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: Grasshopper Jungle

grasshopper_jungle_imageAh, the changes that come upon a man as he enters fatherhood. They are many, varied, and often slightly depressing. One of the more trivial of these is my changed perspective toward books in the Young Adult genre. It’s probably not surprising that I now read these books from the vantage of the father of the young protagonists. If a young character dies, I no longer think: ‘Dangggg, that was uncool!’ I think, “Damn… They had so much life ahead of them, and how horrible it must be for that kid’s family.” With this new, more thoughtful perspective, I was particularly wrenched when I recently read another YA book, ’We Were Liars.’ That ending haunted me. Whereas my callous fourteen-year-old self would have been like: “Wow, that was a gnarly way to end a book! Still, it could have used more boobies.”

I’m sure my fourteen-year-old self would have found parts of Grasshopper Jungle very gnarly indeed. It is steeped—dripping—with adolescent gnarliness. I dare you to find a book that spends more time on sperm, balls, or poop. You won’t be able to do it. This is one YA book that completely immerses you into the persona of it’s sixteen-year old narrator, who is extremely horny, confused, and way into over-sharing. The immersion is so complete, that I never shifted into ‘reading as a parent’ mode. I was right there as a peer for Austin’s wild ride. I also felt like I needed a shower when the ride was done.

Here is the gist of the book:
Austin is an Iowan teenager who thinks he may be bisexual. He’s beginning to realize that he’s in love/lust with his girlfriend and his best friend, Robbie. Austin is struggling to come to grips with his feelings when he and Robbie inadvertently unleash an infestation of mutated, man-sized insects that might bring about the end of the world. Yes, the book goes full-bore into the schlock atomic sci-fi of the 1950s. And I decided to give it a try because I’m a sucker for coming-of-age, apocalyptic books.

Grasshopper Jungle is clearly aiming to go over-the-top. At some points it’s a horror-show comedy. Sometimes, it’s a bawdy parody of American masculinity and the military-industrial complex. (And the agri-industrial complex, if that’s a thing.) Sometimes it’s even a generational tale of Polish immigrants (Austin’s ancestors) striving through tragedy to eke out a happy life for themselves in America. But the book bounces around a lot between all these things. It’s too punk-rock to focus on just one or two defined themes.

Perhaps my biggest complaint of the book is its distinctive voice. Austin is a narrator with OCD, meaning he repeats himself a lot. I get what the author is going for here. Austin considers himself a sort of historian, and reiteration can be a powerful tool for recording history (‘lest we forget’). Also, Austin’s meticulous, snarky repetitions take on a quality like recurring lyrics in a punk-rock song. But all of these semi-lyrical, jokey repetitions might have worked better in a shorter book. Grasshopper Jungle is 390 pages long, and its restatements and re-phrasings make the book a trudge to read in some parts.

Then the end of the book comes all-of-a-sudden, and we have no resolution to Austin’s bizarre love triangle. In fact, there really isn’t much actual romantic conflict in the book either, except for the questions swirling in Austin’s head.

My final analysis is that Grasshopper Jungle is all about bombast and hormones. It created a unique voice, and it makes for an enjoyable read (even if it could have been a bit shorter). Overall, I’m glad I read it, but I’m not sure I would recommend it.

I just read: We Were Liars

91icZ9KND7L._SL1500_I love a good beach book. In fact, at some point I’ll have to write a post about my top ten favorite books I’ve read at the beach. I’m pretty sure ‘We Were Liars’ will make the list.

I added this book to my to-read list a while back, I didn’t really remember what it was about when I decided to check it out over my kids’ Spring Break. I skimmed over the description very quickly. Wealthy family. Private island. Young adult. Sounded similar to LINE OF DESCENT, so that’s probably why I was initially interested in it.

I have to say the title of the book made me think of spoiled, cynical rich kids—something like Bret Easton Ellis might write. I expected characters that would mope, ‘Look how messed up we are since our parents are rich,’ and I wasn’t really looking forward to something like that. Thankfully, there wasn’t much ‘rich kid’ angst. More of just the good old-fashioned regular kid angst.

The book’s eponymous liars are mostly likable, goofy, and insecure teenagers. They still play with Legos and Scrabble. Their hands are scrawled with the titles of philosophy books they want to read. They use terms like ‘sexual intercourse.’ There are some bits about underage drinking and prescription pills, but nothing too hardcore.

The liars are three cousins, part of the WASPy Sinclair clan, and one other friend who is of Indian descent. Every summer the Sinclairs gather at their private island in New England where they bask in the sun or ruminate on setbacks of the previous year (deaths, divorces). And sometimes the adult Sinclairs bicker over their assumed inheritances.

The author E. Lockhart has a great, clean writing voice. Very well suited for a young adult book. Her classic style and the setting and characters reminded me of Lit-class must-reads like The Great Gatsby or The Catcher in the Rye. In fact, take away the few modern references (iPhone games, President Obama) and the book has a distinctly timeless quality to it. It could have taken place in the 1920s or the 1960s. That makes sense, because the Sinclairs’ beach estate is an isolated world of its own. The liars mention that nothing else seems to exist while they are on the island together.

Lockhart uses a canny literary trick: occasionally she allows the first-person narrative to drift into free verse poetry. It’s very cool effect that breaks up the flow of her prose, adding emphasis or creating a momentary daydream quality to a scene. She uses this trick very sparingly.

“I had come here to this island from a house of tears and falsehood
and I saw Gat,
and I saw that rose in his hand,
and in that moment, with the sunlight from the window shining in on him,
the apples on the kitchen counter,
the smell of wood and ocean in the air,
I did call it love.”

I feel like I don’t want to talk to much about the plot, because I want to avoid spoilers. I’ll say it’s very character-driven, which is great. There are lots of jumping back and forth in time, which sometimes gets a little confusing. Lockhart’s very economical with her paragraphs, which means sometimes flashbacks come on with whip-quick speed. And the book switches to new moods and plot developments just as quickly. Since I didn’t read much of the product description, I was surprised and intrigued when the story took a turn toward a mystery.

The mystery develops very nicely, but I have to say I was thrown off-balance by its resolution. I think I would have liked the book better if the mystery had been paid off in a completely different way. Even then, the ending was very sad and touching, and I think I will be thinking about this book for a while. As a reader, what more could you ask for? This was one of the best young adult books I have read in a long while.