Tuesday, 9 October 2018

A Review of The Kissing Booth

The Kissing Booth is a book by Beth Reekles. Rochelle "Elle" Evans is best friends with Lee Flynn. They were born on the same day, and their Moms were best friends, too. His older brother, Noah, is the hottest guy in the school. Elle has a huge crush on him, as does most of the school, but he's way out of her league. When she and Lee decide to run a kissing booth at the school carnival, she's surprised when her first kiss is with Noah. They begin a secret relationship, hiding it from everyone, especially Lee.

Elle manages to fall into a huge pitfall of YA protagonists in these sort of books by not having any sort of personality outside of the guys. The movie did her a huge favour by giving her a love of playing football (soccer) and an interest in dancing. However, I liked that she's different for YA protagonists, which often focus on quiet, shy girls. She's no stranger to going to parties and having a bit to drink.

I would really like to see more types of friendship displayed in YA fiction, and this book does do that. It focuses on the friendship between Elle and Lee, almost as much as Elle's relationship with his older brother. From the Netflix movie, I thought they might get them together. I enjoyed the way they could mess around paint-fighting with each other, for example. But the book stays well away from making it into a love triangle, and I think that's a huge benefit. Teens need to see (and read about) boys and girls being good friends, and that girls can have friendships with boys that are as close as friendships with a group of girls. The friendship parts between Elle and Lee were some of my favourite parts of the book.

But for a book like this to be truly enjoyable, you have to be invested in the romance, and I just wasn't. Noah is a controlling jerk, to the point where I was hoping it would end with Elle realising she deserves better. He's been warning guys not to date Elle since even before the story starts, and seems to think he can tell her what to wear. To give you an idea, he reminds me of Christian Grey. This is partly why I'd been hoping that Elle would get together with Lee, instead, someone who she could have a laugh about with.

I am in awe of anyone who gets published as a teenager. Having the determination and discipline at that age to do something I still struggle to do at 26 is huge. This doesn't mean the book is immune from criticism because of her age, however. I wouldn't like to feel like people took it easy on me as a teenager, either. It's a Wattpad story, and it reads like a Wattpad story. Cliches abound, and it could have done with extra editing, too. I saw a few grammar mistakes that should have been caught, and it could do with being quite a lot shorter. Almost 450 pages for this kind of story is way too long. It's also obvious that it was written by a British author but set in America. Terms such as jumpers are used. At one point, Elle gets salted popcorn from a movie theatre, but none of the American movie theatres I've been to do salted popcorn - it's always buttery. And at one point, she says "The night air was cool compared to the heat inside" but in California in spring, that isn't likely. Outside would still be warm, and inside would have all air conditioners on max. Going outside is a nice way to warm up.

So my biggest criticism about this series is that it reads similarly to The Summer I Turned Pretty series. And published after, too, hmm. Moms who are very close best friends from college, one family consisting of two boys. Noah's personality even reminded me a lot of Conrad's.

Oh, and what Starbucks has waiters, anyway?

Netflix has done super things with this material, though, and the movie is worth a watch for sheer escapism on a rainy day. It manages the good balance between condensing the material and adding to it. It's lighthearted fun, and there's nothing wrong with that. To be honest, I recommend the movie over the book. It is sheer entertainment, but there's nothing wrong with things existing for the sole purpose of making people happy.

Tuesday, 2 October 2018

A Review of 13 Minutes

13 Minutes is a book by Sarah Pinborough. Natasha Howland winds up in a freezing cold river in mysterious circumstances. While underwater, she was dead for thirteen minutes, making a recovery described as miraculous. With suspicions falling on her friends Jenny Cole and Hayley Gallagher, it's up to her ex-best friend, Becca Crisp, to get to the truth.

So I actually didn't know this was UKYA when I picked it up! It's always nice when I can understand terminology easier and relate things to my own experience. I think the plotline and the "Mean Girls for an Instagram age" tagline conditioned me to expect a US story. I remember similar experiences with popular girls in my own school, so it isn't just a US phenomenon. The popular girls in the story even have a group name, similar to the Plastics. They're the Barbies.

