TBR Jar Round #4

TBR Jar Round #4

First things first, I just wanted to post a link to the Black Lives Matter carrd. Please take some time today to sign petitions or make a donation to the BLM movement.

It doesn’t seem right to carry on blogging as normal when there are so many more important things going on in the world at the moment, but hopefully this post will give you a bit of a distraction and entertainment before you jump back into the activist fray.

Another month, another set of book reviews for my TBR jar picks. As soon as I drew the titles for this round I was extremely apprehensive about one book, knew hardly anything about another but was really excited for the other three – were my instincts correct?

Like Other Girls by Claire Hennessy – 2 stars

The first thing I need to say is that my exact rating for Like Other Girls is 2.5 stars. Originally I rounded that rating up to 3 stars, but on reflection I just couldn’t justify rating it that highly because I have some very serious issues with this one.

I think the majority of the problems come from the fact that Claire Hennessy is trying to tackle too much in a book which is less than 300 pages. Whereas one of the issues might have been able to be dealt with effectively in such a short book, the majority of the topics she is trying to address overlap are handled poorly.

If this had been a book focused on abortion and the eighth amendment it would have been pushing five stars, because that aspect of this novel is handled very well. If this had been a book focused on sexuality and gender it would have been a one star, because it’s transphobic to say the least. However, this means that the first half of the novel is a one star and the second half is almost a five star and that doesn’t make for an enjoyable reading experience in the slightest. I was angry at myself for appreciating the way Claire Hennessy used her platform to fight the eighth amendment, because I was angry at the way that she had written about trans people (which made me even angrier about that, because without that this could have been a new favourite book).

This is where I get spoilery, so as always if you haven’t read Like Other Girls yet it’s time to move on to the next review…

Like Other Girls starts with each chapter counting up: week zero, day zero; week one, day four etc. At first the reader isn’t aware of what this is pointing towards – is it tracking the weeks at school? the time that the girls have been rehearsing for their musical? – but around halfway through the book we discover that despite using condoms Lauren is pregnant with the child of her recent ex-boyfriend, Justin, and that is what is being tracked.

Lauren wants an abortion, but because she lives in Ireland she has no choice but to fly to Liverpool to get treatment. Telling her parents she’s going on a trip to Cork with Q Club – a group of LGBTQ+ friends she meets regularly – she makes the journey by herself, as thousands of Irish women have in the past.

This aspect of the plot is handled with aplomb. Lauren seeks advice in Ireland and accidentally walks into a pro-life clinic masquerading as a pregnancy support clinic, but she knows enough about her situation to realise that she’s being lied to. Lauren anonymously goes to the press with her experience, desperate to help other girls in the same situation as her, and the controversy that the article stirs up begins discussions about the eighth amendment and the way that abortion is viewed in Ireland.

When Lauren does have her abortion, she isn’t filled with guilt or regret, which is realistic. The only times I’ve seen abortion addressed in YA, the characters are either extremely remorseful or the entire situation is completely glossed over, so it was brilliant to see the other side of the story represented. As I said earlier, if Like Other Girls had focused entirely on Lauren’s accidental pregnancy, it would probably have ended up being a five star for me. In fact, the only criticism I can find for this aspect of the plot is that it seems unrealistic that Lauren’s brother wouldn’t ask which concerts she was planning on getting tickets for, as she gets the money for her flight to Liverpool by asking for £300 in ticket money for Christmas.

However, then we get to the ‘problematic’ aspects of the novel. (I’m putting problematic in air quotes there, because Lauren mocks the use of the term at various points throughout the book. Possibly Hennessy knew this was going to be a big criticism of Like Other Girls and was trying to invalidate that criticism internally?).

Lauren is a horrible person. Normally, that wouldn’t bother me too much – I’m not opposed to reading about horrible characters – but it is taken too far throughout this novel. Lauren’s sense of humour is infuriating (I literally updated my Goodreads status asking whether this was supposed to be funny, because all of the so-called ‘jokes’ fell completely flat) and most of her comedy is directed towards the gender and sexuality of her friends in Q Club.

These ‘jokes’ included:

‘Marc with a c. If you’re going to go to all the trouble of picking a new name after you come out as trans, at least pick Mark with a k. For fuck’s sake. The world of manly, masculine, macho names open to you and you pick Marc with a c.

And, like, if you’re deliberately going for something not super-macho then why the need to take testosterone and to talk about it all the time?’

and

“Half the pop stars out there are now bi, apparently.”

