Avid Readers, Occasional Bloggers

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The Lost Causes of Bleak Creek by Rhett McLaughlin & Link Neal

My wife, and kids, are big fans of Good Mythical morning, the comedy/entertainment YouTube channel. My wife has been watching it for many, many years and she got the kids into it. I enjoy the show but not with quite the enthusiasm of the rest of the family. But when Rhett and Link have a book out I usually order it for my wife.

Such was the case with The Lost Causes of Bleak Creek, the first novel by the founders of the internet sensation that is all things Mythical. After my wife and daughter read it, I figured I would give it a try.

It’s 1992 in Bleak Creek, North Carolina—a sleepy little place with all the trappings of an ordinary Southern town: two Baptist churches, friendly smiles coupled with silent judgments, and an unquenchable appetite for pork products. Beneath the town’s cheerful façade, however, Bleak Creek teens live in constant fear of being sent to the Whitewood School, a local reformatory with a history of putting unruly youths back on the straight and narrow—a record so impeccable that almost everyone is willing to ignore the suspicious deaths that have occurred there over the past decade.

At first, high school freshmen Rex McClendon and Leif Nelson believe what they’ve been told: that the students’ strange demises were all just tragic accidents, the unfortunate consequence of succumbing to vices like Marlboro Lights and Nirvana. But when the shoot for their low-budget horror masterpiece, PolterDog, goes horribly awry—and their best friend, Alicia Boykins, is sent to Whitewood as punishment—Rex and Leif are forced to question everything they know about their unassuming hometown and its cherished school for delinquents. 

Eager to rescue their friend, Rex and Leif pair up with recent NYU film school graduate Janine Blitstein to begin piecing together the unsettling truth of the school and its mysterious founder, Wayne Whitewood. What they find will leave them battling an evil beyond their wildest imaginations—one that will shake Bleak Creek to its core.

Perhaps not surprisingly for a first novel, it was a little choppy and started slow; a little rough around the edges you might say. It seemed like they were trying to force a little too much of their personality quirks and descriptions into the story and dialogue. Too much tell and not enough show, as they say. But part of that is trying to imagine Rhett and Link as the characters in the story (their names are Rex and Leif).

But once it gets going in has a pretty good pace and there is a flurry of activity and resolution at the end. It does seem to set up a sequel in the Epilogue.

One weird element is that I was unsure who the audience was for this book. Is this Middle Grade, Young Adult, or all ages? Is high school the middle school/starting high school the target since that is the age of the characters? It wasn’t clear reading it. I didn’t find it scary in the least so the horror aspect just felt off. But to be fair, unlike large swaths of the world, I am not a big Stranger Things fan so perhaps that was a missed connection. 1990’s nostalgia and pop cultural references play a big role.

In the end this was an interesting if not particularly gripping story to me. I’m guessing that fans of Rhett and Link have already devoured it and are impatiently waiting for the next book. If you are not a fan of the duo or of Stranger Things type stories not sure how much this will grab you.

Stranger Things carries a lot of cultural weight by itself these days—the legacy of Steven Spielberg, Stephen King, and the many weird movies and books that don’t get the credit they deserve—but these comedy writers have hit that vein hard with this VHS-era kicker that references the Jean-Claude Van Damme movie Kickboxer on the very first page…

Sure, it’s kind of a rip-off, but it’s scary, it’s fun, and it’s one hell of a carnival ride. 


The Extraordinary Colors of Auden Dare by Zillah Bethell

At some point I stumbled on The Extraordinary Colors of Auden Dare by Zillah Bethell at the library while looking at books with my kids and put it on my “to read” list. It looked like one of the many creative and interesting middle grade novels:

Auden Dare is colorblind and lives in a world where water is scarce and families must live on a weekly, allocated supply.

When Auden’s uncle, the scientist Dr. Bloom, suddenly dies, he leaves a note to Auden and to his classmate Vivi Rookmini. Together, the notes lead them to Paragon―a robot.

As Auden, Vivi, and Paragon try to uncover Paragon’s purpose and put together the clues Dr. Bloom left behind, they find out that Dr. Bloom’s death was anything but innocent, that powerful people are searching for Paragon―and that it’s up to Auden and Vivi to stop them.

I waited a while to see if I could get it on Kindle or audiobook through my local library but eventually just decided to read it in good old hardcover.

I enjoyed it but it felt a little thin in the world building department. Like the dystopian world that was the setting was just a backdrop or plot hook. I also found Auden rather annoying at times but given his age and circumstances perhaps that is to be expected.

Once I got into it, however, the plot picked up and the ending was enjoyable. Paragon was a fun character if you can suspend your disbelief a bit. And Vivi was a welcome contrast or juxtaposition from Auden. Their friendship seemed realistic and true to life; the rollercoaster ride of competition, emotion, and companionship.

The mystery of Auden’s dad and how it tied into the mystery of his uncle was well done too. I thought the second half of the book was stronger than the first (which is better than the other way around).

All in all an enjoyable read given the usual caveats regarding YA/Middle Grade fiction not aimed at me, etc. Would recommend for young readers.

Lucretia and the Kroons by Victor LaValle

One of the perennial problems for the book blogger/reviewer is the guilt that hovers over you because of the books you received or requested but never reviewed. Once the pure joy of receiving free books begins to wear off, and it does wear off even if not completely, this guilt begins to hang around.

The guilt has multiplied for me the past year or so as I have been in something of a funk when it comes to reviewing books. I still love to read and read quite a bit but the motivation to post has been spotty at best. As a result, there are quite a few books that I requested and read but never really reviewed or offered feedback of the sort publishers would prefer.

