatt through changes of circumstance which, eventually, guide him back to his childhood home, where he writes to his daughter.  The second half of the book isn’t quite so vivid and moving as the chapters in Middle Economy, but they’re realistic and still an interesting picture of one man’s altered life in such a charged time period.  Characters resign themselves to unhappiness for a while, then have to look for comfort when it gets too hard.  There are so many heavy hearts in this book and they all need someone to bear the weight now and then, even when injured pride and the messy past would recommend solitude instead.  The war ends, time passes, but Wyatt still has to live with the consequences of his actions.  His letter to Marlais reveals the circumstances of her birth and the nature of her parents’ relationship.  It shows that sometimes fairness means someone has to suffer.

I loved the setting of What Is Left The Daughter, because Nova Scotia is one of my favorite places in the world.  (My last reviewed book, Lobster Kings, also takes place near there.)  I have to admit that I’ve never learned or thought much about Canada during World War II, but the setting and time period were easy to picture and a great stage for this character-driven story.  Little details really made daily life in Middle Economy seem real: the bakery’s cranberry scones, or a crow trapped in the library.  Even Wyatt’s job as a gaffer after he leaves town, years later, inspired little anecdotes which made me interested in a job which had never demanded my interest before.  I definitely preferred the first 2/3 of this novel to the final section, because the pacing was a little better and the characters more captivating, but by the end I thought the story felt nicely rounded out.  

I would recommend What Is Left The Daughter to readers of historical fiction who don’t need everything to be a history lesson, people who like Evelyn Waugh’s more serious novels.  Fans of stories about sad families in small towns, seen through a lens of beauty rather than grit – books like The Strange And Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender – will like the writing in this book.  The plot’s wayward journey will eventually fade like a childhood memory, but little moments between the characters, a line here or a false impression there, will make a lasting impression.

 

Book Review: The Lobster Kings by Alexi Zentner

Star Ratings:

Characters: *****  (5 stars)

Character Development: ***** (5 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: ***** (5 stars)

Age range recommendation: 16+ (language, violence including sexual violence)

I’m mostly on vacation right now, but I couldn’t wait to review this book. (I say “mostly” because I drove back from Acadia National Park to work at the bookshop for two days, but I’m headed right back to the crashing waves and pine forests tonight.)  I actually bought The Lobster Kings at Sherman’ bookshop, intending to read it on some windswept rock.  That would have been terribly atmospheric and very fitting to the novel’s remote island setting.  But Zentner’s writing was just too good, and the setting was too wonderful, so I failed to put the book on hold when I came home.  I read The Lobster Kings in two days, mentally transported to Loosewood Island the entire time.  Even if I’d been reading on a crowded subway car, I would have felt the salt spray and heard thunderstorms somewhere in the distance.

The Lobster Kings is set somewhere between Maine and Nova Scotia, on an island which falls through the cracks of jurisdiction and remains very much its own world.  Cordelia Kings is a lobster boat captain, like her daddy, and all the Kings back to Brumfitt Kings.  Brumfitt was a painter who turned the island into a home way back in the 18th century, and the inspiration behind his mythical works can be seen near every nook and cranny of Loosewood Island.  His stories and images haunt Cordelia’s family, too.  The Kings’ pasts and futures seem bound up in the legends he created: they are blessed with the sea’s bounty, but that blessing comes with a curse as well.  Or so Cordelia’s Daddy says.  Given her family’s history on the island — their immense successes and devastating tragedies — it’s not hard to see why she might believe the stories herself, sometimes.

You might be able to tell from the narrator’s first name that The Lobster Kings is inspired by Shakespeare’s tragedy King Lear. (Sort of in a similar way to Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres, but I liked The Lobster Kings a whole lot more.)  It’s not a complete re-telling of the play, but the parallels are obvious, giving the story some sense of inevitability and poetic justice; even irony when some twists take an unexpected course.  At one point Cordelia does read the play in high school, and she realizes that her namesake doesn’t have a very happy ending.  Aside from the big themes: three very different sisters; the powerful father; the contested borders; and the howling storms, little allusions to the play create a nice treasure-hunt for Shakespeare fans.  (The meth-dealing jerk Eddie Gloucester, for example, isn’t nearly so eloquent as his wicked Elizabethan counterpart.  There’s also a line about eyes and jelly which winked at the reader…no ocular pun intended.)  

