Wednesday, December 01, 2010

The Most Hilarious Books I Have Ever Read or Book Reviews: French Letters and French Leave, by Eileen Fairweather

Photo by Linzi Clark

If I remember rightly, I got my copy of French Leave: Maxine Harrison Moves Out! in a sale at New Cross Library for about 5p. When it comes to library sales, I will pretty much buy anything teen/YA, fantasy, sci-fi, or combinations of the above. At the time I didn't realise it was the second in a pair, so I had to track down French Letters: The Life and Loves of Miss Maxine Harrison before I could get on with the reading, but once I did I fell deeply in epicly entertaining love.

Both books take the form of letters written by Miss Maxine Harrison, mostly of Hornsey, London N8, to her best friend Jean Olgethorpe, who has gone to live Up North with her family.

In French Letters the plot revolves around Maxine's lack of money and her attempts to impress her other penpal, also called Jean, but male and French. She tells him about her glamorous life as the daughter of the Head of London Transport, but then he decides he wants to visit, and she has to somehow cover up the fact that her Dad's actually a bus conductor and that she sent him a photo of girl-Jean instead of herself. She also has to deal with fashion, snobby girls at school, and her parents' political arguments.

By French Leave, things have taken a turn for the serious and Maxine has decided to leave her parents' home because they can't afford to let her carry on at school after her GCSEs. Her dad has lost his job and started reading The Sun, her boyfriend seems to be more interested in his motorbike than her, and her sister is getting married and excited over a potato masher. Meanwhile Jean starts going out with the 'local Tory' in a town 'where even the police vote Labour' and is surprisingly reluctant to commit to moving into Maxine's bedsit.

If I give you any more detail I will spoil the plot and okay, only a tiny fraction of the jokes which are piled onto every page, but you'll appreciate these books best if you just buy them and read them! I am normally someone who doesn't even find books with seven quotes on the cover declaring them 'laugh out loud funny' amusing. But when reading these I just kept laughing, and laughing, and laughing. The most incredible thing about these books is that they are consistently funny from start to finish. I really enjoyed Diary of a Chav: Trainers V. Tiaras but I'll admit that the first few chapters are the most humourous, and that the plot and the sympathy I felt for Shiraz is what kept me reading. The laugh-out-loud funniness just isn't sustained throughout the book. In French Letters and French Leave, it is. These books are not just pure comedy, however, as they feature serious issues - finance, politics, sex, employment, exams, education, abuse - along with the laughs. 

French Letters and French Leave are a little bit dated, teenagers today will probably find it slightly weird that the girls write to each other using snail mail and rarely phone, and that there aren't any mentions of all the 21st Century mod cons. They're not full of 1980s cultural references or mentions of old technology, but historical/political context is fairly important to the story, so older teens and adults will probably find them more accessible than younger teens. This also means that readers in other countries than the UK might want to check Wikipedia a few times whilst reading. You won't struggle to follow the story by any means, but you might miss out on some of the humour and just not get some of the references unless you know or learn about the cultural context.

These books are published by the Women's Press under the Livewire imprint, I'm not sure whether they are still in print. I really think they need reissuing with new covers in any case, the covers they have at the moment are definitely dated and will probably put some would-be readers off!

If you're looking for truly hilarious fiction, you've found it. I also recommend these books to anyone who is studying or interested in 'teen/YA through the ages', as they are some of Livewire's bestsellers.

The BookDepositoryThe BookDepository

Friday, October 15, 2010

Book Review: Girl Meets Boy, by Ali Smith

I am reviewing this book today because it is Blog Action Day 2010, the issue this year is water, and water is a theme in the story. Please check out the Blog Action Day website and/or my post on this second's obsession for more information.

Girl Meets Boy is part of The Myths series, a retelling of the myth of Iphis, from Ovid's Metamophoses. Iphis is a girl brought up, secretly, as a boy. She falls in love with another girl, Ianthe, and when she and her mother pray to Isis for help, she is transformed into a man. Iphis marries Ianthe, and they live happily ever after. I am completely obsessed with retellings of myths, legends and fairytales, so for me this book was an absolute must read.

There are two first-person narrators in Girl Meets Boy, sisters Anthea and Imogen (or Midge), who take the helm for alternate chapters. The first to be introduced is Anthea, remembering her grandparents, particularly her grandfather, who liked to tell them stories about when he was a girl. In the present day, Anthea is struggling to find her place in the world. Imogen has gotten her a job at the company she works for, Pure, but Anthea hates it. Anthea is an essentially unconventional person, drawn to the weird and wonderful, whereas Imogen is concerned with appearances and fitting in, excited by Pure's bottled-water ambitions. Anthea is just about managing to pretend to be normal - in front of her colleagues, anyway - until she makes a faux-pas at a meeting, and on her way out of the Pure premises, meets beautiful graffiti-protester Robin.

Girl Meets Boy is primarily a love story. It's about people falling in romantic love with other people, people falling in love with life and all it's possibilities, and familial love. It's a very short book, so there isn't time for it to get overly slushy - in fact, I had mixed feelings about the length. On the one hand, I wanted more from some of the novel's elements. I wanted to know more about the grandparents - it seemed like their stories could fill a book or two alone. The initial meetings of the lovers are brushed past quite quickly, and it was a bit annoying, I actually wanted to read what happened immediately after Anthea set eyes upon Robin by the Pure sign. On the other hand, the poetic style of this writing probably works best when applied to a snapshot of lives, it could seem stilted after too long, and the very obvious messages presented in the book didn't need any more hammering home! To be honest, I always find it difficult to criticise very short books - they're quick to finish, and easy to read and re-read. Girl Meets Boy is a lovely read for an afternoon, and I will probably read it again.

I loved the characterisation in Girl Meets Boy, from the grandparents, to similar-but-different Anthea and Imogen, Robin, Paul, and the supporting cast of morally awful Pure employees and happy-to-comment passers-by. It all seemed true to life. I find it really interesting when retellings manage to do away with divine intervention, replace it with realism, but still keep the magic in the story, and Girl Meets Boy definitely achieves this.

The BookDepository

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Competition Alert: Win an ARC of Real Life Boyfriends, by E Lockhart

When E. Lockhart announced this competition on her blog, I had to try very hard not to scare every living creature around with my excitement. She hasn't confirmed that it's open for international entries, but I don't mind. Even if I'm not able to win an ARC of Real Life Boyfriends, a book that I am so excited about that I have written the release date in my diary1, I don't mind promoting this amazing series that I love nearly almost as much as I love the Diary of a Crush trilogy2.

I will review The Boyfriend List soon, when I get over my 'Can I do this justice?' syndrome, but for now, a brief summary.

