Review: 4 to 16 Characters by Kelly Hourihan

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 received this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Publication date: November 7, 2013.

I want to know what fandom(s) Kelly Hourihan was/is in because I know this woman has fandom experience. Everything related to fandom in this book is SPOT ON, from the names to the capslock squeeing to Recirclr (Tumblr in disguise). This author knows fandom.

I thought the book would be more about Jane juggling her many online personas, but she really has one main one that she uses, a girl named Rachel. She has others but she only uses most of them when necessary, and we do get to “meet” a couple of them via posts. The book is more about Jane failing to maintain a healthy balance between her online life and her real life.

Jane is already obsessed when the prizes for a fanfic contest are announced: If the fandom can raise $15,000 for breast cancer research, the grand prize is a trip to Los Angeles to attend a fan convention and to sit in on a cast script reading.

Everybody who is anybody in the entire fandom is entering. Audra, Jenna, Fanfictionista, Skye, TealDeer, Allie S. Even that friggin’ “Tooxian Taleteller” with all the dippy grammar-impaired fangirls is entering, and she hasn’t written a fic in two years.

This exciting opportunity kicks her obsession up even higher and now Jane-as-Rachel MUST WIN. She’s convinced that it will be a life-changing experience. That’s why I was surprised when Jane decided to write her fic entry for the contest in script format. I’ve read enough fan fiction to know that THIS IS BAD. In my experience, scriptfic is pretty much always terrible. I can’t really comment on the quality of Jane’s, however, because I skipped over it. Fic about characters I don’t know in some kind of alien world I don’t care about doesn’t interest me.

The entire book takes place online. Anything that needs to be narrated is written as Jane’s private diary-now entries. Other parts are chats, IMs, emails, and her fan fiction. Parts of this book are difficult to read because of all the chatspeak (“ur,” “ppl,” random capital letters in a word that I have never liked, even when I was younger). I was relieved that there was no “smth,” which I find really grating.

In parts of this book I got the feeling that Jane is a pretty horrible person. Her mom is dead and her dad is drunk and both of things suck. She has a learning disability and anxiety and attends an alternative high school, but she doesn’t do anything to help herself. She sees absolutely nothing wrong with blowing off assignment after assignment because, hey, she has a fanfic to write. Priorities, right?

This is where the horrible person part comes in. When someone does her wrong — in Jane’s eyes — she attacks them. She digs up information on a therapist’s past and throws it in her face. She sets up a classmate for public humiliation. She just DOES NOT CARE about other people. Having a shitty homelife doesn’t make it okay for you to do shitty things to other people. Fortunately, this is a lesson that Jane eventually learns, with the help of a new therapist.

Lucky for us, Jane refuses to speak to this new therapist in person so they sit in the same room and IM each other. It takes some time for Jane to open up to Nora, but once she does, the book really picks up. I found myself liking Jane a lot more once she stops being so self-centered and realizes that other people have issues and struggles too.



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