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Cracked Up to Be by Courtney Summers

December 26, 2008 Author: Anthony Pacheco Category: Awesomesauce, Characterization, Plot, Setting, The Craft  6 Comments

cutbThis book review is for writers, specifically novelists. For general book reviews on Courtney Summers’ debut novel Cracked Up to Be, seek ye to Google. This review is spoiler free; the actual book jacket says Parker, the main character, made a bad mistake. And yes she did.

Let me warn you right now, this review starts with a tangent.

Here we go!

There is an old maxim in advanced situational training; specifically training for self-defense, firearms, law enforcement training and what have you. This is training that deals with the totality of a situation, where the dynamic flow of multiple inputs meets the processor, your brain:

“If you’re not making any mistakes, you’re not learning anything.”

Sounds simple, does it not? Simplicity aside, this is an advanced training concept. Those who push the envelope and place themselves in situations where failure is not only likely but also expected, learn a great deal. This training sharpens the mind and teaches a person how to apply one lesson learned to other things, not just their particular area of study.

It is effective because it works. If you are not making any mistakes, you are not learning anything.

Summers’ book is a keen study in this area. The plot of her book is this: Parker was a perfectionist. She carefully built a world of her choosing. You know the type—wound so tight that they snap under their own drive or reality intrudes on these people and breaks them.

And Parker is so very broken. As the book relentlessly marches along, one comes to realize, even before the revelation of what caused Parker to snap, that the real world did not just come and bite her on the ass, but ripped out chunks of her heart.

I have a minor quibble with Cracked Up to Be, but nothing that deters my glowing recommendation of this book for any teen, adults, writers and certainly novelists going after the young adult audience. As I have stated before, if you want Fair and Balanced, go watch mainstream news. Here, I am going to gush. If I do not feel like gushing, I leave the book off my review list (which, by the way, has ten books in the queue).

I hate to say it, but I would not have picked up this novel at the bookstore. Why? Because it falls into the section of the bookstore that houses a lot of crap written for girls—novels specifically tailored to entice girls to buy them because girls are a great source of book buying dollars. What makes those books crap?

They are so dishonest. They are preachy, pretentious and filled with fake angst that makes me want to puke. Teens who have sex die, get an STD, pregnant or are cast out from society (or all four!). Boys written to be either shining examples of people who do not exist, or are passive-aggressive abusers. Stereotypes and stilted dialog. Someone dies just so the main character can feel what it is like to experience grief. I could go on and on, but you get the idea. All the consequences of every single action are there for the author to preach.

I certainly stopped buying those books, and now secretly wonder where the writers who grew up with Judy Blume went. There are exceptions, but I will assert these exceptions are not exceptional.

Until now. For Cracked Up to Be is awesomesauce.

The fact that Summers’ book is going to be smooshed in that prior mentioned section just pisses me off, but I have been on a Young Adult pissy rant for like ten years now, so that is just part of who I am. Cracked Up to Be is a book so honest its hurts. That is a primary reason I recommend this book for anyone writing for the young adult market. I felt vaguely uncomfortable reading it. Parker’s hidden pain was on the same level with her mistake, and with the first-person point-of-view narration you are sharing that understated pain. Despite the fact that Parker was a total bitch, who either needed to be slapped or fucked silly (I could not decide which), I held a deep sympathy for her because Summers wrote her so raw and honest—it was heartbreaking.

“If you’re not making any mistakes, you’re not learning anything.” Does Parker learn from her mistake? Ah such a good question, not to be address here! Go read the book.

More unapologetic gushing follows.

Oh oh, oh, the voicing! Summers writing voice through her minimalist prose is relentlessly good, relentless because that is what Cracked Up to Be is. The unrelenting pacing and tension built bit-by-bit was awesome. The voicing and the pacing alone is worthy of study.

