Sunday, May 13, 2007

And Now for Something Completely Different. . .Part the First

I feel like I’ve been reading many more adult titles than teen titles lately, so I decided to make up for lost time by quickly tearing through three teen novels in a row—and they couldn’t possibly have been more different from one another, which either goes to show how I embrace variety or just speaks to the general disarray of my mind, which some might define as “insanity.” I started with Tom Pow’s Captives, went on to Stephanie Hemphill’s Your Own, Sylvia, and tidied up with Graham Joyce’s TWOC (Taken without Owner’s Consent.) The first is about two families kidnapped by terrorists in the Caribbean, the second is a verse homage to the life and death of Sylvia Plath, and the third is an otherworldly psychological trip about teenage car thieves who crash a Ferrari, killing one, maiming two others and causing our hapless narrator to deal with nightly visitations from his creepily dead brother. . .

This is not insanity; this is variety, I tell you.

So, Captives. . . a very intense storyline. Two families—both with father, mother and a teenage kid (one a girl, one a boy, thus to make the best of possible romance even under the stressful and harrowing experience of being taken prisoner by terrorists) get snatched by a small group of Caribbean freedom fighters. There goes the joy of that vacation! With bags over their heads, the families are hustled from their taxis and taken deep into the jungle, beginning a month-long ordeal from which they may or may not escape alive (except, as you will see in a few paragraphs, most of them do, which is something you know straight off). The author tells a multi-layered tale, delving in and out of different characters’ points of view, sometimes shifting from one POV to another in just a few sentences. However, this way of telling the story only comes in the second half of the book. The first half is written by the father of teenage Martin. This is because the book begins after the whole ordeal is over, with Martin watching his father carefully navigating the tricky waters of an interview with a major television personality. The reader quickly learns that Martin’s dad has published the journals he kept during the time of their captivity—and that though they’ve become quite the sensation, not everyone agrees with them morally or factually, particularly not the other family who lived through the capture and whose teenage daughter, Louise, was killed.

Wait! We know right away the Louise didn’t make it out alive?! I felt a little ripped off at having such information revealed so quickly, especially since I didn’t even know who Louise was at this point. However, then I wanted to know just how Louise died, since I am a bit of a ghoul. So I kept reading. I read about Martin reading his father’s published diaries. Every now and then we’d get Martin’s reaction to what was going on. But I started wondering why, oh why, does a book written for teens start out from the father’s POV? I figured it was because Martin’s dad got everything wrong and that Martin was eventually going to set the record straight. I stuck with it, but I’m not sure how teen readers will do. Don’t parents blather on enough already as it is? Do kids really want to read a book by someone’s father blathering on? If they do stick with it, those teen readers will see that the second half of the book is Martin’s re-telling of the diaries. It seems that Martin knows a few pertinent details that his father was oblivious to. So, Martin rewrites the tale, and somehow manages to go into everyone’s head—the terrorists, the family, Louise, the young freedom fighter Louise falls for (this is a great twist—that the romance isn’t between the two American kids but one of the captors and one of the captives), even the parents of some of the terrorists. . . and the reader has to accept that he’s either imagining this really well or re-inventing conversations from the captivity. . . or that it isn’t, after all, Martin’s re-telling but the author’s re-telling. . . it all gets a little hazy. But at the end of the day, it’s a good story. It’s exciting and psychologically compelling and it tells of the freedom fighters’ motivations and it speaks to global responsibility and bad American business practices and fighting for what you truly believe in. . .

It is a big book. In scope that is. In page numbers, it is a little book, only 185 pages. It covers a lot of ground and a lot of characters and a lot of ideas, and I’m pretty amazed that Tom Pow managed to squeeze it all in to fewer than 200 pages. Impressed as I am by all that, I’m not sure if this book really meant to be a teen’s book. Am I selling teens short? Do they actually want to read about issues relating to global business politics? It’s simple enough to understand as written but still. There’s a romance to follow, and that’s good. But the author doesn’t seem to want to spend as much time on the teen characters as on the motivations of the freedom fighters, and there’s a lot of interaction between the adults that I doubt kids will care much about. It becomes increasingly obvious that the teens aren’t the focus as the book winds to its end. Martin falls out of the picture almost completely at the very end, with the last pages of the book given to the terrorists. Martin is a pretty weak character throughout. He never seems to make much of a move. In part this is because he is an awkward, terrified, guilt-ridden, romantically spurned teenage boy. He’s obviously got survivor’s guilt, and he feels helpless a lot of the time, he feels driven crazy by Louise, who doesn’t want him romantically---all of which is realistic but also quite frustrating. Martin never progresses as a character. It might be realistic that he isn’t the hero, and I can live with that, but I wanted him to have some kind of character arc that never came. He never confronts his father, he never outright accuses his mother of loving her other son more than him (this is a subplot that’s implied, but it makes little sense since the mother is obviously concerned about Martin throughout the book), he never makes a strong move on Louise, he never tells the world, “Hey, let’s stop screwing over third world countries, okay?” Martin is there to tell the story but we don’t even really need him to tell the story since his father spends the first half of the book doing so (and he gets most of the details factually correct, it turns out) and the second half of the book isn’t exclusively from Martin’s POV so, why do we care about Martin? Sad to say, we don’t really care about Martin. Sorry, Martin. It’s just that everyone else is more interesting. I think even the author found them more interesting.

I may be coming off as overly harsh here because I actually did like the book. I’m also dying to get a teenager to read the book too so I compare and contrast our reactions. It’s got an appealing plot, and a not half-bad cover. It’s got a lot within its 185 pages. I think it slightly missed its mark, but overall I can forgive it for that.

And now I see I have spent sooooo much time writing about Captives that I should probably write about the other two books in a separate post. I don’t want to overwhelm everyone. So, stay posted for Parts II and III of my reading saga, coming soon.

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