Wrong-Headed: Noggin by John Corey Whaley

NogginNoggin by John Corey Whaley

Published: April 8, 2014
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio
Genre(s): Young Adult, Science Fiction
Format: Audiobook
Length: 8 hours and 45 minutes

I wanted to like Noggin more than I did. It has a clever premise, it’s definitely funny, and it delivers on more than one genuinely touching moment. Unfortunately, despite everything the book does right, I just wanted to wring the main character’s neck after a certain point. During one scene late in the book I actually grimaced in horror at his stupidity.

Travis Coates starts out with a lot of sympathetic qualities. Noggin opens as he awakens from a surgery to attach his severed head to a donor body. In his former life, Travis was a sixteen-year-old kid with inoperable cancer. When it became clear that he was going to die, he volunteered for an experimental program with a chance to save his life.

The program worked, but that catch is this: five years passed while his head was cryogenically frozen. He’s still mentally sixteen, but his friends are in college and his parents lived with the grief of his loss for years.

That mental age ends up being Travis’ biggest obstacle. Everyone else has grown up and moved on, but he’s still petulant and selfish and unwilling to let go of the past. When he discovers that his best friend and girlfriend didn’t wait around for him to come back, he proceeds to blow up their lives and friendships with his behavior.

Travis spends most of Noggin trying to win back the love of his former girlfriend, Cate, who is now five years older than him and engaged to another guy. It’s obvious from the start that Travis’ quest is a huge mistake. He’s going to fail, and when he does, he’s going to ruin his relationship with someone he claims to love.

There’s probably a way to tell this story that would make it feel like Travis and Cate are star-crossed lovers, but I never found myself sympathizing with his wish to win her back. He just seemed like a pathetic asshole. His self-delusion lasts for so long and goes to such extremes that I lost all patience for his idiocy.

Travis is exactly the sort of “nice guy” who just won’t take a hint, and the Cate is so forgiving that she just keeps giving him the benefit of the doubt. When Travis makes a completely boneheaded “grand gesture” near the end of the book, Cate actually forgives him… and then a few chapters later he ignores her feelings yet again. I groaned aloud.

Honestly, I’m not sure I believe that Travis learns anything over the course of the book. Instead, it feels like he just decides to blame everyone else for not understanding what he’s going through.

Although I might be willing to give John Corey Whaley’s books another chance, I’m glad I’m done spending time with Travis Coates.

DISLIKED IT

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An Epic of Love, String Theory and Donuts: Skippy Dies by Paul Murray

Skippy DiesPublished: January 11th, 2011
Publisher: Audible, Inc.
Genre(s): Fiction, Comedy
Format: Audiobook
Length: 23 hrs and 41 mins

As you might imagine, Skippy Dies opens with the death of the titular character, one Daniel Juster (nicknamed Skippy). Skippy dies of mysterious circumstances at a donut shop named Ed’s, then the story jumps back several months to tell the sprawling tale of life at Seabrook College before and after that fateful day. Skippy Dies has a wide-ranging cast of colorful, hilarious and occasionally maddening characters, and the Audible production brings them all to life with a wonderful full-cast recording.

Although Skippy is the catalyst for much of what happens in the book, he isn’t necessarily the main character. Instead, Skippy Dies is an ensemble story with a half-dozen or more plot-lines that weave in and out of Skippy’s life. First and foremost is the story of Ruprecht Van Doren, Skippy’s roommate. Ruprecht is socially awkward, horribly overweight, exceedingly intelligent and obsessed with string theory. At one point in the book, Ruprecht manages to convince his friends to test a device that might open a portal to another dimension if only they can get it into the girl’s school next door.

Then there’s Carl and Barry, two burnouts who start selling “diet pills” bartered from kids with ADHD to girls looking to lose weight fast. Carl is dangerous, psychotic, and hopelessly in love with a pretty girl named Laurie, who is also Skippy’s number one crush. Despite the seemingly huge gap in their social stations, Laurie and Skippy do actually get together at one point in the book, and it only inspires more fits of rage and destruction on Carl’s part.

Murray doesn’t just focus on students, however; he also tells the story of Howard “The Coward”, a Seabrook alum who finds himself back at school, teaching history to the sort of kids he was not so long ago. Howard, who has a loveless relationship at home and terrible guilt from an “incident” that happened years ago, barely holds the respect of his students until a pretty substitute comes to Seabrook and up-ends his life. Howard also butts heads with Greg “The Automator”, acting headmaster of the school, who seems to care more about branding and merchandise than education. The Automator is the kind of subtly dangerous imbecile who tends to rise to the top in management positions out of sheer bloody-mindedness.

All of these characters and more interact in scenes that are hilarious, touching and occasionally even disturbing. Murray weaves mundane events, satire and occasional flights of fancy with such a deft hand that he makes Seabrook College feel like a living, breathing world. The book is simultaneously epic and intimate; filled with lofty ideas and discussions of the nature of reality, but focused entirely on life in a small community in Ireland. Skippy Dies is a huge, long book, but if you have the time, I highly recommend the audiobook version. The full cast recording makes the world of the book feel more real and makes it easier to keep track of the huge cast of characters.

LOVED IT
LOVED IT

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Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares by David Levithan and Rachel Cohn

Dash & Lily's Book of DaresPublished: October 11th, 2011
Publisher: Ember
Genre(s): Young Adult, Romance
Format: Paperback
Length: 272 Pages

One day, while browsing in the Strand bookstore in New York City, Dash finds a red Moleskine notebook hidden next to a copy of Franny and Zooey. He opens it and discovers that the owner, a girl named Lily, has left a series of mysterious clues and instructions for anyone who reads the book and passes certain requirements. Dash passes the test, does as instructed by the notebook, and the epistolary adventure at the heart of Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares are underway.

The story unfolds in alternating viewpoint chapters narrated by Dash and Lily, two bookish, lonely teenagers living in New York City. Dash responds to Lily’s initial challenge with a challenge of his own, and they begin building a relationship through increasingly personal notes left in the Moleskine journal along with dares that put them right in the middle of Christmas-shopping crowds in downtown New York. Levithan writes Dash’s chapters while Cohn writes Lily’s, and although each character has a fairly distinctive voice, the two styles mesh together well and the book never feels disjointed.

The thing I liked most about Dash & Lily is the way it juxtaposes the main characters’ romantic ideals with reality. Dash and Lily both begin to idealize each other through their written interactions, but we also get to see the versions of themselves they keep hidden. Dash is a bit of a loner, possibly too clever for his own good, and Lily is a bit high-strung in stressful moments. Neither of them quite matches up to the other’s romantic ideal, and their experiences as they learn to navigate the differences between fantasy and reality are what make this book more than a fluffy rom-com conceit.

However, compared to some of Levithan’s solo work, Dash & Lily is admittedly still a bit fluffy. The stakes in the core relationship are never too high, and the dares are ultimately fairly benign. On one hand, you could argue that keeping stakes low for a high school romance is more realistic, but I have to admit that I missed the emotional punch of Every Day and The Lover’s Dictionary. Even still, I enjoyed the book, and will probably pick up the other Cohn and Levithan collaborations at some point.

LIKED IT
LIKED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.

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