Review: OCD Love Story by Corey Ann Haydu

OCD_Love_StoryWhen Bea meets Beck, she knows instantly that he’s her kind of crazy. Sweet, strong, kinda-messed-up Beck understands her like no one else can. He makes her feel almost normal. He makes her feel like she could fall in love again.

But despite her feelings for Beck, Bea can’t stop thinking about someone else: a guy who is gorgeous and magnetic… and has no idea Bea even exists. But Bea knows a lot about him. She spends a lot of time watching him. She has a journal full of notes. Some might even say she’s obsessed.

Bea tells herself she’s got it all under control. But this isn’t a choice, it’s a compulsion. The truth is, she’s breaking down…and she might end up breaking her own heart.  – Synopsis from Goodreads

I have spoken a little previously about the intersection of my reading and my experiences with anxiety and depression; there are points in my life where they cross and merge and become tangled together.  This is one of those times.

I was hesitant to pick up OCD Love Story for several months. I was tentatively feeling out the books I chose to read – gun-shy after a recent bout of particularly debilitating anxiety – scouting ahead for triggers. I kept OCD Love Story at arm’s length despite being initially drawn to the synopsis. I was wary of content I knew would be difficult to read and even potentially damaging to the mental levees I was still shoring up after a recent breach.

It was another reader’s comment that eventually made me pick it up, a passing remark on a particular aspect of the story that hadn’t worked for them. But it was a catalyst for me. I felt a spark of recognition and a tiny, quiet thought emerged: what if this helps? What if, rather than being a negative experience, reading this novel was actually something quite the opposite?

Reader, it was.

Haydu’s debut is a strong, authentic novel about a teenage girl’s experience of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. It is immediate, close – at times, uncomfortably so. Haydu doesn’t allow the reader to look away from Bea’s OCD: it’s intensely in-your-face and all-consuming. It is also compassionate and insightful, tackling the complexity and nuance of OCD with skill.  There’s always the possibility for an often misunderstood condition to be further obfuscated by poor writing, but Haydu handles the issue with understanding. This is a compelling and brutally honest portrayal of OCD, and there’s something respectful in Haydu’s commitment to a frank depiction of mental illness.

The craft of the writing is highlighted in Bea’s strong voice. As the novel progresses and the obsessions and compulsions she experiences become more pronounced, Bea’s own growing cognizance of them is reflected in the text. She is not an entirely unreliable narrator, but the limits of her awareness (or perhaps the depth of her denial) are clear at her introduction. From here, Haydu takes the reader on the journey as Bea experiences it: the intensity of her obsessions, the fear of her intrusive thoughts, and rapid spiral of her compulsions. As her need to compulse escalates, and her own consciousness of her behaviour grows, we are drawn into Bea’s powerful internal conflict. There is a lot to unravel here: Bea’s own shame and anxiety, her increasingly unstable and complex relationship with her best friend Lisha, the fragments of past events beginning to emerge. Bea’s parents are a relatively minor presence in the story, but this feels organic to Bea’s voice and the way she views them. While it’s clear that Bea’s parents – particularly her mother – are supportive of her, for much of the novel Bea believes she is successfully concealing the full extent of her OCD from them, and as such she doesn’t often reference them in her narrative. It’s these choices in the writing that make Bea’s voice – and the overall depiction of her illness – feel genuine.

There is, as the title states, a love story here too. And it’s a tender, sweet one between two characters who are complicated and flawed and hurting. Bea’s attraction to and burgeoning relationship with Beck is challenged both internally and externally; both must struggle with how their OCD impacts their ability to connect and support each other, and their own individual experiences with therapy. Beck is more than a love interest – he’s a fully realised character with his own arc – and the romance isn’t used as a cheap plot device or magical remedy for the issues the characters face. The story explores how the relationship is both a challenge and a support for the characters, it weigh the obstacles presented by their respective compulsions against the empathy and understanding they find in each other. It’s realistic and difficult, but both Bea and Beck are sympathetic, engaging characters, which makes it easy to feel invested in their connection.

OCD Love Story unfolds in unexpected ways. There are hints, suggestions at potential directions for the story, but like Bea, we are sometimes caught unaware by what is really going on. Bea’s perspective is narrow, and her interpretation of situations is not always reliable. Haydu uses this to demonstrate the impacts of Bea’s OCD and how her limited understanding of herself develops and changes as the novel progresses. By gradually paring back the layers with which Bea insulates herself mentally and emotionally, Haydu reveals the raw, frenetic heart of the story: Bea understanding that her thoughts and behaviours are irrational, knowing that her actions are destructive, and yet being unable to change or prevent them. The portrayal of this dichotomy is painfully accurate, occasionally frightening, and above all: validating.

We need books like this.

