Monday, 24 March 2014

Reviewed by Arianne: The Look by Sophia Bennett, The Kissing Booth by Beth Reekles & The Dead Girls Detective Agency by Suzy Cox.

 Ava is popular, pretty and has a movie star smile - so when her gawky, awkward little sister Ted is the one scouted as a model while Ava's the one diagnosed with cancer, it seems their fortunes have flipped in the worst possible way.

Ted's never wanted to be in the limelight, and not just because wherever her embarrassingly long legs go, disaster and humiliation usually follow. But Ava doesn't want her to turn down such an amazing opportunity, and Ted goes along with it for her sake - but is there a difference between making your sick sister happy and letting her live vicariously through you?

Ted is the kind of girl you'd want on your side in a fight and not just because she once took martial arts lessons. She's a warrior princess in worn out shoes and a Woodland Trust t-shirt. I didn’t know what to expect from her, but found her an incredibly loyal, funny protagonist everyone will want to root for. Ava surprised me even more than Ted did, with her gorgeous, glamourous and wholeheartedly gentle nature. She's the perfect big sister, but she's not a perfect person, and she's much more than the token cancer victim in this book. She shares an innate strength and an immense bond with her sister, and they turn to each other instead of away. Ava’s maybe-boyfriend Jesse was definitely my favourite supporting character, all surfer looks and unexpected resilience. I wish I could say Ted's love interest got as much page-time, but unfortunately Nick was rather swept aside – he could have been a great addition to the story but unfortunately we just don’t see enough of him to be sure. His fleeting entrances made way for the presence of Ava and Ted’s parents, however, and I love an author who’s not afraid to show that teenagers actually really rely on their parents for a lot of things, instead of just shunting them out of the way.

Ted’s involvement with modelling is a slightly surreal world of rejection, photo shoots and domineering industry types, and while this is the most predictable part of the book (stereotypical characters and shaky pacing are big influences here), for the most part I enjoyed it. Fashion rookies need not fear reading this element of The Look, as Ted is almost as clueless about haute couture as it's possible to be and we learn everything along with her.

As a story he Look can't be narrowly defined, and that in a way cements the book's underlying message. Nobody should be defined by one moment, mistake, experience or illness. Ted and Ava are worth more than that. They have more to give.

In short: Sophia Bennett is a seriously stylish writer. Talent and quality sing from her pages. The Look is more mature and thematic than her previous books, and that’s what makes it so stellar. There's realism and emotion, adventure and excitement, dejection and disillusionment – and most importantly, it leaves you smiling long after you've finished the final chapter.

The Look by Sophia Bennett.  Publisher: Chicken House.  Released: March 2012. Ages: 13+    Rating:  5 out of 5.  
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Whenever I hear of a young writer getting their big break, it makes me want to let out a big cheer – or, more realistically, a series of enthused Tweets and an immediate visit to the author’s website to find out more about this potential to-be-read pile addition. Beth Reeks, or Reekles as she’s known to her internet fanbase, published the first version of this book online and immediately began driving fans crazy with anticipation for each new chapter.

Indeed, though The Kissing Booth has been tightened up by the editors at Random House since then, of course, but it’s still buoyed by that sense of instant writer gratification and near-constant reader feedback. It bubbles with life and, if nothing else, it made me laugh.

The characters don’t undergo a lot of significant development, but they serve to fulfil the story and they do it well. Rochelle is bathed in an aura of goodness that seems undisturbed by her late-night partying (and let’s face it, everyone in this story is helped by the actions, or lack thereof, of the extremely lenient adults in their life). On the flipside, Noah has anger issues and a blatant disregard for the rules, but it’s only because he has Rochelle’s best interests at heart. They’re not realistic characters, as such; they’re more idealistic, representing the kind of people readers want to be or want to know. They seem to have everything without realizing it, and Rochelle in particular rings of naiveté, but throw in the fact that Noah doesn’t know how to deal with his attraction to Rochelle – with his motorbike-wielding, trigger-happy ways, it’s no surprise he’s rarely felt a sense of genuine care for his past girlfriends – and the obstacle of Rochelle’s longtime friendship with Noah’s brother Lee, and this is far from the ideal setup for a happily ever after.

