4 to 16 Characters by Kelly Hourihan
Published: 7 November 2013 (Lemon Sherbet Press)
Format: Kindle e-book (ARC)
Buy the e-book: Kindle|Kobo
Source: Received free copy from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Thanks Lemon Sherbet Press!
Plot Summary (from Goodreads):
Fifteen-year-old Jane Shilling’s best friends don’t know her real name. In fact, they don’t know anything about her at all. Jane’s life has collapsed in the last few years; following the death of her mother, her father turned to drinking, and Jane is reeling from the double blow. To escape, Jane devises a number of online personas, each with a distinct personality, life history, and set of friends. But things become trickier when she finds herself drawing close to some of her online friends, and winds up struggling with the question of how to maintain a real friendship while masquerading as a fake person. With the help of Gary, a socially awkward classmate and competitive Skeeball player who is Jane’s only offline friend, and Nora, her therapist, Jane begins to sift through her issues. The only catch is that that involves taking a long, hard look at what her life’s like when the computer is shut off, and that’s a reality she’s been fighting for years.
I saw this book on NetGalley and was immediately drawn to the plot summary. 4 to 16 Characters follows Jane as she juggles her own real life with a string of identities she has created online. Her favourite TV show is holding a contest for fanfiction writers so Jane immerses herself in that world, neglecting the real world problems in her life she needs to be facing up to.
I was drawn to this book as soon as I saw it was written through things like emails and blog posts, because I love books that are written like that! The majority of the story is written from Jane's personal, private blog where she posts her thoughts and real life experiences. Alongside that are posts from her online profiles where she is acting as other characters, which are sort of real life extensions of herself. It's a brilliant concept and it's executed really well. Not only do you get blog posts, emails and IM conversations, but web searches, Tumblr-esque reblogs and glimpses at Jane's email inbox. The book is really innovative in that respect and I enjoyed reading Jane's story through all these different mediums.
Jane's life is pretty hard, which accounts for the reasons she is throwing herself into her online bubble where she feels safe. She's grieving for her mum, has an alcolholic for a father and is attending a special school that incorporates therapy into the school time. Basically she's pretty messed up and has the weight of the world on her shoulders. I think I should point out that Jane is not a perfect character. She's pretty flawed and does stuff that isn't that nice, plus she's quite rude to most people around her. But not once did that put me off. I think her attitude is pretty understandable, and made her voice throughout the book even more distinctive. Because we get to see her private diary entries, you really get inside of her head so you can understand exactly where she's coming from. And she has an awesome side too. I mean she's funny, and incredibly smart. Plus she has these great feminist rants. I think her biggest flaw is that she thinks she's indestructible, but when you read a book with a character like that, you know it's going to bite them on the backside eventually, and Jane definitely develops and starts to change her ways.
The plot centres around Jane's online life as Rachel, who is immersed in the Look to Tomorrow fandom, a TV show Jane/Rachel loves. Basically, this is a book for the Tumblr generation. Jane is writing fanfiction and obsessing on social media with other fans. It's an instantly recognisable situation to anyone who spends a good chunk of their day online and anyone who has been a fan of any book, film, TV show in the past five years. There's also some great pop culture references thrown in, like for example a Simpsons reference which I just loved when I came across it! Oh and the author included a mention of banned books week! That makes it pretty cool, right?
All of the characters in 4 to 16 Characters - whether real or created by Jane - are brilliantly developed, and each has a distinctive voice. Gary, Jane's only "real life" friend was my absolute favourite by far. He is such a sweetie! I mean Jane is kind of embarrassed by him, mainly because he plays Skee-ball so enthusiastically, but he really gets her, and doesn't judge her when he discovers her online exploits. My favourite scenes were the IM conversations between the two of them which were hilarious. I just loved that these two freaks of society have kind of gravitated towards each other and are able to open up about things without it being a big deal. Their relationship was just so much fun.
This book was so me in a whole load of ways. I love books that dive into tough situations head on, and 4 to 16 Characters does that. I like seeing characters having to overcome challenging situations, and real life is the most challenging issue of all. The author has done a great job at taking on subjects like grief, alcoholism, mental health and our attitudes to social media, whilst maintaining an entertaining story that had me gripped to the pages, laughing, and almost crying! I had all of the feels with this book. It ticked every box for me.
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