Tuesday, February 11, 2014

REVIEW: "Something Real", what every YA novel should aspire to be...

I am the first to admit that I usually shy away from reading Young Adult literature because I often find the themes repetitive and the writing style too simplistic, but with new authors like Heather Demetrios, the market is a whole lot more creative, interesting, and intelligent!

Yes, "Something Real", Demetrios' debut novel, does draw on many themes common in YA: her main character is a teenager who is dealing with all kinds of issues and pressure from her family, her school, her friends, and her budding first love/relationship. But Demetrios sets her story in a world so rich that it immediately springs up around you and sucks you in. The world is also somewhat larger than life in the way many YA stories tend to be, but instead of being a downer in dystopia, Demetrios chooses to showcase her story in a world that is happening in reality as you read, which grounds even the craziest seeming parts of the story.

"Something Real's" heroine Chloe Baker is a former reality show star, but not by choice. From birth, she was a part of a reality program about her large and somewhat unorthodox family-- a family that features a "Baker's Dozen" worth of people with kids adopted from all parts of the globe. She thinks (and therefore Demetrios writes) in "seasons" rather than years, in that "In season 7" instead of "When I was 7" sort of way that is heartbreaking but yet still lends itself as just another incredible detail to immerse the readers in Chloe's world. Additional such details are specially stylized chapters that are "lifted" from various interview transcripts or show episode transcripts.

When readers meet Chloe, her show has been off the air for a few years, and she has managed to change her name (to Chloe) and live a normal life in a real high school. She has kept her upbringing and family a secret from her new friends and somewhat miraculously has managed to go unrecognized by anyone in her new California town. But that is all about to change as her mother has signed a new deal for the show to restart, exploding Chloe's new life and bringing the most painful parts of her past to the surface once again.

"Something Real" does a remarkable job of depicting the truth behind reality TV in an insider's look sort of way without making the book about exposing reality TV. That is the setting, the world for Chloe's story to take place, but it does not define Chloe. We spend a lot of alone time with Chloe, so we get to know how she thinks and feels better than anyone, as we would with any good protagonist. But "Something Real" features an ensemble that rivals even "Baker's Dozen" and *all* of her characters-- from Chloe's older brother and confidante Benny, to her new, almost too good to be true boyfriend Patrick, to her image-obsessed mother-- are so finely crafted the astute reader can anticipate how they, individually, will act in most situations, too. Everything and everyone has its place and purpose within the story; no one gets lost in the mass; there is no filler, and there is no pandering or expository repetition. Demetrios trusts her readers, but perhaps most importantly, she respects her readers.

Personally, I want to read novels about interesting characters who happen to encounter unique and equally interesting situations, scenarios, and events. The plot is always less important to me than the characters themselves because "where" they get to doesn't really matter if I haven't enjoyed spending time with them and therefore actively rooting for them to get to their destination in the first place. Demetrios has certainly created characters with whom you will want to spend a lot of time (I would love to read a whole separate book from Benny's perspective, for example, but there is certainly room and interest warranting each Baker child to tell their story in individual novellas, should the publisher so choose). But obviously Demetrios has also created a complicated story with unique markers to match.

Good YA has its protagonist "coming of age" and learning some lessons along the way-- lessons that the readers can take to heart, too. But great YA has its protagonist empowering his or herself and inspiring change. "Something Real" does that in spades as Chloe refuses to just play into the reality TV game and adopt the character "type" the show wants her to be but instead decides to stand up for herself and what she-- not her mother, not the cameras-- really wants her life to be. Today's youth should all be so brave.

"Something Real" is available in Hardcover and e-book form now.

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