Where Things Come Back

Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley

From Simon & Schuster:

In the remarkable, bizarre, and heart-wrenching summer before Cullen Witter’s senior year of high school, he is forced to examine everything he thinks he understands about his small and painfully dull Arkansas town. His cousin overdoses; his town becomes absurdly obsessed with the alleged reappearance of an extinct woodpecker; and most troubling of all, his sensitive, gifted fifteen-year-old brother, Gabriel, suddenly and inexplicably disappears.

Meanwhile, the crisis of faith spawned by a young missionary’s disillusion in Africa prompts a frantic search for meaning that has far-reaching consequences. As distant as the two stories initially seem, they are woven together through masterful plotting and merge in a surprising and harrowing climax.

Where Things Come Back is a very good book, but not a great book.

I love Whaley’s portrayal of small-town living in the South and of Cullen’s voice, both of which rang true. Cullen, in particular, feels like a real person, a thoughtful young man who is complex and thoughtful and endearingly flawed.

I also love that Cullen’s first-person narration alternates chapters with a separate third-person narrative, and the two threads eventually collide in an unexpected way. Sometimes when authors try to tie together seemingly unrelated events in clever ways, the results feel too contrived. Whaley somehow makes it work. While the third-person narrative is a little bit weaker than Cullen’s story, it develops relatively organically and dovetails with the main narrative in a believable way.

Finally, I love the ambiguity of the ending. Whaley establishes Cullen as an imaginative youth, one who spends his free time devising interesting titles for unwritten books and one whose daydreams of zombie invasions feature people from real life. As such, though Cullen seems like a good kid, he is somewhat of an unreliable narrator. Is the ending happy or is it an open question? It’s up to the reader to decide what all of the earlier symbolism implies.

Unfortunately, the earlier symbolism is my main complaint. Whaley spends a lot of time establishing biblical references (a saintly brother named Gabriel, an avenging angel from apocrypha), a motif of resurrection and return (frequent mention of zombies, a missionary and a young woman who both come home after aborted attempts at branching out), and even biblical references to resurrection and return (the Lazarus bird). All of it feels a little heavy-handed and overt, as if Whaley did not trust the reader to tease out the themes themselves.

But all in all, Where Things Come Back is a wonderful work, fraught with suspense and tempered with humor. It is as challenging and thought-provoking as the reader allows it to be, and it truly deserves all the accolades it has received.

Sugar Changed the World

Sugar Changed the World: A Story of Magic, Spice, Slavery, Freedom and Science by Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos

From Houghton Mifflin Harcourt:

When this award-winning husband-and-wife team discovered that they each had sugar in their family history, they were inspired to trace the globe-spanning story of the sweet substance and to seek out the voices of those who led bitter sugar lives. The trail ran like a bright band from religious ceremonies in India to Europe’s Middle Ages, then on to Columbus, who brought the first cane cuttings to the Americas. Sugar was the substance that drove the bloody slave trade and caused the loss of countless lives but it also planted the seeds of revolution that led to freedom in the American colonies, Haiti, and France. With songs, oral histories, maps, and over 80 archival illustrations, here is the story of how one product allows us to see the grand currents of world history in new ways.

In some ways, Sugar Changed the World is a strong work of scholarship. Aronson and Budhos obvious did a significant amount of research, and they assembled an interesting multimedia collection of first-person accounts, reproduction of historical artwork and texts, photographs, and even music. I like that they leveraged the general ubiquity of Internet access to provide readers with another dimension of historical narrative that older non-fiction works could not.

But I think Sugar Changed the World ultimately fails to deliver on its title and falls short of being a complete work. The bulk of the book focuses on “Slavery” and “Freedom,” with little time devoted to the exploration of sugar as foodstuff (“Spice”) and bare coverage of modern sugar production (“Science”). Moreover, while the book clearly highlights sugar’s recurring process in post-Antiquity human history, it fails to distinguish its chief subject from any number of things that are arguably more influential: written language, mathematics, the printing press, steam power. Yes, sugar changed the world, but so did the harnessing of electricity and so did Euclidean geometry and so did salt, for that matter. Aronson and Budhos fail to set sugar apart.

The book begins with an explanation of why the authors were interested in the subject: their family histories include an inventor of colored sugar and an immigrant who traveled across the world as part of the sugar trade. Their subsequent research delves into the gruesome history of sugar production, which for most of history involved slavery. But once the book hits the 1800s, it almost seems as though Aronson and Budhos lost interest in their project and found little to say about the last century. The dramatic shift from in-depth to scant coverage is jarring and disappointing.

