When a book has worked its way into your cranium and is making a home for itself within the darker recesses of your very soul, the natural inclination is to talk to somebody about it. And when that book was ostensibly written for kids, all the more reason. That’s the problem with my job as a children’s librarian. Sometimes I’m the only person I know who has read one book or another and I have to wait patiently in the interim. Usually this isn’t a problem, but once in a while a novel like The Riverman comes along and it’s all that I can do to keep myself from forcing it into the hands of family and friends repeatedly with desperate cries of “Read this, PLEASE!” emanating from my lips. Reviewing is the best possible therapy in these cases, so buckle up, kids. What we’re dealing with here is a book of contradictions worth noting and reading and loving and hating by turns. Mature stuff, to say the least.
What do you do when the girl next door asks you to write her biography? If you’re Alistair Cleary you’re initially quite flattered. Then, as you hear her story, that sense of pride may begin to fade. When Fiona Loomis informs Alistair that he needs to hear her tale because she regularly escapes to a magical land called Aquavania where a villain called The Riverman is waiting to steal her soul, he’s understandably perturbed. It seems far more likely that the creepy uncle living in her house is the source of these dark fantasies and the boy becomes determined to save her. Yet as more time goes on, Alastair begins to notice unnerving parallels between Aquavania and the small town in which he lives. Parallels that begin to suggest there’s more to Fiona’s story than anyone could possibly imagine.
First and foremost, we’re going to have to face facts here. I’ve been noticing a distinct increase in the number of books I’d categorize as “Middle School” being published these days. This year alone we’ve seen Nightingale s Nest by Nikki Loftin, The Crossover by Kwame Alexander, and this. The books aren’t for 9-year-olds, but by the same token you wouldn’t immediately hand them to a 16-year-old. When a public librarian reads a book of this sort they have to make an assessment. Does it incline more towards children or teens? A lot of the time, I’d say children. A Song for Bijou by Josh Farrar, for example, was a tale about middle school first love, but there wasn’t anything overtly mature about it. The same goes for the aforementioned Alexander and Loftin books. But when it comes to The Riverman I’m afraid I fall on the other side of the fence. First, there’s Alistair’s voice. He doesn’t read like a 12-year-old in the least. One might say this is because he’s looking back on a time when he was younger but then there are the other elements to the tale. Gunplay. Nude selfies alluded to, as well as a lot of innocuous allusions to sex. Alastair’s very real fear that Fiona is being sexually abused (though he never says that in so many words) is some of the most mature content, but overall this is just an older title. A book that a 15-year-old is going to get a LOT more out of than a 10-year-old. Would a teen willingly pick it up? If you sell it to them right they will.
For the young librarian working in the field of children’s literature, there comes a day when they are reading a work of historical fiction only to find that the book takes place when they themselves were a child. The number of books out there that are set in 1987 are few and far between but they do exist. For me to find that the characters in this book were pretty much my exact age . . . that was unnerving. If I’m going to be an honest reviewer, maybe it made the book that much closer to my own experiences and, therefore, my reading heart. So take what I say with a grain of salt, eh?
The writing sets this apart from every other book out there right from the start. Now if an author chooses to write in the first person then they face a vast and difficult problem. How does one go about imbuing a protagonist with personality when they are not the most interesting person in the room 90% of the time? This problem is particularly acute in The Riverman. Alistair, after all, is a Nick Carraway in a world of Gatsbys. Even his dad’s fascinating. Giving the boy a personality is imperative to the plot (for one thing, more than one person appears to be vying for his attention) but at the same time the book’s focus isn’t really on him. Fortunately, it seems to me that Alistair got a successful personality infusion right from the get-go. When a strange girl asks him to pen her biography he embraces the plan, patched elbows and all. His immediate desire to plunge into the unknown and goofy bodes well for the young man. What comes after is just gravy.
