Friday, May 27, 2016

YA Guy Reviews... I AM NUMBER FOUR!

YA Guy’s thirteen-year-old son is really into the YA science fiction series, the Lorien Legacies, that begins with the book I Am Number Four. He’s read all of the books to date, and is eagerly awaiting future installments.

So we rented the movie version of I Am Number Four. And (in his estimation as well as mine) it stank. At his urging, I decided to read the book. When I did, I had no idea this was a Full Fathom Five project, the HarperCollins imprint headed by James Frey.

For those of you who don’t know, Frey’s the guy who duped Oprah and half the reading public with his largely fabricated drug-addiction memoir, A Million Little Pieces. Moving on from that debacle, he founded Full Fathom Five to cash in on the increasingly lucrative YA market. (By his own account, he was looking for the next Harry Potter or Twilight.) His model is unorthodox and aggressive: he solicits highly commercial YA projects, contracts writers (many of them recent MFA graduates) to write them up according to a tried-and-true formula, and makes a gazillion dollars from them. But here’s the catch: according to some sources, Frey’s author contracts are highly irregular, paying out a mere pittance while prohibiting said authors from performing most of the activities (promotion, etc.) that are typically seen as the author’s right.

I’m not sure how true these reports are. I haven’t researched Full Fathom Five or James Frey exhaustively, though I have read (and enjoyed) another of the imprint’s projects, Dorothy Must Die by Danielle Paige. I know some people have decided to boycott Full Fathom Five books because of the controversy surrounding the imprint.

Which is unfortunate, because I Am Number Four isn’t a half-bad book.

It’s got some stylistic problems (over-reliance on the helping verb “start,” excessive use of “is,” and so on). It’s also got some major plot lapses (why, if the alien teen living on our planet wants to stay hidden, does he attend a public high school?). And while the main character’s friendship with an alien-abduction obsessed fellow teen feels sweet and genuine, his romance with a one-dimensional former cheerleader-turned-do-gooder feels flat and formulaic.

But for all that, I Am Number Four also tells a compelling story of a teenage boy who just wants to be normal, who’s sick of moving from place to place every time his guardian says so, and who feels trapped by the weight of responsibility that’s been thrust on him, as he’s groomed to save his home planet from an invading alien race. In the tradition of the Harry Potter series or Twilight, the book’s fantasy concept does an excellent job of tapping into the anxieties and frustrations real-life young people face. In short, the book deserves a better publisher than, apparently, it got.

It’s easy to hate James Frey. He’s an unrepentant literary charlatan. In interviews, he comes across as boorish and egotistical. His interest in YA has nothing to do with art and everything to do with payola, primarily for himself.

But let’s put this in a larger perspective. If Frey is all of these things, why is he heading up a YA imprint at a supposedly reputable publishing house? If he’s all of these things, why is there a place in publishing for him at all?

There's a place for him, folks, because we made a place for him.

All of us in the publishing industry, and perhaps particularly in YA—publishers, editors, agents, and, yes, authors—have helped create the conditions under which a person like Frey can not only exist but flourish. We’ve all been looking for that blockbuster to rival Harry Potter or Twilight. We’ve all allowed formula to trump artistry. We’ve all, to one extent or another, put the dollar first and let everything else go to the devil.

So let’s not blame a disreputable character like James Frey for cashing in on a field that was ripe for his particular variety of greed, and let’s certainly not blame I Am Number Four. Like Victor Frankenstein’s monster, Frey is our own creation. And though we certainly don't have to approve of his activities, I don’t think we have the right to be shocked when he goes out and makes a killing.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

YA Guy Reviews... NIGHT SPEED by Chris Howard (plus a giveaway)!

Chris Howard is one of YA Guy's favorite authors.

I read his debut Rootless, the first in a YA science fiction duology (soon to be a trilogy) about a future world without trees, back in 2013. I was impressed by his originality of both vision and voice; he tells great, twisted stories in haunting, sometimes painful, but always beautiful language. If you haven't read Rootless and its sequel, The Rift, I suggest you do yourself a favor and track the books down right away.

