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To begin with, full disclosure, I have been a fan of Scott Westerfeld for years. Also, I have never been a gamer. Of any kind. Ever. Having said that, it’s time to delve into two novels that employ the story within a story device in very different ways.
In Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld, Darcy, the main character of the overarching story has just signed a contract for a book that she wrote during her senior year of high school. After graduation, with a huge advance in hand, she moves to New York City and tries to find her way in the land of authors and publishing. Everything, from finding a cool apartment to getting her first girlfriend and gaining the support of her family seems to come easily to Darcy, which is what makes her whining and complaining so hard to take. The story that Darcy wrote, Afterworlds is told in chapters that alternate with her own. In that story, Lizzie is the lone survivor of a terrorist attack. To help her survive, she is transported to the Afterworld which begins her transition to a psychopomp. Along the way she finds love and deals with a truly evil being. While the terrorist attack will have you holding your breath while you tear through the story, the fact that Lizzie never has to deal with the horror of that experience is a missing piece to her character development.
Guy in Real Life by Steve Brezenoff approaches the story within a story in a much different way. In Guy in Real Life, Lesh wears black, listens to metal music and has a best friend who introduces him to MMOs. One night, he accidentally knocks Svetlana, an independent minded girl who is the Dragon Master in her friends’ RPG, off her bike and thus begins a reluctant friendship/relationship. Lesh’s character develops through the everyday action of the story, as well as his through his presence in the MMO where he first begins playing as a male character only to end up creating a female character based on Svetlana. The characters of Lesh, Lana and their friends are well developed and may remind you of some of the teens that you know. Sure, some of the characters say things that aren’t necessarily respectful and thoughtful, but that rings true for many fifteen-year-olds who are trying to figure out who they are and where they fit in the world.
While the intricate structure of Afterworlds is something to be commended, when it comes to characters that are relatable to the reader, Guy in Real Life has the advantage.
The Winner: Guy in Real Life by Steve Brezenoff
For Round 2 of the Book Tournament, I had to evaluate two very different books. Gabi, A Girl in Pieces and Noggin come from almost the opposite ends of the genre spectrum: the first was a realistic tale of teenage life while the second was more in the vein of Science Fiction.
Gabi, A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero is a look into the microcosm of one girl’s senior year in high school. Told in diary format, Gabi goes through a rollicking year, and Quintero does an amazing job highlighting the difficulties of teen life: from attempting to create meaningful relationships with friends and potential romantic partners to the difficult realities of teenage pregnancy, addicted parents, and coming out as gay to your parents, all together with the poetry that she is beginning both to study and to write. Gabi is also an interesting look into the culture of Mexican Americans, and interweaves Spanish and English into the text with great success to create an intercultural bilingual experience.
Gabi the character is also someone whom I came to admire and root for very early on in the book. She is thoughtful and bold (she takes initiative when it comes to her romantic relationships, which is something I would like to see more of in literature!) and she will do anything to protect her friends from harm. Her discovery and subsequent love of poetry was a perfect complement to her character. Through her, Quintero created a believable teenage world that was easy to get lost in.
in Noggin by John Corey Whaley, Travis Coates has been reanimated, Frankenstein-style. Five years ago, he had been dying of cancer and had elected to have his head chopped off and put into cryogenic storage in the hopes that one day science would progress far enough to reanimate him. Science moved a bit faster than anticipated, and after five years his head was attached to another dead boy’s body. While he’s sixteen and feels like it’s been only a few days since he went to his cold sleep, everyone else has had five years of experiences happen to them. The readjustment both of Travis and everyone around him to his reanimation and second chance at life form the basis of the plot.
Travis is very funny and sarcastic, which is a state of being I greatly appreciate. I appreciated his relationship with his parents as well as his attempts to make new friends in high school – despite the circumstances being wildly different than any other teen’s experience, everyone can relate to trying to make new friends in a strange environment. In fact, the added wrinkle of him knowing the teachers and being recognized by some of the older kids was a nice touch, and is something that younger siblings experience all the time. It was almost as though Travis’s past self was the older brother and this new Travis finds that he has to somehow live up to the ghost of his own past.
