Remember when you were a kid, and you would wait patiently (excitedly) for that toy you just knew you’d get for Christmas or your birthday and then when you got it, it wasn’t what you had wished for in your mind?
For me, that was Heidi Kling’s much anticipated debut novel Sea. That’s not to say it was bad or that there isn’t a readership here, but that’s to say for me, it didn’t work and I was quite let down.
Sienna Jones lost her mother in a terrible plane accident a few years ago, and the thought of flying terrified her. But, since her dad worked for a non-profit that helped children in overseas countries, she knew it was a part of her world and she’d need to confront this fear sooner or later. It’d be sooner, though, when dad surprises her with a plane ticket to Indonesia to help him with his efforts in preparing children orphaned by the Asian Tsunami become more independent.
She was, of course, not interested, but after a talk with long time friend/crush/boyfriend Spider, she decides she’ll go with her dad and his friend/crush/girlfriend/”mom replacement.” When they land and are welcomed to the orphan house, Sienna locks eyes over the drumming with a local boy with whom she will fall madly in like with. Yes, in like.
In her crush-like manner, she will do anything to be with him, including hop a plane to another part of the country in order to help him locate his father (he’d heard rumors he was still alive). Bad idea, of course: there is no dad, but someone else from his past has crept in and suddenly, Sienna is much more alone.
What worked well in this story was a unique foreign setting. There are so few mainstream books written for teens set in a foreign country. This, paired with the contemporary issue of the Asian Tsunami, kept me compelled and forced me to continue reading this title. I loved the setting, and I thought that Kling did a good job of weaving in cultural norms and discussions of how customs in other countries are just as valid and important as those in America. Sienna was a bit of a brat, and I think Kling did a good job of setting her straight.
But for me, that’s about where the good ended. I found there was more for me to dislike than like here. Sienna is an irritating character, who I wanted to smack more than one time. She was full of herself and bratty in a manner that reminded me more of an adult writing what they perceive as teen angst rather than a teen who sometimes is moody. I found the ancillary characters completely flat, particularly the boy she meets and falls in love with in the most cheesy manner. I can’t even remember his name.
Moreover, the writing itself left much to be desired. What may have sounded unique or may have been included to set a scene was clunky and confusing. There is a recurring statement about the “orange popsicle haze” of the sky, and it never once really resonated with me. I get the orange popsicle coloring, but the haze? It didn’t work for me. A number of other similes or metaphors used through the book came off more as confusing than effective, and the use of the drum beat for love came off more as cheesy than cute.
That said, Sea has a built-in readership that will find the characters and storyline compelling, and they will get a lot out of the setting here. It’s a fluffy read, perfect for summer, and because it has little in the way of language or sex, it’ll work for younger teen readers and those who prefer their stories clean. I wish it had a little more heft to it, since there was so much to work with from the setting, but I’ll have to wait a little longer.
Kelly Jensen is a former librarian turned editor for Book Riot. She's the author of IT HAPPENS: A Guide to Contemporary Realistic Fiction for the YA Reader and the forthcoming Feminism For The Real World (Algonquin Young Readers, Spring 2017).