Friday, December 7, 2012

Book Review: Where Things Come Back

John Corey Whales’ Where Things Come Back is one of those novels that comes out of nowhere and completely blindsides you with its originality. I picked up the book on a whim—Shaunta and I are looking to read as many of the Michael L. Printz award winners and honor books—and when I started it I didn’t know anything about it. I didn’t know the storyline, the characters, nothing. And starting this one after David Levithan’s wonderful Boy Meets Boy, I was on a high of reading great YA fiction. Where Things Come Back continued my journey through tremendous YA books. It’s funny, sad, surprising, and shocking, with a memorable set of characters and the kind of voice that keeps me searching out young debut authors. Whaley is a gifted writer, the kind I want to become, and his debut novel inspired me to no bounds. 

The plot bounces back and forth between two characters and places, and at first it’s jarring. The A story, told from the first person, concerns a teenager named Cullen Witter living in a small Arkansas town, trying to make sense of his existence as his cousin Oslo dies, his younger brother Gabriel disappears, and the town birdwatcher  John Barling claims he saw an extinct bird called the Lazarus Woodpecker, which brings an unusual amount of interest and press to Cullen’s small town. The B story, told in the third person, takes us over to Ethiopia, where a young man named Benton Sage is spending time on a mission from his church. His journey leads us to Cabot Searcy, Benton’s somewhat mentally deranged roommate. The second storyline ultimately weaves into the main storyline, and not how you’ll expect.
The book is a quick read at 228 pages (I read the hardback edition) but Whaley packs in enough emotion and surprises for a book twice the length. The Coming-of-Age novel is one of my favorite book genres—I’m currently tackling the second draft of a book that could be put in this category—and I’m always happy to meet a character on the page who is really able to draw you in, even if it’s with sarcasm and negativity. I loved spending time with Cullen. He’s like a younger version of Holden Caulfield, not yet severely messed up, but still with a lot of drama and issues to work through. I loved his escapades with his wily friend Lucas and the young women in his life—Ada and Alma. I loved his sessions with Dr. Webb, his feelings toward the devilish Lazarus Woodpecker, his heartbreaking coming-to-terms with the loss of his brother. You laugh a lot during Where Things Come Back, but there are also points that bring tears to your eyes. Yes, it’s that kind of book.

As I settled into this story I had memories of taking in books like To Kill a Mockingbird, Cold Sassy Tree, and Boy’s Life, books that really rang true for me as a teenager. Whaley is a young author at only 28, and I’m excited to learn he has already written two more books to be published. In a time of a crowded YA book scene, Where Things Come Back stands out as a true original. Check out this book ASAP, and don’t forget Whaley’s name: this guy is an author to watch!

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