Archive for Contemporary
My Big Fat Disclaimer
In the interest of fairness, (and maybe only a teensy bit of pride [but totally the Mama Bear pride and not the gross look-at-me pride]) I should disclose that I know the author, M. Molly Backes. Over the past few years she has been my teacher, critique partner, and friend. While this does not prevent me from stating my honest opinions on the quality of her book, I am probably in a position to like it as a person familiar with her personality and writing style. With that all out in the open, let’s move on.
Shit just got real…
Go back up and read the first bolded line of the summary above. I’ll wait.
Back now? Good. I point it out (for the lazy set: “What does it mean to do wrong, when no one punishes you?”) because I think understanding this theme from the outset greatly impacts your enjoyment of the book. This is not a story about fluffy bunnies and sparkly unicorns and beautiful rainbows (even though, in my mind, that cover is just asking for a rainbow). This is a story about real things that can, and do, happen to teenagers.
The situations in this book punched me in the gut. I dare you to read the prologue and not connect deeply with at least some portion of it. Molly Backes is a master of Getting It. She wrote a character, Paige Sheridan, who is struggling to understand consequences, or the completely unjust and unfair LACK of them, that accompanies the life of a high school student, in a way that was believable and thought-provoking. Backes peeled back the superficial layers and forced Paige, and us as readers, to acknowledge the ugly sides of human behavior and the ease with which cruelty and convenience can influence even the best of intentions.
Life is not fair. Things don’t always end up the way we want them to. And I love that Backes portrayed this so truthfully in her narrative. Not everyone agrees with me.
“Issue” is such a loaded word…
Is this an issue book? It deals with the impact of a drunk driving accident on a group of girls. It illustrates common teen situations of homophobia, bullying, partying, and sex. But I didn’t see it as an issue book. It wasn’t pointing out the perils of drunk driving and why teens should avoid it. Were there severe consequences from the accident? Yes. One girl was seriously injured. But that wasn’t the point of the story. Nor was the point of the story to show us how destructive homophobia can be on a community, or how teen girls should handle their drunk boyfriends trying to rape them. The drinking and the sex and the gay slurs just happened to be a part of Paige’s life, and all of these things impact her growth from a narcissistic princess into a contemplative writer. This is Paige’s story and journey, not an issue book passing judgment on the behavior of its teen characters.
I appreciated that Backes didn’t gloss over any aspect of Paige’s life. She has a manipulative best friend, a weak-willed boyfriend, and a self-absorbed mother. Her friends drink too much, Paige cares too much about what people think, and everyone in this book is capable of bad decisions. The beauty of this book is the subtlety with which each character’s growth is illustrated. There is not one cathartic event that pulls everyone together. Instead, there are a series of events that impact different characters in unique ways, setting all of them on a different trajectory.
One of the best devices I noticed to show a subtle change was the name Paige used for her sister. In the first half of the book, Paige’s younger sister Miranda repeatedly has to remind everyone that she prefers to be called Mirror. As with many flights of fancy with young people, she is ignored. Paige refers to her always as Miranda, since that’s her name, and she thinks calling her Mirror is dumb.
I don’t know when exactly the shift occurred, but toward the end of the book I noticed that Paige was consistently calling her sister Mirror. While finding acceptance of herself, Paige began to understand that something as simple as a name change was also an important way for her sister to find her own identity. Though Paige may not have given herself a unique nickname, I think she subconsciously realized that Mirror did so because she wanted to be taken seriously, much like how Paige now wanted to be viewed as more than just a vapid princess. And she finds common ground, as well as a fresh starting point in their relationship, by using her sister’s preferred name and therefore validating Mirror’s perspective and identity. As someone with a younger sister, I really connected with this concept.
What I’m saying is…
I’m no expert in contemporary YA fiction, but this one spoke to me on so many levels. It’s a book that will make you think, which is always a good thing. It sheds some light on the power of cliques and group thinking that can take over a teen’s life without them even realizing it. Backes finds a way to validate experiences without passing judgment, and without needing to find a lesson in every difficult event that her characters encounter. Life doesn’t always hand us teachable moments, nor do we find answers in the immediate aftermath of major events. It’s how we process our experiences into making the choices that feel right to us that truly matters.
Rating: 5/5 stars
First impressions: I had not heard much about this book. I requested it on NetGalley because I thought the story looked interesting and different for the YA market. As soon as I started reading it, I was so happy with my choice to try out this book. It draws you into the mystery from the first pages, and Rain is a terrific teen character.
