Saturday, March 10, 2012

Don't look now, but I think this guy picked a fight with Dr. Seuss. (Indie Book Review)

A room full of old weapons.

A garage that can't be opened.

Doors that may not be there.

Old men yelling, mysterious chemistry sets, warnings not to talk to some people... and finally, an explosion (almost literally) of magical unreality into their world.

Had the three young stars of Andrew Leon's The House On The Corner known what awaited them when they moved across the country at the start of this book, I doubt they'd have complained half as much.

Tom, Ruth, and Sam, and their parents (who, for a change, in books like this, aren't merely Charlie-Brown-esque ciphers offstage, but are actual characters) move at the start of the summer Return of the Jedi is released -- and what a move it is: across country, an aptly physical metaphor for the shift in reality they're about to experience. Their new house, their soldier dad tells them, was affordable because the previous owners, and their renters, disappeared mysteriously 20 years ago.

Just days into living in their new house -- a house so big and old their possessions don't even begin to fill it, leaving the family rattling around in a space that is too big for them, another physical metaphor apropos of their actual situation -- the kids begin to discover some strange things, including a room on their property filled with ancient weapons, and doors that don't open. But, distracted by the newness of their situation (and the ever-present fun of pizza nights and new friends and Erector sets and Star Wars movies), the kids adapt readily to the strange things -- shrugging some of them off and making use of others.

It's not readily apparent to the kids just how unusual their new house on the corner of the street is... until one day, playing in the empty above-garage apartment, the three of them are transported to a strange new world populated with almost-human kids and a woman with a tail.

From there, the unusual happenings continue on, each more sinister than the last, as unreality begins to blend with their new reality, resulting in sinister teddy bears and fireworks that aren't and the revelation that just as the house isn't perhaps the simple old wooden structure, the family isn't what it seemed to be either.

Andrew Leon has written one heck of a book. He calls it, somewhat misleadingly, a "YA Book," and I suppose he does that because the book is pitched at a roughly tween-to-early-teen level, but like the best writing, this is anything but a "young adult" book, and also anything but typical: It sets up as a standard sort of haunted-house-for-tweens story in the, but that's only because Leon wants to lure you in and create a mood that will be perfect for the many twists and turns he's about to spring on you.

There is a lot to love about The House On The Corner, beginning with the point-of-view style in which it's told: Leon alternates the story among the three children, each telling a chapter. The chapters overlap slightly, so that we get each kid's perspective on what is happening, and the device works far better than I thought it would: Each kid has a unique voice and it's easy to tell who is doing the talking, and the shifts in perspective allow characterization to develop unbeknownst to the others. Tom, for example (the oldest kid) tells his third of the story with a creeping envy and more than a hint of temper as his brother and sister get to experience things he can't, while Ruth, the youngest, tells her side of things simply and without guile -- the way you'd expect a kid to reveal that otherworldly things are happening to her.

It's almost hard to talk about the plot of House without wrecking it for you, beyond what I've done here: What I'll say is this is not a "haunted house" story, it's not a vampire or werewolf or wizard story, it's not dystopian... House falls into its own category, or, if there is a category, I'd peg it with the Pevensies and Narnia: Leon creates a world here, populated by realistic kids, and the story of events that happen in that world doesn't fit neatly into a literary category we have. Perhaps there should be a category for Narnian books -- I suspect Leon will like the characterization -- of families living amidst otherworldly events, and in that category, House (and its expected sequels) can sit easily next to C.S. Lewis' works.)

So I won't talk much more about the plot -- instead, let me bestow another compliment: Spielbergian. Having seen E.T. and Super 8 and The Iron Giant and a host of movies about kids in nostalgic eras having adventures, Spielbergian, like Narnian, is a category, and it's also a tough category to live up to. Leon sets House in the 1980s, and as period trappings mentions music and Dungeons and Dragons and movies, especially movies: Tom and Sam are (as every kid was, then) hooked on Star Wars -- and Return of the Jedi has just come out. Leon mentions Jedi enough -- and more than that, some of his story elements deliberately invoke 80s movies such as Jedi and Empire Strikes Back and, I thought, at one point, Gremlins -- to make it fair to directly compare this work to Lucas' and Spielberg's best: That's what you get when you set your own young kids in the 1980s and throw weird things at them. But Leon is up to the task: he effectively builds a nostalgic world just waiting for something cool to come along that Spielberg (or J.J. Abrams, for that matter) would envy. Those D&D-playing, bike-riding kids from E.T. and the moviemakers of Super 8 wouldn't blink at all if put on the set of House, and I fully expect that someday House On The Corner will be hitting theaters near you.

Of course, it would not be a book review if I didn't prove that I am unbiased by saying something negative about it or the author, so here goes with the bad stuff:

(A) Andrew Leon is dominating my Star Wars Blogathon and it's not fair that he's both a good writer and winning that.

(B) He hasn't finished the sequel yet, so, you know, Andrew, it's one thing to emulate George Lucas and tell great stories; it's another to make people wait 16 years to find out what happens next.