The ‘good girl falls for bad boy’ and ‘girl falls for best friend’s brother’ aren’t entirely original concepts, but they work well here. It’s a combination that reels in readers, hook line and sinker. Sometimes it is tempting to wonder why audiences love this book so much – it’s as if they’re selling themselves short, not willing to read, finish, let go and move on to something new. That said, it’s not up to me to urge that choice on The Kissing Booth’s readers, and it’s not up to anyone else, either. Yes, there are clichés galore, but thanks to one young writer’s dedication and passion, The Kissing Booth has got a legion of teens reading in a new way, and Beth Reekles needs applauding just for that. She’s an author with built-in marketing potential, and if her Goodreads list of upcoming books is anything to go by, Random House has spotted this, too.

In short: In writing this gem of a first novel, Beth Reekles has clearly found her niche. The writing still needs more work – fine-tuning, if you will – but the story itself is solid, and I can see why it’s captured the hearts of teen readers worldwide.

The Kissing Booth by Beth Reekles.  Publisher: Corgi Children's.  Released: April 2013. Ages: 14+    Rating:  4 out of 5.  
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When news of this book’s release hit the blogosphere, hype kicked in and it worked hard. A YA debut by deputy editor of Cosmopolitan magazine, Suzy Cox? For many, a must-read. This book has a genius premise and it stands out from the crowd. Everyone knows 2014 is going to be the year of YA horror, and murder mysteries like this one are the next best thing: it’s reader engagement without the gore.

Unfortunately, and in contrast to the Photoshopped models who appear within Cosmo’s pages, this book is not free of imperfections. It has the kind of downfalls that don’t hinder the overall story, but which somewhat lessen the gloss of the characters and the novel I had come to expect from them.

In theory, the girls of the titular detective agency seem like the ideal cast. Unfortunately, this is exactly where Suzy Cox’s understanding of the teenaged reader falls short. Characters like Charlotte are useful to the writer, giving a bird’s eye view of this strange new world, but they’re not all that useful to the reader, who wants someone to ally themselves with from the start. Leading characters aren’t vehicles for a message. They’re not placeholders. They should feel as if they have a life of their own and provoke an emotional reaction, whether it’s positive or negative, empathy or distress or otherwise. They should feel (if you’ll excuse the intended pun) very much alive. When we don’t feel a connection with a character, especially a lead, its goodbye, the end, out the door, we won’t see you later. Teen readers are demanding, and we’re not ashamed to admit that we expect that demand to be met.

But we are also open and forgiving, and if we’re in the right mood, we’ll come along anyway for the ride. The plot of The Dead Girls Detective Agency is pure brilliance, and it’s the book’s saving grace. It’s a well-planned story with plenty of foreshadowing and a simple, strong structure. The standard of writing isn’t amazing – the prose doesn’t exactly fall off the page in awe of its own beauty – but it’s practical, economical and it gets the job done. The latter half of the book is particularly action-packed, turning its finale into a suitably dramatic affair. I can imagine this series turning into the new Nancy Drew or the Babysitters’ Club. There’s a sense that it’s more about the essence of the story than sparkling delivery, and in that respect, it achieves what it set out to do.

In short: intriguing and exciting, the Dead Girls Detective Agency fails to triumph on the character side, but the plot is strong and it’s well worth reading. 

 The Dead Girls Detective Agency by Suzy Cox.  Publisher: Much-in-Little.  Released: July 2013. Ages: 13+    Rating:  3½ out of 5.

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2 comments :

  1. The Look sounds go intriguing! Adding it to my TBR now!
    Missie @ A Flurry of Ponderings

    ReplyDelete
  2. Yeah, Garvis-Graves did a good job in Covet in that the characters stayed true to themselves and I completely understood their situation. Here, not so much. Not at all!

    I will check out Hopeless, though, because I've had a few people tell me that's a good one!

    ReplyDelete

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