50 Shades of Black: Drowning Instinct

Author: Ilsa J. Bick

Genre: Contemporary YA

 Rating: 2/5

You know, it is really difficult to see grey, when all the author gives you is black.

First of all, let me clear things out by saying that I loved Ilsa J. Bick’s original intentions with this book. I loved the fact that she chose such a brave theme, the way she reflected the moods of the story through it’s setting, and the use of metaphor with the title and the climax, which, don’t  worry, I will not reveal here.

There needs to be more to a character than a list of problems and mental illnesses.

But what this author, a child psychiatrist by profession, forgot while writing this book, is that there needs to be more to a character than a list of problems and mental illnesses. Bick may be a good doctor, but fiction writing does not seem to be her forte. She uses basic language and primitive plot devices to advance her story, which is filled with clichés and forced plot twists.

The book is about Jenna Lord, a troubled 16-year-old recently out of a mental hospital and therapy, who narrates the story of her relationship with Mr. Anderson, her chemistry teacher in her new school, into a voice recorder provided to her by a detective. The two have just been in a serious accident together (the climax) in the beginning of the novel and are in the hospital. Mr. Anderson’s condition is critical but Jenna is conscious and awake, which is why the detective requires her account of everything that happened.

Jenna is a fire survivor with PTSD and a self-harm addiction that had resulted in her having to be institutionalized. She has a ‘Psycho-Dad’ surgeon who’s a man-whore and always busy, and a mother who spends way too many hours running her bookstore. Her brother, who is away in the army, seems to be Jenna’s only support system, but there hasn’t been any recent e-mail from him, nor has he come home in years.

To be completely honest, from the point of view of a voracious reader of YA fiction, the character of Jenna Lord seemed pretty bland to me. There is nothing fresh or new about her – she is a stereotypical YA sob story with a messed up family, history of trauma and a nagging, teen voice that dominates the narrative of the book. She is an uninteresting protagonist and a typical teenager who thinks calling authoritative elders (the detective, in this case) disrespectful nicknames (Bob, Bobby-O etc.) does a successful job of conveying sarcasm, or whatever it is that she is trying to convey.

Then, there are the extremely Wattpad-ish clichés that this book is full of. Jenna is clumsy. She keeps tripping on things and spilling coffee on herself and, you know, the usual. Her first encounter with Mr. Anderson is when she accidentally stumbles upon his toned, half-naked body glistening in the sun *eye roll*. Next, you have the stereotypical high school bitch Danielle, who hates Jenna from the moment she sets eyes on her and is jealous of her closeness with their teacher. And finally, to top it all off, you have the dysfunctional, overprotective parents who suddenly get over all their issues and over-protectiveness and disappear for a week-long vacation so that the protagonists’ relationship can develop in peace.

I mean, seriously, Bick, seriously?

However, my main concern with this book is really not Jenna, or even the juvenile clichés. It is the other, older protagonist – Mr. Anderson (Mitch).

Bick tried her desperate best to make her readers sympathize with this character, but all I could feel while reading about him was extreme discomfort and hate. I tried really hard to like him, trust me I did. I kept telling myself I was being too judgmental, that the principal theme of the book was clouding my thoughts.

But I couldn’t. And here’s why.

First off, is the immense disequilibrium in the power dynamics of Mitch and Jenna’s relationship. Mr. Anderson is Jenna’s teacher, but let’s just overlook that fact because I am actually kind of okay with it.

The man is in his thirties and married, though unhappily. He has prior access to all of Jenna’s medical records, which had been released to her school against her will. But it doesn’t end here. He is also a stalker, with information about Jenna saved up in his computer from up to a month before meeting her, and he indulges in that extremely middle school technique of faking similarities in order to get closer to her.

Mr. Anderson is an independent adult who, instead of trying to fix things in his own life, chooses to isolate himself and obsess over his 16-year-old student. Who, instead of being clean and honest, chooses to lie and sneak around. How can the author expect someone to see that as grey? Just because of the feeble excuse of “he wanted to help her”?

I cannot sympathize with ‘broken’ people who like to revel in their ‘brokenness’.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand the Bick’s intention to portray ‘broken’ people. But you know what? At the end of the day, Jenna is a helpless teenager with limited freedom and means to help herself. Whereas Mr. Anderson is a fully-functioning adult who chooses to act like a teenager. And I cannot sympathize with ‘broken’ people who like to revel in their ‘brokenness’.

