real-talk YA book reviews

Monthly Archives: April 2014

A really awesome messEnjoyability:      smile transpsmile transpsmile transpsmile transpsmile transp gray

Deep Thoughts: brain2brain2brain2brain outline transp 2brain outline transp 2

Pages: 288   Copyright: 2013

     The Blurb: “Two teenagers. Two very bumpy roads taken that lead to Heartland Academy.
Justin was just having fun, but when his dad walked in on him with a girl in a very compromising position, Justin’s summer took a quick turn for the worse. His parents’ divorce put Justin on rocky mental ground, and after a handful of Tylenol lands him in the hospital, he has really hit rock bottom.

Emmy never felt like part of her family. She was adopted from China. Her parents and sister tower over her and look like they came out of a Ralph Lauren catalog– and Emmy definitely doesn’t. After a scandalous photo of Emmy leads to vicious rumors around school, she threatens the boy who started it all on Facebook.

Justin and Emmy arrive at Heartland Academy, a reform school that will force them to deal with their issues, damaged souls with little patience for authority. But along the way they will find a ragtag group of teens who are just as broken, stubborn, and full of sarcasm as themselves. In the end, they might even call each other friends.
A funny, sad, and remarkable story, A Really Awesome Mess is a journey of friendship and self-discovery that teen readers will surely sign up for.”

             I really enjoyed this book. It was a page turner for me, which is odd, since it wasn’t overtly suspenseful; but I guess because the characters were constantly and rapidly evolving, I was eager to see what the next shift would be for each of them.

            As an “issues book”, I don’t think A Really Awesome Mess was much of a groundbreaker. I liked the way anorexia was represented, because like Natasha Friend’s Perfect, it delved deeper into the affliction and explored causes other than the simple desire to meet societal depictions of female beauty. Yes, Emmy is insecure about her weight, but that insecurity stems from a much more complex knot of emotions within her and events in her life. But overall, the image of adolescent mental health issues risked coming off campy—a motley crew of unlikely friends, some heart to hearts, big revelations on top of Ferris wheels… I struggled to be 100% convinced. Still, it’s great to show teens that their problems are surmountable, and since I’ve been lucky enough not to deal with any of the circumstances represented, so I can’t really know how realistic it was or wasn’t.

            But as a teenage friendship adventure, I was sold. Each member of the Heartland Academy crew brought something different to the table (except for possibly Chip. I might have cut him… he was the least unique and the most dispensable for me. Sorry, Chip), and their personalities continually intermingled and bounced off each other in unpredictable ways.

            The shenanigans, also, were on point. The pandemonium that breaks out near the middle of the book was pretty delightful. Altogether, though it may not have revolutionized the way I see the world or set a massive unprecedented fire of inspiration ablaze, it was a very fun and well-done book that I thoroughly recommend.



Enjoyability:       smile transpsmile transpsmile transpsmile transp graysmile transp gray

Deep Thoughts: brain2brain2brain2half brain outlinebrain outline transp 2

Pages: 400    Copyright: 2011

“The fifty contestants in the Miss Teen Dream Pageant thought this was going to be a fun trip to the beach, where they could parade in their state-appropriate costumes and compete in front of the cameras. But sadly, their airplane had another idea, crashing on a desert island and leaving the survivors stranded with little food, little water, and practically no eyeliner.
What’s a beauty queen to do? Continue to practice for the talent portion of the program – or wrestle snakes to the ground? Get a perfect tan – or learn to run wild? And what should happen when the sexy pirates show up?”           

                My expectations were awfully high.

                And not just because of that flawless, flawless cover art. Going Bovine is on the short list for my favorite books of ALL TIME. Like, I had to go to the sock superstore after I read Going Bovine, because it knocked all of mine off.

                Beauty Queens just wasn’t Going Bovine—it clearly wasn’t trying to be. Going Bovine explores the very nature of life, death, and the universe. Beauty Queens is a wacky, light-hearted comedy that also aims to bring up important social issues. But, unfortunately, even taking the difference in mission into account, Beauty Queens didn’t quite measure up for me.

              The central problem was heavy-handedness. Yes, the book is funny, and yes it handles social issues fairly well and is fearless about it, but at times, it was like the spice shakers got knocked over and spilled way more into the mixer than the recipe called for. Some of the moments of ditsyness from pageant girls or government agents just made me groan (“Um, I forgot. Why can’t we drink the ocean water again?”), and there were SO MANY social issues packed in, it risked being more a pamphlet than a novel. Sexism, racism, body images, homosexuality, transgenderism, hearing impairment, slut shaming, loss of virginity, sex ed in schools, teen pregnancy, the ugly side of capitalism, the ugly side of US foreign policy, the evils of the beauty industry, environmental destruction, displacement of native peoples, animal testing… oy. Maybe we should take it one book at a time? No one loves to be preached to.

