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ReaderMarija's Reviews

...a pot luck of thoughts and reflections

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Rosemary Edmonds, Leo Tolstoy
Christmas Pudding and Pigeon Pie (Vintage Original)
Nancy Mitford
Tales of Glass Town, Angria, and Gondal: Selected Early Writings
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The Here and Now - Ann Brashares

After reading the last few pages of this novel, I felt a moment of déjà vu—not in regards to plot, but to the overall reading experience. The Here and Now reminded me of my overall reaction to reading Robin McKinley’s novel, Chalice. I loved reading Chalice and found elements of it quite intriguing. However, it felt more like a prelude than a complete work. Though the book had a definite conclusion, it felt more like a beginning, and I couldn’t help but wish for more. The Here and How is just like that. This book could easily be the beginning of a series if the author wished to make one. That said, a series or a companion book is not entirely necessary, since the author adds just enough hints and suggestions that allow the reader to envision a more satisfying conclusion that could happen in the near future—a future that would benefit not only the main protagonists but those associated with them as well. 


In regards to the actual story, I liked it for the most part. Both Prenna and Ethan’s characters are interesting and in some respects true to life. They both share the difficulties associated in learning how to balance personal interests with the responsibilities and rules they’re expected to follow. As illustrated in the novel’s pacing, this struggle becomes immediately apparent to the reader, with the characters attempting to fulfill the mission presented to them, while at the same time trying to pursue a normal relationship. The resulting plot mix initially makes for an odd read…the characters seemingly procrastinating, engaged in normal everyday activities that have no real bearing on the problem at hand. However, Prenna and Ethan are just teenagers, who happen to be doing what any normal teenage couple would do to develop their relationship. And once the reader remembers this, the plot choices begin to make sense. 


However, the one plot element that I found fault with is one that I’ve found in many young adult dystopian novels, i.e. the shifting roles of adult-teen relationships, placing teens in a position of power over adults, with the adults quietly accepting this role reversal. This is a plot element that is a bit overused, and as a result, has lost its overall effect. As depicted in this novel, this moment feels too simple and easy…a move that directly leads into a tidy and speedy resolution. I would have liked more verbal interaction to develop additional conflict, which would eventually build into the final resolution of the story. I think this addition would have made the book more appealing and distinct from other books in this genre. 


Overall, The Here and Now’s mix of time travel, mysterious viruses, action and first love has the makings for a read that could engage many young adult readers. That said, while some elements of this story make for an intriguing read, other aspects of the novel, especially in regards to its conclusion, left me as a reader wanting more.

The Mark of the Dragonfly - Jaleigh Johnson

The first words that come to mind when reading this novel are quick, engaging and ultimately satisfying. The reader is immediately immersed in Piper and Anna’s journey of discovery, and though a perceptive reader might be able to deduce the hidden secrets interspersed throughout the text, knowing them beforehand does not detract from the reader’s enjoyment of the book given the nature of the story. In fact, I thought it rather fun having my suspicions confirmed, and I believe that many young readers would share that same sentiment. 


The Mark of the Dragonfly is a book heavily focused on plot, which makes the story progress at a busy, energetic pace that keeps the reader’s interest despite the book’s length. Because of this, even though Johnson’s story is about 400 pages, it could easily be read in one sitting. However, because of the book’s focus on plot, there is not as much background development as one might expect for a fantasy tale. Though the reader gains some basic background knowledge of the kingdoms and their territories, as well as a general understanding of the population and the kinds of human-other species interactions that happen to exist in this fantasy world, I personally would have liked to learn more about these elements. For example, what are the origins of those special gifts? What were some of the gifts described in the fairytales that were briefly mentioned…did these gifts focus solely on natural elements or could they have also represented other potential talent abilities? Do interspecies relationships exist and are they really possible, given the story’s discussion about the difficulties of treating some of these cohabitating species using human medicines? When depicting such elements generally, it can be somewhat difficult to really apply them on a personal level in regards to how they relate to the characters. As such, older readers might find these missing elements somewhat of a disappointment in their reading of this book. However, such questions are not typical for the average middle grade reader, and because of this, I don’t think the reader is really meant to think beyond the basic outline of the story. And given how the story’s written, it can be easy to gloss over these elements, allowing the reader to focus on the characters and their progression through the story. 


