A YALSA 2015 Best Fiction for Young Adults Pick
In Kat Spears's hilarious and often poignant debut, high school senior Jesse Alderman, or "Sway," as he's known, could sell hell to a bishop. He also specializes in getting things people want-term papers, a date with the prom queen, fake IDs. He has few close friends and he never EVER lets emotions get in the way. For Jesse, life is simply a series of business transactions.
But when Ken Foster, captain of the football team, leading candidate for homecoming king, and all-around jerk, hires Jesse to help him win the heart of the angelic Bridget Smalley, Jesse finds himself feeling all sorts of things. While following Bridget and learning the intimate details of her life, he falls helplessly in love for the very first time. He also finds himself in an accidental friendship with Bridget's belligerent and self-pitying younger brother who has cerebral palsy. Suddenly, Jesse is visiting old folks at a nursing home in order to run into Bridget, and offering his time to help the less fortunate, all the while developing a bond with this young man who idolizes him. Could the tin man really have a heart after all?
A Cyrano de Bergerac story with a modern twist, Sway is told from Jesse's point of view with unapologetic truth and biting humor, his observations about the world around him untempered by empathy or compassion-until Bridget's presence in his life forces him to confront his quiet devastation over a life-changing event a year earlier and maybe, just maybe, feel something again.
About the Author
Kat Spears has worked as a bartender, museum director, housekeeper, park ranger, business manager, and painter (not the artistic kind). She holds an M.A. in anthropology, which has helped to advance her bartending career. She lives in Richmond, Virginia with her three freeloading kids. Sway is her debut novel.
Read an Excerpt
The first time I ever heard Bridget Smalley’s name, it was a day like any other. There was no reason for me to think everything was about to change. That’s the way life happens, why you have to be able to see all the angles every time you make a choice. What’s true today might not be true tomorrow.
When the last bell of the day rang, my butt was already halfway out of my seat and I took the stairs two at a time to the first floor. A group of chattering girls banged through the stairwell door and I stepped back to let them go by me. As they passed, I was enveloped in a cloud of bubble gum and fruity body spray. Nauseating.
The hallway quickly filled to capacity with students leaving their classrooms while I tried to slip through unnoticed. A blond girl in heavy makeup squealed when she saw me and held out an arm as if to put it around my neck in a hug. She looked vaguely familiar. In fact, I might have taken her on a date once, but I ducked her arm and then slid along the wall for a few steps to avoid a herd of freshmen as they spilled out of the gym.
Two varsity basketball players were terrorizing a wimpy kid by playing keep-away with his backpack and blocking the corridor. The kid was obviously not destined to last long in the high school ecosystem, but there was no way I was going to engage in any misguided acts of heroism to help him out.
Instead of trying to get past the basketball players, I cut through the teachers’ lounge to emerge in the math and science wing just as David Cohen was passing by, talking with a short kid whose name I didn’t know.
“Hey, David,” I said as I fell into step beside him and gestured for the short kid to get lost. “How’s it going?” I asked.
“It’s going,” he said, eyeing me suspiciously. The short kid moved away and was instantly lost in the throng of students hurrying to leave the building.
David was a full head shorter than I, probably barely five-five, made to look even shorter because his shoulders were permanently slumped under the weight of his overstuffed backpack. His Jewfro was much frizzier than mine, though we had the same coloring—brown eyes, brown hair.
I glanced casually at my six to make sure no one was paying attention to our conversation before saying, “Listen, I’ve got another job for you.”
“Another one?” he asked with a grimace.
“I need two term papers for Bartlett’s class.”
“Oh, come on, Jesse, I barely have time to get my own work done,” David whined. “You’ve already got me doing labs for half the football team. How am I supposed to get two term papers done too?”
“I understand it’s a lot of work on short notice, David,” I said, my voice automatically shifting to smooth and soothing to divert his tantrum, “which is why I’m going to pay you fifty dollars for each paper.”
“It’s not about the money,” David said with a shake of his head. “My dad is the president of the university, Jesse. Believe it or not, he makes more money than you do.”
“Yeah, well, for now he does,” I said, though David was so busy wallowing in self-pity, he wasn’t really listening.
“I’m under a lot of pressure to get good grades,” David continued, operating under the incorrect assumption that I gave a shit. “I’ve got Model UN, student government—a lot of responsibility.” He crammed a hand in the pocket of his gray slacks and pushed his glasses up his nose with the index finger of his other hand. “I’ve got so much going on, I should be paying you to get my homework done.”
“I know everyone’s got high expectations for you,” I said as we walked. With David it was all about managing his tantrums and I needed him to be on his game, had a lot of money riding on his abilities. Not that I was so desperate for the money—I had pulled down a salary higher than any teacher at Wakefield High School last year, tax free. “Maybe there’s another way I can help you,” I said. “If you don’t need the money, what do you need?”