Even though the story revolves around Natasha, the main character isn't Natasha, it is Becca. This is interesting as Becca's chapters are in third-person, and Natasha's are in first. It actually makes the way that Natasha is the centre of the book, and the only thing the characters are talking about, stand out. Everything is about Natasha. Spoiler: it also makes the books big twist a little harder to swallow. She has no reason to lie in her narration!

Natasha is likely asexual - she says she doesn't like the thought of it and pretends to go further than she actually has. But this line about it did truly annoy me: "It leaves me cold. Maybe I belong in the river."

Becca used to be fat, and there's an awful lot of comments about that, but there's also a very heavy focus given to how much other characters weigh, and the idea of dieting, which is almost unhealthy coming from a YA book.

There is an awful lot of girl-hate. The plot might make this seem obvious, but some writers to subvert some of the standard cliches about this. Becca herself is hateful towards the Barbies and Natasha's internal narration is also mean towards them, too. Becca also complains about the girl who is apparently her best friend, Hannah, who is described as "that boring girl from school who's name no-one would remember in five years time."

Being a UKYA book, it does do that UKYA thing of showing teenagers doing authentic teenage things - they smoke, have sex, drink and try drugs. But I'd also just once to have a book focus on the kind of teenager I was. I didn't drink until I was 17, and even then minimally, I didn't have sex until I was in my twenties.

I'm also not sure if the dialogue is authentically teenage or not. To give an example, at one point Natasha writes in her diary that "How many other people have their death reported in inverted commas?" Would a teenager say 'inverted commas' or would they use the term speech marks? Well, I guess it would depend on the teenager, but an adult writer has a significantly higher chance of knowing the correct term for punctuation.

Spoiler: Saying this book is like Gone Girl is probably going to be a huge giveaway for people familiar with that book. A lying, sociopathic woman, a falsified diary and an unreliable narrator? However, there is a difference between unreliable and intentionally misleading, and I think this book is way too far into it. It makes no sense for Natasha to still be lying in her first-person narration, and even the blurb makes it seem like Natasha doesn't know as much as she does.

I would recommend this for other fans of page-turning thrillers, but please bear in mind some of the problematic content. I hate linking a book to other books, but it does remind me of a British YA Gone Girl.

Tuesday, 18 September 2018

A Review of The Exact Opposite of Okay

The Exact Opposite of Okay is a book by Laura Steven. Izzy O'Neill has been raised by her grandmother Betty since losing both her parents in a car crash. They get by with Betty's income from her job in a diner. Izzy wants to write humourous scripts for TV, but she feels her dream may not come true because of their lack of money. However, when an account of two sexual encounters she had at a party goes viral, Izzy finds herself the centre of much unwanted attention.

Basically every character who wasn't awful was a delight. Betty is the Grandmother I'd always wanted. Supportive teachers also amaze me. I loved that Izzy was given the $50 with no expectation to succeed or pay it back, just because it would be a great experience for her to try, even if she didn't win. And her romance was adorable in how well it fitted her. It's not cute in the general sense, but they do get on well. It was shallow, but then again, it's not the main focus of the book. If it was necessary to have a romance is another topic, but here I think it works. He also does show that not every male in this book is awful, so I would say that the romance was a necessary inclusion. There are also characters with shades of grey, such as Zack. It must be awful having most conversations you have bring up your father in some way, and I would have actually liked to see more of him as a reasonable human being. Ajita is basically the best best friend you could want in Izzy's circumstances, too.