Overall despite its flaws, I found Johnson’s novel an entertaining read. The combined elements of adventure, action and drama, with the added benefits of camaraderie and little romance would easily appeal to many young readers.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie - Muriel Spark My feelings for Spark’s novel are mixed. Considering the story by itself, it is thematically rich. Brodie takes the idea of the teacher’s guiding role in student lives to an extreme—moulding her girls in her own image, planting within each student of her special set one specific quality inherently reflective of Brodie herself. Each student thus becomes a split-self of sorts, their real selves and these imposed selves battling it out as they age and mature. In this sense, the novel is fascinating to read. The choice to split the narration, giving the reader the ability to see how the Brodie set turn out from their own various perspectives was a good decision on Spark’s part.

However, how Spark tells this story is quite frustrating. Even though the novel is only a mere 100 pages, it feels more like 500. To the novel’s merit, Spark accurately achieves recreating a conversational oral tone to her storytelling. However, the novel’s storyteller style is not one that is told traditionally in sequential order. For example, sometimes when you ask a young child or teenager to retell a story orally, the “excited” raconteur will start with the end, then give some details about the beginning, followed by some additional scattered details that happened in the middle—unable to retell the sequential order of events. As well, sometimes in the retelling, thoughts are not verbalized in complete sentences. That is, the storyteller will think the beginning of an event in his head, forgetting to say it orally, and verbalize the end of this event—confusing the listener who might not have a complete frame of reference of what’s being said. This truly describes the reading experience of Spark’s novel. The story’s told back and forth, with a repetition of events already described, though the second or third or fourth time around, with more detail. This kind of storytelling is distracting and detracts from the overall reading experience and the ability to analyze these characters in a traditional, focused way. Spark’s novel is a true postmodern work.

As a side note: After seeing two versions of the story on film, I was glad to finally read the original work. Seeing a film before reading the book on which it’s based, often biases the reader, and both films are quite different from the book. Interestingly, Muriel Spark was said to prefer the film, which I found to be least like her book, the version starring Geraldine McEwan.


Ruth - Elizabeth Gaskell

When one comes across the name Elizabeth Gaskell, one may readily associate the name with Dickens as one of the Victorian social issue writers of that age. Gaskell’s novel, Ruth, can easily be placed into that category, considering its main theme of the fallen woman and her attempts to survive in a society that scorns her position and that of her illegitimate child. However, rather than using the fallen woman theme to its full advantage, i.e. through a realistic depiction of her heroine’s survival, Gaskell seemingly compromises realism for idealism to perhaps assuage the sensibilities of the novel’s Victorian audience. The resultant overtly religious tone of a “just” penance for such a sin is detrimental to the novel’s underlying message of survival.

As well, one can argue that Gaskell’s portrayal of Ruth lacks depth. Even though Ruth is the titular heroine, for the most part she remains a background figure, self-conscious and penitent for past wrongs; and yet she is strangely secretive about certain subjects that she should have outwardly confronted from the start. Ruth’s failure to recognize the need to divulge the full truth—namely those secret meetings—to her benefactors, which in turn could have helped her situation, hurts the pious reformer image Gaskell tries to depict, and thus could in part account for the strange turn of events at the novel’s close. As written—though I don’t think this was intentional—, the reader is open to question Bellingham’s role as Ruth’s seducer and antagonist—are these really “just” categorizations for him? Through these possible readings, Ruth does not fit the “pure woman” image Thomas Hardy later faithfully portrays in Tess of the D'Urbervilles.

For a novel of its time, Gaskell’s subject can be considered daring, but it lacks the vision and depth one typically associates with Gaskell’s later works. Overall, Ruth is a novel that doesn’t show Gaskell in her best form.