He barely hesitated, which told me this request had been on his mind before our conversation even started. “I want to go out with Heather Black.”
“Not a problem,” I said, my brain already calculating the costs I would have to offset against this transaction. “Just give me a few days.”
“Really?” he asked, his voice rising to a squeak. “But … didn’t you used to date her? Wasn’t she your girlfriend?”
“Sure, yeah, we dated,” I said with a nod, “but I wouldn’t say she was my girlfriend. Relationships are not my thing. There’s too much emotion involved.”
“I was … I was kind of joking,” David said. “I didn’t think you could actually … How are you going to get Heather Black to go out with me?”
“Don’t worry about it.” We both stopped at my locker and I spun the combination lock. “You ask her out next week and she’ll be willing.”
“Will she…? Do you think…?” His cheeks went pink and he pushed his glasses up again. “Do you think she might put out?” he asked as he leaned a shoulder against the locker beside mine, trying to look casual and failing miserably.
“Your dad’s rich, remember?” I said. “Which means you barely even have to be charming. But she’s not a hooker, David. I can’t make those kinds of guarantees. As long as you don’t blow it completely, she’ll probably let you get to second base.”
“Yeah?” he asked, the enthusiasm behind his voice enough to tell me that this deal was sealed. “What’s second base?”
“It depends on the girl,” I said with a shrug. “Knowing Heather, it will be farther than you might get with someone else. So, two papers delivered with a week of lead time so they can change a few things, make it look more like their own work.”
“Yeah, okay,” he said with a weary sigh.
“Alderman!” A shout reverberated down the hallway. The halls were almost empty now, most everyone gone for the day, which meant I was behind schedule.
“Oh, shit,” David said under his breath. “It’s Burke. I’m out of here, man.” And just like that, he was gone.
I spared a brief glance over my shoulder and there was Mr. Burke, principal of Wakefield High School—avid golfer, fly fisherman, father of three—and a major disappointment to his wife, the community, and himself. His high forehead was wrinkled in a frown, but not an angry frown—a worried, disappointed frown. Worry and disappointment defined Burke’s life.
His face was long and thin and his hair swept back from his forehead in a high pouf, giving the impression his head was even longer than it really was. I always wondered why his wife didn’t tell him to keep his hair shorter, try to create the illusion his head wasn’t so long. I suppose his wife didn’t care any more about him than did the students at Wakefield High School, which was not at all.
“I’ve been looking for you,” Burke said as he stood behind me, waiting for me to acknowledge him.
“Oh, yeah? The front office doesn’t know where to find me during the school day? I’m pretty sure they have my class schedule.” I shut my locker and turned to give him my full attention.
“I—I’ve heard that you’re a person who could help solve a problem for me,” he said.
I cocked an eyebrow in question. “Who told you that?”
“A few people have mentioned it,” he said evasively. “This is a high school. No secrets.”
“You’re right about that,” I said as I lifted my messenger bag onto my shoulder. “What is it you think I can do for you?”
He hesitated for a minute, making up his mind, then rubbed his hands together as if to warm them. “There’s a particular student who’s causing problems for me.”
At first my mind leapt to the idea that he was actually having an affair with a student. There were some girls just freaky enough they would give it up to an authority figure like Burke, even if his head resembled a winter squash.
“What kind of problem? If you want my help, you’re going to need to be specific,” I said, fighting the urge to check my watch. I was already behind schedule and now I had to think through how I was going to get David laid. The calendar was filling up quickly.
“Travis Marsh,” he said.
“I think I know him,” I said. I nodded and squinted one eye, as if searching my memory for Travis’s face. “Gritty guy, blond hair?”
Of course I knew who Travis was. I sold him at least a quarter ounce of pot a week. It was unclear why Travis persisted in coming to school. He never studied, barely attended class, and was probably reading at about a third-grade level. I could only assume teachers passed him just to remove the threat that they might end up with him in their classroom for another year. Travis was big, over six feet, and muscle-bound. Sometimes he liked to bully the weaker kids, but he had never given me any problem.
“That’s the one,” Burke said, reeling me back to the present.
“What about him?” I asked.
“He’s a threat to my authority,” Burke said, his voice tight with strain. “He doesn’t care how much trouble he gets in. No matter how many times he gets sent to the office, he just treats it like a joke. The other students, my staff, everyone sees me as ineffective because I can’t control him. The other day, he put graffiti on my car.”
“How do you know it was him?” I asked.
“He signed his name,” Burke said, his voice heavy with defeat.
“Did you call the cops?”