It’s not necessary to have read or seen King Lear, though, and when a parallel is extremely important the characters are good enough to discuss it plainly.  The tragedy and exhilaration in this book springs from more personal wells than royal legacy and misspent loyalty, though both of those subjects come up again and again.  This book focuses on family pride, on one woman’s intense desire to prove herself worthy of a name that has kept a whole community thriving for centuries.  Cordelia is an excellent lobsterman and a strong main character.  She loves her father and her sisters, and wants to do right by them as the eldest Kings child.  If that means pushing herself on dangerous waters, or stating the hard truths no one else wants to acknowledge, then she’s prepared to do the work. 

I liked reading the story from Cordelia’s point of view, and thought that Alexi Zentner did a marvelous job of getting into a 30-something woman’s head and heart. She’s got a forceful will, but isn’t nearly so hardened a captain as she’d like Loosewood’s tight-knit community to believe.  Between persistent romantic feelings for her married sternman Kenny, a strained sense of competition with her sisters, and the added tensions when hostile boats start encroaching on their territory from James Harbor on the mainland, Cordelia’s having trouble weathering all the storms inside of her.  She’s an unapologetic narrator but has moments of uncertainty, especially when it comes to her father.  He’s a loving parent and an inspiring figure on the island, but won’t back down or shed his pride, even against his daughters’ caution.  He’s a Kings. He’s the father of Kings, and even the darkly ominous fates Brumfitt painted — fates which can seem like a warning to later generations — won’t keep him from giving every ounce of energy to Loosewood Island and and to his family.  The family tension and the dramas within Loosewood’s community all affect Cordelia and keep her mind churning, until her own struggles start to resemble the tumultuous sea where she feels so at home.

While I don’t know too much about the lobstering life, Zentner’s descriptions of it were so detailed, and functioned so effortlessly, that I’m sure he captured the essence of that livelihood pretty well.  Each boat and crew had such a distinct personality that I felt as though I’d been hanging around those docks my whole life.  The anger whenever men from James Harbor would cut a Loosewood Island buoy became my anger.  The warm camaraderie between Cordelia’s fisherman friends made me see how such a hard life could be full of rewards.  And then the bouts of misery on board — the freezing mornings, fatal accidents, and grisly injuries — reminded me that I’m not nearly brave or devoted enough for such a line of work, no matter how much I like salt air on my face and the sight of weather on the horizon.  I would have been one of the tourists who come to Loosewood Island every year to see the scenes that Brumfitt painted, but I would want to be made of sterner stuff like Cordelia and her friends. (Oh drat. Sterner stuff. Forgive the unintentional fisherman puns.)

The Lobster Kings is a unique new novel with a wonderful descriptive voice.  The Kings family, at the heart of the tale, seems truly real despite the Shakespearean bent to their lives and relationships.  Loosewood Island could be a character in its own right, especially when we see it through the artistic viewpoint of Brumfitt Kings’ fictional legacy.  I don’t know much about art or fishing, but Zentner writes with such vivid detail that I fell completely in love with each subject by the end. 

The mythical properties of the unforgiving sea, which makes up a huge part of the Kings family history, was mesmerizing to me.  It may, however, get old too soon for readers who aren’t so keen on selkie stories and elemental curses.  I don’t think those moments of unearthly imagery ever overshadowed the very human pulse which kept this story alive, though. The sense of place never faltered, shining through the atmosphere and characters of The Lobster Kings on every page. 

Read it if you’re ever homesick for the sea, if you like stories about art and hard work, or if you love novels about close towns and complicated families.  Don’t wait until it comes out in paperback, either. (And please buy from an independent store if you can!!)  This book is too good to miss, and it’s hard to leave Loosewood Island once the story ends.

Book Review: Conversion by Katherine Howe

Star Ratings for Conversion:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: 12 and up

This YA novel by Catherine Howe (author of The Physick Book Of Deliverance Dane) is about quite a few subjects I like. Catholic school! Teenage hysteria! Mysteries! Witchcraft! Friendship! Katherine Howe took some fairly common subjects in YA and made them original through some plausible plot twists and good historical detail.