“Attention-seekers.”

and

‘There has to be something clever and amusing to be said about how wanting a dick makes you act like one’

The sad thing is, I have more examples and I could go on.

All of those make me extremely uncomfortable. Lauren is bisexual, and her attitude to other bisexual people irritates me: she believes in the worst kind of stereotypes, claiming that she hates the word bisexual because it sounds as though you can only ever be sexually satisfied by having two lovers at once: wtf?!

She is very judgmental towards her pansexual friends too, derogatorily referring to them as the Posh Pansexuals and assuming that they are just straight girls wanting to fit in with the Q Club (when she herself is a bisexual girl with a boyfriend: double wtf?!).

She complains constantly about the fact that her boyfriend is a white, cis, straight guy, yet when he tries to break up with her she begs him to stay… Only for them to break up a couple of chapters later and for her to act like it’s no big deal, like she didn’t care about him anyway and had been trying to get rid of him. Riiiiight.

But the worst thing of all about Like Other Girls is Lauren’s attitude towards her transgender friends. She has a crush on her best friend Steph, but after they have sex – an intimately described f/f sex scene the likes of which I’ve never seen in YA before – Steph freaks out. A few weeks later she messages Lauren and explains that the reason she was uncomfortable is because she is trans, and soon starts going by the name Evan and using he/him pronouns.

Lauren begins hating Marc from Q Club because she believes he’s brainwashed Evan into feeling this way, and that he wouldn’t be transgender if it wasn’t for Marc’s influence. She also accuses Evan of only coming out because they had sex: it’s obvious that Lauren thinks the world revolves around her and that Evan’s decision is solely for her benefit, and that’s a terrible attitude.

It wouldn’t be so bad if Lauren went through some kind of redemption arc, but because of the short length of this novel there just isn’t time for that. She feels some empathy towards Marc after bumping into him at the therapist’s office after he attempts suicide – she has to get counselling because of alcohol abuse, another plot point which is somehow crammed into this story – but that’s the only thing that makes her attitude begin to change. Then she sabotages the school play to make some statements about gender and abortion and we’re expected to believe she’s a better person and her views have changed? Sure, sure.

I am not trans but I have seen this review from a trans readers on Goodreads, so I don’t believe I’m being overly sensitive with my criticisms of this novel. I’m not aware if the views of her character actually reflect the views of Claire Hennessy herself, but a topic like this should have been dealt with with far more sensitivity.

This could so easily have been split into two books, and then perhaps all of the topics might have been dealt with in a satisfactory manner, but as it is this is not a story I would recommend. I hate saying that, because Nothing Tastes as Good was a five star read and is one of the best books I’ve ever read regarding anorexia, but this just wasn’t the book for me. I wasn’t looking forward to reading Like Other Girls because I thought that might be the case: unfortunately I was right, but for so many more reasons that I first assumed.

Now that rant’s over, let’s move on to the other titles!

Internment by Samira Ahmed – 2 stars

Internment is another 2.5 star book. Although I liked it more than Like Other Girls, I still can’t justify rounding it up to 3 stars.

Set in America in the near-future, Internment follows Layla Amin as she and her family are placed into an internment camp for being Muslims. Considering that anti-Muslim rhetoric has been on the rise in America during Trump’s presidency, this is a horrifying ‘what-if’ novel which explores an important and timely subject, showing a snapshot of what life could have become for hundreds of thousands of American citizens… I just think that it could have been done better.

Layla is supposed to be 17, but she reads as much younger (I kept thinking she was either 14 or 15). She is separated from her boyfriend, David, and she befriends a guard called Jake solely so that she can contact David and let him know that she is okay. This eventually sparks a bit of revolution – Layla manages to smuggle articles to David with Jake’s help, so he can send the inside story to the media and show just how horrifying life is inside the internment camp – but to start with Layla comes across as quite self-absorbed, risking her family’s safety just so that she can contact her boyfriend. This might have made sense if she was a little bit younger, but most 17-year-olds don’t seem to be quite that impulsive.

I was also frustrated by David’s parents. David is Jewish and members of his family lost their lives in the German concentration camps during World War II, but his parents don’t want to get involved in the plight of the Muslims and David makes it sound as though they don’t really care that Layla has been abducted in the middle of the night. If you had lost family members to an atrocity like this in the past, I don’t think you would be ambivalent! Your voice would be one of the loudest, denouncing the entire scheme.