Out of Nowhere - Maria Padian When I read the book description for Out of Nowhere, I was really looking forward to reading it. I thought the novel would be a good learning experience...to find out more about Somalian refugees, the fears and hardships they faced in their own country, and their hopes for the future in finding a safe place and being able to start anew. Much to my surprise, while the author does depict this to some extent, it is not really the central focus of the novel.

For such a small book, Out of Nowhere crams many different themes from dating to choosing colleges, to family pressures and the all important need to win, to the lost boy spiraling to his ruin, to issues concerning religion and cyber-bullying. There are so many different ideas and stories competing in this novel that I don’t feel that they get the chance to be fully explored. Often times some of these themes are used solely to drive the plot along and are subsequently dropped to the background out of sight, without getting a true resolution—e.g. the relationship between Alex Rhodes and his father and the author’s choice of using Donnie as the means to draw out the major conflicts that occur throughout the novel.

Much of the story takes place outside of the main action and progression of Tom’s story, which in turn negatively affects the novel’s characterization. The characters somehow feel incomplete, mere shadows of what they could have been, especially in regards to the Somalian kids—Saeed and his sister, Samera. This is in part due to the author’s decision to tell the story through the eyes of one of her characters. The reader sees only what Tom sees. This would have been a good choice on the author’s part had she chosen to focus her story on one theme. A limited point of view simply doesn’t do justice to the various stories Padian tries to tell. As written, both the characters and their various stories fall flat.

Overall, for a novel that promised to bring a topic not commonly found in young adult literature to the forefront, Out of Nowhere could have been a much stronger work.

A Glass of Blessings: A Novel

A Glass of Blessings: A Novel - Barbara Pym In my readings I’ve come across the name of Barbara Pym and have been wanting to read her work. A Glass of Blessings is actually a good place to start. Pym’s novel is a social commentary that brings out various subtle ironies found in personal relationships between spouses and amongst friends and acquaintances. Pym doesn’t shy away from awkward situations. Instead, she focuses on them, closely examining small details—body language, thought and space—which actually provide more insight into a character’s make-up than from what they actually say.

Thus, A Glass of Blessings is a story driven more by characterization than by plot—Pym’s characteristic style. For the modern day reader, the novel’s protagonist, Wilmet, at times can seem overwhelmingly naive and pedantic. For someone who has traveled abroad and did her bit during WWII, Wilmet is not necessarily world wise, which is quite surprising given her previous experiences. She is very close-minded about certain subjects, which in turn affects how she perceives or fails to perceive the people around her. What immediately seemed obvious to me as a reader at the beginning of the novel, takes Wilmet the entire course of the novel to finally begin to understand. Even then, I somehow don’t feel that she has really grasped a full understanding of what’s happening around her. Pym’s use of irony and how it’s pitted against Wilmet, is shockingly uncomfortable to read. Yet despite the biting sarcasm underlying Wilmet’s story, there is some recognizable truth in how she is portrayed. All in all, A Glass of Blessings is a quite a good work.
The Book of Why: A Novel - Nicholas Montemarano The Book of Why covers a tricky subject regarding death. The tone of the novel is meant to be hopeful—describing a man’s struggles as he attempts to come terms with his wife’s death. However, I don’t feel that the author entirely succeeds in achieving this tone. There are various moments in the novel—situations that trigger memories and ideas that are introduced but left incomplete—which are rather shocking, not just for what is stated, but for the implications of what is said.

In the beginning of the novel and at the end, Montemarano plays and hints at certain ideas surrounding a character to whom his narrator dedicates this novel: a future twenty-seven year old Gloria Foster. The author plays it safe by not formally stating the narrator’s future intentions and hopes regarding Gloria; it’s up to the reader to determine what might happen next. Yet, the implication surrounding these future hopes can be read in both a positive and negative light. As a reader, I don’t think that this is a subject that should have been left open-ended, especially given the fact that the Gloria Foster who physically appears in the novel is only a young child. I honestly don’t believe Montemarano intended for such a reading to be made, but it is a subject that could be misconstrued by a reader.

