I just read: Harrison Squared

harrison squaredDaryl Gregory is one of favorite modern writers. Every time he has a new book come out, I know it will be unlike anything else he’s ever written. Like China Mieville, he’s a speculative fiction genre-hopper. Or genre-hybridizer? Mieville seems to value syrupy prose and mind-blowing ideas over character (Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Seriously.) Gregory’s books, on the other hand, are bright and personable—and surprisingly heart-warming, for stories that involve zombies, disfigurement, and demonic possession. And some of Gregory’s ideas are just as trippy as Mieville’s, which is high praise indeed.

For his latest, Gregory has tried his hand at young-adult fiction.
Not as interested in that.
Young-adult fiction based on Lovecraft.
OK, I’m in.

The book is called Harrison Squared. Right off the bat, I have to give Gregory props for introducing a teen protagonist, Harrison, who is an amputee. There’s not enough books out there (young-adult or otherwise) that have a main character who is ‘differently abled’ in some way, unless that difference becomes the main crux for the story. Harrison’s leg is just something he deals with; it doesn’t define him. And he’s not particularly angsty or self-conscious about it, which is refreshing.

Harrison is a well-rounded character. He’s supernaturally gifted. He has one parent who died mysteriously. He’s grappling with some anger issues. And he’s just enrolled in a new school that is very, very strange. Does that sound like any other YA protagonist you can think of? OK, Harry Potter lost both his parents in mysterious circumstances—but there are some definite similarities. In fact, if you are a Harry Potter fan, and you’re looking for something similar but just-different-enough, I think you’ll enjoy the happenings at the Dunnsmouth Secondary School.

Here’s the basic set up: Harrison and his mother, a marine biologist, have moved to the town of Dunnsmouth, on an isolated and eerie section of bluffs on the Maine Coast. On his first day at his new school, Harrison is introduced to a half-dozen strange characters. Perhaps none are as strange as the students themselves, who are all homogeneously somber, antisocial, and goth-pale. At first, Harrison’s classmates seem to be a cross between the Addams family and the Children of the Corn. But looks can be deceiving, and the children of Dunnsmouth are friendlier and more sympathetic than they seem. Which is good, because Harrison is going to need all the help he can get. Soon he is wrapped up in the town elders’ plot to unleash their cult’s ancient ocean god upon the world. Holy Cthulhu, Batman!

stygian_witches_11My favorite parts of the book are the descriptions of Dunnsmouth Secondary and its faculty. There’s the trio of lunch ladies, hunched over their cauldron of stew, and sharing one pair of glasses—like the witches of Greek mythology (or of ‘Clash of the Titans’). There’s the swim coach, who is described like some kind of were-walrus. There’s the love-lorn (and spaced-out) Nurse Mandi. Then there’s Harrison’s friend Lub, whose strange affinity for Aquaman is NOT the strangest thing about him. The characters are creepy and amusing. Another stand-out is Harrison’s glamorous aunt from Manhattan, who is sharp-tongued, smugly used to getting her way, and also surprisingly magnetic and charming.

Overall, I felt the plot was pretty straightforward. Perhaps that was a result of Gregory writing for the young-adult market. There were a few surprising developments among secondary characters, and a few narrative devices to create mystery and suspense. And the end had a bit of a twist to it that I wasn’t expecting, which sets up nicely for a possible sequel.

If you’ve never read Daryl Gregory’s stuff, and you’re not that into young adult, I’d suggest The Raising of Stony Mayhall, and Pandemonium.

I Just Read: Annihilation

Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeerA team of four women are tasked with charting the mysteries of an isolated coastal wilderness called Area X. Area X seems to irrevocably change any human who enters it (those who are lucky enough to leave). And Area X is spreading.

Reading the description of this book, I knew it fell squarely in my wheelhouse. The actual book fell obliquely; then skidded to a stop in a corner of my wheelhouse than I hadn’t expected, a secluded, Lovecraftian corner. (OK, I’ll drop the wheelhouse euphemism. What the Hell is a wheelhouse, anyway?) I expected to read something sparse and allegorically apocalyptic (The Road), but the book reminded me a lot of Albert Sanchez Pinol’s quasi-Lovecraftian novel, Cold Skin.

That’s not to say that this slim novel isn’t sparse and allegorical apocalyptic. Characters are only signified by job title or role, never by an actual name (the psychologist, the surveyor, the husband, etc.). The overall tone of the book is distant and clinical. The story is told in first person through the journal of a biologist. As a new writer, I’m always struggling with the yin and yang of showing vs. telling. First person POV seems particularly liable to lead to dreaded ‘telling.’ As I read each exceptionally crafted paragraph, it seemed to me that each chunk of prose was at least 60% exposition. But something about this narrative detachment—this fact-to-fact-to-fact storytelling—served to heighten the creep-factor, not buffer the reader from it. The book is punctuated by quite a few skin-crawling moments.

The biologist wanders pine forests and marshes (Man, I love me some maritime settings!) and encounters some typically Lovecraftian horrors of the indescribably monstrous variety. (You know the horrors are ‘indescribable’ because that’s always the first word H.P. Lovecraft used to describe them.) Toward the end of the book, the narrator shifts from detached observations of effed-up, unexplainable events to far-sighted hypotheses of what is actually happening, and that’s when the book takes a step backward. (Midi-chlorians, anyone?) This book is Part One of a three-book series, and I hope the next two books don’t shed too much light on this ephemeral mystery that Vandermeer has created.

One more thing: the covers of this series are kick-ass.