Chances are a lot of us are going to be spending our summers indoors, which means we may not be able to indulge in a lot of seasonal fun, especially at the beach. Luckily we can still turn to the arts as a form of escapism, and Peyton Douglas’ The Book Man serves up evocative summer thrills just in time for the hottest months of the year. The Book Man is a curious mash-up of surfing, Jewish mysticism, and action horror with a great sense of time and place– it reads like a summer blockbuster, and it’s definitely worth your time.
The novel follows Frannie, a high school student who is whisked into a world of mysticism after witnessing a tragedy. Along the way Frannie takes up surfing, lands a job at her uncle’s beachside cafe, makes new friends, and confronts an evil entity that was old when the world was young and which hungers for pure human potentiality. If that last part sounds a bit…much…compared to the rest of the concept that’s only because Douglas is able to deftly weave a truly chilling villain into what is otherwise a high school coming of age story in a way that is almost reminiscent of Stephen King.
The Book Man is gripping right out of the gates. The first few chapters see a terrible accident befall the main character, and by chapter four we’ve seen one of the most vicious scenes in the book. Despite the early density, violence and gore are relatively low but are all the more creative when they do pop up, especially seeing as to how paper cuts are central to the antagonist’s modus operandi. Which, just, ew. The escalation of stakes and action is also handled very well. The book goes to unexpected places and the climax is satisfying if a bit rushed– I wish the final five percent or so had been expanded, as it ends very abruptly given all that has lead up to the conclusion.
I’d also draw attention to the setting, as it may be the strongest element of the novel. The Book Man takes place mostly in Laguna Beach in the late 1950s and is very aware of the period for better and for worse. The topic of race is broached in a believable and effective way through supporting characters; similarly, the author is willing to level a critical eye at the foundations of American surf culture in the Hawaiian genocide in a moving final conflict. Cafe Monstro feels like a fully-realized place, one that any horror fan would love to visit, and the surfing culture which surrounds it breathes even more life into an already vivid setting.
Characters are kind of a mixed bag in this one. While some characters (particularly Frannie and Hooky) are very well fleshed out and have a lot of personality, there are a few characters who needed to be fleshed out a bit more. In particular, Newp feels flat. He doesn’t really develop much throughout the novel and that’s kind of a drag given that he’s the love interest and one of the primary supporting characters. It’s also a little concerning that Frannie is mentioned multiple times as being attracted to Hooky given that she’s in high school and he’s 28– while nothing becomes of it, it’s still an odd choice which doesn’t do much for the narrative. Bonus points for the inclusion of the golem Emmett, who is delightful to read, and for the inclusion of a lot of Jewish culture and mysticism which still feels largely underexplored in genre fiction.
Minor flaws aside, The Book Man is a fast, fun read which couldn’t have released at a more appropriate time. If you’re in the market for a summer adventure, a horrific demon entity, a coming of age story about trauma and how we overcome it, or any combination therein, Peyton Douglas has you covered.
8 out of 10 Origami Birds