Friday, February 20, 2015

Review: Paper Valentine by Brenna Yovanoff

Because what's a better pick one week after the most lovey-dovey holiday in the Western world than a story about psychotic murders and ghosts haunting their former BFFs, am I right?

I was a little hasty on BookLikes - one of my updates says there is slut-shaming on the very first page - which I probably shouldn't have posted because, as it turns out, our main character has a tendency to describe everything in minute detail and it wasn't any commentary on her sister. My apologies for that.

"Paper Valentine" is about a girl named Hannah, who is being haunted by the ghost of her best friend Lillian. Lillian died of anorexia six months ago and is still hanging around, being by turns loving and bitchy, but mostly easy to ignore. Things change, though, when a series of murder occur in the neighborhood, and suddenly Lillian is not the only ghost asking Hannah for help. But how much can one ordinary girl do?


Here's the thing - if I had to find a literary equivalent to this book, it would be Laurie Halse Anderson's "Wintergirls" crossed with a supernatural murder mystery. If that's a ringing endorsement to you, great. But I'm not sure it worked.

See, "Wintergirls" is a pretty loaded book - watching Leah deal with survivor's guilt and anorexia at the same time is enough to carry on a full story. "Paper Valentine" starts off on a similar premise - Hannah is reeling from the death of her best friend and, understandably, feels quite a bit of guilt. (It doesn't help to have the real Lillian literally hanging over her shoulder.) But, again, this story where a girl is struggling to cope with her friend's death, a friend who died of an eating disorder no less, is enough to stand on its own. Meshing it with a murder mystery drags the whole thing down.

Case in point - Hannah doesn't actively get involved in the investigation until about halfway through the book. Before, she gets glimpses of it, and Lillian makes noises about it, but the click just doesn't come until after 50% in. That's a lot of book.

I still read it under 3 hours, though. I can't deny it - Brenna Yovanoff's writing is engaging. All 3 books of hers that I've read, I've powered through, even though all three were a little muddled in the plot department. The only explanation I have is that her characters keep me in place.

And they do.

Especially Finny, what with his "How do I do emotions?" (Maybe it's the bleached hair. I have a thing for guys with bleached hair. Three guesses as to what my favourite Buffy ship is.) I admit, his conflict also felt a little shoved in, especially since he was the one telling Hannah off for not showing her true emotions towards the start of the book. (Or maybe that was intentional?) At times, when I read his scenes with Hannah, I had a strange feeling, like the scene had been written on its own and then inserted into the text. There was backstory that was missing, and the transitions felt a bit off. I don't know why.

Maybe it could have used another round of edits. 

What I really liked about this book, though, was the dynamic between Hannah and Lillian. Hannah wasn't just trying to reconcile with ghostly Lillian - she's also trying to reconcile with her best friend as-she-used-to-be with the person she became after the eating disorder really sank its fangs into her. Unlike "Wintergirls" (or even "Skinny") this is a story about anorexia as told from the point of view of a bystander who has no idea what is going on in the head of the anorexic, who cannot even begin to imagine what it's like for them.

Hannah is naturally confused and angry with Lillian - because she doesn't understand, and because she feels like she failed some test that she had no chance of winning to start with. And that... rings true. It's an important perspective to explore, even though, as Lillian says, she didn't have any choice about it. It's a compulsive behaviour that is unreasonable to anyone but the sufferer, and it's extremely hard to break.

I'd read this book for that dynamic alone. I'd read it just for the sake of having these two characters have this conversation.

And, maybe, I'd also read it because it has cute bad boys with bleached hair.

I am that shallow sometimes.

Note: image via Booklikes

Another note: I'm running to raise money for a young people's mental health charity. Check out my page, make a donation, spread the word - whatever you can do, every little bit helps!

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Review: Skinny by Donna Cooner

Okay, let's get this out of the way now. This book about a morbidly obese girl going through gastric bypass surgery doesn't feature a morbidly obese girl on the cover. Slim-washing aside, I like the UK one, mostly because it drives the point of the story across much better than the one on the left. 

This book sat on my shelf for a long, long time. Personal disclaimer - I'm in recovery from depression that threatened to turn into an eating disorder, so I was a little afraid that the content might be triggering to me. That said, I'm glad I finally picked "Skinny" up because it's honestly one of the best stories I've read in a long, long time.