Because there are readers who need to see representation of their reality in fiction. Those who experience mental illness can often feel isolated and unable to articulate what they are going through for fear of (real or imagined) ramifications. It is a powerful thing to see your truth reflected in writing. I know this because it happened to me. I know this because, even after years of my own familiarity with anxiety, this book voiced something that I have never been able to. A piece of my own experience that I have never exposed – out of fear, discomfort, and misunderstanding – suddenly made sense. The sense of relief and safety I experienced as a result was almost overwhelming. I cannot overstate how important it was for me to find this kind of representation.

Of course, I can only speak to my own experience. As always, your mileage may vary etc. But I believe this is a profound book, and an important one. And I’m grateful it was written.

On a related note, Stephanie Kuehn has compiled a list of titles of YA that deals with mental illness, categorised by disorder over at YA Highway.

Publisher: Simon Pulse
Publication Date: 23 July 2013

Various Recommendations

Apropos of nothing, here are some things I have consumed and enjoyed lately (or not so lately, during my absence from the blog) that for one reason or another I want to point out but don’t have the time or energy to write about in more detail.

Film

Short Term 12Short Term 12 - Were this an NA novel, I would read the heck out of it. As it is, I loved this film. Brie Larson is outstanding as Grace, supervisor at a foster-care facility for at-risk teens who has to face down her own troubled past. There are some heavy themes here, so YMMV, but I found this emotionally searing and moving and life-affirming in a very authentic and non-cheesy way. It has funny moments and gut-wrenching moments, but importantly, it always feels honest. The performances are stellar: entirely believable and engaging. Grace’s emotional arc throughout the film is particularly well delivered by Larson, who manages to be both tough and fragile at once. Highly recommended. (For those of you in the US, ST12 is on Netflix)

Speaking of Larson, I also really enjoyed The Spectacular Now, starring YA film to book adaptation girl du jour Shailene Woodley alongside Miles Teller as Sutter. While the story in the film makes some deviation from the book, I think it’s well handled and the performances are excellent.

TV

I just finished the second season of My Mad Fat Diary was a sobbing mess by the end of episode seven. I know that’s probably an odd form of recommendation – watch this show and cry! – but I really have a lot of love for it (and no, not just for the nostalgia factor, though yes, there is absolutely that.) I thought Chloe’s arc this season was a highlight and her relationship with Rae a pretty honest look at teenage girl friendships.

MMFDgif

Non-Fiction

Night Games coverNight Games: Sex, Power and Sport by Anna Krien – Despite living in Melbourne for almost 8 years now, I don’t “have a team” and I don’t follow any code of football. *ducks for cover* That said, I grew up in a community deeply entrenched in NRL and am well aware of Melbourne’s passionate AFL culture.

Krien explores the issues of sex, consent and power within that culture in her compelling, but not always easy to read book. Framed around a rape trial of a footballer, Krien is unafraid to delve into some murky areas and examine her own relationship with football, as well as how “football” views women. Again, some difficult content, but an important, well-researched book that addresses a complex issue.

Fiction

Never FadeThe Darkest Minds and Never Fade by Alex Bracken –  And now for something lighter EXCEPT NOT REALLY because the first two books in Bracken’s YA trilogy are dark in their own way. With the recent glut of dystopian novels I’ve developed a little apocalypse-fatigue, but I found Bracken’s take refreshingly strong due to some solid character development. Ruby is another YA heroine who gets labelled unlikeable, but I found her understandable in both her emotions and actions.

This is a novel about teens with capital “A” Abilities, including telekinesis and being able to spontaneously produce and manipulate fire, so some suspension of disbelief is required. But Bracken takes on some big issues of choice, free will, and power, and allows her characters and relationships to grow (as well as put them through the wringer) *she types with an evil cackle*

Things I Read on the Internet 

This post On Precipices by Sarah McCarry (the Rejectionist) really resonated with me.

E Lockhart on being taken seriously and taking yourself seriously:

Sarah Benincasa on High School is Forever (via Trinity Doyle), and her experience with mental illness.

And for something completely wonderful and my favourite Thing On The Internet in a while, A 13-year Old Eagle Huntress in Mongolia.

- R

 

Review: The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton

ava_lavender_coverMagical realism, lyrical prose, and the pain and passion of human love haunt this hypnotic generational saga.

Foolish love appears to be the Roux family birthright, an ominous forecast for its most recent progeny, Ava Lavender. Ava—in all other ways a normal girl—is born with the wings of a bird.

In a quest to understand her peculiar disposition and a growing desire to fit in with her peers, sixteen-year old Ava ventures into the wider world, ill-prepared for what she might discover and naïve to the twisted motives of others. Others like the pious Nathaniel Sorrows, who mistakes Ava for an angel and whose obsession with her grows until the night of the Summer Solstice celebration.

