Tuesday, July 16, 2013

A Really Awesome Mess by Trish Cook and Brendan Halpin

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A hint of Recovery Road, a sample of Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, and a cut of Juno. A Really Awesome Mess is a laugh-out-loud, gut-wrenching/heart-warming story of two teenagers struggling to find love and themselves.

Two teenagers. Two very bumpy roads taken that lead to Heartland Academy.
Justin was just having fun, but when his dad walked in on him with a girl in a very compromising position, Justin's summer took a quick turn for the worse. His parents' divorce put Justin on rocky mental ground, and after a handful of Tylenol lands him in the hospital, he has really hit rock bottom.

Emmy never felt like part of her family. She was adopted from China. Her parents and sister tower over her and look like they came out of a Ralph Lauren catalog-- and Emmy definitely doesn't. After a scandalous photo of Emmy leads to vicious rumors around school, she threatens the boy who started it all on Facebook.

Justin and Emmy arrive at Heartland Academy, a reform school that will force them to deal with their issues, damaged souls with little patience for authority. But along the way they will find a ragtag group of teens who are just as broken, stubborn, and full of sarcasm as themselves. In the end, they might even call each other friends.

A funny, sad, and remarkable story, A Really Awesome Mess is a journey of friendship and self-discovery that teen readers will surely sign up for.

You never know quite what you’re in for when you take on a book like this. Cook and Halpin have given Emmy and Justin very distinctive voices that have made this a fun read.  I was struck by Emmy’s flat out cynicism and disdain for her surroundings from the first page. She doesn’t feel connected to her family and thinks everything is a perpetual reminder of how she doesn’t fit in. Justin presents his story with immense but appealing sarcasm, feigns nonchalance and is perpetually angry about something or other. Both sides of their experiences are written with such humor and honesty, this book just may be one of my favorites of the year.

I enjoyed everything about this. Both Emmy and Justin are hysterical, dry and complicated kids who are too stubborn to search within themselves and admit to what has brought them to Heartland Academy in the first place. They’re surrounded by peers with their own bizarre issues: one is in for his constant need to create and live out different identities and another who has selective mutism. Things get very interesting when their counselor suggests that they would be rewarded for good behavior if they work together as a group to hold each other accountable for an entire week. With this carrot stick dangling in front of them they reluctantly fall in line. Forcing them to be accountable to each other gives them a chance to get out of their self-absorbed worlds and focus on a shared end goal.

Some of these kids start out so jaded and lost within their own pity party. But since being forced to work together these misfits find camaraderie and a safety zone. Plenty of hilarious scenarios take place, including a ridiculous one involving a pig, that will have you laughing until your belly hurts. Then there are quiet, profound moments such as this one that has stuck with me where Justin describes his depression kicking in: 

"I didn't know what it felt like for other people with this diagnosis.  For me, it was like somebody squeezing my stomach with a cold iron fist. Except it wasn't really a physical pain. It was just like the act of being alive hurt so freaking much that if anybody touched me I thought I might shatter into a million pieces."

It is a very honest and vulnerable moment captured so eloquently. I also like how there's no neat ending tied up with a lovely bow as the book draws to a close. While Emmy and Justin eventually have their breakthroughs there's still a lot of hard work ahead. The quick pace, brilliant writing and charismatic characters are so engaging which make me want to add A Really Awesome Mess to my shelf because it really is awesome!

~ Bel

Thank you to Egmont USA and NetGalley for the opportunity to review this title.

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