Which brings me to Howard's latest, the near-future YA science fiction novel Night Speed. I've been eagerly awaiting this book since I heard about it last year, but I also harbored the tiniest bit of anxiety--like, "can he do it again?" anxiety. I didn't want to be let down.

I shouldn't have worried. Night Speed is brilliant.

Inasmuch as the book's about a dangerously addictive street drug, tetra, that gives its users a brief burst of superhuman speed and strength, it's tempting to say I was hooked from page one. But that's not entirely true, because it took me a while to appreciate the main character, Alana West, a teen who works for the elite Tetra Response Unit (TRU) to chase down the "breaknecks" who wreak havoc while high on tetra. To do that, she has to take tetra herself--which means she risks becoming what she hates. Like all tetra users, Alana knows the "rush" won't last forever; only teens can use it, because adult bodies can't handle the powerful stimulant. But she continues using tetra for two reasons: because she feels guilty about the injury her younger brother suffered at the hands of a breakneck, and--frankly--because she's as in love with the rush as the criminals she hunts down.

It's a gutsy move to tell this story from the point of view of a drug addict, one whose increasingly out-of-control actions are hard to condone, even if her initial motivation for joining the TRU stemmed from a desire to spare others the pain she and her family feel. Howard could have taken the easy way out and made Alana noble or pitiable or self-sacrificing--but he resists that impulse, choosing instead to get inside her addiction and understand it in all its ugly complexity. When Alana goes undercover to try to shut down the dealer who's flooding the streets with tetra, the gang of breaknecks she joins emerges as a cast of equally well-rounded characters, with their own reasons and rationalizations for their reckless pursuit of pleasure at the cost of their own lives and the lives of others. Alana might be the story's hero, but she's as damaged--and as damned--as the rest of them.

But that's the great thing about NIGHT SPEED, and it's the great thing about Chris Howard. He's not looking for simple "good vs. evil" stories or artificial uplift. He's looking for something much more messy: the beauty in the terrible, and the terror in the beautiful. If that's what you're looking for too, NIGHT SPEED will be your kind of book.

And if it is what you're looking for, then enter my contest to win my copy of NIGHT SPEED. (Much as I love the book, I'd rather share it with someone else than hoard it.) No fancy Rafflecopter form; just leave a comment telling me why you should be the one to win this book, and I'll choose the winner based on the best response. The contest will run for a week, ending next Friday. (U.S. only, I'm afraid.) Make sure to leave some way for me to get in touch with you in your comment. And even if you don't win, I urge you to pick up a copy of NIGHT SPEED. You'll be rewarded in ways that won't be easy or comforting, but I guarantee they'll be intense and real.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

YA Guy Reads... YA Contemporary (plus a giveaway)!

As you know, YA Guy’s mostly into speculative fiction: sci-fi, fantasy, horror, you name it. But from time to time I pick up something outside my comfort zone—not too far, mind you, because I can’t see myself reading a book about kissing or vampires (or kissing vampires). Over the past several weeks, however, I’ve read two YA Contemporary novels, and both were excellent.

First was THE TRUTH by Jeffry W. Johnston. This YA thriller concerns a teenage boy, Chris, who wakes up from a chloroform-induced sleep to find himself duct-taped to a chair in an unidentified location, with the brother of the runaway Chris shot in his kitchen threatening to maim him if Chris doesn’t tell the truth about what happened that night. From there, the novel bounces back and forth between the present and Chris’s memories of the events leading up to the shooting. The son of a police officer who died in the line of duty and the older brother of a ten-year-old he suspects was always his father’s favorite son, Chris tells himself he’s done everything to protect his younger brother—including on the night of the shooting. But how can he tell his abductor the truth when he’s hiding it from himself?

THE TRUTH is an intense, fast-paced read, with incredible tension but, given the set-up, relatively little overt violence (for which I was thankful). The story is really about relationships: between Chris and his father, Chris and his brother, and, ultimately, Chris and his abductor. And though I found some of the revelations late in the book less shocking than they were likely intended to be, I was totally hooked by the story of Chris’s coming to terms with his father, his family, and himself.

