Tuesday, 30 October 2018

A Review of A Very Large Expanse of Sea

A Very Large Expanse of Sea is a book by Tahereh Mafi, the author of the Shatter Me series. Shirin is a Muslim-American teenager who has moved between several schools. It is a year after 9/11, and Shirin has become the target of a lot of racism and bigotry. She tends not to make friends at her new schools, knowing she won't be there long, but her brother starts up a breakdancing crew. She enjoys practising and learning the steps. There's also a boy called Ocean James, who seems to want to get to know Shirin. But Shirin has spent so long shutting people out, can she learn to let someone in?

This book is so important.

When I was in secondary school, 9/11 was still fresh in everyone's minds. It had happened in my last years of primary, and I still remember seeing the images on the news. But for teenagers now, 9/11 is history. They won't be able to remember it, and most weren't even alive for it. They've seen the images but only from when they are replayed. But there is one group to whom it will never be just history. Muslims still feel the effects of the attacks, every day. Disclaimer - my perspective here is white, British with a Christian upbringing (although I am now atheist) so my perspective will be obviously different than that of a person who follows the Muslim religion.

And despite the serious subject, it also manages to be a fun read. Shirin's personality is awesome, taking no shit from anyone and staying sassy. Her responses are humorous when they're not serious. The part where she points out to a teacher that he shouldn't be expecting her to teach him because that's not her job is gold. And sure, use your students to educate each other in interesting ways, but make sure none of them are placed into an uncomfortable situation with it.

She's also got a few hobbies, which I liked. Often, I find YA characters have one hobby - likely related to their ambition. But Shirin likes breakdancing, reading, music and fashion. She makes her own clothes but looks at couture for inspiration. She has dislikes, such as sport. She's more than a character, she's a fully rounded person and not solely defined by her religion.

While Shirin is not defined by her religion, it is important to her. I loved hearing her reasons behind wearing the hijab. Mafi educates the reader on Muslim traditions through Shirin, who talks about what her faith means to her. Religion is personal, and two people won't practice the same faith in the exact same way. Shirin can give us her opinion, but she cannot speak for all Muslims. Persian culture is also discussed - you might find yourself hungry for Persian food once you finish reading!

Spoiler: I kind of like it in YA books when things don't work out. How often, IRL, do teenagers actually stay together? And I think that people need to read about going through a break-up as much as they need to read about relationships.

Also, the early 2000's were my teenage years. The technology described here gave me real nostalgia. Nokia brick phone and iPod rather than a combined iPhone. AIM/MSN chat and LiveJournal are mentioned. Old dial-up internet and the infancy of text messaging, back when you had to count your texts and minutes so you didn't go over. I still think it was a strange time to grow up, on the cusp of the constantly changing technology but not quite there yet. The music was the music of my youth, too.

I did find the writing style a little choppy, and the romance a little bland. Ocean was nice, more than a stereotypical jock, but an unlikely relationship with a high school sports star is one that has been seen many times before. However, it didn't spoil my enjoyment of the story.

Recommended for people who were teenagers in the early/mid 2000's!

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.