Sweet sixteen?

The Fever by Megan Abbott

FeverWhen I read Megan Abbott’s previous novel Dare me (reviewed here) last year, I knew she was an author to watch, moving into psychological thriller territory with her tale of High School cheer-leaders, having previously concentrated on 1950s noir.  She seemed to get into the brain of these sporty girls perfectly and the novel although lacking a bit of pace in the thriller department was full of fascinating insights into the cheer-leading world that we don’t really have in the UK.

The Fever is again set in a High School, but couldn’t be more different in terms of drama. The story is told from the viewpoints of the Nash family. Father Tom is a popular teacher at the High School. Divorced, he’s bringing up two teenagers: the older one is Eli – an ice-hockey star and object of many girls’ affections; Deenie is sixteen, sweet and good at school.

At sixteen, all a lot of the girls want to do is talk about boys and brag about how far they’ve gone and with whom. It’s hard to keep a secret of this sort in school, but Deenie has one she’s desperate to tell her best friend Lise about. Before she can do that though, Lise has a kind of seizure in class in front of everyone. They’re all shocked and when Lise has another seizure at home hitting her head badly she ends up in hospital. Over the next days several more girls will go ill too with a variety of symptoms including Gabby, Deenie’s other best friend.

It’s not long before worried parents are blaming it on the vaccine – the girls all had their HPV shots shortly before it happened. This rang alarm bells with me (I’m strongly pro-vaccination!). The medics aren’t finding anything though. The girls have another secret apart from their initial forays into sex – four of them, Deenie, Gabby, Lise and Skye went swimming in the lake – the fenced-off lake that’s full of toxic algae. What if something else is causing the illness amongst the girls?  Is the school hiding something?  Gossip, panic and rumour-spreading quickly escalate the situation in this small town, especially when some of the affected girls post videos on social media.

The relationships between the girls are also complicated. Deenie in particular is perplexed by Gabby’s deepening friendship with Skye, who’d previously been a hanger-on to their threesome, she can’t help seeing Skye as taking her friend away from her.

Once again, Abbott proves she can get into teenagers’ brains to chart all their insecurities as they are on the cusp of becoming young women. This time though more than that, she also captures Eli’s confusion as he begins to understand the power that he has as an objection of attraction  and in Tom we see a father watching his children growing up and away from him, proud of them yet sad at the same time.

The drama and tension build up nicely all the way through The Fever and there are plenty of red herrings along the way to distract us from the real cause of what has happened. I read the book is one long sitting which is the perfect way to devour a psychological drama. I will enjoy seeing where Abbott goes next as she ventures towards Gone Girl territory. (9/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
The Feverby Megan Abbott. Pub Picador, July 2014, hardback, 256 pages.

 

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School’s out, summer’s in, time for Panic…

Panic by Lauren Oliver

Panic_HC_JKT_des4.inddScene – a small town in middle America, school’s out for summer. For those who’ve graduated high school, finding a full-time job will be a priority unless you’re one of the lucky few who are off to college. The town of Carp is small and poor – no-one has any money.  But there is one way out… to win ‘Panic’ – the annual top secret knock-out challenge for high school grads, with a pot this year of $67k for the last one standing at the end of the summer.

Lauren Oliver’s new thriller for older teens and up explores the lives of this year’s players – they all have their reasons for wanting the money.  The first challenge is to announce you’re in by jumping from the rocks into the lake at the quarry. Heather only decides at the last minute after she sees her supposed boyfriend snogging another girl.

 “Announce yourself!” Diggin boomed out.
Below Heather, the water, black as oil, was still churning with bodies. She wanted to shout down – move, move, I’m going to hit you – but she couldn’t speak. She could hardly breathe. Her lungs felt like they were being pressed between two stones.
And suddenly she couldn’t think of anything but Chris Heinz, who five years ago drank a fifth of vodka before doing the jump, and lost his footing. The sound his head made as it cracked against the rock was delicate, almost like an egg breaking She remembered the way everyone ran through the woods; the image of his body, broken and limp, lying half-submerged in the water.
“Say your name!” Diggin prompted again, and the crowd picked up the chant: Name, name, name.
She opened her mouth. “Heather,” she croaked out. “Heather Nill.” Her voice broke, got whipped back by the wind.
The chant was still going: Name, name, name, name. Then: Jump, jump, jump, jump.
Her insides were white; filled with snow. Her mouth tasted a little like puke. She took a deep breath. She closed her eyes.
She jumped.

