We hope you’re ready for this one. Not only is this rrramble’s first full length book review, but our writers have outdone themselves with a wildly mixed bag of opinions on Sally-Anne Lomas’s debut novel, Live Like Your Head’s On Fire.
Live Like Your Head’s On Fire follows a young dancer, Pen Flowers, as she pursues her passion for dance whilst navigating the trials and tribulations of adolescence. This is the first installment in the coming-of-age trilogy from Story Machine Books.
Live Like Your Head’s On Fire presents a teenage voice that feels authentic. Adults writing teenage perspectives tend to drift into either pretentiousness or condescension. Sally-Anne Lomas manages to give her protagonist a voice rooted in reality. At moments this voice is a little too naive, but most of the time Pen felt genuine, and I could see aspects of my younger self in her. There are very real teenage anxieties and insecurities that bring this book to life: realising your friends have a life outside of you, feeling insecure about your body, and fretting over who does and doesn’t have a boyfriend. There’s also a blunt look at the more toxic aspects of growing up, as Pen is confronted with ways her own obsession with social capital lead her to be cruel to other girls, how she tried to hide being friends with the ‘uncool’ Vivienne, and mocked her behind her back. Pen is not an awful person, but the novel takes an open look at teenage bitchiness and how moving past it is part of growing up in a way that’s refreshing to see.
This strength of voice is let down by the story as a whole. I’d gone into Live Like Your Head’s On Fire accepting that Lomas wasn’t writing with 23 year-old men in mind and the book wasn’t going to enthral me, so I don’t want to come down too hard, especially considering it’s a debut work. But the further I got into the book the more I fell out with it.
Lomas has an interesting protagonist and is able to make the plot progress organically, however, I’m not sure it was the right story to tell. While Pen does grow to be a touch more empathetic, and there’s some positive ideas about the nature of friendship, it’s hard to see what growth she’s actually experienced. The story engaged me, but I didn’t think page-400 Pen was radically different to page-10 Pen.
In place of growth the book falls too far into wish fulfillment. Everything hinges on an average teenage girl being a hidden dance prodigy just waiting to be discovered: the famous, handsome dancer wants her to work for him; the bullies are jealous of her; running away from home teaches her parents to listen and cherish her more. And, of course, the cute, older boy can’t get enough of her. There are more displays of Pen’s brilliance than instances of personal development. I did appreciate that Lomas resisted the urge to end the book with a neat, hetero pairing, but having Pen accept Mick’s number feels like Lomas is trying to have her cake and eat it. Pen won’t collapse into the boy’s arms, but by trying to prove that Pen’s desirable enough to get the boy the novel fails to challenge just how badly she and Melody were treated.
This brings me on to my single biggest problem with the book: Melody Jones. When it was first revealed that Melody had been in care I made a note in the margin “please don’t stereotype”. Reading on, I was repeatedly gut punched with disappointment. It’s so rare to see care leavers or young people in poverty in books, and I was furious that Melody had all complexity stripped away from her in order to tell a cautionary tale about hanging out with ‘them council estate kids’. Melody lives in squalor, she’s impulsive, a liar, a thief, selfish and manipulative, willing to pimp Pen out in exchange for a place to sleep. Nearly every negative stereotype about poverty crammed into a single volume. Any opportunity to interrogate Melody’s character is cast aside because, like everyone else, she exists primarily to accentuate Pen’s achievements. It might not have been Lomas’s intention, but it left a bitter taste.
There are a lot of problematic aspects of this book that I’m sure the other reviewers have picked up on, from an uncomfortable comment about anorexic ballet dancers, to a sexual assault that just goes ignored. Personally, I can’t get past the way Melody is portrayed. However, I know that this won’t be an issue for everyone; so if the story of a teenage girl discovering her identity as a dancer appeals to you, give it a chance. It’s set to be a series and I hope to see Lomas build on her strengths, while challenging the existing issues and forcing Pen to really grow as a person.
It was really nice to delve into a YA novel after three years of heavy literature and essay writing; Live Like Your Head’s On Fire has some beautiful and unique descriptions, and is simultaneously very readable. In my first year at university I took part in a Meisner class led by a lovely, eccentric lecturer with some super hippyish warm-up techniques! Penny’s out of body experience of being moved by the music and performance in PE reminded me a lot of these classes; doing something that should be so ridiculous and embarrassing that somehow brings you to life. I think a lot of performing is like this – the loudest and most out-there part of the play is usually the part that makes you feel the most transcendent. I hope that this book will encourage teenagers to take that risk of looking a bit silly.
The digestibility of the novel is a real strength, however I feel like some of the descriptions, especially that of Penny’s experience with her mum’s anxiety, could be a little more nuanced. It might have been nice to reveal more about her mum’s past as a dancer later on in the narrative as opposed to most of her backstory being revealed at the beginning.
I also think that the way that Sally-Anne Lomas covers body image, relationships and identity is really valuable for a YA readership; especially those involved in dance as this can be very image focused. Penny is constantly having to think about other people, whether it be her family or her classmates and how they will react to her dance. Her decision to pursue performance belongs to her alone, encouraging girls to put themselves and their passions first. The characters in the novel are a range of body types, which is great. However, Penny’s and the rest of her peer group’s negative attitude towards Vivienne’s body felt a tad over-the-top and stereotypical of YA. Literature and other media are lacking plus-size characters with greater depth; whilst Vivienne is revealed as having a secret life at her acting school, a large part of her personality is focused upon her love for food, which is so much less interesting. She is portrayed as greedy, isolated, codependent on her parents, but kind. I am making a call-out for plus-size cool girls, villains and femme fatales.
