Review | Dear Life, You Suck, Scott Blagden

9780547904313Scott Blagden takes Holden Caulfield into a 21st century Catholic orphanage in his book Dear Life, You SuckCricket Chirpen’s life sucks. Not only does he have to deal with a name like Cricket Chirpen (when introduced to his girlfriend’s parents, the stepmom thinks she’s being punk’d), he also has a horrible past and zero prospects for the future. He is constantly getting suspended at school for fighting, and despite the efforts of some of the adults in his life, he believes his best prospect after school is to become a drug dealer.

Despite Cricket’s propensity for getting into trouble, he is clearly a good kid at heart. He cares for the Little Ones, younger kids at his orphanage who look up to him, and despite grumbling about it, enjoys entertaining them with wild stories. His crush on Wynona Bidaban is described with hilarious bluntness — Blagden doesn’t shy away from describing Cricket’s poorly timed erections — and his disbelief at her niceness to him is endearing. I love the “Dear Life” letters; they revealed much more about Cricket than he intended, and as such struck me as the most honest sections in the book. So there’s a lot to like in this novel. As well, in a YA book market saturated with dystopian trilogies, it’s almost refreshing to see someone writing contemporary stories with realistic characters.

That being said, there’s also nothing new about this novel. J.D. Salinger said it before, and quite frankly, said it better. Blagden creates a distinct narrative voice for Cricket, one that presumably is meant to be snappy and witty and to convey just how pissed off he is at life. Take the opening paragraphs for example:

The shrinkadinks think I have a screw loose. Ain’t playing with a full deck. Whacked-out wiring. Missing marbles.

 

Oh wait, I live in the north of Maine now with the moosikins and lahbstahs.

 

The shrinkadinks think I have a bent prop. Knows in the net. Sap in the chain. Am thin in the chowda.

Blagden certainly maintains the consistency in his narrative voice. The thing is, he falls a bit too much in love with it. Take the opening paragraphs for example. Even from the first paragraph, we get the gist, but then Blagden keeps going. He doesn’t present new information so much as show off his narrative chops. Unfortunately, Blagden doesn’t quite have the skill to get away with it. Unlike the seductiveness of repetition in A Clockwork Orange, which ensnares you so that you barely notice the same phrases are being repeated over and over again, Cricket’s repetitiveness just becomes wearying.

Even the way Cricket refers to people becomes tiresome — he gives so many multiple variations on their nicknames that it’s more him showing off how clever he is at coming up with names than any form of characterization. Poor Mother Mary for example, head of the Naskeag Home for Boys where Cricket lives, is referred to as Mother Mary Mammoth, Mother Mary Monument, Mother Mary Mad-as-Hell, Mother Mary Mockery, Mother Mary Mushroom Cloud, Mother Mary Mafia, and so on… and this is all within a single scene. We get it, Mr. Blagden, Cricket is clever. Now enough.

The other problem is despite Cricket considering a career in dealing drugs, he’s never really believable as a potential drug dealer. Blagden does such a good job depicting Cricket’s vulnerability that he never really comes off as being capable of selling drugs to children. Wisecracks, name calling, even the occasional fight aren’t quite enough, particularly when it’s made so clear that the fight was triggered by a need to protect a younger, weaker boy. Certainly, Cricket has his dark side — he continues the fight past the point of self-defence because of some deep seated anger we don’t fully understand till the end — but overall, his image is that of a troubled teen looking for help. And perhaps because of the strength of his support system — Mother Mary, the Caretaker, his English teacher Moxie, even the Little Ones who look up to him — Cricket’s story lacks the sense of desperation that would have made his story urgent.

Instead, we have a boy that tries too hard to be bad ass, and a novel that tries too hard to stand out. Dear Life, You Suck is actually a pretty good read. Because of the language, it’s a bit hard to get through, but still worth the effort. The moments of tenderness stand out, and the insights revealed by Cricket’s “Dear Life” letters are right on the mark. It’s Catcher in the Rye redux, and while the original is vastly superior, in my opinion, Dear Life, You Suck is a sharp, funny argument that life, in fact, does not quite suck after all.

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Thank you to Thomas Allen Ltd for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

 

 

 

Review | Juggling the Stars, Tim Parks

16284886Juggling the Stars by Tim Parks has been compared to Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley series, and rightly so. Parks’ protagonist Morris Duckworth has neither Ripley’s skill, nor charm, but he does have Ripley’s aspiration for a better life. An English tutor in Italy, Morris views his wealthy clients with envy and disdain, believing himself more deserving of their wealth and helping himself to some of their possessions.

The story takes off when one of his students falls in love with him and her mother forbids the relationship. The student then runs away with Morris, and Morris concocts a complicated scheme where he pretends to have kidnapped her and sends her family ransom notes. Morris’ lies quickly catch up to him, and he has to keep spinning more and even more convoluted tales just to stay ahead.

Juggling the Stars is a quick, fast-paced thriller. It’s fascinating to see how much more Morris’ plan can go wrong, and to see what new plot he comes up with to extricate himself. And when his plan starts spiralling completely out of his control, the consequences are fatal.

The story isn’t chilling — for all his malice, Morris lacks the skill to be a truly malevolent villain. He’s a Ripley wannabe more than a Ripley character, and to the author’s credit, that seems to have been the author’s intent. Morris’ girlfriend (the student who runs away with him) may have made the stupid decision to go with Morris, but is surprisingly sharp in her assessment of him — he “feels inferior,” she tells her mother, and later on tells Morris he’s sucking up too much just because someone is rich. He’s a rather pathetic figure, yet sympathetic in a way because he’s just trying so hard to get rich and yet so many things are going wrong.

The result is a fun read, a quick page turner that will translate really well to the big screen. There are alternating bursts of humour and of horror, and despite all his crimes, a protagonist you root for.

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Thank you to Thomas Allen Ltd for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | When Love Comes to Town, Tom Lennon

9780807589168Twenty years after its original publication in Ireland, Tom Lennon’s coming of age, coming out story When Love Comes to Town is being released in North America. In many ways, the story seems a bit dated — characters use public phones and personal ads in newspapers rather than mobile phones and social media, cross dressing men are inaccurately referred to as transvestites, and I sincerely hope that society is at least more open-minded now than the one portrayed in the book. In other ways, however, it’s disheartening to see how many of the challenges Neil faces in the 1990s are still being handled by LGBTQ teens in the 2010s. Perhaps if it were published now, the author, an English teacher at a Dublin high school, wouldn’t have felt the need to use a pseudonym, but then again, perhaps I’m just being naive.

In the Foreword, James Klise says:

The novel reminds us how isolated many gay people felt in the pre-Internet age, before connecting with others was as easy as a click. The isolation was only increased by the near-invisibility of role models […] no gay-straight alliances in schools, no Ellen Degeneres on TV, no uplifting talk in the media about how “it gets better.” [p. vi]

Beyond isolation, the main emotion throughout the story is discomfort. We see Neil struggling with his sexual urges — he’s known since he was 10 that he was gay, but he sometimes wishes for death just so he won’t have to face the consequences of that knowledge. He has a crush on a boy in school, but he joins his friends in checking out girls, and at one point pretends to have a girlfriend. Perhaps most horrifically, Neil still laughs at his friends’ anti-gay slurs just so they won’t suspect that he himself is gay. He’s a gay teen living life as a straight one, and the sensation that something just isn’t right is a strong thread throughout.

Even within the gay scene, Neil is far from comfortable. Lennon writes of Neil’s awkward evenings at gay clubs, trying to figure out the rules. Ironically, Neil is far more comfortable flirting with girls; at least, he’s familiar with that world. One of the men he meets at the club, Uncle Sugar, is a constant reminder of the man Neil fears he could grow up to be — a desperate, rather pathetic middle aged man trying to pick up younger men. While Neil does find a sense of belonging in gay clubs, he is still constantly aware of the need to keep both aspects of his life separate. In some ways, Neil’s finding a space to be himself makes life even more stressful for him. How can he explain when Uncle Sugar calls his house? How should he react when he and his mother run into the flamboyantly effeminate Daphne at the mall? In a particularly telling scene, when two cross dressing men visit Neil away from the club, they make sure to wear business suits, and when Neil’s father runs into them, even have a cover story already made up for how they know Neil. Pretence is a way of life for the gay characters in this book, and the consequences of being out of the closet are all too vicious.

Interesting as well is that even the most open-minded characters still hold prejudice.  Neil’s friend warns him off a potential boyfriend because bisexuals “can’t be trusted,” and nothing in the narration hints at Neil or, for that matter, the narrator, finding this unfair. Neil’s sister accompanies him to a gay club and happily befriends gay men, and yet visibly recoils from gay women. Neil reacts by admitting that if he were a straight man, he might react the same way to gay men. No excuse, particularly by today’s standards, but it does reflect a more conservative time and place, with people less educated about LGBTQ issues. I also grew up in a conservative Catholic country, and I remember as late as the 2000s, a male classmate telling me he had nothing against homosexuality, but gay men made him feel uncomfortable, just as he (mistakenly) assumes gay women must make me feel uncomfortable too. Just as my classmate did, Neil finds this discomfort completely natural, and again, this is indicative how just how much Neil and the other gay characters in the book must have felt they had to hide.

The writing isn’t amazing. There are hardly any nuance to the characters; even the gay men Neil meets at the club are more character types than developed individuals, and even Neil’s inner monologue gets repetitive after a while. Descriptions are fairly standard, though perhaps fittingly, Neil’s descriptions of his crushes sound like bad high school poetry. The book’s strength therefore is not in its writing, but rather in its honesty. This is the experience of a young man in an Irish Catholic school in the 1990s, and Lennon paints a stark portrait of the isolation and fear that entails.

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Thank you to Thomas Allen Ltd for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.