You Know You’ve Read Too Many Contemporaries When…

contemporaries

You start looking for your mum’s secret coke stash

I get that some parents are alcoholics and drug addicts, and that some parents leave. However, from most YA contemporaries, you’d think it was all of them. You could easily believe that there is an entire generation of young people currently pulling themselves up by their boot straps while their parents drink themselves to death in the next room.

I’m also bothered by characters who respond to their parents’ addiction by never touching substances. While this is absolutely true for some, it is by no means the rule. I would just like a YA book to address the fact that making the same mistakes as your parents doesn’t make you a bad person. Addiction has a genetic component, after all.

You think it’s totally normally to never ask your friends how THEY are doing

Have you ever noticed how self-involved most contemporary protagonists are? I know that we’re often experiencing the world from their perspective but… seriously. It’s a problem.

As much as I loved Simon vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda, when he talked about not knowing the story behind his best friend’s absent dad I was like SERIOUSLY? Are you that consumed by your own drama that in ten years it’s never occurred to you to ask the girl who comes to your house every night after school where her dad got to?

While Simon does come to see the error of his ways, most of the time this sort of shitty behaviour is never addressed. It’s kind of like how in Isla and the Happily Ever After she got everything she wanted despite being selfish and awful the entire book.

It’s not satisfying.

You can only think you’re pretty when a boy says you are!

Despite all YA ever, it’s actually true that you are allowed to think that you look good because you think look good, not just because some guy suddenly saw you. This annoying, and seemingly unavoidable trope grinds with me so much because it’s just another way of telling girls that they don’t have ownership over their own bodies.

What most books preach is that you become pretty when a guy says you are. And I’m supposed to think that’s romantic?

Um, no thanks.

I am here to tell you some revolutionary: You are allowed to think you look good because you think you look good.

(also because you finally figured out how to do that thing with your hair)

Romance is the LITERAL be all and end all. There is nothing else. Nope.

I’m adding this one somewhat tentatively.

Put your pitchforks away please.

I love a romance. I really do. I spend as much time on tumblr as anyone.

But, that said, there is more to character development than falling in love. Yes, it’s an important part of your life but it is just that. A part. I would love to read a contemporary where I felt like self-development was the main aim.

Life has many facets. It turns out that romance is just one of them.

 

 

Code Name Verity

It’s the midst of the Second World War. Julie, a spy for the British war effort, has been captured by the Germans. After days of torture, she agrees to tell them everything she knows. She has a pen and paper, a time limit and nothing left to lose.

Julie’s story starts and ends with Maddie, the talented pilot who flew her to Nazi occupied France in the first place. She’s also Julie’s best friend.

Julie doesn’t even know whether she’s still alive.

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Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein, is one of those YA staples that I have been meaning to get around to forever. I think the main reason I ignored this book for so long was to avoid my feelings of guilt around the fact that I never really listened during history class.

As an 11-14 year old (I dropped history pretty early on) I was in the it happened AGES ago WHY  do I need to know? camp. To be totally honest, until I started studying for my GCSEs and realised that the whole thing was starting to matter, I was not a very good student.

As such, whenever I saw Code Name Verity or listened to reviewers go on about its greatness, I would be reminded of my apathetic tween-dom, and rather than getting excited about reading, I would cringe.

While there were some sections of the book that I found a little slow – and I’ll get more into that later – overall I found Code Name Verity a highly engaging book, and it’s one that I think would have made me more excited for my history lessons (were it not for the fact that this book came out in 2012, when I was just starting university, far too late. Oh well).

The book opens with our protagonist, Julie, in a terrible situation. After landing on France, she was pretty much instantly caught by the Nazis after looking the wrong way when crossing the road. She was almost run over and clearly not a local. That aroused some serious suspicion, and it didn’t take long for the Nazis to figure out that she was a spy. I found the circumstances of her capture a little disappointing. Julie proves throughout the book that she is a smart and resourceful person – that’s how she goes from being a radio operator to one of the key spies of the British War effort in only a couple of years – so I found this really quite careless mistake to be out of character for her.

