Book Reviews: Andrew Smith
First, let me tell you – this is going to be a long post. But it will be worth it.
Have you read any of Andrew Smith’s books? If you haven’t you’re missing something special. Also, if you are a young man or have a man, young man, or teen in your life who is looking for boys books about boys written from a boy’s or male perspective then pick up any one of Andrew’s books and I guarantee the young man will not be disappointed.
I came across The Marbury Lens while hunting for book blurbs for Open Wounds. Lisa Madigan, author of a terrific book called Flash Burnout, after turning me down for lack of time (I later found out she had been very ill), recommended I read The Marbury Lens and ask Andrew Smith for a blurb. So began an oddyssey for me through Andrew’s books that only finished a couple of weeks ago with my finishing In the Path of Falling Objects. I was also fortunate enough to be allowed to read an unpublished manuscript Andrew has written so I’m one up even on the Andrew Smith fans who’ve read all there is to read by him. Now if I could only get my hands on his newest, Stick, which will be out in the fall…
I”ll review the books in the order I read them and I have to say it was a good order to read them in. Each is distinct from the other. Each is complete and stands on its own as an uncommon reading experience.
The Marbury Lens is the newest book out and is not even a year old having come out in the fall of last year. I read this first and it was like a hammer blow to the head. This is a page-turner in the classic sense. Part horror story, part psychological thriller, part love story, part science fiction or fantasy, and part coming of age story – it is all these things and I could not put the book down from the moment I read the first line. Be warned there are scenes that will make you squirm. The violence is horrific, terrifying, and disturbing. But nothing was gratuitous. Everything had its place.
Sixteen-year-old Jack gets drunk and is in the wrong place at the wrong time. He is kidnapped. He escapes, narrowly. The only person he tells is his best friend, Conner. When they arrive in London as planned for summer break, a stranger hands Jack a pair of glasses. Through the lenses, he sees another world called Marbury.
There is war in Marbury. It is a desolate and murderous place where Jack is responsible for the survival of two younger boys. Conner is there, too. But he’s trying to kill them.
Meanwhile, Jack is falling in love with an English girl, and afraid he’s losing his mind.
Conner tells Jack it’s going to be okay.
But, it’s not.
What fascinated me the most about The Marbury Lens was the way the story dealt with trauma and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in the main character who is kidnapped in the first ten pages of the book. Andrew Smith knows how to grab you by the throat in his opening scenes and The Marbury Lens does not disappoint. This first scene is powerful and hard to read but sets the stage for all that comes. The rest of the book digs into the truth of how trauma with young people can turn them inside out and outside in. The angle of “is this real or is this imaginary” has been mined many times before by other writers but Andrew Smith comes at it with originality and clarity. This book is unlike anything I’ve read before. I cared greatly for the main character, Jack, his friend Connor and the characters in both Marbury and England and the ghost, Seth – a character I still get the chills just thinking about. This is a book filled with heartache and love. The writing moves the narrative forward at breakneck pace and yet seems effortless. Nothing gets in the way of the story. I’ve read reviews of books that get under your skin and won’t crawl out. This is one of those books. I dare you to start it and then try to put it down.
The second book I read by Andrew Smith was Ghost Medicine, his debut novel. This book was so different from The Marbury Lens and yet it had some similar characteristics. Although this book was not horrific the way Marbury was, it was absolutely just as compelling to read. I loved this book for its innocence, its loss of innocence, and it’s heart. I wish I had read this book when I was in high school. One of the things this book tells me about the author, Andrew Smith, is that he understands 17-year-old boys. He knows how they think. He knows how they feel. He knows what makes them tick.
The summer before Troy Stotts turns seventeen, his mother dies. Troy and his father barely speak, communicating instead by writing notes on a legal pad by the phone. Troy spends most of his time with his closest friends: Tom Buller, brash and fearless, the son of a drunk; Gabe Benavidez, smart enough to know he’ll never take over the family ranch; and Gabe’s sister, Luz, whose family over-protects her, and who Troy has loved since they were children.
Troy and his friends don’t want trouble. They want this to be the summer of what Troy calls Ghost Medicine, when time seems to stop, so they won’t have to face the past or the future. But before the summer is over, their paths will cross in dangerous and fateful ways with people who will change their lives: Rose, a damaged derelict who lives with a flock of wild horses and goats; and Chase Rutledge, the arrogant sheriff’s son.
