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The Riverman (The Riverman Trilogy) Hardcover – March 18, 2014
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From School Library Journal
Gr 4–8—This novel built of stories yields nightmares. Alistair's first memory is seeing a drowned, missing child floating in the river. He tells no one and grows into a tween who has a talent for keeping secrets. Fiona, his neighbor, chooses him to share hers: kids are missing, and the Riverman, from the parallel, timeless world of Aquavania, where stories are born, is the accused. Is this some kind of fantasy created to cope with a reality too grim to bear? Or are the missing kids simply runaways? The pace accelerates when Fiona confides in an exhumed letter that she might be next. The portal in this book is not only into Aquavania, through Fiona's stories dictated to Alistair, but also into the characters' convoluted adolescent world. Alistair turns to 18-year-old Kyle, the town's emotionally complex, daredevil dropout, for advice and muscle. Meanwhile, Charlie, Alistair's childhood friend of convenience, has become a gaming addict, and their friendship is unraveling. This writerly, chiaroscuro book is replete with the portent of violence, and thick with ideas about the psychological need for stories, all while questioning the ability of stories to redeem the tellers. Readers will find themselves confronted with deep, unanswered questions regarding the relationship of collective imaginary worlds to reality, the evolving nature of memories and friendships, and the unknowability of people. Those ready to explore darker realities will devour this book.—Sara Lissa Paulson, The American Sign Language and English Lower School, New York City
When Fiona Loomis shows up at Alistair’s door asking him to pen her biography and begins to tell him of a strange land she’s visited called Aquavania, Alistair isn’t sure he believes any of it. But he’s intrigued and can’t stop himself from wanting to know more. Fiona warns Alistair that the Riverman is stealing the souls of children and that she is next. Alistair, drawn into Fiona’s story, wants to protect her—if only he can discover the full truth. In this dark, twisting tale, readers are never sure if Fiona’s story is true or not, and they won’t want to stop reading until they find out. Alistair is a relatable hero, struggling with what to believe while growing up and moving on from old friends. While the ending is left a bit up in the air, this magical tale is sure to please readers of urban fantasy, and with its theme of missing children and changing friendships, it will be perfect for fans of Neil Gaiman and Charles de Lint, too. Grades 6-9. --Sarah Bean Thompson
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Top customer reviews
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.
Pick up the entire trilogy for a creative world and excellent plot.
I would suggest buy the book used if you are intrigued by the book's concept but don't spend the money on a new copy.
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.
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