The Time Quintet by Madeleine L’Engle

A Wrinkle in Time (1962)

“It was a dark and stormy night.” The first book in the Time Quintet is the most well-known and recognizable. The book is classified as “science fantasy,” which is to say, science-fiction but also with elements of fantasy (the three traveler-guides who are often perceived as types of witches, for example, though I would argue this is a misreading). Of the five books in the series, this one is often rated as “third best,” for whatever that is worth, but I think it is my favorite. Partly, I must admit, this is nostalgia. I grew up with this story, it was my sister’s favorite, and I read it before reading any of the others (this was a re-read). That being said, if I am being honest, it is probably not the best of the five. What it lacks in, say, plot, it makes up for in other places, though, such as characterization. L’Engle understands how to draw a character in clear and in subtle ways. We know who the protagonist Meg is; her actions are not always noble, but they are always consistent to her character and ultimately work toward the good. We know who young Charles Wallace, the special genius, is, and how a boy wonder, untested, might find his first challenge is a struggle with his own ego; and we know who Calvin is, and why he belongs with the others despite not being one of their siblings. Without this first installment, I would find it difficult to understand or care about any of the characters in the later books, including An Acceptable Time, which deals with a new protagonist and, for the first time, the first-hand experiences of the Murry parents. I also much prefer the three mysterious guides, Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which, far more than the guides in any of the later books (although Gaudior the Unicorn from A Swiftly Tilting Planet might come close). Ultimately, what I love about this book is its unabashed embracing of science, including the wonder and, yes, the magic of reality, great and small. It also introduces a common theme to be explored in later books: the nature of good and evil, moral and immoral, selflessness and selfishness. If I have one complaint, it is the ending – where did they go? And why don’t we see them again? (Who? Read the book.) My Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0.   

A Wind in the Door (1973)

“If someone knows who he is, really knows, then he doesn’t need to hate.” This second in the series picks up not long after the first. It takes the elements of morality (one might even say the human soul) and science, and merges them together in seemingly impossible ways. What if we could connect every single element of all that we know, from the grand scale of the full universe to the smallest, most miniscule and unobservable atom within us, and discover that they function in a delicate relationship? In this second book, L’Engle’s exploration of religious faith (particularly Christian) and its co-existence with scientific fact begins to come more clearly into focus. Suddenly, the books begin to speak as spiritual tracts and as scientific treatises. Who does that? Well, not many, and perhaps this is what has so fascinated readers of this series for so very long, the idea that one need not prefer or subordinate a belief system to a scientific understanding of the universe, or vice versa. Of the five books in the series, I think this one is the most interesting and in some ways the most playful, as it has a Magic School Bus for grown-ups kind of attitude about it; however, the story gets repetitive at points, and the dénouement, though rather beautiful, is a bit rushed and anti-climactic. Characterization also gives way to plot and purpose, in this case, which is why I think it is important to start with A Wrinkle in Time, otherwise we might care about what is happening to Charles Wallace, but we might not understand Meg’s and Calvin’s actions quite as well. (The introduction of the anti-hero principal, though, was both funny and powerfully moving).  My Verdict: 3.25 out of 4.0.

A Swiftly Tilting Planet (1978)

“People are afraid of knowledge that is not yet theirs.” Of the five books in this series, A Swiftly Tilting Planet is my least favorite. It jumps ahead in time by 7 or 8 years, and gives us Charles Wallace, at 15, as protagonist. The premise is absolutely fascinating: the world is on the brink of destruction, and only by visiting important moments of the past and making the one single change, at the precise right moment, will that destruction be avoided. Charles Wallace, via, somehow, Calvin O’Keefe’s mother, becomes a time traveler, with the help of an ancient Celtic rune and a magic, time-traveling unicorn named Gaudior. The one thing I found most irksome about this installment was its repetition. An evil force from A Wind in the Door is re-introduced, and the pattern Meg and Calvin followed on the tiniest scale as set in the last installment, is now followed by Charles Wallace, but in a much grander way, through time and space rather than at the cellular level, within a human body. Gaudior is funny at times, and while not emotive, he eventually becomes a kind of friend and protector for Charles Wallace. The historical episodes introduced, and the patterns of mythologies traced from the ancient Celts to the Native Americans, down to South America, and finally to present-day New England, is definitely thrilling. The fact that much of the mystery unfolds through discoveries made in textual evidence, like books and journals, also tugs at the heart-strings of any reader/writer. But the flow is choppy and Charles Wallace is, in my opinion, not well-served by the manner in which he travels. He is much too much an interesting character to have been relegated to a type of “body snatcher” whose experience is actually related through Meg’s psychic connection with him. That said, L’Engle continues her pursuit of bridging the world’s mythologies with scientific and technological advancements in an effort to highlight the ethics and morality, and necessary limitations, of intellectual pursuits, as well as human hubris. My Verdict: 3.0 out of 4.0.  

