on September 28, 2009
GOING BOVINE, Libba Bray's surprising and unconventional new novel, is one of those books that seems impossible to explain. Doing so, however, is my job, so here it goes. Cameron Smith is the kind of kid you probably never noticed during high school (unless you, like him, were lighting up joints in the school bathroom). He is scraping by in his classes, not interested in college, and suffers from constant and disappointing comparisons to his perky, preppy twin sister Jenna. Basically, Cameron is on a slow but uncontrollable skid to nowhere.
That is, until his recent bouts of uncontrolled behavior and terrifying visions are revealed to be caused not by drug use (as his parents suspect) but by Creutzfeldt-Jakob's, better known as mad cow disease. Basically, the tissue in his brain is breaking down, turning into a spongy mess (and apparently also letting in armor-clad wizards and threatening pillars of flame). Pretty soon, Cameron is finding himself poked and prodded, stuffed into hospital beds and down MRI tubes, with a terminal diagnosis and the horrible realization that he might be about to die without ever having lived.
Guided only by cryptic clues from an elusive (and strangely attractive) punk rock angel named Dulcie and accompanied by a hypochondriac dwarf named Gonzo, Cameron sets off on a road trip/wild goose chase to find the enigmatic Dr. X, a physicist who disappeared as if into thin air years ago. According to Dulcie, Dr. X holds both the potential to destroy the entire world and the ability to cure Cameron's disease. Joined along the way by a (nearly) indestructible talking yard gnome who might be the incarnation of the Norse god Balder, aided by drunken frat boys and a Portuguese warbler and a visionary jazz man, Cameron's trip culminates in what might be the world's wackiest spring break. By turns hilarious and tragic, GOING BOVINE above all will keep readers guessing, as they must unravel what is real, what is a dream, and whether any of that really matters.
Up until now, Libba Bray has been best known as the author of the Victorian supernatural romance trilogy started with A GREAT AND TERRIBLE BEAUTY. She is certainly in no danger of being typecast with her follow-up to those books, however; here she's channeling Douglas Adams and Kurt Vonnegut rather than Charlotte Brontë. GOING BOVINE is simultaneously perplexing and absorbing, the kind of novel that will have readers laughing in delight, not only at Balder's one-liners but also at the kinds of absurd, amazing, seemingly random connections that tie everything together. Physics, philosophy and fantasy collide on Cameron's journey, a road trip whose destination is both inevitable and somehow unexpected. The ending is sobering and entirely satisfactory, and challenges not only assumptions about narrative structure and voice but also larger questions about life, death and everything in between. GOING BOVINE is both hopeful and hilarious, the kind of novel in which hope, hilarity and wonder drive side by side.
--- Reviewed by Norah Piehl
on October 1, 2009
As a big fan of the Gemma Doyle trilogy, I was excited when I found out that Libba Bray was writing another novel.
I read the sample chapter on her website a couple of months ago, and I admit I was a little worried -- sure, Bray could very well write in the voice of a troubled girl growing up in the Victorian era quite well, but could she handle a teenaged boy?
Well, after reading the book, I learned that she was able to write in such a voice quite well -- though I think perhaps she could have toned it down a bit (ie, using words like suckage, throwing in "somewhat slang" when perhaps it wasn't necessary -- though, of course, I am not a teenaged boy; maybe they really do talk/think that way?)
Going Bovine was extremely entertaining. I really felt myself caring for Cameron, even if he was sort of the loser type. I especially enjoyed the interlocking bits of reality among all of the chaos in Cameron's head -- they were very sobering, and at times, very touching (ie, when Cameron's mother is at his bedside, and he squeezes her hand to let her know that he can hear her)
The ending, naturally, posed a lot of questions similar to those that you'd have after watching the Wizard of Oz -- was anything real? Cameron certainly seemed to be "thinking" clearly throughout his entire adventure, so it sort of makes you wonder what the story is with that -- it just can't simply be that everything was a delusion! (And whatever happened to Gonzo?!)
I do wish Cam's relationship with Dulcie had been formed a little better -- it was missing that quality that say, Gemma and Kartik had in their relationship. I feel like I really didn't know Dulcie much at all -- sure, she seemed sweet, but who is she? What is her character like? I really think there could have been more done to create a stronger character -- and a stronger book overall. I think it was Dulcie's "mysterious" quality that made the book feel a tiny bit empty for me -- like something big was missing to tie it all together.
