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Where Things Come Back

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Just when seventeen-year-old Cullen Witter thinks he understands everything about his small and painfully dull Arkansas town, it all disappears. . . .

In the summer before Cullen's senior year, a nominally-depressed birdwatcher named John Barling thinks he spots a species of woodpecker thought to be extinct since the 1940s in Lily, Arkansas. His rediscovery of the so-called Lazarus Woodpecker sparks a flurry of press and woodpecker-mania. Soon all the kids are getting woodpecker haircuts and everyone's eating "Lazarus burgers." But as absurd as the town's carnival atmosphere has become, nothing is more startling than the realization that Cullen’s sensitive, gifted fifteen-year-old brother Gabriel has suddenly and inexplicably disappeared.

While Cullen navigates his way through a summer of finding and losing love, holding his fragile family together, and muddling his way into adulthood, a young missionary in Africa, who has lost his faith, is searching for any semblance of meaning wherever he can find it. As distant as the two stories seem at the start, they are thoughtfully woven ever closer together and through masterful plotting, brought face to face in a surprising and harrowing climax.

Complex but truly extraordinary, tinged with melancholy and regret, comedy and absurdity, this novel finds wonder in the ordinary and emerges as ultimately hopeful. It's about a lot more than what Cullen calls, “that damn bird.” It’s about the dream of second chances.

228 pages, Hardcover

First published May 3, 2011

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About the author

John Corey Whaley

5 books910 followers
JOHN ‘COREY’ WHALEY grew up in the small town of Springhill, Louisiana, where he learned to be sarcastic and to tell stories. He has a B.A. in English from Louisiana Tech University, as well as an M.A in Secondary English Education. He started writing stories about aliens and underwater civilizations when he was around ten or eleven, but now writes realistic YA fiction (which sometimes includes zombies…). He taught public school for five years and spent much of that time daydreaming about being a full-time writer…and dodging his students’ crafty projectiles. He is terrible at most sports, but is an occasional kayaker and bongo player. He is obsessed with movies, music, and traveling to new places. He is an incredibly picky eater and has never been punched in the face, though he has come quite close. One time, when he was a kid, he had a curse put on him by a strange woman in the arcade section of a Wal-Mart. His favorite word is defenestration. His favorite color is green. His favorite smell is books. He currently splits his time between Louisiana and Los Angeles.

Where Things Come Back is his first novel.

NOGGIN, his second novel, is out on April 8, 2014.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 3,183 reviews
Profile Image for Maggie Stiefvater.
Author 81 books168k followers
January 10, 2012

1. So. This book takes place in Lily, Arkansas, but it could take place in Nowhere, Virginia, as well, a place I am well acquainted with. It takes place in a small town the same way that my life took place in a small town — not in a surface way, not in a Hollywood way, but in a way that touches every bit of your life. Not good or bad, really, just . . . grit and dust and gross gas stations and lots of church. I appreciate that it feels effortlessly real, not like Whaley is trying to convince me that it’s real. It just is what it is.

2. This book is about a guy sighting an extinct species of woodpecker in Lily, Arkansas. Actually, it’s not. That is there, but it’s subtext and it’s delightful. The reappearance of the Lazarus woodpecker stands for everything that Lily, Arkansas needs and everything that Lily, Arkansas wants. Well done, Book.

3. This book is actually about Cullen Witter and the day his brother Gabriel goes missing. I know what you’re thinking, because I was thinking it too. Whatever. I’m not normally a terrible person — okay, that’s a lie, I am a terrible, jaded person — but I really didn’t care about Gabriel’s fate when I opened this book. I was not really in the mood to read a quiet book about a boy coping with his brother’s disappearance. In fact, before picking it up, I informed one of my friends that all I wanted to do was read a book about helicopters, guns, and magic and I didn’t have a book that fit that description in my house, so I guessed I’d just read this one. This book had such an uphill climb in winning my affection. Even when it made me laugh in the first two chapters, I resented it. “How dare you make me laugh, quiet book? Do you have any helicopters? Any guns? Any magic? No? THAT’S WHAT I THOUGHT. Shut up!” The book did not shut up. And it turned out, I didn’t need any helicopters or guns or even any magic.

4. There are weird chapters from other people’s points of view. Again, I began my dialogue with the book. “Book, why are you telling me these things? Aren’t we supposed to be in Arkansas right now? Shouldn’t we be going home now?” I am here to promise you that those chapters not only eventually make sense, but also dovetail so delightfully with the main text that I was left saying only “well played, Book. Well played.”

