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!

The BookDepository

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Book Review: Everything Beautiful, by Simmone Howell

Book trailer.

When Riley Rose is caught by the police after breaking into a swimming pool with her friends, her father and stepmother decide they have had enough. Whilst they go on holiday, firmly atheist Riley is left at the Spirit Ranch – a Christian summer camp.  Without her mobile phone or best friend Chloe, she is determined to hate it from the start, deciding that she will be the Plague, glamourous, controversial and definitely not there to make any friends. She finds it easy to hate the vain Fleur, who asks Riley how much she weighs on their first meeting – but finds herself rescuing Olive from bullies and admired by shy Sarita. Then there’s beautiful Craig, and mysterious fellow angry-misfit Dylan, a camp regular who arrived this time in a wheelchair. Her own curiosity and kindness eventually start to get the better of her bad intentions.

I think Everything Beautifulis great. I’ve read it twice now and was just as gripped through the second time. I read Everything Beautiful for the first time a couple of weeks after reading Notes from the Teenage Underground, and so I’m not sure whether my inability to decide which one was my favourite comes from reading them so close together. They are actually very different kinds of stories, they are both comings-of-age but Everything Beautiful is less cultural reference-laden than Notes, and I think the plot is more straightforward.

Riley is a believer in the ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ and ‘they’ll stare anyway, give them something to look at’ schools of thought, modelling herself after her ‘over-dramatic’ late mother and Chloe. She dresses to stand out and express herself, in gothic lolita outfits, with her asymmetric hair dyed Ultra Violet. Riley takes pride in being a confident ‘big girl’, although it is clear to the reader that she’s actually not all that confident in the way she looks, when some of the other kids try to tease her she is offended rather than unconcerned.

Dylan is determined to appear tough and rebellious despite being in a wheelchair, making a big deal out of the pills he has to take and getting drunk and smoking. He lets his emotions come to the surface more than Riley does, avoiding people who used to be his friends because of the way they treat him now. They both care about other people more than they’d like to.

I’d recommend Everything Beautiful to everyone who likes to read about weird unpopular rebels! It’s a particularly good summer read, I think, but then I read it for the first time in July 2009 and read it again in June 2010. I suggest you read it during those days when it’s too hot to do anything else, or raining but still warm.

Click to read a review at Books, Time, and Silence that really puts mine to shame.

There is a discussion about the covers of Everything Beautiful at Once Upon a Bookcase.

The BookDepository

Monday, July 05, 2010

Book Review: Fat Kid Rules The World, by K. L. Going

 Photo by mrgilles

Ever since his mother passed away, Troy has been putting on weight. He can no longer find much that he has in common with his ex-Marine Father, and his sports obsessed younger brother Dayle hates him. Troy is convinced that he is worthless, and all that he is is a joke to other people. Aged seventeen, Troy has decided to kill himself, but he wants to do it with dignity. Whilst he is trying to decide whether people would laugh if a fat kid jumped in front of a train, he is interrupted by a skinny punk boy who turns out to be Curt McRae, a school legend who hasn’t been seen for months. Curt insists that Troy owes him lunch for saving his life, and because he’s the Curt McRae, amazing guitarist and friend of Troy’s favourite band, Troy can’t say no. They embark on a strange friendship when Curt decides that Troy is to be his new drummer, despite the fact Troy hasn’t picked up a drumstick in years.

Fat Kid Rules the World is quite short, with quick chapters that often break mid-scene, which helps to keep the pace fast. The characters are well developed and easy to imagine, particularly Troy, constantly worrying about people noticing his size, and energetic, weird, Curt, and Troy’s unexpectedly brilliant dad. Even those that only appear in a few scenes, Curt’s friends and Troy’s brother Dayle, seem very real.

I did at times wish Troy would hurry up and ask Curt to explain certain things, even though I reminded myself over and over how in awe of Curt Troy would be and that he would be extremely reluctant to break the spell that held them together. I also wished there were some female punk musicians in the story, or even just one, as girls and women were only portrayed as fans in this novel.

I could relate to and understand Troy’s fear that people everywhere are staring at him and laughing, and could really feel his amazement when Curt tells him that actually, people aren’t looking at him. Troy finds in the punk rock scene a place where people don’t judge him, and only care about his talent, and as someone fascinated by subcultures, I liked this very much.

Fat Kid Rules The World did strike me as being a particularly American story. There are some stories that would remain essentially the same no matter where they were set, and I don't think this is one of them. The culture plays an important role in the book. If Troy and Curt were British, for example, things would have been very different for both of them. 

I enjoyed this book, and I would recommend it. The scenario is unlikely but ultimately believable, and so Fat Kid Rules The World stands out, having a particularly original plot, amongst all the other books I have been reading/re-reading for Body Image and Self Perception Month.

The BookDepository

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Book Review: Girl Overboard, by Justina Chen Headley

Everyone assumes Syrah Cheng has everything she could possibly want. She’s the daughter of the billionaire Ethan Cheng, which means she’s got a bedroom filled with specially chosen antiques, a place at an exclusive school, and designer clothes. But her parents are distant and her half-siblings can’t stand her. She only finds happiness when hanging out with her best friend Age and on her snowboard. After her heart is broken by a snowboarder who was only with her to get to her father’s money, she narrowly survives an accident on the slopes, and has to learn to live again.

Syrah is a sympathetic and interesting character who suffers from body image problems on two levels. After her accident, she finds it difficult to trust her body again, and she also worries about not being as slim and perfect as her mother and her half-sister, Grace. Her mum puts a lot of pressure on her to live up to ideals of beauty, making her wear girdles and trying to control her diet. Syrah avoids looking at herself in the mirror and wears men’s snowboarding clothes to cover up her body. She compares herself physically to the girlfriends of the boys she likes, and her manga alter-ego, Shiraz, is, as she eventually realises, ‘a stick figure with an ample chest’.

The book is quite slow paced at first, I found I had to be patient as there is a lot of scene-setting before the real action begins, about halfway through. At that point it picks up and then I was engrossed until the end. I don’t really know anything about snowboarding but Girl Overboard was really accessible, you don’t need any prior knowledge of the sport to understand what the characters are talking about! I also loved that there were references to Chinese culture, it gave me a strong sense of Syrah’s family history and background.

I did wish that more time was spent on Syrah’s relationship with her parents. Her relationship with Grace was drawn and developed really well, but her parents went from distant to more friendly in a few pages. There is a lot covered in this book though so I can understand why the author wanted to focus on the other issues. I thought that what Syrah learns about her body was really interesting and true.

I would definitely recommend this book, as I said before I think it requires a little patience at first but it is well worth it. I am really looking forward to reading Justina Chen Headley's other books.

The BookDepository

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Body Image & Self-Perception Month

body image and self-perception month

Throughout July I'm taking part in Body Image and Self-Perception Month, as hosted by the lovely Jo of Once Upon a Bookcase. I really enjoyed reading Jo's Sex in Teen Lit Month back when I was a lit blog lurker so when she announced that she was thinking of doing another themed month this year I was delighted.

I decided to take part in this project when she announced the theme because it is a subject very close to my heart as someone who had various and many self-esteem issues as a teenager. I have read eight books so far and have another two to read; I am also planning various relevant discussion posts.

If you would like to see a full list of all the good stuff that I and the rest of the BI&SP month bloggers have planned, check out the introduction post, and for links to all the posts as they are posted, here is the schedule. To read about the inspiration and purpose behind BI&SP month, just click the banner above.

Edit 09/05/2013: Jo has altered her pages recently, for all the BI&SP month information and links, just visit this page.

I hope that you will participate and comment on my reviews and discussion posts, it should be loads of fun!


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