Most teens would find Grace's dilemma enviable. She's got a smokin' band geek and a sexy rebel without a cause hot on her tail. Too bad she can't enjoy it. Attempts on her life, random fainting spells, and the furtive skulking of those she trusts have a way of putting a damper on things.
Grace Awakening is Shawn Bird's first book, published by Lintusen Press in July of 2011. She has scheduled the next book in the series, Awakening Power, for release in November. Bird's book is the first for the new publisher. ***
I have to say that Grace Awakening has been the best self-pubbed title I've reviewed. The others I reviewed were in such poor shape that I returned them to the authors with comments. Enough of the good showed through the problems to make it a fairly easy read. Several romantic scenes were compelling. It was quite refreshing to read something without major sentence structure issues. The prose was clear, with one or two exceptions, and had very good copy editing.
That praise is loaded with a lot of howevers, though. Reading the story was like watching a movie without my glasses. I could tell from the dialogue and the indistinct images approximately what was going on, but it the fuzziness of the picture kept me from being pulled into the story.
Telling, Not Showing
The prose consisted entirely of Grace's thoughts and perceptions, as it should be in first-person perspective, but it relied heavily on Grace asking herself questions to move the plot along. Having a protagonist ask him or herself a question is OK every once in a while, but Grace is completely loaded with questions like the one above. We need to see everything through a protagonist's eyes, not hear her every thought. In addition to the constant questions that interrupted the flow of the text, exposition tended to bury important moments and lessen their impact.
Bird glosses over details that would make her setting and characters come alive, which is what lead to the fuzzy picture I described earlier. Two areas needed to be much clearer: the medical situations and the high school setting. At one point the author has a kid unconscious from cracked ribs. Cracked ribs are exceedingly painful and can compromise ventilation, but they do not usually cause unconsciousness unless pieces of the ribs puncture the lung or blood vessels. The lack of detail in the high school is a mystery to me because the author teaches high school English.
I know the book is YA and is aimed at younger readers, but I don't believe that makes it OK to skip technical details because the author assumes that either the readers won't care or they won't understand. The ready availability of information, music, and fiction over the Internet has turned my kids into savvy consumers. They can't always tell you why, but they can spot fiction and music that is lackluster.
The other factor contributing to the fuzzy picture was the lack of depth in the secondary characters, especially the high school students.
The students spoke with perfect grammar. There were mentions of different cliques, but no scenes that showed clear conflicts between them. Everybody just talked about everyone else, and said exactly what was on their minds. The word "evil" was overused to describe the bitchy antagonists, and the way in which they were portrayed was often melodramatic. Much of the story revolves around the band room, but readers don't get the feeling of that "bandie" culture that usually springs up in a successful band program.
More importantly, the main protagonist, Grace, had nothing that drew me in. She wasn't particularly clever, resourceful, or compelling. That's really, really not good in a story told from a first person perspective. Only one character had real depth and subtlety, and that was Josh. His dialogue sounded different from everyone else. His speech and posture had a rakish tone, and I quite liked him.
Though I don't teach high school anymore, I still have close contact with the older kids. Our school is tiny and my husband teaches the high school music classes. (I still think of them as my kids. I've had them since they were little.) They slaughter grammar, often with hilarious results. Even though we're in a very rural school, the kids emulate the slang they hear on T.V. Modern kids are very passive aggressive, especially the girls, and they tend to fight via text messages, Facebook, and the rumor mill. The things that drove us all nuts in high school were completely absent.
Bird interspersed glimpses of the Greek Gods plotting. That could have been a very good thing, but there wasn't good enough character development to make it fly. As a result, most of the weight of the plot fell to Grace's shoulders, who also was not a deep enough character to carry it. The only Grace ever really did was get rescued by a hottie. I think it was unintentional, but the lack of deep stakes makes the book appear to be about how important it is to have a boyfriend.
To me, great fiction speaks truth, especially truth that isn't readily apparent. Everything else falls flat, and boy problems really don't do it for me. Grace Awakening had potential, but doesn't live up to it.
***I had initially thought that Bird created the company to publish her book, but have since been informed that it is a new publisher. The blog post has been changed to reflect the new information.