Thursday, June 22, 2017

Stephen Florida (Gabe Habash)

 The most compelling horror narratives are without a doubt stories of obsession—the seminal text here being The Turn of the Screw—and often the horror comes from the claustrophobic, breathless inescapability of the character’s mind. The most terrifying film I’ve ever seen is Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, precisely because it captures Norma Desmond’s singlemindedness so precisely and painfully that, as she walks into the camera, face smeared by the closeup, I shudder involuntarily.

Gabe Habash’s Stephen Florida is like that. Our protagonist is a college wrestler in isolated North Dakota in his final year. He wants to win, to be the first champion from Oregsburg College, so he doesn’t eat and exercises like a demon and stays focused all the time. Like with any good horror story, we need a skewed perspective, someone we trust who cannot be trusted, and Stephen is that character, even down to the fact his name is actually Steven. Many of the reviews I’ve encountered say this novel works so well because of how strongly the narrative voice drives it (praise well-deserved). Stephen is funny, charming, strange, and disgusting all at once, like the handsome gentleman two tables over at dinner who suddenly sucks all his snot back up his nose as loud as he can. Riveting.

The standard approach to a story like this one would have been 250 pages of wrestling terminology, of visceral descriptions of the body and injuries, bloodlust writ large. As boring, dumb readers, we are dazzled by specialized knowledge, loving walking away from fiction feeling like we glimpsed into the catalogued aspects of a specific reality. Indeed, Habash includes scenes just like the ones I’ve described, and they’re enthralling for their technicality and rhythm. We are wrestlers when we read these parts because it is impossible not to steep yourself in these descriptions, to not lose your body and your mind to the pursuit of greatness.

We flit from these topics to others with ease, though: the carnality and masculinity of our main character are simply components of him, not defining features, and so Stephen tells us about the jokes the team makes about him and Linus, the freshman star wrestler; he tells us about his pledge not to ejaculate anymore; he pees on the heads of passersby a flight of stairs below him. Sentences later, we hear about Stephen perusing the SAT prep guide to learn new words, or his meditations about jazz and art.

There’s a richness to Stephen’s character, a fullness, but it feels off-kilter and askew. Like any good horror story, the way Stephen is forces us to ask questions about how people operate, whether Stephen is doing it or if it’s just pretend. Are his interests—any of his interests, including wrestling—genuine, or are they programmatic, suggestions from other people he takes on to fill his brainspace? Behind the depth, we have suggestions of a gaping, ponderous vacancy. Is there anything more terrifying than confronting a void, mental or otherwise?

Stephen’s influenceability—or willingness to be influenced—elevates the story because Habash uses it to take our protagonist down dark mineshafts. The narrator’s contact with other people warps his world as he consumes their suggestions and ideas: there are these nightmarish, quasi-surreal tangents we go down involving gorilla masks, career services, suspected murders, a specter called the Frogman, and resurfacing Australian aunts. They are spirals, tornadic black scribbles in the margins. They build and twist the tension, near-infinite turns of the screw, and they never resolve, to the point that we nearly feel as though we’ve drowned in Stephen’s chaos with him.

These offshoots of his demonized perception are madness, and there can be no resolution to madness. In perhaps Habash’s boldest commitment to the horror genre, the book continues for just a few pages after we’ve found out the results of Stephen’s final wrestling match. In a normal book about obsession, the 250-pages-of-wrestling-and-nothing-but version, this is where it ends. But this is a horror novel, I keep saying, so we glide past it and finish with a chilling, ambiguous non-ending that cracks the storyworld to pieces.

Rather than a book about wrestling, I might suggest Stephen Florida is a story about a person addicted to obsession that chronicles his horrifying hoarding of multiple interests at once. How much can a human brain withstand? How much reality can still filter through those mental thickets? It’s funny and scary, compelling and off-putting, and the end result is like considering a diamond: it’s beautiful, but how much blood was soaked into that stone? Gabe Habash won’t tell you—he’ll just show you the one spattered drop of blood on the backside and let you figure out the rest. And that’s what horror is.

My rating: 5/5

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Marlena (Julie Buntin)

Marlena is the kind of novel that I’d liken to a tumor: it grows inside you, insidiously; it’s an organic part of you; ultimately, it’s fatal. I diagnosed myself stage-by-stage as I read: I detected it, I biopsied it, it turned out to be malignant, and then it killed me.

This is a story about Cat, who moves to a new town and meets Marlena. Marlena is intoxicating: she’s the bad girl archetype fully realized, gorgeous and witty but careless and dangerous. She allows herself to be drawn into the darkness, and once she’s there, you don’t have much of a choice but to join her. It’s a character type that looms large in the contemporary imagination lately, but what makes Buntin’s take distinct is Marlena’s innocence. She’s portrayed here as vulnerable, teetering between intentional manipulation and casual naiveté. Marlena is not the femme fatale, not yet—she never gets wise enough to own herself in that way.

One of the most admirable qualities of this novel is its portrayal of adolescence. A word I see in many reviews is “unflinching,” though I’m not sure that’s the appropriate choice here: it’s not so much that Marlena shies away from anything as it’s so devoted to its perspective that we never question, never doubt, never stop engaging with the fantasy of teenage immortality. Teenagers are, of course, terrible, and they’re terrible here, too, but Cat is honest and clear in describing her friends and their particular terribleness. For a moment, for 300 pages (whichever comes first), you slip outside of your knowing right and wrong, your Adult Smartness™, and remember how infallible you felt in high school.

The book, narrated from the present moment by a thirty-something Cat, alternates between glimpses of her life now and extended narration of the past. The structure is such an intelligent choice for this novel, since it teaches us about Cat’s mental space: this is a story about compartmentalizing and eulogizing and forgetting and remembering, and the balance between the past and the present (or lack thereof) gives us a meaningful understanding of how the past works as scar tissue. It’s not that Cat is, years later, still obsessed with her dead friend. She hasn’t devoted her entire life to memorializing Marlena.

But Marlena will not—cannot—be dismissed. Even in death she is a force of nature that wreaks havoc on someone who escaped her pull not by choice but by accident, and the consequences of those circumstances have left their mark. How can you attain closure when you weren’t trying to suture your wounds at all, but simply woke up to find them stitched?

Buntin avoids depicting loss as an overblown, chapters-long episode of sobbing. It’s far more nuanced, framing the idea of death as a narrative that cannot be rewritten. It rings true for anyone who’s ever played the what-if game: what if I’d just called the ambulance sooner? What if I’d insisted he go to the doctor? What if I hadn’t let her get in the car? It’s the desire to affect change stretched out over decades, and it’s painful and precise. The emotions in this book, and they run the whole gamut, are so genuine and earned—it’s dazzling to submerse yourself in a nonstop torrent of true feelings for and with made-up people.

The book is consistently written stunningly: breathtaking passage supersedes breathtaking passage. That kind of writing can get exhausting, but Marlena’s author is so controlled, so careful with her sentences that it never does. Buntin’s prose is so evocative, so rich with emotion, that inhabiting it for the course of a full novel has the effect of suspending the reader on a high-wire; you’re terrified you’ll fall, but you keep testing your limits to see how long you can hang on.

Ultimately, what I find so satisfying about Buntin’s debut is its willingness not to hide anything: our narrator does not obfuscate. We know early that Marlena dies. We know early Cat moves on. And despite it, the book shivers and shakes with tension—it takes over your body and kills you, page by page. Engrossing, horrifying, delightful.

My rating: 5/5

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Goodbye Days (Jeff Zentner)

Thanks to NetGalley for this eARC in exchange for my unpolluted review.

"Jeff Zentner is dangerous." That's how I began my review of last year's standout The Serpent King, and it turns out the label must still be applied. Jeff Zentner deserves to be locked up in his own corner at the bookstore labeled "Dangerous Writer," in a cage where snake tongues slither out and beckon you to reach your hand inside, where incredibly venomous fangs puncture your flesh.

Goodbye Days is all about dying and dealing with death. Carver texts one of his friends, who tries to answer the message while driving; he and two other members of the Sauce Crew (their friend group) die in a car accident. Carver must go on, as the living must, trying to understand his new world and the part he plays in creating it.

