Far Far Away–Tom McNeal (June 2013)

16030663*I received this as an e-galley from Netgalley.com in return for my honest review.  WARNING–there are slight spoilers.*

Jeremy Johnson Johnson has been hearing voices since he was a small child; in fact, he hears one in particular every day.  The voice is that of the ghost of Jacob Grimm, one half of the famous Brothers Grimm and the narrator of Far Far Away.  Jacob watches over Jeremy, helps him with his schoolwork, provides advice that Jeremy’s indigent father cannot, and attempts to protect him from a menacing force called “the Finder of Occasions.”  Despite his best efforts to protect Jeremy, things spiral out of control once Ginger Boultinghouse enters the picture and sweeps Jeremy up into her unique brand of merry mayhem.  Whether or not these characters will find their “happily ever after” drives the narrative of this brief but moving modern fairytale.

Thoughts–Where do I start with this one?  This book was, in a word, queer.  Not queer in the LGBTQ sense, but queer as in odd.  Disquieting.  STRANGE…but in a good way.  It is full of magical realism, dark happenings, references to history and fairy tales, and reflective passages.  It doesn’t rush; rather, it ambles along and unfolds its unique story in its own winding way.  The style isn’t necessarily for every reader, but I thought it really worked to serve the story and found it quite charming.  It takes a while to adjust to the narrative voice of Jacob Grimm with his antiquated vocabulary and syntax, not to mention the whole breaking of the fourth wall thing that’s going on, but once you make the adjustment, you can’t help but love Jacob and hope that he is able to cease his ghostly wandering.

All of the other characters are equally charming–Jeremy Johnson Johnson with his double name and his soon-to-be foreclosed on Two-Book Bookstore (it only sells Volumes 1 and 2 of his grandfather’s autobiography), leggy Ginger Boultinghouse with her mischievous smile, Jenny Applegarth and her sun-kissed shoulders–McNeal really has a knack for creating whimsical characters and making his readers care about them.  For me, the quirky characterization, especially their awesomely weird names (Dauntless Crinklaw, anyone?), was one of the highlights of this book.  It helped to create a fairytale atmosphere without actually placing the story firmly in “once upon a time” land; the setting is definitely modern, although it took me a while to realize it was happening in the US, and with the exception of Jacob’s presence, decidedly non-magical.

That lack of magic is what took me the most by surprise.  I was expecting a “Once Upon A Time” (the TV show) kind of moment to happen where the characters were swept off to Far Far Away, and *SPOILER ALERT* it never happens.  Terrible and wondrous things take place, and the story is just as dark as many of the Brothers Grimm’s tales, but it all happens in the real world.  The combination of the magical realism, modern-day setting, and the fairytale elements is unsettling but somehow perfect.  I was very, very impressed at how well McNeal juggled all these elements and kept them all aloft the entire time.

I LOVED this book; however, I don’t necessarily think it will speak to every reader.  It has a very Gaiman-esque quality to me–if you like American Gods or Coraline, this might be the book for you.  Also, you need to give this story time and space.  It was not a book I read in one night or even in two nights; it took me a while to get a hang of the narrative style, and once I did, I wanted to savor it bit by bit.  Far Far Away made me wonder, wish, and dream…just like a great fairytale.

*A final note–I thought this book skewed kind of young for YA…Jeremy is 15 but seems younger, and it just felt young to me.  That being said, some very scary stuff goes down that might now be appropriate for all young readers.  Although, we call Coraline a kids’ book, and that book terrifies me as an adult, so just use your judgement with younger kids.