Review: SALT TO THE SEA by Ruta Sepetys

This past week, I had the privilege of attending Ruta Sepetys’ launch for her newest novel, Salt to the Sea. Although Ruta is a Nashville author and this is her third book, she’s never had a launch party before. Another friend mentioned she was nervous no one would show up (most authors worry about this, no matter how successful they are).

Turns out, she needn’t have worried.

Photo by Parnassus Books

A standing-room-only crowd packed into Parnassus Books in Nashville, and together, we listened, rapt, as Ruta talked about the story behind Salt to the Sea. Like her debut, Between Shades of Gray, which shines a light on the Baltic deportations in the early 1940s, Salt tells the story of a forgotten and tragic piece of history — this time, the sinking of the German ship Wilhelm Gustloff in 1945.

Most people know about the sinking of Titanic and Lusitania, but far fewer have ever heard of Wilhelm Gustloff, even though it’s the largest maritime disaster in history. Over 9,000 people lost their lives when the Wilhelm Gustloff was ripped apart by Russian torpedoes, more than three times the casualties of the Titanic and Lusitania combined.

Over half of those, Ruta told us, were children and teenagers.

And yet most of the world doesn’t know about it. There are several reasons why this might be; I won’t get into them here. If you ever get a chance to attend one of Ruta’s events (and you should if you can), ask her about it. It’s fascinating. Equally fascinating are the true stories of the survivors Ruta interviewed while researching Salt to the Sea. She told us a couple of them at the launch, and by the time she finished, many of us were in tears. It was a dark, terrible period of our history, but much like in Between Shades of Gray, Ruta was able to uncover stories of heroism, of love, of sacrifice and compassion in the midst of all that horror. These true stories served as the foundation for Salt to the Sea, a fictional account of four teenagers who set sail on the doomed Wilhelm Gustloff in 1945.

The Plot (from Goodreads)

Winter, 1945. Four teenagers. Four secrets.

Each one born of a different homeland; each one hunted, and haunted, by tragedy, lies…and war.

As thousands of desperate refugees flock to the coast in the midst of a Soviet advance, four paths converge, vying for passage aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff, a ship that promises safety and freedom.

Yet not all promises can be kept.

Inspired by the single greatest tragedy in maritime history, bestselling and award-winning author Ruta Sepetys (Between Shades of Gray) lifts the veil on a shockingly little-known casualty of World War II. An illuminating and life-affirming tale of heart and hope.

My Thoughts:

Ruta Sepetys has a unique gift. She finds the tragic stories that history forgot and brings them to life through her books, educating her readers on these lost pieces of the past while simultaneously taking them on a heartfelt and emotional journey alongside her characters. Salt to the Sea is a work of historical fiction, but it is based on a very real event — the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff in 1945 — and the true historical backdrop is every bit as compelling as the stories of the fictional characters.

Salt to the Sea is told from the point-of-view of four different teenagers, each with a secret. There is Florian, a disillusioned Prussian art restorer; Joana, a clever and determined Lithuanian nurse; Emilia, a young Polish girl struggling for hope in a world that continues to betray her; and Alfred, a young Nazi sailor desperately seeking recognition.

I am going to pause here, because you may be nervous about the same thing I was during Alfred’s first chapter — namely, is this book going to attempt to make me sympathize with a Nazi? The short answer is no. I’m not going to say Alfred’s chapters are easy to read — on the contrary; Alfred is an infuriating character, what you would get if you took Mr. Collins from Pride and Prejudice, aged him down a bit, and handed him a copy of Mein Kampf. And while Salt to the Sea never tries to make the reader sympathize with Alfred or make excuses for him, some readers may not be able to stomach reading his toxic and hateful inner monologue. Only you can decide whether you can handle reading from the POV of a Nazi (and a sniveling, lazy Nazi at that), and I won’t try to change your mind if you don’t think this is something you can do. All I will say is that Alfred’s chapters do contribute to the narrative as a whole, and neither the stakes nor the tension would be the same without his perspective.

However, as much as Alfred is The Worst, the other characters balance the scale. Joana was probably my favorite, a wonderful combination of resourceful, smart, kind, and brave. (Joana also ties into Between Shades of Gray, for those of you who have read both books.) But they all had their moments. Emilia is kind and sweet, but with an underlying determination and selflessness that, on several occasions, took my breath away. And then there is Florian, reserved and secretive, yet motivated by a quiet nobility that kept me rooting for him throughout. I was so very invested in the fates of these three characters that I find myself still daydreaming about them days after finishing.

As for the story itself, I was surprised to find that the characters don’t even board the Wilhelm Gustloff until the second half of the book. (Perhaps I would have been more prepared for this had I realized that the Gustloff was only scheduled for a 48-hour trip, not a weeks-long voyage like the Titanic. So it makes sense that most of our time getting to know the characters happens before they reach the ship.)

The first half of the book chronicles the long trek of the refugees through the snowy countryside on their way to the port (or, in Alfred’s case, his preparations to sail). The journey to the ship is harrowing, as the characters are constantly trying to avoid both German and Russian soldiers, while also staving off frostbite, dehydration, and malnutrition. On the way, there are several horrifying incidents that show the terrible price of war, and even once they reach the port, the descriptions of the refugees are gutting. Sepetys thankfully never lingers on any single gruesome image for long, but through her careful descriptions and meticulously crafted sentences, you get a thorough mental image of the squalor, desperation, and terror of the characters and their surroundings.

Then there is their time on the Gustloff, cut tragically short by the sinking. Since I don’t want to get into spoilers, all I will say is that even though I knew the ship was going to sink, it was still devastating to read about. I was invested so deeply in the characters that watching them go through such an awful experience — no matter their personal outcome — was heartbreaking, and I spent the last chunk of the book reading through tears. It’s one thing to know about a tragic historic event; it’s another thing to experience it. Salt puts the reader right on the deck of the sinking ship, making us feel the panic and terror of the passengers, the biting cold of the water, the hopelessness of the death all around them, and, in spite of that, the steely resolve to keep struggling for survival.

As in her previous books, Ruta Sepetys’ prose shines, instantly transporting the reader to the world of her characters. Some authors struggle to convincingly juggle multiple points-of-view, but that is not the case in Salt to the Sea. Each of her four main characters has a distinctive voice and way of thinking which makes them easily distinguishable from one another. Also, the chapters are very short, with most lasting only two or three pages, so you never have to wait long to hear more from your favorite character. The brief chapters make that mental nudge to read “just one more chapter” easy to indulge, making this an incredibly swift read.

Salt to the Sea is a beautiful tale of a forgotten tragedy, set during one of the darkest periods of our history. It is respectfully and meticulously researched, but never feels like it’s working too hard to educate; instead, it sweeps the reader up in its vivid characters, gorgeous prose, and compelling storytelling, and if we are more historically knowledgeable by the end, that just feels like a bonus. One may expect a tale like this to leave the reader with a sense of despair, but although the story is full of moments of horror and death and unspeakable devastation, it balances them with moments of friendship, love, sacrifice, heroism, generosity, and kindness. In spite of the bleak time in which it is set, and the disastrous event that serves as its centerpiece, the Salt to the Sea ultimately manages to be hopeful, moving, inspiring, and immensely satisfying.

Review: WALK ON EARTH A STRANGER by Rae Carson

It’s no secret that I loved Rae Carson’s GIRL OF FIRE AND THORNS trilogy, so when I heard she was beginning a new fantasy trilogy — a historical fantasy, set during the California gold rush — my fingers immediately began itching for a copy. Fortunately, I had a friend who generously offered to loan me her ARC (once she was finished reading, of course — there is generous, and then there’s just plain ridiculous), so I was able to read WALK ON EARTH A STRANGER a few months early.

And guys, I didn’t even think it was possible, but if the first book is anything to go by, I think the Gold Seer Trilogy may be even better than GIRL OF FIRE AND THORNS.

I know. Take a moment.

The Plot (from Goodreads):

Lee Westfall has a secret. She can sense the presence of gold in the world around her. Veins deep beneath the earth, pebbles in the river, nuggets dug up from the forest floor. The buzz of gold means warmth and life and home—until everything is ripped away by a man who wants to control her. Left with nothing, Lee disguises herself as a boy and takes to the trail across the country. Gold was discovered in California, and where else could such a magical girl find herself, find safety?

Walk on Earth a Stranger, the first book in this new trilogy, introduces—as only Rae Carson can—a strong heroine, a perilous road, a fantastical twist, and a slow-burning romance. Includes a map and author’s note on historical research.

