Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Years of Greatness Awards

A year ago, I posted a review of the Goodreads Choice Awards. This year, I looked at the awards as they were being voted on. I tried to find my favorite books from the past year, and what I found instead was disturbing. I hadn't read any of the nominees. There were a lot of nominated books that I'd marked "to-read", but none that I'd actually gotten around to reading. I felt like I'd missed everything good from this year in publishing.

It was a disturbing realization, yet, when I thought about it, I didn't have a bad reading year. I had read my normal quota of books, lived a reading life as well as I could, and had enjoyed the books that I had read. The only thing I hadn't done was read any books that were brand-spankin' new. Those books just weren't at the top of my list. Other books had been waiting to be read, and when I got my hands on them, I devoured those instead.

It brought me to the conclusion that maybe a lot of good readers might not be able to participate in the Goodreads Choice Awards for the same reason. They simply didn't have time to read the books that they were hoping to get to, or maybe they needed a couple extra years to get all the necessary reading done in order to make an informed voting decision about this year's batch of new books. Normally, I admit that I am essentially "shooting from the hip" in my posts. I don't normally use research to back up my opinions, but in this case, I looked up some statistics about annual reading habits of Americans, and I can now say with relative certainty that most people haven't read enough each year to really decide what's the best of the best. I saw a couple of polls and though the numbers varied slightly, ten books a year was as lofty as the averages got. That's not much fodder to make an informed decision with.

So where does that leave me? Well, a little disappointed, but not entirely surprised. Also, it makes me want to rethink the idea of book awards. If you've read my previous posts, you'll know that I've never been particularly enamored with any particular award. I often encourage second guessing any book's award-worthy status. Maybe a book deserved its accolades and maybe it didn't, but that's really for each reader to decide. There is no authority on the matter and there doesn't need to be, though some people might want to argue that point.

But I have a vision for a series of awards that might do a little better job of representing the annual catalog of books. I call it the Years of Greatness Awards, or the YOGA for short. This is the award that should give those slower readers like me a chance to really know what they're voting for. I propose a few denominations of the award: a five year category dubbed the 5YOGA, a ten year category known forever after as the 10YOGA, and a twenty year category henceforth called the 20YOGA. Essentially, the idea isn't that revolutionary. What I'm proposing is, in essence, a rematch. All the books that are up for an award this year go head to head with each other again after year five, ten, and twenty years. If we were to have an inaugural award dedication this year, the books eligible for the 5YOGA would have to have been published between the years of 2008 and 2009; to be eligible for the 10YOGA a book would have been published between 2003 and 2004; and eligibility for the 20YOGA would be limited to books published between 1993 and 1994.

Of course, nothing is set in stone here, but here are some rules that I've been hashing out as I write this. To be eligible, the book would have to still be in print, or at least it would have be widely available to readers/voters in some way. I'm not sure exactly how to define that rule. Secondly, the book should be available in the United States. That's my way of saying that we're not concerned with whether the book is by an American or not as long as we Americans can get our hands on a copy (I'm not on board with exclusion of the J.K. Rowlings and Cornelia Funkes of the world). Third rule is, the books you vote on should be books you've actually read and enjoyed enough to remember. I don't know how to enforce that one either, but by my thinking, voting for a book that you've heard is good but haven't bothered to read first is pointless. That's the whole reason for making an award for books that have waited five, ten, or twenty years to become eligible. Other rules...I haven't thought of any yet, but I think the three I mentioned would be a good start. I'd like to make a couple categories to separate children's books and books for adults at least. As I mentioned, it's all up in the air still.

So there it is. A non-fan of book awards made up his own batch of book awards. Seems a bit hypocritical, but I think the idea is a good one. I don't know how to make it a reality, but if it's going to actually happen, this is the best way I thought I could start. If anyone has any ideas that could improve what I've started, speak up. Also, if anyone knows what the award could look like, that would be good too. As you'll probably notice, there are no pictures of the proposed award right now, only words describing it. So, start pouring on the comments. Let's see where this takes us!

"I Funny" by James Patterson and Chris Grabenstein

Before I even started to read this book, I wanted to hate it. I really, really did. I don't care if that seems unfair. I take issue with James Patterson's rapid descent on the world of children's books, his use of ghostwriters to write all the stories that he merely outlines and rigorously edits, and the fact that his name is usually the most prominent feature on his books' covers. I miss the days when the children's department didn't have an entire shelf dedicated to the recent offerings of a single person. On average, there are new installments from at least two of his series and a entire section of the shelving dedicated to James Patterson every time I visit a bookstore. I wish that he would give his ghostwriters top billing and change his role to editor. It seems like it would be a better fit. He could get his own imprint with a publisher. Then he could stop plastering his name across book covers in astronomical font sizes, that egomaniacal habit so pervasive among writers that come from the adult market. I don't have a problem with James Patterson personally. From what I've read about him, he seems to have his heart in the right place. He's trying to save the publishing industry from the seemingly inevitable Amazon monopoly. His writing methods are what irk me. They're what make me reticent to sing his praises. There, rant over. I'm glad to have gotten that off of my chest.

And now, I have a confession. I loved I Funny. For all my misgivings, this book was one of the most pleasant reading surprises I have had this year. I fell for Jamie's charm right away. I immediately disliked Stevie Cosgrove. In fact, I was hoping that Stevie would end up in jail before the story was over, the little monster. That might have been the one thing I thought was a little played out about this story. I'm kind of over the maniac bully character that too many authors plant in their stories about adolescents and preteens. These bully characters parade about in a reign of unchecked terror, and there is never any adult intervention. Stevie fit that stereotype to the letter. Jamie, though, was refreshing and unusual. 

The descriptions of his character might have been a little too reliant on phrases that children simply don't use, but I loved his depth. There were moments when I was thinking, "No kid would ever describe something that way!" but it was rare enough that I was able to let it slide, and I'd usually be rewarded for my tolerance with some glimpse into his inner psyche that would pull me into his character just a little bit more. Jamie had a reluctant underdog spirit that made him impossible not to root for. He sat on his backstory long enough that despite the main plot being reasonably compelling, I was dying to know his unspoken past before it was all over.

My other favorite characters were his Uncle Frankie and Cool Girl. Each of them played Jamie's go-to bastions of wisdom at different points in the story. It puzzled me that Jamie was adopted by the Cosgroves when he had such a close relationship with his biological Uncle Frankie. It's nice that Jamie had family like Uncle Frankie, but it was a relationship that tugged at the back of my mind as I read. Why didn't Uncle Frankie adopt Jamie? They had such a loving relationship, yet Uncle Frankie let Jamie be set up with a random foster family whose violent son torments Jamie endlessly.

Cool Girl, on the other hand, was the kid that was wise beyond her years. She seemed to come out of nowhere and just turn Jamie inside out. Everything she does changes Jamie's outlook on his life in Long Island. She kind of reminded me of Stargirl Carraway in that regard, so of course she was an instant success in my eyes.

When all was said and done though, I loved this book for Jamie's sense of humor. Jamie's defense mechanism for any mistreatment or sympathy he received was to crack a joke, and he had an endless supply of one-liners memorized. He also created his own material, and despite what you might expect to come from a middle school student, a lot of his material was alright. Though the book never shied away from its narrative element, the comedy was what set it apart from so many other stories of its ilk.

And so, I have to give I Funny its due. It was a good book. Though I'm tempted to give Chris Grabenstein most of the credit, I begrudgingly credit Patterson with playing some role in the book's creation as well. I'll probably read the other books in the series. As little as I like to admit it, I've been sucked into the Patterson fold with this series, or at the very least the Patterson/Grabenstein fold. I suppose I was wrong to want to hate it before I'd even tried it. Though Patterson doesn't conduct his writing career in a traditional manner, he can still lay partial claim to some entertaining books.