Amy L. Kinzer's The Odds (2011) - Ethan and his little brother Gavin have an over-protective mother. She's an actuary and, ever since her husband (the kids' dad) ran out on her, she's become, well, paranoid. Ethan wears hemp clothes, eats carcinogen-free vegan food and is perpetually mortified by his mother's interference in his life. He watches his little brother grow up even odder - forced into baby clothing at age 4, still using a sippy cup, given clunky wooden toys to play with. Ethan also watches his neighbour - popular Trey Scott - live his all American life, complete with boozy parties and girls. Ethan's rebellion? He starts testing the odds that his mom keeps throwing at him. What if he does fall out of a tree? Or jump into a river? Or, god forbid, drive a car?
This gives the book a great central shtick as Ethan works his way up from the little rebellions to the big one. And Ms. Kinzer captures Ethan's perpetual, horrifying embarrassment well - imagine the kid from About a Boy (you know, the one that grew up to be in Skins, and then the Beast?) - and you're pretty close to The Odds. I have two mild criticisms - one literary, one frumpy. The first is a subplot about a neighborhood crazy person/missing child that doesn't wholly link in to the rest of the book. I think it was there to talk about 'real' danger as opposed to Ethan's mother's 'statistical/fictional' danger, but even that theme was undermined by a rushed resolution that took a... safe... way out. The second - and imagine a bit of this - I'm not entirely satisfied by how Ethan resolves his relationship with his mother. I'll hold off on the spoilers, but it feels a bit implausibly extreme (more on this thought below), and the final conversation (and resolution) was too one-sided. BUT, ignore all that: as noted above, Ethan's unpleasant social life is captured perfectly (without over-egging it) and the probabilities theme is a clever one.
And now, three from A.S King...
A.S. King's Please Ignore Vera Dietz (2010) follows the titular Vera Dietz as she crawls through life after the death of her best friend (and true love), Charlie. Vera lives with her dad, who is extremely, well, tight. He's all about discounts shopping, coupon clipping and Vera having a full-time job. Vera's good with that. In a sense, her job as a 'pizza delivery technician' is the only thing keeping her sane - especially after Charlie's death. Vera Dietz is split over several narratives. The primary storyline follows Vera as she copes with Charlie's death - the guilt, the pain and the unpleasant circumstances around it (also stuff like "a boyfriend" and "drinking too much" - Vera's got a lot going on). The second following Vera and Charlie through the years as they become friends. And the final thread describes the last night of Charlie's life, what actually happened. There's some adorable interjectory stuff from both Vera's dad (who likes flowcharts) and a pagoda. The latter is an inanimate object, but has some opinions. It is pretty nifty.
I've got two other books by Ms. King to cover, so I'll be vaguely hasty - this is neither my favourite nor least-favourite of the three. I was blown away by the combination of voices and characters: Vera and her father both come through as warm, empathetic, fascinating people. And the theme of the pagoda is a sort of multi-generational view - for an ornamental structure, it has a lot to say about how people make the same mistakes over and over again, and frankly, they should listen to one another a bit more. (Invisibility ain't right. Speak up - or other people will do your talking for you, and that's when it all goes totally wrong.)
In fact, the only part I didn't like: the 'dead best friend' trope. That's been the core conceit in several of the books I've read now, and Vera Dietz's interpretation is more on the selfish end of the spectrum. The objective truth of the book is that Vera knows Charlie better than anyone else, loved him more than anyone else and misses him more than anyone else. Everyone else in his life is, in a sense, 'monstered' - especially his no-good friends from his final days. For a book which is ultimately about Vera forgiving and understanding people (her father, her mother, Charlie), there are also a host of peripheral figures that are painted as purest evil. (Contrast this with Cat Clarke's Torn, which is pretty much reverse-monstering: someone dies and then the protagonist realises that human beings, no matter how vile, are missed/loved/impact everyone.)
Meanwhile, Reality Boy (2013) pushes its protagonist to the far end of plausibility. Gerald is a teenager with serious anger management issues. And, as we swiftly learn, they are justified: he was a child on a reality TV show (a nanny-solves-a-family's-problems sort of thing) and did some ridiculous stuff. For example, he pooped everywhere. Which, although it made sense at the time (or so we learn), it still saddled him with life as "The Crapper". Now Gerald takes special education classes, hates his family and works at the local convention centre, serving out chicken fingers to hockey crowds.
Again, there's a split narrative. The bulk of the book follows Gerald's present day conundrum, as he flirts with running away, desperately holds on to his temper and falls in true love. There's also a series of flashbacks that explain the reality show - both what happened on camera and what happened behind the scenes. Gerald, even as a little kid, got pretty well stitched up by 'fake nanny' and her production staff.
Reality Boy contains some truly great moments - and some phenomenal insight. Gerald's struggle with anger management - and his 'escape mechanism' - are probably the highlights of the book. He is, in every sense, heroic, and it is easy to cheer him on as he battles frustration and unfairness in every aspect of his life. Or, to put it more precisely, as he doesn't battle. Gerald's restraint is superhuman, but never unbelievable, and the reader can feel his frustration even as they admirable his ability to control it. I also like Reality Boy as an unlikely addition to the growing canon of media SF. Books like Idoru, The Running Man and Channel Sk1n tend to balance the human impact of perpetual scrutiny with technological whizziness and epic plots. Reality Boy has a single focus: Gerald.
