Books, Reviews, YA Fiction

The Lives Of Desperate Girls, by MacKenzie Common (ARC review) | zeroes in on real issues but fails to be truly engaging

33672985

One small, northern community. Two girls gone — one missing, the other dead. A riveting coming-of-age debut young adult novel for fans of Everything I Never Told You and All the Bright Places. 

Sixteen-year-old Helen Commanda is found dead just outside Thunder Creek, Ontario. Her murder goes unremarked, except for the fact that it may shed light on the earlier disappearance of Chloe Shaughnessy. Chloe is beautiful, rich and white. Helen is plain, and from the reservation. They had nothing in common except that they were teenage girls from an unforgiving small town. Only Chloe’s best friend Jenny Parker knows exactly how unforgiving, but she’s keeping some dangerous secrets of her own. 

Jenny begins looking for answers about Helen’s life and death, trying to understand larger questions about her town and her best friend. But what can a teenage girl really accomplish where adults have failed? And how much is Jenny actually complicit in a conspiracy of silence?

*An ARC was provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.*

I was very close to DNFing The Lives Of Desperate Girls many times while reading it, but fortunately I stuck around long enough to finish the book. I commend it for its improvement as I went on, the thing The Lives Of Desperate Girls does best is its raw yet poignant commentary of social issues such as racism and sexism, as well as focusing on the common struggles of teenagers, like bullying and depression. Unfortunately, everything else in the book is glaringly underdeveloped and just uninteresting.

The Lives Of Desperate Girls is set in Canada, in a small town named Thunder Creek, located somewhere in northern Ontario. It’s a fairly poor and underdeveloped area, and there is a very visible divide between the mostly white residents and the nearby Natives. This is seen multiple times throughout the book, specifically with the police completely and utterly favoring Chloe, a white girl, and her missing case, and pushing aside Helen, a native girl, and her murder case. In the midst of other examples, I actually thought Jenny’s feelings about the blatant racism in her community were quite realistic and told well, without sounding too preachy. I didn’t know too much about Canada’s First Nations and reading about their history and life was interesting, and how they dealt with the Thunder Creek community definitely pulled on your heartstrings yet made you think. The discussion on gender inequality was also well-done, zeroing in on rape and slut-shaming, and the disparities between social class was also talked about in detail.

Most of the Goodreads reviews of this book seemed to mention the clunkiness of the writing, and I definitely have to agree with that. It is frustratingly bland for most of the time, but it does have its moments, specifically while exploring the numerous social issues that this story covers. At those times, the prose is surprisingly relatable, honest, and sophisticated all at once. If only it had been that way throughout.

The mystery/thriller plot is one of the low points for this book, while Common tries to add a number of elements to up the anticipation for the big reveal, it ultimately falls flat due to bad storytelling. First off, the writing doesn’t make it that thrilling for the reader either, it’s incredibly unexciting and fails to trigger any sort of anticipation or curiosity. Secondly, Jenny’s motivation to play detective is never, ever put into words properly or even conveyed at all. She gets into all types of dangerous antics to ‘solve’ Helen’s murder and for what? We never know the true motivation behind her actions in general, in fact, everything going on in Jenny’s investigation in very vague and directionless. For all her sleuthing, Jenny doesn’t even seem to have direction in mind and often randomly throws guesses at who the killer is, usually people she already knows or has met. Thirdly, Jenny’s big secret on Chloe’s disappearance. Can’t say much about that due to spoilers, but y’all can experience that bullshit for yourselves and then get back to me.

The characters are clearly the biggest low point in this novel, which is tragic, because even if the mystery part of it fell flat, the novel could have redeemed itself through its characters and contemporary side. Jenny is one of the most inconsistent characters ever. Her narration in the first 30% in incredibly passive and monotone, and while she does improve later on, her entire personality changes when she’s supposed to be a quiet and ordinary girl. She meets shady people, goes to places she shouldn’t go to, and adamantly refuses to talk to the police on Chloe’s case (we still don’t know why that is *sighs*). We never see her true psychological trauma and struggle after Chloe’s disappearance and while she does change throughout the book, it’s so sudden, unrealistic, and vague. She does have a love interest, Tom, who is equally dull and one-dimensional. They both suddenly decide to ‘fall in love’ through a few smoke and make-out sessions, and it develops into the most ridiculous romance ever.

