Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Pee's YA Boot Camp - Day 1

My penance for taking such a long hiatus from reading (YA at least) is to put myself through a grueling boot camp. Between now and early December, I will read as many of the YA novels nominated for the Cybils as possible AND...wait for it:

Provide a mini-review. Mini because boot camp is all about intense workout bursts, not marathon training. So my reviews will be true to the boot camp mentality - my bare thoughts on the book and what sort of reader I think they'll appeal to.

Why yes, I am a little crazy. But I'm also way behind on reading YA. I believe the last I read was the Hunger Games trilogy.

How much has the landscape changed since my last book hit shelves in 2009? I can tell you I'm still not seeing a boat load of brown YA - which may explain why they're also missing from Cybils noms.

I know you're out there, books!!!

So here we go. Day 1 reads...

Blink & Caution by Tim Wynne-Jones
I love a good suspense novel. Among the adult fic I read, it's my go-to genre. So, I was looking forward to reading a story revolved around young characters. The premise of Blink & Caution sets the reader up well - two "street" kids find themselves in over their heads. Blink is the only witness to a crime that involves corporate intrigue and Caution has stolen a guap (i.e. a lot of money) from her drug dealing manfriend. No not boy. He's a grown man.

What I thought right away is - wow how will they get out of this? Suspense novels are all about that ride you take as you see how the characters emerge (or not) from the mess they stumble upon.

That's where I walked away unsatisfied. I overlooked the revolving POVs even though Blink's chapters - told in second person - distracted me. Caution's chapters, in third, flowed more organically. I cared about the characters, but can't help but wonder if Blink would have been more rounded out had his chapters not been in second. That lack of well-roundedness played a part in why I felt the story was wrapped up too neatly and there were some character trait inconsistencies (Caution vacillated between tough girl and innocent) that stilted my believability.

I'll admit, as a hard core suspense fan my expectations were pretty high. It kept me turning the pages - and for sure that counts for something, but in the end I walked away less satisfied then I'm used to when I read that genre.

The Absolute Value of Mike by Kathryn Erskine
I'm not one of those adults who thinks all kids are totally naive. I know that mature characters such as fourteen-year-old Mike not only exist but may be more the norm than the not-so-worldly characters often portrayed in fiction. Problem is, there's maturity because of circumstance...which exists in Absolute Value:

* Mike's mom has died.

*His father is an engineer and genius who processes facts only, never emotion. My first thought was, how did this man ever got married and sire a child?

*Because of his father's total lack of connection, Mike has pretty much raised himself and taken care of his father.

So it's ripe for this kid to be mature. But then there's maturity because every adult around you is so loopy and over the top, that the character is forced to be the most reasonable person in the room. The difference is, the latter comes off contrived. Had it been left at the above facts, the reader would have understood why Mike is such a fixer/problem solver.

Instead, added to the mix, nearly every adult Mike comes into contact with is portrayed as half off their rocker or rocked by some past tragedy.

The Absolute Value of Mike is a warming story. Kid goes to live with distant relatives and finds himself needing to help an entire rural town get its act together. Nice, right? Yes. Pee isn't heartless, after all.

But the story is more MG than YA. It's all about how something is presented. And had I read it in the vein of MG, I wouldn't be so tough on it. I often forgive MG books that are so sweet they're syrupy or whose "lesson" is worn proudly on its sleeve. Though I must say, MG is getting edgier and my views on that may have to change with the genre. Still, traditionally you can get away with that vibe in an MG. Not so much in YA.

The Absolute Value of Mike came off as one of those books that adults want kids to read. I'd recommend this for an avid 9 or 10 year old reader. But the average YA reader may find it too tame.

Flirt Club by Cathleen Daly

Flirt Club is cute.

I almost ended that review there, then thought - wait, that's not fair. Used the wrong way, cute comes off as a total back-hand compliment. And I don't mean it that way.

Flirt Club's story is told through letters and emails passed between the characters and journal entries. I think the story's structure will really appeal to eleven year old readers. I'd say ten but these young ladies are dealing in matters of the heart, so for parents who don't want their ten-year-old discussing the art of may not be for them. Eleven year olds are either most definitely dealing with that in middle school or know a friend who is.

The note passing and journal entries are ultra girly and I think most tween readers will relate to the characters' silly, yet edged with growing maturity, outlook on school, friends and flirting. But its structure would likely turn off older readers. If this were an MG book, this mini-review would be all positive no neg. It's however, competing against traditional YA for the Cybils so that's how I approached it.

I think MG and Tween novels can get away with either being deeply character driven or totally driven by devices such as an entire novel in Instant Messages. However, when we're talking competition, story and character development have to be expertly melded in YA novels. And because of the book's style it took about 50 pages before the actual story emerged. Once it did, I found myself wanting to know the outcome. But 50 pages is a long time to wait for the "real" story to begin.