Crossover novels

Two of my favorite YA books of recent years were written by the same person. She’s not a well-known author, and not that many people have read her books compared to the overwhelming numbers who buy every book written by realistic fiction writers Sarah Dessen, John Green, or Rainbow Rowell. But if you haven’t read at least two of her books, you’re really missing out.

illbethereI just did a re-read of her first,
I’ll Be There. Previous to writing this realistic YA novel, Holly Goldberg Sloan was a screenwriter for family feature films, and some of that particular skill comes across in her first novel. It’s told in third person omniscient, so there isn’t nearly as much dialogue as you might expect, but you do find out a lot about the characters from the inside out, as you follow their thoughts about those with whom they are interacting. And these insights are a big part of the magic of this book.

Emily Bell is just a regular girl. Her mother is a nurse; her father is the choir director at their church; and she has an endearing little brother and a dog. Up until her 16th year, Emily’s life has followed a fairly conventional path. But as a result of taking one risk, she meets a boy unlike anyone she has ever known before, and this boy is going to change Emily’s destiny in a multitude of ways.

I know what you’re thinking: A meet-cute, followed by insta-love and some kind of semi-fake drama that throws them together or tears them apart or whatever. But this book, while written simply and clearly with largely knowable and understandable characters, is anything but typical.

Sam Border and his little brother, Riddle, have lived a life that is the polar opposite of Emily’s prosaic suburban existence. Their father, Clarence, a narcissistic grifter, stole them from their mother when Sam was in grade school and Riddle was little more than a toddler, and they haven’t had a home since. They travel wherever the luck takes Clarence, living in condemned houses and broken-down trailers, sometimes sleeping in Clarence’s truck. Sam never made it past second grade, and Riddle has never attended school.

When Emily and Sam meet and get together, each one is a conundrum to the other. Sam may see Emily more clearly than Emily sees Sam, because he knows the circumstances in which she was raised, while Emily has no clue about a life that doesn’t include a clock or a cell phone, in which people forage for leftovers from the trash at the fast food place and never know when they will be moving on. All Emily really knows about Sam is that he is different from anyone she has ever met, and she wants to know more. Their worlds are bridged by their attraction for one another.

Emily’s parents, concerned about their daughter’s fascination with this stranger, encourage her to bring Sam home to dinner, and when they begin to figure out what Sam’s life must be like, and then meet Riddle for the first time, their concern shifts to a desire to help. But the paranoid Clarence, who has trained his boys in how to remain invisibly under the radar, interprets this attention as a threat, and once again the boys are launched into the unknown, dragged at Clarence’s heels. This time, however, someone knows, someone cares, and someone is looking for them.

The book is filled with whimsy, pathos, humor, tragedy, and love. I have read it three times, and can imagine reading it again a few more. The book reminded me a bit of Trish Doller’s book Where the Stars Still Shine, because of the similar circumstances of a parent who lives his or her life with almost total disregard for the well-being of the children.

Sevens

Sloan’s other notable book is called Counting by 7s, and was Amazon’s best novel of the year for middle grade when it came out in 2013. Although it, too, highlights a child who is different from everyone around her (the one fish swimming against the current), it could scarcely be more different a story than the romance between Emily and Sam.

Willow Chance is a 12-year-old genius, a quirky obsessive-compulsive whose life was saved when her parents adopted her as a small child. Although she doesn’t fit in well with her peers, her multitude of interests (medicine, gardening, languages) keep her happy, if solitary. (Think of Sheldon Cooper as a small mixed-race girl.) Tragedy strikes when both her parents are killed in an automobile accident and Willow has to confront the possibility of foster care while doing without the love of the only two people who ever made an effort to understand her. What she does to reconstruct her life and find a family will keep you riveted to the end.

The only similarity of this book to the first one is Sloan’s multi-character-driven storytelling, which makes Willow’s story particularly vivid. The writing is spare yet incredibly dense in detail, if that’s possible. Although this book received a lot of attention from a multitude of literary awards geared towards writing for young people, I have always argued with my librarian colleagues that while it is about a middle-school-age child, the story is more sophisticated than can be appreciated by children of that age. One Goodreads reviewer conceived of Willow as “an American Matilda,” that beloved heroine created by Roald Dahl, which I thought was particularly insightful; and another character of whom I am reminded is that of Flavia de Luce, the amateur chemist and sleuth from Alan Bradley’s mystery series that began with The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. There, as here, while the protagonist is a young girl, the story is for adults.

Don’t miss out on these two stories. Whether you are a teen or a grown-up, they are well worth your reading time.

 

Big Library Read

From November 4th through November 18th, the e-book and audio book platform OverDrive, which supports digital formats in most library systems, sponsored what they called the Big Library Read. For this reading initiative, OverDrive selected a book and provided unlimited copies to all library customers to download for free, with no wait-list.

One thing I believe OverDrive is hoping to do with these kinds of initiatives is to get library users accustomed to the idea that if they check out a digital book, it returns itself to the library at the end of the lending period, so there are no late fees. Another incentive I have personally found appealing since I no longer work full-time and find myself increasingly reluctant to leave the house is that if you finish the book you are reading at bed-time and haven’t got another book lined up ready to go, you can hop on your library’s website at 2:00 in the morning, if need be, find an e-book you want to read, and 60 seconds later (unless it’s wait-listed) it’s on your Kindle or other device, ready to go. Even Amazon Prime can’t beat that.

notdyingThe book OverDrive selected for November’s Big Library Read was I’m Not Dying with You Tonight, by Kimberly Jones and Gilly Segal. The book looked intriguing to me, with its theme of race relations—I am always looking for new books with teen appeal to include in my Young Adult Literature class as examples of inclusivity and the outing of privilege. I liked the idea that the book was written from two separate perspectives, one black girl and one white, by two authors with diverse experiences dictated partially by race.

The book begins with newcomer Campbell reluctantly agreeing, under pressure from a teacher, to work the concessions stand at the Friday night football game. The teacher presents it idealistically as a chance to get to know others at the high school to which Cameron has just transferred—both the kids with whom she will work the stand, and the ones who come to buy—but Campbell has her doubts. She was sent to this school when her mom moved overseas for a job, leaving her to live with her dad, and it’s a different experience for her—the school is in a predominantly black neighborhood, whereas her last school had only a handful of black students. Since Campbell hardly knows anyone, the teacher assures her father—who is leaving that night to go out of town for the weekend—that she will drop Campbell at home after they wrap things up at the stand.

Unfortunately, things at this concession stand are neither planned out nor conducted in the same efficient way to which Campbell was accustomed at her old school, where she worked with a bunch of her friends. She is stuck with a couple of people who are patently not interested in being there (or helping), and the burden of the labor falls on her. As the line lengthens at the window and the increasingly desperate Campbell falls further behind, the people waiting begin to verbally abuse her.

Enter Lena. Campbell has seen Lena around school, but they know each other only well enough to say hi. Lena’s initial reaction to the milling crowd around the concessions stand is to tell Campbell to get her butt in gear, but she soon realizes that what’s going on isn’t Campbell’s fault. Then an altercation breaks out between a couple of people standing in line, and what begins as a minor food fight abruptly escalates. Lena jumps inside the stand with Campbell, and they decide to just ride things out in there…until shots are fired. Lena’s cell phone is dead, and Campbell’s is in her backpack in a classroom far from where they are, so they can’t call for help. This is the set-up for a night of escalating violence and chaos in which Lena and Campbell have to rely on and trust one another to get themselves out of this mess, which has turned into a town-wide race riot.

I liked this book, but…it felt like something was lacking. It will be a winner for sure with teen book clubs (and maybe some adult ones too), because there are so many things to discuss—the precon-ceptions, the white and black perspectives, the differing attitudes, the connectedness (or lack of) to the community, the whole boyfriend thing (to what lengths will I go to keep my man), etc. But I almost felt like it was written specifically with this purpose in mind—to provide lots of fodder for a discussion group—and not simply as a novel.

There’s no real story arc; it’s more of a slice of life-type thing, with documentation of two girls’ experiences of the same events over the course of one night. It’s intense and fast-paced, and keeps you reading, and it’s not bad…but I think I would have appreciated it a lot more had there been more development, more interplay between the girls, maybe even some continuity beyond this one night. There wasn’t enough “there” there. People have been citing this as the natural follow-up book to The Hate U Give, but while it focuses on some of the same issues, has great characterizations, and raises lots of questions, it’s not a STORY the way that book was, and that’s disappointing. While I wouldn’t turn you away from it, if you want a more comprehensive treatment of these issues I’d say to read The Hate U Give, On the Come Up, How It Went Down, or Lies We Tell Ourselves instead.

 

Love across the Pond

When I heard the plot summary of Red, White & Royal Blue, by Casey McQuiston, all I could think was, What a gimmick. And when I saw the cover, I thought, Oh, I get it, “chick lit” for gay guys.

redwhiteblueAlex Claremont-Diaz’s mother is the President of the United States, so her family members are under heavy scrutiny. Alex is inevitably cast as the handsome and charismatic “First Son” that everyone romanticizes.

Prince Henry of England (not the heir, but the spare—the second son) is likewise a glittering image of royalty, close to the same age as Alex and with all the advantages and a similar fixation by the public on his every move.

When word gets around, after a couple of meetings, that the two dislike one another, consternation apparently erupts on both sides of the Pond, and diplomatic relations people hastily put together a meet-cute opportunity for the two to prove that the rumors are false and everything is copacetic between the youth of these two allied nations. But the diplomats had no idea, when they encouraged friendship between the royal and the First Son, what a hornets’ nest they would be stirring up!

When I asked a librarian friend of mine if she’d read the book, she tossed off a casual recommendation, saying simply “It was cute!” so I figured it would be just another lightweight romantic comedy for gay teens. Nope. Red, White & Royal Blue wasn’t what I was expecting…and I’m so glad!

I swiftly got past the first part of the book, which was a little cute, if not cutesy, with the I-hate-him-I-love-him turnaround from Alex, and into the relationship proper, which was intense, deep, and precarious, given that one lover was the son of the first female President of the United States and the other was a Prince of England, and there was a lot invested by both sides in remaining discreet. Henry has, perhaps, the most to lose, since the royal façade doesn’t allow for deviation from the hetero pattern of marriage and babies to keep the descendents coming; but Alex likewise faces a certain amount of jeopardy on behalf of his mother—being the first woman president carries the presumption that everyone in the family will act at all times with transparent perfection. His mother, however, doesn’t cherish the same expectations for her children as do the royals. She just wants them to be sure of themselves, and to be happy.

The author was so effective in writing all the things that needed to be here—the sexual awakening of Alex, and Henry, too, to some degree; the non-awkward, rather compelling sex scenes; the wonderful banter (amongst all the fleshed-out characters, not just between the protagonists); the properly scaled-down but still ever-present politics; the romance and joy of falling in love (not in lust or in crush); and, ultimately, the painful but necessary pursuit of the truth of who these two young men want to be.

Casey McQuiston, well done! I’ll look forward to more books from you.

Readers please note: I didn’t realize at first that this book is aimed more at the new adult (18-25) market than at the teen (12-18), so I was a little taken aback at how frankly the sex was described. Not over the top, not explicit to the point of discomfort, but still real and honest beyond most teen fiction. So if you are recommending it, my advice would be not to drop below the senior-in-high-school mark.

 

On the Come Up

You always worry when the first book of a new author is as good and as much of a hit as was The Hate U Give (THUG), by Angie Thomas—sales, prizes, a movie, all for a first novel. You worry that she’ll be a one-hit-wonder, that the kudos for the first book will freeze her in her tracks, that she’ll never be able to up her game. But this book was definitely “on the come up.”

Having read both, I feel like maybe this one more directly expresses the personality and background of its author, that perhaps it was a project closer to her heart and to her authentic self.

THUG was about a girl who was being victimized by the system and figures out that speaking her mind and finding her voice are important. It’s about the giant and overwhelming exterior forces that shape a person, and what it means to go up against them.

Bri

On the Come Up is the story of quite a different girl, one whose story is driven by the choices she makes while pursuing her dream. Although the books share some commonalities (project kids going to school in the privileged white world, conflicts between the traditions of home vs. the expectations of outsiders), this book is more intimate, with a tight narrative focused on protagonist Bri.

Bri Jackson lives with her mother, Jay, and her older brother, Trey. Her father, a rapper, was shot by a gang member when Bri was little; her mother, eight years clean after a drug addiction, is doing her best to provide for the family, working as a secretary at their church. Trey, who graduated from college summa cum laude, can’t find a “real” job and is working in a pizza parlor to help make ends meet until he can figure out a way to continue his schooling (he wants to be a doctor), but sometimes, when trying to stretch the dollars, it’s a choice between rent, food, or lights. Then Bri’s mom loses her job, and the desperation accelerates.

Bri is a talented rapper who wants to follow in her father’s footsteps, but using her own words and style. She is well motivated by a desire to take care of her family, but she’s also 16 years old, so she is impulsive, stubborn, and occasionally irrational as she acts out against the injustices in her life. She is also determined on getting what she wants, for her, for fame and security, for love. She is pushed and pulled by people who want to help her and those who merely want to profit by her talent, and she hasn’t yet figured out that if she’s not true to herself, none of it will work.

The incorporation of Bri’s lyrics give the story authenticity and depth. Writing prose and writing poetry (or lyrics) are such different skill-sets that it’s always impressive when an author manages both in the same work, and makes them work. Thomas is a gifted writer, and her exploration of the themes of systemic racism and inequality, social injustice, and gang violence are only exceeded by her skills at depicting them through utterly believable characters and a compelling story line. I’m impressed with book #2, and can’t wait to see what she’ll be up to next.

Here is the author herself, delivering some of Bri’s lines in the rapper “ring”:

READERS’ ADVISORY NOTES: Thomas’s books would obviously appeal to anyone looking for diversity in their reading material. But just as the so-called “problem novels” of the 1970s and ’80s fell by the wayside because they were too one-track, diversity can never be the only reason for a book to be judged “good.” Angie Thomas writes powerful stories of coming of age in an atmosphere of adversity. They are artfully written, character-driven, and satisfying. Most young adult readers who enjoy realistic fiction and like a scrappy, determined protagonist would appreciate and enjoy On the Come Up. The evocation of empathy with the targets of racial profiling is a big plus to a good story.

 

Discussing appeals

Speaking of best opening paragraphs—or lines—I just rediscovered one of them:

“I have been afraid of putting air in a tire ever since I saw a tractor tire blow up and throw Newt Hardbine’s father over the top of the Standard Oil sign.”

beantreesThat’s the first sentence of The Bean Trees, by Barbara Kingsolver. I decided on a re-read, following my rediscovery of her as a writer with Unsheltered, last week. Since I already gave a brief review of the book in my “Fresh look: old book” series, I thought I would instead go into the appeals of the story, the reasons why someone might want to read it and you might want to recommend it, while the details are fresh in my mind.

Since I already shared it, let’s start with that opening line—what does it tell you about the book to come?

  • The protagonist probably lives in a rural setting, since tractors are in use.
  • Referring to it as the “Standard Oil” sign could give you a clue about the time period in which the story is set.
  • The name “Newt Hardbine” gives a clue to what particular type of rural setting it’s going to be—most likely somewhere in the South. It could be a name found in Yankee territory, I suppose, but it’s definitely not Sebastopol, California, unless it’s by way of Oklahoma.
  • There will probably be something in the story to do with tire maintenance.

That’s a lot to get out of one sentence, and that is the gift of a writer who knows her characters and her story and gets right to them.

The protagonist of this book is immediately painted as a vivid and complex character. Within the first 30 pages, you know and understand where she came from and her connection with her past, you understand her love for her mama but her need to get away from Pittman County, Kentucky in order to find her place in the world, and you can even grasp why she is the sort of person who, when faced with the challenge of taking on an orphaned three-year-old, would flinch a little but then get on with it. If you, or the person for whom you are trying to find a good read, is a reader who loves character development, this book is a good bet. Every character in it has an individual, one-of-a-kind persona, and each is lovingly developed in whatever way he or she needs to be in relation to the main character. These are characters that you would recognize on the street if you walked past them.

The other thing this book has going for it is pacing. If you view it from a superficial standpoint, there are big swathes of it in which nothing much happens: People get and lose jobs, find places to live, make some friends, and live fairly mundane lives. But the overwhelming experience of this book is an exquisitely maintained tension: From the moment the Indian woman dumps the three-year-old in Taylor’s car and drives away, you realize that this is a never-ending source of questions that will pervade the rest of their story.

I should note here (as would a good readers’ advisor for this book) that although it stands alone and is in no way concluded as a cliff-hanger, the reader will probably experience a certain feeling of incompleteness without reading the sequel, Pigs in Heaven, and learning Taylor’s and Turtle’s ultimate fates.

Other elements of the book (and its sequel) that could be significant in appealing to a certain reader:

  • It is issue-oriented—it explores several themes that could be considered controversial, and which broach ethical and social problems;
  • Although it is realistic fiction, the world-building, better described for these purposes as scene-setting, is beautifully realized. The atmosphere of rural Kentucky, the characteristics of desert living in Tucson, Arizona, are wonderfully detailed;
  • The tone of the book is simultaneously serious and upbeat, with unexpected moments of hilarity;
  • The writing style is engaging, with a conversational tone and descriptive language that employs regional dialects to advantage.

These are all ways to examine and perceive the requirements of the reader and match that reader with the story that will suit their taste, temperament, and interests. Think about some of the readers you know, and also consider the books with which you are intimately familiar; pair up the desires of one with the appeals of the other to see if you can accurately predict a good match. This is the gift of readers’ advisory.

 

More bookstores…

Here are two more in the “books about books and readers” category.

yesterdaysIn The Bookshop of Yesterdays, by Amy Meyerson, 28-year-old Miranda is teaching history to middle schoolers in Philadelphia, having just moved in with her boyfriend Jay, the school’s soccer coach. Then she gets the news that her Uncle Billy has died. She hasn’t seen nor heard from him in 16 years, but she remembers him from her childhood as that glamorous uncle who always showed up with gifts from his travels (he was a seismologist). Billy also owned a bookstore in Silverlake (Los Angeles), and Miranda is surprised to discover that he has left her the bookstore. This despite the fact that Miranda’s parents live in Los Angeles, and his sister might have been the more logical beneficiary?

Thus begins her trek back into the past: What was the falling out between Billy and Miranda’s mom that caused him to abandon the family so long ago, and why has he reached out now, when it can’t make a difference, with hints and clues to tantalize Miranda? Her parents aren’t talking, so Miranda has no choice, if she wants to figure out the family dynamic, but to follow Billy’s clues. She also has to decide what to do about the bookstore…

The Bookshop of Yesterdays was a well plotted and skillfully written debut. I enjoyed the parts about the bookstore most of all. It made me, as always, want to have one of my own…even though the financial risk (as portrayed here) is daunting and undeniable. The author was clever with literary references, and with the portrayal of all the bookstore personalities, as well as the pasts and quirks of Miranda’s family.

printedletterThe title of The Printed Letter Bookshop, by Katherine Reay, came up as “you might also like” in a search on Amazon, and it sounded appealing, so I bought it.

Madeline has been doing her due diligence in a law firm for several years, in competition with her former boyfriend for a partnership. When the news of the partnership doesn’t go her way, she uses her recent rather bewildering inheritance of a bookshop from her Aunt Maddie as a distraction from her derailed career. Although she initially intends to rid herself of the property, Aunt Maddie’s two remaining employees attempt to convince her otherwise…and a surprising romantic entanglement makes her consider other options as well.

As I read this book, various themes kept nagging at me, making me think I had read it before. Then I realized its similarities to The Bookshop of Yesterdays, which I read last year. In that one an uncle owns a bookstore, in this one it’s an aunt. In that one, the uncle has a falling-out with the parents when the protagonist is 12 years old. In this one, the protagonist is eight, and the supposed reason for the falling-out is bad financial advice from the protagonist’s father to his sister (the aunt), causing her to lose her savings. (None of the parents in either book will talk about the fight.) In both books, the bookshop owner dies and leaves the store to the niece in the will, hoping his or her legacy will be continued. And in both books, the back stories of the other people whose lives are tied up in the store prove to be the icing that holds the layers together and turns them into a tasty cake.

I think I liked this one a bit more, perhaps because I identified more closely with the back stories of the two women clerks, Claire and Janet, and also liked Aunt Maddie more than Uncle Billy, and Madeline more than Miranda!

If you like Jenny Colgan’s books about young women who realize their lives and careers are not “all that” and decide to make a radical change, you will like these. And of course there is the added enticement of being set in a bookstore. But in retrospect, I would probably just pick one, the stories being so similar.

 

Fresh look: old book

Continuing this occasional feature…

Barbara Kingsolver achieved her greatest fame with the book
I honestly like the least of her entire list—The Poisonwood Bible, nominated for a Pulitzer and multiple other awards. But before she wrote this serious tome, Kingsolver penned several shorter books that caught my imagination:

Taylor Greer grew up poor in Kentucky, with the dual goals of avoiding pregnancy and getting out. On her drive west to seek her fortune, she is unexpectedly “gifted” with a three-year-old American Indian girl, who is dumped in her car in obvious need of mothering and more. So Taylor’s plans change abruptly, and she puts down roots and begins to build a community to help her care for her new foster daughter, Turtle. This is the story of The Bean Trees; in the sequel, Pigs in Heaven, Turtle witnesses an event that has repercussions for her life with Taylor, exposing her to her heritage and her past. These two books are a wonderful combination of charming and heartfelt, with lots of humor but also with a serious message about the family you inherit and the family you choose.

beantrees      pigsheaven

The third book Kingsolver wrote right around the same time period is Animal Dreams, a love story, an environmental inquiry, and an exploration of Native American culture. I was captivated by all three of these books and have revisited them several times. If you are looking for short but intense fiction with an American southwest setting and eccentric characters, try any or all of these three by Kingsolver.

andreams

I featured the original covers here, because they are the ones with which I am familiar (and also, I really like them), but all three of these books have been re-released in trade paperback and are easily obtainable, if in a more bland, less culturally celebratory package.

 

Awakening

Some of the symbolic meanings of peacock feathers are “awakening,” “vision,” and “protection.” When I finished The Peacock Emporium, by JoJo Moyes, I wondered if she had specifically chosen that as a surname for the main protagonist (even though a married name) to foreshadow the action.

peacockThe story revolves around Suzanna Peacock, a woman of 34, who returns, with her husband, Neil, to live in a house provided by her landowner family, near the small town of Dere. They are there because of financial troubles—Neil lost his job, and Suzanna ran up credit card debt—and Suzanna greatly resents the need to be obligated to her parents for providing them with shelter, when what she wants is to be as far from her troubled background as possible, preferably in London. Restless and at loose ends in the country but not willing to consider Neil’s solution of having a baby, Suzanna decides to open a small gift shop and coffee house on the main street of town. She calls it The Peacock Emporium, and Suzanna soon loses herself in collecting all the unique and wonderful items she wishes to sell in her hybrid shop.

Suzanna has never come to terms with her background. Her mother, Athene Forster, first wife of her father, Douglas Fairly-Hulme, died in childbirth, and Douglas’s second wife, Vivi, is the only mother Suzanna has ever known; but the difficult relationship between Douglas and Athene, a self-absorbed, reckless glamor girl, has always overshadowed Suzanna’s complicated relationship with her parents, and has caused her to be withdrawn from the family dynamic. She can’t help but feel that everyone in her family views her through the lens of her mother’s doubtful character.

Putting together the Emporium is the first real accomplishment of Suzanna’s life, but although she takes great pride in the exacting way she has set up the shop, her introverted affect makes her less than ideal as a shopkeeper. What luck, then, when the irrepressibly upbeat Jessie shows up at her door, determined to befriend Suzanna despite herself, and equally committed to turning Suzanna’s showpiece into a neighborhood haunt. As the shop begins to take on the personality of both women, the community embraces it, and Suzanna’s perspectives slowly and subtly begin to change, until a disaster shows up all the cracks in her life that need mending—or rending.

I had a hard time getting into this book initially; the first 80 pages consist of three disparate timelines in different locations, and the story jumps from one to the next with no apparent connection. I hung in there because I have enjoyed this author’s other books, but if things hadn’t started making sense soon after that, I might have put the book down. Fortunately they did; we arrived at the present day with Suzanna and the shop, and subsequent events revealed the necessity for all the previously gleaned information.

This is a book with Moyes’s usual compelling cast of characters who engage you with their issues and quirks, although in this book there are a few that you positively dislike, or at least for whom you lack empathy. It’s also a book containing strong messages, including generational differences, changing cultures, and moral dilemmas. There is an underlying lack of trust amongst many of the characters, primarily due to a dearth of honest communication, but with all of that there are also moments of extraordinary generosity and love. It’s an odd, sometimes depressing, sometimes poignant, and ultimately joyful story that’s not for everyone, but I’m glad I read it.

featherThere are three covers for this book, and none of them gets it right. The hardcover features a woman in a dress from no known era that is associated with this story; the paperback at least has women dressed as Debs from the 1960s (the era of Athene Forster’s debut); but the more recently released paperback features a girl on a bicycle, even though no character in this book ever rides one. I say again, as I have lamented before: Doesn’t anyone in the art department ever read the book? Or at least look at a synopsis? Ask for advice? Care about being true to the story? C’mon.

 

Autism in fiction

A few years back, I read the book The Rosie Project, by Graeme Simsion. At the time, I didn’t have what you would call a significant reaction to the book; it was more along the lines of “charming, funny, and enjoyable relationship fiction.”

I did comment in my notes on Goodreads that the protagonist, Don, put me in mind of an adult version of Christopher Boone, the kid from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon—I could see him growing up to be Don: precise, literal, frustrating, yet engaging in his innocence and bewilderment about the social norms that escape him.

rosieprojectDon Tillman, Australian genetics professor, is an odd duck. His lifelong difficulties with social rituals and situations have caused him to create an orderly, easily navigated life with a precise routine and little human contact. He does have a few friends, and one of them comments to him that he has many attributes that would make him a good husband. This sets Don, who has never gone on a second date, to thinking about how best he could find a partner for himself with the least amount of fuss. His conclusion is The Wife Project, a questionnaire he devises that he intends to submit widely (mostly via a dating site) to weed out the things he can’t abide and narrow his search to the perfect woman for him: no smokers, no vegetarians, no late people, no messy people…the list of what he doesn’t want far exceeds the list of what he does!

Rosie Jarman shows up at his door intending to ask for his assistance on a genetics project, but because she has been sent by his friend and mentor, Gene, Don thinks she is there in response to The Wife Project questionnaire, and asks her out. He is baffled when he discovers that she is a smoker, a drinker, perpetually tardy, and in no way his ideal woman. But when he questions Gene about her, Gene (with some suppressed mirth) says he threw her in as a “control,” and encourages Don to continue to see her. Don takes up the challenge of Rosie’s genetics project, and begins to learn that perhaps the ideal woman on paper isn’t the one for him.

Although it is obvious to other characters in the book that Don is “on the spectrum,” as it has become modish to say about degrees of autism, Don has not self-diagnosed as such. When he is asked by Gene to substitute for him at giving a lecture and the lecture turns out to be on Asperger’s Syndrome to an audience of children with Asperger’s and their parents, Gene’s wife, Claudia, a psychologist and also Don’s friend, asks him if, in preparing his notes, anything seemed familiar. Don seems baffled by her question and doesn’t arrive at the answer she is obviously implying.

A few readers’ reactions to this novel have been negative, because they felt it mocked or made fun of autistic people, but the book’s author has noted that when he wrote it, he didn’t research Asperger’s, and in fact had based Don on “people I met in physics, information technology and doing a Ph.D.” He follows up by adding, “Experts in the field assure me that Don has Asperger’s and that community says the same thing. It was not my intention to make light of Asperger’s, and the Asperger’s community…regards Don as typical but not stereotypical. He’s seen as a good role model; readers generally love him, and that’s a good thing for the image of ASD.”

