Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Young Adult (page 1 of 5)

Dumplin’ – Julie Murphy

Dumplin’, the 2015 young adult novel by Julie Murphy, opens strong with an epigraph quoting Dolly Parton: “Find out who you are and do it on purpose”. It’s a theme that runs through the story about a plus-size small-town gal trying to figure out where she fits in a world not made for her.

Dumplin' - Julie Murphy - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Dumplin’ is set in a small Southern town, known only for having the longest-running beauty pageant in the state of Texas. Willowdean ‘Will’ Dixon has never really fit in, not even in her own family, but she doesn’t mind – or she didn’t, until she developed strong feelings for her gorgeous co-worker at the local burger joint. All of a sudden, Will (known “affectionately” as Dumplin’ by her mother) is self-conscious about her size, and she’s desperate to find a way back to comfort in her own skin.

The only plus-size ‘role model’ Will ever had was her Aunt Lucy, a large woman who passed away shortly before the book begins. Lucy was kind and loving, but also deeply insecure. As Will puts it, “There are so many things that Lucy never did. Not because she couldn’t, but because she told herself she couldn’t, and no one made her believe otherwise.”

Determined to avoid a future life like Lucy’s, Will does the one big thing her aunt was never brave enough to do: enter the beauty pageant. To her mother’s shock, Dumplin’ has no intention of losing weight to fit into a pageant dress (and that’s never really a factor in the story). She enters simply to prove to herself that she can, a fake-it-’til-you-make-it route to body acceptance.

So, it sounds like it should be a heartfelt feel-good read, right? But I found Dumplin’ fairly depressing. Will seems to make ‘being fat’ her whole personality. Hardly a page goes by where she doesn’t mention it. I know that teenagers, especially those who don’t fit the mold of traditional beauty standards, can be a bit obsessive and self-critical, but it just felt over the top.

That’s especially given that Will’s judgement extended to other characters – there wasn’t a single character in Dumplin’ who wasn’t defined by their appearance (fat, skinny, buck-toothed, or otherwise). Will even uses a few ableist slurs that made me grit my teeth. It just wasn’t what I’d been hoping for in a book positioned as an ode to self-love and body positivity. Definitely not in the spirit of Saint Dolly!

I feel like this is a kind of writerly tic that Julie Murphy has been able to overcome, though. I don’t recall it being an issue at all in If The Shoe Fits, one of her later novels. There we got a heroine who was plus-sized and proud, and far more realistic in terms of her self-perception. So, if you’re looking for an uplifting book that places a fat woman in the spotlight and lets her get the man and the happily-ever-after, that’s probably a better one to pick up.

The strongest recommendation I can make for Dumplin’ is that it’s full of characters who love and admire Dolly Parton (even if they don’t quite manage to live by her ethos). It’s wonderful to see such a generous, wonderful woman eulogised in fiction, especially a book aimed at younger readers who might need prompting to find out more about her.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Dumplin’:

  • “the book has zero surprises in store for the reader. if you’ve ever read a book before you should steer clear, and if you haven’t, you should read something else.” – Evan Ørndal Lien
  • “This was supposed to be a revolution in heels–and what happens? Willowdean remains somewhat judgmental, and worse, the Roman empire wins! Ugh.” – Stephanie McCall
  • “Unfortunately, this dumpling was a little too bland for my taste.” – Books, Tea, Insanity

I Kissed Shara Wheeler – Casey McQuiston

I’ve been kicking-my-feet-in-the-air excited to read I Kissed Shara Wheeler ever since I read Casey McQuiston’s last novel, One Last Stop. It’s their first Young Adult novel (their previous ones having been… well, adultier), so I knew I wasn’t going to get as much spice, but I still had the feeling it would be a magical read.

