Saturday, October 29, 2016

REVIEW: Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life (book) by James Patterson and Chris Tebbetts, illustrated by Laura Park

Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life is middle grade humorous fiction.


Rafe isn't thrilled with the way his first year of middle school started. At the suggestion of his best friend, Leo the Silent (the guy who rarely speaks and usually communicates via drawings that are incorporated into the book), Rafe comes up with Operation R.A.F.E. (Rules Aren't For Everyone). The whole thing is based on the school rules. Each rule that Rafe breaks earns him points depending on the level of danger, the amount of planning that went into it, who saw him, and what happened as a result of his actions. He does have one limitation, however, his “No-Hurt Rule” - Rafe's actions can't hurt anyone but himself. Unfortunately, things don't always go the way Rafe plans.

This book was a freebie I got at a library conference. I admit, I was expecting it to be awful, at least as bad as Michael Ledwidge and James Patterson's The Dangerous Days of Daniel X, and the first few pages fit my expectations. Like Daniel, Rafe's “voice” sounded several decades older than it should have. He referred to his mother as “Jules” and described one of the students at his school as “a real nice kid” (24). The chapters bounced from one thing to the next (Miller the Killer, Leo's introduction, then school again), as though Rafe had had a little too much sugar prior to telling his story. I also wasn't thrilled that Jeanne, the first female character Rafe wasn't related to, was instantly the object of Rafe's fantasies.

The whole premise had issues, too. Operation R.A.F.E. was alarmingly self-destructive, and Rafe's “best friend” didn't exactly help. Rafe seemed completely blind to the fact that Leo had suggested a game that required that he take all the risks while Leo got to sit back and enjoy the entertainment.

I'm going to guess that the first few pages of the book were the ones Patterson paid the most attention to, because the believability of Rafe's POV improved dramatically as the story went on. I found myself caring about Rafe and his family, which meant I spent a lot of the book wishing I could tell Rafe to stop doing stupid things just because Leo said he should. I seriously hated Leo.

Rafe was a fascinatingly unreliable narrator, and I enjoyed trying to read between the lines. I could usually guess what the adults around him were thinking, but there were occasional mysterious conversations that caught my interest and had me wondering what else was going on. I had some guesses, but they turned out to be nowhere near the truth.

I really felt for Rafe and wanted things to somehow turn out okay for him. At the same time, I liked that certain things weren't handed to him on a platter. Jeanne, for example, was thankfully not Rafe's designated future girlfriend (at least in this book – I have no idea what happens in the later ones). She had thoughts and ideas that didn't necessarily have a thing to do with what Rafe wanted from her.

This could have been a really good book, if it hadn't been for the ending. It felt like everything fell into place too neatly and easily, and the final revelation seemed like overkill. That said, this was still way better than I expected. The story and characters had me hooked, and I couldn't wait to find out what would happen next, even as I worried about Rafe and his mom. I also thought that the illustrations were a nice, fun touch.

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