5. It doesn’t really matter what this book is about. It’s a good book about a good kid and it’s a good story told remarkably well. In the last third, I thought there was no way that Whaley could really finish this in some way that I’d both believe and like, and . . . he did. So. Well played, Book. Well played.
Profile Image for karen.
3,988 reviews170k followers
September 3, 2018
what an unexpectedly delightful book.

i was given an ARC of this and i looked at it and said "gak - biiirrrddss!" and figured i would read it when i got around to it. after some awfully gentle prodding, i got around to it and i read the damn thing in one day, tearassing through it with great glee and awe.

this book is a sad and unpredictable gem.
but with plenty of moments of humor.

it opens with a death-by-overdose and a million instances of the word "ass-hat" - a word i had never heard before being on this site, so it grabbed my attention right from the start, and i placed in that mental category of "books that would never have been marketed to kids when i was a kid", when we had to read sanitized books while walking uphill both ways yadda yadda.

and then it really gets going,and blossoms into two separate stories that eventually dovetail, but not in a way that is predictable. this book kept playfully yanking the rug up from under my feet until it finally all came together. this is great writing.

the best thing about this book is that it feels like magical realism even though there is nothing decidedly magical about it.it just feels like there is something subterranean that wants to push through and release all this crazy stuff into the text, but it is just being carefully suppressed, like a laugh at a funeral. there is a lingering presence of magical possibility that is felt but never revealed.

mostly it is quietly sad. it doesn't make a big tearful spectacle of itself, even though since the centerpiece of the story is the disappearance of a fifteen year old boy, it could have easily gone that route. but its moments of sadness manifest themselves in small and understated scenes; details really.again, it is very cleverly handled.

the only thing i wasn't crazy about was his single writer's quirk: to insert paragraphs beginning with "when one" as in "when one is lying on the floor of his bedroom exactly ten weeks and three days after his brother has vanished off the face of the earth, he begins to imagine a grandiose scene." which punctuate the narrative as these little distancing techniques the narrator uses to slip into a world of fantasy, often about zombies, which is fine, but the repetition of the phrase "when one is" got on my reading nerves a little, like a skip in a record.but overall a charming and endearing book, and i will read any book this man ever writes, hopefully as an ARC so i can get in there before anyone else.

come to my blog!
Profile Image for Aj the Ravenous Reader.
1,051 reviews1,050 followers
December 6, 2016

This is one of those stories that heavily relies on the theme that every element, character and symbol was manipulated to evoke said theme and in my observations, that’s usually a good thing. It’s what brings books to literary nominations and stuff. In my own personal opinion though, sometimes it’s also these same literary elements that interfere with the “feels”, with the reader’s enjoyment of a book and with being able to relate with the characters because often in life, things don’t always have symbolic meanings. Sometimes, a place is just a place and a bird is just a bird and yet I could still take some sort of appreciation from that simple truth. Still, I do appreciate the literary devices, the POVs, the unusual plot structure and how things came together in the end. It would be a really good material for academic literary analysis. ;)
Profile Image for jv poore.
616 reviews213 followers
December 16, 2021
I read this book based on a Goodreads Review posted by @maggiestiefvater. Writing a review of something that Maggie has already reviewed would be like me offering a vending machine honeybun after someone has had a November Cake. For a review, see hers: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...

I can tell you that this book is haunting. I sat down to read the first chapter, and before I knew it, I was more than half-way through the book, and I was running very, very late. Without a doubt, I would not sleep until I finished the book. I went for a run. Passages kept drifting through my mind. I was stuck in traffic, so I mulled over what I had read; I anticipated what would come next. When (finally) I picked the book back up that night, I read until 1:00 am (despite having the alarm set for the ugly hour of 5:00 am). I have no regrets. This is an outstanding novel.
Profile Image for Lyndsey.
126 reviews3,188 followers
May 5, 2011
Oh, Cullen Witter, would one please stop talking about oneself in third person?

Where Things Come Back is told mostly from the first person perspective of the young man, Cullen Witter (well, except for when he often talks about himself in the third person) whose fifteen year old brother disappears. Cullen lives in a small town town that just happens to be obsessed with woodpeckers, specifically the long-presumed extinct Lazarus Woodpecker. Both the town and Cullen Witter develop a strong obsession with the disappearance of the young boy and the possible reappearance of the rare bird.

It also follows a third person narration based around a group of religious characters that may or may not have a relation to Cullen's small town and it's obsessions. The writing is very dry and far from descriptive. It can be rather staccato, especially in the beginning, while it becomes slightly more fluid toward the end. Though it is a quick read, it can be difficult to stay involved.

Strangely, I feel like it was meant as some sort of subliminal messaging for the main character to be called Cullen. Like "Please read my book young girlssss... There is a young man named Cullen. He is very sssssensitive like another certain Cullen, but this one doesn't sssssparkle." The names in general are just ridiculous.

This is getting three stars for the ending and the way everything came together so well. Otherwise, it would have been a two, because it just didn't engage me throughout a large part of the book. The beginning and middle weren't so strong, but the last 40 pages or so made up for it a bit.

Quite often, the author goes off on tangents about things that don't quite feel related to the important characters or the plot. The book actually felt like being inside someone's head. I know, I know. That's what a book is supposed to feel like, but to actually be inside someone's head wouldn't be as exciting as it sounds. There is a lot of extraneous information in our minds. This book was short but held too much irrelevant information.

One thing I took away from this book was a new favorite word. I love saying asshat. I don't think I had ever used the term in my life before this book. In fact, I've never heard anyone use the word asshat in real life. But now it's kind of growing on me.

I called my dog an asshat the other day... But that's because he sat on my other dog's butt. So it was relevant to the situation. The next day, I called him a furry walking cliche for being interested in a big red fire hydrant. See - that was just a random thought in my brain that you didn't necessarily need to know. It was in no way related to this review, but a perfect example of the deviating anecdotes you'll receive in this book. And they are many.

This book also happens to be another example of writers writing about writers. Oh, what an original concept.

Sometimes it bothers me that writers often write about characters who are also writers. I understand that you write what you know. However, I really feel that unless it is central to the storyline, then it just looks like the author is using a cutout of themselves as a character. Cullen Witter seems like a prime example of this phenomenon and we can all now lovingly refer to him as "Gary Stu".

I'm not saying that it wasn't well done in this case. I enjoyed the injection of book title ideas throughout the chapters and the parallels between his stories and his life.  My grip is mainly about the amount of authors who add the title "writer" to their characters unnecessarily.

I am also a writer, but when I'm reading I try my hardest to get into a reader state of mind. A large majority of readers are not writers and might feel somewhat alienated when authors feel the need to constantly include a writer character. Unless I'm looking specifically for that kind of book, I don't necessarily want to read about writers.

Since I can't speak to what annoys other people and I certainly can't pretend to know what non-writers think about characters who are writers, I would like to pose a question:
Whether you write or not, does it annoy you when authors so often create characters who are also writers?

Overall, this was a decent debut novel and shows great promise. I definitely enjoyed the few pages near the end that were more descriptive and action based. With such good in depth plot development, I would be interested in reading more from Whaley... Maybe something more crime based or suspenseful? Just a thought.

(Thanks to S&S for allowing me to read this as an ARC!!)
Profile Image for Maja (The Nocturnal Library).
1,013 reviews1,920 followers
January 10, 2013
If there's one thing I've learned in the two and a half years since I joined GoodReads, it’s this: when Maggie Stiefvater recommends a book, I read it. Period. She had nothing but praise for John Corey Whaley’s award-winning debut so I ordered it with no questions asked. I just did it because Maggie said so.

Where Things Come Back is such an unassuming little book. It’s like that small, quiet kid in class other kids never even notice, but if they did, they’d see that he is well-read and fiercely intelligent and has a bright future ahead of him.

In Lily, Arkansas, Cullen Witter is living his average life with his average parents and his not-so-average younger brother. He works at a grocery store, doesn’t really understand girls and is generally pretty socially awkward. Then one day Cullen’s brother Gabriel disappears without a trace and his whole life gets turned upside down. To add insult to injury, the people in Lily are more obsessed with a supposedly extinct woodpecker than with a missing sixteen-year-old.

On the other side of the world, Benton Sage is having doubts about the nature of his mission in Africa. He feels that handing out food and a prayer isn’t enough to save people. He wants to do God’s work, and passing out food, water and Christ as quickly and efficiently as possible seems far too simple and not nearly enough.

The two stories come together in a very unexpected way that is sure to take your breath away.

Whaley has an amazing talent of telling extremely dramatic stories in a decidedly non-dramatic way. Throughout the book, Cullen seems oddly detached, almost unfeeling, but even when you catch glimpses of his emotions, they’re not outbursts but rather quiet confessions from a character who would much rather remain unnoticed. This character, and most Whaley’s characters, really, are amazing in their simplicity and all of them are unique, from desperate mothers to religious fanatics.

What you need to know about me is that I don't like to hug people with whom I'm not romantically involved. I also don't really like to shake people's hands, sit close enough to touch someone, or feel other people's breath on my skin. If you're the type of person who likes to do any of those things, then I won't pretend to understand you.

Although it won both the William C. Morris Award and the Michael L. Printz Award, Where Things Come Back is not for everyone. It has the feel of a classic and I’m certain it’s on its way to become one, but like all classics, it requires a certain amount of patience and trust in its author. If you have that, this beautiful little literary gem will undoubtedly find its place among your favorites.

Profile Image for Tatiana.
1,406 reviews11.7k followers
April 5, 2011
3.5 stars.

Where Things Come Back is a pretty good debut effort (and not so good choice of cover). A little hard to describe though.

17-year old Cullen Witter is passing his time in a tiny Arkansas town. There is nothing interesting or exciting going on. Cullen is simply waiting for his final high school year to be over and to move on to a life less dull. Everything changes when Cullen's younger brother Gabriel suddenly disappears. If Cullen thought his life was bad before, it becomes unbearable now.

On the other side of the world, in Ethiopia, 18-year old Benton Sage works as a missionary. Soon, however, he abandons his work in search of an occupation that could utilize his skills and his calling better.

The best part of Where Things Come Back (besides the fact that it is compulsively readable and hard to put down) is how these two seemingly unrelated story lines come together through years and continents.

What is not so great about this book is that I think it lacks focus. Cullen's part of the story is primarily a study of grief. It follows Cullen and his friends and relatives and shows how they deal with the disappearance of Gabriel. It is a fragmented narrative where characters appear and disappear and go through hard times emotionally. Their episodic appearances are mostly with no beginnings or endings. I suppose it is reflective of real life and maybe this randomness of life is the main point of the whole novel, but in my fiction I expect and like a better defined, tighter story.

Benton's part is even less solid. He is just a link in a chain of events that eventually connect the two story lines.

In the end, I can't help but compare Where Things Come Back to similarly themed Once Was Lost. Zarr's book is definitely a more rounded, better shaped work.

Whaley's book, on the other hand, is more amorphous and muddy in what it tries to say, but not without its kernels of wisdom. I particularly liked this one: ...Life has no one meaning, it only has whatever meaning each of us puts on our own life.
Profile Image for Joel.
556 reviews1,667 followers
April 28, 2011
I won a book! I won a book on First Reads!

