Review: Want to Go Private? by Sarah Darer Littman

Want to Go PrivateTitle: Want to Go Private?

Author: Sarah Darer Littman

Genre: YA Contemporary, Social Issues

Publication Date: August 1, 2011 (Scholastic Press)

Source: Bought per recommendation of Renae of Respiring Thoughts

Synopsis: Abby and Luke chat online. They’ve never met. But they are going to. Soon.

Abby is starting high school–it should be exciting, so why doesn’t she care? Everyone tells her to “make an effort,” but why can’t she just be herself? Abby quickly feels like she’s losing a grip on her once-happy life. The only thing she cares about anymore is talking to Luke, a guy she met online, who understands. It feels dangerous and yet good to chat with Luke–he is her secret, and she’s his. Then Luke asks her to meet him, and she does. But Luke isn’t who he says he is. When Abby goes missing, everyone is left to put together the pieces. If they don’t, they’ll never see Abby again.

5/5 stars – Horrifying and disgusting and difficult and PERFECT

Ew ew ew ew ew ew ew. This is the kind of book so gross that you need a shower after finishing it. Heck, you might need thorough showers while reading it alongside your usual showers in hopes of feeling clean again. Want to Go Private? can be really graphic at times, yeah, but that isn’t quite what I mean. What makes it so horrible that you need to scrub half your skin off? That it’s deeply rooted in truth and events that have happened to children across the world. That is more chilling than any graphic description the novel can offer, and that is why this novel is so wonderful and worth reading. The increase in your water bill will be worth it that month.

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Review: Fault Line by C. Desir

Fault LineTitle: Fault Line

Author: C. Desir

Genre: YA Contemporary

Publication Date: October 15, 2013 (Simon Pulse)

Source: print ARC from the publisher

Synopsis: Ben could date anyone he wants, but he only has eyes for the new girl — sarcastic free-spirit, Ani. Luckily for Ben, Ani wants him too. She’s everything Ben could ever imagine. Everything he could ever want.

But that all changes after the party. The one Ben misses. The one Ani goes to alone.

Now Ani isn’t the girl she used to be, and Ben can’t sort out the truth from the lies. What really happened, and who is to blame?

Ben wants to help her, but she refuses to be helped. The more she pushes Ben away, the more he wonders if there’s anything he can do to save the girl he loves.

4.5/5 stars – Painful, true, and an ugly sort of lovely; definitely a new favorite

Sexual abuse and sexual assault can screw people up like nobody’s business. Responses can vary from not wanting to be touched at all to wanting to have sex with everyone to anything between the two or far beyond them. It’s one of those events so damaging that their effects on the victims are unpredictable. With Fault Line, Desir writes a raw and perfectly illustrated story of one girl’s downward spiral, the boyfriend who goes down with her while trying to help her, and how rape is everyone’s problem, not just the victim’s. This is a tragedy, not a mystery.

Ani and Ben’s development both separately and together feels a little bit rushed, but there’s enough personality and heart on Ani’s part to feel her pain immediately once she’s raped about a third of the way through the book. Her downward spiral into trying to empower herself by living up to her reputation while telling herself she’s challenging it is all too familiar. I wanted to reach into the book and tell her she was only hurting herself and others, but I know I’d never get through to her. No one could at the point she was at. Not even her beloved Ben.

Ben’s individual development is the one that carries most of the novel’s issues. We hear about how he’s on the swim team and up for a scholarship and spends a lot of time with his family, but we don’t see very little of that in action before Ani is raped and he starts to neglect all that to try and help her get better. It’s simply things we heard he lost and it almost turns him into a vehicle for a story instead of a living, breathing part of the story. The last thirty pages or so are what save him because he finally gets it. Though I know there’s little to no hope for a sequel, I’d love to know where both Ben and Ani go after the abrupt yet strong ending of the novel.

What’s especially sad is how true-to-life this book is about the way people will treat rape victims like Ani, who have little to no idea what happened to them. They’ll say rape must not have happened because she doubted herself due to her lack of memory or she dressed/acted a certain way or they’d rather side with the people who took advantage of her and raped her when she was clearly intoxicated.

These are the kind of horrible people who manipulate the few known and many unknown details of the incident to support their positions, bring in a strawman argument like “two drunk people have sex, the girl wakes up the next morning and calls rape because she doesn’t want people to know she did it willingly” to a situation that is NOTHING like that, and sympathize with the Steubenville rapists. These are people who are all too common and once the book is out, reviews along these lines are sure to pop up. These are people I want to wash my hands of, but running into one is almost certain because of widespread myths and lies about rape.

