“Think Twice Before Falling Asleep”: Welcome to the Dark House

A Review of Welcome to the Dark House, by Laurie Faria Stolarz

Hyperion (Disney), 2014

Welcome to the Dark House Laurie Faria Stolarz

by REBECCA, August 6, 2014

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For seven horror fans (well, six horror fans and one traumatized girl who’s trying to desensitize herself) this will be the weekend of their lives. After submitting essays about their scariest nightmares, they’ve won an exclusive look at horror director Justin Blake’s new movie and the chance to stay at a bed and breakfast crawling with creepies. But when you hand someone else a guide to your most terrifying nightmares, don’t be surprised when they come true . . . [Come on, that clearly should’ve been a sentence in a blurb about this book; you’re welcome, Hyperion!]

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I’ve been on a total horror/supernatural/mystery kick lately, so I was excited to read Welcome to the Dark House (good title; good cover). I liked the premise a lot: horror fans competing to win an in-the-middle-of-nowhere weekend that’s all about their favorite horror director. It’s got the promise of thrills and chills alongside the possibility for some nerdy meta-horror fandom.

752px-john_henry_fuseli_-_the_nightmareWelcome to the Dark House starts really strong. Ivy Jensen’s nightmare is rooted in reality. Six years ago, her parents were murdered by a serial killer as she slept across the hall. After she called 911, their killer came to her room and spoke to her before police sirens scared him away, leaving her in constant fear that he would reappear and finish the job. Ivy’s fear hasn’t lessened over the years, so, at the end of her rope, she decides that she needs to somehow desensitize herself to it. Imagining that she might do so by learning what so many people seem to love about horror movies, Ivy enters the contest, even though she isn’t sure how she got put on the list to receive its announcement, and when she wins, she decides she will conquer her fears by facing them.

And it pretty much goes downhill from there. Here’s the thing: this isn’t a terrible book. It’s fun and has a few scary moments. But it could have been totally good, so I found myself getting more and more disappointed as it went along. What it suffers from are the same things that make so many horror films throwaways, and it’s frustrating to see, because a novel is the perfect medium (to me) with which to take advantage of everything that’s awesome about horror but also to add in a lot of that to which horror movies aren’t as suited.

Horror Film Problem #1. Welcome to the Dark House doesn’t go in depth enough with character development to make me care about the characters as people to care when they die (that’s not a spoiler if you’ve ever seen a horror movie). The reason that I wasn’t able to care much about the characters is that the book is written from six different perspectives, shifting every chapter. For the first few chapters this worked fine because the characters hadn’t gotten to the bed and breakfast yet. But once they were all together, there was NO REASON for a shifting perspective because . . . they’re all together. So, the shift in perspective seemed arbitrary—why have Garth tell this part of their dinner and Shayla tell this part? No reason. Because they’re all together.

Of course, there would have been a reason if the characters’ POVs deepened our understanding of them and their backstory, or if, as I always hope for in a shifting-POV book, the different characters’ views of events are quite different, revealing internal mysteries and hidden motivations. But that wasn’t the case here. As such, I was constantly having to flip back to the chapter to see whose POV it was from because the voices of the characters are not distinct from one another. This is a huge pet peeve of mine in general: if you’re going to use shifting perspective, your characters’ voices need to be unique enough that there’s never any doubt in my mind who is speaking.

It also turned out to be a problem because (no specific spoilers:) some of the characters die. So . . . it’s kind of awkward. Really, this should have been either in third-person, so we could fully experience things from all characters’ POVs or it should all have been from Ivy’s perspective since she’s established (as any horror aficionado will see) very early on as what Carol Clover calls “the final girl.”

haunted-dark-house_1680x1050_29115Horror Film Problem # 2. Like so many horror films, Welcome to the Dark House starts out as one kind of book and becomes a different kind in the third act. The first act, where our horror fans are arriving at the bed and breakfast and meeting each other, and the second act, when they begin to experience the delights of the horrors that have been planned for them there, feel very much of a piece. This makes up the first half of the book, which was both too long to glean as little depth about/investment in the characters as I did, and also too short to really develop the B&B as a house of horrors. It was, as horror goes, kid stuff.

The one exception to this is Natalie, a character whose nightmare is her own reflection. Her character has some interesting shit going on, which I appreciated, but which merely served to make the rest of the characters feel generic by comparison, unfortunately.

Halfway through the book, it decides it’s not satisfied with the B&B concept and takes the characters to an amusement part where, in order to be shown the new Justin Blake film, they must each face a carnival ride that is their own nightmare. Except there are also a bunch of random other rides that they can go on, so they just hang out for a while, lessening the suspense for no reason. Oh, and they’re locked in. In case that wasn’t obvious.

So, in order to be allowed to see the movie they must each face their nightmare ride, but no one is allowed to go on anyone else’s ride or they forfeit the chance to see the film. No idea why, except that this conceit finally makes it clear which chapter is told from which character’s perspective . . . ?

article-0-1B9A660E000005DC-455_964x633Horror Film Problem #3. Also like so many blah horror movies, Welcome to the Dark House isn’t even satisfied with one shift in frame; it has to add another one. The ending provides an ad hoc explanation of why they’re all actually there, which is thrown away so casually in one sentence that I don’t know why Stolarz even bothered. And, the final nail in the coffin, the book ends with the essays that the characters wrote to win the contest. But, why? Because we already saw what their nightmares were when they lived through them. Like, twenty pages before. (It also serves to remind the reader of a major plot thread that was never tied up . . .)

So, all in all, I think most real horror fans will find Welcome to the Dark House a predictable, unsuspenseful exercise in skimming. However, I would recommend it to folks who aren’t that into horror but are looking for a bit of a scare because it won’t feel as done-to-death for those unfamiliar with the genre, and because it really is only a tip of the hat to horror, so it’s not going to scare the bejeezus out of you.

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Darkhouse An Experiment in Terror Karina Halle

Darkhouse (Experiment in Terror #1), by Karina Halle (2011). Y’all want a real horror novel that is also called Darkhouse? Of course you do! Karina Halle’s Experiment in Terror series is one of my all-time fave horror series. Perry Palomino has always had . . . issues with the supernatural. But when she meets Dex Foray, she’s willing to dive headfirst back into them to be the host of his online ghost hunting show. As the fear factor rises, so does the chemistry!

The Midnight Club Christopher Pike

The Midnight Club, by Christopher Pike (1994). Five terminally ill teens living in Rotterdam House meet (at midnight) to tell stories as a ward against the fear of death; they pledge that the first to die must send a sign to the rest of them . . . from the other side.

procured from: I received an ARC of the book from the publisher (thanks!) in exchange for an honest review. Welcome to the Dark House by Laurie Faria Stolarz is available now.

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“It Was A Girl”: Lucy Christopher’s The Killing Woods

A review of The Killing Woods by Lucy Christopher

Chicken House (Scholastic), 2014

The Killing Woods Lucy Christopher

by REBECCA, February 24, 2014

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Emily’s dad has PTSD, so when he emerges from the woods one night with the dead body of Ashlee, a girl from Emily’s school, everyone points the finger at him. Damon, Ashlee’s boyfriend, has a feeling that something more is going on than meets the eye, and so does Emily. They need each other to figure out what really happened that night, but what if solving the mystery rips everything apart?

