Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Long Time Absence

To All Former Book Lantern Readers:

We apologize for the long time absence. Alas life has a way with moving past at a furious pace.

I cannot promise that we will keep this blog updated at a regular pace, but as I've finally finished my graduate studies at Columbia University I have time to read YA again.

I look forward to reviewing and reading and writing and getting involved with the YA community again. I will also attempt to contact my former co-bloggers to see what we've all been up to for the past three years. I hope all is well with you all!


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.