The ambiguities surrounding this particular subject, paired with the strange situations that trigger the narrator’s memories—e.g. his compulsive fascination with lav-related bodily functions and how the act of watching his dog relieve itself congers up a cherished memory of his dead wife—leave the reader feeling shocked, confined and at times, utterly bewildered. Likewise as a reader, I felt trapped by the narrator’s voice, as if I was in a tunnel listening to the narration bouncing off the walls. This feeling of confinement is only emphasized by the narrator’s use of repetition, both of words and phrases, which is especially prevalent at the end of the book. The reading experience was truly oppressive, and I can’t say that I’ve ever really come across narration like this to such an extent before.

The thoughts expressed in this novel are meant to be positive, a kind of personal learning experience for how one begins to cope with loss and loneliness. But as a twenty-seven year old myself, if I happened to be the twenty-seven year old to whom the narrator dedicates this book, I can’t honestly say that my feelings for the narrator would be entirely sympathetic in nature, solely based upon what was written. On the whole, The Book of Why is a novel that seemingly fails to achieve its positive intentions. It is a novel that turns a tricky subject about death into something lurid through implication.
Gates of Paradise - Melissa  de la Cruz The first word that comes to mind when reflecting upon this final installment of de la Cruz’s Blue Bloods series is “busy.” This small book is crammed with so many different characters and stories set in both the past and present, that at times I felt overwhelmed by everything taking place. This wasn’t so much due to the various stories themselves—in point of fact, for the most part nothing much really happens—but due to the frenetic pacing of the novel. All of the significant plot points happen extremely fast; and the all important final battle between good and evil—that monumental moment the reader has been waiting for throughout the series—seems to be over within a second. Told and viewed from so many different points of view make the entire scene feel heavily edited and ultimately anticlimactic.

That said, de la Cruz does provide a satisfying conclusion to the battle...an ultimate sacrifice is paid, and rewards are fulfilled. This part of the novel was actually quite good. However, de la Cruz’s decision to end her novel with that final chapter—ending this saga with that final image—struck me as being a strange choice on her part, since it seems to undermine what had just come before. The sentiments expressed by that final act almost ring false, leading the reader to question whether these feelings are real or are perhaps manufactured by the “forced connection”? Especially considering that this is a theme currently shared on the CW’s The Vampire Diaries, this final scene creates a conflicting image that cannot be ignored.

All told, when looking back over the whole of this series, I do believe Melissa de la Cruz had an interesting idea when she began this series of novels—the idea of vampires as fallen angels trying to make their own personal “heavens” here on earth. Yet, I think due to the pacing of this series, I feel that some of the stories, and especially the mythology surrounding this series, were lost in translation. Ultimately, the overall execution of this series wasn’t entirely satisfying.

Giovanni's Room

Giovanni's Room - James Baldwin Baldwin’s novel masterfully describes the utter helplessness man feels when he cannot begin to face his self-identity and the ultimate loneliness that results from this failure. David’s helplessness and resulting loneliness are only exacerbated by the realization that he can’t possibly help Giovanni, the person who most needs his help, someone just as lost and lonely as he is. This novel serves as David’s personal confession, chronicling his attempt to atone for past failures through a self-inflicted penance.

For a man so confined and closed up when in the company of others, David’s story is remarkably candid and frank. He pores out his soul here, detailing his fall from a state of grace, his loss of innocence—not so much for his failure to come to terms with his self-identity, but how this failure has affected and corrupted the lives of others. Giovanni’s room becomes a symbol for this—an outward manifestation of the effects of David’s corrupted soul. David’s story is honestly told; and the truth expressed is hauntingly poignant.

It is rare for an author to express such a deep reflection of conflicting emotions in a way that feels true to life. Stefan Zweig does this well, as does Henry James and Thomas Hardy. With this novel, I can easily place James Baldwin on the same list.
Love, Stargirl - Jerry Spinelli

Spinelli’s “Ondine” has been spirited away to a new place. But after everything that has transpired over the past year, the Stargirl the reader meets in this companion book appears somewhat chastened. This is a highly personal work, a kind of written exercise where Stargirl can safely address her crisis of identity and begin to learn how to fix it. Through this epistolary format, Stargirl no longer has the opportunity to disguise her various insecurities. She is vulnerable; and her fractured sense of self is only emphasized by the presence of those other characters she meets, who happen to be just as lost as she is, in one way or another.

