Friday, August 17, 2007

Why a 36 year old woman is reading teen fiction...

I JUDGE BOOKS BY THEIR COVERS. There. I said it. How could I walk past any of these in a library or a store and not want to read them?

There's more to it than that, though. Being the mother of a 13 year old girl, I want to know what my kid is reading. Even more than that, as a writer who hopes to publish a peer to these three books, I need to what's out there.

Above all, there is some excellent stuff out there. You should never let the "Young Adult" label scare you away. Many of these books are proving to be crossover successes, and some are shelved in two sections. Why wouldn't you read Young Adult fiction even if you're over 21? You were once a kid, were you not?

Earlier this summer I read THE POSSIBILITY OF FIREFLIES by Dominique Paul.

I was drawn to it because it's set in 1987, which was a very good year for me, and because the main character's love interest is a fledgling rock star. Well here's the catch- and you know there must always be a catch because otherwise there's no reason to read- Ellie is a 14 year old kid who keeps getting locked out of the house because Mom's out partying...and Leo is TWENTY.

Yep. Ick factor. I had to know how this was all going to play out.

This is a beautifully written story. The author got the details right and created a few characters that will feel instantly familiar. The hero of the story does prove to be a hero, but that's all I'll say.

What I loved about this book was the sense of hopefulness. Even though this kid is in a neglectful and mentally abusive situation, she never gives up.

What I didn't love about this book was the incredible sense of self awareness. Ellie is almost believable as an extremely sensitive and intelligent girl, but I couldn't help but feel, as a chick who was there, doing that, at that time, that the awareness was filtered through a mind that has had time to look back.

One other thing sort of bugged me. I couldn't figure out exactly why the story was set in 1987. The parties and rock stars? Because it was a good year for hair metal? Because it was exactly twenty years before the publication of the book? Because the author was a kid then? I suspected that this may have been a partially autobiographical story, especially after reading the acknowledgments. This worries me. I have a nice little raw novel waiting to be seen, and it is not an autobiography. I made it up. It's fiction. However, we, as readers, always want to associate the writer with the written. I was doing that as I read this book. I want to think that an author knows, from experience, exactly what she is talking about, because it makes the fictional story more believable. However, I don't want a thinly disguised version of what really happened. I suspected that Dominique Paul changed the names and called it a story...and I fear that it'll be suspected of me too.

This was a valuable lesson for me as a writer. I have to tell a new story, not my own. I can use my own story for a starting block but it can't be my life (and it isn't.) Most of all, because I set mine in a similar time period, I have to make sure it's for a reason. If there's no significance to that date, it might as well be set in the present. (There are reasons for setting it in the 80s, besides just liking the tunes of the time!)

I'm willing to forgive it, because it's a good solid little book. Despite the nasty life situation that our heroine is in, it's a sweet story. Ellie is likeable, and by the end, you'll be cheering for her to overcome her troubles. I even squeezed out a few sobs for her. You're gonna be okay, Ellie!!!

A little internet digging told me that Dominique Paul, who is a screenwriter, will be directing the feature film. How's that for a first time novelist? I think it'll make an excellent movie. The things that bugged me won't show up. Only the triumphant story will come through. Mothers who partied like rock stars twenty years ago can take their daughters to see it. Whether they sit together or not will be entirely up to them...

Soon after, I read EXIT HERE by Jason Myers.

Again, the author claims to have lived the life and knew guys like the main character. The author lived to tell about it, which is more than can be said for a few of the kids in the story.

This is an absolutely harrowing story. Every one of the college age characters is shallow, self centred, materialistic, and rude. They live by their cell phones. They lie to each other. Their friendships are based on who's got the best drugs and whose pants are most likely to come off. I couldn't help but this really what it's like to be a young urban American today?

I have to say, this book never breaks character. The voice of Travis is believable because it is unwavering. He and all of his friends are consistently unlikeable. In fact, they are all so shallow, they all sound alike.

Many times I closed the book and considered not opening it again. But I did. I kept on reading. I had to know what drove Travis, and would he decide to leave the hollow life of partying and drugging and hooking up? I had to know what the deal was with his ex-girlfriend. I had to know what the hell happened in Hawaii.

Jason Myers wisely dropped little clues into the story. It seemed to be nothing more than a diary of endless clubs and bathrooms and living rooms and text messages, but the mystery catches up with the reader almost unaware. And then you're caught and you have to know.

My picky picky problem is that by halfway in, I got sick of the constant band references. It got to sounding like the author wanted to name drop every band he's heard of in the last five years. However, it made sense. It suited the vibe of the story and most of all, suited the personalities involved. It's all about who you know.

The ending is basically the only one it could be. It is not happy. But it's the only outcome it could have. If you're looking for a gritty story, and you've got a strong stomache, read this.

The best one of the bunch was not even shelved in the Young Adult section of the bookstore. ANTHEM OF A RELUCTANT PROPHET by Joanne Proulx is one of the best books I've read this year. And, the cover is just gorgeous. This little photo doesn't show the details so you'll have to trust me on it. I'm including it in the list of teen fiction because I do think there are teenagers that are ready for a book this heavy.

I couldn't find a flaw in this novel. The voice is perfect, the hero is typical teenage sarcasm on the outside and accurate sensitivity on the inside. The cultural details are right. This book touches on death, love, fear, religion, sexuality, drugs, alienation, identity.

There is some imagery in this book that could break your heart. I wept several times. Not that weeping is the criteria for a good novel, or even that it's hard to squeeze tears out of me, but honestly, parts of this book are painfully beautiful. That's it's told from the point of view of a 17 year old boy makes it more touching.

But here's the thing- it's funny. Luke says one thing while thinking another and it's like comedic subtitles flashing in front of your eyes.

Joanne Proulx has taken a highly unlikely premise- a kid has death premonitions- and makes it totally believable. It's because of the perfect voice of Luke Hunter, the classic smart kid posing as a slacker in order to ease his overworking mind.

It's a painful subject. The death of a friend has a horrible impact on these kids, especially on the one who casually predicted it.

Again, here I am associating the writer and the written...but it must be said that this book, told in first person by a teenage boy, was written by an adult woman. And she got it. She totally nailed it. I've never been a teenage boy myself, but I believed every word.

I highly recommend this book. (and not just because I'm supporting my fellow Canadians!)

All three of these are debut novels. And each author thanked their agent...


Lynn Sinclair said...

Great reviews, Heidi. Just some more books that I'll add to my stack of "must reads".

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