by Stephanie Kuehnert
I actually won this book from Stephanie during her Cyber Launch Party for the book, it was my very very first time winning anything, and it's only happened one other time since then... and I read the book quite a while ago (posted a mini review of it somewhere, I think). But... it was such a good book I wanted to write a full, "official" review of it, and hopefully spread the word!
Ballads of Suburbia is about Kara, who returns to Oak Park after a heroin overdose four years prior. She tells the story, or 'ballad' of her high school years (up to junior year) where she was brought into the the life of drugs, booze, and music while her family fell apart and her old life slipped away. She and her brother, Liam, find themselves hanging out at Scoville Park making new friends and trying new things. Kara writes about her experiences with the bad boy she fell in love with, a boy who hurt her in more ways than once, her crazy impulsive new friend Maya, and of course, her relationship with her family. Through it all, the music is always present, and so are the ballads of various characters integrated beautifully into such a raw book. Kara's gut-wrenching, honest narration will definitely invoke emotions in every reader.
I really loved this book, and for many reasons. Usually I comment on things like character and plot first, but I'm going to jump right in and comment about the writing. Stephanie Kuehnert's sophomore book (first book is I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone) is so beautifully written in such a dramatic manner than you can't help but be sucked in into Kara's life no matter how gruesome (kinda exaggerating) it is. "Ballads", which are basically short stories and confessions relating personally to other characters are integrated so well that it contributes immensely to the novel and to character development. You see the motives behind characters that you can't help but judge. For example, here is a tiny example:
He rolled his eyes and took me straight to the shrink, who recommended more meds, family therapy, institutionalization if need be. But I do what I want.
The one good thing about coming from no one is there's no one to answer to.
The writing is so very impressive and the 'harsh realities' are not sugar-coated, glorified, or handled in a bad way. Kuehnert turned the plot which is dark in itself, into a story that can even be interpreted as hopeful. The (constant) mentions of drugs and alcohol may be a turn-off for some readers, jsyk. Basically, the in-your-face prose that doesn't hide anything makes you do a double take on lives in the suburbia.
Now, the characters. I think I adored Liam the most, for the way he looked up to his big sister but ended up seemingly betrayed by everyone around him. He loses the 'puppy dog' effect though, yet it seems at time he is still soft and just lost. I thought the character of Kara's best friend, Maya, was well written as well. The character development is there, and these wonderful, flawed characters suck you into the story and prevents you from putting the book down.
I was never a big fan of Adrian (maybe it's the hair) probably because of his actions, or maybe just his influence over Kara who was just trying to escape her home and find herself. However, Kara is so well developed through her narration and through the story that I can understand and even accept her motives and her (however much I didn't support) admiration of Adrian. Adrian isn't the only boy in her life though, because there's Christian, the seemingly kind hearted boy who is just caught up in the 'life', but of course, there is more to it than that. Every character has their own flaws, and are extremely three-dimensional and well written. I can't say enough about it.
The plot in itself was interesting enough, but it may be the plot that makes readers dislike the book. It deals with a lot of those stuff that are frowned upon in society like drinking and drugs (lots, btw), and I find some people just dislike books like that in general. Personally, I have never done drugs or illegal things like that, so I probably can't relate personally to the issues shown in the book. I can, however, accept it as part of the plot and read about it without prejudice, while enjoying the book.
The 'scrapbooking' aspect, and the screen writing thing that Kara has going on is unique, and so is the "Ballads of Suburbia" notebook that defined and confessed the heartbreaking realities and moments that changed young, innocent lives. In fact, I think the Ballads were one of my favourite parts.
Lastly, just a heads up, this is more of a "mature" book, and includes things like: drinking, drugs of all kinds, self-mutilation, and abuse. I wouldn't recommend teens under 14-ish to read this book.
9.3/10 - because I basically loved the book. The writing, although the plot dealt with mature themes, was smooth and flowing, with just the right amount of edginess and power. The characters, although they won't necessarily be admired, were very well written and well developed (which is important!). If you want to enter the mind of a girl trying to find her way, fit in, and deal with life, yet not necessarily in the conventional way, try this book. I acknowledge this review isn't very good (I'm rusty!) but I just highly highly recommend this. The dark, desperate writing prevents sugar coating dealing with the problems we have in our society today, and the insight to the mind of a seventeen year old girl is no doubtedly powerful.