Friday, May 16, 2014

What we're reading...assassins and serial killers???

Somehow young adult novels and books about hired killers or assassins seem like mutually exclusive categories, but apparently not--everything is fodder for teen literature, as I recently discovered at the Pasadena Teen Book Festival! A couple of books I bought there--Boy Nobody, by Allen Zadoff, and Dear Killer, by Katherine Ewell, introduce us to teens in professions we previously assumed were the purview of former CIA operatives gone rogue.

Boy Nobody was really a treat to read. Zadoff has used a technique that has made such writers as James Patterson successful at luring readers in (and I'm sure Patterson in his turn borrowed it from someone else!), which is to make all his chapters 1.5 to three pages long, with a statement at the beginning designed to intrigue you, and a cliffhanger at the end that compels you to turn the page, whether you intended to keep reading or not! (Hint: Don't start reading this book at bedtime.) His language is deceptively simple--clean, spare, and conveying exactly what he intended and nothing more--but his concept is not: The idea of a child who has lost everyone he loves to a ruthless killer then growing up to become that same ruthless killer is a hard one to understand, but the way he writes it drags you into the mindset and makes you want to hang in there until you do. It's intense, with a slow build and some great twists and turns.


Zadoff's book is an odd case. He wrote it last year, and said it didn't start out to be a series; but as we know, sometimes prose gets out of your control and demands to keep growing! So once he conceived of a sequel (and maybe more), and started referring to the series as "The Unknown Assassin," his publisher and he decided to rechristen book one: It's now called I Am the Weapon, and book two will be I Am the Mission. I Am the Weapon (alias Boy Nobody) comes out in paperback this month, and I Am the Mission comes out in hardcover in June! We already have Boy Nobody in the library, and will certainly be buying the sequel! I will also be proposing this one for 8+9 Book Club in the fall.

Dear Killer promises much (a teenage girl who is a contracted hired killer with no sense of right and wrong is a powerful idea), but the delivery is disappointing. After reading 35 pages, my impulse was to put the book down and move on to something else, but I kept going for another few chapters. Then I did put it down. This young author ( she was only 17 when she wrote the book, which is mostly why I hung in there) needed her editor to gently say to her, "Our first book is usually not the one that should be published." This should be one of those books put away in the box under the bed, as so many authors do with their first (and sometimes their first five!), to be resurrected for the compelling idea and rewritten sometime later in her career.

I give Ewell credit for the interesting concept, and some of the details that were original and intriguing--the "mailbox" cubbyhole in the cafe ladies' room being one of them. But…the language is stilted and sometimes awkward; the characters act in improbable, inexplicable ways; and the running internal monologue becomes tedious.

I hope to see her narrative skills improve to match her ideas for the next book, because there should be one--I think she has what it takes to be a writer, if she persists, and if she finds an editor (and/or a writers'  group) who knows better how to guide her. The novelty of finding a 17-year-old who wrote a book ultimately isn't enough to justify its publication, unfortunately, and the publishing house owed this author better advice. It's a shame that she will have all those one-star ratings on Goodreads to contend with when her next book appears.

Other YA assassin or serial killer books you might like (a mix of realistic, historical, fantasy, and paranormal!):
  • Au Revoir, Crazy European Chick (and its sequel, Perry's Killer Playlist), by Joe Schreiber (good fun);
  • Robin LaFevers's Grave Mercy and Dark Triumph, set in 15th-century France;
  • Throne of Glass and Crown of Midnight, by Sarah J. Maas (a female assassin in a fantasy universe--not my fave, but popular with many);
  • The Name of the Star and The Madness Underneath, by Maureen Johnson (a killing spree by a Jack the Ripper copycat, with paranormal elements);
  • Graceling, by Kristin Cashore (can't say enough good things about this amazing fantasy author);
  • Eagle Strike and Scorpia from Anthony Horowitz's perennially checked out Alex Rider series;
  • I Hunt Killers, by Barry Lyga, in which you see the serial killer mindset from both sides; 
  • and Money Run, by Jack Heath (an unknown quantity--somebody read it and report back?)

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