Ironically, I had a conversation about Christian fiction a couple weeks ago with one of Darren's cousins who is a youth pastor. He told me, "What I don't like about Christian fiction is that everything always has to be wrapped up in a neat bow at the end." (Not only a problem with Christian fiction.) He added, "And also, it feels like the author's goal is for people to get saved by reading their book. Not that it couldn't happen, but most of us just want a good book to read."
In the midst of that conversation and the pile of happy fiction I received, something completely different arrived on my doorstep by an author I've never heard of (whom I now realize is pretty prolific!): Solitary by Travis Thrasher. It is the first in a series of four (to come) called The Solitary Tales.
I began by reading the back matter where the publisher usually puts interviews with the author, book club questions, etc. Except for this book, instead of the usual fare, there were three playlists: one for your Walkman, one for your iPod, and one for the movie soundtrack. Then there was a short article by the author about how the inspiration for this series is John Hughes films. Oh, Travis Thrasher. You had me at Depeche Mode.
Solitary is about a 16-year-old boy named Chris Buckley. His parents have recently gotten a divorce--for reasons you would not expect that are revealed well into the book--and Chris and his mom, Tara, move from the Chicago suburbs (Libertyville shoutout!) to Solitary, North Carolina, a small town where Tara grew up.
They live in Tara's brother Robert's cabin in the woods...except Robert isn't there. His stuff--clothes, toiletries, duffel bag, and extensive 80s music collection--is all there, but Robert is inexplicably gone. No one seems to know, or at least will say, what has happened to him.
There are other strange things too, in fact, Solitary is kind of a weird place with sinister people and lots of secrets. Chris starts high school there and immediately falls in love with Jocelyn Evans--but is just as immediately warned off from her by almost everyone else he meets.
As well, it seems as if he's being watched. He gets mysterious notes in his locker, referring cryptically to people, events, and yes, more secrets. He is bullied constantly. His only whiff of normality comes from Ray, who's the big man on campus, but friendly and welcoming. He invites Chris to church, but it's unlike any church Chris has encountered. He can't wait to leave, but the pastor finds him and sits down for a little chat, which is far more menacing than friendly, with yet more warnings about Jocelyn.
The story progresses as Chris observes more about Solitary--who is the man on the estate that seems to have a stranglehold on pretty much everyone? And why does Christmas come and go completely unacknowledged? He begins to uncover some of the town's dark secrets, which are more horrifying than he could ever have imagined. As for the ending, I'm not saying anything. Not anything. You've got to read for yourself. The only thing I will say (I know! I can't help myself!) is that it's certainly not wrapped up in a neat bow, and I don't know how I'm going to wait until June of '11 for the next installment, Gravestone.
Why did I like this book so much? For one, Travis Thrasher really captures the voice, heart, and soul of a teenaged boy, I feel. Not that I know tons of teenage boys, but sometimes when authors write in a voice they're not, it's glaringly obvious. I've gone on record saying how much I like Alan Bradley, but sometimes his 12-year-old girl protagonist sounds much more like a 70-year-old man. Chris Buckley is a genuinely likable kid, but man, he does dumb stuff--just like a teen boy. Why does he keep going into the woods where he knows some bad scary stuff is waiting, and he doesn't even bring a flashlight?
Here's another little element I enjoyed: portions of the book are conducted by notes, you know, good old-fashioned notes on paper like we used to stick in each other's lockers in the olden days. It's an effective way of lending a more secretive atmosphere to the book, but the author adeptly disposes of more modern communication tools aka texting, in a way that's not clunky at all.
Honestly, I could not put this book down. The chapters are short and have attention-grabbing titles; each one leads you into the next and there's really no good stopping place. You just have to keep reading until 3 a.m. You certainly get answers to some of your questions, but you're left with many more. Travis Thrasher didn't just write a spooky, plot-driven novel; these characters stayed with me. It's been a week and a half since I read it, and I'm still thinking about them: in particular, the shadowy figure of Chris's dad, whom I'm guessing we'll find out more about in the books to come.
Where does the Christianity part come in, you ask? I'm at a loss to explain it, but it does. However, it certainly doesn't beat you over the head, and you don't have to be a Christian to enjoy and appreciate the book. It doesn't have a hidden agenda; it tells a fascinating story and lets you think things through as you go.
I've been recommending this book right and left to whomever I talk to, but I really hope that some parents will start reading them simultaneously with their teen kids. In fact, I wish I had teen kids (ohhh, just had a mini-heart attack there. Maybe not yet.) so I could talk about the themes in this book with them. Maybe I could borrow your teens instead?
And please don't be scared off by all the teen references. I obviously loved it, and I gave it to Darren to read, too (he has to take a break sometime from those thousand-page commentaries on Exodus or whatever that he reads). Maybe if you are really into Amish love stories--and seriously, no offense. We all have our preferences, right?--you won't like this. But anyone else--please check out Solitary and let me know what you think! It's the perfect read for fall.
I now have to a) set aside my stacks of books for work without guilt, and b) make peace with the public library (read: pay my fines) so I can check out more Travis Thrasher books and stave off my anxiety for installment two in the Solitary Tales until next summer.