Review: The Suburban Strange

The Suburban Strange by Nathan Kotecki. Houghton Mifflin Books for Children. 2012. Reviewed from ARC from the author. Buy it from IndieBound or Powell’s (affiliate links).

Celia Balaustine is entering her sophomore year of high school, but it’s her first year at Suburban High. She’s all set to spend the year trying to be as invisible as possible, with only her sketchbook for a friend, when fellow artist Regine takes her under her wing and introduces her to a clique called The Rosary. The members of The Rosary are interested in dark alternative culture, including literature, fashion, and music. They pride themselves on being different from the other kids in their school. But as different as her friends are from the rest of their classmates, Celia can’t help but be drawn into the school’s drama as young girls begin to be gravely injured on the eve of their sixteenth birthday. She wants to stop these incidents from happening, as well as protect herself from becoming the curse’s next victim. But can she?

My relationship with the author:

Before I jump into telling you what I loved about this book (and there’s a lot), I need to tell you how it came to my attention. My former supervisor Emily (whose old job I now hold) contacted me and told me that her friend was having his first book released soon and would love to get a big name to be present at his book release party, and she knew I had connections in the YA lit world and thought I might have some suggestions. After some back and forth, Emily and Nathan and I sat down for lunch so he could pick my brain for my expertise as both a kidlit blogger and a school librarian (by training if not position). Over the course of the conversation it came out that we are both seekrit goths, me coming at it more from the fashion angle and him from music, with both of us crossing over into the other interest some. I confessed my lack of education on the music part of things, and he assured me that he could fix that. So, yes, I do have mix CDs that serve as, essentially the soundtrack for this book. Yes, the author treated me to lunch since I am helping him with publicity. Yes, I felt like it would be good if I liked this book.

So know all of that, because I don’t want to deceive you about my relationship with this book.

What I loved:

  • Celia’s friends in The Rosary are darkly glamorous. They discuss music, art, and literature in ways that some reviews have suggested aren’t realistic for teenagers, but as a former high school teacher, I found this eminently believable. Kids are into all sorts of things, and some of them are beautifully pretentious. Mostly they grow into pretentious but self-aware adults, the kind of people I like to spend time with.
  • This book has a gay couple in the most stable relationship in the whole book. And it’s not a huge deal. They’re just a couple, who both happen to be guys. And they’re probably two of the most fully-realized characters in a book full of interesting people. They’re my favorites.
  • The curse has a component whereby girls who are virgins seem to be the only targets. This leads to a lot of frank but not vulgar discussions of sex, its importance, when you should do it and who you should do it with. I think books that model this kind of conversation are far preferable to those that ignore it or make it all gross.
  • The members of The Rosary are immensely studious. Yes, they do party at Diaboliques (described in Colleen’s review as a fairytale goth club and I can’t put it better than that) until three in the morning, but they also encourage Celia to do her homework as soon as she gets home from school.
  • There’s a romance in here that is a slow burn, which is exactly my kind of thing (both in my own love life and the stories I like to read). There won’t be any flailing and crying, “I love you, but also I want you to be my dinner!” here - the obstacles to romance are external reactions to internal circumstances and I kind of love that.
  • The decadence of description of the clothes, atmosphere, music, and Celia’s emotions. I spent a good chunk of this book being a little sad that I didn’t have a tightly-knit group of goth friends to shepherd me through school. (I had a tightly-knit group of diversely-interested friends who were wonderful, but I was one of only two of us you could categorize as goth, and not at all aware of it as a genuine subculture rather than just a cruel label folks gave spooky kids.)
  • The quiet menace of the supernatural. You know the whole time that supernatural stuff is going on, but it’s not the focus until far into the book.
  • The subtle way in which this fits the mold of a classic Gothic novel, going as far back as The Castle of Otranto and Jane Eyre and as recent as Rebecca or even The Thirteenth Tale.
What I’d like to see more of:
  • The school setting as a menace itself. This is definitely present here, but I have hopes that it will be even more present in future books in the series. I was lucky enough to hear Nathan speak to a young adult literature class at UNC’s School of Information and Library Science (my alma mater!) and he mentioned that the school itself would serve as a unifying thread throughout the series. I hope he explores the relationship of this place with the supernatural mythology he’s building more as the series goes on.
  • More supplemental materials (appendices, maybe?) consolidating the myriad cultural references. But I’m a librarian, so it’s likely I’ll do a re-read and pull together literary and musical references (perhaps even create a Spotify playlist) and share that here.
What I need to warn you about: This book is deliberately paced. There was definitely a point at which I thought, “Okay, I see why the Amazon reviewers complained about it being slow.” That said, it’s all leading somewhere and it’s all valuable. If I were doing reader’s advisory, I wouldn’t hand this to somebody looking for fast-paced action. I would hand it to somebody looking for atmospheric spookiness.

The big climax and resolution of the mystery are not why you want to read this book. They are of course very important to have, but what’s going to keep you interested is the mood and the world-building. Don’t jump in here expecting a typical suspense thriller. If you ran the numbers, I suspect you’d find mystery resolution takes up a very small percentage of pages or words here. But the supernatural element is woven throughout.

My favorite quotes:

“We’re a set of small black shiny beads who string around together, finding beauty the rest of the world has overlooked.” (p. 5 in the ARC)

“We’re in high school. Of course we’re egocentric,” Ivo replied matter-of-factly. (p. 83 in the ARC)

Who should read it: I would recommend The Suburban Strange to readers who like books with a lot of atmosphere, a little mystery, and a slow but sustained reveal of supernatural elements.

Kimberly Hirsh @kimberlyhirsh