That night, the skies open up, rain and feathers fill the air, and Ava’s quest and her family’s saga build to a devastating crescendo.

First-time author Leslye Walton has constructed a layered and unforgettable mythology of what it means to be born with hearts that are tragically, exquisitely human.Synopsis from Goodreads

“I found it ironic that I should be blessed with wings and yet feel so constrained, so trapped. It was because of my condition, I believe, that I noticed life’s ironies a bit more often than the average person. I collected them: how love arrived when you least expected it, how someone who said he didn’t want to hurt you eventually would.”

I took a long time to read The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender because I didn’t want to reach a point where I was finished with this story. I wanted to linger with it and savour each page, drawing out the experience. I wanted to taste every word, dark and luscious, and ingest it slowly, piece by piece.

Leslye Walton’s intricate weave of reality and fantasy, an alloyed world forged from the magical and the mundane, is constructed around three generations of women. The story is related by Ava Lavender, girl born with wings, but it’s a history shared and connected through family. It is a collection of their loves and sorrows, entwined and inseparable, chronicled by Ava and culminating in her embrace of all that she is. It’s a story of love denied, love unrequited, love lost, love yearned for, love freely given, love unconditional. It’s a story of family and home and shadowy places carved in hearts by pain and regret.

Walton’s use of language reminds me a little of Margo Lanagan’s: rich and distinctive, with an undercurrent of darkness that occasionally leaches through. It’s prose to be immersed in, elegant and languid.  There is some distance in the voice, as this is the adult Ava recounting her childhood and the lives of her mother and grandmother, but the writing is steeped in vivid and immediate imagery and threads of foreshadowing that pull the narrative forward. The plot itself is spare, and almost meanders until the final third where urgency begins to gather in Ava’s story, but the story doesn’t feel sluggish. Rather, underpinning the gradual unfurling of Emilienne, Viviane and Ava’s interlocking stories is a sense that something lies in wait, that there will be a pivotal moment for these women, one that will mark them indelibly.

The novel explores isolation – both physical and emotional – and how we may become confined within walls of our own making, good intentions or otherwise. How love sometimes blinds us, at other times opens our eyes. There is violence and pain, longing and desire of many forms in this story – the beautiful and grotesque, the fragile and powerful . Walton writes about the various facets of human love and how it shapes lives and alters hearts; protects us and also makes us vulnerable. It is a bittersweet triumph of being human, of living and loving and loss.

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender is an exquisite blend of impossibility and certainty; magical realism that is entirely convincing. Part saga, part memoir, part mythology – it is a story written in blood and feathers of what it is to love.

Publisher: Candlewick Press
Publication Date: 25 March 2014

I’m Angry and I’m Not Sorry and That’s Okay: In Which I Attempt to Review Heartbeat by Elizabeth Scott

heartbeatFirst: If you can, please listen to Clear Eyes Full Shelves excellent podcast  featuring Elizabeth Scott and some brilliant discussion of grief, anger and the reader response.

Now: I’m going to talk about it as well, albeit much less eloquently.

Here are some words I have seen used to describe Emma, the main character of Elizabeth Scott’s novel, Heartbeat: “selfish”, “mean”, “hostile”, “punchable”, “bitch”, “dumb”, “stupid”, “nonsensical”, “not easy to love”.

Take a second to let those sink in.

Heartbeat is a novel about a teenage girl who is grieving. Hers is a complicated grief (and really, is there even such a thing as “uncomplicated” grief?) Her mother is brain-dead and pregnant, being kept on life support in intensive care until such time as the baby can be delivered. So she is present, and yet not present: a state for which Emma blames her step-father, believing him to be acting against what her mother would have wanted in order to preserve the life of his son.

Emma’s grief is a consuming, powerful thing. She is angry. Hurt. Afraid. Scott’s portrayal of Emma’s grief is sharp and unflinching and honest. There is nothing neat and palatable about Emma’s emotional state. It is confronting and messy.

And some readers are incredibly uncomfortable with this.

Emma’s grief doesn’t always manifest in ways that are sympathetic. Yes, sometimes she is hostile. Sometimes she is selfish. But rather than a teenage girl struggling with intense pain, some only see an unlikeable “bitch”. Emma isn’t behaving in a way that they find palatable, therefore she is punishable.

At first, I was angry; furious on Emma’s behalf that her right to her emotions would be challenged, that she wasn’t grieving “acceptably” (which is a notion that, frankly, makes me rageful). Then I just felt sad. Scott’s exploration of grief is nuanced and authentic, yet the judgement levelled at Emma for her experience suggests that some would rather not see girls like this: hurting and angry. And I can’t help but think of those readers who might see something of themselves in Emma and her story, identify with the complexity of processing grief – who also see the clamours of “stupid”, “selfish” and “dumb” that portrayal is met with.

