Boo is the first book that I have ever been sent by a publisher (a gigantic thank you to Windmill Books and to their wonderful editorial director, Laura) and so I was extra excited to begin reading this. As with most books that I read, I didn’t read the blurb before I started and I’m so glad that I didn’t. Although the blurb didn’t give away more than is appropriate, what I loved most about this book was its unpredictability and so going in blind and letting the story unfold page by page was what made it even more special. To be really super honest, I’d recommend not reading this review and instead just holding out until it is published in November to be as pleasantly surprised as I was!
On September 7th 1979, 13 year old Oliver ‘Boo’ Dalrymple from Illinois wakes up in a hospital bed to find that he has died and arrived in heaven. He believes that he has died from a holey heart causing him to drop down dead in front of his locker at his middle school and is immediately startled to find that although he is dead, he is also very much alive. Boo finds himself in Town, a heaven reserved only for Americans who die aged 13. The teenagers stay here for 50 years, never ageing, until one day they disappear.
It takes Boo a while to adjust to his new surroundings and just as he’s getting settled in, his calm is disrupted when he learns that another boy from his school died on the same day as him, and that both of them were shot by someone who may have arrived in Town too. Whilst Boo holds no grudge against his murderer the second victim, Johnny, wants to find out who killed them and why.
This book is written as a letter from Boo to his parents back in America and through his recollections, the story is told. I really loved this style because it allowed the reader to get to know Boo in an intimate way and very quickly I felt quite protective of him. Many of the characters that Boo is close to act in a watchful and maternal manner towards him and I think that it was really clever of Neil to make the reader feel this way too.
What is particularly interesting about this book compared to other YA books that I’ve read recently is that it’s set in a time period that doesn’t really exist. Although Boo dies in 1979, Town is home to 13 year olds who died in the 50 years previous and new children arrive each day without anybody getting older physically. The Town itself also doesn’t age and instead new items (such as cookers and torches) randomly appear, usually long after they were invented in America. This inability to place Boo’s existence into a time period made this a wonderful story to read as I was always fully immersed and intrigued. It was also great plot-wise because not quite knowing the setting made it impossible to guess what would happen next.
I think that this book deals with the afterlife in a very sensitive manner and despite making references to God, it doesn’t ever feel like it’s making a mockery of religion or forcing beliefs upon the reader. In the opening description we discover that Boo was raised by Atheists and so in his letter he changes mention of God to ‘Zig’ which I felt removed any religious connotations from the book. I think another reason that this book, which is set in heaven, doesn’t feel religious is because 13 year olds of all faiths arrive in Town and segregation is made only by nationality and not religious belief.
Despite being about the afterlife, Boo is primarily a story about family and friendships and I think that Neil does an excellent job of exploring the relationship between Johnny and Boo. Often YA is written about female characters and the friendships and relationships that they experience so it was very refreshing to hear about a friendship between males. I loved reading about the sensitive side of Boo and Johnny’s relationship and as a female I didn’t feel excluded from their brother-like bond. This is definitely suitable for females to read and on the flipside, I hope this attracts the often under-represented male YA readership.
I’m a huge fan of quirky chapter names and I was overjoyed to discover that each new chapter is signalled by a different periodic element. Right at the beginning we find out that Boo dies whilst reciting the periodic table and I loved that this theme was continued throughout. I really love it when books feel complete and for me, that’s usually in things such as chapter naming; Non Pratt is another author who is particularly good at giving each chapter a relevant and thematic name and it makes me feel all fuzzy and happy when other books do the same. A big thumbs up to you Mr. Smith!
Boo is really fun and was such a lovely book to read taking me just a couple of days to finish. I felt quite sad once I’d put it down which is certainly the sign of a fabulous book! I will definitely read more from Neil Smith in the future, and I’m very much looking forward to this being published in paperback November just in time for Christmas!