On Deb Caletti’s “Honey, Baby, Sweetheart”

Image result for honey baby sweetheartDeb Caletti’s 2004 novel, Honey, Baby, Sweetheart was selected as a National Book Award finalist, which was, I must admit, my primary motivation for reading it. I’m compelled to read any book that has a certain amount of gravitas or esteem surrounding it; I’m always fascinated by what others consider “good” or even “great” literature. And if I don’t see the good in it, does it mean I have better taste than most people, or does it mean I’m a bad reader.

I was forced to ask myself that question in the middle of Caletti’s novel, which expected to finish in a day or two, but which took me nearly a week. It started of promising enough, but I found that the buildup to Ruby’s relationship with Travis Becker was so abrupt, it nearly gave me whiplash. That being said, Caletti does an admirable job at delving into the reasons why women remain committed to relationships that are bad for them. Because it can’t always be as simple as walking away.

Personally, I had a difficult time with that concept, though I think Caletti’s exploration is what made the novel such a critical success. Growing up, I was always encouraged to rage fiercely against any type of entrapment or persuasion by a significant other. When I was old enough to date, I found myself in a situation where I felt like I was being pushed into situations and interactions that went against who I was as I person, and eventually I raged against that person. I’ve lost all the people I’ve dated to that particular rage, and I’m not the least bit sorry. And because of that, it was strange to see Ruby and her mother give themselves away to it when they knew, and felt, that it went against who they were.

Caletti has moments of brilliant writing where the insights she showcases are genuinely intriguing, but for the most part, her writing was a little heavy-handed. I can imagine that many readers are attracted to that style of writing, but I’m drawn to sparse prose in which writers say a lot through a little. In fairness, I probably would have loved this book when I was a teenager, but my tastes have changed.

I did appreciate the humor of the “Casserole Ladies” who let loose some seriously funny jokes and pranks, but their antics weren’t enough to raise the above the standing I gave it.

For young people out there, or parents who are looking for a book for their child, Honey, Baby, Sweetheart is a worthy choice. It’s an important book for you women to read even though the execution might be a little off-kilter. It’s wholly enjoyable and full of well-developed characters. In terms of summer reading, it’s perfect.

On “Devilish” by Maureen Johnson

courtesy of goodreads.com

Maureen Johnson’s Devilish is just as delectable as its cover would imply. I devoured the book in a day. This strange story about selling one’s soul to the devil is perfect for the Halloween season if you have an open reading schedule during that time period. It’s so offbeat and readable, I have no doubt it will become a seasonal classic a few years down the line.

Devilish tells the story of a whip smart Catholic prep school student called Jane Jarvis who becomes concerned when her best friend Allison starts showing up to school with designer clothes, perfectly coiffed hair, and much more confidence than she used to. Turns out she’s sold her soul to the devil, who happens to be a new sophomore by the name of Lanalee Tremone.

Lanalee seems sweet as can be at first, boosting Allison’s confidence by choosing her as her big. But Jane soon finds out that Lanalee has trapped Allison into a binding contract in which she must hand over her soul in return for all that she’s received. This sets into motion a series of twisted events that comes to a head on Halloween night.

Johnson sets her novel in Providence, Rhode Island, which is the perfect backdrop for Satanic madness. Of course, the Salem witch trials make an honorable mention in the book, as well as the town’s unfortunate history of slavery, which blights its stunning New England beauty. The sinister underbelly of the town and Jane’s school translates beautifully to this strange, slightly humorous horror story. It would be amazing as a film; I imagine it as something similar to Jennifer’s Body.

As usual, Johnson masterfully constructs her characters, giving the reader people who are beautifully nuanced and kick-ass. Jane Jarvis has the perfect blend of self-assuredness and personal development that I can’t help but wonder where Johnson learned to write such perfect teenagers. She weaves the relationships between her characters like a fine web. Every detail falls into place effortlessly, and, as I read more and more of Johnson’s work, I can’t help but gape at how well she does what she does.