What’s notable about Elizabeth’s Scott’s body of work is her willingness to engage with difficult subjects, often ones met with blanket disapproval. But these things happen, Scott’s novels insist. They happen every day, to people just like us. Heartbeat – as well as Scott’s other work – addresses the fact that sometimes people do terrible, irreversible things with far reaching consequences. How does blame and guilt shape that person’s life? What does healing and forgiveness look like for a person in such a situation? Is it possible? Scott explores this in the relationship between Emma and Caleb, which is born of empathy and understanding between two people isolated by their pain. Yet their romance is not presented as some kind of fix for the characters’ respective situations, nor does it minimise the repercussions of their actions.

Heartbeat is an honest book, and as such it’s not going to be met with universal acceptance. And it should be enough for me to know that it will make its way into the hands of some readers who will identify with Emma and her emotional arc. Yet part of me still bristles when I see her criticised for not conforming to a very narrow ideal of acceptable emotional expression. I’m angry for her, and for all the teenagers who feel like her, at the idea that these feelings are somehow less valid, or should be edited for others’ comfort and consumption.

If Emma’s character is divisive then I’m stating right now that I’m firmly on her side. I want to see more of this: more honesty, more difficulty, more discomfort. Sometimes teenage girls are angry, or sad, or complicated. And that’s okay.

Cover Loving (1)

Confession: I get a little giddy when I hear about Australian YA getting picked up overseas. Mostly because I think Australia has some of the best YA out there to share with the world, but also a tiny bit in part because MORE COVERS!

Here are a couple of my favourites in their various forms (AUS, US, UK etc):

 photo Wildlife_AUS_US_zpsa7ad15f7.jpgWildlife by Fiona Wood [Left: AUS paperback, Right: US hardcover]

I love both of these covers, though I think they have quite a different feel to each other. While the Australian cover has a slightly more whimsical vibe than the US, I think they both work for the story, which is deep and intelligent and beautiful. I particularly like that both convey a sense of companionship / friendship between the characters (I’ve always thought those hiking boots belonged to Sibylla and Lou, whereas the characters on the right could be Lou and Michael. Thoughts?)

 photo Girl_Defective_AUS_US_zps99dcef82.jpgGirl Defective by Simmone Howell: [Left: AUS paperback, Right: US hardcover]

These are both gorgeous and draw on key elements on the novel. The Australian cover is a callback to the posters of Mia pasted up around St Kilda and the street art of Melbourne, while the US ties in the Martin’s record store and the important role music plays in the narrative. Interestingly, the US cover and tagline highlight the romance, which I’d argue isn’t the novel’s primary theme. But the design is incredible, and I love Gully’s presence in the centre.

 photo Friday_Brown_AUS_UK_zpsf638de39.jpgFriday Brown by Vikki Wakefield [Left: AUS paperback; Right: UK paperback; Below Left: US hardcover; Below Right: US paperback]

There are strong similarities between the AUS and UK version of Friday Brown, drawing on a pivotal scene in the novel. The UK cover feels slightly younger to me, and doesn’t have quite the same sense of darkness that’s hinted at in the Australian cover. (Again, Text delivers with absolutely stunning artwork).

The US covers, on the other hand, play up that darkness. If you know me from tumblr you’d be aware that I have a mild obsession with photography that involves water, so I find both of the images here quite striking. The hardcover is a somewhat confronting image, though it ties to scenes in the novel more than the paperback cover. That said, I prefer the typography of the paperback. They’re both slightly unsettling cover treatments, and I think they work for the Australian gothic vibe of the story.

 photo Friday_Never_Leaving_US_PB_zps807f40f9.jpg

Favourites? Thoughts? Any other Australian YA titles you’d love to see overseas?

Review: The Fever by Megan Abbott

The Fever CoverThe panic unleashed by a mysterious contagion threatens the bonds of family and community in a seemingly idyllic suburban community.

The Nash family is close-knit. Tom is a popular teacher, father of two teens: Eli, a hocky star and girl magnet, and his sister Deenie, a diligent student. Their seeming stability, however, is thrown into chaos when Deenie’s best friend is struck by a terrifying, unexplained seizure in class. Rumors of a hazardous outbreak spread through the family, school and community.

As hysteria and contagion swell, a series of tightly held secrets emerges, threatening to unravel friendships, families and the town’s fragile idea of security.

A chilling story about guilt, family secrets and the lethal power of desire, THE FEVER affirms Megan Abbot’s reputation as “one of the most exciting and original voices of her generation.” (Laura Lippman)Synopsis from Goodreads

What is it to be a girl?