I’ve been a fan of Desir for a while because of how she expresses her beliefs and personality on Twitter and it’s great to see those beliefs shine through in Fault Lines‘s pages. Her next YA novel won’t be out until fall 2014, but I’m already anticipating it eagerly and planning to get a finished copy of Fault Line to go on my shelves (or in my bins of books, as the case may be; there’s no room for a bookshelf in my dorm room).

Review: Red by Alison Cherry

RedTitle: Red

Author: Alison Cherry

Genre: YA Contemporary, Satire(?), Social Issues

Publication Date: October 8, 2013

Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley

Synopsis: Felicity St. John has it all—loyal best friends, a hot guy, and artistic talent. And she’s right on track to win the Miss Scarlet pageant. Her perfect life is possible because of just one thing: her long, wavy, coppery red hair.

Having red hair is all that matters in Scarletville. Redheads hold all the power—and everybody knows it. That’s why Felicity is scared down to her roots when she receives an anonymous note:

I know your secret.

Because Felicity is a big fake. Her hair color comes straight out of a bottle. And if anyone discovered the truth, she’d be a social outcast faster than she could say “strawberry blond.” Her mother would disown her, her friends would shun her, and her boyfriend would dump her. And forget about winning that pageant crown and the prize money that comes with it—money that would allow her to fulfill her dream of going to art school.

Felicity isn’t about to let someone blackmail her life away. But just how far is she willing to go to protect her red cred?

3.5/5 stars – Bad as a satire but great as a “normal” novel

Red initially sounded like a possibly dark mystery set in a strange town full of redheads, but it’s actually supposed to be a satire. Huh. Because I wanted to love this novel, I kept that in mind as I tore through this thoroughly engrossing read, but it ended up not working out that way. Red is entertaining and comes with a great cast of characters, but a good satire it is not.

Our strawbie (a strawberry blonde, though she dyes it) heroine Felicity is such a dynamic character. How she changes once her brunette classmate Gabby starts blackmailing her (it’s not a spoiler because she finds out so early on) is a wonderful transformation that helps her find what she really wants–which is not the pageant life her mother forced on her–and so much more. She carries the weight of the story easily on her shoulders, but she doesn’t even need to carry it alone because the other characters are just as strong.

Falicity’s two best friend Ivy and Haylie are mainly here mainly to act as symbols; Haylie embodies the typical redhead thinking in Scarletville while Ivy is a foil to that, though it bothers me Ivy never mentions or accepts the privilege she has as a redhead in Scarletville. Gabby = love and that’s that. Well, not really. She resorts to blackmail to institute some changes and that’s not great, but her reasons behind it once they’re revealed are really smart and she’s got all the sense of the novel. This is a ladies’ book, definitely. They rule it all! But the romance Felicity has with brown-haired artist Jonathan? Adorable friendship-turned romance deal.

But now to the unfortunately weak satire elements. First off, the use of hair color to represent racial-ethnic identities is an absolute no and kind of offensive. Hair color is so much more fluid–a blonde can go black-haired easily–and racial-ethnic identities are so not–because an Asian woman, for instance, can’t make herself white no matter what she does–that the metaphor quickly falls apart, taking the satire and the already-difficult-to-believe-in setting with it. Satires grounded in believable places work better.

The closest it gets to satire are the pageant elements, but those are very weak too. Satire, in a nutshell, will take the normal, emphasize it to absurdity with one technique or another, and present that absurdity as normal. The absurdity of pageant life as presented here is normal both in this book and in real life. Nothing Felicity’s mom puts her through for the pageant is anything I haven’t seen or heard already as normal in that area, so if this were satire, that would mean Toddlers and Tiaras is satire too. Sadly, it’s not.

Though it falls apart as a satire after just a few chapters, reading it as a “normal” novel once those elements wear off gives you something deeply entertaining. I’m definitely on board for Cherry’s next novel, due out sometime in 2014. With characters and writing as strong as this, I’d have to be a fool to miss out because of a horrid metaphor!

Review: Where the Stars Still Shine by Trish Doller

Where the Stars Still ShineTitle: Where the Stars Still Shine

Author: Trish Doller

Genre: YA Contemporary, Social Issues

Publication Date: September 24, 2013 (Bloomsbury USA Childrens)

Souce: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley

Syopsis: Stolen as a child from her large and loving family, and on the run with her mom for more than ten years, Callie has only the barest idea of what normal life might be like. She’s never had a home, never gone to school, and has gotten most of her meals from laundromat vending machines. Her dreams are haunted by memories she’d like to forget completely. But when Callie’s mom is finally arrested for kidnapping her, and Callie’s real dad whisks her back to what would have been her life, in a small town in Florida, Callie must find a way to leave the past behind. She must learn to be part of a family. And she must believe that love–even with someone who seems an improbable choice–is more than just a possibility.

