Tom Grendel lives a quiet life—writing in his notebooks, mowing lawns for his elderly neighbors, and pining for Willow, a girl next door who rejects the “manic-pixie-dream” label. But when Willow’s brother, Rex (the bro-iest bro ever to don a jockstrap), starts throwing wild parties, the idyllic senior citizens’ community where they live is transformed into a war zone. Tom is rightfully pissed—his dad is an Iraq vet, and the noise from the parties triggers his PTSD—so he comes up with a plan to end the parties for good. But of course, it’s not that simple.
One retaliation leads to another, and things quickly escalate out of control, driving Tom and Willow apart, even as the parties continue unabated. Add to that an angsty existential crisis born of selectively reading his sister’s Philosophy 101 coursework, a botched break-in at an artisanal pig farm, and ten years of unresolved baggage stemming from his mother’s death . . . and the question isn’t so much whether Tom Grendel will win the day and get the girl, but whether he’ll survive intact.
"Deep and uproarious all at once . . . A clever spin on a weighty classic." —Kirkus, starred review
"An outstanding YA novel balancing comedy with substantial themes of love, death, and healing." —SLJ, starred review
About the Author
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When I was nine years old, on the nineteen-day anniversary of my mother’s sudden and unexpected death, I had the unfortunate experience of visiting the world’s worst family counselor.
It was still not entirely real yet, my mother’s death, and I vacillated between crying and waiting for her to come home and tell me that everyone had made a huge mistake, that it hadn’t been her who had a stroke at the kitchen table, but the neighbor, or some random woman off the street who had wandered into our house and died in my mother’s chair while we were at school.
Anyway, there we were, listening to the counselor give her phony condolences, and then she went on to explain that my mother’s life was a sentence and her death was a punctuation mark. It was up to us, she said, to decide whether to view Mom’s death as a period (boo) or an exclamation point (yay!). I sat there numbly and watched the clock, grateful that the hour-long session would only run fifty minutes, and wishing that we were further in than minute fourteen.
On minute fifteen, my sister, who up to this point had appeared three-quarters asleep, sat up and said, “What about a semicolon? Could death be a semicolon?”
“I,” said the counselor. “Well. Um.”
“Or an asterisk? Or an ellipsis? Maybe if you believe in reincarnation, it’s an ellipsis.” I frowned, because I did not yet know what an ellipsis was, while Zip turned to look at my dad, saying, “Do we believe in reincarnation?”
“Zipora,” the counselor said.
“Comma!” Zip shouted. “Ampersand!”
At that point I stood up, sputtering but emboldened by the wisdom of my sister’s accrued fourteen years, and screamed, “QUESTION MARK!”
Whereupon my father took my sister and me by the hand and walked us out of the office, down to the car, and drove us through the nearest McDonald’s drive-thru, where we ordered French fries that we ate silently in the parking lot.
Needless to say, we never went back, but even now, eight years later, I have trouble thinking of death without also thinking of punctuation. It’s an unfortunate side effect of being a kid, I guess: you have no control over what people say to you, or what will stick. If I had a choice about what I remembered most from age nine, I guarantee Punctuation Lady would not have made the list, but there you go (period).
And so it was that on the day I heard of my next-door neighbor’s death, I thought (randomly): Parentheses.
I was mowing her lawn at the time I heard; it was around ten in the morning, the best possible time for mowing grass in the summer, if there is a best time for mowing grass in the summer. It was hot but not horribly so, and the mosquitoes were at a reasonable level.
I was pushing my heavy, nonelectric push mower, thinking, as I usually did, that there is something profoundly enjoyable about pushing a manual lawn mower. I’m not sure if it’s the noise—a sort of whooshing whir that sounds a little bit like a hamster running on a wheel—or if it’s the way your muscles burn when you have to push up a hill, or if it’s just watching the piles of cut grass fall on the freshly trimmed lawn. There’s something satisfying about the whole affair that you just don’t get from a power mower.
At any rate, I was pushing my trusty manual across my next-door neighbors’ expansive lawn when I heard of the untimely demise of Minnie Taylor. It shouldn’t have been much of a shock—she’d been like three hundred years old—but still. I’d seen her just the day before, standing outside in her unfortunately sheer nightgown, calling her herd of cats inside for dinner. I hadn’t imagined that would be the last time I’d see Mrs. Taylor ensconced in her substantial undergarments, waving a bag of Friskies and screaming.
Minnie lived next door with Allison McArdle, who’d been her partner for thirty years, the last two of which had been legally recognized (I was at the wedding; they both wore purple and huge hats). Anyway, Minnie and Allison had like twelve cats, which were always getting in the way when I was mowing the lawn, even though cats are supposed to be afraid of lawn mowers, even manual ones. So I was trying to push one of these idiot creatures out of the way with my foot when I stepped in some cat poop, which was massively annoying because (a) it stinks like the devil wrapped in goat cheese, and (b) I’d just bought the shoes I was wearing the week before.
I stopped mowing, and Mr. Boots, the fat one, came over and started rubbing against my leg while I wiped the sole of my shoe on the damp grass. It was July, and July in Virginia is sort of damp and disgusting. The air. The grass. My sweat-coated body. You didn’t walk through the air so much as swim through it.
So I was trying to rub the poop off my shoe and fend off the attentions of Mr. Boots when Allison came hobbling out the front door with her walker.
“Sorry, Mrs. McArdle,” I said. “I’m almost done here. I just got a little hung up in some, uh, cat feces.”
Allison always fancied herself very modern. “You can say shit to me, Tommy,” she said. “It’s okay.”
She took a long look at me while I rubbed the sole of my shoe on her grass, then sighed. “I don’t suppose you heard about Minnie.”
