Suppose a terrorist took over an American boys’ school in Italy, forcing the politically and industrially powerful fathers to pressure the U.S. government into acceding to his demands. A Delta force team decides it cannot storm the fortress-like school without killing most of their men and the hostages in the process. Enter 15-year-old Billy Tepper, a prankster with a swift and wide-ranging intellect, able, like TV’s MacGyver, to transform everyday items into functional tools of another sort. Billy begins to sabotage the terrorists’ equipment, mistakenly believing a rescue is imminent, and Sharif’s plan starts to unravel. Fast paced, highly readable, if somewhat predictable, Kennedy’s scenario will entertain thriller buffs.
It’s a great idea for a story – terrorists take over a school in a foreign country filled with the sons of the richest and most powerful Americans. Drama ensues…
And having seen the film version, which featured a youthful Sean Astin and Wil Wheaton battling the baddies, I felt sure this would be a fun YA actioner.
So imagine my surprise to find that actually, in the book, as much attention is lavished on the supporting adult cast and there’s only really one kid, genius delinquent Billy Tepper, foiling the terrorists’ plan from the inside.
For me, that was slightly disappointing. I wanted to read sequences of derring do from a group of mates coming up against a villainous foe, defeating them with teen chutzpah, a camera battery and intricate knowledge of the school’s ventilation system. In fact, you get politics of the Middle East, world-weary conversations with hostage negotiators and weirdly explicit sexiness from a hunky teacher caught outside the school whose girlfriend is inside.
That’s not to say it’s not a good book, it’s just one of those novels which ends up being something completely different to what you thought it was going to be. If you’re expecting Red Dawn-style teen action, you’ll be sorely disappointed.
That said, author Kennedy is not afraid to tackle difficult scenes, both in terms of shock value and as regards the political machinations taking place outside the compound. And you get a sense of the monotony of what a real-life hostage situation may be like when you’ve got higher ideological aspirations guiding you.
Luckily, the writer also throws in a snarling, unpredictable (but pleasingly 3D and understandable) nemesis for Tepper, some clever set pieces and relatable characters.
It’s not the kinetic thriller it might have been, but this is a solidly entertaining book.
The prolific writer behind Bzrk, the Animorphs saga and most importantly (for me anyway) the GONE series has finally put the last full stop on the sixth and concluding instalment of the latter, called Light, which was published last month.
I critiqued it on this site and it was about that review that Michael and I started chatting when I caught up with him while he was in London recently. Both pleased about my praise and respectful of my criticisms, the interview began with his response to my belief that there were a couple of false endings in Light.
“We went through this before with Animorphs and the final book in that series ended up being very controversial with the readers. They weren’t really happy with where we went,’ he says. “I thought I’m not going to be self-indulgent this time. I’m going to do it the way I want to do it up to a point, but I’m going to keep the fans happy. Because by this time, kids have paid me $70-80 and I’ve asked for six years of your life and if that means I add an extra five per cent to make sure the fans are happy, I owe it to them.”
We get into Nutella and Lost later, but in the meantime, enjoy (and don’t worry, it’s pretty much spoiler-free)…
So you feel you owe your fans the finale, then?
Do I owe them? You’re goddamn right I owe them. They’ve trusted me. The fact that they’re happy is a very satisfying feeling. I’m like, ‘thank you, you had a million books to choose from and you chose my book.’
Did you know what the last few pages of this book would be early on in the GONE process?
I think I knew the last line fairly early. And I never do usually, because I make stuff up as I go along each time. But all I knew was the last line, I didn’t know who was going to die, I just knew where it had to end.
I don’t want to know what’s going on. It would be boring to me. I like the level of anxiety and fear that comes from sitting down at my computer each day and thinking, ‘how am I going to do this? What’s going to happen?’ That anxiety feeds what I do.
