Nerds Heart YA: My Most Excellent Year vs. Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before

My Most Excellent Year, by Steve Kluger vs. Stop Me If You've Heard This One Before, by David Yoo

Aren’t you excited?  Today I am about to advance a book to the final round of the Nerds Heart YA Tournament.

I’m a little bit surprised with the outcome.  I read the first book and had only just started the second, and I clearly thought that book number two might be the winner.  I really loved reading the first book, but my attention started to wane a bit toward the end.  I thought for sure it would be lovable but easily knocked out of its default position as the winner- being the only book that I had read at the time.  That turned out to be wrong, really wrong.  But it was a decision that took quite a bit of thinking to come to ultimately.

I  read My Most Excellent Year, by Steve Kluger first. I really enjoyed the characters and their stories.  The dialogue was fun and witty and the the teenagers had these really interesting lives and voices, and it was just fun.  There were several story lines going on in this multi-narrator novel which caught my attention.  It’s got a lot of love and fairytale elements. TC wants Ale to be his girlfriend and he comes off a little too cocky for her taste- setting up the drama of the will they or won’t the relationship that will be played out through out the rest of the book.   Augie is TC’s fabulous and larger than life best friend who discovers that he is gay long after the rest of his family and friends have figured it out.  They also know before he does who is is the boy of his dreams.  When he figures it out as well, he has to see if he can get the guy while taking care of his best friends and staging the school talent show. Over the year chronicled these kids go through lots that show how loved and supported they are by their parents and how they are able to love and support each other and all help one another accomplish dreams that are close to their heart.

Next up was Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before, by David Woo.  I really liked this book and its characters too. Albert Kim is funny, witty and suffering from severe social alienation which he has instigated himself after having such a hard time making and maintaining friendships.  The plot here is familiar as Albert meets and wins the heart of one of the most popular girls in the school while working a  summer job at a local hotel.  True to form he isn’t able to enjoy that for very long before Mia’s ex-boyfriend is diagnosed with cancer and starts demanding a lot of time and attention.  The suspense was wonderful/awful and had just the right intensity. There are very relatable themes of alienation, the struggle to fit in and finding and keeping love throughout this novel.   Albert struggles to interact with his peers and Mia’s efforts to establish an identity outside of her boyfriend were engaging for a time, but the book dragged a bit faltered under Albert’s frustrating inability to connect, and what felt like a rushed ending marred a promising start.

That being said, it was hard for me to pick between these books.  There were things that I loved about each of them while recognizing that they were both flawed. I loved that they both had diverse characters and/or featured and discussed alternative lifestyles.  Both were comedies, but David Yoo’s book definitely had more angst going on. I think both lost their way a little in being a bit longer than they needed to be.  Lack of compelling conflict slowed the story in My Most Excellent Year– , and plausibility issues did the same for me with Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before. The ending was also rushed and didn’t resolve or acknowledge any of the issues which came before.   My Most Excellent Year did the better job of bringing the story to an end, and was more coherent. Things happened in Stop Me which I just didn’t believe.

And so there you have it, My Most Execllent Year has duked it out and made it to the final round!  I am definitely more surprised than anybody.

My Most Excellent Year

How exciting! I can’t wait to see what it’s going up against.

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My Most Excellent Year, by Steve Kluger – Book Review

My Most Excellent Year, by Steve KlugerMy Most Excellent Year: A Novel of Love, Mary Poppins and Fenway Park, by Steve Kluger is Recommended.

In the 11th grade, friends TC, Augie and Alejandra are in Ms. LaFontaine’s English class when they are assigned to do a project detailing their “Most Excellent Year”.  Each one of them decides on the 9th grade as being the best year of their young lives and  the reader watches the best year of their lives unfold in a series of class assignments, diary entries, instant messages, e-mail to and from each other, letters and e-mail between them and their parents, and their parents’ correspondence with each other. We wonder if TC will ever drop his wiseguy act long enough to get the girl, if Augie’s relationship will workout and whether Alejandra will ever have the courage to face her diplomat parents to tell them that it is her dream to sing and dance.

More than anything else this book is about magical people and experiences which shape your life in an ordinary way.  Anyone can bestow the gifts of unconditional love, kindness and support which the characters in this book showed one another. Parents suspect that their children are gay and not only are they not worried about it, but they seem to wlecome it.    The friendship of one little boy saves another at a crucial moment when he is struggling to handle the grief of his mother’s death.  When they decide to become brothers, they accomplish it with with the full approval of both sets of parents- to the point where each boy has a bed and drawer space in his room for the other.  The three friends work together to help each other out, and they understand each other to know enough about what is needed at any particular time.

I really enjoyed getting to know these characters and seeing how they developed over the year.  I loved the way their perceptions of each other helped to add a deeper layer to each of the characters.  From Alejandra we can see the picture of what TC must have looked like as the coolest by in school- and she sees him as someone who know that he is cool and revels in it, Augie can add in that everyone always followed the things that TC did and how that subtly changed when TC’s mother died and the kids didn’t know how to handle it, and TC himself is just bewildered that the kids are copying him and thinks they do it to make fun of him (his feeling are hurt).  I loved the way the parents interacted with each other, and I liked the flirtation between TC’s father and his guidance counselor.  I loved seeing how compassionate TC is while befriending Hucky, a young deaf child he meets while playing baseball; how Augie is totally great at everything he does and how he is comfortable with himself after he figures out that he likes boys; and I love the smart and spunky Alejandra.  She has opinions that she is not afraid to express and is confident in her knowledge and smarts.

