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Beth Kephart

REVIEW:  You Are My Only by Beth Kephart

REVIEW: You Are My Only by Beth Kephart

Dear Ms. Kephart,

After my review of Dangerous Neighbors last year, I became quite a fan of yours.  Quite a fan indeed.  It’s rare that I find a literary YA author that I connect with on a writing level, but your writing sits alongside the likes of Catherine Ryan Hyde and others for me.  You have a poetic way with words that I will follow anywhere, and You Are My Only is really a take-off from what I’ve read from you previously.

You Are My Only KephartDangerous Neighbors is a dramatic historical novel, and House of Dance is a lighter contemporary work with shades of drama.  You Are My Only is a departure from these previous reads of yours, but I have to say it’s a fitting one that should impress many readers looking for a unique experience.

Sophie has been homeschooled since she was very young.  Her mother hasn’t let her go to a public school or go out of the house for long stretches of time.  She hasn’t visited relatives the way other kids have instead she visits houses.    That’s what Sophie and her mother do.  They move so often that it’s all Sophie is familiar with.

This life for Sophie isn’t normal and on some level, Sophie knows it.  She knows that her mother’s overprotective nature isn’t healthy.  She knows that the life she lives inside the various houses they move into isn’t typical.  Her mother may help her learn about the importance of complicated history and sciences, but she can’t help her daughter learn about the outside world.

As dangerous as it has been made to be, Sophie has to take the plunge.  She leaves the confines of the blanketed world her mother has created.  Something so simple leads to a momentous change in Sophie’s life: a friendship with her next-door neighbor, Joey, and his aunts.

Fourteen years before Sophie came into the world, Emmy Rane was married and a mother just coming into her twenties.  Her marriage wasn’t the best, but she got through it with the love of her baby.  Her child.  Her only.

It was no surprise that Emmy lost the threads of her sanity when her baby was stolen away from her.  Emmy falls apart.  What’s left of her joy and her thoughts is as mangled and smokey as the train tracks that seem to attract her in her search for her baby.  Her husband Peter is disappointed her.  A mysterious man named Arlen attempts to pick up the parts of herself that are too broken to touch.

When Emmy is later sent away due to psychiatric reasons, she has to save herself and retain the hope that, one day, Baby will be found again.

The story that you spin is so unique in its construction.  From the beginning, the reader is allowed to witness the lives of two individuals who share a deep connection that is broken through impossible circumstances.  There is no mystery to what this connection entails, but instead to what it brings out in the characters as they live their lives.  You Are My Only is not the usual story of a separated parent and child.  It is something much, much more.

The dual perspectives of the two main characters are the first aspect of the novel that really call for attention.  Despite the fact that your distinct literary style shows quite clearly in both view-points, there is a definitive difference between the main characters and their first person voices.  Sophie’s voice is more sensible and grounded, where-as Emmy’s voice is up in the air and flitting from subject to subject.  The way they play off of each other is intriguing, especially when the essential roles of the characters are reversed from the physical ones.

Making Sophie act like the mother trying to find herself while having her physically be the daughter is why she’s so appealing.  There’s something about her that screams discovery.  The way she slowly defies her mother by simply gaining friendship is also a refreshing change of pace in characterization, and Sophie’s character makes a lot of strong connections that create a great web for the story.

Joey, Sophie’s friend, is equally charming and exuberant as a character.  Together the characters make a strong team.  A hint of romance winds throughout the text, but the strength of their relationship is based in their common friendship which is reinforced throughout the book.  Joey himself is very adventurous and propels Sophie to become more open and risk taking herself. Coupled with his aunts, he provides a creative escape for Sophie into a more warm and welcoming home than she’s ever seen.

The simple beauty of the safety of Joey’s family and how it changes and challenges Sophie is the core of her story.  In living with her mother, Sophie is subject to a life of seclusion.  The ability to open herself up to a life that isn’t cold and leeching is one that readers will cheer at the sight of.  As she gains the courage to analyze the skeletons in her mother’s closet, Sophie becomes a character that the reader wants to succeed.

