Thursday, February 11, 2016

(Review) The Word for Yes by Claire Needell

Title: The Word for Yes
Author: Claire Needell
Published: February 16, 2016 (HarperTeen)
Rating: 2 stars
Format: Digital galley received from publisher in exchange for an honest review. (Thank you!)
Summary: After their parents’ divorce, Jan, Erika, and Melanie have to get used to the new world order: a father who’s moved to another continent and a mother who throws herself into moving on. Jan, off at her first semester of college, has plenty to worry about, including an outspoken roommate who’s kind of “out there” and an increasingly depressed and troubled long-distance boyfriend. Her younger sisters, left at home in New York City, and dealing with all the pressures of life in high school, aren’t exactly close. Erika is serious and feels awkward and uncomfortable in crowds, though her beauty tends to attract attention. Melanie is socially savvy and just wants to go out—to concerts, to parties, wherever—with her friends. The gap between all three girls widens as each day passes.

Then, at a party full of blurred lines and blurred memories, everything changes. Starting that night, where there should be words, there is only angry, scared silence.

And in the aftermath, Jan, Erika, and Melanie will have to work hard to reconnect and help one another heal.

{ Trigger warning for mentions of rape. }

This is a very difficult book to review. If it had been a library book, I would not have written it. In fact, if it had been a library book, I would not have made it past the first chapter.

The Word for Yes is the story of three sisters: Jan (The Oldest), Erika (The Brain), and Melanie (The Pretty One). It is also the story of some of their friends and acquaintances, because there are a few portions narrated by characters other than the sisters. But by and large, it is about these three girls going through the various stages of their lives along the course of several months, about the circumstances that draw them together and push them farther apart.

The main thing you need to know about this book is that it does tackle very heavy issues, the main one being rape. Needell did not shy away from the confusing, blurry circumstances that can surround it, and that is important. Rape isn't always about the random predator that leaps on unsuspecting girls from the bushes - in fact, scenarios along that line make up a scarily low percentage of sexual assaults. But I digress. Rape is an important topic, and I appreciate that Needell took on the challenge of writing a story about it.

One positive I can say about the book is that sometimes Needell captured very human aspects to some of her characters. There were moments where I felt like I was observing actual people, with their little details and idiosyncrasies that make them unique.

Unfortunately, however, the book overall was not a success for me.

My main complaint is, without a doubt, the writing. It was incredibly stilted and off-putting, especially in the first few chapters. The author relied very much on telling rather than showing, both in the narration and in the actual dialogue. The dialogue itself was often unrealistic, sometimes rambly to the point of being incoherent, in the case of Jan's roommate Eliza. The entire book was bogged down a slew of unnecessary details. The random backstories and side characters that were thrown around were distracting and did nothing to enhance the story. The author attempted to tackle too much in the limited number of pages and as a result, it just didn't all come together like it should have. I also wasn't a fan of the ending, which was very abrupt. I think a more thorough editing job would have helped this book immensely.

The other problem was the characters. I had trouble connecting with them. But I couldn't quite tell if it was because the characters themselves or because I couldn't connect to the book overall, due to the writing. They seemed to me to be at turns flat then larger-than-life, relatable then repulsive. There were moments when I would empathize with one sister or another, but then she would totally lose me. It was an odd experience that I can't quite describe, but it might have been a problem with me rather than with the book.

The Word for Yes had potential, and I appreciate the courageous effort by the author to tackle such an important subject. There was a great book here struggling to get out, but in my opinion, it ultimately failed.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

(Review) Between You & Me by Marissa Calin

Title: Between You & Me
Author: Marissa Calin
Published: August 2012 (Bloomsbury USA Children)
Rating: ★★★☆☆
Format: Hardcover, borrowed from the library
Summary: Mia appears on the first day of drama class, and she is fascinating. You can't cast someone to be fascinating, they just are. And Phyre can't help but want to impress her - especially since Mia is her teacher. But as she rehearses for the school production, Phyre realizes that her feelings for mia go deeper than she's ever experienced.

Phyre's best friend is a constant, ready to help Phyre make sense of her emotions. But just as Mia doesn't realize what Phyre feels, Phyre can't fathom the depth of her best friend's devotion...until it's almost too late.

Written as a screenplay, Between You & Me offers a breath-by-breath, moment-by-moment story of first love.
I've had Between You & Me on my TBR list for a couple years now, and I finally got around to picking it up for this round of Bout of Books! I didn't quite have time to sneak it in under the wire for BOB, but I kept it around and picked it up a few days later.

This is a somewhat difficult book to review, because there were a lot of things about it that worked for me but some things that didn't.

Between You & Me is the story of Phyre (pronounced like “fire” according to the baby name websites I checked), a sixteen-year-old girl who develops a crush on her teacher. It happens to the best of us. (I mean, I was homeschooled, so I didn't get the Hot Teacher experience until college. But hey, better late than never, right?)

The biggest thing I liked about this book is that Calin was not afraid to take risks when writing it. The whole thing is told in a screenplay format, but it's more than just reading a play. There's plenty of internal dialogue and description. It is difficult to describe, but trust me when I say it works! But perhaps the most interesting aspect is that the book is written from the perspective of Phyre (“me”) but addressed to her long-time best friend, known only as “you.” That's it. We don't get a name or a gender or a physical description other than tanned skin and blonde hair. It is entirely up to the reader's interpretation.

I am always up for something new and interesting in books, and this is no exception. It works very well with this story and these characters. To me, it felt new and refreshing and fun without being gimmicky. The script format in particular serves to enhance the story rather than take away from it, as the vast majority of the book focuses on theatre classes and rehearsals and performances. It all fits together in one easy-reading package.

