A Strange Tale of Adolescence and Pesto

“There’s so much to learn, isn’t there? A million things of different sizes that I don’t know.”

Australian writer Nick Earls has a wit that is dry and wry, and a knack for creating strikingly strange characters. His latest YA novel hero is named Dan (called ‘Banger’), a boy who is a bedeviled mix of hormone-flushed angst and engaging neuroses. Producing both grins and groans, Dan’s year of obsession with ichthyology in Romeo and Juliet (a fish tank scene! Who knew?) and honing in on the best way to get a girl (interest her in ornithology — of course. Every girl likes guys who memorize facts on birds) is a good for a few hours of snickers, and makes me want to find and read the rest of Earls’ books.

Even so, 48 Shades of Brown is not an easy book to read. It begins slowly – there’s an almost dreamlike quality to the narrator detachment, in part because the narrator is so introverted, and partially because of the protagonist’s preference to ignore certain truths about himself. Almost seventeen, living with his 22-year-old, bass playing aunt and her attractive blonde housemate, Naomi, for a year while his parents are in Geneva for a year, Dan slowly realizes that any suaveness he thought he might be growing into is a ways off. He has no grown-up skills — he can’t cook, do his own wash, or even put in a hand around the house doing anything other than sweeping. Even something as simple as staying out of the way is fraught with danger. The rooms in the house are thin, and Naomi and her boyfriend, Jason, are… noisy.

Dan’s mother, the faithful ‘Madge,’ (or, when she’s being pretentious, ‘Margot’) and her penchant for the safe realm of the beige suburban landscape have made Dan unfit for the sophisticated world his aunt Jacq and her university friends inhabit. He’s desperate to make her understand that he’s different than her beloved but annoying sister, to make Naomi look at him and see more than just a dorky little boy. But Jacq laughs at him. A lot. She knows the kind of kid her sister raised. And Naomi is a second year university student, and likes stuff that he knows nothing about, such as the scientific names of birds and trees…growing herbs…Making fresh pesto without dirt. This is enough to make Dan feel like he’s drowning. He is not a convincing ‘cool guy.’ Then, there’s aunt Jacq, falling in love with someone a little too close to home… Suddenly Dan realizes that there’s a lot he doesn’t know – more than he ever dreamed. And none of it travels well on the baby mammals postcards he sends to his mother each week.

The universally common theme of helpless attraction and the eternal fantasies of wanting to obtain a life out of reach are two factors that will make this an easy novel for any teen to appreciate. The fact that there are vocabulary and references in it that will only make sense to people with an understanding of Australian slang might turn a few less motivated readers away. The humor is subtle at times, but the writing is strong and this is well worth checking out on a quiet afternoon.

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