I tore through this book. It is the mark of a good book if I can't wait to read it -- if I'll put aside my Deadspin and my New Yorker and my Tosh.0 and my Big Bang Theory to read the book, and with House, I did more than that: I devoted almost an entire Sunday to reading the last 1/5 of it because I couldn't wait to find out what happened.

The House On The C
orner is available on CreateSpace, and your Kindle, and your Nook, beginning at $2.99. You can find links to all of those (and get a signed copy) through Andrew's site, which is where those links send you. If I were you, I would get the hard copy, signed. It's going to be worth money some day, and this is the kind of book you'll want to have sitting on the shelf to read to your kids on summer nights.

As is usual with these things, I sent Andrew 10 1/2 questions -- 3 questions about his book, 3 about him, 3 I felt like asking, and then the impossible question and the 1/2 question. Let's see how he did:

About The Book:

1. The period details ring very true to me -- the book takes place the year Return of the Jedi is released, and there are enough subtle references to that era (D&D, U2's new album) to make the time seem important to the story. Was there a reason you set the story when you did?
The idea for that came out of watching a group of kids playing at recess at my kids' school. They were playing Star Wars. It was a group of 4 or 5 boys, and they were all Jedi knights. The parallel of that to my own childhood really struck me, how that has been reincorporated into this new generation. My kids know that Star Wars was important to me as a kid, but it's a very vague knowledge. Like knowing that there are time zones but still behaving as if everyone on the planet is awake at the same time. I really wanted to give my kids, because House was written primarily for them, a taste of what it was like to grow up in the 80s.

2. You've mentioned on your blog that one thing that helped you write this story was having it told from your kids' perspective. The portrayals of all three children -- and their unique voices as they alternate telling the story -- are very lifelike and well-rounded. But there are some negative aspects to each kid. For example, Tom appears to have a jealous streak. Did your children object to "their" characters being given negative, as well as positive, aspects?
Actually, no, they didn't get upset about any of that. I think they know themselves well enough that it just made them seem more real. However, because there were so many similarities, they would actually get mad at each other over things that I would have them do in the book. Not because they'd actually happened, but, because they knew if they were actually in that situation, that's what that person would have done. I had to have several "talks" with them about how the characters weren't really them and that they weren't allowed to get mad over things that happened in the book.

3. I don't want to spoil the surprises of the book too much, so I'll be kind of general: how much did you work out the rules for, and the structure of, the universe in which House is set before writing the story? Was it ad hoc or did you conceive of the universe and then write a story around it?
It's kind of both. Because imagination is such a huge part of the story, and it's such a huge part of the story because imagination is fundamental in the life of children, that part gets to be a bit ad hoc. I can do what I want with it when I want to do it, because it's dependent on the child and the specific child's way of viewing things. However, imagination is a huge part of the book, and to reflect that and reflect cultural imagination, some of it's real. Basically, it's been imagined by so many people for so many centuries that those things are as real as reality. So monsters are real. At least, older, traditional monsters are real. Like the trolls. And the World Tree is an important concept. In many ways, everything is built off of that idea.

About the Author:

4. House, as well as your participation in the Star Wars Blogathon, show that you have a pretty strong affection for (and knowledge of) the Star Wars movies. Do you feel those movies have a particular hold on you, and if so, what is the attraction?
Yes, those movies have a particular hold on me. The first time I saw Star Wars in the theater, I had to go to the bathroom so bad, but I wouldn't leave the theater. I couldn't miss any of the movie. Couldn't. I had to go behind a dumpster in the parking lot on the way to the car, because I couldn't make it home, and the line inside had been too long, also. That movie changed my life. Well, as much as anything can change the life of a 7-year-old. It opened up the universe for me. I don't know if there can be a stronger attraction for a kid.

5. Maurice Sendak said he doesn't write children's books -- he writes books that other people decide kids should read. On your blog recently, you mentioned The Pigman as a book that may have given you inspiration for House. What books did you read as a child that you carried with you into adulthood, and what about them stuck with you?
Before I answer your question, I want to say that I like that about Sendak. That's how I feel. Even though I wrote House for my kids, I didn't write it to be a kid book. It's just a book that people think should be for kids because it's about kids, but I think it's for adults, too. Like Looney Tunes or Animaniacs. There's the level where it's for kids, and there's the other level where it's for adults.
Hmm... books I read as a child.... well, first, there was The Hardy Boys. That was the first fiction I really got into, and I read as many of those as I could get my hands on. They got an honorary mention in House for that. Beyond those... well, here's a list:

The Prydain Chronicles (Lloyd Alexander): Probably Gurgi. I loved that character. Although, my favorite of the books is Taran Wanderer, and that one may not have Gurgi at all. But Taran's journey, especially learning how to forge his own sword and the lesson that making a good, strong sword was more important that making a pretty, shiny sword, has always seemed significant to me.

A Wrinkle in Time (Madeleine L'Engle): I really need to read these again. I've been wanting to for a while. Just the whole thing about folding space fascinated me as a kid. And when they went to the two-dimensional world. That was pretty awesome.

