Monday, March 28, 2016

Review: The Way I Used to Be

You probably all know by now that while I may be a fierce Young Adult fiction defender I don't read a ton of it myself. Every once and awhile, though, I come across a YA novel that intrigues me. The Way I Used to Be was one of those books. I was hooked as soon as I read the synopsis - wary, yes, but mostly hooked - and I knew I wanted to read it. Amber Smith's debut novel broke my heart but I adored it.

Here's the synopsis:
In the tradition of Speak, this extraordinary debut novel shares the unforgettable story of a young woman as she struggles to find strength in the aftermath of an assault.
Eden was always good at being good. Starting high school didn’t change who she was. But the night her brother’s best friend rapes her, Eden’s world capsizes.
What was once simple, is now complex. What Eden once loved—who she once loved—she now hates. What she thought she knew to be true, is now lies. Nothing makes sense anymore, and she knows she’s supposed to tell someone what happened but she can’t. So she buries it instead. And she buries the way she used to be.
Told in four parts—freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior year—this provocative debut reveals the deep cuts of trauma. But it also demonstrates one young woman’s strength as she navigates the disappointment and unbearable pains of adolescence, of first love and first heartbreak, of friendships broken and rebuilt, and while learning to embrace a power of survival she never knew she had hidden within her heart.
Sounds pretty heavy, doesn't it? It was. But in a great way. (OK, "great" might be the wrong word but you know what I mean. I hope.) Smith doesn't build up to the rape. The story opens just after it's occurred and has Eden trying to figure out what happened, pretend it didn't happen, and decide what to do next. When Eden's mom comes in her room and sees the blood on the bed sheets she assumes Eden got her period overnight and proceeds to give her advice on counting days, etc. so she can avoid another accident. Eden is shocked (and, likely, still in shock) and doesn't tell her mother the truth - then or for the next four years.

One of the (many) things to break my heart while reading this book was that Eden's parents just don't pay that much attention to her. All Eden wants, over the four years following the rape, is for someone to ask, outright, if she was ok and if something happened. But her parents don't ask. They just think she's going through a typical teenage rebellious stage and try to wait it out. 

As the synopsis mentioned, the book is divided into four sections, one for each year of high school. I was happy with this set up...for the most part. It was really good to see Eden through every stage of high school and how her relationships (with her friends and with guys) changed as time went on. And also how her relationship with herself changed. But, this isn't a very large novel so there isn't a lot of room to go into everything in every year.. That usually worked. My problem was it sometimes seemed like time was moving too fast and/or I wasn't even sure how much time had passed until Smith mentioned a holiday or specific month. (And she did that in really good, subtle ways, which may seem contradictory.) The other thing that didn't really help this sense of time was the middle two parts, sophomore and junior years, were longer and almost seemed to drag a little bit. Not enough to completely altar my view of the novel, but just enough to warrant a mention. It's worth it to stick it out, trust me.

I don't even think I could tell you every emotion I felt while reading this book. There were a lot of them and they were so strong. I felt like screaming with rage and crying with sadness. I wanted to reach through the pages and tell Eden that it was all going to be ok. I didn't know how but I needed so badly to make things better for her. It made me glad that, at the moment, I don't want kids and therefore won't have a daughter who might go through this. I was worried for my friend's daughter for when she gets to high school and has to deal with who knows what. And I was thankful, oh so thankful, that nothing like this ever happened to me in high school. But I was also worried - how did I judge other girls when I was a teen? Was there anyone I knew who went through something like this? Who do I know that has never told anyone about a rape or sexual assault? How can I make things better? How can I make myself a better person? So, yeah. Many feelings. I actually read the end of the book at the gym and I can only imagine the emotions that were playing across my face. I was gripping the book so hard as I was on the bike and had to keep telling myself that the gym is not the place to have tears streaming down your face because of the emotions you're feeling for a fictional character. But even though all of these things were heart wrenching and felt like a punch to the gut (over and over and over again), I wouldn't change a thing. I needed to feel those things to fully appreciate this book.

The Way I Used to Be was such a great book, even if it was incredibly hard to read at times. Amber Smith has written a novel that I think every teen should read (hell, everyone regardless of age). This is a book that should encourage a discussion about what to do if you find yourself in Eden's situation or if you suspect a friend is going through something difficult. I may have felt like crying while reading this book but I consider that a job well done by Smith. I know I've painted a picture of a very difficult read but it's worth it, my friends. So so worth it.

