As I’ve just received the cover design for Sleepwalk Society from the publisher, I thought now would be a good time to get off of my rump and post some of the reviews that have come in for the book. Here’s one from Tara Isabella Burton, an Oxford student and writer, who has contributed to several literary journals, such as "SubtleTea", "The Copperfield Review", and "8×8", amongst others. She was also a contributor to the Best Teen Writing of 2004 and 2006 anthologies.
From Tara Isabella Burton:
It is an unfortunate trend in young adult fiction today that the genre’s teenage protagonists tend to be concerned more with love and present happiness than the future. Twilight’s Bella Swan, the most widely-known adolescent protagonist since a certain boy wizard made his way onto the literary scene, defines her life around her vampire lover, choosing to forego further education and any chance of a career in favor of immortal codependency, centuries in which “the present” has extended itself indefinitely. So it is no exaggeration to say that Violet, the plain, wryly observant, angsty heroine of Kendare Blake’s Sleepwalk Society is a welcome change: a character whose meditations on life, the future, philosophy, and mankind are – if not particularly original – nevertheless all the more poignant in their familiarity. Violet is no cardboard heroine; she is concerned more with figuring out herself and her world than with vampiric tonsil hockey – and so her voyage of self-discovery is at its core more painfully, poetically real in its simplicity that any epic romance could ever be.
The novel, which follows Violet and her friends – the infuriatingly charming Terran, the immature Joey, and newcomer Brandon – through the summer following their freshman year of college, is short on plot proper. The main storyline, Joey’s relationship with Terran and the effect it has on Violet, meanders through Violet’s musings on 9/11, her parents’ alcoholism, and her feelings for Brandon, Joey’s cousin conveniently in town for the summer. Yet it is these meanderings – the slow series of mundane events – that make the novel what it is: a rawly realistic depiction of teenage life. When Violet analyzes her parents’ decaying marriage, or when she discusses The Real World with love interest Brandon in a series of marijuana-tinged conversations, she is passing through a gauntlet that is at once universal and yet vastly under-described in contemporary YA fiction; we cannot imagine Gossip Girl’s Blair Waldorf, for example, any more concerned with existential truth than with her latest lot of Louboutins.
Yet none of what Violet is saying or realizing is particularly new or profound. The adult world is often fake; cheaters often win; people are immature and selfish and foolish – any adult worth his or her salt has figured it out long ago. When Violet, for example, expounds upon the nature of Arab-American relations after an encounter with a non-white deli owner, some more mature readers might cringe on her behalf. But for Violet, each realization (made with a cocky sense that she has figured out some great philosophical truth) is new – and Blake is able to capture the pain and poignancy of these first coming-of-age realization, along with the sense of discovery, of re-inventing the wheel, that it attends. The reader may cringe for Violet, but more than that he is cringing at his own teenage self, the universality of which Blake channels expertly. A young adult reader – Blake’s target audience – might not appreciate the ironic contrast between what Violet knows and what she thinks she knows as well as an older reader, but that is by no means a negative: if anything, youth might cement the emotional connection between reader and protagonist.
The minor characters are sufficiently well-drawn for a young adult novel. A standout is Joey, whose relationship with Terran is one of the most well-drawn parts of the novel. When Joey, after staging their break-up in one of the most callous ways imaginable, shrugs and explains his behavior with “because I’m an asshole,” he embodies the self-destructive aimlessness any female reader has experienced all too well.
The novel is not perfect, however. The awkwardness of Violet’s narrative style – while certainly authentic to the character – can make difficult reading, and Violet’s habit of name-dropping brands, singers, or car manufacturers is distracting and at times irritating, grounding the novel too firmly in a particular place and time when its themes are aching to be universalized. But those minor flaws aside, this is certainly an engaging and above all emotionally honest young adult novel, the likes of which are far too rare in today’s market. If anything, I can best compare Sleepwalk Society not to other Young Adult books on the shelves but to countercultural seventies films like The Graduate or Harold and Maude (a connection Blake hints at briefly when comparing 9/11 to the Kennedy assassination): coming-of-age stories in which their protagonists open their minds to a world much greater than themselves.