Where Things Come Back would always have been a tough act to follow. Not only did John Corey Whaley’s debut novel win both the William C. Morris Award and the Michael L. Printz Award and was it as such a definite critics’ favorite, it was above all a novel which showed talent and ambition, while not forgetting to tell a great story, the premise of any good book. Whaley did this with such a keen insight and with such an innovative approach, fusing together an imaginative plot with the most outstanding use of voice that he managed to wow the critics ánd the cat… no mean feat indeed! Taking all of that into account, it’s hardly surprising that this cat didn’t think Noggin – that hard second book – lived up to its spectacular predecessor.
Noggin is about 16-year-old Travis Coates, who is terminally ill (cancer), decides to get his head cryogenically frozen only to be resurrected in the future when medical science allows this type of Frankensteinery… And so it happens that five years later Travis wakes up, with a head that is attached to a new body. Travis is still 16, but everyone and everything else around him is 5 years older. And even though it feels to Travis that he just went to sleep and was gone for a week or two, the reality of the thing is that things definitely have changed in those 5 years. So Travis is left to find out just how much of his past reality is still the present reality and if it no longer is, whether he can make it so again…
Noggin does share something with Where Things Come Back, of course, and that is Whaley’s adherence to the importance of making the best of every moment, but also the importance of grabbing that second chance once presented with it. Noggin will force you to look at your own life and evaluate the choices you have made, which really is a very relevant thing in any person’s life, and as such, obviously Noggin is not without its own merit!
However, take away the eccentric premise of the cut off head and all, and what you’re left with is not quite the earth-shattering book that Where Things Come Back really was. And even though it might be a bit unfair to read Noggin with another book ‘in mind’, I can’t read in a vacuum and pretend Where Things Come Back didn’t happen. And in that respect, I thought Noggin was a step back rather than forward for Whaley. While Where Things Come Back focuses on Cullen Witter, 17-year-old guy with the lost brother, it was also a book that was so refreshing and innovative in its execution, and a book that did things to that age-old genre of the coming-of-age novel. That is not a feeling I got when I read Noggin, and I read with my gut before I read with my mind.
The focus of Travis Coates’ new life is Cate and how to get his old girlfriend back, and Travis even almost becomes stalker guy to do so… and repeatedly so, which is another thing that knocked off a star for me: Nogging was just too long. Or rather, the book (and its message) wouldn’t have lost any of its strength if 50 or more pages about Travis trying to get Cate back had been edited out, which may sound harsh, but why hammer it in, when you could have condensed all of that to make it more powerful? That would have left space to explore Kyle (and his going back into the closet), to make Hatton (Travis’s new best friend) more than the hilarious side-kick stereotype, ànd to focus on the changed relationships in his own family.
If all of this made you think that I didn’t like Noggin, then you’re wrong. I did like it, I just didn’t love it the way I love certain other books. Despite its crazy premise, Noggin is contemporary realistic fiction, but rather than exploring that to the fullest, crossing boundaries, getting back inside of the box only to step out of line the next, both in terms of plot ánd voice ánd character depth (which Whaley definitely did in his debut), this is (just) a nice enough book about a boy trying to get a girl back. If this is me being harsh on John Corey Whaley, and me judging this particular book unfairly on its own, well then so be it, because I happen to know that John Corey Whaley is the author of Where Things Come Back, and Where Things Come Back rocked my socks off, and I know he can do that again… only he didn’t do it with Noggin.