Many Waters (1986)

“In the coolness just before morning she liked to go sit on one of the great exposed rocks and rest, and listen to the slow song of the setting stars.” Sandy and Dennys Murry, the brilliant but practical siblings in a genius but often impractical family, finally get their adventure in this fourth installment, and it is one of the best. Although the fourth book in the series, this one is actually set between A Wind in the Door and A Swiftly Tilting Planet. The children are all still living at home, but when everyone else is away for the day, the twins–messing irresponsibly with their mother’s experiment–accidentally transport themselves to another time, which they mistake as a distant and different planet. The people are shorter, the language is different, the sun is hotter, the land dryer, and the technology non-existent. When Sandy and Dennys are discovered by the natives of this brave new world, which turns out to be their own ancient world, they are mistaken for giants or angels. Readers soon discover this is because both giants and angels exist in this time, and in this place, which is the land of Canaan just before the flood. In this antediluvian setting, Sandy and Dennys must figure out both what their purpose is in being there—was it God’s plan?—and also how to get home before the Nephilim, the fallen angels, decide they are too dangerous to their plans for world domination. With a little help from Noah’s family and the Seraphim, the teenagers manage to mend Noah’s relationship with his father and essentially save the entire human race. L’Engle makes a clear turn toward not just mythologies/faith systems in general, but the Christian religion (readers familiar with the Book of Genesis will recognize a lot of familiar names and places). Again, science and faith work together to tell a cohesive tale, rather than competing with each other in a dichotomy. Of the five books in this series, Many Waters is the most distinct, though it does reference events in prior books, and it is the most patient and complete of the stories; it never feels rushed, nor does it end too soon. My Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0.

An Acceptable Time (1989)

“I’m grateful every day that I can read and write. I don’t underestimate knowledge. But we get into trouble when we confuse it with truth.” In this final installment of the Time Quintet, L’Engle takes us a generation into the future, installing as her protagonist, Meg and Calvin’s daughter, Polly. Once again, L’Engle demonstrates her mastery of character: she understands who these people are, how they think, and what are their motivations. This is fortunate because some of the characters re-appearing from the previous novels are treated more fully, here, and we realize they are not necessarily what we expected. Are the brilliant Drs. Murry really so narrow-minded? Does the fact that they are grandparents, now, make them more cautious over Polly than they were over their own children, or were they simply not accepting the reality of their children’s adventures in the first place? After getting this far into the series, it was a surprise to be surprised by some of these characters’ actions, but in understanding their motivations, things turn out to be rather consistent after all. In addition to the Drs. Murry, we are introduced to Zachary, a semi-romantic interest for Polly, whose personality and described physiognomy are alarming from the first. He, too, remains rather consistent throughout, even to the point of disgusting the reader. In contrast are the Bishop and the native people, whom Polly and the Bishop (and Zachary) meet when a centuries’-old time circle overlaps their own, so that they can cross the time-space barrier. In this way, L’Engle again manages to place at the center of her story a discussion of religion (monotheism and polytheism, mythologies, druids, modern Christianity) with scientific possibilities. Most importantly, L’Engle explores the concepts of charity and forgiveness. What does it take to forgive someone who has committed the ultimate betrayal? The nature of evil, too, is treated with more finesse and complexity. Is it fair to call what is seemingly necessary, evil? While most of the original young cast of characters is absent from this tale, Polly is a wonderful addition: curious, gracious, flawed. Her journey to understand the universe, to understand faith, and to understand people & human nature, makes for an interesting and complex finale to a series that asks these questions consistently throughout. My Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0.

