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

Monday, January 27, 2014

13 Hangmen or More Than This?

Brad:  Well, it seems that our esteemed, and clearly-more-organized-than-us, colleagues have already posted their thoughts on our round, and I’m guessing we will be in agreement (he said, hopefully, but not having any idea what Jyoti is about to write).   First up:  Art Corriveau’s 13 Hangmen.

Shockingly, I kind of loved it.  Why shockingly?  Terrible cover.  A premise that (at least initially) seems bordering on redonkulous.  Kind of time-travelly, kind of ghosty shenanigans (both of which I usually despise).  Lots of American history, of which I know almost nothing (other than that which I acquired from Schoolhouse Rock—almost forty years later, I can still tell you how a bill becomes a law).  Some terribly klunky dialogue.  And, the novel’s greatest flaw, an almost interminable first third or so.

But once it gets going…

If my twelve year-old self could think of one book to compare 13 Hangmen to, and this is pretty high praise from twelve year-old me, it would be The Westing Game.  Good lord, I loved that book.  Not so much in style or tone or even plot, but I just loved the riddles and the running around and the over-arching mystery and breathless, goofy, chaos of it all.  And that’s 13 Hangmen for me.  There’s a real satisfaction when it all starts clicking into place, every chapter ending on a cliffhanger or a moment of shocking revelation.  Rollicking.  Maybe even thrilling.  Twelve year-old me would be reading this one under the covers with a flashlight, that’s for sure. 

But…there’s that first third.  Which I think would turn off most readers.  To the point where, I’m not sure I could convince an entire class to keep slogging.  But for some kids?  This would be like literary crack.  Definitely something I would keep in the classroom to put into some lucky kid’s hands.

But first I would burn that terrible dustjacket.

Jyoti:  I can totally see how 13 Hangmen has rollicking appeal for a bit, but I couldn't help but be reminded of that book my junior high kids were reading about six or seven years ago. The one where the boy gets transported to a parallel universe but only his BFFs know about it? The title totally escapes me, but that kind of proves my point. This one was fun once you get into it, but it doesn't really 'stick'.  

 If 13 Hangmen felt more like a bowl of popcorn, then More Than This felt more like...oh forget it...there's absolutely no appropriate food analogy. Well, except maybe a tin of canned goods scavenged from an abandoned supermarket? 

This one was smart and compelling and drew me in immediately, despite my initial fear that it would turn into a boy version of The Lovely Bones. Ness handles sensitive and difficult topics deftly while combining them with some serious suspense. 

Brad:  Man.  I really loved this.  I couldn’t agree more.

And so as not to ruin any of the unfettered joys of pure, unadulterated twistiness of the novel, I think we should keep this as spoiler free as possible.  Hmmm…how to extol the virtues of a book when you can’t really speak of the narrative…?

How about this:  Ness has a knack for having Seth ask himself just the right questions about his circumstances so that his paranoia fuels our paranoia, and Seth’s (sometimes justified, sometimes not so much) suspicions drive us to question everything that we understand, until the next ball drops, and the circumstances change again.  But not in an irritating, eye-rolling, deus ex machina kind-of-way—this is a book that demands careful, deliberate close reading, and one soon realizes that all of the "pieces" are there in front of your eyes for the entire book, from the first three pages onward.  It is a book in which a deliberate, seemingly unimportant word or phrase on page two holds the key to an event hundreds of pages later.  Yep.  This is the kind of book that would demonstrate to a student that what we teach of artistic unity and authorial choice really does matter.  And it is done so in such a compelling, freaky, terrifyingly enthralling narrative, it doesn't even feel like "work."

Jyoti:  You're absolutely right about the close reading Ness demands of his readers. It's such a carefully constructed novel that invites the reader to engage philosophically in ways that are deeply satisfying and quite unexpected. There's nothing that feels contrived or patronizing: he's just that good.

Brad:  Ness sure has a way with language--even in the tensest of chase or fight scenes, a carefully chosen metaphor or simile brings an affective quality to the writing, catalyzing a real cinematic viscerality to what, in the hands of a lesser writer, would be thrilling, perhaps, but clichéd and tired.

Jyoti:  I love how he manages to make it philosophical, suspenseful and emotional all at once.  This is definitely worth the almost 500 pages, and I don't say that lightly at all. Absolutely time well spent.

Brad:  Oh, and those last two pages.  Good lord.  Bawling.  I can’t think of a more satisfying and affecting conclusion to a book in a looonng time.  In such a dark book of terror and suicide and existential misery, the last thing I expected was such kindness and compassion.  Like I said:  bawling.  And not just a little bit.  Entirely, unexpectedly satisfying.

Sooo…it’s pretty clear that we agree with Vanessa and Sandy that More Than This advances.  I’m not sure that we can count on a second Mighty Smackdown victory for Mr. Ness, but expect this one to go pretty far:  maybe Final Four?


  1. And, for a special Bonus Feature, the book trailer for More Than This. If this doesn’t intrigue you just a little…: