Book Review: The Secret Place by Tana French

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Star Ratings:

Characters: ***** (5 stars)

Writing:**** (4 stars)

Plot: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: ***** (5 stars)

Tana French said in an interview: “You can be a perfectly healthy person without having kids or having a romantic relationship – you can live a full, happy, healthy life. I’m not sure you can do that without friends.”

Well, I’m not sure if I’d call the group of girls in The Secret Place healthy or happy, necessarily, but there’s no denying that their lives are full, full, full.

Full of each other: Holly, Julia, Selena, and Rebecca don’t care what anybody else thinks. They have each other, a stolen key to the door out of St. Kilda’s, and a vow to stay away from boys while together at school. The four girls consider their group a family, their lives at the prestigious Dublin boarding school the best they could imagine. A future without each other is not worth thinking about – the important things are now. here. together.

Full of magic: chilly nights in a moonlit cyprus grove on St Kilda’s grounds. Light bulbs that burn out when they will it. Something they all feel, four different ways: a balance that needs to be kept at all costs.

Full of secrets. Someone falls in love. Someone meddles. Someone else thinks she knows how to put things right. Someone can’t keep what she suspects to herself. The girls, in trying to keep each other safe, stop sharing everything.

* * * * * * * * * *

Last year, Chris Harper was found dead on the grounds, killed with a garden tool to the head. The groundskeeper they arrested after the fact didn’t do it, but with no other clues, the lead detectives moved on.

Then Holly Mackey goes to the police with a card off St. Kilda’s confessional post board, “The Secret Place.” Unlike the boob jobs and shoplifting on most cards to be found there, this one has a photo of Chris and the message “I know who killed him.”

This is detective Stephen Moran’s chance to get out of Cold Cases and into Murder. He knows Holly from when she was a witness in a case years ago. (I guess this was in French’s previous book, The Faithful Place, which I haven’t read.) Moran figures he can get the St. Kilda’s girls comfortable enough to talk to him, while the belligerent, insensitive, ultra-clever Antoinette Conway takes charge. Conway’s not easy or fun, but she could be his ticket into Murder. Dodging Mrs. McKenna’s iron rule over the students and reputation of St. Kilda’s, the two of them narrow their pool of interest down to eight girls. Two cliques: Holly’s friends and the bitch-princess Joanna Heffernan’s. While they originally suspect one of these girls as the confessional card maker, one excruciating day investigating and interrogating leads them to be sure that one of the eight girls is actually their murderer. No amount of Stephen’s charm or Conway’s doggedness will get the truth out easily, though, because these girls will lie to protect their own even when they don’t know the truth themselves.

* * * * * * * * * *

The Secret Place dragged me into its claustrophobic little world after around fifty pages, and was constantly on my mind. Police procedurals aren’t my usual jam at all, but I’d heard great things about Tana French, and this book in particular. Someone at a dinner party recommended The Secret Place during a conversation about how much we all loved boarding school books. Her suggestion was so spot on.

The novel’s timeline was spliced up interestingly: the detectives’ time on campus takes place over one single day, while alternating chapters lay out the whole year previous to their involvement. I’ll admit that whenever a sentence stated, so casually, “Chris Harper has X number of weeks to live,” I felt a little chill. Once the story hooked me, the St. Kilda’s girls, the Colm’s boys, even the hallowed halls seemed like my own personal acquaintances. Such a reminder of cruel fate seemed unfair.

 Unfairness is a prevailing theme, here. When a girl tries to do the right thing, or makes a difficult choice, things should work out for the best from then on. They are so loyal, the believe so hard, and the damned world just doesn’t reciprocate. I’m only just growing out of those convictions myself, and it’s painful. Tana French has done a wonderful job balancing between cold realism and sympathy in showing how teenage girls’ inner lives can’t protect them forever.

There were, of course, some things I didn’t understand. I haven’t read any of the other Dublin Murder Squad books, so the stuff about Holly’s past as a witness left me curious. Our main gang of girls – the four we live with for a year and more – develop some strange powers that may or may not be real, but we’re left hanging on the subject by the end. I liked the surreal touch of magic, myself, but I wonder if more specific crime readers might find it frustrating. Detective Moran’s easy repartee with young people didn’t quite match up with his calculating, almost desperate, interior monologue.

The detecting chapters that didn’t focus intensely on the girls or the school weren’t nearly so vivid as the chapters leading up to the murder, though I did love the alternating format as sometimes it let the reader know more than the characters, sometimes less. Sometimes I thought I knew something, only to learn one hundred pages on that I was very wrong indeed. You’ll never have a chance to get comfortable while reading this book, but you’ll want to stay in it for a long time anyway.

