As a boy Nathan Penlington had loved Choose Your Own Adventure novels. So when he came across a set of the first 106 volumes for sale on eBay, he snapped them up. Picking up the first, The Cave of Time, he was looking forward to a nostalgic trip back to his own childhood. What he discovered instead would send him off on adventure all of his own.
The Boy in the Book
Penlington, Nathan (2014). [Genre: Memoir/stunt non-fiction]
Source: I recieved a copy of this title for review thanks to BookBridgr. I recieved no other form of compensation and all other opinions are my own
The Boy in the Book is part memoir, part stunt non-fiction. Nathan Penlington discovers some pages from a diary inside a Choose Your Own Adventure novel he buys off e-bay. The pages of the diary contain the suicidal thoughts of a teenage boy. Penlington becomes more and more obsessed with finding out who this boy was, wanting to find out if he has survived, whilst simultaneously recognising something of his own teenage self in the writing. Eventually he embarks on an all-out quest to find the adult Terry, the boy of the diary, which leads him into a journey of self-discovery.
There were several things I didn't like about The Boy in the Book, so I'm getting those out quick so I can gush about all the things I loved.
- Penlington admits early that he has an obsessive personality and drives this home to the reader, discussing its unhealthiness. Despite this discussion, I still found at times the level of his obsession with Terry bordering on stalkerish, in a way that made me as the reader uncomfortable.
- The afterword of the book completely turns the context of the story on its head. I won't post spoilers here, but part of me really wishes Penlington had been honest with the reader from the start - it would have made for a more authentic book. As it stands, for me the revelation cheapened what the rest of the book stood for, as it comes across as last minute attention-grabbing.
Apart from these two quibbles though, The Boy in the Book is a complete charmer. Of course I would say that, as my affection for books-about-books is well known, but still. Penlington is a man very honest about his faults, which makes the memoir aspect of the book very real and a sweet read. He examines closely how his childhood, spent in and out of hospital with an illness that wasn't diagnosed correctly until much later in his life, has affected the man that he has become. I found the journey aspect very appealing, especially the effort he goes to to reconnect with aspects of his childhood. His discussions with his parents about his teenage years, and his meeting with his childhood crush Nancy were some of my favourite scenes.
I also really enjoyed how the mystery of 'The Boy in the Book' wasn't dragged out for dramatic suspense. It's a fact of modern life that people are no longer very hard to find. Penlington manages to track down Terry with comparatively little effort or drama within the first 100 pages. The real drama starts after the discovery, which for me made it a refreshing and unique take on the non-fiction finding-a-mysterious-person trope.
Although aspects of the drama post-discovery were a little drawn out, especially Penlington's visits to various 'experts' on diaries and childhood trauma, it was still a fun ride. I could understand the author's fascination with the diary text and what it insinuated and when we do finally find out from Terry what it's all about, its a well written scene that pulls together the mystery in a fascinating and touching way.
Finally of course, the bookish aspects appealed to my bookish soul. Although I wasn't the biggest fan of Choose Your Own Adventure novels, any bookish child (or adult) understands the ability books give us to both loose ourselves and have more control over our own lives. Penlington's insight into that ability is fresh and very personal, in the nicest way.
Overall? 4/5 stars. It wasn't perfect, but The Boy in the Book is one of those reads that sucks you in. A touching and intriguing story of books and how the teen years can make or break the man.