Skinny: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“I know what they think because she whispers their thoughts into my ear. I can hear them. Clearly. Constantly.

“‘If I ever look like that, just kill me.’

Her name is Skinny.”

Skinny by Donna CoonerSkinny has been the voice in Ever’s head for years. She showed up after Ever’s mother died and she started to gain weight. In the years since then, Skinny has only gotten worse–always quick to share the nasty thoughts everyone has for the pathetically fat girl.

Ever is fifteen years old and 302 pounds.

After one too many embarrassments at school, and far too many hopes being drowned out by Skinny’s poison, Ever makes a life-changing decision to undergo gastric bypass surgery–a risky procedure that could finally help Ever regain control of her weight provided she doesn’t fall victim to any of the dangerous complications.

As Ever starts to lose weight she allows herself to imagine a different life for herself: one where people don’t notice her because of her weight but because of her magnificent singing voice. One where she isn’t always on the periphery, alone.

But even as that life starts to seem possible, Skinny is still there telling Ever each and every thing that’s still wrong with her. If Ever really wants to take center stage in her own life, she’ll have to confront the toxic voice in her head first in Skinny (2012) by Donna Cooner.

Skinny is Crooner’s first novel. A gastric bypass patient herself, Skinny is also partially inspired by Crooner’s own experiences with the procedure.

Novels about characters with body image issues are hard. They are hard to read and they are hard to write. With such a fraught topic, everyone is going to have baggage of some sort that will affect their reading of the story. Having been overweight myself in high school,  I’m no exception. I was very wary going into Skinny, unsure of what to expect or how I would feel about what I read.

At 272 pages (hardcover), Skinny is a short book. For that reason, I’m willing to let a lot of things slide. The quick transition from Ever’s daily life to Ever getting the surgery. The abrupt shift from fat girl to not fat girl. Even the piecemeal information presented about life after the procedure.*

The story picks up after the surgery when Ever, with Rat’s invaluable assistance, starts the long process of recovery. I love a story where a character has to learn to re-engage with the world. And if anyone needs to re-engage, it’s Ever. Watching her subtle changes in self-perception and interaction with people at school is satisfying storytelling at its best.

That said, Skinny does have its share of frustrating moments.** While Ever’s transformation feels authentic (to the point that it reminded me of what it was like when I was heavier in high school), the sequence of events bothered me. We always know that Ever is going to have the surgery–it’s key to the plot and the story’s forward motion. It is important for Ever’s health. All of that is fine.

The problem comes when all of Ever’s friends and acquaintances start to interact with her and tell her how great she is as a person after she starts to lose weight. Everyone claims they liked Ever before but, with the notable exception of Rat, no one else makes an effort to stay close to Ever–in a sense not even her own family–when Ever is heavy.***

Skinny‘s strength is in Ever and her voice throughout the story. With a passion for musicals and a love of the stories they tell, Ever is a multi-faceted character. She is never just a fat girl and I appreciated that as a reader. Characterization of Ever’s best friend, Rat (who is fantastic in a mad genius/juvenile delinquent kind of way) and family are also handled well. (I was especially fond of the quirky small town Ever calls home and would have loved a bit more about the setting throughout the story.)

With a school musical sub-plot and just the barest hints of romance, Skinny is a strong, entertaining book ideal for readers looking for a novel with an emphasis on the “young” instead of the “adult” in “young adult.”

Possible Pairings: The Sweetheart of Prosper County by Jill S. Alexander, North of Beautiful by Justina Chen, Take a Bow by Elizabeth Eulberg, Fly on the Wall by E. Lockhart, Fix by Leslie Margolis, Fracture by Megan Miranda, My Big Nose and Other (Natural) Disasters by Sydney Salter, How To Say Goodbye in Robot by Natalie Standiford, Drama by Raina Telgemeier

*It wasn’t really key to the plot but I would have liked more consistent information about what Ever needed to do post-op. Ever is mostly in a daze reading all of the information to avoid overwhelming readers with extraneous text but I am still left wondering how the surgery is going to impact Ever’s life further down the line.

**Early on, Ever comments that there are no musical parts for overweight girls. And, I mean, that is partially true in that most plays do not make a point of mentioning a characters weight. But it also ignores Hairspray! And, worse, saying there are no parts for overweight girls feels tantamount to saying there are no parts for tall girls or Asian girls or dark-haired girls, etc. I know part of this was Ever’s own self-esteem issues but, come on. Musicals are tweaked all the time to accommodate actors who may not fit the “traditional” perception of a character’s appearance. Crooner also laid in a lot of details to suggest that Ever’s weight problem ties back to her own mother’s weight issues but these breadcrumbs never lead to a big revelation–instead they just sit there and Ever confronts Skinny without addressing what might be the underlying problem.

***Granted, Ever’s own self-esteem and image issues are obviously at work in pushing people away. But I would have really liked just one other character to tell Ever she was okay and lovable without the surgery. (It isn’t this novel’s fault, but I really don’t think there are enough books in the world with positive, engaged, characters who fall outside normative body shapes. Skinny begins to hint at that but the novel is practically finished by then. And thanks to the surgery, Ever is much more closer to those norms herself.)

*This book was acquired for review from the publisher at BEA 2012*

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Specials: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Specials by Scott WesterfeldIn a futuristic world built on the ruins of our own where extreme cosmetic surgery makes everyone beautiful, some people stand out for other reasons.

Tally Youngblood has always been special. She uncovered, betrayed, and ultimately aligned herself with a resistance group known as The Smoke while she was an Ugly. Her Pretty clique, The Crims, changed life in New Pretty Town forever and sparked the beginnings of revolution.

But Tally doesn’t care about any of that anymore. Because she’s a Special, part of the elite group of enforcers known as Special Circumstances. Enhanced to be a deadly predator, Tally doesn’t want to hurt you. But she will if she has to in Specials (2006) by Scott Westerfeld.

Tally didn’t plan on becoming Special, let alone joining Special Circumstances after being exploited by the group for so long (two whole books!). But when her best friend, Shay, and the Cutters become Specials, Tally once again finds herself at the mercy of other people’s plans.

When one of Tally and Shay’s botched schemes leads to the first all out war since ancient times, Tally and the Cutters will have to race against the clock to prevent the inevitable. As Tally struggles to save her world from the ravages of war, will she be able to save herself?

I really love all of Scott Westerfeld’s books. Because he’s awesome. That said, the Uglies trilogy (not including its companion book Extras) lost momentum for me as the series progressed with this one being the slowest, and in a lot of ways the most disappointing, of the three.

On her blog Westerfeld’s wife and fellow YA author Justine Larbalestier recently mentioned reviews suggesting that Specials starts off slow despite its being filled with insane action sequences which she thinks is a silly thing to suggest. Which is true. Specials is jam packed with new technology, epic battles, and action-packed chases. Unfortunately that doesn’t leave a lot of room for character development or “real” (by which I mean not involving a chase or battle) plot development.

While the conclusion of Specials shakes Tally’s world to its very core, the plot is strikingly (and annoyingly) similar to the premise of Pretties once you change some of the slang and substitute settings. In summary, I was excited to see how the trilogy ended, of course, but without the first two books Specials is nothing special.

Possible Pairings: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Magisterium by Jeff Hirsch, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, All Rights Reserved by Gregory Scott Katsoulis, Legend by Marie Lu,  Birthmarked by Caragh M. O’Brien, 1984 by George Orwell, The Kiss of Deception by Mary E. Pearson, Technopoly by Neil Postman, Divergent by Veronica Roth, The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey, Life After People (documentary/television series)

My Big Nose and Other Natural Disasters: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

My Big Nose and Other Natural Disasters by Sydney SalterRemember Jennifer Grey from Dirty Dancing? Back then she was a cute young actress with a rather distinct nose that gave her a unique face. In the 1990s she had a nose job that so altered her appearance that she was unrecognizable with the result that her career was arguably over. I found a site with two of the most unflattering pictures of Grey I have ever seen, but they illustrate my point. The change is so great that it’s hard to say what the nose job actually accomplished because the before and after photos look like different people.