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Emily has always been close with her father, who taught her everything she knows about the woods behind their house. Even though he’s scared her sometimes, she is positive that he could never kill anyone—even if he were experiencing a flashback. Damon wakes up the morning after Mr. Shepherd carries Ashlee’s body out of the woods with no memory of what happened the night before or where Ashlee is, but everyone at school says Emily Shepherd’s father killed her. When Damon gets the chance to talk to Emily alone, he feels compelled to take it. He isn’t sure what he wants to ask her—just that he needs to talk to her. But what she has to say isn’t at all what he expects. Emily’s certainty about her father makes Damon doubt his own. Because he and Ashlee had been playing a game in the woods that night . . . and he can’t be sure of what he might have done.

The Killing Woods Lucy ChristopherThe chapters of The Killing Woods alternate between Emily and Damon’s perspectives as they both attempt to uncover the truth of what happened that night. The premise of the book really appealed to me—I’m a big fan of a reconstructing-the-past story, especially when it’s a psychological reconstruction. The woods are the perfect backdrop for this story: a foggy, eerie, living world that is both escape and threat. And it’s the book’s atmosphere that does the most work. It facilitates the story of the game that Damon, Ashlee, and their friends play in the woods and the connection that Emily feels to her family’s home even when it would be easier for her and her mother to cut ties and leave town.

The atmosphere was the only part of The Killing Woods that worked well for me, however. That isn’t to say it’s a bad book. It’s accomplished and competent, with nice prose and a plot that unfolds slowly and deliberately. Unfortunately, that wasn’t enough to make me care about these characters, who never come to life. Both Emily and Damon are the children of veterans (Damon’s father was killed in an explosion), and I’m willing to grant that there’s a certain amount of detachment that feels realistic, given their experiences with secondary violence. But we don’t learn anything about these characters beyond what they think about the mystery they’re trying to unravel. And that’s just not enough to sustain the novel.

The distance I felt from these characters was exacerbated by the perspective-switching from chapter to chapter. It’s Damon’s reconstruction of his part in the night Ashlee died that is the crux of The Killing Woods, so it’s his perspective that is required. Emily’s process of working through her feelings about her father is written as a counterpoint, but nothing much happens from her side, so her chapters feel baggy and repetitive—they flatten out the entire narrative structure of the book, removing the peaks and valleys that typify suspenseful narratives.

Lucy Christopher repeatedly cuts away from Damon’s perspective just as he’s on the verge of remembering something, so the chapter shifts read like commercial breaks—purposeful interruptions to extend and heighten the drama. And, while the mental work Damon does to reconstruct that night is mostly interesting, this purposeful stylistic heightening of drama undercuts what actual interest there is by irritatingly stretching it out to fill more space than its content requires. The Killing Woods is a 360-page book with what feels more like a 150-page story. And, while I usually love a slow reveal, this one was both unsurprising, in terms of plot, and unsatisfying, in that the characters don’t seem to be much different at the end of the novel than they were at the beginning. Though, of course, that might be because I never really felt like I knew anything about the characters to begin with.

Overall, The Killing Woods is a totally competent suspense novel, but one without much drama or interest. It definitely does not have enough meat for readers who are looking for a character-driven story, nor is it complex enough for readers who want a mystery novel.

procured from: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher (thanks!) in exchange for an honest review. The Killing Woods by Lucy Christopher is available now.

I Couldn’t Ignore ‘Please Ignore Vera Dietz’

A Review of Please Ignore Vera Dietz, by A.S. King

Knopf, 2010

Please Ignore Vera Dietz A.S. King

by REBECCA, December 9, 2013

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Reality Boy A.S. KingA.S. King is one of those authors who’s been on my to-read list for years but who, somehow, I never got around to. On a library run to pick up my reserved books, I saw Please Ignore Vera Dietz‘s vibrant green cover sticking out in an otherwise underwhelming sea of picked-through YA (ah, the agony and the ecstasy of a neighborhood branch of the illustrious Free Library of Philadelphia) and grabbed it. I am so glad I did, especially because I have an ARC of King’s new book, Reality Boy, which (upon peeking at the first chapter) looks freaking awesome.

Vera Dietz is reeling from the death of her best friend, Charlie Kahn. That would be bad enough, but Vera was also kind of in love with Charlie, and he had been acting like a beast to her for months before he died.  Now, she can barely make it through a shift as a “pizza delivery technician” without the vodka she keeps under her seat. That would be bad enough, but now Vera keeps seeing Charlie. And he wants her to do something for him.

Please Ignore Vera Dietz is told mainly from Vera’s perspective. She’s smart, independent, and very much grieving for Charlie—the loss of him because of his death and the loss of his friendship that she didn’t fully understand. Vera lives with her father (her mother left a long time ago) and, while they love each other, they both have trouble expressing themselves. Her father expresses his love by trying to make Vera be as responsible and practical as possible (he insists that she work a full-time job while going to school so that she won’t end up a pregnant teen stuck in this small town, like her mother was), but Vera uses how busy she is to avoid dealing with Charlie’s death and the emotional mess it left behind.

The narrative structure is one that I really like: we begin at Charlie’s funeral and then the past is revealed, starting from Vera and Charlie’s childhood and moving forward, working toward the revelation of the events surrounding Charlie’s death. This allows for great character development and builds suspense in to an introspective and psychological story. There is a real mystery here, too, though: why did Charlie stop hanging out with Vera and become friends with the Detentionheads? And what really happened the night Charlie died? Only Vera knows, but she’s kept it secret—until now.

I am a pagodaOne of my favorite things about Please Ignore Vera Dietz is the way King plays with genre. I mentioned that Vera sees Charlie (multiple Charlies, actually, as if he were a bunch of paper dolls). The chapters that are from Charlie’s point of view are in the present—that is, after he is dead. There are also a few brief chapters from the perspective of the Pagoda where some of Vera’s most significant memories happened. From this perspective, we get a long view of the history of the town, since the Pagoda has been there for generations.

None of these narrative choices shift the book out feeling like contemporary realism; rather, they function to open the story up, making it less insular to Vera. The few chapters told from Vera’s father’s perspective do this in particular. It’s rare in YA books to have an adult perspective (especially a parent’s) alongside the protagonist’s, but in this case, it’s poignant because it shows that Vera’s father, though he loves her, doesn’t really have any more answers than she does, even though he reads Buddhist self-help books and has drafted flow charts of life choices to convince himself he does.

Beautifully written and understated, Please Ignore Vera Dietz is a really solid contemporary YA read that confirms the rightness A.S. King’s over-representation on my to-read list. I’m doubly excited for Reality Boy now, too.

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Last Night I Sang to the Monster Benjamin Alire Saenz

Last Night I Sang to the Monster, by Benjamin Alire Sáenz (2009). When Zach wakes up in rehab he has no idea how he got there . . . or where he was before. How can he figure it out when he doesn’t want to remember? Last Night I Sang to the Monster is a gorgeous book that also works through a psychological mystery. My full review of Last Night I Sang to the Monster is HERE.

