Review: Croak by Gina Damico

Saturday, March 3, 2012
Title: Croak
Author: Gina Damico
Genre: young-adult, supernatural
Series: Croak #1
Pages: 324 (Nook ARC edition)
Published: expected March 2012
Source: publishers via NetGalley
Rating: 4/5

Sixteen-year-old Lex Bartleby has sucker-punched her last classmate. Fed up with her punkish, wild behavior, her parents ship her off to upstate New York to live with her Uncle Mort for the summer, hoping that a few months of dirty farm work will whip her back into shape. But Uncle Mort’s true occupation is much dirtier than that of shoveling manure.

He’s a Grim Reaper. And he’s going to teach her the family business.

Lex quickly assimilates into the peculiar world of Croak, a town populated entirely by reapers who deliver souls from this life to the next. Along with her infuriating yet intriguing partner Driggs and a rockstar crew of fellow Grim apprentices, Lex is soon zapping her Targets like a natural born Killer.

Yet her innate ability morphs into an unchecked desire for justice—or is it vengeance?—whenever she’s forced to Kill a murder victim, craving to stop the attackers before they can strike again. So when people start to die—that is, people who aren’t supposed to be dying, people who have committed grievous crimes against the innocent—Lex’s curiosity is piqued. Her obsession grows as the bodies pile up, and a troubling question begins to swirl through her mind: if she succeeds in tracking down the murderer, will she stop the carnage—or will she ditch Croak and join in?

Lex is the hard-edged and foul-mouthed teenage main character of Croak, and if you don't like Lex, chances are that this is not the book for you. Lex takes the stage early and that made Croak's beginning one of the weakest I have come across - I nearly set it down when "retard" came out to play as an insult early on. The reader's immediate, first impression within two pages of starting this is that this 17-year-old hellion is violent, volatile, impolite and frequently out-of-bounds. With a name like Lexington (plus twin sister Concord -- how cruel is that?! I'm a huge history nerd/double major and even I wouldn't do that to my kids!) and the attitude of a bear with four sore teeth, this is a highly individual character, but ultimately, never one I truly loved. Lex battled her way into my esteem, slowly creeping up in my estimations, but she is easily and obviously the weakest link in this morbid YA novel.

Lex will never top, or even appear of any list of mine for favorite/memorable heroines, except for one. This is a funny girl with her own sarcastic, rough type of humor, and while I didn't love every single bon mot that fell from her lips, I absolutely, and more than once, literally laughed out loud several times at what she has to say. Even her name, taken from a battle that kick-started the American Revolution, unkind as her parents were to stick her with it, is a subtle reminder about how much this novel revolves around death. I also liked the symmetry present in the name: the battle of Lexington that began off a years-long war, and Lex's personal arrival in the town of Croak sets of a series of deadly events. Be warned, Lex is is rough shape at the beginning/middle: she's offensive, unrelentingly childish and overdone teenage cliches abound. What bothered me most, outside of the 'retard' comment, was Lex's double standards with her fellow Croakers. She constantly accuses everyone else of being cryptic and elusive with details, but sees no hypocrisy in shielding her own secrets and knowledge. But eventually, she evolved into a character that if I couldn't like, I could at least understand.

I really enjoyed the lore and mythology the author created for her world, especially since I wasn't particularly invested in Lex or her life. What got me truly involved in Croak was...well, the town of Croak itself and the Afterlife.  I thought the Killing/Culling pairs were a bit unwieldy and unlikely, but the structure reinforces the friendships between the teams so I can't complain too vociferously. The organization of the Grims is highly regimented, and seems like a viable plan for the tasks they must undertake (Ha! Death pun!). Croak itself is fun to read: from Slain Lane, Pushing Daisies flower shop (now I want to watch the tv show. I heart Ned!)  to Dead Weight (a gym), death puns and wordplay appear and add and element of fun to an understandably less-than-teeming city. Let's talk about the Afterlife - very visually striking in the narration, very tactile in description. But what I liked best, out of the whole damn book, was the version of Edgar Allan Poe that Damico has crafted. He's morose, moody and just plain hilarious. I would read a book about his adventures in the Afterlife anyday. His rivalry with Teddy Roosevelt ("where's your big stick now, Teddy?!") was one of the aspects of Croak that kept me vastly amused and coming back for more. In fact, this whole book is "lol-worthy" - so much so that it inspired me to make a shelf named just that for future novels in the series/other books.

Like Lex's, the uncle she lives with has a name that is a harbinger of death, though not nearly as subtle: his name is Mort. Mort and most of the other GRIMs (Gamma Removal & Immigration Managers - a bit of a reach for that acronym, no?) lacked the wholly rounded personality of Lex, but weren't total cartoon caricatures either. What I liked best about Mort was his repeatedly demonstrated ability to put Lex in her place, often and firmly. With a character like Lex, so full of heedless anger and self-righteousness, Mort's calmer, steady personality balanced out her high emotions. Despite a blip of character continuity, Mort is the responsible, smart member of the group, but his control over Lex is tenuous, which leads to their fractious, though loving, relationship. I could have done without the whole romance element, slight as it was, because it just seems superfluous. With Lex's tude, the whiteeye deaths, navigating being a Grim Reaper, couldn't the two just be friends? Is it that unheard of for two teens of opposing sexes to just be friends for a while? Damn - also, the picture "reveal"? I found it creepy, not adorable. And SPOILER: shouldn't Lex recognize a picture of herself when she sees it several times?

Though it begins with a rather weak introduction, Croak happily gathers steam midway and eventually makes a more-than-favorable impression with its strong, complete ending. Besides Lex's overdone teenage tude, and a cliched villain monologue at the end (seriously, I swear it was Syndrome making a cameo) detailing every last element of the grand evil plan, this is enjoyable to read. And, BONUS!, this fun little death-centric book is only $7.87 for Nook. The next book and direct sequel, Scorch, is due out later this year in September, but is already available for pre-order now.

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