* * * * * * * * * *

This is the first book to grab me and not let me go since I finished The Raven Cycle while I was in Scotland. Tana French’s writing isn’t quite so sharp and lyrical as Maggie Stiefvater’s, but she has a similar grasp on the intense bonds of friendship, the lengths to which which teenagers are willing to go, the real magic of secrets and trust. This is definitely a book written for adults, but older teenagers still nursing a series-hangover after The Raven King might find some distraction in the dorm rooms and midnight grounds of St. Kilda’s.

I’ll finish now with a stanza from the Katherine Philips poem that hangs over Rebecca’s bed in their dorm room, because it is so appropriate:

“Why should we entertain a feare?

Love cares not how the world is turn’d.

If crowds of dangers should appeare,

Yet friendship can be unconcern’d.”

Near the end of the book, Detective Moran remembers that poem, but its meaning has chanced after they face three hundred pages of secrets and revelations:

“…That doesn’t mean nothing bad can happen, if you’ve got proper friends. It just means you can take whatever goes wrong, as long as you’ve got the. They matter more.” (p. 429)

So much bad happens in this story. But the sentiment proves true, and so we never fall into complete despair: they matter more. Intense? Yes. Unsustainable? Maybe. Who cares? The Secret Place reminded me how real and powerful even the smallest details can be when you’re young and your friends are your entire world. So even the wild overreactions and incomprehensible lies make sense. It’s all to protect something too rare and magical and important to let go without a fight.

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Book Review: The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch

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Star Ratings:

Characters: ***** (5 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: 15 and up (contains torture and language)

I’m still recovering from the madness of the holidays; selling books at Christmastime doesn’t leave much brain- or will-power left at the end of the day for actually reading them. This will be a woefully shallow review, then, of a complex fantasy novel that I heartily enjoyed.

The Lies of Locke Lamora is Scott Lynch’s fun and smart addition to the world of big-ass fantasy books. Winter is the time for the Big Fantasy Novels waiting on your shelf. (Max Gladstone suggested as much in his nice article for The Book Smugglers here, so we know it’s true.) Perhaps the week before Christmas is not the best time to get embroiled in a 700-ish page chronicle of crime and religion and disguises and betrayal. Once I realized – about fifty pages in – that the twists and turns would be nagging at my mind for hours after each lunch break, it was too late to turn back.

In Scott Lynch’s rollicking and elaborate first installment of the Gentleman Bastard series, traditional fantasy meets the film “Casanova” meets The Count of Monte Cristo and even “The Sting.” Layer upon layer of cons and deceptions raise ever higher stakes in the expertly crafted plot, featuring a team of anti-heros who will steal your heart as they make off with all the money they can get their hands on.

The setting is reminiscent of Renaissance Italy – complete with extravagant mob bosses and descriptions of mouthwatering Mediterranean-style feasts. But it builds on a foundation of unknown, and possibly alien, origins that I’m anxious to learn more about as I continue reading the series. It’s not necessarily a pleasant city, though the rooftops owned by Camorr’s wealthiest citizens boast enchanted alchemical gardens, and the glass structures left over from before this era of men make for some impressive surroundings. The slums are horrifying and the upper crust festers just below their shining surfaces. Somewhere in between the grime and the glitz, the “Gentleman Bastards” steal from the rich and give to themselves, following the unscrupulous principles and meticulous training they received as wayward children.

Locke Lamora grew up on the streets of Camorr: an orphan with more guts than glory, trained up by the Thiefmaker from a very young age to cut purses and trick the gullible. His ambitious nature gets the better of him a few too many times, though, and the Thiefmaker sells the boy to Father Chainsthe “eyeless priest”, begging at his temple door – to get rid of this living liability. Father Chains is not the pious servant to the god Perelandro that he pretends to be for the benefit of generous passers-by, though. They are priests to the “nameless thirteenth” god: The Crooked Warden, Thiefwatcher and Father of Necessary Pretexts. (How great is that last title, eh?) Chains’s little band of bastards learns how to fake their way through the fanciest of dinner parties and fight their way through bad streets, all for one constant goal: relieving the dons and donas of their copious wealth.