Shine Lauren Myracle

Shine, by Lauren Myracle (2011). Shine begins a week after Cat’s best friend, Patrick, is gay bashed and left for dead at the gas station where he works in their small, North Carolina town. While Patrick lies in a coma in a nearby hospital and the police do nothing, Cat sets about solving the mystery of who hurt her friend, and reveals a lot about the town and its inhabitants in the process.

procured from: the library

Asher’s Fault: A Quiet Coming-Of-Age Novel

A Review of Asher’s Fault by Elizabeth Wheeler

Bold Strokes Books, 2013

Asher's Fault by Elizabeth Wheeler

by REBECCA, October 14, 2013

“The day fourteen-year-old Asher receives a Minolta camera from his aunt Sharon, he buys the last roll of black-and-white film and takes his first photograph—a picture of a twisted pine tree. He’s so preoccupied with his new hobby he fails to notice his dad’s plan to move out, his increasing alienation from his testosterone-ridden best friend, Levi, and his own budding sexuality. When his little brother drowns at the same moment Asher experiences his first same-sex kiss, he can no longer hide behind the lens of his camera. Asher thinks it’s his fault, but after his brother dies, his father resurfaces along with clues challenging Asher’s black-and-white view of the world. The truth is as twisted as the pine tree in his first photograph.” (Goodreads)

Asher has a lot going on. He’s falling in love with photography, but he isn’t quite sure what appeals to him about it so much. His father has moved in with another woman and seems to have abandoned him. His best friend, Levi, has joined the football team and they don’t have anything in common anymore. And all of that is before he experiences the tragedy of his brother’s death. At church one day, Asher meets Garrett, the new kid in town, and goes with him to the local pool with his brother in tow. In the bathroom at the pool, Asher and Garrett share a sweet kiss that clues Asher in to parts of his sexuality that he’d never recognized. At the same time that Asher is getting his first kiss, though, his brother drowns in the pool.

Asher’s Fault is, first and foremost, a quiet book, which I like. It’s about one boy’s coming of age against the backdrop of his parents’ divorce, his brother’s death, and his growing distance from his friends. Asher’s sexuality is not at the forefront of the novel, though there is certainly the implication that he connects the first stirrings of his homosexuality with not preventing his brother’s death. The guilt Asher feels, though, is shared by others, so this connection is a character trait not an authorial indictment.

Minolta_Maxxum_Panorama_Elite_w_35-70_f3.5-4.5The details of Asher connecting with the world through the lens of his camera are strong, as is Asher’s slow realization that his family situation is more complicated than he originally thought. It’s also nice  to see a character—especially a queer character—who was raised religious and for whom religion is important, who isn’t totally messed up and traumatized because they were taught that their sexuality is sinful. All in all, Asher’s Fault is well-written and I definitely enjoyed it.

Still, though, it felt like there were some things missing; it almost read like a condensed version of a larger, more detailed story. I was shocked, at one point, to learn that a year had gone by with no indication. Since some of the chapters are preceded by a parenthetical description of a photograph, I wondered if this flashbulb skipping ahead in time was a purposeful narrative choice to echo photography, but it’s not consistent enough to feel purposeful. There are also some blank spots in terms of Asher’s character; I felt a bit like he wandered around in a mild fugue state, which might function as an indication of his grief and guilt over his brother’s death, but really just seemed like a bit of stiff characterization. I enjoyed a small family mystery that unfurled in the final quarter of the novel, but it felt more like slipping in backstory than something that moved the plot forward.

While I definitely enjoy a slow burn, I didn’t get as full a sense of these characters as I wanted at all. Garrett, who seemed like he would be a main character, disappeared after the kiss, and Asher mostly has superficial interactions with schoolmates. Again, realistic, sure, but not terribly compelling, and I think the lack of a real friend for Asher deprived the author of some great chances to show us his growth as a character.

Elizabeth WheelerThe structure is a bit inconsistent, too. The book opens with what seems like it will be a frame narrative: “I might as well have been blind for the first fourteen years of my life. . . . After what Dad did, you’d think she’d get it. . . . Take the day I got my old-school Minolta, for instance.” But then, rather than moving to the present and returning to the frame story at the end, it turns out not to be a frame at all; instead, we move forward from there. So, there’s a knowingness to the beginning—the suggestion that this is being written from the far future, where the character is wiser and has something to say—that promises insights and closure that aren’t delivered throughout the rest of the book.

Asher’s Fault is a debut novel, and I’d definitely be interested to see Elizabeth Wheeler‘s next effort. It was a fast, enjoyable read, even if it had some rough spots. You can check out some of the photographs described in Asher’s Fault on her website.

procured from: I received an ARC of Asher’s Fault from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Asher’s Fault by Elizabeth Wheeler is available now.

What’s On the Other Side of Death? White Crow

A Review of White Crow, by Marcus Sedgwick

Orion, 2010

White Crow by Marcus Sedgwick

by REBECCA, July 8, 2013

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The town of Winterfold is slowly falling into the sea and Rebecca doesn’t want to spend the summer there at all. Ferelith has always lived in Winterfold and though she knows all its secrets she doesn’t have anyone to share them with until Rebecca comes along. But their summer-long exploration of Winterfold’s crumbling landmarks will culminate in a game with very real consequences, and a 200-year-old experiment with death will exact its own price.

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White Crow has been on my to-read list for a while now; I mean, what part of two teenagers daring each other to do creepy shit in broken churches and crumbling houses doesn’t appeal to me? And the whole thing is set against the backdrop of the history of Winterfold where, 200 years ago, a priest was taken in by a “man of science” and participated in an experiment to see if they could communicate with people after they’ve been beheaded (based, apparently, on Dr. Beaurieux, a scientist who believed that he could communicate with a person’s head after it had been guillotined because he thought consciousness persisted for thirty seconds). Come on; so cool.

Sedgwick evokes the atmosphere of Winterfold beautifully. I loved the idea of a town that was slowly being eaten by the sea:

“Ferelith has the door [to the church] moving now . . . She’s looking through the door, but she’s not looking into the church, instead, she’s looking through it. She’s looking through it because the church has no back. She can see the nave, the aisles, there are even pews between the columns, and there’s a roof to the columns, but the whole eastern end of the church is missing. What she’s looking at is the last glow of light from the sunset, the dusky sky, some wisps of cloud, and an evening star. Where the pulpit should be, the moon hangs low in the sky, as if rising out of the sea like a bathing goddess” (51).

White Crow by Marcus SedgwickRebecca’s father, a cop, was accused of negligence that led to the death of a girl in London, so he and Rebecca are in Winterfold to escape all that. Their relationship is on the skids, so Rebecca is happy to find a friend in Ferelith, even if the other girl does creep her out sometimes. They become close quite quickly and Sedgwick’s portrayal of their fast and intense connection over loneliness and a teenage obsession with death definitely rang true to me. But, at heart, Rebecca is a pretty average kid and Ferelith . . . isn’t. And, little by little, Ferelith’s games, dares, and challenges become too much for Rebecca. And no wonder, when Winterfold’s sites have such a sinister history.

what were this book’s intentions? did it live up to them?

