Sep 4, 2009

Nerds Heart YA: The Big Final - Part I

Nerds Heart YA
Welcome to the final of the Nerds Heart YA book tournament! If you're wondering what I'm talking about, the tournament was an idea Renay had after the School Library Journal Battle of the Books: she wanted it to be a way for awesome but overlooked YA books to get a bit more attention. And if that meant that a group of nerdy book bloggers would get to geek out about YA, all the better. You can see the initial shortlist at Becky's blog, and visit Renay for a recap of what happened until the semi-finals. The two books that made the final were:

The Screwed-Up Life of Charlie the Second by Drew Ferguson & My Most Excellent Year by Steve Kluger

First of all, a brief introduction: The Screwed-Up Life of Charlie the Second by Drew Ferguson is the story of awkward, geeky, lonely Charlie. Charlie doesn't get along with his father, Charles the first, all that well. His best friend, Bink, is spending less time with him since he started dating Dana. And to make matters worse, Charlie's hormones are driving him crazy. He wants to have sex, but there aren't any other gay boys that he knows of in his social circle. Until, that is, a new guy moves into town. As things usually go, his sexual discoveries are accompanied by discovered of different kinds.

My Most Excellent Year by Steve Kluger has three narrators, all of whom are writing about their year as high school juniors: they are T.C., his best friend Augie, and the new girl in school, Alé. T.C. is still trying to come to terms with his mother's death, which happened when he was a little boy. When he meets Hucky, a six-year-old orphan who dreams that Mary Poppins will someday come live with him, he sees a lot of himself in him. Augie is gay and doesn't know it - until, that is, he falls in love with Andy. And as for Alé, she's trying to balance her parents' high expectations of her with her own plans for her life.

Let me give it to you straight: this decision was incredibly hard. Both books have a lot of strengths, but while Chris clearly favoured Charlie, my own preference was for My Most Excellent Year. Yet we both could see the other's point, which is why we didn't know what our choice would be until the very end of our debate. This is also the reason why this discussion is so ridiculously long - please forgive us! *gulp* Here it goes:

Ana: Chris, remember when you reviewed Charlie and said he was a sarcastic jerk that took some warming up to? And I was all, Oh, that's okay, I love sarcastic jerks! Well, he was a sarcastic jerk and a half, and I never did quite warm up to him. It's just that I prefer the emphasis to be on the sarcastic rather than on the jerk :P

Chris: I sort of thought that Charlie turned into a wimp later in the book, actually. And that kind of balanced the sarcastic jerk thing for me which gave me a little bit of sympathy for him and made me think that there was a softer side to him that he wasn't showing anyone. In fact, I think that to a point he needed to be more of a jerk towards the end if you know what I mean. I could also kind of see later on how Charlie had come to be so "cold-shouldered". He's a tall, skinny, awkward kid who's gay which isn't accepted by his peers and his family situation is less than desirable. I can see how that would sort of put some people on guard all of the time and give them a pessimistic outlook of everything, but I think it just took me awhile to get that. I do think, though, that his boyfriend helped him to become a little more accepting of the world as the book went on. But yeah, I agree with you...he did keep most of his jerkiness throughout the book, but by the end, I kind of liked it, lol.

Ana: Aww, don't call him a wimp ;) But I do know what you mean, and I was very happy that the book didn't end with a happy reunion, as I felt that a line had definitely been crossed. Sorry for the vagueness everyone, but we're trying to avoid spoilers! I agree that he had his reasons to be so guarded, so suspicious of other people. And despite him being a jerk, I did sympathize. I also agree that he grew as a character. By the end of the book he's still immature, more so than I remember me and my friends being at his age, but less immature than he was at the beginning. And of course that people mature at different paces. But I'll tell you what put of me off more concretely: that he was so unsympathetic most of the time, so dismissive of problems other than his own. Also, I got the feeling that he didn't like girls very much, and this has nothing to do with being gay. Take this bit, for example:

The Crosstown Classic was the kinda thing that'd make Dana douse her bra in lighter fluid and race for the nearest blowtorch. Of course, she'd first have to lecture everybody about 'male privilege' and how guys can run nearly naked through the streets and only get 'boys-will-be-boys' shrugs. But, God forbid, if a woman makes a peep about how it's her body and she can do what she wants with it, they're burning her at the stake.

