Smackdown Books 2018

Wolf Hollow
Salt to the Sea
The Serpent King
Optimists Die First
The Hate U Give
Orphan Island
Dan vs. Nature
The Female of the Species
Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere
Paper Girls, Vol. 1
The Passion of Dolssa
The Distance Between Us
When We Collided
Louis parmi les spectres
Girl in the Blue Coat
Defy the Stars

Thursday, March 10, 2011

My apologies to the entire Smackdown community—it’s been a bit hectic at work, and then technology problems have plagued the receiving of this blog posting. Sorry all!!!

Now, on to our show…

Epitaph Road by David Patneaude

In one word: Dopey.

Epitaph Road is “paint-by-numbers” Young Adult fiction. Post (semi-)apocalyptic world? Check. (Potential) Love triangle involving the protagonist? Check. Redonkulous cloak and dagger sequences? Check. A spy/traitor in the mix? Check. Religious allegory sprinkled here and there? Check. Friendly exposition-spouting lackey who gives all the pertinent information at just the right time? Check. Lots of italicized words, for optimum “edge-of-your-seat” tone? Check. Females, while fleeing, mysteriously disabled, unable to continue on, whispering to her wards “You have to go…[t]here’s no time” (no “Go on without me”????). Check.

No clichéd stone goes unturned, that’s for certain.

That’s not to say that it isn’t a periodically engaging read, for the most part--lots of twists and turns, and, in its own rambling, clichéd way, kind of interesting. The epitaphs that begin each chapter are sometimes clever and moving, telling the story of a whole lifetime in just a few short phrases. Sometimes these epitaphs are beautifully written and poignant; however, other times they are trite and purply. Hmmm. I guess they are sort of a metonym for the book as a whole, which oscillates wildly between interesting and dopey.

To be fair, this is obviously the first book of a series (or at least it appears that way—truth, Dia?), and it suffers a bit from “Origin Story Syndrome,” setting up so much exposition to be explored in later books. Patneaude does set up some fairly hiss-able villains, and periodically comes up with a notion or two that really sets the reader back: for instance, the virus that claims half the world’s population is distributed through McDonalds and Starbucks free giveaways. Clearly, the Legal Departments of these two chains haven’t read the book…

Anyway. Not dreadful. Just sort of m’eh. No big surprises. No pulse-pounding adventure. Periodic flashes of interesting stuff. But, overall…m’eh.

The Great Wide Sea by M.H. Herlong

In one word: Dopey (but somehow, kind of moving). O.K., O.K., technically six words, but my posting, my rules.

First things first: I hate texts that start off with a de facto Greek Chorus/Prologue, outlining what is to happen in the plot (unless, of course, there is something structurally in the narrative where there will be a payoff): for instance, before the story even starts, we know that the protagonist, Ben, and his younger brother will survive the story; we know that Dylan, another brother, probably dies or is gravely injured; and we know that the father disappears halfway through the novel. If this were a novel where the “whys” of these occurrences were the tale, that was not about the end point but the journey, a novel of theme or character, this might work structurally. But this is a straight-forward, rip-snorting adventure novel; I’m not sure why Herlong plays these cards right at the jump. It really diminishes some of the “surprises,” and I was continually waiting for certain events to happen. Bah.

Rant over.

Let’s be honest folks—this is a boys’ adventure novel through and through, which has strong thematic and narrative ties to the great granddaddy of the genre, The Coral Island. Storms must be navigated through, sharks must be encountered, bones must be broken, fraternal ties must erode and re-bond, life lessons must be learned, food must be scavenged, and swashes need buckling. Some of this is formulaic and teeth-gratingly clichéd: the tensions between the father and the protagonist, Ben, are straight out of an ABC After School Special, particularly for the first ten chapters or so. And sometimes characters conveniently ignore key elements, or “forget” important details in their lives, so that the narrative can sort of lurch forward incredulously (really? Is it possible for a father to forget that his five-year old son can’t swim, only to remember when they have embarked on a high seas adventure and said child has gone overboard? Really?!?!??).

And yet…

I kind of bought in. The changing relationship of the brothers was interesting and, at times, unexpectedly moving, and some of the adventures were, while not exactly thrilling, certainly fun. The novel is frantically paced—one “trial” is barely over before another begins, and the reader isn’t bored, ever. Everything is wrapped up a bit too tidily at the end, and some of the more ambiguous narrative possibilities are achingly explicitly “solved” in the last few pages—a few unearned epiphanies to be sure. But I was more than a little moved by that last page, unearned or not, and I was satisfied as I closed the book.

The writing is clear and unencumbered, fitting of an adventure novel, but not leaving a lot to study for teachers; sure, there are some interesting symbols and some transformational change for the characters (albeit a little hokey), but I’m not sure it would be a fantastic choice for a whole class read. As well, it is a “guy book” methinks (although someone could call me on this, and although it is written by a woman, a potentially interesting class discussion in itself) that is firmly steeped in the technical language of sailing, a potential impediment for some readers (my land-locked self included). Suitable for a reading group or circle? Absolutely.

Let me be clear—The Great Wide Sea is fine, but just fine. I don’t think it will ever be considered a modern classic in any sense of the word. But it is engaging and fun, which, for this round against Epitaph Road, is enough for it to move forward.

The Great Wide Sea it is!!!

And just one more thought, just about the whole Smackdown experience thus far. In the first round, I had two texts that were truly GREAT, and I was forced into a really difficult decision as to which one could move on. Honestly, it was really hard, and I’m still not sure I made the best choice. This time, I had two books that were just O.K., and that was an equally hard decision, as I would hate for either of these books to be considered the best of what Young Adult fiction has to offer us. Both decisions = tumult. Interesting.

- Brad

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