My Thoughts:

Before I dig into my thoughts on the first book in Rae Carson’s new Gold Seer Trilogy, let’s discuss genre for a minute. While WALK ON EARTH A STRANGER is being marketed as a fantasy, and while the opening chapter firmly establishes Leah Westfall’s ability to magically sense the presence of gold, once you move past the events that set Leah off on her cross-country journey, I was surprised to find that the majority of the book reads like a straight historical. Who knows, maybe future installments in the series will play up the magic more, but going off of just this first book, it feels a bit more accurate to call WOEAS historical fiction with some magical realism elements, rather than a fantasy

That said, even though I’d been prepared for a fantasy, I was not disappointed in the slightest to find magic missing from the majority of WOEAS. Leah — who starts going by “Lee” early in the book, when she disguises herself as a boy — is an utterly compelling narrator, and Carson’s prose is simultaneously lush and gritty, masterfully evoking the visuals and sounds and smells of a late-1800s America. The staggering amount of research that must have gone into this novel is evident on every page, immersing the reader in the endlessly beautiful — yet unforgivingly harsh — American frontier.

Though the ensemble cast seems kind of sprawling at first, Carson skillfully manages to develop her characters into fully three-dimensional people after surprisingly little page time. It didn’t take long before I was rooting not just for Leah, but for the families and individuals traveling alongside her. I won’t name names, because some characters have pretty impressive arcs (and some, um, die), but suffice it to say, Leah isn’t the only one who ends the book loving these people like family.

For those of us who grew up playing the video game Oregon Trail, Leah’s journey will come with a distinct sense of nostalgia. While (spoiler alert) Leah never hunkers down for days on end to shoot squirrels, she, along with her fellow travelers, must ford rivers, maneuver covered wagons, manage sick oxen, and battle disease (although not quite as much dysentery as I remember from my Oregon Trail days). Though the wagon train’s trek to California moves agonizingly slowly, the plot never does. Carson is a master of infusing her story with moment-to-moment tension, and even when the characters were sitting still, I found myself flying through the pages.

As with Carson’s first series, [what I suspect will be] the main romantic subplot doesn’t get much exploration in this first book. While there are hints, this is a story of survival and endurance, not romance. However, as a fan of the slow burn, I thoroughly enjoyed the foundations that were so thoughtfully laid in this book, and I think that even readers who prefer a lot of swoon in their fiction will find that, while sparse, there are enough tidbits in this book to carry them through to the next one.

Overall, I found WALK ON EARTH A STRANGER to be a beautiful, vivid, and compulsively readable portrayal of life in Gold Rush-era America, with just a dash of magic. I unequivocally loved it. Whether you are a lover of fantasy or historicals or simply a good story well told, I think you’ll love it, too.

Review: Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

Recently I was approached with the opportunity to interview Celeste Ng, debut author of Everything I Never Told You, for YABC (look for that interview to post next month). I’d actually decided to take a hiatus from reading YA for a little while — I’ve been nitpicking every YA book I’ve read recently, which I think has far more to do with me hitting a saturation point than the books themselves — and was preparing to decline for that reason, but then I read the summary. And I couldn’t say no.

Not because it was a family drama surrounding a dead kid, but because it was a family drama about a Chinese-American father, a white mother, and their mixed-race kids. Which is my family. And while I’ve never been a person that needs to see myself in a story to relate to it, I was curious to see if my experience would be reflected in this book. There simply aren’t that many books out there with Chinese characters, especially books with Chinese characters that are not about being Chinese. So I was intrigued. How would she pull it off? Would she pull it off?

Let’s discuss.

(Also, before we get to my review, I want to mention that after reading this, I don’t believe this book is YA. I assumed it would be, since I was reading it for YABC, but while there are indeed some teen characters, I feel this book is more accurately described as adult literary fiction with crossover appeal.)

The Plot (from Goodreads):

Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet . . . So begins this debut novel about a mixed-race family living in 1970s Ohio and the tragedy that will either be their undoing or their salvation. Lydia is the favorite child of Marilyn and James Lee; their middle daughter, a girl who inherited her mother’s bright blue eyes and her father’s jet-black hair. Her parents are determined that Lydia will fulfill the dreams they were unable to pursue—in Marilyn’s case that her daughter become a doctor rather than a homemaker, in James’s case that Lydia be popular at school, a girl with a busy social life and the center of every party.

