A Pile of Contemporary Reviews

I’ve blown through a huge number of books in the last couple of weeks, in part due to being able to read anything I want to and part because I’m trying to clear my shelves before the deluge of spring titles come back with me from ALA. A lot of people suffer a mid-winter reading slump, but I’m maybe having the exact opposite right now. As much as I love writing lengthy reviews, it’s impossible to do them for every book I read, and I don’t want to overlook some of the things worth writing about. Thus, a pile of short(er) reviews — I’m going to quit calling these things Twitter-style reviews unless they’re legitimately 140 characters, which these aren’t.

Last year, I read and reviewed Cat Clarke’s debut Entangled, so I was really excited to see she had a sophomore novel out at the end of 2011. Torn, much like Entangled, isn’t a cut and dry narrative and it features characters you can never be too sure about. This story follows Alice and her classmates as they spend a holiday in the Scottish wilderness. What could have been fun (reluctant fun, that is), turns tragic as Tara — who we’re led to believe is the stereotypical mean girl — dies after a prank gone terribly wrong. But was it a prank? Alice might have seen what happened and might have buried away the secret truth of why Tara died. Because the thing is, if Alice speaks up, she’s only going to get herself in trouble.

Things get trickier, though, as Alice begins a relationship with Tara’s brother who is dealing with the heavy grief of losing his sister. As their romance grows, the guilt gnaws away at Alice, and she’s left wondering whether speaking up is the right thing or the wrong thing.

Clarke’s storytelling left me paranoid for all the right reasons. As much as I got to see what happened, I was also left out of the true intentions behind the prank that killed Tara. Even though Alice told the blow-by-blow of WHAT happened, I knew there was something much more sinister lurking beneath. Moreover, as Alice grew closer to Tara’s brother, I couldn’t help but rethink my own feelings toward her, too. She made me angry, then guilty, then frustrated, then angry again, then almost sympathetic.

This book features a cast of unlikable female characters, the kind that make you want the worst for them. Interestingly, I found the male characters in this one to be likable and I felt sorry for how they’d become accessories in the girls’ game. Clarke’s writing skills lie in developing full characters who elicit reaction. I couldn’t make my decision about what I wanted Alice to do until the very end of the book, and I think the ability to make me question my own ethical and moral ideas of right and wrong is a skill. It’s a well-woven story. My only real criticism for this one was I felt at times the narrative went a little lengthy, but for the most part, these moments were necessary to developing that sense of reader paranoia and character motivation. Fans of Courtney Summers will love this one, as will fans of books like Blake Nelson’s Paranoid Park (the comparison of paranoia I felt reading Torn reminded me much of the paranoia I felt reading that one, except in Clarke’s case, I never quite felt fully sympathetic for Alice).

Torn isn’t available in the US and unfortunately, you can’t purchase the paperback via Book Depository, either. But if you’re an ebook reader, you CAN buy this one for under $7 via the Book Depository.

Brian James’s Life is But a Dream is an exploration into the debilitating mental illness of schizophrenia. From the onset, I was impressed with James’s ability to not conflate schizophrenia with dissociative identity disorder (multiple personalities). This story follows Sabrina as she becomes sicker and sicker, to the point her parents choose to institutionalize her for treatment. Prior to institutionalization, Sabrina’s life was full of color and fantasy, and she lived in what basically amounted to a dream world. Her experiences in the real world paralleled what most people experience in deep sleep. While it doesn’t necessarily sound scary, the effects of such distance from reality isn’t pretty and it causes Sabrina to act in ways that put her in danger.

While being treated, Sabrina meets Alec, a boy who convinces her the folks in the institution are working against her. Taking the drugs they’re giving her is only harming her, he says, and she begins to believe him. She doesn’t want to become brain dead, and she becomes convinced her life will be better if she doesn’t go along for the treatment. So she and Alex make an escape plan. To save themselves.