Bridge to Terabithia (Katherine Paterson): It was the first book to make me cry. A couple of my friends read it, too, and we got together and made our teacher read it. She got mad at us, because we didn't tell her it would make her cry.

The Gammage Cup (Carol Kendall): I read this well before I read The Hobbit, so I didn't realize how heavily influenced by The Hobbit it had been until years later. At the time, though, it was one of those stories kind of like House, that anyone could find something magical at any moment and do great things.
Those are the big ones that happened prior to middle school, at least the ones I can think of at this moment, so I'll leave it at that. There were probably others that I'm not thinking of, and there are certainly many, many more that happen later, but I think I'll draw the childhood line at middle school. I also have a lot of my early influences listed and explained on my "Of Significance..." page on my blog.

6. I haven't read your blog long enough to know the answer to this question: Do you have a 'day job?' Or do you write full-time?
My "day job" is being the house dad. It doesn't really leave me time to write full time, especially with all the dog duties, but I usually manage to pull out a couple of hours a day.

Things I Feel Like Asking:

7. There's always a food-related question on these things, so I'll lead with that: What's the most unusual topping you've ever had on a sandwich, burger, or pizza? And did you like it?
How about a taco? I still feel like fish tacos are weird. I mean, at some level, they just aren't right. But I like them.

8. True or False, and then Explain Your Answer: Poets should be allowed to make up words as they see fit, but not novelists.
False. Actually, I'd prefer it if no one just made up words, but I don't think that poets have any more license to do it than a prose writer. Besides, if you can't make your rhyme without making up a word to do it, you should probably not be writing poetry.

9. Christmas seems like it's pretty much the biggest holiday going, and is unstoppable, although Halloween is fighting back. If you had to pick one currently-existing holiday to replace one or both of those, which would you pick, and how would we celebrate it to make sure it's a big deal?
Oh, I don't have a good answer for this one. I don't particularly care for Halloween and actually do wish that Thanksgiving was the still the big #2 of holidays. It seems the only way to make a holiday a big deal is to make it something that requires the expenditure of huge amounts of money, and I'm really not for that either.

The Impossible Question:

10. Many people describe an impossible task as being like trying to describe colors to a person blind since birth. But here's something equally hard: How can you describe a smell to someone without comparing it to any other smells?
I don't think you can. And I think you were inspired to this question by that happening in House where Tom is talking about the smell of old books and having nothing to compare it to. Like new car. However, smells are strongly linked to memory, so, I suppose, if you really wanted to communicate a smell, the best way to do it would be to evoke some kind of powerful memory and say that the object in question smelled like that memory.

[NOTE: That was EXACTLY the inspiration for the question. Andrew Leon, quit using your Jedi mind tricks on me. These are the droids I'm looking for, dammit!]

And the 1/2 Question: Finish, and then answer, this question:

1/2: Who did Elvis... get the idea for his jumpsuit from?

Elvis was once visited by time travelers from the future. Of course, they were all wearing white jumpsuits, because everyone in the future wears white and wears jumpsuits. Elvis thought they were groovy, so he co-opted the idea. Of course, he had to decorate his. The interesting part of this is that Elvis is a central figure in the future, almost worshipped, and people wear white jumpsuits out of reverence for him

[Note, 2: I suspect that is where Elvis learned to time-travel.]

SO, lessons we've learned:

(1) Fish tacos are weird.
(2) Dr Seuss, you were doing it all wrong.
(3) Why haven't you gone to buy and read The House On The Corner? Was I not clear enough in my recommendation? GO BUY IT. This is the book you're looking for. *waves hand.*

Get The House On The Corner:

From Andrew's Blog

Or Createspace

Or your Kindle

Or your Nook


Rusty Webb said...

I often wonder what it would have been like if I'd played D&D. I did grow up in an area that widely considered the game evil beyond reckoning. Even watching the cartoon meant sneaking around.

Things got better when I reached adulthood and started telling the family I worshipped Satan, that way news of what I actually did came as a great relief. They kept expecting me to get arrested for cattle mutilation or something and so were relieved when I only watched a rated R movie.

Very little of what I just wrote is true. But enough of it is that I don't feel bad about writing it.

Andrew Leon said...

Wow! Thanks for the awesome review! I'm so glad that you liked it.
And I'm incredibly humbled to be put on the same shelf with C.S. Lewis.
And Spielberg.

You know, I've had some kids at school ask me when -I'm- making House into a movie. It makes me chuckle.

And you're not the only one waiting for Brother's Keeper. The pressure is mounting for me to finish it, so I'm working on it as much as I possibly can.

@Rusty: I never really played D&D either. I played once at my cousins house when I was around 10, and that was it until I was in my 20s. I hung out with people that played, but I never did. For much the same reasons as you. I was barely even allowed to own anything that had more than 1 "D."

But I didn't have to sneak to watch the cartoon. I pretty much controlled the TV when I was a kid. That and my parents were never up on Saturday mornings.

Michael Offutt, Tebow Cult Initiate said...

This is a great review.

Sarah Pearson said...

I've had this book for a little while now, but haven't been able to get to it. This just pushed it to 'next read' status.