But this is not a new phenomenon. Lucretia and the Kroons by Victor LaValle is a perfect illustration. Seeking something to read on my Kindle before bed (I have far too many serious nonfiction works on my Kindle which are not what is needed for bedtime reading most nights), I decided to finally read this novella.

Lucretia’s best friend and upstairs neighbor Sunny—a sweet pitbull of a kid, even as she struggles with a mysterious illness—has gone missing. The only way to get her back is for Lucretia to climb the rickety fire escape of their Queens tenement and crawl through the window of apartment 6D, portal to a vast shadowland of missing kids ruled by a nightmarish family of mutants whose designs on the children are unknown. Her search for Sunny takes Lucretia through a dark fantasyland where she finds lush forests growing from concrete, pigeon-winged rodents, and haunted playgrounds. Her quest ultimately forces her to confront the most frightening specter of all: losing, forever, the thing you love the most.

Having finished reading, I went back to NetGalley and discovered that I had requested this book in 2012! It was a companion to The Devil in Silver. I was just looking for an interesting story; the fact that it was a novella was a bonus.

Nearly nine years later I can say that it was an interesting read but I am not sure LaValle pulled of the trick or stuck the landing to mix my metaphors. It is supposed to be a middle grade fantasy with a dash of horror. And the publisher isn’t shy in its marketing:

From one of the most acclaimed young writers of fiction in America today comes a fast-paced and fantastical novella about a young girl’s journey into a dark netherworld to find her missing best friend. … Lucretia and the Kroons is a dazzlingly imaginative adventure story and a moving exploration of the power of friendship and the terror of loss.

Um, for me? Not so much …

Despite a strong start that pulls you in, and a interesting central character in Lucretia (“Loochie”), it soon becomes clear that the story’s identity is fuzzy. At times it veers toward inappropriate content (just straight up inappropriate depending on your tolerance for such things) for middle grade readers. It also jumps from realism to fantasy with little set up or transition; one minute it is realistic the next metaphysical/fantastic. This is jarring and leaves the reader confused about the fantasy world/horror Loochie gets trapped in; why it exists, how it operates, if it is “real” or in her mind, etc.

And the ending just makes a mess of it all. Rather than offer insight or tie up loose ends, it just drops an anvil on things and calls it a day. It was neither satisfying nor thought provoking. I’m guessing it was something of a set up for the novel it is a companion to, but it undermined any of the enjoyment that might have been had from the story.

Which is too bad because there is a lot of creativity here. But the whole is somehow less than the sum of its parts. Points for the attempt I guess but a frustrating read. The good news? It is only $.99 on Kindle and roughly 100 pages so the risk is low for those who want to make their own judgement.

Benice: An Adventure of Love and Friendship by Metin Karayaka

I’m trying to make sense of my reaction to Benice: An Adventure of Love and Friendship by Metin Karayaka. This is normally something I would love: middle grade adventure story with classic fairy tale style and illustrations; and a positive message as a bonus. Which is why I grabbed it from NetGalley.

But while I enjoyed it (3 stars), I wasn’t wowed like so many NetGalley and Goodreads reviewers. But first, plot teaser:

Levend is just twelve when he meets Mr. Ben Ice, a gruff fisherman whose peg leg, eyepatch and hook hand all but prove a lifetime of piracy. But life in Yalova is hard, and if this intimidating figure can help Levend support his family, then he’ll gladly accompany him on the fishing trip of a lifetime – even if it’s packed with more danger, adventure and friendship than either of them could ever have expected.

As Levend discovers more and more about his would-be captain, he becomes embroiled in a dangerous pirate feud, a hunt for sunken treasure, and the chance to forge friendships that will last a lifetime – even if that only means the next few minutes. Confronted by timeless love and shocking betrayal, Levend must decide who he can trust and who’ll make him walk the plank.

The first caveat I should make is that it is middle grade fiction and it might be the case that I am not that good a judge of books in this genre. I really should read it to my kids or have them read it and give me feedback …

But there was something about it that just didn’t connect with me. I found the flashback storytelling and the multiple perspectives confusing at times and many of the characters were thin and undeveloped. I didn’t feel like everything fit together and the world made sense. It was like you were dropped into this world from another culture and the backstory and history was left out. Again, this could be part of the middle grade audience.

I think the key to enjoying a book like this is to suspend disbelief and dive in, reading it in large chunks. I read it at night before falling asleep and it could be that this made it more disjointed. Who knows? Kirkus called it a “A Treasure Island for the modern era, recommended for middle-grade readers and fans of pirate-adventure tales.” But then again, my daughter did not care for Treasure Island …

I will leave it to you dear readers to decide if this is the type of book for you and your family:

A middle-grade bedtime storybook written and illustrated in the tradition of classics. While adventures teach boys and girls importance of family and friendship in their lives, adults will love the good lessons about not making the wrong decisions when life offers challenges.

If you are a Kindle user, it is currently $2.99 so low risk …

The Sphinx’s Secret by Gwenda Bond & Christopher Rowe

Continuing our summer trend of reading books by “friends of the blog” (i.e. authors I have been reading for some time and who I have interacted with as a result of this website), we turn to Gwenda Bond & Christopher Rowe’s middle grade series The Supernormal Sleuthing Service.

I enjoyed The Lost Legacy enough to look forward to reading book #2 and The Sphinx’s Secret did not disappoint.  The focus remains on Stephan and his friends, and how they work together to face the challenge, but this book had a little more tension and action than the first.  Both the introduction of the mysterious wizard and Sphinx kind added another element to the already fun cast of characters.  There was a real sense that something was at risk; which is not something you always get with books in this category.

This is a fun, creative middle grade series with a focus on friendship and solving mysteries.


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