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