I respect the world’s capacity to give me answers. I’ll give you an example. A train makes its appearance in the GONE series. I was writing that book and I was missing something. So I was driving my daughter to school and went the wrong way and got cut off by a train. And as I was sitting waiting for the train to pass I broke out in a grin and went TRAIN. I had my answer.
It’s, I guess, kind of a happy ending though, right?
Except for the ones who are dead! (laughs) I don’t like these triumphal endings. That’s anomalous. That’s not the way the world usually works. Sometimes people come out of it just fine, some are just destroyed and there’s everything in between. I wanted to show realistic reactions to terribly traumatic situations.
Lost, another piece of art that people said was made up as they went along was an inspiration for GONE. People were a bit harsher on that ending.
The Lost guys have a much tougher gig than I do. They have to hit a commercial break every 12-and-a-half minutes, they have to have jeopardy at the end of every episode, a mid-season cliffhanger and then they have to listen to everybody’s agent saying, ‘my guy wasn’t in this last episode, what the hell?’ I’ve got complete autonomy, I don’t have to worry about what things cost. If I want to fly a spaceship into the scene I can. The word spaceship is as cheap as the word bagel.
Your characters became so in-depth and intricate and surprising as the series went on. Cheesy question, but who’s your favourite to write?
I think my favourite to write was always Diana. I got the voice, I knew how she sounded, I knew how she felt. The question about her was always we know she’s a bad girl, but is she a bad girl with a basically decent core or is she just bad? I liked playing with that. Both Astrid and Diana are like two sides of my wife, depending on the day. In many ways, Quinn is the me character in the whole thing. I don’t think I’d be particularly brave, but I’m a bit of a workaholic. When he finds his place, he becomes a serious character who has some depth and we can admire him. I knew from the start Edilio was not the – quote unquote – Mexican sidekick. I knew there was something more going on there. He had no special powers apart from the fact he was hard-working and faithful and then he became at the end one of the central characters.
And then there’s Drake, one of the most horrific people ever put on a page. And he’s a kid. But you maybe say a little something to why he might be the way he is in Light. Why?
I was really doubtful about writing that. I got that point and I did not know that that was Drake’s grandfather and I was like, ‘that’s Drake’s grandfather’. I wanted to do an un-nuanced, no shades of grey, this guy is just BAD. I didn’t want to explain him too much, but I thought people would pester me for explanations of Drake, so I threw that out there. There’s not a lot there, it doesn’t really explain it.
The series has been bandied around as a Hollywood vehicle over the years. How’s that going?
I have gone a couple of rounds with Hollywood on this. Its natural home is television, but you’ve got a lot fewer venues to go to. There’s something fundamentally different about showing a 13-year-old kid hitting another kid in the head with a full swing of a baseball bat. Putting that on screen is just so explicit. I wouldn’t want to see that.
If it never goes to Hollywood, I’m fine with that. If I’ve got a choice between something that’s going to embarrass my fans, I’m not going to do it.
Do you have crates of Nutella and Cup-A-Noodles delivered to your house now from thankful companies?
No! (laughs) All the way through Animorphs we kept talking about cinnamon buns, because there was a character who was obsessed with Cinnabon – because I was obsessed and Katherine was obsessed. We put that in the book.
But no, nothing from Nutella. But Nutella and Cup-A-Noodles were in there because of my kids. There was a period of time when our daughter would say, ‘go and buy me 500 cup-a-noodles.’ And our son is a Nutella addict. It was an inside joke.
Now that you’ve finished the final book, what are your thoughts about the FAYZ?
I created this horrible place and every kid that reads it wants to live there. At the end I say you’re now free to leave the FAYZ. And the universal reaction is, ‘but I don’t want to.’ In this space kids were empowered, kids did important stuff.
Do Sam, Decca, Brianna, Astrid, Caine and co. still visit you in your sleep?
You have to remember my relationship with characters is different to the readers. From my point of view they’re like employees, they work for me. They’re employees that I like hanging out with after work. I try to think of myself as a benevolent employer, although I kill them occasionally (laughs). There’s a little bit of killing.