I did knock an entire star off for the way that Samira Ahmed describes the Director of the internment camp. If I’d taken a shot every time his ‘purple lips’ were mentioned, I wouldn’t have been able to finish the book because I wouldn’t have been able to see straight. He’s a caricature, and it’s hard to take him seriously because of that: despite the fact that he’s a violent, bigoted man, you know that he’s going to get his comeuppance because men like that always do. Ahmed attempts to make him suave and charismatic in front of the media but his anger fuels him and his facade shatters: he would have been far more terrifying if he’d been able to keep his cool.

Meanwhile, the idea of the internment camp being constructed using mobile homes on blocks seems a bit too sanitary: if you see the horrifying pictures from the detention centres that the Trump administration have opened on the Mexican border, it seems far more likely that the internment camps might have looked more like that.

This could have been more effective as an adult novel, because some of the older characters would have made really interesting protagonists. I think it’s brilliant that this novel was aimed at younger people, because it is important to educate them to the reality of internment camps, but I just think it might have worked better with an older audience in mind. If this had been aimed at adults Ahmed might have had a no holds barred approach, but this is the best-worst case scenario. It is infuriating and enraging to think that people could be controlled like this because of their religion, but I think the reality of internment camps is far more heart-wrenching and devastating.

I have found it so hard to review this novel. This is such an important subject and I’m so glad than an own voices author decided to tackle it, but the execution is very poor. I’d recommend checking out this own voices review to help you make up your own mind: they are far more eloquent than I am!

The Million Pieces of Neena Gill by Emma Smith-Barton – 5 stars

The Million Pieces of Neena Gill absolutely blew me away. Telling the story of a girl called Neena who suffers a psychotic break after her brother Akash leaves her, this is a powerful novel tackling mental health in a very sensitive way.

Due to the fact that Neena is suffering from psychosis, she is an unreliable narrator. You’ll find yourself questioning what you’re reading as Neena begins to doubt her own sanity, living scenes which are later revealed to have taken place in her imagination, and almost everything you think you know will be flipped on its head at one point or another.

There are so many things I absolutely loved about this novel. When the story begins Neena is taking prescribed anti-depressants, but she stops taking them because she believes that her mother is ashamed of her. Eventually Neena is medicated, taught CBT and undergoes therapy, showing that often a combination of treatments is often needed to have the biggest impact. That’s utterly realistic, and I loved the fact that there was no ‘one size fits all’ miracle cure in this story.

Cultural pressures are a huge part of this novel, but Emma Smith-Barton makes a concerted effort to tackle the presumption that all of the pressures faced are cultural. There’s a very eye-opening scene in which Neena is talking to a therapist, who suggests she may be interpreting her parents’ actions through a cultural lens when they might just be reacting the same way that any worried parents would. I’ve seen a lot of novels which have tackled the overbearing Asian parent stereotype (specifically British-Pakistani in this book) but none of which have actually posited the question as to whether it’s just a parent stereotype regardless of background, and that made me look at a few other books I’ve read recently in a completely different way.

Neena’s parents are three-dimensional characters with their own plot, which is a novelty in itself! So often the parents in YA are only there to react to their child’s actions, and I loved the fact that Neena’s parents felt so realistic. They are also struggling to accept life without Akash, and although they take their frustrations out on Neena at the beginning – believing that she’s following the same path as her brother and is going to end up leaving them as well – they undergo their own character development and are far more sympathetic towards her mental state by the end of the novel.

This book isn’t perfect – there are a few instances in the first half of the novel where Neena fat-shames her mother – so this is more of a 4.5 star novel, but I feel as though the good thoroughly outweighs the bad in this instance.

The Million Pieces of Neena Gill is Emma Smith-Barton’s debut novel, and I am very excited to see what she writes next.

How To Stop Time by Matt Haig – 4 stars

I don’t think I’m smart enough to review How To Stop Time. I finished it last week and I’m still finding it pretty impossible to form my thoughts on it into coherent sentences, because this is the kind of epic, literary novel which is beautifully written but almost went over my head and then smacked me in the forehead and gave me a little bit of a headache.

Following Tom Hazard, How To Stop Time focuses on the concept of albas – short for albatrosses – which is a code word for people who age extremely slowly. Tom only looks in his late-twenties, but he’s actually been alive for over 400 years (he said his ratio is 1:15; for every 15 years he lives, he looks like he ages one).

Tom is a member of the Albatross Society, which means every eight years he gets a new name and moves to a new place to avoid people getting suspicious about his lack of aging. When we join Tom he decides he wants to move back to London – the place where he fell in love and lost his love hundreds of years ago – so he can start teaching and try to track down his long (long!) lost daughter.

This book certainly wasn’t what I expected, as it was marketed as ‘a love story across the ages’ and I had expected romantic love rather than familial love. I actually think I enjoyed this more because of the fact that it focused so heavily on Tom’s desperation to find his daughter: she is like him, but she runs away before he can learn that about her and he has always sworn that he’ll make it up to her someday.

I really enjoyed this book, despite the fact that my brain had to work extremely hard to keep on top of everything. Tom’s memory begins overwhelming him, so he suffers with flashbacks intruding into his lessons and debilitating migraines. The intrusive nature of the flashbacks is written brilliantly – Tom will be halfway through talking and his words will spark some long forgotten scene from his past into flooding back – and it effectively shows the major downsides to living to be 400. I also feel as though I learnt a lot about what Britain (and London in particular) has been like throughout the ages.

The only thing that stopped me giving this book five stars was the ending. It’s extremely abrupt and doesn’t feel that satisfying compared to the rest of the novel. There’s not really a good way to finish a story like this, but something about it wasn’t exactly to my taste. That being said, there’s apparently going to be an adaptation starring Benedict Cumberbatch, and I can’t wait to see how they translate a novel like this to the big screen.

Eragon by Christopher Paolini – 5 stars

I should have read Eragon ten years ago at least. One of my friends in primary school kept recommending it to me, but because of its length – over 500 pages! – I found myself too intimidated, so I avoided it like the plague.

When I picked this one out of the TBR jar, I will admit that I was apprehensive. I didn’t know much about the story except for the fact that there’s a farm boy who finds a dragon egg in the forest, and that doesn’t sound like the kind of thing which can really fill 500 pages. I also thought the dragon’s name was Eragon, not the boy… So that was a bit of a surprise when I first started reading!

However, this is a non-stop action from cover to cover and a very strong series starter. It’s got everything you want in fantasy: mysterious creatures, adventuring and exploring, a few heartbreaking deaths and some very badass fight scenes.

Eragon hatches his dragon egg but soon mysterious men known as the Ra’zac appear in his village asking questions. They end up burning down his family home in the search for him, killing his uncle in the process.

Eragon goes on the run with a mysterious man called Bram (who knows far more about dragons than should be possible), trying to track down the Ra’zac so he can avenge his uncle’s death. While journeying across Alagaësia, Bram begins training Eragon to be a dragon rider – the first in the land outside of King Galbatorix’s control since he began his reign and killed any dragon riders who stood against him.

With monsters called the Urgal and the Shade chasing Eragon down, he begins having mysterious dreams about a woman locked in a prison cell. That, combined with some pretty dark prophecies divined by a local fortune teller named Agatha, means Eragon has a heck of a lot on his plate.

Honestly, I enjoyed this book so much. Despite its length it honestly flew past, and I couldn’t believe it when we got to the end and it had been such a painless experience.

The majority of the negative comments I’ve seen regarding Eragon focuses on the fact that it’s quite similar to Lord of the Rings, but I read The Fellowship of the Ring in April and struggled to get through it. The pace was interminable, the action didn’t really start until the second half of the book, and the large cast of characters made it pretty hard to keep track of anyone. In contrast, Eragon is nonstop. The cast of characters is much smaller which means you get to know them better and care an awful lot more for them, and although the world isn’t as richly described as Tolkien’s it also means you don’t get bogged down by information about the setting and scenery.

Perhaps if I’d enjoyed The Fellowship of the Ring more I would have enjoyed Eragon less, but as it is I think this is one of the best fantasy novels – particularly fantasy novels aimed at younger readers – which I’ve ever read. I’m looking forward to carrying on with the series, because the ending to this one is rather satisfying but leaves quite a few things up in the air and I just want to know what’s going to happen next!

I hope you enjoyed these reviews! Sorry for ranting a bit too much about Like Other Girls and Internment… I’m going to have to start giving myself a word count limit on these posts.

Please remember to visit the Black Lives Matter carrd which I linked at the top of this post. Signing petitions doesn’t take a lot of time but it can make a huge difference, and if you don’t feel comfortable going to physical protests for any reason then it means you can still make sure that your voice is heard.

See you next time,

Alyce

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