“The police said it wasn’t proof enough, that anyone could have done it and signed Travis’s name. No fingerprints, no serious crime, so they aren’t going to pursue it. But half the students saw it before I covered it up. Travis Marsh is threatening the very fabric of this school’s discipline system. He has to be stopped.” By the end of this little tirade, beads of sweat had broken out on his brow and flecks of spittle dotted his lower lip.
I gave him a minute to compose himself before speaking again. “What do you think I can do about it?” I asked.
“I want him gone,” Burke said, though I could tell it cost him something to admit it.
“Gone? Like dead?” I asked, mostly to amuse myself, but still curious to see what he would say.
Burke looked stricken, his eyes wide. “No!” he cried. “I didn’t mean … Jesus, you couldn’t … I mean, you wouldn’t, right?”
“You couldn’t afford it, even if I was offering that kind of service,” I said with a dismissive wave of my hand. “So, what did you have in mind?”
He still looked a little uncertain, one hairy knuckle pressed against his chin like a contemplative chimpanzee. “He’s only seventeen. According to the law, he can stay in the public school system for three more years. Things will spiral out of control by winter break if he’s still here. I need an excuse to expel him—an incontrovertible reason,” Burke said. This last comment was weighted with the full implication of what he was asking.
“It’s an interesting problem,” I said pensively.
“Does that mean you’ll do it?” he asked, then held his breath as he waited for my reply.
“Maybe. You know there’s a price involved?”
“I assumed as much,” he said as he started to reach for his back pocket.
“Not that kind of price,” I said. “You keep your money. Once I’ve solved your problem, you’ll owe me a favor. Give me a week. If I need to communicate with you, it will be through an associate of mine.” He opened his mouth to protest but I cut him off. “Don’t worry. She’s discreet. And we need her so that there can be no connection traced back between you and me.”
“Okay, fine,” he said, and started to smile, then seemed to remember that wouldn’t be appropriate.
I brushed past him on my way to the door. Now I was really behind schedule.
Copyright © 2014 by Kat Spears
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Received a copy from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Sway is an excellent debut novel! I had an extremely hard time putting this one down. Kat Spears managed to take a story that’s been done before (Cyrano) and make it feel completely fresh and fun. I loved the emotional journey Jesse took. Often I don’t feel YA characters actually achieve much growth. Spears nailed it. Nothing about this story or her characters seemed cliche because she created people who were relatable and seemingly normal (albeit flawed—but aren’t we all?). I experienced every single emotion each of these people felt—it was as if I was in their shoes. Spears gracefully addressed some pretty surprising and emotional issues as well (suicide, disabilities, etc.). I can’t put my finger on why, but the style reminded me a bit of “My So-Called Life,” without the annoying melodrama. Still plenty of juicy drama and feels, but in the BEST way possible! A truly moving and entertaining look at the hierarchy of high school, relationships and personal influence. Great humor. Lots of heart. Highly recommend!
I really don't consider myself a prude, but I was so disappointed that the author had to make the Main character, who was likeable, a drug dealer! Which was not likeable. Does she really think the girl of his dreams who is pretty much perfect in every way would fall for a drug dealer/user!? He very easily could have been "the guy who can get you things" without the things being dope and x. Shame on you, and you're a mom. Don't romanticize this type of kid and let him get the girl. Just my two cents!
Terrific debut novel aimed at mature high school students. Ms. Spears is a talented writer. The dialog rings true and is often humorous, the characters are believable and multi-faceted, the Cyrano de Bergerac plot is old but freshly served up.One of those books that is hard to put down and you're sorry when it ends. Sway is the nickname for a high school senior who gets "things" done: drug deals, booze, tests, bullying--all for money or future favors. Everything's a deal for him, so when the jerky, handsome football captain wants to go out with a quiet, pretty girl who turns him down, he pays Sway to make it happen. Sway does. Then he's sorry. Shades of Cyrano de Bergerac, but this is not a love story. It's gritty and probably best for 17-18 year olds.
An Excellent Book Contemporary, Young Adult Each one bought their popularity and he now owned their secrets. Now the question is will it cost him the one person he loves the most. Jesse Alderman is also known as Sway. He is the one person that can get things people want for them. He is also a high school senior that is emotionally detached. He knows what he wants until he meets Bridget Smalley, the girl of his dreams. Now he is out of his element and in uncharted territory. This is a modern day Cyrano de Bergerac that is told with unapologetic truth and biting humor. It also proves to be a book that once the reader starts it they will have a hard time putting it down. The high school world comes to life with every word that is read. The characters and what they are dealing with in each of their lives and how those lives intersects in powerful ways that will prove to be a very hard book to forget long after the reader has finished reading it. It is also interesting to see how Jesse starts out one way and how over the course of dealing with others his true self comes out. The story is rich in detail and will pull at the reader’s emotions as they go through each part of Jesse’s life. This is a book that will have readers wanting to read more by this author as she paints a picture that feels real with each word that is read. This is one book that is worth reading and should be put on the keeper shelves of readers. This is a story that will pull at reader’s emotions and will have them looking at the world around them a little bit differently.