This part is spoiler, so feel free to skip down to the following paragraph. As a reader who knows a bit about schizophrenia (and about Sabrina’s experiences with it), I was never quite sure whether Alec actually existed or if he was one of those dreams concocted in Sabrina’s mind. The evidence to support either argument is in the book — he could be real or he could be a figment of her dream world telling her to act a certain way. Even in the end, when Sabrina makes a run for it, it’s uncertain either way.

The uncertainty, though, might be the greatest strength in the book. I found the writing to be distancing, and while it works for Sabrina’s world and her own voice, it kept me far away from her, too. I couldn’t connect with her in any way, and because I wanted to, I became frustrated. It makes sense because that’s how these illnesses work, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it works for readers. It’s a dream world.

Moreover, I found it a little disappointing that the person who’d save Sabrina would be a boy, as I find that a trend that won’t stop coming. Even if what I said in the previous paragraph were true, it still doesn’t settle too well for me. I’d not come to see Sabrina as much of a romantic or one who’d love a relationship with Alec, but it’s something I could have bought had Sabrina’s voice been stronger and she let me in. Fans of stories about mental illness will want to read this one, especially those who are interested in schizophrenia because James nails it (I’d say textbook nails it, but textbooks can leave out the emotional side of the illness, and James offers that quite well). Life is But a Dream will be available in March.

Girl by Blake Nelson is a classic story, and finally, Nelson’s written and published the follow up, answering the question of what happened to Andrea Marr. Dream School follows the infamous, snarky, and intelligent Andrea as she departs her beloved city of Portland to attend Wellington College in Connecticut — it’s a prestigious school, and she’s eager for the east coast college experience. She’s got idealized notions of what this lifestyle will be, many borne out of things she’s seen on tv and read in books and magazines. Except, of course, things aren’t as pristine or great as she imagined, and it’s challenging for her to come to terms with the truth that what she thought she’d be getting at Wellington and what she really gets are Wellington are two entirely different things.

As much as I loved Andrea in Girl, I think I loved her even more here because she’s really developed a great sense of self. Although her voice is still similar, her thinking is much clearer, and it’s obvious from the writing alone how much she’s grown. Andrea puts herself into foreign experiences at Wellington, many of which she dreamed about and many of which were unexpected. She’s meeting new people, taking classes that interest and challenge her, making films, and — the one thing that’s wholly her own — she’s writing. She wants to break into the world, though, even if it kills her. But the thing is, she’s not doing all that great at school and fitting in is hard. The more she tries, the more she feels like she’s failing. Instead of blaming herself, though, she embraces the fact she is simply different and the things she thought she’d become because of a place aren’t the things she’ll become. She’ll evolve more into herself, rather than an idea of herself.

Dream School takes place in 1994, but I can’t say I felt like I was reading a story set in the 90s. It felt contemporary because everything Andrea faces is what teens and early 20-somethings face today. Being at college, she’s met with sex and drugs in a way that’s shocking to her but it’s handled realistically and bluntly (as it would be in the situation). Despite her participation in some of these activities, she doesn’t condone them or consider them. She’s honest about depicting a lot of these acts as status symbols, rather than enjoyable activities. This all comes to a head, of course, when Andrea and her friend turn to their film making skills. What seems like an inconsequential activity, though, determines the rest of her future at Wellington, and I like to think it impacts her life in a much greater way.

Even though the characters are older than traditional YA book characters, I’d shelve this one beside Girl in the young adult section. There are very visual depictions of drug use, but it’s nothing teen readers haven’t already seen on television and frankly, Andrea does a good job of giving us her feelings on it. This is a book that is heavy on voice and character development and one I think many readers preparing to go to college will dig. You can read this without having read Girl, but I think the impact would be weaker.

