on 8 June 2016
It's been a while since I've reviewed one of the 'Dork Diaries' books. And for good reason. The last time I did this was back in October when I wrote my 'How to Dork Your Diary' review. I'm not saying the book was bad. In fact it's one of my favourites in the series so far. But because I had to critique it as both a novel and guidebook, the review took me a lot longer to finish. It also took me two tries to do it; the first time I had to delete everything I'd written and start over again, because I kept losing track of what I wanted to say - it's a problem I have with being a perfectionist. 'Skating Sensation' was no different: if I told you how long it took me to finish this review you'd seriously never believe me.
Nonetheless, I still love the 'Dork Diaries' series and I'm always eager to read the next book. So what were my thoughts on Rachel Renee Russell's 5th dorkalicious novel? Let's start with the story.
Continuing where 'Pop Star' left off, it's December time at Westchester Country Day. And Nikki Maxwell plans to enter the 'Holiday on Ice' charity show. Unfortunately, she and her friends don't have a charity to skate for, and Nikki is THE WORST skater in the entire world - she can't even stand on the ice, let alone perform a routine. Meanwhile, she's also starting to question her relationship with Brandon. She feels better after spending the day with him at 'Fuzzy Friends', but then she finds out the animal shelter is having money problems. And if they close down, Brandon will be forced to move away! Now that she has a charity, Nikki will do all she can to stay on her feet, save the animals and keep the crush of her life by her side.
If there's one thing I have to say about this story it's that it's very sweet. I know there have been sweet moments in previous 'Dork Diaries' books, but they've often taken a backseat to all the zaniness and drama. In 'Skating Sensation' though, its one heart-felt scene after another. Some of my personal favourites are Nikki and Brianna playing dolls together (p139), Nikki leaving her sister a chocolate muffin (pp220-1) and Nikki finally getting the mobile phone she's always wanted (p249) - honestly it would've been criminal if she hadn't gotten one for Christmas. There's also group hugs, cute little puppies and so much more that makes you smile.
Another thing I have to mention is the character development. Nikki has come a long way from being the desolate teenager she was in the first book. Not only is she funny and eccentric, but she learns a lot of really mature lessons in 'Skating Sensation', which help make her a role model to young readers. These include: being honest about your problems; standing up to bullies; respecting other's secrets; not leaving work until the last minute; being a good sportsman; not taking your family for granted; relaxing, so you make less mistakes; etc. Many of these lessons are learnt through her interactions with other characters.
Starting with Brianna, I was very interested to see if there was going to be a change in her and Nikki's relationship. Especially after their moment of bonding in 'How to Dork Your Diary'. Admittedly, Brianna is one of the most pesky and outrageous characters in the whole 'Dork Diaries' series. However, this is the first time Nikki has actually stopped to think about her sister's behaviour, rather than just being annoyed by it. Because she does, she realises Brianna doesn't mean any harm by her actions. In fact, the latter is so ashamed of them sometimes she actually calls herself a brat (p220). This understanding brings them closer together and they share many touching scenes, like the ones mentioned above. There's even a few times in the book where Brianna helps Nikki out of difficult situations. It's hard to say whether this will change anything in the long run, but it's good to see Nikki acting like a caring big sister. Even if she does still want to strangle Brianna sometimes.
Another person really worth mentioning is Brandon. I was absolutely amazed at how much his character was expanded upon in this book. It starts off small by revealing his (slightly cliched) work at the animal shelter. Then we find out his backstory and what sort of person he is outside of school. Not to mention the painful secrets he's been keeping about his family.
Truth be told, I've always felt Brandon was a bit bland and stereotyped before now. He's a very likeable character, but sometimes he feels too nice to be real, and it seems like he's only interested in Nikki because the story wants him to be - it's understandable why she thinks their relationship may be based on pity (December 2nd-3rd). 'Skating Sensation' really fleshes out Brandon's character and makes him more believable. Plus, the way he interacts with Nikki proves his feelings for her are genuine.
Nikki also benefits from Brandon's development. She discovers his secrets by accident, but decides not to tell anyone. Because like the role model she is, she understands he's probably keeping them quiet for a good reason. Additionally, knowing his secrets makes her more determined to help him.
It's clear Nikki would do anything to save Brandon. Including beg favours from her arch-rival.
On the surface, Mackenzie Hollister seems like a typical popular/mean girl. She's beautiful, looks down on others and uses all kinds of devious tactics to get what she wants. But what really makes her intimidating is how smart she is. Her plans are so well-thought-out, I was literally convinced she was an evil genius after 'Pop Star'.
'Skating Sensation' proves she's no different. Her ultimate goal is to steal Brandon away from Nikki. Since its obvious by now he likes the dork more than her. At first, she tries claiming 'Fuzzy Friends' as her own charity, so she can suck up to him. When this fails, she does everything in her power to stop Nikki raising the money; because she knows if Brandon's "stupid little shelter" closes he'll blame Nikki for it, and then come crying to her for comfort. This plan really shows how wicked and selfish Mackenzie is; she doesn't care if Brandon gets his heart broken, just as long as she gets to pick up the pieces.
As you can tell, it's hard to find anything likeable about Mackenzie - she becomes less and less redeemable with each book. I would say her only saving grace is that she has a little sister. But I honestly wouldn't be surprised if she decided to give her up for adoption if it benefited one of her plans.
The rest of the characters are mostly the same as they've always been.