The Ruby Oliver series, which begins with The Boyfriend List, is about a girl who starts getting panic attacks after her boyfriend breaks up with her and starts dating her best friend. Her parents insist she starts seeing a psychiatrist, Dr. Z, who tells her to write The Boyfriend List of the title - a list of every boy she's liked, dated, or been rumoured to be involved with. It is very funny. It makes my heart pound. It makes me gasp 'Ruuuuuuby, no!'. There are lots of fictional-crush worthy boys, and a couple to hate. It is also really educational, and I mean that in the best way. Plus, Ruby lives in a houseboat. A HOUSEBOAT. I don't understand how anyone could fail to love this.

Here is my entry for the competition: two translations of boyspeak.

What he says: Is it your time of the month?
What is understood: He thinks I'm being moody, because I'm arguing with him.
What he means: Why won't she just agree with me already?

What he says: You shouldn't listen to your best friend so much.
What is understood: He thinks I'm smarter than her, and that she's bad for my self-esteem.
What he means: I don't like your best friend.

1 I think I wrote it in in April, after reading The Boy Book. Other dates I have written in my diary include the International Day of the Nacho, Europe Day, Anti-Bullying Week, the day the next Sleek eyeshadow palettes are supposed to be in stores, and the birthdays of some of my favourite sadly-deceased writers.

2 An impressive feat, seeing as I first read Diary of a Crush when I was 14, and I only read The Boyfriend List last December.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Book Review: Nobody's Family Is Going To Change, by Louise Fitzhugh

Today is the birthday of one of my favourite childhood authors, Louise Fitzhugh (October 5, 1928 - November 19, 1974). She is most famous for writing the children's classic Harriet the Spy, however, I haven't re-read that recently, so I decided to review it next year. Today I am going to review Nobody's Family Is Going to Change, which I read for the first time last year and mentioned in my guest post on Once Upon a Bookcase for Body Image and Self-Perception Month.

Nobody's Family Is Going to Change has two main characters, Emma and Willie, an eleven year old girl and seven year old boy from a middle-class African American family. Louise Fitzhugh was writing ahead of her time with this novel, which was published in 1974 - their father is a lawyer and the family cook is white. Emancipation 'Emma' Sheridan (what a fabulous name) is passionately in love with the idea of being a lawyer, like her father, but he doesn't approve of women lawyers. Emma's mother tells her that she needs to lose weight and grow up to be beautiful so that she can marry a lawyer. Emma watches court programmes on television, reads law textbooks, and fantasises about being older, taller, and winning cases against her father. Whilst wearing a large, dramatic hat.

Willie wants to be a dancer, like his uncle, Dipsey, his mother's brother. One day he goes to an audition, and gets a part on stage. He is delighted, but again, his father disapproves. Mr Sheridan wants Willie to be a lawyer - he believes that dancing is demeaning. At his age, all Willie can do is beg his mother to intervene on his behalf, but Emma looks elsewhere. One day she finds out about the Children's Army, an activist group for children, and goes to a meeting, reluctantly hoping to find a solution there.

The title of this book is its own spoiler, in a way. This isn't a story in which the parents are proved wrong, and everybody ends up all happy and close at the end. Nobody's Family Is Going to Change is about self-acceptance, and finding other sources of encouragement and support, if those you look to first aren't willing to give any. The Children's Army helps Emma, but not in the way she hoped and expected.

I think it's a great read because the characters are so fantastic yet also flawed. Emma is intelligent and funny but like Harriet M. Welsch, she isn't sweet, nice, or stereotypically girly. Emma is very angry about her situation, and she takes that out on her brother. She is very critical of herself but also other people, which I think is very true to life. If you are constantly judged by other people and found wanting, it's likely that you will take that on board and become very judgemental yourself. Willie is more innocent and good-hearted, but his energy and enthusiasm are tiring and annoying for the other people around him.
I think every child should read Nobody's Family Is Going to Change, because even if their family is perfectly lovely and supportive of who they are and what they want to do, most people will at some point in their lives have to put up with friends, classmates, co-workers or other people, with fixed opinions about what they should be.

If you need more encouragement to read Nobody's Family Is Going to Change, a one-star Amazon review called it 'a dangerously subversive book'.

You can find out more about Louise Fitzhugh and her books on Wikipedia and at the fansite Purple Socks.

The podcast This American Life has an episode inspired by this book. You may want to read the book first though, because the podcast includes a quote which I think will have more impact if you read all that's leading up to it.

The BookDepository

Monday, October 04, 2010

Monday Amusements: The Book Edition

Over on this second's obsession, I, somewhere between regularly and occasionally, post a Monday round-up of relevant links, and it struck me a couple of months ago that I could do the same thing here. I've finally got around to it, hurray!

Isn't this bookplate awesome? It was made by Michel Fingesten (1884 - 1943) for Gianni Mantero, and you can see more from the same artist at A Journey Round My Skull.

How do you feel about bookplates? Although I did like being able to write my name on the This book belongs to... pages of books I had as a kid, I don't think I could bring myself to stick a bookplate into a book now. However, I could happily put them on or inside the front cover of notebooks. If you like them, draw! pilgrim has provided some bright, modern bookplates to download for this post at Frecklewonder (via How About Orange). Alternatively, Design*Sponge has a tutorial and printable bookplates of a more intricate and old-fashioned, slightly macabre style.

I usually find it partly horrifying and partly hilarious when a general news website or paper publishes anything about teen/YA literature. You know the articles. The writer has read no more than three, maybe five, YA books published in the last decade, and has decided to write an opinion piece about how bad they thought they all were, lamenting the 'fact' that nothing decent is being written for that age group. Twilight's feminist backlash has a terrible title, implying that all the books recommended were written as a response to The Saga (as I've taken to calling it) when I'm sure none of them actually were. But it does have interesting suggestions. Don't read the comments though, they'll make you want to hit things.

If you like reading about great historical women, enter the f word's competition to win a free online subscription to HerStoria magazine. All you have to do is leave a comment about your favourite under-recognised woman in history, but hurry, the contest closes tomorrow!

Bored of plain MDF bookshelves? WebUrbanist suggests 15 (More!) Unusually Brilliant Book Shelving Systems. I like the multi-functional shelf.

If apostrophe misuse really frustrates you, open the video for The Apostrophe Song in a tab, then look at something else whilst you listen.

Having gone to see Andrea Levy speak whilst at university, I really enjoyed this interview at Words Unlimited.

Finally, the national children's charity Bullying UK faces closure due to a funding crisis. Their website describes many easy, low-cost ways to help them.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Book Review: Dead Witch Walking, by Kim Harrison

I didn’t actually know much about the plot of this book before I read it. I’d heard a few people saying that they liked the author’s work, and I’d listened to the episode of I Should Be Writing that featured an interview with her. When I picked it up to read last month, after getting through all my BISP month books, I did, what for me, is an unusual thing. I looked at the blurb.

Instantly I remembered why it had lurked on my TBR pile for more than a year. The blurb is appalling. I don’t know what it’s like on the UK edition, but I’ve got the US/CAN edition, and it tells you the protagonists name, that she’s a bounty hunter and witch, the name of the place where she lives, and that there are vampires there. It doesn’t tell you anything about the plot, or even about the world really. Usually when I write my little plot introductions for reviews, I get a bit nervous about doing the book the proper amount of justice, but this time I am confident, because the blurb set the standard so low!

