All the Truth That's In Me by Julie Berry is a contender in this years SLJ Battle of the Books which is why I read it. (In fact, you can go to the site and see how it fared in the first battle today.) I would not have read this if it had not been a contender, and now that I have I'm torn. There are some amazing elements in this book, but one thing brought the whole experience down for me. Crashed it down in burning flames actually.
Four years ago, Judith and her best friend disappeared from their small town of Roswell Station. Two years ago, only Judith returned, permanently mutilated, reviled and ignored by those who were once her friends and family. Unable to speak, Judith lives like a ghost in her own home, silently pouring out her thoughts to the boy who’s owned her heart as long as she can remember—even if he doesn’t know it—her childhood friend, Lucas. But when Roswell Station is attacked, long-buried secrets come to light, and Judith is forced to choose: continue to live in silence, or recover her voice, even if it means changing her world, and the lives around her, forever. This startlingly original novel will shock and disturb you; it will fill you with Judith’s passion and longing; and its mysteries will keep you feverishly turning the pages until the very last.
Judith, a girl who had hopes and dreams, had her life stolen from her. As her story opens her world has shrunk to the size of her small family with her angry mother. She interacts with no one. Yet her mind is as expansive as ever. She thinks. She feels. She still hopes and dreams. The object of her most secret affections, Lucas, is her constant companion in her mind. She talks to him constantly, a running narrative that as a reader you, you are dropped into with no explanation. And that was a brilliant story telling device. So brilliant. Judith's character unravels as she tells a story already in progress and shares thoughts of a life she is already living. As the plot gets underway and Judith is forced to bring others into her thoughts and memories in a attempt to save the home she loves, the scope of the narrative grows larger. Judith's character grows with it, as does Lucas, who becomes more of a person and less of the object of Judith's imagination. Both of them learn a lot about who they are and their place in the community they grew up. And how perilous it is. Judith manages to find her voice too, but there are costs to all of this. The way the story is told envelopes everything in mystery and intrigue. The reader only knows as much as Judith is willing to reveal to the Lucas inside her head, and then the man standing in front of her. The process is a beautiful thing to see unfold, and I was captivated by Judith and her story.
I'm sure there are many out there who are going to think I'm making a mountain out of a mole hill. So be it. This is important to me. The setting ruined the experience of the book for me. Yes, it is gorgeously written. Yes, the characters are engaging. Yes, the intrigue and suspense are done well. And yet, the book's lack of setting completely threw me out of the story time and time again. I often say I don't read for setting and don't even think about it unless it is done astonishingly well or is astonishingly lacking. This book falls into the latter camp. I have no idea where/when this is taking place. I didn't know going in that the construct of the world was this flimsy and wasn't prepared, so as I started reading the questions kept piling up. It is the most reminiscent of Puritan colonial times. Not early, but later-I would say second quarter of 18th century. And yet, it's not that. The places are not the same, there are these mysterious enemies called "Homelanders" (how lame and lazy is that?), and yet there are elements of our world too. When I see these are like Puritans, I mean it quite literally. They dress like them, have a similar society set-up, and use the Bible. There are other hints too that this is clearly supposed to be part of our world. But it's not. And it bothered me constantly. I discovered after I finished that the author addressed this in an interview with School Library Journal. In it Berry says this: I knew I needed to create the world that Judith’s story required, rather than tether her story to an actual historical timeline. I love historical fiction, but I didn’t want Judith’s story to take on the weight of the genre’s conventional expectations. To which I say, malarkey. What genre expectations? Readers are the ones with expectations, and as a reader I expect ANY book I read to have a proper sense of time and place, whether created in a fantasy world or built on the actual one. This book is in no way fantasy. But it's not at all historical fiction either. Or maybe she was referring to the expectation many of us have for historical fiction to be accurate, and she didn't want to be bothered with the research aspect. I don't know if that's true, but it was what I kept thinking as I was reading and the lack of place kept bothering me. She also has this to say in that same section regarding the made-up setting: I wanted her narrative to enjoy the prerogatives of contemporary fiction, where character can reign supreme, and the backdrop can be Anytown, USA, Now-ish—as non-specific as Roswell Station feels. And again, I have to say WHATTT???? Character reigning supreme is a prerogative of contemporary fiction. No. It's the prerogative of the writer telling the story regardless of genre. You think character can't reign supreme in historical fiction? Read Elizabeth Wein. Read Gary Schmidt. Read Jepp Who Defied the Stars. Read The Wicked and the Just. And that part about Roswell Station feeling non-specific makes me want to laugh. Or cry. It doesn't fell non-specific. It feels like Puritan New England around about 1740 (or possibly 1640 though Judith's statement about them not having stoned/burned any one in her lifetime make me think probably not), but without actual real details to back it up so the reader is constantly wondering where the heck they are.
Yes, that aspect ruined the entire book for me. You may feel different and that I'm exaggerating the importance of actual setting, but for me it was a big deal. It was continuously problematic for me as I was reading, and the it's all I can think about after. It's tainting the entire reading experience for me. I know a lot of people who loved the book. The sad thing is I could have too. I wanted to. I loved the characters and themes. But I can't love a book when every other page an element is causing me to be thrown from the story and want to bang the book against something hard.