Monday, December 28, 2009

Morris Shortlist: Flash Burnout

Flash Burnout
L.K. Madigan
2009; Houghton Mifflin; ISBN 978-0-547-19489-9

Summary: Who knew what a simple picture could lead to? For a photo assignment, Blake takes a picture of a passed-out woman. When his friend Marissa sees the photo, she recognized the woman as her missing mother, a meth addict. Blake wants to help Marissa, but that doesn't sit well with his girlfriend, the beautiful Shannon. As the aspiring comic Blake starts to get serious, he finds that what looks clear through a camera gets blurry in real life.

My Humble Thoughts on Why This Book Shouldn't Have Been Shortlisted for the Morris Award

#1: A storyline that never fully comes together.

Good novels balance plot and character to create a compelling story. Even the most character-driven books have to have some kind of action or forward momentum, to capture a reader. Flash Burnout unfortunately has a plot that features too many contrivances and coincidences, making the reader go far beyond the normal suspension of disbelief. What are the chances that Blake's picture of a drug addict would happen to be his friend's mother? How likely is it that Shannon's grandmother would die on the same day that Blake sleeps with Marissa?

Beyond this, the novel seems to just come to a stop, rather than to a natural ending. Marissa's disappearance and the breakup of Shannon and Blake seem to be two separate events that occur at the end of the book, rather than a story drawing itself to a close. While some novels with an open-ended narrative have this structure, Flash Burnout does not seem to be focused on leaving things unresolved, so this lack of resolution is frustrating.

Also troubling are some of the unanswered questions. Marissa has a black eye and bruises during the novel; she blames them on participating in Hurtle, a high-speed bike ride, but they could equally have been signs of abuse. Yet this question is never even hinted at. Blake's parents are so worried about him acting responsibly when it comes to sex with Shannon that they don't seem to spend any time asking him about the relationship itself. And finally, what mother is going to take off her top due to a hot flash in front of her teenage son?

#2: Characters that are well-rounded but still two-dimensional.

L.K. Madigan has, on the surface, created a slate of three-dimensional characters. Blake cracks jokes but takes gritty photographs. Garrett, Blake's older brother, is a football player and a jock. Shannon is not the hottest girl in school, but Blake thinks she's beautiful. Yet if you go deeper, most of these characters are quickly reduced to stereotypes, never acting like anything more than a cardboard cutout. Shannon becomes the jealous girlfriend, Blake becomes the immature, overreacting boy, Marissa becomes a victim who needs rescuing. Being able to see these stereotypes this easily reduces the reader's sympathy for what happens to these characters. Blake himself veers from worrying about Marissa to losing his temper because Shannon's mother didn't give him enough help picking out a gift for Shannon. While we expect some volatility in teen characters, Blake seems designed to run through a gamut of teenage experiences without learning anything or even acting believably. This lack of control, of anything that appears like normal teenage behavior for a boy who's described as such, makes the characterization seem shallow. Adding in useless characters like Cappie and you see a novel that does not have a good grasp on how people act.

"Too bad about the flash burnout on this one."
I look over at the shot she's indicating. "The what?"
"The flash burnout. You got too close to the subject. So the flash overexposed her. Well,
me, I mean."
It's the last shot I took at Marissa's house. It's the only one I took of Marissa and her mom together. I was in such a hurry to leave that I didn't take enough time to frame them. I was too close and the flash overexposed Marissa's face, turning it bright and blurry.

"Yeah, it would have been a good shot otherwise," I agree. (page 213-214)
While Blake's voice does have some appeal as a coming-of-age story, Flash Burnout reads like a first novel, without enough successes to make up for its misfires. The frustration of reading Flash Burnout is like looking at a bad photo of an interesting subject, one that has been framed poorly. The struggle between your girlfriend and your girl friend isn't one that's been explored much in YA fiction, and this novel could have filled that niche. There are good points to this novel, like the way Garrett acts towards his younger brother. But with poor plotting and lackluster characterization, it seems like Flash Burnout won't appeal to many teens.


Anonymous said...

You say in your bio "I strive to review positively--I wouldn't review a book I didn't like" -- really? Cause this reads kinda like an extremely negative review to me.

I mean, to each his or her own, of course, it is no skin off my nose if you don't like it, it is obviously just not the book for you. But I am very glad that I looked at the starred reviews of this book in SLJ and Booklist, and the PW Flying Start, and the Morris Award shortlist, in order to decide to read this book, rather than this review, because I loved it. And so have the teenagers in my life.

-- Tracy the Bookseller

melissa said...

Thanks for your comment, Tracy. As you say, it really is "to each their own", and it is good to hear that perhaps it's just me who didn't enjoy this book.

The only times I will post a negative review is if it's part of a series. Since I started review blogging in August 2008, I've only posted two negative reviews, and it was when reviewing Morris shortlist books. Otherwise, life is too short to write blog reviews ripping apart books.

I realize in retrospect that this review is more negative than I intended it to be. My true problem with Flash Burnout is that I thought it was mediocre. However, that's just my opinion, and I truly am glad to hear that others didn't share my opinion, and that it has connected with teens who have read it.