One of the benefits of writing book reviews is the way it encourages you to venture outside your general reading interests. Opportunities abound for reading – and enjoying – something in a genre that you’d never have otherwise considered.
YA fiction is one such genre for me. Books aimed at teen readers are such a significant part of the current literary landscape that any reviewer would be remiss in not at least dipping a toe into those waters and venturing at least a few pages beyond the “Hunger Games” and “Twilight” blockbusters.
Popular fiction tends to be popular for a reason, after all.
Amanda Hocking is already at the helm of a bestselling fantasy series (“The Kanin Chronicles”), but her latest is a standalone, a paranormal romance titled “Freeks” (St. Martin’s Griffin, $18.99).
It’s the story of a teenaged girl named Mara. Mara has spent her entire life living and working as part of a traveling sideshow. But these are no ordinary carnies; see, far from being the standard humbug and flimflam one expects from such an outfit, many of these “freaks” have actual, honest-to-goodness paranormal abilities. There’s a strongman who’s legitimately super-strong and a guy whose body heals itself almost instantly. One of the burlesque dancers can generate fire and the guy who runs the show can read minds. Even Mara’s mom is a fortuneteller who actually commune with the dead.
But Mara’s just plain Mara, so she helps where she can – setting up, taking tickets, shoveling tiger poop, whatever is needed.
But things get even stranger than normal when the sideshow lands in a small Louisiana town for an extended gig. There’s something sinister in the air that is difficult to discern, a force that appears to be affecting the abilities of the special members of the sideshow. The townspeople are either overly suspicious of their presence or suspiciously enthusiastic to have them there. Despite all that, their desperate need for money keeps them there.
And to top it all off, there’s a boy named Gabe and, despite her best efforts, Mara might be getting attached.
Even as she and Gabe grow closer, things get stranger and stranger at the sideshow. There are mysterious disappearances and harassment from the locals. There are even inexplicable attacks by unknown assailants. And through it all, Mara has to confront not only her growing feelings, but the truth of her heritage, if there’s to be any hope of making it through.
Oftentimes, there’s a note of condescension humming beneath the surface of YA fiction. It’s not overt or even necessarily intentional, but it is there and it can be heard. Not so much with “Freeks.” Don’t get me wrong, this is a fairly simple narrative. It’s not awash in deep themes or big ideas. But Hocking never comes off as talking down to her audience. Instead, she seems content to just tell a story. It’s a broad, sweet, occasionally cheesy romance with some fantastic elements stirred in for flavor.
It might not be great literature, but it’s a good story. And it never claims to be otherwise.
Sure, some of the plot movements are a bit on-the-nose. And the late-1980s setting feels a bit tacked on, with little more than the odd fashion observation or pop music reference to indicate the when. But the where and the who are strong enough to make up for that admittedly minor shortcoming.
Teen-centric romances are big business in the literary realm. “Freeks” reads better than most; while the relationship dynamics might be a bit unsophisticated, they have the ring of genuine extremity that can permeate young love. The fantasy elements are present, but not overbearing. There’s enough mystery to keep the pages turning.
YA fiction might look easy, but writing something sincere and entertaining is tougher than you think. And while “Freeks” has its flaws, it’s likely to find some resonance with its target teen readership.