Judged by Grace • Find her on Goodreads
So, this was both the hardest and the easiest book battle matchup I have ever judged. It’s going to become obvious fairly quickly which book I chose to advance. For this matchup, I read The Goblin Wood by Hilari Bell (middle grade fantasy) and I’ll Meet You There by Heather Demetrios (young adult contemporary), and the two books could not be more different. I have to admit, I actually knew which book I was advancing after I finished the first book.
The Goblin Wood is a book that is classified as young adult, but it really is more middle grade than anything. It’s a fantasy novel, the story of Makenna, a hedgewitch who witnesses the murder of her mother and flees her village for the forest. There, she allies herself with a goblin, Cogswhallop, and works to get revenge on the humans. She also encounters Tobin, a knight who has fallen from grace by taking on responsibility for his brother’s actions. Tobin has been afforded the opportunity to redeem himself by capturing Makenna. The book explores what happens when Makenna, Cogswhallop, and the goblin army encounter Tobin, and it explores some of the gray areas for each of the characters. It’s the first of a series, and presumably that nuance gets explored in more detail as the story continues.
Middle grade fantasy in general is not a genre that really speaks to me. There’s usually a layer or two of worldbuilding that I find missing from it, and as a result, I tend not to get as drawn into the world. But The Goblin Wood is a good book, albeit I think it’s one I probably would have enjoyed more if I’d read it twenty years ago.
The other book I read for this round, I’ll Meet You There, is a very, very different story. It’s the story of Skylar Evans, who just graduated from high school and wants nothing more than to get out of the small, impoverished town in California where she’s lived all her life. Her father died in a car accident that involved alcohol when Sky was about 12, and since then, it’s just been Sky and her mother. Sky has two best friends: Chris, who loves math and is the only major character of color in the novel, and Dylan, a teen mom. All three of them, along with most of the town, struggle on the verge of poverty. Sky and Dylan both live with their mothers in the trailer park. Chris’s family is much more stable, but it’s alluded to the fact that they have experienced hard times as well. Sky works part-time at the local motel, and one of her coworkers is a young Marine vet, Josh, who was maybe two years ahead of her in school. He’s just returned home after rehab because he was caught in an IED explosion that took his leg and the life of his best friend.
I’ll Meet You There tells the story of Sky’s last summer in her town, Creek View, before she can leave for San Francisco for college, where she plans to study art. Chris and Sky have had a pact for years, where they vowed to avoid romantic entanglements with anyone so that they could focus on school and getting a scholarship so they could get out of town. But when Sky’s mother loses her job at Taco Bell and falls back into bad habits, dating a guy named Billy who is portrayed for most of the novel as pretty worthless and opportunistic, and drinking, everything Sky has worked for seems suddenly impossible. Over the course of the summer, she befriends Josh while working at the motel. Josh used to be the big man in town and is now dealing with major PTSD from his time in the marines and the loss of his legs, and he’s come back to town a very changed young man. Their relationship grows from friendship to something deeper, and they struggle to find a way to be together.
So, here’s where I have to come clean. I hated this book. There’s no way for me to sugar coat it, so I figured I should just put it out there. I didn’t mind it for about the first half of the novel. The prose was pretty solid and while the story wasn’t really grabbing me the way slow burn romances usually do, I didn’t dislike it either. I did have some concerns about how much the book sets itself out as realistic fiction, in that way that it professes to be so realistic in a way that other YA contemporaries aren’t, when I saw things that didn’t feel quite as “real” as they were professed to be. I had concerns about the lack of diversity in the community and among the book’s major characters, and while I understand Josh’s language to be realistic for many boys/young men (he used the terms “faggot” and “homo” and “gay” a decent amount throughout the course of the story), I also have a hard time rooting for those characters.
But ultimately it was the latter half of the novel where everything fell apart for me. Everything in this book is hard, and it’s so hard until the very end, that even if I had liked the ending/resolution of every plot, I don’t think it would have been as uplifting or hopeful as it wanted to be. As it stood, though, I didn’t buy into the plot resolutions and that made everything worse.
Two big threads that weave themselves into the novel are Sky’s budding romance with Josh and the breakdown of Sky’s relationship with her mother. I’ll take them one at a time, starting with Sky and her mother. Mrs. Evans (I cannot for the life of me remember her first name and for that I apologize but I can’t go back to the book for it) has a history of alcohol abuse. She’s been clean for a while now, and they’ve been getting by with Sky’s part time job and Mrs. Evans’ job at Taco Bell. After she loses the job at Taco Bell, though, she falls into a major spiral, takes up with Billy (I think that was his name) who has been sniffing around her for years but she’s never been into before, and starts drinking again. She resists any help from Sky, whether it’s Sky helping her get a job or Sky contacting her sister, to whom she hasn’t spoken since a falling out at her husband’s funeral. Finally, Sky and her mother get into a big fight over everything that’s been going on, and Sky moves out and starts staying at the motel.