But, moving on from that, I think that Elizabeth Wein did a really great job of building an atmosphere of terror and uncertainty throughout. Julie is living her worst nightmare. She has been locked up and routinely tortured. She is exhausted, hurt and terrified. Wein builds the tension by having Julie allude to, rather than fully address what she has suffered. We have, at least at the beginning, only the vaguest idea of her captors, but their presence is overwhelming. As the book goes on and the image of Julie’s torturers becomes more solid, the apathy many of them display becomes truly haunting. Whenever someone shows reluctance to hurting her, it is more out of lethargy than human decency, and there is a starkness to that lack of humanity that is almost more upsetting than the torture we know these people are capable of inflicting. Almost.

Equally as creepy is the almost friendly relationship Julie builds with Von Linden, the head of her prison and her main interrogator. He seems to see something in her that appeals to his personhood, and stands in her cell discussing German literature even as he threatens to cover her body in petrol and set her on fire should she ever misbehave.

While the majority of Julie’s story focusses on the British war effort, and the secrets she is sharing with the Germans, in brief moments she sketches a detailed picture of her life in captivity.

Julie’s story totally engaged me. It was only when I got to the final third of the book, when Maddie took over narration that everything started to drag. While I really enjoyed seeing Julie from her perspective, and learning of some of her sneakier antics (which I won’t get into, cause spoilers), there was something about Maddie that I just couldn’t connect to in the same way. Maddie’s story involves a lot of waiting around – to get information about Julie, to get out of France, etc – and whenever the plot was detailing her life rather than studying Julie’s, I just wasn’t as interested. Unless her story was interacting with Julie’s plight, the novel just lost the stakes that had carried me through the first couple hundred pages. Plus Maddie kept going on about how she could get court marshalled for writing everything down, and it just got annoying after a while.

But, like I said before, overall, this is a great book. It’s an interesting look at the war from the perspective of women, who at that time had previously non-existent opportunities to rise of positions of power and importance within the British military. It really sucks that as soon as the war ended they were shoved back into the kitchen and shouted at until they tied their aprons on.

This is not an easy read. Julie and Maddie’s story is full of love, excitement, terror and, ultimately, heartbreak. It tells that often sighted story that the war was sort of an adventure until it really, really wasn’t.

Books That Broke Me

I am an anxious person.

Anyone who deals with anxiety knows that the best way to not be anxious is to AVOID ALL THE THINGS.

Anyone who deals with anxiety in this way also knows that this does not make for the most exciting life.

At some point we all come to realise that we will not die of anxiety (or whatever the thing was that we were anxious about. As it turns out, not being able to see into the future is a normal human thing rather than an indicator of impending demise).

I bring all this up because being an anxious person also makes you the sort of person who is really really good at hiding from your own feelings. That’s why, for me at least, when someone tells me a book is sad and I say yeah I’ll totally read that I am LYING.

So when I read a sad book it’s usually by accident. Or because John Green wrote it.

Whenever I read sad books, once I’ve gotten over the initial heartbreak and post-cry head ache, I always think: I feel so alive right now. And then I tell everyone in my immediate vicinity that I LOVE THEM SO MUCH OMG.

Sometimes it’s good to break your heart a bit to remind yourself that you one.

So –

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Here are some books that will break you.

(use sparingly)

The Fault In Our Stars – John Green

Was the most obvious choice I could have made? Yes. I don’t care.

TFIOS is a book about dying teenagers. And falling in love. It’s a heart breaking combination.

Sometimes when I read this I’m like LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL as I weep. Other times I’m like LIFE IS FUTILE.

It really depends on the day.

One – Sarah Crossan

Suffice to say I totally did not think through the implications of the title of this book.

It’s about two girls, Grace and Tippi, who are conjoined twins. It raises questions about what individuality even is. And then it shatters your heart into a thousand pieces.

It’s beautiful.

We Were Liars – E. Lockhart

I have mentioned a few times before that I am terrified of flying. I really want to travel, and almost all the places that I want to go will require me to get on a plane. Even though I have no money and therefore can currently go nowhere, I keep waking up at 3am freaking out about planes.