Spoiler: I didn't want to spend any review time talking about Daniel, but I guess I would have to bring him up somewhere. Boy, does he remind me of some guys I've dealt with. What. An. Arsehole. [/spoiler]

What Izzy goes through is not dissimilar to similar events that have happened to real people. I'm thinking predominantly of leaking of celebrity nudes and revenge porn, but some people may know other examples. I was going to say "her life shouldn't be ruined because of a mistake" but it wasn't even a mistake, because it literally shouldn't have happened to her in the first place. Even her sending nudes was well within the bounds of acceptability. Izzy's eighteen*, making this an adult deciding to do something just for the hell of it. If you think it was wrong, I suggest rereading this book, and ask yourself why.

Izzy does make a serious mistake at one point, when she tells that Ajita is gay. This wasn't Izzy's thing to tell people - Ajita gets to decide who knows and when and how to tell them. However, much of the audience of this book will likely be teenagers. Some of them may not be aware of the consequences of giving away someone's sexuality and why you shouldn't do it. I'm not saying that makes Izzy's actions in the book okay, but it does mean people may learn something. Izzy is only a teenager, herself, and therefore will make mistakes. It's only natural. And no, being a full adult in the eyes of the law and still being a teenager prone to errors in judgement can coexist. Even at eighteen, you won't know everything, and you can still develop as a person as an adult.

I will say that some of the syntax reads more British than American. It can be jarring for those who are not used to it. Expect it before going in, remember that it is written by a British writer, and bear in mind that there are a lot of books set in Britain where Americanisms have crept in, too. Those sort of books can throw me right out of the story when I read them. If I'm honest, it still threw me off in this one, too, but I'll give it a pass.

Edit:  Since I didn't state this anywhere, the reason British terms sound weird in this book is because it is set in America, but written by a UK author.

* If you are under eighteen, however, please don't send nudes, ever, because distribution and possession of them comes under child pornography laws. Make sure whatever you do is safe and legal. I am disappointed that this point was never brought up, because this book could have been a good way to educate the target audience on best practice for sending nudes. In addition to "don't do it if you're underage" there's also "don't show any identifying features" and "only share them with people you trust." As well as if they ever do get leaked, it is absolutely, 100% not your fault.

I would recommend this book to anyone growing up and trying to make sense of how women are treated in society.

Tuesday, 21 August 2018

A Review of Leah on the Offbeat

Leah on the Offbeat is a book by Becky Albertalli, and is a companion novel of sorts to Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda. Leah Burke and her friends are entering senior year. With college applications and prom fast approaching, she's worried about her friendship group, which appears to be fracturing. However, she starts to realise she has more feeling for one in her group than she wanted to have.

Under a cut because I doubt I can talk about this book without spoiling it. It's hard to even write a summary without spoiling.

Tuesday, 14 August 2018

A Review of Theatrical

Theatrical is a book by Maggie Harcourt. Hope Parker has loved the world of theatre ever since getting glimpses of her mother's glamorous career as a costume designer. Getting a student placement at the Earl's Theatre is a dream come true, for the girl who wants to work in stage management. The opening night of a huge production is coming up, but there's also a budding romance with a student actor for her to worry about. But, as always, the show must go on.

At the end of the book, I was just confused, because I couldn't quite work out what hadn't worked. On paper, it should have been good for me. I love theatre, and I love reading about passionate characters. But something in this one was just slightly off. I always do like to start with the good, and I have a few positive things to say about it. The theatre stuff was good!

I did a bit of amateur dramatics acting as a teen, and the descriptions of the excitement and tension of backstage were spot on! I felt like I was there with Hope, costuming, counting props and cuing lights. I also really did connect with her love of theatre, and they're right up there with some of the most magical places in the world, to me.

Theatrical does capture a feeling I've felt quite a lot in my adult life. When you're new at a job, and everyone else seems to know what they're doing, and you're expected to know even though it's your first day, and people just roll their eyes when you ask where something is. When you know that if you ask for help with something, you'll be treated like you're stupid, but if you go ahead and do it, you'll make a mistake. When you feel like you just can't do anything right.

