Sunday, May 21, 2017

Book Review: The Duke of Bannerman Prep

As an English teacher, I'm always curious with retellings/reimaginings of the classics. It's one of my standard "creative" projects I give at the end of a book or unit. (I usually give one traditional essay and one creative writing project.)  I even drove a co-teacher crazy as we did the whole "rewrite Romeo and Juliet" assignment. Every year it feels like these reimaginings go through cycles: Shakespeare, American lit then Victorian age then myths then back to Shakes. Gatsby was inevitable after the flashy Baz Luhrman/ Leo DiCaprio extravaganza from a few years back (that I thought was quite excellent) and THE DUKE OF BANNERMAN PREP is one of those books. And it's an excellent book. I ALMOST single served it (according to Z's Review Glossary: SINGLE SERVED: Reading a book in one "sitting," almost always in a single day), having read the first quarter of the book over a few days then finishing the rest in one day. It kept me riveted, wanting to find out next, which is what you really want a book to do as a reader and a writer.

Nelson does a terrific job of retelling the Gatsby without making it a beat for beat rewrite of Gatsby. It's clever and helps the story stand on it's own two legs while clearly being a giant nod to the source material. She takes the big pieces from Gatsby, reshapes them into what she wants them to do and, most importantly, leaves out the things she doesn't need to tell her story. Where Gatsby is clearly Gatsby's story and Nick is our eyes and ears, DUKE isn't necessarily The Duke's story but Tanner's story. And it's one of the reasons the story really worked for me. I understood Tanner. In a way, I could've been Tanner.

Tanner isn't a Nick Carraway rehash, he's a kid from "the other side of the tracks." It's a well-worn trope that goes back since the cavemen were telling stories around the campfire and Nelson uses it well. She shines the trope up, giving us a different spin on the character, making us yell at the book for the way he's acting while completely understanding that in the same circumstance we would ignore the screaming reader that was reading our story yelling at us. The Duke is closer to the source material and that works, the mysteries are slowly unraveled throughout the story without clunking us on the head too much, though there are a few heavy handed moment that don't detract from the enjoyment of the story in the least. The other characters are a little cardboardy in spots, more out of necessity than any reflection on Nelson. They just don't have a lot to do except be there, but Nelson gives them enough to do so that they are more like colored in paper dolls where Tanner, The Duke, Kelsey and Abby are much more well-rounded.

As much as people are comparing this to Gatsby, I think that it owes just as much to the television show GLEE, but instead of show choir it's debate team. Nelson knows her stuff and doesn't crush you with jargon. I still had to Google a few things and that isn't always bad. The world of debate teams, in this day and age, deserved a book and it got a darn good one.

My only gripe, more to do with me the reader than the book, is why are we falling back on the steroid laced jock a-hole trope as the bad guys again. Jocks are just as well rounded as debate team members and theater kids and skateboarders. Nelson does address this, putting a-hole characters in these cliques. I also understood the type of character Nelson was writing, but at times it fell way to into cliche for me. But there seems to be a resurgence of the "Johnny Lawrence" character lately and we're more complex than that now.

THE DUKE OF BANNERMAN PREP is a fantastic book. A complex story but a quick read with just enough twists and turns to keep you wanting to find out what's next in the story. Definitely going to make the Best of 2017 list.

(An ARC was provided by the publisher through a contest.)

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