Spontaneous by Aaron Starmer
I wanted to love this book because the trailer for the upcoming film adaptation is hilarious. This is one of those dark, twisted, “campy” comedies that has such a gruesome subject matter (death of nearly an entire senior class) but is done in such an impossible way that it’s okay to laugh.
Kids are blowing up.
That’s it. That’s the whole premise. Students at this school are spontaneously combusting at the most inopportune times, yet somehow, main character Mara manages to solidify her years-long best friendship, find love, do a fair amount of drugs, and just exist.
But this book is also a really insightful look at the responses to tragedy. It portrays how other students feel, how the school addresses it, how parents handle it, and even how the community and world as a whole tackle their comprehension of what’s taking place at Covington High.
The absolute best part of the book is the humorous voice the author manages to instill in the main character/narrator. His bio says he lives with his wife and two daughters and I can totally picture it. This is a man who is vastly outnumbered and has nailed the voice of the angsty, smart-ass, female main character. There were a lot of hidden truths in it that bust open the stereotypes (I specifically remember Mara getting her driver’s license because her mom made her do it, then refusing to drive ever again… my own offspring shall remain nameless, but I had to force her to get both a permit and then a driver’s license, and she was already in her second year of college when I did.)
But now for the worst part of the book… the first half is some of the funniest writing I’ve read in a while, but about halfway through, this stops being funny. Now, I’d expect a book in which almost the entire senior class dies to stop being funny at some point. However, this book took a turn for the existential and morphed into a “what is the meaning of it all” diatribe, then never resolved.
I mean, ever.
We don’t know why the students were combusting, who was behind it, what will happen to them down the road, nothing. There was an FBI agent involved, and we never figure out what her actual role was. There was talk of secret experimenting at the Pentagon, and then it fizzled. There’s possibly a missing persons case, but that went nowhere as well.
All in all, it was so, so promising, then left us feeling like the author got bored and quit. Worse, having been around the publishing industry for over a decade, it felt like the author HAD written a great ending and by the time the editors got through with it (probably for political reasons, since there are definite political nuances in it), it became a stinkpile of disappointment at the end. Editors are like that sometimes.
All in all, not a bad read. But I’ll be interested to see if the film sticks to the book or if it gives us the satisfaction of an actual ending.
A Million Ways to Die in the West by Seth MacFarlane
Seth MacFarlane is a true Renaissance man. As the creator of the animated series Family Guy and co-creator of American Dad, not to mention the voice talent of many of those shows’ characters, he achieved a measure of notoriety for the genre of stupid and mildly offensive humor. But MacFarlane is also a Grammy-nominated singer, director and producer of one of the top-grossing movies of all time for its rating, and of course, bestselling author of a first novel that has already been adapted for the upcoming film of the same name.
A Million Ways to Die in the West is not for everyone. As a very loose rendition of historical fiction, it requires an ability to enjoy the suspension of belief in order to appreciate the humor, as well as an ability to look past the few offensive remarks to that are both poignant stabs at the time period as well as timely interpretations of the fact that prejudice and racism are far from dead.
Albert Stark is a sheep farmer in the town of Old Stump, a miserable place that makes the show Deadwood look like the Vegas strip. The title of the book comes from the very real understanding in Albert’s world that every single day is an exercise in not letting something random kill him. Snake bites, cholera water, gunslingers, wild animal attacks, and all out nastiness are just a handful of the myriad ways that one could end up dead in that time and place; of course, if the actual disease, crime, or accident doesn’t kill you, the doctor’s attempts to save you will certainly finish the job.
Interestingly, MacFarlane’s take on history and humor is actually a beautiful love story, with the lives of several intertwined characters playing out on the page. He gives the same attention to the backstories of side characters that he gives to Stark, all without dragging down the pacing in any way. My favorites must be Edward and Ruth, a mild-mannered cobbler and his fiancee of six years (the town brothel’s employee of the year) who have yet to have relations because it would be ungodly, what with them being Christians and all.
In some ways, the best aspect of the book is the fact that the author’s ingrained sense of humor shines through, but it is ultimately far more intelligent than what plays out each week on his television shows. While somehow meeting at the crossroads of asinine and genius, the book is a fantastic, in-one-sitting delight.