Monday, January 11, 2010

Gangsta Novel Just Not My Kind of Book, Homez

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Michelle Peña is one tough chica. Her friends in Inglewood have seen her burn up the track with record-breaking speed, go head-to-head with the best minds on the Academic Decathlon team, and compose poetry stirring enough to win awards. She's a smart, skilled, beautiful freshman with some serious attitude. Her future looks very, very bright. There's only one thing holding her back: her past. No one in her new neighborhood knows about her days as a gangsta princess. And she'd like to keep it that way.

When Yxta Maya Murray's newest novel, The Good Girl's Guide to Getting Kidnapped, opens, Michelle is in the zone. She's feeling strong, confident that she'll kill in the All-American track and field championship regional qualifications. Everyone's rooting for her, including a few unsavory home boyz that she recognizes from the old days. When she dares to look at them, one of the thugs makes a gun with his fingers and mimes pulling the trigger. Suddenly, her ugly old life comes crashing right through her sparkly, new one. Her former gang, the Snakes, are on the prowl, hungry for blood money owed to them by Michelle's brother, Samson. Obviously, they're willing to use her to get to him.

All Michelle wants is to put the past behind her, win a scholarship to a fancy prep school in Burbank, and life a normal kind of life. Now, she'll have to face her "destiny" - with her mother (the Queen) in jail, her father (the King) dead, and her brother on the run, she's the Snakes' reigning princess. Can she channel her old self long enough to pacify the gangstas and save her brother? Or is her old self - powerful Princess P - the only self that actually makes sense for someone like her? Is she only fooling herself to think she could ever be prep school material? And then there's Silver, the big, strong boy she's loved since she was a child - can she ever be whole without him? With Samon's life on the line, this is no time for an identity crisis, but Michelle has to make some difficult choices. And fast. Her brother's future - and her own - hang in the balance.

I had a hard time "grading" The Good Girl's Guide to Getting Kidnapped. On the one hand, I have to give Murray credit for creating a unique novel. I don't know how many gangsta novels for teens exist out there, but this is certainly the first one I've ever read. Murray's main character breaks barriers - Michelle's a gangbanger, but she's also smart, athletic and ambitious, commanding just as much respect on the mean streets of L.A. as in an Ac Dec competition. Although, in the beginning, I found Michelle too in-your-face to be truly likeable, by the end I cared about what happened to her. Also, I have to say that this book kept me guessing until the very end. On the other hand, I found the narration jarring. It's full of lingo that, while probably authentic, makes the story difficult to read. Unless you happen to speak Mexican gangsta girl, you'll probably miss at least half of it. Plotwise, the novel's pretty simplistic, and the only character who really develops at all is Michelle. Michelle's single, gay foster father stands out, but the rest of the story people are pretty blurry - Michelle's "boyz" are the brainless gangstas you'd expect, her best friend has no real personality, and the prep school folks are exactly what you assume they will be - white, class conscious snobs. So, in the end, I decided the novel deserved a "C." While I think it's different and engrossing, it also has some major cliche and flow problems. Not to mention all the gangster talk - not only did it seem over the top, but it also just drove me crazy.

I do think this book will appeal to teens. Even though it makes gangbanging look about as appealing as licking a toilet seat, it gives an interesting glimpse into "Da Life." The plot lacks depth, but it's the kind of action-packed, keep-'em-guessing that should appeal to guys as well as girls.

So, yeah, maybe it's a generational kind of thing, but this just isn't my type of book. I was glad to finish it and move on to lighter fare. Guess I'm not as "super fly" as I think I am. So there, homez.

Grade: C

If this were a movie, it would be rated: R for language, violence, underrage drinking, partying/drug use

To the FTC, with love: I received this ARC from Razborbill.

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