Lasting impressions: YA contemporary meets mystery/suspense thriller? Full of win!
Conflicting impressions: Okay, so the killer is kind of easy to spot. Luckily there’s a whole lot more happening in this book.
Overall impressions: It would be so easy to just say, “Yeah, this is a murder mystery about a rich private school girl who liked to party.” That screams Law and Order: SVU doesn’t it? It sounds like it’ll be this quick read about a girl who runs off and gets drunk at a party and winds up dead and her friend saves the day by catching the bad guy.
It’s so much more than that.
It’s about how the persona one high school girl chose to present to her classmates warped their perception of her death. It’s about secrets and the price we pay to keep them. It’s about how love and attraction can be mishandled and exploited. It’s about the media’s role in victim blaming, and how the public uses it to feel safer. In short, there’s a lot under the surface of this seemingly simple story.
I appreciated following this plot through the naive eyes of Rain – a girl still recovering from a painful speech impediment and trying to finish high school without drawing more wrath from the popular crowd. Wendy, a vivacious outsider desperate to either fit in or make waves (whichever is more convenient), befriends Rain when few else will. It is that loyalty that drives Rain to find out what really happened to Wendy after she is found dead in Central Park.
Rain struggles to marry the Wendy she knew with the Wendy splashed across tabloid pages and whispered about in the halls. She pushes to find the truth, often through conversations with people she’d rather not have to speak with, and as the events of that night start to unravel, Rain gains the courage to keep right on pushing. She has to make difficult decisions – when to tell the truth, when to state suspicions, when to break a confidence – and she also has to deal with difficult consequences. The question she must answer time and again is “How far will I go to honor Wendy?” Finding the answer to that question is half the fun of this delightful mystery.
Highly recommended to whodunit fans and YA contemporary readers.
Rating: 4/5 stars
First impressions: The prologue in this book is incredibly necessary. I know some people hate them, but here it is absolutely vital to our understanding of what is to come. This is not just a ballet book. This is going to get dark, and sexual. If anything about the prologue bothers you – STOP READING.
Lasting impressions: I considered not rating this book at all, because I had such ambivalent feelings about it. Parts of it were interesting in a Black Swan kind of way, but the story meandered without much purpose for large chunks of the book.
Conflicting impressions: What was Georgia’s goal? That’s a huge question to have dangling over the entire book. I never got an answer.
Overall impressions: I am a former ballerina. I love books and movies and TV shows about ballet. I was really excited to read this book, but I very quickly realized that it had nothing to do with ballet. The ballet school serves as a setting only, and as perhaps an extension of Georgia’s slightly obsessive-compulsive personality. She is a ballet dancer because she is, and that’s supposed to be good enough for us.
Once I got past that initial disappointment, I found the teaser from the prologue to be an interesting dangling carrot. We know sweet and innocent Georgia is going to meet someone at ballet school and seduce them. What I found strange by the end of the book, and I still can’t figure it out, is that the prologue scene never reappears in the book, nor does it fit with the actual sequence of events. Was it a dream? A fantasy? Did any of it really happen? I was looking for the payoff from the prologue, and wound up with a drastically different ending than I expected.
Georgia is only 14 years old, and I found her voice inconsistent. At times she felt much, much older and at other times she seemed naive and juvenile (as I would expect from a sheltered 14 year old). Her actions snowballed rather quickly, and over the course of only a few months she experiences a kind of sexual awakening that seemed suspiciously quick. Teenagers experience a whole host of emotions and thoughts about sex that are all over the map, but Georgia goes from zero to 60 and shows no signs of stopping. I’m not sure that’s going to resonate well with teen readers.
I didn’t find Georgia’s actions to be as disturbing as some other reviewers did, but the one aspect of the book that made me uncomfortable was that the reader had to essentially root for Georgia to act on her feelings for her teacher. To my mind, that’s the only goal Georgia was trying to achieve throughout the book, and it was weird to be dragged along on this escapade.
She expresses no thoughts on becoming a grand ballerina, doesn’t focus on the future in the slightest, and makes no effort to do anything besides passively fall in with a group of outgoing classmates and find time to be alone with her teacher. I desperately wanted Georgia to DO something or WANT something, but instead she simply reports on things as they happened. I didn’t understand how her family dynamic impacted the plot, and they gave us very little additional insight into her character.
At the end of the day, I must admit that I simply didn’t get the point of the book. It was an interesting, bizarre, dark little story that is recommended only for older readers.
Rating: 2/5 stars