Like Betty Lou, Charlie, Arnold and Alvina, Stargirl herself needs someone to push her into the right direction. This someone ironically takes the form of Perry, the local lothario. Perry constantly challenges her. His probing questions take her out of her comfort zone and force her to bring things to a head, emotions she’s reluctant to fully admit and address.

‘I guess I don’t know what I want [...] I was very uncomfortable [...] This was such a new script to me. I had no idea what my lines were.

Stargirl always was playing a part; and when things didn’t happen turn out the way they should, she would figuratively or literally run away. However, a change of clothes, silly jokes and music no longer have the same calming strength; her emptiness constantly threatens to take over. Yet with Perry’s aid, Stargirl learns how to adopt a “new beginning” through a Winter Solstice celebration.

As in Stargirl, this companion novel is heavily symbolic through its connections with the Undine/Ondine fairytale and the theme of new beginnings as related to the coming of the Winter Solstice. The connections are interesting. However, the story is not as complete as I had thought it would be. Stargirl’s letter is very much a journey—her journey of self-discovery. However, though the reader can say that her journey has reached an end, there is a sense that her real journey has only just begun. In that sense, Love, Stargirl reads as one giant prologue, with a few technical inconsistencies interspersed along the way. While both works do have their merits, I can’t entirely say that I fully enjoyed my experience reading them.

Stargirl - Jerry Spinelli If one reads the author’s notes at the end of the book, Jerry Spinelli states that his story was greatly influenced by Giraudoux’s version of the fairytale Ondine. I haven’t formally read this version of the tale, but I have read the version by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué, which Giraudoux used as the basis for his own play. In Giraudoux’s version of the tale, the main theme focuses on the male lead’s failure to reconcile the difference between the mystical aspects that can exist within nature with the strict maintenance of society’s accepted laws, i.e. society’s failure to accept any individual difference that threatens to break up the “whole.” In Fouqué’s version, Undine is an impish changeling, who can only gain a soul through love and marriage with a man who truly loves her in return, and can thus obtain true human form. While Giraudoux’s version does encompass the narrator’s emotional struggles in Spinelli’s book, I think Fouqué’s version more aptly illustrates Spinelli’s “Undine”—Stargirl.

Spinelli plays with extremes in this novel. Stargirl marches to the beat of her own drum, but this “beat” transcends normal behavior to an exaggerated degree. As Stargirl, she’s an impish figure—alternatively singing, dancing around, trying out various gauche attempts at being humorous, turning serious situations into farces. And when confronted with the awkwardness of her behavior, for example when she crashes the wake of a man she never personally knew, she is empty; she can’t answer for herself. Her inability to explain herself is not from lack of courage. For her, an explanation simply doesn’t exist; there is no reason for her actions. She acts solely on impulse, not necessarily for any personal gain on her part; or for that matter is she considering the feelings of those involved in her various schemes. As a person, Stargirl doesn’t seem real. Even when she adopts the mainstream look as “Susan,” it doesn’t come off as being natural. Both as Stargirl and as Susan, her manic behavior and actions seem forced, as if she’s acting various parts to mask a hidden inner void, a fractured sense of self.

Leo, the book’s narrator, thus assumes the role of Stargirl’s potential “savior,” her significant other—someone to help ground her and give her that internal sense of well-being. The novel chronicles his struggles with this role. Can a boy adequately meet these demands when faced with society—i.e. his schoolmates—, as well as the obstacles Stargirl constantly throws at him? Additionally, will their interaction have a lasting effect upon each other? For Leo, the answer is readily apparent; but for Stargirl, the response is more ethereal.

When approaching Spinelli’s novel, I wasn’t expecting to read a psychological fairytale. It is certainly a different take from the more conventional “individual against society” story one finds in contemporary literature. However by novel’s end, Stargirl’s story feels somewhat incomplete. But from my reading of the companion novel, the question of identity is more fully explored there.