The story in Conversion unfolds in two different timelines. Most prominently, in modern times, are the events surrounding St. Joan’s Academy, where teenage girls are falling ill with no rhyme or reason. It starts out in Colleen’s homeroom, where the popular and (usually) utterly poised Clara suddenly dissolves into violent twitches and tics. Soon enough, Clara’s friends and then dozens of other girls fall victim to the strange disease which seems to defy all classification and remedy. A media storm and internal drama won’t let Colleen’s already stressful last year of high school continue on as usual, but she’s a focused and driven main character who tries not to buy into the sensationalism all around her. Until one of her own best friends gets sick. While the drama unfolds around her, Colleen is reading The Crucible for extra credit, assigned to her by the mysterious substitute teacher. She starts to see parallels between historical Salem and the events unfolding on the same land right now. Could the afflicted girls be faking it, or truly suffering from something outside their control?

source: youtube

Then there are “interlude” chapters throughout Colleen’s narrative, which take us back to 17th century Salem Village. Same place, different time, and an utterly dreadful chapter in American history. The interludes are told from Anne Putnam’s point of view: one of the girls who was instrumental in accusing the condemned women and men. In the aftermath of the infamous trials, after she’s had years to reflect on her actions, Anne Putnam wants to confess that their accusations were false. (This really happened, by the way.) She describes the events leading up to the girls’ testimonies: their lives at home, how the younger girls first came to act possessed, and the encouragements heaped upon them by devout authority figures. Anne wants to be understood, and maybe along the way she can come to understand what inspired her friends and herself to ruin so many lives. In the past and in the present, nobody has clear motives, and even the best intentions can lead to serious harm.

Being from Massachusetts myself, I already knew quite a lot about the witchcraft hysteria. But Howe describes it vividly – without unnecessary embellishment – so that even readers who are less familiar with the subject will become immersed in the action quickly. Katherine Howe is a lecturer in American Studies at Cornell, so I trusted that her portrayal of events would be laced with careful research, even if creative liberties changed the plot a bit. She actually drew inspiration from the mystery sickness in Le Roy, NY (2012), deciding to set it near Salem to show similarities to historical events. This was a neat touch, but the book is easily enjoyed even without that bonus fact. The Salem history is much more important. I really liked how Colleen’s teacher encouraged her to look at a character who was written out of Arthur Miller’s play, in order to get a clearer picture of the social and historical context of very real events. Enigmatic teachers are always a good addition to YA set in schools, and Ms. Slater is no exception.

It takes some creepy anonymous text messages and one nosy little brother to get Colleen really immersed in the similarities between her classmates’ behaviors and the famous trials, but soon enough she’s drawing conclusions that range from almost too easy (they must be faking) to utterly far-fetched (is one girl causing these afflictions with her mind?). Different theories seem likely as the disorder weaves its way through the girls at school, and I was never quite sure if the story would follow through with the occultish vibes which start to build. The uncertainty was a good thing, though. No one knows what’s going on; not the teachers, not the girls, not their parents, not the media. And it’s in the ways that people deal with potential disaster that we see how easily fear can take hold of an entire community.

The plot of Conversion was interesting, and the mystery took a suitably windy course to the (slightly anti-climactic) conclusion, but my favorite aspect of the book was definitely the main characters. Colleen and her friends aren’t saints or detectives, they just want to get through their last year of high school and find some certainty in their futures. Colleen is agonizing about college next year. Anjali’s intense relationships with both her boyfriend and her close friends are shaken when she gets sick. Deena is a beacon of sanity in tough times, but she has her own future to think about while everyone else loses touch with what matters. And Emma, Colleen’s oldest friend, is bothered by something secret and painful that Colleen can’t quite figure out. The other girls at school aren’t developed nearly as well as these four. I do wish Clara’s popularity had been explained a little better, and that punk-y “The Other Jennifer” had become a major character rather than just hovering in the periphery. There’s a bit of romance (surprisingly likeable romance!!), and some people aren’t nearly what they seem, but all these extra attachments are secondary to Colleen, Anjali, Deena, and Emma. Their worlds revolve around each other. Or so Colleen would like to think.

