October 02, 2014


Welcome to another edition of In Tandem, the read-and-review posts where we both give our two cents at the same time. Once again, Sarah Beth Durst, the well-regarded and multi-talented speculative fiction author, has caught our imagination with a fresh and original take on an old chestnut - the race against the clock trope - an unusual female protagonist we may or may not "like," and plenty of action in this new novel. We've read it together - quibbled back and forth - and have come to our usual conclusion: that Sarah Beth Durst is one of our favorite writers. We hope you'll enjoy the ride! (And we'll leave it up to you to decide which one of us is the pink owl and which one is the yellow owl.) (ETA: Oh, I'm definitely the snarkier pink owl today. -tsd) It's...
Two writers, both readers.
One book.

In Tandem.

Summary: Sixteen-year-old Kayla lifts things with her mind - and usually she also lifts them out of pockets, out of store cases, and out of the custody of their rightful owners. A gifted telekinetic, she can steal anything from anybody, almost at any time. No need to be the usual pickpocket when you can sit across the street from your subject and never, never have him catch on. Together with her Lamborghini-driving BFF, and her hippie-dippy, amulet-and-crystal draped mother, Moonbeam, Kayla inhabits a spot-on Santa Barbara like the light-fingered lady she is. On the surface, Kayla's just stealing because she can, but the reader soon learns that there are reasons -- and, eventually, consequences. Being blackmailed is nasty and ugly - unfortunately the blackmailer is nasty, bossy, and pretty hot. Kayla's job is to help Daniel find clues to solve the mystery of his missing mother - or he'll reveal her telekinetic, thief-tastic ways to everyone. Eventually, Kayla goes along - but finding his mother, based on the clues? Is difficult. Making sure her blackmailer doesn't leave her a smear against a cliff, or leave them stranded somewhere crazy? Even harder. Hardest of all is to deceive her suddenly savvy, suddenly less blindly loving mother. The world Kayla thought she knew - and the facts of that world, on which she built her life - are suddenly shifting.

We received our copies of this book courtesy of the author. After October 14th, you can find Chasing Power by Sarah Beth Durst at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

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Initial Reactions, Characterizations and Rants, Oh My

Sarah Stevenson: Sarah Beth Durst has SUCH a cute and quirky yet also clear-eyed way of looking at the world. She set the scene in Santa Barbara vividly and (to a California girl) recognizably. There's lush detail everywhere you look--but not excessive, either. Just...fun. Whether it's the city, or Kayla's cottage, or the voodoo shop, or Tikal, there's a clear sense of place in this novel and each place is different. 

I also really enjoy how she takes what could be character stereotypes or tired story tropes and turns them on their head in some way. Like, Handsome Stranger Boy is, yes, handsome and mysterious, but SUPER annoying, too. SUPER. ANNOYING. Hippie Flaky Mom--well, it's kind of an act, because she also isn't as dumb as she looks. A New Orleans Voodoo Queen (oh, was I ready to cringe) is really just this lady, with a Southern accent (and a sense of humor) and a magical history. Selena isn't just a fashionable rich party girl, but someone with BRAINS and an impish, troublesome best friend. Lots to like, here.

I wasn't immediately grabbed on the first couple of pages by Kayla, because I wasn't sure what was happening, I guess, but it was hard not to get absorbed by her thievery. She's flawed, a bit of a trickster, really, and obviously that's going to land her in trouble. However, it's amusing that she wants to be in CONTROL of her troublemaking. Other people landing her in trouble is not acceptable.

TS Davis: Sarah Beth ROCKS the voice in this novel. I actually initially disliked the main character, but I agree - it's such a TEXTURED dislike - she's dislikeable BECAUSE. The moody, selfish, self-defeating, never-explaining-never-discussing-quiet resentment. She's very clearly a teen with a lot of the earmarks of stereotypical teendom. I don't have to like her - so not the point. She's REAL. That's where it's at. I can doubt her reasons for things, think her morals and ethics are questionable, think her chip-on-her-shoulder-the-world-owes-me attitude is reprehensible, but I cannot at all quibble with the fact that she exists - that her voice is enough to make her real.

I, too, loved the descriptions of St. B -- I've only been there once or twice, but the first time kind of blew me away -- such excessively rich people, such high end shops, such disparate groups of homeless-looking-but-wearing-trendy-faded-duds kids, just sitting around, doing zip. I could totally see Kayla here, as well as the whole Moonbeam thing. Heh. I'm also glad that Moonbeam is a California cliché ON PURPOSE; I tend to be a teensy bit sensitive about that, seeing as I was born in the state, and get a little sick of hearing about how NorCal is full of pretentious San Franciscans, gay "agenda" and flaky Berkeley hippies and Hollywood immorality, etc. etc. Also, I love Selena, though that sitch with her parents intrigues me. I wish we'd had more time in the novel for that.

Now, you and I are gonna have to differ on the Voodoo Queen. I read her - and liked her - but despite her lively characterization, for me, the character still largely feeds on stereotype. Could she have been White? Yes. I think she could have been White. While it would have lowered the diversity numbers in the novel (or, rather, the diversity numbers in terms of characters of color who get dialogue), she maybe should have been White. I think it's time we all agree that followers of voudon are NOT all mystical/magical Negroes. ESPECIALLY Louisiana voudon practitioners, many of whom have scattered in the wake of Katrina, leaving a DIVERSE group behind. I've actually just read a piece on that, which is kind of fueling my ire on this. However - deep breath - I hereby officially admit that the character of Marguerite is necessary and awesome, but... I admit it with reservations.

