The First World Problems of Jason Van Otterloo by James Bailey: This Kid’s Struggles will Bring A Smile to Your Face

The First World Problems of Jason Van OtterlooThe First World Problems of Jason Van Otterloo

by James Bailey
Series: The Jason Van Otterloo Trilogy, Book 1

Kindle Edition, 193 pg.
2018
Read: March 15, 2019

Subject: New worst day of my life

If you have stock in me, sell it now. Or is it buy? Buy low, right? Then buy, buy, buy, because if JVO shares go any lower it can only mean I’m dead. Nothing is going right and everything is going wrong. Very wrong.

It’s been awhile since I read an epistolary novel (maybe Where’d You Go, Bernadette? — oh, and The Summer Holidays Survival Guide from last year — duh — I should stop thinking before I have to rewrite this whole paragraph), but I’ve always enjoyed them. There’s something about the structure, the conceit, the immediacy of it all that really appeals to me, and has since the day I first cracked the cover of Dear Mr. Henshaw 35 years ago or so.

This particular novel is a collection of e-mails from fifteen year-old Jason Van Otterloo (known by some as Otterpop, others just call him Jason) and his friends over the summer of 2003 in Seattle. This is a good setting for the book — it’s before the ubiquity of cell-phones/texting among teens, but at a time they could be emailing several times a day and it not seem strange (like it would in the mid-90s). I don’t know if that was Bailey’s thought process, but it’s what occurred to me. The emails are primarily Jason’s — not just because he’s prolific, but that’s a lot of it. Incidentally, I only caught one thing that jumped out at me as an anachronism — which is about the best that I can think of in an indie book set in the past (I don’t go looking for them, but they jump out at me. Binge-watching wasn’t a thing in 2003. At least not by that name)

Jason’s a pretty bookish kid who loves classic movies — not just AMC (back when that’s what the station was about), but there’s a theater near his home that shows old movies. His best friend, Drew (the recipient of most of his emails), frequently goes to those with him — they also play video games together, generally at Drew’s. Jason’s parents, Janice and Rob, aren’t in the running for Parents of the Year, to say the least. I’m not sure at what point Jason lost enough respect for the that he started calling them by their first name, but it could have been when he was pretty young. On the other hand, there’s enough venom in it (at least the way it reads to me) that it might be a recent development.

Janice shows the occasional burst of maternal activity or instinct, but it’s rare. Rather than a father, Rob seems like the bullying older brother character in most books I read as a kid. But in general, the two of them act like they’re stuck in their early 20’s — coming home from work long enough to greet each other and Jason, then they leave (not together) to meet up with friends and get drunk. Occasionally, they’ll get into a fight with each other, but nothing too serious. It doesn’t appear there’s any intentional abuse — physical or mental. It’s primarily neglect that they’re guilty of. Over the course of the summer, Rob does say a few things that will likely cause emotional scars when Jason has a few years to think about them, but they’re unintentionally mean (one was said when Rob was attempting to be nice and fatherly).

Generally, Jason’s e-mails are about whatever antics his parents are up to, arranging to meet Drew or whoever else, Jason’s soliciting Drew for advice about a girl he meets (he ignores almost everything Drew says, to the reader’s amusement and Drew’s frustration), and Jason recruiting Drew or someone to get summer jobs together. There’s an ongoing thread about a new neighbor who enjoys sunbathing, and Jason enjoys (hopefully surreptitiously) watching her. Rob enjoys watching her, too, but doesn’t bother trying to be surreptitious.

Jason’s emails are largely self-centered. Most of the stories told are his, not Drew’s. He does seem to care about Drew and is interested when Drew unloads a little. But largely, the relationship seems to be about Drew listening to Jason. Drew gets something out of it, however — maybe offline — because he seems emotionally-centered enough (for a fifteen year-old) to not put up with Jason as much as he does, if Jason just didn’t contribute anything to the friendship. Just don’t ask me what it is. His self-centeredness seems typical for his age, and it doesn’t make him a bad kid — just a selfish one, and a lot of that is because he’s never been parented by anyone who has a clue. Although, really, I’m not sure how many kids who have been well-parented who don’t act like that.

His parent’s (individually and corporately) show a signs of self-improvement — AA, marriage counseling, and others. Jason is openly skeptical about these efforts — perhaps because he’s seen similar things before. Not only is he skeptical, but he seems to actively subvert these efforts. It seems odd for a kid who spends so much time complaining about his parents to complain about them trying to be better — but it’s honest. He doesn’t believe in them, so why get his hopes up that this time will be any different? Sure, from the reader’s perspective it’s easy to say that these reforms might be longer-lived if he supported them. But from Jason’s? Nah.

There is a little character development over the course of the novel — but not a lot, But it’s just a few months, so there shouldn’t be a lot, right? What’s there seems genuine and true to the character — which is great. At the end of the day, you’ll have enjoyed watching Jason struggle and survive — learning enough to keep going.

Jason’s optimistic and amusing — which is says a lot about him. The whole book is told with a light touch –it’s not overly comic, but you grin as Jason recounts his latest embarrassment with Gina, or Rob’s most recent humiliating escapades — or even as he and Drew talk about their mutual astonishment when another friend has some romantic success. Things are bad, but they’re not bleak. They’re even kind of fun.

The cover, by the way, is perfect. It not only reflects a plot point, but it encapsulates the feel of the book. In a figurative sense the world pees on Jason the way this dog literally does. Yet, it’s kinda cute and amusing while it’s happening. Several good things happen to the boy, but overall, the book is about his problems (right?) and his reactions to them.

I don’t know what a YA reader would think of this — I imagine they’d find Jason relatable and likeable, but I’m not sure. But for those of us with enough distance from their YA days, it’s something that can be read with an air of “I remember when life was like that.” Even if it’s set over a decade later than my own teen years, I know people like Jason, I had friends who had a Gina in their life, and I dreamed of a girl like Sian. I’m probably not alone in this. This is a comfort-food kind of read — it’s entertaining and makes you feel good. I get kind of a Thomas Rockwell or 80’s version of Todd Strasser feel from this, very much a Lad Lit starter kit kind of thing, now that I think about it — which is good. Young Adults need something that’s not dystopian. There’s a sequel coming out in a week or two, and I’m really looking forward to it.

Disclaimer: I received this book from the author in exchange for this post and my honest opinion, which is what I provided.

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3.5 Stars
LetsReadIndie Reading Challenge

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A Few Quick Questions With…Matthew Hanover

Matthew Hanover’s Not Famous was released last week (see my initial post about it)– and he was clearly and understandably busy with that. Still, he took the time to answer a few questions for me — which I greatly appreciate. As usual, this is designed to whet your appetite for the author so you go check out their website/twitter feed/etc., but more importantly, you check out their book. I hope that’s what happens here.

I threw in a bonus question about the Nick Hornby/Ben Folds album Lonely Avenue to see just how deeply the Hornby-fan in him ran. Also, his book is about a musician — we should talk music, right?

You’ve spent a lot of time blogging your way through the production of Not Famous — which, incidentally, forces lazy bloggers to get more creative than usual when coming up with interview questions — why did you decide to do that? Did thinking about what you were going through via reporting it help you in any way?
My hope was to build an audience before my novel came out and help motivate me to get the novel finished.Talking about my novel’s progress on my website and on Twitter did help me connect with potential readers and book bloggers like you, so I guess it worked!
In the writing of Not Famous, what was the biggest surprise about the writing itself? Either, “I can’t believe X is so easy!” or “If I had known Y was going to be so hard, I’d have skipped this and watched more TV.”
I think the biggest surprise was how much I cared about the story and the characters. There came a point where, even though I was the writer, I felt I was just transcribing the story as the characters I’d developed would play it out naturally. As nice as that sounds, it was really difficult other times… If I didn’t feel inspired to write, I didn’t force it. There were definitely stretches of weeks and months at a time I never touch it.
I’ve made it clear that Lacy is the character that I’m most interested in — where did Lacy come from? Was it a conscious choice to make her role in the Nick/Alli relationship so pivotal, or did that just happen as you wrote?
Lacy, as you know, is Nick’s half-sister. Originally, she was just his sister, but as various plot points evolved, I felt it was necessary to put as much distance between them as I could, and so she became the daughter of their mother’s second marriage which contributed to his struggle to connect with her, and gave him a stronger opportunity to redeem himself with her. It seemed like an interesting way to explore a different kind of relationship (other than a dating relationship), and the problems that exist in that dynamic. Intertwining those to arcs was a real learning experience because I wanted it feel natural, and not forced.
Is “Lad Lit” all you write/want to write? Can you articulate what draws you to the genre? Is there a genre that you particularly enjoy reading, but could never write?
As far as novels go, yes. When I first read books by Nick Hornby and Jonathan Tropper, they were totally the kinds of stories I want to read… and eventually discovered I wanted to write. I do like science-fiction and post-apocalyptic novels, and I’ve written one sci-fi/paranormal short story… but I don’t think a novel in those genres in my future. Lad lit has always been the genre I’ve been most drawn to, and there’s quite a few stories in my head trying to get out!
What’s next for Author Matthew Hanover? Is Novel #2 underway, or are you solely focused (for now) on getting this launched?
I’ve been plotting out my next novel since before Not Famous was finished. I’m not actively writing it yet, and I should tell you straight out it is not a sequel, but is set in the same universe as Not Famous. Some characters you met in Not Famous will make an appearance… but this will be an office comedy / romantic dramedy. I hope to start it soon!
Oooh, sounds great. Hope to see it soon.

Bonus Question: Best song on Lonely Avenue and why?

Wow, what a great, and difficult question. How about I give you my top five? I’m guessing since you’re a Nick Hornby fan you’ll understand!

5. Picture Window
4. From Above
3. Claire’s Ninth
2. Practical Amanda
1. Your Dogs

As for why? I think these are the most solid songs on album… they’re all different… each tell vastly different stories…

Technically cheating — but I figure Rob Fleming would approve of the Top 5 approach. Good answers, too — although if we were hanging out in Championship Vinyl, I’d be compelled to tell you that you got 3 out of 5 correct, but your order is wrong. Good thing we’re not there, right? 🙂

Seriously, thanks for taking the time to answer these questions, I hope that Not Famous does well — and I look forward to your future work.

Pub Day Repost: Not Famous by Matthew Hanover: A Sweet bit of Lad Lit that’ll fill your Heart with Song.

This is now available for pre-order at a discounted price! Take advantage of it while you can!

Not FamousNot Famous

by Matthew Hanover

eARC, 382 pgs.
2019

Read: December 3 – 4, 2018

We meet Nick a couple of months after one of the most embarrassing experiences of his life — a marriage proposal that goes awry. He’s still reeling from that when he meets a very cute, and comparatively young, barista at his favorite Seattle-based Coffee chain shop. Alli’s not just a barista, she’s also a musician — a solo act, just a girl with a guitar — so Nick goes to one of her shows. He falls in love with her music right away, and somehow convinces her to go to dinner with him.

Which is just the beginning of their story. Alli’s a very private person with no romantic past. At all. Which seems hard to believe when you read it here, but when she tells Nick that, you have no problem believing it. Unless she’s singing, she seems nervous, uncertain, and shy. But on stage . . . she’s a different person. And while she seems like a shrinking violet, she has a will of iron when it counts. One of the places it counts surrounds her past — it’s a closed book — and it doesn’t seem likely that she’ll open up until and unless she truly trusts someone. Although she’s put up enough walls to protect herself that it’s going to take quite the guy to get her to let her defenses down.

Now, on the other hand, Nick has some kind of romantic past, but it’s hard to believe it sometimes as he fumbles his way through this relationship. It’s kind of fun to watch him act like he’s an expert on romance, someone guiding Alli through this new territory for her, and then frequently doing and saying the wrong things — almost sabotaging the relationship more times than he’d care to admit. Some of this comes from general ineptitude, some comes from the damage done to him in his last relationship (much of which he doesn’t realize happened).

Now, I don’t want to take any thing away from Nick or Alli — they’re they heart and soul of the novel. But, I want to talk a little bit about Nick’s sister, Lacy. Her father was their mom’s second husband, and about ten years younger. They’re not close, but their mother keeps trying to get Nick to be involved — after his step-father died, Nick’s really the only male influence in her life. Lacy, like their mom, wants them to be close. She sees him as her big brother, even if he only sees her as his much younger step-sister. As the book goes on, Nick’s maturity can be gauged by his relationship to his little sister. Naturally, like just about everything that’s not work in his life, Alli’s influence and action improves things — the friendship between Lacy and Alli forces Nick to play a larger role in his sister’s life. And before long, he doesn’t need Alli’s efforts to want that closeness himself. I thoroughly enjoyed Lacy as a character, and watching how Nick changes in relation to her — she was the added something that made this book more than just a sweet love story. She’s not around much, actually, and there are characters that have a more obvious impact on the plot — but she’s the non-Nick/Alli character that sticks with you.

She’s also the one character whose main role isn’t to serve the Nick/Alli relationship in some way. Now, she does serve that — don’t get me wrong. But that’s not the chief purpose for her. I have nothing against Alli’s Starbucks coworkers, or fellow musicians who only show up to encourage the romance. Or Nick’s roommate, or friend/partner who give him reality checks and the prodding her needs. But they really don’t do much else. But little sister does. If I ever get to interview Hanover, we’re going to spend a lot of time talking about her.

I would have appreciated having a better sense of who Nick is outside the relationship. I do have a sense of him as a single guy, as a friend, as a professional — but I’d have liked a bit more of that. It’s really hard to have much of a read on Alli outside their romance, as it’s all told from Nick’s POV. But you do get hints — I’d have liked a few more. But since this is the story of Nick and Alli, it’s appropriate (and enough) that we get a really strong idea about them as individuals relating to each other and them as a couple, and how that dynamic functions. I’m just a reader who almost always wants a little more than an author gives me.

At the end of the day — and long before that, actually — what you think about this book boils down to one thing: Alli. Do you like her as a character — do you fall under the same spell that Nick does? (or can you see why someone would?) Moreover, her secret — do you care? And is that caring based on this struggling artist trying to make her way in the world, or do you care because you’re curious? Nick, his struggles, his ineptitude, Lacey, etc. — you’re appreciation of the book will be flavored by your appreciation of those, but it’s all about Alli when it comes to the question of, “Do you like this book?” And Nick, at least, would have it no other way.

Not Famous is almost as much a tribute to Nick Hornby as it is a story in the same vein as his work. There are nods to Jonathan Tropper and Matthew Norman, too — probably Mike Gayle as well, but it’s been so long since I’ve read him, it’s hard for me to recognize that. This is not a bad thing — in fact, I quite appreciate it, and enjoyed the process of seeing how Hanover reflects his influences in his writing.

At some point, I can’t tell you where, I stopped thinking about Not Famous as something that I was going to post about, or something I was going to provide feedback on. I just got wrapped up in the story and the fate of these two characters (and his sister, actually). I stopped thinking about how Hanover wrote and was only concerned with what he wrote (not that I didn’t notice the former, I just didn’t care). It’s always a good sign when I disengage the critical part of my brain and simply read.

Not Famous — it’s cute, it’s amusing, it’s charming, it’s sweet. It’s the kind of book that you want to bring home to mother (okay, that line’s borderline cheesy, I know — but my mom would really enjoy this book) — and even bring it home to your daughter. I hope this book is successful enough to warrant future novels from Hanover, because I would love to read more.

Disclaimer: I was given a copy of this ARC by the author in exchange for this post. Which gave me something to opine about, but otherwise didn’t influence my opinion.

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4 Stars

Not Famous by Matthew Hanover: A Sweet bit of Lad Lit that’ll fill your Heart with Song.

This is now available for pre-order at a discounted price! Take advantage of it while you can!

Not FamousNot Famous

by Matthew Hanover

eARC, 382 pgs.
2019

Read: December 3 – 4, 2018

We meet Nick a couple of months after one of the most embarrassing experiences of his life — a marriage proposal that goes awry. He’s still reeling from that when he meets a very cute, and comparatively young, barista at his favorite Seattle-based Coffee chain shop. Alli’s not just a barista, she’s also a musician — a solo act, just a girl with a guitar — so Nick goes to one of her shows. He falls in love with her music right away, and somehow convinces her to go to dinner with him.

Which is just the beginning of their story. Alli’s a very private person with no romantic past. At all. Which seems hard to believe when you read it here, but when she tells Nick that, you have no problem believing it. Unless she’s singing, she seems nervous, uncertain, and shy. But on stage . . . she’s a different person. And while she seems like a shrinking violet, she has a will of iron when it counts. One of the places it counts surrounds her past — it’s a closed book — and it doesn’t seem likely that she’ll open up until and unless she truly trusts someone. Although she’s put up enough walls to protect herself that it’s going to take quite the guy to get her to let her defenses down.

Now, on the other hand, Nick has some kind of romantic past, but it’s hard to believe it sometimes as he fumbles his way through this relationship. It’s kind of fun to watch him act like he’s an expert on romance, someone guiding Alli through this new territory for her, and then frequently doing and saying the wrong things — almost sabotaging the relationship more times than he’d care to admit. Some of this comes from general ineptitude, some comes from the damage done to him in his last relationship (much of which he doesn’t realize happened).

Now, I don’t want to take any thing away from Nick or Alli — they’re they heart and soul of the novel. But, I want to talk a little bit about Nick’s sister, Lacy. Her father was their mom’s second husband, and about ten years younger. They’re not close, but their mother keeps trying to get Nick to be involved — after his step-father died, Nick’s really the only male influence in her life. Lacy, like their mom, wants them to be close. She sees him as her big brother, even if he only sees her as his much younger step-sister. As the book goes on, Nick’s maturity can be gauged by his relationship to his little sister. Naturally, like just about everything that’s not work in his life, Alli’s influence and action improves things — the friendship between Lacy and Alli forces Nick to play a larger role in his sister’s life. And before long, he doesn’t need Alli’s efforts to want that closeness himself. I thoroughly enjoyed Lacy as a character, and watching how Nick changes in relation to her — she was the added something that made this book more than just a sweet love story. She’s not around much, actually, and there are characters that have a more obvious impact on the plot — but she’s the non-Nick/Alli character that sticks with you.

She’s also the one character whose main role isn’t to serve the Nick/Alli relationship in some way. Now, she does serve that — don’t get me wrong. But that’s not the chief purpose for her. I have nothing against Alli’s Starbucks coworkers, or fellow musicians who only show up to encourage the romance. Or Nick’s roommate, or friend/partner who give him reality checks and the prodding her needs. But they really don’t do much else. But little sister does. If I ever get to interview Hanover, we’re going to spend a lot of time talking about her.

I would have appreciated having a better sense of who Nick is outside the relationship. I do have a sense of him as a single guy, as a friend, as a professional — but I’d have liked a bit more of that. It’s really hard to have much of a read on Alli outside their romance, as it’s all told from Nick’s POV. But you do get hints — I’d have liked a few more. But since this is the story of Nick and Alli, it’s appropriate (and enough) that we get a really strong idea about them as individuals relating to each other and them as a couple, and how that dynamic functions. I’m just a reader who almost always wants a little more than an author gives me.

At the end of the day — and long before that, actually — what you think about this book boils down to one thing: Alli. Do you like her as a character — do you fall under the same spell that Nick does? (or can you see why someone would?) Moreover, her secret — do you care? And is that caring based on this struggling artist trying to make her way in the world, or do you care because you’re curious? Nick, his struggles, his ineptitude, Lacey, etc. — you’re appreciation of the book will be flavored by your appreciation of those, but it’s all about Alli when it comes to the question of, “Do you like this book?” And Nick, at least, would have it no other way.

Not Famous is almost as much a tribute to Nick Hornby as it is a story in the same vein as his work. There are nods to Jonathan Tropper and Matthew Norman, too — probably Mike Gayle as well, but it’s been so long since I’ve read him, it’s hard for me to recognize that. This is not a bad thing — in fact, I quite appreciate it, and enjoyed the process of seeing how Hanover reflects his influences in his writing.

At some point, I can’t tell you where, I stopped thinking about Not Famous as something that I was going to post about, or something I was going to provide feedback on. I just got wrapped up in the story and the fate of these two characters (and his sister, actually). I stopped thinking about how Hanover wrote and was only concerned with what he wrote (not that I didn’t notice the former, I just didn’t care). It’s always a good sign when I disengage the critical part of my brain and simply read.

Not Famous — it’s cute, it’s amusing, it’s charming, it’s sweet. It’s the kind of book that you want to bring home to mother (okay, that line’s borderline cheesy, I know — but my mom would really enjoy this book) — and even bring it home to your daughter. I hope this book is successful enough to warrant future novels from Hanover, because I would love to read more.

Disclaimer: I was given a copy of this ARC by the author in exchange for this post. Which gave me something to opine about, but otherwise didn’t influence my opinion.

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4 Stars