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Book Review: 500 Words or Less by Juleah del Rosario

Publisher’s description

500 words or lessA high school senior attempts to salvage her reputation among her Ivy League–obsessed classmates by writing their college admissions essays and in the process learns big truths about herself in this mesmerizing debut novel-in-verse, perfect for fans of Gayle Forman and Sonya Sones.

Nic Chen refuses to spend her senior year branded as the girl who cheated on her charismatic and lovable boyfriend. To redefine her reputation among her Ivy League–obsessed classmates, Nic begins writing their college admissions essays.

But the more essays Nic writes for other people, the less sure she becomes of herself, the kind of person she is, and whether her moral compass even points north anymore.

Provocative, brilliant, and achingly honest, 500 Words or Less explores the heartbreak and hope that marks the search for your truest self.

 

 

Amanda’s thoughts

There is something so satisfying about a novel in verse that is done well. To be honest, they don’t often work for me. I find that my eyes want to skim the lines and I finish in record time, which I like, but feel like I don’t retain a whole lot of what I read. Or, I feel like the story isn’t served well by the structure—like I want more, but can’t get it in this format. Thankfully, neither was necessarily (more on that later) true with this title.

 

The summary up there does a fairly tidy job of giving you the plot. The plot is a lot more of an internal journey than anything, which is fine by me (for the millionth time I’ll say it—go ahead and close people into a room to talk or put me inside someone’s head while they just think and I’m perfectly happy to keep reading). Biracial Nic Chen is at the top of her class. She’s smart, involved, and has applied early decision to Princeton, but she feels like she’s still not perfect enough for her dad and stepmom. She’s also constantly whispered about at school, her locker defaced with the word “whore” on it, feeling totally lost without her lifelong friendships with Jordan and Ben—friendships that fell apart when Jordan and Nic, who was dating Ben, slept together. But Jordan doesn’t seem to be suffering the same fallout as Nic—he’s still adored, no one is writing slurs on his locker, and he is still best friends with Ben, who no longer has anything to do with Nic. It’s all fairly lonely for Nic, who doesn’t appear to have many friends. It’s only because she starts writing college application essays for her classmates that she starts to interact more and realize some things not just about her peers but about herself. By writing about their lives, trying to see the world through their eyes and experiences, she also reveals parts of herself. She begins to realize that there are so many versions of herself that she shows and hides. Though she always felt held at an emotional distance by Ben, even when they were dating, she starts to see that she, too, held not just Ben but everyone at a distance. There are some pretty compelling reasons for this, including her mom’s disappearance from her life, but prior to this, Nic hasn’t thought too hard about them. Though Nic started writing the essays as a way to keep her from ruminating on her own life too much, she finds that this is a time in her life to be particularly reflective, especially once Ben reappears and things grow even more complicated with her feelings for him and for Jordan. 

 

The one part that I felt didn’t work for me was a thing that happens about 4/5 of the way through the book, a tragedy that I will avoid talking about here because of spoilers. I will say that it felt like a bit of a tidy/easy way to help both Nic and Jordan come to some realizations about their lives and their futures. It didn’t make me dislike the book, but it felt contrived and kind of like a cop-out. I also wish that we actually got to know the larger cast of characters better—the peers whose letters Nic writes, her friends Kitty and Ashok, and maybe even Nic herself, who holds the reader at a bit of the same emotional distance she grapples with in her life. The interesting plot of writing letters for others, of seeing through their eyes, thus highlighting and revealing Nic’s own loneliness, is an appealing one. A strong if imperfect look at guilt, regret, and forgiveness. 

 

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9781534410442
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Publication date: 09/25/2018

#SVYALit Book Review: Wrecked by Maria Padian

Publisher’s description

wreckedEveryone has heard a different version of what happened that night at MacCallum College. Haley was already in bed when her roommate, Jenny, arrived home shell-shocked from the wild Conundrum House party. Richard heard his housemate Jordan brag about the cute freshman he hooked up with. When Jenny formally accuses Jordan of rape, Haley and Richard find themselves pushed onto opposite sides of the school’s investigation. But conflicting interests fueling conflicting versions of the story may make bringing the truth to light nearly impossible–especially when reputations, relationships, and whole futures are riding on the verdict.

Maria Padian offers a kaleidoscopic view of a sexual assault on a college campus. Wrecked will leave readers thinking about how memory and identity, what’s at stake, and who sits in judgment shape what we all decide to believe about the truth.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

As you can imagine, this wasn’t an easy read. I read this as a woman in the world, as a mother of a son, as a friend to many, many women who have been raped, as a witness to rape culture, and as a human beyond infuriated by everything that went on with Brock Turner. I would say this book is “timely,” but the sad reality is that it has always been and will always be timely—rapists and rape culture are not going anywhere any time soon—so let’s just say this it totally relevant to all teenage (and adult) lives. And it will make you mad. And it should.

 

The story is told through the eyes of Richard, who is a housemate of Jordan, the accused rapist, and Haley, whose roommate is Jenny, the victim. In between their chapters, we also see exactly what happened the night in question, doled out in small bits. After being raped, a few days pass, and Jenny calls the crisis line at her school. While she doesn’t go to the police, she does file a formal sexual misconduct complaint at the school–she has her reasons for only wanting to report what happened at school. She chooses Haley to be her advisor–the person who can be with her during all of the interviews and can offer advice and support. Often this role is filled by someone on the faculty or by a lawyer. Jordan chooses Richard for this role—for reasons that really have nothing to do with support. Given that Haley and Richard are just beginning to possibly date, their roles and the “sides” they appear to be on make things even more complicated for them. Jordan challenges the accusation and the bulk of the novel is about finding out what will happen in the case and how the events really unfolded.

 

By showing us not just the rape and presenting the story not just from the viewpoint of the victim, we are able to more fully see rape culture at work and understand all of the things that can come along with something like this. Jenny must deal with the reaction and desires of her parents and the advice from friends and advocates as well as the assumptions, lies, and harassment that come with the story getting out. We see what others are saying about her or about that night. We see misinterpretations and fuzzy memories and friends making bad choices and others trying to make good ones. We see the people who feel they share some of the blame and those who don’t feel at all responsible for what happened that night. We see the questions asked by people and the questions that get ignored. We see blame, guilt, and facts. And at the heart of everything is truth—something that can easily get buried under lies and blame and foggy memories. 

 

I hope everyone who reads this remembers that rape victims get to feel how they feel, get to react how they react, and get to move forward in whatever way they feel is best for them. I also hope everyone who reads this walks away mad. If you have somehow managed to make it to this point in life without having watched a friend struggle with the aftermath of a rape (or been a victim yourself), this book will make it perfectly clear how horrible, frustrating, angering, upsetting, and complicated it is. A powerful and important read. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781616206246

Publisher: Algonquin Young Readers

Publication date: 10/04/2016