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

Sunday, November 15, 2015

The Living vs The Rest of Us Just Live Here

     This is only my second time participating in the Smackdown, and last year I joined partway through, so really, this is my first first round. I could not be more excited for another year of reading and smacking! As Vanessa pointed out to our team, Smackdown frequently pairs up very different books, and this round was no exception. There is not much in common between The Living and The Rest of Us Just Live Here, except maybe a verb choice in the title and my lack of enthusiasm for each of them. These novels will definitely appeal to two very different audiences.

     The Living, by Matt De La Pena, an action-packed story about the end of the world, reads like High-Low fiction. Which, isn't a criticism. There just isn't anything complicated about the story or the writing itself. This is textbook YA apocalypse fiction: there’s a weird disease, a drug company conspiracy, the worst earthquakes and tsunamis in recorded history, and for some reason the story is set on a cruise ship. It’s straightforward action, minor disaster after minor disaster, with a sub-plot of teenage unrequited love. I wasn’t really drawn into the plot of Living, but I did find the main character, Shy, to be relatable. His internal monologue during his interactions with his crush, Carmen, is dorky and funny and his reactions to the disasters that befall him and the rest of the characters are realistic. Shy isn’t a hero, he’s just a kid, and I liked that about him; he feels like a real person. Overall, not an earth-shaking novel (pun intended), but it comes with teenage angst in spades and I know plenty of kids who would gobble this book up. Plus, it’s part of a series, which is one of my favourite ways to ‘trick’ reluctant readers into a love affair with reading.

     The Rest of Us Just Live Here, by Patrick Ness, is unlike anything I’ve read. In the "typical" fantasy or sci-fi YA novel, the main character is the hero of her universe, has a ridiculous name and weird hobbies, and is beset with fantastical other-worldly challenges within the context of a seemingly normal teenage life in a seemingly normal American town. The Rest of Us is set in that same town. That “normal” town where the typical main characters date vampires and battle with the dark side of the universe. Ness takes that world and turns his magnifying glass on the extras, the characters that aren’t special and aren’t cool and just live normal lives in the normal town while all the cool kids live extraordinary lives in a universe that always seems to revolve around them.

     Really, it’s more literary experiment than novel. Each chapter begins with a 5-sentence summary of the typical teen novel plotline - what are all the cool kids doing? They’re saving the world, obviously. In The Rest of Us, however, the cool kids are the subplot. The main plot begins after this summary, from the point of view of Mikey, one of the extras, a normal boy with normal problems who just wants to be the hero of his own story. Mikey and his friends are instantly loveable characters with real problems like eating disorders, dead siblings, shitty parents, and OCD. Ness’ experiment goes awry, though, because neither subplot nor plot is detailed or compelling enough to hold the reader’s interest. And the cool kids, “Indie kids” as Ness calls them, are constantly popping up and interrupting the plot with their bizarre problems and then racing off to solve them, but not before reminding Mikey and his crew that they shouldn’t get involved because they’re probably not supposed to help. This isn’t their storyline, after all. These interactions between subplot and plot, which should be hilarious or at least interesting, end up working against Ness, though, because every time Mikey’s story starts to stand on its own two feet it is interrupted by the ridiculous subplot and I am reminded that I am participating in a bizarre literary experiment, not just reading a book.

     That being said, the novel isn’t a complete failure. Ness manages to spend enough time on Mikey’s story to get us to really care about him. And, his portrayal of Mikey and his sister’s mental illnesses is accurate, heartbreaking, and tender. What's even better is that Ness doesn’t solve their problems for them, either. For me, that is the ultimate victory of this book - that Ness is able to portray characters with mental illness honestly and accurately and that he doesn’t tie things up neatly for them. Unfortunately, that’s not what The Rest of Us is about. Actually, by the end of it, I wasn't sure what the book was supposed to be about. I’m not sure Ness knew, either. As an experiment, this novel is, without question, unsuccessful, and I found myself wishing Mikey had his own book. So, maybe that’s what Ness wants us to take away from this experience? A clamoring for something more than typical YA? Whatever Ness’ intentions were, they fall flat because this novel would probably not hold the attention of the average teen reader much past the first chapter. Which is too bad, really, because in its redeeming moments there is a bit of genius here.

     So, even though I liked the character of Mikey enough to vote for The Rest of Us despite its failings, because it’s not particularly readable as a whole I can’t in good conscience force anyone else to read it. Even in the spirit of literary experimentation. And that leaves us with The Living as my pick: a snack of a novel that you can read in one sitting and that will not leave you completely unsatisfied. Consider it your appetizer course for a hearty meal of YA Smackdown novels to come.

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