Where Things Come Back is a YA debut novel about a disgruntled teen in small town Arkansas (is there any other kind?). 17-year-old Cullen Witter would be an emo teen if Lily was big enough to support fringe subcultures. But he's got all the attributes: over-sensitive, journal-writing, picked on by jocks (every town has those), unlucky in love (until, of course, he becomes extremely lucky in love, a twist integral to the plot, but whatever).

The book takes place over one dreary summer, during which the totally undistinguished small town becomes the talk of the nation, apparently, due to the rumored reappearance of the Lazarus Bird, a large breed of woodpecker thought gone from the world (good thing they gave it such an ironic name!). In the midst of all this excitement, Cullen's younger brother Gabriel suddenly vanishes without a trace, throwing his family life into turmoil.

Cullen's story takes center stage, but is intercut with seemingly unrelated chapters about Benton Sage, a young missionary serving overseas. Do you think perhaps these stories will turn out to be not so unrelated after all?

So, this book was decent. It was pretty ambitious for a YA novel, dealing with sex, and abuse, and religion and suicide. A lot of the writing is quite nice.

But I didn't like it very much. It hits a lot of hot-button areas for me, none hotter than the central voice: books from the point-of-view of sensitive teenage boys are incredibly hit-or-miss, and it is rare that I find one that strikes me as genuine (Nick & Nora's Infinite Playlist was really uncomfortably close, until it wasn't; Salinger is still the winner here, oh how original of me).

Cullen Witter was not my Holden Caulfield. In fact, his stilted narration, displaying as it did the vast majority of the first-time novelist's most irritating tics, was but one entry on the admittedly rather unfair list of reasons this book didn't really do it for me. So, without further ado:


1) The missing Gabriel Witter is described as an elusive and mirthful sprite, with a devil-may-care attitude when it comes to others' opinions of him, an admiration for the music that no one else listens to, a notebook full of song lyrics and a closet full of band t-shirts. So... he is a hipster. Perhaps in a small town in Arkansas, the hipster is as rare a beast as a thought-to-be-extinct woodpecker; I still have trouble being impressed by someone whose exclusive tastes in unexplored music range no further than Sufjan Stevens and TV On the Radio. "Where does he find this stuff?" Cullen marvels after coming across a notebook with the lyrics to Staring at the Sun. I don't know, NPR? The New York Times? Entertainment Weekly? Rolling Stone? Saturday Night Live? They have the internet in Arkansas, right?

Also his favorite book is Catcher in the Rye, of course.

2) Benton Sage is described as having grown up in a militantly Christian evangelical home, with a tyrant father who made him memorize and recite the bible endlessly. Yet somehow he's 18 and on a mission trip in Ethiopia, of all places, before he learns about the Nephilim, those angel/human hybrids you may have read about in a recent terrible book, even though they are right there in Genesis and Numbers.

3) Speaking of Ethiopia, Benton is there for a whole chapter and there is no mention of how delicious Ethiopian food is. This took me out of the book somewhat, because if I were writing it, most of it would have been set around a dinner table. But not only does John Corey Whaley fail to include such a scene, he in fact invents a dinner scene in which Benton has to choke down a meal. Dear Mr. Whaley, consider this an open invitation: if you are ever in Chicago, I shall take you out for one of the finest inexpensive meals you will ever experience.

4) I am from a very small town (less than 5,000 people, at least when I lived there). While not all small towns are created equal, the small town of Lily, Arkansas did not feel like a real place to me. I will overlook the fact that 3,900 people are somehow able to support multiple fast food chains and a Wal-Mart (the economics don't make sense to me, but I can't say for sure that this is so in the south). I cannot get over the fact that the appearance of a perhaps-not-as-extinct-as-was-previously-thought woodpecker has everyone in town talking.

OK, I can buy that maybe a few restaurants would try to cash in on some woodpecker-related media attention, assuming there was somehow any sustained media attention beyond a featured spread in The Audubon Society Newsletter, but come on: the woodpecker burger, kids sporting dyed woodpecker haircuts, a woodpecker festival, tourists swarming the town? Don't the people have anything better to do, like meth? That's what everyone in my town did. It reminded me of the stupidest part in The Last Starfighter, when the whole town crowds around to watch Alex beat the top score on a video game. People: you have a TV. Watch it.

5) Cullen's relationship with his brother was totally odd. Only two years separate them, but Cullen dotes on and romanticizes his brother like he's a precocious 5-year-old. "'Ornithological cannibalism! That's even worse!' I shouted back, before jumping into the air and running down the hallway to my room in a childish manner that only brothers exhibit around each other." Really? I am not familiar with that one. Josh?

6) Cullen is an annoying narrator anyway. He likes to occasionally talk about himself in the third person, or in the less personal "when one finds oneself blah blah blah..." way that drove me up the wall. Suddenly, halfway through the book, he also starts overusing a-bunch-of-words-stuck-together-with-hyphens-type adjectives, which, fine, but why didn't he do that earlier? Editorial uniformity, please! He also affects the habit of coming up with imagined titles for books he will never write, which end each chapter. I swear I have seen this somewhere else; regardless, it makes me want to punch his face.

