Synopsis: “To sell a book, you need a description on the back. So here’s mine: My name is Fiona Loomis. I was born on August 11, 1977. I am recording this message on the morning of October 13, 1989. Today I am thirteen years old. Not a day older. Not a day younger.”
Fiona Loomis is Alice, back from Wonderland. She is Lucy, returned from Narnia. She is Coraline, home from the Other World. She is the girl we read about in storybooks, but here’s the difference: She is real.
Twelve-year-old Alistair Cleary is her neighbor in a town where everyone knows each other. One afternoon, Fiona shows up at Alistair’s doorstep with a strange proposition. She wants him to write her biography. What begins as an odd vanity project gradually turns into a frightening glimpse into a clearly troubled mind. For Fiona tells Alistair a secret. In her basement there’s a gateway and it leads to the magical world of Aquavania, the place where stories are born. In Aquavania, there’s a creature called the Riverman and he’s stealing the souls of children. Fiona’s soul could be next.
Alistair has a choice. He can believe her, or he can believe something else…something even more terrifying.
INTERCONTINENTAL FIELD TRIPS AND COCONUT BRAS
Okay, this will be embarrassing. But what the heck. It’s good to get things off your chest.
I was in sixth or seventh grade. I was madly in love with a girl in my class. She was friendly to me, but I knew she wasn’t interested in me. There was a social pecking order, and she was near the top and I was hovering in the middle. There were a lot of boys to turn down before my number was called. I was a pragmatist, even at that age.
But I was also still a bit of a dreamer. It’s a curious time when you’re 12. On the cusp of so many things. You’re getting serious about life (you’re learning algebra, after all), but you still believe in a bit of magic.
There was a terrible movie that came out in the early 80s called The Blue Lagoon. It played constantly on TV when I was coming of age. It starred a teenage Brooke Shields and some guy with a blonde curly mop. It’s basically the story of two kids who are shipwrecked alone on a tropical island and must learn to survive. They fall in love, of course, and make babies, of course, which is disturbing because I think they might have been cousins. I’m not completely sure. It’s been over 25 years since I’ve seen it. All I really remember is the spear fishing and the loincloth wearing and the snuggling by the campfires in the sand. Think of it as a YA mash-up of Survivor and Fifty Shades of Grey.
If I watched the movie now, I’m sure I’d be appalled by the sexual politics of it, not to mention the shoddy filmmaking. I’m pretty sure I was appalled by it back when I first saw it, but that didn’t stop my mind from concocting a ridiculous scenario. As I sat in my sixth grade class, sneaking glances at my crush, this is what I imagined:
What if our school—a public middle school in central New York, mind you—decided to take us all on a journey that would require a flight over the South Pacific. And what if there was an emergency on the plane and my crush and I were forced to bail out in parachutes. And what if we drifted over this vast ocean and happened to land on a deserted island, the standard type with white sand beaches, forests full of orchids, and cascading waterfalls. And what if the search parties couldn’t find us and we had to live by our wits. And what if my crush saw how capable I was—conjuring fire by rubbing two sticks together, weaving hammocks out of palm fronds, building a tree fort to rival the one in The Swiss Family Robinson. And what if my crush saw how sensitive I was, as I cuddled her on the beach, looking up at the stars, telling her my dreams of, I don’t know, opening a shelter for blind and orphaned puppies.
Surely, she’d want to be my girlfriend then!
This was how my brain worked. It was firing well enough to realize that my chances were slim with her out there on the rough-and-tumble schoolyard. And yet short circuits were causing me to believe that the only viable scenario where we could be together involved intercontinental field trips and coconut bras. Within a year, I realized how nutty this was, but at the time, it seemed well within the realm of possibility.
My latest novel, The Riverman, is, in part, a love story. A 12-year-old boy named Alistair falls deeply for a girl named Fiona who informs him that she visits a magical land where a creature called the Riverman is stealing the souls of children. Is she telling the truth, or is something sinister happening to her in the real world? Does Alistair believe in the magic, or does he believe in reality? You have to read the book to find out.
