July 31, 2008

Book Review: Gone

The author of this book is a blogbuddy, so I admit I'm somewhat biased in his favor. But I mitigate my admitted affinity for the author on a personal level with the fact that the style of the book is substantially different from his online writings. Online, Michael Grant (a pseudonym) writes for adults, using adult language, adult phrases, and razor-sharp humor. His newly-released book, Gone, is aimed at teenagers and I'm quite confident that it will scare the hell out of them. In a good way.

The book is set in and around a small town that is quite obviously a derivative of Pismo Beach, California. The names are slightly changed, but if you're at all familiar with that part of California's central coast, you'll recognize all of the real-life places referenced either by actual or only slightly altered names. (I don't know if Grant thought of it, but setting his story there would allow him to visit the eventual film set located conveniently near the best vineyards for Cabernet Sauvingon in the United States while enjoying beautiful coastal paradise.)

The story begins abruptly when everyone over the age of fifteen simply vanishes in an instant, and the kids are left behind to their own devices. Trapped in a world that almost immediately begins to change in sinister and incomprehensible ways, the kids even find changes in themselves which are both dangerous and powerful. I was thinking The Stand meets Harry Potter, although others have said it's Lost meets Heroes. Either way works.

The first thing that really got me about the book was how the author changed his writing style from the breezy, cynical, and quite adult way I'm used to reading him, to tailor his book for the target audience of teenagers. And very much to Grant's credit, he did it without talking down to his teenage audience at all. Indeed, if I were going to fault him for use of language, it would be in the other direction -- one character uses some words that are obscure for some adults, and the conversation sometimes has a Dawson's Creek level of unnatural maturity to it.

But the thing is, Grant has a good eye for how smart the average teen really is and gives his teen readers credit for possessing both sufficient intelligence and worldliness to deal with sophisticated vocabulary and some tough situations for the generally sympathetic characters. He also has a good understanding of the sorts of things that the average teenage reader, at least in America, is used to dealing with. I'll be a little bit less elliptical: Grant incorporates some scenes and themes of pretty tough stuff -- some of this stuff would be emotionally difficult to read in an adult novel. The most disturbing thing for me to read was the slowly-paced issue of what happens to the character Mary.

He's right to include that element, and stuff like it. After all, kids could put together that some of these things would happen and they see some of these things happening in their real lives (like with Mary). Other things (like Caine's way of keeping control of his minions) are seriously twisted, and fascinating in their perversity. That last bit, by the way, was both pleasingly creative and horrifying.

The story moves forward with many relatively short scenes. This isn't a Dan Brown book, so the chapters are longer than two pages each, and many but not all of them end in cliffhangers. (J.K. Rowling did that in her Harry Potter books, too, albeit with longer chapters incorporating many scenes.) The narrative barely ever pauses for breath, which makes for a good story. One fly in the ointment: if you're fourteen and need to look up one or two of the words that are being used, though, you might be tempted to plow ahead with the tense narrative rather than pulling out the dictionary to decipher what Astrid the Genius just said.

My big complaint: as compelling as the overall scenario is, and as powerful as the almost-never-pauses-for-breath narrative is, it lacks verisimilitude. While a lot of the details of the story make logical sense under the fictional circumstances, and I'm more than willing to suspend my disbelief for some of the big plot elements, others don't quite ring true. A lot of the kids seem eager to work and do some of the really unpleasant sorts of things necessary to keep a society functioning and my experience is that kids need to be firmly prodded by authority figures even when the need for certain kinds of action on their part seem patently obvious. (Looking back on it, it's a wonder my parents didn't kill me during my own teenage years.)

That's not to say that there aren't mature, responsible teenagers out there, but it is to say that the frequency of such kids in this book seems unusually high. Maybe I'm supposed to infer that tough circumstances mature the kids faster than they might otherwise have done, and one of the central characters must confront some personal failings in this regard, but the necessity of keeping a functional society working makes Grant impute a higher degree of personal responsibility to these kids than I was ever really persuaded to believe.

Of course, that sort of thing is actually quite appealing to the parents of teenagers who will generally be the ultimate source of the money plunked down for the book. Parents considering this book for their kids will need to be aware that some scenes are violent, although in a comic-book sort of way -- . The kids use adult devices like cars, although by the time your kids are fourteen they've visualized themselves driving anyway. But mainly, there are some scenes and themes in which very gruesome or very emotionally trying challenges confront the kids. This world is not free from death. There are romantic themes between the boys and girls, although they are sanitized and go no further than hand-holding and kissing, and those feel both appropriate and realistic for kids this age.

So yes, I liked the book my online friend wrote very much. But I can honestly say that, appreciating its target audience, I would have liked it even if the author had been a complete stranger. And you know, I've never met the man in person, we've just exchanged comments on one anothers' blogs. So take that for what it's worth.

Grant has kept explanations for a lot of the phenomena in reserve for sequels -- I understand that the next book in the series is already written even as this book is only in general release for about a month. I'll look forward to reading it and hope for good things for the character I liked best, Elidio. Teens and their parents will find the book immensely entertaining and should not hesitate to buy the book.


Michael Reynolds said...

. . .my experience is that kids need to be firmly prodded by authority figures even when the need for certain kinds of action on their part seem patently obvious.

It's my experience that they need to be chased around the house by parents screaming dire threats and doling out punishments.

Some of that irresponsibility I'm saving for book #2. One of the drawbacks of a series is that you inevitably reach a point where you decide to do something "later." But just to tease that book a bit, the title will be HUNGER.

Thanks, TL, you were very kind. I agreed with everything you said, especially the part about me being a literary genius.

Wait . . . I was sure I saw that in there somewhere.

Becky said...

I've read the book and am still processing it.

Unlike TL, I had no problem believing that Mary, Albert, and others would step up to the plate and do the right thing. It would be unpleasant, but necessary. That element was realistic to me.

It was a fun read. The beginning was a little slow, then it picked up to the point where I couldn't put it down. Good for reading pleasure, bad when you need to sleep!

The characters were well written and they did behave as expected (eating candy, chips, ice-cream, etc.), but they also matured to the point of planning and preparing for the changes in their environment.

I can't wait for Hunger!