Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Book Review: THE TRAGEDY PAPER by Elizabeth Laban

Hello there, Esteemed Reader! I want to talk to you about an extraordinary book today and I know you're going to love it as much as I did. And come back on Thursday as author Elizabeth Laban will be here to face the 7 Questions!

But first I want to talk about literary agents, specifically, some literary agents appearing here. We haven't had any stop by for far too long and I say we need to get some agents and ask them some questions! 7 of them! And that will be starting again next week.

On Tuesday I'm going to post the nerdiest book review I ever posted for my one of my most favorite books of all time, The Dark Knight Returns, because it's my blog and I'll geek out if I want to:) Then on Thursday we'll have Jenny Bent of the Bent Agency stop by. What do you say, Esteemed Reader? Sound good? I thought so.

The sad truth is, Esteemed Reader, these agent interviews used to be my way of finding out about agents before I sent them queries. That doesn't mean if an agent appeared here they rejected me, although some of them did (I'll never tell which ones), because I didn't query all of them (not all were looking for the Ninja-style middle grade) and I kept interviewing agents long after I accepted an offer of representation. But once I had the perfect agent for me, I kinda stopped caring whether you found one, Esteemed Reader:) For shame, Ninja! This blog is meant to be of use for writers, so I'll quit being selfish and do my best to help you find your dream agent.

Finding an agent is a little bit like finding a spouse, but in a totally professional kind of way (especially since mine's a dude). No one really knows how to go about finding a good one, yet people do it all the time. The agents who rejected me, however awesome they are, did me a favor. If they didn't feel passionate about my writing, they weren't the right agent to go to bat for me. My writing deserved better and so does yours.

And to be honest, there were a couple agents I wanted so bad I could taste it that I've since been grateful didn't sign me because of stories that have come my way from the less fortunate writers whom they did sign. And the names of these agents are--just kidding!!! But trust me, it's worth doing your homework and reading blogs like this one before sending your queries. Better yet, meet agents in person at conferences so you know who they are and just how drunk they get--that's how I met mine.

The best advice on agent hunting I ever got came from our old pal, the adult thriller writer Marcus Sakey , who said, paraphrased: go to the bookstore and read books similar to yours in subject or tone, then read the acknowledgements to find out who the agent was. If the agent isn't thanked, that's not an agent you want.

Here is an excerpt from the back of The Tragedy Paper: There are two people without whom this book would not exist. The first is my agent, Uwe Stender, who has literally walked with me through every step of this project. He is smart, loyal, and persistent--everything I could ever ask for in an agent (and a friend). The second person is blah, blah, blah--who cares:)

As a Ninja, I must remain objective and never reveal the identity of my agent lest I appear to endorse one agent above the others. But man, that Elizabeth Laban sure is lucky to have such an amazing agent as Dr. Stender. I bet he's just phenomenal. I bet all his clients love him and want to talk about him when they're supposed to be reviewing his client's book. I hope to one day thank my agent who is a dude who's appeared on this blog with a similar acknowledgement in the back of my book; a very similar acknowledgement;)

Okay, enough with this agent talk. Of course Uwe Stender is awesome, but how's the book? My friends, no one thinks higher of Dr. Stender's taste in writers than me and Elizabeth Laban's debut, The Tragedy Paper, is stunning. A blurb in the arc I was sent compares it to John Green's Looking for Alaska and I would say that's an apt comparison. If you're a John Green fan, you're probably on your way to Amazon to order up Laban's wonderful novel now. If you haven't read John Green, I'd say you have two books to order and I'll do my best to spend the rest of this review convincing you to read The Tragedy Paper.

You'll note that even though we're discussing a YA novel again this week (what the heck kind of Ninja am I supposed to be again?), I didn't preface this review with my usual warning that this book is not for younger readers. Not every YA book has to be crammed with profanity and sex and violence like the wonderful works of Courtney Summers, Amy Reed, or Mike Mullin, and more's the pity, I say:)

Although there are some light references to sex, The Tragedy Paper is mostly free of profanity and violence--though it could be some slipped by me, so exercise caution with younger readers. But so far as I can tell, The Tragedy Paper is a book about teenagers accessible to readers of all ages, which is refreshing. I'm reminded of editor Peggy Tierney's comments in her interview this weekend about too many would-be-published writers stuffing their YA with adult content in hopes of making it relevent to modern teens.

