The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR5 Review #34 Out of the Easy

As I return to my victory lap worth of extra book reviews, I’m going to work in a few reviews of selections from the Children Literature Network’s suggestions of potential Printz Award Honorees. (You can read the full review and see my ballot at my other website: The Scruffy Rube)

Ruta Sepetys’ protagonist is less easy to relate to. Sure, Jo Moraine has some of the same problems and dramas that plague every girl on the cusp of 18: boys to choose from, applying to college, dealing with an absentee father, finding friends, balancing academics and work, avoiding the same mistakes her mother made, growing into her womanhood.

Of course, she’s also the daughter of a prostitute who is also caught up in a murder investigation set in 1950’s era New Orleans, so it’s not exactly a perfect match.

Still, It’s a credit to Sepetys that her characters are believable and the setting feels fresh rather than mothballed or stuffed with overwrought sentiment. The 50s and its segregated past are there, so is the setting of New Orleans, dank and musty. And still we can connect to the drama surrounding Jo, wondering whether or not she can break the cycle of dependency and degradation of life in the French Quarter and find a better place somewhere else.

It’s a further credit to Sepetys that she makes us care whilst juggling plotlines like a stilted mardi-gras parader juggles flaming torches. At times it feels a little ungainly (again, like the juggler on stilts), lunging for a plot point that you might have forgotten about, but she keeps them all in the air, and builds her world with a number of valuable, believable characters (even amongst those who only appear for a page or two).

In the end, Out of the Easy beautifully pairs a rich setting with a believable (if not entirely relatable) character. As Jo gradually ticks off each of her dramas, she becomes a powerful and winning character whose setting enriches her, even as she seeks to escape it.

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The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR5 Review #33 Al Capone Does My Homework

As I return to my victory lap worth of extra book reviews, I’m going to work in a few reviews of selections from the Children Literature Network’s suggestions of potential Newberry Award Honorees. (You can read the full review and see my ballot at my other website: The Scruffy Rube)

Al Capone Does my Homework

The central conceit of Gennifer Choldenko’s “Tale From Alcatraz” series, is that a group of youngsters who live on the island prison must navigate a dangerous neighborhood. Naturally, when surrounded by crooks and criminals there is a mystery cropping up on an almost daily basis. Who better to solve those crimes than the plucky group of youngsters?

Choldenko’s been successful with this structure before, her first novel–Al Capone Does My Shirts–won the Newberry in 2004. She goes above and beyond the boilerplate “kid detective” story line by having her protagonist (the thoroughly 30’s named, Moose Flanagan) also spend much of his time protecting his developmentally challenged older sister. Set at a time when children were supposed to be seen, not heard, and when mental challenges were something close to unspeakable, Chodlenko makes sure that the historical nature of her novel enriches the story as much as possible.

That said, there’s still a large degree of “mystery-by-the-numbers” plotting at play here. Awkward teenage love triangles, and sudden startling revelations feel like beats that must be hit rather than genuine slice-of-life moments. A small drama around Moose’s father near the end of the book gets the heart racing a little faster. But by and large Al Capone Does My Homework is an agreeable, if not riveting, youthful mystery.

Funkyfacecat’s #CBR5 Review #09: Dandy Gilver and a Deadly Measure of Brimstone by Catriona McPherson

My review of Dandy Gilver and an Unsuitable Day for a Murder is available on Pajiba.com. Dandy Gilver and a Deadly Measure of Brimstone occurs a few years later, set in 1929 just before the stock market crash. Dandy Gilver is the wife of a country gentleman,  the mother of two teenage boys, and a detective in the partnership of Gilver & Osborne, which illustrious agency has aided in the solving of several murders as well as insurance scams and jewel robberies between books.

