Review: Neanderthal Opens the Door to the Universe by Preston Norton

Neanderthal Opens the Door to the Universe
by Preston Norton
Published: 5 June 2018
Publisher: Disney-Hyperion
Pages: 416
Formats: Print and eBook
Ages: Young Adult
Source: Physical ARC provided by Publisher
My Rating: 5/5!
Cliff Hubbard is a huge loser. Literally. His nickname at Happy Valley High School is Neanderthal because he’s so enormous - 6’6″ and 250 pounds to be exact. He has nobody at school, and life in his trailer-park home has gone from bad to worse ever since his older brother’s suicide.

There’s no one Cliff hates more than the nauseatingly cool quarterback, Aaron Zimmerman. Then Aaron returns to school after a near-death experience with a bizarre claim: while he was unconscious he saw God, who gave him a list of things to do to make Happy Valley High suck less. And God said there’s only one person who can help: Neanderthal.

To his own surprise, Cliff says he’s in. As he and Aaron make their way through the List, which involves a vindictive English teacher, a mysterious computer hacker, a decidedly unchristian cult of Jesus Teens, the local drug dealers, and the meanest bully at HVHS, Cliff feels like he’s part of something for the first time since losing his brother. But fixing a broken school isn’t as simple as it seems, and just when Cliff thinks they’ve completed the List, he realizes their mission hits closer to home than he ever imagined.

Razor sharp, moving, and outrageously funny, Neanderthal Opens the Door to the Universe is an unforgettable story of finding your place in an imperfect world.

Purchase: IndieBound | iBooks | Book Depository | Barnes and Noble | Amazon

Occasionally, when I read a book, I love it so much I have a difficult time putting that love into words. I don't know if it is a subconscious desire to keep the book for myself for a little while longer, or the fear of not giving due justice to how wonderful I felt that book was. It is probably, more likely than not, a combination of the two. So here I sit, trying to put into words just how much I loved Neanderthal Opens the Door to the Universe by Preston Norton.

At the heart of this story is Cliff, a 6'6" tall, 250 pound teenager trying to survive in a small town in Montana. His family life is tragic - alcoholic, lazy, abusive father, passive mother, an older brother who committed suicide - and he is bullied ceaselessly by his classmates because of how he looks. The kids at school call him Neanderthal, which is beyond cruel. He's a smart and passionate guy, but is constantly beat down by life and feels utterly alone. His brother, Shane, was his best friend and protector; with Shane gone, Cliff feels as though nobody will ever understand or care for him again. He deeply loves his mother, but is constantly disappointed in her resistance to stand up for him - and Shane before him - against his father. My heart broke for Cliff over and over again as I read through his story! It was like life was determined to make things impossible for this kid.

Then one of his top bullies gets in a terrible accident. After waking from a coma, Aaron Zimmerman approaches Cliff and tells him he has seen God and God has tasked him with enlisting Cliff to make their High School better for everyone. Clearly, Aaron has gone mad, right? Cliff reluctantly agrees to work with Aaron on completing the list God gave him to complete on their journey. Along the way, Cliff and Aaron become unlikely friends, recruiting others to their cause, and facing against religious teen zealots. I feel as though the guys got a very rough start, which was kind of entertaining to read about, but also a little scary. Cliff and Aaron make a good team, however, and I was so pleased to see them getting along, finding common interests, and bantering back and forth with one another. Truthfully, this book has a lot of humor in it, most of which comes from interactions with Aaron and Cliff. We get to meet some interesting characters throughout the story, which I could delve into deeper, but I feel it is Cliff who is the life and heart of this story and the world within it. Besides, I enjoyed getting to discover everybody just as Cliff was discovering them.

The writing style felt comfortable, fluid, and familiar in such a way that I felt like I was hearing from a close friend. I binge-read this book in an entire sitting, too! I am not the fastest reader on the planet, but I simply couldn't step away from Cliff without knowing he would be okay in the end. There were so many twists and turns, ups and downs, that I though I might get emotional whiplash. Regardless of the emotional turmoil I was experiencing whilst reading Neanderthal Opens the Door to the Universe, I fell in love with Cliff, the friends he meets, and his story of trying to make life better for everyone, one person at a time. This beautifully written book has so much heart, and though I am certain I have not adequately expressed my love and adoration for the story within, I greatly urge people to read this book and embrace the message it tenderly sends out into the cosmos.

Preston Norton is: bisexual, slightly genderqueer, married. His partner, Erin, is trying to put him on a diet, and he's revolting (both contexts apply). He has taught seventh grade and ninth grade English, mentored drug addicts, and mowed lawns (in no particular order). He is obsessed with 2001: A Space Odyssey and Quentin Tarantino.


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