ARC Review: Down in the Belly of the Whale by Kelley Kay Bowles

Image of book cover from Goodreads
Image of book cover from Goodreads

Title: Down in the Belly of the Whale

Author: Kelley Kay Bowles

Category: YA Contemporary

Publisher/Date: Aionios Books/5 May 2018

Edition: eARC



Barnes and Noble:

A contemporary story about family and friendship for fans of Eleanor Porter and L.M. Montgomery.

Harper Southwood is a teenage girl who can sense when people will get sick—but so what? She can’t predict her best friend’s depression or her mother’s impending health crisis. Being helpful is all Harper ever wanted, but she feels helpless in the face of real adversity. Now, she’s got a chance to summon her courage and use her wits to fight for justice. Laugh and cry along with this irrepressible, high-spirited teen in her journey of self-discovery, as she learns that compassion and internal strength are her real gifts, her true superpower.

I received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley. This book has content warnings for child sexual assault/rape, self harm, attempted suicide, body shaming, cat dissection, and hospitals.

Unfortunately, this book was not only incredibly poorly-written, but it was also extremely harmful in multiple areas. To start with the writing: this book was all over the place tonally. It dealt with some very dark topics in a rather carefree tone that came off as extremely flippant. The main character, Harper, is said to be intelligent but doesn’t seem to understand anything about the world around her, and this makes the book seem encyclopedia-like in places as she waits for the people around her to explain things to her. For example, after accusing her uncle’s new boyfriend of being a druggie because he needed to give himself a shot of insulin at the table and is explained the medical necessity of shots, she is STUNNED just a few pages later at the thought of a totally different character needing to give themselves shots on a regular basis, something that is incredibly unfathomable even after having the concept explained to her literally earlier the same day. It wasn’t charming; it was extremely annoying, and it felt poorly-executed.

The book’s handling of child sexual assault was even worse. Harper is constantly in “savior mode” despite having no idea what she’s doing, and even though nearly every move she makes is dangerous to someone or another she faces no consequences for any of them. Her best friend Cora attempts suicide and ends up in the hospital; it’s unrealistic because no one is actually keeping an eye on her despite her being suicidal, and Harper had ignored all of the signs of Cora being suicidal previously. After Cora admits that her uncle had sexually abused her and tells Harper that she does NOT want to report it because her father believes her uncle and not her and she doesn’t feel safe reporting because of that, Harper immediately ignores Cora’s wishes and takes it upon herself to report it. And Cora’s father lashes out physically on someone else because of it. The really strange part is Cora isn’t even the slightest bit upset with Harper for completely ignoring her and Harper feels no remorse or guilt for ignoring her friend like that. Reporting an abusive relative of a friend isn’t necessarily the worst course of action, but the way in which it was handled here where the person who reported against the victim’s wishes receives no consequences at all for her actions was incredibly unrealistic, and it rubbed me the wrong way.

Some of the other characters were… Interesting… Harper’s lab partner, whom Harper insists regularly that she’s going to marry, has this weird infatuation with the cat they’re dissecting, and it’s pretty gross. Harper’s uncle, who is probably the most likeable character in the book despite not being super likeable, is essentially the token gay character placed to show that being gay is “normal” and that’s about it. Most characters are forgettable messes without much in terms of personality, and those that weren’t forgettable were either caricatures or overly annoying.

The book also had multiple instances of fat-shaming and skinny-shaming that grated on me, and the book had a “discussion” about cultural appropriation that essentially stated that as long as you know where the thing you’re misusing came from, then misusing it is not appropriation. That’s… not how that works. At all. In fact, that’s deliberate appropriation, and it’s gross.

The only borderline redeeming quality about this book was some (and I mean some) of the discussion of multiple sclerosis, which is the only medical part of the book I even sort of trust because the author herself actually has MS. There were some learning moments there, but they really got buried in the disaster that was the rest of the book. This book didn’t really work for me, and it’s not one that I can recommend to others.

Final rating: 1 of 5 stars

Review: The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth

Image of book cover from Goodreads
Image of book cover from Goodreads

Title: The Miseducation of Cameron Post

Author: Emily M. Danforth

Category: YA Contemporary (LGBTQIAP+)

Publisher/Date: Balzer + Bray/7 February 2012

Edition: ebook



Barnes and Noble:

When Cameron Post’s parents die suddenly in a car crash, her shocking first thought is relief. Relief they’ll never know that, hours earlier, she had been kissing a girl.

But that relief doesn’t last, and Cam is soon forced to move in with her conservative aunt Ruth and her well-intentioned but hopelessly old-fashioned grandmother. She knows that from this point on, her life will forever be different. Survival in Miles City, Montana, means blending in and leaving well enough alone (as her grandmother might say), and Cam becomes an expert at both.

Then Coley Taylor moves to town. Beautiful, pickup-driving Coley is a perfect cowgirl with the perfect boyfriend to match. She and Cam forge an unexpected and intense friendship — one that seems to leave room for something more to emerge. But just as that starts to seem like a real possibility, ultrareligious Aunt Ruth takes drastic action to ‘fix’ her niece, bringing Cam face-to-face with the cost of denying her true self — even if she’s not exactly sure who that is.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post is a stunning and unforgettable literary debut about discovering who you are and finding the courage to live life according to your own rules.

This book has content warnings for homomisia, conversion camps, abuse of minors, ableism, self harm (brief but graphic imagery), familial death, a car crash, drugs, and sexual content.

