Review: The Suburban Strange
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Before I say word one about this book, I feel I must provide a few disclaimers.
1. I know the author. So naturally my real or perceived impressions of the author as an individual may come into play.
2. I am also a writer. As such, I may approach the story much differently. (I’m not being arrogant here — I don’t think a writer’s approach to reading is necessarily better or worse than any other reader, just different.)
3. I typically do not read young adult fiction.
Now for the sub-disclaimers to the above to make things even more confusing:
– As an asterisk to both 1 and 2, my experience has been that I should not be friends or even play nice with other writers. We’re notoriously harsh and envious and conniving and overly critical in non-constructive ways. In fact, I’d say that my initial reaction to discovering that Mr. Kotecki was also a writer was to make a mental note to be more cautious and distrusting towards him. Add to that the fact that he is a writer significantly further along in the game than I and you’ve got a recipe for professional jealousy like you would not believe. Before I’d even read the back cover I was relishing the myriad ways to cut him down and gleefully romp through my fields of petty biases.
– As for 3, when I say, “I typically do not,” I really mean never. Or almost never. I try not to be a book snob, I really do. I just want people to read what they want. My shameless love of graphic novels can attest to that. But still, when I see typical teen fiction on shelves I judge it in ways normally reserved for the kind of men who watch porn on their iPhones on the subway. Modern young adult fiction usually represents, to me at least, a ridiculous escape. Not the good kind of escape that most books do, but rather an escape from privilege and into a world of even greater entitlement. In my mind’s eye I see wealthy white suburban tweens wishing a sparkly vampire would save them from their dreadful life in a giant house in an affluent neighborhood attending a great school. Or lining up for 10 hours to see The Hunger Games, but having gained nothing in terms of political curiosity or activist spark that the book touches on repeatedly. (Or worse than proving oblivious to such messages, making manifest the worst in humanity by being annoyed that characters in the story are of a race other than caucasian.) But I digress. See what I mean when I say I dislike YA?
So here’s the thing: these disclaimers may magnify my opinion in some ways, minimize (or trivialize) it in others, or just straight up cancel one another out. In short, there’s a great thicket of psychology to get through here before even getting to the cover of the book itself. Suffice to say that whatever the final official scientific tally may be, the odds were stacked against The Suburban Strange with this humble reviewer.
…and yet, I still loved it. A lot.
Despite a block of negative disclaimers that are probably significantly longer than the average online book review itself, I came away from this book incredibly impressed. So without revealing too much, let me tell you what I loved and why you should read this book.
The protagonist, Celia, is a revelation. A strong, positive female lead unlike almost anything else you’ll see in the genre. What makes her most impressive is that she is not a caricature or cliche. She’s no damsel in distress with no willpower or personality of her own, a la Bella of Twilight, but she’s also not a natural and confident warrior, a la Katniss of Hunger Games. She’s not even a smart and quirky Hermione, a la Harry Potter. What differentiates her is that she CHANGES. In the course of a story that covers but one year, the reader truly watches and feels her change and grow. Most of all, it’s in a realistic and organic fashion. One of the things I’m most sensitive to is the “deus ex machina” aspect of too many stories. I hate it when I can feel the author strong-arming his/her plot or characters into doing something that they don’t want to do. I never felt that with Celia. I felt that she wanted to grow strong and find her own way and that the author let her.
The mysteries of the story — and there are several — were similarly revelatory. One of the things I hate about YA fiction (and many adult mysteries) is that the mysteries are either A) so obvious that only the most oblivious reader wouldn’t figure it out, or B) intentionally designed such that NOBODY will figure it out until the author spells it out for you with clues that weren’t really even in the story until just before the reveal (I’m looking at you, Rowling). Here, I feel like Kotecki keeps you guessing on pretty much every mystery of the story without condescending to the reader in any way. There was never a point where I had everything figured out confidently until it was revealed. Even on moments that I thought I had it, I was either totally wrong or remained uncertain enough that a reveal was still a surprise.
And that leads me to the last major appreciation: the characters as a whole. For a YA book, this story has a lot of characters. Good characters. Developed characters. Not just people who appear and do one thing or offer their contrived line and then disappear. Most characters come back again and again, seasoning the story with intrigue at just the right times from exactly the right angles. While I may not have “liked” every character in terms of wanting to have them as a friend or thinking they were good people, I did want to know more about every character. What was their background? How did they get to this point? Where were they going to go next? They all seemed so alive and real that I’d find myself hoping for even the bit parts to get their moment in the sun they were so vivid.
That’s about all I can say without starting to spoil it for everyone. Hopefully I haven’t already. But if you’re wondering whether you should read this book, the answer is an unequivocal YES. It won me over so much that I’m currently brooding alone with a bottle of whiskey. (This is one of the reasons writers drink: the unfortunate existence of better writers.) I almost hate myself for how much I can’t wait for the sequel. The Suburban Strange will restore your faith in the young readers of the future and the writers who work for them; go read it.