Not Otherwise Specified by Hannah Moskowitz • Magan Reviews

Book Review for Not Otherwise Specified by Hannah MoskowitzNot Otherwise Specified by Hannah Moskowitz [twitter • website]
Publication Date: March 3, 2015
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Pages: 304
Target Audience: Mature Young Adult
Keywords: eating disorders, theater school, Nebraska, LGBTQ, black MC
Format Read: ARC from Publisher (Thank you!)

Summary: Etta is all of these things: black, bisexual, a former ballerina, lonely, recovering from an eating disorder, and anxious to get out of Nebraska. She and her best friends aren’t getting along anymore and while she’s in search of a way out of Nebraska, she befriends a new group, very different from her, but the gaping holes in her heart start to not feel quite so deep anymore.

• • •

Whew. Etta. She is … a character, a handful, a LOT to take in. She’s a bundle of constant energy with strong opinions, a lot of talent, full of run-on-sentences and rambling thoughts, and a lot of loneliness as she finds herself distanced from her best friends because she started dating a boy.

Yep, a boy. Etta was a part of the Dykes clique at her school, a group of girls who were out and proud of it, and yes, labeled as aforementioned. A group consisting of her very best friends that she dressed up in retro 70s clothing with and went to the town’s only gay club. But Etta’s never felt defined as wanting to date girls OR boys. It’s never been an either/or dilemma for her. So when she meets a nice guy, they date, and her friends abandon and begin bullying her, and Etta feels more lost than she ever has before.

Etta’s broken up with that boy, still not speaking to her ex-girlfriends, is attending weekly meetings for her eating disorder, and begins to meet with a group of people to audition for a New York theater academy. If only she can get out of Nebraska and be some place where there are more people like her, maybe life will improve. It has to. Etta’s new group is very different from her: Bianca is a very young, very sick anorexic, Christian girl with more talent than anyone Etta’s ever met. James is Bianca’s protective, kind older brother with secrets of his own. James’ best friend is Mason who becomes really protective of and enamored with Etta.

I admit it took me a little while to really get into Not Otherwise Specified. It’s written very freely and Etta’s inner monologue is wordy, sometimes all over the place. I suppose I’m also a little more polite and less abrasive than Etta, too, which I had to get over to embrace her. But when I did get into the rhythm of Etta’s craziness to see how all of these factors propelled her to want to get out and find her footing, I couldn’t stop reading.

Not Otherwise Specified is likely one of the most diverse books I’ve read in a long while, and I absolutely loved that we have this main character who is bisexual with a newfound best friend who is a devout Christian. Clearly they have some fundamental differences that separate them, but Moskowitz handled this in such a profound way. Granted, some of this wording may have changed in the final edits, but this section particularly made me happy to see. Etta’s not above trying to understand Bianca’s feelings even though they differ from her own:

“…obviously thinking that gay people are wrong is antiquated and messed up, but that idea is not what Bianca’s worshipping. She’s not in this to hate gay people. She doesn’t hate gay people. She’s just this girl who really loves her God and doesn’t want to do anything to pull herself away from him–sorry, Mason–probably just as much as she doesn’t want to be pulled away from her brother.

…but I don’t think we can just say that something she believes, something that she fundamentally wants to not hurt anybody is something she can, or should, just get over.”

Take a chance on Etta. Challenge yourself and read her story about loneliness, acceptance, moving forward, not feeling like you belong, and befriending people very unlike yourself. It might take a beat to adapt to Etta’s over-the-top personality, but once you do, you’ll anxiously be awaiting to see what happens next.

• • •

rather be reading worth it icon

Add NOT OTHERWISE SPECIFIED to Goodreads • Amazon • Barnes & Noble

• • •

Dive into Diversity Reading Challenge

book review of what happens next by Colleen Clayton, books about rape and victimization of high school girl

Magan: What Happens Next by Colleen Clayton

book review of what happens next by Colleen Clayton, books about rape and victimization of high school girlWhat Happens Next by Colleen Clayton [website | twitter]
Publication Date: October 9, 2012
Publisher: Poppy
Pages: 320
Keywords: rape and victimization, eating disorders, control
Target audience: Mature Young Adult
Format read: ARC from Little, Brown at ALA (Thanks!)

Summary: Sid wakes up on her junior class ski trip not remembering the details of the night before when she was supposed to meet up with an older guy at a party; her friends tried to cover for her, but everything implodes. Sid cannot clarify the details because she doesn’t remember what happened.

Sid is a girl who has two good best friends but remains boyfriendless. On her junior class ski trip, she’s suffering from a case of beginner woes and hangs back at the bunny slopes while her friends move onto more dangerous adventures. She’s paired with a flirty, cute guy named Dax on a ski lift who makes her feel attractive. Though it’s against the rules, when he invites her to a party, she sneaks out to meet up with him. She goes alone because her friends don’t want to risk getting caught.

When she arrives to the “party,” she finds Dax, alone. This is the point where my stomach bottomed out and I knew bad things were about to happen. Time fast forwards and we don’t have a clear picture of what happened, but two things are sure: a) Sid is missing a lock of hair, and b) she’s been raped. When she returns to the ski resort, she’s in major trouble and her friends are infuriated with her.

Back at school, Sid is socially rejected (adios cheerleading squad) and her best friends block her out of their lives. Sid feels conflicted; she’s unsure of what to tell her friends so she disconnects from them by swapping out of classes they’re in. She meets a stoner boy, Corey, when she’s assigned to work on the Audio Visual (AV) team with him. Everyone has this idea of who Corey is and thinks he’s just a slacker, but while Sid is in isolation, she gets to know the truth about this mysterious boy.

Their relationship is very subtle and quiet. It begins with a lot of back and forth banter that proves what a strong and witty character Sid is. Corey reveals there is a lot more to him than what people think. Sid finds out that he works at a bakery. They begin having secret meet-ups there in the wee hours of the morning, where they talk while he works. Corey fills this role, this void, that’s left in Sid’s life because she has no other friends, no one else to talk to. Even though she distanced herself from everyone else, she realizes she needs this kind and respectful boy in her life.

Not all of What Happens Next is easy to digest or quite as enjoyable as Sid’s blossoming relationship. Clayton does an impeccable job of developing a very real depiction of what happens when a girl is victimized. Everything in Sid’s life has spiraled out of control: she has something ripped away from her without her consent, loses her best friends and her place on the squad, and finds herself very alone. She realizes the one thing she can control is what she eats and how she looks. She begins eating less and running more, with occasional binges thrown into the mix. Even though Sid is a smart girl who should have known to tell someone what happened to her, she didn’t know how. She feels like an idiot who fell for a big joke, like what happened was all her fault. Sid loses faith in herself and her anger manifests itself as an eating disorder. She used this to gain control back, but her decision-making skills were sometimes maddening (very true to form for a high schooler).

I had knots in my stomach while I waited for everyone to find out the truth. I waited patiently for the explosion. The anticipation was high, as was the emotional connection to the characters. Sometimes a smart girl doesn’t always make the best decisions, and we need a support group of people to put the pieces of our lives back together again. Sometimes that support group consists of the last boy you would have ever expected.

It’s not often that I compare books, but if you’re a fan of Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak or Tammara Webber’s Easy, you should consider picking up What Happens Next. Clayton’s depiction of rape and victimization is difficult, but very well written and very much worth the read.

own it now -- highest ranking from Rather Be Reading Blog

Goodreads | Amazon

Estelle: Saving Ruth by Zoe Fishman

Saving Ruth by Zoe FishmanSaving Ruth by Zoe Fishman
Publication Date: May 1, 2012
Publisher: William Morrow
Pages: 304
Target audience: Adult fiction
Keywords: eating disorder, college student, racial prejudices, summer
How I found out about it: A pick for Big Kids’ Table

Summary: Ruth is back in the south, on her first summer break since leaving for college in the fall. Life at home is intense, her older brother is distant, and no one can stop commenting on her weight loss (she thinks she looks great, they think she looks too skinny). Even working at the pool isn’t the relief it used to be as judgements begin to surface after a child nearly drowns.