One more thing -- I would certainly not say this book is for ages 14 and up. I think it should be around 16/17+, as it does deal with some pretty mature topics.
Overall, fun book, definitely worth the read!
on January 27, 2010
Going Bovine is written from the viewpoint of Cameron Smith, a decidedly average high school student. His life is pretty boring at the start of the book: he's a social misfit with an incredibly popular twin sister, his parents are both teachers who can't understand why he's underachieving, and he has no friends aside from a few stoners and the clerk of the record shop he frequents. His life changes when he starts having strange visions and begins having difficulty controlling his body. Cameron learns that he has Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, the human form of mad cow disease, for which there is no cure. While in the hospital, Cameron is visited by an angel with pink hair and combat boots named Dulcie. Dulcie tells him that his disease has been caused by a wizard and that the same forces destroying his brain will also destroy the world. Dulcie tells him that if he can find Dr. X, he can be cured and save the world in the process.
On his quest, Cameron encounters all sorts of odd people: Gonzo, a Mexican-American dwarf from his high school, a garden gnome who's really a Norse god, a happiness cult, a New Orleans jazz musician, physicists, an Inuit rock band, and others who either help or hinder his mission. His journey takes him from his Texas hometown to New Orleans and Florida.
Bray gives Cameron a very believable voice and has created a pop culture manifesto with the crazy world he inhabits. Going Bovine is packed full of fun weirdness, but is also a soul searching journey as Cameron discovers that there is more to living than simply being alive. One of the best books I've read in quite a while, I would recommend Going Bovine to anyone, despite its being billed as a young adult novel.
on January 9, 2010
Before I say anything else: the reason I gave this book a 2* is very closely related to my personal taste. I like "surrealism" if it is put forth in a realistic way, whereas here, it was not. Hence the very low rating.
The premise was excellent, and I was super-excited when I first started to read it--I love reading paranormal books with medical/scientific undertones. Furthermore, Cameron's voice is clear, witty, rather assholian, but overall very endearing. I felt like I instantly "clicked" with him, right from page 1. This feeling remained constant throughout my perusal of the novel, but several other factors hampered my appreciation.
As soon as Libba Bray began to introduce "fantastic" elements into the novel, I could feel my heart sinking into my socks. From Cameron's first encounter with the "fire giants," I couldn't shake off the feeling that everything happening to him was a hallucination, which proved right in the end. Furthermore, because I regarded the fantastical as hallucinatory and "not real," I couldn't accept the magic. I kept waiting for something more to happen, for him to realize that his experiences were the products of his prion-diseased brain, or for the magic to be real. Thus, I read the whole "adventure" component of the novel (which accounted for approximately 95% of the book) kinda like you'd recall a dream. It was so clearly surrealistic, that I couldn't immerse myself into the story through any stretch of the mind. It was just unreal, the characters vapid, the whole "quest" transparent, ghostly, and kinda pointless, since it obviously wasn't going to amount to anything (being a hallucination). The character issue was especially apparent with Dulcie; she appeared in the novel as a mysterious angel, and vanished as one. There was no development or insight into her character at all.
And before anyone can tell me that the whole point of the novel was to explore reality--I realize that. That's why I was so excited by the end (or, almost-end) of the novel, where the Wizard of Reckoning starts debating reality with Cameron, and tells him Cameron's entire adventure was an illusion. I thought, oh finally! Cameron will finally be able to cast of the falseness of the situation he's immersed himself into, and...?! I also fully agree with his conclusion--"There is no meaning but what we assign. We create our own reality."--but what frustrated me was that Cameron's reality was unrealistic. It was flat, undecipherable, random, and unreliable. I read the book really quickly, because I was constantly on the edge of my seat, waiting for something big to occur, something that would tie everything together and provide some depth to the book. Instead, the book ended with the Wizard dying (exactly how Cameron predicted it), Cameron dying (which I expected), and Cameron continuing his adventures with Dulcie in a strange, exploding-particle place. The story locked itself into a neat, tidy, impenetrable circle, and you can infer from the ending that Cameron will probably continue on another haywire, surrealistic adventure.
Actually, this is an aspect that frustrated me in Libba's other novels--though I loved "A Great and Terrible Beauty," I always felt like there was something missing from its magical world. The Realm was faintly defined and sedentary; it simply lacked life, for whatever reason (which I haven't figured out yet). Though "lacking life" wasn't the issue in "Going Bovine," believability certainly was.