I Kissed Shara Wheeler - Casey McQuiston - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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If you like your teenage characters bored, queer, and not a little bit Extra(TM), I Kissed Shara Wheeler is the book for you. Just take a gander at this premise: Chloe Green is in a fierce fight for class valedictorian, when suddenly her main rival plants one on her in an elevator… then disappears. Chloe does a little B&E at her house, only to discover that she’s not the only one Shara Wheeler kissed. She’s also left behind a maddening series of clues as to her location, and all three kiss-ees are going to have to work together to track her down before graduation.

So, this is a story of unlikely alliances, transcending clique boundaries in a religious Alabama high-school. Chloe is the only openly-queer girl at Willowgrove and she compensates for her outsider status with academic achievement. Smith is Shara’s long-time quarterback sweetheart who runs with the jocks and the cool kids. Rory is the boy next door who’s hobbies include writing emo songs on his guitar and breaking school rules. They all kissed Shara Wheeler, and they’re all desperate enough to work together to follow her trail.

See? I wasn’t kidding when I said the characters and the plot are Extra(TM) – but given that I Kissed Shara Wheeler is about teenagers in a small town with nothing better to do, it feels understandable (if not always totally realistic).

It’s like a queer Paper Towns at first (which McQuiston openly admits to, alluding to John Green’s best-seller with a similar plot on page 45). It has a much younger vibe than McQuiston’s previous novels; clearly, they made a conscious choice to skew this story younger, rather than just writing a book with less sex and slapping a Young Adult label on it. It focuses less on the romance and more the journey of self-discovery that comes alongside Shara’s scavenger hunt.

That’s the thing about popular kids. They don’t have the type of bond forged in the fire of being weird and queer in small-to-medium town Alabama.

I Kissed Shara Wheeler (Page 4)

I Kissed Shara Wheeler feels like McQuiston’s most overtly political novel (despite the fact that their debut, Red, White & Royal Blue, was literally set in the White House). McQuiston manages to depict both radical queer joy in found families and living one’s truth, and the very real prejudices and pressure that LGBTIQA+ kids face to stay in the closet. The setting is what amplifies it – deeply Christian, deeply Southern, where (in the real world) many teachers are actually forbidden by law from responding to kids’ questions about gender and sexuality or providing them with reading materials that might help them.

Even though Chloe Green and co. clearly struggle with the deck stacked against them in their homes and at school, McQuiston keeps the tone positive and joyful. The only thing that jarred a little for me was having I Kissed Shara Wheeler explicitly set in 2022 with no mention of the pandemic at all. It would’ve completely changed the Mood of the book, I grant you, and it would’ve up-ended the high school experience of the characters… but it still felt strange. I personally think it would’ve made more sense to shift the story back to 2019 to alleviate that dissonance while retaining its contemporaneity, but that’s just me.

It didn’t detract much from what was otherwise a lovely reading experience. I Kissed Shara Wheeler would be the perfect pick for fans of Sex Education on Netflix, or anyone who considers Taylor Swift’s Mastermind their personal anthem. I’m even surer now than I was before that McQuiston has a great, long career of writing queer romances ahead of them.

My favourite Amazon reviews of I Kissed Shara Wheeler:

  • “It’s like a lesbian John Green book” – Novalea Patton
  • “When you put it up you can’t put it back down. You need to know where is Shara.” – Kayla Smith
  • “If you love gay disasters, friendships where they’re all gay, and a little bit of mystery, then I Kissed Shara Wheeler is the perfect book for you.” – RL

All The Things We Never Said – Yasmin Rahman

Young Adult books have never shied away from the tough topics, but it’s become even more noticeable over the last decade or two. Case in point: All The Things We Never Said, a young adult novel about an online suicide pact. Steel yourself, because this is going to get dark.

All The Things We Never Said - Yasmin Rahman - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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All The Things We Never Said is prefaced by an Author’s Note. Yasmin Rahman generously reveals that she – like her main character – experienced depression in her teenage years, and grew up in a very traditional Bengali Muslim family. It’s a kind heads-up for the reader about the content of the book, and includes directions to resources for help if needed.