In terms of the other characters, there are those in this world who would say that by and large, men do not tend to write their female characters as funny. Plucky, sure. Strong-willed, absolutely. Intelligent, you betcha. But funny? It’s not as if it isn’t done, it just isn’t done often. Starmer, I am happy to report is a guy who can not only make a funny girl, but one that you would actually want to know as a result. If Fiona’s the potential victim here she’s not going down without a fight. And if she’s going to fight, she’s going to fight with funny. As dark as the book is (and baby, it’s dark) Fiona’s humor buoys the reader through safely. Until, of course, it doesn’t.
The more you read the book, the more you want to. Starmer’s as good at one-liners as he is overarching themes and messages. Here then is a sampling of some of my favorite off-hand comments peppered throughout:
“Kids had given up on teasing him back in fifth grade when it became obvious that you can call a guy Captain Catpoop all you want, but if he embraces the name by having it ironed onto his own T-shirt, he basically has you beat.”
“Wore a cigarette behind his ear, carried a butterfly knife, kept his van stocked with a stack of blankets and a candle in a jar and a jug of something sweet and alcoholic to ease things in his direction.”
“Pretending, dear boy, is the definition of sophistication.”
“Not all memories rot away. Some sprout fungus.”
By the end (and you might consider this a bit of a spoiler so feel free to skip this paragraph if you like surprises), all I wanted to know was whether or not it was real. Call it the Doll Bones question, if you like. Was there magic? Is there such a place as Aquavania? Or was this all just some complex construct in the hero’s mind? I will say that it’s very interesting to read what appears to be a mystery novel where the reader is convinced that the detective is barking up the wrong tree. A kid reading this book (or teen) is going to be easily convinced from the get-go that Fiona is telling the truth about Aquavania. Yet as the book continues you grow less and less certain. Until, of course, there’s the moment when everything seems to confirm Fiona’s story . . . but what if it doesn’t? Is there more than one way to read her crazy tales? Does she absolutely HAVE to be telling the truth the whole time? Is Starmer, therefore, a good enough author that he can make a young reader, naturally inclined to believe a heroine as charming as Fiona, doubt their own assumptions? It’s a tricky proposition but I think he’s up to it.
I’ll now let you in on a little secret. You know that picture book, Harold and the Purple Crayon? You know why I don’t particularly like it? It’s because that book perfectly highlights my own personal nightmare. You’re trapped in a world of your own design and making and you haven’t the will to even wish yourself out of it. You’ve exchanged fantasy perfection (nine kinds of pie and all) for reality and you can no longer extricate yourself from your own brain. For me, that’s the beauty and pure unadulterated horror of The Riverman. Most fantasy novels cause their readers to wish they could rush headlong out of their mundane existence into a fantasy realm (Hogwarts being the best example). This book makes you want to cling to reality desperately with both hands and never ever let go. It’s probably significant that the parts of the book I found the most interesting weren’t the ones in Aquavania (though the penguin quoting Charlotte’s Web was cute) but the ones in the real world.
So in the end, what is this book? A cautionary tale for people who live too much inside their own heads? Can we truly say that it’s a coincidence that Charlie, the video game king, typifies this? Or is it a grand metaphor for first love? It’s the first in a trilogy though you wouldn’t know it from the packaging, design, or writing. To my mind, this book stands alone. The Riverman may also be the world’s greatest book discussion title. You could talk about this puppy with your peers until the cows come home. This review is just the tip of the iceberg (you don’t wanna think about the iceberg). Once everyone’s read it, I’m going to have SO much more to say. A good book does that. It gives your tongue wings. The Riverman may creep you out and make you want to hide under the covers for a good long while, but just TRY to set it down. Can’t be done. And that is what I look for in a book.
For ages 11 and up.
on March 20, 2015
The Riverman has many appealing elements, especially for those of us who like fantasies -- a girl who travels to another world, a boy who gets drawn into this girl's alternate reality, and a very creepy villain who is stealing souls. Sadly, these three things converged into a story that, though I finished it, failed to really leave an impression.
The one thing I did enjoy about this book is the imagination that went into it. In particular, the world of Aquavania, a world where stories are born from the mind of each new visitor, is supremely creative. The idea that one can control what their world is like, complete with inhabitants and activities, is attractive (especially if you're an aspiring author).
