Review: Jumping Off Swings

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Review for “Jumping Off Swings” by Jo Knowles (2009)

Rating: 1 out of 5 stars

I’ve been on a gloomy reading kick lately, haven’t I? This should lighten the mood for you softies. Spoilers abound, though. FYI–usually when I don’t like a book, spoilers are inevitable, for no other reason but to explain why I didn’t like it.

Anywho, YA books about teenage pregnancy are always kinda risky–on one hand the author wants to avoid glamorization, on the other hand the author can be completely out of touch with the sex lives of real teenagers. I picked this book up on a rainy afternoon at my local library because I was curious how a modern YA author tackled this subject. Needless to say, I was highly disappointed. I didn’t like this book at all.

This book is told through four perspectives–Ellie, the teenage mom and the “town tramp,” Josh, the reluctant virgin and the father of Ellie’s baby, Caleb, a virgin and a friend of Josh’s (who later falls for Ellie’s friend), and Corinne, also a virgin, and a friend of Ellie’s. The perspectives switch throughout the story, which I didn’t like, because the only perspectives that we should be concerned with to develop the plot were of those directly involved, Ellie and Josh. Who wants to read a book about teenage pregnancy where only half is about the parents? There was no buildup of action here, and just when the momentum began, the POV changed again.

The characters here were mostly thin and underdeveloped. For the first half of the book Ellie doesn’t say or do much other than cry while Corinne feels sorry for her and tries to help her. There is an indication that Ellie’s home life isn’t all roses, but beyond the standard, upper middle class dysfunctional stereotype (right down to the stoner older brother), there’s not much that is said about Ellie. Josh’s home life is a little bit more fleshed out, but not by much, as he stays isolated and wondering what the hell is happening with Ellie for most of the story. He doesn’t even find out about the pregnancy until the middle of the book, long after all of the other three main characters do. Also, there isn’t one single scene of Josh and Ellie so much as breathing the same air after she gets pregnant at the very beginning of the book, which I found to be completely bizarre. It’s almost as if the author completely shut the door on these two characters ever speaking again after they procreate. Even if they weren’t boyfriend/girlfriend at the time of the pregnancy, why are these two characters completely isolated from each other after such an occurrence? This made no sense at all.

I did come away with a full picture of Caleb, a child raised by a single mother. However, I never got a decent sense of Corinne beyond her interest in Ellie. Her home life seemed to be normal, but it’s only vaguely mentioned in the book. At the end there was the indication Caleb and Corinne will embark on a relationship, fully aware of the “mistakes” of their friends and without the pressure of sex.

I put “mistakes” in quotes in the last paragraph because I completely loathed the message of this book. The message that Knowles is sending here seems to be that premarital sex is bad, unwholesome, and leads to not only a bad reputation (if you’re female), but misery, isolation, and shame. This is simply ridiculous. It seems that there still cannot be a book where a teenaged female character has sex without some kind of horrific consequence—either getting pregnant, ostracism for being a “slut,” or being forced to do something she completely disagrees with. In this book, all three happen to Ellie. Eventually she gives her baby up for adoption, but she clearly doesn’t want to. And why does it have to end that way anyway? Plenty of teenage parents keep their babies and go on to live productive lives. Why is adoption presented as some horrifying fate that awaits the wayward, pregnant teenager? Arghhh…

Although the cover of this book was cute, I don’t recommend this book to anyone–teens or otherwise.

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Review: Violent Ends

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Review for ‘Violent Ends’ by Shaun David Hutchinson, et al (2015)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

After I finished this book I spent about 10 minutes staring up at the ceiling, thinking: Wow.

This book takes a very unique narrative approach–it is a novel told in 17 different short stories, all centered around one terrible and tragic event, a school shooting. Each story is by a different author of YA literature, some of whose names I’m familiar with, but many of which I’ve not yet read. The stories are non-linear. Some take place over various periods before the shooting, some after, and some during the actual shooting.

