Between the Lines by Jodi Picoult and Samantha van Leer

between the lines by jodi picoult and samantha van leer Publication year: 2012
Genre: YA fantasy
Time and place: contemporary US + the world between the pages of a book
Narrated in: first-person
First sentence:Once upon a time in a land far, far away there lived a brave king and a beautiful queen, who were so much in love that wherever they went, people stopped what they were doing just to watch them pass.
Verdict: Liked it, but it did not live up to my expectations.

Summary
Once upon a time there was a prince in a fairytale. He was smart and loyal and not very brave. And he was merely playing a part.

For as long as he can remember, Oliver has been forced to act out someone else’s words each time someone opens the book he lives in. However, when the book is closed, he and everyone else in the kingdom is free to enjoy themselves as they please and according to their own temperament. Oliver feels the pull of the “otherworld”, the place where the readers live in, a place where all the choices will forever be his own. But… how is he to ever get out there?

Enter Delilah. A fifteen years old loner, the only things she finds solace in are stories with a happy ending in general, and Oliver’s story in particular. She’s read the latter so many times that she knows everything in it by heart — which is why she’s quick to notice that one day one of the illustrations has subtly changed. This leads to her actually communicating with Oliver, and she promises to help him with his seemingly impossible quest. And still the question remains… how?

General impression
A very promising idea :) The fact that the book was co-written by an acclaimed writer and her daughter also made me quite curious — Jodi Picoult is able to write compellingly about complex characters and issues, and I was very looking forward to see this ability of hers translated in a fairy tale world. In this case however, she seems to have let her daughter take the lead: while the story has its charm, the very complexity that I was expecting and looking forward to enjoying is lacking. I have seen reviews written by young adults (the very target age) and they too were complaining that the book is too simplistic, and would have been better off marketed to an even younger audience.

In the end, it’s probably a matter of my expectations being too high. Which isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy the book at all, of course, because I definitely did.

Characters
Growing up without a father and with a mother struggling to make ends meet, Delilah feels the need to escape her own life now and then. She is very unpopular in school since she accidentally broke a cheerleader’s knee, and has almost no friends at all. One of the few pleasures she has in her life is losing herself in a story and being able to believe in a happy ending. If we add to that the fact that the story-Oliver has grown up without a father too, it is no wonder that Delilah spends so much time reading and re-reading that particular tale. Sadly, there is not much more to her than that. We know that she is quite resourceful and she doesn’t give up easily, despite hitting all sorts of roadblocks on the way. I liked that about her, of course, but she still felt like a blank canvas with no depth at times. I would have loved to see her be a teensy tiny bit more complex, perhaps.

Oliver is even more of a mystery. While his in-story persona is described in a fair amount of detail1, he insists that this is not who he actually is, that Oliver is just a part. To me however the line between the two was sort of blurred — I thought that the real Oliver too was smart and loyal and while he may be brave he lacks an opportunity to prove it. And then he insists that he’s nothing like the other Oliver and this sort of confused me to no end, because if we subtract the story Oliver’s traits from the real Oliver’s list of traits that I could see there would be very little to nothing left.

Anyway, I found the idea that the characters in books are nothing like their story counterparts quite original and interesting2. As Oliver explains:

When we’re not acting our parts, we’re all just free to go about our business. It’s quite complicated, really. I’m Prince Oliver, but I’m not Prince Oliver. When the book is closed, I can stop pretending that I’m interested in Seraphima or that I’m fighting a dragon, and instead I can hang out with Frump or taste the concoctions Queen Maureen likes to dream up in the kitchen or take a dip in the ocean with the pirates, who are actually quite nice fellows. In other words, we all have lives outside the lives that we play when a Reader opens the book.

And there is more: the villain of the story is actually a butterfly collector, Oliver’s trusty steed has self esteem issues and the marriage-crazy mermaids are in fact quite jaded about love. At least the wizard is still interested in magic experiments :) I liked all of this, and I would have liked to see it played with a bit more; as it is, this felt mostly relegated to the background, and I was sort of sad to see it so.

