Disclaimer: I won this in a Goodreads First Reads Giveaway. Loves me the free books.
There is really no question about it: adolescents and superpowers just go well together. After all, teenagers just want to be normal, and superheroes often just want to be normal. Can you guess what a teenager with superpowers wants?
Kelly Oram does not break any new ground with Being Jamie Baker, which hews very closely to all of its tropes. Oram none-too-subtly uses Jamie's superpowers to parallel the social awkwardness of high school. From page 3 onward, we are reminded that Jamie Baker is a "freak," both because she is a social outcast, an "ice queen," and because she . . . well, she has superpowers. So when the hottest, nicest guy in school starts courting her, Jamie has to decide whether to reject him and remain the ice queen or embrace him—which, if done literally, may end up killing him. However, in a nice inversion of the "bad boy, nice girl" trope, we have the "nice boy, bad girl" attraction going on—Jamie is not exactly rebellious, but she is antisocial, and she does have a lot of baggage. Her eventual catharsis with respect to this last point is the true highlight of this novel instead of her climactic attempt to rescue Ryan from the clutch of a mad scientist (I kid you not).
Being Jamie Baker is amazing if only because it brings back memories of my childhood, which has mostly dissolved into a faded blur of colour and Lego. This book reminds me a good deal of The Secret World of Alex Mack, a show I recall watching when I was very young. In both cases, you've got a teenage girl who gains powers as a result of a chemical spill. She discovers that having superpowers is not all it's cracked up to be, especially because it makes having a "normal" high school life practically impossible. Also, she must conceal her powers at all costs, lest shady government or business interests cut her up.
Again, obvious allegory for adolescent self-discovery happening here. But having taken all these tools out of the box, how does Oram use them to construct a compelling story? There are three major plots here: Jamie's relationship with Ryan, Jamie's need to reconcile herself with having powers (including the fear of discovery), and Jamie's desire to be accepted in the society of Rocklin High. Each of these plots works well with the other two separately, but all three never really come together as one.
Jamie's relationship with Ryan is annoying. Firstly, Ryan's self-assuredness did not endear me to him. His constant attempts to push past Jamie's barriers are supposed to show that he cares, yet they mostly make him a jerk. Secondly, Jamie's not that much better in this area. She vacillates between, "I can't be with him; I might kill him!" to "I want him. Want now." And every time she overhears Ryan laughing about her to his Popular friends, it never occurs to her to think that he's just pretending. She immediately decides he's a jerk and she hates him. I know that these fluctuations of affection are the hallmark of a hormonal teenage girl, but in fiction they need to be married to useful developments in plot. And that does happen sometimes; for instance, Jamie is understandably taken aback when a kiss with Ryan results in supercharging her powers, glowing eyes, and a lightning blast that knocks over a tree.
Even less successful, however, is the superhero story in this superhero story. A reporter, whose articles about Jamie's accident prompted her family to move in the first place, has re-entered Jamie's life. This time he claims her only hope is to go public with her powers before the evil Visticorp decides to capture her. The final twist turns out to be the identity of a former Visticorp employee who has essentially gone rogue because Visticorp didn't believe him about Jamie. He kidnaps Ryan on the night of the Big Football Game, luring Jamie up to the deserted high school for a creepy confession about how he will "keep her safe."
I was waiting for this moment forever. I mean, that's the expected payoff when the hero reveals his or her secret identity to a loved one. The problem was that, for the first part of the book, there was no sign of any supervillain or nemesis of that calibre. (Carter, the reporter, doesn't count. He's an idiot.) In general, Being Jamie Baker's pacing is so abysmally slow that when this payoff finally arrives, it is more a relief than a gratification. The villain, once he is revealed, is unimposing to the point of being laughable. There is no suspense and very little tension as Jamie goes about rescuing Ryan and disabling the villain. About the best thing that comes from the climax is Jamie's own confrontation with her moral event horizon (guess the outcome of that one).
But that's not plot; that's characterization. Despite my reservations about the story, Oram really impressed me with her portrayal of Jamie's voice. In particular, the following exchange is hilarious. Jamie has just beat the bad guy, and now Carter has shown up with her parents, who just finished planting evidence in the villain's home that frames him as a stalker:
"What things did you leave there?" I demanded, trying to make myself calm down.
"Oh, just your old pompoms, your crown, and a pair of your panties," my mom said. She shrugged as if it were no big deal and then smiled wickedly. "I stuck those under his pillow."
"Mom!" I gasped.
"Linda!" my dad yelled, every bit as horrified. The blood had drained from his face at the word "panties."
"What?" Mom snapped. "That's exactly the kind of thing a creepy stalker would take."
"Ugh! At least tell me they weren't any of my nice silk Victoria's Secret ones."
"The little black ones with the lace," Mom admitted guiltily.
Jamie's repeated protestations of "Mom!" feel so accurate, as does her embarrassment (not to mention her father's!) of this discussion about planting her panties at some guy's apartment. With Jamie, Ryan, Mike, Paige, et al., Oram duplicates the diction of adolescents, with "like" inserted in all the right places. I'm less convinced of the veracity of the parents' voices (does anyone really say, "I'm putting my foot down" these days?) but that's a minor quibble.
Beyond voice, many of the secondary characters, although not as well-developed, are less stock than I expected. For example, Mike Driscoll is Ryan's crony and not a nice guy at all. He's harsh to Jamie, and his attitude toward women in general is, at best, macho-ly misogynistic. Yet when Carter first darkens Jamie's door (by which I mean he shows up at Rocklin High), he is the first one to intervene. It is an act of solidarity with the ice queen that leaves both her and the reader a little bewildered, and I love that.
Then there is Jamie's back story, including her origin story and the true fate of her late boyfriend, Derek. Oram does not focus on this too much, probably wisely, choosing instead to reveal only salient portions. Once the whole story is out, you realize Jamie really is messed up and not just overdramatic (I had to admit I had some doubts until that point). This makes her confrontation with the villain much more fulfilling than it otherwise would be. We can understand on a visceral level, if not a literal one, how tempted Jamie is to use her powers to remove this person. As I mentioned above, it's not a very tense moment, because the outcome is predictable. However, it demonstrates how far Jamie has come from the beginning of the story, where she's an aloof ice queen trying to ignore her powers as much as possible.
There is really no question about it: adolescents and superpowers just go well together. Being Jamie Baker has some problems with plot and pacing that threaten to consign it to mediocrity. Jamie's voice, and Oram's characterization, rescues it—mostly.