We are told that Hope is experienced and is determined to prove herself, but she comes across as mostly irresponsible and unprofessional. She's late quite often and misses cues because she's too busy daydreaming about her love interest. A few mistakes would be understandable - she's a teenager, and she's still learning. But things like being late aren't something I expect from someone who is trying to prove she can make it without her mother's help.

The romance was bland as vanilla. I'm sorry, but it was. I would have preferred her with George, because we do need more Asian love interests in YA and her family background provided an interesting parallel with his passion. I also liked seeing a boy with more feminine interests who wasn't gay. I know we need more LGBT characters, but I also feel like we need more straight characters (especially men) with interests associated with other genders.

Also, why was a girl who wants to work in theatre doing chemistry and maths as an A-Level? Maths I can possibly see, since it may come in handy for calculating things, but there is no earthly reason to do chemistry if it doesn't directly relate to what you want to do at University. It is that hard, and I know from experience, since I did it. Even if we take out Drama (Hope's not into the acting side so much) and Textiles (too much like her mother's line of work) surely English, Art and Graphic Design would have made more sense? Or a foreign language or a humanities subject? The A-levels a character takes should be somewhat linked to their personality. For the confused, most places only let you take a maximum of five, and most people will only do three or four. Also, taking any time out of school during your A-levels so close to exams seems to be not only foolish but also something most schools wouldn't let you do.

I would recommend this one for theatre lovers, especially those who have does any sort of community theatre work.

Tuesday, 7 August 2018

A Review of Puddin'

Puddin' is a novel by Julie Murphy, and is a sort of companion book/second novel to Dumplin'. Millie Michelchuk is sick of being held back because of her weight. This year, instead of going to fat camp, she's going to apply for broadcast journalism school. Cassie Reyes, on the school dance team, is upset when their sponsorship by a local small gym is dropped. After vandalising the gym, she winds up working their to pay back her damages, spending more time about Millie during her time there.

I loved it! I've been hit-or-miss with Julie Murphy so far. I loved Dumplin', wasn't overjoyed by Side Effects May Vary and am still not sure what to think about Ramona Blue. The only thing I was disappointed about is that there wasn't a romance between the two girls.

But I think their two personalities were what made the book. They're both very different people. Girls can be bitchy, they can be nice, they can be complex. I'll say it - I feel that the YA genre has been a goldmine of women as well-rounded characters with interesting personalities lately. Two very different girls can become friends. Add to this the supporting cast, again mostly female, and you've got a novel that's very character driven, so it's a good thing that it's a very strong cast of them.

I loved Millie! She's a sweetheart. You know how I often say that my favourite YA protagonists are those with some sort of dream or goal? She wants to be a news anchor, and my word is she working to make that happen. There's no reason why you should have to wait until you are an adult to start studying what you are interested in. The fact she's got an extra barrier with her size is not going to stop her.

Cassie may take someone longer to warm to. I had a sense of where the character was going, so I was waiting to see with her. She's a masterclass in how to write a mean girl without it turning into girl-hate. Her POV means we get her reasons, and her character development shows through in the end.

I admit I wasn't sold on the idea of a sleepover between the girls from Dumplin' at first, because I found it wasn't the strongest chapter, but the second one where Millie brings Cassie is rife with drama. These girls are very different, and adding one more member upset their fragile balance. Amanda has a discussion on asexuality with the others, which I loved, plus she's also disabled. I would like a third book in this series centring on her, actually. Hannah comes across as only being there because she has to be, but deep down I think she really does care. Willowdean and El are each others best friends, so if their group fell apart, they'd be okay if they had each other. Millie is the one who cares the most about their group.

Another thing I really like about this book is the Texas setting! I've been out to Texas several times to visit friends, and I love (most things about) the state! Especially the food, and the description of a Texas BBQ place made my mouth water.

Recommended for those who like their cute contemporaries with complex characters.