While reading My Big Nose and Other Natural Disasters (2009) by Sydney Salter, I kept thinking of one thing. That thing was Jennifer Grey’s nose job and how it totally changed her life in a not-so-great way.

For soon-to-be-senior Jory Michaels, it all comes down to her nose. Good old, Great-Grandpa Lessinger’s famous nose. The one Jory never grew into. The one that makes people ask her beautiful parents if Jory was adopted. It wouldn’t matter so much if Jory was some brilliant scholar who’d written six novels, created her own web-based business, and spoke fluent Chinese.

But Jory doesn’t do any of those things.

No matter how desperately she wants to be one of the beautiful people, or at least one of the smart people, or even just an athletic person; Jory is none of those things. Instead, she is the mediocre sheep in a family of beauty and talent. All, Jory is certain, because of her big nose–another outlier in a family with cute, small noses (except for Great-Grandpa Lessinger).

Like Jennifer Grey, Jory is convinced that a nose job will solve her problems and ultimately make her life better in every possible way. She will be smarter and prettier, her family will appreciate her the way they worship her little brother, and her gorgeous crush will finally realize that she is perfect for him. In other words, with a new nose, Jory will be as perfect as everyone else in her life.

To guarantee that she and “Super Schnoz” will part ways before September, Jory takes a summer job as a cake delivery person to fund her cosmetic surgery. She also begins a nice nose notebook to be ready for the big day.

It seems like everything is going Jory’s way until an unlikely acquaintance, an unfortunate driving mishap or two . . . or three, and other (natural) disasters force Jory to rethink everything she thought she knew about her nose, herself, and the perfect people she wanted so badly to emulate.

Set in Reno, Nevada My Big Nose and Other Natural Disasters offers an interesting perspective on cosmetic surgery. Her hyperbolic fantasies about Super Schnoz and her new dream nose illustrate the irrational hopes Jory has pinned to the possibility of plastic surgery. At the same time, as the story progresses Jory begins to realize that there might be more to reinventing herself than restructuring her nose. That thread, set against the backdrop of friend-drama, and the social-climbing ambitions of her ever-dieting mother, gives this ostensibly quick read a fair amount of depth.

I enjoyed a lot of this book. At times the characters read younger than I would have expected for sixteen and seventeen-year-olds, but that likely says more about who I was at that age than anything else. Jory also reminded me a lot of Georgia Nicholson with her singular focus on boys but in a far less annoying way. I also had issue with the way friendships were treated. It must be the latin in me but I would have held a grudge a lot longer than Jory (and other characters in books I’ve read recently), but again that’s probably just me.

I loved Jory’s humor throughout the narrative, which made her lack of self-esteem at the beginning of the novel bearable. As part of a mother-daughter jewelery making duo, I also loved that beading came up in the story and was handled so realistically. At the start of the novel I will admit that I was not sure I could like Jory as a character, but by the end of the book I not only liked her, I was proud of her. My only disappointment was that the book didn’t go on a little longer so I could spend more time with this new and improved heroine. Beyond that, My Big Nose and Other Natural Disasters is a clever, humorous book about how finding beauty sometimes involves more introspection than anything else.

Possible Pairings: You Look Different in Real Life by Jennifer Castle, Nothing But the Truth (and a Few White Lies) by Justina Chen Headley, Skinny by Donna Crooner, Fly on the Wall by E. Lockhart, Fix by Leslie Margolis, The Book of Love by Lynn Weingarten

Pretties: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Pretties by Scott WesterfeldPretties (2005) is the second volume of Scott Westerfeld‘s Uglies Trilogy. It picks up almost exactly where Uglies left off and the story is fairly involved so I strongly recommend reading Uglies first.

At the end of the first book, our heroine Tally Youngblood also learns that normal people are smarter than the Pretties. As part of the government’s plan to keep the population in line, Pretties’ brains are surgically altered with lesions to make Pretties more complacent. The government’s logic can be summed up in four dangerous words: for the greater good.