I read this book in an airport in Barcelona a couple summers ago. My friend and I had arrived several hours early because preparedness and because my friend thought that it would have some great duty free shopping. It did not. As a result I had to spend many hours in an airport watching planes take off.

This did nothing to soothe my anxieties.

So, it’s impressive that, by the time I got on the plane, I felt worse about the events in We Were Liars (which I had finished during the aforementioned hours of waiting) than I did about all the plane-related worst case scenarios that I was playing in my head.

A lot of books are described as ‘unforgettable’ when in reality actually aren’t. This one kind of is. You don’t forget that sort of trauma in a hurry.

A Monster Calls – Patrick Ness

Anyone who ever read about Manchee the dog knows that Patrick Ness is an expert in emotional torture.

Honestly I think he derives some sick sort of joy out of the process of chipping away at the existing cracks in our hard working hearts.

The instrument of torture in this story is Conor, who comes to terms with his mother’s terminal cancer through having visions of a terrifying monster.

What makes it even sadder is that it’s based on an idea by Siobhan Dowd, a wonderful YA author who herself died of cancer before being able to write the book.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close – Jonathan Safran Foer

Oskar’s dad died in 9/11.

Oskar had to kind of dad who liked to send him on Reconnaissance Expeditions. Oskar loved to solve his dad’s cleverly woven mysteries.

A couple years after his death, Oskar finds a key. To Oskar, this was the Reconnaissance Expedition his father left behind. He makes it his mission to discover which lock in New York the key opens.

There is something uniquely heart wrenching in reading tragedy from the point of view of a child. Between the lines you read all the things in Oskar’s life that he isn’t yet old enough to understand. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a book about a boy learning to navigate a wound that will never truly heal.

I actually read this years ago but it’s one of those stories that’s stuck with me. Writing this has made me realise it’s time to reread it.

What was the last book you read that made you weep like a baby?

February Wrap-Up

I like that it’s the end of February. March means spring. Or at least, something spring-like.

I am choosing to focus on this rather than wondering where the last two months went.

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This month I reviewed:

Mosquitoland – David Arnold

Feelings: This book would be really great if big chunks of it didn’t happen.

Vivian Versus America – Katie Coyle

Feelings: The events of this book are chillingly plausible. We work best when we try not to hate and despite each other.

How To Be Parisian Wherever You Are – Sophie Mas, Audrey Diwan, Caroline de Maigret and Anne Berest

Feelings: SO MUCH LOVE.

Simon vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda – Becky Albertalli

Feelings: The hype is totally justified.

One – Sarah Crossan

Feelings: Break my heart WHY DON’T YOU?!

I also wrote about:

Book Boyfriends For Valentine’s Day

Top 10 TV Women

5 Pick-Me-Up Books For Down Days

I also read:

Code Name Verity – Elizabeth Wein

The Princess Diaries #6 – Meg Cabot (reread)

Victoria and the Rogue – Meg Cabot (reread)

Fangirl – Rainbow Rowell (reread)

I have gotten much more into borrowing from the library in the last couple of months. It’s mainly out of necessity because I am so broke I can’t even talk about it. I gave up with my local library a few years ago because I had read everything worth reading. Since I’ve been away at university though, they’ve totally redone the place and now it’s awesome.

Thank you, local library.

 

 

 

 

5 Pick-Me-Up Books for Down Days

I think that at this point people are pretty sick of the recently graduated broadcasting to everyone they know how much their lives suck.

As such, I’m not going to get into it. Suffice to say that the past couple months have been heavy on the job rejection front (I have received 2 in the time I have been writing this blog post!).

This Buzzfeed article pretty much covers it.

But, the truth is, people who spend all their time feeling sorry for themselves are annoying. In the interest of not being one of those people (and Monday being, as always, the start of a New Game), today I present a list of pick-me-up books. You know. Those books that inject a much needed bit of encouragement, or just humour, into your life right when you need it.

The time has come for me to ignore my TBR and turn instead to some old favourites.

