The Riverman, by Aaron Starmer (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, upper MG leaning YA-ward, March 2014)
Alistair and Fiona were friends, back when they were little kids, then they drifted apart. But now, years later in middle school, Fiona shows up at Alistair's door, and asks him to write her biography.
"To sell a book, you need a description on the back. So here's mine: My name is Fiona Loomis. I was born on August 11, 1977. I am recording this message on the morning of October 13, 1989. Today I am thirteen years old. Not a day older. Not a day younger."
Which is of course impossible.
Fiona has spent days of her life far away from upstate New York in a magical universe called Aquavania. There she reveled in the creation of her own small world, and there she met other kids, living in the worlds of their own imaginings--bright, extravagant places where to wish is to make things manifest. But Aquavania is not safe- kids, many of them Fiona's friends, are vanishing. Their stories, their worlds, themselves are falling prey to the sinister Riverman.
And Fiona is afraid she might be next.
Slowly, as Fiona tells the story of Aquavania, and the shadow of the Riverman falls across its wonders, Alistair comes to believe that there is indeed a darkness haunting his friend...But is it a darkness in our world, or is the magic real? And what can one ordinary boy do?
Alistair is the single point of view character, and the reader learns and thinks and wonders right along with him. His fears for Fiona are pretty much those that the reader might have, and his difficulty accepting Aquavania perfectly understandable. Like Alistair, I found myself dismissive of Aquavania at first, but then, dragged inexorably into a story whose reality was undeniable, I read faster and faster, with sparks of metaphoric connections going off in my mind like crazy. I grew to have genuine delight in the manifestations of imagination that is Aquavania (accompanied by considerable unease as to the addictive nature of these imaginings), and genuine concern for both kids. And I also developed a really (justifiable) conviction that things weren't going to end up all rainbow-unicorny.
This is the first book of a series, but though the ending isn't neatly resolved, I've read stand-alone books that offered less in the way of closure, and so I did not feel deeply bothered (though I am immensely curious to see what happens next).
So, yes, I liked The Riverman, and now I am thinking hard about what sort of reader I would give it too. I think the older middle school kid, the eighth grader who might be a bit of an outlier, who isn't deeply into more traditional fantasy (there are no dragons, swords, or spells), who doesn't mind being puzzled, might well like it very much indeed. As well as relating to Alistair, who is a character along those lines himself, there's much that would appeal--Fiona is a character with spark and zing, the mystery is mysterious, and the reader is not forced to believe, if they don't feel like it, in the magical world, which might appeal to young rationalists.
I would be hesitant to give it to the younger reader who is deeply invested in "story" as a source of emotional comfort, because the whole point of the book (I think maybe) is stories (beloved imaginings as well as the stories people are living) getting twisted out of true. There's also mature content--the possibility that Fiona is being abused in real life, and some rather disturbing violence--that makes this not one to automatically hand to the ten year old who loves "fantasy worlds."
Though I am glad The Riverman is getting lots of positive buzz for its own sake, I'm hoping that it will lead more people to Aaron Starmer's first book, The Only Ones (my review, with a white-ed out spoiler at the bottom, so be warned). I enjoyed The Only Ones lots myself (and it has stuck in my mind just beautifully, always a good sign), but I am particularly fond of it because it is one of the very few books that my hideously picky uncooperative-with-regard-to-reading eighth-grader has truly enjoyed. So far he is resisting this one, which is deeply annoying, since he fits the description above to a tee.
disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher.