Jul 19, 2011

Nerds Heart YA! Dirty Little Secrets versus A Love Story Starring My Dead Best Friend

Dirty Little Secrets by C.J. Omololu A Love Story Starring My Dead Best Friend</i>by Emily Horner

First of all, many apologies for the double post today, folks (though as it’s just turned midnight here, I could perhaps pretend this doesn’t really count as a double post?). I’m afraid this is what happens when you neglect to use Google Calendar or a diary of any sort and get your dates mixed up1.

Nerds Heart YA
is a bracket-style book tournament with an emphasis on diversity, focusing on Young Adult books that “represent one of a series of relatively under publicized categories: Person(s) of Color (POC), GLBT, Disability, Mental Illness, Religious Lifestyle, Lower Socioeconomic Status and Plus-size”. The tournament was created by Renay in 2009, when I had a lot of fun judging the final along with my friend Chris, and is currently run by Jodie. This year I’m a second round judge along with the awesome Cass from Bonjour Cass!, and the books we’re judging are Dirty Little Secrets by C.J. Omololu and A Love Story Starring My Dead Best Friend by Emily Horner.

Dirty Little Secrets is about Lucy, a high school student whose mother is a compulsive hoarder. Lucy has managed to keep her mother’s mental illness a secret from everyone outside her immediate family, but this of course means she can’t let anyone too close to her. Things are starting to change, though – Lucy has a best friend, Kaylie, and the guy she has a crush on is starting to show an interest in her. So when something happens that Lucy believes will expose the truth about her mother and the house they live in, Lucy panics. Dirty Little Secrets follows her over a period of 24 hours as she takes increasingly desperate measures to keep the truth from ever being discovered.

A Love Story Starring My Dead Best Friend is about Cass, whose best friend Julia died in a car accident the previous school year. The story follows Cass as she and the rest of Julia’s friends attempt to stage a musical Julia wrote, Totally Sweet Ninja Death Squad, as a tribute to her memory. In addition to this story arc, we have flashbacks to the previous summer, when Cass attempted to deal with her grief by going all the way to California on her bike. Along the way, Cass tries to make sense not only of her recent loss, but also of her sexual orientation, of the nature of her feelings towards Julia, of her increasing loneliness and estrangement from her other friends, and of what the physical and psychological challenges of the journey mean to her.

Cass and I decided to compare Dirty Little Secrets and A Love Story Starring My Dead Best Friend when it comes to our initial impressions, to the characterisation, to the plot development, to the books’ themes, and to their conclusions. Below you’ll find our discussion of the first two of these points. For the rest, and for our final decision, just head over to Cass’s blog. Here goes:
  • First impressions (title, cover, premise)
Dirty Little Secrets:

Cass: The morose girl on the cover, coupled with the exploitative title, set me on edge. I was intrigued by the publisher’s summary, though, and I was hopeful the mental health aspect would be treated well. BUT I WAS NERVOUS.

Ana: I’m not a fan of the title either - and to make matters worse, the tagline on my edition is: “You can only hoard your troubles for so long.” Um :| But like you I was hopeful, because I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel that extensively deals with how a teen is affected by a parent’s mental illness.

Cass: Nothing invites a bad pun like hoarding! I know I’ve got hoards of them. *rim shot*

A Love Story Starring My Dead Best Friend:

Cass: This is a ridiculous title as well, in that I was worried it was going to involve NECROPHILIA. Or, you know, zombies. Luckily, no. The cover itself is creative and appealing.

Ana: Haha. I had no thoughts of necrophilia, fortunately ;) The title gave me the impression that Horner was going to go for Goofy Yet Serious, which is a kind of tone that isn’t always easy to pull off successfully.
  • Characterisation/Characterization (ahem)

Ana: The main character, Cass, is also the narrator, and I would say she’s a well-developed character. Her former nemesis, Heather, is also reasonably well-rounded. But I did feel that Cass’s other friends were at times almost interchangeable. I realise there’s only so much backstory and secondary character development you can fit into a 260 pages book, but they seemed to function more as a plot device than as real characters. I did like how the story portrayed Cass’s impression that these were more her best friend Julia’s friends than her own friends and her loneliness and alienation after her death. Watching Cass deal with all those thoughts and feelings was moving at times, and I really liked the resolution of the trip to California subplot. BUT. The whole thing would have had far more of an emotional impact on me if her friends had been given more screen time and readers had been allowed to get to know them better.