               I really did love all of the messages Beauty Queens was sending; and most of the stuff I’ve written lately has had a political message at its core, so I definitely get the inclination to write that way. But there was just no subtlety whatsoever, and it was a little wearying. Maybe I felt a little condescended to, like it was intended for a younger reader in need of education.

               I wouldn’t say I didn’t enjoy Beauty Queens. The plot twisted enough to keep things fresh, the characters were strong enough that I wanted good things for them, and it was fun to see how pageant supplies– and pageant girls– were re-purposed for jungle survival. It was a good book to have with me during my recent travels, and it would be a pretty ideal beach read. But my socks stayed on my feet. If you only have time for one book, make it Going Bovine.

            They’re officially making an Eleanor and Park movie!!

            And Rainbow Rowell is writing the screenplay!!

            I just had to get that order of business out of the way right off the bat. I’m so excited that RR is so involved and can ensure that the story is honored properly.

            This exciting adaption news brought again to the forefront of my mind the old question of the movie of Matched by Ally Condie. I really want a Matched movie, you guys. I can’t help it. I’m a romantic fangirl. The IMDB page still hasn’t firmed up any comforting details about the progress that may or may not be being made, but the page is still there, and I’m just gonna take that as good news.

            But here’s the hitch. Yesterday, out of the blue, as horrific revelations so often are, I was suddenly struck in the gut with the force of a fact that I long ago buried somewhere deep in my subconscious.

            The official pronunciation of Cassia (the protagonist’s name)… is CASH-uh.

            Every time I think about this fact, my whole body trembles with “no”. From the very first page, I have pronounced Cassia “cass-EE-uh”. And though it may seem odd, yes, it is a big deal for me. Cass-EE-uh feels to me like a perfect and immutable representation of Cassia’s character, nay, her very soul. And because Cassia’s affair with Ky, the boy her dystopian society doesn’t want her to be with, is characterized from the start by his name appearing accidentally on the screen that tells her who her official soul mate is, as well as the fact that Ky later spends time secretly teaching Cassia to write both of their names (in the world of Matched, writing by hand is illegal), names are a very symbolic and central part of their relationship.

            I am so invested in my own personal and– if we operate on the author’s-word-is-the-last-word philosophy– incorrect pronunciation that I fear it could severely impact my enjoyment of the movie. How can I swoon over the quiet and tender romance scenes with Ky twanging out CASHuh as he takes her in his arms?

            This crisis has gotten me thinking. This incident of misinterpreting details and ending up out of sync with my fellow readers at large was not an isolated one. I somehow always pictured Four in Divergent (that well-known standalone novel with no sequels! La la la la!) as blonde and blue-eyed, even though I’m pretty sure he was specifically described as having dark hair and eyes. Even more bizarrely, for the first three books in Rick Riordan’s Heroes of Olympus series, I pictured one of the main characters as entirely the wrong race. Despite being well aware that his family was from China, it was only in House of Hades that I finally got it through my muddled head that Frank Zhang has a traditionally Asian appearance, and is not African-American. How could I possibly have gotten that image? The world may never know.

            Do I have a point other than that I’m crazy and a sloppy reader, and that Ally Condie’s pronunciation of a name she invented is objectively incorrect? I guess what I’m wondering is how important it is that our understanding of a story carefully follow what the author intended. I mean, I certainly think just enjoying what you read is a highly legitimate goal—that’s kind of the premise of this site. But authors make choices, even ones about fine details, carefully and with good reason.

          My other point is that the whole process of playing out a story within our minds is pretty fascinating. How much do we actually visualize what we’re reading, like a mental movie, and how much are the images more subconsciously perceived? I can’t really even answer that question about myself. But I would love to hear what a neuroscientist has to say about it. A lot of times, when I really try to picture a character clearly, I can’t do it. Their features kind of wobble and melt and shift, like a boggart that can’t figure out what your greatest fear is. I actually think it’s easier for me to picture scenery than faces; what makes it easier, for either one, is when I end up picturing a person or place from my real life. Although it can be a little strange when I have a casual acquaintance mentally cast in a story. (Anecdote: I incredibly clearly pictured Jessica Darling from Meghan McCafferty’s books as Anna Kendrick, who played Jessica in Twilight. Weird stuff.)

         Have you had times when you got off track about a pronunciation or image and ended up traumatized when you realized the discrepancy? And how much do you picture things while reading? Please share your thoughts in the comments.