February is an unpredictable and a ponderous month, so it’s fitting that the plots of the three novels being reviewed here are similarly dark and weighty. That’s not to say they’re humorless. (Andrew Smith’s newest has tons of laugh-so-hard-you-get-the-hiccups moments.) It’s more that these books are meant to provoke, challenge, and unsettle.
Boston native Brendan Kiely’s powerful debut, “The Gospel of Winter,” contains sentences that linger like patches of shadow-covered ice. Set in 2001 and early 2002, the story takes place in the uncertain months after 9/11, when the Catholic Church sexual-abuse scandal shocked the world.
Sixteen-year-old Aidan Donovan’s story is saturated with pain, longing, and his desperate need to be sure of anything. “I wanted a sense of direction, to be able to see myself clearly and say Yes, yes, yes, this is me, but my thoughts emerged and rippled over each other chaotically, and I couldn’t see through the mess.”
The privileged Connecticut teen’s turmoil is a result both of his hollow home life and the sexual abuse he has suffered at the hands of Father Greg, a charismatic Catholic priest.
To drown his memories of the past and deal with his present, Aidan bangs “rails” of Adderall and drinks whatever booze he can swipe from his father’s office. Though some adult characters teeter on the edge of cliché (the overbearing father, the self-absorbed mother, et al), complex, troubled, and sympathetic Aidan breathes. “If I no longer spoke about Father Greg,” he thinks. “[M]aybe he would disappear and, with him, the parts of myself I didn’t understand.”
Aidan is damaged and in so much pain that he can’t see how he is a complacent participant in a cycle of cruelty. When he catches Father Greg abusing another kid from the congregation of Most Precious Blood, Aidan does nothing. When his friend, another victim, begs him for help, Aidan retreats into his sleepwalking existence. It takes a tragedy for him to finally wake up.
Like “The Gospel of Winter,” “The True Tale of the Monster Billy Dean Telt by Hisself” by David Almond is a tragic and poignant story about the difficulty of maintaining faith while living in a broken world.
Billy Dean was born into a place so torn apart by war that “life & death becum confyused. Ther is no truth to either of them. They flow into each other.” For the first 13 years of his life, his mother and father, a priest, hid him away and kept his existence a secret.
But when his father disappears, Billy and his mom venture out into the destroyed town of Blinkbonny, where people are desperate for grace and a figure to believe in. With the help of a neighbor, Billy becomes the “Aynjel Childe” and is soon famous for his ability to speak to the dead and heal the sick.
However, the more he gives of himself, the more people want from him. Each new encounter with the dark side of humanity brings Billy closer to believing that “[m]ebbe once there really was a God who loved this world when it was lovabl and new but he did not want his world to be insyd him when it turned to war & agony & death.”
Billy’s error-riddled, jarring biblical writing forces readers to take in every cringe-inducing passage and despair-drenched moment. It asks them to contemplate the crumbling barriers that divide angels from monsters and monsters from men. However, Almond’s evocative novel is not without hope. In a black world, Billy still finds light and “wunder.”
Finally, we come to Andrew Smith’s new title. You know that teen novel where the flawed, yet lovable, hero saves the world, solves a love triangle dilemma, and ends up happily ever after?
Well, “Grasshopper Jungle” isn’t that book. It’s also not the book for anyone who takes issue with swearing, raunchiness, or digs at Iowa. However, if you appreciate kooky humor, sentences that bite, and a nuanced understanding of human beings’ complicated natures and inexplicable actions, then you, too, will love Smith’s bold, bizarre, and beautiful novel.
When Austin Szerba and his best friend, Robby Brees, accidentally aid in the release of “Unstoppable Soldiers,’’ 6-foot-tall, bug-like creatures from a decades-old lab experiment, Ealing, Iowa, becomes the place where the “end of the world began.”
As an amateur historian, Austin, 16, must completely and honestly record every event as it happens. This means that he writes about his lascivious thoughts and sexual confusion (How can he be in love with his girlfriend, Shann Collins, and Robby at the same time?) as much as he does about giant insects devouring the residents of Ealing.
Even in the scenes where “Unstoppable Soldiers’’ are biting people’s heads off, the rhythm of Smith’s sentences and his masterful use of repetition create poetry.
By documenting the events of the end of the world, Austin discovers that personal history is world history. “All roads cross here on my desk. As a historian, I realize, too, that we are all on the same road, all the time,” he says. “Sometimes we drive in circles or the wrong way, because we are stupid like that.” This is what history shows.
For mor information:
THE GOSPEL OF WINTER
By Brendan Kiely
Margaret K. McElderry/
Simon & Schuster, 304 pp., $17.99
THE TRUE TALE OF THE MONSTER BILLY DEAN TELT BY HISSELF
By David Almond
Candlewick, 272 pp., $17.99
By Andrew Smith
Dutton, 432 pp., $18.99
Chelsey Philpot’s debut YA novel, “Even in Paradise,” will be published in fall 2014. Follow her on Twitter @ChelseyPhilpot.