Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Sixteen-year-old Lex Bartleby has sucker-punched her last classmate. Fed up with her punkish, wild behavior, her parents ship her off to upstate New York to live with her Uncle Mort for the summer, hoping that a few months of dirty farm work will whip her back into shape. But Uncle Mort’s true occupation is much dirtier than that of shoveling manure.
He’s a Grim Reaper. And he’s going to teach her the family business.
Lex quickly assimilates into the peculiar world of Croak, a town populated entirely by reapers who deliver souls from this life to the next. Along with her infuriating yet intriguing partner Driggs and a rockstar crew of fellow Grim apprentices, Lex is soon zapping her Targets like a natural born Killer.
Yet her innate ability morphs into an unchecked desire for justice—or is it vengeance?—whenever she’s forced to Kill a murder victim, craving to stop the attackers before they can strike again. So when people start to die—that is, people who aren’t supposed to be dying, people who have committed grievous crimes against the innocent—Lex’s curiosity is piqued. Her obsession grows as the bodies pile up, and a troubling question begins to swirl through her mind: if she succeeds in tracking down the murderer, will she stop the carnage—or will she ditch Croak and join in?
Despite some recent trilogy burnout, I must admit that I often like a series as much as or more than a stand-alone novel. I especially like book series where each book has its own story arc and can be read as a stand-alone, but still fit in to the overall series story arc. If you can find such a series, it is like literacy promoting gold. Get a kid hooked with one, and they will keep coming back for the others. (My little brother was a non-reader prior to Animorphs, now try finding him without a book.) All that to say, when I first read the blurb for Gina Damico's Croak, I got really excited. It is billed up front as the first in a series, and it looked like an interesting premise that could be carried over into multiple plot lines. I was interested to see where Damico would take it.
Croak starts out with a thoroughly unlikeable character. Lex is a mess, she is cruel, and she is unsympathetic, but the story itself is interesting enough that it kept me reading. Then, somewhere along the way, I found that my opinion of her had changed. Damico does an excellent job of drawing the reader into Lex's experience, engendering sympathy if not understanding. Perhaps this is why, though not very much happens for the first third of the book, I didn't really mind. Lex, Uncle Mort, and Driggs are all witty and snarky and laugh-out-loud funny, and I enjoyed getting to know them.
I found the world Damico created to be alternately intriguing and absurd. The death puns got old after a few chapters, her version of the afterlife needs some beefing up to be believable, and what is with the jellyfish? Yet the social structure of reapers, the personal nature of the scythes, and many other spoilery-type elements of this world really were fascinating. I want to know more about the other Grim towns. What is going on in Uncle Mort's basement? There's something more to that ghost gum tree, isn't there? I am curious enough to know that I am invested in her world.
Similarly, the relationships between characters were both Damico's strongest point and her weakest. It was in Lex's interactions with others that I found the most enjoyment, but also the worst writing. Damico does an excellent job of showing the reader her story, up to the point where she must show teen romance. It was quite jarring the first time I was transported out of the story to be told rather quickly and impersonally 'and then this happened' only to be dropped back in the story. And Damico did this. Every. Single. Time. Every single hand brush to almost-kiss, we are given a sentence to paragraph summary in third person narrative of what each character was thinking/feeling. It made my feelings as the reader about the entire romance lukewarm at best.
Croak was also, at times, a bit predictable: it was fairly easy to guess who the 'bad guy' was, just perhaps not the how or why, and the final victim felt like a very cheap shot (and turned an interesting character into a mere plot device to force Lex's hand). However, most of the flaws in Croak, I think, are easily overlooked while reading it (most of them only came to mind in reflecting on the book afterward for the review). Croak is fresh, funny, interesting and engaging. There is a lot of potential here, and the book was very readable. Ultimately, that is the point, right? I really enjoyed myself, and would recommend Croak easily. Also? I really can't wait to learn more about what is going on with Uncle Mort - he knows more than he is letting on. I'll be on the lookout for Scorch.
ARC provided by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Review also on Goodreads