Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Review: Welcome to Night Vale by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor

Title: Welcome to Night Vale (audiobook version)
Author: Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor

Publication Date: October 20, 2015
Target Age Group: Adult
My Rating: 5 out of 5

Book Description (from Back Cover)

Welcome to Night Vale... a friendly desert community where mysterious lights pass overhead. In this ordinary little town where ghosts, angels, aliens, and government conspiracies are commonplace parts of everyday life, the lives or two women, with two mysteries, are about to converge.

Like all of Night Vale, pawn shop proprietor Jackie Fierro abides by routine. But a crack appears when a mysterious man gives her a slip of paper marked by two words: KING CITY. Everything about the man unsettles her, especially the paper that she cannot remove from her hand. Yet when Jackie searches for the man, no one who meets him can seem to remember anything about him.

Diane Crayton's fifteen-year-old son, Josh, is moody and a shape shifter. Lately, Diane has started to see the boy's father everywhere she goes, looking the same as he did the day he left. Josh is growing ever more curious about his estranged father - leading to a disaster Diane can see coming but is helpless to prevent.

Propelled by two words - KING CITY - Diane's search to reconnect with her son and Jackie's search to reclaim her routine life draw them increasingly closer to one another, and to this place that may hold the key to their mysteries and their futures... if they can ever find it.

My Review

It is not often that I give a book 5 stars, so when a book like this come along that completely blows me away, I have no choice but to do so. 

There are 3 reasons why this book made such an impression on me.

First, the storytelling and the voice are perfect.

In order for you to understand the essence of this book, picture the following:
* the short, punchy, quirky language and the amazing blend of the real with the absurd of Kelly Link
* the omni narration, humor, satire, and word-building of Douglas Adams
* the creepiness and off-putting horror of Stephen King

Here is an excerpt illustrating the style I outlined above:

"Imagine teaching a fifteen-year-old how to drive a car with manual transmission. 

First, you have to press down the clutch. Then, you have to whisper a secret into one of the cup holders. In Diane's case, this was easy, as she was not a very social or public person and most any mundane thing in her life could be a secret.

In Josh's case, this was hard, because for teenagers, most every mundane thing in their lives is a secret that they do not like sharing in front of their parents.

Then, after the clutch and the secret, the driver has to grab the stick shift, which is a splintered wood stake wedged into the dashboard, and shake it until something happens. Anything really. And then simultaneously type a series of code numbers into a keyboard on the steering wheel.

All this while sunglasses-wearing agents from a vague yet menacing government agency sit in a heavily tinted black sedan across the street, taking pictures and occasionally waving.

This is a lot of pressure on a first-time driver."

This one passage alone shows the humor of the story, the way the strange and the normal blend together, a little piece of the world the characters live in and how seemingly simply described yet detailed it is, and just a touch of creepiness around the edges. I particularly love how the difficulty of a first-time driver driving a stick shift car is captured by exaggerating just how difficult it is. 

Second, the story is about real people with real problems that you can relate to, who coexist with the strangeness of the world in which they live. 

The story is really about three people with three very real problems:

Jackie Fierro, an eternally 19 year old woman who is kind of lost in her life. She's that in-between age where she's not a child but she's not quite an adult, and she's struggling to find meaning in her life. She has literally chosen to remain a 19-year-old for a long time. It's unclear just how long, but the length of time isn't important. The fact that she's chosen to remain frozen at that age is important, because let's face it. When you were that age, did you really want to grow up and go out into the world to find your way? If you were anything like me, probably not. You were content to just be, to fall into your routine, whatever that might've been at the time, and hope that adulthood could be delayed as long as possible.

Josh Crayton, a fifteen-year-old boy who is struggling with his identity. There's a great metaphor applied to Josh in this story, where he literally changes physical form every day to reflect his ever changing life. Teens tend to try on this personality and that personality, not knowing exactly who there are or where they fit in the world. They can also be different people depending on who they're around. Josh tends to be one thing in front of his mother but something else entirely in front of someone else. Part of Josh's search for his identity extends to his search for his father, who disappeared when he was younger.

Finally, you have Diane Crayton, a single mother to Josh, who is struggling to discover and rediscover her relationship with her ever changing (literally and figuratively) son. She captures the pain of parenthood during a child's teenaged years perfectly. She tries to maintain that mother-son bond at the same time she has to begin to let her son go as he approaches adulthood. She also struggles with protecting her son from being exposed to his father, like most single parents probably do when the other parent chooses to be absent in a child's life. Another great metaphor - in the story, more and more versions of Josh's father show up, making it increasingly difficult for Diane to stop the inevitable meeting between Josh and his father.  

Just as an aside, this line in the story summarizes beautifully the love between mother and son, and it's heartfelt and insightful lines like this in the book that amaze me and make me realize there is a lot more going on here than just a strange, absurd romp through the world of Night Vale:

"Josh loved his mother, but he did not know why. Diane loved her son, and she did not care why."

Finally, the book is a perfect complement to the bi-monthly podcast Welcome to Night Vale, also written by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor. While it is not necessary to listen to the podcast to enjoy this book, I was thrilled to be able to explore aspects of the town of Night Vale through this book that as a listener of the podcast I don't get to see. Places like the Night Vale Public Library (and the malevolent librarians therein), Old Woman Josie's house out by the old car lot (and the angels therein, which really exist, even though it is illegal to admit they do), and Carlos's science lab. They're all written in vivid detail. 

As an extra bonus, because I listened to the audio book, I got to hear the story narrated by the voice of the Welcome to Night Vale podcasts, Cecil Baldwin, who plays the character of Cecil Palmer, the Night Value public radio announcer in the podcasts and the novel.  

Welcome to Night Vale podcasts - how to describe them? Picture listening to a public community radio program, but hearing about the strange goings-on of a town where every crackpot conspiracy theory you've ever heard is true and coexist. You'll hear news reports about strange lights that pass overhead, ghosts, aliens, angels, agents from a vague yet menacing government agency, and five-headed dragons running for town mayor. And those are just the more normal topics I could pick off the top of my head.

Back to the narration - Cecil Baldwin does such an incredible job narrating the radio podcast that I couldn't imagine anyone else ever narrating the book, so as soon as I discovered he was the audio book narrator, there was no other option for me but to experience the audio book as opposed to reading the hard cover. The story in the novel is periodically interrupted by excerpts of radio broadcasts from the Welcome to Night Vale radio show, so it was like having some extra podcast listening experiences thrown in.

And there you have it. 5 star book. Hands down. Go read it. You won't regret it!

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