I read this title for calico_reaction's September Dare. I had never heard of Barzak before, but I was immediately sucked in by the cover and the premise of the novel.
I have a hard time articulating how I feel about this novel. It's strange, and while I mostly mean that in a good way, it was sometimes a little discomfiting how this book breaks away from common conventions and presents something really slow-moving, but equally eerie. Was it a good book though? Most definitely. (Spoilers behind the cut!)
So this book is about poor Adam, a teenager with a dysfunctional family (and not the lighthearted, funny kind of dysfunctional, but the really depressing kind), a recently-crippled mother, and a ghost of a dead friend/acquaintance (they never became very close, but there was a lot of potential that it might have) named Jamie following him around. As Adam clings to Jamie, he slowly spirals out of control.
One of the first things that struck me about Adam was his sexual orientation and the ambiguity surrounding it. Adam describes his budding friendship with Jamie (before its nipped in the bud on account of Jamie getting murdered) and there was some definite chemistry between the two. After Jamie's death however, Adam meets a girl named Gracie and the two of them have a stab at romance. Also, a lot of the interactions between Adam and ghost-Jamie are very physically intimate. Of course, it's completely plausible that Adam is bisexual and is perfectly comfortable in his bi-sexuality, so his intimacies with both characters, despite being the opposite sex, was comfortable and never something he felt the need to question or self-reflect upon. Either way, neither romance ever felt weird or out of place; they worked, and they worked well, so kudos to Barzak for that.
As far as characters go, the whole cast is fairly well developed. Adam is of course the focus, being the first-person narrator, and he's your not-completely typical angsty teenager. While I was reading, I remember thinking a few times that Adam reminded me of Holden Caufield from The Catcher in the Rye; they both have a lot of angst and a lot of self-reflectiveness. I'd say that Adam is a little more on the apathetic side though, while Holden is a lot more pessimistic. Also, Adam has a lot more reason to be angst-y and depressed than Holden Caufield ever did. The secondary characters were well-drawn too: Gracie, from her upper-middle class family whose got her own angst and baggage; Jamie as a ghost, who in some poignant scenes you can really feel just how desperately he doesn't want to move on, and come back to life somehow; and Adam's family, who are in equal parts sympathetic (his mom, and one scene in particular with his father) and infuriating (his druggy brother and macho father). Barzak infuses a lot of life into these characters; even poor Jamie, who's ironically dead the entire time.
Now for the plot; it's hard to describe my feelings towards the plot. At times, it was riveting and haunting and mesmerizing and all kinds of other -ings, but other times it felt kind.. slow. Adam does a lot of running away and hiding from people, and while these scenes are important (they really are), I still found them to be kind of dull sometimes. Once in awhile something interesting would happen to spice things up, like Adam burning down the town ghost's house, or Adam having an encounter with some of the supernatural that come around every so often, but other than that, I was a little bored. The pay off with the ending is really great though. Barzak presents a pretty positive ending, though I wouldn't go so far as to say it's happy. It's definitely hopeful though, and watching Adam go from being at his lowest to finally going home to try again and for things to look that optimistic made me feel good inside. It was very gratifying.
There's quite a bit of supernatural stuff going on in the book too, aside from Jamie talking to/haunting Adam and Gracie. Jamie brings Adam to some place where the dead seem to inhabit, though only certain people seem able to see them, and there's one part where Adam and Gracie accidentally stumble into the place as well. The beings in this dimension are pretty chilling. There's also some supernatural "rules" of sorts that we get to see in play every once in awhile, such as Jamie taking Adam's words in order to stay alive, or Jamie burning off his memories from when he was alive in order to stay warm (he complains of being constantly cold); it's because of this burning/purging of his memories that Jamie is never able to reveal the identity of his murderer, which was a bit of a shame, but never really bothered me. Anyway, these supernatural rules/world are never explained, but this never bothered me; the "rules" were always consistent and we get to see enough of it that it never needs to be explained -- it just IS, and Barzak gives us enough that I never felt confused as to the workings of this inner world. Besides, it's the supernatural, and thus shouldn't really be explained to begin with.
I can't end this review without commenting on Barzak's writing, because guys? IT'S REALLY GOOD. It's that special kind of writing that's lyrical without going purple, angst-y without being whiny, and just a perfect amount of whimsy without being pretentious. The writing is easily one of my favorite things about this book and what kept me mostly hooked throughout the novel (even those less than riveting scenes mentioned above).
Final Verdict: This is a really strong novel that has some of the most beautiful writing I've come across in a long time and interesting plot that takes quite a different direction than I thought it would (but this is definitely not a bad thing.) While I found the plot to trod a little bit at certain points, the well-drawn characters and stellar writing more than made up for it. Also, these scenes ARE important to the novel as a whole, which also makes it easier to forgive. I also really like how Barzak handled the supernatural elements of the novel as well as the romance ones. Jamie and Adam's romance is very unconventional, but it was good. I think fans of The Lovely Bones might like this, though be aware that these stories are VERY different. Anyway, overall? A definite recommend from me, and I'll definitely be checking out Barzak's only other novel, The Love We Share Without Knowing (which also has an amazing premise, and I trust Barzak to fulfill this potential.)