Tom McNeal's Far Far Away begins:
What follows is the strange and fateful tale of a boy, a girl, and a ghost. The boy possessed uncommon qualities, the girl was winsome and daring, and the ancient ghost . . . well, let it only be said that his intentions were good.
It's no coincidence that the narrator’s voice has the same rhythm and feel of a classic fairy tale: He is the ghost introduced in the first sentence, and more specifically, he is the ghost of Jacob Grimm. But it’s not just the voice that creates the old fashioned feel! It’s also due to the format—rather than being broken into distinct chapters, each scene is separated by a small illustration (an exceedingly creepy (and, it turns out, exceedingly relevant) 16th-century woodcut by Hans Sebald Beham called Death and the Child*)—and the fact that there aren’t any cultural details that definitively place the story any later than 1975**.
Despite the European flavor (Jacob frequently breaks into German, and there's a Swedish baker), it's set in the American Midwest, in a town called Never Better. Jeremy Johnson Johnson—his father married a woman who shared the same surname, and she thought it would be amusing to bestow them both on her son—is a quiet, studious, somewhat odd boy with a habit of talking to himself, and is treated as such by his peers. If he attempted defending himself with the truth, there is no doubt that they would even more actively avoid him: He’s one of the rare people who can hear Jacob, and they’ve been constant companions for years.
An impending foreclosure; a runaway mother; a father who won’t leave his bed; a televised trivia challenge; special cakes that are rumored to make people fall in love; a new friendship and a prank turned ugly; a suspicious sheriff's deputy; a baker who looks like Santa Claus; an unlikely act of forgiveness; a mysterious antagonist; and through it all, a sense of impending doom, dread and darkness: You name it, Far Far Away probably has it.
It's likely that some readers will lose interest during the first third: Although Jacob's voice is original and he, himself, is an extremely clever and enjoyable narrator, his status as a centuries-dead adult creates a good amount of emotional distance. In The Book Thief, that distance served—to a degree—to help insulate the reader from the horrors the narrator was describing; in Far Far Away, it just makes it more difficult to connect with the characters...at first. Readers who stick with it will learn that McNeal knows exactly what he's doing: Jacob is on just as much of a journey as our young protagonist is, and as he changes and grows, his deepening connection to and affection for Jeremy & Co. makes that emotional distance shrink and disappear. As the story goes on, his voice grows steadily warmer and warmer...and then, when the darkness comes—AND HOO BOY, IT COMES—steadily more frustrated, worried, urgent and, as he has the benefit of hindsight: guilty.
There's tons more to love here—the subtle references to the Grimm stories (Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel, Bluebeard, Rumpelstiltskin), the usage of and then deconstruction of fairy tale convention, the red herrings about the identity of the malevolent Finder of Occasions, the bully who ultimately lives up to his inspiring name despite still being somewhat of a jackass, Deputy McRaven, the aforementioned trivia contest that was so amazingly tense that I was sweating by the time it was over—but ultimately, even though Jeremy is the protagonist, and even though he shows great strength of character, Jacob Grimm is the hero, and the story belongs to him.
*Do you have the shivers yet? I do, and I already know how the story goes.
**Which is when Pop Rocks were first released. Yes, I looked it up.
If she isn't writing Bookshelves of Doom or doing her librarian thing, Leila Roy might be making stuff for her Etsy shop while re-watching Veronica Mars, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Babylon 5, Black Books or Twin Peaks. Well, that or she’s hanging out on Twitter. Or both.