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Fangirl – Rainbow Rowell

This book will probably fit into every single list I ever write. The simple fact is that I always feel like it was written for me.

Cath is the anxious type. The thrown-in-at-the-deep-end feeling of the first year of university isn’t helping any. Her anxious parts are in overdrive. For the first few weeks she can’t even make herself go into the cafeteria.

(I loved this detail because for my first week of university, I lived off of cheese biscuits and a giant jar of Nutella. I too, had a lot of trouble leaving my room. It seems silly now).

But, despite her resistance, she makes friends. She meets a guy. She copes without even realising that she’s doing it.

What I like so much about this book is the speed at which Cath’s life opens. Coping, for Cath, is something that happens slowly. It’s in every action, rather than a rushed montage-like chapter after which she has her entire universe sussed. For Cath, Okay is a process. There is something incredibly comforting in that which brings me back to this book whenever I get down.

I Was Told There’d be Cake – Sloane Crosley

Sloane Crosley’s writing bridges the distance between laugh-out-loud and melancholy in a way that is very appealing when dealing with a serial crappy day scenario. While many of her essays tell stories that are outlandish, they remain authentic and relatable.

She writes a lot about the distancing of friendships that starts to happen when you get older and move in different directions. She writes about getting rid of the toy pony collection she built up in gifts from various ex-boyfriends. She also talks about the annoying questions people ask when you say you’re vegetarian, which I appreciated (asking someone but what do you eat? makes you a dick 100% of the time, btw).

Maybe my favourite essay in the book is about the time she threw a dinner party for three friends and one of their asshole boyfriends, and found, when they had left, that one of them had taken a shit on her bathroom floor.

Sloane’s voice is a comforting presence on a bad day.

The Graveyard Book – Neil Gaiman

The last chapter of this book never fails to make me cry. But it’s sort of for good reasons. If you have a copy and you haven’t read it in forever, please go read the last chapter now. Trust me.

Nobody ‘Bod’ Owens grew up in a graveyard. He had to hide there in order to be safe from the dangers of the world.

Until he didn’t.

‘There was a passport in his bag, money in his pocket. There was a smile dancing on his lips, although it was a wary smile, for the world is a bigger place than a little graveyard on a hill; and there would be dangers in it and mysteries, new friends to make, old friends to rediscover, mistakes to be made and many paths to be walked before he would, finally, return to the graveyard or ride with the Lady on the broad back of her great grey stallion.

But between now and then, there was Life; and Bod walked into it with his eyes and his heart wide open.’

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian – Sherman Alexie

I really love fish-out-of-water stories (Legally Blonde is one of my favourite movies). Within that, I love when characters succeed simply by being their awesome selves, and gradually getting recognition for that from their peers, rather than by wreaking some epic revenge.  This is not to say that I don’t believe in Matilda-ing the hell out of a situation when necessary. Sometimes you have to make your scary, force-feeding head teacher think that her house is haunted and drive her out of town.

Other times, you’ve just got to be your awesome self, like Elle Woods and Arnold Spirit, and wait for everybody else to catch up.

Arnold has the kind of life where the prospect of hope is in the opposite direction of home. He lives on the Spokane Indian reservation. There is a lot of poverty. His parents are alcoholics.

Nobody ever really leaves the reservation. So when Arnold decides to get out and attend the all-white high school in town miles away… people are kind of mad. People at the all-white high school are kind of mad, too.

But despite all this – the traumatic home life, school days filled with racist discrimination and a whole lot of tragedy and grief, Arnold survives. And thrives. He’s an impressive guy.

I recommend this to anyone who’s starting to think they might need to leave their tribe.

Why Not Me? – Mindy Kaling

Because memoirs by ladies heal all (insubstantial) wounds.

Of Mindy Kaling’s two memoirs, this one is the best, in my opinion. While the first one is totally enjoyable, I can’t help but feel like she puts more of herself into this second offering. In the introduction she states that she’s done with wanting to be liked, and is instead now much more interested in being known. That is an attitude I can get behind.

This book is about work and being a woman and dating. It’s about 4am worries and the secret to success (spoiler alert: it’s hard work, apparently).