But back to the story. Phyre develops an instantaneous crush on her new drama teacher, Mia. Ahh, crushes. Probably both the best and worst thing about being a teenager. I have to say that Calin does an exceptional job capturing what it is like. The way they overtake your every thought, the hyper-awareness of every single movement you make around them, the way you blow little moments entirely out of proportion. Reading this was like stepping into a time machine and jumping back the better part of a decade, and though the experience was not entirely pleasant, it was certainly familiar.

Yet for all the things I liked about Between You & Me, it took me a long time to really care about what was happening. I think it probably stemmed from the fact that I was obviously not rooting for the teacher/student romance, nor did I think it was going to happen. Because as long as you've read the cover summary (and probably even without it), you know the love story is clearly between Phyre and her best friend. You (the reader) just have to wait until she realizes that “you” (the best friend) has been there all along and that she belongs with them.

Go ahead and burst into Taylor Swift now. I'll wait.

However, most of the book consists of Phyre obsessing over Mia (though there's barely more than like two lines about sexuality, which I found odd) and not much else. I wanted a little more substance, a little more of her relationship with her best friend. I also found myself growing annoyed at Phyre at times, because her actions were often flighty and incredibly self-involved, even for a sixteen-year-old girl with an all-consuming crush. So that took away a bit of my enjoyment as well.

Overall, though, I did like the book, and I appreciate the risks that Calin took when writing it. It was courageous and definitely made an interesting change of pace. I would recommend Between You & Me to anyone looking for something a little different but not too deep or difficult of a read.
Phyre, sixteen, that's me! And this is my life. Or how I picture it. The door swings open and I smile up at you.

Seeing a play stops time – makes the real world seem so harsh.

I wonder how different I would be in a world with no consequences. Will the voice telling me what's right always be so loud?

Thursday, August 27, 2015

(Review) Almost Famous Women by Megan Mayhew Bergman

Title: Almost Famous Women
Author: Megan Mayhew Bergman
Published: January 2015 (Scribner)
Rating: ★★★★☆
Format: Hardcover, borrowed from the library
Summary:The fascinating lives of the characters in Almost Famous Women have mostly been forgotten, but their stories are burning to be told. Now Megan Mayhew Bergman, author of Birds of a Lesser Paradise, resurrects these women, lets them live in the reader's imagination, so we can explore their difficult choices. Nearly every story in this dazzling collection is based on a woman who attained some celebrity—she raced speed boats or was a conjoined twin in show business; a reclusive painter of renown; a member of the first all-female, integrated swing band. We see Lord Byron's illegitimate daughter, Allegra; Oscar Wilde's troubled niece, Dolly; West With the Night author Beryl Markham; Edna St. Vincent Millay's sister, Norma. These extraordinary stories travel the world, explore the past (and delve into the future), and portray fiercely independent women defined by their acts of bravery, creative impulses, and sometimes reckless decisions.

The world hasn't always been kind to unusual women, but through Megan Mayhew Bergman's alluring depictions they finally receive the attention they deserve. Almost Famous Women is a gorgeous collection from an "accomplished writer of short fiction" (Booklist).
I will preface this review by saying that I don't tend to like short stories. I am all about the characters and getting to know them, and when one has less than 40 pages (sometimes less than 10), there simply isn't an opportunity do so. But I stumbled across this collection when I was at the library the other day, and I was too intrigued to let the opportunity pass me by.

I went ahead and picked it up, and then I took the plunge and began reading it. I am immensely thankful that I did.

Megan Mayhew Bergman's writing is absolutely stunning. She weaves together similes and adjectives and the most unlikely strings of words on occasion, but they all somehow coalesce into a moving reading experience. Whether you are experiencing joy or revulsion or compassion, the words are there to make each moment just that much more poignant.

Her stories are all compelling, though each is completely unique. It is difficult to compare a story about a multiracial swing band to that of a cross-dressing heiress who owns her own island and races boats. What I can say about all of these stories is that they all explored human nature in the most interesting ways and from all different angles.

The idea of taking real women from history and writing fictional stories about them is risky, but the author pulls it off splendidly. I felt like I was immersed in each woman's life from the very first sentence of each segment. While it is not an uplifting read – the stories tend to be rather dark in subject matter – it never feels cumbersome or depressing. It is more like seeing each woman when she is most human, whether viewing her in a single moment or in brief snapshots throughout the course of a life.

If I have a single complaint, it would be that “The Lottery, Redux” did not fit with the rest of the stories, being based on a fictional work. I have not, in fact, read “The Lottery,” (or if I have, it's been quite a long time), so reading a *cough*fanfiction*cough* “cover story” on it did not interest me at all. The author does say in her notes, however, that McSweeny's specifically asked her to write a cover story of a classic, so apparently someone felt that it was needed.

Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by this collection, the writing in particular, and I will definitely be checking out Mayhew Bergman's previous short story collection soon.
Let me tell it, I said.
No, you're a liar and a drunk, she said. Or I said.

L is choreographing in her head again, making mental diagrams: the arch of a back, a lunge, a flexed foot. Her own bare feet tap the floor of the rented flat. She wants to stumble upon an invisible idea and render it with her body, amplify it. She feels something savage and raw inside and wants to show it on the stage, or in a patron's garden. She wants to begin a discussion underneath the orange trees.

Time didn't matter on Whale Clay. You did what Joe wanted to do, when Joe wanted to do it. That was all.