Friday, October 24, 2014

Book of the Week: Love and Other Unknown Variables by Shannon Lee Alexander

WARNING: This week’s book is actually edgy YA and is filled with adult content. It's absolutely not appropriate for younger readers and adults should view it as the equivalent of an ‘R’ rated movie.

First Paragraph(s): Beginnings are tricky things. I’ve been staring at this blank page for forty-seven minutes. It is infinite with possibilities. Once I begin, they diminish.

Scientifically, I know beginnings don’t exist. The world is made of energy, which is neither created nor destroyed. Everything she is was here before me. Everything she was will always remain. 
Her existence touches both my past and my future at one point—infinity. 
Lifelines aren’t lines at all. They’re more like circles. 
It’s safe to start anywhere and the story will curve its way back to the starting point. Eventually.
In other words, it doesn’t matter where I begin. It doesn’t change the end.

Esteemed Reader, my heart is bursting with pride to tell you about this week's very special book, Love and Other Unknown Variables. This is a family book, by which I mean its author, Shannon Lee Alexanader, is a member of my writing family, The YA Cannibals. Therefore, as objective as my reviews never are anyway, this review will be even less objective than usual. You may as well ask me my opinion of one of my own books, which were critiqued at the same torture sessions as were the multiple iterations of this book--I liked it better back when it was distasteful and surprisingly violent erotica (kidding!).


I wrote that last line because I know Shannon is blushing pretty hard as she reads this, but she's cool enough to roll her eyes at yet another Rob-ism, usually followed by an even more off-color joke by author Mike Mullin that no one will laugh harder at than Julia Karr, Lisa Fipps, Josh Prokopy, Jody Sparks, or Virginia Vought. It's enough to make me want to write a third zombie story (probably going to happen) to think of Shannon's expression as I subject her to actually distasteful and surprisingly violent fiction (it's a big brother kind of thing).

Shannon is a woman of whom I imagine other women to be deeply envious. Her home is immaculate, her children are well-behaved and adorable (they once made zombie gingerbread men as a gift for "Mr. Rob"), her husband is handsome and charming (and puts on an amazing raw-chicken puppet show), and she's always well-dressed with perfect accessories. And despite being so perfect, she's extremely funny, volunteers most of her time to charities, is passionate about literature and local author events, knows Spider-man and his villains better than I do, and has an air hockey table in her basement (of that, I'm deeply envious). Shannon Lee Alexander is, in a way unlike anyone else I've ever known, the definition of cool.

It's a funny thing about my critique group, which Mrs. Ninja also refers to as my support group. We've been together years now. We send emails every Friday to hold each other accountable to our word counts, console each other during the never-ending stream of rejections, and celebrate when one of us finishes a book, lands an agent, or wins an award. Originally, we were just a group of neurotic workaholics suffering severe anxiety with an intense desire to one day be published. But we hung together, sharpened each other with our critiques, supported (enabled?) our writing habits, and now when we meet, I'm looking around not at a group of hopeful writers, but of successful authors.

Two weekends ago, I attended a signing and watched as a confident Shannon Lee Alexander addressed a crowd of eager readers, stacks of her book behind her. Little Ninja was just happy to see Aunt Shannon, unaware she'd made such an incredible transition to author, but I know how hard she worked to get there, and I was and am so proud to call Shannon my friend.

But this is supposed to be a review of the book, not the author, so let's get to it. First, let me say that John Green can now retire. He can maybe make some more YouTube videos or something, but Indiana now has a new YA novel about teens and cancer, and we've thrown out all our copies of The Fault In Our Stars:) Actually, I wouldn't even mention John Green if poor Shannon hadn't already been subject to a million don't-forget-to-be-awesome jokes, as the two books involving teens and cancer are very different stories and very different reading experiences (this book is better). 

Love and Other Unknown Variables is that book you just have to give to a friend along with a big box of tissues. Yes, the story involves a teenager with cancer, and yes, that is very sad, but that alone is not the reason to read this book and that's certainly not the reason you're going to need a box of tissues for this one. A teenager dying of a disease is not a story and a good book, this book, has more to it.

The first thing I think of when I think of Love and Other Unknown Variables is boners (more on that in a moment), but the second thing I think of is the characters. Charlie Hanson and Charlotte Finch are living, breathing people to me. I've been reading about them as well as Becca Hanson (my favorite character) and James and Gretta and Mrs. Dunwitty for years. I've seen them through multiple iterations as Shannon painstakingly crafted them and shaped them into fully realized characters that would be interesting in any story, even if no one had cancer. I happen to know there's a sorta sequel in the works and I'm so glad as these characters are too good to be limited to just one book.

Love and Other Unknown Variables is flat out drop-dead funny. I say to read it with a box of tissues, and you should, but Shannon adheres to the old Disney maxim of a tear for every laugh and a laugh for every tear. The first two thirds of this book are a laugh riot and I envy readers who get to enjoy Shannon's humor for the first time. She makes me laugh and this is a very fun book, despite also being serious.

Charlie Hanson, our main character, is a nerd. He dreams of going to MIT and becoming a great scientist and wearing a pocket protector for the rest of his life. He's all about logic and data and empirical evidence. There's no room in his worldview for an unkown variable, such as love. He's about to learn that questions of science, science and progress, do not speak as loud as his heeeeaaaarrrt... (yep, it's a Coldplay thing)

Charlie's anal, scrubbed-down-and-disinfected, sterile view of life and love is the source for much of the book's comedy:

When an experiment’s results are unexpected, the scientist must go back and look at the methods to determine the point at which an error occurred. I’m pretty sure I’m the error in each failed attempt at getting a girl’s attention. Scientifically, I should have removed myself from the equation, but instead, I kept changing the girl.
Each experiment has led to similar conclusions. 