Rule Britannia

Rule Britannia - Daphne du Maurier Du Maurier’s novel is difficult to classify. I almost want to identify it as a young adult novel, since many of the novel’s main characters are under the age of twenty. Even the various adults who appear and disappear throughout the novel are childlike in appearance and action. At times, the reader feels as if the children are the ones in charge here, since they seem to have the most dominant presence.

Of the the seven or so du Maurier novels I’ve so far read, this is by far the wackiest in regard to plot. The Americans have seized the UK to form a union in order to preserve the economic stability of the two countries—the USUK. The novel is focused on one small Cornish town’s efforts to thwart and expel these unwelcome invaders. In truth, this isn’t one of du Maurier’s best novels. The progression of the story is very much like du Maurier’s description of Mad’s driving skills:

[...]they swerved out of the lane at the top of the hill and on to the main road, taking the corner like the driver of a bob-sleigh at St. Moritz.[...] It was clear, fortunately for the bob-sleigh team, until they reached the bottom of the hill, when Mad, with great presence of mind, slammed her foot on the break and brought her craft to a halt almost immediately beneath a road-block that barred further progress.

The story accelerates at full tilt, hurtling wildly before careening to a sudden stop at the end with a few casualties dispersed here and there along the way. Because the story is told in such a brusk manner, not enough detail is given regarding the reasons that lead up to this invasion or what’s to happen afterwards. Like the Poldrea townsfolk, the reader is just as baffled and confused by the sudden turn of events. Truly, the novel is one a wild ride.

That said, there are some absolutely priceless moments interspersed throughout. It is du Maurier after all. The descriptions of Mad and her brood of adopted boys are wonderfully and unabashedly vivid. Reading this novel really is like watching a film. It’s the best part of this book. Here are a few gems:

The middle boys also had bunks, but their room was larger than the little boys’ lair, and it had a distinctive smell. This was due to the wired-off portion, containing a very ancient grey squirrel which, Sam had decided, could no longer fend for itself. The squirrel had shared the bedroom with him and Andy for several weeks. Discarded nut-shells scattered the floor.

The thing was, Mad’s cakes were terribly hit or miss, generally miss, and the net result, as Pa used to say, was like molten lead. Her one or two successes had gone to her head, but usually the effect upon everybody’s digestion was damaging to the extreme and the cakes had to be crumbled up the next day and given to the birds. [...] ‘I think it’s going to be all right,’ sad Mad later, inspecting her creation, which, on emerging from the oven and being turned out of its tin, looked like a semi-inflated, khaki coloured balloon and exuded a curious smell of burnt almonds and bitter chocolate. ‘It’s risen, anyway. They don’t always.’

An interaction between an American captain, the blond, curly-haired six year-old cherub Colin and three year-old Ben, who’s being taught to learn how to speak by Colin: ‘Want your picture taken, honey?’ [Colin] said in an American accent, and pressing a button let fly a wriggling snake on a spring that leapt into the air and hit the captain in the eye. ‘Fuck off,’ said Ben, clapping his hands.

‘The Jesus talk was much better than a think-in,’ insisted Colin, trying to pull away Terry’s crutch, ‘because afterwards we had to act scenes from Jesus’ life. The others did loaves and fishes, and went round the class pretending to give each other bread. I thought that was silly. I took my ruler and lashed out at them all, and when Miss Birkett asked what I was doing and said it wasn’t right to be rough, I said I was Jesus whipping the money lenders in the Temple. Mrs. Hubbard went away after that. She said she had to go on to another school. Miss Birkett gave me a star, all the same.’

As a final note, in all of her books, du Maurier describes situations honestly and unabashedly. Some moments in her books are quite uncomfortable to read. But one thing I am glad about this novel is that du Maurier doesn’t shirk away from blame and culpability. Some of the characters in this novel do commit horrible acts. Though these acts seem to be generally praised by the majority, there are a few characters who do maintain a conscience throughout, and the sense of guilt is slowly spread and felt, even including the culprit.