On the other hand, as contemporary YA, Reality Boy dials it up to 11, and I think it loses something as a result. The core of the conflict is Gerald vs. anger, and that's a universally empathetic situation. But the book pushes things to extremes, both in the set-up - he's on reality TV and a celebrity, plus his sister is genuinely a psychopath - and the plotting [spoilers - finds his true love and runs away, two things I'm getting a little tired of as 'fixes' /unspoilers]. By the end of the book, every aspect of Gerald's life seems extraordinary. He's still an admirable character, but his situation is so extreme that it puts the reader in a position where we're watching, not sharing. [Arguably, this could be thematically appropriate - Gerald's hyper-real 'real' life is as distant from our own as his fictional 'reality TV' life was from his 'real' life? That seems like a stretch, but worth mentioning.]
Although I (pretty much) liked both Reality Boy and Please Ignore Vera Dietz, the A.S. King novel that absolutely blew me away was Ask the Passengers (2012). Astrid Jones is a senior in high school in a picture-perfect small town. Her family isn't bad - but it is distant. Her younger sister is cool. Her mom is domineering to the point of obsession (way too much texting with her daughters' friends). Her dad spends most of his free time stoned. Her friends are distant as well. Astrid's best friend Kristina is a secret lesbian, who maintains a 'perfect' show relationship with her gay boyfriend, Justin. While Astrid helps spread carefully constructed rumors about their sex life, Kristina and Justin have their own real partners and crazy evenings at the town's (one) gay bar. It isn't that they don't like Astrid, it is just that she's taken for granted.
Which is a shame because Astrid has her own secrets, and no one to confide in. For one, she's also got a girlfriend, Dee - a girl from another high school that Astrid met at work. Dee's fun, but pushy, and Astrid's in a position where she's juggling all the traditional high school sexual peer pressure with larger questions about her own preferences. Does she like Dee? Does she like Dee that much? What does she want to do? Astrid has no one to talk to.
Her coping mechanism is to watch planes. Every evening, Astrid heads out to the back yard, sprawls out on the picnic table and stares at the flight path overhead. When she sees a plane she, in a wonderfully abstract way, sends her love to it. Astrid concentrates, well, gives them happy thoughts. It is Astrid's way of dealing with life in the inappropriately named Unity Valley: she consciously, deliberately, charmingly-but-guttingly, sends the best part of herself elsewhere. (Ms. King inserts a beautiful selection of segues in which Astrid's love does reach the passengers and changes their lives. Are these daydreams or real? Either way, they add a note of warmth, as well as a selection of tiny portraits, each reinforcing the overall themes of the book.)
Ask the Passengers is much lower-key than Vera Dietz and Reality Boy - there are no huge, dramatic episodes: no death, no running away, no Shakespearean love-for-life-and-beyond. In a way, this is why I love it (that and the quirky, witty prose). Astrid has ordinary, real challenges - ones that aren't belittled by melodrama. In fact, Astrid deliberately resists the melodramatic. Even as her secret life becomes exposed and she becomes the center of attention, Astrid persists in doing things at her pace - keeping her life in her own hands. Passengers has a recurring theme of escape: everyone in Unity Valley is going it. Kristina and Justin have elaborate double-lives, Astrid's mother dresses up and gets drunk with her youngest daughter and Astrid's dad smokes a lot of pot. Even Astrid is doing it with her aviation-related meditation (and/or daydreams).
But the lesson of Passengers isn't only about confronting your life, it is about handling it on your own terms. Certainly Astrid learns squishy-nice lessons about how her friends and family love her (which is nice), but that's not enough. Even if they are acting with the best intentions, they're still taking agency from her. Astrid needs to be the driving force behind her own positive change. By escaping, by sending her love away into the void, she's floated through her own life. Daring to engage is risky (wonderful, but scary), and no one can do that for her.
Like Rainbow Rowell's Fangirl, Ask the Passengers stood out for me because this ultimate lesson is one of self-actualisation. It is Astrid's life: her choices, her happiness, her self. The ending is genuinely optimistic as we're left not with a firm plot resolution (a romance-for-life, a dramatically-changed family, etc.), but the sense that, whatever happens, Astrid can handle it. The contrast between Passengers and Reality Boy is similar to that between Fangirl and Eleanor & Park. In Passengers/Fangirl, health, happiness and agency are left with the protagonist - they've weathered the storm and grown into a place where they are ready for the future. With Reality Boy/Eleanor & Park, the path to happiness is external - reliant on factors outside of your control. It is certainly more romantic, but also slightly worrying. If the ultimate message is that your life relies on finding Your One True Love at age 16, I can't help but see that as rather depressing. Ask the Passengers may be more sedate, but it is also truly, wonderfully, beautifully optimistic: it is your life and you choose what to do with it; you can be anything you want, you can be the change that your life needs.