The girl tries so hard to justify her lover throughout the book. So hard, in fact, that sometimes you have to sit back and think, who is she trying to convince – the readers, or herself? And as you do, the truth hits you: poor girl doesn’t even know better. She is in no position to objectively evaluate her situation. But one day when she is older, she will be. And it will all become as clear as day to her then.

That’s when two particular feelings bubble up within you – immense pity for Jenna, and intense hatred for Mr. Anderson.

Alright. Let me ask you something, Mitch. Just the two of us, adult to adult, okay? Do you really think that your Severus Snape-y love for your student can justify all the horribly questionable things you did to – can’t even sugarcoat this – get in her pants? Did you ever stop to consider that letting a psychologically unstable child throw her whole emotional dependency on someone who is equally psychologically unstable, was not an adult thing to do at all? Did you think of the long-term consequences on said child’s mental state before getting sexually involved with her?

‘Course you didn’t. Because if you had, I wouldn’t be sitting here writing this right now, wondering why some people think it’s alright for adults to sleep with sensitive teenagers who are under their authoritative responsibility.

Even with all its drawbacks, I really want this book to be read.

But to my readers, I don’t want this review to discourage you guys from reading this book. Because, with all its drawbacks, I really want it to be read. I want the toxic elements of the relationship portrayed to be identified. I want people to understand where the problem with people like Mr. Anderson lies.

I want people to realise how dangerous they can be.

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Inside the Ravenclaw Common Room

For years, Hufflepuffs and Ravenclaws have been the supporting cast to their fellow Gryffindor and Slytherin leads. They’ve churned out some lovable characters playing an integral part in the plot, but at the end of the day being out-numbered by the main roles.

That was until Fantastic Beasts – the story that finally gave the much mocked and ignored Hufflepuffs their very own hero. Which only leaves us, the Ravenclaws – still very much a driving force of the Harry Potter franchise but yet to find our place on the front page.

But in my personal opinion, I feel like behind the scenes is where we belong.

We are the minds behind actions, the suns behind the moons, we live not for recognition or stardom, but to quietly discover the world around us in our own eccentric ways.

This is what I love most about my House. We don’t chase greatness or glory. We don’t need to be on the run to be explorers, because for us, it all happens inside the mind. We don’t need to be surrounded by people all the time, we are perfectly capable of surviving on our own. We are those who live in our dreams, in our enormous mind palaces far away from the hassles of everyday life.

From the moment I started reading Harry Potter, I knew I wanted to be in no other House. Because for those who always feel like the odd one out, being in a place filled with people just as odd as them is nothing but paradise.

This is what leads me to think about our common room every now and then.

Ravenclaw Tower – the hub of miracles and wonders, the place where great minds and unique souls come together as one.

To me, our abode is a huge dome-shaped room, with wallpaper the shade of yellowed pages, and the dome made of pure glass. We’ve invented a spell to tackle the greenhouse effect, because, well, that’s how cool we are. In the morning, the tower dazzles under the sun, filling our common room with shimmering crystals of light. And at night, it’s like you’re staring into outer space, with thousands of stars twinkling down at you.

A white marble statue of Rowena marks the entrance of a huge alcove in the wall, which is our very own personal library with wooden shelves full of carvings. In front of it are Victorian sofas, where you can sit or lie for hours to read and no one will disturb you.

At one corner we have paints and canvases, and various complete and incomplete works lie scattered around. In another, there are all kinds of scientific projects, both in progress and completed. There is also a corner for musical instruments, and an exquisite writing desk. Future photographers love to hang their best clicks on the walls, and people leave little notes around them to express what they think. We know we can just say them face to face, but this way it’s more fun.

There’s a burn on the carpet from a failed attempt at a new potion. In the beginning we thought of using Tergeo, but then someone found a way to weave a design over it. We preferred that.

In the evenings, after everybody’s finished their homework, we all sit down in a circle and hold a Salon like in the olden days. Intellectual discussions flow, debates rage, pleasantly interrupted by some singing/playing and theatrical improvisations. Or sometimes we just like to sit and talk about our craziest dreams and wackiest ideas, because up here, no one judges us for being who we are.