This is a question Megan Abbott explores in the darkly hypnotic novel, The Fever, distilling the experience of being a teenage girl into potent, unsettling form. While the writing is languid, hazy, there’s an almost fever-dream intensity to this story, a palpable anxiety leaching from the scenes as Abbott examines the fervour and cruelty girls are capable of. As the fear of contagion blooms into hysteria, the novel addresses the parallel fear society often levels at girls, and the cultural apprehension surrounding the mythos and lore of the Teenage Girl.

The Fever presents this uneasiness from several vantage points. From within, through Deenie, we experience the shifting of allegiances, the intricacies of friendships, the exoticism of “otherness”. The tangle of resentment and desire. Deenie is both a participant and an observer of the panic that sweeps the community; at once afraid and an object of fear. Her position in her group of friends is similarly complex: as she contemplates her closeness with Lise and Gabby, she also questions it, aware of a shifting dynamic and new tensions at play.

From outside, for Deenie’s brother Eli, teenage girlhood is shrouded in mystery and full of strange rites. For all his familiarity with girls’ bodies, the complexities of their relationships and personalities take on a cultish secrecy, a language he doesn’t understand. Eli is aware of the changes in his sister, but is reluctant to acknowledge them. For Eli, her transition is something unknowable and murky, complicated by the presence of her friends and their own transformations.

And Tom Nash, Deenie’s father, for whom Deenie is fragile and precious and drifting further and further away from him. Tom wants to protect Deenie, and yet is aware that it’s impossible to do so indefinitely.

“What happens when someone touches her someday and doesn’t understand these things about her? That she was both fearless and fragile and could be hurt badly in ways he could not fix.”

While The Fever revolves around the mysterious illness – provoking seizures and hallucinations in teenage girls – it deals with burgeoning sexuality and small town politics, the social hierarchy of high school and the wounds inflicted by abuse, neglect, divorce. It’s a razor sharp portrayal of a community tearing apart in paranoia and blame. It handles adolescence, in all of its beauty and ugliness: the headiness and mess of it, the shame and fear projected on female bodies and sexuality.

“You spend a long time waiting for life to start – the past year or two filled with all these firsts, everything new and terrifying and significant – and then it does start and you realise it isn’t what you’d expected, or asked for.”

The Fever is a mesmerizing, grotesque novel; a chilling mystery with a dark heart. Recommended.

Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Expected Publication Date: 17 June 2014

A copy of this novel was provided for review by the publisher via NetGalley. 

Flexing the Critical Muscle

banner

The first time I attempted Jillian Michaels’ 30 Day Shred, I gave up after the third day, practically weeping from the DOMS. I hadn’t done any exercise worth noting in a long while and to say that my body was shocked would be an understatement. It felt like someone had taken to my quads with hammers; every time I sat down I’m sure I let out a whimper (because howling is not generally considered appropriate in the workplace, otherwise I probably would have..)

The shock of working muscles that have lain practically dormant for a long time is not fun. It hurts, it’s a little humiliating, and truth be told, it’s also kind of scary: feeling those limitations of your body and realising how much work it’s going to take to push them.

Lately, I’ve felt the same way about reviewing.

You may have noticed the dearth of reviews here at wordchasing. There are a couple of reasons for that, but it occurred to me lately that one of them is the atrophy of my critical reasoning skills. I have things to say, but the thought of sitting down to articulate them – coherently, logically, in written form – makes me want to sob.

Here is a truth about myself that I don’t like to admit (I just admitted to giving up the 30 Day Shred after day three – I’m just laying it all out today): I’m scared of being “wrong”.

I try to present a confident face to the world at large and the blogosphere by extension, but the truth is I’m constantly afraid someone is going to say: “You are WRONG and your opinion is INVALID. Kindly leave the Internet.” Actually, I’m afraid they’d be much more impolite than that, but you get the idea. This is accompanied by a general fear of what I do manage to say being misunderstood, which results in a sort of vicious circle of communication paralysis, and me slinking back to tumblr to reblog pictures of cats and doge memes.

While this seems to indicate a woeful lack of conviction in my own opinions, I don’t think it’s quite that simple. I not only constantly question my ability to communicate my thoughts adequately, but I question the place they come from, in a “who am I to critique this?” sense. I’m aware that I’m a person of limited experience, education, knowledge and of abundant privilege. I feel comfortable, vociferous even, arguing in those arenas where I have personal experience, and I tend to speak from a very internal, specific place when doing so. I often find myself prefacing my thoughts with personal context: “X and Y happened to me, therefore I think A, B, C” etc.

But what about those times where there’s no directly correlating anecdote from my files of personal experience? How do I go about expressing a critical point of view when I’m undermining my own arguments with self-doubt?

Here’s an example: I recently read a young adult novel which deals with the privilege and entitlement of a school sports team, and how their idolisation in the school community impacts a teenage girl when she is sexually assaulted by a team member[1]. The novel is highly topical, and when I finished reading it, it felt important to me to review it.

I didn’t.

