Messy, Throbbing Hearts: A Review of When We Collided by Emery Lord

When We Collided by Emery Lord (Bloomsbury, January 2016) is the story of Vivi and Jonah, two teenagers who meet and fall in love in the space of a dramatic summer. I never usually copy and paste book summaries but, on this occasion, I’m going to let the blurb from NetGalley speak for me:

Seventeen year old Jonah Daniels has lived in Verona Cove, California, his whole life, and only one thing has ever changed: his father used to be alive, and now he’s not. Now Jonah must numbly take care of his family as they reel from their tragedy. Cue next change: Vivi Alexander, new girl in town. Vivi is in love with life. A gorgeous and unfiltered hurricane of thoughts and feelings. She seems like she’s from another planet as she transforms Jonah’s family and changes his life. But there are always consequences when worlds collide…

This neatly sums up the two distinct voices that narrate the novel, as well as providing a handy way to summarise my own issues with the book. First of all, I felt really immersed in Jonah’s parts of the story; the difficulty of acting like a grown-up, caring for three younger siblings, at the age of just seventeen provides plenty of pathos, and Emery Lord manages this without creating excess sentiment. It’s a sad situation, but it’s a sad situation which the older kids in the family are dealing with, and I liked that; I also felt for their mother, who is incapacitated with grief and presumably riddled with guilt at effectively abandoning her family. I liked Jonah; I wanted good things to happen to him.

I worry about sounding like a terrible person when I say this, and I wonder if this view collided.pngresults from being 32 and having been in and witnessed unhealthy relationships, but I felt from the start that Vivi wasn’t going to lessen Jonah’s emotional load. Her own problems are subtly introduced, but evident if you think closely about the erratic nature of her language. And I’m not a complete sociopath; I sympathised with Vivi and wanted to send my sage and helpful words of emotional support through my Kindle screen and into her brain, but I still found her a bit exhausting. I’ve seen When We Collided compared to All the Bright Places, which I get, but my feelings about Finch and Violet were quite different.

Saying that, I respect the different ways in which When We Collided shows the reader mental illness, making the subtle point that nearly everyone will be affected by these issues in some way, whether directly or indirectly.  The characters’ reflections are immensely quotable on the subject; Jonah, for instance, says, “I won’t hustle my mom out of pain she earned” and Vivi is impassioned and eloquent in proclaiming, “To the deepest, most cellular level of my being, I resent people who believe that depression is the same as weakness, that “sad” people must be coddled like helpless toddlers.” I’ve been involved in Twitter chats recently about mental illness representation in YA fiction, and When We Collided deserves its place in these discussions; it really makes you think about your response to the characters and what they endure, unquestionably drawing an empathic reaction. I had a realisation midway through that Vivi has a lot of similarities with Blanche Dubois, from Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire; both have an emotional connection to their appearance, both have manifested their emotional issues in their behaviour with the opposite sex, and both are likely to provoke diverse reactions. For example, Vivi telling Jonah, “I don’t know how you can live in the same house as someone who is heartbroken without sensing it… I can smell heartbreak on a person. It smells like incense, sweet but burned” could come right from one of Blanche’s speeches; the sense that both have lived through the emotional ringer is what really links them.

When We Collided is definitely worth reading. It is emotionally affecting, with realistically nuanced characters, from the main protagonists to the peripheral cast of siblings and grown-ups. Throughout, I was reminded of the quote often attributed to Plato but quite clearly not actually said by him:be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle. If this book makes readers more conscious of each other’s hard battles, Emery Lord will have achieved something impressive.

Top Ten Tuesday: Characters and Literary Figures I’d Name My Children After


This week, Top Ten Tuesday is having a “freebie” week, which means I get to pick whatever I like. By coincidence, the exact topic I have been yearning for is up in a couple of weeks anyway, so I looked through the list of past topics on The Broke and The Bookish and scrolled down until I found this gem.

