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Going Bovine Hardcover – September 22, 2009
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From School Library Journal
Grade 8 Up—In this ambitious novel, Cameron, a 16-year-old slacker whose somewhat dysfunctional family has just about given up on him, as perhaps he himself has, when his diagnosis of Creutzfeldt-Jacob, "mad cow" disease, reunites them, if too late. The heart of the story, though, is a hallucinatory—or is it?—quest with many parallels to the hopeless but inspirational efforts of Don Quixote, about whom Cameron had been reading before his illness. Just like the crazy—or was he?—Spaniard, Cam is motivated to go on a journey by a sort of Dulcinea. His pink-haired, white-winged version goes by Dulcie and leads him to take up arms against the Dark Wizard and fire giants that attack him intermittently, and to find a missing Dr. X, who can both help save the world and cure him. Cameron's Sancho is a Mexican-American dwarf, game-master hypochondriac he met in the pot smokers' bathroom at school who later turns up as his hospital roommate. Bray blends in a hearty dose of satire on the road trip as Cameron leaves his Texas deathbed—or does he?—to battle evil forces with a legendary jazz horn player, to escape the evil clutches of a happiness cult, to experiment with cloistered scientists trying to solve the mysteries of the universe, and to save a yard gnome embodying a Viking god from the clutches of the materialistic, fame-obsessed MTV-culture clones who shun individual thought. It's a trip worth taking, though meandering and message-driven at times. Some teens may check out before Cameron makes it to his final destination, but many will enjoy asking themselves the questions both deep and shallow that pop up along the way.—Suzanne Gordon, Peachtree Ridge High School, Suwanee, GA END
Starred Review, Booklist, August 1, 2009:
"An unforgettable, nearly indefinable fantasy adventure."
Starred Review, Publishers Weekly, August 3, 2009:
"Bray's surreal humor may surprise fans."
Top customer reviews
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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.
But let's just say you love John Irving with his unique characters and threads of subtle plot that tie themselves up into an inextricable knot in the end. And let's also assume you adore Kurt Vonnegut with his snarky commentary on life and distinctive settings. Like your novels laugh-out-loud funny? Good. Throw all that in a snow globe, shake the snot out of it, and when the dust snow finally settles, well, there it is...the hilariously well-written Going Bovine by Libba Bray.
Bray's first-person narration by her sixteen-year-old male protagonist, Cameron, is spot-on (I should know, I have a boy at home). Cam finds out he is dying of mad cow disease, which is just another added insult piled onto his already crappy life. He is offered a chance of survival from a punk-rock angel, who may or may not be a delusion related to his spongy brain. Going Bovine launches from there into the swirling chaos of a teen's journey to find himself before it is too late and it is in this wild ride that Libba Bray weaves a tale worthy of a comparison to Irving and Vonnegut.
Cameron's ensuing road trip to save himself, accompanied by a midget and a garden gnome, feels like getting lost in a fun house while on Percocet. (Don't ask.) Some passages made me snort with laughter, while others I had to go back and reread them just because it was such well-crafted prose. The author weaves social commentary throughout the odd tribulations Cam encounters, leaving the reader to question values and life's purpose, as Cam is. The situations become more entangled, yet symbiotic, as the novel progresses, while fate drags Cam nearer to either a cure or his demise.
At novel's end, you are standing in a room of mirrors. You see the now, the past, the future as each reflection is captured and multiplied. You are turning with Cam, quickly, dizzyingly, trying to find the you in you. If you escape intact, throw a quarter in the Fortune Telling machine and ask it, "What is the meaning of life?" or "What is my future?" or... scarier still, "When will I die?" Going Bovine is a wild ride, one worth standing in line, the kind of ride you want to never stop, and the one you dream of late at night when the carnival has left town.
This YA novel will undoubtedly appeal to adult readers, too. Rated for ages 14+, the language and adult situations might be a bit too graphic for some, and the twisting plot devices will require a student who can keep track of the many threads that are weaving together throughout the novel. Going Bovine would make a great gift for high school or college-age guys, along with any adult who appreciates witty, riotous writing.
Coming in September to a bookstore near you! Click here to order from an indie bookstore.
Click here to see Libba Bray's Going Bovine website.
NAME DROPPING NOTE:
I first heard of Going Bovine when I attended an agent/author panel at NESCBWI, which was fascinating, and Barry Goldblatt was waxing eloquent about his bride, Libba Bray. (I could name drop and say I had dinner with him later, but really...he was on one end with his agent friends and I was FAR AWAY on the other, plus there were many successful writers between us...so actually, he probably didn't even know I was there. haha) But there we were, at dinner, and he was talking about "Libba Bray" this and Libba Bray" that, until I thought maybe it was her name, you know, like a Cher or Madonna...Libbabray. Later I found him on FB and he was again going on and on about Libba Bray ("@libbabray") and I was thinking to myself, "Isn't that adorable how gaga he is over her?" and "Now really, how brilliant could she be, really?" Then I read Going Bovine and I must say, Barry, you were right. She is every bit of brilliant you claimed and then some.