Finally, for all their lip service to the capability of young readers to grasp the complexity of the sociopolitical issues surrounding sugar production, Aronson and Budhos often voice their own political convictions rather than simply laying out the evidence and letting readers make their own judgments.

This is a subject with such a fascinating history and role in human development that a thorough, scholarly exploration would still be an engrossing read. Unfortunately, this particular work falls short of that potential.

The Notorious Benedict Arnold

The Notorious Benedict Arnold: A True Story of Adventure, Heroism, & Treachery by Steve Sheinkin

From Macmillan:

Most people know that Benedict Arnold was America’s first, most notorious traitor. Few know that he was also one of its greatest war heroes. This accessible biography introduces young readers to the real Arnold: reckless, heroic, and driven. Packed with first-person accounts, astonishing battle scenes, and surprising twists, this is a gripping and true adventure tale.

Steve Sheinkin delivers on the blurb: an exciting look at one of the most infamous figures in American history. His biography of Benedict Arnold is surprisingly complete for the younger audience, capturing the complexity of Arnold’s character and the motivation behind his betrayal of the fledgling American republic.

Even more interesting than Arnold’s story is that of John André, the British officer who mirrors Arnold in courage and ambition, and ends up being the only one executed as a result of Arnold’s act of treason. While Arnold became the villain of his own story, André remained true to his cause and behaved like a gentleman to the end, done in by bad luck rather than wounded pride.

One annoying nitpick is Sheinkin’s erroneous rendering of a cheer as “Here, here!” In an otherwise well-written work, that little mistake sticks out. When that’s a book’s biggest issue, it’s really no issue at all.

The Scorpio Races

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater; audiobook narrated by Steve West and Fiona Hardingham

From Scholastic:

Some race to win. Others race to survive.

It happens at the start of every November: the Scorpio Races. Riders attempt to keep hold of their water horses long enough to make it to the finish line.

Some riders live.

Others die.

At age nineteen, Sean Kendrick is the returning champion. He is a young man of few words, and if he has any fears, he keeps them buried deep, where no one else can see them.

Puck Connolly is different. She never meant to ride in the Scorpio Races. But fate hasn’t given her much of a choice. So she enters the competition — the first girl ever to do so. She is in no way prepared for what is going to happen.

Now this is how teen romance should be done.

Don’t get me wrong: while The Scorpio Races is a story about a boy and a girl, it is not primarily a romance between the two of them. Sean and Puck barely even interact until the final third of the book. If anything, the story is a romance with the geography of Thisby, from wild beaches and sheer cliffs to cozy villages and beloved homesteads. The story is about how far one is willing to go—how much one is willing to risk—for one’s heart’s desire. For Sean, the desire is a horse that understands him better than any person. For Puck, the desire is to hold together what is left of her family.

Unsurprisingly, Sean and Puck do fall for one another. But unlike many YA authors, Stiefvater takes the time to develop each character independently and to establish a solid foundation for the romance. Each protagonist has clear motivations, and when their feelings for one another unfold, it is a matter of believable and logical progression rather than two leads falling in love because, heck, that’s what happens in these books.

Now imagine a book where every character is so well drawn that each action flows effortlessly from previous episodes, building to an inevitable and thrilling climax. That is what Stiefvater has achieved with The Scorpio Races. No artificial love triangles, no sadistic government machinations, no unearned moments of emotional manipulation. Just a tightly written narrative where every element—the setting, the characters, the plot—meshes into an impeccable whole.

Having read the text and listened to the audiobook, I greatly prefer the text. Stiefvater launches right into the story, and it is far easier to digest the many characters mentioned in the first few pages, not to mention the idea of the capaill uisce as a species and the tradition of the races, when seeing them in print. It is far more difficult to go back and review names and concepts when listening to an audiobook.

Also, while I liked Fiona Hardingham’s interpretation of Puck, I couldn’t get past Steve West’s growliness in his reading of Sean. I think West captures Sean’s steely nature but his is definitely the voice of an older man than the character.

Ultimately I had a much better experience reading than listening. There are passages where I found myself rereading and savoring every word, and there are passages where I couldn’t wait to see what happened next. Reading the text gave me better control over pacing and allowed me to truly engage the story, and this is a book worth engaging.


