Book Review: Beware The Wild by Natalie C. Parker (coming out soon!)

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: **** (3 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: 12 -18

I read an ARC of Beware The Wild and some details may change before publication!

I seriously dig swamp magic.  I mucked around writing half a novel about swamp faeries one Spring, and it was good fun.  The bayous down South hold me in dreadful fascination, even though I’ve never really explored that part of the country and would probably quit after an hour because of the insects.  Swamps make a great setting for mysterious or threatening otherworldly activity, with weird creatures and secrets hidden down below the slime.  Hence my excitement for this new YA novel set in Louisiana, where ghostly girls come out of the bayou and local legends mix with memories which may or may not be trustworthy.  Beware The Wild is Natalie C. Parker’s first book, and I’m excited to see it in bookstores because there can never be too many creepy swamp stories.  This is a good one.

Sterling is distraught that her older brother, Phineas, will be leaving their tiny Louisiana town for college soon.  She’s always looked to him for protection, but now he’s just going to disappear.  That is, she’s sad about him leaving until he really disappears into the spooky swamp that haunts the borders of town – the swamp that’s home to all sorts of unhappy legends, where no one dares tread and which no one will admit has something sinister at its heart.  Once Phin crosses the border, Sterling becomes terrified that her brother won’t ever return in one piece.  And things only get weirder when a girl comes out of the swamp and takes his place, quite literally replacing Phineas in everyone else’s memories and even in physical evidence.  No one believes that Sterling had a brother; not her parents, not her friends, no one except for Heath. Because Heath lost his best friend to the swamp, too, and has been carrying Nathan’s memory on his own ever sense.  Even while false memories of a sisterhood with this mysterious Lenora May threaten to take over Sterling’s desperation to save her brother, she and Heath hang on to what they know is true and try to face the twisted magic which makes the swamp so dangerous.

Wow, so, the plot of Beware The Wild really hits the ground running.  Phin has disappeared by page three, and the swamp demands our attention from the very first sentence.  The girl who comes out of the swamp – Lenora May – establishes herself as a mysteriously compelling tangle in Sterling’s suddenly messed-up life before we even see inside of the high school.  And that’s only chapter one!  The family drama, friendship dynamics, and past romantic tensions come to light gradually, as Sterling grapples with her memories.  She thinks she’ll have to rescue Phin on her own at first, which would obviously be difficult, and the swamp’s background gets clearer as she struggles to come up with a plan. Sterling’s own history solidifies gradually, too. Her voice is well-defined, and the town’s spooky ambiance is believable, so I was able to accept each revelation as it came. The magical solutions which Sterling and Heath use to save their friends were dishearteningly simple in their execution, but the magical logic behind their attempts was sound enough to keep me reading.

The legends connected to the swamp took on different cadences depending upon who told them.  Mrs. Clary at the general store is a bit mystical, so her superstitions had me convinced that something awful lives beyond the boundaries.  Candy – Sterling’s best friend – is a hardcore skeptic who just happens to love telling the local scary stories.  A good mix of very American characters from all perspectives – on matters magical as well as sociable – made for a realistic, modern variety of of attitudes towards whatever danger lies just beyond rational belief.

As Sterling and Heath soon come to understand, the line between memory and belief can get fuzzy when no one else can remember the truth.

For the most part, the characters were developed nicely.  None of them will become favorites of 2014 for me, but they were fun and passionate; likable products of such a cool setting.  I thought that the villainous figure could have been developed much further, though with so much going on and quite a few twists I guess there wasn’t much space for even more exposition.

The writing was fairly strong, especially for a debut. First-person present-tense narratives usually bug me, but the pacing and narrative worked well together, here. I loved how certain details were allowed to slip through the cracks for a little while, until the reader could suddenly realize that something (or someone) was missing at the same time that Sterling notices.  The suspense took on the logic of dreams at those moments, in a consistent way that created a uniquely alarming effect.  Rather than being a jumpy or gory horror novel, Beware The Wild sustains a vaguely sinister tension up through its conclusion, with a few light breaks for awkward dates and emotionally fraught snack attacks.