When Lydia’s body is found in the local lake, the delicate balancing act that has been keeping the Lee family together tumbles into chaos, forcing them to confront the long-kept secrets that have been slowly pulling them apart.

My Thoughts:

From its very first page, EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU utterly captivated me with its poetic, sparse prose and keen emotional insight. Each word feels carefully chosen to immerse the reader in the Lee family’s household, which seems ordinary at first — in spite of the dead girl no one has yet discovered — but as the layers peel back, we learn things are far more complicated.

I was surprised, at first, at the narration of the story. Told in the third-person, EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU strolls casually through the thoughts of its five main characters — parents James and Marilyn, and their children, Nath, Lydia, and Hannah — sometimes sticking with one character for nearly an entire chapter, other times jumping from one to another to another all within the confines of a single scene. In addition to that, the narrative also darts back and forth through time, from James’ and Marilyn’s childhoods, college years, and courtship, up through their children’s lives, all the way to and beyond Lydia’s untimely death.  One might think this head-hopping and time-leaping would be disorienting or confusing, but it isn’t. Ng juggles it all masterfully, so that instead of the story rolling out in a neat line, it unfolds like a flower, all at once and in every direction.

The characters themselves were an interesting puzzle. On the one hand, they almost felt less like people and more like concepts or symbols. Though I wouldn’t say this is necessarily a book about racism, or feminism, or parental pressure, or adultery, or sibling rivalry –all those themes are present, and important, but as an undercurrent to the story, not the story itself — there are times when it seemed as though a character was the embodiment of an issue, rather than the embodiment of a person. Normally, this would turn me off. I love a good plot, but I read for character. If the characters don’t feel like real people to me, that doesn’t usually bode well for the book.

However — and this is a huge however — in this particular case, I was all right that the characters felt a little more ambiguous, because the emotion was spot-on. While I’m not sure that James is a person one could ever know, the way he felt growing up as the only Chinese kid in an all-white school rang entirely true. I could feel my hands shake as Marilyn stepped into a physics classroom full of men, feel my stomach clench as Lydia’s grades slipped and tumbled, feel my heart sink as Nath learned how mean children can be. I had to stop reading at one point because I needed to remind myself that the family’s grief was not my own; at another, I put the book down so I could go into my sleeping daughters’ room and hug them and tell them that they were loved, because the pain the parents in the book felt at not being able to tell Lydia those things left me no other choice.

For me, if a book can make me feel emotions that raw and sharp, it trumps absolutely everything else.

I also want to talk a bit about ethnicity, and how the fact that James is Chinese and his children are mixed-race works its way into the story. As the child of a Chinese father and a white mother, I was curious to see how that aspect of the book would be handled. And while the experiences of the Lees (particularly Nath and Lydia) were not and are not my experience — partially because of the 1970s setting of the book, and partially because I was not the only not-white kid growing up — they felt authentic to me, and I could relate to much of how they thought and acted and reacted. It’s hard to put into words the sense of knowing you are different but not feeling different, of forgetting that sometimes people will look at you and see an ethnicity instead of a person. I am fortunate to have only felt this way sporadically throughout my life — for some, as it is for James in the book, I know it is constant — but EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU does an excellent job of conveying how those times felt, sometimes subtly, sometimes explicitly, as it is in life. Being Chinese — or half-Chinese, or married to a Chinese man — does not define the whole of who the Lees are, but is instead a thread woven through their being, informing every aspect of their lives, whether or not they are conscious of it.

As for the plot — the mysterious circumstances surrounding Lydia’s death, what led to them, and how the family reacts — I found it simple, but never straightforward or boring. As in real life, there are multiple forces at play here, and though the plot itself isn’t complex — a girl dies, and her family tries to make sense of her death — the real story here is in the nuance. It’s impossible, after putting down the book, to cite any one reason or cause for Lydia’s death. It’s a culmination of her whole life, of her parent’s lives, of her siblings’ lives, and all the choices and hurts and slights and misunderstandings and pressures running through each. When we finally reached the night of Lydia’s death in the narrative and everything was explained, it wasn’t the “a-ha!” moment one typically expects in a mystery, but more a quiet, “of course.” For really, this isn’t a mystery about the death of a teenage girl, but a story about a family’s complex relationships with each other. Not a line or an arc, but a web.

