July 22, 2010


The Body Finder. By Kimberly Derting. Harper. $16.99.

Before I Fall. By Lauren Oliver. Harper. $17.99.

As Easy as Falling Off the Face of the Earth. By Lynne Rae Perkins. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $16.99.

     There is something about death and the hereafter – not the religious hereafter, but the still-on-Earth hereafter – that seems to exercise a particular fascination for first-time novelists writing books for teenage readers. Both Kimberly Derting’s and Lauren Oliver’s first novels are focused on what it means to know, really know, that someone is going to die, or has been killed, or has “crossed over,” or soon will. But they approach their subject matter from very different angles. Derting’s The Body Finder is about 16-year-old Violet Ambrose, who knows when someone or something has been killed – not died a natural death, but been killed. Violet has “inherited Grandma Louise’s special skill,” her father explains, and has always – even when a little girl – been able to sense “echoes” from dead things. As a child, Violet would find – for example – birds killed by cats, and would bury them in a cemetery that she made. But once, when Violet was eight years old, she sensed the body of a girl who had been abducted and murdered. And now, as a teenager, she has again felt an echo from a human murder victim – but this time the girl she senses is only the first in a series: “Two girls abducted, and then subsequently murdered and discarded so close to each other, in such a short period of time, hardly seemed like a coincidence.” Well, of course it isn’t. In fact, some of Derting’s chapters are narrated by the serial killer who is behind the murders – a fairly creaky device that undermines some of the book’s suspense. The plot is fairly straightforward: Violet knows before anyone else does that the missing girls have been murdered, and she is going to hunt for the serial killer, and she herself is going to become a target, and there will be some super-scary moments, and she will be caught by the killer and come very close to being murdered herself before everything will work out all right. This is exactly what happens. And there is the expected “relationship” plot as well, involving Violet’s childhood friend, Jay, for whom she has developed a whole new set of feelings; and they will turn out to be mutual; and Jay will also come very close to being killed by the murderer; but he too will be fine at the end. And this too is just what happens. It is a trifle unfair to reduce The Body Finder to its bones (so to speak) in this way, since it is how the story is told that will attract teen readers – rather than what the story is about, which really is pretty obvious. In reality, teens looking for a nicely paced, if predictable, summer “beach book” thriller will enjoy this one.

     Ditto Before I Fall, where the life-and-death elements are really, really old. The book’s basic question: what if you died, then came back and had a chance to do your last day all over? How about seven chances? How about 43? Well, 43 wouldn’t fit at novel length, so Samantha Kingston gets seven (and the book still runs more than 450 pages). Samantha dies in a car accident: “The moment of death is full of heat and sound and pain bigger than anything, a funnel of burning heat splitting me in two, something searing and scorching and tearing, and if screaming were a feeling it would be this. Then nothing.” And then, somehow, Samantha comes back, and relives things and resents things: “Anger is seething through me like liquid. She’s a fraud: the whole world is a fraud, one bright, shiny scam. And somehow I’m the one paying for it. I’m the one who died. I’m the one who’s trapped. …I should have died on a day with a beautiful sunset. I should have died on summer vacation or winter break. I should have died any other day. …I think about what I’ll do to survive all of the millions and millions of days that will be exactly like this one, two face-to-face mirrors multiplying a reflection into infinity.” But Samantha does not have an “infinity” of repeated days ahead of her – what she has is something closer to the plot of the movie Groundhog Day, in which she must relive the same (final) day multiple times because…well, just because. Death is indeed final in Before I Fall, but its meaning changes as Samantha does this thing and that differently, interacts differently with the people around her, and finally (this is scarcely a surprise) becomes a better and more selfless person at the book’s end than she was at the book’s beginning (even though both start and finish are her end). Before I Fall is filled with typical high-school types, including Sam herself, and typical high-school problems involving drinking, driving and sex. It is the way the story is told rather than the events that occur that readers will find most interesting – although the overall morbidity of the subject matter and the relentless progress to the same conclusion every time may turn off some of the hoped-for readership.

     The telling is unusual in As Easy as Falling Off the Face of the Earth, too, and this book is neither a super-serious novel nor a first one (Lynne Rae Perkins won a Newbery Medal for Criss Cross). Nor is Perkins’ book about death, although it is filled with potential near-death experiences that remain in the “potential” stage. Many books for teens involve internal journeys paralleling external ones, and this book certainly has quite an external journey: the hero, Ry (sounds exactly like “wry” or the “catcher in the,” and this is surely intentional) travels by train, car, plane, boat and on foot, with the book starting off when he leaves a stopped train in the middle of Montana and takes a short walk in search of cell-phone reception, only to see the train unexpectedly start up again and leave him in the middle of nowhere. Of course, he has none of his possessions (his backpack is on the train), his cell phone has almost run down (and shortly runs down completely, after he tries twice to reach relatives and fails both times), and he ends up on his own through a series of improbable adventures. The chapter titles, which omit capital letters, range from “next” to “when the rug is pulled out – the earth, too – you have to move your feet to keep from falling,” to “the longest breakfast.” Clearly, something atypical is going on here. Or trying to go on, since, in terms of action, not much happens for long stretches. However, Perkins writes very well, and some of the characters she creates are just odd enough to seem real, while some of the narration is uncommonly clever. For example, when Ry needs to get shoes at a Salvation Army store, the only ones he can find that fit him are shiny white loafers: “The shoes were a metaphor for the decline of western civilization: crappy and glitzy and barely useful, but pretty comfortable. This is the narrator’s opinion. Ry didn’t think that thought specifically, but he felt as dispirited as if he had.” This sort of style – drawing attention to the fact that this is a third-person narrative even while narrating it – can be a little confusing and off-putting, although it will be enjoyable for teens who like their books offbeat and more than a little odd. The book is also good for teens who enjoy vivid descriptive passages: “Their host was Carl. Wooly coils of silvery-white hair forested the back and sides of his head, thinning to a zone of barren scrub at the tree line of the shiny dome of his head. His mustache was waxed into handlebars. He was comfortably rounded, like a small planet, with an atmosphere made up of warmth and good humor.” In fact, the book – a picaresque novel, for any teen readers who may want to look up the term – is more enjoyable when Perkins is describing people and scenes than when anything is actually happening. When the action flags, she tosses in a description, or maybe an illustration, or a cartoon of dogs talking, or perhaps a footnote about pancakes. For teens looking for something decidedly out of the ordinary, As Easy as Falling Off the Face of the Earth makes a highly enjoyable summer read. It’s as fluffy as other beach novels, but it’s fluffy in a more peculiar and unusually imaginative way.

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