Dead Witch Walking is set in an alternate universe, where, shortly after the discovery of DNA, a virus was bioengineered that decimated the human population. Previously humans had massively outnumbered all the supernatural creatures – or Inderlanders – but now the numbers are a lot closer to even. Rachel Morgan is one such Inderlander, working for their branch of the police, until she gets sick of getting all the worst jobs. One night she decides to quit, and to her surprise, successful living vampire Ivy and pixy Jenks offer to work with her. Their boss wouldn’t mind Rachel leaving, he’s wanted rid of her for a while, but when he finds out that Ivy is leaving with her, he puts a price on Rachel’s head. Hence the title, Dead Witch Walking. Rachel and her new partners have to find a way to work together to get Inderlander Security to call off the assassins before Rachel runs out of time.

I enjoyed Dead Witch Walking and I read it relatively quickly. I really liked the world in which it was set, however, there was something missing. A really strong protagonist. I’ve read several times that if writers are struggling to decide which character in their story should be the first person narrator, they should pick the one that is the most interesting. I just didn’t feel like Rachel was the most interesting character in the story, quite the opposite, in fact. I was really intrigued by Ivy and her relationship with her parents and other vampires, and by Jenks, his wife and many children. Rachel just didn’t seem that exciting by comparison, perhaps her life is just too straightforward, but I wondered whether the author was deliberately holding back information about Rachel, possibly to put it into later books. There was a lot that wasn’t really explained, like her relationship with her mother. I also couldn’t understand why Rachel was so impulsive, and why she would get herself into really risky situations without any sort of plan to escape them.

I have read on Goodreads and other websites that this series does get better, some people have even said that it’s worth persevering because the later books are amazing. I’m willing to give this series a couple more books to improve, so willing I’ve already got the second, The Good, The Bad and The Undead, on my TBR!

The BookDepository

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Interview with K. L. Going

This interview was supposed to be part of Body Image and Self-Perception Month in July, but there were a few delays, so I'm posting it now as a follow up. I hope you enjoy it.

Most of the books that have been featured in Body Image and Self-Perception month have girls as the protagonists. Why did you choose to write about a boy with body image problems?

When I was writing Fat Kid Rules the World, the character came first and the issues came second. Troy came into my mind as a fully formed person with a voice and image all his own. As I followed where that voice led me, I began to understand that a lot of Troy’s journey had to do with body image. So, it wasn’t a choice I consciously made to write about a certain subject, but I’m glad I’ve been able to offer an alternative perspective.

What challenges did you face when writing from a boy's point of view?

Whenever I write male characters, they usually cry in the first draft and then some male reader tells me that perhaps that’s not masculine enough! I’m not sure if this is true in today’s society, but nevertheless, it’s helpful to have someone double check my work. It’s the little details that can be the most challenging to capture correctly.

In your website FAQs you say that you've always been small and thin. More like Curt than Troy, yet Fat Kid Rules the World is from Troy's point of view. What sort of research did you do so that you could accurately represent the experience of a much larger character?

Actually, I didn’t do too much research. I read other books that featured overweight characters, but mostly, I drew on my own feelings of self-consciousness that I felt as a teen. Those feelings (I believe) are universal, no matter what size you are.

I thought it was really interesting that you made Troy and Curt physical opposites. Why did you choose to do this?

As with my writing of Troy, this wasn’t something I consciously chose. Curt’s character was inspired by Kurt Cobain and he was always stick thin. I did, however, consciously decide that Troy’s brother Dayle was going to have eating issues. You may have noticed that he is always trying to gain weight for the sports he’s on and having troubles with that. I wanted to draw attention to the fact that eating disorders come in many sizes and shapes, and while Troy’s problems are obvious, Dayle has issues of his own that might not be seen at first glance.

I thought that Fat Kid Rules the World showed brilliantly how different our ideas of what other people notice about us can be from the reality. Troy obsesses about things that most other people either don't notice or don't care much about. Eventually he learns to stop worrying about the opinions of the few people who do insult him. Do you have any advice for teenagers struggling to accept themselves and their bodies?

Yes. I’d say that as hard as it is to believe, you’re beautiful just the way you are, and when you feel inadequate in some way, remind yourself that everyone feels this way in one form or another, no matter what they look like on the outside.

Do you have any favourite books about teenagers with body image and/or self-perception issues?

I’ve always loved Staying Fat for Sarah Burns by Chris Crutcher. Also, I’ll add that I have another book out that deals with both of these issues from the polar opposite perspective from Fat Kid Rules the World. It’s called King of the Screwups and it’s about a drop dead gorgeous guy who wishes he was a nerd.

Anything else you would like to add?

Just that I hope people will visit my web site: Thanks for doing this interview!

I'd like to thank K. L. Going for answering my questions. Her responses have definitely given me some food for thought. I reviewed Fat Kid Rules the World as part of the themed month, as did Jo at Once Upon A Bookcase. Jo also reviewed King of the Screwups, which was mentioned in the interview.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

OMG! I Loved It, or Book Review: Della Says: OMG!, by Keris Stainton

Photo by Jonas B. I find this strangely hilarious.

I just finished reading Della Says: OMG! and I'd planned to start reading something else afterwards, as I've got a weird stomach ache, but I had too much energy to keep lying down, so I decided to review it straight away - something I rarely do! I just enjoyed it too much to keep my enthusiasm to myself. Does anyone else get really energised after finishing a good book?

The story is told by Della, who is 15 and pretty mature for her age, but living under the shadow of her parents and sister, who get more positive attention for the way they look than she does. Her elder sister Jamie is especially popular, and has a house party before she goes away to the USA for the summer. At this party, Jamie's boyfriend attempts to make the moves on Della, but she is rescued from his unpleasant attentions by Dan Bailey, a boy who Della has daydreamed about since they met in primary school. She writes about him regularly in her diary and has gotten so used to the idea that he will never like her that it's a complete surprise when not only does he ask her out, but they end up kissing. It's all blissful until the next day, when Della discovers that her diary has gone missing. She searches everywhere for it, but learns that it is stolen when she gets a Facebook message featuring a photo of one of the most embarrassing pages.

It felt like a bit of a mad rush reading this, it's really well plotted and things just keep on happening. I didn't read it in 'a single bite' as Meg Cabot suggested in the front cover quote, but I started reading it yesterday and finished it today. I had planned to read it this afternoon after I got some work done but when I woke up I found myself reaching for it. You know it's a good book when all my self-discipline just melts away. I really liked the main characters, I even felt sympathetic towards the ones that made ethically dubious decisions and I thought it was really refreshing to read a book that was so non-judgemental in its narrative tone. I was pleased that although e-mails, Facebook, and text messaging all featured in the story it didn't overly rely on them, because that can get gimmicky. Most of the action actually takes place 'in real life'.