Overall, Rule Britannia is a very strange read, yet it’s wildly engaging.
After Dark - Haruki Murakami If I were to give a synopsis for this novel, it would seem completely mundane. As well, the various storylines are never really resolved; the reader is left with a sense of general continuousness heralded by dawning of a new day. Here, Murakami is describing life...existence in its plainest form; whatever can happen within a short and finite period of time. No more, no less. But it wouldn’t be Murakami without some mention of the metaphysical, here in the form of Eri Asai, a beautiful young woman who excuses herself from her family’s dinner table, telling them she’s tired and wants to go to sleep. Her “sleep” is a strange, metaphysical hibernation, where her unconscious state allows her to transport across dimensions into a disturbing parallel world, a world that perhaps represents her own trapped and confused state of being and sense of self.

Paired with Eri Asai’s story are several other threads, stories of various characters, all troubled in some way because of the past and/or potential fears of what’s to come. All are interconnected in some way. The symbolism Murakami uses to connect these stories, be it a mirror reflection, a pencil, a cat, a fish cake or a tuna sandwich, could easily seem childish and overdone, but in his capable hands these symbols are like a vital force that keeps the story alive. The symbols are subtle reminders—like a pulse—for the reader to recognize and accept. These symbols also share a similar theme by reflecting the sense of loneliness the various characters of this novel feel. Together, these elements make After Dark quite a compelling read despite its brevity.
An Episode of Sparrows (New York Review Children's Collection) - Rumer Godden

For those readers who might expect An Episode of Sparrows to be a retelling of The Secret Garden, it most certainly isn’t one. Certainly it shares themes, for instance, the power of a garden and how it can help bring about a sense of peace through unified effort. Though while Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel ends with a change of heart and a true coming together, Godden’s novel doesn’t. Godden describes real children, children the reader can easily picture in their surroundings—post-WWII working-class London.

Godden’s “sparrows” are exactly that—they’re urchins. Snotty-nosed, dirty misfits up to all kinds of mischief and wickedness...robbing, stealing, gang turf warfare. They’re a mess. My favorite character was little Sparkey, the five year-old sickly, spindly legged boy who so desperately wants to be a part of Tip Malone’s gang:

Besides being ambitious, Sparkey was melodramatic; he frightened the other children. ‘Do you know what gravy is?’ he would ask, hushed, and when they shook their heads he would say in a cold voice, ‘It’s blood.’

I love him!

Lovejoy, the novel’s “protagonist,” is the worst of the lot. Used, neglected and abandoned by her cabaret-singing/prostitute mother she lacks conscience. She rarely attends school and can barely read. Whatever she sees and wants, she must have regardless of whatever means she needs to use to take it. She’s completely ruthless. Yet she has soulful, wounded eyes. Picture a very young Grizabella the Glamour Cat, careworn and shabby, trying her best to look her best in clothes that no longer fit and are wearing thin. Vincent, the husband of Lovejoy’s landlord, sees something in her, as well as Tip Malone and spinster Olivia Chesney. Vincent does his best for Lovejoy, but like her he’s being slowly drowned by his own ambitions. On the other hand, bad boy Tip tries to become her reformer, but at the hand of wily, old pro Lovejoy, he becomes a malleable piece of clay. The “reforming” seems to be done by Tip’s own hand. ;) (Zola’s Nana could have learned a few tricks from Lovejoy.)

Like The Secret Garden, there is a sense of spiritual growth in Godden’s novel. Here, the garden serves as a catalyst for personal growth. Through his conversations with Lovejoy, Tip sowed some seeds to help her develop a sense of conscience. But like a seedling, it’s still a very fragile thing. At the end, the reader can still sense Lovejoy’s wild streak, though it is somewhat tempered. It’s realistic, which I loved.

All in all, An Episode of Sparrows is quite a remarkable work.

