Thursday, December 27, 2012

Review: "Thoughtless" by S.C. Stephens

Author: S.C. Stephens.
Pages: 546.

Summary (taken from Goodreads): For almost two years now, Kiera's boyfriend, Denny, has been everything she's ever wanted: loving, tender and endlessly devoted to her. When they head off to a new city to start their lives together, Denny at his dream job and Kiera at a top-notch university, everything seems perfect. Then an unforeseen obligation forces the happy couple apart.
Feeling lonely, confused, and in need of comfort, Kiera turns to an unexpected source – a local rock star named Kellan Kyle. At first, he's purely a friend that she can lean on, but as her loneliness grows, so does their relationship. And then one night everything changes...and none of them will ever be the same.
I have a reputation for being something of a literary masochist. It’s my own fault, really. I began book blogging through a project where I would deliberately look for stuff that I knew I probably wouldn’t like – in this case, post-Twilight paranormal romance young adult novels – and review them in a highly critical manner not usually directed at the genre. I don’t really do this anymore (my dystopian YA review project is on hiatus due to extenuating circumstances) but the reputation remains. I’m fine with this because I do have this overwhelming urge to finish every book I read, no matter how much I hate the experience. I can’t remember the last time I didn’t finish a book. I’m not entirely sure why I’m prefacing my review with this weird disclaimer, but it feels necessary.
I have a very high standard for books like this and I see no reason why I should lower my standards because a book’s aimed at a younger audience, or is self-published. I’ve also been very vocal in my criticisms of the burgeoning New Adult category, and the inherent exploitation of its audience within. I’ve read a lot of awful, sexist, insulting, damaging and deeply disturbing YA novels in my time. I’ve seen the worst stuff passed off as romantic or normalised as part of the sexual teen experience.
But until I read “Thoughtless” by S.C. Stephens, I’d never seen rape treated as passionate and sexy. I’d never seen the heroine be kicked in the head and knocked unconscious by the man who was supposed to love her. These incidents were horrific enough, but what made it worse was the way in which they were so casually shoved aside, justified and dealt with by the characters, with almost no understanding of the real world or how basic human nature works. I’ve read a lot in my time, but nothing as truly loathsome and despicable as this book.
Let’s start with the basics. Kiera, supposedly over 21 yet possessing the emotional maturity of a seven year old, moves to Washington to be with her Australian boyfriend Denny, who she is completely devoted to despite not really having anything in common with him. They move in with Denny’s friend, local rock-star Kellan, and soon sparks fly between him and Kiera. It’s not long before Kiera falls into bed with Kellan and continues an affair with him right under her boyfriend’s nose.
I know many readers are automatically opposed to cheating characterised as romantic in such stories, but I hold no such prejudices. If it is handled maturely and imbued with the complex emotional and societal implications such situations involve, then it can make for an interesting story. Many great stories throughout history have included extra-marital affairs. However, what we see in “Thoughtless” is so lacking in dimensions that it’s almost invisible. Kiera and Kellan are incredibly unlikeable and immature characters, and spending over 500 pages with them is exhausting. You could write their motivations on the back of a postcard and still have enough room to write a few sonnets. Kiera is shallow, insensitive, cruel, selfish and incredibly stupid. She’s the blushing virgin without the virginity, the sort of woman who blushes at the very mention of the word “penis”, despite being over 21 and in a sexual relationship. I knew nothing about her or her interests, other than her boyfriend and her lover. She’s also a big fan of slut-shaming other women who even approach Kellan, who seems to be draped in adoring fans constantly. Kellan is your typical YA/NA tortured bad boy romantic archetype. There is nothing there that you haven’t seen a million times before. Denny, the adoring cardboard cut-out boyfriend, is entirely forgettable. His defining characteristics seem to be his devotion to Kiera and his Australian accent, which the author mentions almost every time he talks. We were hardly likely to forget. If you tell me he’s Australian once, I’ll believe you. the secondary characters are barely worth mentioning. Kiera’s sister is promiscuous and pretty, securing herself a job at Hooters, whilst Kellan’s band-mate Griffin literally does nothing but talk about sex. He’s beyond caricature. There’s a particularly charming scene about 10% into the book where he brags about shoving a bottle into an inebriated woman’s vagina. No character calls him out on this disgusting act, or enquires as to whether or not it was consensual. Here’s the scene in question. I’ll let you come to your own conclusions:
"...this girl, damn, she had the best rack I've ever seen." The bassist paused to make a crude gesture with his hands, as if the guys would need that statement clarified. "And the shortest skirt too. Everybody around us was completely wasted, so I ducked under the table and shoved that skirt as high as it would go. Then I grabbed my beer bottle and stuck--"
