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ONE FOR SORROW by Christopher Barzak

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I just finished reading one of the most unclassifiable, strangest books I've ever read. The book is called ONE FOR SORROW, written by Christopher Barzak, and it's about a troubled 15-year-old teenage boy, Adam, who endures several tragedies in his life. First, his beloved grandmother, who lives with the family, passes away in her sleep (after predicting it several nights before, based on the suspicious cluster of crows near the house). A few days later, his mom is paralyzed in a car accident, the victim of a drunk-driving accident, leaving her confined to a wheelchair. And a week after that, Jamie "Moonie" Marks, a casual acquaintance at school who's an outcast loser, is murdered. The three events are enough to cause Adam to spiral down in the depths of depression. His situation isn't helped by an uncaring blue-collar father, and a belligerent, pothead older brother, neither of whom seem aware that Adam is perched at the edge of an emotional cliff.

Soon after investigating the place where Jamie's body was found, the boy's ghost haunts Adam and becomes a friend -- or so it seems. At different times in the story, the reader is convinced that the ghost may actually be trying to drive him insane, or could just be trying to have the living boy join him in the other world as a ghost. The dead boy is assumably gay, and the living boy is assumably straight, but their friendship is extraordinarily close, albeit more like brothers than lovers.

The plotline is made more complex by the appearance of Gracie, a slightly older, intellectual girl who was the one who originally found Jamie's dead body. Like Adam, Gracie can also sometimes see the spirits of the dead, but Adam isn't sure whether her warnings to stay away from the ghosts are honest, or whether Gracie has her own designs on the boy.

Set in a small contemporary town in Ohio, the story is an amazing picture of tragedy, interrupted with occasional moments of ironic humor, and though it's told entirely in first-person (from the living boy's point of view), the novel is rich in detail, thoroughly emotional, and yet rings true to the way a modern teenager thinks. Barzak's words are filled with beautiful images and metaphor, including the title phrase, which refers to the warning signs you can sometimes see just by watching flocks of crows. There's a little bit of sex in it, but it's very tasteful, almost chaste, as well as being a little off-center and emotional, yet at the same time, I found it very innocent and realistic.

Despite a gripping first half, I think the story meanders in the second, where Adam spends much of the book in isolation, running away (several times) from his uncaring family to spend more and more time with Jamie the ghost. We're never quite sure if the ghost is real or merely something conjured up from the depths of Adam's imagination; author Barzak comes up with several major riddles -- including the mystery of Jamie's disappearance and murder -- which have no satisfying payoff. And the months that go on while Adam becomes homeless are unrelentingly miserable, though readers may question how a young teenager could avoid being discovered for six months. And the details on Jamie's ghostlike presence seem almost deliberately ambiguous and vague, making the ending almost anti-climactic.

That having been said, this is a remarkable book, and Barzak's writing is sharp and cutting, and has an undeniable impact. Those looking for a Stephen King-esque horror story won't find it here; this is more a coming-of-age story about a neurotic teenager who eventually finds a way to cope with the cruelties of the world around him. Most of the horrors here are of the real-life variety -- poverty, indifference, insensitivity... and in their own way, wind up far more frightening than the creatures of the night.

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