There is much to unpack in this novel: the concepts of privilege, the complicated family dynamic, grief, the main character’s experience of sexual assault and subsequent responses of those around her, perception and attribution of blame. Then there’s the mechanics of the novel itself, written in a mix of prose and verse, and how the author develops the story and themes. I felt fairly confident assessing the book on a technical level: it wasn’t entirely successful for me and I had a clear idea of what and why that was. But I shied away from even attempting to critique the plot. I faltered because I had thoughts on it, yet I lacked confidence in my ability to extrapolate adequately. (Also because as usual, I was nervous someone would say: “Hey, you! Shut up and keep your ignorant opinions to yourself,” because I hear that is a thing that happens on the Internet sometimes.)

Is it cowardly to refrain from exercising the critical voice just because you’re aware that there are so many more intelligent, experienced and articulate voices out there? People who can speak to complex topics with more insight than I could possibly fathom?

How do I get to a place of confidence in my critical voice? How do I even develop one in the first place? Instinct tells me it’s through persistent practice, and willingness to acknowledge mistakes, and learning that it’s not only okay to disagree, and for others to disagree with me, it’s necessary for the continued development of the critical voice. Because, to me at least, worse than not saying anything is not constantly sharpening a point of view through ongoing discussion and analysis.

I wish I was more articulate than I actually am. I wish I didn’t feel so embarrassed and hobbled by my limited formal education. I wish every time I wanted to say something I didn’t feel I was punching above my weight.

I wish I didn’t leave posts lingering in my drafts (i.e. this one) because of that nagging voice that tells me no one wants to listen to me whinge [2].

But I’m trying to get to a place of courage, if not total confidence, in expressing my opinions. Consider this post a bit of stretching before I attempt to run.

(Or walk).

[1] Canary by Rachele Alpine
[2] If this post tells you anything about me, it’s that I think about what people might say far more than what they actually say.

Review: Mister Death’s Blue-Eyed Girls by Mary Downing Hahn

Mister Death's Blue-Eyed Girls coverBased on an actual crime in 1955, this YA novel is at once a mystery and a coming-of-age story. The brutal murder of two teenage girls on the last day of Nora Cunningham’s junior year in high school throws Nora into turmoil. Her certainties, friendships, religion, her prudence, her resolve to find a boyfriend taller than she is – are shaken or cast off altogether. 

Most people in Elmgrove, Maryland, share the comforting conviction that Buddy Novak, who had every reason to want his ex-girlfriend dead, is responsible for the killings. Nora agrees at first, then begins to doubt Buddy’s guilt, and finally comes to believe him innocent – the lone dissenting voice in Elmgrove.

Told from several different perspectives, including that of the murderer,Mister Death’s Blue-Eyed Girls is a suspenseful page-turner with a powerful human drama at its core. – Synopsis from Goodreads

Mister Death’s Blue-Eyed Girls is less a mystery than a straight up coming-of-age story. Though the synopsis bills the novel as a suspenseful page-turner, it’s really more of a slow-burn, character-driven exploration of how an unsolved crime impacts a community.

Downing Hahn’s novel fictionalises real events that took place in 1955, altering the specifics of the crime and people involved to create a parallel version through which to examine the subsequent fallout. The story is related primarily from the viewpoints of Nora Cunningham, a peer of the murdered girls (Cheryl and Bobbie Jo), and Buddy Novak, ex-boyfriend of Cheryl and commonly believed perpetrator of the murders. In additional to their perspectives, Downing Hahn weaves in letters and diary excerpts, fleshing out the range of perceptions and reactions to Cheryl and Bobbie Jo’s deaths.

Perhaps because this is a story anchored in the author’s own experience, there’s an authenticity to Nora’s voice and the response of the wider community. Downing Hahn depicts the fear and grief that permeate the neighbourhood, and how it at times manifests as anger or denial. A pall is cast over Elmgrove, the promise of summer freedom curtailed by anxious parents locking the doors at night and curfews enforced. Parents and peers alike eye Buddy askance, convinced of his guilt. And Nora descends into depression and a crisis of faith, unconvinced that a God who truly cared would allow her friends to be brutally murdered.

Mister Death’s Blue-Eyed Girls explores questions of religious belief and doubt, burgeoning sexuality, and the gravity of public opinion. Convicted by the community, if not by the law, Buddy forms a tenuous connection with Nora, who is increasingly isolated as the lone believer in Buddy’s innocence. Her former friendships, in various ways, succumb to the pressure of the tragedy. Her friends want to move on, move away from the killings, while Nora cannot. Instead she finds herself progressively more effected by them, and her belief that the killer remains at large. Nora questions her faith and her future, her relationships with her parents and friends, and why Cheryl and Bobbie Jo had to die.

Largely, this is a novel about emotional journeys in the wake of tragedy.