It's easy to suspect that this novel will be a mess: let me be clear that it is one of the least messy things I've ever read. It's careful, it's smart, it's thoughtful, it's heartfelt. There are feelings on every page, but they're emotions well-earned; they never demand you feel a certain way, they never feel inauthentic or superficial. What I'm trying to say is the characters in this book are shaped by grief, but they shape their grief, too--we see a dozen different shades and angles of sadness and loss in this story, each of them well-realized and painful. It's easy for grief in art to be melodramatic: it's our natural impulse, to express such a powerful feeling, by going big or going home. But it's not like that in real life, and where this novel really succeeds is in its small moments, tiny asides where a character weeps silently, talks or doesn't talk about their feelings, acknowledges or denies the suffocating, throbbing threat of death that looms in the air all the time. It's stunning.

As I said before, what makes Zentner so dangerous is his intelligence: the thing I appreciate most about his writing his how his characters call each other out when they're shitty. Someone's racist? Call it out. Someone's sexist? Call it out. Few authors are able to create characters who are flawed but learning--it's the kind of growing, changing world we hope for (insert a "this is the future liberals want" meme here). And it's nice to see that in fiction. 

What's also nice to see in fiction is friendship. The default idea about how to write is to pile strife and despair on characters, which of course is great and true because what story runs well on happiness and joy alone (answer: none). Zentner cleverly sets up his story, though, to interject love and friendship into this tragedy with interposed memories of the Sauce Crew just goofing around. These scenes feel so quintessentially guys-in-high-school that I caught myself rolling my eyes, which I mean as a compliment: I had no groups of guy friends in high school because I found their antics overwhelming, so the author really captures that interplay realistically. 

The shifting between Carver post-accident and his friends pre-death also works really well in creating a textual psychology; we're constantly careering between warmth and emptiness in a way that clearly mirrors Carver's own feelings--there's a moment when Carver says that every day, for the first five seconds of each morning, he wakes up forgetting that his friends are dead, and structuring Goodbye Days to include these memories drives that feeling home, submerges you into one character's perspective in a way that enriches your understanding of all the characters' perspectives. Shifting between narrative threads can feel gimmicky, but here it never does.

Perhaps the thing that wowed me the most about this book was its approach to handling love in conjunction with grief. Zentner renders love how it really is: full of yearning and hope but built on a foundation of panic and loneliness. There's a love story here (kind of), but we're also guided through parental and sibling love too, bumping shoulders with ideas of replacement and surrogacy and absence along the way. Too often is love boiled down to its brightest, shining moments; even in real life, too often do we ignore the pain and discomfort that being loved so hard can bring.

Last year, I'm sure Jeff Zentner heard a million times that he was "one to watch." But two books in, I think we can do more than just watch him: he's one to trust, he's one to believe, he's the real deal.

My rating: 5/5

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

The Serpent King (Jeff Zentner)

Jeff Zentner is dangerous.

If you've already heard about The Serpent King—and I'm sure anyone with even a mild interest in the goings-on in YA has, because this book is everywhere—then you probably think I'm talking about how this book is an emotional rollercoaster, a kiss on the lips from your high school crush and a punch in the stomach from your high school bully. That is, it leaves you warm and gooey—vulnerable—before it smears you all over the place. I saw a review of this novel from Adam Silvera in which he says “This book will punch you in the heart. In a good way. A punch to the heart isn't usually a good idea, but it is here.”

Which is totally true. Our story centers on Dill, Lydia, and Travis, three high school seniors in small-town Tennessee. Dill is the son of disgraced ex-preacher of a cult church; Lydia is a fashion blogger social media maven stifled by the trappings of her decidedly unmetropolitan hometown; Travis is a quiet, nerdy type who likes epic fantasy series and avoiding his abusive dad. We follow them through the journey—as epic as The Odyssey—through their last year together, navigating college applications, family shame, and the release of the final Game of Thrones Bloodfall novel. It's a recipe for tragedy!

And tragic it gets—as well as funny, bitter, frustrating, heartwarming, and just about every other emotion you have probably felt in your entire life. It’s astounding that Zentner encapsulates the idea of being a high school senior in one novel, and he does it so well.