Trish Doller writes incredibly real teens, and this searing story of love, betrayal, and how not to lose your mind will resonate with readers who want their stories gritty and utterly true.

5/5 stars – A book that isn’t afraid of sex or mistakes! One of my favorites of 2013

Some books have a beauty that defies words and is so hard to talk about even though you want to talk it up to the moon and back because it’s that good. Where the Stars Still Shine is one of those books and coming from a picky reader like me, that’s not praise to be taken lightly. Doller paints a messy picture of Callie and who she is because of the life she’s led, but it’s a lovely one too. It could have easily gone wrong, but she makes all the right brush strokes to bring out just the right images and emotions.

Callie. Oh wow, Callie. The poor girl has had it anything but easy after so many years of being on the run with a mentally ill mother whose disease runs her life (and whose struggles are portrayed without judgment or ableism, thank goodness). The girl uses sex to cope and goes off alone at all hours and pushes people away when they only want to help, but flashes of how Frank abused her and what else she went through helped me understand her. Victims cope in all sorts of ways that can be healthy or unhealthy. That’s hers.

Callie’s family and friends really come to life too. Her best friend/cousin Kat is often annoying, but the rest of the family is larger than life and may conform to the media stereotype of a Greek family, but they feel real all the same. There’s more focus on the romance-ish thing she has going on with a boy named Alex than her family for most of the book, though. I’m a fan of Alex and Callie mostly because of how their relationship develops and turns out. It gets a pretty satisfactory conclusion, especially considering the fact he’s her step-uncle. No true relation, but it’s still weird to think about.

Doller has such a way with words and characters, which makes me sad that Arcadia Falls, her next book, isn’t going to come out until at least 2015. I guess I can occupy my time until then with rereading her books and hoping the many non-Trish books I’ll read between now and 2015 will be as good as hers. (Fun fact: This short little review took an hour of banging my head on the keyboard and another hour of tying to find the right words after I stopped the aforementioned head-on-keyboard shenanigans.)

Review: The Cutting Room Floor by Dawn Klehr

The Cutting Room FloorTitle: The Cutting Room Floor

Author: Dawn Klehr

Genre: YA Contemporary, Mystery, LGBT

Publication Date: October 1, 2013 (Flux)

Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley

Synopsis: Behind-the-scenes secrets could turn deadly for Desmond and Riley.

Life in the Heights has never been easy for seventeen-year-old Riley Frost, but when she’s publicly dumped and outed at the same time, she becomes an immediate social outcast at her high school. So Riley swears off romance and throws herself into solving the shocking murder of her favorite teacher, Ms. Dunn.

Riley turns to her best friend, budding filmmaker Desmond Brandt, for help. What she doesn’t know is that Dez has been secretly directing her life, blackmailing her friends, and hoping his manipulations will make her love him. When his schemes go too far, Dez’s web of lies threatens to destroy both of their lives.

2.5/5 stars – Needs more of a focus so the bad gets thrown out and the good becomes great

Oh, The Cutting Room Floor. This one came really, really close to being great, but because it didn’t fully understand who it was (much like its co-narrator Riley!), I had a hard time understanding who it was too.  With a stronger focus and a lot of story-snipping, The Cutting Room Floor could be a dark tale of the lengths people go to when they’re obsessed and think they’re in love. What do readers get? A story with that, a lukewarm exploration of a girl’s sexuality, and a badly written, unneeded murder mystery.

Dez’s obsession with Riley and the horrifying lengths he goes to in order to make her like him back are strongly written and fulfilled all my expectations. Had this been the entirety of what the novel was about, this would have been a four-star or even a five-star read. He just about takes the spotlight away from Riley because he’s that well-written and thoroughly characterized. As he reveals what all he’s done in his pursuit of Riley, you can only stare with wide eyes and a gaping jaw. Horror rooted in obsession is one of my favorite kinds of horror to read!

The storyline about Riley’s burgeoning sexuality and how she’s not sure if she’s into girls or boys is okay, but the way everyone seems to be afraid of bisexuality really puts a damper on it. It’s treated like she was straight, then a lesbian, then straight again. I could ask if anyone in this novel has heard of bisexuality, but since it’s brought up a few times, it appears they have.

However, it’s only brought up in a situation where it will go nowhere or when someone says “screw the labels” when it comes to sexuality. It’s a nice sentiment, but it’s completely avoiding the issue instead of trying to address it. It is okay to openly say someone is bisexual. They are not disqualified from this even if they prefer men more at one time in their life and prefer girls more on another. GAH.