This is the start of a summer that will test Heather, her best friends Nat and Bishop, and outsider Dodge to the limit.  The challenges in Panic are top secret, and announced by coded signs and text messages.  Heather and Nat initially decide to make a pact to share the winnings – half of $67k would be life-changing for either of them – but the pact will put more pressure on the pair rather than lessen it.  Bishop, the girls’ best friend is very quiet about the whole thing, he’s not taking part, just supporting.  Dodge is the surprise element. He’s out for revenge against Ray Hanrahan, whose older brother Luke caused his older sister to be badly injured and crippled in her year.  His best way forward is to side with Heather and Nat for now until the numbers reduce, but he expects Hanrahan to play dirty…

The challenges are all really dangerous – from walking a high-up plank between two water towers, to stealing something from a trigger-happy red-neck’s house amongst them.  The players tend to pull out rather than get taken out, but nasty things do happen.  When it gets down to the last few – anyone who’s seen the films American Graffiti or Rebel Without a Cause can guess what form the final challenge will take – however, who will be doing it?  The police of course, are always one step behind. They know it takes place every year, but the code of secrecy between the players and their friends is solid, the police will only be able to react when something happens.

Despite the severity of the series of challenges they have to go through, there was never quite enough danger for me – but then I am probably more used to the even more full-on goriness of adult thrillers – you have to remember the primary audience for this one. The stakes were high but The Hunger Games it ain’t, thankfully you don’t have to die. Most of the players retire through sheer terror one way or another but this for me downplayed the gladiatorial nature of the game.

The story alternates between Heather and Dodge who have contrasting motivations for playing.  Heather just wants to for her and little sister Lily to be able to escape the trailer park and her slutty mother.  Oliver does succeed in making you care for Heather, but she lacks back-story and is not a complex character, whereas Dodge is more interesting psychologically, although less likeable for it. The tension between Heather and Bishop, the best friends who are obviously made for each other, could have been built up more too. There’s no doubting Heather’s courage and determination once set on her path.

This novel doesn’t dwell on the past – we get few snippets about previous years’ games which again, could have added some more depth and more tension as you imagine what the next challenges could be this year.  It was certainly page-turning in fits and starts, and had its little twists and turns, yet was pretty transparent and predictable. It felt real enough though, bored penniless teenagers looking for thrills – don’t get any ideas! …

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Source: Amazon Vine review copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Panicby Lauren Oliver. Pub March 2014 by Hodder & Stoughton, hardback 408 pages.

 

Be of good cheer! (No, not that type of cheer)…

Dare Me by Megan Abbott

DARE-ME-PBBAn image of pony-tailed cheerleaders is arguably the ultimate cliché when we think of the most popular girls at High School in the USA.  Most teen films portray them as bitchy, and not big on brains. They are there to look like clean-living girls next door, to strike poses, but act like teen temptresses and get first pick of the jocks on the soccer team.

The Cheerleading squad in Megan Abbott’s novel Dare Me are not like that at all. They are fit and lean athletes who train hard every day. They live for cheer, boys are mostly an encumbrance.

Ages fourteen to eighteen, a girl needs something to kill all that time, that endless itchy waiting, every hour, every day for something – anything – to begin.
“There’s something dangerous about the boredom of teenage girls.”
Coach said that once, one fall afternoon long ago, sharp leaves whorling at our feet.
But she said it not like someone’s mom or a teacher or the principal or worst of all like a guidance counselor. She said it like she knew, and understood.

Beth Cassidy is the captain of the squad and her best friend Addy Hanlon is her lieutenant. Everyone wants to be like them, they are admired and feared in equal measure. When a new coach arrives – everything changes.

Coach French wants to take the team to the next level, to raise their game so they can compete in cheerleading competitions.  At first she appears to be the Mary Poppins of coaches ‘practically perfect in every way‘. She’s inspirational, she changes the way the squad works – without a captain. She invites the girls to her house to hang out – they all love her (except Beth).  Coach French really seems to take to Addy, effectively estranging her from Beth – and this, of course, will have consequences, for Beth wants the old order back.

