Tell the Wolves I’m Home (CBR6 #19)

I normally do pretty spoiler free reviews, but I cannot think of how to talk about my reactions to this book without spoiling the heck out of it, so if that’s a thing you want to avoid then you probably need to click right along to another review.  Go ahead, I won’t judge. Promise.

Anyway, now that we have that done, let’s talk about Tell the Wolves I’m Home.  Our protagonist is June, age 14. She is telling us about the death of her Uncle Finn, her godfather and best friend. It is 1987 and the President of the United States won’t utter the word AIDS for a few more months but it’s the disease that took Finn from June and her family. June’s as up to date as it was possible to be 27 years ago, but the world at large isn’t. It’s a charged climate, and as much as that affects June, and how others react to her and Finn’s death, she’s busy processing the loss of the person she felt she knew entirely, and who knew her.  The problem is that through machinations between her mom and her uncle, there is much about Finn’s life that June does not know, and it all comes screaming into her life with the arrival of Finn’s boyfriend Toby at the funeral.

I wish the book had been told from Toby’s point of view. I want to read Toby’s story. I want to know about  his childhood in England, I want more information about how he and Finn fell in love because what we are told feels like being short changed, how Toby dealt with his  AIDS diagnosis when there was little to nothing to be done and AZT hadn’t been announced yet, what it felt like to get diagnosed with an illness that meant everyone would be terrified of  being in physical proximity to you, how he coped with the decisions to accept being banned from Finn’s family’s life and subsequently let them believe he was the reason Finn had AIDS and not the other way around,  and how he then attempts to survive losing the love of his life. But most importantly I want to know what it took from deep inside of him to attend Finn’s funeral and know that he would likely be turned away, at the very least, in an attempt to make a connection with the niece he was denied a relationship with and on whom his great love’s final wish rested.

After a few fits and starts, June and Toby begin a clandestine friendship. What evolves is the type of relationship which they should have been allowed to have since Toby had spent the last decade with Finn – living in the same apartment that June visited – but she had no idea he even existed. Not his name, not his stories, she didn’t even know his belongings were his. She thought it was all Finn. This is a great story – the story of Finn orchestrating that his two loves are able to help each other process their loss after his death, even if they had been forcibly kept from each other during his life. But that isn’t really the story we get, although it is by far the best part of the book.

What we do get is another coming of age story set against the backdrop of crisis. But it isn’t as good as others in the genre, such as The Age of Miracles. We spend a lot of (possibly wasted) time with June interacting with what death by AIDS means to the people who must now interact with the Elbus family following Finn’s death. And, how it relates to their individual interactions with the portrait.

And here’s a plot device that eluded me. I loved the early parts of the book where Finn is painting the portrait of his nieces. I enjoyed immensely reading about the work and detail that he put into it, including the wolf’s head between the two bodies in the all-important negative space.  But what happens after – the article in the New York Times, the displaying of the work in the living room, the removal to the safe deposit box, the additions made to the painting by the various members of the family, the fixing of said painting, the art professor – all of it, was simply too much. It was another example of the too much factor in this book. There are just too many storylines to be covered adequately. To name only a few I haven’t yet spoken about:

  • June has no friends and is generally a social recluse who prefers her imagination and pretending to be a girl in Medieval Europe
  • Finn was a renowned artist who left the art world and the portrait he paints of June and her sister Greta is his last and an image of it is ‘leaked’ to the press. We never find out from who or why
  • Greta is a 16 year old high school senior who is battling her demons about being pushed to grow up too fast, unreal expectations, the dissolution of her relationship with her sister, and feeling shunned from June’s relationship with Finn.
  • Greta has taken to getting drunk at parties and roping her sister into attending them so that she can ‘rescue’ her in her inebriated state without telling June why. (This one was particularly bothersome to me, because I kept expecting to find out that the Drama teacher was abusing Greta in some way).
  • Their mother, Danni, gave up her own dream of art after Finn left home to travel and study art on his own. Danni has an equivalent talent to her brother and seems to be holding on to a lot of anger about the life she could have had if Finn had stuck to ‘the plan’.
  • Their dad is an accountant, like Danni, and they are so busy with tax Season as to leave June and Greta without supervision for the entirety of the spring. He is often also in the position of apologizing for Danni’s behavior.