Joey’s “aunts” are other major highlights of the work.  One thing that I appreciate about Miss Cloris and Miss Helen is the subtle relationship.  They are pictured as two loving aunts who are absolutely darling.  They take in the orphaned Joey and treat him like family and provide him – and soon, Sophie – with an excellent environment.  Their relationship is more than what their title implies, and you portray that beautifully.

Emmy is a more complicated character to work with in narration, and her viewpoint doesn’t work on the same level that Sophie’s does.  I appreciated the overall effect of the narration and how it connected with Sophie’s on a subtly thematic level.    The relationship between Autumn and Emmy is what brings a real light to the overall narration.  Autumn is such a boisterous character that’s wrapped in her own mystery, and she allows Emmy to open up in way that is similar to how Joey allowed Sophie to open up.

As much as I loved this connection, I did feel that Emmy’s narration was the weaker of the two.  At times her wavering sanity is hard to connect to, and the overall story is much more grounded in the magic of reality instead of the complicated musings of Emmy’s brain.  It’s also hard to tell if the treatments Emmy receives are truly accurate enough because of the way her narration takes place.  Sophie is a straightforward narrator that suggests honesty, but Emmy is a tougher nut to crack that is almost too elusive at times.

The use of first person present as the narration tense is also risky.  You do that frequently in your novels, but as a reader it can go very badly if the voice or styling of the narration doesn’t hold up well.  Your prose and its flow works very well for this tense, and you make it so easy to escape into it.  There were many moments that I would find myself diving into the simple joys of the description of the novel.

“We’re Joey’s aunts,” Miss Cloris says.  “But that doesn’t mean we’re sisters.  here.  Let me show you something.”  She pushes back from the table and walks across the room.  She pulls a picture from the wall, a pencil drawing, brings it to me, sits down again.

“That you?” I ask.

“It was.”

“With eyes like that?  That hair?”

“Time washes over, changes the look of things.  But that’s not the point I was making.  My point was, Miss Helen drew this.  Miss Helen is an artist.  Was when I met her and always has been.  I fell for her Wonderland dioramas.”

I nod, confused, and Miss Cloris’s face gets far away – the look in her eyes, the smile not for me.  “You ever been to Wonderland?” she asks me now.

“No, ma’am,” I say.

“Don’t deny yourself, you hear me?”

You Are My Only is a book that could so easily fall into others of its ilk.  It has the makings of a high-end drama that promises teenage angst and romance, but it instead goes the less trodden path.  You use sparse prose, rich characterization, and a simple plot to share a simple connection between two people that may or may not come to fruition.  You end on a note that leaves so much left to be said, yet completes the story in such a timely way.  Minor complaints are just that – minor.  There is a reason I’m a big supporter of your work, and this is why.  My final grade is a solid A-

All the best,

John

REVIEW:  Dangerous Neighbors by Beth Kephart

REVIEW: Dangerous Neighbors by Beth Kephart

Dear Ms. Kephart,

Writing this review has taken me a long time.   Usually, I can write a review within a few days, because my feelings on the overall quality of the book are clear.   However, there is always the occasional read that requires a long stewing before I can rightly form a review.   Dangerous Neighbors has been one of those books.   The problem has not been on the quality of the book, so much as how far the quality goes.   How much can beautiful writing make up for some faults in the story?   I believe that I have finally come to a conclusion.

Dangerous Neighbors by Beth KephartTwins Katherine and Anna are close.   They are the best of friends and always look out for each other.   Their mother is a staunch feminist which is a little scandalous for the late 1800′s.   Living in a quirky household is nothing new to them, and they’ve managed to survive with their wit and close friendship.   Katherine has always looked out for Anna, and it’s never been hard.

Meeting a local baker changes everything.   Anna is smitten and no longer has time for Katherine.   Suddenly, Katherine has to deal with sharing her sister, and she isn’t too happy about it.