In books about school scandals, it’s easy to see how adults could be simple stereotypes filling in required roles. Some of the adults are rather shallow, but the teachers especially are sympathetic portrayals of people struggling to make the right decision when they’re in way over their heads. I love it when children’s and YA books make it clear that grown-ups are just as confused as kids are, only they’re often responsible for so much more than just themselves. The calamity at St. Joan’s brings out noble qualities in some characters, selfish ones in others, and the stakes just keep getting higher. Kind of like what happened in Salem, eh? I started reading Conversion because the plot caught my attention, but it was the characters who kept me reading.

I recommend Conversion to both teenaged and adult readers, especially those who like private school stories and small town drama. I really liked the historical interludes, but the modern story is compelling enough on its own that you don’t need a previous interest in the witch trials to read the book. Conversion takes a tense and sympathetic look at stressed-out teenagers in a weird situation without ever turning into an out-of-control melodrama. No matter if they’re lairs, cursed, or sick: you’ll want to stick with these girls ’til the end to figure out what’s going on.

Some books to read if you liked Conversion:

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe

The Fever by Megan Abbott

A Break With Charity by Ann Rinaldi

The Witch Of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare

Witch Child by Celia Rees

Summer Camp Rec: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (moving up from Diary of a Wimpy Kid)

Last post, I recommended Say What You Will by Cammie McGovern to anyone who loved The Fault In Our Stars and wanted a similar book to read this summer. But how about something for younger readers who are into faster, sillier books? There’s frequently a disconnect between the kids themselves and the Parents On A Deadline (gotta get books in the bags and the bags on the kids and get the kids in the car and the car to camp). That futile volley of

“Read something new.”
“But I like these books!”
“They won’t last you a day, pick something with more words,”

is a back-and-forth dispute which I can basically follow like a script by now. And the summer’s not even half over! One tenacious fellow finally asked me, “D’you have anything like Diary of a Wimpy Kid but harder?”.

I understand how Jeff Kinney’s series is fun reading. It’s not hard to relate to a humorously downtrodden narrator stumbling through the weirdness of social life. Haplessness loves fictional company. Plus, the illustrations break things up nicely for more reluctant readers who might get daunted by so many pages of just words. Yeah, it’s good to challenge your kid with books, but you want them to actually read the damn thing, too. Especially at camp, where everyone’s exhausting themselves with projects and socializing all day. Pick a book to get excited about when settling down for an hour.

So what could I give to kids who want funny narrators, self-deprecating humor, and illustrations in their books? Something for kids who have outgrown Wimpy Kid, but still told in the conversational manner Kinney does so well?

We have a winner: Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian. (Recommended for ages 12 and up.)

book cover

The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian tells the story of Arnold’s first year at high school, and the misadventures therein. Here’s what’s up with Arnold Spirit Jr. (a.k.a. “Junior”): He wants to be a cartoonist. He’s small for his age, with a few birth defects which make him an easy target for bullies. After a disastrous first few weeks at the Spokane reservation high school, he leaves to go to the big all-white school twenty-two miles away. Arnold is a resourceful and determined young lad, and when he sets his mind to leaving he’s not going to let any guilt-tripping or bullying stand in his way. He’s also sarcastic and unapologetically astute with his opinions about himself and the people he knows, at least in his private diary. But at the high school, he’s pretty much the only Indian kid around, and kind of awkward to boot. Not everyone’s interested in making new friends. Most everyone there has more money than his family. Some people back home think that Junior is turning his back on his people by leaving the reservation for school, while the differences between his upbringing and his classmates’ marks him as an outsider in his new surroundings, too. Thus, “A Part-Time Indian”. Even some impressive basketball skills might not be enough to get him accepted, but he’s determined to find a place to belong against all the odds.

Since The Absolutley True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian is about a high-school student, the subject matter in Alexie’s book is obviously a little more mature than those illustrated confessionals set in middle-schools. The book has actually been challenged and banned in a number of schools around the country for its portrayal of racism, alcoholism, sexual content, and offensive language.

