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.
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.