A year later, Katherine is at the Centennial Fair in Philadelphia without Anna.   Without anyone.   She thinks back to the year before and the stormy relationship she had with Anna after she met the young baker.   She misses her sister more than anything.   Dangerous Neighbors reflects on the loss of a loved one, and on the tight bond between two sisters.

Rating a book like this with more literary characters is hard.   Very hard.   Literary characters always have deep flaws, more often than not make liking them very difficult.   The writing style is also more to chew on than in a lot of young-adult books right now and it makes you think.

Katherine is a prime example of how a story is can be limited in a third person narration yet encompassing. The long, painful focuses on Anna and her death will cause pangs of depression and sorrow within the reader.   Emotional investment is at an all time high with the voice used in Dangerous Neighbors.   Dramatic and intensive, Katherine is a character that we cannot ignore.   She’s intelligent and protective, and despite her bravado, a very quiet character; an opposite of her sister, Anna.

While it is not unusual to see twins that are the opposites of each other in stories, it is unusual to see the idea as original.   Anna felt just as real as Katherine did, and I love that her adventurous nature had its own faults and appealing factors to it.   Her romance with the baker was quite exciting, and I love the wedge it shoves between the girls.   The reality that it brings to Katherine is great, and allows Anna to become more of her own person.   Pre-baker, the narrative gives off the distinct impression that the two girls are more one of the same.   With the baker and Anna’s rebelliousness, we come to realize that these are very different characters.

Secondary characters are few and far between.   Dangerous Neighbors is a pretty short work, and focuses mainly on the twins and Katherine’s feelings of abandonment and guilt over Anna’s death.   Other characters take a back seat to these dealings, but they were still very interesting.   Anna and Katherine’s mom was one that I especially liked, as well as the boy that Katherine randomly sees throughout the story.   While each character felt interesting and vital, I was disappointed with their overall development.   Outside of Katherine and Anna, the other characters barely exist.   This serves a literary purpose, but it still doesn’t work in the book’s favor.

Your writing style is one completely original to the world of young-adult books, and it’s beautiful.   So beautiful.   I read this book very slowly just to absorb the meaning of everything.   Every passage flowed and ebbed with emotion and depth.   This is the type of book that proves that the young-adult genre is more than just a commercial one. One part early on in the book, where Katherine contemplates suicide, is a perfect example of your writing style.

The others climb high.   Their voices disappear into the narrow channel above.   Katherine bends down to retie her boots with excruciating deliberation, until at last she is alone with her plan – alone in this round room with its unlocked windows., with Paris below and the balconies above.   She moves with the utmost care – one leg through the nearest window, and then the other, both hands steady on the wooden frame.   A splinter catches on one finger.   Her feet adjust to the mathematics of the roof.   She turns to face the sky.   Now with her heels dug in, she stands unnoticed on the slanting round of the roof, loosening the skirts around her knees with one hand and then the other, chewing at the splinter, which is not so deep.   It waggles loose.   She spits it out.   She bleeds a little bit.

It is her day.   She has only to shimmy herself down the slant of the roof towards the lower parapet, then only to stand on the parapet and fly.   Only to wait until five o’clock, when the final crowd of the day will surge onto the elevator and sink toward the bowels of Paris.

She breathes.

Passages like that made me want to savor this book forever.   The plotting is unusual with the flashback and present day style, but it works really well for the book and allows the reader to really get to know and see the changes in Katherine’s character.

Other than the sparse secondary characters, Dangerous Neighbors is a wonderful book with a vivid protagonist and lyrical prose that will capture the heart of any reader.   For the duration of 192 pages, the reader is signed on to an unforgettable journey set in the heart of Philadelphia, during a fair that changed the lives of many, including a girl named Katherine.   You are a new favorite author, Beth Kephart, and that says a lot.   Now go and write more books.   A-

All the best,

John

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