After reading THE TRUTH, I turned to Pittsburgh YA writer Siobhan Vivian’s latest, THE LAST BOY AND GIRL IN THE WORLD. Given that title, you might think this is a post-apocalyptic tale, but it’s actually a realistic story about a high school junior, Keeley, whose Pennsylvania town has suffered severe flooding and is fighting to stop a riverfront real estate deal that will submerge the town for good. Meanwhile, the boy of Keeley’s dreams has finally started to show some interest in her, and her father, injured years ago in a work accident, has finally found a cause to rouse him from his passivity. But while Keeley becomes drawn into the excitement of these new romantic and familial developments, her lifetime friendships suffer.

What I liked most about LAST BOY AND GIRL is that it’s not only—or even mostly—a love story. Or it is, but as Keely herself discovers, it’s less about her love for a boy than about her love for her family, her town, and her best friend. Vivian’s pacing is totally unlike Johnston’s; where THE TRUTH grabs you at once and never lets go, LAST BOY AND GIRL lets events unfold gradually, revealing ever deeper layers in Keeley’s personal relationships and in the drama of her failing town. I could wish some of the environmental implications of this scenario had been drawn out more explicitly, but that’s not the story Vivian wants to tell. What she does want to tell is a story of the difficult choices one teenager faces as she tries to keep her life from going under, literally and symbolically, and Vivian tells that story simply and beautifully.

Chances are I’ll return to science fiction soon (in fact, I’ve got a manuscript due on my editor’s desk, so I’ll probably be doing more writing than reading in the next month or so). But I’m glad I took a detour and discovered these two great books!

Bonus! Enter the giveaway below for a chance to win a SIGNED hardcover copy of THE LAST BOY AND GIRL IN THE WORLD! (U.S. only.)

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Monday, May 2, 2016

YA Guy... Holds His Breath!

From the title of this post, you might think I'm waiting to hear back from my editor or something. Actually, I am, but that's not what the post is about.

As you may recall, YA Guy decided a few months ago to post writing advice from time to time. As you may also recall, the plan was to post only when I saw some writing issue in a YA book that I felt needed to be discussed.

Well, the time has come again! Having read lots of YA books this year, I've discovered that it's almost universal in YA to have a sentence that goes something like this:

"I let out a breath I hadn't realized I was holding."

There are variations on this ("I let out a breath I didn't know I was holding," etc.), but the idea's always the same: the character is so focused on whatever makes her/him nervous, s/he doesn't even realize s/he's manifesting one of the physical signs of nervousness.

I've used this line myself. When I did use it, I thought it was amazingly original. Now that I've seen it in roughly six thousand YA books, I realize it wasn't.

Why is this line so over-used? Probably because it sounds cool. "Wow! The character's so nervous s/he doesn't realize s/he's nervous!" But when you actually look at it closely, it's not only unoriginal, it's pretty silly.

When you're nervous, you know you're nervous. In fact, if you didn't know you were nervous, you wouldn't be nervous, inasmuch as nervousness depends on your being aware of it. Ditto with the breath-holding: though I can imagine someone not being aware that s/he was engaging in some sort of random, repetitive motion that manifests nervousness (tapping fingers, etc.), it's a little hard to believe you wouldn't be aware of the fact that you're not, well, breathing.

I also suspect that this over-used and basically nonsensical assertion shows up so much simply because it's used so much; we YA writers have read it so many times we've internalized it, and then it comes pouring out when we want to describe a character's nervousness. And then other YA writers read it in our books, and the cycle continues.

So YA Guy's here to break the cycle. If you want to show that someone's nervous, show that they're nervous. Have them tap their fingers, or sweat, or feel their heartbeat racing, or whatever. You can even have them let out a breath, if you like, but don't pretend they didn't know they were holding it. Better yet, find a way to suggest nervousness that's unique to that particular character. Maybe she tells a bad joke. Or maybe he picks his cuticles. Or whatever. The point is, you'll reveal much more about the character if you don't fall back on stale, stock expressions.

So you can let out your breath now and get back to writing. I bet you even knew you were holding it this whole time.