Saturday, February 26, 2011

Boy Heaven by Laura Kasischke

Boy Heaven by Laura Kasischke
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is hardly a typical book selection for me. It had been sitting on my shelf for a year already by the time I gave it a try, and even then it was just the book I grabbed blindly on my way to bed for the night. To its credit, I read the entire book in a couple of days. I'm not normally a fan of this kind of literature. It's the kind that they call young adult in some bookstores only because the main characters are teenagers. The thing is, I've read quite a few books targeted at adults that broach fewer "taboos" than this book did and they do it with a greater sensibility in their approach. This one was a bit over the top.


It was a pretty good ghost story. Or maybe it's wrong to call it a ghost story. Is a ghost only a ghost if the person they are born out of is already dead? Maybe I'm just mincing the details too much. Anyway, the thing that this book does best is take the reader along on the psychological train wreck of being haunted or stalked by something creepy. It follows three teenage cheerleaders, Kristy, Kristi, and Desiree, at cheerleading camp (yes, I almost put the book down for that alone). They are your typical self-absorbed, petty, contradictory messes that you have to anticipate a writer creating as filler in most high school dramas, basically three overfilled barges of mental baggage. Top it off with the story being written in the first-person view of one of those aforementioned messes, Kristy Sweetland, and you've got a world-class narcissist on your hands.


It opens with an unplanned afternoon excursion to go skinny dipping at a local lake that goes terribly wrong thanks to a few relatively creepy local boys playing stalker after crossing paths with the girls at the local gas station. Okay, so the beginning reads like just about a thousand movies I've consistently avoided like the plague of American cinema that they are. There's the predictable chase through the backroads of nowheresville, the narrow escape, and the triumphant taunting of their pursuers wherein they decide to give them a taste of what they missed by baring all from the waist up as they cruise past the gawking hormonal creeps. Yes, I even suffered through the nauseating descriptions of each girl's chest as compared to that of insecure Kristy. Where it all picks up is in the aftermath of that ill-fated trip.


Back at camp, their victory is short lived. Of course, the stalkers somehow aren't through with the girls yet, not after getting a look at the three of them topless. The girls try to return to business as usual, Kristi going back to sulking, Desiree angling her way into the pants of the attractive male camp counselor, and Kristy standing by to envy her loose friend for her carefree and vivacious ways and, of course, obsessing over how every other girl at camp views her. The author does a pretty thorough job of making you want to root for the stalkers or perhaps an oversized alligator from the lake with an overdeveloped appetite for self-obsessed teenage girls. That last part was just a suggestion, but I think it would have been worth a closer look.


Anyway, the boys begin turning up in the woods outside the cabins to stare and generally creep the girls out and one by one the three of them begin to unravel in their own little ways. This was the real fun of the story, comparing their different descents into paranoia and the measures they went to to protect themselves, none of which really helped. If they were even remotely likable people, I suppose at one point I might have started feeling bad for them, especially the sulky Kristi who seemed fit for a straight jacket pretty early on, but that never was the case here so it kept the fun simple for me. I could have done without the chronicles of Desiree and her boy toy, but I suppose it was a necessary piece of the whole unfortunate puzzle. You can't have a sex-crazed supporting character sit around eating ham sandwiches for the entire book…unless of course she's waiting to get her groove back or something.


Overall, if this book were made into a movie that stayed true to the original text, it would be rated R for sure, and not just because of the flashing scene toward the beginning. There is enough sex in this otherwise to make sure of that. But it's a good psychological thrill ride. There are some pretty tense moments. The writer has an absolute mastery of metaphor and the descriptions of everything from the scenery to the characters' expressions are chock full of vivid imagery. The plot is a mixture of clich├ęs and overdone twists, but the end scene and the final plot twist are both fairly alarming. Bottom line is while I wouldn't make the mistake of suggesting this to any random teenager, I wouldn't call it a bad book for the rest of us. Give it a try when you're after a fast, mindless summer read and I'm pretty sure you won't be disappointed.


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Saturday, February 12, 2011

Into the Twilight, Endlessly Grousing by Patrick McManus

Into the Twilight, Endlessly Grousing by Patrick F. McManus
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This volume of short stories contains what is most likely my favorite Patrick McManus story of all, the story that shares its name with the book. All in all, this volume of McManus stories is right on par with his many others. It's a bit light on Crazy Eddie Muldoon and Rancid Crabtree stories, my favorite brand of McManus stories, but it is still chock full of the outlandish outdoor adventures that McManus is known for. I think the one difference between this and stories he's done before is the quiet presence of an almost melancholy longing for a bygone era in his life. Never is this more evident than in the title story, "Into the Twilight, Endlessly Grousing".


Pat decides to take a elderly friend he calls "the old man" out for a day of grouse hunting, during which he witnesses everyone swooning over his adorable senior companion while Pat gets a steady peppering of criticism from the same old codger everyone is so enamored with. Pat stoically endures however, hinting at a great indebted respect he feels toward the old man. Through it all are the understated reminders that things have changed, that the local wilderness of Pat's glory days is long gone, and that the onslaught of progress isn't through with this community yet. From the changes that have overtaken Pat's favorite local eatery to the housing developments that have sprung up in nearly all of Pat's former hunting grounds, nothing has remained the same.


Only a master storyteller like McManus could so unsuspectingly interweave such a heavy sense of forlorn remembrance with truly innocent colloquial humor that leaves the reader feeling a bit giddy, yet simultaneously thoughtful. It's a reminder of the quality that McManus has been offering up for decades and a hopeful hint of the richness that's still to come.


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