Monday, November 7, 2011

Review: You Against Me by Jenny Downham

I've wanted to read You Against Me ever since I first heard about it. I've had it on my shelf, not-so-patiently waiting, for the time to be right. This did not really seem appropriate for Halloween.

There was a lot that drew me to this book. The obstacles that these characters would undoubtedly have to face if they want to be together. The question of whether this author would be able to present her story in a manner that was both interesting for a reader and sensitive to the subject matter she had chosen. My own personal curiosity over how I would react to the book.

You Against Me is everything I hoped it would be and more. Let me tell you why this book is so awesome.

The Plot: (Summary from GoodReads)

If someone hurts your sister and you're any kind of man, you seek revenge, right? If your brother's been accused of a terrible crime and you're the main witness, then you banish all doubt and defend him. Isn't that what families do? When Mikey's sister claims a boy assaulted her at a party, his world of work and girls begins to fall apart. When Ellie's brother is charged with the crime, but says he didn't do it, her world of revision, exams and fitting in at a new school begins to unravel. When Mikey and Ellie meet, two worlds collide. Brave and unflinching, this is a novel of extraordinary skillfulness and almost unbearable tension. It's a book about loyalty and the choices that come with it. But above all it's a book about love - for one's family and for another.

We enter the story the same way that we leave it. Life has happened. Is happening. Will happen. We don't get a clean cut "once upon a time" or a distinctive "the end". Don't misunderstand... The book flows perfectly fine. But there was some semblance of technique in the way that Jenny Downham sets everything out that makes it feel like you are following the characters lives and they started before you came and will continue after you leave. 

I liked the way that she mixed the lives of Mikey and Ellie's families, the court case and everything to do with it and the romance between Mikey and Ellie with such balance, precision and care. Everything came and went at just the right moment so that no one thing ever over weighed the story or bogged it down. The characters whose lives would naturally be impeded by a crime of this magnitude -- primarily Mikey's sister Karyn -- were halted. But the entire world did not magically stop and grieve over her situation. 

I think another thing I liked was that she took great care to make sure that the reader did not know right away what the truth actually was. If she had told us one way or the other who was being honest from word go, this book could have ended up having some kind of message. Instead, I felt that it was a detailed and well handled account of the situations that would occur on either side of this situation. Not only was this more informative and believable, it also made for far better reading. 

The Characters:

I liked Ellie. Her position in the situation she found herself in was very complicated and it was interesting seeing the layers of who she was be unveiled as the story moved forward. I felt that she was brave and intelligent without these traits being overdone to the point of being unbelievable. I found the struggle within her to stay loyal to her own family, do the right thing and / or be with Mikey very interesting. I could not put the book down.

If I liked Ellie, I loved Mikey. He reminded me of my own brothers and I feel that Downham did a fantastic job of covering his determination to care for his family, his rage over what happened to his sister, and his powerlessness to really do anything about it. I also liked the fact that desperate the numerous hardships faced by his character that he had a sense of humor and a decent attitude. Mikey felt very "real" to me. He was not a 'prince charming' type but he did not exude enough of a 'bad boy' allure for me to classify him as that either. 

Aside from these two the other characters that stood out to me were Mikey's friend Jacko and Ellie's father. Jacko stood out because he was an extremely good friend to Mikey and his solidity was a good contrast to the chaos that surrounded Mikey and Ellie. The reason that Ellie's dad is so memorable is that he came across as being very creepy and almost a villain, yet at the same time the reader realizes that he is trying to protect his son (and we don't know all the details, either). 

The Romance:

I think that this was handled very well, and it really had to be handled with care for it to work. When you stop and look at it, what happens with Mikey and Ellie is pretty much a complete 180 to what is claimed to have happened between Tom and Karyn. I like the fact that Downham was both clever enough to pull this off, and yet subtle enough to not make it feel like this was any type of a "The moral of the story..." type situation. Had the parallel here crossed that line, it would have done serious damage to the overall credibility of the book.

I also felt that the scenes between Jacko and Karyn near the end of the book were cute. It was nice to see her coming back out of her shell and for the reader to be left with hope that her life is going to move forward. I think this was handled nicely and that it added a layer to the overall tale that I found satisfying, despite the fact that it was only a small subplot. 

In General: 

I felt that the pacing in this book was well balanced. The story moved forward fast enough that I never got stuck, but the characters' world was described and delved into in enough detail that I felt like I knew and cared about them. The story is told in third person with some chapters from Mikey's POV and some from Ellie's. I've noticed that third person can be rather uncommon in YA. I'm use to it from reading other genres, but it's something that might be worth noting for others. 

I found You Against Me to be a book that challenged me to think about and consider what I was reading. I did not find the book overwhelming or uncomfortable, but I did feel a wide range of emotions as I witnessed what happened and discovered the truth of what had transpired before page one began.

If you have checked the summary for this book and it interests you, I would highly recommend that you check You Against Me out. The strength of the characters in how they face the situation that has happened and the way that it causes them to question everything makes for a story you will not soon forget.


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