Which, while thought-provoking and well-written, may be slightly anticlimactic for readers seeking a greater sense of closure and explanation. While reading Mister Death’s Blue-Eyed Girls I made various assumptions about where the story might lead at various points; I was wrong on all counts. This book isn’t written to answer all the questions it raises, but merely to point out their existence.

That said, on the strength of the writing, Mister Death’s Blue-Eyed Girls is an impressive novel. Downing Hahn captures the uncertainty and self-consciousness of adolescence, the on-the-cusp sensation of being a young adult, and the spiralling of becoming unmoored from long–held beliefs and connections.  Downing Hahn points out that teenagers in the 1950s weren’t all that different from teenagers of today, in terms of the emotional, social and physical turmoil they face. This lends Nora, Buddy, Ellie – even Cheryl and Bobbie Jo – an immediacy and relevance to a broad readership.

This is a strong novel, satisfying even without furnishing all of the answers, and is recommended for readers looking for introspective, character-driven writing.

Publisher: Clarion Books
Publication Date: 17 April 2012

 

Review: Small Damages by Beth Kephart

small damages coverIt’s senior year, and while Kenzie should be looking forward to prom and starting college in the fall, she is mourning the loss of her father. She finds solace in the one person she trusts, her boyfriend, and she soon finds herself pregnant. Kenzie’s boyfriend and mother do not understand her determination to keep the baby. She is sent to southern Spain for the summer, where she will live out her pregnancy as a cook’s assistant on a bull ranch, and her baby will be adopted by a Spanish couple.

Alone and resentful in a foreign country, Kenzie is at first sullen and difficult. She begins to open her eyes and her heart to the beauty that is all around her and inside of her. – Synopsis from Goodreads

Small Damages is a gentle, quiet novel about love, grief and regret. Eighteen year old Kenzie is pregnant, grieving, at a crossroad in her life, when her mother arranges for Kenzie to travel to Spain for the eventual birth and adoption of her child. Kenzie finds herself at a bull ranch, isolated and resentful, and begins to reflect on the choices she has made, the choices that lie ahead, and the relationships that frame her life.

Small Damages is a very internal novel; the plot is slight, secondary to the character development and exploration of the relationships between the central characters. Kenzie’s voice is initially detached: still raw with the loss of her father, the distance from her mother, the displacement from her former life. She feels keenly chasm of silence that has opened up between her boyfriend and friends, the weight of secrecy. Alone, essentially dismissed by her mother, aware that her boyfriend already has one foot in his future, Kenzie’s life at the ranch feels like exile, banishment from a former life.

Kephart’s writing is spare and lyrical, given to vivid description of the setting. There’s a palpable sense of place in the novel: the heat and silence of the curtijo, the colour and sound of Seville. While using a light hand with dialogue, Kephart’s characterisation is strong, conveyed through movement, gestures, colour, touch. Small, important moments between the characters are often quiet, notable for the lack of conversation, built on what goes unsaid. Then there’s the relationship between Kenzie and Estela, the way their stories wind around each other’s, the way their interactions change as the story progresses and Estela opens up about her past. It’s this bond that feels the most profound in the novel, the gradual understanding and affinity that develops between the two women, the past and the present merging.

There is an open-endedness to Small Damages, in that not of the initial conflicts are neatly resolved. And yet there’s also a sense of closure, in that Kenzie reaches a place of peace, of certainty in her decision. Initially resistant to the people, the place, Kenzie develops bonds with what initially seemed the very obstacles to her happiness. There is solace in the peace of the ranch, in the Estela’s kitchen, in the music and superstitions of the gypsies, in the quiet boy Esteban, who carries a grief of his own. In coming to know the place, the people, their lives, Kenzie begins to understand herself, her relationships, and what she wants her life to be.

Kephart’s lilting narrative style may require some adjustment for those accustomed to a more dense or conversational approach; the gradual pace of the story, too, might lack the plot-progression expected. However, Small Damages is a strong, beautiful novel in its own right, a story as much about love in its various manifestations, as what it costs to love, and to lose.

Publisher: Philomel
Publication Date: 19 July 2012

2013 Reads in Review

2013_reads_banner

[Insert here expression of bewilderment / disbelief/ surprise at how quickly 2013 has passed, and general dismay that it is, in fact, already December.]

Instead of a ranked list of favourite books for 2013 – because I am horrible at picking favourites, much less assigning them some kind of numerical value, and the idea of having to choose a top 5 makes me break out in a cold sweat – I’ve decided to take more of a merit badge approach to my reading highlights for the year. That way I can try to mask my indecisiveness by calling it ‘creativity’! Ha.

