Review: Challenger Deep

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Review for “Challenger Deep” by Neal Shusterman (2015)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

 

“Sometimes the darkness beyond isn’t glorious at all, it truly is an absence of light. A clawing, needy tar that pulls you down. You drown but you don’t. It turns you to lead so you sink faster in its viscous embrace. It robs you of hope and even the memory of hope. It makes you think you’ve always felt like this, and there’s no place to go but down, where it slowly, ravenously digests your will, distilling it into the ebony crude of nightmares.”

Wow…I liked this book. It’s one of the few YA books that I’ve read in the past few years (other than Francesca Zappia’s “Made You Up”) that actually manages to explore mental illness in a thoughtful, realistic way without becoming too technical or preachy in the process. I’m tired of YA books that seem to feature the so-called glamorous, damsel-in-distress kind of characters in mental institutions. It’s ridiculously unrealistic, as well as a mockery of the fact that mental illness is indeed real, that real people suffer from it. There’s nothing “beautiful” about it.

“Challenger Deep” is the story of Caden, a likable 15 year old kid who experiences mental illness first hand. The word ‘schizophrenia’ is mentioned only twice in the entire novel. Caden’s diagnosis is never named explicitly to the reader, but his experiences have all the hallmarks of this disease. The chapters are short and erratic, switching between Caden’s clinical observations of reality to highly detailed delusions of his role as a sailor on a ship with an evil captain, moving ever closer to the Mariana Trench and ‘Challenger Deep,’ the deepest point on earth. For a while no one seems to suspect what is going on, Caden mostly keeps his troubled thoughts to himself. As he becomes more and more detached from reality, however, his parents place him in a mental hospital for treatment, where he remains until the end of the book.

If you must have a definitive plot when you read fiction, then this is not the book for you. This story is not so much plot-driven as it is an extended, interior stream of Caden’s thoughts. It is a difficult book to read, the narration goes from third person to first person as he goes from normal to delusional and back again, with no warning as to when these shifts will occur. Every now and then a page is decked out with a haunting kind of scribble drawing, created by the author’s son when he went through his own journey with mental illness. Throughout the whole novel, there’s a weird kind of “calmness” to how Caden becomes unraveled that’s scary and heartbreaking. The confused, lucid manner in which the story is being presented is the only way that Caden knows to cope.

I personally felt that the ending was a satisfying one. We know there’s no cure for schizophrenia, and the author does not put on the pretense that Caden will not have challenges ahead for him. What is important is that this story ends with a suggestion of hope, some of kind promise of a normal life for Caden. This book carries an important message that is definitely worth reading about and definitely worth sharing. Highly recommended.

NOTE: With this story, I do admit that I wonder how younger readers with far less knowledge of mental illness will receive this book. As an adult reader with some background knowledge of this subject, I realized very early on what was going on here. Not so sure a teen reader would have the same experience. I’ve been wrong before though, so I dunno…

 

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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.

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: 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.

Review: Burn Girl

  
Review for “Burn Girl” by Mandy Mikulencak (2015)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Before I start this review, lemme celebrate a bit by telling you all that this is my first ARC from Net Galley!!! Yasssss!!!

Ok, now that that’s over, I’ll start my review. This title is scheduled to be published on Sept. 1, 2015. Spoilers abound, so umm…

“Burn Girl” is the story of Arlie, a teenaged girl who is disfigured in a meth lab explosion as a child. After her mother dies as a result of a drug overdose, she goes to live with her uncle in an Airstream trailer. Interspersed throughout the narrative are glimpses into Arlie’s sad childhood–her mother’s drug dependency, her friendship with her close friend Mo, and the devastating explosion caused by her stepfather Lloyd. Through Mo, her uncle, and a love interest at her new school, Arlie gradually learns to accept the love she’s missing in her life. 

The premise of this book was good but the slowness of this book made it a three star read for me. The beginning is great–you’re thrust right into the action as Arlie as she discovers her mother deceased. Unfortunately, the story rapidly loses steam from there with slow storytelling and even slower pacing of events. The action does pick up in the last 50 or so pages, but the subplot in the end didn’t seem “right” to me. Why in the world would a man go after his teenage stepdaughter for a ginormous sum of $50,000? Uhh, ok.

Not a bad book, despite its flaws I’d recommend it to teens who are looking for something beyond standard YA subject options.

[I received this ARC via Net Galley in exchange for an honest review.]