The voicing played well in other areas. Summers took me back to high school. There were no over-done descriptions. She assumed the reader remembered (or, actually was in) high school and just went from there. The lack of over-done and forced setting descriptions was a breath of fresh air. You could say I am in love with her voicing.

Novelists should also take a meta look at Cracked Up to Be. I first heard about the novel via Janet Reid’s blog, which pointed to Courtney’s blog. Her whimsical, playful entries, sometimes even silly, cracked me up. Give me silly over pretentiousness any day! I became a regular reader. When she posted the first two chapters of Cracked Up to Be, man I was hooked. Doomed. I had to have the book. Thus, I arrived at Cracked Up to Be via word of mouth through the great and mighty Interwebs. Fascinating stuff.

That Cracked Up to Be is a debut novel is awe inspiring. Her agent should be doing a little dance right about now. I await her next novel with joyful anticipation. More please!

Finally, Cracked Up to Be is a morality tale, accomplished without preaching, forced circumstances, one-dimensional characters or through a false reality. How did Summers do that? Why, she simply told an entertaining tale with believable circumstances through the eyes of an all-too-real main character. She wrote the world as it is, not what she wished it to be. She told the truth.

Stick that in your Young Adult novel writing pipe and smoke it. Please.

Unwind by Neal Shusterman

November 23, 2008 Author: Anthony Pacheco Category: Atmosphere, Awesomesauce, Plot, Setting, The Craft  4 Comments

UnwindMy book reviews are targeted towards novelists (my prior book review can be found here).

Neal Shusterman’s Unwind is a near-future science fiction horror tale that can be summed up in one word: delicious. Quite simply, Shusterman goes where few dare to tread. If you have a love of edgy Young Adult fiction, then look no further. This book belongs on your shelf for several reasons, one of which is the intense questions that get asked, each one more thought-provoking then the last.

For an older gentleman like me, Neal Shuterman’s Unwind can be compared to a John Christopher novel written by Steven King.

The plot goes like this: abortion is illegal… on unborn children. During their teen years, parents can decide to send their child away to be “unwound” where 99.44% of their body is harvested.

The book centers on three teens that are now “unwinds”:

  • Connor, chosen to be unwound because he is a rebellious teen
  • Lev, who was born to be unwound based on his parents religious beliefs of tithing
  • Risa, chosen by the state to be unwound simply because they decided that they could not afford to keep her alive

These three escape their fates in a fortuitous freeway pile-up. Now all they need to do is survive until they are eighteen, when they no longer can be unwound. Capture means not death (so they say), because all the parts are reused, the unwind is divided into parts for a cheerfully waiting populous where the art of doctoring is rare but surgeons rule the health scene.

Sound positively hellish? Well it is. The undercurrent of unstated horror is relentless in Unwind and then BAM! It goes from the unstated to the all too real like a punch in the gut. Literally, I felt vaguely ill at the end of the novel. The subtleness of the cruelties with smiles suffered on these children builds to an epic crescendo that cumulates in one of the most terrible bits of sheer creep that I have ever read.

If you care to write edgy fiction, then look to this horror novel because that is what it is. There is little gore in Unwind worth mentioning, oh no. Like a Japanese horror movie, there is a sense of malevolence running through this sick and twisted society that looks so much like our own—yet is so different.

Or is it?

Consider if you will, the teens that were dumped at Nebraska’s hospitals. The mirrored reflection is not a dark twin of our light. Far from it, the parallels in this dystopia are sometimes all too familiar, and all too normal. And that is what makes it a chilling read for teens and adults.

For the Young Adult novelist, this study of unrelenting intensity warrants your attention. There is more here to scrutinize, than just pacing, atmosphere and plotting.

Unwind asks tough questions rarely found in a book targeted for teens. What is the beginning of life? When exactly does life end? What is the nature of consciousness? What are the consequences of anarchy when the law is so very flawed? In a world of villains, who is the true villain?

What are the ethics of compromise?