Boy Meets Girl… Boy Charms Girl…. For Someone Else. Sold! That tagline alone was the reason that I read Sway; I knew nothing else about this book but I don’t regret it at all, I ended up loving it. Since I knew essentially nothing of this book, I was shocked to find that it was told through a first person male voice. I don’t often read strictly male POVs, I do read dual POVs with one being male but I am not used to being in a man’s head for the entire duration of a novel. I mention this because it should be noted before you start this book, since it’s a male POV, it’s different… One word to describe Jesse: crass. His mind is constantly in the gutter and he says whatever he wants to whomever he wants. It was off-putting a lot at the beginning but it thankfully didn’t drive me away. Once you sludge through that murky territory, the book is wonderful! Jesse, also referred to as Sway though he hates that nickname, is the guy you go to when you need something; whether it be papers, drugs, or dates, Jesse is the man for the job. I actually had a friend exactly like him in high school (to a much less drastic level), his name was Kevin and he sold snacks and drinks for cheaper than the machines and he made bank. Jesse trades in secrets and favors (as well as money) and it allows him free reign. The thing I enjoyed most about Jesse is his ability to read people, he knows what to say to each person to get what he wants. As much as he doesn’t want to admit it, Jesse is a deep and complex person; his story is intriguing because he claims not to care about anyone but some stubborn people decide to care about him which forces his opinions to change. "Caring about other people only brings you misery, it’s one of the laws of the universe.” Enter Bridget, the girl who Jesse is hired to get to know for Ken, the football superstar. Bridget is a great character and better yet, she is the complete opposite of Jesse; she volunteers her time with special needs children, visits her mentally ill grandmother every week, and she genuinely adores every person that she meets. You know what that means? We’ve got a little A Walk to Remember type romance going on here, the good girl and the bad guy. I loved seeing how Jesse tried to make sense of Bridget, she went against everything he believed about people and the world around him. Jesse believed that people were fundamentally selfish until he met Bridget; as much as he tried to fit her into his views of the world, she just refused to fit. She seemed to be the exception to the rule and already, she was under his skin, peeling back the layers that guarded his true self from others. “People think nothing about lying, cheating, and stealing – as long as they see it as something they want or need, they’re just always willing to justify it” Before I get gushy about the ship, I’ll talk about my favorite character! The Fake Grandfather. Jesse found out that Bridget visited her grandmother once a week so he bribed a resident there to pretend to be his grandfather. It is hilariously fantastic. This old man is AMAZING! He puts Jesse in his place all the time and it’s exactly what Jesse needs. I loved him for his comic relief but he was so much more; Jesse doesn’t have much of an adult authority figure in his life and this man started to fill that role for him. A true companionship started that transcended a fake grandfather/grandson relationship, a real friendship was formed. Pete also needs to be acknowledged, he is Bridget’s younger brother who has CP. He just starts following Jesse around one day and a wonderful friendship is born! He was a fun character, great for Jesse’s growth. Jesse is changing throughout the entire book, most of it can be attributing to the people that he is letting in but there is also a lot of personal growth. I enjoyed the fact that Kat never made a big deal of his changes, he would slowly change without ever being pointed out. It made the story feel authentic. Things I didn’t like: the believability of Jesse's business was barely there for me; in the first few chapters, the school principle asks for his services…. Yeah, I don’t buy that. Also, he had connections in absolutely every capacity, it was just a little too much for me. There was also an incidence where Jesse directly addressed the reader which is something I’m very against as a reader, it takes me out of the story completely. Last thing, this book STRESSED me out! I loved the parts with the main characters but any other times, I was STRESSING out. A common message throughout the book was that looks aren’t everything, preach; these teenagers were incredibly self-aware but I enjoyed it. Now to the good stuff. I. LOVED. THIS. SHIP. Oh my, the passion was electrifying when they were in the same room, let alone in close proximity. There was a slow build and it was perfect. Oh man, this ship was AMAZING. It was funny to see his feelings emerge against his wishes, he viewed them as traitorous which was hilarious! He was constantly having an internal battle and I would have read 400 pages of it, it was amazing. They are just perfect for each other in the most imperfect way. They challenged each other in the most unique ways and they had an understanding of one another that was phenomenal to read about. Jesse had never truly let someone in because no one was ever persistent enough to care; I’m getting teary over here. It was honestly just beautiful and somehow pure; it started out innocent and it just grew into one of my favorite ships ever. Fundamentally, what drew them to one another was that accepted each other for who they were, they didn't try to label each other or squeeze the other into a box, they just were. “Sometimes what we want to be and what the world expects from us are two different things.”