I used to work at that place and now I work at other places, but I have very fond memories of it. I could see myself sitting down with them – as soon as they get to legal age – and hanging out. It’d be fun to catch up on old times with them.
He calls himself Alif – few people know his real name – a young man born in a Middle Eastern city that straddles the ancient and modern worlds. When Alif meets the aristocratic Intisar, he believes he has found love. But their relationship has no future – Intisar is promised to another man and her family’s honour must be satisfied. As a remembrance, Intisar sends the heartbroken Alif a mysterious book. Entitled The Thousand and One Days, Alif discovers that this parting gift is a door to another world – a world from a very different time, when old magic was in the ascendant and the djinn walked amongst us.
With the book in his hands, Alif finds himself drawing attention – far too much attention – from both men and djinn. Thus begins an adventure that takes him through the crumbling streets of a once-beautiful city, to uncover the long-forgotten mysteries of the Unseen. Alif is about to become a fugitive in both the corporeal and incorporeal worlds. And he is about to unleash a destructive power that will change everything and everyone – starting with Alif himself.
This is a quirky book. It’s also a substantial book – one that tackles topics not normally associated with traditional YA. Wilson is a white American woman who converted to Islam while at university and has since become a respected comic book writer and journalist on Muslim issues. That immediately lends the novel a certain focus, a different prism.
Because ostensibly this is a chase story, a pacey romp about hackers, secret code, an oppressive force seeking to quash the uprising. Wilson does that solidly, even if the action itself isn’t particularly bombastic.
What makes the book intriguing though is the geography. Set in an unspecified city (though it’s not hard to guess who the author may be suggesting), through this narrative we start to think about the question of freedom, the power of the less wealthy populace, the potentially tyrannical nature of a patriarchal state with impossibly deep pockets.
Wilson also laces her tale with the supernatural and it’s deliberately – I think – opaque. The book at the centre of the novel is magical, or maybe not. One of Alif’s group is a demon, or maybe not. This DOESN’T belong in the fantasy section, but it adds a unique twist.
Overall, the novel didn’t quite join the dots for me and some of the storytelling felt a little slow, which reflects its rating here. But as something different? This is an ambitious and effective attempt.
Perhaps its greatest achievement is in the sidekick. A devout, burkha-wearing young girl with devotion to her God who is also witty, intelligent, brave, resourceful and loving. Young readers don’t get to read about many of those.
Lauren Oliver is the best-selling author of Before I Fall and the Delirium trilogy. The final book in the latter series – Requiem – has just been released. It wraps up the story of Lena, a plucky young woman who lives in a future America where love is classified as an illness and young people are “cured” of the disease.
I was very lucky to grab a sit-down in a busy London coffee shop with the woman herself to discuss Lena, Alex vs. Julian and the screen adaptations of her work. I also managed a good back and forth about whether you can be cured of the Cure. Don’t worry, no spoilers ahead for those who haven’t yet read Requiem.
You’re finally done with the trilogy. How do you feel?
It’s probably similar to what people experience when they send their kids off to college. There’s a sense of real pride and there’s also a sense of real sadness and loss and a sense of relief as well!
After writing a hit in Before I Fall, people were a little surprised you did something totally different. How nerve-wracking was that?
One of the things I’ve tried to do in my career is really write different kinds of books, so I’m able to broaden people’s expectations of what I’m allowed to do. There was the anxiety of writing a book that was radically different from my first book, but I wanted to specifically do that so over time I would have the freedom to do anything. If I started to write avant-garde pornography there would be a problem.
I’m assuming that’s not on the cards!
Somebody actually wrote to me and said, ‘I think you’d be great at writing a book like 50 Shades Of Grey.’ And I was like, thanks, I’ll keep writing children’s books.