1. Subject: Sara Lewis, fifth grade,

Method: Hold her hand under the table during social studies,
Result: Punched in the thigh.

2. Subject: Cara Whetherby, fifth grade, second semester, 

Method: Yawn and extend arm over her shoulder during Honor Roll Movie Night,
Result: Elbowed in the gut.

3. Subject: Maria Castillo, sixth grade,

Method: Kiss her after exiting the bus, 
Result: Kneed in the balls.

Things are going as well as can be expected for Charlie Hanson when he reaches out to touch the neck tattoo of a beautiful girl named Charlotte Finch. To help this girl in her time of need, Charlie and his best friends are going to put their futures in 
jeopardy and risk everything they've worked for to pull off the biggest pranks in the history of the Brighton School of Mathematics and torture a poor English teacher to her breaking point; an English teacher also named Finch.

Although the story's main focus is Charlie's budding romantic relationship with Charlotte, I've always been more touched by Becca, Charlie's younger and even more akward sister, and her budding friendship with Charlotte:

Becca twists her brown hair around her index Finger as she carries on. “He didn’t listen, and because she’s new in school and doesn’t know about the whole me and people thing, Charlotte said 
she’d love to work with me.” Becca’s voice wavers a little. 
It’s not that people dislike Becca. Rather, people make Becca anxious, and the anxiety makes her build these impregnable walls around herself. It also causes babbling spells that make mere 
mortals cringe. I haven’t seen her this upset since the Harry Potter series came to an end.
She’s still rambling. “She said I should call her Charley instead of Charlotte, and I said, ‘No, because, my brother’s name is Charlie and it would be weird.’ And she said, ‘Okay.’ So, I’m just calling her  Charlotte.” Becca runs out of breath and stops.

In the end, this isn't a book about cancer, it's a book about hope. This is the story of lonely people finding friends and of how people can bring out the best in each other. It's the story of a boy finding something in himself more important than the pursuit of logic and learning that life doesn't fit into a nice data table. This is a story about love (and other unknown variables), and loss is just part of that love. Nobody said it was easy; no one ever said it would be this hard:) Oh take me back to--no, I'll stop.

And that's it, except to talk about boners (just trying to keep the blog classy). Shannon has made an absolute impact on all my books to date, most notably those books with zombies in them. I like to think I made an impact on her work as well and the word zombie does appear twice in the published text, which could be a coincidence. Likewise, this sentence feels inspired by me, but I couldn't swear to it: James stands, his hands up like a ninja ready to kick the bee’s a**.

But one thing I know I had a hand in (ew) is the boner scene. Originally, this book, which features swearing and all other manner of adult content (not nearly enough violence, though) had no erections in it. I called bull on that version, and this is actually my biggest point to writers of YA fiction this post: a teenage boy's daily life is beset by erections. Morning wood, afternoon boners, and evening hard-ons--this is the daily routine of the average adolescent male. And no book about teenage boys is believable without some horny-ness.

In an early draft, Charlie met Charlotte, a girl so beautiful he just had to touch her neck back when they were strangers, in his hallway as he's just stepped out of the shower. I say to you it is impossible for a teen boy dressed in only a towel and confronted with his dream girl to not pop wood. Skipping a crucial detail like this would rob the story of authenticity.

I present to you the published version of that scene, sure to grow reader interest. You're welcome, world:

I peek at her again. She’s smiling this crooked smile with her full lips closed and hiked up to the left. I’d love to close the gap between us, just one step now, and kiss those lips. The thought hits me so hard that I begin to worry about the flimsiness of the towel currently hiding my growing interest in Charlotte Finch. 
Don’t mind me, Charlotte, just pitching my tent here in the hallway. You know the motto: thrifty, clean, brave, uh, I don’t know—I totally flunked out of Cub Scouts.

There are many benefits to being in a writer's critique group and yes, one of them is receiving notes on your own manuscripts. Whole sections of my books were rewritten at Shannon's suggestion in exchange for my one usable note of "add a boner, ha! ha!" But becoming so passionate about this scene's need for a boner informed my own writing because it helped me form the hard opinion (I just can't help myself) that books about teenage boys should have boners in them. The scenes in which Ricky and Michelle discuss sex despite being surrounded by zombies trying to kill them in All Together Now stemmed directly from discussions with the YA Cannibals about this scene.

In conclusion, all the awards and positive reviews for Love and Other Unknown Variables are due completely to my contribution:) I did it, it was all me, and Shannon was good enough to correct the spelling.

Nah. In conclusion, Shannon Lee Alexander is a brilliant writer and Love and Other Unknown Variables is an incredible debut novel I can't wait for you to read. If I could physically put a copy in your hands I would, but instead I'll just encourage you to head to the bookstore or library immediately and read this book. You'll be glad you did.

As always, I'll leave you with some of my favorite passages from Love and Other Unknown Variables:

Her expression shifts, like Tony Stark slipping into his Iron Man mask. She shakes her arm free from my slack grip.

“This is my future.” I pick up the MIT catalogue. “This is who I am.”

“Some a** puppet on the front of a brochure?”

He winks at me, which is weird, and I hope never happens again. 


"Does her friend shoot lasers from her eyes like what's-his-face from the comic book you two are always talking about?"

“Cyclops!” James and I both shout. 

When most people think of explosions, they go for the Hollywood special effects version, with lots of noise and fire and people's limbs flying everywhere. In actuality, the silent ones are more devastating An exploding supernova can create enough radiation to outshine every star in a galaxy, but no sound. Greta’s fury unfolds like that


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.

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