Also: If you want to check out another review, please read Tiff's at Mostly YA Lit. It's fantastic. 

*An ARC was provided by the publisher, Simon & Schuster Canada, in exchange for review consideration. All opinions are honest and my own.*

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Readalong: Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging

Last month the book world lost another author, Louise Rennison, the woman behind the fabulous Georgia Nicolson novels. These books were absolute favourites of mine when I was a teenager and I was so upset to hear of her death. I wasn't the only one. Jessica of The Paper Trail Diary, a friend and fellow blogger, decided we needed to reread the books in honour of Rennison. (Read more on the readalong here.) It's been years since I've read them and I never did finish the series. Book ten was published in, I think, 2009 which was when I was graduating university and not reading much YA. So, while I was sad to hear Rennison had died, I was happy to have the chance to reread her books. The goal of the readalong is to read one book every three weeks and we're discussing them on social media using #GeorgiaNicolsonReadalong, on our personal blogs, and on Goodreads in a special group.

For those of you who have absolutely no idea what I'm talking about, here's the synopsis of the first book in the Georgia Nicolson series, Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging:
There are six things very wrong with my life:
1. I have one of those under-the-skin spots that will never come to a head but lurk in a red way for the next two years.
2. It is on my nose
3. I have a three-year-old sister who may have peed somewhere in my room.
4. In fourteen days the summer hols will be over and then it will be back to Stalag 14 and Oberfuhrer Frau Simpson and her bunch of sadistic teachers.
5. I am very ugly and need to go into an ugly home.
6. I went to a party dressed as a stuffed olive.
In this wildly funny journal of a year in the life of Georgia Nicolson, British author Louise Rennison has perfectly captured the soaring joys and bottomless angst of being a teenager. In the spirit of Bridget Jones's Diary, this fresh, irreverent, and simply hilarious book will leave you laughing out loud. As Georgia would say, it's "Fabbity fab fab!"
I first read book number one when I was 13 or so. I don't remember exactly how I came across the books, but I did, and my best friend, her sister, and I devoured it and the rest of the books as they were published. I remember finding it hilarious at 13 and wondered if 28-almost-29 year old me would find it just as funny. Yep. I did. Of course, it was a little difficult getting into the mindset of a 14 year old again but I got there. I did kind of laugh when Georgia referred to her parents as "The Olds" because I totally would have agreed with her then but my view of my mom and step-dad is completely different now!

For the most part, I thought the story held up pretty well, considering it was first published in 1999. Teenagers really aren't that different no matter when they were growing up. I did notice, however, some issues that wouldn't fly with some teen girls today who are aware of feminist/gender issues. At one point Georgia talks about how embarrassing it is to have a dad who's emotional instead of handy. "Instead of DIY he talks about feelings and stuff. Why can't he be a real dad? It's so pathetic in a grown man." (page 17) I really hope that teen girls (and boys) these days realize that being a "real man" involves more than swinging a hammer and providing for his family. The other passage that made me cringe involved Georgia and her friend Jas walking up and down the main street in short skirts to see how many cars would honk. Teenage girls of today: Please do not do this. Wear the skirt because you like it, not because you want boys to stare at you.

The books are written in diary format so it makes it so easy to read. I blew through the first book in one day (I probably could have easily finished it in one sitting had I not had my sister staying with me for the weekend). I found myself giggling out loud and remembering how much fun it was to first read the book and talk about it with my friends. I don't think I had read many books by English authors before that point, certainly none with contemporary characters talking just like they would in England. (Let's not get into how certain books become Americanized.) I loved it because it exposed a whole new world to me - and a new vocabulary.

I know this is a pretty short review of Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging but I always find it hard to review a book I'm doing a reread of. Plus, it's 11pm on the night before I'm posting this and I'm exhausted! Coming up next for the Georgia Nicholson readalong is book two: On the Bright Side, I'm Now the Girlfriend of a Sex God (these titles just kill me). We'll be discussing it on April 12, along with the film version of Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging (which, if you can believe it, I've never seen) (Also, why did they have to change "full-frontal" to "perfect"? Ugh.). I can't wait! Now, I'm away laughing on a fast camel (you'll get that reference in a few books!).