There are three main characters. Mehreen is the one at the fore: she’s sixteen years old, and experiencing depression with a side of panic attacks. She calls it the ‘Chaos’, the feelings that take over her mind and body. She’s finding it difficult to function, and even more difficult to ask for help. So, she joins MementoMori, a website that promises to match people who wish to die by suicide with “partners”. The site provides a date and a “method” of death, and a set of instructions for preparatory tasks. (Yuck. Yuck, yuck, yuck.)

Mehreen is matched with Cara and Olivia, two girls of roughly the same age who have their own stuff going on. Cara was inured in a car accident ten months prior to the start of All The Things We Never Said, and now has to use a wheelchair to get around. That doesn’t bum her out as much as her mother’s constant hovering and refusal to talk about the accident (which also took the life of Cara’s father). Olivia’s chapters are written in a free verse style, which gives her a very different voice to Cara and Mehreen. Olivia’s life looks perfect from the outside, with more wealth and privilege than you could poke a stick at, but she’s being abused by her mother’s boyfriend and she can’t see a way out.

The three girls begin meeting, as instructed by MementoMori, to plan for their deaths and make arrangements. They bond quickly, of course, but in an ironic twist, their new supportive friendships alleviate a lot of their distress and have them re-thinking their plans to die. Unfortunately, MementoMori won’t “let” them back out of the pact, and sends them increasingly harassing messages and emails, encouraging them to “follow through”. (YUCK!)

There’s a lot of very teenage logic and behaviour in All The Things We Never Said, so it feels realistic in that regard, if not very relatable to an adult-adult reader. The tunnel vision of the characters’ adolescence is clearly amplified by their mental health struggles. The adults in their life are shown to be fairly clueless, and it’s understandable why Mehreen and co. wouldn’t feel comfortable approaching them for help. So, it’s pretty convincing emotionally, if frustrating in an old-head-on-young-shoulders way.

It should be clear by now, but just in case: anyone picking up All The Things We Never Said should know ahead of time that it contains 13 Reasons Why-style explicit exposition of suicidality, self-harm, and sexual abuse. It’s very dark, especially for the Young Adult category. The attempts at comic relief didn’t quite land, though it did have a neat and hopeful ending (so it didn’t end on too depressing a note, I guess).

I thought All The Things We Never Said would be more of a thriller, a la A Good Girl’s Guide To Murder, with plucky teen protagonists teaming up to bring down the evil genius behind the MementoMori website. It’s nothing along those lines. It’s more of a cautionary tale with A Message(TM), about the importance of friendship and support for teenagers dealing with depression and anxiety. Whether or not it’s worth reading I suppose depends on what exactly you’re looking for, and what you can handle in terms of triggers.

A Good Girl’s Guide To Murder – Holly Jackson

A Good Girl’s Guide To Murder: what a sexy title! Holly Jackson nailed it with her debut, a young adult mystery novel that I’d call Veronica Mars meets Sadie.

A Good Girl's Guide To Murder - Holly Jackson - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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The story is framed as a high school project for Pippa, a budding Murderino. Five years ago, a girl in her local area was killed (presumably, because a body has never been recovered); Pippa thinks the wrong man was accused of the crime. Her teacher has tried to dissuade her from using this particularly horrific subject for a school project, but Pippa forges ahead anyway. The “production log” for her project becomes like a journal, recording the rest of her POV directly, while the narrative is otherwise third-person.

A Good Girl’s Guide To Murder is set in the fictional town of Little Kilton (in the original UK edition, anyway). The victim of the crime that Pippa investigates is Andie Bell, a 17-year-old town sweetheart. Everyone believes that Andie’s boyfriend, Sal, is the one who killed her – but Andie’s not so sure.

What really happened to Andie Bell on the 20th April 2012? And – as my instincts tell me – if Salil ‘Sal’ Singh is not guilty, then who killed her?

