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Friday, April 17, 2015

Daryl Gregory: "Harrison Squared"

Title::  Harrison Squared 
Author:  Daryl Gregory  
Plot Type:  Science Fiction (appropriate for YA and adults)
Ratings:  Violence4; Sensuality2; Humor—3   
Publisher and Titles:  Tor

Just to give you a taste of the book's spooky tone, here are the first lines of the Prologue and Chapter 1:
Prologue: "What I remember are tentacles. Tentacles and teeth." 
Chapter 1: "The building seemed to be watching me."

Harrison Harrison—H2 [H2] to his mom—is a lonely teenager who’s been terrified of the water ever since he was a toddler in California, when a huge sea creature capsized their boat, and his father vanished. One of the “sensitives” who are attuned to the supernatural world, Harrison and his mother have just moved to the worst possible place for a boy like him: Dunnsmouth, a Lovecraftian town perched on rocks above the Atlantic, where strange things go on by night, monsters lurk under the waves, and creepy teachers run the local high school. On Harrison’s first day at school, his mother, a marine biologist, disappears at sea. Harrison must attempt to solve the mystery of her accident, which puts him in conflict with a strange church, a knife-wielding killer, and the Dwellers, fish-human hybrids that live in the bay. It will take all his resources—and an unusual host of allies—to defeat the danger and find his mother. 

     Although the story has its roots in the mythos of H.P. Lovecraft, you don't have to be a Lovecraft fan to enjoy this book. The small seaside town, the weird characters, and the imaginative monsters also put me in mind of Ransom Riggs' entertaining "Peculiar Children" novels. (Click HERE to read my reviews of the "Peculiar" graphic novel and the first and second novels.) 

     Harrison Squared is set in a strange Massachusetts seaside fishing village populated by a weird cult, a community of fish people, and a few major monsters. The town and its people are immediately, unmistakably sinister. As the story begins, Harrison and his mom arrive at Dunnsmouth Secondary School. The early scenes at the school are a perfect parody of a reluctant teenager's first day at a new school: hostile classmates, haughty teachers, and a strange curriculum. From the beginning, the author emphasizes the creepiness of the school and the teachers: "It looked like a single gigantic block of dark stone, its surface wet and streaked with veins of white salt, as if it had just risen whole from the ocean depths. The huge front doors were recessed into the stone like a wailing mouth. Above, arched windows glared down…This was like no school I'd ever seen before. I didn't know what it wasa mausoleum maybe? Something they should have torn down. Yet some lunatic had looked at this hulk and said, I know, let's put kids in here!" Harrison's mom agrees with him that the school is "kind of…tomb-y." Harrison soon learns that his daily schedule includes classes in fishnet weaving and cryptobiology (where the students attempt to reanimate dead frogs with electrical shocks).

     Rosa Harrison is a workaholic who focuses on her research and leaves Harrison on his own much of the time. Over the years, Harrison has developed a sardonic attitude toward life, and he isn't shy about standing up for himself. He thrives on asking questions and making comments about touchy subjects no matter what reaction he gets from his teachers and his fellow students. These scenes sparkle with lively, witty dialogue that is sprinkled with humorous pop-culture references. Unfortunately, Harrison also has a hair-trigger temper that frequently explodes without warning, a personality trait that has gotten him into all sorts of trouble in the past and which becomes a problem in this school as well. Harrison also has a physical disability that dates back to his misadventure with the sea monster when he was just three years old. The monster bit off the lower part of his right leg, so he wears a prosthesis. 

     Although Harrison misses his sunny California home, he is determined to remain in damp, dreary Dunnsmouth with his mother, even with no access to the Internet, no cable TV, and no cell phone towers. Harrison's life goes from strange to tragic when Rosa is lost at sea on the day after their arrival. She is presumed dead by everyone except Harrison, who is quite sure that she is still alive and is determined to find her. 

     The story follows Harrison's adventures as he makes friends with a handful of his odd schoolmates, befriends a boy who breathes through gills in his neck, discovers an underwater community of fish people, learns (the hard way) that some of Dunnsmouth's respected citizens are involved in some very dangerous activities, and tries very hard to avoid being killed by a fiendish, knife-wielding killer. Together, Harrison and his new allies go into action to find out what's going on and gather clues as to what exactly happened to Rosa. Although one of those allies is a girl, she is definitely not a love interest. As Harrison muses, "I wasn't even sure Lydia liked me. She was so grim, so serious, it was like trying to cozy up to Batman."

     Harrison is such a likable kid that you root for him all the way and enjoy his frequently hilarious verbal exchanges with his peers. When his Aunt Selena arrives on the scene, things get even more lively. She is a 21st century Auntie Mame whose ideas of child-rearing have the quality and depth of a sit-com mom. The scenes with Selena and her cab driver, Saleem, are just plain fun to read.

     The audience for this book includes both teenagers (YA) and adults. Teen readers will be entertained by the spookiness of the story and will empathize with Harrison's loneliness. Adults will enjoy the story even more because they will "get" the many cultural and literary (sci fi and horror) references that are scattered throughout the book. For example, Rosa's research buoys are named after horror writers: Steve (Stephen King), Pete (Peter Straub), Edgar (Edgar Allan Poe), and Howard (Lovecraft). This is not a typical YA novel in that there are no angst-filled love triangles, no mean girls, and no geek-vs-jock drama. In fact, the stakes are high: a parent gone missing, a murderer at large, and a cult running amok. 

     Gregory is a great story teller who excels in characterization and dialogue. His well-developed cast of eccentrics lead us effortlessly though a highly entertaining, if creepy, plot. Just when you think the story can't get any stranger, it does…and then it does again. Once I started this book I couldn't stop reading, mostly because the story moves along so quickly and with so much dark humor that you just want more. The epilogue guarantees that there will be a sequel to tie up some unresolved loose ends. Click HERE to read an excerpt. 

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