I stopped the business with my shoe and looked up. “No, ma’am, I didn’t. Is she all right?”
“She passed away this morning,” she said.
You would think that living on a street where I was one of two people under the age of seventy (the other person being my father), I would get used to hearing that people have died. I mean, Minnie’s was not the first death I’d heard of in the last year, or even in the last month. Lake Heorot was something of a retirement mecca, recently developed and mainly populated by women long since collecting Social Security.
So I shouldn’t have been shocked or particularly upset by Minnie’s death, but I was. She’d been my friend, and she told great stories, some of which might even have been true. She had afternoon barbecues twice a year that I was always invited to, and she took good care of the flowers in front of her house, which made my father unreasonably happy. There was a vase in my dining room full of Minnie’s zinnias, which, I think, reminded him of my mother, though he’d never actually say so.
“I’m so sorry,” I said, which was a stupid platitude, but I never know what to say when somebody dies. No matter what comes out, it’s never enough, and the harder you try, the worse you seem to do. I grabbed hold of the mower. “I really shouldn’t be bothering you with the lawn mower today,” I said. “I’ll just pack up—”
“You aren’t bothering me, honey,” she said. “Minnie was always so fond of you. Come inside now, won’t you? There’s something I want to give you.”
I followed her inside, which took about ten minutes because that’s how long it took Mrs. McArdle to get her walker turned around and back up the porch, and she sat me down in the living room, facing Minnie’s teapot collection in its glass case.
“Wouldn’t you like some tea, dear?” Allison had a particular penchant for chamomile tea, which I hate. But my father told me years ago that when an old lady offers you tea, you had better accept it.
“Yes, ma’am,” I said.
From my perch on the couch, I could hear Allison puttering around in the kitchen, and I thought about the fact that Minnie Taylor was lying deceased in the bed upstairs, when she’d been outside in her unbelted dressing gown and her vast granny underpants only half a day earlier. Death is like that, I suppose. One moment you’re feeling the breeze under your clothes, and the next it’s all over.
I also wondered if Mrs. McArdle ought to be calling someone about, you know, the dead body, rather than serving me too-sweet tea. I didn’t say anything, though, because you really can’t point out a corpse in someone else’s home. It’s just rude.
Anyway, I was thinking of Minnie lying up there, gone on to her final rest in her fading purple nightgown. And then, there was Minnie coming down the stairs in that selfsame purple nightgown.
Two things occurred to me at once. The first was that I was seeing a ghost. The second was that Minnie looked rather annoyed for a dead person.
All I could think to say was “Holy shit.”
Minnie (who was ten years older than Allison and not nearly so modern) cut me a dirty look. “There’ll be none of that kind of talk in here, mister,” she snapped, which is how I knew that she was definitely not dead.
Allison came running in, or as close to running as Allison got. “Minnie!” she shouted. “You’re alive!”
“Of course I’m alive, you dolt!”
“But you weren’t breathing!”
Minnie stopped at the bottom of the stairs and crossed her arms. “Apparently, I was.”
Allison opened her mouth to argue back, hands on her hips, when the doorbell rang.
“Tom, you get that, would you?”
I answered it; it was Troy Tucker, who graduated from my high school a few years ago. No one had predicted any particular greatness from Troy, and he’d lived up to those expectations. I stood staring at his rather ill-fitting black suit, then I remembered that these days he worked for Green’s Funeral Home.
He nodded at me. “You here to pay your respects?” he said.
“Well, uh, actually . . . ,” I began.
“I’m here to collect the remains,” he explained.
“Don’t bother!” Minnie shouted from the foot of the stairs. “The remains are perfectly fine where they are, thank you!”
Troy looked to me in confusion. “I don’t entirely understand.”
“The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated!” Minnie hollered.
He shifted from one foot to another. “I don’t . . . um . . .”
Allison threw her arms in the air. “She’s not dead, you idiot!”
Minnie snorted. “Careful where you throw that label, Allie. Remember who thought I’d gone to the great beyond in the first place!”
“You were dead! I swear it!”
“I was not dead!”
Troy crossed his arms over his chest. “But I came all this way,” he said, looking from one of them to the other, as if to say he wasn’t leaving empty-handed.
Minnie shuffled forward and shooed Troy back toward the door. “There is nobody dead here. So you can go about your business. I’m terribly sorry for your trouble.”
“But I put on my suit! I used six dollars’ worth of gas!”
I could tell this had the potential to go on for a while, so I edged my way out the front door. Just as I closed it behind me, I heard Troy call out, “You already called Thompson and Frith, didn’t you? They stole half our bodies last month!”
Thompson and Frith is the name of the funeral parlor on the other side of town. Masonberg really isn’t big enough to warrant two funeral homes, but that’s how many old people we have.
I was pushing my lawn mower back to the garage when I heard Troy slam the door and peel off in Mr. Green’s twenty-year-old hearse.
Two weeks later, Minnie and Allison moved into an assisted-living facility way down in Key West, I suppose so they could have their vitals measured by actual professionals while lying on chaise lounges and drinking Hemingway daiquiris. The following weekend, Ellen Rothgar, Allison’s niece, moved in with her two kids, Rex and Willow.
I had no idea I would miss stepping in cat shit so desperately. (End parentheses.)
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I’m not sure how to describe “Grendel’s Guide to Love and War.” It isn’t as deep as it could be, considering Tom Grendel has a very difficult life, including a father suffering from severe PTSD. Yet it does evoke quite a few emotions by just skimming the surface of the issues he’s dealing with. It is also hilarious. Laugh out loud hilarious. If you’re looking for a fast read with a bit of an emotional roller coaster, give it a try. This unbiased review is based upon a complimentary copy provided by the publisher.