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25785649-1Title: The Way I Used to Be
Author: Amber Smith
Pages: 367
Year: 2016
Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry (Simon & Schuster)
Time taken to read: 30 hours
Rating: 3/5

Goodreads synopsisIn the tradition of Speak, this extraordinary debut novel shares the unforgettable story of a young woman as she struggles to find strength in the aftermath of an assault. Eden was always good at being good. Starting high school didn’t change who she was. But the night her brother’s best friend rapes her, Eden’s world capsizes. What was once simple, is now complex. What Eden once loved—who she once loved—she now hates. What she thought she knew to be true, is now lies. Nothing makes sense anymore, and she knows she’s supposed to tell someone what happened but she can’t. So she buries it instead. And she buries the way she used to be. Told in four parts—freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior year—this provocative debut reveals the deep cuts of trauma. But it also demonstrates one young woman’s strength as she navigates the disappointment and unbearable pains of adolescence, of first love and first heartbreak, of friendships broken and rebuilt, and while learning to embrace a power of survival she never knew she had hidden within her heart.

I saw The Way I Used to Be on the shelf at B&N this past Sunday, and, drawn in by the cover, I read the synopsis. I really like Speak, and I was intrigued by the comparison. So, I got it from the library first thing the next day.

I struggled to rate this book. I originally gave it four stars because I think it could accomplish what I’m assuming it means to accomplish, which is helping victims of sexual assault gather the courage to speak up. And for that reason, sure, I’m glad it exists. I also liked that it takes place over four years, because I don’t think people realize how much these events affect people years and years after they happen. At the end of Eden’s senior year, this thing still controls her life, and that is the reality of it for a lot of people. I also think the way she turns to frivolous and even potentially dangerous sex is interesting. Everyone deals with PTSD differently. Everyone finds a different coping mechanism. And Eden’s is very active and vivid, which I think works well in novel.

Yet, I felt the relationships weren’t earned. I don’t understand why Josh ever liked Eden, for example. She was never nice to him. It bothered me so much every time she flipped out on him in a way that seemed totally random to him, and sure, she doesn’t want to tell him the truth, but she doesn’t even try to reassure him that it wasn’t his fault. And I get that all of it is hard for her. I really do. But Josh was a good guy, and if Eden had questioned that goodness, if she had doubted him and even feared him, I would have understood why she treated him so poorly. But she never really did question whether or not he was genuine. She’s using him and she knows it, and while I have sympathy for her, it still isn’t right to treat someone the way she does. But even besides whether or not I agree with her actions, I had trouble believing that Josh would put up with it for so long. He was the king of the school or whatever. I’m assuming he could date nearly any girl he wanted. Why Eden? He never says why he’s so drawn to her, just that he is, and I didn’t buy it.

But again, honestly, as much as I have sympathy for her, I was absolutely exhausted by the way she treated Josh and Steve and everyone else around her. And I could see glimpses of evidence that she’s exhausting herself too, throughout the book, and those moments were great. I wanted a lot more of that. I wanted a stronger sense of her being out of control and knowing she’s out of control but not being able to rein it in no matter how much she tries and how much she knows these people don’t deserve it. But that’s not her attitude. It really bothered me how she talks about her parents. They lash out at her because she lashes out at them first in a way that’s incredibly immature and unacceptable to me no matter what you’ve been through. Her mom shouldn’t ever have slapped her, obviously, but Eden treated them like crap long before that happened. And even if Eden recognized her actions for what they were more often, the way she lashes out at good people on every page got so repetitive. I won’t spoil the ending, but I will say I was relieved by it, and it saved me from giving the book an even lower rating.

I saw a lot of reviews on Goodreads similar to mine where readers wanted to criticize Eden but felt guilty about it because of her PTSD. I think it’s important to note for me and for all of those reviewers that none of us is saying we don’t sympathize with Eden and understand that no one deals with sexual assault perfectly. I think when we talk about what Eden does that we didn’t like, we’re talking about her as a character, and I think her actions as a character start to overshadow the message the book is trying to send. If Eden was a more likable character, I wouldn’t be sitting here talking about how she’s unlikable–instead I would be talking about how much this book and others like it have the potential to change lives. But I’m not talking about that, nor are other reviewers, because this is in the way, and that’s why, while it’s really important to me to read about flawed characters, there has to be a balance, especially in instances like this.

25982869Title: Scarlett Epstein Hates it Here
Author: Anna Breslaw
Pages: 288
Year: 2016
Publisher: Razorbill (Penguin)
Time taken to read: 3 days
Rating: 3/5

Goodreads synopsis: Meet Scarlett Epstein, BNF (Big Name Fan) in her online community of fanfiction writers, world-class nobody at Melville High. Her best (read: only) IRL friends are Avery, a painfully shy and annoyingly attractive bookworm, and Ruth, her weed-smoking, possibly insane seventy-three-year-old neighbor. When Scarlett’s beloved TV show is canceled and her longtime crush, Gideon, is sucked out of her orbit and into the dark and distant world of Populars, Scarlett turns to the fanfic message boards for comfort. This time, though, her subjects aren’t the swoon-worthy stars of her fave series—they’re the real-life kids from her high school. And if they ever find out what Scarlett truly thinks about them, she’ll be thrust into a situation far more dramatic than anything she’s ever seen on TV.

