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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.

5152478Title: Wintergirls
Author: Laurie Halse Anderson
Pages: 278
Year: 2009
Publisher: Viking (Penguin)
Time taken to read: 2 days
Rating: 5/5

Goodreads synopsis“Dead girl walking,” the boys say in the halls. “Tell us your secret,” the girls whisper, one toilet to another. I am that girl. I am the space between my thighs, daylight shining through. I am the bones they want, wired on a porcelain frame. Lia and Cassie are best friends, wintergirls frozen in matchstick bodies, competitors in a deadly contest to see who can be the skinniest. But what comes after size zero and size double-zero? When Cassie succumbs to the demons within, Lia feels she is being haunted by her friend’s restless spirit. Laurie Halse Anderson explores Lia’s descent into the powerful vortex of anorexia, and her painful path toward recovery.

As readers of this blog may already know, I am Laurie Halse Anderson’s biggest fan. I think she’s the greatest writer on the planet, and the only reason I haven’t read all of her books yet is because once I read them all, I will have no new LHA books to read, and that’s sad. My favorite is, of course, Speak, and I think it’s safe to say that Wintergirls is definitely my second favorite.

I was really torn between giving this 4 out of 5 stars and 5 out of 5. The only thing I didn’t like about this book was the excessively metaphoric language. Now, Anderson’s metaphors are amazingly beautiful, but I think they were a little overdone in this book. I understand that Lia is very disconnected from reality, but I found myself struggling to read every word and not skim through the metaphoric parts because I really just wanted to know what was actually happening. I landed, though, on 5 out of 5 stars because there are so few books that speak to me like this one did.

Lia is an amazing main character. I felt so deeply for her, and that was in part because of my own struggles with the same disorder, but also because of Anderson’s incredible writing. I also love that it was slipped in there that Lia is bisexual. (I really do love reading about characters that are just like me in ways that aren’t often represented.) I am always so impressed with Anderson’s ability to write about mental illnesses that (as far as we know) she doesn’t have. She must have the most empathetic spirit in the world, because she just gets feelings. Lia’s thoughts were very recognizable to me, even though every eating disorder is very different. I honestly felt something like relief whenever she talked about certain aspects of her disorder, because suddenly it was like I was realizing that I’m not totally alone in those feelings, and to me, that’s what Young Adult literature is about.

I also happen to have a thing for books where a central character is dead before the book even begins, like in Thirteen Reasons Why. I have no specific reason for this. I just like it. Cassie also reminded me a little bit of one of my own characters. Although, the interesting thing is, we are introduced to Cassie the ghost, but we definitely cannot assume that Cassie would actually say those things if she were a ghost, because it’s actually Lia’s disordered brain’s projection of Cassie. So we don’t get to know the real Cassie very much at all. The description of how Cassie dies, which I will not spoil because it is really excellent in a very disturbing way, is, I think, enough to make a lot of young girls stronger against the temptation to fall for bulimia. And I say “fall for” because eating disorders are like people, and often in therapy we are encouraged to see our eating disorder as a person separate from us, with a name and everything. They’re like very convincing, manipulative people who basically use peer pressure to get us to do the bad thing that they want us to do with them. Some people fall for it, some don’t, and some fall harder than others. It sounds like I’m saying people with eating disorders are weak, which is of course not true. I’m saying there’s just something different in our brains that make it easier for eating disorders to tempt us. So I think that, once again, Laurie Halse Anderson has probably saved some lives with her words, which is why she’s my absolute favorite.

Also, a wonderful friend of mine alerted me to a contest that’s currently being held by Writer’s Digest. It’s called “Dear Lucky Agent,” and all you need to do is send in the first page or so of your YA novel (and some other things, but you can read the rules yourself), which could give you a chance at getting your book published. I’m submitting mine probably today or tomorrow, so, fingers crossed!

22588585Title: Solitaire
Author: Alice Oseman
Pages: 368
Year: 2015
Publisher: HarperTeen
Time taken to read: 2 days
Rating: 3/5

Goodreads synopsis: In case you’re wondering, this is not a love story. My name is Tori Spring. I like to sleep and I like to blog. Last year – before all that stuff with Charlie and before I had to face the harsh realities of A-Levels and university applications and the fact that one day I really will have to start talking to people – I had friends. Things were very different, I guess, but that’s all over now. Now there’s Solitaire. And Michael Holden. I don’t know what Solitaire are trying to do, and I don’t care about Michael Holden. I really don’t.

