cover image The Monster Variations

The Monster Variations

Daniel Kraus, . . Delacorte, $16.99 (245pp) ISBN 978-0-385-73733-3

Kraus's stark debut never quite feels completely comfortable in its own skin, but still delivers a moving story and points to a huge amount of potential for the author. When the summer begins with two accidents in which children are hit by a truck—one is killed and the other loses his arm—a curfew is imposed in Kraus's unnamed town. Determined to enjoy themselves, three 12-year-olds—Reggie, James and Willie (the maimed first victim of the mysterious driver)—go on adventures including breaking into school, stealing the skeletal “monster” an older boy keeps in his barn and investigating the school bully's possible ties to the killer. The bully, Mel, is easily the most intriguing character, volatile and socially inept, but also brilliant and artistic. Kraus meshes the uncertainty of adolescence with the dangerous knowledge of an adult world in which people have affairs and kill children—the boys' growing awareness of this world is the true horror. An unnecessary framing sequence and the general absence of girls (even as objects of the boys' attention) undermine the book's intensity, but the tragic ending is still powerful. Ages 12–up. (Aug.)