The unifying thread throughout all of the stories is Kirby Matheson, the teenage shooter who kills a teacher, several of his classmates, and injures a dozen more before finally killing himself. Kirby never speaks to us directly, but the people connected to him do–friends, acquaintances, family members, his classmates–some that knew him intimately, some that didn’t know him at all. You never really get a sense of who Kirby was or why he did what he did, but the gaps in your understanding are precisely the point of this book. After such tragedies occur, we pause to wonder why seemingly “normal” people become violent. Was he bullied? Was he mentally ill? Were there signs? Did his parents know? “Violent Ends” offers no clear answers, just a picture of an American tragedy and the people left in its wake.

Be cautioned that all of the stories in this book are not created equal, however. Some were quite forgettable, but there were several standouts. “Grooming Habits” was sensational, as well as “Survival Instinct,””History Lessons,” and “Presumed Destroyed.” The authors of these stories I will most definitely be reading in the future, just because the writing was that damn good.

Read this book. Once you start it you won’t be able to put it down.

Review: Brother

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Review for “Brother” for Ania Ahlborn (released on September 29. 2015)

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Creepy, horrifying, disturbing, gross. And excellent.

Did I mention that I am giving this book 4.5 stars?

This book is horror at its best. The Morrows are a West Virginian family living deep in the Appalachian wilderness (think: “Deliverance”), so deep that “no one can hear the screams.” And for good reason. The Morrows–mom Claudine, dad Wade, and their son Rebel–are a family of psychotic killers that prey on young women that are unfortunate enough to cross their path. This book follows the thoughts of nineteen-year-old Michael, Rebel’s “adopted” brother and the polar opposite of the Morrows. Although he participates in his family’s gruesome “activities,” he gets no pleasure from them. He dreams of other possibilities for his life and contemplates running away when he meets an attractive girl in town named Alice.

[Pause.]

To tell you more about this book is to completely spoil it, which I won’t do. There are flashbacks throughout this novel, that, when taken as a whole, make the events you’re reading about all the more disturbing. There is also a sickening, depraved twist in this novel that I won’t give away either, other than to say that I did not see IT coming, even from a million miles away…

I don’t think I want to know where Ania Alhborn got the idea for this book. A lot of the details harken back to the original “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” but in the Acknowledgements section, the author says she didn’t get her inspiration from that movie. Regardless, I was completely engrossed in this book. It’s a must read, especially if you like horror, and extremes are your thing. Highly recommended!

[NOTE: I received an advanced publishers’ copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]

Review: Notice

Review for “Notice” by Heather Lewis (2004)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

“But even with that slumber taking me over, and then taking me under, I knew that leviathan thing slept in this same darkness. Lay with me, too. Resting, biding its time.”

Heather Lewis, Notice, pg. 203

Heather Lewis, the author of this book, took her own life after she wrote these words. “Notice” was published posthumously in 2004, two years after her death. It was published by a small printing press and as of 2015, this book is out of print and damn near impossible to get in the city of Charlotte, North Carolina. I finally did an interlibrary loan and waited for 4 weeks, and lo and behold, it arrived.

Now that I’m done: Jesus Christ.

This book is, unequivocally, one of the most disturbing novels I have ever read. The main character is a young woman who works as a prostitute, casually taking money for loveless sex with strangers. She eventually gets involved with a sadist and his wife–and what ensues is one of the most bizarre and violent S&M relationships in recent literature. This leads her into a relationship with her therapist, and another bizarre, S&M-like sexual relationship ensues.

This book is in first person, and narrated with a cold, emotionally detached tone to match. The amount of sexual violence was so extreme and frequent here that I wanted to stop reading it, but Something continued to compel me to go back. Not because I wanted to hear about how the main character gets used and abused, but because you want to know what drives her, what’s inside her head. It never happens. This is one of those stories that you want to somehow become easy reading, for things to become less cruel and complicated–until you realize that your comfort level was never the point here. It’s human brutality laid bare in its purest form, and Heather Lewis wants us to notice. This was not just a novel, this book was her catharsis.