The murder mystery plot line is strong at first, but it quickly fizzles out, taking with it two important plot points that are neither brought up again nor resolved. When the killer is revealed, our narrators suddenly start throwing out all the evidence that person was the killer and acting like it was there all along–but readers never saw any of that evidence in the story. Rather than clever, it feels like someone gave up on trying to weave those clues into the story without making the killer’s identity obvious and decided to take the easy way out: hold it all in until the end and then backtrack. Doing so makes an already badly-written mystery even more frustrating.

In the end, this book needed a little more time in the editing room and more stuff left on the cutting room floor (it’s a pun that must be made!). The murder mystery is altogether unnecessary, the question of Riley’s sexual identity needs better handling, and Dez’s obsession with Riley is great but deserves more time.

Review: Find Me by Romily Bernard

Find MeTitle: Find Me

Author: Romily Bernard

Genre: YA Contemporary, Mystery, Thriller

Publication Date: September 24, 2013

Source: Publisher-provided ARC via Edelweiss

Synopsis: “Find Me.” These are the words written on Tessa Waye’s diary. The diary that ends up with Wick Tate. But Tessa’s just been found…dead.

Wick has the right computer-hacking skills for the job, but little interest in this perverse game of hide-and-seek. Until her sister Lily is the next target. Then Griff, trailer-park boy next door and fellow hacker, shows up, intent on helping Wick.

Is a happy ending possible with the threat of Wick’s deadbeat dad returning, the detective hunting him sniffing around Wick instead, and a killer taunting her at every step?

Foster child. Daughter of a felon. Loner hacker girl. Wick has a bad attitude and sarcasm to spare.

But she’s going to find this killer no matter what.

Because it just got personal.

☆: 4/5 stars – The love interest should get out and let this book be awesome

Wow. Seriously, wow. Not many books get me to stay up late at night to finish it because I enjoy my sleep far too much, but Find Me did it and it was worth every yawn, drowsy moment, and general sluggish feeling the next day. This may be one of the most entertaining YA debuts I’ve read this year!

Early on, mentions of the much-feared Blue Screen of Death, a twist on the infamous Lethal Weapon quote of getting too old for this shit, and more made me giggle, but Find Me is anything but a comedy. Moments like those are sweet little beacons of light in an otherwise dark novel. The reason Tessa didn’t go to the police about her rape (she was afraid they’d say she deserved it) is all too real. That is one of many factors that results in so few people reporting it when someone sexually assaults them.

Short chapters, tight plotting, and tense scenes that keep you on the edge of your seat make this short little novel (288 pages is very short by my standards) go by very quickly and it makes you wish this book were longer even though you know it’ll drag on if it gets any longer. The suspense kicks in from the very first chapter, which has Wick keeping an eye on the possibly-dirty cop hanging around outside her house, and it never lets up. We go all the way from the upper-class suburbs to the bad neighborhood where Wick lived before her mother committed suicide and her meth-making father went on the run, and it’s always a fun ride wherever we’re going. The twist and reveal? Genuinely caught me off guard, though my suspicions grew the closer the novel’s end came.

Wick might be one of my favorite female leads as of late too! Her hacking know-how is just enough to show us she knows what she’s doing but not enough to provide an evil villain’s blueprint or go right over our heads. Where she’s the one with the trust issues and bad attitude most of the time, her sweet little sister Lily is the opposite. Can I have a stuffed Lily, please? Fictional character or no, she’s pretty huggable.

The title is referenced multiple times throughout the book in a desperate repetition, but there’s one phrase I associate with the novel even more than the title: it’s not that easy. The “it” can be anything from living on after enduring an abusive relationship to trusting good people when you grew up learning trust is a bad thing to escaping the past you grew up with. Either way, these characters have it anything but easy.

One thing that is actually that easy in this book? Tying up plot lines. In fact, they all seem to tie up a little too neatly, some to the point of contrived. Just before Wick can question Tessa’s little sister Tally about an important passage that could have revealed the mystery man? Tessa’s parents get divorced and Tally leaves with the mother. That’s the end of that and it’s pretty clear that had Tally stayed, this book would have been over sooner. The epilogue in particular is all about tying up loose ends in such an overly neat fashion that it clashes with the rest of the novel.

Then there’s the love interest Griff. There’s a difference between being a douchebag and not being a nice guy. A guy who blackmails Wick into kissing him by withholding info on who’s threatening her and her sister? Um, NO. No swoons because that’s waaaaaaaay into douchebag territory. Their relationship didn’t feel developed enough in the first place and his blackmail soured my opinion of him for the rest of the book. He’s also got a habit of being a creep, but Wick says the creepy things he does like watching her sleep isn’t creepy just because it’s him. Um, no, still creepy. He must have acquired his creepiness in the three years he spent crushing on Wick without doing anything.

