Today I’m going to do something I very rarely do, and that’s write something negative about a book. I never post a review less than 4 stars, as most authors work hard to get a book out, are struggling to make a living from writing, and can do without negative comments from other writers. Usually if I haven’t enjoyed a book, I just shelve it and move on to the next, but I felt quite strongly about this one, as you’ll see.
When I heard that a YA novel had won the Romantic Novelists’ Association prestigious Romantic Novel of the Year Award, I was really excited. Joss Stirling’s novel Struck had beaten finalists in five other categories to become the first YA novel ever to win the award in the competition’s history, and it was up against a compelling list of contenders. The judges were fulsome in their praise, and I couldn’t wait to start reading.
This is the story: Raven, the heroine, has lost both her parents and is now living with her grandfather, who is caretaker at a posh boarding-school. Raven has won a scholarship to attend the school, but there are strange things going on, and she’s the victim of bullying. The head doesn’t do anything about the bullying, because of the shenanigans the school is involved in (trying not to give any spoilers) and also because she resents Raven being there as she isn’t the sort of upper-class pupil she’d like in the school.
Two teenage boys arrive. They’re part of a sort of teenage secret service organisation (run by adults) and have come to get to the bottom of the strange goings on. Up until their arrival I hadn’t been particularly enjoying the book, but that’s OK. Maybe it just wasn’t for me. But after the boys arrived things started to go downhill, and there were quite a few scenes where I really got quite annoyed.
Take this one, for example. The heroine has been abducted and tied up by a gang of teenagers, and she does a pretty good job of handling herself. I don’t think heroines necessarily have to be kick ass all of the time, but it’s good if they can show bravery and strength of character, and Raven did. After this event, she offers to show one of the teenage boys (Kieran, the romantic hero) some self-defence moves. She doesn’t know Kieran has already been instructed in self-defence by the best, and that he’s just going along with her.
“He enjoyed playing dumb as she clearly got so much pleasure from instructing him…
‘Now this evening I’m going to show you how to leverage your weight.’…
‘I thought leverage your weight was something hedge funds did for their assets by using sugar derivatives.’
OK. So Raven didn’t do financial sector jokes. ‘Nothing.’
She rolled her eyes. ‘OK, Mr Storm, stop making incomprehensible remarks that go over the head of mere mortals and get your butt here.’
He grinned, loving it when she got bossy with him.”
I found the hero patronising here, and it was hard to believe what I was reading. “Got bossy.” I did a mental “ugh” when I read that phrase. Why is it when boys give instructions they’re being assertive and showing leadership skills, but when girls do it, they’re being bossy? That one really annoys me, but it’s especially bad when it’s used in a novel aimed at teenagers.
And how about this passage? Kieran’s boss has ended up in hospital. Kieran goes to visit him, and asks:
‘Do you need anything, sir? Shall I call a nurse? I’ll see if I can find a pretty one to tuck you in.’
Ugh, again!!! I know a lot of teenage lads probably think this way, but surely not the romantic hero in a novel aimed at teenage readers. Does he really have to be such an arse? Nurses are a professional body of people (women and men, by the way) who must be sick to death of this type of patronising joke when they’re actually trying to do a job that includes saving people’s lives. I was tutting so loudly, at this scene, my husband begged me to put the book down.
There were lots of other things I tutted at, but finally, here’s another scene I really found “wrong.” Kieran’s friend has told Raven that Kieran comes from a wealthy family, but it turns out Kieran’s mum is actually a down and out alcoholic, living on the streets in London. Bear in mind, as I’ve said already, this is a book for teenagers and young adults. There are many, many teenagers who live with a parent who is an addict, or who have a relative who is an alcoholic. I have personal experience myself, as one of my own really good friends is an alcoholic, and another friend’s sister died of an alcohol-related disease. The author might be surprised to know that, far from living on the streets, both these people held responsible jobs and lived in houses they own after paying off the mortgage. Being an alcoholic is a lot more complicated than the one-dimensional bag-lady portrayed in this novel.
If you’ve been taken out of your home environment as a child and are being looked after by a godparent, as Kieran is, then it’s up to that godparent to manage the situation as well as possible whilst still maintaining a link between parent and child (unless there’s a very good reason not to, and the fact that the mother is an alcoholic isn’t enough reason to cut her off altogether). Kieran’s godparent and mentor has allowed Kieran to sever all links with his mother. Kieran’s godparent (also the leader of the secret society) has been “bribing Gloria [his mother] for years to keep her distance to allow Kieran a chance to have a solid education and stable home.” I just didn’t get any of this, at all. When Kieran bumps into his mother in London, she comes across as a pathetic creature who still loves her son. If there is money there, then why not pay for the mother to go into rehab? None of this scenario made any sense, and having the mother be down and out seemed like someone’s lazy stereotype of what an alcoholic is. To be honest, after reading the scenes involving Kieran’s mother I felt sorry for any teenagers with alcoholic relatives who might read this book. This book will reinforce their shame and embarrassment and do nothing to prevent misunderstanding about what it is to be an alcoholic. It’s a difficult background for the hero. I didn’t really understand why the author had felt it necessary for him to have an alcoholic mother, but once she’d gone down this route it could have been handled a lot better.
By the time I’d finished this book I was very disappointed and had more questions than answers. Is this really the best romantic novel of the year? How have the scenes I mentioned above where the teenage hero is being patronising to women got past a good editor, let alone all been accepted by all the readers who have read for the award, and double let alone all the judges (who include Alison Flood, a journalist for The Guardian – a newspaper that prides itself on its feminist stance and general right-on-ness)? Why did no one challenge the stereotypical portrait of the alcoholic mother? Is it just me? Do I think too hard about these things?
I really am puzzled by the accolades this book has received, and that’s a big part of the reason why I wrote this post. I’d love to hear other people’s opinions. If you have any comments at all – if you agree with what I’ve written, or if you strongly disagree – please let me know. I’d really like to know what you think!