The atmosphere and setting were definitely the highlights of White Crow because, despite having many snippets of backstory, the characters really never came alive for me—they felt more like collections of characteristics and quirks. This lack of character depth was owing, mainly, to the narrative style—or, rather, styles.

White Crow braids together three different narrative strands, which switch every few pages. In the present, there’s a 1st person narrative that is from Ferelith’s perspective and a 3rd person narrative that’s limited to Rebecca’s perspective; 200 years in the past, there’s a 1st person narrative from the perspective of the priest who participated in the experiment. Now, https://crunchingsandmunchings.wordpress.com/2012/08/03/song-of-the-sea-the-scorpio-races/I often love a story told from multiple perspectives—Maggie Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races or John Green and David Levithan’s Will Grayson, Will Grayson are masterful examples of perspective shifting that is both necessary and beautifully executed. In the case of White Crow, though, it results in a very fractured narrative and not nearly enough time to slide into the perspectives, as they swap every couple pages (or, sometimes, every page). Further, since the 3rd person narrative is limited to Rebecca’s perspective it’s not clear to me why it’s 3rd person instead of 1st. It doesn’t seem to serve any necessary function and results in Rebecca feeling like a blank character.

The trope of the white crow and its relevance to notions of certainty and spirituality runs through the novel, but while there is a vague narrative payoff at the end (no spoilers), the questions with which the characters seem concerned—death, the afterlife, morality, ethics, and good and evil—are really not the topics with which the book seems to concern itself. The book itself seems more interested in loneliness and impermanence, elusive and ephemeral topics that are better served by atmosphere and voice than by the plot machinations that the narrative favors.

Revolver by Marcus SedgwickAll in all, this was a short book that had a small story to tell, but read like a long book that made a bit much of its story. I enjoyed many of its elements, but was made so aware of the work the author was doing to bring it off—so many different voices! so many perspectives! look, 200 year old language!—that the payoff seemed meager. It’s a book that, had it been done differently would have been a tight little gem of a creepy story. Still, it’s an interesting book and Sedgwick is an author who is interested in a lot of the things that I’m interested in reading, so I’m going to give his Revolver (2009) and Midwinterblood (2011) a shot.

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Skim by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki

Skim by Mariko Tamaki & Jillian Tamaki (2008). Although they’re not necessarily similar stories, Skim is the story of a girl who’s trying to figure out who she is by looking into the occult. An amazing graphic novel! My full review is HERE.

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman (2008). A toddler is raised by ghosts in a graveyard. That’s normal, right? Well, yeah, because this is a Neil Gaiman book.

procured from: the library

Happy Reaping! Croak (Croak #1)

A Review of Croak (Croak #1) by Gina Damico

Houghton Mifflin, 2012

Croak by Gina Damico

by REBECCA, June 24, 2013

From Goodreads: “Fed up with her wild behavior, sixteen-year-old Lex’s parents ship her off to upstate New York to live with her Uncle Mort for the summer, hoping that a few months of dirty farm work will whip her back into shape. But Uncle Mort’s true occupation is much dirtier than shoveling manure. He’s a Grim Reaper. And he’s going to teach Lex the family business. She quickly assimilates into the peculiar world of Croak, a town populated by reapers who deliver souls from this life to the next. But Lex can’t stop her desire for justice—or is it vengeance?—whenever she encounters a murder victim, craving to stop the attackers before they can strike again. Will she ditch Croak and go rogue with her reaper skills?”

I actually picked up up Croak at BEA last summer but hadn’t quite been in the mood for it, but I needed a light airplane read recently, and Croak seemed to fit the bill perfectly—with the added bonus that I was able to use its shiny silver cover to reflect the glare of the reading light directly into my sister’s face whenever she least expected it! No, I promise, it was really funny; I’m not an adult or anything. Anyway, I’ve stolen Gina Damico’s quippy signage for the title of this review because I think it sums up Croak so well:

Croak by Gina Damico

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First of all, Lex’s real name is Lexington Bartleby and her twin sister is Concord (Cordy)—their mother loves American military history—which I assert is hands-down the best set of twinly names ever.

Lex doesn’t know why she’s turned into such a moody monster lately (her classmates have taken to calling her Tyrannosaurus Lex”), or what’s made her take to wearing a black hoodie every day, especially when her twin has remained unaffected. When she gets to her uncle Mort’s, though, it all becomes clear: the sudden fury is the sign of a natural reaper, and black hoodies are their uniform. Best. Summer. Job. Ever. Finally, Lex has found something she has a talent for, and some people who seem like they could be real friends. Sure she has to keep her new life a secret from Cordy, and, okay, so she seems to experience more pain than the other reapers when she does her job. But, still, the town of Croak (population 82) is swiftly becoming Lex’s favorite place ever. Until someone starts killing reapers—and Lex is at the top of the suspect list.

Ok, so the first impression of Croak is that it’s funny and fast-paced. There are definitely cool world-building things in the town of Croak, a rural town inhabited only by reapers, with a flower shop called Pushing Daisies, a mattress store called The Big Sleep, a grocery store called Bought The Farm, and other death-related puns. And, like all worlds where our protag is an outsider and needs everything explained to her, we get it laid out for us in complete, info-dumpy detail. It’s clever, and Damico wants to make sure we notice—still, it’s done with humor, which makes it pretty palatable as these things go.

We meet Lex’s fellow junior reapers—teenagers are, no surprise, excellent reapers due to their teenagery anger. There’s Zara, the buttoned-up responsible one; Ferbus, the geekily manic one; Elysia, the sugary sweet, friendly one; Kloo, the motherly one; and Ayjay, the athletic one. And, of course, there’s Driggs, Uncle Mort’s houseguest and Lex’s new partner who has “romantic interest” written on him from their initial angry meet-cute in their shared bathroom.

what were this book’s intentions? did it achieve them?

It takes a while for the whole introduction to the concept of reaping and Croak to unfold and the core of the story to start—the first third of the book or so—and then the tone shifts from light to more intense. It’s a good and necessary shift, but having set the story up as seeming so ironic and frivolous, it’s jarring to start viewing it in the light of real threat and fear that begin when the junior reapers begin to see a disturbing pattern in some of the deaths when they’re reaping. A mystery begins to emerge and the last third of the book is dedicated to solving it.

The two main strengths of the book are 1.) its humor, and 2.) its concept, which has the potential to reach tentacles out in multiple directions, while also building a deep culture of reaping. For example, Croak allows them to chat with folks in The Afterlife—folks like Elvis, Edgar Allan Poe, Emily Dickinson, George Washington, etc. The thing is, though, that the humor begins to wear thin as its repeated throughout the book, and the world begins to feel a little bit like it’s being shaped more to accomodate the plot than to capitalize on the cool concept. The most promising thing in the book is the notion that to these reapers, death is just Croak #2 Scorch by Gina Damicoa day job—hence Croak’s gallows-humor-meets-infomercialese. Thus, when reapers begin to be the target of murders, their sense of invincibility and the detachment that their jobs breed can all be turned topsy-turvy. And while Croak gestures toward this limply, the stakes of such a reversal never really come to fruition.

