Wednesday 10 February 2016

Reviewed by Arianne: Extraordinary Means by Robin Schneider.

Product details:
Publisher: Simon & Schuster.
Paperback, 336 pages.
Release date: June 4th 2015.
Rating: 2 out of 5.
Ages: 13+
Source: Received from publisher for review.
Reviewed by: Arianne.

 A bitter-sweet, coming-of-age novel that's perfect for fans of John Green and Stephen Chbosky.

When he's sent to Latham House, a boarding school for sick teens, Lane thinks his life may as well be over.
But when he meets Sadie and her friends - a group of eccentric troublemakers - he realises that maybe getting sick is just the beginning. That illness doesn't have to define you, and that falling in love is its own cure.

Extraordinary Means is a darkly funny story about true friendships, ill-fated love and the rare miracle of second chances.

 Robyn Schneider’s particular brand of all-American sick-lit is a strange phenomenon to behold. On the one hand, it has all the features that seem to keep readers coming back for more: carefully delegated ‘quirky’ characters, a sense of the everyday hero with just a touch of I-liked-it-before-it-was-popular hipster snobbery, and the kind of true love so perfect and tragic it can only be placed against the backdrop of an American high school or outsider clique. On the other hand, fans of young adult have been looking for much more than this in their fiction as of late, and you have to wonder how long Schneider can keep it up. I really enjoyed her début – published as Severed Heads, Broken Hearts in the UK and The Beginning of Everything in the US – but this book was a let-down. 

Extraordinary Means is told in alternating narration by overachieving Lane and wildfire Sadie, two diametrically opposed teenagers who come face-to-face for the first time in years at the same secluded residential medical facility, known as Latham House. Theirs is a story of first love, spectacular odds and second chances, but it's not quite so romantic when the fated words you're saying are "Of all the sanatoria for total-drug-resistant tuberculosis, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine..."

Extraordinary Means promises drama, emotion and characters you’ll adore. Unfortunately it isn’t very good at actually delivering on these promises. It’s dusty, predictable and doesn’t push as many boundaries as it thinks it does. I liked Sadie and Lane to begin with, and was intrigued by the group dynamic of their friends and the little community which has sprung up among the teenagers at Latham House, but the huge potential flickers fast. In the end, Extraordinary Means is yet another story of wealthy, privileged, too-cool-for-you American teenagers, only half-disguised as a novel set in a sanatorium for a strain of tuberculosis so handily resistant and incurable that the idea of recovery couldn’t possibly appear before a sufficient amount of capital-letter Plot and Angst has happened. 

The plot itself is comprised mostly of vague incidents of ‘walking on the wild side’ and ‘stick it to the man’ pseudo-rebellion, but in truth Extraordinary Means lacks heart and spontaneity. Between prose which turns dull and characters whose forced ‘quirkiness’ will have you weeping with gratitude the next you read a good, lush, laugh-out-loud Non Pratt or Holly Bourne novel, the sheer constructedness of Schneider’s writing – as jarringly concerned with being #ontrend as it is with being old-fashioned and ‘timeless’ – is almost painfully prominent. It may hook you in, but it lacks the substance to really keep you reading.

The book is a well-researched and straightforward read, but I can’t help feeling that YA fans – particularly teen girls, who should never have to see themselves swept aside just to add to the character arc of a rich white boy – deserve better than this. I thought we’d thrown out the damaging, archaic ‘girl dies to give boy insight into Life and His Very Important Journey’ cliché with the arrival of a renewed desire to do actual teenage readers justice, but judging by Extraordinary Means, it's still hanging around. Extraordinary Means sees the line between toying-with-tropes and becoming-a-trope Severed Heads, Broken Hearts played with - and jumps headlong over the wrong side of it. It’s in such a rush to be seen as cool that it slips into a formulaic approach, losing any potential for charm and magic.

In short: I had high expectations for the second book from the author of Severed Heads, Broken Hearts – a five-star read and one of my favourite books of 2014 – but Extraordinary Means is more scaffolding than substance. Hollow, predictable and a little dull, this is a book even an overused (and overrated) John Green comparison can’t save.


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