I am Dana, Chris :( I think Charlie would hate me too.

Chris: So are you trying to tell me Ana that you used to soak your bra in lighter fluid and race for the nearest blowtorch? Kidding of course ;) First of all, NO ONE COULD EVER HATE YOU! Not even Charlie. But I do see your point here. That was an asshole thing for Charlie to say and he was a fairly unsympathetic kid most of the time. It did seem like there were a handful of people that he cared about and he would let us in on his feelings for them occasionally, but that was it. But I don't know...there was just something about the book and that coldness that ran throughout the whole book that made me think that it was just a big front that was put up to protect a much, much more vulnerable person underneath. I don't think Charlie realizes who he is yet. I think he's struggling with that. And I agree with you 100% that it's upsetting that he makes comments about gender issues when he's fighting for his rights as a gay person himself. I think he just needs to grow up a bit. But this was mainly the reason that I liked this book just a tiny tiny tiny bit more than My Most Excellent Year.

Charlie was real to me. It truly was The Screwed Up Life of Charlie the Second. He's a 17 year old boy. He's immature. He's struggling to find out who he is. He thinks about sex CONSTANTLY which is a huge part of being a 17 year old boy which many authors just ignore. Not that it needs to be in every book. I just thought that it was nice to see a totally honest portrayal of an adolescent boy. He's going through a lot in his life and he just feels lost. Whereas, in My Most Excellent Year, I didn't feel like the kids had any problems. It was like this perfect fairy tale high school existence and I think that's what it was supposed to be. And I loved it. I don't want anyone to think that I didn't. I absolutely loved it. But judging the two together, I sort of liked Charlie better because of the rawness and the reality and honesty of the characters. But of course this is why we're debating :p Your turn!!

Ana: Nooo! But the point is, Dana wouldn't either. Charlie never gave her a chance because he was too upset that she had "stolen" his best friend Bink away from him. And you know, I sympathize with that feeling, especially considering how lonely Charlie was. But the thing is, Charlie doesn't even seem aware that this is the source of his hostility. Instead, he mocks her for being Oh-so Loud and Demanding and A Feminist and Girly, as if these were unforgivable flaws. Oh Charlie, how I wish you hadn't :(

However! The more I think about this book the more I grow to believe that Charlie's flaws were not presented in an unquestioning way, though there is the danger that readers might take his snide remarks at face value. And there is, of course, a difference between disliking a character and disliking the book as a whole. I might not have wanted to be BFFs with Charlie (with seventeen-year-old Charlie at least), but I liked his story. And I think the point you made about his cruelty being a front is a valid one. Before I address what you said about My Most Excellent Year, let me tell you one thing I loved about The Screwed-Up Life of Charlie the Second: the physicality of it all. What did you think about that aspect of it?

Chris: You're absolutely right on the Dana/Charlie front. It is a very cruel trait of Charlie's that he has, but I still can't help but feel that it's a way of covering up his own insecurities of being a minority. And I also think it's an explosive reaction to losing the attention from the one person (Bink, his best friend) who actually gave him any attention in a positive light. But it doesn't forgive what he says about women. It's downright hurtful and destructive and I would like to say that Ferguson's readers would see that it is hurtful and destructive. Let's hope! I think that we ARE meant to question Charlie's flaws. I think there's a lot more to that kid than the sarcastic, close minded brat that we're given. I wish he hadn't too Nymeth, I wish he hadn't too :(

Ok! The physicality of it all. I may be in the minority here, but I thought it was actually very well done. From the sexuality of the book, to the brutal fist fights, to the intense emotional scenes. I think it captured adolescence so well. And I am NOT saying here that adolescence is all sex, fighting and crying. Please don't think that. But those things are a part of it...let's be honest. Let's address the sexuality of this book first because that's what's likely to be the most controversial about this book. I thought it was perfect honestly, and seeing as the main character was a teenage boy, I don't think it was over the top. I was a teenage boy. And while I might have been chasing girls instead of boys, it was still basically the same thing. To put it bluntly, Ferguson's picture of a teenage boy's thoughts on sex are spot on. It was sort of refreshing to me to see that in a book because it's not often addressed in this honest of a fashion. And I don't think that this book was "erotica" in the least bit. I think that many teens could relate to it actually. Renay mentioned the scene where Charlie has sex for the first time in her review and I thought it was just perfect. It wasn't this dreamy, perfect scenario. It was in a dirty motel, it was messy, it was awkward and it hurt. Drew Ferguson didn't sugar coat anything when it came to this topic and I liked that. And he addressed the topic of teenage sex and teenage hormones without making the book JUST about sex. It's not the main story line. There's much more depth to this story than just that.

