Book Report: Alan Gratz’s new young adult novel doesn’t stink

If Shakespeare seems kind of stuffy and outdated, try local author Alan Gratz’s take on the bard’s classic, Hamlet. That age-old play serves as the basis for Gratz’s young adult novel, Something Rotten (Dial Books, 2007), due out Thursday, Oct. 18.

“I hate adults who treat teenagers like we’re still in grade school, but I needed this buffoon to listen to me so I swallowed it,” says sharp-tongued high school junior and main character Horatio Wilkes. It’s also Wilkes who starts the slim, 211-page book with the observation that, “Denmark, Tennessee, stank. Bad.” — cleverly echoing Shakespeare’s line, “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”

The story line (mirroring Hamlet‘s well-thumbed telling of tragedy and revenge where a king is murdered by his own brother who then marries his wife) is about over-privileged prep-schooler (Hamilton) who learns his father was poisoned. Hamilton’s uncle, Claude, has already married Trudy, Hamilton’s mother. When Hamilton’s sarcastic friend Horatio (whose mother is an English teacher, hence the name) comes to visit, the two boys set out to unravel the mystery.

Add to that a romantic interest (environmental activist Olivia, who is trying to save the town’s river, which is being polluted by the paper mill owned by Hamilton’s family), a suspicious servant and two bumbling gangsters-in-training, and Rotten is a page turner. However, there’s a fair bit of teen-age boozing that seems rather surprising in young adult novel, as well as some strong language and reference to sexual situations: “Any time a boy talks about your beautiful eyes, it’s your breasts he’s looking at. He writes you a poem he just wants to get laid.”

Then again, grittier books like Brent Runyon’s The Burn Journals and Susan Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted are filed under “adolescence.”

Whatever, don’t confuse Gratz’s Rotten with Welsh YA author Jasper Fforde’s book of the same title. Fforde’s series novel won’t offer any insights into Shakespeare’s most famous of works, whereas Gratz’s book, with cheeky zingers like “Damn it, Horatio, they used flowers from my father’s funeral to decorate the wedding reception,” breathes all-new melodrama into the bard’s legacy.

Alan Gratz reads from Something Rotten at Malaprop’s Bookstore and Cafe on Friday, Nov. 2, 7 p.m. Info: 254-6734.

—Alli Marshall, A&E reporter

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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