Remembering how I had enjoyed this somewhat light but entertaining and thoughtful read, I was pleased to see that while I wasn’t paying attention, Simsion had written two follow-up novels, continuing Don’s and Rosie’s story, and I snagged both sequels from the library’s e-book collection as soon as I could get them.

rosieeffectThe Rosie Effect picks up fairly soon after the events of the first book; Don and Rosie are married (sorry, that’s a spoiler, but you kind of knew how it would end, right?) and living in New York City; they both have satisfying work, and everything seems to be going according to plan, which makes Don feel happy and secure. Then an unexpected pregnancy throws everyone for a loop. Don had always agreed, in the abstract, that he would enjoy having offspring, but as far as he knew, birth control was in place and nothing along those lines would happen without a lengthy discussion and negotiation. Rosie, observing their friend Sonia’s struggles to conceive, realizes she isn’t young any more in terms of optimum child-bearing years, believes it could take some time to become pregnant, and “decides” to forget to take her birth control pills, resulting in an almost immediate “success.”

Don does his best to cope with this news, but approaches it with his usual lack of emotion, choosing instead to make lists of tasks and goals that need to be accomplished before the baby is born and setting about them in typical Don fashion, which is to say he almost immediately finds himself in trouble on every front. Meanwhile Rosie, who was happy as Don’s wife, begins to question what kind of father he will be able to be for their child, and as Don seems increasingly incapable of understanding the emotional commitment she needs, Rosie withdraws. Don will have to rein in his various projects and focus instead on his relationship with his wife and child, or all his good intentions will be for nothing.

I had a little trouble with the evolution of Don’s and Rosie’s relationship as a result of the pregnancy. Don continued to be himself; but Rosie, confronted with parenthood, had an extreme reaction to everything about him that she had previously found charming (if maddening). Her reaction seemed over the top, even for someone whose instincts were telling her to place the welfare of her child over the viability of her marriage. For the first time in their interactions, you see Rosie have as little emotional understanding of Don as Don has of Rosie, and it’s unsettling. But it’s a strong story over all, and with the help of their friends they are both able to attain clarity.

rosieresultThere is a considerable hiatus in years between the ending of the second book and the beginning of The Rosie Result; Don and Rosie’s son, Hudson, is now 11 years old. The family has returned to Melbourne, where both Rosie and Don are working full-time in their professions. It soon becomes clear, however, that one of them will need to suspend a busy schedule to give time and attention to their son, who is having trouble fitting in at school and needs more parenting. Coincidentally, Don does something that is typical (and without agenda) for him but which his students find offensive, and concludes that putting some distance between himself and this problem is congruent with his goal of tutoring Hudson in how to get by in a world that thinks you’re weird. Don quickly realizes that the best thing he can do for Hudson is to “outsource” some of this instruction to people with better social instincts than his, and the following year becomes a good example of a “village” raising a child.

In this third book, Simsion openly confronts the topic of autism; while its effects in Don’s life were duly noted in the first two, it is Hudson’s difficulties in school that bring the topic into focus, and Simsion uses the interactions of the Tillman/Jarman family with school administrators, teachers, and counselors, other parents and students, and their unusual group of friends to highlight various sides of the issue. He shows the prejudices that confront people who don’t fit in with perceived social norms, and specifically discusses the pitfalls that lie in allowing a child to be “diagnosed” with something that will follow them for the rest of their school career and beyond. Labeling and identity, both specifically with regard to autism but also in a wider sense, are prevalent themes, and the book directly questions people’s assumptions about autism.

There is a particularly effective scene in which Don and Rosie attend a panel discussion about autism, participated in by a mother who has taken every route—including intensive tutoring, medication, and behavior modification—to help her daughter conform to neurotypical norms, as well as an activist who maintains that autism is not a disease but an identity. Her example is that she doesn’t ‘have’ lesbianism, she is a lesbian; therefore, she doesn’t ‘have’ autism, she is autistic—it’s part of who she is, not something visited upon her that she needs to confront and conquer.

Far from turning the book into a polemic, I felt that this debate, fictionalized and exemplified by the relationships amongst the participants in the story, made it all the more compelling. It is particularly touching as Don, who is determined to make Hudson’s life better than his own by teaching him to cope with society’s expectations, comes to realize that perhaps his response isn’t the best one for Hudson, and that if Hudson can navigate his life by being himself, there may be more wiggle room in his experience than his father had assessed. While maintaining the gentle humor inherent in Don’s (and Hudson’s) misunderstandings of social norms that Simsion portrayed in the first two books, in this one the intensities of the relationships become truly heartfelt. The arc of this three-book story is completed with vastly more depth than one would expect from light, “relationship” fiction.

