December 19, 2013

Teenage Dirtbag, Baby? (Review: Sex and Violence by Carrie Mesrobian)

Sex and Violence
Carrie Mesrobian
Carolrhoda Books 2013

Evan has spent the last few years moving from school to school and girl to girl.  He doesn’t think much about his peripatetic life, nor his emotionless relationships until both end him at the wrong end of a violent assault.  His hitherto distant father is suddenly an active if alien presence in Evan’s life, moving them back to the cabin on Pearl Lake where he himself grew up.  Evan finds himself suddenly immersed in a community where everyone knows everyone, girls are more than just potential hook ups and is faced with not just the repercussions of his attack but also with the possibility that life isn’t what he’s been previously living.

Evan is well and truly fucked up.  Not just physically, although he’s not going to be fighting fit for a while, but mentally.  On surface level, he’s clearly suffering from PTSD with a hefty side order of guilt and self-loathing in terms of the assault that opens the book but as his story progresses it becomes clear that Evan has been pretty messed up for quite a while.   He is a character that could easily have come across as unlikable, even misogynistic, but he’s not.  The new kid at every school, Evan uses sex as a way to connect in environments where he sees no point in making actual friends – why bother, when he’s only going to move on again? 

Evan’s relationship with his father is clearly lacking emotion and his ability to connect on any level other than sex seems to have somewhat atrophied.  As readers get to know him better, it’s clear that he doesn’t dislike nor disrespect the girls he sleeps with.  He, in fact, kind of admires them, is nice to them (if aloof) and muses on the unfairness of perception in terms of men, woman and sex.  It slowly becomes apparent that perhaps the reasons that his conquests are deleted so quickly from his phone and life has more to do with his own initial sexual experiences than anything else. He’s all too aware that the way he lives his life is far from ideal and as he ponders this a stark portrait emerges of a lonely boy, looking for a “more” that is exasperatingly unclear to him.  Ultimately, Evan is a nice guy who has utterly lost his way.

On arriving in Pearl Lake, Evan meets a group of teenagers who refuse to let him be the new kid, absorbing him into their group with disconcerting determination.  He finds himself almost unwillingly making actual friends.  The group are a mixed bag of characters but all are well written.  Baker, the girl who inevitably catches Evan’s practiced eye is a girl who is in the process of realising that, regardless of how many rules you impose, the world works in its own weird way.  Their friendship is interesting in that it’s full of a tension that is both familiar and yet utterly alien to Evan.  Like all the girls in Sex and Violence, Baker is very at ease with her own sexuality.  All of the young women are portrayed as being informed, vocal and strong-minded in terms of their sex lives, whether they are doing the actual deed or choosing not to – something that cannot be seen to often in YA fiction.  The fact that they are juxtaposed with Evan and his promiscuity issues is just one of the aspects that make Sex and Violence so very good.  In addition the kids who live at the lake, Evan also starts to bond with townie Layne and his young family.  Layne and his brother could easily have been stereotypical, wrong-side-of-the-tracks fodder but their kindness towards Evan and his grateful acceptance of it are one of the highlights of the book.

Sex and Violence, while having a compelling storyline, works best as a coming of age, stream of consciousness sort of deal.  Evan has, by far, the strongest narrative voice that I have come across in a long time.   Mesrobian rather beautifully imbues him with intelligence, self-knowledge and self-deprecating humour while also allowing readers to see what lies beneath before Evan sees it himself – not an easy trick to pull of when the entire book is seen from the depths of Evan’s screwed up mind.   The setting is well chosen and well written, with a side story involving Evan’s family and an abandoned house adding both background and pathos although if the book has a flaw it is that these aspects were perhaps not explored as fully as possible and led to a degree of resolution that felt a little rushed.  However, it’s a minor quibble when looking at a debut novel that is incredibly accomplished.  Don’t be put off by the somewhat blunt title (surely dreamt up by the marketing department, yes?) – Sex and Violence is so much more than that and stands out as one of the top titles of 2013.

This review was brought to you by Splendibird. Sex and Violence is available now (although has sadly yet to pick up a UK publisher so head to the 'tinternet for a copy UK'ers). Thank you to Carolrhoda Books and Netgalley for providing us with this title to review.

