REVIEW: Slammed by Colleen Hoover
Dear Ms. Hoover,
I’ve been trying to keep a lookout for new YA books to try, so when NetGalley touted this book and its sequel in an email, I requested the titles. Unfortunately, I don’t think these books are really what I’m looking for in YA: a compelling novel intended for a teen audience but sophisticated enough to appeal to older readers as well.
As the story opens, Layken Cohen is on the final leg of a road trip, moving with her mother and 9-year-old brother Kel from Texas to Ypsilanti, Michigan. The move is necessitated by the recent and sudden death of Layken’s beloved father. Her mother has been offered a job in Michigan that would pay much better than any she could get in Texas, and the family financial situation is such that she doesn’t have the option of turning it down.
Layken has just turned 18 and is about to start her senior year in high school. She is not happy about the move – she’s leaving everything familiar to come to an alien (and cold!) place. Her mood is almost immediately lightened upon arrival at their new house when she meets Will, a neighbor whose younger brother becomes fast friends with Kel. Layken and Will fall fast for each other; after a handful of encounters, one date and about a week of elapsed time, both are already quite moony. Then Layken goes for her first day of school and discovers that Will is her poetry teacher.
Well, that’s a bummer.
What follows is a lot of push-pull “we can’t/we must” business on both of their parts. Will is 21 and has been responsible for his younger brother since their parents were killed in an accident when he was 18. He is interning as a teacher while he finishes his degree, and he really needs the money (and also needs not to have his planned career ruined by allegations of an inappropriate relationship with a student). He puts a stop to the burgeoning relationship and tries really hard to do the right thing but apparently the attraction between him and Layken is just so overwhelming; living across the street from each other, having brothers who are best friends and seeing each other at school every day doesn’t really help either of them develop the needed distance.
The title is a riff on Will’s interest in poetry slams. I was confused by the fact that nobody in the book seems to have heard of poetry slams; maybe they’ve been around so long they sort of died out and are making a comeback? I don’t know. But, anyway, Will’s into them, big time: on his first date with Layken he takes her to a club that features poetry slams on Thursday nights, and subsequently he makes his students a deal: to attend and perform at the slam and they can skip the class final.
I thought most of the poetry performed at the slams was pretty bad. Granted, maybe they would be more powerful to actually see live, but on paper they came off as all having a distinct formula, regardless of the performer or subject: 1) write a short monologue on some horrible trauma in your life; 2) perform monologue in a loud, staccato, rhythmic style, emphasizing random words for unclear reasons. It would be okay for them to be bad if the characters didn’t constantly react like each one was the most brilliant thing they’d ever heard.
It took a long time for me to get a feel for either Layken or Will; at first, both of them seemed relentlessly bland and lacking in personality. Layken supposedly misses Texas and can’t wait to move back after she graduates, but we never hear what she misses about it. She didn’t seem to have much of a life there – she went to a small school, and appears not to have had many friends (she had one best friend whom she mentions a couple of times as barely having talked to since she moved). It’s fine that she wasn’t a social butterfly, but the lack of detail, the lack of history contributes to the featureless, bland vibe she gives off as a character.
To make it worse, when Layken does show some personality, it’s usually when she’s expressing anger, which is often. I certainly have known 18-year-olds who are still given to teenage-girl histrionics of the “I hate you!” punctuated-by-a-slammed-door variety. I just don’t necessarily want to read about them, especially not as a first-person heroine. I think one of the challenges for me as an older reader trying to find good YA books is this: I want to read about characters who are relatively mature for their ages, but not unrealistically so.
Layken’s immaturity made the relationship with Will more problematic for me than it might have otherwise been; 18 and 21 isn’t necessarily a big deal, 18 and 21 and a teacher/student power imbalance is kind of a big deal, and immature 18 with mature 21 on top of that is heading towards being potentially icky. I kind of wondered what Will saw in Layken (well, I wondered what they saw in each other, at least during the early instant-attraction phase, since neither seemed that interesting; later they do bond over a number of heavy burdens that made their attachment to each other more realistic).
Midway through the book, another tragedy strikes. It really felt like too much to me. Layken’s dad, Will’s parents, Layken’s new best friend Eddie’s hard-luck story of an abusive mother and foster care placement, and now this? These are definitely the unluckiest young adults in Ypsilanti. I’ll spoiler tag this one:
An action of Will’s late in the book brings my opinion of him down a notch, too – he reacts with over-the-top and inappropriate jealousy when he thinks Layken is kissing another guy. I think the point was to show his intense passion for Layken, but all it did was make a previously stable character look kind of unhinged. Overall, the characterization of Will was inconsistent and didn’t quite ring true.
I did find Slammed progressively more compelling; towards the end I was pretty involved in the story, even if I had issues with both the characters and some of the plot points. For that reason, my final grade for it is a B-.
I have to say that I’m disappointed that the main spoiler was just added without spoiler tags to the 3rd paragraph. Jane made sure and kept it in spoiler tags in her previous review here on DearAuthor and I would hope that it would be changed in this review.
That is the major shocker to the book and people shouldn’t have to read about it without a spoiler tag.
@Kristi – I added a spoiler notice at the top. The spoiler is fairly baked into the review and there was no way to easily a portion as a spoiler.
Thanks. I don’t think that came through on Google Reader where I read most of your updates but at least it is there now. :)
I’m glad you read this so I didn’t have to, Jennie. It does sound unlikely and overkill.
Also, I thought teachers have to have a masters degree to teach high school?
Just realized I have a question: why the B-? The review is mostly critical. What did you like about the book?
@Kristi: Kristi, I know it’s not mentioned in the blurb (which is one way I determine if something is a spoiler or not), but it does come out in the first 1/5 of the book, which is quite early (and that’s the other way I determine if I consider something a spoiler). I spoiler tagged the late-in-the-book dramatic development for that reason.
I know Jane left the twist unspoiled in her review but to me, it’s in great part what the book is about, and I couldn’t really express my thoughts about the book without revealing it.
@Janine: Maybe it depends on the state or the school district? I do think that’s generally the case. But he wasn’t a full teacher – sort of an interning teacher? Though I don’t recall that he had anyone supervising him closely or anything like that.
As for the B-, it was because I did really get into the story towards the end. And actually, it was pretty readable for all its flaws. I gave the sequel a C- because I was really over the characters and the drama by the time I got through that one (and I thought it was inferior to Slammed in terms of the arc of the plot, but really it was mostly a full grade lower because of my fatigue and annoyance with Lake and Will by then).
@ Jennie & Janine : The teaching “bits” in this book were the hardest for me to swallow. My folks are public school teachers.. and so when I was reading it, my inner know-it-all was like NOPE, I Don’t Think So, Try Again. 21 is very young.. and student teachers are never given that sort of autonomy. They have to clear lesson plans, the supervising teacher is usually in the same room ( and while it’s not unheard of to be left alone after months of teaching.. it’s Nothing like what’s described in the novel). When you *do* end up teaching, AFAIK – A masters degree isn’t required, but to teach public school, you need to have something called a teaching credential. Private schools don’t require this, but public schools do. So if the hero had been teaching in a private school, that might have been easier for me to believe. And when Will loses his shit and hits the other student? (Even in defense of Lake) Yeah, I don’t think so. Teachers have been called aside for scolding their students, let alone punching one.
@readsalot81: I really appreciate your comment. I wondered how a 21YO could be a teacher. A student teacher, yes, but as you say, there should be plenty of supervision for someone in that position. Also, Ypsilanti MI’s school district can afford a “poetry teacher” ? I don’t think so.
I assume the teacher-student thing was done to provide a built-in hierarchical conflict that was different from the usual vampire-human or billionaire-normal person one, but it also sounds kind of the same. And making her 18 and him 21 was done to make it less squicky for people who don’t like age differences or underage heroines. But it just creates fantastical preconditions in other ways.
Also, who moves to Ypsilanti because the jobs are great there? It’s worse off than the average town in Michigan, and that’s saying something.
@Readsalot81: It sounds like a contemperroneous (the contemporary equivalent of a mistorical). I remember hearing that a masters degree in Education was required in order to teach, but maybe that’s just for people whose undergraduate majors were in something else? I know I had a Physics major friend in college who went on to grad school so he’d be able to teach at the high school level.
I have read Slammed and Point of Retreat. I love these characters and the entire story line. Actually I hope Ms. Hoover will consider a third novel with Kel and Caulder going through teenage growing pains. I’d like to see how Lake and Will handle this. No more hardcore tragedy though; this was at times heartbreaking to read. I’m not twenty, thirty or forty something and as an older reader I still find it refreshing and interesting to read about young people and their plights compared to mine at that age, AND the dilemmas of my children and their families. Ms. Hoover is high on my list of favorite authors.