Monday, 10 April 2017

'The State of Grace' by Rachael Lucas - SPOILER FREE REVIEW

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First things first, I need to say a huge thank you to Macmillan Children's Books for accepting my request to view this book via NetGalley, and to NetGalley for the service that they provide.
'I need to be quiet, somewhere, and just let myself settle, like a snow globe. But it's hard to make people understand that.' 

'Being a human is a complicated game - like seeing a ghost in the mirror and trying to echo everything they do.' 
This opening line is so easy to relate to, but Grace is actually playing the game on a higher difficulty setting to most of us: she has Asperger's, which can make interacting with other people a daily struggle.

There's a lot happening in Grace's life.
Her dad is a wildlife photographer who has flown off to shoot polar bears, and her mum is struggling without him. Eve, an old friend from her university days, arrives on the scene and automatically starts meddling: she doesn't think that Grace and her thirteen-year-old sister Leah should rely on their mum as much as they do and encourages her to start living for herself rather than her daughters. The house falls into disarray as their mum starts spending all of her time with Eve, reliving her youth and neglecting her grown-up responsibilities.
Leah's got a new best friend, buddying up with the little sister of Grace's arch nemesis, Holly. Grace can't understand why Leah stopped hanging out with her old best friend, and her sister doesn't want to talk to her about it.
Then there's Gabe - the new kid at school with a bad boy reputation - who kissed Grace at a party during a game of spin the bottle, and may (or may not) be her boyfriend now. Being a teenage girl is hard, and Grace's Asperger's makes everything tougher.
Grace struggles to adapt to the new normal, because she hates change so much. All she wants is a guide to help her deal with everything going on, but because no one's offering her one it looks as though Grace is going to have to try to fix everything by herself.

I enjoyed reading 'The State of Grace' so much that I want to disregard the things I didn't like about it, and not many books make me feel like that!
I love this book, because I think it's going to do good things for a lot of people. Autism is not common in YA, which adds to the assumption that's it's "not normal". In reality, over 700,000 people in the UK are on the autistic spectrum, which boils down to about 1 in 100 people. It's not the norm, but it's not actually that rare, which means it should be easier for people who are on the spectrum to find themselves in novels. Reading about things is a great way to learn and to breed acceptance, so more autistic characters would improve the way the general population act towards autistic people: rather than seeing them as troublemakers, it would be easier to accept the fact that they're just different, and that's not necessarily a bad thing.
'The State of Grace' is an #OwnVoices novel, because Rachael Lucas has Asperger's. She directly tackles the comments and incorrect assumptions made towards autistic people
'"What's it actually like?"
I think for a moment, because people don't actually ask that very often. They tell me what they think I feel because they've read it in books, or they say incredible things like "autistic people have no sense of humour or imagination or empathy" when I'm standing right there beside them (and one day I'm going to point out that is more than a little bit rude, not to mention Not Even True) or they - even worse - talk to me like I'm about five and can't understand.' 
and because I have a few autistic friends and I've seen people treat them like that in the past, it made me both angry and extremely sad. People don't deserve to be treated like that.
I didn't realise this was an #OwnVoices novel until I started reading it, when it became obvious. Grace's autism is handled with care, and the way she describes experiencing the world
"It's like living with all of your senses turned up to full volume all the time [...] and it's like living life in a different language, so you can't ever quite relax because even when you think you're fluent it's still using a different part of your brain so by the end of the day you're exhausted."
is similar to the way my friends have described it to me in the past. It's a very personal way of explaining it, and Rachael has laid her soul bare by being so open and honest about the way that she feels.
The only other time I've encountered autism in writing for young people was 'The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time', which is vastly different to 'The State of Grace': as well as being a far more stereotypical representation of autism, it's for children so doesn't feature an autistic person navigating their first relationship. 'The State of Grace' is unique is that respect: rather than having Grace dealing with her Asperger's and making that the entire plot, it's just one part of her. Grace isn't her Asperger's, she's far more than that. She's bold, she's caring, she's funny
"You don't look autistic."
"And you don't look ignorant. And yet here we are."
and I warn you now, DON'T read this book while a) walking down the road or b) riding on public transport, because you will cackle so loudly at multiple points that you'll scare away pigeons, get funny looks from the people driving past you and make children cry. I don't think I've ever laughed so often while reading.
It's also a really reassuring read for teenage girls who don't have autism. Grace is so relatable, particularly when panicking about Gabe and worrying about how to define their relationship and whether she's blown it or not by saying the wrong thing... It's something we all experience at some point in our lives, and it just shows that people are people: we all worry about the same things, even if we have other stuff going on in our personal lives!
However, this book wasn't perfect. I almost (almost) dropped it down to three stars, but I couldn't bring myself to do it.
My main problem is that Gabe is a bit one-dimensional. He mentions the fact that he takes ADHD medication and got in trouble before he was diagnosed, but there was more potential for exploration of that topic.
It almost reminded me of 'A Quiet Kind of Thunder' by Sara Barnard: the relationship in that novel is so successful because Steffi and Rhys (a mute girl and a deaf boy) learn to work past their individual difficulties and communicate and work together. All I wanted was for Grace and Gabe to communicate with each other, discussing how their individual diagnoses would impact their relationship and how they would work through problems. Instead it felt as though they were both burying their heads in the sand, which made it impossible to care about their relationship.
It wouldn't have been so much of a problem, but the relationship was a huge part of the novel. There were a lot of different plots going on, but Gabe and Grace was one of the bigger aspects, so the fact that it wasn't satisfying greatly detracted from the overall effectiveness of the story.
But as I've already said, I loved this book despite the negative aspects. Rachael's writing is beautiful, Grace is a well-crafted character who is a great role model, and I loved the exploration of the family (particularly the fact that Grace's mum and dad had their own plot: not many parents get that in YA!). I wish it had been longer, because that would have probably resolved all of my quibbles anyway, and I'm already looking forward to Rachael's second novel (apparently called 'My Box Shaped Heart', and slated for release next February!).

This is a quick read that you'll be able to get through in one sitting, so there's no reason not to give it a try. It's always good to support #OwnVoices authors, particularly those who're writing about under-represented topics, and Rachael Lucas has done an amazing job writing a character that it's easy to relate to and learn from.

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