But aside from the sex, I loved the physicality of the whole book. It was just a very "raw" book. I don't know why I keep going back to that word, but it just seems to suit this novel. The fights were real. I thought the fight between Charlie and Rob was awful!! I was freaking pissed!! I seriously haven't been that pissed off at a character in a long time, but I wanted to jump through the pages and kick Rob's ass! I also thought that Charlie was a dumbass for taking Rob back, but that's neither here nor there :p The emotional outpouring in this book was very powerful too. Charlie is this sarcastic, keep it all inside, I HATE THE WORLD, jerk when we meet him. And honestly, he stays that person throughout most of the book. But he does break down throughout the novel. We start to see his more vulnerable side. His "I'll do anything for attention" side. And eventually, his "I'm real, I can be hurt, I need people" side. I really loved this progression throughout this novel! Sorry Ana, I'm making it hard to debate this novel...I'm just talking about what I liked :p

Ana: You're not making it hard! You're giving me lots to think about, which is a good thing :P First of all, what I said about Charlie's remarks being taken at face value wasn't meant to be condescending towards teen readers - not at all. It's just that this involves ideas which are so prevalent that they very easily become invisible, you know? So I'd have liked some more examination, or some more obvious examination of why these things are problematic (and by obvious I don't mean hit-you-over-the-head or preachy, of course). To be completely honest I'm still not quite sure how I feel about this point! But my discomfort probably says something.

Secondly, I confess that I saw less of a progression than you did, but that's probably my failing. The vulnerability is subtle, which might make more believable, but also makes it easier to miss. Now, as for the physicality, we may be in the minority, but I most definitely agree! "Raw" is a very good word. I thought that the scene in which Rob and Charlie have sex for the first time was perfect too. I loved the awkwardness of it all. I loved that it was messy and painful and far from picture-perfect. You're absolutely right that these things don't get talked about enough. I suspect that the way sex is usually portrayed in our culture leads to some pretty unrealistic expectations. I love the thought of some kid who's been wondering if s/he's the only one for whom things are messy awkward, if s/he's the only one who looks ugly and makes weird faces during sex picking up this book and feeling less alone.

As for the fact that Charlie thought about sex and masturbation so much, no, I didn't think it was over the top. You know what I'd love? A book that acknowledges that teen girls think about sex a lot too, and that this is not dirty or shameful. But that's a conversation for another time :P Anyway, this leads me to another thing I liked about this book: the humour. This bit comes after Charlie's mom walks in on him, er, experimenting with himself, let's say:

Once Bink got here, Mom stopped worrying about what other household items I might've experimented with--pens, candles, pop bottles, hot dogs, flashlighs. (During lunch, she'd stopped making a salad after eyeballing the cucumber and carrots suspiciously. She trashed them, claiming they were spoiled. I knew better. Produce died for my sins.)

I laughed out loud :D

Time to devote some attention to My Most Excellent Year: You said above, and also in your review of the book, that the reason why you didn't love it quite as much as The Screwed-Up Live of Charlie the Second was because it was too perfect. I both do and don't agree with your point, but for now I want to say that I do agree that in some ways, My Most Excellent Year does read like a fairy tale, or like a musical. Before we discuss this any further, I thought it'd be interesting to point you towards this post by Malinda Lo, author of Ash, at John Scalzi's blog: how do you feel about what she says about gay people needing fairy tales too?

Please click over to Chris' blog to read the rest of this discussion! (And for the final decision, of course!)


  1. well, i have to say, you're both definitely nerds. and you both definitely love the heck out of ya. i really enjoyed hearing the discussion. i haven't read either book but i feel like i have to go read both of them now.

    keeping my fingers crossed for this happening again next year so i can join!

