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REVIEW:  Sea of Tranquility by Katja Millay

REVIEW: Sea of Tranquility by Katja Millay

Dear Katja Millay:

Sea of Tranquility is about a high school senior who moves in with her aunt about two hours from her hometown. Her transfer to a new high school is intentional. She wants to remove herself from everyone who knows her and everyone she knows. She doesn’t speak. Her parents agreed to this plan because the girl hasn’t spoken in nearly two years and they are desperate for her to be “better.”

She dresses up as goth girl barbie: tight fitting clothes and a ton of makeup. Her goal is to alienate everyone and be left alone. (I didn’t understand that if she wanted to be antisocial why she would choose to dress in stilettos and skirts that barely covered her ass. These were attention seeking outfits and even at the end when Nastya was being fully honest with herself, this wasn’t addressed).

At the age of 15, Nastya Kashnikov was nearly beaten to death by another boy when she was walking home from school.  The reason why she does not know. He’s never been caught.  Nastya believes that she died and now she is this other being; the one without a dream of Julliard.  Barely able to make it through the night without nightmares; barely able to walk through the day without terror, Nastya writes down her assault every night believing it keeps her sane.  Her intent was to be alone but at her new school she is inexorably drawn to Josh Bennett.

Josh is an emancipated 17 year old boy who is best friends with a popular jock but interacts with almost no one else.  Nastya is intrigued by his solitude during school, the respect the students seem to pay him, and his almost force field like ability to keep everyone at bay. One night she goes running and ends up at his house where she finds Josh woodworking during the midnight hours.  When he doesn’t make her leave, she keeps returning.  He doesn’t understand why she is there, but the mystery of her makes it impossible for him to turn her away. Josh is an incredibly lonely young man. In some ways he is more nihilistic than Nastya but in others far more optimistic and open.

Other students play fairly large roles in the story.  Drew, Josh’s best friend, is an unrepentant man whore but becomes close friends with Nastya.  Sarah, Drew’s sister, is one of the evolving mean girls at school.  Nastya reluctantly becomes the subject of a amateur student photographer. There is a sort of Breakfast Club feel to it.  No one is exactly who they appear on the outside.  Drew isn’t just the manwhore.  Sarah’s anger toward life stems from resentment toward Drew that is only acknowledged late in the book.

What I liked so much about this book was how it was brought home for me.  Nastya acknowledges that she had been wallowing in self pity for three years instead of healing.  Josh makes a tough decision regarding Nastya and his relationship, one that is very mature.  Drew and Sarah’s secrets are revealed and make them three dimensional. The characters, even the villain, were nuanced.

The biggest problem is in the pacing. It takes a while to lift off, but I felt like the characters were very genuine. They talked about tough issues such as the existence of God, forgiveness, healing. Even though I chafed at the pace, in retrospect I am not sure what to cut. I would have missed reading out on some scenes. I do recommend the book, but I recommend it with caveats that it is slow and takes some time to delve into the characters’ point of view.

While the characters are in their teens, this definitely had a New Adult feel to it, in part because there is almost no parental involvement. Josh, as I stated above, is emancipated and Nastya’s aunt works nights, leaving the two alone together for large swaths of time. It was an emotionally satisfying book in large part due to the ending. There is no cliffhanger here. B

Best regards,

Jane

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REVIEW: Beautiful Disaster by Jamie McGuire

REVIEW: Beautiful Disaster by Jamie McGuire

Dear Ms. McGuire:

Angela James loaned this book to me and I went on to purchase my own copy ($1.99 using the Kobodollaroff coupon). This book is often recommended on the goodreads forums and it is highly rated. I totally understand the appeal because it is a very readable book plus I think that there are hookable elements such as a fantastical ideal of the bad boy who transforms for one person only. The voice of the author is compelling and her command of the characters make the book seem all the more real. The reason that it is disturbing is the fairly positive light in which this dangerous and dysfunctional relationship is portrayed. In real life or as an exemplar of a healthy relationship, this is a terrible book. It’s a book that you want to talk about with your daughter if she reads it. There may be triggers ahoy for those sensitive to physical abuse.

beautiful disaster jamie mcguireAbigail Abernathy attends an illegal fight in the bowels of her university early on in her freshman year. There she catches the attention of fighter Travis Maddox (whom I believe is a junior). They come into more frequent contact as a result of her best friend, America, dating Shephley (Shep), Travis’ cousin. Travis and Shep live in an apartment off campus and when the dorm showers break down, America and Abby move into the apartment.

Travis immediately attaches himself to Abby but he’s a man whore, bringing home any number of women after drunken binges. Abby recognizes that Travis is bad news right away, particularly given her past, and she agrees to be friends only with Travis.

Travis leaned so close that I could feel his breath on my cheek. “I’m sorry…did I offend you in some way?”

I sighed and shook my head.

“Then what is your problem?”

I kept my voice low. “I’m not sleeping with you. You should give up, now.”

A slow smile crept across his face before he spoke. “I haven’t asked you sleep with me,” his eyes drifted to the ceiling in thought, “have I?”

“I’m not a Barbie twin or one of your little groupies up there,” I said, glancing at the girls behind us. “I’m not impressed with your tattoos, or your boyish charm, or your forced indifference, so you can stop the antics, okay?

Travis is determined that they should be friends and Abby is helpless against Travis’ charisma.  The flirty exchanges between Travis and Abby are very cute.  Their relationship, however, to any one looking on the outside is more of a girlfriend / boyfriend. Abby sleeps with Travis in his bed, platonically. They spend almost every minute together when they aren’t in classes.  Travis worships Abby and demands every one treat her respectfully, even though he has little respect for other women.

While Travis is taking home a different girl every night, Abby starts seeing Parker, a wealthy pre med kid, who happens to be Travis’ fraternity brother.  Abby’s on again/off again relationship with Parker might drive readers crazy but I saw it as a defense mechanism.  How else could she prevent herself for falling for Travis?

I loved the setting of this book at Eastern University and Abby, Mare, Shep, and Travis felt authentically college aged to me, full of self confidence and invincibility but without the responsibilities and worries that post college brings. Eastern U must be a tiny college, though, given that it seems everyone eats lunch at the cafeteria at the same time. In some respects, this setting resembled a high school more than a large university. The dialogue was engaging and fresh. Shep warns Abby off, saying that her having a one night with Travis will lead to Shep and Mare breaking up:

“This isn’t my first rodeo, Mare. Do you know how many times he’s screwed things up for me because he one-nights the best friend? All of a sudden it’s a conflict of interest to date me because it’s fraternizing with the enemy! I’m tellin’ ya, Abby,” he looked at me, “don’t tell Mare she can’t come over or date me because you fall for Trav’s line of BS. Consider yourself warned.”

The interaction between the four was really well done and displayed the volatility of youthful romance.

I didn’t feel that Abby’s past was fleshed out enough to provide a basis for her refusal to date Travis.  It would have been easy to understand her refusal to date him based on his seeming inability to treat woman as anything other than objects but instead her refusal to date him was based on the idea that she was bad for him. Yet, this is a guy who went insane after Abby left him:

“He took a swing at Shep when he found out we helped you leave. Abby! Please tell me!” she pleaded, her eyes glossing over. “It’s scaring me!”

The fear in her eyes forced only the partial truth. “I just couldn’t say goodbye. You know it’s hard for me.”

“It’s something else, Abby. He’s gone fucking nuts! I heard him call your name, and then he stomped all over the apartment looking for you. He barged into Shep’s room, demanding to know where you were. Then he tried to call you. Over, and over and over,” she sighed. “His face was…Jesus, Abby. I’ve never seen him like that.

“He ripped his sheets off the bed, and threw them away, threw his pillows away, shattered his mirror with his fist, kicked his door…broke it from the hinges! It was the scariest thing I’ve ever seen in my life!”

There were a number of unbelievable elements such as Travis being not only the bad boy, but a card carrying member of a popular fraternity. He smokes, is an incredible instinctive fighter, never trains, drinks constantly, drives a motorcycle, and is so brilliant he doesn’t need to study. He doesn’t even run or lift weights or engage in any kind of physical activity other than fight occasionally (and even that is not on a regular basis). At one point, he even sings in the cafeteria getting everyone to sing along with him.  His charisma is just that amazing.   Abby is an even more shallow character. We know only that she wants to remake herself in college but into what, I don’t believe if even Abby knows which would be fine except that eventually Travis becomes her whole world.

Travis’ default reaction to everything is violence, no matter the danger in which might place Abby.

Travis barreled his way onto the dance floor, and plunged his fist straight into the pirate’s face, the force sending both of us to the ground. With my palms flat on the wooden floor, I blinked my eyes in stunned disbelief. Feeling something warm and wet on my hand, I turned it over and recoiled. It was covered in blood from the man’s nose. His hand was cupped over his face, but the bright red liquid poured down his forearm as he writhed on the floor.

Travis scrambled to pick me up, seeming as shocked as I was. “Oh shit! Are you all right, Pidge?”

When I got to my feet, I yanked my arm from his grip. “Are you insane?”

America grabbed my wrist and pulled me through the crowd to the parking lot. Shepley unlocked his doors and after I slid into my seat, Travis turned to me.

“I’m sorry, Pigeon, I didn’t know he had a hold of you.”

“Your fist was two inches from my face!” I said, catching the oil-stained towel Shepley had thrown at me. I wiped the blood from my hand, revolted.

The seriousness of the situation darkened his face and he winced. “I wouldn’t have swung if I thought I could have hit you. You know that right?”

 He is a scary guy who views everyone as a threat and every situation as a potential fight.  Abby encourages this for all her protestations otherwise.  Later in the book she tells Travis to teach another guy a lesson in manners and Travis goes over and beats the hell out of said guy.

“Did you mean it when you said you didn’t want me to change?” he asked, squeezing my hand.

I looked down at Chris laughing to his teammates, and then turned to Travis. “Absolutely. Teach that asshole some manners.”

….

Travis lifted Finch’s tray off the table and swung it into Chris’ face, knocking him off his chair. Chris tried to scramble under the table, but Travis pulled him out by his legs, and then began to wail on him.

Chris curled into a ball, and then Travis kicked him in the back. Chris arched and turned, holding his hands out, allowing Travis to land several punches to his face. The blood began to flow, and Travis stood up, winded.

“If you even look at her you piece of shit, I’ll break your fuckin’ jaw!” Travis yelled. I winced when he kicked Chris in the leg one last time.

In some ways, Abby is more of a possession than a person to Travis.  Abby chastises him for acting like he is marking her, peeing on her leg (figuratively), yet despite all the warnings, this is where Abby wants to be.

This book, for its flaws, is compulsively readable. While reading the book, it is easy to get caught up in the fantasy of it and the romanticism of Travis’ strength of feeling for Abby but at the end, you are left with this uneasiness because Travis doesn’t change. He’s still the uber violent rage monster that he was in the start of the book who is routinely destroying things and then asking for forgiveness and Abby is the very young woman who keeps forgiving him.  C

Best regards,

Jane

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