Sunday, February 17, 2013

Review: BRUISED by Sarah Skilton

When Imogen, a sixteen-year-old black belt in Tae Kwon Do, freezes during a holdup at a local diner, the gunman is shot and killed by the police, and she blames herself for his death. Before the shooting, she believed that her black belt made her stronger than everyone else -- more responsible, more capable. But now her sense of self has been challenged and she must rebuild her life, a process that includes redefining her relationship with her family and navigating first love with the boy who was at the diner with her during the shootout.

With action, romance, and a complex heroine, Bruised introduces a vibrant new voice to the young adult world -- full of dark humor and hard truths.
Blast the trumpets! Throw the confetti! For I, Shelver, diehard fantasy/sci-fi addict and perpetually distrustful reader of contemporary, have found a contemporary book that she loves. And not just any contemporary book. An issue book!


Bruised opens immediately after Imogen's world shatters. A woman is in the hospital, a man is dead, and Imogen is covered head to toe in his blood, "sticking to me like chunks of blackberry jam." To be held at gunpoint and then splattered with pieces of another person would be traumatizing for anyone, but it's worse for Imogen.

Imogen is a first degree black belt, a six-year student of Tae Kwan Do, and the youngest recipient of a black belt in her school. Never mind that the assailant had had a gun. She should have done something - knocked the gun from his hand, kicked out his legs, SOMETHING. Instead, she froze.

To Imogen, Tae Kwan Do is not a skill, it is a way of life. It failed her when she needed it most. In turn, she feels like she has failed everyone else. Her parents, the people in the diner, the gunman, her students, her brother, she failed them all. Most of all, she failed herself.

Ms. Skilton touches on some heavy subjects in this book. After the incident at the diner, Imogen goes into a tailspin, at first subtly and then bombastically. Like a chain of dominoes, Imogen's doubts and fears knock into other carefully concealed issues until her entire life is lying in shambles about her feet. Some of the issues explored in this book include:

  • Responsibility
  • Honor
  • Women and fighting
  • Family dynamics and sibling loyalty
  • Protecting, being protected, and who should do what
  • Sexuality/kissing
  • Health/diabetes
  • Pride in one's skills vs. arrogance/bullying

Normally, a list like that would make my skin crawl. It looks too deep, too heavy, too involved. With that in mind, trust me when I say that Ms. Skilton did a superb job. Though Bruised is hardly a funny book, Ms. Skilton balances Imogen's darker moments with lighter scenes involving friends and the cute boy from the diner, Ricky. I never felt like I was drowning in woes.

That's not to say there weren't some deep emotional moments. There were. Imogen hits some pretty epic lows in the course of the story. There were even a few points where I found myself getting misty. But amid all the gloom, two very important aspects kept my afloat.

Can you imagine teaching
these cuties?
First, the characters. What fantastic characters! Each character comes with his or her own set of hangups, but each is well-rounded and delightful. Imogen is fiery, self-disciplined, smart, but not too perfect. I loved that Ms. Skilton made sure she isn't the typical straight-A student that plagues the YA scene. However, she is a fanatic Tae Kwan Do student, and she teaches a class of students herself. Amid her personal turmoil, Imogen's passion for teaching helps balance out the gloomier aspects of her personality.

Ms. Skilton is also adept in her handling of the other characters. Each experiences personal growth and change, even if it's only in the way Imogen perceives him or her. For instance, Imogen's family initially seems like the typical dysfunctional YA bunch. Her mother hovers and worries, but often seems clueless of what's really going on in Imogen's life. Her father eats himself into an early grave and is often emotionally unavailable to Imogen. And Imo's older brother Hunter is the reigning playboy of her high school. Charismatic and selfish, he has systematically slept with nearly all of Imo's friends, including her ex-very best friend Shelley! However, by the end of the book, I as a reader understood each member of Imogen's family so much better. (Those two parts where I got a little misty? They both involved Hunter.)

The second aspect that helped me enjoy Bruised was Ms. Skilton's writing. Goodness, can that woman write. She lured me in from the beginning and kept me coming back for more. Me! The contemporary-averse reviewer! Her little descriptions made me so happy. At one point, Imogen describes the marching band going down her street:
The brass section and drums take over for a second, a fast, erratic, rat-a-tachycardia, and the band moves into the distance until it disappears completely.
A very simple sentence but it does its job. The brass and percussion enter, they play, they leave, but anyone who has ever heard a marching band knows exactly what she means when she talks about the "rat-a-tachycardia" playing.

And the voices! In my opinion, Ms. Skilton completely nails everyone's voice. Imogen, for the most part, sounds like the solid, mature, sixteen-year-old that she is. (Though sometimes I mistook her more for 17 or 18.) The parents are perfect in their worry, Ricky sounds like the Marine-bound Hispanic bundle of awesomeness that he is, and even Ricky's mom and gramma sound flawlessly authentic to my ears.

Included in the writing is the way Ms. Skilton handles Bruised's ending. As Bruised itself is never completely dark nor completely cheerful, I appreciate that the ending is neither too feel-good nor too depressing. Not everything is resolved. Sick characters are not magically healed. Wayward characters are not magically transformed. Lost friends are not magically returned. But there is hope. Each character, in their own way (except the dead gunman), is given a chance for a better tomorrow, and it is left up to them whether they choose to take it.

It fits in a very poetic way. As Ricky reminds Imogen, being bruised isn't so bad, because bruising means you're alive. And bruises heal.

Points Added For: Characterization, fantastic writing, not coming down too hard on either side for any of the presented issues, a pitch-perfect ending.

Points Subtracted For: I didn't think Hunter had to be quite so loose to make the point, and I thought the online video was a bit much.

Good For Fans Of: Really awesome contemporary books, issue books that aren't too heavy, spot-on writing, a protagonist with feminist views that are neither too abrasive nor too extreme (she's no pansy, but there's also no bra-burning).

Notes For Parents: Language, kissing, brief sex, drinking, death, homosexuality

Note: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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