However, there were some points in time when I couldn’t help but roll my eyes at him, especially when it came to his old girlfriend, Cate. While I understand the dichotomy of his experience versus the world’s experience (he feels like it’s only been a few weeks; the rest of the world knows it’s been five years), at some point in time I just wanted him to get over it and move on. That made it slightly more difficult for me to connect to him as a main character.
The Verdict: Both books were interesting looks into teenage experience. Gabi dealt with the difficulties of an average teenage life while Noggin framed pretty typical teenage experiences (making new friends, getting good grades, dealing with the end of a relationship) in an interesting and unique setting (it’s not like anyone else has ever been reanimated). Both are books that I would recommend to teens and that I think they would enjoy and get a lot out of.
That being said, Gabi, A Girl in Pieces quickly earned a place in my heart that Noggin failed to. While Noggin’s premise was very intriguing to me, the actual execution left something to be desired. It was still a fun book, but for me it fell short of the spectacularness that was Gabi, A Girl in Pieces. Gabi gripped me from the very beginning in a way that Noggin failed to, and I found it much easier to read and root for Gabi in all her endeavors. So while Noggin is still an amazing read, it’s just not quite on the same level as Gabi, A Girl in Pieces.
The Winner: Gabi: A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero
So here’s the thing: Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith got kind of a bum deal this round. I’m glad I read this book. There are a lot of things I liked about it – the gross-out humor, the crazy science, Robby and Ingrid and the underground compound with all its weird pieces sprinkled throughout Ealing, this dying Iowa town that felt so real in its insular detail. I loved the Unstoppable Corn and the Unstoppable Soldiers and the surreal quality of the science fiction laid over this absolutely normal town in the middle of nowhere.
Little things like how Smith uses food metaphors to describe the skin tones of all the white Iowans in the book – subtly pointing out how ridiculous a thing this is to do when describing a person of any color. Big things like how authentic Austin’s confusion regarding sexuality feels. Austin knows he’s in love with both his girlfriend Shann and his best friend Robby, but what does that mean? What should he do? And why does everything on Earth make him horny all the time?
Austin’s voice – and the question of how much of this history he’s sharing is actually, reliably true – and the question that rises from that – how much of any history is actually, reliably true? This is the heart of the book.
But (and you knew that but was coming from about a mile away – or the beginning of this post, anyway) – I am not the reader for this book. I know there are people out there who love this book. I know there are teens out there to whom I will recommend Grasshopper Jungle and who will adore it. It’s not you Grasshopper Jungle, it’s me. Austin kept going around and around in circles with his history and the voice kept me at arm’s distance, and honestly, I don’t like to have to think so hard about what the author is trying to do while I read (see, bum deal, right?). I knew going in that there were going to be giant, unstoppable bugs who would only want two things – to paraphrase a bit: to eat and to copulate, but it felt like it took forever to get to the, er, copulating bugs!!
And then I read Jandy Nelson’s I’ll Give You the Sun. And I fell in love. This book – oh man this book. It kept me up ‘til 2 in the morning when I finally had to put it down and go to sleep only to wake up and immediately start reading it again. The twin voices of Noah and Jude separated by time and all the secrets and lies between them captured me in a way Austin’s voice just didn’t. Just like in Grasshopper Jungle there are complex explorations of identity and sexuality going on here both for Jude and for Noah, who are both attracted to boys.
The way Nelson structures the two narratives is masterful – revealing clues to what happened in the years between through both sides of the timeline without the plot or the timing ever seeming forced. Because it’s broken up like this, it’s almost a puzzle structure (literary catnip to me – more of GJ’s bum deal) where you can see the pieces falling into place faster and faster towards the end.
Grief is a theme of intense interest to me – my brother died in a car accident over 8 years ago and a close friend followed several years after from the flu – and this book is chock full of grief. Grief not only for those who have left us through death, but grief for how we hide ourselves from the world and grief for how often we seem to harm the ones we love.
But Nelson also shows how humor is still there – even when our worlds are falling apart. I kept stopping to read funny parts out loud to my husband. “I’m so glad I’m not a horse.” “Did you just say you’re glad you’re not a horse?” The way Nelson captures these things makes me wonder what kind of loss and grief she has lived through that she can depict them so well. I can only hope that any teens I know who are dealing with grief in their lives find their way to books like this one.