Ultimately, I have to say that I am thrilled to have finally read this entire series. I most appreciate that L’Engle finds equal space for religious and scientific exploration, without making these antithetical the way so many do, as if we must choose one way or the other. Even though I do not follow her faith, I think this is a unique success for her series. Also, for the longest time, I had no idea that A Wrinkle in Time had even one sequel, let alone four! I do eventually want to read the related novels that deal with some of the same cast (and I assume similar themes). Someday. For now, L’Engle’s Time Quintet has definitely made its way onto my “favorite series'” list. It hovers somewhere under Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, and His Dark Materials, but above Chronicles of Narnia and maybe even the Percy Jackson books. Gasp! 


Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper

Simon, Jane, and Barnabas Drew are on a summer trip with their parents, visiting their mysterious uncle in Trewissick, a small and ancient village, just outside the limits of Cornwall, England. It is fabled that Cornwall is the land of that once and future King, Arthur Pendragon. After discovering an ancient map in the attic of the “Grey House,” which their parents have rented for the holiday, the kids are soon sucked into events beyond their years and beyond their control. As the children are quick to discover, the village is rife with members of the “Dark” – forces who seek to find the Holy Grail and use its power for evil. The Drew siblings, with a little help and protection from their Uncle Merry (who is more than he appears) and dog Rufus, must learn to read the map, understand its clues, and find the Grail before the Dark can get to it. 
Though I enjoyed this book overall, the biggest complaint I have is its lack of character development, depth, or description. The reader spends most of his time with the three Drew children, but I for one never really got a grasp on each of their individual personalities, or even the simple things like what they look like (aside from Barney’s light-colored hair) or how old they are. Even by the end of the book, I honestly felt like I had to create their images and personalities almost entirely in my head. The mysterious Uncle Merry, too, only gets a decent description in the last few pages, though he’s had many “on page” moments. The parents are nearly entirely on the periphery, as they tend to be in many of these YA Fantasy books where the kids are the heroes, and while I felt I had a small understanding of the father, there wasn’t much for the mother (who, as an artist, could have been a wonderful opportunity). Bill Hoover Jr. and Mr. and Miss Withers were okay, as was Hastings and Mrs. Palk. Still, these were characters who were all, in some way, antagonistic toward the main characters, and only as effective as in relation to the Drew children, who were sadly under-developed.

Fortunately, though the book lacked depth and growth in its characters, it was very well written. The prose is engaging and a bit challenging (in a good way); more so than, say, the Chronicles of Narnia series, which is likely written for the same age group and for readers of similar interests. Dialogue is spot on, too, and Cooper does a nice job of linking characters’ thoughts or dialogue with facial expressions, body movements, etc. When Rufus the dog is scared or angry, for instance, it is described both in the physical manifestations, as well as the sounds and actions the dog makes. There is a bit more “telling” than showing, where human characters are involved, but not so much so as to be distracting or to detract from the enjoyment of the plot in action.

What completely surprised me about this book, because it was not hinted at in the book’s description, was that the crux of the fantasy element and good v. evil power struggle in this book is the Arthurian legend. The legend of Merlin and Arthur, the quest for the Holy Grail and its disappearance, etc., is something I am fascinated with in general. So, when I discovered that this is where the book was leading, the plot became suddenly much more interesting and enjoyable. Having this legend as the driving force for the story also added a deeper level of meaning for the fantasy itself; battles between good and evil, with supernatural elements, magical beings, ancient languages and all, can be and often are very interesting motivators for a fantasy plot, but when those elements are interwoven with another ancient legend, and those specific elements of the legend start to play out in the new story’s plot (which takes place centuries later), it’s a different kind of magic. It reminds me of what Riordan does with his mythology series’ (Percy Jackson, The Kane Chronicles, etc.) – using modern places and events + contemporary storytelling to retell the ancient Greek and Egyptian myths. Susan Cooper is doing the same with the Arthurian Legend, and it’s groovy.

Final Verdict: 3.0  out of 4.0


Recent Fiction Reads: Goosebumps, Boy, and The Book of Dust

Welcome to Dead House by R.L. Stine (3.0 out of 5.0) 

Welcome to Dead House is the first book in the infamous Goosebumps series by R.L. Stine. This one tells the tale of two young siblings and their parents. The family move to a new town after mysteriously inheriting a house from some long-lost family member. The book is typical Goosebumps: fast-paced, thrilling, a little spooky, and a little silly.

I used to read this series all the time as a kid. In fact, these books and The Hardy Boys books are pretty much all I read as a kid (with some of those Choose Your Own Adventure novels thrown into the mix every so often). I was actually not much of a reader at all when I was young (shocking to consider, now!) but the R.L. Stine books always kept my attention. Although I’ve read a number of the series, I somehow missed this one, which is a shame because it is good fun and it is the inaugural tale. 