Brunt could have written a story about familial relationships and how they can disintegrate so easily without layering all these storylines over the plot.  With that said, yes, the writing is good, the word choice is evocative and emotions are inspired, the characters are well drawn, but they can often be difficult to care about and their motives are vague if present at all. But this book still gets three stars because what Brunt does well is the sincere and the heartfelt and this book is teeming with it. I just wanted more.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

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The Age of Miracles (CBR6 #15)

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“…as if he knew even then that there existed under everything a universal grief” (227).

I suppose that The Age of Miracles can be viewed as a dystopian novel. In it our narrator, Julia, tells us about the year she turned 12 and the Earth’s turning slowed down, eventually leading to weeks of daylight and weeks of darkness. It can also be said that this is a sad book, about the dying and destruction of our world. These things are true, but somehow Karen Thompson Walker prevents the novel from being as unbearably sad as the description might have you believe.

Julia tells us the story as reminiscence, as a woman in her twenties looking back more than a decade to her own childhood to recount the year that her entire world changed. This is the story of her memories of the year the slowing happened, when minutes and hours were added to the Earth’s rotation. We see the events through the microcosm of a young girl’s memory and in so we are limited in scope, we hear from her only hints of what is happening outside of her town in California. Others might view this as a drawback, but ultimately it’s for the story’s benefit that we are limited to less than a dozen characters. By being of limited scope we are able to focus in on the various effects the slowing has on different types of people, and how that compounds in the life of Julia.

The story, at its core, is a cross-hatch of a coming of age tale for Julia, and also the coming of the end of the world. As she struggles with the changes in friendships, being attracted to boys, the changes of her own body we also see the change in the physical environment, how people cope (or don’t) with the ever lengthening days, and what happens as people cling to survival in a world that seems bent on their destruction. Which, to many of us, is exactly what middle school felt like.

Probably my only complaint about the structure of the story is that so much time is spent in the early part of the school year/slowing. We spend nearly half the book going from September to December, and then the second half seemingly racing through January to September. I would’ve liked to spend more time in the second six months of the first year of the slowing but in order to build the world of the story; I can understand why Ms. Walker chose to focus on the first six. While the science of this dystopian sci-fi might not be plausible, it is still an intriguing story that will stick with you and make you think about how you would survive in a world like Julia’s. I whole-heartedly suggest this book to everyone. The writing is evocative and delicious while Julia’s story is intimate and engaging.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

Eleanor & Park (CBR5 #29)

I love Rainbow Rowell’s characters. Even when we aren’t meant to like, or agree with them, she manages to fully flesh them out in a way that at the very least makes them relatable. Which, to me, is something to aspire to as a writer. I can only hope that the characters I scribble can someday become so fully fleshed out.

The two main characters, as the title suggests, are Eleanor and Park. Eleanor is the new girl in town. She moves back in with her mother and stepfather after a year’s separation from them in which she lived with friends of the family, her mother has convinced her stepfather to let her return to the family. While having to navigate rebuilding relationships with her younger siblings, she also must navigate a new high school filled with people who – in the way of high school – are always looking to attack the new and different.

Which brings us to Park. He is different .He is different from his brother, from his parents, and from the other kids at school. But he grew up in the neighborhood and his Korean mom, whom his dad met while deployed in the military and everyone has become accustomed to his family. He has perfected the level of friendship and interactions which allow him to fly under the radar. Until Eleanor gets on the bus and the only open seat is next to him.

This is a YA book, and our protagonists go through a pretty typical high school plotline. But, there’s more depth to Eleanor and Park, and to their lives, than you might expect. Unless, of course, you’ve read Rainbow Rowell’s work before.

Read it.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.