Grendel’s Guide to Love and War by A. E. Kaplan Is a Perfect Ten!

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Kaplan, A.E. Grendel’s Guide to Love and War. Knopf/Penguin Random House, 2017. 320p. $17.99. 978-0-399-55554-1.

In this modern-day Beowulf, set in a Virginia retirement mecca where death among the neighbors is usual, the hilariously wry, first-person narrator, Tom Grendel, begins the summer before his senior year. He spends his days mowing lawns for, assisting, and interviewing his elderly neighbors lest their stories become lost. The quiet neighborhood—where Tom, his father, and occasionally his collegiate sister, Zipora or “Zip” were long the only residents under seventy—vanishes after the beloved female couple next door moves to assisted living, and their niece, Ellen Rothgar (television reporter), arrives with two teens: bully Rex and beautiful Willow. Ellen soon leaves on assignment, whereupon Rex institutes nightly loud parties. Major Aaron Grendel, a single parent since his wife died unexpectedly when Tom was nine, who returned from service in Iraq with severe PTSD, cannot handle noise, unruly behavior, or confrontation— and lands himself a temporary assignment in Florida. Tom must outsmart the determined Rex, and later, his even wilder cousin Wolf and restore the neighborhood equilibrium—within two weeks. Aided by his friend Ed Park, and surreptitiously by Willow, Tom’s summer turns increasingly nightmarish.

Grendel’s side-splittingly funny narration asserts itself in the opening pages, challenging readers to maintain classroom or library quiet throughout the novel. Add emotional depth; some profound explorations of death and love; and increasingly bizarre and inventive battles, and Kaplan’s “tale of rivalry, romance, and existential angst” succeeds brilliantly—rather like James Kirkwood’s P.S. Your Cat is Dead (Stein and Day, 1972) did in its day. Librarians and teachers need to buy several copies, read one, and watch this title fly off the shelf.—Cynthia Winfield.