Friday, February 17, 2012

Review of Kody Keplinger's "SHUT OUT"

Jacket Description:

Most high school sports teams have rivalries with other schools. At Hamilton High, it's a civil war: the football team versus the soccer team. And for her part, Lissa is sick of it. Her quarterback boyfriend, Randy, is always ditching her to go pick a fight with the soccer team or to prank their locker room. And on three separate occasions Randy's car has been egged while he and Lissa were inside, making out. She is done competing with a bunch of sweaty boys for her own boyfriend's attention.

Lissa decides to end the rivalry once and for all: She and the other players' girlfriends go on a hookup strike. The boys won't get any action from them until the football and soccer teams make peace. What they don't count on is a new sort of rivalry: an impossible girls-against-boys showdown that hinges on who will cave to their libidos first. And Lissa never sees her own sexual tension with the leader of the boys, Cash Sterling, coming.

My Review:

First of all, I love the premise of this novel. A modern-day retelling of Lysistrata? Count me in! Of course, the execution of such an undertaking is a bit tricky—one would have to introduce complex sexual politics in a way that engages people intellectually while keeping them constantly entertained. Can it be done?

The answer is a resounding yes.

In Kody Keplinger’s “Shut Out”, Lysistrata makes the flawless transition from Greek comedy to high school drama without skipping a beat. I enjoyed every minute of this story. From Lissa’s meticulous caretaking of her family, to Chloe’s loudmouthed affirmations of sexual autonomy, to Cash’s mystifying flirtations, I found myself empathizing with each, very different character (except maybe Randy, but he was fun to dislike!) And each time I set the novel down (to, you know, sleep or eat) I found my head spinning with thoughts of the characters’ encounters, their fears, and their desires, as well as thoughts of sexual mores in general—where they come from and how they’re socially perpetuated. This is the beauty of a Kody Keplinger novel: it combines the sheer entertainment of watching a high school drama unfold while simultaneously providing plenty of intellectual fodder.

That kind of thing is hard to beat.

One of the most amazing things about this book is that it uses a scene that we as a society take for granted—a group of girls sitting around a bedroom talking about sex—and illustrates how, even in what should be a totally safe space, socially-imposed ideas of silence and shame do their dirty work, keeping young women from feeling like they can talk openly. One of the biggest perpetuators of oppression is silence, and it really hit home to watch this group of girls, many of whom were friends, skirt around issues of virginity and promiscuity, each feeling like she fell too far to one side of “prude” or “slutty,” and therefore, wasn’t the norm. Of course, once the characters finally opened up about their feelings, it became more and more apparent that the labels of “prude” and “slut” were entirely subjective, almost to the point of being meaningless, and that every single one of them was different, proving that there is no “norm.” In a society that values female coyness and secrecy on issues regarding sex, these revelations were a wonder to behold and a pleasure to read, both as a lover of YA and as a woman who’s shared many of the characters’ feelings.

My favorite character in the novel was Chloemaybe because she was so open and unapologetic about her feelings, or maybe because I’m more like Lissa, so Chloe’s level of confidence appealed to me. Chloe is the kind of friend every girl should have: honest, sweet, extroverted and fiercely loyal. In fact, this kind of loyalty is one of my favorite things about Keplinger’s novels—the main characters in both “Shut Out” and “The DUFF” have loyal friends they can confide in, celebrate with, and count on in times of duress. Each time I read one of Keplinger’s books I come away with a sense of admiration and respect for these characters’ loyalty, and find myself reflecting on old friendships from my past—how they relate, and how they differ from those in the story.

All in all, this novel does everything you’d want a novel to do: it makes you laugh, it makes you cry, and it makes you think; it might even make you blush, as Cash brushes against Lissa’s hand, moving closer, then pulling away, in that ever-appealing dance of seduction. The romance is intoxicating, the friendships enticing, and the war between the sexes is electric. In short, the book is definitely deserving of the phrase: Must Read.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Review of "THE FUTURE OF US" by Jay Asher and Carolyn Mackler

Jacket Description:

It's 1996, and less than half of all American high school students have ever used the Internet.

Emma just got her first computer and an America Online CD-ROM. Josh is her best friend. 

They power up and log on--and discover themselves on Facebook, fifteen years in the future. 

Everybody wonders what their Destiny will be. Josh and Emma are about to find out.

My Review:

I could not put this book down.

I couldn’t. I had to know what was going to happen next. This level of tension-building is a rarity and a delight, and Asher and Mackler have perfected it in “The Future of Us”.

The story starts with a basic premise—two high school students growing up in the nineties put an AOL start-up disk into their computer, only to find themselves face to face with their futures via a website that won’t be invented for another fifteen years—Facebook. From there, the book gets much more complicated as Emma and Josh, once-upon-a-time best friends, turned chilly neighbors, are forced examine how their actions, both large and minute, affect their lives. And what begins as a series of experiments on the part of one of them turns into a lesson in causality for them both as their lives begin to change. They are forced to question everything: their desires, their fears, their actions and, perhaps most interestingly, their inactions.

This aspect of the story was especially fascinating to mehow, by choosing inaction, we are affecting the future in a very real way. A great example of this is the scene in Josh’s Peer Issues class. Josh's teacher asks the class what they think the appropriate behavior is when a boy and a girl are moving forward sexually and the boy notices that the girl is obviously upset. Many of the students agree that the boy should stop, at least to ask if everything is okay, but one of the boys takes the stance that he shouldn’t have to stop if a problem hasn’t been articulated. Now, what’s wonderful about this scene—besides the fact that these students are having a conversation that most people have thought about but rarely feel comfortable discussing—is the fact that Josh wants to speak up, but second guesses himself. Josh wants to argue with the boy, to tell him why he disagrees, but, as is common with Josh's character, he hesitates to speak his mind. And while watching this scene unfold, in a book that is all about how our present actions affect the future, it was hard not to think about causality: if Josh speaks up, how will that affect the future? How will it affect the future if he remains silent? Not only does Josh’s potential action or inaction affect his own life (if he doesn’t speak up, he’ll be disappointed with himself for not being brave enough/if he does speak up, he might get into a fight), it also has a potential effect on the boy arguing that it’s okay to move forward sexually if his partner is visibly upset. If Josh speaks up, the boy might change his mind; he might view past sexual situations with a new perspective; he might avoid situations in the future where he could hurt someone by misinterpreting (or choosing not to pay attention to) her feelings. Lastly, if Josh speaks up, it might affect the lives of the girls in the class who’ve been in the situation the teacher described, and who feared there wasn’t a boy out there who would support or understand their perspective.

So many things hinge on Josh’s decision. So many possibilities hang in the balance as he struggles to find his voice. This is the beauty, and the subtlety of “The Future of Us”—the illustration of how each time we make a choice, either to speak or not to speak, to act or not to act, that choice causes ripples of change in our lives, the lives of others, and in ourselves. It was impossible to come away from this book without thinking about my own choices, my actions, inactions, and how they've affected my life. It was impossible to come away without a conviction to be more aware of how each of my choices affected others and myself. And all the while, Asher and Mackler have evoked this conscientiousness while giving me a story that is both sweet and heartbreaking, hilarious and profound, and, as previously mentioned, effectively impossible to put down.