To summarize--I couldn't get into the book. The unrealistic quality of its "realities" was unrelatable. The characters felt flat. The book's fantastical elements were put forth in a way that immediately triggered my skepticism (it really reminded me of Alice in Wonderland, actually). So, while I wouldn't say that it's filled with "nonsense," I certainly would contend that there's quite a bit of absurdity in it. Finally, it lacked that big "oomph" that I was certain Libba Bray was working the reader up to. While I agreed with many of her musings on reality, I couldn't derive any satisfaction from the book as a whole.
But, as I said in the beginning: if you enjoy "surreal surrealism," you'll probably like this book. I like books with a solid basis for whatever surreal qualities the author incorporates, and this book lacked that.
on January 25, 2010
I knew I was getting myself into something truly unique when I opened the pages of Going Bovine and practically fell off the couch laughing after reading Libba Bray's acknowledgments section. Acknowledgments, you ask (skeptically)? Yes. Truly hilarious. That and the cover. And the title. The trifecta of reader hooks and I knew, no matter what, that those 480 dense pages before me would turn out to be one wild ride.
As someone who has perfected the Art of Slacker, Cameron is an apathetic, Grade-A dork who just so happens to also be bitingly smart. He's become a master at doing the least possible in any situation while managing to not draw any attention to himself. But something happens to Cameron that suddenly makes him the center of his family and classmate's attention - he's contracted a fatal (and really rare) form of mad cow disease.
While in the hospital, Cameron meets Dulcie - a punk angel with pink hair and combat boots - who informs him there is a cure for his disease, if he's willing to go out and search for it. Oh, and along the way he just might be able to save the universe too. Sort of a two-for-one deal. Joined by the hypochondriac little person Gonzo and an enchanted yard gnome Balder, Cameron sets off on a cross-country, modern day Don Quixote quest encountering not windmills but a happiness-driven cult, jazz musicians, Disney World, snow globes, and small-town diners.
Sound trippy? In every sense of the word, yes.
This book could essentially be divided into two sections: Cameron pre-mad cow disease diagnosis and Cameron post-diagnosis. Little details mentioned during the first section pop up later during the narrative, turning Going Bovine into not just a discovery journey for Cameron but the reader as well. It's like a giant connect the dots puzzle, spanning from Texas to Georgia with millions of tiny little stops along the way. Wherein nothing is a coincidence - everything is connected.
Like many teens, Cameron truly believes he will have all the time in the world to experience life, to see and do all those things that will make his life worthwhile but in actuality he doesn't. It's not a far-fetched concept and one that is sobering in all it's underhanded and witty observances. Cameron's journey becomes an intricate coming of age/quest tale with an unreliable narrator twist. Which story will you believe? Is Cameron spending his final days in a hospital bed, suffering from extreme hallucinations or is he tearing across the country, surrounded by loyal friends and battling evil?
It's no wonder Going Bovine was chosen as the 2010 Printz Award winner - the committee is notorious for choosing books that are slightly harder than average to puzzle through (like: how i live now or Jellicoe Road). They are also known for selecting books that make parents nervous (think: Looking for Alaska). Although Cameron is one of those narrators you instantly connect with (despite his lack of common ground with most readers), he has quite the foul potty mouth and isn't above making cringe-worthy remarks. Though his twisted chapter headings pretty much sealed his instant appeal in my book.
Oh Lordy, I tried so hard to like Going Bovine. Why? Because I absolutely loved and adored the Gemma Doyle trilogy by Libba Bray. It's one of my favorite young-adult series (along with Harry Potter). So, I took a chance and decided to buy my first Libba Bray book (the Gemma Doyle books were library reads for me even though I have gotten the first two from PBS) on the week it came out. 16 bucks for a new hardcover. But I didn't mind because, again, it's Libba Bray and I loved her previous books. So, 16 bucks and my past experiences with Libba Bray are the ONLY reason I finished Going Bovine.
When I was around page 50, I was getting a little anxious to get the story going. Sure, Cameron was semi-funny and he had a sarcastic personality (I love sarcastic people), but I wanted a little bit more plot. I got it around page 175. That's when I started enjoying it more. But then the book would lag. It would be 10 pages of bizarre (I like bizarre most of the time) then 50 pages of coma-inducing boredom. This was pretty much the pattern until I got to page 300. And then I decided I was going to skim towards the end. Now, I'm not a skimmer. At all. If I'm not enjoying a book, I'll put it down. If I'm not enjoying a book, but still want to know how it ends, then I'll take a look at the last page to see how it ends and then put it down. But I don't skim. However, I skimmed Going Bovine because it was a Libba Bray book and I kept hoping beyond hope that it would get better. It didn't.