[Sarcasm warning!] ‘Cause we can’t acknowledge that teenagers being wrung through a cycle of hormonal upheaval would ever swear or think dirty thoughts. Heavens forbid. And let’s do our best to ignore how tons of American conventions and icons make use of offensive Indian stereotypes. Junior dryly calls the white community out on common, ignorant displays of utter disregard for diverse cultural awareness. What?!? A kid mentioning the micro-aggressions he encounters every single day in his journal? How unexpected! And Junior’s life on the reservation is bleak? Oh dear! It’s almost as though the country has marginalized entire groups of people and then turned a blind eye to the ensuing difficulties. Can’t have that in our kids’ books, can we?!? [End sarcasm.] I’ll stop whining about ignorance and censorship now, before I get into full book-dragon mode. Suffice to say: Junior faces real issues in the book, and readers get exposed to important cultural perspectives on American attitudes which we should have re-evaluated centuries ago.

And did I mention that the book is funny? Because it might sound all biting and serious right now, but Junior is one hilarious narrator. He can laugh at himself and look back on mistakes as stories. Maybe that’s the part of him that wants to write cartoons. And he’s a thoughtful, sincere kid, too. People can be real jerks, purposefully or not, but he’s willing to see things from the other side and will admit when he’s been wrong to judge somebody. The diary-style format is great for these moments, because we get to watch his personality grow in real time.

Sherman Alexie is a fantastic writer and he’s not going to go all moralizing. No hitting kids over the head with tragic facts. Instead, he gives us a really likable hero on the sort of personal journey so many readers have had to face themselves. Things go wrong in Junior’s life, but he faces everything with strength and wit and good perspective. And when things do go right for him, its hard not to throw a victorious air-punch and shout “woo!” wherever you’re reading.

I think that The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian would be a good choice for kids who are going start high-school soon. Part of the appeal in reading these journal-style books is the camaraderie you feel with the main character. Moving to a more grown-up school can be really daunting, but with a friend like Junior paving the way they’ll know how to face any situation with a sense of humor and an eye to how every mishap can inspire a great story. This will probably be one of those books that gets passed from friend to friend at summer camp, until everyone feels like they’ve shared in Junior’s year of ups and downs. Between the easy language and the unflinching point of view, Sherman Alexie doesn’t talk down to kids or hide anything from them. He’s right at the perfect level, writing with warm respect and all the sharply poetic irony which shines in his writing for adults. (If you haven’t read any of his short stories yet, you’re missing out. Go read them now!)

So when somebody doesn’t want to branch out from the style of the Wimpy Kid diaries, but has outgrown that particular series, give Arnold Spirit Jr. a try. It could be like cramming a friend into a backpack and hearing his crazy life story whenever things get dull. That’s a weird image, but I think you get the point.

Screenshot 2014-07-06 21.36.52

Proof that Sherman Alexie is funny and kind of perfect. Look at the homepage of his website! (I might have a little brain-crush on the man. He loves local bookshops after all.)

Book Review: The Great Greene Heist by Varian Johnson

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A great ensemble cast and a middle-school heist. I really wish Varian Johnson had written The Great Greene Heist while I was in middle-school, because it turns that joyless institution into the setting for some thrilling escapades.

Star Ratings:

Characters: ***** (5 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: 9 and up

This was a fun, fast-paced book about navigating through the equally fraught realms of friendships and cons. Jackson Greene is a lovable swindler. His heists and schemes follow an ethical code and never stray too far from the realm of academic life. He’s the sort of wise-cracking scamp and rambunctious genius everyone wishes they could be – neither afraid to show his smarts nor ashamed to accept help when it’s needed. It was tons of fun to hang out with him and his crew as I read about their complicated quest to bend the rules and and serve some justice.

The nature of crime and corruption in The Great Greene Heist are low-key enough to save plenty of room for humor and misadventures. Jackson and Gaby de la Cruz used to be close friends – in fact, there was a chance they might become something more – but now they’re not talking, even though her brother Charlie is Jackson’s best friend. Things are awkward between them, but that doesn’t mean that Jackson can just stand by while a spoiled, smug scum-bag like Keith Sinclair rigs the student elections out of Gaby’s favor. Sure, Jackson’s sworn off cons ever since he got caught bending one too many of the school’s laws. But for a friend, even the risk to his own future security is worth the effort. Plus, it’s obvious after only a few pages that Jackson is at his best and brightest when planning something spectacular, splashy, and of questionable legality. It runs in the Greene family: from his grifter grandfather’s Code of Conduct to his ultra-cool older brother’s history of impressive plays. So he pulls together a team of the very best from each social sphere of Maplewood school, and prepares to pull one over the students and administration who think money can buy results away from the most dedicated candidate around.