I was constantly trying to guess who had stolen Della's diary - I think I suspected all of the characters at some point! It was easy to feel sympathy for Della and I liked that her friends were supportive, as this type of story could easily become a cringefest in which all the other characters laugh at the protagonist. I thought most of the characters were interesting, Gemima was a bit of a standard mean girl but I liked Dan's dorky side and that Della's parents have a chain of delis.

No book is perfect but I could only find three real flaws in this one: 1) I wished there were more excerpts from the diary, those that appeared were great but I wondered why the person who had it was so subtle and didn't maximize the embarrassment factor 2) I couldn't work out where it was set, but I know very little about the UK outside London so that may be just a failing on my part 3) the print was quite big and sans serif, it was awkward to read with my contact lenses on. Even the blurb for Della Says: OMG! was pretty good, short and sweet, and I think blurbs are usually rubbish!

Keris was the only author at the Chicklish birthday event whose work I hadn't read, so that made this a must-read in the interests of fairness. I tried to get hold of it before the event, but my local library don't have it in stock, severe error of judgement there I feel. It was quite a quick read, you could manage it in an evening if you're a fast reader, and it's ideal if you have one block of time as it's so hard to put down!

The BookDepository

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Book Review: Nobody’s Girl, by Sarra Manning

Bea is tired of being boring. Her life revolves around school and her dull Saturday job, and she longs for everything to be more interesting. When her ex-best friend Ayesha wants to hang out again, and introduces her to the school’s queen bee, Ruby, and her group of cool party-girls, Bea goes along with it, reluctantly, because what else does she have to do? She believes it’s all a joke until she’s invited along on their trip to Malaga – but things go rapidly downhill once they arrive in Spain.

Bea leaves the other girls behind and joins a group of American tourists heading for France – where she believes the father she’s never met is waiting. But when she tells her Mum about her plans, she’s furious. Will Bea ever find out why? Will gorgeous American Toph ever explain why he acts so weird around her? Will Ruby murder her when she gets back to London?

Of course I loved Nobody's Girl. It was pretty much inevitable, because I've enjoyed all of Sarra Manning's other books, and her writing just keeps on getting better and better. Every book seems to have more description and wit in it than before, and the characterisation becomes more detailed each time as well. Nobody’s Girl is really well paced. Some readers will find the last section back in London a bit rushed, but I think it’s meant to feel that way. And in Nobody’s Girl there is a heroine who is actually honestly like me.

I always wanted to be Edie from the Diary of a Crush trilogy but was never cool enough to befriend/romance art boys or own vintage dresses or get a job as a waitress and live above the café. I could relate a lot to Irina from the Fashionistas series but I’ve never been that aggressive or rude. I could totally sympathise with Bea. Even now I still long a little to be more interesting, to read books in cafes and go to the theatre every week and have long intellectual conversations with people in appropriately shabby-glamourous venues. I loved the bits where Bea daydreams about living in Paris and having an eccentric lover to have passionate rows with (it was really great that Sarra chose one of those bits to read aloud at the Chicklish birthday event). I know how easy it is to get swept up in someone else’s whirlwind and find yourself hanging out with people that are exciting but kind of despicable.

The only place where we diverge is…Toph. Still not hotter than Dylan. I suppose he comes second though. (Only out of Sarra Manning love interests. He’s way down the list if you’re talking all books because so many places go to boys from the Ruby Oliver series).

I would recommend Nobody’s Girl to everyone! If you’re already a fan of Sarra Manning, you’ll probably love it, if you’ve never read any of her books, this is a fabulous place to start. It didn’t jump into my favourite spot, but it was a great story with brilliant characters and I enjoyed it enormously. If I didn't have so many other books to read, I'd be re-reading it right now!

P.S. I am ridiculously excited over, of all nerdy things, being able to tag this with 'writers I have met' - a tag I've only used once before!

The BookDepository

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Three Non-Fiction Suggestions

Ophelia Speaks: Adolescent Girls Write About Their Search for Self, edited by Sara Shandler, various contributors

Ophelia Speaks is a response to an earlier book, Reviving Ophelia, and contains short essays, poetry, and other pieces of writing by American teenagers. There are two chapters about body issues, 'Media-Fed Images' and 'Eating Disorders'. The pieces are very short but it's interesting to see a range of snapshots from different lives, and what real teenagers think about their bodies. The rest of the book features pieces of writing about other issues affecting teenagers today, on subjects like abuse, depression, death, friendship, sex, racism, religion, and academic pressure.

The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty are Used Against Women, by Naomi Wolf

I'll confess I haven't read the whole of this book yet - I read the first chapter, the last, 'Culture' and 'Hunger' for an essay I wrote whilst studying for my first degree. I do intend to read the rest soon. The Beauty Myth is a look at history, politics and advertising that shows how false the idea of beauty is and how it stops women from achieving as much as they could. It's not perfect, it has received a lot of criticism for only really looking at how the beauty myth affects middle-class, white, heterosexual and able-bodied women, and the accuracy of the statistics is often called into question. I'm aware that there are books and articles that go a bit more in depth and up to date, but as an intro to the ideas it presents, I think it does a good job. The third to last paragraph of the 'Hunger' chapter, beginning 'What if she doesn't worry about her body and eats enough for all the growing she has to do?' (p179-180 in 0701134313) is one of my favourite paragraphs of all time. I wish I could quote the whole thing here, but it'd probably go beyond fair dealing.

Wasted, by Marya Hornbacher

I'm reading this book at the moment and will post a full review when I'm done. It's a memoir by a recovering bulimic/anoretic. The author first decided that she was fat at the age of five. It's well written, but quite heavy going. My head was aching earlier today as I was reading it, just trying to imagine how a child so young would develop these ideas and become so ill. Also, although it's not a thick paperback, the font is quite small, so it's not ideal for reading with contacts in. I might have a better time tomorrow when I can just take my glasses off and hold it closer!

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Book Review: I Was A Teenage Fairy, by Francesca Lia Block

Barbie’s mother used to be a beauty queen, but never made a successful career out of being a model. It is her dream for Barbie to achieve all she couldn’t, and so she drags the little girl to agency after agency, trying to persuade them to take her on. Barbie doesn’t want to be a model, she’s frightened of standing in front of the camera lens, and is more interested in the tiny fairy girl she found one day in her garden, who calls herself Mab. Eventually Barbie’s mother finds a photographer willing to photograph her, Hamilton Waverley, but he has a darker agenda.

Five years later, Barbie is a teenager haunted by what Hamilton Waverley did to her. Her mother spends all day in front of the television drinking, and Barbie sneaks out at night to go to parties. But one night Mab comes along with her, and everything starts to change when Barbie meets Griffin, another model who began working as a child, and Todd, an successful actor.