Overall I really enjoyed the story and I do like Penny as a character! There’s something fiery about her that makes her a bit jarring but also manages to draw you in. Stories about outsiders finding their voice through art are a great way of promoting the power of creativity amongst teenagers. This is a message that is so important to learn in the tricky formative years of adolescence.
After finishing Live Like Your Head’s On Fire, I snapped the book shut and immediately got on with my life, having not been affected by the story much at all. I’ll explain my reasoning later, but first I will talk about what I did like about the book since I didn’t hate it.
I liked how it was easy to read through. The short chapters were particularly helpful as I don’t like to put a book down in an odd place. Also, the intensity towards the end was exciting, and it was really the only moment in the book where I could truly sympathise with the main character. It is sad that any woman or girl has the potential to come across creepy men, and to read about a naïve fifteen-year-old girl not in her native city, abandoned by her so-called friends and wondering around frightened was triggering, to say the least. It made me want to physically jump into the story and walk with her, show her a safe way out (while leaving Melody with a hearty smack).
But apart from occasional pockets where I felt engaged, for the most part I must admit I did not feel at one with the story. My reasoning? The writing was not the best. A number of sentences sounded weird in my head, which made me go ‘huh’. Often, this was due to a certain jumpiness about the writing that felt rushed and made me cringe in some places, like on page 22: ‘And that was that, from then on, I was doomed.’ I would then have to re-read the passage to try and understand, thus interrupting the flow and taking me away from imagining the story clearly. It often felt like I was mindlessly reading. After I finished getting through Pen’s first dance show, I felt so disappointed. The description was uninteresting, nothing special, and this was extremely sad because there is so much life and passion behind the art of dance that it deserves to be conveyed beautifully through literature.
Again, this was due to finding the sentences rushed, and perhaps they felt like this because of the abundance of punctuation errors. (Please: who proofread this book before giving it the go-ahead to get published?) There were commas where there should not have been commas, there were a lack of full stops where there should have been full stops, and there was a rather confusing amount of question marks that seemed to pop out of nowhere. An example on page 90: ‘I wanted to meet this girl who was out on the streets at night just like me?’ Another example, this time of a missing full stop (or perhaps even a semi-colon could have been an option here), which can be found on page 103: ‘Last night Melody and now Mum I was going to be permanently disabled at this rate.’
You might be wondering why I am complaining about the proofreading errors so much. The answer is simple: flowing sentences and artful use of punctuation are imperative for creative writing because that is what gives the reader an indication of how the narration is meant to sound. This, in turn, leaves them feeling connected to the story, to the characters. Perhaps this book could have been good in my eyes, but for now, I only view it as a first draft. It has potential, but it did not make my heart transcend like other pieces of writing have, therefore I cannot conclude that Live Like Your Head’s On Fire possesses greatness.
There’s a moment in Live Like Your Head Is On Fire where our main character, Pen Flowers, is coming back from a dance recital with her dad. She asks him how it was and the only thing he says to her is ‘I didn’t realise how busty you’d gotten’. That’s a weird thing to say to your daughter, right? Like it shows how often women are perceived as sexual objects even by those close to them. Pen is revealing her inner self through her art – this is a vulnerable moment for her. What she needs is assurance from those close to her. It’s the sort of betrayal that gives people complexes.
It is never brought up again.
I don’t like that I don’t like this book. Coming from both a debut author and a small publisher I wanted to be able to back it. But the truth is it’s bad, really bad. If this had come out of a large publisher or had been written by an established author then I’d have had a lot of fun saying they should have known better. Now I’m still saying they should have known better, but I’m not having any fun. It feels amateur, devoid of focus or interest, as though they accidentally sent the first draft to the printers.
There are interesting moments sprinkled throughout which the book frustratingly refuses to linger on. The aforementioned horror of the dad weirdly objectifying his own daughter is one. Another is when Pen first puts on her leotard and looks at herself in the dark reflection of the school window at night. Her body not quite feeling her own as the leotard shapes her form with any lumps or rolls obscured and hidden. Her body becomes a dishonesty. But this insecurity is quashed as the book then returns her to the structured world of dance with attractive women and tight outfits and tells her ‘you belong here.’ The message is not one of disrupting the status quo, but of Pen being a part of the status quo, and not knowing it.
The central character conflict is that Pen is good at dancing but doesn’t think she’s good at dancing. There’s no growth in her ability, she is good at dancing when the story begins and still good at the end. She doesn’t have to work to impress any authority figures in the dancing world, they all see she is good at dancing. The problems she has to conquer are dealing with school bullies who are dealt with the moment an adult gets involved, and her weird feelings about being friends with the unpopular and uncool girl in class (who is secretly really popular and cool outside of class so it’s fine, actually.) Any moment that could potentially distract from these gripping storylines is ignored.
As such, let us distract ourselves. There are also some weird descriptions of women in this book. Pen’s dance teacher is nary mentioned without some comment on her breasts (‘like two traffic cones’), the same for her best friend’s mum. I hesitate to truly call it sexualisation, but it’s a weird fixation. Given this, and the book’s focus on Pen’s fear about her relationship with another girl and her fascination with older cool-girl Mel, I was sure that this book was going to become a coming-out story where Pen discovers she’s bi or gay. It wouldn’t make the book better if it did that, it would just explain the strange way the author focused on women’s bodies.
I blame the editor. There are whole chapters which could have been paragraphs. It is two-hundred pages too long. The book doesn’t showcase a lack of talent, but it does showcase a lack of experience and guidance. As I have said, the book has its moments which, if teased out by a competent editor, could have made the book a patchy but worthwhile read. As it stands Pen’s issue was that she doubted her ability; the author’s issue was that she didn’t.
We would like to note that following our writers’ reviews, the publishing team behind Live Like Your Head’s On Fire have updated the print manuscript to remedy any grammatical errors pointed out by our writers.