Three Matthew Quick Novels

I recently went on a Matthew Quick kick. I had already seen the film “Silver Linings Playbook” more times than I can count at this point, and I was discussing it with my friendly local librarian. She suggested I read the book. I had avoided it because of some Goodreads reviews that made it seem like I’d enjoy it less than the movie, but I decided to trust her.

(I’m glad I took her advice. They are very different from each other, and both excellent, though I am frustrated about some of the changes David O. Russell made with the screenplay.)

She also recommended that I read “Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock.” Since the library had that one available, I took it home and read it right away.

Soon, the library acquired an interlibrary loan copy of “The Silver Linings Playbook” for me, and I read it in one day. Then I read it again over the next two days. A few days later, I read it a third time. That’s how good it is.

Yesterday, I took “Boy 21” out of the library, started it in bed and stayed up too late reading it, then finished it this morning.

“Boy 21” and “Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock” are young adult fiction about high schoolers, while “The Silver Linings Playbook” is about people in their thirties.

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I really think that the plots are best experienced simply by reading the books themselves, rather than being prepared by knowing a bit about them ahead of time. The characters and storylines are unique and refreshing, with quite a few surprises in store.

I’m grouping the books together because I read them together, and they are connected by certain commonalities despite their great differences.

An underlying theme in Quick’s books, at least those I have read so far (and I will be reading his others), is that of working through the effects of trauma.

There is often more than one character working on or hiding from their own trauma, and whether or not these characters know this about one another, the reader knows. This helps the reader realize and internalize that though the characters feel very alone in their pain, they are not alone. Other people are often dealing with issues of their own, which their friends, family, or enemies may know nothing about.

The characters’ backstories can be somewhat triggering. They are intense and tragic. I think it’s important to know that reading them can be upsetting.

I believe this is necessary for what the author is trying to accomplish. The stories that emerge are real, down-to-earth, beautiful accounts of personal triumph over tragedy, often helped along by the power of friendship (usually the kind found in unexpected places).

To the reader with a painful past and a confusing, difficult present, these books say, “You are not alone. You can also get better, just like these characters. Keep fighting.” To all readers, they also say, “Remember that you don’t know what battles everyone else might be fighting. Be kind.”

Five out of five stars to each one of these books. Five stars to Matthew Quick.

 

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A Review of “Magic or Madness”

“Magic or Madness” is the first book of a trilogy by the same name, written by Justine Larbalestier. I was actually looking for fiction about mental illness when I stumbled upon this, which combines YA fantasy and mental illness into one tidy little package, which seemed like it was worth taking a gamble on.

cover image courtesy of goodreads.com

I’ll start by saying that I absolutely love that the main character’s name is Reason. The name itself and the explanation behind it, Reason’s mother’s firm belief in and reliance on logic, really pleased me. The list of alternative names she was glad she hadn’t been given was cute and funny, too.

Reason Cansino and her mother Sarafina have been living a nomadic lifestyle in Australia, largely to avoid detection from Sarafina’s mother Esmerelda. Sarafina has been telling Reason for her whole life that Esmerelda is dangerous, believes herself to be a witch, and has performed heinous rituals in the name of magic. Sarafina ran away from home as an adolescent, and has spent her adult life trying to protect her daughter from a woman she considers evil.

When Sarafina suffers a mental break and attempts to take her own life, Reason finds herself shuttled off to the house of the one person she wants to avoid, her grandmother, who has legal custody of her.

Reason refuses to trust, speak to, or even accept food from Esmerelda, and begins immediately plotting her escape. She is trying to decide whether to break her mother out of the nearby mental hospital where she has been placed.

Before she can make up her mind, and without having any of her bug-out supplies with her, she accidentally finds herself transported from her grandmother’s back door in Sydney to a frigid street in Manhattan, NY, in the middle of the night.

Reason is forced to come to grips with the idea that perhaps her mother was wrong all along, and that magic is real.

“Magic or Madness” is clever and fast-paced, with a fresh take on a contemporary fictional world in which some people have magic and some don’t. The leading lady is street-wise, intelligent, and a little rough-around the edges, and she has to rely on her intuition and self-knowledge to decide who to trust and who to run from in a wildly unfamiliar environment.