The Serpent King has a lot of depth: depth of feeling and depth of character are two of Zentner's strengths. Something that frustrates me about many books is their reliance on easy tactics to invoke feelings: a teenager has cancer? You'd better cry. A small child loses a parent? If you aren't crying, you're a bad person. The emotions you're being asked to feel in these scenarios are shallow at best--they're the idea of the feeling. Zentner doesn't pull such cheap tricks--the emotions the book provokes are genuine and legitimate, anchored to genuine and legitimate characters.

Rarely do I read a book told in alternating perspectives where that setup feels so compelling. Usually, I lean into one voice over another, favoring one character’s narration, growing impatient with the switches in perspective; however, this novel’s use of the tactic feels justified, because the voices are interesting and varied enough to create a multiplicity. This of course is what helps give the novel its depth—we’re seeing high school not just through one set of outcast eyes, but three. I was amazed by how quickly I sank into the characters of this story, how I craved each of their narrative perspectives even as I read them.

But none of that is why Jeff Zentner is a dangerous author—sure, it’s impressive that all of the aforementioned stuff is true, but it’s not reason to label him a danger. No, the reason I’m so terrified of Zentner—terrified and envious—is his intelligence. He’s a careful writer, one who is very aware, and that awareness sparkles on every page. Lydia, for example, wants nothing more than to leave her small town; she passes judgment on her friends for not wanting the same. The average writer would probably leave it at that, but Zentner knows it’s problematic: he has other characters in the novel tell her how rude she’s being. Yes! Teenage love is the cheesiest, most melodramatic of all love, and rather than bogging himself down in cornstarch, Zentner has the characters acknowledge how goofy they sound when they talk about their feelings.

It’s this sort of self-awareness that really let me fall in love with the book: the author is far too brilliant to let the trappings of his “genre” (or age group or whatever we’re calling YA these days) hinder him from telling a story. Even in the moments when the novel heads for traditional problem territory (i.e., terrible parents, death, heartbreak), Zentner keeps his writing fresh and his characters grounded. Dialogue and monologue never strayed into the maudlin or the meaningless—I held my breath, terrified that this scene or that would be the one where the book crumbled, but he pulled it off again and again.

Everything in the novel works toward this awareness, even the multiple perspectives—because we’re not spending time in just one character’s head, we have opportunities for other characters to see through their bullshit. It was such a gratifying experience to read a story like this one, one which almost seems to slap the characters across the face to remind them that they’re part of the real world, not a story at all. The payoff is immense; this book is more delightful than the word “delightful” can express.

The Serpent King dazzled me with its complexity and nuance, itself almost a serpent writhing and sparkling in the sun, mesmerizing me, rearing back to lunge and sink in its fangs.

My rating: 5/5

Friday, August 26, 2016

Spontaneous (Aaron Starmer)

Every time I read a new Aaron Starmer novel, I feel the need to examine it on many levels, which is a clear testament to the depths of his intelligence--a story is never just a story with Starmer. No, there are layers twisting and folding into each other, begging to be picked apart.

At first glance, it's a novel about spontaneous combustion. This is what everyone's going to say when the book comes up in conversation; a bunch of teenagers in a regular old town called Covington keep exploding. What more do you possibly need, especially if you're one of those people who reads on premise alone? Spontaneous is a thrilling novel about Mara Carlyle trying to navigate a world where her classmates keep exploding, where the world slowly turns away from and then forgets her. It's a novel of intrigue and surprise pushed along page after page by the force of bodies literally exploding.

On second look, it's a hilarious story about (what else?) growing up. Mara is a senior in high school, after all--sure she's navigating an existence as a member of the (potentially cursed) exploding class of Covington High, but she also has to figure out how love and sex and boyfriends and drugs work! Mara is an explosive character if ever there was one: Starmer as always is such a delicate character writer, and nowhere is that more obvious than with his work on Mara Carlyle.