Nikki's parents are still the generic idiots, who unintentionally make their daughter's life stressful. Although Nikki learns to appreciate them more after realising two ditsy parents are better than no parents at all. As for Nikki's friends Chloe and Zoey, recent books have tried adding depth to their characters - e.g. Chloe having a younger brother (Joey) and Zoey quoting celebrities - but it'd be interesting to see more of their personal lives. Things like "jazz hands" and goofiness only reinforce them as comic-reliefs.
Moving on from the characters, though there's also the book itself and the way it's presented. 'Skating Sensation' is written in the traditional 'Dork Diaries' style with slang, humour, drawings, smiley faces, crossed-out words, big capital lettering, etc. Everything is made to feel like it was written (and drawn) by a 14-year-old, which helps create a sense of realism for the reader.
Another thing the books are know for is their catchphrases and pop culture references. I've said before that catchphrases are fine, as long as they're not overused. Otherwise, they feel forced and unrealistic. The ones in 'Skating Sensation' do get a bit repetitive and predictable at times (e.g. "How juvenile would THAT be?" and "HATE it when Mackenzie sashays"). But what's really admirable is how the author presents them in new ways, so they stay fresh for regular 'Dork Diaries' readers. For instance, Nikki always used to say: "said it all in my head, so no one else heard it but me." Now she has the guts to speak her mind and only uses her "inside voice" in situations where she knows not to answer back (e.g. when speaking to her gym teacher or friends). As for the pop-culture references, they're what make the 'Dork Diaries' books so engaging. No matter what age you are, you're bound to recognise at least one thing from everyday life you enjoy. The ones in 'Skating Sensation' include: Hogwarts, 'The Nutcracker', 'Moby Dick', 'The Wizard of Oz', Malibu Barbie, Pampers, 'Alvin and the Chipmunks', Life Magazine, 'Lady and the Tramp', Mary Poppins, Nanny McPhee, Winter Wonderland, 'America's Next Top Model', Disney and Nickelodeon channels, etc.
But pop-culture isn't the only thing referenced.
Throughout the story Nikki mentions numerous events from previous 'Dork Diaries' books (e.g. "Ballad of the Zombies", Dorkalicious and her Queasy Cheesy performance). Unlike the catchphrases, they tie in with the narrative well and don't feel forced. They're important to the overall series, because they form strong connections between the individual books. They also provide regular readers with nostalgia, whilst encouraging newcomers to read the previous instalments if they haven't already. The best example of this is on page 231, where Nikki cleverly references the first 4 books in a single paragraph: "the art competition, the Halloween party and the talent show...even that time I actually thought I'd lost my diary at school!"
The rest of the book is generally very good with its randomness, cute illustrations and jokes that are both funny and creative.
However, not everything is perfect. As well as the catchphrases, some gags and pieces of dialogue are noticeably reused from previous books, which feels a bit lazy. Also, because of the story's lighter tone, it takes a long time for any major conflict to unfold - Mackenzie isn't the constant threat she was in 'Pop Star'.
My biggest problem though is with some of the characters' actions: sometimes they're generic (Nikki's parents), sometimes they're jaw-dropping (Brianna; December 21st) and sometimes they're so unrealistic it feels like they were just included for plot-convenience.
Nikki is a prime example of the latter.
What I find frustrating is she how often forgets her lessons from previous books and reverts back to her old self. In 24 hours, she goes from performing in a band with Brandon ('Pop Star') to assuming he thinks she's some kind of "hairy-legged...crusty-eyed...freak!!!" (p13). Why? Because she overreacts to an incident with Brianna. Also, despite what I thought in my 'Pop Star' review, Nikki still hasn't told Chloe and Zoey about her scholarship - the one she got from her dad being the school bug-exterminator. It says she was "seriously planning to come clean" (p61). But then she lets something petty change her mind again. Which completely undermines her development.
I understand the author probably wants to slow down the pace of the series. Since a lot has progressed in just 5 books. And she has to keep reintroducing Nikki to new readers. But there must be a better way than pressing the reset button every time.
Fortunately, it sounds like things will improve in the future. Nikki admits she has to stop worrying about what other's think of her. Plus, she learns so many lessons here, its hard to believe she'll simply forget them all by 'Dear Dork'.
In conclusion, 'Skating Sensation' is another charming edition to the 'Dork Diaries' series. Each novel has its own flaws and weaknesses. But they also have unique qualities, which enable them to stand out individually. The original book was a great introduction to Nikki's dorky life; 'Party Time' gave us more zaniness and drama; 'Pop Star' increases the tension and conflict; and 'How to Dork Your Diary' taught us the author's writing style, whilst giving us an amazing story. 'Skating Sensation' stands out because it shows us a different side to the characters, through entertaining and heart-felt scenes. Plus, the new ideas and revelations help to keep the series fresh and opens up all kinds of possibilities for the future.
I would recommend this book to readers of all ages and genders. Since I've already established how engaging the 'Dork Diaries' series is - even if you're a male in his early 20s. However, if you enjoy like stories that are sweet, cheerful and full of character bonding, then this also for you.
That's all I have for this review. I hope you've enjoyed it - I certainly worked very hard to bring it you. If you have the time please let me know if this (and my 'How to Dork Your Diary' review) was helpful or not. I'd really appreciate it.
It's hard to believe I've been writing reviews for almost two years now. I don't know if I'm getting better or worse at it, but I think I need to take a break and focus on other things for a while. I still plan to review the remaining 'Dork Diaries' books ('Dear Dork'-'Puppy Love'), I just don't know when. Rest assured I'll be back. So until then, stay tuned.