The sometimes-hard language is geared more toward the higher end of YA, so this would make a better teen than tween book. It is also very enjoyable for adults, in my opinion. Among other things, I appreciated the author’s disregard for narrow gender stereotypes in both her female and male characters.

The story held my attention firmly until I finished it, which happened quickly, because I didn’t want to put it down. Things definitely ended on a teasing, mysterious note, so I’m excited to pick up the next installment of the series.

 

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A Review of “Half Bad” by Sally Green

“Half Bad” by Sally Green showed up on my Goodreads home page as a book that was trending in the fantasy genre, and it looked promising, so I wrote it down on my library grocery list.

I’ve noticed that I gravitate toward YA fantasy often. I’m not embarrassed about that, but I do feel a little out of place browsing around in the “Teen Room” of my library, so I try to have a plan for getting in and out quickly. I checked the library’s online catalog to make sure they had “Half Bad,” and managed to secure myself a copy with ease.

cover image courtesy of goodreads.com

There are a lot of comparisons being thrown around between this book/trilogy and other YA fantasy series. I tried to ignore much of that and judge the story on its own merit. (That being said, it was difficult not to draw my own parallels. There seems to have been some strong influence from other works within the genre.)

The main character of “Half Bad” is a teenaged boy named Nathan, who lives with his maternal grandmother and several half-siblings. His father is absent, and his mother ended her own life when he was very young.

Nathan’s mother was a white witch, and his father was a black witch. There is a rather obvious association with good magic and bad magic, respectively, with those two designations.

What makes a witch white or black is unclear in the book. It seems to be hereditary, but some people tell Nathan that he can choose to be white instead of black with his thoughts and behavior.

Being a black witch is a very undesirable thing in Nathan’s society, which is basically contemporary U.K., so for the most part he tries to deny any traits he thinks may have come from his dangerous father, at least for a large portion of his life so far.

There is a relatively low amount of actual magic in the book, which is in part because witches in this fictional world do not practice their craft until they come of age (at seventeen years old). I imagine there will be more magic in the subsequent books, because Nathan finally turns seventeen toward the end of the novel.

Nathan is the only half-white, half-black witch that he knows of, and the governing body of white witches attempts to interfere with his life and persecute him with increasing frequency and severity as he grows older.

Eventually, this Council of white witches ceases their tiptoeing around and imprisons him, sending him to live in a cage in a remote location with a single witch watching over him and attempting to teach him things. Much of what he goes through could be called torture, and yet it is not entirely clear whether his jailer, Celia, is a “bad guy” through-and-through or somewhat sympathetic to Nathan.

Parts of the story tell how Nathan came to be imprisoned, and parts are about his ordeal in captivity, and his plans to escape. Nathan needs to escape to find someone, possibly his father, who will participate with him in the ritual that allows him to become a full-fledged witch, for he has heard that if he does not go through with this rite, he will die.

The book has a varying pace, which keeps it interesting. Nathan is a fairly well-developed character, but there are few other characters in the book who seem truly realistic and multi-dimensional.

(One character informs Nathan that a third character is in love with him, but there was no indication in behavior or dialogue of that depth of feeling. It was certainly a case of telling, and not showing, on the author’s part.)

While “Half Bad” kept me entertained, it did not dip down very far below the surface. Many questions I had about Nathan’s world and abilities went unanswered. Again, it’s possible that things will come together more in the sequels, but I am not sure whether I am invested in the story enough to follow up with them. I might. It was exciting at times, and has potential to develop into something more substantial.

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A Review of “Sisters of Shiloh”

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I have never read any of Kathy Hepinstall‘s other works, so I did not know what to expect from this collaboration with her sister Becky. I was interested in reading a book authored by two sisters, about two sisters, even though the Civil War is not one of my areas of interest.

Sisters of Shiloh” is about two young women who for different reasons cut their hair, don men’s clothing, and get themselves installed in the Confederate Army by posing as boys who are not technically old enough to fight. The Army needs soldiers badly when they enlist, and the doctors doing the screenings have been unofficially instructed to pass even those who are clearly under 18.