RIP Louise. We'll miss you.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Review: Dear Emma

I loved Katie Heaney's first book, Never Have I Ever: My Life (So Far) Without a Date, a memoir that was published two years ago. (Review is here.) So, when I heard Heaney was writing a novel I was thrilled. Thrilled! I didn't have any expectations of Dear Emma going in (I hardly even read the synopsis because I knew I'd want to read her novel no matter what), though I do think I had higher hopes for it than it delivered. I really enjoyed it though!

Here's the synopsis:
Harriet, the author of her college newspaper's pseudonymous student advice column "Dear Emma," is great at telling others what to do, dispensing wisdom for the lovelorn and lonely on her Midwestern campus. Somehow, though, she can't take her own advice, especially after Keith, the guy she's dating, blows her off completely. When Harriet discovers that Keith has started seeing the beautiful and intimidating Remy, she wants to hate her. But she can't help warming to Remy, who soon writes to "Dear Emma" asking for romantic advice.
Now Harriet has the perfect opportunity to take revenge on the person who broke her heart. But as she begins to doubt her own motivations and presumably faultless guidance, she's forced to question how much she really knows about love, friendship and well-meaning advice.
I'm going to tell you something I wish I had realized/been told right off the bat. And it's kind of embarrassing to admit this because I always say I'm such a Jane Austen fan...but...Dear Emma is kind of an homage to Austen's Emma. I know. Duh. It made so much sense after I read that in the acknowledgements/interview with the author. Side note: who else reads those sections? It wasn't until I got into blogging that reading them became a regular thing. This is a prime example why I do because it really did add to my reading experience. Anyway. I really dislike Emma - both the book and the heroine. She's meddling and frustrating and downright cruel at times and I just never understood the appeal to that particular Austen novel. But I do think it explains why I had a teeny bit of annoyance with Harriet and her story. She sometimes gets too into providing advice and trying to fix things (something a friend eventually calls her out on) that she forgets to allow friends, and herself, to make those "mistakes" we all need to learn from. Unlike Emma, I could see the growth in Harriet and I definitely liked her more as a person than Emma!

Even though Dear Emma is a play on another novel...the story still felt fresh. I don't think there are enough contemporary New Adult novels that are light, fun, with a touch of real life drama. They all tend to be quite angsty. Where are the books that resemble my own post-secondary experiences? As you'll see in the next paragraph, Dear Emma was totally the kind of New Adult novel I've been looking for. Harriet is smart, funny, and real. She has flaws just like everyone else and that's what made her so likeable and realistic. They're not major flaws...they're ordinary, really. She focuses a little bit too much on herself sometimes, for example, even though she really is a great friend. Who hasn't been that person at least once? I also liked that Harriet and her roommates were juniors (it is so weird for me, a Canadian, to write that...I would call it third year!). Too often novels that take place in college/university have characters who are in their first year or their last so this was another, subtle, thing I really appreciated.

At first I found it difficult to get myself back into the university age mindset. It's been awhile since I've been in school but once I got into a reading groove it was like I was right there with Harriet, Logan, and Mel (her two roommates). In fact, I started to picture the library (where Harriet worked) as my own university's library. Same with the campus. And the house the three girls lived in looked suspiciously like the place my friends and I shared our last two years at school (even though the set up was nothing like Harriet's house). I was right back to being 22/23 and it was...well, it was nice. Adulting is hard so it was kind of awesome to be thrown into a story where the biggest issues were school, dating, and figuring out how to function hungover (I miss the hangovers I had in my early 20s...they're so much worse now).

What kept me from giving this a higher rating (I gave it 3 stars on Goodreads though it's definitely 3.5), was actually the writing. Well, maybe not the writing, exactly, because Heaney knows what she's doing. The thing that kind of bugged me was that sometimes there was too much explanation, like every part of Harriet's day needed to be accounted for kind of thing. And sometimes I felt like the information was just kind of thrown at you. I don't have a finished copy so I can't quote any particular lines, I just knew there were scenes where I felt a little bored and wanted things to keep on moving.

While I'm not shouting on the rooftops about how much I adored Dear Emma, I still think it's a thoroughly enjoyable novel that every contemporary story loving twentysomething should pick up. Katie Heaney is an author I will continue to watch and I cannot wait for her next novel!

*An egalley copy of this novel was provided by the publisher, Grand Central Publishing, via NetGalley in exchange for a review. All opinions are honest and my own.*