The story of Sky and her mother is entwined with Sky’s desire to go to college and escape Creek View: Sky has made all of these plans for college, but with her mother falling apart and the fact that they have no money for rent, bills, or food, Sky simply feels like she can’t leave. At the very end of the summer, Sky’s mother approaches her and reveals that she’s realized she couldn’t stay in Creek View, because then Sky would never leave. So Sky’s mother is going with Billy to Florida, where he’s got a job waiting for him (I think in some kind of auto work, but I can’t remember) that will bring in good money (I feel like I read $2,000 a week, but that might have been for the whole operation and Mrs. Evans and Billy would only get some of it). Mrs. Evans will be the receptionist for that business. This leaves Sky free to go off to college as she’s planned.
The resolution of this plot is ultimately more satisfying than the romance for me, but I still am not buying it. I don’t think this business venture in Florida is very likely to pan out, especially because it’s through Billy, a man who has been portrayed through most of the novel as pretty terrible. Yes, we only see Billy from Sky’s POV, and some of that is tainted because she holds her own alcoholic father up almost as an ideal (which I see, I do, but not to the extent it was shown here). But here’s the thing: in a story where Sky is portrayed as the actual adult, despite the fact that she’s only 18, and where she’s been taking care of her mother and planning and taking on all of the major responsibilities of the household since age 12, Sky not caring for Billy, seeing him as sleezy, and legitimately objecting to the fact that he was a big part of her mother drinking again, should be validated in some way. Or, if that’s not the point, then there needed to be some way of showing Sky, and through Sky the readers, that Billy wasn’t the bad guy she originally thought he was, that his relationship with her mother was genuine, and that there is some substance to him that would lend the Florida business venture a believable option. As it was, all we got was Sky’s mother saying that she felt good when she was with Billy and that she loved him. Well, okay, she probably does think those things, but give me a reason, as a reader, to believe in that feeling of hope you are trying to sell.
And that leaves me with Sky and Josh, and their romance. Slow burn relationships are usually my favorites and I don’t think they’re done enough in YA, but this, I just wasn’t feeling from the beginning. I didn’t hate the relationship at the beginning, but they didn’t have that spark that makes me really root for a pairing and enjoy reading the development of their relationship. The problem was, as the story progressed, I saw more things that either were warning signs to me or are just tropes/situations that I don’t enjoy (there was way too much woman-as-light theme going on here, for example). The party and subsequent near hookup was where the wheels truly came off, though. I don’t enjoy cheating, or near cheating/vague cheating-like scenarios. I especially don’t enjoy it when the innocent party then is humiliated because everyone knows. So while no, Sky and Josh weren’t dating or together in any way officially when this all went down, and I do genuinely feel for Josh and his PTSD (it was the only thing about him I found sympathetic, to be honest), it was going to take a lot to get me to stop actively rooting against them at that point. Demetrios didn’t even come close.
The ending I wanted for Sky was for her to realize that while she’d fallen for Josh over the summer, it was time for her to put this behind her and move on with her life. I would have liked to see him respect her wishes to back off romantically but stay friends. Or, at the very least, I would have liked to see a LOT more from Josh before they even considered the idea of resuming a romantic relationship in the future.
As it stands, this is what I see as the realistic outcome of these stories in the future: Billy’s business fails, and Mrs. Evans is now in Florida, where she knows no one and has no support. She may or may not fall back into drinking. Either way, no good comes of it. And Josh struggles with PTSD, probably isn’t always faithful, probably is drinking when this happens. Dylan may or may not find out. Sky may or may not actually follow through with the “this can’t happen again” promise she made (I lean more towards she doesn’t follow through). More cheesy “how is the Sky today?” lines ensue.
There were other threads of this book (Chris and Dylan, in particular, as well as the woman who owned the motel, who had a son who committed suicide after returning home from the war), but I really can’t touch much on them at this point. All I will say is that for me they were, at the very least, less unsatisfying than the rest of the novel.
This is actually the toned down version of a longer analysis of this story. I know it seems harsh, but I can’t help it. I had a very visceral negative reaction to this book. The parts of it that felt real were, unfortunately, very unsatisfying to me. And for that reason, I knew before I even started reading it, that I would select The Goblin Wood to advance.