Book Review: Young Adult: One for Sorrow by Christopher Barzak


Adam McCormick had just turned fifteen when the body was found in the woods. It is the beginning of an autumn that will change his life forever. Jamie Marks was a boy a lot like Adam, a boy no one paid much attention to—a boy almost no one would truly miss. And for the first time, Adam feels he has a purpose. Now, more than ever, Jamie needs a friend.

But the longer Adam holds on to Jamie’s ghost, the longer he keeps his friend tethered to a world where he no longer belongs…and the weaker Adam’s own ties to the living become. Now, to find his way back, Adam must learn for himself what it truly means to be alive.

Title: One for Sorrow
Author: Christopher Barzak
Category: Young Adult
Genre: Paranormal
Publisher: Bantam
Publication Date: August 28, 2007
Format: Paperback
Length: 320 pages
ISBN-10: 0553384368
ISBN-13: 9780553384369

Series or Standalone: Standalone

Literary Awards:

Themes: Runaways, emotional trauma
Person: First
Tense: Past

Reviewer: Nick Morgan


One for Sorrow by Christopher Barzak is the story of a young boy squishing himself into the margins of life, trying not to step on anyone’s toes, or into their territory. Like many YA geek protagonists, Adam McCormick has few friends and a troubled family life. His parents don’t get along, his brother thinks he’s a dweeb, and he has no friends. Except for Moony Marks, real name Jamie, a fellow outcast even further down the social ladder. Adam has just begun to strike up a semi-friendship with Jamie when Gracie Highsmith, straight-A student and rock collector, finds him buried next to the train tracks after being brutally murdered.

While the school enjoys the chance to spread rumors and embellish the truth, Jamie’s death turns Adam and Gracie’s lives upside down. Regretting that Jamie died before they could become true friends, Adam, whose Old World grandmother has taught him all he needs to know about ghosts, decides to be a true friend to Jamie’s ghost. He doesn’t realize until later that he doesn’t really know anything about the world of ghosts after all. And that lack of knowledge is going to hurt him and those around him, a lot.

Adam’s grandma told him about more than ghosts. Bad things always come in threes, and when you see God’s finger pointing at you, you know you have to run before God gets to the next thing on his list. His parents have always fought, but when his mother is hit by bad thing number two, he learns they didn’t fight nearly as bad as they could have. But Adam knows things are about to get worse when he sees God’s finger pointing at him for the third time, and so he starts to run, over and over, not knowing where he’s going or how dangerous his destination will end up being.

There’s a pretty nice plot going there, although the paranormal elements aren’t as strong as I might have wished. But what really makes this book interesting is Barzak’s ability to get into the mind of the average teenager. While there are some ragged edges to Adam’s teen voice, as far as writing goes, the things that voice talks about are right on target in terms of the things young adults worry about and how they worry about them. There’s a certain amount of angst to Adam’s character, but it’s no more than you find in any other teen protagonist. The other characters: Jamie, Gracie, their parents, aren’t nearly as angsty, but that’s due more to Adam being the perspective character than anything else. One of the hallmarks of teen angst, and really people in general, is that it always seems like everyone else is much more put-together than you are. (Or perhaps I’m just not as far from my teenage years as I’d like to think!)

In fact, that issue ties into one of the major themes of the book. Much like Holden in J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Adam has a bit of an obsession with phonies. He talks quite a few times about how everyone else is fake, and his paranormal abilities do a lot to enforce that opinion, letting him hear from people’s “shadows” what they’re really thinking. He’s not quite psychic, but he’s close. It’s these hints at the larger effect of the supernatural world of the book on the normal world that makes me wish the paranormal aspects were ecplored a bit more, but I understand the goals of a literary fiction writer like Barzak to focus more on the internal world of the characters. The ghost world, after all, is just the metaphor Barzak is using to illuminate our more mundane one.

Another great aspect of the book is the quality of the characters and their arcs. Gracie, for example, is a very impressive character. She begins as a bit of a MPDG, in the John Green vein, but Barzak manages to carry her a bit above the end-point of most of Green’s female characters. Even near the beginning of the story, she appears to have many more of her own motivations–or at least we are treated to a better view of them–than Green’s Margo or Alaska. As with many YA novels, or novels in general, Adam is a bit of a poor initiator, but Gracie is more than strong enough to do her own initiating.

Adam’s mother has another great arc. Despite her accident in the first third of the book, by the last third, she’s gained a great deal of strength, throwing off the problems that plagued her in the beginning. Similarly, Jamie’s character is full of agency, and despite leaning strongly on Adam, he’s the one making most of the decisions in that area, rather than the other way around. Perhaps having so many strong characters makes Adam seem a bit more pathetic or passive than he really is. But again, it’s always easier to see the passiveness in the protag than in the other characters, because a truly good YA novel puts you in the protag’s head. This leads to another complain I’ve seen in reviews, that Adam seems to make progress in the novel, but backslides towards the end. I think Adam does make a great deal of progress, but some of it is in the wrong direction. His obsession with phonies, for example. It’s good to remember when reading a good book that although something might make perfect sense while the reader is in the character’s head, that’s because they’re telling the story, and so events will conspire in many cases to make them seem more insightful than they really are. Just because those around Adam seem to him to be total phonies, that doesn’t make phonies, phonies everywhere a healthy way to look at the world.

The last bit I want to touch on is the usual sex, swearing and etc: The sex scenes in the book are great. Awkward, sweet, and a bit uncomfortable. A few are a bit graphic, but it’s not even close to erotica.

To sum up, this was a very good book. The teen voice was there, the plot and theme dove-tailed smoothly, but not to smoothly, and though the ending was a bit tied up in a bow, there were still a few things with enough space left to keep you guessing. I don’t want to say more about what they are because it might spoil the book. In fact, there’s a lot more I wanted to say, but it all involved spoilers, so feel free to leave a comment if you think I’ve missed something, and I’ll leave a spoiler warning above the comments. A final thing to consider when reading the book: as insightful as Adam may occasionally seem about the other characters in the story and their flaws, there’s a lot to be gained by considering whether he’s so critical of others because he has the same flaws in himself. However, if you’re looking for a good mystery read, that’s not what this is, despite the murder that kicks it off. Nor is it horror, despite the ghosts and macabre feel.

Conclusion: 83/100 (Glad I read it; you should, too)
Premise: 9/10 (Great premise, fairly well-developed)
Plot: 7/10 (Good plot, but there could have been a bit more action)
Setting: 10/10 (Well-described, realistic, integrated into the story)
Main Character: 7/10 (Could have been a bit more developed)
Paranormal Elements 9/10 (Well-crafted, not cheesy)
Romance Sub-plot 8/10 (Well-constructed, not too mushy)
Supporting Characters: 9/10 ()
Writing: 8/10 (Well done, not brilliant)
Themes: 9/10 (Relevant to the story, well-expressed)
Resolution: 7/10 (Good, but I was expecting something a bit more tragic)

Buy Or Borrow: Definitely worth buying, if you have the money on-hand

Similar Books:
Paper Towns by John Green
The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
Skellig by David Almond

None of these are quite right. There isn’t a whole lot like this book out there.

Other Reviews:
The Literary Omnivore
Strange Horizons
Publisher’s Weekly
The Washington Post
The OF Blog
Tethyan Books

Buy Links:
Barnes and Noble

Kindle UK Not available.
Kindle US
Google Play

SPOILER WARNING — For the Comments.

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