On the subject of snacks: anyone struggling with an eating disorder might want to give Beware The Wild a miss for now, since Sterling has many a Bad Food Thought. Her decisions and motives are clearly influenced by starvation in several instances.  Other characters definitely act as the voice of reason against Sterling’s worrying behavior, but, as in Brandy Colbert’s Pointe (which I enjoyed but also deals with an ED) the main character’s inner narrative is very prevalent.  Therefore, whenever Sterling throws out a meal or lies about what she’s eaten, her rationalizations become part of the story.  All that sound advice from Candy, Phin, Heath, and other healthy characters comes after a strong emotional aversion to feeding herself properly. For most readers, this will just be an interesting point of character development.  And, rest assured, Sterling does change her attitude towards food as the book goes on.  Unfortunately, for those of us who have also looked for reasons not to eat – especially those of us who thought not eating could make us stronger, somehow – the element of starvation here could easily be a trigger.  So proceed with caution, please!

I recommend Beware The Wild to fans of American ghost stories and superstition junkies.  People who like intriguingly claustrophobic settings for their paranormal drama.  Teenagers with complicated feelings about their families, and anyone who daydreams about how they’ll be remembered when they’re gone.  (I, for one, have spent many an hour wondering how best to achieve immortality through other peoples’ stories.  Even if it’s just, “Don’t do that or you’ll end up like Sarah.”  A cautionary legend, if you will.  The impact of forgetting in this book hit my dreamy side hard.)

Beware The Wild has an atmosphere and themes in common with Beautiful Creatures and (Don’t You) Forget About Me, even though I liked Beware The Wild much better than either of those.   The rich setting and bizarre twists were comparable, but Parker managed to make her characters and magic more accessible, even when we have to get to know them on the fly.  It wasn’t quite so stunning as Franny Billingsley’s Chime, but honestly I can’t imagine anything replacing Chime in my affections. This book has found a place on the high end of my bog-magic list, nonetheless.

The magic in this particular swamp is unique in its function, but hauntingly familiar in the way that it seeps into the sort of fears we try to ignore: that of forgetting, but also of loving too hard, and giving up hope.  A good swamp story is fertile ground for those worries, playing them back to us on a seemingly natural stage, where something unnatural lurks under every root and rock.  Natalie C. Parker’s threatening but lovely swamp has drudged up a ghost story, and a couple of love stories, which will be a welcome addition to the Southern Gothic YA genre.

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Book Review: Pointe by Brandy Colbert

source: goodreads

Star Ratings (out of 5):

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: ***** (5 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: 13 and up.

Pointe is Brandy Colbert’s debut novel: a realistic YA story focusing on a kidnapping. And ballet. And eating disorders. And high school. It’s about Theo, who had to face the challenges of the dance world and recovery without her best friend, ever since Donovan disappeared when they were thirteen. At first she thought Donovan might have just run away, only a few days after her boyfriend left without saying goodbye, which was confusing enough on its own. But years went by and when he didn’t return, Theo had to agree with everyone else that he must have been kidnapped.

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But all of a sudden, in her junior year, Donovan returns to the neighborhood. Between the media frenzy and the rush of memories about their mysterious last conversation so many years ago, Theo’s nerves are understandably frayed. Donovan won’t speak – about his kidnapping or anything else – and he won’t even see her. Theo’s life gets very hectic very quickly. At school, all her friends have opinions about the Donovan case, and old memories won’t stay buried. At ballet, the new pianist (who happens to be her friends’ dealer and a casual acquaintance from school) has broken the wall between Theo’s two separate worlds of dance and everything else. And when a new development in the identity of Donovan’s kidnapper comes to light, Theo has no choice but to question everything that happened between them when she was thirteen. Time is running out to separate memories from self-delusions, because the trial’s coming up and her testimony could change everything. With her own future in ballet to consider and uncertainty about Donovan’s experience weighing heavy on her mind, pressure from every aspect of Theo’s life threatens to take a toll on her physical health as well as her grasp on what has made her who she is.

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So, Pointe had a lot going on in it. There were so many subjects Colbert chose to deal with, I was worried that certain threads of the plot would have to be abandoned for the conclusion to work. And it’s true that the focus did jump around a little to much in the first few chapters of the novel. We read about Theo’s love fer dance, her recent experience at a recovery center for her anorexia, they dynamics of her friend group, and some intriguing hints about her previous relationships with Donovan and her ex.

