Found via: Kirkus Best of '09
I think all of us book nerds are happiest when we find a book that is truly engaging - not only can't we put it down, but we aren't even aware time has passed. Here in New York, the general consensus seems to be that a book is truly great if it makes you miss your subway stop. King of the Screw Ups didn't actually make me miss my stop - but that's only because I looked up after thinking I'd only been on the train for 5 minutes and instead found myself 6 stops from home (there are 17 stops between work and home). After that I made myself look at what stop we were at constantly, because while it's a high compliment for a book, it's still really annoying to miss your stop!
Liam is the son of a high powered CEO and a former supermodel - and much to his father's chagrin, he's taken more after his mother than his father. Liam brings home average grades (his father thinks anything less than an A is worthless), designer clothes, and far too many girls to fool around with. After one screw up too many, his dad is kicking him out of the house, sending him off to live with grandparents who hate him.
Luckily for Liam, his mom intervenes, and arranges for him to go live with his "Aunt Pete" behind his father's back. Pete is Liam's gay, cross-dressing, glam-rocking, trailer-living uncle who's been estranged from Liam's father and grandparents for years. And while he wants a relationship of some kind with Liam, he's really not sure he's the man to be trusted with straightening out whatever problems Liam is having.
Liam goes from living in an opulent home with a manicured lawn and massive closet space, to sharing a trailer with a dusty yard and absolutely zero closets, not even an iron to help keep his wardrobe pristine. After a shaky start at school, Liam determines that he should aim to be the geekiest, least popular kid in the school, totally devoted to his studies and geeky pursuits like the AV club. He's also on a mission to befriend Darleen, Pete's next door neighbor, the cousin of one of Pete's best friends, and also the most unpopular girl in school. Darleen, however, sees right through Liam's attempts and is convinced he wants to be popular and is trying to befriend her in an attempt to humiliate her.
But it seems that even when he's trying to screw up, Liam keeps screwing up even more. Every attempt at being unpopular blows up in face. He and Pete butt heads constantly in their small shared space, over everything from school to fashion. Liam isn't sure that he can be all his father wants him to be - but what other options does he have?
There was so much I loved about this book I'm not entirely sure where to begin! I loved how there was almost no conflict about Pete's sexual orientation - the only hate comes from Liam's dad (who has lots of issues with Pete; his sexual orientation is only one of them) and a bigoted bus driver who kicks Liam off the bus mostly because he has a gay uncle. None of the teenagers Liam hangs out with cares about Pete, and nothing is mentioned about Orlando, who appears to be openly dating Pete, being a high school English teacher. I found it very refreshing that Pete's orientation was only one part of his personality. He doesn't even cross-dress that often - more often he's in outrageous gender-bending outfits (not totally female, but not traditionally masculine, either, and with crazy makeup) as part of his glam rock band (which I loved).
I also thought this was a great representation of class outside of the very poor and the very rich. Liam's family is certainly very, very rich - but he's living with his uncle who works overnight at a radio station and lives in the trailer park. Liam asks Pete point blank at one point why he lives in the trailer when he's clearly smart enough to get a real job and live some place better. Pete's response is he's happy with who he is and where he lives - why should he try to live up to someone else's standards?
The theme of being yourself runs rampant through the novel, and occasionally gets a little heavy handed, but it's also clear that it's a message Liam needs to hear repeatedly since he has an overwhelming desire to gain his father's approval.
And speaking of his father: this is easily the worst dad since Say the Word. My reaction wasn't quite as visceral against Liam's dad as it was against Shawna's, but I think that's because we're a little more removed from some of the vileness of Liam's dad. We see him briefly at the beginning of the book before he ships Liam off, and then we only see him in Liam's flashbacks, so it's a little harder to judge him through the rosy lens of Liam's perspective.
This is easily going to be on my list of the best books I read in 2010. Highly recommend everyone pick it up!