You also do something quite radical writing-wise by having the book told in alternating viewpoints between Lena and a cured Hana. Why?
I never intended that. But then I was writing Requiem and it was not working for me. And I realised so much of the book is founded on the fear of the Cure and we’ve never seen the Cure from anybody’s perspective except those who are resistant to it. I knew we’d have to go back to Portland. And being able to see Portland and see some of the characters from Delirium not just as a footnote at the end of the book was really important.
Without giving anything away, the ending of Requiem isn’t quite as comfortable as some might have thought. What’s been the reaction to that?
You don’t reach points in life at which everything is sorted out for us. I believe in endings that should suggest our stories always continue. For my readers in America, it’s very split. Half of them are very angry, half of them love it. I’ve gotten a couple of emails where it’s like I hated the ending and then I had to think about it and thought about it for a couple of days and now I understand why you did what you did. A little bit of controversy never hurt anybody. If you’re not writing something that pisses people off a little bit, you’re writing Hallmark cards.
The Delirium trilogy is currently being made into a TV series, starring Emma Roberts as Lena. Why TV rather than a movie?
Even though it was originally slated for a movie, they wanted to do a TV show, because they felt the world was rich enough. If they make it to air, by episode three they will have exhausted the material in my books because TV’s so fast-paced. But the thing I love about TV is all those secondary characters, including the adults, they’ll not only get screen time, they get plot arcs.
There’s been some blowback online about the casting, especially Hana, who in the books is blonde, but the actress cast is brunette. What’s your take on that?
You could describe every physical characteristic of a girl and it wouldn’t give you any indication of how she looks. But if you say she’s the kind of girl who always smiles as if she’s swallowing back a secret, that also tells you something about who she is as a person. So Hana is supposed to be the kind of girl who around her, you feel a little bit less than because she’s so hot and confident. So blonde hair, black hair, Latino, not. The girl who was cast is hot who if you were around her, you would feel a little bit less than. So to me, she’s a great Hana.
Some YA authors get readers emailing them for school projects. Do you?
That happens to me! I don’t mind, it’s when they ask, ‘can you tell me what the themes in your books are?’ I’m like, you just want me to do your homework for you. Then I say no.
Requiem is out now in hardbook and ebook from Hodder & Stoughton.
There’s bad news and good news about the Cutter High School swim team. The bad news is that they don’t have a pool. The good news is that only one of them can swim anyway. A group of misfits brought together by T. J. Jones (the J is redundant), the Cutter All Night Mermen struggle to find their places in a school that has no place for them. T.J. is convinced that a varsity letter jacket–exclusive, revered, the symbol (as far as T.J. is concerned) of all that is screwed up at Cutter High–will also be an effective tool. He’s right. He’s also wrong. Still, it’s always the quest that counts. And the bus on which the Mermen travel to swim meets soon becomes the space where they gradually allow themselves to talk, to fit, to grow. Together they’ll fight for dignity in a world where tragedy and comedy dance side by side, where a moment’s inattention can bring lifelong heartache, and where true acceptance is the only prescription for what ails us.
It’s rare that a book jumps to the top of my favourites list. Very rare, in fact. But putting this book down, with tears in my eyes and a righteous anger pulsing through my body, it was difficult to deny how much it had affected me.
Like the other Chris Crutcher books that I have reviewed on this site (seriously, if you haven’t read any yet, go and do it right now), this is a tough read. There is racism, violence and loss, all of which comes from idiotic people doing hateful things. It’s even more effective in the light of the gun debate currently raging in the US.
Crutcher frequently uses sport in his books, especially his beloved swimming and this is no different. But the pool here is an excuse for his Magnificent Seven homage, a “bringing the gang together” storyline that unites both his team and his audience. When you’re on the bus with these guys, their emotional walls crumbling in tiny increments, it’s as if you’re there.
