Book Review #17: The Screwed Up Life of Charlie the Second

The Screwed Up Life of Charlie the Second by Drew Ferguson

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

An awesome friend of mine recommended this to me God knows how many years ago, and I’ve just gotten around to picking it up. The gist of what I knew about this story going in was that the main character is gay, the setting is practically my hometown, and it’s incredibly racy.

On the one hand, this is only a surface description of the book. On the other, these are the three things I focused on the most.

“The Screwed Up Life of Charlie the Second” has a pretty self-explanatory title. Charlie is the eighteen year old protagonist, about to graduate from Crystal Lake South High School (yes, all my local friends, you heard me correctly) who’s trying to make sense of his life in the midst of applying for college, dealing with family drama, and falling in love for the first time.

The first half of the story made me laugh out loud several different times. One of the strengths of Ferguson’s novel was the authentic–and often crude–voice of the male narrator. All of the events are told through Charlie’s diary entries and the college essay he keeps taking stabs at, which gives him the excuse to pepper his narration with profanity and sexual references. No matter how funny or gross parts of it were, Charlie’s story felt real.

Hearing all the local references was one of the coolest parts of the book for me. The mentions of the Village Squire and Julie Ann’s, the Cottage, and Cary-Grove only beating up on South’s football team by a certain margin of points that year were what made the story. Then again, even if you have no familiarity with the area specifically, Charlie’s commentary can be just as easily applied to most suburbs.

My biggest problem with “Screwed Up Life” was the total tone switch about halfway through the story. We as readers go from hearing about crushes and drunken parties and Homecoming to assisted suicide, divorce, and bullying. I understood that life had to get worse for Charlie, that he had to face some of the issues the author had sort of been implying, but I didn’t buy his reactions–or the reactions of the other people involved–to these issues.

Maybe it was the irreverent voice with which the majority of the novel was written. Even when something bad was happening, I never quite felt the seriousness of it because even Charlie himself didn’t seem to. And in spite of the hilarity of the story as a whole, most of the emotionally resonant moments for me weren’t what Ferguson had probably intended.

I enjoyed “The Screwed Up Life of Charlie the Second,” and I’m glad I read it. I don’t think I’d wait years to read it again though.

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Book Review #16: Unspoken

Unspoken by Sarah Rees Brennan

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

“Unspoken” is one of those books I picked up almost exclusively because of friends’ or acquaintances’ recommendations. I don’t know how much buzz the book got in the literary world, but I knew enough people who read and enjoyed it that I gave it a try.

Oh. My. God. There are some books you blow through because you MUST know how they end, and others that you try, desperately, to take your time on so you catch every detail. “Unspoken” was a brilliant mix of these traits.

I loved the premise–a girl who has been talking to an ‘imaginary’ friend her whole life learns he is a real person when the mysterious, frightening family who owns half her small town returns. Even if flap copy hadn’t pulled me in, Kami would’ve instantly. I’ve read a ton of YA this year and I don’t know if I’ve found a more likeable, engaging protagonist than she is yet. I don’t think so. Her personality was so REAL to me that it felt like we could’ve been friends under different circumstances. She was the kind of person whose conviction and heart made me fall in love with characters I might not have ordinarily, and trust characters I would’ve pushed aside.

Which brings me to Jared. Poor, poor Jared. I’m a total sucker for angsty, vaguely dangerous but incredibly loyal bad boys (at least in fiction) and I was blown away by the scene where they meet for real. The intensity of that moment may have even topped the climactic ending for me. I was utterly intrigued by how nicely Brennan was able to weave his and Kami’s obvious connection into their inherent differences–especially where a possible romance is concerned.

If there’s one thing “Unspoken” does really well, it’s starting in exactly the right place. The insular world of Sorry-in-the-Vale was so beautifully crafted that I was more than content with waiting to learn of Jared’s existence and get into the meat of the mystery just so I could get a feel for the location. Not that the mystery wasn’t totally compelling in its own right–a great blend of the magical and the mundane.

I enjoyed picking out the similarities to more old-fashioned Gothic novels, and if I hadn’t had to return my copy, I would’ve spent more time than is healthy figuring out how each chapter title related to the rest of the chapter and to the Gothic as a whole genre. That being said, I hit the wall about midway through the story where going slow and savoring each twist and turn wasn’t going to happen. At that point I was too invested and needed to know what happened immediately.

As for the ending, well . . . I won’t spoil you. Let’s just say that I’m thrilled there’s going to be a sequel.

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