Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Latent Powers of Playing With Matches

Call it the John Green effect. Call it the Superbad effect (especially if David Krumholtz is involved. Whatever you want to call it, or if you call it nothing at all, more and more boy-centric YA romances are hitting the shelves. Last week, I read two that I enjoyed, and they get a joint review.

The Latent Powers of Dylan Fontaine by April Lurie follows a boy who is trying to keep his head on straight in his increasingly dramarific life. His mother left the family for another man. His father is never home because he's always working. His brother Randy is many things Dylan wishes he could be: intelligent, a talented musician, an artist. He's also a pothead with zero interest in succeeding in school. In most other YA novels, Dylan could tell his best friend Angie about his problems. The problem here is that Dylan wants to date Angie, who would rather just be friends. Even worse, Angie is dating a guy Dylan finds pretentious. With the help of health food, basketball, and a newly-hired housekeeper who cooks German food, Dylan navigates his way through crushes, pot, jam sessions, and being the star of Angie's independent film.

It sounds like a lot to cram into one book, but Lurie balances it all. Dylan is endearing even when he tries to keep the reader at arm's length. His crushes and frustrations are totally sympathetic. Given Dylan's family it would have been easy to write him as just another spoiled New York poor little rich kid. Dylan, however, has taken on a protector role not usually seen in the Rich New York Kids subgenre. Although he's no saint, he cares deeply about those around him and in order to maintain what he believes is an even keel, puts himself on the line.

April Lurie's blog || Review at Becky's Book Reviews

Playing With Matches by Brian Katcher is a first novel about the kid in high school no one wants to be. Leon Sanders is neither hot nor popular nor particularly brilliant. His friendships are more friendships of convenience than commonality, and his high school is out in the middle of Nowheresville, Missouri. The only kid in school less popular than Leon might be Melody Hennon, who has severe facial scars from a fire earlier in her life. When Melody and Leon are matched up as locker partners, Leon finds that Melody is friendly and they have quite a lot in common. There's no way they can be more than friends, though. After all, Melody is the school outcast and Leon likes Amy, the hot girl in his chemistry class. As time passes, Leon and Melody grow closer but all along he denies that he's dating her, even taking Amy to a school dance. Leon thought he'd be the last person on earth to get a date, much less be part of a love triangle, but there it is. Amy or Melody? The girl who would raise his social status or the girl who likes him for who he is? It's an easy choice for the reader to make but for Leon, not so much.

Leon's confusion and honesty come through clearly, with a good dose of humor. While teen girls, or anyone who's ever been one, will probably roll their eyes at Leon and say, "Boys are so dumb!" it's always easy to see exactly where Leon is coming from in regards to his relationships with Melody and Amy. He doesn't mean to be a jerk. He doesn't mean to manipulate. All he's doing is following his earnest feelings, and that's what gets him in trouble and makes him look like a jerk to outsiders. Fact is, though, Leon is somewhat overwhelmed by his feelings and really not up to making the "right" decision. All he can do is go with his gut until his friends put him in his place.

I think the most interesting thing to observe about these two books, and what might be a forthcoming trend in YA, who knows? is the lack of plot. Wait! This is not a bad thing. As Stephen King pointed out, our lives don't have plots; they're mostly a series of events influenced by others. Both Dylan Fontaine and Playing With Matches capitalize on the idea that we can only take on life as it comes to us, and high school romances are complicated. I'm curious as to who will read these books, but I think those that do should enjoy them, as I did.

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