The ending. I'm not going to spoil it for anyone, but I do have to say that it was very, very predictable. By page 200, I knew exactly how Going Bovine was going to end. Add that to the fact that Cameron's humor was wearing very thin, you then have me very annoyed. But again, I can take a predictable plot (I am a notorious mystery reader, after all), but I cannot take a boring one. I don't recover well from boring not only because it is in fact, boring, but because reading a boring book tends to screw up what I plan on reading next. If I'm reading a boring book that I want to end very badly, and lined up is a book that's probably going to take a while to get into, that book goes by the wayside. Instead, I pick up either a fluffy read or a series read (in this case it's Sacred by Dennis Lehane which is replacing Her Fearful Symmetry as my next read).
The very few reasons why Going Bovine is getting two stars as opposed to the dreaded one is because it had some funny parts (before Cameron started to wear thin) and because it was written really well. It did bring up some philosophical points, so I could sort of see where Libba Bray wanted to go, but wished she could've chosen a way that was actually interesting. Oh yeah, I also liked the pink-haired, punk-rock angel, Dulcie. My favorite character by far.
So, I don't think I recommend Going Bovine by Libba Bray. I'm sorry, but I felt like it was just one bloated (my God is this a long book. And it felt like every single one of its 480 pages), boring book. I just couldn't take it. Libba Bray's newest book is going to be a library read for me.
on December 4, 2014
Going Bovine by Libba Bray is a weird, wild ride. Although the story begins with a classic look at high school stereotypes, it quickly moves into a bizarre world of pot, music, and string theory. Young adults will love the over-the-top approach. I particularly enjoyed the references to classic literature and Viking mythology. The book messes with convention and provokes readers to think about controversial subjects and political correctness in new ways.
From the first page, I enjoyed the "in your face" first person narrative. The language and attitude matched the character perfectly. While the quirky style was engaging early in the story and the off-the-wall approach was intriguing during the initial fantasy sequences, I began to experience overload by the midway point and was ready for the conclusion.
Each generation needs their own cult "hero journey" novel. For my generation, it was Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. The surreal and sarcastic aspects are perfect for the high school crowd that enjoys unconventional novels.
on June 26, 2015
Libba Bray is a national treasure. If she ever needs an exfiltration, she should get it, probably from Air Force 1. Now that we have *that* out of the way…
Going Bovine is a supremely fun and enjoyable book with unforgettable characters and profound insight into life. It's a fresh and singular take on Don Quixote -- who also had hallucinations, of course -- and Sancho Panza, where every signpost along the road is significant. It's elegantly structured, and uses string theory to explore themes of love, friendship, and what makes a life worth living. A whip-smart (but unpretentious), funny (but also sad), wonderful book.
My first experience with Libba Bray was the Rebel Angels series, which I found well written in a very restrained sort of way, and a little too Victorian bodice-ripper toward the end.
Well, "Going Bovine" is totally unrestrained, deliciously sharp, frequently hilarious, and as current as tomorrow's must-have phone app. When you're swinging for the fences it's hard to get everything right, but Bray comes as close as possible. Every character is pitch perfect. Every shot is on target. All of the narrative tricks, even ones that should have felt too precious, work, or at least give rise to admiration on the part of the reader. After reading tons of ya, I appreciate this book, because it does something different and unconventional. This is the kind of book that will lead a ya reader to Charles DeLint or other cutting edge urban fantasy, (or at least Terry Pratchett).
Look at it this way: Did you ever read a book, or a short story or a review, that made you feel smart, or left you feeling like you had gotten it? I think that this book could leave a young reader with that kind of feeling. It's that sharp.
on December 20, 2015
How could there be a crazier book in the world then Libba Bray's Going Bovine? She wrote a masterpiece in the mind of a crazy and probably dying boy who contracted Mad Cow from the local Micky D's type place. Eventually he's put in a hospital in room with a roommate. OR his crazy brain is just making up the albino midget from his high school who Cameron is pretty sure hates him. And her's the other thing. He's been catching up on his school reading, and Don Quixote is making quite an impression!
Wrought with metaphor and silliness and yet a deep sadness as well, Libba did an amazing job of making a scary concept (dying locked in or comatose) very interesting and her take on life and death are fascinating. VERY different than her Gemma Doyle series.