Camorr has a duke, but he’s barely a side-note compared to the mafia-esque Barsavi family; the wealthy money-changer who has a hand in every deal; and the sinister branch of law enforcement known as the Spider. Locke and his friends swindle every single one of these powerful figures, and in doing so find themselves tangled up in more dangerous politics than they bargain for. The “Thorn of Camorr” might have all the best disguises and the self-confidence of a man twice his size, but the mysterious “Grey King” has taken an interest in their expert methods. By the time this first book shudders to an end, all the glory that goes along with each intricate con will be tainted and splattered with the trouble that the Grey King’s involvement brings to this family of friends.

The rough and winsome team of con men have to charm (or bludgeon) their ways out of some very sticky situations. Sticky with blood, expensive alcohol, fake-beard glue, and more blood. I had to speed-read through a few torturous scenes in Capa Barsavi’s floating fortress, and not only the pages about hungry sharks. The good humor that binds Locke, Jean, Bug, and the Sanza twins together is good for several laughs and frequent wry smiles, but this book is not a comedy. Senseless deaths happen, as they so often will in a fast and short life of crime. Bad men fortify their reputations with body parts. I’m easily grossed out, but the plot, characters, and world-building were good enough to keep me going through the nastier interludes.

On more than one occasion, I would flip back a few chapters to double check which name Locke was using, or which of the duke’s favorite dons was which. The names were a little hard to keep track of, and there are quite a lot of characters. But these complexities make the multiple deceptions all the more delicate, and therefore more exciting to watch as they unfurl and – sometimes – explode. The several hundred pages pass by quickly, because so many conflicts seem to involve a dangerously ticking clock, and Scott Lynch keeps the cogs turning at just the right pace. Locke and Jean’s past is revealed through short interludes interspersed throughout the immediate action, and I never wanted to leave either time line behind at the end of a section. Don’t tear through the story too fast, though, because even the conversations that don’t involve knives against anyone’s throat can be enlightening and entertaining. Irreverent repartee in the face of likely death never fails to make me smile, and the Gentlemen Bastards have a knack for it.

Also: strong bonds of friendship drive most of the book’s emotional impact, with no real romance to speak of. Hurrah! There are hints to Locke’s connection with an absent female member of the Bastards, and I’m hoping to read about her soon enough, but it’s all brotherly loyalty and family ties that cause the heartbreaks in The Lies of Locke Lamora.

I always keep an eye out for what sort of roles female characters fill in fantasy novels, and I have high hopes that Scott Lynch will continue to give his ladies the same capacity for both noble and self-serving actions as the characters he introduces here. I hear there are some rather swashbuckling dames in following books, and I can’t bloody wait. While none of the few main characters in this first offering were female, several major players in the plot were women of very varied morality and means. Educated alchemists, a bossy mafia daughter, and calculating old ladies – all as vivid as the ragtag group of men we follow most closely. Of course, the politics of a whore house had to be included, and I’m tired of whore houses in fantasy worlds, but at least these working folks got to take revenge on brutal men. And otherwise, I would say that Lynch is more in touch than many of his counterparts with the need for female characters of varied moralities and with diverse motivations. (I particularly like his response to a question on the subject here. Again, hurrah.)

I first came across Scott Lynch’s writing in the anthology Rogues, which I reviewed here. His short story was about a group of criminals who have to somehow steal an entire street, while a violent sorceress gleefully messes things up. It was a nifty story with characters I wanted to hang out with for a longer time. Now I want to spend more time with the Gentlemen Bastards, too. If the rest of his writing stands up to what I’ve read, then I’ll probably need to clear some shelf-space for the many pages full of heists, horrific mis-steps, friendship, and duplicity. I’m keen to read more, and look forward to a winter daydreaming about whatever scrape our not-quite-heroes need to get out of next.

Book Review: You Can’t Win by Jack Black

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Star Ratings for Nonfiction

Writing: *****  (5 stars)

Narrative: **** (4 stars)

Interesting Subject: ***** (5 stars)

Objectivity and research: **** (4 stars. This is a memoir.)

Overall: ***** (5 stars)

Age range recommendation: 14 and up.

The gents at my favorite coffee shop are on a roll with the book recommendations, lately.  You Can’t Win was described to me as “the memoir of a hobo turned safe-cracker turned house burglar turned highwayman turned librarian.”  You can probably imagine that I nearly dropped my maple spice coffee (yum) in eagerness to get my hands on a copy.  I ordered one the moment I got back to work, and have ordered another since to give as a gift.  It was just that good.  I want to call the book “inspiring,” but it’s probably a bad idea to immortalize one’s admiration for such a practiced criminal as Mr. Black on the internet.  So let’s just call it a riveting story, told with level-headed clarity and enough rollicking anecdotes to turn Jack Black’s life into a series of adventures well worth re-telling.

