Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Weightless - Sarah Bannan

Publisher: Bloomsbury
Published: April 2015
Pages: 352 

Blurb: 

When 15-year-old Carolyn moves from New Jersey to Alabama with her mother, she rattles the status quo of the junior class at Adams High School. A good student and natural athlete, she’s immediately welcomed by the school’s cliques. She’s even nominated to the homecoming court and begins dating a senior, Shane, whose on again/off again girlfriend Brooke becomes Carolyn’s bitter romantic rival. When a video of Carolyn and Shane making out is sent to everyone, Carolyn goes from golden girl to slut, as Brooke and her best friend Gemma try to restore their popularity. Gossip and bullying hound Carolyn, who becomes increasingly private and isolated. When Shane and Brooke—now back together—confront Carolyn in the student parking lot, injuring her, it’s the last attack she can take.

Sarah Bannan's deft use of the first person plural gives Weightless an emotional intensity and remarkable power that will send you flying through the pages and leave you reeling.
 


Review:


Weightless is one of those books I wish I had read when I was fourteen. It’s one of those books that should be on recommended reading lists for school because it’s just that important. I feel like it should be made into a movie because then more people would hear this story, but I just know they’d ruin it. It’s a perfect little heart-breaker of a book and I recommend it to everyone who has ever or will ever be a teenager.


Weightless is set in Adamsville , Alabama, a small tight-knit, religious community. New-comers are few and far between, generation after generation of native Adamsvillian have lived there and there seems to be a sort of segregation between blacks and whites. Adamsville seems to be a stereotypical southern town, enhanced by the descriptions of the stifling and oppressive heat that you just don’t get in Ireland, but really gave a sense of setting. Adamsville is a Christian town, Baptist to be more specific, and Adamsville High is a Christian school. They pray before football games, they pray for the football team at church. Everything is wholesome, there’s no alcohol, no sex. Everyone is a Christian, but no one acts very christian at all.


Obviously the main issue dealt with in this book is bullying and the role technology plays in bullying in the twenty first century. The whole technology aspect was nothing new to me, after all, this was the culture of bullying in grew up with. But I’d say it’s a shock to the system for any adults reading this book who thankfully managed to avoid the era of cyber bullying. It’s much easier to dehumanise someone online than face-to-face, but the  stuff said about Carolyn isn’t anything worse than Brooke, Gemma and co. would say to her face. More importantly, the internet is used to send videos and photos of Carolyn, and mobile phones are used to make sure that Carolyn can’t even escape the bullying when they leave school. And it seems like the internet has ushered in an era with no privacy. Everything is recorded, with the other students taking photos and videos of Carolyn without her knowing. The narrators see no problem in looking through Carolyn’s bathroom cabinet and gym bag, and then telling everyone what they saw.


There is a trend within the narrative of passive aggressive bullying escalating to violence and abuse. While it starts off fairly “innocent” , it ends up with the sort of behaviour adults get prosecuted for. But the whole time it’s passed off by the other students as normal behaviour, or banter. If I had a euro for every time I hear “You need to learn how to take a joke” used as an excuse for picking on someone, I’d be a rich woman, and in Weightless it’s used as a way to make excuses for bullying. Similarly, nobody takes the suicide attempts of Carolyn or “that girl at Lincoln High” seriously. They are seen more as a cry for attention, that the girls are being dramatic rather than exhibiting symptoms of emotional distress or depression. I remember people saying stuff like this when I was at school , and may have even been a culprit. And obviously the book goes on to show how dangerous ignoring and downplaying these acts can be.


To me, what Bannan actually does really well here is showing the motivations and causes of the bullys’ behavior. There’s an old theory that parents and teachers tell you, that you don’t believe when you’re thirteen  but you realise is true when you get older and look back , that only unhappy people pick on others. In Weightless , like in real life, bullying comes from a place of insecurity. Brooke is ashamed of her weight, Gemma knows everyone thinks she’s stupid, and Taylor and Tiffany are desperate to cling onto the bit of social standing they have. Everyone has their own issues, and as well as trying to build themselves up they tear everyone else down. At one point Carolyn asks why don’t they just leave her alone if they hate her so much, but tearing Carolyn down is just a cruel way of making themselves feel more superior.


