Note: This week’s book is actually edgy YA and it is filled with adult language and adult content. It is absolutely not appropriate for younger readers and adults should view it as the equivalent of an ‘R’ rated movie.
All right, one more again for the people in the back: although me calling myself the Middle Grade Ninja might lead you to believe I only review middle grade books, it turns out I sometimes review young adult as well. This is our second edgy YA Book of the Week in a row and I solemnly swear not to do another for at least a while. Next week we’ll be back to MG and the righteous path of the true ninja.
But this week, I again have to ask anyone under the age of consent to stop reading without proper authorization from a parent or legal guardian. I had suspected some younger Esteemed Readers were finding their way here and this week I got a follow from the coolest blogger ever. Her name is Melina and she reviews middle grade books. And she just this weekend turned eleven. How cool is that? Here’s a link to her blog, Reading Vacation. Thanks for the follow, Melina, but if you’re reading this, please stop. I promise to get back to MG next week and I’ll see you then.
Okay, from this paragraph on I will assume that everyone reading is an adult or has the consent of one or is a rebellious teenager who doesn’t care what their parents think and that’s okay. This book is actually meant for you.
If you have been in anyway associated with the YA blogosphere for the past year, I’m sure you’ve already heard of Kody Keplinger and her amazing debut novel, The Duff. I first heard about it last year at the Midwest Writer’s conference from Saturday’s literary agent extraordinaire, Joanna Volpe, who represents Ms. Keplinger. Since then, I’ve been seeing Kody Keplinger everywhere online. The word-of-mouth buzz for this book has been astounding. It even led to events that moved Janet Reid to tears. The Query Shark, for crying out loud! Ever since last year I have been scheming to get my hands on an ARC and I finally have by cleverly posing as a book reviewer and convincing Little Brown to send me a free copy. Which reminds me, Little Brown was adamant about me having to disclose that they gave me the book at no cost. Well, they did. Disclosure, check. A lot of people send me free books, actually. It’s pretty sweet.
So the big question is after a year of waiting, does eighteen-year-old debut author Kody Keplinger’s book live up to the hype? No, it doesn’t. It surpasses the hype. However good other bloggers and reviewers have declared this book, it’s actually better than that. The thing to do, Esteemed Reader, is to preorder your copy now and prepare yourself for a great read that will make you laugh, cry, and think, but especially laugh. Keplinger has a style all her own and the advantage of being able to sound like a genuine seventeen-year-old girl. You don’t want to miss this one.
The Duff doesn’t come out until September, so I’m going to restrict plot details revealed here to only what appears on the back cover. This book is a must-read and it wouldn’t be fair for me to go ruining it for you when you can’t have read it yet. But the story of The Duff is thus: seventeen-year-old Bianca Piper is sarcastic and cynical. You’re going to love her. She feels like she’s the ugly duffling in her group of friends. She swears a lot and mocks all high school relationships because no one could ever really find true love in high school. Having not found true love until college, I’m inclined to agree with her. But like Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, for all of her squawking about a disdain for love, fate might just be out to prove poor Bianca a fool for love.
Bianca bumps into Wesley Rush at The Nest, a local joint for teens to hang out and dance and do teenager stuff. Here is how Bianca describes Wesley: He sleeps with everything that moves, and his brain is located in his pants... which means it's microscopic... Everything about him screamed date rape! to me. Ugh... Maybe if you could put him on mute… and cut off his hands… maybe—just maybe—he’d be tolerable then. Otherwise, he was real piece of sh**. Horn dog sh**. I thought of Wesley as a teenage version of Hugh Grant's character in Bridget Jones Diary (I know I should actually reference Pride and Prejudice, but give me a break--I already referenced Shakespeare and the ninja loves Hugh Grant movies).
Wesley informs Bianca that she is the Duff. So what is the Duff? Well, no one can put it like Wesley: “You see, your friends are hot. And you, darling, are the Duff… Designated. Ugly. Fat. Friend,” he clarified. “No offense, but that would be you… Think about it. Why do they bring you here if you don’t dance… you have hot friends… really hot friends… The point is, scientists have proven that every group of friends has a weak link, a Duff. And girls respond well to guys who associate with their Duffs… So by talking to you right now I am doubling my chances of getting laid tonight.”
Naturally, Bianca does what anyone would do upon hearing this news. She kisses Wesley, and then she sleeps with him and they become “enemies with benefits.” Bianca insists that she is using Wesley and the sex is just a distraction. But of course, she’s an unreliable narrator and the reader may suspect there is more to her relationship with Wesley than she admits. And there’s another guy in the mix, but he’s not listed on the back cover so I’ll leave him out of this review. And that’s the plot of The Duff in a nutshell: two dudes, one chick, a lot of drama, and a meditation on the phenomenon of Duffs.
If some readers have a gripe about The Duff, I suspect it will be the casual nature with which Keplinger handles teenage sex. I can hear my childhood minister squawking about it in my head. And to warn you, there is a lot of sex in this book. For my part, I don’t care who does what to whom or how they do it so long as everyone is legal, consenting, and I don’t have to watch. But I suspect some parents will be up in arms about this particular aspect of The Duff. Ironically, because this is America, I suspect certain adults will find this casual sex more disturbing than the drug use by teens in last week’s Beautiful, or the violence of teens killing teens in The Hunger Games.