Before commencing, I should issue a disclaimer of sorts: I have incredibly weird taste in names. I also already have a child, who, to prove my previous point, is named after a film about a pregnant teenager (it’s also the name of a vengeful Roman goddess, so either way, you get my point). If you read these names and think, “this woman needs to be jailed before she inflicts these monikers on innocent infants,” don’t worry: one is plenty for me!

10. Fitzwilliam (after Mr Darcy, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice)
Most people don’t know Mr Darcy even has a first name but he does and this is it. I have always thought this was an awesome name because a child called Fitzwilliam could be Fitz for short. Then my sister pointed out at least two rude words which rhymed with it and said he’d get bullied at school. What a sad world we live in.

9. Ismene (from Sophocles’ Antigone)
If you read the disclaimer at the start, you’ll realise I have no sense of what is genuinely inappropriate in the naming of a child. Hence my belief that it would be socially acceptable to name a baby after a product of incest whose siblings all died tragically.

8. Albany (from Shakespeare’s King Lear)
Everyone in King Lear is pretty reprehensible, apart from Albany, Kent and Edgar: the last three standing at the end when everybody has died tragically. Kent almost sounds like a swear-word and he announces that he’s basically too sad about Lear dying to be any use anyway, so I’m obviously not naming non-existent kids after him. Albany, however, is a dude; having been royally cuckolded by Goneril (not an acceptable name, even to me) throughout, the play’s end sees Albany assuming the role of Total Badass, taking names and basically tidying up everyone else’s shit. He is cool.

7. Hero (from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing)
Hero is much less fun than Beatrice, who gets all the best lines, but she has a far prettier name. And children should be given something to live up to in order to ensure they don’t waste their lives.

6. Tennessee (after Tennessee Williams)
Before my daughter was named after the pregnant teenager, she was going to be called Tennessee. Mainly after the state, but also because I love Tennessee Williams and had managed to conceal from my husband what an inappropriate person he would be to name a child after. Sadly, someone decided Tennessee was too hard for a child to spell (I think that someone actually thought it would be too hard for him to spell) and that’s how she ended up with a name that nobody thinks is even a word.

5. Sylvia (after Sylvia Plath)
Yes, I clearly think it is a good plan to name children after writers with psychological problems who killed themselves. Sylvia was vetoed from the middle name suggestion list for my daughter by that fascist I’m married to. Apparently the pregnant teenager thing is fine, but calling her after someone who bites people’s faces at first meetings is too much.

4. Quincey (after Quincey Morris in Bram Stoker’s Dracula)
Quincey is my favourite of the Vampire Death Squad in Dracula. He’s from Texas so he’s super-chill, probably lives on a ranch and is the best one. My Head of Faculty has a cat called Quincey so it would be kind of weird to call a child this, but it is an equally good name for a feline, I suppose.

3. Enjolras (after the character from Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables)
I love Enjolras. All his revolutionary angst gives me feelings I’d prefer not to discuss publicly. He’s also awesome in the musical and I would quite happily die in the French Revolution if he asked me to. Imagine being a baby called Enjolras! I am pretty sure that kid would thank me as soon as he was old enough to speak.

2. Mina (after Mina Harker in Stoker’s Dracula)
Yes, more Dracula, and another name I genuinely would call a human. I am not making any more humans though, so we are getting a kitten and calling her Mina. Mina the kitten, despite probably not actually having been born yet, has been a fixture in this house for some time. The child likes to pretend to be Mina, I think in order to test out my responses to various potential cat-situations. It is intense.

  1. Eponine (after the character from Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables)
    Look, I’m just REALLY into Les Miserables, okay? And Eponine is the best character in the whole damn thing. She’s a sneaky thief, and who doesn’t love one of them? Her parents are horrendous, so it’s really easy to sympathise with her. And she’s in love with Marius, who inexplicably doesn’t realise this and gets off with Cosette instead, which is one of the worst decisions a literary character has ever made, but does mean the song ‘On My Own’ was written, thus giving me something to wail along to when I was at uni and everybody else was out having fun or something. I would ABSOLUTELY call a child or possible subsequent cat Eponine. So don’t steal it.

