September 19, 2016

Susan Koefod: "Naming the Stars"

Title: Naming the Stars [on Amazon | on Goodreads]
Series: None
Author: Susan Koefod [Site | Goodreads]
Genres: Contemporary with a Twist
Year: 2016
Age: 12+
Stars: 2.5/5
Pros: Interesting premise. Doesn't rely on stereotypes. Tries to convey a message about self-image and self-esteem.
Cons: Execution is a bit confusing and not always consistent. Characters are not explored to the fullest.
Will appeal to: Those who like coming-of-age stories with an underlying mystery and without romantic undertones.

Blurb: 16-year-old Mary-Louise (note: it erroneously says "19-year-old" on Amazon) comes home from swimming lessons one day to find she is absent from family photographs, her bedroom has turned into a linen closet, and all of her possessions have disappeared. More troubling, her family goes on as if she never existed. The only person in town who can actually see her is a boy she calls Fish, a YMCA swimming instructor, but Fish is hiding from a troubled past and the person he sees is entirely different from who she thought she was. The teens discover the photo of a spirited, beautiful young woman photographed many years before - Pearl - who exactly resembles the girl Fish sees. The truth about Pearl's identity is the key to discovering why Mary-Louise has disappeared and why Fish left home. (Amazon excerpt)

Review: First off...DISCLAIMER: I received this novel from Curiosity Quills in exchange for an honest review. To be more precise, I specifically requested a review copy. That didn't affect my opinion and rating in any way. Here goes... 
This is one of those books where you recognise a potential and understand the author's good intentions, but that fall a bit flat for your tastes. We all have read at least one of those...well, more than one, I'm sure. I feel sad not to be able to rate it higher - but then again, the execution has to count for something :(. 

I'M NOBODY! WHO ARE YOU? *

It's difficult to write a review for NTS without giving away the whole twist. It's even difficult to categorise it. You can say it's a contemporary novel with magical realism elements, because that's how the story unfolds - but the ending puts something new on the table...or maybe not.
Mary-Louise is an insecure teen who entertains a couple of hobbies/interests (swimming and playing the saxophone) and has her heart in neither. She has a habit of introducing herself to anyone - even family members - as if afraid of slipping through the cracks. Which is precisely what happens to her one day. The only person her mysterious invisibility doesn't seem to affect is Fish, a boy she knows via her swimming lessons, who in turn has a couple of huge problems of his own. The biggest chunk of the story revolves around Mary-Louise and Fish's unusual interaction, and the lessons they learn from each other while they're trying to crack her mystery. I really appreciated how the author didn't weave a romantic plot around the two of them, neither did she make Fish "hot". He and Mary-Louise are indeed connected, but in a way that will only come clear in the end (BTW, this doesn't ultimately rule out a romantic connection, but doesn't affirm it either). And the path that goes there is full of mystery and philosophy, but avoids your usual girl-meets-boy scenario - of which I was grateful. 

* from a poem by Emily Dickinson [...]

NOW YOU SEE ME

I was drawn to NTS by the mystery, and got a moral lesson. Mind you, I can't say I disliked the turn this novel took - though there were some heavy-handed moments (I'll get to that in the next paragraph). Actually, the contemplative angle and Mary-Louise's musings were the part I liked the most. Because her disappearing act in itself didn't sound totally consistent to me - though the final twist can probably explain all the incongruities, but till you get there, there are a whole lot of scratching-head moments. I get that Mary-Louise is invisible to anyone, but she still interacts with the world around her - moves things, rides a bike - and no one notices. Of course, the theory is, when she moves an object it just turns invisible with her - but even with that in mind, the mirror scene or the whole episode at the police station felt more like farce than drama to me. For some reason, I couldn't get emotionally invested in the situation. Again, Mary-Louise's musings in the main section of the book - and her relationship both with Fish and her little brother - ended up being more captivatng for me than the mystery of her disappearing act, and her relation to a woman called Pearl spotted in an old photograph. Maybe that was the reason why I missed the clues Koefod planted, which only made sense to me the second time around. Anyway, when the mystery was unveiled, I was still confused, because the timeline wasn't that clear to me - not even after the second read. I have to say the story makes sense in the end, though, and even if it relies on a trope - which, to be fair, is what most stories do - it spins a new twist on it.

HAIRY MATTERS

One of the reasons why I didn't like the book more was probably Mary-Louise herself. She wasn't a memorable character for me. Of course, since she has apparently turned invisible, this might have been somewhat intentional on Koefod's part - but the truth is, the main lead of a book SHOULD leave her/his mark on the reader. I also got annoyed by a couple of her self-descriptive traits. One is a pet peeve of mine, but really - six mentions of "kinky" hair? (that of course Mary-Louise doesn't like). Why on earth can't these young girls LIKE their not-straight hair, or at least use the word "curly"? (though I have to admit Mary-Louise also calls her hair "wavy" a couple of times). Why can't authors normalise curly hair in books, instead of perpetuating the myth of straight hair as the only socially acceptable option? Why can't a girl hate her straight hair for once? But if "kinky" hair is mentioned six times, Mary-Louise's "near-unibrow" (or simply "unibrow") makes a total of 23 appearances. Yes, I counted them. Of course, there's a reason for mentioning it a few times - since the girl Fish sees when he looks at Mary-Louise is completely different from her, and unibrow-free - but 23??? Yes, of course the point is, Mary-Louise doesn't like herself. She puts too much weight on things that shouldn't define her. I get that her unibrow is supposed to represent that. But I can't for the life of me understand why one shouldn't tweeze their unibrow for the sake of not overcaring about their appearance, nor why a 16 y.o. girl should keep her own unibrow untamed because her mother says so. It's just not believable.

SMOKE AND MIRRORS

I entered into this book expecting a straightforward mystery with a supernatural or sci-fi angle, but at its core NTS is about the way we perceive ourselves - or better, the way we often let the people around us shape our vision of ourselves. Like I said, the unexpected turn didn't particularly fazed me - actually, to me, the book started to get more substantial, and even improved on account of that. Also, it's imaginative - I have to grant it that. Then again, I didn't connect with the character(s), and I think the execution could have been more convincing. But I'm not completely sure I can only blame the book for my detachment. I'll readily admit that a teen with a self-image issue might enjoy NTS far more than I did.

For more Contemporary/Contemporary with a Twist books click here.

6 comments:

  1. This book sounds really good. I'd have picked it up just by reading that blurb itself, but your review makes me feel slightly apprehensive. How disappointing when a book with such potential fails to deliver! But yes, the premise sounds great! Love the review, Roby!

    Ruzaika @ The Regal Critiques

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    Replies
    1. I would still recommend it to teens interested in self-image and self-awareness topics, or struggling with those. And it's not that I hated the book or anything - there was good in it. It may be that I'm not the right audience for it (and I don't mean because I'm not a teen LOL. Though maybe...).
      Thanks hon!

      Delete
  2. I like the sound of the message this book seems to convey even if the mystery isn't really my thing.

    Karen @For What It's Worth

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    Replies
    1. The premise was good - it's a pity that the execution wasn't stronger (most reviewers on Goodreads seem to think so, though for mixed reasons).

      Delete
  3. I'm intrigued... but the unibrow thing is so off putting. I do not like a lot of repetition in my books, and this would drive me crazy.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. LOL, it was a bit excessive indeed. It was supposed to make a point, but that was spelled out a little too conspicuously.

      Delete

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