I have mixed feelings about Francesca Lia Block’s work. The writing is beautiful and there are passages in every book that I want to copy out and stick inside my wardrobe so that I can read them every day, but sometimes the description drowns out what’s actually going on and I find her plots to be too weakly present for me to really be able to get on with them. With some of the stories, like Echo, I finish reading and I can’t remember what actually happened, or I feel like I missed it. All the one-story books are very short, novellas rather than novels. This makes them easy to re-read, but all the characters and their issues are introduced very quickly and without much detail. The characters are very simply sketched. They’re not stereotypes, but they’re not fully fleshed out either. Francesca Lia Block has some great characters although after a few books I started to notice that she has favourite types to write about, and I find her teenagers more believable than the children. To sum it up, her writing doesn’t place style above substance in the conventional sense, because she deals with a lot of serious issues, but she treats everything with an ethereal touch.

I Was a Teenage Fairy, in my opinion, doesn’t have most of these flaws. The plot is tight and the passages that are just description break it up nicely and add to the atmosphere. Mab is the most memorable character, a beautiful fairy who isn’t very nice. She finds Barbie’s inaction frustrating and hates her mother. She’s also obsessed with men! Barbie is an introvert forced into the spotlight, brought up in a different family, she would spend most of her time reading, studying and thinking. I would have liked to know more about them, but I found them believable and interesting.

Barbie, named after the doll, is a model who wishes she could be on the other side of the camera. She doesn’t find herself beautiful, but other people clearly do. Her mother starts putting her on diets at age eleven, and buys her a Barbie doll for every birthday, wishing that her daughter would look like that. The book is set in Hollywood, and all of Barbie’s friends and acquaintances of the same age are models or actors. Barbie’s body image issues are never directly addressed, but she stops worrying about them as she gains the confidence to be herself and stop doing what her mother wants her to do.

If you haven’t read Francesca Lia Block before, I Was A Teenage Fairy is a good place to start. Fans often recommend you start with Block’s first novella, Weetzie Bat, which is what I did, but I wasn’t sure I liked it until the second read and it didn’t really make sense until I read the other books in the Dangerous Angelsseries! I think I Was A Teenage Fairy is more immediately accessible.

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Friday, July 23, 2010

Book Review: The Earth, My Butt and Other Big Round Things, by Carolyn Mackler

Photo by Andie712b

Virginia Shreves feels like she doesn’t fit into her apparently perfect family. She could just about cope with being ignored when her sister Anais and her best friend Shannon were around, but now she’s alone. Virginia has no one to sit with during lunch at school, so she hides out in the toilets. She is convinced that Froggy, a boy she has regular kissing sessions with, would never want anyone to know about their relationship. Then one day in the girls’ bathroom, she hears one of the most popular girls at school saying that if she were as fat as Virginia, she’d kill herself. Miserable and desperate for things to change, Virginia decides to put herself on a diet. Her parents encourage her, and her mother even takes her to the doctor to see if he has any suggestions. Then one day, her parents get a phone call from her brother Byron’s university and everything starts to change.

Body issues are the focus of The Earth, My Butt and Other Big Round Things, although it is fairly complex with sub-plots and a wide variety of characters.  I thought the characterisation was great and the plot was really well done. I could relate to Virginia’s social anxiety, especially the hiding in the loos part, I used to do the same thing when I didn’t have anyone to sit with at lunch or was just feeling especially anxious around people. I thought it was interesting to see a teenage character stand up to parents who don’t appreciate or believe in her. I’d have liked a little more of Froggy – but it’s good that the love interest didn’t take centre stage in Virginia’s mind. She seemed to be most influenced by the opinions of her parents and the popular Bri-girls.

I really liked the scene in which Virginia’s mother takes her to see Dr Love and whilst she keeps talking about weight and the way Virginia looks, Dr Love tells them that what is important is health – and that Virginia is probably perfectly healthy. Virginia’s mother is very superficial and I hated her! I longed to jump into the book and give her and Virginia’s father a really stern talking to. I nearly cried when Virginia described how much she longed to have a closer relationship with her brother. This book was a bit of an emotional rollercoaster, and I liked that. I find it excruciatingly painful to read about bad familiess, but it keeps me reading on because I want to see their child escape them.

This is the second book I’ve read by Carolyn Mackler, the first was Love and Other Four-letter Words, and there is a cameo appearance of two characters from that book in The Earth, My Butt and Other Big Round Things. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of Carolyn Mackler’s novels. I don’t know whether the author names them herself or whether the titles are chosen by an editor, but they’re all really eye catching!

I loved that Virginia discovered a love of purple in the end – the best colour in the world, and if you can match your hair to your dress go for it!

The cover was discussed here at Once Upon a Bookcase.

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Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Book Review: Second Star To The Right, by Deborah Hautzig

Second Star to the Right is a semi-autobiographical novel about a fourteen year old girl called Leslie who develops an eating disorder. She has longed to be thinner for a while but after she loses weight because of stomach flu she decides to be serious about dieting. She cuts down her breakfast, throws away her lunches and starts avoiding eating at dinner. Leslie also starts to do hundreds of sit ups every single day. She decides that when she reaches her goal weight of 105 pounds, that will be enough, and she will start eating properly again, but by the time she gets down to that weight, the eating disorder has taken hold of her mind and she doesn’t believe that she is thin enough, so she continues to eat less and less. Eventually she becomes too thin to physically function normally and her parents take her to the doctor. She is admitted to hospital, where none of the staff really know how to treat her, but after a short while there her parents find her a place in another hospital. She goes to live there and meets other girls suffering from eating disorders.

The story doesn’t really have a proper ending; Leslie has not recovered by the end of the book. This is a little frustrating but there is an afterword in the edition of the book that I read in which the author explains that the story was partly autobiographical and that she did not start to recover from her own eating disorder until several years after she finished writing it.

I think that the biggest flaw with Second Star To The Right is how dated it feels. The style seems old-fashioned; I don’t think most teenagers talk as Leslie does anymore. Also, nobody in the book knows very much about eating disorders, they’re a new discovery to even the medical world, whereas nowadays teenagers and parents are more likely to have heard of them.

I thought what is really interesting about Second Star To The Right is that Leslie’s eating disorder is tied up with other identity issues. She keeps saying that she isn’t sure whether when she does things that please her and please her mother, if she really did them for herself or for her mother (I realise that's a really garbled sentence - read it aloud if it's confusing you! I really struggled to summarise there). She feels like her mother’s enjoyment and pride takes something away from herself. It was really odd, but it suggested to me that perhaps Leslie’s eating disorder had something to do with trying to see herself as a separate individual who could make her own decisions. At the same time, Leslie repeatedly references Peter Pan (which is where the title of the book comes from – the directions to Never Never Land), which is, of course, about a boy who never wants to grow up, though she identifies as Wendy, who becomes a mother figure in the story. Leslie’s middle name is Margolee, after a relative who died during the Holocaust, and she keeps wondering how she as a person is linked with this woman she never met. It’s all really weird, and these ideas are only ever half-formed in Leslie’s mind so it’s difficult to draw any conclusions about what they have to do with Leslie’s anorexia.