A Good Girl’s Guide To Murder (Page 20)

Jackson quickly establishes herself as queen of the mic-drop. Every single one of the early chapters ends on some kind of cliffhanger. First, it’s Andie approaching Sal’s brother and telling him she believes his brother is innocent, and she thinks she can prove it. Next, it’s a clue in the circumstances of the discovery of the crime. It’s a really effective way of hooking the reader in, and keeping the pages turning.

I really liked the banter between Pippa and her besties, Lauren and Cara. They’re the least infuriating teenage girls I’ve read about in a long time (which is no short order). Their dialogue was snappy, believable, and made me chuckle on more than one occasion.

A Good Girl’s Guide To Murder starts to get a bit overcomplicated about two-thirds of the way through, though. There are a lot of players, and a lot of criss-crossing connections between them. Jackson did her best to feed exposition into the narrative, but the whole I Know What You Did Last Summer-element just muddied the waters too much.

I also want to lodge an official complaint about a devastating dog death, in the latter part of the book. It was needlessly cruel, and had me chasing my own puppy around the house demanding snuggles.

I did pick the “real” culprit(s?) fairly early on, so the “big reveal” at the end of A Good Girl’s Guide To Murder wasn’t much of a surprise. Also not a surprise: the sequels. All of the primary mysteries are resolved, but Jackson left plenty of stones unturned for future books. It’s now the first in a series of three novels and one novella (see: Good Girl, Bad Blood, As Good As Dead, and Kill Joy).

Apparently, BBC Three has picked up the rights to a television adaptation of A Good Girl’s Guide To Murder, and they’ve got a script and producers lined up and everything. So, keep your eyes peeled, because it’ll probably hit your screens soon.

All told, I didn’t love the dog death and at times it was A Bit Much, but A Good Girl’s Guide To Murder was otherwise a fun and compelling read, probably the best young adult mystery I’ve read in recent memory.

My favourite Amazon reviews of A Good Girl’s Guide To Murder:

  • “I literally stopped listening to this book so I could watch a British woman in booties play the glass harmonica on face book… This book was so poorly written I couldn’t go back to listening to it… So I watched the glass harmonica lady 2x and then tried to figure out how to get my audible credit back… Trying to get the credit back was the most exciting thing about this book.” – Phil & Mel
  • “If you have a moral compass, do not let your young teens read this.” – Mom

The Miseducation Of Cameron Post – Emily M Danforth

The Miseducation Of Cameron Post has one of the best opening lines ever (“The afternoon my parents died, I was out shoplifting with Irene Klauson.”). Plus, this Penguin edition is absolutely gorgeous, with sprayed edges in the colours of the Pride flag. I didn’t know much else about it when I picked it up, but hey: that was enough to convince me!

The Miseducation Of Cameron Post - Emily M Danforth - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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It turns out, The Miseducation Of Cameron Post is a coming-of-age young adult novel. The titular character, Cameron, is a 12-year-old girl living in rural Montana in the early ’90s (actually, in Danforth’s hometown of Miles City). The story begins the summer Cameron’s life veers wildly off course.

Her parents die suddenly, tragically, in a car crash (NOT a spoiler, see the opening line!). To her great shame, Cameron’s first reaction upon hearing the news of their death is relief. Earlier that day, she had been kissing her best friend Irene (and shoplifting with her, too, but that’s by the by). That might not seem like a shocking secret to be hiding in today’s day and age, but in early ’90s rural Montana? You can understand Cameron’s fervent fear of discovery.

The coincidental timing – of Cameron’s sexual awakening and her parent’s death – makes for a tangled mess of emotions, one that she struggles throughout the novel to untangle. Cameron doesn’t just kiss Irene, she kisses other girls too, and even falls in love with one of them. The guilt she feels over her attractions is compounded by the influence of her new guardian, born-again conservative Aunt Ruth.