And to top it all off – I’ll Give You the Sun is also about the power of art to change lives, to remake the world, to break your heart open wide so it can be whole again. (I was a music major in college and my best friend was an art major – seriously the deck just could not BE more stacked against GJ.)
With all these themes (I didn’t even talk about forgiveness or ghosts or magic), I never felt bogged down in my reading. There were so many avenues of thought to explore, but I didn’t feel like I was admiring Nelson’s technique from afar – I was right there in the middle of it.. And on a slightly shallower note, the make-out scenes in I’ll Give You the Sun were really, really hot. Plus, I’m a sucker for a happy ending.
So, Grasshopper Jungle I like you a lot, I hope we can be friends. But my heart belongs to I’ll Give You the Sun. I just hope the next judge treats you kindly.
Winner: I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson
I was given the difficult task of choosing between We Were Liars and Winner’s Curse. Because I gave five stars to both of these books after I read them the first time, deciding between the two involved rereading and reevaluating the reasons why I loved them so.
We Were Liars by E. Lockhart is about Cady, her affluent privileged family, and a mystery surrounding her sudden illness. Liars is narrated by Cady, an unreliable character, and this sets the mysterious tone. Her family is all about appearances and although Cady doesn’t share this philosophy, she suffers it until she meets Gat. Gat isn’t just a handsome, charming Indian boy; he’s the antithesis of the Sinclairs and what Cady wants to be. In the process, she develops a crush. Her desire to impress him causes her to suffer fools and to make a life-changing mistake. The Sinclair family is reinterpreted by way of King Lear through short fairy tales and these tales cause Cady to see her family for what they are-three women manipulated by their father. We see Cady grow through these stories and by the end of the novel, she no longer “suffers fools,” in other words, become angry with stupid people.
Liars has lovely characters that all contributed to the story. Although it’s been done before, weaving King Lear and Wuthering Heights into the novel provided an alternative way of telling a story about love, family, and friendship. Given that most teenagers reading this novel don’t have their own island, the desire to be different from one’s family and to be loved for who you are, is relatable.
Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski is about Kestrel, a seventeen year old Valorian, who’s the daughter of the general. In a land where you are either in the military or married, Kestrel must find a way to achieve happiness with her inevitable decision but her life becomes derailed when she buys a Herrani slave.
Let me begin by saying that Kestrel is a badass and by far one of the best heroines I’ve read in a long time. Since the invention of Katniss, female protagonists in YA fiction are all great fighters or fast runners or the chosen one with all the good magic. What happened to the Hermiones? To the girls who use their brain to outwit their opponents? That girl has returned and her name is Kestrel Trajan. Although Kestrel is the daughter of a general and receives combat lessons on the regular, she is not a good fighter or does she pretends to be. She is a strategist. Throughout the novel, Kestrel’s father possesses strong philosophies of war and weakness and winning. Kestrel listens intently and manages to use other people’s weakness to defeat them. She outwits her father, the leader of the Herrani revolution, and the emperor. Winner’s Curse is a love story that takes its time to build a world of powerful empires and forbidden love.
Verdict: Both novels are beautifully written and have powerful themes. Liars is very black and white. It’s about a girl who doesn’t like her family and manipulative granddad and makes a horrible mistake-that’s it. After the tragedy, the family doesn’t change. They relish in their new celebrity status. Cady says she’s changed because she no longer “suffers fools” but because the story ends so abruptly, we don’t know if she truly changed. Does she do charity work? Does she go to college and become a different person than her family? We don’t know. Liars is a great story but there are no other themes or lessons other than there are consequences to your actions-very black and white.
Winner’s Curse however contains many gray areas. It’s not just a love story but about a girl who struggles with her duty to her people and her father or helping the slaves and the man she loves. It’s not just about war but about defeating your opponents through their weaknesses-love, gossip, and pride. It’s about the choices one makes to let a loved one go and the sacrifice of oneself for the greater good. Winner’s is slow and purposeful and exciting.
Although We Were Liars is a literary novel and deemed “good literature” and Winner’s Curse is a fantasy, Winner’s Curse possesses more themes and life lessons.
Winner: The Winner’s Curse
Guy is Real Life features alternating first person narratives between Lesh, a trench-coat wearing punk guy who gets sucked into playing a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG, or MMO) and Svetlana, a willowy hippie girl who is the dungeon master for a tabletop role-playing game. Their lives collide quite literally when she wings him while on her bicycle, and they both expect that will be their last interaction.