  2. I'm breathing a biiiiiiig sigh of relief that this is all posted and done now but I'm also nervous as hell now that it's all out there for everyone to read :p It's like our child Ana!! LOL. I love your intro paragraphs! You summed the two books up so well! We'll see how the reactions unfold :)

  3. I haven't even heard of either of these and have added them to my wishlist... thanks!

  4. I already said this on Chris' post, but I'm going to add it here:
    I loved reading this so much! :D It was awesome! And I'm so glad for the one y'all picked as winner, since I happen to have gotten that from Heather (High & Hidden Place) in a giveaway! Yay!

    Book tournies are awesome-we should start doing them in more genres. :D

  5. I had wondered what happened to this tournament! I had heard about it when it was just beginning. I love the dialogue! Geeking out over YA is a good thing!

  6. I feel like I have been sat in a room with the two of you going back and forth. Fabulous dialogue.

  7. Sounds like it was a tough decision but it was such fun to read your discussion! :)

  8. love it - you guys are so cool.

  9. I'm heading over to Chris's blog to read the final decision!

  10. Just finished reading this whole "labor of love"...and you really can tell that that's just what this is, btw. It was amazing you two! Truly.

    You know what I think I loved most? The fact that while you both liked both books, you both definitely had different opinions. It really, really let us all see so much more of both books.

    I have a feeling that I would have reacted much like you, Ana, to Charlie. I'm not sure I would have liked him at all...I have a real problem with jerks. ;) And I'm not sure I would have been able to see some of the good that the book had to offer because of my clouded judgment. I hate to admit that I sometimes have a hard time relating to a book when I don't like its main character. Anyway, that made it especially nice to hear Chris argue for some of the things I might totally have failed to notice.

    Oh seriously, guys, this was just so incredibly cool. So incredibly cool.

  11. Ironically, I think I would have reacted the same way as Chris when it comes to the guy who feels like a gay stereotype. That's the sort of thing I'm very sensitive to. But I won't add much more comment! I just wanted to say you guys did an amazing job!

  12. How fun - and y'all make me laugh killing yourselves not to be rude. :P

  13. Thanks for the kindness, everyone. Chris was excellent as always, but I think I rather messed the whole thing up. Still, I'm glad you enjoyed reading the conversation and weren't too put off by my ramblings.

  14. I love these joint YA reviews. The interaction between the reviewers is better than reading the books!

  15. I've been all and gushed at Chris' post but just wanted to say what a great job you did :)

  16. "but I think I rather messed the whole thing up"

    *smacks Nymeth upside the head*...and then runs >>

    What are you talking about Ana?! I can only aspire to one day be as open minded and thorough as a reviewer as you!! I definitely think you were the stronger one by FAR here...but we won't debate any more :p

  17. I really enjoyed reading much thought you put into it. I feel like my reviews were rather lame.

    And now I have got to find someone to do this kind of review with. I suspect it will take the right book as well.

  18. Ana and Chris,
    You two both need smacked upside the head!
    It was a wonderful, wonderful, WONDERFUL review/discussion! You were both fabulous, and it was such fun to read your back and forth. I picked up so much that I never would have got from just reading these books myself.
    Oh my sweet, silly friends...just accept two are freakin' awesome!!!!!

  19. I alluded to it on Chris's blog, but I'll say it again here, if you two judge together again next year, we want a televised debate! :D

    Fantastic comments from the both you you!

  20. So neat how you guys go through such an in-depth discussion about these two books! I'm going to hop on over to Chris' blog now and read the rest!


  21. Again, thanks for the kind words, everyone :) I'm glad you all enjoyed it.

    Debi and Chris: lol...I appreciate being smacked upside the head. I needed it :P

    Amy, your reviews were NOT lame! But I think it definitely takes a certain kind of book to make a discussion like this work. In this case, it helped that Chris and I disagreed :P

  22. Awesome! I just started reading this today. :)

    btw, did you know on Goodreads our taste in books is 93% compatible?

  23. I think both of these books sound clever and worth reading. I really liked this post and the debate that was shared about the merits of these books. I hadn't really heard of either of them, and now I feel like I could keep both your points in mind while reading them. Very interesting post!

  24. Love reading about these posts! The tournament sounds like fun!! More books to add to my pile, LOL.

  25. Love this discussion. I haven't read Charlie, and clearly I need to, because even the negative points you make intrigue me all the more.

  26. I loved these two posts! It was a great debate, but I'm not-so-secretly happy that you managed to keep the MMEY's flag high all the time! yay!


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.