Do you have wildly inappropriate ideas for the naming of hypothetical children? Please tell me in the comments so I know I’m not alone. If you are so inspired by my naming skills that you want to use any of these, I won’t demand visitation rights or anything. I’m chill like that.

Little Miss Wildeonmyside on BabyLit (aka the best kids’ books ever)

babylit pile.jpgI’ve not blogged about children’s books before but I feel an increasing urge to do so in order to compose some kind of love letter to the BabyLit series. If you are a lover of the classics and have a small person in your life (or have friends who do and you’d like to show off how cultured you are), you need BabyLit.

The BabyLit books are beautiful and incredibly cool board books, which makes them ideal for encouraging a grabby-handed baby to memorise the names of all the Bennett sisters, and equally perfect for a three-year-old who has recently become obsessed with the game ‘School for Cuddlies,’ in which the full troop of soft toys are educated in important topics like the flowers in The Secret Garden and the noises made in The Hound of the Baskervilles.

I have been collecting these books since my daughter was a baby; it has become something of a running joke in my house that these books are clearly for me and not, in fact, her. The afore-mentioned game has changed this, because she can easily pick up the concepts in the books; in most of them, there is very little text on each page, making it easy for a little one to begin to recognise short words, letters and numbers. Jennifer Adams does a brilliant job of breaking down classic works like Moby Dick and Don Quixote into simple concepts, while still maintaining the spirit of the traditional texts.

Juno BabyLit.jpg

Aside from this, they are just obscenely beautiful books. Alison Oliver’s artwork is insanely gorgeous; I would like to wallpaper my house in her illustrations. Or have them tattooed on my face or something. I would sincerely like throw cushions, curtains, perhaps car stickers with these pictures on. People need to see the beauty.

I am that person who buys new babies books and I always like to include something from BabyLit. Usually Dracula. This one is my favourite because of how it takes a creepy adult novel and uses its key concepts without scaring small children or undermining Stoker’s novel. This one is a great example of why BabyLit books are the Toy Story of children’s publishing; fun and entertaining for tiny humans, equally fun and entertaining for the parents.

In case all this has whetted your appetite, you can already pre-order the next in the series – Les Misérables and A Midsummer Night’s Dream – and if you want to be as cool as me, you have already done so.

Just to make it clear, I have paid for every BabyLit book in my house and am writing this for no other reason than that I bloody love these books and I want the people who make them to make millions and win a Nobel Prize.

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The Blood is the Life! Some Thoughts on Dracula

dracula.jpgDracula is one of the great gothic novels: if not the great gothic novel. It’s hard to over-estimate its impact on gothic literature and horror; the vampire figure has now become so ubiquitous (thanks, Twilight) that a modern reader is inclined to find more that is camp and comical about Stoker’s opus than that which is terrifying.

All of which makes it something of a tricky novel to teach, as I have discovered in recent months. What possessed me to start the A-level course with a 420-page 19th century novel is entirely another question; nothing says “fun” to a 16-year-old like a book so chunky they can’t even fit it in their bag. For a modern reader, there’s also something faintly laughable about much of the book; for example, Jonathan Harker’s letters in the opening chapters are less likely to inspire sympathy than irritated cries of “he’s obviously a bloody vampire, you moron.” But Stoker popularised, if not invented, so much of what we commonly accept as “obvious” ideas about vampires that we do Harker and the rest of the characters a disservice by assuming their knowledge is as developed as ours.