Enclave by Ann Aguirre

From Macmillan:

New York City has been decimated by war and plague, and most of civilization has migrated to underground enclaves, where life expectancy is no more than the early 20’s. When Deuce turns 15, she takes on her role as a Huntress, and is paired with Fade, a teenage Hunter who lived Topside as a young boy. When she and Fade discover that the neighboring enclave has been decimated by the tunnel monsters—or Freaks—who seem to be growing more organized, the elders refuse to listen to warnings. And when Deuce and Fade are exiled from the enclave, the girl born in darkness must survive in daylight, in the ruins of a city whose population has dwindled to a few dangerous gangs. As the two are guided by Fade’s long-ago memories, they face dangers, and feelings, unlike any they’ve ever known.

Enclave has a number of elements that have succeeded in other YA works: a post-apocalyptic setting, a stratified caste-system society, young people forced to kill for survival, a warrior woman protagonist, and a love triangle. But it reads like Ann Aguirre did not know how to write anything beyond what has already come before.

In place of world-building, Aguirre relies on info-dumps from the first person narrator. In place of character development, Aguirre populates her novel with flat archetypes and ciphers. In place of action, Aguirre simply sends wave after wave of Freaks that the protagonists dispatch again and again through mindless violence. Then Aguirre rushes through the climax and ending, leaving many loose narrative threads.

It’s really too bad, because while the storytelling needs serious work, Aguirre’s not a terrible wordsmith. She just needs fresher ideas and the confidence to commit to them, to develop them rather than just throwing them out there to see if they’ll thrive.


Ghostopolis by Doug TenNapel

From Scholastic:

Imagine Garth Hale’s surprise when he’s accidentally zapped to the spirit world by Frank Gallows, a washed-out ghost wrangler. Suddenly Garth finds he has powers the ghosts don’t have, and he’s stuck in a world run by the evil ruler of Ghostopolis, who would use Garth’s newfound abilities to rule the ghostly kingdom. When Garth meets Cecil, his grandfather’s ghost, the two search for a way to get Garth back home, and nearly lose hope until Frank Gallows shows up to fix his mistake.

Ghostopolis is just a great work all around—funny, witty, exciting, touching, moving. Doug TenNapel creates a complete world in his version of the afterlife, with geopolitical subdivisions, rules of physics, and unique characters. None of the story felt haphazardly thrown together. Instead, Garth’s tale as little boy lost weaves seamlessly with Frank’s narrative of redemption.

The theme of growth appears throughout the book. We’re initially introduced to Garth when he’s gleefully grossing out his mother on a long drive, but over the course of the story he matures as he learns to overcome his fears in both the ghost world and the real world. Frank, too, learns to believe in himself and in his ability to change the world and be more than a glorified border patrol agent. The motif is made clear when Garth meets his grandfather in the afterlife, who first appears as an immature boy but quickly ages as he confronts hard truths about his past life.

Beyond a strong story, Ghostopolis features gorgeous artwork. The images skew toward cartoonish—TenNapel did, after all, create Earthworm Jim, and the same goofy aesthetics are present here. But TenNapel endows the characters with such nuanced expressions that the artwork felt very real and truthful.

With its boy hero and good-versus-evil storyline (and an obligatory fart joke), Ghostopolis will definitely draw in young readers. But TenNapel also introduces the noir-ish Frank and his (kickass) dame Claire Voyant, as well as other details that will keep older readers interested (such as Christ-figure Joe, a Tuskegee airman that constructed Ghostopolis and now runs an underground railroad smuggling denizens out of evil’s grasp and into the next stage of the afterlife). Ghostopolis really is a perfectly entertaining and soulful story that will appeal to all.

The Zodiac Killer: Terror and Mystery

The Zodiac Killer: Terror and Mystery by Brenda Haugen

From Capstone:

In the late 1960s, the Zodiac Killer terrorized the area near San Francisco, California, killing at least five people. The killer mailed letters to newspapers written in code, daring police to discover his identity. He taunted the police and spread fear around San Francisco and beyond. Would the police and the public, working together, find this terrifying monster?

I appreciate the attempt to provide young people books on all sorts of topics, but this book is kind of a dud. The Wikipedia article is both more interesting and more comprehensive.

At about only 70 pages of core materials, half of which are photos or less-than-10-word excerpts from the book blown up to fill an entire page. The other half is large print, double-spaced. So it’s not surprising that the Wikipedia article is more comprehensive.

But it’s a problem that the Wikipedia article is more interesting. As a non-fiction book for a younger audience, it’s critical for the author to engage the reader. As a non-fiction book about one of the most gruesome and uncaught killers in history, it should have been easy for her to do so. But Haugen’s writing is so dry that she might as well have been writing about horticulture. At least it was blissfully short.


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