America in the early 20th century was a wild and crazy place. Saloons and opium dens were everywhere, housing wayward women and desperate men; bad men; or pretty much any other crooked variety of fella. Prisons were uniformly horrifying – even more so than they are today – and reforms had only just started. People still carried gold money on horseback. And security measures for houses and trains weren’t quite up to snuff. The West, especially, was paradise for train-hoppers; hobos; “yeggs”; stick-up men; gamblers… any manner of folk who made their living going against the law.

Jack Black (an alias, I believe) didn’t start out as a criminal. His story begins with a quite loving description of childhood years at a Christian school. Right off the bat, he ruminates on the lack of a mother in his life, though his portrayal of the nuns who took care of him shows that there was no lack of decent adult influence in his upbringing.

“It has often been a question with me just how much the best of it a boy has, who has his mother with him until his feet are well planted under him; who has a home and influences until he gathers some kind of a working philosophy that helps him to face the world… Looking back at it, it seems to me that I was blown here and there like a dead leaf whipped about but the autumn winds till at last it finds lodgment in some cozy fence corner. When I left school at fourteen I was as unsophisticated as a boy could be. I knew no more of the world and its strange way than the gentle, saintly woman who taught me my prayers in the convent.”

Jack’s father, too, is described with respect and care. In fact, I was touched by how Mr. Black’s protective nature towards his father’s reputation and feelings only grew throughout his life of crime, which is why it’s not hard to sympathize with the distance he keeps between them in later, more adventurous, years. Even as a kid, his knack for business and shrewd observational skills get Jack into troublesome learning experiences.

“The books so fired me with the desire for travel, adventure, romance, that I was miserable most of the time.”

Well, it won’t be long before travel and adventure fill Jack’s days, though misery is always snapping at his heels. (As for romance… you won’t find much of it in You Can’t Win. One of many reasons I loved the book.) His first arrest is a classic case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Subsequent incarcerations are the unhappy results of more purposeful ventures. Jack Black writes candidly about his resilience in crime, neither apologizing for his misdeeds nor whining openly about the hard life of a roving thief.

I was wrong. I knew I was wrong, and yet I persisted. If that is possible of any explanation it is this: From the day I left my father my lines had been cast, or I cast them myself, among crooked people. I had not spent one hour in the company of an honest person. I had lived in an atmosphere of larceny, theft, crime. I thought in terms of theft. Houses were built to be burglarized, citizens were to be robbed, police to be avoided and hated, stool pigeons to be chastised, and thieves to be cultivated and protected. That was my code; the code of my companions. That was the atmosphere I breathed. ‘If you live with wolves, you will learn to howl.”

Black’s unabashed memoirs are told in a fairly linear fashion, though every now and then he’ll mention the untimely demise of a fellow “yegg,” or write ominously about a future mistake as yet unknown to his younger self during the exploit of the moment. Most cases of foreshadowing lead to reciprocal and gratifying anecdotes later on in the narrative. Jack Black is a good writer: trust that he will reveal the conclusions of any and all story-lines that conclude neatly enough.

Characters – real people, yes, but certainly their colorful personalities deserve the term – filter in and out of his acquaintance as fate (or the judiciary system) lead their paths together and astray. From the first time he witnesses a fellow train-hopper get squashed by the cargo, through partnerships with the likes of “Smiler;” “Foot-and-a-Half George;” and “The Sanctimonious Kid,” Jack is a diligent observer of the attitudes that best suit a man on the road. Charming criminals, hardened ladies who orchestrate connections in crime, and even leaders of bloody prison break-outs take Jack into their confidence quickly and easily. I think that his quiet, unassuming nature serves him well in the field. Reading his recollections has made me want to write careful descriptions of the people I encounter: their mannerisms, their ways of speech, and even the measure of their moral standing. You never know when they might turn up in your life again, fifteen years later, harboring a grudge or willing to spring you from behind bars. Bums and highwaymen tend to have interesting backgrounds of their own accord, but it takes a memory like Mr. Black’s and a simple-but-crystallized handle of the English language to give such individuals real life on the printed page.

His voice never falters into sentimentality or veers towards the arrogance of a man who has succeeded where others have not. Sometimes he needs help, and he is grateful when he gets it. Sometimes he has the chance to assist a fellow disreputable soul, and he does so without expecting congratulations. There were runs of bad luck which made me cringe at the injustice of it all – a real life of crime has no guarantee of satisfaction at the end of several months’ plotting, despite what novels and films would have us believe. But there are still moments of triumph and even unexpected kindness to keep his mind in the game for so many years.

The era of saloon shoot-outs, railroad heists, and sacks of gold has dwindled into our less-thrilling modern age of electronic money and biometrics. I probably wouldn’t like to go through my days in a hail of bullets and a succession of jail cells, but it was awfully fun to read Jack Black’s account of such a life. His subdued good humor and unusually merciful view of human nature have rubbed off on me a little bit. If more “good” people adopted an attitude like this one “bad” man, I think we would all have a better idea of how luck and life all even out in the end.

“A bleak background! Crowded with robberies, burglaries, and thefts too numerous to recall. All manner of crimes against property. Arrests, trials, acquittals, convictions, escapes. Penitentiaries! I see in the background four of them. County jails, workhouses, city prisons, Mounted Police barracks, dungeons, solitary confinement, bread and water, hanging up, brutal floggings, and murderous straitjacket.

“I see hop joints, wine dumps, thieves’ resorts, and beggars’ hangouts.

“Crime followed by swift retribution in one form or another…

“In those twenty-five years I took all these things, and I am going to write about them.

“And I am going to write about them as I took them –with a smile.”

(Here’s another good review of the book, which helped inspire me to buy it sight unseen.)

Book Review: What Is Left The Daughter by Howard Norman

Another realistic, grown-up book set on the Atlantic coast? I guess it was that kind of weekWhat Is Left The Daughter is the final book I read while on vacation.  It was a lovely, bittersweet conclusion to several days of reading and writing by the crashing waves.

Reading on the rocks at Schoodic Point.

Reading on the rocks at Schoodic Point.

Star Ratings:

Characters: ***** (4 stars)

Character Development: *** (3 stars)

Plot **** (4 stars)

Writing **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: 15 +

Both of Wyatt’s parents died on the same day, when he was seventeen years old.  His mother and his father jumped off of separate bridges in Halifax, unbeknownst to one another, because they were each having an affair with the same woman.  How’s that for the beginning of a fellow’s adult life?  Odder, still: Wyatt’s story only gets more tragic and tangled from there. His parents’ demise takes up barely one chapter, setting up for twenty one years of bittersweetness and unexpected calamity. He look back on it all so calmly, though – so open to irony and wry observances – that the book is nicely devoid of too much self-pity.  The writing is candid, not maudlin.  And whenever Wyatt’s remembered experiences reflect too much pent-up tension, a funny conversation or absurd circumstance reminds us not to take things too seriously.  

This novel is framed as a long letter to his daughter, looking back through the decades to when the action began.  After his parents die, Wyatt moves to live with his Aunt and Uncle in a smaller Nova Scotia town called Middle Economy.  With no particular plans for the future, he agrees to become an apprentice to his Uncle Donald’s trade making sleds and toboggans.  Donald and Constance are raising an adopted daughter, Tilda, who quickly captivates Wyatt’s attention with her “ravishing” beauty and lively charms.  Tilda a strange, likable girl: she wants to be a professional mourner and reads all the obituaries, but she’s also fashionable and charming.  In scenes when other characters stumble through awkward social situations, Tilda shines with conscious good humor.  

Life in 1940s Middle Economy has a gentle rhythm into which Wyatt falls easily enough.  He keeps his love for Tilda secret (she sees him as a cousin despite the lack of shared blood).  He tries hard to please his kind aunt and impress his uncle.  But World War II rages on, bringing a reality of violence to Canadian shores in the form of U-boats, deaths overseas, and a constant threat of spies.  Uncle Donald and others start to fixate on the dangers of German weapons sinking their boats and endangering their waters.

So when a German philology student comes to town and gets close with Tilda, the rhythm of Middle Economy is thrown out of balance. Hans Mohring is no Nazi – he and his family moved away when Germany started to spin out of control – but his accent and his attentions rile up some citizens of Middle Economy.  Uncle Donald shatters all his own beloved Beethoven records in a moment of suspicious anger, to make a point. (Music and trust run in the same metaphors throughout What Is Left The Daughter, illuminating certain characters’ deeper conflicts.)  Some army boys rough up the friendly owner of a Halifax music shop because Hans was teaching him a little German language.  Tilda and Hans eventually move above the local bakery – owned by a delightful local lady who takes no nonsense from any townsfolk – and plan a hurried wedding.  Throughout all this, Wyatt hovers somewhere between friendship and an aching jealousy which bursts out at unfortunate moments.  What was once a peaceful seaside town soon fills with pockets of unease.