Against the backdrop of this superlatively-written teen male bonding, you have weighty subplots including abusive parents, battered wives and neo-Nazism. At times, you worry these are topics that will overwhelm each other and the central Mermen storyline. But Crutcher handles them so deftly that by the time the finale rumbles menacingly into view, you’re ready to leap onto the pages somehow to stop it.
What we’re left with is a ringing sense of authenticity, a bittersweet taste in our mouth and a novel to remember.
Saci is an internationally-acclaimed author and activist. Her first novel, The Carbon Diaries 2015, was shortlisted for the Costa Book Award and is in development with the BBC. Her new book is Quantum Drop, a thriller about an ordinary kid caught up in a dangerous world. The boundaries between real and virtual are more and more blurred and when Anthony Griffin’s girlfriend is taken out in a gang hit, he has to venture into the underground world of the Drop to flush out her killer and bring him to justice. It will be published by Hachette Children’s Books on 7th February.
I caught up with Saci as part of her blog tour for the new book.
You’re known for tackling big themes. What was the one you were targeting with this book?
The financial crash. 1% of 1% of a financial elite have scalped the rest of us, particularly young people, who are going to pay for the mess they left behind for the whole of their working lives. I feel really bad for the younger generation, and I wanted to write a great story where they take their power back and kick some corporate ass!
There is a vast virtual world in the novel. Could I ask you any technical question about it and you would be able to answer?
Yes, I guess I created the Drop from the latest developments in augmented reality and the web. For example, just this year, we see Google glasses reaching production. The glasses work by projecting a web interface onto the lens via a mini laser, but I’m sure it won’t be long before the projector will be aimed directly onto the retina – and then not long again before we wire processor chip directly into our brains.
The one problem when approaching virtual reality and the like is worrying about being obsolete in a year. What’s your feeling about that and how did you deal with it?
For sure technology goes in and out of fashion, and there’s always some new device you think is going to be the next big thing, only for it to fall by the wayside. Like robots. Man, there have been so many false robotic dawns, so many false promises – and when you actually take a cold hard look at what the robot industry has produced, the only thing that really works is a little hoover thing that still gets stuck under the sofa. However, the main trend that I see underlying technology and virtual reality is that human beings seem to be hell bent on merging with our machines. I don’t really know why we’re so crazy about doing this … haven’t we seen enough bad science fiction already? But who said we were a sane species? And so when I invent future technology for my novels, I tend to create stuff that strips away the interface between human and synthetic, real and virtual because that seems to me the way things are going.
Like a lot of recent action novels, you’ve written in the present tense. What’s your take on that?
Oh I just felt right for this book. It feels real and pacey and suits Anthony’s character. When I first started writing Quantum Drop, I experimented with different styles – first person, third person, past tense etc – and I just picked the style that best worked with the protagonist.
Do you see more novels taking place in the Drop?
Could well be. It’s not something I’m working on at the moment, but in my books I’m often drawn to virtual worlds, places where people can transform, hide and communicate away from the mainstream.
Completely separately: what was the first piece of fiction you ever wrote?
Hmm. That was a poem. About space. Followed twenty years later by a murder mystery book about a dog. A staffie called Blue. There’s a line of thought there, somewhere.
Publisher: Macmillan (read on Kobo E-reader Touch)
Sherlock knows that Amyus Crow, his mysterious American tutor, has some dark secrets. But he didn’t expect to find a notorious killer, hanged by the US government, apparently alive and well in Surrey – and Crow somehow mixed up in it. When no one will tell you the truth, sometimes you have to risk all to discover it for yourself. And so begins an adventure that will take Sherlock across the ocean to America, to the centre of a deadly web – where life and death are cheap, and truth has a price no sane person would pay…
This was a disappointing book. It’s the second episode in what’s an ongoing series about the legendary detective as a teenager and I went into it excited to read. I’m a big fan of the Young Bond novels by Charlie Higson and this had that kind of potential. Sherlock Holmes is such a rich character from an emotional and psychological perspective that transporting him to YA-hood and ramping up the action seemed like a no-brainer.
