All The Bright Places- Jennifer Niven

My younger sister read this book when it was first released and has been bugging me to give it a try ever since. I kept putting it off, imagining that, like I’ll Give You The Sun, it would be aimed a too young an age group. But from the first few pages of All The Bright Places I was hooked!

I liked how, from the very first sentence, I was thrown into the headspace of the characters because it meant I could get to know them straight away and instantly establish a relationship with them. It also meant that I very quickly learned that both Finch and Violet suffered from mental health issues, which somehow made them more likeable, as if I had to be on their side because other people might not have been so understanding or patient.

I find it interesting that, in spite of Finch’s own mental struggles, he is the one who actualy prevents Violet from taking her own life  and it is from this moment that their relationship begins to blossom. To me it is bittersweet that in spite of Finch’s inability to want anything other than to die, he shows Violet how to enjoy life again after her sister’s death.

Niven undoubtedly succeeded in bringing both Finch and Violet to life, and I think the dual first person narrative technique really helped with this, especially given that the narrative revolves around emotional and mental struggle. It was also really interesting to see what effect someone with mental health issues would have on someone else suffering with a similar problem- something that is not often covered in fiction, especially teen fiction. The fact that, as is the prerogative of a teenage girl, Violet disregards her parents’ warnings about spending time with Finch and Finch deletes voicemails to prevent his mother from knowing what he doesn’t want her to know gives them an air of reality and shows that they are more than just their mental health problem, contrary to many assumptions about sufferers of depression, PTSD and so on.

Somehow, even though the book concludes in one of the worst eventualities, it didn’t actually leave me feeling sad because I felt as if Violet’s character had really progressed and learned to become more comfortable in herself and in the world. I felt as if the book confirmed by life belief that everything happens for a reason because, without having established such a strong relationship with Finch, who was the most straight- talking person in her life, and then having him play out his story as he did, Violet would not be as stable or rational as she seems at the end.

I would definitely recommend All The Bright Places, regardless of age, or gender or usual choice of genre, simply because it was brilliant. As soon as I began the book I couldn’t put it down because I was desperate to know what would happen to Violet and Finch. Niven clearly has a talent for bringing characters to life, and for dealing with the, very difficult to deal with, subject of mental health in a way that is suitable for teenagers. This book displays the author’s talent in a way that simply must be read.

I’ll Give You The Sun- Jandy Nelson

The cute, bright cover of Jandy Nelson’s I’ll Give You The Sun is definitely was drew me into picking up the book, as well as, upon flicking through its pages, the artsy design of some of the pages. The short and sweet blurb mentions a tragedy, which is enough to intrigue anyone into giving the book a chance.

 

However, I quickly became bored after starting the book because I just couldn’t become interested enough to be invested in the narrative. This was not helped by the dual narrative, switching between the characters of Jude and Noah. I usually enjoy books written in such a way because it allows for a wider interpretation of events, but in this case I found it confusing and a little awkward, especially given that chapters were so long. I suppose this could show the closeness of the two characters, given that they are twins, but it did mean that, at points, I was unsure who was actually speaking. The length of chapters also meant that it was difficult to find a convenient point to stop reading, meaning that it was hard to read on short car journeys or when I just had five minutes to spare, although I suppose that the ability to dip in and out might not be so vital for younger readers. As a result of this, I found that finishing the book became more of a chore, rather than something I was enjoying.

 

In terms of the writing style and register, it is clear that Jandy Nelson has tried to keep I’ll Give You The Sun informal and colloquial as a way of speaking to the young adults that she is writing for. In theory, this is a great idea, and could be humorous and relatable for the reader. However, in my opinion, this isn’t always executed effectively, with some phrases seeming a little overworked and forced. Of course, I understand that I would not be the target audience of the book, but I’m sure that even the 15 year old me would have felt the same.