I added this book to my to-read list because of this blog post about books that have the best depictions of mental illness. (Also, it’s very fitting that I’m posting this on World Mental Health Day! In honor of that, you can read a little bit about of one of my mental illnesses here.) I agree with what the author of that post said about how Tori’s depression feels very real. Tori does a whole lot of nothing, and that’s what depression tends to make you do. That being said, I still didn’t love this book.

My first impression of Solitaire was mixed. I really liked the writing style, but Oseman opened with a conversation about how if you don’t like Snape by the end of the series, you’ve “missed the point of Harry Potter,” which I think is insane. Snape sucks. But anyway, while Tori feels very, very real, she’s seriously annoying. She’s so judgmental about what everyone’s doing and wearing (e.g. constantly putting people down in her mind and to their faces because they’re dressed like “hipsters”). And she’s constantly whining about how everyone is so “fake” and nobody cares about the right stuff. Which is very teenager-y. But it’s dreadful to have to listen to that for 350 pages. I wanted to beg her to shut up and get some perspective. Which she does, at the very end, I suppose. She finally comes to this incredible realization that, oh my god, other people have feelings too! Really revolutionary. Like, I get that Tori was depressed. I know what it’s like to be the one who sucks the energy and the fun out of everything. But she was just rude about it, and I can’t sympathize with that.

My favorite part of the book was her brother Charlie. You don’t hear a lot about boys with eating disorders. I think something that bothers me about writing about boys with eating disorders is that it’s never “tragic and beautiful” like it is with girls. And in real life, it’s not tragic and beautiful. It’s messy and terrifying and complicated, like we see with Charlie. (For a pretty good female story about eating disorders, try Not Otherwise Specified.) I also liked the way his issues were revealed sort of slowly. I basically only cared about the parts of this book that were about him, to be honest.

What didn’t feel real to me, though, was basically the rest of the book. The whole Solitaire thing was weird. I find it really hard to believe that this group of kids could get away with all these pranks that probably required expert IT knowledge. And there was this whole magical element about it, about the school, that didn’t add up. Like, why did this random semi-rooftop place appear out of nowhere? And why is Michael so f**king strange? I kept waiting for there to be a big reveal about why he was so odd and why the boys from the other school were so weirded out about him, but there wasn’t. And then there was that weird part about how Michael and Tori fell asleep in the computer room, and I kept thinking, where is everyone else? What time is it? What on Earth is going on? Then there was the end, when Michael and Tori were standing on the roof of the school, which was burning down at the time, and they were just standing there talking and then kissing. While the school was on fire. Plus, all the characters drove me nuts with their fake-deep lines. Even Becky. Like every sentence had to be ambiguously meaningful. Especially at the end, for example, when Tori tells Lucas he “really did something beautiful.” What he did was BURN THE SCHOOL DOWN. That’s not beautiful. That’s criminal.

And then, of course the whole Solitaire thing is all about Tori, which is so typical and gross. I must quote an incredible review from Goodreads: “And this whole Solitaire thing was ALL FOR HER, BECAUSE EVERYTHING IS ABOUT THIS TORTURED SOUL WHO TREATS EVERYONE LIKE SHIT BUT THEY STILL LOVE HER, SO FUCKING REALISTIC.” Yeah, that basically sums up my opinion. The above average writing is really all that brings this from a 2/5 rating to a 3/5.

Also, this didn’t fit anywhere in this review, but I just have to say that at one point Oseman wrote the phrase “over and over on repeat,” and it’s still bothering me. Where was the editor on that one? “Over and over on repeat”! Repetitive and redundant. This book has above average writing except for that phrase. I’m never going to stop shaking my head over that.

17900792Title: Not Otherwise Specified
Author: Hannah Moskowitz
Pages: 260
Year: 2015
Publisher: Pulse (Simon & Schuster)
Time taken to read: 23 hours
Rating: 4/5

Goodreads synopsisEtta is tired of dealing with all of the labels and categories that seem so important to everyone else in her small Nebraska hometown. Everywhere she turns, someone feels she’s too fringe for the fringe. Not gay enough for the Dykes, her ex-clique, thanks to a recent relationship with a boy; not tiny and white enough for ballet, her first passion; and not sick enough to look anorexic (partially thanks to recovery). Etta doesn’t fit anywhere—until she meets Bianca, the straight, white, Christian, and seriously sick girl in Etta’s therapy group. Both girls are auditioning for Brentwood, a prestigious New York theater academy that is so not Nebraska. Bianca seems like Etta’s salvation, but how can Etta be saved by a girl who needs saving herself?