A great ensemble cast can sell me on even the most questionable plot or writing, and this wasn’t even a very questionable book. Sure, some elements of the story could possibly be out of touch: I’m not sure if school elections and basketball games can really make or break someone’s social life anymore. An awful lot rides on new video games and rumors, while I don’t think middle-schoolers are quite so easy to impress nowadays. But I could suspend my disbelief and follow the hi-jinks with mirthful curiosity, because I liked how all the different characters played their parts. There’s that certain appeal in stories like Ocean’s Eleven, in which success rides on the combined efforts of a dynamic team. Drama from within, as strong personalities clash, amps up the stakes while keeping our emotional investment going strong. Since Jackson Greene’s various cons really only have an affect on peoples’ social, academic, and extra-curricular lives – there are no loaded guns or ticking bombs here – a lot was riding on the characters.

Luckily, it’s a really cool gang. These kids defy all sorts of stereotypes, while letting their weird interests and skills speak for themselves. There’s a trekkie techie with a secret crush on the school’s hottest cheerleader. And that cheerleader happens to be a “science goddess,” too. Charlie de la Cruz has reporting skills which keep him observant, while his sister’s devotion to what’s fair and right makes her the unequivocal best candidate in the school’s political race. New recruits include the small and fearless Bradley Boardman, and their necessary “bankroll,” Victor Cho. And everyone is necessary, because while Jackson Greene has more than enough charisma and smarts to go around, the heist he plans to pull will require teamwork, under-cover excursions, and some nifty gadgets.

Too bad not everyone’s as loyal as our hero. When Keith Sinclair and the school’s utterly despicable principal get wind that their own nefarious plans are at risk from this colorful crew, they set out to shut down operations. It was easy to root for Jackson’s team as events lead to a complicated and satisfying denouement at the school dance. The omniscient point of view lets the reader see the injustices going down in shady offices and in abandoned hallways, so when things threaten to go south for our heroes I couldn’t help cringing in anticipation. But these kids are smart, they’re funny, and they’ll not give up easily.

The Great Greene Heist is a great example of how a story can be thoughtfully diverse and also full of mainstream appeal. I particularly enjoyed how they took advantage of the fact that adults rarely take kids as seriously as they should, turning some teachers’ innate racism and condescension against them. There’s a great scene in which the secretary can’t tell the difference between Asian boys, so it’s her own fault when they trick her with some absurdly easy disguises. Kids tricking grown-ups never gets old, especially when that sort of casual profiling happens all the time to young people who deserve much better. Cultural differences are recognized and celebrated, but no one acts as a “token” attempt at diversity. Even though it’s not a long book, each character had their own clear motives, worries, and full personalities. They just are how they are, and they look how they look, and they’re too busy taking over the school to worry about it.

All in all, this was a fun book which manages to make middle-school life exciting. I think anyone going through those years of special misery would love Jackson Greene’s swagger. He’s exactly the sort of person I wish I could have been back then. All the characters felt like my own group of friends by the end, and I hope we’ll see more of them in the future. I also want to read more about Jackson’s family and their history of adventures! His brother and grandfather had small roles, but totally piqued my interest. The easy writing style, fast pace, and memorable characters in The Great Greene Heist stole my attention completely. I highly recommend it to middle-schoolers looking for a fun and easy diversion, or even for strong readers in elementary school who need to psyche themselves up for the years ahead. If middle-school could only be half so exciting in real life.

Book Review: Bird by Crystal Chan

source; goodreads

I had absolutely no idea what to expect with Bird when I sat down to read it over the weekend.  It could have been a ghost story.  It could have been a heart-wrenching tale of family tragedy.  It could have been silly, or mystical, or preachy, or boring.  I chose to just dive right in and see what happened.  Bird not a terribly long book, and as it’s written for middle grade readers I was able to get through it in one evening.  It turned out to be quite different from any of those adjectives, though I’m not sure which ones would fit better.  Personal, maybe, or truthful, or heartfelt.  I don’t usually like to use the term heartfelt.  It sounds sentimental most of the time.  But this is the sort of book you feel in your heart, though I was happy that the author doesn’t try too hard to reach inside your chest and prod that bloody muscle into pieces.  Jewel’s narration is poignant enough without much meddling.  Even though Bird had its slow moments and got a little introspective for my tastes, I found myself watching Jewel’s family and friendships build themselves up from near breaking with devoted interest, and cheering inwardly for every small victory along the way.