This is difficult. Throughout the first three-fourths of this book, I thought it was god awful. It was like somebody tried to write their own version of Fangirl but with a really obnoxious main character. Really, really obnoxious. I mean, Scarlett is infuriating. She’s actually really funny a lot of the time, but all she’s capable of doing is making fun of people who are more well-liked than her and feeling sorry for herself because she’s not one of them. I think the only reason her personality was tolerable was because people were consistently calling her out on it, which increased in frequency towards the last fourth of the book, which is why I started to hate it less then. And of course she learned her lesson and believes that Ashley is actually a human being now and is even going to be friends with her! I guess that’s character development, but it felt like weak, cheap, predictable character development. And speaking of weak writing…Scarlett’s fanfiction, the “Miss Ordinaria” story is horrifying. Was there no one along the process of publishing this book that felt like having a fictional subplot about teenage sex robots is disgusting and stupid? I mean, I was totally like Scarlett when I was really into Sherlock. I was a lunatic, and I wrote dumb fanfiction (that I’m still oddly proud of, truthfully), but even at my deepest point of cringe-y fandom, I would have thought this was weird. And I’d just like to point out that there were some fandom references, like certain acronyms and stuff, that even I didn’t get, so I can’t imagine how this book must have looked to a normal person.

Look, it’s not like there were no reasons for Scarlett to feel sorry for herself. Besides high school, she lived in a tiny apartment with an “absent” mother (who actually seemed pretty present and loving in my opinion). I don’t really know how to approach the subject of Scarlett being poor. She says it a lot, and I’m not going to say that no poor people have Converse, but it just felt like a detail that could have been used to emphasize Scarlett’s situation and did the exact opposite, and it threw in another unnecessary cliche on top of that. And I’d also like to note that in real high schools, people don’t actually openly get made fun of for being poor. I was very much part of the middle class when I was in high school, and you know who made fun of me? A girl who probably came from one of the poorest families in town. Another detail that bothered me: Scarlett complains that Gideon makes fun of fat people, and I get that they made fun of Leslie, and I guess Leslie was supposed to be the fat girl, but I don’t remember a mention of Leslie’s size, and even if there was one, it didn’t come from the guys making fun of her–it would have come from the narrator, Scarlett. In fact, Scarlett uses a term I have yet to hear, “skinny-fat,” which she describes as not being fat but also not being “toned” (148). And that left me thinking, am I skinny-fat? I’m not toned. Is she describing that girl that’s on the front and back covers? Because she’s just skinny. (And her glasses are super cliche. FYI, I’m a giant nerd, and I have perfect vision. But anyway, she looks like me, maybe slightly more stick-like, and considering the fact that I’m underweight, I don’t think I should be described by any word, hyphenated or otherwise, that has the word “fat” in it (despite the fact that I do feel that way about myself sometimes). Oh, and then there was the mention, near the beginning, of carbs, “even quinoa,” being so bad for you that it kills brain cells, cited by Avery’s father, a nutrition professor. You know where I was going while I was reading this on the train? Eating disorder therapy. You know what we had for dinner that night at eating disorder therapy? Quinoa. Yeah, I felt great. Listen, this is why I want to be an editor. I need YA authors to understand who is reading their books. These comments won’t affect everyone of course, but teenagers are fragile. When you write for teens, it is your job to use every word to build them up, or at the very least to make sure not one word is there that could tear them down. I’m officially instating a new rule for YA authors: you’re not allowed to mention food in a negative context or weight in any context unless it’s to celebrate body diversity.

In the end, I’m giving this three stars rather than two because even though this is a crappy version of Fangirl, I like to think that even normal girls who are really obsessed with TV shows are interesting enough to write books about, because I’ve been that girl. And because it’s pointed out more than once that Scarlett is a real asshole, often by Gideon, who is, like, a decent love interest. She barely talks about his looks, other to say that he was chubby at some point. There’s some good body diversity. This has been a review.

151534Title: Your First Novel
Author: Anne Rittenberg and Laura Whitcomb
Pages: 293
Year: 2006
Publisher: Writer’s Digest Books
Time taken to read: 1 month, 3 weeks
Rating: 2/5

Goodreads synopsis: In “Your First Novel,” novelist Laura Whitcomb and seasoned literary agent Ann Rittenberg team up to provide you with the skills you need to write your dream novel and the savvy business know-how to get it published. In this all-in-one resource, you’ll discover essential novel-writing techniques[…]and insider information on what it takes to get published[…]. Plus, learn about the publishing process from the firsthand accounts of such noted authors as Dennis Lehane, Kathryn Harrison, Jim Fusilli, Kathleen George, and others!

I don’t remember where I got this book, either from my dad or from B&N, but it’s one of the many how-to-write-a-novel books that I’ve had sitting around for ages. I have to say that in 2006, this book might have been good. I was only 11 years old in 2006, so I don’t know how predictable the upcoming technology boom was, but I think these authors chose a very poor time to write this book. It took me back to having to write essays in cursive with a black or blue pen back in middle school, before everything was done on computers. The publishing half of this book goes on and on about the ways to mail copies of your manuscript, but none of that is relevant anymore. Plus, I honestly skimmed the last 50 pages because it was all about what to do once your book is picked up by an agent and then an editor. I’m nowhere near that point, and I’m not interested in reading about what to do when you’re successful. I already spend too much time imagining myself as being more famous than John Green.

The writing half of this book wasn’t that great either. I got the sense that this was written for people who aren’t natural writers. I know how to use punctuation, thanks. I’m only an editor myself. (Shout out to the editing firm that hired me because of this blog.) I did take a few notes while reading this, though, about interesting advice like, “Take a stack of novels in your genre and read the first sentence of all of them.” I’m pretty sure I’d heard that before, but I could use a reminder, I guess. Mostly, though, I got nothing new from this book. Which isn’t to say that no one can find this helpful, but I did not.

Also, yes, you heard correctly: I am nowhere near being published, but I am on a journey to just that. You can read about my book here. (That link is also listed at the top of this blog, under “My book”.)