The Riverman

( 2 )


Alistair Cleary is the kid who everyone trusts. Fiona Loomis is not the typical girl next door. Alistair hasn't really thought of her since they were little kids until she shows up at his doorstep with a proposition: she wants him to write her biography. What begins as an odd vanity project gradually turns into a frightening glimpse into the mind of a potentially troubled girl. Fiona says that in her basement, there's a portal that leads to a magical world where a creature called the Riverman is stealing the ...

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The Riverman

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Alistair Cleary is the kid who everyone trusts. Fiona Loomis is not the typical girl next door. Alistair hasn't really thought of her since they were little kids until she shows up at his doorstep with a proposition: she wants him to write her biography. What begins as an odd vanity project gradually turns into a frightening glimpse into the mind of a potentially troubled girl. Fiona says that in her basement, there's a portal that leads to a magical world where a creature called the Riverman is stealing the souls of children. And Fiona's soul could be next. If Fiona really believes what she's saying, Alistair fears she may be crazy. But if it's true, her life could be at risk. In this novel from Aaron Starmer, it's up to Alistair to separate fact from fiction, fantasy from reality.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Starmer (The Only Ones) explores the relationship between creation and theft, reality and fantasy in this haunting novel, narrated retrospectively by Alistair Cleary as he looks back at the autumn of 1989. It's then that a classmate, Fiona Loomis, invites him to write her biography. After 12-year-old Alistair tentatively agrees, Fiona tells him about her repeated trips to a land called Aquavania (via a cylinder of water in her house's boiler), where she and other children can shape reality as they choose. Alistair is understandably skeptical, believing that Fiona has invented this fantasy to cope with some kind of trauma, but the novel's strength is in the pervasive aura of unknowing that Starmer creates and sustains. Is Fiona's uncle a scarred veteran or a menace? Is the Riverman hunting down Aquavania's residents responsible for the disappearance of children in the real world? Starmer makes the possibilities presented by Fiona's stories feel no less improbable (or unsettling) than the scenarios Alistair constructs to explain them away, or the actions he takes in an attempt to protect her. Ages 10–14. Agent: Michael Bourret, Dystel & Goderich Literary Management. (Mar.)
VOYA, February 2014 (Vol. 36, No. 6) - Barbara Johnston
Alistair seems like an ordinary seventh-grade kid with a normal life. One of his friends, Charlie, is an avid gamer who often annoys Alistair. When Fiona asks Alistair to “pen” her biography, he is caught up with her and her story. Fiona describes how she enters the fantastic land of Aquavania where her world is her own colorful creation, but the Riverman lurks, waiting to steal children’s souls. Fiona is certain her name is on his list. Alistair is determined to stop the Riverman. This quest dominates his life and his friendship with Charlie takes a beating. People get hurt, Fiona disappears, and Alistair’s memory of the boy’s body he saw in the river at age two (the story preface) is ultimately revealed as an important piece of the puzzle. The Riverman contains plenty of boisterous actionmischief nights with “eggings”—and dialogue peppered with enough “greasy farts” talk to entertain middle schoolers. Alistair, Fiona, and Charlie are memorable characters. The amazing Fiona-controlled Aquavania where chocolate-chip-mint ice cream covers the ground will also delight fantasy readers. But this story also incorporates deeper story threads ripe for exploration. Why does Fiona need to escape to Aquavania? Why do some friendships evolve (love for Fiona) and others (with Charlie) wither? Why do repressed memories resurface and how do they impact behavior? As these story lines intertwine, the lines between fantasy and reality sometimes blur. There is a lot to ponder and recommend in this unusual tale. Reviewer: Barbara Johnston; Ages 11 to 18.
Children's Literature - Lois Rubin Gross
Fiona Loomis is a thirteen-year-old girl going on twenty-six. At least, that is what she believes to be a fact. She comes to her friend, Alistair Cleary, a self-proclaimed “good boy,” with a special project: to transcribe her story. Fiona has created a world called Aquavania where years pass in Solid World days and children who have disappeared from the real world reappear but run the risk of having their glittering souls sucked out by an underwater boogeyman called the Riverman. Alistair suspects, much like the reader will, that Fiona is disassembling to cope with some form of abuse. The likely candidate is Fiona’s uncle, a Vietnam veteran, back from the war but clearly disturbed and changed by his experiences. As the story progresses, zigzagging back and forth from the real world to Fiona’s vividly imagined Aquavania, Alistair develops his first crush on Fiona and determines to be her proverbial “Knight in shining armor,” saving her from her dysfunctional family. The Dwyer boys, Charlie and Kyle, are also a factor in the story. These brothers are the boys that people warn us against. Charlie is possessive of Alistair’s friendship and, in an ill imagined act of adolescence, manages to blow his fingers off in a fireworks explosion. His older brother, Kyle, a Fonzi wannabe, befriends Alistair and becomes deeply involved in helping him solve Fiona’s mystery. It all ends badly, but leaves the door open for two more stories in the trilogy that blurs the line between reality and fantasy, truth and secret, and emotion and reason. Fiona’s clearly disturbed personality is a wonderful foil for Alistair’s emerging adolescent urges to be good yet bad, obedient yet dauntless. Fiona provides Alistair’s siren song. It will be interesting to see how they reunite in future books, whether in the Solid World or in Aquavania. Book one of “The Riverman” trilogy. Reviewer: Lois Rubin Gross; Ages 11 to 15.
School Library Journal
Gr 4–8—This novel built of stories yields nightmares. Alistair's first memory is seeing a drowned, missing child floating in the river. He tells no one and grows into a tween who has a talent for keeping secrets. Fiona, his neighbor, chooses him to share hers: kids are missing, and the Riverman, from the parallel, timeless world of Aquavania, where stories are born, is the accused. Is this some kind of fantasy created to cope with a reality too grim to bear? Or are the missing kids simply runaways? The pace accelerates when Fiona confides in an exhumed letter that she might be next. The portal in this book is not only into Aquavania, through Fiona's stories dictated to Alistair, but also into the characters' convoluted adolescent world. Alistair turns to 18-year-old Kyle, the town's emotionally complex, daredevil dropout, for advice and muscle. Meanwhile, Charlie, Alistair's childhood friend of convenience, has become a gaming addict, and their friendship is unraveling. This writerly, chiaroscuro book is replete with the portent of violence, and thick with ideas about the psychological need for stories, all while questioning the ability of stories to redeem the tellers. Readers will find themselves confronted with deep, unanswered questions regarding the relationship of collective imaginary worlds to reality, the evolving nature of memories and friendships, and the unknowability of people. Those ready to explore darker realities will devour this book.—Sara Lissa Paulson, The American Sign Language and English Lower School, New York City
Kirkus Reviews
★ 2014-01-22
When a classmate asks him to write her biography, 12-year-old Alistair Cleary never dreams the story will "change everything." Growing up in Thessaly, N.Y., in 1989, Alistair's a good kid who hangs out with Nintendo-obsessed pal Charlie. His enigmatic classmate, neighbor Fiona, announces she's chosen him to write her biography because he will "dig up the story beneath the story." Fiona tells Alistair she can travel to a parallel world called Aquavania, where "stories are born" and children with imagination create their own unique worlds. However, the mysterious Riverman is causing children to disappear, and Fiona fears she's next. Convinced Fiona's bizarre story hides something bad in her real life, Alistair's determined to protect her and unearth the truth. But what is the truth, especially when Fiona vanishes after warning Alistair about Charlie and swearing him to secrecy? Alistair's first-person voice lends immediacy and realism to a haunting story, progressing in intensity from October 13 through November 20, as he discovers people are not who they seem to be and reality is much more than he imagined. Lines between reality and fantasy blur in this powerful, disquieting tale of lost children, twisted friendship and the power of storytelling. (Fiction. 10-14)
From the Publisher