Ever Davies is morbidly obese. At 15 years old, she weighs 302 pounds and is painfully aware of that, thanks to the voice inside her head. Skinny, as she is nicknamed, tells Ever all the things people are thinking about her, and Skinny is always right. Or is she? 

After a series of events, Ever makes the drastic decision to undergo gastric bypass surgery. She begins to lose weight and her life begins to change, but Skinny is not in a hurry to leave. 

This is not a supernatural book, but it does use a very good extended metaphor to drive meaning across. Who hasn't felt like there is a malevolent fairy whispering in our ears from time to time? Reading the minds of our friends, making us think the worst, coercing us, trying to get us to act on these assumptions... Sometimes we can ignore the voice inside our heads, but sometimes we cannot, and when we listen to it, things get ugly.

Ever is definitely listening to Skinny. She spends a lot of this book being hurt and angry, keeping people at a distance and then being furious that they aren't approaching her more. Cooner does a fantastic job at illustrating the vicious cycle people go through when they are depressed or unhappy with themselves: you beat yourself for not being more like your ideal self (in Ever's case, skinny,) you think people are avoiding your because of that, or talking behind your back, you get angry and suspicious, you stay away or outright snap at them, they get weary of you, and then you're like "SEE, I TOLD YOU THEY HATED YOU!" Rinse and repeat, until subject has dug themselves into a hole, and then some. 

(by the by, if you're having a problem with a Skinny inside your head, may I recommend this excellent TED talk on self-compassion?) 

I mentioned that Ever undergoes gastric bypass surgery to lose weight, which seems like a pretty controversial topic - the fact that people need to have their internal organs literally shuffled around in a life-threatening surgery in order to lose weight seems like something out of a sci-fi movie. But I think the book handles it well. It's mostly in the pre-op part of the book, where the doctor briefs Ever and her father on what to expect, and she brings her best friend Rat to a pre-op support group meeting, but it drives through the point - it's a dangerous medical procedure done best as a last resort, that is not a magic wand and might royally backfire on you. 

(In the acknowledgements, the author repeats the warning, and adds a caveat that while this procedure worked for her, it's very individual. Kudos for that - not all books handle this subject matter this well.)

The real strength of this read, though, lies in its characters and how they are dealing with the situations at hand. Ever's father, in particular, is fantastic - he clearly wants the best for his kid, but is at loss how to speak to her. (A lot of people seem at a loss as to how to speak to Ever. I'd hazard a guess, but it's the "Skinny" effect.) And he's not the only one - from Ever's stepsister Briella to her best friend Rat to Whitney, the characters here read like real people, not some meat-puppet shuffled around on a stage for the sake of getting a point across.

So what's the point here? From the premise, you expect a Cinderella story where the moral is "beauty is on the inside," but the final revelation here isn't about the way the world views you, it's about the way you view yourself. Ever spends a lot of time fixating on other people's opinions, assuming that her worth as a human being depends on certain things - having a boyfriend, a popular BFF, a "rockin' bod". But those things are never what they are cut out to be, and because you can never please everyone, perfection is this constantly moving target that you can never reach. (There's a reason why I chose to link to this particular TED talk, after all.)

I cannot recommend this book enough.

Note the First: Images via BookLikes 

Note the Second: I'm running to rise funds for a young people's mental health charity. To contribute, or just spread the word, please follow this link.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Review: We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

Disappointment is always worse when it's an author you really like. I've read the Ruby Oliver books. I know E. Lockhart can do better than this.

Here's your short review of the story. If you don't want nitpicking, you can move along now.

I didn't know this was a highly anticipated release. I didn't even know there was a major twist in the end I had to look out for. (Blogging hiatuses are good in that respect.) But then, the blurb at the back of my copy was pretty vague, too. It seems like the best thing, for readers to go in blind, although I'm not entirely sure the book delivers on what it has promised. 

Raised in the affluent and beautiful Sinclair family, Cadence has, in theory, the perfect life. In reality, she's sick and forgetful, suffering from terrible headaches and gaps of memory, all due to an accident she suffered at 15 at her family's private island. She returns to the island, nearly 18, to try and piece together the story of what happened to her, and realizes it's part of a much bigger tragedy. 

I won't spoil the ending for you. Really, the twist isn't my beef - I actually liked the twist. It makes for an interesting re-read, a sort of spot-the-clues challenge that guarantees to have the reader coming back for more. And, really, the ending helps one make sense of some of the more WTF moments this book has.

"We Were Liars" reminds me of a TV show I once watched. It was also about an affluent family living in their own privileged little world, and it also had one of the teens uncovering a grisly secret. But the show was based in a city, not an isolated island, and the characters actually interacted with people who were not part of their giant game of make-believe. Which I think made it a stronger story. 

The reason why I chose "We Were Liars" is because it promised a story about a family torn apart by its own bigotry and its isolationism. And it delivers on those fronts - Cadence's grandfather, Harris, controls his adult daughters and grandchildren by dangling their inheritance over their heads and constantly making them fight each other to make sure they get their fair share. Cadence and her cousins Mirren and Johnny, as the eldest kids, are continuously brought into the game, used a pawns by their mothers and their grandfather, and the resulting tensions take a toll on everybody.

The only outsider in this "white, white" family is Gat - the nephew of one of the aunt's boyfriends, he's best friends with Johnny and Cadence's forbidden romance for this book. Half-Indian, Gat is only tolerated by the older members of the family, and his uncle's romance with Cadence's aunt is constantly marred by the fear of disinheritance.

So far, so good - there's proper intrigue and the stakes are high. I didn't even mind the fact that Cadence had this whole "poor little rich girl" thing going on - I thought that it was a character trait that would be explored later in the novel. Plus, she is legitimately disabled, and her disability is portrayed in a realistic manner.

Unfortunately (and it pains me to say it) what I really didn't like about this novel is that... well... it's just not gruesome enough. It's not messy. There is a mystery and Cadence slowly uncovers small clues on the island as she goes about her day, and interacts with people, but it feels... clean. Sterile. White. The island is a bubble where literally no bad things happen, and the threat that is present at the fist pages of the book loses its bite pretty soon. 

And given the subject matter, it makes me scratch my head. Where are the dramatic confrontations? Where is the resentment? Where is the guilt? After the twist, there are only a handful of pages left - barely enough for Cadence to reconcile herself with this new shift in her reality, let alone come to terms with it. 

It's just all too neat for my liking, and it pisses me off because I know E. Lockhart can do better than that.

One might say this was a stylistic decision, but if you're going to be making your story all isolated and sterile, your narrator has to be pretty compelling. And Cadence, I'm afraid, is a robot. 

I'm not saying "robot" as in "too perfect to exist," because there is no doubt she is a flawed person. I said on BookLikes that this reminds me of a Wachowskis movie, and not in a good way, and I stand by my statement - Cadence's narration relies heavily on metaphors and stock phrases, but delivers very little on meaning. Comparing it to the Ruby Oliver books, where I could feel the MC's frustration and anger from a mile away, Cadence is flat. I don't get anything from her. Even her interactions with Gat, whom she purports to love, come across as flat and boring. Where's the passion? Seriously? Where is it?

Like I said, I'm not going to spoil the book for the rest of you, but I'm overall disappointed by the delivery. 


E. Lockhart does better.

Note: Image via Booklikes.

Note the Second: I'm running to rise funds for a young people's mental health charity. To contribute, or just spread the word, please follow this link.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Read It With Me: Before I Die

I don't know if I'll be picking "Bumped" up again. It's not that I don't love that book - oh, I love that book - but doing chapter by chapter deconstructions is hard work, and not always an easy one. Major kudos to Ana Mardoll and the folks at das-sporking for keeping it up, week after week. 

That said, I can manage doing a first chapter read-through, highlighting the best (and worst aspects of a book) so that if you're curious about a read, you can check out the Amazon preview and take part in the discussion. 

I figure.

Anyway, "Before I Die" is a book I've spoken about several times over here, and it's also one of the books the Daily Mail slammed as "sick-lit" in an article not too long ago. Not linking because Monday is bad enough without being enraged at other people's views, but if I were to sum it up in one sentence, it would go something like this: "Publishers are flooding the market with books about sick kids and it's disturbing."  

Entre-nous, find it a lot more disturbing that children with mental health issues need to go to charities for their support, and that hospital cancer wards also frequently rely on fundraising (one might wonder what public spending is going for?) because people are just not talking about these issues, but hey, I'm just one lousy taxpayer. 

I'm not saying that all books that deal with physical and mental illness are amazing - plenty of them use the illness as no more than a prop, or worse, a tearjerker, to an otherwise bland story, and then again use the illness as a way to escape criticism. But I think that, like many other things, talking about something is the first step to helping the sufferer, so if YA books help us with those conversations, then I'll accept the bad with the good. 

And I think that "Before I Die" is definitely one of the good ones. The main character, Tessa, has been living with cancer for years, and has gone past the point of cure; the novel, however, focuses on a lot more. Tessa' desire to fulfill every item on her bucket list a backdrop against which the novel explores themes of love and friendship, of bereavement, of family, and depression. 

And the first chapter manages to have all of that rolled into one.

I wish I had a boyfriend. I wish he lived in the wardrobe on a coat hanger. Whenever I wanted, I could get him out and he'd look at me the way boys do in movies, as if I'm beautiful. 

- p. 1, Paperback edition

Tessa is not happy about her diagnosis. She focuses on her list as a way to ignore the pain and depression, and at first puts very mundane things on her list. Having sex. Doing drugs. Committing crime. She wishes, in her opening lines, for a boyfriend, but not in any real sense - she imagines him, literally, as an object she can access at her whim. 

And yet, underlying the objectification is a desire for connection, for something that she's only seen in the movies. 

He wouldn't speak much, but he'd be breathing hard as he took off his leather jacket and unbuckled his jeans. He'd wear white pants and he'd be so gorgeous I'd almost faint. He'd take my clothes off, too. He'd whisper, "Tessa, I love you. I really bloody love you. You're beautiful" - exactly those words - as he undressed me.

- p. 1, Paperback edition

One thing I wish I saw more in YA are depictions of intimacy that aren't just stock phrases. Jenny Downham is pretty good at that - she uses as much, or as little detail as she needs to in describing how her characters act around each other, enough to create a resonance with the reader. Tessa's desire for a  boyfriend may be fairly stock, but her desire comes across loud and clear through the page.

It's not stated explicitly by any of the characters, but it's the day Tessa has gotten the bad news, and she's spent the afternoon in bed, only moving to write down bits and bobs that later become her list. 

I sit up and switch on the bedside lamp. There's a pen, but no paper, so on the wall behind me I write, I want to feel the weight of a boy on top of me.

- p. 1, Paperback edition

Tessa listens to the sounds her father and younger brother are making downstairs - her father making dinner, her brother coming back from the store. It's all very detailed - you can tell it's a routine in this house - but Tessa' tone, and the fact that she can hear things happening from way across the room, creates a sense of despondency. Almost as if she's looking in from another plane, or she's imagining what it would be like when she is dead. (She does that a lot throughout the novel.)

We also get a glimpse of her father and brother, and her interactions with them are pretty realistic, though a little confusing for the reader at first. 

He came up to see me earlier. (...) "If you won't talk about it, how can I help you?" he said. (...) Instead, I grabbed my hat from the bedside table and yanked it on right over my eyes. He went away then.

- p. 2, Paperback edition

"Dad says, do you want blackberries?"
"What shall I tell him?"
"Tell him I want a baby elephant."
He laughs. "I'm gonna miss you," he says, and he leaves me with an open door and the draught from the stairs."

- p. 3, Paperback edition

It's also pretty clear that Tessa is not ready to open up. She's not ready to open up for a grand majority of the book. She hides behind bravado, cajoling, making trouble, making love, but what it all boils down to is this: she's afraid, and she's vulnerable. In the first chapter, she's not ready to show that vulnerability; she almost expects others to read her mind. She's also angry with her father (though it's not explicitly stated) noting how he "looks like a Power Ranger" standing at her window with his hands at his hips - a pretty shocking thing to contrast with his gentle query. 

She throws his kindness back to him, she's not ready to talk, she doesn't want blackberries; but she does want something. 

She wants to be vulnerable. But she can't put it on her wall. 

This is a very short first chapter, but it packs some serious punch. We get a sense not only of Tessa's relationships with others, but with herself as well. We get our surface plot - the making of the list - and a sense of all that is to come. Tessa is trying to be stoic, or rather, keep her emotions in check, but she doesn't like it, and the novel doesn't make any illusions about it either. Staying unresponsive to other people's kindness and emotionally withdrawn is presented as a bad thing. 

And I like this. I'd rather have stoicism criticized in my books than have character after main character glorify it as something we should all be aspiring to, because bottling things up (from my own perspective) only makes it worse. 

What about you? What do you think?

Side note: I'm running a half marathon to raise money for a charity helping young people with mental health issues. If you can help out, or even just spread the word, please visit my page here.

Note: Image via Booklikes