I originally gave this book 3 out of 5 stars, but I ultimately decided on 4 out of 5 mainly because of the subject matter and the representation. The main character, Etta, is a black bisexual girl with a Japanese semi-girlfriend. There is no other book out there that has that.

This author really knows how to write about eating disorders (which isn’t surprising since she had one). And I’m a good judge of that because I had one too, and maybe still do. I want to share one quote that’s about labels and diagnoses that really spoke to me:

“There are a billion things about this that are important to me and every one of them contradicts or takes away from one of the other ones. I just want this to add up in a way that makes me look more…” […] “Legitimate.”

I struggle with more mental illnesses than I can count on one hand and they all come back to the same question: are my feelings legitimate enough to be considered a “problem”? I was technically diagnosed with EDNOS (eating disorder not otherwise specified) like Etta, but I met the criteria for anorexia before I started seeing a psychiatrist, and that will always bug me. Nobody wants to be mentally ill, but you want that diagnosis, that label, so that you can start to make sense of what’s happening to you and so that you feel legitimate enough to get help, and this is something I’ve been struggling with for years. I also happen to be bisexual, like Etta, and her feelings of not being gay enough also seriously resonate with me. I’m currently dating a guy and I look very feminine, so to most people, I’m straight until proven otherwise, and it bugs me because that’s not who I am. I try to find ways to slip it into conversations, like I’ll say, “Oh, yeah, I had an ex-girlfriend once who was really into [insert conversation topic].” And people have straight up (no pun intended) told me that they think I do that because I want attention, but they’re wrong. I can see people assuming things about me that are wrong and I want to casually correct them because I’m uncomfortable with their assumptions. So basically, yeah, I picked up this book because I knew I’d really relate to the main character, and in that sense I was not disappointed.

Etta’s voice was strong and teenager-y, which is good. Her thoughts were sort of stream of consciousness-y, which is how most teenagers (and people in general) think and talk, including myself. However, a voice in a book can’t actually be like how people talk. Moskowitz’s sentences were long and rambling, which doesn’t work on the page. I had to reread several sentences to understand them because there were so many thoughts in one sentence that it was overwhelming. I also felt like some of the writing was a little cheesy and overdone. Bianca asks Etta why she doesn’t want to feel something about ballet, I don’t remember what it was exactly, and Etta says, “Because that means we exist.” I stared at that line for a while because it was incredible how little it meant while it was trying so hard to mean so much. That, to me, shows a writer who is trying too hard. Your meaningful quotes, in my opinion, should come naturally, and that line feels like the opposite of natural.

While I loved Etta, the other characters in this book fell a little flat for me, especially James and Mason. We don’t know anything about Mason other than the fact that he has a motorcycle, and because of that he seemed really flat and one-dimensional. We learn a little bit more about James, but the relationship he has with Etta that we see and the relationship that Etta talks about are totally different. It seems to me like the only thing that connects the two of them is Bianca (and maybe Mason), but Etta says that she and James are soul mates. She says, “We need each other, James and I,” but I never saw any evidence of that. I am not an expert on well-rounded secondary characters, so I don’t know exactly what the author could have done to make them better, but I can feel that they needed more work.

Another thing that I have been that is relevant to this book and this review is a Starbucks barista. It is clear to me that Moskowitz has never done more than glance at a Starbucks menu. (Fun fact: I have one hanging in my kitchen.) First of all, Bianca is poor. This is said and shown multiple times, yet Bianca calls Starbucks “her third parent.” Starbucks is not cheap. I cannot afford Starbucks prices even with an employee discount, so Bianca definitely cannot be as attached to it as she is. Second, what is a “caramel apple latte”? That does not exist. That does not even make any sense. Not even close. And third, it’s ICED coffee, not ICE coffee. That’s probably in my top five barista pet peeves, right behind asking for a drink off the “secret menu”.

The bottom line is, I’m very glad that this book exists. It isn’t perfect, but at least it was done. Broaden your horizons, try a new perspective, and give this book a chance.