So she’s wearing a short skirt, has large breasts, and has been drinking, so that gives a man credit to do as he pleases with her?
“Thoughtless” suffers from fan-fiction syndrome. While not fan-fiction, which makes a change in this genre, the book did originally start life on, the original work equivalent of, and as such, the same expected problems arise. The plotting is stretched out beyond belief to fill out aimless chapters that were clearly intended to be read on a serialised basis. This also explains the characters’ actions. The relationship between Kiera and Kellan is stretched out repeatedly, with both making idiotic decisions so the story can go on another 50 pages. It doesn’t help that Kiera’s relationship with Denny is so dull and incomprehensible. I had no idea why they were supposedly so in love, or why I was supposed to sympathise with them or feel any real angst in her decision. We know she’s not going to pick Denny because that’s how this plot-line works. There’s no tension here whatsoever, which is a shame because there is a slither of interesting plot here. It would be different and truly emotional to see a story where someone comes to the realisation that their partner, the one they’ve given up so much for, isn’t the one, and that they don’t really have anything in common. However, such a story would require a skilled authorial hand, one which is entirely absent here.
Now, we move onto the big glaring problem here.
Kiera isn’t a whore. She’s a cheater but she’s not a whore. Such terms are thrown around to hurt women for being sexual in any way. I’ve been pretty vocal in my opposition to such anti-women tactics in fiction aimed at teens and “new adults” (but still sold as children’s fiction in Amazon, may I add) because I think that, in the 21st century, we should be more progressive and considerate in these matters. There’s no excuse for calling Kiera a whore.
There’s certainly no excuse for Kellan doing so (he, of course, is a “man-whore” throughout the book, because that’s totally different).
The fact that Kiera forgave him for calling her a whore made me so angry.
I wish it was the worst thing he’d done to her in the book.
I’ve seen one reviewer describe the car scene as “vaguely rapey”. There’s nothing vague about it. It’s rape. Kellan drags Kiera into a car and begins to undress her, despite her repeatedly saying no. there’s this bullshit “My mouth says no but my body says yes” justification coming from Kiera’s unbearable narration throughout this scene, but it’s moot. What happens is rape. She does not give her consent to Kellan. She is very vocally saying no. Later on, she cries and apologises to Kellan, saying she led him on.
This is wrong on every level.
In real life, women are raped, and in the shockingly low number of cases were the charge actually makes it to court, it is common for the defence to shame the woman. She’s slammed for her actions in her everyday life, be in wearing revealing clothing, being drunk on the occasion or daring to flirt with other men. All these are used as defences of rape because they’re seen as indicative of the victim having led him on. That mind-set is present in “Thoughtless”, and it’s used to normalise rape as something more akin to a display of uncontrollable passion. The scene is hastily explained through some tears where Kellan apologises but Kiera tosses this aside claiming she is equally to blame for what happened, and then they continue as normal.
It’s not “vaguely rapey”. It’s rape. It’s not romantic. It’s rape.
And it doesn’t end there.
Once the affair is finally revealed, Denny goes from being the gormless nice boy to a full on rage machine, and practically tears Kellan to pieces. Before he can deliver a final kick to Kellan’s head, Kiera jumps in and takes the kick. She is hospitalised and almost dies.
She forgives Denny.
She is almost killed by a man she is supposed to be able to trust. This massive and entirely gratuitous event serves no greater purpose to the plot other than to drag out the ending for even longer. The event is barely discussed. Kiera does not seem particularly distressed by what’s happened. It’s all tossed aside.
The author used domestic violence for dramatic angst purposes.
This is not okay. It’s not tense or dramatic or angsty. It’s horrific, entirely unnecessary and, from a literary point of view, embarrassing to read. There is no subtlety to this story, or anything even vaguely resembling real tension. What we have here is a violent, confused and damaging mess disguised poorly as romantic drama. What we have here is the inevitable conclusion of a genre that has continued to romanticise and justify the most horrifically misogynist examples of rape culture for the sake of chasing trends and making money. I can say, without a hint of hyperbole, that this is the most loathsome and despicable thing I have ever read. From a literary stance, it’s shoddily written, badly plotted and filled with characters that make shadow puppets look well developed. New Adult literature is supposed to fill the liminal period between adolescence and adulthood, and deal with the emotional and social situations within. Instead, this book romanticises rape. Nothing could justify the content of this novel. “Thoughtless” is completely void of redeeming qualities.
0/5. To paraphrase Roger Ebert, this is a book that lives in a world where stars don’t shine.
I received my ARC from Edelweiss. Needless to say, I was not paid or compensated for this review.

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