I’d much rather teens sleep together than do drugs together or kill each other (I miss you middle grade). Sex, like drugs, among teenagers is something some adults prefer not to acknowledge the existence of. But it does happen. There were a few people in my high school senior class who graduated virgins, I think, but everyone else probably would have preferred Keplinger’s frank address of sex as opposed to abstinence literature. And “friends with benefits” is a pretty common occurrence among teens and it’s good that someone is writing about it.
For those unfamiliar, “friends with benefits” refers to two people not in a relationship, not monogamous to one another, who meet for sex without emotional attachment. Ahh, the great myth of the f*** buddy (remember, I told the younger readers to take off already). There may somewhere in the world be two people who have actually made this situation work the way it’s supposed to, but I suspect 90% of the time “friends with benefits” either become an item, have been an item, or have a painful falling out. In fact, one of my favorite headlines from The Onion reads: “F*** Buddy Becomes F*** Fiancé.”
Can Bianca have non-emotionally-involving sex with Wesley Rush in a purely sterile, just physical manner? Does Wesley really think she’s ugly and fat even though they’re doing it? Is he really a player with no heart who can’t see how awesome Bianca is? These are the questions that drive The Duff and to learn the answers you should go ahead and preorder your copy. Keplinger has crafted a fine work you’re going to enjoy and I have no business spoiling it further over a month before it hits shelves.
So let’s it call it a review and talk craft. I highlighted all sorts of wonderful moments in The Duff and most of them I can’t share as they’re spoilers. But the two things I noticed that Keplinger does extremely well in this book are character and conflict. I’m tempted to list voice, but as this book is written in the first person from Bianca’s perspective, I’m going to consider the voice of the book to be a major contributing factor to character. And Bianca is a quite a character. She’s witty, she’s fun, she’s totally unaware of who she is, and readers everywhere, boys as well as girls, will identify with her. Here are some of my favorite of Bianca’s observations:
Once again, Casey and Jessica were making complete fools of themselves, shaking their a***s like dancers in a rap video. But I guess guys eat that sh** up, don’t they? I could honestly feel my IQ dropping as I wondered, for the hundredth time that night, why I’d let them drag me here again.
“Of course. I mean, there is a reason its initials are VD. I bet you more people contract syphilis on Valentines Day than on any other day of the year. What a cause for celebration.”
So what if she was as thin as my pinkie and had boobs the size of basketballs! I bet she had an IQ of twenty-seven.
“We don’t hang out anymore,” I told him, using that voice that made it clear he shouldn’t ask questions. All teenage girls know that voice and use it on their fathers frequently. Usually, the unspoken order is followed. My father loved me, but he knew better than to delve into the drama of my high school experience.
Wesley Rush is quite the character as well and he was probably my favorite person in the book. But Keplinger didn’t write a single flat or uninteresting character and here’s how you know: there isn’t one character in this story that, if they weren’t involved in Bianca’s plot, would cease to be interesting or believable. From her friends to her parents, all of the secondary’s have concerns of their own and are compelling outside of the book’s allowance for them. We can’t follow Bianca’s mom around the world because there isn’t space in the story for it, but if we did we would enjoy the trip. And that’s how you write great characters. The people we meet in life are the main characters of their own plots outside of ours. Why should it be different in fiction?
But of course the world’s greatest character (Batman, obviously) isn’t enough to fuel a novel without conflict. Anyone who reads Bianca Piper’s story will remember her. But we writers have to notice what Keplinger has done to make Bianca so interesting. There is not a scene in The Duff that is not fraught with conflict. The great sage Stan Lee once said of Spider-man, surely one of the world’s most well known teenagers, that his primary concern week after week was to give Peter Parker enough problems to keep him interesting (it totally worked, by the way, as we’re still talking about him more than fifty years later).
At one point or another in The Duff, Bianca is in conflict with every secondary character. I can’t describe them all without spoiling, but take my word for it, she is. It isn’t enough that Bianca is involved with the guy she hates who calls her "Duffy." She has problems with her friends. She has problems with her parents. And the more problems she has, the more interesting she becomes. And by her reaction to every one of these problems, we learn who Bianca is.
And that’s it, except to close by pointing out the obvious: at the heart of The Duff is a killer concept, a universal idea that needs very little set up or explanation. Because we’ve all felt like the Duff, haven’t we? Before I met Mrs. Ninja, I felt like the Duff once or twice and spent a couple of nights eating ice cream and watching Hugh Grant movies. And every girl I’ve talked to about this book knew exactly what The Duff was and was interested in reading more. If you want to be a fast rising star in the literary world like Kody Keplinger, you’re going to need a great concept like hers. And if you think of one, let me know so I can steal it:)
Don’t forget to check back Thursday when Ms. Keplinger herself will be here to face the 7 Questions and on Saturday we’ll have another wonderful agent with us. I won’t spoil the surprise, but if you follow the world of agents at all you’ve heard of him and you don’t want to miss it. I’ll be at the Midwest Writers Conference this week and if you’re there, Esteemed Reader, please don’t be shy. I’d love to shake your hand.
STANDARD DISCLAIMER: Book of the Week is simply the best book I happened to read in a given week. There are likely other books as good or better that I just didn’t happen to read that week. Also, all reviews here will be written to highlight a book’s positive qualities. It is my policy that if I don’t have something nice to say online, I won’t say anything at all (usually). I’ll leave you to discover the negative qualities of each week’s book on your own.