Smackdown Books 2018

Wolf Hollow
Salt to the Sea
The Serpent King
Optimists Die First
The Hate U Give
Orphan Island
Dan vs. Nature
The Female of the Species
Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere
Paper Girls, Vol. 1
The Passion of Dolssa
The Distance Between Us
When We Collided
Louis parmi les spectres
Girl in the Blue Coat
Defy the Stars

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Freak Observer vs. Down the Mysterly River

The Freak Observer by Blythe Woolston

There are two distinct ways to review this novel by Blythe Woolston: as a piece of literature intended for mature and close reading audiences; or as a YA book intended for a high school student. And both would produce quite different results.

As a novel, The Freak Observer is intelligent and subtle. Each chapter begins with a physics problem, and by the end of the novel, they all begin to connect together (I must admit some of--ok, most of-- the theoretical physics went right over my head…I study the humanities, not science!). I don’t know how many teenage readers

looking for something about teens are going to connect with the physics aspect of it either, but for those willing to put in the time, the connections are strong.

The novel focuses on a teen girl named Loa (although it took alot of pages before I figured out she was a girl) who is from a poor family that has experienced its share of tragedy, including the death of her younger sister. But we don’t hear too much about that. She has haunting dreams of death, but we only hear about that occasionally. She sort of has a boyfriend for a while, but once he is gone we almost never hear about that again. This novel feels as though Woolston has started several stories and not really finished any of them. This is certainly just my opinion, but the novel felt irritatingly fractured at points. There was very little flow.

Now, of course, this fractured narrative is the very definition of a teenager, as they move on quickly from things in their lives, and they really don’t want to talk about the things that they don’t want to talk about. That is clear. And it makes sense in the novel. Loa is a very authentic voice, and her thoughts and words ring true to who she is. But I still can’t decide if it made a great novel or not.

I also question how many teen readers will take the time to take in and enjoy the subtlety of this novel. I question if Woolston really hit her target audience here. I can see some students really getting it, but I can see the majority of them becoming frustrated with the story and either giving up on the book, or not enjoying it.

Some people will love this book, and some will hate it. I still can't decide if it is a really great book or if it is just a failed attempt at targeting the pains that teenage girls must deal with.

Down the Mysterly River by Bill Willingham

This book, for me, had the potential to be excellent. A lost Boy Scout, talking animals, an endless series of adventures, and bad guys with mysteriously powerful blue swords. It all sounded good to me, maybe it would bring me back to being a kid and loving the Redwall series. But it didn't.

The story isn't bad, the action sequences are pretty good, and the mystery is alright, but none of it is great. Most of this book is distinctly average. I quite liked the ending (even though I guessed the solution to the main mystery part way through the story), and wonder if it would have been better to know the ending before the end. It could have made the story so much more than it already was. And that is the main issue that I had with Mysterly River: the possibility of greatness, but never truly achieving what it could have been.

There are definitely good parts to this book, including the cast of heroes, who are enjoyable and provide good contrasts to one another. The imagination used to create the invented world is good as well. But for a book that is supposed to be a fun adventure, it just wasn't fun enough.

This novel is definitely for a lower reading level than is The Freak Observer, as I could see kids in grades 7 and 8 liking the book. And it would be useful in finding examples of foreshadowing, as it is possible to figure out what the big surprise at the end will be.

And the Winner is...

I'm going to advance The Freak Observer. It deserves the opportunity to have someone else read it, and see what they think.


  1. I'm curious what Vanessa has to say about Freak Observer moving to the next round!

  2. HATED this book. You called it when you said "fractured". I can only assume that the other book was ridiculously lame...
    I know where you live Andrew (and I will find you)

  3. Mysterly River wasn't lame. It was decent. But there was nothing about it that was out of the ordinary until the ending. It was simply ok. I'm sure alot of young readers will like it, but I found it to be formulaic and repetitive. I don't think it would have gone far in the Smackdown. I think there might be something in Freak Observer that I missed, that someone else might like. So I will give it another chance.

  4. Vanessa, I was expecting you to disclose that you had listened to the audio book! Do you think it was the narrator that influenced your opinion of this book? Is it possible you might have enjoyed it more had you had the hard copy?