Bannan also touches a little on slut shaming and casual sexism. After another student takes a video of Carolyn and Shane having sex in his car, Carolyn suffers all the backlash , and Shane gets away with a flawless reputation. It’s amazing that only one of them gets ridiculed and blamed it takes two to tango, but are we really that surprised. The Adamsville hotlist is another great example of both casual bullying and sexism. Firstly, there’s no list for the guys, and secondly there’s obviously something inherently cruel in ranking girls based on their attractiveness.


As the title suggests, a lot of the heartbreak in this book is caused by weight. All the girls think they are fat, all of them want to be smaller. Both Brooke and Carolyn have eating disorders, and while the narrators don’t , they still spend a lot of time and energy worrying about their weight. The girls are obsessed with being small, nearly every time Carolyn is mentioned they reference her weight, if she has lost or put on any. Every time she is mentioned with Shane , they talk about how tiny she is compared to him, how he eclipses her. They seem to want to shrink themselves, to take up as little space as possible.


Weightless is written in the first person plural, which adds to the whole bystander syndrome of the situation. Nobody does anything to help Carolyn because, well nobody else was doing anything to help her, and everybody feels ok with tormenting her, because everyone else is doing it too. It also helps encapsulate the joined-at-the-hip herd mentality of teenagers. It’s the first book I’ve read written by this point of view and I found it a really interesting way to tell a story.  Bannan also uses things like facebook posts, text messages, Carolyn’s essays, reports and transcripts of conversations, which all added to the story.


This is a heartbreakingly wonderful book that isn’t getting the recognition it deserves. Read this book, just do it.

Five Stars

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Dead Ends - Erin Lange

Pages: 384
Publisher: Faber and Faber
Published: July 2014

Blurb:

Dane Washington and Billy D couldn't be more different. Dane is clever and popular, but he's also a violent rebel. Billy D has Down's Syndrome, plays by the rules and hangs out with teachers in his lunch break.

But Dane and Billy have more in common than they think - both their fathers are missing. Maybe they'll just have to suck up their differences and get on with helping each other find some answers.



Review:

Dead Ends is the second book I’ve read by Erin Lange, and it reached all my expectations. I loved Lange’s first book Butter, and Dead Ends is a worthy follow up. In my opinion, Lange tells YA stories in a way that no other YA author that I’ve ever read does. She writes stories for teenagers similar to the way others write stories for adults, and doesn’t really pull any punches.


If I remember Butter correctly, the characters weren’t exactly likable. Well, the same goes for Dead Ends. None of the characters, especially the protagonist Dane, are very likable unlike other YA books. I feel like this is really important, through Dane we learned the reasons why someone could come across very unlikable, but ultimately is not all bad. Dane is definitely a bully, but instead of condemning him for his actions, Lange shows us his motivation for the way he behaves. I found this to be a really unusual perspective, as usually you get the point of view of the person being bullied.


Dead Ends is the first book I’ve read that deftly deals with Down’s Syndrome. Billy D. , Dane’s neighbour and eventual friend, has Down’s Syndrome, and through him we explore how people treat others with intellectual disabilities. Billy D. feels exactly like everyone else and doesn’t understand why he should be treated any differently. However we see the other characters struggle with how the should treat him. They try to figure out what allowances can be made for him, and what he can be held accountable for. They tread the line between condescension and understanding and compassion.


Lange also deals with the importance of parents and their relationships with their children. Dane doesn’t know who his father is, Billy D’s father is out of the picture. Conversely, Seely has two dads, and seems to be getting on well because of it. Through these relationships, or lack-of, Lange explores a father’s relationship with his children, the importance our society places on it, and the how important being accepted by him can be. Lange also explores the way parents, in this case mothers, protect their children in different ways. Both Dane’s mother and Billy D’s try to protect them by not telling them the whole story, and this does some harm as well as good.


My only gripe with the book is Seely, the required Manic Pixie Dream girl. She has short hair, wears boyish clothes, skateboards and knows how to fix cars. She’s just so different you know, she’s not like the other girls. It’s not that I don’t like her, but I’m pretty sure I’ve seen her a thousand times before.


Overall a really excellent book. Lange keeps up a high standard and I’m looking forward to reading more of her work.

Four and a half stars  

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Eleanor and Park - Rainbow Rowell

Pages: 325
Published: 2013
Publisher: Orion Books

Blurb:

When Eleanor first meets Park, she thinks he's obnoxious. When Park first meets Eleanor, he thinks she's weird. It is hate at first sight. But as they suffer each other's company in silence on the bus rides from and to home every day, Eleanor and Park realise that first impressions can be deceiving.


Review:

Eleanor and Park is probably the best loved YA love story around, at least on the internet anyway. Because of this, I feel there is a whole lot of hype surrounding Eleanor and Park , and that’s not necessarily a good thing. I went into this book with such high expectations that it just couldn’t live up to them. However, there are tonnes of things Rowell did perfectly in this book, and it is one of the better YA books I’ve read.


Couples in YA novels usually follow a formula, the cool kid, who is really just misunderstood, falls in love with the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. One of them is conventionally beautiful and everyone knows it, and one is secretly beautiful and discovers it throughout the narrative. Thankfully,  Eleanor and Park did not follow this formula. Both Eleanor and Park are remarkably regular people, neither of them are attracted to each other when the first meet. Both of them represent groups of people who seem to fall below western society’s standards of beauty, Eleanor is plus sized, Park is half Korean. Neither of them find themselves attractive and they struggle to deal with their relationships with their bodies. Neither of them turn out to be secretly beautiful, instead they find someone who thinks they are beautiful just the way they are. Through her protagonists, Rowell shows that it is not only conventionally beautiful people that fall in love. Eleanor and Park find each other perfect because they are in love with each other, not the other way around. I found it a breath of fresh air to see two regular people falling in love, but their relationship is hindered by their lack of self-confidence and low self-esteem. Neither of them , especially Eleanor, can believe that the other loves them, but it was heartwarming watching Eleanor and Park grow to appreciate themselves and grow in confidence over the course of the novel.


Bullying plays a huge role in the narrative of this book. Both Eleanor and Park are considered outsiders, Eleanor is ridiculed for her size and fashion sense, while Park keeps his head down and feels alienated because of his Korean heritage. Of course none of this is very original, but bullies tend to be very unoriginal in their mockery. Characters like Eleanor and Park are horrendously underrepresented in YA , I don’t think I’ve ever read a YA book (apart from this one) with a person of colour or a plus sized person as the protagonists, which is a disgrace really. Teenagers come in all shapes , sizes and races, so why do they all seem to be skinny white girls or buff white guys. It was a relief to read about someone different for once, and I’m sure thousands of readers around the world appreciated finally being able to relate to these characters. Unlike in other YA books, the bullies are slightly more complex. Bullying in real life is not a black and white affair, there is a lot of grey area, and while the bullies do give Park and Eleanor a hard time, they reveal themselves to not be all bad.


Rowell also deals with race and the struggle that Parks goes through coming to terms with his biracial identity. Park’s father is from an old , respected white family, and Park’s mother is from Korea. Park really struggles to reconcile his Korean heritage with his white heritage. He realises that because his father’s family is so well respected in his hometown, he gets cut a lot more slack than he would have if he wasn’t half white. Park also struggles with his embarrassment of his mother, she speaks and acts differently to the other mothers, and Park can’t understand how she still hasn’t lost her korean accent after years of living in America. Through Park we are given a taste of someone struggling with their racial identity, but I feel like she could have taken it a lot further. This topic is not something I’ve read a lot about, and I would have been very interested to read more about it.


Eleanor and Park’s relationships with their parents play a huge role in this novel. Normally in YA fiction, teenagers’ relationships with their parents fall by the wayside, which is ridiculous because your relationship with your parents plays a huge part in your formation as a human. Park has a strained relationship with his father. Eleanor is frustrated with her mother for staying with her waste of space step-father, and resents her father for abandoning her and her siblings. However, the most harrowing relationship is between Eleanor and her stepfather Richie. Richie is a irrefutably terrible person, he treats Eleanor’s mother and the children appallingly. But Richie has a drinking problem, and I wonder how much blame we can put on him and how much on his addiction. The contrast between Eleanor and Park’s parents romantic relationships are stark. Park’s parents are still very much in love after many years of marriage, while Eleanor’s mother only stays with Richie because she is afraid to be alone.

Obviously Eleanor and Park is set in the eighties, so an awful lot of the plot revolves around the couple making mixtapes for each other, talking about eighties music on vinyl and trying to navigate the landline as their only form of communication.  These details really gave a sense of setting to the narrative and made me feel a little nostalgic for time I’ve never experienced myself.


Overall I would recommend this book to everyone who reads YA fiction. In a genre filled with clich├ęs , Eleanor and Park is a breath of fresh air. It’s a truly engrossing read that will break and warm your heart.

Four and a half stars