It is a place to unwind, to let our guards down, to explore, discover, and do everything the world says we can’t.

And if you enter our common room at night, while the rest of Hogwarts soundly sleeps, you’ll probably be guided by a small lamp burning in our library. You’ll probably trip on a stray paintbrush, or get shouted at by a budding astronomer for disrupting their calculations. And you’ll probably see some people just sitting quietly, staring up at the sky through the glass, while some others sleep really tight, visiting a thousand parallel universes in their dreams.

Why I Felt Cheated by Thirteen Reasons Why

Author: Jay Asher
Genre: Contemporary YA
Rating: 3.5/5

I actually have two distinct experiences with this book. One, when I read it back in 2014, and two, when I went over a point-by-point summary on Shmoop before writing this review. Needless to say, I went through very different feelings during the two experiences.

The whole book is insanely intriguing and gripping. But that does not mean I enjoyed it all that much.

Before anybody jumps up to criticize me, I want you to understand carefully what I am saying. I am not one of those people who blames suicide victims, calls them weak or cowardly, or trivialises their reasons just because their crisis doesn’t match up to my own perception of a crisis. I was a suicidal teen myself, back when I first read this book, but I still felt the things that I did that I’m about to tell you about in a while.

Let’s get the basic summary out of the way, first. One fine day after coming home from high school, Clay Jensen receives a parcel containing cassettes which explain the thirteen reasons why his crush Hannah Baker killed herself a few days earlier. If Clay has received it, it means he is one of the reasons too, and he now has to listen to the tapes in order to find out what he did to get her blood on his hands.

Intriguing, I know. In fact, the whole book is insanely intriguing and gripping. So much so that I had to finish it in one sitting and just couldn’t put it down. However, that does not mean I enjoyed it all that much.

I blame Jay Asher’s writing. Asher is a marvellous suspense builder with strong plot ideas, but a hopeless reveal-er. All thirteen times, I sat there biting my nails, turning the pages with shaking fingers, and all thirteen times I was disappointed. At the time, I thought it was because Hannah’s reasons were silly. But I realise now that Asher’s writing style made them seem that way.

The result of Asher’s writing is similar to that of a cheap soap opera, in which you end up feeling discomforted and slightly cheated in the end.

This is mainly because he keeps building up unnecessary tension and then doesn’t release it properly. The beginning of every tape feels like clickbait, Hannah seems to draw out time on purpose for attention, and ultimately comes off as a drama queen. The result is similar to that of a cheap soap opera, in which you end up feeling discomforted and slightly cheated in the end.

For three years I hated this book. I even went to the extent of giving it away to a friend. I also hated it because *SPOILER ALERT* Clay is actually not one of the reasons, as we find out halfway through. He is in fact the Romeo of Hannah’s life, the nicest guy she had ever met. She includes him because she wants him to know he could’ve helped her. Come on now, do not tell me this doesn’t annoy you. Of course, the protagonist has to be the clean one. Convenient much?

Don’t come at me with knives, I understand the message behind Clay’s inclusion in the list and I also appreciate it. But again, I just wish the message had been conveyed in a better manner. It is a twist, but it just rubs you off the wrong way. I was promised thirteen reasons. Thirteen. I was expecting something dark and hard-hitting, believing I was reading a book from the point of view of someone who’d killed a girl. But no, all I get is convenience. I don’t want convenience! Where are my blurred lines? Needless to say, at this point I was basically ready to fling the book across the room in frustration.

Now, let me come to my experience the second time around. Since the TV show has recently released, I thought this book would be a good topic for my next post. But I’d read it long ago and didn’t own it anymore, so I had to make do with detailed summaries off the web.

And this is when I finally came to this realisation: 13 Reasons Why has a good plot. Hannah’s struggles are not that silly. They are real, each one more horrible than the last. If you read it in the bulleted manner I did, you can actually visually see the snowball effect occuring. It is shameful how no one in her life bothered to realise the gravity of her situation, how even a guidance counsellor failed to help her. It reminds us once more of how we are failing as compassionate beings every day, while young innocent children drop dead all around us.

And all of this hit me only after Asher’s awful writing was out of the way and I was looking merely at the skeleton plot points.

Nevertheless, everything being said, I want to end this post by mentioning the one thing that I unquestionably loved even on my first reading: the ending.