At the end of Uglies, knowing now that the operation has to be stopped, Tally makes the ultimate sacrifice–she allows herself to undergo the Operation in order to become an undercover operative of sorts. The only problem is that, because of the Operation, she forgets everything she learned about the Operation, the government, and perhaps most importantly about Special Circumstances (Westerfeld’s interpretation of secret service/black ops types).

In other words, Tally starts Pretties with a basically clean slate. She and best friend Shay know that they lived with the resistance group known as The Smoke, but little else. Looking for something “bubbly” to do as Pretties, the girls decide to join the Crims–a clique known for pulling dramatic stunts in order to stay bubbly and consequently think a little more clearly than Pretties usually do. As Tally becomes more involved with the Crims and their leader, Zane, pieces of Tally’s past begin to fall into place. But, the more Tally learns about her past, the more confusing things become as she has to decide between her past and her present.

Of the trilogy, this one is my least favorite. The characters, being Pretties, seemed the most unreal. Although Westerfeld evoked a very realistic world in Uglies it all rings a little less true here. I love how much slang these novels use and how easy it is to follow, but that too got to be a bit much.

The novel ends on a dramatic note, Tally once again rallying against those who would maintain the status quo. But at the same time, like in Uglies, she is once again a victim of circumstances. So, although the ending is great, it’s also a bit too familiar. Since Pretties is part of a trilogy, it is a must-read to see what happens to Tally. But,  in this reviewer’s opinion, the second installment in the trilogy doesn’t quite live up to the hype created by the first.

Possible Pairings: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Magisterium by Jeff Hirsch, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, All Rights Reserved by Gregory Scott Katsoulis, Legend by Marie Lu,  Birthmarked by Caragh M. O’Brien, The Kiss of Deception by Mary E. Pearson, 1984 by George Orwell, Technopoly by Neil Postman, Divergent by Veronica Roth, The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey, Life After People (documentary/television series)

Uglies: A Review

Uglies by Scott WesterfeldI’ve only seen one episode of The Twilight Zone. In this episode, a woman undergoes a battery of surgeries to look normal. At the end of the episode, viewers learn that this latest surgery has failed: the woman is still hideous. Except that to the audience she is beautiful. Online research led me to another episode where teenagers are surgically altered to live longer and conform to a unified standard of beauty (based on a limited number of acceptable “models”). Uglies (2005), Scott Westerfeld’s dystopic novel, plays similar games of perception.

The novel starts with Tally Youngblood a fifteen-year-old girl desperately waiting for her sixteenth birthday when she will be reunited with her best friend and, more importantly, when she will finally be pretty.

Uglies is set in the distant future after a mysterious global catastrophe precipitated changes to the foundations of what readers would call modern society. Fearful of war and violence cities now operate as independent states (think Renaissance Italy as opposed to contemporary Italy). Isolated and self-sufficient, the cities have agreed to certain standards for the greater good.

New technology ensures that citizens never want for food or luxury items, weapons of any kind are largely illegal, and at the age of sixteen everyone undergoes a series of extreme surgeries to better conform to societal standards of beauty. The logic being that, since humans are preconditioned to respond to certain visual cues in each other already (big eyes are non-threatening, a clear complexion and good teeth indicate that a person is healthy), applying these beauty standards will reduce conflict and create a more harmonious society.

But in a world where everyone is movie-star-gorgeous (oldies like Rudolph Valentino and Greta Garbo are considered “natural pretties”), normal people are so not pretty. In short, they’re ugly.

Things change for Tally when she meets Shay, another Ugly girl, who wants to run away before the operation to a place called The Smoke where people can live like “Rusties” (that would be us basically) in the wilderness without any surgery. As the novel progresses, and Special Circumstances (a government agency) coerces Tally into finding The Smoke for them, Tally is forced to choose what means more: friendship or beauty?

As the plot might suggest, this is a science fiction novel. Just to be clear, the real difference between sci-fi and fantasy is that the technology in science fiction novels could conceivably work if someone ever built it (dragons, most likely, are never going to be genetically engineered so they’re a good indicator of a fantasy novel). At times this leads to more explanation of, say, hoverboard mechanics in the novel than is strictly necessary to the plot but the rest of the book makes up for this small shortcoming.

What makes Uglies great, besides how it looks at cultural values, is Westerfeld’s use of language. The novel is not pretentious or brash. Instead, Westerfeld creates a narrative voice that is really unique—especially for a sweeping sci-fi saga like the Uglies trilogy. The novel opens with Tally observing that “The early summer sky was the color of cat vomit.” That is not, it is fair to say, a typical opening for any novel. Yet Westerfeld moves from that observation seamlessly into the story.

This book is the first in the Uglies trilogy (followed by Pretties and Specials) which focuses on Tally and her city. The scope of each book can largely stand alone, but to get the full story it’s best to read the entire trilogy. Additionally, Westerfeld released a companion book to the trilogy last year called Extras which is set a few years after the trilogy with different main characters.

Uglies is simultaneously funny and frightening, showing how overvalued beauty can be while illustrating how Tally’s world has been conditioned to believe there’s no other way to live. The sections where Westerfeld describes the Rusty Ruins and the end of that era are particularly haunting (and eerily reminiscent of the History Channel’s recent documentary “Life After People”).

Sci-fi book discussions often bring up a writer’s “world building” in reference to how well a writer creates their alternate universe. Westerfeld’s world is built really well. The cities have their own culture, the characters their own slang, but Westerfeld manages to bring in enough references to our own contemporary culture that it’s easy for readers to believe Tally’s world is built on the ruins of our own.

Possible Pairings: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Magisterium by Jeff Hirsch, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, All Rights Reserved by Gregory Scott Katsoulis, Legend by Marie Lu, Birthmarked by Caragh M. O’Brien, 1984 by George Orwell, The Kiss of Deception by Mary E. Pearson, Technopoly by Neil Postman, Divergent by Veronica Roth, The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey, Life After People (documentary/television series)

Fix: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Fix by Leslie MargolisFix (2006) by Leslie Margolis is one of those books every girl should read. Furthermore, it should be required reading for anyone who even thinks about visiting a plastic surgeon.

Fix follows the Beekman sisters, Cameron and Allie who are the alternate protagonists of the novel. When the book begins, Cameron has already had a nose job and is enjoying a better life thanks to the surgery and a school transfer. No more mean nicknames, no more bullies, no more feeling like an outcast.

Getting ready to go to college, Cameron begins to wonder if she “needs” more cosmetic surgery in order to fit in on campus at UC “Santa Barbie.” Meanwhile, Allie is getting ready for her own nose job and has to decide if being “pretty” is worth such drastic measures. No matter where you stand on the subject, the book will probably feature something you can agree with.

Margolis really looks at the plastic surgery issue from all sides. The book is interesting but also informative. By the end of the novel, it’s clear that there is no right answer about getting (or not getting) cosmetic surgery. But Margolis intelligently examines all sides of the issue highlighting the risks and the motivations that can lead a girl to the operating table.

The writing style is clear. Margolis presents a lot of information about the risks of surgery without getting excessively gory or boring. Ally and Cameron look at the surgery issue very differently and Margolis does a good job of showing that. This fact is what elevates the book from a commentary on cosmetic surgery to a character study of how a girl can define and shape her own sense of beauty.

The Beekman sisters are great protagonists for this novel. Even if they sometimes come off a bit flat. At times the characters seem more like archetypes than real people but that might be inherent to the nature of the book–since it is so clearly trying to start a conversation about this important issue. Secondary characters, in particular, often seem to lack dimension–appearing merely to make some important point: At times it seems like the characters are preaching their respective messages/opinions rather than taking part in a plot.

Nonetheless, Fix is a quick, enjoyable and above all interesting read.

Possible Pairings: Catalyst by Laurie Halse Anderson, North of Beautiful by Justina Chen Headley, Skinny by Donna Crooner, The Fold by An Na, My Big Nose and Other Natural Disasters by Sydney Salter