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Ermahgerd. Berks.

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Where Things Come Back

Where Things Come Back - John Corey Whaley I won a book! I won a book on First Reads!Where Things Come Back is a YA debut novel about a disgruntled teen in small town Arkansas (is there any other kind?). 17-year-old Cullen Witter would be an emo teen if Lily was big enough to support fringe subcultures. But he's got all the attributes: over-sensitive, journal-writing, picked on by jocks (every town has those), unlucky in love (until, of course, he becomes extremely lucky in love, a twist integral to the plot, but whatever). The book takes place over one dreary summer, during which the totally undistinguished small town becomes the talk of the nation, apparently, due to the rumored reappearance of the Lazarus Bird, a large breed of woodpecker thought gone from the world (good thing they gave it such an ironic name!). In the midst of all this excitement, Cullen's younger brother Gabriel suddenly vanishes without a trace, throwing his family life into turmoil.Cullen's story takes center stage, but is intercut with seemingly unrelated chapters about Benton Sage, a young missionary serving overseas. Do you think perhaps these stories will turn out to be not so unrelated after all?So, this book was decent. It was pretty ambitious for a YA novel, dealing with sex, and abuse, and religion and suicide. A lot of the writing is quite nice. But I didn't like it very much. It hits a lot of hot-button areas for me, none hotter than the central voice: books from the point-of-view of sensitive teenage boys are incredibly hit-or-miss, and it is rare that I find one that strikes me as genuine (Nick & Nora's Infinite Playlist was really uncomfortably close, until it wasn't; Salinger is still the winner here, oh how original of me).Cullen Witter was not my Holden Caulfield. In fact, his stilted narration, displaying as it did the vast majority of the first-time novelist's most irritating tics, was but one entry on the admittedly rather unfair list of reasons this book didn't really do it for me. So, without further ado:MY ADMITTEDLY RATHER UNFAIR LIST OF REASONS THIS BOOK DIDN'T REALLY DO IT FOR ME:1) The missing Gabriel Witter is described as an elusive and mirthful sprite, with a devil-may-care attitude when it comes to others' opinions of him, an admiration for the music that no one else listens to, a notebook full of song lyrics and a closet full of band t-shirts. So... he is a hipster. Perhaps in a small town in Arkansas, the hipster is as rare a beast as a thought-to-be-extinct woodpecker; I still have trouble being impressed by someone whose exclusive tastes in unexplored music range no further than Sufjan Stevens and TV On the Radio. "Where does he find this stuff?" Cullen marvels after coming across a notebook with the lyrics to Staring at the Sun. I don't know, NPR? The New York Times? Entertainment Weekly? Rolling Stone? Saturday Night Live? They have the internet in Arkansas, right?Also his favorite book is Catcher in the Rye, of course.2) Benton Sage is described as having grown up in a militantly Christian evangelical home, with a tyrant father who made him memorize and recite the bible endlessly. Yet somehow he's 18 and on a mission trip in Ethiopia, of all places, before he learns about the Nephilim, those angel/human hybrids you may have read about in a recent terrible book, even though they are right there in Genesis and Numbers. 3) Speaking of Ethiopia, Benton is there for a whole chapter and there is no mention of how delicious Ethiopian food is. This took me out of the book somewhat, because if I were writing it, most of it would have been set around a dinner table. But not only does John Corey Whaley fail to include such a scene, he in fact invents a dinner scene in which Benton has to choke down a meal. Dear Mr. Whaley, consider this an open invitation: if you are ever in Chicago, I shall take you out for one of the finest inexpensive meals you will ever experience.4) I am from a very small town (less than 5,000 people, at least when I lived there). While not all small towns are created equal, the small town of Lily, Arkansas did not feel like a real place to me. I will overlook the fact that 3,900 people are somehow able to support multiple fast food chains and a Wal-Mart (the economics don't make sense to me, but I can't say for sure that this is so in the south). I cannot get over the fact that the appearance of a perhaps-not-as-extinct-as-was-previously-thought woodpecker has everyone in town talking.OK, I can buy that maybe a few restaurants would try to cash in on some woodpecker-related media attention, assuming there was somehow any sustained media attention beyond a featured spread in The Audubon Society Newsletter, but come on: the woodpecker burger, kids sporting dyed woodpecker haircuts, a woodpecker festival, tourists swarming the town? Don't the people have anything better to do, like meth? That's what everyone in my town did. It reminded me of the stupidest part in The Last Starfighter, when the whole town crowds around to watch Alex beat the top score on a video game. People: you have a TV. Watch it.5) Cullen's relationship with his brother was totally odd. Only two years separate them, but Cullen dotes on and romanticizes his brother like he's a precocious 5-year-old. "'Ornithological cannibalism! That's even worse!' I shouted back, before jumping into the air and running down the hallway to my room in a childish manner that only brothers exhibit around each other." Really? I am not familiar with that one. Josh?6) Cullen is an annoying narrator anyway. He likes to occasionally talk about himself in the third person, or in the less personal "when one finds oneself blah blah blah..." way that drove me up the wall. Suddenly, halfway through the book, he also starts overusing a-bunch-of-words-stuck-together-with-hyphens-type adjectives, which, fine, but why didn't he do that earlier? Editorial uniformity, please! He also affects the habit of coming up with imagined titles for books he will never write, which end each chapter. I swear I have seen this somewhere else; regardless, it makes me want to punch his face.7) Without spoilers, I thought the way the two stories eventually tied together to be anticlimactic, implausible, poorly motivated and kind of silly.8) The names are all very silly (Cullen Witter and Gabriel Witter and Benton Sage and Russell Quitman and Cabot Searcy and Alma Ember). The silliness is compounded when they are constantly referred to by their full names, Dawson's Creek-style.I guess that's it. I am picking on this book. It is a fine, upstanding book that just kind of annoyed me for my own reasons, explicated above (the same ones that grated when I read the similar The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Looking for Alaska). Neither here nor there: one of the reviews blurbed on the author's website describes this one as a "thriller." No. This book is not a thriller. Unless, perhaps, you live in a town where bird-watching is a community-wide spectator sport. P.S. As I said, this was a First Reads win. In the spirit of sharing the love, you (yes you!) are welcome to my copy! Just PM me with your address, or I will add it to GR swap tomorrow. Claimed!