Jewel’s grandfather didn’t murder her older brother John, but he did give him the nickname “Bird” and joke that the little boy could fly.  So, when Bird actually did jump from a cliff and die — at the same hour as Jewel’s birth — Grandpa got the blame.  Jewel’s dad believes that his father called unwanted attention from duppies, which are ghosts and tricky spirits common to their native Jamaican folklore, by bestowing the unusual nickname.  Now Jewel is twelve and her home is still rife with silence and tension, so many years after the accident.  Her grandpa hasn’t spoken a word since Bird died, and the old man exudes anger and sadness from behind his closed door and closed mouth.  Jewel’s father insists that she learn about duppies and how to avoid them, while her mother insists that spirits don’t exist and wishes Jewel would focus on the real world.  So much goes unsaid in Jewel’s household, it’s no wonder she sometimes feels like Bird’s memory matters more than she does; the living sister who never met her brother but feels his presence everywhere.

When Jewel meets a boy named John perched in her favorite tree, she can’t decide if it’s coincidence, fate, or something a little magical which has brought them together.  John claims to be staying with his uncle in the small town, but some details of his story are puzzling and vague.  His appearance quickly catches the attention of everyone in Jewel’s family.  Her mother really smiles for the first time in many years when she talks to Jewel’s new friend.  Her father gets suspicious.  And Grandpa gets furious,vigorously duppy-proofing the house and making it clear that John’s not welcome near his family. But John understands Jewel’s passion for geology — a passion her family disregards entirely– and together they manage to have fun in the moment rather than dwelling on tragedy.  So she isn’t ready to give up her new-found friendship just because the grandfather who has never spoken to her sees a trickster ghost in John’s appearance.  Nor is she willing to question the strange discrepancies in John’s stories about himself, until it might be too late to ask.

Bird is a story about belonging and forgiveness.  As Jewel and her family try to work through the memories which are burdening their present, Crystal Chan shows how what we choose to believe in can change the way we see life, the afterlife, and the people who make life worth living in the first place.

For all its talk of ghosts and untimely demises, Bird is not a fantasy at all, nor is it much of a wild ride.  The entire tone is resolutely true to life, which makes Jewel’s father and grandfather even more interesting as characters when they dwell on the superstitions of their heritage.  I think that one of my favorite things about Bird was the inclusion of Jamaican folklore, and the way it blended or clashed with reality.  The writing might be realism, but names hold just as much power here as they do in fairy-tales, and there’s always a little hope of magical intervention as long as characters believe in it.

Jewel’s mother is partially Hispanic, but doesn’t speak Spanish, and her father is Jamaican, so our young heroine sort of stands out in her Midwestern town.  Chan handled the mix of cultures pretty well; all the vivid details about heritage served to give the characters memorable personalities rather than just appearing like forced “fun facts” scattered throughout the text.  Jewel’s mixed race background in a predominantly white town was mentioned with a matter-of-fact and candid honesty I very much liked about the character.

John, too, voices some really poignant observations about the nature of belonging.  In the way he brushes off any awkward questions about his being adopted by a white family, and then the true frustration which he eventually reveals, the novel shows that even kids whose parents pay them plenty of attention can feel legitimately alienated.  One moment which really stuck out to me was when John explained to Jewel that he acts cheerful and nonchalant about his background because no one wants to hear his real opinion about it.  There’s a lot in Bird about how hard it is to live up to adults’ warped expectations, especially when you’re young and full of life with not enough living going on around you.

At the same time, the hardships grown-ups have to face are treated fairly.  When Jewel and her Grandpa finally find a way to communicate, I felt a weight lift off my shoulders, a weight I didn’t even realize had descended upon me while I read.  Grandpa was definitely my favorite character, even though he wasn’t very likable for the majority of the book.  For a man of very few words, he had such an emotional history and it was wonderful to watch Jewel’s perceptions of him change over the course of the novel.