The deadly measure of brimstone, with its associations of hellfire and witchcraft, is in fact the foul-tasting mineral waters of a spa in the tiny town of Moffat near the Scottish border, where people came during the Victorian era to “take the waters” and more recently to enjoy steamrooms and massages–and possibly other, more illicit–and as well as supernatural–goings on. What the comfortable and well-fed patrons don’t realise, however, is how desperate the owners of the spa are to make a profit. The doctor and manager of the spa are brother and sister, but have differing ideas of what to do with the place they inherited, and a patient was found dead under awkward circumstances… Dandy and Alec Osborne arrive into the town to solve a mystery, and Dandy’s family accompanies them to convalesce from pneumonia and whooping-cough. Soon even the family realises that something is rotten, quite apart from the sulphur in the drinking water.

Brimstone is a great read–the chemistry between Dandy and Alec crackles with familiarity and respect, the subplots are slightly unlikely but well-written and good fun, and seeing a maternal Dandy interact with her children–in previous novels away at boarding school or busy with estate managers brings a new dimension to the lady detective. I’ve really enjoyed the whole series of Dandy novels, and I hope there are more to come.

alwaysanswerb’s #CBR5 Review 60: The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt

“Hermann Kermit Warm is going to die. The enigmatic and powerful man known only as the Commodore has ordered it, and his henchmen, Eli and Charlie Sisters, will make sure of it. Though Eli doesn’t share his brother’s appetite for whiskey and killing, he’s never known anything else. But their prey isn’t an easy mark, and on the road from Oregon City to Warm’s gold-mining claim outside Sacramento, Eli begins to question what he does for a living–and whom he does it for.”

I enjoyed this book a lot. It moves fairly quickly, and has a wry sense of humor assisted by a touch of charming old-timeyness. It’s also poignant and thoughtful without being maudlin, and, not for nothing, I think the cover art is pretty cool. The story takes place during the Gold Rush, and the titular Sisters Brothers — their last name is Sisters — are infamous contract killers. Narration comes through Eli, the “sensitive” brother, and though I put “sensitive” in scare quotes, he really does seem like a kind of cuddly bear when you get down to it: he could definitely kill you if he felt so inclined, but he’d honestly rather not.

As I read this awhile back then settled comfortably into laziness regarding ever writing a Cannonball review again, I’m forced to rely on somewhat stale impressions. One thing I remember really enjoying was the dialogue — both the conversations themselves and Eli’s mental reactions to said conversations. For instance, Eli is about 200% done here with a would-be Scary Guy who is all talk: “Returning his pen to its holder, he told us, ‘I will have him gutted with that scythe. I will hang him by his own intestines.’ At this piece of dramatic exposition, I could not hep but roll my eyes. A length of intestines would not carry the weight of a child, much less a full grown man.” Another great remark comes later, from a man who shares with Charlie Sisters a possible reason for people overpaying, exorbitantly, for everything in Gold Rush-era San Francisco: “…I am happy to welcome you to a town peopled in morons exclusively. Furthermore, I hope that your transformation to moron is not an unpleasant experience.”

All in all, thumbs up. I had this on my reading list for awhile and was putting it off because though I had heard good things, it’s a member of a genre I don’t regularly gravitate toward. If I’d known how much I would enjoy it, I’d have picked it up a lot sooner.

Jen K’s #CBR5 Review #110: The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

I bought this novel in May because the cover caught my eye (and the pages are lined blue), and then didn’t even read it until September – I hadn’t heard anything about it when I bought it but over the summer, it started getting quite a bit of favorable buzz. Waiting was such a mistake – this novel was totally amazing, and I have only one small complaint about it, but I’ll get to that later.

Full review.

ElCicco #CBR5 Review #52: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

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This long read recently won the Booker Prize and has garnered much praise for its author, 28-year-old New Zealander Eleanor Catton. It’s an ambitious project, and every review I’ve read of it references Catton’s emulation of 19th century novels, a la Charles Dickens. The Luminaries, like a soap opera, involves a large caste of characters and complicated, intersecting story lines. Once you get through the first 400 pages, it starts to come together and gets a little easier to follow. I kept thinking as I was reading that it would make a wonderful mini-series (and would be easier to follow and keep everyone straight).

The novel opens on a dark and stormy night. Really. A weary traveler named Walter Moody stumbles upon a meeting of a dozen unusual men, men who wouldn’t seem to have any common cause. But of course they do, and it’s complicated, with each man telling his piece of the story. In short, it involves the murder of hermit Crosbie Wells, missing person emery Staines, drug-addled whore Anna, gold, and a very bad man with scar on his face. Catton spins her story both backward and forward, and between the dozen men at the meeting plus another half dozen or so important characters, it gets rather hard to manage at times.

One aspect of the novel I found confusing had to do with the gold. The story unfolds in an 1860s gold rush town in New Zealand called Hokitika. Catton has done extensive research on the gold rush and gets her economics and society facts straight, but the plot lines that involve gold — who’s got it, where did it come from and where is it now — read like a literary form of 3-card monte. I suppose it’s intentional, keeping the reader as confused and in the dark as the twelve men trying to find out what happened to the Wells, Staines and Anna. But then there’s the complication of the missing trunks (more than one!) and one character stealing another’s identity to commit financial fraud.

Another aspect of the novel that was lost on me had to do with astrology. The luminaries — sun and moon — refer to two particular characters, and the 12 men each stand for a sign of the zodiac. Each chapter begins with a chart of the zodiac for that particular day and how particular characters interacted with each other on that day. A character named Lydia, who works as both a madam and amateur astrologer, leads seances and reads people’s charts for them. Perhaps this is simply Catton showing popular interest in astrology at that time, but I’m sure there is some deeper, greater significance to all this astrological stuff that I’m just missing.

Still, I was willing to remain bewildered over the economics and astrology thanks to the brilliantly drawn and diverse characters and a story that holds together well if you stick it out to the end. The hookers here do not have hearts of gold, the Chinese miners are abused and not considered worthy of consideration, the pharmacist deals in opium, a politician is being blackmailed, and Walter Moody may or may not have seen a ghost. Striking it rich, forgetting one’s past and exacting revenge seem to be common goals on the frontier, and that makes for good reading.

The end of the novel does not provide the reader with all loose ends tied up neatly in a bow, but it was a satisfying resolution to me. On the whole, I liked the novel quite a lot. It can be a bit of a slog at first, but once you see the connections among the characters and the facts of their pasts slowly work their way forward, it’s an engrossing story.

Malin’s #CBR5 Review #135: North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

Young Margaret Hale’s life is turned on its head when her father, a parson from the South of England, renounces his position because he experiences a crisis of faith. He moves his anxious wife and dutiful daughter to the factory town of Milton Northern, where he’s going to work as a tutor. The town, a bustling result of the Industrial Revolution, is full of cotton mills, soot and smoke, a stark contrast to the pastoral idyll of the Southern English countryside. With the loss of Mr. Hale’s living, the family is in severely reduced financial circumstances, (not helped by the fact that they keep sending money to Margaret’s brother who is wanted for mutiny in England, and as a result living in exile in Spain) and can’t really afford more than a modest lifestyle. Margaret bravely adapts fairly quickly, but her mother never feels happy or comfortable in Milton and her health gradually deteriorates.

In Milton, the main social interaction the Hales have is with Mr. John Thornton, a mill owner who leases from Mr. Hale’s best friend, Mr. Bell (Margaret’s godfather). Thornton’s father drove his family into debt and further caused scandal when he committed suicide. Thornton had to quit school, and take a position as a shop clerk to support his sister and widowed mother. Putting aside most of what he earned, he slowly and quietly worked to repay all his father’s debts and became a respected and formidable man in Milton. His mother is a proud and arrogant woman who loves her son fiercely, constantly worried some fortune-hunting young miss will get her claws into him.

Full review on my blog.