It’s also really really funny and 100% guaranteed to lift the sort of self-involved, churlish sadness that has been the subject of this blog post.

 

Do you have any books that you automatically reread when times get crappy? Let me know. I can always use more mood-boosting reads.

Everything Everything

Maddy is sick. She has SCID. It’s a chronic condition that can basically be described as an allergy to everything. She hasn’t been able to leave her house in seventeen years. The only people in her life are her mother (who also happens to be her doctor), and her nurse, Carla, who is pretty much her best friend in the world.

That is, until one day, a new family move in across the street. Until, specifically, Olly moves in across the street.

Suddenly Maddy’s life inside isn’t enough anymore.

Maddy is sick. She has SCID. It’s a chronic condition that can basically be described as an allergy to everything. She hasn’t been able to leave her house in seventeen years. The only people in her life are her mother (who also happens to be her doctor), and her nurse, Carla, who is pretty much her best friend in the world.

That is, until one day, a new family move in across the street. Until, specifically, Olly moves in across the street.

Suddenly Maddy’s life inside isn’t enough anymore.

EverythingEverythingCoverFor whatever reason, I waited a really long time to read Everything Everything, by Nicola Yoon. It arrived ages ago, but for a month or two it has been sitting on my shelf, underneath Why Not Me?, Asking for It and Six of Crows. I think I did this because I knew that this book would either be a colossal disappointment, or one of those reads during which I would become nostalgic about it before it was even over.

It was the second one. I loved this book. Nicola Yoon handled her subject matter well. She wrote Maddy as your average eighteen year old. That she wasn’t ever allowed to leave the house was just happenstance. It wasn’t something Maddy especially dwelt on, because it was her normality. I loved Yoon’s presentation of family time, particularly the games like phonetic Scrabble that Maddy played with her mother. Small moments like that build up the truth of your family life. It had the effect of showing us the loving relationship between Maddy and her mother while also showing us how small Maddy’s world was. That game came up a lot – I swear at times it was all Maddy and her mother did. They even played it when Maddy wanted nothing but to be as far from her mother as she could get.  The constant game of phonetic Scrabble (that Maddy didn’t win until right near the very end), was like a symbol of the suffocating relationship Maddy and her mother had. When Maddy won the final game they played in the book, it was a signifier for the change that was finally coming in their relationship. Getting out from underneath someone else’s suffocating love is difficult and painful, but something that had to happen for Maddy or her mother to have even a chance at their best future.

One the criticisms I have seen levelled at this book most frequently is that we don’t get enough of Maddy’s mother. I completely disagree. Whether she’s there or not, she is a looming presence throughout the book. She is the walls of Maddy’s prison. I think the reason for her relative disappearance in much of the book is that, for the first time ever, Maddy’s life is about herself.

Carla was the foil to Maddy’s mother. Without her influence I don’t think the Maddy that we read about would have been possible. Where Maddy’s mum restricts her, Carla is all about setting her free. She is the one who teaches Maddy that her life is her own. Carla knows that it is a person’s one job during their time here to live their life, even when doing that is scary.

You’re not living if you’re not regretting.’ – Carla, the best nurse ever.

Obviously I can’t end this review without talking about Olly. Oh, Olly. Why didn’t you move in across the street from me? Granted, I am not trapped in my house owing to chronic illness, but it’s very difficult for me to leave the village most of the time because the public transport is so bad. That counts, right? I’m basically Rapunzel in the tower until a friend with a car shows up.

Anyway. Olly was everything I like in a boy: hyper-active energy, emotional damage and the sort of flirtatious attitude that puts an instant, embarrassing and totally unavoidable grin on my face. I’ve heard Maddy and Olly’s attraction described as insta-love, but I don’t agree at all. It’s insta-sexual tension, which is way more acceptable. As I have made clear before, I am a big fan of sexual tension. It’s insta-sexual tension that turns into a real relationship. As far as I’m concerned, Olly totally seems like a guy worth leaving the house for.