The younger sister, Libby, is joining the war to avenge her late husband, as a last ditch effort to assuage the grief that threatens to cost Libby her sanity.

Josephine, the older sister, had no warm feelings for Libby’s husband, but involves herself in Libby’s scheme in order to protect her, knowing the fragile state Libby is in.

I am not fond of battle scenes, of which there are plenty, but the description in this book is well-executed–thorough without being overdone. There is an abundance of insects in the daily life of the sisters and their fellow soldiers. They are continually distracted by the presence of chiggers and lice. This and other physical discomforts are conveyed quite convincingly by the authors.

I think overall, the Hepinstall sisters have created a respectable novel together. I hesistate to be overly critical when reviewing, because I know how difficult it is to write a book. Even so, I was surprised and disappointed by the fact that I simply could not feel the bond that I was told existed between Libby and Josephine.

I could see Josephine’s protective instincts toward her younger sibling, but I felt no love coming from Libby, and none of that easy, almost telepathic communication between girls of a similar age who have been raised together. I have a sister, and I did not see any strong semblance of our relationship in this book.

There was a particular part of the book that annoyed me, at which point I felt as though the authors were trying to trick me. I did not appreciate that. I don’t want to reveal any plot details from far along into the book, but I will say that something was represented as having taken place, and then (a page or two later) shown to have not actually happened.  Other readers might not be bothered by this technique, but it felt a bit like a cheap shot to me.

“Sisters of Shiloh” did touch lightly on issues of battle-induced PTSD, which was interesting and well-done. I was not sure that the authors were going to allow both of their main characters to heal and move forward with their lives, but I think most of the loose ends were suitably tied up, while leaving some room for imagination.

The concept of sisters posing as Confederate soldiers was a good one, and I think it was handled nicely. Those who are from the Southern U.S. or are interested in the area and its history may enjoy this more than I did.

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Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple”

In the current social and political climate, I hesitate, as a middle-class white woman, to even attempt to discuss a book like “The Color Purple.”

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Written by Alice Walker, it is about several poor, uneducated, disadvantaged, abused women of African descent living in the American South in the early 20th century.

Though I want to tread lightly through such unknown territory, I won’t entirely shy away from sharing my thoughts. After all, the beauty of fiction is its ability to show readers new perspectives, give them different shoes to wear for a few literary miles.

The lives of Celie, Nettie, Shug, and Sofia are certainly full of unfamiliar experiences for me. The author’s choice to use letters as narrative–written from Celie to God, then later between sisters Celie and Nettie–is a very successful one, allowing the reader to be fully immersed in Celie’s thoughts, understand how she processes events, in a way that other forms of narration would not be able to accomplish.

For a book so full of pain and disappointment, it was surprisingly easy and quick to read. The subject matter was often difficult, but it was handled gracefully. The letters moved things along at a good pace, not wasting words on things that were unimportant to the story itself.

A couple of things bothered me. I did not and still do not understand why Celie’s husband Albert is only referred to as “Mr. _____.” With so many other fictitious names, first and last, there seemed to be no reason to not give Mr. _____ a made-up surname.

There must be something I’m missing. I’ve never been good at ferreting out symbolism. I tend to take things at face value when I read.

The only other issue I had was one that I can only pick at half-heartedly, because it was almost inevitable given the style of narration. Since Celie is only partially literate, there are many errors of spelling and grammar in her letters. Surprisingly, Ms. Walker has managed to make them very comprehensible despite these limitations.

Occasionally, however, it is unclear (due to a lack of quotation marks) when Celie has finished relaying something someone else said, and has gone back to her own words. Nettie’s letters are much easier to follow, because of her advanced learning.

These things do not detract from the story, or from my engrossment in it. A few times, I stopped and reread something for clarity, but this was otherwise a very difficult book to put down. There is a great deal of beauty in it amidst the ugliness, and some satisfying conclusions to a few situations.

I did not wholeheartedly embrace or believe transformations gone through by certain characters, but I never doubted Celie. She was so real and true for me.

All in all, I think Alice Walker deserves all the high accolades given to her for this novel. It is finely crafted and full of exquisite humanity.

 

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A Review of “The Mountain Story”

“The Mountain Story” by Lori Lansens is not my typical fare, but something in the description on the jacket made me take it home from the library anyway. That turned out to be a good decision.

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A young man called Wolf (short for Wilfred) Truly narrates the story, his perspective of several frightening days spent lost on a mountain with three other people, all struggling to stay alive without food, adequate water, or weather-appropriate clothing.

Early in the book, Wolf reveals that his trip up this mountain, a trip he has taken many times, is intended to be the last one he will take, and one from which he does not plan to return.

In grief and despair over an accident suffered by his best friend, Wolf makes the journey up the mountain without any supplies, a decision that will haunt him as he finds himself in the position of attempting to lead several women to a particular landmark, and later, back to the trail.

In putting himself into a position of leadership with the women, because of his knowledge of the area and wilderness survival, his intentions reverse as he realizes that he must remain alive to ensure that his three companions do not starve or fall victim to exposure.

“The Mountain Story” seems at first as though it might simply be a tale of rugged survival and a battle against time and nature, and to a certain extent it is, but there is more to it. This book explores the depths and nuance of human connection: love, friendship, and sacrifice. Ms. Lansens pushes her characters to the brink of death and madness to test their strength.

There are a few surprising revelations scattered throughout the narrative, twists that I did not anticipate, and which mostly felt refreshing rather than forced.

This was a more emotional read than I expected. Although it contained more than its fair share of tragedy, it was ultimately satisfying, while managing to avoid being overly neat and tidy or saccharine sweet at the end.

On the whole, I found it to be a very successful novel, well worth the time I spent with it.

 

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A Review of “Crow Hollow” by Michael Wallace

I enjoyed “Crow Hollow” quite a bit. I tend to like historical fiction, and the early colonial American era is particularly appealing to me, so I had little doubt that I would find at least bits and pieces of this book to my liking.

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According to the “About The Author” page at the end of the book, Michael Wallace was “raised in a small religious community in Utah” and later moved to live in New England as an adult. Neither of these things are surprising after having read the book.

Mr. Wallace clearly has experience with New England weather and customs, and his experience with the religious community must have helped him to paint his portrait of the Massachusetts Puritans. The attitudes, actions, and speech of his Puritan and Quaker characters were believable and seemed accurate.

There was an ideal amount of historical detail in “Crow Hollow”–not so much as to become stiff and textbook-like, but enough to give the reader a definite sense of time and place. I appreciated his inclusion of elements such as the specific hair and clothing styles of the local tribes, although I admit I did not do any research to confirm their validity.

In this novel, an agent of King Charles of England travels to Boston in 1676, with a Native American-turned-Quaker as a companion, for reasons known only to himself. Although this agent/spy, James Bailey, is responsible for much of the narration of the story, the reader is left partially in the dark as to his motives for a large portion of the book.

The book’s secondary main character is a widow in her mid-twenties named Prudence Cotton, who has only recently been rescued from an ordeal that involved witnessing the torture and murder of her husband, being held captive by a Native American tribe, and having her toddler daughter taken away from her.

The author does a fine job of creating a well-rounded, complex female character in Prudence Cotton, with strengths as well as weaknesses, virtues and faults, which is something not all male authors are able (or bother) to do.

Prudence has been living with her sister and brother-in-law, the Reverend Stone, and their family, for mere months at the time when James Bailey comes to stay in their home. Upon learning that at least part of his reason for being in America is to investigate the circumstances of the Widow Cotton’s husband’s death, she quickly makes herself acquainted with him and attempts to fill him in on part of the story that has not been made public.

The two of them plus Bailey’s companion, Peter Church, soon find themselves in hot water and escape Boston together in a hurry. What follows is a harrowing adventure that puts them all in peril and forces them to decide exactly how much they can trust one another. Things are made more complicated by a growing attraction between Prudence and James.

“Crow Hollow” was exciting and satisfying. It is possible that some readers might find the ending a touch corny. I had mixed feelings about it, but overall, I found the book entertaining and worthwhile.

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