7) Without spoilers, I thought the way the two stories eventually tied together to be anticlimactic, implausible, poorly motivated and kind of silly.

8) The names are all very silly (Cullen Witter and Gabriel Witter and Benton Sage and Russell Quitman and Cabot Searcy and Alma Ember). The silliness is compounded when they are constantly referred to by their full names, Dawson's Creek-style.

I guess that's it. I am picking on this book. It is a fine, upstanding book that just kind of annoyed me for my own reasons, explicated above (the same ones that grated when I read the similar The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Looking for Alaska).

Neither here nor there: one of the reviews blurbed on the author's website describes this one as a "thriller." No. This book is not a thriller. Unless, perhaps, you live in a town where bird-watching is a community-wide spectator sport.

P.S. As I said, this was a First Reads win. In the spirit of sharing the love, you (yes you!) are welcome to my copy! Just PM me with your address, or I will add it to GR swap tomorrow. Claimed!
Profile Image for James Francisco  Tan.
190 reviews160 followers
June 14, 2019
"When someone is sad and hopeless, the last thing they need to feel is that they are the only ones in the world with that feeling. So, if you feel sorry for someone, don’t pretend to be happy. Don’t pretend to care only about their problems. People aren’t stupid. Not all of us, anyway. If someone’s little brother disappears, don’t give him a free hamburger to make him feel better—it doesn’t work."

Profile Image for Martha.
1,222 reviews12 followers
April 26, 2012
The concept of this book was very promising, and I think it could have been a great success in the hands of a more experienced/skillful writer. As it is, however, I was a bit underwhelmed. The writing felt clumsy--always telling, seldom showing. For example, anything humorous anyone ever said was always identified by the phrase "he [or she] joked," presumably because otherwise the reader might not realize it was a joke...? I know I'm getting petty here, but it did get a little irritating after the tenth or so repetition. And then key parts of the plot just did not ring true for me, particularly Benton's suicide, which didn't seem to have much basis, and Cabot's gradual descent into nuttiness, which also didn't seem to have much basis. I will say I kept reading to the end because I wanted to find out what happened to Gabriel, but things got tedious enough in the middle that I almost didn't make it. There were a few nice touches that gave me hope for this author--the main character's fondness for making up book titles, and the endearingly pretentious yet vulnerable way he talks about himself in the third person as "one."
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Ioanna ms✨.
193 reviews122 followers
August 3, 2019
Το βιβλίο αυτό ξέχασα ότι το διάβασα μέσα στο 2019, κι αυτό για μένα λέει πολλά 😂 περίμενα μαγικό ρεαλισμό στο στιλ του αγαπημένου μου βιβλίου, "The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender", όμως ΚΑΜΙΑ ΣΧΕΣΗ😂 Υπερβολικά αργό, χωρίς καμία ιδιαίτερη πλοκή, δεν σε κάνει να συμπαθείς και πόσο μάλλον να συμπάσχεις με τους χαρακτήρες, γενικά...stay away!
Ο μόνος λόγος που το τελείωσα είναι το ότι είναι πολύ μικρούλι και είπα ααααντε😂 αλλά σας εγγυώμαι πως για μένα ήταν γολγοθάς αυτές οι 200κατι σελ.
Profile Image for HBalikov.
1,787 reviews674 followers
February 27, 2022
“Look at our town,” Gabriel said, “look at the people. How many happy people do you see in a day? How many people do you see who seem fulfilled?”
“I’m fulfilled,” Mena butted in.
“You’re young enough to think you can get out of here,” Gabriel said without hesitation.
…”That’s the thing---this is a town full of people who used to be like us. You think anyone in Lily grew up dreaming about raising their families here? You think if they all had a choice, they wouldn’t leave tomorrow?”

Lily, Arkansas is the small town where this story is centered. Gabriel is the younger brother of our main character, Cullen Witter. Lucas is Cullen’s best friend. There is a lot of sadness as the story opens. Then someone says they saw a bird of a species that had been considered extinct for half a century.

But that’s not all. Another thread of the story concerns Benton Sage, about the same age as Cullen but already on a mission, trying to convert Africans to Christianity. When that proves less than successful he returns to his patriarch-dominated family in Georgia and college and a roommate named Cabot Searcy.

Both Benton and Cullen have friendships that they don’t understand and come to question (as many adolescents do). Both are confronted by a personal crisis and respond in very different ways.
The bulk of the book recounts Gabriel’s disappearance and its effect on Cullen and his family; we follow along Cullen’s narrative wonder when will this “extinct” bird enter the story and what effect it might have.

I had my doubts about how a supposedly extinct bird, the Book of Enoch, a missing brother and evangelicalism could be pulled together. A better reviewer than I am might trace the path backwards from this book to Holden Caufield and The Catcher in the Rye. Whaley, perhaps, lets his reach exceed his grasp, but this is a fine tale of adolescent angst. My GR friend, jv poore, says that this tale haunts her. I am interested to see if the same will be true for me.

Profile Image for Snotchocheez.
595 reviews336 followers
July 25, 2016
3.5 stars

I took a risk on John Corey Whaley's debut (and Printz Award winner) Where Things Come Back, as I wasn't really wowed by his sophomore attempt, the cute but far-fetched cryogenics tale Noggin. I'm happy to report this was in many ways a much better read than Noggin; much more mature and grounded, a very engaging and believable story, not nearly as sappy. The only problem I had with it (which almost with each instance of its use became a deal-breaker, and made all the more glaring by the novel's relative brevity) was Whaley's cutesy-poo decision to stray from protagonist Cullen Witter's capable first-person narration and scatter annoying third-person reveries, almost all of them starting with the words "When one is..." One or two times would've been fine, but after the tenth instance, it became a big distraction.

And with plot threads this good (two of them, really), I didn't want distractions! Of the two, the present day one of Cullen's life in snoozeville Lily, Arkansas was the best. In a town barely big enough to boast a Walmart, the town is desperately grasping at straws to find some sort of claim to fame. It finds one thanks to an unlikely source: an ornithologist's discovery of a rare woodpecker in the area. Meanwhile, protag Cullen, a not-quite-sullen wimpy kid spends his days in the last year of high school dreaming of escaping the misery of small-town monotony. The ennui is shattered, not by his town's umpteenth homage to this newly exalted rare woodpecker (dubbed "The Lazarus Bird", or raised from the dead), but when first his cousin Oslo dies of an overdose, then straight-laced younger brother (and closest ally) Gabriel goes missing.

A parallel plot thread weaves its way into the mix with young man from Atlanta doing missionary work in Ethiopia, feeding the poor and spreading "the Word", but (thanks to some studies in the Ethopian Orthodox Church's apocryphal Book of Enoch, with its discussion of fallen angels) becomes disenchanted with his role in the church.

As I mentioned in my reading progress update, this is one of the most mature YA books I've ever read (and certainly the Bible-iest). Whaley mixes these two plot threads in such a clever and compelling way that makes this really accessible for readers of all ages. The only reason I didn't give it all the stars was a few stylistic missteps of Whaley's that grated my patience a bit. I related to the story a lot, and (for the most part) really enjoyed it.
Profile Image for Hassan.
113 reviews60 followers
November 18, 2015
when you create two story lines to make them entwine at the end, in an attempt to make the readers mind blow, you probably have a very weak plot.

this is one of those contemporaries that i was really excited about because i heard a lot of good things about it, and i heard it's mysterious and weird, and it was short so i felt like this is gonna be a one-sitting book that'll grab me from the first page, but unfortunately from the very beginning of this book i knew it gonna suck, now the plot of this book is so weak as if there's no plot, and literally all the plot is that someone went missing, That's it, there's nothing else in the book, at all.

it's about the struggle of a boy called Cullen after his brother Gabriel went missing, the first story line is entirely about Cullen and how his life became after the disappearance of his brother, the other story line is some patched up story that seems so distant in the beginning from the Cullen story line, and then in some cheap and random way the author entwine the two stories, but what's really lame and annoying that both of the story lines had so little of a plot, like both of them are just causal conversations or meetings, or stuff that is unrelated to the main plot, which is that "Gabriel went missing", so that made the book boring and incoherent.

anyway, if you think that there's deep meaning in this book or anything there's not, it's just a guy grieving his missing brother, and that's it no plot, nothing at all.
you gonna start the book by knowing that his brother will go missing, and nothing will happen at the entire 224 pages till you finish.
Profile Image for Isamlq.
1,578 reviews707 followers
April 22, 2011
I'll keep this short: I needed this. After a series of really shitty not so good reads over the past couple of days, Where Things Come Back reassures me that there are stories worth the effort of not sleeping.

My one complaint though is that it’s cover does not give what’s inside justice. That aside, I really enjoyed this book, the characters and how things came together.

On one hand there’s Cullen, and on the other there’s Benton: two people not connected at all, but through a series of events, and a bunch of people… one is made. Much like my experience with On The Jellicoe Road, I found I could not put this down: A. I found myself wanting to know a bit more about Gabriel, who sounded just too perfect, mellow… kind. B. I also found myself pleasantly surprised with how and when Cullen’s and Benton’s two stories merged (collided?)


*Thanks to Simon & Schuster Galley Grab*

Profile Image for Regina .
61 reviews170 followers
February 10, 2016
[4.5] Sin duda superó mis expectativas y me dio tantas cosas en qué pensar. Es increíble cómo una historia tan simple puede involucrar temas tan complejos y desarrollar al mismo tiempo personajes llenos de simbolismo. Este libro logró eso y mucho más.
Profile Image for Susan.
1,289 reviews16 followers
May 12, 2013
Warning: Huge spoilers in this review. Absolutely do not read unless you have already read it, will never read it, or completely do not care that I will give away the biggest secret of the story.

OK, having said that...

I couldn't stand this book. I would have put it down two chapters in, except for my book club. They all insisted it would be good because it won the Printz Award, and I try hard to finish all book club books. Prior to the spoiler, two things, mostly.

1. This book was clearly not pitched for me. It's a Young Adult book, and I am 41. I am wildly not the intended audience. Now, Harry Potter is a YA book, too, and is fantastic and holds my interest completely, so it's not that I think YA *can't* appeal to adults. But this is just intended for people in a different life space than me, and I spent most of the book thinking that I would give it at least 3 stars out of respect for the fact that if the right audience was reading this book, it was probably pretty good.

