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REVIEW:  Slammed by Colleen Hoover

REVIEW: Slammed by Colleen Hoover

Please note that there are major plot spoilers throughout this review.

 

Dear Ms. Hoover,

I’ve been trying to keep a lookout for new YA books to try, so when NetGalley touted this book and its sequel in an email, I requested the titles. Unfortunately, I don’t think these books are really what I’m looking for in YA: a compelling novel intended for a teen audience but sophisticated enough to appeal to older readers as well.

Slammed by Colleen HooverAs the story opens, Layken Cohen is on the final leg of a road trip, moving with her mother and 9-year-old brother Kel from Texas to Ypsilanti, Michigan. The move is necessitated by the recent and sudden death of Layken’s beloved father. Her mother has been offered a job in Michigan that would pay much better than any she could get in Texas, and the family financial situation is such that she doesn’t have the option of turning it down.

Layken has just turned 18 and is about to start her senior year in high school. She is not happy about the move – she’s leaving everything familiar to come to an alien (and cold!) place. Her mood is almost immediately lightened upon arrival at their new house when she meets Will, a neighbor whose younger brother becomes fast friends with Kel. Layken and Will fall fast for each other; after a handful of encounters, one date and about a week of elapsed time, both are already quite moony. Then Layken goes for her first day of school and discovers that Will is her poetry teacher.

Well, that’s a bummer.

What follows is a lot of push-pull “we can’t/we must” business on both of their parts. Will is 21 and has been responsible for his younger brother since their parents were killed in an accident when he was 18. He is interning as a teacher while he finishes his degree, and he really needs the money (and also needs not to have his planned career ruined by allegations of an inappropriate relationship with a student). He puts a stop to the burgeoning relationship and tries really hard to do the right thing but apparently the attraction between him and Layken is just so overwhelming; living across the street from each other, having brothers who are best friends and seeing each other at school every day doesn’t really help either of them develop the needed distance.

The title is a riff on Will’s interest in poetry slams. I was confused by the fact that nobody in the book seems to have heard of poetry slams; maybe they’ve been around so long they sort of died out and are making a comeback? I don’t know. But, anyway, Will’s into them, big time: on his first date with Layken he takes her to a club that features poetry slams on Thursday nights, and subsequently he makes his students a deal: to attend and perform at the slam and they can skip the class final.

I thought most of the poetry performed at the slams was pretty bad. Granted, maybe they would be more powerful to actually see live, but on paper they came off as all having a distinct formula, regardless of the performer or subject: 1) write a short monologue on some horrible trauma in your life; 2) perform monologue in a loud, staccato, rhythmic style, emphasizing random words for unclear reasons. It would be okay for them to be bad if the characters didn’t constantly react like each one was the most brilliant thing they’d ever heard.

It took a long time for me to get a feel for either Layken or Will; at first, both of them seemed relentlessly bland and lacking in personality. Layken supposedly misses Texas and can’t wait to move back after she graduates, but we never hear what she misses about it. She didn’t seem to have much of a life there – she went to a small school, and appears not to have had many friends (she had one best friend whom she mentions a couple of times as barely having talked to since she moved). It’s fine that she wasn’t a social butterfly, but the lack of detail, the lack of history contributes to the featureless, bland vibe she gives off as a character.

To make it worse, when Layken does show some personality, it’s usually when she’s expressing anger, which is often. I certainly have known 18-year-olds who are still given to teenage-girl histrionics of the “I hate you!” punctuated-by-a-slammed-door variety. I just don’t necessarily want to read about them, especially not as a first-person heroine. I think one of the challenges for me as an older reader trying to find good YA books is this: I want to read about characters who are relatively mature for their ages, but not unrealistically so.

Layken’s immaturity made the relationship with Will more problematic for me than it might have otherwise been; 18 and 21 isn’t necessarily a big deal, 18 and 21 and a teacher/student power imbalance is kind of a big deal, and immature 18 with mature 21 on top of that is heading towards being potentially icky. I kind of wondered what Will saw in Layken (well, I wondered what they saw in each other, at least during the early instant-attraction phase, since neither seemed that interesting; later they do bond over a number of heavy burdens that made their attachment to each other more realistic).

Midway through the book, another tragedy strikes. It really felt like too much to me. Layken’s dad, Will’s parents, Layken’s new best friend Eddie’s hard-luck story of an abusive mother and foster care placement, and now this? These are definitely the unluckiest young adults in Ypsilanti. I’ll spoiler tag this one:

[spoiler]Layken’s mom, who has been acting mysterious (Layken thinks she has a boyfriend and is predictably enraged) turns out to have terminal lung cancer. Layken is a huge asshole about this, initially refusing to speak to her mother (she goes over to Will’s and spends the night, platonically, in his bed, after hearing the news), then, when they do speak, becoming furious again about her mother’s plans to have a family friend raise Kel. (Gee, I can’t imagine why she wouldn’t want Layken to do it!) I get that she’s suffering a lot of stress; and I know firsthand that people don’t always react the way you want them to when someone is dying. But the selfishness, while it lasts (she does eventually snap out of it, though she doesn’t go so far as to apologize, or anything) was just so monstrous to me. That’s your mother. Your dying mother. Show some compassion and understanding.Also, it becomes pretty clear that Layken will be orphaned at 18 and raising her nine year old brother, just like Will, which was just too fantastically coincidental for me.[/spoiler]

An action of Will’s late in the book brings my opinion of him down a notch, too – he reacts with over-the-top and inappropriate jealousy when he thinks Layken is kissing another guy. I think the point was to show his intense passion for Layken, but all it did was make a previously stable character look kind of unhinged. Overall, the characterization of Will was inconsistent and didn’t quite ring true.

I did find Slammed progressively more compelling; towards the end I was pretty involved in the story, even if I had issues with both the characters and some of the plot points. For that reason, my final grade for it is a B-.

Best regards,

Jennie

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REVIEW:  Flutter by Gina Linko

REVIEW: Flutter by Gina Linko

Jia’s preface: The majority of this review is spoiler-free but I would be remiss if I didn’t discuss the end of this novel because I know it’ll be a dealbreaker for many readers. I’ll put that discussion under a spoiler tag, however, so just don’t click it if you want to remain unspoiled.

Dear Ms. Linko,

I went into your debut novel with no expectations. In fact, I’d say I started reading it with only the barest inkling of what it was about — something to do with a girl who could time travel and her trying to unravel the mystery of her ability. Time travel isn’t my favorite SF trope but I was intrigued so I decided to give it a go. I don’t regret that decision for the most part, but I will say the ending left me feeling nonplussed.

flutterEmery Land has suffered from seizures for the majority of her life. Or rather, she suffers from episodes that look like seizures. In reality, they’re what she calls loops. During these events, Emery goes somewhere else. In other words, she believes she passes through a wormhole and can travel to either the future or past. She has no control over this ability, and even worse it’s killing her.

As a result, Emery no longer goes to school and spends most of her time in the hospital where she’s assigned a large team of doctors to look after her welfare. You’d think this would be a good thing. Alas, it’s not. The doctors, along with her father, dismiss her time travel theory and treat her more like a science experiment than a patient. Good bedside manner is not one of their strongpoints at all.

When Emery finally can take no more, she escapes from the hospital and travels to a small town named Esperanza. Esperanza was mentioned during one of her loops, and she believes it holds the key to explaining what’s happening to her. There, she meets a young man named Ash who is trying to atone for something he did in his past. But it turns out the two are connected in ways neither could anticipate.

I really felt for Emery. She just wanted a normal life. It’s bad enough having to spend most of your life in the hospital. That’s already a major crisis, especially for a teenager. It’s worse when your seizures are linked to something beyond the ordinary. Even if the doctors don’t believe that she time travels, they do believe it’s some sort of psychic ability. I admit I had a hard time with this in the beginning. They had problems believing in the possibility of time travel but clairvoyance and ESP is perfectly within the realms of normalcy? Really? This discrepancy does get explained towards the end of the novel, but it’s initially bizarre.

I also thought Emery’s relationship with her father was tragic. Instead of worrying about his daughter’s deteriorating condition, he intends to use the findings from her tests to propel himself to scientific fame. That’s cold and cruel. For the majority of the novel, there’s a glimmer of hope due to conversations Emery has with a man she believes to be her father in the future while she loops, but even those get squashed in the end. It’s a hard truth, and I mourned for Emery that she didn’t have any familial support at all. I know we criticize the lack of parental presence in YA novels constantly but this wasn’t like what we normally see. Emery’s father is present but rather than being absent or negligent, he’s actively working against her best interests.

The truth about the nature of Emery’s condition was cleverly masked. There are many red herrings that I didn’t start to realize the truth until the second half of the novel. The narrative is an excellent example of relying upon the reader to jump to the obvious conclusion. The little boy Emery encounters during her loops? Of course it’s Ash in the past! Who else could it be?

The story gripped me for most of the book and I couldn’t read fast enough. I wanted to learn more about the mystery of Emery’s loops and the images that she sees. The romance between Emery and Ash was believable and not forced. It didn’t take over the YA plot like in so many other stories but instead is intrinsic and organic to the plot. But in the final pages of the novel, I thought we started to go off the rails a bit. In some ways I do think the ending was inevitable. In other ways I thought it was a cop out and a letdown.

Readers who wish to remain unspoiled, stop reading now. I reveal the end of the book beneath the spoiler cut.

Spoiler (ending spoiler): Show

So we learn the truth about Emery’s condition and discover she is not, in fact, time traveling. But it’s not psychic phenomenon either. It’s something else entirely and her father and the doctors assigned to her case know all about it and are intentionally keeping it secret from her. The reveal was a little out there but I thought it was interesting and wanted to see where the narrative would take us from there. By the time it is explicitly revealed, there weren’t many pages left in the novel so I wanted to see how it’d all resolve.

What I didn’t expect was this:

Ash dies. And Emery follows him, finally succumbing to the fatal damage her seizures have wrought upon her body.

It’s a downer ending but one I think we, as readers, are meant to take as uplifting and comforting because Ash and Emery reunite in the afterlife. I definitely get the message that it’s trying to convey. That we may part with our loved ones in this world, but that we’ll meet them again in the next one. But if a person doesn’t believe in the idea of an afterlife and a heaven, I don’t know how they’d react to this ending. I’m generally ambivalent about the concept myself so I had no idea how to take this.

Even though the ending left me feeling a little unsettled, I did genuinely enjoy this novel. Emery’s emotional journey rang true, especially as she grappled with the idea of carpe diem. So because of that, I’m interested in seeing what you write next. As for a grade, I probably would have given this a B/B+ based on the first three-quarters of the novel but that ending brings it down to a B-.

My regards,
Jia

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