The book cover for Croak by Gina Damico grabbed me. What was a teenager doing looking all goth and Grim Reaper-ish? It had to be an interesting concept with that kind of cover, so I requested a copy before I read anything about it. Maybe not the best way to pick a new book but it certainly worked out this time. Like sinister YA mysteries with humor and an original concept? Then check this one out.
Ever feel rebellious as a teenager? Well you’ve got nothing on Lex, the main character in Croak, as you’ll see from the very original and funny book trailer below.
Sixteen-year-old Lexington “Lex” Bartleby’s parents are at their wits end. A couple of years ago, Lex was a wonderful, sweet, loving kid with friends and perfect grades. Well, not anymore. Something is going on with her and even she seems powerless to stop it. It’s like she’s literally morphed into the evil twin because her real-life twin, Cordelia “Cordy” Bartleby, isn’t having these kinds of problems. WTH? Let’s just say that Lex has a few anger management issues and has been acting out at school. Basically, everything ticks her off.
“’…Poor Logan Hochspring’s arm will forever carry an imprint of her dental records!’ [Mr. Truitt]
‘You bit him?’ Lex’ father said.
‘He called me a wannabe vampire,’ she said. ‘What was I supposed to do?’
‘Oh, I don’t know – maybe not bite him?’
Lex zoned out as her parents once again launched into the traditional practice of begging Mr. Truitt for just one more chance.”
Lex’ last episode, actually biting a classmate, got on the school’s last nerve and they’re going to expel her if she can’t turn things around. Her parents have tried everything and nothing seems to work, so they’ve decided to do something drastic. They’re sending her kicking and screaming to spend the summer with her Uncle Mort, a farmer, in hopes that some hard physical labor and the fresh country air will transform her back into the sweet daughter she used to be.
“Lex couldn’t believe what she was hearing. They were really doing it. They were kicking her out. But they were her parents. Putting up with all of her crap was their official job – they couldn’t just wriggle out of it!…How could they not see past all the recklessness and beatings and remember the real daughter they had raised? She was still in there somewhere, deep down. Wasn’t she?”
It would an understatement to say Lex is not a happy camper. Spending the summer with some hick farmer is a fate worse than death. What she and her parents don’t know is that Mort isn’t a farmer. He’s the head honcho and quasi-mayor of Croak, a picturesque little town in upstate New York that’s a portal to the afterlife. Everyone in Croak works to ensure people’s souls are captured when they die and then sent on to the great beyond for whatever happens next.
“He [Mort] turned serious, all traces of insanity abruptly leaving his face. ‘Your parents haven’t been entirely forthcoming with you, Lex. Nor have I been entirely forthcoming with your parents. It was my idea for you to come here, not theirs…What we do here is important business and should never, ever be taken lightly. We have been blessed – and burdened – with a very grave responsibility, if you’ll forgive the pun…Croak, as you may have gathered is a different kind of town. All of its citizens exist for a common purpose. Naturally, from time to time we need some fresh blood, which is where you come in…I’m going to teach you how to do what I do.’
‘And what is that?’
He leaned in close. She could feel his breath on her face. ‘I kill people.’”
Mort has had his eye on Lex, thinking she might be the one to carry on the family business. And her change in temperament is a sure sign he’s right. Everyone in town went through the same kind of abrupt behavior change, a sure indication they were grim reapers (Grims) just waiting to be discovered and trained. That’s what her summer is really going to be, Grim training school, to see if she has what it takes. She can hardly wait. This is going to be an epic summer after all!
It turns out that she has a built-in ability to be a Killer, reaping souls from bodies when they die and handing them off to her Culler, a cute boy named Driggs, who bags them to be released into the afterlife vault portal. All Grims work in two-person teams, each with specialized tasks. Mort is very pleased with her abilities and how quickly she learns what she needs to do. He’s also pleased at how seriously she takes her job and at her empathy for people who’ve died.
Lex makes friends with other trainees and seems to fit in naturally among the citizens of Croak. She’s enjoying her life for the first time in two years. She loves it and decides pretty quickly that it’s what she’s meant to do. It’s something she can take pride in doing to help people move on to what’s next for them. The whole place fascinates her, from the vault to the spider-silk lair to the way tourists who stumble on the town are tricked into leaving.
Maybe it’s a minor detail or maybe it’s not – What Mort doesn’t know about is the physical pain Lex feels every time she reaps a soul. She decides it’s a small price to pay for what she’s doing. Besides, she’s afraid he’ll decide she can’t continue. That would mean she’d get her mind wiped clean and be sent home. She loves it too much and can’t bear the thought of not being part of Croak.
There’s another reason Lex needs to stay. She’s seeing a pattern in some of the deaths she and Driggs have come across lately. She thinks people are literally dying before they are supposed to. At first Driggs was skeptical but now they both think something very weird is going on and they’re determined to get to the bottom of it. They’ve got to prevent more senseless deaths.
Although Lex seems like an unsympathetic person at first, it’s clear from the beginning that she doesn’t really want to behave the way she does. That in addition to how quickly we begin to see who she is underneath kept me reading. Luckily Croak is written in such a humorous and captivating way that it’s easy to stick around long enough to see her strengths and her more positive side begin to unfold. I loved Mort as the ultimate Grim Reaper. He’s a big teddy bear wrapped in a Hell’s Angels exterior. I fell for a lot of the Croak inhabitants, even the squabbling deceased presidents in the vault’s afterlife atrium. They’re a huge, extended, funny, loving, and, at times, squabbling family – all knowing they have one of the most important functions in the world.
In short, I think Gina Damico has a winner in Croak. I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it! It’s Book #1 of a new YA series and I’m really looking forward to Scorch, Book #2, which is scheduled to be out later this year.
Croak was released on March 20, 2012, so it should be available at your favorite bookseller below. Just click the button to go there to get it.
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