Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Release March 20, 2012
YA / Fantasy / Supernatural
Many of the best books are the ones you know very little about and find yourself surprised by at every turn. Gina Damico’s Croak was one of those books for me. Who knew a book about reapers and a teenage delinquent could make me laugh so much?
Lex is the brattiest of teenage delinquents. For no apparent reason, she beats up her classmates, her teachers, anyone she can get her hands on. Her parents have started tying her to a chair before any sort of family discussion for everyone’s safety. This raging temper started a few years before out of nowhere, turning Lex from being a perfect, straight A student into a monster that everyone fears. In hopes of quelling this anger, Lex’s parents ship her off to her uncle’s house in upstate New York, where they expect her to tend to farm chores and remain mostly isolated from anyone she could potentially throttle. Instead she finds her uncle is the mayor of a little town called Croak, where everyone wears black hoodies and can disappear into thin air with a wave of their hand.
Croak is a quirky town full of quirky people, who are usually defined by a single personality trait. There is the incredibly grumpy couple who hate all the teenagers, the kind hearted bartender, the eons old curmudgeonly café owner who is secretly a softy, and the bizarre inventor uncle. All these over-the-top single traits made it feel as though big secrets were hiding behind the scenes, though none of those ever came out. Instead the entire atmosphere was quirky and inexplicably weird as a town full of reapers should be.
Despite her bratty tendencies, Lex’s defiance was played for humor enough that I never really became annoyed by her juvenile actions. I wish there had been a little more explanation as to why she went into such sudden rages (genetics? anomaly?), but I have a feeling that’s one of the mysteries left for the inevitable sequels. Her mood swings usually made sense in the context of the story, but there were moments where her sudden burst of intense rage seemed a little overkill, even for her. There was a lot of room to make her a much more interesting character, but the story itself was interesting enough for me not to care too much that she didn’t move much past “the angry one”.
Then there’s Driggs, the teenage boy who lives with Uncle Mort and surprises Lex by fighting back when she attacks him. Imagining the two walking around town with matching black eyes should not be as funny as it is within the pages of Croak. Driggs is adorably awkward, with a fondness for everything sweet and loves spiders a little too much. He wasn’t the usual bad boy or the polished pretty boy either. He was just a normal boy with all the stupidity and moments of charm that come along with them. On a few occasions, his actions actually made me say “awww” out loud. His ineptitude at expressing emotions is adorable. (What is with all these adorable guys I’ve been reading about lately?)
The writing in Croak isn’t overly polished, which I can see bothering some readers, but it complemented the narrative to me. Despite being told in the third person, the “roughness” made it feel more like Lex’s story. Moments of awkwardness weren’t explained in detail and sort of waved away with a blunt “something happened, moving on” type of statement, much as a teenager would prefer to skip up those moments to prevent them from looking bad. It also gave some lightness to a story that should have been really dark. It’s a town full of reapers! They’re collecting the souls of the dead, including those who suffered from foul play. This book shouldn’t have made me laugh, but it managed a balance of dark humor while still leaving an impression of moral difficulty.
Above all else though, Croak was unique. I can honestly say I haven’t read anything like this before and that alone was incredibly refreshing. The characters felt like real teenagers, though incredibly damaged ones, and the town of Croak was realistically impossible. Any issues I might have had with writing style were wiped away by the enjoyment I felt at immersing myself in a world that didn’t feel familiar or vaguely associated with something else I’d read.
About forty pages from the end, when I thought the main mystery was never going to get solved, everything takes a turn for the worst. Suddenly the black humor disappeared and the previous glimpses of horrors and darkness took over. It felt like I had started reading a different book, but at the same, the progression made sense. Unlike most other books I’ve recently read, I also was genuinely surprised by the reveal at the end of the mystery. At the same time the solution was obvious and yet hidden behind its obviousness.
Croak was an unexpected surprise that left me smiling despite its dark content and surly characters. With the bleak ending though, I’m not sure how the sequel will be able to match the same balance of fun, charm and weirdness without undermining the effects of Croak’s ending.
I received a copy of this book via the Debut Author Challenge ARC tour, so thanks to the ladies behind that for sending it my way.