When I received a copy of Estelle Maskame’s Just Don’t Mention It last year, I thought I was in for weeks of struggling through a book that really wasn’t for me. I’m very much a believer of originality rather than rewriting something already done from another character’s perspective (or, in the case of movies, gender swap movies and remakes, period!), and here was an author rewriting her first book from her male protagonist’s perspective. But I had made a commitment, and so I began to read.
The first chapter, a flashback, had me hooked, but some present-day narrative still had me flicking through to see how long it was until I could return to the past again. By the end, I realised that those moments where I struggled to read were part of a journey I needed to go on to appreciate the book as a whole. To love it, in fact.
A few weeks ago, I was offered the chance to read Maskame’s latest book, The Wrong Side of Kai. I was promised a brand new standalone, with no connection to her other books. The blurb had me intrigued, the name Kai had me hooked (never underestimate the importance of a name, writers) and Estelle Maskame had me convinced that her work would always pleasantly surprise me.
Set in a world reminiscent of every modern teenage drama on TV– Gossip Girl, 90210, One Tree Hill– as soon as Harrison pulls out his phone on Page 15, having just had his idea of what seems to essentially be a couple’s getaway rejected, you know immediately where the narrative is going. Still, its execution is well written and entertaining.
After tackling the theme of abuse in Just Don’t Mention It– where the protagonist, Tyler, is beaten by his father as a child– Maskame writes about not one, but four issues facing teenagers today: social media, sexting, grief, and intimacy. Each one is woven neatly into every chapter, sometimes subtly, with a passing comment about how Vanessa dresses in mini-skirts and low-cut tops because she likes them and not because of the attention it attracts, and sometimes more explicitly, with her train of thought as she desperately tries to contain her anger. Once again, Maskame proves that she can handle such important issues delicately and realistically, while still, somehow, keeping the narrative fresh and, when Kai is finally pulled into the narrative, FUN!
I’m feeling fury at Harrison for betraying me by sharing something that was for no one else to see. But also anger at myself for being so stupid, for letting him record that video in the first place.
What stood out for me most this book was how, refreshingly, Vanessa recognises and acknowledges her own mistakes. She openly admits that had she not been the butt of the joke, she would have been the one laughing, gossiping and taunting, along with everyone else. For her, that makes her own ordeal that much worse. Oh, how the tables have turned. Further into the narrative, as she and Kai step deeper into their revenge plan, Vanessa’s rage, although not yet subsided, makes way for guilt and regret. Until, finally, once she has realised that revenge may not be as sweet as it seemed to begin with, she recognises that her actions make her no better than Harrison’s. Had this conclusion suddenly appeared, it wouldn’t have had quite the same impact as having it slowly seeping into her throughout the course of the book.
Her partner in crime, Kai, shows every reader a good time. Cocky. Charming. He was the perfect balance between the nice guy you wish you were attracted to and the bad boy you end up falling in love with. Like with Vanessa’s BFF, Chyna– who is definitely the character I would pull out of the book and insert into my own life– there were many occasions where I was curious how certain chapters would play out from his perspective, but not once did I feel the need for alternating chapters to get more from him. A good sign, for sure. It would, however, have been fun to see a little more interaction between him and members of his old football team, especially as they appear in the first chapter.
The story developed at a good pace, with enough time being spent on the main aspects of the narrative: the leaked tape and the ensuing revenge scheme, Vanessa’s relationship with her father, and dealing with the loss of her mother and the ideals that had been destroyed because of it. If I have one complaint about The Wrong Side of Kai, it’s about the use of long, repetitive monologues. In my experience, writing in first person is always difficult– you’re forever questioning how much is toomuch, and how much is natural. For me, at least, there were two or three instances where I found Vanessa’s internal monologues far too long and far too repetitive. Yes, the character would be forever thinking about her mother’s death, her father’s mental absence, her grief and anger and guilt, but written on the page it grows tedious. They would have perhaps been better suited in dedicated chapters– Vanessa and Kai at her mother’s grave, for example– rather than in these monologues. Holding back certain information is better than sharing it early and having to remind people about it later.
All in all, with a friendship easy to envy, a romance you can get behind, and a revenge scheme that ends in the conclusion you want despite the fact that you’re not always rooting for it, The Wrong Side of Kai was a genuinely good read. If you’re into contemporary YA and love a good American teen drama, this is definitely for you. Looking forward to seeing what Estelle Maskame tackles next!