Following on the heels of other ballet books like Sophie Fleck’s Bunheads and Stasia Ward Kehoe’s Audition, debut author Martha Schabas takes us into the competitive world of ballet school in Various Positions, set in Toronto. Georgia’s made the cut to the elite ballet school in the city, and at the same time, her family is falling apart. Falling to shambles, even, and the truths that Georgia learns about how her mother and father came together are hard on her. Ballet is a great distraction, and she’s been lucky enough to make friends, despite the air of competition. Then, as Georgia becomes receiving more one-on-one attention Roderick, from one of the harshest (and most talked about) teachers in the academy, she finds herself spiraling into a very sexually-charged world. Her body isn’t just for dance.

This was a longer read, and I don’t necessarily think the length was a strength, either. Georgia’s age is hard to buy into and part of the reason is that her voice sounds mature but her actions are quite immature. The book begins with Georgia trying out for the academy in grade 8, and by the end, she’s trying out for grade 10. While reading, I was unable to gauge passage of time because there weren’t enough moments invested in performance or practice. What should have been a grounding force in the story — a goal to read vis a vis the ballet story thread — instead falls apart early in the book and becomes entangled in a sex scandal.

Georgia’s discovered her body is a sexual tool, and she learns via the internet how to use it as such. It’s sort of her way to work through the anger and resentment she has toward her parents, but it’s also become a way for her to gain the attention of Roderick, who she is convinced has a major crush on her. As a reader, I never got that out of what she told me, nor through Roderick’s actions. And seeing how mature Georgia’s voice read, it was hard for me to wrap my mind around her perceiving what he was doing professionally as coming on to her.

The most challenging part of this storyline was that I want to blame Georgia for what happened between her and Roderick because the truth is, she manipulated him. She knows this, too. But Roderick did reciprocate amid the pressure, so the fault is not entirely hers. However, I think many readers will feel the same way I did, which was that Georgia didn’t really garner any sympathy for her actions. A few pages after this incident which rattles the entire academy, Georgia is then thrust into another position involving sex and a boy, and while I think it was meant to build our feelings for her, it was too late. Not only was it too late, but I thought the message emerging from this book was an uncomfortable one about how males only look at females as sexual objects. It’s a theme that emerged not only in the actual encounters themselves, but also in how obsessed Georgia became in keeping her fellow academy members on top of their own bodies and weight issues. I found the flaws outweighed the potential payoff in the story, particularly in the end. Had the broken family story line played heavier into the plot, and the ballet line hadn’t become secondary to the sex scandal, this could have been a much stronger book. Likewise, pulling back the focus to those themes would have made the writing tighter and the story more strongly paced. It’d have likely helped solve the passage of time challenge, as well. Too many things were packed into this one to make any of them succeed in the way they could have.

Various Positions is obviously a double entendre, and readers should know the story is more about sexuality and less about ballet. I don’t think it will turn off readers who want ballet in their stories, but this isn’t going to strike the same chords as either Fleck or Kehoe’s recent titles. Various Positions will publish on February 14.

Review copies of each of the titles were provided by the publisher, except for Torn, which I purchased myself.

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  1. says

    Great reviews. I thought entangled was great so looking forward to Torn and I love Brian James's characters -and I adored Dream School – thought it was absolutely magic. Nice trifecta!

    • says

      I think if you liked Entangled, you'll love Torn as much (I think I liked it even more). And yesss! Dream School was absolute magic. I would like to travel back in time and hang out with Andrea Marr.

  2. says

    I liked Various Positions. I thought it was a good look at what happens when girls try to explore sexuality too early – Georgia was clearly too immature to be doing what she was doing, and had no idea what would come of it. She seemed really repressed and sheltered and she was feeling so confused and unheard in the rest of her life – what she did to Roderick (I disagree that he contributed much to it…he seemed rather clueless as to what was going on until she was really obvious.) felt to me like a cry for help and attention. I of course couldn't condone her actions, but I sort of understood them, and just wanted to get her out of there – out of that school, the family life, and help her. It was a big, horrible mess, and to me the worst part was that she really seemed to have no idea what she was doing and what it was doing to others.

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