An Unconventional YA Double Dip: Goldfish and Geriatrics..

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Grab a snack and assume a comfortable semi-reclined position and let’s dip into a pair of YA titles…well, actually one is upper middle grade… featuring teen girls and their relationships with their fathers. I received both of today’s titles from the publisher via Netgalley and having looked at some of the early reviews on Goodreads, it appears I enjoyed these quite a bit more than the average punter. Let’s dive in though, shall we, starting with the more conventional of the two of these unusual stories.

Isabelle Day Refuses to Die of a Broken Heart by Jane St. Anthony is the gentle and understated tale of a young girl working through grief. Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

In Milwaukee, Isabelle Day had a house. And she had a father. This year,Isabelle Day on Halloween, she has half of a house in Minneapolis, a mother at least as sad as she is, and a loss that’s too hard to think—let alone talk—about.

It’s the Midwest in the early 1960s, and dads just don’t die . . . like that. Hovering over Isabelle’s new world are the duplex’s too-attentive landladies, Miss Flora (“a lovely dried flower”) and her sister Miss Dora (“grim as roadkill”), who dwell in a sea of memories and doilies; the gleefully demonic Sister Mary Mercy, who rules a school awash in cigarette smoke; and classmates steady Margaret and edgy Grace, who hold out some hope of friendship. As Isabelle’s first tentative steps carry her through unfamiliar territory—classroom debacles and misadventures at home and beyond, time trapped in a storm-tossed cemetery and investigating an inhospitable hospital—she begins to discover that, when it comes to pain and loss, she might actually be in good company. In light of the elderly sisters’ lives, Grace and Margaret’s friendship, and her father’s memory, she just might find the heart and humor to save herself.

With characteristic sensitivity and wit, Jane St. Anthony reveals how a girl’s life clouded with grief can also hold a world of promise.

Dip into it for…

… a leisurely pace and an authentic representation of a grieving young person trying to adjust to loss and a new environment. Nothing really bad happens in this story and there aren’t really flashpoints or dramatic upswings in action, but Isabelle certainly experiences some significant growth over the course of the book. This really reminded me of the impactful and gentle stories in Glenda Millard’s exceptional Kingdom of Silk series, that deal with difficult topics in an accessible way, but pitched at slightly older readers.

Don’t dip if…

…you’re looking for an upper middle grade book that features familiar tropes and episodic action. This has neither. In the early reviews I’ve read for this book, a number of reviewers have noted the lack of action as a negative feature, and I agree that there is something that does feel lacking in the sense that there doesn’t seem to be a discernible climax.

Overall Dip Factor:

I suspect that this is going to be a bit of a niche read, appealing to those who prefer relationship-driven tales to those featuring lots of action and the usual YA tropes of cliques, bullying and boys. I was quite impressed with the warmth and hope of the ending and while I wanted there to be more development in Isabelle’s relationship with her elderly neighbours, the ending sort of made up for that. I think the author has done a good job of authentically relaying Isabelle’s feelings of grief and disorientation and as this is at the crux of the story, younger readers who haven’t had these life experiences may find it hard to relate to Isabelle and the importance she places on milestones such as making a new friend.

Overall, I have to say I enjoyed Isabelle Day Refuses to Die of a Broken Heart and found it to be a solid upper middle grade choice for those young readers who are ready to explore a difficult life experience in narrative.

Next up we have a supremely unconventional YA story that also features some startling conventionality. I immediately related to the main character of Silence is Goldfish by Annabel Pitcher, and I’m still dissecting the layers of this book. Like a good trifle. Anyway, here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

My name is Tess Turner – at least, that’s what I’ve always been told. I silence is goldfishhave a voice but it isn’t mine. It used to say things so I’d fit in, to please my parents, to please my teachers. It used to tell the universe I was something I wasn’t. It lied. It never occurred to me that everyone else was lying too. But the words that really hurt weren’t the lies: it was six hundred and seventeen words of truth that turned my world upside down.

Words scare me, the lies and the truth, so I decided to stop using them.

I am Pluto. Silent. Inaccessible. Billions of miles away from everything I thought I knew.

Tessie-T has never really felt she fitted in and after what she read that night on her father’s blog she knows for certain that she never will. How she deals with her discovery makes an entirely riveting, heart-breaking story told through Tess’s eyes as she tries to find her place in the world.

Dip into it for…

…a selective mute with an imaginary talking goldfish for an ally, weathering the storm of family drama, cyberbullying and teenaged identity confusion. I related to Tess straight away and reading of her solitary, passive, silent protest made me wish I’d thought of it as a young gargoyle going through various mental health dramas. Pitcher has written Tess as an incredibly authentic 15-year-old: immature, naïve, self-focused, struggling with issues outside her control and desperate for connection. I particularly enjoyed the way in which Tess grew throughout the story, eventually claiming her appearance and existence and using this knowledge to achieve her ends.

Don’t dip if…

…you don’t think you can relate to a rendering of a teen as immature, naïve and self-focused. I suspect that some people will find Tess to be just irritating, particularly if they have never experienced any kind of major mental upset. Also, as Tess becomes a selective mute for much of the book, there is a fair bit of monologue here…or at least, dialogue between Tess and her imaginary fish friend…which some might find tedious after a bit. I’m not the greatest fan of monologuing and I did feel there was a bit of a sag in the middle of this tale.

Overall Dip Factor:

Admittedly, there were a few things that I didn’t love about this book, including the oft-used clique of three popular bitch girls (why is it always three?!) and the quick change in friendship fortunes early on, which seemed unlikely to me. On the other hand, one of the strengths of this book is that Tess is clearly naïve in that she wants her imagining of certain relationships to be real, and it is clear that while she knows that some people may not be working in her best interests, she prefers to rely on what she would like to be true than to accept the signs that are pointing to reality.

One of the interesting things about this book is that it will be obvious to the reader where the wind is blowing, so to speak, with many of the plotlines in the book, but knowing what is likely to happen didn’t dampen the satisfaction I found in going along with Tess toward the inevitable discoveries that were going to be made. It was like reading an interesting case study: because I already knew (or suspected) what the outcome would be, I could better observe Tess’s actions and appreciate her journey through denial to acceptance – of herself and the circumstances.

Clearly, this book isn’t going to be for everyone. But it was for me. I think I shall reserve a special place for Tess (and Mr Goldfish) on the shelf should they ever wish to visit.

That’s it from me for now.  I’m off to find out if they sell Eccles cakes in Australia, so I’ll be prepared for the next double-dip outing.

Until next time,

Bruce

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