Monday, November 14, 2016

How to Avoid Extinction by Paul Acampora, 2016

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For fans of Gary Schmidt and Joan Bauer, a laugh-out-loud intergenerational road trip story from acclaimed author Paul Acampora!

Since the death of his grandfather, Leo's number one chore has been to chase after his grandmother who seems to wander away from home every few days. Now, Gram's decided to roam farther than ever. And despite his misgivings, Leo's going along for the ride. With his seventeen-year-old cousin, Abbey, and an old, gassy dog named Kermit, Leo joins Gram in a big, old Buick to leave their Pennsylvania home for a cross-country road trip filled with foldout maps, family secrets, new friends, and dinosaur bones.

How to Avoid Extinction is a middle-grade comedy about death and food and family and fossils. It's about running away from home and coming back again. For Leo, it's about asking hard questions and hopefully finding some sensible answers. As if good sense has anything to do with it. Against a backdrop of America's stunning size and beauty, it's also about growing up, getting old, dreaming about immortality, and figuring out all the things we can -- and can't -- leave behind.
(208 pages)

Honestly, my gut reaction when closing the book was "man, this needed to be longer!"At barely 200 pages, there didn't seem to be much room for the story to stretch as long as it needed to go. I did really like the characters and the path that they took, but I was also yearning for more.

If I'm being completely honest, actuall, I did have a little trouble with some of the characters: namely, Leo's mother and grandmother. Mainly his mother. She's not actually around for most of the book, so it's hard to get a pin on her personality, but from the little we do get she seems like a rather unpleasant mother. I get that there were reasons for her behavior, that her life hasn't been all roses and sunshine, but she's been very closed-off and hasn't mentioned any of the major parts of her life to Leo (even the parts that include his own birth father). Leo, for his part, seems remarkably nonchalant about all the information she's hidden from him–but grows increasingly curious to find out more as the book progresses. It's a bit peculiar, really, that he hadn't wondered much before about what his gone-away dad was like.

Anyway, I'm not always the biggest fan of quirky stories: sometimes they just feel forced, like someone is trying to hard to be "meaningful" by being bizarre. I think Acampora legitimately knows how to pull off a touching and off-beat story, as he did in his debut Defining Dulcie (my review) all the way back in '06. It definitely works in How to Avoid Extinction as well, though I have to admit Extinction didn't quite connect with me on the emotional level that Dulcie did.

This is a meaningful and interesting book, full of interesting and colorful characters facing up to some pretty tough truths about life. I will admit freely that there was one scene about three-fourths in that made me sob like a baby, and I definitely came out of the book wishing it hadn't ended. I get the general vibe from the book, though, that it could have gone a little deeper. The material felt a little rushed at times, because (as I said at the beginning of this review) it honestly just felt too short. Maybe it's just a shortcoming inherent in the middle-grade genre, but I can't help but bemoan all of the amazing things Acampora could have done with the plot if he'd only taken another hundred pages to write it.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary ARC of this novel from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

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