Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Almost There and Almost Not by Linda Urban

Synopsis (via Goodreads): From acclaimed author Linda Urban comes the funny, bittersweet story of a girl and her ghosts—and the welcoming home they find where they least expect it.

California Poppy has been dropped off, yet again, with an unsuspecting relative. This time it’s her eccentric Great-Aunt Monica, a woman she’s never even met. Aunt Monica has no idea what to do with an eleven-year-old, so she puts California to work researching their ancestor, the once-famous etiquette expert Eleanor Fontaine.

California soon discovers that Great-Great-Great Aunt Eleanor is...not exactly
alive and well, but a ghost—and a super sensitive one at that. The grand dame bursts into clouds of dust whenever she loses her composure, which happens quite often. Still, an unexpected four-legged friend and some old-fashioned letter writing make this decidedly strange situation one that California can handle.

Just as California’s starting to feel like she’s found a place for herself, life turns upside-down yet again. Thankfully, this time she has some friends almost by her side... 

I received an ARC from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. My thoughts and opinions are my own. Any quotes I use are from an unpublished copy and may not reflect the finished product.

For the most part, I really enjoyed Almost There and Almost Not. Unfortunately, I felt like it glazed over all of the important conversations and topics, and I wish those has been expanded on throughout the story. California talks about not liking her name - people making fun of her for it or making sexualized comments - but we never learn who named her California or why. She starts referring to herself as "Callie" in some of her letters, but she never asks anyone else to call her that. 

California also talks about an "Official Meeting" that was held between different people at different times, and I'm assuming she has a disability of some kind based on the outcome of those meetings. (A teacher stops criticizing her handwriting, her father looks pale after another, and people generally treat her differently once there is one.) There was also one sentence that made me think something had happened to her, and then there's the fact that people have to "look for the eleven-year-old in her." (This is said all the time.)

"We just talked about me cracking against the kitchen counter like the force behind that was my own." 

That is a really heavy sentence, yet it's never fully addressed. Did California fall? Was she pushed? Did something traumatic happen to her? I think the author wanted to explain the way California thought (the wording and organization was unusual, but not difficult to follow), but all Urban did was create more questions. Later on California mentions strange people being in her house (usually when her dad had been drinking), and there was an incident in the kitchen with an older man putting his finger in her mouth (trying to make her smile), which resulted in a hospital visit, but that was for her arm. I'm not sure what head trauma she suffered (if any), but it is something that's mentioned very early on. Obviously, something has happened to the main character, and I wish the author hadn't been so subtle about it. 

"When you are tall and need a bra that is not just for training, a lot of people expect you to do stuff you can't."

Initially, I was going to comment on the character's voice - which isn't hard to follow, but is definitely different. California has an amazing vocabulary and remembers everything she reads, but the way she talks had me mentally reading this book with a southern accent. I'm not sure if that was intentional, or just the way the wording flowed together. Even after the Official Meetings were mentioned, we don't really get any more information on California's health. The girl sees ghosts, and I have no idea if that's related or not. There were just a lot of things California did that I questioned (like being able to walk to a grocery store, but unable to start a conversation about dirty laundry), and wish her thought process had been better explained. 

Several aspects of this book were unbelievable and I had to suspend my disbelief in order for this book to work. At first California didn't mention the ghost of Eleanor to her Aunt Monica, because she said she's used to strange people just showing up and being around. However, once she realized Eleanor was transparent and occasionally turned into a pile of dust, I felt like that was something worth mentioning to someone. California simply seemed content to carry on normal conversations with a dead person, and didn't really give the how and why much thought. 

I'm also not sure if Eleanor previously lived in the house California is now staying in, and the author's explanations for her coming and going were vague. California would simply say she didn't understand how death worked, but this is what she's learned about her personal ghosts so far. Eleanor seemed to be at home in their home, so I was curious if it used to be hers, or she was just accustomed to haunting it. Additionally, I have no idea why Eleanor was there or what she wanted, and I felt like her resolution was underwhelming. She's such a huge part of California's story, and then she's simply gone. The Dog (also a ghost) had a better ending. 

"Somebody can be nice and gentle to you one time and mean the next, and Dog seemed like the type to know that."

That statement feels like it has a darker meaning, but we never get an explanation. Did something happen to her when she was with her dad? What about the traumatic event that makes her question a person's intentions, and also avoid men in general? Her father seemed neglectful, but never harmful, although he did allow less-than-stellar people into his home and around his daughter. Also, if he was so devastated by the loss of his wife, why did he do some of the things he did? People handle their grief in different ways, yes, but he also seemed very protective of his daughter. How could he put her in danger while simultaneously being the one to rescue her? 

I did like that the author chose to address feminine hygiene (videos and products), and discussed making them more accessible to people (told through the lens of an eleven-year-old). California writes letters to various people, and the president of the Playpax Corporation was one of them. She tells them her idea of letting girls "sign up in school like they do for discount lunch and put money in an account like that too and give you their address, and you could just mail some to their house every month instead of having those girls have to ask their dads to go buy pads or tampons." I also really liked her second idea, which is that boys should have to watch the "girls" video in puberty class too. "They should know about girls having periods too, because 1. that's biology, which is science, and 2. not telling is not very fair to boys, who probably would be fine if people weren't so weird about things."

Speaking of letters, California can supposedly do calligraphy (and even explains what certain letters looked like), and I wish the book had shown that. (Maybe the final copy does?) There are a lot of letters in this book, and I think showing California's calligraphy writing would have been an amazing addition to the book. Instead, it's just an italicized font, which doesn't convey the beauty or talent that she's so proud of. "Dear Aunt Isabelle, See how I made that A in "Aunt"? That is modern copperplate style. This is a C. That C is the best thing about my name. In calligraphy C is always pretty, if you take care with it." I think a visual of her writing would had benefitted the overall story, since it's something she does the entire book. 

I always struggle to review books that I liked but found lacking. There was so much to like about Almost There and Almost Not, but a lot of the story felt too vague. Important aspects were glossed over or only briefly mentioned, and I felt like those were the things this book should have addressed and talked about in more detail. It's a sweet story about a girl finding her place when she doesn't think she has one, although I wish her budding friendship with Salma had been more prominent, but we only see California befriending the non-living. I think it offered her some closure, but if she related to Eleanor it wasn't explained very well. All in all, I thought this book had a wonderful premise, but like the author only scratched the surface of what this story could have been. The potential is there, but the execution could have been better. (★★★☆☆)

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“Stuff and nonsense. Nonsense and stuff and much of a muchness and nonsense all over again. We are all mad here, don't you know?”
― Marissa Meyer, Heartless