2. One of the major things that didn't work for me that might well work for a teenager was that the bulk of the novel was a young person stuck in a dinky little town with few personal choices and things happening *to* him but him doing very little to change what is going on around him. I can't stand stories like that. There's no STORY there. Being a passive recipient is not, to me, worthy of a book. But then, being a teen can feel like that, so again... maybe that is just part of being the wrong audience.

(Here comes the spoiler, and why I hated the book and will trash it to anyone who asks.) Then came the part where the mystery got solved. The mystery is that Cullen's brother Gabriel disappeared without a trace one day. Here's what happened: Cullen had a date that evening with Alma, who was just back in town and getting a divorce from Cabot, who didn't want to let her go. Cabot had flown into an airport an hour away the night before, rented a car, and driven to Alma's house. He talked to her mother and to her. He found out she had a date with Cullen. He went to a convenience store, talked to a young clerk, and found out where Cullen lived. He drove around and asked several people for directions. Then he got there, mistook Gabriel for Cullen, and abducted him.

In a town of 4000 people... where everyone knows everyone. If the police could do even a half-assed job, then when they investigated, they would have found out about the date, the impending divorce, and the psychotic almost-ex. They would have found out he had been in town, had flown in but not out. They would have found the license plate of the rental car... that he clearly did not have money to rent. They would have searched for the missing psychotic almost ex-husband... and found Gabriel.

The mystery DOES NOT HOLD TOGETHER. Not one bit. Not even remotely. The whole thing falls apart unless you consider the police completely incompetent, and everyone in town who was involved in helping a stranger find the street where a boy went missing to be deaf, blind, and dumb.

And even young adults deserve much better books than that.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Liam.
290 reviews2,311 followers
December 20, 2014
can't even begin to explain how much I love this book! I feel like this book has inspired me and really effected me in many different ways.

the story and the way it developed was truly brilliant, it had me hooked from literally the first chapter. I couldn't predict what was going to happen and the ending was just wow!

I don't think I've ever related to a character as much in my life as I did with the main character, Cullen. It's cringey but I really do feel like he's given me hope and made me feel like I am not alone with my thoughts and feelings, I just wish I could meet him and thank him in person.

I'm truly speechless, I just don't know what else to say about this book. It is DEFINITELY one of my favourites, if not my new favourite and I really urge everyone and anyone to read this book!
Profile Image for Irmak.
400 reviews848 followers
October 21, 2016
O kadar uzun sürdü ki kitabı okumam. Bunda hem benim bu aralar kitap okuyamamamın etkisi var hem de kitabının dilinin ağır oluşunun. Çok zor okunan bir kitaptı Her Şey Burada Başladı ve Bitti. Ama ben bütün zorluğuna rağmen kitabı sevdim. Okuduğum en ilginç kitaplardan birisiydi sanırım.
Bana göre herkesin sevebileceği bir kitap değil. Zor okunmasından dolayı pes edebilirsiniz. Ama dediğim gibi bütün zorluğuna rağmen sevdiğim bir kitap oldu.
Umarım artık okuma hızım normale döner bende doya doya kitap okurum :'(
Profile Image for Kwoomac.
836 reviews37 followers
March 18, 2012
This book started out so great. I was seventeen when I saw my first dead body. For me, it just didn't sustain that initial pull. The format flipflops between two stories, culminating in their inevitable collision. I loved the chapters which focussed on Cullen Witter. He's a seventeen year old boy, dealing with more than his share of problems. (see above). His younger brother Gabriel disappears one day, leaving no clue behind. I was riveted by his story. We watch as his world slowly crumbles. He's a great kid and it's just heartbreaking. The alternate chapters deal with a religious zealot. I didn't like listening to his manic religiosity and so found myself skimming these chapters. So my three stars are completely for Cullen.

There were a couple of others things that tripped me up along the way. I'm sure it was because I was already annoyed by the religion-stuff. But anyway. Whaley uses the term ass-hat all the time. It's a term I find particularly frustrating. Okay, call someone an ass, that's fine. Calls to mind a dumb, pack animal. Pretty good insult. Call them an asshole. I think that's visually impressive. But an ass-hat. That's just stupid. I know the author didn't invent the term but it bugged me. Maybe if he had just said it once, but it appears over and over. And over again.

The other annoying thing is his oft-repeated style of describing someone's look by saying things like she had that I'm-too-tired-to argue-with-you look. That's not an actual quote though because this is my I'm-too-lazy-to-go-back-to-the-book-for-actual-examples look. Is it just me or is that annoying ? Again, used in moderation, it would have been clever.

So, in summary, yay Cullen. He's worth reading about.

This completes the Morris award part of challenge.

Profile Image for Cinda.
Author 33 books11.2k followers
December 16, 2019
This has been on my to-read shelf for a long, long time. Having met the author and heard all the hoopla, I was eager to find out what it was all about.
It's sometimes the case that award winners may not be all that appealing to actual teenagers. That might be the case with this book. It was very cerebral, stream of consciousness, with what seemed like totally unconnected plot lines and characters coming out of nowhere for unknown reasons.
It was the voice and the unique characters that kept me turning pages more than the mystery of the missing teenager. Well worth reading if you can stay with it.
Profile Image for Grace (BURTSBOOKS).
153 reviews361 followers
March 17, 2020
I thought I didn’t care about this book but now I’m done and all I can do is cry
Profile Image for Nicole.
Author 10 books15 followers
August 4, 2013
Well, I read this book in about a day, so that's a good indication that I enjoyed it. I liked Cullen as a narrator; his voice and perspective kept me hooked. I also enjoyed most of the secondary characters he interacted with, Lucas especially. I am not from the South, nor from a small town, but Whaley did a good job of portraying that atmosphere, and how everyone knew everyone (and their business, to a point). I didn't even mind when Cullen would slip into his third-person narrative briefly ("When one is X, he might imagine..."), which to me seemed a way for him to emotionally distance himself from all that was going on around him. Even when he does it at the very end, the reader is experiencing all kinds of emotions when none of it is actually explicitly stated in the text. It was a believable coping mechanism throughout the book for a seventeen-year-old boy whose younger brother was missing.