Tuesday, 24 July 2018

A Review of The Sky is Everywhere

The Sky is Everywhere is a book by Jandy Nelson, who also wrote I'll Give You The Sun. Lennie Walker is a seventeen year old clarinettist and classic literature reader who always felt in the shadow of her older sister, Bailey. With her sister's recent sudden death, Lennie is trying to sort her life back together. With the arrival of new kid Joe Fontaine, Lennie starts crushing but feels guilty for enjoying something so soon after her sister's death. But she is also starting to connect to Bailey's boyfriend, Toby Shaw, in a way she didn't expect.

It is rare that I finish a book and I don't know what to think. I felt the same way about I'll Give You The Sun, too. Later, I started to feel like it wasn't that I didn't know what to thing, just a distinct feeling of meh. I know they are well-liked books, but I couldn't get into them.

Lennie is a realistic teenager, perhaps more messed up than most of them with her sister's death, but she's not a pleasant one. I think that when you kiss your dead sister's boyfriend in front of the guy you were sort-of dating, you kind of forfeit your rights to feel jealous that he's with another girl? You aren't entitled to another chance in that case. I also didn't get her obsession with a Wuthering Heights style romance, because I thought the point of that book was that their relationship was unhealthy.

Plus points for her ambitions with clarinet, an unusual instrument to see in YA, and for seeing her develop her goals around it. Plus I did enjoy her poetry, even if the way she distributes it borders on littering and vandalism at times. They're more collections of thoughts and conversations, some one word a line style poems. But that's okay because poetry, like anything else, can adapt and change to the modern world. We don't have to write the same kind of poetry as those who came before, but we still can if we want to.

The grief was nicely done, as well. There's no one way to grieve. There's no set time limit on how soon you can go back to feeling happy, and there's no point where you have to stop feeling sad about it, either. Lennie doesn't quite get this, at her age and going through it once. Grief makes Lennie selfish - when she was going on about how Toby was the only one to understand, I wanted to point out to her that she still had her Gram. Others will react to it differently. Some of the quotes were exact descriptions of how I was feeling back in August/September.

Then there's Sarah, who as far as I can tell, is a feminist to get guys? She wasn't well explained, despite being Lennie's best friend. Lennie shuts her out from grief, and Sarah doesn't try to connect? I understand that sometimes you need to give them time, but most would understand that friendships if they are strong enough can always be picked up where they left off. Sarah didn't reach out to ask Lennie if she was okay, but seemed more interested in getting back a friend on her terms. She's mad at Lennie at one point because Lennie went quiet for a while, this being shortly after Lennie's older sister died. So what I'm saying is that I'm not buying that Sarah was giving Lennie space or trying to help her process things. Lennie's Gram was my favourite character, but I found it odd that everyone else calls her Gram, too. I really wish I could write more about Bailey here, but we only really see her through Lennie's eyes, as the idealised older sister.

The two boys annoyed me. A skater boy and a music genius. If that's not cliche enough, let's have him be from France, too. Toby is literally her dead sister's boyfriend, and Joe was a little lacking in personality. I honestly think the book would have been stronger without the love triangle, allowing more time for Joe to develop. Plus both seem to come round the house at all hours, coincidentally often running into each other.

One other character I'd like to discuss is Rachel. She's given quite a bit of girl-hate from Lennie, because... she got first chair clarinet after Lennie flunked the audition, she's pretty, made a few unkind comments and starts dating Joe after Lennie kissed Toby in front of him. She's not the nicest character, but not quite bad enough to make me empathise with Lennie's internal thoughts about her,

The teenspeak is cringe-worthy, too. Lennie uses the term WTF-asaurus (seriously, WTF?) and I would have stabbed my eyeballs out if I'd read the word Joelirious one more time.

One more minor quibble: only children don't tend to hate being only children. It's just a general fact of their existence. You don't miss what you never had. In the same way as people with siblings can't imagine life without them, it's hard for us to imagine how our life would be different without them. Sure, some of us might have wished for a sibling when we were younger, but I bet most of us grew out of that phase. We're not lesser people, nor do we automatically hate our existence, because we don't have siblings.

I might recommend this book to people who would like to learn more about grief.