Book review: The Saturday Night Ghost Club

The Saturday Night Ghost Club by Craig Davidson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Saturday Night Ghost Club is, more than anything, a story about growing up and making the transition away from childhood, leaving behind the magical and fantastic and trading them in for the everyday and mundane, and accepting that not everything in the world is good, that life can be arbitrary and unfair, but that the journey is still one filled with wonders and the love of others.

Jake Baker is a 12-year-old boy living with his parents in Niagara Falls, also known as “Cataract City” because of how it never changes, how its old buildings are left to stand as relics and skeletons instead of being torn down to be replaced with newer edifices. During the summer Jake becomes friends with the kids of a new family in town, the Yellowtails. Billy is quiet and rocksteady, while his older sister Dove is revealed to be grappling with unspecified mental issues that make her “larger than life.” She gets most of the best lines in the story as a result.

The core of the story revolves around Jake’s Uncle Calvin, a seemingly lovable eccentric who peddles strange wares at his store, The Occultarium. Calvin believes in ghosts and other sundry weird things, and shares stories of the macabre with Jake–who is afraid of nearly everything–culminating in the formation of The Saturday Night Ghost Club, in which a small group, led by Calvin, are given tours of local haunts.

As it becomes clearer than there is more to Uncle Calvin than meets the eye, the story turns from sweet to bittersweet, becoming a reminisce tinged with sadness, but with hope or at least the possibility of hope never far off.

Davidson writes with a kind of spare gentleness, the prose painting the scenes with quick metaphors; interjections from Jake–the story’s narrator–never feel like the voice of the writer intruding, but rather the earnest reflections of someone who has yearned to tell this story.

The villain of the piece, a budding young sociopath named Percy, feels somewhat stock and perhaps a bit unnecessary, but Davidson uses him to draw out the growth of Jake. It just seems like these kinds of stories about growing up must always have a Bully who is overcome.

Overall, though, this was a short but enjoyable ride, even without the “twist” at the end, a pleasant enough look at growing up in a town where tragedy can lay just a step away.

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Book review: Flamer

Flamer by Mike Curato

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a cute and affecting coming of age story about a pudgy 14-year-old Filipino boy spending his last summer at scouts camp before starting high school.

Author Mike Curato notes the story is fictional but deftly deploys his real life experience going through scouts, setting the story in 1995, the same time he was in scouts. The result is a story filled with lots of authentic details, ranging from the mundane (you’ll learn about a bunch of different knots) to the mildly horrifying (best summed up as “boys will be boys”).

The titular character Aiden grapples with his identity while fighting off accusations of being gay. A few of the boys are openly hostile to him, throwing slurs about his race and orientation. Things come to a head and for a time turn dark for Aiden, but he ultimately finds the strength to be true to himself.

The artwork here, is terrific–the facial expressions often convey more than any words could. The teasing and threats, the quick dismissal of the same, the gangly awkwardness of teenagers, and the effortless cruelty of boys–all of it is captured in a pleasing black and white style that bursts into color when things get hot (symbolism!)

While this feels like a YA graphic novel, its frankness when it comes to sexuality might make for some squeamishness, depending on the sensibilities of the reader. That said, this is a warm, funny and ultimately touching story. Recommended.

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