Unfortunately, while the concept – John Wilkes Booth is alive and kicking and being used as a Southern figurehead at the end of the American Civil War – is a clever one, it never really takes flight. The big baddie only shows up close to the end and Sherlock’s escape from his dastardly death scene is almost farcically easy. The villains are almost literally looking the other way while he flees.
It’s a shame, because the character of Sherlock’s mentor Amyus Crowe is an interesting one, as is the repulsive nemesis, whose unique medical situation is squirm-inducing. And I like that Lane hasn’t tried to shoehorn in Watson, instead going for a local lad whose friendship with the hero feels straightforward and honest. This is not the complex detective we know and love, but a much more ebullient, clear-eyed though obviously intelligent boy.
But the writing is so superficial that you never really peer beneath the surface of any of the characters. Holmes’s budding romance is kiboshed by the girl staying in her room during a long sea voyage. The author gives a reason for it, but it smacks of narrative flannelling.
I might have just been the victim of the writer’s ‘difficult second book syndrome’ and it would be shame if Sherlock’s teen adventures were ignored because of one false move. But I might sate myself for the time being with the excellent Young Sherlock Holmes movie from the Eighties.
That at least has the sort of emotional depth, scares and tragedy that befits such a literary titan.
American-born writer CJ Daugherty is the author of the successful Night School series, the first of which was the #5 bestselling YA debut of 2012.
It tells the story of Allie Sheridan, an angry teenager with a dysfunctional family who is sent to Cimmeria Academy, a secretive boarding school where all is not what it seems. As the mysteries begin to pile up, Allie realises she is a cog in a rather large conspiracy.
The sequel, Night School: Legacy, sees Allie return for her second term at Cimmeria. Not only must she comes to terms with the with the death of her friend but she has to deal with the pressing matter of a love triangle involving her, brooding Carter and suave but flawed Sylvain.
I got a chance to chat with CJ about the new book…
I understand the idea for Night School came to you after seeing that picture of David Cameron and his cronies at the Bullingdon Club?
I started thinking, you have the Bullingdon Club and Skull & Bones for 19-year-olds, what if there was something before that? I don’t know if there is, but it would be surprising to me if there weren’t. I wanted to write a psychological thriller that was fast-paced and I wanted there to be murder and mayhem. I was working in Westminster, editing websites mostly for the Home Office. And I had this long commute and to amuse myself, I started sketching an outline. I was interested in who the David Camerons and Boris Johnsons were when they were 16.
Oh no, are you telling me Carter is actually Cameron?
(laughs) No, that would ruin it for everyone.
The first book was a big hit. What was the most surprising reaction you got to it?
One of the biggest complaints the first book got was that too many strings were left untied. I sympathise with that, but the problem was it was my first book and I wasn’t sure where to end it. They’ll have to forgive me (laughs). I was surprised by the rage – lots of people hate cliff-hangers. At first, I was so apologetic. I didn’t write and apologise to everybody, but I’ve learned to make sure that I tie up enough strands to leave people satisfied.
How do you see your heroine, Allie?
I see her as a flawed heroine. You get complaints for her flaws. In the first book there’s an attempted date rape and Allie does not report this to the authorities, nor does she do anything other than get a bit cross and refuses to see him anymore. There were reviews that took umbrage with that. The question is: is that my responsibility? I didn’t think that character would [go to the authorities].There’s nobody she trusts. I may look at it differently over time, but I think my logic was reasonable. I did want it to be nuanced, realistic.
So what can fans expect in Book 2?
In Book 1, Allie sees Cimmeria as an outsider. In Book 2, she’s inside all of it. She becomes a part of the things she’s puzzled over. She gets the answers to the questions. She will find out who Lucinda is, who her mother is, what happened to Christopher…
Let’s just say the course of true love doesn’t run smooth. Allie and Carter are in a difficult position and they’re going to have to fight to keep it together. Let’s leave it at that. And Allie has issues to settle with Sylvain too. She has to sort out how she feels about him.
I wanted to ask some “how you write” questions. How do you make sure you get the teen voice right?
In terms of researching voice and dialect, I follow people around. I hang out in Starbuck’s a lot where I live because they’re all private school kids and they’re all very affluent. And as an adult, they’re all unaware of you, so you can just sit at a table and listen. Trains are good as well for eavesdropping.
What’s your tip for being a successful novelist?
Write characters you love and then go where they lead you. Let them breathe on the page.
What was the first thing you ever wrote?
The first thing I ever wrote that was fiction was based on an REM song. I wrote 8 chapters. I’m not going to tell you the title, because I still plan to use it. And it was terrible. It was semi-autobiographical, about a girl who moves from New Orleans to London and is a journalist. Turns out I’m not that interesting and I threw it away!
And while we’ve got you here, can you give us any insight into Book 3?
Book 3 is where we get into the higher levels of the group itself. That’s what Book 3 is about. You find out about the big organisation that Night School’s a part of.
Allen Zadoff is an award-winning American author of YA books, whose novels include Since You Left Me and My Life, The Theater and Other Tragedies. He recently signed a big publishing deal for a new teen assassin thriller called Boy Nobody which will be out next summer. I grabbed him for a quick chat about writing for boys and tackling unusual YA issues.
Where do you tend to start from when writing a new novel?
The beginning is almost always a character speaking to me. He’s angry because things in his life are messed up. He wants something he can’t have. His family is pissing him off. He’s hurt by someone or something. My job at that point is to listen, give him space to rant and rave. From there, images and situations begin to emerge. A novel has begun.
Boys notoriously “don’t read”. What’s your take on that and how to do you approach it as a writer?
Boys read. I read when I was a boy. Maybe boys are not as patient as girls when it comes to reading. Luckily, I write short chapters. But I’m not doing this to please boys or girls or anyone else. I’m just doing what comes naturally. My approach is to create the most dramatic, honest, entertaining, funny, and dynamic story I am able. Then I hope the audience will like it as much as I do.
Your books seem to be more rom-com than action thriller (at least so far!). Was that a conscious choice?
Not conscious at all. My first three YA novels were very organic, and they came out “funny and heartbreaking” (as my editor likes to say). A nervous boy meets and tries to win a girl while navigating his crazy family situation and struggling to earn the respect of his peers. That’s the journey of many of my characters because it was my journey. I always wanted to be tougher, smarter, and more attractive than I was. I thought I had to win love, and I could only do it by changing myself. It took a long time for me to learn to appreciate my unique gifts, talents, and abilities exactly as they are. My characters learn the same thing, but because they’re in a novel, they learn it much faster than I did. Lucky for them.
Do you wish there were more books like that with male protagonists? There are so many about zombies, vampires, etc.?
This is a tough question for me because I love a good zombie adventure. I love thrillers, too. But generally, I’m not into creatures, fantasy, or science fiction. I have nothing against it, but it’s not what I read or what comes out of me when I write. At least not yet.??I think there are a lot of good realistic books with male protagonists these days, but they fly under the radar a bit. When I was a teenager, I read Hemingway, Salinger and S.E. Hinton. Male teens have a lot more to choose from now. They can read about boys who actually go through things and have feelings about them.
What YA authors with male protags do you read?
There are some great ones. Matthew Quick, Barry Lyga, Greg Neri, Andrew Smith, Blake Nelson, John Green to name just a few. Right now I’m reading a delightful book for younger readers by Lemony Snicket, but I hear Daniel Handler is very talented as well.
I’m interested in the fact you’ve written about YA male weight issues. How did that come about and what’s been the most surprising response to it?
It came about because I was overweight as a teen, and I struggled with an eating disorder well into my twenties that eventually got me into recovery. I wrote about it in my memoir Hungry. Being a guy with food issues gave me some unusual perspectives, and I try to share these in my work, particularly in my book Food, Girls and Other Things I Can’t Have. While I’m thrilled to hear from young adults of both sexes who have food, weight, and body issues, I’m most surprised by the responses from teens without those particular issues. Evidently a lot of people struggle with the feeling that they don’t fit in, and they identify with Andrew Zansky, the 306.4 pound narrator of that novel, even if they’ve never been fat.
Similarly, Since You Left Me seems, to me at least, to be mostly about faith. Not a common YA topic either. Was that deliberate?
Absolutely. SYLM is about a boy trapped in religious school in Los Angeles who doesn’t believe. I live in Los Angeles, the place where spirituality meets Hollywood superficiality. L.A. is a confusing tangle of new ideas, old beliefs, and vegan restaurants. I wanted to explore the question of how you find what you believe in a world where everyone is telling you what they think you should believe. My protagonist’s conflict is summarized in his name: Sanskrit Aaron Zuckerman. A Jewish kid with a yoga teacher for a mom.
Boy Nobody just made a big publishing splash (congrats, by the way). Quite a big departure from your previous work. Why it and why now?
Thanks, it’s an exciting time for me. Boy Nobody is a YA thriller series about a teen assassin working for a secret organization whose mission is to befriend kids in order to assassinate their parents. He’s an expert chameleon, able to fit into any situation, yet belonging to none of them. He is literally a boy with no home. It’s a huge departure stylistically, but not so much thematically. It’s still a story of a boy trying to find where he fits in the world, struggling with what he’s supposed to be (a soldier and assassin) and what he is (a boy with feelings and desires). It’s coming June 2013 from Orchard Books in the UK and Little Brown Books for Young Readers in the U.S.
This action-packed follow-up to international bestseller Harlan Coben’s striking young adult novel, Shelter, follows Mickey Bolitar as he continues to hunt for clues about the Abeona Shelter and the mysterious death of his father – all while trying to navigate the challenges of a new high school.
When tragedy strikes close to home, Mickey and his loyal new friends – sharp-witted Ema and the adorably charming Spoon – find themselves at the centre of a terrifying mystery involving the shooting of their classmate Rachel. Now, not only does Mickey need to keep himself and his friends safe from the Butcher of Lodz, but he needs to figure out who shot Rachel – no matter what it takes.
Mickey Bolitar is as quick-witted and clever as his uncle Myron, but with danger just seconds away, it is going to take all of his determination and help from his friends to protect the people he loves, even if he does not know who – or what – he is protecting them from.
This is the second in Coben’s Mickey Bolitar series and starts pretty much the moment the previous one left off.
That will alienate those who haven’t read the first one, but Coben’s a successful enough writer not to worry about such minor details.
The plot of this new book however feels rather ramshackle compared to the premiere, which I also reviewed on this site. Narrative propulsion is the author’s strong suit, but I found this episode to be rather repetitive. Okay – I get who Bat Lady is. Yes, I know that paramedic looks like a Nazi war criminal. You don’t need to tell me again and again.
Nonetheless, Coben drills the point home and this is on top of some really lacklustre emotional writing. YA novels are above all about voice and while Mickey as an entity feels like an authentic character, his inner monologue often doesn’t. Some of the throwaway sentences about his “feelings” are downright cringey.
However, Coben does a good deal right. The action, such as it is, moves on at a clip. And I was pleased that we get more time with Mickey’s cronies Spoon and Ema. They are both shaping up to be interesting characters as the series progresses, particularly in light of this book’s most shocking moment.
The overarching mystery – of child “protectors” Abeona Shelter – moves up a notch too, as we learn more about the shadowy higher-ups.
So the positives balance out the negatives, which is why this is a 3-star review. I’m just hoping Coben can iron out those creases in the next instalment