Ultimately, EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU is a beautifully crafted tale full of honest emotion and raw truth. Though it is quiet, the gorgeous prose and heart-wrenching story kept me riveted from the first page to the last, and will keep my thoughts spinning for some time to come.

Film Review: INSURGENT

This past week I got the opportunity to catch an advance screening of Insurgent, the sequel to last year’s action-packed YA blockbuster Divergent. I’ll be honest, I was on the fence about this one. While I was pleasantly surprised by the first movie, the trailers for the second left me scratching my head. The entire first teaser appeared to be either a dream sequence or a fearscape (one of the drug-induced hallucinations characters in the franchise’s dystopian Chicago face to prove their bravery) — is it a red flag when a movie has to advertise using a scene that has nothing to do with the actual plot? — and the full trailer strongly hinted that the adaptation would be deviating in a big way from the book.

Box? What box? The box isn’t in the book. What’s in the box? (Anyone else unable to read that question in anything other than the traumatized voice of Brad Pitt? Just me?)

But since the first film had exceeded my trailer-based expectations, and since the second book was my favorite of the series, I went into Insurgent with an open mind and cautious hope.

Insurgent opens shortly after Divergent leaves off. Tris (Shailene Woodley), Four (Theo James), Caleb (Ansel Elgort), and Peter (Miles Teller) have sought refuge in the peaceful Amity compound outside the city limits while they try to determine their next move. Meanwhile, Jeanine (Kate Winslet), head of the Erudite faction, has gotten her hands on the aforementioned Mysterious Box, and is obsessed with finding a Divergent who can open it. Hence Eric (Jai Courtney) is leading a group of Dauntless soldiers around attempting to round up Tris and her ragtag group of rebels.

Obviously, chaos ensues. And continues to ensue for the entirety of Insurgent’s 2-hour running time. Which, if you read the book, is about what you’d expect from its adaptation; neither version of the story is short on action sequences.

However, I did take some issue with the way the action unfolded. In both the book series and the movies, Tris becomes a far more competent soldier and leader in the second installment. But while the book version of Tris also develops a more mature and measured way of thinking and problem solving, even if it means making hard decisions, the movie version did away with that pesky nuance, instead opting to have her lash out violently any time she was placed in a tough situation or in a conversation with someone she didn’t like. This did lead to some fun fight scenes, and yes, I suppose one could argue that it made Tris “strong,” but for me, I would’ve liked a bit more strength of character and a bit less strength of temper and fists.

As a sidebar, it was kinda odd seeing Shailene Woodley in scenes opposite literally all of her previous YA movie love interests. I mean. She’s had a really good past few years professionally, but it’s starting to get weird.

TJ: Divergent is the best.
MT: SAY THAT TO MY FACE.
TJ: I just did. I punch people A LOT in these movies. What did you do in Spectacular Now? Cry?
MT: Not as much as SOME people.
AE: Uh, guys? I’m right here.
TJ: I TAKE MY SHIRT OFF TOO.
AE: I took mine off in Fault In Our Stars. AND my leg.
MT: OH SNAP.
Shailene Woodley: Hate to break this up, but we’re supposed to be filming an awkward scene with all four of us now, okay? Okay.

As far as acting goes, Insurgent boasts a lot of heavy hitters in the cast, but I felt that a lot of them failed to deliver. While I was surprised by how well both Shailene Woodley and Theo James handled their roles in the first movie (despite my complete inability to buy him as an 18-year-old), in this one, they were lacking for me. Naomi Watts, whom I usually like, was surprisingly unconvincing as [highlight for minor spoiler: Four’s presumed-dead mom — who, despite the fact that she is 16 years Theo James’ senior in real life, only looks about 5 years older on-screen], and Kate Winslet, whom I love and adore, had such an odd over-the-top role to play that even her innate Kate Winslet-ness had trouble saving it. I also had trouble connecting with Ansel Elgort’s character, but I’m not sure that’s entirely his fault, as Caleb isn’t exactly Mr. Personality in the books either. However Miles Teller was a wonderfully pleasant surprise, stealing every scene he was in, and Jai Courtney was a sufficiently menacing baddie. So a bit of a mixed bag, for me.