I guess my one criticism of this book is that I would have liked to have read more about Maddy’s life post-twist. The resolution came so quickly after, I was a little disappointed that I didn’t get to see more of how Maddy dealt with the situation. I would have liked to have seen Olly’s reaction, too.

But this is a backhanded criticism. Essentially my complaint is that the book ended.

To which I have to say, good job, Nicola Yoon. I can’t wait to see what you do next.

Sequel Watch: Winger

This book was great. Andrew Smith uses Ryan Dean West’s immature but developing voice to navigate issues of sexuality, masculinity, misogyny and loss. He manages to do this while also being very, very funny. Not many books make me actually laugh out loud, but this one had me giggling with abandon even outside of the safety and seclusion of my bedroom. I laughed, by myself, reading, in public.

Winger, by Andrew Smith, is the diary of Ryan Dean West, fourteen year old genius who just landed himself in what his boarding school, Pine Mountain refers to as ‘Opportunity Hall’ for the semester. It’s where they put the bad kids, and Ryan Dean has found himself sharing a bedroom with one of the baddest: notorious school bully Chas Becker. As he’s been skipped ahead a couple grades owing to the whole genius issue, most of Ryan Dean’s friends are a couple years older than him. Generally, this isn’t a problem, apart from where Ryan Dean’s best friend, Annie – who he also happens to be madly in love with – is concerned.  When Annie looks at him, she only sees a little kid. Winger is Ryan Dean’s homemade school survival manual, complete with the hand drawn comics he uses to make sense of his life as it develops.

wingerThis book was great. Andrew Smith uses Ryan Dean West’s immature but developing voice to navigate issues of sexuality, masculinity, misogyny and loss. He manages to do this while also being very, very funny. Not many books make me actually laugh out loud, but this one had me giggling with abandon even outside of the safety and seclusion of my bedroom. I laughed, by myself, reading, in public.

A central theme of this book is the idea of masculine identity. One way that Smith dissects this is through Ryan Dean’s relationships with girls. Ryan Dean, like many teenage boys, spends most (pretty much all) of his time thinking about sex, and in particular, how to get sex. His interactions with girls are limited as a result, because he views them as sex objects. This attitude almost entirely messes up his relationship with Annie as Ryan Dean struggles to figure out whether sex with a girl is better than a relationship with the girl he has actually feelings for. Joey – Ryan’s friend, I am going to talk more about in a minute – points out to Ryan Dean that perhaps his quest for ‘a girl’ is part of what keeps ‘the girl’ (Annie) away. How is she supposed to trust a boy more interested in sex in general than women as individuals? Much of Ryan Dean’s journey throughout the novel is concerned with the importance of love and sex to his happiness.

Probably my favourite part of the book was Ryan Dean’s friendship with the aforementioned Joey Consentino, another resident of Opportunity Hall. Joey is the only openly gay kid at Pine Mountain. Initially, Joey’s sexuality makes Ryan Dean uncomfortable. He spends a lot of time dwelling on Joey’s sexuality, and what it means to him. He worries about his friendship with Joey being misinterpreted as something more, both by Joey himself and the wider school community. The better he gets to know Joey, however, the more he gets over his anxieties. At the start of the novel, Ryan Dean processes the idea of ‘gayness’ in the same way as he sees women: monolithically. Rather than – as he comes to (because Joey is the freaking best. As per usual, I fell in love with a guy I could never have…) – seeing Joey as the loyal, kind, funny, troubled, complex person that he is, he just obsesses about the fact that he likes boys. Ryan Dean’s friendship with Joey helps him realise that sex isn’t at the centre of everything. Love is.

In coming to understand the complexities in others, Ryan Dean really comes to know himself. When unthinkable heartbreak occurs, he has the tools to survive it. He understands that love will see him through. He learns that his masculine identity is complex, that it’s more than sex and beating on boys who disagree with you. It’s about imagining women complexly and having loving and platonic relationships with other men.

Winger is a wonderfully complex imagining of the mind of a teenage boy. Ryan Dean West is a frustrating, funny, immature but growing protagonist. His journey makes awesome reading.

Stand Off, Andrew Smith’s sequel was released early September. Details on Goodreads.