For younger readers especially, those in the Middle Grade range, this book is bound to be a favorite. At the center of the action is a pair of curious and brave siblings. The primary antagonists are also kids, so the battle of “good versus evil” in this strange new town is, for the most part, taken up by children. What could be more fun for young readers?

Boy by James Hanley (3.5 out of 5.0)

I do not even know where to begin with this book. It is some remarkable work of melodramatic modernism, which really should not work, but does. According to the book’s introduction, this book was suppressed for more than 50 years. The publisher was prosecuted for obscenity, and readers will not find it hard to understand why that would be (considering the original publication was in the 1930s). I was torn throughout reading this between loving it and hating it, between being rather enthralled and being completely bored. These feelings remain unresolved even now, weeks after having finished it. 

That being said, there are a few points that are without dispute. First, Hanley is a wonderful writer who can turn a beautiful phrase and who is far bolder than many of his contemporaries were at the time. His modernism is the bold and brass American type, tackling difficult issues in a bleak and straightforward style. This, contrasted against the British modernists, is a kind of relief. Hanley often fails, too, in his story-telling. He overloads the pathos of nearly ever situation. Yes, certainly many of the scenes should evoke pathos. The “boy” at issue in this story is, after all, raped on numerous occasions, by older boys and older men. His plight is that of the age-old plight of the lower class: he is a brilliant young man with ambition and potential, whose parents force him into near-servitude, which breaks his spirit even despite his best efforts to free himself and find a new path. Throughout it all, he keeps his awful parents in mind and tries to make it for himself, and for them. 

As a narrative, Boy, is not the most compelling read. But as a critique on caste systems, poverty, child labor, and the abuses of the poor, it is a rather remarkable accomplishment. It seems Hanley experienced a similar life and put much of his general biography into the novel, though he denies that anything that happened to “boy” really happened to him. One has to wonder if Hanley was being truthful about that. 

The Book of Dust by Philip Pullman (5.0 out of 5.0)

Having finally finished the original Pullman trilogy, called His Dark Materials and including The Golden Compass, The Amber Spyglass, and The Subtle Knife, I was thrilled to learn that Pullman was at work on a  new trilogy called La Belle Sauvage. The first book in the series, The Book of Dust, released just a month ago, and I got my hands on it as soon as humanly possible! 

What I could not anticipate about the new series, or at least this first installment in that series, is how much more enjoyable I would find it than the originals. I honestly do not think that has ever happened before, but Pullman manages it. I found Malcolm Polstead to be an incredibly interesting young narrator, and his relationship with his daemon, Asta, was as beautiful and touching as the relationship created between Lyra and Pantalaimon. 

This new series seems to have a bit more action than the originals, and it still walks that delicate walk between fantasy and realism. There are witches and magic, mythological creatures and underworlds; there are also lovely relationships between Malcolm and a science professor, and Malcolm and Christian Nuns who live across the river. This book, like those in the original series, continues to explore themes of physics and theology, philosophy and science, humanism and myth, and it is, like the originals, a good old-fashioned coming-of-age tale. According to Pullman, this series specifically tackles the idea of consciousness, and what are we, underneath it all. Matter? Spirit? Neither? Both? I look forward to seeing how the rest of the series continues to address the questions posed by this first installment, which tackles highly relevant and topical issues of totalitarian theocracies, the right to free thought and speech, and the dangers of a militant religious force in control of government and politics. It is reported that the next book in the series is titled The Secret Commonwealth. All I can say is, bring it on, please!

The Circle Cast by Alex Epstein

The Circle Cast: The Lost Years of Morgan Le Fay is an interesting retelling of the young life of Merlin’s arch-nemesis, Morgana. The story takes place in the late 400s; the Romans have fallen and Christianity is on the rise, reaching the superstitious, pagan-rich lands of Britain and Ireland. Young Anna, whose father is a powerful governor father and whose mother is the beautiful Ygraine, a timid witch, is forced to flee Britania from the wrath of Uter Pendgragon, who kills Anna’s father (with the help of the Enchanter) to be with and have a child by Ygraine. At sea, Anna is reborn as Morgan, and it is in Ireland that she is both enslaved and freed. She falls in love with an Irish warrior, uses her magical abilities and military background to help him rise to greatness, before leaving Ireland to return home and take vengeance upon Uter Pendgragon. Unfortunately, not everything goes according to plan, and Morgan, though victorious, will ultimately meet another great and legendary new leader instead.