She's so complicated--the trope of "outwardly cynical/inwardly sensitive and profound" has been done many times, but Starmer doesn't settle for just that: she's funny, prone to surprising acts of cruelty and kindness in equal measure, and what I love so much about Mara is that she's aware of the person she is: she reports her flaws honestly and admits they're faults. She's that challenging friend in your life who says "I know I'm wrong but I don't care," and you want to hate her. Sometimes you do. It's quite a feat to create that character on the page--in an age of boring debates about likeability as it relates to female characters, Starmer charges out, middle fingers ablaze, and for that, I'm grateful.

On the triple take, however, we're confronted with a thorny set of questions: what is grief, and how does it operate? How do we handle loss? How much blame must we shoulder merely for existing? How do we move on? There are so many angles from which this question can be approached and Spontaneous isn't shy: it tackles parent-child grief, friendship grief, romance grief, collective grief, young people grief. The list stretches on. Despite the fact that so many characters die--I mean, statistically, we're probably talking a death every 15 pages or so--the story manages to peer inside each of these moments to find the heartache and suffering, to extract the nuances of each loss for us, even as Mara tries to joke her way out of having real feelings. It's exquisite, and just like real grief, it culminates in a lesson that some things must go unsolved; why do some of us survive? Why does anything happen when and how it does? What does it mean for our own agency?

While perhaps the way Starmer ends his newest novel might be frustrating to some readers--I'm looking at you, people who decry ambiguity and fume over premises that aren't explained in textbook specificity--I think it's the perfect (and really, the only) kind of conclusion to a tale like this. We are left unsatisfied because life is unsatisfying; it offers no rewards or explanations. And maybe that's bleak, but we cope, just like Mara--we can spiral downward into the abyss of existentialism, or we can make it work any way we know how.

My rating: 5/5

Friday, April 29, 2016

A Study in Charlotte (Brittany Cavallaro)

Thanks to Edelweiss for the eARC in exchange for my honest, untainted review!

Though I have yet to read an original Sir Arthur Conan Doyle story or watch the BBC version, I find myself quite ensnared by the Sherlock Holmes genre. There's something very appealing to me about ludicrously complicated mysteries and the use of really solid, excellent (if improbable) deductive reasoning to solve those mysteries. As always, I'm a sucker for retellings/reworkings, too, so it seemed a logical (wink) choice to read this book.

And I really, really enjoyed it! Long ago did the magic of "I just need to keep reading" wear off for me (which is, in itself, a tragedy), but rarely a book comes along that reignites that feeling, and this was one of them. I found Watson and Holmes to be well-rendered characters, endearing and frustrating in all the right ways: their chemistry was, for me, quite alluring, and every moment they weren't on the page together was a moment I spent clamoring for them to reunite. The pacing is incredibly deliberate--which some people complained about, I noticed--but that's part of why I was drawn back to the book over and over: the mystery is a slow burn, which is pleasurable in its agony. Sometimes it vacates to the fringes of the novel as Cavallaro opts to focus instead on character development and, considering this is the first of three, I found this to be an excellent, well-executed idea.

Something inherent in the YA genre (can I call it a genre? I want to) means we need to see character growth: they're teenagers, after all, and what a volatile group they are--Cavallaro delivers on this front, establishing concrete personality pillars. I'm excited to see how these pillars shift, tilt, and lean in the two sequels. The ending does struggle a bit to tie everything together, and it resorts to an infodumpy strategy, but I thought that it worked because this kind of infodump is so typical of mysteries (and especially the Sherlock stories) and because the author again works in other information for us to sort through about the characters and world of her trilogy.

I'm seeing a fair amount of criticism about the romance element here--part of that seems rooted in purists, who want all versions of Holmes and Watson to be as platonic as Doyle's. That criticism seems boring to me, so I'll ignore it. The other part of the criticism is pointed at the idea that not every book should force its male/female characters to pair off, and that's something I'm more on board with, though am also more willing to forgive in this novel because 1) it's YA, and that sort of relationship wish fulfillment seems part and parcel and 2) there are more than enough suggestions to imply that the relationship isn't magically beautiful and perfect. The Watson character acknowledges more than once that falling in love with the Holmes character isn't the easy choice to make: indeed, it's the far more complicated one, and I enjoyed how realistic Cavallaro's depiction of this awkward friend/more-than-friend duality is, especially in comparison with other novels in this genre/age group.