Bird is a sort of quiet, detailed, sensitive novel.  Kids who need action and peril to hold their interest in a story would find it hard to race through the pages.  There’s death, and a few near-misses, but not much in the way of swashbuckling or saving the world.  Instead, Jewel and John and the small cast of other characters are trying to salvage and re-build their own little worlds, pursuits which are equally important.  Fans Kate DiCamillo’s more serious books and Sharon Creech will enjoy Bird, and follow Jewel’s discoveries with sympathy and interest.  I’m recommending it to thoughtful kids and to their parents, too, because Bird is full of moments which shed light on how the living — and the dead — from very different generations sometimes struggle to see things as they truly are.

Star Ratings

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: ***** ( 5 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing : **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: 9 and up.

Short Review: The Isle of Youth by Laura Van Den Berg

This is just a tiny review excerpted from my blog post Birthday, Books, Bedtime over at The Bookshelf Pirate.  I read The Isle of Youth because it got some good press and I like having new short stories to recommend at the bookshop.  Now that it’s the holiday shopping frenzy, I find that collections and anthologies are getting popular as gifts.  Short story collections are often a little hit-or-miss for me, but I was intrigued by this unassuming little volume and bought it on a whim. The Isle of Youth is a collection of several short stories by Laura Van Den Berg, all of which tend to focus on displaced women struggling to understand how they relate to their surroundings and to the people in their lives.

Source.

Characters: *** 3/5 stars

Writing: *** 3/5 stars

Plots: **1/2 (2 1/2 stars out of 5, because some were great but others bored me.)

About half of the stories really interested me, while others slipped from my memory almost immediately.  The title story came at the very end of the collection and it was one of my favorites, probably because it was about a woman’s relationship with her volatile sister and I thought that the characters were entertaining and complex.  I find the dynamics between siblings and friends so much more interesting than romantic situations (or, in the case of The Isle of Youth, quiet romantic implosions and disasters).  The story “Lessons”, about a band of young bank robbers, was another favorite. In my opinion, there aren’t nearly enough stories about teenaged cousins and siblings on crime sprees!  That was another one which gave wacky backgrounds and intense motivations to a cast of characters, despite the short time we get to spend with them. I could have read a whole novel about that family.  I also enjoyed the dreary, beer-stained story about a girl who works unhappily with her mother in a cheap magic show.

Though some Van Den Berg’s pieces bled together into an indistinguishable examination of relationships and unspecified discontentment, certain details were vivid and fresh.  For example – and this was of particular interest to me though the story itself wasn’t one of my favorites – there was one which mostly took place in Antarctica, but one character had been kidnapped and held hostage in the very towns where I work/have worked.  It’s really unnerving to read a fictional account of a girl your age being snatched at knife point mere meters away from where you’re taking your lunch break.  So that was cool.  One story, which took place in Paris, started out slow but quickly grabbed my interest when acrobats and masquerades came into play.  Unfortunately, that particular story suffered from a rushed and inconclusive ending which snatched the magical feeling away in a puff of smoke.   There was a lot about marriage, siblings, memory, and ambiguous desires in The Isle Of Youth.  Very few of the endings gave us any solid resolutions, but that’s ok because the style was mostly realistic and real life rarely follows any sort of literary structure.  Occasionally, characters became too paralyzed by introspection to keep me interested – Van Den Berg’s ladies do like to wallow in their own thoughts – but that might be more a problem of personal preference.

I’d probably give The Isle of Youth 3/5 stars because the individual stories might do better in anthologies than in a collection all by the same author.  I got a little tired of their theme after a while and felt a little deflated while I was reading.  There’s no denying that Laura Van Den Berg is talented, though, and she clearly put a lot of thought into her characters and their situations.  Her writing digs into some deceptively simple parts of life to show how being an adult is confusing for everyone.  Reading these stories made me want to try being a little more understanding of the people I encounter every day.  The collection is not too long and the stories tend to be of easily digestible lengths.  It would be a good gift for someone who doesn’t have too much time to read but who likes to have meaningful conversations at parties, or with themselves.