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Book Reviews

Spotlight on: Robert Cormier
After the First Death
Frenchtown Summer
The Rag and Bone Shop
We All Fall Down

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Fade by Robert Cormier Robert Cormier, Fade

Although he is considered a Young Adult writer, I have only recently discovered Robert Cormier. Although I live near his hometown, my first encounter with his work was through my interest in banned books. His The Chocolate War was the third most frequently challenged book of 2001 (it was first challenged in 1998), so I read it out of curiosity. It was much better than the books I read while a member of its recommended age group of 13 and up.

I then saw that Cormier was coming to speak at my local library, and I made a point to go. Unfortunately, he became rather ill and had to cancel, and before he could reschedule, he passed away near the end of 2000. This was quite a blow, and it made me all the more resolved to read this man's work.

Luckily, the YA section in my library is on the same floor as the adult books, so I didn't have to go upstairs to the Juvenile section to find more of his work (I get strange looks from mothers when I hang out up there too long trying to rediscover books from my youth). He is really a phenomenal writer. However, I understand why he is controversial. His protagonists are teenagers and he approaches matters of violence and sexuality with unflinching frankness. There were scenes in Fade that disturbed me, and who knows how I would have responded at fourteen.

Described by Stephen King as "what might happen if Holden Caulfield stepped into H. G. Wells' The Invisible Man," Fade is the story of Paul Moreaux and is written as a memoir. In 1938 in the small town of Monument, Massachusetts (patterned after Cormier's hometown of Leominster), Paul has just turned thirteen and has discovered that he can make himself invisible -- or "fade." His uncle Adelard also has the ability (it passes from uncle to nephew) and attempts to teach Paul the ins and outs of the phenomenon. At first, Paul is thrilled -- as anyone would be -- but he soon finds that what appears on the surface to be a gift might be something else entirely.

Fade was nominated for the World Fantasy Award in 1989 and is truly a worthy novel. Taking a familiar story and crafting it for younger readers, Cormier has made it his own. It is surprising, compelling, original, and doesn't fall into the traps of most fiction. His characters -- especially Paul -- are so real that when the "facts" of the tale were debatable, my belief in the characters carried me through any doubts about their validity. Additionally, Cormier's writing is so rife with details, I felt as if I were reading an actual autobiography instead of a so-called "kids' book."

But what I loved most about Fade is that it surprised me. Just when I had gotten into the rhythm of the story, it changed tracks -- without one whiff of warning. And the change was perfect. It is this sort of imagination that I am constantly looking for in my reading, and when I actually find it, I want to shout it from the rooftops. Let this review stand in for the shouting.

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2003. Reprinted with permission.

We All Fall Down by Robert Cormier The Rag and Bone Shop by Robert Cormier Robert Cormier, We All Fall Down
Robert Cormier, The Rag and Bone Shop

Robert Cormier is one of the most well-known authors for young adults, primarily because he is one of the most controversial. His book The Chocolate War, according to the American Library Association, is the fourth most frequently challenged book of the last decade "for using offensive language and being unsuited to age group."

We All Fall Down could easily fall into that group. It is labeled as being appropriate for ages 13 and up, but there are scenes in this book that disturbed even me. It is concerned with the repercussions of random violence in a small town in Massachusetts. Four boys break into a local house and devastate it, including the young daughter who walks in unexpectedly. This affects not only the girl who was hurt, but also her sister, Jane; the neighbor (known only as The Avenger) who saw it happen and is in love with Jane; and one of the "trashers," Buddy (an alcoholic at 15) who inadvertently falls in love with Jane.

This is a very dark book. The characters are doomed from the beginning, and the way the story is set up, it could not end any other way. But at the same time, there is a thread of hope that runs throughout the story the lightens it towards palatability. The teenage characters feel real and Cormier is wonderful at describing the problems that affect people at that age. I've not been a teenager for several years, but his writing evoked old feelings through its truth.

And it must have affected me more than I though because after We All Fall Down, I picked up Cormier's latest (and last) work, The Rag and Bone Shop. It's very short and concerns the investigation surrounding the death of seven-year-old Alicia Bartlett. Professional interrogator Trent is brought in and coerced to get a confession out of prime suspect Jason Dorrant, 12-year-old friend of Alicia.

The meat of the book concerns itself with the interrogation. It's fascinating to see these two characters interact--Jason worried that things he is saying are making him look guilty, and Trent trying to lure Jason into confessing (though he knows he's innocent) in order to close the case and appease the local Senator who has promised Trent the ability to "write his own ticket."

Cormier puts out a winner once again with The Rag and Bone Shop. He is obviously gearing his books to the younger audience, but I think even adults would find much to appreciate in his works. I plan to seek out more in the future.

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on Ex Libris Reviews. Copyright 2002. Reprinted with permission.

Frenchtown Summer by Robert Cormier Robert Cormier, Frenchtown Summer

Cormier departs from his normal prose style of writing with this short novel written entirely in blank verse. Frenchtown Summer is a semi-autobiographical piece about 12-year-old Eugene during a single summer in Frenchtown (another fictional doppelganger of Cormier's home town of Leominster, Massachusetts).

Told in scenes separated by chapter notations, Cormier tells of several events including a long-unsolved murder and a phantom airplane. The mood is mellow and Cormier's language evocative. Frenchtown Summer is not anywhere near as controversial as his famous novels like Fade and The Chocolate War. It is simply a portrait of a man's nostalgia for the times past.

The audiobook version is read by Rene Auberjonois and includes a cassette-long conversation with the author--very interesting listening for fans of Cormier.

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on Ex Libris Reviews. Copyright 2003. Reprinted with permission.

After the First Death by Robert Cormier Robert Cormier, After the First Death

I am slowly working my way through the "young adult" works of Robert Cormier, who wrote The Chocolate War among others, and whom I did not read when I was the age of the target audience. What I am finding is that these novels are rather complex and moving and that I likely would not have appreciated them at that age. I recommend his work to mature teens (and up) as there are many images that are disturbing and not for younger kids. Cormier does not shy away from the way people (and kids) act when they think no one is watching.

After the First Death is a complex departure from Cormier -- not in its subject matter, but in its delivery. Marketed as a suspense novel, it is more a psychological portrait of three characters involved in a harrowing situation. First up is Ben, who is typing out the story of his relationship with his father and how a particular event affected it and him. Then we meet Miro, a teenage terrorist who is involved in the hostage-taking of a school bus full of children. Driving the bus is Kate, a 16-year-old replacement of the usual driver who is thrust into the midst of this unwittingly.

Cormier develops the story through each person's point-of-view narrative. Small things are revealed as the plot continues, including how all three of their lives intertwine and a secret about Ben that turns the book on its head. After the First Death is a solid entry from Cormier--one of his lesser-known titles that is nevertheless worth a look.

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on Ex Libris Reviews. Copyright 2003. Reprinted with permission.

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