Sunday, January 27, 2013

Review: CROAK by Gina Damico

Fed up with her wild behavior, sixteen-year-old Lex's parents ship her off to upstate New York to live with her Uncle Mort for the summer, hoping that a few months of dirty farm work will whip her back into shape.

But Uncle Mort's true occupation is much dirtier than shoveling manure. He's a Grim Reaper. And he's going to teach Lex the family business.

She quickly assimilates into the peculiar world of Croak, a town populated by reapers who deliver souls from this life to the next. But Lex can't stop her desire for justice - or is it vengeance? - whenever she encounters a murder victim, craving to stop the attackers before they can strike again.

Will she ditch Croak and go rogue with her reaper skills?

I must take a moment before starting my review to apologize to anyone who ever told me to read Croak. I'm so sorry that I didn't do as commanded. I waited until the last week of 2012 to read it, and even then only because my sister got it from the library for herself. I'm so sorry. I should have believed all of you.

I. Love. This. Book.

We meet Lex immediately after she sucker-punches a classmate. She's in the principal's office, half-listening to her parents try to save her hide. Again. Once a straight-A student, Lex has quickly spiraled into a degenerate with an attitude problem. She cusses, she smokes, she steals, she lies, and she's punched just about everyone in her school. She's angry, and no one knows why. Not even Lex herself.

No wonder her parents are relieved to ship her off to Uncle Mort for the summer. Crazy Uncle Mort, the uncle Lex barely remembers. Turns out crazy Uncle Mort is a little crazier than Lex knows. Instead of a hillbilly pig farmer, Uncle Mort is a kinda-hot, tattooed, Harley-riding dude who also happens to reap souls for a living.

Normally, I'm not one for Reaper books, because the theology involved can get wonky. Croak's theology is definitely wonky. Instead of angels, souls are reaped by human teenagers in black hoodies. The reaping process involves little pen-knife-sized scythes, computers, jellyfish, black widow spiders, and a bank vault. Wonky.

Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed myself. I loved Lex from the very beginning. She's smart and sassy, which is always a promising start in a protagonist. While her attitude might have gotten old on another character, I could accept it given her aforementioned rage problems. Really, Lex is just a hyperbolic teenager. I think most teenagers have times when they're flat-out mad for no reason. Hormones and body changes and life changes all collide to make a bunch of acne-scarred, skinny-jean-clad teen Hulks. Such is life.

One aspect of Lex that is refreshingly unstereotypical is her family. Rather than give Lex the "typical" dysfunctional YA family (drunk dad, harpy mother, bratty siblings, etc.), Lex has two caring, happily married parents and a twin sister whom she adores. Sometimes angry teens are just angry, and vast swaths of teenagers, angry or otherwise, live in stable, loving families. It was such a relief to visit a non-angsty family for once.

I also must say that I enjoyed how laugh-out-loud funny Ms. Damico's writing is. From the tongue-in-cheek names of the Croak businesses to its quirky inhabitants to Lex's witty asides, I found myself chuckling often. Most books have funny bits here and there, but Croak is consistently laugh-worthy.

While I enjoyed the plot (rogue Reaper killing criminals), it was a secondary consideration for me. Between Lex and her snark, Ms. Damico's writing, the colorful cast of secondary characters, and THAT ENDING, I was beautifully distracted.

Oh yeah, I need a disclaimer. DISCLAIMER: The ending of Croak will leave you freaking out. The sequel, Scorch, is already out, so plan accordingly.

Points Added For: Zingy writing, Lex, Croak's setup, Uncle Mort, an ending that made me gasp and left me craving more. Also, to my relief Ms. Damico found a way to show that Lex was "edgy" without resorting to over-the-top profanities.

Points Subtracted For: Really stupid character names (Ayjay? Kloo? Seriously?!), the characters being a bit slow on the uptake for some of the "twists," the Big Gaspy Moment in the climax could've used an even bigger emotional punch, the rather dippy qualities of those we meet in the afterlife (distractingly unrealistic).

Good For Fans Of: Drily humorous stories, snarky protagonists, totally functional families.

Notes For Parents: Language, dying people, two characters make out.

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