If you’re in for an eye-opening piece of commentary on the several social issues in our world, The Lives Of Desperate Girls is worth tuning in to. But, if you came for an intriguing murder mystery, a heartfelt contemporary, or even something remotely fascinating, you can do better than this one.

Books, Reviews, YA Fiction

Gardenia, by Kelsey Sutton

31338593

3.5 – 4 stars

Seventeen-year-old Ivy Erickson has one month, twenty-seven days, four hours, fifty-nine minutes, and two seconds to live.
Ever since she was a child, Ivy has been able to see countdown clocks over everyone’s heads indicating how long before they will die. She can’t do anything about anyone else’s, nor can she do anything about her own, which will hit the zero hour before she even graduates high school.
A life cut short is tragic, but Ivy does her best to make the most of it. She struggles emotionally with her deep love for on-again, off-again boyfriend Myers Patripski. She struggles financially, working outside of school to help her mom and her sister. And she struggles to cope with the murder of her best friend, another life she couldn’t save. Vanessa Donovan was killed in the woods, and everyone in town believes Ivy had something to do with it.
Then more girls start disappearing. Ivy tries to put her own life in order as she pieces together the truth of who ended Vanessa’s. To save lives and for her own sanity.
The clock is always ticking. And Ivy’s only hope is to expose the truth before it runs out completely.

*An ARC was provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.*

The science-fiction part of the premise of Gardenia may sound strikingly similar to those of Numbers, When, even Denton’s Little Deathdate if you want to go that far. I haven’t read those three, so I cannot say if Gardenia is original enough, but I can say that it’s definitely more invested in the emotional elements that come with this concept. It’s not too unique, but the overall writing and character writing kept me on the edge of my seat, making it a very pleasing story.

First off, I loved the setting. The story takes place in a very small town named Kennedy, a place that you either stay in forever or escape when you get the chance. It’s underdeveloped and the people residing in it are more or less bleak and stagnant in their lives. Ivy herself struggles financially, as she lives with her mother and sister in a trailer out in the woods, working for her uncle in his restaurant to survive. Sutton painted such an easily-understandable picture, every detail popped out the page effortlessly.

The writing was my favorite part of the book. It carried such an emotional and loving nature to it which fit right in with Ivy’s story. It’s a short, fast book, but the way the book muses on about life, death, and making the best out of a situation is so relatable and important. It’s not forced or pretentious but told in a rather realistic and brutally honest way, that might depress you to an extent, but you’ll love it because it’s so well-done. It’s kind of how I felt with reading All The Rage, it hurts, but it hurts so good.

The characters were also an integral part of shaping the story’s emotional depth. Ivy was a pretty realistic character, there was carefree, cynical side to her as well as a vulnerable side. Her thoughts about dying, using her gift for something useful, and finding solace in the fact that she has a short time to live were heartbreaking but reassuring as well. I developed a great liking for her throughout the book, and the countdown to the day she dies had me pretty emotional. I also loved her family and her relationship with them, as the story progresses, Ivy seeks to inspire her mother and sister, specifically her sister, to go out and live her life as passionately as possible. Their familial love is realistic and heartwarming, and it was great to see a family aspect explored more than a romance. Ivy and Myers’ complicated relationship was also one of my favorite parts of the book, it was so messy and frustrating but I loved those aspects because it made their romance so much more real.

My only complaint was the lackluster thriller/mystery plot line going on. It was hardly fleshed out and was not consistent with the rest of the story. The “seeing the death date” aspect was actually well-described and relevant to Ivy and her mission but her quest to find Vanessa’s killer fluctuated constantly throughout the book. Meaning, there wasn’t enough “mystery” to match with the contemporary concepts in the story. And while I’m satisfied with the contemporary takeover, I came into this book thinking it was a thriller/mystery. It wasn’t nearly as chilling as I wanted it to be and the final reveal of the killer and the motive behind the murder was a bit disjointed and random. The reveal wasn’t completely surprising either, as there are only so many characters we’ve been acquainted with, and the fact that some are easily ruled out as the book goes on makes the finale even more predictable. I like the idea of the death dates as it opens up many themes surrounding life and death, but I think Gardenia should have been marketed as a contemporary instead. It definitely excels in that department.

Overall, Gardenia is a solid read, that is excellent in its contemporary themes but lacking in development of the mystery/suspense story line I was expecting. Nevertheless, I would recommend to anyone looking for an engaging plot and well-written characters, as well as an interesting take on the “I can see death dates” concept.

-Haven