All in all, Croak was a cute, fun read with a hint of teeth in the second half and an unquestionably dramatic (if not unpredictable) turn at the end. I enjoyed it, definitely enough to want to read the sequel, if not enough to want to hang out with Lex. But if Uncle Mort invited me to Croak for a tour, I’d be down for a day trip.

readalikes

Hold Me Closer, Necromancer by Lish McBride Hold Me Closer, Necromancer by Lish McBride

Hold Me Closer, Necromancer by Lish McBride (2010). While working a fast-food job, low-key Sam finds out that he’s—you guessed it—a necromancer. And there’s another creepy necromancer who wants something from him. Book two in the series, Necromancing the Stone, is out also.

Thirsty by M.T. Anderson

Thirsty by M.T. Anderson (1997). Chris is turning into a vampire in a totally non-romantic way while he is also forced to be that most curséd of all beings, a teenager. Thirsty is also a combo of funny and scary, but with a little more desperation thrown in. My complete review is HERE.

procured from: I received a copy of Croak from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Croak (Croak #1) by Gina Damico is available now.

The Culling: A Supercharged, Action-Packed Adventure

A Review of The Culling (The Torch Keeper #1) by Steven dos Santos

Flux, 2013

The Culling Torch Keeper #1 Steven dos Santos

by REBECCA, April 10, 2013

characters

Lucian “Lucky” Spark: smart and forced to grow up too soon after losing his parents, he will do whatever it takes to protect his little brother, Cole

Digory Tycho: strong and dependable, he is working with the resistance against the bloodthirsty government that controls things

hook

Every year, The Establishment recruits five citizens to face The Trials, with their loved ones as the Incentives for their success. When Lucian tries to take things into his own hands to protect his brother, he finds himself a Recruit, fighting for his brother’s life, and Digory, who seems desperate to protect him, is a Recruit right along with him. What mysteries is The Establishment hiding, and how can Lucian and Digory have any hope of being together when they may have to kill each other to save their Incentives?

worldview

Ok, so I’ve read reviews that call books or movies “supercharged” and always thought it was a really stupid word . . . until I read The Culling. There is just something about it that seemed amped-up, dynamic . . . well, supercharged.

The world of The Culling is a grim one. The Establishment controls every element of the lives of those living in the city through military presence, information-repression, disease, and poverty. Then there are The Trials: if you win, you have the chance to be an officer of The Establishment; if you lose, the people you love the most will die. When The Culling begins, Lucian is attempting to gain an audience with the prefect of the city, who came from his neighborhood, to try and protect his little brother, Cole, when he finds himself thrown headfirst into The Trials alongside the very person he’s attracted to: Digory Tycho, a highly capable member of the resistance with a heart of gold, at least where Lucian is concerned.

The Trials are sick, dude! I mean, like, messed-up in an awesome, eerie, Steven-dos-Santos-please-be-my-creepy-friend kind of way. The worldview of The Culling in general is one in which you cannot trust anyone, everyone will betray you, and people have been forced to do things for survival that leave psychological scars as well as physical ones. I admired dos Santos’ ability to present the truly harrowing consequences of The Trials, in which the Recruit who comes in last in each round must choose which of his or her two Incentives to kill. There are definitely some surprises there that were very well-handled. In short, The Culling reads like a highly creative action movie—very fast-paced but with just enough detail to everything that you absorb the world in passing, as opposed to lingering in it.

As the first book in a series, I thought The Culling did a nice job of planting a lot of seeds, any of which could be taken up in the rest of the series. The fast pace purposely values action over depth of world-building and I didn’t find this a fault, but rather an intentional artistic choice. I would have been equally satisfied by a slower-moving book with deeper world-building, but the pace here really was compelling. I’m not usually one to care overly much for speed, but I literally could not put the book down. Like, I had to go to work and was reading while I peed, reading while I walked to the trolley, reading on the trolley, which makes me carsick, and reading in the elevator up until the moment I walked in the door of work.

The characters are great: Lucian is smart and stubborn, resentful of ever needing Digory’s help, but so desperate to save his brother that he feels he has no choice. Digory could have fallen into the strong, savior stereotype, but his political ideals make him far more interesting. The other three Recruits are all excellent, too. There’s Cypress, who is cold and controlled in response to the traumas in her life; Gideon, the boy who seems pretty together, but is revealed to have more of a stake in his Incentives than anyone could possibly know; and Ophelia, who is fucking terrifying.

what were this book’s intentions? did it live up to them?

The Culling Steven dos SantosNow, I’ve read several reviews of The Culling that were negative, denouncing it for being similar to The Hunger Games, and I do see the similarities, plot-wise, but I’m very much hoping I can dispel the notion that these plot similarities are the heart of The Culling. Yes: The Culling shares with The Hunger Games trilogy a deep horror of a totalitarian government, the suspicion that under such a regime its citizens are mere pawns who think they have a chance of winning their freedom but who are always already merely fulfilling a preordained role, and the understanding that in a world where adults are necessarily enslaved by the system, wanting to protect someone innocent from harm is the most powerful impetus to fight, even if you don’t believe you can win. What they share, then, is the kind of deep structure that produces genres and subgenres. The Hunger Games and The Culling are part of the same subgenre of dystopian literature—a subgenre that predates the former and will, I’m sure, postdate the latter. Mkay, done.

The reason I was so excited to read The Culling in the first place is that it’s one of the few pieces of YA speculative fiction that I’ve come across where the author’s intention was that being gay wasn’t going to be the point of the story. There has been a lot of talk lately about how some people believe the next phase of queer visibility in the literary community is to have queerness be simply a fact of a character, as opposed to an occasion for comment about struggle. I don’t think that normalization into non-issue signals progress per se, but I’m glad that people are at least talking about the issue.

Anyway, I was curious what dos Santos’ take was going to be and I came away pretty impressed. My suspicion of the ideal of framing queerness as being so normal as to be invisible is that it elides very important material consequences of struggle. In the world of The Culling, being gay doesn’t seem to be an issue, but rather than eliding struggle, the commonality of being gay simply shifts the threat (Lucian is almost victimized by prison guards who call him “pretty boy”), not invisiblizing it. Furthermore, I was really glad to see a novel that depended on a regime of totalitarian control, as opposed to knee-jerk gender conservatism, to construct its dystopia.

I’m not a very patient person, so I’m kind of cursing myself for reading The Culling when I will now have to wait at least a year to find out what happens next. I highly recommend that you curse yourselves too, and check out this truly supercharged dystopia. Flux, you’ve done it again—my hat’s off.

readalikes

The Hunger Games Suzanne Collins Catching Fire The Hunger Games Suzanne Collins Mockingjay The Hunger Games Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins, of course (2008-2010). Nuff said about this, I think.