I did find the use of it at the very end interesting because in almost all other instances in the book (that I can remember, anyway), Cullen's slip into the third person often frames a fantasy he is imagining while other things go on around him. For example, when Lucas and his father are digging the hole, thinking they will find Gabriel's body, Cullen waits and slips into a third-person narrative where he imagines his zombie brother emerging from the ground. So while the last scene of the book is a bit different in tone from Cullen's other third-person scenes (it's still a way to distance himself from the emotions involved but it doesn't seem to be a fantasy), I am still wondering if it's what really happened, or if it's what Cullen imagined or wanted to happen (how he fantasized he would greet his brother should he return). After some thought I do think it's supposed to be real, but I still question that because of how it's framed.

The second narrative line, with Benton and Cabot, I found less interesting and engaging despite how it tied in with Cullen's narrative. At times it almost seemed unnecessarily convoluted to me, even though I understood that it was showing how Cabot went from being just a college kid studying philosophy to someone capable of kidnapping. It also had a bit of an odd resolution. If we're operating under the assumption that the last scene of the book is reality, and Cabot allows Gabriel to return home, does Cabot just give up his obsession like that, believing Gabriel to be the angel reincarnated, and after he ruined his life to pursue the 'mystery' he thought Benton left behind? There's so much development of how Cabot becomes the way he is when he encounters Gabriel, yet his story is cut off with no resolution. Because of the structure of the book, I would argue that Cabot's as good as a secondary narrator, and thus I thought the conclusion of his part of the book was lacking a little. Cullen's arc is resolved when Gabriel returns (even if it's a fantasy), but Cabot's is left open.

Knowing what we know about Cabot, I almost find it more likely that he killed Gabriel. After devoting himself to the Enoch mystery left to him by Benton, and if he does believe that the angel Gabriel is to be held responsible for holding humanity back, and he seems to believe Gabriel Witter IS the angel Gabriel, then why would he 1) believe Gabriel when he says Cabot is not 'the one' (the one meant to solve the mystery) and/or 2) let Gabriel return home? But that is only possible if Cullen's final scene is in fact a fantasy, which of course changes the entire book. And I might just be entirely off-base in thinking the ending could be interpreted that way. But with the Lazarus woodpecker not being real, and the whole "no second chances in Lily, Arkansas" news headline on the TV toward the end, I think either interpretation is possible: either Gabriel does return, in defiance of all those failed second chances, or he doesn't return, validating the sentiment.

I have time before my book club meeting for this book, so perhaps I'll read this again more carefully to see if I'm just pulling at straws here. But I hope I'm not, because I like the idea of this ambiguity, and it also makes the conclusion of Cabot's side of the story less flat for me, because then it's feeding into the either/or instead of just feeling unresolved.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Thomas.
1,520 reviews8,996 followers
January 17, 2013
"It was one of those moments when you're waiting on someone to say something important or funny or just do anything to break you away from the sad thoughts that overwhelm your mind. Thoughts like never having enough money to move away or not getting into college. Thoughts like having to come back to take care of a sick parent and getting stuck here all over again. That's what happened in Lily. People dreamed. People left. And they all came back."

Winner of the Printz Award for excellence in young adult literature and the William C. Morris Debut Award, Where Things Come Back didn't blow me away. It contains two stories that start out separately but intertwine in the end. One features Cullen Witter, a seventeen-year-old who likes thinking more than doing and isn't sure what to do when his younger brother disappears. The second revolves around Benton Sage, a religious prodigy who doubts the impact of his mission trip in Africa. Throw in a larger-than-average woodpecker, imaginary zombies, and an awkward high school romance, and you have the plot of John Corey Whaley's debut contemporary novel.

Three words to describe this book: quiet, understated, atmospheric. Whaley slowly but surely established the small, southern feeling of a town in the middle of nowhere - the setting of this story was one of its strongest aspects. I also appreciated how Cullen's detachment from his surroundings did not destroy the themes of the novel; it made me think about my own life, about how I don't know for sure where I'm going yet and how I'm not sure what I want to study in college (besides English, of course.)

However, I lacked a larger emotional connection to the characters and the plot of Where Things Come Back. The last thirty pages or so were splendidly written and superb in their execution but the rest of the book bored me. While Whaley integrated some interesting philosophical points throughout the text, they weren't enough to make me truly invested.

I recommend this to fans of a more modern Catcher in the Rye or a subtly strong book about the disappearance of a younger brother in a southern town. I'm curious to see what Whaley will write next.

*review cross-posted on my blog, the quiet voice.
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