Then someone dies. There is a connection to the coach, and thus the squad, the police begin an investigation. This happens as the girls are making the final push, training for the season’s finale and a performance in front of a talent spotter. The stakes grow ever higher and loyalties are tested to the limits…

The most striking aspect of this novel, apart from the psychothrilling triangle of Addy, Beth and Coach at its heart, is the sheer physicality of it. These girls are serious about cheer. They’re not conventional friends outside of the squad, they’re work colleagues – or soldiers even, assembled into a formidable team whose goal is to support and catch the ‘flyer’ at the top of the pyramid at the climax of their routine. This is something that most people don’t see. As Addy says:

That’s what people never understand: They see us hard little pretty things, brightly lacquered and sequin-studded, and they laugh, they mock, they arouse themselves. They miss everything.
You see, these glitters and sparkle dusts and magicks? It’s warpaint, it’s hair tooth, it’s blood sacrifice.

But it’s more than just training, the higher up the pyramid you are, the lighter you have to be. There are many scenes involving girls throwing up what they’ve just eaten, surviving on just protein shakes and grass juice shots, varying shades of bulimia and anorexia. One scene that stayed with me is not so horrific (perhaps), but very visual:

We get a fat-slicked chocolate-chip muffin, which we heat up in the rotating toaster machine. Standing next to it, the hear radiating off its coils, I imagine myself suffering eternal damnation for sins not yet clear.
But then the muffin pops out, tumbling into my hands. Together, we eat it in long, sticky bites that we do not swallow. No one else is there, so we can do it, and Beth fills tall cups with warm water to make it easier then spit it out after, into our napkins.
When we finish, I feel much better.

NOOOOOO!

Coming back to that central triangle briefly… The novel is narrated by Addy – the sensible one, and it is Addy that is stuck in the middle of a tug-of-war between Beth and Coach. Beth and Coach compete for Addy’s attention, each confiding in her, yet never telling her the whole story to keep her wanting more. It’s psychological warfare – very creepy.

Dare Me is Abbott’s sixth novel. Her first four are all slices of classically styled 1950s noir with strong female leads – I would love to read these, and have heard good things about them. With her fifth novel The End of Everything, she moved into new territory – that of teenage sexual awakening – apparently Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides is a big influence (I really must read that too, the film was fab). I gather that Dare Me is going to be filmed, Natalie Portman has been linked for Coach.

The author has obviously done a lot of research into cheerleading, (you can read about that here). Although it was fascinating (in a horrible way) to read about how a normal cheerleading team become a great one, there was a bit much of the cheer which didn’t allow the psychodrama enough space to breathe. This also meant that the only two male characters of any note in the book were too mysterious, even by the end – and they are crucial to the plot. Abbott is clearly an author to watch, and although this book wasn’t quite a hit for me, it was well worth reading. (7.5/10)

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Source: Review copy from Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Dare Meby Megan Abbott, pub Picador (2012), paperback, 320 pages.
The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

YA books and sex!

I wasn’t going to write a post featuring the book below as it was a DNF (Did not finish) for me, but it did raise questions and I wanted to ask your opinions, especially after I heard someone calling for debate on lowering the age of consent to 15 on the radio this morning …

My daughter, now 13, is getting into reading teen romances and has been a fan of Meg Cabot’s Princess Diaries series, and Louise Rennison’s Georgia Nicholson diaries for a year or two now. I’m always on the lookout for new authors to introduce to her and came across the following book on a review list – the text description said 12+ …

When it happens by Susane Colasanti

when it happensThis is a book about a girl who is looking to find love – and has a clear idea of who will fit the bill, but ends up falling for the complete opposite. Set in NYC, senior year of high school, with the Battle of the Bands as a backdrop.

When it arrived there was a sticker on the front cover saying ‘Contains explicit content’. I visited the UK publisher’s website and there it says 14+, so I started to read the book to see what that was. I made it about a third of the way through, and skimmed the rest.