The majority of the story is spent with its main character, Morgan. Fortunately, Epstein has drawn her to be rather interesting. There are inklings of Morgan’s adult personality, with which many familiar with Arthurian legend will be familiar, and Epstein allows these traits to manifest gradually and with believable impetus. Morgan’s youth and rise to power and self-discovery is satisfying, though more time spent on the magic itself (and understanding it/helping the readers to understand it) would have improved the relationship between reader and Morgan’s journey. The minor characters, too, are interesting – though many (like Uter) do not get as much page-time as one might expect. We get the sense, for instance, that Uter was a bad, power-hungry man, but there is only one hint as to why, and it comes near the very end. Still, others, like the various Irish clans, the lover-interest Conall, and the Christian colony (Salvatus, Befind, and Luan, in particular) are well-developed so as to supplement and progress Morgan’s story.

The story flows well because it is broken into logical segments and because the language and prose are conducive to the age range and maturity level of the story. Once into the story, it easy to become engrossed in it, wanting to know what will happen next. It took this reader, for example, just over two days to read the entire 300-page book. One criticism, however, is the relatively simple sentence structure. For middle grade readers this might be fine, but the story is more advanced than that, so the structure should be as well. At certain points, the short sentences certainly serves the purpose of creating a sense of action, as is true in general; however, much of the prose is made up of relatively short, simple sentences, when more complexity in the structure could have added substance, positive complication, and engagement.

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is not just that it is about Morgan Le Fay, which is a fascinating subject; in fact, one of the most interesting elements was the conflict between the budding Christian culture and the well-established but threatened pagan religions. Added with the various nationalities – the British, the Irish, the Saxons, and (in some relative respect) the Romans- the book becomes a fascinating culture study. It also tackles aspects of family, revenge, and forgiveness. This is certainly an appealing and creative re-imagining of the young life of Morgana, and one can only hope that it will be the first book in a series that will expand further on her life and times. The book’s website also contains some great background and historical information on Morgan and this era, which is a great benefit to readers who have a deeper interest.

Final Verdict: 3.0 out of 4.0


The Hollow Hills by Mary Stewart

The second installment in Mary Stewart’s Merlin Trilogy picks up just where book one, The Crystal Cave, left off. Young Merlin has assisted High King Uther Pendragon to bed Lady Ygraine, and a child has been conceived. Pendragon declares to Merlin and Ygraine that he will not claim the child as his, but that he also will not harm him (in case Uther has no other sons, the boy must be prepared and safe). Merlin is charged by Pendragon and Ygraine to take their son, Arthur, into hiding and to prepare him for his birthright, without allowing Arthur or anyone else know who he truly is and what might become of him. Emrys is given to a neighboring minor king to be cared for and raised in noble fashion, but with the burden of being labeled a bastard, as Merlin himself was labeled. As the boy grows, Merlin has taken an expedition abroad, following the path that his god has laid for him, in search of an ancient and powerful sword, Caliber (Excalibur). After his journey is completed, Merlin returns to England, where he disguises himself as a caretaker of a small chapel near to Arthur’s home. Eventually, Arthur (known as Emrys) meets the magician Myrrdin one day by “chance.” Merlin teaches the boy what little he can of magic, but also all he knows of history, culture, and legend. The time comes when Uther’s health begins to fail him and, left without a son, he must call the boy to his side.

Characterization in this particular installment of the series is more deeply explored and more effectively delivered than in its predecessor. Two major characters from The Crystal Cave, Merlin and Uther, are afforded interesting growth and development. Uther’s daughter, Morgause, also has a notable presence and, though explored rather briefly, is clearly presented as a character to watch: mysterious, cunning, and dangerous. King Lot, Uther Pendragon’s most powerful rival, and other minor characters, like Bedwyr, Arthur’s trusted friend (fashioned after Lancelot, perhaps?) also add exciting and meaningful levels to the plot, most intriguingly, at times, when they are not directly involved but referenced or alluded to. Arthur himself, as Emrys, is drawn quite well; there is something innately regal about him, though he is growing up as an orphaned boy in a relatively low-royalty home. Comparisons to Merlin and Ambrosius (Merlin’s father / Arthur’s uncle and former High King) do not go unnoticed; even as a child, Stewart writes his character in such a way as to believe that this boy could one day be a powerful and revered leader. The handling of the crux, where Emrys discovers that he is Arthur, son of Uther, is also quite nicely done and gives the reader further appreciation of Arthur’s and Merlin’s characters.

As with The Crystal Cave, I was not entirely enthralled with the story, nor was I truly excited by the magical elements, which I found to be rather lacking for a Merlin story. Still, Stewart is a good writer and a good storyteller, both of which are necessary for the effectiveness of fantasy stories in particular. Because she draws Arthur’s character so well, and because of the many ways she re-imagines the more recognizable elements of the Arthurian legend (such as the sword in the stone), The Hollow Hills remained interesting almost despite itself. Had I not been a fan of the legend already, I may not have appreciated the book as much as I did; however, even readers who are not familiar with Arthurian legend will still appreciate how well the story is written; the pace is conducive to the experience, the language is appropriate and adds fascinating elements in its own right, and the prose is fluid in an enchantingly mystical kind of way (imagine taking a lazy raft down a slow-moving river, but with vividly wonderful views of a vibrant and blooming forest on either side).

It is clear that Stewart does her research. Not only does she know the legend inside-out and back-to-front, but she also takes the time to appreciate the difficulties that readers might have in interpreting the more elusive facts or in keeping track of ancient, extinct locations and kingdoms. She recreates the story in a more linear, accessible way, but with all of the deeper, permanent elements in tact (though changed to fit a modern, skeptical reader). Stewart does away with the majority of the true fantasy elements and reinterprets the magic of Merlin as legend which is based in fact and which grew exponentially over time; the reader witnesses perfectly reasonable, scientific, and creatively man-made events give birth to the well-known stories which have stimulated young minds and imaginations for centuries. In a way, it could almost be compared to an atheist’s reading of the Bible, wherein foundations of fact would be located and re-written to explain the more divine elements. It is a commentary on the human experience, on superstition, and on man’s struggle between his desire for fact and his fascination with the inexplicable.

Final Verdict: 3.25 out of 4.0

Notable Quotes:

“To remember love after long sleep; to turn again to poetry after a year in the market place, or to youth after resignation to drowsy and stiffening age; to remember what once you thought life could hold, after telling over with muddled and calculating fingers what it has offered; this is music, made after long silence.”

“Every life has a death, and every light a shadow. Be content to stand in the light, and let the shadow fall where it will.”

“I was left kneeling there in the choking cloud of dust, with the shrouded sword held fast in my filthy and bleeding hands. From the apse, the last of the carving had vanished. It was only a curved wall, showing blank, like the wall of a cave.”

“You and I between us, Merlin, we will make such a king as the world has never known.”

Every Day by David Levithan

13262783Can you imagine yourself not as a physical being, but as an ethereal entity – a formless consciousness that floats through life from day-to-day, always looking like someone different but always knowing yourself to be the same?

Every day since birth, A wakes up in a different body. Sometimes he wakes up as a boy, sometimes she wakes up as a girl. A has no physical or biological sex, instead needing to adapt to the sex of the host body where s/he resides any particular day. S/he is capable of accessing the memories of the host bodies and can also allow (or not) that host to remember what A experiences on the day of his visit, though s/he usually chooses to block these memories so that the host will not feel as if they have been possessed or invaded. Each night, when A falls asleep in one body, s/he knows that s/he will wake up in the morning as someone entirely different.

A does have a personality, consciousness, and sense of self that is entirely individual, though s/he has no physical form, and A carries this individuality into each new day and every new body. This is the story of 40 days in the life of A – perhaps the most important 40 days that s/he will ever experience. S/he learns that s/he is perhaps not alone in this very unique experience – there may be others out there who are doomed (or blessed?) to exist only in others’ bodies. A also falls in love, for the second time, and must learn how to make a relationship work under such extraordinary circumstances or s/he must choose to make the ultimate sacrifice, for someone else’s happiness.