And then a boat is sunk.  And then a murder.  And then a split-second decision which will change everything for Wyatt, his family, and the town.  There’s an image which I saw so clearly, I felt like I was standing in the house myself: Tilda sitting at the kitchen table while the song playing skips on the gramophone.  The needle keeps jumping over a bullet hole.  The gun in Tilda’s hand, pointed at her head, is at contrast with her measured voice.  It’s a moment of still clarity in the midst of panic.  It’s the calm before a slow storm of tragedy.  

Things can never go back to the way they were, and the next twenty one years bring Wyatt through changes of circumstance which, eventually, guide him back to his childhood home, where he writes to his daughter.  The second half of the book isn’t quite so vivid and moving as the chapters in Middle Economy, but they’re realistic and still an interesting picture of one man’s altered life in such a charged time period.  Characters resign themselves to unhappiness for a while, then have to look for comfort when it gets too hard.  There are so many heavy hearts in this book and they all need someone to bear the weight now and then, even when injured pride and the messy past would recommend solitude instead.  The war ends, time passes, but Wyatt still has to live with the consequences of his actions.  His letter to Marlais reveals the circumstances of her birth and the nature of her parents’ relationship.  It shows that sometimes fairness means someone has to suffer.

I loved the setting of What Is Left The Daughter, because Nova Scotia is one of my favorite places in the world.  (My last reviewed book, Lobster Kings, also takes place near there.)  I have to admit that I’ve never learned or thought much about Canada during World War II, but the setting and time period were easy to picture and a great stage for this character-driven story.  Little details really made daily life in Middle Economy seem real: the bakery’s cranberry scones, or a crow trapped in the library.  Even Wyatt’s job as a gaffer after he leaves town, years later, inspired little anecdotes which made me interested in a job which had never demanded my interest before.  I definitely preferred the first 2/3 of this novel to the final section, because the pacing was a little better and the characters more captivating, but by the end I thought the story felt nicely rounded out.  

I would recommend What Is Left The Daughter to readers of historical fiction who don’t need everything to be a history lesson, people who like Evelyn Waugh’s more serious novels.  Fans of stories about sad families in small towns, seen through a lens of beauty rather than grit – books like The Strange And Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender – will like the writing in this book.  The plot’s wayward journey will eventually fade like a childhood memory, but little moments between the characters, a line here or a false impression there, will make a lasting impression.

 

Book Review: The Great Greene Heist by Varian Johnson

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A great ensemble cast and a middle-school heist. I really wish Varian Johnson had written The Great Greene Heist while I was in middle-school, because it turns that joyless institution into the setting for some thrilling escapades.

Star Ratings:

Characters: ***** (5 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: 9 and up

This was a fun, fast-paced book about navigating through the equally fraught realms of friendships and cons. Jackson Greene is a lovable swindler. His heists and schemes follow an ethical code and never stray too far from the realm of academic life. He’s the sort of wise-cracking scamp and rambunctious genius everyone wishes they could be – neither afraid to show his smarts nor ashamed to accept help when it’s needed. It was tons of fun to hang out with him and his crew as I read about their complicated quest to bend the rules and and serve some justice.

The nature of crime and corruption in The Great Greene Heist are low-key enough to save plenty of room for humor and misadventures. Jackson and Gaby de la Cruz used to be close friends – in fact, there was a chance they might become something more – but now they’re not talking, even though her brother Charlie is Jackson’s best friend. Things are awkward between them, but that doesn’t mean that Jackson can just stand by while a spoiled, smug scum-bag like Keith Sinclair rigs the student elections out of Gaby’s favor. Sure, Jackson’s sworn off cons ever since he got caught bending one too many of the school’s laws. But for a friend, even the risk to his own future security is worth the effort. Plus, it’s obvious after only a few pages that Jackson is at his best and brightest when planning something spectacular, splashy, and of questionable legality. It runs in the Greene family: from his grifter grandfather’s Code of Conduct to his ultra-cool older brother’s history of impressive plays. So he pulls together a team of the very best from each social sphere of Maplewood school, and prepares to pull one over the students and administration who think money can buy results away from the most dedicated candidate around.

A great ensemble cast can sell me on even the most questionable plot or writing, and this wasn’t even a very questionable book. Sure, some elements of the story could possibly be out of touch: I’m not sure if school elections and basketball games can really make or break someone’s social life anymore. An awful lot rides on new video games and rumors, while I don’t think middle-schoolers are quite so easy to impress nowadays. But I could suspend my disbelief and follow the hi-jinks with mirthful curiosity, because I liked how all the different characters played their parts. There’s that certain appeal in stories like Ocean’s Eleven, in which success rides on the combined efforts of a dynamic team. Drama from within, as strong personalities clash, amps up the stakes while keeping our emotional investment going strong. Since Jackson Greene’s various cons really only have an affect on peoples’ social, academic, and extra-curricular lives – there are no loaded guns or ticking bombs here – a lot was riding on the characters.

