For the length of Dog Eared Reads life so far you may have noticed I have only written about books that I am largely positive about. Part of this is because I genuinely believe since becoming a bookseller and getting such great recommendations from colleagues my ‘hit rate’ of good books has risen dramatically. The other part though has definitely been because I don’t know how I feel about dismissing a book on here. Of course I would only give honest criticism and never attack the author rather than the text, but I am just not sure where I sit with that yet. It would be interesting to hear what you think in the comments below about this, are you happy to read only about the books I’m loving out there or do you want to also find out about the ones which haven’t quite hit the mark with me?
Today I am in a bit of a quandary, somewhere in the middle of these two places, but I knew I had to write about this book even if I’m still arguing about it in my own head. I’ve been reading a proof of a book called ‘Nothing Tastes As Good As’ by Claire Hennesey, which is due to hit the shelves in July and is a new YA novel. Now I am warning you right here, there are going to be serious spoilers in this piece so if you are keen to read it completely fresh this is best avoided. Want to see me get myself in a mind muddle and try to explain it on screen? Well this is the place for you!
In case the title does not ring bells for anybody out there it is based on that famous quote “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels”, I think this is attributed to Kate Moss but Kate, if I am incorrect I am sorry. Now I personally think this statement is lunacy, I was once skinny and I am currently on the very much ‘plus size’ spectrum (whatever that means), and I can promise you, a curry from the Rajpoot in Bath always tastes better than pretty much anything feels. I think the best thing for me to do here is to set out the main plot premise and then afterwards I can talk a little about the things that bothered me.
We begin the book by meeting our protagonist, a young woman called Annabel, who is being tasked to complete a mission of sorts, a mission to help somebody in need. The person giving her these instructions is ‘The Boss’, although she quickly lets us know that ‘The Boss’ isn’t God as you might have imagined, as Annabel is dead. Now Annabel is very reluctant to get involved with any of this but she participates as she knows that if she completes the challenge set before her then she will be able to get one last message to her family. We then get to see the person she needs to help through her eyes, hear what they say aloud and their thoughts as Annabel has access to this. She knows that she will have influence over this person, if she shouts loud enough they will hear. And my goodness, does Annabel shout, her anger towards everything and everyone radiates off the page. When she first encounters the person in need of her help the problem they have is as obvious to her as her disgust is immediate and hard hitting. Julia is overweight, fat, and maybe worst of all to Annabel, she doesn’t seem to be bothered by her body at all. Julia is studying hard at school, working on the school newspaper to help achieve her end goal of being a journalist, looking after her baby sister and always being there for her friend who could have the middle name of ‘self centred’. Yes she sometimes uses food as a comfort tool but she isn’t dwelling on this, this is a girl with a lot going on, but Annabel is determined to change all that, she needs to let Julia know that if she was thinner then her life would be better.
There is a lot tackled in this book, mental health, body image, rape/abuse of a position of power, relationships and also how we talk about these issues in the public domain. I read this book pretty quickly, from within two chapters I could pretty much see how the plot was going to pan out and what the message of the book was to be, but it still had me hooked enough to keep reading and see just how the author got us to our final destination. I also felt a kind of obligation to read this book. I recommend a lot of YA and what I read in the first two chapters also made me want to see it through so I could feel confident in my decision of who to recommend or pass this book on to. Before I go on to talk about my reaction to the topics in this book I have to be upfront and honest and say that several of them have been issues I have faced in my own life, either personally or with a person I love, so there is always going to be sensitivity there and I can’t say that won’t always cloud my judgement.
From the get go Annabel is very vocal about what she thinks of Julia’s body. Her disgust at it, the red lines left where jeans have dug in to her skin, the fact that when people see somebody her size they will know she is weak, has no will power, isn’t pure or clean. Annabel also makes sure she speaks up about the food eaten by Julia, the calories in each item and the amount of fat. Now I knew where this book was going, I knew the author would make sure we arrived at an ending where an understanding is reached that it is not your size and shape that matter, that Annabel had been ill with an eating disorder and this illness warped her beliefs about food and size, and that a healthy relationship with food and our body image is what we should strive for. I KNEW this but…everything that comes before that point felt like it was being shouted through a megaphone. I was actually wincing in points as I began to worry about my own jeans digging in, the reflection I see staring back at me when I look in the mirror. Yes that end message does come but I worry that when I was younger, and those YA readers who will pick this up now – of which a huge percentage will have problems with their relationship to food and body image, that ending would not have been the point I walked away with. Like an earworm of a catchy song what has stuck with me is the criticisms.
Now this is where it gets confusing. Yes, the above is my emotional reaction to the book but then my head is making some other points. I don’t think YA should ever shy away from difficult subjects, I don’t think it should ever patronise its readers as if they somehow can’t manage a light being shone on the darker corners of the human experience. How Annabel thinks and reacts to Julia is real, it is what I have heard from people who have or still are suffering from this disease, her responses are honest ones. Is it a case that those who will absorb the points made by Annabel, before she realises her way of looking at food is a problem, would have found these voices out there in time anyway, that they have that tendency towards this problem and the trigger that may have amplified the criticisms cannot be held to account? After all, the book does end clearly with the ramifications of this illness highlighted. It really is a battle of emotions for me with this one. I know as a bookseller I now feel a responsibility with this novel. I would not give this book out ‘blind’, I would want to be chatting to the potential reader before I recommended it. Obviously I would never ask about their personal life and obviously I could never actually know how they would respond to the story, but I would still rather know that from what they had been reading previously or how they responded to the topic of the book whether I felt comfortable placing it in their hands.
One very interesting moment in the book is that I think the author has anticipated this reaction to the novel herself and has almost written a response in. A character in the book is removed from the school newspaper after she wrote and published a piece on teenage self harm and suicide. Teachers accuse her of glamorising the topic and that it may give students ideas, where as the pupil points out she is speaking honestly about a subject that is a problem and that she also talks about the horrific effects which are hardly glamorous. And I think this is what it boils down to, the truth should be written and read about but wanting to protect those it could also cause harm to is natural. As somebody sensitive to these topics the book makes me nervous and I wouldn’t want a younger reader feeling upset in the way that I was, but I also want authors and books to be able to have pages dedicated to discussing whatever they like. Maybe the answer is that there is no answer, we are all individuals, all respond to things differently so along the road we keep on walking, we can’t bubble wrap ourselves from life.
Despite all my musings above I did enjoy reading this book, I raced through it, it is well written and I was attached and engaged with the characters. I’ll certainly be watching out for what Hennessy writes next.
What do you think about the above and our responsibility to readers? Have you read the novel and what did you think? And where would you like Dog Eared Reads to go in terms of reviews? Would you like to hear about books I’m more critical of or do you just want to read about things that are really exciting me? I’d love to hear your feedback, either in the comments, on email at firstname.lastname@example.org or over on Twitter @dogeared_reads
Nothing Tastes As Good As by Claire Hennesy £7.99 (Hot Key)