Monday, December 12, 2011

Review: Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley

Publisher: Atheneum
Publication Date: May 3rd, 2011

Just when seventeen-year-old Cullen Witter thinks he understands everything about his small and painfully dull Arkansas town, it all disappears. . . .

In the summer before Cullen's senior year, a nominally-depressed birdwatcher named John Barling thinks he spots a species of woodpecker thought to be extinct since the 1940s in Lily, Arkansas. His rediscovery of the so-called Lazarus Woodpecker sparks a flurry of press and woodpecker-mania. Soon all the kids are getting woodpecker haircuts and everyone's eating "Lazarus burgers." But as absurd as the town's carnival atmosphere has become, nothing is more startling than the realization that Cullen’s sensitive, gifted fifteen-year-old brother Gabriel has suddenly and inexplicably disappeared.

While Cullen navigates his way through a summer of finding and losing love, holding his fragile family together, and muddling his way into adulthood, a young missionary in Africa, who has lost his faith, is searching for any semblance of meaning wherever he can find it. As distant as the two stories seem at the start, they are thoughtfully woven ever closer together and through masterful plotting, brought face to face in a surprising and harrowing climax.

Complex but truly extraordinary, tinged with melancholy and regret, comedy and absurdity, this novel finds wonder in the ordinary and emerges as ultimately hopeful. It's about a lot more than what Cullen calls, “that damn bird.” It’s about the dream of second chances.
(Courtesy of Goodreads)

I will start this review off by saying that John Corey Whaley owes Gabrielle Zevin an apology... Over the past couple of weeks, I've been working on my "Top 25 YA Books of 2011" list for my 25 Days of Jubilation Giveaway post that I have going up on the 19th.  I thought I had my list ready and wrote most of the post.  I was really proud of myself for being ahead of the game; I even had a list of runners-up with a few blanks, just in case I read something between then and the 19th that belonged on the list...  Then I read this book!  I had to rearrange my whole list and bump #25 (Gabrielle's All These Things I've Done) to the runners-up list.  So, John Corey Whaley, if you're reading this, you should apologize.  It's only right.  Moving on...

Hands down, this book is THE most underrated debut of 2011!  I always like to read the work of debut authors (as of now, I'm at 34 debuts for 2011) because it's awesome when you find that rare gem that not enough people know about and can spread the fangirl love (and then when said author becomes REALLY famous, brag to everyone that you told them about him/her first).  For me, that rare gem for 2011 is this book.  I know it's made some lists, but it really hasn't gotten a tremendous amount of attention and it totally deserves to!  I honestly only picked this up because I'm a bird-nerd and it had a woodpecker on the cover.  I'm so glad it did!  I loved it, and here's a list of reasons why...
  • This book made me not hate Literary Fiction so much.  One of the reasons I read YA at age 35 is because I find most adult books painfully boring, depressing, and/or pompous.  YA is much more entertaining.  This book takes Literary Fiction and lightens it up and makes it enjoyable and entertaining.  It could have been depressing, but John Corey Whaley does a wonderful job balancing sarcasm, wit, and insight with the sad facts of life.
  • The small-town setting was SO real to me.  I'm from a small town.  (We're talking, one traffic light.)  I get the desperation of small-town teens, and so does John Corey Whaley.  The difference between he and I?  He is able to articulate it well enough that people who don't share that background can get it.  That's not easy without resorting to cliches and stereotypes, but he manages it perfectly.
  • The story, but not really...  I admit it, when I read the synopsis, I was more drawn to the fact that there was a Ivory-billed Woodpecker type situation involved.  If you're not a total dork like me, you have no idea what I'm talking about, and it doesn't matter because this book is not about woodpeckers, and it's not even the actual storyline that is important.  To me, this book is about hope, desperation, love, and human nature- our desire to hold on to all three at any cost.  It is beautifully written to make the reader feel those emotions deeply.  I'm not a crier, but I cried more than once while reading this.  I think most readers will find things it this book that touch them.
  • The characters were so great.  I felt such a connection to every single one of them.  I could go on and list every character and why, but that will take forever, so I'm just going to list a few... Gabriel was my favorite.  He is such an old soul and so wise, despite his young age.  He said one thing that will always stay with the book-lover in me... He was saying that God was the best writer ever and when is brother asked why, he said, "Because he gives every good writer something to struggle with and try to work out by writing it down. That's genius."  There is so much truth in that statement... Lucas is amazing as well; a person who can be who HE wants to be in spite of the shitty lot life as given him.  I think Benton was the most tragic, yet honest character.  He spent his entire life doing everything to please others, never giving a thought to what HE wanted.  Then there's Cullen.  There were times that I wanted to shake him and tell him to get a grip, and there were times I wanted to hug him.  He was so real that his pain made me hurt as I read about it.  He was every teenager to me.
I think what surprised me most about this book, after I got past the fact that I loved it so much, was the fact that John Corey Whaley is so young!  He has such insight into what makes people tick; the kind of insight one would expect of an author who has been around the block many times, not someone who looks like he still gets his ID checked every time he buys beer.  I don't know what struggles God gave him that made him able to write this way at such a young age, but I for one, am glad he came out so well on the other side!

My Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ 

Grade Level Recommendation:  There's some heavy themes in this book, and I think it would take a more mature reader to identify with a lot of them.  Grades 9 and up (ages 14+).


  1. Yeah, I agree with you, definitely the most underrated debut of 2011. I loved it, so I agree with everything you said. I got tears in my eyes through out the book & Gabriel was my favourite character, too! I highly recommend this book!

  2. It seems like every review I've read for this book raves about it, and each one makes me want to read it even more. I love your review--I'm so jealous that you can write such thorough ones!


Thanks for visiting my blog! I adore comments since they make me feel special and loved, just please don't spam me. I'm not interested in vacation offers, millions of dollars from Nigeria, or anything not book related!

Also, this is an award-free blog. As flattered as I am, I just don't have time. I'm happy if I have time to post all of my reviews on time, and am a momma of three to boot, but I appreciate the thoughts! XO