There is much that I really love about Dracula; I have a deeply held affection for Dr Seward and, if I was Lucy, I would marry him ahead of boring Arthur Holmwood. I would, however, have a harder choice between Seward and the amazing Quincey Morris, who is such a weirdly chilled-out character amongst all the supernatural drama that I sometimes wonder what he’s doing in the book at all. As the plot moves forward and Lucy’s transformation must be first reversed and then avenged, I also love the developing team dynamic between her suitors as well as Dr Van Helsing, Harker and the inestimable Mina – more on her in a minute. In guiding my students through the text, I have taken to annotating the highlights of this theme with #squadgoals, which is obviously extremely hilarious and knowing in lessons, but something I am now concerned about seeing used in an essay (I once described the linguistic technique “fronting” to a class as “Yoda-speak” and then saw the latter term replicated in a worrying number of exam practice essays). Undoubtedly, one of the main reasons for Dracula’s continuing popularity is the fact that it is, at times, genuinely quite frightening; the most effective of which, I think, is the arrival of Dracula’s ship at Whitby in the midst of almost-suffocating fog, with the dead captain tied to the wheel. I suppose these days we are too desensitised to some of the intended scary moments here – the death of Lucy’s mother and the moment when the Vampire Death Squad confront vampire Lucy in the graveyard – which is a bit of a shame; I think you have to put yourself in the frame of mind to be willingly chilled by what happens in Dracula, and much of the gothic canon.

My principle issue with Dracula is probably a well-worn path and can be summed up using one of the my favourite phrases: DAMN PATRIARCHY.  This is something else which I am known to use in lessons, just in case the exam question is ‘Explore all the ways in which Dracula is an engagingly sexist novel’. Firstly, Lucy exists solely for everyone to fall in love with. She is constantly described as sweet and beautiful and, worse, as “poor child,” simultaneously patronising and infantilising her. The main reason everyone gets upset that she’s “ill” (for which, read: has been bitten by a vampire nobody knows about yet) is that it makes her less attractive and, when vampire Lucy is finally vanquished, they all just seem relieved that she’s hot again. Worse is the treatment Stoker metes out to Mina, who is one of my favourite characters of Victorian fiction. Despite having passivity forced upon her early on, as she stays at home and worries about Jonathan, Mina quickly emerges as the best character in the whole book (don’t disagree with me about this. You know I’m right), desperately trying to protect Lucy, throwing a similar amount of effort into saving Jonathan from his own mind. Were it not for Mina, the narrative couldn’t exist; it is she who transcribes much of the story, painstakingly writing out Seward’s journals, rewriting Jonathan’s own letters and diaries and, of course, keeping her own communications in order to tell the whole story. As they didn’t have photocopiers in 1897, Mina clearly also writes the whole thing out more than once, as assorted copies of the dossier exist at various points. And what does Mina get for her troubles? She gets to be the secretary in a team of vampire hunters. Wow, Bram. Just wow. She also gets patronised with amazingly sexist comments about how she has “a man’s brain” and told she’s basically really brave for a girl. All the men are obsessed with keeping her safe and what happens? She gets bitten by Dracula! Because she is surrounded by idiots. Mina deserves better. Frankly, I’ve always felt she deserves Quincey, because he is cool and can probably ride a horse.

My other small complaint is the ending. The last hundred pages or so are really, really exciting, with everyone racing around trying to kill Dracula and save the world, and then, once the job is done, Stoker clearly thinks, “hurray, I’m finished. Time to have my beloved stolen by Oscar Wilde” or something” (by the way, this particular literally love triangle is completely a thing). Perhaps some of Van Helsing’s waffling and split infinitives in the middle could have been omitted in favour of a more satisfying conclusion.

Dracula is, and deserves to be a stone-cold classic. It is too long and it makes you want to give Mina a copy of The Female Eunuch or something, but it thoroughly merits its place in the classics canon.

I’m participating in the 2016 Classics Challenge, hosted by Stacey at The Pretty Books. This was my second classic of 2016; the first was Thomas Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree, which I reviewed here.