Girl in the Arena Lisa Haines

Girl In the Arena by Lisa Haines (2009). This compelling book explores a neo-gladatorial society, complete with its culture of violence, through the eyes of one girl who has to fight not only for her freedom but for her family as well.

procured from: I received an ARC of The Culling from the publisher (thank you!) in exchange for an honest review. The Culling by Steven dos Santos is available now!

“Ask Laura Ingalls Wilder If You Don’t Believe Me”: Girl Unmoored

A Review of Girl Unmoored by Jennifer Gooch Hummer

Fiction Studio Books, 2012

Girl Unmoored Jennifer Gooch Hummer

by REBECCA, April 8, 2013

characters

Apron Bramhall: insightful, and honest, in the aftermath of her mother’s death, her quirkiness is making her life harder

Dad: Latin professor who cares about Apron, but is desperate to please M, his new girlfriend

Mike: the nephew of Apron’s neighbor and owner of a local flower shop, Mike plays Jesus in a local production of Jesus Christ Superstar and is so kind that Apron wonders if he and Jesus are actually related

Chad: Mike’s boyfriend, who immediately connects with Apron and her problems, but has problems of his own

hook

It’s Maine in the summer of 1985 and thirteen-year-old Apron Bramhall’s heart is broken. Her mother died; her father is living with M, the nurse who cared for her mother and hates Apron; her best friend Rennie dumped her to hang out with popular Jenny; and it’s almost summer, so she’ll have nothing but time to think about how love just seems to cost too much to be worth it. Enter Mike and Chad, who recognize a kindred spirit in Apron and give her a job working at their flower shop over the summer. But the job turns into a deep connection with Mike and Chad, who are dealing with their own heartbreaks.

review

I entered the world of Girl Unmoored, the debut novel by Jennifer Gooch Hummer, with no expectations whatsoever and only the vaguest sense of what the book was about, and I’m glad I did. Girl Unmoored sees the world through the eyes of thirteen-year-old Apron, whose combination of insight and naiveté result in a wonderful and poignant voice. Apron’s life has sucked lately, and really all she wants to do is play with her guinea pig, The Boss, and read the Little House on the Prairie books.

“I had read every book in the series by the time I was eight, and a hundred times over since then. I have to sneak them now, though, otherwise my dad says, ‘Aren’t we a little past those, Apron? I mean really. How about some Moby-Dick?’ But the truth was that Laura Ingalls Wilder was the nicest girl I’ve ever not known. Rennie would throw me under a bus for a piece of chocolate.”

Little House in the Big Woods Laura Ingalls WilderIt’s Apron’s voice that is the real gem of Girl Unmoored: “Being this close to Mike made the cramp in my heart loosen up a bit, like little shingles were falling off of it.” For the first third of the book or so, Apron’s unique perspective is engaging and revelatory, and the tone is light, even with Apron’s troubles. As the book continues, though, shit gets pretty serious: Apron’s dad’s benign neglect ceases to feel benign, M’s passive distaste for Apron gets pretty active, and the mysterious disease from which Chad is suffering (mysterious to Apron, not to the reader) turns harrowing. Jennifer Gooch Hummer writes with a light hand that allows for this subtle shift from a summery, quirky tale of a small town to a truly heartbreaking story of a girl who has to figure out how to grow up and how to love without a traditional support system.

Girl Unmoored is a pretty quiet book, plot-wise, and that’s what makes it so powerful. Hummer is masterful at excavating the emotional core of every situation and achieves a subtle and deep vision of what is going on around Apron that she is aware of but cannot totally understand. The tone is pitch perfect and the characters layered and sympathetic. Despite the sunniness and charm of the setting, Girl Unmoored’s worldview is a realistically grim one: everyone has it rough and everyone is selfish and everyone wants someone to save them but knows that no one will. But that, Apron seems to decide by the end, may be the price of love: that you bear the burden of remembering it, in all its exaltation and all its grief, even after the ones you love are gone.

“I looked back at all those people I didn’t know and thought about how small your heart is but how big of a space it takes up. And how, even though you can’t see it, that heart space grows so quietly across a room or up some stairs in someone else’s living room, that even if you never step foot in it again, the air in there is changed forever.”

Girl Unmoored is like a cold glass of lemonade in the summer, the sourness of heartbreak  sweetened by beautiful prose making it impossible not to gulp it down, and impossible not to feel the sting. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry; you’ll pour yourself another glass. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

readalikes

Tell the Wolves I'm Home Carol Rifka Brunt

Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt (2012). As you may remember, Tell the Wolves I’m Home was my favorite book of last year. Tell the Wolves I’m Home and Girl Unmoored share a time period and a basic plot,  but are incredibly different in tone. If the former is a cold, desolate New York January, then the latter is a hot, claustrophobic, coastal July. If you like one, though, chances are you’ll like the other, and both are wonderful. You can read my complete review of Tell the Wolves I’m Home HERE, and an interview with the lovely Carol Rifka Brunt HERE.

The Freak Observer Blythe Woolston

The Freak Observer  by Blythe Woolston (2010). Like Apron, Loa has just suffered a death in the family and, like Apron, Loa observes things that others overlook. Though Loa is older, they share a dark and poetic view of the world that they express matter-of-factly. You can read Tessa’s complete review of The Freak Observer HERE.

procured from: I received an ARC of Girl Unmoored from the publisher (thank you!) in exchange for an honest review. Girl Unmoored by Jennifer Gooch Hummer is available now.

Death Shall Have No Dominion: The Madness Underneath by Maureen Johnson

madnessunderneath

The Madness Underneath

Shades of London 2

Maureen Johnson

G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2013

Review by Tessa

Characters

Rory Deveaux, transplanted private schooler, ghost-interacter-and-destroyer

Stephen Dene, head of the secret ghost division of the London Police

Callum & Boo, the other two members of the secret police squad

Jazza, Jeremy & Charlotte – school friend, boyfriend, and frenemy

Jane – a mysterious and almost supernaturally calming therapist who provides her services for free

Hook

The Ripper-emulating ghost re-terrorizing London has been destroyed, but not without weird consequences.

Worldview

In The Name of the Star, Rory learns that the world is a little different than the normal world we all live in. It’s still normal, but some people can see and interact with ghosts–as long as you have the natural inclination and add a near-death experience into the equation.

Rory’s a fish out of water, being a ghost-seer, and a fish out of water, being a Louisiana native trying to hack it in a London boarding school for her senior year. Her snarky sense of humor helps her deal with all the weirdness being thrown her way, as well as her natural curiosity. Occasional drama-free makeout sessions don’t hurt, either.

nameofthestar

However, the situation of figuring out the ghost-mystery-murders almost seems easier than the situation of picking herself up in the aftermath of the murders. Rory is failing school after spending time with a therapist and her parents in Bristol. She’s now a human terminus – her touch destroys ghosts – and the police want to use her as a clean-up tool for London’s ghostly lurkers, since the original diamonds used for the purpose went kaput. But she doesn’t know how she feels about being the post-Grim Reaper Reaper. Worst of all, she can’t confide in her friends, her boyfriend, or her parents about what’s really going on in her life.