The book ends with only one word, a name, when Clay calls out to an old crush and classmate he hadn’t spoken to in years.

The person in question – Skye – appears many times throughout the story, as a shadow you don’t give much importance to at first. But as you read on, you gradually start feeling that there’s more to her, that this character has been included to serve a valid purpose. You realise – as does Clay – that Skye may be going through something similar like Hannah. While earlier he wouldn’t even have noticed, Clay is a changed person now after listening to Hannah’s tapes, and thus he reaches out to Skye by calling out her name.

As you close the back cover of this book, you are left with a feeling of slight relief, with hope that even though one life is already lost, maybe another can be saved.

It’s Darker Than It Looks: Eleanor & Park

Author: Rainbow Rowell
Genre: Contemporary YA
Rating: 4.5/5

You know a book is going to be good when it has been banned at least once.

I am yet to find a novel that captures the teen voice as authentically as this one.

What I love the most about Eleanor & Park is Rainbow Rowell’s fearless portrayal of the real world. Everything about this book is piercingly raw, from the plot, to the characters, to the writing. E&P is just one of those books you know will be different from the moment you pick it up, and it doesn’t disappoint. Told in alternating point of views with chapters sometimes as short as just one sentence, I am yet to find a novel that captures the teen voice as authentically as this one.

In this book, there is no sugar-coating. There are no first world problems, boy troubles, or incessant whining. Eleanor Douglas is poor, and not in the casual way. She is so poor that she can’t even afford a toothbrush, or proper clothes, and all of her five siblings sleep cramped up in one room. Her step father is an abusive drunkard who does not allow a door or even a curtain in their bathroom, and is constantly screaming at or hitting his wife.

Even though we won’t like to admit it, most of us usually imagine YA protagonists as moderately good-looking, regardless of how they are described. Sometimes this happens because, though the author does provide a description, it is either too mainstream or not graphic enough for us to form a lasting impression. Or sometimes it has to do with the attractive cast of the movie adaptation.

This is not the case with E&P. Eleanor is downright ugly, but the point to be noted here is that I actually imagined her that way. She is fat, has frizzy red hair, stupid clothes and has to hold her tattered bra together with a safety pin. In Park’s words:

“Eleanor was right. She never looked nice. She looked like art, and art wasn’t supposed to look nice; it was supposed to make you feel something.”

And she did. She did make me feel something. She made me feel immense love for her character.

Park Sheridan is one of the most non-stereotypical Asian kids I’ve ever read about in an American book. That is because Rowell does not focus on the fact that he’s Asian, but instead on the fact that he is a fifteen year old human being.

Unlike Eleanor, Park comes from a normal home, and as a result of his privilege, takes those little things for granted that she treasures. He is puny and doesn’t like taekwando, which makes him feel like a disappointment to his father. He is popular with his friends and even joins them in making fun of Eleanor on her first day on the school bus. But you quickly get over your momentary dislike for him when the two begin to bond, and you realise his cultured upbringing has blessed the boy with a golden heart.

So many YA authors try way too hard to make the romances in their stories unique, the end result of which is always a degree of unrealistic pretentiousness. Rowell debunks all of that and dives straight into what is simple and true, and this is what I like best about her writing.

Eleanor and Park don’t go on great adventures. They do not throw around heavy-worded monologues. Instead, they exchange comic books and mixtapes.

Eleanor and Park don’t go on great adventures. They do not throw around heavy-worded monologues. Instead, they exchange comic books and mixtapes. They spend all day in Park’s house doing nothing eventful, and have awkward sex in the backseat of a car. They do not have time to be unique or phenomenal, because they are too busy being real teenagers.

To everyone who snorts at romance or YA fiction, I request you to give this book a try. I can promise you, it will change anything you had ever believed about either of those genres. The climax comes as a shock and will hit you very hard, filling your stomach with a sticky feeling of disgust. The ending is ambiguous and will leave you tearing at your hair trying to figure out what those three words are that Eleanor wrote in her postcard to Park. (Hint: They aren’t ‘I love you’, as clarified by Rowell herself.)

But overall, this book will give you the most accurate view into the lives of average teenagers, and open your eyes to the struggles and consequences of mental and physical abuse. Your heart will break for the fate of poor Eleanor, and you will think about those so many other children in this world going through a similar torture.

