Wednesday, December 17, 2014
In my years of taking part in The Mighty Smackdown, I think I’ve typically found the first round the most daunting. Perhaps it’s the sheer mathematics of it all, but the odds of getting a very eclectic pairing seems high, and this can make it difficult to find that elusive basis for comparison. I’ve had occasion where I’ve read books that were both excellent in their own unique ways and have found myself cringing away from the burden of eliminating a worthy contender at this early stage of the game. (Fortunately, our crafty puppeteers, Arlene and Dia, have devised an answer to that with the always popular zombie picks later in the Smackdown). This is a burden, however, that didn't weigh too heavily on me this time through: I’m not too sad to be casting Charm and Strange to the scrap heap. That’s not to say that there wasn’t any discussion or debate. Two of our Callingwood/Hillcrest contingent found it a not terribly compelling read, while another consumed it in virtually one sitting and while I’m firmly in the former camp, I do think this is a book that was not without its strange charms. (I’m sorry; I couldn't stop myself)
One of the things that we discussed is how the cover – with its Rivers Edge vibe (Turns to nod at Brad Smilanich for acknowledgment of well executed 80s film reference) and somewhat hyperbolic sound bites – maybe does a disservice to the novel itself. The novel I read was not necessarily what I was expecting, and while that can be a delight in other circumstances, in this case I think its testament to a novel that wasn’t too sure what it wanted to grow up to be. Win, our tormented protagonist, is definitely channeling his inner Edward Cullen, which some young readers may appreciate, but while the author works hard to build the intrigue as we delve deeper into Win’s past, I’m not sure that I ever cared as much as I should about Win. This could be just my cold, cold heart, but I don’t really think so. (My heart is actually warm like the inside of a poptart) While I could appreciate, intellectually, Win’s turmoil, I felt an emotional dissonance that I’m going to chalk up to some clunky writing. This is a novel that I wouldn’t hesitate to call ambitious, but the author’s technical prowess isn’t a match for a fairly complex concept. There are gaps in the narrative structure and, most tellingly for me, the tone that effectively pulled me out of the story when I should have been eagerly sinking deeper into it. That being said, I’d rather see a writer try to do something great and not quite pull it off than write a neat, tidy little novel and I think we all felt that this was a book written by someone who has not only an understanding of, but also a profound empathy for, young people who have suffered trauma. We could see this book offering something of substance to a young person who had both the reading chops to read beyond the surface level and, perhaps most importantly, an equally thoughtful adult with whom to discuss such weighty matters.
If that disconnect between the cover and what was inside worked against Charm and Strange, there seemed to be the reverse flow happening with Midwinterblood. I mean who puts this on the cover of a book? “What would you sacrifice for someone you’ve loved forever?” (I think I felt Nicholas Sparks rolling his eyes, while he counts his money on a beach somewhere) And what’s with the creepy rabbits and the mardi gras ornament borders? Awful cover. Really cool book. It took me weeks to even open this book and then when I did, what do I see on the opening page? June, 2073. Oh no. Does another trip to disaffected teen dystopia await? Uhm, actually no. You see all this judging books by covers stuff is just not working out at all. So, what can I tell you about Midwinterblood without spoiling anything? Well, it is built around seven discrete but connected stories that transport us through time, while leaving us fairly firmly rooted in place. Not compelling enough? How about this? I would bet you my first born son that any teen you gave this to will find at least one of these stories very interesting and when they realize that they are all connected, they will find increasing nuance and depth in all of the others. It is a book that, in many ways, speaks to why we read in the first place. Just the other day, I sat in a room with 150 elementary kids listening to a librarian go on about the latest batch of YRCA books. They were literally cheering and some were shaking with excitement and I think this book is very much the kind of book that would kindle or rekindle that excitement in some of our junior high and high school readers. Is it a perfect book? No. And in fact, one of the things we discussed is that we actually wished this book was longer – you can’t build Game of Thrones in 250 pages –for those with adultish attention spans, but it probably is a very near perfect length for our younger charges who still crave a more ambitious read. And, if I still haven’t convinced you here’s the ultimate English teacher trump card: while we were discussing the book, we came up with a cool lesson idea. It’s really a book that would engage readers in and out of the classroom and we are glad to see it moving on into the next round. And its journey begins. (That will make sense when you read it)