There were also, as I mentioned before, tons of plot changes, both big and small. As often happens in movie adaptations of books with large casts, many characters’ roles were truncated, given to a different character, or eliminated altogether. Subplots were altered and rearranged. And of course, the Mysterious not-in-the-book Box is the central point around which the entire movie’s plot rotates.

While I am not a book purist when it comes to film adaptations — I mean, I thought the Hobbit trilogy was great fun, fanfictiony and ridiculous though it was — I do wish that the filmmakers had taken a little more care to make their Big Changes actually make sense. The logic behind the Mysterious Box is frail at best, a theme that carries through a lot of the narrative choices in the movie.

Characters fight to the death over a misunderstanding that is later cleared up with a single sentence. Characters are shown in no-hope-of-escape scenarios in one scene and then happy as a clam back at their home base in the next, with no explanation how they got there. Bad guys hatch elaborate plots, then they unfold using set pieces put in place before the plot was hatched.

Basically, abandon hope, all ye who seek logic here.

However I don’t want to come across as a big ol’ downer telling you to avoid this movie at all costs. There are some great fight sequences, and anyone hoping to see Shailene Woodley kicking some serious bad-guy booty will be over the moon. There are some huge — albeit a bit video gamey — nifty CGI sequences. There is some surprisingly great comic relief in the form of Miles Teller, whose character I absolutely loathed in the book but kind of adored in the movie. And if Tris and Four (whose shipper name I don’t know, but if it’s anything other than FourTris, which would clearly be pronounced fortress, I quit) are your jam, then you’re in for a treat, as the romance is definitely amped up from the book.

Ultimately, my thoughts on this movie are that if you’re okay with the movie being its own, separate-from-the-book thing, or if you’re there for the action, for the romance, for the high-stakes adrenaline-pumping pace, or for the futuristic dystopian setting, you’ll probably really enjoy it.

If you’re more about tight storytelling and source material faithfulness, this may not be the film for you — or you just need to go in knowing not to place too high a value on those things.

No matter what, if you decide to check out Insurgent at the theater, I hope you have fun, and I’d love to know your thoughts!

Check out the video below for the Drive Through Movie Review Clint Redwine and I filmed after exiting the theater, in which I say “like” way too much, coin the term “Bovine Dystopia,” and do a bad impression of Caleb running. You’re welcome, Internet.

Review: MOSQUITOLAND by David Arnold

This is the time where I should probably remind you that what I do on this blog is not review books, but recommend. I used to do reviews, back before I started seriously pursuing my own writing, but criticizing someone else’s blood, sweat, and tears when art is such a subjective thing never really sat well with me. I’d rather recommend what I love (and stay quiet on what I don’t) than steer folks away from something that just wasn’t for me.

This is why I don’t post that often, and why, when I do, it’s always positive. It’s not that I love every book I pick up. It’s that I only take the time to write about the ones that I enjoy so much, I want to pass them on.

With that reminder and caveat out of the way, I’m going to be honest: I’ve recommended a lot of friends’ books on this blog, and I stand by every single one of those recommendations. But David Arnold’s quirky road-trip debut MOSQUITOLAND has made me a bit more verklempt than usual. Although I am blessed to have many amazingly talented writer friends in my life, and I am so proud of their successes, I met most of them post-agent, post-sale. They were already Authors with a capital A, even if their books hadn’t hit shelves yet.

But I knew David back when he was still an aspiring author. Little a. Like me. And it feels different.

I first met David a couple years ago, at a writing retreat where he and I were assigned to the same critique group. This was before he’d ever sold a book, before either of us had signed with an agent, before we’d even finished our first YA manuscripts or started querying. We were, for all intents and purposes, at the same point in our respective writing journeys.

Our critique groups each had five or six people in them. We traded first chapters and filled out worksheets in an attempt to help each author improve their work. It was very quiet and studious and serious as we passed pages around the table and everyone took a turn jotting their suggestions for how each writer could improve their characters, their prose, their plot and set-up and all the nitty gritty that goes into crafting a book.

I read a lot of good pages.

Then the papers shifted, and the first three chapters of MOSQUITOLAND landed in front of me.

I read them, filled out my worksheet, and then stared at it with a frown, feeling there was something more to say about these pages and not knowing quite how to say it.

