Tuesday, April 22, 2008

REVIEW: Imaginary Friends by Darren Pillsbury


Jeff Tanner is trying his best to be a good father to his two young sons after the death of his wife. But it's not easy. His youngest son, Davey, is a mischievous smart-aleck. Older son Brian has withdrawn altogether, focusing only on his drawing. And Jeff himself is both lonely and uncertain how to move on.

But now things have gotten even worse. Jeff has started seeing strange, freaky creatures wherever he goes. Strange, freaky creatures that are becoming increasingly upset. And Jeff had better figure out why, because that agitation is turning into outright hostility. Towards Jeff. And they may be little, but they're everywhere.


There are no big surprises in Imaginary Friends. From the moment young Davey makes a Christmas wish that his father could see all of Davey's imaginary friends, we know that wish is going to come true. We know that the imaginary friends will cause chaos, but that, ultimately, they will help Jeff recognize what's important in life. We know that, as part of this process, Jeff will learn how to honor his wife's memory while also moving on, and that this lesson will revitalize both his relationship with his children and his career. Imaginary Friends is a story of holiday redemption; as such, there's only one place for the story to go.

But that's OK, because even if we know the eventual destination, the journey is a lot of fun. Pillsbury displays a flair for both big, comic set-pieces and quieter moments of loss and melancholy, and Jeff and his family and friends are charming, likable protagonists. Some characters, like precociously cute youngest son Davey and Jeff's spunky live-in mother-in-law, feel a bit too much like standard television sitcom archetypes. But others, like Jeff himself and introverted son Brian, keep the novel grounded; they're real people, with real flaws and problems that resist instantaneous resolution. Even the "imaginary friends" themselves, rather than being strictly cute 'n' cuddly, are appropriately menacing when riled.

As a result, although Imaginary Friends as a whole displays an appealing tenderness, it never descends into treacly holiday pap. Rather, there is enough bitterness mixed with the sweet to keep the reader involved, and this vitality easily compensates for the lack of narrative surprises. After all, we may know already know that the Grinch is going to learn to love Christmas; but that doesn't mean we can't still appreciate the real emotion underlying the tale.


Imaginary Friends is available for $12.95 from Amazon. You can read the first 80 pages of the novel for free at the book's website; further material, including the beginning pages of a webcomic adaptation of the novel (as drawn by Pillsbury himself), is also available here.

Incidentally, and unfortunately, the latest blog entry on the webcomic site illustrates how difficult it is for even a well-reviewed POD book to achieve much success. If you look at the nine (to date) customer reviews on Amazon, you'll see that Imaginary Friends has been widely praised, not just by the usual friends and family, but also by an Amazon top-100 reviewer, two top-50 reviewers and a top-10 reviewer. I'm aware of the debate about the worth of some of Amazon's top reviewers; nonetheless, one might think that having so many positive reviews would count for something.

But Pillsbury's blog reveals that "sales of the book have stunk," well below the (fairly minimal) 200-300 books he hoped to sell. The problem, of course, is that favorable reviews on Amazon can only sway readers who have already found the book. As always, the problem is getting the potential customer's attention in the first place. And as always, even for the worthy titles, there is, unfortunately, no easy solution.


Glen and the Sunshine Gang are a fun, quirky power-pop band that sing about fun, quirky topics like Jackie Chan ("Jackie Chan"), Jason Voorhees ("Friday the 13th"), and Billy Blanks ("Winners Anthem," which also has a nifty video).

Oh, and unicorns. Following their adventures in Imaginary Friends, I can perfectly imagine Jeff and his family singing along to the rousing chorus of "I Believe in Unicorns." I have a bit more difficulty picturing the family singing along with the ugly, death-metalesque bridge two-thirds of the way through, but even that aspect of the song is thematically consistent with the novel: just as Jeff's preliminary mistakes and failures make his ultimate growth all the more compelling, so too does the ugliness of the song's bridge make the final chorus that much sweeter.

All of Glen and the Sunshine Gang's songs are available DRM free for $0.89 each through Snocap on the band's MySpace page (where the band's two videos can be seen as well).

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