I understand why this is an important book and it has a lot going for it, but there were a lot of things about the book that really put me off. Starting with the positives, I really appreciated the authenticity that I felt from the depiction of the conversion camp and the different perspectives that come from places like that. Conversion camps are incredibly manipulative and scary, and I felt that both the abuse taking place there and the either conceding or rebelling from the program felt real to me. This is a perspective that we really need in the world, and for that I really appreciate it.

With that being said, there were several things I didn’t like about the book. I didn’t like Cameron as a character very much because I didn’t feel like I got a good sense of her as a person; I felt that throughout the entire book I was watching her react to things, kind of, but she wasn’t doing much of anything herself. The only time she didn’t feel completely passive was when she started yelling at her aunt, and she did that to get a reaction out of her. Her emotions were so muted that I really couldn’t get myself to identify with her at all, and that made it difficult for me to care about her personally. I was invested enough to want her to get out of the conversion camp because that place is awful, and that was about it.

The pacing of this book was also extremely slow, and it frustrated me. This might have been because the voice of the book felt so bland to me and so it felt like it was dragging on for a while, but it seemed like a lot of this book could have been cut out without doing much to the story.

One other thing that really bothered me was the presence of a disabled character who had a prosthetic leg; the only purpose she served was to hide drugs within her prosthesis at the camp, and this felt really uncomfortable to me because this was the only physical disability rep we got in this book and it wasn’t great. I don’t really know anything else about that character except she used her disability to hide and sell drugs at the camp. Not great.

I had a hard time rating this book because I do think it’s important, but it also really wasn’t the book for me. I recommend reading it because of its importance, but it’s not something I’d want to read again because it’s a bit boring and monotone.

Final rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

Review: You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone by Rachel Lynn Solomon

Image of book cover from Goodreads
Image of book cover from Goodreads

Title: You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone

Author: Rachel Lynn Solomon

Category: YA Contemporary

Publisher/Date: Simon Pulse/2 January 2018

Edition: Hardcover



Barnes and Noble:

Eighteen-year-old twins Adina and Tovah have little in common besides their ambitious nature. Viola prodigy Adina yearns to become a soloist—and to convince her music teacher he wants her the way she wants him. Overachiever Tovah awaits her acceptance to Johns Hopkins, the first step on her path toward med school and a career as a surgeon.

But one thing could wreck their carefully planned futures: a genetic test for Huntington’s, a rare degenerative disease that slowly steals control of the body and mind. It’s turned their Israeli mother into a near stranger and fractured the sisters’ own bond in ways they’ll never admit. While Tovah finds comfort in their Jewish religion, Adina rebels against its rules.

When the results come in, one twin tests negative for Huntington’s. The other tests positive.

These opposite outcomes push them farther apart as they wrestle with guilt, betrayal, and the unexpected thrill of first love. How can they repair their relationship, and is it even worth saving?

From debut author Rachel Lynn Solomon comes a luminous, heartbreaking tale of life, death, and the fragile bond between sisters. 

This book has content warnings for suicidal ideation and self-harm.

Wow. I don’t even know where to start with this book. I’ll just go with the words “exceeds expectations” and then try to work from there.

The tension in this book is so thick that you could cut it with a knife. The dueling points-of-view between the twins shows just how much they misunderstand each other, and while it feels frustrating while you’re reading it it also makes their worlds make that much more sense to you. That’s kind of the point — they don’t understand each other, and they don’t know how to interact with each other because they don’t understand each other’s wants and needs. It’s a tense and complicated relationship, and it worked so well.

loved how central the family as a whole was to the story. Ima and Aba were caring and supportive, and while they didn’t always understand their children they did their best to listen and talk to them (something so often missing in YA). Also, I don’t think I’ve ever read a book with bilingual Jewish rep in it and I’m loving it. Ima came to the US from Israel after serving in the Israeli army, and she and Aba speak both English and Hebrew with Adina and Tovah at home. Judaism is explored as both a religion and as an identity, and through the twins (and other Jewish characters like Zack) we were able to see a variety of ways in which Jewish people express themselves, especially as Adina questions her religion while still fully embracing her heritage. As someone who isn’t Jewish, I really loved getting this view of the family.

The mental health issues covered in this book were very relatable to me. I absolutely loved how anxiety and depression were depicted as illnesses that can cause very real physical symptoms in people; this is something that a lot of people tend to forget, and showing that they can be behind symptoms that seemingly point to another illness was refreshing. The portrayal felt very real to me, and it’s heartbreaking. I know little about Huntington’s Disease, but the portrayal appeared well-researched, honest and raw. The prospect of not knowing when you’ll develop a disease is terrifying, and I feel like this was well done.

(If you liked You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone and want more teenagers and parents dealing with early-onset illnesses and more Jewish characters (as well as Deaf characters and romance and terrifyingly challenging races), you might want to give Wild by Hannah Moskowitz a try! I definitely kept thinking of that book while I was reading this one.)

I loved how well-developed all of the characters in this book were — not a single character in this book came off as flat to me. The twins themselves were the most well-developed characters I’ve read in a while, and their parents were definitely some of the most well-written parents I’ve read period. The characters felt real and were well-grounded in the setting, and I love when books give me this feeling.

Also, I looked up Rhode Island School of Design’s mascot and I was not disappointed.

This was one of my most anticipated 2018 releases, and I was definitely not disappointed. This is a book that I would love to pick up again in the future!

Final rating: 5 of 5 stars