Laban's book is perfectly relevant to modern teens without need of gratuitous sex or profanity. My own teenage years were tragically free from gratuitous sex and there's something to be said for a writer who makes the choice to express herself without alienating potential readers. Instead, Laban's characters seem realistic teenagers, most of whom do not live the risque lives of WB characters. There's certainly nothing wrong with writers using whatever language and content they choose, but Laban shows with The Tragedy Paper that it's absolutely possible and perhaps even advisable to be poiniant without being profane.

So what is this Tragey Paper:

...that paper--the Irving School's equivalent of a thesis project--was sucking at least thirty percent of his happiness away, which was a shame on such an important day. Basically, he was going to spend a good portion of the next nine months trying to define a tragedy in the literary sense, like what made King Lear a tragedy. Who cared?

 Meet Duncan. It's his senior year at Irving School in New York and he's dwelling on words such as magnitude and hubris because the Iriving School is a serious preparatory academy for rich kids with great futures ahead of them. The kids at Irving actually study and their grades matter to them. Oh sure, they play poker and drink brandy and some even overdose on xananx, but their class size is limited to 15 students and they receive educations worth a crap, rather than being held in a pen of videos and banality until age eighteen like the majority of Americans in public schools. But even pretty white people with money have problems.

Each year, the previous graduating class leaves a treasure in the dorm rooms of incoming seniors. Duncan has been left a collection of Cd's recorded by Tim Macbeth, and astute readers will immediately pick up on the significance of those names in a book about tragedy, as well as the name of Duncan's girlfriend, Daisy (surely an allusion to another GREAT literary work about rich people and their problems). On the Cd's, Tim Macbeth narrates the story of his tragedy from the previous year, thus giving Duncan the greatest treasure of all: the meat of his tragedy paper and the meat of Laban's novel.

What exactly is a tragedy? Laban gives us a good working definition early on the reader will need to bear in mind for later:

"Well," said Patrick, sitting up straight. "A tragedy is a play or literary work in which the main character--that would be the tragic hero--suffers greatly and is brought to ruin. Usually this suffering and ruin come about because of the main character's own flaw or weakness and his or her inability to deal with the lot he or she has been given."

So who is our tragic hero and what is their tragedy? Is it Duncan, or Tim, or both? Esteemed Reader, I cannot answer that without spoiling the novel, and I have no intention of doing that. Despite my snarky snipes at class warfare (exactly how much of our wealth and freedom do America's true owners have to steal before the rest of us honestly start fighting back?), I enjoyed this novel tremendously and discovering the  tragedy at its heart is something better done by the reader in Laban's rich telling.

Instead of spoiling, I've got a few elements from the novel I'd like to discuss. But first, I do want to reiterate in no uncertain terms that The Tragedy Paper is an unusually profound read that both made me laugh and feel a slight tingling at the corner of my eyes that might've led to tears in a non-Ninja reader:) It's a startling debut marking Elizabeth Laban as a writer to watch. The final act and final reveal of The Tragedy Paper is suspenseful and moving and will result in the reader setting the book down at last and whispering, "brilliant."

The first element I want to discuss is characterization. Tim Macbeth is a fascinating character and as his story unfolds, we all but forget about Duncan, though Laban characterizes him nicely as well, which is necessary for the story's later half. Tim Macbeth is a shy albino who feels out of place, marking him as immediately sympathetic to anyone who's ever been a teenager. Teenagers, by their very nature, feel out of place and most feel ugly, or otherwise deformed, and awkward. Tim's appearance works so nicely, I find it a wonder I haven't read more YA novels about albinos. Aside from having to watch his eyes in the sun and being used to being stared at, Tim is a regular teenager (from a wealthy family) and sympathetic. And even though he's in a story of literary pretensions, he himself has none:

"Come on, you have to know that play, don't you?" she said, smiling. "Shakespeare's Macbeth. I studied it last semester. With your name, how could you have avoided it? I've always loved that quote because it's like one bad thing and one great thing at the same time. You know? Like the weather is awful, but we got this room. Something bad and something good."

