The Manifesto On How To Be Interesting – Holly Bourne

51yfbnkl2kl-sx316-sy316I had avoided reading Holly Bourne after I tried to read Soulmates at publication in 2013 and found I couldn’t associate with the characters. About a week ago I was looking through my shelves for something I’d had for a long time but not read yet and landed on The Manifesto On How To Be Interesting. 

My first impression was it would be a contemporary makeover story about a frumpy glasses-wearing girl who, with a new  haircut, becomes the most popular girl in school. To some extent it is exactly this, but what I hadn’t counted on is that it would be an insightful and heartfelt parody of those stories.

The main gist of the story is that Bree is constantly being rejected by publishers for her book, so her English teacher suggests it’s because she isn’t writing about things that are interesting. In order to become a better writer Bree decided to infiltrate the most popular group in the school and discover what makes them interesting, and gain life experience along the way.  I saw so much of myself in the main character, Bree. She’s a girl who lives on the outskirts of society, spending most of her time reading, writing or criticising the modern world with her best friend, Holdo. She’s wealthy and goes to a private school but is down-to-earth and completely relatable. Part of the story’s charm is it could have been set anywhere and the interpersonal dynamics would have remained the same.

“Do you think maybe your writing isn’t going anywhere because you’re unhappy? Because you’re not living the life you could? A life worth writing about?”

The book is glittered with pitch-perfect comments on the constructs of high school society and hierarchy, especially popular boys who, as Bree’s Mom puts it “…have never once not got the girl, so they’re never scared of losing the girl. And if they’re not scared of losing you they’ll screw you about”. There are theories aplenty here; about how life is easy for attractive people because that attractiveness is valued more highly in society than the people themselves. It questions how much ‘attractive’ and ‘interesting’ really interlink, and challenges how we are supposed to interpret those ideals.

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Bad Girls With Perfect Faces – Lynn Weingarten

61qmmo2b6uxl-_sx324_bo1204203200_Bad Girls With Perfect Faces is the second book from Lynn Weingarten. The first book, Suicide Notes From Beautiful Girls never really appealed to me but when I read the synopsis I was instantly intrigued. I picked it up on my birthday weekend and ended up reading the whole thing in a couple of hours in a waiting room.

The story follows Sasha and her best friend Xavier, who is trying to get over his toxic relationship with now ex-girlfriend Ivy. Ivy is your typical beautiful, perfect, manipulative character who is hell bent on getting what she wants. When Ivy reappears and persuades Xavier to give her another chance, Sasha knows she needs to do something to convince him Ivy is dangerous. In this media age it has become more and more easy to become tangled in somebody else’s life, and thats what Sasha does.

It’s told mostly from the first person viewpoint of Sasha and the 3rd person narrative of Xavier, however there are unnamed sections in between. There were so many times when I thought I knew what had happened, who had done it and who was talking. I changed my mind so many times and still didn’t get it right.

The pace builds slowly, like a stoking a fire, but when it really gets going it rages out of control. There’s so much to love in this book. It made me sit and think about how you can never really know who somebody is or how they’re going to act, and I thought about how we just fill in the blanks with our assumptions, and how that can go so wrong. The book touches on depression and mental health, and actually asks a lot of existential questions about how we should live our lives. It exploits a lot of moral grey areas and you have to ask: and what point would you have stopped helping your best friend? Who is in the right? Is anyone ever really innocent? There’s so much you can get out of this book.

It really made me reflect back on when I was a teenager and my relationships with my best friends. Although the way we present our relationships to the world has changed, how we feel about each other and the pressures of growing up really haven’t, and I think about this whenever someone says that YA isn’t for adults. What young adults are reading and experiencing now, people like me in their 30’s are reading and reflecting on and I don’t think there’s as much of an emotional gap as people believe.

One thing that bothered me is the prevalence of the use of drugs and alcohol. They’re 16/17 and there’s no voice saying you shouldn’t be drinking or doing drugs. I know that teenagers push the boundaries in terms of experimentation but it’s just, normal. It’s easy to see why young people get mixed messages when doctors give them drugs to help with everything then tell them they can’t use recreational drugs, or alcohol until they’re 21. But that’s another story.

Dark Asylum – E. S. Thomson

51e2yqbjigl-_sx323_bo1204203200_My big plan for 2018 is to read a heck of a lot more Gothic fiction and what better way to start the year than to revisit my old pals Jem Flockhart and Will Quartermain over in (a very grimy) 19th Century London. This is the second book in the series; the first is Beloved Poison, which sadly I didn’t write a review for, but don’t expect many spoilers – this is the type of series that has recurring characters and themes but is a new mystery. You could easily pick up either book and not spoil much of the other.

Jem Flockhart is the last in a long line of Apothecaries, and friends with quite a lot of the doctors in London who he visits often at Angel Meadow asylum, with his architect friend Will. The big difference between Jem and the rest of the cast is that Jem is actually a woman, who has been dressing like a man ever since she was raised a boy. It makes very interesting points about gender, but please don’t jump up thinking this is a feminist tale as Dark Asylum is very plot driven.

I love both Jem and Will as characters, both caring and genuine and I can’t help but love the friendly love between them. They’re well developed, both with their little flaws but both adorable. They make a great little investigating team and Gabriel, the almost teenager who strops about in the background, makes a fun 3rd point to their triangle.

The storyline follows Jem and Will as they try to uncover who has been killing doctors, framing patients and generally terrorising their corner of London. There is a lot of subsequent discussion of madness, especially in women, and its a lot of fun to see old and ‘new’ methods of psychology and physiognomy brought to life. I think the medical talk is actually what grounds the book and stops it from being completely ridiculous, it gives the story a little bit more gravity in light of its more larger than life characters. Normally I’d be more than happy to overanalyse any philosophical and psychological talk in a novel, but actually this presents the thoughts of the day rather than making a comment upon them.

The only way I can describe the feel of the plot is a “romp”. I can fully visually Jem and Will running down a filthy backstreet in the main slum in the story, Priors Rents, frock coats flapping, holding on to their stove pipes hats for dear life. I have so much love for its ridiculousness. There’s blood and gore aplenty, savage killings, secret identities,  hidden clues – everything I’ve needed from an easy Gothic read since I read the first book.

Overall, I loved it again. I love to be transported to that era, and the medical and psychological aspects are my absolute favourite. The breakneck speed of the plot stops me from ever losing focus and I always find myself wanting to be back with the characters wondering what situation they’ll get into next.