Monday, December 8, 2014

From Cornfields to Taxidermied Cats, Eccentricity Rules in Kathleen Hale's "No One Else Can Have You"

Earlier this autumn, Kathleen Hale made headlines for all the wrong reasons: not for her mad writing skillz or even the fabulously witty cover of her debut YA novel, but for her inability to cope with a Twitter comment and a negative review on Goodreads. Indeed, Hale began to conflate all dislike of her book with this single reviewer, "Blythe Harris", and became obsessed by the woman she seems herself to identified as her critic in chief. Online stalking turned to the real thing -- and then Hale, in apparent bid for understanding and sympathy, wrote about it. Even then, she didn't seem to understand just what she had done wrong; surely what mattered more than her stalking of a reviewer, Hale argued, was the possibility that that reviewer had chosen to operate under a pseudonym? Even now, six months later, the mere mention of Hale's name is still enough to ignite frenzied debate in the blogosphere.

At the time the hullabaloo broke lose, a number of copies of Hale's novel, No One Else Can Have You, were still available for members of Amazon's Vine review community to request. Since all of the members of this group blog are part of that community, we decided it would be a great opportunity to make up our own minds about the book at the heart of the controversy. Is is as dire as "Blythe" suggested? Is it subversively witty and creative? Or does it fall somewhere it between: just another edgy YA novel trying to find an audience in an increasingly crowded market?

We've read it, and rather than just post mini reviews, we though we'd have a book circle-style discussion about what worked for us -- and what didn't. Will we want to read Hale's new novel (due out in 2015) Nothing Bad Is Going to Happen? More than enough has been written and said about the "author behaving badly"; we're here to talk about the book. (Some of us blog using our own names; some, using pseudonyms or incomplete names. Whether or not we choose to use our real names has no impact on our decision to share our honest opinions about this, or any other books that we review on this blog.) So, let the discussion begin...


Suzanne: So, who found the Wisconsin setting convincing? I've heard lots of comparisons to the Coen brothers and Fargo; some say it's a similarly exaggerated view of small towns in the Midwest.

Sandy Kay: I grew up in a small town in Minnesota,  which is (for the geographically challenged) right next door to Wisconsin.  I loved Fargo and thought it was hilarious. I think the author was going for that same vibe but she doesn't have the skill to pull it off. The setting and characters in this book fell completely flat and I found myself being offended on behalf of my neighboring Cheeseheads.

JWP: As a Minnesotan who is part naturalized Wisconsinite due to geography and school association, I too found myself shaking my head at the depiction of Friendship, WI (a place that really exists, though likely not as the novel presents it just like Fargo is not in MN, but North Dakota). The part that makes less sense to me the more I think about it is actually the corn chopping that occurs at the beginning of the book. Considering the amount of farmers who rely on their crops for income, I don't feel any farmer would allow that to happen. It had zero impact on the investigation as the author presented it and added nothing to the plot.

Sandy Kay:  I completely agree about the corn chopping. It would never happen.

Jasmyn: Having visited small town Wisconsin many times, I can say that there are a few people out there that fit the stereotypes found in the book. However, finding a whole town full of nothing but?  That was a little too hard to believe. I did think it was very reminiscent of the movie Fargo.  The corn chopping blew my mind as well. So, they chopped it early (meaning it wasn't ready) and then had a fundraiser to sell it?  Made no sense.

Outlaw:  Specific to the Wisconsin 'rubes' in the book, I actually read the book long before the controversy and one of the main points in my review was that I felt folks from Wisconsin would be terribly insulted by the book.  That said, while the book was a little too quirky at times, I largely enjoyed it.

 Silea: I enjoyed the scenery descriptions, like the cornfield at the center of town, though I can't speak to any accuracy. I, too, read the book well before the excrement hit the fan, but even back then I thought that the author made nearly everyone in the town sound like they'd been dropped on their heads a few times as children. If she were describing my hometown, I'd have been offended.

Suzanne: I think my main problem with the book was what to me felt like excessive quirkiness. I loved the fact that Hale had such a distinctive voice, but everything was quirky and slightly off kilter, as if seen through one of those wacky carnival mirrors. I realize that was her choice, but it didn't work for me as a reader. It was exhausting.

Pam: The book reminded me of Twin Peaks, and I think the intent was theater of the absurd. So I don't think it was over-the-top.  Than again, I liked Green Acres.

Sandy Kay: I was ambivalent about the main character, Kippy.  I really like the idea of a socially awkward protagonist who has experienced a lot of tragic loss, but she never clicked for me. Was I just letting my feelings about the author bleed over onto the character?

JWP: I did wonder if Kippy was a weird version of a Mary Sue at times, so maybe there was character-author bleed over. It's very difficult to write a story and not have some connection to your main characters in particular.

Jasmyn: Kippy seemed like yet another overblown stereotype of every Young Adult protagonist out there. She had suffered loss, was an awkward and unpopular teenager, was smarter than the adults, had no friends, and was a whiz at school. It seemed very overdone. There was so much wrong with the girl's life that I wasn't able to really see how she felt about any one part of it.

Silea: Kippy felt very Mary-Sue to me. She was the only smart person in town, for starters. And when she reads her dead Best Friend's diary and is unfazed by the contents? That rang so utterly false.

Suzanne: I liked several elements of Kippy -- her intelligence and her sass. She wonders why she isn't getting the memos about "coordinated grief gear" when the rest of her classmates (throwing themselves into group mourning for a girl they didn't know in life) all show up in black, and says that when she thinks about vigils, "I think of a hundred ponytails bursting into flames".

Sandy Kay: I read this book after all the publicity about the author and wonder if that colored my perceptions. Perhaps I would have disliked the book less without all the background drama. Did knowing about the author affect how you felt about the book?

JWP:  I try to remain objective toward authors as much as possible because, as a creative writing major in undergrad, I understand the process of putting a story together and the many years it can take to make it click. What colored my reading more was the obvious lack of research and understanding in regard to what small town life is really like.

Jasmyn:  I actually found I enjoyed it more than I had expected after reading so much about how people didn't like it.  Perhaps I set my expectations low enough that it managed to exceed them?  I try hard to be objective, but once you know something or hear an opinion, it's hard not to consider that when reading the book. This story actually showed some potential. It needed a lot of work, mostly in the character development area, but I did find some redeeming qualities.

Suzanne: Nope. I put that behind me as soon as I started reading the book. I simply wanted to form my own opinion. The only element of the fracas that I wondered about was why Hale's loathed critic disliked the book as violently as she did. I didn't like it all that much, but to describe as the worst book I'd read this year? It didn't come close. She can write, and has a distinctive voice: talents a lot of writers lack.

Silea: I read it well before the drama and I thought it was dreadful. I think I said something to the effect that it seemed like it was written by a teenager, not for teenagers. The whole 'adults are stupid and ignore all the clever things teenagers think of' just had me seething by the end.

JWP: I often felt that the adults in Kippy's life were more caricature than characters and present only for the purposes of thwarting her investigative attempts. Thoughts regarding the depiction of law enforcement/adults in positions of authority?

Jasmyn:  I hated the law enforcement in the book.  They were the worst part of the overly stereotyped characters, in my opinion. The very first scene had me wanting to throw the book solely on the dialog from the officer. For the entire police force to be that inept, and the entire town to just go along with it, was the most unbelievable part of the story for me.

Suzanne: That was infuriating, because it required complete suspension of disbelief on the reader's part. Even knowing that this is aimed at YA readers prepared to believe that all adults are blind idiots and fools, a savvy author knows how to make a character like the sheriff blind in the right way -- to the realities of teenage life, not to reality.

Silea: The presentation of the sheriff was the most annoying and offensive part of the entire book. I almost sympathized with him at first, when he chose a villain and ignored evidence that contradicted the contrived story that implicated him. But later, Kippy comes to the sheriff with evidence that implicates the chosen suspect, and the sheriff brushes her off because she's a kid.

