The Orphan of Awkward Falls

By Keith Graves [LibraryThingGoodreads]

Josephine is sure she’ll be bored when her parents move her to the tiny town of Awkward Falls, Manitoba, but that’s before she discovers her next-door neighbors: kid genius Thaddeus Hibble, his robot butler, and a zombie cat. But the deranged killer Fetid Stenchley, who killed Thaddeus’s grandfather, has escaped the insane asylum and is on his way to take out Thaddeus as well. Throw in an aging movie star, half a dozen enormous genetic monsters, and some dark secrets about the past, and Awkward Falls is turning out to be not so boring after all.

This is a first novel (though Graves has written “many picture books,” according to the author bio), and it shows. The prose is mediocre; it’s not really bad, but it’s not terribly engaging, either. It’s just…there. The plot structure is kind of a mess – there’s almost no rising action, just chapters and chapters of climax, an awkwardly-placed moment of downtime, and then brief excitement that ends abruptly without actually resolving anything.

Most egregiously, though, Josephine, the ostensible heroine, is a complete cipher of a character. The bland Everykid protagonist can be a problem in kids’ lit, but I usually see it with boys. Josephine’s a shining example of it. We’re told in quick succession that she’s quirky, but also wants to be normal, but also doesn’t want to be normal. She doesn’t appear to have any interests or hobbies, and before she makes her only significant action of the book – going over to the Hibble house and meeting Thaddeus – we’re given a long explanation of how impulsive she is, instead of, you know, being shown her doing impulsive things. Eventually she disappears into the background of the narrative in favor of the more colorful Thaddeus and Stenchley and Felix, the zombie cat. (Really, Felix is the closest thing this book has to a hero.)

But my major problem with the book was that it was…well, gruesome. Aggressively and unrelentingly so. Stenchley is a cannibal, so he spends the book doing his best to literally eat people alive – he bites Josephine so hard he draws blood. His past crimes – including strangling Thaddeus’s grandfather – are described in loving detail. So is the absolutely horrendous “treatment” he receives in the insane asylum, which involves opening up his skull (it’s kept shut with Velcro) and applying extreme heat to his brain. Thaddeus, meanwhile, has a genius for reanimating dead animals, and his work is also described in elaborate, squishy detail. His grandfather, who has been dead ten years, is reanimated halfway through the book, and the rotting zombie stumbles around, decaying in, I probably don’t have to say, extremely gory detail until he is devoured by the mutated monsters he invented.

Look, I’m not clutching my pearls and crying “Think of the children!” This book is intended for sixth graders, who can probably handle it. I just think it’s gross. Gratuitously, excessively gross, with no strength of plot or characterization to balance it out.

Overall, The Orphan of Awkward Falls is simultaneously kind of bland and extraordinarily icky, and so it gets one and a half cupcakes.

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