Relationships
Since Oliver and Delilah are about the same age, it came as no surprise to me that they sort of fell in love with one another. It did came as a bit of a disappointment though, because in the context it felt like their feelings were born out of desperation rather than a mutual liking for one another. I may be wrong, of course, but look at it this way: Oliver is obsessed with the world outside his book — is it any wonder that he falls for the first girl he sees in that world? Not to mention the only girl available to him other than Seraphima, whom he despises because he finds her delusional and dumb as a brick. On the other hand, Delilah is obsessed with that particular fairy tale — is it any wonder that she falls for the main character, who’s also the one boy that has paid any attention to her in quite a while? Which is why the love story bit fell sort of flat for me. I wasn’t emotionally invested in it almost at all. Although I do agree that a love story was sort of expected to happen under the circumstances :)

Plot
The plot was a linear and a very simple one: throughout the book Delilah and Oliver try one way after another to release the latter from his book. However, while that’s all that there is to it, I have to admit that it did manage to keep me interested :) It was quite cool to see them coming up with all sorts of ideas and then, when those didn’t work, coming up with new ones. I definitely liked that; I would have liked it even more though if the reasons why some things did not work would have been more expanded upon, instead of just having to accept that it is so. Ah well, nothing is perfect.

What I liked most
The way the things taken out from the book reverted to words (e.g. the pearl necklace turned into the word “pearl” written over and over again on Delilah’s neck). I think it was an original and a nice touch.

Also, I liked the way the book’s opening is sort of like a window to our world. The characters can and do see not only the reader’s face looming huge over the horizon, but also the things around him or her (which is how Oliver gets to learn a few bits and pieces about our world).

Ah, and another small detail that I thought was sort of cute, albeit insufficiently explored: Delilah’s mother hears her repeatedly talking to the book and actually takes her to see a psychiatrist. While in many fantasy books the main characters wonder about the probability of imagining things and/or what would other people think if they only knew, I liked how this book went a bit further and actually made it happen. Sure, there is no actual consequence3, but it was a novel and somewhat unexpected detail nevertheless.

Last but not least, one of my favorite fantasy tropes is having the prince be in need of saving, and someone else (usually the female character, which makes it even better) be the one doing the saving. In this book Oliver is the trapped one, and as such he can only be “saved” by someone else — whereas Delilah, far from being a damsel in distress, does her utmost to make his dream come true. I couldn’t not like that :)

What I liked least
While the book is/feels a tad simplistic at times, and some things are needing more suspension of disbelief than others, there is only one element that has really bothered me: it’s been specified more than once that the book characters can only act out the story when the book is open, they can do nothing else — and yet Oliver is able to freely interact with Delilah after they make that first contact. It’s like something in the world building doesn’t make sense. Also, why is Delilah the only one who can hear Oliver4 ? I kept feeling like there was something, some rule, some explanation that I am missing, and this kept pulling me out of the story.

Thoughts on the title
A great title and probably the best one for this book. This being said, the fact that the story of Oliver was also named Between the Lines felt a bit forced, considering that there is nothing remotely related to any lines, literal of figurative, in there (show spoiler

).

Thoughts on the ending
The ending felt somewhat incomplete (or maybe I was missing something?), as we are not told exactly how Oliver manages to get out of the book. After spending all those pages trying to find the solution to a problem, it’s rather unsatisfactory to have it solved “just like that”, without the actual solution being given.

show spoiler

Recommend it to?
YA fantasy lovers with low expectations. It’s a fun book, but one of the authors was a teenager at the time of writing and sometimes it shows.

Buy this from amazon.com | Buy this from bookdepository.co.uk | Jodi Picoult’s website | Jodi Picoult on Twitter

Other books written by Jodi Picoult:
Mercy | My Sister’s Keeper

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  1. my favorite bit: “Oliver was smart and loyal, but he was a complete disappointment when it came to bravery. In an effort to make his mother happy, Oliver overcompensated, spending his teenage years trying to do everything else right“. []
  2. although to be fair I’d rather believe that a happy ever after is “real”, and the characters in books really are who I think they are even after the book closes []
  3. if we don’t count that the psychiatrist will probably end up being Delilah’s step dad []
  4. I know that in the book he — very annoyingly — refuses to speak when anyone else is around, but he says that he has tried contacting others before and to no avail. While I can fully get the idea that people only see what they expect to see, I have trouble believing that a reader, any reader, could have missed a radical change like for example his writing stuff on walls. []

At Drake’s Command by David Wesley Hill

at drake's command by david wesley hill Publication year: 2012
Genre: Historical Fiction
Time and place: one of Francis Drake‘s expeditions, 1577
Narrated in: first-person
First sentence:It was as fine a morning to be whipped as any I had ever seen.
Verdict: Interesting.

Summary
“I knew I was no hero. It was equally unlikely I was any braver than the next man.”

