Cover of A Really Awesome Mess by Trish Cook and Brendan Halpin. A yellow cafeteria tray with a fork and a napkin

About the Book

Title: A Really Awesome Mess
Published: 2013

Cover Story: Please, Sir, May I Have Some More?
Drinking Buddy: Are You Trying to Get Us Busted?
Testosterone Level: Squeal Like a Pig
Talky Talk: After School Special
Bonus Factors: First World Problems, Sexting, Ensemble Cast
Bromance Status: Cellmates

Cover Story: Please, Sir, May I Have Some More?

An empty cafeteria tray. One of the main characters has an eating disorder. No giant faces. This works.

The Deal:

So Emmy trusted this guy. And he ended up hurting her, as teenage guys are wont to do. But he hurt her in a way that embarrassed her in front of the world. And when she tried to get revenge, she ends up looking like the bad guy. Rather than apologize to her tormentor, she ends up being expelled from school.

Things, of course, are uncomfortable at home. Her parents have no idea why Emmy is acting out and are constantly riding her ass. But Emmy knows the truth. You see, she was adopted from China, right before her infertile mother unexpectedly became pregnant with her sister, Joss. A real child. Oh, her parents never distinguish between the two of them, of course, but still…who wouldn’t prefer slender little white Joss to chunky, Asian Emmy? If only she were skinnier. Then her parents would love her. Then the boy would take her back. She just has to stop eating.

When her parents reach the end of their rope, they send Emmy off to the Heartland Academy: part boarding school, part prison, part mental hospital. She will not be released until she’s good and cured.

It’s there that she meets Justin, the sex-crazed, wise-cracking, fun loving, cute boy who narrates the alternate chapters. To Justin, the world is a crazy place, one full of laughter and as much pornography as he can get his hands on.

Until he crashes. Until he starts thinking about his parents’ divorce. How his father avoids him. How crushing things can be.

And one day, he downs a whole bottle of pills. Now Justin will be the first to tell you it was just a cry for help. Hell, it was only Tylenol, for Pete’s sake! Well, it turns out that shit can be deadly. The doctors called it attempted suicide. Justin is going away for a while.

Justin and Emmy have an instant spark, which is somewhat sullied by Justin’s inappropriate jokes and Emmy’s refusal to eat. But as the weeks go by, they realize they share a special bond: they hate Heartland and are desperate to get the hell out.

Hey, it’s romantic in a way.

Drinking Buddy: Are You Trying to Get Us Busted?

Two pints of beer cheersing

Heartland (known by Emmy and Justin as Assland) really sucks. No internet, no contact with the outside world, no porno, no vomiting after meals. Emmy’s eating habits are closely watched, and Justin is forced into therapy to discover why he thinks about sex so much. A boy. A teenager. They had to send him away for that?

Still, the pair just borders on whiny. They talk about nothing but leaving the Academy, but constantly pick fights and break rules that don’t get them any closer to release.

Still, I found myself rooting for this pair. Hey, if you could meet the person of your dreams while confined to a strictly gender-separate facility, maybe you were meant to be together.

Testosterone Level: Squeal Like a Pig

Okay, Emmy, Justin and four of their friends play nicey nice for weeks in order to earn a field trip to the county fair. They then promptly steal a piglet, smuggle it out in a Dora the Explorer doll, and bring it back to Assland. It’s zany.

And it’s funny. And kind of touching. You see, Emmy’s roommate Jenny once had a pig she raised, only to have it sold for bacon by her cruel stepfather. The other kids swipe the pig as kind of a replacement.

Of course, how does one hide a pig indoors? In a place where all rooms are constantly searched? Where everything is monitored? Where a stunt like that could get your release postponed for half a year?

Well it involves a lot of sneaking and fart jokes. But hey, at least Emmy now has somewhere to dispose of all that food she detests.

Talky Talk: After School Special

Emmy and Justin have almost instant breakthroughs with their counselors, crying and realizing that their parents truly do love them. I felt like I was reading a Very Special Episode. I half expected Emmy to break into a chorus of ‘I’m So Excited‘ or for Justin to admit that he was molested by the Maytag repairman. I don’t care if you only have three hundred pages to work with, this sort of epiphany takes time.

Still, all the characters are very likeable, so I’ll give this book a pass. And they avoid the Wayne’s World mega happy ending for a more realistic (though still upbeat) closing.

Bonus Factor: First World Problems

Screenshot from Richie Ritch, with Richie wearing a suit and sitting at a desk

Tuition at Assland is not free. In fact, it’s rather expensive. All of Emmy and Justin’s fellow students come from upper class families. They realize that if they’d come from a poorer background, they’d all just be in jail or a crazy hospital. It’s kind of nice that the book acknowledges that not everyone can afford the expensive cures.

Bonus Factor: Sexting

Hand holding a hot dog

Spoiler alert: Emmy’s wonderful boyfriend asked for a topless picture of her. Since this was true forever love, she complies. She was smart enough to leave out her face, but his friends got a hold of it, figured out who it was, and spread it all over school. Then when they started to harass her, she’s the one who gets in trouble for fighting back–after all, she can’t very well tell what she’s fighting back about.

The long and short of it is, her nipples are on the internet forever. And that’s something every kid will a cell phone needs to remember.

Bonus Factor: Ensemble Cast

Group of characters from the Office cheering and laughing while gathered around a computer

This book wasn’t just about Emmy and Justin. There’s Emmy’s roommate, Jenny, the pig-loving farm girl who never speaks. There’s Justin’s roommate, the bad-ass guy from Sierra Leone, who turns out just to be a lying rich kid from Grosse Point, Michigan. There’s Dianna, the fighter, and Chip, the con artist. They’re all broken, and all likeable.

Bromance Status: Cellmates

We’ve all got our own problems, and so does this book. But this book helped me get through my own rough times, though I don’t want to talk about this. Hope you make it on the outside.

FTC Full Disclosure: I received no money or booze smuggled in a hollowed out Harry Potter book for writing this review.

Brian wrote his first YA novel when he was down and out in Mexico. He now lives in Missouri with his wonderful wife and daughter. He divides his time between writing and working as a school librarian. Brian still misses the preachy YA books of the eighties.