Finally I scribbled onto the bottom of the page — I can’t remember the exact words, but it was something along the lines of– “Don’t tell anyone, but your book is far and away my favorite.

Now here we are, two and a half years later, and MOSQUITOLAND has grown from my favorite 30 pages at a writing retreat into one of my favorite for-real paper-and-ink books on my shelf, and David Arnold has gone from being a fellow aspiring writer whose ridiculous talent was easily spotted even in those early, drafty pages, to a cherished friend.

All that said — I’d recommend this book even if David was a stranger I wouldn’t know if I tripped over him in the street.

The Plot (from Goodreads):

“I am a collection of oddities, a circus of neurons and electrons: my heart is the ringmaster, my soul is the trapeze artist, and the world is my audience. It sounds strange because it is, and it is, because I am strange.”

After the sudden collapse of her family, Mim Malone is dragged from her home in northern Ohio to the “wastelands” of Mississippi, where she lives in a medicated milieu with her dad and new stepmom. Before the dust has a chance to settle, she learns her mother is sick back in Cleveland.

So she ditches her new life and hops aboard a northbound Greyhound bus to her real home and her real mother, meeting a quirky cast of fellow travelers along the way. But when her thousand-mile journey takes a few turns she could never see coming, Mim must confront her own demons, redefining her notions of love, loyalty, and what it means to be sane.

Told in an unforgettable, kaleidoscopic voice, “Mosquitoland” is a modern American odyssey, as hilarious as it is heartbreaking.

My Thoughts:

The first thing a reader notices when they pick up MOSQUITOLAND is the voice. Self-proclaimed strange protagonist Mary Iris Malone (“Mim”) leaps off the page, a precocious, declarative and impulsive girl with a view of life and people that is, even at its most stable, a little askew. She is quick to judge and quicker to act, and though her wit is razor-sharp, her common sense is quite a bit more blunted.

Which is why, as one might expect, her spur-of-the-moment road trip to find her absentee mom doesn’t go exactly as planned.

It’s an odd thing, sometimes, being an adult reading books about teenagers. Actions I would have cheered in my adolescence cause me to cringe, situations that appear romantic and exciting to a 16-year-old seem rife with danger, and the logic that feels incontrovertible to the teenage protagonist is riddled with holes.

Often, these are the sorts of things that can pull me out of a story, because checking one’s adult sensibilities at the door is not a natural impulse. Honestly, Mim makes a few choices that would probably even give some — or most — of her peers pause. But her voice is so open and authentic that even when she’s jumping into a scrap-heap truck with an older boy she just met or taking a dip in a probably-disease-riddled swimming hole or any of the myriad other weird and ill-considered things she does, I was with Mim, totally and completely, instead of wishing I could pull her back before she charged headlong into disaster.

And she does, on more than one occasion, charge into disaster. Sometimes physical and cataclysmic, sometimes internal and echoing, and probably not nearly as frequent as might be likely if a real-life Mim were to embark on this same journey. But the consequences Mim faces for her impulsive and often uninformed decisions are enough that while a reader may sympathize with Mim’s intentions, they can still recognize her fallibility and naivete.

As for tone, this book skillfully straddles the line between “issues” and “light” contemporary. It tackles hard topics in a way that gives them weight without bogging down the narrative, and balances tough real-world issues — mental illness, suicide, divorce, and sexual predators, among others (it’s worth mentioning that this book is marketed for readers 12 and up, but I think it skews a bit older) — with an effervescent lightness, as if the story has been painted with a vibrant, Wes Anderson-esque brush. Every part of MOSQUITOLAND is a little brighter and larger than life, from the cast to the plot to Mim herself and her perception of reality.

For my money, that’s a good thing: Mim views her story as grandiose and that is how she tells it, and being submerged in her off-the-beaten-path brain gives her tale a degree of authenticity that may not have been present with a more straightforward narrative.

Mim’s odyssey is a strange one, full of strange characters and strange happenings. But it’s also beautiful and fun and heartfelt and raw, and while Mim’s musings are not always brimming with objective wisdom, they are honest and endlessly quotable.

If you’re a fan of surprisingly eventful road trips, of quirky and bizarre casts of characters, of flawed protagonists, of vivid settings and skewed realities, of the type of voice that will dig its way into your brain and refuse to let go, and of strangeness, I can’t recommend MOSQUITOLAND highly enough.