Easy - Tammara Webber Easy is good meshed with bad. Think of a canvas splattered with two colors of paint. Rather than forming interesting contrasts, the colors irrevocably clash. This novel could have been interesting, but the timing is off. Certain events, especially the hookups and breakups, happen too fast. Thus what is supposed to be described as a burgeoning romance, manifests into a tawdry affair; and the novel’s title takes on another, more negative connotation. The story’s message is supposed to be one of finding yourself and being able to be yourself with no inhibitions. When two people are able to breakdown those barriers to trust and be free with each other, the choice to be together is “easy.” However as written, the circumstances surrounding Lucas and Jacqueline’s meeting and rather sudden relationship, and especially Jacqueline’s immediate sense of trust in this person she barely knows, makes her appear somewhat too “easy.” I’m uncomfortable with that possible reading of this story.

Some of the interactions in this novel are fine. I liked Jacqueline’s wacky roommate and the initiative she used to get her friend help. But for the most part, Lucas and Jacqueline’s conversations were awkward and tacky, due in part to his secrecy and evasiveness and her complete and unabashed trust in him. The only true moment between them occurs at the end, when all barriers are seemingly down.

Overall, this novel wasn’t quite what I was expecting.
Eleanor & Park - Rainbow Rowell Rowell’s novel is not the typical young adult contemporary romance. The back cover describes the novel as the story of “two misfits...one extraordinary love.” On some levels, this statement is true, especially when considering some of the themes the novel addresses—bullying in its various forms, conformity and nonconformity, and fears regarding self-image. However, the love felt between the novel’s two main characters is not what one would readily classify as one of those nice, fluffy romances. It’s more “extraordinary” in the sense that the novel depicts love in the extreme, i.e. having the characters cross emotional boundaries to the point where love becomes a manic obsession. For a first young adult novel, Eleanor & Park is quite a rich tale.

This is not a comfortable story to read, especially when the narrator focuses on Eleanor. Eleanor is rather reminiscent of Natalie Wood’s character in the film Splendor in the Grass. She has that same overwhelming awkward sense of unsureness. Eleanor is obsessively needy and clingy, ready to cry at a moment’s notice, manically ecstatic and warm one moment, while completely cold and closed off the next...all exacerbated by parental neglect and abuse. So when Eleanor does find an anchor in Park Sheridan, he becomes her one and all, her only reason for living. For Eleanor, the novel essentially questions whether she will ever be able to find a sense of balance and security in her life. As a side note, Rowell handles the abuse theme very well in this novel.

In regards to the novel’s other protagonist Park Sheridan, he as well faces his own journey of self-discovery through his relationship with Eleanor. For Park, the question arises as to whether conformity has positively or negatively affected his self-identity, which in turn will lead him to determine whether he has the courage to stand up for what he believes in. Though the questions are traditional for a coming of age novel, the choices Park will make are not necessarily the kind where he will be placed in a situation that is in opposition to an opposing group, i.e. not the traditional battle of jocks vs. misfits/geeks. They are more personal in nature...a quest for truth.

That said, though Rowell’s novel is psychologically and thematically rich, in regards to structure and detail the novel is not as strong. Rowell not only uses chapters to tell her story, but also divides the chapters further by shifting the points of view of her two main characters. This would have been fine if the story wasn’t told using the same third person narrative voice. Even though there are shifts in perspective, it is difficult for the reader to distinguish Park’s voice from Eleanor’s. As a result, both characters sound like the narrator/author, which diminishes authenticity. Also at times, Rowell becomes so focused on the physical/emotional aspects of Eleanor and Park’s relationship—teen angst et.al.—that she doesn’t follow through with other details, especially regarding the progression of time through the novel. For instance throughout the novel, Eleanor and Park share music with each other. While the reader does get to see Eleanor’s reaction to some of the artists Park introduces her to, the reader is not given Park’s take on the music she introduces to him. It is also difficult to distinguish time during their relationship. At the end of the novel, the reader knows that the events take place over the course of a year; yet when reading, as the events are taking place, time seems nonexistent. What seems to take place over a matter of days, actually takes place across weeks and months. This in turn makes the relationship feel rushed, and the strength of Eleanor’s feelings all the more extreme because of its suddenness.

All said, though Rowell penned a thematically strong work, her novel’s construction lacks dimensionality.