I found there was a lot of sex talk and it seemed that most of the characters were only after one thing which was more to do ‘it’ – sex, rather than find ‘it’ – love, although being a teen romance, that true love is found too in the end. OK – they are all in their senior year at High School, so the place is likely to be seething with sex, but there are references to girls doing it since they were 14 etc. Within the first few chapters, Sara, the virginal lead character was getting instruction on how to put a condom on – educational, yes, but any romance was spoiled.

Definitely one for older teens I thought.

Contrast that with …

Billy and Me by Giovanna Fletcher

billy and me

The debut chicklit novel by the wife of McFly’s Tom. It’s about a young woman coming to terms with being the girlfriend of a teen heartthrob actor and the scrutiny that she as the WAG is exposed to. It’s pure fluff – chaste and charming, yet it is specifically marketed as chicklit.

I got sent a copy by Penguin (thank you), and after my 16yr old niece recommended it, I was more than happy to let Juliet read it, and she enjoyed it too.

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I love reading YA fiction for myself now, but I usually stick to books with a fantastical element of some kind.  As a teenager, I went straight from children’s books to adult titles – there were few written for teens in the 1970s, but I got largely sucked into science fiction then.  The only romances I read as a teenager were the Regency ones of Georgette Heyer – so this is a new area for me, and I have to admit…

I’M CONFUSED!

Naturally, I want to encourage my daughter to explore and find books she wants to read for herself, (with just the occasional nudge from me). I don’t want to censor her reading – I think she has good taste in that regard, but I want to canvass your opinions too.

How is it that a teen book can be more explicit than chicklit?
Can you recommend any good teen authors who deal with sex in a less in your face way?
Or, am I too prudish and worrying too much?
Do share your thoughts!  Thank you.

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To find out more on Amazon UK, please click below:
When It Happens by Susane Colasanti, Scholastic paperback.
Billy and Me by Giovanna Fletcher, Penguin paperback

Gone Girl meets The Secret History – not quite, but a good try

Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberly McCreight

Amelia

When a novel sets itself up on the front cover to be compared to Gone Girl (my review here), and in other places I’ve seen it compared to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, it raises the bar rather high…

Kate is a hard-working lawyer and single mum to teenage daughter Amelia, who appears to have been doing alright at her posh Brooklyn high school, despite her workaholic mum’s absences, and not knowing who her father is. When she is at home, Kate tries really hard and she and Amelia have a good relationship but, as she will find out, she has no idea at all of what’s going on in her daughter’s life, until one tragic day.

On that day, Kate is about to start one of the biggest presentations of her career, when she gets a call from her daughter’s school.  Amelia, the hard-studying, academic, over-achieving student has been suspended for plagiarising an essay about Virginia Woolf, and Kate is required to collect her pronto.  By the time Kate arrives, having got delayed in the subway, Amelia is dead.  They say she jumped off the school roof.

It’s not until a couple of months later that Kate is together enough to question things, and when she receives an anonymous text that matches her own instincts – Amelia didn’t jump, she persuades the police to reopen the investigation. Gradually Kate, and Detective Lew Thompson will piece together what happened, as layer upon layer of secrets and lies are exposed. No-one, it seems, is squeaky clean – teachers, parents, pupils, friends, or colleagues, and the school is awash with teenagers exploring their sexuality, secret clubs and bullying.

The story mainly alternates between Kate and Amelia’s voices through flashbacks. Kate’s chapters are mostly in the present as she investigates her daughter’s life. Her past sections are from 1997, when she as a promising young lawyer got pregnant. Amelia’s chapters are all from the months preceding her death, and they include her text messages and Facebook statuses. The only times we don’t hear from Kate or Amelia are blog posts from the school’s anonymously authored scandal sheet.

I predicted the key ending early on, but other developments were less telegraphed, and there were some genuine surprises.  Although Kate was being put through the wringer with everything that happened, and for a mother losing a child is such a tragedy, I found Kate’s need for validation that she wasn’t really a bad mother a little tiring.  I was more interested in Amelia’s story and finding out the identities of secret texters and bloggers.

Despite the book being based around a high school, there is too much sex and swearing to recommend this as a YA novel, but it should appeal to slightly older New Adult readers.  I enjoyed it too, but it’s not in the same league as those other two page-turners I mentioned back at the top. (7/10)

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Source: Review copy from publisher – Thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberley McCreight, Simon & Schuster paperback 2013, 380 pages.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn