on Oct. 16, 2013 :
Alyson Kent's debut novel, Collide is, very much like its heroine: brash, funny, flawed and, for the most part, entertaining.
When we meet Jane Alexander, she’s in the midst of some pretty major personal drama for your average, small-town white girl. Her best friend, Maria, has just returned after a mysterious disappearance with no memory of what happened. Jane herself is in hot water for some not-so-minor transgression she has recently committed. Her sentence: having to shuttle her younger brothers around and calling to check in constantly so her mother knows where she is at all times.
Kent doesn’t tell us right away what exactly Jane has done, though we understand that it is somehow connected to Maria’s disappearance.
And then there’s a certain tall, dark and handsome foreign exchange student named Akira that Jane finds alternately suspicious and sexy.
In setting and tone, Collide does exactly what urban fantasy should do. Here we have the world we know: friends, school, sports, after-school jobs. Then, living right alongside these things, is an entire universe filled with magic and fantastic creatures, some familiar (vampires, zombies); others, less so (tengu, oni). I like how everyday life seems to be the dominant reality in this story. No matter how much weird shit goes on, you know Jane’s going to go back to class eventually. She’ll go to prom. She’ll graduate. It’s all so very normal. But it’s that very normality that serves to underscore the real horrors presented in this book-- heavy issues like sexual violence and missing children, or even milder ones like feeling your BFF pull away from you.
Kent strikes a nice balance between seriousness and humor—there is, after all, an organization named GOOPS involved (that would be the Guardians of our Paranormal Society). Jane, as the narrator, is witty and incisive. The lighter tone lends itself nicely to Jane being an average kid, concerned about her SATs and getting into a good college (not to mention, scoring a serious stash on Halloween).
Then there’s Jane herself. I loved Jane. I loved her when she was fierce, I loved her when she was foolhardy, I loved her when she was flying off the handle. I even, God help me, loved her when she was being an abusive psycho. Her behavior would not have been tolerable for five seconds in a male character. Yes, I know that’s a double standard. But it’s hard not to be grateful when a tough chick with a take-no-prisoners approach appears in fiction, okay?
If only it were that simple. Because seriously-- Jane? Is a PSYCHO. The book’s strongest point is also one of its weakest. I kept thinking, this girl needs some intensive anger management therapy. Stat. I realize that young people may have some impulse control issues, but damn. Her default setting is violence. Underclassman tries to talk shit in the parking lot? Jane almost breaks her arm. Guy sneaks up behind her on the street? She decks him with her book bag. It’s like, simmer down there, honey. Have a Xanax or something. I suppose that's why the title of the book is "collide"-- Jane's fists collide with stuff with astonishing regularity. Even Akira observes that she should've been expelled a long time ago for her behavior. Again, if she were a boy, she would've been. The shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later approach works for Clint Eastwood movies. Not much else.
Meanwhile, Jane’s anxieties manifest in migraine headaches and the rather unnerving habit of tearing at her cuticles until they bleed. For me, these traits were a bit of a misstep—mainly because Kent brings up Jane’s migraines earlier on in the book and then never mentions them again. As for Jane picking at her own fingers, is there some rule of the genre that requires the heroine to have a bizarre nervous tic? I swear, I have read several books recently where the female protagonists compulsively twine their hair, bite their lips, or other weird, borderline self-harming behavior. What is that about? Does this have something to do with the fact that Kristen Stewart is frequently described as twitchy?
Anyway. When Maria disappeared, Jane was wracked with guilt. When Maria comes back changed, Jane gets to feel guilt and worry. Then, as if that weren’t enough, there is the secret that Jane carries with her—the secret that has to do with why she got in trouble. There are plenty of reasons for Jane to be anxious, acting out, and sexually repressed, but it's so extreme, you’d think someone would notice and get her to a shrink.
I’m willing to forgive Jane her shortcomings for a lot of reasons. I found her love for her small town endearing. Kent clearly shares Jane’s fondness for the Blue Ridge Mountains, and as someone who’s had the pleasure of visiting Asheville, I can’t say I blame ‘em.
Even more endearing is Jane’s relationship with Maria. For me, this is the real heart of the book. Not the will-they-or-won’t-they romance between Jane and Akira. Jane and Maria. High school girls who’ve been friends for life—you know the kind I mean. Girls like this are each other’s first love, and no boy could ever get in the way of that. In the end, I absolutely loved that Jane was Maria’s savior. Sisters helping each other out, knamean?
My only gripe there is that Maria as a character is not terribly well developed. The rest of the cast overall is pretty thin-- Jane's family consists of a mom, a mostly absentee father, and a pair of obnoxious twin brothers. Jane's father never makes an actual appearance. He is frequently away on business, and sometimes has breakfast with the family via Skype. This might've worked if he'd served an actual function. Why not just make Jane's mom a single mom? It's one of the trickier aspects of dealing with young people in fiction-- unless their relationship with their parents is the focus of the story, their familial interactions tend to feel very perfunctory. This is why so many YA/children's literature heroes are orphans—the kids must be left to fend for themselves or it loses all dramatic tension.
Akira, for being the love interest, is also fairly two-dimensional. He fulfills the YA paranormal fantasy requirements: older, handsome, supernatural and overly protective. I’m not enamored with his love/hate relationship with Jane. (Just because that has become a staple of the genre doesn’t mean I have to like it). Given his heritage, his “raven” hair, the school’s mascot being a raven and Jane’s fondness for Edgar Allan Poe, manga fans and gamers will probably spot the tengu a mile off. I’m sure they’ll also appreciate the Akira film reference. I say kudos to Kent for using comparatively unusual mythological critters. Despite my Jane love, I’m not entirely clear what Akira finds so attractive about her—she’s not particularly mature or sophisticated. But then, he seems to enjoy his gig as a high school basketball player, so maybe I’m overestimating his maturity level?
Don’t get me wrong. I think that Kent has a lot of raw talent, a real flare for writing-- Jane's voice was so clear, so self-assured, I felt most of the time as if she were sitting right next to me, telling me about her experiences. However, I saw a lot of rookie, first-time author mistakes. I feel obligated to report the egregious grammatical errors. Kent way overuses italics, capitals and quotation marks. Her descriptions are repetitive. Characters call each other by name in dialogue, which never fails to drive me up the wall. (It’s particularly annoying how Akira calls Jane “Alexander” throughout the beginning of the book.)
Kent does attempt to give the characters distinct voices, with mixed results. For example, Mr. Baker, the owner of the bookstore where Jane works, is well-traveled, wealthy and eccentric. Therefore, he has what Jane describes as an overly formal way of speaking. Working in academia and spending way too much time around literary types, I know what actual prolixity sounds like, (I may even, quite possibly, be guilty of it myself) so it didn’t quite work for me. But then, I'm not a teenager and I appreciate the effort all the same.
The pacing is a bit rough. The first half of the book moves along at a nice clip, then things kind of fall apart in the third act. There's a scene that felt more like the natural climax of the book, but then it just kind of lagged on and on before a second, decidedly less exciting climax. The action was hard to follow, and I thought that perhaps Kent had just exhausted herself before we hit resolution.
There is plenty of room here to write a series. I would be interested to read more to not only spend time with Jane, but to see the progression of Kent’s writing. I think she’s on her way to being really fabulous.
(reviewed the day of purchase)