I can remember how weird it was to come home that first summer after being away for 2 semesters. You’re used to so much freedom and all of a sudden you are under the same roof with your parents and the same rules. As for friends, it always took a little while to get back into the swing of things with people you didn’t see that often.

After reading so much YA, it was interesting to read an adult contemporary title about a 19-year old who had some very adult problems. (I actually don’t know why it couldn’t have been classfied as YA.) Ruth is forcing herself to keep a very strict diet and exercise plan. After being an overweight child, she is scared that gaining any ounce will mean she will be right back where she began. When I read about a character with an eating disorder, I’m always curious about what moment would be their breaking point. Despite the comments from her family and friends, Ruth maintains this regiment for a majority of the book. Fishman does a realistic job of painting this girl who was so affected by the people she grew up with and even the small comments made now and then by her parents. No one knew that those small moments could grow to mean so much.

In fact, Ruth is “hired” to help another overweight girl in the neighborhood after her mom sees how “fabulous” Ruth was looking. (Ironic, isn’t it?) I loved the train of thought that came out of these lessons and also the parellels between her and the youngin. That’s the thing about Ruth. She is completely aware of what she is doing. She knows she lacks the knowledge of proper nutrition but even knowing that is not enough for her to put a halt to her behaviors.

A well-done subplot of the novel was also the difficult relationship Ruth had with her brother, David. The once popular/uber successful/soccer star champion is suddenly withdrawn and Ruth has no idea how to get through to him. I was very caught up in their relationship and what might have been David’s problem. (I guessed wrong.) David’s secrets open a can of worms when an emergency occurs at the pool and Ruth is forced to face certain truths about him. Not only that, but prejudices she never encountered start to bubble and force her to see others in her community differently.

Fishman has created a well-written work that manages to weave in various storylines and not pollute the pages with too much of anything. She has a refreshing and simple style that was easy to connect with and I couldn’t put the novel down. (Sidenote: there’s also some romance and I mention that because it’s sweet but also I love how Fishman doesn’t make it bigger than it ought to be.) In fact, I was utterly sad when it was over. In the end this book is about people vying for control of their lives and how that control is so fragile. So it’s also about learning how to let go, go with the flow, and why that isn’t always the easy thing to do.

Goodreads | Amazon

Estelle: The Stone Girl by Alyssa B. Sheinmel

book cover for The Stone Girl by Alyssa B. SheinmelThe Stone Girl by Alyssa B. Sheinmel (Tweet!)
Publication Date: August 28, 2012
Publisher: Random House Children’s Books
Pages: 224
Target audience: Mature young adult
Keywords: eating disorders, New York City, friendships, mother/daughter relationships
Format read: ARC from NetGalley (Thanks!)

Summary: Meet Sethie, a high school senior, living in New York City and doing anything she can to maintain her ‘ideal’ weight.

A character like Sethie is one we all know — a straight A student who wants to go to a good college (like Columbia), wants to be able to go up to her boyfriend and kiss him, a girl who looks in the mirror and doesn’t like what she sees.

At 17, Sethie can get in her college applications early but isn’t sure what her relationship with Shaw (her boyfriend?) is all about. It’s simply easier to let him take the lead and make the first move so she doesn’t destroy the delicate balance that is their relationship. She’s just sort of there.

That’s Sethie’s general MO in this novel. She’s not passionate about much more than maintaining her 110 pounds or less. (In fact, she quits yearbook because she doesn’t want to worry about the snacking that goes on.) There are flickers of another girl in there especially when she befriends Janey and they do everyday girl things like buy tight clothing and get all dolled up for frat parties.

From third person, Sethie’s behavior is still worrisome and alarming. There isn’t the same character connection and I felt like I was looking into windows and watching what these people were doing. I could not reach out and help — I was only an observer.

I didn’t know when and if Sethie would reach a breaking point. I feared what that would bring and while most stories regarding eating disorders build to a Broadway style complex, this one did not. It was gradual and calm and ordinary in a good way. The author, who reveals she suffered from an eating disorder in her teens, does present a different perspective which I appreciated. It felt believable and not weighed down by drama.

In fact, Sethie was not about drama at all. She did not like to make ripples and preferred standing in the shadows. One thing I couldn’t grasp was her relationship with her mother. Was I imagining her mom ignoring her daughter? Or was she simply an observer like the reader? Waiting and waiting until the right time to butt in? It wasn’t like her lack of a relationship with her mother or Shaw forced her to seek attention by losing weight. It didn’t seem Sethie had interior motives. She was addicted to this ideal and couldn’t let go.

While this novel focuses on serious subject matter, I did love the chemistry between Sethie and Janey – even though at first I didn’t trust their budding friendship. (Call me a cynic.) And later, I adored a character named Ben who brought a ‘giant’ amount of life into a very gray and stormy story.

Sheinmel’s writing is crisp and edgy and down-to-earth. She taps into a familiar subject matter, not by creating something cataclysmicly new but focusing on the everyday realities of those living with the disease, those who just find themselves in it
and can’t figure out if they want a way out or not. Despite the distance I felt from Sethie, I still liked her and my fondness for her paired with Sheinmel’s fast paced story made this a seamless read for me. (I only put it down twice.) Plus I loved how clearly it was written — every paragraph, every word seemed deliberate and served a purpose and that is something I don’t see nearly enough in young adult books.

Goodreads | Amazon

Estelle: Various Positions by Martha Schabas

Various Positions by Martha Schabas
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication Date: February 14, 2012
Pages: 336
Target Audience: Young Adult (for mature audiences)
Format read: Paperback ARC from ALA.

Summary: With her sex-obsessed peers and an unhappy home life, the only time Georgia feels at peace is on the dance floor. When she gets into a prestigious dance school, she believes her life may change for the better. But instead she gets wrapped up in the attention from her male dance professor and her thoughts and actions slowly spiral out of control…

Various Positions is a tough book to classify. The main character is 14 but has some very adult thoughts when it comes to sex. She’s fantasizing about her dance teacher, watching porn on the internet, and buying lingerie in hopes of someone seeing it. It’s an interesting juxtaposition from the character we meet initially. Georgia is skittish when it comes to her friends talking about sex and kissing and then she secretly begins to obsess with this world.

You don’t need me to tell you sex is a private thing. In my circle of friends, it wasn’t something we were very open about. At least with the girls. But I do remember those 14-year old boys, bringing it up anytime they could, teasing us, and being very open about the porn they were watching. While reading Various Positions, I stopped several times wondering if the uneasiness surrounding this particular book would exist if we were reading about a guy. And then I think Schabas has done something remarkable – given us an intimate look into the way Georgia’s mind works, stripping her of all boundaries. There are no limits when it comes to uncovering her actions and thoughts. Thoughts that are dark and honest and real.

This book is incredibly well-written and does a brilliant job of presenting a series of different women, full of their own beliefs and their own insecurities. Georgia is brought up in a household where her mother stresses about good looks and has a shaky relationship with Georgia’s dad, who for the most part is MIA. Then there is her independent, feminist half-sister who provides her with support and the constant reminder to not let her dad’s indifference get the best of her. You can see how this dynamic in her family life (and the secrets she soon discovers) cause her to be so unbalanced and confused.

While I was never hoping to be a professional dancer, I did dance for many years and the scrutiny I felt from the company owner and then on my own is something that still affects me to this day. The perfection of movement and appearance – you never know how that will affect someone and we see many levels of it here. Schabas seems to remember with great clarity both the challenges (both mental and physical) and pride and passion that come along with this profession.

Various Positions is not for every reader. Maybe when I was 14, it wouldn’t have been deemed super appropriate but in 2012 with Teen Mom, Jersey Shore, and the ability to find whatever term or video on the internet with just a click or two, I imagine many would relate or at least not shy away from the context. To take it one step further, I would love to see a book like this on a college syllabus – my college in particular would have loved to dissect this one to death. It’s an intimate and multi-layered look into the feelings of actions of different women. And how they just might surprise you.

borrow from the library

Goodreads | Buy on Amazon

Check out these other reviews of Various Positions: