Winning - Lara Deloza

(I got a copy through Edelweiss, in exchange for an honest review.)

I'm usually not much into "high school drama" (it's often too over the top for me, or perhaps my high school years were just too quiet and boringly normal, who knows), but this novel was quite pleasant to read, and what could've been total cliché characters were surprisingly fleshed out and interesting, in spite of fitting tropes.

Alexandra Miles is the expected Queen Bee, the one who'll no doubt become Homecoming Queen, like she has planned. Everything is planned, for her to get out of Spencer with a bang, not a whimper, become Miss America, and then... What else? What's more? Lexi doesn't know, and it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter too much either that she's living what used to be her mother's dream, the latter her having pushed her on the pageants road since she was a toddler. In short: Lexi is a queen, she knows it, she's smart and cunning on top of being pretty, and she won't settle down for anything less. And she's ready to go to quite a few lengths for that.
Enters Erin, the transfer student, Erin the cutie who's so adorable her mere presence soon starts to turn tables. She's a viable candidate for Homecoming Queen... a -very- viable candidate. This puts several things into motion, Lexi's plans not the least.

I liked Alexandra in general. She's the villain, she's cold and calculating, and overall all that's "nice" about her is just on the surface, acting, ploys to get what she wants and twirl people around her finger. She's good at that, really good, and she has the connections to boot, including her best friend Sam and her brother. She's despicable, too, the way she uses Sam and Wyatt's love for her to make them do her bidding. Yet once she comes home, once she has to face her drunken mother who forces her through the motions, you can't help but wonder if she's not just a kid who never received enough love—not an excuse, but an explanation. And when she believes in something, she pours her heart in it, for instance the way she stood up for Sam when the latter made her coming out. So, yes, she's selfish, self-centered, and not a likeable person... yet I still found myself rooting for her sometimes. Not necessarily in a "I want to see her crush the others" way; instead, in a "I don't want her to win but I also don't want her to be completely crushed at the end".

The story in general revolves around the girls. Male characters are present, but they're not the main focus, they're not the end to attain. These girls fend for themselves: Lexi aiming to be queen; Sam who sometimes questions her fierce loyalty; Erin the newcomer whose plans are a mystery; Sloane whom Alexandra humiliated and who's determined to act instead of remaining passive; Ivy who gets dragged along the way yet turns out to be stronger than she thinks. The narrative makes use of four POVs (Lexi, Sam, Sloane and Ivy), and manages to play on their unreliability: is this or that person a real schemer, or do they just seem they are because Lexi perceives them that way?

Bonus points as well for the lesbian characters, and for the subplot that makes them strong people on their own, without going for the "villain / victim / casualty" tropes. They're not 100% understood, but they're not complete pariahs either, and stand their ground: no victimisation here. The romantic undertones would work exactly the same if they were about a boy and a girl; it's all about understanding one's feelings, deciding who's the most important person after all, discovering love in an unexpected place, basically being human, with needs and feelings like everybody else.

Where I found the book wanting was in some of the plotting and decisions. Lexi's plot was a bit... strange and convoluted, and I kept wondering if the scheme she had hatched would be very efficient anyway. It seemed it was more cruel than anything else, and that it rested on a somewhat "naive" vision. Granted, this fits, in that she's brilliant but still 17, not a mastermind with decades of manipulations behind her; nevertheless, it also reminded me that this was, well, high school drama, and in that, it came too close to the usual clichés (such as "let's make X drunk so that she looks bad in front of the whole school" -- I guess Lexi had made me expect something more sophisticated, all in all). In the end, I suppose the plot was too simple to my liking, without as many twists and devious plans as I would've hoped. It would definitely have benefitted from more than the basic Homecoming thing.