It also comes with a nasty villain in the form of the Riverman, who sounds positively evil. Would it be strange to say that the Riverman is my favorite character? Because he is, even though he barely appears for most of the novel. The fact that he represents the imminent death of anything imagined in Aquavania is creepy, which is just the way I like bad guys to be.
Apart from the inventive content, The Riverman just kind of... existed. There's a story, one that combines events in the real world with events in Aquavania (as retold by Fiona). I didn't particularly connect with our narrator Alistair or the fanciful Fiona, as there were parts where I was simply uninterested in what was going on. So, the story went on, and I kept reading, but there was really no emotional attachment.
If there's one thing that surprises me about The Riverman, it's the darkness of its content for a novel for children. There are mature topics - drinking, drugs, kidnapping, murder among them - included. All these things, even if they were uncomfortable to read about, emphasized the stakes in this story - for Alistair, for Fiona and for other people too, so I don't think they were included unnecessarily.
While The Riverman didn't work for me, there's sure to be readers who will like it more than I did. Whimsy mingles with darkness and real life on nearly every page. If the reader is able to truly find a connection with Alistair, or even with Fiona, that will certainly be key for them to enjoy the story a little bit more.
on November 30, 2014
This book isn't perfect, but I LOVED it.
The first thing I noticed was that the tone was way too mature for a 12-year-old. It sounds like an adult is narrating it. While this is justifiable because Alistair is telling the story from a possibly distant future perspective, it still may be difficult for kids to get into. Nevertheless, I felt like Alistair's feelings, choices and reactions fell steadily into middle grade territory, which was enough for me to buy into his character. Some say the love stuff was a bit much for a 12-year-old, and I could see that, but as I recall a lot of emotions (particularly love) are a bit over the top for middle schoolers, so it was not a problem for me. I DO think the story would be stronger if it were more of a friendship love rather than a romantic love. It works, though.
Although it may be mature, I believe the tone is one of the novel's biggest strengths. It is consistent, ominous and tense. Starmer's expert use of misdirection provides incredible momentum, and I felt like Starmer did a great job of pacing, regularly dropping hints at a tragic future. At the same time he gives plenty of very candid moments to develop the characters. There are plenty of asides and anecdotes that aren't necessarily vital for the plot, but they are used superbly to build tension and promote the tone. They are also interesting enough on their own merit to prevent me from ever feeling bored or wanting to get back to the "real" story. I felt like the tragedy of Charlie blowing his hands off or Alistair almost being hit by the car felt genuine, as I felt all of the details of this story were very convincing. The way Alistair describes his love for Fiona, for example, seemed very authentic.
Starmer built his world and characters with a vivid paintbrush, and I found every character, setting and event easy to picture. This book had the potential to be confusing with such a complicated and non-linear storyline full of red herrings, but Starmer's clear writing, powerful images, and consistent tone ground the novel and lend accessibility to the complex emotions and convoluted plot.
My favorite thing about this book is also, perhaps, its greatest weakness. It is the perpetual question of whether or not Fiona is for real. Trying to decide if Aquavania is real is truly what this book is about, and Starmer does an excellent job of giving you just the right amount of evidence to keep you guessing. It is a compelling question that keeps the pages turning. However, in the end, I was disappointed that this was all just set up for a trilogy. Although the ending is ambiguous, it makes it pretty clear that Aquavania is real. I wish that it were left up to the reader, written in such a way that I get to ponder it long after I close the book. When the thing that was propelling me through this story was the question of whether or not Aquavania is real, I'm not sure how I will be propelled through another 2 novels having had that question largely answered already. I don't like having to think about a sequel where Alistair and Fiona tromp through Aquavania and battle the Riverman. To tell the truth, Aquavania was not all that captivating for me. When it was first introduced, I thought, really? I can't get behind this. It was only because Starmer left it open, developed it as a possible delusion, that Aquavania was accessible to me. Then again, one of the things that Starmer does so well over and over again in this book is taking us in one direction and then sweeping us back toward another conclusion. He does it so well, that the book flows seamlessly from one expectation to the opposite without feeling overly twisty and turny. Perhaps, Starmer has some more surprises in store for us, and what I expect the sequels to be will not be what they prove. I look forward to the sequels with great hope.