 

Two steps forward

I was looking for something a little lighter to read after my foray into post-apocalyptic zombie-land, and I realized that I had never gone back to pick up the sequel to the delightful The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion. Alas, all copies of the sequel were checked out at both libraries where I hold membership, and my book budget for June (and truthfully for July) was long since spent, so I opted instead for something else by Simsion. I had heard nothing about it previous to borrowing the e-book, but Two Steps Forward proved to be a new favorite.

walkwaterI didn’t know much about El Camino de Santiago previous to about 2014, but in that year one of my Facebook artist acquaintances, Jennifer Lawson, decided to walk 500 miles along the Camino route and record her progress with sketches. Once she had achieved the feat, she came home, sorted out her sketchbook, and documented the experience in her book Walking with Watercolor.
I promptly bought it, mostly for her delightfully lively and effervescent watercolors rather than because I was intrigued by the topic, but as I read it, my interest grew. The idea of making such a walk, whether on the Appalachian Trail, through the Pacific Northwest, or meandering England’s Lake District, had always been appealing to me. It’s not something to which I could aspire at the moment, given the state of my knees, but who knows? Could happen someday before I die!

2stepsSimsion co-wrote Two Steps Forward with his wife, Anne Buist, and it is loosely based on their own experience of walking the Camino, although it is fiction. El Camino de Santiago is a centuries-old pilgrimage route that ends in Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain. People walk the Camino for all sorts of reasons, though—not just as pilgrimage but as an athletic challenge, as a meditative exercise, as a vacation choice. They start the route from separate points, depending on where in Europe they are coming from, and all converge at the end to receive a certificate of completion and (if they want it) a blessing.

There are two main protagonists, and each author wrote from the viewpoint of one, then traded their writing, edited, added to and refined it, and put together a seamless story narrated by two.

Californian Zoe has recently taken some devastating hits in her life. First, her husband Keith has died in a car crash, a sufficient reason for grief; but a few weeks later, Zoe learns from her accountant that Keith’s business had been in trouble, and if she sells her house she may just barely be able to pay off the business debt—if she’s lucky. Devastated not only by this new catastrophe but by the thought that Keith didn’t sufficiently trust in their relationship to be honest with her about their financial situation, Zoe is at loose ends (and in a daze) when a friend from childhood invites her to France. Not knowing what else to do while waiting for the house to sell, Zoe decides a visit is in order. While out window-shopping in France, she sees a shell charm that inexplicably calls to her. When she discovers the scallop shell is a symbol for El Camino de Santiago, and that the town where she is visiting is a beginning point for part of the route, Zoe impulsively decides that a time-out from her life to grieve, ponder, and find a new direction is just what she needs and, spending most of the last of her money, kits herself out and departs on the route.

Martin, meanwhile, is walking the route primarily for commercial reasons. He is a British engineer, and has designed a cart that he believes will be a wonderful solution to pilgrims who have trouble carrying their belongings on their back. Since every prototype must be tested and proven before manufacturing takes place, Martin decides that the perfect antidote to hanging around dealing with the aftermath of a nasty divorce is to take his cart on “the Way.” With the promise of some interest by investors once they see the results of his walk, the “Buggy man” embarks only a day or two after Zoe on the same part of the path.

Zoe and Martin, along with a host of other colorful and memorable walkers, show the differences in the kind of walk or pilgrimage that is to be had along El Camino. Zoe, flat broke from the get-go, is hoarding her funds by staying in the cheapest of hostels, occasionally even sleeping in a church or barn, and cooking for herself or snacking on what she can carry. Martin, much more flush, is trying out B&Bs and hotels and savoring the local cuisine in the better restaurants in each town. Some travelers don’t think twice about taking a bus or a cab over a rough patch, while others believe that to gain one inch of progress on the Camino under anyone’s power but their own is cheating and nullifies the whole experience.

30xCamino

This illustration shows one of the stone markers with its distinctive scallop shell that indicates the Way for the travelers to follow, with three pilgrims walking in the background.

The delight of this book is its slow build as the walkers continually cross paths with one another. One will have a short day and the other a long one, and will pass each other, unknowing, but land in the same town in the same restaurant on the same night. Some are up and out the door at the crack of dawn, and walk until dusk, while others nurse a hangover, stop for a leisurely déjeuner, dawdle along for 10 kilometers, and call it a day. This all leads to both expected and unexpected encounters and near-misses.

The accompanying theme to the walk is, of course, what each walker gets out of it, and as both Zoe and Martin make progress in their individual quests for meaning, understanding, forgiveness, or whatever else they have come to see that they need or crave, their interactions with one another also change and grow. The book comes to a dramatic and satisfying conclusion, and then further gratifies the reader with an epilogue to reveal what happens to the characters after their “time out of time” interlude is over. Two Steps Forward is nearly as much a journey of discovery for its readers as it is for the walkers.

If you like this sort of book, you might also consider The Distance from Me to You, by Marina Gessner, a novel about a young woman who walks the length of the Appalachian Trail alone between high school and college, or Skywalker: Highs and Lows on the Pacific Crest Trail, a humorous nonfiction memoir by Bill Walker.

And if you liked what you saw of Jennifer Lawson’s drawings in her book about the Camino, be sure to check out her current series on Instagram. She’s drawing, painting, and collaging 100 dogs in 100 days, and they’re all delightful.