Wednesday, November 25, 2009

CC reviews "Best Bet"

I really wanted to like this book. Really.

I've read and reviewed the first three books in the series and prior to this, each book improved on the last. Best Bet has a decent plot. The main character, Hallie, is one class short of graduation and gets the chance to take a class that includes a free trip around the world. She takes the trip and discovers when she comes back that it didn't really change her life as much as she expected.

All of that sounds fine, but Best Bet seemed like a huge step down from the the previous book in the series, particularly in the characterization and the stilted way the characters talked.

I don't know that I've ever read a novel with so many quotations and references to random things. The whole series has this issue, though it's the most problematic in Best Bet. It's like a habit that several major characters have picked up and it leads to horribly clunky explanations of who the original speaker was that completely screw with the flow of the writing. Part of me wants to give the book a pass on that because it is a young adult novel and the author clearly wants to teach the reader what some words mean and who some famous people are, yet Harry Potter managed to teach very young children dozens of words that were J.K. Rowling straight up invented by simply using them in context and trusting that kids are smart and would figure it out.

Thus the Harry Potter books have no passage that reads like:

"Accio Broomstick!" Hermione said, and the broomstick floated over to her, because "accio" was a magic word that when accompanied by a wave of a magic wand, summoned the stated object to the person who case the spell.

Yet Best Bet has many passages that are almost as bad and they really drain the energy out of some of the dialogue. Also text like "She'd only told Bernard a hundred times that she'll not be used as bait to bring in trade for him, the way poet and socialite Sebastian Venable employed both his mother and his cousin in Tennessee Williams' play Suddenly Last Summer" and incredibly specific and dated references like "I hear strains of Neil Diamond's song Be from the Johnathon Livingston Seagull soundtrack wafting over the lawn..."

The first book in this series, Beginner's Luck got most of its "funny lines" from characters literally telling each other old jokes. Best Bet has a few funny moments, but mostly the characters were back to telling each other old jokes, and they did it a lot. Most comic novels get their humor from either the author's witty and original writing or character-based humor and Best Bet has little of either and having a character tell the old joke about the Charles Dickens martini, "No olive or twist," just doesn't cut the mustard.

As had been standard for this series, the continuity is really bad. For the simplest example, Hallie's sister Darlene is thirteen on page fifteen and twelve on page sixteen. But it's beyond that to a fundamental inconsistency to some of the characterization. The supposedly street smart Hallie ends up having to take an extra college class to graduate because she blindly trusted her advisor when he told her she was taking the right classes. Almost all schools have "breadth requirements." They aren't a difficult concept and it's kind of hard to fathom that a 21-year-old who was supposed to be that world-wise wouldn't have checked over her transcript for herself.* It never even occurs to anyone in the book that she might be partially at fault there.

That is far from the only hint that though she's supposed to be 21, in many ways, Hallie's still a teenager. She spends much of the first part of the book feeling like people are running her life if she's the center of attention and feeling ignored if she's not. She seems much more interested in what her boyfriend is wearing (which she carefully describes every time he appears) than what he is thinking or feeling. She thinks of him far less often than she thinks of her other friends while she is on a trip she takes around the world and at the beginning of the book has to be asked before she seriously considers what he will feel about her going and disrupting their plans to move in together, though she's been considering her own feelings on that for twenty pages or so. The purpose of her trip is a sociology class and she seems offended that she actually has to study sociology at times. She loves gambling and gets to be good friends with a gambling addict yet no insights ensue, other than she has to win his money back because she's a better gambler.

Also, what's the deal with her living in Ohio her whole life and acting like she's never met a Mennonite?

Heart's Desire was the only book in the series to have real plot issues, so it wasn't a surprise that the story isn't bad. That said, both the writing and the characterization are so clunky that it's almost impossible to focus on the story. I guess the series peaked with The Big Shuffle, which is too bad as I really thought it would improve from there.

Oh, and for the record, there is a phrase that teenage girls need to know that the book didn't teach. When a guy who is more or less a complete stranger knows you've been drinking all night and gives you more alcohol, then gives you drugs, ignoring your initial refusal, until you're so wasted that when you wake up in the morning you don't remember anything of the night before, that's "first degree sexual assault." If the character doesn't see it as that, she doesn't have to treat it that way, but if you're going to write a book that goes to the trouble of explaining who Dorothy Draper is, you might as well get that concept in there.

In the book, it's treated like an amusing youthful adventure and the only consequences are the main character's concern that a boy she thinks is cute will think she's a slut.



*Item: At my "pre-Senior year" check-in with my college advisor, he looked at my transcript and said I needed three politics classes to graduate. I said "No, I don't, I need four."

Because I had looked at the requirements, then looked at my transcript. Not rocket science.

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