It is not often when I give such a brutal book such high praise, but if you can find it through whatever obscure means available and you can manage to take a risk and stomach it, I DO recommend reading it. Tell your librarian that I sent you. (*wink*)

Review: 52 Likes

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Review for “52 Likes” by Medeia Sharif (2015)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

I like thrillers, especially YA thrillers, so naturally this book drew my interest. At the beginning, there’s barely enough time to meet Valerie before she is brutally raped and almost killed by an unknown assailant. As horrible as it is (and it is really horrifying and terrible to read), I thought that the author handled this subject matter well. When dealing with unpleasant topics there is always the option to linger and lose the reader in unnecessary, gory details, but thankfully Sharif doesn’t do this. After the rape Valerie is harassed by peers at school, and sent mysterious messages on a social media website that hints of the rapist’s identity. Valerie begins to follow these clues and it leads her into the knowledge of more unsolved crimes by this mysterious man–with a supernatural twist.

Why 3 stars? I liked this, but ahhh…the character. Valerie is a strong girl who (she doesn’t take her fate laying down), but for some reason I never really connected with her. The writing here is flat–the parts of the book when I should have been scared I wasn’t, and where there was supposed to be other emotions (tension, maybe?) I never really felt them. And much of the book, especially the end, just seemed, I don’t know…rushed. Like the author was aware of some deadline and had to wrap it up as quickly as possible. It’s a quick read–one that teens will probably like–and I wouldn’t necessarily be against reading other books by Ms. Sharif in the future. But I wouldn’t put this book on a recommended read list.

[I received this advanced publisher’s copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]

Review: Everything, Everything

  
Review for “Everything, Everything” by Nicola Yoon (to be released in September 2015)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

This book is damn near close to perfect.

I am in awe of first time author Nicola Yoon and her extraordinary talent. It is rare I find a YA book that I truly like, and this was one of those books. From the time I began reading this, I could not put it down. The main character we follow is Madeline, a teenage girl with an extremely rare disease (SCID, Severe Combined Immunodeficiency) that makes her allergic to everything in the outside world. She has lived completely indoors since she was young in a kind of artificial, “bubble-like” existence: filtered air, specially cooked foods, and no outside visitors. The only people she communicates with are her mother, her doctor, and Carla, her nurse. Madeline has resigned herself to her housebound fate until she glances out of her window one day and discovers a family moving in next door. She is immediately drawn to the teenage boy living there, Olly, and from there her entire world changes.

I won’t say any more about the plot here because this book will not be released until September 2015 and some of you have to wait for it. But I will say that this book was throughly engaging for me. The romance wasn’t cheesy like a lot of YA books, but completely organic and it fit perfectly in the story. There are also charts, graphs, and illustrations that added a certain special touch to the book that teens will enjoy. 

I’m giving this five stars. It’s not often that I do this, but I actually stayed up until 3:20 am on a school night finishing this, and I don’t regret a moment of it. Beautiful, beautiful book!

[I received this advanced publisher’s copy from Net Galley in exchange for an honest review.]

Review: Made You Up

  
Review for “Made You Up” by Francesca Zappia (2015)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Very interesting YA novel about a teenage girl living with paranoid schizophrenia. One of the first books I’ve read in a long time that takes the unreliable narrator in an entirely new direction I’ve never seen it venture into before. Alex, the main character, is somewhat unlikeable…but man, this girl is a stick of dynamite. She never wallows in pity, whines, or even asks you to understand her. Her thoughts are honest and laid bare in such a way that I came to trust her, even when I knew that her observations may or may not be real. Three pages into this and I loved her immediately.

I won’t give any spoilers to the actual story here, because that would completely ruin the beauty of this book. If you are interested in books that thoughtfully (and tastefully!) explore mental illness, then read it for yourself.

One of the reasons I love YA so much as an adult is because it’s one of the few genres that seems to be tackling current issues in new and profound ways. I’ve read many books about mental illness in my lifetime, but lemme tell you, nothing like this before.

Do read this. You won’t be disappointed.