There's always chatter among writers and publishers about the slush pile. The great mass of unsolicited manuscripts that publishers are sent every day. While I've never worked at a publishing house, I have to say that for me, the first few weeks of the Cybils is always a little like being confronted by an enormous slush pile that you have three months to get through. After five years, I've somehow come up with an odd balance of excitement and apathy that works for me. Essentially, I lower my expectations, and don't put too much thought into what the next book to read will be. I allow myself to be pleasantly surprised.
One particular quirk I have about reading is that I don't like to read to far into reviews, or the book description before I read. Invariably, too much is given away, and it sucks the fun out of the whole thing for me. Going along with that, I don't pay a whole lot of attention with the blurbs that show up on everything. But, in the Cybils slush pile that appeared on my kitchen table, I couldn't help but notice that Sorta Like a Rock Star by Matthew Quick (Incidentally, I went to college with a guy with this name, so that never stops weirding me out.) was blurbed by Justina Chen and Sara Zarr. When I flipped open the back cover, there was a blurb from Dana Reinhardt. I love all three of these authors. All three. I knew what I was reading next.
There is no one like Amber Appleton. She's frank, honest, and not only willing to see the bright side of everything and everyone, she's going to make the world a better place through sheer force of will. She WILL win over even the most curmudgeonly. But her unfailing optimism isn't merely altruism. It's how she gets through the day. It's how she can bear her life. Amber Appleton doesn't have the best of mothers. When mom's last boyfriend kicked them out, they had nowhere to go, and now live on the school bus mom drives for a paycheck. It's cold on an unheated bus in Pennsylvania in the winter. It's lonely when mom's out trolling for men until late. It sorta, like, sucks. But Amber Appleton knows it will get better. Because, really, it can't get worse. Of course, it can, and it does. And even the spectacular, remarkable hope that Amber has always possessed and shared freely can't raise her above the pain she's about to endure.
I want to repeat this for emphasis: There is no one like Amber Appleton. She is both annoying and uplifting. Her voice is so unique and so powerful. One of both the strengths and weaknesses of Sorta Like a Rock Star is Amber's jargon. As someone who works with teens, I know that many have weak filters and an annoying habit of saying the same phrases and exclamations over and over. Most of that stuff is normally cut out of novels in favor of readability. That's not necessarily the case with SLARS. "True? True."
"[Mom] never again tried to make me play sports, although we ate many more hoagies on that bench and fed flocks of ducks for years to come -- and the feeding-ducks memories are something I truly treasure. Quack, quack. Ducks. Pretty killer" p 14-15.
Random meanderings like that are fairly typical for Amber, and frankly, I've known a teen or two who would say things like that. It serves to lighten up the rather serious mood of the preceding thoughts, and prevents Amber for dwelling on the horrible situation she's saddled with. But, it doesn't necessarily make it easier to read if you haven't already been completely captured by her voice in general. Which I was.
But above voice, and above a great depiction of setting, is character. Amber is kicked when she's already down, and it changes her. She goes from the most positive, uplifting person in that town, to an angry, hurt, sad individual. Regardless of whether a reader understood Amber before, by the time she gets to the depth of her depression, you simply can not look away. Her pain is palpable.
"I decide to quit being Amber Appleton, which isn't to say that I change my name or anything. I just decide that I can't keep living the way I used to live -- swinging for the fences, believing that things are going to work out, that everything is worth fighting for, and that I am brave and strong enough to change my reality, because I'm not and I can't. Joan of Old was right. I get her now, and what she said about life being a hell that I was only beginning to experience -- that makes sense suddenly" p 178.
However, even though she herself wouldn't have believed it, Amber Appleton isn't one to stay down.
I think more than any other book I read this year for the Cybils, this is the one that stays with me. This is the one that has a special place in my heart.
Obviously, the sequel should be entitled "I'm Kinda a Big Deal." <-- Joke.