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REVIEW:  Torn Away by Jennifer Brown

REVIEW: Torn Away by Jennifer Brown

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Dear Ms. Brown,

Some days I get in the mood for what I call “wallow” reads. Books that are emotionally wrenching and send you through the ringer. I can’t read novels like that all the time but going through the cathartic process of loss, grief, and recovery is nice once in a while.

For Jersey, living in the Midwest means that you get used to hearing the tornado sirens. You learn what to do when they sound. But knowing in theory is different from knowing in reality and Jersey learns that firsthand when a huge tornado levels her town.

Jersey loses everything. Her house is destroyed. Her mother and half-sister are killed. Her stepfather falls headfirst into a downward spiral that leaves him unable to take care of Jersey. As a result, she’s uprooted and sent to live with relatives she barely knows. The situation is less than ideal and now she has to learn to live again, rather than merely exist.

I will say that this book is one of the most accurate portrayals of a teenager going through the grieving process. Jersey is not always nice. Sometimes she does and says awful things. But I felt her pain acutely and understood where she was coming from, at all times. Kudos for that.

I admit I was really pissed at Ronnie, Jersey’s stepfather. I kept rooting for him to climb out of that black hole he fell into, to step up and do the right thing but spoiler, everyone, that doesn’t happen. It’s just a terrible thing to do to a child, saying that he’s can stand to be around her because she reminds him too much of her mother. It’s not that I don’t understand what happened. He loved Jersey’s mother so much that he couldn’t imagine life without her so her death destroyed him, but there’s truth in Jersey’s observation that he would never have done the same to her half-sister, who is his biological daughter.

Ronnie’s abandonment is further worsened in my eyes when he sends Jersey to live with her biological father. It’s not like he didn’t know her biological father wasn’t bad news — drunk all the time, abusive, and in and out of jail. To make matters worse, the entire family was like that. Because I wanted Jersey to pick up the pieces of her life and heal, I hoped that she’d find a way to make the situation work. I still felt that way even as all signs pointed to that never happening because her father’s family is just too broken.

During this section of the book, I was a little terrified that Jersey would be stuck with these terrible people. As her family life kept deteriorating, I worried that she would have to settle and be numb. I think that’s a compliment to the writing skill here since I wanted Jersey to have a happy ending when so many in her life had, and were continuing to fail, her.

I thought it was interesting that the book explored the different facets of a person. Jersey knew her mother in only one light. Then she discovered some ugly truths courtesy of her father’s family, and then later from her maternal grandparents. It’s hard to learn these facts in the wake of a horrible loss but in some ways, it’s good because Jersey was so close to putting her mother and little sister on untouchable pedestals during her grief. On the other hand, I thought the book didn’t do quite enough with it. It felt like it should have taken up a bit more of the book and the fact that it didn’t was a disappointing.

This isn’t a book that I’d recommend to everyone. It’s heartwrenching in spots and the portrayal of grief is so spot-on that it hurts to read sometimes. But if you’re in the mood for something like that, then Torn Away is worth a try. B

My regards,
Jia

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REVIEW:  The Dare by Hannah Jayne

REVIEW: The Dare by Hannah Jayne

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Dear Ms. Jayne,

I’m fond of YA thrillers. I think it’s because I grew up on Lois Duncan and Christopher Pike. In fact, I still think of the earlier Christopher Pike books with nostalgia (Remember Me!) even though I’m not so keen on his later work. The Dare is a throwback to those old-school YA thrillers, WTF moments and all.

Brynna, the protagonist of The Dare, is a recovering hot mess. There’s no other way to put it. One night, Brynna dared her best friend, Erica, to jump into the ocean. Because Erica balked at the prospect, she agreed to jump in with her. Unfortunately, only Brynna came back and Erica’s body was never found.

Unable to deal with the guilt of losing her best friend because of her dare and the ensuing rumors, Bryn turned to drugs and alcohol and plunged into a destructive downward spiral. After a stint in rehab, her family moved so she could have a fresh start in a new place and new high school. Bryn immediately finds a new group of friends and settles into her new life, but then she starts receiving threatening messages that suggest Erica might not be dead after all.

Wow, this novel was strongly reminiscent of Lois Duncan’s thrillers. I was really reminded of I Know What You Did Last Summer. The only difference, of course, is that Bryn didn’t kill Erica. It was just an accident. She didn’t hit someone with her car and she didn’t actually try to conceal what happened. The only deception that occurred was her reticence about revealing her past to her newfound friends and that’s reasonable. No one, teenager or adult, wants to unload something major on people they just met.

I’ve of two minds about Bryn’s newfound friends. I like the fact that she wasn’t bullied for being the new girl. On the other hand, it seems awfully convenient that the cool kids adopt her into their crowd at first sight. I guess we’re supposed to accept this good fortune as whimsy but I had a hard time buying it. It was just so easy. Bryn barely said hello and suddenly she’s assimilated into their group.

I think part of my dissatisfaction comes from the fact that the relationships were barely delved into. They followed familiar patterns. The leader of the group adopts her but there’s nothing going on there because he’s gay. The hot guy of the group likes her and another girl in the group isn’t too happy about this because she has feelings for him. That said, I think these kinds of relationships are fine in fiction. Are they original? No. But they’re familiar to readers, and I get that. Unfortunately, that also means they need to be executed well and not used as lazy shorthand. I felt The Dare does more of the latter than the former.

Having grown up on all those old school YA thrillers, I thought the culprit was pretty obvious. There’s a pattern to these things. Maybe other readers don’t feel the same. I do question some of the red herrings, particularly those tossed in at the end. (Such as: What’s a couple of roofies between friends? Really? This is what we choose to go with?)

It’s because of those red herrings and crisis moments towards the end, when Bryn finds herself isolated, that I find the resolution so hard to believe. It falls flat. Mostly because if you don’t make me believe in the strength of those friendships, and show those relationships breaking under a stalker’s outside influence, why would I believe things will be sunshine and roses at the end? Instead of being believable, I found the ending — and especially the final line — to be eyeroll-inducing.

The Dare is a throwback to those old school YA thrillers where someone was after the protagonist, stalking them, endangering their life and ruining their reputation. I think 14-year-old me would have liked this book but the me-of-now wants a little more depth in character relationships for me to care. C-

My regards,
Jia

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