Follow Me Into The Night Circus 

Author: Erin Morgernstern
Genre: Fantasy
Rating: 4/5

The man billed as Prospero the Enchanter receives a fair amount of correspondence via the theater office, but this is the first envelope addressed to him that contains a suicide note, and it is also the first to arrive carefully pinned to the coat of a five-year-old girl.

How do you keep down a story with that good a first line?

I will be honest. I am not into Fantasy at all. In fact, this is the first Fantasy novel I’ve ever read, after Harry Potter. And I’ll tell you why I picked it up.

The Night Circus arrives without warning. Entering it is like stepping into a zebra-striped wonderland. You are taken over by a sort of trance and you lose your ability to differentiate between reality and illusion.

This is a masterfully-crafted story told through a non-linear timeline that leaves you in a complete daze by the end. It shimmers on the surface, filling you with ecstasy and temptation, but beneath it all lies something dark and manipulative that you can’t quite wrap your head around.

The action in The Night Circus is not physical, it is psychological.

People often criticize this book for building up for something that never really happens, or for lacking any real action. But the action in The Night Circus is not physical, it is psychological.

The story is about Celia Bowen and Marco Alistair, who are chosen as children by Hector and Alexander – two ambiguous men – for a ‘game’ or duel. Celia is unique in the sense that she is born with her magical powers and must learn to control and harbour them, whereas Marco learns to cultivate his through intensive theoretical study and travelling. The two are to be trained separately till they’re ready, and then left to compete in a common arena – Cirque de Reves (The Circus of Dreams).

The game is like a forest vine that attracts you with its fainting scent, and as you step into its trap, slowly starts to tighten itself around your body.

It all seems pretty innocent in the beginning. Hector and Alexander, old aquintances, have indulged in such games before and seem to do it out of long-standing rivalry. However, the darker reality creeps upon you with progress, as you realise that this game is supposed to span over decades, manipulate hundreds of innocent people like pawns and can only end with the death of one of the competitors. It is like a forest vine that attracts you with its fainting scent, and as you step into its trap, slowly starts to tighten itself around your body.

A rich fellow is chosen to produce the circus, at whose service Marco works disguised as an ordinary man. Celia, on the other hand, is brought on the scene as the circus’s illusionist, and thus begins the game. Over the years, the circus reaches great heights and gathers a devoted global fanbase that follows it no matter where it goes. Every part of the circus, every tent, is built by Celia and Marco. None of the others know where the new attractions come from. In fact, they hardly know anything about the world around them anymore. They’ve been reduced to nothing but puppets controlled by strings.

But even though the new tents are supposed to be Marco and Celia’s respective moves in the game, to them they are in fact silent love letters to each other, for the two unmatched equals fall deeply in love over the course of their dictated lives. Both are still unaware that in order for one to win, the other must die.

The Night Circus is an absolutely beautiful tale woven with a silver thread and a hint of fairy dust.

From a psychological point of view, The Night Circus shows us what idleness can do to a human mind. Realisation dawns upon you as you slowly realise that a spell has been cast over the entire circus and the people associated with it. Once in, they can never leave, never fail and never age. It is like they are stuck in time, in one place their entire lives, the exhaustion of which starts catching up with them sooner or later. Hector and Alexander prove to be absolutely merciless, since there is nothing they are unwilling to do in order to advance their game – be it torturing two innocent children in the name of preparation, running entire lives and careers of unsuspecting people, and even committing murder to keep their secret covered.

The Night Circus is an absolutely beautiful tale woven with a silver thread and a hint of fairy dust, something which will leave you shocked and ruffled, but also smitten and mesmerised at the same time. It is perfect for lovers of literature like me, with its rich language, vivid descriptions and superlative imagery. The non-linear timeline, a little confusing and annoying at first, needs a little getting used to. But it only adds to the suspense and enigma that this theme demands, and by the end things come to a full cirlce – literally – as the book begins and ends with the exact same words:

The circus arrives without warning.

The Forbidden Done To Perfection: Tell The Wolves I’m Home

Author: Carol Rifka Brunt
Genre: Contemporary YA
Rating: 5/5

When I started this book, I didn’t know what to expect. I’d just bought it on a whim after stumbling upon the eye-catching title on Tumblr, and my expectations weren’t high.

Boy, have I ever been so wrong.

The best thing about June’s feelings towards Finn is that it is never thrown at your face. Instead, Brunt takes you gently by the hand.

June Elbus lives in 80s New York during the epidemic of AIDS. She is fourteen, introverted, fascinated by the Medieval Times, and all she can talk about is her Uncle Finn. Her best friend Uncle Finn. Her famous painter Uncle Finn. Her beloved Uncle Finn, whose dying wish is to paint a portrait of her and her sister Greta.

June and Greta used to be best friends growing up, but nowadays Greta is always mean to her little sister. Their relationship has been portrayed with striking reality, uttered in little breaths, described through gestures and moments. The way an arm touch reminds June of the olden days, or Greta’s drunken rumble of their childhood games, the little moments tug at your heartstrings, telling you that Greta is covertly jealous of June’s closeness with their uncle. Finn is June’s godfather, not hers, and even though he has never made her feel the difference, Greta has always seen it as an elephant in the room and slowly detached herself from her sister’s life. She is still a child who feels forced to act like an adult, an exasperated over-achiever who just wishes someone would see through her bitchy exterior into her deeply lonely soul.

The sisters’ only real form of communication in the book is through Finn’s painting of them. Realising its monetary value, their mother transfers the painting to a bank vault, where they can visit it any time they want. Initially with a spiteful intention of ruining it, Greta goes in and makes ugly alterations to the painting. But these alterations soon become unspoken messages between the sisters, when June responds with some of her own alterations, and Greta, identifying them, keeps it going.

The perfect use of these subtle metaphors is what makes Brunt such a wonderful storyteller.

The painting, titled “Tell The Wolves I’m Home”, is of the two sisters sitting side by side, with a negative space between them which takes the shape of a howling wolf if one knows how to look for it. It seems like Finn’s silent way of asking June and Greta to resolve the differences between them, which is exactly what both of them subconsciously try to do through their respective alterations. The perfect use of these subtle metaphors is what makes Brunt such a wonderful storyteller, and this simple plot shine with meaning and literary value.

Finn is June’s first love. But the best thing about her feelings towards her uncle is that it is never thrown at your face. Instead, Brunt takes you gently by the hand and leads you through the garden, dropping little hints for you to pick up and finally affirming the inferences you have drawn through your own observations. This gives a sense of power and freedom to the readers, a very refreshing quality that makes me immediately adore a book. June’s love stems from immense respect and idolization, in the exact way that many of us develop awestruck crushes on loving adults in our lives while growing up.

Finn dies in the very beginning of the story, leaving us feeling hollow about a character who has only been present for a couple of pages. In his funeral, June meets a strange man, someone who her family doesn’t seem to like. He wishes to reach out to her and, though reluctant in the beginning, curiosity eventually gets the better of June.

This man is Toby, Finn’s live-in English boyfriend of seven years, the one who June’s family believe gave him AIDS, and whose existence Finn had kept carefully hidden from June on the orders of her mother. This leads me to talk about the main relationship in this book – the friendship between June and Toby. It is a friendship in the truest sense of the word, yet one you can’t seem to put an exact label on.

June and Toby keep meeting in secret, and she eventually discovers that much of what she had loved about Finn was actually parts of Toby. Here, Brunt expertly highlights the characteristics of a long-term relationship, how the people in our lives rub off on us and become a part of our personality over time. Through their visits to places that remind them of Finn and their personal stories of him, June and Toby seem to keep the love of their life breathing throughout the novel. They are like puzzle pieces who come together to form the whole person that is Finn, and by the end of it all June has come of age and is able to stop running from the wolves in her heart.

The wolves here signify all her forbidden thoughts and feelings, the things she had kept suppressed and bottled up because she was both ashamed and terrified of them. Toby acts as a cathartic agent, and by the end June knows: “Tell the wolves I’m home. You might as well. Because they’ll find you. They always do.”

You are forced to swim through the muddle in your head as you try to determine who the real hero of this story is.

While Finn was June’s first love, she realises by the end that Toby is her second. And as you finish reading the last few sentences and keep the book down, you are forced to swim through the muddle in your head as you try to determine who the real hero of this story is – Finn, Toby, June, her mother, or Greta.

Or maybe it isn’t any of them. Maybe, it is the wolves.