I would have readily given this book five stars if it weren't for the problematic use of rape as characterization--Game of Thrones, of course, has received a lot of flak for this in recent seasons, and it is something that needs to be addressed. Of course stories about sexual violence are important and necessary--and I think there are a great many novels out there that do a wonderful job exploring the trauma of such a crime--but there is a weird trend in using it as a device to characterize women as survivors--and using it to characterize evil characters as evil--in a way that trivializes it, and I'm afraid that's what happens in this book, too. The book tries to address it toward the end, but it's still not something I was on board with, so I knocked off a star.

I'm anticipating the next volumes in this series eagerly, because I find them to be great fun.


Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The Storyteller (Aaron Starmer)

As a child, I really loved book series: at my peak, I think I was following 10 or 11 at once. What I learned is that a series is hard to finish--authors feel the temptation to wrap everything up in a series of gaudy bows that give the fans everything they were hoping for, or they panic under the pressure and do something totally goofy. But I trusted Aaron Starmer--he had amazed and enchanted me with the previous two books, so I had no doubts he would wrap up this trilogy beautifully.

And he did! This book switches perspectives, which might seem like a risky move (and certainly has failed in the hands of other authors, notably Stephenie Meyer and Veronica Roth), but it works (duh). Now, we're reading Stella, the diary that Alistair's older sister Keri keeps. There are two levels to this that make such a narrative switch so engaging--the first is that Keri's voice is spot-on. She's a teenage girl, and she's perceptive and aware. She's not vapid, but is self-interested (I wanted to say self-obsessed, but that word seems too strong and negative): for instance, though there are tons of crazy things happening with Alistair, Keri still finds time to talk about her boyfriend woes and friendship struggles, just like any teenager would. I was incredibly satisfied by this complex, nuanced depiction of a teenage girl. Bravo.

The second reason this narrative switch is so interesting is how it affects our relationship with Alistair. The Riverman was told in first-person; The Whisper was told in third-person, but it was a close third, still focused through Alistair's perspective. The Storyteller is first-person again, but we're in someone else's mind, someone who doesn't and cannot know the intricacies and intimacies of Alistair's thoughts. In essence, as the series goes on, we become more and more removed from Alistair, who changes and separates from the identity we establish in book one. As Alistair loses his identity, we lose touch with Alistair. It's a brilliant device with a wonderful execution.

Speaking of identity, it's one of the things this novel--this series--explores so well. In this final volume, one of the questions at the heart of the identity theme is "who am I when I am special?" Starmer explores this idea in two parallel tales: the Alistair/Keri story, of course, but also through the tale of a magical, glowing wombat. It's like the phrase "it's lonely at the top," except that these aren't stories of success separating people, but inherent being (i.e., who they are) that sets them apart. It was true of Fiona in the first book, who is lonely and called to Aquavania, and it's true of Alistair in subsequent books, first because he is sucked into Aquavania and becomes the Riverman and later because he is the boy involved in a mysterious shooting and disappearance who doesn't behave like he used to. How does being special, set apart in some way, alter the person you are? In Keri's case, the question might even be "how does living adjacent to special change you?"

Starmer also masterfully crafts a razor-sharp balance between melancholy and wonder in this story--for starters, Alistair is transformed into a character entrenched in sadness, and the author smartly employs the use of the startingly-wise-child trope (as we, the readers, know that Alistair is actually many, many years older inside than he is outside) to create this contradictory, uncanny, fascinating character of a young boy who is world-weary. The story never tips into uncomfortably depressing, which is a feat in itself, but Alistair definitely reminds us that the world isn't a bright, shiny, beautiful place, even for children. But there is wonder, too: perhaps it's Keri's unwillingness to accept Alistair's bleak outlook, for perhaps it's the idea that life goes on, or maybe it's that Alistair doesn't give up, even in the face of his despair.

This balancing act happens in Keri's diary, too. Sure, we get entries about the things going on in her life, but it's not all we get out of Stella. There are these weird, interesting short stories, too, magical realism oddities that are at once wondrous--a story about a couple who builds a child out of peppermint, or the aforementioned glowing wombat--and bleak, full of surprising emotional turns (I won't spoil you) that effectively mirror the constant battle the Cleary family faces in trying to adjust to their new normal. In The Whisper, I said that the interwoven stories were reminiscent of Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales. If that's true, then the stories in this third volume are like the work of Angela Carter: brutal and sad and true, capable of tearing your heart out and taunting you with the still-beating mass of muscle. I said the one word that described The Riverman was "creepy." For The Whisper, it was "lonely." For The Storyteller, it's "marvelous," in the etymological sense--full of marvels, both joyful and sad.

So what's the final product? A novel that never, even for a second, stops demonstrating its exacting wit, its Technicolor vivacity, and its careful, well-planned narrative structures. A novel that soaks you in its briny lifeblood, then wrings you out delicately but without mercy. A series that is strange, sad, surreal, and satisfying. A must-not-miss. A victory.

My rating: 5/5

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Boo (Neil Smith)

Thanks to NetGalley and Goodreads for the ARC in exchange for my honest review!

Sometimes I encounter books with character voices that are so strong I can't stop hearing them talk afterward. It's not often, which is what makes it a special occurrence. Boo, by Neil Smith, is one such story with a voice that didn't want to dislodge itself. Our voice this time is the same as the book’s title, a boy named Oliver who goes by Boo. He’s dead—recently so—and finds himself in Town, an afterlife that exists exclusively for 13-year-old American children.

Boo has been plagued by a holey heart since birth, which he assumes is what killed him, but after a classmate of his ends up in Town a few weeks later, he discovers the truth: he and the classmate, Johnny, have been victims of open gunfire at their middle school. Johnny is obsessed with discovering the identity of the killer and apprehending him, convinced that the shooter (referred to as Gunboy) also died in the shooting and may very well be in Town with them.

I've seen Boo compared to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, and at first I understood and agreed with that comparison--that book, narrated by a boy on the autistic spectrum, features one of the most memorable narrative voices I've ever read. It's so strong, in fact, that even the chapter numbers are not safe: Christopher only numbers his chapters with prime numbers. Boo numbers his chapters sequentially, but he uses the periodic table instead of regular numbers. Characteristically-speaking, there are things about Boo, the main character of our tale, that reminded me of Christopher--his conception of social interaction is not the same as everyone else's; he's a loner; he detests physical encounters with other people.

But I have spoken out before about how unfair comparisons are, how they are intended as flattery but often get in the way of appreciating the book for how it stands on its own. So yes, Boo is removed from the realm of typical social interaction, but it’s more connected to a scientific remove from emotion than a place on the autistic spectrum. Boo wants to study Town, the way everything—even the people—self-repairs its damage, the way Townies never age but after 50 years disappear from Town forever.

Neil Smith really pulls off something marvelous here, because Town is so interesting that the book could spend its entirety exploring the rules of the world and I would have loved it anyway. This could have been a novel in stories the purpose of which was to explore daily life in Town and I would have loved it. Instead, Smith gives a lot of delicate, engaging world-building that does not dominate the novel. 

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Whisper (Aaron Starmer)

Last year, I raved about The Riverman, the first in a trilogy by Aaron Starmer. Now it's publication day for book two, The Whisper, and I couldn't be more thrilled for everyone (and jealous I can't read it for the first time again).

When we left off book one, Fiona had disappeared into Aquavania, perhaps forever. Alistair realized that Charlie is the Riverman, accidentally shoots Kyle, and then uses the portal in Fiona's basement to chase after her. What he discovers there is a world of ash, with a sparkling rainbow river in it. Left without a choice, he jumps in the river and rides it to another child's realm. There he discovers another "swimmer," a kid who has entered Aquavania through someone else's portal, and, not sure what else to do, follows her lead. So begins book two.

Perhaps my favorite thing about this book is how different it feels from its predecessor, and I mean that in several ways: the narration switches from first- to third-person. It's a strange choice, but one that ultimately suits the style of this book. Riverman was largely about Alistair's pursuit of truth--be it in Fiona's story, his relationship with Fiona, or his own understanding of the world around him--and the first-person narration provides a lot of really crucial moments of introspection.

