Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Review: Raven Stole the Moon

I was first introduced to Garth Stein when my brother suggested I pick up The Art of Racing in the Rain. It was wonderful. I fell in love with Enzo, and while I think it might have something to do with my unexplainable love for my mean, little shih tzu, Barky, I also think the character was so real and alive, it would be difficult for any reader not to love him.

So I was optimistic when I picked up Raven Stole the Moon. Based on author notes at the end of the book, I get the idea that this may have actually been his first novel—which makes Racing his third, and explains a lot of differences between the two.

In Raven, Stein introduces Jenna Rosen, a woman distraught over the loss of her only son. On the two year anniversary of Bobby’s death, Jenna leaves her husband at a party, begins to drive and, after a series of quick decisions, finds herself in Wrangell, Alaska—her late grandmother’s hometown. Wrangell is very near the Thunder Bay Resort—the same place Bobby disappeared. Since his body is never recovered, Jenna finds herself desperately searching for a way to put the mystery and the pain behind her. Her search uncovers a series of enigmas—Tlingit beliefs, her own insecurities and a son who disappeared into thin air.

Stein’s characterization abilities are certainly well-developed in Raven. I liked Jenna and found myself as desperate as she was to find answers to her son’s disappearance; however, it’s necessary to note that Raven is a much different type of book than Racing. It requires a suspension of disbelief. Much of the story revolves around the belief systems of Alaskan Indians known as the Tlingit, and much of that belief system is anchored to the idea of a “spirit world.” For me, this suspension wasn’t an issue, because the integration of these beliefs into the novel doesn’t feel forced. I also appreciate the fact that Stein’s style flows seamlessly and that creates an effortless read on the part of the audience.

He has this interesting way of finding an “in” with his reader, and that makes his work relatable and enjoyable. I think he would be a good replacement for those who insist on keeping Nicholas Sparks books in their reading rotation.

Why would I compare Sparks and Stein when they are obviously such different writers? Well, to be honest, I couldn’t figure out what bothered me so much about Sparks’ writing until I read Raven. It occurred to me that I’m bothered because Sparks seems to handle serious situations in such a trite manner. Characters become extremely happy or have a really overwhelmingly emotional experience and then he lowers the axe: cancer, death, a lover gone missing, etc. The list goes on and on, but, down to brass tax, it’s the same story.

Stein, on the other hand, doesn’t feel any need to give you a big, cosmic boom. His books don’t culminate in human despair…though, I wouldn’t exactly call every ending happy, either. And he doesn’t shy away from the difficult things in life. I just don’t think the entire story builds to the point of catastrophe.

But catastrophes aside, rest assured that this book deserves a once-over if you are willing to put your logical mind to rest for a bit. If not, pick up The Art of Racing in the Rain. Yes, the dog is telling the story, but try to convince me that my dog hasn’t had the same thoughts…

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