But I can at least tell you this. Alistair is a bit like I was, and a bit like a lot of 12-year-olds are. On the cusp. A pragmatic dreamer. A contradiction. An oxymoron. And that’s what made writing about him such a fun and fascinating experience. If you read the book, and I hope you do, you’ll notice that a tropical island makes an appearance. Let’s call it an homage to my embarrassing youth. But let’s also call it an homage to my wife. No, she’s not the girl from middle school, but in May of 2007, she and I went swimming alone under a cascading waterfall, hidden in a flower-specked forest, on an island in the South Pacific. And I asked her to marry me. And she said yes and that night we sat on the beach and looked up at the stars. How about that, 12-year-old me!
Author Bio: Aaron Starmer was born in northern California, raised in the suburbs of Syracuse, New York, and educated at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey. His novels for young readers include Dweeb and The Only Ones, and his travel writing has appeared in numerous guidebooks. He lives with his wife in Hoboken, New Jersey.
I don’t typically like to get into the whole ‘this book transcends the kids’ category’ shenanigans because I believe that anyone can enjoy any kind of book, but for The Riverman I’d like to make an exception. With very dark themes and subject matter, I think this is a book that will speak to both kids and adults, but in very different ways. The Riverman is at once an entertaining fantasy, a coming of age tale, and scary glimpse of what can happen when one is stuck in one’s own head for too long. With dark, dry humor, and a smart protagonist, The Riverman is a book that will be stuck in my head for a long time to come.
The star of the show, Alistair, was by far my favorite character – yes, even alongside kooky Charlie and the enigmatic Fiona. I loved Alistair for his sharp wit and for his keen, observant voice. Alistair is the kind of kid who notices things that most people would look past. Mostly, though, I loved Alistair for being a kid. He is stuck in a very hard situation, one that most adults wouldn’t know how to deal with, and while he shows a lot of maturity, he is still just a child. He is at times unable to handle his emotions, he jumps to conclusions too quickly, and makes some horrible choices. I loved him for all of it. He was a character I could relate to entirely, from the ways he understood the world around him but not himself, all the way down to wishing and longing to be liked and accepted for who he was.
I loved Alistair’s voice, and how it felt like an grown-up narrating the story from the distance of adulthood, and this is the main reason I think this would be a great book to thrust into the hands of a YA-adverse adult. There were also sections written in third person. I wouldn’t normally like the switch from first to third, but in this case I think it worked. These parts told Fiona’s story, her visits to the mythical Aquavania. I think the switch of POV showcased Alistair’s detachment from Fiona’s story well, and also avoided the dreaded conversational infodump that I just cannot stand.
One of my favorite parts of The Riverman was the setting, and no, I’m not talking about Aquavania. No, I’m talking about the small northern NY town of Thessaly where Alistair lives. I loved its traditions like the Veterans Day tree, and also how tight-knit it felt. The town is home to a small cast of crazy characters that you’d find in most suburbs: the resident ‘bad kid,’ the nosy gossip, the suspicious neighbor, the groups of kids tearing up the neighborhood on mischief night. These are the details that brought me into the story, more than Fiona’s antics or the horrible accident with Charlie. These are the details that made Alistair’s world real to me.
After finishing, once I picked my jaw up from the floor, I discovered that this is actually the first in a trilogy. While I’m totally fine with how the book ended as a standalone in my mind, I have to say that this is the first time I’ve ever been excited by an ambush series. I can’t wait to read more of Alistair’s adventures, learn more about Aquavania, and hopefully figure Fiona out. The Riverman has an ambiguous ending, one akin to maybe Cruel Beauty or I Was A Teenage Fairy. It leaves you guessing. It gives you all the tools you need to find your answers but doesn’t condescend to give those answers to you outright. The Riverman is a book that makes you work and it is so, so worth it.