Whisper feels a lot questier, like The Odyssey, because he hops from world to world and meets one strange set of characters after another: we're less concerned with how Alistair in particular perceives what's happening and more concerned with what's happening to Alistair. We want--need?--the outside perspective on what's going on to map a change in Alistair.

Another of the major differences is that not everything we read is about Alistair. Interwoven with his narrative are several vignettes, stories about other kids who have gone to their own Aquavanias, have built their own worlds and given them up. I can't express how much I adored these--I believe in the author's own words, they are origin stories, and indeed one of them seems to be the origin of the magical otherworld and the Whisper. They read like fairy tales, the real, meaty ones by Andersen. Please don't ask me to explain what exactly I mean by that--these aren't moralistic like Andersen, to be certain, but nonetheless I get the same feeling from these origin stories as I do from, for example, "The Red Shoes" or "The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf."

Starmer wisely plays with the idea of the uncanny for much of the novel: there's something inherently terrifying about reality +/-, and the author exploits it to his benefit often. I don't want to be too spoilery, but let's just say that Alistair spends a fair amount of time in a version of his hometown; I was unnerved as he was by the tiny differences, by the slighty-too-flat population of the town. But all of the children's created worlds are like this, shifted minutely and all the creepier for it.

The thing I loved so much about the first book in this series is how creepy it was--rarely am I made to feel frightened by a book, but there was something about The Riverman that crawled into me and made me shudder. The Whisper exercises this chilly effect less often, but when it does, you really feel it--the uncanny, as I mentioned earlier, has a lot to do with that, but the most chilling moment is without doubt the ending.

However, if "creepy" is the mood-word I use for book one, then "lonely" is the mood-word for book two. Alistair spends a good part of the novel isolated in other people's worlds--even the sentence that I've just typed should clue you in on how lonely it is! Fiona was a lonely character in The Riverman, and Aquavania was a manifestation of that loneliness and an attempt to assuage it; the other children who have escaped to their fantasy lands are no different, and between their narratives interlaced with Alistair's and the wastelands and abandoned creations he explores...this book really punches you in the gut with feelings.

Aaron Starmer, you're great. You have written something delightful and dreary and dazzling and dreamy and destructive. If the rest of you haven't read this book, or what comes before it, stop wasting your time. We're so lucky to be on Starmer's journey. Ugh.

My rating: 5/5

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014 in Review

Best Books
1. Grasshopper Jungle, Andrew Smith
This novel was the best thing I read all year--a really touching, precise, painful examination of teenage sexuality and the end times. It put Andrew Smith on my radar, and I'm so glad: I read three of his books this year, and none of them was like the other. I'm eagerly anticipating the two books of his scheduled for 2015, which promise to be equally as wacky and true.

2. The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell
A masterwork from the master. David Mitchell is the king of voice, and he explores six different ones in this book with such dexterity and grace that you'd swear he is actual a cabal of writers using a pseudonym--each character breathes and blinks and batters you with their pure, imperfect humanity. Perhaps it's a little heavy on the sci-fi battle toward the end, but I didn't mind. I'd follow David Mitchell anywhere.

3. The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, Leslye Walton
This is the saddest, most beautiful book I read all year, the story of a girl with wings and love and loss. Magical realism at its finest in a delightful showcase. A word that gets tossed around too often when reviewing books is "lush," but it's definitely one of the words I'd choose for this book, along with "delicate," and "glittering." A stunner of a book.

4. The Riverman, Aaron Starmer
Childhood, secrets, love, and fear--Starmer can conquer them all. This is the first in a trilogy (and I've already read the second!), and it's potent book that scared me and made me feel old and young all at once. I can't wait to finish this group of books, which is simultaneously like learning and remembering. This book wins "most likely to crawl up your nose and inside all your organs to haunt you forever."

5. Man V. Nature, Diane Cook
Short stories that thrilled me and chilled me and mined me for all of my deep, personal inside feelings. I have read few short story collections as good as this one, with every story a total knockout victory.