Things go from bad to worse when Cameron is unceremoniously outed by the straight girl with whom she had fallen in love. Aunt Ruth “has no choice” but to send Cameron to God’s Promise (blegh), a religious boarding school (conversion camp) that promises to “cure” her (pray away the gay).

So, here seems as good a point as any to mention a few things. First off, big time trigger warnings for The Miseducation Of Cameron Post: death, grief, conversion “therapy”, self harm, and internalised homophobia.

Secondly, if you’re not familiar with conversion “therapy”, this explainer from the Australian Human Rights Institute of UNSW describes it as “a pseudoscientific practice whereby an LGBTQI+ person is subjected to methods of torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment which is instigated by individuals with the aim of changing their sexual orientation and / or gender identity”. Danforth has said that The Miseducation Of Cameron Post was inspired by the 2005 case of Zach Stark, a young adult who was sent to one such conversion camp after coming out to his parents. Some Australian jurisdictions have outlawed these programs, and momentum is growing for a nationwide ban; of course, the state of play is more dire in other parts of the world. If you want to know more, see if your local LGBTQI+ action groups have any resources.

Okay, now back to the story. Ironically, at God’s Promise, Cameron finds the kind of queer community she was missing back in Montana. Danforth stops short of depicting any gory physical abuse at the hands of the camp’s staff, but it’s clear that Cameron and her new friends are suffering and struggling with the pseudo-therapeutic “treatment” the staff provides. It was a really interesting approach on Danforth’s part. The pastor and his staff aren’t typical “monsters”, and it’s not always easy to hate them; sometimes, they seem to genuinely care for their charges and believe that they’re doing what’s best for them. That makes for confused emotions and allegiances in the reader – a good reflection of the main character’s own journey.

The Miseducation Of Cameron Post is, in a sense, a “coming out novel”, but it’s much darker and less trope-y than that label implies. Cameron’s sexual identity isn’t reduced to a one-off forbidden Sapphic love affair, born of two people with undeniable chemistry who just happen to be the same gender. Cameron is deep-in-her-bones queer, and she seems to have a knack for finding girls who are just as curious-slash-scared as she is, even in rural Montana, even at conversion camp.

The prose is tactile, well-paced, and rich without being overwhelming. Danforth gradually adds layer after layer, and shows remarkable restraint in relaying a highly emotive story. She also writes in a kind of quasi-nostalgic style that shits me no end when it’s written by/for straight men, but resonates so hard for me when it’s written by/for queer women; maybe that’s a relatability thing? I’m conscious of my own biases as a reader, and this is probably one of them.

Of course, because The Miseducation Of Cameron Post is good and interesting and actually reflects the lived experiences of some young queer people, it’s been banned any number of times, most notably in Delaware in 2014. A school board removed it from the district’s summer reading list, citing “inappropriate language” as the reason – ha! Disingenuous tools. Danforth’s response to the news was perfect, so I’ve reproduced it in full here:

“I’m proud that The Miseducation of Cameron Post is now in the company of so, so many novels that have been banned and challenged and censored throughout history—many of them among my all-time favorites, the very books that shaped me as a reader, a writer, and a person. It seems that everyone except you knows that censoring, or even attempting to censor a book, only makes it more appealing to curious readers, which certainly seems to be true in this case. I’m honored to be told that dozens of local readers have already begun seeking out my novel, something they almost certainly wouldn’t have done before you made this completely unnecessary decision.”

Emily M. Danforth (author of The Miseducation Of Cameron Post)

All told, I loved The Miseducation Of Cameron Post – it’s a difficult read at times, but an immersive and impressive one, a must for fans of The Perks Of Being A Wallflower. While it’s billed as a young adult novel, and I’m sure there are plenty of teens who get a lot out of it, I think it will actually resonate most for adult-adults, the ones who actually grew up during or before Cameron’s adolescence. Speaking as one of those, my hat goes off to Danforth, and I look forward to reading more from her.

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