Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Indie Book Review: The Death of Torberta Torchin

I don't usually review YA books.  About one in seven of the submissions I get are YA, and usually, before I even get to the sample, the general plot line has turned me off.  See, I didn't enjoy being a kid. I got done with it as soon as I could. So, getting to spend more time in high school or junior high isn't my idea of fun. Add in two of the main YA tropes, angst for the sake of angst, and brainless first love, and well, it's just really not my genre.

So, The Death of Torberta Turchin just about got tossed out of the to be read list without getting much of a hearing. But...  Well, the cover is pretty cool, and very much not the usual YA cover art. So I read the back. No angst for the sake of angst. No mention of romance. Hmmm... I began reading the sample.

The Death of Torberta Turchin opens with a fourteen-year-old girl, Torberta, who lives in a boarding school for psychologically disturbed kids, discussing the balancing act the students go through with the doctor. St. Christopher's is a pretty sweet gig, and if you want to stay there you've got to walk a tightrope. Look like you're making too much progress, ie: get better, and you get sent home. Not sufficiently crazy, ie: faking it, and you get sent home. Act too crazy, and they put you on drugs and send you to a higher security place. So, if you want to stay at St. Christopher's you've got to be just disturbed enough to make your family want you away, but not so crazy you're a danger to the world around you.

Reading those first few pages was like reading the first bit of Ender's Game. I knew this book involved a character I'd sympathize with and want to spend time with.

Torberta is in St. Christopher's because she hears voices. The voices say they're ghosts. And, while she can hear them without anyone else hearing them, she has to respond out loud. Talking to voices no one else can hear is embarrassing and troubling to a family that loves you dearly, but Torberta is an orphan raised by people who barely tolerate her. They packed her off as soon as they could.

I love the fact that is book is paranormal, but there is some genuine doubt as to what Torberta is hearing. One of the things that often puts me off paranormal stories is that they're supposed to be set in the real world, but everyone acts like the paranormal aspects are just no big deal. So, even though Torberta is pretty sure what she's hearing really are ghosts, she does have moments of doubt, and to me that's a very realistic, very welcome touch.

I love a good romance, that's not a secret. But in many YA novels a good romance is nowhere to be seen. Sad, abusive, obsessive, unhealthy romances are scattered about like glitter at a drag convention. Romances that make no sense (The world is about to end, monsters are eating my family, but all I can think about is how much I lurve the hot boy who may or may not be the cause of the monsters...) at all are even more common. The sorts of relationships you think might actually go somewhere are usually pretty scarce. My sense is we see so many of these 'relationships' because they add easy drama, and because many writers have a hard time writing girls without defining them by how they relate to boys.

There's no romance in Torberta, and I was thrilled to see it. It's deeply satisfying to see a story where the focus of a fourteen-year-old girl's life isn't some boy. Even more welcome to see a story where romance isn't some sort of magical elixir that makes all the problems go away.

The angst level is minimal, and what angst Torberta has, she certainly deserves. Her parents are dead, the family that's taking care of her considers her a massive embarrassment, and everyone, even her friends at St. Christopher's, think she's insane because she hears voices. This is a girl who deserves a little self-pity. And while she does get a little angsty, she never gets whiny. (Have I mentioned that I love this character? I do, I really do!)

My only quibble with this story was at the end. Let me make it clear, this is just a personal preference, Mawhiny set up the ending properly. She laid all the groundwork, so the ending is a surprise, but not from out in left field. But it's a tad rushed and a little too much coincidence all in one place. Torberta talking to ghosts was a lot easier for me to believe than the timing of the actual incident that killed her.

Still, on the whole I really liked this book and loved Torberta. I'd say it's appropriate reading for anyone over the age of ten. (Maybe eight if you've got a good reader able to handle ideas on mental issues.) The main character is a girl, but there's nothing particularly girly about the book, so it shouldn't put boys off. Like Harry Potter and Ender, Torberta will appeal to both sexes.

This is a solid four star book, and I highly recommend it to anyone who loved Ender or girl characters with their heads on straight.

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