Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Comfortable In Her Own Invisible Skin

Book 1
By Natalie Whipple

Amazon ~ Powell's ~ Jan's Paperbacks

Plenty of teenagers feel invisible. Fiona McClean actually is.

An invisible girl is a priceless weapon. Fiona’s own father has been forcing her to do his dirty work for years—everything from spying on people to stealing cars to breaking into bank vaults.

After sixteen years, Fiona’s had enough. She and her mother flee to a small town, and for the first time in her life, Fiona feels like a normal life is within reach. But Fiona’s father isn’t giving up that easily.

Of course, he should know better than anyone: never underestimate an invisible girl.

I picked this up on recommendation from the blog of Kiersten White, one of the author's writing buddies and critique partner, and decided to tackle it the last night before it had to go back to the library. So basically I had a book I knew next to nothing about with only a few hours to experience it. Frankly, I'm a still a little stumped about what to think about it.

Let's start at the beginning. Fiona (I can't help but think Shrek!) has the gift/curse of invisibility. It's a genetic thing, she was born that way and can't activate or deactivate the ability, so her body is always invisible. What she was also born with was a crime boss for a father who is set to use anything and anyone to obtain more wealth and power. If that means sending his telekinetic wife and invisible daughter in to rob banks, then so be it. Fiona doesn't enjoy her life of crime, but since her father's ability turns him into a literal woman magnet, she can't say no to him. That is, until he decides his personal thief would make for a great assassin, prompting Fiona and her mom to run for it. Now Fiona is hiding out with her mom in a podunk town in Arizona, trying to live out a normal, teenage life.

Fi is both complex and confusing, which made her realistic...and confusing. On the one hand, she's got a tough shell from growing up in a crime syndicate, training for spying, thieving, etc., and dealing with a broken family. She's also smart enough to know that she can't change into a happy-go-lucky teenager just because she's not (currently) under her dad's thumb anymore. But on the other hand, she's got a lot of personal baggage from her upbringing and her invisibility that she's trying to overcome. Also, she's horrible at math, possibly due to a brain injury from being dropped in the delivery room (you try catching an invisible baby!).

So we've got Fiona: a rebellious teen trying to deal with trust issues with family and friends, learning disabilities, hiding from organized crime, invisibility and low self-worth, guilt from past crimes, AND teenage romance/angst. If you thought that description was a convoluted mess, you would be correct. I'll admit, there is A LOT crammed into these 350 pages, and the majority of it is about Fiona. But while I appreciate the effort to not make an unchallenged, flawless, snarky heroine, I don't think I would have minded a little less complexity in exchange for a little more time and focus on what was left.

Unfortunately, anything that didn't have to do with Fiona was less than stellar. Between the underdeveloped and overly huge supporting cast, the disparate tones, and the underutilized world-building, it felt sloppy.

There are a TON of important side characters in this story. There's Fiona's family of five, then there are her classmates Seth, Brady and Bea, and their families (one of which has six members). All of these people possess rare and sought-after abilities, all of them play important roles in the book, but very little time is given to any of them, save for the love interest, because so much has to go to Fi. Bea especially felt like more of a plot device than an honest-to-goodness friend. Of course, it could have been worse considering the very first thought Fiona has about her is something along the lines of, 'Darn her for looking so great while sitting next to that hot guy.' The two could have easily become enemies or (the even more loathsome) frienemies, but thankfully ended up being fairly genuine friends. Unfortunately there was so little time spent on Bea that we see her mainly as the lone girl friend, rather than a full character in her own right.

Thankfully (for some), the romance was handled better. Our love interest (who will go unnamed due to slight love-triangle drama) was nicely revealed both in attitude and backstory gradually, as our main character was ready for it. While I can't say I approve of him entirely due to 'knowing what is best for Fiona,' even if it means hiding the truth and/or deceiving her, I can't fault the guy for his devotion and wit. What can I say, smart guys with mouths on them are my Kryptonite. Much of the romance, especially when they both decide to admit feelings for each other, feels cheesy. It worked, but I admit I was rolling my eyes through a lot of it. Still, I was glad it knew when to take a backseat to the other drama, like Fiona's family issues.

But speaking of pacing, I thought this book's pacing was excellent. Even reading into the wee hours of the night/morning, I never checked the clock or felt bored. It kept me engaged throughout. I also never felt rushed or confused when it came to what was happening in the story. The plot points were very well paced, and Fi's development flowed nicely. Granted, there was A LOT to cover with Fi, but I think most everything was either resolved or sufficiently touched upon to signify growth.

Tonally, this book is a mess. First we're given the gritty underworld that Fiona is running from, which leaves us with an ever-present fear and near paranoia that it will come to bite us throughout the book. But the entire middle section throws in high school, small town adventures, and an admittedly cheesy romance. And yet there are the very real issues of struggling with self-confidence, learning to trust people after they've hurt you, and trying to find your place in the world. But oh noes, we've gotta pass that math test or be humiliated for all eternity!!! Add in that ending and... I hate to say that books need to fit an archetype or niche, but there is such a thing as having too many eggs in a basket, and I don't think that cramming forty things into your character's story just to see how they'll affect and change her is necessarily a great strategy.

Especially when it leads to glossing over the world that you've set everything in. Basically, a few decades ago everyone started taking pills to negate the effects of radiation, but these pills ended up genetically altering everyone turning the entire planet into X-Men. Some people have useless 'abilities' like having pink skin and pointy ears, or emitting a skunk-smell when you're scared, but some people have amazing abilities like telekinesis, flight, or invisibility. Crime lords control the trafficking of these outlawed pills (because they enhance the abilities) by recruiting and/or forcing those with these amazing abilities to work for them. ...And that's basically as much explanation as was given in the book.

I can understand wanting to set your characters in an amazing world. I can understand wanting to give your main character an amazing ability, but still have them go through normal activities. How would an invisible girl be able to go to a normal school? If everyone else were freaks too! Sure, it makes sense, but that doesn't mean we don't want to see more of that world and less of Podunk America. I've heard people describe this book as X-Men meets The Godfather, and I'm not surprised that they're horribly disappointed by what they read. A crime syndicate of super-powered mutants going up against other super-powered syndicates or super-powered law enforcement? Hell yes! A super-powered former-criminal hiding out in middle America, worrying about boys and math tests? Interesting choice...but not what many people will sign up for.

Upon first picking up this book, I was kind of glad that it didn't have a series name on the front. There are a lot of series and trilogies out now, it was nice to see a standalone. And, reading through it, I do think it works as a standalone title. Fiona's story led to a nice crescendo and had a tidy ending. However, seeing that there is a sequel scheduled for January, I'm also kind of glad. I hope to see more of this world the author has created, including much more of the criminal underbelly, and get a better peek at what our heroine can really do. Sure, invisibility doesn't lend much to strength, but it's really unkind to tease us with a line like, "You should really learn to fight," and then not follow it up with ANY lessons.

Overall, Transparent had an interesting premise but suffered from a sloppy execution. I'd recommend it for those who read YA and enjoy coming-of-age stories with female protagonists and romance, but with the disclaimer that it is less like X-Men meets The Godfather, and more like X-Men meets Witness. It does contain violence and some mild teen romance, so I'd say high school and up would enjoy this the most. So if you're thinking invisibility would be a walk in the park, you might want to check out Fiona's perspective in Transparent.

Approximate Reading Time: 5 hours