Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Review: Warp Speed

by Lisa Yee
Arthur A. Levine Books (March 2011)
Ages 9 and Up

Just when I thought I couldn't take another book that deals with bullying, up pops Lisa Yee's fresh, fast and witty take on one of the most insidious social cancers of our times. In Warp Speed, Yee pulls no punches when it comes to looking at life through the eyes of seventh grade lunch meat, Marley Sandelsky, a self-proclaimed AV nerd and Trekkie targeted by middle school neanderthals he nicknames the Gorn.

Marley's humorous first-person narration—present tense no less (kudos to Yee for pulling that off with ease)—absorbs the harsh blows of his sickening reality, as do his Captain's Log entries that cloak his emotional pain in Trekkie-esque lingo ("The enemy Gorn have infiltrated a satellite substation. Damage was minimal. However, the stigma of the attack remains.")

The daily abuse of being shoved in his locker, spit on and beat up is something Marley has come to expect, but it's also an ugly truth he hides from his parents and teachers. I initially had a hard time with the fact that he treats his situation lightly, but then I realized, duh, I was looking at this through an unrealistic adult's viewpoint and needed to get over myself. From Marley's perspective, humor is the best way to cope. So is running....really fast...to avoid the Gorn. It's his running away, which turns into running for the joy of it, that's his saving grace.

As a writer, it's incredibly difficult to place your character in a situation that no one has figured out a way to resolve in real life and, well, figure out a way to resolve it. Then, to do it in a way that puts the power in the hands of the main character and not some intervening authority figure. Although, to his credit, Marley tries to enlist the help of an outside force—the Star Trek action figures from whom he draws strength to face his tormentors. The crew of the Enterprise isn't much help, however, when it comes to wooing Emily Ebers, the girl he's beginning to think likes him for more than his garbage gown modeling skills. Honestly, the scenes with Emily in which Marley spontaneously erupts in Klingon are about as painful to read as the ones in which he's being pummeled by the Gorn. In spite of all he has going against him, however, Marley has guts when it comes to surviving love and war at Rancho Rosetta Middle School.

A nice subplot to Marley's story is his family's struggle to maintain their historic movie house, the Rialto, which Marley fears his parents will have to sell. They're kind people, his folks, and their love for each other and Marley offers a solid anchor to what could have become a lopsided bullied nerd saga.

Warp Speed is a well-rounded novel with great pacing, humor and appeal for kids in the upper range of middle grade readers. The best part is that it picks up where three of Yee's previous Rancho Rosetta Middle School novels left off. It reads just as well without ever having read the other books, and will make readers want to go check them out to see what they've been missing.

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