Luckily, it’s a really cool gang. These kids defy all sorts of stereotypes, while letting their weird interests and skills speak for themselves. There’s a trekkie techie with a secret crush on the school’s hottest cheerleader. And that cheerleader happens to be a “science goddess,” too. Charlie de la Cruz has reporting skills which keep him observant, while his sister’s devotion to what’s fair and right makes her the unequivocal best candidate in the school’s political race. New recruits include the small and fearless Bradley Boardman, and their necessary “bankroll,” Victor Cho. And everyone is necessary, because while Jackson Greene has more than enough charisma and smarts to go around, the heist he plans to pull will require teamwork, under-cover excursions, and some nifty gadgets.

Too bad not everyone’s as loyal as our hero. When Keith Sinclair and the school’s utterly despicable principal get wind that their own nefarious plans are at risk from this colorful crew, they set out to shut down operations. It was easy to root for Jackson’s team as events lead to a complicated and satisfying denouement at the school dance. The omniscient point of view lets the reader see the injustices going down in shady offices and in abandoned hallways, so when things threaten to go south for our heroes I couldn’t help cringing in anticipation. But these kids are smart, they’re funny, and they’ll not give up easily.

The Great Greene Heist is a great example of how a story can be thoughtfully diverse and also full of mainstream appeal. I particularly enjoyed how they took advantage of the fact that adults rarely take kids as seriously as they should, turning some teachers’ innate racism and condescension against them. There’s a great scene in which the secretary can’t tell the difference between Asian boys, so it’s her own fault when they trick her with some absurdly easy disguises. Kids tricking grown-ups never gets old, especially when that sort of casual profiling happens all the time to young people who deserve much better. Cultural differences are recognized and celebrated, but no one acts as a “token” attempt at diversity. Even though it’s not a long book, each character had their own clear motives, worries, and full personalities. They just are how they are, and they look how they look, and they’re too busy taking over the school to worry about it.

All in all, this was a fun book which manages to make middle-school life exciting. I think anyone going through those years of special misery would love Jackson Greene’s swagger. He’s exactly the sort of person I wish I could have been back then. All the characters felt like my own group of friends by the end, and I hope we’ll see more of them in the future. I also want to read more about Jackson’s family and their history of adventures! His brother and grandfather had small roles, but totally piqued my interest. The easy writing style, fast pace, and memorable characters in The Great Greene Heist stole my attention completely. I highly recommend it to middle-schoolers looking for a fun and easy diversion, or even for strong readers in elementary school who need to psyche themselves up for the years ahead. If middle-school could only be half so exciting in real life.

High School Books Part III: The Basic Eight by Daniel Handler

I loved this book so much I took selfies with it.

Star Ratings

Characters: ***** (5 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: ***** (5 stars)

Age recommendation: 16+

The Basic Eight was definitely my favorite of the three high school books I read last week.  In fact, I think it might be my favorite novel set in a high school of all time.  And I really like books about young people behaving badly, so that’s saying quite a lot.  I know that July’s not over yet, but I’d venture to say that this was the top book of my month.

The premise of The Basic Eight was exactly the sort of thing I love: a bitterly funny tale about the delusions of youth and shocking acts of violence, told with some really excellent narrative sarcasm.  Flannery Culp is part of a rather self-obsessed group of pretentious and creative friends – eight of them in total – who think that their dinner parties are the social events of a lifetime and who have a “Grand Opera Breakfast Club” which meets in the French classroom.  Their lifestyle, which starts out as merely decadent, soon spirals out of control when feelings of romantic betrayal seize control of our young narrator and she turns into a “murderess.”  The story is told through Flannery’s edited diary entries, which she prefaces and annotates from jail, in order to produce her own version of events as she tries to win the public’s sympathy; dispel rumors of satanic influence; and paint herself as the literary heroine of her own perceived drama.  Right from the novel’s beginning, we know that Flannery is in jail for killing a classmate, so the tension is carried by a truly magnificent cast of characters and a twisting plot.  What begins as a sharp satire of coming-of-age stories soon builds into a nightmarish storm of violence, wealth, and absurdity.  The fact that the novel’s major event is revealed straight away does not ruin the book’s momentum, either.  On the contrary, I found that the format lulled me into a false sense of security, and near the end of the book I actually slammed the book on the table and shouted, “WHAT?!?”.  The plot isn’t necessarily realistic, and the characters are  larger than life, but I was completely hooked by The Basic Eight a few pages in and couldn’t get it out of my head.