Moving on, I'm interested in whether or not the forgive-and-forget moments in the novel are to you realistic and believable.

SJS: Heh. Okay, we officially agree-to-disagree. I enjoyed what I think is one of Sarah's major strengths as a writer--balancing humor with believability.

I wouldn't say I went so far as to dislike the main character, but I agree with you; there's a lot of texture to my feelings about her. I feel like I grew to like her by the end of the book. That proceeded naturally, too; at first, I was kind of thinking she was a little bit of a lowlife; then I was sympathetic to her situation; and then gradually, as I watched her act and react, I started to feel more positive. BUT, ultimately that's less important, because she was believable and interesting and I wanted to know what would happen, regardless of how I felt about her personally.

You asked about the forgive-and-forget moments. I did have a little trouble with those vis-a-vis The Boy. Mostly, I just felt they were still a little rough and needed to be smoothed out before I could feel they were believable. I didn't want to rely simply on knowing the relationship was "supposed" to work out that way--they're supposed to forgive each other, and team up, and have chemistry, etc. --because those are my expectations of this type of story. I wanted to believe it could happen and watch the antagonism turn into something else, and that part didn't work as well for me.

Hearts, Heists, and Having the Last Word

tsd: The last third of the way through the novel, I forgave The Boy a little. Not enough to suck face with him, but... okay, a little. He's STILL a gigantic butt, yes. And he's such a fatalist, constantly -- SO. DANGED. ANNOYING; I love that Kayla was so often ready to slap him. I wish she would've - it might've helped (would have slowed the relationship roll, though, and that kind of felt inevitable, so...maybe not. I would've backhanded his lying face.) And, were I Selena, I would have hit him with a cricket bat - not to include spoilers on what he did, but HOW DARE HE!? Again, it's probably a good sign about voice and characterization that I responded so strongly -- at times I really loathed him - the pushy insouciance was a serious remove-from-gene-pool-immediately type klaxon for me. But, you know me and LYING. [READ: Everyone knows it's Tanita's personal, deal-breaker pet peeve.] That being said: Who's not the core audience for this novel ==========> Me). I think it's wonderful that Boy Wonder was anything but wonderful. That was disturbingly, annoyingly refreshing.

SJS: The resolution of the story--the why and how of all the magic bits, and how Kayla and Daniel and their various parents are connected--that was pretty fascinating. I really liked the explanation of where their powers came from. I also found the Selena/Sam/parents complication really interesting, so I'm glad that subplot got a bit of resolution of its own. ☺ Now to walk carefully, here, so as not to provide spoilers...I have to admit I did NOT see some of the conclusion [detail redacted to prevent spoilers] coming. I thought it was a great and unexpected twist, on the whole, but in certain respects I felt like the Ultimate Villain character lacked the complexity of some of the other, particularly since they have such a key role in how the end plays out. I guess, yes, The Ultimate Villain has kind of "lost it" and isn't all there, but I had some unanswered questions about them. I didn't want them to feel like a cartoon villain so I guess I wanted more of the backstory. Not that I don't find it believable that a bunch of lies about their absent family who aren't there to defend themselves wouldn't be told - that's totally realistic. Just that I really needed to know MORE to know what turned that person into the Ultimate Villain that they are now. 

tsd: Oh, I agree with you on the Ultimate Villain... their emotions were hard to figure for me. Yes, they are cray-cray, but... no. I needed a little more time with that character to understand. And Moonbeam trying to SALVAGE something from the Ultimate Villain????? I was so GLAD that, in the end, Kayla was like, "I need a flippin' vacay." I was feeling that, too. For a simple kidnapping-heist-race-against-time novel, this one has a lot of stuff in it, a lot of serious family stuff, about mothers and daughters. Despite Moonbeam's hopeful hippiedom, sometimes the best thing you can do with failure in that scope is to walk away.

SJS: There's a nice kind of symmetry in the fact that, while Kayla and Moonbeam seem to be forever wandering, The Boy is the one person who will always be able to find them. And I loved the idea of Kayla using her power to its utmost and winning out due to cleverness, in the face of the Ultimate Villain's seemingly overpowering brute force. Cleverness and teamwork save the day. A nice message...

tsd:There's a further symmetry in how the parents SCREWED THE HECK UP and the second generation was trying to be all fixers - even The Boy. Though, "fixers" for a given value of "fix..."

What breaks that symmetry, and provides repeated examples of breakage that isn't fixed is how they casually just strolled through other worlds and cultures - taking. Destroying. Breaking. Some may argue that I'm being too serious and putting too much "real world" into a YA book critique (if not here, though, where?) but... their actions really bugged me, their casual abuse of privilege. Neither of them gives a thought to it -- yes, it's a stone of power, big whoop. It doesn't belong to you. It doesn't belong to your culture. It's not your heritage to appropriate. I don't care if your Mom's being threatened - could we at least think about this/talk about it/acknowledge it, even briefly? Eventually, though, that insouciance and disrespect had its price, I guess... ☺

SJS: So, overall: we like the book, yes? Full of the zippy banter-- sparkling, but stopping short of being too perfect and witty, yet still having it be entertaining and fun. Good characters, unusual premise: a win.

tsd: Kayla could have just balked and not been blackmailed -- I honestly would have liked to see that -- but this book, with its beautiful, striking cover, is at heart a travel book, an adventure book, a take on "Romancing the Stone" for the YA set. It's fast and fun and I think I called it "grippy" when I started reading it. There's a lot to love here, and you'll find it on bookshelves October 14th. Thanks for joining us!

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