 

Having said all of this, and aside from the confusion of the dual narrative, I did find the characters quite charming, and I especially liked the character of Jude, given her superstitious tendencies, such as purposely uncovering all mirrors, which could be quite amusing. However, Noah’s difficulty ‘fitting in’ with everyone else makes him likeable, too, and the way that he refers to real life events with names of paintings is actually quite endearing as we can see that this is not necessarily normal behaviour for a boy his age.

 

Additionally, the fact that this story features a gay, teenage, love story is definitely a positive. Nelson portrays this relationship very well, treating it as something completely normal and acceptable, encouraging her young audience to pursue whatever feels right for them. I also loved the short quotes from the twins’ grandmother, showing snippets of wisdom, or perhaps simply superstition, such as ‘To reverse destiny, stand in a field with a knife pointed in the direction of the wind.’In fact, I did smile to myself every time I stumbled upon one of these quotes and they are one of the main reasons that I continued to read.

 

I think it would be difficult for me to say whether or not I recommend this book, but I would not say that it is a must-read. Perhaps for young teenagers, it would fulfill all of their expectations for a book, but I think that for me, it had a little bit of an identity crisis: colloquial language mixed with a (fairly) complex narrative style. The only advice that I could give would be to read this book and decide for yourself, you may be able to overlook some of the elements that irritated me.

 

Reasons To Stay Alive- Matt Haig

I wouldn’t usually choose this sort of book to read for pleasure, but given the recent panic surrounding exams (which are, thankfully, now finished), a book entitled Reasons To Stay Alive appealed to me massively, considering my life seemed to consist of little more than the library.

 

I was thankful that it wasn’t simply a self-help book, with pages and pages of advice about what to do when you are feeling a little ‘under the weather’, or how to take control of yourself in a stressful situation, usually given by someone who may have qualifications in such a field, but doesn’t necessarily have any first-hand experience of what having anxiety or a panic attack or depression actually feels like. Instead, it was more a mixture of the story Haig’s own battle with mental illness, how the recovered version of him looks at the suffering version, and the occasional list. Each chapter, or rather, section, was short and accessible- perfect if the reader is actually suffering a mental illness, as it doesn’t feel overwhelming.

 

However, the most refreshing element of this book was that it was shot through with humour. Mental illness is often dealt with a little at arm’s length, as people are constantly scared of offending those who suffer from it, but when it is written by a sufferer, especially a recovered sufferer, it is different. Haig wasn’t afraid to admit that parts of his depression were, at times, humorous and that there were things that he did that made it worse and could have been avoided. He also admits that sufferers tend to hold onto their illness as a sort of safety blanket, which sounds completely ridiculous, but is something that I can completely relate to.

 

Interestingly, Reasons To Stay Alive isn’t just a self-help book for those who suffer from mental illness. I think it would be equally useful for relatives, friends and colleagues (or anyone else who has regular contact with someone suffering from depression)  to read. Haig manages to put the feeling of mental illness into words, or at least into lists, which means that people can become familiar with the warning signs and what they should and shouldn’t do to improve the situation.

 

What I think that is wonderful is that the acknowledgements and referencing information at the end of the book truly reveal how much writing this book meant to him- after all, he does claim it played a role in his road to recovery. He shows his determination to give every source to which he refers to the appropriate credit, as well as thanking everyone who made the book possible, which proves what the rest of the book tells us: that he is trying to be as genuine as possible. I think that being genuine is the most necessary aspect of a book that deals with such a matter: mental illness has no place for pretense or pretention.

 

I would recommend this book to anyone and everyone, regardless of whether or not they have suffered from mental illness, or if anyone they know has. The sad thing is that it is an illness that no one is or can ever be immune from, which means that reading and learning about it are the only precautionary steps one can take, and I have yet to read anything that books it in such an accessible and accurate way.

The Versions of Us- Laura Barnett

This book has been compared to David Nicholls’ One Day, of which I was a massive fan, so, naturally, I had high hopes. Actually, when I began reading The Versions of Us, I was pleasantly surprised.