After he’s grounded for the shenanigans that led him to be in the path of Svetlana’s bicycle, Lesh’s friend convinces him to sign up for a MMO. Half-hearted about playing an orc with his friend, Lesh remembers the hot girl he’d run into and creates a second character that looks like her and uses a variant of her name.
Their lives intertwine as they find themselves in the same lunch period, and as Lesh gets to know her, he realizes how different she is than the idealized character he’d made on the game, but he also realizes that he likes the experience of imagining himself in a woman’s role, and he likes the attention he gets from the other gamers. His reconciling his attraction to the real girl and his exploration into who girls get to be in this culture is by far the most interesting aspect of the book.
Their voices are fairly distinct and authentic, definitely a high point. It’s not a fast-paced book, but the alternating narratives help it move along. The exploration of gender roles and expectations makes this one worth a second look. Though Lesh is not gay (though he wonders briefly about it) and he’s not becoming a transvestite (though he wonders a little more about that), he still confronts some of the plusses and minuses of being labeled a “girl” in this culture, and he comes out a different person because of it.
One of the fallacies of the book is that there’s not a lot chances for social overlap between Svetlana and Lesh before they make an effort, but I don’t think that’s true. I am a gamer, and most of the gamers I know who play tabletop games like Dungeons and Dragons also enjoy computer and console gaming. I also know a fair number of gamers who were or are into grunge, punk, and all things gothic. I suppose some people make anything into a social distinction, but this is something that doesn’t match up to my experience of the subculture at all. It lessened my enjoyment of the book, but I think its handling of other issues more than makes up for it.
For 100 Sideways Miles, my first recommendation to anyone even thinking about reading it is to skip the front cover flap. Over 50% of the events listed in the hook on the front flap don’t happen until after page 200, and it doesn’t do justice the book’s strengths. The book is light on plot with not much to write in a traditional summary, rather the story is about self-discovery and coming of age in a hundred little ways, often with a hilarious edge to it.
Flynn is epileptic as the result of an injury he sustained while he was seven, and though he’s recovered well, he feels like the epilepsy limits how those around him see him, particularly his father. Flynn’s father is a misanthropic author who had one hugely successful book: an apocalyptic science fiction featuring characters that are very much taken from Flynn’s life after the accident. The publicity that the book generated leaves Flynn feeling trapped within that portrayal. The bulk of the action is the everyday progression of incidents that leads Flynn to discover that he’s not limited by what people think of him, that he’s more than how he’s portrayed in his father’s book, and that his future is his to decide.
The characters are a delight. Flynn’s best friend is the most inappropriate guy in their class (there’s one in every class) and provides most of the humor and profanity in the book. Flynn’s love interest, Julia, has her own quirks and issues that are portrayed well. Flynn’s father was my favorite character from the book – he has his own understated humor, and most interestingly, he had his own issues about coming to terms with Flynn’s disability. Flynn himself is a compelling narrator. He’s a fairly literal guy, which it is suggested is a side effect of the accident, but Smith did not get most of the other details of epilepsy right. Flynn does a lot of things that an epileptic really should not do. The most glaring example is the several times that Flynn swimming is a plot point. It seems like Smith was selective about what aspects of the disorder that he wanted to include, and they only crop up in the plot when it’s convenient, disappearing the rest of the time into a generic feeling of not belonging.
At the start of the book, Smith writes in a more stream of consciousness narrative, with many tangents and side scenes that all eventually do add up to a point. While being more true to actual trains of thought and courses of conversations, it was a little disconcerting. Making it an even more questionable stylistic choice, the narration style only lasted a few chapters before becoming much more linear for the rest of the book. It might have been more of a plus if he had been more deliberate with it; as it is, it seems like a half-hearted stunt to get attention early on in the book.
So, the verdict: They both have strong characters and voices. They both have plausible enough realistic fiction plots. Both have some sexual sparks but deliberate choices for no actual sex. Both have a sense of humor without being just a funny book. 100 Sideways Miles, however, wishes it was Catcher in the Rye and falls short, while Guy in Real Life at least brings up interesting and timely questions of masculinity and how men are and are not allowed to express themselves in our society.
Guy in Real Life, For the Win!