Cass: First of all, may I just say that the main character has the very best name I’ve ever heard? A+ to the author on that one. While I agree with you that Cass’s journey, both literal and figurative, was moving, I have to disagree about Heather. I found her, and the story line about her (avoiding spoilers here), to be cliched and unimaginative. Cass’s group of friends seemed to be more relevant and important as a group, rather than as individual characters, which made it difficult to connect with them. The only character that stood out for me was Jon, who is out as gay but has a complicated relationship with his faith.

Ana: Good observation about the character’s name ;) I think maybe the fact that I’m not as well read in this particular kind of story (also trying to avoid spoilers) was what made Heather’s story arc seem fresher to me. Also, excellent point about Cass’s friends working better as a group than as individuals.

Cass: I would also like to mention that I found it rather unfortunate that Cass’s coming out--to herself, since everyone else seemed to “know”--seemed to be based more on her impression that everyone thought she was gay, therefore she was, instead of, you know, her having a more internal understanding of her own sexuality.


Ana: I have such mixed feelings about the characterisation in this book. I liked that there was at least an attempt to make Lucy’s mom - a compulsive hoarder - into a real human being rather than a cartoonish ghoul. Omololu uses flashbacks to show Lucy’s mother in other contexts, namely her job as an oncology nurse, where she’s competent and caring and the very opposite of everything she is at home. The problem is that flashback, unless done extremely well, is a really forced technique. As a result, these scenes have flashing neon signs all over them saying, “Look! Look! She is a Real Person with both positive and negative traits! She’s Complex and Human!” It’s all a bit too heavy-handed to actually work.

Cass: I agree that the flash-backs were heavy handed, but I’d go a step further and argue that even the attempts to show Lucy’s mother as a more complex character were stalled by the underlying emphasis on what I’d like to term as “teh crazy.” Showing her being a compassionate, over-zealously clean nurse seemed to be a way to emphasize her lack of love for Lucy and to stand opposed to “teh crazy” she acted on at home. The book ends up portraying the mother as more of a “Hoarder Case Study” as opposed to an actual person.

Ana: As for Lucy herself.... there are two angles I could consider here: how sympathetic or not she is and her believability. And obviously I have to tread carefully, because I have never known anyone directly affected by hoarding. There’s a lot I don’t know, and that makes me hesitate to say that Lucy’s thoughts and feelings didn’t feel real (the plot is another matter altogether, but we’ll get to that soon). I could understand Lucy’s very mixed feelings about her mother, even if they lead to extreme actions that sometimes halted my suspension of disbelief. I don’t want to dismiss her rage and her feeling of entrapment, even if they shock readers at times. But at the same time, there were all these little things about her that kept stopping me on my tracks. The main one is perhaps the fact that she comes across as a bit of an excepto-girl: all too ready to look down on her peers for dressing “slutty” and being traditionally feminine. Example:
“I envied Vanessa not because most of her butt was hanging out of her skirt -- that just made me colder -- but because she truly never cared what other people thought of her.”
These are many other examples of this mixture of compliment and derision directed at other girls, and it just makes Lucy come across as mean-spirited.

Cass: Lucy is definitely an excepto-girl; her mother’s mental health issues seem to be the sticking point of standing in her way from being the absolutely Perfect Person.

Again, for the rest of our conversation, head over to Cass’s blog!

1Dear Jodie: please don’t murder us with an axe in our sleep. Love, Ana and Cass.


  1. I kind of like the sound of both the books. I am going to add them to my pile. I found your discussion with Cass very interesting.

  2. I'm glad you enjoyed our chat, Veens, and I hope you have better luck with DLS than we did!

  3. This was a fascinating and very fun conversation to read, and although I added Dirty Little Secrets to my wishlist as soon as I saw the synopsis, I quickly marked it off. It seems like the characters and execution left a lot to be desired in this book, and it's a shame since it seems like it would be such a unique book. I am off to check out the second half of this review. Thanks, guys!

  4. Interesting discussion. I especially love Cass' comment about having hoards of hoarding puns. But why is she hoarding them all instead of sharing with us??

  5. I'm a judge in the next round -- and I'm not judging either of these (there's my disclosure ).

    I love the way you set up your review as a conversation. I too have trouble with the titles, so nice to see what's behind them.


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.