Saturday, May 3, 2014

Better Nate Than Ever (Better Nate Than Ever #1) by Tim Federle

Yikes. Ning Chi chili sauce feels like swallowing a flaming sword... one small teaspoon in a pot of homemade soup and if there was an open fire hydrant nearby I would have had my mouth over the geyser. Instead I settled for the bathroom faucet guzzling water and letting it run down the side of my face and into my hair where the chicken noodle soup had matted it together. I needed a spoon the size of my head to keep the noodles from slithering off and splashing broth all over me and the book, "Better Nate Than Ever." If I was the protagonist, Nate Foster, two bullies from a school gang would have picked me up and dunked me head first in a toilet to quench my thirst. A few punches to the stomach would seal the deal before they'd leave off. Thirteen-year-old Nate's list of physical and verbal abuses at school and home (by his brother) include beatings and name-calling such as, "gay," "homo," "faggot," "Natey the Lady" to name a few. While he is uncertain about his sexuality, he has had it with life in Jankburg, Pennsylvania where he doesn't fit in. He hatches a plan with his best friend, Libby, and goes to New York to audition for "E.T. The Musical." While this novel is marketed as middle grade, Nate's attitude, humor, family addiction problems, and sexuality issues are going to attract more middle schoolers than elementary students - at least in my school.

The self-deprecating voice is humorous even if it sounds too old at times. I struggled with the parenthetical asides that Nate gives. You'll either like this stream-of-consciousness or be like me and feel that it slowed the pacing. In the Chapter, "Split Screen," every other sentence had parentheses and it was a confusing transition because he's in Heidi's apartment the chapter before. I ended up rereading and skipping the parentheses so I could figure out the action and how Nate ended up at the casting agency when in the previous chapter he was told he was cut from the play. The phone call explaining this comes at the end of the chapter versus the beginning which is why it was so confusing.

Just to be clear, this parentheses technique of revealing Nate's thoughts varies throughout the entire book and is critical to character development. It makes Nate accessible and creates a fully imagined, emotional character that drives the action. I only had problems at the beginning and that one chapter at the end where it felt like a downpour of parentheses confusing my already jumbled ADHD brain. The parentheses contain inner monologues that flesh out Nate and are funny, but it was too much for me at times, particularly in the beginning. It took me until page 50 to get into the story and character's voice. The beginning dialogue doesn't flow as well as later (when there are less parentheses) and the greyhound action scene has Nate talking in an awkward way to the ticket man. This is actually on purpose and while it is explained later some foreshadowing would have made it less of a "huh" moment and more of a file-that-information-away for later in the plot.  It makes sense at the end of the story when he is talking to Libby. The hilarity begins for me when Nate is at the audition. His descriptions of the over-the-top competitiveness are funnier-than-heck.

Sexuality is not an easy topic to write about and the author does a nice job showing Nate's passion for theater and how it appeals to his melodramatic character in this coming-of-age story. He relates incidents and people to different Broadway musicals, some obscure and others famous. His euphemisms related to theater such as "Holy cats!" substitute profanity throughout the story in an amusing way. The character arc has Nate working on his self-identity and learning to embrace his differences from others. Themes involve a best friend, bullies, his parent's marital problems, an estranged sister, addiction, cancer, intolerance in Christians, competitiveness of auditions, and more. I liked the theater audition best and thought the author really created a terrific dynamic between exaggerating the competitiveness and oddness of it all with Nate's insecurity and snarky observations. Nate's naiveness at reading a script and brilliance at making the performance memorable was a highlight. This is a strong debut novel.

4 Smileys

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