The two main characters are A and Rhiannon, 16 year olds who are on their own paths to self-discovery and whose encounter with each other will set the trajectories of their lives in new directions. Through A, we also witness, on the surface, the lives of dozens of other teenagers: boys and girls; popular kids and nerds; athletic kids and beautiful ones; kids who are blind, fat, depressed, alcoholic, addicts, or suffering from ADHD. We also get glimpses of their families and friends, though their stories are always in the background as A navigates their lives for one day, in pursuit of his own. The only other recurring characters include two of A’s former hosts, Justin (Rhiannon’s boyfriend and the way A comes to meet her – awkward!) and Nathan, whom A has left, perhaps purposely, with lingering feelings of his “possession” and who ultimately introduces him to Reverend Poole, the man who will change A’s perspective forever. Levithan’s primary characters are interesting individuals, as are the host bodies, all of whom are believable teenagers with varied personalities and circumstances. Viewing the characters through A, who essentially is each of them (including Rhiannon) at one point or another, creates a unique experience for the reader.

journal-011-300x200The structure of the book, too, is interesting, though not entirely unique. It is, in a way, a journal-format. Each small chapter is one day in the life of A and, indeed, the chapter titles correspond to the chronological day (such as Day 6014) in A’s life. This structure, while not entirely original, is absolutely appropriate for the type of story being told and is suitable to A’s narrative style. Levithan’s writing style, too, his prose and language, are appropriate to the age and maturity level of the narrator and also match the oftentimes didactic nature of the story. It is lofty but grounded, well-paced but reflective.

One criticism of the book is that it is at times preachy. This point is well-taken and I do agree with those who find certain elements, such as the narrative arguments for social and sexual equality, not just pointed, but sometimes heavy-handed. Levithan is an issue writer, though, and as another reviewer has aptly mentioned, issue writers are interested in making their point and, in fact, making points is necessary to their purpose. The fact that I agreed with most of the points Levithan was making (gender equality, love of the person not of the sex, etc.), made the story more interesting for me, but I can certainly see how readers who struggle or disagree with such sentiments might find the “lecture” portions of the narrative a bit jarring.

My primary point of contention comes from a particularly disturbing element of the story, which is, I believe, both indicative of the narrator’s personality but also, though I am usually reluctant to make these arguments, of the writer’s bias. Throughout the book, the narrator makes a point of being highly understanding and empathetic. Since s/he has spent his (I will stick with gendered-male pronoun from here on out, as that is ultimately how I perceived the narrator) life living inside of different bodies, it is understandable that he would be a more enlightened individual. He has been male and female, blind, deformed, ugly, and everything in-between. In each case, he makes the argument for empathy and compassion – that we should love ourselves and each other as we are and that each of us suffers from our own demons which might affect the way we treat ourselves and the way we interact with the world. A is able to build his relationship with Rhiannon, another equally enlightened young woman, whether he be in the body of a beautiful black girl, a beefy metal head, or a stringy track jock. The point is well-taken: be yourself, try to show others what is on the inside, and learn to accept others for who they truly are, not just for what they look like.

fat-thinBut then we get near the end of the book and A wakes up in the body of an obese boy. The body weighs 300 pounds and suddenly the tone changes dramatically, for the worse. This chapter, and the next one, is devoted largely not to acceptance or understanding, but to feelings of disgust and anger. It is this body, and only this one, that A is ashamed to show Rhiannon. It is this body that A blames for what it is. Unlike the addicts or depressed teenagers, whom A tries to empathize with and thereby get the reader to think more deeply about, this fat kid gets nothing but criticism – A even tries to “access” the reasons why he might be so fat, but finds only laziness as the cause. Then, after deciding to meet with Rhiannon anyway, it is after this particular meeting that Rhiannon concludes she can no longer engage in this kind of relationship, because she cannot build a relationship with someone who never looks the same. Rhiannon struggles with this all along, but with all of the other bodies, male and female, tall and short, pimpled, hairy, or beautiful, Rhiannon accepts the body. Until the fat, sweaty boy shows up and everything changes. It would be easy to say that this is just a teenage insecurity – that the author is trying to make a statement about the judgmental nature of people and youths; however, throughout the book, both A and Rhiannon, as I have already mentioned, are incredibly enlightened and accepting of all people and situations. Why, then, is this one person so different – so disgusting? Unfortunately, I feel it is a deeper bias coming from the author. He makes a point of making points in this book, as in all of his books. It would be naïve and unfair to think, then, that this, too, is anything other than his making a point: do not be fat. Fat comes from being lazy. There are no psychological or emotional reasons for obesity, it just means you eat too much and do too little. It is outrageous. Not since reading Atlas Shrugged have I been so angered by a particular element of a particular book and it saddens me that this perspective comes from Levithan who is, otherwise, a very positive, compassionate writer.

