You wouldn’t know it from the temperature outside, but fall is definitely coming. Down in the wetland behind my house, the leaves are starting to change, and the new slate of library programs started this week. Fall has always been my favorite season, and for some reason, I always associate it with creepy fairy tales—the creepier, the better. Although not a fairy tale in the traditional sense, today’s book is definitely a fantastic, creepy read for the season.
For many reasons, Jeremy Johnson Johnson (whose middle and last names are identical) is an outsider in the small town of Never Better. Jeremy lives with his financially strapped, reclusive father, runs the Two-Book Bookstore when he is not in school, and can talk to ghosts. Both his mother and his grandfather have spoken to him from beyond the grave, and he now shares his consciousness with the spirit of Jacob Grimm, one half of the famous fairy-tale collecting duo. Jacob is one part friend, one part conscience, and one part tutor to Jeremy. When the spunky Ginger Boultinghouse suddenly takes an interest in Jeremy and his preternatural abilities, Jacob tries to warn Jeremy away. Like most teenagers, though, Jeremy isn’t always fond of listening, and as he gets further involved with Ginger, he becomes ever more ostracized in town and finds himself in bigger trouble than even Jacob could have imagined.
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Gems for Writers:
Narrative Voice. This tale takes place in the modern world, but is narrated by the ghost of Jacob Grimm, who acts as a spirit guide and mentor to Jeremy. McNeal uses this unconventional choice of narrator in myriad ways. As a spirit, Grimm has some of the properties of an omniscient narrator, but through his first-person narration, the reader gets to know him intimately as a character as well, feeling all of his wide range of emotions. Even after centuries trapped in the world between this life and the next, Grimm retains the colloquialisms and speech patterns of his mortal life, and his narrative voice lends the air of a creepy, historical fairy tale to a modern story.
Setting. In many ways, the town of Never Better reminded me of the town in which I grew up. It’s a tiny, rural town where everyone knows everyone else, and, for better or worse, a person is often defined for life by one embarrassing incident or momentary lapse in judgment. Not only does McNeal capture this atmosphere beautifully; he actually uses the setting as a tool for characterization. To be a social pariah is terrible, and doubly so in such a place. Jeremy regrets the mistakes that define him, and the reader feels as confined and ashamed in Never Better as he does.
Smoke and Mirrors. One has to be careful in Never Better—the idyllic nature of the town just might be a mirage, and it is all too easy to trust the wrong person. Although Jacob Grimm’s narration makes excellent use of suspense and foreshadowing, it is done in such a subtle way that the many twists thrown in at the end left me gasping in astonishment, turning back pages to see if I had missed any obvious hints (though there were none). It takes a deft hand to be so sneaky, and I will study this book time and again until I figure out how to do just that!
Far Far Away was a fantastic read that surprised me in many ways. It was a perfect blend of action and suspense with quiet moments of reflection, memorable characters, and a setting to which I could relate. It was, on the whole, an entirely satisfying read.
Keep Calm and Scribe On!
***Far, Far Away (2013), by Tom McNeal, is published by and copyright Knopf Books for Young Readers, a division of Random House, Inc.. It is available in stores, online (see above), and from your local public library.