"Starmer makes the possibilites presented by Fiona's stories feel no less improbable (or unsettling) than the scenarios Alistair construsts to explain them away, or actions he takes in an attempt to protect her."- Publishers Weekly
Newbery Medalist Jack Gantos

Dive into this book and you may never resurface.

Starmer weaves his fictional cloth out of gritty realism and sparkly fantasy, holding the whole together with lovely, careful language.
The Wall Street Journal

Every page feels so carefully written that, although we can't predict what will take place, we feel certain that the author knows exactly where he is taking us.

In this dark, twisting tale, readers are never sure if Fiona's story is true or not, and they won't want to stop reading until they find out...this magical tale is sure to please readers of urban fantasy, and with its theme of missing children and changing friendships, it will be perfect for fans of Neil Gaiman and Charles de Lint, too.
The Bulletin of the Center For Children's Books (recommended)

Somewhere between Holly Black's Doll Bones and Nova Ren Suma's 17 & Gone in audience and tone, this blend of magical realism and mystery blurs the line between reality and fantasy, setting up a creepy unease that both disturbs and propels the reader forward...the deliciously tangled web of a plot defies categorization.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374363093
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 3/18/2014
  • Series: Riverman Trilogy Series, #1
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 234,322
  • Age range: 10 - 14 Years
  • Lexile: 730L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.10 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

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.