Ultimately, though, I did love this book. I found the premise incredibly interesting and thought the social/gender politics were expressed in a unique way. The story moves at a great pace, the characters and their stories are fascinating and believable. There is a fantasy element to the story which comes into play late in the book, when Reverend Poole and A finally meet, but the narrative is still grounded firmly in reality. Had it not been for the one bizarrely glaring prejudice mentioned in the paragraph above, I could have easily found this to be a perfect read. As it is, I found it, still, to be a wonderful one. Highly recommended.

Notable Quotes:

“Kindness connects to who you are, while niceness connects to how you want to be seen” (56).

“You shouldn’t have to venture deep down in order to get to love” (72).

“Tomorrow . . . a little less than a promise, and a little more than a chance” (97).

“I see no sin in a kiss. I only see sin in the condemnation” (223).

“Ultimately, the universe doesn’t care about us. Time doesn’t care about us. That’s why we have to care about each other” (320).

Interview with Merlin Author T.A. Barron!

downloadAs a big fan of T.A. Barron’s Merlin Saga series, I’m excited to announce the paperback release of Atlantis Rising, the first book in an exciting fantasy new series!  I’m even more exciting to bring you all this interview with the author.  Enjoy!

From the publisher: “With his trademark magic and adventure, T.A. Barron, international best-selling author of The Merlin Saga, has returned with a whole new mythology – the origin of the legendary isle of Atlantis.  Atlantis Rising is the first book in an exciting new trilogy that explores not how Atlantis was destroyed, but how it was born.”

Q&A with T. A. Barron on Atlantis Rising

What fascinates you most about the legend of Atlantis?

No word evokes more of a feeling of tragedy than the word Atlantis. It stands for almost, what might have been. The tale of Atlantis is such a beautiful story, and for the 2000 years since Plato first wrote about it, people have wondered and dreamed about it. But one thing that has never changed is that the island of Atlantis was utterly destroyed.  I started to wonder, though, about something else—how Atlantis began.  How did a place that rose to such a level of near perfection get destroyed by the flaws and weaknesses of its people? Ultimately, how did that happen? This big unknown question is what got me to write Atlantis Rising. I wanted to add a new thread to the tapestry of myth about Atlantis—how it all began, the secrets of its origins.

Why do you choose to write about origins of stories?

When you write about the origins of a great legend, you experience the best of two worlds. You get to tap into a wondrous emotional and mythical journey that people have celebrated and enjoyed for a long time—which is why stories persist, why people keep telling the tales about Merlin or Atlantis. At the same time though, you get the opportunity to be fresh and original. You can explore and go behind the myth to discover how and where it all began. It just might start with the most inconsequential event—a boy stealing a pie, a girl discovering something strange in the woods, or a young man washing ashore. In those small moments you may discover the beginning of an amazing adventure!

What research was involved in preparing for Atlantis Rising

Before starting this project, I read everything I possibly could about Atlantis. As I got deeper into the research, I realized not only is there an immense story of high ideals and tragic consequences, human aspirations and failures, but a wonderful mystery of how it all began. That powered me even more to want to set forth the beginning, the origins of that magical place.  In addition, I have often thought about Atlantis since visiting Greece 20 years ago—the place where the legend began.  Often, I’ve recalled the sight of that landscape, the sound of waves on those islands, and the smell of the Mediterranean air. All that will, I hope, come through for anyone who reads the Atlantis trilogy.

In the last few scenes of Atlantis Rising, we see Atlantis become an island at last, while Promi returns to the spirit world. Where does the second book start?

The second book picks up immediately after Atlantis Rising finishes.  But time works differently between Earth and the spirit realm. Quite a bit more could have happened up in the spirit realm than has happened on Atlantis.  You see, during that brief interval—which feels just like a few days on Earth—many perils have risen. Some of them are dangers that come from old enemies—enemies who want to control all the magic and power of the Earth. And some of the perils come from romance…and we all know how tricky that can be.

In Atlantis Rising, Promi, the protagonist, risks his life for Smackberry pie. What dessert would you risk everything for?

Fresh Colorado snow-covered in maple syrup.

Thanks, T.A. Barron, for stopping by to share your thoughts – and thanks to the publisher for orchestrating this opportunity.  Whether you’re a fan of Barron or new to him, I hope you’ve enjoyed his thoughts and I invite (encourage!) you to check out his books – they’re great fun!