Noggin (by John Corey Whaley)

1 05 2014

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, theNoggin 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.


The 12 of 2012!

22 12 2012

Here are the books that rocked the socks off of the cat this year. Books with a * were also published in 2012. After making this list, it’s striking that genre fiction didn’t really make the cut this year. After careful deliberation, Insurgent, for instance, didn’t make the 12 of 2012-list. Libba Bray’s The Diviners also just didn’t make the list. Just goes to show that the cat’s heart is where the realistic fiction is.


In alphabetical order (by author’s last name) because that’s just the way it is. The cat could probably separate the first 5 from numbers 6-12, but what’s the point really?

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Most honorable mentions:

Where Things Come Back (by John Corey Whaley)

14 08 2012

Birds, boys and a writer bursting with healthy literary ambition and you get yourselves this little prizewinner. Where Things Come Back is the type of book that takes you totally by surprise.

Cullen Witter is 17 and lives in Lily, Arkansas, a small Southern town where nothing exciting ever happens. The only thing on Cullen’s mind is escape,  from his town and from the people in it. But then Cullen has to identify the body of his cousin Oslo (who died of a drug overdose) at the morgue, and things are seemingly set into motion, especially when on top of the grief his family is now dealing with, some ass-hat ornithologist claims he’s seen the long thought to be extinct Lazarus woodpecker. When completely out of the blue Cullen’s younger brother Gabriel goes missing, Cullen finds it surprising and frustrating that the entire town of Lily seems to think that some stupid bird is more important than looking for his kid brother. In a secondary plotline, we meet the young Benton Sage (BEEN-TONE SOG!), who’s a missionary in Ethiopia, and whose story brings in a religious aspect into this slender novel (228 pages). I’m sure this may prove to be a challenge for some readers (Angels and the Book of Enoch, say what?), but it’s worth keeping an open mind because the two plotlines (they are told alternately) somehow merge in the most surprising of ways.  Even though you know they will somehow be linked, once they finally do, it’s such a gasping experience!

However, besides reading a very cleverly plotted novel, what probably led to Where Things Come Back winning the Printz (deservedly so!) is the outstanding use of voice in this novel. Cullen’s voice in particular is something else alright: alternating between 1st and 3rd person narration, you feel close to Cullen and removed from him at the same time. Shifting between the two narrative points of view (within 1 plotline) makes you question what you read and you never quite know what to believe (which is majorly important for the ending!). Cullen is one messed up kid, alright – who wouldn’t be if you had to identify your cousin who OD’d, your brother has gone missing, you have girlfriend issues and the town is only thinking about some stupid ass-hat bird that probably doesn’t even exist anyway! The third person POV intensifies this feeling even more with Cullen often pretending to fight zombies and going off in his own world, dreams and nightmares are nothing if not escape… Also: talking to/about a certain Dr Webb? Who is this guy and why is Cullen talking to him like some ass-hat Holden Caulfield I ask you? I mean, Cullen seems to have lost so much already that it’s hard to imagine a place where things come back for him. But that’s exactly what this book is also about: not just about things that got lost (birds, brothers, cousins), but about the potential of things coming back, and like John Corey Whaley says on his website: second chances.

There is so much going on in this little book (the symbolism!), but what really shines through is what an incredibly original spin John Corey Whaley gives the great genre of the coming-of-age story, which is – as some may argue – the true YA literature as it traces the experiences of a teen growing up into adulthood, with things being taken from them and things coming back to them, and deciding which things to hold on to. If this is what John Corey Whaley can do in his debut, then I’m more than a little bit excited to find out what will be next!

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