December 05, 2013

Everything You Wanted, Everything You Don't (Review: How to Love by Katie Cotugno)

How to Love
Katie Cotugno
Quercus 2013

Reena loved Sawyer for a long, long time.  She loved him from afar, never believing he’d ever think of her the same way, especially when he took up with her best friend, Allie.  But then he does and then Allie is gone and after a while so is Sawyer, leaving behind Reena and a pregnancy and no way to reach him.  Three years later, Reena and her daughter are OK. Life isn’t perfect but Reena is managing.  Until Sawyer appears as suddenly as he disappeared, drawing in his wake the same emotional wreckage that Reena has fought to rid herself of.   Reena is angry and hurt and confused and above all she is determined not to let Sawyer into her life again but love, like life, is messy and complicated and Reena is about to learn just how hard it can be.

Reena is an excellent character, be it in the present day as a young mother, or her previous incarnation of a young adult both desperate and reluctant to leave childhood behind.  She’s responsible and focused but her yearning for the life of travel and writing she had planned for is tangible, even as it is contrasted with the fierce love she has for her daughter.  Her relationship with Sawyer, in all its forms is always compelling but particularly the “before” sections where Sawyer’s slowly changing personality is seen through her reluctantly unhappy eyes.  When he reappears, Reena’s reluctance to let him in is both admirable and moving and her tangled feelings are never anything other than believable.

Sawyer himself is extremely well written.  To an extent, he’s coasted through life on charm, used to getting his own way.  The guilt that he so clearly feels is understandable but as the story progresses it becomes almost self-indulgent.  On his return, he seems to be at once changed at also exactly the same, inserting himself into Reena’s life with an ease and arrogance that is almost insulting and is certainly infuriating to her.  Yet, he is utterly likable.  Cotugno has succeeded in writing a character who is deeply and realistically flawed yet also entirely sympathetic.  Other characters are also beautifully and delicately drawn with Reena’s family and friends being particularly interesting.  Reena’s father and his palpable disappointment is especially well done as is Sawyer’s head-in-sand mother.

The storyline of How to Love seems at first a well-worn one.  Girl meets boy, girl loses boy, girl has to decide whether to take boy back – you know the kind of thing.  Yet Katie Cotugno has written a nuanced and accomplished exploration of not only the tangled relationship between Reena and Sawyer but also their relationships with those around them.  Reena’s unconditional love for her daughter is contrasted with her relationship with a father whose love for her, she feels, turned out to be extremely conditional.  Equally, Shelby – a character who so easily could have been a stereotypical loyal best friend – calls Reena on her mistakes, gets mad at her, forgives her, gets mad again… in a way that shouts of real life friendships.   The issues between Sawyer and Reena are shown to be messy, their relationship has always been imperfect but due to the aforementioned characterization of Sawyer, readers will understand Reena’s anger but also her attraction.  So often, particularly with the emergence of the often ghastly New Adult genre, characters like Sawyer are written as physically attractive but reprehensible creatures with few redeeming qualities and a girl who makes excuses for them while hardly knowing them at all.  Here, Sawyer’s behavior is never excused away and Reena’s confused feelings are believable because he’s three-dimensional and interesting. In short, Cotugno has excelled in portraying the messiness of both their relationship and all relationships while also reminding readers of why it can all be worth fighting for.

The writing in How to Love is exceptionally good, Cotugno having a seemingly effortless knack of finding exactly the right words to portray deep emotion, particularly in terms of Reena’s unplanned pregnancy.  As one who has shared Reena’s experience, all be it as an adult, her statement that she “spent those long foggy months sure of nothing so much as the feeling of standing on the edge of a canyon and screaming, waiting for an echo that refused to come” reduced me to tears of recognition and understanding.  And the writing is all that good.  How to Love is one of the standout books of 2013 and Cotugno is someone who the Sarah Dessen’s and Sara Zarr’s of the YA world should be watching out for.  There’s a new kid on the contemporary block and she’s hitting it out of the park.

This review was brought to you by Splendibird. How to Love is available now. Thank you to Quercus for sending us this title to review.