I would say that Second Star To The Right was the most ‘issue-led’ out of all the books that I have read for Body Image and Self-Perception month. It’s a story about the progression of one girl’s eating disorder, possibly also about her relationship with her mother, but that’s not really directly addressed. There aren’t subplots or romantic intrigues or family dramas – this is about a character whose entire life has been taken over by the eating disorder. It didn’t take me very long to read Second Star To The Right, it’s quite a short book, but I think that it’s not the kind of book I would read for entertainment, it’s one to read to be informed about the subject.

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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Discussion: Endings

As this is a discussion about endings, there will be spoilers ahead for the books I have reviewed and will be reviewing for Body Image and Self-Perception Month.

Several of the books that I have read for Body Image and Self-Perception Month have happy endings, with most if not all of the loose ends tied in. The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things, Last Chance, Girl Overboard, Jumping to Confusions and I Was A Teenage Fairy all have neat happy endings. As we all know, real life is not like that, some ends never get tied.

Some authors use open endings so that the tension created within the story continues on in the mind of the reader. This keeps the reader thinking about the story and the possibilities for the characters after they have finished the book. There is a sequel to Blood Ties, so it makes sense that the author left some ends hanging with Theo and Rachel's relationship. In Everything Beautiful, most of the ends are tied up, but although Riley gives Dylan her contact information, we never know how their relationship progresses. Fat Kid Rules The World is similar. These novels resolve most of the protagonists’ issues and point out the way that the characters could go, but avoid a completely neat finish - they don’t give us a guarantee that the characters will follow through on their plans.

Some authors think that it is more realistic not to resolve any of the issues raised by the story or cement the relationships, however they can also make us feel like the story didn’t really finish. For example, I know I’m not alone in feeling that Second Star To The Right finished abruptly, but it was based on the author’s experiences of anorexia, and she hadn’t recovered herself when she wrote the book. Massive doesn’t show us what happens to Carmen or her mother in the end. Although it is doubtful that Maria will ever recover, Carmen shows that she might be able to escape the illness in the final, Barbie-doll-destroying, scene.

I’ll admit to being a fan of happy endings, especially in books like these in which the protagonist has to go through a really hard time. I like to feel uplifted after all that struggle! Happy endings offer a message of hope to the reader, and suggest that they can overcome their body issues too, which I think is really important.

In the comments on Luisa Plaja’s guest post on Once Upon A Bookcase, Jo raised the issue of books in which the protagonist starts to feel better about themselves once they have a romantic partner/interest. I actually find books in which the ending has the boy or girl feeling good about themselves because the person they likes likes them back depressing. I think self-esteem should come from within and that it’s a really bad idea to let your self-esteem depend on someone else’s opinion of you.  People can, of course, help you learn to love yourself more, as we see in many of these stories. But if one person is the sole reason for your new-found happiness in your own skin, what happens if they break up with you, or move away, or stop liking you?

In Jumping to Confusions, the protagonist doesn’t change her relationship with anyone else except Josh, and that made me slightly uncomfortable. She feels better about her body because a boy likes it, which on the one hand could prove to her forever that she is attractive, but if she broke up with Josh and then went through a long period of time without another boyfriend, she might feel completely unattractive all over again. Compare this with Fat Kid Rules The World, which is about a friendship rather than a romantic relationship, but it begins with Troy deciding not to kill himself simply because Curt has shown interest in him. Curt shows Troy that he can develop talents and find confidence from them, and by the end, Troy is confident enough to stand up to Curt. I think this is brilliant!

Families have a lot to do with self-esteem and I went into this in more detail in my guest post at Once Upon A Bookcase. Some of the happy endings in the BI&SP books involve the protagonist standing up to their parents. Troy argues Curt’s case to his Dad, and Virginia in The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things tells her parents that her weight is no longer up for discussion. Syrah of Girl Overboard learns how to talk her parents around to her point of view, and Barbie from I Was A Teenage Fairy changes her name and career. These stories all show characters that learn to be more confident and self-protective. They start to rely less on other people to feel good about themselves, and I think this is doing it right!

What kind of endings do you prefer? Do you believe open endings are more realistic? Where do you think self-esteem can and should come from?

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Book Review: Massive, by Julia Bell

Carmen’s mother, Maria, is obsessed with dieting. She is constantly trying new plans and putting Carmen on them too, but Carmen’s step-dad, Brian, sneaks her food, so Carmen never loses any weight. When a job opportunity comes up in Birmingham for Maria, she decides to leave Brian and take Carmen to live there. Maria has only just left the hospital where she was recovering from an (unspecified) eating disorder, and it soon becomes clear that she is returning to her old habits – and she wants Carmen to lose weight with her.

Birmingham is where Maria grew up, and whilst she’s working, Carmen is left with her grandmother, who has her own issues with food, overweight and eating almost constantly, or goes to visit her aunt Lisa, estranged from Maria, who runs a nail salon. The other girls at Carmen’s new school reinforce the message that being thin is vitally important, and with nothing else in her life she can control, Carmen begins to imitate her mother, making herself sick after eating.

This is a slow paced novel without a strict plotline, unless you count the progression of Maria’s illness. This wasn’t a fun book, although it had some humorous moments, it was quite bleak, but I think that it was realistic. The ending is ambiguous; you don’t know for sure what is going to happen to Carmen. It’s really a ‘snapshot’ from the life of its protagonist, not a tale of how she got from a to b. I think it’s more about how Carmen reacts to Maria’s eating disorder.

The characters seemed a bit flat at times, but almost all the women in Carmen’s family, who are the focus, are single-minded, obsessed with food. Only Lisa seems to have a healthy, relatively happy, life. Carmen doesn’t have a lot of friends or interests; she has never really been allowed to develop them because Maria is so devoted to dieting. I felt really angry at what Maria was doing to Carmen, but at the same time I could see it was part of her illness. I think this book is as much about families as it is about eating disorders, it shows how people can pass on their beliefs to their children. 

Massive is quite a quick read. I thought it was a good, realistic, novel, but it isn't the happiest of tales, so don't pick this up when you want to relax.

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Thursday, July 15, 2010

Book Review: Jumping to Confusions, by Liz Rettig

Warning: This review contains minor spoilers.

Cat is the ‘plain one’. Whilst her non-identical twin sister Tessa is out on dates and attracting compliments nearly all the time, she spends her time trying to matchmake for her friends and longing for Mr Brown, her English teacher. When Cat’s dad’s new boss arrives from the USA and comes to their house for dinner, he brings his gorgeous son Josh with him. Tessa immediately sets her sights on Josh, but despite Tessa’s best efforts, he turns her down, so Tessa and Cat conclude that he must be gay. Every straight boy on Earth would fancy Tessa, so there’s no other reasonable explanation, or is there?

