All the Bright Places

Buy ALL THE BRIGHT PLACES by Jennifer Niven

Violet first speaks to Theodore Finch on a ledge above their Indiana high school. From below, their classmates watch as Violet talks down the strange, eccentric, rebellious boy they have all come to call Theodore Freak. She ends up a hero. And he ends up even more of a freak.

Except that’s not what really happened. She didn’t go up there to talk him down. She wasn’t even expecting to have competition for the ledge. Instead, he is the one who talks her down. When he doesn’t contradict the version of events the rest of the school chooses to believe, she reckons she owes him one. So they embark on a school project together, having been charged with finding two special places in their state that hardly anyone else will know about. But they don’t stop at two. And along the way both Violet and Finch discover they have a lot more in common besides the fact that they both felt like they had a good reason to be up on the ledge that day.

There is a constant sense of an ending about everything that happens in this novel. High school is coming to an end. Most people Violet and Finch know will soon leave their small town. Friendships are already proving to be transient. Meanwhile Violet is still dealing (or rather not dealing) with the sudden accidental death of her older sister, almost a year before.

This is the second YA novel I’ve read this year where I haven’t got on with the characters to begin with. At first Violet seems like the narrator in the same way Watson is the narrator of Sherlock Holmes stories – she’s rather passive and small, dwarfed in the imbalance created when the story starts with her meeting a character as large as Finch. He meanwhile seemed too cool to be authentic. The other characters may call him a freak, but you’d much rather be his friend than theirs.

Really, I was making the same mistake with All the Bright Places as I made with Non Pratt’s Trouble. Violet isn’t really small and passive, and Finch isn’t really this strange, cool maverick (well, not as much as he pretends to be). Those are the roles they have either been assigned or consciously adopted (or a bit of both). It’s all front, and only with each other can they let their guard down and be themselves, hurt and vulnerabilities and all.

It is a book about endings, but also about how life is full of things coming to an end, every single day – and then continuing the day after, starting afresh, in a constant state of renewal. Violet may have tried to stop the world the day her sister died, but Finch helps her to see that that’s impossible, and that she shouldn’t fight the future any more.

This book was recommended to me as being better than The Fault in Our Stars. Such claims are always going to be dangerous. But I certainly felt that Jennifer Niven’s novel was less safe than a lot of John Green’s output. Here the characters use the language real teenagers do, and talk about the kinds of things real teenagers talk about, even when that means the book isn’t very parent-friendly. Unlike Gus in The Fault in Our Stars, Finch actually lights the cigarettes he puts in his mouth. The sex in this book doesn’t need to be weighed down by resonance. As such I felt All the Bright Places was closer to recent British YA than several of its American peers – edgier, more realistic, and most importantly, more honest.

The Private Blog of Joe Cowley: Return of the Geek

Buy RETURN OF THE GEEK by Ben Davis

Joe Cowley is still sharing a bedroom with his disgusting not-really-stepbrother Gav. Still humouring his wannabe DJ mates Harry and Ad. Still dating the emo-tastic Natalie. And still recording all his trials and tribulations in his secret (for now) blog. He may be a little bit older and a little bit wiser (or so he thinks) but he’s still getting into one humiliating escapade after another too.

This second ‘anthology’ of Joe’s blog revolves around his desperate attempts at getting into Natalie’s dad’s good books. Unfortunately her ex Sebastian is doing his best at winning her back, starting by turning her dad against Joe. Seb is rich, popular and already has Natalie’s dad on his side, but Natalie still prefers Joe. Unfortunately Seb has a new ally – Lisa, the popular girl Joe dumped after she used him. She was trouble when they were together but she’s even more trouble now.

Whilst not quite as deliciously filthy as the first outing (perhaps our Joe is growing up a bit), it’s still brazenly honest, and still entirely unsuitable for (most) adults. Things are getting more complicated for Joe, but not just because Ben Davis keeps writing him into inextricably embarrassing corners and pushing him into constantly cringe-worthy encounters. I daresay many teenage boys will recognise more of themselves in this book than they do in many other, more serious YA novels.