October 4, 2011

The Sharp Time: Review

Patient: The Sharp Time by Mary O'Connell

Sandinista Jones is a high school senior with a punk rock name and a broken heart. The death of her single mother has left Sandinista alone in the world, subject to the random vulnerability of everyday life. When the school system lets her down, her grief and instability intensify, and she ponders a violent act of revenge.

Still, in the midst of her crisis, she gets a job at The Pale Circus, a funky vintage clothing shop, and finds friendship and camaraderie with her coworker, a boy struggling with his own secrets.

Even as Sandinista sees the failures of those with power and authority, she's offered the chance to survive through the redemptive power of friendship. Now she must choose between faith and forgiveness or violence and vengeance.
(from Goodreads)


Axis 1. Characters

Sandinista's a one-of-a-kind protagonist: quirky, dark, edgy, cynical, with a sardonic-verging-on-bitter sense of humour. She and I are very different in personality, so while her voice is powerful and present, I had a difficult time relating to her. Her way of looking at the world is not one I can identify with, but it's one that raises lots of questions. She's got a hard shell of protection around herself; her voice projects a "tough" image, her words continually loaded with sarcasm. It's clear that she had a close bond with her mother, and her death has left Sandinista feeling alone and desperate. You get a very strong sense of her personality, and it seems like she herself also has that strong sense of self; she sees things a certain way, and is not easily swayed by others to change her viewpoint.

Given the trouble I had connecting to Sandinista's perspective, her reaction to her teacher Mrs. Bennett's cruelty seemed extreme. Certainly the teacher was way out of line, both in terms of her continual verbal harassment of Sandinista and Alecia (her treatment of Alecia was particularly vicious, I thought), and her physical kicking of Sandinista's desk. But I wasn't feeling the venomous hatred that Sandinista was, and her obsession with revenge on the teacher — rather than a more rational course of action such as taking this to the principal or school board — didn't click with me. I had difficulty sympathizing with Sandinista's complaints about how no one from the school was getting in touch with her, when she personally had not voiced how she was treated to someone of authority. Admittedly there were plenty of witnesses, and Mrs. Bennett was undeniably in the wrong; but this inaction on Sandinista's part, followed by the festering desire to see Mrs. Bennett taken down, did not make it easier to relate to her.

Bradley is a very atypical teenager as well. He waxes philosophical on occasion, and like Sandinista has an extensive vocabulary. I must admit, while I could swallow Sandinista being so intellectual, I had a bit more difficulty believing that she would happen to find someone her age of a similar bent of mind working at the Pale Circus. 

Axis 2. Premise/plot

I found the pace of this one quite sluggish, weighed down by a bit too much description for my taste (albeit well-written description). The 'revenge on Mrs. Bennett' storyline occasionally brought up the tempo a little, but then towards the end that plot sort of died, in a way I thought robbed Sandinista of making her own decision. (Spoiler, highlight to read: Bradley throws her gun away, and this seems to dissolve her nebulous revenge plans, rendering Sandinista's role very passive. I also wanted to see a confrontation with Mrs. Bennett, and we don't get that.) This resulted in the story losing its 'point,' so to speak, outside of Sandinista coming to some realizations.

Axis 3. Writing Style

O'Connell's writing style is very literary, her sentences peppered with unusual description and words you might find on the GREs (I consider my vocabulary to be quite broad, but I must admit she had me furrowing my brow a few times). There are artistic and cultural references throughout, many of which went right over my head, unfortunately. Indeed, I remember thinking that it could be read and analyzed in a classroom situation. 
I also think this is one that could fall into the elusive "new adult" category. Sandinista's 18 and spends most of the book out of school. This, coupled with the high language level, could make older YA readers more likely to pick it up.

Axis 4. Psychological Accuracy

The psychological elements of The Sharp Time are not as clear-cut as some of the other books I've reviewed for this event. Sandinista mentions ADD (attention deficit disorder) once or twice, but I'm not sure if she's officially been diagnosed with it, or simply been told about her poor attention span many times before. In any case, it's a sore spot for her, one that Mrs. Bennett attacks her about again and again. Sandinista's obsession with whether or not she is "paying attention" demonstrates that this is an area she feels defensive about, regardless of whether or not she actually meets the criteria for ADD.

Which, itself, is not so obvious. We're in her head a whole lot, and yes, her thoughts do cover an expanse of topics, but I don't know that her attention span is any shorter than the average teenager's. It's made abundantly apparent that Mrs. Bennett believes Sandinista needs to pay closer attention to the task at hand; whether Sandinista is actually having difficulty doing so is another question. One of the reactions to having ADD can, however, be violence/aggression, and Sandinista certainly displays impulses in that direction.

But I think Sandinista might show signs of an adjustment disorder as well. This is a response to a "life stress" — for instance, the death of a family member or problems in school, both of which Sandinista experiences — that is more extreme than one might expect. Symptoms Sandinista arguably demonstrates include: lack of enjoyment (her general outlook on life is dark and jaded, although she does seem happy when she's with Bradley), desperation, trouble sleeping, feeling overwhelmed, skipping school, vandalizing property, and avoiding family/friends (she avoids her previous friends, anyway, although she does make new ones). (There's also a scene with reckless driving, of a sort, but seeing as this is accidental on Sandinista's part, I don't think it counts!) At any rate, she certainly seems to have a dangerous amount of anger brewing into a stalker-ish, decidedly unhealthy obsession with Mrs. Bennett. 

A minor quibble: a couple of times the words "OCD" and "psychotic" are used incorrectly. It's true, these terms do pop up in daily conversations in a casual way, and they are generally not used properly. But nevertheless it irritates me. In particular: you cannot have a "psychotic smile." Psychotic refers to having hallucinations and/or delusions, and a smile cannot hallucinate much of anything.

Validity Score:
How psychologically accurate was The Sharp Time?

Axis 5. Miscellaneous

Personally, I didn't enjoy the anti-Christian barbs made by some of the characters (including Sandinista) throughout. Other readers might not mind this at all, but it soured my own impressions. I can appreciate that a lot of teens do question, criticize, and make light of religion, so Sandinista's biting and satirical observations may well be realistic of that age, but regardless, I found myself feeling offended at times. Religion is a topic that I like to see handled with care, and that didn't happen here the way I might have wished.

I felt like there was some sort of message the author was trying to send, but frankly, by the end I still wasn't really getting it. I couldn't tell if it was intentionally anti-Christian, if it was just anti-organized-religion, or something else entirely. I think Sandinista gains a better understanding of spirituality and faith, but I'm not certain what that understanding is.

Diagnosis: 3 shooting stars. Don't get me wrong — the quality of writing is high, the themes and characters nuanced and complex, and begging to be analyzed. But I didn't like many of the characters (especially Sandinista), I had some issues with the religious aspects, and the plot was ultimately a letdown. 

Note: there is some mature language used in this book.

Disclaimer: I received this book for review for Psychtember from the author. 

For my interview with Mary O'Connell, go here.

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