Of course I had read Macbeth, but I didn't know any of it by heart. Still, I felt I owed her something.

"In brightest day, in blackest night, no evil shall escape my sight," I offered.

"Green Lantern?" she asked.

I had to admit, I was impressed.

"How did you know?" I asked. I was so curious.

"I have brothers," she said. Then she tilted her head and looked me right in the eyes. "Let me guess: it's the only thing you have memorized?"

"Pretty much," I  said.

Tim is a boy after my own heart. I liked him and I empathised with him, which is essential in a tragedy. I never trusted Vanessa and when she and Tim are forced to share a hotel room, I was happy to see him sneaking a kiss (get you some, Tim!), but I was weary of his budding relationship with the most popular girl at Irving. Vanessa has a boyfriend and she makes out with him in front of Tim, which was enough for me to want him to stay far away from that chick. But, of course, Tim can't and the Ninja had his own run-ins with such irresistible shrews before he found Mrs. Ninja, so I  sympathised. I liked Tim so much I was irritated when the narrative switched back to the present story of Duncan.

Why then does Laban use the device of Duncan hearing Tim's story rather than simply presenting Tim's story? There's a plot reason which I can't reveal without spoiling, but more, the device turns pages. The first line of The Tragedy Paper is not a cheesy (but always effective) hook, and several chapters throughout end without hooks. Laban doesn't need them. She has us right where she wants us from the first chapter without needing to resort to such standard tricks.

From the start, Duncan knows Tim's story will end in tragedy, and more he himself had some role to play in Tim's tale:

First, let me say thank you for deciding to listen. I've thought so many times about our last encounter, and how I wish I'd made a different choice. In the end, it wouldn't have changed most of what happened--that was already done. But it might have made a difference for you--assuming any of this had an effect on you. I can only guess that it did.

Knowing how eager Duncan is to hear Tim's story makes the reader eager to hear Tim's story. Reading The Tragedy Paper is in some ways like watching a Nascar race: we're all hoping to see the wreck. It is this desire to know what Duncan already knows: what happened to Tim and Vanessa, that keeps the pages turning. Laban is so effective in hooking the reader without being obvious about it that I couldn't put The Tragedy Paper down and I dare say you won't be able to either, Esteemed Reader.

And that's where we'll leave it. Read The Tragedy Paper and find your way back here on Thursday when author Elizabeth Laban will be here to face the 7 Questions. And come back next week for the return of literary agent interviews and for the most ridiculously in-depth discussion of a Batman story you ever read. As always, I conclude with some of my favorite passages from The Tragedy Paper:

I am usually careful not to stare. It is one of my rules of life. I don't turn my head to see which baby is crying so loud in a restaurant; I never let my eyes wander to someone on crutches who is missing a leg or someone wearing an eye patch. In the airport, for example, just a few minutes before, a woman walked toward me whose face was disfigured, but it was subtle. Had she been burned? Was there something wrong with the muscles in her face? I could see, or actually I should say I could feel, everyone around me looking at her, trying to figure out what was wrong. But I didn't. I looked straight ahead and kept walking. It didn't matter how she got that way, really, it wouldn't change my life in any way, and I knew too well what it was like to be stared at.

"Sorry, sorry, sorry," the girl said. Right away I could tell she wasn't really sorry. She was annoyed. Keeping my head down and my eyes to the ground all the time has definitely strengthened my other senses, and one of the many things I've learned is that tone tells you a lot more about what a person means than the actual words.

The view of incoming planes would have been amazing if the snow wasn't so heavy and if there were any incoming planes.

I knew I was going to stand out like a polar bear in a grizzly maze.

He might be the better-looking guy, he might be the more popular guy--on a basketball court, he'd probably crush me--but in this arena of vomit, I was the stronger man and I wanted to see if it counted for anything.

Click here to read an interview with author Elizabeth Laban 

STANDARD DISCLAIMER: 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. 

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