BookBrowse Reviews Grendel's Guide to Love and War by A. E. Kaplan

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Grendel's Guide to Love and War

by A. E. Kaplan

Grendel's Guide to Love and War by A. E. Kaplan X
Grendel's Guide to Love and War by A. E. Kaplan
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    Apr 2017, 320 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Matt Grant
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This endearing tale of a teen misfit is a reworking of Beowulf for contemporary times.

I was roughly the same age as Tom Grendel, the 17-year-old protagonist in the hilarious and heartfelt young adult novel Grendel's Guide to Love and War, when I was first introduced to Beowulf (see 'Beyond the Book'). As was the case for most acne-ridden teenagers, the Old English epic was required reading for me in high school. All these years later, I really couldn't tell you that much about it. All I remember is that Beowulf is a warrior who overcomes three separate monsters—a hairy beast called Grendel, Grendel's vengeful mother, and a dragon—to bring peace and prosperity to the kingdom. I also remember there was a lot of mead drinking. At any rate, 1,000 years after it was written, Beowulf might seem far removed from our modern times. But in Grendel's Guide to Love and War, author A.E. Kaplan modernizes the setting and inverts the roles to tell a surprisingly human story about loss and memory.

After Tom's mother died from cancer when he was nine, Tom's father, an Iraq war veteran, moved to Lake Heorot, Virginia, hoping the quiet town would calm his PTSD. The neighborhood is largely populated with elderly women, all of whom Tom knows through his summer lawn-mowing business. But when the Grendels' next-door neighbors move away, their niece Ellen, a famous television reporter, moves in with her two children, Rex and Willow Rothgar.

Tom grew up with the Rothgars visiting next door every now and then, so their appearance causes him some consternation. This is because 1). He's been in love with Willow for years and 2). He can't stand Rex, who mercilessly bullies him. Soon Ellen is called away on assignment, and Rex begins hosting loud, drunken parties that force Tom's father out of the neighborhood. The parties only get worse when the Rothgars' older cousin, Wolf Gates, comes to stay. Tom realizes that it's up to him, his best friend Ed, and his sister Zip to shut down the parties and restore peace and quiet to the neighborhood. The only problem is, while he wants to chase Rex and Wolf out of town, he doesn't want Willow to leave with them.

What ensues is a humorous and entertaining prank war in which both the scale and the consequences continue to escalate. Wolf and Rex prove formidable foes, willing to cross lines of decency and legality that Tom and his friends won't. Kaplan keeps the pranks highly improbable, yet somewhat believable. The protagonists are always just out of reach of true harm, with any fear of serious reprisals from the law conveniently dealt with. The repercussions of their actions never last long, which makes the whole story feel like a light, fun summer read. It isn't the sort of novel you'll be chewing over for days, but its immensely fun when you're in the midst of it.

The novel really shines in its characterization. As a first-person narrator, Tom Grendel is endlessly charming, and I found myself laughing out loud more than once at his narrative asides and one-liners. Contemplating the passing of a neighbor with a penchant for going commando, Tom says, "Death is like that, I suppose. One moment you're feeling the breeze under your clothes, and the next it's all over."

But the book isn't all laughs. Tom and Zip deal with both the death of their mother and the fallout of becoming caretakers for their damaged father. In the third act, the book takes a surprising turn when the siblings embark on a long drive to uncover a piece of their mother's past. The trip doesn't go as planned, and feels like a realistic yet sweet portrayal of how memory never quite lives up to reality.

This tension, then, is where the crux of the novel lies. In her author's note at the end, Kaplan mentions that after reading Seamus Heaney's modern translation of Beowulf, she realized that "Beowulf is about memory…Beowulf, more than anything, wants to be remembered." Memory runs deep through the storyline in Grendel's Guide to Love and War. Tom and Zip struggle to remember their mother, who died when they were young. Their father is haunted by his memories of the war. Tom carries out an oral history project with his neighbors in an attempt to record their histories. And he has to reconcile his recollections of Willow, with whom he shared his first kiss at 14, with the woman she is becoming now.

The fact that this all takes place in a few short weeks in July makes Grendel's Guide to Love and War the perfect summer novel. It is fun and funny, lighthearted, but not without gravitas. And at its heart, it's still the familiar old story of a hero battling evil. It's been good enough for more than 1,000 years; there's no reason it can't keep working now.

Reviewed by Matt Grant

This review is from the Grendel's Guide to Love and War. It first ran in the May 17, 2017 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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