 

It has the same friendly tone, shot through with humour, as the novel it was likened to, which was charming and beckoned me to continue turning the pages. I also liked the different ‘versions’ of each chapter, which were, I initially thought, clearly not paying much attention, were told from the point of view of different characters involved. However, I quickly learned that the ‘versions’ soon became more than simply points of view.

 

The novel tells the story of Eva and Jim, both students at Cambridge. However, it tells their story in a way that I haven’t come across in a book before, and I can’t quite work out if I liked it, or if it confused me a little- even though, I suppose, it was clearly signposted on the page of each new chapter. The Versions of Us follows Eva and Jim and the three ways in which their lives could have turned out after their original meeting. Each version differs in terms of what happens and how the characters feel, but what is clear in all versions is the deep connection between the two, that really got to me as a reader, rooting for them the whole time.

 

What I liked about the novel is its recognition that everything we, or others around us, say or do, can have an effect on the way the rest of our day, week, year, life could turn out. This is something I always think about myself, about whether things would be different if one day I had just made that earlier tube, or if the queue hadn’t been quite so long in the supermarket, and I found it interesting to actually have been mapped out into words by Barnett.

 

The only downside to this type of narrative, is that they can become confusing, as the reader forgets who exists in which version and what the role might be in another. Because of this, I do think that reading this book in the physical form is the most useful as it allows you to quickly flick back to find out. Having said that, I suppose the inability to double check who characters are sort of adds to the excitement of the story and the sense of not knowing what might happen next.

 

On the subject of characters, some did feel a little flat, as if they needed to be in the story, but hadn’t properly been developed- Miriam, for example. However, I do suspect that this is more as a result of the style of narrative as opposed to any incapability on the author’s part, and that fully developing every character could have resulted in a very long book with even more complications.

 

Overall, I would recommend this as a sheer result of the narrative style, as it is very different to many novels I have read. In spite of the fact that I didn’t really become as involved in the plot, once again, probably out of the style, as I did with One Day, I did still care what was happening. I think that patience is definitely required if you are to read The Versions of Us, and you won’t be disappointed.

The Crying Of Lot 49- Thomas Pynchon

I chose The Crying Of Lot 49 because I wanted something a little different, and I definitely was not let down. Different is one way to describe the 140 or so pages during which I rarely knew what was actually happening. But that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. I don’t think.

 

I just felt as if I was being led along a really strange journey, which was actually kind of refreshing and certainly kept me on my toes! This book is not an easy read with a predictable plot that you could easily dip in and out of, which is fairly characteristic for many of Pynchon’s works.  You definitely need to pay at least some attention in order to understand how each of the bizarre characters fit into the narrative. However, even when you are paying attention they don’t exactly fit in, given that only a handful of characters are consistent throughout the narrative, with the rest seeming to simply make cameos at various point.

 

What I did really like was Pynchon’s weaving of cultural references into the plot and, while I didn’t necessarily understand them all, given that they are American and around 50 years old, it certainly made for a rich narrative. The book also reflects the effects that the increase in drug use at the time had on society, which further contributes to the weirdness (for lack of a better word) of the book. This meant that even if I didn’t always understand what was supposed to be happen, it was evident that Pynchon knew exactly.  These cultural references, when combined with the odd characters, meant that the novella was also packed with humour.

 

However, the book isn’t simply a chaotic journey filled with a few humorous references, Thomas Pynchon’s intelligence is made very clear for its entirety. The fact that most character names are puns (such as Mike Fallopian or Dr. Hilarius), and the constant play on language throughout the narrative is just some evidence for this intelligence.

 

If you’re looking for a book that is perhaps a little out of your comfort zone, The Crying Of Lot 49 will certainly fit the brief. It is important to keep with it though, and to give it time- it is a short book, which means it isn’t impossible to stay focused on, even if you find your attention waning. I would recommend this book, not so much because I fell in love with the narrative, but I think Pynchon has an incredibly intelligent way of writing, and it was interesting to read something that was completely different to anything I had read in the past, or will probably read in the future.