This, my friends, is a book that never talks down to the audience it was designed for, as the questions posed above compose a heady literary wine. You will be hard-pressed to find an action-packed book filled with such teen reflective goodness.

Another important part of this book is the voicing. Written in the third-person present tense, the word-smiting lends a flare not often encountered. The way the book is crafted lends itself to a sense of urgency; I was dubious going into it, but Shusterman pulls it off with his screenwriting experience shinning through.

If it seems like I am gushing, I guess I am. I do have some minor faults and quibbles with the novel, none really I feel necessary to drag out for the sake of being fair and balanced. If you write Young Adult fiction, it’s a must read simply because it does something rare: For the reluctant teen reader, it is a novel that will draw him in and leave him wanting to read more—because the type of entertainment given by Unwind can be found nowhere else. For the already fan of outstanding Young Adult fiction, it is euphoric lifeblood for the mind. There is not a bit of fluff betwixt its pages.

That’s a win-win combination of awesomeness that deserves your purchase and study. For what better result could there be for an author of Young Adult speculative fiction?

Courtney Palooza!

November 17, 2008 Author: Anthony Pacheco Category: The Craft  5 Comments

Courtney has a wonderful guest blog on The Swivet. She talks about four prevalent myths about writing Young Adult fiction. I will now pause while you, my cherished 8.3 readers, go off and read this tasty bit of guest blogging.

Pause.

Done yet? No?

Pause.

Oh man, that is a topic dear and true to my heart. I was just talking about Young Adult fiction with a writer friend this weekend and BAM! Courtney’s post. It’s like Christmas came early, but, um since it’s only November 17 I guess it did not.

Anyway. Courtney asks a good series of questions at the end of her guest blog:

Are YA writers responsible for their readers? Should they worry about unduly influencing them? If you write YA, do these things concern you?

My answers: Yes, no, yes.

Are YA writers responsible for their readers?

I feel, in my heart, that Young Adult novel writers are responsible for being honest. When I write, that is not just my pledge, but a mantra. Even escapism books, for me, have to be a reflection of the theme that is real. I can spot a contrived and dishonestly built character a mile away. A plot circumstance that is trying to tell me a morality tale that is forced causes me to take the book and recycle it. Literally, I will throw it in the recycle bin so as not to foster some other poor soul with the literary equivalent of projection.

Here’s an example:  You don’t want your little girl to grow up and have sex before she is married. So you write in a character that is slutty, winds up with a STD, pregnant, hit by a car, abducted by aliens and has her hair dyed green after being branded with a sparkly “A”. I’m only exaggerating a little bit here folks.

I personally know women who, as teens, humped their boyfriends silly and are today successful artists, business women and mothers (one all three!), without getting pregnant, abducted by aliens and probed.

Should they worry about unduly influencing them?

These types of worries leak into writing and I have been guilty of it, I admit. If you stay true to your character as you are true to your friends and family, this is less of a worry. This sneaky question is directly related to the one above. If you think you can sneak some moral lesson into your book because you are smarter than your Young Adult audience, guess again. This goes back to honesty. A morality tale is all fine and good as long the novel described the situation in a real way.

To answer this question: You can only influence your teen readers if you are honest about it.

If you write YA, do these things concern you?

I’ve mentioned before, I am a demanding reader. I want to be both entertained and I want reflection. I want the enjoyment that makes me think. I want to escape but not necessarily escape to somewhere two-dimensional. I want a character that is real to me even if she rides a unicorn over a rainbow to work with the munchkins.

Young Adults want the same thing. I believe, dear 8.3 readers, they want more of it, I assert they spot the fake much better than you and I and while there may be dreck on the bookstore shelf, a proper Young Adult novel will live forever.

Of course, I am the unpublished Hack Writer, so take my answers to Courtney’s questions as you will.

How about you? How would you go about answering Courtney’s questions?

That Courtney, she’s pretty smart for a thirteen year-old!