Thursday, March 24, 2016

Sylvie the Second -- from Mākaro Press

Sylvie the Second, Kaeli Baker

I am guilty of judging a book by its jacket with this one -- and unfairly to boot.  Sad!  The graphic design did nothing for me (well, nothing good -- all of the elements are there, it just lacks a finished, high-end synthesis, I think -- but that is fair from an up-and-coming press!), and I found the "About" and blurbage forgettable and common.

I knew before the first chapter was over: I'd misjudged things;
  • The novel opens with a perfect entrance for Sylvie and her "first" counterpart (sister, Cate) -- it's a smart a clever rendering of the protagonist's dilemma in short order.  I liked Sylvie immediately.  I wanted to know what would happen to her.  As the story progressed, I ached for her.  Then I wanted to sit with her -- desperately.
  • It's often funny.
  • There are some great bursts of poetic language.  There are also some mediocre cliches and stereotypes, but I found I was reading so quickly, I cared little!...
  • Because I was riveted by the story and the writing style made it easy to keep going.
  • I liked the nicks with built-in characterisation.
  • Baker is an excellent read-alike for Sherryl Jordan.
  • What is most difficult about this book, is recommending it.  To whom?  And how?  Because you see, it touches on some very heavy issues.  Really heavy.  And it has a lot of content that sensitive and conservative readers strive to avoid.  I wouldn't say there is gratuitous swearing, alcohol/drug use, sexual references or violence...but I would warn you -- there are all of those things.  The problem is, they lend authenticity.  Arguably, the swearing could probably go (I think you've heard my feelings before on this one), but the rest is part of Sylvie's reality, and contributes to the narrative.  And Sylvie's heavy-issues -- they need to be discussed.  The problem is, some YA readers are not ready to discuss them -- but you never know when having read a book that explored a dark and affronting issue (and truly tackled how to respond to it) might become a mental reference point, right?  So maybe reading it is good before you're tackling the issues yourself.  And's so heavy, guys.  So after some thought, I've decided there are three groups of people I would recommend this to; 1) Parents who have already survived the teenage years who can appreciate the authenticity of the narrative but also learn from it, as a parent -- revisiting the way teenagers think, only updated for a time with Facebook and phones in the mix.  I think it's an excellent cautionary/empathy tale for parents.  2) People working in the youth outreach sector.  3) Individuals with whom I am intimately acquainted with their struggles and fears.  Key: I can't blanket recommend this one; there's no "Everyone should read it!" or "If you like gripping, read-it-in-one-day books, this is for you!" because it isn't for everyone.   The biggest concern I have, is that exploring the coping mechanisms of other youth is muddy territory -- it may bring comfort to those who have coped in similar ways. OR it may allow conservative kids to safely process and acquaint themselves with darker topics. But I'm also may serve as an unintentional platter.  An array of now-considered coping methods to tantalise a teen on a dark day...options that teen may not have dwelt on at length, previous to reading.  It's a tough one.
  • The book's authenticity deserves its own bullet.  This was the most accurate representation of modern teen-New Zealand I have read.  Clearly, I'm not a teenager, so I'm not the best judge...but I lead a youth group full of them and have been teaching them for years...and this novel was an incredible amalgamation of my own memories updated with current dialogue and media.
  • The real hero of this story is Sylvie's friend.  She is incredible.  I would hope that any young people who do read the book digest more than the educational overtones relating to Sylvie's issues and response to them (there are lessons Sylvie can learn for you, guys -- so you don't have to). There's also the accompanying, other moral humming away there -- you could be a Belle in someone's life.  She's winning.
  • If you want to know specifics about what content exactly you're going to encounter in this book (because it doesn't come with a warning label like a DVD), here's the spoiler bullet; in addition to blasphemy, F-cusses, alcohol use by young people, drugs taken by young people, relationship trouble between parents, bullying, mental health challenges, and sexuality exploration...there is rape and self-harm.  I also think the lead-up to the rape scene was a risky choice -- it would be a hot topic in a Health classroom...(I think there would be arguments about causality / blame / shared responsibility for rape...and that could get ugly).  The ending?  What is done about all this?  Things are resolved.  Justice is served.  Sylvie returns to the core of who she was (only wiser for her adversity) and finds better ways to cope.  So if you want an assurance the book will recommend appropriate responses to lack of attention, rape and despair eventually, you have mine.  But you'll have to wade through the heavy to get there.  (See, having "lack of attention" followed by rape in a sentence -- dangerous!!!)
Overall, I'm glad a book like this exists.  I believe Sylvie the Second presents treatment of issues best discussed in a home with loving parents who establish an open, loving and trusting environment where youth feel safe to talk about what is going on with them and what they would do in hypothetical scenarios.  But not everyone has a home like that.  The lesson aspect of the book is so overt I wouldn't be surprised to find promotional bookmarks for the novel on a Family Planning clinic table; it reads like a long case study pulled from a therapy workbook.  But we need books like that.  Consider yourself cautioned, dear readers.  This one isn't for all, but for those it is for, they may just desperately need it.

Review copy supplied by Mākaro Press.

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