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Read an Excerpt


     Every town has lost a child. Search the archives, ask the clergy. You’ll find stories of runaways slipping out of windows in the dark, never to be seen again. You’ll be told of custody battles gone ugly and parents taking extreme measures. Occasionally you’ll read about kids snatched from parking lots or on their walks home from school. Here today, gone tomorrow. The pain is passed out and shared until the only ones who remember are the only ones who ever really gave a damn.

     Our town lost Luke Drake. By all accounts he was a normal twelve-year-old kid who rode his bike and got into just enough trouble. On a balmy autumn afternoon in 1979, he and his brother, Milo, were patrolling the banks of the Oriskanny with their BB rifles when a grouse fumbled out from some bushes. Milo shot the bird in the neck, and it tried to fly but crashed into a riot of brambles near the water.

     "I shot, you fetch," Milo told Luke, and those words will probably always kindle insomnia for Milo. Because in the act of fetching, Luke slipped on a rock covered with wet leaves and fell into the river.

     It had been a rainy autumn, and the river was swollen and unpredictable. Even in drier times, it was a rough patch of water that only fools dared navigate. Branch in hand, Milo chased the current along the banks as far as he could, but soon his brother’s head bobbed out of view, and no amount of shouting "Swim!" or "Fight!" could bring him back.

     Experts combed the river for at least fifteen miles downstream. No luck. Luke Drake was declared missing on November 20, and after a few weeks of extensive but fruitless searches, almost everyone assumed he was dead, his body trapped and hidden beneath a log or taken by coyotes. Perhaps his family still holds out hope that he will show up at their doorstep one day, a healthy man with broad shoulders and an astounding tale of amnesia.

     I saw Luke’s body on November 22, 1979. Thanksgiving morning. I was almost three years old, and we were visiting my uncle’s cabin near a calm but deep bend in the Oriskanny, about seventeen miles downstream from where Luke fell. I don’t remember why or how, but I snuck out of the house alone before dawn and ended up sitting on a rock near the water. All I remember is looking down and seeing a boy at the bottom of the river. He was on his back, most of his body covered in red and brown leaves. His eyes were open, looking up at me. One of his arms stuck out from the murk. As the current moved, it guided his hand back and forth, back and forth. It was like he was waving at me. It almost seemed as though he was happy to see me.

     My next memory is of rain and my dad picking me up and putting me over his shoulder and carrying me back through the woods as I whispered to him, "The boy is saying hello, the boy is saying hello."

     It takes a while to process memories like that, to know if they’re even true. I never told anyone about what I saw because for so long it meant something different. For so long it was just a boy saying hello, like an acquaintance smiling at you in the grocery store. You don’t tell people about that.

     I was eleven when I finally put the pieces in their right places. I read about Luke’s disappearance at the library while researching our town’s bicentennial for a school paper. With a sheet of film loaded into one of the microfiche readers, I was scanning through old newspapers, all splotchy and purple on the display screen. I stopped dead on the yearbook picture of Luke that had been featured on missing posters. It all came rushing back, like a long-forgotten yet instantly recognizable scent.     My uncle had sold the cabin by then, but it was within biking distance of my house, and I went out there the following Saturday and flipped over stones and poked sticks in the water. I found nothing. I considered telling someone, but my guilt prevented it. Besides, nine years had passed. A lot of river had tumbled through those years.

     The memory of Luke may very well be my first memory. Still, it’s not like those soft and malleable recollections we all have from our early years. It’s solid. I believe in it, as much as I believe in my memory of a few minutes ago. Luke was our town’s lost child. I found him, if only for a brief moment.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 5
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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 21, 2014

    This is a well written, engaging story that has extremely realis

    This is a well written, engaging story that has extremely realistic characters that brings together realism with a world of fantasy. It is the first of a series that leaves one wanting to read the next as soon as possible. It is appropriate for 14+ and mature 12 year olds. The story has an ambiguous ending that may leave some readers guessing but I thought that made the book even more interesting. I have read other reviews and agree that there are several levels of understanding as there are stories within stories. It is an excellent book worthy of discussion groups. I highly recommend it.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 17, 2014

    This book is very dark and haunting.  I read it aloud to my 4th,

    This book is very dark and haunting.  I read it aloud to my 4th, 5th, and 6th grade students and they were not bothered so much by the dark content, but  fascinated by it.  I did have to read ahead in order to filter out words or phrases that were too mature for them; however I found that my students really enjoyed listening to the story.  This story allowed for a lot of journal writes and inference  discussions and suspicion.

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