Jumping to Confusions is the kind of book I would have read happily when I was in my earliest teens. I did read quite a few novels like this, then, romantic comedies for age 11 upwards. What am I saying? I used to get eight out, which was the maximum I could have on my library card, on a Saturday, and have read six or seven of them by Sunday, and then try to drag reading the couple that were left out over the rest of the three weeks’ borrowing time. There were also a few of this kind in my school library. After the Harry Potters and the Jacqueline Wilsons, they were the most fought over. So I’m sure lots of girls have really enjoyed this book and I’m sure I would have liked it when I was 12/13, but this was only, I’m afraid, an okay read, by my current standards. I don’t think I’ll read another book by this author.

It was difficult for me to get into Jumping to Confusions, partly because the voice of the narrator didn’t draw me in. Usually I don’t like teen fiction, like this, in which the humour relies on the protagonist making lots of very mildly funny mistakes. I think this is because I was never the kind of teenager who saw her life as a series of embarrassing moments. I was shy and thoughtful and when you only have a couple of friends and avoid boys because they shout rude things at you the odds are you won’t do ever do anything particularly embarrassing! I essentially couldn’t relate to Cat’s silliness.

Occasionally the tenses switched, from past to present and then back again, and the way in which it was done annoyed me. Also, there was no mystery about the main plotline. My synopsis does not really contain any more information in it than the blurb does, and I think it’s pretty obvious from that how the story will turn out. It’s clear, from the reader’s point of view, that Josh is not gay, and it’s only Cat’s low self-esteem and misplaced trust in her sister’s judgement that stops her from seeing what is obvious to everyone else.

However, I liked Cat as a character. She had many contradictions – she’s obsessed with everyone else’s romantic lives, but is convinced that boys her own age don’t fancy her. She resents her sister for being pretty and popular, but at the same time is very protective of her. I wanted to see Tessa taken down a peg or two, or at least to fall in Cat’s opinion. I was most interested in how Cat develops over the story, and this kept me reading on despite the plot. Jumping to Confusions is first and foremost a romantic comedy, the body image issues are of secondary importance to the romantic story, so it was interesting to compare the light touch of this novel with the deeper explorations found in most of the other books I have read for Body Image and Self Perception month.

Cat is only a size 14 (12 by the end of the book, after regular tennis lessons), but when she compares herself with her size six sister and mother, she feels fat. She doesn’t spend a lot of time worrying about the way she looks, but she wishes that she got the attention and approval that Tessa and her mum get. She doesn’t have the willpower to diet, and she has accepted this. Cat learns that other people don’t necessarily have the same ideals of beauty as her sister and Mum do, and that some consider her to be more beautiful than Tessa is. I liked that the sibling rivalry wasn’t serious, but I did want to see Tessa change a bit, and she doesn’t really.

I would recommend this book to fans of light romantic comedies. I think that the problems I had with it were mostly down to my personality, so I’m going to link to a few more positive reviews:

Review of Jumping to Confusions by Liz Rettig at Trashionista
Review of Jumping to Confusions by Liz Rettig at Wondrous Reads
Review of Jumping to Confusions by Liz Rettig at Chicklish

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Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Book Review: Last Chance, by Sarah Dessen

Warning: This review contains minor spoilers. This book has also been published as Keeping the Moon.

Photo by michi003

Colie is the daughter of Kiki Sparks, the latest sensation to sweep the USA, a fitness guru with her own infomercials, TV interviews and a whole line of merchandise. When Kiki goes off to promote her message worldwide, Colie is sent to stay with her eccentric aunt, Mira, in the seaside town of Colby. Colie is angry about this; Colie is angry about everything. Kiki Sparks is known for being cheerful, determined, and relentlessly confident, but Colie is still haunted by the Fat Years, when it was her and her mother against the world, and by the cruel taunts of the other people at her school.

Colie is confused by Mira’s self-acceptance, and her strange lodger, art boy Norman. Then she gets a job at the Last Chance Bar and Grill and starts working alongside Morgan, who becomes her friend almost instantly, and Isabel, who is beautiful, judgemental and cold, but close to her best friend Morgan. This summer has the potential to change everything for Colie, if she takes the risks.

Whilst re-reading Last Chance for Body Image and Self Perception month I wondered why on earth I have not read any other novels by Sarah Dessen! My copy of Last Chance was free with an issue of J-17 magazine, and I have read it several times over the eight years(!) that I’ve had it, but somehow it never occurred to me to read more of her books! Bizarre! I really, really like this book.

The characters are great. There’s an art boy in it, which is always good, but my favourite is Mira, who is a shamelessly weird greetings card designer working on a range of quirky condolence cards. I wish I could be as confident in my own strangeness. I also find Isabel fascinating, because she isn’t immediately nice to Colie, and she tends to judge people harshly, but she has her own strange kind of charisma and eventually you realise that Colie is just as guilty of judging people, she just has different standards. This is one of those wonderful books in which the author manages to juggle the development of several characters, and most of them do change in some way by the end of the book. It’s far from being a simple makeover story as Colie has her own influence on some of the other characters.

I thought that it was interesting that once Colie had lost weight, Caroline Dawes, her main enemy at school, moved on to using sexual slurs against her. Women are frequently judged in this way, so it seemed very true to life, and it really affected Colie’s self-esteem. She knows that the things Caroline has said about her aren’t true, but she feels bad that other people see her that way, and when Caroline calls her a slut in front of Norman and Isabel, she becomes frightened that they will think that’s it’s true. It’s such a weighty accusation that she believes that they will take Caroline’s word for it.

I found this book really uplifting when I read it as a teenager. I longed for someone to give me a makeover and tried really hard to take in the messages about confidence. They still haven’t gotten all the way into my head, to be honest, but I think it helped me understand different kinds of people more. 

I strongly recommend Last Chance, and I should read more Sarah Dessen novels myself!

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Sunday, July 11, 2010

Discussion: What’s the Reason?

This post includes what I consider to be minor spoilers for the books I have reviewed and will be reviewing for Body Image and Self-Perception Month. As this post is about the causes of body image issues as presented in the novels, I don't go into the plots too much.

Why do people judge themselves so harshly for the way they look? Today I am going to list all the reasons I could find in the novels that I have read for Body Image and Self-Perception Month and compare the approaches taken by different authors to these subjects. One of the things I have really liked about this month is reading such a diverse range of books, with different styles, priorities, and approaches to the subject.

So what have authors chosen to highlight as causes of low self-esteem and negative body images?

Cultural standards of beauty

Even if the subject is not directly addressed within the story, the protagonists in every single book that I have read know what the cultural ideal for beautiful is and judge themselves for not living up to it. Every time a character decides that they are fat, ugly or otherwise unattractive and abnormal, they are comparing themselves with this ideal.