Alas, I wish there were a sequel to this book. I want to know what happens to Jane and Owen and Brother Thomas. Where are you with this one, Maureen?? I know there’s high demand for the Shades of London series, but I think Devilish could use another installment.

On “All the Bright Places” by Jennifer Niven

Courtesy of goodreads.com

This review appears on paperbackparis.com:

This review contains spoilers from the book

Strap on your seatbelts, kids. This book is going to be a rough fucking ride. Imagine The Fault in Our Stars, and replace cancer with mental illness. Yes. It’s the definition of an emotional roller coaster. (Ironically enough, this book features Violet and Finch riding two homemade roller coasters. Do with that what you will.)

Jennifer Niven builds her novel on the typical boy-meets-girl-in-some-strange-circumstance-and-then-bond-even though-they-have-nothing-in-common trope we see in most all young adult novels these days. But it quickly diverges into something else. Each chapter alternates between Violet’s and Finch’s perspectives. Violet is dealing with grief and guilt after surviving a car crash that killed her older sister and is counting down the days until graduation. Finch has just woken up from a “sleep” that has kept him homebound for nearly a month; he’s finally awake, and he’ll do anything he can to stay that way.

All the Bright Places begins with both Violet and Finch standing at the top of their school’s bell tower, trying to feel more alive. From that moment on, they have an unbreakable connection. Finch pushes Violet to experience everything all at once, taking her on adventure after adventure. Violet has to learn to push boundaries again even though the simple act of getting into a car makes her freak out.

Soon enough, though, it becomes apparent that Finch’s idiosyncratic behavior is more than just a facet of his buoyant personality, but he refuses to label himself with an illness, and his parents are willfully ignorant of his problems or, in his father’s case, abusive. Finch does everything he can to mend himself by struggling to stay awake and caring for Violet. But it isn’t enough.

**Spoiler alert** Finch kills himself. The instant when Violet realizes he’s dead is one of the most devastating moments in YA fiction that I can remember. I knew his illness was getting the best of him at that point in the novel, but I honestly believed he would seek medical attention for the sake of his personal goals, his family, and of course, Violet. But, once again, he refused to acknowledge he could be “bi-polar,” believing it would be the end of him.

Niven expertly characterizes Finch within the confines of his illness. His chapters throughout the novel are consistently well-crafted, and they subtly highlight the drive of Finch’s mania and the frightening depth of his depression should he fall into it again. There are moments in the beginning, however, where the reader might find his exuberance both tiring and trite, but his musings become more palatable as the pages wear on.

Unfortunately, Finch’s chapters are so well-done that Violet’s chapters can sometimes pale in comparison. In retrospect, I realize that this might have been a tool Niven used purposefully to contrast Finch’s excess with Violet’s contained state of grief. Even if that was her intention, I found myself more invested in Finch’s story because Niven draws attention to this illness of his that no one can see. Finch even posits the idea that people don’t get flowers when they’re suffering from something that others can’t see. And if people can’t see it, it must not exist, right?

Although I wanted Finch to come to the realization that he needed medical attention, I knew that realization would be a fairy tale ending to a story that was doomed from the beginning.

All the Bright Places is an important story for anyone affected by mental illness or suicide, and it’s an important reminder for everyone involved that it’s not always your fault if someone decides to end his or her life. Sometimes even caring for someone with suicidal tendencies isn’t enough to save them, which is a lesson Violet is forced to learn when Finch is gone.

On “Suite Scarlett” by Maureen Johnson

courtesy of goodreads.com

Like I said earlier: the craze continues. This time, with a novel that is more similar in tone to The Bermudez Triangle, though not quite as edgy. I imagine this would have been the perfect summer break book for me when I was younger. It has all the right ingredients:

  1. Teenage siblings brought up in an unusual environment (i.e. a hotel in New York City).
  2. An off beat hotel guest who shakes things up.
  3. A complicated love interest.
  4. Money problems.
  5. The streets of NYC in the summer.

All good things. Johnson kept Suite Scarlett light and fun–perfect for a teenager on his or her summer vacation. While I thought the novel got off to a slow start, the author quickly showed just how talented she is at designing characters and developing their interpersonal relationships, especially the dynamic between the Martin siblings.

And–while almost all YA novels contain a love interest at their core–Scarlett’s relationship (or lack of one) with Eric introduces a complexity that many lack. Oftentimes, boy and girl fall in love and run along happily ever after, but Johnson consciously introduces a three year age gap that changes everything for them.

Personally, I was so done with Eric after his and Scarlett’s rendezvous on the Empire State Building. But, first love is a bitch to be reckoned with. The complications that arise knowing that Eric will go to NYU and almost inevitably change makes their doomed romance relatable to many a young person out there. I would like to have read this book when I was 14/15 and half in love with a senior boy who I wouldn’t stop bugging. Unfortunately, I had no concept of “cool.” Yes, I was an embarrassment to myself.

Furthermore, I love resourceful teenagers in a sort of masochistic way. I sure as hell wasn’t witty, sharp, cunning, or helpful when I was Scarlett’s age. I just existed and did school related things sometimes and read a ton of books. It was a fun day when my mom realized that reading a lot does not translate into academic intelligence. Good times.

Though Suite Scarlett isn’t on the same par as Johnson’s Shades of London series, it is definitely worth a read for young people around 14 or 15. It’s fun, relatable, and contains all of the author’s trademark humor.

On “The Bermudez Triangle” by Maureen Johnson

Image courtesy of photobucket.com

So I finally got around to making a dent in the YA books I told you about. Several Maureen Johnson books are tucked in there, and I’ve really been looking forward to reading them. I got turned onto her books by a colleague at my college newspaper who interviewed her for an article; fun fact: she’s an alumna of the University of Delaware. (Go Hens!)

I wanted to start near the beginning of her canon, which is quite a lot bigger than I thought it was; I pulled as many as I could from my local library, and decided to begin with The Bermudez Triangle, which has since been renamed On the Count of Three.

The story follows three friends who have been inseparable since they were children. During the summer before their senior year, Nina attends a leadership camp at Stanford where she falls in love with an eco-warrior named Steve who seems perfect in every way. Meanwhile, her best friends, Avery, the witty, musically talented firebrand of the group, and Mel, the shy one, fall in love. When Nina returns and discovers the newly formed romance, it seems that the Bermudez triangle might not last through senior year.

For the most part, I enjoyed this book. Johnson is the type of writer who makes the story seem effortless, I think, in part, because of her humor. She makes her characters’ personalities and situations genuinely relatable, and I found myself rooting for and disapproving of each character in cycles as the novel progressed.

According to Johnson’s website (see link above), this book has been challenged in Oklahoma and Florida for its positive portrayal of a homosexual relationship. All the more reason to read it, no? It was published in 2004, a few years before gay marriage was legalized and reemerged as a popular topic of discussion in popular culture.

Since Johnson’s book predates this massive discussion and diffusion into mainstream culture, I was impressed with the way she developed Mel and Avery’s relationship. It’s an interesting, if cursory, study of how deep friendship between two people of the same sex can turn into romance. I loved that the sexuality of both characters was not cut and dry; Mel is a lesbian, and Avery simply falls in love with her friend.

I also appreciated the other romantic dynamics that developed over the course of the novel. The thing with Nina and Steve was spot on, but I HATED that she was even considering the idea of getting back with him at the end. If you readers haven’t seen/read He’s Just Not That Into You

, do it ASAP. She needed to kick him to the curb because at the age of 17/18, sorry isn’t good enough. Find someone better. Or don’t. Just don’t go back to the hippie-boy who couldn’t make time to call or write and ended up cheating on you.

You could say I have some personal experience on that front. Don’t we all?

ANYWAY, I’ll get off my soap box now.

I would recommend this for people interested in reading more LGBTQ fiction because, as I said, I think it does a great job of exploring fluid sexuality and coming out to one’s family. In all other aspects of the YA arena, The Bermudez Triangle didn’t break the mold. But it’s enjoyable. I knocked it out in a couple days.

Happy reading!