Punished for a crime he did not commit, young Peregrine James is encouraged to leave England for the time being. He manages to be hired as a cook’s help on Francis Drake’s Pelican, one of the ships in a small fleet getting ready to (secretly) sail to Panama. Having never been on a ship, Perry does not know exactly what to expect, but he is smart enough to realize that the adventure about to begin is one fraught with danger. His motto however is “If something is worth doing, it is worth doing well”; he decides that he will just do his best and hope that nothing bad happens. But you know how they say, if you want to make God laugh tell Him your plans…

General impression
As the author states in an interview,

“I am meticulous about historical accuracy. My aim in writing At Drake’s Command was to embellish history rather than to manufacture it. Most of the characters, with the exception of Perry and a few others, actually sailed with Drake. Wherever possible I use their very words to express the opinions they voiced while they were among the living.”

Now, I don’t know very much about Drake and his voyages, quite the opposite, but this is exactly the feeling I got while reading: that the author has done his homework, not only when it came to historical accuracy, but also with the ship-related stuff. There were moments when I felt like I was actually there, sailing with Peregrine, and I really enjoyed it. You know you’re reading a well-written book when you lift your head and look at the room around you and wonder how you got there — and this has happened to me while reading ADC at least once. However, in this particular case this was for me both a pro and a con, as it turns out I am not very interested in the particulars of the life on board of a ship, so my reading got a bit slow-going now and then. For people into that kind of thing this book is probably a dream come true though :)

Characters
Perry himself was a character after my own taste: despite his youth he is anything but reckless, and he is genuinely concerned about doing the right thing whenever needed. I very much liked that he was very down-to-earth; whenever he’s in trouble he realizes that he’s on his own, as he’s the lowest in rank on the ship, and as such not worth the extra effort his rescue would cost any of the officers. While this sounds like a harsh approach, it felt nevertheless realistic; it works well in the book, not in the least because it gives Perry’s ingenuity more than one opportunity to shine :)

My one regret was that I, the reader, didn’t get to see more of Drake himself. There is of course a very good reason for that (Perry’s status as the lowest of the low would have occasioned him very little contact with the highest-in-command), but I was quite curious to see a bit of the man behind the myth. Speaking of which, another character I have had the pleasure of encountering in the pages of the book is Thomas Doughty, who, at the time the book ended, has just been given the lead of the Pelican (the peak of his fate before his downfall). He was actually one of my favorite characters because of his no-nonsense attitude, despite the fact that he is treating young Peregrine somewhat less than kind.

Relationships
Now that I think about it, the book is sorely lacking female characters — but this is only to be expected in a book about a 16th century voyage at sea.

However, this severely restrains the types of relationships available in the book. In the end, the only possible dynamic is the camaraderie developing between Perry and the rest of his mates. I was glad to see him adapt so well to the sea life, and I was even gladder to see how he interacted with the various people he runs into while doing his job. There is his “boss”, the Pelican’s cook, who can’t quite stand Perry because his (Perry’s) cooking is too fancy; there is a cook’s help that tries to sabotage Perry for taking his position; and there’s also (my favorite) a Spanish cook full of confidence in his skills, who treats Perry in a manner unexpectedly friendly under the circumstances. The first of these is the best written one as, while the other guy is mostly openly hostile, they do share at least a moment of mutual understanding, leading me to think that perhaps they will get on friendlier terms somewhere in the next books.

Thoughts on the ending
Gah! A cliffhanger ending!! I’m starting to get really fed up with those. Using this feels like an author is too lazy to get the reader actually interested in hes/her characters, choosing instead to focus on arousing the reader’s immediate curiosity and no more. Sad.

What’s even sadder is that in this case Perry was sort of interesting enough — I definitely wouldn’t have avoided reading a sequel, had a set of his adventures ended in this book. I do realize that since it’s all supposed to be one long trip it would have been a bit tough to separate the story in three different pieces in such a way that it would have had a semblance of a meaning, but in my opinion it would have been worth it. As it is now the ending feels sort of random (it could have been any number of scenes earlier on later, with the exact same effect), with an added bonus of feeling extra manipulative due to the cliffhanger thing. Ah well.

Recommend it to?
People interested in naval historical fiction are bound to love it, I guess :)
(I cannot say for sure since I am not one of them, but it seems to me it’s right down their alley)

Buy this from amazon.com | Buy this from bookdepository.co.uk | Read chapter one

The Journal of Curious Letters by James Dashner

Publication year: 2008
Genre: Fantasy / Juvenile Fiction
Time and place: contemporary Washington (mostly)
Narrated in: third-person omniscient
First sentence:Norbert Johnson had never met such strange people in all of his life, much less two on the same day—within the same hour even.
Verdict: Kids would love it :)

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