So, I loved this book, and I think it works as a stand alone. I'll definitely read the sequel, but I'm concerned. I don't know how Starmer can pull this off, but I hope that he will because I definitely want to see more work of this caliber.
for parents who want to know: the word "damn" is mentioned on the very first page, but I think that is about all of the language that might be objectionable. There are a lot of sexual references, but I think they would largely go over the heads of anyone not ready to hear them. Alistairs infatuation with Fiona is very powerful, but they barely kiss. This book reads high. I don't think many kids younger than 12 would be interested or appreciate it.
on March 20, 2014
I loved the different worlds in this book. I read it in a couple of days. It was unlike anything I've ever read (but in a good way). It's a cliffhanger and I look forward to the next one.
THE RIVERMAN was amazing. I received it as a review copy and I have to say that it's one of the best books I read this year. And if I get a chance again in my schedule, I'd love to read it again. It was that good!
It all sounds rather sweet at first. There's a small town where children bike in the summer and throw rocks and do the things that are reminiscent of gentler times. But it all goes scary and scarier when a girl named Fiona Loomis asks 12 year old Alistair Cleary to write her biography.
It's such a curious request that Alistair agrees. And that is how he discovers that there's a land called Aquavania and that Fiona and other children have been escaping there on-and-off for months. It's a wonderful place on the surface of it. A place to get away, where every imagining can come true. ONLY there's a problem. The Riverman. As Fiona spins the tale she tells of how the Riverman is stalking her -- threatening to suck her soul out with a straw.
The wonderful, wonderful part of this story is that like Alistair it's difficult to tell how 'disturbed' Fiona is. And thus we follow Alistair as he waits and watches and tries to find Fiona's real world threat. He's down to studying the relatives that Fiona lives with, when his own life becomes jeopardized.
So I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE THE RIVERMAN. It's a layered story that is very well written. The author captures the feel of growing up in a small town, and he draws the characters --good, bad, first- and second-string-- perfectly. Alistair and Fiona's relationship is realistic and charming. And perhaps most importantly, it's not clear what's real and what's fantasy --who or what the danger is.
Creepy enough for adults and young adults. It might be too intense for some middle-graders.
Alistair is the type of person who can keep secrets. He’s observant and quiet. Smart. When his neighbor Fiona Loomis asks him to write her biography, he reluctantly agrees. Fiona tells him a story of portals and fantastic worlds, where kids can slip away and be the rulers of their own kingdoms. But Fiona also tells Alistair about the Riverman, who is stealing kids’ souls and making them disappear in the real world. At first Alistair thinks Fiona is crazy…but what if her story is a cry for help? Or, more impossibly, what if it’s true?
The Riverman is a sharply written, imaginative novel of friendship and trust. Alistair is a thoughtful and sensitive kid, and his observations about family, friends, and neighbors are keen for someone his age. Starmer has a knack for description, and the neighborhood setting that Alistair and Fiona inhabit is just as wonderfully described as the many realms of Aquavania. As Alistair’s story unfolds and Fiona reveals more and more Aquavania, Alistair is torn between the dangers of reality and the inexorable pull of fantasy. Determining which is which isn’t easy, especially as he begins to discover that it doesn’t exactly matter if Fiona is crazy or not—the questions she forces him to face are just as important either way. The Riverman is a creepy, compelling, and fantastically written mystery.
This is a difficult book to review, as it's unlike anything I've read before, especially in its beginning and end. Easier to describe is my reading experience: I was completely engrossed throughout "The Riverman", tearing through the chapters until the final pages, after which I was very relieved to discover there was an impending sequel.
Alistair Cleary lives in the small town of Thessaly, northern New York. He's a friendly and reasonably popular kid among his peers, though doesn't have any really close friends. Fiona Loomis is the girl next door, though not the typical kind – she's quiet and rather strange looking, with a habit of cycling up and down the street with a portable radio taped to her handlebars.
The two have known each other since early childhood, but aren't particularly good friends – until the day Fiona turns up on Alistair's front porch with a proposition. Knowing him to be reliable and trustworthy, she wants him to write her biography. It's an odd request, but it gets even odder when she begins her story: that every night she travels to a place called Aquavania (yes, it's a silly name, but stick with it) that can be shaped and designed into anything she imagines.
She can stay for weeks, months, or years and when she returns it's to the exact same moment she left. According to her, it's the place where stories are born, that other children have their own invented worlds adjacent to her own, and that they're hunted by a strange entity known only as the Riverman.
It's a whimsical premise, yet the tone of the book is very dark, touching as it does on child abuse, disappearances, murder and violence (both accidental and intentional). Alistair finds it difficult to credit Fiona's story, believing instead that it's a coping mechanism for some other trauma going on in her life. So what is the truth?
As he gets drawn deeper and deeper into Fiona's tale, further evidence arises for both its authenticity AND its fabrication. What's he meant to do? And why is she telling him in the first place?
I feel I haven't quite captured the *feel* of the book with this synopsis. Told in first-person by Alistair, it's a very introspective and complex novel – after all, most of the action is related to our protagonist through Fiona's secondary narration. We’re as confused as Alistair is as to whether Fiona's story is true or not, and author Aaron Starmer delves deeply into themes of memories, truth, imagination, and the origin and ownership of stories – an diverse range of topics that somehow combine brilliantly once they're thrown into the melting pot.
Starmer also constructs a strong atmosphere of swamp, woodlands and town for his characters to dwell in. The whole book is bursting with life, even in characters that don't impinge much on the plot: school friends, family members, nosy neighbours – they're all vividly rendered and help make up a rich backdrop to the strange story. I could clearly see the dusty streets and the grim swamplands.
I still feel I've only brushed the surface of "The Riverman," though I like what the School Journal Review says about it – that it's full of "deep, unanswered questions regarding the relationship of collective imaginary worlds to reality, the evolving nature of memories and friendships, and the unknowability of people." Mysterious and evocative, it's probably a book that has to be experienced for yourself. As for me, I'm going to go get my hands on the sequel.
on April 27, 2014
I loved this book, ambiguous ending and all, and couldn't put it down. I did go back to read the ending a couple of times and am glad to hear that this is part of a trilogy, not because I need all the loose ends tied up but because I enjoyed this story and its characters so much, I am anxious to see what comes next. I'm sure this would also work as a stand-alone book; sometimes you just need to roll it around in your head and fill in the blanks.
The characters are 12-ish and I definitely wouldn't recommend this book to a child any younger than that. I was disappointed about the gun, as I think the story could've been told without it...perhaps it's necessary for the story to come. That, and some allusions to other mature themes make this book better suited for older teens.
I loved the characters, I loved the fact that those characters were clinging to their real world as opposed to fleeing into fantasy, I loved the creepiness of it all.
This first book in a new Youth/Fantasy/Trilogy has all the makings of an interesting series to come. The main characters are believable, the plot is reasonable & well constructed, plus the story unfolds at a brisk pace. Young readers attention will be held and challenged. It strikes a fair balance between the potential existence of supernatural worlds and the calmly restrained logic of thinking things clearly through. This book would be a good choice for a middle-schooler who is emotionally well-balanced, but is also open-mindedly curious about exploring nature and the often mysterious universe that surrounds us.
on August 22, 2015
In the Riverman, author Aaron Starmer takes the predictable fantasy formula and turns it upside down and inside out. The Riverman is a middle grade novel that is at times dark and creepy and at times funny and charming. Readers will be as befuddled as likable protagonist, Alistair, by the stories of neighbor Fiona. Is there really a magical world that lures children with wonderful experiences and then steals their souls, or is Fiona a gifted storyteller desperate for attention? Does Fiona need to be saved from a magical creature or are her stories a veiled cry for help from a real person in her life? Does she want to be rescued or does she want a loyal friend and fan of her stories? Starmer's beautiful writing creates a fantasy world that is stunning and appealing. He also creates a real world community that is filled with flawed, struggling people trying to find happiness in a dying town. As charming as The Riverman is, it is probably too scary for younger middle grade readers.