But seriously, it’s been an interesting year in reading for me. I read much less than I did in 2012, going through both lengthy lulls and sudden bursts of activity. I read a mix of new releases and backlist titles; I’m probably woefully behind on 2013 debuts. I blogged a little. I mostly just stared resentfully at my keyboard and trashed a lot of draft posts. A major highlight was chatting with my lovely ladies, Trinity and Amanda, for the Ladies for YA podcast. I’ve read on the tram. I’ve read in the park. I’ve read from a hospital bed. I’ve read defensively, as a kind of mental sandbagging. I’ve read cathartically, in floods of tears. I’ve read therapeutically, occasionally embarrassing myself by laughing out loud in public. I’ve read because someone told that I absolutely had to and I took their advice and I’ve read because a gorgeous cover made me come over all grabby-hands and I couldn’t resist.

Anyway, here are just a few of the books I read this year that I found remarkable in some way or another:

2013_1

The Hometown Glory Award: Girl Defective by Simmone Howell

It’s Simmone Howell and it’s St Kilda and that, readers, is a combination more perfect than long summer afternoons and beers at the Espy. Setting is a character in its own right in Howell’s novel, and she captures the eclectic vibe, clash of cultures and offbeat charm of St Kilda beautifully through Sky’s eyes.

The Dear Teen Me Award: Wildlife by Fiona Wood

Here is an excellent book about teenagers and sex and internalised misogyny and grief and so much. good. stuff. that I wish it had been around when I was a teenager. That’s not to say that it can’t be appreciated by people of any age, because it can, but Wildlife just kills me with how smart and beautiful and perfect it would have been for me to read at a particular point in my life. There is a lot about “firsts” in Wildlife– but it never waxes sentimental or condescending. It’s real and honest and bittersweet. Highly recommended.

The Recommendation I Never Knew I Needed Award: Tales of the Madman Underground by John Barnes

I’ve always known that Catie of The Readventurer has excellent taste, but I didn’t fully appreciate her gift for totally understanding my brain until she recommended this novel and I fell in love with it. It’s painful and funny and it’s full of voice and guts and humour and sadness. The narration is pitch perfect and Karl Shoemaker gets under your skin in the best kind of way. This novel is hilarious and uncomfortable and challenging; a must for anyone who’s felt like a misfit, loner or oddball.

The Series That Crept Up On Me Award / The Surprise!Tears Award: In the Age of Love and Chocolate by Gabrielle Zevin (and the rest of the Birthright Trilogy)

At some point during In the Age of Love and Chocolate I found myself quietly tearing up and I realised that somewhere along the way this series had progressed from one I found mildly entertaining to one I really loved because it’s intelligent and surprising and complex. And more than anything about it, Anya had got under my skin; I was invested in her as she navigated family and business and love and death. The culmination of the Birthright trilogy really felt earned, to me, because Zevin doesn’t go easy on the characters and she pushes the story in directions both challenging and ultimately rewarding.

2013_2

The Most Likely to Haunt My Dreams Award: 17 & Gone by Nova Ren Suma

Gorgeous and unsettling, 17 & Gone never quite lets you relax, but keeps you on your reader-toes (reader-toes? This is what happens when I don’t blog for a while..) with taught, slightly creepy and utterly lush writing. This is an important story too, about girls who disappear in more than one sense, but it’s never didactic or heavy-handed. The story that unfolds in 17 & Gone is compelling, disquieting, and lingers long after the concluding page.

The I Want To Throw It At My Lady Friends (In A Good Way) Award / The Nostalgia Award: Just Between Us [Anthology]

The nuances and complexities of female friendship are so rarely represented in pop culture these days. And I need another hollow portrayal of the BFF ideal or the quirky sidekick best friend like I need a punch in the head, so Just Between Us was a breath of fresh air. So much of this stuff goes unspoken about: the friendships that unravel, that break up, that endure; the betrayals, misunderstandings, the myths. There is a spectrum of experiences of friendship and this collection of fiction and non-fiction is a cross-section of that – real and honest glimpses of some of the most formative relationships we make.

The Emotional Face-Punch Award: Charm & Strange by Stephanie Kuehn

Intense, dark and powerful – just the way I like my YA – Kuehn’s debut is stunning. It is confronting, yet empathetic. Heartbreaking, but affirming. It’s not an easy story to tell – Kuehn delves deep into disturbing places – but it is compelling and evocative. Recommended for readers who enjoy YA on the grittier side.

The “I Just Have A Lot of Feelings” Award: Wild Awake by Hilary T Smith

For a while there my “review” for Wild Awake looked like it was just going to be a lot of weeping and incoherent mumbling and keyboard mashing, but I eventually managed to pull myself together and write something. And I still don’t feel that those words came even close to doing justice to that book and my experience of reading it, so I will simply say that I loved it. I had high expectations for Smith’s debut and Wild Awake more than delivered. This one goes on the favourites shelf, even though I said I wasn’t going to do that.