Sandy Kay: The character of Jim Steele worked for me as a caricature because he was close enough to real life to be funny. I once worked with a lawyer whose office was packed with taxidermied animals. Also, Steele's New York attitude in small town Wisconsin amused me. And no one objects to lawyers portrayed as arrogant idiots!

Suzanne: I got so sick of the constant references to dead, taxidermied animals....

JWP: For some reason I feel like Jim Steele should have been a pro wrestler.  The names for me are somewhat problematic in their excessive oddness.  Colt Widdacombe feels like a bad pun or inside joke that I'm not getting.

Jasmyn:  Let's not just criticize.  Was there anything that stood out that you enjoyed about the story: I actually enjoyed the mystery/sleuthing part of the book.  It reminded me of a lot of the teenager turned detective stories out there. She could have included a few hints about who the bad guy was - it did come out of nowhere, but watching Kippy follow the trail of clues was the best part.  I also enjoyed her stay at the hospital and her support group. I don't know if it was intended to be comedic but those scenes really had me grinning and chuckling.

Suzanne: I don't think that it came out of nowhere. Look at the different responses to accidents involving dead animals and attitudes to death in general. I was pretty clear as to who I thought the killer was by halfway through, even though the motivation (other than the obvious) was lacking.

JWP: I like Davey. He's damaged but he's also the one thing that really helps Kippy connect to what's happening and encourages her when no one else will. I would argue that he's the most 'real' character in the book.  I think I would have preferred him to be the main character. Also, I do think the book shows potential and the author has a sense of how to construct a story, but needed more rewrite time to develop everything better. Even though I was vastly disappointed by the suddenness of the reveal and that I felt like the final third was disconnected from the rest of the story, there was some sense of suspense throughout. Unfortunately, for me, the humor often fell short, but I can appreciate the attempt to make this a quirky, small-town tale.

Suzanne: Agreed; I loved the character of Davey. He was easily the most real and the most interesting. Yes, he was quirky, but in a good way. And vivid. For me, he was the most successful part of the entire novel.

Jasmyn: Davey was definitely a great and very well-written character.  He seemed to be the most developed in the entire book. If Kippy could have been more rounded and written with a depth similar to Davey's she would have really shone.

Pam: My favorite character was actually the diary. I found it hysterical that Kippy was caught off guard by her friend's disdain.  By the way, I seem to recall a similar use of diary in another novel.  Anyone recall what it might be? (Silea: Harry Potter? Wait, no...)

Suzanne: So, who will read Hale's new book, which will be out next year? I think I'll probably pass, although I'll be doing so based on the exaggerated eccentricities of the characters and the disappointments of the plot here, rather than the hullabaloo.

From Kathleen Hale, "Am I Being Catfished?"
The Guardian, October 18, 2014
Pam:  I won't be reading it. Reading this present book was an experiment, but I feel strongly about the inappropriate nature of her behavior. Strongly enough that I've actually deleted my reviews of Robin Wasserman's books on GoodReads because she thought Hale's behavior was okay.

Silea: I wouldn't touch it with a ten foot pole. I actively disliked her first book, and that alone is reason for me to ignore any future publications. But this is an author who stalked someone based on a single tweet. The rest was confabulation and confusion. I'm not sufficiently scared of her to delete my existing review (or to not comment here), but I'm cutting my losses.

Sandy Kay: I'll pass on the next one as well -- not because of Hale's behavior but because I didn't like this book.

JWP: Undetermined.  Hale showed she has potential, but I think she needs something that's not as much of  a stretch for her talents as No One Else Can Have You obviously was at times.

Blog Readers: What are your thoughts on the book? Join the discussion, in the comments section, below!

FTC Disclosure: Participants in this discussion received an advance review copy of the book from the publisher via the Amazon Vine program in exchange for a review containing our honest opinions. Our individual reviews may be found on the book's page on

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