In a high school full of shifters, it's the one inquisitive human who poses the biggest threat.
When a human is the only applicant for town veterinarian and moves to Shifterville with his teenaged daughter, Amelia, the town residents conspire to keep the humans in their midst from discovering their secret. If only they can keep Melvin away from Amelia.
Melvin Moose has a problem. Anytime a girl gets too close, his antlers go on walkabout, popping out of his human head at the most inopportune moments. As if that weren't bad enough, a human girl just enrolled at his school, and if she catches sight of his unruly rack, it's all over for Shifterville.
Warning: This book contains typical teen language, which does include the occasional swear word. It is also full of rampant, teen hormones and the subsequent fallout.
The Trouble with Antlers (a.k.a. Melvin's Rampant Rack) is a fun novella (or novelette, or whatever you want to call it. It's short.) written by A.J. Culey and illustrated by Jeanine Henning. Yup, it has pictures. But no, it's not a kids book. It follows the misguided antics of a hopelessly awkward high school nerd, Melvin, as he attempts to make sense of his feelings for the new girl in school, Amelia. It's a tried (or tired) and true story line of the convoluted mess that is puberty, high school, and early romance. However, the manner in which it is delivered is what makes this particular telling of a trope special. And so much fun.
Oh, where to begin...
First off, it needs to be made clear that part of what makes this story unique is that everyone in it is a "shifter" (people who can turn into animals), EXCEPT for Amelia, the new girl in town. The plot revolves around Melvin trying to prevent Amelia from learning the town's secret. What makes this difficult is that Melvin, who is a moose-shifter, is entering puberty and cannot control when he shifts. And the humorous part is that a big trigger is Amelia. Near her, or even thinking of her, Melvin sprouts giant antlers. Hence the title and subtitle. Yes, it is one big innuendo.
It may seem juvenile, but the humor in the book is what makes it so enjoyable. Maybe it's because I was an awkward kid in school just like Melvin, and can so easily relate to the trouble negotiating puberty. But that's the beauty of this book. It takes something so universally experienced and understood and paints it a new color. I spent the entire reading with a smile on my face and chuckled aloud to myself on a number of occasions. Culey does a great job of taking the obviously sexual humor of a teen sprouting antlers at the sight of a girl and makes it feel refined. None of it seemed off-color or inappropriate or wrong. And when I say it was funny, I don't mean in the sense of dirty jokes we told each as teens, but in a genuine sense of well-crafted humor. These aren't cheap laughs. It would be easy to fill a book like this with lame one-liners and cringe worthy gratuity. But Culey somehow keeps it sophisticated. And that's no small feat.
The writing is solid and the editing excellent. Though it's a short work, with pictures, about rampant teenage hormones, it doesn't read like a teen or young adult story. It very solidly feels meant for adults. And I say that not because of the content, though there is some swearing and it's one big innuendo, but because of the writing style. And the appeal. I'm sure plenty of teens would enjoy the book, but I think it is so much more geared toward those adults that can look back at a similar time in their life and laugh about it. Being awkward (like Melvin) is far more enjoyable ten years after the fact.
Now, as great as the writing and story is, I can't write this review without mentioning the illustrations. Culey was kind enough to send me a print copy of the book and I am so glad she did. Because that is truly the way to enjoy this book. Throughout the short book, there are numerous colored illustrations of relevant scenes. And the style gels so well with the writing that you'd think the same person did both the writing and illustrating. But that's not the case. The illustrations were done by the very talented Jeanine Henning, and they are the deliciously perfect cherry on top of a well-sculpted sundae. The illustrations are well detailed, yet still cartoony enough to convey the humor of the book. And there are over a dozen in just 90 pages.
This is going to be a stretch for me.
First, because the illustrations are so brilliant and lend so well to the overall package, the book is best enjoyed in print. Or, at the very least, on a large screen, full color, tablet/ereader. As I said, I was fortunate enough to be given a print copy. Which is good, because when I read ebooks, I do so on a Kindle Paperwhite, which is only black and white. And if that had been the case, I wouldn't have gotten the full experience and would honestly have reviewed it lower. So, the book's greatest strength is also a limiting factor, as most people opt for ebooks nowadays, and may miss out on the full experience.
Now along that same line of thinking...if you're going to read it, the print edition is superior. However, that comes with a somewhat stiff price tag of 14.99 (Amazon). As a author myself, I totally understand why the price is such for a book that is only 90 pages. The illustrations are a large part of that equation. And having read it, I can say with utter conviction that the price is so worth it. However, for those just browsing around for something to read, it's going to be a turn off. Often, readers will compare the price to page count in determining whether to buy a book. That's nonsense, of course, but that's just how it is.
I loved, loved, loved The Trouble with Antlers. And given what a quick read it is, I'll be sure to return to it multiple times. It just makes me smile. The humor, subtle sophistication, and nostalgia of it combine to make a winning creation. And the illustrations are just perfect. The choice to have it illustrated (and by such a skilled artist) was a great decision on Culey's part. If you can get over the price point, buy this book in paperback. You won't regret it.
Comedy, especially of this nature, is difficult to do well, but Culey does just that, creating a story that is perfect for us nerds who made it into adulthood and can look back and laugh at the ridiculousness of high school.