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I was especially worried that the eating disorder would drop out of the picture without being thoroughly discussed, if not resolved. Too many YA books describe a character as anorexic as an easy fix; just to supply a set of pre-formed judgements to otherwise under-developed character traits. Other books glamorize the notion of starving one’s self past the point of fragility. As someone who has experienced firsthand how un-glamorous and challenging anorexia really is, I was relieved to see that the triggers and emotional responses were considered throughout all the external drama. Theo’s thoughts about food were certainly skewed, but since the majority of Pointe is told in the present tense of a first person point of view, her own rationalizations and justifications go hand-in-hand with all the unpleasant symptoms. Because the disordered thought patterns are so accurately portrayed – Theo works hard to hide her relapse and ignores the danger she’s in – I would caution anyone struggling with their own recovery against reading Pointe until such thoughts get a good bit of objective distance. Otherwise the whole eating issue was treated fairly well, though I do think that there could have been a few more details about the nasty physical repercussions of Theo’s self-enforced restrictions, just to remind readers now and then that it’s really awful to have your body eat itself out of desperation. Maybe that would have been veering near the edge of preaching, though, and Pointe strives (pretty successfully) to stay away from any obvious moral lessons in favor of a real, honest attitude towards the multitude of dilemmas.

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What about the other dilemmas, then? The most gripping layer of Pointe’s premise was always going to be the kidnapping, though the angle might be different than some readers expect. The victim himself doesn’t feature as an active character even when he returns. He appears in Theo’s memories and thoughts way more often than he does in the flesh, so we get a unique spin on the abduction narrative. I really liked how Theo couldn’t be sure whether Donovan meant to disappear or not, and refused to make a judgement for years until she could get a clearer picture of his intentions. Her reaction to learning that the suspect is someone she knows is actually the pivotal revelation in that storyline, not Donovan’s return. This twist ensures that Pointe continues to be a book about Theo more than anyone else: her own tangled past, her own conflicting fears, and her own big decisions. Big questions about consent and maturity get pulled into the limelight, but since most of the discussions about these topics come from teenaged characters talking naturally amongst themselves, Colbert has resisted the trap of letting Pointe turn into one of those books where problems are either fixed or trivialized with too much external intervention.

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The characters in general are pretty excellent, and nicely varied. One or two individuals were too over-the-top for my tastes: too slimy with money or unbearably vapid, but these weak links were mostly just the minor characters who filtered in and out of Theo’s school surroundings. Her closest friends were very likable, with witticisms a’plenty but also showing true friendly concern even when she doesn’t think she needs their help. I liked the portrayal of Theo’s family: her parents are mostly supportive and she clearly doesn’t want to hurt them with her own struggles. There can still be conflict and secrets without every adult functioning as the enemy, and Colbert showed that nicely. I also admired the fact that Theo and her parents are one of the only black families in their neighborhood, and while this obviously impacts her life, race never becomes her sole defining feature. She’s a ballerina who happens to be black, just like she’s a young girl who happens to struggle with a disorder, and a teenager who happens to have a secret. Three damn cheers for dancers of color taking center stage – and for popular YA novels with main characters of color, in general. I hope Pointe gets a whole lot of readers (and subsequently, publishers, etc) realizing that it’s easy to relate to any character who is written skillfully and who can illicit our sympathy. On that note, too, the ballet scenes are interesting without descending into insider-jokes and the like. I haven’t had one ballet-themed thought since I was about eleven, but rather than going on technical tangents the sport is just described as Theo’s artistic passion, and passion is – I hope – fairly universal.

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The pages of Pointe are absolutely stuffed with drama and angst, but the main character’s earnest struggles are what make it so readable. You could honestly take away the sometimes-melodramatic romantic entanglement, which didn’t add much to the story. I would have liked to read a little more about Donovan’s family and a little less about high-school assholes. But all in all I got thoroughly wrapped up in Colbert’s story, and read the book in pretty much one go. Read Pointe if you like realistic YA with true-to-life main characters. Theo doesn’t run around speaking in poetical jargon, and there are no tragic one-liners here. It’s a good book for anyone who likes the drama of mysteries but without the sleuthing, too.

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I would suggest that anyone under the age of 13 think carefully before reading this one, because the topics of anorexia, sexual assault, and drug dealing are portrayed quite frankly and without any tiptoe-ing around the harsh facts. Any ballerinas read Pointe? Please tell me what you thought of it, since I’m not familiar with that world. In the end, this was a really exciting debut novel and I love how Brandy Colbert pushed her material into new and different directions. You can bet I’ll be reading anything she might write in the future.