Troy and his friends want to disappear. Instead, they will become what they least expect — brothers, lovers, heroes, and ghosts.
I have to tell you I’m a sucker for westerns and this is a great modern western. It starts slow and this is good.
I love books with great openings and have a special place for great opening lines. This is Ghost Medicine’s first line of chapter one. “Sixteen is too young to lose your mother, people kept telling me. She died in June, before the summer came.” It is compelling not because of action but because of character. This is a book that picks up pace as it gains momentum but hear this – this is a book that moves at the pace it is supposed to go. In contrast to Marbury which was breakneck, Ghost Medicine is slow enough to allow you to savor the story and the subtle turns it takes. The main characters, Troy, Gabe, Luz, and Tom are wonderful. The classic coming of age angle here is realistic, and so devastating at the end that I found it painful to finish reading. But isn’t that what coming of age is all about? Be careful, nine-year olds out there wanting to grow up so fast, because when you’re seventeen and you get introduced to the more complicated adult life ahead of you it’s a bitter-sweet moment. Ghost Medicine captures this beautifully. I did not want this book to end, but just like adolescence, it had to sooner or later. Taken as bookends, The Marbury Lens and Ghost Medicine demonstrate Andrews range as a writer and his mastery of storytelling technique.
So I thought as I picked up In the Path of Falling Objects – what else could Andrew Smith possibly do for an encore. Oh, I thought afterwards. You have a lot to learn. I’m still processing this book. I haven’t let it go yet. It’s been three weeks and I’m still walking around moving it from my bedside to the bookshelf and back. I pick it up and examine the cover and binding again and again. I read the chilling first two pages for the tenth time.
Full disclosure on my reaction to this book. I’m a sucker for brother stories. My own brother was murdered when I was in my twenties and I still haven’t let that settle inside me. Because of that event this book resonated for me on a number of levels. In some ways it is even better than the books that bookend it. I don’t know. I wish I didn’t have to compare them but I can’t help myself. Heartbreaking, elegiac, unsettling, are the words that comes to mind. I found the story of these three brothers deeply moving and beautiful and very vividly real. Writers shouldn’t be allowed to write this well. They make the rest of us want to crawl back into our shells and not take fingers to the keyboard again.
Jonah and his younger brother, Simon, are on their own. They set out to find what’s left of their family, carrying between them ten dollars, a backpack full of dirty clothes, a notebook, and a stack of letters from their brother, who is serving a tour in Vietnam. And soon into their journey, they have a ride. With a man and a beautiful girl who may be in love with Jonah. Or Simon. Or both of them.
The man is crazy. The girl is desperate. This violent ride is only just beginning. And it will leave the brothers taking cover from hard truths about loyalty, love, and survival that crash into their lives.
One more thing: The brothers have a gun. They’re going to need it.
This is one of the greatest openings ever. It’s from the first chapter.
“Our brother fell apart in the war.
Mother fell apart after that.
Then we had to leave.”
These three lines come after the opening prologue which was two short pages long. This prologue was so disturbing that I found myself going back to read it several times during the four days it took me to finish the book. I did this even after I figured out what it meant. This is a writer who knows how to hook you quickly and keep you coming back for more. The antagonist, Mitch, is indeed crazy and his actions drive the desperate brother’s, Jonah and Simon’s, narrative into places you just don’t want to go but have to. Andrew Smith uses the older brother’s letters from Vietnam to allow him to be another party to the road trip, adding to its gut wrenching quality. Everything about this book worked, but the brother’s letters really put me over the edge. These will stay with you, the reader, long after you put this down. The prose is so beautiful – at times sparse, and at others lush with images of the desert. Every word has been chosen carefully. This is a book made for a second and third reading.
If you can’t tell already, I’m a fan of this writer. I think, if you pick up one of his books you will be too. My suggestion is to read them all. Go in any order you want but take some time after each to let them settle. Andrew also has a great blog that he writes in every day about the writer’s life and he has lots of interesting opinions on YA fiction, fiction in general, and fiction for boys so take a look at the links at the end here and become a follower.
ghostmedicine.blogspot.com – Andrew Smith’s blog