My only complaint about My Most Excellent Year is the thing that I loved the most- the shininess and the happiness.  It was a bit like seeing favorite characters in situations where it is a foregone conclusion that everything will be okay and not enough of a challenge to make you sweat. These kids don’t really face any of the conflicts that would probably provide more conflict which is represented here.  With Mary Poppins involved that may well have been the intention, but since there weren’t that many real obstacles the book lacked a sense of urgency or suspense that made it start to feel a bit long and it held my attention less as it went along. However, I still think it’s a worthwhile and entertaining read.  There are characters here whom you will enjoy and love getting to know.

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I love reading long books but I don’t like it so much when they feel unnecessarily long.  Have you read any good books lately that would have benefitted from shedding a little weight? I read Drood, by Dan Simmons and I think it would have been a much better book if it were at least 200 pages shorter.

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Kindred, by Octavia Butler – Book Review

Kindred, by Octavia ButlerKindred, by Octavia Butler is A Must Read.

Dana and Kevin Franklin are a young married couple, both writers, who have finally started making enough money from their writing to support themselves.  They buy a new house in a small suburb of Los Angeles in 1976 but before they can settle in and finish unpacking, Dana starts feeling nauseated and dizzy and then disappears completely from her home, reappearing on the banks of a river in an unfamiliar place where she notices that a small boy is drowning.  The boy is Rufus Weylin and he is her great grandfather many times removed.

After Dana saves Rufus’ life she is returned to her home in California where her husband is skeptical of her experiences even though he cannot explain how she disappeared right in front of his eyes.  Over the next days and weeks Dana and Kevin’s lives undertake a strange turn since Dana never knows when she is going to disappear into where she finds out is early 19th century Baltimore, a place fraught with danger for her because she is a black woman and Baltimore, at the time of course, is a  slave state.

Dana’s comings and goings in 1819 Maryland seem to be predicated on saving the life of her young ancestor, Rufus Weylin, who is prone to getting into life threatening scrapes.  He has to live to father a child named Hagar who is the forerunner of Dana’s branch of the family.  When he is young, Dana has hopes that she will be able to help shape Rufus’ personality thereby helping the slaves on the Weylin plantation.  But despite her best efforts to shape Rufus into a “humane” plantation & slave owner, Rufus is still a white man of his time with considerable power over the lives of other people. Rufus enjoys Dana’s company and counsel, and even loves her (and others much to their detriment) after a fashion, but he is also angry, calculating, capricious, vindictive and dangerous.  He and Dana have a tenuous relationship based on their mutual understanding of the threat that each poses to the other (she can always refuse to save him and let him die, and he can subject her to any number of the more severe aspects of slavery), but Rufus is used to having his way all the time. How much can Dana compromise and still retain her own freedom?

Kindred is a compelling read and each time I have picked it up I have not been able to put it down in spite of knowing the way that the story ends. It’s one of those books where each time I read it I come away from it with more than when I read it the first time around. I marvel at Octavia Butler’s genius in being able to weave so many threads together to create a story which is both complex and disturbing on so many levels.

Unless you are living through a particular situation or time period, or are in someone else’s shoes, it’s very hard to judge people and the culture of their times.  I also feel like it’s even hard to judge things in our own times, but that’s another story.  There are some things in life that are universally wrong, and slavery and the the system that it spawned is definitely in that category, but when Dana goes back she is  constantly trying to navigate a system of wrongs to ensure that her family survives, and to ensure her own personal freedom and safety.  She is trying to preserve her love for her husband Kevin, which turns out to be no easy task considering he is a white man, and though he vehemently believes that slavery is wrong and more sympathetic than the average white male in 1819, he has a very different experience than she does, and doesn’t experience slavery as personally as she can.

The characters and their relationships to one another are super complex and they parallel each other all over the place, which I noticed before but not as strongly as when I read it this time around.  Kevin and Dana love each other and are in a relationship, something that is incomprehensible in 1819, but still it’s the kind of relationship that Rufus would have probably liked to have had with Alice, a free born black woman whose enslavement is his fault, and whom he will he will take by force to have create the child that is Dana’s ancestor.  Dana is always in the untenable situation of wanting something that will ensure her family line though it comes at a high cost to someone whom she has grown to love and genuinely wants to have her own autonomy.

Butler is able to weave all of the details of plantation life into the narrative from the cookhouse, and the whippings and punishments of slaves, to the plantation celebrations and the philosophy of holding the slaves- and it’s such a personal book!  All of the characters have stories, and you get to see so many of them play out. But even better she illustrates all the contradictions, horrors and inhumanity of owning other people.  This isn’t a black and white book, but gray all over the place.  Should Dana do things that will risk her life and her return to 1976  in order to do good in 1819? What’s the greatest cost to herself that she will bear and how much of her “1976” self will she compromise in order to fit in and be safe in 1819?  There are so many questions and not enough clear answers, and definitely not enough answers which made me happy as I was reading this.  Dana is the perfect guide and proverbial “walk in another’s shoes” because she is the modern reader (Kevin also, to a lesser extent and from a diffrent perspective) stuck in what’s for her a hellish time in history and struggling to nagvigate and execute her modern ideas/self among the charm and barbarity of another time.

Seriously, in 1100 words, I have not even scratched the surface of just how complex, interesting, brilliant and well done this book is.  You simply have to read it (and when you do that you have to e-mail me so we can really “talk” about it).  It’s classified as science fiction, but besides the time travel (beyond the mere basics of how it works, it’s not really concentrated upon) nothing is really sci-fi about it.  The absurdity and horror of slavery should have been some awful science fiction alternate universe, but alas, that part was actually real.

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