In general, Wick didn’t need that romance. She was doing just find rocking out and taking names all on her own. A strong friendship made over similar backgrounds that one escaped and one is still stuck in would have been perfect, especially for giving Griff the motivation to do what he does for Wick. Another thing the novel needed less of was the mean girl drama with Jenna. Making her someone who likes telling people to throw people in Dumpsters and fakes anguish over her best friend’s death didn’t help the novel at all. What plot-sanctioned reason was there for her to fake sadness over Tessa’s death?

There’s much more good than bad in this novel despite how much space it took me to talk out my criticisms. They need a lot more words to explain why they hurt the novel, you know? Communicating how suspenseful and fun this is makes for hard work too, so go check out the first three chapters on the author’s website and see what I mean. Desperate Google searching at one in the morning told me Bernard is working on a second book. Whether it’s related to Wick or something completely new, I don’t care because I just want more of this woman’s magic words.

Review: This Song Will Save Your Life by Leila Sales

This SongTitle: This Song Will Save Your Life

Author: Leila Sales

Genre: YA Contemporary, Social Issues

Publication Date: September 17, 2013 (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux)

Source: Print ARC from the publisher for review

Synopsis: Making friends has never been Elise Dembowski’s strong suit. All throughout her life, she’s been the butt of every joke and the outsider in every conversation. When a final attempt at popularity fails, Elise nearly gives up. Then she stumbles upon a warehouse party where she meets Vicky, a girl in a band who accepts her; Char, a cute, yet mysterious disc jockey; Pippa, a carefree spirit from England; and most importantly, a love for DJing.

Told in a refreshingly genuine and laugh-out-loud funny voice, THIS SONG WILL SAVE YOUR LIFE is an exuberant novel about identity, friendship, and the power of music to bring people together.

2.5/5 stars – Saves the best for last but leaves us with little in the meantime

Just by looking at that jacket copy, it’s hard not to see a little of oneself in Elise. We’ve all struggled with being the butt of the joke, the outsider, the unpopular one, or the target of reasonless bullying. Thanks to that and plenty of glowing reviews, I expected This Song Will Save Your Life to make me ache in about a million different ways, all of them good. It did toward the end, but the journey to the last fifty pages or so took far too long for a book just 288 pages long.

The first two chapters have Elise telling us her story in this bafflingly blasé voice. “Yeah, I’ve been bullied endlessly for years and one day, I snapped and decided to attempt suicide. The weather is lovely outside.” That’s not an actual quote, but the tone of it is pretty much exactly the same. Most of the book is like this, but there are small moments of stellar, emotional writing throughout, usually to do with DJing and her experience with it. Somehow, most of these only come in the last fifty pages. Why couldn’t they be more evenly placed throughout the book? Better yet, why couldn’t the entire book have been that great?

Elise is only sympathetic as a bullying victim and as plenty of fellow victims will, they’ll know exactly what kind of pain she’s in. It’s a bit of a cheap way to gain that sympathy for someone who is otherwise thoroughly characterized as a terrible person. She’s a snob that thinks herself better than the two people who aren’t bullying her and actually trying to be nice to her–and in all honestly, she thinks herself better than everyone else too. This doesn’t change much Sally and Chava even know Elise thinks she’s better than them, but they take her crap anyway for a reason that doesn’t end up ringing true after everything she’s done.

But as I said, things finally get good in the last fifty pages. Elise’s shallowly developed infatuation with fellow DJ Char comes to the perfect resolution, a scene with Elise apologizing to her little sister for trying to “save” her in the worst way possible just about made me cry, and the identity of who is writing a fake journal under Elise’s name and their reasoning for it nearly blinded me with anger on Elise’s behalf.

Most importantly, Elise finds herself and recognizes she has plenty of good friends and a solid family support system. Just as much as she needs to be good for herself, she needs to be good to them. Had the whole book been this good, I’d have a four-star or five-star read on my hands, but it’s not and it is how it is.

This marks my second miss with Sales’ books (the first being her debut novel Mostly Good Girls). Her second novel Past Perfect is one I’ve been looking forward to for ages, but with two thorough misfires, its looking less and less likely I’ll ever get to it due to fear it will be another bad book and crush all my hopes. One of my friends thoroughly connected to and loved Elise’s story, so I can’t discourage people from picking up This Song Will Save Your Life either. My advice is to simply think about it.