YAhoo! It’s a YA Review: Optimists Die First…

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Optimists Die First by Susin Nielsen combines craft, social anxiety and art therapy in a light-hearted tale of love overcoming fear.  We received a copy from the publisher via Netgalley and here’s the blurb from GoodreadsGoodreads:

Life ahead: Proceed with caution.

Sixteen-year-old Petula De Wilde is anything but wild. A family tragedy has made her shut herself off from the world. Once a crafting fiend with a happy life, Petula now sees danger in everything, from airplanes to ground beef.

The worst part of her week is her comically lame mandatory art therapy class. She has nothing in common with this small band of teenage misfits, except that they all carry their own burden of guilt.

When Jacob joins their ranks, he seems so normal and confident. Petula wants nothing to do with him, or his prosthetic arm. But when they’re forced to collaborate on a unique school project, she slowly opens up, and he inspires her to face her fears.

Until a hidden truth threatens to derail everything.

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Having read and enjoyed Nielsen’s work before, I had a pretty good idea what I was in for going into this and I wasn’t disappointed.  Much like in Word Nerd, Nielsen combines a quirky hobby with a serious social issue – in this case, young people’s mental health – and manages to successfully blend seriousness and humour.

Petula is still grieving the loss of her younger sister and has developed a major generalised anxiety disorder partly from the guilt she feels about her possible role in her sister’s death. New boy in therapy group, Jacob, seems to take his prosthetic arm in stride and although he is secretive about the reasons he is in therapy group in the first place, is able to bring the group together in a way they haven’t managed before.  As the two become better friends, it will be the issue of guilt – perceived and actual – that may drive the two apart even as it brings them together.

Even though there is a bit of romance in this one, I still quite enjoyed Petula and Jacob’s road to friendship and the connections they make with the others in their therapy group.  There are a few twee bits here and there – particularly the ridiculous activities suggested by the leader of the art therapy group – but overall the book shows the growth of the characters and the group in a realistic (if simplistic) way.

I particularly enjoyed the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo from Cosmo, a character in one of Nielsen’s other books.  Despite the fact that the ending is pretty predictable from the outset, I liked spending time with these characters and I appreciate the way that Nielsen manages to address difficult issues without ever losing the ability to inject humour into the situation.

I’m also submitting this one for the Popsugar Reading Challenge 2017 in the category of a book by or about someone with a disability.  You can check out my progress toward this year’s challenges here.

Until next time,

Bruce

YAhoo! It’s a YA Review: Fir…

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It’s time for a little YA and today’s book is a dark, shadowy tale of the power of nature and the puniness of humans.  We received Fir by Sharon Gosling from the publisher via Netgalley and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

We are the trees. We are the snow.

We are the winter.

We are the peace. We are the rage.

Cut off from civilization by the harsh winter of northern Sweden, the Stromberg family shelter in their old plantation house. There are figures lurking in the ancient pine forests and they’re closing in. With nothing but four walls between the Strombergs and the evil that’s outside, they watch and wait for the snows to melt.

But in the face of signs that there’s an even greater danger waiting to strike, it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish reality from illusion. All they’ve got to do is stay sane and survive the winter…

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I had high hopes for this one, given that it featured creepy trees – a collective character that, it must be admitted, surely doesn’t get enough coverage in YA – and a cold, dark setting that I hoped would be a mental escape from the unrelenting heat of Australian summer.  Unfortunately I ended up DNFing at just over halfway, having given the book plenty of time to grab my attention and hold it.

The two biggest problems I had with this one were the slow pace and the stilted dialogue mixed with tedious monologue. I just couldn’t be bothered to stick around and find out what the trees were planning, or indeed, if they were planning anything at all and not just a figment of the narrator’s imagination.  The suspense aspect takes its time in building up, which is perfectly forgivable, provided the characters around which the suspense is building are interesting enough to inspire a sense of protectiveness from the reader.  I found most of the characters to be reasonably unlikable – the teen narrator is angsty and moody, the father is arrogant and stubborn and the mother is overly conciliatory – and so would have happily seen them eaten by trees …or whatever…and for this reason, somewhere along the line the suspense morphed into a sense of impatience and a desire for the trees to get on with eating the characters…or whatever.

The one character who was written to be off-putting, the housemaid Dorothea, actually turned out to be my favourite, simply because at least she had a bit of nouse about her.  By the time I put the book down however, my feelings toward Dorothea had merged with my feelings for the hapless others and I would have been quite happy to have seen her eaten first…or whatever.

The setting was the definite standout of this story and set the appropriate tone of mild foreboding, and in some instances, blessed quiet.  Had the pace of the book been a bit quicker or had I given a hoot about any of the characters, I probably would have finished this, but I just wasn’t enjoying it enough to keep snow-ploughing on.

Until next time,

Bruce