Some readers will recognize Handler’s sarcastic style reminiscent of his pseudonym Lemony Snicket from the children’s series A Series of Unfortunate Events, and I think that  The Basic Eight, as his first novel, was where he tested out some of his stylistic techniques.  A study guide follows some sections of Flannery’s diary, with a list of vocabulary words and questions like: “Is it rude to bring an uninvited guest to a diner party? Should you be excused if it’s your boyfriend? What if he’s dumb?”.  This trick in one of the more obvious instances in which Handler points out the ridiculous trends in high school, and books about high school, and the way the world treats high schoolers in general.  When the characters are involved in the play Othello, too, Flannery immediately points out the parallels between the play and the events in her own life in her commentary.  So many YA books hide literary allusions and parallels to whatever the characters have to study in their English class in the course of the narrative, and I love how Daniel Handler laughs at that trend by making it absurdly obvious.  The book is pretty scornful of how adults handle teenage troubles, and includes some absolutely laughable adults who try to analyze the group’s actions after the crime in an obvious parody of celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and best-selling child psychologists.  I love it when books show how out of touch figures of authority can be with young people, and even though these characters are unrealistically inept the real-life associations are pretty on point.  The Basic Eight might be about a group of larger-than-life figures in an extreme situation, but it also deals with some very real problems that teenagers face in high school: feeling threatened by teachers, not knowing whom to trust, trying to keep up appearances when your whole world is falling apart.  Handler faces these issues with an arsenal of wit and cynicism, and I wish I had read this book when I was in high school myself.

I will only fail at explaining how funny this book was despite the grim subject, because I’m not a funny enough person to do the humor any justice at all.  Let me just say that I could not stop laughing.  I laughed when Flan and Natasha couldn’t find tomato juice so they made Bloody Marys with marinara sauce to cure their hangovers.  I laughed when the entire school had to fill out an anonymous survey about their relationship with Satan.  You will laugh at the egotistical group of friends but you’ll also laugh with them and around them and near them.  The San Francisco Chronicle compared the book to an inside joke, and even though I always felt one step behind the antics of the Basic Eight, I loved trying to catch up with the group of friends who I now feel like I know personally.  You will laugh even when blood is flying and kids are getting sick on way too much absinthe.  Handler’s sense of humor may not be for everyone, but I can’t get enough of his sardonic wit and clever style.

I would recommend The Basic Eight to so many people.  In fact, I’ve already shouted at three of my friends to go and buy it immediately.  I picked it up because in an interview Handler said that invented the name Lemony Snicket while he was researching the extreme conservative organizations who liked to get involved in “satanic panic.”  I’ve been a fan of his children’s books and his infectiously funny style of writing for over a decade, so I figured it was time to dive into the source. (I also recommend Adverbs, which is the only other of Handler’s adult novels which I’ve read.)  If you liked the self-aware and hilarious style of A Series Of Unfortunate Events but want a more grown-up story, buy this book.  I would also recommend The Basic Eight to high school teachers all over the country, because it actually serves as a good example of all sorts of literary themes and techniques. Flannery is the quintessential unreliable narrater: she’s completely untrustworthy but she also doesn’t trust her readers.  There are allusions to Shakespeare, opera, poetry, and classic literature all over the text.  The narrative structure in the novel is creative and intricate; Flannery’s editorial touches to her diary entries fade in and out depending on what she’s revealing, and there are moments when its difficult to separate her wiser (but incarcerated) later self from the earnest voice with which she writes as the events unfold. The structure keeps you on your toes and merits serious consideration, and I bet I’ll catch onto things I missed entirely when I read the book again.

If high school teachers were to assign The Basic Eight as summer reading, I think that it would have a generally positive reception from the students, and the fact that their parents might take offense at the subject matter just makes Handler’s observations all the more suitable.  At times the book was witty and charming, I could compare it to John Green’s Paper Towns, but then there are other sections which contain all the confused boredom and rage of Brett Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero.  I heartily recommend it to fans of both genres.  I would recommend it to anyone who thought they were the only classy and intelligent person in their own school, because reading it gave me a chance to laugh at what a self-involved moron I had been in high school.  Really, if you want to read about high school this summer, just read this book.  I can’t wait to read it again.