Some of the characters judge practically everyone they meet by this ideal, others only judge themselves. Virginia in The Earth, My Butt and Other Big Round Things cuts out pictures of thin models to stick on the fridge, to torment herself into keeping to her diet, but she doesn't say or think anything judgemental about other people, she just wants to fit into her apparently perfect family. When Leslie (Second Star to the Right) develops anorexia nervosa, she becomes so convinced that other people are thinner than her that she can't believe them when they point out that they're not.
On the other hand, Troy in Fat Kid Rules The World considers his Dad too big (but he gets away with it because of his job), his brother perfect, and Curt too skinny. Colie of Last Chance divides the world into thin girls and fat girls, and is confused by the fact her aunt Mira isn't interested in dieting or trying to become thin herself. Syrah from Girl Overboard starts off looking at everyone through this lens as well, marvelling at the fact that Chelsea has the status of Queen Bee at school despite looking like "Barbie after bingeing on a one-month ice-cream diet". In Everything Beautiful, Riley seems to have three categories in which to put people - a) pretty and cool by cultural standards b) uncool and c) cool by her standards. I think this is particularly interesting because I've always had a similar sort of appreciation for the glamourous type of weird. It shows how even when you're into your own things and don't have much interest in fitting in yourself you remain aware of what other people - who do stick to the cultural norm, or to what's considered cool - consider normal or beautiful.

Maria, Carmen's mother in Massive, is the most tragic example of a character whose entire world view has been shaped by the idea that to be thin is to be beautiful. She is utterly convinced that being thin is the only way to be, believing that if you are thin you will be successful, the world will love you. She is disgusted by anyone who doesn't aspire to thinness and tries to force her views onto Carmen. Barbie's mother in I Was a Teenage Fairy has a similar faith in beauty standards, having failed to become a successful model after winning a beauty pageant in her youth, it is her dream to have Barbie follow the path she tried to take. She assumes that Barbie is as interested in modelling as she is, and won't listen to anyone who criticises her for dragging her daughter to agencies, beauticians, and photographers. 

Being compared or comparing themselves with family members

Several of the books I've read for this themed month have featured protagonists who feel that they don't really belong to their families because of the way they look.

Blood Ties and Jumping to Confusions feature girls who are compared unfavourably by their parents and other people to their sisters. In both these books, the sister is actually a twin. Blood Ties' Rachel was actually cloned from Rebecca, who died before she was born. Rachel's parents don't mean to make Rachel feel like she is worth less than her sister was, but their house is full of pictures of Rebecca, beautiful and successful, and I think that the very fact they chose to clone Rebecca rather than have another child naturally or adopt shows how attached they were to the idea of their perfect first child. In Jumping to Confusions, Cat's non-identical twin Tessa is slimmer than her and popular with boys, and their Mum seems to prefer Tessa, although their Dad thinks that Cat is just as beautiful. Cat has fallen under Tessa's spell so much that she can't see when she's being taken advantage of by her sister.

Virginia in The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things feels like she doesn't fit into her perfect family, and they make matters worse by directly imposing their own standards of beauty onto her. Which brings me onto the subject of parents...


Virginia Shreves' parents and brother pretty much ignore her unless they want to discuss her weight. At the start of the book, her sister Anaïs takes a break from university to join the Peace Corps, which leaves Virginia at the mercy of her parents' opinions without a dissenting voice to help her.

In Girl Overboard Syrah's mother is constantly worrying about Syrah's appearance, telling her what to eat and not eat. Maria in Massive also puts her daughter on a diet. These stories show how horrible it can be when someone is under this kind of pressure from their parents, in addition to having to deal with the expectations of society in general. I feel that the books in which parents are partly responsible for their children's body issues tend to be more serious - if a child has support at home then it's much easier to face the judgemental world.

I will talk about the influence of families in more detail in my guest post for Once Upon a Bookcase.

Peer Pressure

Carmen pretty much has it coming at her from all sides - bullies at school start to pick on her because of her size. Last Chance's Colie is also bullied for being overweight, until she becomes slim, and then the insults become sexual. Rachel in Blood Ties has no friends and attracts the unfortunate attention of her school's bunch of mean girls, who talk about her weight and how unattractive to boys they think she is, but Rachel has pretty much accepted the way she is and the bullying as a sad fact of life. Troy from Fat Kid Rules The World is also a social outcast until Curt comes into his life.


One thing I noticed in most of these books is that the boys and men that the female protagonists interact with are very nice and non-judgemental of the way the girls look. Girls worry that boys don't/won't fancy them because they're overweight, but they've apparently got this idea from the media, not from real life experience. Virginia's dad is pretty much the only male character that expresses the opinion that skinny women are more attractive. It's other women or girls doing the bullying or judging in the other books.

On one level, I think this is great because it is true that men haven't been brainwashed en masse to find nothing but blonde, skinny women with big breasts attractive. But on another, I'm mystified - where were all these appreciators of female diversity when I was growing up?

Which of these causes of negative self-perceptions and body image issues do you think is the most important? I think that the cultural beauty standard has the most to answer for as it really influences all the other factors. If being overweight wasn't presented as wrong, then it's unlikely that there would be the same amount of parental and peer pressure.

Have you noticed any more in these or in other books? Were the boys you knew that nice?!

Friday, July 09, 2010

Book Review: Blood Ties, by Sophie McKenzie

Theo has a bodyguard and he doesn’t know why. After his latest attempted escape, he demands that his mother explain. She confesses that the father he thought was dead is still alive, in hiding because of a terrorist organisation – the Righteous Army against Genetic Engineering - out to kill him to stop his genetic research. Theo can’t just accept this and wants to track his father down, and this leads him to Rachel.

Rachel feels fat, ugly, and stupid. She doesn’t have any friends and her parents are always comparing her to her sister Rebecca, who died before she was born. Then Theo turns up, and she fancies him immediately. She finds herself making excuses for them to be together whilst researching the connection between their parents. Rachel manages to organise things so that they go together to Rachel’s school disco, but are ambushed by RAGE and rescued by a stranger who takes them away to meet Theo’s father and discover terrible secrets about themselves.

I guessed several details in Blood Ties before they were revealed to the protagonists, Theo and Rachel, so I’m not sure how effective it is as a thriller. I don’t read thrillers very often, and I don’t think I’ve read a teen/YA thriller before. It has the right pace, I think, and the narration alternates between the protagonists, which kept me wondering what the other one thought and itching to read their reaction. I thought this was very effective in this story, because Theo and Rachel are quite different and have contrasting strengths and weaknesses which they use or are let down by and it was interesting to compare them. I think it also helps to make the book appealing for both male and female readers.

I liked the first third of this book better than the rest. I thought the scenes of Theo and Rachel at school or hanging out with Theo’s friends were really well done, and I wished the minor characters from these sections reappeared later on in the story as I really liked them! Once Theo, Rachel, and their mysterious protectors were on the run, I just didn’t find it as interesting, although the pace was faster.

I did hope Rachel would confront her body issues in a bit more of an upfront manner than she did, when she became fitter because her survival depended on it and found out her own secret history, I had hoped that she would realise that comparatively, looking good isn’t that important, or derive more confidence from what she has to go through. She does seem to grow a little bit in this way but mostly she changes because other people tell her she’s attractive rather than because she finds a way to believe more in herself.

I enjoyed reading Blood Ties but I don’t think I’m really suited to this genre. I like characters and personal dramas and less running and fighting!

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