On top of it all, the ghosts around London, especially around Rory’s school, are upping the ante on being angry and causing bloodshed. Rory thinks it might have something to do with what the area used to house, who was buried there, and maybe the crack that opened up in the earth when the faux-Ripper got terminated.

Then she’s fortuitously led to a laid-back, rich woman named Jane who’s been helping stuck-up Charlotte deal with her own Ripper trauma. Jane practices for free, always has brownies to offer Rory, and finally Rory can almost relax. Or should she?

Does this book live up to its intentions?

Johnson writes delicious hook-y adventures and her sense of humor is one that I enjoy. The Madness Underneath has all of these qualities and some shivery moments, too.  I admired Rory’s feistiness in the face of depression and loved getting back to the foggy, twisty streets of her neighborhood.  Johnson is very good at writing place – enough detail but not too much – and I could effortlessly picture where Rory was going (even if I can’t stop picturing Rory as Alexis Bledel).

Rory!!! photo by flickr user GabboT

Rory!!! photo by flickr user GabboT

The Madness Underneath definitely a second novel in a series of more than two books. Rory’s in transition and trying desperately to ignore that she might be in free fall. She tries to be normal but her life is breaking into some pretty clear paths. She has to decide what she wants and why, from boyfriends to future career plans. But there doesn’t seem to be space to think.

If anything, the book moves too fast, and, like The Name of the Star, drops off at a really crucial moment. The mystery that starts the book gets solved pretty quickly by Rory and the ghost squad, and then just as quickly is subsumed in a new, bigger mystery with sinister implications – really intriguing, culty, conspiratorial ones.

Then Johnson jabs us with two big knocks of the Plot Fist and closes the book. It happens so fast I don’t even know what I think of those developments yet.

Maybe I should’ve waited another year or so to read 2 & 3 in succession.

Readalikes

Want more ghost-exploring?

Try Karina Halle!

Darkhouse An Experiment in Terror Karina Halle

For the same traveling-in-a-new-place-and-discovering-otherworldy-things feel, try these:

Witch Eyes

Witch Eyes by Scott Tracey

peregrineriggs

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

greatandterriblebeauty

A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray

diviners

The Diviners by Libba Bray

possessed   Consumed
Possessed / Consumed by Kate Cann

If a Skippy Dies in a Doughnut House, does he make ripples in the multiverse?

Ohskippydies

review by Tessa

Skippy Dies
Paul Murray
Faber & Faber 2010

Warning: this review contains so many quotes. Here’s the first one as an epigraph.:

“You know, you spend your childhood watching TV, assuming that at some point in the future everything you see there will one day happen to you: that you too will win a Formula One race, hop a train, foil a group of terrorists, tell someone ‘Give me the gun’, etc. Then you start secondary school, and suddenly everyone’s asking you about your career plans and your long-term goals, and by goals they don’t mean the kind you are planning to score in the FA Cup. Gradually the awful truth dawns on you: that Santa Claus was just the tip of the iceberg — that your future will not be the rollercoaster ride you’d imagined, that the world occupied by your parents, the world of washing the dishes, going to the dentists, weekend trips to the DIY superstore to buy floor tiles, is actually largely what people mean when they speak of ‘life’.” (25)

Characters

Students
Daniel “Skippy” Juster – Sure, he dies, but there’s so much more to him.
Ruprecht “Blowjob” Van Doren – Skippy’s roommate and string theory obsessor.
Lori Wakeham (Frisbee Girl, Lollipop Lips) – trying to figure out what she wants in life and how to get it while also being the object of two boys’ fantasies.
Carl Cullen – I believe if you saw Carl he would have what is known as a flat affect – also cut up arms, a serious obsession with Lori Wakeham, and not enough EQ to know what to do with that obsession even if it were returned.
Geoff, Mario, Niall & Dennis – the main core of Skippy’s friends.

Teachers
Howard “the Coward” Fallon – haunted by his past, and sort of stuck there, too – he’s teaching history at the school he attended
Farley – friend of Howard, a sometime instigator and sometime voice of reason
Aurelie McIntyre- businesswoman turned substitute geography teacher, incidentally she’s pretty good-looking, just kidding, that’s not really incidental
Greg “the Automator” Costigan – really wants to bring the modern money into the school, and really wants the school’s current Director to quietly die and let him take over.
Father Green (Pére Vert) – archetypal scary priest

Pagan Influence
The White Goddess – something different to everyone, but relevant to all.

Hook

If a Skippy dies in Ed’s Doughnut House, does he make a sound (in the sense of being remembered by his friends, family and loved ones)?

an irish door from flickr user infomatique - it's in the town of Black Rock.

an irish door from flickr user infomatique – it’s in the town of Black Rock.

Worldview

Farley says:

“‘This is Biology. These kids are fourteen. Biology courses through their veins. Biology and marketing. …They want to hear it from an adult. …They want to hear it confirmed officially that for all our talk, the adult world and their subterranean sex-obsessed porno-world are basically the same, and no matter what else we try to teach them about kings or molecules or trade models or whatever, civilization ultimately boils down to the same frenzied attempt to hump people. That the world, in short, is teenaged.’” (63).

I say: This in-depth look at the lead-up to and fallout from the titular event, centered around an Irish Catholic school is concerned with how the world is for teenagers, and how it looks to adults working with teenagers, and how it is the same and different for both sets of people. And the nature of time and memory and how that makes history, and if human lives are unimportant or important within that gigantic concept.

by flickr user Cindy Funk

by flickr user Cindy Funk

What is this book’s intention? Is it achieved?

I’m going to answer the second question first: yes.

And as for intention, it’s better rendered in questions. So, Skippy dies. Why does he die? Is there a reason? How does it make his friends feel? How is it seen by the adults who came into contact with him? How did he see it?  Etc. The book serves to explore these questions and more (see previous paragraph).

I don’t really want to describe the mechanics of the plot because they will sound falsely mundane.

On the flap copy, I’m guessing much to the author’s chagrin, Skippy Dies is compared to Harry Potter AND Infinite Jest. That’s a bit much for any book, but I will say that it does have similarities to the latter. There are many characters in the book, and the book discovers their quirks as a friends discover the weird parts of each other’s personalities, which is to say it lets them emerge over time. They are described because they exist but they’re not presented to the reader on a Platter of Quirk. I felt the same way about Infinite Jest, except Infinite Jest had a much bigger scope and often was hyperreal.

What Paul Murray does so, so well, so amazingly well, with the narrative is accordion it in and out so that somehow it is simultaneously big (Irish mythology and folklore, string theory) and small (jokes about lucky condoms, usage of zombie voices) while also making loud pleasing sounds and not making the reader dizzy. And much like an accordion it has structures inside of it that make everything work and hold everything together (in my metaphor these are the big themes of the book: death, depression, history, the point of life).

Here’s a great example of the first thing. Ruprecht is talking to Skippy at the Halloween dance. He’s talking as usual about scientific theories, relating to the world through them – and Murray describes the scene in deadpan, hilarious detail. Small moments.

“‘Fascinating,’ Ruprecht muses to Skippy. ‘The whole thing seems to work on a similar principle to a supercollider. You know, two streams of opposingly charged particles accelerated till they’re just under the speed of light, and then crashed into each other? Only here alcohol, accentuated secondary sexual characteristics and primitive ‘rock and roll’ beats take the place of velocity.’

“Skippy has gone to replenish his punch. Ruprecht sighs quietly, and looks at his watch.

“Patrick ‘Da Knowledge’ Noonan and Eoin ‘MC Sexecutioner’ Flynn pimp-roll by, plastic Uzis tucked under their arms, the faint frisson of tension still detectable between them, the aftermath of a heated debate earlier today over who was going to come as Tupac, which debate Patrick won, meaning Eoin is now waddling along in a fat suit, dressed as Biggie Smalls. The squalling riff from Cream’s ‘Layla’ blasts from the speaker; in the DJ booth, Wallace Willis nods to himself: oh yes. ‘Flubber’ Cooke, who has come in his supermarket shelf-stacking uniform, explains to a sexy nun that while it’s part of his costume, the trolley is actually company property, so although he’d like to let her ride in it, he can’t.” (171-172).

by flickr user mryantaylor

by flickr user mryantaylor

Meanwhile, he opens many sections with spot-on descriptions of what it’s like to exist in Autumn. The descent. The universal Autumnal experience (I realize this is not universal to people who live nearer to the equator, sorry). Big things.

“Autumn deepens. A fresh chaos of yellow leaves covers the lane up to the school each morning, as if it’s been visited overnight by woodland poltergeists; after school, you make the return journey through a strange, season-specific gloaming, a pale darkness, spooked and paradoxical, which makes your classmates up ahead seem to fade in and out of existence. The hobgoblin shadow of Hallowe-en, meanwhile, is everywhere. The shopping malls bristle with pumpkins and skeletons; houses lie swathed in cotton-wool cobwebs; the sky cracks and fizzes with firework-tests of increasing rigour. Even teachers fall under the spell. Classes take odd detours, routines slowly vaporize, until by the late stages of the week, the rigid precepts of everyday termtime seem no more real, or even slightly less real, than the fluorescent ghosts glowing from the windows of Ed’s Doughnuts next door…” (157)

Turnip Jack O'Lantern from wikimedia, Photographed at the Museum of Country Life, Ireland.

Turnip Jack O’Lantern from wikimedia, Photographed at the Museum of Country Life, Ireland.

And sometimes big and small are in the same passage, as here, when the friends are giving Skippy advice on what to put in his text message to Lori:

“‘How about, instead of “if you want to meet up again”, you say “if you want me to sex you hard”,’ Mario says.

“It’s the end of the school day; they are walking down the laneway to the Doughnut House. In the dusk the world appears pale and exhausted, like a vampire’s been drinking from its veins: the thin pink filament of the just-come-on doughnut sign, the white streetlights like dowdy cotton bolls against the grey clouds, the soft hand-like leaves of the trees with the colours leeched away to match the asphalt.

“‘What have you got so far?’ Geoff asks.

“Skippy presses a button. ‘“Hi,”’ he says.

“‘It’s the only thing everyone agrees on.’

“Geoff frowns. ‘Actually, I’m not all that crazy about “Hi”.’” (264).

In an equally structured but subtle way, themes of the book recur as thoughts from different characters, framed in different ways, so as to fully exploit their themeyness.  Theme-itude.  One of the big themes is history and memory, because how are we humans to achieve immortality if not by being remembered, however inevitably inaccurate memory is.

Which is what Howard Fallon is trying to get at when he takes his history class on an unsanctioned field trip to a neglected monument for the Irish fallen of WWI:

“‘We tend to think of it as something solid and unchanging, appearing out of nowhere etched in stone like the Ten Commandments. But history, in the end, is only another kind of story, and stories are different from the truth. The truth is messy and chaotic and all over the place. Often it just doesn’t make sense. Stories make things make sense, but the way they do that is to leave out anything that doesn’t fit. And often that is quite a lot.’” (556)

And what the Automator is also getting at, from a different perspective, when he chews Fallon out for doing this:

“‘Maybe you’re right,’ the Automator continues, ‘maybe the [school]book does leave a chunk of stuff out. And maybe in the future someone will dig it up, and make a TV documentary, and there’ll be exhibitions and pull-out newspaper supplements and people all over the country will be talking about it. But when they’re finished talking, Howard, then they’ll go back to their kitchens or their golfing holidays or whatever they were doing before. The “truth” as you put it, won’t change a goddamn thing.” (564)

Irish Recruiting Poster from Wikimedia Commons

Irish Recruiting Poster from Wikimedia Commons

And what the developer is trying to get out of agreeing to when he has to explain on TV why he still wants to put up condos over an ancient archaeological finding near Fallon’s house:

“‘So you’re saying it should be bulldozed,’ the reporter says.

“‘I’m saying we need to ask ourselves where our priorities lie. Because what we are trying to build here isn’t just a Science Park. It’s the economic future of our country. It’s jobs and security for our children and our children’s children. Do we really want to put a ruin from three thousand years ago ahead of your children’s future?’

“‘And what about those who say that this “ruin” gives us a unique insight into the origins of our culture?’

“‘Well, let me turn that question around. If the position was reversed, do you think the people of three thousand years ago would have stopped building their fortress so they could preserve the ruin of our Science Park? Of course not. They wanted to move forward. The whole reason we have the civilization we have today — the only reason you and I are standing here — is that people kept moving forward instead of looking backward. Everybody in the past wanted  to be a part of the future.” (574)

And the value of memory in history is what Fallon is trying to call upon as he inexpertly lends the depressed Ruprecht an ear and some advice:

“‘The book [a history of his dead son’s regiment in WWI] took [Kipling] five and a half years to complete. He found it extremely difficult. But afterwards he said it was his greatest work. He’d had a chance to commemorate the bravery of these men, and to keep the memory of his son alive. A man called Brodsky once said, “If there is any substitute for love, it is memory.” Kipling couldn’t bring John back. But he could remember him. And in that way his son lived on.’

“This parable doesn’t produce quite the effect he intended; in fact, he is not sure that Ruprecht, tracing Sprite-spirals on the table with a straw, is even listening. The youth behind the counter looks at his watch and begins to dismantle the coffee machine; an electric fan whirrs, like the smooth sound of time passing inexorably from underneath them. And the, not looking up, Ruprecht mumbles, ‘What if you can’t remember?’” (582)

All in only 20ish pages, tying together plot threads and characters with the poignant string of a well-wrought theme.  Don’t read my stupid metaphors. Read this book.

Readalikes:

If the awkwardness and reality of Freaks and Geeks met the bravado and partying of Skins (UK).

freaksandgeeks    +    skins

If the boarding school scenes in Infinite Jest met the faculty life of Lucky Jim

 infinitejest   +    luckyjim

Then you’d have Skippy Dies.

Oh and in case you’re interested in other books set in the closed school environment aka boarding school, we have 2 lists for you:

1. Boarding School Books

2. Boarding School Books Redux

Links of interest:

Neil Jordan is going to direct the movie adaptation?? I’m interested.

An interview with the author at Bookslut.

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